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.