The Best Graphic Novels and Comics of 2009

December 28, 2009

10)  RASL  (Cartoon Books)

I almost crossed this excellent series off of the list out of frustration at it’s infrequent release schedule, but had to relinquish out of love for Jeff Smith’s work. Jeff Smith wrote the epic and infinitely important-to-the-field work that is “Bone,” a book that shipped in single black and white issues about 6 times a year for around a decade, selling mostly to adults, which was then repackaged in a graphic novel form that sold to teens, then it was colorized and packaged in small, portable volumes which Scholastic publishing stocked in book stores and school libraries causing it to catch on with kids. So, the book that was meant for all ages and works on multiple levels for them all finally reached it’s wide scope of an audience. Smith returned with “RASL” as his follow up, a book that is meant only for adults and older teens– it’s not gory or offensive, but it’s obvious by some of the content and complexity that this one wasn’t casting the net quite as wide as “Bone.” So it’s a nice change of pace to showcase Smith’s versatility in a heavy science-fiction tale that weaves noir, romance, and flawed characters into a great read unlike anything else on the shelves. This year we got the great, over-sized trade collection that reprints the first 3 issues as well as two new issues to further the story. We’ve been patiently waiting for issue number 6 which was due to ship back in October and has yet to show– but the teaser art for issue 7 is already on Smih’s “Boneville” website. So get these books to us, Jeff—we’re willing to pace ourselves with 4 issues a year if the material is this good, but we at least want those 4 issues to come out relatively on time!

9) Echo (Abstract Studio)

There’s quite a lot of similarity between this pick and the previous. Like “RASL,” this book is the follow-up work that is written, drawn and produced by someone coming off of a long running, industry shaking series (Moore’s was an alternative comic that was all romance, comedy and drama for adults — “Strangers in Paradise”). Moore’s new series also makes the jump to something that  features heavy science-fiction with full, realistic explanations; Moore also throws in a Hitchockian chase in his work with the tale of a woman (Julie Martin) who finds herself wearing a new alloy after it rains down on her when the scientist flying it in  it’s test phase is murdered by her own company. Now Julie has inherited the power of the suit and the memories of the woman murdered while wearing it. Helping her is the deceased woman’s boyfriend and on their trail is both the government-funded research group behind the secret project and a serial killer wearing the other half of the suit. Enough with the plot synopsis– it’s a great story with Moore’s great ear for dialogue and penciling that details vivid, emotion-displaying facial features. The black and white art in both “Echo” and “RASL” are some of the simplest yet most entertaining comic art being produced right now. To gripe Smith a bit more, though, it’s worth mentioning that Terry Moore has been getting “Echo” out every month even though he is the sole driving force in it’s art, story and production as well. So, Jeff, if Terry can do it, why not you? I know it must be difficult and I’m impressed either of you are making such left-of-center and creator-driven projects these days, but…I’m just sayin’…

8)  Amazing Spider Man (Marvel)
This book makes it’s appearance here again this year. It’s the only mainstream work on the list this time around, and it’s unabashedly that; this is full-on, spandexed, brightly colored and perpetually adolescent superhero work. It’s the best example of what that can be now, for teens and adults who maintain their childhood adoration of the characters they grew up with. It’s still coming out 3 times a month, it’s still 2.99 (keep it that way Marvel) and it still features a rotating stable of great writers and artists doing their best work on it. We get jokes, suspense, action, Pete’s Aunt May’s marriage to JJJ’s Dad (?), Pete juggling work, dating and super-heroing, new and old villains and the return of the letter column! This is the best almost-weekly 15-minute escape a nerd can ask for and it’s really the only Marvel book worth checking out right now.

7)  Chew (Image)
This book is purely bizarre and sound ridiculous on paper. It features Tommy Chu, a naturally born cibopathic– which means that when he eats any food he gets mental pictures and sensations of everything that happened in the production of that food, from slaughter or harvest to production and preperation. Tommy gets recruited by the FDA which is the strongest arm of the federal government in an alternate US future. The strongest, because a bird flu has devastated the country, resulting in the outlaw of poultry, resulting in a huge black market and gang-run business of fried chicken dinner shacks and raw poultry sales. It’s a goofy, shocking, funny story by John Layman and the art by Rob Guillory is very reminiscent of old “Ren and Stimpy” cartoons. It also changed my mind about “Image,” since I have mentally castigated Image for being a dumping ground of stylistic-steroid-pumped art and zero story (an image crafted by their early hits like “Spawn” and “Youngblood”). No, with “Chew,” “The Walking Dead” and the “Killing Girl”  mini a couple of years ago, it’s evident that Image has the potential for producing off-the-wall and innovative work.

6) The Illustrated Genesis by R. Crumb
No one could have expected such a faithful and non-satirical adaptation of the book of Genesis to come from R. Crumb. Crumb was a key figure in the underground “comix” scene that pumped satirical, foul, edgy and subversive work out to college kids in head shops and acid-rock concerts in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yet when Crumb took on the task of adapting one of humankind’s oldest stories he surprised himself by falling in love with the text. He didn’t become a believer, but he rendered the characters and events of this Religious pre-history scripture faithfully to the text, relying most heavily on the KJV of the Bible and Robert Alter’s translation of “The Five Books of Moses.” Reading Crumb’s adaptation brings the narrative out in strong,  gripping fashion. You at times are on the edge of your seat in suspense even though you know where the story is going, and the intricately detailed pictures liven up even the genealogical passages. Of course, reading the story with complete illustration makes this an adult work (the only Biblical book with a parental advisory, probably) and it may highlight the difficulties in holding to a literal understanding of such early biblical works– detailing the two opposing creation stories and both versions of the flood tale of Noah may cause fundamentalists great frustrations. Yet it’s a great read for the rest of us.

5)  Locke and Key  (IDW)
Joe Hill made this list with this series last year for “Welcome to Lovecraft.” That mini was followed with “Head Games” early this year and as the year draws to a close we get the third mini-series detailing the family’s plight in “Crown of Shadows.” Gabriel Rodriguez’ art is beautiful, Hill’s prose is as exciting in this format as it is in novels (“Heart Shaped Box”) and short stories (“20th Century Ghosts”). Get either trade and jump in, but start from the beginning if you can because although all of the mini’s stand on their own they also interlock and tell a much larger and developing story when read together. Plus they keep the same characters (following the Locke family), so it only makes sense to do so if you like this stuff!

4) The Unknown Soldier   (Vertigo/DC)

This one may be Vertigo’s most ambitious and important work ever. It details life in Uganda complete with child soldiers, internal politics, flawed assistance service, civil war, humanitarian drive, potential, tragedy, love, fear, death, disease…it’s dense and full of life bursting from every seam. It’s exciting but not exploitative, sad but not pandering, important but not pretentious. This is deserving of study in school and general awareness raising of the general populace– writer Josh Dysart actually traveled to Uganda to fully immerse himself in it and the artist of the latest arc is an African artist who renders his characters beautifully.

3) The Unwritten  (Vertigo/DC)
“The Unwritten” follows Tom Taylor whose father used him as the basis for “Tommy Taylor,” a boy wizard in a series of classic, best-selling novels read by more than 1/3 or the world population– kind of like a fictional, amped-up “Harry Potter.” Early in the series, Taylor is framed for a series of gruesome murders by some otherworldly villains who are linked to metaphysical “story” creators of some sort. “The Unwritten,” is Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s multi-layered examination of “word as flesh,” as stories that become real simply by being written. It’s a look at fiction becoming reality and it weaves in characters from classic novels, religious texts, fables and myths. We’re less than a year into this fascinating story and we can’t be sure of where it’s going, but every twist along the way thus far has been exciting.

2) Scalped  (Vertigo/DC)
“Scalped” may be the best comic book on the shelves each month. Everyone tries to do noir, it seems like, but Jason Aaron does it right and does it in a fresh, exciting, and wholly American way. “Scalped” follows life on the “rez” as Dashiell Bad Horse goes back to the reservation he fled in rejection. He’s back as an undercover FBI agent, hiding as a cop on Tribal Leader Chief Lincoln Red Crow’s force of crooked cops. Bad Horse’s mother Gina is murdered in the first arc and the mysteries flowing out of that incident propel the story forward and flash it back to a fateful night 20 plus years ago. R.M. Guera’s art is murky and muddy yet perfectly fitting and twistedly pretty. Nothing will end well for anyone in this story, we can be sure of that, but every event is worth looking at in microscopic and sordid detail. Check out all of this series, now available in 5 trade collections (so far), the latest of which is “High Lonesome,” which came out last month, the current arc “The Gnawing” is wrapping up this month and will likely be out in collected form at the first of 2010.

1) Asterios Polyp

David Mazzuchelli crafted the most fulfilling, creative and boundary-pushing graphic novel of the year, one also worth being on any short list of best graphic novels of the 2000s and in the top 25 of all time as well. “Asterios Polyp” is that good– the style and shifting art, mood expansion, thematic structure, brave new ways of telling a tale— these artistic workings are some of the best the genre has ever displayed. The story is simple enough, but it’s also good and tends to get lost in reviews when faced with the amazing art and creative styling’s present here. The story follows Asterios Polyp, a world-renowned architect who has never had any of his critically acclaimed designs actually built– his work always stays in the blueprint and theoretical phases. He’s arrogant, too sure of himself and he’s a smug professor who loves the sound of his own voice. We read as he deals with a crumbled marriage, the end of a career and a journey of self discovery and nostalgic remembrance. It’s a great story that would be good in any format but one that works best as a comic because it pulls out every trick imaginable to show just what the comics medium is capable of. This one’s a beauty to look at, a thrill to read and surely one to own and pull off the shelf at least once a year.


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