It was an amazing year for comics. I started with a list of 45 comics and graphic novels worthy of being considered for this list. Whittling it down to 12 favorites and 9 honorable mentions was a difficult task. Please feel free to weigh in on your opinions and choices!
1) Habibi by Craig Thompson
I’m in awe of this book. The sheer scope of vision, attention to detail, and craftsmanship place this work of art in a class all its own. The fact that Habibi is far better than Craig Thompson’s previous graphic novel Blankets (a high water mark in comics in its own right) should give you an idea of how masterful it is. I can lend a sympathetic ear to the (seeming) masses of people who felt uneasy over Thompson’s alleged reification of Arabic stereotypes and Orientalist tropes. However, Habibi exists outside of conventional time and space; and thus one must resist the temptation to assign political and sociocultural values to its fantastical narrative. Set the rhetoric aside (just for now) and allow yourself to be swept up in the magical beauty of Habibi.
2) Lucille by Ludovic Debeurme
Told in a spare yet elegant style reminiscent of Chester Brown’s early work, this intimate story follows two teenagers as they struggle to grow up and away from legacies of mental illness, abuse, and despair. I have read Lucille three times, and each reading is more haunting than the last. Harm to self and others is a persistent theme throughout the narrative. We’ll have to wait for Part 2 to witness any glimmers of hope.
3) Big Questions by Anders Nilsen
It took me multiple readings to agree with the praise heaped upon this book. However, once I realized that Nilsen’s use of clichéd, trite expressions (e.g., “live each day like it’s your last”) is intended as commentary on armchair philosophy rather than as authentic wisdom, I was won over by the unique nature of the book and the puzzling connection between its contents and its title. I was particularly taken with the labored pacing of simple events (e.g., a leaf falling on pg. 36) and the sense of dread that envelopes the narrative without smothering its hopeful resolve.
4) Mr. Wonderful by Daniel Clowes
Daniel Clowes is a master, and this pitch-perfect graphic novella is among my favorites of his work. The embarrassingly raw human emotions displayed by the central characters make this a painful book to read. Clowes’ command of dialogue is without peer in comics, and Mr. Wonderful employs a unique emphasis on characters’ inner dialogue that makes it virtually impossible to focus on what they are actually saying. Clowes allows us to enter the inner psyches of his fragile, fallen characters; and, in so doing, he crafts a statement on the human condition that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt like the shittiest person alive.
5) Paying for it by Chester Brown
I absolutely love Chester Brown. I find his comics to be the most engaging, readable, and honest works in the genre. Paying for It doesn’t disappoint, although it’s hardly in the same league as Ed the Happy Clown or I Never Liked You. By the end of the book, I grew a bit weary of Brown’s monotonous, sterile descriptions of prostitute encounter after prostitute encounter. But then came the rich appendices in which Brown fills in the skeleton of the book–outlining his political beliefs about prostitution, allowing friends to criticize his views, and providing rich explanatory footnotes. I wish these appendices had been illustrated and inserted into the book to alter the pacing and tone of the narrative. With that criticism aside, one of qualities that I love most about Chester Brown (and something that makes Paying for it a success) is his normalization of attitudes and behaviors that society views as abnormal or bizarre. In The Playboy he normalized pornography; in “My mom was a schizophrenic” he normalized mental illness; and in Paying for it he normalizes “deviant” sexual behaviors. You may not agree with his views, but you have to admit that few cartoonists inspire the same level of debate and discourse as Chester Brown.
6) The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists by Seth
Given his extremely high rate of productivity and fondness for antiquated remnants of a glorified yesteryear, it’s a bit too easy to write off some of Seth’s work as mere confection. The simplicity of The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists belies a haunting narrative rich with pathos and commentary on the human experience, particularly experiences of solitude and resignation. As always, Seth’s artwork is warm and engaging– transporting the reader to an alternate reality that feels both vaguely familiar and starkly alien.
7) RASL by Jeff Smith
RASL is an enigma; and so, too, is Jeff Smith, whose most notable work, Bone, feels featherweight next to this more adult tale. RASL covers a lot of ground in its stark black and white pages. The reader is educated about time travel and Tesla while enjoying a sci-fi narrative with compelling characters, adult content, and references to popular culture. The action is heavy, the pace is swift. The series wraps up in just a few more issues, and I’ll certainly be along for the remainder of the ride.
8 ) DC Comics The New 52
I was really impressed with D.C.’s major 2011 reboot. Out of 52 new books, there are numerous gems. Some of my favorites include Animal Man, Catwoman, Voodoo, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, and Demon Knights. While “superhero comics” are often maligned for being kiddy fare with little to no social relevance, the DC New 52 are markedly more adult in content. They also do a universally effective job of portraying female protagonists who know that being sexy and being strong are not mutually exclusive.
9) All Nighter by David Hahn
All Nighter is a 5-part miniseries that follows its heroine Kit as she struggles to find direction during her transition from childhood to adulthood. Kit’s observations of herself and her surroundings feel very realistic; and the exquisite artwork perfectly captures the alternapunk lifestyle of the central characters. One can only hope that Hahn has more work similar to All Nighter up his sleeve.
10) King of the Flies 2. Origin of the World by Mezzo and Pirus
The second installment of this three-part series is once again told through a series of loosely related short stories that coalesce around themes of violence, anger, isolation, and betrayal. The Origin of the World feels like a major step forward from the first volume, primarily due to the metaphysical musings of deceased Damien as he revisits his worldly surroundings to make sense out of life and death. The storytelling is masterful, and the artwork is trippy and vibrant. When do we get Volume 3?
11) Swamp Thing Book 5 by Alan Moore
For my money, Alan Moore is the greatest writer in the history of comics. While some may see Swamp Thing as a humble beginning for a creator who would go on to pen such masterworks as From Hell and Watchmen, it is interesting to witness the roots of Moore’s central motifs (e.g., metaphysics, magic, and political subversion) at this early phase in his career. “My Blue Heaven” alone is worth the price of the book. It is a soul-searching tale that seethes with life and flows like jazz. All other reincarnations of Swamp Thing pale in comparison to Moore’s definitive take on the fragile, misunderstood character.
12) Oil and Water by Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler
This restrained journalistic graphic novel about the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil spill works because of its objectivity and devotion to telling all sides of the story from the perspectives of diverse stakeholders. Oil and Water is far less polemic than most books of this ilk would dare be; and therein lies its greatness.
Morning Glories by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma
The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
Infinite Vacation by Nick Spencer and Christian Ward
Green Wake by J. Wiebe and Riley Rossmo
Criminal- The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
Nonplayer by Nate Simpson
The New York Five by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
Spaceman by Brian Azzerello and Eduardo Risso
One Soul by Ray Fawkes