The 10 Best Comics + Graphic Novels 2011

January 5, 2012

10) Daredevil (Marvel) – Mark Waid

“Daredevil” has been a dark, gritty title for years. The character has been so emotionally and physically broken by crime aficionado writers like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, not to mention Frank Miller, in c0mpelling tales that the only place to go was up. Waid (with some great pencilers like Marcos Martin) rebounded DD protagonist Matt Murdock in an upbeat, fun, witty way. This is old Marvel fun, DD as a Hells Kitchen coworker to Manhattan’s Spider-Man. We’ve had big superhero fun in the first half dozen issues. We’ve had artwork and narrative styles that employ and focus on DD’s specific powers and issues. We’ve had the best comic Marvel published all year in what was mostly a way-off year for them.

9) Vampirella  (Dynamite Comics) – Eric Trautmann

Dynamite Comics acquired “Vampirella,” the Harris property best known for pin-up styled cheescake art. What they did was revamp the character for modern times, clothing her (for the most part) and situating her as a real character. The covers maintained the pin up art  but the interiors gave us a horror comic vampire story with a strong female lead, a classic back-story including Dracula, an interesting side-kick, and some really solid pencil-work. Month in and out, “Vampirella” was a fun comic to read–and isn’t that why we read comics in the first place?

8) Detective Comics – Scott Snyder + Jock + Francesco Francavilla

Before DC relaunched with “The New 52,” writer Scott Snyder bid farewell to the old-numbering of “Detective Comics” with the best run that title has seen in years, a run ranking with the best Batman stories of all time. Jock and Francavilla alternating issues on the artwork didn’t hurt in that they crafted interiors as captivating as any covers to ever hit the shelves. What wasn’t to love in this run? A great Joker scene, a great old Gordon family mystery that situated a creepy new villain and history, great action scenes, character interactions, mystery, and everything else you could hope for from a Batman comic.

7) Scalped – Jason Aaron + R.M. Guera

“Scalped” will wrap up this year. We all know it won’t end pretty; it’s a totally original crime-drenched American noir, but it’s noir none the less and we didn’t set in for happy endings. We’ve known it would end in tragedy and the hook has been how it will get there and the deep character studies crafted along the way. In all-out classic style, 2011 delivered a surprising Red Crow bid for redemption, a quest soon to play out; it also revealed the identity of the murderer of Gina Badhorse. 2012 will let us see who, if any, survives this mess. Great storytelling, haunting artwork, fully developed characters, and though a title not big on the “feel-good” factory, one that is drenched in pathos and cracked yet beautiful humanism.

6) Chew – John Layman + Rob Guillory

We’re in the midst of listing several titles which I have included for the last few years and “Chew”– like “Criminal,” “Scalped” and “Locke and Key”–  is what you get when you pair a great writer with a great artiss who have a great chemistry together as they get to helm a project they have devised and dreamed and which they now have the backing to deliver as a great story, freely with no real baggage. This recipe almost always results in a work that stands out as its own on the racks and “Chew” is unlike anything else you will ever read. It’s an original style of art, a ridiculous premise that is also all too plausible in spite of the ridiculous aspect, and it’s a funny, layered, piece full of back ground jokes that repay rereads. “Chew” is at its core a humor comic, a thing which is few and far between now; but it’s layered up with action, drama, a bit of shock, and subtle social commentary. It’s really just a fun read, perhaps the “funnest” on the list. 2011 amped up some new details, adding a heavy dose of sci-fi to the mix. I’m with this all the way to its conclusion.

5) Criminal: The Last of the Innocent – Ed Brubaker + Sean Phillips

Brubaker served up Criminal fans with perhaps the strongest 4 issue run of the series thus far this year with “Criminal: The Last of the Innocent.” And that is saying something since “Criminal” is a close to flawless work in its every issue. “The Last of the Innocent” was somewhat of a detour from the methods employed in all of the other “Criminal” arcs thus far; it is a crime story, and there are pieces of information, characters, settings, and locations that tie this loosely to all the other arcs, but this is as much an homage to comics, different comic storytelling techniques, devices, eras, and genres as it is a crime story of its own. Yet all of that homage making fully tied in with the story in a way that heightens the techniques of this story itself, that works as a cross-current to send this one to the top of “Criminal” rankings. You’re kept on the edge of your seat with each issue and the suspense is taut; the ending itself is the blackest noir.

Yet

4) Severed – Scott Snyder + Scott Tuft + Atilla Futaki

What a truly unique, wholly original, and exceedingly welcome addition to the 2011 comic racks. Scott Snyder has been on a roll with creative new ways of doing Batman and now Swamp Thing for DC comics, and this creator pet project of his continued announcing his talented breakthrough as a major player in modern mainstream comics. Paired with writer Scott Tuft and some truly beautiful, striking, subtle artwork by Atilla Futaki, Snyder delivers a Gothic piece of Americana as a horror story. “Severed” follows the journey of a young barely-teenaged boy as he hits the road in 1920s era America in search of his absentee horn-playing father. He runs into a fellow boxcar traveling teen, a girl passing as a boy, befriends her and then meets up with a truly frightening road scourge, a villain who uses identity theft techniques to prey on children as a cannibal who sports homemade metal teeth. “Severed” still had a couple of issues to go before wrapping up its first mini-series when the year drew to a close, so readers are as of yet unsure of the fate of protagonist Jack. But unless this brilliant creative team seriously drops the ball in delivering the home plate issue, this is one of the most solid original concept mini-series in quite some time. What’s amazing is that this is a truly new horror story told in a way that is genuinely frightening but also non-gratuitous. This is not a bloody, gruesome affair–at least on the page; Snyder and company deftly employ Hitchockian techniques to scare the reader psychologically, leaving the most terrifying scenes off the page to play in our minds. The artwork is beautiful, it looks like water-colored montages of a time in American history far enough away from the current day to look totally new. I for one cannot wait to see where this story ends up.

3) Locke and Key – Joe Hill + Gabriel Rodriguez

Joe Hill continues to make his very first foray into the comics field the instant success and classic that it is. Locke and Key has had a set endpoint since day one and Hill moves ever closer to the culmination of his intricate and astounding genre-hopping work. Rodriguez continues to deliver a set of warm, fun pencils that look like art found nowhere else. Each mini-series of “Locke and Key” works as a complete tale but it’s the overall story which is taking on full-speed as the end draws close that is really knocking this title out of the park this year. Yet Hill always finds ways to deliver one-shot and single pieces that stand out as creative individual moments amidst the overall narrative, as he did in the sentimental (but not trite) short story that led off the “Guide to the Known Keys” this year (pictured above). In it, a young boy who is terminally ill is led to the moon in a hot air-balloon by his father and one of the Keyhouse keys is used to unlock the moon, revealing a place where the boy can live fully and whole, surrounded by family and friends as he looks down on the unfolding history of the world. Or moments in the primary series artistically showcase deft homages to other works, like when the young character Brodie is depicted as Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes in a memorable issue last year. Readers like me cannot wait to see how this ends and we have the utmost confidence that Hill can wrap thing up as satisfyingly as the story has been as a whole thus far–he’s given us every reason to trust his skills as a writer.

2) Habibi – Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson is a top-rate writer and artist who delivers a graphic novel by way of weighty tome every couple of years. His work is always literate, emotional, and personal. “Blankets” was solid but this year’s “Habibi” is the culmination of everything this great artist is capable of thus far. “Habibi” is an all out epic, a graphic novel to rival any “all time” graphic novel lists compiled. It’s a sweeping story of love, religion, romance, sex, culture, mythology, and language that carries its two protagonists through years that are grounded yet timeless. Thompson took the weight of his subject sincerely and his attention to detail is what truly shines in this work. His Arabic calligraphy is gorgeous as it should be in a work with the Middle East and it’s history, culture and religious landscape as its subject. Every page of this book is stuffed with details and decoration yet the focus never gets lost and it never drags the reader down. It is weighty, but not so dense the focus becomes strained. It works as a straight story and as metaphor-laden exploration. It surely will stand up to ever-revealing rereads but also works remarkably well as a take-your-time and soak-it-up first read. The characters leap to life, their joys and tragedies played out emphatically and grippingly on the page. This book is even great in its production, it’s a beautifully produced book worthy of any book-shelf with a physical presences to suit its story and subject matter.  Highly recommended to those not fond of the typical comic or even comics in general.

1) DC : The New 52  (DC)

So it may seem like a cheat to make my first pick something that encompasses 52 separate comic books, but the DC relaunch was such a good thing as a complete act and product that I can’t help but do so. DC relaunched their entire line with 52 number 1 issues this year, and as the year came to a close readers have gotten to read 3-4 issues of each title. What could have been a bad publicity stunt that failed to attract new readers and simultaneously drove away devoted fans has instead been something that makes it fun week to check in with DC each and every week. DC (for the most part) picked crack-fire teams to helm the books, and each issue of each title began with a completely new story that was approachable to any reader picking up that title for the first time. Yet as details about the new direction each character is taking emerges, it’s also clear that the work done in DC’s amazingly intricate old continuity hasn’t been completely scrapped. Characters and circumstances set up intricately and creatively by folks like Grant Morrison with the Bat-titles and their fresh mythology show up largely in place as the new norm with this fresh start; so what was good remains and much of what was bogged down has been streamlined across the company line. It’s also worth mentioning that DC has stayed true to their “drawing the line” price campaign as their books are still 1.00 cheaper than Marvel in almost every case.

Not every title in the New 52 is a complete winner and not everyone will work for every reader. I predict a few titles will fall by the wayside as 2012 rolls on. But what does work works amazingly well; Scott Snyder delivered the best “Detective Comics” run in years, ranking with the best work on a mainstream Batman story of all time. He continues that approach as he takes over the flagship “Batman” title with more fast-paced action, sharp dialogue, awesome character dynamics, and intriguing subplots and threads that will be a joy to follow. Brian Azarello and Cliff Chiang position “Wonder Woman” as one of the (perhaps THE) best title of the relaunch, and it’s far past due for the too-often misplaced sister character of the DC “Trinity” to have her own definitive modern run. Chiang’s pencils play up the high art and action of the story as Azarello intertwines horror and mythology, wit and emotion into a stellar and timeless story. “Aquaman” proves that one of the most maligned JLAers of all time is a great character and can be the centerpiece of a really great title as Geoff Johns and Ivan Reiss pour energy into that title the same way they did on their first flash of Green Lantern work years ago. Speaking of JLA (and Johns), “Justice League of America” combines superstar artist Jim Lee with the aforementioned Johns and in a flashback telling of how the new 52 universe’s JLA came together, the title is shaping up to be the best (and first good) run on a Justice League title in a long time (not counting the JLI).  Other titles–“The Flash,” “Wild Western Tales,” “Batgirl,” “Resurrection Man,”–are already delivering the goods with promising setups to carry them into the future. Most comic readers are thrilled with “Action Comics” as it showcases Grant Morrison in full on having fun mode as he crafts a flashback run cataloging the youthful early adventures of Superman in the new 52 universe, an agressive, somewhat naive but devoted populist Superman. Yet I find that the less popular “Superman” main title by George Perez delivers consistently fun, old-school DC superhero stories that take an appreciable long time to read. Former “B” characters stand out on superb books like “Swamp Thing” (penned by the iron-hot Scott Snyder) and “Animal Man” (a “mainstream” work by the inimitable alt.comic master Jeff Leimire). Great art, simple yet fun stories, and the burgeoning hint of an inter-connected and creative comics landscape all grant DC with the much-deserved honor of being the mainstream comics publisher of the year.

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