In the movie adaptation of American Splendor, Harvey Pekar is quoted as saying that comics are nothing other than “words and pictures” and that any story –any sort of story- could be told using words and pictures. This list affirms that sentiment. The following list contains aliens, mutants and super-spies alongside terrified fathers, mentally unstable children and the crumbling grandeur of a once-great city who refuses to fall. Many genres are represented, many styles of art, many quirks of character. The purpose of this list is not to tell any of you what you should think or like, but to share a flicker of passion for a medium and its story tellers in the hopes that a few more people will fall in love with the idiosyncratic heartbeat that only thumps in the musty shelves of a comic store.
Read on, explore and find.
10.) Saucer Country
by Paul Cornell and others
America is a land of aliens. This year, novelist, British screenwriter and comics luminary Paul Cornell launched his first creator-owned work after years toiling in the mines of company characters ranging from Doctor Who to Superman. His creation is Saucer Country, a monthly comic that mixes the best of The X-Files with the best of The West Wing. The series is a political/science-fiction thriller that emphasizes character, dialogue and meditation over action and violence. As an outsider in America, Cornell uses this comic as his platform to analyze the dual natures of mythology and invasion in the American psyche. Such academic pursuits can make for rather dry reading and so Cornell gets his story all wet by dunking it in the pools of political intrigue and alien invasion. The result is a serialized story populated by rich characters, fascinating ideas and riveting plots that unfurl at a slow and measured pace. In the same way that TV viewers would set their VCRs to see what pieces of the puzzle would assemble every week on The X-Files, I eagerly await every new issue of this series to see what questions and answers Paul Cornell will lay on the table.
Available monthly and in collected edition from DC/Vertigo Comics.
by Matt Fraction and David Aja
When Marvel Comics began promoting their new series staring Hawkeye in an attempt to capitalize on the character’s newfound, movie induced fame, they did so with two simple words, “Fraction” and “Aja.” Matt Fraction and David Aja made their names with a brief but memorable run on the modern kung-fu series The Immortal Iron Fist. Even though they only produced 13 issues together, they revitalized a character who had been languishing since the late 1980s and generated an enormous fandom for themselves. They have spent years working successfully on separate ventures, but 2012 brought them back together for a new series that is just as exciting, stylish and innovative as their first. It’s a pleasure to have them back.
Available monthly from Marvel Comics.
8.) The Underwater Welder
by Jeff Lemire
Over the past few years, Jeff Lemire has achieved notable success in mainstream comics by writing memorable story-arcs in such family-friendly books as Superboy and Green Arrow. No matter how much success he has working on the company stuff, Lemire should always be best known for the work that he owns. He planted his stake in the comics industry with The Essex County Trilogy in 2008 and 2009 and grew his reputation further with his critically adored monthly Sweet Tooth series for DC/Vertigo shortly thereafter. Over the past few years the majority of his work has lost the deep, dark spark that flashed across the pages of his Essex County books. To be fair, the material at hand –Superboy, Animal Man, Green Arrow- didn’t warrant that same gentle touch. The Underwater Welder, however, does. As such it marks a return to that same level of voyeuristic and heart wrenching intimacy and a furthering of Jeff Lemire. The story is mysterious and unsettling, the drawings tender and loving in their own bizarre way and the stakes surprisingly high for such a small story. I don’t want to condescend Mr. Lemire’s superhero work but I do want to affirm his latest foray into this darker and more ambitious world. I’m looking forward to his next venture past this threshold, into these shadows.
Available as a graphic novel from Top Shelf Comics.
by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth
I’ve written before on my love for Greg Rucka, particularly his espionage epic Queen & Country. While he has left that series and its characters behind, he has maintained his status as one of the most professional, polished and selfless writers in North American fiction. Stumptown represents the further embodiment of Rucka’s masterful discipline. A detective series about a woman with brains and guts whose primary skill is an inability to stop or stay down, Stumptown came back in 2012 with its second story-arc, “The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case,” and immediately outshone most of the comics on the stands with its tight plotting, gently stylized dialogue, lush artwork and memorable set pieces. Stumptown came back and instantly reminded everyone who read of its author’s stature.
Available monthly and in collected editions from Oni Comics.
6.) The Goon
by Eric Powell
Eric Powell began self-publishing The Goon, his celebration of dust-bowl Americana and trashy horror movies of yesteryear, in 2002 and while it has moved onto the publishing schedule of a much larger corporation it has never lost its unique voice and verve. It has, however, lost much of its readership. The sales pattern in comics is a widening gyre. A new series will launch with some hype and, hopefully, strong sales. Month by month those sales will diminish until the book is no longer commercially viable. This is the point where most series will end, unless they are the lucky few that retain their hold on an audience’s imagination and manage to actually complete their story. After a solid decade of off-colour humour contrasted against beautifully painted art, Eric Powell found his book struggling and he decided to buck the pattern. He decided to increase the book’s publishing schedule, making good on its monthly commitment, promote it aggressively and give every single issue all of the humour and fire that its pages can handle. His efforts have paid off. The Goon is more beautiful, funnier and utterly mad then it has ever been. In Eric Powell’s world of perpetual twilight, travelling carnivals and zombie priests, things are better then they have ever been.
Available monthly and in collected editions from Dark Horse Comics.
by Matt Fraction, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon
Casanovais what happens when great artists let their imaginations off the chain. The series is a collection of seven volumes (think TV seasons), each lasting seven issues. The first two volumes were published in 2009 and 2010, respectively. The third volume, Avaritia, began in late 2011, continued in the first half of 2012 and continued the series’ irresistible mix of espionage, inventiveness and technicolour madness. Avaritia found our protagonist, master thief Casanova Quinn, thrown into a world of family history, super-espionage, hedonistic men of mystery, robots and time-travel. What makes Casanova so much fun to read is the manner by which Matt Fraction combines a child-like love of fantasy with a literary head for story and desire to innovate. The ultimate product is dazzling, puzzling and unrelenting. The ultimate product is the purest combination of creativity, passion and skill.
Available in collected editions from Marvel/Icon Comics.
4.) Wolverine and the X-Men
by Jason Aaron and various artists.
Superheroes are silly, but in their silliness, honest. They wear colourful skin-tight costumes. They have bizarrely descriptive names. They also live in universes where the amazing literal realities of the external world perfectly match the internal realities within the characters -and readers- themselves. When they are at their best, superhero comics are a loud, garish and immensely entertaining crystallization of the stages that mark our world’s confusing spectrum of good and evil. They are the embodiment of our hopes and struggles simplified into four colours with extreme stakes that match the feeling of the stakes within our own lives. In recent years the big two publishers of superheroes in North America (Marvel Comics and DC Comics) have gotten mired in faux-realism, adolescent “edginess” and low-level philosophy. Their stories have lost the imagination and emotional core that made the genre and its icons noteworthy. Wolverine and The X-Men is a return to that spirited combination of optimism, high fantasy and true relatability. It’s a return of the characteristics that make comics great.
Available monthly and in collected editions from Marvel Comics.
3.) Dotter of her Father’s Eyes
by Mary M. Talbot and Bryan Talbot
Of all the comics on this list, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes is by far the most literary in its pursuits and ambitions. The story melds together the memoir of its author, Mary Talbot, with the biography of Lucia Joyce, daughter of the famous and influential author James Joyce. Mary Talbot’s father was a Joycean scholar and her graphic novel blends together and contrasts stories of gender politics, dashed dreams, loss and obsession. In a story this dark it would be easy for the author to allow the reader to suffocate in a mire of bleakness, but Talbot allows for humour and humanity in the midst of the pain and sadness, necessary counterpoints in a story so blue. With lushly atmospheric artwork from her husband, legendary comics pioneer Bryan Talbot, Mary Talbot tells a story of longing, abandonment and love in manner that is candid, affecting but never indulgent. She takes her place at the table as a master.
Available as a graphic novel from Dark Horse Comics.
2.) My Friend Dahmer
by Derf Backderf
Derf set himself a nearly impossible task with My Friend Dahmer, his latest graphic novel. In this new book, Derf needs to make his depiction of a young Jeffrey Dahmer sympathetic while never pardoning his crimes or minimizing his evil. It’s a tough line to walk, a narrow line, but Derf successfully does so unfailingly at every turn. The story is nonfiction memoir -indie comics’ bread and butter- and it tells of Derf’s childhood friendship with a young boy who would grow up to become one of the most notorious serial killers in modern history, ending its narrative on the morning of the day that Dahmer takes his first victim. My Friend Dahmer asks a lot of itself, pulling double duty as a personal reflection on childhood and an analysis of burgeoning evil. It raises the stakes by asking itself to humanize a killer without lessening the brutal realities of his crimes. The fact that any book can spin so many plates is immensely impressive; the fact that this one does so while telling a compelling story is astounding.
Available as a graphic novel from Harry N. Abrams Books.
by Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant
Harvey Pekar died in 2010 but, being one of the more prolific titans of independent comics, he left two completed graphic novels behind. Cleveland and This is Not the Israel my Parents Promised Me, both published in 2012,stand as the final two works by one of the masters and pioneers of the comics medium. But of those two works, both beautifully written with Pekar’s signature mix of poignant vulnerability and ferocious rage, Cleveland is the one that broke my heart.
In Cleveland, Pekar intertwines the story of his city with the introspective memoir that marked his work for decades. As the pages roll past, these two histories mix and comingle until they have each taken over the other – until the story of the city has become the story of the man and vice versa. Like in Jonathan Lethem’s comic inspired masterpiece The Fortress of Solitude, Pekar uses Cleveland to reflect on the intrinsic connection between person and place, geography and identity and invites his readers to do the same.
Of the two posthumous works published this year, Cleveland stands above because it encapsulates almost everything that makes Harvey Pekar’s body of work such a beloved and unique part of the comic book canon. From the art by Joseph Remnant that evokes the contributions of some of Pekar’s most notable partners such as R. Crumb, to the focused but shameless nature of his autobiography, Cleveland summarizes the greatness of its author with all of the insight and sadness that you could expect from a man as battered and dignified as the Sixth City herself.
Available as a graphic novel from Top Shelf Comics
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter (@TheodoreWiebe) or Tumblr (writingafterdark.tumblr.com).
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