The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: Graphic Novels

Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 in Review: Graphic Novels

Fulfilling a pledge I made to myself last year, I managed to read dozens of graphic novels and art books this year.  From reading seminal works like Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series in full to checking out illustrated works by Sergio Toppi (not to mention art series like the excellent Sparrow series or the stunning Spectrum series, now in its 16th year of presenting the past year's best in illustrations, paintings, and other artwork published and unpublished alike), I have discovered that the graphic novel medium has a great deal of potential to tell stories that otherwise would be almost impossible to render as fully in traditional written form. 

There were close to two dozen 2009 releases in graphic novel form that I read.  While I would love to devote more time to explaining why those other works ought to be considered, I fear it would detract from the purpose of these 2009 in Review series, whose main aim is to present the highest quality readings in various fields that I encountered this year. 

David Mazzucchelli, Asterios Polyp

I read Mazzucchelli's first solo effort (before then, he was known for his artwork with iconic series such as Batman) at the urging of an illustration student/friend of mine. It might have been the best recommended read that I had this year.  When I read this a few months ago, I never could find exactly the right words to describe why this book impressed me so much, so I'll try again here with much fewer words.

Ever felt lost, as though you were going through the motions in life?  Ever wanted to rediscover that "spark" that you thought you had lost when you broke up with your S.O.?  Have you found yourself just dreaming and hoping for a wing and a prayer to make it through and to discover something that had been hidden from you all along?  Asterios Polyp is that sort of story and Mazzucchelli's illustrations underscore the gamut of emotions that the titular character, the architecture professor Polyp (whose ambitions somehow are never realized in the form of actual buildings), experiences over the course of this profound story that combines the best of penetrating character explorations with some of the better illustrations available in any graphic novel.  Asterios Polyp is perhaps one of my favorite stories read in any medium or language this year and hopefully others will consider reading it who have had a reluctance to explore graphic novels.

Jeff Lemire, The Nobody

This is the first of two Lemire books that will appear in this discussion. Lemire is a very talented Canadian artist and storyteller.  In the two books of his that I read this year, he has a penchant for developing characters that are fragile, dependent, and yet very sympathetic.  Here in The Nobody, he gives a twist to the H.G. Wells exploration of the invisible man, as there is a mysterious man swathed in bandages who appears in a podunk Ontario town, staying for months at a local motel and befriending only a lonely dreamer of a young girl.  As the story develops, Lemire explores how badly humans as groups deal with the unknown and the strange in ways that can be unsettling and both surprising and sensible at the same time.  This is a masterfully-told story and the spare illustration and inking add a haunting quality to this fine work.

Jeff Lemire, Essex County (complete edition)

As much as I enjoyed The Nobody, I believe Lemire's Essex County (now collected into a single volume) might have resonated the most with me.  It is a trilogy that spans generations in imagined Essex County where several characters in this Ontarian setting explore questions of identity, seek to understand their foibles, desire to grasp the forbidden fruit, while experiencing the consequences of their actions.  The way Lemire weaves these lives together to create a tapestry effect is masterful.  There is scarely a badly-developed character and the overall story is perhaps one of the stronger ones I've read this year.  Highly recommended for those who want less of the fantastic and more of the mimetic in their graphic novel reading.

Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura, I Kill Giants

I'll just repeat what I said in a prior post about this excellent story:

Ever read one of those stories, the ones that you know you can never explain fully to another, but that you just want for them to read it and feel it?  The type that is like a punch to the junk, but which also makes you want to reach out to the other poor crazies in this world and just give them a hug, just because...?

That is what I'm feeling now after reading Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura's I Kill Giants.  I thought of my childhood and early adulthood, dealing with three certain situations similar to the one that the main character, Barbara, confronts, sometimes with no success.  I also find myself thinking of those hundreds I've been around over the past 10 years who've been hurt, desperate in their attempts to cry out to others.  One of the support characters in this graphic novel reminds me of just how easy it is to feel futility when trying to help others.

The ending is just about perfect.  It is one that will stick with me for a long time and damn if I don't want to cry in shared understanding after reading it.  If that isn't the sign of a story touching emotional strings within its readers, I don't know what story could ever aspire to do so.  Just go out and read it, okay?  It certainly is one of the best 2009 graphic novels (or any type of fiction) that I've read this year.  And perhaps you'll find yourself thinking differently of those suffering people who have withdrawn from it all. 
Pretty much sums up why I think this book is among the best graphic novels of 2009, no?

 Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis, Some New Kind of Slaughter

Taken from my earlier review:

Water is the source of life. Yet despite our bodies being mostly composed by water, there is something terrible about drownings, especially in the violence of a flood. The rapid, threatening torrents of water bursting through levees, dams, and other natural and manmade structures, swamping all in its path. Death by the inhalation of what sustains us. There is something more terrible about that irony when the nature of mass death is that of death by water. It is not surprising therefore that so many global myths revolve around the notion of a huge flood that threatens the annihilation of all life.

In Marvin Mann and A. David Lewis's Some New Kind of Slaughter~or~ Lost in the Flood (And How We Found Home Again): Diluvian Myths from Around the World, the author/illustrators concentrate on the mythic, purifying qualities of the diluvian myths from the ancient Middle East, the Americas, Australia, Greece, Africa, China, as well as elsewhere. Utilizing a rapid-fire switch of narrators, from that of Noah's son Khem to the Aboriginal priests capable of entering Dreamtime, Mann and Lewis break their graphic novel into four parts, focusing on origins, preparation, the downpour, and the aftermath. The reader is confronted with certain uncomfortable truths, namely that human societies have seen themselves as being not just products of a god(s)'s thought, but that humans often suffer from divine caprice; that floods serve to wipe out the wicked...and those not quick enough to separate themselves from the wicked; that sometimes the "true believers" may be worse than those abandoned to their fates; and that faith is not always enough when faced with sudden natural disaster.

Mann and Lewis's illustrations fit the storylines well. Seeing the looks of anguish, despair, forlorn hope, and determined resistance in the characters from the world diluvian myths made me pay closer to the themes the authors had woven into the images and text. Have we ever managed to overcome ourselves? Or do our vanities, fears, and prejudices still affect us, with the Flood ever looming over us?
 Nothing much to add now that I didn't say back in September.

And now for the honorable mentions:

Cathy and Arnie Fenner, Spectrum 16

Jonathan Rosenberg, Goats: Infinite Typewriters; Goats:  The Corndog Imperative

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life

David Peterson, Mouse Guard:  Winter 1152

Sergio Toppi, Sparrow:  Number 12


D Swizzle said...

I Kill Giants and The Nobody look amazing!

Carl V. Anderson said...

I Kill Giants was fantastic. I bought it in single issues as it came out and loved it.

Haven't read any of the others, but just looking at The Nobody makes me intrigued.

I'm glad you spent time with the Sparrow and Spectrum series. Both are excellent. I look forward to receiving Spectrum every year, and that first time through it is always an event. I haven't gotten to read Spectrum 16 yet as I've ordered it from a friend's comic shop at a discount and it is very late in arriving...its driving me crazy!!!

Larry Nolen said...


They are. Very much so.


I think you'll enjoy the Lemire books, perhaps for the same or similar reasons for enjoying I Kill Giants.

I have a selfish reason for wanting to read more of the Spectrum series. Someone I know is going to submit her artwork to them and I believe after looking through it that she has a good chance of being considered at least. Of course, now I'll probably find myself spending hundreds in the next year or two buying the other volumes, just like I've bought all the Sparrow series to date. Nice to see great talent on display, no? :D

Carl V. Anderson said...

I will cross my fingers for your friend, that would be a wonderful achievement. And yes, it is wonderful to see great talent on display. They judge the awards here in Kansas City every year and I've tried in the past to get on the crew to just help out, but they already have more than enough volunteers. I'd love to get a sneak peak!!!

Larry Nolen said...

I'd love to see that as well, especially since art/illustration is a field that I admire, but no that I have no ability to achieve what so many do. It certainly would be cool to sit in on the discussions, to say the least!

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