2011 may be remembered as a year of desperation, or as a year of transition, as DC's massive line-wide relaunch was just one notable event at a time when bookstores were folding, corporate comics became increasingly corporate, kickstarters were kicked far beyond expectations and everyone seemed poised to make an "all-in" move digitally, whether or not they actually followed through.
It was a year when the news around comics seemed more compelling than most of the comics themselves, without many (or any) breakout new series or creators to focus the critical attention away from the business matters and sales graphs and downsizings and restructurings.
But even if 2011 wasn't a banner year for comic book breakout successes -- aesthetically speaking -- it was a year with more depth of quality than any in recent memory. As I started compiling my list of what might make my final "Best of" ranking for the year, I came up with an easy 50 comics that I thoroughly enjoyed this year. This year's products -- both large press and small -- seemed to more closely follow a traditional bell curve, with a handful of top-notch books, a whole lot of good, enjoyable comics and then some stinkers. Other years tended to give us a dozen out in front, a slow climb toward mediocrity, and then a ton of unreadable, ugly nonsense.
I read a lot of comics this year -- probably more in this one year than I have ever read in my life -- and the overall quality of the "average" comic was just better than usual. The tide rose this year, even if the waves might not have been as spectacular as we wished them to be.
This week, I'll run down some honorable mentions for the Best Comics of 2011 and then count down numbers 30-11 in preparation for next week's Top 10 Best Comics of the Year column.
Honorable Mentions (these remained in contention for the Top 30, until I did one last pass of ruthless culling, leaving these on the sidelines, but I loved them all): The new Bendis and Maleev "Moon Knight," the Moritat issues of "The Spirit," Jeff Lemire's "Superboy" run, Ryan Browne's "God Hates Astronauts," the Snyder/Capullo "Batman" relaunch, "Bakuman," "All-Star Western," "Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.," Craig Thompson's "Habibi," the new "Batwoman" series, James Robinson's return to "The Shade" in the first two issues of the miniseries, "Animal Man," "Nonplayer," the Chris Samnee-drawn "Captain America and Bucky," Yuichi Yokoyama's "Garden" and "Color Engineering," Howard Chaykin's "Avengers: 1959," Chuck Forsman's "The End of the Fucking World," "The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury," the Joe Casey and Nathan Fox "Haunt" debut, the Steven Seagal fantasia known as "Blue Estate," Robert Kirkman and Rob Liefeld's time-travelling military action series "The Infinite," "Sweet Tooth," "Our Love is Real" and Nick Spencer's "T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents."
I would read any and all of those comics regularly, with enthusiasm. But they don't quite crack my Top 30.
These are the ones that did:
30. "Gangsta Rap Posse," by Ben Marra
A couple of years after Marra's Traditional Comics published the first issue of this series in which an N.W.A-like rap group lives the life it rhymes about, he returns with issue #2, using a more streamlined pen-and-ink style to depict the violence and debauchery of his mythical "heroes."
The thrill of this book is not just in its witty satire of politics and hip-hop poses, but in the glee in which the story unfolds. A book like this makes all other macho action comics seem like soft-focus Lifetime movies in comparison.
29. "Mome," by Josh Simmons, Chuck Forsman, Eleanor Davis, James Romberger, and many more
This short-lived but venerable anthology series from Fantagraphics came to an end this year, but in its final volume it gave us the best single collection in its half-decade history. With Volume 22, "Mome" showed what it was, but it also added what it might have been, bolstering its customary (mostly-serialized) line-up with some spectacular one-offs from the likes of Forsman, Davis, and Romberger.
Even at it's normally-thick size, "Mome" often felt slight, giving us slivers of narratives that wouldn't build to anything memorable until they were collected, but with its last hurrah, "Mome" showed why it mattered, and what a tremendous collection of alt-comics artists it could pull together inside its pages.
28. "PunisherMAX," by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon
After an extended delay, to allow artist Steve Dillon to return to complete the "Bullseye" arc (and continue on as the series draws towards its finale), "PunisherMAX" returned in the first half of 2011 with the ultimate showdown between Bullseye and Frank Castle, and in the months since, the violence has continued as we've learned more about the true nature of the Punisher and the MAX-ified forces of the Kingpin and Elektra conspired against him.
Some will tell you that no one can top Garth Ennis's run on the Punisher, and while I like that run well enough, I find Ennis' MAX version to be too sullen, too predictable, at times. I prefer Aaron and Dillon's savage, Marvel-continuity-inspired, brutal reconfiguring. It doesn't take itself seriously, but it could.
27. "Kramers Ergot," by Ben Jones, Dash Shaw, Frank Santoro, CF, Gary Panter, and many more
Though I mocked the relationship between volume 8 of this anthology and the DC relaunch in my Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival recap, there's little doubt that this is the premier art comics anthology in North America, and its great to see its return under new publisher PictureBox. This year's edition looks like a tossed-aside textbook from some class you dropped in community college in 1979, at least on the surface, and that kind of ironic packaging is central to its sensibility as both an object of found art and as a document showing the state of comic book narrative today. In other words, its good, and its form is as important as its content.
26. "Detective Comics," by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla
The DC relaunch has so dominated big-two conversations that it's easy to forget that DC actually published anything worth reading before September, but it certainly did. And the best of that crop of ongoing series was the final half of the Scott Snyder Dick Grayson epic, "Black Mirror," in which we learned that true horror is only a prodigal son away.
25. "Orc Stain," by James Stokoe
Stokoe's series only saw a single issue released in 2011, and I have no idea what its long-term status might be, but even one issue of this series is better than a dozen of most. Stokoe is as good as anyone at creating a full-developed world, and his surly, conniving orcs are worthy progonists for his sinewy, meticulous landscapes. I hope we see more soon.
24. "Uncanny X-Force," by Rick Remender and Jerome Opena
At its best, this is a Jerome Opena/Dean White showcase, but even when Mark Brooks or Esad Ribic provides the art, this is still, by far, the best of the X-books, and one of the most ambitious superhero comics on the stands. Building off the foundation of Grant Morrison's run on "New X-Men," along with the greatest hits of the 1990s (Apocalypse, alternate realities, Beasts who are Dark), Remender blends sharp dialogue and genuine character drama into something fast-moving and compelling.
23. "Daredevil," by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin, and Paolo Rivera
The poster boy for moving-on-without-rebooting, Mark Waid rebuilds Matt Murdock's life without giving him a chance to wallow in self-pity. He doesn't ignore the past, but he (and his protagonist) chooses to take a more aggressively optimistic approach to the future, and with Martin and Rivera on art, it's one of the best-looking superhero comics in years.
22. "O.M.A.C.," by Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen
Solidifying its spot in the Top 30 with this month's issue #4, Dan DiDio and Keith Giffen's sci-fi monster comic is a tribute to 1970s Jack Kirby and 1960s Marvel comics, with an enthusiasm for slam-bang action and a sense of humor about itself. Keith Giffen is in top form with this series, and even the garish color from Hi-Fi adds to the atomic punch that this series packs so well. Is it subtle? Never. Fun? Hell, yeah.
21. "Bowman," by Pat Aulisio
The third release from Retrofit Comics and the best to date, Aulisio is from the school of Gary Panter-meets-Johnny Ryan, and the title character is one Dave Bowman, of "2001" fame. Aulisio combines Clarke and Kubrick, and Kirby into a single package here, with the "further adventures of Dave Bowman" taking us on an inky, delightful, upsetting, glorious adventure in outer space. Though we've only seen one issue so far, "Bowman" looks to be an ongoing saga, with plenty more horrifyingly wonderful adventures to tell.
20. "iZombie," by Chris Roberson, Mike Allred, Gilbert Hernandez, and Jay Stephens
Roberson has paced this series in what might be termed "escalation mode," or maybe, "the slow burn." What started off as a series about pretty ghouls and dorky monsters hanging out has become a much more sweeping action comic about international threats, subterranean menaces, and the legacy of love. There's a sweetness to its comic that might make it seem a bit insubstantial, but don't let its glossy surface fool you: there's corruption underneath these stylish mod dresses and fluorescent lights at the local diner. This story is vast, and deep.
19. "Hellboy," by Mike Mignola, Richard Corben, Duncan Fegredo and more
Maybe it's cheating to include all the various Hellboy miniseries and one-shots and graphic novels under a single entry, particularly with the diverse group of artists involved, but that's one of the beautiful aspects of contemporary Hellboy comics: Mike Mignola's signature character still works amazingly well, even when he's not drawing it. Of course, with Corben, and Fegredo, (and Hampton and Nowlan), doing the art, you'd expect nothing less than stellar-looking comics. And that's what you get. And I'd argue that this year's crop of Hellboy books is the best single-year crop in the history of the character. For a character that's been around for nearly two decades, there's no sign that his story is as dead as you might think.
18. "Holy Terror," by Frank Miller
Frank Miller has bombarded the internet with ridiculous opinions and outright hate, and that's caused plenty of readers to dismiss this once-and-never-again-Batman graphic novel as merely a ridiculous product of that very hate. And, in many respects, that's what it is. But it's also a fascinating artistic product, with gorgeous pages and more than a few rough edges. It's Miller's response to 9/11, as an artistic temper tantrum, with striking imagery throughout. Ignore it, if you must, but that doesn't mean that it's a comic without artistic merit, no matter how much you disagree with every elbow of its sentiment.
17. "The Loneliest Astronauts," by Kevin Church and Ming Doyle
Kevin Church has methodically built up a webcomics empire over at Agreeable Comics, and this series (which reached its close in 2011) is the best of the batch, because it (a) uses the single-installment format most effectively, while building a serialized narrative, and (b) showcases the dream-like, baroque designs of Ming Doyle in outer space. Best of all, it's funny, really funny. And worthy of an oversized hardcover collection. C'mon, Team Agreeable, let's build that Omnibus soon, okay?
16. Love and Rockets: New Stories, by Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez
Three-quarters of the way through my reading of this year's installment of this long-running series, I thought to myself, "if Jaime and Gilbert weren't such great cartoonists, this would be thought of as daytime soap opera fare, and not as critically acclaimed as it generally is." But Gilbert wraps up his story strongly, and Jaime puts his story to a close so powerfully that it amplifies the quality of the entire volume by a factor of 10. Jaime is more than just a great cartoonist, he's a great documentarian of the human condition, and he uses all the tools of pen and ink and brush to show what life is all about. This is a book, ultimately, that cuts to the core while still maintaining its own sense of Romance.
15. "Secret Warriors," by Jonathan Hickman and Alessandro Vitti
Though Hickman is still telling his massive story, weaving through "S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Fantastic Four" and "FF," and some of the corners of that story play a foundational role in "Secret Warriors," his Nick Fury saga reaches a satisfying close within the pages of this comic. There may not be much here beyond the machinery of narrative, but it's an impressive construct, and the multi-year tale of Fury and his ground troops has more compelling twists and reversals than a decade of other superhero comics. Best of all, all the pieces fit together in the end. Sometimes the beauty of the form is enough, but with "Secret Warriors," there's a bit more to it than that.
14. "Wonder Woman," by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang
Kicking off the relaunch of this series with an opening issue in which Wonder Woman was the supporting muscle, protecting a vulnerable new character from mythological assault, Azzarello and Chiang let their story unfold effortlessly, parsing out information when needed, but letting the action and dialogue unearth the meaning. There's nothing sophisticated about this approach, but in its minimalism and elegance, they seem to take a stand for good, clean, emotionally-charged comics that don't try to pander to some perceived frat-boy superhero audience that likes its sex sexed-up and its violence vicious. That doesn't mean sex and violence will be absent from this series -- it has already appeared -- just that it will mean something in this comic, and doesn't seem wasted on drawing attention to itself.
13. "Ganges," by Kevin Huizenga
While everyone else in the critical community has been raving about Huizenga, I've mostly been left scratching my head at his comics. Not that they've been confusing, but that they've always seemed like mid-list Fantagraphics products to me. Elliptical, mundane, maybe verging to dream-like when hitting storytelling roadblocks, the typical Huizenga story has always seemed just fine, but nothing special. But with "Ganges" #4, I've had to revisit my opinion. For the first time, I was able to lock into the Huizenga sensibility, in this story about a man trying to get to sleep and reflecting on his entire world in the process. More than any previous Huizenga comics (even when they have aspired to ambition), this is one single issue that contains multitudes. It's really good, and it can only work as a comic.
12. "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969," by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
Though largely a collection of allusions (or "inside jokes" if you're being less generous), this new installment of the ongoing Moore and O'Neill project sheds its literary conceit to embrace the pop culture of 1960s Britain and takes a simple story about sorcery and possession and turns it into a layered fugue on the intersection between old Europe and the pop revolution. Or maybe it's just a fancy game of "Where's Waldo" wrapped around a musty old tale. I don't care, either way. It's still a completely entertaining comic that doesn't insult its readers. And it's drawn by Kevin O'Neill, every single page of it.
11. "Criminal: Last of the Innocent," by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
You'd have to put me squarely in the camp of "thought the ending was weak" with this, the newest of the Brubaker/Phillips "Criminal" miniseries, but the first four issues were so spectacular -- simply the best three issues of "Criminal" to date -- that I'll let the facile wrap-up slide without any additional comment. Because in this series, which is more than Archie Andrews Noir (but is pretty close to everything that implies), Brubaker and Phillips merge the innocence of the past with the dark experiences of today and show the cost of getting what you want. This is a candy-coated jackknife of a comic.
NEXT WEEK: The 10 Best Comics of the Year.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan