Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ten (13) for 2012

A list of 10 favourite comics for the year isn’t just an easy way to fill up blog space, it’s also a real chance to take a proper look back over the year. With the speed of modern media turnover, a comic that came out in March can already be forgotten by December, and it is nice to reflect on the most entertaining and enlightening comics of 2012.

There are the usual huge-ass caveats to this list - my comic consumption is severely limited by financial restrictions and library availability, so I haven’t had the chance to read things like Charles Burns’ latest book, or Saga, or the new Brandon Graham comic or the end of Scalped or a dozen other titles on a dozen other year-end lists. Forget Building Stories, which retails for about $120 around these parts, I haven’t even got around to reading the latest Dork comic yet

I can only talk about the stuff I did get to read in 2012, and I’m pretty sure some of the stuff I’m talking about here might have come out in 2011, and it just took me a while to get around to it.

And it’s not a ‘best of…’ list, it’s a list of my favourite comics, and I’m hard-wired to enjoy intense, stylish and thoughtful action comics with energy and laughs and violence. I do feel a little bad about the fact there is only one female creator in this list, but I cannot tell a lie – I enjoyed Judge Dredd far more than I enjoyed Fun Home. (I also feel a bit stink about the fact that they’re all British and American comics, but again, that’s just the stuff I tend to like.)

So, with all that in mind, these are my ten (well, 13 really) favourite comics of 2012:

Judge Dredd 
By John Wagner and chums 

This list is in no particular order, because picking ten was hard enough without having to rank them as well, but if I had to pick an absolute favourite comic, it would undoubtedly be Judge Dredd. The end to creator John Wagner’s Day of Chaos mega-series was literally stunning, and I’m still processing it, months afterwards. (“He… he lost?”)

But then, just when it looked like Dredd was going into the usual year-end cycle of fairly meaningless (and Wagner-less) short stories, it unexpectedly blossomed into something new, with the next generation of Dredd writers using the form of an anthology comic in unexpectedly refreshing ways to tell a single story across three different strips. Great stuff, and an excellent sign for the future.

Nikolai Dante
By Robbie Morrison and Simon Fraser

Same thing as Dredd, really. Still a bit blown away by that ending, and intending to go back and re-read the whole story over the next few weeks. It’s a summer kind of comic.

My Friend Dahmer 
By Derf Backderf 

A truly significant work by Dert Backderf, a huge leap in quality and depth from his earlier comics that manages to be incredibly creepy and terribly sad. Also proof that when it comes to comics, there really is something for everyone.
Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland 
By Harvey and Joseph Remnant 

The older I get, the more I like Harvey’s work.

Fury: My War Gone By / The Boys 
By Garth Ennis and chums

2012 was another terrific year for Garth Ennis comics, and his work is always the first I read when I get into the shop every Saturday morning. The Boys reached the kind of super-apocalyptic climax it was always reaching for, and then saved all the real carnage for the last storyline, which ultimately led to a quiet plea for a little kindness.

There is very little kindness in Fury, but loads of efficiency – the scene in the latest issue where Fury and Frank Castle come across a kid in the Vietnamese jungle is the most brilliantly terse piece of comic storytelling I read all year.

Reset / The Lovely Horrible Stuff
By Peter Bagge and Eddie Campbell

With extremely unique senses of humour and style, Peter Bagge and Eddie Campbel might not seem to have a lot in common, other than a burning desire to make their own kind of comic books. But both creators also suffer from the Hernandez (los Bros) syndrome – they’ve been doing so much good stuff for so long, it feels like there is nothing much to say about their latest work, no matter how good it is.

Admittedly, I’ve been on a huge Bagge kick all year, catching up on Hate and plunging back into the Neat Stuff stuff, but Reset – his latest series - really did feel like classic Bagge. Full of regrets, recriminations and people flipping the fuck out, with a sweet centre hidden beneath a thick layer of cynicism.

And I’ve also been gorging on Campbell’s work in the past year, after filling in some irritating Bacchus blanks, and The Lovely Horrible Stuff – his latest book - also felt like classic Campbell – informative, whimsical and more than a little rambling. Sharp, but comfortable.

They’ve both been doing it for years now, and I’d rate their work as good as ever.

By Jeff Smith 

It certainly wasn’t no Bone, but it was never going to be, and by the end of the surprisingly short series, Rasl was very definitely its own comic. The last few issues managed to be both genuinely horrifying and a little touching, all tied up neatly with the usual fluid Jeff Smith action.

The Secret Service
By Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons

Mark Millar and Dave Gibbon’s Secret Service has some dodgy class issues, and nobody really talks like Mark Millar characters talk, but it’s also the slickest piece of entertainment I read all year, and sometimes I like a little tasty shallow nothingness in my comic diet.

It also reminds me of a Hollywood remake of The Invisibles and I, surprisingly, do not have a problem with that.

Love and Rockets New Stories #5
By Los Bros Hernandez

Still the best, even after all these years.

Dotter of her Father's Eyes / Grandville: Bete Noire
By Bryan and Mary Talbot 

Bryan Talbot does two things very well – Balls-out action and straight, clear and honest historical representation with a dash of emotional resonance, and both of Bryan’s strengths were highlighted in 2012.

The third Grandville book – which only just arrived before the end of the year - spends some further time expanding the world of Detective Inspector LeBrock, and the longer story is heading in a definite direction, but it’s the sharp action storytelling that continues to make Grandville so enjoyable, as motorcycles fly through the air and giant death-robots are unleashed on Paris.

There are also more grim jokes in Grandville: Bete Noire with the use of the anthropomorphised animals, with Toad Hall twisted into something weird and dangerous, while it is actually fairly disturbing to see a smurf gunned down at a human rights march. But it’s still a cracking adventure comic more than anything else, and Talbot delivers again in that regard.

He also delivers some fine real-life work in Dotter of Her Father’s eyes, illustrating his wife's story and the strange connection she feels to James Joyce's daughter. It's about as far from the world of Grandville as you can get, but both are recognisably Talbot, in their own ways.
 Honourable mentioning

These ones could have been on the list, but weren’t for one reason or another – The Manhattan Projects, Sweet Tooth, Batman Inc, Wolverine and The X-Men (this one was surprisingly close), Hit-Girl, that excellent Ghosts 80-pager from Vertigo, All-Star Western, the latest Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service book, Fatale and half a dozen titles I’m suddenly going to remember thirty seconds after I click on the publish button...

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Footrot Flats: Down on the farm for Christmas

Christmas in New Zealand comes a couple of days after the longest day of the year, so it’s all about midsummer joy, rather than midwinter resilience. Barbeques, rather than snowmen. A trip down to the beach, rather than settling down in front of the fire.

It’s also the time of year when I always get out my battered Footrot Flat collections and read the whole lot of them, because it wouldn’t be a proper Christmas without some Footrot Flats.

My favourite Foot Flats strip, ever since I was eight-years-old. Click to make bigger!

It’s pleasing to note that while comic fans can barely agree on anything, there is a general consensus that Peanuts is the greatest comic strip ever created. And it’s even more pleasing to note that it is also the most successful strip of all time, providing the weird example of something being the very best example of its form, while also being the most lucrative.

But even though Peanuts is undoubtedly the most popular strip in the world, each region has their own little favourites that might not be as universally appealing as Charles Schulz’s creation, and don’t travel nearly as far.

I can’t speak for other countries, but here in New Zealand, Peanuts was always a very definite second in popularity and affection to Footrot Flats. (Not that Schulz really minded, he penned a lovely introduction to the only Footrot Flats booked ever published in America.)

Footrot Flats is the story of a dog and his mate, down on a farm at the arse end of the world in a strip by farmer Murray Ball that lasted between 1975 and 1994. Over those years, it was a hugely popular daily comic strip, spawning all sorts of spin-offs, including a pretty decent movie and a dodgy-sounding theme park at its heights.

Footrot Flats was in every newspaper in the country, and everybody loved it – I bonded with my paternal Nana over Footrot Flats as a kid, and I remember how excited we both were by the prospect of an actual movie.

It was the first New Zealand comic strip to reach that kind of mass appeal in its home territory, and nothing has come close since. (While there are plenty of fine cartoonists in Aotearoa, local newspapers inevitably choose safe comics from overseas, like Zits, or Hagar The Horrible, or Garfield).

And that popularity was deserved, because it was a rich strip from a simpler, less media-saturated time. It did romanticise the rural lifestyle, but never hid the dirt and filth of the farmyard. Ball, who lived the life he drew about, could get into devilish detail on a rotting goat’s carcass, or a steaming pile of rank manure – everyday sights for the farmer, but endearingly shocking to everybody else. You could smell the silage in the ink, and that gave the strip a raw, sketchy vitality It was also wildly popular because the characters were so recognisable, (at least in NZ). There was the upright farmer, the hippie neighbour, the cheeky hussy, the stern Aunt and the pampered pet. And there was the Dog.

While there was no shortage of weird and wonderful characters wandering in and out of the farm gates, the Dog was undoubtedly the central character, and this was Ball's best move. He didn't even have a name - except for the terrible, and never-spoken, one given to him by Aunt Dolly - but had plenty of personality, and was one of the few animal characters to freely roam the fields and comment on all the action.

Ball’s line gave characters like the Dog a mix of heavy realism and goofy cartooning. Dog was a little more anthropomorphic that Snoopy, but not much more, and was, first and foremost, a dog: endearingly innocent and unflinchingly loyal. He was confused about many things in life - like why the humans took such great pleasure in using their bats to smack the crap out of cricket balls - but was also in tune with the never-ending cycle of life and death that exists in the rural world.

The secondary characters, like the feisty feral cat named Horse (who was easily the toughest thing on the farm), or Coochie (the pragmatic pacifist who loved all life and couldn't even cut down a tree growing through his front room), were often funnier, and a source of more punchlines, than the Dog, but he was the heart and soul of the strip, just as any good farm dog is the heart and soul of the farm.

And Ball's art was also full of soul, because it was vivid, and sharp, and fast, and very, very funny. He could find laughs in gross-out humour, or in a look of desperate pleading. His characters often looked like they were having a good time, and there was something eternally funny in the way he would have figures stalking about in the far distance, (which is oddly reminiscent of the work of British cartoonist Giles, another Christmas favourite.)

Like all good comic strips, Footrot Flats dealt with the big issues of life in four panels of patter and slapstick. Universal themes led to universal truths and the strip was firmly in favour of anybody who stood up to the bullies and arseholes in life. There was humour in adversity and straight-up silliness, but greed, pride and foolishness were always punished, sometimes with the help of an electric fence or the righteous fury of Horse.
But the philosophical musings on life - watching the sun go down over the fields and asking 'what's it all about?' - were never at the expense of a good comic punchline or deadpan reveal. It was a genuinely funny strip that sometimes made big points about the meaning of life, and you couldn't ask for more.

Like Peanuts, politics also never got in the way of a good laugh, either. Ball was a fairly classic rural liberal socialist, and his thoughts on feminism and environmentalism became more prevalent as the strip went on. But it was also a world where the All Blacks selector was infinitely more powerful than the Prime Minister.

The strip was most popular during the Muldoon and Lange years, where New Zealand fought itself over apartheid and told the US to stuff off with its nuclear vessels, but there was barely a hint of all that in the strip (and when it was dealt with, it was always at its most oblique, and in favour of things like common sense and not-being-a-dick).

There were plenty of life lessons in Footrot Flats. They weren't always that obvious, and sometimes they were a bit too obvious, but they were there. 
I've loved these two strips since before I could read. Make bigger by clicking!

I always associated Footrot Flats with Christmas growing up, because it was Christmas Day when we often visited relatives who lived on farms, and because I’d usually get some kind of Foot Flats books as a gift, usually from Nana Smith.

And I loved them, and I devoured all of them that came my way. After the barbeque, and before the early evening swim down the Opihi river, it was always Footrot Flats time, and even though the strip finished years ago, it still is.

It's the perfect comic for a time of peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. Even those bloody Murphys and their bloody pigs...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Invisibles: EndMachineGo

Well, shit, if this really is the end of the word as we know it, I'm goin' out dancing!


Invisibles: The Karmapocaylpse War

Time must be getting faster. How else could we get here?