• Michael Dooley

7 Outstanding Comics and Cartoon Books of 2014

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

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.

F. Opper: “The prize idiot of the day,” 1887.

Joseph Keppler: “Sarah Bernhardt, the modern Rizpah, protecting her son from clerical vultures,” 1880.

J.S. Pughe, 1904. “Pughe offered up this fantasy of what a typical White House dinner would look like if newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was elected President.”

Rose O’Neill, 1900. “…this cartoon, masquerading as the typical black-man-as-the-butt-of-a-joke send-up, turned out to be a searing indictment of the lynching epidemic.”

Joseph Keppler: “Don’t fret, Uncle Sam, we only want to make a bigger man of you!” 1881.

Art Young, 1909. “Art Young, later a cartoonist for the Socialist magazine The Masses, lambasted the exploitation of child labor in this stark and powerful cartoon.”

Joseph Keppler: “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’,” 1912. “… depicting a menacing Theodore Roosevelt threatening President Taft’s re-election.”

Rolf Armstrong, “Foxy,” 1916.

Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson edited by Daniel Yezbick

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.

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals edited by Russ Kick

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.

Peter Kuper: The Wasp and the Snake,” Aesop.

R. Sikoryak: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Mark Twain.

Lance Tooks: “The Fox and the Grapes,” Aesop.

Frank M. Hansen: “Advice to Little Girls,” Mark Twain.

Matthew Houston: “The Time Machine,” H.G. Wells.

Juliacks: “The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett.

ucy Knisley: The Harry Potter Series,” J.K. Rowling.

Beauty by Hubert (author) and Kerascoet (illustrator)

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

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

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

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.

  1. Print’s Guide to Graphic Novels

  2. An Uncensored Look at Banned Comics

  3. Print Singles: Secrets of a Comic Book Colorist

  4. Panel by Panel

  5. 100 Baddest Mother F*#!ers in Comics

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