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It was a good year for a wide array of comics collections and graphic novels. From superheroes to memoirs of old age to vintage reprints, there was something for anyone — which is to say, everyone — interested in visual storytelling. In no particular order:
• Picture This, Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly) Barry’s follow-up to her remarkable What It Is is, once again, a combination how-to book, a memoir, and an inspirational book of the highest order. Picture This will tap into the artist you may have hidden in the recesses in your soul, encouraging you to pick up pencil or paintbrush and begin to enjoy the pleasure and thrill of making art yourself. “You move your hand and you scribble all you want and it feels very good,” she writes. Barry speaks the truth, always.
• How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden (Vertigo/DC)
A memoir of a trip this left-leaning Jew takes to Israel, determined to have her ideas about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict confirmed. Of course, things turn out more complicated than Glidden had imagined. So do her deceptively simple line drawings, their delicate watercolor shadings, and the thinking that informs the vivid dialogue in a graphic nonfiction novel of subtlety and understated wit.
• Nipper 1963-64, Doug Wright (Drawn & Quarterly) These Canadian newspaper strips, free of dialogue but full of vivid line drawings, depict the mischievous adventures of a little boy. Wright, a stay-at-home cartoonist and father, doubtlessly drew quite literally on personal observation and experience, but the fluidity of his inks and his storytelling makes this an all-ages special.
• Richard Stark’s Parker: The Outfit, adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (IDW) Cooke, whose best-known work has probably been for DC Comics (The New Frontier, his reinterpretation of The Spirit), proves again that he can capture in pictures the terse storytelling of Donald Westlake, who used the pen name Richard Stark for his brutally succinct hard-boiled novels featuring the canny thief Parker. Adaptations of novels generally tend to concentrate on getting the plot and dialogue down accurately, but Cooke is working on a higher level: He wants to be sure you experience the cold amorality of the Parker stories. He does so by drawing Parker as a series of sharp, flat angles, and by avoiding film noir visual clichés in precisely the same way Westlake/Stark avoided hard-boiled-fiction clichés.
• A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics) Ostensibly Japanese comics aimed at the adolescent-girl market, these so-called Ten Stories of the Human Heart are lush mixtures of dreamlike imagery and realistic depictions of young people’s yearnings, hopes, reveries, and fears. Gathering representative work from four decades of publication, A Drunken Dream exerts a hypnotic pull on the reader, Moto Hagio knows both her commercial audience and her ideal audience — which is to say, the world.
• Batwoman: Elegy, Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams (DC Comics) The year’s most intriguing superhero art came from Williams, who shattered the conventional arrangement of panels in a comic book, drawing in the broken shards in a manner that suited the fractured consciousness of Batwoman. Writer Rucka gave her a worthy foe, an insane criminal, Alice, who leads a cult of crime. This hardcover collects six issues of Detective Comics, and demonstrates just how far adventurous creators can venture the erroneously perceived boundaries of commercial comics.
• Denys Wortman’s New York (Drawn & Quarterly) Probably the historical discovery of the year in comics, this volume — subtitled “Portrait of the City in the 1930s and 1940s,” edited by James Sturm and Brandon Elston, offers a sumptuous gathering of one-panel, pencil-and-ink drawings that summon up an earlier era of city life. Working for The New Yorker, Life, and, most prolifically, the World newspaper, Wortman incorporated overheard and imagined snatches of dialogue among working-class citizens and dowagers, rushing commuters and toff businessmen. No one is ridiculed; everyone is placed in a context that gives each life dignity. Which is not to say Wortman’s cartoons are without a vinegary tang: In the midst of the Depression, a pet-store owner is shown responding to a woman who’s come in bearing her pet bird in a cage. “Listen, lady,” he says brusquely, “your bird ain’t sick. Can you show me anybody today feels like singin’ every single morning when he gets up?” Timely as ever.
• Special Exits, Joyce Farmer (Fantagraphics) A long-form narrative about the decline of her parents’ health, Special Exits avoids cheap pity and piousness by doing what any good art should: focusing on specifics — the ways in which Farmer’s parents slide into old age and ill health; the care they require and receive. That this is also a portrait of a strong marriage is an added benefit. Frank, never shying away from the awkward indignities of aging, Special Exits illuminates two lives, as well as that of the author’s.
• The Great Treasury of Christmas Comic Book Stories, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW) A seasonal book that can be read all year ’round, The Great Treasury collected tales originally published in comic-book form by superb cartoonists such as Walt Kelly (Pogo), John Stanley (Little Lulu), and Richard Scarry. If you’re looking for a picture book that offers alternatives to familiar holiday tales, you can’t do better than this sturdy volume, with its stories including “Santa and the Pirates” and “Christmas Comes to the Woodland.”
• Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel (Abrams) As with Nadel’s eye-boggling previous anthology, Art Out of Time, this thick book offers an array of artist-writers both famous and little-known. What they all shared was employment on the more disreputable fringes of the comics industry, bending familiar genres (superheroes, horror, thriller) to their will. Nadel again demonstrates his knack for selecting mainstream work that can look like the dreams of surrealism, or the most brutish of art brut, or the wooziest of romanticism. You’re summoned beneath the spell of this work.
What graphic novels and comics caught your eye and mind in 2010?