Over the last several weeks, ComicsAlliance assembled its annual list of the best comics and graphic novels of the year with the help 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. Now that the year has finally come to a close, we've assembled the entire list in one place for easy reading as we take a much-needed day off. Let us know what comics you enjoyed the most in 2011, and what you're looking forward to in 2012!
#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.
#8. Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder, Jock, Francesco Francavilla (DC Comics)
Scott Snyder's tenure on Detective Comics -- anchored by artistic partners Jock and Francesco Francavilla -- took place under conditions that shouldn't have fostered a classic. Detective focused on the second-tier Batman, Dick Grayson, while Grant Morrison continued to script his grand Batman plan with Bruce Wayne in the pages of the sporadically-released Batman Incorporated. Grayson as Batman was also essentially a lame duck for a year preceding DC's line-wide New 52 reboot, yet Snyder, Jock and Francavilla somehow managed to tell a story that didn't just work around those restrictions; it turned them into strengths.
Originally published in Detective Comics #871-881, the eleven-issue run was originally planned as a series of Batman lead stories with art by Jock and David Baron and Commissioner Gordon backups with art by Francesco Francavilla. Two issues into the run, DC Comics punted the entire concept of backup stories, so the scripts originally allocated to those got moved to one-offs in between arcs drawn by Francavilla, and is all but invisible in the final collected edition. But what of the story itself?
The Black Mirror told the story of Dick Grayson and Gotham City coming to grips with each other on a personal basis, fueled by the return of James Gordon Jr. -- last seen in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One -- to Gotham, complete with an entire untold backstory of psychopathy and rehabilitation. The question isn't whether the young Gordon is mentally ill; it's whether or not he's sincere about wanting not to be, and it's this mystery that drives the majority of the action in Black Mirror, while new villains such as the Mirror House, Roadrunner and Tiger Shark (not to mention the Joker) weave in and out of Snyder's scheme.
But what elevated it to one of the best comics of 2011, other than inauspicious origins? Considering this eleven-issue arc was Scott Snyder's first major superhero work (barring his four-issue Iron Man Noir miniseries at Marvel, which I'm surprised they aren't promoting the hell out of), it's an effective clinic in how to fit a series of largely unrelated stories into a thematically connected framework, not to mention a very well-constructed and well-executed mystery. It repeatedly manipulates both the characters and the reader both emotionally and mentally to very unsettling effect, and while the story's conclusion relies a bit too heavily on a villainous monologue to resolve the bulk of the overall story's dangling plotlines, the monologue itself is both ironic and a bit of a revelation, so cleverness goes a long way.
And as for the art, it's utterly spectacular. Jock and colorist David Baron handle the "main" Batman sections excellently, with Jock's jagged, practiced style complimenting Snyder's skewed tale perfectly. Maybe even more impressive, though, is secondary story artist Francesco Francavilla, who colors his own work and contributes the art to the sections focusing on the Gordon family drama. As much as Snyder tells an interesting Dick Grayson story, his version of Commissioner Gordon -- wracked with guilt over essentially abandoning his own psychotic son -- is incredibly compelling, as is Barbara Gordon's's natural distrust of the newly-returned James Jr. All of this is rendered beautifully by Francavilla, whose character acting is superb.
In short, this is a title that was a B-level Batman book when it came out, playing second fiddle to the ongoing multi-year Batman drama masterminded by Grant Morrison, one of the best writers to ever work in superhero comics, but Scott Snyder, Jock and Francesco Francavilla managed to turn it into the MOST essential read in the line.
(Buy the Batman: The Black Mirror collection at your local comic shop or online, or get the single issues digitally)
#7. Casanova: Avaritia by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba (Marvel Comics/Icon)
Casanova is the kind of comic that you want to make up new words for. Like "enthusirhythm". This entire comic is infused with enthusirhythm. And psychedelicious metasextuality. Hello there, and welcome to this essay.
Casanova might not make any sense. I'm not sure. I don't really care. It makes sense to me, at least while I'm reading it. There's Casanova, the secret agent for E.M.P.I.R.E., sent throughout time and space to assassinate entire universes in order to prevent E.M.P.I.R.E.'s nemesis Newman Xeno from living long enough to bring Casanova through time and space from his home universe to the one he lives in now, where he's sent throughout time and space to assassinate entire universes. Or something. It makes sense while I'm reading it.
Casanova is one of those books that puts the lie to the phrase "style over substance." You've heard people use that as an insult, right? Well, it's nonsense, and here's why: if your style and your substance are separate entities, you're doing it wrong.
Casanova has the style of a freight train with ADD. It's constantly threatening to jump the tracks; characters leap from universe to universe between panels, colors tremble against the lines that strain to hold them in, the comic stops itself to throw information in your face that you have no means of processing. Matt Fraction, a man whose real-life day job it is to find the weak points in someone else's universe and break it as creatively as possible, makes a cameo to tell you that none of it means anything. A panda's head explodes.
Casanova doesn't tell you who the bad guys are, or if there even are good guys, or what any of them ultimately want. Casanova has the best science fiction braintwisters, the brightest neon-colored action scenes, the most aggressively literate and referential dialogue, the most consistently naked men and women.
Casanova has art by Gabriel Ba (this time, and his twin brother Fabio Moon last time. Gabriel Ba the time before that. Whatever, they're both incredible). Casanova makes you feel like writer Matt Fraction is probably really your friend because you read his comic, even though he doesn't actually know your name and is in no way likely to be your friend, not because you're necessarily a bad person or anything, but that's just not how friendships or human relationships work. But Casanova makes you buy into it a little bit, because it feels more special that way. And, to a point, that's okay. That's a fun thing about Casanova, about the intimacy of comics, about being the kind of person who wants to read a dense, funny, confusing, hyperactive, self-indulgent, mindblowing book about a free-floating semi-autobiographical metaphor in a snazzy suit.
Casanova makes you write articles about it where every paragraph starts with the word "Casanova."
Casanova likes abrupt endings.
Buy Casanova: Avarita at your local shop or digitally.
#6. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (Webcomic/Drawn & Quarterly)
Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant at first seems like an unlikely contender for comics superstardom. Beaton is a history nerd and a Canadian, and while her comics sometimes feature geek favorites like Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, they also tend toward figures like Matthew Henson, the historically neglected first man to set foot (and, according to Beaton's brain, do squats) on the North Pole, and Canadian prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. And Beaton's artwork is often aptly described as sketchy, favoring a loose, messy energy to clean and polished lines.
But there's always the sense when reading Hark! A Vagrant that you have somehow climbed inside Beaton's head and are looking back on the history of the world through her very unique lens. No event in Beaton's world is dry, no person stodgy.
It's great fun to imagine that every historical figure was as wild-eyed as Beaton imagines them; that Napoleon constantly had to correct misperceptions about his height; that Watson and Crick followed Rosalind Franklin around with schoolboy taunts ("Is it a scientific breakthrough in feelings?"); that Charlotte and Emily Bronte would spend their afternoons swooning over horrid men, with Anne groaning in the background; that Joe Kennedy forced his children to wrestle for his affections (and scolded an infant Ted for lacking ambition). Even if you're not familiar with the figures she's lampooning, each comic feels spontaneous and silly and, above all, human, and they're sure to send you to Wikipedia to suss historical fact from anachronistic goofiness.
Drawn & Quarterly's Hark! A Vagrant is actually the second collection of Beaton's work, after the TopatoCo-published Never Learn Anything from History, and it's very much a webcomics collection. Beaton occasionally wanders away from her historical roots, poking and playing with notions as diverse as Nancy Drew mysteries, Edward Gorey's book cover illustrations, Canadian stereotypes and sexy Batman.
Online, Beaton's impulse to pursue anything that captures her imagination is one of her great strengths; it keeps Hark! A Vagrant fresh and exciting, and these random riffs on her obsession du jour is yet another reason her comic feels so intensely personal. If Hark! A Vagrant had started first as a print comic, it's less likely we'd see these ahistorical tangents between the covers. The result is that the print collection closely replicates the gloriously messy experience of reading the comics as they appear online.
For folks who have long followed Beaton online, Hark! A Vagrant offers a bonus beyond merely collecting her comics in print. Beaton's comics stem from her genuine affection for history, and even the shortest and strangest comics are drawn from real historical events. In this print volume, Beaton adds her own witty commentary, putting each comic in proper historical context, so the less historical inclined among us can enjoy them on almost the same level that Beaton herself does.
#5. Criminal: Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
Created by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips as a series of self-contained graphic novels, Criminal has been one of my all-time favorite comic book titles since its inception. Other comics just invite you to read them. You know, look at the pictures and words and put them together in your head and follow along in that fashion until you get the end, ideally becoming somewhat "lost" in the narrative and taking the occasional mental break to admire the craftsmanship of the authors.
Reading Criminal is a different experience. So creatively powerful is the collaboration between these men that their stories actually usurp your power as a reader. You find yourself not simply looking down upon a beautifully drawn, colored and lettered comic book page and processing that data in the matrix of your imagination, but experiencing the story as if it were real. Criminal spreads itself over your mind's eye and you see the worlds of Phillips and Staples and Stewart's creation as clearly as if they were your own memories. You see the scars, cuts and bruises on the faces of Criminal brutish men as if they'd just spat in your own, and you smell the hair and taste the cigarette smoke of Criminal beautiful women as if you'd just kissed them in the corner booth of a darkened bar.
You live every Criminal story in this completely visceral way until you reach its conclusion, at which point you feel a wholly unique synthesis of exhilaration and dread. Exhilaration because you've just snapped out of a transcendental experience that completely supplanted your own senses of of perception, and dread because you've just thought the thoughts of Brubaker's variously flawed, amoral and doomed heroesvillains protagonists as if they were yours. Those thoughts and those actions, experienced so intimately in the true genius of this long-running series, make you feel guilty and make you feel sick.
This phenomenon was never more potent than it is in The Last of the Innocent, the Criminal story of 2011. While Brubaker and Phillips did plenty damage in previous storylines by transplanting us into the worlds of career crooks and other underworld unsavories that most of us wouldn't otherwise know, they twist Criminal's narrative knife even deeper by introducing a character who's so much like us that we can tell right away that this one is really going to hurt.
Last of the Innocent stars non-criminal Riley Richards, a guy from a small town with a drop-dead gorgeous wife and a great job at her impossibly rich father's company. Sadly, Riley's father-in-law hates him, Riley's wife is cheating on Riley with his high school rival, Riley's burnout best friend from childhood has a substance abuse problem, and Riley's obese father is dying of stomach cancer. Riley returns home to visit his sick father and takes stock of what's become of the young man he used to be, when two girls fought endlessly for his affections, his best friend made him laugh for days just by eating a really huge number of hamburgers, and he spent days tinkering with his endlessly malfunctioning jalopy.
It becomes purposefully obvious very quickly that these characters are reminiscent of some American comic book icons familiar to us all. Some people have called it "Riverdale Noir," and it is an exceptionally cool way for Brubaker and Phillips to adapt the Criminal format to say something about the deception of nostalgia.
(It is also, I have to admit, entertaining enough on just that surface level to see Archie Comics analogues in a sexy and violent crime story, and it's really weird just how well they work in that context.)
Like many of us -- maybe comic book readers in particular? -- Riley makes the mistake of allowing the past to intrude upon his perception of the present. Riley's memories of "the good old days" are represented cleverly by Phillips in a flat, retro art style that recalls the comics of the '60s and '70s, where everybody is cute, colorful and simple. It's in stark contrast to Riley's life in the present day, where everybody is sleazy, corrupt and mean; and where Riley owes money all over town. In what Brubaker has stated is a deliberate reference to Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, Riley is indeed seduced by his nostalgia-poisoned, comic book-style notions of the life he should have had, and he takes tragic, extreme, and criminal action to make that life real.
The resulting yarn is as brutal as any Criminal story that's come before, but it is unquestionably the most painful book yet in this most essential creator-owned series.
#4. Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse)
Despite seven Eisner Award nominations, Finder has long been one of the most under-recognized masterpieces in comics, a triumph of world-building with roots that spread wide and deep beneath the surface of the page into the realms of anthropology, science fiction, and aboriginal myth. In the massive, domed metropolis of Anvard, Carla Speed McNeil has created a world where the tribal and futuristic mingle together freely in a vast, complex society so fully-formed that its stories feel like tourism as much as escapism.
But do not be deceived. A visit to the world of Finder is not a guided tour of popular attractions, peppered with helpful loudspeaker narration and carefully marked trails. Finder is like stepping off a bus in a foreign city with nothing but a cringled wad of cash and an old map in a language you don't completely understand. It leads you down the untended alleys of bad neighborhoods where bio-organic viruses make televisions grow wild as ivy. It pushes you into the back rooms of empty supermarkets where nomadic tribes summon death gods to dance and bleed at funerals. It does not hold your hand.
While each volume locates itself in a slightly different area of McNeil's rich, layered world, most have revolved around Jaeger, a charming, infuriating bad boy with a strange gift for finding what people have lost (see title). As a half-blood Ascian with no social standing, Jaeger survives thanks to a related talent for slipping in and out of other people's worlds -- and lives -- while belonging to none of them. Although compulsive nomads make excellent adventurers, they also tend to be fairly sh*tty friends, and for the first time Voice gives us a glimpse at what happens to the people that he leaves behind.
One of those people is Rachel, a teenaged candidate for membership in the Llaverac clan, who has watched Jaeger wander in and out of her life -- and her mother's bed -- since she was a small child. Rachel is in the midst of a clan conformation trial, a fantastic, horrifying event that resembles an unholy mixture of a ruthless beauty pageant and a reality TV spectacle. In a society where power lies solely in the hands of homogenous clans, the pressure to conform to their exacting standards -- physical, social and psychological -- is staggering, particularly when membership can mean the difference between a life of affluence and power, or ending up in poverty or at best, someone's mistress.
Each clan values different physical and mental traits, and while some select for mathematical talent or scientific aptitude, the Llaverac clan is made up entirely of tall, impossibly thin blond girls with a flair for cattiness and drama. Which is to say that Rachel's entire future will be determined by whether or not she can fit in with the mean girls at school. After a lifetime of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, Rachel has learned to go along to get along, and why wouldn't she? Like pretty girls throughout the ages, Rachel has realized that her future is virtually assured so long as she keeps her mouth shut, goes through the motions and doesn't cause any problems.
It is the lie of Betty Draper, the lie of the magazines and the movies: that if you can find a way to do a flawless impression of the person you are expected to be, then you will finally be happy. And conversely, that if you tell people who you are and what is in your heart, that you will look foolish and no one will ever love you. Rachel finds herself locked in that moment of paralysis, the one where you know you should speak or act, but the words catch on a hook of fear inside your throat, and you let it go. Inaction defines the entire arc of her life, as though she has always been standing in the middle of the road waiting to get hit by a car because it's the only way she knows how to move from where she is.
The inevitable accident comes in the form of a mugging, where Rachel loses the irreplaceable hereditary ring that grants her access to the conformation trial. This assault is also apparently viewed as her fault in the eyes of everyone she asks for help, and she can't help but feel that they're a little bit right. After all, she has always let everything happen to her, so why should this be any different?
Her brother thinks she's worthless, her peers think she's a graceless interloper, and her mother spends all her time lost in digital dreams, cords spilling like curls from the infojacks in her skull. One short, but telling scene hints at the deeper psychological scars that make Rachel's confidence buckle beneath her like a trap door: "When I was eight," says Rachel in an internal monologue, "I went into the laundry room with Lester the molester because he said he'd tell me what some bad words meant... I knew he was bad. I knew he would hurt me. I didn't run. Kid or not, I knew. I did. I just didn't act."
Failed by her connections, her family, and her friends, Rachel goes looking for the one man who could always find anything: Jaeger. A kinetic, swaggering ne'er do well who always made every misstep look like something he meant to do all along, Jaeger is "just a magic man," says Rachel. "He rose above the bullsh*t. And I need some magic." It is worth noting that Rachel goes looking not for the ring, but for someone she believes will save her, because she cannot conceive of any way to save herself.
But as her chances at clan membership (and all hope of finding Jaeger) slowly dissolve, Rachel begins crossing boundaries with alarming speed, winding her way through the underbelly of the city where she is chased by dead-eyed sociopaths with fingers bent at 90 degree angles, dragged to police stations where a lack of clan affiliation means you may well leave through the morgue, and swallowed by night neighborhoods where the "moon" is a cold rectangle of light streaming down from a broken panel in a higher level of the city wealthy enough to afford the sun. These are places where good girls are not supposed to go, of course, but once you've lost everything, what is there to be afraid of?
In the end, what saves Rachel is not Jaeger, but rather the realization that nobody ever really gets saved, not by rings, and not by heroes, and not by being perfect. And finally, in her proudest moment, discovering the magic of knowing the right thing to say in the right moment, and being both brave enough to say it and wise enough to know when silence is the most powerful magic word of all.
There are so few virtuosos in comics. Artists who can not only draw the hell out of anything (and there's few enough of those!) and who put their talents to smart use (a smaller pool, still!) but those who do so with a staggering grandness of ambition, a startling certainty of purpose, and the swagger and flair of a great braggart. Craig Thompson fits the bill on all counts, and so his latest book, Habibi, so full of ambition and flair (not to mention heartbreaking exhibitions of skill with brush and pen) has established him as chief representative of a very small group indeed.
Trying to unpack everything from Habibi in a single, short piece is nigh-impossible. Simply put: It's a big book, and it's chock full o'stuff. Thompson crams every nook and cranny of the book with ideas, and the themes around which he weaves his intellectual tapestry are not lightweight: love, sex, god, race, man's inhumanity to man, man's further inhumanity to woman, religion, motherhood, the nature of stories, and the nature of time.
Yet Habibi is also a clear and poignant narrative, told through a deft merging of naturalist drama and fairy tale traditions. The core of the book is the tale of Dodora, a young girl who grows to a woman through the adversity of slavery, poverty, and cruel sexual politics, and of Zam, the young boy she adopts first as a child, but who, as he grows to a man, sees her more and more through the lens of his sex, and is wracked with guilt and fear. They each navigate Thompson's world of fantastic metaphor and harsh danger, sometimes together, sometimes torn apart, but neither losing their complex love for the other. That Thompson so ably manages to create both a dense thicket of thought, and a story that flows through that thicket as smoothly as running water is a constant source of awe.
The dual nature of Habibi's structure is captured in the very fabric of Thompson's art - his lines are as thick and sumptuous as Habibi's narrative is dense and full. But those same lines flow with a graceful lightness, and so does the reader move through the world of Habibi as if weightlessly blown across a desert breeze.
Habibi is not a perfect book -- and how boring it would be if it were! If Thompson's chief virtue is his willingness to plunge headlong into a web of ideas and capture them with as much baroque flourish as he can muster, it is perhaps inevitable that many of those ideas will be confrontational or contradictory. The most transgressive and problematic element of Habibi, as has been much discussed and debated, is the Orientalist setting of the book.
For Habibi, Thompson has sewn together fragments of folk tales, myths, and personal observations of the Arab world into an unreal fantasy landscape, unstuck in time and unbeholden to reality (though Thompson does draw on a tremendous amount of research to get many details historically correct). The result is a beautifully strange setting in which Thompson can flit back and forth from naturalism and fantasy without violating any diagetic reality.
Thompson's strangeness, however, is not completely removed from the exotic titillation Western artists have been drawing from the East for centuries, and it is hard not to see much of that historical exoticism as harmful, alienating, and dehumanizing. That the book chooses to place itself anywhere inside that tradition raises eyebrows indeed. But unlike a less confident artist, who might back and fill away from problematic elements, Thompson embraces them. Through interviews he's left no doubt that the invocation of Orientalism was purposeful, and purposefully aggressive. Thompson wants you to be unsure about his work, to be taken out of your safe zone, and to be forced to engage the book on more levels than as a mere entertainment.
Habibi is the work of a cartoonist with a rare combination of talents and proclivities. Eager to tackle weighty themes and unafraid to wallow in controversial exploitation, he also has the intelligence, empathy, and technical chops to match his ambition and perversity. For all of this he deserves to be scrutinized, criticized, argued with, and also loudly celebrated.
#2. Daredevil by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera (Marvel Comics)
Here's the thing about Daredevil: Being great is not exactly a new idea for this book. For years -- for decades -- it's consistently been one of Marvel's best titles, with legendary stories by creators like Frank Miller, Ann Nocenti, Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, Harlan Ellison and others setting a pretty high standard. So it's not that Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera have made Daredevil great again, or even that they've made it the single best Marvel book on the stands since the relaunch.
It's that they've made it great in a completely different way than it's been great in the past 30 years.
The word that's been thrown around a lot to describe the new Daredevil been "light-hearted," but that's not entirely accurate. There are certainly more funny moments, especially in the way that Matt Murdock cheerily interacts with his friends, but the stories that Waid, Martin and Rivera are telling aren't chock full of sunshine, rainbows and rescuing kittens from trees. Really, it's called "light-hearted" because we don't really have another word that means "less suicidally depressing."
Virtually every notable Daredevil story since 1980 has been built around thoroughly crushing the title character with one horrible event after another. The only exception, and an influence Waid has cited for his stories, was the all-too-brief Karl Kesel/Cary Nord run from the late '90s that went for a more swashbuckling tone but never got the attention that it deserved.
Other than that, he's been stripped of his job, his house has been blown up, his girlfriends have been murdered by the handful, his wife was rendered insane and he's legally forbidden from ever seeing her again, and last year, he even found himself the victim of actual demonic possession. Admittedly, you're sort of asking for that one when you dress up as the Devil and fight crime, but it's a level of laser-focused misery so profound that the most unbelievable thing about that book wasn't that he was a blind ninja with radar sense, it was that, as Waid has said in interviews, that he didn't wake up one morning and decide to put a gun in his mouth. Each team that took over the book seemed to be hell-bent on outdoing the tragedy of the last, to the point where it started to stagnate. There are only so many new and interesting ways you can break a person before it starts to get boring for anyone but the most hardcore super-hero sadist.
But the great thing about Waid's work on the title is that he doesn't just push that stuff aside. He acknowledges that whole miserable backstory within the comic, to the point where other characters are actually worried about Matt Murdock's relative happiness being the sign of yet another mental breakdown. There are even ongoing consequences from the previous stories, like the fact that his secret identity was exposed, interfering with his ability to practice law and help people without dressing up in a costume and punching muggers.
For Daredevil himself, though, the change feels natural. He's been suffering for so long that it's easy to understand why he takes the opportunity to make a change in his life when he's finally able to free himself from a literal inner demon. Languishing in the despair he's been saddled with clearly hasn't been working out for him, so if he's going to endure, if he's going to embrace doing what he does even through his own suffering -- if, in other words, he's going to do exactly what we need to see a hero do -- then why not embrace the excitement of his adventures?
And with that single idea in place, that's exactly what Waid does with the character. He's taken the idea that's so monumentally simple that it's amazing it doesn't get used more often: He's made Daredevil a daredevil. He's a thrillseeker, he takes risks other heroes wouldn't, he revels in the sheer fun of what he's doing, because being a ninja acrobat super-hero should be fun. Even if he's chasing the high that comes from an adventure in an effort to bury the pain of his past -- something that, again, comes up from other characters in the book -- it leads to exciting storytelling and a lead character that you want to like for more reasons than just his incredible ability to endure pain.
Waid's a writer who's been honing his craft for more than 20 years, and he somehow just keeps getting sharper. It would be the easiest thing in the world to believe that he'd hit his peak with Flash, or Fantastic Four, or Amazing Spider-Man, or any of the other dozens of titles he's worked on over the year, but his first six issues of Daredevil stack up against anything he's written in his career. They're full of incredible adventure stories, told in an innovative way and based around concepts that are instantly engaging, and that pull great stuff in from the larger Marvel Universe.
It's been years since anyone did anything with the idea of Daredevil, the blind man with super-hearing who can "see" through vibrations, fighting Klaw, a man made of sentient sound waves. A lot of that has to do with Daredevil existing in its own crime-ridden, noir-themed corner of the Universe, but again, what was once a selling point for the book and a launchpad for great stories was starting to feel confined. Opening things back up has led to some great new possibilities.
Case in point: Bruiser, a villain introduced by Waid and Martin that is essentially a luchador-masked hitman with the super-power of "you can't suplex me," who is also sponsored NASCAR-style by the international terrorist organizations of the Marvel Universe.
There is nothing about this that I do not absolutely love. And not just because he presents a great challenge for Daredevil, either -- by giving Bruiser the motivation of wanting to fight his way up the food chain of the strongest characters of the Marvel Universe, Waid has done one of the things he does best. He's created a villain with a legitimate sense of danger that can be dropped anywhere, into any story, and work perfectly.
And then there's the art.
I've been a huge fan of both Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera for years, and to be honest, when the news came out that they were leaving the rotating cast of artists that were working on Amazing Spider-Man, I was a little disappointed. Martin is hands down one of the best artists to ever work on that comic, up there with Steve Ditko and John Romita for his dynamic action and innovative layouts, and along with writer Zeb Wells, Rivera's responsible for my favorite Spider-Man fight scene of all time in #577. As much as they seemed like they'd be a good fit, I was worried that they wouldn't be able to top what they'd already done.
As it turns out, "good fit" was underselling things quite a bit. Rivera and Martin both are providing the best art that Daredevil's had in years, even decades. And it goes beyond just being their usual level of craftsmanship -- they've embraced Daredevil's super-powers in a way that few artists can, and even fewer have. Figuring out a way to represent a blind man who "sees" with his other senses in a medium as visual as comics is a tough feat to pull off even before you add in the fact that he lives in a universe of portable black holes, men made of soundwaves and unstable molecules.
But they're doing it with some of the best art in comics, incorporating the sound effects into the action and isolating elements of the world around Daredevil so that we can understand just how he perceives them. They take old tricks to the next level, adding in new ones as they go. And not only that, but they're doing it with a bright, beautiful pop-art style that fits with the exciting adventure feel of Waid's scripts.
It's a book that doesn't look like anything else on the stands right now, and one that doesn't even look like Daredevil has for years, but it works, rebuilding and defining a new era for the character -- and the team has done all that in only six issues.
Everything about the book feels new, but even beyond the shift in storytelling and art style from the way things have been in the past, there's solid storytelling, engaging plots, and gorgeous visuals that all combine to make something great. It's super-hero comics at their finest, and in a year that was marked by great books all across the board, it's far and away my pick for the best.
#1. Love and Rockets New Stories Volume 4 by Los Bros Hernandez
As I sat reading the last handful of pages of Love and Rockets New Stories #4, literally gasping for breath and choking back tears, my girlfriend tried to assuage me.
"You know, if it will make you feel better," she said, pointing at the comic, "they aren't real people."
"They kind of are," I replied, my voice wavering.
She cocked her head and fixed me with a look. "No," she said, "no, they aren't. It's not real. They're made up."
I looked at her, and thought for a second, and then decided.
"I like my way better," I said.
Like most people who've read Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories, I feel like I've lived with Maggie and Hopey and Ray and Izzy and Penny Century for a long time. Through a strange alchemical process borne of Jaime's skill and my own brain's capacity to fool itself, those characters have become real. Of course, they're made up. They're lines on paper. But to suggest they aren't real is absurd. If they weren't real, how on Earth could they make you cry? Or laugh? Or just stare, dumbly, and think to yourself, "how true."
Anyone who has given themselves over to Jaime's work knows just how true his lines on paper are.
If none of the characters listed above sounded familiar -- if you've never read Love and Rockets before -- then, please: Do not read this comic. I know that it's strange to emphatically NOT recommend that you read one of the best comics of the year, but believe me, this cannot be your first experience with Jaime's world.
The final 15 pages of "The Love Bunglers" isn't just the end of a great new issue of a Bros. Hernanadez comic book. It isn't just the sixth part of a fantastic serialized graphic novel that's run since last year. It is the culmination of nearly thirty years worth of nuance, gesture, shading, pacing and dialogue - of angst, mania, fear, friendship, anger, and love. It is the finael to an epic of human scale feeling and drama. It is heart-stopping.
Every moment in Jaime's latest work recalls moments from throughout his entire life's work. I've always maintained that the "Locas" stories do not need to be read in order - it's not how I encountered them, and it's not how I read them until I'd already been a fan for years. One of the qualities I've always admired in Jaime's work is that I can dip in and out of his long saga wherever I please, and his stories always stand on their own - interconnected, yes, but spreading out from the middle like a blast radius, not plodding one after the other in a strict order.
"The Love Bunglers" is the exception. It is Jaime finally calling in all those powerful moments he embedded over the years, reflecting and magnifying their power through a focused prism of masterful storytelling. You could technically read "The Love Bunglers" cold, with no previous Love and Rockets experience, and you could understand it well enough. But it would be so seriously diminished as to be a functionally useless exercise. "The Love Bunglers" belongs at the end of your journey.
And please believe me: the journey is worth it. Reading "The Love Bunglers" has stirred in me a need to revisit the entire 1000-plus pages of "Locas," re-reading what I've loved and filling in what I've missed. I envy every single one of you who might have the opportunity to meet these characters for the very first time. And you have not only a sweeping saga of punk-rock Hispanic mechanic bi-curious love and loss and life to look forward to, but the artistry of a man who continually hits the top of his game and then tops himself again.
Jaime first drew Maggis Chascarillo in 1982, and since then he's been learning, refining, cutting the chaff, zeroing in. Jaime seems incapable now of drawing any line except those that absolutely need to be drawn, writing any word that isn't precisely what has to be said. "The Love Bunglers" is the end result of an artist so thoroughly mastering his chosen form that he looks as if he is not doing anything at all.
Deep, rich shadows and bright white negative spaces define the entire world. Subtle, realistic facial expressions sit on the same page as cartoon anger fumes spouting from someone's head. Seconds stretch out across multiple panels, and then two years go by with the flip of a page. And it all just reads as life, direct and true and unencumbered. You're so swept up with the people on the page that you don't notice what an amazing technical feat you've been subjected to -- not until it's over, and you look back and realize that it wasn't real after all. It was only lines on paper.
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