10 Plus 1
by BK Munn
So, like, I started to compile this list last year at the turn of the decade but abandoned it before finishing. Since many folks then and now still consider 2011 as the beginning of the new decade, I thought I’d take another stab at it, with the added benefit of another year of hindsight. If these aren’t all exactly my favourite comics of the past decade, or even by some eternal objective standard, “the best,” they are all important for what they have achieved or for what they represent in terms of the growth of the graphic novel in Canada as a serious artform.
For a decade that saw such huge changes in the wider international comics world, the last ten years in Canadian comics were by contrast very low-key, notable for the consolidations of the lessons and gains of the previous decade, embodied for the most part in major works by already-established artists.
On the international scene, the past decade is notable for the the rise of the graphic novel and its firm entrenchment in the larger literary and visual culture, against all odds and the predictions of fans and critics alike. Almost a theoretical, science-fictional object in the 1980s and 90s, the graphic novel, and its cousin, the graphic memoir, became mainstream in the 2000s, receiving attention from major publishers, along with respectable sales numbers, critical praise, and even film adaptations. This movement was largely mirrored in Canada, with several of the names on this list responsible for a new, wider appreciation of comics as serious (and, occasionally, not-so-serious) art.
In Canada and elsewhere, the rise of what I like to call Japanese cultural imperialism, in the form of translated manga imports (competing in the same market with and in most cases dominating homegrown U.S. comics production), the widespread adoption of webcomics as a financially and artistically serious comics delivery and reading platform, and a crisis in the print, magazine, and newspaper industries, all led to major changes in the way that comics were thought of, produced and consumed. This is a big change: people don’t get their comics only from the newspaper or on newsprint anymore. Increasingly, we don’t even get them from comic shops.
At the beginning of the decade, most comics and graphic novels in North America were still published in serial form, usually in traditional stapled pamphlet or “floppy” format. By decade’s end, all but the most devoted creators and their readers have shifted their focus to larger stand-alone volumes or graphic novels, or else to serializing on the web. Inspired by some of the creators on this list, by manga, and by the example of younger cartoonists like the American Craig Thompson, whose massive Blankets graphic novel served as something of a watershed for a new generation of cartoonists, creators and consumers of comics have come to see long-form narratives in the graphic novel format almost as the default comics delivery system; a precarious situation that seems on the verge of being eclipsed by new technologies and the web. For example, one of the most critically-lauded American graphic novel creators of the past few years, Dash Shaw, has produced some of his best work online, with his web work being eagerly scanned and dissected by enthusiastic fans months in advance of print versions. In Canada, the break-out star of 2008 was Kate Beaton, whose comics are an almost-entirely web-based success story.
If the graphic novels on this list have one thing in common, it’s that they are essentially products of a culture and economy that pre-dates these massive shifts. With two or three exceptions, they are the work of cartoonists (and publishers) who emerged from the 1980s primordial stew that was the dawn of the graphic novel and fought the epic battles of mainstream acceptance and art for art’s sake in the 1990s.* If they are not exactly the comics establishment, they are living proof of an established, thriving comics culture in this country; a comics culture that regularly produces graphic novels of international repute and artistic import, and your grandmother can put that in her pipe and smoke it.
Canadian Books of the Decade, 2000-2009
11. Essex County by Jeff Lemire. 2008-2009.
What it’s about: Essex County tracks the interrelated sagas of members of a Southern Ontario farming community in the mid-20th Century.
Why it’s important: Jeff Lemire’s first major journeyman novel, essentially a trilogy made up of Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and The Country Nurse, exemplifies the new dominance of the graphic novel model in Canadian comics and manages to merge the tropes and tangents of a landscape-focused Canadian literary fiction with the immediacy and emotion of comics. A poignant meditation on heritage, hockey, heroism, and comics, the entire book brings an inky sketchiness to pastoral romance. Quite emotionally affecting, Lemire’s narrative mashes up dollops of melodrama, sports nostalgia, and comics impressionism to create a whole greater than its constituent parts and a new classic for an entire generation of comics readers. The book has been embraced far and wide and most recently has been nominated as one of the top 10 essential Canadian books of the decade by the CBC radio “Canada Reads” juggernaut, competing against a barrel-full of traditional prose novels. Lemire has also used the relative success of his trilogy to carve out a distinctly 21st-Century niche for himself, straddling the worlds of the “literary” Canadian graphic novel and the work-made-for-hire U.S. superhero and science fiction factory system with aplomb.
10. The Last Day by Dave Sim. (“Latter Days” vol. 2) 2004. (Collects issues 289–300 of Cerebus , 2003–2004).
What it’s about: Alone in his room, the aged Cerebus has a long dream about theology and then tries to have one last conversation with his son. He learns that his political and religious enemies have transformed the world into a liberal dystopia and that his every desire has been thwarted. He dies “alone, unmourned, and unloved” –fulfilling the destiny predicted for him at the formal beginning of this epic comic book roman fleuve. Plot aside, the book stands alone, summing up many of the themes Sim had been expanding on for the past 30 years, and is a tour-de-force artistically.
Why it’s important: Sim published four volumes of his massive 16-volume Cerebus graphic novel series in the 2000s (Going Home, Form and Void, Latter Days, and Last Day). The final two volumes form their own arc within the larger narrative of Sim’s Cerebus character’s life story (“Latter Days”).
Because of his politics and personal philosophy, it’s tempting to describe Dave Sim as a liminal or transitional figure, his accomplishments of the 1980s as the spearhead of the self-published comics movement and as one of the first graphic novel creators have assured him a place in history, outstripped by “latter day” developments and a younger, faster breed of cartoonist. However, and despite his critics, his role remains one of central importance to our understanding of the graphic novel, its capacities and potentials. And his Cerebus follow-up, Glamourpuss, is a freaky, complicated beauty of a mess and one of the most interesting ongoing English-language comic books of this new century.
9. Ripple by Dave Cooper. 2003.
What it’s about: Pushing 40, kid book illustrator Martin DeSerres makes a radical career change and decides to pursue his painter-ly muse, producing portraits that visualize the “eroticism of homeliness” and parallel his obsession with complicated teen model Tina, she of the overbite and big hips.
Why it’s important: Ripple represents the culmination of several themes that Cooper had been working through in previous graphic novels like Crumple (2000) and Dan & Larry (2001), including themes of sexual obsession, horror, and the aesthetics of ugliness. Originally serialized in Cooper’s comic book series Weasel (Fantagraphics), Ripple marks a sharp departure in tone and style for the artist. Using a less-cartoony approach to anatomy and setting, the story takes on a real-world urban feeling of verisimilitude. It reads as thinly-veiled autobiography and seems an outgrowth of the post-Crumb, Canadian school of personal memoir comics that includes the early work of Seth, Chester Brown, et al. But Cooper’s narrative is a highly subjective one, and his tale of an up-and-coming artist trying to take his obsession with the voluptuous, plus-size forms of his models into the wider world of fine art painting is prescient of Cooper’s actual career trajectory and obsession with “mostly pillowy girls,” in addition to serving as something of a coda for his cartooning career, inasmuch as he seems much better known as a painter than a cartoonist in 2010. After this gripping statement of artistic intent, and in one of the most exacting cases of life imitating art, Cooper seems to have largely abandoned comics to pursue his painting muse, with several international exhibits and book collections following.
8. Lady Pep (2004)
Long Term Relationship (2001)
The Madame Paul Affairr (2000)
by Julie Doucet.
What they’re about: Auotbio follow-ups to one of the most popular Canadian comic book series of the 1980s and 90s, Dirty Plotte.
Why they’re important: Like Dave Cooper, Doucet is another fractured comics apostate, having largely forsaken her pivotal international role in comics for the larger world of fine art installations and print-making. Hot on the heels of her groundbreaking Dirty Plotte comic book series (and it really was groundbreaking, kids) and My New York Diary (now a movie by Michel Gondry), Doucet plunged into a series of autobiographical graphic memoirs delineating her marginal bohemian existence and feral excursions into comics mark-making, ink-ladling and iconography. Before resurfacing with the workmanlike 365 Days, Doucet made her book-market rep with this series of slice-of-life episodes and mixed-media mash-ups, chronicling the 1990s apartment-dwelling subculture of North America in her signature style. Collectively, these books codify the teachings of their autobio underground precursors in the Crumb/Kaminsky/Pekar/Brown lineage, asserting to a new audience that quotidian personal experience has a validity, beauty, and humour equivalent to any historical epic or postmodern fictional pychodrama, and that you can mix comics and a fine-art approach to boot. Doucet is an icon and feminist trailblazer within the micro-scopic/cephalic world of male-dominated comics, and her hilarious, busy, detail-crammed panels are an indication of a fully-fleshed-out road-less-travelled for comics that nonetheless remains an artistic role-model for younger cartoonists.
7. Paul in the Country. by Michel Rabagliati. 2000.
What it’s about: Middle-aged authorial stand-in Paul flashes back to his own idyllic childhood during a family vacation.
Why it’s important: This volume introduced English-speaking readers to the charming adventures of Paul, a young everyman who Rabagliati will go on to follow through late adolescence into early adulthood, in the process emerging as a vibrant new voice on the scene. During the course of the Paul series, four volumes of which have been published by Drawn and Quarterly, Rabagliati will mature as a draftsman and storyteller, bringing something of a European-by-way-of-Quebec bande dessinee sensibility to the provincial world of Canadian comics, all the while keeping a firm hold on the uniqueness of his perspective and personal history. Along with Guy Delisle, Rabagliati represents the first wave of a-list, post-Dirty-Plotte Quebec bd creators to find an audience in the wider anglo comics market with a series of highly idiosyncratic and subjective graphic novels.
6. King by Ho Che Anderson. 2005.
What it’s about: The life story of civil rights leader Martin Luther King is told in a variety of voices and from multiple viewpoints, beginning with King’s life and ending with his assassination in 1968.
Why it’s important: Anderson began drawing this epic biography of King while a very young man in the early-1990s. When all three volumes of his story (released separately between 1993-2002) were finally published together a decade later, he had transformed into one of the elder statesmen of a newly-popular medium. The completed book not only sums up King’s long journey but also metonymically stands in for the evolution in the form of the graphic memoir that had taken place in the meantime, with the public embracing of artful non-fiction comics by the likes of Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, David B., and others. Beginning as a short black-and-white bio commissioned by his publisher, King gradually grew into a full-colour exigesis of the U.S. civil-rights movement and of comics-making, employing a variety of effects and styles to depict aspects of a tumultuous and confusing period.
5. Pyongyang by Guy Delisle. 2005
What it’s about: Working as an animation subcontractor, cartoonist Delisle chronicles his bizarre sojourn in the North Korean capital.
Why it’s important: Along with Michel Rabagliati’s first Paul book, I’ve chosen this translation of the enthralling French-language comic book North Korea non-travelogue to represent the breadth and depth of comics coming out of Quebec over the past decade. Where Rabagliati is notable for producing a deeply humane semi-autobiographical series, Delisle’s light-heartedness-in-the-face-of-soul-deadening-dictatorship-and-banality book makes the cut for exemplifying the trend of comics reportage and political commentary pioneered by Joe Sacco. Delisle is the paripatetic ying to Rabagliati’s homebody yang. Personifying the new internationalism of the graphic novel, he is a globetrotting cartoonist and animator from Quebec City with a home base in France, where the cutting-edge and culturally-transformative collective L’Association was his first publisher, tying him into one of the major art comics movements of the period he exemplifies here. Pyonyang’s “I see but don’t obviously judge but by seeing I judge” aesthetic uses a timely, stealthily simplistic cartooning style to document the truth as he sees it in a North Korea newly demonized by the U.S. as part of the post-9-11 “Axis of Evil.” Actually very photorealistic, the book, as well as Delisle’s previous China experience and subsequent tour of Burma, uses a chunkily sketchy and diaristic innocent abroad perspective to probe the edges of tyranny.
4. Skim by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. 2008.
What it’s about: Highschool outsider Skim (Kimberly Keiko Cameron) experiments with various identities (goth, Wiccan, artist) but confronts a crisis when her schoolmates become cynically obsessed with the suicide of a boy from another school, leading to a rift between Skim and her best friend. Cut loose, Skim drifts into a romantic relationship with her English teacher before forming new bonds of friendship with a kindred spirit.
Why it’s important: The only writer-artist collaboration on this list, Skim is a great graphic novel that highlights the close relationship between text and image in comics. Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations of her cousin Mariko’s sensitive coming-of-age tale carry half the emotional weight of the story in the same way that a great actor can bring life to the brilliant prose of a playwright –but in this case the actor is also credited as co-creator. The book is a bittersweet coming-of-age tale of sexual identity, and in that sense it follows in something of a Canadian comics tradition. The artistic success of Skim, as well as its critical and commercial reception, was almost eclipsed in 2008 when Mariko was nominated for a Governor General’s Award in the Children’s Books category for her writing, with no mention of Jillian’s contributions. The resulting controversy made Skim the poster-child for the new profile of graphic novels and for the growing pains attendant on that higher profile. Breakout artist Jillian has since gone on to become something of a generational touchstone, an internationally-recognized illustrator and teacher, with a newly-minted reputation as webcomic-er and producer of several well-regarded solo books, while writer Mariko has pursued her own muse and the newly-emergent market for young adult comics fiction, a trajectory embraced by some of the most visible North American comics creators recently emerged from the toils of indy-land.
3. George Sprott (1894–1975) by Seth. 2009.
What it’s about: An unreliable narrator prone to digressions reveals snippets of the life of the explorer/con-artist, racounteur, egoist and latter day tv personality George Sprott while chronicling the last hours of George’s life.
Why it’s important: This gorgeous panoramic history of a fictional minor 20th-century Canadian celebrity’s life and loves is equal parts charmingly funny and heart-breakingly sad, tinged with a bittersweet reverence for a vanished way of living that seems to take greater pleasure from the threadbare detritus and half-remembered scraps of same. As well as cementing Seth’s position as one of the international heavy-hitters of the comics medium, the book unites several threads from Seth’s own oeuvre and from the larger history and trajectories of comics in general, marrying his melange of classic storytelling with themes of loss and memory, with sly nods to our provincial cultural heritage.
George Sprott the book is at the same time an exquisitely crafted love-letter to our paper artifact heritage and a thoroughly modern naturalistic narrative production, the end-product of the last quarter-century’s drift towards a sustainable level of appreciation for adult comic books. Most plainly, the book’s position relative to the culture of the graphic novel can be read in its genesis and publication history. Firmly rooted in Seth’s personal fictional universe and artistic practice (like Wimbledon Green and Clyde Fans, it’s another story about old men linked to the idealized town of Dominion), the book was expanded from the episodic format originally serialized in The New York Times, a prestige gig that more than anything sums up the strides the graphic novel has taken and Seth’s role in that evolution.
2. Scott Pilgrim. Bryan Lee O’Malley. 2004-2010.
What it’s about: I feel dumb reiterating the plot of such a highly visible comic book/movie, but here goes: Bass-playing layabout Scott Pilgrim must battle the seven evil exes of rollerblading delivery-girl Ramona Flowers in order to win her love and just maybe get it together.
Why it’s important: This decade-spanning series of six graphic novels about a megalomaniacal Toronto rocker who must fight his girlfriend’s ex-lovers has a video-game logic and manga-style action, but also functions as a charming coming-of-age love story and comedy of errors. Over the course of the series, O’Malley grows from artistic strength to strength, seamlessly incorporating and rejigging manga storytelling and stylization into his work and developing a great gift for naturalistic dialogue that perfectly captures a certain kind of youthful self-expression and subcultural elan. The book’s embrace by an entire cohort of international comics fans, and its subsequent transformation into a cross-media phenom (videogame, movie), is the coda to the narrative of the graphic novel’s growth in the decade. The heir apparent to the international heritage of comics and graphic novels, O’Malley’s comic magnum opus is nevertherless a quintessential Canadian experience.
1. Louis Riel by Chester Brown. 2004.
What it’s about: Metis mystic and politician Louis Riel leads a frontier rebellion against the Canadian government.
Why it’s important: It’s hard to believe that Brown’s historic take on Canadian history was the only major thing he published this past decade and that it’s already a complete ten-spot since the first issue shuffled on to the floppy serialized-comic book stage in 1999. Brown’s relentless, understated nine-panel-grid structure and retro-Harold Gray stylings mark a new epoch in terms of the depth and devotion that comics bring to the game of narrative art. Combining equal parts equivocation, deadpan delivery, and graphic surety, Brown lays a libertarian blueprint for what has in many ways come to stand for the comics of a nation.
As Jeet Heer notes, [i]t’s true that Louis Riel is much more Gray-like than anything Brown did before. I think there were a number of factors that made a Gray-inflected style a logical choice. Brown’s earlier work tended to be personal and inward looking […] The Riel story […] was a very public one: based on history, dealing with politics, and often set in public places (open air meetings and courtrooms). Gray was a very public cartoonist in a variety of ways: dealing with public issues, but also showing his characters out in the open with very explicit, theatrical faces. So Gray makes sense for a history strip. […] Gray started cartooning in the 1920s, his style with its crosshatching and caricatures echoes the cartooning traditions of the 19th century (especially Victorian book illustrations). Thus it is a style that seems to come from the same world as Louis Riel himself.
With Louis Riel Brown has given Canadian comics a sort of foundational text, universally accessible in terms of both style and subject, yet at the same time a complex construction of symbols and cartooning gestures that links together a century of cartooning.
* Of course, my own origins as a comics reader and critic are rooted in the same period, and it’s entirely possible that my perspective and taste are biased towards this earlier “pioneer” generation.