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)

Best Comic Books Of 2011: Best Ongoing Comics Of The Year

The very idea of what an ongoing series is evolving all the time, but here are the rules I used for this category: If it’s over 10 issues, and at least 2 of those issues took place in 2010, it’s an ongoing. Now, quantity does count here. The more issues a “good” title releases in the year, the better it’ll fare against a title of similar quality that only put out a few issues. And so titles that are still relatively new like Animal Man, I Vampire, Pigs, or Near Death didn’t make it on the list this year. And titles that I normally love, but that put out less than 3 issues in 2011 like Scarlet, Orc Stain, or Powers don’t make the cut either.

20) Lil Depressed Boy by S. Stephen Struble and Sina Grace (Image)

Lonely Emo hipster finds love. Love goes bad. Smiths are listened to. That’s the basic premise of this fine, emotionally engaging comic. In a year age when only action and superhero comics  seem to make it to the stands, this was a refreshing change of pace. The cautiously optimistic tone, as well as the likeable lead created by Struble, are the two main reasons to keep coming back, despite the pessimistic nature of the title. Hope to see more books like this in 2012.

19) Secret Avengers by Warren Ellis and various artists (Marvel)

No offense to Ed Brubaker or Nick Spencer, but this book didn’t really take off until Warren Ellis took over the writing reigns, and turned it from just another team book into a 25 page action-packed explosion of pages, panels, and colour. Each issue stands completely alone, and doesn’t require you to be able to tell an Avenger from an X-Man.These are superheroes kicking ass, in the simplest possible way. Ellis is telling some pretty generic, yet throughly compelling superhero stories here, and Secret Avengers contains some of the best plotting I’ve seen from him in a while. Extra shout-outs go to the extremely varied group of talented artists that helped Ellis make this work as well as it did.

18) Detective Comics by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla (DC)

Snyder has been getting a lot of praise for his work on American Vampire, but it’s his arc here, on this old bloated beast of superhero comics, that made me pay attention to his work. The story stars Dick Grayson, the young protegé who has had to step up to the plate and taken over the mantle of the Batman. This arc is probably the most convincing argument I’ve seen for why Grayson should have been allowed to stay in the cowl, as it manages to be both a pure Batman tale and a pure Dick Grayson tale at the same time. I’m aware that part of the reason I enjoyed this so much may have something to do with the fact that Grant Morrison has been systematically destroying my beloved Batman over the past few years, but I digress. If you miss the Detective in Detective Comics, I’d give this a shot. P.S. Jock and Francesco Francavilla have fairly disparate art styles, but I never felt as if they clashed, and thought that they made great tag-team partners throughout this entire run.

 17)  Jonah Hex/All-Star Western by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, various artists (DC)

I’ll lump these together as a) they’re by the same writers, and b) they’re both vehicles for Jonah Hex, DC’s notorious wild west bounty hunter. Jonah Hex was one of the best comics DC produced before their much vaunted September reboot, and it’s follow-up All-Star Western manages to keep the quality fairly high, though perhaps it’s a little toothless in comparison. Part of the appeal of the original series was the stand-alone adventure nature of the book, and so the switch to a more serial, continuity driven approach wasn’t exactly welcome news. Still, the book remains a solid western adventure read to this day.

16)  Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai (Dark Horse)

200 issues. You heard me. Usagi Yojimbo hit 200 issues this year. You know what other independent creator-owned book hit a milestone like that this year? Can’t think of one? That’s because there are no other currently running creator-owned books that have even come close to the commercial or creative longevity that Usagi has had. Usagi Yojimbo is about the continuing adventures of a masterless samurai (or ronin) in feudal Japan. He’s also a talking rabbit, but that’s never really explained, and kind of besides the point. He rambles through the Japanese countryside, looking for ways to earn a meal or a warm fire. It’s a simple concept, and that simplicity is part of the reason why Sakai has kept the quality so very high for so very long. The impressionist sensibility of Sakai’s pencils help to keep the tone light, yet fairly vibrant.

15)  The Spirit by David Hine and Moritat (DC)

Will Eisner’s Spirit. In comic book circles, those three words are enough to make even the most fervent of fanboys blush. The Spirit was a Sunday strip that was created by Will Eisner in the very late 30’s, and managed to run until 1950 or so. Although the strip’s quality was inconsistent, when it was good it was VERY good, and remains some of the best adventure comic storytelling of all time. The character has had a resurgence since Eisner’s death, with various creators trying their hand at the seminal crime fighter. Darwyn Cooke’s version remains the very best of these,  but I was happy to see just how good David Hines and Moritat’s adaptation had become, at least before DC cancelled it. Hines realized that The Spirit himself is actually the least interesting part of Eisner’s creation, and that the character should always be just a gateway to telling small, entertaining crime stories. Unfortunately very few of the new DC reboot titles have matched this level of quality.

14)  Echo/Rachel Rising by Terry Moore (Abstract Studios)

It’s probably unfair to label these together as the genres involved are quite different. But given that they’re a) both by Terry Moore, b) both have solving a mystery as their main premise, and c) both are character vehicles first, I thought lumping them together would be ok. Echo ended after 30 issues this year, with Rachel starting only a few months later. While Echo was pure sci-fi, and Rachel seems to be plumbing the horror genre, they both should be read by anyone wanting to learn how to set up a convincing, intriguing mystery comic. I wish more people would give Moore’s comics a shot, as he’s doing some really enjoyable genre work these days.

13)  Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man  Vol. 1/Vol. 2 by Brian Bendis & various artists (Marvel)

Spider-Man died this year. Yes, Peter Parker. Deader than a dictator. Big deal, yes? Then why haven’t you heard about this? Because it’s the not the regular Spider-Man that died, it’s the one in the Ultimate Universe. God you’re dumb. And they wonder why no one reads comics anymore. Despite the confusing continuity, the reality is that THE Spider-Man title to buy over the last decade has been Brian Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man. It’s a simpler, modernized version of the origin of our beloved webcrawler, and Bendis decided to take it up a notch by putting him six feet in the ground. And the best part of it was that it was actually a great story. Actually, I’m going to go as far as to say that it was a capital G GREAT story. And while Parker has remained dead (for now), Bendis has created a more-than-suitable replacement in Miles Morales. This new addition to the Spidey mythos gave the franchise a kick in the pants that it maybe didn’t need, but was definitely welcome.

12)  The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image)

This sacred cow of modern horror comics is still going, and thankfully it’s still going relatively strong. It’s a testament to Kirkman’s skills as a storyteller (and for creating such an open-ended concept in the first place) that this independent comic book has thrived in such a difficult time for the market, and has even spawned a successful TV show. The premise is simple: Zombies have taken over the world. A group of people are trying to survive. Simple it may be, but Kirkman understands that emotional responses in survival situations are anything BUT simple, and constantly invents creative new ways to put his characters under the emotional gun.

11)  The Unwritten by Mike Carey (Vertigo)

Unwritten is the story of Tommy Taylor, the son of a famous fantasy novelist, and the model for his most famous creation. He’s struggling to find his own way in the world, until he finds out that the line between fantasy and reality isn’t as clear as he once thought. In short, this is a story about stories. About how stories affect our lives, our culture, and our history. And as such, it’s about as ambitious as comics can get, and this year saw Carey exploring genres ranging from noir to fantasy, and from superhero to horror. In some ways, I don’t love this series quite as much as I once did now that many of the mysteries are solved and now that it’s morphing into a pure fantasy book, but the imaginative way that Carey and Gross utilize fiction tropes to tell their ambitious epic keeps me coming back for more.

10)  Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory  (Image)

Tony Chu is the star here. He’s a FDA agent in a world where chicken has been outlawed due to a catastrophic epidemic of Bird Flu. He has the unique ability to  get a psychic impression through anything that he’s eaten, which as you would expect means that we get to see Chu eat a variety of disgusting things. My appreciation of this book was strong at first, but then soured as the comic started to get whackier, and more farcical. I’m happy to report that I’m back on the side of praise now, and I think I finally have the measure of what Layman and Guillory are all about. It’s a very thin line between serious cop drama, bizarre sci-fi, and hilarious farce that these guys are trying to draw, but they’re really pulling it off. This year saw them leap a year forward in the narrative for one issue, only to go back to the original timeline  in the next. It was a bold move, and one that could tie the hands of lesser creators. But in the wacky, capable hands of these talents it just seems par for the course.

9) DMZ by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, and Others (Vertigo)

In the near future, America is at war. Not with North Korea, or Iran, or Syria, but with itself. It’s the near future, and America is years into a brutal civil war, with the island of Manhattan serving as a “neutral” demilitarized zone. That’s the premise of DMZ, and it’s one that’s almost disturbingly familiar. As I’m writing this, one last issue of DMZ  is about to hit the stands, and it’s a bittersweet end. Creatively, it’s always great when books end on a high note. But in this era of pre-packaged superhero mediocrity, it’s a shame any time a book of this quality leaves the marketplace. DMZ wasn’t just a good comic, it was an important comic, one that served as a warning to what we might become if we’re not careful. Watching Brian Wood evolve into one of the mediums great writers over the past decade has been a real joy, and I’m going to go as far as to say that DMZ might be one of the finest war comics the medium has ever seen.

8)  Punisher Max by Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon (Marvel)

Probably the second most intense comic on the stands right now, which isn’t surprising since it’s written by the same guy who writes the first. It mystifies me that this sells as little as it does, as it’s easily among the most consistently well-made comics that Marvel has produced over the past few years. Forget what you think this series is about, as it requires absolutely no previous knowledge of The Punisher, or superheroes at all, to really enjoy it. What it is, is the story of an old man. His family was killed 30 years ago, and he’s spent every second of the decades since trying to kill criminals in a futile attempt at avenging that family’s deaths. And his time is almost up. This series has taught me a lot this year about what  it means to strip a story down to its bare essentials, as I can’t think of a single wasted beat that Aaron’s made since it started. Every single panel, is about setting up what looks to be a blaze of glory for the tragic lead character, and this might be the most emotionally charged comic on my list this year. Steve Dillon is firing on all cylinders here, and is turning in some of the best work of his career.

7) The Goon by Eric Powell (Dark Horse)

After a two-year sabbatical, Eric Powell took the reigns back in 2011 on the book that made him famous. Not only that, but he went back to his roots. By the time Powell had finished his last run on the book, The Goon had evolved into a long, dramatic horror series full of convoluted plots and strategically built tension. Powell has stepped back from that ledge however, and this year in The Goon was all about what the book was first famous for: Short, yet terrifyingly funny action-packed horror stories, full of scary monsters, dialogue that would make a dead drunken sailor blush, and some of the most beautifully disturbing artwork to be found in comics.  Although I’m looking forward to Powell getting back into the epic business, it’s been great to see him having fun again.

6) Rasl by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

That this brilliant science fiction masterpiece hasn’t gotten more attention from the comic community is a real shame. I would probably rate this higher if it came out a little more often, but I’m definitely not complaining. Like recent issues of Sixth Gun and Sweet Tooth, it seemed as if there was quite a bit of exposition to get through this year in the pages of Rasl. One feels as if Smith had been waiting a long time to bring the true story of Nikola Tesla into the science fiction of RASL, and he did it pretty seamlessly. This is a large, alternate-universe epic Smith is creating here, and the only problem I have with it is that I don’t see how he could possibly wrap it up in the handful of issues left that he has planned.

5)  Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo)

It’s been nice to see Lemire get some mainstream success this year with his superhero writing, but he’s still most effective when he handles the art chores on his own work. So I was a little surprised when Lemire had Matt Kindt partner up with him on a few issues of Sweet Tooth this year. I shouldn’t have been. Kindt is a brilliant storyteller in his own right, and his art is a perfect complement to Lemire’s quirky sensibilities.  Sweet Tooth is a post-apocalyptic road story about a mutant and his shadowy father figure, but recent issues have seen Lemire attempt to fill in some of the holes regarding the world they live in, and how it go to be that way. In that light, Lemire’s decision to use a different artist makes sense, though part of me can’t wait for the main narrative to be revisited. Lemire’s work on Sweet Tooth is some of the best dramatic storytelling on the stands right now.

4) Northlanders by Brian Wood and various artists (Vertigo)

After a rare, and brief dip in quality with the near-terrible Metal, storyline, Brian Wood brought his Viking adventure anthology back on track this year with some pretty incredible writing, namely as seen in his brilliant Icelandic Trilogy. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to save the book, and Northlanders is scheduled for cancellation in a few months, along with Wood’s other book DMZ. This was one of the jewels of the Vertigo line, and one that I recommend often to people who love great storytelling, but haven’t really appreciated the medium of comics before. Wood understands intrinsically what most writers take years to figure out:  Genre is meaningless if you don’t have a great lead whose actions you care about passionately. And so although Wood’s chosen setting of circa 900AD Scandinavia is important, it always takes a back seat to his compelling lead characters, and the action-packed scenarios he throws them in. It’s sad that this book is ending, but at least it’s going out on a high note.

3) Here Comes….Daredevil! by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin, and Paolo Rivera (Marvel)

This book represents everything that is good and great about the medium of comics. It’s a return to the fun, swashbuckling version of Daredevil that usually comes in second place to the more popular, brooding one, but this book is so much more than that. More than any other superhero comic book being published today, this book uses the medium of comics to tell you it’s stories. Now, that just sounds like common sense right? It should be, but the sad truth is that so much of comic book storytelling today is stagnant. It’s become far more about genre than it is about medium. People like zombies? Here’s a screenplay about zombies in Vietnam, with some pictures!  Want to add some edge? Here’s Super-Zombie! Waid’s DD transcends all of that nonsense. It’s a comic about a superhero, but most importantly it’s a comic. It’s bold, It’s bright, and it uses every square inch of every single page to tell you it’s secrets. The art by Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera are going to be dissected by comic book historians for years to come.

2) The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt (Oni)

I wish more comics were like this one. Not exactly like this one obviously. But it’s the ambition I admire here. Sixth Gun is a western/horror pastiche about.a woman who inherits a magical gun from her father, and finds out pretty quickly that the gun holds some very dark secrets. This is a bold comic book, in that it’s combining several less-than-trendy genres in a time where getting people to buy anything that doesn’t have the word Bat in front of its title is almost impossible. At first I thought there would be a years worth of stories in this concept, tops, but as more issues come and go, it’s obvious that Bunn and Hurt are weaving a complex, epic story here, and it’s one that is bordering on genius.

1) Scalped by Jason Aaron & RM Guera (Vertigo)

If this comic doesn’t constantly give you goosebumps in the tuckus, than I think you’re in the wrong blog. This is “just” a populist crime story about a modern day indian reserve in South Dakota, but it’s one that’s so visceral, so stirring, and so  character-driven that I’m always surprised that it’s never gotten the mainstream attention that lesser Vertigo series seem to garner. This series still kicks me in the pants every time I read an issue. This is powerful crime storytelling at it’s very best, and the fact that it’s ending soon is a little depressing. I’m comforted however by the fact that it seems destined to go out on a high note. I’m hoping that years from now people will be talking about this title in the same way people talk about Criminal, or 100 Bullet, although I think that it’s already proven that it’s their equal. Unfortunately, 2012 is going to be the last for this fantastic neo-noir.

Honourable Mention:

Incorruptible by Mark Waid and Marcio Takara (BOOM), I, Vampire by Joshua Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino (DC), Animal Man by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman (DC), Pigs by Ben McCool, Nate Cosby, and Breno Temura (Image), Near Death by Jay Faerber and Simone Guglielmini (Image), Captain America and Bucky by Ed Brubaker and Francesco Francavilla, (Marvel), Secret Six by Gail Simone and Jim Caliofore (DC), Batgirl by Bryan Miller and Dustin Nguyen (DC), Batgirl by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf (DC), Batwoman by JH Williams and W. Haden Blackman (DC), Butcher Baker by Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston (Image)

Would have gotten on the list if more issues had comes out: Wasteland by Antony Johnston and various artists (IDW), Scarlet by Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev (ICON), Godland by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli (Image), Orc Stain by James Stokoe (Image), Powers by Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming (Icon)

Best Comics Of 2011: Best Mini-Series of the Year

The rules here are a little arbitrary but its probably the simplest way to categorize this. Basically a title is eligible if it’s between 2-10 issues long, and ENDED in 2011. Which means great minis like Matt Fraction’s Casanova: Avaritia, or Brian Azzarello’s Spaceman will have to wait until next year to be considered. Unfortunately this also means that titles that started years ago but aren’t finished yet aren’t eligible either, which leaves out things like Ben McCool’s Memoir. No worries, as there are still plenty of eligible mini-series well worth your time.

20. The Witch Doctor by Brandon Seifert & Lukas Ketner (Skybound/Image)

It was tempting to dismiss this as yet another of the dozens of shoddy supernatural adventurer comics that seem to clog up the stands these days. But Seifert and Ketner are definitely onto something here, with their whimsical Quincy meets Doc Frankenstein pastiche. They’re in monster-of-the-week territory for sure, but the basic premise is so sound that forgiveness is forthcoming. The addition of real medical explanations for supernatural happenstance is a welcome one, and Ketner is turning out some of the best monsters in comics.

19. Billy The Kid’s Old Timey Oddities & The Ghastly Fiend Of London by Eric Powell & Kyle Hotz (Dark Horse)

Billy The Kid Vs. Jack The Ripper, and in not in a slash fiction-y sort of way, which was nice. Yee-Haw! Powell kept busy during his hiatus from his seminal Goon series, and this odd little monster-hunting mini is one of the more pleasant results. Better than most of the LOEXG copycats currently clogging up the stands.

18. Xombi by John Rozum and Frazer Irving (DC)

Xombi was a series that run as part of the Milestone/DC universe back in the 90’s, starring a human/nanite cyborg that couldn’t die. Critics loved it. No one bought it. Fast forward 20 years later, and after decades of absolutely no one asking for it to be brought back, it was. I’m not really sure how this got greenlit at DC in the first place, but I’m glad it did, if only to highlight how devoid of originality and big ideas the two big publishers are right now. Xombi picked up right where it’s predecessor left off, highlighting the adventures of David Kim as he deals with the craziness that come with his new life as a techno-infested immortal. This really was like nothing else published by the big two this year, which is probably why it barely lasted 6 issues. But the convoluted yet entertaining scripts of John Rozum, and the effortlessly creepy pencils of Frazer Irving are well worth the time of fans of the weirder side of comics.

17. Atomic Robo: The Deadly Art Of Science by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red5)

With his admittedly pulpy roots, it was just a matter of time before Atomic Robo got placed into a proper 1930’s pulp-hero adventure. The Deadly Art Of Science sees the mechanical adventurer team up with crime fighter Jack Tarot and his daughter/partner Nightingale, as they battle the evil science of Thomas Edison. Muuah-ha-and-a-double-ha.  I like pretty much everything that Wegener and Clevinger have done to date with their Robo character, but to me they haven’t quite recaptured the heights they reached during their epic Shadows From Beyond Time mini-series. Still, the fun inherent in the characters and concepts more than make up for it. Got kids? Get this.

16. Locke and Key: Keys To The Kingdom by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)

It’s one of the most original books on the stands, but with such ambition comes the danger of overreaching. Locke And Key hasn’t done that yet, but this epic ghost story is becoming so weird, and so strange, that getting new readers at this late date might be almost impossible. With Vertigo taking a break from being Vertigo this year, Locke & Key remains your best bet for bizarre, unconventional horror.

15. Axe-Cop: Bad Guy Earth by Ethan Nicolle and Malachi Nicolle (Dark Horse)

After the runaway success of the Axe-Cop webcomic as a viral sensation, Ethan Nicolle was approached by Dark Horse to create a print version of his brilliant tribute to stream-of-consciousness narrative. One month of intense playtime with his 6-year-old brother (and series writer) Malachi later, and we have Bad Guy Earth, a more than worthy addition to the Axe-Cop mythos. Yes, the writer of this comic is 6 years old, and it shows. Gloriously. As I wrote when doing my best webcomics list, there are no rules here, no shades of grey. Only good guys, versus the unyielding menace of..BAD GUY EARTH. 

14. B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth – Gods/Monsters by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, and Tyler Crook (Dark Horse)

Forget Marvel or DC. My favourite shared universe in comics is and has been for a long time, the Mignola-verse. Or if you’d like, the world where Hellboy lives. And while Hellboy hasn’t been associated with the BPRD in a decade or so, the BPRD is still going strong. Well, not really strong, as the Hell On Earth tagline that now accompanies all BPRD books isn’t so much a slogan as it is an accurate description of the world they now live in. In short, they’re screwed.  Gods and Monsters gave the characters a chance to catch their breath after the horrific events of The King Of Fear, and focus on what the Bureau’s role will be in this new, post-apocalyptic world. Monsters also saw the addition of Tyler Crook to the creative team, and in a very short period of time it appears as if Crook will make a more than worthy successor to the talents of Guy Davis.

13. Incognito: Bad Influences by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Icon)

 The original Incognito mini introduced us to Zack Overkill, a former super-villain trying to stay on the straight and narrow. In Bad Influences, Zack is in full hero mode, and is working for the forces of good. But for Zack, staying on the right side of the law is harder than it looks. My only critique of Brubaker and Philip’s follow-up to their critically acclaimed super-noir Incognito mini is that I’m not sure it was necessary. I loved the first mini, but the concept wasn’t one that screamed “SEQUEL NEEDED” to me. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. It’s obvious that Brubaker and Phillips are trying to duplicate the slowly building pressure of their much-missed Sleeper series here, putting their hero through horrific events that are bound to just get worse with every arc. I’m happy to say that I can’t wait for the sequel.

12. Mystery Men by David Liss & Patrick Zircher (Marvel)

This was Marvel’s attempt at fleshing out their pre-WW2 era mythos, and while I don’t know if they succeeded at that, they did succeed at staging an entertaining 1930’s pulp comic with exciting new characters that was better than almost anything else they put on the stands this year. It’s the story of five masked heroes in 1930’s New York, who team up to overcome a giant conspiracy. This was better than it had any right to be, and one hopes that Marvel doesn’t dilute its critical success here by giving us unnecessary sequels. Hope to see more of this team in the future.

11. Baltimore: The Curse Bells by Mike Mignola, Chris Golden, and Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)

The second of four Mignola-related books on my list, but it’s the result of real quality rather than any bias on my part. The work Mignola is producing these days with his collaborative partners is just that good. The character of Lord Henry Baltimore was conceived both by Mignola and by novelist Chris Golden to be the ultimate tortured vampire hunter. He’s on the hunt for Haigus, the vampire that a) is trying to take over Europe, and b) killed his family. Although Baltimore doesn’t have nearly the likability or charisma of other Mignola heroes like Hellboy or Sir Edward Grey, what the story lacks in fun it makes up for in terror, and there’s an edge here that’s often missing in other Mignola books.

10. Witchfinder: Lost & Gone Forever by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and John Severin (Dark Horse)

Victorian supernatural detective meets weird western ghost story, as written by two of today’s strongest creators, and drawn by one of the industry’s great pencillers? You had me at hello. Witchfinder is peripherally connected to Mignola’s larger Hellboy mythology, but these chilling adventures of Mignola’s Sir Edward Grey character stand up on their own quite nicely. In Lost & Gone Forever, Grey is in the American mid-west trying to track down a member of a mystical secret society. What he finds instead is…wait for it….HORROR! Ha. Like pretty much everything connected with Mignola these days, the quality of the work here is high. What makes this one so  special though, is the beautiful art of EC comics legend John Severin. I’m ashamed to admit that I was barely familiar with his work before this, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. If I was ranking just on quality of art work, this 89-year-old legend would have taken the top spot.

9. The Last Mortal by John Mahoney and Flip Sabilik (Image)

This got overlooked this year in lieu of flashier, yet lesser Image minis, but I’m hoping that an upcoming collected version will give this well-crafted thriller a second lease on life. It’s the story of Alex King, a petty criminal that finds out one day that he has a superpower: he can’t die. In the hands of lesser talent, that would be the end of it, and the entire story would coast on that conceit. But Mahoney and Sabilik understand that it’s characters that bring people back, and so they’ve created a tragic, and charismatic lead that we as readers can’t help but want to see succeed. The superpower stuff is just icing on the cake, and that restraint is the sign of real talent.

8. Comic Book Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey (Evil Twin Comics)

This was Van Lente and Dunlavey’s attempt at creating a somewhat comprehensive overview of the history of comics, in comic book form. This was an ambitious project by the creators of Action Philosophers, and as such took a few years to finish. In terms of tone, the closest comparison I could make it to are Larry Gonick’s fun and fantastic Cartoon History Of The World books. As far as essential books needed to full understand how comics became what they are today, I’d say that it’s pretty much indispensible.

7. Who Is Jake Ellis? By Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic (Image)

Edmondson has been on my talent to watch list ever since last year’s creepy The Light mini-series, and I’m pleased to say that his follow-up is as good, if not better. It’s the story of Jon Moore, a mercenary that’s on the run from various enemies. He’s completely alone, with one exception: Jake Ellis, a man who offers Moore logistical and technical support wherever possible. Only snag? Only Moore can see him.  This was one of the more overly cinematic books on the stands this year, with Tonci Zonjic’s moody but precise pencils providing a well-crafted canvas for Edmonson’s tight story.

6. Batman: Knight Of Vengeance by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (DC)

I won’t bore you with the details of what DC’s mega-event Flashpoint was all about other than to say that it’s a) over, and b) was terrible, but I will say that n this year of superhero mediocrity, it would take a hell of a lot to get me to rank a Flashpoint mini series  in my top 10 of the year. This, my friends, is a hell of a lot of comic. First of all, it’s by the team that brought you 100 Bullets, which pretty much guarantees a first look. Second of all, it’s one of the best superhero books I’ve read all year. The skinny: This is an alternate-universe tale, and one in which it was Bruce Wayne that was killed by a mugger’s bullet in that alley so long ago, not his parents. In this world, it’s Dr. Thomas Wayne that picks up the cowl of Batman in an effort to avenge the family he lost decades before. This sounds a little gimmicky, but Azzarello and Risso took this series very seriously, and put together a great three-part tragedy that will tear the heart out of pretty much anybody who reads it. P.S. Wait till you find out who the Joker is….

5. Hellboy: The Fury by Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)

Hellboy is dead. As a doornail. And this is the series that killed him. Mike Mignola has been building towards this monumental mini for a few years now. Like any major character death, the true measure of whether or not it was the right thing to do is if it caused a legitimate emotional response in its readers, and thankfully Mignola has evolved so much as a writer in recent years that he was able to pull that off without a hitch. Fegredo has become such a formidable partner for Mignola that his depiction of the decades-in-the-making battle of between Hellboy and the Ogdru Jahad is going to be talked about for years to come.

4. Echoes by Joshua Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal (Minotaur/Image)

Brian Cohn is a sick man, but he’s doing better. He’s been struggling with a serious case of schizophrenia, but with the help of drugs and his supportive wife, he’s learning to cope. Until he learns that his father may have been a serial killer.  Bazaam. If I was doing a pure horror comics list, this would have easily crushed the top spot. Lots of horror comics being produced right now are either monster of the week books (BPRD) or apocalyptic gross-out sagas (Crossed), but few of them are actually scary. Echoes isn’t just scary, it’s terrifying. Fialkov isn’t just an up-and-coming talent anymore, he’s arrived, and if you want to learn how to build tension in a comic book, look no further than Echoes.

3. Ozma Of Oz by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young (Marvel)

In Ozma Of Oz, little Dorothy Gale encounters robots, talking chickens, and bulimic tigers. Just another day in Oz, then. Ozma is Shanower and Young’s third adaptation of Frank Baum’s original Oz books, and they’re pretty much guaranteed to be on my best of lists as long as they keep doing them.  Ozma sees Dorothy Gale return to Oz, and is more of a pure sequel to the Wizard Of Oz than the Marvelous Land Of Oz was.  These minis are fairly faithful to the originals, and as such are both enhanced and hindered by the wonder and weirdness of the original series. Thankfully Shanhower’s love of the source material, and Young’s original sense of visual storytelling make them the perfect collaborators for these projects.Want your kids to get into comics? This is a great start.

2. Sweets by Kody Chamberlain (Image)

I wanted to include this in last year’s list, but it didn’t actually wrap up until 2011, so I waited. And I’m glad I did. Chamberlain’s story of a New Orleans Detective on the hunt for a serial killer days before Hurricane Katrina hits is an emotional powerhouse, and one that’s best served all in one bite. Chamberlain sets up tropes familiar to those us who love modern crime stories: An at-the-end-of-his-rope protagonist. Political intrigue. A moody, evocative setting. But it’s the way he blends them all together that’s the real joy here. Can’t wait to see what Chamberlain comes up with next.

1. Criminal: Last Of The Innocent by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Icon)

What do you give the comic that has everything?  More praise, I guess? I can’t imagine anybody reading this blog that isn’t at least peripherally aware of the brilliant work that Brubaker and Phillips have been doing on their Criminal mini-series for the past five years or, but if you’re not, here goes: Each mini series is self-contained, and stars…wait for it….a criminal. Yep. Doing crime. And while it’s getting a bit redundant to say so, Last Of The Innocent might be the finest Criminal story to date. It’s the story of Riley Richards, a small town boy done well. He got the girl, he got the job, got the money…but he’s not happy. Yet. And he’s ready to do pretty much anything to get  there. This isn’t just a compelling story, it’s a masterclass on modern comic storytelling. Brubaker and Phillips use flashbacks in such a unique and exciting way that they’re not just telling you the history of their characters, they’re telling you the history of comics.

Honourable mention: Ruse by Mark Waid, Mirco Pierfederici, & Minck Oosterveer, (Marvel),  Undying Love by Tomm Coker & Daniel Freedman (Image), Chronicles Of Wormwood: Last Battle by Garth Ennis & Oscar Jimenez (Avatar), The Mission by Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, and Werther Dell’Edera (Image)

Best Comics Of 2011: Best Anthologies Of The Year

Rules are fairly simple for this category. This could be a one-shot, a mini series, or an ongoing comic, along as multiple stories and creative teams are involved.

8. POOD edited by Geoff Grogan

A  new newsprint fold-out format style comic strip anthology zine that only lasted four issues, but man, what a ride. What I liked about this was the boldness of the concept. There’s no money to be made here, no grand experiment designed to revolutionize the industry. This is just people who love making comics, making comics. A shame it didn’t last longer.

7. Robert E. Howard’s Savage Sword edited by Samantha Robertson, Patrick Thorpe, and Scott Allie.

Over 80 years later, the concepts created by Robert E. Howard still grab hold of our imagination like nothing before or since. This is a solid adventure anthology featuring famous Howard characters like Conan and Kull, and not so famous ones like El Borak and Sailor Steve Costigan. This is capital A adventure storytelling, with the likes of Roy Thomas, Gil Kane, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Tim Bradstreet doing the heavy lifting.

6. CBLDF Presents Liberty Annual 2011 edited by Bob Shreck (Image)

An oldie, but a goodie. The Comic Book Legal Defence Fund has been putting out these annual anthologies for a while now as a fundraising tool for their legal efforts. This year’s issue utilized the ‘It Gets Better” anti-gay bullying meme created by Dan Savage, and featured plenty of A list talent like Mark Waid, J.H. Williams, and Judd Winick. This was probably the best one-shot anthology I read this year, with way more hits than misses, and more than a few stories that stuck with me for days afterwards. I’m having a hard time picking one favourite, but Matt Wagner’s Sympathy From The Devil Grendel feature might have been the very best of a an exceptional bunch. I really wish that more anthologies of this quality were produced regularly. The fact that the proceeds are going to a worthy cause is an added bonus.

5. The Unexpected / Strange Adventures edited by Karen Berger, various (Vertigo)

Vertigo used to be the undisputed king of comic anthologies, but that’s gone away now that Axel Alonso is at Marvel, and now that DC seems to treat Vertigo the way you would the smart kid in your class who can’t speak english. There were two exceptions to this downward spiral this year, and both of these genre anthologies were often good enough to recall just how great this company used to be at this sort of this. The sci-fi themed Strange Adventures is the slightly superior title, with some stellar work by Jeff Lemire, Kevin Colden, Ross Campbell, and Peter Milligan, and with a great sneak-peek at Brian Azzarello and Ed Risso’s Spaceman. The Unexpected features more of a horror bent, with its very best stories coming early at the hands of Dave Gibbons, Josh Dysart and Farel Dalrymple, and Alex Grecian and Jill Thompson. Oh, and Denys Cowan. Yep. Now you wish you bought this, yes?

4. Rocketeer Adventures 1-4 edited by Scott Dunbier (IDW)

This was WAY better than it had any right to be, but I shouldn’t be surprised, because you get what you pay for. And in this case, IDW paid for the services of people like John Cassady, Kurt Busiek, Mike Mignola, and Mike Allred. For those of you not familiar with the Rocketeer, he was a pulp hero created in the 1980’s by famed animator Dave Stevens. They made a movie. It was good. Look it up. Stevens never did more than a handful of stories with the character, and so IDW tried to rectify the situation with this, the very definition of a labour of love. Not only are these stories a fitting tribute to one of the unheralded greats of 1980’s and 90’s adventure comics, but they’re also fantastic reads in their own right.

3. Papercutter edited by Greg Means and Jason Martin (Tugboat Press)

A new discovery for me this year, and one that’s going to be hard to continue, as Papercutter’s distribution isn’t exactly widespread. This is indie comics at their very best, and the shoddy amateur work that often dodges indie titles is nowhere to be found here. The quality of this is pretty much staggering, considering that almost no one is reading this. These are indie comics in every sense of the word, but that doesn’t mean that the bar isn’t set high. Fans of creators like Clowes, Tomine, and Bechdel will find much to admire here.

2. Dark Horse Presents edited by Mike Richardson (Dark Horse)

One of the greatest anthologies in comic history is back, and after a few rocky issues at the start, it’s shaping up to being almost as good as it ever was. At first, new Concrete stories by Paul Chadwick were about the only reason to pick this up, but getting new Finder stories by Carla Speed McNeil, new Beasts Of Burden episodes by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, and new Skeleton Key pages by Andi Watson have made this a monthly kick-in-the-pants. I would still like to see more exposure to new and developing creators though.

1. 2000AD edited by Matt Smith (Rebellion)

I have a confession to make, but you can’t tell anyone. Until this year, I had never read an issue of 2000AD. Heretic! Yes, I know. In North America, 2000AD  just that thing with Judge Dredd on the cover that no one ever buys. But if you’re in the UK? If you’re in the UK and love comics, chances are that 2000AD was a seminal part of your comic book experience at least at some point, and it’s as influential to comic book readers in England as Batman and Spider-Man are to people here. Years before the world had read the superhero comics of people like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Mark Millar, John Wagner, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman, they were writing mind-blowing sci-fi for 2000AD.  When I saw D’Israeli’s work on Warren Ellis’ SVK this year, it made me realize how much I liked his art, and it motivated  me to look for more. Which brought me to 2000AD.  I’ve been reading as much as I can, and the craziest thing about this hoary old chestnut, is how good the stories are now. The work being done this year in 2000AD is superior to most of the work being done by either of the big 2 American publishers right now. Yeah, I said it. It’s that good. If you like your sci-fi batshit crazy, but with a serious focus on a constant flow of new characters and new ideas, 2000AD is for you. There were quite a few good Thrills this year, but for me some of the highlights have been Rob Williams and D’Israeli’s latest installment of the venerable Low Life series, Gordon Rennie and  Tiernen Trevallion’s take on the Caballistics spin-off Inspector Harry Absalom, and Ian Edginton and Simon Davis’ Victorian sci-fi comic Ampney Crucis.

Best Comics Of 2011: Best Collections/Translations/Reprints

Opinions are like armpits, assholes,  and addictions in that everybody has one, and we all think everyone else’s stinks. And so once a year those of us who are a little more outspoken than others (in their opinions, not our assholes) drag ourselves out of our gutters so that we can vomit out our takes on everything that happened over the past 365 days.

My goal here is to be as comprehensive as possible. My tastes are quite varied, and so there should be something for everyone. Obviously I can’t read everything, so if you think there is something you think I’ve missed, let me know. There are six comic categories I’m covering this year: Best Collections, Best Anthology, Best Webcomic, Best Ongoing, Best Mini, and Best Original Graphic Novel or Single Issue. I’ll be posting them sporadically throughout the month of December.

The first category is for comics that have already been printed at some point, either on-line, in single issue format, or in a language different from English. I’m judging both for quality of the work itself, but also for the quality of the reprint packaging itself. I’m usually picking stuff that either has never been reprinted before, or was hard to find before this particular printing.

10. Welcome To Oddville by Jay Stephens (AdHouse)

I wasn’t familiar with Welcome To Oddville at all, but I’ve learned in recent years to at least give a gander to pretty much everything AdHouse puts out. No other independent publishing house puts out the varied breadth of material these guys do, and Welcome To Oddville is a worthy addition to their weird little corner of the comics world. It’s a collection of comic strips that originally ran online and in the Toronto Star. It’s an absurdist take on a little girl’s quest to be a superhero, but it’s the execution of the strip that really impressed me, rather than the subject matter. Stephens is creating half-page masterpieces here, completely subverting what we think of as comic strip tropes. Although the subject matter and tone is vastly different, fans of design-cartoonists like Chris Ware will find much to like here.

9. Torpedo Vol. 3 by Enrique Sanchez & Jordi Bernet (IDW)

One of the better translation attempts in recent years has been IDWs beautiful hardcover collections of these striking Italian crime comics by Enrique Sanchez and Jordi Bernet. On the surface, these are short black and white pieces about a tough hood trying to claw his way up the criminal ladder in 1930’s New York, but in actuality these are really slice of life stories, and they cover everything from crime, to the immigrant experience, to sex, and everything in between. In some ways this is a companion piece to Will Eisner’s Spirit character, just told from the viewpoint of the villain. The best translation job I’ve read this year.

8. Hark, A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly)

Probably the best “Gift Idea” of the whole bunch, as what’s required to really appreciate this isn’t so much a love of comics as a love of history.  There are a lot of web comics that focus on humour as opposed to a serial narrative, but most of them eschew actual comedy  for the sake of pop-culture arrogance. This is a beautiful little collection of some of Kate Beaton’s funniest, and most effective works, and one that’s perfect for anybody in your family that appreciates true humour. This one will pop up again on the best web-comics list.

7. WE3 Deluxe Edition by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (Vertigo)

The greatest comic Grant Morrison ever wrote gets a beautiful, deluxe hardcover, complete with brand new pages as conceived by the brilliant Frank Quitely. As much praise as this book got when it first came out 10 years ago, it’s just not enough. It’s one of the great comic book adventure stories of the past decade, and it hasn’t aged a bit. Frank Quitely’s work here is staggering, and he seems to be the only artist that makes Grant Morrison’s scripts as great as he thinks they are in his head. One of the best “household pets get turned into cybernetic war machines and then go and the road and share adventures together” stories you’ll ever read.

6. Hellboy Library Vol. 4 by Mike Mignola, and others (Dark Horse)

I will never get tired of these. This is the fourth volume in Dark Horse’s efforts to give Mike Mignola’s premier character the deluxe oversized treatment he deserves, and it’s the first to contain art by someone other than Mignola. When Mignola first started using other artists like Richard Corben and Craig Russell to help supplement his work on Hellboy, the effect was jarring, to say the least. Mignola’s command of colours, dark lines, and shade is such an important part of the complete Hellboy package that it was (and still is) extremely difficult to really appreciate anybody else’s work on the character, no matter how venerable that artist may be. Years later, we can now see the positives of letting other people play in Mignola’s sandbox, and as a result we’ve gotten some of the quirkier and stranger stories in the Hellboy canon. My personal favourite here is Mignola and Corben’s The Crooked Man, a seriously creepy jaunt into Appalachian demon-lore.

5. Finder Complete Collection Vol. 1 & 2 by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse)

I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to be introduced to the sprawling sci-fi world of Carla McNeil’s Finder. I think the reason why it’s escaped me for this long is that it’s almost impossible to explain what the thing is actually about in less than the almost 1300 pages or so that these two books contain. This is world building, in the tradition of Herbert and Asimov, and that’s pretty rare in comics these days. What Finder shares with those author’s works, is that although the settings and scope may be huge, what they’re really about is people. The world that Finder’s characters live in is different from ours, but it’s not THAT different, and weirdly enough reminds me of 2000AD‘s Mega-City One, in terms of just how flexible and open the concept is. McNeil can (and does) tell pretty much any type of story she wants in her world: Sci-fi, magic, drama, romance, you name it. And once you’ve read these, then you get to read them again, this time with the amazingly detailed concordance that McNeil included in the back of each volume, so that you can see just how much you missed the first time.

4. Infinite Kung-Fu by Kagan McLeod (Top Shelf)

There have been several comics in recent years that have attempted to emulate the look and feel of 1970’s kung-fu films as envisioned by the Shaw Brothers (Immortal Iron Fist, Pang The Wandering Monk) and others, but I’m here to tell you that Infinite Kung-Fu might be the very best of the bunch. It’s also another book that could probably make a strong case for being put in my upcoming Best Graphic Novels of 2011 post , as much of this material has never been seen before. Infinite Kung-Fu was originally a comic series published by Canadian Kagan McLeod over a decade ago but it remained mostly unfinished , until now. Top Shelf took all of the original comics, got McLeod to finish his martial arts epic, and collected the whole thing in a beautiful 464 page ass-kicking extravaganza. The love that this book demonstrates towards a genre that spans two separate mediums is a pretty rare thing to be found in comics these days, and McLeod needs to be heralded for the sheer ballsiness of what he’s accomplished here. McLeod has a kinetic art style that pretty much pulls you from page to page so fast that you feel as if your neck might snap.

3. Parker: The Martini Edition by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

It might be a little earlier to be adopting the “Absolute” format for Darwyn Cooke’s masterful Parker adaptations, but I don’t really care. Not only does this blow-up two of the best graphic novels of the past decade into a full oversized (actually more than twice the size of the original pages) mastodon, it also includes a new Parker adaptation by Cooke, and plenty of other concept art. As great as this is, I would say that this, like the new version of Bone, is for hardcore fans of the original works only, as the originals are still more than enough for casual readers. But if you love these retro crime classics as much as I do, then this is a must own.

2. Bone 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

The greatest comic book of all time gets a massive deluxe hardcover treatment. There isn’t much that’s “new” about this version of Jeff Smith’s masterpiece, other than that it’s the first time that the full-colour Scholastic version of Bone has been collected in one volume, but it’s impressive just the same.  One might argue that colouring one of the greatest black and white works in comic history is a sacrilege, but I was surprised by just how much depth the colour actually added here. As for the actual comic? It’s still one of the greatest complete serial works the medium has ever produced. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, and you pretty much have to go outside the medium and look at the prose or film worlds (LOTR being the most obvious comparison) before you can find something to really compare it to.  Unfortunately, the high cost of this is going to prove prohibitive to most, and so the black and white softcover edition of this will probably remain your best bet.

1. Mister Wonderful / Death Ray by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon)

I know a lot of lists are going to have Mister Wonderful on their “Best Original Graphic Novel” lists, but since most of it was previously published by New York Magazine, I thought that my  reprints/collections column was the best home for this. That being said, it’s got the impact of a new work, mostly because no one reads New York Magazine. It’s interesting to read these two vastly different books side by side, as you really get to see the changes to a more confident, yet subtler tone in Clowes’ style over the past decade. He’s matured from “just” being a quirky, underground cartoonist, to becoming one of the medium’s strongest voices. Mr. Wonderful is quite simply one of the best things Clowes has ever done. It’s a command performance, by a master. I dare say that very few people in the business are capable of the kind of narrative innovations that Clowes is displaying here. If you love romance and drama in your comics, this is a must buy.

Honourable Mentions: The Mighty Thor: Artist’s Edition by Walt Simonson (IDW),  Mazeworld by Alan Grant & Arthur Ranson (2000AD), 20TH Century Boys by Naoki Ursawa (VIZ)