GUEST BLOG: Al’s Year in Graphic Novels

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Have you ever wondered just how many books you read in a year? I’ve always been a little curious, as rarely does the day go by when I don’t have a trade paperback, manga, or graphic novel in my hands. So in 2014 I set out on a bold pseudo-scientific experiment and began chronicling every book I read from January 1 to December 31. I say pseudo-scientific because there was no control group, no mapping of variables, and I really didn’t have much more of a hypothesis than “I wonder how many books I read in a year?”…which isn’t even a hypothesis, right? Science people, help me out here!

Here were the only rules I set down for myself:

  • Books only. No single issues. If I started mapping out all the single issues the list would likely have been much longer, but I was limiting the experiment only to graphic novels, trades, manga, and the like. If it was a hardcover or perfect bound book, it went on the list. If a staple was involved, it didn’t.
  • Of the list each month I would pick around five titles as the “best” books I read that month, and from those five I would pick only one – Highlander style – to be the best book that month.

My logic was that at the end of the year I’d have a nice chronicle of books that’d make a nice reading list for anyone. I wound up breaking Rule #1 in November, because Sabrina #1 was just about perfect, and encountered a tie in August, because I couldn’t decide between my two final candidates for that month, but beyond that I think the methodology was sound, and the results will hopefully speak for themselves. Bear in mind not all these books were published in 2014 (most were), but as I first read them in 2014, I put them on the list.

With the year done I thought it might be fun to take a look back and see what the year held for me as far as reading went. Many websites offer their “Top Ten Books of 2014” or whatever year it is. So let me humbly go those sites two better and offer the best books I read each month of the past year…plus a few honorable mentions.

For those of you truly curious, I ended up reading 227 books, which means for more than half the year I had a new book in my hand. Several titles, like the massive Vampirella tomes and the Complete Elfquest book, took considerably longer than, say, a manga title, but I gave both equal weight as “a book completed.” Overall, though, that’s a pretty respectable number of books. If you’re curious, feel free to use my approach or create your own in 2015. It may seem like an exercise in quantity, but the more I dug into the process it became more concerned with the quality of the books I was reading as well. I’d love to see an avid single-issue reader try and chronicle how many they read in 365 days.

So let’s get started!

Marada

CREDIT: Titan Comics

January – Marada the She-Wolf (Titan Comics)
While the original Marada stories (Claremont/Bolton) first saw light of day back in the 80s under the Marvel Epic imprint, this hardcover reprint from Titan came out at the beginning of 2014. My favorite memory of this book actually occurred several months later, when I took it to the Phoenix ComiCon to meet Chris Claremont and have him sign it. After a particularly lengthy line of people bringing their X-Men books to be signed, he seemed tickled that I had Marada in my hands and that lead to a short discussion about the merits of creator ownership. Marada was basically his take on a Red Sonja story without using Red Sonja – a vast sword and sorcery epic as only Claremont can provide. If you can picture that, and like what you’re seeing, this book is well worth seeking out.

Honorable Mention: Parker: Slayground (IDW), Rainbow in the Dark (Love/Warren), Project: Superpowers Part 2, Vol. 2 (Dynamite), Spinnerette Vol. 1 (Independent)

Spirit

CREDIT: DC Comics

 February – Will Eisner’s The Spirit: Femme Fatales (DC)
This book came out in 2008, but I happened to come across at my favorite used bookstore. I’m not the greatest authority on Eisner’s signature creation, but I know just enough to know I can always stand to learn a little more. This book compiles many of the first appearances of the numerous damsels-not-so-in-distress that have tormented The Spirit throughout his run, from P’Gell to Sand Serif. Gorgeous artwork, great storytelling, a solid collection of comic book history in one handy trade paperback – what’s not to love? I have a smattering of Spirit books but this one in particular stands out as a solid collection under one theme.

Honorable Mention: Nisekoi: False Love Vol. 1 (Viz), The Complete Accident Man (Titan), Excel Saga Vol. 27 (Viz), From the New World Vol. 2 (Vertical), Vampirella Archives Vol. 1 (Dynamite)

Locke

CREDIT: IDW Publishing

 March – Locke & Key: Alpha & Omega (IDW)
Joe Hill has done much to make readers forget that he’s Stephen King’s son, garnering success on his own terms with great novels like Heart-Shaped Box and Horns. In addition, he’s made an indelible mark on the comics industry with Locke & Key, a series that ended with this volume. Despite his best efforts, there’s one comparison easy to make when looking at Hill and his father, and that’s the ability to create memorable characters you know because you’ve met them in real life (or someone really close to them, at any rate). Gabriel Rodriguez’ artwork is absolutely delicious, and worth taking the time to absorb as much as Hill’s words. When you can get two powerhouse talents on a book like this, you don’t want it to end. Sadly, it did. Not so sadly, it did it well.

Honorable Mention: Revival Vol. 3 (Image), Fantastic Four: The Overthrow of Doctor Doom (Marvel)

Cannon

CREDIT: Fantagraphics

 April – Cannon (Fantagraphics)
I’ll speak the plain truth – I’ll buy it if Wally Wood had a hand in it (and it’s affordable). So when Fantagraphics released a book collecting Wood’s Cannon strip – published in an overseas magazine which wasn’t subject to US censorship laws – I was all in. Imagine those great soap opera strips from the newspaper (am I dating myself here?) like Rex Morgan or Kerry Drake. Now add in all the good stuff you know the writers would have loved to put in there but couldn’t, and you have Cannon. It also doesn’t hurt that the writer/artist on this particular strip is Wally Wood. In my experiment, I didn’t go so far as to pick one book to rule them all for the entire year from all these books, but if I did, Cannon would be a definite contender.

Honorable Mention: Lazarus Vol. 1 (Image), Saga Vol. 3 (Image), Thanos Rising (Marvel), Quantum & Woody Vol. 2 (Valiant), Threshold (DC), Strange Adventures (DC/Vertigo)

Nelvana

May – Nelvana of the Northern Lights (Crowdsourced)
This was a book I backed mainly out of curiosity. There was a period during WWII where Canada wasn’t allowed to import any luxuries from America, including comic books. Ever resourceful, Canadian artists and writers created their own superheroes and comic stories, and from this sprang Nelvana, arguably the first female superhero (she predated Wonder Woman’s first appearance by about a year). While the stories themselves came off as unintentionally humorous at first (Nelvana’s power is apparently to summon her brother to do all the heavy lifting) the titular heroine eventually evolves into a powerhouse in her own right. If you missed out on the crowdsourced funding effort, IDW published a second print run of it. Well worth seeking out if you want a nice chunk of comic book history.

Honorable Mention: Ka-Zar (Mark Waid run) (Marvel), Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether (Crowdsourced), Batman 66 (DC), Reign in Hell (DC)

android-angels

CREDIT: Gen Manga

 June – Android Angels (Gen Manga)
The foundation set forth by Isaac Asimov in his short story collection I, Robot has been revisited time and again by many authors looking to expand on his concepts. Android Angels joins in the effort to pave new ground by creating a society where human-like androids are an accepted part of life, but a part of life with a limited time period. After a few years of co-existence with their human family, they are reclaimed, their memories wiped, and they are leased out to new owners. What then, happens to the humans who become attached to these “mere machines”? And can a machine have an opinion about how it’s to be treated? The short stories in this book left me begging for more, as they’re less an examination of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics as they are an examination of what we are as humans. I’m hoping we haven’t heard the last out of this concept.

Honorable Mention: Batman, Zero Year Part 1 (DC), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Angela (Marvel), Whispered Words, Vol. 1 (One Peace Books), Black Canary/Zatanna: Bloodspell (DC)

Death

CREDIT: Titan Comics

 July – Death Sentence (Titan)
Congratulations! You just gained superpowers! Bummer. The clock is now ticking. You’re going to be dead in a few weeks. What to do? Make amends with those you need to before you pass off this mortal coil? Go out in a blinding flash doing every depraved thing you ever wanted to do in life? Or maybe just try and exist as best you can before you go? Death Sentence isn’t so much about superheroes as it is our all-too human ability to cope with our own ticking clocks and what we’re going to do with those precious seconds…a few of which just ticked off while you were reading this sentence…before our own death sentences are up. Great writing and the incredible artwork I’ve pretty much come to expect out of most Titan books made this book a strong contender for best book of the year (along with Cannon, from April).

Honorable Mention: Where Bold Stars Go To Die (SLG), Injustice: Gods Among Us Vol. 1 (DC), Unmasked: The New Age Heroes (Crowdsourced)

 Ratqueens GoodDog
  CREDIT: Image Comics                          CREDIT: Fantagraphics

August – TIE – Rat Queens Vol. 1 : Sass & Sorcery (Image) / Good Dog (Fantagraphics)
At the end of August it became increasingly difficult to pick a “winner” from the books I’d listed as favorites (pound for pound more of them in August than any other month), so I decided to pick two. These are my rules, after all!

If you’ve ever had a book suggested to you by pretty much everyone whose opinion you respect, you’ll understand how I came into Rat Queens. Great characters, humor and action, and fortunately the recent artistic upheaval on the book has been resolved and left it in great hands with Stjepan Sejic. Let me join the throng of people who kept pestering me to read this book until I finally gave in and admitted they were all spot-on – Go read Rat Queens. You won’t be sorry. Good Dog has been around for a while but I hadn’t read it until this year. I’ve become a real sucker for dog-based stories. This one follows a stray as he must determine whether to continue the life of a “free” dog or become shackled to a home and a family. Yes, it’s a metaphor, but it’s also a really great story. Some of the best stories, the ones that stick with us, are the ones that enlighten as well as entertain. This is one of those books. Seek it out.

Honorable Mention: Monster Musume Vol. 1 (Seven Seas), The Weirding Willows (Titan), The Sacred Blacksmith Vol. 5 (Seven Seas), Lazarus Vol. 2 (Image), Unwritten Vol. 1 (DC/Vertigo), Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 (Archaia)

 Century

September – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen : Century (Top Shelf)
I picked this up from Top Shelf’s annual sale where they put almost their entire catalog on sale for amazingly low prices. I think I paid ten dollars for the hardcover version collecting all three volumes of the Century storyline. It was pretty much a no-brainer as I love all things Moore-related and hold the three previous League books in pretty high regard. So while it’s hardly a 2014 release (it completed its run in 2012), it was still my first exposure to it, and the story continues (or possibly ends) in high form, with Mina again leading the league through the 20th century. Of course, now that we’re at the end of that century, and well into the new one, I feel the desire to go back and start with volume one of the series again. Funny how that works out.

Honorable Mention: Fairy Quest: Outlaws (Boom), Showcase: The Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 1 and 2 (DC), Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds (DC), Elric, the Ruby Throne (Titan)

Ragdoll

October – The Curse of Ragdoll (Crowdsourced)
I was never big on horror comics when I started out. I never cared for being scared, creeped out, or anything that might scar my delicate psyche when I was a younger man. Then I found out a certain resident of the planet Drakulon shares a birthday with me (Vampirella’s first issue hit the stands when I entered the world). On a lark I picked up one of those hernia-inducing volumes Dynamite is putting out, and I’ve spent the past year or so catching up on everything I’ve been missing for the last forty or so. Mike Wolfer’s Curse of Ragdoll came along at just the right time. A great story about an avenging spirit who wears the skin of women who met their end at the hand of evil men (and takes that vengeance out on said evil men), there’s more stories to come, but this collection of her early stories sets a strong foundation for those future tales. They may not be as heavy as those Vampirella books, but the subject matter is about as weighty as anything I’ve ever read.

Honorable Mention: Forever Evil (DC), Judenhass (Aardvark/Vanaheim), Butcher Baker the Righteous Maker (Image), Afrodisiac (Jim Rugg), The Complete Essex Trilogy (Top Shelf)

Elquest

CREDIT: Dark Horse

November – The Complete Elfquest Vol. 1 (Dark Horse)
Resolved. The next time I run into Wendy and Richard Pini at a convention, I need to apologize for my own blunder. I could have been reading Elfquest for about three decades now, but only started reading the epic saga of Cutter, Skywise and Leetah this year with this black and white reprint of the original series. Fortunately I’m able to make up for lost time and it’s great that Dark Horse made it possible. This book takes me back to one of my happiest memories about reading comics – that young kid who thought no better day could be spent than laying on their bed with a big stack of funnybooks at his side. Forgive me if I sound like an old-timer shaking my cane at the current state of comic books, but stories were different then, and this book stands as both time-capsule and testament to that idea. So maybe rather than apologize to the Pinis, I should thank them for giving me a nice piece of nostalgia for my youth.

Honorable Mention: Laika, Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal (Marvel), The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Alfred Knopf), Sabrina #1 (Archie) (the only single issue that blew me away enough to merit inclusion on this list)

Opus

CREDIT: Dark Horse

December – Satoshi Kon’s Opus (Dark Horse)
This book should be required reading for anyone who creates, particularly anyone who creates comics. The late Satoshi Kon left behind some of the most memorable anime motion pictures ever created. It’s both wonderful and sad to know that he was an equally talented manga creator. Wonderful, because this tale of a comic book creator who finds himself trapped in his own book, meeting the characters he created (who see him as a god, and not a very good one), and trying to complete his work in the process, embodies the same struggles and feelings anyone who has ever put pencil to blank page has had to deal with at some point. Sad, because it’s his unfinished symphony. He was never able to complete it before he died. Don’t let that deter you from picking this book up – there is an ending of sorts to it, whether intentional or not, and strangely enough, it works. There are those precious few books we’re fortunate to read in our lives that truly change us. Opus is one of those types of books.

Honorable Mention: Teen Titans, Earth One (DC), Royal Blood (Titan), Roy Thomas: The Collected Sheena, Queen of the Jungle (PS Artbooks)

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And there you have it: 365 days of reading. 227 books (and one single issue!). I’m certain many if not most of you could easily surpass my numbers, and I encourage you to take advantage of this year to see just how much you actually do read in a year. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, though, I hope you’ll take time as you log each book to keep an eye out for the truly quality titles you’ve read along the way. As I look at the twelve titles I listed as the “best” of each month, I also see twelve books that will be read and re-read over whatever time I have left on this planet to enjoy them.

Happy reading!

Al Sparrow: al@comicspectrum.com
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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The goal of ComicSpectrum is to provide a one-stop reference for everything about & related to comics and comics culture.
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