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19 March 2010

Favorite comics, cartoonists and stuff of 2009.

Yes. I realize this is months late. I'm usually sick of reading year end best lists by Thanksgiving. I started writing this around Thanksgiving and I've been meaning to post this for a while but, I've been very busy.
I read a lot of great stuff in 2009. Some of it I even reviewed here. Let me just take a second to say that if you gave me stuff in 2009 (or 2008) that has not yet been reviewed then I apologize. 2009 was a challenging year. (For a lot of us.) I will still review everything I've been sent as soon as time allows.
Every time I do one of these things I preface it by saying that I don't think the word "best" has any place in art criticism. I of course use it. I used it a while back when I tweeted what I thought was the "best" graphic novel of the decade. (Louis Riel.) I use it in part as a kind of short hand to save the time of going into my whole philosophy of art criticism and in part as concession to the fact that I'll never get the rest of the world to stop using it any faster than I'll get the rest of the world to realize that 2009 was not actually the last year of the decade. (Or that 2000 was not the first. But alas I live in a world where everyone else apparently has eleven fingers and counts to ten by going zero, one, two, three ... ten. Oh well. You can't have it all. Press on.)

I want to do things a little different this year. Sure I'll tell you what my favorite stuff was but rather than just focus on a list of products I want to talk about a few creators whom I think had a strong year. I think that one thing that has become apparent in 2009 is that the comics game has officially changed and won't go backwards. No one just makes strips, or minicomics, or webcomics anymore. Minicomics guys post their stuff on the web. Webcomics guys collect their stuff into minis. Cartoonists make prints, t-shirts, animation, toys etc. Cartoonists blog, and tweet and update and podcast and all kinds of things. Some of them even review cartoon and hillbilly themed food stuffs. To just name a bunch of products I enjoyed from the year does not really sum it up anymore. I can't possibly talk about all the stuff I liked but I can talk about a few of the folks I liked. So without further ado and in no particular order...

Minicomics and Webcomics
Patrick Dean.
I'll talk about Mr. Dean first because if I was forced to name one minicomic as my favorite of 2009 it would probably be his book Knocked 'Em. The way I calculate which minicomic is my favorite is just by thinking back and figuring out which one I picked up the most and thought about the most. Dollar for dollar it is just a great buy. The art is fantastic. The story is fun. It's a great big huge art object. This book more than any of his others really showcases all the element's of Dean's drawing that makes his stuff so much fun for me.
Patrick also had strong comics in a couple of anthologies this year including the excellent Fluke Anthology which of course is associated with the Fluke comics fest in Athens of which Dean is an organizer. Dean has also posted a ton of comics on his blog. His comics blog has become one of my favorites.
Patrick Dean links you should check out:
My review of Knocked Em'.
Patrick Dean's comics blog.

Josh Latta.
I could have just as easily called Josh Latta's Redskin Rashy my favorite book of 2009 but I'll give Knocked 'Em a slight advantage for being a more ambitious art object (and partially because I called the last Rashy book my favorite of 2008). If you want to know what I think a minicomic should look and feel like then get a copy of Redskin Rashy. The cartooning and storytelling are excellent. The story is fun. The characters are great. The production is precise. Redskin Rashy was published by Wide Awake Press and that means J. Chris Campbell helped with the book design and production. There is nothing crazy or gimmicky about the design and production. It's just good. Very good. It just looks right and feels right. It's what a good minicomic should be.
Latta's blog is also a must read. He posts custom avatars commissioned from his customers/fans. They are usually hilarious. A bunch of them were collected in another great looking minicomic from WAP. Latta's blog also offers some great reviews of everything from french comics to cartoon candy and hillbilly soft drinks. Latta also had a really great comic in WAP's FCBD anthology which you can read here. Latta is also one of the two best facebook/twitter status updaters on teh intronets.
Josh Latta links you should check out:
My review of Redskin Rashy.
Josh Latta tweets.
Josh Latta Flickrs.
The fuo interview with Josh Latta.

Dustin Harbin.
Despite having been in the same place at the same time as "Dharbin" several times over the past few years I have tragically never managed to come home with his comics. I have read a lot of his comics online though. 2009 saw Harbin post a lot of great comics on his Dharblog under the Dharbin strip name. Harbin adds a new strip each week. (Sort of.) His strips are usually one full page of comics with occasional multi-part stories. The subject matter is whatever he felt like drawing that week. Sometimes auto-bio. Sometimes historical. Sometimes literary adaptations. Sometimes simple nutt and fart jokes. He is bravely trying everything and pushing himself to be better. Week to week you can watch the cartoonist grow and try to find his voice. It's a welcome rarity in comics. What I see in most webcomics is that the creators put their strip out there and define what it will be from the start and seldom seem to grow or change. They seem to set up rules about what their strip will be and are then confined by them. I call it the style cage. They try to find a comfortable (or at least marketable) style and lock themselves into it and it becomes a cage that limits their potential. Harbin seems to have gone in the opposite direction. His only rule seems to be to challenge himself. (Josh Latta is another example of avoiding that style cage by allowing his style to change from issue to issue.)
If you go to Harbin's strip page and read the comics from oldest to newest you can watch him refine his craft from page to page. He also posts sketches, commissions, a book club and random bloggy type things on the blog. Taken as a whole, the Dharblog experience is like watching a cartoonist study and experiment with what it is to be a cartoonist and he welcomes you along for the ride.
And, when Harbin is not busy with all of that, he helps organize the last great American comics show.
Dustin Harbin related links you should check out:
Dharbin's diary comics on Flickr.
Dharbin's comics strips.
Dharbin's blog.

Julia Wertz.

Wertz's Fart Party webcomic has been one of my favorites but seems to be all but dead now as she moves on to bigger things. Still, as far as 2009 goes it was one of my favorites. As far as diary/auto-bio comics go, Wertz's might be the funniest. I don't think I've ever held any of her books or minicomics in hand but I've read some great samples online.
Julia Wertz links you should check out:
Fart Party.

James Kochalka

I don't think I read any new paper comics from Kochalka in 2009 but American Elf continues to be one of the only webcomics I read on a daily basis. I've read it every day for years now and I still look forward to it.
James Kochalka links you should check out:
American Elf.
Glorkian Warrior.

J. Chris Campbell
As the main man behind Wide Awake Press, J. Chris Campbell was involved with the design and production of some of the best minicomics I read in 2009. Campbell co-edited the Fluke Anthology with Brad McGinty. That book is one of the better looking minicomics I've seen is was my favorite anthology minicomic from 2009. Campbell and WAP also put out a Free Comic Book Day online anthology called The Ancient Age and a Michael Jackson tribute comic called Off The Wall which both included some fantastic comics. Campbell's own comics were strong in both of the mentioned anthologies and he put out at least one new minicomic of his own. Campbell has made a lot of cool minicomic over the past few years. I think I have most of them and I keep planning to do a big write up covering all of them as soon as I have time. Many of Campbell's minis are pocket sized. I love pocket sized minicomics. They are a lot harder to make than you might think. I see a lot of them where it is obvious the creator did not take the size into account when they laid out the book and did the lettering because the the things are hard to read. Campbell however has the pocket sized mini down to a science. Lights Out from 2009 is a good example of his pocket sized minis. Nice full color card stock cover. One panel per page layout. Cool character design. Funny dialog. Just plain cool. In a perfect world I would be able to buy a new little mini like this at the check out counter of my nearest gas station every week.
J. Chris Campbell links you should check out:
Main site.
Wide Awake Press.
Off The Wall.
Ancient Age.
My review of Fluke 2009.

Ed Choy Moorman
Since I started file under other I get a lot of packages in the mail but few of them get me as excited as the ones that feature Ed Moorman's return address. This year Moorman sent me two of my favorite minicomics of the year. Dark Cloud Comin' and The Love Song of Kermit the Frog. Dark Cloud Comin' shows Moorman pushing his cartooning chops. It is a Miyazaki styled fantasy adventure with a lot of room for Moorman to show off his range. It looks beautiful and it is a fun read but it lacks some of the emotional weight his other comics have. That can be explained away in part because most of his comics are auto-bio and this is fiction but I think the real difference is that his auto-bio stuff feels like stories that he had to tell where Dark Cloud Comin' fells a bit like an exercise. Still, as far as exercises go, Moorman nails it. The Love Song of Kermit the Frog is a collection of Muppet themed comics. There are auto-bio bits as well as a semi historical bit on Jim Hensen. What's nice about the Hensen story is that it feels as real and personal as the auto-bio stuff. It's a beautiful little comic. Maybe I'm just a sap that loves Muppets but there is a sequence where Hensen is learning of his brother's death off panel and Moorman shows a lifeless un-maned Kermit puppet in panel. It is simple but it is powerful. Some spots in the book feel rushed and you can see the artist testing the waters and trying to find his voice. But when he nails it, he's scary good.
Moorman also had comics in some of my favorite anthology books of the year but I'll get to those later in this post.
As a side note: I also love that one of Moorman's packages came with a hand written thank you note that was written on the back of what appears to be an Art History class assignment. I get to read about half of one of Moorman's answers to a question about the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late nineteenth century. Awesome.
Ed Choy Moorman links you should check out:
Main site.

Sally Bloodbath
Sally Bloodbath makes a lot of great minicomics, shows up in anthologies and edits the always good Always Comix. I really enjoyed the comics she posted on her web blog live journal thingy in 2009. Her auto bio stuff is as good as any I've seen in the past couple of years. Her drawing and storytelling chops have gotten really strong over the past year or so. It reminds me a bit of Julie Doucet which is about as nice a thing as I can possibly say.
Sally Bloodbath links you should check out:
Live Journal.
Always Comics.

Michael Kupperman
Kupperman is the other half of my two best facebook/twitter status updates on teh intronet. Oh, and he makes really good comics too. Teh intronets was made better in 2009 by his Here Comes Madness blog and Snake N' Bacon cartoons.
Michael Kupperman links you should check out:
Here Comes Madness
Snake N' Bacon

Rene Engstrom
I've talked before about how Anders Loves Maria is one of my favorite web comics. Sadly, the story is now complete so I guess we won't be seeing any new pages. On the bright side, now that it is complete, you can read the whole thing from the beginning. I plan too.
Rene Engstrom links you should check out:
Anders Loves Maria
Live Journal.

Kate Beaton
Most of the funniest and most interesting comic strips I read in 2009 were on Kate Beaton's blog. I'm not smart enough to explain why Beaton's comics are so funny but I'll give it a shot. They have the spontaneous irreverence of comics you would draw and pass around in 11th grade English/Lit class and the sophistication of comics I'm not classy enough to actually read.
Kate Beaton links you should check out:
Hark a Vagrant
T-shirts and such

Megan Rose Gedris
I think I mentioned Yu + Me Dream on my best of list last year. It's one of the few strips that remains in my blog reader thing. It does not always make a lot of sense to me but it is always lovely to look at. Her ability to shift gears and change styles for each part of the story is astounding to me.
Megan Rose Gedris links you should check out:
Yu + Me Dream
Lesbian Pirates From Outer Space

Brad McGinty
I've talked a lot about my pal Brad's stuff here at file under other. I think Brad only put out two new minicomics in 2009 so that is kind of a down year for him but when you combine those with the pages posted on his Paper Pusher blog and all the pages he had in various anthologies it's a very impressive stack of comics. Brad's story (with Cate Bosserman) in the WAP Ancient Age anthology showed some fantasticly brutal action. His piece in the Fluke Anthology which he co-edited showed some fantastic cartooning chops. His random strips on Paper Pusher showed his shoot-coffee-out-your-nose-ha-ha-funny wackiness. (Some of which are collected in the lovey full color minicomic Tobey Maguire Comics and Stories published by WAP. Yeah, that J. Chris Campbell guy. Again.) Brad also found the time in 2009 to make a whole bunch of awesome cartoons. Brad does most of the writing, animation and voices in these things. It's really amazing. People that have money need to wake up and start throwing it at this guy. My only fear is that one day he'll be too busy blowing his cartoon millions to make any more comic strips.
Brad McGinty links you should check out:
Paper Pusher
Ancient Age

T. Avery
Way back in September I started a review of T. Avery's most recent Dirthead collections but my life spiraled out of control and I never got it finished. The Dirthead books are collections of webcomics. Like most webcomic collections, attention to the printing of the minicomic version is mostly an after thought. I seldom see webcomics collected as minicomcis where the finished project stands out as a great looking book or art object. But, I really do enjoy the quality of the comics themselves both in the collections and on Avery's website. Avery's drawing style is much closer to the illustration style of comics I grew up with than the Disney knock off style I see in the majority of webcomics. Avery's characters look, move and act much more like real people than the over the top chariactures I see in most webcomics. That's not to say that I don't like the over the top cartoony stuff. I actually love it. But for what Avery is doing here, a more reserved style is not only appropriate but refreshing. These comics are really all about the dialog. Avery's dialog is very real and honest. The cast is pretty big and each character speaks with his or her own voice. That is impressive to me. Some of my favorite writers can't seem to figure out how to keep all their characters from speaking with the writer's voice. (Or maybe they just don't realize they are doing it?) In Avery's comics each character is their own person with their own life and little ongoing story points. And all this in a strip format without it turning into ongoing soap opera. It's a nice balance I don't see in a lot of ongoing webcomics. Especially with a cast as big as this.
T. Avery links you should check out:
Cheating At Solitaire

Minicomic Anthologies

So, have I mentioned that Fluke Anthology from 2009? It's great. I have to put out the disclaimer that I am actually in the book but I promise you I would love it either way. Its' a great looking book with lots of great comics and is about as well made as a minicomic can be. Editors J. Chris Campbell and Brad McGinty along with all their WAP pals did a great job putting it together. You can watch them make it here. You can read more about it here.

Pinstriped Bloodbath is another great minicomics anthology. Like the Fluke book, this one has a really clever cover design. The cover opens up like a suit jacket. It might be the coolest looking minicomic from 2009. Even without the gimmick it's a great looking cover design that suits the gangster theme of the comics. The book is edited by and contains some comics by the always great Jeff Zwirek. My favorite story in the book was Change Your Name by Sam Sharpe.

Random non-minicomic stuff I liked in 2009:

I've talked about 2D Cloud books here before. Specifically the Good Minnesotan minicomic anthology. The third Good Minnesotan volume the 2D Cloud gang grew the series into a full trade paperback. It is a fantastic looking book with quality and content comparable to Fantagraphic's Mome series. It is a really solid anthology with material ranging from the cute the disturbing. This is another book with a great comic by Ed Moorman. The cover by Nicholas Breutzman is one of the better looking covers I can think of in recent memory. 2D Cloud also published a really great graphic novel called Yearbooks. The book is drawn by Nicholas Breutzman, written by Nicholas Breutzman and Shaun Feltz and features some wonderful coloring by Raighne Hogan. Its a beautifully produced book. The color pages are so vibrant it feels like you are holding and original water color painting. I had to double check a few times to see if the page was still wet. The story is a kind of Charles Burns/David Lynch high school anxiety study. The story telling ranges from straight forward narrative to stream of conciousness. The art also meanders a bit from the straightforward Daniel Clowes school to a loose sketchbook style. Each change feels appropriate for that moment in the story and is true to the highschool notebook feel of the story. The book shows a lot of range in storytelling, art and production. A very impressive book from a small press team that seems to grow by amazing leaps and bounds every six months or so.

Speaking of Mome. I ended up buying the Winter 2009 volume of Mome. It came out in winter of 2008, which is confusing, but I read it in winter 2009 because the cover told me to. I liked most of it. I can't decide if I like the Dash Shaw bit or not. I should like it. It is the exact kind of sci-fi stuff I love. Like TXH 1138 or Solaris. But, for some reason, I felt I had to force my way through it. Maybe it's the sixteen panel per page format? I loved the Josh Simmons' piece. Open letter to comics publishers; If you put Josh Simmons in your book I will buy or steal a copy.

Ghost Stories. Have I ever mentioned Ed Moorman you guys? Besides making his own comics, Moorman edited a benefit anthology called Ghost Stories. Not only that but he managed to land a Xeric grant for the thing. I really enjoyed the book. It's a thick anthology with a lot of contributors so there were bound to be some misses but most the stories are hits. Some of my favorite folks are in it and some people I had not heard of like Evan Palmer, Sean Lynch and Lucy Knisley won me over. At just $10 it is a great value.

Another anthology I enjoyed was side B: the music lover's comics anthology. I talked about it a while back. It is a book I've gone back to several times to revisit certain great little stories. It is one of the more successful theme anthologies I can think of. Oh, and it has that Ed Moorman guy in it too.

Comics are expensive and I don't buy a lot of original graphic novels but I did like the original The Surrogates miniseries enough to buy The Surogates: Flesh and Bone the first time I laid eyes on it. In the spirit of full disclosure, the author of the book, Robert Venditti, is a pal of mine but I honestly did love the first series and thought that Flesh and Bone was at least as good if not better. I think Venditti's writing is sharper in this and Bret Weldele's art and storytelling are stronger and more effective. The only edge the first series might have over Flesh and Bone is that the original had a more visually prominant villain with the robot Steeplejack character. But this is a prequel and you are seeing robot technology devlep so it would have been really cheap for Venditti to force the characer into this book. Flesh and Bone came out around the same time that the movie of the first version came out. While the book and the movie did get their fair share of press in the comics community, I feel like the quality of Flesh and Bone got lost in the movie hype and a lot of people might have over looked this book. I don't like to tell anyone how to spend their money but if you like sci-fi and mystery then you probably need to check out both of The Surrogates graphic novels. There is not a doubt in my mind that if you like the Ellis and Templesmith book Fell, then you are going to love The Surrogates. Weldele and Templesmith both have styles that I did not quite know what to make of at first but I've become a big fan of both. Weldele and Venditti both look to have a lot of exciting projects coming out in the near future. You should check out thier sites here and here.

My pal Jeremy Massie also had a graphic novel out in 2009. The Deadbeat collects what was originally a series of minicomics I talked about here and here at file under other. It's a great looking little graphic novel. Close to manga format in size. The story reads great as one book. The comic had the look and wacky fun of a super hero romp but the twist is that it is actually a quality drama. Massie's cartooning chops are strong but I'm most impressed by the writing. Especially for a first book. The book is very affordable and worthy of picking up for repeat readings. Massie has a lot of interesting stuff in the works and you can check it out on his blog.

Another book I bought was The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb. The world's greatest living cartoonist adapts Genesis. I'm a big fan of both Crumb and the Bible so, yeah, I was sold on this the first time I heard about several years ago. There is not a lot to say about it. It is what it is. R. Crumb does Genesis. It's a rare miraculous thing where fans of a creator anticipate and talk about a work for years and when it comes out it actually lives up to expectations. Almost everything you could say about this book was already said before the book came out. Imagine if The Phantom Menace had lived up to the expecations of Star Wars fans. What would they have done with themselves? They would have seen the thing and walked out and said, wow, that certainly is a Star Wars movie. So, that's about all I can think of to say about Crumb's Genesis. Wow, that certainly is R. Crumb doing the Book of Genesis. The only thing that surprised me about the book is how the art seems to get better from chapter to chapter. For one thing, I did not hink Crumb could get better. Another thing is that if I were to expect any quality change I would expect it to be that the art would deteriorate toward the end of the book as the artist loses some steam. But this is the opposite. The last chapters about Joseph are just plain gorgeous. I think it might be the best art of Crumb's career. Or at least the best I'm familiar with.

I don't read a lot of mainstream comics. It's not that I don't like them. I like big dumb super hero comics just fine and even more I love going to comic book shops and buying them. The main thing keeping me from being the mainstream floppy pamphlet funny cook eficianado that I once was is the price. Comics are rediculously reaking expensive. But still. I read a few. I really liked Wednesday Comics. I like the idea, I like the format but most of all I like Paul Pope and Kyle Baker. Let me make this very clear to any mainstream publishing folks that may read this. If you put Paul Pope or Kyle Baker in your comics there is a much better chance I might buy them. I also loved, loved, loved the Kamandi story by Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook. That Kamandi story got me as excited about reading comics as just about anything I've read in the past fifteen years.
I also liked the Strange Tales book Marvel put out. It had Paul Pope in it. Again, if you put Paul Pope in your comics there is a much better chance I might buy them.

The absolute best non-Paul Pope, Kyle Baker or Kamandi mainstream comic series I read in 2009 was Supergirl Cosmic Adventures in the Eight Grade. Love that comic. Wish it had not just been a mini series. I also like the Johnny DC Batman The Brave and the Bold, Tiny Titans and Super Friends books. The Johnny DC line knows how to make good comics. Pay attention everyone else!

What little money I do have to spend on superhero comics is spent mostly on the Marvel Essential and the DC Showcase Presents lines. For me it'a all about the value for the dollar and you can't beat the Essential and Showcase books. Yeah, the don't have color but color is for suckers. I'm pretty sure color comics cause cancer and should be avoided as much as possible. This past year I enjoyed the Challengers of the Unknown, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Captain America and Daredevil books. Great comics by some of the best folks that ever made comics.

I also buy the occasional Archie digest at the local grocery store. I don't live near a comic shop so the Archie books are the only comics I see on a regular basis. Well, the grocery store does stocks some Marvel comics but they cost an insane amount of money and flat out suck. They are ugly and they don't make any sense. (I looked at this one Mark Millar Avengers thing at the grocery store and it had this sequence of pictures, notice I did not call it a story, about how the Red Skull is Captain America's son and he carves his own face off because, ya know, that's what kids shopping for comics at the grocery stores want, stories about guys carving their own faces off. Gah!) The Archies are pretty good though. I get them for my daughter and we both enjoy them. She prefers the double digests. Lots of reading material and variety for a small price. I even like the new look stories that a lot of people have trashed on teh intronets. I would prefer if they did not use the word realistic when talking about the art style. It's not realistic, it's just different. I don't have any problems with them mixing up the art and going off model. As long as they don't abandon the past. Which, they haven't. The digest books offer a good variety of stuff from the past fifty or so years.

TV Cartoons:
Oh man I loves me some cartoons. I've said it before and I'll say it again; we are in the golden age of the television cartoon. Yeah, I know there will never be anything like the collective goodness of every kid on earth watching Saturday Morning Cartoons at the same time but we have so many choices now. Nick, Nicktoons, Disney, Disney XD, Cartoon Network etc. My faves are still Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Star Wars: Clone Wars. Those two shows are too good for TV. We don't deserve shows that good. We should be ashamed of ourselves for alowing ourselves to watch them. I also like Flapjack, Chowder, Phineas and Pherb, Spectacular Spider-Man, Wolverine and the X-Men, Spongebob, Ben 10... I could go on. Lots of great shows. Marvel's Super Hero Squad thing is weird but occasionally funny. It does not seem to have anything to do with the comic characters. It's basically a bunch of pre-schoolers dressed up as Marvel characters living in a city where Stan Lee is mayor. I reckon that's as good an idea for a cartoon as any. My daughter thinks it's funny so I guess Marvel knows what they are doing. I hope Squad, Spidey and Wolverine survive the Disney takeover. And since I'm talking cartoons, my three year old's favorite show is Max and Ruby.

As far as TV shows with people in them go, No Reservations is still my fave.
Movies: I like movies plenty but I don't get to see too many of them. I saw exactly one movie at a theater in 2009. I took my daughter to see Hotel For Dogs. It was pretty good. Nickelodeon's live action movies are usually pretty good. So there ya go, Hotel For Dogs was the best movie of 2009. Suck on that Avatar!
See you in 2010!
Oh, right, 2010 is about a quarter of the way over with. Good times.

Your best pal ever,
Shannon Smith

p.s. Don't forget to follow file under other on teh twidder.

p.p.s This article is going to have lot of spleeling errorers in it beecuza blogger's spell checker apparently thinks that working is for suckers. Oh, and cuz I can't spell.

p.p.p.s. Please feel free to use the comments section to let me know what you think of these choices and to tell me about the many other books I probably missed. It's your intronets. I just work here.
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