Comic books in 2015: Rebel yells and worlds of fantasy

An exciting mix of new names and established figures made 2015 a great year for comic books and graphic novels, writes Don O’Mahony
Comic books in 2015: Rebel yells and worlds of fantasy
Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell.

O’Brien and the universe

In the domestic market, O’Brien Press are Ireland’s most significant publisher of graphic novels. For the most part they have released a range of books depicting the turbulent events of the 1910s. However, this year saw a real gem in the shape of A Time Traveller’s Guide to Life, the Universe & Everything. Written by Dr Ian Flitcroft, an astrophysics nut and consultant eye surgeon at Dublin’s Children’s University Hospital, this is required reading for all ages.

With Albert Einstein as our guide, the mysteries of the universe, from black holes to time travel, are memorably revealed thanks to Britt Spencer’s zany illustrations and Flitcroft’s infectious enthusiasm. Stephen Hawking clearly missed a trick!

Cork creates

In the small press, the past two years have seen significant growth in Cork’s comic scene, thanks to the Cork Comic Creators, an informal group who meet once a month to exchange advice and offer encouragement.

The inaugural Cork Comic Expo at Mahon Point, fronted by Will Sliney, was deemed a huge success, and this year alone saw the publication of four anthology comics, highlighting the depth of local talent. At the centre of this scene is Turncoat Press, who published their second and third collections this year. The most recent, Last Rebel, detailed the adventurers of a hurley-wielding heroine in a post-apocalyptic Cork.

Tomine to the top

Internationally, Adrian Tomine’s ascension to the top of the graphic novel firmament has been a rapid one and with his latest book sets him firmly on a similar step to Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. A product of the discerning Canadian comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, it says something that his work is published here by Faber & Faber. His latest short story collection, Killing and Dying, is stylistically broader than his previous collections. Sadness permeates these stories, but there’s a warmth and humour, too, that’s underpinned by Tomine’s deep empathy towards the characters as well as an exquisite eye for detail. With this, he can rightfully be considered a master of the form.

Real feelings

Comics are an adept medium for addressing darker real-life stories and recent years have seen unflinching accounts of battles with cancer and eating disorders, amongst others. This year’s most bracing read leaves a dread feeling in the pit of one’s stomach.

Illustrated by Maria Stoian, Take it as a Compliment (Singing Dragon) features true tales of casual sexual abuse and humiliation suffered by women.

Ranging from sexist comments to public groping and abusive relationships, Stoian’s gaily-coloured illustrations subtly convey the trauma of these exchanges, revealing a troubling dossier of what is surely a deeply ingrained hostility to women.

The Last Rebel, a  comic book set in Cork city
The Last Rebel, a  comic book set in Cork city

Comic dissertation

Harvard University Press’ remarkable entry into comics publishing arose when Nick Sousanis submitted his dissertation in the form of a comic book. Titled Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry into Learning in Many Dimensions, Sousanis’ investigation into the connection between word and image could not have been presented in any other way. Published this year as Unflattening, Sousanis takes his lead from Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud’s rigorous analysis of sequential art and the comic form, and in doing so presents a philosophical and reference heavy treatise in a compelling and accessible manner.

The Sculptor

McCloud’s name has so long been invoked in relation to Understanding Comics that one could be forgiven for thinking he has done little else outside theoretical work. The Sculptor (published by SelfMadeHero) reasserts his credentials as a storyteller.

Disillusioned by his encounters with New York’s fickle art world, David Smith accepts Death’s offer to trade his life for his art. Complications arise when he falls for the open-hearted Meg. It can only end one way. Even so, and despite its rather mawkish undertone, McCloud propels the story forward with gusto.

Run Like Crazy

While McCloud’s close to 500-pages-long opus goes for the big themes, The French master Jacques Tardi’s Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell (Fantagraphics Books) is a model of compressed, efficient storytelling, embellished by his gritty and expressive line work.

Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell.
Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell.

Adapted from Jean-Patrick Manchette’s 1972 book, Tardi maintains the ’70s detail. Essentially a game of cat and mouse between a crazed hit man and a resourceful young girl with a troubled background, it evokes the mood of such stellar cinematic hard-boiled noir crime dramas as Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Boorman’s Point Blank.

Japanese history

This year also saw the final instalment of Shigeru Mizuki’s 2000-page four-part memoir Showa: A History of Japan. Showa is the name of the period of Japanese history marking the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which occurred between 1926-1989. Born in 1922, Mizuki was witness to this.

An image from Shigeru Mizuki’s memoir, Showa: A History of Japan.
An image from Shigeru Mizuki’s memoir, Showa: A History of Japan.

Blending autobiography and history throughout, Mizuki reflects on the calamitous outcome of Japan’s vain military ambitions. Part four covers the years from 1953 to 1989, a period where Mizuki, a maimed war veteran with animistic beliefs, succeeds after a lengthy struggle in becoming the revered cartoonist he is today.

Funny woman

For pure hilarity, Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton is unparalleled. Her comics originally featured on her website and were collected by Drawn & Quarterly under the title Hark! A Vagrant. Beaton glories in the anachronistic treatment of literary and historical figures and all periods and genres are grist to her pop cultural mill.

The strips in her latest collection Step Aside, Pops (Jonathan Cape) consistently deliver unexpected, delightful and plain laugh-out-loud funny pay-offs. They also highlight Beaton’s ability to simultaneously poke fun at and celebrate a subject.

Magic academy

Taking a knowing and more mature take on the Harry Potter universe is Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy (Drawn & Quarterly). Tamaki’s diverse cast of students are endowed with magical and superhuman powers, but they still struggle with all the attendant problems of adolescence from peer acceptance to sexual identity. Crucially they possess the most magical quality lacking in Harry Potter: attitude.

Compiled from her web series, SuperMutant Magic Academy has a somewhat haphazard and episodic structure but Tamaki gently pulls the main story strands together to deliver an appropriately bathetic climax.

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