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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:
Best of 2008: Part I     Part II
Best of 2009: Part I     Part II
Best of 2010: Part I     Part II
21: The Story of Roberto Clemente
The Homeland Directive
Lewis & Clark
Essex County
Stargazing Dog

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

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 Tricked 5. (Rick) 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.

(Mark) 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 Vietnamerica 4. (Rick) 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.

(Mark) 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 Lewis & Clark 3. (Rick) 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.

(Mark) 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 Essex County 2. (Rick) 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.

(Mark) 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 Stargazing Dog 1. (Rick) 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.

(Mark) 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!

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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