Cassandra, Retiring

I spent a good portion of 2010 playing the Cassandra, mongering doom and gloom about the heat death of the alternative comics universe.1 Despite some important works—chief among them James Sturm’s ...

I spent a good portion of 2010 playing the Cassandra, mongering doom and gloom about the heat death of the alternative comics universe.1 Despite some important works—chief among them James Sturm’s Market Day, Chris Ware’s Lint (an entry in his ongoing Rusty Brown), and Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon’s remarkable miniseries, Daytripper—ominous signs seemed unmistakable: fewer new voices, fewer surprises, and, for the first time in a decade, fewer publishers committing to the form. And by the end of 2011, prospects looking even gloomier, as talented cartoonists like Nate Powell, Craig Thompson, Paul Hornschemeier, Daniel Clowes, and Ben Katchor were celebrated on multiple best-of lists with books that were far from their best.

What a difference a couple of years make, especially when it comes to the comics form, which repeatedly defies its seemingly imminent demise by rediscovering and reinventing itself. 2012 brought us some remarkable work by established cartoonists—Chris Ware’s Building Stories; Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?; two works by Joe Sacco, Journalism and (with Chris Hedges) Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt; and Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer. The year also offered us the first major solo work by Ed Piskor: Wizzywig, a composite biography of that mythic digital-age figure, the great American hacker.

Perhaps most exciting, 2012 offered clear evidence that the distinction between “mainstream” and “alternative” comics was eroding to the point where a new generation of critics might soon laugh at mine for formulaically mocking journalists who still feel obliged to inform us that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore.” Matt Kindt’s complex and hallucinogenic Mind Mgmt (Dark Horse), Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s paranormal noir Fatale (Image); Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s space opera Saga (Image); and Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra’s mind-bending alternative history The Manhattan Projects (Image) all were born in 2012 in what we still call “mainstream” publishing companies, and well into 2013 these series continued to offer some of the best graphic storytelling in comics. Even in the rightly disparaged world of contemporary superhero comics produced by Marvel Comics (Disney) and DC (TimeWarner), 2012 gave us Matt Fraction’s surprisingly inventive Hawkeye, a superhero comic with more in common with the Hernandez brothers’ Love & Rockets than The Avengers or any of its offshoots.

Sailing into 2013 buoyed by new hopes, my newfound optimism was repaid many times over. Among the many riches of the year are four books from 2013 that I will read, teach, and write about for years to come.

Alternative comics as we know them began with the historic partnership forged in 1982 between the Hernandez brothers and the small independent publisher Fantagraphics, run by Gary Groth and Kim Thompson (who passed away this year following a struggle with lung cancer). Over the course of the next three decades, Fantagraphics would grow to be the most influential institution in independent comics, while the Hernandezes’ Love & Rockets became the most important and understudied work in American literature of the last generation.

For those not old enough to have been there from the beginning and thus grayed (and thickened) alongside Gilbert and Jaime’s characters (who age with us in “real time”), the thousands of pages that make up Love & Rockets’ ongoing storyworld are daunting. But it is not only for readers that the decades-long duet has posed challenges: while Jaime is slow and painstaking in his work, Gilbert describes himself overflowing with stories, often chomping at the bit waiting for his younger brother to catch up with his pace of production.

So it’s not surprising that 2013 saw Gilbert finding an outlet for his overflowing muse with two stand-alone works, Marble Season (Drawn & Quarterly), a beautiful memoir of a 1960s childhood, and Julio’s Day, a bold and experimental distillation of everything Gilbert has learned as a graphic storyteller over his long career. Julio’s Day is a 100-page story of a man, a family, and the “American century,” with one page for each year of the life of a man born on the eve of the 20th century and dying in his mother’s arms at its end. As we watch his family and his nation change in dramatic ways, Julio attempts to remain sheltered in his childhood home from the world outside—a world of change, war, and desire. It is desire that drives him back home: an affair with a man in the city opens up doors he can’t bring himself to walk through (he will live to watch his grandnephew stride proudly through them, claiming a birthright Julio denied himself).

In a form marked at every turn by ellipses and breaks, this work seems always on the verge of stretching the gaps too far, of losing the reader and the threads connecting the many characters, historical events, and magical forces that wind through this muddy landscape. But it is the work of a veteran graphic storyteller who knows just how tightly he can afford to stretch the delicate membrane across the drum of the century. This is a deeply moving work that continues to surprise long after it has been put down.

If 2013 afforded Gilbert Hernandez an occasion to reflect on a lifetime of storytelling, it was also the year in which the young phenom Gene Luen Yang proved to the world, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was not to be a one-hit wonder. Even if Yang had never produced another masterpiece, his widely taught American Born Chinese (2006) would suffice to guarantee him a place in the history of the form. And if his work following American Born Chinese—including The Eternal Smile (2009), with the artist Derek Kirk Kim, and Level Up (2011), with the artist Thien Pham—did not approach the power or success of his breakout, his commitment to his “day job” as an educator at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland (and as an international advocate for graphic narrative as a pedagogical tool) was justification enough.

With this year’s Boxers & Saints, Yang has secured his place as one of our most powerful graphic storytellers, continuing to navigate deep and turbulent waters with works equally accessible to adult and younger readers. When I first heard Yang describe the premise of the book, in 2010, there was tangible tension among some of the students in the auditorium. His goal, he announced, was to create a historical novel of the Boxer Rebellion in China in which he would explore his own dual identities as both a Chinese American and a devout Catholic by telling the story from two opposing perspectives. Many young students in the room had read American Born Chinese as a story of a westernized teenager coming to terms with his “authentic” identity, and in so doing had missed the ways in which the book is also very much about navigating and reconciling Chinese history and mythology with narratives and symbolism drawn from the Christian Bible. So Yang’s account of his ambitions led to some audible consternation. How could there be doubt as to where one was supposed to identify?

Boxers & Saints is an extended and eloquent answer to that question, one Yang no doubt heard from many readers while he was working on the book. The first volume, Boxers, tells the story of the peasant Little Bao, whose family and pastoral existence are overturned by foreign missionaries and the influence of Christianity encroaching on even his remote hamlet. Motivated by rage at the injuries done his town and family, Bao is transformed by the ancient gods into a mythical warrior, capable of taking on the forces of imperialism and tyranny that are moving unchecked across his nation. Bao’s power grows along with the size of his army, ultimately allowing him to bring his righteous wrath to the gates of Peking itself.

There he will encounter the woman he knew in his village only as “Four-Girl,” an unnamed, unwanted fourth daughter who went on to find an identity and a name with the Christians. Her transformation from “Four-Girl” to “Vibiana” is told in Saints, and just as the gods of ancient China work their magic on Bao’s behalf, so does Joan of Arc come to Vibiana’s side to give her the courage and conviction she needs to confront the storm coming her way. The climactic encounter between our Boxer and our Saint serves as a deep and powerful lesson in the spiritual and ethical power of ambivalence, double vision, and second chances—and as Yang’s beautiful if heartbreaking response to those who might understandably wish for answers drawn in starker black and white.

Different as they are, Yang and Hernandez both offer sweeping and experimental historical novels. But it is history on a much more intimate scale that is invoked in my third choice from 2013, Nicole J. Georges’s Calling Dr. Laura. This is the kind of book a reviewer prays to find somewhere in the pile beside the desk, particularly a reviewer feeling worn down precisely by the genre with which Georges’s book aligns itself in its subtitle, “A Graphic Memoir.” Defenses down, expectations low, and miles away from the Portland punk/zine scene that is Georges’s terra cognita, I ran smack into the best graphic autobiography of 2013 in the opening weeks of the year.

With a deceptively understated narrative voice, Georges leads us into a complex and beautifully structured narrative about the lies families tell, the ways young bodies are twisted and knotted by lies and secrets, the silences and deceptions that follow into adulthood, and the answers and voices to be found in the most unlikely of places—art and music, yes, but also a psychic and a flock of chickens. Without once dipping into the vats of self-pity that are the blood and ink of so many graphic memoirists, Georges tells her story with a wit, wisdom, and integrity that many artists twice her age have yet to earn.

Alternating between the quotidian and the absurd, grounded in a life lived, we have here what could be material for a Hollywood movie: a father apparently returned from the dead, a coming-of-age story, a coming-out story, a narrative of love and heartbreak, and yes, an encounter with the titular Dr. Laura, the last person a young Left Coast lesbian should be turning to for advice, as Georges’s soon-to-be-ex points out. While any attempt to describe the book ends up making it sound frenetic and unbelievable, the effect is precisely the opposite. Alison Bechdel blurbs the book as “disarming and haunting, hip and sweet, all at once,” and that gets it just about right. I can’t wait to see what Georges does next. Currently a Fellow at James Sturm’s Center for Cartoon Studies, she is in the right place to come up with something very special indeed.

If Georges’s Calling Dr. Laura started off my year right, Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree was the perfect way to ring it out. The first volume in an ongoing history of hip hop, it covers the early years of the movement’s rise in New York, from the mid-1970s to the emergence of MTV and the nationalization of the hip hop movement in the early 1980s. As I mentioned above, Piskor is the author of one of the best works of 2012, Wizzywig, and the two books cover much of the same period in terms of history. But where Wizzywig focuses on the emergence of an overwhelmingly white hacker culture, Hip Hop Family Tree is the story of a very different kind of mash-up counterculture emerging from the empty lots of the Bronx, where commercial pop and jerry-rigged sound systems turned an economic wasteland into a space for creativity, pride, and the birth of a new culture.

As he did with Wizzywig, Piskor serialized Hip Hop Family Tree online, in this case at the webzine Boing Boing, and as with the earlier work, Piskor has left the digital serialization up online even after book publication—counter to much recent practice in independent comics in recent years, but very much of a piece with both the hacking and hip hop cultures from which he draws inspiration.

The book version of the first volume of Hip Hop Family Tree is a beautiful thing to behold. Printed in an oversize tabloid format (or, for comics readers of a certain generation, the Marvel Comics Treasury Edition format of the 1970s) and in beautifully retro “four-color” style, the book recreates the pop energy and oversized ambitions of the period that gave birth to these new superheroes: men and women like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and MC Sha-Rock.

This book stands as a reminder of Piskor’s talents as a cultural historian, and also of the unique ability of the comics form to tell the history of an art that mashes up commercial music with street poetry, graffiti, and autobiography in order to create a music that is simultaneously celebratory amid the blight of New York’s darkest decade and expressive of experiences that commercial music of the time had no interest in recording. Over the last generation, the comics form—itself a collage of word and image—has proven itself ideal for chronicling the cacophonous and multimedia history of modernity, most famously, perhaps, in the work of Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories).

With Hip Hop Family Tree, Piskor fully embraces the role of graphic historian that he began to fulfill in his earlier work on the Beats and the history of hacking. Hip Hop Family Tree concludes with a short graphic essay in which he meditates on the formal and historical connections between comics and hip hop. Both, he muses, are born of urban landscapes during periods of dynamic change; both involve collage, collaboration, alter egos, and epic battles. And both have thrived on the margins of mass media industries simultaneously eager to exploit and distance themselves from these “bastard children.” Piskor—having already experienced tremendous success with the first printing of this first volume—has his dream job to attend to, one that you will be able to follow in subsequent volumes and, even before that, serialized regularly at Boing Boing.

And with that, Cassandra has well and truly left the building.2

  1. See, for example, “The Year that Wasn’t,” Guttergeek, November 2010.
  2. But not without a final footnote. For all the excellent work in 2013, there remain some significant dark clouds. Financially, the market continues to be tough, with independent publishers like Fantagraphics in rough financial straits, forced to Kickstart its spring list following the death of Kim Thompson. Just as I was finishing up this review, I learned that one of the most innovative and ambitious art comics publishers, PictureBox, had announced the end of its run. Here is hoping that 2014 brings news as good on the publishing front as 2013 did on the creative.