Best Comics of 2013

This is a list of, in no particular order, my personal picks of the best comic books coming out in 2013. The selection only reflects those titles that have not been released in English prior to this year, limiting the amount of reprinted material somewhat.* Just as was the case with last year’s list, I’m aware that there are already oodles of list like this around and I certainly harbor no pretensions of significance in my own selection. I do invite readers to comment as they see fit – I have not read even a fraction of the many titles hitting the shelves this past year, and I am sure that there are gems I have missed, overlooked, or otherwise wrongfully left out. 2013 was a peculiar year in some respects. The old hands of alternative comics were less prolific than in prior years and the tragic passing of Kim Thompson led to a measurable drop in the release of high quality European comics on American shores. At the same time, a wave of great manga titles have hit the shelves recently, from relative newcomers to long-due translations of classic works, making this the strongest year in recent memory for translated quality manga. Finally, a slew of great self-published artists are now being picked up by publishers such as Fantagraphics and Koyama Press, and one can only hope that this will give these talented people the exposure they (and the consumers) deserve.

Seiichi Hayashi, Gold Pollen and Other Stories (PictureBox)
GoldPollenA collection of key works from the master mangaka Seiichi Hayashi, Gold Pollen and Other Stories is a brilliant example of how to edit, translate, and present this type of classic alternative manga. The stories are drawn from late sixties and early seventies Garo issues and include the fantastic “Red Dragonfly,” which is perhaps Hayashi’s single best work. The art and narrative technique vary greatly across the book, which showcases Seeichi’s many strengths. Ryan Holmberg’s accompanying essay is exemplary and adds dimensions to the reading of these stories that would otherwise be obfuscated for most non-Japanese readers. What is more, the volume is the first installment in a new series entitled Masters of Alternative Manga under the editorship of Holmberg and one can only hope that this is the first step in getting more of these seminal and hitherto overlooked masterworks of Japanese comics to a discerning foreign audience.

David B., Incidents in the Night, volume 1 (Uncivilized Books)
IncidentsOne of David B.’s best comics has at long last been translated and published in English, mere weeks before the long-awaited second volume of this curious and enigmatic series hit the shelves in France. Incidents in the Night is a strange concoction of Borges, Gautier, film noir, and fin-de-siècle genre fiction. It tells the story of David B. the collector who dreams of a certain early nineteenth century journal and finds himself compelled to seek it out and read it, casting him into a surreal world of obsessive bibliophiles, ancient demigods, and labyrinthine Parisian bookstores. The narrative is loose and fabulating, seemingly progressing at its own accord, and the feverish drawings represent the artist at his imaginative height. A work that belongs in any serious comics fan’s collection, right alongside Epileptic and The Armed Garden.

Hellen Jo, Frontier #2 (Youth in Decline)
Frontier2The second issue of Youth in Decline’s Frontier series features the work of the gifted cartoonist Hellen Jo. Somewhere between a monograph and a comic book, the slim volume packs a powerful punch with its non-traditional narrative structure and its dazzling images that manage to be both playful and incredibly cool. The scenes revolve around roving gangs of teenage girls, stylish and menacing in their perfect appearance and seemingly casual resort to violence and bloodshed. There’s a raw artistic nerve and attitude that come through in these pages and in the accompanying interview. Coupled with the first volume, featuring work by Uno Moralez, this is a very promising start for publisher Ryan Sand’s newest venture and I can’t wait for the third installment.

Joe Sacco, The Great War (W. W. Norton)
TheGreatWarWith interviews in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and NPR Joe Sacco’s newest creation has got to be one of the most talked-about comics of the year – 2013′s true mainstream pick, if you will. Since The Great War already has more buzz than any piece of cartooning could ask for, I’m not going to spill too much ink on a description here. Suffice to say it is a beguiling and irrefutable piece of artistic craft – as well-researched and unflinchingly depicted as we have come to expect from the premier journalist-cartoonist of the field. While the format itself is hardly new, neither in a historical nor a contemporary context, it is still unusual enough to call forth strong reactions, greatly helped on by some of Sacco’s more interesting artistic choices: from the obvious lack of speech or sound effects to the more subtle play with time shifts and the horrific repetitiveness of trench warfare hinted at at the end of the panorama.

Rutu Modan, The Property (Drawn and Quarterly)
ThePropertyIn many ways one of the most traditional comics on this list, Rutu Modan’s The Property is nevertheless an accomplishment of refined narrative craft. Neither as intense nor as defiant as her much-lauded Exit Wounds, the Israeli cartoonist’s newest book is a meditation on family and history – a deliberately-paced and nuanced tale of a woman and her granddaughter’s trip to Poland in the hopes of reclaiming property lost in the war. The focus is on the inter-personal relationship between the two women and the way it develops over the course of their journey, which is populated by a rich gallery of quirky and believable characters. The ligne claire style and witty dialogue go well together and Modan delivers in both smart plotting and compelling protagonists.

Michael DeForge, Lose #5 (Koyama Press)
Lose5Despite the refusal of a few critics to toe the line, Michael DeForge is still the proverbial hot new shit in North American alternative comics, going on several years now (although I’m not entirely convinced that you can label someone working on Adventure Time “alternative”). This year has seen the release of a long-ish webcomic, a larger collection of various pieces, and a new issue of the Lose anthology series. The latter is for my money the strongest of DeForge’s artistic output in 2013 and deserves a spot on any best-of-the-year list. The story “Living Outdoors,” about two kids and their adventures with hallucinogens, is worth the price of admission alone, but the rest of the book is equally excellent. DeForge continues to do his own thing and as long as he keeps dishing out humorously told and artistically unique works like this, I am fully on board with that.

Shigeru Mizuki, Kitaro (Drawn and Quarterly)
KitaroI am incredibly happy to finally see one of the best comics of all time released in English, and in a big, nicely-produced and well-translated collection to boot. Kitaro is an example of what comics aimed at youngsters should be: smart, funny, vibrant, and exciting as hell. It is also a prime example of the other side of the Garo movement – quality genre works that focus on narrative and character above avant-garde experimentation. In the course of a few years Shigeru Mizuki has become one of the key figures in the English-translation manga renaissance (helped on by the fact that his work is of a more consistent quality than that of, say, Osamu Tezuka), and the effort made by publisher Drawn and Quarterly and translator Zack Davisson is commendable. Kitaro is undoubtedly the best-known of Mizuki’s series in Japan and is the progenitor of a host of subsequent shōnen titles and yokai-centric works in general, so it’s about time an official translation arrived on these shores. If you like Hideshi Hino, Kazuo Umezu, or Yuki Midorikawa you owe it to yourself to read Kitaro.

Simon Hanselmann, Life Zone (Space Face Books)
LifeZoneSimon Hanselmann is somewhat of a phenomenon – an artist whose work has almost exclusively appeared online until recently, but who has developed one of the most loyal and devoted followings among indie cartoonists that I’m familiar with these days. And this seems entirely deserved. His quirky, angst-filled, and hilarious stories of Megg, Mogg, and Owl seem a perfect fit with the spirit of the moment such as it is, and his characters manage to be both reprehensible and lovable, sometimes going from one to the other in the span of a few panels. Life Zone is a collection of all-new stories and serves as the perfect introduction to Hanselmann’s creations for those who have not already had a taste of the acerbic brew.

Kyoko Okazaki, Helter Skelter (Vertical)
HelterSkelterThis was truly a great year for alternative manga, as witnessed by the release of an official English edition of Helter Skelter - the last work by groundbreaking mangaka Kyoko Okazaki, whose oeuvre has pushed the boundaries for what can be tackled in manga aimed at a female readership. The book is part thriller and part scathing critique of the fashion industry, a vicious story of a model whose mind unravels as her body falls apart, sending her on a bloody rampage through the society that used to adore her. Some critics have pointed to what they see as a problematic moral imbalance between male and female characters in a story that is ostensibly hailed as a feminist critique, but they miss that this is not a story of righting a wrong or solving a problem -rather, it is a brutal condemnation of the sickness of society, a diagnosis to which the only reaction can be a fiery and murderous rage. The men who attempt to quell this rage are either fools or accomplices, and certainly no heroes. The rose has teeth, and it chews on human flesh. “No matter how pretty the bunny, it’s just a lump of meat once it’s skinned.”

Gene Luen Yang, Boxers and Saints (First Second)
BoxersAndSaintsGene Luen Yang’s newest release proves that there is still plenty of excitement to be found in the world of YA comics. Arguably his magnum opus, Boxers and Saints is a two-volume epic set in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion in turn of the century Qing China. While the story generally follows the historical trajectory of the uprising fairly well, Yang does at times play fast and loose with historical accuracy in the time-honored tradition of so much historical fiction. In this case it seems entirely justified, as the narrative is ultimately a more universal tale of identity and belonging, rather than a minute portrayal of historical events or a biographical depiction of specific actors. The historical backdrop does serve the books remarkably well, however, and the parallel stories of two Chinese kids caught on opposite sides of a struggle between seemingly irreconcilable forces is gripping, emotive, and expertly told. The use of religious and mythological imagery is fascinating and Yang manages to weave a tale that should appeal to an audience that is broader than both the YA market and the usual comics crowd.

Gengoroh Tagame, The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame (PictureBox)
PassionOfTagameIt’s not every year we see something like this come by: a beautifully presented, carefully translated English collection of a Japanese master, specializing in BDSM bara manga. Whether because of the unusualness of this event or because of the sheer artistic quality of the work itself, the release of The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame made a big splash in the North American alternative comics scene, with the buzz spilling over into the mainstream press to a degree rarely seen for any manga title. And deservedly so. Regardless of your sexual orientation or penchant for Japanese comics, Tagame’s work is something to behold and well worth seeking out. There are few people working in the medium who can muster the same level of visual power in their depiction of mass and muscle or who can call forth such visceral reactions of awe and fascination in their readers as Tagame. These stories tend to be more than a little disturbing, and their sources of inspiration span widely, from the classics of Victorian and Edo erotica to the modern artistic tradition of ero guro nonsensu. While there no doubt exists a certain audience for the work as erotic stimulus, the broader appeal of The Passion lies in its craft and its imagery, which is both shocking and fascinating; visually arresting and unapologetically outrageous.

Emily Carroll, Out of Skin (webcomic)
One of the more unsettling comics I read this year was Emily Carroll’s Out of Skin, a relatively short piece about a woman living alone in the deep, dark woods, published online for Halloween. It is a wonderfully evocative and unsettling story that plays with the conventions of sequential art in a more inventive way than I’ve seen in a long time, and which fully owns its digital format. Carroll does a masterful job of exploiting the range of possibilities contained in her chosen medium, from her sparring use of animated panels to the unique qualities of the scrolling pages. The only other webcomic from this year that to my knowledge comes close to so deftly utilizing the potential of the format is Boulet’s “Our Toyota Was Fantastic.” However, where Boulet’s charming play with living images ultimately conveys a cute and sentimental anecdote, Carroll manages to let her artistic explorations tell a worthwhile and haunting narrative.
OutOfSkin

* Some of the notable titles left out of consideration due to this criteria include Julia Gförer’s Black is the Color (Fantagraphics); Jeff Smith’s Rasl (Cartoon Books); Ben Katchor’s Hand-Drying in America (Pantheon); Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics); Huizenga and Zettwoch’s Amazing Facts and Beyond (Uncivilized Books); and Michael DeForge’s Very Casual (Koyama).

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Nine films not to miss at the NYAFF 2013

I’m a big fan of Asian cinema. So much so that I recently made a new tumblr blog, inspired by the excellent Vulgar Auteurism blog but with an Asian auteur theme. This fascination easily makes the New York Asian Film Festival and its sibling, Japan Cuts, my favorite film event of the year in New York City. In an ironic twist of fate, this time around I’ll be spending the majority of July in Hong Kong, meaning that I’ll have very little opportunity to enjoy the great movies on exhibit in NY. This has not prevented me from obsessively perusing the program, however, and in order to feel that my time has not been entirely wasted on self-inflicted torture, I present to you, dear reader, a list of the top nine films not to be missed at this year’s NYAFF.

The Berlin File (Korea, 2013)

ImageA high-octane espionage thriller depicting the cold war between North and South Korea, The Berlin File manages to capitalize on the reinvigorated genre and infuse it with a distinctly Korean flavor. More Bourne than le Carré, the movie quickly leaves the politically charged plot behind in favor of well-shot action sequences and intense fights. The main protagonist is played by audience-favorit Ha Jung-woo (The ChaserNameless Gangster), but his otherwise good performance is overshadowed by co-star Ryu Seung-beom (Crying Fist; The Unjust) who plays a relentless and psychotic assassin. The latter’s brother, Ryoo Seung-wan (Die BadCity of Violence), directs and does a particularly good job with the more kinetic scenes in the movie, showing great skill with flesh and steel in motion.

Bloody Tie (Korea, 2006)

ImageBloody Tie is a few years old, premiering in Korea in 2006, but it is well worth catching on the big screen, especially since it did not seem to get enough traction on its first go-around in the US. Another violent crime drama, it depicts a cast of character that includes corrupt cops, meth dealing lowlives, aimless prostitutes, and more double crossing than you can shake Gabriel Byrne’s hat at. The film is less gut-wrenching and more darkly humorous than might be expected, but it is full of good action sequences and some stellar performances, including one by the previously-praised Ryu Seung-beom.

The Complex (Japan, 2013)

ImageDirector Hideo Nakata started the J-horror wave 15 years ago with The Ring, and with The Complex he’s back to remind us that Japanese horror hasn’t been wiped entirely off the map. While not as strong as his earlier milestone, this new feature is a nicely chilling story told in a languid tempo and with plenty of lingering shots and unsettling performances. Loosely inspired by the Swedish Let the Right One In, Nakata provides us with a fairly sophisticated, if not exactly innovative, plot involving a potentially unreliable teenage narrator and a creepy boy (not entirely unlike the character Toshio from Ju-On). Judging from this film there is not much new under the sun in Japanese horror, but there are nonetheless still chills to be had for those seeking them.

Cold War (Hong Kong, 2012)

ImageWinner of nine Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor, Cold War comes with quite a bit of buzz surrounding it. It is indeed a great and fun film, even if it is a times a little too clever for its own good. Featuring a host of Hong Kong talent, including the ever-present Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, and Tony Leung Ka-fai, who took the award for Best Actor, it deals with the hijacking of a police van loaded with high-tech equipment and five officers. The film then follows the police’s efforts to negotiate with the hostage takers and mount a daring rescue mission, complete with internal strife and plenty of plot twists.

Drug War (China/Hong Kong, 2013)

Drug WarJohnny To is an incredibly productive man. So much so, in fact, that he has had two major releases so far in 2013. Blind Detective was shown at Cannes, but shortly before that Drug War was released in China and Hong Kong. Now it comes to New York, and it is a movie well worth watching if you’re a fan of To’s incredibly skillful blend of patient procedural drama and gritty crime thriller. It is his first film aimed at the mainland Chinese market, but it is no less brutally honest than previous films, such as the Election series. To veteran Louis Koo headlines the film, this time opposite Chinese actor and former dancer Sun Honglei (Mongol: The Rise of Genghis KhanA Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Soup).

Feng Shui (China, 2012)

ImageFeng Shui is your bleak character drama of the season. Directed by up-and-coming Chinese filmmaker Wang Jing (Vegetate; Invisible Killer) and based on a novel by Fang Fang, the film portrays a young Chinese woman, played devastatingly well by Yan Binyang (Memory of Love), who lives through the economic boom of the post-Deng Xiaoping 1990s and whose family left bruised and battered in its wake, not least because of her own overpowering ambition, uncompromising strive for betterment, and simmering fury. With its brilliant depiction of the crowded urban landscapes of Wuhan and its laser sharp focus on one individual family, Feng Shui (so named for the unlucky location of the family’s apartment) manages to say more about the social turmoil of rising China, and of the nihilism of life in general, than most other films in its genre.

Ip Man: The Final Fight (Hong Kong, 2013)

ImagePerhaps the best film so far about the martial arts master Ip Man, The Final Fight focuses on the last period of the legend’s life. Set in Hong Kong in the decades after World War II, it is part martial arts tale and part historical drama, spending time on both the personal life of the aging kung fu teacher and on the broader tensions of life the colonial city. Directed by Herman Yau, who was also behind 2010′s Ip Man: The Legend is Born, the film has seen involvement from the Ip estate in the form of elder son Ip Chun, who appears in a small cameo, and Ip’s student Checkley Sin, who penned the story and acted as producer. Hong Kong veteran Anthony Wong (The Mission; Infernal AffairsExiled) stars as the titular character, delivering a performance so powerful that it alone puts this one ahead of the other Ip films.

Never too Late to Repent (Taiwan, 1979)

How often do you get to experience an entire historical subgenre that you didn’t even know exited? Unless you’re very good at avoiding old movies, the answer is probably not that often. Well, at this year’s festival one of the thematic groupings is Taiwan Pulp, showcasing a number of films from the wave of Taiwan Black Movies that came out in the 1980s, as well as the 2005 documentary Taiwan Black Movies, which brought international attention to the forgotten genre. While the documentary itself is not that great despite some interesting historical insights, many of the movies themselves are well worth watching. Perhaps none more so than Never too Late to Repent, the title which initially started the wave of grim exploitation films with its unexpected success at the Taiwan box office in 1979. Part crime drama, part social commentary, and part autobiography of the pimp-turned-actor Ma Sha, this one is a low-budget gem full of charm and grit.

Image

The Warped Forest (Japan, 2011)

ImageFinally there is The Warped Forestthe (superior) sequel to 2005′s Funky Forest: The First Contact. It is likely to be the most bizarre, surreal film you will have the chance to see at this year’s festival, and if you enjoy the type of absurdity that only Japanese cinema seems able to deliver, then it is definitely not to be missed. Director Shunichio Miki is a crazy genius with a keen eye for sexy and comedic charm. His films can best be described as a mix of classic fairy tales, Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, Cronenbergsk body transformation, and the craziest fantasy animes - The Warped Forest is no exception.

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The Twelve Best Comics of All Time

This is a thoroughly narcissistic post, spawned by my recent re-reading of a number of semi-serious attempts at comics canonization. These other lists, including that of  The Comics Journal and The Hooded Utilitarian, are attempts at projecting the intersubjective consensus of a given demography of comic book consumers, be it a very narrow selection of competent and knowledgable comics intellectuals (for lack of a better term), or a slightly broader swath of (still competent) comics critics and polemics. In either case, the notion seems to be that the aggregation of the lists of multiple people will reveal some sort of insight that is, inherently, more informed and more relevant than the necessarily subjective choices of any one individual.

To that, I say screw you – this is my blog and my opinion is the only one that matters! Well, not exactly. Not at all, actually. But I do find it an interesting intellectual exercise to come up with a dozen titles that somehow seem more important and more worthwhile to read (it might be either/or) than any of the countless other works of comics art out there. Even if this is only the case in the universe in which my mind is the sole inhabitant. So read on, take everything with an ounce of salt, and please tell me why I’m wrong.

Nemo

Little Nemo in Slumberland, by Winsor McCay (1905-1914)

krazykat

Krazy Kat, by George Herriman (1913-1944)

Kitaro

GeGeGe no Kitarō, by Shigeru Mizuki (1959-1969)

Tintin

Tintin au Tibet, by Hergé (1960)

Garo

The Garo stories of Yoshiharu Tsuge (1965-1970)

Phoenix

Hi no Tori, by Osamu Tezuka (1967-1988)

Binky

Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary, by Justin Green (1972)

GarageLuxeLuxeCover.indd

Le Garage hermétique, by Jean “Moebius” Giraud (1976-1980)

Akira

AKIRA, by Katsuhiro Otomo (1982-1990)

Palomar

Blood of Palomar, by Gilbert Hernandez (1989)

Acme

The Acme Novelty Library, by Chris Ware (1994-)

Lascension

L’Ascension du haut-mal, by David B. (1996-2003)

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Review: Copra Compendium

I know that I have been very quiet on here for the past several weeks. Mostly this is because I’ve been busy with other writing projects (both some dry academic stuff and a bit of comics criticism for the Danish magazine Nummer 9), but that is of course no excuse. So here is finally another update, this time a review of Michel Fiffe’s stunning Copra Compendium, which I picked up at MoCCA this weekend and tore through over the past couple of days.

I admit, there was a pang of fear at first. It only lasted a second. Then it was a straight up panic attack. Walls caving in, shortness of breath, hard to ride out.

Then I realized how much freedom there is in being so screwed.

- Sonia Stone

CopraCover

Michel Fiffe‘s self-published series Copra has been coming out on a regular basis since the first issue hit stands in November of last year, and it has received quite a bit of buzz in the comics blogosphere (if that’s a real thing, and not just something crazy people on the internet like to refer to). This new volume, the first Copra Compendium, is a collection of the initial three single issues and also happens to be the first title published by newly minted Bergen Street Comics Press. The book itself is a sweet 72-page package, printed on nice paper stock and displaying sharp colors and a refreshingly small amount of wasted pages (that is to say, none). The art style is familiar to anyone who’s read Fiffe’s other work, and the plot and story structure is quite similar to his previously published Suicide Squad homage Deathzone! 

Page2The story, then, is not surprisingly reminiscent of the old Suicide Squad tales, but it goes well beyond that, drawing on a myriad of different genre comics for inspiration. It revolves around a small band of misfit mercenaries finding themselves far past the point of no return, as a seemingly routine pick-up-and-transport-an-occult-extradimensional-space-shard-lodged-in-a-decapitated-head assignment quickly turns sour with the arrival of an unmistakable villainous band of fellas. And this is all before we meet Dy Dy the Neophyte Crime Empress (literally a brain on legs), to say nothing of the dimensional portals or the chaos golem.

Page6Whereas the first issue is a fairly straightforward set-up piece, albeit with the twist of introducing a number of characters only to gleefully kill off half of them before the end of the 24 pages, the next two take a decidedly weirder turn. The tempo is fast-paced throughout, and Fiffe’s art really excels in conveying the feel of kinetic energy so necessary for an action-packed piece like Copra to succeed. Furthermore, he instills enough imagination and vibrancy into even minor characters to bring them alive on the page, providing the sort of playful thrill that is needed to create a strong bond between reader and story, even when the latter gleefully spins out of the bounds of anything that might ressemble a space of plausible realism.

Detail

In short, this is the most fun and excitement I’ve gotten out of a comic book in a long time. If this was the kind of stuff your average superhero or action comic was made up of, I can’t help but think that the industry would be in a slightly better state than it is. If you don’t own the first three Copra issues, then please don’t hesitate to pick up a copy of this delectable edition!

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MoCCA Loot

MoCCA Loot

This year’s MoCCA festival was quite a bit of fun. I came home with a bunch of books and a few pictures. I might put some thoughts together and publish them here over the next few days.

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2013 Releases to Keep an Eye on, part II

Good morning and happy new year. In 1013, which is to say one thousand years ago, the Danes invaded England and Sveinn Tjúguskegg became the first Danish king of England. So, in case my plan comes to fruition and I’m declared King of the United States of America within the next 12 months, don’t tell me that there wasn’t any historical precedent. Regardless, the holiday madness now well over it seems timely to once again turn to some of the interesting releases coming out in the next few months. Here, then, is another batch of 2013 releases to keep an eye on.

Charles Forsman, The End of the Fucking World (Fantagraphics)

ForsmanIt was exciting news when Fantagraphics, back in June 2012, announced that they had snatched up the rights to some of Charles Forsman’s work and planned to publish it over the course of 2013. Here, then, is the first of these books, a collected edition of Forsman’s previously published (via Oily Comics) 12-issue minicomic The End of the Fucking World, set to come out in August. The story centers around American teens James and Alyssa, he a budding sociopath and she an earnest girl made ignorant by love. The comic is a great roadtrip in the tradition of classic American film and literature, and Forsman is a talented artist with a clear narrative voice of his own. Go look at his website here, and pick up the book when it hits stores. I predict that this one will land on many best-of lists come December.

Tom Gauld, You’re All Just Jealous of my Jetpack (Drawn & Quarterly)

GauldAre there any cartoonists currently writing for a major news publication as funny as Tom Gauld? I doubt it. His dark humor and sharp wit is hard to match, and this collection of strips originally appearing in The Guardian promises an abundance of both. Replete with funny (and sometimes disturbed) animals, literary commentary, and geeky references, all of Gauld’s books belong on the shelves of any self-respecting comics aficionado. This one is set to come out in late January or early February. Check out a preview of the book here, Gauld’s blog here, and his tumblr here.

Gould2

Steve Moore and Alan Moore, The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic (Top Shelf)

MooresSet to be released sometime in 2013, this 320-page hardcover tome is the work of comics luminaries Steve and Alan Moore, who also happen to be co-founders of the magic-performance-art-collective The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. This is not so much a comic book as a collection of tongue-in-cheek instructional essays and rainy-day activities by the two authors, no doubt lavishly illustrated by a number of Moore’s frequent artistic collaborators, including Colthart, Gebbie, and O’Neill. The promotional material promises that the book will “transform your lives, your reality, and any spare lead that you happen to have laying around into the purest and most radiant gold.” It looks like a lot of fun, and is frankly a more interesting release than February’s Nemo: Heart of Ice, the newest LoEG title, which you will no doubt all acquire in any case.

Dash Shaw, New School (Fantagraphics)

ShawOne of two new Dash Shaw titles to come out from Fantagraphics this year (the other being 3 New Stories), New School is a 300+ page original graphic novel with a release date in May. The book is the story of 20-something Danny who goes looking for his older brother Luke at the theme park ClockWorld, a place seemingly inspired by Jurassic Park, which is located on an isolated island and built around the recreation of historical events. In a brief interview on the Fantagraphics blog, Shaw stated that the work “is my most personal book. It’s all true (sort of). I dramatized and changed things to make everything closer to how it felt. The book took years of difficult work to make. Now I can’t wait to hold it in my hands!” Shaw’s work is usually hit-or-miss with me, but this one sounds intriguing.

Craig Thompson, Doot Doot (Top Shelf)

ThompsonInitially slated for a 2012 release but now pushed into 2013, this book is a collection of various bits and pieces (and “comics poems”) created by the productive and talented Craig Thompson. It includes his previous minicomics Doot Doot Garden and Bible Doodles, as well as a host of other published and unpublished material. While Thompson is probably better known for his long-form graphic novels, namely Blankets and Habibi, his shorter work is a nice departure from these complex narratives and usually offer a healthy dose of clever wit to boot. I expect this book to be a sure hit with existing fans. Read a short preview of the book here, and check out Thompson’s blog here.

Naoki Urasawa, 21st Century Boys vols. 1 and 2 (Viz Media)

UrasawaIf you thought Naoki Urasawa’s seinen epic (originally serialized in Big Comic Spirits) ended with last year’s volume 22, you would be …. well, I guess you would technically be right. But the storyline properly wraps up in this sequel, its two volumes set to be released in January and March respectively. I have yet to hear any word on a potential English release of the 2009 one-shot “Aozora Chu-Ihō,” credited to the in-universe pseudonym of Ujiko-Ujio, but it might be contained in the latter of the two volumes here. Regardless, those who made it through the previous 22 volumes of Urasawa’s brilliant (if at times overly protracted) series will no doubt want to pick up this epilogue.

The Manara Library vol. 4: The Adventures of Giuseppe Bergman and The Manara Library vol. 5: More Adventures of Giuseppe Bergman (Dark Horse)

Manara4Dark Horse continue their publication of these nice hardcover collections of Manara comics in 2013, with volume 4 coming out at the end of February and volume 5 scheduled for May. I’m quite ambivalent about Manara in general, and readily confess to disliking most of his self-authored stuff (Jog’s scorched earth-style take on Manara’s erotic work here articulates my own feelings better than I ever could). Even his oft-praised depiction of the female form puts me off somewhat – why is it that women of all ethnicities, when created by Manara’s pencil, always end up looking like Italians with different skin tones?Manara5 The two Manara comics that I do hold quite dear are The Ape (written by Silverio Piso and included in volume 3 of the library editions, the best so far) and the Giuseppe Bergman titles. Most of the latter stories seem to be collected in volumes 4 and 5, spanning chronologically from 1978′s HP e Giuseppe Bergman (featuring a loving caricature of Hugo Pratt) to 2004′s L’odissea di Bergman. The Bergman stories start out as clever deconstructions of the comics adventure genre, riffing on classic tropes and character archetypes, but in latter installments they increasingly take the form of trite euro-sleaze, as only Manara can produce it. The first of these two volumes, at least, should deserve a flip-through.

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Review: Holy Motors

Trois! Douze! Merde! 

HolyMotorsPosterThe above quote is from the film Holy Motors, specifically from the film’s intermission - essentially a short music video (inspired by OK Go’s now-classic This Too Shall Pass), in which the protagonist, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), performs a cover of R. L. Burnside’s Let my Baby Ride on accordion while walking through a medieval church with an ever-expanding ragtag orchestra following behind him. In many ways this short scene is characteristic of the film as a whole, presenting as it does a number of different cultural influences filtered through the distinct lens of director Léos Carax, set in a very Parisian setting, and with the extremely charismatic Lavant as the ever-present guiding light, his unmistakable yet ever-changing face squarely in the center of the picture. And, of course, someone loudly yells “merde” in the middle of the scene.

HolyMotors1What follows is a review of the film, if it is even possible to write an actual review of this crazy, beautiful, and incomprehensible piece of cinema. It is very hard to talk about Carax’ work without potentially spoiling parts of the experience, so really my main recommendation is this: Don’t read another word about Holy Motors. Don’t watch any trailers, teasers, or compilations. Just find a place that is showing it, and go watch it on the big screen. Then come back and read and talk about it all you want. Or maybe just ignore the chatter, and go watch the thing a second time instead. It is that good.

Holymotors2With the exception of a brief opening scene, involving an unnamed man waking up and walking into a movie theater in which an audience is watching the silent movie The Crowd, the film follows a single day in the life of the mysterious M. Oscar. He travels the streets of Paris in a white stretch limousine, with the chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob, of the 1960 French horror classic Les yeux sans visage) keeping him company and providing him with ongoing assignments from the Agency – ostensibly the organization behind all the charades, which is, of course, never explained fully or even partially. These assignments involves taking on the role of various characters and engaging in a wide range of activities, all centered around specific genres with their own tropes and narrative devices. Thus we see M. Oscar take the guise of a gangster, a female beggar, an elderly man on his deathbed, a down-on-his-luck dad, and even the bizzarre, subterranean creature of Merde (originally appearing in Carax’ segment of the anthology film Tokyo!). All of these different scenes (representing Oscar’s nine assignments) are seemingly independent from each other, tied together only by the presence of our protagonist. They are laced with cultural and cinematic references, subtly and not-so-subtly commenting on everything from the spectacle, beauty, and shallowness of the film industry to the nature of loneliness, identity, and life in modernity.

HolyMotors6What little plot there is to be found in Holy Motors is more like a thin red thread, tying together the disparate scenes by way of M. Oscar’s itinerary. We do get glimpses into the world of the performer and the agency that employs him (including a visit from one of its shadowy producers and a run-in with a fellow actor, played by Kylie Minogue), but anyone looking for an actual coherent narrative in the film will be sorely disappointed. Rather, what is offered is a visual and theatrical spectacle; a sly commentary, which relies heavily on the interpretation of its audience; and, perhaps above all, a powerful performance by Lavant that is not soon to be forgotten.

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Carax is a clever and talented director. His last outing was the 1999 shocker Pola X (based in part on Melville’s novel Pierre: or, The Ambiguities), one of the pioneers of what has since become known as the New French Extremism, but Holy Motors is an altogether more realized and artistic film. It recalls some of the sadness and beauty of Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (also starring Lavant), but leaves behind a lot of the painfully obvious influences of French New Wave, and of Goddard in particular, so visible in Cravax’ earlier work, replacing these with a much more direct and playful riffing on cinematic history, making this film in some ways the most mature piece from the filmmaker yet. In a 2009 interview with IndieWire’s Eric Hynes, Carax said that he was at once not a real filmmaker and the only filmmaker in the world:  “I feel that cinema is my country. But it’s not my business. I haven’t worked enough, and I don’t get along with people enough to make it my business.” That cinema is his country and film his native language is absolutely clear when watching Holy Motors. Here is hoping that we will not have to wait another decade or more for his next feature-length work.HolyMotors8

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