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CHARLES BURNS / MCSWEENEY'S
M C S W E E N E Y ' S   Q U A R T E R L Y   C O N C E R N   N O .   1 3
E d i t e d   b y   C h r i s   W a r e

When Dave Eggers' literary periodical turned its attention to graphical storytelling in issue 13, guest editor Chris Ware made it the definitive survey of sophisticated comix at the dawn of the 21st century. The hardcover book is printed in full color and exquisitely designed by Ware, including a jacket that unfolds into a poster depicting the history of God, Man and Comix. No anthology has ever collected this many of the top North American cartooning talents, nor looked so gorgeous. Robert Crumb, Chester Brown, the Hernandez Brothers, Lynda Barry and Art Spiegelman are just a few of the contributors whose work mixes reprints with new material. Ware also makes sure to introduce a few unknown creators with potential. Loosely grouped into genres, including fiction, journalism, autobiography and the experimental, works are accompanied by comix-themed prosody from the likes of John Updike and Glen David Gold. Perfectly edited and designed to appeal to novices and comixcenti alike, "McSweeney's" #13 sets the stage for the comix of the future.
P H O E N I X :   K A R M A
B y   O s a m u   T e z u k a

Part of a twelve-volume life's work by Japan's godfather of manga, "Phoenix: Karma" stands out as one of the few comix to go beyond supreme artistry into the sublime. Set in 8th century Japan, the story interweaves the lives of Gao, a disfigured bandit who discovers the lessons of Buddhism, with Akanemaru, a talented sculptor sent on a quest to carve the likeness of the titular bird. First published in Japan in 1970, "Phoenix: Karma" displays Tezuka (1928-1989) at the height of his powers, creating some of the most dynamic yet thoughtful cartoons ever drawn, mixing humor, pathos and philosophy. Yet even while Tezuka explores the meaning of life, he never gets so far into the clouds that he forgets to throw in the earth-bound humor of an occasional fart joke. A pioneer in the comix form, Tezuka's simple cartoonish characters inhabit highly detailed locations that suggest classical Japanese prints. "Phoenix: Karma" combines the excitement, plotting, and characterization of the best novels with the philosophy of the best spiritual essays and the beauty of the graphical arts into a singular masterpiece of world fiction.
B O N E :   O N E   V O L U M E   E D I T I O N
B y   J e f f   S m i t h

After twelve years and 55 issues, Jeff Smith's "Bone," American comix' first all-ages epic fantasy, finally reached its end this year, topped off with a 1300-page complete edition. As sweeping as the "Lord of the Rings" cycle, but much funnier, it follows three diminutive "Bone" creatures named Fone (the dreamy hero), Phoney (the avaricious schemer) and Smiley (the goofy comic). Cute and pantsless, the cartoony Bones find themselves lost in a threatening valley of dragons, rat creatures and an evil entity known as the Lord of the Locusts. Fortunately they run into Thorn, a friendly human farm girl living with her mysteriously strong Gran'ma Ben. Amidst comic set pieces such as the Great Cow Race, secrets about Thorn's past emerge, putting the Bones at the center of a monumental struggle between good and evil. One of the medium's most dynamic cartoonists, Smith imbues even simple dialogue panels with animation. Now that it's finished "Bone" should join the ranks of "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" in the young adult pantheon.
K R A M E R ' S   E R G O T   N O .   5
E d i t e d   b y   S a m m y   H a r k h a m

The other great anthology of the year, while just as lush and smartly edited as "McSweeney's" #13, focuses on comix' emerging talents with a few established artists thrown in for good measure. Editor Sammy Harkham boldly monumentalizes works that may otherwise have only ever known the inside of a sketchbook. He does this by reproducing the artwork on large, full color pages that accentuate the original source rather than try to smooth it out. Artists who use non-traditional materials — like the one who did a comic strip on a drinking straw wrapper — particularly benefit from this indulgence. Preserving the torn edges and cardboard bumps give many of the pages a striking three-dimensional texture. While experimental pieces abound, the book also provides plenty of top-notch narrative works, like Kevin Huizenga's intelligent, thoughtful portrait of a conservative Christian encountering a non-believer. "Kramer's Ergot" #5 establishes the annual series as comix' premier showcase for new talent, as well as one the best-looking books of the year.
L O C A S
B y   J a i m e   H e r n a n d e z

A deluxe, giant hardcover that compliments brother Gilbert's "Palomor" book of last year (another top-ten choice), "Locas" collects Jaime Hernandez' stories starring his enduring characters Maggie and Hopey. Their relationship — perhaps the most developed and complex in the medium's history — has been evolving in the pages of the Hernandez brothers' comic "Love and Rockets" for over twenty five years. Bound together, these stories follow not just the residents of Jaime's fictional Mexican-American California neighborhood known as "Hoppers," but also follow Jaime's own exponentially growing powers as one of our premier comix creators. Hernandez' skills at creating unforgettable characters that live in a slightly surreal world (one character grows and shrinks intermittently) are exceeded only by his sense of how to compose a perfectly balanced panel of light and shadow. Though all the stories contained in "Locas" have been in print separately for years, collecting them together in "Locas" creates what is nearly a Bible of comix art.
C L Y D E   F A N S :   B O O K   O N E
B y   S e t h

Using a dimmed palette of grey, black and pale blue and slowed down to the pace of a hot day, "Clyde Fans" masterfully evokes an apocryphal world of nostalgia. This first of a projected two-volume work begins with a retired circulating-fan salesman named Abraham puttering around his combined house and storefront, now out of business. For seventy pages he delivers a remarkable monologue about his sales technique, family history and so forth, while taking a bath or fixing himself some tea. The second half of the book follows Abraham's younger brother Simon 40 years earlier on an unsuccessful attempt at opening a new sales territory. Drawn in a style reminiscent of 1930s "New Yorker" cartoons and using quiet panels of still objects, landscapes and architecture, Seth plays radically with the form of a genre best known for its non-stop action. Deeply atmospheric, "Clyde Fans" goes low-key for an affect unlike any other in the medium.
A M Y   &   J O R D A N
B y   M a r k   B e y e r

Perhaps the ultimate urban nightmare comic, "Amy & Jordan" first appeared as a strip of the same name in a few alternative weekly papers during the late '80s and early '90s. This collection of the almost lost series reveals Mark Beyer to have been not only an extremely funny cartoonist, but one of the most progressive as well. Full of the existential despair associated with urban living, Amy and Jordan are a couple who endure rats, aliens, bugs and neighbors like a woman who is just a head on a platter. Aside from creating some of the darkest humor for any comic strip, Beyer also reinvigorated the form with some of the most outrageous layouts ever to fit in a single column. One strip puts all the panels into the feathers of a bird. The innovation and humor of "Amy & Jordan" make this the lost treasure of the year.
E I G H T B A L L   N O .   2 3
B y   D a n   C l o w e s

For most comic books, when a nobody teenager discovers super powers and a gun that zaps anything out of existence, it usually results in his getting buff and facing the dilemmas of responsibility in between fist fights with ubervillans. Forget that. This is Clowes' world. Here, even with such accouterments, a nebbish stays a nebbish. The 23rd issue of Clowes' "Eightball" contains a single short story, "The Death Ray," about Andy, a milquetoast who discovers he gains super strength while smoking, and his only friend Louis, who has no powers but a giant ego just the same. Together they up-end every superhero cliché in a series of interconnected vignettes bookended by Andy as a middle-aged dullard. Ingeniously, "The Death Ray" moves way beyond a mere superhero parody and into the uncomfortable territory of exploring the way people can or cannot change who they are. "Eightball" #23 continues Clowes' ascendancy as one of the medium's premier storytellers.
M O T H E R ,   C O M E   H O M E
B y   P a u l   H o r n s c h e m e i e r

For a debut graphic novel, "Mother, Come Home," displays impressive ambition in both its themes and graphical storytelling. The sad story of Thomas, a little boy whose mother has died of cancer, the book focuses on Thomas' relationship with his father, who has become nearly catatonic with grief. Aside from its daring exploration of the themes of bereavement and loss, "Mother, Come Home" engages in some risky comix design. Hornschemeier's work rewards multiple readings; the colors shift according to the mood of the moment, drawing styles change when sequences move from fantasy to reality and disparate but related sequences are linked through visual motifs. Though it may be somber, "Mother, Come Home" springs to life with Hornschemeier's intelligent artistry.
B I G H E A D
B y   J e f f r e y   B r o w n

One of a growing sub-genre of comix artists who create art out of their (often failed) sex life, Jeffrey Brown's work has stood out as among the best. "Bighead" marked a change for Brown from the autobiographical, comix-verite style of last year's "Unlikely," to using the tropes of superhero comix to explore the author's own insecurities and power fantasies. Bighead fights absurd villains like Mutatoe but is baffled by the smarmy powers of The Brit, a pipe-smoking lothario with designs on the lovely Rebessica. Drawn in a style that veers from childish scrawl to a hilariously crude version of the mainstream's "house style," "Bighead" looks and reads like an unselfconscious fanboy's labor of love -- which it is, sort of. Besides being a superior parody, "Bighead" slyly reveals the author's personal issues and in some ways, everyone's.
J I M B O   I N   P U R G A T O R Y
B y   G a r y   P a n t e r

How does a beautifully produced (with gold ink!) hardcover with giant pages full of jaw-dropping artistry by one of the premier names in the field get labeled "worst" comix of the year? By being completely unreadable. Vastly over-conceptualized, "Jimbo in Purgatory" ostensibly retells the story of Dante's "Purgatory," with one page per canto, but set in an "infotainment testing center" with pop culture avatars taking the place of the original characters. According to the introduction, all the dialogue "demonstrates a knowledge of the [canto] and an ability to quote other works [e.g. Milton, Chaucer, the Beatles, et al.] alluding to the theme of that location in the poem and in addition, to designate, by that utterance, the story of Boccaccio's Decameron…" etc. etc. Maybe it does all that, but it's so impossibly dense I doubt anyone with less than a Ph.D. in classical literature will be able to parse it. No fun.
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