Rock music, science fiction, and comic books were the cultural aliens and rocket ships of the 1950s -- fantasies created out of paranoia and power, all about the ‘different’ and ‘the future’ -- and all creatively evolved out of pulpy origins into addictions for transcendence by every day people. Not just fans; but soon, fandom would be the world, and the world itself would become as dependent on identifiably-personalized creative expression as on eat-sleep-shelter. These worlds were all raised as mushroom-heads of the same cultural cow-pie in the consumerist bunker. If you’re a post-punk fan, you might see the connections between songs on Joy Division’s Closer and the works of J.G. Ballard; if you’re into SF, the fragmented Utopian dreams of chopped up, maverick chill-wave make perfect sense musically; and if you’re into comics these days, you probably know what was going on on Lost long before your average television viewer. It all ties in. Don’t stop the madness!
2010, a perfect year for discussing using nostalgia as a pup tent for covering the current alchemy of the past’s dreamed debris, saw the publication of graphic novels and comic art books that shook up as much as any sounds from any genre. And these days they aren’t created for niches; they create that wind up and entwine organically with the energies of the mainstream. Whatever that is.
Here’s a top ten list of those well-written, superbly illustrated books for 2010:
King Of The Flies: 2. The Origin Of The World by Pascel Mezzo and Michel Pirus (Fantagraphics). This is the second volume in a three-book series on the creepy doings of a Twin Peaks-like small city seriously doped and boozed, thrashed by random violence and impulsive sexuality, the old deforming the desires of the young, and unfulfilled ghosts melt through everyday lives. It’s set in the French authors’ Europe but it could be Spokane, WA. It’s where a guy named Eric who tends to wear a big fly-head mask from a Halloween party costume set at the beginning of the first book, a party where he screwed the girlfriend of a friend who gets beaten and then killed nearby, listens to psychedelic music and makes love with other people’s lovers, gets punched out regularly, and creates Oedipal tragedy at the drop of some stolen pills. It is a multi-leveled, wide expanse of delicate things falling apart and souls keeping it together somehow, full of despised fathers, lecherous wives, ritual killings of magnetic personalities in the community, victims becoming sadists, bullies magnifying their insecurities into crime sprees, young waitresses screwing artists in staff rooms, the sweet but tormented Marie, the punk-spirited Sal, and a whole bunch of other sexy, damaged, freaky people. That you somehow care deeply for, even if they can’t help but hurt themselves, stalk each other, and screw with the universe itself. Not only is it one of my favorite graphic novels of the year (and just this installment; feel free to start with the first one, Hallorave (Vol. 1), and don’t miss it when the series wraps up next year with the third installment. Recommended If You Like: David Cronenberg, Charles Burns, David Lynch, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel, Barry Adamson, Swans, Nina Hagen, Wavves.
AX Volume 1: A Collection of Alternative Manga, by various artists and edited by Sean Michael Wilson (Top Shelf). I am not a big fan of comics anthologies, usually, the random assortment of efforts by up and comers and hungry hacks tend to lack overall quality control. That’s why the distressing, invigorating, sometimes alarming, often wickedly wonderful Japanese transgressive Manga magazine AX is different. These are veterans, mostly, including the hypnotic weirdness of Yusaku Hanakuma (Tokyo Zombie), Shin’ichi Abe, Akino Kondoh, Kazuichi Hanawa, the heralded Yoshihiro Tatsumi (the essential A Drifting Life), and many others. AX has been a bi-monthly fix for mutant comix freaks for more than a decade, some of the biggest non-U.S. names in the now-largest comics industry. American indie publisher Top Shelf has done a remarkable job putting together a great way to sample these works which seem part of the same uncanny world as the horrors of H.P. Lovecraft and the berserk, surreal nationalism of Laibach.
Weathercraft: A Frank Comic by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics). Seattle-based artist (in every sense of the word) Jim Woodring started out like many in the underground comics scene, delineating the narratives of his nightmares and his own occasionally dark, synchronistic, falling apart personal life. I love those comics (mostly known as Jim) but am equally transfixed with the metaphysically intuitive lessons about elemental corruption and being trapped by the loops of desire in his stories in Frank (of which Weathercraft is a mighty fable) a Post-Dadaist mirror-world Hitler would say was beyond “spiritual madness.” Illustrative Ibogaine, Woodring’s own cartoon-streamlined use of false world-obliviating imagery makes God’s invention of time seem like a quaint abstraction. This book is as necessary as Genesis By Robert Crumb, the Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators, Philip K. Dick’s UBIK, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
ALEC: The Years Have Pants (A Life-Size Omnibus) by Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf). From the breathtakingly vivid collaborator-artist with Alan Moore on From Hell. No other cartoonist blends wry melancholy, aching autobiography, a keen sense of verisimilitude, and elegant craftsmanship like Campbell. This humongous now-in-trade-paperback tome of bittersweet longing blows away the adolescent subterfuge of books like Blankets; or, to be more fair, is the more adult realm Craig Thompson will no doubt be heading towards from here on in. You must own this if you are a memoirist in order to learn how to tell stories about your own life with restraint and finesse; and it is crucial for up and coming illustrators, even those into more general comics-art. This is the best buy on the list, super-thick as the mid-section of an aging urban hermit, just as Scotched-up and insouciant, with weeks-worth of layered metaphors to savor. As the “Alec” character morphs into Eddie himself, you become mesmerized by the aesthetic unveiling and find your own worldview changing. Fans of adult or avant Brit rockers the Divine Comedy and Pulp and Scott Walker, the humor of BBC’s Mighty Boosh, music business novels by John Niven (Kill Your Friends), would all love this.
The Weird World of Eerie Publications: Comic Gore That Warped Millions of Young Minds, edited by Mike Howlett, with an introduction by Stephen R. Bissette of Swamp Thing (Feral House). Eerie comics were the ones I always avoided as a kid. As Howlett, author/editor of this loving, colorful, ginormous ode to some incredibly strange and ugly comics points out in its expertly-scribed pages, Marvel had Stan Lee and a bunch of soap-opera starring superheroes you could feel cool, but not abnormal, about reading. Eerie comics and gruesome monsters, killers, freaks, and victims seemed part of another world, the basement or garage life of deranged uncles and petty criminals who you smoked weed with in the trailer court, but you wouldn’t spend the night at their house. I grew out of my EC Comics, vulgar twist ending phase when I was 19, and realized how dull the ironies of those cruel, barely-stories were. But Eerie took it all a step further into Cramps-level, outlandish perversion. If you love Mystery Science Theater, but more for the actual bizarre movies they make fun of than the silly sarcasm lamely pitched at them, buy this. Port Townsend-based publisher Feral House has put out the only collection of Eerie art you’ll ever need, and will probably be bought en masse by Danzig for his pals this Xmas (does Glenn celebrate Xmas? Hmmm.) Speaking of which ...
Henry & Glenn Forever by Igloo Tornado (Microcosm) is the funniest book on this list, and also the most affordable (six bucks for lots of yucks!), and if you have a punk or metal fan who needs a stocking stuffer, this brilliant work of half-cocked satire is perfectly pleasing. Mostly made up of one pagers and sight gags. Even those who just know how seriously Danzig and Henry Rollins can take themselves, and don’t LOVE “Twist of Cain” or “Police Story as much as I do, still giggle helplessly when they pick it up at my apartment. There are several, often sloppy contributors to it, and some unnecessary swipes at Hall & Oates being more evil than either of these guys, but that just adds to the joyous ego-popping. Prime satire of underground rock archetypes that deserves its own Adult Swim show.
Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics). Like Jim Woodring, Kelso is a once proud warrior of the underground mini-comix and zine scene (Girl Hero) has blossomed into a fabulous storyteller metaphorically handling issues a lot deeper than they appear in the gorgeous, simplified artwork. But Kelso’s work is more linear, if still appearing as alternate world fables. A fantastical study in a Civil War, this exquisite graphic novel shows how wide-spread political conflict tears at the very fibers of our families and ourselves, the loops of antagonism between loyalties cursing generation after generation. Like the very best indie pop/rock (Bright Eyes, the National), its mastery is in seeming transcendent but revealing immense pain beneath every battle and rejection.
Finally, my favorite autobiographical comics collection of the year, Drinking At The Movies by Julia Wertz (Three Rivers Press). She seems like a wonderful mash up of Al Burian, Allison Weiss, anything Jenn Ghetto does, Sarah Vowell, Cars Can Be Blue, and every bar-room doodler in a hoodie nursing a whiskey, but Wertz can sure shock you with some great life lessons in the middle of anecdotes about her junkie brother, OCD mother, living life broke and boozing, freelancing as if walking on eggs around so many fragile (yet powerful) egos, snogging a bit with a boy on the train, hunting down the right unhaunted apartment. Most KEXP listeners will truly identify with these stories, and love the big-eyed, big-hearted problem child Wertz draws herself as, trying to come to terms both with everyday failures and her own peculiar perfectionism. There’s redundancy here in the slacking jokes and a bit too much self-branding as a modest soul, but also a real sense of grace and love, and a desire for beyond-conformity growth. Soused side-careening the wide-scale ambitions of a lot of abstracted novels and hubristic comics, the admission that we all need desperately to find a place for ourselves, no matter how far outside the margins of mainstream society, makes this one of the best books of 2010.