A Look Back at 2018

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I told The Comics Journal that my top dozen of 2018 were:

  • The Prince and the Dressmaker, Jen Wang (First Second).
  • The Dragon Slayer, Jaime Hernandez (TOON Books).
  • On a Sunbeam, Tillie Walden (First Second).
  • Flocks, L. Nichols (Secret Acres).
  • From Lone Mountain, John Porcellino (Drawn and Quarterly).
  • Love & Rockets #4-6, Los Bros Hernandez (Fantagraphics).
  • Frontier #17, Lauren Weinstein (Youth in Decline).
  • Tongues #2, Anders Nilsen (No Miracles Press).
  • Young Frances, Hartley Lin (AdHouse).
  • Girl Town, Carolyn Novak (Top Shelf).
  • Poochytown, Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics).
  • Why Art?, Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics).

On my KinderComics blog, I added:

  • Be Prepared, Vera Brosgol (First Second)
  • The Cardboard Kingdom, Chad Sell et al. (Knopf/Random House)
  • Sabrina, Nick Drnaso (Drawn and Quarterly)
  • Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (Image)
  • Mister Miracle, Tom King and Mitch Gerads (DC)
  • They Say Blue, a picture book by Jillian Tamaki (Abrams).
  • We Are All Me, a picture book by Jordan Crane (TOON Books).

Since the New Year, I’ve read a number of other 2018 releases that have made a strong impression on me:

  • Chlorine Gardens, Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press). This was my second book by Keiler Roberts, my first being Sunburning, which I bought in Chicago during my trip to CSS 2018. It took me a bit to get into Roberts’s work. She writes deadpan and draws that way too, with a fragile, uninflected line. The drawing is at first unlovely, but telling. Her characters are naturalistic, not overtly cartooned, and their expressions muted and poses awkward or hesitant, almost stilted. Her backgrounds are sparse to nonexistent (though setting certainly matters to her) and her layouts are staid grids, typically two, four, or six panels. The pacing is subtle but can be unpredictable: at times she strings together one-pagers by theme or mood; at other times, seeming one-pagers turn out to be part of longer sequences. It all adds up, though, and the total impact of Chlorine Gardens is great. Behind the deadpan style is a wealth of observation and feeling. In short, this is a wonderful gathering of confessional domestic comics. It’s somewhere between a personal anthology and, underneath, a whole, complete story, one about facing medical enigmas and coping with yourself and your own limitations. Roberts testifies to a rich, sometimes daunting life, full of family, child, partner, parents, work, anxiety, and struggle. She takes her challenges from a humane, cockeyed perspective. Chlorine Gardens is moving because it’s funny, and vice versa. (Sunburning is great too.)
  • Captain Harlock: The Classic Collection Vol. 1, Leiji Matsumoto, translated by Zack Davisson (Seven Seas). One of the many books of manga gifted to me by my daughter Nami (an annual tradition). I’ve sort of known about this classic, late-seventies space opera for years, but to read it—wow. It’s nuts: a space pirate yarn in which the antiheroic but grand skipper, Harlock, seeks to defend the Earth against an alien invasion force in the form of eerily gorgeous women called the Mazons (get it?). Except they’re not really women, they’re plants. And maybe they’ve been on Earth all along? The plot seesaws crazily, as if Matsumoto was just finding his way into it as he went. Let’s go fight the Mazons in space! No, let’s return to Earth and guard the home front! Or, wait a minute, how about Venus? Et cetera. What a mess. And the politics—and, yow, the gender politics—are not reassuring. But its frequent stabs of odd humor, and its bids for poignancy, stay with me—and I love the way it moves like a startled snake. Great cartooning, in that Tezuka tradition: broad, wild, supercharged with feeling, and eminently readable. Kudos to Seven Seas for bringing out this translation.
  • Devilman: The Classic Collection Vol. 1, by Go Nagai, translated by Zack Davisson and Adrienne Beck (Seven Seas, again). Crazy, reprehensible, and breathlessly entertaining. Again, a gift from Nami, and again a story that’s whacked out. I’m no expert here, but Nagai’s early-seventies manga, which takes up much of this volume, is some kind of classic. It’s at once a moralistic yet lurid horror tale and a chip off the old superhero blueprint, what with an effete, mild-mannered type who becomes a studly, physically imposing asskicker on a mission. Oh, and he’s a demon too, one whose mission is to destroy other demons before they destroy humankind. Oh, and he has prehensile eyebrows. Nagai’s grotesque, often eroticized bodies are worth the price of admission; his “demons” are awful composites of humanoid, animal, and other forms. There’s plenty of bloodletting (i.e. ink-spraying) on the pages, and the overheated adolescent vibe is sweltering. From a bacchanalian black Sabbath to an overripe bathtub scene, Nagai does sublimated-sex-as-violence with all the subtlety of a rutting volcano. Indeed, his whole view of sexual relations seems unwholesome—but this is consistent with the take-it-on-a-dare strategy of so many manga franchises, with their dreamlike, extreme premises. I don’t know if I’ve read a superhero comic quite as demented as this—it’s vivid. Again, another coup for Seven Seas—though with one minor flaw: the inclusion, near book’s end, of spinoff stories from the late seventies that rely on a time-travel gimmick and appear formulaic and dull alongside the primo early-seventies stuff. Too bad—but still an essential manga translation. Every time I open it up, I get lost in the slashing lines and frantic spatters, and it’s like slipping back into a good bad dream.
  • Sky Masters of the Space Force: The Complete Sunday Strips in Color (1959-1960), comics by Jack Kirby, Wally Wood, the unrelated Dick and Dave Wood, and Dick Ayers; researched, restored, and recolored by Ferran Delgado (Amigo Comics). Sky Masters, Kirby’s Space Race-era strip, was an ambitious project that has sadly become a career footnote for just about everyone but Kirby and Wally Wood completists—even though it’s an essential part of Kirby’s story, one that helps explain how he ended up back at Martin Goodman’s company (now Marvel) freelancing by the end of the fifties. Not radical in content, Sky Masters was still a lovely continuity strip, and Kirby’s most sustained effort at hard SF. However, it fell prey to sour business dealings, a lawsuit, and, in the end, a disastrous collapse that shaped Kirby’s working life from then on. Spanish scholar Delgado has served up the loveliest of the several Sky Masters reprint projects, one that benefits from obsessive research, an oversized format, handsome recoloring (based on proofs and Kirby’s own color guides), and reproductions of original art and other artifacts of the strip’s production (again, wow, those color guides). There’s a lot of context here, a lot of material history, some speculation, and a necessary contextualizing essay up front by Kirby expert Jon B. Cooke. The strip itself is a time capsule, and wavers artistically as Wally Wood bails out of the inking and the cruder Dick Ayers take over—but it’s great to reread in this deluxe form. A reclamation and appreciation project of a very high standard, this volume is a must for Kirby scholars and fans—that’s the least I can say about it!
  • Charley’s War, The Definitive Collection, Vol. 3: Remembrance, written by Pat Mills, drawn by Joe Colquhoun (Rebellion). I bought this splendid book, part of Rebellion’s Treasury of British Comics imprint [please link imprint title to: treasuryofbritishcomics.com], at Emerald City Comics during a visit to Portland, Oregon last November. I don’t think they knew what they had. I’ve just now realized that the book was published in 2018. This is the third and final volume reprinting the Charley’s War serial (1979-1985) from the weekly Battle (I’m leaving off the post-Mills incarnation, 1985-1986). It covers roughly the final year of the war on the Western Front, from October 1917 to November 1918 (as well as part of the Russian Civil War in 1919). Foot soldier Charley Bourne, a working-class teen, goes from being an executioner to a stretcher bearer to a sniper, and so on, all in the slow, hellish grind of trench warfare. These are radicalized war comics in which ordinary soldiers, both British Tommies and German Jerries, are depicted as hapless sacrifices to imperial hubris, while the officer class comes off as parasitical, hypocritical, and often deranged in their embrace of empire and ideology. Mills’s rage against the war machine boils over in most of the strips: short, typically three-page episodes that pile surprise upon surprise, and absurdity upon absurdity. Charley’s War trumps the grimly fatalistic, morally ambivalent 1950s war comics of Harvey Kurtzman, while showing a similar passion for research, authenticity, and the precise depiction of gear and materiel. In fact, it gets close to (and slightly anticipated) the class-conscious rage of Jacques Tardi’s It Was the War of the Trenches. But Mills and Colquhoun, unlike either Kurtzman or Tardi, deal with a cast of distinct continuing characters, in cliffhanger serial form, and their characters are neither as helpless as Kurtzman’s (who wrote in the grip of a Stephen Crane-like naturalism) nor as interchangeable as Tardi’s. Despite the anti-war tone of the tales, Charley and some of his fellow soldiers get to exhibit, sometimes, real bravery and competence in the face of the war’s unending horror. At the same time, Mills and Colquhoun do not hesitate to depict private vendettas and even outright murder among the British troops, committed, it seems, with impunity. There is no piety about the dignity of service or the camaraderie of soldiers here—frequently, a soldier who betrays the trust of others gets a vicious comeuppance. This is great, tough storytelling, and Colquhoun’s art, though occasionally a bit clotted in the reproduction (probably unavoidable), is packed with telling detail and texture that bring the fields of war to vivid life. Indeed, this is a case of extraordinary narrative drawing in realistic, illustrative mode: an epic feat of engaged and intense draftsmanship. Essential, unforgettable work, here backed up with Mills’s retrospective commentary and in a careful, loving edition. Look for it!

I still have quite a few recommended and enticing titles from 2018 to read. Will I be able to do that before the time comes for “Best of 2019” lists?