Alice’s admonition “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” is particularly true during semester break/holiday vacation season. So let’s kick back and look at some of the year’s more noteworthy cartoon, comics, and graphic novel publications.
Our good friend the Daily Heller has already covered some high-profile releases, like Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream and Richard McGuire’s Here. And I’ve been chronicling several as well; in one column I recommended The Complete Zap Comix, the first Steranko Artist Edition, the new World War 3 Illustrated anthology, and Stephan Franck’s Silver.
Moving on, here’s my year-end wrap-up of a handful of others that may have received insufficient recognition. The selection varies from classically mythical to playfully political, elegantly European to monstrously Gothic, and smartly studious to just plain Mad Hatter funny.
I’ve also included plenty of pictures. And some conversations. So enjoy.
Puck: What Fools These Mortals Be
by Michael Alexander Kahn and Richard Samuel West
Before Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, before Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad and Humbug, America had Puck. Puck was a groundbreaking satirical weekly during the late 1800s, enormously popular for its smart, sophisticated takedowns of society’s injustices. Its reputation has sadly faded from national memory, but fortunately now there’s an impressive new coffee table book, What Fools these Mortals Be!, that should restore some respect for what it characterizes as “America’s first and most influential magazine of color political cartoons.”
Over its 300-plus pages Fools reintroduces a generous sampling of puckish, and often viciously wicked, visual wit. The covers, spreads, and other smart and sophisticated illustrations are vividly stunning, perhaps a bit as they were when those first issues rolled off the presses back in 1877. Its then state-of-the-art chromolithography gave Puck such a brilliant flair that Thomas Nast’s black-and-white wood engravings over at Harper’s began to appear relatively labored and lackluster.
Founder Joseph Keppler established the standard with his bold, irreverent, and often darkly disturbing renderings. Other contributors included comic strip pioneers Rube Goldberg, Rose O’Neil, and Frederick Burr Opper and radical leftist cartoon crusader Art Young.
The images are grouped thematically: politics and government, business and labor, race and religion, social issues, personalities, and such. Explanatory notes provide valuable historical context; the above pistol-packin’ St. Nick by Will Crawford, captioned “Hands Up!,” is framed as a “powerful critique of the commercialization of Christmas.”
As political cartoons migrate from print to digital, What Fools these Mortals Be‘s loving and respectful documentation of the genre’s birth and blossoming is both aesthetically enriching and emotionally fulfilling.
Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson
edited by Daniel Yezbick
Back in the 1940s, predating LSD, George Carlson’s jazzy, freewheeling, self-deconstructing comic book stories were blowing kids’ minds, much to their delight. The Pie-Faced Prince of Pretzleburg and Jingle Jangle Tales inspired Harlan Ellison to equate him to the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Picasso, and such. Hogwash, to be sure. But Carlson’s imaginative, exuberant art and design skills have helped sustain his reputation over the devades. Art Spiegelman and Craig Yoe have recently included his pages in their anthologies. And now there’s Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson.
Perfect Nonsense uncovers a range and versatility well beyond CArlson’s Smokey Stover and Dr. Seuss style of screwball Surrealism. He was also a book and magazine illustrator, packaging and game designer, ad man, art instructor, and more. He could visualize Randolph Caldecott Victorianism, Arts and Crafts Medievalism, Beardsley Nouveau, de Chirico foreboding, Deco streamlining, and beyond. And In his time he was also an interactive designer, producing puzzles, games, and riddles that turned kids from passive recipients into engaged participants.
So if you hadn’t yet heard of George Carlson, you might consider engaging in some Perfect Nonsense. And if you think you know him, take another peek.
When you load a Canon with 50 talented, independent artistic sensibilities, you should expect a blast. And this is exactly what The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature delivers.
These are not your mother’s fairy tales. Perhaps your great-great-grandmother’s: Dame Darcy’s dark, gothic “Little Mermaid” is far closer to Hans Christian Andersen’s original text than to Disney’s saccharine, marketing vehicle version. This and several others throughout the book’s 500 pages are boldly experimental and graphically stunning. An Aesop fable reinterpreted by Lance Tooks is set in a nightclub with gay thugs and a startled People magazine starlet exclaiming “What thuf?” R. Sikoryak tracks Tom Sawyer’s adventures with Family Circus dashes. And Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” as depicted by transmedia artist Juliacks, is a series of fierce, expressionistic nightmares.
Maurice Sendak, who didn’t believe in writing for children, also said, “The qualities that make for excellence in children’s literature can be summed up in a single word: imagination.” In that respect, editor Russ Kick, who’s also responsible for the three volume companion anthology of “The World’s Greatest Literature as Comics and Visuals,” Is a masterful success. If he’d unleash several other loose Canons, I’d be living happily ever after.
by Hubert (author) and Kerascoet (illustrator)
Miss Don’t Touch Me is a witty and risqué French graphic novel, a murder mystery centered in a 1930s Paris brothel. When I first read the English translation a few years ago I was charmed and captivated by the art’s fluid elegance and period flavor. I also admired how seamlessly the visual elements blend with the narrative. This may have something to do with illustrator Kerascoët and writer Hubert being married.
The couple’s latest, Beauty, is a more conceptual piece: a voyage of self-actualization as well as a multifaceted exploration of the nature of physical attraction. As a magical fairy tale fantasy set in an earlier century, Beauty should appeal to mid-teens as well as an adult audience. It’s also recommended for those who like their comics stories with a distinctly European texture.
Oh, and Miss Don’t Touch Me, originally published in two parts, has just been released in a collected volume.
Serenity Rose: 10 Awkward Years
by Aaron Alexovich
Serenity Rose is an introverted goth, which I realize is redundant. She’s also a petite witch in her early 20s with a manga/anime vibe about her looks. She can fly and magically conjure up monsters. She’s also struggling with her social skills and sexual identity. She began life as a serialized a webcomic – part horror, part comedy – with a spare, strategic use of color and a distinctly individual layout to each page. And now she’s been transmogrified into a hardcover graphic novel titled Serenity Rose: 10 Awkward Years.
Aaron Alexovich is a character designer for television cartoons and a comics artist for DC/Vertigo. He’s also Serenity’s creator. His Kickstarter-funded book’s handsomely packaged 500 pages include extras such as pre-Serenity development sketches From his 1990s CalArts animation project studies.
10 Awkward Years is both a fascinating coming-of-age story and a chronicle of Alexovitch’s artistic maturity as his graphics and line work transition from cautiously labored to boldly refined. I look forward to charting his next ten, self-assured years.
The Complete Cul de Sac
by Richard Thompson
I’d planned to include The Art of Richard Thompson on this list, but my Print colleague Steven Brower just beat me to it with an excellent write-up of his own. But luckily, I can substitute another new Thompson book from earlier this year: The Complete Cul de Sac, a two-volume paperback with an intro by Art Spiegelman.
For my money, when it comes to comics about kids with visual kicks, no cartoonist – not even fellow fan Bill Watterson – comes close to Thompson. Sure, Charles Schulz may have created the world’s most famous strip. But let’s be honest: design-wise, compared to Cul de Sac, Peanuts ain’t worth peanuts.
Listen: Schulz drew a tiny cast of simple, standardized characters on a shallow stage with practically no backdrop. Over and over and over. Every single day. For fifty frickin’ years. Aaugh! Thompson, on the other hand, has built on the lineage of such masters of the excitable pen cartoon form as George “Krazy Kat” Herriman, Ronald “St. Trinian’s” Searle, and Elwood “PushPin Studios” Smith.
Take your time to savor all five years of this hilariously clever, helpfully annotated collection. And after that, you can still look forward to the 2004 Richard’s Poor Almanac: 12 Months of Misinformation in Handy Cartoon Form.
Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas (four volumes)
edited by M. Keith Booker
TIme to come clean: some of us are so enraptured by comics that we actually do delight in pulling perusing picture- and conversation-less books about the medium in any season, just for fun. I’ve regularly browsed through my Maurice Horn-edited “World Encyclopedias” – 800 pages on comics, 700 on cartoons – since the 1970s. And now there’s another, four volume, 2000 page Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas.
Comics through Time charts the medium’s evolution from 1800 to the present, within various cultural and historical contexts. Its primary focus is on America, but European and Japanese comics are also covered. THere are a few, black and white images, mostly rarely seen news photos. Nevertheless, it’s well written, by a spectrum of esteemed comics experts such as Kent Worcester, Randy Duncan, and Eric Berlatsky. For students and the general public, it should prove to be a valuable research resource.
And for some of us, simply an ongoing, pleasurable indulgence.
- Print’s Guide to Graphic Novels
- An Uncensored Look at Banned Comics
- Print Singles: Secrets of a Comic Book Colorist
- Panel by Panel
- 100 Baddest Mother F*#!ers in Comics