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It’s time once again for our annual look at six books that were, for whatever reason, unjustly ignored by the public and critical cognoscenti at large. With all the titles that are published lately, it’s no real surprise that some books fall through the cracks, though in certain cases it seems grossly unwarranted.
After the jump are six books that, while they may not have made my “best of 2011″ list, I think got nowhere near the amount of attention they deserved. There are lots more that I could include if I had the time. I’m sure there are books you read this year that you don’t think got enough praise either. Be sure to let me know what they are in the comments section.
1. Salvatore by Nicholas De Crecy (NBM). Although highly acclaimed on the other side of the Atlantic, De Crecy is one of those many, many European cartoonists that remains persona non grata here in the U.S. Only three of De Crecy’s books have been translated for American audiences so far: the Louvre-themed Glacial Period and two volumes of Salvatore, the second of which came out this year with barely a peep from critics or readers. That’s a shame as Salvatore is a charmingly absurd anthropomorphic tale involving a philosophizing dog mechanic who, along with his silent, minuscule, bald servent — sets off for South America in a ridiculous contraption of an automobile in search of his true love. As that description suggests, Salvatore is a rather complicated farce, with lots of side stories and supporting characters, including a near-sighted mama pig who searches in vain for a lost child while the rest of her brood becomes ecological entrepreneurs. De Crecy applies an arch, overly formal writing style here that, combined with his rough, detailed art, gives the story an off-kilter, almost grotesque feel that makes it seem both otherworldly and a sly satire of modern foibles, cultures and attitudes. Certainly there’s nothing quite like it being published right now.
2. Pure Pajamas by Marc Bell (D&Q). I have no evidence backing this up, but I suspect Bell is an artist that confounds a number of people. He adopts a big-foot, potato-nose visual style in the best comic strip tradition, and his world is a friendly, anthropomorphic fantasia where everything, from your breakfast food on down is eager to wish you well. On the other hand, his stories lean towards the distressingly surreal, cute characters can easily come to violent ends and things can go bizarrely awry for the most absurd reasons. Myself, I find that tension between the rubbery cute and off-kilter savagery to be one of Bell’s strengths. Pure Pajamas, which collects various strips and stories Bell has done for various media over the years, is about as good an example of those strengths as you’re likely to find.
3. King of the Flies Vol. 2: The Origin of the World by Mezzo and Pirus (Fantagraphics). I suspect a number of potential readers flipped through King of the Flies (either online or in stores) and dismissed it quickly as an obvious Charles Burns rip-off. That’s somewhat understandable. After all, Mezzo and Pirus do wear their influences on their sleeves. Not just Burns, but other artistic lodestones like Quentin Tarintino, David Lynch and Jim Thompson haunt this three-part saga as much as one recently deceased character does. But this dark, disjointed story about an assortment of misfit suburban characters plagued by bad luck and their own poor choices is a compelling, bitterly funny read nevertheless. Despite its obvious influences King never feels like a pale imitation, especially in the second volume, where the ante is upped considerably, both on an aesthetic and narrative level. Don’t let your initial impressions keep you from checking it out.
4. Everything Vol. 1: Blabber, Blabber, Blabber by Lynda Barry (D&Q). It seems odd that a Lynda Barry book should make this list after the deserved acclaim that greeted her last two books, Picture This and What It Is. Yet aside from a review at the AV Club and a New York Times profile (which admittedly is nothing to sneeze at) I’m not sure anyone talked about this new collection of some very early work other than to acknowledge its existence. It certainly seemed to slip off a lot of people’s radar (including my own) when it came time to make a “best of” list. Yet Blabber offers a fascinating look at Barry’s early development as a cartoonist, as she moves from the delicate, oddball Ernie Pook to the rawer, more emotionally savage material of “Boys and Girls.” There’s a lot here for Barry fans, and fans of good comics in general, to chew on.
5. The Man Who Grew His Beard by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics). Color Engineering author Yuichi Yokoyama got all the attention this year, but to my eyes Schrauwen is just as innovative and wholly original a cartoonist as Yokoyama. The main difference between the two is that where Yokoyama is focused on expressing motion, machinery and discovery, Schrauwen prefers to explore differences in perception, especially between reality and that of the imagination. Many of the characters in Schrauwen’s collection of short stories (many of which appeared previously in Mome) are mentally disturbed or disabled in some fashion and attempt to reshape what they see in order to compensate for their liabilities. None of this is explicit however; it’s often up to the reader to determine where truth and subjectivity begin and end (though he does frequently drop hints). Incredibly inventive and at times darkly funny, Beard is the work of a master cartoonist worth more attention.
6. Tank Tankuro by Gajo Sakamoto (PressPop). Japanese comics are generally thought to have begun with the end of World War II, but of course that isn’t the case, as this impressive book, lovingly designed by Chris Ware, proves. The Tank in question is an overly exuberant robot warrior/superhero whose metal ball body not only protects him from gunfire but can help produce airplane wings, a drill or even smaller clones of himself — whatever’s needed to get him out of a particular jam. Though decidedly militaristic and nationalistic (Tank is perhaps a bit too eager for war) Sakamoto’s comics from the 1930s are irrepressibly buoyant and loopy enough to delight even the most ardent pacifist. In a golden age of reprints where tons of lesser works are getting dragged back out for a glossy-page omnibus, here’s a little known gem that really deserves a spot in the limelight.