Analysis: Rob Clough’s Top 100 Comics of the ’00s Part One (of Two)

Posted by on February 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

In assembling a top 100 list for 2000-2009, it’s important to remember that for the first time, it’s pretty much impossible to come up with something that resembles a definitive list that spans the world’s output of comics.  Any list you’ll see by nature is a personal one, filled with all sorts of gaps and blind spots and slanted toward comics that might have had a particular impact on a reader at a particular time.

Obviously, this list is missing comics not translated into English.  There’s no manga here; I’ve only started to scratch the surface of the stuff that isn’t obviously aimed at young children and teens.  There are no webcomics (of which I read a few, but none of them struck me enough to list as favorites).  There were no superhero or standard genre comics that moved me enough to make it on to a top 100 list, but there were a few honorable mentions here and there. It’s a personal and wholly idiosyncratic list, and it shouldn’t be read as anything other than that—a list of great comics that I read, not a list of all the great comics that came out this decade. Comments on what I omitted will certainly be welcome. The guidelines that I tried to stick to were:

1. As much as possible, each entry should be a discrete unit.  I didn’t just put down Kramer’s Ergot; instead, I chose the volume that I found to be most interesting.

2. The list reflects comics released this decade that I read this decade.  I didn’t list Jimmy Corrigan because that was a quintessentially ’90s read.  On the other hand, I included The Frank Book because this was my first real exposure to Jim Woodring’s work, even if the original issues had come out years earlier.

3. I privileged newer work over classic work for the most part.  The highest-ranked classic collection came in at #19.  This isn’t a reflection on the worth of the work necessarily, but rather its place in comics today as it’s being re-released or collected for the first time.  The quality of the current archival work in terms of its new book design is also a factor.

4. As much as possible, I tried to limit multiple entries from the same artist.  In general, I tried to take the most representative works from artists and chose a single work to showcase them on this list.  I failed several times in this regard with three entries apiece from Gipi and Lewis Trondheim. Many other artists got two entries apiece.  So it goes.

5. I broke the “discrete entry” rule for a couple of comics series that are obviously part of a larger storyline that will one day be collected: 1-800-MICE and Big Questions.

6. I’ve included links to reviews (here and elsewhere) that are still accessible, but each entry is accompanied by a line or two boiling down the importance of the work to its essence. Without further ado…

1. Ice Haven, by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon).  The most successful postmodern comic of all time: it’s a narrative done in fractured comics form.  After doing films, Ice Haven was Clowes’ way of telling a story that could only have been done in comics form.  It’s a mash-up of everything Clowes has ever done, with misfits, losers, poseurs, wanna-bes, mayhem, the dullness of suburban life, the desperate search for meaning and connection by those too young to know better and a number of enormously revealing personal asides.  I’m not sure Clowes will be able to top this.

2. Acme Novelty Library #19, by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly).  Ware succeeds in turning a chapter from a longer work into a singular entity of enormous force, power, pathos and jet-black humor.  The perfect marriage of design and content, signaling Ware’s ascent to his role as our greatest living cartoonist.

3. Safe Area Gorazde, by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics).  This is Sacco’s first truly mature work, taking the lessons learned from Palestine and other reportage.  Here, he creates a narrative that’s witty and compelling and fuses it with a set of horrific memories and experiences, slowly bringing the reader to a series of reveals that one was dreading the entire time.  Stunning first-person journalism from a unique artist.

4. Snake & Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret, by Michael Kupperman (Harper).  Kupperman was ahead of his time in 2000 when this book came out; his publisher didn’t really know what to do with this book.  Kupperman is the greatest absurdist in comics, backing up his ridiculous ideas with densely rendered, deliberately stiff, “old-fashioned” art.  It’s the rare book that I still howl over in laughter when I re-read it.

5. Non #5, edited by Jordan Crane (Red Ink Press).  It’s the Velvet Underground of alt-comics: it wasn’t widely read, but practically everyone who did read it seemed to start their own anthology.  Marrying the craziness of Fort Thunder’s all-stars with a number of clear-line artists, all connected interstitially with images from Mat Brinkman, Crane set the bar exceedingly high for important anthologies.  The intricate design work alone is worth the price (a giant, hollowed-out piece of foam contained two smaller books along with the main anthology).  This is the book that sold me on any number of artists, including Megan Kelso, Kurt Wolfgang and many others.

6. Epileptic, by David B. (Pantheon).  This is my favorite autobiographical work of all time, as David B. writes about the experience of growing up with an epileptic brother and the ways in which every member of his family creates their own armor-as-prison in response.  David B.’s elaborately decorative artwork carries an almost obsessive-compulsive quality to it, as though the more ornate it got, the more it would ward off evil spirits.  It’s also a fascinating study of the history of war, the history of alternative culture and religions and the ways in which metaphors come to life.

7. Asthma, by John Hankiewicz (Sparkplug Comic Books).  Ground zero for comics-as-poetry.  Fascinating, confounding and gorgeous in page after page, Asthma demands a lot from its readers but is fantastically rewarding.

8. Recidivist #3, by Zak Sally (La Mano).  This book is a reflection of an artist at the height of his powers, having fully matured into a storyteller ready to talk about the darkest of human impulses.  The stories here are from a dark, baffling world, like a disturbing reversal of roles in “Feed The Wife,”medical science gone horribly awry in “Operation” and “Animal Vomit” (the latter my favorite short story of the decade) and hope irrevocably dashed in “The Great Healing.” Sally’s work is intense but never over-the-top.

9. Supermonster #14/Or Else #2, by Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly).  Part comic, part dissertation on phenomenology, Huizenga’s “The Sunset” is the most ambitious attempt at depicting simultaneity and self-awareness I’ve ever seen on a comics page.  Without the aid of sound or motion, Huizenga brilliantly breaks down the way the brain takes in data, processes it and then retrieves it later.  This issue was the point where he went from interesting but still developing cartoonist to one of the most original and compelling artists in comics.

10. You’ll Never Know, by Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics). This is the first part of a masterwork by one of the greatest artists to emerge from the alt-comics era of the 1980s: a meditation on family, memory, trauma and the ways in which emotions surface in unhealthy ways if not kept in balance.

©2009 Joe Sacco

11. Footnotes in Gaza, by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan). Sacco laid down the template for Safe Area Gorazde and then got really ambitious here, touching on issues of memory and its unreliable nature, the way stories morph into Truth, and how traumas and abuses continue to echo through a population, year after year. His line is fastidious in its attention to detail yet still manages a certain rubbery and almost playful quality.

12. 1-800-MICE by Matthew Thurber (PictureBox).  Drawing in elements from ecology, absurdist humor and Fort Thunder-style weirdness, Thurber has crafted a sprawling but interconnected epic that is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.  I’m guessing it won’t be done for another 5-7 years, but whatever comes out this decade will probably wind up making another end-of-decade best of list.

13. Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories, by Gabrielle Bell (Drawn & Quarterly).  Funny, surreal, wistful and restrained: these are some of the many virtues of Gabrielle Bell’s comics.  While Lucky is also excellent, I thought this book was the cream of her work to date.

14. Little Nothings, by Lewis Trondheim (NBM).  One of the greatest cartoonists in the world, Trondheim’s blog strip has a thematic through line that’s amazing, considering how spontaneous and free the whole enterprise seems.  His biting wit and philosophical nature are on full display here.

15. What it Is, by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly).  Part autobio, part confessional, part textbook, part collage—this book is Barry’s brain and heart spilled on the page, tackling the subject that haunts so many artists: Is my work any good?  Should I keep doing it?  Any creative person in any field who has ever suffered from any sort of blockage needs to read this book.

16. Kramers Ergot #4, edited by Sammy Harkham (Avodah Press).  While Harkham comes from a different place in terms of design and overall aesthetic from Jordan Crane, there’s no question that this was the spiritual successor to what Crane did with Non #5.  With the crayon-drawn Mat Brinkman cover, Kramers #4 drew the attention of everyone, with a number of stories that skirted (and avoided altogether) the idea of conventional narratives.  Nearly every important alt-cartoonist of this era has appeared in Kramers at some point or another, but it’s Harkham’s willingness to dig deep and find hidden treasures that’s made this this anthology so important.  I picked #4 because this was Harkham’s first mature publication as an editor, and his most ambitious up to that point.  It’s hard to overstate just how influential this book has been to a new generation of cartoonists.

17. Schizo #4, by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics).  After distinguishing himself with the intensity of his line in his insanely over-the-top excoriations of the ids of everyone in the world (most especially himself), Brunetti went to a stripped-down, simplified and almost geometric line in this collection (which was no less work-intensive).  Here, biography (of many famous artists, writers and thinkers) is autobiography, revealing Brunetti’s own struggles.  Of note: Brunetti’s use of color is amazing and unconventional; he’s still really funny.

18. The Frank Book, by Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics).  If Gary Panter is considered the godfather of the Fort Thunder aesthetic, then Woodring has to be a sort of weird uncle.  His comics are all about the interaction between character and environment, with his protagonists negotiating a “full” and vivid landscape that presents an unusual set of elements to be discovered and dangers to be dealt with.  This is a staggering, visually immersive experience.

19. Willie and Joe: The WWII Years, by Bill Mauldin (Fantagraphics).  The original “embedded journalist,” Mauldin was a cartoonist/soldier whose work became the voice of a generation of GIs.  Exquisitely rendered with an eye for detail but always lively on the page, Mauldin’s tolerance for procedural nonsense was exceedingly low, especially when dealing with life & death situations, weeks of stultifying boredom and a life lived in mud.  This look at the entirety of his career up through World War II is the best-designed book I’ve ever seen.

20. Petey and Pussy, by John Kerschbaum (Fantagraphics).  Kerschbaum’s seemingly bland line is a perfect complement to the extremes he will go to in order to create a gag.  A genius at both coming up with weird premises and executing them in unexpected (and sometimes oblique) ways, this book’s feature story is his longest continued narrative, with the sort of payoffs one sees in long-form improv.  He’s the rare humorist who is profane without trying to be provocative; every act of violence and sex somehow makes sense in the context of the story.

21. Wormdye, by Eamon Espey (Secret Acres). Espey creates a bizarre, hallucinatory world filled with nightmarish dream logic. Espey mixes dark humor, naivete’, visceral violence and a take-it-or-leave form of storytelling in his short stories that are related by theme and tone more than specific content.

©2000 Steve Lafler

22. Bughouse, by Steve Lafler (Top Shelf). Lafler fuses the free-flowing psychedelia of his earlier comics with this fractured narrative about a group of jazz musicians who are depicted as anthropomorphic bugs. Lafler was able to nail the experience of music (both playing it and listening to it) in comics form, as well as the camaraderie and addictions that surround the lifestyle of a working musician.

23. I Killed Adolf Hitler, by Jason (Fantagraphics). The best of many great comics from Jason, his bone-dry sense of humor is on full display in this story of an assassin-for-hire who gets the ultimate assignment: go back in time and kill Hitler. With Jason’s trademark awkward pauses and silent story beats, the story becomes much more than the premise.

24. The Imp #4, by Dan Raeburn (self-published). Raeburn’s take on Mexican historietas—lurid, pulpy comics depicting the sort of sex, drugs and violence that Dr Wertham warned us about—was probably the single greatest piece of comics journalism I’ve ever read. It’s gonzo in the truest Hunter Thompson sense, as the writer finds himself living the lifestyle of his subjects at first and then later using due diligence to hunt down every detail possible as to who created these things and why.

25. We Are On Our Own, by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly). A true account of Katin and her mother managing to evade capture by the Nazis during World War II. It’s a fascinating warts ‘n all character study of her mother, who is treated sympathetically but without sentiment. Katin’s feathery pencils are a particular highlight here.

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