Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Best Comics of 2012

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in December 2012.

2012 has been a fantastic year for comics across the board, from independent to mainstream to online and beyond. In quality over quantity, this year finally saw the publication of Chris Ware's latest magnum opus, Brian K. Vaughan reminded the world that he's still one of the best scribes alive, and Alan Moore shook his fist and yelled for us to get off his lawn. Not enough can be said about the quality and quantity of the new creator-owned renaissance spear-headed by a dozen fantastic Image comics. IDW shined with their extraordinary production values on all kinds of unique projects, we saw the conclusion of Vertigo's last truly great series, and fiercely original creators like Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman and Brandon Graham had banner years. The works of folks like Garth Ennis, Meredith Gran, Jeff Smith, Matt Kindt, Gilbert Hernandez, Harvey Pekar, Carla Speed McNeil, Mike Mignola and so many more all reminded me why I love comics and why I've got the best job in the world.

So without further ado, here are the 12-ish best comics of 2012. 

Best Graphic Novel
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon)
Chris Ware's decade-plus in the making (second) masterwork is an experience and graphic novel unlike any other. A sprawling, fragmented box set of fourteen graphic novels, comic pamphlets, broadsheets and related ephemera from our greatest living cartoonist, Building Stories is a character piece entrenched in the way we remember and the language of comics-as-memory, how we build stories, and how stories build us. Non-linear, the plot, such as it is, has no beginning, middle, or end. The reader is given vignettes from the life of an unnamed central character, and a handful of supporting characters (including a building and a bee). This is something that cannot really be described so much as experienced, and Ware's extraordinary writing, illustrating, coloring, lettering and design make this undoubtedly a must-own for any library.

Best Ongoing Series
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image)
The year's best-reviewed and certainly most eagerly anticipated new series, there seemed to be no doubt that Brian K. Vaughan's new open-ended ongoing sci-fi parable would be on pretty much every best-of list under the sun. And for good reason, too: Featuring eye-popping art from the year's breakout new superstar, Fiona Staples, Saga is easily accessible to new readers with its story about moon-crossed lovers set against a fiercely unique magical space opera backdrop. Vaughan is very well regarded for believing that comics are "the destination, not the blueprint," and this is certainly a work that revels in comics' budgetless visual and storytelling possibilities. Every issue is a giddy brainfeast: royal robots with television heads, interstellar bounty hunters, and enough family drama to put any tense Thanksgiving dinner to shame... it even has a snail-mail only letter column. There is simply nothing like this and I can't wait for the next however-many years of story to come. For quantity and quality, it's also the best value in the store - the first trade paperback collecting 150+ pages of story in the first six issues is just ten bucks. You've been hearing about this from everyone, now is the time to dive in, your future self will thank you.

Best Concluded Series (tie) 
Scalped by Jason Aaron & RM Guera (DC/Vertigo)
Punisher by Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon (Marvel MAX)
The best character drama being produced by anyone in any medium, in it's untidy heartbreaking conclusion Scalped has cemented itself in the pantheon of truly the finest comics ever produced. Comics' functional equivalent of television's The Wire, Jason Aaron and RM Guera's unparallelled undercover crime-noir masterpiece never ceased to thrill with astonishing plot-twists and beautiful, gritty art. Far from being sad about the series' conclusion, I'm thrilled by the prospect both of reading the complete story from scratch yet again and the opportunity to put this amazing work in new readers' hands. Start this now and you will get absorbed into a dark, breath-taking ride unlike any you have ever taken.

Also of special note is the conclusion of Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon's completely stunning Punisher MAX. The Punisher MAX run by Garth Ennis (now returning to form in Fury MAX) is simply the best Marvel comic of the previous decade - and the work of Aaron & Dillon lives up to it. Shocking, gripping, game-changing, Aaron & Dillon's Punisher MAX is a frankly brilliant chronicle of the end of Frank Castle's life while seamlessly interweaving realistic versions of standard Marvel Universe villains. This is Jason Aaron's best Marvel work in a career (and year) chock full of fantastic mainstream superhero writing, and simply the best work of Steve Dillon's storied career.

Best Limited Series
Adventure Time Presents Marceline and the Scream Queens by Meredith Gran (Boom!)
Starring the tragic/immortal Marceline The Vampire Queen as the frontwoman behind the rock outfit the Scream Queens, and Princess Bubblegum as their tour manager, the reader is easily disarmed by these characters from Pendleton Ward's extraordinary Cartoon Network television series Adventure Time. Expecting a paint-by-numbers story of a band on tour and the conflicts that inevitably arise, we get nothing short of a flawless character-based story exploring the pressures of stardom and the universality of the internal and external turmoil of self-doubt. From the start, amid the nuanced character work and the straightforward and uncomplicated analogies, Meredith Gran turns in a virtuosic artistic performance that treats the reader to astonishingly rendered set-pieces of unbridled rock inspiration, both the experience of performing and listening to rock music. A quadruple threat that is also the year's Best Surprise, Best Licensed Comic, and Best All-Ages Book, this mini-series is fun, funny, thoughtful, and simply, absolutely flawless.

Best New Ongoing Series that's not Saga
The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra  (Image)
Jonathan Hickman has had one hell of a year over at Marvel between the conclusion of his epic Fantastic Four run and the beginning of his Avengers saga. But the best stuff from one of the best writers and designers in comics is still in the creator-owned realm, and of his three creator-owned series this year, The Manhattan Project takes the cake and explodes it. Utterly nuts in every positive possible way imaginable, The Manhattan Projects is an alternate history telling of the United States' secret black ops science program. It's wall-to-wall mad science with an evil multi-Oppenheimer, drunk Einstein, A.I. FDR, Russians, Nazis and aliens. I was initially cool on Pitarra's cartoony-Quitely style art, but as the series found its footing I couldn't imagine a better suited artist for the series nearly indescribable insanity. Volume One is out so give this a try if you haven't yet. And as with Saga, Image has put out a swell one-dollar reprint of the first issue.

Best Superhero Series
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja with Javier Pulido (Marvel)
Only incidentally a superhero book, Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye is a hurricane of fresh air in a sometimes moribund genre. Hawkeye is about a guy, a costumeless, powerless Clint Barton, and what he does on his day off in Brooklyn, and the folks who live in his apartment building, and a girl who stole is name, and a bunch of gangsters, and his dog, and arrows, and, like, stuff. David Aja's art is stylish and just plain perfect, also inspiring the best stuff of his career from Javier Pulido on the alternating arcs. Every issue makes me want to jump up and down and thank comics and Marvel and New York City for all existing. The first trade comes out in March, but you can easily dive in with any issue - Hawkeye features largely self-contained one-ish-shot stories, a rare treat (and lost art) in mainstream comics.

Best Anthology
Dark Horse Presents 
It is the conceit of every anthology that it will contain material that can be hit-or-miss. That just comes down to variety and the vagaries of personal taste, and sometimes you get mostly miss (like this year's dreadful Kramer's Ergot). But Dark Horse's venerable anthology managed to hit more than it missed, with definite standouts that on their own would belong on this best-of list: David Chelsea intreagued me with The Girl With The Keyhole Eyes and Carla Speed McNeil blew me away with Finder: The Third World - indeed, everyone should get McNeil's astounding Finder Library tomes from Dark Horse, massive collections of her extraordinary science fiction work. Dark Horse Presents had so many great short-stories, serials and introductory salvos for longer series from so many great creators - Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Noto, Geoff Darrow, Richard Corben, Michael Avon Oeming, Steve Rude, Francesco Francavilla, Dean Motter, Harlan Ellison and so many more. At eight bucks a month for 80-100 pages of creator-owned goodness with some licensed goodness thrown in is one hell of a bang for your comic buying buck.

Best Non-Fiction Work
Cleveland by Harvey Pekar with Joseph Remnant (Top Shelf)
For non-fiction works in 2012 there were major disappointments: Guy Delisle's dull Jerusalem and Alison Bechdel's frankly insufferable Are You My Mother failed to meet expectations of their previous works. Who else but the inimitable Harvey Pekar to save the day. One of his final works is also one of his best. A bittersweet love letter to a town falling on hard times and a capstone to the autobiographies of one of comics most important creators, Harvey Pekar's Cleveland is a short but important work about the history, soul, and character of one of America's struggling former metropolises, and one man's unique journey through the history and the city he loves. Featuring fine art by Joseph Remnant, it is a vital social document and a masterful piece of graphic history.

Best Occasionally Published Series (tie)
Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly (AdHouse)
Casanova by Matt Fraction & Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba (Marvel/Icon)
Sometimes comics take a bloody long time to come out, or feature long delays between arcs, but when you get to them the quality far outweighs whatever delay you have to put up with. First, seeing one issue maybe once a year or so, is Ethan Rilly's utterly wonderful Pope Hats, a straightforward story of a law clerk in a not-so-straightforward law firm and her freewheeling actress roommate. Rilly's art is clean and fresh, his story oddly riveting. I look forward to each new chapter as much as the similar but far more complex Ganges from Kevin Huizenga.

Second, 2011 finally saw the triumphant return of Fraction, Moon & Ba's interdimensional superspy epic Casanova, first in full color reprints, then an astonishing, dark new mini Avaritia. Casanova is still consistently Matt Fraction's best work, deeply personal, dense, sexy, trippy. We should be seeing the fourth volume in 2013... or not, who knows. Just get the first three and reread those a few times, you'll find something new each time.

Creator of the Year
Brandon Graham
For Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity, King City, and Prophet (Image)
Brandon Graham is working at Kirby-levels of sheer creativity, perfectly encapsulated in his new Multiple Warheads. A truly unique art style and hypercreative sci-fi storytelling, a perfect synthesis of clever art and language, it often feels like the page can barely contain what his brain is giving the universe. It's comics like this for which comics exist. And this is just a drop in the creative ocean that is Brandon Graham. 2012 saw the release of his stupendous Tokyopop to Image mega-series King City in a gorgeous twenty dollar package. In twelve issues of black and white awesome, in a narrative slightly more cohesive than Multiple Warheads, Graham shows how much fun you can have reading - and I imagine, for him, writing and illustrating - COMICS. And then there's Prophet, created by Graham with Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple & Giannis Milogiannis, based on, of all things, a Rob Liefeld property. Thankfully having nothing to do with Liefeld in style or story, Prophet is innovative, stylish (in its own sense) science fiction that is a lesson (along with books like Hawkeye) to publishers that simply allowing creators to take the reins and run unrestricted is the formula for quality and originality missing in so many properties. Less editorial, more creatorial. 2012 is the year of Brandon Graham and creators like him, who, thankfully for comics, are starting to come out of the woodwork.

20 Honorable Mentions for 2012, in alphabetical order: Batman by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo, Chew by John Layman & Rob Guillory, Fantastic Four/FF written by Jonathan Hickman, Fatale by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, Fury MAX by Garth Ennis & Goran Parlov, G0dland by Joe Casey & Tom Scioli, Goliath by Tom Gauld, Hellboy by Mike Mignola, The Hive by Charles Burns, The Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca, Journey Into Mystery written by Kieron Gillen, Love & Rockets New Stories by Los Bros Hernandez, MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt, RASL by Jeff Smith, Richard Stark's Parker: The Score by Darwyn Cooke, The Twelve by J. Michael Straczynski & Chris Weston, the Ultimate Spider-Man comics of Brian Michael Bendis and Sarah Pichelli and David Marquez, Unwritten by Mike Carey & Peter Gross, X-Factor written by Peter David, xkcd by Randall Monroe.

c) 2012, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

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