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 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 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)

Wednesday Comics Woundup – Mark Millar’s Superior, plus Walking Dead, Hellboy, and a barrelful of monkeys.

Superior #1 by Mark Millar & Lenil Yu

Now that’s more like it.

Anybody who knows me (well not  just anybody. The people who know me who are nice enough to let me vent about comics. So basically my wife) has heard me complain ad nauseum about Mark Millar’s writing, so this was a pleasant surprise.

I’ve never thought that Millar is a bad writer. Quite the opposite. I think he’s got so much potential that it makes me crazy when I see him just pandering to the lowest common denominator in his books. He’s spent so much time in the last few years trying to one up himself in the “HOLYCRAPICANTBELIEVEHEJUSTDIDTHAT” department that he forgets that he’s actually a great character writer and has a real knack for emotional drama.

Enter: Superior. It’s the story of Simon Pooni, a popular high school athlete who had the talent and potential to make it to the NBA. Everything looked great for Pooni, until  the day that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Now he’s stuck in a wheelchair, most of his friends have deserted him, and his sole pleasure in life are the cinematic adventures of his favourite comic book hero, Superior. Pooni seems to be resigned to a short life full of crushing despair, until the talking monkey shows up.

God, I love comic books.

The monkey tells Simon that out of all of the 6 billion people on the planet, only Simon has been chosen to get a magic wish. The monkey gives Simon a week to “Show me what you can do”, and leaves. Simon is transformed into Superior, the hero of his dreams.

Original? Nope. But that’s not what Millar is about. What he’s about is taking good ideas and making them better. He’s about taking great ideas and distilling them to their simplest, most effective forms. And that’s what he’s done here with the Shazam Mythology. Kick-Ass showed us what being a superhero would be like from the bottom up, but Superior is what it would be like from the top down.  In short, there’s a sense of wonder prevalent here that is missing from Millar’s recent work.

That being said, all that glitters is not gold. It wouldn’t be a Mark Millar comic without some implied homophobia, and although he had a great opportunity here to make a fantastic “all ages” comic, he of course had to throw in a few f bombs where he could. I have no problem with swearing in comics, and I don’t believe in censorship in ANY form, but Millar may be losing some audience here for no real artistic reason.

I’ve said a lot without mentioning Lenil Yu’s incredible art here. His work has really grown on me over the years, and it’s nice to see him finally strike out on his own and do something outside of the regular Marvel U.

Now, this is just a first issue, from a guy that writes better first issues than anyone else on the planet, only to have it all go to shit once it’s time for the story to actually pay off. So it still may all go to hell in a handbasket. But for now, I’m hooked.

Rating: A

Walking Dead Hardcover Volume 6 by Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard

How can this be this good after this long? Talented bastard.

Rating: A

DC Comics Presents Jack Cross by Warren Ellis and Gary Erskine.

I own the original mini, but DC just reprinted all 4 issues in a cheap trade edition so I picked this up again. If David Suzuki and Jack Bauer ever had a baby (I’m sorry, I meant WHEN David Suzkuki and Jack Bauer have a baby) that baby would be Jack Cross. Not Ellis’ best, but still fun. I could see this being a great TV series.

Rating: B

Seven Psychopaths by Fabien Vehlman and Sean Phillips.

7 absolutely batshit crazy people team up to kill Adolph Hitler in 1944, only to find out that he’s been dead for 3 years. It’s like Valkrie, but without a gay dwarf in the lead.  Translation from French isn’t great, and the story starts to unravel from almost the minute the mission starts, but it’s still a fun ride.Sean Phillips is on pencils, but I don’t think they take advantage of his talent here.

Rating: C+

I am Legion by Fabien Nury & John Cassady

Basically the Nazis discover a demon that can control others with it’s blood and they attempt to use it in the war. It’s interesting, but the translation here is particularly poor. Fantastic art by John Cassady and a cool concept saves it.

Rating: C+

De: Tales by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

This is a collection of some early work by two talented rising stars. I like Moon and Ba a lot, but there isn’t much to really sink your teeth in here. Art’s pretty, stories are disposable. There’s definitely some translation issues here as well. Someone needs to make a career out of doing this so that we can start getting more South American and European comics here.

Rating: C

Conan Vol. 9 by Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello

I think I might be done here. I like Tim Truman’s writing, but he seems to be just spinning his wheels here.

Rating: C

Hellboy: Masks & Monsters by Mike Mignola, James Robinson, and Scott Benefiel. This is a collection of  2 early Hellboy cross over stories. First one is Hellboy teaming up with Batman and Starman to fight Nazis, and the other is him teaming up with Ghost, to fight another ghost. This one’s ok, though really only for Hellboy completists.

Rating: C+

Guerillas Vol. 1 by Brahm Revel

The first issue is a great Vietnam war story as seen through the eyes of a new US army recruit trying to follow in the footsteps of his father. It’s funny, and terrible, and sad, with lots of action. And then the monkeys show up. Again. Yes, two monkey books in the same blog posting. This time it’s “squad of genetically modified and highly trained soldiers that smoke cigarettes” monkeys. There is definitely a “WE3” feel about this, though the vibe is a little more over the top. Still, I really liked this, and I’m hoping that Revel does more soon.

Rating: B+