The Top Ten Graphic Novels of 2020
- JACK KIRBY: THE EPIC LIFE OF THE KING OF COMICS by Tom Scioli (published by Ten Speed Press) and JACK KIRBY’S DINGBAT LOVE by Jack Kirby (published by TwoMorrows Publishing):
In the back of his latest graphic novel, JACK KIRBY: THE EPIC LIFE OF THE KING OF COMICS, Tom Scioli’s bio proudly declares that he’s “one of a small number of mainstream comics creators today who writes, draws, colors, and hand-letters his work.” This is no doubt one of the primary reasons Scioli’s work is always fresh and unique, even when he’s producing media tie-in projects like last year’s GO-BOTS. Though his style clearly owes much to the late Jack Kirby (1917–1994), Scioli has managed to transform that influence into a style wholly his own, as evidenced by such graphically astounding projects as AMERICAN BARBARIAN (2015) and GODLAND VOL. 1–6 (2005–2012). The latter title, produced in collaboration with writer Joe Casey, was one of the most compelling comic book series of the past twenty years.
In JACK KIRBY: THE EPIC LIFE OF THE KING OF COMICS, Scioli elevates his work to another level by taking an abrupt detour away from the cosmic landscapes of GODLAND and focusing instead on the real life adventures of comic book writer/artist Jack Kirby, who arguably saved the entire comic book industry from extinction several times over. Sometimes dramatic, sometimes quotidian in nature, Kirby’s achievements and failures make for an unforgettable read. Scioli’s narrative is consistently anchored in diligent research and verifiable events. In the back of the graphic novel are four pages of footnotes that source much of the dialogue and events depicted in the book. Never forgetting that his main imperative is to produce an entertaining story, Scioli nonetheless offers his readers valuable history lessons about the perennial battle between the Artist and the Businessman while also correcting decades of lies that have consistently emerged from the Public Relations Department at Marvel Comics since the earliest days of what has become the world’s most successful comic book empire. If you have any interest at all in the spate of blockbuster Marvel movies that have emerged from Hollywood during the past twelve years, then you will definitely want to read Scioli’s book in order to learn who actually dreamed up all those visionary ideas.
Trace elements of what made Kirby an individualistic creator in an industry that so often demands outright plagiarism (and unthinking fealty) from its artists can be found in TwoMorrows’ recent release, JACK KIRBY’S DINGBAT LOVE. This volume is of no minor historical importance, as it represents the very last time you will ever be able to purchase a book of previously unpublished Kirby stories. In the early 1970s, always ten steps ahead of his peers, Kirby tried to convince DC Comics to publish a line of romance comics — a genre Kirby co-created, along with fellow artist Joe Simon, back in the late 1940s — aimed at an untapped audience of mature readers willing to embrace a style of storytelling far grittier and more realistic than what the field had previously offered. The results of this experiment were a pair of magazine-sized comic books intended to be (in the words of Kirby biographer Mark Evanier), “full-color, printed on slick paper, with paid advertising from major companies that would help pay for better writing and better art […]. There would be comics within, but also articles and photo features.” The respective titles of these publications were TRUE-LIFE DIVORCE and SOUL LOVE!, the first being an examination of romance gone very wrong and the second an ongoing anthology intended to shine a spotlight on the love lives of African-Americans (an audience Kirby felt was sorely overlooked by most comic book companies). Unfortunately, the shortsighted editors at DC Comics decided there was no real audience for Kirby’s experiments and shelved both projects before they even had a chance to prove themselves. Kirby’s superiors preferred that he focus on safer material, namely superhero adventures.
Of course, what would have been considered daringly unusual material in the early 1970s now seems more surreal than mimetic, but nonetheless TRUE-LIFE DIVORCE and SOUL LOVE! can be read as fascinating time capsules of a period when forward-thinking comic book professionals believed the medium was on the edge of extinction and had to be pushed in new directions in order to survive. In that sense, at least, JACK KIRBY’S DINGBAT LOVE is very relevant to today as the comic book industry once again finds itself on shaky ground. Where are the Jack Kirbys of the 21st century who are willing to risk failure in order to push the medium into the future?
Also of note in this volume are the complete issues of a discarded DC comic book series entitled DINGBATS OF DANGER STREET, one of Kirby’s wackier forays into the “kid gang” genre (yet another idea Kirby made popular back in the 1940s with such bestselling comic books as THE NEWSBOY LEGION and THE BOY COMMANDOS). The Dingbats of Danger Street are a street gang made up of four scrappy teenage misfits nicknamed Good Looks, Krunch, Non-Fat, and Bananas. Only three issues were completed before DC Comics pulled the plug on this series.
It becomes clear, after reading all three stories in order, that Kirby had a definite game plan for these characters he was unable to fully explore, an unfortunate pattern that would recur too many times throughout his career. Each new issue focused on a separate team member, revealing that all four misfits had in the past experienced different forms of trauma involving adults. Though in an admittedly lighthearted context, Kirby was nonetheless attempting to establish a genuine psychological framework for the series: that these disenfranchised teenagers harbored valid reasons for hating and fearing adults, which is why they had decided to band together to solve their own problems.
These comics offer significant revelations about Kirby’s work ethic. Even while forced to produce projects thrust upon him by unimaginative editors who wanted him to do nothing more than regurgitate new versions of past successes, Kirby still took the work — and the integrity of his characters — as seriously as if the comics included in this book were his most beloved pet projects. As Mark Evanier writes in his introduction to DINGBATS OF DANGER STREET, even Kirby’s “rejects were more interesting than what most creators got accepted.”
2. KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO by Derf Backderf (published by Abrams):
At California State University Long Beach, I teach a Creative Writing class called “Creative Nonfiction.” The purpose of the class is to encourage students to write about real life events — often times autobiographical in nature, but sometimes biographical as well — in a way that’s entertaining while also remaining true to the spirit of what actually happened. In the fall of 2020, I recommended Derf Backderf’s KENT STATE: FOUR DEAD IN OHIO to all of my Creative Writing students as the perfect example of how to enliven true events in a manner that transcends the dry, dead reportage of newspaper journalists hired to relate “just the facts.” Backderf’s KENT STATE is meticulously researched, never straying from historical veracity, while also bringing to life a small group of college kids who are inescapably locked into a fateful encounter with a national tragedy, the memory of which should never be swept aside — whether through neglect or the machinations of conservative politicians who would prefer that the deaths of these four Kent State protestors be dropped down a politically expedient Memory Hole.
This graphic novel is without a doubt a Master Class in how to dramatize the historical past without burying the readers in non-essential factoids. It’s a heart wrenching narrative about scores of innocent people being impacted forever by the bad and hateful decisions of Those In Power. Reading this graphic novel against the incendiary backdrop of 2020 gave the already multilayered story a resonance more powerful than Backderf could even have planned when he initiated the project. This is quite possibly the most relevant book of 2020, in or out of the comic book field.
3. THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE CARTOONIST by Adrian Tomine (published by Drawn & Quarterly):
You’re at the supermarket squeezing produce, hoping to find the very best avocado possible, when you remember something extremely embarrassing you did ten years earlier. Without even thinking about it, you mutter at your past self, “Son of a bitch… you fucking asshole!” Suddenly, you realize that there’s an old woman standing right next to you, staring at you in shock. You feel immediate chagrin. Rather than explain yourself to the woman, you decide to ignore her, pretend the outburst never occurred, and continue squeezing avocados. You now realize that this mortifying incident will, in turn, be filed away in your Memory Banks and no doubt retrieved ten years hence during another inopportune moment, eliciting yet another inexplicable public outburst….
The above incident happened to me, or someone who looks like me, not long ago. Now imagine a string of such embarrassing incidents, spread out over the course of thirty-six years (between 1982 and 2018), and you have the general plot of Adrian Tomine’s latest graphic novel, THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE CARTOONIST. If this sounds boring to you, you would be quite wrong. This is a painfully honest memoir chronicling Tomine’s artistic career as seen through a series of humiliating anecdotes — ranging from the ludicrous to the pathetic, all related to the inherent absurdity of the comic book industry — that make the reader wince in pain while reading them.
By the time we reach the conclusion, we realize that these seemingly endless, cringe-worthy incidents are presented to us in service of a far more important story about Tomine’s growth as a father, a husband, and an artist. The last chapter of the book (taking place in Brooklyn in 2018) is bittersweet, in the best sense of that word. Once you begin reading this book, it’s difficult to put it down. In fact, this might very well be the most compulsively readable graphic novel on this list.
4. BOY MAXIMORTAL #2 by Rick Veitch (published by King Hell Press/Sun Comics):
Though Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN have received far more attention over the decades, the comic book that actually kicked off the “Dark Age” of revisionist superheroes was Rick Veitch’s THE ONE (1985–1986), a satirical Cold War fable about “supermen, Ubermice and Gotterdammerung […] that owed more to Andy Warhol than Jack Kirby,” in the words of Alan Moore. I would second Moore’s assessment while adding the names Phillip K. Dick and Marshall McLuhan to the list of influences that no doubt shaped the questioning, postmodern ambitions of THE ONE.
Veitch continues this cynical, philosophical approach to creating an American superhero story in his most recent work, BOY MAXIMORTAL, which takes a turn into a self-reflective realm that borders on metafiction.
In 2017, I wrote of BOY MAXIMORTAL, “Upon finishing Volume 1 of this ambitious limited series, one immediately recognizes that Rick Veitch is in the process of building a complex narrative that examines the true history and metaphysical nature of the comic book medium in a manner that will no doubt end up being far more illuminating than even the best nonfiction books on the subject such as Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS and Gerard Jones’ MEN OF TOMORROW. Those previous efforts do indeed provide valuable facts about the social milieu that gave birth to the comic book industry in the 1930s; however, Veitch’s epic story (the unfolding narrative of a Superman-like entity named Maximortal desperately trying to come to grips with his proper place in post-war America) explores the emotional truths underlying the frustrated lives of such visionary comic book creators as Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Jack Kirby.”
Indeed, in this second volume we see Veitch juxtaposing the naive optimism of the Superman myth with the harsh realities of what was actually occurring in the Last Son of Krypton’s adopted country in mid-century America… in our world… the Real World. In Veitch’s hands, the superhero genre grows into an extended metaphor that mirrors the triumphs and terrors of working within the comic book industry itself. In the dark universe of BOY MAXIMORTAL, the business of producing comics is only one small part of a corrupt capitalist system made up of an interconnected spider web of private corporations and government agencies that wish to exploit the imaginations and vital life energies of those they employ (and/or repress).
One of the main characters of BOY MAXIMORTAL, a prolific comic book creator named Jack Curtis, is described by Veitch as “an artist living in his wounded imagination.” Curtis’ mindscape, haunted by his traumatic past, is as bifurcated as America itself. Curtis produces all-American, wholesome, four-color adventure fantasies in the daytime while reliving the horrors of one of America’s many foreign wars at night. The book seems to be asking this question: In a hypocritical nation where corrupt men like J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles (both important supporting characters in BOY MAXIMORTAL) are the chief law enforcers, can even patriotic American citizens like Curtis believe in the outlandish superheroes that emerge from his drawing board, those selfless vigilantes who propagate a belief in the illusory values of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”?
If Superman was intended to represent the apex of the American spirit (at least as it exists in our collective imagination), then Boy Maximortal represents pure uncertainty… the precarious danger that ensues when one attempts to live up to high-minded ideals that exist only in fiction… when one attempts to be Superman in a country that constantly preaches one thing while doing the exact opposite.
At one point in the book, we see Aldous Huxley appear on a television talk show in which he makes the following statement:
“President Eisenhower recently warned of an alliance that has formed between the armed forces and the defense industries. He referred to it as the military industrial complex.
“We’ve seen what happened in Germany when industry and government formed such an alliance. It launched a reign of dictatorial power, suppression of opposition, and regimentation of society.
“It is fascism, and one can see signs of it taking root here in post-war America just by observing the corrupt politics, the exaggerated patriotism, the pressure to conform, the repression of minorities. And of course, the colonial wars, such as we see being planned for Vietnam right now.
“The question is, when the truth comes for those who deny it, will they not see it coming? For if they recognize it they will do everything in their power to bring it under their control.
“Then they will surely weaponize it.”
If Aldous Huxley had turned his attention to the superhero genre in the early 1960s, BOY MAXIMORTAL might very well have been the result.
5. THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH by James Tynion and Martin Simmonds (published by Image):
I recently wrote a five-part series for SALON analyzing the true roots of an extreme right-wing movement known as QAnon, a group of rabid Trump supporters who believe that a global conspiracy of occultists are controlling world affairs for the express purpose of kidnapping children, dragging them underground, and sacrificing the innocent little waifs to ancient demons. In this peculiar manner, “elites” like Tom Hanks and Hillary Clinton are able to maintain healthy skin, increase their virility, and hold onto their positions of power. Despite having been asked about this cult-like movement many times, Trump has never once repudiated these insane beliefs. Indeed, he goes out of his way to blatantly reinforce these beliefs.
In the midst of this topsy-turvy age when important policy decisions coming out of the White House appear to be fueled by a panoply of fringe conspiracy theories, James Tynion and Martin Simmonds come along and offer up the perfect distorted funhouse mirror version of the current American landscape.
THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH takes as its main premise a theory once proposed by Charles Fort biographer Damon Knight in Chapter 9 of his 1970 book, CHARLES FORT: PROPHET OF THE UNEXPLAINED:
“There is a strange irrational consistency in these [unexplained] phenomena. Think of the things that fall [from the sky] — stones, blood, fish, straw, ice, water. If a mind dreaming in symbols could make its symbols actual — or draw their counterparts out of some other realm — these are some of the things we would expect. Then think of poltergeists, and of the strange animals that appear, attack herds and flocks and sometimes people, and then disappear. Who has not dreamed of invisible and malevolent beings, or of dimly seen four-footed killers in the twilight? If our minds indeed have the power to shape our reality, then we live in a universe of ultimate insecurity.
“Charles L. Harness, a writer strongly influenced by Fort, suggests this in a brilliant story called ‘The New Reality.’ In it he points out that the Babylonians, who were excellent mathematicians, thought the value of pi was 3, and draws the conclusion that in Babylonian times, the value of pi was 3. It follows that when men believed in a flat Earth, the Earth was flat; when they believed it was the center of the universe, it was. Whenever a few men committed themselves to new beliefs, and convinced others, then reality changed […].
“I give this at some length in order to say, with due caution and with certain reservations, that I don’t believe in it. It has a certain loony logic, and it is attractive to think that Pluto may not have been discovered until 1930, not because it is so far away, but because it wasn’t there until astronomers started looking for it…. But this would mean we would have to suppose that when the majority of men thought the stars were in crystal spheres rotating about the Earth, and so on. And then there are difficulties: when the Europeans thought the world was round and the Indians thought it was flat, was it round in Europe and flat in India?
“A graver objection is that from a cosmic viewpoint this is such a parochial idea: it would mean that the whole starry universe depends on our belief in it, whereas the inhabitants of other stars have no such power over us. I can see a possible way out of this difficulty, however: Except for a few Greek philosophers, nobody believed that planets of other stars were inhabited until a few centuries ago. Nowadays many people believe it, and therefore it is true; and consequently we have dreamed something into existence which limits our power to dream.”
…consequently we have dreamed something into existence which limits our power to dream. This last line from Knight sums up the main theme of THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH. So many of the QAnon cultists believe they have opened their minds to a brand new reality, one which offers them hope and salvation, when in fact they have merely trapped themselves inside a tiny, solipsistic box composed of lurid horror fiction clichés H.P. Lovecraft would have rejected as being too hackneyed way back in the 1920s. It’s a box made out of lunatic beliefs, beliefs that paralyze with fear, so much so that all these QAnon cultists can do is spend their days surfing the internet, hoping for the appearance (or “drop”) of the next chapter in their favorite lurid soap opera.
In Tynion and Simmond’s 21st century fable, conspiracy theorist Cole Turner is recruited by an elderly Lee Harvey Oswald into a secret government agency called The Department of Truth. The purpose of the agency is not to cover-up vast occult conspiracies, but to manage the chaos brought about by “a universe of ultimate insecurity” in which “our minds indeed have the power to shape our reality.” The upside down, inside out world of THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH sums up our current national psychotic breakdown better than a thousand talking heads on CNN or FOX News.
As I wrote in my first book, CRYPTOSCATOLOGY: CONSPIRACY THEORY AS ART FORM (2012), “…the more imaginative conspiracy theorists might do well to be a bit more careful with the apocalyptic scenarios they tend to promote. Though some of these may be illusory today, our collective obsession with them might evoke them into being tomorrow.”
6. BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA STARRING BELA LUGOSI by El Garing, Kerry Gammill, Richard Starkings, and Robert Napton (published by Legendary Comics) and DRACULA, MOTHERF**KER! by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson (published by Image):
There have been several adaptations of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA in comic book form. The ones that immediately leap to mind are DRACULA: A SYMPHONY IN MOONLIGHT AND NIGHTMARES by Jon J. Muth (1986), BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA by Roy Thomas and Mike Mignola (1992), which many Stoker aficionados consider to be far superior to the Francis Ford Coppola film that inspired it, and STOKER’S DRACULA by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano (2005). The list of Dracula-themed comic books that take the Stoker novel as inspiration, and are not merely adaptations of the original work, could fill an entire volume; however, the one that most deserves a mention in this context is Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s binge-reading worthy series, THE TOMB OF DRACULA (1972–1979), one of the most impressive mainstream comic books ever produced in the United States.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA STARRING BELA LUGOSI and DRACULA, MOTHERF**KER! were both published within a few weeks of each other, thus inviting unavoidable comparisons. I recommend reading these books back to back, as the juxtaposition offers fascinating insights into the malleability of myths and legends — and the impressive durability of Stoker’s imaginative creations.
BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA STARRING BELA LUGOSI was inspired by the simple desire on the part of its creators to see the actor Bela Lugosi, the person most associated with the popular conception of Dracula (right behind Stoker himself), featured in an adaptation that followed Stoker’s original idea, as opposed to the heavily truncated Tod Browning film version in which Lugosi starred in 1931. Despite having to make certain concessions to the natural limitations of the comic book form, this is without a doubt the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s novel I’ve ever encountered in any medium. The black and white artwork of Elmundo Garing is delightfully reminiscent of the work produced by the likes of Reed Crandall, Frank Frazetta, Gray Morrow, Joe Orlando, and Angelo Torres during the early 1960s heyday of James Warren’s CREEPY MAGAZINE. In fact, one could easily imagine this adaptation having been serialized in either CREEPY or its sister magazine, EERIE.
Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson’s DRACULA, MOTHERF**KER!, on the other hand, recasts the Dracula myth through the dayglow filter of 1970s funkedelia. This is certainly not the first attempt to let the Prince of the Darkness loose in a 1970s urban setting. Wolfman and Colan’s aforementioned THE TOMB OF DRACULA did this perfectly well, as did Alan Gibson’s DRACULA A.D. 1972. But De Campi and Henderson take a different approach than these previous Dracula-inspired narratives by focusing on the Brides of Dracula. These three Weird Sisters, who menace Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s 1897 novel and Renfield in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, are invariably relegated to the background of any DRACULA adaptation with which I’m familiar. In this version of the tale, however, the three Brides nail Dracula to his coffin in 1889 Vienna, then proceed to claim the night as their own. We flash forward to 1974 Southern California, where a bloody trail of “the beautiful and dead” lead crime scene photographer Quincy Harker to the Hollywood lair of the Brides….
As De Campi writes in her afterword to the book:
“The Brides have always fascinated me, in a very different way than they could fascinate male writers, because I know them. They interest me in the way Melania Trump does, in the way Georgina Chapman Weinstein does. In the way that every woman, at least once in her life, wonders, ‘Could I just…?’ Most of us could never go through with it, of course. But some do.
“What if the Brides did? What if Dracula wasn’t a handsome Romanian prince, but a nameless, faceless ancient terror? What would you trade for a life of enormous wealth, released from the cruel rigors of ageing into a state of eternal beauty? How much would you be willing to fake, and for how long?”
Though De Campi describes the book as partly “just a fun, overheated pulp fantasia about terror in the night,” it could also be seen as a serious metaphor examining the way victims deal with traumatic abuse. Many victims vow to do everything they can to prevent others from experiencing the physical and psychological trauma they themselves were forced to endure; however, a different type of victim fruitlessly attempts to expunge the memory of their abuse by turning around and becoming even worse predators to those less powerful than themselves. And thus, the bullied becomes the bully. The abused becomes the abuser. The victim becomes the victimizer. There’s certainly more than one monster haunting the streets of 1970s Hollywood in DRACULA, MOTHERF**KER.
It’s worth noting that artist Erica Henderson offers the readers one of the most visually striking interpretations of Dracula I’ve ever come across. The Lord of Vampires is transformed into an ethereal being that’s more spirit than flesh (closer to the description of the vampire given by Lugosi confidante Manly P. Hall in his 1928 occult encyclopedia, THE SECRET TEACHINGS OF ALL AGES), an image that owes a greater debt to Japanese kabuki masks than to the Victorian tuxedos to which we have all become accustomed. DRACULA, MOTHERF**KER is as much a showcase for Erica Henderson’s “psychedelic liquid light projections” (to quote De Campi’s words) as it is for Alex de Campi’s postmodern reinterpretation of one of literature’s most infamous predators.
7. PULP by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (published by Image):
When I was about fifteen years old, I remember walking into Geoffrey’s Comics in Torrance, California with my older brother and buying three comic books: UPON A STAR, the first of the Moebius graphic novels published by Epic Comics, FLOYD FARLAND, CITIZEN OF THE FUTURE by Chris Ware, and WORDSMITH #9 by Dave Darrigo and R.G. Taylor. I read all three of these comics when I returned home. Discovering Moebius and Chris Ware on the same day (at a time when Chris Ware was a complete unknown) was like freebasing avant-garde comics in its purest, undiluted form. WORDSMITH was a comic book I had already started reading, so it wasn’t new to me; however, this particular issue was slightly different from the ones that had preceded it.
WORDSMITH, which ran from 1985 to 1988, is one of the best graphic novels ever written, and certainly one of the most significant comic books of the 1980s. As far as I know, it has never been collected into a single volume, which is a shame. Written by Dave Darrigo and penciled by R.G. Taylor, the book revolves around the real world travails of successful pulp writer Clay Washburn as he wrestles with societal pressures — imposed upon him by his fiancée and others — to pursue a respectful literary career even though it’s the irresistible lure of commercial fiction that keeps drawing him back to his typewriter. The gritty (and yet romantic) atmosphere of New York in the 1930s and ’40s is lovingly evoked by both Taylor’s illustrative black-and-white drawings as well as by Darrigo’s convincing, well-researched dialogue. Interspersed with Washburn’s day-to-day misadventures in Depression-era New York, we see occasional excerpts from the hi-octane pulp fiction Washburn is grinding out on his manual typewriter. In issue #9, this pattern is broken when Washburn’s fiction subsumes the entire story, pushing the real world far into the background. For the first time we’re able to read one of Washburn’s stories (an action-packed western entitled “The Cactus Express”) from beginning to end.
I don’t know if writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips had WORDSMITH in mind when they conceived the plot for their latest crime noir graphic novel, PULP, but I couldn’t help but favorably compare the two books upon reading the opening scenes in which the potentially disastrous health and money problems of 1930s pulp novelist Max Winter are juxtaposed with the conclusion of Winter’s latest “shoot-’em-up” epic written for SIX GUN WESTERN MAGAZINE. This juxtaposition remains effective throughout as we learn more and more about Winter’s shady past, and the extent to which his blood-spattered stories are far more than just escapist fare; instead, they are a reflection of the less than honorable man he used to be.
After Winter is fired by his editor, and his most popular character, The Red River Kid, wrested away from him by lesser talents, he’s pressed into joining forces with a former Pinkerton detective to rob a group of American Nazis and soon discovers that even monsters have a shot at redemption.
The sun-drenched reds and oranges used by Sean Phillips to evoke the fictional sequences in the Old West give the reader the impression that Winter’s pulp stories take place in a world forever frozen in twilight. As Winter’s problems mount, and he spirals toward his inevitable fate, these colors gradually begin to bleed into the real world. By the time we reach the final page of the book, America’s bloody past has merged inextricably with Winter’s present. And by extension, the reader can’t help but superimpose the violence of the Old West and the fascist-ridden streets of 1930s New York with the dark world in which we all find ourselves now.
8. BASKETFUL OF HEADS by Joe Hill and Leomacs (published by DC Comics):
DEPT. OF STRANGE SYNCHRONICITY DEPT.: The first issue of Joe Hill and Leomacs’ supernatural horror series BASKETFUL OF HEADS came out the same day as the first issue of David Dastmalchian and Lukas Ketner’s supernatural horror series COUNT CROWLEY: RELUCTANT MIDNIGHT MONSTER HUNTER. On the third page of BASKETFUL OF HEADS, we learn that the story is taking place in September of 1983. On the first page of COUNT CROWLEY: RELUCTANT MIDNIGHT MONSTER HUNTER, we learn that the story is taking place in September of 1983.
I have no idea what this means, or what’s so significant about September of 1983, but I felt compelled to mention it. (As you can see, COUNT CROWLEY didn’t make this list, but it’s a fun book nonetheless. I recommend it.)
BASKETFUL OF HEADS is a classic “lone-woman-in-danger” horror story that channels the most memorable elements of the splatterpunk movement of the 1980s: the over-the-top gore, the absurdist humor, the Grand Guignol spectacles, the unrelenting narrative drive, and the WTF plot device perfectly designed for an irresistible Elevator Pitch: “When the peace of June Branch’s lazy summer of ’83 is shattered by a violent home invasion, she has to fight for her life with an ancient Viking axe that can impossibly decapitate a man in a single swipe. Only when this occult blade falls, the severed head lives on… alert, talking, and terrified!”
In his fascinating 2017 book, PAPERBACKS FROM HELL, Grady Hendrix analyzes what he perceives to be a not-so-subtle misogynistic streak in a few of the most prominent splatterpunk novelists of the late ’80s. In Chapter Eight, “Splatterpunks, Serial Killers, & Super Creeps,” he explicitly states that “women were the devil” in many of these books. If so, this is one element of the splatterpunk movement that Joe Hill has left to the wayside. Throughout BASKETFUL OF HEADS, the reader’s sympathies are always with the imperiled but resourceful — and indomitable — female protagonist, June Branch. Of course, technically, June is an axe-wielding murderer… several times over. But somehow this unusual character trait never gets in the way of June’s natural charm. Surprisingly, there are times when we begin to feel sympathy for the villains in the story as well, particularly when they find themselves lacking a body and quaking in fear at the bottom of a wicker basket in the possession of a shit-talking, pissed off teenage girl with a cursed axe in her fist.
Needless to say, Fredric Wertham would have loved this story. And so will you.
9. ADVENTUREMAN by Matt Fraction and Terry & Rachel Dodson (published by Image):
“The Apocalypsydra had chimed its last, and the Obliteration Bible’s bleak and blackened pages were being written one arcane character after the next, crafting the most fiendish act of magic the world has ever seen.
“It was, at long last, time for Adventureman to journey into the greatest unknown.”
— ADVENTUREMAN: THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNEW IT
While reading the first issue of ADVENTUREMAN, it occurred to me that it evoked the same sense of wonder I experienced at the age of eighteen upon discovering Philip Jose Farmer’s DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE (1973), a faux biography of one of the most famous pulp icons that emerged from the 1930s. I recall being impressed by Farmer’s valiant attempt to string together Doc Savage’s convoluted continuity into a single timeline. Farmer goes so far as to happily incorporate such improbable details as the exact amount of times that Savage’s loyal sidekick, Monk, was knocked unconscious by the his enemies over the course of 181 adventures (fifty-four).
Like Philip Jose Farmer, Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, and Rachel Dodson take the long view of the Pulp Era tropes examined in DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE, cleverly updating a treasure trove of enduring Jungian archetypes for a twenty-first century audience. The plot revolves around a single mother named Claire Connell, a rare book dealer who discovers an earth-shattering secret: that the nearly forgotten chronicles of a pulp hero named Adventureman (along with his colorful sidekicks such as Phaedra Phantom, Akaal the Timeless One, and Chagall, Superpharmacologist Science Witch, plus a rogues gallery of relentless evildoers like Baroness Bizarre, The Automaterror, Hellcat Maggie of the Six Sisters of Satan, and Metamage) contain far more factual truths than his fans had previously suspected. To her surprise, it soon becomes clear to Claire that it will be her destiny to take on the mantle of the long deceased “Adventureman.”
When I finished the first issue, I read Fraction’s back-up essay describing how ADVENTUREMAN reached fruition. In the second paragraph, Fraction says that the initial idea for the series came about when “[w]riter and pal Greg Thompson gave me a copy of Philip Jose Farmer’s DOC SAVAGE: HIS APOCALYPTIC LIFE.”
I smiled, as Fraction had clearly succeeded in channeling the spirit of Farmer’s imagination through the medium of sequential art.
10. LON CHANEY SPEAKS by Pat Dorian (published by Pantheon):
Since we began this list with a biographical comic book, it’s somehow appropriate that we end on another biographical comic book. Like JACK KIRBY: THE EPIC LIFE OF THE KING OF COMICS, LON CHANEY SPEAKS is written in first person. Like Tom Scioli’s Kirby biography, Pat Dorian’s Chaney biography follows its subject from early childhood to death. Chaney, often known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” was considered one of the most talented actors of the 1920s, a decade in which Chaney starred in some of the most memorable films of Hollywood’s silent era: THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1923), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925), THE UNKNOWN (1927), LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928), and WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928), among many others.
Chaney specialized in a type of film that’s rarely made today. They weren’t exactly horror films. They weren’t exactly psychological thrillers. They were disturbing character studies, Greek tragedies updated to the reflect the shadowy uncertainties underlying the glitz of the Jazz Age, in which Chaney often played a flawed but romantic soul doomed to loneliness, failure, and extinction. In our present world, the films mentioned above still exert a tremendous power, instilling in even the most jaded twenty-first century viewer an unshakeable sense of nervousness, unease, and impending disaster.
In LON CHANEY SPEAKS, writer/artist Pat Dorian illustrates the various tragedies in Chaney’s chaotic life that helped shape the cinematic phantom he eventually succeeded in becoming. Desperate to flee a painful past, Chaney sought refuge (and perhaps redemption) in film. Chaney himself once insisted, “Remember, between pictures there is no Lon Chaney!” Dorian’s narrative shows us why a highly revered artist like Chaney would shun all publicity off-camera and prefer, instead, to exist only within the flickering frames that exist on silver nitrate celluloid. Chaney was such a genius at being a true chameleon that he transcended his role as the “Man of a Thousand Faces” and became the “Man with No Face”… no face except for the dark illusions he chose to display on film.
Forest J Ackerman, the late editor of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND MAGAZINE, often liked to proclaim, “Lon Chaney shall never die!” Pat Dorian’s debut graphic novel goes a long way in proving this sentiment to be true — that is, as long as Chaney’s achievements are still available to be seen by future generations. Hopefully, Dorian’s book will encourage readers unfamiliar with Chaney’s work to seek out the peculiar dramas this tragic actor managed to create in between all those long, protracted periods of nonexistence in the real world.