Thursday, January 28, 2010

2009: A damn good comics year, I don't care what anyone says

Not that I need to rekindle any debates, but I happened to think there were some excellent comics released last year, and now that I've read what I arbitrarily considered the minimum qualifiers, here is my equally arbitrary ranking of:

The Best Comics of 2009!

20. Stuffed!

Glenn Eichler wrote a pretty nice little story here, examining race and family history, with nicely-drawn characters and a compelling conflict.  And Nick Bertozzi continued to show what a good artist he is by rendering it impeccably.  A nice book all around, making for a good entry in whatever passes for the current comics mainstream.

19. Grandville

Who would have expected Bryan Talbot to follow up his groundbreaking Alice in Sunderland with this crazy action/espionage/furry graphic novel?  And who would have expected it to be so enjoyable?  Well, anybody familiar with Talbot would, of course, and they (we) definitely weren't disappointed.

18. The Umbrella Academy: Dallas

Gerard Way turned out not to be a fluke with this second volume of his and Gabriel Ba's series, which incorporated JFK's assassination, confusing time-travel, murderous psychopaths (both good and evil), a ghost/mummy winning the Vietnam War, and the destruction of the Earth into its ongoing saga of a dysfunctional family.  It's gorgeous, funny, and an un-put-down-able read.  Awesome.

17. Empowered (volume 5 review"The Wench With a Million Sighs" review)

Adam Warren's "sexy superhero comedy" is still going strong, and after five volumes, he not only shows no sign of fatigue (outside of a slowed-down release schedule), he's continued to increase the stakes and develop characters satisfyingly, working to a powerfully emotional moment in this year's volume that was both empowering (sorry) and tear-jerking.  Great work, as always.

16. Beasts of Burden (issue #2 review)

Ever since the first short story starring these characters in of Dark Horse's anthologies, the potential for great storytelling by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson has been apparent, and they paid off that expectation beautifully with this four-issue miniseries, examining complex character relationships that work because of their inhuman qualities, featuring some genuinely scary threats, and stoking hopes for more to come.  Let's hope this is only the first of a long series of stories, because when Dorkin's sharp writing meets Thompson's gorgeous artwork, readers are the big winners.

Emmanuel Guibert used his friend Didier Lefevre's photos connected with incredibly detailed artwork of his own to bring the latter's story of a humanitarian mission to war-torn 1980s Afghanistan to life, and while it's unfortunate that Lefevre's human foibles take over the story and move the focus away from the on-the-ground reporting, it's a compelling, fascinating, overwhelming experience, and one worth reading as a way to get as close to a war zone as most of us ever will.

14. Garth Ennis' Battlefields

Garth Ennis' latest foray into the field of war comics has been a winner, looking a World War II from a variety of perspectives, none of which are the ones we usually see in our entertainments.  From female Russian bomber pilots, to Pacific theater nurses, to regular guys in tanks roaming the European countryside, these stories are rich in character, shocking in violence, and true in emotion, capturing the wartime experience and making us realize what people actually went through, beyond just the soldiers on the battlefields.  If there's any justice, Ennis will be leading a renaissance of war comics, but even if he doesn't, that might be for the best, since nobody else is likely to craft them as well as he does.

13. 20th Century Boys (volume 1 reviewvolume 2 and 3 reviewvolume 4 review)

As of this writing, Naoki Urasawa might have received more acclaim for his other series, Monster and Pluto, but this one is reportedly his masterpiece, and the half-dozen volumes released in 2009 are only seeing it get started.  Even this early build-up has been compelling, with a complex plot jumping between different eras, a creepy and believably insane cult plotting to destroy the world, central characters that are enjoyable to spend time with, and a bunch of tense, perfectly-paced sequences that demonstrate Urasawa's mastery of suspense. There are more than fifteen volumes to go, and knowing Urasawa's track record, it's highly unlikely that they will disappoint.

12. 100 Bullets (volume 13 review)

Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's long-running crime series finally came to an end this year, and what a finish it was, with most of the cast meeting the expected glorious end and everything finally being tied together in a ridiculously complex knot of relationships, alliances, betrayals, and murders.  Gorgeous art, memorable dialogue, and a series of unforgettable moments made for one of the best comics experiences of the decade.  Even though it's this far down the list, it's tough to top comics like this.

11. George Sprott (1894-1975)

Seth's collected, reworked volume of the strip that he contributed to The New York Times is a beautiful package, an oversized, excellently-put-together look at the life of a guy who was kind of a loser, a fraudulent Arctic explorer, boring TV host and lecturer, and deadbeat dad, yet still seems like a beautiful facet of humanity.  Nice, clean artwork and touching character moments make for a wonderful read.  It's no wonder the "paper of record" wanted it in their pages.

10. You'll Never Know: A Good and Decent Man

With this first volume of a projected trilogy, Carol Tyler has begun to put together a beautiful memory of her father, relating his experiences as a soldier in World War II and mixing in her own memories of him when she was growing up and how her relationship with him affected her adult life.  It's an artful mix, matching a biographer's insight for detail with beautifully-flowing art and real emotions.  If the next two volumes are this good, Tyler's work will be a modern classic, one for others to study for years.

9. Monsters

If only all "educational" comics were this enjoyable.  Ken Dahl's story of what it's like to be infected with herpes is by turns informative, hilarious, and cringingly difficult to read.  He doesn't spare himself any humiliations, showing how the disease affects people emotionally as well as physically, and his cartooning is about as funny as it gets, while still retaining an essential humanity.  It's a great book for everyone who needs to know more about sexually-transmitted diseases and what happens to you when you get them.  Good times.

8. Low Moon

Jason departed from his usual format of album-sized releases for this book, which collected several stories in one compact hardcover that contains his usual deadpan genre mashups, giving readers Western showdowns involving chess, murderous cavemen, alien kidnappers, and sexual-favor-seeking hitmen.  It's funny, poignant, and, as always, full of insight about humanity, even though everyone is a strange animal creature.  There can never be enough Jason.

7.  The Act-I-Vate Primer

If this anthology was good for anything, it was enticing readers to follow its lead to and read more of what it promised with its samples of the excellence to be had there.  Luckily, it works on its own as well, presenting a variety of gorgeously-drawn stand-alone stories that require no prior knowledge and work as great examples of what can be done with webcomics.  Nearly every page is striking, colorful, and packed to the edges with striking, unique imagery and great ideas for comics storytelling.  The stories on Act-I-Vate are available for free, but spending extra for more of them on paper is definitely worth it.

6. Driven By Lemons

What Joshua Cotter is doing in this book is up to the reader's interpretation, but no matter how one perceives it, it's an amazing piece of artwork, with incredibly detailed scribbles giving way to spare, simple-seeming cartooning and a flowing narrative that seems to just barely elude full understanding.  It's like nothing else in comics, but I wouldn't want it to be.

5. Parker: The Hunter

Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's novel is one of the leading entries in the current wave of crime comics, and it's excellent stuff, a hard-hitting, non-stop narrative of one man's quest for revenge, put together in Cooke's gorgeous style with plenty of suits, dames, and badassery.  It's one stark, simple image after another of a single-minded criminal pursuing his goal and dragging the reader along with him, and it's about as good as comics get in this new mainstream of bookshelf graphic novels.  Cooke has more to come in the series, and if they're all as good as this one, he'll have an enduring classic of comics literature on his hands.

4. Far Arden

With this book, Kevin Cannon put together what seems at first to be a goofy adventure in a fictionalized Canadian Arctic, but as it plays out, it reveals a deep emotional resonance until it gets to a striking gut-punch of an ending that leaves readers deeply affected.  It's tons of fun, but there's more to it than funny sound effects and nicely-detailed ships and icebergs.  I can't wait to see what Cannon does next.

3.  Asterios Polyp

David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel was being hailed as one of the best ever before it even came out, and not much of that praise was retracted upon its actual release.  It's the type of literary story about an intellectual learning to appreciate life that you might see in a Woody Allen movie or something, and while that works well enough, where Mazzucchelli really shines is in all the formalistic tricks he comes up with, depicting characters as unique conglomerations of symbols, playing with repeating, symmetrical imagery, and mixing Greek mythology with modern architectural designs, all while crafting moments that hit with an emotional wallop.  There's tons to unpack and examine here, and multiple readings are all but required.  Luckily, readers will want to come back to the book again and again.

2.  Footnotes In Gaza

Joe Sacco delivered on his reputation as comics' premiere journalist in spades here, researching as many first-hand accounts as possible of forgotten atrocities from decades past in one of the worst places on Earth, and mixing those with observations from the region's current state, which hasn't improved in fifty years.  It's an important piece of comics, putting a human face on a nearly-indescribable, seemingly-eternal struggle that has affected millions and continues to hurt more every day.  It's not a pretty picture, but it's one that everybody should be aware of, and Sacco has done more than his part in bringing it to those of us who want to experience it.

1.  Pluto (volume 1 review, volume 2 and 3 review, volume 4 review, volume 5 reviewvolume 6 review)

It's arguable that some other comics were objectively better, but I can't think of one that I enjoyed reading more than Naoki Urasawa's remake of Osamu Tezuka's classic Astro Boy story.  It's a great bit of storytelling, filled with gorgeous, dynamic artwork; well-realized characters; intelligent science fiction; and an unparalleled examination of humanity.  Over the six volumes released in 2009, we've seen robots try to understand what it is to be human, humans act like robots, love and caring triumph over evil, selfish intentions, and amazing, imaginative technology demonstrated to awe-inspiring effect.  Urasawa is one of the greatest comics creators in the world, and he demonstrates that here on every page.  In my mind, it doesn't get any better than this.

Honorable mentions:

The Anchor (issue #1 review)
The Boys (volume 4 reviewvolume 5 review)
Britten and Brulightly
The Color of Earth
Criminal (The Sinners issue #1 review)
Detroit Metal City (volume 1 review)
GoGo Monster
Johnny Hiro
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910
Love And Rockets: Ti-Girls Adventures
Magic Trixie and the Dragon
Moyasimon (volume 1 review)
Northlanders (volume 2 reviewissue #17 review)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the Universe
Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye
Slam Dunk (volume 2 reviewvolume 3 reviewvolume 4 and 5 review)
The Squirrel Machine
Unknown Soldier (volume 1 review)
Wednesday Comics (collaborative review of one issue)
What a Wonderful World!
Why I Killed Peter
The Winter Men

As yet unread, and possibly ineligible for consideration:

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man
Alec: The Years Have Pants
Ball Peen Hammer
A Drifting Life
The Eternal Smile
In the Flesh
The Complete Jack Survives
Jan's Atomic Heart
Little Fluffy Gigolo Pelu
Miss Don't Touch Me
New Brighton Archeological Society
Pixu: The Mark of Evil
Swallowing the Earth
West Coast Blues
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
You Are There
You Have Killed Me

2009: a good year.  Now let's do better!  The future awaits!


  1. Great list! I just finished the first volume of Pluto and while it hasn't hit me the way 20th Century Boys has been doing, it's still pretty great! Also looking forward to reading Beasts Of Burden. Have you read Cursed Pirate Girl?

  2. Thanks, Jesse! I did read Cursed Pirate Girl last year (I even bought it from the creator, who has an awesome moustache), and loved it. Here's what I wrote about it, if you're interested.

  3. From what I can remember most of the online posts about '09 being a "bad year" were in reference to super-hero comics in general and Marvel/DC specifically. Hell, your Top 20 list only has one straight supers book in "Empowered" and the kind of super-hero-y "Umbrella Academy"...

    Even your honorable mention list only has 3 super-hero books. And thats including "The Boys" a celebration of hate on everything about super-hero comics...

    But thanks for the reminders that I need to add "Grandville" and Ennis' new war comics to my buy lists...

  4. Yes, quite true. I just felt like throwing one last dig in there. A lot of that was definitely about superhero, or possibly direct market serialized pamphlets, and while that area of comics might be lacking as of late, there's so much more to the medium to love. Glad you're going to check those out. Of the Ennis' Battlefields series, I liked Dear Billy best, but they're all quite good. Hope you agree, or at least find them worth reading.

  5. Glad you enjoyed Beasts of Burden, appreciate the mention. If all goes well we might have something new out in '10 after the collection. Maybe. I hope.

  6. Might I link this? My far-away comics shops (none in downtown San Diego, home of Comic Con!!) will have to cough up about one of each of these (along with a HELLBLAZER). Borders unfortunately didn't carry these things; they even stopped getting the new IRONMAN!
    Not even my vow of poverty will keep me from this round up. There IS a way to get highly original comics out there to those who care.


  7. Cease Ill: If you're asking if it's okay to put up a link to this post, go right ahead. I certainly don't mind any extra traffic.