When Words Collide: The Best Comics of 2012, 20 - 11

Mon, December 24th, 2012 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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BEST COMICS OF 2012 PART ONE: COUNTING DOWN NUMBERS 20 TO 11

I may not have read as many ongoing superhero titles as I once did, and the further I get away from them (and try to check them out only once in a while), the more I realize that most of them only work, even on the flimsiest level, as serial variations. They aren't substantial enough to have much value as single issues, and it's difficult to care much about the characters who are merely shuffled around from comic to comic like plastic pieces on a game board, so all that's left is the style of the artist and whatever comes through of the voice of the writer. And it's mostly just a faintly discordant echo inside a bland auditorium right now.

So let's not dwell on that. Let's engage in that honorable and just tradition of cutting away all the depressing stuff and listing what's good. Listing the best of the best and pretending we didn't waste our time on a lot of other less-than-good-comics this year.

First! The honorable mentions. I liked these just fine: "Wonder Woman," "Daredevil," "Bulletproof Coffin Disinterred," "Glory," "Manhattan Projects," "Winter Soldier," "Ripper & Friends," "Batman," that James Stokoe Godzilla comic, and Pretty Much Everything at the Studygroup Comics website.

Now! Let's begin the Top 20 Countdown, with the list of excellent comics that didn't quite make it onto my Elite List of 10 Comics That Are the Best Ten Comics of This Year of 2012!

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20. "Barack Hussein Obama," by Steven Weissman

This insanely fictionalized biography of the Obama administration has stuck inside my brain longer than most comics, and I think it's Weissman's mesh of humanity and absurdity that won't let me shake it out of my head. It's just such a fragmented work of narrative, but Weissman plays with repetition and transformation in a near-musical way, and that ends up mattering most. I never know if it devalues comics or poetry to compare the two, but the result of Weissman's work here is to convey an impressionistic experience that sidesteps reality and creates a mode that's neither serious nor funny but off that spectrum entirely.

This comic is difficult to discuss without sounding ridiculous, but I can't stop thinking about its unsettling strangeness.

19. "Windowpane," by Joe Kessler

I don't know much of anything about Joe Kessler, but "Windowpane," which is classic kind of one-man anthology comic, feels like the work of a young man trying out different approaches to storytelling. Kessler's use of color is the most striking aspect of the comic on first glance, and it's interesting enough on its own to make the project worthwhile as an artifact. But it's the stories that battle within themselves and against each other with thematic explorations of imprisonment and freedom.

I suppose that's what makes it feel like the work of a younger artist: it's about finish up with school and moving on to the great wide expanse of the world, even as it doesn't directly talk about that situation at all.

18. "Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity," by Brandon Graham

The first issue of this new miniseries by Brandon Graham was good enough on its own to make this Best of the Year list, even if the second issue was a bit of a character-based slog. Graham seems genuinely interested in his protagonists, and in issue #2 that self-interest doesn't translate into enough of a reason to keep reading, but, even so, Graham's pages are always worth looking at. He's one of the best artists working in the industry today, part pop comics agitator, part unabashed pornographer, and part sensitive indie-art-comix-guy. That's probably all gibberish, but I don't know how else to describe what it is that he does. And what he does, he does so well.

17. "Batman, Inc," by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

The best comic of DC's New 52 is the one that wasn't part of the original relaunch, completely ignores the reset continuity, and marches on with a story that was begun all the way back in 2006. Anyone who has stuck around for Grant Morrison's ongoing Batman epic, of which this is decidedly Act III, has experienced the fluctuations of enthusiasm and excitement and doubt and re-engagement and disappointment and enjoyment, maybe not in that order, or maybe all at once in a massive panic attack. But this 2012 incarnation of "Batman, Inc." is mostly about the previous mysteries playing out until the end and Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham showing other superhero comics writers and artists how to tell a lively story with plenty of flavor, even if the twists and turns have long since stopped twisting or turning. This thing is pure execution, but with a compressed force few can match.

16. "The Understanding Monster," by Theo Ellsworth

I haven't verified this recently, but I seem to recall that the test prep books (probably for just about anything) include advice on how to tackle questions when you don't know one of the words in a possible answer. It's something like this: just because it's difficult and complicated and you don't recognize it, that doesn't automatically make it the right answer. Actually, it's usually the wrong answer, thrown into the test just to lure you into its trap.

"The Understanding Monster" is a bit like that entire scenario. It's a series of events that seem to build off one another, but without the full context -- which we certainly don't get in this book -- it seems difficult and complicated and unrecognizable. It's a personal mythology unfolding before our eyes, and I think it's tempting to say "it's weird and challenging so it must be a good comic." Maybe that's the case, and the fact that it can't be easily defined or described or summarized makes it more powerful than it might be otherwise, but it's still something full of power and symbolic import. Like "Barack Hussein Obama," it's a comic that's designed as an experience more than it is a comic designed for decoding. But unlike Weissman, Ellsworth gives us barely any frame of reference outside of his own imagination.

15. "Eat More Bikes," by Nathan Bulmer

When I saw this book, I assumed it was a Koyama Press collection of Bulmer's fantastic webcomics, and it would have been among the best published comics of the year if that were true. But it is not true. This is original Bulmer. The "Eat More Bikes" physical edition, with an expanded page size to play with and a saddle stitch format to enjoy.

Bulmer is of the sweetly-weird school of comic book making, and while that's nice and all, what sets him apart from other gag cartoonists is that he's at least 78% more hilarious than the rest of the guys and gals currently working. He commits to his gags, but he doesn't linger on them. He lets them make their mark, then he moves on to another strip.

This is important: I laughed out loud at parts of this book, when I wasn't nodding in appreciation.

14. "Wizzywig," by Ed Piskor

The unlikely story of Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle is detailed in this bio-comic about a phone-phreak-slash-hacker who can only beat the system for so long. It's not really a bio-comic, of course, and Kevin Phenicle is a fictional character, but Ed Piskor combines real-life incidents and legendary hacks into the story of one young man on the run from Johnny Law.

Piskor deftly shifts perspectives throughout the book and provides a critique of the media that sensationalizes high-tech crimes it doesn't really understand. But this is no sexy thriller. It's a lumpy, street-level story about an ingenious kid who finds the holes in the system and exploits them. He's almost completely immoral, but the way Piskor tells the tale, it's nearly impossible to root against young mister Phenicle. This is an analog story in a digital world, and it's a good one.

13. "Scalped," by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera

After five years of gritty crime melodrama, Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera's expanded-family-tragedy-with-guns-and-nunchucks came to a solemn and meaningful end. Like Sophocles with a "Billy Jack" tinge, this series about a former-renegade-turned-casino-mob-boss and the FBI agent who would take him down set its fatalistic machinery in motion from the opening story arc and everything that happened in the final issues this year was the recoil caused by the unsettling of cosmic forces. Dash Bad Horse may have been in a constant battle with himself, his mother's killer, his homeland, and everything around him, but he fought until the end, even after it looked like it may have been too late to change anything in his world.

Ultimately what Aaron and Guera gave us in "Scalped" was a character study masquerading as an action thriller, but they never tried to skimp on the bullets and the bloodshed. This is what good comics look like, and this is how they come to an end.

12. "GØDLAND," by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli

Yes, only one issue of this series came out in 2012. But I can imagine a parallel Earth upon which issue #36 was the only issue of the series ever published, and it would still be a pretty interesting series. Actually, forget about that. A parallel Earth with only one issue of "GØDLAND" ever is a ridiculous place to imagine. On that Earth, Joe Casey probably got stuck writing constantly revised Superman comics and Tom Scioli is still hard at work cataloging issues of "Team America" for the upcoming "Mighty Marvel Spectacular" of Gary Groth's "New Nostalgia Journal."

On our Earth, this issue of "GØDLAND" is number 36 out of 37, and with one issue left in the series, this Jack Kirby cosmic pastiche has not yet grounded itself in anything resembling reality. It's a spiritual, psychological, symbological landscape in words and pictures. In space. It's pretty great, even at the pace of one dose per year.

11. "The End of the Fucking World," by Charles Forsman

Somehow, Charles Forsman has turned a simple notion -- hey, let's make tiny, eight-page minicomics one month at a time -- into a micropublisher that's putting out some of the best comics in the country with no budget and a clunky old Risograph machine in what is basically a small barn converted into a studio. And that's a fitting source for a comic like "TEOTFW," which started off like a paper-and-pencil-and-ink version of Terrence Malik's "Badlands" but then became something more haunting. Like H. P. Lovecraft without the tentacle monsters and funny names.

This is a crime comic disguised as a slacker-road-trip comic, and Forsman delivers its methodical hum eight pages at a time with an astounding precision, considering he started by making it all up as he went along.

This minicomic is due to be collected by Fantagraphics next year, and I'm curious to see how it looks as a sturdy little volume of wickedness. But I like these cheaply printed, disposable little slices of paper with staples. They look like something your uncle's creepy friend might give you to tell you the truth about the chips the dentists are implanting in our skulls. But they're really just little packets of artistic truth, in a pocket-sized format.

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.

TAGS:  when words collide, barack hussein obama, windowpane, multiple warheads, batman incorporated, the understanding monster, eat more bikes, wizzywig, scalped, godland, the end of the fucking world, jason aaron, brandon graham, charles forsman

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