Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Best Comics of 2008

Comics, by the labor intensive nature of their creation, tend not to be the work of a calendar year. Creators spend months or years creating them, and months are often spent serializing them in one format or another and then they come out in a trade format, likely in an entirely different year than when the creators first put pencil to paper.

So perhaps the compilation of lists like this, in which critics like me judge books by the January 1 to December 31 calendar year isn’t exactly fair. It’s certainly arbitrary, but then, I can’t think of any other way to judge all comics of a certain time period against one another that isn’t just as arbitrary.

So the “best of” I’m talking about refers not so much to the creation of the comics, as the publication of the comics. That’s why I suppose reprints must count, but perhaps not get full points (as I mentioned earlier this month at Blog@; otherwise, everyone’s top tens would be full of things like Fanta’s reprints of Peanuts and Popeye and we might not ever get down to things made in the last year or two).

To continue to focus on criteria before launching into the list, I should also mention that this year I’m using the word “comics” instead of “graphic novels” in the title of the list, because the former is more inclusive.

And as always, I should note that as much as I would like to read each and every single comics work that is released every year, I can’t and didn’t. Money is a factor, even though I do get quite a few review copies and get quite a few books from my local libraries, but time is an even greater factor. There are only so many hours in a day, after all, and these posts about Millennium aren’t going to write themselves, you know?

So if you’re thinking, Hey, why isn’t Abandoned Cars on here? Or Disappearance Diary? The answers simple: I didn’t read ‘em, and a lot of other comics besides. I did do something of a last-minute sprint to track down and read a lot of the comics I saw popping up on other folks’ best-of lists, but I didn’t make it to the bottom of my to-read pile.

So while I titled this post The Best Comics of 2008, the reality is that this is actually The Best Comics Published During the Calendar Year 2008 That I Happened To Read Before Calendar Year 2008 Ended.

Oh, and since I’ve talked about the words “comics” and “2008” perhaps I should also mention what I mean by “Best” too. I mean it literally. These are what I consider the best comics. Not my favorite comics, not necessarily the ones I enjoyed reading the most, but the ones that I think are better than all the other ones.

Okay so first, in no particular order, the ten best comics of the year. No, scratch that, in alphabetical order, the ten best comics of the year.

Then, as I did last year, I’ll list the rest of the books that I had put on a master list of potential best-of candidates from throughout the year. Basically, every time I’d read a comic book that really impressed the hell out of me, I’d add it to a list I was keeping to aid in my later best-of list assemblage (I started doing this when I was working for an altweekly and had to do best of the year film lists; the first one I did I had to sit down and reread 52 issues of the weekly paper to remind my self what I’d actually seen in that calendar year).

This list probably doesn’t actually constitute the runners-up—I’m pretty sure Jamilti was in actuality a better comic than Wolverine First Class #2, yet the latter is listed below and the former is not—since there were so many different factors in play when I noted these titles, but I want to post ‘em anyway to call attention to some works that impressed the hell out of me at the time I closed their back covers.

Finally, below that you’ll find a couple of extremely specific lists of books that didn’t even make it that far into consideration, but stood out in their genre (in my mind).



1.) The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (First Second) by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best The nineteenth century ends and the twentieth century begins and Useless Etienne, successor of the more colorfully named acrobat who gives the book its title, and his pitiful circus troop are there for it all. This beautiful, full-color book is bursting with narrative curlicues branching off of the main story, and it also happens to be one of the funniest books I read this year.

2.) Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics) by Dash Shaw I was primed to hate this book. It’s intimidatingly long (700+ pages), I didn’t care for the previous Shaw book I had read and the premise—a family reunites at the home the adult children grew up in for a dramatic event—sounds like something from Wes Anderson’s notebook. And then I read it. Pressed to pick a single best book of the past year, I’d probably crown Bottomless Belly Button. Shaw follows every member of the extended Loony family through a few days at their house on the beach as they each come to terms with their relationships with one another, their individual pasts and their individual futures.

The story itself is epic in scope and exceedingly well told through observational details, but Shaw is hardly acting as a formalist here. He takes some big, ballsy risks with his storytelling, particularly on the design and craft level, and whether they all work out for the best or not, they certainly add to the excitement of the work.

3.) The Burma Chronicles (Drawn & Quarterly) by Guy DeLisle The Canadian-born French cartoonist, his Doctors Without Borders administrator wife and their baby son spend about a year in one of the most repressive and reticent countries in the world. By the time you get done reading, you’ll feel like you spent the year there with them.

4.) Get Your War On (Soft Skull Press) by David Rees See, here’s a book—a collection of comic strips—that was published this year, but collects material created over the course of seven years. Rees has an unfair advantage here in that respect, but it definitely belongs here. Here’s every outrage in The War on Terror documented and preserved for posterity. I honestly think GYWO offered the best commentary on our country’s collective nervous breakdown and am constantly in awe of Rees’ ability to take the most horrifying subjects and find away to make hilarious jokes about them, without minimizing the horror or even toning down the rage one should feel in the face of such horror.

5.) The Goddess of War (PictureBox, Inc.) by Lauren R. Weinstein Over four months later, I still don’t know what to do with this gigantic comic book—it’s currently in the envelope it was mailed in, behind a bookshelf—but the more I read it the more impressed I become with the cosmology Weinstein created and the story she tells in it.

6.) Gumby: The Collected Edition (Wildcard Ink) by Bob Burden and Rick Geary Here’s what I wrote back in March, immediately after having read this: “This trade collecting the first three issues of Bob Burden and Rick Geary’s new Gumby series, is easily one of the most insane comics I’ve ever read, and it’s somehow made all the more insane by the fact that its anchored by the vaguely familiar pop culture figure of Gumby…It’s really got to be read to be believed.” Grant Morrison’s got nothing on Bob Burden.

7.) The Last Musketeer (Fantagraphics) by Jason The Norweigian cartoonist sends Athos, the last of the famed Musketeers who’s still musketeering to the best of his ability, to Mars, where the character from the swashbuckling genre contends with a threat from old sci-fi serials (in addition to awkward humor and career ennui).

8.) Omega The Unknown (Marvel Comics) Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak and Farel Dalrymple This is such a strange project that I had been meaning to devote a long, thoughtful post about it, but have never been able to muster the energy, in large part because I’m still wrestling with some of the specific issues it raised. This is Lethem and company’s “cover song” version of the incredibly far ahead of its time 1970s series by the same name originally written by Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes.

Gerber had expressed his frustration with the book’s very existence, and also died this year, so reading it afterwards was a pretty odd experience.

While Lethem and company’s version begins as a more or less panel-for-panel recreation, by the second issue it begins to diverge quite wildly. What I found myself most impressed with was the fact that the new version manages to recreate the strange tone of the original, even while telling a very different story.

I’m still pretty ambivalent about whether this book should ever have been made, as going forward it can’t help but impact Gerber and Skrenes’ original, but I’ve no questions that about whether or not the new Omega is a great graphic novel, and probably the best superhero book of the year.

9.)Swallow Me Whole (Top Shelf) by Nate Powell Keep your eyes on this Powell character; he’s going places.

10.) Venice Chronicles (AdHouse Books) by Enrico Casarosa Here’s another book I’ve been meaning to give a full review to for quite some time now; I’ve just been waiting for a block of quality time with a scanner, as it’s somewhat difficult to praise without showing readers the art and format. I’ll try to do so briefly here: Casarosa’s book has a hand-made feel to it, like you’re reading his sketchbook rather than a printed and mass-produced work. He fills the pages with highly cartoony figures and hurried, hand-written lettering, flowing all over the pages in panel-less but easy-to-read lay-outs. The subject is a trip he took to Venice, but the book ends up being a damn sweet love story that seems to unfold in real-time in several stretches. I said it feels a little like reading Casarosa’s sketchbook, and it does at times, but, at other times, it feels like you’re inside Casarosa’s sketchook, and he's penciling and water color-ing the world around you.


Manga Sutra Vol. 1 (Tokyopop) by Katsu Aki The how-to sex book? Yes, the how-to sex book. I can’t link to my original review, as Las Vegas Weekly redesigned their website, but the work earns a spot here by virtue of doing something in a comic that I’ve never seen before, and taking advantage of the medium to tell a story (and communicate information) in a way that can only be done in comics. I haven’t read the later volumes, so it’s possible the series goes downhill, or the novelty doesn’t quite hold up, but I was quite impressed with this first volume.

Teen Titans Lost Annual #1 (DC Comics) by Bob Haney, Jay Stephens, Mike Allred and Laura Allred The comic that was so awesome, DC waited years to publish it.

Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story (Houghton Mifflin) by Frederik Peeters

Paul Goes Fishing (Drawn & Quarterly) by Michel Rabagliati

All-Star Superman #10-#12 (DC) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely This series didn’t stop being great this year, even when it started communicating grander and grander and riskier and riskier ideas, like the fact that Superman created our world and is, for all intents and purposes, its god.

Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella (NBM) by Lewis Trondheim I was so bummed out when I reached the end of this book; it could honestly have gone on forever and I don’t think I would have ever got sick of it.

That Salty Air (Top Shelf) by Tim Sievert

Suburban Glamour (Image Comics) by Jamie McKelvie McKelvie’s art is probably why I had originally added this to the list, although I did really enjoy it. Holly Black and Ted Naifeh’s The Good Neighbors was a somewhat stronger effort at telling a very similar story.

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody (Bloomsbury USA) by Mike Dawson I didn't even like (or really know) Queen before I read this book.

Wolverine First Class #2 (Marvel) by Fred Van Lente and Andrea Di Vito You don’t have to believe me, but this was a really, really good comic. Even though it had Wolverine in it.

Roswell, Texas (Big Head Press) by L. Neil Smith, Rex F. May and Scott Bieser A who's who of historical figures in a seven-way race through an alternate history version of the American southwest, this is a blast to read.

Chiggers (Aladdin Mix) by Hope Larson In many ways, this is Larson's most accessible and commercial work, making it a great introduction to a great talent.

Cat-Eyed Boy Vols. 1 and 2(Viz) by Kazuo Umezu

Good-bye (Drawn & Quarterly) by Yoshihiro Tatsumi Like the previous Tatsumi collections D&Q have put out, this is a powerful, affecting and challenging work.

Pocket Full of Rain and Other Stories (Fantagraphics) by Jason Even before he started using anthropomorphic animals instead of humans for his characters, Jason was making great comics, as this anthology of his earlier work eloquently argues.

Bluesman (NBM/ComicsLit) by Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo

Too Cool To Be Forgotten (Top Shelf) by Alex Robinson

Yam (Top Shelf) by Corey Barba This is ridiculously cute and sweet, but there's some real grit amid all the sugar, as well as some good old-fashioned what the fuck storytelling and imagery.

All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder Vol. 1 (DC) by Frank Miller and Jim Lee In a perfect world, DC would have Frank Miller scripting their entire line of DCU books exactly like this.

Rapunzel’s Revenge (Bloomsbury) by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale and Nathan Hale I’m afraid this book ended up flying under the radar a bit, on account of co-writer Shannon Hale being kind of a big deal in the Young Adult novel world and artist Nathan Hale being better known as a children’s book illustrator than a comic book artist, and that’s a damn shame—this is a great all-ages adventure story.

Prince of Persia (First Second) by A.B. Sina, LeUyen Pham, Alex Puvilland and Jordan Mechner By far the best comic ever based on a video game that I’ve read.

MySpace Dark Horse Presents Volume 1 (Dark Horse) by Various

Mesmo Delivery (AdHouse Books) by Rafael Grampá

Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight (Dark Horse) by Chris Onstad I don’t think the Great Outdoor Fight is necessarily the best Achewood arc, nor necessarily the best introduction to Achewood, but the fact that it’s the only Achewood in book form earns it a spot here.

The Rabbi's Cat Vol. 2 (Pantheon) by Johann Sfar

Princess at Midnight (Image Comics) by Andi Watson Said I back in March: “There’s a humorous and occasionally touching moral about war in here, but Watson’s minimalist, perfectly designed art work makes the surface engaging all on its own.” December Caleb agrees with March Caleb.

Wizzywig Vol. 1: Phreak by Ed Piskor

Skyscrapers of the Midwest (AdHouse Books) This series makes me really sad, but it also perfectly captures the specific sort of sadness one experiences as a child.


Incredible Hercules (Marvel) by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente and various This is one of those comics that I look forward to reading every month and dread writing any kind of review every month, because it’s so incredibly good and so incredibly consistent that reviews amount to thinking of new ways to say, “Hey, how about that Incredible Hercules, huh?”. To repeat myself though, Pak and Van Lente have created a delicate balance between real world Greek mythology and Marvel Comics mythology, placing their superhero character astride the line between the two. It’s an extremely fun, old-school superhero comic told with modern, sophisticated storytelling techniques, but it’s also an interpersonal drama and a comedy.

Empowered Vols. 3 and 4 (Dark Horse) by Adam Warren On one level, it’s a near-nudity filled work of PG-13-approaching-R titillation sex comedy. On another level, it’s a superhero comic parody and genre deconstruction. On another level, it’s a pointed commentary on the role of female characters and sexuality in comics. On another level, it’s a character-driven dramedy. That’s a lot of levels, and it succeeds wildly on all of them. I don’t think there’s anyone working in super-comics who couldn’t learn something from Warren (and a lot of ‘em could learn a lot of things from Warren).

Umbrella Academy Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse) by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba What if the X-Men were a little bit more like the Doom Patrol, only more of the modern day, and totally awesome? They’d be The Umbrella Academy of course.


School Rumble (Del Rey) by Jin Kobayashi


Showcase Presents: Enemy Ace Vol. 1 (DC) by Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert and others The stories in this 500-page collection are extremely repetitive, with Kanigher finding a formula he liked and then using it over and over, and yet I still enjoyed almost every single one of the slight variations on that formula.

Showcase Presents: The Brave and The Bold Vol. 3 (DC) by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo

Essential Man-Thing Vol. 1 (Marvel) by Steve Gerber, Mike Ploog and others

The Popeye and Wimpy Versus The Sea Hag Plunder Island storyline from Thimble Theatre 1933-1934 reprinted in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics (Smithsonian Institution Press/Harry Abrams Inc) by E.C. Segar I found this massive hardcover being discarded in a library book sale, and am still working my way through it, but one of the first things I read was the Thimble Theatre portion, which featured the above story. Goddam is Wimpy freaking awesome. I think this storyline will appear in the next volume of Fantagraphics’ Popeye reprint program (Volume 4). You should totally get it when it comes out. UPDATE: In a strange coincidence, Tom Spurgeon has a link to most of that sequence up at his site this morning (January 1). Click on through it.

The Best Graphic Novels of 2007
Thirty-Three Notable Graphic Novels of 2006


Greg said...

Goddess of War was by LAUREN Weinstein. Valerie is the lead character's name.

Man, that's an exhaustive list. Tough to comment on, although I will say that the Titans Annual was horrible. That's really the only thing on here that I read that I couldn't stand.

Caleb said...

Goddess of War was by LAUREN Weinstein. Valerie is the lead character's name.

Oops, thanks. I fixed that; I have a sneaking suspicion this post is gonna be full of typos.

LurkerWithout said...

I really need to pick up that Gumby book. When I have money again. I've got the middle issue (which has Johnny Cash and carnival geeks) and is indeed awesome and weird and awesome...

Anonymous said...

Heh. Glad someone else sees the crazy genius behind All-Star Batman & Robin. :)