Best of the Year – Joe
Each year when it’s time for me to think about my favourite reading of the year it seems I have to struggle quite a bit. Not struggling to find stand-out comics and books but rather the opposite – struggling to try and narrow down my list into something reasonably short and readable. I think once more I’m going to fail in that respect and more than likely I’m going to ramble on a bit about some of the frankly brilliant reading material that passed my eyes in 2010 and I’ll apologise in advance for the lack of brevity, but I certainly don’t apologise for highlighting what I consider to be some terrific books. And I know full well after I’ve posted this I will doubtless suddenly remember some other works and slap my head thinking how did I forget to include this or that?
But you know what? This is no bad thing that I’m toiling to produce a short list (okay, a fairly long short list) of my favourite reading; in fact it’s a good sign, a sign at the quite brilliant – and diverse – works that are coming out. It’s also a sign of how much good work is out there that I still have a pile of books and comics I really wanted to read in 2010 that I simply never had time to, because there’s only so much free reading time and I used all of that up (and then some, always snatching a read during commute, during waits in cafés to meet friends, anywhere I can). And this year I am delighted to be able to say a good number of my favourite graphic novels came from independent British publishers. We’ve often gone out of our way here on the blog to highlight the remarkable range of comics work from around the world, but I hope you’ll forgive me for being so excited at being able to honestly say that some of the best works I read came from here, because it’s been a damned long time since we’ve been able to point to British comics publishers producing a continual stream of fascinating graphic novels.
I think 2010 was a real watershed year for Blank Slate Books and SelfMadeHero; both had been producing good works before this year, but it seems in 2010 they both put out a fantastic range of comics work, works which picked up great reviews all over the place (including in the mainstream press). Disclaimer: I should point out, for those who don’t know, that Blank Slate is run by FPI’s own Kenny Penman, but I trust most of our readers know us well enough here on the blog to know that when it comes to reviews and opinions we strive to be honest – when I say some of these books are my favourites it has nothing to do with knowing those involved and simply to do with the fact that I loved reading those books. And talking of those books, let’s get started – and I apologise for how long this is, but I’m invoking editor’s privilege here – if I can’t ramble on about a whole pile of my favourite reading here then who can? To the books …
Blacksad, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, published Dark Horse
We’re a bit behind Europe on Blacksad – the first couple of volumes were translated years back but became inaccessible after the publisher closed and we’ve had to wait for a new English language edition. Kudos then to Dark Horse for bringing out this lovely hardback with all of the first three volumes of Blacksad collected together (a fourth tale came out in autumn 2010 in France). Essentially a classic 40s/50s gumshoe detective Noir but with animals instead of humans, Blacksad is simply one of the most gorgeous comics you’ll read. The characters and dialogue are genre-perfect – femme fatales, tough guys but with a code of honour and always a wisecrack – the mysteries and engrossing and Guarnido’s artwork is superb. Richly detailed scenes, both intimate, indoor scenarios and larger, street-wide panoramas, bring the period to life while the expressions on the character’s faces are amazing. Don’t just take my word for it, Steranko himself provides the introduction and lavishes much praise on this aspect of the art.
Louis: Night Salad, Metaphrog
I’ve adored Glasgow writing-art team Metaphrog’s Louis books for years and was eagerly looking forward to this new volume; I was not disappointed. The story sees Louis on a desperate – possibly imaginary – quest to save the life of his pet and best friend and touches on responsibility, guilt, love and what we will do when driven by those emotions. It’s hard to summarise the plot as much of it is very dream-like (and indeed it may even be a dream), it’s one of those stories you allow yourself to sink into. And the artwork is, in my opinion, some of the best they’ve created yet for Louis – the scenes in the underground city are utterly enchanting and magical, making it a beautiful book for younger readers and the older readers alike. You can read a full review here on the blog and Metaphrog talk us through the new Louis in a “director’s commentary” feature here.
X’ed Out, Charles Burns, published Jonathan Cape
It is something of a surprise to read Burns in full colour – for a few pages it feels quite odd, but I quickly got used to it, aided by the fact that, colour or not, he still uses his beautiful clear line style, which here is most appropriate given his allusions to Tintin throughout the book. Like some of Burns other works while there is a narrative of sorts to follow this is really more a book about dreams, nightmares and the collision of fantasies and the real world. Like Black Hole there is a real David Lynch feeling of creeping dread and our main character with his Tintin quiff (and sometimes donning a Tintin mask to do performance poetry as Nitnit) drifts between a drug-supported illness in his basement bed through what could be dreams, nightmare or hallucinations – it’s almost impossible to tell what scenes may be real and what are the product of a mind moving through guilts and repressions. It’s a work to be immersed into and feel rather than follow as a conventional narrative and I look forward to more in the series.
Depresso, Brick, published Knockabout
Typical, you wait ages for a British comic about mental health issues then two come in the same year. However Brick’s Depresso is a quite different beast from Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tale. It is often just as touching and honest, but the perspective here is mostly personal, a partly autobiographical tale following the cartoonist’s comics alter ego through the highs and lows of manic depression and the effects the illness (denied at first) has on both him and those around him, as well as the struggle to find some form of treatment, being passed from pillar to post in the NHS and the feeling that most health professionals don’t take depression seriously and are content to just keep offering various medications (with their attendant side effects).
Despite the subject matter though this is a more upbeat, comedic offering than Psychiatric Tales – Brick seems very much from the fine old school of Brit comics, the Leo Baxendale, Hunt Emerson type of comics. Even when tackling serious moments the artwork often has you laughing your butt off. I started reading it on a train one day and attracted more than a few looks both for the cover art (the book has a pleasing, European BD feel to it) and the laughs it was evoking from me. It hasn’t had the column inches of Psychiatric Tales, perhaps, but it’s a brilliant bit of very British cartooning and just as touching and honest, but with that lovely comedic touch that brightens even the dark depressions (which reminds us even when we’re down there’s still often something to laugh at – the sense of humour along with love is often what will save us). Brick was kind enough to grace us with a “director’s commentary” feature, talking us through some of Depresso, so if you missed it go and have a look then see about picking up the book.
Dance by the Light of the Moon, Judith Vanistendael, published SelfMadeHero
Over my years as a bookseller I’ve developed a bit of a sixth sense; there are times when I hear just a little about a new book or graphic novel and, without knowing anything else, I simply know it is going to be good and that I am going to love it. Dance was one of those books; as soon as I heard it was in the works I knew I had to read it. No, I don’t know how this feeling works, but I’ve learned to trust it, it’s always pointed me to good reading and this was no exception. Taking a before and after approach to the main events we get two strands about a romance between a Belgian student and a political refugee from Africa, struggling to stay in the country, the first largely from the long-suffering but clearly loving father’s perspective as the affair unfolds, the second set years later as our heroine recalls that youthful love and tells her young daughter about her ‘African prince’. It’s beautifully romantic and touching without being saccharine, capturing that intense feel of young love and also the concern mingled with love of the parents, so worried about their daughter being used or hurt and yet, like any loving parents, still doing their best to help her along the path she chooses because they want her to be happy. Simply beautiful.
Sleepyheads, Randall C, published Blank Slate Books
When Kenny first told me he was planning to do another translation of European work for Blank Slate some time back I had a look at the artist – Belgian creator Randall C – and his website. I found some of the Flemish version of Sleepyheads on his site and, despite not understanding most of the text, I fell in love with it right away. The artwork was simply so beautiful, even in another language it felt to me like it evoked a dream-like state. The English language version has more than lived up to expectations – it’s a very dreamy state of affairs, moving through a series of connected vignettes, like the dreams one has when lying in that half-awake, half-asleep hypnagogic state, aware you are dreaming yet still held within the dreams, which unfold with their own alternative logic that defies the waking world. Dream-like tales seem to have been something of a theme for me this year, now I look back at it (Cages, X’ed Out), but this stands out as a very unusual and oh so beautiful title, a talent that will be new to most English language readers too. I suspect many who adored entering Gaiman’s Dreaming will find much to love here. Something new, unusual and very beautiful.
The Hot Rock, Donald Westlake and Lax, published SelfMadeHero
We seem to be in a real boom time for crime tales in comics at the moment, both original works (like Criminal or the great series of works from DC’s Vertigo) and those adapted from great crime novelists. The Hot Rock, adapted by European creator Lax from Donald Westlake’s novel, stands easily alongside some of the best of those adaptations, right alongside the likes of Parker or Tardi’s adaptation of West Coast Blues). We get a whole series of cunningly crafted heists planned and executed here, with something unforeseen going wrong each time leading to another attempt to get the eponymous rock. The set-ups are brilliant, the characters excellent and most of all the book drips with the atmosphere of that 70s New York, before Times Square and the like were cleaned up, the sort of vibe you get from Taxi Driver, Mean Streets or French Connection, but with an added with and humour.
Hellboy: the Wild Hunt, Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo, published Dark Horse
I’ve been addicted to Mike Mignola’s Hellboy for many years now; I love the art style, the characters, the way Mignola often mixes in bits of real-world myth and folklore into his own world. So believe me when I say this is one of the best Hellboy collections in years – it reaches right back to the earliest tales and draws elements of them together as we continue to explore more of HB’s real reason for existing in our world and the role he has to play. Dunc Fegredo does a great job of taking on-board Mignola’s distinctive art style without slavishly aping it, still bringing his own feel to the series without disrupting the feel of it, not an easy trick to pull off, but he does it ably. Plus we have giants striding across Great Britain, ancient witches and Arthurian legend, I mean what more do you want?
Grandville Mon Amour, Bryan Talbot, published Jonathan Cape
Bryan Talbot returns with his second Grandville outing and it is a wonderful offering of murder mystery, conspiracy, guilt, revenge and wonderful turn of the century steampunk trappings, all wrapped up in Bryan’s gorgeous artwork. LeBrock returns in a case that become personal for him, following a daring escape from the Tower of London right before an execution of a vile murderer of women he put away. But there’s more here as Bryan starts to hint at more of the alternative history of his Grandville universe and the murderer and LeBrock’s past in the British resistance against French rule and the murky goings on that lead to independence once more are involved, as are conspiracies that may lead all the way to the top of the government. The story is a cracking read and moves along at a belting pace, but once you have read though it you will go back over it again and again because, as he often does, Bryan has loaded scenes with gorgeous details and references to other comics, books, history, film, art movements… It’s a delight finding some of them and I’m sure there are many more I missed, but that’s just an invitation to go back and read it again. Glorious stuff.
At the Mountains of Madness, HP Lovecraft, adapted by Ian Culbard, published SelfMadeHero
Lovecraft – for a man who lived a relatively short life he has cast a long shadow over all of the fantastical genres of the 20th century and shows no sign of his influence diminishing in the 21st. Lovecraft’s ancient horrors that existed long before man tap into both that strand of fantasy than imagine a Hyperborian time before the present race of humanity and lost worlds and the suspicion that perhaps we are pushing too far, prying into too much, that there are some places we should not explore, that should simply be left on the map with the legend “here be dragons”, that some knowledge simply should not be sought and our own arrogance in pursuing it at all costs will bring our ruin, an ancient, dreadful doom. Unlike many modern horrors there isn’t much in the way of huge set pieces here, rather, like Poe, Lovecraft and Culbard weave an atmosphere of dread and constant menace, like the thought that the darkness we walk in conceals something, a primal fear, that there is something lurking in the dark and we’re as helpless before it as our ancient ancestors were before sabre toothed tigers. And we’re right to be afraid here, there are ancient things in the dark places of the world that we should never disturb… Best read in bed on a dark night…
It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi, published Fantagraphics
I’ve admired the great Tardi for some time and was delighted when Fantagraphics started translating some of his work for the English language world. I first read some pages from this collection in French (very slowly and unevenly, my French is not great and very rusty) a few years back and have been longing to see it translated. I reviewed it a few months back, where I said that it stood next to Mills and Colquhoun’s Charley’s War as one of the finest comics about the Great War and I stand by that. It burns with a sense of outrage at the meaningless slaughter and sheer injustice of the events of almost a century ago. A century ago, perhaps, but we should never, ever forget and works like Trenches serve both as a fascinating piece of comics work and also an accessible reminder of history that has now all but passed from living memory and relies on books, film and other media to remind us.
Fantagraphics recently released more Tardi goodness in the shape of their first collection of his wonderful Adele Blanc-Sec adventures (Tardi, like Bryan Talbot, seems to be able to flit through any and all sorts of genres, adapting his art style to suit), but alas I only just picked up a copy and started reading it last week, so it’s not going to sneak into my list, but I’m already loving it, so it has to get a mention too.
Gonzo: a Graphic Biography of Hunter S Thompson by Will Bingley and Anthony Hope-Smith, published SelfMadeHero
I’ve been looking forward to this ever since SMH announced it the other year. The Great Gonzo has been a hero (anti-hero?) of mine since my teens, he’s up there with Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs and Bill Hicks in my book as one of the great counter cultural icons of 20th century American life. It would have been easy (and lazy) to have gone down the route of buying into the bizarre, outrageous public persona Thompson created for himself (a creation he both benefited from and suffered from). Instead Will and Anthony, while acknowledging this public image, go behind it to explore a figure who was important in pushing journalism to cover areas it had ignored and to gleefully ignore the wrath of the great and powerful in pursuit of a story that he thought should be told. Given the current rather cowed and tamed state of much of journalism, especially in the US (where no-one rocks the boat lest they have their White House press pass revoked or never be embedded again) this is a timely reminder that sometimes a journalist is supposed to stand and shout the story and make people listen. Brilliant stuff.
Cages, Dave McKean, published Dark Horse
I first read Cages years ago, reading a copy that belonged to a flatmate back in my student days. I was already familiar with Dave’s collaborations with Neil Gaiman, especially the brilliant Signal to Noise (still a visually fascinating piece), but this was Dave on his own, his own voice, articulating through words and pictures some of his own thoughts on life and art. It’s a massive piece, with something of a dream-like feel to it and it is ridiculous that such a major opus by a major artist has been unavailable for so many years, so I was delighted by Dark Horse republishing it. An important work by one of our finest creators and an essential tome for the shelves of any comics lover.
Psychiatric Tales, Darryl Cunningham, published Blank Slate Books
What can I say about this book that I haven’t said before? A book so good we reviewed it twice (my review, Richard’s review). A book that wasn’t just on an interesting subject that we all too often shy away from discussing in public because of a perceived stigma, but a book that gets into your thoughts, into your soul, that makes you think again about how you view the world and your own problems and, just as important, how you perceive the problems of others, especially those who are suffering, often through no fault of their own, coping both with a mental health affliction and ignorance and lack of empathy from many around them. I think Darryl’s work certainly addresses the second of those two problems – this is a comic that should be read by everyone. It should be in every library and every school. It’s touching, sensitive, human and a cry for understanding and the milk of human kindness, that finest quality of our species which we shouldn’t have to be reminded to employ, but somehow in our busy, self absorbed lives we do need reminding.
You know I normally select a pile of my favourite comics reading for the year but I normally don’t rank them in any sort of order. I’m going to break with that tradition this time round and say that, for me, this is the most important comic release of 2010. A hugely laudable work that is both well executed comics work and a touching, important voice on a subject too often hidden, a work that can and has reached out beyond the comics readership to many others. I’m delighted to see it is being published now in the US and will soon be translated for the acclaimed Italian publisher Coconino. Here’s hoping it travels further around our comics world and that as well as being a fascinating read, that it actually helps some people. Simply the most beautiful, touching work I read all year.
Since I’ve spent so long rambling on about some of my favourite graphic novels of 2010 (and I am sure I’ve forgotten some) I’ll be a bit more concise with my other faves of the year. In books again I found some excellent SF&F reading, among which was a name new to me, French author Pierre Pevel. His Cardinal’s Blades (published Gollancz) totally hooked me in right away – fabulous historical fantasy, actually for the most part more historical, all set in pre revolutionary France, with a scheming Richelieu, dashing, courageous swordsmen who are, essentially, the Mission Impossible force for the French state and a dash of dragons and magic thrown in. there’s swashbuckling galore, compelling characters (including, refreshingly, some very strong female leads) and a wonderful sense of the history (Pevel’s descriptions of Old Paris are remarkable, you can imagine yourself in those winding, rather aromatic streets so different from modern Paris). I’ve just devoured the sequel, The Alchemist in the Shadows and it was superb, the best swashbuckling novel since the great Arturo Perez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste novels; think Dumas for a modern era but with added fantasy elements. Can’t wait for the next book!
Aussie scribe Marianne De Pierres continued her Sentients of Orion series (published by Orbit), a bit of a departure for her, delving into full on space opera mode. With the latest volume she brought events to a head, with what started as a seemingly regional attack on a planet becoming a huge scale war spread across the galaxy, personalising the vast scale through her range of carefully cultivated characters and, as with her previous works that I’ve so enjoyed, she continues to write some seriously strong female lead characters, something we need more of in SF.
Pittacus Lore’s I Am Number Four (published by Penguin) was a hugely enjoyable young adult slice of SF – a handful of young survivors from a planet decimated by greedy, warlike neighbours who endlessly consume natural resources have fled to earth, watched over and trained by guardians, constantly having to move, to refrain from making connections with others as they try to conceal themselves from their enemies, while they grow into their attributes, powers they develop naturally, different to each of them, their only hope for reclaiming their world and quite possible for defending ours, should the enemy decide our world is their next target. Add in first romance to the mix and it’s a cracking YA read. There’s a movie version due quite soon.
Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl was a book I hadn’t heard of until it was chosen as the reading for the SF book group I set up years ago (still going strong) and is a fine example of how recommendations and book groups can lead you to something wonderful you may not have found otherwise. Set in a future where most resources have been used up (now we are back to clipper ships instead of huge container freighters and airships instead of fuel burning jets), Paolo’s tale of an environmentally ruined future teems with atmosphere, set in Thailand as it tries to protect itself from outside influences and (literal) corruptions but forced to interact and trade with the outside world. He could have a great second career as a travel writer, the sense of the place, the people and customs he evokes are so remarkable, you really feel yourself immersed into this other culture. I read the Night Shade edition a few months back, but I see our good friends at Orbit have just released a mass market paperback which should be easier for you to find. Something very new, unusual and captivating.
Jeff VanderMeer‘s cropped up more than a few times over the years on the blog as a writer I’ve recommended and his latest work, Finch (published by Corvus), is no exception. Jeff is one of those remarkable writers who is always compelling, be he tackling a novel or editing a great anthology or reviewing books and comics (you should check out his blog), but when he returns to his strange, distorted half-fantasy, half real-world setting of Ambergris I always get excited. This time around he opts for a gumshoe detective style tale as opposed to the autobiography/history approach of Shriek, set in an Ambergris now ruled by the bizarre Gray Caps, the bizarre, mysterious denizens of the city’s underground and the entire city and many of the inhabitants are mutating due to their fungal technology. There aren’t many who could convey both a feeling of Chandler-esque detective tale with Cronenberg type body horror, but Jeff can. Up there with China Mieville as one of the finest masters of the New Weird that you should be reading.
How to Live in a Science Fictional Universe, Charles Yu, Corvus. Another score for Corvus and, like its stablemate Finch it is a welcome unusual entry into the genre, delightfully odd and different to most other SF. Charles is a time machine repair man, happily avoiding life and all the complexity that comes with it and relationships by staying inside his own closed timeline, talking only to his possibly imaginary dog and his time machine’s AI who he may have a bit of a crush on. As with all things temporal it can quickly get confusing, especially when you factor in not only time travel and paradoxes but also the fact the universe Charles is living in seems to be a man-made construct, made by entertainment companies in much the way theme parks are today. Odd, quirky, funny (well to us geeks!) and very smart, a new talent to watch for.
Mike Cobley’s continued to impress me with his move away from fantasy and into space opera with the second book of his Humanity’s Fire series, The Orphaned Worlds (published Orbit), a series in which distant, lost human colonies which were spun off into deep space centuries before to preserve the race in the face of a disaster, are slowly being rediscovered. What should be a joyful reunion of lost human tribes is marred by interstellar power politics though and the colonists find themselves drawn into a situation they know little of after their isolation for centuries. It’s an engrossing series and I love the characters, especially his mix of Russian-Scandinavian-Scottish colonists on Darien (a historical reference and joke on Scots history). Looking forward to book three.
And once again for everyone who enjoys quality science fiction Interzone journal continues to be a much needed home to some brilliant short SF tales, a good place to find new talent (and established voices) to watch for; ditto Black Static, Interzone’s sister publication which takes in horror and the darker side of fantasy, both regular reading material for me, available in our stores and from TTA Press.
Inception was a hugely enjoyable film, for me probably the most interesting Chris Nolan since his Memento and proof that a big budget film with huge effects and action scenes (the assault on the snow fortress is so very old school James Bond, as the director happily acknowledged). The scenes set during the gravity shifts are amazing, as is the walk through the dream version of the streets of Paris. Well worth re-watching, just like Memento, as you try to work out just what is happening as layers and layers of symbols and dreams within dreams are laid on one another.
Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist is probably my favourite film of the year – it’s no secret that I love animation and Chomet’s Belleville Rendezvous was wonderful. For the Illusionist he was drawing on an unfilmed Tati script, relocated to my home, the beautiful city of Edinburgh. Chomet worked from a studio in the city to make it and was inspired to capture the constantly changing quality of light we have in Scotland – the scene where a boat crosses a Scottish loch (in a scene nodding to Tintin, but with more flapping kilt) under clouds which suddenly part to sunlight perfectly capture that constantly changing light and weather, while his bittersweet tale of a naïve young island girl and a failing stage magician, while sad in many places, showcases a semi-fantasy version of 1950s Edinburgh which is simply gorgeous.
On the TV front of course Doctor Who continues to be must-see viewing for me and I enjoyed Matt Smith’s first year while Karen Gillan has been terrific too. Fringe has got me totally and utterly hooked and the new season, split between our own and the alternative Earth, has been compelling. And I must give out a shout to one of the most geek friendly of all shows on TV and one that gets missed a lot I think due to being often hidden away on late slots on digital channels, Big bang Theory. My colleague Iz first put me on to this and now I love it – comics, science fiction and science geekery abound, it’s the best geek comedy around and anyone who loves their SF and comics should be enjoying it. Check out a clip of the recent fancy dress ‘Justice League’ scene here (sorry, it won’t let me embed it)
Okay, phew, that’s it and I know I am missing out a lot of people, books and comics I meant to include as well, but I think that’s more than enough! And that’s it, folks, we’ve come to the end of our annual Best of the Year fest and I’d very much like to thank all the guests who kindly took the time to share some of their favourite comics, books and movies with us every weekday through the last several weeks. I hope you enjoyed them and I hope that you picked up some new readings suggestions from them too (I certainly did). There really were some great comics and SF&F reads in 2010, there are some brilliant ones due for 2011 that I am looking forward to very much – it looks like another bumper year for quality comics in particular, especially in the UK scene, and I hope you’ll join us in supporting and celebrating that scene. And I’d also like to thank our many regular readers and friends who comment and link to the blog or re-tweet us – your support is much appreciated!