For many years, the Post-Dispatch Sunday Magazine put out a special issue near Thanksgiving devoted to books, in which most of the regular reviewers would pick the best books that year in the category they reviewed - the best biographies, for instance, or the best mysteries. As a semi-regular reviewer of science fiction and "graphic novels" (see my rant on why I dislike the term and what I'd like to use instead), I did several of these year-end pieces over the years (for space and I suspect snobbish reasons, several of the "graphic novel" roundups did not appear in the magazine but on the regular book review page).
Below are the "graphic novel" roundups I wrote between 1990 and 1995. You'll notice "Understanding Comics" is listed in 1993 and 1994 both. I took the opportunity of HarperCollins reissuing it with a new cover in regular bookstores to plug it once again.
Also, the 1991 roundup is all books about comics (well, there is one anthology). I wasn't able to do a "graphic novel" roundup that year, but I managed to sneak in two "graphic novels" into the science fiction roundup that year.
Finally, you might notice that few of these books have separate reviews elsewhere on this site. To some extent, that's due to the fact that a lot of good books come out in the fall and some reviews I wrote never got printed. I did also sometimes deliberately use the year-end piece as extra space to get in books I hadn't been able to review.
IF YOU HAVE one of the growing number of adult comic book fans on your gift list, you couldn't do better than the Comics Journal's collection of ''The Best Comics of the Decade'' (2 volumes, 122 & 124 pages, Fantagraphics, each $29.95, $12.95 paper). The hardbound presents better, but you can buy both volumes of the trade paperback for less than the cost of one hardbound volume. If you just buy one volume, I'd suggest the second, if for no other reason than the presence of Will Eisner.
If your comic book fan is strictly into superhero stuff, then ''The Complete Frank Miller Batman'' (304 pages, Longmeadow Press, $29.95), with its sumptuous padded black leather cover, is an irresistible package. Don't worry that he (or she, but superhero fans are predominantly male) probably already has ''The Dark Knight Returns,'' which makes up more than half the bulk of this book. He'll still love it, believe me (I have both, myself). ''The Last Word In Superheroics,'' proclaims the cover blurb on ''The One'' (216 pages, King Hell Press, $29.95). Rick Veitch manages to hit all the popular cultural bases, from McLuhan to McDonalds, while telling an apocalyptic tale of the end of the world (literally), that nonetheless manages to end on a hopeful note.
One of the oddest graphic albums of the year is a tribute to T.S. Eliot and Raymond Chandler called ''The Waste Land'' by Martin Rowson (64 pages, Harper & Row, $7.95). Rowson's excellent illustrations parody film noir as excellently as his ''plot'' skewers Eliot's cryptic masterpiece.
For those who regard ''comic books'' as kid stuff while acknowledging ''comic strips'' as a worthwhile medium, there are several wonderful collections of cartoons out this holiday season, many of which will be familiar to the readers of the Post-Dispatch. ''The Authoritative Calvin & Hobbes'' (254 pages, Andrews & McMeel, $19.95, $12.95 paper) is the latest of several best-selling collections by Bill Watterson. ''Classics of Western Literature'' (252 pages, Little, Brown, $12.95 paper) collects the last of Berke Breathed's ''Bloom County,'' while giving us a peek at its early incarnation in a college newspaper and some Breathed sketches. ''Tales From the Planet Sylvia'' (127 pages, St. Martin's, $10.95) is, of course, strictly for fans of that unusual strip by Nicole Hollander.
Another collection of interest is ''President Bill'' (80 pages, Andrews & McMeel, $6.95), a ''graphic novel'' (if something 80 pages can truly lay claim to the title ''novel'') reprinted from William L. Brown's woodcut-like cartoons that run in weekly ''alternative'' newspapers like the Washington, D.C. City Paper and the Atlanta Creative Loafing. Another book of cartoons from the alternative weeklies is ''The Big Book of Hell'' (170 pages, Pantheon, $15.95), commemorating 10 years of ''Life In Hell,'' by Matt Groening (better known as creator of ''The Simpsons'' on TV).
If you feel you have to justify your interest in comic books with educational intent, dip into ''The Cartoon History of the Universe'' (360 pages, Doubleday, $14.95) by Larry Gonick, or ''The Cartoon History of Time'' (64 pages, Plume, $9.95) by Kate Charlesworth and John Gribbin. Except for the first two chapters, Gonick's book details ancient human history (like the Old Testament and Herodotus). Charlesworth and Gribbin present a physics text in cartoon form, covering much of the same ground as covered by Stephen Hawking in the volume referred to in a back cover blurb here as ''the OTHER book.''
THE SERIOUS FAN of the comics is always on the lookout for a good reference book. Unfortunately, none of the following quite fits the bill, though each has its positive points.
''From Aargh! to Zap!'' (96 pages, Prentice Hall, $25 paper) is, as the subtitle says, ''Harvey Kurtzman's Visual History of Comics'' - that is, it is a highly personal and idiosyncratic view. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended. Though $25 may seem a lot for a 96-page paperback, the pages are large (11 by 15 inches), and Kurtzman has reproduced not just comic-book covers but much interior art, including several entire stories. The book has little text, allowing the comics to tell their own stories.
Bob Callahan's ''The New Comics Anthology'' (287 pages, Collier, $19.95 paper) has a wonderful selection of the newest and best practitioners of avant-garde visual narrative, but the volume is marred by serious errors: pages printed out of sequence or missing, artists' names misspelled. While some of the works selected represent highwater marks, or at least a representative sample, many artists are represented by inferior earlier work that they have long since gone beyond. Its best use is as a list of people for whom to watch.
Worst of the lot is Ron Goulart's ''Encyclopedia of American Comics: From 1897 to the Present'' (408 pages, Facts on File, $19.95 paper). Although it is fairly worthwhile as a compendium of information on early American comics, its claim to be complete and comprehensive ''to the present'' seems based on slim mentions of Berke Breathed and Matt Groening. Neither Lynda Barry nor Bill Griffith's ''Zippy'' are mentioned, just to name a couple. If you want to know about an obscure comic book hero like the Black Hood, this book may tell you what you need to know, but if you want information on contemporary cartoonists, it's quite incomplete.
THIS HAS BEEN a watershed year for "graphic novels" - as comics in book form have come to be called, whether they are properly novels or not.
The highlight, of course, was Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize for last year's "Maus," which brought long overdue attention and respectability to the medium. Of course, much of this new legitimacy was squandered on adolescent fantasies of costumed superheroes, supposedly made "mature" by the injection of sex and violence. Still, the year saw publication or first-time general distribution of a number of works that were closer to "Maus" than to Superman.
The Hernandez Brothers, Gilbert and Jaime, have been doing "Love and Rockets" for 10 years now, and the stories involving their respective casts have grown richer and deeper as the brothers have matured as storytellers and artists. Eschewing not only superheroes but fantasy, aliens, car chases and the other trappings of genre literature, Los Bros Hernandez deal in ordinary life and human emotion, and do it powerfully. The latest collection of their work, "Flies on the Ceiling" (118 pages, Fantagraphics, $12.95 paper) is Vol. 9 of the complete "Love & Rockets" collection.
There is plenty of fantasy in Neil Gaiman's "Sandman," which centers on a created mythology involving Dream, one of the Endless (who are greater than the gods). "Season of Mist" (224 pages, DC Comics, $19.95 paper) reprints issues 21 through 28, and provides some detail on Gaiman's mythological characters and their place within the context of other mythologies, while telling a delightful story that undercuts expectations at every turn.
Dave Sim's "Cerebus" is also a fantasy, featuring an anthropomorphic aardvark in a world 6,000 years ago that hilariously mirrors our own. His massive novel "Church and State" (1,200 pages in two paperback volumes, Aardvark-Vanaheim, $30 each) is but a part of a larger epic that will eventually comprise 6,000 pages. The books have been in print for some time, but are only now reaching general distribution in comic book stores.
In addition to reprinting the better comic books, publishers are also bringing out new material in graphic novel format. One such work is P. Craig Russell's "Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: Vol. 1" (44 pages, NBM, $15.95). Vol. 1 contains "The Selfish Giant" and "The Star Child," both so beautifully illustrated that the pictures alone are worth the price of the book. And the adaptations are so faithful that the words also could stand alone, making this a rare double bargain.
Perhaps anticipating an upsurge of interest generated by Francis Ford Coppola's movie, NBM has reissued Jon J. Muth's "Dracula: A Symphony in Moonlight & Nightmares" (76 pages, $45, $11.95 paper), previously available only in a limited edition. Rather than adapting Stoker's novel, Muth takes characters and incidents and twists them into a wholly new tale. Purists may be offended, but the story he tells is a fascinating and compelling one. The art is breathtaking, not the pencils and inks of ordinary comic books but stunning watercolors by a classically trained painter.
There were several other works of superior quality; the choices above reflect personal taste as much as anything. While a newcomer to the medium is often overwhelmed by the mass of trash that fills the shelves, the fact is that there has never been more truly worthwhile comics material available to the persistent searcher.
If "90 percent of everything is trash," as Theodore Sturgeon is supposed to have said, then the explosion of comics in the last few years means that the 10 percent of quality books has grown larger along with the glut of costumed clowns pummeling one another. If your idea of comic books is Batman and Superman, find a comic book store that specializes in graphic novels and find out what you've been missing.
For the purposes of this review, "graphic novel" (or GN) refers to a trade paperback containing comics material that is a single story or concept, and not just an anthology of strips.
Among the most important nonfiction work in the genre published this year was "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud (216 pages, Tundra/Kitchen Sink, $19.95). In fact, it's the most important book ever produced on the subject. Period. McCloud has set the terms for discussion of comics into the next century. And superheroes are not a necessary part of the discussion.
One of the artists McCloud mentions as moving comics away from superheroes is Chester Brown. "The Playboy" (170 pages, Drawn & Quarterly, $12.95), collected from Brown's comic "Yummy Fur," is as far from Superman as one could imagine. It is a painfully honest reminiscence of the author's relationship with the famous men's magazine, starting with the first issue he bought when he was 15 and continuing through an epilogue that takes place after the first chapter was published in the comic book. Funny and poignant, this is a thought-provoking essay on sex and guilt.
Closer to traditional comics are the works of Neil Gaiman, who does work for DC (home of Superman and Batman) as well as independent products. I didn't like his "A Game of You" (192 pages, DC Comics, $19.95, paper; $29.95 hard cover) as much as some of the other "Sandman" collections, but that's almost like saying I don't like "Romeo and Juliet" as much as "The Tempest." Gaiman's run on "The Sandman" is undoubtedly the finest writing the mainstream comic book industry has ever seen.
DC also has issued "The Books of Magic" in GN format (not paginated, $19.95), with astounding art by four terrific artists and Gaiman's tour de force linking all of the "magical" characters in the DC universe.
Best of all, though, is "Signal To Noise" (not paginated, Dark Horse, $11.95), by Gaiman and Dave McKean. The story of an old filmmaker and his last film is both realistic and eerie, moving and memorable.
"From Hell" is written by Alan Moore and drawn by Eddie Campbell, and it is phenomenal. Unfortunately, it's being published serially in "volumes" of two chapters each, with chapters 3 and 4 made available this time (Volume Two, 72 pages, Tundra, $4.95).
Jeff Smith's "Bone" is one of the freshest and most consistently interesting comics around. Neither aggressively "adult" (that is, no graphic violence or sex, at least so far) nor childish, the adventures of Fone Bone are charming and amusing. The first six issues are collected in "The Complete Bone Adventures" (142 pages, Cartoon Books, $12.95)
Dave Sim's current publishing schedule has him publishing a volume a year of his current novel-within-a-novel, and Part One of "Mothers & Daughters" is currently available (250 pages, Aardvark-Vanaheim, $17). Sim is more than halfway through his massive 6,000-page, 26-year story, and this may not be the best place to start. Earlier collections are available at better comics stores, although any collection is a good place to start with Dave Sim.
My original list of possibles for this year's graphic novel roundup had to be cut nearly in half, which is an indication of what a good year it's been for the genre.
First up is a book that is not a graphic novel, but a book about comics: Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" (216 pages, Kitchen Sink/HarperCollins, $27.95, $19.95 paper). It is the best book ever produced on the subject, a comic book about comic books that explores the subject in both breadth and depth.
Another non-fiction work is "Palestine: A Nation Occupied," by Joe Sacco (141 pages, Fantagraphics, $14.95 paper). Sacco visited Israel and the occupied territories in the winter of 1991-1992, and has been doing a series of comics about the experience. This book reprints the first five installments. A thought-provoking book that reveals much we never hear in the news reports out of the Middle East.
"Jar of Fools, Part One" (70 pages, Penny Dreadful Press, $5.95 paper) is by Jason Lutes, the best newcomer the field has seen in years. Lutes tells the story of Ernie Weiss, a down-on-his-luck magician whose mentor has escaped from the nursing home again. Meanwhile, the love of Ernie's life who has separated from him for mysterious reasons wants to hear his voice, and a con man is following him around.
Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of the Universe II: Volumes 8-13" (305 pages, Doubleday, $15.95 paper), picks up where the first one left off, with Alexander the Great's abortive march into India. Then it backtracks to pick up the prehistory and early history of India and China before going on to Rome, which he tracks to its fall. Gonick is irreverent, hilarious and meticulous.
History of a more personal kind is to be found in "Our Cancer Year," written by husband-wife team Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner and illustrated by Frank Stack. This memoir/autobiography shows the couple moving into their own house for the first time when Harvey is diagnosed with cancer. We follow the entire process of Harvey's treatment, which is at times harrowing.
The Hernandez Brothers have been writing and drawing "Love and Rockets" for more than 10 years now, and have an even dozen collections of their work in print. Jaime's Hernandez' latest is a one-man show, "Wigwam Bam" (132 pages, Fantagraphics, $14.95 paper).
After a decade of being best friends and off-and-on lovers, Maggie and Hopey split up over an inconsequential fight. Through the rest of "Wigwam Bam," we follow Hopey around as she alternately searches for and tries to forget Maggie.
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's "The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch" (not paginated, Vertigo/DC Comics, $24.95) may be hard to get, as it had a limited press run, but it's worth the trouble to track down. Gaiman weaves autobiography and fiction together to create a fascinating and disturbing meditation on the nature of memory and the so-called innocence of childhood.
Although most people think of graphic novels simply as grown-up comic books, these have no costumed superheroes, science-fiction plots or even private eyes, and only one token fantasy:
Stuck Rubber Baby, by Howard Cruse (210 pages, Paradox Press, $24.95). Cruse examines the dreams and the reality of the civil-rights movement during what his older self calls ``Kennedy time'' in the South. This is also a novel about growing up gay, a bittersweet love story and perhaps the most important graphic novel since ``MAUS.''
The Tale of One Bad Rat, by Bryan Talbot (136 pages, Dark Horse, $14.95), is a harrowing story of Helen Potter and her pet rat that, like ``Stuck Rubber Baby,'' somehow manages to be affirming of the human spirit. Everyone should read this book.
Give It Up! by Peter Kuper (64 pages, NBM, $14.95). Kuper has illustrated several of Franz Kafka's short stories and managed to get the work published as a graphic novel, but we won't go into that. It's really quite good.
Introducing Kafka, by David Zane Marrowitz and Robert Crumb (175 pages, Kitchen Sink, $11.95). If you want to know more about Kafka, get this book. Included is Crumb's adaptation/illustration of ``Metamorphosis.''
Bone, Volume One: Out From Boneville, by Jeff Smith (142 pages, Cartoon Books, $19.95). This is a truly all ages comic. It has the surface of ``Pogo'' and the depth of ``Lord of the Rings.''
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