NICOLAS and A DRIFTING LIFE on the American Statesmen’s 2009 best of list

Drawn in by another world 2009 dazzled with rich, varied graphic novels and comic series

American Statesmen    |    Joe Gross    |    December 26, 2009

What a strange year for comics. By the time the smoke cleared, Disney was buying Marvel Entertainment and Warner Bros. made DC Comics a subsidiary of DC Entertainment, with Paul Levitz stepping down from the publisher position. Zombies and President Barack Obama were the two cover images that seemed to move the most comics (DC's "Blackest Night" was all about heroes coming back from the dead, while every hero from Spider-Man to the Savage Dragon had some face time with the president). The "Watchmen" movie ended up selling millions of copies of the mid-1980s comic series. The archival newspaper strip reprint craze continued unabated with more and better strips in print now than I can remember in more than 25 years of comics fandom. (See "Little Orphan Annie," "Terry and the Pirates," "Dick Tracy" and many more). It still takes only a pencil and paper to create a world.

Here is a baker's dozen of comic series and graphic novels from 2009 that justified the medium's continued, if precarious, existence.

1. 'Asterios Polyp' by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon). Mazzucchelli has long been regarded as the ultimate cartoonist's cartoonist (even if he did make his bones on "Batman: Year One" and "Daredevil: Born Again," two of the best mainstream story arcs of the 1980s). "Asterios Polyp" was 10 years in the making and, despite its small flaws, is absolutely worth the wait, every page a master class in pure comics - in how to make every page convey an enormous amount of emotional and thematic information.

The story itself is slight, the sort of thing that Updike-fixated MFA students seem to churn out by the week - an architecture professor who has spent most of his life being a terrible man looks for redemption after his life collapses. But the execution is dazzling, a tour de force of color, line and especially space. Subtle, smart and innovative, "Asterios Polyp" is that rarest of graphic novels - a work that rewards as many readings as you care to invest.

2. 'A Drifting Life' by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn and Quarterly). Tatsumi brought literary realism to manga in the 1950s (see also his outstanding books "Good-bye" and "Abandon the Old in Tokyo"). This doorstop is his memoir and the best book (of any kind) about the passion that comics inspire since Dylan Horrocks' still-stunning "Hicksville." Opening with Japan's surrender in 1945, Tatsumi takes us through both his obsession with comics and the seismic cultural changes Japan was undergoing during the 1950s, paralleling Tatsumi's coming-of-age with mangas.

3. 'The Complete Jack Survives' by Jerry Moriarty (Buenaventura Press). A fascinating strip, as perfect a blend of comics and non-narrative painting as you are likely to find. Reading these giant, one-panel strips one after another, you understand why Moriarty's adherents are such fanatics. These strips, loosely based on Moriarty's father, occupy an emotional space all their own with their thick, bold, painterly strokes and everyday moments - these are visual haikus. Perhaps the comic I reread the most this year.

4. 'The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb' by R. Crumb (W.W. Norton) and 'The Wolverton Bible' by Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics). Two legendary cartoonists tackle the Good Book in completely different ways. Wolverton is coming from a position of faith - if his grotesque illustration of Revelations and Noah's ark prompt you to get saved, his work here is done. Crumb, not a man of religion, turns one of the world's most famous narratives into something that both includes every word of the text yet is pure Crumb. There's nobody else like him.

5. 'Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter' by Darwyn Cooke and Richard Stark (Idea & Design Works). I had little interest in illustrator Cooke's take on Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) initially - I like Parker fine in the paperbacks. But you get the impression Cooke lives in this rain-soaked headspace 24/7, that he dreams of black-and-white crime scenes and the noirish world of 1962's in-between days.

6. 'Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka' by Naoki Urasawa (Viz Media). To understand the scope of Urasawa's accomplishment with this multivolume remake of Osamu Tezuka's "Astro Boy," you first have to understand how important "Astro Boy" is to Japan. For example, Tezuka's nickname is "god of manga" and Astro Boy is a real citizen - Niiza City in Saitama prefecture registered the fictional character as an actual resident. So this is a bit like Urasawa saying, "You know what I should redo? 'The Godfather!'" Yet it works brilliantly, shifting the focus from the boy himself to a culture of robot-human relations and the crime therein. It took nerves of steel to do this at all, and consummate skill to do it right.

7. 'Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days' by Al Columbia (Fantagraphics). More a collection of images than a narrative, it's still something new from one of the most enigmatic and most influential cartoonists of the past 20 years. It's a bit like peeking at J.D. Salinger's notebooks, if his notebooks were pure nightmare fuel.

8. 'The Incredible Hercules' by Fred Van Lente, Greg Pak and various (Marvel Comics); 'Captain America' by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting (Marvel Comics); 'Secret Six' by Gail Simone and various (DC Comics); 'Detective Comics' by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams (DC Comics). Here are four of the very best mainstream comics being published today. "Hercules" is a perfect admixture of vintage mythology, sitcom humor, high adventure and punching. "Captain America" is an epic espionage thriller that is easily the equal of anything on the big screen. "Secret Six" turns the classic superhero team into a sick, cynical misfit crew of amoral loons. Rucka's story in "Detective Comics," about the newly minted character Batwoman, is perfectly fine, but Williams' art does four-color backflips, elevating it from "good" to "essential."

9. 'Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary' by Justin Green (McSweeney's). Autobiographical comics didn't exist when Green published this classic tale of Catholic guilt and its intersection with his own obsessive-compulsive disorder, which didn't really exist yet either. This classic - one of the most influential comics story of the past 40 years - has never, ever looked better than it does in this edition.

10. 'You'll Never Know, Book One: A Good and Decent Man' by C. Tyler (Fantagraphics). I didn't mean to push Green and Tyler together, it just happened - which is odd, as much of this excellent book, rendered in Tyler's gestural-yet-commanding style and idiosyncratic color sense, juxtaposes her rocky marriage to Green with her father's service in World War II and the way that his reluctance to discuss the war shaped their lives. A terrific addition to the canon of literature about baby boomers, their parents and their children.

11. 'Nicolas' by Pascal Girard (Drawn and Quarterly). Most good cartooning is knowing what not to draw, knowing the emotional power inherent in those decisions. Girard uses a minimalist style for this debut to chronicle the ongoing impact of his brother's death at age 5. It's only 64 spare pages, but you will not be able to finish it without a box of tissues.

12. 'Scalped' by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera (DC/Vertigo). This ongoing series is a vicious noir set on the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation. "Scalped" falls into the category of comics that are screaming to be made into an HBO series or a movie, a category that way too many books fall into these days (and one that I usually hate). Yet, this thing is a shotgun blast of junky fun, complex and layered and mean.

13. 'Wasteland: The Apocalyptic Edition, Volume 1' by Antony Johnston and Christopher J. Mitten (Oni Press). An oversized, deluxe volume of the first 13 issues of this end-times sci-fi epic. I could read comics this sprawling and nuts - with such widescreen world-building - all day.

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