Sunday, May 1, 2016

Original Art Sundays No. 233: Next Sharp Invitation, p. 5

Two weeks today until the grant deadline! It's going to be close! I will have SOMETHING completed and printed, but certainly not the final version. Given that I hope to be working with an editor on this down the line, that's probably for the best.
Here, then, is the next page of the current story.
When we left our hapless lad, he had just gotten on the bus.
Again, I worked through several versions of this page. A couple were dialogue-heavy, but it soon became clear that wordless was the way to go with this one.
Backgrounds: sparse to nonexistent.
The space was established in the previous page and I wanted a sense of openness, a complete lack of control implied by a lack of place.
The floating jeering heads in the bottom tier are a summary of the way I felt and a reuse of a fairly effective panel from Speedy Recovery No. 1.
I would have liked the dry brush edges to be more pronounced in the final version. In re-reading some of my texts on pencils and inks, I've rekindled my fondness for, if not my mastery of, drybrush. I may give this page a fourth (fifth? sixth? I've lost track) go before the final version of the book sees print.
The borders were hard-ruled in pencil and then rendered free-hand in ink.
This is not one incident. I was tormented ("bullied" does not do it justice) by the kids on that bus for four years. The frequency and vehemence decreased, but the threat was always there. That's why I was so proud to lobby on MN's anti-bullying legislation a couple years back.
A rather bitter turn of events: there was a recent failed attempt by more conservative members of the MN legislature to introduce anti-trans bathroom use legislation this year. One of the self-righteous MN legislators talked about how businesses were "being bullied" into letting trans citizens use the bathroom of their appropriate gender. Yet another example of the abuser claiming to be the victim, I suppose.
Luckily, I have a light week at the FT job this week, and the semester is almost over, so the demands on my time from teaching at MCAD are somewhat reduced. All I need to do is summon the emotional strength to write about these painful and sometimes shameful events in my past.
And I must get it done in two weeks.
Yeah, that's all.
The upside is that I will have ample blogging material for the foreseeable future!
Next week: page 6.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Original Art Sundays No. 232: The Next Sharp Invitation, p. 4

It never lets up, does it? Wasted half a day trying (unsuccessfully) to get rid of annoying adware on my Mac. Very irritating.
Well, back to the work!
I'm quite moved by the death of Prince, and am developing a story on the subject. It will have to wait a bit as the deadline for the draft of Sharp Invitations looms large.
Here's the next page of the current story.
Again, lettering digitally, using the Colleen Doran typeface from Comicraft. The rest is hand work.
This page went through several iterations before I settled on this one. Finding the right pacing and mood was very challenging! I toyed with over-the-top stuff like the bus devouring kids, which I toned down to that second panel. While it's hardly subtle, I like the idea of the smiling bus followed immediately by the "demon bus". We had the shell of a school bus on our land up north, right at the edge of the woods near the creek (which I always pronounced "crick"- hey, when it's your creek, you can pronounce it however you like). I always think about that rusty ghostly shell when I think of my time on the school bus.
The borders in the first two panels are free hand over ruled pencil lines. The third panel has a ruled ink border as well, implying a more grave tone.
There's a great deal of rather obvious (to my mind, at least) foreshadowing on this page. I shan't give away the next page, but I'd be very surprised if anyone was surprised by its contents.
I've rendered buses several times- for some reason, they show up in a fair number of my works. I usually don't spend a lot of time on backgrounds, but inspired by Scott McCloud's suggestion that they be considered environments rather than backdrops, I cribbed this bus layout from a page in the B & W run of ZOT!
Here's another page that uses the bus, from an earlier attempt at a graphic novel on trans issues. This was done shortly after Tranny Towers ended, and was originally intended to tell Athena's story more fully, though I did away with the funny animal motif. Pretty good bus work here too! Maybe I should do a whole story set on a bus some time...
Ahem. Back to the issue at hand.
I have exactly three weeks to complete this project, including a small print run. I will complete the work in roughs, and do as many finishes as time permits before going to press.
Let's get back to it!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Original Art Sundays (Tuesday) No. 231: Next Sharp Invitation, p.3

This story is now done, but I'm still posting a page at a time until I get them all out there. Why give away the farm?
Once again, enjoying the local color of the paper as picked up by the scanner.
This page went through several iterations. I tried the resort sign for the first panel, and what is now the last panel was originally larger and on the opposite side of the page.
The level of detail could be higher in places, notably in the woodsy scene in the last panel. I was torn between fleshing out the detail and keeping the energy. Once I have the grant requirements fulfilled, I will go back and take more time on each page.
This page also offers the challenge of being an exposition-heavy page. So much of this work is thoughtful and solitary, it's a real challenge to break up the text!
Right now, my primary concern is getting a completed version of the work done and printed by May 15!
Again, digital lettering using ComicCraft's Colleen Doran typeface. I find it has much more character than the one I had previously used, Clean Cut Kid.
The hawk logo in panel three references Blackhawk, of course, though I think it's actually the Hawkman logo. It comes from a typeface called Hall of Heroes that is just superhero logos!
I presented this work last Thursday at MCAD as a work in progress. Attendance was scant, about a dozen people, all fairly receptive. I was honored and humbled to present the work. The meaning and scope of what I'm doing becomes more clear by the day.
Next: page 4.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Original Art Sundays (Monday) No. 230: Sharp Invitations, One-page story

Didn't post last week, due to time limitations. I'm taking vacation from the FT job this week to work on the graphic memoir. As usual, it's going slower than I hoped, but faster than I expected! with my final deadline four weeks away, I have to retain pace and optimism!
A few weeks back, I was getting frustrated at being stuck on this project, and suddenly thought about Speigelman's MAUS. That amazing work, all done with ballpoint pen on regular printing paper.
I was at work that night. I took a #2 pen, a cheap wooden ruler, and a piece of paper from the printer, and dashed this out in about 20 minutes.

Well, it was a good question!
I kept thinking about Calvin & Hobbes as I drew this one.  Going for that energy, that freedom of a precise yet loose line.
Despite its crudity, I think it makes the book. This book has a serious, almost grave tone to it, and I need to break that up a bit.
When I got the page home, I went over it with a brush-tip marker to give the lines a tad more weight. I've also cleaned up the text a bit more than this image shows since doing the scan.
I currently have several new pages of this work (I've lost track), and I'm presenting it as a Work In Progress at MCAD this Thursday!
Next: more Sharp Invitations.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Original Art Sundays No, 229: The Next Sharp Invitation, p.1

This page comes right before last week's page. This is the beginning of Chapter 2 in The Sharp Invitation.
Read on.
Strengths: I think the text is working well, and I'm fairly happy with the panel art. Drawing kids has never been my long suit, though I've done enough of it.
Weaknesses: I might rework the main figure. She's okay, but I'm not completely happy with the uneven line quality and proportions on the (reader) right side. It would be a pretty quick redraw, but I'm putting off reworks until more of the work is done.
Other technical matters: again lettering and word balloons in Photoshop, and I'm having some fun with it! There's loose hand lettering in pencil on the originals, which is erased in PS. I do save an unaltered original scan as a baseline in case of calamity.
Note to self: back these files up!
As I do more of this work, my fear of it both grows and subsides. Growth is due to the imminent completion of the work, and opening myself up to public scrutiny yet again. The fear subsides as I realize the work's slow completion, and the truth of the fear being at least in part groundless.
Next: more Sharp Invitations.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Original Art Sundays (Wednesday) No. 228: the Second Sharp Invitation, p. 2

Getting the hang of digital lettering, and using the balloon shapes I bought from Comicraft. I might get another set for variety, but these work for these basic pages.
I'm posting pages out of order as I complete them digitally from scans. I will post complete stories once the whole short story is posted. As mentioned last week, Sharp Invitations is a collection of short pieces that form a whole. This is page 2 of The Second Sharp Invitation, the second story in the book.
 I've been working fast and sloppy. I don't mind the fast part, but I need to work tighter! My backgrounds remain sparse. While that's OK for some pages, I need some pages with significant amounts of detail.
I'm still working on a viable studio setup in the new place. I've been making it work, but it feels cramped. However, I'm reluctant to take time away from the work to rearrange my studio, with such a tight deadline (May 15!) looming.
Specs on this page: pen and ink on recycled Bristol board, digital lettering, balloons and text boxes. I'm pretty pleased with this one, though I might rework that left-facing profile shot in the lower panel if there's time.
I've been free-handing a lot of things like the holding line for the car dashboard in panel one, and I think I'll try to use my tools a bit more. The emotion of the work and the urgency of the deadline should not allow me to take short cuts, if those short cuts mean I need to rework panels or pages!
After a frustrating month of poking at this thing, I'm finally getting some momentum. Recognizing how huge the work is personally can be inhibiting, but it can also be liberating. More on that in upcoming weeks!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Original Art Sundays (Tuesday) No. 227: Sharp Invitations cover preliminary

After a three-month hiatus, I am resuming posting art.
I've hardly been idle. In addition to the full time gig and adjunct teaching, I've been stabbing at my grant project, a graphic memoir titled Sharp Invitations. This is a memoir focusing on transgender life and on issues of poverty. Also rock & roll!
This is the biggest project I've ever attempted, and I have a very tight deadline. I do not expect the version submitted for the grant fulfillment to be the final version. I hope to get this published, ideally by one of the big guns, Fantagraphics or First Second being my primary choices.
I am jumping around in the book rather than working sequentially. This is largely because the work is so intimate and emotional that I have a hard time sitting down to work one chapter all the way though. I posted a rough of the first chapter for this more than a year ago. Each chapter will be a self-contained story, with overlapping narratives.
Here's a mock-up of the cover.
The basic layout will remain unchanged, but I might go for a more involved background than the pale blue watercolor wash. The core idea, the woman in the blade of the scalpel, will remain. I plan to do a more accurate rendering of the scalpel for the final. There's a curve to the handle, and a bevel at the start of the grip by the blade.
Materials: colored ink washes and colored pencil over inked line art. Typography done in Photoshop.
The body of the work goes much too slowly, but there is progress being made. I'm taking a week off of work in April to put the project to bed.
I currently have several pages that need to be lettered. I've committed to lettering this digitally and have included the purchase of two specific fonts in the grant proposal.
I will have more to report next week.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Best Comics of 2015: no. 1

Here's the list to date:
15. The Undertaking of Lily Chen
14. Lackadaisy Cats
13. Marvel Star Wars titles
12. Brok Windsor
11. Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel
10. Story of My Tits
9.  Wuvable Oaf
8.  Lady Killer
7.  Invisible Ink
6.  Archie
5.  Martian Manhunter
4. Bitch Planet
3. Inner City Romance
2. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

And the No. 1 Comic of 2015, according to me...

This may not be much of a surprise. Then again, this was on a great many lists this year, but I don't recall seeing it in the top spot on any others.
Some creators have a comparatively small output, but a vast impact. To date, Sam Mendes has made only six films since his directorial debut in 1999. Darren Anonofsy, five. Stanley Kubrick, a dozen, if you don't count the early shorts, or One-Eyed Jacks or AI. Harper Lee wrote two books and a handful of short stories. My favorite band, Gentle Giant, made a scant 12 albums in their time together, including the live album. Kate Bush has made 15 albums, if you include EPs, live albums and box sets. Jim Steranko created 35 comic stories in the last 45 years, not including covers and collections, most of those prior to 1970.
More is not always better. And more isn't always necessary.
The wonderful cover under the dust jacket
Scott McCloud has fully created (in mainstream, not including his early self-published work) one creator owned series (ZOT!), one set of stories featuring a licensed property (Adventures of Superman, author only), a nonfiction trilogy on comics (Understanding, Reinventing and Making Comics, of which I find the last the most consistently useful), one stand-alone experimental book (The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, which I really liked), arguably invented the 24 hour comic and- well, that's it, not counting his online comics and teaching and lecturing careers. So depending on how one defines one's terms, this is the seventh book in McCloud's 32 year career as a comics professional (using the first issue of ZOT! as the barometer for the inception of that career). We've been waiting 18 years since his last solo book.
Back of the dust jacket
And how is the book itself?
The first time I read it, my reaction was a small, satisfied, "Huh. Okay then. Nice little story." A couple days passed and a lightning bolt tore between the hemispheres of my brain. I suddenly realized just how much I'd missed. I had to go back and re-read this book ASAP.
McCloud has a way of writing just plain people that makes them eminently empathetic, even the ones you don't like. This makes his stories flow, seemingly effortlessly. This is the mark of a master craftsman. As Coco Chanel said, "dress poorly, notice the dress- dress well, notice the woman." The reader gets sucked under because the tide of the story, to torture the metaphor, is so regular and comfortable. He's at his best when dealing with what is commonly called "magical realism", unexpected or impossible things happening in everyday settings. There were some hints of this in New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, as everyone but the hero casually accepted the narrative's outrageous events. As this is one of my favorite sub-genres, I get sucked into these very easily. For want of a better term, I classify much of Gaiman's Sandman as magical realism.
The Sculptor at work.
Museum dialogue, page 1
This is the story of David Smith, a frustrated sculptor who fears the common enemies of artists - anonymity, starvation and death, both of body and of spirit. David's uncle joins him for lunch one afternoon when David's life and career have both reached their nadir. Shortly into the conversation, David remembers that his uncle Harry is dead. Harry offers him a Faustian bargain, but not for the soul, at least not in the conventional sense. David will be given the talent he imagined for himself in the comic he made when he was a kid. He will be able to sculpt anything he envisions with his bare hands. The price is that he will die in 200 days.
As he sets out to sculpt with his new abilities, he encounters unexpected but inevitable obstacles, including overcoming his own fears of the work, facing the slights he's given others in the art world, and dealing with the arbitrary caprices of art dealers and critics.
Oh, yeah. Right after creating his first significant body of work since making the deal,  he's kicked out of his apartment and forced to leave the work behind.
Luckily, he meets an angel (don't worry, it's not the It's A Wonderful Life moment you dread, it's something both plausible and unexpected), falls in love, and manages to rebuild his life- while he counts off his days.
Museum dialogue, page 2
Many moments here echo the classic 20th century mainstream works about the worth, frustrations and joys of life. So often, during the fifth re-reading of this book (!), I found myself remembering the line in Our Town: "oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
The Sculptor clearly has a strong emotional impact, much to offer the intellect and the spirit. The writing is there, and the themes are solid and well-considered, no question.
But few have commented much on the art.
You'd think people would be all over the art on this, since McCloud's Understanding Comics was the book that mainstreamed Comics Theory 101 for a larger (read: not exclusively comic book geek) audience. Do McCloud's theories on comics structure hold water in his own work?
Well, sure. At the risk of being simplistic, it matters a great deal and it matters not at all.
He uses the devices of visual narrative to full effect. He's varying camera angles, using open panels to create moments of pause or introspection, varying the distance he puts between the reader and the scene, and maintaining a sense of flow on every page and throughout the text. He's not adverse to throwing in a silent panel when called for, recognizing that there are such moments in life, and trusting that the image is strong enough to propel the story without words.
Museum dialogue, page 3
Beyond all that, these are well-drawn pages. The facial expressions are spot on. Like the work of Jeff Smith, another less prolific creator whose work is justly lauded, McCloud's art is direct and, at least on the surface, simple. The proportions are good and consistent, and the tonal color is well handled. In most B & W works, that's an issue of placing and controlling blacks to give full and appropriate range of values to each scene. However, McCloud has opted to add a range of blue hues. So in addition to the values given by placing lights and darks and by hatching, the reader gets a second set of tonal values from the range of blues, akin to an old-school duotone effect. The blue is alternately calming and somber, and serves the mood of the story well throughout.
The art goes beyond simple, however. McCloud throws several splash pages at the reader at key moments, but he also goes to town with two page montage spreads that take the viewer on an emotional storm through what has gone before in the story. The splashes and montages create a marked contrast to the more (again, for want of a better term) conventional narrative pages.
Montage on parade!
What's the book about? It's about triumph over adversity, even if the adversity is a result of your own screw-ups. It's about love overcoming frustrations and fears. It's about that moment when you look at your life and see it for what it is and was, both good and bad, and are at peace with what you see.
I hope we don't have to wait so many years for McCloud's next book, but if it's this good, it will be worth the wait.
I've been privileged to meet Scott McCloud on a few occasions and to work with him briefly at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I hope I get to meet him at least once more. My copy of The Sculptor is a signed limited edition, so as much as I revere a signed book, that's not why I want to see him again. 
I simply want to thank him for creating a book that made my life richer for reading it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Comics of 2015, Numbers 5 - 2

5. Martian Manhunter
My original choice for this spot was the lovely Monstress, even though it's only two issues old. Monstress is a beautiful and engaging book, well deserving of a place on this or any Best of list. 
"Epiphany" is a key concept for this book!
But I was haunted by one question.
Why are so few people reading Martian Manhunter?


Sales figures from The Beat for the first six issues:
06/2015: Martian Manhunter #1  -- 40,239 (+ 81.4%)
07/2015: Martian Manhunter #2  -- 24,957 (- 38.0%)
08/2015: Martian Manhunter #3  -- 22,540 (-  9.7%)
09/2015: Martian Manhunter #4  -- 19,738 (- 12.4%)
10/2015: Martian Manhunter #5  -- 18,416 (-  6.7%)
11/2015: Martian Manhunter #6  -- 17,038 (-  7.5%)
Not a positive sign for such a fascinating book.
Oh, I get it.
J'onn J'onz is not a new character, and his story has
been told and retold.
But there's more to the story than you might suspect.
First, it's not a superhero book, at least in the conventional sense. While the central character is arguably such a hero, he's also not. Or he might be. He's confused, scared and not sure who he is- who any of him are.
This is a horror book, or perhaps a tragedy, if there is a difference. Didn't Stephen King say that science fiction is about hope and horror is about despair? Well, this is a science fiction book about despair. Where does that fit into this equation?
It's about a lost world, whose survivors are unsure of their own identities, which may be multiple for each individual, and about the threat of a stealth war of the worlds.
The title character is not who we knew him to be- that's revealed in the 8-page preview done before the first issue- nor is he who the doting children who know him as "Mr. Biscuits" think him to be.
Superhero or horror comic? You be the judge!
Writer Rob Williams has been unfolding this complex tale without condescension to his readers. All characters' actions, while sometimes surprising, are consistent with Williams' long game for the book. Eddy Barrows' art is fluid and consistent, intricate where necessary, and fully integrated into the script.
While the future of the book is far from certain, the title has been solicited through issue 10, due out in February.
I have high hopes the book will continue, and possibly grow a significant following. There's a conclusive origin story for J'onn promised in Issue 10. As arguably the first Silver Age superhero, certainly the first completely new one (it can be argued that Infantino's Flash is a reworking of an existing character), our Manhunter has never had the stories, or the following, he warrants.

4. Bitch Planet
No real surprise here. This one is on a lot of lists, and rightly so.
Kelly Sue deConnick created this book for many reasons,
not the least of which was a partial response to those
who didn't think her approach to Captain Marvel
was "angry feminist" enough. 
But it's so much more.  
Bitch Planet is a women's prison B-picture set in outer space. It's also scathing social commentary, full of pathos. It's also funny as hell. The book is full of in-jokes, send ups of old comic ads and familiar tropes, and some remarkably savvy political commentary. This book proves that smart and fun are not mutually exclusive, while it brings all the sad puppies who insist that feminists have no sense of humor to sheepish silence.
Valentine Leandro brings a very aggressive sensibility to the art, and it works well. I mean, we are talking a women's prison planet in one of the most smug patriarchies ever envisioned!
This panel makes me howl. Kangaroo pouch!
In order to have half a chance of regaining their normal lives, whatever those are (some of the women are in prison for little more than being "noncompliant"), the women are coerced to form a pro sports team. The game is violent and rigged, yet they play anyway, because, well, what choice is there?
One of the most egregious "offenders", a large woman of color named Penelope Rolle, can be seen as summarizing many facets of the narrative. She's tough, unapologetically violates expected norms, and hurts on a very deep level. 
Bitch Planet has become a cultural phenomenon, with lots of women getting the "non-compliant" symbol as a tattoo. I have no tattoos and no real interest in getting any, but somehow this tempts me. My issue with tattoos is that I've never wanted to lock in one aspect of my identity that solidly, but "non-compliant" has pretty much been my life, so that might be a safe bet.
Satire abounds in this info-dump tier
The first issue of Book 2 came out just a couple days ago. I'm debating between picking up the floppies or waiting for the trade. I read the first book in trade, and it worked so well as a cohesive unit that I'm reluctant to try breaking it up.

Whatever I decide, I'll be back to Bitch Planet. And I won't be alone.

3.  Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
So much has already been said and written about this title, I feel no obligation to go into detail.  Squirrel Girl is a delight. There have been books that dealt in the humor of the superhero, but few that do so with respect and love.  I mean, really. She's taken on Galactus and Doctor Doom, stolen Iron Man's armor, and loosely maintained a secret identity while attending college, all while having a squirrel tail!
Ryan North (words) and Erica Henderson (art) produce  this delight on a fairly regular basis. There was a short hiatus and a couple #1 issues causing some numbering consternation (which I have yet to go back and sort out).  But the book is selling unevenly, with a 22% drop since the first issue, despite excellent buzz. I believe there's only one trade to date, but more are forthcoming.
One thing that's often overlooked in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is the border texts, those little asides that complement the story while dancing on the edge of the fourth wall. This device is also used in Matt Kindt's Mind Mgmt, a book that once fascinated me but has now lost my interest. 
In a strange way, this book reminds me of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. There's that moment when Lois speaks derisively of "truth, justice and the American way", and Supes replies unashamedly, "yes, that's right, that's who I am." Squirrel Girl holds to the same level of self-respect, even while recognizing the silliness of it all. Fun and dignity, with a cool girl hero- what more can one ask?
Spread from Inner City Romance #1

2. Inner City Romance
Fantagraphics has done the world a huge favor by collecting this underground masterpiece- well, mostly a favor (see below).
Colwell's 5 issue series stands up to the ages fairly well, especially the spare and harsh first issue, which chronicles a young black man getting out of prison and choosing between hedonism and responsibility.  In his case, the responsibility he must consider is to the Revolution. 
The Fantagraphics collection cover
This book also contains one of the best versions of an LSD trip I've ever seen in print.
In the following issues, Colwell continues to explore the themes of social revolution and sex, but drifts away from drug themes. Colwell went on to create the wonderful sex-positive comic DOLL in the 90s, and primarily paints now.  I was quite surprised to learn a few years ago that Colwell is white. Like many, including a black professor who studied black underground comix, the assumption was that Colwell was, to use the vernacular, a brother.
Fantagraphics has created a superb collection here. There are wonderful and insightful supporting essays, a section discussing the creator's other work, and the printing is clean and sharp.
However, there is one glaring problem, as alluded to above.
Here are the covers of all five of the original issues.

Stunning, right?
So why is only ONE of the original covers included in the collection in color?
There's a color section in the book spotlighting Colwell's painting and mural work, so it was not a cost decision. If you're going to have a color section, include color covers, not the mediocre black & white reproductions offered for all but the first (and least visually interesting) cover.
This glaring mistake aside, the importance of this collection cannot be denied. It truly is the second best comic of 2015.
Next: the best.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best Comics of 2015, Numbers 10 - 6

I like this approach of doing slightly larger batches. Doing one a day gets tedious after a while, no matter how rich the material. While these take me a couple days to get out, it's still faster than taking 2 weeks to finish them off one at a time.
Here are the next five on our hit parade!
10. Story of My Tits
I'm not always a fan of the graphic memoir/confessional, which is rather odd since I'm working on one now. I read Story of My Tits grudgingly, expecting some stereotyped housewife heart wringing done by someone who didn't know about comics and didn't care about comics, someone who didn't know how to say something in the form, someone whose perspective was coming from privilege, the way I felt about Lucy Knisley's Relish. I hate it when people dabble in something that matters to me, and I assumed this was one of those cases.
I was wrong. Oh, I was so wrong.
This is brilliant.
This is Jennifer Hayden's first full-length work. She's a member of the NY webcomics collective ACT-IVATE (currently dormant) and  has a collection of her shorter pieces, Underwire, also from Top Shelf. Her art has that neotenic quality that I often find annoying, but here it works. I think that's because, as in the work of Lynda Barry, there's an underlying awareness of basic artistic principles that influences the work. Hayden comes to comics from the trenches of freelancing in writing and in art, as she details inside this book. Hayden traces her life through her breasts and through breasts in general, talking about her mother's health concerns and then her own.
Hayden doesn't pull her punches, but then she doesn't lionize her suffering either. She has a way of bringing you right there, creating genuine empathy when dealing with cancer and all its implications. She's able to draw on her cerebral and spiritual sides without seeming didactic. In short, she cares about all aspects of her art and craft, and it shows in the final product.
Ms. Hayden in repose!
This review is a bit dry in contrast to the emotional impact of Hayden's work. The Story of My Tits is moving and compelling at all times. Its 352 pages move along at a perfect pace. I once told a department chair that one of two proposed textbooks was thinner and had more in it than the other. That's the way I feel reading Hayden's pages. There's a clear economy, nothing unnecessary, but everything necessary is there.
If the work has a drawback, it's that the reader can see the craft evolving as the work progresses. This is not the end of the creative world, it's just that earlier pages appear to be slightly less resolved than later ones. I suspect that some later pages were done before some earlier ones,  based on the relative skill levels of these pages. As Hayden points out in the text, there's much more to doing comics than there is to either writing or art as solitary disciplines.
But please don't infer from that that the earlier pages don't work. They're successful, just less successful than later pages. I'd like to see Hayden break out of her 4-panel page grid and give less "luxury border" margins. There's a lot of air on those pages, Ms. Hayden!
Those minor quibbles aside, this is a strong work, grounded in tough material. I eagerly await future volumes.

9.  Wuvable Oaf

Ed Luce at Autoptic
I met Ed Luce at Autoptic this year, and we had a brief but intriguing talk about challenges of diversity in queer communities. I picked up the Fantagraphics hardcover of Wuvable Oaf, thinking to support a fellow queer comics creator and not expecting much in the work to engage me. After all, I'm not into bears (a term Ed does NOT care for) or punk rock, which are two of the three focal points of the series (the third being cats!).
As was the case with some other works on this year's list, I was delightfully surprised. This story of a huge man who's deeply into boyfriends, punk rock and kitties is one of the tenderest, most human stories I've read in a long time.
There are some pages that squeal with strangeness, but the overall vulnerability of every major character comes through. This is surprisingly most true of Eiffel, Oaf's on-again, off-again boyfriend (the relationship is much more complex than that simplistic description suggests).
Wuvable Oaf is about frailty and strange humor. The cat with the strange dreams and the ailment that cannot be diagnosed, Pavel, is off-putting and empathetic at the same time.
Luce's art is engaging. I can't really describe it properly, but for want of more accurate descriptors, it reminds me in spots of some of Mark Beyer's surrealism coupled with the clean cartooning of Jerry Mills' great strip POPPERS. I doubt if that's how Luce would describe it, but that's how I see it. Others, notably the Comics Journal, have compared his work to Jaime Hernandez and Bryan Lee O'Malley. I confess to not knowing O'Malley's work, but I don't really see the Hernandez comparison.
Wuvable Oaf has a sort of stream of consciousness aspect. It is, after all, a series of short pieces that (mostly) tell one larger story.
Eiffel in all his diminutive glory
One drawback is that there are very few women in this book. Is Luce required to put women in his book? Certainly not. That doesn't mean I don't want to see more of them. In Kyle's Bed & Breakfast, a perennial favorite online strip in the blog list at screen right, women only show up every now and then, but I'm delighted when they do.
I can't find any indication that Luce has new work out, but I hope he does. There are still dangling plot threads and the work is so engaging that I want more.

8.  Lady Killer

Lady Killer was another great surprise, a clever, compassionate book about a 1060s housewife/assassin for hire.  Joëlle Jones' book draws heavily on cliche´s of the passive housewife. I mean, come on, she takes out the first victim seen in the book by trying to sell her Avon products. If you must have a standard elevator pitch, think My Little Margie meets Kill Bill.
It's good to see Dark Horse branching out. As previously mentioned, DH took a bit hit when they lost the Star Wars franchise, and they've rebounded with some very creative books. I don't know if the sales have echoed the innovation of the work, but I do know a second series has been announced for this year. To
quote Jones from a Mary Sue interview: " The family has relocated to Florida and Josie has decided to go into business for herself. That’s it. That’s all I’m saying."
The art is precise, jagged and engaging. Jones does the art and shares the writing credits with Jamie S. Rich.
It's also good to see women doing noir, even satirical noir. I had a frustrating conversation with James Ellroy during a radio call-in show. Ellory contended that it was impossible for women to write noir, that noir was a male genre by definition and necessity. I didn't yet know Patricia Highsmith's work at that time, so I didn't have a proper rebuttal.  If I could talk to Ellroy again, I'd throw Jones at him as well. Lady Killer, already out in trade and available from your local bookstore and library, approaches the genre with wit and verve. The adrenaline pumps reading this one, folks.

7.  Invisible Ink
A surprise, to be sure. I always detected an undertone of melancholy in Bill Griffith's wit, and this memoir goes a long way to showing why. Invisible Ink starts slowly and quickly builds to a maze of ideas and possibilities.
Griffith and Lariar in session!
The story of Griffith's mother's longtime affair with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, known for his "peanut" figures and books on cartooning, Invisible Ink is a meditation on the complex relationship between mother and son, a comment on the nature of cartooning as an art form and as a profession, and an unanswered question: what if this man had been my father?
Griffith begins the story with some detective work following a funeral. He quickly jumps to the most frustrating and elusive type of detective work, discovering one's self.
While Griffith never fully abandons his own style, and spends time coming to terms with his own characters, including the neglected Mr. the Toad, he does have some fun playing with Lariar's style and musing about incorporating it into his own work.
Like Griffith's early work in Young Lust Comix, this book is a surprise, and a welcome one. Most of Griffth's work of late has built on the success of the Zippy comic strip- a deserved success, to be sure, but one that has become a bit predictable of late, after almost 30 years! Invisible Ink resonates with such emotional force and introspection that it's difficult to contemplate the fact that this was his "evenings and weekends" project. I am quite eager for his next long-form work, a biography of Schlitzie, the microcephalic from Tod Browning's FREAKS who was a primary inspiration for Zippy.
The last few pages of Invisible Ink are silent, a remarkable and fitting way to end such a thoughtful book.
Griffith at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, October 2015

6.  Archie

There was a bit of a tempest in a teaspoon earlier this year when Archie comics tried running a Kickstarter to fund their new comic line. Now, several well-established creators and businesses have used crowdfunding platforms since their inception, but the Archie one touched a nerve. There was a hue and cry on the Interwebs, O my brethren, and much gnashing of teeth about the effrontery of this corporate giant intruding into the realm of crowdfunding. About two weeks into it, the campaign was pulled, with apologies from the instigators.
However, true to their word, the Archie publishers bought out their latest new take on their main character, begun 75 years ago(!), on schedule.
And it was good.
Mark Waid, whose work I've respected on many titles including a great Dr. Strange miniseries and "Unthinkable", arguably the best Fantastic Four storyline since Stan Lee stopped writing the book, has made Archie Andrews plausible without losing the character's Henry Aldrich universal appeal. Fiona Staples' art is just right, a compelling realism with just a touch of the cartoony quality we've come to expect from the Archie line.
It needs to be said here that I make no apologies for liking Archie comics and I never have. While they are insipid when they're at their worst, they are, more often than not, fun and exciting, and reflect the times in which they are created. Since the character was created as a sort of Everyman response to Superman, it could be argued that Archie Comics are precursors to the underground comix movement.
This Archie is every bit as hapless as earlier interpretations of the character, but with a touch more vulnerability. In previous Archie incarnations, even in the recent Married Life and Death of Archie storylines, there was always a sense that Archie would prevail in some odd way. In the Waid Archie series, there's less certainty about that. And that's somehow very reassuring. Archie's relationship with Betty is much more complex, and Veronica has just been whisked into town by her father, there for business reasons. All the pieces are in place, and the story is unfolding briskly but gradually. As of this writing, the second story arc is due to start any week now.
I'd be remiss to pass up mention of Chip Zdarsky's fine work writing Jughead. As ongoing characters, the best vehicles for imagination in the Archie line have been Little Archie (especially the Bob Bolling issues) and Jughead. The cynic/dissident/iconoclast figure, Jughead has consistently been used for fantasy. There was even a brief title, Jughead's Fantasy, that dealt with nothing but that. In the current title, originally featuring art by Squirrel Girl's Erica Henderson, a delicious pattern has evolved. Jughead is confronted by corrupt authority (also a theme in the current Archie book, as Principal Weatherbee has been replaced by a nefarious authoritarian), has a fantasy that ties back to the crisis at hand, and has a revelation that leads neatly to the next chapter.

Though I was glad to see Cosmo, the Merry Martian revitalized briefly, most of the recent updates of the Archie line were less aesthetically successful than the current one. I hope the creators can sustain the high level they've set for these titles.
I've always thought Archie was kind of cool. It's nice that these books give the rest of the comic world a chance to catch up with me.
Next: Best Comics of 2015, Numbers 5 - 2.