Six by 6: The six most underrated comics of 2009
At the end of any given year, when critics and fans pull together their list of favorites and best-ofs, there are always the books that get left behind, the titles that, for one reason or another, don’t get the critical acclaim and discussion they deserve. We’ve all got our list of books we feel were unjustly ignored. The following is my own list of six titles I think were underrated or insufficiently praised. It skews heavily towards the Fanta/D&Q side of things, but such are the vagaries of my interests at the moment. Feel free to argue about my choices or make some of your own in the comments section.
1. Alec: The Years Have Pants by Eddie Campbell. Perhaps it was the fact that it came out so late in the year, when everyone had already started putting their legs on the table and mulling over their their top ten list. Perhaps it was that it was just a stellar year comics-wise and there were just so many good books vying for attention. Perhaps it’s the size (and price) of the thing. Perhaps it’s that comics fans on both sides of the mainstream/indie divide don’t quite seem to know what to make of Eddie Campbell. He’s best known for autobiography, which seems to be a real turn off with the tights and capes crowd, but doesn’t indulge in the kind of mundane self-flagellation that the genre seems to be so renowned for (not that there’s anything wrong with that). He’s too bemused for the artsy-fartsy folk and too serious for the escapist crowd.
Whatever the reason, what should have been one of the most talked-about compilations of the year seems to have been met with a rush of silence, the few positive reviews notwithstanding. Over the past near-30 years, Campbell has been chronicling his life and times with wit, insight, artistry and a genuine affection for the world and all its misery that is nothing short of astonishing. To have all of these tales collected in one volume, with new material as well, is a achievement worth noting extensively, and more people, myself included, should have done so.
2. Talking Lines: The Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman. I’ve written about my love for Blechman’s work before. What amazes me about him is how he manages to be so prolific and produce work for such mainstream, national media outlets (The New York Times, The Huffington Post, etc.) and yet still be persona non grata where comics fans are concerned.
Talking Lines, a collection of Blechman’s short stories, was an attempt of sorts by Drawn and Quarterly to gain him some more recognition within the indie comics scene. It seems to been met with a collective shrug, which is disappointing, but I hope that doesn’t discourage D&Q from putting more of Blechman’s work out there. If only to placate my own neediness.
3. Giraffes in My Hair: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Life by Bruce Paley and Carol Swain. Swain is one of the most criminally ignored cartoonists around, and she had not one but two books out last year, this one and the short story collection Crossing the Empty Quarter. This one, centering on Paley’s account of his misbegotten youth spent in a drug-induced haze, seemed to be the more ignored of the two by my reckoning (though admittedly it’s a debatable point). Swain’s low-key, nonchalant art fits perfectly with Paley’s tales of hippie wanderings and punk-era decadence, stripping the stories of any rock glamor and tinging them with a genuine sadness. Really, this book just underscores how talented and sharp an artist Swain really is.
4. Cecil and Jordan in New York Stories by Gabrielle Bell. Bell’s comics aren’t exciting in the traditional sense. While fanciful elements often intrude — a girl learns how to become a chair, another gets captured by a behemoth — they are often very dialogue heavy, and her characters often tend to wear placid, expressionless faces. It’s what’s going on behind those faces, however, and what’s left unsaid beneath that morass of dialogue, that makes her work so compelling, rich and emotionally involving. Her work is fraught with adrift characters attempting to find a role for themselves in the modern world. This collection of wonderful short stories got some good press when it was initially released, but seemed to have been forgotten about by the end of the year. Shame, shame, shame!
5. From Wonderland With Love by various. I’m not terribly surprised that this collection of Danish comics didn’t receive much attention. Anthologies are a tough sell anyway, especially if they feature artists from overseas. There’s one main reason for including this book, however, and it’s Nikoline Wedelin’s haunting, chilling Because I Love You So Much, a tale of sexual abuse that still resonates with me months after I wrote this review. The unflinching regard for its subject matter is not going to have people beating a path to its door, but the sheer daring artistry on display deserved much more attention than it got.
6. Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons. I’m not surprised this one didn’t create a bigger stir either — that $125 price tag no doubt kept a lot of people away. And yet, what an impressive retrospective of the man’s career this is: Three handsomely designed volumes containing every single macabre thing Wilson drew or wrote for the magazine that Hefner built. It’s a testament, not only to Wilson’s genius (the material never flags or gets rote, no matter what the decade) but also to Fantagraphics skill in presenting this material in such a stellar fashion. Really, it was the best retrospective collection of the year, and I wish more people had noticed it.