Friday, December 5, 2008

BEST COMICS OF 2008 :: In Case You're Wondering

by Dustin Harbin

Holy Cow, where did 2008 go? No matter--leave us not mourn the passing of good ol' 2008, when sexy young 2009 is right around the corner. Not to mention that we're getting ready for our big Holiday Sale this weekend, and haven't time for hindsight. Well, except these ten bits of hindsight.

Below is a list, in roughly ascending order, of my 10 favorite comics of 2008. Are all of these currently in stock in our store? Coincidentally, yes. Will they all be on sale this weekend (December 6-7)? Oh sure. Will you love each and every one of them? Of course! Let's get it started in here:

10: WHAT IT IS by Lynda Barry
This is the first book by Lynda Barry I've ever read, not that she has many other books, if any. I never really had read her long running "Ernie Pook" comic, lumping it in with a bunch of other snarky alternative free-weekly comics. I know, I'm judgmental--ask anybody. But within seconds of cracking the cover of this book, I knew this was the only book of its kind on the planet. I don't know how to explain it--the thing looks like a mess of collage and paint and post-it notes at first, but when you read it you IMMEDIATELY get the feeling of being connected directly to Lynda Barry's SOUL somehow. I know that sounds hokey, but I can't think of another way to put it. She spares no private corner of her persona, and the book--almost in a protective, motherly fashion--asks question after question with the idea of making you teach yourSELF how to think creatively, rather than merely showing you. This book belongs in every library of every person, comics reader or no.

09: KRAMER'S ERGOT VOLUME 7 edited by Sammy Harkham and Alvin Buenaventura
I would probably place this much higher on the list, and I suspect that 10 years from now this will be the book of the DECADE. But I've only leafed through it, and have not yet seen it, held it, read it. I have been enormously excited about this book since I first heard about it, and have been more vocal than usual about this fact. This would probably be #1 if I had the book in my hand already.

08: ORDINARY VICTORIES VOL 2 by Manu Larcenet
These freaking French guys are amazing. NBM has really been publishing some great books this year, possibly goosed into activity by the even-more-superior offerings from First Second, which also publishes a lot of translated European comics. Unfortunately, NBM books are terribly designed, so often you need to know a cartoonists' work to buy the book--otherwise you would just pass the thing by on the rack. I think we would sell this book in double digits easily if Volume 1 were only available. Such a travesty. Oh, I didn't say anything about the book, did I? Ooh, it's good.

07: GANGES #2 by Kevin Huizenga
Man, I love this guy. Kevin Huizenga might be the cartoonist I'm most intimidated by in person, although he's a nice guy, for sure. But he's obviously super-smart, and doesn't talk much. This is a great weakness for people like me who can't stop talking in public: my great Achilles heel is conversational silence. Now you know. Kevin's books look deceptively simple, but resonate long, long, LONG after being read, regardless of the topic. Which, in this case, in video games.

06: LITTLE NOTHINGS by Lewis Trondheim
Also published by NBM, but not so bad looking. This is a combination memoir/travelogue/rumination by one of the most prolific cartoonists in history, and is maybe the most pleasant book I've read all year. Trondheim seems to get off as much in screwing with people as anything else, and his mercurial nature--combined with his excessive complaining and chronic hypochondria--lend an air of real humanity to the book. It's this humanity that elevates Little Nothings from standard autobio comics to something truly great; not to mention providing a picture of one of the world's eminent cartoonists at a key point in his career and development as an artist.

05: CRICKETS #2 by Sammy Harkham
This book made me think for weeks and weeks after my initial and subsequent readings. Not just the main story (Crickets is a one-man anthology, although the main "golem" story takes up the majority of its pages), but especially the final couple of pages, where in a small space Harkham insults one of his publishers and CREAMS another cartoonist and educator. Why would someone do this? What does it mean? For another person, this would just be standard poo-slinging, but from someone of Sammy Harkham's stature and influence, these questions take on different meaning. Speaking for myself, Sammy might be my favorite cartoonist working today--the "Napoleon" strip on the inside front cover might be the best one-page strip I've ever read. Amazing!

Oh man, I've made no secret of my almost child-like delight in discovering Popeye. I know I'm wasting all my superlatives in this "Best Of" list, but here's one for Popeye: I get a juicy discount at work, but still paid FULL PRICE for this book at SPX just to have it early, and was reading it the very night I returned. From the strip itself to the design of the book, reading the new Popeye volume each year is the most pleasant reading experience of that year, period. I will be very sad when I finish the last volume (#6, I think).

I have a lot of friends who are cartoonists, but I'm really bad about reading their work for some reason. I've known Josh Cotter for a couple of years, mainly through seeing him at conventions, but only finally made myself read Skyscrapers a few months ago, and mainly because I was going to be sharing a table with him at SPX, and would have been mortified to admit I hadn't read it. While I'd heard the book was incredibly sad (and it was), it wasn't the sadness of it that impressed me so much. This book was just plain well-CONCEIVED. Without beating you over the head with it, Josh draws a picture of what it feels like to be a sad, lonely kid, in a world that only barely makes sense, and only for brief intervals. This was definitely the most surprising book I read this year, although I do Josh a disservice to be so surprised at his obvious talent. I shan't be surprised again.

Wow. Seriously, wow. This really should probably be the #1 book on this list, and for most of the year, it would have been. I certainly pushed it on plenty of people that way. While I like and respect Dash Shaw, I had never really connected with one of his works before. Counter-intuitively, I bought this book because it was MASSIVE and looked great. I do dumb things like that. But from the moment I read the line on the title page suggesting that the reader take a break between each of the three parts of the book, I was hooked. Why I can't say, but suddenly I was engaged, and it never went away. What looks like rough, hasty art in the first few pages becomes nuanced and perfect by its end, without ever changing. Another must-read, and another entry for "Best of the Decade".

01: GUS AND HIS GANG by Christophe Blain
Holy crap, this book blew me away. I've been a fan of Blain's, as well as his compatriots David B., Lewis Trondheim, Manu Larcenet, and pretty much all those L'Association guys, for awhile now. I have a tendency toward hyperbole, BUT try this on: this is a career-defining book by an already-great artist. What seems at first like a loose collection of humorous-but-not-hilarious cowboy stories quickly becomes a character study of a gang of three bandits. Blain's cartooning seems at once effortless and extraordinary. He does more with gesture, color, and line in a page than most cartoonists do in an entire book. Oh, but those colors! I finished this book wanting to splash color on everything: deep colors; wild, bright, ugly colors; any colors, just as deep and as saturated as I could make them. While I think that Bottomless Bellybutton is a better work, and certainly a better novel, this book was such an incredible shock that when I think of my favorite book of 2008, it comes to mind immediately. What could be better than having TOO MANY good things to choose from? A good year for comics, for sure.

These are all almost certainly incredible books, but I haven't read them yet, and feel weird calling them "BEST" anything.

ALSO I can't forget MOME #'s 11 and 12, both incredible, both featuring stories by Dash Shaw and Killoffer (I'm a serious Francophile for comics lately), as well as the hilarious "Truth Bear" stories by Ray Fenwick. Plus a bunch of other stuff I'm forgetting. If I could have taken the Dash Shaw story out of 11 and traded it with the one in 12, then 12 would have been one of the best books of the year, maybe in the top 3.


Andy Mansell said...

Darn great list! I would quibble over the rankings but in a year with this many great books published-- what's the point?
PLEASE!! Take advantage of the sale this weekend and try a few of these books.

BTW-- Bourbon Island, Scorchy Smith and especially Little Orphan Annie Vol 1 all belong on the list, but which books would they bump off? Beats the heck out of me.

Great list Dustin and thanks to you, Seth and the rest of the Heroes staff for turning me onto these books. Either my tastes are improving or your salesmanship is just that good!!

BTW-- my "under-rated over-looked" reprint book of the year is Hellblazer: the Fear Machine.

I would LOVE to see someone write a mainstream top ten today to give some more ideas for this weekend HEROES bargain hunters!!

Cross over events aside, it has been a pretty exciting year for the main stream hasn't it?

Rich Barrett said...

Great list. A lot on here I still need to read. I'm about 1/4 of the way through Bottomless Belly Button right now and the way it's shaping up I'd guess it would probably be #1 on my own list for the year.

Dustin Harbin said...


Andy: I'm trying to make time for Bourbon Island, but I don't want to rush through it, you know? Ditto for Alan's War. So much good stuff to read!

Dan Morris said...

Nice list Dustin, I was almost beginning to think that this was a rather lack luster year and then this list reminded me I haven't bought that many comics or read that many new comics this year. Thanks for giving a great starting point!

Rusty Baily said...

Dude! You forgot Secret Invasion and Final Crisis! Oh, wait a minute...those are books that people actually read....sorry.