Lynda Barry’s What It Is.
In the comic book world, everyone is offering up their list of the best book of 2008. My own list is necessarily partial and personal, and there are some books that look great which I haven’t read yet, like the new issue of Kramer’s Ergot. But with all these provisos in mind, my list would include:
What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn and Quarterly). A book about creativity which is also an outburst of creativity: an organic, breathing book, as thick with life as a jungle. Many of the pages do have a jungle-like feel thanks to Barry’s collage method (pasting her art on old school projects done decades ago by school kids) and her tropism for bright colors. Instructive yet completely free of any lecturing tone of superiority, Barry teaches us that art is play, that play is an essential part of mental health, that we all have multiple personalities, and that memories are living things within us. Bringing all the threads together we can say: Creativity is mentally healthy play that brings to the surfaces the personalities and memories that live within us.
Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon). Two books in one: the first half is a memoir by Spiegelman of his youth and early career, how he encountered comics as a kid and fell into the underground movement; the second half a reprinting of Spiegelman’s best comics from the 1970s, mostly done in an experimental and formalist mode. The two sections are tightly linked: the memoir is not just a story of personal growth but also a deeply theoretical reflection on the link between comics and childhood, memory and creativity (in ways that echo Lynda Barry’s ideas). The formalist comics have been hugely, although quietly influential, teaching a generation of cartoonist the pleasures of dismantling the inherited forms (word balloons, panels) and putting them together in new ways. Without Spiegelman’s formalist forays, it’s hard to imagine the careers of Richard McGuire or Chris Ware. There is also a hidden cord that ties Spiegelman with Alan Moore: Spiegelman’s turned the comics page into a tightly packed puzzle, so that the true meaning of strip involves paying attention to every panel and connecting the dots. Moore popularized this method in Watchmen, just as Dashiell Hammett found a mass market use for the the manly terseness of Hemingway.
Love and Rockets, volume 3, #1 by Gilbert, Jaime and Mario Hernandez (Fantagraphics). A new iteration of a venerable title. The highlight is Jaime’s appropriation of the superhero genre for a fable about mother-love gone awry. At first the story reads like a light-hearted, affectionate spoof but, as always with Jaime, there are rockets are just a drawing card to invite us into a tale about love, in this case love gone bad as a mother’s vanity endangers her children’s future. In a parallel move, Gilbert (one one occasion working with Mario) also appropriate old cultural forms (the comic patter of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis buddy comedies, stereotypical images of Latin Americans) but infuses them with bracing, ironic wit.
Deitch’s Pictorama by Kim, Seth and Simon Deitch (Fantagraphics). At an age when most of us are ready to retire, Kim Deitch is still experimenting. Working in various combinations with his brothers Simon and Seth, Kim is experimenting with a new way of mixing words and stories: half way between the illustrated fiction of the 19th century and modern comics. Most of the stories have a tall tale quality, like listening to a practiced yarn-spinner at a bar who mixes personal recollection with fabulous invention. The highlight of the issue is Kim’s solo work “The Sunshine Girl”, a rambling account of compulsive collecting verging into madness.
Gary Panter by Gary Panter (Picturebox). Not a comic book or graphic novel but a career overview of one of the world’s greatest cartoonists who is also a designer, painter and all round visual arts genius. To see so much of Panter’s work in one place is to be reminded of his staggering fecundity. A mixture of Picasso and Jack Kirby, Panter is always inventing not just new styles and new ways of looking at the world but entire new worlds, each with its own internal rules and organic solidity. Panter again and again shows that the primal and simple is not banal, that simplicity can be as various as the world itself. Virtually every interesting cartoonist in the world today is a disciple of Panter, drawing courage from Panter’s relentless inventiveness.
Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware (self-published). Here I’ll defer to my friend Seth, who wrote a strong statement about this work for the Globe and Mail. Seth wrote:
Though this small oblong hardcover is in fact a periodical of sorts, and does contain a serialized segment of a much longer work in progress, do not allow these facts to prevent you from purchasing it. The story within its covers is entirely self-contained and fully satisfying as a complete work. If the number 19 were not displayed on the spine you would have no idea whatsoever that this is but a small section in a grand work to come. And a remarkable work it is.
The “graphic novel” is broken into two parts. In one half we observe William “Woody” Brown, a failed science-fiction writer/high school English teacher as he reflects back on a disastrous first love that has shaped (or perhaps misshaped) his entire adult life. In the other half of the story, we read Woody’s first science fiction novella, The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars. The two halves mirror each other and produce a work of remarkable complexity and emotional impact. A work about time and memory and how the past never really vanishes and how we are shaped by hurt. Ware also pulls off a very difficult stunt: He lets us know that Woody has written a excellent and well received science fiction story and then he has the bravado to produce that story for us to read – and yes, it is terrific.
As with all of Ware’s works, the book is exquisite in its design, its drawing and its production. The real genius is in the storytelling techniques Ware uses – breaking every action down to its smallest gesture – revealing the subtle power of the comics medium in the hands of a master cartoonist. This is, hands down, the best “comic book” you will read this year. I think it might simply be the best book, period.