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)

What I learned at Emerald City Comicon

I’m not a big comic con person. I’ve been to San Diego’s famed convention a few times, but haven’t been to many other than that. In fact, despite the subject matter of my blog, I’m not really a comic book geek at all, or at least in terms of sharing a lot of the “truisms” that comic book geeks are supposed to have. Most of my friends don’t read comic books, I don’t play video games, and I watch as many independent art-house films as I do  big budget sci-fi films. I also have personal hygiene, have basic social interaction skills, and have actually known the touch of a woman. Ha! I kid because I love.

 

The shoes my wife bought while I was at the comic con

But I do love comic books. I love them, and I love talking about them, and I’m even working on writing them. And so I trekked down to Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon yesterday, along my good friend and writing partner, Jay. My wife came along for the ride, but spent the day shopping, and ogling the good-looking shoe sales guys at Nordstroms.

As I’ve said, I’ve been to the San Diego Comic Con several times, and while I found it exciting, I can’t say it did much for me from a comic book perspective. I did get  some nice sketches, and saw some crazy movie panels, but it’s not creator friendly, and to be honest it’s a little soul crushing. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Emerald City was quite comic book focused, and at least from my perspective, seemed to be a lot more creator friendly than San Diego is. Geek culture was prevalent, however, in that there was lots of cosplay, lots of people who still can’t over the fact that Firefly was cancelled, and excessive line ups for TV “stars” that aren’t famous enough to even make the janitorial crew at the medical centre where Celebrity Rehab is filmed.

 

Random character that I don't care about.

We went just for one day, and kept to the convention floor for the most part.There were panels, and while many of them were comic book themed, they mostly consist of the following: Disgruntled Fan: “I love (insert obscure character’s name here. It could be Superman. Or Wolverine. Or the Golden Pretzel. Doesn’t really matter).”  “I don’t like that you did (insert random character event here. It’s usually death. Or turning the character gay. Or a combination of the two) to him. Since my world view is so narrow, I thought that rather than voting with my dollar and supporting different comics created by talented creators that don’t necessarily succeed or fail on the whims of billion dollar multi-nationals, and since I really only want to read about the adventures of 70-year-old marketing franchises, I’ve decided to come here and complain to you, even though you have tried to revitalize (insert character here) a dozen times to no avail, and tell you that not only that everything you have done to this point sucks, but also to tell you that everything you are planning on doing in the future sucks, and also that ideas that you haven’t even formulated in your brain suck.” Editor-in-Chief: Good question! We love (insert character here), and trust me when I tell you that we’re planning great things with (insert character here) but I can’t quite tell you about them yet, mostly because everything we’ve ever done with that character has failed miserably, and because anytime we try anything new, you shit all over us, and so now we’re terrified of change, even though we need it in order to survive in the long-term.  We hope to have announcements at (insert upcoming comic convention held in more important city) regarding (insert character here), although you and I both know that any new thing that we do with that character will be ignored by the next poor creative team that we somehow convince to take over the thankless task of babysitting our increasingly fickle fan base.  Good question!” 

 

 

Apparently, this guy was Indiana Jones.

And so it goes. As I said, Jay and I spent the day on the floor, except for a brief spell where Jay decided to stalk the guy  who played Indiana Jones. No, not that guy. The other one. No, not that one. The guy you’ve never heard of. Right.

I brought in a few books to get signed by creators that I knew were going to be there, but line-ups deterred me from following through on this for the most part. They weren’t that long, I just didn’t feel like standing in them. However, I did get books signed by Matt Kindt, Ethan Nicolle, and Ben Templesmith, so it still worked out all right. Jay is better than this than I am, mostly because a) he has freaky luck in picking the exact moment where no one else is bothering the person, and b) he’s actually a friendly, engaging person that people aren’t terrified of when he says hi. So he’s very much unlike me, and 98% of the rest of the people who go to these things. And so he got signatures by Greg Rucka and Geof Darrow.

In terms of original art, I got a nice little sketch of Hellboy by the writer/artist of Icarus, Ryan Cody. The big prize for me was buying an original piece of art from 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man, by one of my current favourite creators, Matt Kindt. Jay won out on this as well, as he commissioned Matt to do a truly amazing piece for him. Jay picked Indiana Jones as the subject, and so Matt complied and the results were incredible.

I also picked up a few books, but it was a relatively small haul: The awesome little BPRD – Hell On Earth: Seattle comic that Dark Horse produced just for this con; the first issue of Officer Downe by Joe Casey; Casey’s Godland TP’s Vol. 4 & 5; a really interesting little sci-fi graphic novel

Godland, baby!

called Jan’s Atomic Heart by Canadian Simon Roy;  Two The Incredibles trades by Mark Waid; The Solomon Kane: Death’s Black Riders TP (I also got writer Scott Allie to sign this); the TP of a mini called Olympus, also signed by writer Nathan Edmondson; the first issue of Icarus, signed by creator Ryan Cody; and a copy of Mephisto And The Empty Box, which is the only graphic novel by Matt Kindt that I didn’t own. Awesome for me!

Probably the most valuable thing I got in Seattle was information. I’m currently writing my own comic books with my writing partner Jay, and so we went to Seattle with the goal of trying to talk to as many writers and creators we could, just about their experiences and recommendations. We had some awesome talks, and here are some highlights:

Oni Press Booth – In terms of the bigger companies, these guys were the most helpful, and the most engaging. The guy running the booth really went out of his way to talk to us, and gave us the low down on some my favourite Oni titles, like the Sixth Gun, Wasteland, Stumptown, and Guerillas. According to him, putting out books on time is his top focus this year, and so their new policy is not to solicit books that aren’t completely done.  Also had a short talk with Brian Hurtt, artist of the Sixth Gun, and he told us that the book is on track, and that they’re continuing to work on it for the forseeable future.

Top Shelf – I’m a fan of Top Shelf in general, and although they’re small, I think that they put out a nice cross-section of stuff. I asked about when the next installment of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was coming out, and was told this summer for sure. Uh huh. Had a nice conversation with J.D. Arnold, the writer of BB Wolf And The 3 LP’s, about the blues, and the incredible art work of Rich Koslowski. The only negative thing about this booth was that when both Jay and I complained that both copies of a book that we own are falling apart, we were given explicit instructions as how to fix it ourself. No offer to exchange the book, or refund our money, but rather a how-to guide on book binding. Good if you’re a 19th century homesteader, I guess, but not what we were looking for.

Dark Horse, and DC –  Meh. Not much going on here, and I’m not really sure why they bothered putting up booths.

The Image booth – This was probably the most fun we had at the con. Had some really great conversations with people like John Layman (the writer of Chew), Nathan Edmonson (the writer of The Light, and Who Is Jake Ellis?, and Jay Faerber (writer of Noble Causes, and what looks to be a really interesting new crime book called Near Death), and Jim Zubkavitch (writer of Skullkickers). I think that working these kinds of things can be hell for up and coming creators, and so the impression we got is that they enjoyed talking to people who actually knew and appreciated their work. Got some great tips on networking and writing, and some cool peeks into what they were working on in the future.

We also spent some time talking with Cameron Stewart, the creator of Sin Titulo. He confirmed what had been reported by Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool.com, that he will probably be putting out Sin Titulo in hardcover form sometime in 2012. Very friendly and engaging guy. He also seemed to appreciate talking to people who have read something that was so obviously near and dear to his creative heart.

Probably the most rewarding time we spent there was in talking to the writer/artist Matt Kindt. Both Jay and I are big fans of his, and seeing him be so kind and generous with his time was awesome. He told us a bit about some of the projects that he’s working on, including an upcoming spy comic for Dark Horse, and a sequel of sorts to Super Spy.

So all in all, a rewarding trip. Although I did like the comic book focus, I was still surprised at how few small comic publishers were there. I know it’s Seattle, and the little guys probably have to be pretty choosy which cons they go to, but still. That being said, it was still great to see so many people enjoying the medium I love.