As 2011 draws to close, ComicsAlliance has assembled its annual list of the best comics and graphic novels of the year, with the help and input of our editors, writers, and readers. Like any list, it is naturally subjective, but we've packed it chock full of eleven comics that have awed us, excited us, and entertained us over the last 12 months and books that we're passionate about recommending. We'll be rolling out the rest throughout the week, but for now we begin at the beginning with the first three books in our Top 11 Comics of 2011.
#11. Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener (Red 5)
Since Atomic Robo's premiere in 2007, the series about a scientific adventure robot created by Nikola Tesla has been a shining example of so many things that are right about comics. It's a book that's funny and yet surprisingly touching at times, a book that features car chases, gun fights and robots punching other robots but never uses them as an excuse to give up on being smart. And it's a book I recommend with the same enthusiasm to both someone who's never read a comic before and someone who's been reading comics their entire life.
Robo's adventures place throughout most of the 20th century, jumping back and forth through different eras across different volumes where Robo combats strange scientific and supernatural phenomena. But as each new story is told the audience gains a more complete understanding and appreciation of Robo's personality and the events that shaped him, including the last two volumes where we saw Robo beginning his life of adventure in the 1930s and then back in the present day, as the leader of an organization of action scientists with decades of memories behind him.
In the former story, The Deadly Art of Science, Robo is brash, reckless, and yearning to become a pulp hero, much to the frustration of both his caring yet eccentric creator, Nikola Tesla and his reluctant mentor Jack Tarot. It's the first time we see Tesla on the page rather than hear about him as part of Robo's backstory, and Clevinger and Wegener do a great job of making a historical figure fits perfectly into the universe they've built as a wise, powerful father figure. (And his final battle with Thomas Edison is spectacularly done.)
With its sixth volume, Ghost of Station X, the series jumps ahead to a point where it's Robo has become the wise and powerful one, and must look after a team of scientists rather than being looked after by them. When Robo is nearly destroyed in an emergency rescue mission to save trapped astronauts he has to come to terms with the fact that someone is trying to kill him, and that he's not as invincible as he'd like to be. The small moment where Robo loses the revolver Jack Tarot gave him, the trusty sidearm he'd carried with him for over seventy years, is a tiny, well-done scene. And it's many tiny well-done scenes like this -- mostly funny, some exciting, a few heartfelt -- that come together to make this book stunningly good.
I've noticed a tendency in the field of comics blogging, or perhaps pop culture commentary in general, where a writer cites the more outlandishly fantastic aspects of a story as means of objectively justifying its awesomeness. As if to say "this cultural product is worthwhile because this is a thing that happens in it." And you could argue that this approach doesn't quite successfully convey a holistically critical argument for why a certain piece of work is worth checking out.
Then again, one of the main characters in Infinite Kung Fu is a martial arts master named Moog Joogular who rolls around in a track suit and a sweet afro and occasionally ends his fights by throwing his own head at people. Now I could make the argument that the opportunity to see that kind of thing in a comic book is more than enough reason to go out and read this thing, and it's a pretty good reason, but I'd be a silly kind of fellow go to staking the value of something so brilliant on just one little piece of it.
Infinite Kung Fu is Kagan McLeod's grand tribute to a genre that he clearly loves in a serious way. We know that this is a guy who spent a huge amount of time watching kung fu flicks growing up, and it shows. It's the kind of book that Brian Benben's character from "Dream On" would have made about television. This book contains a perfectly crafted kung fu epic, with a hero's journey, and one of the best casts of characters I've seen in quite some time. And even if you're not an expert on the genre, it feels like you're reading a melting pot of the best flicks lining the wall of that one video store you always pass on the way home from work. The one with all the kung fu movies.
If you're familiar with Kagan MacLeod's art, you've probably seen his illustrations in any number of popular magazines. That was my primary reference point for his work prior to picking up this book. My limited encounter with his style had left me knowing that he did some pretty cool drawings of celebrities. It's an understatement to say that picking up this book expanded my view of his style. There's a fluidity and a sense of motion to MacLeod's artwork in this book that lends itself perfectly to a story that's at least 30% sweet kung fu action. He brings together his sketching and brushwork in a perfect marriage. When folks are fighting in Infinite Kung Fu, you feel them moving, and it flows like Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nunchuks.
When you look at the best books these days, more often than not, you'll find that they tend to be absolute labors of love crafted by people with a true affection for the types of stories being told. Infinite Kung Fu is a perfect example of this, and the future of the medium will likely (hopefully) be carried forth by lovers like Kagan MacLeod.
#9. Hellboy/BPRD by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi (writers), Duncan Fegredo, Guy Davis, Richard Corben (artists) et al. (Dark Horse)
Hellboy started as the story of a demonic superhero and paranormal investigator, sort of a Benjamin Grimm meets Van Helsing kind of guy. In its sister book, the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) hunted cryptids and monstrous frogs. Together, Hellboy and BPRD are two of the most creatively successful and consistent series you'll find on the stands, and while they've drifted far from their beginnings, you'd be hard pressed to find a fan that's upset about that. Mignola, John Arcudi, and Guy Davis took BPRD to the limit and decided to keep pushing.
Late last year, BPRD: Hell on Earth: New World welcomed us to the middle of the apocalypse while the brave men and women of the BPRD tried their hardest, but failed to stop the coming storm. This year, Mike Mignola's Hellboy franchise doubled down on completely and irrevocably disrupting its status quo in 2011. Other-dimensional beasts roam the world, eager to convert it to something that they can survive and thrive in. Pockets of corruption have spread rapidly, bringing a distinctly personal touch to this new world. Now, the BPRD's mission of prevention and protection has turned into containment. Across the Atlantic, Hellboy left behind a newfound love and a safe England, ran right to his destiny, passing into myth and legend in the process -- and fell.
There have been no take backs or easy outs. Well-loved characters die, and die ugly, just like everyone else. Others have doubt cast over their actions and past, sending them spiraling down a web of mystery. The past couple years of BPRD have seen constant change, from the rapid-fire upheavals to the loss of longtime series penciller Guy Davis. The transition to new regular penciller Tyler Crook has gone fairly smoothly, with barely a drop in overall quality.
Hellboy is a clinic. Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo charted the rise and fall of a true hero. They began with a standard Hellboy adventure and then went ahead and expanded the story, drawing in even more legends and fairy tales in the process, before turning around and tying it right back into the core of the Hellboy mythos. This year's Hellboy: The Fury miniseries was a perfect event comic. It didn't overstay its welcome, and every single one of its three issues had the impact of a punch to the stomach. On top of that, Mignola and Richard Corben continued their collaboration with Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, a standalone graphic novel and sequel to Hellboy In Mexico, last year's best comic. Once again, Mignola and Corben knocked it all the way out of the park.
Hellboy, as a franchise, is a blueprint for how to do comics right. Characters evolve and grow. Talented creators are given the freedom to do some genuinely stellar work. The books come out on a schedule that makes sense, rather than being a monthly or ongoing series just for the sake of it. Each series has a point. These are incredibly good comics, and I'm glad to see that "Everything Changes" is a feasible approach for an ongoing series.
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