Today’s guest Best of the Year comes from Andrew Salmond, manager at one of London’s landmark comics emporiums, Gosh, home to a great selection of comics work and a store noted for not only selling the comics but offering some solid support of the medium too, from small press to Indy to the major publishers – let’s see what’s caught Andrew’s eye in the last year:
FPI: Can you pick three comics/webcomics/graphic novels which you especially enjoyed over the last twelve months and tell us why you singled them out?
Andrew: It’s been quite the year, with new work from the top creators in the field. We’re absolutely spoiled to get new material from Ware, Clowes, Woodring, Burns, Sturm & Seth, not to mention one of the best stories we’ve seen from Jaime Hernandez since The Death of Speedy. Then there are the ongoing page-turners coming out each month that I’m eagerly awaiting, such as Walking Dead, Unwritten, Sweet Tooth, Scalped and the reliably entertaining Mignola-verse titles. And were people reading Daytripper? The brothers Ba & Moon make it all look so effortless. Not to mention a new issue of Berlin, a series that I think at its end will stand as one the greatest literary comics ever made. Sadly, I‘m woefully ignorant on the webcomics front. I keep meaning to get myself up to speed, but where do people find the time? A shame, because I know there’s some top stuff out there.
Anyway, a great year, and a tough one to choose just three books from. So I’m picking two which I felt were exciting announcements of talent, books that surprised me by how much I enjoyed them, and one that I just can’t leave out.
Set to Sea, by Drew Weing, is actually the unqualified top of my list. My absolute favourite of the year, just for the sheer pleasure of it. It’s the deceptively simple life story of a struggling young poet who finds a life for himself at sea, and it’s a proper misty-eyed treat. Weing’s art has no small amount of Jeff Smith in it, with affecting caricatures interacting in realistic, researched backgrounds, and his storytelling chops are evident. Within the limitations of the format –single panel pages – he manages to draw the reader into the lives of these characters, often entirely wordlessly, sharing their highs and lows before finally coming full circle in an entirely satisfying conclusion. Some mention should be made of the design of the book, too, which while unfortunately getting a little lost on a retail bookshelf due to its size, is a lovely item. The kind of thing that rewards the tactile experience of a physical book.
(short video of Set to Sea, borrowed from Fantagraphics’ Flickr)
Flourescent Black, by M.F. Wilson and Nathan Fox, is not perhaps the kind of thing I might normally slap on a top of the year list. It’s hardly a feast of personal or literary genius. But what it is, is flat out the most energetic, feverish comic I have read in years. Like some kind of demented cross between Akira and Ranxerox, it’s a dayglo feast of genetically engineered violence set against a backdrop which perfectly captures the non-stop, grimy buzz of major South East Asian cities. Many people might write Fox off as a Paul Pope clone, but I would argue that he brings his own voice to the plate, and it’s one worth hearing. It’s messy, it’s dirty, and it’s crazily exciting, and should be a must-read for anyone looking to make compelling, action-driven narratives. I’m not a big fan of the actual binding Heavy Metal have done with this thing, but the oversized presentation suits it perfectly.
(cover art to Fluorescent Black by and (c) MF Wilson and Nathan Fox, published Heavy Metal)
Weathercraft, by Jim Woodring, is my tip to the old hands that brought out work this year. As much as I love the others (Ware in particular), Woodring is for me in a class of his own. Reading an extended work by the man, you find yourself falling into a different state of mind, a world of sickly, queasy imaginings. And in a book which focuses on the Manhog, Woodrings most disturbing creation, you’re treated to all manner of sweaty, degrading horrors. I appreciate Woodring’s Frank comics are never going to be for everybody, but he’s an indisputable master of what he does. Few are as adept at drawing you so deeply into worlds which are so utterly alien, yet so incredibly personal.
(cover to Weathercraft by and (c) Jim Woodring, published Fantagraphics)
(Oh! Quick cheat: Mezolith was brilliant, too.)
FPI: Can you pick three books which you especially enjoyed over the last twelve months and tell us why you singled them out?
Andrew: My wife got me a Kindle for my birthday, and one of the free titles on there is South: The Story of Shackleton’s 1914-1917 Expedition, by Shackleton himself. I’ve seen documentaries about the ill-fated journey of the Endurance and her crew, but never actually read Shackleton’s own account, and it’s an amazing book. There’s not nearly as much ridiculous English stiff-upper-lippery as you might expect from this kind of account. Oh, it’s certainly there in places, but for the main part Shackleton is very matter-of-fact throughout this incredible story of survival against all odds. The sheer will to endure and survive that these men possessed is sometimes beyond belief, and the fact that no small number of them went on to die in World War I is just heartbreaking.
I like to read a fair bit of fantasy and sci-fi, but there’s a lot of dreck about. If something doesn’t grab me in 100 pages, I leave it. I’m not the fastest reader, and life is, it becomes increasingly apparent, too short to waste the time. But one series I enjoyed a great deal this year was The Long Price, by Daniel Abraham. With an interesting, Asian-inspired setting, a story which spans decades and an innovative approach to magic, it sucked me right in. Abraham has a knack for creating sympathetic characters who don’t necessarily make the decisions conventional fantasy narratives would lead us to expect. Over the course of two books (Shadow & Betrayal and Seasons of War), the story takes unexpected turns on its way to a moving, final conclusion. It’s not going to change your life, but it’s damn good entertainment.
My wife is South African, and I went there for the first time in February of this year. In preparation for that, I decided I should improve my woeful lack of knowledge about the African continent, which was limited largely to whatever cause the media had decided to pick up on in any given year. The State of Africa, by Martin Meredith, is a history of post-colonial Africa, jumping all around the continent to give an excellent overview of its political and social history from the initial independence movements of the 1950’s through to the present day. Much of what it covers doesn’t make for pleasant reading, especially the “Big Man” era through the 60’s and 70’s, and the various unrests and civil wars that often signalled its end and which continue to this day. But it’s not unremittingly bleak. Africa is too often written off as though it were a country, not an immense continent, and the quiet success stories of countries like Botswana are all too often overlooked. Meredith has a great style, conversational in tone, and it’s just as well, because the book is ridiculously dense, but never becomes a slog.
FPI: Can you pick three TV shows and/or movies which you especially enjoyed over the last twelve months and tell us why you singled them out?
Andrew: I should quickly say here that probably my biggest disappointment of the year has been The Walking Dead. The comic is probably my favourite monthly, a survival-horror/soap opera mish-mash which keeps me hooked in the way that a good monthly comic should. And the TV series started out promisingly enough, despite some lazy tropes that had crept in (those durn rednecks!), but by the final two episodes it had deteriorated into some kind of “encounter of the week” show (Gangsters with Hearts of Gold! Mad Scientist!), and not in a good way. I’m hoping they pull things together for the second season.
It’s a bit of a cheat, but I want to put Red Dead Redemption in here. It’s an amazing achievement, an epic, sprawling narrative that is made to work within an interactive environment where you can do whatever the hell you like. Add to this the trademark wit that Rockstar bring to the party, and excellent voice-acting (the days of the first Resident Evil are long behind us, it seems), and you’ve got a title which delivers far more than most films or television shows have this year. Even the Call of Duty games, neo-con fever dreams that they are, are impressive for the storytelling they manage to pull off. Games continue to really come of age as narratives (complete with all the violent juvenilia masked as “adult storytelling” that will inevitably accompany that).
I came late to the party for Bored to Death, the new HBO show by Jonathan Ames, but I’ve loved both seasons of that. The cast are all top-notch, especially Ted Danson, who has completely restored his credibility with this and his guest turns in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hell, even Zach Galifianakis is good in it, and I’ve not normally got a lot of time for him.
Movie-wise, it hasn’t been a great year for me, to be honest. The main film I wanted to see this year, Black Swan, hasn’t come on general release yet, and I’ve seen precious little else that has really stuck in my head. I enjoyed Inception, but I wasn’t blown away by it, perhaps because of raised expectations. I did enjoy Scott Pilgrim, and Four Lions certainly deserves a mention, but I think I’ll give special note to Boy, a New Zealand film by Taika Waititi (director of Eagle vs Shark and several Flight of the Conchords episodes, among other things). Set in rural 1980’s New Zealand, it’s a coming of age story about a young Maori boy’s relationship with his father, recently returned from prison. It’s not as grim as that might sound, and for the most part plays as a comedy, but has a real emotional kick at its heart. Well worth seeking out.
FPI: how has 2010 been for you as a comics retailer?
Andrew: On the retail side, I don’t think anyone will argue that it’s been a tough year for independent retailers. Aside from the steady attrition to online sales, we’ve had to contend with the ongoing economic slump and what feels like the start of one of periodical comics’ cyclical downturns (I’ll be happy to be wrong). We haven’t had to tighten our belts too much, touch wood, but minimising waste has certainly been the theme of the year.
Thankfully, on the actual medium front, I feel 2010 has been a great year. Aside from the above-mentioned rash of new work from top creators, I’ve been particularly excited about what’s happening in the British scene. British publishers have been putting out beautifully presented editions of engaging, literary works that seem to really strike home with readers outside the comics world, and I’ll single out Blank Slate, SelfMadeHero and Nobrow in particular. The DFC Library also had a great run of all-ages titles, a very welcome addition to the market. All around, a great year for British publishers, and 2011 is looking to be more of the same. An original graphic novel by Pat McKeown? Yes please, Self Made Hero.
The small-press scene, too, has been massively impressive. Everywhere I look there seems to be a new talent popping up producing lovely looking home-made books. And let’s not forget the quality apparent in anthologies such as Solipsistic Pop, the Comix Reader and Paper Science. The UK scene feels very exciting right now, as though there is a huge amount of talent just bubbling below the surface, and I can’t wait to see what comes out of it.
Special mention should be made, too, (as it should every year, really) for the efforts of Paul Gravett and his erstwhile partner in crime Peter Stanbury, and their tireless promotion of comics to the world at large. The ongoing stream of Comica-related events throughout the year spoils us, really, and their efforts shouldn’t be taken for granted.
FPI: Anyone you think is a name we should be watching out for next year?
Andrew: Two people who I think are doing really exciting, creative things with comics right now, and who I expect to go from strength to strength, are Brandon Graham and James Stokoe. Both are just ridiculously inventive, and the work they do plays completely to the greatest strength of the medium: that you can basically do anything. Honestly, the amount of creativity they cram into their books (King City & Multiple Warheads for Graham and Wonton Soup & Orc Stain for Stokoe) beggars belief. The best part is, I don’t think either of them have hit their peak yet, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve got coming up.
(cover art for Orc Stain volume 1 by and (c) James Stokoe, published Image)