R.C. Harvey’s Best of 2009 (Part Two of Two)

Posted by on January 28th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

The Best Book of the Year, for my money, was Kirk Anderson’s Banana Republic, which we reviewed at length in The Comics Journal #299. Observing Anderson’s bold and tapering line — a line supple as liquid sheen, not to mention the crispness of his stylistic mannerisms, the inherent drama of their composition and the superlative comedic timing of the breakdowns — his wit, his graphic genius, his satirical savagery, I laughed the silvery laughter of pure, unadulterated pleasure at beholding the symphonic intricacies of his work, its visual distinction yoked to an intelligent assault on the issues of the day, a ramble engaging both eye and mind — cartooning at its most sublime.

A satire, a newspaper comic-strip reprint, Banana Republic also qualifies as a graphic novel in which Anderson unflinchingly lambastes the Bush League and its demonstrably unAmerican policies. For that purpose, Anderson invented a “zany Third World dictatorship, Amnesia … [where] the government engages in roughhousing practices we would consider unconstitutional in our own country — such as torture, warrantless surveillance, and imprisonment without charge!”

To give his fictional country a cohesive satiric focus, Anderson invented the dictator, Generalissimo Wally, who “may often represent the U.S. president, but on any given week, he may just as likely represent power more generally, or a corporate CEO, or the U.S. government, or Minnesota’s governor. Regardless of whether we think American torture is right or wrong, when it’s Genralissimo Wally melon-balling some poor bastard’s eyes, we know it’s appalling, unAmerican, and proof of his illegitimacy.”

Purely visual comedy often sharpens the satire by reason of its contrast to the grimness being depicted. Dangling by his arms and pestered with the idiotic preoccupations of his torturer, the political prisoner Diego Meza “lightens the mood for his fellow detainees” by trying to swing his eyeball back into its socket — an outright imitation of a child’s game, which might even be called “ball in the socket.”  In another scene in the torture chamber, Anderson resorts to a simple albeit graphically effective visual pun — showing a victim vomiting blood, about which Wally says, “He even speaks in bloodbaths.”

The last strips in which Rita Meza finally secures the release of her tortured husband deploy breathtakingly inspired visuals. After years of relentless torture, the hapless Diego has been reduced to a liquid, as if his skeletal structure has been completely crushed, mulched. This symbol Anderson exploits for two pages as Rita tries to arouse public indignation — Diego drips from her arms as she carries his limp remains around — all to no avail. Unable to talk, Diego answers his wife’s question about what “they” have done to him with speech balloons that show images of melon-balling, brain removal and simple beatings. Ugly stuff. But in Anderson’s hands, the ugliness is given an image so grim, so metaphorically accurate, that ugliness is transcended and becomes excruciatingly satirical.

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Anderson’s book — his comic strip — makes for vastly entertaining reading. Unabashedly irreverent on every note it strikes, it withholds nothing. There are no sacred cows; no wickedness committed in the name of making the world a better place is ignored, no justification accepted. The book is relentless as well as unflinching. It is also a supreme example of how the arts of cartooning can be assembled for telling satire, satire that is humorous as well as insightful, hilarious as well as “inciteful.”

NEXT BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS. In second place, but by no means inferior in any way, I’d put Logicomix, Rick Geary’s The Adventures of Blanche, Dwayne Cooke’s The Hunter, and Mat Johnson’s Incognegro. It’s a joy to see Geary doing something a little less serious (not to say grim) than his true-life murder stories, and Blanche supplies fantasy and funny in equal doses — all in Geary’s cunningly fustian drawing style. Cooke’s adaptation of Richard Stark’s Parker novel is a superlative example of how to make a graphic novel: Cooke deploys all the resources of his art with panache and style. And in Incognegro, Johnson gives the story a marvelously twisting plot, intricate enough to match anything prose fiction offers. Excellent as all of these are, Logicomix surpasses them by tackling a subject — intellectual adventuring — not well suited to graphic-novel treatment and doing it suspensefully and entertainingly as well as informatively by expertly exploiting the various visualizing capabilities of the medium.

BEST REPRINTS. Four-way tie here, each qualifying for a different reason: the complete Sam’s Strip (by Jerry Dumas and Mort Walker) because its spoof of comic strip cartooning is a joy to behold and because it has been so long awaited; Art Spiegelman’s Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics because the reproduction is so deliciously achieved, scanning the printed pages of the original issue comic books and bringing back to life such four-color wonders as Walt Kelly’s fairy tales, Carl Barks’ ducks, John Stanley’s Little Lulu — but also some of the lesser touted, Milt Stein’s Supermouse, Sheldon Mayer’s J. Rufus Lion, Jim Davis’ Fox and Crow, George Carlson’s Pieface Prince and Dan Noonan’s animal stories; Pete Maresca’s The Upside-Down World of Gustave Verbeek because, as usual with Maresca’s projects, the reproduction is a perfect reincarnation of the original appearance of the artifact; and Harvey Kurtzman’s post-Mad masterwork, Humbug in two volumes, slipcased, because, like Sam’s Strip, we’ve waited so long for a reappearance and because of the exquisite care Fantagraphics took in making the copies of the magazine’s pages as exact as possible.

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