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)

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