Graphic Novels That Flew Under The Radar In 2012

Illustration: a superhero flies while reading a book.
Nishant Choksi

In 2012, several high-profile comics creators added landmark works to their already impressive legacies. With Building Stories, Chris Ware offered 14 volumes of comics, each with its own meticulous, anagrammatic take on despair, and stuffed them into a box. Alison Bechdel followed up her much-lauded 2006 memoir, Fun Home, with Are You My Mother?, another deep dive into the turbid waters of the parent-child bond. The result was messier and less finished, but profoundly personal — and vividly real.

Jeff Lemire's Underwater Welder told a gorgeous, haunting — and haunted — tale of grief and redemption. And, in God and Science, the Hernandez Brothers dosed their skillful characterizations with a hit of superheroic whimsy.

These volumes are destined for many "Best Comics of 2012" lists, and rightly so. But some other, less familiar names produced outstanding works that haven't gotten the column inches they deserve. Here are just a few of the intriguing, hilarious and/or enlightening titles you might have missed.

Graphic Novels

The Crackle of the Frost

The Crackle of the Frost

Zentner's tale of a man who pauses to take stock of his life after spending it fleeing from emotional attachments reads like a heady mashup of Kazuo Ishiguro and Thomas Mann. But it's Mattotti's breathtakingly vivid paintings, pulsating with the mysterious poetry of unsettling dreams, that add a welcome and indelible splash of Kafka and Murakami.

Under Mattotti's brush, images and emotions swirl together: The sound of a woman's voice making plans for the future becomes sinister tendrils of darkness that chase our hero through the corridors of his mind. The tip of a cigarette flares in the night like a baleful eye; a lone deer silhouetted against the forest fire that's about to engulf it evokes a pang of hopelessness that lingers long after the page is turned. The Crackle of the Frost is an unabashedly allusive, beautiful and unforgettable book.

Little White Duck

Little White Duck

A Childhood in China

Set in the years 1976-1980, Na Liu's account of her childhood in Wuhan, China, offers a fascinating glimpse of a time and place that remains mysterious to Westerners. Young Liu's perspective on events like the Cultural Revolution, the death of Chairman ("Grandpa") Mao and The Four Pests campaign (for which she and her older sister devise increasingly malevolent rat traps) doesn't gloss over the hard realities of life under Communist rule, but neither does it wallow in them.

Instead, the world we see through Liu's eyes as she ages from 3 to 7 conflates cultural and political mythologies; on one page, the beaming visage of soldier and citizen-hero Lei Feng inspires Liu to emulate his noble example; on the next, the terrible lion-monster Nian ravages a town at New Year's. Artist Andres Vera Martinez captures both the magic of a child's imagination and the grubby realities of industrialization with equanimity and expressiveness.

Drama

Drama

Smile, Telgemeier's bright, charming 2010 memoir of an adolescence beset by mean girls and dental surgery, took the YA world by storm, but Drama is destined to find the writer and artist an even wider audience of rabid fans. Telgemeier creates another colorful tale of teenage intrigue, but this time the mad crushes and mood swings take place among the stage crew of a middle-school theater production.

At the center of it all is set designer Callie, an inveterate and indefatigable theater nerd obsessed with making the show memorable. In Callie, Telgemeier has created the kind of character kids haven't seen enough of lately — smart, competent and cheerfully unselfconscious. (The scene in which Callie auditions for the show for the sheer fun of doing so — not merely owning her utter inability to sing but reveling in it — should be required reading.) Telgemeier's command of facial expression and body language serves to ground her broad, colorful, cartoony style in the real. An unabashedly sunny, funny and warmhearted read.

Collected Series

Gloriana

Gloriana

Huizenga's protagonist, a po-faced Everyman named Glenn Ganges, returns in this expanded edition of previously published work. Gloriana includes four short stories in which Huizenga pushes the comics medium to dig beneath the surface of modern life and expose the rich and strange world that lurks below.

In "The Sunset," Glenn catches a retina-sizzling glimpse of the sun as it disappears over the horizon, an act that shatters the tidy narrative, and the implacable panel grid that depicts it, into visionary fragments. Suddenly, the page roils with photons and cartoon birds and smoke and, yes, Gamera, the giant turtle-monster of the silver screen. In "The Moon Rose," Glenn condescendingly lectures his neighbors about the moon's appearance in the sky, and the book dutifully morphs into a series of scientific diagrams about refracted light and optical illusions.

Many "experimental" comics deconstruct narrative; Gloriana is an example of an experimental comic that takes the next step, using the medium to build a richer and more nuanced story. In Huizenga's hands, at least, the experiment is a success.

Saga 1

Saga 1

Like his previous comics projects Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and a brilliant run on Marvel's teen superhero series Runaways, Brian K. Vaughn's new science-fiction/fantasy epic Saga features whip-smart dialogue and sardonic wit. But this time out, Vaughn's ambitions are greater, and the universe he's slowly building is astonishingly broad, surreal — and adult.

Saga, Volume 1 collects the six opening chapters of what is already becoming a sweeping space opera for the ages, so now's the time to get onboard. Two star-crossed lovers from warring planets must protect their infant daughter while fleeing both rogue bounty hunters and royal robots with portable televisions for heads. Vaughn's at the top of his game creating nuanced, empathetic characters — including the bad guys — and Staple's art is unlike anything out there, imbuing every flying horse and spider-demon with a fully realized matter-of-factness that keeps you devouring pages.

Wonder Woman 1

Wonder Woman 1

Blood

How do you solve a problem like Diana? Over the years, many writers have attempted to bring new life to DC's Wonder Woman with various degrees of success. The latest attempt is easily the best series to emerge from DC's recent New 52 initiative, which wiped the slate clean and returned a universe of well-known characters to starting positions.

Choosing Brian Azzarrello, writer of the gleefully pulpy crime series 100 Bullets, to helm Diana's story raised a few eyebrows, but it has served to invigorate a character who always seemed ill at ease when she wasn't punching Nazis in the schnozz. Azzarello breathes dark new life into Wonder Woman's world of petty, spiteful and manipulative Greek gods, and in the process transforms her from superhero to Classical hero. He is aided in this endeavor by artist Cliff Chiang, who has infused the book with a decidedly creepy note of Jungian horror, using bold, thick linework to depict a world of myth that's not remotely fantastical, but instead grimly, disquietingly real.

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