I mean, the book is a fantastic read, but it really added to my already too-long list of movies that I need to see and/or buy. For a book on films, threatening to take up much of future free time is the highest compliment I can give. And I’m going to be killing a lot of hours consuming these titles. So, again, damn you!
This one delivers on its subtitle as a journey through the revolutionary “Eurocult” genre of (in descending order of influence) Italy, Spain and France, with particular attention paid to its respective directorial titans, such as Mario Bava, Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. Italy’s reign comprises the first half.
True reading, as the late Jorge Luis Borges once observed, is actually re-reading. This is a crucial part of the criteria I use when considering my list of favorite readings from the past year: not only how much I enjoyed reading it the first time, but more importantly, if it is among those select titles that I look forward to reading again. With that in mind, in no particular order:
THE CUT by George Pelecanos — This introduced a new series character and recalled the vigor missed in some recent stand-alone works.
HEADSTONE by Ken Bruen — To date, this is the darkest of the Jack Taylor series, just when you thought they couldn’t get any darker.
FUN & GAMES / HELL & GONE by Duane Swierczynski — I’m cheating a bit here with two titles in a single entry, but these two-thirds of Swierczynski’s madcap, relentlessly paced Charlie Hardie trilogy were undeniable delights.
A LITTLE TOO MUCH by John Shannon — Jack Liffey may be getting older, but his professional and private life shows no signs of easing up — nor does this excellent series by this unforgivably overlooked author.
THE OUTLAW ALBUM by Daniel Woodrell — Various criminal activities and the weight of family highlight this first collection of short fiction by the renowned novelist of WINTER’S BONE.
THE GENTLEMAN’S HOUR by Don Winslow — The combination of dark and light elements displayed so expertly in his standout SAVAGES actually has its basis in this DAWN PATROL sequel, finally published in the U.S. this past year.
A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF by Lawrence Block — This maestro of crime fiction can still move us as he proves in this recalling of Matt Scudder’s early years of hard-fought sobriety.
THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott — Proves conclusively that Abbott, along with Laura Lippman, is one of the few crime-fiction authors bound for acclaim by mainstream literature critics and readers.
THE URBAN FANTASY ANTHOLOGY edited by Peter S. Beagle and Joe R. Lansdale — Perhaps the oddest editorial paring results in a collection of stories that is as surprisingly illustrative as it is entertaining in this highly misunderstood, but potent subgenre.
COWBOYS by Gary Phillips and Brian Hurtt — Demonstrates how a graphic novel can effectively and memorably present a complex and involving story when using the talents of one of crime fiction’s finest and most underrated authors, along with an artist who knows the cinematic potential of the medium. —Alan Cranis
Best Nonfiction A ROCKET IN MY POCKET, Max Decharne’s energetic, in-depth appreciation of rockabilly manages to cover the genre from both personal and historical angle. It roams from detailing one-shot curios like Jerry “The Phantom” Lott to excavating the genius of Charlie Feathers. That it spends time appreciating the Tav Falco and The Cramps is just icing on the BBQ. Superbly paced and deeply appreciative of the more eccentric side of the field, this book is all killer, no filler.
Also, given my interest in the oddball fringe sciences and forteana, there’s no time like now to mention the book I’m currently reading: Jeffrey J. Kripal’s MUTANTS & MYSTICS: SCIENCE FICTION, SUPERHERO COMICS, AND THE PARANORMAL. It spends a dozen pages on Philip K. Dick’s pink-beam experience, hops over to compare John Keel to Jack Kirby with uncanny insights, wanders about into psychedelic research and Ray Palmer’s connection to the UFO subculture while pondering on the connective tissue between paranormal and religious experiences and how they often are linked to creative genius (Dick, Barry Windsor-Smith, Grant Morrison and Alan Moore, to name just a few). I’ll be spending quality time with this beautifully designed tome, but it’s by far the most fascinating book on any subject I’ve had a chance to read this year.
Best Euro Comics
More than anything else, I read comic books and graphic novels this year. Among the many greats out this year, Luke Pearson’s delightful HILDA AND THE MIDNIGHT GIANT stands on the top of the heap. This large-size hardcover from Nobrow is, whether it sells a million copies or not, a rare case of an instant all-ages classic. If you enjoy Miyazaki-style whimsy and can find a copy, grab it.
Cinebook kept its pace of publishing an array of classic bandes-dessinees in affordable editions. THE EMPIRE OF A THOUSAND PLANETS by Jean-Claude Mezieres and Pierre Christin was one of the many highlights of the season, eclipsed only by the latest Blake & Mortimer adventure, GONDWANA SHRINE, (which may be the best episode yet in this 65-year old series!) from Yves Sante and Andre Juillard.
Fantagraphics continued its Jacques Tardi lineup, and I was particularly delighted by the proto-steampunk THE ARCTIC MARAUDER, although I think one should own every single book in the series. I was also happy to see some less well-known artists get their chance, and both SIBYL-ANNE VS. RATTICUS by R. Macherot and MURDER BY HIGH TIDE by Maurice Tilleux were wonderful surprises in the classic Franco-Belgian “bigfoot” style. Fantagraphics is quickly becoming the Criterion Collection of comics publishing.
Humanoids spearheaded its METAL HURLANT-inspired lineup with a reprint of THE COMPLETE INCAL by Moebius and Alexandro Jodorowsky, but the new Jodo-penned Western, BOUNCER, was almost equally wonderful. I couldn’t afford some of Humanoids’ ultra-deluxe reprints and am waiting for some trade-edition treats out next year.
Finally, Rebellion brought several classic 2000 AD books to the US market, including the JUDGE DREDD COMPLETE CASE FILES series. As wonderful as those were, I was taken off-guard by HONDO-CITY LAW which compiled numerous adventures set in the Japanese equivalent of Dredd’s Mega City. Despite having numerous different artists, the contents were uniformly great and give me enduring hope for the future of this long-standing UK publication.
All of these publishers, except for Fantagraphics, seem to be coming in under the radar in the U.S., and I’d urge you to seek out and investigate each and every one.
I know my column has been dormant for a while. You can post all the blame on all the great reissues that have come out this past year. Once again, it’s time to pick out books and other items for the holiday season — not for friends and family, but you, for all the gift cards and money you got as presents.
1. WALT DISNEY’S DONALD DUCK: LOST IN THE ANDES by Carl Barks — Bar none, this is the one book that should be bought by all. This is the first in what Fantagraphics promises will be the definitive reissue line. All you need to know is this: Carl Barks. The man who is Donald Duck comics. Everyone in the family will enjoy this one.
2. KAMANDI, THE LAST BOY ON EARTH OMNIBUS: VOLUME ONE / THE STEVE DITKO OMNIBUS: VOLUME ONE — These two books are part of DC Comics’ never-ending reissue series of classic material. First up, you get KAMANDI, Jack Kirby’s post-apocalyptic tale of the last boy on the planet Earth. The book collects the first 20 issues of Kirby’s run of this truly out-there series. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for a VOLUME TWO. The second book is all Steve Ditko, collecting his work on SHADE, THE CHANGING MAN and his foray into sword and sorcery in the series THE STALKER. Ditko’s OMNIBUS VOLUME TWO comes out mid-January and will serve as a great complement.
3. CAPTAIN PHILIP STRANGE: STRANGE WAR by Donald E. Keyhoe — For the pulp lovers out there, this novel is a no-brainer. I’ll just leave it at this description: biplanes vs. dinosaurs. ‘Nuff said.
4. SHOWCASE PRESENTS: DOC SAVAGE — Part of DC’s budget line of reprints, this book collects all the Marvel Magazine stories from the 1970s in one big, 448-page paperback. Note that it only collects the comics, and none of the accompanying articles that were part of the original magazine.
5. KISS ME DEADLY / THE KILLING — Ah, Criterion Collection: You rarely disappoint. It’s also put out two noir classics this past year. First up is the best of all the movies made from a Mickey Spillane novel, KISS ME DEADLY. Second, THE KILLING is one of the earlier efforts from Stanley Kubrick and one that truly holds up with its tight-knit storytelling and plot. Both are packed with plenty of extras to keep a viewer coming back for more.
6. THE OUTFIT — Probably one of the better adaptations of a Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) book. This one is filled with a who’s who of B-movie wonders, including who Westlake considered the best performance of a Parker-like character in Robert Duvall. This is a straight-up crime film which does not cater to the artsy-fartsy crowd. I like POINT BLANK, but let’s be honest: THE OUTFIT is far superior. Our editor, Rod, likes it, too.
7. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, VOL. XXI: MST3K VS. GAMERA — All the GAMERA films that were given the MST3K treatment in one handy box set. Sadly, the DELUXE EDITION tin is already out-of-print. But the standard edition still has all five films together — fun for all movie monster-loving fans. And, of course, Mike Nelson’s impression of a certain piano player is classic:
8. THOR BY WALTER SIMONSON OMNIBUS / X-STATIX OMNIBUS — So you’ve got some money burning in your pocket and you love comics? These two Marvel Comics hardcovers are worth the time and wait for them to be collected in such a fashion. First up is probably the greatest run of THOR ever, all of Simonson’s work, which introduced us to fan favorites Beta Ray Bill and Frog Thor. Meanwhile, X-STATIX is the complete run of the comic which went out on a limb in all senses. Imagine a team of mutants more concerned with fame and fortune than saving the day. The book is filled with Mike Allred’s Pop Art-like comic work with fill-ins by the likes of Darwyn Cooke and Paul Pope.
9. THE DARK TOWER OMNIBUS by Peter David, Robin Furth and Anthony Flamini — On that note, our editor, Rod, weighs in with this pick: “Based on arguably Stephen King’s most popular work, Marvel Comics’ THE DARK TOWER OMNIBUS certainly will appeal most to those who have digested the man’s series, although doing so is not required (I’m stuck on the third novel myself). This hardcover collection is so absolutely massive at nearly 900 pages that it’s broken up into two volumes, which stand snug in their own slipcase. On their own, the two miniseries runs I’d read previously (like the prequel THE GUNSLINGER BORN) didn’t impress me much, but together like this, their sheer size (not to mention Richard Isanove and Jae Lee’s art) pulls you into the fantasy world like a magnet to the fillings in your teeth. The spider imagery in the SORCERER storyline, in particular, really creeps me out. As these issues fill in the holes and/or expand the mythology of King’s books, Roland Deschain emerges as such a rich character, you can’t wait for HBO to get a hold of this thing. Like a Western dipped in lysergic acid, these lively illustrated tales come chock-full of mutants, killer wolves, nuns, witches and a big ol’ shiny Grapefruit. And that’s just the first book! The second, even bigger volume collects sketches, stories and other miscellaneous material to act like sealant to the new tile flooring.”
10. Captain America hoodie — Okay, so this is not a book or a movie based on a book, but it’s one of the coolest items out there. No one was happier then I when CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER hit the screens. As I sat in the theater waving my “Hail Hydra!” pennant, I wished I was wearing this ultra-cool hoodie. Personally, I’d also like to see an A.I.M. or a Hyrda one done, too. —Bruce Grossman
Robert Kirkman’s THE WALKING DEAD has grown from an independent comic book series to a mini-industry spawning spin-off novels, action figures, national best-selling graphic novel compilations, and, of course, the hit cable TV series now halfway into its second series (and already renewed for a third). Not surprising then that editor James Lowder and Smart Pop Books have gathered a collection of critical essays to this popular series in its two main forms.
I’m a fan of Westerns crossed with fantasy and horror elements. Some people salivate over cyberpunk. Some get giddy over steampunk. Me, I’m a fan of “cowpunk.” (And no, I didn’t coin that phrase. But I’ll certainly take credit if no one else will.)
Joe R. Lansdale is particularly adept at mashing the Western genre with horror, as anyone who has read his JONAH HEX stories from the ’90s can attest. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of the 2010 movie didn’t stick close to that template, deciding instead to do a mash-up of Hex with THE CROW, PUSHING DAISIES and MAXIM lingerie spreads of Megan Fox … but that’s a rant for another time.
Crack open THE HAMMER VAULT — assuming you’re already a hardcore Hammer fan, that is. Having already covered the legendary British-based horror film company in other books, from its poster art to its hot actresses, author Marcus Hearn now assembles a chronological, visual-driven journey through the label’s genre greats (and gaffes), from 1954’s cult classic THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT to last year’s underappreciated LET ME IN.
A RIVER IN THE SKY is Elizabeth Peters’ 19th (!) novel featuring the archaeologist Amelia Peabody; her irascible husband, Emerson; and a barely controllable family that includes her biological son, Ramses; her acquired “daughter,” Nefret; and a number of others who protect and love the Peabody family body and soul.
Set in mid-1910 in Palestine, this outing involves the Peabody clan with the British government. They suspect an amateur archaeologist has plans to unearth the Ark of the Covenant, and to do so in an area that will arouse intense political and religious animosity. The government also suspects this amateur to be a spy.
Devoted followers of Terry Pratchett’s wonderful Discworld series know that it contains several different narrative threads following various characters (human and otherwise) on this satirical fantasy world. These include novels devoted to witches, wizards and the foundation of various industries like banking, the postal service and the news media. One such thread follows the coppers who make up the City Watch, and it’s here that Pratchett gleefully skewers the numerous themes and techniques of crime fiction.
SNUFF, the latest Discworld novel (in a series now numbering more than 30 titles), is another in the City Watch thread. This time, the well-worn theme is the urban investigator who goes on vacation and becomes the proverbial fish out of water.
When we left our heroes at the end of Richard K. Morgan’s fantasy debut, THE STEEL REMAINS, there was a sense that something big was coming, something far more sinister than the tentative invasion that was repelled at the end of that book.
The sequel, THE COLD COMMANDS, picks up some time after its precursor, and while it improves on many of the faults of Morgan’s initial foray into fantasy, readers once again are left holding the bag, with the promise of epic conflict still looming in the future.