Top Ten Best Graphic Novels of 2011

A column article, Top Ten by: Danny Djeljosevic, Nick Hanover, Jason Sacks

10. Holy Terror

By Frank Miller

Danny Djeljosevic: Let the comments section boil over! Let the hate mail pour in! Let satellites fall from the sky and children weep! Holy Terror is one of the most gorgeous pieces of sequential art released this year. It's breathtaking as Frank Miller combines the sweeping landscape format of 300 with the busy, information overload panel grids that he started in The Dark Knight Returns and continued in the wrongfully maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again and the smashes the whole thing with a hammer to create something as ugly, cracked and violent as Sin City. The nail bomb explosion sequence is one for the ages as the fictional urban wonderland of swinging superheroes is detonated and ripped into a million pieces. It almost gives a glimmer of hope that the younger, less insane Frank Miller is trapped inside the newer, older man who threatens the artist's livelihood with off-base statements and long-passé post-9/11 flailing.

Which brings us to the next part. Unfortunately, the artistic beauty of Holy Terror is undercut for most readers by its message, being one of outrage and revenge against an ideology that's conflated with an entire race of people delivered without nuance or even a remote understanding of real-world politics. Which makes me think that maybe there's only new-old Miller, wishing he could go back to the simplicity of doing a comic where Batman and Catwoman fight clearly delineated bad guys and, by the end, all is well. Timothy Callahan best described it as an artistic temper tantrum; I'm calling Holy Terror a tossed-off punk song put to Bristol board -- all expression, unsure of what to rebel against and revealing more about the artist than it does about the world around him.


9. Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not)

By Jason Shiga


Jason Sacks: Sometimes it really sucks to be in love. When you're in love you make stupid decisions and waste lots of money and time on gestures that somehow, absurdly, seem worthwhile at the time but which actually are incredibly stupid and self-indulgent and foolish and really kind of pointless.

Jason Shiga's Empire State: A Love Story (Or Not) is about that awkward sort of love that many of us have experienced, when we have a tremendously intimate female friend for whom we have a crush but who regards us as just friends.

Jimmy Yee is a socially awkward science fiction geek (he likes the kind with rocket ships) who has an unrequited love for Sara, who's also a geek but who is far less socially awkward. When Sara moves to New York and quickly gains a boyfriend, Jimmy decides to follow Sara to the Big Apple and surprise her like a scene from Sleepless in Seattle. What results from the visit is both not at all what you might expect and at the same time exactly what you would expect.

Part of what makes this book so endearing is the real passion and intelligence that Shiga invests in Jimmy. Our protagonist is a tremendously awkward guy, but in his literal and metaphorical journeys through this book, he grows and changes and becomes a more mature and interesting person. In his vainglorious quest for love, Jimmy somehow becomes more worthy of love, more freed from his own head and more open to the world around him.

Another part of what makes this book so endearing is Jason Shiga's amazingly odd and awesome art style. Nobody draws people like Shiga, whose characters are odd amalgamations of geometric shapes that somehow carry the illusion of life. Somehow because they seem so abstract, Shiga's characters seem more realistic, more compelling, more grounded in their own fictional world.

Jimmy Yee is kind of a loser, but he's not like a loser in a Dan Clowes book. We like Jimmy and can't help but pull for him to succeed in his strange journey. And even though Jimmy's story has its tragic elements, he's still kind of a winner in the end. Simply by going to the top of the Empire State Building, Jimmy ends up winning.


8. Super Pro K.O.! Volume 2

By Jarett Williams

Danny Djeljosevic: It's easy to write off Super Pro K.O.! as a Scott Pilgrim clone. After all, it's another multivolume Oni Press comic with cute art and faux video game touches ("PRESS START") that exists in a black and white manga format complete with chapter divisions even though the story was never actually serialized in Boy Fun Turbo Jump.

With their equally contrived personalities and endless storylines, comics and pro wrestling have a lot in common. But there's a long, best-left-forgotten history of shit comics based on real-life wrestling organizations that attempt to let their characters loose on society (David Lapham did one, but he'll never admit it, probably) or dropping them into hacky comic book scenarios ("Here's Buff Bagwell and Norm Smiley in a Road Warrior-style post-apocalypse!"). Other times, pro wrestlers take matters into their own hands and make comics where they subject Santa Claus to Stygian chain bondage. Did it never occur to anyone to just make a comic where people suplex one another and pretend it's real like they do on TV?

It occurred to Jarett Williams, and it's made for one of the most fun reads of the year. Despite its exclusion from completely fictional Japanese manga anthology mags, Super Pro K.O.!  takes cues from sports manga like Slam Dunk or Big Windup to weave a story about a young up-and-comer trying to work his way through a major pro wrestling federation, where personalities clash -- alcoholic legends, wrestlers turned movie star prodigals, friendly luchadores -- and it's all kayfabe, so every powerbomb matters, and Williams renders every super-move, every sound effect and every injury with the childlike excitement of someone who loves both comics and wrestling. Super Pro K.O.!Volume 2 reads like what many of us imagined pro wrestling was like when we were kids.


7. Infinite Kung Fu

by Kagan McLeod

Nick Hanover: CB's own Joe Mulvey likes to win over non-comics readers by telling them comics are basically films with literally unlimited budgets. Personally I love that idea and it's how I've thought of comics for a while, as a place where pop and art equally free to aim high without worrying about production costs. Fittingly enough, it's an idea that Kagan McLeod buys into as well, as he told us in an interview earlier in the year, citing it as something that his brother, who works in film, is perennially jealous of. And after the release of Infinite Kung Fu, that's for good reason.

Infinite Kung Fu may as well be the poster child of the infinite budget; McLeod's kung fu epic is a tour de force of gorgeous scenery, breathtaking choreography and mind blowing special effects that appears to have been designed specifically to turn everyone who reads it into a drooling devotee to both comics and all things kung fu. While its plot can basically be boiled down to a standard martial arts story about a man destined to be a great warrior training to overcome an immensely powerful group of adversaries, Infinite Kung Fu is anything but ordinary. Mixing elements of the vintage kung fu flicks of the Shaw Brothers and the anything goes eclecticism and madness of the Wu-Tang Clan, Infinite Kung Fu is comics at its finest, full of weird wonder and unafraid of boundaries. McLeod manages to work in everything from zombies to a funkadelic kung fu master who can detach his own limbs, filling the story with a frenetic energy only matched by his equally giddy art.

That kind of inventiveness was occasionally lost in 2011, where marketing and hype often drowned out the works that were really pushing the medium forward, but Infinite Kun Fu stood out throughout the year, a reminder that the only limitations in comics are the result of imagination and talent. Good thing Kagan McLeod has both of those in surplus.


6. Hellboy: House of the Living Dead

By Mike Mignola and Richard Corben

Danny Djeljosevic: Hellboy: House of the Living Dead, a rare OGN in the supernatural adventure franchise, is a whole big package of "Great things we need to appreciate before they're gone."

Hellboy is a thing we're taking for granted, I assure you. Like many superhero franchises in the "big leagues," it happens every month in the form of 12 spinoffs, but creator Mike Mignola's holding the thing together amazingly, actively taking part in the creation of the books while letting a lot of superb talent do the heavy lifting in a genre so broad that his characters and ideas can take a variety of forms depending on the story.

Mignola himself doesn't draw much these days outside of covers, but he sure writes a lot. He's often credited as a co-writer on a lot of the Hellboy universe books, but with House of the Living Dead he goes solo to tell a tale that, on paper, sounds like a homage-athon (Universal monsters team-up films! Santo movies!) but soon turns into something weirder, darker and much more sad. Guillermo Del Toro is already threatening to whisk Mignola away to the lucrative world of cinema, so enjoy his time in comics while it lasts.

Then there's Richard Corben. Are you appreciating him like you should? Comics are a big city, and Richard Corben is like the interesting, historically rich building that you never look up at and really study unless you're on an architectural tour. His work appeared in Creepy, Eerie, Heavy Metal (including the wonderful/terrible film) and even in modern, recent works like Banner! and Ghost Rider. At 71 years old, he's still actively producing awesome work at an age where most people have already been chewed up by comics.

And all this greatness looks even better with Dave Stewart coloring it.


5. Oil and Water

By Steve Duin & Shannon Wheeler

Jason Sacks: The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is one of the great ecological catastrophes of American history. It wreaked devastation all along the Gulf Coast, destroying marine life, crushing livelihoods and demonstrated once again that oil can cause horrible, horrible problems in the world.

In the wake of the oil spill, a group of Oregonians journeyed to the Gulf Coast to help out in any way they could. Two members of that crew, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and newspaper reporter Steve Duin, traveled to the Coast to cover that journey. What they found surprised them, and in turn surprised me. The events there were surprisingly painful and futile; a wrenching experience that showed the limits of charity and kindness that could be offered.

Oil and Water took a turn early that I didn't expect. Instead of being about the oil spill and the tragedy it created, the book was as much about how even the most noble intentions can end up seeming petty and worthless.

Maybe the most evocative depiction of the pain, frustration and anger about the situation on the Gulf Coast comes when the Oregon group, with all good intentions, travel to the Hammond Oiled Wildlife Refuge Center, where pelicans and other seabirds are treated for exposure to oil. The group starts their tour of the facility all filled with noble and good intentions of truly making a difference.

But the good intentions dissipate in light of the overwhelming horror of the events, events where a single person has no way of making a difference. Many thousands of birds will die because of the oil spill and there's precious little that the Oregonians can do to prevent the deaths. The trip becomes a bit of a debacle. One of them gets bored and decides to spend time on one of her other do-gooder projects, the rescue efforts seem pathetically underwhelming, and in the end they're essentially shamed as the tourists that they ultimately are.

This book is very much about misconceptions and preconceptions, about how we all can feel inadequate when facing enormous problems and how little we often feel we can do in when facing even the small incidents in our lives -- let alone the large ones.


4. Paying for It

by Chester Brown

Nick Hanover: Sex was everywhere in the comic world of 2011. But for the most part, it was sex as a cartoon act, a desperate effort to appeal to the lowest common denominator that reduced one of the most complicated aspects of human nature to inhuman postures and mindsets. Chester Brown's Paying for It would be impressive regardless of the year of its release, but that it was published in a year like this -- where sex was perhaps more visible than ever in comics -- was all too perfect.

An insightful, deeply human work, Paying for It is proof incarnate that comics as a medium are uniquely situated to dig into subjects that are often ignored in other mediums. In the case of Paying for It, that subject goes beyond sex and into the realm of sex work; specifically, the perspective of those who utilize the service of sex workers. Paying for It essentially functions as a graphic novel memoir of being a john and how that lifestyle has improved rather than harmed Brown's life.

As flawed as portions of Brown's arguments are -- particularly in regards to his generalizations about monogamy and the encroachment of his personal politics in his sexual politic -- it's the bravery he shows in putting himself out there as evidence that johns aren't perverted monsters that elevates the work even further. Like Stuck Rubber Baby before it, Paying for It is devoted to humanization and its politics are secondary to those efforts. There may have been many works this year that pushed sexual progression in comics backwards, but it's not too optimistic to imagine that Paying for It was a big enough step forward that it at least cancelled those works out.


3. Luchadoras

By Peggy Adam

Danny Djeljosevic: Don't let the title fool you -- the Mexican wrestling implied by the title makes a brief appearance, sure, but Luchadoras features more of a thematic type of wrestling as the women in Peggy Adam's story have to contend not only with their less-than-desirable home lives, but also the reality of living in Juarez, easily among the worst places on Earth to be born with a vagina, as the city is plagued by a disturbing epidemic of unexplained female murders. Not exactly feel-good reading, but even that is backgrounded, like bad weather or the basic conceit of Never Let Me Go.

In her L'Association-styled, detailed, imperfect, beautiful European art-comic form, Peggy Adam illustrates a story not just of women wrestling with their day-to-day lives, but of the power of perception as an American tourist remarks on a beautiful canyon that our female protagonist only sees as a common place where people kill themselves. It's ultimately about living in that kind of world -- where women end up dead constantly for reasons beyond anyone's understanding, where your daughter seeing a dead body is a very real possibility.

Luchadoras is a low-key kind of comic -- the sort that flies under the radar in the celebrity cartoonist-focused world of alt-comics where you need to be a Crumb or a Clowes to get your book any attention. If enough people read Luchadoras, however, Peggy Adam could be as equal a "name" as the oft-name-checked pillars of the scene.


2. Finder: Voice

By Carla Speed McNeil

Danny Djeljosevic: Comics: We gotta do better. I realize this because I've read Finder: Voice and, in less than 200 pages and countless thick ink lines, Carla Speed McNeil showed an entire medium how it's done. Sure, she showed us how it was done when Voice first appeared online a couple years ago, but this improved and expanded print edition is physical proof of how we can follow our interests in this medium no matter how weird and obscure they may seem to regular folk and movie producers, and how mindblowingly awesome we can still make our comics.

Finder: Voice takes place in a (relatively subdued) future where humanity is divided up into various clans, and to become official royalty, the universally feminine-featured Llaverac must take part in beauty pageants where the creepy sexual ogling and libidinous judgment is overt instead of simmering below the surface. Our hero, Rachel, loses her family ring and must journey throughout the dark corners of the city to get it back. The result is something like a Wong Kar Wai film -- deeply resonant, beautifully rendered urbanity, but with enough left unsaid or unexplained that there's still an enticing mystery beyond the scope of McNeil's panels.

What's crazy is that she's been doing Finder stories for 15 years, and in Voice she gives readers a window into a dense, fully formed yet perfectly accessible world. And, on the crowded other-side-of-the-fence, everyone else is trying to figure out how people are going to understand a Batman comic. If you love making comics -- even if you just love comics -- you've found your new watershed.


1. Habibi

By Craig Thompson


Jason Sacks: Every once in a while there appears a graphic novel that reminds me why I love comics.

Habibi is why I love comics.

Craig Thompson's great brick of a graphic novel is a majestic, magisterial creative masterpiece. It's long and intense and sprawling and takes on big themes. It's also small and intimate and takes on themes as small as the human heart.

That's the genius of Craig Thompson's work: it manages to be both big and small. Habibi tells the big story of life on the Arabian sand dunes, full of horrific poverty and unimaginable wealth; tremendous sexual liberty and emotional repression; and the deep, committed, passionate love between a man and a woman. It takes on history and language, art and love and everything that makes us human, makes us alive in the world, significant, important, loved.

And Thompson creates the world of Habibi in a way that reminds readers that, in a world that is increasingly digital and ephemeral, sometimes the hand-crafted works are the ones that can have the most power. As Thompson explained to me at San Diego this year, in one of the most amazing interviews I've ever been lucky enough to conduct, every single line on every single one of this book's 600 plus pages was hand-drawn by him.

Thompson actually did several drafts of this book, rejecting each in turn as being unsatisfactory before going back and reworking scenes and moments in the book. And all this rework paid off; somehow, amazingly, for a book that is freaking monster of a comic, everything seems perfectly designed.

With Habibi, Craig Thompson presented a clinic on how to create great comics. Readers can sense Thompson's passion. We can see it in every perfectly illustrated line, every page with spectacular flow, every wonderfully thoughtful symbolic moment and every gorgeously illustrated human body. Thompson poured everything he had into every page of this amazing graphic novel and created one of the most astonishing graphic novels of the year.

I love this book!

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