Analysis: Rob Clough’s Top 50 Comics Of 2009 Part One (of Two)

Posted by on February 8th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Simply put, 2009 was loaded. The list of classic comics reprints alone could have made up a top 50 list, let alone the avalanche of major releases, a comeback by the periodical, and the usual slew of interesting minicomics. As always, there were any number of comics I didn’t read this year that obviously didn’t make it to this list. Manga is my biggest blind spot, one I’m slowly working my way through (but not in time for this list; A Drifting Life and Red Colored Snow are on my to-read pile). Other books on my stack include The Photographer, Ganges #3, Logicomix, You Are There, Abstract Comics, From Wonderland With Love, The Squirrel Machine, Diario Oaxaco, The Collected Doug Wright, The Complete Jack Survives and Humbug. I tried to make each ranking represent a single work, with the exception of a series of Web-comics. Whenever possible, I have provided a link to my review.

Without further ado…

1. You’ll Never Know, by Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics). A mash-up of family portrait, generational analysis, autobiography and scrapbook, this book was not only the most emotionally powerful work of the year, it was the most attractively designed. The first part of what will likely be Tyler’s masterwork.

2.Footnotes In Gaza, by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan). Sacco laid down his template for comics reportage with 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 continued to echo through a population, year after year. His line was fastidious in its attention to detail, yet still managed a certain rubbery and almost playful quality.

3. 1-800-Mice #3, by Matthew Thurber (Picturebox). Drawing in elements from ecology, absurdist humor and Fort Thunder-style weirdness, Thurber crafted a sprawling but interconnected epic that was frequently laugh-out-loud funny.  The latest issue actually started to connect some of the seemingly-disparate story elements and provided backstories for events that seemed entirely random. There was most certainly a method to Thurber’s madness.

4. 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 was also excellent, I thought this book was the cream of her work to date.

5. Little Nothings: The Prisoner Syndrome, by Lewis Trondheim (NBM). One of the greatest cartoonists in the world, Trondheim’s blog strip had a thematic through line that’s amazing, considering how spontaneous and free the whole enterprise seemed. His biting wit and philosophical nature were on full display here. This volume found Trondheim restless and thinking about why he traveled, worrying about inactivity feeding upon itself and creating stasis.

6. Like A Dog, by Zak Sally (Fantagraphics). This was a stunningly honest account and collection of early work by one of the most underrated cartoonists working today. While the collected early issues of Recidivist ranged from interesting to astounding, it was Sally’s frank and emotional essay following the collection that really struck me as a statement of purpose—not just as an artist, but as a person.

7. Map Of My Heart, by John Porcellino (Drawn & Quarterly). I could have listed the most recent issue of King Cat here as easily as this collection, but I chose Map Of My Heart for the through line of Porcellino’s battle with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, obliquely told in his usual spare and poetic style. One can also see the final evolution and refinement of Porcellino’s line as the volume proceeded.

8. The Book Of Genesis Illustrated, by Robert Crumb (WW Norton). Crumb was in a position in his career to do whatever he felt like, and his genuine interest in depicting the subject shone through the pages of this book. His control over pacing and remarkable character design made what was sometimes a tedious text into a breezy read. Crumb’s side interest of exploring the role of women in the bible was a fascinating bonus.

9. Masterpiece Comics, by R.Sikoryak (Drawn & Quarterly). A long-awaited collection of Sikoryak’s many comics/literary mash-ups, it drew interesting connections between the literary source and the comics parody. His ability to mimic any cartoonist’s style was astounding, and the results ranged from hilarious to strangely profound.

10. Tales Designed To Thrizzle Vol. 1, by Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics). The first collection from Kupperman’s surprising hit really helped spread the word about his unique and delightfully warped genius as a gagsmith and artist.

11. The Tablet strips of Vanessa Davis. One of my favorite memoirists came out with some of her best work this year online. The restrictions she faced (three pages, more conventional panel design than she typically used) wound up shaping her comics in interesting ways, forcing her to connect themes with anecdotes a bit more succinctly than her more free-form comics.

12. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzuchelli (Pantheon). A fascinating, gorgeous work that rewrote some of the rules of comics language. I don’t have it ranked quite as highly as some because Mazzuchelli’s not unique in the ways he’s worked with color and line, and his characterization seemed a bit simplistic at times. Still, a memorable work.

13. I Want You, by Lisa Hanawalt (Buenaventura Press). Hanawalt is one of the most exciting new humorists to come on the scene. She combined the absurdism of a Kupperman with a no-holds-barred, profane and visceral discussion of assorted bodily functions. All this and a powerfully expressive line, too.

©2009 Lisa Hanawalt

14. Monsters, by Ken Dahl (Secret Acres). Part sex-ed manual, part autobio and part philosophical treatise on our moral obligations regarding sexuality, Dahl made this book a winner with his exaggerated, dirty and outright funny line and character design. Dahl is the most successful over-the-top storyteller since Peter Bagge.

15. Sublife #2, by John Pham (Fantagraphics). This one-man anthology featured Pham fully harnessing every aspect of his skills as a writer and artist. His use of color dominated and provided a sort of visual through-line for his different narratives. Pham alternately pushed the reader away and then pulled them in, depending on the story, a tension that made this his most successful work to date.

©2009 John Pham click to view larger image

16. Syncopated, edited by Brendan Burford. An understated, varied and highly personal anthology of first-person reportage. Some of that’s journalism, some of that’s autobio, some of that’s drawings from life—but it’s all about time, place and memory. One of the best-edited anthologies of the year.

17. Ho!, by Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics). It’s fascinating to see the two directions Brunetti was headed in with regard to these gags. First, his gags became ever-more boundary pushing, but always in service to the punchline. Second, his line became more and more simplified to the point of nearly geometric simplicity: squares, circles and triangles wound up creating most of his characters by the end of the book.

18. Follow Me, by Jesse Moynihan (Bodega). Part-exploration of environment, part-exploration of dreams and part-autobiography, the journey of our protagonist with a conical hat was funny, jarring and puzzling by turns, but always resolved itself in terms of narrative and theme.

19. George Sprott, by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly). Once again (as with Wimbledon Green), what started out as a minor work by Seth (running in The New York Times Sunday section) turned out to be a lovely, thoughtful and powerful work. An exercise in the ways in which the narrative of one’s life is inherently unreliable along with the ways in which the modern turns into the nostalgic before we know it.

20. Be A Nose!, by Art Spiegelman (McSweeney’s). Spiegelman’s sketchbooks from three separate years: 1979 (the height of his underground experimentation before Raw), 1983 (Raw at its height and Maus in full bloom) and 2007 (his most recent sketchbook). It’s page after page of struggle by an artist with an impeccable eye but whose drafting hands frequently let him down. The title referred to the admonition of a sculptor to a block of granite while chipping away at it: “be a nose! be a nose!”, an expression of his own frustration with this process. A bracingly honest look at the creative stumbling blocks and triumphs of one of the most important names in comics.

21. AD: New Orleans After The Deluge, by Josh Neufeld (Pantheon). A harrowing account of Hurricane Katrina, told as narratives from a wide spectrum of classes, races and experiences. Neufeld’s use of color added a great deal of emotional resonance to a story that was already quite powerful.

22. The Secret Science Alliance, by Eleanor Davis (Bloomsbury). Davis, with a great young children’s comic (Stinky) and a handful of excellent minis & short stories in Mome, crafted a superb comic for tweens that celebrated science, knowledge and learning as well as the camaraderie that can result when young inventors collaborated. A perfect marriage of concept and execution, as Davis’ character design is both lovely and lively.

23. PS Comics, by Minty Lewis (Secret Acres). Funny, bitter and knowing stories about dysfunctional relationships and office politics, drawn as either anthropomorphic dogs or fruit. Originally published as minicomics, the stories took on a greater emotional resonance when read at once.

24. Yearbooks, by Nicholas Breutzman (2D Cloud). A shattering story about trust, betrayal and the responsibility of the artist regarding the moral treatment of subjects. Breutzman’s grotesque style and the lurid color scheme of Raighne Hogan created a grim and nightmarish world that’s compelling from beginning to end.

25. Covered In Confusion, by Will Dinski (self-published). This won the Isotope Award for Minicomics Excellence, and for good reason. Dinksi has been on a serious roll of late, and this is his most ambitious yet restrained story to date. It’s about an encounter that led to a reminiscence of a beloved teacher and the day something horrible happened, and tied off its loose ends in unexpected and disturbing ways. It’s beautifully designed and drawn in Dinski’s trademark angular style.

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One Response to “Analysis: Rob Clough’s Top 50 Comics Of 2009 Part One (of Two)”

  1. […] Best of 2009 | Rob Clough rolls out the first part of his rundown of the Top 50 comics of the year. [The Comics Journal] […]