When Words Collide: The Ten Best Comics of 2012

Mon, December 31st, 2012 at 11:30am PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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BEST COMICS OF 2012: THE TEN BEST COMICS OF THE YEAR

Last week I ran through some honorable mentions and the Ten That Were Closest To Making The Top Ten, but now it's time for the real deal. This is the list you've all been waiting for. The one I've been waiting to write since the first Monday last January. Here we go…

10. "Hawkeye," by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Javier Pulido

When everything else in the Marvel Universe seemed to be getting bigger -- longer story arcs, more cosmic threats, escalation upon escalation -- it was nice to see a comic like "Hawkeye" debut and immediately position itself as an antidote to the excess.

Matt Fraction seems to be free to be at his Fraction-iest in this street-level, trick-arrow-sporting, international-intrigue comic that reframes Clint Barton as an everyman superhero with a whole lot of baggage to bounce over, but without the weight of that history keeping him stuck in place.

I think it's easy to see this comic as the last-year's-"Daredevil"-of-this-year, but while Fraction and Aja and Pulido dance to some of the same rhythms as the Waid and Rivera and Martin comic that was widely praised when it debuted in 2011, they do it with a bit more verve. I liked the "Daredevil" comic well enough last year, and I still like it just fine now, but "Hawkeye" seems a bit more willing to undercut its own playfulness with a sense of genuine danger, and that helps to make it stand alone as the only Marvel or DC comic in my Top 10 this year.

9. "Zaucer of Zilk," by Al Ewing and Brendan McCarthy

Though IDW released this series in a two-issue comic-book-sized miniseries, the better way to read it is in the "2000 AD" magazine progs, where McCarthy's brightly-hued art can glow at a larger size.

Al Ewing continues to do excellent work in his various endeavors -- and he's certainly one of the strongest writers to come out of "2000 AD" in nearly a generation -- but "Zaucer of Zilk," part Alice in Wonderland, part dreamworld, part reluctant not-really-a-superhero, and all deranged Roald Dahl is a Brendan McCarthy project more than anything and that makes it worth paying attention to. It may be a bit safer and more outwardly innocent than some of his more notable work in the past, but it is still full of flavor and its devilishness is hidden beneath a shiny veneer. I'll take Brendan McCarthy whenever I can find them, and this one has a lot of McCarthyism and a lot of deviously-crafted joy.

8. "Deathzone" and "Copra," by Michel Fiffe

Maybe these don't count as a single series, but they should. The latter would certainly not have existed without the former, or not in any recognizable way, to be sure.

"Deathzone" is Michel Fiffe's tribute to the "Suicide Squad" comics of John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell, and it retells a sequence from that classic 1980s series with a whole lot of affection and a distinctive point of view. Fiffe is a cartoonist who loves comics, and it shows, but he's also crafted a style that embraces the superhero conceit without abandoning his individual voice. "Deathzone" is, in effect, like having Michel Fiffe sitting next to you telling you why "Suicide Squad" was such a great comic, only he shows you instead, and that makes it all the better.

"Copra" is, fortunately for us, an expansion of that approach. It's a Fiffe original series, recently launched, which owes its genesis to its creator's formative comic book reading years. It's three parts Ostrander/McDonnell, one part Nocenti/Romita, Jr. and a dash of Michael Fleisher. As a self-published superhero ongoing, I don't know how long Fiffe can sustain it, but I'm game to read it for as long as he can keep making more of these little gems of superhero wonder.

7. "My Friend Dahmer," by Derf Backderf

As I wrote when I originally reviewed this book, I was reluctant to pick up this graphic memoir of growing up with Jeffrey Dahmer because the Don-Martin-leaning artwork of Derf Backderf seemed ill-suited for a story about the early days of a serial killer. Plus, I wasn't at all interested in reading about the early days of a serial killer.

But while "My Friend Dahmer" is that, it's also more than I could have imagined. Backderf's wooden-yet-elastic style gives everyone in the book an awkwardness that suits the time period, and feels just about perfect at capturing the horrors of adolescence and the cruel world that surrounded young Dahmer and his peers. Backderf doesn't justify the evil deeds later committed by Dahmer, but he does provide a context that shows how warning signs were ignored, and how an incredibly weird kid turned into something unimaginably awful. This isn't a book that fully explores the "why" of the Dahmer question, but it hints near it, and offers a look at the "who" and the "when" and the initial doses of "what." It's sickening to see, but Backderf tells it with an engaging clarity.

6. "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009," by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill have a Captain Nemo one-shot scheduled for release in 2013, but I haven't yet heard anything about their long-term plans for more "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" comics after that. It would seem, from the outside looking in, that the three-part "Century" story would be the last major "League" arc we'll ever see, but even if it's not, the "Century: 2009" finale was a devilishly powerful ending to a an era-hopping, pop-culture imbued story that took its lead characters from the viciousness of "The Threepenny Opera" through the sex-and-drugs laden 1960s and into a corrupted post-"Harry Potter" world where they faced no less than the Antichrist with some help from a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious source.

"Century: 2009" was an action-packed, savagely funny-and-tragic ending to the entire cycle of stories that are part of the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" banner. This one issue brings together threads from all of the previous "League" comics -- even the sometimes-maligned "Black Dossier" -- and provides a slice of name-that-allusion annotation-baiting (which is fun on its own) that adds up to more than its component references. It is a fitting end to everything that has come before, but it's also one of the best comics of the year on its own.

5. "Prophet," by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milogiannis, and Friends

This could be considered a superhero comic because of some of its history and its inclusion of super-men of the past in its distant future setting, but Brandon Graham approaches it as a sci-fi comic interested in exploration and myth.

The thrust of the narrative has a series of clones working to trigger the awakening of old man Prophet and the larger quest to reassemble the team of once-heroes. But that framework is just a skeleton upon which to build exotic scenes and unusual confrontations. "Prophet" is neither paced like any traditional superhero, or sci-fi, or action comic book, and it doesn't look like one either. This is a project in which the alt comics guys have captured the basement of the derelict shopping mall and turned it into a funhouse wonderland, full of scratched out images of old Rob Liefeld creations set against a backdrop of lush locales.

"Prophet" takes its time without feeling decompressed and presents an atypical story without obvious gimmicks. For that, I commend it. But what's best about it is that I enjoy reading each single issue, and want to go back and read the others almost every month.

4. "Adventure Time," by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, and Braden Lamb

This is a series that followed up a cosmic-level epic opening story arc with a brilliant issue #5 and then came back with a multi-issue time-tossed cyborg magic apocalypse right away. It's not only the best all-ages comic I've ever read, it's the best ongoing comic book series on the market.

The strength of the series comes from the clean, vibrant artwork of Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline (and friends), plus the unrestrained imagination of Ryan North. North made a name from himself because of the repetitious absurdity of "Dinosaur Comics" (well before his ascent to the Shakespeare-meets-Kickstarter-meets-CYOA stratosphere), but few readers would have suspected that his plotting would be as uninhibited as it is. It's almost as if he doesn't realize that most comics are supposed to be methodically paced cinematic entertainments that read like episodes of some middle-of-the-road FX television series. It's almost as if he doesn't realize that you can't just go ahead and do anything in comics, because it might confuse people and then they might not want to buy your t-shirts and alarm clocks anymore. It's almost as if he just wants to make thrilling, funny, structurally ambitious, accessible comics that everyone can enjoy. What a weirdo.

3. "Building Stories," by Chris Ware

This is an art project and a literary work disguised as something that resembles comics. That doesn't mean I don't think that comics are capable of impressive artistic feats and the sophistication of great literature, but when you're looking at the work of Chris Ware, and you're looking at the 14-piece assemblage that's collected in the "Building Stories" box, you're looking at something that celebrates the form of comics in a way that acknowledges that the context of the presentation is as important as what's on the pages. It is form as function, but in this form, no prescriptive reading is demanded of the reader. Ware gives you the components of a story, and it's up to you to assemble it your way, in a complete or partial form.

But the genius in all of it -- and yes, I'll use that word to describe Chris Ware -- is that the construction that is "Building Stories" works in those multiple modes, in those assembled fragments, no matter which way they are brought together.

In the time since I first read "Building Stories," I have flipped through its contents more than once, and I'm continually impressed by the way Ware has provided a totally controlled narrative -- nothing about Ware's work says "freewheeling and improvisational" -- that can also be read without a rigidly-imposed structure.

And this work of Ware's also acts as a celebration of his past, not in an egocentric way, but as a way to recognize that his "Acme Novelty Library" comics have not, historically, been collected in a completely appropriate way. Anyone who owns even a few of those issues knows that they come in all shapes and sizes, and you'd need a box bigger than the one provided by "Building Stories" to house them all. But the guts of "Acme Novelty Library" have been carved out and spread inside nicely-rectangular collected editions in previous years. Chris Ware's work has been whittled down to a more manageable size.

Not so with "Building Stories." It won't allow it.

2. "The Nao of Brown," by Glyn Dillon

This is the rocketship straight out of nowhere crashing into the Top 10 (probably of many people's end-of-the-year lists). Glyn Dillon hasn't drawn anything substantial in about 17 years, since the early-Vertigo "Egypt" series with Peter Milligan. He's done a few small things since then, but I don't even know if he's drawn an entire comic book in all the years since "Egypt." But here he is with a thick color graphic novel, and it's his project through-and-through, from the writing to the drawing to the painting to the production design.

It's such a surprising feat of singular vision that it automatically deserves attention.

But I still almost ignored it as 2012 drew to a close.

It was that cover. That washing-machine-headed-figure.

For some reason, that cover image signified, to me, that this would be like one of those middle-rung "First Second" products. It would probably look nice, but the story would be too keenly clever or too slight, and I'd mostly end up annoyed that I'd wasted my time with it.

Not true at all. "The Nao of Brown" is a book that looks more than just "nice." It's a stunningly drawn and painted graphic novel, in the watercolor-realist mode, but with sections of deluded dreams and evocatively symbolic tributes to the work of a Japanese anime master who doesn't really exist.

It's a story about a young woman struggling with mental illness, but it's not some schlocky Angelina Jolie version of psychosis. This is a more passionate, nuanced portrayal, and though it may come together a bit too neatly in the end, that's the price, perhaps, for completing the circle of the story arc in such a satisfying way.

1. "Lose," by Michael DeForge

I suspect that there's a moment for many readers, as they read Dan Clowes early "Eightball" work like "A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron," when the Lynchian oddness feels unearned. Like Clowes was trying to capture a feeling he wasn't yet capable of expressing in comics.

Michael DeForge is capable of expressing that feeling already, four issues into "Lose," which continues to be THE comic worthy of your attention each year, even if I was hesitant to declare it so in last year's list and it stalled out at #9. If I were to revise last year's list now, it would be closer to #1, and this year it claims the spot with confident ease.

The newest issue of "Lose," identified, part-jokingly, as "The Fashion Issue," is about infection and infestation. Things creep. Things get beneath the skin. It's a horror comic that has the beauty of a meticulous pen-and-ink drawing.

Michael DeForge is one of the most prolific young artists working today, and "Lose" is far from the only thing notable he's produced in 2012, but "Lose" is the lightning rod for his talents. It's the focal point for his themes and images, and "Lose" #4 is more than just a DeForge miscellany. It's a guidebook to his world, to his unique mythology.

It's the best comic of the year, with a gold sash and a crown made of antlers and metal spikes.

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, hawkeye, matt fraction, zaucer of zilk, brendan mccarthy, al ewing, deathzone, copra, my friend dahmer, league of extraordinary gentlemen, alan moore, kevin o'neill, prophet, brandon graham, adventure time, ryan north, building stories, the nao of brown, lose, michael deforge

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