Top 10 Original Graphic Novels of 2013

A column article, Top Ten by: Jason Sacks and His Amazing Friends

Battling Boy

(Paul Pope; First Second)

As it was before, so it shall be again.

But it shall be so wonderfully, wonderfully different in its similarity.

Paul Pope's Battling Boy

Battling Boy is a generational saga in so many senses of the term. There are of course father-son and father-daughter relationships that are at the heart of this story and which give this book its considerable emotional power.

This book is also a generational saga in another sense of the term: Paul Pope is working in a playground that all of us comic readers know well, a world that feels like it comes from a very slightly altered Marvel Comics than we all know and love as older fans. But Pope is returning that world to his readers in a very different way than we're used to. Everything feels obscure and weird, yet familiar and wonderful. It's a world that can excite and thrill younger readers who may have strayed to manga. Pope is introducing a younger generation to the abundant joys of a complex heroic universe.

Paul Pope's Battling Boy

There's also a third way that Pope is exploring generations, and maybe it's the most important: he's creating work that parents and kids can enjoy together, a multifaceted work that targets all generations and works well for everybody. Keith Silva invoked Jean-Pierre Melville and Lou Reed in his comments on this book; I'll invoke the equally great Chuck Jones and his adage that parents and kids alike should be able to enjoy his animated cartoons even with their own perceptions.

Paul Pope's Battling Boy

And there's another way that this book struck me as generational, but that may just be a reflection of the oddball way that I look at the world: I had the sense throughout this book that Paul Pope was taking tropes that were familiar and comfortable for me but was delivering them back to me in ways that feel thoroughly fresh and almost euphoric. There's such a fresh and genuine joy in Pope's artwork, such a thrilling sense of the auteur Pope delivering great new insights inside his genre trappings that I felt I was reintroduced to tropes that I love with a panache that feels fresh, original and thrilling.

All this in an adventure that was nominally created for kids. Paul Pope is such an amazing cartoonist.

- Jason Sacks


The Colossal Conan

(Various; Dark Horse)

 

You know that “thoom” noise the One Ring makes when you drop it in Lord of the Rings? That’s pretty much the sound that The Colossal Conan makes when it smacks the ground. Because this is a monumental volume. This is a staggering achievement. This is a shelf-dominating, genius-collecting, absolutely-must-have collection of some of the best adaptations ever of Robert E. Howard’s classic fantasy character. And it is huge.

Colossal Conan

This is a Conan-sized comic.

Weighing in at almost 14 pounds, The Colossal Conan is an oversized collection of the complete run of Dark Horse’s Eisner-winning, acclaimed, and innovative Conan series.  It collects all 51 issues—#0 - #50—in a single, thousand-plus page volume. You are going to have some serious Conan-sized muscles after working your way through this thing. On the back, editor Philip Simon calls The Colossal Conan "A wizard-walloping volume." That's about the best description I can think of. This isn't a collected edition—it’s a tome. It is also the only comic in my collection I think I could reasonably kill a man with. And somehow that is totally appropriate.

(The look on Mike Mignola’s face when I presented this to be signed was priceless, by the way. He had never seen it before, and was shocked at the sheer mass of the book. I’m glad I got to be the first person to show it to him!)

Not that size is the only impressive thing about Colossal Conan. Inside are magnificent comics, produced by some of the best talent in the business. Kurt Busiek. Mike Mignola. Timothy Truman. Cary Nord. Tony Harris. Dave Stewart.  Bruce Timm. Joseph Linsner. Tomás Giorello. Thomas Yeates. Greg Ruth. Eric Powell. Rafael Kayanan. Leinil Francis Yu. Ladrönn. Paul Lee. Richard Isanove. JD Mettler. Tony Shasteen. José Villarrubia.

I don’t care if you are a fan of Conan or not as a character, take a look at those names. A roll-call of talent, coming together to produce some of the most incredible fantasy comics of the modern age. Dark Horse struck gold with a winning formula of taking Robert E. Howard's original stories and expanding them, using Dale Rippke's "Darkstorm" chronology as the timeline for Conan’s journey from young thief and wanderer to king of the mightiest nation on Earth.

The Colossal Conan

The art in this book is just beyond fantastic. As the main artist, Cary Nord hits a home run with the first issue. With his first page, he immediately set a new standard for Conan art that wouldn't be met until Tomás Giorello took over as the artist on this series. Cary Nord followed Barry Windsor-Smith's style of using uninked pencil art, which the King of Colors Dave Stewart then turned into stunning painted landscapes. Nord simply lived in Howard's world in a way few artists are able to achieve -- a kind of perfect synchronicity.

Dark Horse did a good thing putting all this brilliance together into such a brilliant package. The oversized format does wonders for the art, and I feel like I am diving into Robert E. Howard’s world with every page. The Colossal Conan is not just one of the best of 2013, it is one of the best comic collections I have ever seen.

Editor's Note: Though The Colossal Conan isn't an original graphic novel, we thought it was so notable it should be included in our list.

- Zack Davisson


The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

(Isabel Greenberg; Little, Brown)

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth appeared on many critics' ten best lists for 2013. It truly is one of those books that's "that good", one of those world-creating, plate-spinning works that are both formally innovative and have a deep and intuitive heart that moves readers in unexpectedly profound ways.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

I found myself doggedly resisting the charms of Isabel Greenberg's radiant creation for several weeks after I read my copy of it, maybe because I worried that it was a bit too precious at times, or maybe because I resisted her deliberately primitive art style, which could be seen as crude if it wasn't so damned lovely to look at. Or maybe I resisted this graphic novel in part because Isabel Greenberg is impossibly young – just 25 years old – and hasn't paid enough dues to this uncaring comics industry in order to produce a work this lovely, thoughtful and intriguing. If this is her Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future or Lloyd Llewellyn or Music for Mechanics, it's almost impossible to imagine the kinds of heights to which Greenberg's talents will ascend.

In the end, though, I had to give in, to accept this delightful work as the outstanding achievement it is. The artfulness and heart of the piece won me over.

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth

What sticks in the mind from this remarkable debut graphic novel isn't the power of Isabel Greenberg's talespinning or the travelogue of a fascinating world. What sticks in the reader's mind is a beautiful romance that survives the most impossible obstacles. And isn't that the stuff of classic literature?

- Jason Sacks


The Fifth Beatle: the Brian Epstein Story

(Vivek Tiwary / Andrew Robinson / Kyle Baker; Dark Horse Comics)

It may be the hardest thing in the world to do to get inside the head of an extremely famous person. How many secrets does George Clooney or Bill Clinton actually have, let alone the man who helped the Beatles to become the worldwide phenomenon that they became? But that's what Vivek Tiwary did with his outstanding graphic novel The Fifth Beatle

The Fifth Beatle

Though Tiwary is a comics fan, his background is in the world of theatre (among other plays, he produced Green Day's American Idiot play) and he brings a different perspective to Epstein's story than has been presented in other works. In focusing his story directly on Epstein rather than his absurdly talented protégés, this book artfully finds the space to breathe and to explore Epstein's complex story, which is full of dangerous liaisons, fabulous earnings and a frankly shocking among of angst (which apparently is quite true to life). It's a great portrait of an existence that's right on the edge of fame, that can enjoy the fruits of popularity while always being a little outside of it.

The Fifth Beatle

Andrew Robinson does a gorgeous job of bringing Epstein's inner life to the page, showing readers Epstein's thoughts in subtle ways that still employ real power. Robinson's art alternates between realism and abstraction often in the same panel, as smart a depiction of the interior/exterior dichotomy as any shown this year, giving readers clear insight into Epstein's mind.

After reading this book, you may never think of the Beatles again without thinking of the man who was instrumental in bringing them their worldwide fame and fortune.

- Jason Sacks


Genius

(Steve Seagle / Teddy Kristiansen; First Second Books)

Sometimes I read something that affects me very deeply, that burrows itself into my brain and won't let go. Few books did that with the effect that Genius did in 2013.

Genius is the story of Ted Halket, once a genius in his scientific field who finds himself adrift at middle age: he's underachieving at work, his children mock and ignore him, and his wife – with whom he has a comfortably strained relationship – develops cancer. As his world is falling apart, Haklet seizes upon the memories of his father-in-law, who spent an afternoon with Albert Einstein and carries a fateful and powerful secret.

Genius by Seagle and Kristiansen

For any of us who sometimes find ourselves adrift at middle age, with that all youthful exuberance and potential ground that we once carried ground into a slight withering angst at the inertia and boredom of our lives, Genius offers a lot to empathize with. Drawn in a gorgeously empathetic and impressionistic style by Teddy Kristiansen, similar to other graphic novels he's created with Seagle, this book speaks to the slow quiet stress of a life that hasn't gone quite according to plan, to an existence that seems as filled with torpid lethargy as any other emotion. It's about a very particular sort of depression that is only truly understood by those who have lived through it.

Genius by Seagle and Kristiansen

I got through my stage of that slightly pathetic existence (in part by writing about comic books and graphic novels so much!) and it's no spoiler to reveal that Halket does, too, in a wonderfully real way that echoes the experiences of many of my friends who have been forced to make changes in their lives in ways that parallel Halket's life. I never cry when reading a book but this book reduced me to a blubbering fool on a cross-country flight (thankfully the people next to me were sleeping). I'm sorry for Seagle and Kristiansen that they've been through these stages in their lives, but this book obviously comes from a place of authenticity. Genius is an insightful look inside the headspace in which so many of us middle-aged crazies live.

- Jason Sacks


God Hates Astronauts

(Ryan Browne; Image)

Ryan Browne's God Hates Astronauts signals the end of the comic book superhero. How can anyone pledge allegiance to corporate comics and sit through reboot event bullshit -- or bastardize a line from Goodfellas in order to spackle over a tired argument and pad out a 'best of' list -- after reading God Hates Astronauts? Can't. Be. Done. It's like my aunt May used to say: once a superhero cuts off their own comically hydrocephalic and disgustingly enormous ''doughy head-sack'' with a shiv fashioned from a liquor bottle and then claps a glowing ghost cow head in its place … Katy bar the fuckin' door.

God Hates Astronauts

Rather than explain the frisson of a comic with cameos from crossbow wielding owls, a cat who wears a jetpack and practices law, the aptly-named 'Admiral Tiger Eating a Cheeseburger' and other equally silly but (sadly) non-anthropomorphic characters or waste words on Browne's lovingly blatant rip-offs of everything from ABC's TGIF lineup (Gnarled-not-Carl-Winslow) to his abhorrent pugilistic prejudice for the last of the great nineteenth-century bare-knuckle boxing champions, Boston's own, John L. Sullivan and instead say what God Hates Astronauts is not; which would be … boring. There's your pull-quote Mssr. Browne: God Hates Astronauts … Not Boring!

Superhero send-ups or satire -- if you want to be all French and fancy about it -- act like ipecac for comic book nerd's soul. To maintain regularity in one's comic book diet it's important to make sure superheroes take a 'hit' every once in a while. For oldsters it was Not Brand Echh, for perverts with an insatiable love for masturbation gags and blow-job jokes, The Pro. Browne's reverent irreverence comes from an earned knowledge superhero stories are at their super-est when they own their self-awareness.           

Any first degree educated douche or wannabe punch-up writer with six dick jokes can write comedy, few are funny. Browne's CV isn't at issue here -- I just don't have the intestinal fortitude to cut that last sentence in order to make a transition -- plain and simple: the dude is one funny fuck. Name another cartoonist who can draw a man with a giant green arm growing out of his chest who's retained the services of a lawyer with an oversized head and hands that makes one consider superhero narcissism and personal responsibility and I'll show you a liar.

God Hates Astronauts exists for anyone whoever said, ''why would I buy the trade-paperback of a webcomic I can read for free until The Day the Clown Cried drops this will have to do.'' 

- Keith Silva


New School

(Dash Shaw; Fantagraphics)

No graphic novel I read in 2013 obsessed me as much as New School. And when I say obsessed, I mean obsessed, to the point where I found my mind wandering in slow meetings at work or during particularly boring commutes to a contemplation of what Dash Shaw was trying to accomplish in his cryptic, complex and brilliant graphic novel. I found myself describing this book and its effect on me to my bored children, to polite friends and to my appreciative fellow critics here on Comics Bulletin. Thankfully my dear friend and intellectual traveling companion Keith Silva was there to help me sort out my weird reactions – but I left our fascinating conversation with as many questions as I came in with.

Dash Shaw's New School

See (and I hope this doesn't sound pretentious because I'm as much of a cheeseburger chewing, football fanatic goofball as you are) I've always been fascinated by comics that are formally inventive, where the creator plays with the standard vocabulary and grammar of the comics medium and turns it into something that feels like it expands the spectrum of what we can accomplish with comic art and Comic Art. Dash Shaw expands the vocabulary of comics with his poetic approach to his graphic novel.

People often compare comics to film, and there's a lot of merit to that argument. But you can also reasonably compare comics with poetry, and this book has a poetic rhythm that becomes hypnotic and often beautiful even when you're not quite sure what you're supposed to think about what you're reading on the page. The coloring here is odd, the linework looks like it's done with a Sharpie and the dialogue is deliberately stilted. But far from alienating the reader from the story that they're reading, these quirks make the book stronger, more intriguing, more poetic, with a more joyful path to true obsession.

Dash Shaw's New School

New School is one of those books that seems targeted just for me. As I said in the original piece, Dash Shaw's New School is the most beguilingly fascinating, smartly innovative, deliberately off-putting work of comics art that I've read in several years. It's a masterpiece of innovation.

- Jason Sacks


Pompeii

(Frank Santoro; Picturebox)

We’ll miss you, Picturebox.

Pompeii by Frank Santoro

I’m a story nut. Story is what I look for, and comics for me are words and images (preferably weighted towards the images rather than the words) used to tell stories. But the longer I read comics, the more I seek the ones that value form alongside story, wherein the composition of the art-in-itself is as important as the story told. Comics like these demand to be read harder, read slower, that their subconscious effects are understood.

Pompeii’s plot, of an artist and his apprentice in the titular city during 79AD’s eruption, and of their respective love-lives up to that point, is uncomplicated. It touches on familiar themes of love, of hierarchy as it pertains to the master/apprentice, lover/lover, and artist/patron dynamics, and of the ever-present tug between the journey your work will take you on, and the direction your heart may want to go. Of course, there’s also some cheating, and the farcical concealment that so often accompanies it. This is all pretty familiar, you might say classic, the twist being a literal volcano of dramatic irony.

Pompeii by Frank Santoro

Frank Santoro (practitioner and professor, as it were, he runs the eponymous correspondence course and the Comics Workbook Tumblr), has here dared to seem basic. The entire comic is rendered in sepia tone, littered with technical directions and shadowy erasings, almost self-consciously unfinished. That’s close, but what this comic really is, is undone. Santoro being Santoro, there are reams to be written about page structure and layouts, the inversions and reflections therein, but what really struck me about Pompeii was the stripping away of layers of romanticisation, nostalgia, and glamour. These crude figures, with their bare, unfleshed world, appear to my eyes much as the people of 79 AD do in imagination; sketchy, lacking detail. They are not the toga-wearing sensualists of movies and cable shows, not history’s cultural elite, enviably sophisticated yet reassuringly barbaric. They are marks on the paper of the past, drowned in ashes. All that I can comprehend of them is their humanity, their poor doomed humanity. The rest is embellishment.

Santoro undoes the codifying of the ultimate story, History, as fact. He permits a reconnection with the most elemental parts of these ancestors, their fears, dreams and desires, using lines, vectors on the comics grid we love so much. Through unadorned craftsmanship, an insistence on essence, Santoro exposes both how little we know, and how much we can understand. And there’s just a hint at the worlds we can create, with our mark-making minds.

- Taylor Lilley


Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

(Shigeru Mizuki; Drawn & Quarterly)

Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan is exceptional: smart, drawn with a curious mix of exaggeration and realism, with a humanity and truth to it that is palpable. It's also ambitious in a manner that's different from the other two Shigeru Mizuki manga I've read: it tells the story of life in Japan via two parallel tracks. One track presents the terrible tragedy of the social, military and financial struggles that happened in perhaps the worst era in Japan's recent past. The other track walks readers through the shambolic history of Mizuki's meandering childhood and youth, a surprisingly honest autobiography that doesn't paint him at all in a good light.

Showa by Shigeru Mizuki

Both halves of this book were spellbinding because of the portrait they give of a culture dealing with massive economic collapse, which meant famine, fear and confusion among ordinary people. Into that climate of existential terror rose a strong military class, driving troops into Manchuria, partially as part of their plan to colonize Asia as the Western powers did Africa; partially to seize upon the war fever and intense jingoism that often accompanies a fall from fiscal grace; and partially because the weak national government of caretaker Prime Ministers and ineffective managers simply had no power to stop them.

Showa by Shigeru Mizuki

In the midst of the collapse, Mizuki never loses sight of the people he's portraying, individuals who go through terrible hells. In this eventful 500+ page manga, the clarity of Mizuki's images and the poignancy of his scenes sticks in the mind even while the more important events on the world stage slip away. It's the contrast between high and low, between the objective history of the march to war and the subjective history of a country convulsed with fear, confusion and the fog of jingoism that helps give Showa its powerful impact.

It takes a master artist to create a work of art that spans such a deep and wide canvas, but the master Shigeru Mizuki is up to the task in this magnificent graphic novel. You don't have to care about the past to love Showa 1926-1939 because the human elements are so interesting. And if you care more about major events than individuals when consuming a work like Showa, this history of the Showa period in Japan is compelling reading.

- Jason Sacks


The End of the Fucking World (TEOTFW)

(Charles Forsman; Fantagraphics)

TEOTFW will break you.

It's easy to conjure up sobs of false sentimentality when thinking about this book, but it's not in its heart one of those “look upon this horror” or “there but for the grace of God”. This is a bildungsroman of the narcissist, psychotic, detached. It is the psychic havoc of the perpetually doomed; the coming of age story of those striding forth into world where the connection between cause and effect is a spectator sport, where emotional content is gauged by “hits” and the chance to go viral.

The End of the Fucking World

TEOTFW is a dispassionate presentation of dispassionate times peopled with dispassionate individuals, and therein lies its passion. It's hard not to be moved by the immovable, as we are humans and, as much as we would prefer otherwise, we care.

It's a love story between a young girl who loves too much and a young boy who can't love at all. It is an indictment as much as an embrace. Remember Romeo's conception of unrequited love? “O brawling love! O loving hate! O anything of nothing first create!” Forsman uses the Petrarchan conceit covertly to examine our ultimate longing to be part of something outside of ourselves.

And it will break you.

The End of the Fucking World

Through narrative tricks of dueling perspectives and his clean, minimalist lines, Forsman muffles his hard screaming and, in so doing, makes you lean in to hear what he is saying. In a world of gray areas, what is brought forth when you communicate in the clarity of black and white? There's a morality at work in this book, but you have to confront your own conceptions first before you can take on this message.

In the wake of the work of Adam Lanza and Anders Breivik and James Holmes, The End of the Fucking World serves as the beginning of a larger discussion. Where is the break? What is the justice? How can we understand? Forsman has no answers, really, but in the calmness that effuses these pages, he allows us to be in a moment – there – and through this act of text reading the reader, comprehension of self and selves unfolds.

And it will break you.

Then, once broken, you can reform by examining the edges of every piece before deciding what the whole will finally reveal. TEOTFW's power lies in what comes next, as much as it does in what we have already been through.

- Daniel Elkin

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