Friday, January 03, 2014

Caleb's Totally Half-Assed Best of 2013 List

See, I'm posting this image because it's got Calendar Man in it, and the calendar year 2013 has just ended and calendar year 2014 has just begun. Also, I really like looking at that Calendar Man costume. Clock King and Chronos have pretty swell costumes too, actually. 

LET'S MAKE WITH THE DISCLAIMERS FIRST. Guys, can I be frank with you? I read a lot of comic books. Seriously. A lot. I read almost everything publishers send me for potential review, as long as it's not so bad I can't make it all the way through, particularly when they send me print copies. I ask publishers to send me particular review copies for possible coverage at one of the four venues I professionally review comics for, and often they do. I work in a library, and I read pretty much everything that is a comic book that passes through my hands there, as well as ordering plenty of trade collections from inter-library loan (it's a rare comic book I can't get through ILL). I currently live within walking distance—seriously, like 50 feet—from a Barnes and Noble, and I will sit and read floppies and manga in there while sipping on a coffee and they are totally cool with that (Sometimes I even buy things from them, but generally only around Christmas or a relative's birthday). I still go to the comic shop every one-to-three weeks to buy a handful of serially-published comic book-comics, even though I'm being priced out of that format, and to just sort of walk around, see what' s out, flip-through books and smell that smell of newly printed comics mixing with the sweet, decaying scent of back-issue bins.

Still, as much time as I devote to reading comics, I don't read everything, and as the end of another year approaches, and I start seeing best-of lists rolling in (or are they rolling out?), I'm constantly seeing titles  on them and thinking Oh yeah, I meant to read that or Hey, that title sounds familiar, why didn't I read that? or What the hell is that? I've never even heard of that or Why is X-Men #1 on here? It wasn't very good.

In other words, any best-of list I put together is really only a Best Comics That Were Published During Calendar 2013 That Caleb Read During Calendar Year 2013.

I should also note that I've become rather disenchanted with the ritual, as it occurred to me that the main function of a best-of list should be to call attention to really great comics published within the last year, but, if I were doing my job (for Robot 6, Good Comics For Kids, and, less frequently, Comics Alliance and Las Vegas Weekly) correctly, or if I was doing my hobby (Every Day Is Like Wednesday) correctly, then I should have already written about those books at great length. So then the best-of list becomes something more of a reminder of some really great books that were published during an arbitrary start and stop point.

Finally, it is really hard to rate comics against one another and say that this thing is better than that thing, given how different the things are. What I look for as a sign of an excellent comic book (aside from obvious things like quality in the components) includes originality, the existence of a complete experience unto itself, every piece of the work working in unison and to serve the same worthwhile function and, in the best examples, telling a story in the way only a comic book can. For example, I just read the first collection of The Wake. Great art, very strong script. Not one I'd consider a top-ten or even top-47 book, but an all-around pretty great comic book. But it could totally be a movie, too, which sort of kneecaps its essential, comic booky essence. Ooh, a better example? Saga. I fucking love Saga, but the story of Saga and the way that story is told could easily be translated to film, although it would probably have to be a television series to match the serial nature of the story-telling (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples do pace the book to be read in single-issue chunk stories that are complete stories themselves while feeding the greater narrative thrust), and perhaps animated, because it would be really tricky to film a hairless sphinx cat in such a way to make it as big as Lying Cat, and to get its lips to move at the right time.

In years past, I spent too much of a day re-reading everything I wrote during the past year before assembling a best-of list, but given the gradual erosion of my belief in the value of such lists, and the fact that I'd rather be doing something else—like reading comics, for example, or watching the next disc in this The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis Season 1 collection I got from the library—I've decided to just do a list from memory...and by looking around my apartment at the books on the shelves to jog my memory.

That is to say, this is going to be a pretty half-assed best-of list, but don't let my methods reflect poorly on the books on the list; they're there because they penetrated my laziness and my failing memory. Actually, I'm going to do three lists. One best-of, and two more stock-taking, this-is-the-stuff-I-like-enough-to-keep-paying-for-even-if-it-ain't-Boxers & Saints lists.

THE BEST COMICS OF 2013 THAT WEREN'T REPRINTS OF CARL BARKS DONALD DUCK COMICS, ACCORDING TO ME (in rough best to least-best order): 1.) Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (this is the book of 2013, as far as I'm concerned; it's the one that really blew me away, that made me think and feel more than any other comic I read, and, among those thoughts and feelings were mind-boggled amazement at what Yang achieved. It's devastating and hilarious. I—honestly!—laughed and almost cried. I didn't review it, but I did interview Yang); 2.) Something Terrible by Dean Trippe (This is the only other comic I read this year that, while I was reading it, I thought, Wow, this is one to remember come best-of-the-year list time; here's my original review); 3.)"Go Owls" from Optic Nerve #13 by Adrian Tomine (Oh look at that, Adrian Tomine, making one of the best comics of the year again; discussed near the bottom of this column); 4.) Pompeii by Frank Santoro (in here); 5.) School Spirits by Anya Davidson (click on the link in the parentheses following the previous entry, as I reviewed School Spirits in the same column), 6.) Benjamin Bear in Bright Ideas by Phillipe Coudray (not just one of the best bear comics of 2013, but one of the best period. Reviewed here), 7.) "Nothing Lasts Part One" from Palookaville #21 by Seth (reviewed in here, somewhere), 8.) Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez (The last few years I planned to write a "Sensational Character Find of 20__" article at the end of the year, and both times I failed to get it together; this year's list would have included Four Girl from Boxers & Saints and Chavo from this. I loved Chavo. I reviewed this one in this column, which also includes a review of Unico, which reminded me how much I enjoyed reading Unico);  9.) Black Is The Color by Julia Gfrörer (Was this really better than Anders Nilsen's Rage of Poseidon or Yuichi Yokoyama's World Map Room, or am I ranking it higher simply because it's fresher in my memory? It is fresher, but it was more comic book-y than the former, which was more illustrated prose, I felt, and made more sense than Yokoyama's always enjoyable but still kind of mind-boggling manga; Black is discussed at the bottom half of this post), 10.) Holiday Comics 2013 by Kate Beaton (I didn't talk about these anywhere but Twitter, and, like Black, they might have beat out some other maybe better comics I've forgotten simply based on how present they are in my mind, but these were hilarious and occasionally moving, and their dashed-off quality only made them moreso; in some cases, it seemed like Beaton was literally drawing them as they happened; Oh, and I'd add Kate Beaton's Dad to a list of Sensational Character Finds of 2013) and, just to be a rebel and break the top-ten format, 11) Failure by Karl Stevens (This is my "controversial" choice, as the comics are a little less comic-y, and I don't really generally care for the photorealistic style or this sort of time-manipulation, but I was still impressed as hell by these comics; reviewed in this column, which I opened with an Avengers Vs. X-Men joke, for some reason).

SERIALLY-PUBLISHED COMIC BOOK-COMICS THAT I'M STILL BUYING AND READING AS THEY'RE PUBLISHED (in alphabetical order): 1.) Adventures of Superman (Sometimes great, sometimes mediocre, always featuring Superman as you like him—wearing red shorts over blue tights), 2.) Afterlife With Archie (the shockingly good zombie story set in the Archie-verse and drawn in realistic style by Francesco Francavilla, it makes that Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips Criminal: Last of the Innocent look pretty terrible by comparison), 3.) Batman '66 (I don't have much memory or affection for the show, but I like Batman and I like things that are funny and I like great art), 4.) Classic Popeye (the only comic I feel 100% comfortable reading in the bathtub), 5.) Daredevil (Exhibit A in the argument that to make a good superhero comic book, the two most important ingredients are a good writer writing good well and a good artist drawing well), 6.) The Fox (Or, This is How It's Done, DC), 7.) Hawkeye (Everyone's favorite superhero comic, and with good reason), 8.) Saga (come for the Lying Cat, stay for the Everything Else), 9.) SpongeBob Comics (not a fan of the TV show, although I like the way SpongeBob laughs and wish I could laugh in such an annoying fashion, but this is an old-school gag comic featuring some of the best cartoonists in the world, so the subject matter is a rather distant secondary concern), 10.) Superior Foes of Spider-Man (maybe my favorite comic book at the moment, if I'm being honest), 11.) Young Avengers (pretty art, occasionally amusing script) and 12.) FF (I forgot to put this between Daredevil and The Fox, where it belongs alphabetically. This is Matt Fraction at his funniest—funnier than in Hawkeye, really, as the mode here is more directly comedy—with Mike Allred at his Mike Allred-est, and even the recent replacement of Fraction's dialogue by that of another Allred hasn't hurt any—in fact, I think it's gotten funnier).

Sadly, of all of these, FF and Young Avengers are being cancelled/ending; Daredevil and Superior Foes are having their prices raised out of the range I'm willing to pay for single issues, Classic Popeye may be joining them, given how few pages the last issue I read had, and I'm not entirely sure how ongoing Afterlife and The Fox actually are—I'm pretty sure the latter is a mini, and while I suppose the former could go on for over a 100 issues (See Walking Dead), I'd be surprised if it actually did. There will certainly be more serially-published comics I'll try in the new year, and obiviously I continue to read review copies, issues from the big box retailer right behind my apartment complex and as much superhero and genre stuff as I can once it makes it into trade, but serial books seem to be withering, at least ones I want to read, meaning ones that are 1) Good, 2) $2.99-$3.50 or less for 20-22 pages, and 3) Won't read better in trade.

The first appearance of a Megatherium in Cage of Eden by Yoshinobu Yamada, a scene I just spoiled by telling you what that giant, bizarre-looking creature actually is. Pretty scary and mysterious looking though, huh? Megafauna are the new dinosaurs.
MANGA SERIES THAT I LIKE SO MUCH THAT I BUY NEW VOLUMES OF THEM AS THEY ARE RELEASED BECAUSE I CAN'T WAIT FOR THEM To SHOW UP IN LIBRARIES: 1.) Animal Land, 2.) Cage of Eden (Battle Royale meets Walking with Prehistoric Beasts? Lost meets Primeval meets High School of The Dead minus zombies...? I keep meaning to write at length about this; it's about a class full of Japanese school kids who have crash-landed on a mysterious island filled with prehistoric beasts...but not dinosaurs; instead they're mainly confronted with Terror Birds, Gigantopithecus and various post-dinosaur megafauna), 3.) The Flowers of Evil (which just got weird, jumping pretty far forward from the climax of volume 6) and, of course, 4.) Yotsuba&! (everyone's favorite manga series, and with good reason).

MY STRONGEST MEMORIES OF READING COMICS IN 2013 (Warning: There are fewer jokes and things get downright elegiac in this portion): I remember quite distinctly reading Something Terrible, as it was an unusual thing for me to do, as it involved paying for a comic (only 99-cents) that I would read digitally online rather than read a paper comic of. I've never read a digital comic that wasn't a pdf sent to me by a publisher or creator, or that wasn't just put online for free. So there was this whole tense ritual involved for me, and then I finally read it in my bed in my ancestral home while visiting family. And then re-read it. And re-read it again. And then again the next day.

I was also in my ancestral home the night I read Yang's Boxers & Saints. It was pretty late by the time I got there, but I thought I'd read a chapter or two before I went to bed, as I had an interview scheduled with the creator and had to get the books read that weekend. I ended up staying up very late—and my weariness of the very long day, which included eight hours of work and a 45-minute drive followed by a few hours of visiting family, falling away—as I raced through not only the bigger, first book, Boxers, but also Saints. Then I reread the end of Boxers again, as Saints sort of changed it. Then the next day I reread them both.

My grandfather died this summer. In early July, just shy of his 92nd birthday. Death and the loss of a loved one is always a scary and terrible thing, but I'm happy to be able to say that he passed away just as he would have wanted to—in his own bed, in his own home, surrounded by family.  A few weeks before he passed away, he was in the hospital, and the doctors had planned to move him into hospice, as they didn't think he'd live much more than a day or so. At the time they had decided this, however, none of the hospice rooms were ready, so he was going to spend the night in his normal hospital room before being moved to hospice first thing in the morning.

My father, my sister and I spent all afternoon and evening there with him, while he mostly just slept, only very occasionally awakening and talking, but not making much sense when he did. Eventually, my father and sister and the various friends and family who had been in and out all day went home, and the nurses made me up a little bed to sit in next to my grandfather, as I planned on staying the night, not having kids to get home to like my sister and father. Having planned for a day or two sitting in a hospital, I had packed a little bag of books to read. One of these was Walt Disney's Donald Duck: The Old Castle's Secret, the then-latest collection of Carl Barks' duck comics. It was the only thing in my bag that I could actually concentrate on long enough to actually read, and I spent a few hours that evening reading those old kids comics and listening to my grandfather's breathing. Comics, I discovered, like food in the Raymond Carver story of the same name, an be a small, good thing in the face of a big, bad thing (My sister and father ended up returning before the night was over, and we all slept in uncomfortable parts of the hospital; somewhat miraculously, after I went home to shower and returned later in the day, they had canceled the move to hospice. He had made a remarkable recovery, waking up completely normal and alert, talking like he wasn't just on his deathbed, and reading the sports page. He did die a a few weeks later, after the hospital discharged him).

Related to that is a somewhat worse memory. I have some issues with anxiety and agoraphobia, and the impending death of my grandfather set off the second biggest attack of my life, where I found myself pretty much wandering around my apartment, terrified, for no reason, all day for a while. It very, very gradually subsided, and, in addition to drugs, the one thing I have to do when it happens is "exposure" therapy, where you basically gradually expose yourself to larger and larger doses of the thing you're afraid of (So, like, if you were afraid of riding in elevators, you'd, like, go look at an elevator one day. Then the next day you'd get in it and ride one floor. And then you'd ride two floors. And so on).

As it was summer and I live a block or two from a nice, big park, I spent a lot of time walking to the park, sitting on a bench, and looking at the huge duck pond, which was always full of ducks, geese, a heron or two, some sort of fish that would splash to the surface to eat bugs but that I never actually saw (just saw and heard the splashes; I never saw it as it was breaching the surface) and turtles. I called this "duck therapy," and I would go and sit and watch the ducks every day, like a lonely, old, half-crazy person (an improvement over a full-crazy person, to be sure).

First, I would do this awareness exercise, where I would think about what each of my five sense was taking in, and focus on that rather than anything in the past or future that I might be worrying about. I would also try to reach a point of calm and piece and then memorize it as best I could so I could put myself back there if I felt anxious again in the near future.  After that, I'd usually hang out and read or write or walk around.

One weekend, when I could spend the whole day there if I wished, I happened to have brought a huge collection of Avengers Vs. X-Men, which included the main series as well as A Vs. X: Avengers Vs. X-Men tie-in series that was just a pure fight comic, featuring "deleted" action scenes from the main series. I liked it an awful lot, though it was so damn big I never got around to reviewing it anywhere before I ran out of renewals and had to return it to the library. Reading it where and when I did really left a rather indelible impression on me, and I can't really think of the series now without also feeling the wood of the bench under my feet, the sounds of ducks and geese chattering to each other and splashing in the water and the act of trying not to think about anything other than where I was at the time, what my senses were telling me and what the Avengers and X-Men were doing.  It's weird because the book didn't heal me or anything—I would have remembered whatever comic book I'd spent that weekend reading in much the same way, and I have similar associations with at least one of the prose books I read during those weeks— but Avengers Vs. X-Men just happened to be what I was reading that particular day.


Rev'd '76 said...

Er, C*ck King's costume doesn't quite match his nom de crime...

Rev'd '76 said...

But sseriously, my sincerest sympathies, C.

Akilles said...

Great post. Absolutely great.

Caleb said...

D'oh! Of all the L's to forget...

Well, anyone visiting EDILW after Googling "Cock King" are going to be sorely disappointed...