Writing in the Margins

Our author learns: Don't mess with Texas! Feel the Lone Star love, and grab this last-minute shopping list of the year's best comics and graphic novels for all the mods, rockers, punks and Texans on your list.

Published December 23, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

OK, it's holiday time, which means that most of you probably are too busy creeping through the malls of America to read this column -- or anything else, for that matter. But dig in below for some stellar stocking-stuffers, because I've got a phat list of graphic novels that's got something for your friends, your 'rents, your S.O., your kids, your cat and your parakeet. Call it a best-of-2004 compilation or call it a shopping list. Because this is America, and you can say whatever the hell you want.

Unless it's about Texas, where fragile egos bruise -- a tad hypocritically, I would argue, considering all the trash they talk -- at the slightest joke. That's an angular jab at those who didn't approve too much of my disappointment -- OK, outright disbelief -- over Don DeLillo's archival papers getting shipped to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Katherine Pelletier, the archivist who worked hard to get the "White Noise" author's goods to Austin, even wrote politely to inform me that no one in New York, DeLillo's hometown, stepped forward to claim the author's miscellany as its own, letting me know along the way that I unfairly "obliterate[d] the difference between those who treasure the lessons of history through art and literature and those who may wreak havoc on our culture." And I thought no one read my column!

Another righteous dude from Austin told me off for the same transgression, arguing correctly that the city is a "bastion of liberalism" that "[my] kind" -- by that, I suppose he meant people from Long Beach, Calif., like Snoop Dogg -- think only exist north of the Mason-Dixon line.

I thought long and hard about both accusations -- before falling asleep from the mental strain. Look, I have nothing but love for Pelletier and my Mason-Dixon heckler -- after all, without Austin, Texas might descend into a gay-bashing, creationism-teaching, Clear Channel-owned, Halliburton-nurturing, oil-funded, red-state dystopia. Whoops, too late!

In all seriousness, cultural figures as diverse as Gibby Haynes, Richard Linklater, Jim Hightower, Mars Volta, And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and many more go a long way toward redeeming Texas in my eyes -- and they've received my undying loyalty, unwavering support and press coverage. But with a Texas-based administration screwing the nation out of the lives of its sucker-punched youth, waist deep in Iraq's Big Muddy -- not to mention trillions of dollars by the time 2008 rolls around -- while sheltering unrepentant punks like Tom DeLay, Clear Channel, Kenneth Lay and countless more, you've got to cut me some slack for calling out the Lone Star faithful as red-state reactionaries. And remember, this is coming from a guy whose own state was taken over by the Terminator. (Yes, if you're wondering, I am pissed off that the Texas Longhorns screwed my California Golden Bears out of a BCS bowl bid. But of course I'm a professional and that's not affecting my attitude at all!)

"Eightball #23"
By Daniel Clowes
42 pages
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Some of you might be sick of seeing Fantagraphics' name in my column, but don't kill the messenger. They continue to turn out some of the most compelling comic narratives of our time, including this 23rd installment of Daniel Clowes' award-winning "Eightball" series.

This time around, "Eightball" focuses on a troubled boy named Andy who, after taking a drag on a cigarette offered to him by a troublemaking best friend named Louie, wakes up a superhero. But this isn't "Spider-Man"; Andy's troubled past and outcast pal Louie come back to haunt him. All hell breaks loose once Andy receives a working Death Ray gun in the mail, at which point Louie recruits his friend-turned-Superman to kill off the neighborhood crooks and bullies.

But like his "Ghost World" before it, Clowes' latest comic is about the fragile nature of childhood friendships.

"There's a certain sadness about them," Clowes says in a phone interview. "Because I think that most of us never have friendships like that ever again. Having that one friend, where it's the two of you against the world in high school, is a very intense thing. As you get older, you tend not to allow that to happen to yourself ever again, or you just don't have the room for it in your life anymore. So there's something much more interesting about those younger friendships, but they almost never last. You can't really move on if you're stuck in that. It's very unlikely that the two of you are going to develop simultaneously."

Clowes recently wrapped up shooting "Art School Confidential" with Terry Zwigoff, the director behind both the Oscar-nominated "Ghost World" and "Crumb," not to mention the hilarious "Bad Santa." The two have formed a mutually beneficial relationship, one that is propelling Clowes past the comics crowd and into mainstream recognition. But don't think that the ex-Berkeley, Calif., resident (suck it, Texas!) is letting that go to his head.

"I've had [producers] ask about some of my other comics," Clowes explains, "but really not in the way they would if they thought the comics were really commercial. I would have people beating down my door, in that case. The interest I get is tentative and uncertain, as if they're not sure whether these are the kind of films they really want to pursue. I think that 'American Splendor' came about through a producer who was a big comics fan; he's a guy I've known for many years and he was talking about doing that film since long before this trend emerged. 'Ghost World' was a very singular thing -- that was just Terry trying to find a book he responded to, which just happened to be 'Ghost World.' Terry's not really interested in comics, even though he gets deserved credit for being one of the guys who brought them into the mainstream. But beyond that, there has been some kind of interest here or there in my comics, but most of them will never turn into films."

"The Originals"
By Dave Gibbons

160 pages
DC Comics
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As one of the brilliant minds behind DC Comics' canonical "Watchmen," Dave Gibbons is a one-man tour de force. He's lent his pen to everyone from "Superman" and Batman to the "Matrix" and "Alien" franchises, to say nothing of collaborations he's had with giants of the industry like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Stan Lee.

But "The Originals" is one of his most personal works yet, a dystopian look back at Britain's mod explosion, a cultural movement that claimed Gibbons when he was a teenager. A meaning-laden black-and-white comic centered around the exploits of Lel, who wants more than anything to get in with the colorful mod gang known as the Originals, Gibbons' latest work explores, like Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" before it, that peculiar postwar U.K. environment that birthed everything from mod, punk and the Beatles to Maggie Thatcher's conservative revolution. But Gibbons maintains that the Burgess comparisons end there.

"What I had in mind was not to duplicate 'A Clockwork Orange' or 'Quadrophenia,'" Gibbons says. "But I guess that's one of the inevitable things if you're doing a book about disaffected youth who think they're grown up but actually aren't. Not to quote the Who or anything, but I think that my generation was really the first that didn't have to fight in a war or at least perform military service. And I think that, in some ways, joining a youth gang is a substitute for that. You clearly want to identify with a group of people, you want to have something that's not connected to the home, something that can give you your own adventures, ones that have nothing to do with your childhood environment. Certainly, I remember Britain in the '50s as being drab and gray, and it is that kind of austere backdrop that causes colorful fads to start to shine."

As always, sex and violence rule the roost in youth culture, and "The Originals" is filled with both. But it's not exploitative or transgressive -- as we'll see later with Alejandro Jodorowsky's new "Son of the Gun" collection, also out from DC. If anything, it is the escalating gang violence of "The Originals" that signals the end of Lel's innocence, as well as that of his favorite subculture. And all it takes is one gun.

"A gun was unheard of," Gibbons says, "certainly amongst these gangs back in the '60s. Of course, you're nobody now if you're in a gang and don't carry a gun, but in those days a gun would be a most unusual thing to have. In my whole lifetime of being a mod, I rarely ever saw anyone with a knife. Most of the violence in those days was of the short-lived brawl variety. But one of the things I wanted to do in 'The Originals' is show what happens when violence does get out of hand, when it turns from being a boyish schoolyard fight to palpable violence where people die and their lives are irrevocably altered. I certainly never murdered anybody!"

"Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists"
Edited by Ted Rall

127 pages
Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing
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Cartoonist/columnist Ted Rall has spent the last several years calling bullshit on the power brokers that have been running this country into the ground. This second anthology of up-and-coming or established alternative cartoonists is Rall's love letter to the genre that has brought him to prominence.

"For years, I've been frustrated at the lack of attention generated by this genre of alternative weekly-based political and social satire cartoonists," Rall explains over the phone, "which has been around pretty much since the late '80s and early '90s. And it's true that you can argue that not all them are social or political cartoonists, or even in alternative weeklies -- most of my clients are in dailies, actually -- but there are certain things these comics have in common. They tend to be drawn by a certain age group; Generation X is certainly the wellspring of the first or second wave of the alt-weekly cartoonists. They feature stripped-down or abstracted drawing styles to convey complicated ideas; for that reason they tend to be wordy, text-based exercises. And since I work in that genre, I love it but am endlessly frustrated by the lack of exposure it gets. This stuff always falls between the cracks."

Unless you're there to catch it, which some, like Salon and other forward-looking publications, are. But no matter how much indie cred artists like David Rees, Keith Knight and Aaron McGruder receive for their outstanding work, there are toiling cartoonists like Tak Toyoshima, Emily Flake and Max Cannon who may never get the credit they deserve. Which is where Rall comes in.

"Here you have intelligent and funny comics being ignored because no one yet has pulled it all together as a genre," Rall added. "That's one reason why I felt these cartoonists had a hard row to hoe, because people need to have genres, to be able to categorize things. If it's something you've never seen or heard before, it doesn't fit anywhere. So the goal of the first book was to say there's strength in numbers, and it did much better than I or my publisher ever expected. But this was before 9/11, so in a way the scene we were documenting changed right as we were putting the book to bed." Ergo, the new book, which features interviews with the aforementioned, as well as 15 more budding Matt Groenings, many of whom deserve to be stars already.

"In the Shadow of No Towers"
By Art Spiegelman

42 pages
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I already covered Spiegelman's massive rumination on 9/11 -- and the terrorism gold rush it inspired -- earlier this year. But memories are short. How else did a war against WMD become a campaign to spread peace and freedom? Spiegelman's book should be a collector's item soon, but that would be sad indeed. Most of the strips he created for the book were offered to high-profile publications that nixed them, for fear of stirring whiskey into John Ashcroft's coffee. Wimpy bastards. Next to Peter Kuper's "World War 3 Illustrated," Spiegelman's visually arresting release is the most damning indictment of U.S. policy and arrogance committed to paper this year.

"The Jungle"
By Peter Kuper
48 pages
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Speaking of Kuper, he has rendered Upton Sinclair's tragic story of Jurgis Rudkus and the Chicago meatpacking industry in harrowing colors -- and just in time. With rampant corruption and multinational greed reaching an all-time high, the world could stand to read up on Sinclair's socialist tracts, especially those that rail against corporate crime and hypocritical religious orders. Here Kuper mashes Soviet-era propaganda art with Picasso's "Guernica" and more for a captivating peek into the world of those much less fortunate than you. The way things are going in the world right now, that contingency will grow by leaps and bounds. Don't sleep on this one.

"McSweeney's Quarterly Concern Issue 13"
Edited by Chris Ware

263 pages
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This gargantuan edition of Dave Eggers' continuing promotion of all that is strange and good in literature and the arts is stacked to the spine with knockout artists, most of whom are already household names. Guest editor Chris Ware ("Jimmy Corrigan") has compiled some heady material for this hard-to-find (at least the last time I checked) collection, including excerpts from Joe Sacco's "The Fixer," Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers," Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's "Love & Rockets," and much more, as well as some vintage toss-offs like Charles Schulz's early "Peanuts" scribblings. Way more wine-and-cheese than Rall's macaroni-and-cheese compilation, "McSweeney's 13" is a capable introduction to the finest of what the contemporary comic set has to offer, although you're not likely to find too many unknowns. But the edition's astounding visual and textual arrangements are reward enough for the fairly steep price. Get it for those adult-alternative snobs who still think comics are for losers.

"Son of the Gun: Sinner"
By Alejandro Jodorowsky

112 pages
Humanoids/DC Comics
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Yeah, it might be DC Comics, but "Superman," this ain't. Unless the caped crusader is a South American street orphan born with a tail, raised by a transvestite/prostitute dwarf and suckled by a dog, that is. The infamous Alejandro Jodorowsky more or less created the midnight movie circuit with the hard-to-stomach 1970 cult western known as "El Topo," before scaring the living crap out of deviant moviegoers everywhere with the twisted "Santa Sangre" and "The Holy Mountain." He's done the same in his various sci-fi comics like "Metabarons" and "Technopriest." "Son of the Gun" has much more in common with Brian De Palma's now-canonical film "Scarface" than with "Heavy Metal." There is so much conscienceless violence -- especially against women -- in "Son of the Gun" that you'd be forgiven for tossing the book out the window. But Jodorowsky has built his guts 'n' gore rep on worse, and those hardboiled fans who think that Takeshi Miike's films are just what Dr. Feelgood ordered will feel right at home here. For strong stomachs only.

"Locas: A Love & Rockets Book"
by Jaime Hernandez

780 pages
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In my own haughty opinion, this is the release of the year (see my Salon piece on Jaime for more on that score). Compiling more than 20 years of material from Los Bros. Hernandez's pioneering "Love & Rockets" series, "Locas" follows the bisexual Maggie Chascarillo as she tries to find herself in the burgeoning Southern California punk rock scene. On the way, she also find Hopey Glass, a rebellious kindred spirit, and the two spend the rest of this massive tome simultaneously trying to escape and reconcile with each other. There are few comics that conscientiously attempt to represent alternative sexuality, and few authors in the genre as revered as Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. If you're going to grab one book from this list for yourself, grab this one.

By Scott Thill

Scott Thill is the editor of Morphizm.com. He has written on media, politics and music for Wired, the Huffington Post, LA Weekly and other publications.

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