Comics of the Year — 2011

One of the more interesting ironies of the new century is that while comics have become more popular in this country than ever before, it is that very popularity that seems to be threatening the existence of comic shops and specialty stores. Most major comics publishers, including the big two, have begun aggressively marketing digital versions of their monthly titles, complete with “smart” readers that zoom in and out on panel transitions like DVD-extra storyboards. Somewhat overlooked amidst DC’s New 52 initiative is the fact that the publisher is now releasing its digital editions simultaneously with print copies. Batman fanatics don’t need to hit their saver bin for a first peek into the mysterious Court of Owls. In fact, digital subscribers can download, read, and post spoilers on an issue before the local comic shop even opens for business.

Meanwhile, publishers of book-length graphic novels, as well as the cartoonists and creators responsible, are finding that their works are being embraced by mainstream bookstores and online vendors. The New York Times has a “Graphic Books” best seller list that includes volumes from pioneering indie comics publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics. A backup story in Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12 addresses the painful realization that we’re likely never to see a staple-bound comic from the likes of Chester Brown, Peter Bagge, or Jessica Abel again. He includes a soundbite from a Daniel Clowes interview on NPR: “Nobody wants to sell some floppy thing that, you know, gets all bent on the shelf… No bookstore wants to carry it because the profit margin is so low…”

I’m not predicting the death of all comic book shops. The good ones will survive, much like the best record shops and independent booksellers, because they’ll be owned and operated by people who are passionate about the medium. All of the books on my Top 5 list this year (with the exception of the aforementioned Optic Nerve issue) are available through mainstream outlets. More importantly, however, they’re also readily available at places like Comix Experience, Comics & Collectibles, and More Fun. My fond recollections of discovering new comic shops when I was kid (yellow pages? remember those?) are going to turn into a more thorough recommendation-filled blog at some point this year. More travelogue than obituary, I hope.

5. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths – Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn & Quarterly)

Shigeru Mizuki is a Japanese national treasure. Still kicking at the age of 89, Mizuki is beloved in his homeland for his stories of the Japanese spirit world, creating a body of work that has inspired creative geniuses like Hayao Miyazaki. Many of the monsters and creatures he created in his manga are ingrained in Japanese popular culture, even lining streets of his hometown in bronze statuary.

My Reprinted or Reissued award for 2011, however, goes to a Mizuki work of a decidedly different nature. Noble Deaths is a semi-autobiographical account of a Japanese infantry unit in World War II. A veteran of the Imperial Army himself, Mizuki witnessed the horrors of war firsthand, losing an arm in an Allied strike and enduring time as a prisoner of war in New Guinea. The cartoony, exaggerated expressions of his human characters set against detailed photo-realistic backgrounds may remind American readers of Sim and Gerhard’s Cerebus. This style, however, actually has roots in the gekiga perspective first popularized as an alternative to kid-friendly manga and now recognized as the Japanese equivalent of independent comics.

Despite the sometimes whimsical depictions of his characters, Mizuki’s book is painfully somber, an anti-war tale from the other side of the battlefield in which Japanese soldiers prepare for their eventual deaths… or run the risk of returning to their homeland, alive but disgraced. Thirty-eight years after its initial publication, this rare opportunity to look at World War II from the Japanese perspective is given its first English translation.

Also of note in the reissue department is the sexy, hardcover publication of Daniel Clowes’s The Death Ray (Drawn & Quarterly). Originally published in 2004 as part of his Eightball series, this reissue gets the expanded, deluxe treatment it so richly deserves, along with the expanded exposure that goes hand-in-hand with hardcover graphic novels these days. As much a tale of frustrated adolescence as it is a superhero satire, Death Ray is further proof of Clowes’s status as one of the greatest living cartoonists.

4. Optic Nerve #12 – Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly)

I’ve always been secretly envious of Adrian Tomine. Northern California kid, raised on the same alternative black-and-white mindbenders that opened me up to the potency of comics, and telling the kinds of stories I wish I could write. And he’s an insanely talented cartoonist. The latest edition of his semi-regular Optic Nerve series gets my They Don’t Make ‘Em Like This Anymore prize. At some point, of course, the stories in this “floppy” will be collected and published in a bookstore-friendly hardcover or trade paperback edition, but for now it’s nice to get your hands on something that’s meant to be displayed cover out, tilted back against the wall in eye-catching periodical reverence. Spine be damned.

four-panel gag from "Hortiscuplture"

We’re treated to two main stories in this issue, the first being a black-and-white tale of an artist and his unusual struggle entitled “A Brief History of the Art Form Known as Hortisculpture.” Tomine brilliantly serializes the story using four-panel comic strips, each complete with its own punchline, but each intrinsically tied into the overall tale. The artistic style adopted for this particular story is also reminiscent of relationship-themed newspaper strips, falling somewhere between Blondie and Hi and Lois. I credit my grandfather with an incidental introduction to four-color superhero fantasy, but my earliest memories of comics involve my mom passing the funnies section to me over the breakfast table every morning. For Better or Worse was her favorite.

The full-color “Amber Sweet” is more of a signature Tomine piece. Sad, but beautiful, rendered with his distinctively clean lines, it tells the story of a girl forced to deal with the very unfortunate fact that she bears a striking resemblance to a well known porn star.

Another floppy distinction goes out to the recently released King-Cat Comics & Stories #72 by John Porcellino (King-Cat Comics). The fold-and-staple minicomic is obviously near and dear to me, and Porcellino’s King-Cat may be the longest ongoing series of its kind. It’s certainly one of the most touching. This issue in particular, crafted in the wake of heartbreak and major life changes, sticks with you long after you’ve smoothed down the center fold. I started teaching a cartooning elective to middle schoolers this year, and Porcellino’s style and emotional resonance became incredibly effective instructional tools.

3. Detective Comics: The Black Mirror – Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla (DC Comics)

People are going to stop believing me when I insist that I’m more of a Marvel than DC guy. For the second year in a row, my Capes ‘n Tights award goes to a DC book, this one a collected edition of a storyline that ran from late 2010 through 2011 and which features Dick Grayson (the original Robin and current Nightwing) during his stint taking over for Bruce Wayne as Gotham’s Dark Knight.

Scott Snyder was completely unknown to me before being given the reins for one of the last story arcs prior to the DCnU reboot. Grant Morrison had already completely reworked (some would say fucked up) Batman in the years prior: saddling him with a shitty kid named Damian, killing him off in Final Crisis, and essentially outing Bruce Wayne in Batman Incorporated. Out of these ashes emerged one of the best Batman stories of recent years, and arguably the best Grayson-as-Knight adventure during his admirable, albeit brief, tenure.

Rather than feel relegated to a B-list Batman tale, Snyder turns the situation to his advantage and uses it to tell what amounts to Dick Grayson’s version of Year One — a new Batman earning his wings, so to speak. And, like Frank Miller before him, Snyder treats the City of Gotham as an entity unto itself. There are two intertwined plots here, both of which challenge the detective and the commissioner with the full depths of the city’s evil little secrets. Weapons and artifacts from Batman’s gallery of villains have hit the black market. Meanwhile, James Gordon’s sociopathic son has returned to Gotham, purportedly feeling a lot better. The two plots even feature dueling art: the frenetic stylized work of Jock countered by the moody simplicity of Francavilla, which itself recollects Mazzuchelli’s work on the aforementioned Year One.

The whole Institute has jumped on Snyder’s bandwagon. Our forthcoming review of the New 52 relaunch includes both of his current books — Batman and Swamp Thing — near the top of the heap.

Runner-up in the superhero category is in fact a Marvel book: Journey into Mystery by Kieron Gillen and Doug Braithwaite (Marvel Comics). Like Snyder, Gillen is relatively new to the comics scene and, like the Batman scribe, I was immediately impressed. He’s also been tasked with some of the better X-books in the new post-Schism era, but it was his run on this Thor book that really stood out in 2011. The tie-in titles and crossover series to major comic book stories are never supposed to upstage the title bout, but that’s exactly what happened with Gillen’s contribution to this summer’s Fear Itself event. Matt Fraction’s Asgardian epic was overwrought, sacrificing clever plots and storytelling for action sequences and shocking cliffhangers. Gillen’s story of a young Loki, in all his manipulative, scheming glory, is a fittingly modern twist on Norse mythology, and one that would’ve made Tolkien proud.

2. Daytripper – Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba (DC Comics/Vertigo)

Even though this series ran through 2010, the collected paperback was published in February of this past year, making it eligible for my Collaborative Fiction distinction. It’s really the Vertigo award, I suppose… these are the books that set the standard in the 90’s with titles like Sandman, Hellblazer, and Preacher, and continue to dominate the comics lit shelves with books like Fables, The Unwritten, and Scalped. While the best comics year in and year out are still the products of a single cartoonist, sometimes the best storytellers benefit from superhero team-ups of their own.

In the case of Daytripper, it must really help that the two collaborators are twin brothers. Brazilian cartoonists Moon and Ba have been, according to the book’s biography, “telling stories in comic book form for almost fifteen years” and, like black coffee, “believe stories should taste equally strong and be just as memorable.” The strength and timelessness of Daytripper cannot be undersold.

from chapter three, "28"

The ten chapters of this book, initially published in ten issues, tell the story of Bras de Oliva Domingos. Each chapter takes place during a different year of the character’s life, and each chapter ends with the character’s death. Dead at twenty-eight..? Or eleven..? What if he lived to be seventy-six? Each chapter forces us to consider whether these are different lives, or just different stories. The novel as a result is both beautifully tragic and morbidly uplifting. It’s filled with the precious moments, influential people, and inspiring dreams that make any life unique. Over the course of these ten chapters, we can’t help but examine our own singular moments, loves, and hopes… wondering where our own stories begin and end. And begin again…

Working as one, the Brazilian duo marry this magical realist plot to a gorgeous, fluid art style, reminding me of Paul Pope in slow motion. Although the panels and pages flow effortlessly, the story is so expansive, so jarring, that you absolutely pause at the conclusion of each chapter, at each death, to reflect on all the moments and possibilities in our own lives that flow with a scarily similar rapidity.

Another collaboration of note comes from two Vertigo veterans. Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy’s Joe the Barbarian (DC Comics/Vertigo) is a Toy Story meets Narnia acid trip. The title character is a diabetic kid whose quest for sugar melts into a hypoglycemic meltdown of fantastic hallucinatory proportions. Morrison has worked with so many brilliant artists over the decades, but the synergy between him and Murphy is unmistakable. I hope the rumors of a movie adaptation hold true.

1. Habibi – Craig Thompson (Pantheon)

It’s hard to believe that Blankets came out eight years ago. Craig Thompson’s second book is still the comic that gets passed around the most, in and out of my library, every time someone comes looking for a comic book recommendation. I’m proud of that dog-eared, delicately worn copy, but always wish I had something else by Thompson to follow it up. Sure, Good-bye, Chunky Rice is great, but it lacks the scope and some of the poignancy of Blankets. There are other books, certainly, by cartoonists like Charles Burns, Los Bros Hernandez, and James Sturm that I recommend often, but when trying to describe the post-floppy era of comics ascendancy, I can think of no cartoonist more adept than Craig Thompson. My 2011 Comic Book of the Year cements his status as the best of this new generation of “Graphic Books” storytellers.

In Habibi, Thompson takes his brush on an Arabic adventure through a mythical fairy tale landscape, influenced and informed by his explorations into Islamic culture and tradition. It chronicles the plight of two slaves, Dodola and Zam, separated at a young age and reunited after years of struggling through the twists and turns of their own individual lives. The scope I was looking for is certainly present — their tales span 672 pages. All the unsettling and heartbreaking tension of Blankets is intact as well. What Habibi does differently, however, is that it challenges not just our private reflections, but our cultural perceptions as well. Thompson has no background in the Muslim faith, the Arabic language, or the types of ordeals that his characters endure. It is as far removed from the world of Blankets as he could have possibly made it, while still maintaining truths about love, longing, and human ambition. Storytellers should be as much an explorer as a guide. In Habibi, Thompson’s bold brushstroke and arabesque design venture forth, wide-eyed and inquisitive, while simultaneously beckoning back, illuminating paths through cultures and civilizations, always eager to share newfound discoveries.

One more new-era book to champion this year is Any Empire by Nate Powell (Top Shelf). In one of my favorite books about comics, Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning, the author equates cartooning with dreaming: “dreams are leaps of imagination, evidence of the plasticity of the information stored in your brain, recombining in sometimes fantastic, startling ways that you can never imagine in waking life” (p. 49). Powell’s book is a marvelous recombination of the author’s reality and fantasy — a childhood G.I. Joe-fueled adventure that works just as well in the present day when so many adolescents have twisted their Call of Duty obsessions into aspirations for the future.