Sporadic Sequential
Thursday, January 11, 2007
I Think It Works Out That He Creates More Comics a Year Than I Read

When I think back on 2006, one thing keeps coming to mind: Christ, were there ever a lot of comics I didn't read. And I'm not even talking about notable books that I haven't gotten around to checking out, like Pride of Baghdad and Abandon The Old in Tokyo, both of which have been getting very strong reviews but are still waiting for me to pick up at the library. No, I'm referring to comics I actually own that -- two weeks into 2007 -- still sit unstarted or unfinished. (It's the unfinished ones that especially nag at me: Cleaning my office recently, I uncovered dozens of books I'd started but subsequently forgotten about. And with my failing memory, it was impossible to pick up where I'd left off, so they may as well be added to the "unread" pile all over again.)

Sigh. I don't know why, but looking at the stack of unread books makes me feel guilty. Maybe it's because I know I'll continue to buy more comics, so I'm just going to fall deeper and deeper in reading debt. I'd love to say that I'm going to buckle down and catch up on my reading, but when your nearly two-year-old daughter comes up to you and closes the book you're reading, saying "The End!" (her way of announcing that it's time to put down the comics and start playing with her), well, suddenly whittling away at those stacks of unread comics doesn't seem as important anymore.

Anyway, I did manage to read some comics last year, so here are a few thoughts on the ones I remember most fondly.

The "Rekindled Passion" Award:
In earlier years, anthologies were often listed among my year-end favorites, but a couple notable disappointments in 2004 soured me on the format somewhat. Then last year several high-quality books came out and renewed my interest in anthologies — Project Romantic, Japan As Viewed by 17 Creators, and The Best American Comics 2006 all showed that it's still possible to assemble diverse creators into a single, satisfying volume.

The "Don't Ever Change" Award goes to those reliable favorites I run the risk of taking for granted. Lately the ongoing titles I most eagerly anticipate are all manga series: Sgt. Frog, Bleach, Death Note, Love Roma, Dragon Head, and Monster are all books that get read as soon as I get them. And they're all books that I think do a good job of (1) remaining true to the core concept of the series while still (2) staying fresh and entertaining and (3) actually advancing the storyline, three things that most superhero comics seem incapable of doing nowadays. (I know some people grew disappointed with later volumes of Sgt. Frog and Death Note, but I continue to enjoy both books immensely. With Sgt. Frog, creator Mine Yoshizaki comes up with enough variations of the familiar setup (the frog-like aliens plan some outlandish new invasion scheme but are ultimately defeated, usually by their own incompetence) to keep things from getting stale. With Death Note, the turning points that seemed to turn off so many fans actually struck me as bold narrative decisions that you'd never see in a comic from Marvel or DC (at least not in a way that would stick), and I thought the addition of the two new antagonists for Light offered a nice parallel to the dual aspects of Light's own character.)

Best Variation on the "Power Up" Scene: It's a device familiar to anyone who's watched more than a couple anime or played more than a handful of video games, but one book had an interesting twist on the tired concept: In Reborn!, characters get their "power-ups" when an assassin who looks like a toddler shoots them in the head. (I'd love to play a Reborn! video game just to see how they handled the power-ups.) And the rest of the manga only gets more bizarre from there. If you like black humor mixed in with insane, over-the-top antics, check out this book. (And check out Dorian's look at the first volume for more details.)

The "Attracks" Award goes to the company or individual who best encapsulates the love/hate relationship (attracks = attracts + attacks; get it? Hey, blame PWCW's inability to use spellcheck if you think it's lame) I have with the comics industry. This year the award could only go to one entity: Dark Horse Comics, for their ability to both annoy and appease me. If you've been reading this blog for any time, you know the source of my frustration with Dark Horse was their repeated failure to stick to their announced publishing schedules and their utter lack of communication regarding such delays. However, I can't stay mad at Dark Horse for very long, because when their books finally do come out, they generally look gorgeous. Seriously, looking at the production values of books like Ohikkoshi, Banya: The Explosive Delivery Man, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, and Mail, it's obvious that Dark Horse cares about the quality of their books, even if punctuality often suffers. And Dark Horse builds up a huge reserve of goodwill in my book for publishing Museum of Terror, a thick three-volume set collecting Junji Ito's early horror work (including the complete Tomie saga in a package much more appealing than the shoddy ComicsOne presentation of the material). Dark Horse could easily secure my loyalty and keep me from complaining about their delays ever again by publishing additional collections of Ito's other short stories.

Favorite Industry onto Himself: Joann Sfar has quickly moved to the top of my "Must Read" list of creators. I believe the first thing of his I read was The Rabbi's Cat (I know it came out in 2005 but I didn't read it til early 2006, so for me it's included in last year's favorites), after which I was immediately in love. I rushed out to find more of his work and devoured whatever was available in English — Vampire Loves, Dungeon, Little Vampire, Sardine in Outer Space, Klezmer — and that's hardly even scratching the surface! According to First Second's bio page for Sfar, he's released over a hundred books since he started creating comics in the mid-Nineties. Which is pretty damned amazing when you simply crunch the numbers without even taking into consideration how good all of Sfar's work is. At first glance, it might seem that Sfar achieves such prolific output by "cutting corners" and producing sketchy, unfinished art, but I'd argue that Sfar's books are enhanced by the immediacy of his style. If he tightened his panels any more or over-rendered every detail, his stories wouldn't flow as fast and freely as they do. I know many superhero fans live by the maxim that greater detail equals better art, but so many comics die on the page, overburdened by the artist's desire to cram one more obscure character into the background of the latest mega-crossover. Storytelling is sacrificed for over-saturation. What Sfar "sacrifices" in terms of detail is more than made up for with an expert command of color and composition. Sfar's comics, with their deceptive simplicity (look at the studies at the end of Klezmer, for example, and you'll see that a lot of thought and work goes into Sfar's art), come to life with a joy and energy that other comics can't even imagine.

Favorite Publisher (Unqualified): In a year where most publishers seemed determined to actively alienate their customer base, First Second arrived like a breath of fresh air. From their generous, nonaggressive promotional pushes (sending out dozens of review copies to the blogosphere without showing up to clutter the comments if the reviews were less than glowing); to their classy interviews free of empty, meaningless hype; to their fun, informative site — everything about First Second came across as pleasant and professional in their debut year. And on top of all that, they even put out excellent books! (You may have heard something about one of their books being nominated for some sort of award...) Here's hoping 2007 is as good to First Second as 2006 was. (And from the sounds of it, 2007 is going to be a very good year for First Second — which means that their fans are going to have a very good year as well.)

Best Book of 2006: Based on everything I've written so far, it's probably no surprise that Klezmer gets my vote for best book of 2006. My favorite creator and favorite publisher come together to produce a work that was a sheer joy to read. Despite the horrors and hardships depicted in the book, it's still a deeply humanistic and hopeful work. Reading Klezmer made me want to go out and dance and sing and celebrate life. It's a gorgeous book, lavishly illustrated by Sfar in his distinctive mix of pen & ink drawings brought to life with wondrous watercolor washes. The characters and situations that Sfar crafts for this book are immensely engaging. I especially love the character of The Baron, who strikes me as the kind of character Frank Miller would come up with if he were writing a book about a hard-boiled Jewish musician. The only problem with this book is that it ends right in the middle of the story and there's no word about when book two will be coming out. (I believe the second book is still being published in France, so it may be awhile before we see it here.)

Tell me that's not Miller-esque.

Sequential art suitable for framing!

Closing Thoughts: I always enjoy doing these looks back at the comics I read the previous year because it helps me assess how good I'm doing at buying stuff I actually enjoy reading. This year was a very good one in terms of not regretting my purchases. In previous years, I usually organized my wrap-ups into two sections: Favorites and Disappointments. This year, however, it would have been a stretch for me to assemble a list of disappointments. Sure, there were books where I had minor complaints or nitpicks, but nothing major enough for me to move them onto the "disliked" list. (Even books that I didn't care for weren't really disappointments since I didn't expect much from them in the first place. The fact that I didn't pay for these books myself also helped minimize my dissatisfaction. (The only books I can think of that I truly despised — Air Gear and Read or Die — were both library reads, so I didn't even keep them around long enough to dissect my disgust.))

So to what do I attribute my success in 2006? Well, ironically enough, I think being behind in my reading helped out a great deal. Instead of having to have everything right when it came out, I usually waited to see what others were saying about various books and used that to influence my decisions on what to buy. Even though I often felt behind the curve in terms of what was being discussed in the blogosphere, the end result was positive in that I didn't end up with a bunch of books I wasn't really interested in. So thank you to all you dedicated reviewers out there for helping me steer clear of junk I didn't really need! (David Welsh in particular is always an invaluable resource for me: Not only is he a voracious reader and an entertaining, engaging writer, but his detailed, fair-minded reviews always help me figure out if I'll enjoy the work he's discussing. So thanks for all the hard work, David. It's certainly helped me improve my hit-to-miss ratio!)

Two other factors certainly helped as well: Quitting floppies completely and giving up preordering. Again, because I'm so behind on my reading, it didn't really bother me to miss out on the weekly fix of new releases. Preordering had long been the bane of my hobby. All too often I'd preorder something simply because the solicitation looked exciting (or because DCBS was offering it at such a discount), only to lose interest by the time the actual book came out. Or I'd continue to order a series I was no longer really enjoying out of sheer inertia. As for the floppy, seeing all the complaints about how singles are becoming unreadable due to the sheer number of ads scattered throughout the stories makes me glad I'm no longer supporting that format. (I'm also glad I no longer have to worry about bagging and boarding my singles to keep my comics from getting damaged. Now I just stack or shelve my graphic novels and shake my head that I ever fussed over those flimsy floppies.)

The only thing I can see that I'll have to work on in 2007 is cutting back on the number of nostalgia comic collections I buy. I've got a stack of about a dozen Essentials and Showcase Presents sitting untouched in my office, and I'm realizing that I really have no desire to dig into them. Too often I threw these books onto an online order at the last minute simply to qualify for free shipping. But most of these books are available for free from the library, so there's really no point in owning them myself. (Especially when I realize that I probably wouldn't even read many of these for free.) Which leads me to another new year's resolution: Time to start up the eBay auctions again so I can clear some of this comic book clutter out of my office...

So how about you? How much did you enjoy all the comics you read last year?