Peter Bagge is one of my all-time favorite cartoonists. I don't think he gets the respect he deserves because most of his work has been out-and-out funny (and funny cartoonists, like funny filmmakers, are sometimes not as respected as the more serious types). I seriously doubt he's ever going to give up being funny, but that doesn't mean that his work hasn't evolved or that he hasn't taken risks. Women Rebel is a non-fiction graphic novel about the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. This is in no way an obvious choice of subject matter for Bagge! Writing a biography, much less a biography of an early 20th century fighter for the rights of people to use birth control, is a surprising turn for him.
But maybe not completely. He has for the past few years been doing brief humorous stories about the Founding Fathers, so we know he has a history bug. And what worked with those stories--short, funny episodes from their lives--is continued in Woman Rebel. Instead of trying to tell a continuous biography, Bagge splits it up into numerous short vignettes. On their own, they have a kind of dramatic unity (or the unity of a good joke), but taken together they manage to be a coherent, eye-opening biography of this remarkable figure.
Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly).
Beaton has been running her webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant! for several years now, and this is her second collection. The first collection was kind of a mish-mash. What worked fine online as kind of a laugh-a-day thing didn't work nearly was well in a book. In Step Aside, Pops, she has denser, better-reproduced artwork and longer piece. Some of these pieces are already classic, like "Strong Female Characters", "Ada B. Wells" and "Nasty." Beaton has really gotten very very good, and this book is delightful.
Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly).
Tomine is another artist I have been following since the beginning of his career, when he was still a teenager doing minicomics. (I wrote the minicomics column, "Minimalism," in the Comics Journal for several years, which is where I encountered the earliest work of people like Abel, Tomine and James Kochalka.) He's an artist who has gotten progressively better and better, and it is exciting to say that Killing and Dying is his best work (so far). The book consists of six short stories. Tomine experiments with styles and formats here. "Hortisculpture" is told in a series of 4-panel black-and-white comic strips with a full-page color "Sunday" strip after each group of six "dailies". "Go Owls" employs a very limited palette (kind of a series of duotones) with no black lines. "Intruders" has no panel borders and is drawn in a style much sketchier than Tomine's usual precision. But if you are familiar with Tomine's work, any of these stories will instantly be recognizable. What seems a little bit different about this book than his previous books is a visual distancing. We never get close to the characters. He accomplishes this in two ways. One, does relatively few closeup images on his characters. And even when he does, he minimizes their impact by making the panels quite small. I wonder if he is being influenced by Gabrielle Bell. The distancing effect in Killing and Dying is similar to what one experiences in her comics.
The stories tend to be pretty mundane, but their emotional impact is all the more brutal for that. The title story, for example, is about a shy teenage girl with a stutter who wants to be a stand-up comedian. About halfway through the story, her mother dies of cancer. If Tomine were writing a Hollywood melodrama, that would be the point of the story--the death would be its climax. But Tomine focuses more on the extreme awkwardness of the girl's patently absurd ambition and the way her father is torn between supporting it and discouraging it. That is a theme running through the book--futile ambition. Characters make a wrong decision about what they should be doing with their lives at the beginning of the stories and we watch them crash and burn. It seems a little cruel except, I think, it's about us. We all make these wrong decisions that keep having consequences for us. At least, I know I have.
Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels by various writers, artists, etc. (Drawn & Quarterly).
Drawn & Quarterly is my favorite comics publisher. They decided to celebrate 25 years of their existence by publishing a massive book of remembrances, tributes, and comics. I shouldn't include it on the list because I contributed to it (I wrote a short piece about cartoonist Jason Lutes). But it's such an enjoyable compendium that I had to mention it.
If they had just taken the comics featured here and published them as a comics anthology, it'd be one of the best of the year. But there is so much more--lots of pictures, a detailed timeline and a huge selection of really excellent essays by people like Jonathan Lethem, Ivan Brunetti, Chris Ware, Lemony Snicket, Françoise Mouly, Joe McCulloch, Aaron Cometbus, Margaret Atwood, Tom Spurgeon, and many others. At 775 pages, there's plenty of room, and most of that room is taken up by the comics. Some are odds and ends that haven't been collected before, some are excerpts from longer works. Just the names of the cartoonists tell all--they are among the greatest ever. Here are 15 greats featured herein: Shigeru Mizuki, Gilbert Hernandez, Peter Bagge, Joe Matt, Kate Beaton, Lynda Barry, Julie Doucet, Mimi Pond, Marc Bell, Rutu Modan, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Dylan Horrocks, Joe Sacco and Chester Brown. And again, that is just some of them.
I always fear that comics publishers publish these things right before some transformative change for the worse (bankruptcy or purchase by a publishing conglomerate run by MBAs). I hope that's not the case. I want Drawn & Quarterly to keep on publishing great comics for decades. But even if a meteor struck D&Q headquarters tomorrow, obliterating them from the Earth, they've already changed the history of comics very much for the better.