The year-end best-of list is, no lie, probably the only thing that comics-bloggers and critics do that I hate doing, but feel compelled to do anyway (Well, I guess it's kind of cool to put on my Anubis mask, pull out my feather of truth and weight comics against it on my scales of judgment...)
Reluctantly then, here is my list of The Best Comics of 2011. Please keep in mind that the usual caveats apply, particularly that this is a list of what I think (today) were the best comics published during the calendar year 2011 that I actually read during calendar year 2011, and that much of my diet of comics reading is dependent on what publishers and creators send me and/or what I find at the library or at the comic shop. As hard as I try, I don't read everything, and there are still some very big, very well-received 2011 books I haven't gotten to yet, like Craig Thompson's Habibi and the new Love and Rockets and so on.
And, with no further ado...
1.) Big Questions (Anders Nilsen; Drawn and Quarterly) Original review at Robot 6. In the months that have passed since this originally came out, my esteem for it has only grown. If there's any reason why it shouldn't be on a best of the year list, it may be that Nilsen has been working on it for so long, and publishing parts of it previously, that it is both a work from this year and of years past. I think that's a technicality, though. I think this is the best comic I read this year.
2.) Garden (Yuichi Yokoyama; PictureBox) Original review at Blog@Newsarama. After first reading it, I wrote that I had never read anything like Garden before. Half a year later, I still haven't.
3.) Too Dark To See (Julia Gfrörer; Thuban Press) original review at Blog@Newsarama.
4.) The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (Seth; Drawn and Quarterly) Original review at Robot 6. The premise and presentation Seth's love letter to cartoons and the people who make them and the people who read them, presented as an alternate history given during a tour of the titular group's headquarters, is deceptively straightforward, but there's a lot more going on here with each successive reading (So far, anyway; surely it will plateau with a fourth or fifth reading). It's a very rare comic that makes a reader want to climb inside it and live it while reading it.
5.) Night Animals (Brecht Evens; Top Shelf) Original review at Blog@Newsarama.
6.) Mister Wonderful (Daniel Clowes; Pantheon) Original review at Blog@Newsarama. I struggled a bit with whether to include this or Clowes' Death-Ray, which Drawn and Quarterly republished as a standalone graphic novel after its original publication in Fantagraphics' Eightball, or if they maybe both belonged on the list. I think Death-Ray is probably a better comic, but maybe I'm just saying that because I like the colors of the cover better, and it has a superhero in it (kinda). But as a new original graphic novel, Mister Wonderful seems much more of 2011, and thus deserving of a spot on the list. So I gave it the slot, and figured I'd just mention Death-Ray here, which I now have.
7.) Any Empire (Nate Powell; Top Shelf) Original review at Robot 6
8.) Zahra's Paradise (Amir and Khalil; First Second) Review forthcoming. I have a feeling this will be the book on this list that I'm most likely to look back on in the future and wonder if it really belongs here instead of, say, in a top twenty list. Part of that is because the book is so new—I literally just read it, and am still working on a review of it—that it has the advantage of being fresher in my mind than some of the excellent books I read at the beginning of the year (That's the main reason I've decided to keep Jim Henson's Tale of Sand off this list; I'm not entirely sure I trust my assessment of it in relation to the rest of the calendar year's worth of comics so soon after being surprised by its excellence). That, and the subject matter is so very powerful—I almost stopped reading after the very first scene, it was such a struggle for me to get through—that it may have an "advantage" of seeming better than other books in the runners-up list below (in the way that an Oscar might go to a holocaust movie over a slightly better genre film because the former seems more serious). But at the moment? I'm pretty confident this was one of the best books I read in the year 2011.
9.) Shadoweyes Volume 2: Shadoweyes in Love (Ross Campbell; SLG Publishing) Original review in Las Vegas Weekly. This was another rough year for superhero comics, with reprints of comics from previous calendar years providing me many of my favorite—and, I think, best—comics featuring capes, tights and superpowers. Even the standouts among the corporate heroes—Daredevil, Wonder Woman, All-New Batman: The Brave and The Bold—are only achieving what should be the baseline of all comics with that much money and talent behind them produced in the 21st century. (That's not a slam on those books; it's a slam on everything else. They're not reinventing the wheel, but they so many other comics have gotten so awful that Daredevil looks like it was written by the Ghost of Shakespeare and drawn in ichor by angels. That's not the case with Campbell's Shadoweyes series, of which this is the second installment—not only is it a step or two above what should be baseline quality standards for superhero comics, it's something new, something original and something vital. It too my benefit from the sad state of superhero comics in 2011, but it's still king of that particular mountain.
10.) Tiny Titans and SpongeBob SquarePants (Art Baltazar and Franco and Various; DC Comics and United Plankton Pictures) I give up. I can't decide. Genre comics are hard to rate in these sorts of list, as genre-less, "literary" ones almost always look "better" by comparison ("Wow, that story in Optic Nerve really made me think about identity and relationships and my life, but gee, that's a great drawing of an extremely stupid starfish in Bermuda shorts..."). I think SpongeBob has an unfair advantage over TT in that it's an anthology by a whole mess of great cartoonists, and in some ways it usually features stronger art in a variety of styles but, on the other hand, TT's Art Baltazar and Franco seem handicapped in that it's just the two of them against the big SpongeBob team. So I'm going to call it a tie: These are both excellent all-ages gag comics with superior cartooning.
Other comics that were under consideration for inclusion: All-New Batman: The Brave and The Bold by Sholly Fisch, Rick Burchett and Dan Davis (#2-#14 came out this calendar year; no one else has done that many consecutive issues of a superhero comic in that amount of time that was that good...if I remember correctly, only #13 was a fill-in, and it was also great), Jim Henson's Tale of Sand by Ramon Perez, Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl (I mentioned this one's newness being a problem for me, I also felt a little uncomfortable time-stamping it as a 2011 best-of, given the fact that it was written decades ago), Mid-Life by Joe Ollman (the opposite problem here; this one came out so long ago that it seemed more faded in my memory than some of the other books that made the list above), Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki (a rare case of me not reviewing a comic I read and enjoyed meant that this work wasn't as easily recalled for rating-versus-everything-else purposes), Optic Nerve #12, Orc Stain (Has my comic shop sucked at getting this in, or was #6 the last issue to see release...?) and Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami.
2010: The Year Drawn and Quarterly Won Comics
The ten comics that I happened to read in 2009 that I thought were better than the rest of the comics I read in 2009
The Best Comics of 2008
The Best Graphic Novels of 2007
Thirty-Three Notable Graphic Novels of 2006