Elsewhere in 2009

December 30, 2009

This isn’t really a “Best of 2009” list, as I don’t feel like I read enough comics from places other than Japan to make that kind of list with a sufficient degree of authority, but I didn’t want to neglect books that I really enjoyed this year. I’m not going to say that all of these books are equally entertaining or good in the same ways; I’m not shooting for an equivalent level of quality. I’m just saying that these are the books that lingered in my memory and that I’ll return to again in the future. I’ll subdivide the books into “New Stuff” and “Continuing Stuff.”

New Stuff:

The Adventures of Blanche, written and illustrated by Rick Geary, Dark Horse. Comics by Geary are always a cause for celebration, and this collection of stories about a feisty musician traipsing through genre-based dangers was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.

Asterios Polyp, written and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, Pantheon. I’m always a little surprised when someone describes this book as technically brilliant but cold. I thought it had a very solid emotional core beyond the astonishing level of craft.

Johnny Hiro, written and illustrated by Fred Chao, AdHouse Books. This book didn’t do nearly as well as it should have in pamphlet form, so let me extend my heartfelt thanks to AdHouse for collecting the existing issues plus unpublished material. It’s simultaneously a winning genre mash-up and a warm, grown-up romance, and it’s a treat.

Masterpiece Comics, written and illustrated by R. Sikoryak, Drawn & Quarterly. What do you get when you combine great works of literature with classics of comic books and strips? In Sikoryak’s case, you get breezy, inspired work that displays great versatility, intelligence, and a sense of fun.

Mijeong, written and illustrated by Byung-jun Byun, NBM. It’s not as good as Run! Bong-Gu, Run!, but this collection of short stories is never short of very, very good and is often brilliant.

My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill, written by Jean Regnaud, illustrated by Émile Bravo, Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Gloriously sad and sharply observed, this book offers one of the freshest looks at childhood and grief you’re ever likely to find.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books, written and illustrated by Svetlana Chamkova, Yen Press. A comic featuring vampires and teenagers that doesn’t make me roll my eyes until they water? What strange magic is this? It’s actually just Chamkova fulfilling her prodigious promise as a graphic storyteller.

Stitches: A Memoir, written and illustrated by David Small, W.W. Norton and Company. Aside from being strikingly drawn, I think this is a beautifully shaped memoir, functioning perfectly as a story in its own right. The fact that the terrible things Small relates actually happened just adds a layer of disquiet.

Underground, written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Steve Lieber, colored by Ron Chan, Image Comics: There should be more snappy genre comics like this, you know? It’s a smartly executed thriller set in the perilous depths of a cave in the Appalachians.

Continuing Stuff:

Aya: The Secrets Come Out, written by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, Drawn & Quarterly. I was briefly afraid that this was the final volume of this wistful, multigeneration soap opera about life in the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. Fortunately, there seem to be at least two more volumes still to come of Aya and her unmanageable friends and family.

Empowered, written and illustrated by Adam Warren, Dark Horse. I’m so glad that Dark Horse released a pamphlet chapter of this ongoing series of graphic novels, as that might help to build the audience it deserves. Smutty and sweet in equal measure, it’s as sharp a parody of super-heroics as you’re ever likely to find.

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, Drawn & Quarterly. This is a golden age of reprints of quality comic strips, and this is my absolute favorite of the bunch.

Salt Water Taffy, written and illustrated by Matthew Loux, Oni Press. Two brothers embrace the weird on a seaside vacation. This is my go-to all-ages recommendation, by which I mean I’m as strident in suggesting adults buy it as I am in suggesting that kids will like it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, written and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Oni Press. As long as this book is releasing new volumes, it will be on any list of this nature that I write.

Yôkaiden, written and illustrated by Nina Matsumoto, Del Rey. This witty fantasy-adventure got even better with the second volume. Now we have to wait for the third.

The Shôjo-Sunjeong Alphabet: L

December 30, 2009

“L” is for…

And while it isn’t technically shôjo, I don’t like to imagine a world where anyone who’s read this book doesn’t love it…

Also, there are roughly one billion yaoi titles that start with the word “Love.” I leave it to you to tell me which are the best.

What are some of your favorite shôjo and sunjeong titles that start with the letter “L”?

From the stack: Yôkaiden vol. 2

December 30, 2009

“I’ll never understand you optimists,” mutters sentient paper lantern Lumi in the second volume of Nina Matsumoto’s Yôkaiden (Del Rey). “Sure you will!” beams protagonist Hamachi. I think that’s a great joke, sunny and a little sneaky, and it captures just what I like so much about this book.

Hamachi and Lumi are making their way through the dimension of yôkai, spirit creatures that range from mischievous to menacing. Hamachi is searching for a water demon he believes murdered his grandmother, and Lumi is along for the ride. This time around, Hamachi turns to a ninetails, a venerable fox demon, for information and, as you might expect, the ninetails wants a little something in return. Three somethings, in fact.

Simple soul Hamachi takes Christina, the 999-year-old yôkai, at face value, and why wouldn’t he? She’s prosperous, huge, warmly maternal, and only sly around the edges. Lumi’s certain she has a hidden agenda, and of course she does. Yôkaiden doesn’t run on surprising twists but on witty embellishments of familiar material. You can always be reasonably certain that Hamachi’s sunny disposition and cup-half-full approach will see him through, but you don’t know exactly how. That’s the charm.

Well, that’s part of the charm. There are also the fresh variations on classic yôkai, the nervy insertion of urban legends of more recent vintage, excerpts from Inukai Mizuki’s “Field Guide to Yôkai,” sharp dialogue, and vivid characters, human and otherwise. There are references aplenty, both in the text and the art.

Matsumoto seems to be having particular fun with yôkai hunter Zaigô, who has followed Hamachi to the yôkai dimension to bring the boy safely home. A couple of steps behind Hamachi, Zaigô has his own misadventures, and Matsumoto frames him in endearingly familiar ways, calling to mind books like Lone Wolf and Cub to Vagabond. Those are just flashes, of course, and the bulk of the book bears Matsumoto’s quirky visual style – energetic, endearing, and just the right degree of gruesome.

It’s always nice to see a creator with a real facility for wit, and Matsumoto’s manifests itself in words and pictures. There are plenty of comics about yôkai, and many of them are very good. Bright, breezy Yôkaiden is right up there with the best of them.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)