I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read many comics these days; the foremost reason is that, as the song goes, money’s too tight too mention, and I have to be picky from the letter go. A lot of genre comics doesn’t even register anymore, and I’d rather look over my kids’ shoulder when they watch a Marvel film than ever pick up a superhero comic again. However, I have been lucky to get my hands on a few good reads this year, and I’m happy to share them with you here:
Mark Badger, Abstract Kirby 1-2
In his preface to Abstract Kirby #2, Badger describes Jack Kirby as “the bass line for almost every comic drawn in America,” and certainly, the King of Comics beat down paths for future artists to tread. In recent years Badger has set up a daily routine of analysing Kirby’s latter day work, channeling the design sense and dynamics of it into an abstract tribute all his own.
Badger draws on his fascination with epic space opera period Kirby — as well as Matisse inspired shapes that sit really well with the bold contours and jagged blocks of black that fill the pages. On a micro-drawing level we have the Kirby crackle and little brush line ticks, but I especially see Badger’s fingerprint in the frantic hatchings that add depth and a rough-hewn texture to the shapes populating the page. Badger’s obvious fascination with art as evidence of the act of drawing turns Abstract Kirby into a free form jam session across space and time, and the cosmic backdrop of the New Gods cycle becomes a resonating space, adding a tremendous acoustic to the performance.
In many ways, Abstract Kirby is the purest celebration of Jack Kirby’s legacy because the narrative is entirely discarded, yet every image on every page hums and pounds to the beat of Kirby’s bass line.
Nick Sousanis, Unflattening
This is proably a no-brainer in a list like mine; an academic paper in comics form, about the primacy of words over images. What’s not to like?
Mining from diverse sources, Sousanis weaves a compelling argument for multilateral thinking, but ultimately it’s his playful experimentation with the comics form that leads the reader through the book. His style of drawing is on the conservative side for my tastes — tellingly, he dedicates an aside in the paper to talk about a superhero he created as a teen — yet Sousanis’ panel-to-panel montage and page layouts are so intelligent and informed that an outwardly tic as “style” loses its relevance. Panel tiers split and regroup; spread across the page like a rhizome; or morph from a mandala shape to a DNA helix into the arm of a galaxy.
It’s a heady spectacle, and the only real uncertainty I might have with Unflattening is whether readers may be seduced by the choreography and slacking our critical reading, such a sleight of hand as Scott McCloud has pulled in his works to distract from weak arguments. Still, Sousanis’ work has faced up to harder publication crieria than McCloud’s, and for now, I’m quite happy with the seduction.
Lynda Barry, Syllabus
Lynda Barry is one of the finest artists to have worked in the intersection between comics, creativity, and memoir, no discussion. I’d put her at the top, but that might be a matter of opinion (and for the sake of Xmas peace, let’s not have opinions).
In her previous books, What it is and Picture this, she laid out her perspective on the nature of images and the overlap between creativity and play — peppered with inspirational prompts as well as autobiographical anecdotes from her childhood. All of it in gorgeously hand-crafted collages and water colours culled directly from her notebooks, through which Barry pulls us into an immediate, intimately personal sphere, although separated by miles and years from the creative moment.
With Syllabus she opens up her teaching plans to us with the same whim and generousity apparent in the last two books and, to the part of me that is a teacher, offers an eye-opening peek into her pedagogy and ulterior methods that structure a course in a fuzzy subject as free-flowing creativity. Also included in this book are student works based on Barry’s assignments: Draw Batman is a personal favourite (no googling, no reference, no time to think) with a slew of baroque Bat-doodles filling the page, demonstrating how iconic that cultural trope is. Not all renditions are canonically “correct”, and anatomically even less so, but the “Batman-ness” is evident.
That single example supports Barry’s fundamental argument as well, that an image is an object that is alive in our minds, and a basic function of our cognitive framework. Because while on the surface her playful approach can appear like a “everybody can draw, c’mon let’s doodle”-after school pastime, Barry’s research with University Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists corroborates her theories.
TL;DR — Lynda Barry is a giant among us, and Syllabus offers a new, inspiring perspective on her teaching.
Oliver East, Take me back to Manchester
Putting Take me back to Manchester in this list is a bit of a tease as it hasn’t officially come out yet, but Oliver sent me a preview PDF a while back (he and I have published a collaboration book together, and shared festival tables, so caveat all over).
Way back since his Trains are… mint books, following railroad tracks from Manchester outward, Oliver East has been a walking artist, ie pre-plotted walks form the basis for all his work. Observation and train of association as he progresses has become a narrative trademark of his; visually, Oliver has developed a unique, shorthand iconography and a rhythm to his storytelling that closely echoes the physical experience of walking those miles with him.
In recent years he has been commissioned to produce such comics as The homesick truant’s Cumbrian yarn 1-7 for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, and most recently, for Manchester Museum, this work that shows him expanding to historical documentarism as he tells the improbable story of an elephant’s 1872 journey from Edinburgh to Manchester. The challenges and requirements represented with this shift in point of view does show in Take me back…, but only positively so: Despite doing the research needed to depict the period and uncover the events surrounding the trek south, Oliver pretty much shrugs the burden of it off and tells the story as if it were his own. Which it has become in a way, because of course he traveled the course of Maharajah the elephant as part of the preparations.
Take me back… marks a departure from the water colours that have been a staple in Oliver’s work for a decade or so, on to a confidently graphical ink line, coupled with a two-colour earth/sepia scheme that lends a faded-daguerrotype veracity to the whole package. It’s a remarkable leap in width of range as well as draftmanship and, in retrospect, one that I’ve seen the beginnings of in The homesick truant. So apart from Oliver’s splendid work here, which comes highly recommended, Take me back to Manchester is also testament to the double value of supporting the arts through project commissions.
Jason Overby, The being being
In contrast to Oliver’s book I didn’t even read this one yet (although it is ordered and hopefully in the mail soon), but it’s a book I’ve been lusting after since Gridlords announced they would be publishing it. I’ve followed Jason Overby’s work intermittently since I saw his work in the Abstract Comics Anthology, and I loved the 2101 series he made a few years back. He has consistently been reinventing his work and pushing boundaries without visible effort; for years now, I’ve wanted to be Jason Overby when I grow up (and maybe if I could be a bit of Warren Craghead, too, that’d be great).
It looks in the previews for The being being like Overby has supplemented his collage technique with a more illustrative, sketchy style, but needless to say he pulls that off excellently as well. The diversity of expressions made it difficult to choose sample images for this revue, but the versatile page above should give an impression of what I mean.
It wpuld be unfair to attempt more of a review than that, but I urge you to go see samples and buy the book on the author’s website!
Kevin Czap, #30dayscomics
So, who a) had a false start at 30 days of comics this year, and b) forgot to participate when the actual time came? No no, not Kevin Czap, that was me! By early December, when I’d stopped kicking myself for the oversight, I looked over the project tumblr to see what had gone down this year. Now, there are no losers in #30dayscomics except those that don’t play, but to me the stand-out best were Czap’s cheeky, spatial collages. Somewhere between the vivid colours, the folded papers, and the familiar “fuck you” to any preconception of narrative in comics, I took an immediate liking to his contributions, their charm perhaps enhanced by the relative monotony of (mostly) black and white drawings.
All of these vinyl taped oddball constructions are probably fine origami objects in themselves, but the staging as, and transformation into flat compositions is inspiredly counter-rational. Much like my own recent work, I’m not sure if these are comics in more than a genrous, technical sense, but they should be! This ~30 photos long non-story about coloured rectangles unfolding may or may not have any point beside the purely esthetic value, or perhaps it’s a metaphor for sociocultural restrictions; maybe I read it backwards. I don’t care, it’s gorgeous in its simple ambiguity and the individual photos (pages?) would be less interesting out of the larger context. Now, if only we could get Kevin to make a whole book of work like this…
PS, I suck at Tumblr so I can’t post a single link showing just Kevin’s #30dayscomics posts. Please surf to the 30 days of comics tumblr, you’ll spot ’em! Also, please visit his comics publisher and distro, Czap Books!