In the Winter of Columns: The Annual Round-Up, Part Two
Copyright © 2011 Rick Klaw and Mark London Williams
As promised (threatened?) last issue by the
esteemed Mr. Williams, I'm presenting the finale of the fourth annual Nexus Graphica best graphic novels of the
year (the Nexis?). This year's selections offer the fewest crossovers of any of the
previous lists with only one title making both top ten lists (see the sidebar on the right for links to the
past year choices). Partially this occurs because we are not always getting the same books for review
and also a result of the natural deviations of our personal tastes. Whatever the reason, it results in a
greater coverage for you,, the reader.
Enough of my nattering, on with the countdown!
Metamaus by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)
Perhaps the most acclaimed and significant graphic novel ever produced, Spiegelman's powerful
anthropomorphic Maus chronicled the life of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish
Jew Holocaust survivor. The powerful tale, related from a series of interviews between the
Spiegelmans, employed cartoon, traditionally funny, animals as avatars for the various
nationalities -- mice for the Jews, cats for the Germans, pigs for the Americans, etc. -- to great
effect in this serious, intelligent, and important story. For his efforts, Spiegelman was awarded
the prestigious Pulitzer Prize, the first graphic novel to receive the honor. Though Maus tales
were serialized in various publications beginning with the 1972 underground
comix Funny Animals, the initial graphic novel first appeared in 1986. To commemorate
the event's 25th anniversary, the gorgeous behind-the-scenes hardcover Metamaus
recounts Spiegelman's tribulations in creating his singular, personal family memoir. Amidst
the rare art and family photos in the 300 page book, the magnificent tome includes a lengthy
interview with the author, the Spiegelman family tree, transcripts of the interviews with
Vladek, and a time line of the events in Maus. Additionally, the volume comes
with The Complete Maus, a hyperlinked DVD of the entire graphic novel, an in-depth
archive of audio interviews with the Spiegelmans, and lots more.
Tricked by Alex Robinson (Top Shelf)
From here on out, my top five is as bunched together as any group I've had since we've
been doing these roundups, in terms of degrees of separation. And I still wish my virtual
copy of the latest League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had opened for me! But this timeline,
there were at least a couple of reissues (from Top Shelf) that were new to me this past
year, The first was Tricked, which originally came out around 2005, but is
now packaged with handsome High Fidelity-like cassette-tape cover art. It tells
the story of once-successful rock idol Ray Beam, struggling, in the midst of settled
material comfort, to come back and matter again, as an artist, and to himself. The
story takes several threads -- that of Beam, a bipolar fan, a con man, a gay couple
running a cafe, a proverbial "farm girl" looking for dad, etc. -- and weaves them
toward an inexorable "shattering night" that changes everything, bringing
surprise redemption, etc. You'll figure out most of where things are headed, but
to Robinson's credit, there are surprises along the way. I also like the way he
draws bodies -- especially women. Precisely because they don't look like pin-ups
(one of the main threads involves a chunky-yet-sexy waitress names Caprice). It's
part of the lived-in feel of the book: These aren't documentary or photo-realistic
renderings, of course -- there's clearly cartooning at work -- yet the characters
have a "real" feel to them.
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics)
Roberto Clemente's name adorns the annual Major League Baseball award for the sport's
most humanitarian athletes. Not just the first great Puerto Rican baseballer (and some
would argue still the greatest) to play in the United States, Clemente famously and often
quietly displayed the best of humanity. In this emotionally moving biography, the Puerto
Rican Wilfred Santiago magnificently chronicles the often tragic life of this icon. Beginning
with Clemente's final game, where he collected his 3,000th hit, Santiago quickly hearkens
back to Clemente's poverty stricken childhood of homemade bats and practice with soda
caps through his disturbing journey into the minor leagues of the Jim Crow era of
institutionalized racism and onto his life as a star outfielder for the Pittsburgh
Pirates. Santiago expertly traverses Clemente's tribulations, losses, and success
with ease and skill. His portrayal of the baseball games rank among the finest ever
attempted in this medium. Under the masterful hands of Santiago, 21 evolves into
far more than just a biography of a sports figure. It showcases a life worth emulating.
Vietnamerica by GB Tran (Villard)
Tran is the first American-born son of a couple who fled Vietnam during the fall of
Saigon. Though much as "fall" is a multi-layered word in this context, connoting loss
(from an American perspective), that mid-70s moment also represented the first time Vietnam
had been united under its own rule, after battling the French, Japanese and Americans
(of the recent conquerors -- there were the Chinese before that). That their first "unified"
government turned out to be as radically imperfect as the ones it replaced, is all too
typical of history, and here, we see the stunning nexus of family, national, and
global histories. Tran gives his account of growing into adulthood, an American
future as a videogame-playing graphic artist ahead of him, finally becoming curious
about what his own family's role in those previous events actually was. And how it
came to be that he was the first native-born American among his half-sisters and
secret-keeping parents. Like a peeled onion, much of the structure is curled and a
bit scattered, and with the cross-cutting and time-shifting -- between his father's
and mother's families -- you're not always sure whose story you're following. But by
the last act, with a moving, unresolvable reveal about his paternal grandfather, and
a series of splash panels leading up to his parents' nose-hair escape, you're riveted.
The Homeland Directive Written by Robert Venditti Art by Mike Huddleston (Top Shelf)
For his first creator-owned work since the groundbreaking Surrogates, Venditti delivers
a taut thriller that elevates the genre within the comics medium. After Dr. Laura Regan's
research partner is murdered and she is blamed for the crime, police, the FBI,
cyber-detectives, and mercenaries hunt for the CDC researcher. Why does everyone
want Regan dead? What are the upper echelons of the federal government trying to
hide? Who are the mismatched quartet of inter-agency spooks trying to protect
Regan? The nuanced and extraordinary art of Huddleston enhances Venditti's
intelligent, tension-filled script. Paranoid and addictive, The Homeland Directive
provides a level of suspenseful excitement rarely encountered this side of a John
Le Carre novel. Let's just hope they do a better job with the movie version than
they did with Surrogates.
Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi (FirstSecond)
The iconic journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of
Discovery -- replete with a slave and teenage mother (that'd be Sacagawea) -- is
captured by Bertozzi in straightforward fashion, starting with a stormy-eyed Lewis
being summoned from his bed by President Jefferson. And while Bertozzi lets events
unfold in linear, chronological fashion, his "camera," as it were, spends most of
its time looking over Lewis' shoulder, ending -- nearly -- with Lewis' suicide at
Grinder's Inn along the Natchez Trace. I say "nearly," because there's another
coda after that -- think of The Return of the King's multiple endings -- recounting
an apocryphal version of Sacagawea's own passing. If you know Lewis & Clark's
journeys already, you'll love seeing various moments, events -- seasons (the
winter at Ft. Mandan) -- put "on screen," as it were. If you don't, this is
a splendid primer, although Bertozzi packs in so much, without
annotation -- there's no narration and little captioning, it's
primarily "present tense" dialogue -- you might need to pause and annotate
things yourself, to better understand what you've just seen. But as with the
Corps itself, the journey will be worth it.
Habibi by Craig Thompson (Pantheon)
Set among the deserts and cities of the modern Middle East, the beautiful and
lush Habibi follows the lives of two escaped slaves, bound as youths by
chance. Deftly intertwining an engaging love story with fascinating tales from The Koran,
the always insightful Thompson in his massive (650+ pages) graphic novel expertly
explores the economic and social divisions between the first and third worlds as well as
the abundant similarities between Islam and Christianity. The ornate gold gilt, embossed
covers to the sensational black & white interiors make this one of the century's
prettiest books. The extraordinary and engrossing Habibi belongs in the rarefied air
of classics such as Maus and Persepolis.
Essex County by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf)
Lemire writes of his spare Canadian county, and its history, as told in a couple
lines of its descendants -- like Faulkner and Mississippi, except perhaps less emotionally
perfervid, while, in its way, equally repressed. The tales -- three graphic novels
collected here, along with the usual "director's cut" extras found in such
collections -- tell of two lines, those of the Lebeuf clan, and the Byrnes. We're
left to sort out the flashbacks, flashfowards, and fantasy sequences, sometimes cutting
between forebears and descendants who look nearly alike (he has a hallmark "square nose"
feature in his able caricaturist's repertoire),, and we're left to make sense of the
emotional terrain ourselves, the causes and effects of grief, of promises
broken -- or dashed by fate. Though finally we develop a timeline of when and how
these small epiphanies and (mostly) betrayals happened. And how they left the
survivors in their wake. The saga spans most of the 20th century, and takes in
comics (and quite wonderfully, comics-within-comics, as one of the protagonists
draws his own as a child), farm life, and hockey. The latter being much less my
main "sports metaphor" than baseball. But it, along with everything else here,
drew me in. And now his writing is drawing in Animal Man fans in DC's New 52!
Daytripper by Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá (Vertigo)
Twin brothers Moon and Bá beautifully recount the life of Brás de Oliva
Domingos, crafter of obituaries and son of a world-famous Brazilian writer. The lavishly
illustrated chapters relate important epochs of his life, each ending with his untimely
and shocking death. Emotionally wrought and expertly told, the lyrical Daytripper breathes
new life into the tired slice-of-life format and emerges as the best graphic novel of the year.
Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami (NBM)
Numbers one and two were really interchangeable this year, but since I read this one more recently,
here it is, alighting on the top of the list. Plus, having had a somewhat challenging fall, this
tale of a (fellow) middle-aged divorced dude falling on rough times resonated in a demographically
specific way. And yet, you can see your heartstrings being quite clearly, deliberately
tugged here -- after all, dammit, it's a dog story! And one that ends in dramatically poignant
manner (as revealed on the opening page, so I hope that wasn't too much of a spoiler). Actually,
it's two stories. In the first, main one, the middle aged divorcée (what a merry sounding
word!) falls entirely through society's cracks, and is left homeless with the dog his now-estranged
daughter once brought home. And it is the dog's unwavering love and faith in desperate times
that makes the story -- a hit (and soon-to-be film) in Japan -- so moving. Appended to this is
the tale of a "social services" investigator, who tries to reconstruct what happened to the man,
and dog. And in so doing, recovers a lost, canine-infused memory from his own past. "We are
all stargazing dogs," he concludes, after his revelation of the heart. Well, yes, if we can
manage to be open and trusting enough. Always a trick in hard times. Now go play with your
dog. And a rich, nurturing and lovely 2012.
In any typical year, it is difficult to cull the readings down to a meager list of
ten (or even twenty). Here's a selection of our honorable mentions, those that barely missed
the cut: iZombie: Dead to the World, Stumptown Volume 1: The Case of the Girl Who Took her
Shampoo (But Left her Mini), Lucille, Mr. Wonderful, Morning Glories
Volume 1: For A Better Future, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1969,
The Influencing Machine, Action Comics #900, and Finder: Voice.
Mark will be back in two weeks to usher the final Mayan year. Assuming we all still
exist, I'll see y'all in 30. Happy holidays!
Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied
countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications
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 marklondonwilliams.com.
The first volume, "Ancient Fire," is free on all eBook platforms through the new year.
He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz.