Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Best Comics of 2015 & Other Musings

It’s been a tough year on so many levels. I got a new job in December 2014 and things have been getting gradually more busy since. I haven’t read as much as I wanted once things kicked into place in June as a result of that and I suspect life will get busier next year as my wife and I are expecting our first child. It’s a wild and overwhelming experience. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that I’ll have even less time come May to waste talking at the vast emptiness of the Internet about comic books. We’ll see what happens. It's not time to throw the towel down just yet.

So, self-congratulations are in order, I think I improved my writing (slightly). Here are some of my best pieces from 2015 according to a panel consisting of only myself:
Not too bad, I'm proud of the political stuff I wrote. «the piece on Malachi Ward's Ritual Three and Steph Hill's A Brief, Accurate Graphic History of the Environmental Movement (Mostly in Canada) were some of my best I believe. This year also marked the first time I wrote for an external website. I wrote something for the Hooded Utilitarian roundtable on Joss Whedon. I'm not sure if it was any good, but some people commented, so that's more than I can say about this blog. That's gotta amount to something.
Anyways, without further ado, here is my selection for the best of 2015 in various categories

Best single issues

Copra #21 by Michel Fiffe
Frontier #7 by Jillian Tamaki

I wanted to include a single issue here, but I had to stretch it to two and I’ll explain why. I wanted an issue that could be read and enjoyed on its own terms, a stand-alone comic if you will, and of those, I feel as though the only comic that met that definition was Frontier #7 by Jillian Tamaki. The story follows the rise and fall of a mysterious cult. It charts the way an internet viral phenomenon affected millions until the hype died down and all that was left was a few people following it through to the very end. It was one of the most memorable things I've read all year. A very immersive done-in-one story that was wonderfully illustrated. The shades of blue gave the whole issue this eery, otherwordly vibe and made it a fantastic read.

But at the same time, it’s hard to overlook the experience I had reading the showdown issue of Copra. From the beginning of the series, this one character wants to avenge his family and find their killers. He does confront that man once in issue #13, but it’s only a part of that issue. In #21, it’s the whole issue. The violence is explicit. It’s raw, visceral, and there’s this energy to it that`s just incredible. The action sequences are well-done and there’s a sense that the characters are getting tired as the fight goes on. It’s incredible. One of the best issues so far. That first page is a thing to behold. It’s interesting too, since I’d place #14 in the best comics of 2014 and this issue works well but for completely different reasons. #14 is slow, deliberately showing WIR’s sense of alienation and withdrawal from his previous life after seeing the violence of the first arcs. It all builds to one very personal confrontation that is resolved quickly, methodically, as if violence was a no-brainer to end conflicts. Issue #21 is all about action. There’s no slow-building; it’s two characters with a history methodically pounding on each other using everything they have in a very innovative way. This goes to show the storytelling strength of Michel Fiffe. This made it all the more personal with his monthly letter at the back where he talks about the loss of his father.

Best reprint project

Melody by Sylvie Rancourt

It could be that I'm from Quebec, but I've rarely seen comic work capture the zeitgeist of Montreal as clearly as this work does. Melody collects the works of Sylvie Rancourt that came out in the 80's and unfortunately, didn't have much success. I'm glad to see this in such an extensive collection by Drawn & Quarterly. Rancourt's work is interesting for its unapolegetic way in which it depicts the work and the environment in which it takes place. It's often contradictory, while Melody is exploited by her work, she is also exploiting the work she's doing for her comics. Her husband is a terrible piece of shit, but it's not particularly about him either. It's politics are hard to pin down as well and the lack of a regular narration means we have to rely on what we read and see and infer the rest, for better or worse. For example, as a reader, I often wanted to see her leave her jerk of a husband, but the story isn't about that and doesn't lead to that. It's about a woman working in a seedy environment and telling her story as it happened. It's simple style is also quite interesting.

While it doesn't contain all the work Rancourt has done with those characters, it is a wonderful introduction to her comics and I hope that more Canadians will give this thing a shot. It's worth it.

Best Graphic Novel

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Not Funny Ha-Ha by Leah Hayes
For as long as it rains by Zviane
Exquisite Corpse by Penelope Bagieu

These are the books I enjoyed the most this year in no particular order. I talked about For as long as it rains last year when I read it in French. The translation is excellent and I'm glad it will reach a wider audience. Nimona was a fantastic fantasy story that played with the conventions of the genre and gave us a truly impressive and touching story. Not Funny Ha-Ha was a great documentary comic (is that a thing?) that managed to take a touchy subject like abortion and explain it in a very sober, informative, restrained way, devoid of politics and religion with great art on top of it. Exquisite Corpse is charming. I don't know why these four books in particular spoke to me this year. Maybe it's because the year was so bleak I fell back on some lighter books for entertainment. I did follow the elections coverage daily, which is enough to drive many insane on a short election period, but this one was the second longest in Canadian history so you can only imagine my frustration.

Honourable mention

Leather Vest by Michael Comeau
Soppy by Philippa Rice
First Year Healthy by Michael Deforge
Lydian by Sam Alden
Mowgli’s Mirror by Oliver Schrauwen

All good comics I wanted to showcase here. Leather Vest is Michael Comeau's comic exploring race and gender in fiction as a creator by looking specifically at Storm from the X-Men. I've been meaning to do a longer piece on it since May. Soppy is the one comic my wife read this year and it's charming and poignant. First Year Healthy was a great and troubling read as well. my second favourite Deforge comic this year. Sam Alden's Lydian was such a departure from the stuff I've seen him do before that it was refreshing to see such a turn towards exploration and changes. I highly recommend it. And finally, I'd be silly not to mention how wonderful Mowgli's Mirror looked. Although it wasn't my favourite publication by Retrofit Comics this year (that honor would go to Laura Knetzger's Sea Urchin and Yumi Sakugaya's Ikenaba) I still felt it needed to be showcased for it's bold use of space and color.

Best comic website

Hands down the best source on comics at the moments. Zainab Akthar provides in depth interviews, thoughtful analyses and a generally great voice to the world of comics criticism and reporting. It's refreshing to see someone write as easily about alternative manga, European comics and more mainstream work. I'm happy to see she's being supported by folks on Patreon, I'm glad her voice is being recognized. 

Honourable mention to J. Caleb Mozzocco, over at Everyday is like Wednesday. If only he could stop reading garbagey cape comics and talk about more interesting comics, his output would be so much better.

Best prose comic

All Dogs are Dogs by Michael Deforge

I'm not sure how I'd characterize prose comics, except in "words with some illustration". I don't think I'd have this category again, but felt this mini comic by Michael Deforge needed some recognition. This came out as part of the All Dogs are Dogs exhibit at the Ottawa SAW Gallery and was pretty amazing. It is essentially a bizarre tale in which our dogs evolved (or were genetically enhanced) and we follow the story from three points of view: a human's relation with those advanced dogs, a regular dog and an advanced dog. It is curious, kind of ridiculous, but troubling and affecting. I wasn't expecting so much depth from such a short piece. 

Best Canadian political work

Dogs by Ad Astra comix
Uneducation: A Residential School story

2015 was a very political year in Canada. The federal election brought some much needed change to Canadian politics and was obviously a big part of it, but there's been so much other stuff. From the Mike Duffy scandal, to the Syrian refugee crisis, there's been a ton of stuff to keep the interest of the politically aware. Perhaps the strongest, most heartfelt story was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report. Landing in everyone's table with a bang, the TRC exposed terrifying facts about the way white settlers treated the first nation tribes in Canada and it exposed the mistreatment of children taken from their home to be taught the "modern" ways of life in white families. It was horrible to hear those affected by it speak out, and near impossible for those that listened to not cry. It was too loud to ignore and we're trying to collectively find ways to move forward. Already, the new liberal government appears to be making progress, but only time will tell if we'll be able to turn the page on this grim and bleak chapter of Canadian history. In the midst of this, I've had the chance to read two comics tackling this in one way or another. Dogs tells of another tale of first nations mistreatment, Dogs is a story based on the finding of another commission which reported that the RCMP slaughtered hundreds of dogs in Inuit settlements. I'm cheating a bit for the second one since it technically came out in 2014 (or even prior to that online), but I discovered it in 2015, so bear with me. The second is Uneducation: A Residential School Story, a sort of mix between zines, comics and political literature in which Jason Eaglespeaker uses those mediums to tell the story of abuse endured by children and parents alike by the Canadian residential program. 

Now I didn't buy this book, the library of Ottawa ordered it in 2015 because it was an important work. Progress it would seem, can come from a variety of different places. I hope you will all seek out these works.

Best anthology

Ley Lines
Ley Lines

This anthology basically asks of comics artist to explore their relationship with an artist, whomever it may be. It’s a simple concept, but the ways in which these stories are told are incredibly interesting. This year gave us Cathy G. Johnson exploring Vincent Van Gogh's work and Erin Curry on Cy Twombly. Comics aren’t insular, it can reference itself ad nauseam (that’s what the 2 mainstream publishers are doing), but comics are essentially works of art and I’m glad to see this explored in a more formal way. The results are quite impressive.

Best mini-series

We stand on guard by Brian K. Vaughan & Matt Hollisworth

As a French-Canadian man living in Ottawa, that first splash page where the national capital gets obliterated was surreal. Using Canada as a way to talk about how the US behaves with its oppressive foreign policies is brilliant. Our countries` histories are intertwined and we are, for the most part, quite similar. This is an effective satire, a sort of gory sci-fi Canadian Bacon and though I have yet to read the final issue, I can attest to the strength of that comic.

Best ongoing series

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConninck
Ody-C by Matt Fraction & Nathan Ward

Two phenomenal comics I enjoyed reading this year. I talked about Bitch Planet earlier this year. The analysis still stands: it's a great comic and one that deserves to be read. Ody-C is a different thing all together. A gender-bent riff on the Odyssey in space with psychedelic art by Nathan Ward. It's completely insane in it's depiction of what is essentially a story that's been told a million times. And yet, it works so well. Kudos to the creative team for attempting something like this.

That's a wrap folks! I'm retooling the Book Club Reports section and I may write our final discussion (on the spiteful Habibi by Craig Thompson). See you in 2016!

Illiterature v. Graphic Novel: A Meaningless Cacophony

Illiterature issue v. the graphic novel

I’ve had the pleasure to attend the recent Ottawa Small Press Book Fair in November. I wanted to see if anyone there had any comic books, but I was sadly disappointed. It was mostly poetry and some novels. The event itself was great and most people attending were in good spirits and quite friendly. I managed to find the one and only graphic novel there was from a small publisher in Kingston named Puddles of Sky Press. I learned about the collaborative aspect of the book, and noticed Mark Laliberté’s name in the collaborator’s page, of which I read and greatly enjoyed Grey Supreme from Koyama Press. I bought the book on a whim and was immensely disappointed. I’ve tried to articulate my disappointment and tried to find an interesting approach to discussing the underlying issues with it and thought it would be good to compare Illiterature issue v. graphic novel with the first issue of the poetry comic anthology Inkbrick 

Illiterature issue v. graphic novel doesn’t operate like a comic book or a graphic novel despite it's title. It shares very little resemblance to a graphic novel. It is much more in line with what you’d expect from poetry. Note that I said poetry and not poetry comics. Puddles of Sky Press publishes mostly poetry, so it seems closer to what they might normally publish. Poetry is about rhythm, style and substance. It has a certain intensity as thoughts and ideas are condensed and distilled in a stylistic form. You can say a lot with very few words. I expect a level of experimentation when I see poetry, but I normally expect the piece to have a certain cohesion. Poetry is a way of seeing and of understanding. There are meanings to what you say and to what the reader sees. It's a magnificent art form. I remember fondly discovering Louis Aragon’s post-war poetry and reading each one of his pieces slowly, combing through every line, finding meanings and new interpretations for each verse.

What we have in Illiterature issue v. graphic novel is a clash between the form of a comic book and the form of poetry. I scratched my head figuring out what this was until reading the editorial note in the back which reads as follow: Some pieces were submitted as single frames, others were submitted as full-page comics. The full-pages were dissected and broken down into individual frames and spaced throughout the novel to allow for a more seamless and cohesive collaboration. While I can understand the urge to use a new approach like this, it unfortunately renders the work meaningless. I can endeavour to make cognitive efforts to determine what the artists are trying to say, but the pieces are so fragmented that they are nearly impossible to reassemble. As a reader, particularly of poetry, I don't mind a puzzle, but this feels like someone threw several puzzles on the ground, shuffled them around and asked me to put them back together without telling me how many there are and how many pieces each puzzles have. The book seems too preoccupied by adhering to this experimental aesthetic, much to the detriment of cohesion. The experiment of the book includes splicing bits and pieces from pages from contributors and stitching them back together, like Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein Monster. The pieces don’t work because as a reader, you see 1/12th of a page. mashed up with other unrelated pages. The meanings are muffled and, although I’d like to say cryptic, I believe the proper term would be absent.

Five different artists, five different tones
The list of contributing artist for each page

It's quite disappointing. Some of the artists do seem to have an interesting take on comics as poetry. In particular, Dale Tracy's use of a panel that, in essence, explains what you'd be seeing if it were drawn was actually quite clever. "In this frame, the tree is carved into hundreds of startled wooden mice" is brilliant. It's ironic that the pieces that were left untouched, those that weren't spliced or divided, are the ones that work best. A few pages by Mark Laliberté, Mark Laba and Faye Harnest in particular are the most interesting. In those, the reader is allowed to look at a full piece from an artist and have some breathing room to analyze, understand and appreciate it.

A second disappointment is the fact that most of these pages are merely random letters stretched out and recombined, most of which are not drawn in a conventional sense, but rather through graphic design. Yes, letters create words which creates meaning. We get it. But illustrations also have meaning. Poetry as comics doesn't simply mean illustrated words (or literally illustrated letters). Here are some examples from the comic book world.

Lulu, Femme nue by Etienne Davodeau
A lone woman is looking amused at the pedestrian by a beach. Her look denotes contentment. She seems care-free, which is also reinforced by the fact that she's the only one in color. 
The Man that Dances in the Meadows by Sam Alden
A man, facing away from us is dancing. He stands in what seems like an open field, but it is hard to tell exactly where he is. His movements are otherworldly, which is reinforced by both the location and his duplication. We see the movement, of the man and it looks surreal. 

Copra #18 by Michel Fiffe
A woman, most likely named Xenia, declares that she hates Copra. Without even knowing what that means, we see that her silhouette is divided, almost broken. Her hatred of Copra left deep scars and left her broken. It hides a trauma. Her speech bubbles are broken up, there is anger, but also a difficulty in articulating that anger properly.

It's disheartening to see that so many of the collaborators of this collection seem to have failed to grasp that the fusion of graphic novel and poetry doesn't lie in the words. Combining words and images can be truly evocative and powerful but this isn't the way to do it. Now the examples above are all from character drawings, not a lot of text there, but you can see many things, just from the illustration, without knowing anything from the context.

The difficulty in reconciling this is that there are a ton of examples of poetry comics done well. I'll take just one, the first issue of Ink Brick, a journal dedicated to comics poetry. The description of the first issue online tells us that "the first issue features work by 8 creators using the visual language of comics to make poetry". The comic has a table of contents right at the front. The collaborators are given a few pages for their pieces and they're able to create some pretty powerful stuff. The first short from Alexander Rothman about a person's memory of waiting for his parent in a hot car in the summer while bees are flying towards a used soda can is interesting. He is able to convey both the memory and show the heat his protagonist is feeling. The pieces included in Ink Brick are not just illustrated poems; they each carry their own poetic narrative visually and through the words. Another equally interesting piece in the book is the one from Bianca Stone, her art is visceral. She uses colors and whites to add layers. We recognize the settings she's depicting, though they all feel slightly off. Her final page for example, we recognize a tent, but we're not quite sure where it is. It seems cold, a woman is wearing a winter coat with fur around the neck, but the ground is green, and she's not the one talking, but the bear is "My capacity for recovery is functional but not entirely - Half the sky distends above me in plummages... of gray nighties taken off. I see the faces of the people I love ... falling apart". It's a clash between the expectations of what you're supposed to feel when seeing those elements. This creates an interesting sense of engagement as we try to reassemble the pieces that were scrambled. Those are interesting examples of comics poetry where the reader comes out with a understanding of the piece, of the artist and of the art itself.

Poetry comics done well
Now all of these issues doesn’t make Illiterature v. Graphic Novel something to avoid. It’s an interesting and valuable experiment to try. You can see the answer to the question of whether a book that is simply spliced from panels cut and placed on random pages would still work as it’s own piece. The answer is negative, but it doesn’t reduce the effort in the least. There is much more that can be done with poetry comics. I'm not normally this harsh, especially for something with a print run so low it's almost non-existent. I guess I wanted it to be good and I felt betrayed with what I received. I expected comics and I expected poetry. I got neither, simply a meaningless cacophony. I hope this group keeps experimenting, I'll be back for a second round, but I hope a different approach is taken that time.