I say “Very Good” instead of “Best” or “Favorite” because I think it’s a little fairer maybe. Also I’ve seen other people doing that, and I want to be part of that crowd. The Doing-That crowd. Although for sure these would definitely be on a favorites or best-of list for me, but I didn’t read a lot of the really amazing comics that came out in 2010. I still haven’t read X’ed Out, and I’m only now rereading Acme Novelty Library #16 so I can remember what happened before I read 17.. which came out what? in 2007? Heck, I JUST read Gabrielle Bell’s amazing Cecil And Jordan In New York, which I bought when it came out two years ago but only just read last week. I’m slow!
But when thinking about the last year of comics, these are three that stick out in my mind, not only as comics that I enjoyed reading, but comics that made my brain hum while reading them, that stayed with me for weeks after reading them. These were three comics that for me functioned not only as comics, but as literature: they were edifying, you know what I mean? Anyway. You can click on the larger images below to view those pages at biggie-size, if’n you like.
I’ll do Lose first and get it out of the way–2010 was The Year Of The Deforge, and he has been lauded from much better-informed and better-spoken people than me this year. But there’s just something about the guy! It’s not so much that his comics are so great–although they certainly are–it’s more that his approach is so different. If comics are a visual medium, Michael employs it 100%, creating comics that are evocative as they are illustrative.
And when I say “evocative,” I mean it: Michael creates a visual world that is pulsing and sweaty and weird. He sets cartoonish figures against obsessively detailed abstractions of texture, usually wet texture. There’s a tension between the two, the simple and the manic, that animates his comics even when they veer into areas which–at least for me–might be more dark or inscrutable than I might normally be interested in. You’re forced to consider everything on the page as a system of verbs: they’re all dripping, sweating, bleeding, seething with blood, mucus, or worse.
And best of all, with Michael’s comics–not only Lose but with his other work, including the new Spotting Deer book–you get the sense that you’re not only looking at something an artist made, but something which is a part of them. It feels like you’re watching Michael Deforge work it out right on the page, except with a level of polish and craft that adds real depth, the kind of depth usually absent from comics of this kind. And for me, a level of depth that invites immersion into subject matter that might not otherwise have been interesting to me; but because of being pulled in I feel like my (continuing) absorption of the book is a part of the book itself.
I read David King’s Lemon Styles not long after Lose #1 & 2, and while the two don’t share many stylistic differences, they’ve stuck together in my mind ever since. David and Michael do a similar thing, using the visual tropes and language of comics to create work built as much on impression as anything else. Whereas Michael’s are like obsessively illustrated metaphors, David’s strips in Lemon Styles strike me more as short poems. There is always a push and pull, whether between David’s classic, warm cartooning style and the relative cold vapidity of his characters; or between those characters’ stodgy old-timey clothes, draped across stubby child-like bodies, with their confused, dopey faces; or–I could go on. For quite a while.
I’ve probably thought about David’s comics more this year than any others–there’s something he’s put together here that is far, far larger than the sum of its parts. He takes these silly-putty characters, which look like extras from Our Gang grown up by about five years and dressed in their fathers’ clothes, and plunks them down in the middle of richly drawn backgrounds, rarely with any obvious connection between the situation and its setting. The world of David’s comics is warm, there’s a real beauty in it, but the people in it are too cold to ever notice–they’re too distracted by themselves to notice anything around them. The farther out we are from the figures, the simpler they become, the less real, the more the dissociation between figure and field becomes obvious.
Part of what makes comics, you know, comics, is the computational element, the idea of “closure” that Scott McCloud talks about. As you read, your mind shuffles together ideas into something it can make sense of, not only word and image, but image and image–because of the narrative sequence of images, your mind absorbs things and makes judgments and decisions under the surface that you might never make looking at a still image. The pleasure of reading David King’s comics for me is feeling the effects of those secret decisions long after the book is closed and put back on the shelf.
If Lose and Lemon Styles were exciting for their use of comics’ visual and cognitive powers, then How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less was exciting as pure intellectual musing. The Israel/Palestine conflict is like a cancerous tumor that people just seem to accept as “one of those things.” It’s easy for me to pontificate about, speaking as some dude who grew up North Carolina, was raised Baptist and got most of a high school education. From my perspective, it seems very much like an apartheid state. Every time Israel is mentioned on the news, it sounds like a distilled version of American preemptive attack policies. And the settlements! Whoa nellie, the settlements! It’s easy to see the continued building of settlements in contested territories as a thumb-in-the-eye of the idea of any lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
But Sarah is different from me–she grew up in a Jewish household; even without being deeply religious, she still has Israel in her DNA, the home for a people who’ve been scattered across the world for the last couple thousand years. When she goes on a birthright trip to Israel–essentially a sort of state-sponsored pilgrimage that Jewish people may take–she’s deeply ambivalent about Israel’s actions at first, and scoff throughout the early portions of the book at some of the more obvious attempts by her tour guides to cast a positive light on things. But Sarah is unsure enough about what she really thinks that the book starts with more questions than answers. In her words:
“What went wrong over there? And why aren’t there any answers without bias? Objective sources are very hard to find… I had alienated friends with my obsession, ignored important things in my life, and somehow knew less than when I started.”
For me, Sarah’s sort of stern disapproval, married with a real interest in the facts-on-the-ground, turned How To Understand Israel… from a polemic into something of real value. As she moves through the country, confronted with a simultaneous sense of familiarity and alienness, we move with her. If there’s a problem with autobiographical storytelling–including and especially my own–it’s that you’re usually telling more than showing. “This happened to me, I was this old and looked like this, I wore a cast for 3 months.” You’re sort of given a set of ideas, a group of feelings, in the course of some story. But Sarah’s wrestling with Israel, its place in her life and culture and identity, and her ideas about the comparative rightness or wrongness of the country’s actions–the way the question is left open creates a door for the reader to enter through. I felt like I was trying on different ideas like pairs of pants, using the construct of Sarah-as-character to peer out at the story from inside it. Sarah’s confusion as a character, and the simple character designs of her figures, allow us to step into their places and breathe real and personal life into someone else’s story.
Spoiler alert: Sarah doesn’t fix the problem at the end of the book. I’m not sure she came away from it with a firm idea of where she stood, either. And on some level that bothered me, just in terms of liking stories with some level of resolution. A part of me really wanted there to be a choice. But then again, real life isn’t that simple. And taking an ideological position might have left me out of that resolution, as opposed to thinking about the book for weeks after finishing it.
What I love best in comics–or any art, really–is to be prodded, affected; to carry the work in my mind long after reading or seeing or experiencing it. Both as a member of the audience and as an artist, I want to feel the ripples of the ship’s wake long after the ship is gone from view.