Arts Framed 

2005 in graphic novels

Fans of comics and graphic novels had another good year in 2005. Pioneering cartoonist Chris Ware was awarded a weekly feature in The New York Times Magazine (he’s less pioneering there than usual, but it’s early); the supply of high-quality reprint titles turned into a near-glut; and those of us with a nostalgic love for a certain pointy-eared superhero watched with joy as Hollywood atoned for its past misdeeds with Batman Begins. In this first installment of a monthly column devoted to graphic novels, comic books, and assorted other manifestations of the cartoonist’s art, here’s a recap of the best book-length comics of the year:

Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! by Winsor McCay (Sunday Press). The exclamation point in the title is wholly deserved for this, the comics release of the year and one of the coolest ever in the genre. At a gargantuan 16-by-21 inches, this beautifully printed book reproduces some of Nemo’s wildest adventures at the same size in which they first hit newspapers 100 years ago. The oversize format reveals the nooks and crannies of the always-mutating dreamworld McCay invented, and cartoonists are stumbling over themselves to sing its praises. A labor of love edited and published by fan Peter Maresca (sundaypressbooks.com), the book sold out its first print run despite a necessarily high price ($120); a second printing is due this spring. (Special mention should go here to Checker Book Publishing Group’s recent series of McCay’s Early Works, a more humbly printed compilation of everything from single-panel editorial cartoons to the adorably silly single-gag strip Little Sammy Sneeze.)

Krazy and Ignatz: The Complete Sunday Strips, Vol. 2 by George Herriman (Fantagraphics). Similarly lavish and limited-edition (available only through fantagraphics.com), this is the first of three planned hardback volumes (that “Vol. 2” thing is a longish story) that will contain the entire run of Herriman’s surrealist masterwork. If you’ve been buying up the softcover volumes, you have everything here (and Chris Ware’s lovely covers to boot, which aren’t reprinted in this tome) — but for libraries and those who intend to give these strips the hardcore attention they deserve, this built-to-last edition is the way to go.

Black Hole by Charles Burns (Pantheon). It took him a decade to complete amid the distractions of rent-paying work as an illustrator, but Charles Burns’ serialized horror story is finally done. Sweaty, sexually graphic, and icky as hell, this ‘70s-set tale imagines a town in which teenage sex spreads a “bug” that leads to the kind of mutations — tails, rashes, and tiny mouths in odd places — you definitely wouldn’t want showing up in your yearbook picture.

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Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon). Smaller in scale but epic in its playful recombinations of comic forms, Clowes’ latest also invents a community rocked by secrets. Here, the Leopold & Loeb scandal (also fictionalized by Hitchcock in Rope) is the loose inspiration for a soap opera-worth of teenage alienation, playground intimidation, and middle-age failure.

Wimbledon Green by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly). Ice Haven has a little fun with adults who obsess over comics; Wimbledon Green makes them the sole subject. A hilariously sarcastic tale that will sting any self-aware collector who ever dreamed of having a fortune to spend on rare comics — and which has parallels to the real-life tale of rare-map thievery recently told in The New Yorker — it contains the kind of dead-on potshots that can only be nailed by an author who sees a lot of himself in his targets.

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly). Not at all the dull political travelogue you might expect from a book subtitled “A Journey in North Korea,” this dryly funny novel recounts the author’s adventures as a temporary supervisor in one of the North Korean animation studios that do the grunt work for European cartoons.

Epileptic by David B. (Pantheon). Again, this memoir of growing up in the shadow of an epileptic big brother could have been preachy or tedious. Instead, it’s a stunning trip into the mind of a kid who would love to have a normal family life but instead must retreat into fantastic visions of demons and armies.

Walt and Skeezix by Frank King (Drawn & Quarterly). Back in the “labor of love” reprint category, this handsome volume is the first devoted to Gasoline Alley, the newspaper strip that ran for decades and (unusual for the funny pages) allowed its characters to age and its storylines to mature over the years. May it be greeted by the throngs of welcoming fans who embraced the high-profile Peanuts and Krazy Kat series.

By John DeFore


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