Pointless list

Lists. Pointless numerically ordered scraps of data, if possible consisting of multiples of 10. The internet is bursting with lists. The best, the worst, the weirdest, name it, they've listed it. Why do people make lists? Is it because of the intrinsic human nature to categorize everything? Is there a basic instinct that forces us to evaluate, numerically quantify, scale and compare everything we come across?

Maybe you think it's weird, a scientist like me ranting about lists. After all, we scientists are the most notoire list makers of all. Day after day we conduct experiments, neatly writing down the numbers we measure. Ah! the thrill of science.

Except in my case my notes are more a like a diary of the steep decline of my handwriting mixed with cynical remarks and drawings of robots and tragically anatomically incorrect female bodies. Hell it ain't even a decent lab book, I make a draft using loose papers, overflow from the copier, they lie around, getting mixed up, awaiting the glorious day I'll finally copy them in my final version, my official lab book. A day I've been putting off for more than a year now. King of procrastination I am.

But why I am telling you all this? Because I have the burning urge to make a list myself, a strange feeling I haven't had before. And it would be a totally useless list: a list of comic books I've read and enjoyed. I mean: I've already read them! What on earth I am going to do with such a list? So I decided to put it up here.

I don't know where this burning desire to make this list comes from. At first it was like a mental challenge "in retrospect, what are the best books you've read". Laugh you may, but I find it actually very hard to make a short list of my favourites: comparing & measuring stuff that can't be compared and measured. Maybe to the average human being this isn't hard because they do it all the time, and it's just me and my uncompromising refusal to put everything in little squares and somehow compare it to everything else in the known universe. It would explain why I loathe "top X lists" that much. And yet here I am, trying to come up with a list of the best graphic novels I've read.

I'll stop whining and just give you the god damn list. I don't knwo if it'll be a multiple of 10, I'm still come up with titles that matched my stringent criteria (after reading them being haunted for at least 3 days by the images & the plot in dreams, nightmares, daydreams, whatever). Nor is it in a fixed order: Ranking them all so that some are better and some worse, that is beyond my capacities. Also, all the stories listed are finished works, no ongoing series.

Nausicaa of the valley of the wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
A long fantastic & heroic tale that grips you from the very first chapter to the very last pen stroke. A solid plot with giant insects! I will not try to summarize it, you'd better read it: but know this: it's going nowhere you'd expect it to. The drawings are clear black & white and surprisingly western for a Japanese work.

Akira / Domû (Katushiro Otomo)
Ok, those are actually 2 works there. I could not decide which is better: Akira or Domû. Akira is longer, more violent, more complicated. Domû is something very different, yet still it has the same eerie touch of supernatural powers & of course there's blood by the gallon, death & destruction but it is somehow better timed. Due to it's short length Domû has the advantage that it really explodes in your face: fast & gripping. Yet Akira has more story, will let you get attached to the characters & see them evolve, there is more dept. Read'm both is what I say.

Carnival of the Immortals (Enki Bilal)
Now there's an unusual story with matching artwork: In a dystopian future the ancient immortal egyptian gods have arrived in Paris in their huge flying pyramid/spaceship and they demand fuel, loads of fuel. We follow the adventures of the vengeful God Horus, who has turned on his brethren and is searching a way to annoy/harm them. Meanwhile the Paris' fascist government tries to negotiate with the gods to get something in return for the astronomical amounts of petrol they demand, mostly personal favours for the regent. Bilal is a very skilful artists, every page bursts with weird fascinating details creating a universe of chaos, madness and poetry. I am well aware of the fact that there are 2 more books following this "Carnival of the immortals" in what is commonly referred to as the Nikopol trilogy. Yet I've always felt them as somewhat artificial extensions of the original story. The last page of the book does not ask for 2 more volumes, as I see it, the story is finished there. But of course, you're free to read them and form your own opinion as I did.

the Incal (Moebius & Alejandro Jodorowski)
Another mad adventure set in a dystopian future. This time you follow the selfish and cowardly private detective John Difool and his concrete parrot Deepo as he receives the "Incal of the light" from the hands of dying alien creature. The incal is an object of immense power and, needles to say, soon John finds himself dragged into a vortex of mad adventure featuring some of the most crazy characters you'll ever come across in comic land. Moebius' overactive mind and his powerful visual style take you on a journey no portion of psychoactive mushrooms could ever grant you. Jodorowski's story spawns characters so powerful they've got a comic series of their own now and the plot reads like a joint venture between Alice in Wonderland & Naked lunch. It'll take you more then a couple of days to come down of this trip.

Watchmen (Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons)
America and it's superhero stories, I've never felt much for them, those sterile asexual good doers in their brightly coloured spandex suits. Yet here's a story by the magnificent Alen Moore (V for vendetta, from hell, etc) about real people with no superpowers who dress up in silly suits to clear the streets of villains. Or at least so they used to: after a police strike and lots of public protests they were forced to retire, and now they live normal lives. But the year is 1985 and we're in the middle of the cold war: full scale nuclear conflict can burst loose any day and someone has started killing of the retired masked men. Or so it seems... The drawings are not exactly what I'd call an example of pure genius, they're a bit dated and seldom spectacular, but they're more than adequate to drive the story. Featuring unforgettable characters like Rorsach, Night Owl and Dr Manhattan and a firmly gripping story that'll make you turn page after page the book manifests itself as a real thriller. Both on the psychological level and the more down to earth action level. The sole drawback for me were the frequent background references to a certain movie which kind of spoil the final plot twist (only if you've seen the movie of course, and unless you're into 1950's science fiction movies those chances are pretty slim).

Maus (Art Spiegelman)
The only comic ever to receive a pulitzer prize, I don't know if that's a good reference: I've never read any other pulitzer nominated stuff. Yet it says something about how this comic is different from any other. Spiegelman tells the story of the things his dad went through during the second world war. Yet the way he tells the story is wholly unique: combining his own problematic relationship with his dad, the latter his story, the creative process of the comic and much more into a single diary like narration of great depth and power. The artwork is somewhat unusual but contains many genius aspects, like the depiction of the different nationalities as different animal species, it might sound silly, but it works. In reading the comic you gain insight in the true horrors of the war, the way the people were, how merciless people become when their lives are at stake and how the nazis used that to their advantage (or simply to torture others) and most importantly in the psychological trauma the survivors carry with them. It all sounds boring when I reread what I've just written, but the story of Maus is actually exciting and funny. Although the grim realization that all of it is true often gives the punchlines a bitter taste.

The trenchwar (C'était la guerre des tranchées) by Tardi
What Spiegelman did to me for the second world war, Tardi did for the first. Their works are by no means comparable, except thematically perhaps, and the fact that both are done in black & white only. Tardi's work is a collection of smaller stories about the life of soldiers in the trenches. A life you of which simply cannot begin to imagine the horror & cruelty. Tardi's knowledge about the first war is encyclopedic, every detail you can find in the drawings is historically correct, yet his drawings have none of the dry correctness usually present in historical comics. He creates a very vivid, almost cartoonesque image of that era, capturing the spirit of it all. He takes you on a trip to the deep end of the gutters of history & the man's inhuman insanity. Shell shock, patriotism, blood, guts, mud, suicide, and a total absence of all things heroic. This one will stick to your ribs for many days.

the Great Capacity of Chninkel (Jean Van Hamme & Grzegorz Rosinski)
Voted best comic of the past century in Belgium & a ton of other prizes. This book tells the story of a world of small elf-like creatures (Chninkels) and the three immortal tyrants that oppress the Chninkel people. In beautiful black & white panels you follow J'on a lowly Chninkel who is, very much against his own will, imposed by the one true god with the role of messiah (and receives "the great power") and must now free his people. The story will draw you in in no time, with nice, somewhat classic, plot twists but the punch line of it all is truly a PUNCH line: you didn't see it coming, and you're left dazed. You'll sympathize almost immediately with the somewhat anti-hero J'on & the pitiful Chninkels. This comic contains a load of criticism towards religion in general & Catholicism in specific but it's never too obvious to be annoying. Recently a coloured edition appeared, but personally I don't think the colour adds to the strength of the story, on the contrary.

Xoco first 2 albums (Thomas Mosdi & Olivier Ledroit)
I've always been a big fan of Ledroit's art and I could've put any of his works here, but this one sticks out because of the intense story (Thomas Mosdy) and the way the drawings reflect the dark horroresque atmosphere suck you in like an industrial strength vacuum cleaner the size of the large hadron collider. Ledroit does a superb job with unusual camera angles & unconventional page layout, furthermore the intense use of dark colours & matching tones makes into a perfect, comic-catched film noir. I've put "first 2 albums", this implies there are more, and indeed there are. The first two albums form a single finished story (and I mean solidly finished). Yet somehow (most probably because of their success) the publisher wanted to continue the series, even if that meant changing artist. As from album 3 the drawings are done by Christophe Palma, and although he does a rather good job, he lacks the genius of Ledroit. Also, the story takes a very strange turn (well yeah, after all it was completely finished at the end of album 2) and never again reaches it's original quality, the stupid story-extending cliff hangers are too bad for words. Yet that doesn't diminish the superb quality of the original story, it's one of the few European comics I can re-read any time, so get out there and read it!

Corto Maltese in Siberia (Hugo Pratt)
Many are the adventures of Corto Maltese, the idiosyncratic sailor, and his mad russian companion Rasputin. This is perhaps to least mystical of his adventures, but certainly one of the best drawn ones (as far as I'm concerned), for Pratt's style was ever evolving and no 2 albums had a completely identical style. As always in Pratt's stories the historical setting is of paramount importance to the story: It is 1919, Russia is in the throes of revolution, the czarist army in retreat. Imperial China is in ruins, shattered into a horde of private kingdoms ruled by warlords. From Manchuria, Japanese, English and American forces manipulate what's left of the republic to satisfy their own conflicting interests. Here we find Corto, on his way to capture the gold of the Russian tzars, meeting many a historical character. And I don't mean dusty history book characters, but very lively ones: like the beautiful Duchess Seminova or the mad baron Ungern von Sternberg on his bloody path to no victory at all and the White Russian dictator Admiral Kolchak. This is one of the greatest adventure stories in the world.

If you haven't read any of the above you're an illiterate fool unworthy of internet access.

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