Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My Top 10 Comics [Storylines edition] -- # 1-5

So, I had a twitter discussion with Brad Gullickson (@MouthDork, co-host of the In the Mouth of Dorkness podcast: @ITMODcast) a few weeks back about “The Best Comics Ever” and how it’s always Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns at the top—kind of like Citizen Kane almost always topping the list of greatest films ever.  It’s hard to argue with not only the artistry and formalistic approach to both of these books but also the impact and influence these two books had, something that still hangs over the comic book landscape thirty years out.  It seems these two books, along with Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, are baked into the top 3 spots, all-time, for comic storytelling.  But do they need to be?  Might there be other works that have transcended the bounds of the field since then (or even prior to 1986)?  Possibly.  I think it would depend upon your criteria, since these lists are always subjective, in spite of any arguments to the contrary. 

Using this discussion as a jumping off point, I decided to come up with my personal top 10 comics.  Some of the guidelines I set for myself were to consider works other than those perennial top 3 (certainly, that introduced a bias against these books, but so be it; I doubt anyone’s going to forget about Watchmen & Dark Knight if I don’t list them here), to attempt not to repeat creators within these ten titles (otherwise, I could easily see Alan Moore flooding my list), and to weigh, heavily, how many times I have re-read these stories.  Also, for the most part, I worked to only include individual collections—whether an original graphic novel or a single storyline from a larger work—but you will notice I failed at that, in a couple of spots. 

You can check out the first post, covering numbers 6-10 +11, here.  The top 5 follow this rambling preamble.  And, hey, feel free to disagree with me and drop a note in the comments with your own top 10.  I’d be interested to see what others feel are the best of the best.  Thanks.

Pompeii, by Frank Santoro  

I was introduced to Santoro’s work at the 2007 MoCCA Festival in New York, with the initial four issues of the series he created with Ben Jones, Cold Heat.  (check out a spotlight & interview with Santoro, for that series, here).  A student of fine art as well as comics, Santoro utilizes a scaled back, contour line approach to his art that appears simple, on its surface, but is one that can more strongly engage an audience in the hands of a master, which, I feel, Santoro is.  As a writer/artist, he tends to craft quiet, emotional narratives that eschew over-rendering and over-writing, in order to get at the heart of the matter, and he does it magnificently.  Pompeii tells the story of an artist’s apprentice, Marcus, in this ancient city, during the couple of days leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius.  Weaving threads of his master’s romantic entanglements with Marcus’s questioning of his own relationship, this book works on numerous levels and rewards subsequent readings.  Not only do we have the mirroring of the master’s and apprentice’s story, but Santoro similarly crafts pages to accentuate this theme of mirroring, with facing pages often subtly inverting one another, through their layout and subject.  It’s a merging of art and story that is distinct and rare, in comics.  If you’ve never read anything by Santoro, then check this book out.  It’s amazing.

The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

Gaiman & McKean have crafted memorably elegant stories together, but Mr. Punch is, in my opinion, their most ambitious collaboration.  Weaving a story of childhood memories, lost in the fog of time, punctuated by the very British tale of Mr. Punch, these two artists created a book that is not only engaging and heartfelt, but also one that does not talk down to readers.  This is a book that does not tie every plot thread with a bow, and, in fact, revels in the murkiness of human memory, postulating various ideas of what “really happened,” as far as the main character’s recollection goes.  There are answers, buried deep within the narrative, but they may not be the right ones, and they probably aren’t the same ones your friend would take away from this book.  And that is worth your time, at the very least.  Plus, McKean is doing the art, so the pages are beautiful to look at while also adding to the mystery and emotion of the narrative.  This book is so damn good.   

MAUS, by Art Spiegelman  

This book is a masterpiece.  The only comic to win a Pulitzer, an accolade that is well deserved.  Spiegelman interweaves the tale of his relationship with his difficult father, with that of his father’s odyssey as a young Jewish man in Germany, at the time of Hitler, and his subsequent toils in concentration camps, where much of his family was murdered.  It is a poignant, heart-wrenching, complex story that is expertly delineated by Spiegelman, delving into uncomfortable, and tragically horrific, depths of his and his father’s life, in ways I expect most people would balk at.  This is an important story told without artifice, through a medium that—when done as well as Spiegelman does here—can engage its audience, while also enveloping them within the narrative as well as, or better, than almost any other.  I read this book every couple of years, and it never fails to cut me to the quick.  Brilliant.

Love & Rockets [all of it!], by Los Bros Hernandez

Fantagraphics started publishing this seminal comic, from brothers Xaime, Gilbert, and Mario Hernandez, in 1982.  The brilliance of this comic is not only in the beautiful artwork of the Brothers Hernandez, but also in the intelligence of the writing.  Over the course of nearly 35 years, they have crafted long-running narratives that are as complex and fraught and ecstatic and real as any life, and they have done this for myriad characters.  From the magical-realist fantasies of Beto to the poignant Locas tales featuring Maggie & Hopey, Los Bros Hernandez have infused their comics with love and sadness, and all emotions between, along with elements from all genres of literature—with female wrestling, weird aliens, a man with devil’s horns on his head, ghosts (that are very real), super heroes, and most anything else you could imagine, making their way into these stories.  And yet, these aspects never pull you out of the story, and they never undermine the very real truths being revealed through these comics.  The characters found in Love and Rockets are some of the most real people you will ever meet.  And that gets to the heart of what has made this comic such an amazing piece of art—the fact that these artists have allowed their characters to age, and to grow, with relationships changing over time, to great dramatic and emotional effect.  It’s not just the brilliance of Los Bros Hernandez as storytellers that elevates Love and Rockets, but their ability to call back to earlier stories and wring the emotional weight from that with a contemporary narrative that puts the entire lives of characters, and the previous decades’ worth of comics, into a different light.  This may be the best long-form comic series, ever, and you need to read it all.  Now.

From Hell, by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell  

Alan Moore, early in his career, said in an interview—and I paraphrase—that he didn’t wish to work with artists whom he felt were better writers than himself, because he wanted them to be creating their own new comics, and he was speaking of Eddie Campbell.  When these two finally decided to collaborate, they tackled the murders of Jack the Ripper, laying out a conspiracy that reached as high as Queen Victoria, while examining how these horrific murders echoed up through the twentieth century, all while Moore annotated every bit of it (except for one scene, forcing readers to go back and re-read the 500+ pages to find the clues for that piece of the puzzle).  A fictionalized recreation of these murders, and the man behind them, Moore & Campbell were the perfect team to bring this story to life.  From Moore’s formalism as a writer, and his use of theme, symbolism, and foreshadowing, among other literary techniques, to Campbell’s dark etchings, they manage to completely capture the feeling of this era, and the fear that surrounded these few months of 1888, in London, this is a master class in comic storytelling, while also breaking away from some outdated conventions of the medium (most notably, the opportunity for them to craft chapters as long as they wanted, and was needed, as with prose novels).  If you’ve only seen the film, you have no idea how powerful From Hell is.  Ever since I first read it, this one has been at the top of my list, and I don’t see it ever falling from its peak. 

So, what are your top 10 comic storylines?  Drop them in the comments section and let’s start arguing talking.  Thanks for reading, and take care.


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