My Top Ten Comics of 2012

We’re back a bit earlier this year, so apologies to any groundbreaking comic that comes out of nowhere in the last two weeks of December and blows me away.  This marks the third time I’ve run this feature on my blog, which I guess makes it a tradition of sorts.  There’s been an interesting shift in the tides as far as my comic reading goes.  Last year I spoke of DC’s dominance in my reading list, but one year on and the new car smell has faded from much of DC’s New 52.  The very best of the bunch are still going strong, but my DC reading list has thinned considerably in 2012, with yet more titles still hovering on the precipice of being dropped.  Marvel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a slight resurgence, with me sampling and enjoying a few of the Marvel NOW! launches and jump-on points.  But the big story of this year for me has been Image, who have been on a real roll, launching intriguing new titles left and right throughout the year and enjoying perhaps their best year ever.  Taking everything into account, the field of contention for the year’s best comics is so strong that, as of the writing of this intro, there are several comics still in the running to claim the #10 spot.  One honourable mention that was incredibly close to inclusion on the list was Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic, one of the best debuts of the year.  The only thing holding it back from a top 10 inclusion was that, with only two issues released, I thought I needed to see more of the series before I could fairly judge its merits in the context of a whole year.  Maybe in the 2013 list! Will the New 52 debuts that leapt into the top 10 last year retain their placement on the list?  Will the mighty Scalped emerge as the winner for the third year in a row?  Read on and find out!

10.  FATALE

Fatale3aThe first Image comic to make the list, but not the last.  Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito.  After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next.  What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre.  Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc.  The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere.  The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her.  The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along.  It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell.  The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins.  Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.

9.  CHEW

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After dropping out of the list last year, Chew makes a return to the top ten.  There was never really any substantial drop in quality; this offbeat series about a near-future world populated by various strange and delightful characters with food-based powers has always remained a consistently fun read, but perhaps that made it easy to take for granted as shiny new titles vied for my attentions.  But with the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market.  Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying.  But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman.  With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare.  But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology.  We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half.  But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.

8.  WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN

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I’ll confess, I’m shamefully late to the Wolverine and the X-Men bandwagon.  I almost picked it up at the beginning.  But that was when my interest in Marvel was at its lowest ebb, and when DC’s New 52 was making big demands on my pull list, and one of my favourite writers, Jason Aaron, was launching two new Marvel titles – Wolverine and the X-Men and The Incredible Hulk – in the same week.  I didn’t want to add more than one new Marvel comic to my monthly reading list.  So I chose The Incredible Hulk.  Now, I quite enjoyed Aaron’s run with the Green Goliath, it had some engaging ideas behind it.  But based on the tidal wave of positive feedback I’d been hearing for Wolverine and the X-Men, I began to suspect I may have made the wrong choice.  My decision to sample issue #19, billed as the Marvel NOW! “jumping-on point” for new readers, confirmed it.  Fun and accessible – two words I haven’t typically associated with X-Men comics – the strength of the issue encouraged me to pick up the previous few issues at my LCS, which included Wolverine and the X-Men #17, the Doop issue drawn by Mike Allred, perhaps one of my favourite single comics of the year.  That sealed the deal.  I went back to the start, and have been gorging myself on collected editions and back issues to get caught up.  What I love about this series is that every character earns their place.  No one is here because they were popular during Claremont’s run or whatever.  This is an ensemble piece, and every character – be they student or teacher – has something to contribute.  Which brings me to perhaps my favourite aspect of the series: the return to the school dynamic, previously crucial to the appeal of the X-Men franchise, but all too often overlooked amidst the more general superheroics.  I might have been late to the party, but better late than never!

7.  SWEET TOOTH

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Much like Chew, Sweet Tooth is a series that has been consistently great each month since its beginning, but which slipped from my top ten last year, only to return to the rankings in 2012.  In the case of Sweet Tooth, the fresh burst of momentum has come from the title’s impending conclusion.  Over the course of this year, all the plot threads have been getting drawn together and paid off, with – as of the writing of this list – only one issue remaining before the whole series is wrapped up.  Jeff Lemire has been doing very well with his work in the DCU, but this post-apocalyptic drama about a young animal/human hybrid boy, a battle-hardened old man, and their travels through a wasteland ravaged by a global pandemic – both written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist – remains his best ongoing series.  And it’s a title that I feel has long been unfairly overlooked.  It is so well-crafted, filled with heart and characters you care about, and Lemire does some really interesting, ambitious things with his art, his layouts, and at times even the very structure of the comic itself.  I’ve talked a lot about what a void in my comics-reading life the end of Scalped will be, but I might be almost as sad to see Sweet Tooth go.  On the plus side, I’ll be first in line to check out Trillium, Jeff Lemire’s follow-up Vertigo project in 2013.

6.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic.  I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan.  I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold.  But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try.  I’m glad I did.  Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!”  And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal.  This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done.  I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive.  A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.

5.  SCALPED

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What’s this!?  Scalped at last toppled from the number one spot!?  I assure you, its lower placing on the list year is down to the insane quality of the comics above it, rather than any decline in the series itself, which came to an end this year.  The year in Scalped began with the dramatic conclusion to the “Knuckle Up” story, before segueing into “Trail’s End”, the final storyline that brought the saga’s major storylines to a head while still managing to leave a few tantalising loose ends dangling at the end.  This final victory lap made for some highly rewarding reading for loyal Scalped readers, as some of the catastrophic events we’ve been waiting to inevitably happen for years finally took place.  But even as the end drew near, Scalped never felt like it had checked out early.  “Trail’s End” immediately threw us off-kilter by picking up after a leap forward in time, with the status quo of several characters suddenly shifted and us left playing catch-up.  And from there, Jason Aaron steadily turned the screw and built up a sense of dread and uncertainty where, even right up to the last issue, we weren’t sure how it was all going to end, who would live and who would die.  There ended up being quite a few surprises with the way all that worked out.  And one of the biggest joys of Scalped this year is that, if I can recall, all the issues released in 2012 were drawn by the mighty R.M. Guera, who added so much to the rough, rugged aesthetic of the book.  It will be greatly missed, and my 2013 Top Ten Comics list will feel emptier for its absence, but Scalped has, for my money at least, cemented its status as one of the greatest comic books of all time.

4.  IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN

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There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain.  Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012.  Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn.  The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell.  By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year.  Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013.  I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns.  The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it.  If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list.  BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)

3.  BATMAN

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Last year I predicted that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s fantastic work on Batman would earn the comic a high placement on this year’s list, despite the book not placing in the 2011 top ten: I opted to go for Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics instead, since the Batman run had at that point just begun.  Sure enough, here it is.  In the intervening 12 months, Batman has emerged as unquestionably the crown jewel of the New 52, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality.  The Bat-titles are strong in general right now – I currently read and enjoy Batman & Robin, Detective Comics and Batman Inc – but Batman reigns supreme.  The year got off to a blistering start for the title, with Batman #5 soaring out of the gates as an early contender for the best single comic book of 2012, not to mention one of the best single issues of an ongoing Batman comic I’ve ever read.  Featuring Batman trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls and gradually losing his mind, with trippy, boundary-pushing artwork by Greg Capullo, this saw Batman pushed to the brink of defeat and despair in a way that shocked many readers.  This was the high watermark for the “Court of Owls” saga, and though it might have faltered slightly in the last chapter or two, for the most part “The Court of Owls” was a textbook example of how to tell a gripping, high-stakes Batman epic.  And now it looks like the all-star creative team is set to top it with “Death of the Family”, the currently-unfolding storyline featuring the hotly-anticipated return of The Joker.  Scott Snyder has done a stellar job of injecting a sense of genuine danger and peril into the “illusion of change” world of superhero comics, crafting nightmare scenarios where even jaded comics readers are left on the edge of their seats wondering how the hell Batman can possibly prevail.  And Greg Capullo is giving us perhaps the finest work of his celebrated career.  If Batman can maintain this dizzyingly high standard, I fully expect it to rank highly on next year’s list as well.

2.  SAGA

Saga4aIt has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is.  I’ve read the first issue several times now.  I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1.  Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad.  Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come.  The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics.  Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest.  But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before.  No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels.  But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest.  And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!?  Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012.  As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium.  So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm.  This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others.  When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void.  I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.

1.  THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list.  Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it.  It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed.  Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites.  So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year.  And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book.  It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart.  While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images.  Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting.  I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment.  And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia.  Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story.  But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart.  Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale.  I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics.  But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.

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REVIEW: The Underwater Welder

I’ve already gushed at length many a time about my love for the work of Jeff Lemire in the past, so I don’t need to take up another whole opening paragraph telling you all how great the Canadian cartoonist is.  You’re fellows of good taste, I’m sure, so you already know this.  But it’s because of my appreciation of Jeff Lemire – particularly when he’s both writing and drawing his own creator-owned work – that had me ranking The Underwater Welder as one of my most anticipated comics of 2012 from as soon as I heard about it.  This is Lemire’s first work for Top Shelf since the completion of his masterpiece, the seminal Essex County.  So, my expectations were high going into this latest original graphic novel.  But those lofty expectations were met, perhaps even exceeded, by a comic that most definitely ranks among the year’s best.

In his introduction to The Underwater Welder, Damon Lindelof describes the book as “the most spectacular episode of The Twilight Zone that was never produced.”  He hits the nail right on the head with that summary, but I almost wish he hadn’t written it, because it does leave you expecting things to go in a Twilight Zone direction.  Without the context of that introduction, we’re presented with a slice of small-town human drama, not unlike Essex County, where the weirdness starts to creep in by degrees.

But let’s not get into that weirdness, I’ll let you discover it for yourself.  What lies at the core of this immersive tale and gets us emotionally invested is the empathy generated for our protagonist, Jack Joseph.  As you might have guessed from the title, Jack is an underwater welder.  His wife is heavily pregnant, with the birth of his first child rapidly approaching, but he’s still haunted by the disappearance at sea of his father back when he was a child.  These massive events of past and future impact on his present, where Jack has to make one last deep-sea expedition before he takes his paternity leave.  And that’s where things start to take a turn for the strange.  Lemire plays it well, maintaining a degree of ambiguity to leave us questioning whether what Jack is experiencing is a product of his own strained mental state, or something more.  He also skillfully walks a fine line between making Jack a deeply flawed character, but still a highly sympathetic figure who we care about.

But as quietly gripping as the writing is, it’s Lemire’s art that really elevates The Underwater Welder.  Lemire’s unusual character designs might not immediately appeal to everyone, but once your eye is tuned you’ll be able to appreciate the beauty of Lemire’s increasingly ambitious layouts.  From the well-realised landscapes of a small Nova Scotia fishing commuity, to the eerie serenity of the deep waters below the oil rig, to the subtle character dynamics exchanged between Jack and his wife Susan, this is a tale where what is seen has just as much (if not more) impact than what is said.  Indeed, Lemire has enough confidence in his visual storytelling to go for extended periods with no dialogue at all, letting his powerfully crafted images do the talking.

With its black-and-white Lemire art, and with the themes of life in a small community and the relationships between fathers and sons, The Underwater Welder is very much a spiritual successor to Essex County.  In some ways, it feels like a progression from that book, demonstrating how Jeff Lemire has grown a creator in the intervening time: the artwork is tighter, more refined, and the inclusion of greyscale in the underwater sequences adds an increased sense of texture.  But still, Essex County has the edge.  While this is also an emotionally engaging story, it doesn’t quite match the devastating, emotionally exhausting power of Essex County.  However, one could make a compelling argument that it’s Lemire’s best work since Essex County.

I loved this book.  As soon as I finished reading it, I immediately wanted to read it again.  I fear that my review hasn’t really done it justice, as I’ve just gushed rather than really going into detail, but I think the specifics of the graphic novel are something you need to discover for yourself.  Hopefully my recommendation is enough to convince you to give it a try.  The Underwater Welder instantly shoots to the top of my “best of the year” considerations, and once it’s had a little more time to percolate in my mind, it might end up making a dent in my “best of all time” rankings as well.  A must read.

The Underwater Welder is available from all good comic stores.

REVIEW: Lost Dogs

As anyone familiar with my ramblings will probably know, I am a huge fan of Jeff Lemire.  I first became aware of the Canadian cartoonist with the launch of his Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, which continues to be one of the best titles on the shelves each month.  Animal Man is one of the crown jewels of DC’s New 52.  Underwater Welder is perhaps my most anticipated upcoming book of this year.  And Essex County, Lemire’s masterpiece, stands as one of my all-time favourite comics.  So I was very excited to hear the news that Top Shelf would also be re-releasing Lost Dogs, Jeff Lemire’s earliest published work, originally circulated through a small press run and then discontinued, never to be seen again for years.  I had heard of this graphic novel, but never thought I’d have the chance to read it.  But here it is, repackaged with a snazzy new cover and relettered by Chris Ross, all for a bargain price.  If, like me, you’re a Jeff Lemire fan, this is surely an essential purchase.

Reading Lost Dogs, I was put in mind of Following, Christopher Nolan’s first film.  Not because the narrative is remotely similar, but both are an example of a beginner’s effort, rough around the edges and nowhere near as polished and refined as their creator’s later work, but with flashes of the brilliance and that unique authorial vision that would flourish in later projects with the benefit of greater experience.  Arguably the most fascinating part of the whole book is Lemire’s foreword, which eloquently explains how Lost Dogs stands as a document of Lemire’s life at that particular moment in time.

As far as the graphic novel itself goes, it’s very raw.  The art, while still recognisable as Lemire’s style, is not so refined.  It appears as if Lemire eschewed pencils altogether in favour of thick inks, and the result is a muddy, messy aesthetic.  But that perhaps works out nicely, as this is a muddy, messy story.  It does play out a bit like a fable, and the abstract style gives everything a dreamlike quality, albeit a terrifying fever dream.

But the visuals here are very much a crude work-in-progress, and Lemire does stumble in places while trying to find his artistic voice.  For example, there are some points where the 12-16 panel grids often employed in the story work very well, such as when our nameless protagonist’s memories torment him in a bombardment of snapshots of happier times, interlaced with a bleaker present.  But there are other moments – such as during a fight scene – where they just leave the page feeling cramped and unclear.  But even amidst these early growing pains, there are some splash pages where Lemire crafts images of haunting, ethereal beauty, the kind of moments Lemire’s art now has a reputation for capturing masterfully.

The story, what there is, revolves around a hulking giant of a man whose life is racked with tragedy, who finds himself forced to reinvent himself as a bare-kuckle boxer to help a desperate old man.  It’s a simple story and a quick read, but it’s packed with raw emotion.  Though he says very little, with most of his dialogue saved for the end of the story, the gentle giant at the heart of the story could be one of Lemire’s finest creations, challenging our expectations of what a character like him is going to be, and giving the narrative heart.  This is a bleak, tragic tale, and not in the bittersweet sense of Essex County.  It takes some doing to make one of the most beautifully melancholy comics ever feel upbeat by comparison, but the unrelenting nastiness and misery depicted here just about does it.  It’s not an easy read, but get to the end and you’ll find that the story will stick with you long after you’ve closed the book.

I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire.  But I’ve also become a big fan of creator-owned comics, and discovering some of the emerging talent of tomorrow.  It was a fascinating experience getting to go back and read Lost Dogs, and see one of the best in the industry right now at a stage when he was still learning his craft.  It made me think that right now, the likes of Mark Bertolini, Paul Allor, Magnus Aspli, Gordon McLean, Iain Laurie, Fabian Rangel Jr et al are creating their Lost Dogs, finding their voice, and in the not so distant future we could see them break out.  There’s something exciting about seeing a creator’s first steps to greatness.  And so I’m very grateful that I finally got the opporunity to read Lost Dogs.

Lost Dogs is available now in all good comic book shops.

Yes, Essex County IS Literature


One of the big stories circulating around the comic news and blogosphere this week is the elmination of Essex County, Jeff Lemire’s excellent graphic novel, from CBC’s Canada Reads contest.  Charged this year with finding “the essential Canadian novel of the decade”, hundreds of novels were voted on by the public, with the top ten then being narrowed down to five by a panel of five celebrity judges, each choosing one of the ten novels to personally champion.  Indie music star Sara Quin chose Essex County, making it the first ever graphic novel to make it to the long-running contests’ top five shortlist.  Before going any further, I should take the time to say that this alone is a major achievement on Jeff Lemire’s part, and the success – and hopefully, the recognition it will bring – is richly deserved.

However, once the decision-making got taken out of the hands of the reading public, and into the hands of a small group of largely middle-aged panelists, it got a sound trouncing, denigrated and dismissed over the course of the first televised debate, before ultimately getting eliminated in the first round of voting 4-1.  Tellingly, the studio audience booed at this decision, and reportedly there was a lengthy debate after the show stopped recording between the audience and the panelists over the book’s ejection from the running.

Some of the judges seemed almost reluctant to cast off Essex County.  Ali Velshi, probably the most eloquent of all the panelists, admitted that going in, upon first hearing the shortlist, he was determined to vote out Essex County on the very principle of it being a graphic novel, until he actually read the book (his first graphic novel, he claims not to know what the term meant before reading it) and found himself won over and torn over whether or not to keep it in the running.  Lorne Cardinal, meanwhile, claims that the characters in the novel connected with him more than any of the other novels in the shortlist outside his own pick, and his decision to eliminate it was based more on format than content.

But the novel’s most stubborn detractor throughout the debates was Debbie Travis, who said that calling Essex County an essential novel would be like claiming that tweeting 140 characters made you a writer, that the graphic novel format was a “shortcut” to proper storytelling, and that classifying it as literature would be “dumbing down” the very concept of the word.  Debbie kept on talking over Sara and missed the point, but Sara made a quality rebuttal to this when she asked if going to an art gallery and studying the paintings to draw meaning from looking at images was an act of “dumbing down”.  Though the panel ignored the point, the audience responded with applause.

Debbie Travis said that she read Essex County inside an hour and a half, that she could just flip through the pages and the whole thing went by in a flash.  But I’d say that says more about shortcomings on her part than on the part of the graphic novel format.  I could skim through a prose novel too, picking up the general gist of what was going  on, but not really letting the words sink in or comprehending all the depth and nuance.  Same goes for a novel with pictures in it as well as just words.  If you’re only reading the words in Essex County, then yes, it’ll be a quick read.  But the images are packed with so much depth, emotion and meaning, that not taking the time to dwell on them means you’re only reading half the book, if even that.

And while we’re on  this subject of format, and whether the graphic novel format should disqualify a novel like Essex County from being classified as literature, let’s think about it a bit more.  Are we suggesting that this format of the prose novel is the only one capable of being classified as literature?  What about Shakespeare?  He’s probably the figure most classically associate with high literature (“It ain’t Shakespeare”, etc.) but his works are not novels, but rather plays, documents with stage directions originally meant for directors and actors rather than a wide reading audience.  Furthermore, these were plays originally performed in London’s Globe Theatre in front of rowdy, drunk, screaming crowds, with fights breaking out on the floor in front of the performers and prostitutes mingling  amidst the audience offering their  services for after-theatre entertainment.  The works of Shakespeare, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, George Bernard Shaw’s Man & Superman, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus… all plays that I studied at Honours level at Glasgow University in an English LITERATURE course.  Art can be populist, and it can come from humble, even derided origins, and I’d say it’s only a matter of time before more people start acknowledging comics as a legitimate form of literature too.

At one point in the debate, Lorne Cardinal says, “Making words and stories, making you think, that’s what literature should be, it should be a way to make people think of things they don’t normally.”  A fair assessment of what literature is.  And I believe that, if these judges were able to set aside their own prejudices against the format, they would accept that there’s no reason a graphic novel can’t fit under such a definition.  Rather than taking something away from this experience, the inclusion of images acting in conjunction with words can enhance the power of the reading experience.  Jeff Lemire’s Essex County is poignant, heartbreaking, powerful literature, and it deserves to be recognised as such.