My favourite comics of the 2010s

About this list

I’m not suggesting that these are the best comics of the last decade (I don’t think a list like that is even possible), but I would recommend them to anyone interested in comics. They are biased towards indie press and autobiography because those are the comics that generally have meant the most to me. I have kept the descriptions brief for most of them and many include my personal reasons for choosing them which are subjective. Feel free to click on the titles to read more about them elsewhere. This selection is a bit longer than most best of lists, but it’s my blog and I felt like it.

If you are interested, I wrote an accompanying post about why I’ve spent so much time reading comics over the past decade and what I love about them.

I also want to recommend this “Best of” comics list by Kim Jooha on Solrad that focuses on artists, zines, indie comics, and includes a great quote by Elena Gorfinkel on some of the problems inherent in best of  lists.

  • Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée
    • Geneviève Castrée’s delicately illustrated but powerful memoir about an imperfect girl (Goglu, who is meant to represent Castrée ) forced to grow up at too young an age and raise herself. This comic narrates childhood emotional neglect, bullying, and finding community in punk rock, visually depicting loneliness and isolation through a unique intricate style and use of negative space. It takes place in Quebec and BC. I felt very lucky to see some of Castrée’s art up close at the Canadian Indie Comics exhibit at the Art Gallery of Hamilton this year. There was a quiet alcove dedicated to her work.  Castrée, a musician as well, passed away from cancer in 2016 when she was only thirty-five, and that loss was felt heavily among many communities. Her art was brilliant and emotional.
  • Beautiful Darkness (and also Satania!) by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    • At first, this appears to be a very cute Disney-like fairy tale that takes place in a lush forest— but very soon you will realize that this is a terrifying fairy tale (closer to the original fairy tales), that takes place surrounding the decomposing body of a corpse in the middle of the woods. The cute characters are horrifyingly wicked, cruel, and vain, and the reader must follow the sweet protagonist as she painfully uncovers the truth of her dark world and dreams. (reviewed for Canada Comics Open Library’s Halloween blog post).

(image from artist’s online store)

  • Stone Fruit Chapter 1 + 2 by Lee Lai
    • A beautifully illustrated chronicle of a relationship, the messiness of relationships, and monstrous feelings. There was a rhythm to the comic as I read, reminding me of of steadily running forward and jumping across rooftops in dreams (anyone else?). The brush line work is amazing.
  • In-Between Days by Teva Harrison
    • In-Between Days narrates how Teva Harrison lived with her illness after being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in her 30s. It is told in diary-like entries that examine themes of identity, anger, fear, pain, death, sadness, memories, hope, and relationships. It is beautifully drawn, funny, and very touching. It is one of my favourite graphic autobiographies. I was so sad to hear of her death last year. She was a very generous artist, open and encouraging to cartoonists who were just starting out.
  • Alone by Christophe Chabouté
    • A wordless comic about a lonely lighthouse keeper who escapes his rock prison through his imagination. Told in powerful contrasting black and white illustrations. Hopeful and heartwarming, with stunning art.
  • Earthling by Aisha Franz
    • A magical realism coming of age narrative about two sisters experiencing the awkwardness and loneliness of growing up, and the affects of their father’s absence. It is told in dark pencil which gives it an ephemeral quality, a feeling like you can press down and smudge the pages with your fingers. It reminded me of how childhood feels so ephemeral as you get older, yet feels so long and permanent when you are a child.
  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris
    • My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a beautifully illustrated (with Bic ballpoint pens on drawing paper/ruled notebook paper!) semi-autobiographical historical murder mystery (1960s Chicago). The story is manifested in the thoughtful and fascinating diary entries and observations of a complex monster/horror-loving girl protagonist. The story includes themes and experiences of race, class, gender, queerness, and trauma (through the experiences of Holocaust survivors), and what it means to be or feel monstrous. Also, I knew I would like it because my favourite thing is monsters.
  • The End of Summer and Are you Listening? by Tillie Walden
    • Architectural and surreal landscapes make up the backdrops of these melancholy and beautiful comics that will sweep you away. Perfect for curling up with a quilt and getting lost in during a cold fall or winter day.
  • Eden by Pablo Holmberg
    • Sweet and funny 4 panel comics that are meditative to read. I always enjoy returning to this one and checking in on these characters in their small window worlds. If you enjoy reading Moomin by Tove Jansson, this little book is for you.
  • Somnambulance by Fiona Smyth
    • I wish that I had seen these comics earlier in my life. Fiona Smyth is a wonderful artist and I just really connect with her work. Somnambulance is a retrospective of comics and artwork that uniquely stands out as a hybrid of speculative fiction, autobiography, punk rock, and much more, including a wonderfully strange exploration of girlhood. I’m filled with awe and glee looking through it.
  • Alienation by Ines Estrada
    • A really freaky sci-fi that feels all too familiar and made me want to throw away my phone, involving virtual reality, environmental degradation, futuristic sex work, relationships, and lack of connection in the year 2054. Told in Ines Estrada’s hand drawn, cute, and terrifyingly visceral style.
  • Fluorescent Mud by Eli Howey
    • A gorgeous and haunting neon nightmare that conveys the numbness of mental illness and a disconnection from the environment and oneself. A challenging and powerful read, even if you take something else away from it.
  • Heartless by Nina Bunjevic
    • Heartless is a series of stories about a lonely Eastern European (Balkan) woman’s life and miseries after being sent to America by her Uncle.  The art is simultaneously grotesque and beautiful, and the detail in the cross-hatching, shading, and stippling is stunning. It is a difficult narrative to read because it is so heartbreaking.
  • Your Black Friend and Other Strangers by Ben Passmore
    • A gloriously illustrated collection of short stories (sci-fi and everyday) covering a wide range of  topics like American politics, race, identity (the author is a biracial person of colour), dysphoria, the prison system, lowbrow art, the punk scene and much more with humour, satire, and care. The pages are vibrant and alive. A call to action in this numbing political climate. And a book that all allies should read.
  • The Strange by Jérôme Ruillier
    • Sad, beautiful, and a must read in these times of widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric, xenophobia, and dehumanization of those deemed to be “other”. The Strange narrates an undocumented immigrant’s journey to a western country,  told through the perspective of those he meets. Drawn in a bold colour palette of red, orange, and green pencils. You will carry this with you for a long time.
  • Rat Time by Keiler Roberts
    • A funny and relatable chronicle of everyday moments and humility, with a quality of drawing that is deadpan and so enjoyable. Rat Time is an autobiographical comic about motherhood, illness, memories, ageing, and how ridiculous we are. A lot of moments that will sneak up on you and make you pause to admire their beauty and clarity.
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
    • A comic memoir by Thi Bui, narrating the story of a Vietnamese family separated by war and trauma, who immigrate to America, and a daughter longing to reconnect with her parents through understanding their past. Intimate with breathtaking illustrations.
  • Naming Monsters by Hannah Eaton
    • Monsters, amateur cryptozoology, fairies, sexuality, friendship, identity, and grieving the loss of a parent— these themes and topics are woven seamlessly together in this powerful and viscerally illustrated story. The pencil drawings are deeply moving.
  • The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
    • A mysterious and surreal story about regret and loss, fatherhood, and growing up. My introduction to the work of Jeff Lemire, and still one of my favourite comics of all time.
  • Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels
    • A stunning and eerie sci-fi about the human desire for perfection and youth, regret, relationships, ageing, money and power, race politics, and the dark side of privatized science. One of my favourite reads last year, but it was also very disturbing, in the way that brilliant books often are. I recommend it highly, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to read it again for a long time.
  • Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak
    • A fabulous read filled with magical realism and sci-fi short stories, following women’s friendships and relationships. So charming, insightful, and funny.
  • First Year Healthy by Michael DeForge (and many other books by him)

    • Michael DeForge creates beautifully realized alternative worlds that capture complex personal, social, and political experiences and the absurdity of living in the world. Ornate, delicate and cute aesthetics combine with visceral and grim story undertones and body horror to offer a simultaneous feeling of childhood playfulness and imagining as well as a disturbing feeling caused by the distortion of familiar aesthetics. His art reminds me of the gross ornateness of insects, as weird as that may sound; his more recent work is simplified in terms of line work and use of flat colour. First Year Healthy is a surreal narrative about mental illness and ill-fated relationships, told by a maybe not so reliable narrator, and set in a treacherous climate that reminded me a lot of home in Winnipeg.
  • Heads or Tails by Lilli Carré
    • A collection of whimsical and charmingly illustrated magical short stories, with beautiful colour and detail.
  • Our Wretched Town Hall by Eric Kostiuk Williams
    • I am in such awe of Eric Kostiuk Williams’ ability to capture the emotion and culture of a time and place through the surreal (like Kensington Market and Videofag artspace). There is so much energy in his inking, line work, and colouring. When I first read this comic as a judge for the Doug Wright Awards last year, I jotted down, “It’s like a living beating heart with rainbow ink coursing through the pages.” His fluid morphing narratives are often about queer culture, urban decay, and gentrification in Toronto, Canada.
  • Picking Bones by Keet Geniza
    • Picking Bones is a gentle and emotional narrative that is told through vignettes of the memories and experiences of the author, moving from one place to another and trying to understand their self and needs, through relationships, struggles, and self-reflection. These zines are sweet and sad and carry a message about the importance of self-love and care. An artist I really admire.
  • You Don’t Have to be Afraid of Me by Victor Martins
    • A mini-comic and zine about the author’s relationship with masculinity and why he grew to fear and distrust men, told from a transmasc perspective and based on his own experiences. This is an emotionally powerful and vital read (and funny and very charming!)

Kids/Teens

  • Look Straight Ahead by Elaine M. Will
    • One of the first comics I read that dealt so frankly with mental illness and the fear and stigma associated with it. A realistic depiction of high school life, losing control and having a breakdown, and surviving despite it all. This one meant a lot to me.
  • Jane, The Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Elizabeth Arsenault
    •  A large format graphic narrative for all ages about the difficulty of making friends, being kind to yourself, and fitting in. It also deals with body image, body positivity, and societal expectations in a thoughtful way. For me, there is something about the tactile satisfaction of holding large format comics that makes the experience of reading them so enjoyable and immersive.
  • Surviving the City by Tasha Spillett, illustrated by Natasha Donovan
    • A beautifully illustrated story of friendship and navigating growing up Indigenous in Winnipeg, Manitoba, living with the systemic problems and trauma caused by colonialism, including missing and murdered Indigenous women. It carries a tone of resilience and hope. HighWater Press is publishing such great work, and I can’t recommend this graphic novel enough.
  • Tomboy by Liz Prince
    • A hilarious childhood memoir about girlhood, gender roles, identity, awkward and embarrassing moments, and the fallibility of “normal”, that should be required reading for everyone. The drawing style is so endearing and expressive (for comparison, it reminded me a bit of Kate Beaton’s work).
  • Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
    • Maia Kobabe’s wonderful autobiography about growing up and realizing eir self-identity as a gender queer and asexual person, struggling with social and family expectations, and other relatable elements of growing up, like crushes, awkward body changes, and the difficulties of opening up to family members. This book is filled with humour and kindness, and I would recommend it to anyone.
  • Anne Frank’s Diary The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman, illustrations by David Polonsky
    • A visually beautiful adaptation of Anne Frank’s Diary that I thought did a good job of maintaining the spirit of the original narrator, depicting universal themes of being young, finding out who you are, suffering from depression, craving independence, longing for intimacy, and feeling alienated from those around you. Inviting and heartbreaking. I needed multiple reading sessions to move through the narrative, because it was difficult to take in the violence, fear, and trauma of the time in one sitting. I think with historical fiction and autobiographies that depict trauma, there is an added layer of brutality, immediacy, and realness through the imagery in comics that can cause a more visceral reaction than with similar stories in prose (the graphic adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damian Duffy and John Jennings, Maus by Art Spiegelman…).
  • Fish by Bianca Bagnarelli
    • The artwork and purple and orange tones of this short comic are visually stunning. A grieving child reflects on death and mortality in a quiet little town in the French Riviera in the summer. It narrates a child’s depression, grief, and fear in an honest and piercing way.
  • Navel Gazing by Gyimah Gariba
    • A gentle and surreal story about doppelgangers, identity, and the dangers of too much introspection. Filled with humour and charm.
  • The Only Child by Guojing
    • A stunning narrative. Guojing who is a newcomer explains in her author’s note that this wordless graphic novel grew out of memories of “isolation and loneliness,” from having grown up under China’s one-child policy. A melancholy and emotional fairy tale that offers the comfort of a dream.
  • Anna And Froga: I dunno…what do you want to do? by Anouk Ricard
    • Charming illustrations and lovable goofs. It’s a world to escape to when you need to forget about how messed up the world is and remember the humour of everyday life. Features a deeply flawed  cast of friends, and chronicles their misadventures. You may experience the similar immersive bewitchment of childhood Saturday morning cartoons (at least I did). These comics bring me joy.
  • This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
    • Gorgeous illustrations capturing a queer coming of age narrative and friendship story set in a lakefront community in Ontario over the course of a summer. This has been challenged in schools and libraries for language and adult themes related to sexuality, gender, identity; these books consider the emotional intelligence of YA readers and combat cultural myths about a safe, sheltered and idealized childhood. It includes themes like depression, miscarriages (and other experiences with pregnancy), sexism, and the undercurrents of colonialism.
  • Your Turn, Adrian by Helena Öberg and Kristin Lidström
    • A mostly wordless story about learning disabilities (dyslexia), loneliness, finding a friend, and the power of the imagination to help us keep going during difficult times. I fell in love with the streetscapes, interiors, and use of colour (shifting from black and white to colour) to coincide with the characters emotions and experiences. It is a stunning little comic.
  • The Unsinkable Walker Bean (Volumes 1 and 2) by Aaron Renier
    • A really fun fantasy and adventure story set on the high-seas that has brilliant illustrations and lovable characters. I use this one for YA book therapy.
  • As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman
    • Uniquely illustrated with coloured pencils, As the Crow Flies is an intimate coming of age narrative and friendship story that takes place at a Christian summer retreat for teenage girls. Gillman shares the story of Charlie, a queer person of colour, her frustrations with the hypocrisy of her camp’s religious ideology and practices, and her coming to terms with her queer identity.
  • Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez
    • A gorgeously illustrated and very spooky story about friendship and the challenges of creativity, made with vibrant and innovative panel layouts. You wouldn’t think it initially from how beautiful and bright the artwork is, but it is really more of a horror story!

Anthology

Lastly, if you have compiled a list of your favourite comics of the last decade, please link me to it 🙂

Creating an independent comics library

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Canada Comics Open Library has been in our Regent Park space just about 9 months now, and we recently held a crowdfunding campaign to be able to pay rent and insurance for the next year as well as make our collection circulating. Although we did not reach all of our larger goals, we were able to meet our main goals to run for the next year (with circulation!), and I am so proud and thankful for all of the support we’ve had this year from volunteers and community members.

I wanted to share a presentation I made earlier this year about the politics of this library project, comics librarianship, and traditional library cataloguing and classification.

The following link will take you to a post on the CCOL blog, the script from my presentation at the 2nd Annual Conference of the Comics Studies Society COMICS/POLITICS on July 25th (Community Day), at Ryerson University. This paper was written by me, in collaboration with my partner Brandon Haworth:

Reading the Shelves: The Politics of Creating a Diverse Comics Library

If you have any feedback or suggestions, please feel free to comment or contact me! If you are in Toronto, come visit us at the comics library!

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(Above: participants at one of our workshop events at CCOL this year)

Here is a bit more about the library project:

Canada Comics Open Library (CCOL) is a non-profit and volunteer-run comics library located in Regent Park, Toronto, Ontario. CCOL was founded in the springtime of 2018. Our mission is to help make comics more accessible while increasing representation of marginalized communities in comics, with a focus on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour), LGBTQ+, disabled, and women creators. We are working to achieve our mission through our library collection and space, online resources, and community events.”
You can also follow CCOL:

Canada Comics Open Library!

I was so swept up in work that I forgot to post about work!

This is the most exciting project I have ever worked on, and I’ve had the complete pleasure of leading this non-profit comics library for the past 9 months— and can finally talk about it!

The Canada Comics Open Library is working on creating an inclusive physical library space to help showcase how diverse and wonderful comics are. Right now we have an online platform with plenty of resources about Canadian comics,  and we are hosting pop-up libraries and events in existing accessible spaces until we are able to rent a space of our own.

This is a poster from our recent launch event

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And here are a few photos of community members enjoying comics at our recent pop-up library!

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(Photos by Ramtin Teymouri)

Grotesque Dollhouse: A Close Reading of Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary

The following post is based on a course assignment from a few years ago that offered me the opportunity to closely read and trace a few pages from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary, one of my favorite autobiographical comics. My New York Diary is also an early contemporary feminist classic of graphic autobiography. I read the second printing of the softcover published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2011.  The work chronicles Doucet’s six months living in New York, beginning as an idealistic 17-year-old artist after graduating from an all-girls’ school in Canada. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and often relatable complications ensue, including boyfriend woes, addiction battles, physical and mental health struggles, and grave disillusionment with the art world.

I miss studying comics.

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After rereading sections of Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary I became aware that Doucet’s graphic narrative reminded me of the voyeuristic act of peering into a dollhouse. Typically, each page in My New York Diary is made of three rows of panels that parallel the levels of a dollhouse, the characters are doll-like with disproportionate and “cute” physical features, and the layout of the page exposes an open wall for the audience to gaze inside the scene. However, unlike a child’s dollhouse Doucet’s dollhouse engages with the grotesque, including: garbage—although she somehow makes garbage look cute, dirty and cracked walls, insects that corrupt each room, leaking body fluids, and objects that move eerily between panels. Doucet’s characters, which look like beat-up dolls with black eyes and bruises, also contribute to the uncanny dollhouse aesthetic.  I felt unnerved reading many of Doucet’s brutally honest self-critical scenes. Maybe because they defamiliarize my childhood memories of playing with dollhouses while inventing more naïve, although perhaps not more strange, narratives.

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Kidkraft’s 18″ Dollhouse

Page five of Julie Doucet’s story “My New York Diary” introduces several themes that reveal Doucet’s immaturity as a younger artist, exposing her idealistic fantasy of love and the creative life of an artist in New York. The cartoon Doucet on this page is naïve and optimistic. She is a marionette-like figure not yet able to critique her boyfriend or her decisions; she embraces her boyfriend in the chaos of the apartment and exclaims, “Oh Chéri, we will be so happy.” The author might write this with heavy cynicism, but the character in the panel seems genuinely happy.  I chose to examine this page in contrast to page fifty-two because the character Julie changes drastically between these two pages, as does the story’s tone. Doucet’s character gains autonomy and the author finally speaks through her character instead of manipulating her like a puppeteer. On page five the cartoon Doucet is alienated from the narrator Doucet while on page fifty-two the narrator and the cartoon character merge and the character is self-aware (and aware of the audience).

In most panels on page five Doucet’s character smiles gleefully at her boyfriend’s messy apartment, and she stares entranced at her boyfriend. Both characters act ecstatic, excited about the space they believe will be conducive to creativity and romance. However, because the space is visually unstable, I read both characters’ optimism as unreliable. The space foreshadows conflict. Doucet’s uncanny dolls, such as the mouse with the superman cape, shift unsettlingly between panels and the walls and floors shift between panels as well.

Doucet draws her younger self and her boyfriend as oversized dolls with large heads and unblinking large manic eyes. They are also children playing dress up, acting out their roles among the toys and chaotic props of the world of the apartment. Doucet’s New York is a city of discarded objects where even garbage becomes “cute”, thrown like abandoned play toys into heaps along the sidewalks; the jagged edges of tin cans become more curved. Many of Doucet’s characters are overgrown children carelessly discarding their playthings and garbage, but they are also drawn to look like grotesque dolls and they are also often discarded. On page four of the same story the backwards-L-shaped bottom panel shows a cute girl wearing a backpack and polka dot dress. Her eyes appear to be hollow or gouged out and she looks lost and distressed and walks with her arms at her sides like an automaton. She looks like a discarded doll.

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In the top left corner of page five Doucet’s boyfriend twists his head around completely in an unnatural toy-like movement while walking up the stairway. Reading this gave me the impression that his character is fake or disingenuous. Doucet draws herself with spaghetti-like hair that fits into the chaotic, garbage-ridden aesthetic of the apartment and her New York. Doucet blends in and becomes lost in the scenery. The cans in the hallway, the ominous shadows, and dirt on the walls in the first panel foreshadow the messiness of the apartment and the instability of the relationship, exposing the younger Doucet’s idealistic fantasy of New York. Doucet and her boyfriend move erratically, almost jerkily, from panel to panel, like stop-motion animation figures. They hug in the second last panel on page five and suddenly in the last panel her boyfriend dramatically throws himself into a swing-dance-like move, his arm extended toward the refrigerator.

The subtly shifting toys and walls and the disorienting tilt of the floor create an atmosphere filled with anxiety and instability. The shifting unreliable objects offer a critique of consumerist culture as well—since the objects and possessions become threatening and unreliable.

I associate Doucet’s graphic narrative to the voyeuristic glimpse into an uncanny dollhouse, but I also think about how the process of paneling and drawing comics itself parallels the childhood act of playing with dolls by placing them in various positions and making them speak. Although this might play into the stereotype of the cartoonist as the social outcast alienated with their collectables and imagination, artists like Doucet can distort and manipulate the dollhouse and dolls and force them to work against problematic social norms. For example, Doucet defamiliarizes the social conventions and the “nuclear family” ideology attached to the original mass-produced plastic dollhouses.

The panoramic center panel on page five shows Doucet’s character smiling, standing next to the smiling mouse doll in a cape. The character Julie is encompassed in her boyfriend’s belongings and becomes another doll he has collected. This panel is the establishing shot for the world of the apartment where the character Julie will isolate herself from her new city. Doucet’s character is empowered by her creativity, but otherwise she is afraid to leave the apartment. The reader views the panel from the powerful perspective of the puppeteer while Doucet’s character is the puppet doomed to repeat Doucet’s behavior and experiences. However, on page fifty-two the character Julie meets the reader’s gaze, altering the power dynamics and uncanny feel of the earlier page.

Page fifty-two establishes Julie the character is more autonomous and self-reflective than in earlier stories. Doucet draws the title of page fifty-two, “My New York Diary”, studded with jewel-like decorations, alluding to the glitzy façade of theatre productions or glamorous fantasies of fame and fortune. Here Doucet might be making fun of her earlier fantasy of New York’s romance. The first page I looked at for this post begins in Spring, season of hope and rejuvenation, while the second page I chose takes place in the desolation of winter, wrought with isolation, hibernation, and somber self-reflection, befitting Julie’s disillusionment.

On page fifty-two Julie speaks in split speech balloons that suggest a conflicted internal dialogue. The split speech balloons also reveal her ability to be self-critical and investigate her potentially conflicted feelings. She is now aware of an audience and has become disillusioned with her earlier fantasy of New York (page five). Page fifty-two lacks the imposition of narrative voiceover and finally Doucet the author merges with Julie and is able to speak through her. Although I could read the same page as Julie speaking with another character in the room, she is still more powerful and self-reflective than on page five where she hardly speaks. On page fifty-two the reader is less powerful because Julie is able to meet their gaze, even if she does not necessarily break the third wall. The character is no longer submerged in the naive fantasy of her new life in New York. The reader initially views Julie on page fifty-two from the perspective of a camera angled down from above, like from the vantage of a puppeteer, however the page ends with the reader meeting Julie’s gaze and her character is empowered.

The atmosphere on page fifty-two is less cluttered than page five and hints at Julie’s contentedness and clarity, but the walls and floors are still dirty and cracked and the shifting floors and walls are more noticeable without her boyfriend’s clutter, so the environment is still unstable. Julie’s shifting posture also contributes to the page’s visual tension. Initially her cartoon self sits in the proper posture of the Victorian fantasy of the sophisticated young woman— upright, elegant, with her hands crossed over her lap. However, as she talks about her ex-boyfriend’s latest immature escapades she becomes angry and slouches, her legs split apart in a grotesque “masculine” position.  Although she is no longer lost in the chaos of her boyfriend’s apartment she is still surrounded by objects and furniture that do not belong to her.  Only her cat, stripped of its facial features, becomes a reliable object. she is also more free to travel and move on because she carries few possessions.

On both pages the small gutters create more crowded-looking panels. One moment in the story jerks ungracefully into the next as each busy panel fragments the narrative and forces the reader to linger on the page. The cluttered panels and sliding landscapes offer an anxious and chaotic environment and a challenging reading experience. Each page contains almost too much to look at so that the pages disorient the reader like the lights and visual cues in a casino. In this way Doucet uses visual tension to recreate her physical and emotional experience of New York.

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My body responded to Doucet’s visual narration. Sometimes as I read I felt tense and nervous, but other times I genuinely laughed out loud. Doucet’s characters pop out of the black backgrounds with the erratic jumpiness of marionettes or the dolls that would come alive in a child’s nightmare of a dollhouse. Doucet’s characters are more object-like than any other graphic narrative I have read so far and I found it hard to be selective while tracing these two pages because it seems like the objects are just as important in Doucet’s visual narration as the people. After a few close readings of this work and after tracing the two pages discussed in this post (as part of the assignment), I believe that part of the power of Doucet’s artwork is her ability to disturb and provoke the reader through stories offering a voyeuristic glimpse into her uncanny dollhouse and the memories it explores. Doucet retells her stories through visual and visceral narration that recreates both physical and emotional experiences, allowing and forcing the reader to engage more intimately with the narrative.

Artists’ Books

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Artists’ Books

There are many conflicting opinions as to what an artists’ book should be. The term “artists’ books” first appeared around 1973 but books that could later be placed within this category began to appear in the 1960’s and 70’s along with social and political activism and the rise of conceptual art (p.13, Klima). Some artists produced books in an attempt to skirt the gallery/museum system to reach a larger number of people (p.25, Burkhart). They represented the “democratization of art object” and fine art commodity (p.47, Klima). In the beginning of the 1960’s, the editions, multiples, and publications of fluxus artists such as Marcel Duchamp can also be considered artists’ books, but they also have their origins in 20th century modernism, as well as the works of futurists, dadas, and surrealists, (p. 17, Bleus).

Artists’ books differ from the livre d’artiste of the 20th century, for example, books made by Picasso, Ernst, and Matisse, because they are not catalogues of an artist’s work, do not contain allusions to an artist’s other works, and the livre d’artiste that were popular in the 20th century also contained mostly original artwork. They are standalone narratives that play with the book form and history, for example the relationship between text and image.

Artists’ books tend to fall into one of two conceptual frameworks: first, books with unlimited multiple editions, rejecting finely crafted unique objects; these are “largely the production of commercial print and reproduction technology” (p.17, Klima). Within this framework, the artists’ book should make art and important ideas more accessible to a wider array of people, challenging limiting and capitalistic conventions of the traditional book. The second framework is that artists’ book should be a unique art object that provokes an emotional response and deeper engagement with the form. Artist’s might have creative control over small print runs, subverting historical norms of the book format and process of publishing.

The first conceptual framework might critique the artists’ book as a precious object only accessible to a limited number of people outside of the art world, and critique the ideology of the auratic quality of “authenticity” or rareness (p.66, Klima), and the latter might critique the machine-like emotionless quality of these mass-produced items, though it seems as though neither framework aims to be elitist. Artists’ books may be mass-produced political and cultural works, or handmade stories like zines which aim to be widely distributed and shared; zines are often donated with the knowledge that they will potentially be digitized and reproduced.

One example of an artists’ book is Out of the Sky: Remembering 911 by Werner Pfeiffer. Out of the Sky was produced in an edition of 52 copies in 2006 on the fifth anniversary of the attacks. Pfeiffer is a German-American artist, born in 1937. He spent his childhood in Nazi Germany, which exposed him to censorship and book burnings, and also the ability of books and writing “to spread hatred and perpetuate violence and genocide” (Mattoon). After immigrating to the United States in 1961, Pfeiffer pursued a career in design and art direction, and became an art professor at Pratt Institute and director of the Pratt Adlib Press in 1969. There are only 52 copies of Out of the Sky, and it seems to only be available in art galleries and libraries.

Once Out of the Sky is built, the tower made of woodcut illustrations looms above you at over 5-feet-tall (on a table); if you look at the illustrations closely you will see grotesque black and white compositions of bodies and limbs intertwined; the tower also includes newspaper script at the top with names of victims. The book is contained in a large grey box that looks almost like a tombstone, and along with the paper material for building the tower, there is a large book almost like a chapbook which contains instructions for assembly and a first person narrative that memorializes 911 as well as acts as a political response to the violence and demonization of those critical of US politics post-911; the text is presented in narrow columns centered on the page, similar to the columns of a newspaper article.

There was a strange tension in piecing this book together because it was meant to serve as a memorial, but at the same time, as you assemble the book, it feels like playing a reverse game of Jenga; it was also awkward to set up this piece in the library, since there were many other patrons around quietly researching. Pfeiffer states in his artists’ book Endangered Species, “Our personal daily ‘fix’ of electronic news/entertainment documents is an experience of facts without awareness of space, distance, or time.” After reading this, I could better understand how this book is meant to challenge the way we interact with books and other news sources, forcing a more memorable experience with the medium. Pfeiffer seems to be advocating for the importance of the materiality of the book, and the powerful sensory experience of interacting with the form and content of a book.

A second example of an artists’ book— that I think is incredibly charming and also combats the stigma that reduces artists’ books to inaccessible elitist art objects— is a children’s magazine and scrapbook from Matanzas, Cuba (east of Havana), a product of Ediciones Vigia (which translates to Watchtower editions, named after Matanza’s location in Plaza de la Vigía, Watchtower Square). Vigia is an independent publishing house founded in the 1970’s (during the repressive cultural period). At Vigia, books are created by artists who volunteer with the press, and these particular books were made in collaboration with children and published by Alfredo Zaldivar, a a Cuban poet who also co-founded the press. There are a maximum of 200 issues of each Vigia book published (3 issues a year), all handmade, so they include the same textual material but differ in artistic details. These particular issues are built around the subject of puppet theatres or marionettes, and one of the issues speaks about the children’s play “the Ibeyis and the Devil”, where two twins, the sons of the orishas (or minor gods) Chango and Oshun, overcome the Devil and restore peace in the countryside where they live by returning the joy and growth of the mountain.

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Vigia publishes handmade books that combine art, movable parts, and literature, using repurposed material such as paper from the local butcher, yarn, sand, fabric, leaves, dried flowers and botanicals, and tin foil, and dyed with various techniques including the use of coffee. Vigia also fabricated a brownish stock paper called “bagasse” from sugarcane because of the lack of access to printing material; stenciling techniques were developed for imaging and lettering, and most everything is hand coloured. The children’s magazines I looked at are stapled and bound together with string, and made of waste paper, industrial residue, natural elements, and textile components (Osborne); they are mimeographed, hand-coloured, and signed by authors. When the press began they only had one old typewriter and an ancient mimeograph machine. Now better known authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges have become involved with the press, and whereas the books used to sell for 1 dollar, now they sell for apx. 25 dollars.

They are available to purchase at their store and studio in Matanzas, and they are available to view in libraries and art galleries around the world. Vigia books also include ephemera, such as pockets filled with puzzle pieces, beaded necklaces, and tags (KC Studio). You can see flaws in the books, which is, I think, part of what makes them so beautiful and gives them the engaging and mysterious quality of intimate scrapbooks. These issues are all in Spanish, so it would require translation and more time with the material to better engage with the books, but I could still appreciate the artwork and the philosophy behind Vigia press. These books demonstrate how artists’ books can preserve cultural traditions, such as folklore and storytelling, as well as allow artists, no matter what their economic background, to share their stories and work as a community to create art.

Pat Allingham’s The Shrunken Head, at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books

Despite the challenges of storage, display, the strain on budget, and having to accommodate additional demands regarding books that are donated, I would advocate for these works in special library collections. There is a market for them because they are interesting narratives and visually stunning to exhibit, which could bring researchers and diverse communities to libraries, and their metacommentary on the codex format is a wonderful part of a library’s special collection. Another benefit of having artists’ books in a library is that the art and narrative can be preserved and made securely available to readers; artists’ books can perhaps be digitized, and the metadata can be collected, so it may reach wider audiences over time, and that way local histories can also be collected and preserved.

Works Cited and Consulted

Allingham, Pat. The Shrunken Head. Stayner, Ont.: Allingham Mazaro, 1985. Print.

Behar, Ruth. “Works in Handmade Cuban Books.” Ruth Behar. 2015. Web. 21. Nov. 2016. http://www.ruthbehar.com/HandmadeBooks.htm

Bleus, Guy. Art Is Books. Hasselt [Belgium: Provinciale Centrale Openbare Bibliotheek, 1991. Print.

Burkhart, Anne. “Articulate Activism: Artists’ Books Take Issues.” Art Education, vol. 60, no. 1, 2007 25–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27696189.

Cornell University. “Werner Pfeiffer: Book-objects and Artist Books.” Cornell University Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/wernerpfeiffer/about.html

Kirsch, Elizabeth. “Ediciones Vigia: Handmade Cuban Books.” KC Studio. 1 Sept. 2016. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. “http://kcstudio.org/ediciones-vigia-handmade-cuban-books/

Klima, Stefan. Artists Books: A Critical Survey of the Literature. New York: Granary Books, 1998. Print.

Mattoon, Nancy. “The bombshell book art of Werner Pfeiffer.” Booktryst. 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 23 Nov. 2016. http://www.booktryst.com/2010/11/bombshell-book-art-of-werner-pfeiffer.html

Melhorn-Boe, Lise. What Are Little Girls/boys Made Of?Toronto: Transformer Press, 1989. Print.

Nochi, Kim. “Ediciones Vigía: An Introduction.” University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology,11 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2016. http://vigia.missouri.edu/intro-essays/ediciones-intro.shtml

Pfeiffer, Werner. Out of the Sky: Remembering 911. Red Hook, NY: Pear Whistle Press, 2006. Print.

Pfeiffer, Werner, and Philip Roth. Werner Pfeiffer: Endangered Species. Ostfildern: Cantz, 1994. Print.

Zaldivar, Alfredo, eds. Barquitos del San Juan : la revista de los niños. Vigia: Matanzas, Cuba, 1985. Print.