We’re halfway through January already, so Eye on Comics is long overdue in presenting its picks for the best comics of 2011 and the creators who had the best year last year. Regular readers might note it’s been some time since the Glass Eye Awards were presented; there was no such feature on the site for 2010 comics and creators — just didn’t get around to it. But the Glass Eye Awards are back, starting here with the best comics of the year.
Now readers ought to bear in mind I’m a busy, busy man, and there’s no way for me to read all of the comics and graphic novels released over the course of a year. I haven’t even had a chance to read all of the comics and graphic novels I actually purchased. Furthermore, the “nominees” and “winners” as presented here are based on my best recollections, and my memory ain’t perfect. Now, with no further ado, the envelopes, please…
Best Limited Series: When it comes to choosing a handful of the best limited series in any given year as of late, one choice is always obvious: something writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips worked on together. In 2011, their finest effort was Criminal: Last of the Innocent, published under Marvel’s creator-owned Icon imprint; their four-issue, noir reinterpretation of the classic Archie archetypes was surprisingly effective, given how the source material was mired in a saccharine perspective of adolescence. They offered up an effective critique of the unrealistic vision of teen life while also reminding us why it was important and valuable. Another one of my favorite mini-series of 2011 was published by Marvel as well: Mystery Men. Woefully ignored by many, writer David Liss and artist Patrick Zircher offered a compelling story of pre-Golden Age costumed heroes that captured a pulp feel tempered with more modern sensibilities.
Mike Mignola and his many collaborators offer no shortage of strong comics throughout any given year, and I think my favorite of 2011’s limited series set in the Dark Horse Mignola-verse was Sir Edward Grey, Witchfinder: Lost and Gone Forever. Bringing the Victorian-era monster hunter of the title into an Old West setting made for a fun blend of genres that nevertheless maintained the edge of the two seemingly conflicting founding premises. And seeing classic Western-comics artist John Severin on board to illustrate it was a great move. Who Is Jake Ellis? from Image Comics was another limited series that mixed genres; it spiced the espionage/international-intrigue approach with some superhuman elements, hooking the reader with a mystery the protagonist investigated and explored at the same time. It also made me an instant fan of the work of up-and-coming writer Nathan Edmondson; I’ll check out anything he does based on the strength of that inaugural effort.
What I considered to be the best limited series of the year came from an unexpected source: a crossover event by one of the major super-hero-comics publishers. The best thing to come out of Flashpoint wasn’t the New 52 continuity at DC Comics, but rather the awkwardly titled Flashpoint: Batman – Knight of Vengeance. 100 Bullets creators Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso re-teamed to tell the tragic tale of this alternate-reality Batman. Ultimately, what made this highly entertaining spin on the classic super-hero so compelling was a simple idea: the only thing more painful than a child losing his or her parents would be for parents to endure the loss of their child.
Best New Series: There’s never any shortage of new ongoing titles in the comics marketplace, but I’m guessing 2011 in particular saw a spike thanks to DC’s New 52 relaunch initiative. Some were just continuations of existing titles, but it also saw the introduction of new ones and resurrection of forgotten characters. One of the best was the long-awaited Batwoman title by writer/artist J.H. Williams III and co-writer W. Haden Blackman, carrying on the work Williams and writer Greg Rucka did with the character in Detective Comics a couple of years ago. Williams’ haunting artwork is the book’s greatest strength, but the tragic villains and strong characterization don’t let the visuals do all the heavy lifting. My favorite debut issue in the New 52 line was that of DC Universe Presents. The inaugural story arc, featuring Deadman, features some clean and inventive linework by artist Bernard Chang, and, more importantly, the philosophical, challenging yet grounded story of spirituality and self-discovery crafted by writer Paul Jenkins. The series will feature ever-changing creative teams, story arcs and featured characters, so I can only hope subsequent features in this title will be half as good.
DC’s New 52 unfortunately led to the loss of titles I was enjoying, perhaps none more than the short-lived second volume of Xombi. Writer John Rozum populated the series with weird and clever character concepts, novel presentations of super-powers and surreal settings, but what made it work was how the title character was a regular guy trying to fit into an irregular world. That it was illustrated by Frazer Irving made it even better; his style was well suited to the bizarre little corner of the DC Universe being mapped out in six unfortunately scant but strong issues. Last year also brought the disappointment of the end of Echo, but writer/artist Terry Moore fortunately didn’t leave us waiting for long for his next effort. Rachel Rising was another new title featuring a literally empowered female lead, but it boasts a much darker edge than Echo. Moore is exploring much more morbid, mysterious territory, but he continues to craft convincing, fun characters; soft, believable figures; and a compelling plot.
My pick for the best new ongoing title of 2011 goes to an almost universally acclaimed super-hero title: Daredevil. One could argue it’s not a new series, but the previous volume of DD was on hiatus for some time and replaced by a Black Panther title, so I felt it belonged in this category. Writer Mark Waid’s choice to take the title character back in a lighter direction and to allow elements from the broader Marvel Universe to creep back into Daredevil’s little corner of it was a great way to revitalize the property. Like the plot and script, artists Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin contributed work that featured both traditional and innovative approaches to comics storytelling.
Best Series: Two of my favorite established ongoing titles of 2011 were published under DC’s Vertigo imprint> One came to an end, and other continues. Brian Wood and Ricardo Burchielli’s DMZ recently wrapped up, and it should be heralded as a fascinating view of the importance and power of journalism, as well as the corrupting influence of war. “Citizen Zee,” the story in a self-contained issue spotlighting the hardened but ultimately altruistic medic, stood out as poignant piece and well-crafted summary of multiple elements from the series as a whole. While DMZ was gritty and all-too-realistic, The Unwritten was a much more fantastical and sadly impossible exploration of the nature of storytelling, the power of fiction and the haunting effect one’s parent can have on an adult’s life. Mike Carey and Peter Gross are quietly carving out a classic in the two-dimensional marble of paper, words, lines and colors.
Another seemingly unfortunate casualty of DC’s New 52 relaunch was the premature end of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated. Thankfully, we saw the release last month of a one-shot that continued the story, and last week brought an announcement the series would return with a new first issue in May. Morrison’s exploration of corporate crime-fighting and a complex conspiracy often proved to be challenging, and it was always entertaining. I’m pleased artist Chris Burnham, who did such good work on the first volume of the title, will return with the second as well. The first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man came to a close in 2011 with the death of the title character, but while it was relaunched with a new first issue and a new character in the title role, writer Brian Michael Bendis is really just continuing the strong, character-based work he began more than a decade ago. Like the new, young hero of Miles Morales, artist Sara Pichelli brings fresh energy to the ongoing saga.
Those four titles were all great reads, but my pick for the best ongoing title of 2011 is the same choice I made two years ago when selecting the best title of 2009. Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead is always surprising, always evolving, even when sometimes the characters are devolving from the strong men and women they once were to the damaged and fragile souls a brutal world has forced them to become. There’s a reason the televised adaptation of this property has proven to be such a success. It’s not the zombies, but the characters. I much prefer the source material over the more widely seen TV show, though. The Walking Dead has proven to be a boon to comics retailers, as its collected editions are always in demand. It’s encouraging to see well-crafted, independent comics have an eager and growing audience.
Best Original Graphic Novel: Two of the best graphic novels I had the pleasure of reading in 2011 arose from my home and native land, Canada. Chester Brown’s Paying for It was controversial to be certain, but the autobiographical chronicle of one man’s quest for sex through commercial (though illegal) channels was refreshingly straightforward and honest. It certainly turned heads, due in part to a well-co-ordinated promotional campaign, but probably mainly to curiosity about a hidden but thriving aspect of culture and the human condition. Meanwhile, in a project published in conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, writers Paul Peterson and Jason Gilmore explored the dark corners of the human experience and heart with their presentation of the stories of four suicide survivors. Artist John Porcellino’s work is somewhat crude, but it’s nevertheless effective at conveying the ugly and tragic emotions and damage that drive each character’s story.
Though I heard great things about One Soul from Oni Press as an experiment in storytelling in the medium, I didn’t get a chance to read it, but an Oni book did make my top picks for 2011. Ivy by Sarah Oleksyk was a compelling piece about adolescence in a pre-Internet age obviously appeals as a coming-of-age story, but it connects with the reader beyond that level as well. It’s about the mistakes we make out of emotion and the maturity that one must embrace to correct them. It’s a lovely book, not only in terms of Oleksyk’s firm linework, but in its design and presentation. Conversely, the best graphic novel I sampled from Dark Horse Comics in 2011 was Hellboy: House of the Living Dead. It’s exotic and irreverent, dark and campy, adventurous and melancholy. Mike Mignola and Richard Corben’s tribute to luchadore and classic movie monsters was overpriced as a graphic novella, but the strength of the craft on its pages was second to none. The only thing it was missing was more original Hellboy adventure.
My choice for the best original graphic novel of the year will come as little surprise to many, as it’s topped a lot of best-of lists for 2011. Craig Thompson’s exploration of Middle-Eastern culture and faith in Habibi was mesmerizing. It’s a dense, challenging read, thanks to the complexity of myth and characterization, and due to the gorgeous fluidity of the linework. Symbology and settings are interchangeable, and a sinister figure at one moment can seem sympathetic the next, and vice versa. Habibi is a powerful work, but it also strikes me as a particularly important that will invite study, discussion and debate for years to come.
And with that, we’ve reached the halfway mark in the 2011 Glass Eye Awards. Click here for the second part, focusing on my picks for the best creators of 2011.
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