Stocking stuffers? We thought about it, but in spite of what laundromat radio stations might lead you to believe, it IS too early to start thinking about the holidays. And besides, Chris Ware, for one, has clearly gone out of way to only produce work that could never in a million years be stuffed into anything resembling a stocking. So we guess you'll just have to keep these ones all to yourself. Don't say you've never done anything nice for you.
Building Stories by Chris Ware. Pantheon
Part way through the “14 distinctively discrete books, booklets, magazines, newspapers and pamphlets,” you wonder why you started reading, because you already knew that Chris Ware cuts like a knife deep into the heart of modern human isolation. And every few pages or so, like clockwork, something makes contact and utterly destroys you all over again. All that coupled with the knowledge that, try as you might, you’ll never be capable of producing something of this magnitude -- Ware is just one of those sorts of outliers who makes everyone else toiling away in a given medium feel that much worse about their own limited set of tools.
But as ever, it’s a beautiful journey, painstaking detailed and mind-numbingly crafted, without a single errant line, because we all know that a perfectionist like Ware would never be able to live with such an abhorrent thing. Thankfully, the cartoonist is fully capable of creating near perfect things, works of art that some how feel underpriced at $50 a pop.
Heads Or Tails by Lilli Carré. Fantagraphics Books
Until now, I probably would have sent you toward a copy of the Lagoon or Woodsman Pete, had you asked me where to start with Lilli Carré. Of course, both of those are still perfectly acceptable starting points (and really, start anywhere for that matter), but this collection of five years worth of Carré’s work certainly offers up the most diverse single serving of the whimsical cartoonist’s catalog thus far, both from an aesthetic and storytelling standpoint. These strips, which originally in the pages of places like The Believer and Mome, find the artist dipping her toes into new pools, the sort of freedom afforded by the low commitments of the short story form, often to truly wonderful effect.
Start with the paralleled remembrances of Rainbow Moment, and then work back and then forward, so you can read it again. You probably didn’t miss anything the first time around, but you should probably make sure, just in case.
Popeye by Roger Langridge and Tom Neely. IDW
I’ve entertained fantasies about a Tom Neely-drawn Popeye since the day I first saw the pages of The Blot unfold like some heavy metal EC Segar fever dream. And certainly one couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime than Roger Langridge, the Fred the Clown creating cartoonist who’s done time on a slew of properties, ranging from the Muppets to Thor. Issue #3 presents a particular highlight, as Thimble Theater’s famous sailor sets out to train Wimpy for an upcoming boxing match. Pelicans are eaten, Blutos are knocked unconscious and training montages worthy of Joe 'Bean' Esposito's silky vocals ensue. The sweet science indeed. It’s kid-friendly enough to help turn the next generation on to the greatest forearms in comics, but fans of Neely’s more horror-minded work will find some familiar costume choices in Wimpy’s undertaker-hooded opponent. Everybody wins! (Except for those foolish enough to do battle with Popeye, of course.)
Diary Comics #4 by Dustin Harbin. Koyama Press
I started to think that maybe the best diary strips are those done by non-professional cartoonists -- and there’s probably something to be said for that. Let’s face it, there’s lots of overlap, 1,000 different cartoonists all writing about the same weekend at the same independent comics expo -- sort of an emo Rashomon told through infinite crosshatching. Perhaps its the fact that my own circumstances have forced me to step away from the belly of the comics convention beast, but the latest collection of Dustin Harbin’s strip has offered up a subtle reminder of something I’d perhaps forgotten -- that subject matter is, at best, incidental, when a diary strip is done.
The best examples aren’t afraid of the mundane -- and certainly Harbin isn’t. Though, if his strip finds him floating through space with Albert Einstein every so often, you can’t really blame the guy.
Brian Heater (@bheater ) is a senior editor at Engadget and the founder of indie comics site, The Daily Cross Hatch. His writing has appeared in Spin, The Onion, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Press. He hosts several podcasts and shares an apartment in Queens with a rabbit named Sylvia.