Jillian Tamaki

[Originally collected as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I don’t know that I can say anything about Tamaki that hasn’t said better by others. Her rhythm is perfect, her characters are emotive, her approach is flexible, and, well, she’s really really good. Read all about it:

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George Herriman

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

It seems like there’s recently been a large and important uptick in comics that intentionally and forcefully reject the idea of narrative. See, for instance, Kim Jooha’s blog or the “surreal” section of CBLOM (a section heading that I’m not entirely happy with). Non-narrative comics—comics as abstraction, as poetry, as mix tape, and more—make great strides in breaking down the ghetto of comics as a home for genre fiction and memoir.

George Herriman was an early pioneer in tossing narrative verisimilitude out the window. Krazy and Ignatz literally grew out of a previous strip, moving from the basement of a sitcom house into a strip of their own. Editors initially deemed it as unfit for comics sections, so editor William Randolph Hearst put it in his Art & Drama section, giving Herriman a lifetime contract.

It’s a tale as old as time: nonbinary Krazy, a cat, is in love with Ignatz, a mouse. Ignatz seeks to bean Krazy with a brick, which Krazy reads as a “missile of affection.” Ofissa Bull Pupp, a police dog, wants to keep Krazy safe, perhaps out of duty or perhaps out of love.

Across almost 30 years of shifting formats and shapes, the strip iterated around these three like a jazz ballet, developing the mythological symbolism of Coconino County and its dozens of inhabitants. From panel to panel, backgrounds shifted and switched: night became day, urbanity turns to desert, and sun shifts to moon shaped like a dollop of ice cream. Nonsequiter panels sat obstinately in the center of Sunday spreads, and characters spoke in thick regionalisms (maybe descended from Herriman’s Creole heritage); it’s almost as though Krazy Kat defied readability, aiming instead for a state of graceful rhythm.

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Cathy G Johnson

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Johnson’s smeary graphite comics echo with the act of recall, with an attempt to see a thing despite intervening time, emotion, and means. Gorgeous, her (I think) longest work to date, seems to set up a typical white punk’s coming-of-age story before swerving, figuratively and literally, into a heart-breaking examination of privilege and future-making. It’s a delicate, concise story about youth and an important step away from self-important dude comics.

Johnson’s not just a cartoonist, though; she’s also an educator. Check out Drawing a Dialogue, a podcast she cohosts that is “scholarship-driven and student-centered, discussing comics as an artistic medium and educational tool.”

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Stan Sakai

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Sakai’s been making Usagi Yojimbo on a near-monthly basis since 1984. I’ve read them all, and it remains one of my favorite long-form comic narrative. Usagi is a Medieval Japanese samurai story with the occasional fantasy element. Sakai does heavy research to accurately portray everyday life, from how soy sauce gets made to what ceremonies people perform. It’s also a rollicking adventure, an reiterative travel story, and a slow-burn cultural apocalypse. Oh, and everyone’s an anthropomorphic animal.

But what’s most impressive is Sakai’s consistent clarity. It’s always perfectly clear what’s happening in a panel, but it’s in no way plain; his inks are textured and emotive, and his characters have layers that emerge naturally and slowly. It’s been amazing to see his skill develop across over 200 issues, and I’m always excited when a new single issue rolls in.

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From Usage Yojimbo #150.

Big Comics

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

While publishing formats and sizes have small effects on prose, they’re a vital, formal component of comic books. The size and shape of pages helps define the pace and style of a book, and changing formats can have a dramatic effect on the content. This is just a long way of saying, though, that really big comics are really cool. They can be packed with small panels, creating a cubist or rapid-fire feeling of perspective. Or the art can stretch across bigger-than-letter-sized pages, creating a dazzling sense of scope. They can overwhelm, showing literally more than the eye can take in at a glance. Open one up, set it on the floor, lay down, and have a read.

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Fun for the whole stock-photo family.

In the library (a sampling):
Big Numbers by Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz
Little Nemo in Slumberland by Windsor McKay
Schizo #4 by Ivan Brunetti
At the End of an Action Movie by Will Dinski
Baba Yaga and the Wolf by Tin Can Forest
God and the Devil at War in the Garden by Anders Nilsen

2dcloud

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

The first draft of this list had a lot of books and cartoonists that didn’t quite make it to this version. Part of that slimming down was realizing that nearly a dozen of the entries came from one publisher: 2dcloud. Despite being a legitimately small press (editors past-and-present Raighne Hogan, Kim Jooha, Maggie Umber, and Justin Skarhus and an additional staff of two? maybe?), 2dcloud publishes a truly impressive range of genres and formats: humor, horror, sci-fi, poetry, non-narrative, hardcovers, minicomics, and everything in between. And in a time when indie publishers often resort to backwards racism and misogyny to cast themselves as edgy or challenging, 2dcloud is honestly pushing the boundaries of what comics can look like while centering artists that much of the comics community ignores. I learn more from reading 2dcloud than I do from any other publisher.

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From Out of Hollow Water by Archie Bongiovanni

 In the library (a sampling):
Rudy by Mark Connery
Out of Hollow Water by Archie Bongiovanni
Yours by Margot Ferrick
Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt
Architecture of an Atom by Juliacks
Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber
Turning Japanese by MariNaomi

Kahn, Berger & Bond

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Jenette Kahn, Karen Berger & Shelly Bond
It’s very easy to give credit to people like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison for bringing literary and punk sensibilities to American genre comics. But that vital injection of “mature” stories can be directly traced to three women working at DC comics in the late ’80s. Kahn (president and later editor-in-chief), Berger (executive editor of Vertigo), and Bond (executive editor and vice president after Berger) diversified American comics, both on the shelves and behind the scenes. Horror and fantasy comics surged onto the shelves via Vertigo, and women and people of color started helming their own stories; Milestone Media, a coalition of African-American cartoonists, was published by DC under Kahn. These three deserve just as much credit as the comic-makers they hired—for the literary market and the world at large, they changed the perception of what comics could be and who could make them. (Want more info? Check out the She Makes Comics documentary on Netflix now.)

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Karen Berger taking over House of Mystery.

Kyle Baker

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

It’s always interesting to see an artist’s rate of change over time; will they adopt new styles or tools as they get older? Will they settle into a set of tics? Kyle Baker, a model of flexibility ever since his time as a Marvel inker, is always experimenting: pure linework, airbrush, computer modeling; superheroes, sitcom, humor, bloody history. But he retains an essential rhythm and clarity of expression that marks all of his work.

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From Nat Turner

Erik Nebel

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I originally found Nebel’s work on Tumblr. (Is it too early to say RIP to Tumblr?) Their linework is open and clear, the colors are bright, and the characters seem to have stepped out of their own unique ecology. While the comics are superficially childlike (or maybe childrens-book-like), they seem to explore things like sex, illness, dysmorphia, and death; the creatures are constantly joining, changing, being consumed and extruded and shaped by external forces. And it all happens without any text.

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Escapism & Comics

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

My reading habits have been sporadic and random lately. I’m like a springtime forager just eating whatever blooms and stalks I see after a winter of being too busy to choose my reading carefully.

51XgN9rx7FL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud(Harper, 2008)

Zot! is the comic that probably put Scott McCloud, famed comics scholar, on the national map. It was his longest fictional work, and it was completed as he was starting Understanding Comics, the first of his books about comics as an artform.

I confess to an inflated expectation, then, in regards to McCloud’s formative work—would it employ all of the formal tactics he codified in his critical writings?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Zot! has great pacing and playful structuring, often breaking the narrative into interesting slices of time and point of view:

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Unfortunately, the story that these tricks serve vacillates between bland and melodramatic. It follows teen science hero Zot, paragon of a parallel Earth, and his romance with pessimistic Jenny, stuck in our humdrum world. Her negative outlook is only exacerbated by knowledge of Zot’s fantastic utopia, and the tension in their relationship comes from her desire to escape her everyday life and Zot’s insistence that any world, any culture, is beautiful and worth saving. It’s a good starting point, but it often boils down to Jenny yelling or weeping while Zot looks on stoically. His childish naiveté fits his character, but it also means that no one really tells Jenny why leaving the less lucky of her world for the fantastic sci-fi life would be a gross exercise of her privilege.

McCloud himself notes that some of his morals come off a little heavy-handed, comparing them to afterschool specials. This sentiment is coupled with a dismissive attitude toward the superhero aspects of the story, namely Zot and his super-science. However, the exceptionally melodramatic aspects of the series only get worse as Zot’s world is phased out and McCloud focuses on the everyday.

It turns out that when a kid is flying around with a laser gun and rocket boots, it’s easier to mythologize the story—since there are aspects that readers know aren’t real, it can be fun to draw parallels and assign allegories to the cast and the story. When McCloud decided to take things in a “literary” direction, his characters and dialogue began to crumble under the weight of the issues he was tackling. Maybe the problem lies in writing toward those said issues—crime, coming out, divorce—instead of focusing on the characters.

descender_coverDescender: Tin Stars by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (Image Comics, 2015)

As a standalone volume, Tin Stars wasn’t great. It introduces a futuristic sci-fi galaxy that hates robots after a mysterious mechanical attack. One of the last robots, a boy-shaped droid named Tim-21 who was made for friendship, might have connections to the event that kicked off the robot genocide. He and his dog-bot, then, are on the run from two factions in the galactic government. Who will catch him? Are their intentions what they seem? And what is Tim-21’s link to the giant robots that have irrevocably damaged galactic culture?

By the end of Tin Stars, I found myself not really caring about the answers to these questions. Nearly all of the characters felt like bland stereotypes: the naive artificial boy looking for his human friend, the cute animal sidekick, the soldier woman with something to prove, the deadly thug with a heart of gold, the pig-like villains with no morals—it felt like an outline for a summer blockbuster. It didn’t help that the book was riddled with typos, from misspelling characters’ names to freely swapping out exclamation points and question marks.

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Future volumes might develop these characters more. Indeed, the one character who gets an extended flashback, Dr Quon, becomes an interesting, flawed, and driven guy once his secrets are exposed. I’m just not sure I’m ready to wade through the typos and stereotypical dialogue to reach that point.

It’s too bad, too, because the art by Dustin Nguyen is beautiful. He makes even the most cluttered pages readable, and he uses spare brushstrokes that convey a surprising amount of information. His designs and facial expressions do a lot of the heavy lifting in the character development department.

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The story reads fast enough that a collection of 10 or 12 issues wouldn’t have been intimidating. If the characters get some development in the next few chapters, I’d have happily kept reading. Are these things considered by collection editors?

autumnlands_coverThe Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw by Kurt Busiek, Ben Dewey, and Jordie Bellaire (Image Comics, 2015)

All I knew about this comic going in was that it was about animal people. On that level, it did not disappoint. In fact, the book did not disappoint at any level.

Despite having a cast of dozens, Busiek and Dewey use an inseparable combination of character design (animal choice, clothing, posture) and dialogue to establish personality and motivation quickly and firmly. The world—a place of dying magic, floating cities, and aristocracy and oppression—is explained at a natural pace.

Some fantasy and sci-fi can feel like being led through a museum of the creators’ ideas; their worlds are static, relayed through bursts of exposition. This is not the case with Autumnlands. These toys aren’t precious to their owners, and they’re freely deconstructed, deposed, and disposed of. There’s a central conceit to the story—a sci-fi twist to the Wizards of Redwall status quo that I hesitate to spoil—is almost just set dressing for the drama and politics of the rest of the book.

Dewey’s art is slick and clear with lush ink work, and it’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning Jordie Bellaire’s color. There are a lot of sepias and earth tones, but it’s far from muddy; Dewey’s sharp lines keep things clear, and Bellaire uses splashes of bright color for the rich clothing, magic spells, and (spoiler warning) blood.

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