This is a piece I wrote many years ago for the French comics web site Du9, which is back and going strong after a several year hiatus (if you search their archives you will find several pieces about or by me including an interview with me from 1998 and my translation of a 1995 interview with Edmond Baudoin). The idea was that they invited a bunch of cartoonists and critics to list 9 favorite comics along with a brief explanation of each. You can find the feature in French on the site si vous préférez le lire en français. Although I still love all these comics, I’m sure I wouldn’t pick exactly the same 9 comics if I were to do this again (if I did I think I’d be worried). That said, looking at this list almost 10 years on I find that I still have great affection and admiration for all the artists below. I hope these short appreciations will inspire your interest; unfortunately, several of these are out-of-print and all are fairly difficult to find. I have included links to sources for ordering where possible. I have also chosen to leave the text as is, so there are a few anachronisms in there.
I think there are two main reasons to go back and re-read books. One is essentially nostalgic, the act of looking back at a fondly remembered work of art, the way I can always pick up a Tintin adventure and think “Oh, yeah, I remember that,what a great book!” The other reason to re-read books is to find those that get richer and deeper after each reading. These latter are the kind of books I have tried to talk about here, although of course both impulses overlap quite a bit.
Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise, by Gary Panter (Pantheon)
I was not entirely won over by Gary Panter when I first read the story about Jimbo and the horse in Read Yourself Raw (later reprinted in the above volume). I was intrigued, but I couldn’t make it hold together, and I couldn’t decide if I liked Panter’s drawing and frenetic sense of design. Years later I bought the Jimbo paperback collection in a remainder bin in Ann Arbor and reading it through I started to get a better appreciation of the Jimbo stories as a whole, following their origins as punk fanzine one-pagers to their climax with the apocalyptic horse epic. Since then, I have repeatedly gone back to this collection (and to any other Panter I can get my hands on) and find that my excitement increases each time I crack the spine. I marvel continuously at Panter’s spastic-yet-controlled drawing and his ability to work fluently in so many different styles while never losing sight of his overall aesthetic. His imagination blows me away and I am constantly discovering new facets to marvel at in Jimbo’s proto-cyberpunk universe. I also admire the intelligence of Panter’s writing, both in storytelling and in dialogue. The one page strip where Jimbo renounces worldly goods only to find himself forced to reclaim them in one by one strikes me each time like some Zen koan. There is so much to learn here.
Out of print but sometimes available used or online. Don’t spend too much on it cuz it’s not that rare.
Éloge de la poussière, by Edmond Baudoin (L’Association)
I am still very much a novice with Baudoin, having read only 7 of his books—two of those being his “pattes de mouche.” Of the books I have read so far, though, Éloge is my favorite and is the one I come back to the most. What excites me about it are its meditations on representation and truth; on the simultaneous power and weakness of art of any kind. The theme is beautifully introduced by two opening sequences: one in which Baudoin finds himself confronted by soldiers in Lebanon only to find that one of them wants him to draw a portrait of his fiancée; and another in which a man asks Baudoin to draw a portrait from a photo of his recently-dead son. When Baudoin finishes the portrait, the father looks at it and lets out a cry of anguish, as if he had been expecting a virtual resurrection: “No, it’s not him! It’s not him!” This theme is played out later in the book when his mother’s nurse blithely points out that he has been drawing his mother wrong all along, his mother who is the main focus of Éloge, and whom he draws continuously, almost desperately, throughout the book. I am also always impressed by Baudoin’s drawing and his ability, like Panter, to work in various styles and media while maintaining a clear, overall esthetic. Éloge also pushes the boundaries of what I usually think of as a “comic.” It features collaged-in sketchbook scraps, paintings, and fragments of text, yet I don’t know what it is if not a comic: beyond the many sequences of more traditionally structured panels and word balloons, the work is united as a whole through the interaction of the various visual and textual elements. Finally, Baudoin’s apparently stream-of-consciousness (although I believe in fact carefully structured) narrative—seamlessly weaving together memories, reflections, revisions of earlier ideas, observations from daily life, and so many other elements around a group of timeless themes (love, memory, family, art and truth)—is an admirable model for any medium.
Mars Import stocks various Baudoin books and might be able to order this one as well.
Ed the Happy Clown by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly)
About a year ago while getting ready to move to Mexico, I sorted through my comics collection, weeding out stuff I didn’t like anymore or had collected in a paperback. One series I decided to keep in its entirety was Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, which has been important to me in a number of ways. It certainly fits the “nostalgia” criterion I outlined above: of all the contemporary comics I discovered when I was getting into comics in the late 80s, YF, and specifically the Ed the Happy Clown story, hit me the hardest. It made me laugh the most (“Sorry, Ed, the Children’s Hospital burned down and nobody survived except for us doctors.”), surprised me the most, and was—and continues to be—impossible to classify: it wasn’t really “underground” and it also didn’t fit in with the other “alternative” stuff that was around, much less anything else I compared it to. Chester Brown’s sensibility is all his own and there’s something about it that makes even his fluffiest “gerbil and bunny” strips stick with me; there’s something ineffable about his comics. That afternoon last year, I found myself taking all my YFs out of their bags and re-reading the entire Ed saga on the floor. It still holds up as a nightmarish comic/tragic epic and it still thrills me to see a young artist coming into his first mastery of the medium and exploiting his talents to his fullest—and funnest. And I still laugh at the Man Who Couldn’t Stop.
available through Drawn & Quarterly (now in an annotated reprint edition)
L’Option Stravinsky, by Jean-Claude Götting (Futuropolis)
Götting’s book in Futuropolis’ RAW-sized “30×40” series made an instant impression on me and always comes up when I try to think of my very favorite comics ever. It’s a beautifully crafted short story, full of nuance. It reminds me of some of the short stories of Julio Cortázar for its cosmopolitan milieu and the presence of jazz, but more importantly for the way Götting turns the story on its ear in the last act in a completely unexpected way, as the ostensible protagonist of the story finds the “lead” role snatched away from under his nose. It also features some of the best use I have seen made of such a large format, featuring a series stunning full-page images that punctuate the story.
Good luck finding this one!! Try used book stores in Paris…
Take a look at Götting’s website, it’s got a lot of samples of his work.
Jack Survives, by Jerry Moriarity (Raw Books)
This is another work which didn’t grab me when I first saw a few examples of it in RAW. In fact, I would have to say I disliked it at first. However, there was something about those inscrutable “Jack Survives” strips that got under my skin. Maybe it was the dry humor (“He’s a damn intellectual”); or the messy, sculptured artwork; or the often unexpected compositions with figures and objects awkwardly but deliberately cropped; or a growing appreciation of the tragic and absurd alienation of the title character–whatever it was, before long I found myself on a quest for the out-of-print and hard-to-find RAW one-shot with the wraparound acetate cover. Finding it after a year or two of searching (it still turns up occasionally in the US, I’ve noticed), I settled into a pretty regular habit of pulling it out and mastering the awkward dust jacket in order to read once again through those short, often funny, sometimes pathetic strips.
I’ve seen copies of this from time to time, and you could also check e-bay or abe books. Also, some kind of reprint edition seems to be on the way, which is great news.
Martin Tom Dieck: Water series (various)
Martin tom Dieck is probably the most recent discovery that has me obsessively re-reading. I have three books which are all related by the theme of water: L’Innocent passager (Seuil), Hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (Arrache Coeur), and Lingus savant des eaux (Schokoriegel). These stories have very little dialogue (100 Ansichten is silent), and Dieck is a wonderfully idiosyncratic visual storyteller. Some sequences of his take a lot of effort to figure out, since everything is so distorted and the narrative is so minimal yet unpredictable. Some people might be turned off by this sort of thing, but I find it incredibly rewarding to study and re-read a sequence—like many in 100 Ansichten for example—only to have the full meaning unfold itself very gradually (Carol Swain is good a this, too). Dieck shares with Panter and Baudoin that quality of having an extremely versatile but completely integrated drawing style, and in his case I would add that what I love about it is that it forms such a complete universe in and of itself, one that is “cartoony” and stylised yet has clear references to our reality.
Mars Import stocks L’Innocent Passager and might be able to order the others as well.
José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo–“Mr Wilcox, Mr. Conrad” in RAW#3 and Read Yourself Raw (Raw Books/Pantheon)
I could really talk just as well about Muñoz & Sampayo’s work as a whole here but I decided to single out one story, which is I think is among their best and is also a landmark in comics storytelling. This story, about a man and his gentleman assassin and the unlikely relation they strike up in spite of an inexorable conclusion, is a great example of the way the authors use genre conventions to make broad and complicated statements on human relations, in this case the conflict between desire and duty, and the masculine rituals which hide or divert genuine emotion, among other things. Muñoz’ artwork is perfect for illuminating this murky, decadent world which Sampayo has created, with its nervous lines and restless composition. One of the most successful collaborations in comics.
Read Yourself RAW is out of print but sometimes available used or online. Don’t spend too much on it cuz it’s not that rare. You can buy some of their other books in English are available through the Fantagraphics catalog.
King Cat Comics, by John Porcellino (Spit and a Half/Highwater Books)
I am listing an entire series here since I don’t have a single favorite issue and since (as I argued in a recent piece in the Comics Journal) I think Porcellino’s comics fit together into an ongoing work, examining recurring themes like family, inner conflict, and nature. For his minimal style of writing and especially his drawing, Porcellino is one of the most radical cartoonists around–radical in the sense that he goes to the root of comics storytelling in a way that few other artists have been able to do.
You can order the collections The Perfect Example and King-Cat Classix from Drawn & Quarterly, or you can send a few bucks to Porcellino for an issue of King-Cat Comix: P.O. Box 18888 Denver CO 80218
Way Out Strips, by Carol Swain (Tragedy Strikes/Black Eye)
You can buy Carol’s graphic novels Invasion of the Mind Sappers and Foodboy from the Fantagraphics catalog, which also publishes the anthology Hotwire!, both issues of which include excellent full-color stories by her (#1 even features a story by me!); look for back issues of Way Out Strips in better comics shops.