Best Comic Books of 2012: Best Original Graphic Novels

To qualify for this category a book would have to be printed for the first time, and should stand alone. It could be a 25 page single issue, or a 5oo page graphic novel. Individual issues of series are ok, though I usually deal with those in other categories (with a few exceptions).

20. Batman: Earth One by Geoff Johns & Gary Frank (DC)

BME1_HC_CaseBatman: Earth One was the best superhero story that DC published in 2012, though saying that is a little like picking your favourite type of cancer. Earth One is the latest re-imagining of the Batman origin, something that’s hard to get excited about considering those seem like a weekly event these days. But Johns & Frank breathe some new life into the stagnant murky waters of mainstream superheroics here, and add enough new baubles to get even the most jaded of reader interested in Batman again. Johns & Frank are easily the strongest writer/artist pairing working at DC right now.

19. Love & Rockets: The New Stories Vol. 5 by The Hernandez Brothers (Fantagraphics)

lovne5The sheer volume of work turned out by the Hernandez Brothers is staggering, not to mention the fact that the quality of their work remains strong. There’s really nothing “new” here, with this latest collection containing the same slice of life stories that all of the Hernandez clan have become famous for. But that familiarity is what makes L&R work so well. These are characters and situations that we have been following on and off for decades, but the Hernandez brothers always manage to keep them fresh.

18. Empowered Vol. 7 by Adam Warren (Dark Horse)

Empowered-Vol_-7-1Empowered is both feminist and exploitationist, both superhero comic and superhero parody, and both thought-provoking and a hell of a lot of fun, all at the same time. It’s the story of Empowered, a superheroine whose power source is a skin-tight uniform that seems prone to tearing. The more torn the suit is, the weaker she becomes. And so we get page after page of Emp in various shades of undress, which seems par for the course in superhero comics these days.

But Empowered is a lot more than that. It’s a meditation on the silliness of superhero comics, as crafted by someone who obviously still loves them. Warren’s manga-infused art style has a sexuality about it that’s impossible to ignore, even on the pages where there is no sex. Entertaining as hell, by a hell of an artist.

17. Goliath by Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly)

44_goliathcoverThis re-imagining of one of literature’s greatest villains as a grunt soldier that just wants to be left alone might be one of the most inspired ideas of the year. Gauld’s minimalist style is perfect for this send up of bureaucracy and waste, and his portrayal of Goliath as a tragic forgotten hero is one of my favourite characters of 2012. I’d ask for a sequel, but as we know, things (spoiler alert) don’t turn out too well for the star of this show.

16. The Lovely Horrible Stuff by Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf)

COVER_LovelyHorribleBest known among mainstream audiences for his work on Alan Moore’s From Hell, Eddie Campbell is actually a legend in the work of autobiographical comics. In Stuff, Campbell has produced a comic essay of sorts, pontificating at length about money, and our constant need for more of it.  I found the autobiographical parts of the book engrossing, specifically Campbell’s detailed descriptions of the financial wranglings he has to endure just to get paid for his work on DC’s Batman character. His history of the economy of Micronesia wasn’t quite as thrilling, but all in all Campbell’s treatise on the filthy lucre shows him to be as wryly perceptive as ever.

15. Not My Bag by Sina Grace (Image)

IMG120420Not My Bag introduces Sina Grace as a powerful voice in the biographical comics scene. Recounting his adventures in the world of high-end women’s fashion retail, Not My Bag possesses both the honesty, and the storytelling faculty necessary to succeed in this genre. As someone who can’t tell his Michael Kors from his Eileen Fisher (Everything I know about fashion I learned from ads in the New Yorker), I found Not My Bag to be an interesting portrayal of a young man struggling to discover his true calling in life.

14. The Coldest City by Antony Johnson & Sam Hart (Oni Press)

thecoldestcity_coverThis is an exceptional tale of the dying days of the Cold War that really deserved more attention than it received. The year is 1989, and a British secret agent is found dead in Berlin. The problem is that he was carrying a list that contained the name of every spy working there at the time…and the list is nowhere to be found. This is the kind of story that Antony Johnson tells so well, one that makes use of character development as much as it does of plot points. I hope this isn’t the last we see from Sam Hart either, as his moody pencils evoked a hopeful gloominess perfect for the setting of this book.

13. Guerillas Vol. 2 by Brahm Revel (Oni Press)

4fd0ca2ccaadb_tnRemember when the US government sent highly intelligent super gorillas into Vietnam to help them win their war there? No? Brahm Revel does, and he does a fantastic job of making us believe that this far-fetched scenario actually happened. What I love about this is that it’s a war comic first, straight from the influences of Joe Kubert & Harvey Kurtzman. The fact that there are also monkeys is an added bonus. Revel has shown that he has both the penciling and writing skills to be working on pretty much any comic he could think of, so the fact that he’s sticking with this bizarre tale of the Vietnam war is commendable.

12. Crogan’s Loyalty by Chris Schweizer (Oni Press)

4f4e7e079e044_tnSchweizer’s Crogan books are a must for lovers of all-ages adventure comics, and this volume promises an emotional complexity that we haven’t seen in the series until now. Our story is about two brothers on opposing sides of the American Revolutionary War. They’re both trying to do the right thing, but one mistake might tear their family, and a country, apart. Schweizer really is at the top of his game here, showing just how important the storytelling part of sequential storytelling is. Although there is a simplicity in his work that is probably appealing for younger readers, the sheer intensity of his action sequences ensure that adults will be enthralled as well.

11. Pope Hats #3 by Ethan Rilly (Adhouse Books)

AD.PopeHats3.CVR72Probably my only critique of Rilly’s Pope Hats is that  new volumes only seem to come out about once a year. In the third issue of Pope Hats, Rilly continues to explore the sometimes competing themes of office politics & youthful ambition. Serious topics to be sure, but Rilly’s breezy style of cartooning (seemingly influenced by both Bill Keane & Adrian Tomine equally) is a perfect complement  for this entertaining look into the life of Canadian 20-somethings. Bonus points for the Spalding Grey feature!

10. Parker: The Score by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

score-coverA rare misstep in Cooke’s Parker adaptations, but one that has more to do with its source material than with Cooke himself. Part of the appeal of Donald Westlake’s Parker stories is the chaos the human element brings to the story. No matter how careful Parker is, no matter how dispassionate he is about his work, his colleagues and their foibles always threaten to bring him down.

But in The Score that never happens. A group of people lay out a plan for a heist. They execute that heist. The end. There is very little dramatic tension, as we never feel like our hero is in any danger. Again, this isn’t Cooke’s fault, as his thick line work and storytelling chops seem to be improving with age. An amazing adaptation of a less-than-amazing story.

9. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009 by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neal (Top Shelf)

CENTURY-2009Despite his reputation as an inspiration to crotchety old coots everywhere, I suspect that Alan Moore will find his way into lists like this as long as he dabbles in comics. LOEG is Moore’s passion project, a perfect canvas for his blend of literary allusion, humanistic pathos, and emotional melodrama. In Century, Moore focusses a little less on obscure literary reference, and a little more on actually wrapping up some of the many plot points he has been building towards in the 5 years since Black Dossier was published.

An unkind reviewer might point out that the reason Moore  didn’t make too many contemporary literary references in this volume is because he probably doesn’t know many.  There’s some allusion to things like Harry Potter and Lost, but one is never entirely sure if Moore has actually read or watched any of things he’s referring to, as there is a perfunctoriness here that is unique to this volume.  Still, Kevin O’Neal manages to make sense of it all, proving once again why he’s considered one of the great living British comic artists. Probably the most entertaining LOEG read since Volume 2.

8. The Hive by Charles Burns (Pantheon)

thumbnail.phpCharles Burns is one of the most influential artists in comics today, with his unique, expressive art style being almost a genre in its own right. The Hive is the second in a series of euro-style graphic novels that started with X’ed Out, and that will finish with Sugar Skull.

Burns is utterly fearless here, with a bizarre, but poignant, story that combines elements of meta textualism, horror, and even Tintin comics. There’s also an element of improvisation in this book here that seems to be missing from comics right now, even in the indie world. Burns didn’t sit down and write a script to follow from; he wrote & drew each page as they came, building from each preceding panel the way a jazz musician would. As a result, we get a loose, almost hallucinatory story that would have ended up dull & lifeless in the hands of most others.

7. Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf)

underwaterwelder72dpi_lgIt’s probably a minor miracle that Jeff Lemire was able to put out a 224 page graphic novel in the same year that he wrote and drew a bi-monthly comic book, and also happened to be one of DCs top writers. Part Twilight Zone episode, part deep dive into the pressures of everyday life, Underwater Welder combines supernatural intrigue & character study like only Lemire can.

Lemire has been gaining fans as of late for his superhero work, but one hopes that he will always find time to put out beautiful works of art like this.

6. Economix: How Our Economy Works & Doesn’t Work by Michael Goodwin & Dan E. Burr (Abrams Comic Arts)

EconomixCoverFans of the educational comics of Scott McLeod & Larry Gonick will find much to enjoy here from a visual standpoint. But this book is so much more than a knock-off of what others have done.  It’s quite simply, the most entertaining book about economics I’ve ever read, graphic or otherwise.

Goodwin’s approach is to treat this as a history of economics, specifically as it pertains to the United States. And so we get a de facto history of America, as seen through the prism of one of the most important aspects of any society. This is a must read for anyone interested in the current state of  American politics as it applies to the world economy, but also for anyone interested in learning how comics can be used as an educational tool.

5. Grandville: Bête Noire by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse)

Grandville_Bete_NoireBryan Talbot’s Grandville graphic novels are set in an alternate history in which England was supplanted by France in the 19th century as the western world’s dominant power. And there are robots. And dirigibles. And almost everyone is a talking animal.

And if that’s not enough to get you to read this book, you’re reading the wrong blog. Despite the anthropomorphic trappings, what Grandville is really about is high adventure. Fans of everything from Indiana Jones, to Sherlock Holmes, to Jules Verne’s Nemo books will find something to love here. And if I was picking just on art alone, this might have been my top choice.

4. Silence Of Our Friends By Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, & Nate Powell (First Second)

SilenceofOurFriendsSilence is the story of Long’s childhood experiences in Houston, TX. His father was a journalist, covering racial issues in the city. He befriends a local black professor, and their two families make cautious headway towards friendship.

This is a sometimes uncomfortable snap-shot of 1960’s American race relations, and one that Nate Powell’s vibrant, angular pencils are perfectly suitable for. One of the most emotionally impactful graphic novels I read this year.

3. Jerusalem by Guy Deslisle (Drawn & Quarterly)

Cover_of_Jerusalem,_by_Guy_DelisleWith Jerusalem, Guy Deslise is back with the latest in his series of engrossing travelogues. His last book (Burma Chronicles) showed that Delisle is at best when he has a story to tell. Not much happened to him in Burma, and so there wasn’t much to tell.

The same can’t be said for his time in Israel, and so Jerusalem is his longest book to date, full of stories from his family’s year there.

Although its easy to get passionate about many of Israel’s current policies, Delisle’s objective eye helps moderate this peek into the current situation there. This isn’t a book about Israel, this is a book about Delisle’s experiences in Israel, all told with Deslile’s confidence as a master cartoonist who never lets his serious subject matter take itself too seriously.

2. Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland by Harvey Pekar & Joseph Remnant (Zip/Top Shelf)/ Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar & JT Waldman (Hill & Wang)

Israel_cover-cropThe last 2 graphic novels that Harvey Pekar wrote before his death in 2010 were published this year, and both helped cement  the fact (as if there was much doubt at this point) that Pekar was one of the best storytellers the medium has ever seen.

Although Israel got more attention, it’s the book about Pekar’s beloved Cleveland that feels like the more personal work. It’s a historical review of the city, both the good and the bad. And because it’s Pekar, there’s also a healthy dollop of his own personal connection to the city, and how both he and the city have evolved over the years.

cleveland_lgIsrael is the flashier book however, and timeliness is a big part of that. How you feel about Pekar’s take on the history of Israel probably has a lot with how you feel about Israel itself, specifically in regards to its treatment of the Palestinians living inside its borders.

Any casual reader of Pekar probably knows where his sympathies lie. But this isn’t a propaganda piece, or at least not strictly so. It’s really a story of Pekar’s understanding of that country, and how he got to the viewpoints he espouses. Combined, these two graphic novels are a worthy coda to the story of one of the most interesting characters in comic history.

1. Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon)

building-stories-collectionThis wasn’t even close. No offense to the other great books on this list, but Building Stories is such a unique work, and one that’s so staggering in its scope, that it really was the only serious contender for graphic novel of the year.

It’s 14 separate graphic stories, with Ware using comics, graphic novels, posters, and pamphlets as his canvas. There are thematic consistencies between the different stories, as well some storytelling ones. But each stands on its own, as a readable work in its own right.

Ware has raised the bar yet again, not surprising in a career essentially built on bar raising. What he’s done for the medium of the comics can’t be overstated, and Building Stories has to be considered a career high.

Honourable Mention: 

Blue by Pat Grant (Top Shelf), Batman: Death By Design by Chipp Kidd & Dave Taylor (DC), Dotter Of Her Fathers Eyes by Mary Talbot & Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse),  Sunset by Christos Gage & Jorge Lucas (Minotaur/Image), Best Of Enemies: A History Of US & Middle East Relations, Part One: 1783-1953 by Jean-Pierre Filliu & David B. (Harry N. Abrams), Lover’s Lane by Rick Geary (NBM), Athos In America by Jason (Fantagraphics), Marathon by Boaz Yankin & Joe Infumari (First Second), Are You My Mother by Allison Bechdel (Mariner Books), Lincoln Washington: Free Man #1 by Ben Marra (Traditional Comics)

2 thoughts on “Best Comic Books of 2012: Best Original Graphic Novels

  1. Pingback: The List of Best of 2012 Lists « Graphic Policy

  2. Pingback: More reviews! | Economix Comix

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