Comics Best Kept From the Kids: The Year's Best Graphic Books and Novels

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Comics best kept from the kids

Don’t tell my parents, but I discovered adult comics when I was still a kid. It was the tail end of the underground-comics revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. My childhood interest in Mighty Mouse and Tom Terrific and later Batman and Green Lantern had begun to sour when I discovered Mr. Natural, Captain Pissgums and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Here was high adventure. Natural—he of “Keep on Truckin’” fame—kept a baby alive in the desert by forcing it to commit an unspeakable act. Pissgums liked to lop off the members of his fellow pirates. And the Freak Brothers thought times of weed and no money were easier than times of money and no weed. Oh, brave new world!

The underground era pushed the medium to surreal limits. But comics continued to evolve; even adult comics had to grow up sometime. Today’s comics not only contain all the fantastic and absurd qualities of their predecessors, but they also have found a place for the everyday, even mundane values of life, often contrasted with strange—dare we say comical?—illustrations.

Take David Heatley’s graphic memoir My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Pantheon Books, $24.95). In chapters on sex, race, mom, dad and kin, Heatley is disarmingly honest about his emotions, biases and hangups. The drawing has something of an infantile quality—the characters, except mom, dad and the therapist, look like children, and even some of the impossibly small panels suggest that it’s the little things that matter and we’ll never grow up. Dreams, complete with dates they were dreamt, don’t seem all that much stranger than the confessional vignettes. When was the last time you went to the butcher and ordered 3 pounds of vagina?

In its long history, the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets has played both sides of the coin: true-life stories from the streets of Los Angeles and the Mexican homeland, as well as the brothers’ own brand of wacky magical realism. Love and Rockets: New Stories #1 (Fantagraphics, $14.99) transcends the series’ telenovela inspirations to include fantasies of aliens, a slot machine-loving kangaroo who bums money from a talking penis, hormonal superheroines and a comedy team transported to a planet that looks a lot like Las Vegas. One of the straightest stories, the parable “Papa,” tells of an epic struggle against parasites. Strange, strange stuff.

Still, the trend in comics is to get real, even if the circumstances are unusual. Contrasting life’s little issues—like where to buy diapers—with repressive politics brings the absurdity of both into sharp focus. Guy DeLisle’sBurma Chronicles (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95) recounts his days in Myanmar while traveling with his wife, an administrator for Doctors Without Borders. Told with a healthy dose of self-deprecation, DeLisle’s experiences contrast frustration and comedy as his family tries to establish day-to-day life in a country that even Kafka might not have imagined. Insidious low-tech censorship mostly enforced with scissors, the frustrations of the aid organizations operating within the country, rampant heroin addiction in rural villages and random disappearances all make for complications. Like the vignettes themselves, DeLisle’s drawing style has a subtle way of creating detail even in its simplicity.

The political backdrop in Rutu Modan’s Jamilti (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95) is the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. Modan, whose previous graphic novel, Exit Wounds, followed the search for a missing lover thought to have been an unidentified victim of a terrorist bombing, concentrates on human issues in these seven stories: love under duress, parent-child relations, the artist’s responsibility to his parent culture. The softness of her drawings makes her characters fragile and unassumingly admirable.

Comics dealing directly with political history and personalities were on the rise in 2008. The year has seen graphic accounts of the war on terror, a biography of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, even a graphic adaptation of the Constitution. The best of the lot is Spain Rodriguez’s Che: A Graphic Biography (Verso, $16.95), not so much for its intriguing subject matter, but for the way it’s handled. Rodriguez gives a clear-eyed account of the revolutionary icon seen so often on T-shirts and dorm-room posters. He’s terribly sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution—who couldn’t be, after the horrors of the Batista dictatorship?—but gives a good accounting of Guevara’s struggles with ideology and dedication to the people.

With a little bit of everything from 28 crazed cartoonists, The Best American Comics 2008 (Houghton Mifflin, $22) is an improvement over the series’ first two editions. Editor Lynda Barry, she of Ernie Pook’s Comeek fame, emphasizes the innocent, playful and creative side of the genre, even when dealing with adult themes. “Mammalogy,” Eric Haven’s time-traveling satire on evolution, superheroes and comics themselves, is alone worth the price of admission. Joseph Lambert’s end pages, the saga of a boy and his dog who keep romping as their lives and body parts are gruesomely destroyed, take the fun to extremes.

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