Emma Peel Sessions 63
Here’s the list I submitted to the Hooded Utilitarian master list back in May, which is written in order of personal importance for me:
Le Garage Hermetic, Moebius
Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, Jim Steranko
Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo
Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
The Nikopol Trilogy, Enki Bilal
Doom Patrol, Grant Morrison and Richard Case
Elektra Assassin, Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz
The Winter Men, Brett Lewis and Jean Paul Leon
SCUD the Disposable Assassin, Rob Schrab
Black Kiss, Howard Chaykin
And here were the other possible candidates, making a nice unranked top 30
100%, Paul Pope
American Flagg #1-12, HowardChaykin
Barbarella, Jean-Claude Forrest
Born Again, Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli
Domu, Katsuhiro Otomo
Dork #7, Evan Dorkin
The Filth, Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, and Gary Erskine
Get the Freebies, Jamie Hewlett
Ghost in the Shell, Masamune Shirow
Hellboy, Mike Mignola
How to Be An Artist, Eddie Campbell
King City, Brandon Graham
Mr Miracle, Jack Kirby
Ronin, Frank Miller
Strange Days, Brendan McCarthy, Peter Milligan,and Brett Ewins
Tintin in Tibet, Herge
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley
Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker
WildCATS vol.2 #13, Joe Casey and Sean Phillips
– – –
So. For the second list – let’s run through them fast in alphabetical order.
100% is a fantastic work of science fiction covering up a really wonderful romance comic, Capra meets Gibson even though I’m sure that Pope would hate those comparison points.
American Flagg is the biggest of Chaykin’s masterworks, and it probably has done more for me than the other Chaykin book I put in my top ten, as I am far more of a science fiction person; Flagg is the comic that made it possible for Frank Millers media overload and Watchmen’s scope and depth. Flagg comes from a much gutsier place a well, Chaykin begins examining his own ideas and finding them wanting by the middle of the first year.
Forrest’s Barbarella is pure cartooning. I don’t know if comics have ever been as unabashedly gorgeous and sweetly perverted as Barbarella could get.
Born Again is pretty obvious, I’d assume. Miller at the peak of his writing abilities, Mazzuchelli caught in the moment between profound action genius and figurative caricaturist. The finest moment in the series has nothing to do with superheroics or operatic violence at all, it’s Ben Urich’s slow deterioration into a compressed slab of a figure, and his final confrontation in the bathroom with the nurse, his terrified eyes as he barely saves his wife, his only friend not helping but taking pictures as it happens. There have been few if any scenes in comics that can twist your stomach like a wet gym towel the way that scene does.
Otomo’s Domu is a masterpiece of slow-boil tension that also includes some of the most spectacular violence ever drawn in a comic, without ever changing the very specific tone. Domu illustrates the horror of the place its set, a huge housing block filled with poor people plagued with an uptick in suicides.The nature of its cast is broken people – shut-ins, the elderly, latch-key kids – this is real horror and EC horror at once.
Dork #7, entitled “Auto-bio Hazard”, by Evan Dorkin is the single greatest comic about making comics ever made (and yeah that includes other list entries How to Be An Artist and Black Kiss). This book is what happens when an artist actually examines themselves in as harsh light as possible, as funny and dark and savage as comics can get. With comics history filled with so much autobiography by people with nothing to say and boring lives, here is the truth.
The Filth is Grant Morrison’s response to his own idealism of his work The Invisibles, and the realization that it is utter bullshit. The Filth is about loneliness and perversion and filling your life with so much fiction that the every day seems like a sham and the fiction starts to get perverted, everything turning to shit and trying to make sense of it. Given his writing and his actions in the past few years, Grant Morrison apparently hasn’t read it.
Jamie Hewlett’s Get the Freebies is the totem of garbage culture forming a narrative backbrain. For Hewlett, all the pervy stuff infecting the Muppets and Green Hornet and Johnny Quest and the Goodies wasn’t the bad end of a horrible spiral, it was the best thing that could possibly happen.
Ghost in the Shell is a profound mutation of cyberpunk. Shirow spent every successive work destroying his own style with photoshop effects, so this is really the last time Shirow was at the peak of his powers. While the fights aren’t as good as Appleseed, the story is fantastically labyrinthine.
Mignola’s Hellboy is not here because of how great an artist Mignola is, or how sophisticated his writing has become. It’s here because Mignola has spent almost 20 years developing a comic where a guy fights monsters into a series of gorgeous, lyrical ambiguities. Moments of birds resting on statues, lilies, nooses swaying in the breeze, skulls wired into a circuit board, characters pausing with tears in their eyes. There are few if any references points for this kind of storytelling, and nearly every one isn’t done as seemingly intuitive as Mignola makes it seem.
Eddie Campbell’s Alec entry How To Be An Artist is a lesson in autobiographical storytelling, proving that even a life sitting down and drawing and talking to other people who do this, scrapbooking, having kids, loving your wife, trying to grasp an art form that’s mostly been discarded and that you sometimes want to discard yourself. Campbell slyly reasons that all of this is important and noble, even though he winks and tells you it isn’t. How To Be An Artist was given to me by a friend (your friend and mine, Tucker Stone, prince among bloggers) who told me that it was a big deal to him at a certain point in his life and while I didn’t catch it at the time I read it, the more I think about it, the more I think that it was for me. Tucker of course, was teaching me something without me knowing it.
Brandon Graham’s King City is the book I’m most ashamed of not putting in my top ten, I think my reasoning at the time was that it was too fresh in my memory from rereading at the time so I was over-ranking it. A couple months later, I can see how much bullshit that is. King City is exactly the kind of comics I wish I could read every time I picked one up, but there’s really just this one and how it manages to be the most “comics” comic I can think of, with ideas flowing so fast that you will not be able to catch them all, a thousand strains of scifi all flooding the scenery with yayo and greenery. Actually, with drug knives you can have sex with, but that’s not a Black Thought line. King City is the most alive comic book to come out in the past decade plus, the most in love with being a comic and the most brilliantly anti-narrative. King City is about everything in the world, but it’s actually the story a few small people deciding they can do better than the lives they were living at the start of the book. And that’s bigger than all the insane ideas in the world.
Jack Kirby’s Mr Miracle is a strong contender with the Fantastic Four and OMAC as his finest work, the one part of the Fourth World that is completely airtight and yet not obsessed with epic portent the way that the New Gods title was. Mr Miracle is an adventure comic that slowly uncoiled into a galaxy spanning story, but it has everything – love, friendship, sly commentary on his experience at marvel, his friends the comics artists, jokes about his own dialog, the most insane ideas, the most berserk technology, the most arcane mythos-building. Mr Miracle is Kirby’s finest hour.
Frank Miller’s early masters thesis. And it reads as a thesis – it’s “what I learned from Lone Wolf and Cub and Heavy Metal and Jack Kirby and Eisner and Kurosawa and Phillip K Dick”, all ideas that have been studied and an attempted synthesis of those ideas. There is an artists statement for his entire career buried beneath all of it, which is that he’d rather pick the adolescent fantasy that all these comics are built for because the ultimately they’re better stories than the alternative.
Strange Days by McCarthy, Milligan, and Ewins is the comics equivalent of an obscure game changing record that no one bought but every one who did eventually became a big deal – a Tago Mago or a No New York. McCarthy and Milligan and Ewins were a gang, where self-mythologizing themselves, were working from the position that outdated and bizarre reference points were the keys to the future (The Prisoner staring out from behind Paradax – a hero wearing the Kid Flash outfit underneath street clothes – on the final issue’s cover, the scroll declaring their heroes John Lennon, Phillip K Dick, and Steve Ditko in the first). Strange Days was young arrogant guys doing everything they wanted and getting away with it because no one noticed. It’s still as alien as it was in 1984, only moreso because of how deeply it effected everything that came after, and is still doing so today.
Herge’s Tintin In Tibet is maybe not the best Tintin comic, and it is certainly not the most beautiful or the most fun. It is however likely the one that feels the most personal to its creator, the one that bears its heartbreak on its sleeve, that breathes with emotion and pain.
V For Vendetta is perhaps the greatest angry young man comic, the one where Alan Moore said the most because he couldn’t actually say every thing he wanted, the one where David Lloyd brought 9-grid thought bubble free cinematic pacing to the game fully formed. These are comics by guys just finally finding their footing, and one that tells it’s message through not formalism or theme but through CHARACTER, something that Moore would forget and discover several times over his career. Evey and V are indelible characters, and the things that they do are going to stick for a long time, a lot longer than any of the technical achievements or thematic statements of this or any of Moore’s other books ever will.
Wally Gropius is Tim Hensley’s dadaist Archie/Richie Rich/Impossibles comic which is actually not really dadaist or any of those things. It is so pretty and so fucked up and says so much without really talking about Huey Lewis or massive tooth-chipping tone changes, in one page chunks, in long narrative digressions that go nowhere, vomiting all the right words but not knowing the tune its dancing to. Calling this “Lynchian” or “surrealist” does it a disservice. Its something else.
Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn is the most human comic I’ve ever read. It is prickly and cynical and nonsensical. 200 pages of talking that is also brilliantly cartooned story of people how they are, this is proof that good comics can trump subject matter if the writing is this good.
And finally, Joe Casey and Sean Phillips’ WildCATS vol 2, #13. There are longer works by both of these men that I love dearly, and that I could probably put on this list instead (Sleeper, and Bad Night for Phillips, Automatic motherfucking Kafka for Casey). This issue is special for me, though. Only tangentially related to the WildCATS story that Casey inherited from Jim Lee and Alan Moore (in his slumming at Image for ca$h years), where Casey and his collaborators (Phillips, Dustin Nguyen and Duncan Roleau) took what was essentially an X-Men ripoff and turned it into the story of veterans after a war, and te concept of business as heroism. #13 was something else, though. A short science fiction story about Void, the cosmonaut possessed by an alien artificial intelligence that had been under-written in the series for years. This issue is far closer to Bergman and Bilal than it is than the X-Men roots it sprang from, a conversation between an alien and a cosmonaut in battle for one another’s souls. It is a small, beautiful one-off about family and what it means to be human and that doesn’t shy away from the possibilities that the science fiction affords it past simple metaphors. This is perfect comics that quietly does everything I want a comic to do.
And going into my top ten, which I think is probably more obvious than the other chunk of the list. Here are my reasons for picking these books. First up Calvin and Hobbes, which is the purely most sentimental and funny comic ever made. Here’s what happens when a guy who could draw anything (and does whenever there was a fantasy sequence) would rather just have these small conversations between a kid and his imaginary friend, talking about the profound and the ridiculous from day to day. I understand that taste is taste, but I think I could disagree with anyone about every book I’ve written about here and still be okay, but someone not liking Calvin and Hobbes is a red flag for me, and I think for a lot of people.
Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz is the greatest, strangest satire ever released by Marvel or DC. Like a lot of my top ten I’ve written about it before, but I feel like I haven’t quite nailed down exactly how great it is. So lets try and do it in brief. Assassin is amazing because it is neither a work of Bill Sienkiewicz or Frank Miller, but something that needs both of them to work, for the Sink’s bizarre expressions and Miller’s fragmented cacophony of voices patching the holes in the other’s flaws. It’s Dr Strangelove of a far more ridiculous and terrifying era, doing lines of cut up cat medicine off it’s copy of Bruce Lee’s The Way of Jeet Kune Do. Comics have never been this shuddering, broken mass of Marvel Comics insanity flooded with real world anxieties, grindhouse sensibilities and literary ironies. They haven’t been since, this kind of high wire act is a fluke of history the likes of which made sure that it will never happen again. It’s the bomb going off in the 80s, not DKR or Watchmen or Maus, it’ as far out on the bridge mainstream comics has made it out, never to go again. That shit doesn’t look safe, you don’t want to drive on that.
Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s Doom Patrol (with a chunk of guest stars including Steve Yeowell and Jamie Hewlett) is probably the best example of the pre-Vertigo era British writer-driven comics, the best example of an extended revamp of a superhero property, and the best example of a Grant Morrison comic. Morrison, in the past few years has given up on a lot of the ideals that made him a great writer in my eyes, capped off by his disgusting statements about Siegel and Shuster in that corporate mash note he called an autobiography. Morrison as a person has disabused himself of all the amazing things that made him write comics like Doom Patrol in favor of appeasement and buying a house that looks like a castle so he can write Batman and Superman like his 14 year old self always dreamed. Doom Patrol under Morrison and Case is one of the most emotionally naked comics ever made, in its writing and art. This is something “weird” each issue disguising characters that make it a routine at breaking your heart. Sure you could say that about everything from the Claremont X-Men saga to Nana, but there is something about the emotional journey of these characters to okay that makes it particularly effecting. From the first time Cliff and Jane are standing on the asylum lawn watching her painting get destroyed by a storm to a similar moment of the two of them walking out of despair into an entire world that’s built like them. Morrison might have made a better moustrap since then, and he may have had better collaborators than Case (and far far worse) on heartbreaking stories. But none that got this close to me, not one.
Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury stories. I have written and said more about these few issues of comics than any other, I believe. Steranko’s swinging sixties are the fictionalized version of the time period I would love to go back to. These are the most amazing comics ever made with formality in mind, the stories’ episodic structures slowly turning Nick Fury into a figure trapped amongst unending schemes within schemes. The paranoia isn’t the main feature here, but it is shown time and again that, because of the nature of the way Steranko was telling the story, that the rug was always a few pages away from being torn out from under. Most famously the silent pages of a lone figure breaking into SHIELD’s base, shooting Fury in silence, and then unmasking himself as Fury on the next page. Espionage comics have never felt as shakily footed and gorgeously unnerving as Steranko did here.
Black Kiss by Howard Chaykin is the nastiest work of anti-comics ever made. Chaykin wanted out, and he wanted every single person reading to know how much he hated them. Even if that’s not true, the comic certainly reads like it. Porn fans become comics fans, one group of asocial weirdos standing in for the other. They’re all perverts, anyway. Chaykin was pulling out all the stops, it never got meaner or funnier or more obscene. It was a porn comic that didn’t even have the good graces to tell you that the woman giving all those blowjobs had a cock until issue 4 (oops, spoiler alert hard-ons). The hero is an ineffectual shit, and clearly a play on every other Chaykin protagonist up to that point. It is also the best written, and the best drawn of all of Chaykin’s pre-Hollywood work, and an accidental commentary on Chaykin’s next job as well as his then-current one. The go to comparison seems to be De Palma, and the story equally toys around in the realm of Blow Out and Body Double, only meaner and darker and with a lot more in frame jizz. No one burns bridges this well anymore.
The Winter Men by Brett Lewis and Jean Paul Leon is proof that the comics, hell even the format of the superhero comic, could contain multitudes even 25 years after it’s agreed upon high watermark of Miller/Moore’s prime material. The Winter Men is also proof that comics coming out “on time” is the mentality of a periodical driven culture created by retailer need and fan ocd that has absolutely dick to do with things such as quality, nuance, and narrative power. Winter Men was developed under one studio publishing arm then came out through another years later, issues came out whenever, years apart, finally dropping the issue format entirely an the rest of the story coming out in a special. This of course, meant nothing. The story, while at least in nature a superhero comic, is much more about present day, post-cold war Russia and the nature of the kind of people it creates than anything superheroes have represented before. Structurally, is this comic very different from Watchmen? Probably not, but it reaches so much higher and without even trying. Leon’s charactersare minimally drawn but still act with a breadth of expression and gesture closed off from all but the best comic artist. Lewis’ dialog, a combination of artfully awkward subtitles and David Milch patois, speaks volumes in what it says and what it leaves out, going pat localities into cultural identity and abstraction. I’ve talked before about the amazing action sequences in Winter Men (A great car chase! Do you know how rare that is in comics?), and the brilliant final page and how it reframes the entire piece as deftly as Bullit or Sanjuro’s final moments do about their portrayal of violence. But I think the takeaway of Winter Men is that not every great story is about change, and change is not essential to a great story.
The Airtight Garage, Moebius’ stream of consciousness great work of art, isn’t really about anyting other than it’s creation and the unconscious itself. As I’ve said before, it is the greatest comic ever made because it is every comic. Now what I meant at the time is because Moebius places elements of everything into his work as he’s creating – tributes to the greats and the jokes about the rest. But I think it could even be taken down to a more specific core of what makes this book perfect. The Airtight Garage feels like it is Moebius tapping into the unconscious of all those comics creators, good or ill. These are dream comics, not in a rarebit fiend kind of way, but comics that have the qualities of dream, where stories string along vitally then drop out, where odd moments or things take on great significance. The final moments, where Major Grubert escapes into the real world, dragging the color of the Airtight Garage with him, is him taking fiction with him into the real world, something that all of us who spend our lives neck-deep in the fantastic do every day.
Nikopol Trilogy, three comics created by Enki Bilal and released over a 13 year period as he collaborated with others, worked on films, directed films, and dropped a few other masterpieces. The three stories all feature the god Horus, Alcide Nikopol and his clone/son, and Jill Bioskop (who might be the most nuanced portrayal of female character ever to appear in a comic). The centerpiece of which, The Woman Trap, is unassailable as a work of science fiction. Bilal created ideas that were too vast for him to do anything but get a glancing blow of them on the page, ideas that need to be represented as images in order to be communicated at all. Nikopol is a comic that is about the heirarchies of power, about the insanity of war while living on the fringes. As an astronaut (the biggest signifier of Cold War pawn there is), as a reporter, as a filmmaker and the fragile and transitory nature of all three, it’s also about being a human being in a horrible time for the world at large. It is the comics of grasping for humanity in an inhuman age.
Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo is the finest epic ever made in comics, starring the whole of a city in the midst of a cataclysm. Akira is the story of a military experiment, a resistance group, a group of teenage bikers, a religious cult, a group of scientists. Akira is best read in the six phonebook set, where the action scenes play out in large chunks and the narrative plays like symphony movements. Kanaeda’ absence in the middle of the book is only something that hits the right way when presented at the end of such a massive massive series of events. Akira is one of the only cyberpunk stories that could lay an honest claim to the “punk” aspect, as while it is a story about the destruction and rebirth of a city is also about what it is to bee a teenager. To be that angry, where every moment is as elating or as devastating as the true moments of victory and destruction in the book. Kaneda’s journey from uncaring thug to great man, and Tetsuo’s journey from callow youth to monster and cycling through again are played out in almost real time, the span of the thing more than the amount of the destruction levelled against this city and these people.
Scud the Disposable Assassin is the one book I am certain no one in the Hooded Utilitarian poll ranked in any way (I don’t know about Black Kiss, there were definitely other Chaykin books, though). I think that it’s the kind of book that no one else thinks is worthwhile because it is an artifact of the 90s. Thought of in the same way that Deadpool is. He’s a character that kills people, makes wisecracks, has no mouth, etc etc. Scud is something different though, it is a comic that shows, time and time again how much Rob Schrab loved drawing it. And in the land of comics academia, “important” works of art, “significance”, and “objectivity’, the easiest thing in the world to lose is that comics are first and foremost about how much fun it is to draw. SCUD isn’t this important signifcant work of art I can objectively argue a place for next to Watchmen and Peanuts and Love and Rockets. Why would you want to? What is the point of any kind of objectivity if it seeks to judge art on a basis which had no element in it’s creation? SCUD is a comic so full of ideas, drawn with a commitment verging on psychosis, all secretly covering up that Schrab created it to distract himself from a break-up, and left the series on an incredibly brutal years-long cliffhanger on another breakup. Like a lot of the work here, it’s ridiculously genre-specific because it is a cover for the work’s personal nature. If I had one book I could magically have re-assessed by whatever critical press that we might have it would be this one. I don’t think it would change any minds, but I think that SCUD says more about what comics should be than any of the official canon. This is comics, anyone writing a canon with literary or academic merit (or I don’t know, cinematic? architectural?) is playing with the wrong set of rules.
- Sean Witzke, August 2011