A few nights ago, while mildly drunk, I made a personal list of what I considered the best films of the decade. A list of top films seemed less daunting, somehow, than talking about the best music or comics of the decade. Films seem more singular to me, easier to consider as individual entities, seeing as how each film is a different combination of forces- screenplay, director, cinematography, actors, art direction, soundtrack. For all that music critics value the album, following bands' creative direction over an extended period of a time is a different thing. Animal Collective were maybe one of the most exciting bands of the decade for me, and their two best albums nonetheless have dud tracks, that after listening to I thought "oh, their next record will be really great, if it goes in a certain direction" only for the following record to be a different thing entirely than what my speculation conjured.
Talking about the best comics of the decade is even stranger. The feeling of "their next work will be amazing" still exists, but added to that is "when this serialized work is finished and collected, it will be amazing." In serialization, unfulfilled potential is even more of a disappointment. This decade was also one rife with reprints of much older material. It seems like the entire landscape of comics shifted over the course of the decade, to look at individual critic's best-of-the-year lists, year after year.
It's that shifting landscape that's interesting to me, in terms of making a "best-of-the-decade" list: What works were the most influential, when all is said and done? But that gets confused by comics' commercial nature: Some, when faced with the bar being raised, retreat completely. A list of the best work should consist of that which stands on its own merits.
All of this is preamble to saying that any list should include Paul Pope's 100%. There seems to be a whole school of comics following in Paul Pope's tradition of work primarily influenced by manga, but also influenced by European comics, Kirby and Ditko, and alternative comics. Most would acknowledge this school of comics by giving regard to Bryan O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim, a more popular work with more evident manga influence. But 100% is better-composed, I think. A one-off, not a franchise; a "graphic movie," in its own parlance, with its focus tight enough to have emotional resonance and payoff fairly quickly, with the small scenes extended over multiple pages all being fairly moving and effective, like the slow-motion bits in Spike Lee's 25th Hour. (A movie that made my list.) 25th Hour is an apt comparison point in another way, as well: Pope is also responding to post-9/11 New York. If a best-of-decade list should somehow tell the story of the years creating it, that's preferable, to me, to Scott Pilgrim's telling the story of 2000s Canadian indie rock becoming a dominant culture for twenty-somethings. (Note: I like Scott Pilgrim a lot and don't mean to dismiss it.) (Tekkon Kinkreet is also a big comic for this group, and that has some of my favorite drawings to look at, but it came out in Japan in the nineties. No. 5 could be up there if the whole thing was translated.)
The other school of comics most interesting to me right now would be typified by Kramers Ergot contributors and Picturebox-published cartoonists. But I can't really think of a clear masterpiece of that school of comics to be published this decade. I still think Gary Panter's Jimbo: Adventures In Paradise is the book to beat, and that was published in the eighties and is now out of print. Jimbo In Purgatory is a fucking crazy comic that I can't really read, only stare at. Brian Chippendale's Ninja gets the edge over Maggots, for its fully-developed sci-fi/fantasy/political world, and for being drawn this decade. Maggots is probably one of the best comics of the nineties, secretly. 1-800-Mice by Matthew Thurber is one of those books I think will destroy everything around it when it's completed. The top widely available Paper Rad product of the decade would be the Trash Talking DVD. There's a case to be made for Paper Rodeo being the best of this type of comic, especially using the criteria of influence. But I'm giving the spot to Ninja. This is, ultimately, an arbitrary decision: These are the comics I am most psyched to read right now. Here's what that comic has as specific strengths: It's huge both physically and in the size of the world it reveals, it's drawn as if possessed, it's filled with ideas- fantastical, political, and graphic; the action sequences are pretty much second to none; it's pretty readable, but only in small chunks because of how overwhelming it is. In the world of comics called "Fort Thunder" that get described as totally crazy, giving the award to the guy who actually lived at Fort Thunder and made the craziest comic is the representative move. Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure this is out of print.
I like Powr Mastrs and CF's work a lot as well. It's not done yet. The horror vacui thing in Chippendale's work is absent, in its space is a lot of clean lines. If Chippendale's frenzy is to depict noise, and activity, and dirt- as opposed to the cleanliness of development, a visual metaphor and comparison made outright in Ninja- CF's thin contours and geometric straight lines, plus occasional watercolors, more represent the beauty of nature. Chippendale is designed to read fast, CF's stuff is to be read slower. It's the difference between a bomb going off and spells being cast. It doesn't make a list because it's not done yet.
The other great, not yet finished comic of the decade is Anders Nilsen's Big Questions. Which I suspect will need to be edited before collection because when I read issues 3 to 6 in one go, it got a little repetitive and the pacing was weird. And some other issues have kind of stupid parts. (The bit about the allegory of the cave.) But oh shit the stillness. Was this the decade comics discovered stillness and nature? Comics have a root in gags, in the instantaneous and ephemeral. There's that R. Crumb comic, "A Brief History Of America," but even that is focused on forward momentum, like time-lapse photography. There's something to be said for manga's pacing, of stretching things across pages. I mentioned it when talking about 100%, and Pope is also a big influence on Dash Shaw, whose Bottomless Belly Button had pacing that allowed for bits of grace.
Kevin Huizenga's comics were filled with nature, and transcendence. They were stuck largely in the realm of thought, and self-consciousness: There's diagrams on one hand, and expressive craziness on the other. In between are short stories finding empathy, humor, myth... At this point I could actually just make a list of Kevin Huizenga's best comics, so numerous are his strengths. But the short stories are inseparable- "The Curse" is a highlight, but it's a part of a suite with two other comics that ground its wild excursions into territory he doesn't normally tred. "Pulverize," as part of Ganges 2, follows this weird opening overture of drawing to tell a simple story, filled with odd-detailed humor. "The Wild Kingdom" is just a crazy tangle of all sorts of stuff, an abstraction about how man and nature interact. What I said about Animal Collective being the most exciting band of the decade for the paths they don't go on to walk down again applies to Huizenga's comics.
My favorite Chris Ware book would be The Acme Novelty Library Report To Shareholders hardcover from 2005. This is one of those things where I can consider Jimmy Corrigan a nineties comic, and consider the Rusty Brown material being serialized currently as incomplete. This comic, again, is huge- comparable to Ninja in size, but not in content, but maybe in terms of scope: It begins with God creating the world, civilization coming into being, and in the end the world falls apart, and God goes on to create it again- But Ware's god is a bleak one, and in the middle is all sorts of satire about life in America and cruelty and lack of people understanding each other, and ruminations on changing seasons. Huge and terrifying, funny and moving. This is my favorite Chris Ware book.
(In the same way that I consider Jimmy Corrigan a nineties comic, I should mention that right now I am deeply enamored with Peter Blegvad's The Book Of Leviathan, which is also a collection of material from the 1990s.)
While talking about Chris Ware, I might as well talk about Daniel Clowes, whose "The Death Ray" in Eightball 23 really was a hell of a thing. A great superhero comic, or thing kind of about superhero comics, a rumination on adolescence, and about American foreign policy under the Bush administration as well.
The great mainstream superhero comic of the decade would be Alan Moore and JH Williams' Promethea. Every one knows how good JH Williams is now, and now he's drawing comics that are less ambitious. So this is a highwater mark, of sorts. Meanwhile, the script covers mysticism and enlightenment, and the kabbalah and all sorts of things. I am really fond of Top Ten and League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 2, but this is Moore's America's Best Comics highpoint. A bonkers work of ambition and beauty. I like how uncontrolled it is, how every good issue wasn't necessarily good for the same reasons. Issue 8 was a thrilling comic of action scene, and issue 12 was super-clever. The whole book was thrilling and clever and well-drawn.
I thought I would list more mainstream superhero comics but at this point I am pretty exhausted and think the things I listed as the best would give someone outside of comics a good overview of the decade. I will list more comics, in the somewhat cursory fashion I did when discussing the Picturebox work earlier on. The Peter Milligan and Mike Allred X-Force comics (before it changed its name) was really entertaining. The Grant Morrison New X-Men comics jostled with it at the time of its publication, while also competing in my mind with The Filth which was running at the same time. By the end it wasn't so entertaining but parts of its first and second acts fired bullets just past my head. At this exact moment the Seaguy comic, one of my favorites at the time it came out, is not striking me as being as good, but certainly it was better than the Morrison output that followed at DC. Matt Fraction's Casanova then became the thing I read Grant Morrison comics for. Brendan McCarthy's issue of Solo was that, but better, and crossed with what I read those Picturebox comics for. I loved that comic.
I should also mention Renee French, Souther Salazar and Michael Kupperman. They're great.
And if a best-of-the-decade list is meant to include works of influence, it really should be noted that the Art Out Of Time book, edited by Dan Nadel, ended up spawning books for almost every cartoonist contained within its pages. When that book was first announced, I had never heard of any of them. The books it led to- that I read, which would be the Rory Hayes book and the first Fletcher Hanks collection- were incredible. Also, there's a part of me that believes that this book led to Matthew Thurber making more straightforward comics, which will lead to the greatness of 1-800-Mice, once it's done.
That is my list for people who didn't read comics but want to know that the decade was like. I await lists for people who did read comics but missed obscure stuff. Or I do a lot of expecting hugely popular things to not look as good in retrospect and look forward to being validated in my ignorance.