Standouts among this year's graphic novels -- starting with Adrian Tomine's "Shortcomings" -- nicely depart from the autobiographical themes that have overtaken the genre.
Writing recently in this year's edition of the "Best American Comics" anthology, cartooning cult god Chris Ware noted that there has been a backlash against the navel-gazing and self-indulgence that, some people say, rule comics today.
"Admittedly," he wrote politely, "a preponderance of autobiographical work has accrued" lately, as a legacy of such indie pioneers as Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar.
In general, I'd agree, but it's not the case when looking at the best of what's published, at least this year.
Leading that pack is Adrian Tomine's "Shortcomings" (Drawn & Quarterly, 108 pages, $19.95), probably the best work of this great writer/artist's career.
With the feel of a particularly good talky dramedy, the book tells the story of a Japanese-American couple in their early 30s whose relationship has hit a post-collegiate milestone: live together and idle, evolve or die on the vine.
Lead character Ben Tanaka is one of the year's great literary creations: negative and perpetually unsatisfied, cynical and not overly ambitious, too soft for real work and too smart to commit to a career, and too real to be wholly unsympathetic.
He's adrift and stiflingly critical of everyone around him, including his lovely girlfriend, Miko, whose tolerance for Ben's b.s. is mysteriously long-lasting and might have reached its limit as she prepares to leave California for an internship in New York City.
Ben has a thing for blond white girls, which Miko discovers when she finds a porn stash in a desk drawer. It's one of many ways Tomine uses the book's spare plot to explore racial and sexual dynamics subtly without breaking narrative stride.
"Look," Ben says. "Let's not make a big deal out of this. If it bothers you, I'll throw [the movies] out. I got them a long time ago, and. ... "
"Well, the thing that kind of bothers me is that all the girls are white," Miko says.
"That's not true," Ben says. "Look ... there's a, uh, Latina girl in this one ..."
Says Miko: "How would you like it if I was obsessed with pictures of big, muscular African-American men?"
"Yeah, right. ... " Ben says. "You reach for your pepper-spray the minute you see a black guy walking towards you on the street!"
Ben's friend, Alice Kim, provides a measure of caustic comedic relief to his soul-numbing ennui. Born in Korea, a lesbian and the daughter of conservative immigrants, Alice brings Ben to a wedding even though his ancestry is Japanese and her family despises Japanese people because of World War II.
"Still," she says, "I'm sure my family would rather see me with a Japanese boy than a Korean girl."
"So rapists and pillagers are preferable to homos," he says dryly.
"Everything is preferable to homos," she says.
Plotwise, not much happens in "Shortcomings," beyond people moving in and out of each other's lives, which in the end is what defines a lot of single people's lives in their 20s and 30s: just so many people come and gone, each day a door opening slowly on change.
"Shortcomings" is Tomine's richest and most rewarding read, packed with the most human characters he has ever created. The art is spare and meticulous, more refined than ever. Some might find it a little too stiff, the compositions of each panel too much the same from one to the next. But I think it's the perfect, uncluttered complement to the fine writing it illustrates.
War and beasts
• Also terrific this year from Canadian comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly is Israeli writer/artist Rutu Modan's "Exit Wounds" (172 pages, $19.95). It's the story of two people drawn together in contemporary Tel Aviv to check into the disappearance of a man who led separate identities as a father, ex-husband nd lover.
• This summer, D&Q published Joe Matt's brave and weird book, "Spent" (124 pages, $19.95). It's the story of a porn-addicted chronic masturbator and misanthrope (named Joe Matt) who lives in a rooming house and is so lazy he chooses to pee into empty bottles rather than making the trip down the hall. I can't say I really liked "Spent," but (considering the author is known for doing brutally autobiographical work) I admired its naked honesty.
• "Shooting War" (Grand Central Publishing, 192 pages, $21.99) is a satire of the media's coverage (and noncoverage) of the Iraq war, by writer Anthony Lappé and artist Dan Goldman. A video blogger witnesses and captures a terrorist attack in Brooklyn and becomes an instant celebrity journalist. Then he's hired by a Rupert Murdoch-like media magnate to cover the war for a cable network, compromising himself to preserve his job and access. The satire, though smart, is a little heavy-handed, but the book gets points for style and ambition.
• Early this year, Fantagraphics published the anthology "Beasts!" (193 pages, $28.95). It's not a graphic novel and doesn't tell a story, but "Beasts!" is one of the most beautiful books of the year, with dozens of artists illustrating mythological creatures from many cultures, from the banshee and the Bigfoot to the Minotaur and the vampire, and a lot of creatures that even a former Dungeons & Dragons player won't recognize.
• Fantagraphics did a lot with the best of the company's back catalog this year, including coming out with a 15th-anniversary edition of Joe Sacco's "Palestine" (285 pages, $29.95). Called "Palestine: The Special Edition," the book is an expanded version of a pioneering work of New (Comics) Journalism that the late Edward Said called "a political and aesthetic work of extraordinary originality." The anniversary edition, mimicking DVD extras, includes a new essay by Sacco, a series of images from the book accompanied by the photo references Sacco made when traveling in the Middle East, and what you might call deleted scenes, rejected or redone pages from the original.
• And to celebrate the 25th anniversary of "Love and Rockets," the seminal 1980s comics by brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Fantagraphics began this year to release paperback editions that collect the entire long run of the series into economical ($16.95) volumes.
Eric M. Hanson • 612-673-7517