It probably is too late for a gift guide but considering there's still four plus days to Xmas (and considering some of you might be shopping for yourselves after Xmas with money passed your way), following is a list of forty-three items culled from my Trade Picks of 2006, with some singles thrown in that I thought were great and you could probably still find without too much trouble. They're sorted alphabetically, so no hierarchy is implied, and they represent my picks only (although if Hibbs and McMillan sorted their picks as well, wouldn't that be cool?). Brief commentary will be provided as necessary, or until my brain explodes. Without further ado (and with my apologies in advance for an insanely long post)(oh, and note I may be revising this over time in case, in my haste, my hyperbole ends up sounding redundant and/or nonsensical):
ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO HC: I found the second collection of short stories by Yoshiro Tatsumi even more captivating than the first. Like the stories in THE PUSH MAN, the similarities of Tatsumi's largely passive protagonists dampens the impact of the stories cumulatively, but I found some of the material in ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO so powerful it overcame such limitations. It's a gripping book, beautifully published and reasonably priced.
ACTION PHILOSOPHERS VOL 1 GIANT SIZED THING TPB: Volume 2 is out as well, and these books are excellent purchases for anyone who loves Larry Gonick's Cartoon History... series. Funny and informative.
ALL STAR SUPERMAN: We've still got most of the issues of these in the store, and you probably already have them. But if you know someone who went ape for Superman Returns and doesn't have these yet, do them a favor. Brandon Routh's Clark Kent was pretty good, but he wasn't half as good as Frank Quitely's.
AMERICAN BORN CHINESE: Gene Yang's take on the tale of the Monkey King is a blistering and hilarious look at racism, multiculturalism, and tradition. And it's all postmodern n' shit, like them thar kids are what so fond of these days.
AZU MANGA DAIOH: Didn't actually review these for the blog, but I hunted them down after greatly enjoying the three volumes of Kiyohio Azuma's Yotsuba&!. The four volumes of Azu Manga Daioh follows a group of schoolgirls through high school. Done in a daily strip format, AMD is a little goofier and frenetic than Yotsuba&!, but is similarly rewarding in its depth of characterization and comic timing. A few of the payoffs at the end of the series are maybe a bit too much (the first payoff with Sakaki and the cat was awesome...the second and third, not so much) but that barely marred my enjoyment. Get these suckers from wherever (I got vol. 3 from Ralph's Alternate Reality Comics) while you can.
BANANA SUNDAY TPB: Colleen Coover and Root Nibot's all-ages miniseries is a refreshing tale about a new student trying to fit in at her school despite being saddled with three talking monkeys. It's even more whimsical than that description makes it out to be, and it's great reading for anyone who misses the light, well-drawn stories Harvey Comics used to put out.
BATMAN YEAR ONE HUNDRED #1-4: Still not in trade format? I think you can still get a complete set of Paul Pope's futuristic Batman story at our store. Those of you who liked Spider-Man: Reign should check this out and see how an artist can evoke and honor Frank Miller's Dark Knight without trapping themselves in a thoughtless rehash.
BECK MONGOLIAN CHOP SQUAD: Yes, goddammit, Harold Sakuishi's series currently seems a little uneven, but it's so satisfying to see Kokyuki's hard work in the first three volumes pay off that I couldn't care. And Sakuishi's art manages to carry all the expressiveness in his character's elastic-faced characterizations, he doesn't need to resort to super-deformed panels, or stick-figure asides to heighten his character's emotional lives. I'm hoping it can make it through this current awkward transition period in the story and go on to kick everyone's ass. It certainly has the potential.
BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2006: Read some grousing on the Internet about this book, but I liked a lot of the material in it a great deal. Frankly, unless you're a real newbie to the world of Indy Comix, I think this anthology is more focused and has a stronger impact than Brunetti's Anthology of Graphic Fiction.
BUT I LIKE IT HC: Another book I didn't get around to writing about, I didn't think this would have much new to offer me since I already had Sacco's Yahoo #2, from which the bulk of the material is drawn. But all the extras make this a complete and fully-rounded work of its own, and the later material I hadn't seen--Sacco's hilarious portrait of himself as a helplessly suckered Rolling Stones fan--is exquisite. But I Like It is a knowing and sadly affectionate portrait of the artist as a music fan.
CASTLE WAITING HC: This gorgeous, well-priced hardcover collects (almost) all of the previous issues of Linda Medley's beautifully rendered fantasy series. Intelligent and lovely stuff.
CURSES: We've got a few copies currently in at the store and I can't recommend this highly enough--a linked collection of Kevin Huizenga's early work looks at modern civilization as both blessing and curse, and at comics as both meditation and myth. Funny, thought-provoking stuff and one of the best books of the year.
DAREDEVIL: If you were to see my list of singles that got Pick of the Week there was a pretty strong throughline--Brubaker & Morrison, then Bendis & Ellis & Fraction. Nearly every issue of this title since Ed took over made my Pick of the Week, but I also picked Bendis's last issue. This title's been on a roll for a while, and worth picking up in trade format or, if it comes to it, hunting through the back issue bins.
DEATH NOTE: Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's absurdly satisfying (and satisfyingly absurd) manga suspense series was one of my favorite reading experiences of the year: the creators take a perfect story hook--a supernatural notebook that allows the wielder power over life and death--and run with it in directions nobody would ever suspect. Don't know if it can sustain its perfectly measured doses of absurdity, cleverness and suspense, but it's done an amazing job to date.
DISEASE OF LANGUAGE: Not sure if you can still get this, but two of Alan Moore's spoken word performances get intelligent and sypmathetic adaptations from Eddie Campbell. This also reprints the equally intelligent and sympathetic interview with Moore Campbell conducted for Egomania #2. You may be a little burnt out on Moore interviews now that the press folderol for Lost Girls has come and gone, but I think this interview still holds up, and it's great having all this transcendent material under one cover.
DRIFTING CLASSROOM: The first two volumes of this gave me everything I wanted from Dragonhead, and more--Kazuo Umezu's tale of an entire school thrown into a strange hostile dimension is relievedly pessimistic and dark, brutal, caustic and cathartic. So far, each volume I've read has left me awstruck and hungering for more. Dismiss this book for its anachronistic style at your peril.
ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS VOL 2 TPB: Another book I wanted to write about at greater length, the second volume of Essential Defenders brings us Steve Gerber at something very close to the top of his game. You should keep in mind I'm a huge Marvel fanboy where this material is concerned because that's the stuff that I read, re-read and treasured as a kid, but this stuff, packed to the gills with surreal imagery, paranoid fantasies and cosmic puffery, is like having the book equivalent of The Bottled City of Kandor: all of America in the '70s is right there on your shelf.
FANTASTIC FOUR IRON MAN BIG IN JAPAN: My earlier pessimistic forecast was wrong--you can get Seth Fisher's final work in an affordable trade paperback form, and you should: not just for his witty and elegant artwork, but for a great story by Zeb Wells that manages to tie together Kaiju, C'thulhu, and the Mole Man.
FATE OF THE ARTIST: Eddie Campbell's triumphantly comic self-eulogy manages to meditate on the nature of fame and success, the format of the graphic novel, and the little succeses and failures that make life so deeply hilarious and affecting. Another one of those books that came out this year that help make 2006 feel like a watershed in the medium.
FELL #5: All of the done-in-one issues by Ellis and Templesmith were taut and impressively constructed, but this interrogation room sequence seemed to bring out the best in both creators. And the issue is less than two bucks, which warms the cockles of my miserly heart.
FINDER: FIVE CRAZY WOMEN: This latest Finder book by Carla Speed McNeil may be the best thing she's ever done--it's certainly the bawdiest. If you're a fan of strong characters, lively cartooning and hilarious storytelling, you should check this out.
FUN HOME: Literate and intensely literary, Alison Bechdel's memoir about her father's odd death--and even odder life--has earned kudos for its tremendous attention to detail, but I loved the way it captured the feeling of how highly intelligent, emotionally detached people learn to love and understand themselves and the people around them. Widely praised, I still think this graphic novel hasn't received the accolades it deserves.
GANGES #1: This collection of Glenn Ganges stories by Kevin Huizenga demonstrates the emotional throughlines that connect all the little incidents of our interior and exterior lives--and how well graphic narrative is suited for capturing those throughlines. I really loved this.
GOLGO 13: Viz is to be commended for reprinting a mere smattering of the hundreds of stories featuring Takao Saito's kick-ass, verbally understated, master hitman: perhaps most impressive is that the stories so far are truly insane--imagine Tom Clancy wacked out of his mind on PCP--and yet are clearly little more than seductive hints as to how truly apeshit the stories can get. A guilty pleasure about which my only complaint is that they need to get much guiltier and hopefully will soon.
GOON VOL 4 MY VIRTUE & GRIM CONSEQUENCES TPB: Actually, you pretty much can't go wrong with any book by Eric Powell featuring the rough and tumble Goon and his pal Frankie battling zombies in some Depression-era phantasmagoria. Funny, beautifully drawn and accomplished, and I'm sure you're reading it already.
GRAY HORSES TPB: I thought I reviewed this, but couldn't find it on the site (I may have balked because it's a bit pricey for what you get, but couldn't bring myself to write that). Whether I did or didn't, Hope Larson's dreamlike tale of a French girl in a new city discovering her future (and perhaps the past of a previous life) is enchantingly impressionistic, disarmingly gentle and odd, and well worth your time. It's continued to haunt me in the months since I first read it.
GUMBY #1: The dream team of Bob Burden and Rick Geary spin a simple yarn of Gumby and Pokey having some adventures with a charming young girl. We've still got copies of this on our shelves and it's worth the $3.99 or so to get an endearing and strangely childlike tale about clay kids at play.
IMMORTAL IRON FIST #1: One of my favorite Marvel characters finally done the justice I think he deserves, courtesy of Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja. But mainly I'm mentioning this so I can tell Arune he kicks ass for getting the Iron Fist insignia tattooed on his arm. You kick ass, Arune!!
LITTLE LULU: There's been a ton of tremendous reprints this year, but I've loved finally being able to read these classic kids' comics by John Stanley and Irving Tripp. They may look simple, but they're masterfully constructed and entertaining reading, leagues beyond the sort of "by the numbers" stuff you see in most of the stuff on the stands today..
LUBAS COMICS & STORIES #8: A stand-out issue by Beto that I mention in part because it seems to neatly encapsulate and summarize Beto's thematic approach to desire. In part, I mention it because of those nay-sayers who don't think a "best of" print collection for the Savage Critic(s) would be good reading. Did you miss the way I masterfully compared Beto's take on hedonism with Fellini's, you bastards?
NAOKI URASAWA'S MONSTER: I was a little bummed when this title moved away from that exquisite first volume's mix of serial killer suspense and hospital politics, but this book won me back over with its current incarnation as a strangely Lynchian take on The Fugitive. No idea where the hell it'll go next, but I hope it continues to be as satisfyingly melodramatic and evocative.
PLANETES BY MAKOTO YUKIMURA: Although I didn't quite love the ending as much as others have, I still found this science fiction series about garbagemen in space to be a great read. If you like Warren Ellis' space stories or Carla Speed McNeil's Finder material, you should hunt these up.
PRIDE OF BAGHDAD: Uh-oh. I can feel my brain exploding, so I better wrap this up. Brian K. Vaughan actually did a lot of really good work this year--like Bendis a few years back, he seemed to single-handedly raise the bar on what I considered a good comic book--but this Vertigo OGN features jaw-droppingly lovely art by Niko Henrichon and a very smart high concept used to good effect. In fact, most of the criticism I remember reading about this work was that it seemed too polished--like something that had already been smoothed and cleaned by producers of Dreamworks and several rounds of audience score cards. If the worst Vaughan has to offer is a near-Spielbergian proficiency (and complacency), he's in for a very long and successful career.
PUNISHER MAX VOL 6 BARRACUDA TPB: I thought this storyline kicked ass, thanks to Gorlan Parlov's superlative cartooning chops, Ennis' humorously bloody storyline and the cheerful, obscene and unstoppable Barracuda.
SCOTT PILGRIM AND THE INFINITE SADNESS TPB: Bryan Lee O'Malley continued to stretch his abilities in this third book in the Scott Pilgrim saga. While not my favorite, I'm actually comforted that it wasn't--it means that O'Malley isn't complacent, is still trying to give the audience what he thinks we need, as well as what we want--but it still was jammed full of witty dialogue, madcap ideas and showstopping sequences. Awesome minus one is still awesome, as it turns out.
SHAOLIN COWBOY #6: Might've been the only issue of the title from Geoff Darrow this year, I'm not sure at the moment--but it continued to blow my mind, making me feel like I'd just read the most insane comic book by Hieronymus Bosch to date. We need more of these.
PUNISHER THE TYGER: A one-shot by Garth Ennis and John Severin that fills in Frank Castle's early years but avoids a lot of the cheap and easy pre-origin shout-outs you might expect. Instead, Ennis suggests that someone like Frank Castle--like the namesake of Blake's poem--is understandable only by the God who made him, or maybe as proof of God's non-existence altogether. Really knocked me on my ass.
SEVEN SOLDIERS #1: Grant Morrison wraps up his Seven Soldiers saga by recreating the experience of the first superhero comic you ever read. I really enjoyed all the other Seven Soliders books (and loved the Frankenstein mini) but this was my favorite because Morrison all but single-handedly kicked the Internet's ass with it.
(This, by the way, is also what Hibbs would call my "neener-neener" post as you can see how my original review talks about that "first comic book" experience without knowing Morrison's intentions, and then Morrison himself talks about them in that great interview with Ian Brill over at Newsarama a little bit later. I'm still annoyingly proud of that.)
TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE #3: Every comic book gift list should have at least one book that is nothing but hysterically funny-ass shit. This is that book.
TOP 10: THE FORTY NINERS: Blah, blah, blah, Alan Moore, sensitive, blah, blah, blah. Okay, brain officially broken.
TRAILERS HC: (But even though my brain is broken, you should check this out because it's a neat little book--imagine Terry Moore drawing Blood Simple and you've got an idea of what this book is like.
VAMPIRE LOVES: I think I described this as being like a Geoffrey Brown book co-written and drawn by Charles Addams. And wow, do I think that makes me sound like an asshole now. Nonetheless, this winning book about an young Nosferatu looking for love is great reading and worth getting, no matter how much of a twerp I can be.
YOTSUBA&!: Finally, a great little overlooked comedic gem by Kiyohiko Azuma about a cute little girl and the family and neighbors she amuses. Not nearly as annoying as it sounds, I swear. Imagine, I dunno, a less-mean Japanese Seinfeld with a kid in it. Um, or maybe you shouldn't...
Oh, wait. Where's The Great Catsby (manwha that's like Chuck Jones animating a short story by Thomas "You Can't Go Home Again" Wolfe) or Love Roma (a lovely little episodic manga about first love that is utterly unique--in some places it's almost a Japanese relationship training film directed by Jim Jarmusch)? Fuck. Well, get them too, will you? I'm off to take some advil and get some dinner. I'll probably post again before the new year but, if not, have an excellent rest of 2006!