Editor's note: Christian Sager is the creator of "Think of the Children" and "Border Crossings." He has also written essays about the comics industry, punk subculture and national identity.
It’s easy to buy a bad comic book. I don't know a fan of the medium who hasn't at least once brought home a dud and been disappointed. But the comics industry is not lacking when it comes to talent. Comics are in an era of unprecedented creativity, and 2011 saw some fantastic work.
These are what I think are the best comics of the year, coming from publishers big and small. Top Shelf Productions really earned its name this year, in my eyes, with four outstanding books. Acknowledgment should also go to Portland’s Periscope Studio, whose members produced several of the books on this list. Where possible, I've linked individual creators’ names to their Twitter profiles or individual blogs so you can follow their work into 2012.
Jeff Lemire has reinvigorated Animal Man with a horror that takes grotesque advantage of the deformed physical body. Artist Travel Foreman’s kinetic art is perfect for this theme, dragging us into skeletal husks and flesh forms reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” Animal Man himself is filled with midlife dread, afraid to lose control of both his children and his body. The events of the first few issues of this series would be too horrific for the human mind to fully comprehend without descending into madness.
Not many would argue if I said this is one of the most beautiful comics on the stands. J.H. Williams III effortlessly alternates between artistic styles, using texture and dynamic panels to tell this uniquely haunting story. His composition makes the action so palpable, you feel the crunch and collision of every blow. To seal the deal, Batwoman’s well-rounded characterization makes her both contemporary and compelling, something missing from many superheroes today.
BOB POWELL’S TERROR
IDW publishes archives of historically significant comics, edited and designed by Craig Yoe. Its latest offering is a wonderfully packaged collection of horror comics produced by artist Bob Powell in the 1950s. Powell’s work here rivals that of the great EC books of the time, with meticulous illustrations of man-eating flesh walls, ghoulish time-traveling mutants, rotting zombie pirates, protoplasmic blood suckers and more. If you’re a fan of comics history or pulpy original art, this is the book for you.
This comic has always felt like it’s very personal for writer Matt Fraction, which might be why it’s his best work. On the face of it, “Casanova” is about dimension-hopping super spies, created with non-traditional storytelling and snappy dialogue. But things got really bleak for Casanova Quinn this year: He’s miserable with his mission, something he’s stuck with because of mistakes he made with his family. The resulting self-loathing makes him lash out at his best friends with quips and barbs that get increasingly self-conscious. It should be bleak reading, but it’s the most compelling, frenetic narrative I’ve ever read of someone self-destructing. Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon seal the deal artistically, so we feel every moment of tension. I want to give Casanova a hug after every issue.
This webcomic has something funny on every single page yet still maintains a linear narrative that’s been running for three hysterical issues. It’s offensive and definitely not safe for work, but despite its crass humor, “Corporate Skull” somehow manages to meditate on the existential crises of our first-world problems. The titular character puts it perfectly when, after his face is ripped off, he says, "I stopped caring. As soon as I did I was free."
What begins as an investigation into ritual mass suicide during a severe thunderstorm turns into the creeping doom of a supernatural ancient evil. El Torres’ religious research is thorough, completing this mini-series with elements real enough to scare even the most rational of us.
Anya and Owen are competitive siblings, one fanatical about Darwin, the other immersed in a LARPing cult gone wrong. Ever the empiricist, Anya is determined to use the scientific method to solve why her brother’s been transformed into something dreadful. Aaron Alexovich and Drew Rausch find the darkest humor in this celebration of Lovecraft, 80s pop culture, demonic babies and hair metal. The best part is, every gut-busting issue is only 99 cents online.
Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato may be the first writing team I’ve encountered that also handles both the art and coloring of a comic. Maybe that’s why “The Flash” is more energetic and dynamic than it’s been in a long time. The book’s design recalls Will Eisner’s creativity, with innovative title spreads, energetic panel layout and a strong use of color to lead the reader through the story. Moreover, they’ve found a fun way to evolve the Flash’s powers to keep up with the speed of information in the 21st century. “The Fastest Man Alive” means something interesting again.
You know the manic pixie dream girl archetype? Annah Billips fits it to a T. Does she have a homunculus sister? Or did her parents traumatize her enough to imagine one? Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover leave these questions up to the reader to solve as we’re told Annah’s strange story through multiple, sometimes unreliable, narrators. It’s either a playful fairy tale or magically realistic modernism. You decide.
GREEN RIVER KILLER: A TRUE DETECTIVE STORY
Jeff Jensen (also a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, which, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner) tells the true story of his father’s 20-plus-year investigation into the Green River serial killer. Moving back and forth in time, the narrative drives home the resonating effects of these murders and the senseless mind behind them. Jonathan Case’s art is graceful, unraveling this mystery with every line. He’s precise with his characters’ faces, their emotions and the composition of each page. Despite its resolution, this comic haunts the reader with all of the lives the killer took and the traumatic effects his actions left on the living.
THE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE
I have a friend who is currently obsessed with his privacy, to the point that he’s considering going off the grid, as much as one can nowadays. If he ever reads “The Homeland Directive,” he’ll probably break out in hives from the panic it induces. Robert Venditti’s well-thought-out government conspiracy thriller raises some of America’s biggest fears: nationalist terrorism, deadly contagion and the invasion of privacy through omnipresent surveillance. Artist Mike Huddleston experiments with style from scene to scene, moving from gorgeous washes to crayon scribblings. His clever use of minimal color focuses the reader’s attention, so the story’s threats are always recognizably near.
What could seem like a color-coded superhero gimmick is actually a sympathetic story about the evolution of Bruce Banner’s nemesis. Jeff Parker gives the Red Hulk a traditional Marvel-style origin: the super-powered being with flaws that disconnect him from society. Unlike Banner, he isn’t an innocent everyman but actually starts out as a jerk who everyone (from Thor to Iron Man) hates. However, his journey here helps us identify with him, so by the end, you’re rooting for his acceptance. Artist Gabriel Hardman is a master storyteller, always positioning our point of view to set the right mood. I especially like his use of panel gutters, shadows and negative space to pull the story along. He created excellent conceptual designs for this series too. With Bettie Breitweiser’s judicious use of color, the art is even better, especially with the palettes she chooses to apply to Hardman’s brushwork. If a good story and art don’t interest you, don’t worry. There’s still plenty of punching and smashing to go around for every kind of Hulk fan.
I’ve read comments online where people deride this series as being DC’s answer to the “Twilight” phenomenon. (DC, like CNN is owned by parent company TimeWarner.) Honestly, it’s closer to Guillermo del Toro than Stephenie Meyer. “I, Vampire” takes vampire fiction into themes of genocide and contamination. The relationship at its core, between Andrew Bennett and Mary Seward, is dysfunctional and abusive, hardly romantic. Bennett is Mary’s enabler, and thousands die because she is his Achilles heel. Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov tells this story from both their perspectives, where Mary’s rationale for vampirism isn’t far removed from an omnivore arguing with a vegetarian. Andrea Sorrentino’s art is haunting and Gothic, with not a dot on a page wasted. Jenny Frison’s gorgeously art nouveau covers complete the package.
INFINITE KUNG FU
I grew up on Tsui Hark’s wu xia films and hold a soft spot for eastern mythic fantasy featuring impossible martial arts. “Infinite Kung Fu” is a love letter to that genre, filled with over 450 pages of stunningly choreographed fight scenes of epic imagination. Kagan McLeod is a master cartoonist whose brushwork here is so fluid, it sometimes echoes the beauty of East Asian calligraphy in its elegance.
JOE THE BARBARIAN
This myth’s been told dozens of times before, but never quite like this. Grant Morrison does what he does best by taking the expected and flipping it on its head. 13-year-old Joe begins a hero’s journey into another world … or is he just slipping into an insulin coma? Either way, a warrior rat joins his mission to save the world and get a soda. Along the way, they encounter familiar faces: transforming robots, masked vigilantes, ninja soldiers, dwarf pirates and iron knights. Artist Sean Murphy smoothly takes every detail of Joe’s house and turns it into the floor plan for an alternate universe of fantasy. His illustrations are simultaneously sleek and jagged, filling every page with pathos and energy. At its heart, “Joe the Barbarian” is about a child coping with change and loss, but Morrison and Murphy construct those experiences into the adventure of a lifetime.
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: CENTURY: 1969
The latest in Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s meta-fictional series parades into sex clubs, forgotten superhero lairs and acid-fueled rock festivals. Mina Murray mimes hipster jargon from the 1960s in a psychedelic investigation in which her league and a familiar English gangster simultaneously hunt the streets of London for a villain who’s manipulating the Rolling Stones to ensure his immortality.
LOCKE AND KEY
Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez do something rare. They masterfully summon a story that captures Lovecraftian horror, where humanity is utterly insignificant in the face of evil. Yet, in “Locke and Key,” there is some hope beyond the grief and carnage wrought by a magical house filled with impossible keys. Maybe it’s the sense of wonder or the perfect pace with which this story unfolds, but there’s comfort in the complex relationships of the Locke family … which makes it even more heartbreaking when they step closer to inevitable doom.
Eighteen lifetimes begin and end in darkness within this original graphic novel. In between, Ray Fawkes poetically compares and contrasts the human experience across both history and culture. Each page spread in “One Soul” forms an 18-panel grid, with every panel representing a singular moment in a character’s life. Fawkes uses the comics medium to present a one-of-a-kind communicative event. When you step back to look at the sum of its parts, “One Soul” cleverly weaves these lives together, using artistic arrangement to symbolize their unity.
This magnificently packaged original graphic novel contains the story behind the 1916 death of Grigori Rasputin, the “mad monk” who influenced the last Russian tsar and his family. “Petrograd” may be historical fiction, but its subject was thoroughly researched by writer Philip Gelatt. What did the secret police, the growing resistance movement and the British Secret Intelligence Service have to do with Rasputin’s murder? Artist Tyler Crook keeps the pages turning with his moody use of light and shadows, complemented by a red wash that permeates the spaces in between. Its tone ranges from copper to sanguine and seems to prophesize blood in the streets and the impending communist revolution.
Remember thought balloons in comics? They’ve all but gone the way of the dodo. “SVK” brings them back in a way completely unique to print media. However, being able to see character’s thoughts isn’t the pleasant exposition we’re used to. Instead, they reveal the seedy perversions of each characters’ ids. Writer Warren Ellis and art collaborator D’Israeli teamed up with Berg LTD to produce this one-of-a-kind artifact comic. Each copy comes with a UV flashlight that reveals hidden art printed with invisible ink. The device ties into the story, full of near-future espionage where privacy is all but gone thanks to terrorism and the information age. Reading with the device further immerses the reader, making you feel like a part of the unraveling investigation.
WHO IS JAKE ELLIS?
Ever wish you had an imaginary friend that was a master spy who helped you escape any situation? Jon has Jake, a shadowy guiding presence whom only he sees and hears. Together, they race across Europe, seeking the answer to how they were brought together while Jon dodges bullets that could tear them apart. I can’t imagine Nathan Edmondson’s story without the art of Tonci Zonjic. His smart use of colors combined with stark brush strokes build page after page until their pace has its own rhythm that builds into a beautiful symphonic end.