by Charles Burns (Pantheon)
Released in tantalizing chapters over ten years, Charles Burns' atmospheric magnum opus of teenage sex and death has finally been collected as a hardcover book, creating the year's best graphic novel. Set in the 1970s, Black Hole uses the tropes of that decade's best horror movies -- bell-bottoms, sex, monsters, drug use and murder -- and twists them in unexpected ways to explore psychology, symbolism and the weirdness of growing up. A sexually transmitted disease called "the bug" mutates its teenage victims in creepy, disfiguring ways, giving one an extra mouth, and another a little tail. But rather than making his protagonists fall in love while battling freaks, Burns makes them deal with the alienation of getting infected. Drawn in a detailed, high-contrast black and white style where you can count every nascent hair on a teenage lip, Burns' images will have your skin crawling even as you marvel at their beauty. Masterfully using the medium's ability to carry both visual and literary metaphor, and mixing in the kicks of a top-notch exploitation yarn, Burns' Black Hole will suck you in.
A Trip Through a 'Black Hole' 10/21/2005
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by David B. (Pantheon)
Another masterpiece released in teasing installments, the first half of David B.'s phantasmagorical memoir about growing up with an epileptic brother was brilliant enough to merit the top spot in TIME's top comix list of 2002. Finally partnered with the second half as a complete graphic novel, readers can at last enjoy the full scope of Epileptic's remarkable meditation on the nature of illness, the impact of history on the present, and the need to create fantasies and art. David B. seems to have total recall of what it was like growing up with a stigmatized brother, providing a fascinatingly detailed account of parents who try everything, including a stint at a macrobiotic commune, to cure their son. But the illness only serves as the thread around which the author weaves his other themes, illustrated in extraordinary black and white drawings that give form to ghosts and demons as much as real people. Deeply moving, stunning to look at, and a perfect marriage of form and content, Epileptic stands shoulder to shoulder with that other great comix memoir, Art Spiegelman's Maus.
Spinning Art from Misery 6/18/2002
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Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!
by Winsor McCay and edited by Peter Maresca (Sunday Press)
100 years ago there appeared a full color comic strip unlike any seen before or since. "Little Nemo in Slumberland," by Winsor McCay, a pioneer of both comics and animation ("Little Gertie the Dinosaur"), followed the adventures of a little boy in the world of dreams until, at the end of every episode, he awakens. Some of the most visually inventive comics ever created, McCay's strips would put Nemo through diamond palaces, into the mouths of dragons, and as a giant who climbs among the New York skyscrapers, pre King Kong. Though collected in various editions over the years, this one is the finest, reprinting the best of the full-page strip at its original, giant tabloid size (16x21 inches!) with meticulous re-coloring that duplicates as closely as possible the subtle hues that rolled off the presses 100 years ago. "So Many Splendid Sundays" is a magic formula for instant regression as you cradle a huge book in your lap and stare, open-mouthed, at the dazzling color, wild visual imagination and enchanting stories of "Little Nemo."
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Walt & Skeezix
by Frank King (Drawn & Quarterly))
Finally exposing the work of a nearly forgotten master cartoonist, Walt & Skeezix reprints the first two years of Frank King's deeply American comic strip "Gasoline Alley" in the debut of what will (hopefully) be an annual reprint series for the next twenty years or so. Famous for characters who age in real time, like Walt, the dedicated bachelor and his adopted son Skeezix, the strip amounts to a daily diary of an American family as it goes through the depression, WWII, the post-war boom and beyond. This first volume features many car gags, but they soon give way to King's fascination with the country life as Walt, Skeezix and the Alley gang go for a trip to Yellowstone. Every day they pass through a real town, with its name duly noted in the corner. Walt & Skeezix is a trip you won't want to miss.
A Bright, Well-lit 'Alley' 7/9/2005
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by Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly))
Once only available as samizdat-style photocopied pamphlets, this year fans of Kevin Huizenga's comix have finally been rewarded with a regular, aboveground series. One of the most promising of a new generation of cartoonists, Huizenga's stories use a combination of the quotidian and the surreal to explore themes of science, nature, religion and family. One episode spends twenty pages interpreting a single moment when a character becomes blinded by the sun coming through a library window. Using whimsy to explore the metaphysical, Huizenga's Or Else, consistently surprises with its intelligence and artistry.
Get It 'Or Else' 4/1/2005
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Concrete: The Human Dilemma
by Paul Chadwick (Dark Horse)
Anyone who thought they outgrew superheroes, or never thought they would like them, should give Concrete a try. Though he looks like a rock pile and has super-strength, he's actually a nervous, left-leaning smarty who copes with issues like population control rather than absurd super-villains. While staying true to the requirements of the genre by creating dynamic action scenes and melodramatic storylines, like having Concrete, who is ostensibly male, get pregnant, Chadwick keeps Concrete grounded to the real world. Released this year as a six part series, watch for "The Human Dilemma" collection in 2006, along with other fresh reprints of previous Concrete tales for "superhero" stories that have weight.
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Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea
by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly)
In 2001 Guy Delisle spent several months in North Korea's capital overseeing the production of a French animated TV show. While the show may be forgotten, his comix diary of the experience will not be. With a great deal of dry humor, Delisle examines the workings of the world's most hyper-controlled society, where the only lights in the city seem to be the ones focused on monuments to the "Dear Leader." Though it lacks the deep cultural penetration of some other memoirs, like Marjane Satrapri's Persepolis series and Joe Sacco's Balkan War books, Pyongyang provides a cartoon corrective to a place that too often gets characterized in "cartoonish" ways.
From Ming to Kim 9/23/2005
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Dungeon vol. 2
by Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim (NBM)
Created by two of France's top cartoonists, Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar (who also saw the release of his excellent solo graphic novel, The Rabbi's Cat, this year), the Dungeon series, which parodies such "sword and sandal" works as Conan or Lord of the Rings, has become a huge hit in its native country. The first two English-translated volumes reveal why. Filled with comedy the stars are cowardly duck and vegetarian dragon and adventure, these full color stories have an inventiveness rarely seen since, well, Conan or Lord of the Rings.
'Dungeons' and Ducks 3/19/2005
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by R. Kikuo Johnson (Fantagraphics)
A stunning debut by an unpublished author who mailed his manuscript in on spec, Night Fisher candidly exposes the lives of the young and bored in Hawaii. Going to a prep school his single father can't really afford, the lonely Loren Foster tries to keep up with his AP classes but becomes more interested in hanging out with his ne'r-do-well pal and tweaking on crystal meth. While filling the story with atmospheric details like Hawaiian slang ("baku" for meth; "haole" for a non-native), Johnson's remarkably confident artwork drains the lush world of its color, leaving just the deep shadows. Night Fisher brings a chill to the tropics.
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Mome vols. 1 + 2
edited by Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics)
The best anthology of the year only promises to get better as the biannual book-sized series continues to nurture some of the medium's most interesting young talent. The series perfectly balances the more avante garde works of an artist like Anders Nilsen whose faceless characters pose against photographic backgrounds while musing on the nature of reality, with more straightforward work like Andrice Arp's delightful adaptation of Japanese folktales. Where most anthologies have, at best, a 50/50 hit/miss ratio, Mome manages to be all-hit, don't miss.