Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Best of 2008: Comics, comics, comics!

I don't think I'll ever manage to read all the comics from 2008 that I would like to, so I figure now is as good a time as any to decide which ones rank as really good against each other.  I always enjoy these sorts of exercises (although probably not as much as some), mostly because it's interesting to look over the comics I've read in the course of a year and ponder how they all stack up against each other.  I definitely don't think this is some sort of objective determination of quality (especially since it's nearly impossible to compare many of these books, they're so different), but more of a look at my taste and likes.  And of course, the ranking could change from day to day, if not more often; this is kind of just a snapshot of my current state of mind.  

But anyway, enough prattle.  I present:

The Best Comics of 2008!

Or my favorites, anyway.  Note: links will lead to my reviews of the various titles, unless stated otherwise.

I don't read a whole lot of kids' books, but if more of them were as enjoyable and gorgeously illustrated as Jill Thompson's new series, I would probably spend a lot more time in the children's section of the bookstore.  These books are just sheer fun, following the low-key, lesson-learning adventures of an elementary-school witch and her monster friends.  Wonderful, adorable stuff.

24. Skim

Mariko Tamaki turned in a really nice character piece here, a layered story about a goth girl discovering herself as she makes her way through a death-obsessed high school culture.  But the real star of the book is Jillian Tamaki, whose evocative linework beautifully realized that script.  Definitely one of the best-looking books of the year.

Frederick Peeters' autobiographical story about his relationship with a woman infected with HIV (along with her son) is really nicely-told, full of genuine personal moments and intimate scenes of the artist struggling with the unfairness of death.  Easy to miss, given its release early in the year, but it's definitely worthy of inclusion on a list of the best of 2008.

22. Speak of the Devil

Gilbert Hernandez's latest opus of weirdness, following a teenage Peeping Tom and the gory consequences of her hobby.  I'm still not fully sure what to make of this one, but I know it's good.  Review forthcoming.

Rutu Modan followed up her excellent 2007 graphic novel Exit Wounds (which was #2 on last year's list) with this collection of her older short stories, giving readers a chance to watch her development as a writer and artist.  It's fascinating to see her talent for storytelling develop, and the mostly Israel-set stories make for some great reading too.

20. Cowa!

Akira Toriyama's one-volume manga about a headstrong half-vampire, half-werekoala kid who saves his village of monsters from a contagious disease through a countryside quest and the power of friendship was great fun.  Definitely one of the highlights of the year.

The Hernandez brothers keep cranking out quality material year after year, and this first installment of the new format for their long-running series was more of the same, which is to say that it was some good reading.  Fun superheroics from Jaime and weird surreality from Gilbert; it wasn't exactly a new direction, but it made for an interesting look at where they are currently headed.  The wait for the next installment will be too long.

18. Dororo (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3)

While Osamu Tezuka's series about a demon-fighting, prosthetic-limbed samurai remains unfinished, what we did get to experience was just incredible, full of the wild action, goofy comedy, and emotional stories that Tezuka did so well.  I don't think I'll be happy until each and every other Tezuka manga is available in the West as well.

It seems like Posy Simmonds gets a lot of hype for being a really good cartoonist, but this book proved that said praise was not unfounded.  A nice character piece about infidelity, beauty, the English countryside, the creative impulse, and teenage restlessness, among other subjects, the book is gorgeously illustrated and full of good moments.  Simmonds definitely deserves more attention on this side of the pond.

Jason is one of the best cartoonists in the world, and through this book, it's fascinating to see how he got that way.  As a collection of his older material in which he was still experimenting with various styles (before settling on the "morose funny animal" look), this is neat to watch, but it's excellent stuff in and of itself as well, ranging from weird emotional examinations to psychological horror to surreal comedy.  It's great reading, even if you're not familiar with what was to come.

Takehiko Inoue is an incredibly skilled cartoonist (not to spoil anything, but this isn't his only appearance on this list), but after reading some of his more recent, more serious manga, it's a revelation to see how good he was at shonen comedy with this earlier series about high school basketball.  It's also easy to see how the series became so phenomenally popular, given its strong grasp of character, exciting sports action, and hilarious slapstick.  Don't miss it; this is shonen manga at its best.

Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly wrapped up this twelve-issue series this year, and it was an excellent, emotional ending.  The series ended up being a wonderful look at the growth and maturation of a fully-realized character, and it was sad to see it end, if only because that means we won't get to spend any more time with her.  But in addition to the series ending, it was also collected in a gorgeous hardcover that included everything that made the series great, including the "backmatter" and guest artist pin-ups from the individual issues.  As good as it was to read the series as it was coming out, it's even better to have it all under one cover.

Like so many other entries on this list, Alex Robinson's high school nostalgia trip about a guy who gets hypnotized in order to quit smoking but ends up (possibly) traveling back in time to his teenage years is a great character piece, full of realistic emotion and great moments.  It's engaging, touching, funny stuff, but Robinson pulls you right into the story, making you imagine what it would be like to be suddenly transported back into your awkward formative years.  Don't miss it.

Dash Shaw blew lots of people away with his massive brick of a book, myself included.  It's another excellent character piece that follows the adult children of a couple in the midst of an inexplicable divorce, using inventive formalist techniques to explore their emotions.  Shaw really reveals himself as a talent to be watched here; I expect great things from him in the future.

One of the few superhero books that were worthy of inclusion on this list, Jonathan Lethem's reimagining of Steve Gerber's 1970s ode to weirdness was an amazingly layered exploration of diverse themes like mental illness, fitting in in a world that seems strange, marketing, and just plain strange shit.  Gorgeously quirky art from Farel Dalrymple brings the story to life, and an excellent book is the result.

10. Criminal (issue #6, issue #7)

While Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' noir series had been quite good in its first iteration, the relaunch this year kicked it up into a higher echelon of greatness, with Brubaker delivering complex, gripping stories of the dark underside of humanity and Phillips bringing them to life beautifully.  Lets hope they can keep this going for years to come; the world deserves to have comics this good.

9. Casanova

Only a couple issues of Matt Fraction's signature series came out this year, but they were so good that they deserve high recognition, presenting Fraction's unique mix of frenetic action, wild ideas, and emotional underpinnings in high style.  Fabio Moon's art was also just amazing, and that final issue of the second volume was a punch to the gut, in more ways than one.  I can't wait for more to come in '09.

8. All Star Superman (review of issue #12)

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's series gets a lot of acclaim, and deservedly so; it provides the quintessential look at the character, and does so in exciting, perfectly told stories that manage to grab the most jaded reader by the shirt collar and make him believe in a hero that inspires us all.  From the inspiring issue #10, which saw Superman go so far as to cure cancer and serve as the creative impulse for the "real world", to a final issue that saw him beat death itself so he could sacrifice himself to rebuild a poisoned sun.  That's some heady stuff, and it's the kind of thing that superhero comics can do wonderfully if they try, rather than getting mired in endless rehashings of phony "realism".  Hopefully this won't be Morrison's peak, but if it is, it's a worthy one.

Eddie Campbell can always be counted on to deliver great stories that nobody else could tell, at least not so entertainingly.  This book was no exception, telling the decades-spanning adventures of its impostor hero as he tries to make a name for himself while forming lasting relationships with a varied cast of characters.  And did I mention the gorgeous art?  It's great to watch Campbell put together a story, and he does yet another excellent job here.  

6. The Boy Who Made Silence (issue #3, issue #6)

Joshua Hagler's art-gallery-worthy series is one that deserves more attention; it's an incredibly personal look at religion, miracles, and small-town life that's like nothing else in comics.  It's hard to even describe, but it moved me like little else that I read last year, and I really hope more people will give it a chance.

This should probably be higher on the list, since it's a great work of comics from one of the towering geniuses of the medium.  But it's my list, and I'll arbitrarily put things ahead of it that I decided I liked better.  Still, nobody does comics like Chris Ware, and this is a great bit of art from him, combining a surprising bit of sci-fi and psychological horror with an affecting example of Ware's propensity for awkwardness and repressed emotions.  It's hard to believe, but he just seems to keep getting better and better.

I'm still a few volumes behind on this series, but even judging by what I did read of this series in 2008, it was definitely one of my favorites.  The sheer drama of the series kicked into high gear in volume 8, and it hasn't slowed down since.  But it's not just empty soap operatics; Ai Yazawa has built up characters that the reader loves like family, and she's putting them through a realistic wringer, making us feel every high and low.  It's incredible to watch, if you can allow yourself to step back and see the construction of the stories.  But I certainly don't fault anyone who can't.

3. Real (volume 1, volume 2)

Takehiko Inoue was mentioned above as a skilled cartoonist, and this series about wheelchair basketball proves it, not only through his gorgeously detailed and kinetic art, but also through the way he sucks readers right into his characters' lives.  Within pages, he gets you on the side of his band of anry young men, and you want to spend more time with them and see them succeed.  And did I mention the beautiful scenes of athletics that make you feel as if you're watching them in real life?  Nobody on either side of the Pacific and draw like Inoue, and few can weave as engaging a story either.

I had a difficult debate with myself after finishing this book, because I found it so incredibly engaging and moving and, well, good, that I thought it might belong in the #1 spot.  But I decided not to let the recentness of the read overwhelm everything else on the list, so it comes in at a respectable second.  But that's no mark against it; it's definitely one of the best graphic novels I've read, drawing me right into the story and nearly moving me to tears even as I marveled at every page of stunning artwork.  Cyril Pedrosa is a hidden gem of a cartoonist, and hopefully many more of his books will make it to the West.  Otherwise, I'll have to learn French and start making pilgrimmages to Paris bande dessinee shops.

When experiencing media, I tend to settle on favorites early; once I read/see something that hits me just right, I end up placing it at the top of a hypothetical "best of" list, comparing everything else against it, usually unfavorably.  Such was the case with Solanin, which drilled its way into my heart as I was reading it and refused to budge, even when pressured by all the exemplary works above.  Something about Inio Asano's depiction of the instability, insecurity, and indecisiveness of early adulthood struck me as particularly resonant, and combined with his excellent artwork and flair for engaging drama, the whole thing made for a tough competitor for any other book to defeat.  And ultimately, nothing did, and I feel quite satisfied with this choice as my favorite book of 2008.  I didn't read anything better.

When I first made a tentative list of comics to consider for the best of the year, it was way too long; apparently, lots of good stuff came out it 2008.  So here are the "honorable mentions", presented in alphabetical order.  As with the above, unless stated otherwise, links lead to my reviews.

Runners Up:

Aetheric Mechanics (review forthcoming, maybe)
The Boys
Charlatan Ball
Comic Book Comics
Crogan's Vengeance (review forthcoming)
The Damned: Prodigal Sons (issue #1, issue #3)
Honey and Clover (in reviews of Shojo Beat)
Kate Beaton's comics (seen here)
Sand Chronicles (in reviews of Shojo Beat)
War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle (issue #1)

Also, Monster and The Drifting Classroom are deserving of a special mention, since they might have made the top 25 if I had read any volumes which were released in 2008.


And finally, here is a list of comics which may well have been worthy of inclusion if I had read them:

Abandoned Cars
Alan's War
The Alcoholic
Aya of Yop City
Boy's Club
Burma Chronicles
Cat-Eyed Boy
The Country Nurse
Disappearance Diary
The Education of Hopey Glass
Fatal Faux-Pas
Freddie and Me
French Milk
Ganges #2
The Goddess of War
Gus and His Gang
The Hot Breath of War
I Live Here
Jessica Farm
Kramers Ergot 7
The Lagoon
Little Nothings
Little Vampire
Look Out!! Monsters
Me and the Devil Blues
Mesmo Delivery
Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby
My Brain is Hanging Upside Down
The Night of Your Life
Paul Goes Fishing
Prince of Persia
The Rabbi's Cat volume 2
Skyscrapers of the Midwest
Swallow Me Whole
Tales Designed to Thrizzle #4
Tokyo Zombie
Toon Books series (especially Stinky and Mo and Jo)
Trains Are Mint
The War at Ellsmere
Willie & Joe: The WWII Years

And that's enough of 2008!  Now I can concentrate on 2009, and get even further behind in reviewing the stuff I've read.  Good times.


  1. I like the list. I knew that you liked Solanin, but I didn't realize it was your favorite. I'll have to go find it now.

    And I just can't bring myself to read Three Shadows, even with its beautiful art. I'm not in the mood to feel that.

  2. I wish I had read Solanin before I put together my best-of list. It definitely would have been on there.

    Great piece, Matt.

  3. Heh. I've read 16/25 and loved them, and 8 of the remaining 9 are all on my to-be-read list. Clearly I should just add that 9th on (which in my only defense, I hadn't heard of!) and be done with it.

  4. Greg: which one is the 9th? Just curious.

  5. That's one impressive year-end list, the best I've seen so far.

    I don't get to the comic book shops much nowadays and when I do get there I have no idea what to look for - this makes an excellent "go check this out" list for my next visit - Solanin sounds like a definite must-read.

    Thanks for the Comic Book Comics runner-up recommendation, I really appreciate it! New issue (finally) is out next week!

  6. Thanks, Ryan! I love your work with Fred, and I didn't realize the next issue was coming out so soon. I'll have to make a trip to the comic shop to pick it up. Can't wait!

  7. As a huge Tezuka fan, having read all his stuff to make it to the US thus far, I have to say that Dororo is one of my least favorites. I found the translation to be pretty weak, and the sequence of events got to be a bit too formulaic - and I say that having read all 23 volumes of Astro Boy.

    But I wholeheartedly agree about Slam Dunk's placement on that list. Is Viz really keeping releases limited to two volumes a year? I mean, the final three volumes are fantastic, but it's a long way to go to see it all pay off.

  8. How do you know when a translation is weak? Have you seen other versions that you can compare it to?

  9. I happened to really dig Dororo, just because it was full of action and violence, and some great monster designs, along with good characters and interesting conflicts. But I can understand not liking it as much as other stuff, and its unfinished nature doesn't help. If I had read the two Black Jack volumes from 2008, I might have placed them higher, but part of why I haven't gotten to them yet is that I've read some of the stories in the previous Viz version, so it's not really new to me. But I'll get to them eventually.

    As for Slam Dunk, I think Viz was releasing the volumes slowly because the series was being serialized in Shonen Jump. But I've heard that they're dropping it from the magazine, so maybe the volumes will start coming out more frequently now.

  10. "How do you know when a translation is weak?"

    Well, I could say that I think the script is weak, but I doubt that's due to Tezuka's writing, because the other Tezuka material I've read has perfectly fine writing. I think it's logical to assume that a weak English script falls on the translator.