When I began compiling my list of the year’s best graphic novels, I found myself including dozens of books with little rhyme or reason. To help me narrow my list down a little bit, this is the rule I created: the first English-language collected edition or original graphic novel had to be released in 2011. And while this excluded some of my favorite books from the year (Waid’s Daredevil, Rozum’s Xombi, and Lemire’s Animal Man, to name three), it was a good guideline when I was constructing the list.
Obviously, we missed some things – sometimes great things. We don’t read every graphic novel that comes out (as much fun as that would be!). I even know for sure some major releases that I missed, like The Death Ray. So feel free to tell me just how wrong I am! What were your favorite releases this year? Because these were some of ours…
10: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, by Shigeru Mizuki
Originally published almost 40 years ago, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths only very recently got its first official publication in English. History buffs, particularly those interested in World War II, will find a lot to love in this semi-autobiographical story of a Japanese soldier fighting in the war. Shigeru himself was a soldier, and this book is based on his experiences fighting under Japanese commanders in a losing battle against American forces. From the non-stop hunger and disease to the sometimes-abusive, sometimes-incompetent commanding officers, Shigeru’s manga Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is dark, weird and realistic, but most of all, it’s unique. From the blend of cartoony character design and ultra-realistic scenery to the point of view that most Americans will never get about World War II, it’s a must-read book. Though flawed and occasionally unfocused, it’s fascinating and, frankly, a blast to read.
9: Ultimate Spider-Man: Death of Spider-Man, by Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley
It was an event over 10 years in the making. After redefining virtually every rogue in Spider-Man’s classic gallery of villains and doing his take on many of the webslinger’s major stories, Bendis refused to keep looking backwards for inspiration. Every superhero dies eventually; it’s an inevitability, and one that’s rarely done to decent effect any more. But Ultimate Spider-Man had the advantage of continuity – written continuously for a decade by Brian Michael Bendis (and illustrated almost entirely by Mark Bagley), this felt like a natural next step, rather than a gimmick. An epic battle that engaged Parker’s wits and physical skills, Bendis managed to bring a number of plot threads and themes that had been running through the series for years together into a pretty great conclusion. The quick relaunch may have drawn more attention, but this was a fitting cap to a decade of many of the best Spider-Man stories of all time.
8: Batman: The Black Mirror, by Scott Snyder, Jock
Scott Snyder broke onto the scene in a big way with American Vampire, but I think that it’s his work on Detective Comics (and now Batman) that truly shows him as a talent to keep an eye on. In the long run, I suspect Dick Grayson’s relatively short stint as Batman won’t be remembered by too many people, especially since the timeline of DC’s New 52 is so baffling when it comes to the Batfamily. But despite that, Grayson’s stint included many of the best Batman stories of the last ten years, most notably in Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin and now, in Scott Snyder’s Batman: The Dark Mirror. Much like James Robinson did in his now-legendary Starman, Snyder had a fairly concrete storytelling goal that helped set his run apart: he treated Gotham City as a character, perhaps the main character, of his story. As Batman fought crime, Snyder dealt with the corruption and darkness inherent in comics’ most infamous locale. From his pitch-perfect characterization to his dark, memorable crime stories, Snyder nails everything that’s great about Batman, and in the process, creates one of the character’s truly fantastic stories.
7: Hark! A Vagrant, by Kate Beaton
Perhaps the most light-hearted work on my list, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant has been building on online fanbase for years, but her strips popularity has gone to the next level with the release of its first paperback collection. Having a knowledge of history (or at least an interest) helps, as Beaton’s jokes are often far cleverer for those familiar with the characters and times she’s riffing on, but anyone with a sense of humor will find an awful lot to love here. Beaton’s cartoony art could be seen as simplistic, but it’s a fantastic fit for her witty jokes, often giving her characters ridiculous, exaggerated appearances that only highlight the features she’s lampooning. Anyone in the mood to laugh should grab this book as soon as possible.
6: Habibi, Craig Thompson
Craig Thompson’s 2003 autobiographical masterpiece Blankets was not unambitious – at over 500 pages, Thompson weaves themes of religion, child abuse, first love and teenage angst into a larger story, a lovely tale about Thompson’s younger life – but his newest work, Habibi, surpasses Blankets in ambition early on and never looks back. Habibi is perhaps even more densely packed with themes, stories and ideas, and Thompson’s art has grown even more extravagant (and gorgeous), and while the jam-packed nature of the story comes at the expense of the overall narrative – unlike Blankets, Habibi never coheres into a satisfying whole – the book is undeniably memorable. Following Dodola and Zam, two escaped slaves in the Middle East, the book weaves together stories of their relationship, recapture, loves, losses, mythology, and religion into a massive, fascinating, muddled mess of a book. But give Thompson credit: there was no more ambitious book put out this year.
5: Joe the Barbarian, by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
Grant Morrison has become known in some circles for his labyrinthine plots, breakneck pacing and tendency to put story ahead of character and dialogue. For some people, gone is the clever revolutionary of Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and Arkham Asylum (I disagree, personally: Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye and We3 were two of the best graphic novels of the last twenty years), replaced by a less passionate intellectual quickly disappearing deeper and deeper into his own increasingly arcane interests. Joe the Barbarian, however, is a strong refutation of that claim. Is Joe hallucinating from low blood sugar? Or has he ben transported to a fantasy world? Whichever it is, one thing’s for sure: Joe is sick, very sick, and whether his epic quest takes him to the heart of King Death’s labyrinth in Hypogea or to his cellar to get a soda and turn on the lights, it remains a heart-rending matter of life and death. The fantasy world is gorgeously rendered and cleverly constructed around the very real pains and fears in Joe’s life, giving us a vivid glimpse into our hero’s inner life. Sean Murphy did truly great work on the book, as did colorist Dave Stewart, and between them all, Joe the Barbarian is touching, memorable work of dramatic fantasy.
4: Daytripper, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon
Many of the books on this list are dark, cynical stories about tortured heroes (or anti-heroes) living hard lives and making hard choices. Daytripper, on the other hand, is about one man’s realization that life is beautiful – transcendent, even. Knowing that Bras, our protagonist, is going to die at the end of each issue really puts his life into focus, and shows us how easily the important things escape us, and how fantastic life can be when you stop and admire the beauty. Daytripper is light on plot. There’s no real ongoing narrative, and with each issue being a stand-alone story, you can pick it up wherever you want and just fall into Bras’ well-realized, lived-in life. Daytripper may be low-key, however, but it’s still an unforgettable book of unrelenting optimism.
3: Secret Six: Cats in the Cradle, by Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore
The all-time best arc of Gail Simone’s all-time best book, “Cats in the Cradle” is a brutal, dark trip with Simone’s break-out star, Catman. It hits all the book’s sweet spots – Deadshot’s reluctant friendship with Catman, bleak, black humor, visceral violence, and small, memorable character beats – easily and confidently. Artist Jim Calafiore, initially suffering in comparison to Nicola Scott, had grown into the book by this point, and the entire art team was working well together. Secret Six never got the audience it deserved, and its replacements in the New 52 haven’t yet given any indication of approaching the level of heart, humor and quality displayed here. Anyone who has ever questioned why so many comic fans respect Ms. Simone’s work so much, why so many people have so much hope for her every project, could probably begin and end their research with Secret Six - and “Cats in the Cradle” is the best of a brilliant bunch.
2: Paying For It, Chester Brown
Brutally honest, emotionally distant, and at times darkly hilarious, Chester Brown’s autiobiographical Paying For It is an undeniable success. The book is an utterly non-sensual look at the life of a man who, deciding to forego the hassle of romantic love, starts frequenting a variety – a huge variety – of escorts. Brown’s simplistic art and paneling and totally deadpan storytelling take a couple chapters to adjust to, but end up paying off hugely as Brown’s life gets weirder and weirder. Though it periodically devolves into a slightly irritating didacticism, particularly in Brown’s arguments with friends about the morality of prostitution, it is an endlessly readable book with some fascinating ideas and pitch-perfect execution.
1: Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
My pick for best graphic novel of the year: the most recent entry in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal. A brilliantly constructed tale about a normal man in a loveless relationship who decides to do something genuinely horrible to get out of it would probably be enough to earn Brubaker and Philips’ fantastic neo-noir a place on the list. Add the elaborate artwork tricks from Sean Philips (who would probably top my list as the year’s strongest artist) that give the work deeper thematic resonance in its examinations of regret and nostalgia, and you have a book that is absolutely essential to fans of both crime stories and comics in general. Criminal has always been a work of surprising depth and complexity, and “The Last of the Innocent” saw Brubaker and Phillips take their already-considerable talents to a new level.
– Cal C.