Wednesday 25 February 2015

Best Graphic Novels of 2014? Ant Colony by Michael DeForge, Megahex by Simon Hanselmann and It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden

For some reason – possibly to do with the life and work upheavals of the past few months; a retreat to the familiar, perhaps? – I've been on something of a graphic novels kick of late: catching up on books which were published last year but which I missed; rediscovering ones I've owned for, in some cases, a decade or more but which have been sitting in the loft, unread. My vague plan is to group some of them together in various configurations for blog posts over the coming weeks and – most likely – months in – even more likely, I imagine – intermittent fashion, beginning with three graphic novels that have little in common other than they were all published in 2014 and they're the three best graphic novels published in 2014 that I've read:

Ant Colony by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014), Megahex by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics, 2014), and It Never Happened Again by Sam Alden (Uncivilized Books, 2014). Ant Colony I've already mentioned on Existential Ennui; it took the number eight spot in my year-end top ten of the best books I read in 2014, the only graphic novel to make it into that top ten, although if I'd read Hanselmann's or Alden's books before the end of last year it's entirely possible one or the other of those would have made it in too. But anyway: Ant Colony is extraordinary, a mad and trippy meditation on the nature of society, the role of the individual within that society, and how that society might explode and eventually reintegrate in new forms in the wake of an apocalyptic event, all enacted by ants (and spiders, and centipedes, and sundry cameoing insects).

Just as philosophical in their own ways are Megahex and It Never Happened Again. The former is initially deceptive in that it starts out like a (very) low key Furry Freak Brothers, detailing the everyday lives of a pair of stoners – Megg and her kind-of lover Mogg (respectively a witch and a cat; Hanselmann took inspiration from the Meg and Mog children's books) – and their housemate Owl; but as the short stories within this collection progress (like Ant Colony, large parts of Megahex originally appeared in serial form online), Hanselmann invests his characters with a surprising depth, suggesting that their slacker antics are merely a facade and that underneath they're as lost and at sea as, well, some of the insect stars of DeForge's book.

Actually, on reflection, maybe these three graphic novels have more in common than I figured, because the two stories in It Never Happened Again also deal with loss, alienation and estrangement (and at least one of them originally appeared online too) – the first, "Hawaii 1997", in the form of a joyful encounter on a beach between a young boy and girl which ends with a devastating parting shot, the second, "Anime", by examining a wannabe Otaku's futile search for meaning and belonging in places and things rather than in real life. Alden's loose pencil approach helps to lend the enterprise its naturalistic feel, but the flow of the storytelling is just as important; there's a serious talent at work here, as a glance at Alden's Tumblr and website will confirm, one that in the scope of the artist's extant comics and the potential of those still to come brings to my mind at least the great David Mazzucchelli.