Fables. Though it took awhile to get rolling, Bill Willingham's universe where exiled fairy tale characters interact in the modern world is now richly rewarding. Start with the Storybook Love collection, which is the third trade paperback but contains several self-enclosed stories. The writing hits its stride here, and you don't have to worry so much about the backstory: you know who Snow White is, though she's very different here than the Disney version.
The problem with most autobiographical comics is that they're written by comic book guys, and so too many of them duplicate the same geeky territory (for exceptions, see The Great Comics). There have been some terrific ones written lately, however. Persepolis details the experiences of a modern young woman living through the revolution in Iran, and Epileptic tells the hallucinogenic tale of growing up with an epileptic brother in France as their parents try a dizzying array of new age cures.
The above are recommendations accessible
to the comics novice. I'm also quite enjoying Robert Kirkman's
and The Walking Dead; Brian Michael Bendis's Powers; Jimmy
Gownley's Amelia Rules!; Mike Carey’s The Unwritten; the
jam-packed history of comics in Comic Book Comics; and Dave Sim's
exercise in copying-art-as-investigative-criticism, Glamourpuss,
all of which should have appeal to the more comics-savvy reader.
There already exists a kind of canon for comics, and if you haven't read Sandman, Watchmen, Maus, or Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, I highly recommend these praised works. For those looking for equally terrific comics:
The difficult thing about world history is that there's just so blasted much of it. You learn it in patches with little sense of the overarching story, and thus it's hard to remember the difference between the Sumerians and the Babylonians. Enter Larry Gonick. His marvelous Cartoon History of the Universe (5 vols., including his 2 volume Cartoon History of the Modern World) helps you see the sweep of history, the connections among societies. Very solidly researched history, polemic at times, and full of gags. Plus who can resist comic footnotes? Start with volume 1.
Dave McKean's Cages shows off his mastery of multiple art styles and mixed media. More a mood piece than a plot driven narrative, it portrays the community surrounding a reclusive author, meditating on the role of the artist and the nature of creativity. The visual portrayal of a jazz solo is absolutely transcendent.
For my money, Peter Milligan is the best of the writers working for DC's adult-oriented Vertigo comics line, though he sometimes can sound like he's read a bit too much postmodern theory. One of his early best is Skreemer, an operatic blend of a mafia tale with Finnegan's Wake.
Sometimes one of the best examples of a genres is among the earliest. Autobiographical comics can be a bit repetitive because they are written by comic book geeks who share many similar experiences. The exception that proves the rule is David Chelsea in Love, which spares neither the author nor his love interests from his honesty or his humor.
Another exceptional autobiographical comic is J.M. DeMatteis's self-reflexive Brooklyn Dreams. DeMatteis can be an uneven writer, but he consistently comes back to themes of spirituality and philosophy. Here he grounds them beautifully in his Brooklyn upbringing.
Comics' equivalent of the magical realism of Marquez is Gilbert Hernandez's Latin American small town community of Palomar. Hernandez juggles a huge cast of characters who are deeply interconnected in changing relationships, mixing the grotesque with the humorous and the tragic.
David Mack's Kabuki is probably the most visually complicated modern comic, a dense multiple medium mix of Asian influences. Mack scrawls in the margins, plays games with origami, and blends futuristic violence with meditations on identity. His art has gotten progressively more mannered so that it's almost work to read some of his later stuff. Skin Deep is not the first of Mack's story, but it's the best -- the moment when the style becomes advanced and lyrical without being too overburdened. Luckily, it seems that he is returning to a slightly less crowded style in Kabuki: The Alchemy.
David Mazzucchelli's adaptation of Paul Auster's novel City of Glass is actually an improvement on the original. It spatializes the story in ways that are crucial to the mystery plot but that words simply cannot do. Auster's existentialist detective story benefits from being tied to such a concrete world.
Stray Bullets: This comic made me realize how relatively tame and middle class most film noir characters are compared to the lower class inhabitants of Stray Bullets, who are not afraid to reach the nasty depths of degradation and violence. Stray Bullets has been a little iffy of late (ever since the author had a child), but start with the first trade paperback. A revelation.
Comic pioneer Will Eisner's material
can be a bit too sentimental for my tastes, but there's no denying the
emotional power of To
the Heart of the Storm, a story of a Jewish soldier reminiscing while
on a train coming back from WW2.
I'm not a huge fan of minicomics (comics made by independent artists who xerox the comics and distribute them themselves) because most minicomics seem to be made by people with minimal drawing skills and a poor sense of how to provide narrative payoffs. I do have hopes for the medium, buoyed by two exceptional works:
Exit at the Axis: a gracefully drawn story of a young man's increasing political awareness as he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy. The protagonist's ideals awaken and are challenged as he pursues his journalistic interests. Confidently told.
Rachel Hartman's Amy Unbounded:
a detailed story of a young girl growing up in a fictional medieval land.
Hartman creates an intricate world with its own folklore and customs, and
she pays nice attention to small matters of everyday life in this world.
You can get the paperback collection of the longest of these stories (called
Blossoming) or single issues at Mars
Import (a good source for independent, non-mainstream comics).
The Canadian series Slings and Arrows weaves together the character-driven story of a down-on-its-luck Shakespearean theater company with the Shakespeare plays the company is producing. It's funny, elegant, and involving. The first couple of seasons are available on DVD.
I've become one of THOSE people who believe that The Wire is not only the best thing ever put on television but also one of the greatest narratives in the history of storytelling. To use a worn out comparison, it's a novel of greater-than-Dickensian proportion (if Dickens worked in a realistic form instead of a melodramatic one). It interrogates social institutions with a cast that's larger than any novelist would dare use. It takes awhile to get into (when it first appeared on TV, I watched several episodes and didn't get it), but if you stick through about 8 episodes, it'll have you. It's well worth the investment.
I’m consistently impressed
by the narrative ingenuity of How I Met Your Mother, the warm characterizations
in Modern Family, and the jabs at television on 30 Rock.
Best of all, these shows make me laugh out loud.
I was totally unprepared for how terrific a film Rachel Getting Married is. It nails the way that families can cut each other with a single word. You can feel the weight of these characters’ histories on their present lives, and Jonathan Demme’s visceral style puts you right in the middle of their interactions.
Every once in a while a film comes along
that is so audaciously gorgeous that I watch it with my mouth open. Wong
Kar-Wei's In the Mood for Love is the most beautiful film I've seen
since Evil Dead 2.
The late great Gene Harris: blues pianist extraordinaire. I love the power of his playing and the way he blends jazz, blues, and gospel. Start with the Best of the Concord Years.
I was driving down the road at night when a radio station played Irene Kral's Where Is Love?, I had to stop and pull over to listen to it so that I wouldn't have a wreck. This album demands attention. Kral doesn't have an enormously impressive range, but she's an enormously subtle jazz singer. Unfortunately, she's no longer with us either.
Nancy LaMott's voice reminds many people of Streisand, but she's her own singer. Yep, you guessed it. . . she's dead too (it doesn't pay for me to like you as a musician, it seems).
Tracy Nelson has a terrific blues voice, though to call her a blues artist is to simplify her career, which has veered into country, bluegrass, folk, and soul, as well. Check out her early career with Mother Earth, or a recent album, Ebony and Ivory, which may be her best.
Famous Blue Raincoat: my favorite album of all time, with Jennifer Warnes doing lovely interpretations of Leonard Cohen's poetic songs (which definitely need interpreting. Cohen's voice reminds me of a comment a critic made about Bob Dylan's voice, that it reminds one of a cow with its leg caught on a barbed wire fence). There's not a false or out-of-place note on this perfectly produced album.
Andrea Marcovicci is my favorite cabaret singer. I love the way she crafts a performance, weaving together familiar material with forgotten songs she's unearthed, all gathered around a theme. Her album of love songs of WW2 is very moving.
Deanta (pronounced "Jaunt-a") is a Celtic band featuring tight playing and the lovely voice of Mary Dillon.
Barrage is a world music fiddle band (from Kletzmer to bluegrass to jigs) that's quite a spectacle when performing live.
Groovegrass Boyz: Here's a party record to amuse and horrify your friends: a cross-fertilization between bluegrass and funk, Doc Watson and Bootsy Collins. Can a CD that has a Minnie Pearl sample go wrong?
You know you need more black, feminist, Afrocentric, romantic, political, a cappella music in your life. Sweet Honey in the Rock has been astonishing audiences for decades. If you don't know them, start with Breaths.
The Real Group:
Yep, that's right -- Swedish a cappella music. What these guys do
with harmony is just Unreal.
I've been fairly disappointed by fiction in the last few years. All too often I read the latest ballyhooed novel and feel that it's overpraised by the critics or simply so tiny in scope that it has little impact on me. Here are some recent exceptions, books that made me sit upright once again:
The Time Traveler's Wife: It's hard to make clear a complicated time travel narrative such as this one, but Audrey Niffenegger takes this narrative challenge in stride. This is a moving love story and a wise one as well.
Being Dead: Jim Crace's novel sounds exactly like the kind I don't like: a small novel of observations about two people who are, well, dead. But the writing on each page is so drop dead gorgeous that this novel is a real treat.