I’ve been reading Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge, a classic French comic by the great Jacques Tardi, recently reprinted by Fantagraphics. It’s an adaption of a detective novel, and it is good. Tardi has a way of telling hard-boiled detective stories with this loose, springy style that brings another level of joy to the work — picture Shel Silverstein let loose on film noir.
Be it often or seldom, we are reminded just how ridiculous our society and morals are. We get sad for no reason, we get grumpy, we’re ungrateful when we have everything given to us and treat each other like garbage. Jonny Sun’s illustrated novel, Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too, is all about the weird ways of “humabns,” the concepts they’ve created and the way that they deal with feelings, fears and each other.
It’s been a busy semester, believe me, I know. Most of you so inclined have not had the time to read any comics, what with all assignments and studying, and guess what? Neither have I. But I have been able to pretend to have time on occasion, so with borrowed time I would like to recommend a few of the year’s best comics to brush up on when school’s out.
LEAVING RICHARD’S VALLEY by Michael Deforge
The Webcomic Pick
Many of you readers may have a sensitive wallet, so I thought I’d kick off this list with a comic you can read absolutely free of charge on a little place called the internet. Alt Comics enfant terrible Michael Deforge has been serializing Leaving Richard’s Valley on Twitter and Instagram in semi-daily updates with an improvisational energy that almost looks easy.
One of the largest comics publishers has reached a milestone anniversary this year. Image Comics, now in its 25th year, also happens to be experiencing of its most successful years ever. Initially a major driver of the speculation boom in the early ‘90s comics market, Image has recently reached the pop culture zeitgeist again with numerous bestselling titles which put most of Marvel and DC’s output outside the box office to shame. Image has represented very polarizing ideals in the comics scene over the years, a seeming contradiction in the direct market paradigm. On one hand, they have represented the utter absence of artistry in the mainstream, the muscle-bound inanity and collector’s items of the late nineties boom and bust at their most abject.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my time in and around “geek culture” (an awful phrase, but bear with me), it’s to be wary of the scene’s conventional wisdom. This doesn’t mean to doubt people’s intelligence or shoot down enthusiasm, but the dogma of fandom is often built on dubious estimations of art. The flavor of the month is probably not the best one, while a popular contrarian attitude is also worth interrogating.
My latest encounter with fandom’s oversights has come in recently reading a number of comics by Frank Miller. Undeniably one of the most prominent creators of the 1980s along with folks like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, Frank Miller was a writer-artist before that was cool in America (and in superhero comics to boot, where that’s still not so kosher).
The phrase “Chick tract” may not immediately conjure up an image for all of you, but I’m sure most of you know what they are — like much quintessential Americana, the sight of a Chick tract conjures up strong associations regardless of our prior knowledge. Chick tracts are short, punchy religious comics in a rectangular format, notable for their vitriol and hardline stance on the power of conversion. These little pamphlets are the physical embodiment of American evangelical movements, audaciously insisting the reader will burn in hell unless they accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, presented with jittery, vividly literal cartoon imagery. Targets of the Chick tract’s scorn have ranged over the years from homosexuality to Catholics to climate change to Dungeons and Dragons, harsh invectives inconspicuously left on park benches and bus seats by believers. Over the years, these comic tracts have attracted mockery and sarcastic disdain from the skeptical readers (i.e. most of us), so it’s understandable that the recent death of Jack T. Chick, the writer, frequent artist and publisher of the tracts, has generally not been treated as the loss of a great artist.
Halloween’s just around the corner, and most of you are enjoying your annual reminder that you actually enjoy the horror genre. However, if you’re anything like me you know that horror is truly a genre for all seasons — nothing really brings catharsis quite so viscerally as a good scare. The artists and publishers of comics have been aware of the fascination horror provokes for as long as the medium has existed as an industry — horror and crime were once the two most popular genres in North American comic books until the rampant censorship laws of the 1950s quashed the flourishing scene (more on that another day). However, outside the United States the nightmare never ended, with some spectacular spooky stories coming out of countries like Japan and France, and by the 1980s North American horror comics had a comeback with titles like Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and the early issues of Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur providing deeply personal takes on the body horror found in films like The Thing. It seems now that the monster hiding under the bed is here to stay, so here are a few favorites of mine to read with lights on.
Gilbert Hernandez is an unparalleled figure in American comics. Working tirelessly since 1979, “Beto” is one of the key artists in the first wave of alternative comics, creating with his brother Jaime, a significant cartoonist in his own right, the legendary magazine Love and Rockets, a pioneering work of comics-as-literature. Gilbert’s stories in Love and Rockets, the Palomar cycle, form perhaps the greatest work of magical realism in the comics form; challenging, moving storytelling. However, the reaches of Gilbert Hernandez do not end here. The man’s output is simply insane, ranging from quiet childhood memoirs to exploitation-style pulp, all executed to maddening perfection.
A few weeks back now, I was perusing the pages of the print edition of this very paper, when I happened upon a surprising sight. Among the crossword puzzles and the regular newspaper comic reprints was a cartoon I had not seen in the paper before, or any paper for that matter. The contents of the cartoon were unremarkable — apparently kids say the darndest things — but I was surprised to see that the artist was none other than Jeffrey Brown. Woah, I thought to myself, that’s a blast from the past. See, back in the mid-’00s, Brown used to be a high profile figure in the then-bustling genre of graphic memoir.
Maybe you were assigned Persepolis in high school and were inspired. Maybe you took out dozens of manga volumes at a time at your local library. Maybe you’ve seen all the Avengers movies and want to read the source materials. Maybe you’re just curious. Whatever it is, dear hypothetical reader, you want to start going to a comic store but have never been to one before!