The 20 Best Comic Books of 2011

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Every day between now and New Year’s Eve, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. Today we look at our favorite comics of the year, from high-minded graphic novels to the serialized floppies that got us into the store every Wednesday. We’ve split it into two groups—the 10 best new or ongoing comics of 2011 followed by our 10 favorite collections or reissues released this year.

The 10 Best New Comics of 2011

10. Infinite Kung Fu
by Kagan McLeod
Top Shelf Productions

Kagan McLeod’s massive martial-arts pastiche flies by as fast as the fists of the legendary Eight Immortals. Despite Infinite Kung Fu’s chop sockey subject matter McLeod mostly avoids an obvious manga style, with thick lines and copious shading lending a chunky and atmospheric feel to his fluid and surreal action. McLeod’s canny pop-culture cocktail unites the absurd and kinetic violence of a kung fu film with the blood-drenched gristle of a zombie horror flick, resulting in bloody, fizzy fun. (GM)

9. Animal Man
by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman
DC Comics

Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman’s Animal Man unites the animal rights activism and domesticity of Grant Morrison’s metafictional early 1990s series with the supernatural horror that defined that book’s later run under the Vertigo label. With an altered origin that more closely ties the character to nature, Animal Man eschews standard superheroics in favor of the surreal and disturbing, resulting in one of the finest serialized comics on the shelf today. (GM)

8. Troop 142
by Mike Dawson
Secret Acres

After tackling his favorite rock band Queen in the decent Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody, Mike Dawson’s second book focuses on a week-long camping trip of Boy Scout Troop 142 in the mid 1990s. Each of his many characters receives moments of sympathy and cruelty, including the adults. These boys and men do things you don’t quite understand, even when you have all the information (they don’t). It recognizes the flaws in the Scout philosophy, but it doesn’t harp on them. It also shows the Lord of the Flies-type behavior of the adolescent male in an almost Margaret Mead fashion, observing with a neutral but fascinated eye as they experiment with profanity, drugs, new identities and more. Troop 142 is a terrifically subtle book that’s as funny as it is intelligent painful, and touching, and Dawson never flinches in his role as its creator. (HB)

by Jeff Smith
Cartoon Books

Jeff Smith’s audacious sci-fi noir RASL proves that his fluid animated style can gloriously tackle any genre he sets his pencil to. Though it hasn’t quite captured the absorbing excellence of Smith’s classic Bone, RASL is well on its way to proving just as substantial as its forebear. It’s a concentrated thrill, with simple line structure and minimalist dialogue hiding sprawling plot undergrowth that expands with each issue. The eventual one-volume tome that’ll come out when this series wraps will be a definitive must have. (SE)

6. Scalped
by Jason Aaron, R.M. Guera, and various artists
Vertigo Comics

Jason Aaron is one sadistic bastard. He won’t give any of his characters a break in his Native American crime blockbuster, Scalped. He continually pushes and kicks his cast along a downward spiral barbed with violence and regret. A credit to his sharp instinct and sculpted characterization, his tale of an undercover FBI agent fighting a corrupt casino boss has never lost momentum. Turning away from the inevitable powder keg at the series’ end isn’t even an option for those who have stuck around since the beginning. Aaron’s characters aren’t archetypes of morality; they’re concrete human beings coping in the face of exhausting hardship. (SE)

5. Celluloid
by Dave McKean

Justice Potter Stewart famously proclaimed that he could not define pornography, but knew it when he saw it. Today, Stewart might have a bit of trouble discerning the content of Dave Mckean’s gorgeous picture book, Celluloid. The visionary art director behind The Sandman’s covers creates a coital masterwork that elicits beauty and excitement in equal measure. The call for classy, female-friendly erotica is a burgeoning topic that’s ensared everyone from Alan Moore to indie film god Lars von Trier; suffice to say that its appropriate exploration requires more space than this review allows. The fact of the matter is that McKean is an absurdly talented artist whose eclectic multimedia tastes would render any subject, including 14-breasted grape nymphs, surreal and otherworldly. Celluloid is a treasure of technical finesse and sensual mystique that transcends its potential controversy. (SE)

4. Big Questions
by Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly

Don’t get me wrong. I love comics. But it’s rare that they rise to the level of real literature, even when they’re very good. Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions, on the other hand, should knock snobs like me on our posteriors. Harold Bloom writes that potentially canonical writing has “a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncracies,” and Nilsen’s brick of a book starts out the first and ends up the second. The reader is both mystified by its story (an unexploded bomb and a plane crash into a rural area, where they are investigated by birds) and, almost against his or her will, captivated by it. Nilsen’s spare but beautiful drawings and that abiding strangeness create a sense of awe that is rarely produced by cultural efforts. Much of the book is not easily explicable, and rather than being frustrating, its willful obscurity instead suggests you need to submit to the artist’s vision, not fight the current. Nilsen is not going to lay out clear answers, as the title implies, but the questions, big as they are, don’t come with any sense of pomposity, and there is much in the way of both humor and tragedy contained within. Not since Bottomless Bellybutton have I read something so rich and strange. (HB)

3. Anya’s Ghost
Vera Brosgol
First Second

Expectations are bound to be high when Neil Gaiman provides a blurb calling your book a “masterpiece,” but damn if Vera Brosgol doesn’t impress nonetheless. Considering that this is her full-length debut, it’s all the more notable, like a Badlands situation where a fully formed new voice blooms overnight. Anya’s Ghost is aimed at the young adult market, as is much of First Second’s catalogue, but it’s a real, and not a guilty, pleasure. Brosgol mixes an assured line with a muted color palette and a gift for writing round characters. She isn’t afraid to make her protagonist unsympathetic at times, but those rough edges mean greater realism, and although the general conclusion of the narrative (“be yourself”) is a hoary one, the way Brosgol gets there is unpredictable and even a little bit scary. (HB)

2. Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly

It’s not that Kate Beaton dances on the thin line between stupid and clever. Instead, she plays both sides of the net between them, often simultaneously. Her mostly three-panel strips (and she has an instinctive sense of the rhythm of that form) address classic literature, Canadian history and all manner of cultural highbrow whatnot, but they never make you feel as though you’re being forced to eat brussels sprouts. There is no “I should like this” as you flip pages or polite smirking as with many a New Yorker cartoon. Rather, Beaton zeroes in on the ridiculousness of all her subject matter and deftly gives Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare and Simon Bolivar a Wet Willie. Her drawings aren’t neat—the pen strokes scritch and scratch all over the place—but the faces and postures of her characters are fiercely expressive and hilarious. She also has an excellent grasp of what’s funny, using profanity, absurdism, sexism, racism, acknowledgment of sexism and racism, and pop culture to provoke laughs. You will probably laugh hard enough at this book to annoy anyone else in the room. I know I did. (HB)

1. Habibi
by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson’s new book has been long in the making, but the resulting 3.3 pounds of intricate happenings and stellar art is totally worth the wait and a huge leap forward for him. Habibi reminds one of nothing so much as the work of novelist John Barth, with its clear love of patterns, narrative and beauty. Like Barth, Thompson structures his work finely and complexly, taking a page from the 1001 Nights in more than one way. There are no throwaway details in Habibi. Its nine chapters mirror the setup of a protective talisman, weaving connections between numbers and letters and reveling in the magic both provide. But it’s not just fun to take apart and put back together. Its deep affection for tale-telling is reflected in the love the two main characters have for one another, and Thompson’s sincerity coexists with his games. He impressively evokes grief and loss, difficult emotions to get a handle on without resorting to a Vader “noooo,” and the intricacy of each page suggests his involvement with its source material. Thompson may be an outsider, but Habibi doesn’t come off as Orientalist, even in its admiration. Rather, it’s long-steeped in the tradition it portrays, and the fragrance of Arabic art (minus, of course, the human figures who appear throughout) permeates the book. It’s also incredibly compelling and readable on many levels. (HB)

On the next two pages we look at the best collections and reissues of 2011.

The Ten Best Collections / Reissues Of 2011

10. The Mighty Thor Omnibus
by Walter Simonson
Marvel Comics

Simonson’s excellent early 1980s run on Mighty Thor isn’t as celebrated as the roughly contemporaneous work Frank Miller and Chris Claremont were doing in Daredevil and Uncanny X-Men (respectively), but it’s probably held up better. This oversized hardcover collects Simonson’s entire sci-fi/mythosuperheroic epic into a single volume that’s as hard to lift as Mjolnir. It’s a one-stop doorstop featuring the greatest Thor stories this side of Jack Kirby. (GM)

9. Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Volume 1: Race To Death Valley
by Floyd Gottfredson

Floyd Gottfredson took over the Mickey Mouse daily strip in 1930 under orders to convert if from a lightly serialized gag-a-day comic into an adventure strip with long-running stories. In the process he created an enduring classic and the most fully-formed depiction of Disney’s most important character. Before he morphed into an amiable but dull nice guy, Mickey was a brave rascal with a fundamentally good nature. That combination of irreverence and decency makes Mickey a great lead for a strip that mixes action and comedy, and Gottfredson wasted no time sending Mickey and his friends on lengthy, cliffhanger-packed adventures through lands far and near. Gottfredson had an animator’s knack for storytelling, and his layouts remain clear no matter how busy they get. Much of the humor is stilted by modern standards, but you’ll be too enthralled by the exciting plots and likable characters to care. (GM)

8. Daytripper
by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon
Vertigo Comics

Daytripper, from the twin Brazilian creators Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, was originally a 10-issue miniseries in 2009 and 2010, but this collection proves that it’s more powerful when read straight through in a single afternoon. Some of these vignettes of the life of aspiring writer Bras de Oliva Domingos are humorous, others harrowing, but they all shed light on a man wise enough to know what matters but wiser still for realizing he’ll never quite understand the world. The father-son dynamic at the story’s core might resemble almost every other work of fiction ever, but Moon and Ba remain thoughtful and insightful throughout. They also know how to make a grown man cry through the power of art. (GM)

7. Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture – A Career Retrospective
by Jack Davis

Georgia’s own Jack Davis is a legendary cartoonist and commercial artist who contributed to E.C. Comics during its 1950s heyday and whose work appeared in MAD Magazine for decades. Fantagraphics has finally given him the grand and serious treatment he deserves, without minimizing his goofy sense of humor. This oversized book is a little short on text, but scans from the original artwork reproduce it beautifully on a large scale. (HB)

6. We3 Deluxe Edition
by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Vertigo Comics

Comic books that make you cry are few and far between, but We3 is a potent recipe for a wet pillowcase. And it’s also about android pet assassins. With an aesthetic that feels like James Cameron directing Homeward Bound, this intense parable about mechanical animals on the run from the government is some of the finest work from Frank Quitely and comic god Grant Morrison. (SE)

5. MetaMaus: A Look Inside A Modern Classic, Maus
by Art Spiegelman

This collection of material related to Maus is not only a wonderful archive, but also a great read in its own right. The book comes with a DVD that includes thousands of sketches, cross-referenced to their pages in the margins, plus essays on Maus, audio recordings of Art and Vladek and more, but even without that resource, it would stand as a worthy and interesting object. Interviewed by Hilary Chute, who’s credited as “associate editor,” Spiegelman answers three big questions about his most famous and renowned work (Why the Holocaust? Why mice? Why comics?) and, in the process, illuminates his working methods and the text. Never too reverent to avoid putting his thumb in eyes that need thumbing, Spiegelman demonstrates his gift for storytelling even through exegesis. (HB)

4. The Death-Ray
by Daniel Clowes
Drawn & Quaterly

Clowes’ gloomy Bildungsroman about teenage disillusionment and vigilante justice focuses on an arrogant and mostly friendless teenager who gets superpowers from a forbidden vice in the late 1970s. Egged on by his angry punk friend, he uses those powers to beat up bullies and other wrong-doers. Eventually the stakes are raised from mere beatings to weighing judgment on the merits of existence itself. Clowes’ literary superhero tale explores the combination of condescension, guilt, and self-righteousness common to both adolescence and superhero vigilantism. (GM)

3. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
by Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly

Mizuki’s powerful counterpoint to America’s enduring love affair with World War II doesn’t belittle America or make the Allies look disreputable. Even as American bullets rip through Mizuki’s characters, the true villains remain the Japanese leaders who send their men to pointless deaths. Mizuki based this 1973 book on his experiences at New Britain in Papua New Guinea near the end of the war. Mizuki’s soldiers realize and resent their treatment as cannon fodder by glory-seeking officers and a military culture that views surrender or imprisonment as dishonorable. Mizuki makes Japan’s leadership look as bad as any jingoistic American World War II movie, but replaces the offensive racial stereotypes of Western entertainment with realistic depictions of normal men trapped in a horrible situation. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a brutally honest and human look at an unfortunate group of men more dehumanized by their own commanders than their enemies. (GM)

2. Blankets
by Craig Thompson
Top Shelf Productions

This autobiographic novel relives the author’s childhood struggle with Christian fundamentalism while falling in love with Raina, a beautiful fellow outcast he meets at a Christian youth camp. Thompson’s approach is both gentle and dynamic, laying sparse lines of delicate prose around moody renderings of winter still life and kinetic childhood nostalgia. This inspired delivery makes the brutally honest content much less abrasive. Devoid of bonus material, interviews or sketches, this is one of the few books that stands perfectly on its own in any given context. This new hardcover edition of Blankets features not just one of the best graphic novels ever created, but one of the best literary works of our generation. (SE)

1 Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes (The Carl Barks Library Volume One)
By Carl Barks
Fantagraphics Books

You don’t need to read another hundred words about the greatness of Carl Barks, about his masterful talent for body language and facial expressions, about how his finely realized characters and sprawling fictional world made the Duck family the most soulful and human among Disney’s abundant roster of anthropomorphic animals. This first volume of Fantagraphics’ beautiful new reissue series collects 200 pages of Barks stories from 1948 and 1949, reinforcing Barks’ sterling reputation while introducing his work to a new generation of readers. Barks’ strips combine high adventure with humor and subtle cultural commentaries, but they remain grounded in character, from Donald’s constant exasperation to the rambunctious innocence of the Nephews to the old-man irritability of Uncle Scrooge. Lost in the Andes is a gorgeously packaged collection of some of the finest comics ever made. (GM)