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Nexus Graphica
by Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Bags & Boards Blog ranks The New 52
Rick Geary chats Sacco and Vanzetti
Empire State
The Feynman book
Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952-1954
Sixth Gun
Infinite Kung Fu
Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot

In the Winter of Columns: The Annual Round-Up, Part One

It's that time of year again, folks, which is to say, the part of the year where there's little time left on the calendar. That means -- well, it means that next time we do this, it'll be on cusp of all the Mayan tumult of 2012! But it also means that it's time for our annual "that was the year that was" best-of round-up.

My own caveat, of course, is there's no pretense that these are, somehow, the objective "best" graphic novels of the year, to the exclusion of others. They are, simply, the things that Rick and I have read, and written about here, that affected us most deeply, or stayed with us in some way.

Rick's list may even be a bit more robust than mine; forget the Mayan tumult, long time readers of this column know it's been a challenging year, emotionally and fiscally, on the Williams side (well, I'm hardly alone in that these days, eh?) and so I haven't read quite as widely, or as much, as I might have liked.

Additionally, the things sent to me and Rick keep diverging more each year, there were very few things we both read, though having looked over his list, I pretty much want to read all of it.

That said, there was one exception, which we both got. It starts my list and will be on Rick's list in the next part (spoiler alert?). I'll tell why, below. But first, Rick's #10:

Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952-1954 MetaMaus 10. (Rick) Setting the Standard: Comics by Alex Toth 1952-1954 Edited by Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics)
Arguably one of the most influential comic book artists, Alex Toth deserves mention alongside luminaries Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Harvey Kurtzman. His works informed the DC house style for better than a quarter of a century. Though the Simon/Kirby tandem invented the romance comic, Toth's vision stands at the iconic view of the genre. Setting the Standard collects Toth's entire 62 story output for obscure publisher Standard Comics. These over 400 pages of crime, horror, romance, science fiction, and war tales showcase some of his finest works, typifying his mastery of design, graphics, and visual narrative. As he did with the excellent Four Color Fear and Supermen! tomes, editor Sadowski supplies copious end notes and annotations. Toss in the reproductions of original Toth pages and Setting the Standard becomes mandatory reading for any fan of the medium.

(Mark) MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)
The New York Times correctly described this as "a kind of artist's scrapbook, chapbook, photo album and storage trunk," and that scrapbook is taken out on the occasion of Maus' 25th anniversary, a book that changed the way the public viewed "comics," and even the way the Holocaust could be "talked about" (including by Jews!). It's a lovely volume, a printed documentary, and the only reason it's not higher on my list is simply because I haven't delved into it as thoroughly as Rick has -- who gets to it next time. The sections where family members are interviewed -- Spiegelman's wife and especially children -- about living with the legacy of Maus, and how it affected them (especially since Spiegelman isn't a religiously practicing landsman) were especially fascinating. The question now is whether the disc with the complete Maus "comics" on them will compel me to reread both volumes of the originals in their entirety. I should; my son recently borrowed my 25-year-old original (given to me as a gift by my mom) when assigned this now "classic" in high school...

The Sixth Gun Books 1: Cold Dead Fingers The Sixth Gun Books 2:Crossroads 9. (Rick) The Sixth Gun Books 1: Cold Dead Fingers and 2:Crossroads Written by Cullen Bunn, Illustrated by Brian Hurtt (Oni)
The second series collaboration from the creators of the excellent supernatural noir thriller The Damned offers a creepy, magic-infused Western complete with terrifying beasts -- living and undead -- gunfights, and the occult. Confederate General Oleander Hume seeks out the Sixth Gun, the key to unlocking an unstoppable power. Mysterious gunslinger Drake Sinclair protects the young Becky Moncrief, current owner of the powerful Sixth Gun, against Hume, his magically-enhanced henchman and other terrors. Bunn's pitch perfect script, combined with the unique artistic talents of Hurtt, deliver the finest horrific western since the best of the Lansdale-Truman stories of the 90s.

(Mark) The New 52 / All the Stuff I Read Digitally
Okay, this is kind of a cheat, since it's not a single graphic novel or comic, but this is the year that "digital reading" of comics -- especially of the single issue variety -- really took off, at least for me! And this was mostly through the offices of my aforementioned Maus-reading eldest son, who only reads single issues digitally (then gets collections in book form). What this has done is make new issues part of the household conversation again, since he could tell me (or text me from his mom's house!) about some new Marvel or DC release, then I could go online and read it. Especially when I was trying to avoid writing! Thus I discovered overlooked superhero fare like the apocalyptic Old Man Logan (not new, I know) from Marvel, and I read a handful of DC's New 52 relaunches, which I mostly liked (especially Animal Man and Demon Knights). Most recently, I read their All-Star Western with Jonah Hex, which is currently set in Gotham City. Fun, but I think Joe Lansdale needs to write Hex comics, on a long-term basis. But the old ancient excitement of the "newsstand," long before there were comics speciality shops, was able to return, just a little.

Infinite Kung Fu The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti 8. (Rick) Infinite Kung Fu by Kagan McLeod (Top Shelf)
McLeod's epic tale successfully apes the martial art films of the 70s while simultaneously delivering a wholly unique creation. Ruled by a mysterious evil emperor and his five kung fu armies, The Martial World needs a hero. Enter ex-soldier Yang Lei Kung, latest disciple of The Eight Immortals. Martial arts mayhem ensues with (literally) flying limbs, zombies, ghosts, traitors, death and an abundance of fun, chaotic action. Replete with fascinating characters (with the equally interesting names of Moog Joogular, Bunzo 12, Bald Bo, Windy, Goldy, and Thursday Thoroughgood), mysticism, and bloody violence, Infinite Kung Fu delivers the real deal as the ultimate martial arts graphic novel.

(Mark) The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti by Rick Geary (NBM)
Bombs on Wall Street? Perceived terrorists on the loose? Yup, it all happened 100 years ago when Italian-born "anarchists" (though their crime may have been merely being Socialists) Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for their presumed involvement in a payroll heist/murder in Massachusetts. The trial of the pair -- who seemed entirely railroaded (descriptions didn't match, witnesses who contradicted the prosecution were ignored, the judge specifically said he was going after the "Reds," etc.) -- became a cause célèbre around the world,and the protests even included bombs going off on Wall Street. You can just imagine how many fewer of your vanishing Constitutional rights you'd have left, if such a thing happened now. The B&W art evokes its era simply, and you're left wistful not only for past injustices, but at the realization of how little, really, anything has changed.

Petrograd Empire State 7. (Rick) Petrograd Written by Philip Gelatt, Art by Tyler Crook (Oni)
Nearly 100 years after his death, the Russian holy man Grigori Rasputin, intimate advisor to the Tsarina Alexandra and healer for her son Alexei, remains one of history's more enigmatic and intruging figures. Petrograd reveals the untold plot behind the Mad Monk's assassination -- political, social, and romantic. What role did the British consulate play? Which of the bourgeoisie formulated the plan? How exactly were the Bolsheviks involved? Gelatt's well-crafted script combined with Crook's incredible draftsmanship produce a realistic and compelling vision of early 20th century, World War I Pertrograd (present day Saint Petersburg). The excellent, educational, and fascinating Petrograd provides a superior historical thriller.

(Mark) Empire State by Jason Shiga (Abrams)
I asked for a copy of this graphic novel by Shiga since it was set in Oakland, and I'm an old East Bay boy myself. Shiga works in a cartoony style that normally isn't my favorite mode for self-reflective memoirs about love gone, well, not awry -- just not quite there. In the room, when you need it. But I was surprised at how much I loved this. In part, that's because Shiga gets his Oakland right: There's Casper's Hot Dogs! There's Children's Fairyland! There are a bunch of old Victorians which could be right off Telegraph Avenue near MacArthur! Et cetera. But having a definitive sense of place (and given the book's title, you won't be surprised to learn the action switches to New York, after a fateful bus trip) isn't the only attribute. It's Shiga's wry/gentle -- and ultimately kind -- way of writing about his overly-smart characters who can joke about Fermi estimations of vaginas and where the McSweeney's is placed on their bookshelves, but have a hard time -- like the rest of us -- asking for what they really need.

Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot Feynman 6. (Rick) Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot Adapted by Jacques Tardi from the novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette (Fantagraphics)
Contract killer Martin Terrier plans on completing one final assassination then retiring to a quiet life alongside his long lost girlfriend. As these things often go, his employers have a different idea. Reminiscent of the classic Michael Winner-helmed and Charles Bronson-starred The Mechanic, Tardi's follow up to his acclaimed adaptation of a Manchette crime novel West Coast Blues, Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot (La Position du tireur couché) delivers a superior sequential thriller. Violent, sexy, and littered with enough shocks to excite the most hardened crime fiction fan, Tardi once again produces one of the finest examples of the genre.

(Mark) Feynman by Jim Ottaviani (words) and Leland Myrick (art) (First Second)
A great use of the graphic medium to give us a biography of famed physicist/trickster Richard Feynman. The book is basically linear, covering Feynman's NY boyhood, his time working on the A-bomb (is that what engendered his eventual cancer?), though sometimes moves around within sections, if the speaker -- "Feynman," as it were -- has views of a place, person or incident from different vantage points in life. Given that this is ostensibly pitched to "younger readers" -- First Second's main audience -- the book is fairly frank about Feynman's love of the female form (he often did his "office work" in a topless bar near Cal Tech) and his second thoughts about working at Los Alamos (or at least, following up on that work), to take but two aspects that may provide interesting moments in school book reports. No mention of his brief use of LSD, but most of Feynman's adventurousness and merriment -- even in the face of personal loss -- comes through in the writing, and Myrick's almost New Yorker-like cartooning style. The book even makes a stab at explaining relativity in the form of the Nobel-winning "Feynman diagrams," which are used, in the art, during the course of one of the replicated public lectures. I need to re-read this section, cause I only got a teeny bit on first pass. But it's a work that lends itself to the re-read.

And so the first half of the top ten is in the can, as they used to say, pre-digitally, out Hollywood way. Rick will be here with the top of the list mid-month, and I will see you in earliest 2012! Have a merry and a happy, and may things be bountiful for ya. Thanks, as ever, for making this one of your reading pit stops this past year.

See you in the funny pages.

Copyright © 2011 Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams

Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures RevolutionSF, King Kong Is Back!, Conversations With Texas Writers, Farscape Forever, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains Universe, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century. He can often be found pontificating on Twitter and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.

Mark London Williams wrote the Danger Boy time travel series. Info on what he, or the books, are up to can be found at The first volume, "Ancient Fire," is free on all eBook platforms through the new year. He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.

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