In the most glaring sign yet of how much my tastes have changed over the 3.5 years since I started reading comics again, compare my Best of 2004 choices to this year’s stellar roundup (below). Posted nearly two months before the year had ended, that 2004 list was limited to ongoing series, two of which were canceled prematurely, in my opinion, and two others that were cut from my pull list a while back. The lone survivor, Conan, remains a consistently good read, and a repeat honoree on my 2005 list, but it didn’t make the cut this year. In fact, reflecting my gradual shift towards OGNs and TPBs, only three ongoing/mini-series made my list this year.
A Bit Haywire
Zirkel and Huddleston tap into the inherent joy and wonder of being a superhero that few creators seem to remember these days. More importantly, they do so without condescending to the reader by dumbing down their story; Owen learns self-discipline and responsibility without things ever resorting to an after school special tone. Anyone who’s enjoyed a Pixar movie over the past 10 years will love A Bit Haywire. Highly recommended for ages 6-60+!
American Born Chinese
On the surface, it’s an empowering spin on the classic tale of the ugly duckling, with an emphasis on self-acceptance over finding one’s place in society. Underneath, though, it’s a surprisingly subversive indictment of the concept of cultural assimilation, aka the “melting pot”. When it does all come together, it has the same effect as when a magician successfully pulls off “the prestige” to the sheer delight of the audience. For First Second, it’s nothing less than the crown jewel in a first year of publishing that has been remarkable by any measure.
Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda
Stassen’s visual storytelling is especially strong throughout, and while he avoids focusing on the actual massacres themselves, the couple of key graphic moments he does show will be seared into your brain and effectively punctuate Deogratias’ madness. Deogratias proves that graphic novels do not have to simply be escapist entertainment, joining the likes of Maus, Palestine and Persepolis as representatives of more than just great graphic novels, but also as powerful, thought-provoking literature, too.
Jessica Abel crams heaping handfuls of story into each chapter of her gripping tale of self-discovery and self-deceit, but they are unquestionably parts of a larger whole; an excellent, completely engaging and essential whole that belongs on every discerning comics fans bookshelf. Like Blankets, the first long-form (non-superhero) graphic novel to really blow me away, and Black Hole, the most recent one to do so, La Perdida is everything great sequential art should be.
TenNapel walks a net-free tightrope like a pro, delivering a rollicking good time filled with moments of “He’s going to fa–Wow!” that begs for adaptation to the big, or small, screen. Iron West‘s plot is an outlandish one featuring killer robots accidentally awakened by greedy prospectors in 1898 California, a mysterious shaman cryptically named Two Rivers, the aforementioned Sasquatch and Loch Ness Monster, the proverbial gruff sherrif and a whore with a heart of gold, and several more engaging characters, human and otherwise — all of whom come together in a wild ride of a story that left me satisfied, but wanting more. It’s the latest positive example of the new Image Comics: off-beat, entertaining, quality work by creators with distinctive voices and original stories to tell.
The Left Bank Gang
The Left Bank Gang‘s premise — positing Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce as struggling cartoonists in 1920s Paris — is an intriguing one, and Jason’s anthropomorphic characters and clean, European style make for an odd but effective complement to his cynical yet hopeful story, giving the whole affair a much more human feel than the more straightforward noir approach other less self-assured creators might have taken. Jason fans will be pleased, and newcomers will be intrigued by the discovery of an immensely talented creator with a solid backlist to explore further.
The little indie that could, Mouse Guard came out of nowhere and took comics by storm this year. Petersen’s artwork is absolutely beautiful and his storytelling skills are precise and efficient, almost poetic in its concision. Mouse Guard is a must-read.
Stagger Lee — Best Graphic Novel of 2006
Injecting several key fictional characters into the tale, McCulloch crafts a compelling take on the truth behind the legend — equal parts courtroom drama, love story, and social commentary — that deftly weaves together the corrupt political dealings of late-19th century St. Louis and the personal interactions of a handful of its negro citizens whose lives are touched by Lee Shelton’s crime in various ways. 2006 was a particularly good year for original graphic novels, but for its outstanding combination of ambition, execution and re-readability, Stagger Lee gets the nod for my Best Original Graphic Novel of 2006.
Strange Girl — Best Ongoing Series of 2006
A great premise and solid scripting, combined with artwork that alternates between beautifully provocative and annoyingly indecipherable, sometimes on the same page, it’s one of the most underrated titles on the shelves, and in the comics blogiverse, overshadowed by the overrated likes of Girls and Godland. I’m partly to blame as I’ve yet to do a proper review of it myself, but that’s something I plan on rectifying very soon. In the meantime, Strange Girl is my unheralded choice for Best Ongoing Series of 2006.
Beyond regular shout-outs in my On the Shelves column and a brief review of the first issue for PopCultureShock, I don’t think I’ve ever given this outstanding series a proper review, but it is my favorite ongoing series at Marvel, edging out everything Brubaker writes, which is quite an accomplishment. Peter David clearly knows these characters well, but not in the self-indulgent way of a Geoff Johns, and it’s been a joy reading along as he’s put them through their paces, deftly navigating the potential obstacles of House of M and Civil War, and delivering a classic blend of serialized superheroic soap opera that keeps me coming back every month.