Sunday, January 19, 2014

Five Favorites of 2013

This is more fun if you have a hunch of my questionable tastes, so first let me think what my top five of 2012 would have been. Best for me was definitely Blacklung by Chris Wright. I should write a post about that sometime. Second place I'd give to Hellblazer, trusty old bastard, third maybe the Lilli Carré collection, fourth would go to the first Animal Man trade (oh did I have hopes in that), and then either Jesse Jacobs or the first trade of Waid's Daredevil (which also immediately afterward dropped in quality). I'm sure I'm forgetting something but this sounds about right, Fantagraphics-type books and superheroes who were in much better shape then. My list for 2013 doesn't have much left of those, but feels similarly unrounded. This is not on any perceived order of objective merit, but simply what I loved best:

Theremin 1 by Curt Pires and Dalton Rose (Monkeybrain). I was actually reading a proper Theremin biography, subtitled Ether Music and Espionage, and while the subject was completely prodigy, instrument inventor, spy, working in post-revolution Russia under the urgent expectation to come up with something good for state prestige, living in the US as sort of a socialite (is there a pun in that?), still the book was tough going and I didn't get very far. Probably because it stuck with the sources and had most to tell where details were richly documented, and not where we'd want to imagine stuff. And that is where Theremin the comic came in and delivered all the fantasy hoped for, keeping it much more true to the character potential. Because when you hit the right frequency on the Theremin:

It's actually The Red. Ouch. I have no idea what it's doing here, I thought it was busy turning the DC universe into a shapeless mire. Still you can maybe see here what I like about the art: sparse lines with a somehow oldschool stiffness that leave lots of space to be creatively filled with anything from flat computer patterns to ornamental brushstrokes of analog paint... But what mainly made the issue so brilliant for me was what usually would annoy me, that it was pure exposition, tackled not in a careful manner, but instead everything thrown at the reader at once (as befits a character successfully performing a double assassination of Lenin on two different timelines). Of course, this opening move could not be followed in the same vein. The second issue started "one year later," and then the storyline kicked in and came with lots of wondrous incidents that made the book not so amazing anymore.

Hellblazer: Death and Cigarettes by Peter Milligan and Giuseppe Camuncoli or Simon Bisley (Vertigo). The news of course being that here was the end of the line...

I'm rating this higher than most people do, I think? Milligan's run is my second favorite of the longer Hellblazer runs after the first two Delano trades or so, and it's my favorite Milligan run on anything (his surrealism in e.g. Shade or Animal Man is a bit too forced for my tastes, there's nothing more easy than organizing meetings between sewing machines and umbrellas, so it's shorter stuff like Face or Flowers to Rhino that I really love). Also, the series had Camuncoli at his best (and it looks like he'll be completely eaten up by the really big mainstream projects now, getting inkers to soften the biting of lips and crumbling of eye sockets, so who knows if he'll ever do anything worthwhile again). Anyway, the book goes out in style, offering plenty of looking back without getting too sentimental, and does a good job killing off Constantine in senseless fashion, except he saw a chance to go which might look better on the tab sheet in hell than what he rightfully would have coming. I thought Milligan was about done with the character anyway, so it was a good moment to go for him too. By the later parts of this collection the plot felt noticeably reined in, and the pacing became heavier on actual development, but the incidents continued to entertain (Constantine smoking his own dead ashes to top Keith Richards) and the ending's not the feared cop-out. Constantine is dead alright and properly shellshocked by the fact he no longer has a scheme in the game (see above). (That guy Constantine still running around the DC universe is of course an impostor who must be ignored.)

Copra 6 by Michel Fiffe (self-released). Now I know from the many favorable reviews that the series is altogether a feat as a whole, and I'm sorry for being so perverse, still I vote for only this single issue as a standalone without knowing or wanting to know much of the rest. The issue comes at the end of the first story arc, and team Copra and a few presumably more evil characters are battling it out after all plot duties have been performed. Since everybody also gets a little descriptive box at first entrance, stating their name and prime motivation ("Gracie: likes to punch and kick"), there's no context really lacking and nothing to prevent us from the pure appreciation of inventive draughtsmanship which the carnage provokes here...

It comes down to a battle between one Man-Head ("street fighter, widower") and Vitas ("main bad guy drunk on power"), with other staff jumping out from the works and landing a blow or two only to abstract themselves and vanish again. I suspect a strong meta layer both in homage to classic comic book fights and there is reflection of broader conventions of depicting violence e.g. in a very impressive two-page sequence where Man-Head recites his life story while battering away on an already beaten opponent, the life flashing through the mind of the aggressor instead of the one who's about to die. By the way, the issue is perfectly safe for somebody squeamish like me, especially since without the five previous and six to-come issues I'm not invested in the well-being of any of the characters. It would be no use to read the other issues, I'm never into team books at all. Not into Suicide Squad, which is the main inspiration here. (My rules for the rest of this list are I cannot nominate a single spread only if I haven't read the rest of the book.)

Miniature Jesus by Ted McKeever (Image). McKeever can be too much for me, an auteur with a vengeance, each page a broadside, and it's probably telling that my favorite of his books so far was Meta4, his most controlled effort, which came in a subdued format and in a rather grayish black and white (I'm not sure if that's on purpose or just a bad printing? anyway it worked great to make it feel more, well, meta). Miniature Jesus is full blast mode again, and even if you read it on the most immediate level as the story of an alcoholic with a little angel (miniature J-boy) and some rather big devils on his shoulders shouting into his ears, the energy level is amazing. But actually despite this thing being built on rather common dichotomies in noir black and white, the story is actually quite slippery, and every cliché might immediately cave in on itself. The tone is informal, there are lots of off-notes even if all that happens might just be spontaneous externalizations of one loser's internal debate. The figures are eternal posers, but their grandstanding might immediately be followed by an apologetic grin. All the conflict seems overcooked, and nobody falls for anybody's worldly wisdom except for selfish reasons...

Possibly the whole drama takes place while the main character walks only a block, and we follow just a single, tired train of thought, him amping up his profane conflicts into a war of the heavens. Not much is resolved by the end, except he won his soliloquy. So that's relatively upbeat. But anyway, even if you choose a straighter reading, it should still work for the art, which is more consistently realist than usual, coming out of a thick chiaroscuro, with sudden clashes of style, as morals can quickly deteriorate the figures into caricaturesque distortion. The images sit blackly on the page with only a narrow frame, sometimes looming there so heavily that there's no room for the page to be composed...each panel is onto itself. It's a complete trip, and the narrowness of theme heightens the punch.

Don't Name Your Hands "Hands" and really a good dozen of other mini-comics from the last decade by Malcy Duff (self-released). So yes I'm cheating here, all of Duff's works were completely new to me and I'm rating their collective impact. Actually his 2013 output is rather on the more reduced side, so it helps to come with lots of expectations on what will happen when you turn the page and have those disappointed. If I had to tell you what the comics are about, I'd say: lovingly rendered awkwardnesses of form. Also: things developing into situations from which there is no escape except changing the topic...

...and they're about an empathy with these things and beings for their awkwardnesses, an empathy not of feeling but of bodily sensation, holding an expectant posture over several panels, feeling my few hairs fluttering in the wind, before we finally make eye contact: what now?

Instead of a storyline, the work  is driven by modes of presentation. Frames present a few choice lines hovering between the edge of a pool in a public swimming bath and the springboard. Some objects present themselves like conjurors performing their little tricks, some forms are exposed by the hand of the author in more autocratic manner... Presentation is about the single moment, so this mode frees up time, and it's amazing how many panels can be fruitfully wasted in the pursuit of the rhythm of not much happening. For example here we have something like a misshapen board creeping out through an opened door until our undevided attention gets too much for it and it slides back again. It's like the abstracted storyboard for a Tex Avery sight gag, say, the endless stretch limo driving through the picture, stretching, stretching, but then just before the big bad wolf at the wheel is waving his sign, "that's long, isn't it?"...proceedings are reversed, and you will never know that there was a wolf, and you can't even be sure it was a stretch limo, and that's it, folks.

Runner-up of the two Duff titles from 2013 is called I Have Never Seen Anyone Hold Their Nose and it has a story written on the cover which begins: "We can see ... A woman putting shards of glass all over the outside of her house." From there we go through eight pages of not very interesting loosely pasted pattern fragments (maybe readable as memories floating like ghosts like double glazed broken glass, if we're searching the story for clues) until we finally arrive at just what the story said we would see, the woman standing before a rectangle inscribed as a house with little jagged fragments that read "glass." So if that doesn't prove the story then I don't know what will. When we turn the zine around there's the exact same story on the cover again, and we go through the exact similar pattern debris, but then we get distracted and end up with somebody maybe holding their nose. But it isn't proven that they do. Then I always flip back a page to stare at the earthworm. I never knew he bore such straight tunnels into the earth, stiffening up half his body with rigorous muscle tension. I must admit that more than once I accidentally chopped worms apart with the blade of a spade digging up earth, and I spent a sorry thought on them wondering if indeed one half would live on like it's said it will. But never have I been so in tune with the plight of the common earthworm.

(Excuse the awful scans. Oh and if you've accidentally found this post because you want to get rid of a Malcy Duff comic I don't have, please make contact.)