Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Cryptoscatology Top Ten: The Best Comic Books of 2017!

1.  MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS VOL. 1 by Emil Ferris (published by Fantagraphics):


This compelling graphic novel was originally scheduled to be published in October of 2016, but bizarre shipping problems (as described in this Entertainment Weekly article) prevented its release until earlier this year, thus making it eligible for inclusion on this list.  Emil Ferris' debut graphic novel is a multilayered, psychologically complex narrative about an alienated ten-year-old girl named Karen Reyes whose life appears to be filled with nothing except emotionally damaged adults, one of whom draws her into an ill-advised (but irresistible) investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of a beautiful woman who once lived in Karen's dilapidated Chicago apartment building.  The woman's premature death leads Karen to learn far more about World War II and the Holocaust than any ten-year-old girl should ever know.  

The second (and final) volume of this graphic novel is scheduled to be released in February of 2018.

2.  BOY MAXIMORTAL #1 by Rick Veitch (published by King Hell Press/Sun Comics):



Upon finishing Part One of this ambitious limited series, one immediately recognizes that Rick Veitch is in the process of building a complex narrative that examines the true history and metaphysical nature of the comic book medium in a manner that will no doubt end up being far more illuminating than even the best nonfiction books on the subject such as Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Gerard Jones' Men of TomorrowThose previous efforts do indeed provide valuable facts about the social milieu that gave birth to the comic book industry in the 1930s; however, Veitch's epic story (the unfolding narrative of a Superman-like entity named Maximortal desperately trying to come to grips with his proper place in post-war America) explores the emotional truths underlying the frustrated lives of such visionary comic book creators as Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Jack Kirby.  The scenes in which we witness a Jack-Kirby-like comic book artist holed up in his suburban basement, drawing outrageously violent monster comics while doing his best to deal with bouts of  Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome triggered by vivid memories of his near-fatal stint in the U.S. Army killing Nazis during World War II are so extremely intense that one can only conclude these snapshots of a post-war Kirby are probably far closer to reality than any straight-forward biography that could ever be written about the man.  These vivid scenes are worth the price of admission alone.  Throw in special guest appearances by psychologist Carl Jung and CIA Director Allen Dulles, and what more could you want?  So do yourself a favor and get in on the ground floor of what promises to be a post-postmodern superhero tale that could very well rival previous contributions to this ever-expanding subgenre such as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's Marshal Law, Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston's Black Hammer, and Rick Veitch's own groundbreaking graphic novel, The One.

3.  THE BLOODY CARDINAL by Richard Sala (published by Fantagraphics):



Imagine Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler (a playfully self-reflective novel in which a pair of obsessed readers explore the interdependence of art and reality) mixed with an Italian giallo slasher film directed by Mario Bava, throw in a man dressed like a big red bird and a cast of innocent young women in danger of being the homicidal fowl's next victims, and you won't even come close to the treasure trove of strangeness awaiting you in Richard Sala's perversely humorous graphic novel, The Bloody Cardinal.  

4.  THE DIVIDED STATES OF HYSTERIA by Howard Chaykin (published by Image Comics):



Any comic book that manages to offend so many ignorant, irrational people without even trying deserves an extremely high position on any "Top Ten Reading List" of 2017.  If Kurt Vonnegut and Sam Peckinpah had accidentally wandered into the experimental teleportation device featured in Kurt Neumann's science fiction film The Fly and emerged as a single iconoclastic comic book artist, that artist might very well have produced the action/adventure-cum-social satire called The Divided States of Hysteria.  Despite the fact that writer/artist Howard Chaykin claims this book cannot be described as "satire," I would contend that there are indeed darkly humorous strains lurking throughout the narrative that could be seen as satirical by many readers; however, Chaykin's violent tale of near-future covert ops performed by a ragtag team of prison lifers more closely resembles the in-your-face satire employed by William Burroughs in his quasi-science-fictional novels of the 1960s and '70s such as Nova Express and The Wild Boys in which bald satire borders on pure, documentarian warnings regarding the authoritarian dangers waiting just around the corner to wipe out all vestiges of freedom from this planet.  As Marshall McLuhan once said of Burroughs' novels, "It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as non-books or as failed science fiction.  It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home."  This very same quote could apply to almost all of Chaykin's work in comic books, but it particularly applies to The Divided States of Hysteria.  If you have the ominous feeling that your house is about to burst into flame, I suggest bailing out the window and finding the latest issue of The Divided States of Hysteria.  You'll no doubt discover that you're right.

5.  SAX ROHMER'S DOPE by Trina Robbins (published by IDW):



Though Sax Rohmer's Dope was originally serialized in the anthology magazine Eclipse back in the early 1980s, this attractive hardcover represents the first time Trina Robbins' unique adaptation has been collected in a single edition.  Aside from a pair of nervous introductions by C. Spike Trotman and Trina Robbins herself (in which Trotman and Robbins bend over backwards to apologize for the racism inherent in this visual adaptation of Sax Rohmer's 1919 novel, Dope, something for which neither of them need apologize), this is an excellent graphic novel featuring what could very well be Trina Robbins' best artwork of her career--which, of course, is saying quite a lot indeed.  Robbins' clean line contrasts well with the luridness of Rohmer's plot, which revolves primarily around opium addiction, murder, and early twentieth century xenophobia directed against Chinese immigrants.  In a sober, decidedly non-apologetic afterword, artist Colleen Doran writes, "This entertaining, lurid tale by the author of The Mystery of Fu Manchu combines high society and low life, drama and drugs.  Trina Robbins, in her vintage style, with charmingly simple drawings that highlight her love of period fashion, presents the story with straightforward felicity [...].  Reading this comic has the same charm as watching a vintage film, a time machine of attitudes and social mores, both bizarre and compelling."  

6.  FANTE BUKOWSKI TWO by Noah Van Sciver (published by Fantagraphics):



Fante Bukowski Two continues the sad and hilarious adventures of misanthropic poet "Fante Bukowski" (not his real name).  I included Volume One of this ongoing series on a previous Top Ten list.  In 2015 I wrote, in part,  "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."  Volume Two of this series continues Bukowski's odyssey by juxtaposing his extreme naivety with the world-weary trials of Bukowski's ex-lover, Audrey Catron, a talented writer who has managed to achieve all the success that seems so outside the range of Bukowski's limited abilities.  When examined in excruciating detail, Audrey's life as a writer who has actually "made it" seems far less exciting than Bukowski's never-ending struggle to attain even the slightest scrap of recognition or acknowledgement.  When one has nothing at all, perhaps the promise of success (no matter how unlikely it seems) is more satisfying than actually attaining it in reality.  

Recently, in a post on Facebook, Van Sciver mentioned offhandedly that a reviewer of Fante Bukowski Two commented that she couldn't quite get into this book because "no one like Fante Bukowski exists anymore."  I'd love to know the exact address of the moss-covered rock under which this reviewer has been living for so long; being a graduate of an MFA Program, and having taught numerous Creative Writing workshops, I can assure her and anyone else reading this that I've met so many people who act like Fante Bukowski that I could draw up a lengthy list as long as Milton Berle's penis (if you'd like to learn more about Mr. Berle's legendary penis, please click HERE).  The characterization of Fante Bukowski, as presented in these two books, is nothing if not believable.   

With Fante Bukowski Two, Noah Van Sciver has successfully improved upon the delicate tightrope act he began in Fante Bukowski One by combining a genuine character study with wide swaths of oddball humor worthy of Preston Sturges or the Cohen Brothers.  I'm very eager to see where the inimitable Mr. Bukowski ends up in Volume Three of this most fascinating series.

7.  PROVIDENCE by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (published by Avatar Press):



Providence is one of my favorite Alan Moore graphic novels in a career filled with such milestones as V for Vendetta, The Saga of the Swamp Thing, From Hell, Lost Girls, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, Supreme, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Miracleman, and A Small Killing (just to name a few).  Upon completing the twelfth and final issue of Providence, a decades-spanning apocalyptic extravaganza that includes special guest appearances by such notable personages as H.P. Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi and the disembodied brain of Ambrose Bierce, I realized that this peculiar tale had become one of my favorite Lovecraft pastiches along with Fritz Leiber's World Fantasy Award-winning novel Our Lady of Darkness, Robert Bloch's Strange Eons, and Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites and "The Return of the Lloigor" (a novella that can be found in August Derleth's 1969 anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos).  

8.  CINEMA PURGATORIO by Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill, et al. (published by Avatar Press):  



Although this black-and-white horror anthology includes entertaining tales by the likes of Garth Ennis and Max Brooks, the truly standout contributions are the cinematic prologues provided by the book's curator, Alan Moore, in collaboration with his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cohort, Kevin O'Neill.  The episodic series that introduces each issue of this disturbing anthology shares the same umbrella title as the anthology itself, Cinema Purgatorio--a series of nightmarish vignettes set in a limbo-like world that evokes haunting memories of "Club Silencio" from David Lynch's surreal film noir, Mulholland Drive.  Each vignette explores the diseased underbelly of Hollywood from its very inception, including the mysterious death of comedienne Thelma Todd, the evocative connections between various Hollywood luminaries and the still unsolved murder of the Black Dahlia, the unfortunate downward spiral of Willis O'Brien (the visionary artist who created the breakthrough special effects for the original King Kong), etc.  For someone who despises Hollywood as much as Alan Moore (and, to be honest, who wouldn't after the unspeakable debacle that was the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, arguably one of the most disappointing comic adaptations ever committed to film), Moore demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of Hollywood lore dating all the way back to the Golden Age of cinema.  All of this seemingly ephemeral knowledge is put to expert use in Cinema Purgatorio.  This is without a doubt the best horror anthology published in the world of comic books since the untimely demise of Stephen R. Bissette's Taboo (to which Moore contributed the earliest chapters of his aforementioned From Hell and Lost Girls graphic novels).

9.  SAUCER STATE by Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly (published by IDW):



This limited series picks up where the previous volume, Saucer Country, left off when it was unceremoniously (and unwisely) cancelled by its previous publisher, DC/Vertigo, back in 2013.  Saucer Country is about the struggles of Arcadia Alvarado, the Governor of New Mexico, as she campaigns for the Presidency of the United States while also trying to get to the bottom of her carefully concealed, traumatic experiences as an alien abductee.  Recently resurrected by the folks at IDW, the sequel, Saucer State, begins with Alvarado's first term in the White House when the existence of extraterrestrials is at last made public in the most dramatic manner possible.  

Often described by writer Paul Cornell as a cross between The X-Files and West Wing, this series explores UFO mythology in such a balanced manner that it neither ridicules the subject matter (in the way that a hardcore skeptic might be tempted to do) nor glorifies it (in the way that a True Believer might be tempted to do).  Cornell demonstrates a genuine knowledge of this esoteric subject, hinting at such farflung influences as the earliest contactee books of the 1950s such as George Adamski and Desmond Leslie's Flying Saucers Have Landed and Orfeo Angelucci's The Secret of the Saucers, Dr. Carl Jung's psychological study A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Jacques Vallee's Passport to Magonia, and Jeffrey Kripal's recent study, Mutants and Mystics:  Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.  Along with Brian K. Vaughn's Saga and Paper Girls, this is one of the best science fiction comic books being published today... and certainly one of the best flying saucers comic books to see print since the publication of Bob Powell's Vic Torry and His Flying Saucer (and if you know what that is, feel free to go to the head of the class).

10.  #26 by Steve Ditko (published by Robin Snyder & Steve Ditko): 


2017 marked the 90th birthday of comic book legend Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-man, creator of Dr. Strange, Mr. A, The Question, The Creeper, Shade the Changing Man, The Mocker, Static, The Missing Man, and so many other revolutionary characters.  2017 also marked the publication of the 26th issue of Steve Ditko's ongoing series, by far the longest running title on which Ditko has worked right behind his iconic, thirty-eight issue run on The Amazing Spider-man in the 1960s.  This anthology series has so far made its way onto this list every year, as it looks like no other comic book being produced today.  It is, like all great art should be, utterly unique.  Ditko's episodic tales about such bizarre characters as Miss Eerie, The Cape, The Hero, and The Outline continue to fascinate.  

Many of the recent issues of Ditko's series have been funded through Kickstarter.  As a result, the complete list of contributors can be seen in every new issue.  I find it surprising how few comic book professionals appear on this list.  Stephen R. Bissette and Mark Verheiden have contributed to every Ditko campaign so far.  Mark Evanier and Neil Gaiman contributed to at least one of the campaigns, which is one more than over 90% of their peers.  These pros can't contribute ten or so bucks to a man whose work has been instrumental in building the very industry from which they benefit every day?  I find this disinterest on the part of the comic book industry absolutely baffling, but not unsurprising.  The dictum "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" certainly looks good in a microscopic comic book caption, but I suppose it's more difficult to follow in real life, eh?

If you want to plunge into one of the most unique reading experiences available in comics today, then consider donating to Ditko's current Kickstarter campaign, which ends on December 19th.  For more information, click HERE.  

Several important archival collections were published in 2017 as well, all of which are also highly recommended.  The first graphic novel mentioned below, CORTO MALTESE:  FABLE OF VENICE (the latest volume in IDW's ongoing, award-winning translations of Hugo Pratt's highly lauded Corto Maltese series), will be of particular interest to you conspiracy mavens out there, as this is a taut, dreamlike thriller set in early 1920s Venice, Italy focusing on a complex web of scheming Freemasons, Fascists, and occultists of all sorts....
 
CORTO MALTESE:  FABLE OF VENICE by Hugo Pratt (published by IDW):


ALACK SINNER:  THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Carlos Sampayo and Jose Munoz (published by IDW):


MONSTERS VOL. 1:  THE MARVEL MONSTERBUS by Jack Kirby, Larry Leiber, et al. (published by Marvel):


MONSTERS VOL. 2:  THE MARVEL MONSTERBUS by Jack Kirby, Larry Leiber, et al. (published by Marvel): 


JACK KIRBY'S FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS by Jack Kirby (published by DC Comics):   



THE DEMON by Jack Kirby (published by DC Comics): 


CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN by Jack Kirby and Dave Wood (published by DC Comics):



THE NEWSBOY LEGION VOL. 2 by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (published by DC Comics):   



SWAMP THING:  THE BRONZE AGE OMNIBUS by Len Wein, Bernie Wrightson, et al. (published by DC Comics): 


TOMB OF DRACULA:  THE COMPLETE COLLECTION VOL. 1 by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, et al. (published by Marvel):   


NIGHT FORCE by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan (published by DC Comics):


THE COMPLETE VOODOO VOL. 3 edited by Craig Yoe (published by IDW): 


MUMMIES edited by Steve Banes (published by IDW): 


PRE-CODE CLASSICS:  JET POWERS by Gardner Fox and Bob Powell (published by PS Art Books):  I've always been a tremendous admirer of Bob Powell's artwork, particularly his way-out horror and SF stories, so it's wonderful to see JET POWERS in print again in such a handsome hardcover edition....



RED RANGE by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman (published by IDW):

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