Top Ten Graphic Novels of 2012

A column article, Top Ten by: Jamil Scalese, Nick Hanover, Daniel Elkin, Danny Djeljosevic, Jason Sacks, David Fairbanks

Our month of too many year-end lists continues! This time we're covering The Best Graphic Novels of 2012, which should be self-explanatory. It's funny, if you've been following Comics Bulletin this year (and no worries if you weren't), you've probably seen all but one of these graphic novels get reviewed extremely positively. So, the masturbatory praise in these blurbs will be consistent with the masturbatory praise in the corresponding reviews.

I can't imagine anybody getting mad about this list, except that we left out Building Stories -- nobody asked us to review it, none of us felt like reading that shit and Comics Bulletin doesn't typically review board games. Sorry!

- Danny Djeljosevic


The Red Diary/ The Re[a]d Diary

(Teddy Kristiansen, Steven T. Seagle; Image/Man of Action)



The beauty of art is that inspiration can come from anywhere. Whether it's a mural artist, script writer, a sous-chef or ballet dancer ingenuity is always around the corner, it's just about finding that elusive creative spirit and birthing something new in one's field.

Earlier this year I had a chance to read The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary, a dual graphic novel flipbook that featured the same exact art in both sections. The original story, The Red Dairy, is a comic written and drawn by Teddy Kristiansen originally title Le Carnet Rouge when it was released in France a few years back. The Red Dairy follows an aging writer as he retraces the life and death of an obscure painter through the first World War. The story and art deserve recognition on their own, as Kristiansen's somberly panted pages and terse dialogue weave an emotional tale about love and lost legacies.



It's a pretty good story, impressive in its intricacies and simplicity, but what sets this ambitious graphic novel apart is that other half. The Re[a]d Diary uses Kristiansen's art, but sponsors text from former collaborator Steven T. Seagle. The trick is: Seagle never read Le Carnet Rouge, and created a story based on what he was thought was happening in the panels. The result is a truly divergent story from The Red Diary, a tale of stolen identity and longing regret.

It stands as one of the more distinctive releases this year, and really poke at the stale creative embers of comicdom. This book me struck such a cord with me that I wrote about three trillion words on it earlier this year. It's funny how inspiration can come from unlikely sources, huh?

- Jamil Scalese


Sailor Twain: Or, the Mermaid in the Hudson

(Mark Siegel; First Second)




When I first reviewed Mark Siegel's beautiful graphic novel Sailor Twain earlier this year, it connected with me as a sensual, clever story about the collision between Old and New World myths, where the folklore of America's river culture intersected with European romanticism. But as the year has gone on, the story has become something more personal for me, an exploration of grief and letting go, where folkloric identity and the rise of American trade is but window dressing.

Siegel's work in Sailor Twain is truly novel, in both senses of the word. It offers a fresh twist on mourning as well as that pre-established myth twisting, but it's also a true graphic novel, a well-structured work full of intriguing characters and symbolism that you know is going to end at a set time, but you're drawn into its world nonetheless, not wanting to leave. That's especially fitting given that its lead character, the steamboat captain who gives the work its name, is a storyteller himself, who is drawn into the sensual otherness of a mermaid he inexplicably rescues from death one night and is nursing back to health. Though he's married, his wife suffers from chronic ill health and in the mermaid, he has someone he can "fix," someone who will recover from their problems and thus has a happy conclusion on the horizon.



But Sailor Twain is full of warnings for its protagonists, from the French brothers who own the steamboat and are dealing with their own kind of cyclical grieving -- one is lost and likely dead, the other is dealing with that loss by seemingly acting out -- to the mermaid's true origins and past. Siegel's message is that grief can be a trap, that if we don't pay attention to what we're dealing with, we can get lost in it and our attempts to thaw it out, especially if those attempts come in the form of fantasy. Few works were as well-imagined and executed this year as Sailor Twain and Siegel's charming, imaginative art-- which thrives on a kind of duplicitous simplicity-- might just be its own kind of warning, a message that in Siegel comics may just have its own next Great American Author.

- Nick Hanover


Prince of Cats

(Ron Wimberly; Vertigo/DC)



It takes balls to take on the Bard, to recast a minor role into a major player, to transport fair Verona to Brooklyn, to take a classic story of star-crossed lovers and flip it on the B-side in order to tell a tale of heroism and honor, turning "the courageous captain of compliments " into a tragic figure of epic standing. Ron Wimberly has those balls and they are on deft display in Prince of Cats from Vertigo.

When Silva and I reviewed this book last month, we both spent a great deal of time lauding all of its many merits (from its sexiness to its humor, from its inventiveness to its lessons in fellatio) and we could find very little, if anything, wrong with the entire package.



Because everything works in this book. In it, Wimberly has full control of his craft: from the drawing to the colors to the writing to the layout – it is complete in every aspect. It dares to tell the story of Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet, transported to Brooklyn in the mid-80's, now made hip-hop and ninja, pierced and cocksure. By taking on this dare, Wimberly transforms a tragedy that has been watered down so, through endless tellings and interpretations and cultural touchstone thickness, as to be bereft of its woe, bordering on comedy. He transforms it and creates a new tragic hero, one that is believable, one that is true, one that is flawed by hubris and empathy at the same time – a candle that cannot burn long on this stage.



And we all know what happens to Tybalt. In this book, though, Wimberly makes this moment more meaningful. Prince of Cats asks you who is truly "Fortune's Fool" in this tale, while reminding you what is in a name.

Prince of Cats is the 2012 graphic novel you hand skeptics of the medium. Push it into their hands hard and, with wild eyes and frothy lips, tell them "This is for you!" 

- Daniel Elkin


Cow Boy: A Boy and His Horse
(Nate Cosby, Chris Eliopoulos; Archaia)



I've talked to a lot of people about what kind of stuff is appropriate kids but alas, like me, these people neither have children nor are children, so it's all pretty inconclusive. For one thing, it's important to realize that kids don't really see media the way we do -- that is, with adult eyes -- and that they really hate being talked down to. 



Good thing Cow Boy is one of those all-ages comics that doesn't talk down to its primary audience. While it's about a little boy who catches bad guys while carrying a hobby horse, those bad guys he catches are members of his own wrongdoing family and that hobby horse is a rifle. That's real complex stuff, even for some adults, but here Cosby and Eliopoulos present it in a kid-friendly way that never undercuts the pathos and resonance.



Cow Boy is, above all, a western, and an incredibly effective one at that, full of grit and shooting, just presented in a cute art style. It's a must for fans of westerns -- especially if they have kids that they want to induct into the family genre.

- Danny Djeljosevic


The Nao of Brown

(Glyn Dillon; Self Made Hero)



It's always an amazing experience to see an artist level up, to see them achieve a work of great comics art that represents a dramatic jump from the work that you're used to seeing by them. The Nao of Brown is one of those level-ups, from the pen and mind of Glyn Dillon, a gorgeously drawn, wonderfully layered, spectacularly realized slice of reality.

This book tells the story of Nao Brown, a cute and stylish young woman who is constantly struggling to find her way in life and escape her murderous thoughts. Yeah, yeah, from this description, this book sounds like all too many slice-of-life comics, the kind that indie creators delivered in pallet-loads throughout the '80s and '90s.



Except it's most definitely not the same old shit. The Nao of Brown is defiantly its own thing, and while slice of life may be one aspect of the story, so too is it about the ephemera of human relationships, the casual ways that one can make life-changing decisions in life, the struggle to create art and find inner peace, and the ways that one individual woman deals with her obsessive-compulsive disorder.

This is a really remarkable work of comics art and one of the best graphic novels I read in 2012. I keep coming back to this book in my thoughts, again and again, trying to process the story and its subtexts. The Nao of Brown is a huge level up by Glyn Dillon, and a tremendously exciting use of the medium. What else do you need to hear? Don't you want to read something that's extraordinary?

- Jason Sacks


Underwater Welder

(Jeff Lemire; Top Shelf)



Underwater Welder is the best Twilight Zone episode you've never seen.

In Jeff Lemire's creator-owned graphic novel of 2012, he explores ideas of fatherhood, solitude, and humanity using the expressionistic style he made famous in Essex County. In much the same way that it can be incredibly difficult to have a film or a TV show without many supporting characters, the same can be said of comics. You run the risk of boring the reader, but Lemire handles it deftly.

The silence is practically a character, the solitude of the depths of the sea and of the abandoned town Jack finds himself in after the incident that kicks off the book, it is almost palpable. It becomes easy to get inside Jack's head, to sympathize with his fears, to really understand his terror.



While Underwater Welder surely is a wonderful tale in the vein of creepy Twilight Zone stories, it seems to carry a bit heavier of a moral backing. It's about accepting responsibility, about making peace with the past, and about moving beyond your baggage to become a better human being.

My only real complaint about Underwater Welder is that it is short. I don't think it's the kind of story that could really be much longer, but I am greedy and had my copy of Essex County cracked open shortly after I finished Welder.

Although nowhere near as dense as Essex County and a very different beast from Sweet Tooth, I feel like Underwater Welder is shoring up a reputation for Lemire's independent work. It's clear that he has quite a few stories to tell, and he's going to tug at your heartstrings with each and every one of them.

- David Fairbanks


X-Men: Season One

(Dennis Hopeless, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Matthew Wilson; Marvel)



Ah, the original graphic novel. The one segment of the comics industry that remains un-dominated by corporate superheroes, where creator-ownership and interesting, challenging storytelling is more the norm than the exception. What, then, is an X-Men book doing on Comics Bulletin's best of 2012 list, much less one that treads the trodden-to-hell ground of the origin story? If there's anything comics needs less of these days, it's retold origin stories. Also possibly the letter X, and -- oops! -- this one has both.

Credit a superb creative team for taking what is essentially a cereal box promo concept and making it soar. Writer Dennis Hopeless -- bound to be a Marvel superstar in twelve months' time or I'm giving up on the medium for good -- doesn't merely recap the early days of the X-Men, but uses the overall narrative of the first twenty or so issues of the original X-Men comic to form a backdrop for what the franchise has always done best: establish and develop characters. The five familiar students who populate the Xavier School here are diverse and believable, none more so than Hopeless's Jean Grey, who bounces off the page with charisma and relatability. A teenage girl hasn't been portrayed in a superhero comic this well since Sean McKeever set his sights on Spider-Man's Mary Jane.



And, yeah, the book is also drawn by Jamie "You Should Know By Now To Buy Everything He Does" McKelvie, so you can count on it looking clean and pretty with a strong pop sensibility. The only real downside to X-Men: Season One is that it's not a natural lead-in to any monthly series you can currently find on the stands, as most of the characters it stars have either been killed, lobotomized or turned evil in the current continuity. You'll have to settle for the book as mere enticement to check out further work by its top-notch creators, who thankfully appear to have a full slate on hand for 2013.

- Chris Kiser


Wild Children

(Ales Kot, Riley Rossmo, Gregory Wright, Clayton Cowles; Image)



There are few comic debuts in recent years as auspicious as that of Ales Kot. I always think of this thing that Tarantino said about Reservoir Dogs -- that a debut should be in-your-face, demanding attention. There's loads of time to be polite and for people to say you've "matured" with Jackie Brown only to come at them with kung fu cartoons and movies about guys murdering women with cars. Where was I going with this? Oh, right -- Wild Children lives up to that notion.



Illustrated with lo-fi aplomb by the impressively prolific Riley Rossmo with colors by Gregory Wright that oscillate from non-boring realism to beautiful psychedelia, Wild Children is the portrait of an artist in his twenties who spent his youth mainlining Grant Morrison comics -- so much that the concept itself combines The Invisibles with Lindsay Anderson's classic film If… (a work that actually influenced Morrison himself) and references to that one Blur album and cool comic blogs to create a comic that could never be made in a corporate assembly line or be created by anyone else but its creators. And, most importantly, Kot is hardly a one-trick pony -- his new miniseries Change (with Morgan Jeske and Sloane Leong) is Boss Hogg on candy and does far less broadcasting its influences and far more amazing comic book storytelling.



In The Invisibles artists (like Tarantino, come to think of it) made art as a message to other invisibles, and while to some Wild Children is a warning shot to readers who hate being confounded, for those of us cool enough, weird enough and worried enough about the state of comics in the 21st century it was like an uplifting morse code delivered in klaxons -- there are other people in the world who think the same way you do, we're out here and comics will be saved.

-Danny Djeljosevic


My Friend Dahmer

(Derf Backderf; Abrams ComicArts)



Derf Backderf went to junior high and high school with Jeffrey Dahmer in rural Ohio in the 1970s. It was a pretty great childhood for Derf, as his friends called him. Derf was pretty much a regular guy, a comic reader who had a lot of friends, a happy family life, liked to party, and had ambitions to escape the boring small town in which he lived.

For Jeffrey Dahmer, life was very different. We learn very early on in this book that Dahmer was "the loneliest kid [Derf] ever met." Dahmer's life was an endless torment. He was a deeply strange kid, seemingly without hobbies and filled with bizarre sexual obsessions and a completely odd sense of humor, and who had a family that practically defined the term dysfunctional. He had no real friends and was deeply, painfully lonely.

Among the many tragedies of this story is that nobody paid much attention to what was going on in this strange kid's head. Nobody in a position of authority thought to ask Dahmer about his family life -- heck, none of his classmates did either. Dahmer fell into this role in school where he deliberately played an outsider, strangely enough, mocking the suffering of his own very sick mother as a way to get some pathetic laughs from his classmates. 



What makes this graphic novel remarkable is that Derf Backderf really does cast aside his aversion and attempt to get inside the head of one of the most infamous men of the 20th century, a man whose name has come to represent pure evil. We can never appreciate Dahmer, and we can definitely never want to crawl inside the man's skin. But Backderf does a surprisingly intriguing job of making readers feel some empathy for Dahmer, of making us appreciate on some level the kinds of hellish experiences that shape a man like him.

Derf Backderf did what so many of us are afraid of: he stared into the face of pure evil and did not blink. In doing so, he created a fascinating and haunting graphic novel about life, friendship, the 1970s and the horrible, pathetic existence of one of the worst murderers of the 20th century.

- Jason Sacks


The Hypo

(Noah Van Sciver; Fantagraphics)



Assuming the Mayan Apocalypse doesn't happen, we may just look back at 2012 as the year of Lincoln. This dude is seemingly ubiquitous now -- there's even talk about putting his face on the five dollar bill, naming some logs after him, and carving his likeness into a mountain in South Dakota. I've been seeing that freakin' weedy beard, stovepipe hat and creepy mole everywhere lately. Hell, he may even be more popular than Jesus at this point. 

There is hype and pizzazz and iconic posturing all over the place. But into this all this Lincolnizing, there came a quiet tale of a younger man, the Springfield, Illinois Lincoln, the Lincoln of 1837 to 1842, the pre-Mary Todd Lincoln, the Lincoln filled with self-doubt, the Lincoln battling debilitating depression, the Lincoln of Noah Van Sciver's The Hypo from Fantagraphics.



The Hypo is not about myth building. It is not about politics. It is not even about America. What Van Sciver has done in his book is tell and entirely human story – it just happens to be one about Lincoln. Van Sciver's toolkit includes the pens and pins of pathos and pain, self-doubt and angst, as much as it contains determination and fortitude. The Lincoln of The Hypo transcends his time, place, and even (or maybe especially) his name.  When we did our review of The Hypo in early September of this year, Jason, Danny and I all agreed that what made this graphic novel stand out so much was the level of emotional intensity that Van Sciver was able to bring in all the choices he made throughout the book. From his line work to panel layouts, pacing to perspective, everything in this book makes this particular story about Lincoln a story for and about all of us .It also propelled Van Sciver from "up-and-comer" status to full-blown artist. It stands as a true example of the capabilities of this medium to deliver stories in a truly visceral manner.



Apparently something about 2012 made America lust for Lincoln. The myth of the man filled some sort of hole in our culture. It took Noah Van Sciver to quietly remind us that behind the impassive craggy marble visage seated there stoically surveying the goings-on in Washington D.C., there existed a fallible human, a man who fought with himself, and who suffered from mental illness. Lincoln was a man who overcame, a man who could be any of us, any one of us all. 

 - Daniel Elkin



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