Best Comic Books Of 2011: Best Original Graphic Novels

And we’re done. To qualify in this category, a comic would have to be published between December 2010 and December 2011, be self-contained, and that’s about it. Although Mangas would technically qualify, I put them in the reprint category.  For me, the very best comics I read this year were in this category, and that’s been the case for a few years now. In every other category that I’ve talked about, the distance in quality between the 2oth spot and the 1st spot is quite long. Not in this one however, and pretty much every book in the top 20 is excellent, and well worth reading. Enjoy. I hope. I still hope to do a Best Movies of 2011 list, and a Best Albums of 2011 list within the next few weeks.

For those of you who have enjoyed my Best Of 2011 lists, I must draw your attention to last year’s columns about the books I read in 2010. Enjoy. I hope.

20. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil (Top Shelf)

From his heyday as the finest adventure comic book writer perhaps ever, to his current status as a perennial frontrunner in the Crankiest Old Man In Comics competition, Alan Moore is always worth taking a look at, and almost always worth reading. Although the most recent chapter in Moore and O’Neil’s venerable LOEG saga won’t placate those who want Moore to return to the straight-forward adventure tales that launched the franchise, its evolved into something more ambitious than almost anyone (save for perhaps Moore) could have foreseen. It’s become quite simply a history of English fiction, in comic book form, and as such is dense, complicated, and eminently worth reading. Not for the lazy, or for the faint of heart.

19.  The Lives Of Sacco And Vanzetti by Rick Geary (NBM)

Rick Geary is one of the most prolific and versatile comic storytellers around, and Lives is a perfect example of his talents. The story of Sacco And Vanzetti is one of the most important in 20th Century American history, and as such is perfect fodder for the type of historical biography that Geary does better than almost anyone in the business.  His precise, analytical style is perfectly suited to showcase events that still manage to bitterly divide people almost 90 years after they transpired.

18. Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse)

McNeil is a unique voice in modern comic books, and in Finder she has created a vast canvas on which she can tell pretty much any type of story she wants. While most of the Finder stories star the actual Finder (Jaeger), Voice stars Rachel Grosvenor, an outcast straddling several worlds, and belonging to none. It’s a great character piece, and McNeil’s attention to storytelling detail is the real star of this book.

17. Love & Rockets New Stories Vol. 4 by Jaime and Gil Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

Love & Rockets. Three little words, but for those of us who love independent comic books, they mean so much. L&R is a big, sprawling series of comics that comprise several competing narratives that occasionally intersect, though they often don’t. L&R has been published in a variety of formats since 1981, with The New Stories being the most recent variation. It’s a series of large graphic novels composed of numerous L&R stories that range the gamut of genres as diverse as romance, horror, superhero, and espionage. As usual with L&R, the stories are sweet, sad, sexy, humorous, and above all, fun.

16. Any Empire by Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

Any Empire tells the story of three young friends, and their experiences growing up with war, both small and large. It’s a complex work, and as such reminds me of the comics of Craig Thompson or Alison Bechdel. Like them, Powell uses little stories to teach big lessons, and his beautiful bold artwork is the perfect companion for this story about growing up in a hard world.  Nate Powell has become one of the great analogists in modern comic books.

15. The Great Northern Brotherhood Of Canadian Cartoonists by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly)

It’s a testament to the man’s work ethic that even when Seth just scribbles down something in his sketch pad that it ends up being one of the best graphic novels of the year. A companion book to Seth’s wonderful Wimbledon Green, Great Northern offers a look into a somewhat fictional history of Canadian comic books, and one that is inevitably more preferable to the real thing. Seth remains one of the great storytellers in comics, and one that seems be only improving with time.

14. Hellboy: House Of The Living Dead by Mike Mignola and Richard Corben (Dark Horse)

In the last few years, no creative collaboration has been quite as effective as the one between Mike Mignola and Richard Corben. Corben’s art style couldn’t be more different from Mignola’s, yet his work on Mignola’s most famous creation has become a thing of comic book legend. This, the next installment in the continuing tale of Hellboy’s five month-long 1950′s Mexican”Lost Weekend”, is a love letter to the Universal Monster movies of the 1940s. Or it would be, if those movies had Mexican luchadores in them. I’ve said it before, but no mainstream comic character manages to retain the same level of quality that Hellboy (under Mignola’s stewardship) has had.

13.  21: The Story Of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics)

I’m sad to report that before reading this wonderful biography, I thought Roberto Clemente was something that you poured on tacos. I know now that not only was Clemente a fine baseball player (a sport that I still don’t know anything about, despite the fine tutelage of my friend, the wonderful sportswriter Tom Wakefield), but he was also apparently the greatest human being in the history of human beings. Seriously. After reading this, not only will you feel absolute joy upon reading about all of the great things that Clemente did, but you’ll also feel absolute sadness, at realizing that you’ve completely pissed your life away and that nothing you ever do will come close to accomplishing what Clemente managed to do pretty much before he got out of bed each morning. It’s not just the subject matter that’s a winner here. Santiago has a knack for simplicity in his storytelling approach, and in a medium that’s often beset by needless complexity, that’s a rare gift.

12. The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufeld (W.W. Norton)

Although Neufeld’s work won’t be a suprise to anyone who has been keeping track of comic journalism over the past few years, Gladstone is a newcomer to the genre, despite her accomplishments as a radio journalist and personality.  As such I approached this with some leeriness, as comics is a medium that is often misunderstood by “real” writers. I needn’t have worried. Influencing Machine was a comic book Gladstone was born to write, and one that also happens to be one of the very best books about the role of media in contemporary society that I’ve ever read.  That Gladstone enlisted an accomplished cartoonist like Neufeld to help her with the heavy lifting only goes to prove how committed to the medium she is.

11. Pope Hats Vol. 2 by Ethan Rilly (Adhouse)

Ethan Rilly remains one of the best kept secrets in comics, which I’m bewildered by considering the excessively high quality of this, the second in his Pope Hats series. Rilly is a product of his influences. From the romantic drama of Adrian Tomine, to the cute absurdity of Colleen Coover, to the faux-history of Seth, in Rilly’s art one can see the past decade of independent comic books quite clearly. If there is anything to complain about, it’s that  one immediately wants more, as this intriguing little comic book about struggling with adulthood is only 40 pages long.

10. Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (First Second)

If you want people to pay attention to your comic, get Neil Gaiman to tell everyone that it’s one of the best things he’s read all year. That’s what Vera Brosgol did, and I’m glad of it, as I probably wouldn’t have given this a shot otherwise. Gaiman’s correct of course, and this deliciously creepy ghost story genuinely gave me the heebie jeebies the first time I read it.  As you might have surmised, it’s the story of  Anya, a second generation Russian immigrant who struggles to fit in to western culture. At least until she meets Emily, a ghost who takes it upon herself to help Anya acclimatize herself to that most hellish of American institutions: high school. And then it gets nasty. Anya’s Ghost is geared towards young adults, but it’s a book that doesn’t feel watered or dumbed down in any way. The threats to Anya are real, and the twists and turns are unexpected at best, and downright dangerous at worst. If kiddie horror stories like Gaiman’s Coraline or Graveyard Book are your particular cup of scary tea, then Anya’s Ghost will prove a more than fitting addition to your library.

9. SVK by Warren Ellis and D’Israeli (BERG)

When transhumanist bon vivant Warren Ellis says that his new comic is the best one he’s written in years, you pay attention. And when he gets acclaimed artist D’Israeli (with whom he hasn’t worked since Lazarus Churchyard) to handle the visuals you pay attention. And if design group BERG tops the whole thing off by ncluding a UV light with each purchase that is absolutely necessary to actually read the damn thing, you pay attention. And so we have SVK, a subversive comic that could have been just another gimmick in lesser hands, but actually provides a bold new way of experiencing comic books. Thankfully Ellis and D’Israeli utilize the UV light in such a way that not only do you need it to actually realize the entire book, but it also ends up being a pivotal plot point. It’s about Thomas Woodwind, an archetypical tech-savy, bad-ass Ellisian anti-hero if I’ve ever seen one, who has been hired by the Heimdall Corp to retrieve SVK, an essential piece of technology that threatens to change everything our society believes about privacy, and freedom. Although it’s probably difficult to look past the gimmick, this really is the tightest Ellis comic script in years, and one that deserves to be judged on its own merits.

8. Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen & Jonathan Case (Dark Horse)

One part crime story, one part family history, Green River Killer is probably the least accurately named book on this list, as it isn’t really about the Green River killer at all. It’s the story of Tom Jensen, a Washington-based police detective who was attached to the Green River task force for over a decade. After years of hunting one of the worst serial killers in American history, DNA evidence finally allows Gary Ridgeway to be arrested and charged. And then the real story begins, with 180 days of Jensen interviewing Ridgeway, trying to find any clues that would help him understand what would make someone enact the unspeakable horrors that Ridgeway was guilty of. The “True” in the title is completely accurate however. Not only is this based on actual events, but the book shows the realistic banality of modern detective work better than any other comic I’ve read. Jonathan Case’s artwork is a revelation, and Jensen’s deeply personal script (He’s Jensen’s son, as well as the writer behind those amazing Lost recaps that  were often better than the show itself) gives us a unique insight into one of the worst crimes in modern history.

7. One Soul by Ray Fawkes (Oni)

I could write a hundred pages on this book alone. That’s how ambitious this work is. It consists entirely of 88 separate two page spreads, with 18 panels on each spread. Each of the 18 panels tells the linear story of one person, from birth to life. And so this 176 page masterpiece (and yes, that word is applicable here) actually tells 19 different stories, 18 of which are the individuals that make up each of the panels. But the 19th story, that’s the real kicker. It’s the story of us. Of you, of me, and of everyone else that has ever lived. One Soul tries to show that we as species have far more in common with each other than we think we do, and that most of the “differences” that we use to wage war with each other over are in fact trivial.

6. The Hidden by Richard Sala (Fantagraphics)

Not only was this my first Richard Sala book (and definitely not my last), it was also probably the best pure horror comic I read this year. It’s a post-apocalyptic take on the Frankenstein mythos, and one that quite frankly shocked the hell out of me. Sala’s expressionist art style might not be the most obvious choice for telling blood-curdling horror stories, but it’s innocent cartoony quality somehow makes a perfect (and terrible) fit with the horrible, almost nihilistic story that Sala is telling.

5.  Homeland Directive by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston (Top Shelf)

Dr. Laura Graham is one of the world’s foremost authorities on disease control. One day, her partner is killed, and she finds herself framed for a variety of heinous crimes. To top it off, it appears as if it’s all part of a plot concocted at the highest level of government to terrorize America into accepting authoritarian rule. Homeland Directive is an extremely tight, well-molded thriller with nary a wasted beat. Although Mike Huddleston has been getting much deserved attention for his fantastic art both here and on Joe Casey’s Butcher Baker, it’s Robert Venditti’s meticulous plot that really drives this fantastic potboiler, and it’s further proof that he might be the most underappreciated writer in comics.

4. The Tooth by Cullen Bunn, Shawn Lee, & Matt Kindt (Oni)

A wonderful homage to 1960′s and 1970′s monster comics, The Tooth is the story of Graham, and the demon-tooth that crawls into his mouth and gives him superpowers. If that doesn’t sell you, then you have no heart. If it does, then this might be your favourite book of the year. This book is as strange as it sounds (maybe stranger) but it really is a character piece at heart, and in some ways is the greatest Incredible Hulk story never told, at least in terms of the tragic nature of the lead, and the sacrifices he has to make. If you like the “meta” approach to storytelling that recent books like Bulletproof Coffin have taken, then this strange adventure story will be a delight.

3. Petrograd by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook (Oni)

Historical fiction is a genre often covered by comics, but rarely this boldly, and rarely this well.Here’s what we know: In 1916, an advisor to Tsar Nicholas II named Gregorii Rasputin was killed by a gang of nobles and politicians concerned about undue influence that the “mad monk” had over the Tsar. We also know that there is some evidence that British Secret Service agents stationed in St. Petersberg were at the scene of the crime. That is what we know. And for Phillip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, that little bit of evidence was enough to craft this magnificent work of spy fiction, full of secret agents, mysterious women, and unknown rendezvous. This one has intrigue, sex, politics, and adventure, and that it may actually be true only sweetens the pot. What this book accomplishes most however, is to introduce two huge new talents to the comic book world.

2. Paying For It by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly)

Meet Chester Brown. He’s a well-known, and well-respected Canadian cartoonist. He likes to have sex. He doesn’t want a girlfriend. And so, he decides to…wait for it….Pay For It. This is the tale of a man on a quest. A quest to see if it’s possible for a man to have a fulfilling life with sex when ever he feels like paying for it, but without the emotional uncertainty that you risk when you venture into an actual relationship.  And for Brown, it is. This is the most honest graphic novel I’ve read in years, with Brown opening all aspects of his personal life to the reader. If sordid details are your must-haves in a great read, than this is the book you’ve been waiting for. It’s a rare book that can actually make you reconsider your own preconceived notions about a subject, and Paying For It threatens to change everything you think you believe about sex, relationships, and commitment.

1. Habibi by Craig Thompson (Pantheon)

It’s not very often when you can pretty much predict on January 01 what that year’s best graphic novel is going to be. But that was the case as soon as it was announced that 2011 would be when Craig Thompson’s much-anticipated Habibi would be arriving. And I was right. Superficially, Habibi is the story of Dodola and Zam, escaped slaves who try to make a life together but are forcibly torn apart. As is the case with these things, they do eventually find each other, but not before paying some pretty terrible prices. This graphic novel is many things: It’s beautiful, engaging, messy, non-factual, boldly ambitious, and above all, the greatest love story in the history of comics. That’s a strong statement, I know, but it’s the only one that I could find that adequately describes just how grand in scope and scale this massive blockbuster of a romance tale is. This one is going to be (and already has been) picked apart by comic scholars for decades to come.

Honorable Mention: Lewis and Clark by Nick Bertozzi (First Second), Holy Terror by Frank Miller (Legendary), Mr. Murder Is Dead by Victor Quinaz and Brent Schoonover, Optic Nerve Vol. 12 by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly), Murder Book Vol. 2 by Ed Brisson, Vic Malhotra, and Michael Walsh (Independent), Jimmy Olsen by Nick Spencer, RB Silva, and Dym (DC)

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 37: Marvel Comics – Captain Britain

Horrible superhero, snappy dresser.

The only thing interesting about the character of Captain Britain is his costume. And yet somehow the character (created in the 1970′s to help Marvel’s expansion into the UK) persists, and has been a little-seen mainstay of the Marvel Universe over the past few decades. And not only has the character persisted, but it’s also been attracted some pretty high profile creators, and generated some pretty interesting stories over the years.

 

 

Captain Britain – Captain Britain Before Excalibur

This trade collects the CB stories featuring Alan Davis’ artwork after Alan Moore left Marvel Adventures in the early ’80′s. Why do I have this trade but not the one that collects the Alan Moore stories? Ummm….Hmmm….not really sure. I’ve read the Moore CB stories, and while I see the creativity in them, they come across as overly complicated and dense, and I think that it’s an early attempt at superhero deconstructionism by a writer that isn’t quite at the full peak of his powers yet. This trade continues a lot of the storylines that Moore began, and as such feels very much like you’re coming in half way through the story.

I think what I like about this is the randomness. CB is supposed to be England’s greatest hero, but never seems to do anything heroic. He stumbles from one extremely bizarre adventure to another, and seems to succeed out of pure luck than through any innate heroic tendencies. I don’t know if I would want to read another series like this, but it’s charming and quirky enough for me to want to reread. Of course, you can’t mention Captain Britain without mentioning the art of Alan Davis, who was just settling into his role as one of the great superhero artists of the 80′s.

KEEP

Captain Britain & MI3 – Secret Invasion, Hell Comes To Birmingham, Vampire State

This is the latest attempt at making Captain Britain part of the mainstream Marvel U, and in my mind, one of the most successful. The premise here is that Captain Britain is the field leader of a UK government sponsored superhero squad, whose main mission is the defence of Britain. He does so vigourously, and over the span of 18 issues battles Skrulls, vampires, and other magical mumbo jumbo.

This is one of my favourite Marvel series from the past few years, but I’m not sure whether or not that it’s because it’s that good, or because it’s just that different. I’m going to go with a little of both. This series really reminded me of great team books from the 80′s, like pre-Crisis Justice League, the Roy Thomas-era Avengers, the original Paul Levitz Legion, and so on, in that it deftly combines big superhero action with just enough human drama to keep things from getting too crazy.

My critique is that it moves along just a little too quickly for us to really absorb a lot of the powerful emotional beats that it contains. This book is extremely fast paced, and writer Paul Cornell crams 5 trades worth of material into 3 books. The last arc (Vampire State) feels particularly rushed, though the poor sales that caused the early cancelation of the book are probably to blame for that. However, it’s Vampire State that brings us one of the best Marvel vampire stories of all time, and it did what I thought would have been impossible by turning Dracula into a top tier Marvel villain. Vampire State is a true Marvel epic, and one that went criminally unread.

If you’ve been bemoaning the state of superhero comics lately, and have heard yourself mutter “They’re just not the way they used to be”, I have good news. CB&MI3 IS superhero comics the way they used to be: Fun, epic, with a major heroic sensibility that influences the whole book.

KEEP

Next up: The greatest dead superhero of all time. No, not Jesus. The other one.

The Great Comics Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 26: DC Comics – Superman Part 2

SupermanBirthright, Earth One

Before Earth One, before Secret Origin, Birthright was supposed to be the definitive Superman origin, or at least the most definitive since the last definitive Superman origin, which was created only about 15 years before this one. And if anybody had read it, maybe it would have been. But unlike the previous Superman origin story Man Of Steel, Birthright never really captured the imagination of Superman fans. It’s a shame, as Mark Waid and Lenil Yu did a fantastic job here. Although Waid doesn’t add as many new concepts into the Superman mythos as John Byrne did before him, he tells a much more cohesive story than Byrne. It’s an extremely safe interpretation of Superman’s origin, but it’s also very well told, and definitely worth a read.

Earth One, on the other hand, tries to add a lot of new concepts, but writer J. Michael Straczynski is so excited by his new ideas that he forgets to make his Superman interesting, or even likeable. It’s still a decent story, but it’s definitely not the savior of the Superman franchise that is was made out to be when it came out last year.

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SupermanThe Death Of Superman

While Superman’s birth is retold every decade or so, his death has really only been told once. Which sounds like a lot if you’re you, or if you’re me. But if you’re a comic book character, dying only once is pretty much a mathematical impossibility. Since this story was so overhyped in its day, I was surprised to see how well it held up. This was the comic version of a summer action movie: High on action, high on emotion, short on plot or substance. While in retrospect it might have been nice to have some back story on the villain of the piece (something we would get a few years later), it’s still a fast-moving action story with some pretty effective emotional beats.

KEEP

SupermanFor All Seasons

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are the peanut butter and chocolate of the comic book world: Ok on their own, but magnificent when they’re together. There is nothing they’ve done together that’s not worth reading, and For All Seasons is one my personal favourites of the work they’ve done. Again, it emphasizes pathos over plot, but it’s still a beautiful piece of mainstream comic work.

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Superman - Kryptonite

Although Darwyn Cooke has achieved near-legendary status in a relatively short period of time, this was one of the first comics that he wrote, but didn’t pencil. Although I don’t think he’ll be competing with Warren Ellis anytime soon, Cooke put together a solid script here. Tim Sale is one of the few pencillers that could be considered Cooke’s artistic equal, and really elevates the story.  In fact, reading Kryptonite is enough to convince me of who really did the heavy lifting in all of the aforementioned Loeb-Sale collaborations. This has some really great Clark and Lois moments, and I think it’s quite underrated.

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SupermanOur Worlds At War Vol. 1 & 2

There are two types of cross overs in comics: Cross-Over A has one central story in a finite mini-series, and then has side books that accentuate the original story but DON”T require reading in order to understand the theme, or to get the main plot beats ( A very good recent example of this is Marvel’s Civil War). Cross-Over B has one central story, and then has side books that accentuate the original story but  still have key moments that you DO need to read in order to full grasp what is happening in the main story. This isn’t my favourite (Recent example: DC’s Blackest Night). Unfortunately, for Our World’s At War DC went with option C: A dozen different comics all trying to tell important parts of the same story, with what seems to be very little editorial direction in order to make an incomprehensible story. It’s an incredibly ambitious, big-time space epic that had some really great beats, but was very poorly served by some extremely bad editing. This was a big alien invasion story in which all of earth’s heroes team up to repel the invaders. I can’t really tell you more than that, as the extremely convoluted plot that drifted in and out of the different comics involved departed from my brain almost immediately after I read the book. In fact, what does it say about a Superman cross-over when the best story came from a Wonder Woman issue?  There are still enough interesting decent character moments (Specifically I’m referring to the Wonder Woman issues) to put it in the keep pile for now, but the next time I need to add some space for new additions, this one is gone.

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SupermanPresident Lex

Making Lex Luthor President of the US was a good idea in theory. In fact, it was such a good idea that Marvel decided to pretty much copy it verbatim for their recent Dark Reign storyline in which Norman Osbourne took control of America’s superheroes. unfortunately, Marvel did a better job with DC’s idea than DC did, and the whole Luthor as President thing is usually discussed as one of DC’s poorer ideas. I liked it though, although as with the Our Worlds At War cross-over, poor editing really hurt the concept, and there’s just as much bad as there is good. Decent idea, poor execution. An other thing this one has in common with Our Worlds At War, is that I’m keeping this one, for now.

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Superman - Red Son

This is one of the weirder ideas to come from the DC brain trust in the past decade, and no one was more surprised than me that it actually worked. It’s the Superman story, with the caveat being that the rocket ship that he was sent to earth on landed in Russia. Crazy, right? Da. But still a good story. Although it’s pretty easy to criticize Mark Millar for some of his recent work, no one can say that the guy doesn’t know how to tell a GREAT mainstream comic book action story, and he’s pulling out all the stops here. Although the high concept here is as gimmicky as gimmicks get, Millar still takes the time to stay true to the character he’s riffing on here, and tells an engaging “What If” story that happens to surpass a lot of the past decade’s more mainstream Superman canon. I’ll go on record and say that this also happens to be one of my favourite Lex Luthor stories of all time.

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SupermanWhatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow

A little back story is necessary here. In 1986, DC upset their apple cart and decided to reinvent the origins of several of their key heroes, Superman included. And since that mean that the current run of Superman was coming to an end, Julius Schwartz called up Alan Moore (Post-Watchmen, Pre-bugshit crazy) and asked him to write the final Superman story. He did, got the venerable Curt Swan to do his thing on the art, and then produced one of the greatest Superman stories ever written. I’ve read this a hundred times, and it puts a smile on my face every time. The premise is this: Superman is at the twilight of his career, but his enemies come out of the woodwork to launch one final attack against him and his loved ones. He gathers those closest to him and brings them all to the Fortress of Solitude to try to defend them. Things don’t go well. This is a definitively Silver-Age Superman story, but the interesting thing here is how timeless Moore and Swan make it. 25 years later, it remains one of the great Superman comics, and I think a strong case could me made that it was the last.

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SupermanAt Earth’s End

A throw-away Elseworlds story that is better than it has any right to be. Though not something I would say was remotely essential, it’s still weird (Future Superman fights an army of cloned Hitlers, as well as the reincarnated body of Batman) enough to keep.

Next up: More Superman, but with a dollop of Batman mixed in.