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It’s been a busy year, so this is by no means a comprehensive best of, but what follows is a few of my favourite books, games, and other art-related items from 2012.
Two hardware purchases made a big difference in my workflow this year. First, I ditched my small, clunky box-shaped lightbox this year once I saw these super slim LED light pads that Michael Cho and Laura Park were both using. I splurged and got the largest 17x24 model, which takes up half my drafting table, but is flat enough to not ever be in the way, and large enough to accommodate most of the work I throw at it. For smaller desks or smaller budgets, it also comes in 12x17 and 12x9 models.
Secondly, I work on a Wacom Cintiq, but I like to draw while standing, so I was in the market for an LCD Arm this year. Every bit of my Google research seemed to lead to the Ergotron LX. The Cintiq is a little heavier than the LX’s stated maximum allowance, but there’s no noticeable strain on the arm, and the Cintiq moves freely and hangs solidly in the air. There’s a little wobble when using the Cintiq one-handed, but nothing prohibitive. Any wobble is made up for with the like-butter ease of turning and tilting the screen on a whim. Mounting the Cintiq to an adjustable arm is such an improvement on its overall ease of use that I think the Cintiq should come with one by default.
All of my local art and craft stores stock the ubiquitous Moleskine notebooks in their various incarnations, but none of them carry the harder-to-find (at least in my neck of the woods) watercolour books. Moleskine sketchbooks are very popular, but they don’t take watercolour or washes well, so discovering these watercolour Moleskines was a blessing. I’m not a watercolour paper connoisseur, but this paper is very nice, and is a joy to draw on even if you’re just using pencil or ink. Available in pocket-sized, large, A3, and A4.
Austin Kleon’s Tumblr may be the Internet’s greatest resource for writers and artists. On any given day it is overflowing with inspiration, wisdom, and straightforward advice for anyone who makes art of any kind. Steal Like an Artist (subtitled 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative) is the perfect companion book to the site, and neatly encapsulates Austin’s discoveries on creativity, art, and finding meaning in one’s work.
It was inevitable that Christoph Niemann’s highly imaginative and creative visual blog Abstract City, for the New York Times, would find itself a home in the pages of a book. Niemann translates his everyday experiences into smartly-crafted visual gags and creative imagery that never fail to delight or make me think, “why didn’t I think of that?”. The book includes the best of the website, including I LEGO N.Y., Bio-Diversity, and Let it Dough!. And judging by how many new entries the blog has in its previous posts section as of this writing, I hope we can expect a second book.
From my original review:
Drawn’s own Matt Forsythe delivers the follow-up to his first book, Ojingogo. Jinchalo continues the wordless fairy tale adventures of Voguchi, and Matt has clearly stepped up his game in terms of his art and pantomime storytelling. It’s a little Alice in Wonderland, a little Jack in the Beanstalk, and a little Wizard of Oz, flavoured with Korean folktales. I love these books so much.
I’m not a hardcore gamer, and my gold standard for adventure games is 1987’s Space Quest II, so that should give you some context for where my tastes and experiences lie. Amanita Design’s Machinarium (2009) is just about as perfect as a game can get — everything from the visuals, the puzzles, the music, and the storytelling work together to form a perfectly realized, illustrated world that I have revisited a number of times. If there was a game made for me, Machinarium is it. Amanita’s follow-up, Botanicula does for plants, seeds, and twigs what Machinarium did for robots. It takes place in a cosmic, bioluminescent plant world, so the gameplay and puzzles are a little more abstract than the ones in Machinarium’s gritty mechanical city, but the games share a sense of humour and delight, and continue to make me wish that every adventure game was as rewarding to just look at it and soak in the experience of existing in these little worlds. You can play demos of both games for free on their websites.
From Jesse Jacobs and Koyama Press, By This You Shall Know Him is a strange, funny, and beautifully crafted creation story filled with gods, aliens, humans and enough existential pondering to choke a carbon-based electrical chemical horse machine. Jesse’s Even the Giants made my list last year, as did another Jesse’s — Jesse Moynihan’s Forming, which makes a great companion book with its similarly funny take on the origins of life and morality.
Cartoonist Tom Gauld takes on the biblical tale of David vs. Goliath from the giant’s point of view. From my original review:
Tom Gauld is one of my favourite cartoonists because of his ability to marry his dry wit with his perfectly reduced drawing style. Goliath is his first long-form graphic novel, but is a natural continuation of the work he’s done for the Guardian’s Saturday Review letters page, skewing art and literature with his refined stick-figures.
Kyo Maclear and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault team up again after their picture book Spork, offering up another stunning-looking book, which also just won the Governor General’s Award for illustration in children’s literature. Isabelle is one of the most exciting illustrators working in picture books. Just look at her work! I loved their collaboration on Spork, but Virginia Wolf is a far greater punch in the gut — children’s books with grumpy characters getting over their bad moods are familiar territory, but Virginia Wolf (the title is a clue for grown-ups) dips into the realm of actual depression and mental illness in a deft and delicate way.
Probably no review I can give this book will do it any justice when compared to this blog entry from Mr. Biggs in which he recounts the story of an interaction with a young fan. Go read it, and come back.
What Everything Goes On Land was to cars and trucks, so Everything Goes in the Air is to planes, balloons, and other sky-bound modes of transport. It’s loaded with packed, detail-rich scenes giving kids everything they wanted to know about air travel, and more. And like its predecessor it has hidden details and find-em games throughout making it an ideal rainy-day book or the perfect distraction for a child on his or her first flight. I can’t recommend the series enough, and I look forward to completing the trilogy next year with Everything Goes By Sea.
Two perfect little square books for fans of pop culture and movie art.
From my original review of Scott’s book:
Scott C offers up some of Hollywood’s greatest confrontations in the silly cheerful way that only Scott C can. I love Scott’s watercolour recreations of my favourite movies (a Back to the Future original hangs on my wall) so I’ve been looking forward to this book version of his popular Great Showdowns website.
And from my original review of Olly’s book:
Olly is the master of the a-ha moment — those deceptively simple tweaks to familiar images that make you wish you thought of them first. I first shared some of Olly’s work when he was still a student, so it’s great to see his rise to fame as a sought-after designer for movie posters.
From my original review:
Jon McNaught’s previous two books with Nobrow (Birchfield Close and Pebble Island) remain two of my favourite, perfect little books. I revisit both of them frequently and marvel at the attention to detail and the quiet, poetry of the cartooning inside.
Dockwood seems like a natural progression for McNaught’s comics — taking the slow-paced reflections of rural and suburban life from those first two books, and allowing them to fill up a large, 8x10 page. It’s hard to put it any better than Chris Ware who wrote, “Dockwood is Jon McNaught’s loveliest argument yet for the beauty of just simply being alive.”
Now that UK publisher Nobrow has expanded its eponymous illustration magazine to a comics-and-illustration double whammy starting with last year’s issue 6, it’s cemented itself as my most anticipated comics anthology out there. Issue 7 is themed Brave New World and goes straight to my heart with an oversized sampling of science fiction and futuristic works from a Who’s Who of comicdom’s new wave. In addition to Nobrow staples like Tom Gauld and Luke Pearson, this issue also gives us exciting new stories from the likes of Ethan Rilly, Michael DeForge, Jillian Tamaki, Joe Lambert, and Eleanor Davis, to name a few, and gorgeous illustrations from artists like Dadu Shin, Patrick Kyle, and Julianna Brion.
Translating the experiences of the deaf and blind Helen Keller into comics would be a difficult task for most cartoonists. Joe Lambert, whose self-published comics often pair childhood angst with abstract fantasy, handles the task brilliantly. Joe’s formal playfulness brings a visually exciting twist to the historical biography genre, especially to a story in which the concepts of communicating words and images is so vital.
Steven Weissman gas been posting his odd comic strip, named after and starring a Bizarro-Universe version of Barack Hussein Obama, on the What Things Do website and it quickly became one of my favourite comics online.
I direct you to Dustin Harbin’s review of the book, which does it more justice than I ever could:
Barack Hussein Obama is a challenging and idiosyncratic book that describes its subject from a great, absurd, and comic distance. It’s closer to the kind of associative resonance of poetry than what you would expect of a book called Barack Hussein Obama, released just weeks before [the real] Obama’s attempt at a second term in office. It has very little to do with actual reality, and weirdly seems more real than it has any right to be.
Obama’s re-election, if anything, hopefully means another four years of this strange and delightful oddity.
Lilli Carré is one of those cartoonists who has been putting out plenty of great work, but not always in small, shorter pieces, which can make it difficult to collect or find. She’s a master of short stories, so this collection is a welcome addition to my bookshelves. Rainbow Moment, a smartly-crafted story of nested memories all told in different colour palettes is the stand out work, and worth the price of admission alone. 50 Watts
Like the Lilli Carré book, this is a collection of shorter works published elsewhere throughout Sammy Harkham’s career. I have almost all this material in its original formats, but hidden throughout anthologies and floppy comics, it’s quite nice to have it accessible all in one package. It reprints the entirety of his book, Poor Sailor, but I think my favourite things here are the single-page offerings like Napoleon, in which the French emperor moonlights as a cartoonist between military battles.
I went on a bit of Dan Clowes bender this year, dipping into his back catalogue, and then gorging myself on the collection of interviews in Daniel Clowes: Conversations, so this monograph of his work, spanning a career of twenty-five years came at just the right time for me to fully enjoy it. The book is structured around interviews and essays from a number of contributors, including Chris Ware and Chip Kidd, but the real treat is the unfiltered look at rare photographs, early drawings, preliminary sketches and, most excitingly, original artwork reproduced to show the paper texture, the pasted-on edits, the Zip-a-Tone shading film, and only the rarest instances of any Wite-Out to fix mistakes.
Photo by Julian Andrews, The Telegraph
I’ll be honest; I haven’t had a chance to dig into this box of books yet (though I’ve read some of it in various other forms). Regardless, it’s rather difficult to not include anything new from Chris Ware in a year-end list, let alone something so ambitious and marvellous as a big box filled with fourteen books of varying size and format. My gift to myself this holiday season is to find the time to squirrel away in a cozy spot in my house and dig into these books and pamphlets, and then to head over to the Comics Journal which, upon Building Stories’s release, invited the essayists of The Comics of Chris Ware to revisit the themes of their essays in the context of this magnificent-looking box.
The best $3.00 you’ll ever spend. Here, have a taste.
Consistently, the greatest webcomic on the Internet, and one of my favourite things in any medium. SuperMutant Magic Academy is heartbreaking, funny, and smart. It’s the most devastating and hilarious philosophical comic strip next to Peanuts. As a bonus, it’s the only thing on this list you don’t need to spend any money on to enjoy.
Every year I publish my list of favourites, and every year I always realize I’ve forgotten a few due to absent-mindedness or, more likely, my cluttered office. So here are a few more:
There’s something quite special about the unadorned, simple black-and-white mini-minicomics that show up every few weeks from Chuck Forsman’s subscription series, which offers comics from a number of cartoonists like Melissa Mendes, Michael DeForge, Max de Radiguès, and more. They’re small things, and short to read, so unlike the growing pile of unread books by my bedside, they are actually inviting rather than intimidating when it comes to reading them. And they’re cheap and disposable enough that they don’t feel like precious objects. They feel like little gifts when they come in the mail. It appears that subscription memberships are currently closed, but at the very least you can head over to the Oily Boutique and order the books a la carte for a buck a pop.
Patrick Kyle released the collected book of his comic series Black Mass this year, but for my money I’m much more excited by his latest series Distance Mover, which like Oily Comics, I’ve been getting in the mail every month as a subscription. Each little book is a risographed art object, and I enjoy seeing Patrick’s work grow more abstract and even further from the traditional norm than Black Mass which already eschewed panels in favour of a freeform fill-the-page-with-drawings method. Each issue in the mail comes with goodies like extra prints or zines. Subscriptions are likely closed as the series nears its end, but you can order books directly from Patrick’s site, and read the first three issues (in black and white) online.
Dustin’s Diary Comics made the list in previous years when they weren’t even this good — the great thing with a project like this is being able to literally see the artist improve over time. This fourth issue comprises more of Dustin’s just-like-the-title-says diary comics, and his drawing chops remain as honed as ever, but it’s the multi-page story Boxes that is the real zinger here. In it Dustin reflects on the diary comics themselves, and how comics have affected his day-to-day perception of the world around him, for better or for worse. Yes, meta journal comics about drawing said comics aren’t anything new, but Dustin’s gifts for thoughtfulness and introspection make it a special thing, and a powerful unexpected product of having distilled his life into four panels, a page at a time, for the past few years. You can read Boxes online for free (full disclosure: I am featured in the story), and buy all of Dustin’s books and prints at his online store (which currently offers 35% off orders of $50 or more with the code DHARBMAS).
I knew my list didn’t feel right without any reprints of classic comic strips. Nancy seems to be a love-it-or-leave-it strip, and I am firmly in the Love It camp. Nancy is the granddaddy of the gag strip. Often surreal, and always impeccably drawn, there is nothing quite like it. D&Q got a head start in publishing John Stanley’s Nancy comic books, which are certainly fun, but these Bushmiller strips are the real deal — perfectly constructed comic strips with not a line or word wasted. It’s been said it’s harder to not read a Nancy strip than it is to read one, and for that alone these books are a virtual masterclass in cartooning.
In a list of Great Cartoonists Who Weren’t Cartoonists, Jim Henson would top the list. Is there a better example of simple, contrasting character design than Bert and Ernie? Jim Henson famously kept a journal with simple one-line entries. It was a proto-Twitter account that, of course, is now a Twitter account. This book, Imagination Illustrated, compiles the most notable entries in chronological order and fills the pages with sketches, drawings, photographs, storyboards, and ephemera to create a scrapbook of the Muppet creator’s professional life, and is the perfect piece of nostalgia for a Muppet-loving child of the 80s like myself.