It’s very strange to me that the common “wisdom” of comicdom seems to suggest that Steve Ditko’s greatest efforts were the works he produced for Marvel Comics in the early 1960s. Putting the lie to that theory is his most recent series, A Ditko, which Ditko and his partner, Robin Snyder, have been publishing regularly since 2007. Some comics fans claim that Ditko's technique has declined in quality over the years, the implication being that his artistic skill deteriorated somehow after he turned his back on his earliest successes at Marvel Comics in the 1960s. This is tantamount to claiming that Picasso's artistic technique deteriorated when he first experimented with cubism in 1909 with such paintings as The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro, or that Miles Davis' artistic technique began to deteriorate when he first experimented with electronic music in 1969 with his groundbreaking album In a Silent Way. Similar to both Picasso and Davis, Ditko's most recent contributions to his chosen medium represent bold experiments in extreme minimalism, attempts to drag the medium back to an embryonic state when almost anything was possible because the medium had not yet been locked down, concretized, frozen in stasis. In his latest work Ditko has reduced human figures to their most basic possible forms in order to emphasize the ideas behind the figures. Looking at the voluminous artwork Ditko has created in his late eighties reminds me of listening to the songs of an aging blues singer, a ragged voice aged to perfection.
A Ditko plays with the anthology form that was so prevalent in the earliest days of the comics medium (e.g., Famous Funnies, Tales from the Crypt, Young Romance, etc.) and transforms it into something altogether strange and new. The way the various stories, such as “The Madman,” “!?,” and “Miss Eerie,” overlap with one another in terms of locale and theme and tone is mind-boggingly impressive. I particularly appreciate the enigmatic quality of the stories featuring “The Cape” and “The Distorter." The truth is that Ditko's artwork in these stories is as engaging and eye-catching and unique as it’s ever been. Beginning comic book artists often don’t understand that’s it more challenging to do less than more. Ditko's minimalist style (on full display here) is very effective in portraying the stories he wants to tell, unburdened of all the unnecessary accoutrements I sometimes see younger artists layer onto their work for no real reason. A Ditko is, without a doubt, my favorite comic book series being published today. Issue #23 is the most recent issue of A Ditko published to date. Issue #24 is scheduled to be released in March of 2016.
You can purchase A Ditko by clicking HERE.
2. Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver (published by Fantagraphics):
This graphic novel concerns itself with the exploits of a struggling writer in his twenties who's so obsessed with the works of John Fante and Charles Bukowski that he changes his name to "Fante Bukowski." If you've ever spent time in an MFA program (or have hung out with people enrolled in an MFA program), or have taken even a single creative writing workshop, you know this guy... and you know him intimately. Perhaps he was your boyfriend or your roommate or your instructor. Perhaps he was you in the past. Perhaps he's you now.
Fante Bukowski is a hilarious and insightful satire about the vast gap between art and artifice, craftsmanship and pretentiousness, individuality and idolatry. At first Sciver seems to set up his protagonist as little more than the butt of an ongoing joke, running the risk of presenting "Bukowski" as the shallowest stereotype possible, but as the episodic tale progresses the reader begins to sympathize more and more with "Bukowski's" naive and confused arrogance. Ultimately, Sciver's indeterminate ending leaves behind some wisp of hope that maybe--just maybe--"Bukowski" will finally figure out how to shed his cocoon of influences and affectations and become who he's meant to become: himself.
You can purchase Fante Bukowksi by clicking HERE.
3. Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (published by Avatar Press):
Alan Moore has spent almost his entire career examining the underbelly of reality through the lens of the most debased forms of popular culture. Watchmen (1987) reframes the deep politics of the latter half of the twentieth century by deconstructing America's most insignificant, dispensable art form: superhero comics. Lost Girls (2006) explores the hypocritical psyche of the mass mind, pitting humanity's love for violence against its utter disdain for unfettered sexuality, unexpectedly juxtaposing pornography with classic archetypes of children's literature amidst the war-torn landscape of World War I. From Hell (1999) takes the reader on a psychogeographical journey through the Hegelian Id of Victorian England via the rumors, myths and legends that surround the bloody, near-sacred mysteries of Jack the Ripper. The conflicted mores of Victorian England are further examined via the most popular action-adventure icons of the apocalyptic 1890s in the "fin de siècle" journey of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2000).
In his latest work, Providence, Alan Moore wields a fine blade in order to cut through the opaque tissue surrounding the sociological, psychological, and metaphysical truths of America in the first half of the twentieth century. Via the numinous, pulp universe of H.P. Lovecraft, Moore is able to peer beneath the sanitized skin of official history offered to us in high school text books and patriotic documentaries. How better to get at the truth of the "American Century" than by burrowing deep into the sub-subtext of Lovecraft's most harrowing nightmares, all of which were ignored by the mainstream literary establishment of the 1920s and '30s? Even today, amidst controversies involving the removal of Lovecraft's face from the World Fantasy Awards due to his problematic views on race, the Providence-born scribe is still unsettling the mainstream of America and stirring deep emotions among people who have never even bothered to read the man's words. This is quite a trick for a pulp writer who's been dead for over seventy years. What other writer of the 1920s and '30s can still create such profoundly impassioned reactions in the twenty-first century mind? Moore draws upon this deep well of dark and eldritch intensity to rewrite what we think we know about the birth of the twentieth century--and, by extension, the troubling and chaotic world we live in today.
You can purchase Providence by clicking HERE.
An unexpected cross between Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes (1968) and Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002), James Robinson and Greg Hinkle's completely-out-of-left-field, purely Gonzo take on the WWII-era superhero Airboy is a wonderfully crude, autobiographical exploration of the artificial barriers artists create between creativity and consumerism, truth and fiction, desperation and inspiration. In my Creative Writing classes at CSU Long Beach, I've used this comic book as a prime example of the magic that can occur when an artist is not afraid to unveil potentially embarrassing details of his or her personal life for the consumption of the audience. In a world increasingly infected by a pandemic of infantile squeamishness and ignorant philistinism (mislabeled "political correctness" by some pundits) being spread by feverish acolytes as spiritually blind and hateful as the most sadistic Catholic priests of the Dark Ages, it's refreshing to see genuine artists like James Robinson and Greg Hinkle willing to push the boundaries of what is perceived to be acceptable in the context of popular literature.
You can purchase Airboy by clicking HERE.
5. An Entity Observes All Things by Box Brown (published by Retrofit/Big Planet):
An Entity Observes All Things is a collection of thematically related short stories that explore humanity's tenuous position in the cosmos (as well as its uneasy grip on the questionable nature of reality itself) via science fictional tropes that are distorted through a fractured viewpoint bordering on the surreal. Reptilian aliens, virtual reality, and interstellar space travel are just three such well-worn tropes that Brown decimates and reconstitutes through the formidable combination of his incendiary imagination and striking design work. I detect slight traces of Moebius' spiritual, psychedelic odysseys hovering around the edges of Brown's panels; for example, the floating pyramid and weird, crystalline structures featured in "The Lizard" remind me of the space traveling blue pyramid in Moebius' Upon a Star and the sentient crystals that recur in so many Moebius epics; however, these motifs are by no means derivative of Moebius' work, but instead serve as strangely appropriate signposts that connect these wild dreams to the psyches of equally subversive past masters. I can say without hesitation that Box Brown's artwork looks like nothing else in comics today. In a dangerous age of rampant and seemingly incurable conformity, in which truly innovative artists can't help but feel as if every slight deviation from the norm is being observed by a cold and unforgiving entity imbued with judgmental scorn, such uniqueness is certainly no minor feat.
You can purchase An Entity Observes All Things by clicking HERE.
6. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (published by Image Comics):
Most science fiction comics, even the very best of them, are often derivative of prior sources. Back in the 1950s, for example, the highlights of such cutting edge EC science fiction anthologies as Weird Science and Weird Fantasy were merely adaptations of Ray Bradbury's previously published short stories. Even something as wonderfully insane as Jack Kirby's 1970s Kamandi series was initially inspired by the success of The Planet of the Apes. Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples' Saga, on the other hand, is bursting with inspired ideas and unfamiliar images that hypnotize the reader into believing one has been transported to a wholly alien star system. I've read only a few prose novels that create worlds so strange that they seem utterly disconnected from the reality we know. One such novel is William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (1912) and another is David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920). Until recently, in the realm of comic books, only Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Incal Trilogy and The Metabarons were worthy of being placed alongside the work of Lindsay and Hodgson; however, Vaughn and Staples' Saga certainly comes close to approaching similar heights. This is a series worth following all the way to its conclusion.
You can purchase Saga Vol. 1 by clicking HERE.
You can purchase Saga Vol. 1 by clicking HERE.
7. Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (published by Image Comics):
On Halloween Night, 1988, four twelve-year-old newspaper delivery girls are all that stand between the safety of Earth and an all-out alien invasion. What more do you need to know?
You can purchase Paper Girls by clicking HERE.
8. Weird Love edited by Clizia Gussoni and Craig Yoe (published by IDW):
Is it possible that some of the most compelling and unique comic book stories of 2015 were originally written and published well over fifty years ago? When the stories in question bear such colorful titles as "I Fell for a Commie," "Love of a Lunatic," "Too Fat to Frug," "Ronald Reagan, Dream Beau of the Month," "Weep, Clown, Weep!," "I Married a Monster!", and "I Joined a Teenage Sex Club," then yes, indeed, it's more than just possible--it's inevitable! To produce each issue of Weird Love, editors Cliza Gussoni and Craig Yoe perform the yeoman's work of intrepid archaeologists, digging up fossilized enigmas from the tar pits of the 1950s in which the trashiest romance comic books ever published in the United States lay buried for decades, mercifully out of sight... until now. Note to future historians: You can learn more about mid-century America by reading Weird Love than by studying a thousand editions of the New York Times published at the height of the Cold War.
You can purchase Weird Love Vol. 1 by clicking HERE.
9. Klaus by Grant Morrison and Dan Mora (published by Boom! Studios):
Santa Claus reimagined as a psychedelic shaman. If L. Frank Baum and Terence McKenna had collaborated on a comic book script, it might have read like this. 'Nuff said!
You can purchase Klaus by clicking HERE.
10. Space Riders by Fabian Rangel Jr. and Alexis Ziritt (published by Black Mask):
Imagine if Jack Kirby had been born in the twenty-first century as a street punk graffiti artist who decided to spray paint his weird-ass science fictional epics on any blank wall within reach. That's what Space Riders looks and reads and feels like: crude, colorful, and unforgettable. Like Box Brown's An Entity Observes All Things, Alexis Ziritt's artwork resembles nothing else on the stands. In an age when the major comic books publishers are falling over themselves in a mad race toward terminal mediocrity, oddball books like Space Riders are not just a breath of fresh air, but a smack across the face with a gust of El-Niño-level wind.
You can purchase Space Riders by clicking HERE.