The 10 Best Graphic Novels of 2011

read/RANT's Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2011

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…

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Review: Secret Six #30

From DCcomics.com

Gail Simone’s Secret Six gets a lot of positive press on this site, and with good reason – while it shares a lot in common with most superhero titles, the book’s combination of character-based storytelling and dark humor makes it unlike any other comic being put out by the Big 2. In a market where most books distinguish themselves with overblown events and pronouncements that ‘nothing will ever be the same again’, Secret Six is a book you can count on to distinguish itself with top shelf writing and an art team that knows how to translate the ideas perfectly to the page.

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Review: Secret Six #20

If you aren’t reading Secret Six, you are missing out on a treat.  No, scratch that – if you aren’t reading Secret Six, you are missing out on one of the best comic books on the shelves. Very, very few arcs epitomize why more so than the current one, titled “Cats in the Cradle.”  Secret Six #20 still lacks art from Nicola Scott, but new artist J. Calafiore has proved an extremely able replacement, deftly building tension between the over-the-top action scenes and the moments of extraordinarily dark comedy.

Last issue ended on a brilliant cliffhanger – Catman’s son is kidnapped, and the boy will be allowed to live 1 year for every teammate Catman murders in the next 5 minutes – and the resolution of that moment this issue is one of the highlights of Simone’s run.  Catman has always been one of the more measured members of the team, likely to be taken by his temper to do stupid things, but at heart, at least, he was probably the best of the bunch.  This arc isn’t designed to destroy or reinforce that, but to highlight the side of his personality that puts him on the Secret Six, rather than making him yet another hardcore anti-hero… and it works.  Fabulously.  Secret Six #20 is a brutally violent character-driven action book like nothing else out today.  Read it.

Grade: A

– Cal Cleary

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Review: Secret Six #17

Beginning only moments after last week’s Suicide Squad #67 ended, Secret Six #17 is the second part of a three-part “Blackest Night” tie-in that follows a three-way conflict between Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad, the Secret Six and the homicidal Black Lantern Suicide Squad.  The fight began last issue, and it gets complicated in this one – as Waller and Multiplex burn down the house of Secrets, Belle Reve turns into a bloodbath.  The Six and the Squad are too busy fighting each other to notice that the dead rise until it’s too late.  Simone and Ostrander pack the issue with quick, clever character moments in between fast-paced action segments that vary in style from a brutal martial arts battle between Bronze Tiger and Catman and a futile confrontation between Bane and the superpowered team of Count Vertigo and Nightshade.

Kudos go to colorist Jason Wright, who, alongside artist J. Calafiore, have crafted the most memorable and realistic images seen yet in Blackest Night‘s emotion-o-vision.  Seeing Deadshot on the ground, veins of powerful emotions surging up through cracks in his near-sociopathic emotional armor is a clever image that also fits with everything we know about the character.  Secret Six #17 ups the tension dramatically from the previous issue, maintaining a breakneck pace as it dashes towards next month’s conclusion.  Exciting, well-characterized and fun, it’s just another issue that suggests that Secret Six is one of the best books on the shelves today.

Grade: A-

– Cal Cleary

Suicide Squad #67

Secret Six #16

Review: Suicide Squad #67

The month of January will see the latest, and most ingenious, of DC’s “Blackest Night” cash-grabs as they go after that ever-elusive audience that absolutely despises what Big Event Mentality has done to an industry that can’t even approach affording it (so, uh, me) by reviving a selection of critically-beloved fan-favorite titles that were cancelled (or ended) some time ago.  This begins this week with Weird Western Tales #71 (which I will not be covering unless someone at DC wants to send me a free copy… please?) and Suicide Squad #67.  Co-written by John Ostrander and Gail Simone, Suicide Squad #67 has precious little to do with Blackest Night, and is all the better for it.

Instead, Ostrander and Simone use it to kick off a new Secret Six arc, featuring a three-way battle between the Suicide Squad, the Secret Six and the ‘Homicide Squad’, the Black Lantern members of each team, out for blood.  Though it seems like this could get chaotic and cluttered, especially given the size of each team and the B/C-list nature of its characters, but Simone and Ostrander handle it well, keeping things light and extraordinarily exciting, with the usual dark touch of humor.

Calafiore does excellent work on art, capturing the eerie intensity of the Black Lanterns and the easy violence of… well, every character in the book.  The book’s many action sequences are quick and exciting, and Calafiore does an excellent job setting up the pace and keeping the action moving.  It may not be important to the events of the main mini, but it is nonetheless a thoroughly satisfying tie-in, keeping things quick and trusting the audience to catch up.

Grade: A-

– Cal Cleary

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Secret Six #16

Review: Secret Six #16

While Nicola Scott takes a few issues off to work with Greg Rucka on Blackest Night: Wonder Woman, Gail Simone keeps pushing forward with one of the best mainstream comics on the shelves today, joined now by Peter Nguyen on art.  Reintroducing one of Simone’s favorite characters, Black Alice, Secret Six #16 deals with her attempts to join the team, willing to make a little money at any cost – an idea that intrigues the greedy, underpowered team.

Nguyen does fine fill-in work here.  If he doesn’t fill Scott’s rather impressive shoes completely, he at least proves himself a good choice to follow her, managing to successfully emulate her style without resorting to mimicry.  From the father’s fear and terror early in the issue to the fight at the strip club, Nguyen illustrates a fair amount of diversity with the issue.  While Scott’s absence is felt, of course, Nguyen proves to be an able replacement.

This is a fairly slight issue, but then, Secret Six has always been more about the characters than plotting, and this one had a number of good character moments.  It also had supervillain-themed strippers, torture, a little superpowered violence, some more strippers, and the reintroduction of Scandal’s new girlfriend, Liana.  With Black Alice on the team, things are sure to go downhill quickly, and, as always, the worse off things are for the Six, the more entertaining things are for us.

Grade: B+

– Cal Cleary

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Secret Six #15

Mini-Reviews

Immortal Weapons #4

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Four issues in and Immortal Weapons continues to be woefully inconsistent.  Given the nature of the book’s shifting creative teams, that comes as no surprise, but I am beginning to see the flaws in the strategy as I begin to imagine a collected edition.  Is it worth buying the ill-conceived stories for the heartbreaking ones?  This issue is by no means as bad as “Bride of Nine Spiders” was – it is at the very least a coherent martial arts story featuring the titular character, Tiger’s Beautiful Daughter.  It is exciting and fun, and has a few big action sequences that are well-illustrated.

It is also remarkably slight and about as cheesecake-y as a book can be.  Artist Khari Evans does a fine job illustrating a culture of bikini’d warrior women with all the requisite bounce and heft – and also a strikingly consistent sense of tone and design, surprisingly – but the story is beyond slight, almost to the point of nonsense.  Fun nonsense, granted, but where Evans brings consistency, the best Swierczynski offers is chaos.

The back-up feature continues to move quickly forward as a quick bit of ‘intuitive deduction’ – read: plot crunch – reveals the true fate of Jada’s younger brother.  With Foreman off art, the back-up continues to suffer as Hatuey Diaz’s shaggy, cartoonish style doesn’t fit any of the tones Swierczynski seems to be going for.

Grade: B

Secret Six #15

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John Ostrander comes onto Secret Six, the first writer other than Simone to deal with the book since its revival in Villains United.  Some readers may balk at the fact that he has largely shied away from Simone’s familiar offbeat humor without abandoning any of the book’s signature darkness, but Ostrander knows his strengths – and knows his character – and instead turns the book into an introspective character study of Deadshot, in many ways the team’s most heartless member.

With Calafiore doing a stellar job on art, Ostrander takes us deep into Deadshot’s damaged mind.  The pair work well together, especially in the one-panel shots of Deadshot-Vision we occasionally get, a cold reality in which we see the deaths of everyone in the room at his hands.  The issue has its flaws, including some seemingly trite pop psychology and a so-so origin story retelling, but its core is rock solid… and, to be quite frank, more than a little chilling.

Grade: B+

Stumptown #1

Stumptown1

The recent, excellent resurgence of the crime comic comes largely at the hands of three writers: Brian Azzarello, Ed Brubaker, and, finally, Greg Rucka.  With Stumptown, Rucka returns to ONI Press, who published his stellar Whiteout and Queen and Country, for another crime comic with an earthy female protagonist in over her head.  While Rucka is in some ways becoming predictable, Stumptown #1 displays the benefits of such predictability: it’s polished and experienced, a rock solid introduction to a new title.

Matthew Southworth and Lee Loughridge, Rucka’s partners here, do a great job on art.  The panel layouts are simple but extremely effective, while the art is expressive without losing the darkness we expect of a crime comic.  Dex, the P.I. in charge of Stumptown Investigations, is a well-realized heroine with an already-growing supporting cast, all excellently illustrated.  An excellent, traditional entry into the ever-growing pile of great modern crime comics.

Grade: A-

Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural #2

Voodoo

After a remarkably solid opening issue, Remender and Palo drop the ball quickly with this second issue.  Picking up after his confrontation with Dr. Doom last issue, Voodoo is stranded in another dimension, one in which his powers are severely hampered… and in which resides a powerful foe for the new Sorcerer Supreme.  It’s a remarkable coincidence that leaves Voodoo stranded here, unless Doom was working for/with the issue’s surprise villain, but its one that’s never visited.  The action is brief but effective, but the book’s twist is ineffective at best, and the backround we get on Jericho this issue feels fairly out of place here.

Palo (joined by Gabriel Hardman on art) seems to have lost some of last month’s visceral energy, but he remains the book’s star player.  His illustrations of a nightmare New Orleans are memorable,  as are the monstrous designs of Nightmare’s horde, but the art feels more rushed here, despite a momentum-killing origin-story in the middle of the issue.  Hopefully, the team can regain some of the momentum of their opening issue soon.

Grade: C+

– Cal Cleary

Secret Six #13

Immortal Weapons #3

Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural #1