Sunday, 30 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE COMICS OF 2012

Our round-up of 2012's best pop culture continues to run off the rails of the originally planned schedule. But fear not, the final piece, on the year's best music, will be with you in time to change your NYE playlist accordingly.

2012 Banner

In 2012, I read more comics than in any other year of my life, thanks to Comixology's endless stream of sales and the truly excellent Canada Water library. I developed such an addiction to comics podcasts (between the industry analysis of House to Astonish, the close reading of Kieron Gillen's DecompressediFanboy's chatty quickfire reviews, and Mindless One's SILENCE!, in many ways its scrappy British cousin) that I've recently had to cut back. Moving to London meant I saw what my girlfriend describes as my 'comics friends' far more, hitting up the ever-wonderful Thought Bubble and owning its dancefloor with them.
I'm more immersed in comics culture than I've ever been.

...And yet, coming to write this, I find myself with a rather thin list of actual comics which came out in 2012.
Buying cut-price digital issues on Comixology – plus monthly splurges on Amazon – has forced me into reading older material and collections.

It means I've finally got past the first trades of The Invisibles, Sandman, and a wealth of other stuff I'm embarrassed to admit I hadn't read before, but I've also dropped off buying monthly issues almost entirely. If I wasn't a tradewaiter (non-comics people translation: someone who doesn't read their comics monthly, in issue format, but waits for the bi-annual-ish 'trade paperback' collections) before, I certainly am now.

However, it also means I haven't read any further into Journey into Mystery, my favourite comic of last year, than I had at the time. It's very nearly all available in trade, though, so I've got a wonderfully condensed period of high adventure, deep thinking and, if the internet is anything to go by, big emotions ahead of me.
Suggestive
And it's not all bad: regular trips to the library have furnished me with handsome editions of the first five Locke & Key volumes. It's a story about the Locke family and their ancestral home, Keyhouse, beginning with a father's murder and blossoming out from there. The titular keys (and nominal locks) each come with their own magical power, and a matching metaphor.
In truth, despite being written by Stephen King's son, Locke & Key's nearest relative is probably Buffy. It transitions deftly between tense thriller/well-drawn ensemble drama/experimental formalism/pure horror throughout, but the draw is always the characters. The series' scope has widened, drawing in more of the family's history and pushing towards the fantastical, as it reaches its climax but it stays anchored to the human stories of Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke. It all concludes next year (five more issues, or one more collection) – catching up is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, the Comixology model has produced Double Barrel. Playing with the format rather than the form, the Brothers Cannon have developed a monthly digital comics magazine, centred around an ongoing story from each, but also drawing in essays, mini-comics, and how-to's. Both stories are solid, with Kevin Cannon bringing smoother art to the Arctic pirate space adventure story Crater XV and Zander Cannon delivering my favourite story in Heck, a modern slice-of-life riff on Dante's Inferno.
Without the constraints of print, each chapter can be as long or short as it needs to be, but for just $2 (and dropping below $1 after a month) Double Barrel is the most interesting bargain in the modern comics landscape.
Regretful
I think overall, I've settled into the reading rhythm that's best for me, grabbing #1s digitally (year's best? Hawkeye, which promised a modern blueprint for superhero comics) and then using them to decide what I'll pick up six months later.
It gives series more room to breathe. For example, the first couple of issues of Saga – the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit – were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.
Expansive
Living up to what people had been saying about it in the first half of the year, the first volume of Prophet made for an intoxicating read. The art shifts as constantly as the world, with little touchstones serving to link up the style of each artist: The dense alien landscapes intended to be pored over. The inventory panels stolen straight out of a videogame. The tactile gnarliness of it all.
Meanwhile the story, which jumps between a number of John Prophet clones I never quite learned to tell apart, is either some higher-level narrative magic, or nonsensical. But really it's all just an excuse to join Prophet (the one with the tail, or the one with the mohawk, or the one that's dead inside his robot bodyguard) as he journeys through a mad, inventive, beautifully rendered world.
Some of the experiences you, the cosmic tourist, can expect to enjoy – falling from the sky in the pink womb of a protective star skin; sharing a post-coital cigarette with your vagina-faced alien lover; watching the stars from the shoulder of a curled-up fetus planet.

Morrison's Batman run has been a regular feature on these end of year round-ups since I started doing them, and Batman Incorporated is shaping up to be a fitting end to his extraordinary run. The story has embraced Batman's entire history, even the bits fans normally wince at, but it's now been running for long enough that it can mine its own past. All the pieces are being brought together. Dozens of Batmen of all nations, and as many interweaving subplots, all battling the forces of evil in the form of Leviathan.
The shadowy organisation's even shadowier leader was revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, Batman's onetime lover and father of his son, presently Robin and potential Devilbatman of the future. With that, the whole epic saga has turned out to be a small family story, really – two parents fighting over custody (and the soul) of a child neither of them wanted in the first place – played out on a huge canvas.
Morrison's never been great at endings, but you get the impression this might just be the one he pulls off.
Analytical
The most grown-up thing I've read this year is doubtless Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, the follow-up and companion piece to Fun Home, a memoir about her father. This raises an interesting problem. Whereas the first part told the story of her father, a closeted homosexual raising a family in a funeral home who committed suicide, Bechdel's relationship with her mother isn't so obviously story-shaped.
In response, she dives into her own internal processes, and makes the story about them. Are You My Mother? covers the period of writing and publishing Fun Home, and some of the lead-in to this book. It's incredibly reflexive – pages layer the actual events as they happen with the transcribing of those events, to appear in the book – but completely disinterested in being post-modern.
It's merely a symptom of being a book about analysis, which by its nature, is deeply analytical. Everything is pored over. Individual elements, events and objects recur, are placed alongside other elements, and are re-examined. You get memories and dreams, therapy sessions which pick over those dreams and memories, pages from psychology books, carefully copied letters, all overlapping with one another.
Reading that again, it sounds exhausting. I'm making Are You My Mother? sound like something overly worthy and heavy, the comics equivalent of Oscar-bait. Honestly, it is very literary, and at times even scholarly – a necessity, I think, of trying to represent on the page the process of over-thinking and constant self-analysis.
But it's also never anything less than an enthralling read. Your thumb sits constantly on the bottom corner of the page, waiting to turn it like the best class of trashy bestseller. It's just that Are You My Mother? will have you flicking backwards just as often as forwards, to compare and examine and analyse.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.