Drawn & Quarterly
Cover of Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths
In years past, I've liberally availed myself of many of the standard-issue caveats we members of the critical community like to trot out as we make our year-end lists.
"These aren't necessarily the best comics of the year," I'd quaver, "but the ones that lingered in my memory, out of, obviously, those that I got around to reading, oh and do keep in mind that every list is of course subjective and waah waah mealy mouthed waah." Or words to that effect.
But it just doesn't feel right to do that yet again this year. 2011 seems to represent a tipping point in the critical conversation; over the past few weeks I've read far too many year-end lists (of films, books, television, music and comics) whose authors delight in whinging about how terribly difficult/arbitrary/subjective year-end lists are, oh woe, oh hardship. And as I read, I keep thinking to myself — as perhaps you do — "Oh, suck it up, do your job and get to the list, Little Nell."
So no more throat-clearing and hand-wringing! Instead, this is me, up-sucking and list-getting-to! Here, for my money, are the best comics — ongoing series, graphic novels and reprint editions — published in 2011.
One of the strongest, most self-assured titles to emerge from DC's New 52 reboot, Demon Knights assembles a handful of established (albeit semi-obscure) mystical characters from the darkest corners of the DC Universe, drops them into a medieval setting, and sets them loose. The result is an epic take on The Seven Samurai marked by sharp characterizations, a propulsive plot and high eldritch adventure.
Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths
A masterful, searing and unforgettable semi-autobiographical manga that presents the last days of World War II from the point of view of Japanese infantrymen.
Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder
Walt Kelly's hugely influential strip gets the deluxe treatment it deserves. More about this book here.
Criminal: Last of the Innocent
A deft, multi-layered and perfectly executed crime story that's got a lot of smart things to say about the way pining for the past can poison the present. Clever and formally innovative, this is Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' best work yet.
I've missed Matt Fraction's gorgeously dense, trippy science-fiction/time-travel/super-hero/espionage thriller, and his return to this universe (well, universes, I suppose) after so many years both ratchets up the fugue-state intensity I love so much, and grounds the events in what feel like very personal emotions.
Mark Twain's Autobiography, 1910-2010
The silliest, funniest, most bracing, and really-I-wasn't-kidding-when-I-said-silliest, book of the year. No, seriously, read my review; you'll see.
That Matt "Daredevil" Murdock can't catch a break is as coded into the character's creative DNA as those little stubby horns of his. That's why the latest creative team's take on the Marvel Universe's Saddest Sack feels so fresh; they're lightening the mood, showing Murdock building himself up again, and allowing his supporting cast to inject humor and warmth — all while showing the character actually enjoying beating up bad guys. Imagine that.
The Drops of God
A manga with a brilliantly simple premise — two sons must compete in a wine-tasting competition to win ownership of their father's huge wine collection — executed with great wit and style.
WHO will win, as the two engage in pitched wine-tasting ... battles? ... as they sample 13 of the world's finest wines? The estranged son, who turned his back on his father long ago to became a (gasp) beer seller? Or the young, impetuous ... wine critic? Great fun.
Locke and Key
What began as a relatively straightforward, creepily effective haunted house series has become one of the most imaginative and fully realized fantasy comics on the stands.
A singular, and singularly effective, art comic. Highly recommended. By, among others, me.
Another New 52 DC reboot title, ostensibly set in the bright, primary-colored world of superheroes. But Animal Man is a horror book that finds, in the darkest recesses of that world, something bloody, nasty and raw, something ... eeeeevil.
Hark! A Vagrant!
I could go on and on about how great, how funny, how smart this book is. Oh, wait, I already did.
An insightful, empathetic and deeply moving manga about a boy who wants to be a girl and a girl who wants to be a boy. I talked about it a bit more here.
I've already said my piece about this ambitious, involving meditation on the way death imbues life with its meaning. It's um, a lot more fun than it sounds.
Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man
One of my favorite moments of the year was seeing the new Ultimate Spidey take off his mask to reveal the scared, sweaty face of a black/Puerto Rican kid named Miles Morales. What could have been a mere stunt was something more, a moment of real narrative power, a power the book has only just begun to explore. The creative team behind this book asked themselves a question that gets asked far too seldom in superhero circles: Why not?
Smart, stylish, more than a little unsettling YA tale about a girl and the ghost who ... loves? ... her? More about it here.
As I've said, this is the best, and most beautiful, graphic novel of the year. Also? Not for nothing? One of the best, most engrossing novel-novels of the year.
A ruthlessly effective story about the unconditional love and loyalty of dogs, aimed with military precision at the reader's tear ducts. Also? A THIN TISS-YOU OF LIES.
The King of the Seven Seas is back, and his creative team — in a clever bit of narrative ju-jitsu — embrace the fact that he's perennially underestimated and underappreciated, and use it to the character's advantage. A strong, dynamic, straight-ahead superhero yarn that knows exactly what it is.
A cheerful, breezy, old-school take on aquatic superheroics. READ! My shameful confession!
A Bride's Story, Vol. I
A leisurely paced, richly detailed, beautifully drawn manga set in a 19th-century Central Asian village about a 20-year-old woman and a 12-year-old boy entered into a political marriage for the sake of their respective families.
Strong, clearly defined characters and vivid depictions of village life make this a book to pore over slowly.
Wonder Woman as a fantasy book? Sure. It's a stretch, but there's precedent. But as fantasy horror? It shouldn't work. But thanks to a sure-footed approach, don't-look-back pacing and clean, compelling art, this innovative take on the Princess of Peace — a notoriously difficult character to write for — is the best book of the New 52.