On one hand, it’s the Holiday season. On the other hand, it’s that time of year for my personal point of view on the best in comics during 2005. For this column I am steering a slightly different course. I am taking what I feel is the best of 2005 and using it as a springboard for my 2006 comics reading plan.
Author Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life (Collins/Design, 2005, $24.95) is the ultimate companion to the world of graphic novels. It is more than a companion, it is an extravagant guide; a richly detailed and colorfully produced treasure map that will prime you to the best that graphic novels have to offer. In this book the curious novice and diehard fanboy will find dozens of entries, ranging from heartbreaking autobiography to rousing adventure, superhero angst to intense horror, the wounds of war to secret desires, funny animals to troubled teens, and on and on. I’m ready to tackle Charles Burns’ disturbing Black Hole then lose myself in the global adventures of Corto Maltese. David B.’s haunting Epileptic is not going to be an easy read, and the intriguing Nikopol Trilogy may prove daunting, but I want to give these books a shot, because Gravett’s book is the inspiration to meet their challenges. It compels you to seek out the artistic gems in a medium that has done much, much more than realize its potential; it’s a medium that has finally found its place on the map. Check out the expanded graphic novels section in your local bookstore, read the graphic novel reviews in major newspaper book review sections, peruse the quick hits in such mainstream magazines as Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone, you’ll understand what I mean. The graphic novel has arrived. Gravett invites you to immerse yourself in the celebration.
Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (University Press of Mississippi, 2005) travels a different road in its take on the graphic novel, but it’s no less celebratory. Hatfield provides a more analytical approach; he explores, discusses and dissects such superlative works as Art Spiegleman’s Maus, Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, and Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary. Through extensive critical study Hatfield establishes a much-needed understanding of “alternative comics” at a literary level. This isn’t the road map of discovery as much as it is the textbook of how alternative comics emerged and what achievements have been produced to justify and validate the medium as a literary art form. The book is cumbersome in places, but I note this as a gentle warning as opposed to a fault; there is a necessary weight to Hatfield’s studies that requires patience on the reader’s part. There’s a lot I did not pick up on during my first reading, but the book’s not going anywhere, I intend to read it again, and soon. It’s opened for me an entirely new door of appreciation of this wonderful medium and I look forward to rereading the examined works themselves with a whole new perspective.
I found the best in comics this year turned out to be the best about comics. I’m still working on specific comics I enjoyed reading in 2005. That’s a list to be provided at a later date. For now, the two achievements noted above are hands down the books that have resonated the most with me this year, and they have set me up for some excellent comics reading throughout 2006. My thanks to Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter (www.comicsreporter.com) for supporting these books and bringing them to my attention!