The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror edited by Ellen Datlow, Gavin Grant, and Kelly Link is now out in bookstores. As I’ve mentioned before, if you buy it and Best American Fantasy, you’re more or less set for fantasy and horror for the year.
In amongst the summation material is my summation of graphic novels and comics. I want to thank Jim Frenkel for taking me on and Charles Vess, who did it for so many years, for being so helpful during the transition. Also a big thanks to my friends Andrew Wheeler and Joe Gordon (both of their blogs are awesome, too). I didn’t get the gig until August of last year, so I hadn’t been systematically looking through everything during the year. Their suggestions really helped.
In addition to a fine selection of the year’s best fiction, YBFH definitely benefits from having such comprehensive summations of fantasy, horror, movies, etc. So here’s a little sample of my own summation column to whet your appetite.
[This follows an extensive discussion of American-Born Chinese, Alan Moore's Lost Girls, and Best American Comics, and is followed by a listing of more notable comics/graphic novels from the year. For the whole thing, and all the other cool stuff, you gotta buy the book.]
Although everyone’s idea of what constitutes a major publishing event will be different, I found six books, in very different ways, to define the contribution of fantasy to the comics field in 2006.
Dungeon, an intricate and stunning fantasy series from Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar, continues with a two-part adventure: Twilight: Dragon Cemetery and Twilight: Armageddon (Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing). A lizard-like dust king and his rabbit knight sidekick go forth and encounter monsters, invisible creatures, lost civilizations, and even a protective mother. The books parody heroic fantasy in hilarious fashion while also offering exciting battle scenes, deep and interesting characters, and a complex plot. One scene in particular will make your jaw drop in appreciation of the amazing imagination at play here.
Proving that fantasy doesn’t need to be dark to be interesting and important, Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics) collects a decade of stories in a sumptuous book replete with marvelous grace notes. Working in the revised fairy tale mode, Medley generally focuses on the dynamic between various female characters. The tension and storylines are, unlike most graphic novels, not dependent on unpleasant events or intense action. The style of art takes its cue from late nineteenth century book illustrators, being less grotesque and more realistic. Iconic imagery adds another level, while several old favorites, like Rumpelstiltskin, put in an appearance. It’s nice to see someone renovating a played-out genre in an original and thoughtful way. Also, as Jane Yolen writes in her excellent introduction, Medley has created an entire self-contained world with this graphic novel.
In a totally different sense, Kim Dietch delights with Shadowland (Fantagraphics). The set-up sounds like science fiction: aliens crashlanded on Earth a hundred years ago and were found by a boy named Al Ledicker. However, I find it hard to believe anyone could think of this insane medley of circus performers, odd pigmies, flying pigs, and bizarre secrets as anything other than fantasy. Full of sex and violence, rendered in a busy, detailed drawing style, Shadowland uses the Ledicker Circus as its major setting while focusing on the early Hollywood star Molly O’Dare and the Grafton Curse. In Shadowland, Dietch has rewarded readers by indulging in an adult, sophisticated form of play.
Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (Vertigo) written by Bill Willington with illustrations by, among others, Charles Vess, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Mark Buckingham, Jill Thompson, Michael Wm. Kaluta, and James Jean, embodies the word “sumptuous.” Kaluta and Vess’ framing art for “A Most Troublesome Woman” seems both “Sinbad Art Deco” and tongue-in-cheek modern. Conversely, stories like “The Fencing Lesson” update and recombine folktales in interesting and adult ways while using an appropriately photo-realistic approach. The variety of styles and narrative approaches creates a real diversity within the limited fairytale context. For those who haven’t yet read the Fables series, this is an excellent introduction.
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughn, with art by Niko Henrichon (Vertigo) has received much positive press for its overtly political story. Based on true events, this graphic novel tells the story of three lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the initial American occupation of the city in 2002. Vaughn certainly creates vivid action throughout, and the story can at times be poignant. However, the fantasy element–anthropomorphized lions–results in some unintentionally Lion King moments and lends unnecessary melodrama to an already dramatic narrative. In a sense, this is the one fantasy graphic novel published in 2006 that I feel would have been much better without the fantasy element. Still, I include it here for the basic power of the situation and the dynamic artwork.
Finally, The Ticking by Renee French (Top Shelf Productions) might be the strangest and yet most compelling fantasy-gothic graphic novel of the year. The story of the deformed Edison Steelhead is told using French’s typical shaded/pencil style. Steelhead’s strange life is filled at times with despair, sometimes with unexpected beauty. We might as well be looking at our own lives if placed in Steelhead’s situation. (In a sense, French’s tale is the anti-Romantic, anti-Edward Scissorshands.) Horrific and fantastical in a quiet way, French charts the moments of Steelhead’s life with understated emotion. It should be noted that this might be one of French’s least disturbing, least confrontational works.