While not quite a “year in review,” this two-part column looks at forty comics I read in the closing months of 2014, books that inspired some end-of-the-year reflection on “The State of American Comics,” present and past. These graphic novels, online comics, comic books, and comics tracts — a third of which appeared in 2014 — represent a range of genres: horror, memoir, religious, superhero, children’s, travel, propaganda, hate, and more. In some entries, I review the comic and in others I use it as an occasion to explore issues such as comics theory, critics vs. fans, feminism, narrative instability, “pop art,” and the “holistic interpretation” fallacy. I include my “2014’s Best” and wonder if we’re really living in, as everyone proclaims, a “New Golden Age of Comics.” (Part II will appear soon.)
Arsène Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics, 2014)
While reading this graphic novel, I kept thinking, “I can’t believe how smart Olivier Schrauwen is.” Every page reveals an eccentric and original cartooning mind at work. Much of the bizarre plot unfolds in a strangely familiar way, recalling the look of the omnipresent “how-to” instructional comic.
Schrauwen uses grids made from rounded rectangular panels, caption boxes filled with computer-generated type, fine-line drawings, and sparse compositions. But he gleefully dismantles this “how-to” aesthetic, instructing us in his sui generis vision of cartoon absurdism. The lettering randomly juts up and down and defies conventional spacing rules — in an anti-comics move, he un-bolds words for emphasis. He introduces odd shading patterns and the narrative unexpectedly explodes into beautifully rendered full-page images and other large-scale compositions — and many characters have heads but no faces. Schrauwen’s visual skill is complemented by his compelling narration, which recalls the erudite vocabulary and calculated distance of a Freudian case-study. Taken together, these artistic choices make for an oddly moving way to tell an uncanny story, an epic surrealist adventure in architectural modernity, European colonialism, social idealism, and sexual perversion. One of my “Three Best Books of 2014” — if not the best.
A Cat Named Tim and Other Stories by John Martz (Koyama Press, 2014)
This book is beautiful, intelligent, and heartwarming, with cute animal characters loveable for their unrelenting sense of adventure (except for that sedentary pig couple!). A masterpiece of graphic design, its stories effortlessly shift between clever comic-book-type layouts and expansive, airy children’s picture-book spreads, with an ever-changing mix of sparse and detailed scenes. And Martz’s coloring is perfect, with a soft palette that defines the narratives’ gentle tone. It’s the kind of children’s book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any grown-up, especially those who think they’ve outgrown kiddie lit. The “Year’s Best All-Ages Book.”
Who’s the Real Hater? (Jack T. Chick, 2014)
Leering up at me from a dank grotto in one of our decaying post offices was a bile-soaked booklet, known as a “Chick Tract.” A Christian propagandist, Jack T. Chick may be one of the world’s most widely disseminated living cartoonists: for decades, he’s been making “pure soul-winning” comics in over 100 languages that the faithful leave in post offices, laundromats, and bus stations so the lost may find them — and find Jesus. A long-time Chick fan, I was excited to see this new comic while mailing a Christmas present; I felt as if I’d been karmically blessed with a free gift. Adopting “the language of today,” Chick insists that he, and believers like him, are not haters, but lovers of humanity. Yet I couldn’t point to a body of comics that brims with anything near this much hell-fire-y condemnation and contempt. Perhaps it’s the cartoony hate that makes these little tracts so compelling. Why this should be the case, I’m not sure. The “Year’s Most Troubling All-Ages Book.”
Archie’s Sonshine (Spire Christian Comics, 1974)
This comic’s message recalls Chick’s “soul-winning” agenda, but couldn’t be expressed more differently. Drawn by Al Hartley in the “Archie House Style,” this book is appealing, fun, garish, and kind of offensive. While Hartley hides his hate, Chick seems more honest, drawing in a ‘cartoony grotesque’ that broadcasts his true feelings about humanity. Archie’s Sonshine deceptively diffuses its message through an all-American Riverdale wholesomeness, but don’t let the friendly veneer fool you: these comics are strange. The hip young Jesus surrogate (sporting an Archie anomaly: a beard) is drawn far more realistically than the Archie characters, creating a symbolical clash of styles in which the Realistic is the Heavenly.
Making it seem as if the comic can’t stop bible-thumping, the lettering is extra-large and the dialogue is boldly punctuated in a Trinitarian fashion, with three king-size exclamation points!!! (Chick and Spire form two-thirds of the Holy Trinity of Christian Comics; for the missing part, google the NSFW Flirty Fish comics, endorsers of “evangelical prostitution.”)
Boy Comics #17 (Lev Gleason, 1944)
Written by Charles Biro and likely drawn by Norman Maurer, the opening story in this comic features a wholesome boy hero named Crimebuster and a hideous, morally reprehensible pyromaniac named The Moth.
Convinced the Moth just killed his faithful monkey sidekick Squeeks, Crimebuster fills with homicidal rage: “I’ve never wanted to kill a man so much!” And I believe him. It’s a genuinely powerful moment, in part because it contrasts so starkly with the young boy’s cuteness and goodness. Why do so few current superhero comics surprise and affect me in the way that this kid’s comic does? Though dealing with the same moral themes as Crimebuster’s story, they often exhibit a limited visual and emotional range. Does this comic’s graphic minimalism give its emotions room to move? Does its simplicity amplify the primacy of its main character’s anger? Since the present’s art is so familiar, can strangeness only be found in the past?
The Cowl #6 (Image Comics, 2014)
In many ways, this issue looks back to the first “Golden Age” of comics (c. 1933-1956) and characters like Boy Comics’s Crimebuster: it tells an old-fashioned tale of a good kid who won’t play along with a corrupt world. Though a fun story, I couldn’t get beyond the computer lettering (a recurring problem with me), which clashed with the art’s mood and its attempt to evoke old comics (the pages are colored to resemble moldy, faded newsprint).
Arsène Schrauwen’s computer font works perfectly as part of its outré method; but, beholden to established genre tropes, The Cowl #6 fights a little with itself when it mixes old- and new-school. (I did buy #7, which looks completely unlike #6, so I’ll see what the creators are up to.)
Unknown Worlds #50 (ACG, 1966)
I’m often bored with the language in new mainstream comics and surprised by the writing in old ones, which can be anything from kitschy ridiculousness and persuasive noir prose, to edgy gangster jargon and earthy cowpoke rambles. The first story in this comic features a mad scientist who invents something called the Stromboli Resuscitator, a funny phrase that conjures up a device that breathes life into the classic Italian meat turnover, perhaps one that’s lingered in the fridge too long. In the story, a woman anxiously waits to see if a scientist can revivify her husband (alas, the scientist’s name is Stromboli and he revives people, not meat). I love the immediacy of the Richard Hughes prose that accompanies the Paul Reinman image of the wife sitting motionless:
I recognize that the writing is a little clichéd, but set against the picture, it works. The issue also includes a story drawn by Steve Ditko, inked by Sal Trapini, and written by Bob Standish that has this odd, funny (though not really in an ironic way) narration and image:
Iron Man #92 (Marvel, 1976)
Shortly after reading this comic, I couldn’t remember a thing about the plot. But the art’s a different story. Drawn by George Tuska in his Macho Marvel Mode and inked, in ways bold and feathery by Jack Abel, the images stay with me. I’ve flipped through the comic many times, impressed by its ability to transform ridiculous into cool. Serious Critics tell us that if we like a comic’s art and don’t care about its writing, then, by “failing to interpret an instantiation of the medium holistically,” we are bad, fan-ish readers, unworthy of the title “Critic.” Guilty. (Consider this: many of us believe that a pop song with lame lyrics can be still be great. It’s the same with pop comics: the overall effect can render a particular feature unimportant.)
Ghost Rider # 7 (Marvel, 1974)
As in Iron Man #92, Abel inks this issue. I’m beginning to think that he’s one of the best Marvel inkers. In the era’s comic-book credits, inkers were often labeled embellishers, a term that gives the pencil artist (who pencils the art that the inker inks) primary importance. And, generally, this makes sense. But thinking of what Abel does in these comics as embellishment also radically downplays, even distorts his role. For example, these pages feature a slick, strong black line that makes a potentially silly villain, a Jim Mooney-pencilled motorcycle-riding minotaur, genuinely fun to look at. I wanted to see what mischief he’d work next.
The coloring in current mainstream comic books often obscures the inker’s line, a complaint well expressed in the current issue of Kennan Marshall Keller and Tom Neely’s entertaining The Humans #3: they rant against colorists who “puke their muddy color palettes all over the art so bad you can’t see the inks on the page anymore.” Because of the simplicity and limitations of older production methods, ink lines generally look better — and play a greater artistic role — in older comics. (In 2013 I christened our era the “Mud Age of Comics,” but the term failed to catch on.)
The Libertarian by Nick Maandag (Pigeon Press, 2014)
I sometimes lament the fact that, while we’re apparently living through a “New Golden Age,” we still don’t see a lot of comics driven by great dialogue. Many cartoonist seem overinvested in the visual dimensions of their work and therefore neglect the verbal. Maandag, however, fills his word balloons with penetrating insights into our endless ability to deceive others and ourselves. His deadpan art (with some borderline surreal hatching effects) is perfect for satire, making words his comic’s star: he writes a lot of funny dialogue. Based on this book and 2014’s Facility Integrity (one of the best workplace satires I’ve read/seen), I crown Maandag “Comics Satirist of 2014.”
The Silver Surfer #10 and #18 (Marvel, 1969 and 1970)
It may be heresy, but I prefer the Silver Surfer as drawn by John Buscema (as in #10) rather than by Jack Kirby, the character’s creator (as in #18). Buscema’s sweeping, romantic style (especially when inked by Dan Adkins, as it is here) best expresses the Surfer’s lyrical nature.
The character is the paradigm of a Marvel type I call “The Titan of Endless Suffering.” (Marvel’s 1960-‘80s comics overflowed with this type, while those of their competition, DC, had far fewer — a reason that I, as a moody teen, dug Marvel more.) In Lee’s and Buscema’s hands, the Surfer descends from Lord Byron’s Manfred, an archetype of the brooding, aristocratic romantic male known as The Byronic Hero. Many consider this series some of Lee’s weakest 1960s work, but I disagree. His lofty dialogue perfectly captures the plight of a hyper-sensitive male with a troubled past who’s banished from his galactic home world and, unable to leave earth’s atmosphere, searches for meaning and purpose by trying to help us poor humans. In reality, he’s a semi-condescending, somewhat self-righteous elitist who likes the thought of being down with the people, but is forever disappointed by them and the cruel world they made. That’s kind of how I was back then, and perhaps still am.
Captain America #214 by Jack Kirby (Marvel, 1977)
A debate continually swirls around comics that Jack Kirby created after he and Stan Lee ended their collaboration: Are they any good? Participants in this debate often single out Kirby’s dialogue, with some claiming it’s great because it’s so odd and distinct, and other arguing it’s terrible because it’s so stiff and unrealistic. Look at some of the crazed lines in Captain America #214 and see what you think. Over seven consecutive panels, a handful of heroic characters under attack blurt out a series of food metaphors:
“That breaks the cookie jar!”
“Like a deep sea diver at the bottom of a bowl of tapioca pudding!”
“That souped-up cat’s going to give us a hard night!”
“At least you can live to beef about them!”
To me, this all seems pretty funny, and yet oddly clever/compelling. I’m not sure that other writers would be willing to push things this far. Was Kirby aware of this pattern? (Shortly after these lines, a character yells “Save the juice.”) Was Kirby unconsciously riffing on a conceit? Was he drawing on language he spoke when a child or when in the army? While the lines seem like goofy phrases more at home in a 1960s humor comic, paired with Kirby’s dynamically chunky art — close-ups of tense thick faces, dramatically posed bodies ready to lunge, claustrophobic panels — the effect is weirdly stylized.
It's as if Kirby, post-Lee, was on to some kind of almost “post-modern” notion of pastiche, in which all manner of things that shouldn’t go together are thrown on the page, making something singular (po-mo style, in the ’70s he started putting lots of words in quote marks when it seemed unnecessary). Another way to think about this: ’70s Kirby is to ’60s Kirby what Shaky Kane is to all Kirby. Yet, if you believe this issue of Captain America contains bad dialogue, I can also see why you’d think that.
Configurations by Aidan Koch (2014) (Read it here.)
I really like the wispy lyricism and bold ambiguity of this online comic. Do the individual short strips form some kind of overarching narrative? Are the strips themselves narrative? Can they be narrative and non-narrative at the same time? Does each strip’s title/and or text refer to something that’s experienced by the external poet/cartoonist of the strip (“Koch” or “not Koch”) or an internal narrator or character, even though she may not appear in all or any of the strips? Can we make our own story out of the series — or are we cognitively forced to “narrativize” any sequence of images? Theorists say we are, but this claim is accepted as a fact only because people keeping saying it over and over, failing to interrogate the assumptions behind it. Koch’s comics defeat theory in productive and moving ways.
Sirens #1 by George Perez (Boom, 2014)
When Neal Adams returned to DC and created Batman: Odyssey, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the comic. Many thought it a mess, which it was, yet it had ‘something,’ an uncontrolled sense that, if it didn’t quite make the book good, nevertheless made it interesting (the fact that I didn’t read all the issues means it ultimately didn’t make the grade). There’s something odd like this happening with Sirens. It’s as if Perez (a slightly younger peer of Adams) threw into a random story generator a dozen settings and time periods, a mix of genres (superhero, sci-fi, western, Arthurian romance/adventure), a large cast of characters with a few interstellar races, and dragons. The comic includes some odd gestures toward feminism, with a female-centric cast full of what people might call “strong women” in the main roles. Critics continually say “mainstream comics needs more strong female characters,” yet Sirens, like so much American fantasy, shows that the presence of powerful, independent women often has little to do with a feminist agenda. In this case, part of the problem stems from Perez’s art style, one that sits comfortably within the conventional male-fantasy mode, with large-breasted, spandex-clad women showing a lot of flesh — unsurprisingly, there’s also a naked bondage scene. Though there’s something thought-provoking about the comic’s eclecticism and ambition, there’s just too much going on, both in the plot and visually on every page. (I think Sirens should have been published in black and white and printed larger; this might have lessened the overload.)
OdY-C #1 by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward (Image, 2014)
This comic succeeds as a far more sophisticated and skillfully executed version of what Perez was trying to do in Sirens. Fraction takes Homer’s Odyssey, gives it a sci-fi setting, and provides his all-female cast with a Wonder Woman/Paradise Island-inspired back story. He develops his concepts more than most writers do, complicating this comic’s premise by creating a new gender and disrupting the book’s feminism, as his powerful women exploit weaker ones. I always appreciate Fraction’s creativity (and Ward’s art breathes in a way that Perez’s doesn’t), yet I rarely enjoy the way it plays out. I’m not sure why one would make another Odyssey, in which Homer is flipped 180 degrees and then a few more so it’s not too predictable. And yet, it still seems kind of formulaic to me, as if Fraction’s revisionist premise backs him into numerous corners. It might have been better to disguise the debt to Homer, rather than reboot another classic. As many have noted, we’re living though the era of sequels and reboots — perhaps I have an unfair bias against them. (I haven’t read #2 yet, but I’ll give it a shot.)
Team America #1 (Marvel, 1982)
Throughout comics’ Silver and Bronze Ages (c. 1956-1970, 1970-1985 respectively), a problem plagues Marvel and DC books: an overreliance on expository dialogue. I’m more than willing to buy into the belief that comic characters need to talk aloud to deliver necessary information — though why more info wasn’t put into third-person narration caption boxes, I’ll never quite understand (is it because speech is inherently more dramatic than narration?) Taking things a step further, in this comic writer Jim Shooter gives his characters some of the most over-the-top expository thoughts I’ve ever witnessed, such as “If I, El Lobo — the Wolf — were riding in this race . . . .” So, while thinking, he addresses himself and introduces himself to himself, pausing to translate his name and emphasize it!? If we’re going to redeem Shooter as a wrongly-maligned comic-book figure, we might want to address the problems posed by Team America #1 and tons of other questionable comic-book scripts.
Semper Fi’: Tales of the Marine Corps #1 and # 3 (Marvel, 1988)
Written by Michael Palladino, these straightforward and often gripping war stories rarely fall into the war-comics trap of glamorizing combat. They make a great vehicle for John Severin, an artist with an unpretentious style whose panels shine with detailed fine-line shading and hatching.
Issue #1 also features work by Sam Glanzman, a WWII veteran and underappreciated war-comic artist. There’s a problem, though, with a story in #3, one that gets at (à la Team America #1) a shortcoming in the era’s comics: they lack faith in their readers. In a short story drawn by Andy Kubert and inked by Severin, the editor constantly interrupts to remind readers that some of the dialogue is translated from Vietnamese, even though, because the same character talks each time, we can safely assume he’s not shifting between languages. All that’s needed is symbols around ˂the foreign language text˃ (a standard way to show non-English speech in English language comics), and then for the editor to explain what’s happening in a single caption box/note. It kind of ruins a story when the editor keeps jumping in to tell readers the same thing. Did he really think we couldn’t get it? In many ways, the history of mainstream comics is a history of editors underestimating readers.
Ponytail #11 (Dell, 1965)
An unsung hero of teen comics, cartoonist Lee Holley mastered a rubbery-head/skinny- torso/lanky-legs style of drawing indebted to Dennis the Menace cartoonist Hank Ketcham (whom he ”ghosted” for). Like most goofy teen-comics cartooning, Holley’s work is all about exaggerated gestures, whether they be a disapproving parent’s scrunchy-faced smirk, a young boy’s flailing arms, or a hotrod’s unnaturally bouncy, on-and-off-the-pavement ride. In many Ponytail stories, Holley works in the solo cartoonist fashion, generating the script, art, and the lettering, which is a key part of these comics’ charm — the shape of the dialogue’s words and of the sound effects are somehow funny.
Dennis the Menace in London (Fawcett, 1974)
The many Dennis the Menace travel comics are a treasure trove of lightly humorous stories accompanied by unusually attractive art. It’s weird to see Hank Ketcham’s loose style applied to all manner of iconic locations, in this case London’s Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, The Tower of London, and many others. (The comics were drawn by Frank Hill, a “ghost” artist imitating Ketcham.) The stories feature large panels filled with drawings that blend cartoony-ness and fidelity into an aesthetic that, to me, feels quite singular in the world of kids’ humor comics. And, as the image makes clear, the coloring is great. These comics should be collected and reprinted.
Ken Parille is editor of The Daniel Clowes Reader: A Critical Edition of Ghost World and Other Stories. He teaches at East Carolina University and his writing has appeared in The Best American Comics Criticism, The Believer, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Children's Literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, Comic Art, and Boston Review.