The Outstanding Comics of 2015 Bring It All Back Home

With the Batmobile in the lobby and original Spider-Man boards in vitrines, the New-York Historical Society’s “Superheroes in Gotham” exhibition reminds those of us living in the town so nice they had to name it twice that the comics industry was born in the Apple. (NYHS, 170 Central Park West; through February 21, 2016.) Of the fifteen outstanding comics we chose this year, seven are set in or have strong ties to New York City, a .467 batting average that may come close to that of all comics published since Action #1 in 1938.

Ph.D. thesis, anyone?

The DC universe is set in burgs like Gotham and Metropolis, but most of the writers and artists worked at the publisher’s Manhattan office. This became a problem in the late 1960s, when shaggy-haired talent upset corporate decorum by demanding that Batman, Superman, and other mainstays stop battling silly aliens and confront the realities of tumultuous times. In The Bronze Age of DC Comics (Taschen, $60), author Paul Levitz interviews Dennis O’Neil, who recalls when he and another bohemian-looking writer were told to avoid passing “the office of the head of the company dressed the way we were.” O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up famously took on racism, economic inequality, and other societal ills under the tagline, “All New/All Now!” Among the hundreds of illustrations in the Taschen tome is a 1971 New York Times Magazine cover featuring a Sgt. Rock story based on the My Lai massacre, with the headline, “BWEEEEOW! WHRAAAM! Comic Books Become Relevant!”

Few comic-book artists have had a wider impact on the general culture than Jules Feiffer. Born in 1929, he talked his way into Will Eisner’s Wall Street studio at the ripe old age of seventeen and, after apprenticing, graduated to writing scripts for Eisner’s Spirit comics and drawing his own Clifford strips. The abundantly illustrated Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer (Abrams, $40) covers Feiffer’s legendary, decades-long gig drawing neurotic, cavorting characters for the newspaper you are reading, during and after which he cranked out children’s books and won Obie and Academy awards, plus a Pulitzer Prize. Not bad for a kid from the Bronx.

Most people have oddballs in the family. Bill Griffith’s memoir, Invisible Ink (Fantagraphics, $30) — the chronicle of an artistic grandfather, a sometimes violent father, and a mother who wrote for romance magazines and had a long affair with a cartoonist/detective novelist — gives insight into how Griffith, against horizonless odds, managed to syndicate his aggressively weird Zippy the Pinhead newspaper strip. Employing a jauntily crosshatched style, Griffith zigzags through recollections of a Long Island youth and a postwar mom conflicted enough to beam over her son’s success in underground comics — “I got a tremendous thrill seeing your name in the Village Voice” — but to refuse to show his work to her friends for “fear that people may say to me, ‘Your son draws dirty pictures.’ ” Here, when Griffith draws his mother having sex with her illicit lover, the pictures are not dirty; they’re heartbreaking.

Jon Sack’s <i>La Lucha</i>
Jon Sack’s La Lucha

Sky in Stereo (Revival House Press, $18) begins with fourteen-year-old Iris going to Jehovah’s Witness meetings and then follows the teen as Jean-Paul Sartre novels, jobs, boys, and drugs replace the Bible in her life. Although artist/writer Mardou uses simple cartoon contours, Iris’s meandering acid trip convinces as a consciousness-altering journey: “This is Heaven…. I must be good inside. Righteous, even. Otherwise this is not the sky I’d see, right?” That anxious doubt is confirmed when the final doors that are opened are not ones of perception but of a police car, leaving readers truly curious about what will happen in the next installment.

Angels abound in P. Craig Russell’s Murder Mysteries and Other Stories (Dark Horse, $125), which includes tales by fantasy luminaries such as H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Clive Barker, all dynamically illustrated by Russell. For Neil Gaiman’s title story about God and his angels constructing the cosmos, Russell uses an open, airy line to depict Heaven and shadowy patches where mortal characters grub about on Earth. These large reproductions of original boards capture nuances of ink stroke and faint pencil line, and Russell’s self-written tale “The Insomniac” dazzles with variations of texture and mood.

Set in an American West made “old” again by some near-future apocalypse, Motorcycle Samurai (Top Shelf, $20) lives mainly in its own unrelenting stylishness. Artist/writer Chris Sheridan combines desert vistas and extreme close-ups with elastically angular action sequences that propel his cast of wildly idiosyncratic characters — a female samurai wearing a skull mask, a husky sheriff sporting a Matterhorn-like pompadour — to a ripsnorting climax.

[pullquote]The final doors that are opened are not ones of perception but of a police car.[/pullquote]

Few cartoonists imagined anything as genuinely surreal as the ten-part Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, which brims with freaks and vile personalities and envelops the reader like a paranoid nightmare. This and other tales in The Complete Eightball (Fantagraphics, $120) reveal that during the 1990s no one was having more nasty fun than Daniel Clowes. You want annoyingly obsessive fanboys drawn as caricatures of people who don’t exist but personify someone you know? Meet Dan Pussey. How about know-it-all, self-loathing hipsters? Here’s Buddy Bradley and friends. You might think Clowes has contempt for himself, his characters, and his audience. And you might be right. But his retro graphics style moves beyond eye candy to convey genuine emotion in his fucked-up characters, achieving something rather brilliant: unpleasant but irresistible entertainment.

If you’re seeking chortles, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Liberty Anyool ($5, which helps support the CBLDF’s anti-censorship efforts) delivers more than a few. One page hilariously parodies the endless variations of the Archie line — Archie gets married, Archie dies, Archie battles zombies. Here the Riverdale teens are in ‘Nam, surrounded by Viet Cong heads on stakes; the tagline reads, “Archie still won’t stop crying! Now, Jughead must face down the enemy alone in ‘Massacre Along the Mekong!’ ” Elsewhere artist R. Sikoryak perfectly echoes Scott Adams’s Dilbert to reboot Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Somehow, the poignancy of the closing lines survives in this loving spoof: “Ah Bartlebert! Ah humanity!”

No matter what you’re accomplishing in your life, you’ll realize it’s not enough when you read La Lucha (Verso, $17). Artist and writer Jon Sack tells the real-life saga of Mexican human rights lawyer Lucha Castro, who braves death threats and battles extravagantly corrupt officials to call the world’s attention to the murders and mayhem endemic to a country ravaged by drug lords on one side of the border and an insatiable appetite for their product to its north. Sack’s documentary-style drawings capture vistas of villages emptied of fearful residents and details of grief and determination on the faces of activists and family members, even as the criminals and the federal police who ineffectually pursue them remain anonymous behind black masks.

<i>Space Riders</i>
Space Riders

In Translucid (Boom Studios, $30), writers Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert interweave the exploits of the Navigator — a gadget-laden superhero who battles archvillain the Horse in a Day-Glo New York City — with scenes of the rough childhood that gave birth to the crime-fighter. Like the whip-smart Gotham Central series from last decade, Translucid posits a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Do supervillains exist only because someone has to commit carnage worthy of humanity’s superheroic protectors? Daniel Bayliss’s kinetic artwork and Adam Metcalfe’s hallucinatory colors transmute the violent action into something as trippy as 1960s rock posters.

“I like my coffee like I like outer space. Black and infinite,” says Capitan Peligro, before he pilots the spaceship Santa Muerte toward a wondrous “cosmic leviathan” and the evil space whalers who pursue it, in issue #2 of Space Riders (Black Mask, four single issues, each $4). Writer Fabian Rangel Jr. brings the sharp dialogue, while artist Alexis Zeritt’s lashing brushwork and garish harmonies fling Peligro and his crew of simian first mate and curvaceous android into adventures in a galaxy much like our own. “No matter how beautiful something is,” El Capitan laments, “some motherfucker will find a way to make money from killing it.”

If you cut Classics 101 freshman year, you can get up to speed with Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus Omnibus (Top Shelf, $40). Campbell’s breakneck inking and skittering Zip-a-Tone accents perfectly complement his fantasias of the god of wine and cronies wandering through the twentieth century. The deities of yore are ripe fodder for the comics genre — supreme beings who benignly watch over us mortals one day and knock each other off like warring gangsters the next. They’re just superheroes and super-nemeses in chitons instead of capes.

When I first saw John Paul Leon’s original boards for Detective Comics 35 and 36 (DC, $4 each) at his Artists Alley table at New York Comic Con, I was struck by the way his capacious blacks and raw lines created a gritty ambiance, always the ideal setting for the Dark Knight. Leon’s noir labyrinths of ink enhance the suspense of Benjamin Percy’s script about an ecologist turned terrorist, whom Batman judges as a “psychopath with a conscience. I’m sure some people would say we’ve got the same blood.”

[pullquote]Do supervillains exist only because someone has to commit carnage worthy of humanity’s superheroic protectors?[/pullquote]

In The Sculptor (First Second, $30), Scott McCloud gives us “the other David Smith,” a young artist who makes a deal with Death: 200 days to live in exchange for magical hands that can shape any material into any form. McCloud, who explicated his medium in the 1993 book Understanding Comics, has fun here with the snarky backbiting of the New York art world, but this moving tale is at its most powerful when it reveals how the personal can germinate into the extraordinary.

After nearly a century, H.P. Lovecraft’s untethered visions and filigreed prose continue to get under our skin. But there’s no escaping our awareness of his obsessions with skin color and mores that differed from his own white New England roots. In Providence (Avatar; five issues currently, $5 each), writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell) has young New York Herald reporter Robert Black researching a novel about a concealed America “hidden below the society we show the world.” With a few things to conceal himself, not least that he’s gay and Jewish, Black stumbles upon subterranean caverns filled with unfathomable carvings, families with amphibian features, and other oddities taken from the Lovecraftian canon but here given even darker twists, such as a dream that envisions Lovecraft’s most overt prejudices fulfilled in the concentration camps of Germany. Artist Jacen Burrows fleshes it all out convincingly, whether with ghastly visions of remote-control incest or simply with the parting of Black from his father, who asks, “What do they have in New York that’s not in Milwaukee?”



2014’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels Put the Real in Surreal

From Victor Hugo’s righteous rage of yore to dystopian futures that look less like science fiction and more like tomorrow’s Twitter feed, comics put the real in surreal in 2014.

Writer David Hine and artist Mark Stafford’s adaption of Victor Hugo’s melodramatic 1869 novel, The Man Who Laughs (SelfMadeHero, $19.95) reveals why one critic of the French original called it “the maddest book in recognized literature.” Mutilated as a child when his face is slashed into a perpetual smile by evil sideshow exhibitors, Gwynplaine grows into a traveling thespian whose ruinous destiny is to call bullshit on the ruling class’s rapacious greed: “The paradise of the rich is made out of the hell of the poor.” Although his visage inspired Batman’s most splendiferous villain, the Joker, Gwynplaine’s commonsense polemics still resonate, whether in Occupy protests or speeches by Elizabeth Warren.

With a narrative as nimble as its lithe lead character — “Hex” Spencer sports fetching Red Cross tattoos on her shoulders — A Night of Gatecrashing / Book One (Ghost Robot, $10) imagines a megatropolis where armored ambulances race between neighborhoods divided as effectively by class as by steel gates. Artist Sutu’s Day-Glo palette redlines the action meter, while Zachary Mortensen’s whip-smart plot interweaves corporate terrorism with street-level heroics.

A visual sonic boom, Sing No Evil (Abrams Comic Arts, $24.95) follows an avant-metal band with more than your average dysfunctions — the drummer is a brown bear who hibernates at inopportune moments, the lead singer stutters, and the bassist believes he has jammed with everyone from medieval monks to the Doors. Author JP Ahonen wryly captures the grind of day jobs and night rehearsals, while illustrator KP Alare’s cartoonish acrobatics believably conjure a rival act whose bestial tunes truly slay the audience.

Vincenzo Ferriero and Ray Chou’s Skies of Fire (Mythopoeia, $5) focuses on Captain Helen Pierce, the only officer in the royal fleet of brass and wood dirigibles with the balls to chase bloodthirsty pirates into the Expanse, a realm of perpetual storm clouds and nihilistic gods. This steampunk epic is given believable visual heft by Pablo Peppino’s sweeping vistas and Bryan Valenza’s vintage coloring.

Thumb through the 720 oversize pages of 75 Years of Marvel (Taschen) and you might wonder, “How can they do this for $200?” In this lavish volume (some pages are printed in metallic inks) you can trace Jack Kirby’s gargantuan contribution to pop culture through five decades of superheroes, antiheroes, and suffering gods; Steve Ditko’s dynamic Spider-Man designs; Gene Colan’s masterful life drawings for Howard the Duck; Jim Steranko’s op-art extravaganzas for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.; and scores of others, proving that yesterday’s pulpy comic pages still outshine today’s CGI glitz.

In The Harlem Hellfighters (Broadway Books, $16.95), writer Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, chronicles the genuine heroics of African American citizens who volunteered for service in the First World War, some inspired by recruiting posters proclaiming, “Colored Man Is No Slacker.” Artist Caanan White’s fluid ink contours capture both the grace of young bodies in motion and the grisly havoc bullets and bombs inflict on them. Facing racism on two continents, one character explains why he’s so eager to fight: “White folks payin’ me to kill other white folks? Glory, hallelujah!”

As befits the director of the classic shocker Halloween, John Carpenter’s Asylum (Storm King Comics, $19.99) features high-end production values, with artist Leonardo Manco’s stacked horizontal panels providing cinematic thrust to this tale of bloody deviltry in the City of Angels. A hotheaded detective and a fallen priest battle evil in a world going so wrong that the line, “If it’s any consolation, I was trying to kill you,” ranks as buddy banter.

Philippe Squarzoni’s Climate Changed (Abrams Comic Arts, $24.95) delineates the true horror story of our coming weather apocalypse through crisp illustrations explaining the implacable scientific facts, as well as fantasias of environmental ninjas blasting discount-store Santas (who represent wasteful consumption of energy-intensive junk).

Although as a species we may be going down the climate tubes, Second Avenue Caper (Hill and Wang, $22.00) proves anew that individuals can make a difference. Writer Joyce Brabner and artist Mark Zingarelli’s true tale of early-1980s gay activists fighting the AIDS epidemic by running illegal antiviral drugs (and pot) from south of the border is as funny, and harrowing, as its mix of drag queens, mobsters, Cheez Whiz, and eulogies promises.

Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey (First Second, $16.99) recounts the Englishman’s obsession with reaching the South Pole in the early 1900s. Through simple but expressive drawings, Bertozzi recounts how the band of 28 men — but none of their 36 sled dogs — survived more than a year trapped on the ice, a monument to the perseverance of ideals amid the failure of dreams.

Despite decades of diminishing dreams, Jaime Hernandez’s workaday characters continue to persevere. In The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics, $19.99), aging heartthrob Maggie has gained even more weight but is still alluring to her ex, Ray Dominguez. Like anyone entering middle age, the once and future lovers deal with the loss — whether through emotional barriers or death — of those they love. Since 1981, with pitch-perfect dialogue and impeccable draftsmanship, Hernandez has conveyed more entertaining (and poignant) drama than just about any contemporary filmmaker or novelist. There’s a word for what this guy is doing with his life’s work — can someone give him a MacArthur grant and make it official?

Pirates in the Heartland: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics, $34.99) surveys the early, graphically fecund years of the most outrageous of the original cadre of underground cartoonists. Wilson, born in 1941, turned his id inside out and vomited forth exquisitely crosshatched panels for such tales as “Captain Piss Gums and His Pervert Pirates.” His massively hung fellas and meaty chicks alternately battle and fuck, with orifices of all sexes and species fair game. The best drawings coalesce into orgies of entwined, bulging, wriggling lines — the grotesque tickling the sublime.

Picking up the mantle of the defiant weirdness of underground comix (if not their outré sex and violence), Rob Davis’s The Motherless Oven (SelfMadeHero, $19.95) creates a world in which schoolkids protect themselves from downpours of knives by using café tables as umbrellas and government-enforced “Deathdays” replace birthdays. Truly bizarre household idols and old-biddy police officers populate this mind-bending tale, and Davis’s deft monochrome drawings confirm one tossed-off bit of dialogue: “You can sell dead gods as art. People need art.”


2013’s Best Graphic Novels

In his seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that original artworks lost their “aura” of cultural authority and transcendent beauty when disseminated on a mass scale. A magazine photo of The Dying Gaul, for example, conveys little of that Roman sculpture’s tragic corporeality nor its Hellenistic narrative of defiance conquered. But great artists have long drawn specifically for reproduction (think of Durer’s prints) and we lead off our seventh annual roundup of outstanding comics with The Best of EC Comics Artist’s Edition, Volume 1 (IDW, 168 pp., $125), which features original boards printed at their full 22-by-15-inch size. Bernie Krigstein’s atmospheric catacombs, Roy G. Krenkel’s futuristic vistas, and Johnny Craig’s surreal shifts of scale transcend the often ludicrous scripts in these 1950s crime, sci-fi, and horror stories. These virtuosi (and the seven other masters included here) used coarse Zip-A-Tone, volumetric crosshatching, and bold black contours to set off the era’s limited color palettes. (Which illustrates why the graphic tonalities of the Gold and Silver ages look terrible when re-colored with today’s computer-gradated spectrum, analogous to the way colorized black-and-white movies feel like heavily made-up drag queens.) With flourishes of yellowed rubber cement, printer’s stamps, dollops of white correction fluid, and scribbled blue editorial notes, these panels remain supreme mass entertainment even as they’ve evolved into serendipitous modernist collage.

Blaring pinks, greens, yellows, purples, and other chromatic collisions characterize The Adventures of Jodelle (Fantagraphics Books, 164 pp., $45), Guy Peellaert’s Pop Art blast from 1966. The Belgian artist employed sinuous line-work to propel a perverse heroine — based partly on a Lolita-ish pop singer, sword-and-sandals epics, and James Bond-ian hijinks — through an ersatz empire, half ancient Rome, half glitzy U.S. of A. Sexy spies and hunky warriors grapple as sports cars towed by white stallions zoom past such landmarks as a Guggenheim-Museum-cum-ice-cream-parlor. Peellaert (1934–2008) conjured the disturbing allure of this proto-adult comic less from the sadistic machinations of his outlandish characters than through color clashes that practically warrant seizure warnings.

In 1973, Peellaert used a completely different style of airbrushed photo collage for Rock Dreams, a book imagining music idols in outré tableaux, such as Sam Cooke shot dead on a motel room floor in his tighty-whities. Peellaert’s gritty ambience has been thrillingly updated by Lee Bermejo in the Rorschach half of the prequel Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach Deluxe Edition (DC, 256 pp., $29.99). Brian Azzerello’s blowtorch script imagines New York’s 1977 blackout and looting as the formative turf for Rorschach, the most brutal of the costumed vigilantes populating Alan Moore’s groundbreaking 1987 series. Bermejo’s illuminations of fetishistic and fatalistic decadence are not for the faint of heart, but that’s all in a night’s work for graphic literature’s most savage — and beautifully wrought — antihero.

The title of Charles Rodrigues’s Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend (Fantagraphics Books, 184 pp., $29.99), says it all. There are plenty of laughs here, but you’ll need a strong stomach to chuckle along when Ray discovers the gaseous consequences of using cheap embalming fluids on his best bud, or to guffaw as “The Aesop Brothers, Siamese Twins” proposition hare-lipped prostitutes. Rodrigues (1926–2004) deployed scratchy ink contours for his cartoonish — though accurately proportioned — figures, a schism perhaps explained by a relatively conservative Catholic allowing his id to romp across the pages of National Lampoon from 1970 to 1993.

Few imaginations are more free-ranging than the writer Grant Morrison’s, and one of his most complexly outrageous works, The Filth (2002), is given a PhD-level explication in Tom Shapira’s Curing the Postmodern Blues (Sequart, 186 pp., $12.99). Despite the deliciously detailed artwork by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine, even rabid Morrison fans were put off by The Filth‘s seemingly willful obtuseness and blithe depravity — murderous spermatozoa ravage Los Angeles! — but Shapira’s treatise gathers up plot threads and illuminates character motivations to reveal the tale as an attempt, in Morrison’s own words, “to turn the very basic horrors of existence into comedy and poetry.”

The more straightforward story of murder and cattle rustling in Charles Santino’s adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s Law of the Desert Born (Bantam, 160 pp., $25) gains a noir patina from the moody grays of Thomas Yeates’s ink-wash technique. The dialogue is spare, befitting protagonists dwarfed by vast desert wastes roiled by distant thunderclouds and sudden rifle shots.

In Sandcastle (SelfMadeHero, 112 pp., $19.95), writer Pierre Oscar Levy and artist Frederik Peeters update another venerable genre, bringing Twilight Zone–like creepiness to a day at the beach. The discovery of a woman’s nude corpse seems suddenly mundane when the beachgoers realize that they are rapidly aging and that a sinister force is preventing them from leaving. Peeters’s fluid black brushwork conveys mounting horror as paunches and wrinkles steal upon even the youngest vacationers.

In Sacrifice (Dark Horse, 168 pp., $19.99), Sam Humphries (words) and Dalton Rose (art) take troubled youth Hector off his seizure meds and plunge him into ancient Aztec civilization. The palette is Day-Glo, the blood copious, the story a heartfelt meditation on the gulfs between family and society, suicide and sacrifice.

For Occupy Comics 1 and 2 (Black Mask, 44 pp., $3.50 each), the creators sacrificed all profits to the cause while offering widely varying artwork and stories that educate and entertain in equal measure. Alan Moore’s multi-part essay, “Buster Brown at the Barricades,” begins with stonemasons razzing ancient Egypt’s pharaohs in blasphemous carvings that foreshadow the healthy skepticism of Mad magazine. By Issue 2, Moore is deep into one of the 1 percent’s most heinous con jobs: screwing Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster out of future royalties for $130 in 1938.

Among the numerous illustrations for Moore’s disquisition is a Depression-era Weird Tales cover depicting a semi-nude lass and a petulant skull. The same image can be found in The Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage (Vanguard, 184 pp., $24.95), a celebration of that rare female artist who rose to the top of a macho field. Brundage’s menaced damsels were sleek eye candy, but this book reveals politics —advocating for gender and racial equality as well as labor rights at a time when activism led to blacklisting — that prove that the “Queen of the Pulps” was as brave as any of her titillating heroines.

It would be satisfying to end with an even Top 10 for the year, but Battling Boy (First Second, 208 pp., $15.99), like a Marshall amp, cranks it up to 11. Every kid dreams of being the insouciant hero who saunters into chaos, blasts the monster to cinders, saves a worshipful populace, and snags the hottest babe. Damned if Paul Pope’s swashbuckling brushwork and lip-smacking colors don’t make that fantasy plausible.

You want “aura”? Pope’s got it to burn.

See Also: Images from the best graphic novels of 2013


The Best Graphic Novels of 2013

Perverse heroines and supreme sacrifices in the year’s best comics.

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The Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2012

The best comic artists transmute simple materials—pens, brushes, ink—into supreme expression. Our sixth annual survey of standout graphic novels and comics begins with an artist who brought something new to the game.

Mention the word “airbrush” to your average comics fan and one of Richard Corben’s buxom adventuresses, brawny antiheroes, or gelatinous monsters will most likely spring to mind. Gathering all of his Creepy and Eerie magazine stories from the 1970s, Richard Corben (Dark Horse, 320 pp., $29.99) showcases the fine airbrush gradations that allowed the artist to dispense with those heavy black outlines used to trap flat colors since the earliest days of Sunday comics. Taking a cue from Technicolor films, Corben (born 1940) would often deploy multiple light sources within a single panel; in “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Noise,” a cleaver-wielding ghost skulks amid boozy purples and sickly greens, the shape of her weapon echoed by a slowly opening door. In a black-and-white adaptation of Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” Corben lavishes voluptuous gray tones on the painting, while the doomed heroine succumbs amid scratchy pen marks. He sometimes wrote his own scripts, often with a dollop of humor reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s meet-ups with Frankenstein, Dracula, et al. While the figures in 1973’s “Terror Tomb” are cartoonish, Corben’s dramatic lighting and abrupt shifts from close-up to vast Egyptian vistas are as lushly imaginative as anything Lucas and Spielberg conjured later in the decade.

Corben’s shifting vistas

Corben wasn’t the only artist expanding the range of comics during that fertile era—in 1972, Malcolm Mc Neill joined William S. Burroughs to create a graphic novel combining Mayan legend and Beat phantasmagoria. As Mc Neill recounts in The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here (Fantagraphics, 168 pp., $39.99), “I was dealing with a huge cast, sometimes moving back and forth between time periods over the course of one or two sentences.” Publishers could not figure out what to do with Mc Neill’s large (up to 10 feet across) renderings of multi-sexed beings, bandoliered guerrillas, public orgies, and other Burroughs chimeras. The artist’s rich realism shines through the quick ink layouts, pencil drawings, and Bosch-esque paintings finally reproduced here. And while the original narrative was never concluded, these often fragmentary images evoke both jungle-encrusted ruins and “soft machine” hallucinations.

Fab faves: Mc Neill

Less realistically drawn and every bit as strange, My Friend Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts, 224 pp., $17.95) recounts artist-writer Derf Backderf’s real-life adolescent friendship with—or, more accurately, tolerance of—weirdo classmate Jeffrey Dahmer. The narrative begins in a small Ohio town and traces Dahmer’s fascination with dead animals, his increasingly heavy drinking, and the disintegration of his inattentive parents’ marriage. Backderf evokes ’70s ennui through carefully delineated period furniture and slovenly teen fashions, and his angular style is perfect for the “spaz” act that Dahmer used to entertain classmates before graduating from high school and becoming a serial killer.

Artist-writer Tony Bourne delivers fictional bloodletting in The Fed (, 68 pp., $19.99). As in too many indie comics, Bourne’s could use some copyediting help, but his lithely drawn figures and kinetic action sequences more than carry a narrative that has callous federal agents caroming between teenage hackers, an alien dinosaur, and bulletproof killer clowns. Ridiculous, cynical fun.

“If we weren’t rational beings, we couldn’t be irrational,” complains Alison Bechdel’s character in her autobiographical Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp., $22). Bechdel’s multi-textured drawing styles and layouts add resonance to a thorny relationship with her caustically witty mom. Multiple shrink visits and a feisty girlfriend offer both help and confusion as Bechdel stubbornly gropes for the answers that confound us all.

In The Hive (Pantheon, 56 pp., $21.95), Charles Burns continues the gorgeous mindfuck he began in 2010’s X’ed Out, entwining a teen love affair with scenes set in claustrophobic warrens overflowing with toxic chemicals and foulmouthed mutant laborers. Burns’s undulating brushstrokes and off-kilter palette imbue this squirmy drama with a toothsome funk.

There’s drama galore in Fashion Beast (Avatar, ca. 24-page story per issue, 10-issue series, $3.99 each). In 1985, Alan Moore wrote a screenplay based on Malcolm McLaren’s vision of an evil fashion house lording over a dystopian society. This new comic book version revels in drag queens, bitchy designers, and hints of nuclear winter—don’t you miss the ’80s? Moore’s complex stage direction can be sensed behind illustrator Facundo Percio’s long, wordless takes of various characters strutting along grimy streets and glowing catwalks.

Multiple artists flesh out writer Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated Deluxe Edition (DC, 264 pp., $29.99), in which Bruce Wayne spreads his cape-and-cowl franchise to various international do-gooders as threats from ever more operatically scaled villains expand beyond Gotham. All of the artists are strong enough to keep up with Morrison’s coruscating dialogue and dense plotting, but Scott Clark and Dave Beaty’s “Nightmares in Numberland” astonishes with luminous graphics that combine video game verve with visceral humanity. They shoulda let these guys do the Tron sequel.

Harvey Kurtzman was a much more bare-bones artist: Brush. Pen. Ink. Period. In the early 1950s, before he created the comic book that eventually morphed into Mad magazine, he labored over elaborately researched war comics. Corpse on the Imjin (Fantagraphics, 240 pp., $28.99) collects these stories, all of which Kurtzman wrote and many of which he drew in his sweeping, expressive line. There are few heroes here, only the crushed victims and scarred survivors of war’s capricious mayhem.

Mort Drucker arrived at Mad magazine in 1957, and over six decades has masterfully caricatured countless movie stars and politicians. Mort Drucker (Running Press, 272 pp., $30) includes scores of his parodies, but perhaps the most brilliant is 1963’s “East Side Story,” written by Frank Jacobs. Here’s Drucker’s snaggle-toothed Khrushchev singing, “I feel vicious, oh so vicious/I feel vicious, malicious, and low!” while JFK and our allies chime: “Nikita! We’ve just seen a Red named Nikita!” Set against high-contrast photos of the U.N., Drucker’s dazzling cartoons took a bit of the chill off the Cold War.

And, finally, there is Chris Ware, a one-man argument against the facile glow of the Internet in favor of the delicious tactility of print. Crammed with tales of angst-ridden lives lived in rundown apartments and gentrifying burbs, Building Stories (Pantheon, various volumes in boxed set, $50) comes packed in a carton evocative of a board game. Ware’s bleak stories of expanding waistlines and shrinking incomes are so compelling that you can’t stop unfolding and turning the pages of the jumbo broadsheets, tiny pamphlets, and hardback books in this collection. The complex interplay of his impeccably rendered figures with graphics and text does what the best comics have done for more than a century now: thrill eye, hand, and mind in concert.


2011’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels

Arguing over who rates as the greatest painter of all time is a mug’s game, with candidates scattered across millennia and continents. Comic-book artists, however, have been around less than a century, and while there are certainly European and Japanese worthies, most of the standouts, like baseball greats, work in the U.S. of A. So in the leadoff spot of our 2011 roundup of impressive comics and graphic novels, we offer a contender for the number one slot followed by an eclectically talented top 10.

As authors Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell illustrate in the aptly titled Genius, Isolated (IDW, 328 pp., $49.99, first of three volumes), Alex Toth (1928–2006) was a natural. At age 22, he elevated a hokey French Foreign Legion yarn through seemingly effortless POV shifts and dead-on foreshortening, the entire story smartly reproduced here through a mix of original boards and coarsely printed color pages. Toth’s deft compositional sense reduced the shape of a flag in one panel to an abstract mirror of a fort in the next, which he followed with spare flicks of ink to nimbly describe a horse galloping across a vast desert. An insightful designer, Toth often positioned mundane objects—a lamp, a globe—in the foreground, lending a voyeuristic feel to virtuoso figures set in cannily textured interiors. Although his personal life was fraught, Toth transcended even the corniest romance or horror potboilers through some of the most empathetically rendered human beings ever to see print.

During World War II, another comics master, Milton Caniff (1907–88), retooled his extremely influential newspaper strip, “Terry and the Pirates,” into a weekly dose of risque eye candy for the boys in uniform. Male Call (Hermes, 156 pp., $39.99) collects the adventures of Miss Lace, a curvaceous brunette in elbow-length gloves whose “topographic features” were, Caniff noted, “as racy as current Supreme Court rulings would allow.” The cartoonist’s signature balance of black-and-white shapes and witty scripts were well suited to the delectable cheesecake he supplied, gratis, to the war effort.

The artists and writers gathered in Government Issue (Abrams ComicArts, 304 pp., $29.95) answered our nation’s call with substantially less titillation, cranking out instructional comic books—tips on surviving nuclear blasts or avoiding bicycle crashes, for example—at the behest of federal and local governments. Author Richard L. Graham relates how Charles Schulz loaned Charlie Brown to a 1968 Department of Health, Education, and Welfare pamphlet explaining the treatment of lazy eye, leading to Sally’s eye patch (and inevitable pirate jokes) in daily “Peanuts” strips. Skilled, though anonymous, artists warned teens about the shame of syphilis in 1957 and the dangers of heroin a decade later, while more recently, the combat stresses associated with Operation Iraqi Freedom were addressed in a graphic novel published by the Navy.

In one of several surreal tales collected in I Will Bite You! (Secret Acres, 128 pp., $14), artist and writer Joseph Lambert pays homage to the dance scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas with a joyful spectrum of creatures boogalooing to a stoic turtle’s steady drumbeats. Beautifully hand-wrought typography and palpable emotions propel Lambert’s wildly imaginative scenarios into the turbulent slipstream that entwines our era’s pop culture and high art.

The stylish drawings in Lychee Light Club (Vertical, 328 pp., $16.95) are almost overwhelmed by a bizarre plot concerning androgynous teen boys who disembowel their stacked teacher and employ a lychee-fruit-powered robot to hold a schoolgirl hostage. Swan-diving into the sex-and-violence tributary of Japanese manga, Usamaru Furuya’s slick visions of industrial wastelands and ruptured flesh linger long after the curtain falls on his extravagant theater of cruelty.

Perhaps more simpatico with America’s repressed id, Daniel Clowes’s Mister Wonderful (Pantheon, 80 pp., $19.95) follows middle-aged depressive Marshall on a blind date with neurotic Natalie. Clowes’s sophisticated layouts include dialogue balloons that wander off the page or are obscured by captions, emphasizing Marshall’s agitated struggle against his inner misanthrope.

The angst gets ramped up in AnimalMan #1 (DC, 32 pp., $2.99, ongoing series), part of DC Comics’ reboot of their venerable, if long-in-the-tooth, franchise characters. The ever-sharp Jeff Lemire delivers a touching and multifaceted script (opening with a Believer magazine interview of the hero), while Travel Foreman’s drawings morph from anemically spare domestic scenes to a startlingly sanguinary cliff-hanger.

Brian Azzarello’s typically hard-boiled dialogue sprouts poetic rhythms in Spaceman (Vertigo, 32 pp., $2.99 each, nine-issue series), in which one panel’s “May Day May Day” alert segues into an alarm clock braying “New Day New Day,” causing a simian-faced bruiser to mutter “no way no way . . . it’s the same fuck old day.” The verbal flow is complemented by Eduardo Risso’s dynamic compositions, with one sequence featuring hands playing rock-paper-scissors, interrupted by a fourth flashing the bird. This rocket-paced saga of virtual hookers, drowning cities, and an underclass distracted by celebrities envisions a future dystopia already penciled into our collective datebook.

In contrast, Locke & Key: Clockworks (IDW, 32 pp., $2.99 each, six-issue series) spelunks our colonial past, grafting gothic horror onto the Revolutionary War. Part of an intertwined series of H.P. Lovecraft–inspired titles by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, Clockworks features split-screen views of British cruelty aboveground and cinematic pans of demonic battles below.

While purportedly based on fact, the American history found in The Manara Library Volume 1 (Dark Horse, 208 pp., $59.99) is barely less twisted than the horror fantasias of Clockworks. Hugo Pratt, a professed admirer of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Zane Grey, wrote one of the two tales collected here, “Indian Summer,” originally published in Italy in 1983. But it is Milo Manara’s lithe and lusty women and tautly intercut action sequences that galvanize a narrative rife with incest, deceitful preachers, racism, and vengeful slaughter. Not the Tea Party’s Pilgrims, and all the more believable for it.

Speaking of politics, Go Fish (How to Win Contempt and Influence People) (Akashic Books, 224 pp., $18.95) offers sprightly polemics to usher in the election year. Mr. Fish (a/k/a Dwayne Booth) skewers past administrations (Bush on his knees planting flag-draped coffins for Earth Day) and also hammers the current regime (a desperately smiling Obama sits in a pumpkin patch under the sign “Welcome Great Recovery”). And since we’re choosing “Bests,” consider this for the cartoon crown: A long-haired artist turns from his painting of a bald gent, which he has labeled “FUCKING ASSHO,” to ask the man posing for that portrait, “Can I have a grant so I can finish my art?”

Behold! Smarter and way ballsier than any “joke” painting by Richard Prince, it’s the gag panel as conceptual art.


2010’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels

We’re sorry, but 2010 has been a dreary slog (Tea Party, anyone?), which is reflected in just about every graphic narrative that moved us this year. But we won’t let darkness visible obscure the intense artistry found in our picks of 2010’s best comics and other illustrated provocations.

For starters, we now know what 1930s anti-Nazi collagist John Heartfield would have done with the physiognomies of Hitler and Goebbels if only he’d had Photoshop. In Repuglicans (Boom Studios, 128 pp., $14.99), Pete Von Sholly brings every right-wing potentate from Newt to Sarah to undead life with bloated, pustular flesh, frothing fangs, black-oil eyes, and other colorful grotesqueries. Steve Tatham’s pithy commentary confirms that the policies of these demagogues are every bit as monstrous as their portraits.

Even more horrifying, Danzig Baldaev’s Drawings From the Gulag (Fuel, 240 pp., $32.95) documents the phantasmagorical evil of the Soviet prison system. Female “enemies of the people” were thrown into cells to be gang-raped by thieves and murderers; children of imprisoned dissidents were given a “ticket to a happy childhood”—a euphemism for a bullet to the head. One prisoner lamented that “a human being survives by his ability to forget,” but Baldaev (1925–2005), who served as a camp guard and risked his own freedom to create these unflinching, painstakingly crosshatched scenes, knew that forgetting only allows such horrors to be repeated.

The Sinister Truth: MK Ultra (Pop Industries, 102 pp., $11.95) exposes our own government’s nefarious experiments with mind control and the CIA’s 638 different plots to kill Castro (and you thought it was only exploding cigars). Jason Ciaccia’s tale of LSD-crazed assassins would seem ridiculously hyperbolic if it weren’t derived from the CIA’s own files. With nods to Grosz, Bacon, and Steadman, Aaron Norhanian’s fervid ink drawings propel this witty hybrid of underground comix and the History channel right over the top.

Another aspect of America’s id gets probed in The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! (Abrams, 304 pp., $29.95). Jim Trombetta’s exuberant prose posits that postwar visions of atomic Armageddon, combined with rebellion against the era’s social constipation, inspired paroxysms of four-color mayhem. Bluenoses all around the country held comic books up as examples not only of why Johnny couldn’t read but also why he was out raping, robbing, and killing. Copious color reproductions highlight the lucid lunacy of Basil Wolverton, the proto-psychedelia of L.B. Cole, and other inspired craftsmen of the macabre.

By 1955, Congressional pressure had driven horror comics out of business, but in less than a decade Creepy and Eerie magazines resurrected the genre like some reanimated corpse seeking revenge on its own murderer. Darkhorse’s striking reprints (currently at 13 hardcover volumes, $49.95 each) reveal such industry giants as Gene Colan, Russ Heath, Jerry Grandenetti, and Alex Toth using ink wash, crosshatching, and swathes of Zip-a-tone to lend their murderers and monsters convincing presence. These always entertaining, occasionally brilliant stories — see Archie Goodwin and Steve Ditko’s kaleidoscopic time shifts in “Collector’s Edition” (Creepy Vol. 2) — gain force from the lithe black-and-white layouts.

Meanwhile, contemporary horror keeps coming at us like a zombie tsunami. Julia Gfrörer’s Flesh and Bone (Sparkplug, 40 pp., $6) features ardent line drawings of wan figures that might have escaped from an Elizabeth Peyton painting. This unearthly collision of witchcraft, gruesome love, and pathetic death dissipates into a truly poignant climax.

Equally absorbing, Charles Burns’s X’ed Out (Pantheon, 56 pp., $19.95) takes his obsession with the mating habits of teenagers to otherworldly planes. Burns allies luxuriant brushwork with an inspired palette that illuminates boho parties and mutant dystopias with equal conviction.

King of the Flies: 1. Hallorave (Fantagraphics, 64 pp., $18.99) manages to combine dystopia and partying in one particularly morose suburban nabe. Artist Pascal “Mezzo” Mesenburg’s crisp scenes of druggy costume soirées and bowling-alley liaisons deftly complement writer Michel Pirus’s slyly interlocking tales of depraved jollies in suburbia.

No one, however, can transform the workaday into existentially bleak page-turners like Chris Ware. His tales of myopic relationships and enervated dreams shimmer with eloquent graphics, precisely tuned dialogue, and perfect-pitch body language. In Lint, Acme Novelty Library Vol. 20 (Drawn & Quarterly, 72 pp., $23.95), we see parents’ faces slowly come into focus through their baby’s eyes, watch the young Jordan Lint grow into an adult-scaled world, then follow his punctured ambitions and bumptious middle-aged affairs to the moment when everything contracts back down to that first dot of consciousness. Astonishing.

Also dazzling, Dirty Baby (Prestel, 160 pp., $125.00) begins with Ed Ruscha’s paintings of blurrily silhouetted sailing ships and foreboding tract homes overlaid with white bars implying censored phrases. Each of these mysterious images is counterpointed by David Breskin’s witty poetry (derived from such Ruscha titles as “Be Cautious Else We Be Bangin’ on You”). Rather than explicate the pictures, the poems seek to metaphorically fill the blank areas with fresh interpretations. Nels Cline’s clashing musical harmonies (included on four inset audio CDs) further stitch poetry and canvas together into a mordantly funny, amorphously beautiful genre Frankenstein.

But if you’re looking for the current gold standard in straight-up comic-book artistry, Darwyn Cooke is your man. The Outfit (IDW, 160 pp., $24.99), like last year’s The Hunter, sets one of Donald Westlake’s crime thrillers against Rat Pack–era backdrops, where antihero Parker wages a profitable war on syndicate bosses who want him dead. Westlake’s cynical characterizations — a thrill-seeking society girl pouts when a would-be hitman confesses before he can be tortured — merge with Cooke’s diverse layouts and visceral figures to keep the plot burning rubber from wire to wire.

DC Comics Superman Vs Muhammad Ali

Neal Adams set equally high standards in the 1960s and ’70s with masterful renditions of characters as disparate as Jerry Lewis, Deadman, and Batman. In 1978, Adams, along with the virtuoso writer Denny O’Neil,  yanked out all the stops to portray that era’s most incandescent personality in Superman vs. Muhammad Ali. DC has reprinted the original oversize comic in a lavish facsimile edition (80 pp., $39.99) that provides a nostalgic respite from our current national malaise. The plot opens in the ghetto as the Champ plays hoops with a multiracial gaggle of kids, but it’s not long before an alien armada arrives to lay waste to Earth. Things get progressively wiggier as Supes and The Greatest take their lumps in the ring against the humongous invaders; Adams’s hyperkinetic action sequences are barely contained by the page margins. The book closes on a poster-size spread as the two heroes shake hands after truth, justice, and superior fisticuffs have straightened those freakin’ aliens right out.

So maybe there’s hope for the American way, after all.

¶ Web Extra!

And here are a few online bonus items to round out our admittedly idiosyncratic baker’s dozen of the year’s best:

Simon and Schuster’s new “Pulp History” line digs into America’s seamy past, with Devil Dog (160 pp., $19.99). U.S. Marine Smedley Darlington Butler (1881-1940) fought bravely against Germans, Chinese, Nicaraguans, and anyone else he was pointed at before writing an exposé entitled “War Is a Racket.” David Talbot chronicles Butler’s shift from self-described “muscle man for Big Business” to supporter (and, by some accounts, savior) of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, while comix luminary Spain Rodriguez provides flamboyant illustrations to complement archival photographs, period posters, and news clippings.

Amping up tropes from The Stand, The Road Warrior, and other post-apocalyptic jaunts, Jeff Lemire’s ongoing Sweet Tooth (Vertigo, vol. 1, 128 pp., $9.99, vol. 2, 144 pp., $12.99) envisions a ravaged world populated by roving gangs tracking down hybrid human-animal babies in order to determine the cause of a global plague. Gus is a sweet-tempered, doe-eyed tyke with antlers growing from his head; when his religious-fanatic father dies, Gus travels with a former NHL brawler who, in exchange for his dead wife’s corpse, trades the kid to a militia performing experiments on the new breed of children. Lemire’s disheveled line work, somber palette, and angular black silhouettes keep this surprisingly touching story entirely believable.

While set in the here and now, A God Somewhere (Wildstorm, 200 pp., $24.99) climaxes with apocalyptic slaughter, as tales of gods generally do. John Arcudi’s grim narrative of delivery-man Eric Forster’s accidental ascent to omnipotence is bolstered by Peter Snejbjerg’s expressionist violence and overt visual references to such classical compositions as Michelangelo’s Christ the Judge, from the Sistine Chapel. Families, generals, and presidents suffer as Forster’s good intentions are outstripped by the power his ego can’t contain. His dearest friend, wishing that the chain of events leading to widespread carnage had somehow been different, finally despairs, “There is no ‘if.’ There is only ‘is.’ ”


Jaime Hernandez’s Graphic Behavior

It’s a fabulously sunny spring day, and I’m standing on Lexington Avenue with the graphic novelist Jaime Hernandez. He’s teetering on one leg in an imitation of Deadman, a cheesy superhero known for abruptly taking possession of people’s bodies. Hernandez has struck this wobbly pose in response to my asking his opinion of comic-book artist Neal Adams’s supremely realistic drawings. “If you see Neal doing a strip about people standing there talking in an office, that’s just beautiful shit,” Hernandez explains. “But when you see him drawing Deadman going, ‘Whooo–oooh–ooooh’—it’s not my exciting thing. As a kid, I thought it was, but it just didn’t last.”

Hernandez, who lives in Pasadena, California, is in town for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Festival, where he’s been signing copies of the new Abrams coffee-table book The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death. Since 1981, when he and two of his brothers self-published the first issue of the black-and-white comic book Love & Rockets, Hernandez has scripted and drawn more than 1,500 pages of a formally complex graphic novel that features a bevy of utterly absorbing female characters. The lavish Abrams volume includes original artwork from various issues of L & R, sketchbook pages, flyers for SoCal punk bands such as the Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies, and lively text from art historian Todd Hignite.

Hernandez in his Pasadena studio

While Hernandez’s L & R women have often been lookers, over the past 29 years he has aged them beyond youthful pulchritude into emotionally believable adults, starting with the booty-ful Margarita Luisa Chascarrillo and that lithest of live wires, Esperanza Leticia Glass. More commonly known as Maggie and Hopey, these on-again, off-again lovers form the core of an ever-evolving, magic-realist universe, which includes the baroquely unstable Isabel Maria Ortiz Ruebens (Izzy) and the ridiculously gorgeous Beatriz Garcia (a/k/a Penny Century). Not wanting to be the hundredth journalist to simply query Hernandez on what his wife has called his “uncanny knack for female patter and pattern,” I’ve instead offered to take him and Hignite on a jaunt to the Museum of Modern Art.

During our cab ride uptown, I bring up two quotes from Baudelaire’s famous 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” which Hignite uses in the Abrams book to illuminate Hernandez’s exquisitely bold black-and-white ink drawings. One passage concludes that it’s the artist’s job to “express at once the attitude and the gesture of living beings, whether solemn or grotesque, and their luminous explosion in space.”

Georges Seurat exemplified that vivid phrase, so I ask Hernandez if he’s familiar with the French painter’s powerful conte-crayon drawings, which share with his own a profound understanding of bodies in space — Seurat through infinite tonal gradations, Hernandez through dead-on contours, both artists masters of abstractly powerful compositions. He demurs that he barely recalls Seurat’s pointillist paintings from a long-ago art class, then adds with typically self-deprecating humor, “I warn you, this is going to be all day — I’m going to be going, ‘No, I never heard of that.’ ”

A sketchbook page from “The Art of Jaime Hernandez”

When I press Hernandez on how he achieves such convincing heft in his figures, he mentions a life-drawing class he took when he was 19, taught by a classically trained “real crab-ass” instructor who helped him understand “how the skeleton works, the weight of the body.” When I ask if he still sketches from life, the 50-year-old artist says simply, “It’s all my head now.”

He gazes out the window of the taxi. “I like the city ’cause there’s so much to look at, so just walkin’ down the street my eyes are goin’ ‘dit-dit-dit-dah'” — he points a finger, rapidly changing directions — “I’m looking at the perspective of where the buildings are goin’. I’m watching how the people relate to the size of the building. I’m watchin’ how this guy is walking, how he keeps his shoulders. You know, just shit like that.”

Hernandez’s conversation is peppered with reminders of what he refers to as his “lower-class upbringing” in Oxnard, California, as the fourth of six siblings in a Mexican-American family. A self-described “terrible” student who was raised Catholic, his formative influences were decidedly lowbrow: Archie and cut-rate superhero comics, Mexican wrestlers, and movies such as Samson vs. the Vampire Women.

These influences are prominent in the first installments of L & R, in which Maggie sends home letters that describe her job fixing spaceships in a Land of the Lost–type jungle overrun with dinosaurs. The missives travel between genres, from slam-bang sci-fi to the real-life drama where Hopey staples up flyers for her band and argues with promoters over club dates. These quotidian chores in and around Hoppers, the fictional stand-in for Hernandez’s hometown, take place amid an ensemble cast of musicians, strippers, wrestlers, low-riding gang-bangers, and blue-collar families, all of whom provide the background for what came to be known as the “Locas” (crazy girls) tales.

But Hernandez has always kept the fantasy levers within easy reach, smoothly merging the otherworldly with crisp realism, combining panels in overall compositions that achieve an impact beyond verbal narrative or the linear progression of cinema. In a two-page spread from 2005’s astonishingly moving Ghost of Hoppers, the image of a shrunken jack o’ lantern segues to a panel of a young, drunken Maggie, who trips over a pumpkin and lands on the lawn near a sleeping dog. As she giddily tries to get up, the dog rises on its hind legs, a chilling personification of the devil.

At MOMA, Hernandez and I stand before Warhol’s huge 1963 diptych Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times, which features multiple silkscreen prints of the same gruesome auto accident on one canvas next to the blank orange expanse of another. Although Hernandez finds the piece too impersonal for his taste, both he and Hignite are appalled when I mention that the work has sometimes been reproduced with the blank panel cropped out, thus negating the sense of Catholic limbo conjured by the orange void. “Warhol was doing his own kind of punk,” Hernandez remarks. “He was going, ‘I’m gonna do this and I don’t care what you think.’ ”

Which rather sums up Hernandez’s own attitude. He has produced comics his own way from day one. As we wander into another gallery, I ask him how much longer he plans on portraying his characters’ lives.

“I’m gonna do it as long as I think it’s worth doing. And as long as everybody else does,” he replies, laughing.

“I love this,” Hernandez says as we peruse Jacob Lawrence’s starkly designed, Depression-era tempera paintings depicting, through bold chunks of color, the depredations endured by Southern blacks who headed north for work. When I mention to Hernandez that I’d be interested in seeing how he would draw a crowded 7 train, he replies that the subway reminds him of the DMV or jury duty: “Those kinds of places where the rich have to be with the poor, with the people who don’t speak English—where you guys are all trapped here and we’re all the same, fucker. You can be wearing your diamond earrings, but I get to sit here, too.”

As we check out the abstract expressionists, I ask for his take on Jackson Pollock’s paintings, such as the 17-foot-wide drip canvas One: Number 31, 1950 and the densely packed Full Fathom Five, from 1947.

After considerable thought, he says he’s impressed by “their intention. . . . I bet a lot of the best artists went in for something and ended up with something they didn’t know they had in ’em.” He looks around at the Pollocks. “This stuff is impossible to picture before he does it.”

Panels from 2005’s “Ghost of Hoppers

As impossible as it would have been to imagine a comic book featuring a pair of Mexican-American punkettes in combat boots ever managing to expand beyond the indie-comics sector—that first issue of L & R three decades ago had a press run of only 800 copies. Now the Locas stories are available in deluxe hardcover editions and in stacks of paperback collections. Fans have told Hernandez, “I love Maggie and Hopey and if I met them, they would be my best friends.” Hernandez, however, has a warning for those admirers. “These are two punk kids with good hearts,” he relates in the Abrams book, “but to outsiders they might be pretty snotty and make you feel alienated. So don’t get too comfortable with them.”

Which probably explains Hopey’s tangy wit — that’s her flashing the “L.A.” symbol on the cover of this issue — and Maggie’s emotional dithering: Hernandez sees his Locas as simply real, and as the gang matures out of their punk-drunk youthful passions and into the existential muddles of on-rushing middle age, their creator may be as helpless as any reader to comfort Maggie about her weight troubles or Hopey over her need for glasses and a real job.

I’m trying to find one of MOMA’s Francis Bacon paintings. Wandering through the crowded galleries, I can’t locate the canvas I want, but I explain that Bacon would sometimes fling gobs of paint at a portrait he was working on to break out of formal complacency. Hernandez laughs and says, “Sometimes I do that—I’ll throw in somebody to fuck things up.”

Indeed, Hernandez regularly punctuates his narratives with multi-dimensional shifts of time, space, and genre, often employing Penny Century as his go-to girl to disturb the peace. In his most recent tales, drawn in an exuberantly cartoony fashion, Penny has gained superpowers and is running amok as various teams of superwomen muster to stop her—one retired crime-fighter points out that women are born with super-heroic attributes, but men “gotta go out an’ have lab accidents and other stuff to get their cojones.”

Although he occasionally falls into flat passages of exposition, for the most part, Hernandez’s prose brings the goods as sharply as his drawings. While visiting Maggie’s childhood home, one of her friends—a jiggling train-wreck of a stripper—succinctly sums up the neighborhood: “Fuck, ghetto.” After rambunctious sex with Penny, Maggie’s onetime boyfriend Ray poetically free-associates: “The animals talked. I was speaking in tongues. My dad up in Heaven glanced up from his paper. The angels went on strike.”

Somewhere near the impressionists, I ask Hernandez what Maggie is currently up to. He describes some trouble he’s having with a scene between her and Ray. But, he adds, “the more I started to draw it and get comfortable with it, I started going, ‘God, I love Maggie.’ ”

It’s said that everyone has at least one novel in them. But very few have the discipline to ever write that book, much less the talent to communicate more than half of their story through the powerful, wide-ranging drawings catalogued in The Secrets of Life and Death. Jaime Hernandez is taking a lifetime to create The Great American Graphic Novel, and if you’re lucky, you’ll outlive him. That way, you get to see how it ends.


2009’s Best Graphic Novels

Yeah, yeah, the Internet is killing the printed page. But four-color inks may yet rescue publishing from the gray dawn of Kindle-dom.

2009 found Orpheus and gangsters plunging into the underworld, cartoonist Herblock exploring political sewers, and Nell Brinkley climbing to the heights of the illustration game.

These three historical collections and such current hits as DC’s Wednesday Comics can be found in this year’s edition of R.C. Baker’s annual roundup of comics and graphic novels.


2009’s Best Comics and Graphic Novels

Yeah, yeah, the Internet is killing the printed page—it was in all the papers. But four-color inks may yet rescue publishing from the gray dawn of Kindle-dom.

Exhibit A: Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter (IDW, 144 pp., $24.99), adapted from the novel by Donald Westlake (a/k/a Richard Stark). Handsome antihero Parker—betrayed by a fellow thief—is more cauterized than hard-boiled, threatening hookers and blasting holes in crime bosses with the aplomb of Mad Men‘s Don Draper lighting a cigarette. Cooke brilliantly captures New York’s early-’60s skyline, fashions, and cars, integrating cool gradations against black brushwork as smoothly as a jazz soundtrack.

Delving deeper into the underworld, Dino Buzzati’s astonishing 1969 Poem Strip casts a rock star in Milan as Orpheus (NYRB, translated into English for the first time by Marina Harss, 224 pp., $14.95). To soothe the dead, “Orfi” sings of “when the autumnal sorcerers trail their long dark shadows through the gardens of joy” while searching for his girl across a limbo resembling one of de Chirico’s metaphysical plazas. Buzzati (1906–72) melded his swinging drawings of witches and urbane Milanese to a prose poem that embraces civilization’s divine contradictions, a world in which “the nun on a pilgrimage glimpses a black sabbath in the forest.”

A lucid nightmare, Al Columbia’s dazzlingly well-drawn Pim & Francie (Fantagraphics, 240 pp., $28.99) features vignettes of its young protagonists menaced by creepy relatives or starring in exceedingly grim fairy tales. These inky visions seem unearthed from the deepest vaults of Uncle Walt’s id.

If Harry Potter is your cup of tea, avoid writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross’s The Unwritten (Vertigo, ongoing monthly, $2.99). The plot centers on Tom Taylor, the inspiration for his father’s insanely popular Tommy Taylor books about a boy wizard who battles world-destroying vampires. Dad disappeared long ago, bequeathing Tom nothing more than a weary regimen of book signings, which ends when a shadowy cabal manipulating world literature frames him for mass murder, sending this meta-lit romp into mordantly witty overdrive.

Ken Dahl confronts his herpes affliction through comically grotesque drawings and tongue-tied dialogue with prospective dates in Monsters (Secret Acres, 208 pp., $18). The virus itself grows into a large blob that mutters, “I’m just another lifeform trying to survive in this weird, fucked-up world.” Caldecott Medal–winning artist David Small shares this sentiment in Stitches (W.W. Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), which movingly recounts his bleak 1950s childhood with a closeted lesbian mom and pipe-smoking radiologist dad. Small’s often-wordless ink-wash panels shift between the smokestack pall of Detroit and brightly lit hospital corridors with graceful fluidity.

Upping the word count, Boom Studios’ Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (24 monthly issues, $3.99 each) includes the entire text of Philip K. Dick’s classic 1968 sci-fi novel. Does appending “he said gloomily” to an obviously glum character’s dialogue balloon negate the premise of graphic novels—that visuals can replace text? Maybe. But Tony Parker’s volumetric art fleshes out Dick’s wide swings between pulp verbiage and pithy insights (his electronic “Mood Organ” presages our current cornucopia of mood-altering pharmaceuticals). If you’re a fan of Blade Runner but have never read the source material, this experimental adaptation should be just the ticket.

Bertrand Russell’s struggle to reconcile philosophy and pacifism through the purity of numbers proves a surprisingly lively tale as told by writers Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou in Logicomix (Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $22.95). Artist Alecos Papadatos uses changing fashions and technological updates to propel the English mathematician’s bio from rigid Victorian upbringing through tortured personal relationships to his enduring humanistic legacy.

Anything but Victorian, Nell Brinkley (1886–1944) celebrated the Roaring ’20s with sinuous lines and colors as lurid as William Randolph Hearst’s presses could muster. Author Trina Robbins notes, in the lavishly oversize The Brinkley Girls (Fantagraphics, 136 pp., $29.99), that the illustrator “closely resembled the girls she drew.” But Brinkley, with her thrilling fantasias of pirate abductions and aviatrix romances, remains an inspiration beyond flapper flamboyance to any young lady seeking to break into the boys’ club of high-end illustration.

The 15 cliffhangers on huge broadsheet pages in each of DC’s weekly Wednesday Comics (12 issues, 16 pp., $3.99) featured franchise players Batman and Superman, of course. But it was Paul Pope’s trippy take on Adam Strange, replete with blue apes against op art backgrounds, and Kyle Baker’s slashing and comically arrogant Hawkman that proved it’s often secondary heroes who are ripest for artistic extravagance.

Political cartoonist Herbert Block’s career spanned 13 presidencies bookended by two lemons—Hoover in 1929 and W. in 2001. Herblock (W.W. Norton, 304 pp. plus DVD, $35) features more than 18,000 cartoons that skewer demagogues (Joe McCarthy with his tar brush), hypocrites (Nixon hides behind an American flag labeled “National Security Blanket”), and ineffectual leaders (Jimmy Carter pounds the Oval Office desk, demanding, “Who’s in charge here?”).

Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza (Metropolitan, 416 pp., $29.95) also traverses contentious history, combining archival research with frayed memories to piece together a half-century-old tale of Israeli soldiers massacring Palestinians. One survivor, an old man now, says, “At that time I didn’t deserve to be shot. But now I deserve it.” Sacco draws him with a grin that captures the brutal merry-go-round of killing and revenge that forever blights the Holy Land.

In Studs Terkel’s Working (The New Press, 224 pp., $22.95), various artists and writers adapt parts of the Pulitzer-winning author’s most enduring book, originally published in 1974. Lance Tooks’s layers of Zip-a-tone add jazzy panache to an interview with saxophonist Bud Freeman, and Ryan Inzana’s rough inks lend hardscrabble texture to Harvey Pekar’s take on “Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger.”

Studs would have appreciated the pathos of Craig Yoe’s scoop in Secret Identity (Abrams, 160 pp., $24.95). Artist Joe Shuster, with writer Jerry Siegel, created Superman in 1938, but the pair earned only piecework rates for their efforts, eventually losing control of their lucrative creation and falling on hard times. A few years ago, Yoe stumbled across some bondage comics from the ’50s, whose brawny men and bent-over buxom babes resembled Superman and Lois Lane. And wasn’t that Jimmy Olsen pushing reefer? Never the subtlest artist, Shuster—whether desperate for cash or indulging an unsuspected dark side—proved incapable of concealing his style in these anonymous porn pamphlets, which the Supreme Court eventually deemed obscene.

Comics. Good work when you can get it.