Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Best Comics of 2016, Nos. 11 - 6

An extra heavy period at the day gig slowed my writing, so I'm going back to the model I used last year: multiple books in every post. I will expedite matters, since I had originally planned on being done with these on the 16th of January. This is time-sensitive material, after all. In response, I am writing all the entries in three posts before making them public.
11. Backstagers
Despite all the backlash snobbery of the 90s, comics can be for kids. It takes nothing away from comics to have some dedicated to younger audiences. Regardless of the target audience, quality will out.
The Boom Box line has been producing  genuinely smart kids' comics for a while now. Their biggest success, Goldie Vance, has been on my radar for a while, and in addition to the title we're discussing now, I'm reading the trade of Help Us, Great Warrior, which is wonderful fun.
Backstagers is a very clever and humane comic about young adult theater. The book goes behind the scenes of a high school play, and discovers a world of magic, wonder and danger in the nether regions of the props archives. If you have to have labels, think of elements of Narnia combined with A Chorus Line. A profoundly inadequate description, to be sure, but it serves to get the conversation rolling.
Stars Kevin and Blake
at their self-congratulatory

The characters, even the self-absorbed and cruel show stars, are wonderfully engaging.  There's a mystery and excitement to every issue.
The colors are lush and vibrant. The book is smartly laid out. One of the things that chafes me is any creative team dumbing down their work, pandering to readers. This is particularly insulting when you're treating kids this way.
When I started teaching high school age kids, I quickly learned to respect their intelligence. Yes, yes, we've heard the arguments- kids' brains aren't fully formed, they lack sufficient experience to make informed decisions. What excuses do adults use? So many so-called grown-ups make much worse decisions than kids do, and with farther reaching consequences. The kids in Backstagers understand strategies, motivations and their own desires much more clearly than many who claim to be adults. Yet they're clearly still kids.
This is one smart book. I'm sticking with it.

10. Bombshells
Some surprisingly good comics have come out of marketing gimmicks. The 1960s  Captain Action book, the 70s (and 90s revival) Micronauts and Rom, Space Knight come to mind. DC created Bombshells as a way to sell statues, glasses and posters. In fairness, it's pretty cool merchandise, but we're here to talk about the story.
Bombshells shouldn't work but it does.This WWII alternate reality pastiche of DC superheroines and villianesses recast in curious ways is full of verve, smart art and impassioned writing. I'm sure a lot of people are buying the book just to look at the girls/women. In fairness, that's on my list too. I love the evocation of classic pin-up art that dominates the book. As one who's often waxed effusive about the virtues of pin-ups as opposed to porn, the art in the series delights me.
The take on Wonder Woman, usually my favorite, is good but not great here. I like Mera!
The plotting is a bit on the nose at times. Batgirl as a baseball player- get it? She uses a bat! Look at us, we're being clever!
Even with that, the story remains engaging. I was taken aback by the Stargirl storyline.The Russian aspect, coupled with the heartfelt self-sacrifice really resonated with me.
I continue to enjoy this book. I picked up the newest issue just today. Since it's a bit gimmicky, I had my doubts about how well it would sustain, but so far it's remained worth the money.
Batgirl in action, pre-hero!

9. Wimmen's Comix
My favorite cover from the series!
One of the frustrations of comic book binding is that sometimes you bind a book that later gets reprinted. Though I accumulated all the issues of Wimmen's Comix with a bind in mind, this collection came out before I could complete the project. I'm glad.
The blurb from the Fantagraphics website:
"In the late ’60s, underground comix changed the way comics readers saw the medium — but there was an important pronoun missing from the revolution. In 1972, ten women cartoonists got together in San Francisco to rectify the situation and produce the first and longest-lasting all-woman comics anthology, Wimmen’s Comix. Within two years the Wimmen’s Comix Collective had introduced cartoonists like Roberta Gregory and Melinda Gebbie to the comics-reading public, and would go on to publish some of the most talented women cartoonists in America — Carol Tyler, Mary Fleener, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Dori Seda, Phoebe Gloeckner, and many others. In its twenty-year run, the women of Wimmen’s tackled subjects the guys wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: abortion, menstruation, masturbation, castration, lesbians, witches, murderesses, and feminists."
So much work here to love! From the welcome inclusion of It Ain't Me Babe, the first all-woman comic, through #18, so many brilliant artists are included here. 
The good: the collection is very well archived and edited. There was a slight variation in format between some issues. This is rectified by allowing luxury margins for the art. There was also a wide range of quality in the printing of the original comics. Here, the art is cleaned up and printed on decent bright paper, with very good separations for the covers and the 3D issue (glasses included, of course!). They were even nice enough to include a 2D version of the 3D issue at the end of the book!
The bad: This thing is a brick. Two hardcovers, over 700 pages on heavy paper in a slipcase, weighing in at just over 7 pounds! I've questioned the formatting, which set the list price at $100, several times. This is 18 comics, plus the Babe issue and the 2D/3D issue, for a total of 20 comics. I have several custom binds of just over 20 issues, including some underground stuff. They fit neatly into one book. Did the reformatting demand the luxury treatment? I'm not sure.
Aside from the inconvenience for people who aren't avid bibliophiles, the price point of a deluxe volume might keep some people away from this collection. If it were in paperback at half the price, would more people buy it? This ranks at #436 in Amazon's Fantragraphics sales ranking, while the cheaper and smaller (and admittedly collecting less work and having been in print longer) Inner City Romance ranks at #328. That's hardly conclusive evidence. I do note that Fantagrphics did a paperback reprint of its Usagi Yojimbo 2 book slipcased set. It continues to sell briskly, while the HC is long out of print.
There's little material aside from the comics- one essay and some photos.
Either way, I hope for a more accessible printing, even though I do so love a well-made book, which this clearly is.
There's also a strange practical incongruity. The spines are flipped. The spine that reads "The Complete Wimmen's" is on book two, while the spine that reads "Comix" is on volume one! This puts the avid owner of a comic library in the awkward position of having it wrong no matter what she does. Either the spines are in the slipcase out of order, or the books are. Grr.
But the descender on the N in "Wimmen's" links with the ascender on the X in "Comix", making such a wonderful design touch, it's almost mandatory to leave the spines in that order.
Retrospective volumes are often given the prize/curse of being "important". This is more than an important book or a reflection of decades of feminist evolution. It's a fun and compelling collection of comics.
8. Paper Girls
Brian Vaughan has been a fixture on the comics scene for some time now. His first comic work appeared 21 years ago. Despite the unrelentingly downbeat ending, I adored Ex Machina, and found his take on Doctor Strange, The Oath, refreshing and surprisingly optimistic. I may be the only person in comic readership not drooling over Saga. Frankly, I find it too cynical, and its "fresh" ideas are reminiscent of things Philip Jose Farmer was writing 50 years ago.
That said, Paper Girls cheers me.
A Vaughan comic with bleeped out
swear words!
Maybe it's the support text, the letters pages dedicated to the delightful myth of being a paper girl, echoing the supporting text in Lumberjanes. Maybe it's that these girls prove to be so capable when they're catapulted into a nightmare world that's part future dystopia and part mythological realm. Maybe it's just that, for a change, Vaughan doesn't let cynicism and snark dominate the narrative, though there's still enough of both.
This book is cleanly drawn, fast paced, complex enough to engage the mind and a roller coaster ride. Having teen girls as protagonists without pandering to the stereotype of the month is also quite refreshing! In fairness, Vaughan's work on Runaways also handled teen girls well (I didn't mean that the way it sounded - ick!)
Cliff Chiang's art is clean, energetic and on point. He composes frames seamlessly, and has a clean line that brings Geoff Darrow to mind. Yet he's very much his own artist.
I've only discussed the plot in vague terms. This is a chronic condition with me. I want to give you enough to want to read the book. The book in question has time travelers encountering their younger selves, strange monsters from another dimension, and tons of late 80s nostalgia. Is that enough to whet your appetite?

7. Art Ops
Here's a clever idea. A spy agency dedicated to keeping subjects in their respective artworks. Of course, things go wrong, like Mona Lisa escaping and getting in a family way. Oh, and the son of the lead Art operative loses an arm, which is replaced with living artwork.
Art Ops is a lot of fun, but is a bit on the nose at times. It plays with reality, suing tones that echo Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, but lacks the subtlety and nuance of Morrison's work. Writer Shaun Simon brings a decent knowledge of art history to the book, but the story rarely goes much deeper than well-known and well-trod grand masters. It's a chaotic ride, but it doesn't go any place too scary once the reader adapts to the premise.
And really, it's not all that chaotic. There's an inevitability bordering on cliche to some aspects of this. The expatriated artworks take haven at the Chelsea Hotel? My, how novel. Nobody's ever used that setting as a metaphor for escape of tortured  souls before. Please.
Mike Allred's art, however, is expressive and on point. I'm on record as liking good fundamental comic art (and one of these days I'll try to define that), and Allred has long championed comparatively simple and anarchic comic art. Sometimes it works well. I  loved his work on X-Static. Sometimes it doesn't. His Fantastic Four run left me cold. Here, it's very effective, and just plain fun to look at. Rob Davis' fill-in on the penultimate issue, #11, lacked some of Allred's verve.
As alluded to above, the series is concluded at 12 issues. The first half is out in trade now. This chafes me a bit. This is a short series. Why break it into two books? Apparently marketing is more important that reader satisfaction.
Perhaps that's the crux of the biscuit. The underlying cynicism of this book is irritating, not because there's no place for cynicism in comics, but because of what it says about how the creators value art in the world. It's well worth reading, but there are other comics about art that tell better stories.
6. Electric Sublime
In contrast, here's a surreal adventure comic about art that shows a deeper understanding of art.
As far back as Frederic Pohl's novel Drunkard's Walk, and more recently the play and film The Caveman's Valentine, we have narratives dealing with the challenge of the mentally ill person who sees things as they truly are. Add Electric Sublime to that mix. While I have major issues with the whole "tortured artist" syndrome, it's used here in an interesting way, echoing the lost and lamented series Millennium. A central character is pulled from an asylum to use special abilities to solve an inexplicable puzzle- in this case, a winking Mona Lisa.
Main characters are trapped in the winking painting. In the so-called real world, mass suicides complicate matters.
Evoking many of the usual suspects of art history, this book strikes many of the same notes as Art Ops. But where the latter uses amplified guitars and buzzsaws, Electric Sublime uses a string quartet playing a Berlioz string quartet that sneaks in some Philip Glass riffs on the sly. In short, this is a much more elegant and nuanced look at art and its place in society.
Electric Sublime manages to address the whole "crazy artist" cliche while treating artists with a measure of respect. And the book is much more visually intriguing than Art Ops, using a controlled palette where necessary, and evocation of numerous styles from both comics and the "legitimate" art world. The book reminds me of artists ranging from Hannes Bok to Ben Templeton in places. And the use of the artist's pose-able wooden mannequin as a Greek chorus of sorts is quite charming.
The first mini of four books recently concluded. While there was a sense of resolution, it was clearly left open for a new series. I'd like to see more, and like to see writer Maxwell Prince and artist Martin Morazzo play with even more art history - tropes, memes, riffs, chose your visual motif. I just want more.
Klimt, anyone?
Next: entries 5 - 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment