Best of the Year – Joe’s picks
It’s been another quite superb year for good reading and, like last year’s Best Of selection, I’ve been delighted at the diversity and quality of comics work coming out of the UK publishing scene, which seems to be going from strength to strength and like the more established science fiction and fantasy publishing in the UK, it’s putting out works that are getting worldwide attention. SelfMadehero and Blank Slate especially have had a cracking year. I’ll apologise in advance – as usual I’m going to go on longer than I meant to, but I blame all those too damned talented writers and artists for that, made trying to narrow down my selection extremely difficult and I must apologise to some because I know that there are some I have probably missed out, but we better get on with this list:
The Corporate Skull, Jamie Smart (webcomic)
The new chapter has just started this very week online, but over the last few months few things have made me laugh out loud as much as Jamie Smart’s Corporate Skull, taking the mickey out of big business and corporate office culture, loaded with cynicism and sarcasm, decorated liberally with bad language, foul behaviour and violence and bodily excretions. It’s everything rude and crude but expertly and cleverly crafted. I said several months ago that it was “arse splittingly funny” and I stand by that comment, mostly because the aforementioned bum is still recuperating from the previous comedic splitting. Sick genius. The doctors say it is good therapy for Jamie to work it out of his system.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 2, Jacques Tardi, Fantagraphics
For my money Jacques Tardi is one of Europe’s great comics creators, a true maestro who can turn his hand and alter his style to suit almost any genre, from gruesome, angry It Was The War of the Trenches to hardboiled 70s crime and, of course, his famous Adele Blanc-Sec series. A plucky heroine writer who investigates the bizarre and always becomes entangled in the oddest conspiracies and plans. This second helping collects two of the original French albums and serves up a heady cocktail of conspiracies, secret societies, black magic practiocners, mad scientists (and boy does Tardi do a great, cackling mad scientist – he even brings in some from his brilliant The Arctic Maruader into this) and all set against a beautifully realised backdrop of Belle Epoque, pre-war Paris. Fantagraphics are translating a huge swathe of Tardi’s work and in fact I’d recommend and and everything they have so far translated and republished, but for the sake of this piece I’ll go with the wonderful Adele.
Hair Shirt, Patrick McEown, SelfMadeHero
This is a superb, dark piece from SMH, a labyrinthean maze of childhood memories and how they shape and influence the character and outlook of the protagonists as adults, set in one of those depressing, featureless “it could be anywhere” type of towns, with emotional paths triggered by the reconnection between childhood friends and almost-sweethearts John and Naomi, it’s a fascinating through a glass darkly tale that I could see making an engrossing film in the hands of someone like Guillermo del Toro. Dark, brooding, intense and fascinating.
MetaMaus, Art Spiegelman, Penguin
Spiegelman’s Maus must be about the most famous graphic novel on the planet, known not only to comics readers like Watchmen but to the wider reading public because of its reception and the Pulitzer Prize highlighting it even to readers who normally don’t read in the comics medium. That, however, is also something of a millstone for a young artist to carry around for the next few decades of his career and Spiegelman talks about that, as well as how he came to make the original comic, discussing the craft, the family history, his relationship with his father, the approach to the art and layout, it’s a truly exhaustive (it comes with a DVD packed with more material) look inside one of the major literary works of the 20th century, but it is also deeply personal too, not just in terms of discussing Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, the man whose tale he is telling, but also how the book has affected his own children growing up in its shadow. Penguin also republished the original Complete Maus in the same hardback format as MetaMaus to mark the anniversary of its publication, they make a very handsome set.
Don Quixote, Migeul de Cervantes with some help from Rob Davis, SelfMadeHero
Several years ago a poll of some of the best writers from many countries picked out this masterpiece of Spanish literature as the favourite novel for most of today’s respected international authors. They were right. It’s an astonishing book that has crossed centuries, influencing artists, writers, playwrights, poets, painters, film-makers and readers; several centuries of readers have fallen in love with this mad knight who dreams of a golden past of chivalry and adventure. Is Quixote a dreaming madman in a cynical age or is it the world that is wrong and his vision which is the more wonderful? Is it a Quixotic madness to even attempt to adapt this great work into comics? Perhaps, but as one who has loved this book for years I think Rob too has supped from the same cup of divinely inspired madness that made our tottering knight charge at windmills; it’s a wonderful madness we all need to embrace from time to time to rise above the mundanity of the everyday. Rob has put a Herculean effort into this adaptation – a read of his blog shows the effort and thought and love he’s put into each frame, how to approach the characters, even the effect of changing colours and shadows, and it shows in the finished work.
Quixote is one of those books that belong to the world and to the ages, given that immortality that belongs to few books across the long centuries, the few that become immortal, the Poes, the Dickens, the Austens, that will be read for as long as there are books and stories. If you’ve loved Quixote you will delight in this joyful adaptation of the work, if you haven’t had that pleasure yet then Rob’s is the perfect, accessible introduction to it, and afterwards you’ll want to read the book itself and treasure it. As a bookseller and booklover I can’t think of a higher compliment than that.
Hector Umbra, Uli Oesterle, Blank Slate Books
Much acclaimed on it’s German language release I was delighted to see Blank Slate translating Uli Oesterle’s brilliant Hector Umbra, his first full length work to make it into English. A brilliant mixture of buddy movie, religious conspiracy, science fiction and dark magics, with more than a tinge of the excellent Mike Mignola flavouring it as Hector, between drinks, tries to find his missing DJ friend Osaka, stumbles into a megolomaniac attempt to subvert humanity, even finds himself, in an almost Hellboy moment, entering into Hell to be given information from a recently dead friend. Stylish and funny as we see bizarre sights, drinking, shagging, lunacy and more around Munich and strange realms hidden away from normal sight. Think Mike Mignola meets Quentin Tarantino meets Wim Wenders.
Rime of the Modern Mariner, Nick Hayes, Jonathan Cape
Coleridge’s famous poetical work, inspired in part by the great age of exploration as ships sailed to undiscovered corners of the world, is reworked visually here to great effect by Guardian cartoonist Nick Hayes, who follows the rhyme and beat of Coleridge but refashions the work to a more contemporary topic of the environment and man’s disastrous effect on those great, world-spanning oceans, the cradle of all life. The book itself is unusual for a graphic work, being similar in format to a thick hardback novel rather than the normally larger album format, but this is perfect for the few frames on each page, designed to work in time to the beat of the verse. There’s some lovely work in there too – Nick did a Director’s Commentary for us back in the spring, where he talked us through some of the work in his own words, go and have a look.
Vignettes of Ystov, William Goldsmith, Jonathan Cape
Another unusual work from Cape in 2011 was this first major work from Will Goldsmith, whose work can also be seen in the Imagined Cities anthology Karrie Fransman put together. Ostensibly a series of short, two-page tales, each taking in a different story of a different (and usually eccentric and odd) dweller in a fictional, roughly Eastern European city, although the stories slowly start to become interlinked as you progress through, a little like Carver’s Short Cuts. Visually it is unlike anything else I’ve read in recent years, it’s a remarkable, unusual art style that demands re-reading to take it in. Unique.
Insurrection, Dan Abnett & Colin MacNeil, 2000 AD/Rebellion
I’m a 2000 AD boy, no question about it, original generation there right for the very first Prog and I still like to dive into the tales from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic today, with a special fondness for the Dredd-verse. This story from veterans Dan Abnett and Colin MacNeil is set in Dredd’s universe but doesn’t feature him, taking place on a Mega City colony in deep space, fighting for independence. Following an alien attack where the Judges ignored pleas for aid everyone, including sentient robots, genetically uplifted apes and mutants, were given citizenship in return for fighting to save the colony. War over they judge marshal is told to revoke that citizenship, which he refuses, leading to a colossal showdown with the feared SJS, the Special Judicial Squad we first really saw way back in The Day The Law Died years ago, the Judges who investigate the other Judges. It’s a great future war tale, seemingly good guys against bad, but Abnett deliberately muddles the morality to make it more dramatic while MacNeil creates some brilliant B&W art (see my review here for more).
Batwoman – the New 52, JH Williams III & W Haden Blackman,published DC Comics
Over the years I have largely slipped out of the habit of picking up monthly or weekly issues – yes, I know, sounds sacriligeous for someone in my position, but I have collected them for more years than I care to recall and these days I generally prefer to wait for the collected trade edition. But along with the rest of the blog gang I had to have a look at DC hugely ambitious New 52 experiment, effectively rebooting the main DC Universe, all re-starting at issue 1, a great spot to leap on for anyone new to them, or, like me, who had missed out several years of continuity. It was a great success for the most part and now 5 issues later I find myself still checking the racks for some of them, most notably Batwoman.
I can’t help but go back to it every month – interesting storyline with Kate Kane’s Batwoman facing a supernatural, very creepy threat as well as a more natural world threat from a government agency and a screwed up wannabe sidekick. But the team also deliver a good personal side to Kate’s non superhero life – the problems with her sidekick being emlematic of her her problems with relationships in general, like her missing, presumed dead, twin who returned as a psychotic villain, her estranged father, her detective lover who doesn’t know she is Batwoman… But mostly it is JH Williams III’s art. Simply fabulous, probably some of the best artwork you will see in a mainstream comic right now, achingly gorgeous, atmospheric and with some fantastically kinetic layouts across double pages that as well as looking great scream out to me this is comics and this is the sort of wonderful visualisations of a story only this medium can do.
And as a bonus we have a very strong female lead, every inch the equal of the Batman, quite independent of him, strong but with doubts and troubles but a tremendous determination to do her ‘duty’ honourably. And the fact that she is a lesbian is, I am glad to say, simply a part of her character, played for emotional nuances but not for titillation or exotic allure. Kudos to the guys for that too. And on the New 52 front I also need to give shout outs for Gail Simone’s Batgirl and Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato’s The Flash. And boy, am I surprised to find myself reading Flash again after all these years, but there you have it…
Nelson, edited Rob Davis & Woodrow Phoenix, published Blank Slate Books
It’s been an outstanding year for comics work again, and especially for the UK scene. Nobrow, Blank Slate, SelfMadeHero and Cape have all distinguished themselves and it feels to me like the UK scene, both professional Indy presses and the self published small presses, are just getting better, more diverse and more intersting. Good time to be a reader – the only drawback is more good books than I have time to read and it is murder trying to make a list like this out of so many fine candidates! But, hand on heart, I have to stick with what I said in my review (see here) of Nelson, where I called it:
“a fascinating, unusual landmark publication in Brit comics, a moving tale that works not only as a snapshot of a woman’s life but as a snapshot of the finest comics talent working in the UK right now.”
In a year of quite brilliant works Nelson still stands out for me, a bold experiment by Messrs Phoenix and Davis and all at Blank Slate to craft a single tale covering decades of a woman’s life, each segment by a different artist yet all coming together as more than the sum of it’s parts. I think it is one of those books we will still talk about looking back from future years, a major moment in the renaissance of UK comics publishing. And we even got to raise money for Shelter just by buying it. I’m running up my flag and saluting Nelson as my best graphic novel read of 2011.
Sea of Ghosts, Alan Campbell, Tor/Macmillan
First book of the Gravedigger Chronicles from the Scottish author Alan Campbell who impressed with his previous debut series, the Deepgate Trilogy. As with that debut his new series is an inventive, different and often disturbing take on a genre which can all too often fall into formulaic generic tropes. What starts as a fantasy on a world in which magic is real mutates throughout until it becomes half science fiction, half fantasy, with a compelling, driven lead character and a world where even the oceans have been poisoned by magica;/scientific meddling to become The Brine, the simplest splash of which is toxic and has horrible effects on the human body – and Campbell excels in grisly fates in a manner equalled only by veteran SF scribe Neal Asher. Compelling but not for the faint hearted.
The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley, Orbit
Book three of the Humanity’s Fire series sees Michael Cobley really coming of age – I enjoyed his original fantasy series he debuted with, but I think Mike’s switch to grand space opera science fiction was a wise one and this entire series marks him really growing into a much more assured, mature writer, with a brilliant tale of lost human colonies, major intrigues among major alien powers, a strong evnironmental thread and an exciting mixture of the big scale (major starship battles) and the personal (we get to know our heroes very well as they struggle for freedom), and his main planet with a colony composed of Scots, Norwegian and Russian descendants sharing their world with a friendly native species makes for a great and memorable cast of characters. Enjoy Ken MacLeod and Iain M Banks? Then you should be reading this.
The Reapers are the Angels, Alden Bell, Tor/Macmillan
Years ago a papercut from a radioactive book gave me special bookseller senses – sometimes a publisher will send me a book I know nothing about, the author is totally new to me, the book I know nothing about other than the blurb on the PR handout, and yet I get the tingle. And when I get that tingle it means I just know that this book is good, that I am going to like it and I trust the tingle because that instinct rarely leads me astray when it comes to reading. And I got the tingle for Reapers are the Angels and it was, again, pointing me to some bloody good reading. Both zombie tales and post-apocalyptic SF are ten a penny, it takes something to do either sub genre in a fresh way – Bell’s book combines both sub genres and it does so superbly, with his young girl wandering the remains of America after a zombie outbreak, trying her best to survive in a lethal, brutal world (where the remaining humans can be as dangerous as the walking dead), yet she has evolved her own quite moral code and a unique way of looking at the world and still seeing some wonder in it. It’s an amazing piece of work and – thank you – Bell is assured enough to keep it to a decent length and not feel compelled to bloat it to some 600 page monster as too many modern writers do. Beautifully self contained work.
Germline, T.C. McCarthy, Orbit
Another book that gave me the tingle is TC McCarthy’s Germline, a tale of future-war which draws on elements of the contemporary war on terror campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with the historic (like Vietnam) with science fiction (parts of it are reminiscent of 2000 AD’s Rogue Trooper, including regiments of genetically created super soldiers). This is no war for ideal, not even pretending to be for ideals, it is purely for the remaining resources on the planet, and for every hi-tech future weapon there is the down and dirty tunneling and trenches of the Great War. Our main character is a reporter, but this is a war where you can’t stay an observer and our drug loving hack finds himself going through an Apocalypse Now like journey into the heart of darkness, along the way finding some strange buddies and even falling for one of the genetic infantry women. It’s dirty, gritty, very realistic and utterly gripping.
Echo City, Tim Lebbon, Orbit
I’ve been reading Tim’s work for a good while, he’s a brilliant, very unusual writer, coming from a horror background that also permeates his fantasy and I’ve often found it galling that he wasn’t published by a major imprint in his own country. Well this year Orbit fixed that and gave us his Echo City, a bizarre conurbation, totally self enclosed, wrapped around by an impassible, toxic desert, ruled over by a despotic family, political dissidents banished to a ghetto strip between the city walls and the desert proper. But someone has created a genetically manipulated being to cross that desert – and return. And on the return they learn that something – something unspeakable – is happening. Not just the fight between dissidents and the ruling elite or old and new ways of thinking, but something is rising from beneath the city. A city built endlessly on the bones of it’s own past, layer upon layer of new city built atop the old, vast undercity beneath, the river running through to vanish into the shadows below, where the city’s dead are fed into the falls to vanish – something is rising from deeper than even these dark levels… Scary, different, disturbing, mature dark fantasy from one of our very best.
Rule 34, Charles Stross, Orbit
Charlie is another writer I have admired for years, endlessly inventive, with a great take on using technological and societal trends to great (and cynically funny) effect. In Rule 34 he gets to indulge in the Great Edinburgh Detective Novel along with some near future science fiction, with a unit dedicated to policing all the weird cases that are spawned via the web, and our long suffering but tenacious female detective finds a bizarre murder case rapidly spinning into something much larger, going well beyond the city and even the country. It’s fast-paced, well delivered, clever and darkly humorous stuff from the guy who has become one of the best of the UK SF crop.
Supergods, Grant Morrison, Jonathan Cape
Half a potted history of the superhero comics and half a form of biography, Grant’s Supergods is an interesting read for anyone who’s grown up reading the four-colour pages. The earlier chapters dealing with the history of the early capes is fine but not anything you don’t really know already, although it has the benefit of having someone who has himself written many of these characters commenting on them and their creators. But for me the book really becomes much more interesting when we get to the 60s and Grant talks not only about the comics from then but on the ones he as a youngster was picking up and what they meant to him personally, then on to his early work (an anthology put out by the old Edinburgh SF Bookshop, which would eventually be the Edinburgh Forbidden Planet), constantly changing his style as the years pass, it offers an interesting insight into his own creative processes as well as his views on other trends in comics publishing and other writers and artists – you won’t always agree with them, but it’s always interesting.
Film & TV
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Luc Besson’s big screen adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s Belle Epoque heroine takes elements from a couple of the original bande dessinee to make it to it’s running length, but despite mashing together different story elements from different books it cracks along at a good pace and delivers much of the same joy of adventure and gorgeous visuals (especially of Paris in the 1910s), a very fine comics adaptation and sheer fun throughout – here’s hoping he adapts some more.
One of my highlights of my annual sojourn at the Edinburgh Film Festival was this Indy monster flick from Norwegian director/writer André Øvredal. Made on a budget of only three million Euros it uses the found footage device like Cloverfield or Blair Witch, but much better (and less annoying) than either of those, supposedly recordings by media students doing a video project, reporting on a licensed bear hunt when they find a loner who follows the hunt for the rogue animal but never takes part. Tracking him night after night they find out he is actually a member of a secret government department tasked with keeping the public safe from (and ignorant of) trolls. And we get to see all manner of trolls, from forest to cave to gigantic beasts who roam above the Arctic Circle. Funny and very inventive, never showing its tiny budget, it is sheer fun and the film fest audience gave the director a huge cheer at the end. (see here for a spoiler-free review)
The brilliant Martin Scorcese adapts Selznick’s wonderful tale, his first foray into 3D (and surprisingly not annoying in 3D), turning the book into a fairy tale – an orphan living within the walls and tunnels of a 1920s Parisian train station, mending and maintaining the clocks while avoiding the station police who will bundle him off to the orphanage, working on restoring a 19th century automation his father was trying to repair before his death. Befriended by a young girl (Kick-Ass’s Chloe Moritz), menaced by a grumpy toy shop owner (her godfather) the pair are lead not only into the mystery of the clockwork mechanical man but of one of the great magicians of the 19th century, a curator of automata and wonders and the first, great genius of the early cinema. The dawn days of the film become part of the magical, fairy tale like story. 20s Paris in winter is a magical, enchanting land, and Scorcese makes much of the giant cogs and wheels of that era’s engineering and machinery while celebrating the first wonders of the silver screen. A pure joy.
The Borrower Arrietty
Another gem from the Film Fest for me was the new Studio Ghibli – I know I’m far from alone in being a huge admirer of Myazaki-san’s studio and their wonderful animations and the chance to see this tale, adapted from Mary Norton’s classic book The Borrowers, is a visual wonder as we see the tiny Borrowers living hidden in the human household, and how one Borrower girl and one seriously ill human boy come together despite the vast difference in sizes. The art is a delight showing our world at the Borrower’s tiny scale (so small when they pour tea from the pot it doesn’t flow like our water does, it comes out as large droplets), even the sound is used to convey the scale, the rustling of shirt fabric enormously loud to Arrietty’s miniscule ears. It is charming and a pure visual feast of traditional animation (with a few CG elements). See here for a review
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Maverick director Werner Herzhog gained exclusive camera access to the Chauvet caves of southern France, one of the great historical discoveries of the last couple of decades, a series of caves used by our ancestors for rituals, for art… For the oldest human artwork we know of, a glorious series of cave paintings over 32, 000 years old. Just consider that for a moment – human artwork many times older than any beautiful work that survives from Rome, Ancient Greece or even Egypt or Ur or Babylon. These may have been stone-age people, but they are modern humans, just like us physically, and in their art we can see they are much like us mentally, spiritually. Art paintedin darkness lit only by flickering torches, which would have made the animals depicted seem to move. The artists are clever, using their material wisely, using the surface qualities of the rock and the curves and undulations to emphasise the art, making a horse seem dynamic as it curves around a bend in the wall. The work is far too delicate to be open to the public, only scientific teams are allowed in to a now sealed, climate controlled environment, Herzhog’s access therefore as close as we can get to this miraculous find. It’s a treasure in paint and stone and human effort and cleverness reaching out of the darkness across long millennia to us. It’s so beautiful it will make you cry with wonder. The human spirit and art eternal…
As usual I have rambled on far, far too long and been a bit self indulgent, but again my excuse is that I read far too many extremely good comics, books and saw some fabulous films again through the year, and this is me missing out many I would have liked to include as well (I haven’t even managed space to give proper mentions to the Big Bang Theory – much improved this year with a stronger female strand to the regular male geek cast – or Doctor Who or the surprise that was The Fades, the brilliant adaptation that is A Game of Thrones, the growing pleasure of Fringe (one of the best SF shows of recent years, I think), SyFy’s Haven, Warehouse 13 and Lost Girl).
Looking forward to in 2012
Okay, as I said I have gone on too long already, but what the smeg, a very brief look at some books and comics coming up that I’m looking forward to this coming year: Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Mary & Bryan Talbot, Jonathan Cape. Bryan was kind enough to give me a peek at some of this collaboration with his wife Mary some months ago and I’m eager to read the finished book – Mary was kind enough to to pen a Director’s Commentary about Dotter for us and I’m delighted to say you will be able to read it on the blog tomorrow. Kochi Wanaba, Jamie Smart, Blank Slate – I love Jamie’s work and adored what I saw of Kochi online. It’s an amazing mixture of the supercute and the bizarre, almost grotesque and I’m chuffed to see him getting this lovely hardback edition from Blank Slate.
One of the great European classic has been promised in new English editions to use several times over recent years, but never appeared – now, at last we’re going to see it again: Corto Maltese: the Ballad of the Salt Sea, Hugo Pratt, Universe. Hopefully this summer sees the third part of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, Knockabout/Top Shelf. This final part brings us up to contemporary times after we last saw the League in the Swinging Sixties (with a coda in the punk era of the 70s). Peepholes, Laurie J Proud, Blank Slate Books looks absolutely fascinating – it was due late 2011 but will now be this year, but a pleasure delayed simply increases the final satisfaction (and I hope to have Laurie also doing a Commentary for us too in the near future).
And I’ll leave you with a couple of 2012’s science fiction works that caught my eye – Empire State, Adam Christopher, Angry Robot. I was treated to an advance copy at the end of 2011 but the book is out this month – if you follow our Twitter feed you’ll already have seen me singing the praises of Adam’s novel – set in a 1930s/40s city that seems like New York but is actually the Empire State, like an alternative version of the New York we know, with gangsters and speakeasys and superheroes in rocket boots like characters from the old Republic serials of the day. A city that is all that exists, surrounded by a mist around its rivers, and yet there is a mysterious enemy ships sail off to fight… Somewhere. Hugely stylish, with elements that reminded me of hardboiled noir of the 40s and 50s, the old serial movies, Rocketeer and Dark City- probably the first really interesting SF book of the New Year for me. And this year also sees the return of one of my long-term favourites, Ken MacLeod, with Intrusion (Orbit) – Cory Doctorow has seen it already and described it as “a new kind of dystopian novel: a vision of a near future “benevolent dictatorship” run by Tony Blair-style technocrats who believe freedom isn’t the right to choose, it’s the right to have the government decide what you would choose, if only you knew what they knew. ” Ken told me a little about it recently but to be really honest all I need to know is it is a new Ken MacLeod and that means I’ll be reading it.