Did You Miss Me? – Favourite comics of 2007
I didn’t get round to writing any review pieces this year so this will be a longish, if rather late, wander through the things I enjoyed the most in what was another excellent year for the spread of comics. If it lacked a single achievement to rival last year’s ‘Fun Home” it seemed to me there were more than usual pitched just below that highest level. Again there is no particular order or preference to most of this list but if I was pushed the first 10 reviews would be my top 10 in terms of the enjoyment they brought me – which of course doesn’t talk to their merit, just my personal preference. Apologies to those who were likely to make this list but I simply haven’t had time to read yet, like Exit Wounds, Shortcomings and some other.
This hardly seems to have missed a best of year list which included any ‘mainstream’ comics and it’s easy to understand why. I’m not a huge reader of superhero comics any more but this took me back to the time I was. Each issue was packed to the rafters with ideas and actually found realistic ways to challenge, or embroider, a hero who has always seemed just a little too large for the comics stage. Ma and Pa Kent, Lex, Krypto, Legion of Supermen, Jimmy, Lois are all packed into the first 6 issue run that comprises the volume 1 hardcover. The art by Frank Quietly is outstanding, with the cover to issue 6 with Superboy and Krypto at his father’s grave perhaps the cover of the year. The story is oddly moving as well. Almost made me feel like I was 10 again seeing all the possibilities of many fantastic worlds opening before me reading Metal Men and Fantastic Four.
Darwyn Cooke just gets it. He knows how to take almost any hoary old comics cliche and turn it into something with class and style. The Spirit mainly had that to begin with and Cooke has deftly expanded the Spirit story style into a longer format. There were a couple of moments when the politics on show seemed a little one dimensional and jingoistic (slightly strange given Cooke is Canadian) but other than that this was very, very well done. The storyline where Denny Colt’s death is shown in flashback (Resurrection), with a use of colour that wouldn’t look out of place in fifties IPC cartoons and the way the line becomes more impressionistic to hint at the uncertainties/exaggerations of memory, is a comics tour de force.
A guiltless, and excellent updating of a still great comics character. Whilst we are on Cooke, his contribution to the Free Comic book Day – ‘Comics Festival’ comic – a thinly veiled telling of the life of Alex Toth styled after Ayn Rand’s ‘The Fountainhead’, was another brilliant piece of work – its ending almost as willfully illusive as the man whose tale it was telling. He also gave The Comics Journal one of it’s best interviews of the year – busy man.
Oliver East has produced one of the most unique works to come out of the UK small press scene and one that I believe has a chance of crossing over to a much wider audience. His comic forgoes word balloons and the text and speech is all written in Oliver’s own longhand superimposed upon the images. Essentially this is a diary of walks along the train tracks between Manchester and Blackpool in the northwest of England. The story is told in deceptively simple watercolours that many will see as childlike (somewhat like the work of a young John Porcellino) although in fact they convey not only the narrative but also the spontaneity of sketches – which seems highly appropriate to a diary. It also serves as eyewitness to what modern Britain is like behind the tourist posters, showing the everyday lives of small towns and people, and the often deep drabness at their centre, it reminds me in feel of the films of Shane Meadows. The cover here is from the front of the wraparound to the collected volume which will be published in Feb/Mar this year.
Derek Kirk Kim is a brilliant comics writer and artist; his ‘Same Difference and Other Stories‘ stands as one of the best Graphic Novels of the last 10 years, and should be in everyone’s library. He has a fantastic ear for dialogue and his stories have the ring of ‘real life’ experience because of that. Here he tried his hand at a sort of mystic realism story for the teen market as part of DC’s Minx line and again the writing is superb as we follow Lily as she has an extraordinary birthday where she meets her past and future selfs. The parts where Kim is left to dialogue every day life work especially well and will be things we have all experienced – mothers trying to fatten your friends up when you take them home, adults imagining the only reason someone could be in a park late at night is to do drugs etc. It’s funny and works pretty well for any reader, not just it’s target market.
Only regrets would be that the art isn’t by Kim also – he does the cover and you long for that quality to be seen throughout. Jesse Hamm does a decent job though, although it seemed to me there was a drop off in the standard in the later pages (somewhere around page 115) where the panel sizes increase and the art becomes less detailed. I don’t know if the other Minx books were good (still waiting to be read) but a big thumbs up to this and DC’s attempts to expand the comics reading market. Let’s hope Derek Kirk Kim gets the time to produce some work where he does both art and script soon.
Posy Simmonds, with the continued absence of anything new from the great Raymond Briggs, has become the pre-eminent author producing graphic novel work deeply grounded in what can be seen as a heavily modified (many, if not most, of the characters are ‘in-comers’) English pastoral tradition. It’s been a long time since her last book, Gemma Bovary, but there is some compensation for the wait in this big, dense work – a sort of hybrid between novel and comic – that will take a good few hours for you to work through. The plot is based on Hardy’s ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, but as I was pretty unfamiliar with the source that made little odds to me.
The cartooning is beautiful, with each character defined in just a few strokes but always recognisable and the script shows a great ear for dialogue (even if some of the teenage speak sounds a little forced). Where ‘Bovary’ was all completed in pencils this is in colour, with lots of washes differentiating memory from present day (although I did find some of these a little confusing) and generally rather beautifully done. It’s a very fulfilling read only kept from being perfect by some areas that might have been better edited (given that they show the book has mostly come from many serialised parts) and allowing the character’s swear words to just be presented on the page throughout – as they are very late on (if this is meant to signify how angry the character is at that point and shock us, it doesn’t work) instead of ‘bleeped out’. Still, all in all almost my book of the year – let’s hope there aren’t 7 years until the next.
This was a total surprise but a delight. The Finnish comics scene is a very active one but rarely does the material it produces speak as easily to a wider comics audience as Terhi Ekebom does here. The book runs around 40 pages and comprises 5 short stories done in what looks almost like etching with a mixture of pinks and greens coming through the lines – however she does it, it’s beautiful. The stories themselves are ruminations mostly on loss, guilt, doubt and heartbreak, perhaps triggered by the end of a relationship. The last story perhaps shows the spirit recovering, as the first springs of revenge creep in, with an allusive tale about sexual shortcomings. An almost perfectly formed work.
This was a pretty major book damaged by a pretty major flaw. Okay, it was a number of short stories loosely tied together, but each story felt like it had some life and depth of its own as well as falling loosely into a story arc. Kindt’s writing is superb throughout and this felt like storyboards, for parts, of a number of as yet unmade movies. The only thing that held this back is that the art doesn’t quite have the proficiency to carry the ambition of the stories. Whilst the art looks lovely when viewed as a grand sweep the meaning is often hidden in drawings where it is hard to discern the meaning in a facial expression, where the subtle nuance one can feel in the script is not represented in the art and this detracts from what otherwise might be a great work. Had the art been in the hands of a Kubert, Toth, Bernet, Rude etc, a master of facial expression, this might have been a masterpiece. Even with this failing it’s still way above most other releases this year.
I thought this was a fantastic book beautifully crafted and deft in its examination of time and change and our inner search to define ourselves in relation to both. It looks at how time can seem so ephemeral, as well as rigid, but ill defined in memory, and that change is never seen as a here and now moment but as an event filtered through the prism of past experience, derived, one imagines, from Paul Hornscheimer’s own memories. As Hornscheimer points out even in the ‘now’ when you remember what has happened, time has moved on and that memory can never truly be of the event but instead a little ‘blurry’. There are definite influences at work, most noticeably Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, but this never seems derivative and is fully formed in itself. The art is done in a number of styles and shows what a top class artist the author is as he moves from Harvey and Dell comics pastiches through Adrian Tomine.
Chris Ware’s Acme 18 is produced to look like a hardback journal, somewhere you might store your thoughts or write your diary entries. The look isn’t misleading as this is essentially the diary of Ware’s female lead character from cradle to I’d guess early 30’s. It was incredible to look at – as we have come to expect from the author – with magnificent flower drawings throughout – but the writing was also wonderful. I don’t know Chris Ware at all but he shows a great grasp of the depression and mundane functionality that can make up our lives, perhaps he has experienced it himself, perhaps we all have, and the melancholy of it is tangible on the page here. If anyone wrote a more lovely passage of prose in comics this year than – “A young boy, fingers idly wandering beneath his quilt, dreams of the future and how he might win the heart – and the body – of the girl downstairs. Meanwhile this same girl is awakened by the jostling of closely packed milk bottles, a gentle sound she’s loved all her life.” I must have missed it. It was in my opinion one of the best comics of this or any other year – a masterpiece of introspection, observation and ideas pulled from the heart of the human condition.
Ware wasn’t satisfied with just this though and The Acme Novelty Date Book Volume 2 a collection of sketches from 1995-2002 was also kinda staggering. This isn’t your ordinary 15 minutes flip-through sketchbook, it’s packed with cartoons, many at the author’s expense, little ‘thought notes’ and more – and if you thought Chris Ware could only draw with a T-square this will dispel those thoughts.
Much reviewed and mostly lauded whilst being big enough to kill someone with a single swipe. This was surely the most ambitious comic of the year. Ostensibly about Talbot’s (adopted) home town of Sunderland, and narrated on the page by the artist himself it sprawls here there and everywhere – giving you a potted histories of parts of the UK, Lewis Carroll, music hall, comics themselves and a lot more besides. At times I felt I was indulging a well liked history professor as he rambled on a bit, but for the most part it’s a bravura performance and if you put the effort in you will find much to love here. I wouldn’t say it is always narratively coherent – but who says comics need to be? Pages of this had been doing the rounds for years without a publisher – they in no way prepared you for the full experience to come. Mostly brilliant, at under £17 it is incredible value and if you have ever wanted to see Talbot draw Herge – this is the place. For it’s ambition alone my best liked book in 2007.
This is essentially a fictitious account of the rise and career of the animated band Gorillaz it also contains some of the best cartooning and illustration on show last year. Jamie Hewlett is the co-creator of Gorillaz and responsible for pretty much their entire visual representation, from initially styling the band to creating their videos. He also, in another life, was the co-creator of Tank Girl – still the creation of the 80’s flowering of comics talent in the UK. Obviously Hewlett has moved into a stratosphere few cartoonists could ever conceive of, but looking through his illustrations and storyboards in this book you will be in awe of the man’s raw cartooning talent – a genius at work.
A collection of the brilliant Rian Hughes’ comic work of the 80’s and 90’s, all of which is long out of print. it includes his collaborations with Grant Morrison (Dare, Really and Truly) and earlier work such as the Science Service and more. I saw many reviews saying ‘Dare’ – which for most people will be the main reason to buy this book – seemed dated and not the best of Morrison. Personally I still found it a fascinating polemic which when allied to work like St. Swithin’s Day shows that Grant’s work was certainly once more overtly politically oriented than it is today and still well worth reading. Hughes’ work throughout has a slick European line whilst pushing design elements in ways that only people like Joost Swarte were doing. As a document of a great time in UK comics this book is unmissable. (you can read an in-depth interview with Rian here on the blog)
Mawil’s 2007 short story book sees him continue to do what he has been doing for years, produce brilliant cartooning largely ignored by non-German speaking countries. Maybe it’s the fact that he cartoons in a slightly ‘bigfoot’ way which people don’t get but he has to be one of the most natural artists working in comics anywhere. The stories seem autobiographical (may not be) and, though they may contain some real pain and tragedy, are almost always played for laughs – and Mawil is very funny. Unusually there is some nice colour work in this volume and the stories are often as short as 2 pages, but the standout is the long story “Welcome Home” which finds the author heading of to a hippy summer camp in the hope of meeting women with an easy attitude to sex and nudity; not surprisingly there is plenty of the latter and little of the former. Terrific fun.
In many ways these are hugely important comics as they were the wellspring of the Underground comics movement (widely held to be the first stories from what became the Underground comics phenomena) and it could be argued that that in turn was the reason we now have art/alternative comics today. I’d read the odd strip over the years although I never paid them much attention at the time. But reading this book with it’s context set by Stack’s biographical essay, learning why Stack chose to publish under a false name (he feared for his job) and other conditions pertinent when these first appeared in the early 60’s made the whole thing feel significant. The stories themselves are often only one or two pages – frequently having fun with Bible happenings (like turning water into wine) – and really pretty funny. Stack also contributes a new strip just for this book. I do wish each strip had been dated, but, that aside, if you are interested in how comics developed into what they are today you should read this. As Stack himself would have Jesus say “This really is a good book”.
If you were brought up on Kirby comics – especially Fantastic Four and Eternals – it is hard not to fall into this. The look is pure Kirby, if done more in my less-favoured later style inked by Mike Royer rather than the beloved Sinnott inked FF’s, and the dialogue and plots share the ambition of Kirby’s wildest ideas and a dead-on pastiche of Stan Lee’s sometimes glib writing. The overall effect is to release you from having to critique it and just wallow in a feeling you probably haven’t had since you were a kid. The eye for detail almost made me laugh out loud at times such as when the Chinese troops speak in English an asterixed box appears with explanation “* translated from the Chinese” – just like 60s Marvels. Great fun.
This collects the early work of Ivan Brunetti including the first three issue of Schizo and various other bits from here and there. Many of the gag cartoons are pretty much throwaway but the longer strips see a comics artist working closer to the edge of what it is viable to reveal than possibly any other. Whether it is funny or not will depend entirely on the individual. Somehow I hadn’t read Schizo 3 and that pretty much made this book for me and it hints at the more refined strips that would be Schizo 4. At times Brunetti, in his early days, just wanted to be everyone and you see the influence of Peter Bagge and others shine through – at other times you will think you picked up a Johnny Ryan book. If you have the comics you might not need this, but to have all this depressing, sometimes funny, nastiness in one place can be a sobering experience.
First Second books maintained a fine quality this year and this was probably my favourite amongst them. Nick Abadzis tells the story of the first space dog with some studied history and not a little flair. My Life as a Dog has long been one of my fave films and like that movie this manages to treat subjects which could get cloyingly sentimental in a way that evokes the emotions anyhow, but without you feeling you are being manipulated. I like the First Second size on most occasions, but here I felt it squashed the art a little – it could have done with more room to breath – and wondered at Abadzis’ odd way of drawing peoples cheeks which makes them all look like Gully Foyle out of The Stars My Destination/Tyger, Tyger. Those nit-picks aside this was much better than solid, excellent and interesting narrative and, love dogs or not, moving in its conclusion.
UK based publisher Fanfare/Ponet Mon continues to release some excellent Manga and Japanese themed material; whilst this isn’t Manga, in that it has French creators, it does a great job of taking you inside Tokyo. I’ve always been somewhat in two minds about Boilet’s work – partly it’s the heavy use of photos and film as his source material and also that I’ve always found the books a little, well, boastful. Whilst they may not be truly autobiographical – and this one certainly seems less so than something like Yukiko’s Spinach – they always carry the feel of being autobiographical and, given that context, there is something about them a little odd, like showing off your naked girlfriend to your friends because it makes you feel good. This book is quite light on the ‘erotica’ of the later work and tells a more conventional stranger in a strange land story, a form of love story/travelogue. I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would and even the art becomes attractive as the story goes along. Thinking about it, perhaps if I had beautiful Japanese girlfriends, spoke fluent Japanese and could write Kanji I might be a little boastful too…
I’m not sure I can foresee a year when this magazine won’t make my best of the year. Under Todd Hignite’s direction it knows where it is going in comics criticism and no interesting or obscure door appears closed to it. For the most part it is an apolitical mag, which allows it to see the art and craft of the comics outside the context of the creators – for instance here a long essay, with many page examples, by Tom De Haven covers what he sees as the best of Dick Tracy. He picks the period 1950-59, christening it the ‘modern period’ and going against the common wisdom that Gould had already fallen into misanthropic, right wing, dogma which would so blight his later work. I’d have to go and read these strips again to judge, but it makes you want to do that and that’s the point of a magazine like this: to expand your horizons and challenge your beliefs.
It includes articles on New Yorker cartoonists Abner Dean and Gluyas Williams, neither of whom I knew at all, and I found it fascinating to read about these talented men’s careers; a fine look at Lionel Feininger’s years leading up to the creation of the Kin-der-Kids (with some lovely art I’d never seen previously) and on a related subject an excellent portfolio of art from the German artists who produced the magazine Simplicissimus. My favourite article, however, is the one on Kaz which takes you through the early frenetic strips, packed with the essence of ‘punk’, through to his work on stuff like Spongebob Squarepants and his Emmy nomination with running commentaries by such luminaries as Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter and Peter Bagge – it shows an initially ‘difficult’ cartoonist in a light revealing how influential he was and is. There’s a lot more besides, including a free book on cartooning by Ivan Brunetti – everyone should buy this mag.
Okay, this isn’t a new story , but I have to recommend this because it remains one of comics most powerful works and it was available in 2007 in a lovely new hardcover from UK publisher Knockabout (the first time it was available this way in many years). The edition was restricted to a miniscule 500 copies (we took 250 alone and could have sold many more) – but, the good news is publisher Tony Bennett plans to do another longer run in 2008. In the U.S. I think Top Shelf have a few copies still available.
In a year with no Kramer’s Ergot the Finnish anthology ‘Glomp’ was the most prominent collection of ‘alternative’ cartooning out there. The quality, as one would expect, is pretty variable throughout its hefty 300 pages but there is enough interesting stuff here to make it something you should pick up. All the strips are in Finnish but are translated at the foot of the page – a little like watching a sub-titled film; you won’t get all the meaning but a good grasp of the intent. For me there is a little too much material influenced by the Fort Thunder crowd, most noticeably that of Matthew Thurber, with ‘scratchy’ art and childlike colourings which I’ve always found a little overpowering. There is some really nice work though, including strips by non-Finnish cartoonists such as Anders Nilsen, a beautiful 20 page strip from Lilli Carre and 2 strips by Korean Lee Jung-Hyoun which, whilst I didn’t truly understand them, feature lovely art very reminiscent of Rennee French. Of the work on show from the Finns I most enjoyed those by Aapo Rapi, Amanda Vahamaki and Anna Sailamaa and there is a Tommi Musturi strip which runs through the book. A pretty enjoyable issue – I do wonder though if it wouldn’t be selling many more copies if it were to go ‘English’.
Personally I thought this was the strongest of the 3 comics released this year by Scottish visionary/absurdist cartoonist/artist/musician Malcy Duff. It basically covers the 52 seconds it took Thomas Edison to electrocute Topsy, one of the elephants working on the construction of the Statue of Liberty, after she had killed 3 workers. It’s 52 single panel pages where the Elephant, clearly visible in the first few panels, ‘melts’ into something dead by the end, Malcy’s drawings documenting in an expressionist way the experience whilst slyly commenting on man’s innate voyeurism. Malcy’s comics aren’t things of beauty in any commercial sense – stapled covers etc, wilfully scratchy art – but he is ploughing a furrow no one else in UK comics is following. Worth watching.
Tales of the Rarebit Fiend
When it came to classic strip reprints it’s a little hard to know where to start in what was a dazzling year. I guess, the biggest book of the year is as good a place as any. Winsor McCay seems to have become the inspiration of the ‘grand gesture’ in comics publishing. Last year we had Peter Maresca’s huge Nemo book and this year Ulrich Merkl has arguably topped it with his colossal Rarebit Fiend book. I know there have been some criticism’s of the design on this book, and admittedly it is a little strange, but no-one can deny that this is both a scholarly examination of McCay’s strip and a major labour of love. The book itself should probably ship with a desk to read it at because you aren’t going to be able to sit in your armchair reading this as it is so large that it’s truly unwieldy making it, along with it’s price, as a book for peoples ‘libraries’. I’ve got to say i didn’t find much of the scholarship into who the strip influenced and it’s effect on other media that convincing; it could be correct but relied too much on supposition and opinion rather than fact, as does Merkl’s feeling that Rarebit fiend was the more adult and accomplished strip when compared to Nemo because in his opinion it was more truly McCays’s ‘diary’.
Most of the strips reprinted have been restored to a pretty impressive level and this will be the definative printing of these works, probably forever. It does seem a pity that Merkl chose to take up some 140 pages at the start of the book with various bits of study, essays and associated works and then only print 369 of the 821 available strips. All 821 are available on the enclosed DVD so you needn’t miss them, but I can’t quite figure why he didn’t just go the whole hog – jettison the extraneous non-strip material and print the whole lot. Another $35 dollars on the cost price wouldn’t have put off anyone who was buying this anyhow. All in all an amazing, if flawed, book on a desperately undervalued strip.
My favourite reprint of the year hands down. Not because the material or the packaging is neccessarily better than other books of this type, but just because I never got round to putting together a full run of books reprinting the Caniff Terry stripsdespite being 20 years in the biz, and now I can. Howard Chaykin points out in his introduction that this isn’t the best of Terry until later in the book and that there are wonders to come and it is certainly interesting to watch Caniff go from his early unexceptional style to the beauty of his highly designed and meticulously detailed later strips. A few missteps with early dialect for his Chinese characters (having them pronounce their r’s as l’s) quickly disappears and the adventures become pretty exciting, even now. You could well imagine this getting a big screen movie treatment. The book from IDW is a hefty and robust presentation, printed on heavy paper and with lots of work having gone into correcting defects in the artwork that goes with old newsprint. It all augers well for their rather grandly (and always going to be incomplete given what is being printed by others) named “The Library of American comics”.
Nick Knatterton won’t be well known outside of Europe but it’s one of the most successful German comics ever – going on to spawn an animation series (find them on YouTube) and a feature film as well as all sorts of advertising and merchandising tie-ins. Creator Manfred Schmidt’s detective solves thefts, abductions and more in these adventures collected in their entirety for the first time by publisher Lappan. For the comics fan, Schmidt’s cartooning will be the draw – whether you speak German or not. A lovely line and a manic energy that might have made this right at home in the pages of Mad or other cartoony comics mags.
It’s rumoured that Schmidt came to hate the character, that made him rich at the end of its near ten year run (ending in 1960), and he is said to have destroyed most of the originals. In fact he pretty much hated the comics form full stop, starting the strip as a parody of the then newly imported American comics styles, for what he thought would be 8 issues of scathing criticism, but it turned out to be the best part of ten years of increasing popularity. Ironically he emerged as a man with great mastery of the form and his work has found a worthwhile compilation here. If you have any interest in the history of German cartooning this will be an essential purchase. Bring on the Max and Moritz collections.
As well as classic reprints this seemed to be a year for many single artist retrospectives (and art books), this one from the people who brought us the Brian Bolland book last year. It follows a similar format, with Russell basically giving a scaled down auto-biography, supported by page after page of artwork. I always loved PCR and so this is really a pretty amazing book. I’ve always been more drawn to his “Tales of Oscar Wilde” ‘cartoony’ style and there is a lot of it here, but with the large pages and great printing it’s hard not to be drawn in by the craft of his almost pre-Raphaelite portraits and other works also. Where this improves on the Bolland book, for me at least, is it has a number of unfinished projects, lots of sketches and initial page roughs which give you more insight into how the artist works. A sumptuous book celebrating a master comics artist.
If you were/are a fan of 2000AD this book is likely to become and remain the definitive account of the comics creation and first 30 years. It uses the voices of those who were part of the creative process: writers, artists, editors, marketing people etc and presents the comics chronological changes from huge early success and numbers in excess of 100,000 sold every week (remember our population is about 1/5th of the USA to give that number some context) to the much smaller hardcore niche market it finds itself in now. I’m not a big 2 Thou fan, but reading this book it is impossible to see it as anything other than the birthplace of almost all the UK comics writers and artists who are now disproportionately a part of the English speaking comics world, and any comic which would allow Grant Morrison and Mark Millar to present Sarah Ferguson and Princess Diana 3-in-a-bed with their satirical character Big Dave must be lauded for it’s bravery and satirical intent.
In fact 2000AD was always a pretty political comic and repeatedly scorched things like the Thatcher government over the years – you wanted angry young men then, for a time, this was the place. Probably the best book about comics this year, although if I could read French I would probably have chosen La Veritable histoire de Futuropolis which is a history of the groundbreaking French publisher Futuropolis. I remember bringing back books of Plastic Man, The Spirit and Jack Kirby they published from trips to France and being amazed by these books of comics (printed in hardback, horizontal, vertical and supersized – it seemed every format under the sun) way before the English speaking market had graphic novels.
There were so many other things I liked but won’t write up here, so a nod of the head to the following Dan Clowes’ “Mr. Wonderful”, “I killed Adolf Hitler“, “Little Sammy Sneeze“, “New Tales of Old Palomar“, “King Cat Classix“, “Garage Band“, “Alias the Cat“, most of “Mome” (glad to see Eleanor Davies in the ‘big time’), “James Jarvis’ Selected Drawings“, Paul Pope’s “Pulp Hope” “Whenever – Milton Caniff” (not read enough to comment yet) and “Dave Mckean’s Barcelona” amongst them.
The other thing I loved this year was that the publishers upped their efforts in production. Even leaving aside the big statement books like Sunday Press’s Sammy Sneeze or Fantagraphics Popeye 2 the general quality of binding, paper and dustjackets seemed better than ever before. Perhaps it’s down to cheaper print from China and Singapore, perhaps it’s because they think the book stores will carry more product this way, but for whatever reason, for those who love and collect comics, this was a great year. For me D&Q probably led the way with Fantagraphics not far behind, but it felt like everyone just got better at ‘making’ books (although one noticeable exception was the otherwise interesting the “Vault of Michael Allred” – maybe it was meant to look cheap whilst costing $35 as some sort of pop-art statement).
If there was any one thing I’d guess it would be a feeling – and it’s just a feeling – that we are on the verge of where there is a commoditisation of comics. Of course this effects us as retailers in that the link between comics and Comic Shop becomes a less solid one and whilst I don’t begrude people like Amazon/Borders their success I doubt that they, in truth, know one comic from another – it becomes another product to sell efficiently to customers. We all know the arguments about comics shops being their own worst enemies when it comes to presentation, location and stock range and many of those arguments have solid and longstanding foundations, but there does seem to be a rush towards the grasp for an alternative – ‘real’ bookstores – that borders on the rash. If bookstores make more customers for comics then there should be more for everyone if they up their game, reach a bigger audience, bigger potential sales. However one can’t help but feel we are probably not going to be on level playing fields when the 60%, full returns, 2 for 1 deals snap into place that are more about SELLING product than what that product is. I don’t know maybe it has always been that way.
To add to that, some of those who market comics have finally woken up to the fact that winning an award for your comic means it’s likely to sell more, so we get something like the Harvey awards short list that has 19 Gemstone publications on it. I in no way mean to imply that there was anything untoward about this; Gemstone obviously were able to get their employees and cartoonists to actually cast nomination votes – obviously no-one else thought of or did this – resulting in them being all over the ballot sheets. It’s Democracy in action for sure but somehow it feels like comics have left the naive, aficionado stage of their development and from now onwards will be striving more and more for the grand prize. It seems time to judge awards by more stringent criteria or the marketeers and PR people could well take over. It may well be better for all of us in the end but there is a part of me wistful for less strident times.
Of course I imagine this is just the thin edge of the wedge and I can’t believe that this year will pass without Marvel finally taking a stand to offer, first look, paid for, product on the web. In truth I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already, but you know there will be new mini series, which may not look viable to print, coming onto the web first in some 69 cent, 99 cent form and then going to graphic novel reprint when completed if they establish an audience. Controlling the costs with online delivery whilst perhaps reaching a bigger audience than ever and maybe in the end delivering your product direct to consumer, without the need for a retail and wholesale distribution chain, looks like a holy grail. If I was running their business I’d be cranking up the servers now. What we all have to hope is that those who continue to produce work of the highest calibre won’t find themselves forced into things with relentless deadlines and 60% off marketing campaigns – although if they want that I’m sure, in years to come, it will be there for them. The experience in France seems to be that when this happen a few do really well whilst the rest see sales slip. Of course both the US and UK markets are very far way from the French model right now – so perhaps a happy path between commerce and craft can be navigated that will make everyone happy.
Kenny Penman is co-founder of Forbidden Planet International and a life-long comics fan.