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)

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 56: Marvel Comics – Spider-Man Part 2!

Spider-Man: The JMS years

Because his run ended in scandal and controversy, it’s tempting to dismiss all of J. Michael Straczynskis long tenure on Spider-Man as disposable. Far from it. In fact, it’s JMS’ run that got me back reading Spider-Man after years and years away from the book. People forget that before JMS, Spider-Man was a floundering stunt book full of clones, death, and sadness, and featured every dumb gimmick Marvel could think of to bolster sales. JMS went back to basics on the character, but also attempted to add some depth to his origin. Peter Parker as avatar of a long dead Spider-God might not have taken off with the masses the way Marvel hoped, but they’ve had worse ideas over the years, and the concept garnered some great stories. And some terrible ones.

Amazing Spider-Man – Coming Home, Revelations, Until The Stars Turn Cold, The Life & Death of Spiders, Unintended Consequences, Happy Birthday, The Book Of Ezekiel

This run started off with a huge bang. JMS introduces Morlun, a new addition to Spidey’s rogues gallery, and one that was perfect as a starting point for what the writer was trying to accomplish in his run. JMS is known as a fairly talky writer, and to his credit he counteracted that by putting together one of the great Spider-Man battles as his first order of business. And not only is there plenty of action, but there’s also plenty of attention being paid to characterization. No, it’s not the same Peter Parker stumbling through personal problem after personal problem that we know and love. This Parker is starting to get his shit together. And we love him for it. After Morlun, comes the big reveal: Aunt May finds out that Peter is Spider-Man. And so we get several years of poignant character moments between those two icons that we’d never been privy to before, simply because of one simple change to the status quo.Also? Funny. Really funny. JMS’ Spidey isn’t quite as quippy as previous incarnations have been, but the laughs are subtle, and frequent. Oh, and John Romita Jr turns in some of the greatest art he’s ever done. And this is a guy who turns in great art the way you turn in your parking pass at work. It’s a regular occurrence. In short, the first 7 trades of this run are pretty much magic.

Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past, Skin Deep, New Avengers, Spider-Man – One More Day, The Other, Back In Black

And then one day the magic died. I’m not sure whether or not it was John Romita leaving the book, the heavy-handed interference from Marvel EIC Joe Quesada, or something else that caused the not-so-gradual decline of this book, but decline it did. It was obvious by this point that JMS’ heart wasn’t in the comic anymore, and Sins Past was just the first of many terrible creative decisions. Mistake number one: Introducing two new villains as the long-lost love children of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osbourne. Stacy is a much-loved character in the Marvel canon, so much so that her 1973 death is considered the official end of the Silver Age of comics. To retcon her into a needy whore with daddy issues enraged fans and critics alike. And worst of all, it wasn’t a good story. And that was just beginning of two years worth of terrible decisions: Peter joins The Avengers. Peter tells the world his secret identity. Peter makes a deal with Satan to nullify his marriage with the love of his life in order to save the life of a woman near death anyways. Nah, that last one would never happen. Oh, wait. It did? Crap. As I said, it’s obvious from the quality of this dreck that JMS was under the gun here, and that he was essentially under orders for a lot of this. And since he’s written some fine comics since then he can be forgiven. But the end of this run was where a lot of long-time Spidey fans jumped off the book, and judging from recent sales numbers, they never came back.

CULL

Spider-Man – Tangled Web Vol. 1-4

This was a series that ran concurrently with a lot of JMS’ run, and man is it ever missed. Basically the premise of this is that it’s an anthology series, featuring stories both short and long, that fit neatly into the Spider-Man mythos, but don’t always star Spider-Man. And to top it off, if features plenty of indie and top creators that aren’t always known for their take on superheroes.And so you get fantastic, quirky little Spider-Man stories by people like Duncan Fegredo, Garth Ennis, Greg Rucka, Eduardo Risso, Paul Pope, Peter Milligan, Brian Azzarello, Sean Phillips, Darwyn Cooke, Kaare Andrews, and Ted McKeever. Now, this book isn’t for those who need continuity and punch-ups to pervade every page of their comics. But if you love short, stand-alone superhero stories by unconventional creators, you’re not going to get much better than this.

KEEP

Spider-Man: Blue by Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb

This was from a brief moment a decade ago where the pairing of Loeb and Sale could do no wrong. Every publisher wanted them to work their magic on character after character. It’s popular now to trash Jeph Loeb for every thing he’s written in the last 5 years. But his work with Sale still stands up. For the most part. This is a small story about Peter Parker reminiscing about the first love of his life, Gwen Stacy. And so there is plenty of over-the-top schmaltz, but it’s good schmaltz, and quite frankly it’s the stuff than Loeb writes the best. But as pretty much everything that Loeb and Sale did together, it’s Tim Sale that isn’t just the real star, he’s the whole damn thing. I don’t think I could name 5 mainstream artists that are operating at the level that Sale is at, and this is a great example of his finest work. As a Spider-Man story, I can’t say that it’s particularly engaging. But as an example of one of the best writer-artist partnerships of the last 20 years, it’s pretty much essential.

KEEP

Spider-Man – Kraven’s Last Hunt

This is the greatest Spider-Man story ever told. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. And for once, I agree with conventional wisdom. This story, originally done in the late 1980′s, stars Kraven, a Spider-Man villain who never really fulfilled his promise as a bad guy. Although he always had a great look, he was a fairly one-note character. That is, until J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck got ahold of him. This is really his story, and it’s the story of a dying man. Nothing is wrong with him per se, but he’s at the end of his life, and he knows it. And so he wants to do one last thing: Destroy Spider-Man. Not kill, though that’s part of it. Destroy. And for Kraven, destroying your greatest enemy means becoming him. And he does.

This, my fine friends, is one of the great ones. One of the true, epic superhero stories that give you faith in a genre famous for telling truly epic stories. And it stands up so well. Even though it’s 25 years old by now, it would still kick the ass of 99% of the superhero comics out right now in terms of emotional impact, and in terms of pure entertainment.

KEEP

Spider-Man: Fever 

Ok, here’s what you do. Grab a Spider-Man comic. Any one, really. Ok, start reading. Now, smoke a carton of cigarettes. I’ll wait. Done? Ok, now here’s a thermos full of whiskey, beer, and coffee, and I’m going to need you drink that in one shot. Oh, and I’m going to need to inject your eyeballs with heroin and speed.

Now you know what reading Brendan McCarthy’s Fever is like. It’s a trippy mindfuck to end all trippy mindfucks, and it’s more about paying tribute to 1960′s Steve Ditko Doctor Strange comics than it is about telling a solid superhero story. If you love batshit crazy indie comics (and I do), then this book is for you. And only for you.

KEEP

Next up: Spider-Man and his little buddies!

Favourite Comics of 2010: Best Original Graphic Novels

To qualify in this category, a book would have to be published between December 2009 and December 2010, and basically have a spine. It’s that simple. Although Mangas would technically qualify, I put them in the reprint category. I think this is the category where some of the strongest and most original works was done this year.

15) Set To Sea by Drew Weing (Fantagraphics)

A unique adventure story that skirts the line between high concept art book and ribald adventure tale quite well. Weing’s patient pacing, and unerring knack for maximizing panel space make him an interesting talent to watch out for. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

14) Scott Pilgrim’s Final Hour by Bryan O’Malley (Oni Press)

While this was definitely a fitting and satisfying end to the story of the greatest Ontarian slacker since my friend Donovan, this book had a definite sense of inevitability about it, and there weren’t that many real surprises. One gets the impression O’Malley might be a little tired of post-hipster world that he’s created, and is looking to move on to better and bigger things.

13) Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story by Mat Johnson and Simon Gane (Vertigo)

It appears as if “Crime stories set in Katrina-era New Orleans” is the new black, at least in regards to comics. Dark Rain is the story of a small time criminal who realizes that an upcoming storm set to hit the Gulf Coast might be the perfect time to rob the New Orleans bank that he used to work in. It’s an extremely optimistic human interest drama, which is admirable considering that it’s set against one of the most horrible disasters in recent North American history. Although this meanders a little more than I would want in what is essentially a heist story, and the “villains” are extremely 2 dimensional compared to how nuanced all of the other characters are, this is still a great snapshot of the great lengths people can and will go to in times of great stress and trauma. I could see Simon Gane being called up by DC to work on some of their more mainstream books very soon.

12) X’ed Out by Charles Burns (Pantheon)

Ah, the king of the trippy mindfuck is back. If early ’50′s EC horror comics and Herge’s Tintin books had a baby, this book would be the vomit that came from that baby. Burns is one of the true unique geniuses working in comics today.

11) Wilson by Daniel Clowes (Drawn and Quarterly)

Believe it or not, this is Daniel Clowe’s first original graphic novel, and he takes advantage of the form well, though this would have worked just as well as a page a day web comic. While Clowes is mining territory that he’s combed over many times before (bitterly lonely middle-aged shut-in unsuccessful tries to reconnect with the outside world), his stylistic choice of treating each page as a separate chapter, with a beginning, middle, and end makes for an interesting variation on the theme.

10) Area 10 by Christos Gage and Chris Samnee (Vertigo)

Holy smokes. This book surprised the shit out of me. I know that Gage has been getting a lot of credit for his superhero work, but it’s the first work of his that I’ve really spent any time with. The guy is a plotting monster, and this one of those rare mystery novels that I found myself being legitimately surprised by. Gage’s Law & Order background serves him well here, and in fact the numerous red herrings and surprise twists at the end really reminded me of the best episodes of that venerable TV show. Highly recommended for people who love crime fiction, and also for people who like to poke holes in their head in order to gain superpowers.

9) Crogan’s March by Chris Schweizer (Oni Press)

Chris Schweizer’s open-ended “Crogan” series is a relatively new discovery for me, but I’m hooked, and  can’t wait for the next one. The premise is deceptively simple: Each book starts and ends with a framing tale in which a modern-day father imparts life lessons to his sons by telling them a story featuring one of their ancestors. The hook is that all of their ancestors seemed to live raucous lives of adventure and danger; one was a pirate, another a solider, etc. March is the story of Peter Crogan, a member of the Foreign Legion fighting for France in 1912 North Africa.  Although I’m used to great all-ages adventure comics from Oni Press, this book still surprised me with its emotional complexity, especially for a book that is geared towards kids. In short, this is about as a good an all-ages adventure story as you’ll find in the comic book medium this year. I should also mention that Schweizer’s art seems to have improved immensely book-over-book.

8) ACME Novelty Library Volume 20: Lint by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly)

By now it’s becoming a little redundant to praise Chris Ware for his imaginative and innovative cartoon-as-design approach to comic books. It’s become a given that if he puts out a new piece of work that it’ll end up on a lot of lists like this. Although Lint is similar to Rusty Brown, Jimmy Corrigan, and other characters in the Acme Novelty Library family on the surface, I liked how much of a roller coaster journey into his character that Ware takes us on here. Beautiful book to look at (as per usual with Ware) but it’s an engaging character piece as well.

7) Two Generals by Scott Chantler (McClelland & Stewart)

Chantler is probably best known for his ambitious Northwest Passage graphic novel, and it’s great to see him attempt to raise the bar here. Two Generals is the story of Chantler’s grandfather and his best friend, specifically dealing with their experiences fighting for Canada in WW2. This is an ambitious work, and one that deserves much praise for it’s scope, but also for how tight Chantler keeps his focus. This isn’t a story about WW2, it’s about one person’s WW2 experiences. If this book has a flaw, it’s that because Chantler relies so much on autobiographical material (Journals, letters, etc), it feels at times that we are only getting half the story. Major events seem glossed over to an extent, and although I hate to say this about a work that feels so personal, it’s possible that this great graphic novel might have been better served with some minor artistic licence. That being said, this is a great addition to a subgenre of graphic novel that doesn’t get much attention.

6) Duncan The Wonder Dog by Adam Hines (AdHouse)

This is the closest 2010 equivalent to last year’s brilliant Asterios Polyp, in that the way this story is told is as important, and possibly more important than the story itself. Duncan is set in a world where animals can talk, and the novel is an exploration of what our world would look like if our primary source of food could pipe up and debate Chomsky and Dwyer with us. Although not for the casual reader (It’s a whopping 400 pages, and is only the first in a planned 9 book series) I’ll say this without hesitation: This is the most ambitious graphic novel of the year. There is so much to digest here: From the actual questions the book raises about animal cruelty, to the way Hines combines pencils, acrylics, and collage (and other art forms) to create a very leisurely sort of tension, to the fascinating and diverse characters he creates.  If you need your comics to challenge and provoke you, this is a must own.

5) Grandville Mon Amour by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)

Steampunk, 19th Century alternate history geo-politics, and talking animals: How could I NOT love this? It’s the follow-up to Talbot’s ambitious Grandville OGN from a few years back, and this might be that rare sequel that transcends its original source material. Our hero: LeBrock, a talking badger detective. Our setting: Grandville, an alternate version of Paris, where Britain lost the Napoleonic war and was invaded by France. Our story: LeBrock attempts to recapture his old enemy Mad Dog Mastock, and as a result finds out that there is a conspiracy that goes to the highest level of the British government. Talbot has created one of the most interesting self-contained universes in comics today, and if the first two volumes are any indication, is on the verge of creating a true classic.

4) Afrodisiac by Jim Rugg & Jim Maruca (AdHouse)

A love letter not only to Blaxploitation films but also to 1970′s Marvel Comics, Afrodisiac deftly manoeuvres between comedy, kung-fu action, and ’70′s sci-fi mumbo jumbo. It’s the story of Afrodisiac, a janitor by day, superhero by night. It’s also the story of Afrodisiac, the humble janitor that uses his pimp stick Mackjolnir to fight evil aliens. It’s also the story of Afrodisiac, a skinny white kid who gets turned by the US government into a black super soldier. And so on. This is a collection of short stories in which Afrodisiac fights the usual gang of villains: Aliens, Nixon, Death, etc. The temptation to not take this too seriously should be resisted, although from a sheer entertainment standpoint this can’t be beat.

3) Revolver by Matt Kindt (Vertigo)

Revolver is yet another reason why Matt Kindt is quickly becoming one of my favourite contemporary comics creators. It’s the story of a guy who is pretty much at a dead-end in most aspects of his life. He has a girlfriend and a job, and likes neither. Mediocrity is the order of the day until the world starts to fall apart. He starts to hear about a massive avian flu epidemic, the economic system is close to collapse, and by the end of the day several US cities have been destroyed. Things look bad. Until the next day, when his world goes back to the way it was. He then starts to alternate between the two realities, for no apparent reason. As I’ve said before, this is a sci-fi classic, and an incredible work by a young artist/writer at the top of his game. Kindt blends emotional resonance with intricate storytelling here, and is one of the creators I’m most excited about in comics right now.

2) Footnotes In Gaza by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan Books)

This came out in December of last year, but I’m going to let it slide. Like Ware and Clowes, Sacco is a common name in these types of lists, and for good reason. Although others have started to blend comics and journalism, nobody seems to be able to do it with the subtlety and depth that Sacco does. His latest project sees him back in Palestine, trying to get to the heart of a bloody massacre perpetuated by the Israeli military that happened in Rafah in 1959. It’s his most ambitious work, and as such deserves more praise than I am qualified to give. It’s a stunning work of journalism, both fearless and humble at the same time. It may be true that those who can not learn from the mistakes of the past will be doomed to repeat them, but this book makes a strong case that those mistakes should never be forgotten.

1) The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

Yes. This is the follow-up to Cooke’s The Hunter, and not only does it not disappoint, but it may even surpass the original. Both graphic novels are adaptations of the “Parker” crime novels of Donald Westlake, and as such are brilliant examples as to why crime noir and comic books seem to go hand in hand. It’s also my favourite comic book experience of the year. It’s got everything: Great characters, a fast moving plot, and some of the most beautiful art you’ll ever see in a comic book.