This is a list of, in no particular order, my personal picks of the best comic books coming out in 2012. The selection only reflect those titles that have not been released in English prior to this year, limiting the amount of reprinted material somewhat.* I realize that the internet is already flooded by lists such as this, and I harbor no pretensions of significance in my own selection. I do invite readers to comment as they see fit – I have not read even a fraction of the many titles hitting the shelves this past year, and I am sure that there are gems I have missed, overlooked, or otherwise wrongfully left out. 2012 was in my opinion a very strong year for comics, and we can only hope that the seemingly newfound creativity amongst independent creators continues to flourish, and that the efforts at translating and publishing foreign works, classic as well as contemporary, continues.
Chris Ware, Building Stories
Ware’s new project has been commented on all across both the comics and literary news circuit recently, and with good reason. Building Stories is an impressive exploration of the boundaries of the medium, with extreme care paid to everything from the interchangeable order of reading to the physical board game-like box itself. But formalistic experimentation alone does not a good comic make. Luckily the story told by Ware does not let the reader down, and while some parts of this quilted patchwork narrative veers close to feeling like excuses for toying with print and presentation, others are more thoroughly satisfying, and even provide something that is very rare indeed in a Chris Ware book – small glimpses of hope.
Glyn Dillon, The Nao of Brown
I reviewed Dillon’s first full-length graphic novel last week, and hence will not go into too much detail with it this time around. From the complexity and utterly charming personality of the titular character to the beautiful illustrations and colorful writing making up the story-within-a-story, this is a work that is bold, skillfully crafter, and has broad appeal. It deftly showcases the great skill of its creator, and is without a doubt a piece of visual storytelling that fully deserves the attention of a wider reading audience interested in literary fiction of any kind. Between this and other releases in the last year, UK publisher SelfMadeHero has thoroughly established itself as an important voice on the international comics scene.
Ryan Cecil Smith, SF #2
Ryan Cecil Smith is quite simply one of the most talented and exciting creators of self-published comic books today. His latest work, the sequel to last year’s SF #1, is no exception. It is the shortest book on the list, but is no less satisfying because of its brevity. This issue continues the tale of our hero Hupa Dupa, adopted by the Space Fleet Scientific Foundation Special Forces following the death of his parents at the hands of evil Space Pirates. The story is thrilling and fun, the art is perfectly in sync with the narrative, and there is nothing you want more after finishing an issue than get your hands on the next one. Or, even better, one of the magnificent sets of Supplementary Files.
Brandon Graham et al, Prophet volume 1: Remission
Another work of daring science-fiction, this ongoing title published by Image comics and written by Brandon Graham with a rotating cast of talented artists is a refreshing dose of honest-to-god craziness in the otherwise stale and repetitive world of mainstream serialized comics. It springs from a prior work created by Rob Liefeld, but the similarity between the two prophets is in name only. Graham’s is a thorough re-imagination, setting up a world and a character that allows for all sorts of fantastical and playful storytelling, fully utilizing the wide array of talents provided by artists such as Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milogiannis. In this world of vicious space-critters and gentle cannibalism it is perfectly normal to mate with a vagina-faced alien before receiving one’s mission from it – just another day in the hectic life of John Prophet, seemingly a direct descendant of Conan the Cimmerian.
Charles Burns, The Hive
It might be a little unfair to include this book on the list, since it is so clearly the middle part of a longer volume – the second work in a planned trilogy published in the traditional European album format. But screw that, Burns’ work here is so electric, his line so bold, and his story so out there that it deserves a spot in any best-of list, or at least this one. The Hive sees the narrative move in still stranger directions visually, with the surreal and discomforting Burroughs-esque realm of Nitnit taking up more space, while at the same time the ties between reality and fantasy more clearly manifest themselves. Read it, but make sure to read X’ed Out first.
Chris Wright, Blacklung
As others have pointed out, Wright’s debut is a graphic novel in every sense of the word. It delivers the type of narrative that only sequential art can, with a clear understanding of when to write and when to let the expressive black-and-white illustrations speak for themselves. The style is at once charming and vicious, depicting the visceral violence in a way that feels almost unrelenting. It is, however, not a work of splatter punk or mindless gore, but rather an engaging, breathless, and humorous tale of the dregs of the sea, including a colorful assortment of pirates and madmen, quite clearly drawing inspiration from both Melville, Stevenson and Peckinpah.
Li Kunwu and Philippe Ôtié, A Chinese Life
Li’s autobiographical work, co-written with the French author and diplomat Philippe Ôtié, is sure to de a divisive work. It tells the story of a boy growing up during one of the most eventul and tragic periods of Chinese history, from his birth in 1955, a few years before the famines of the Great Leap Forward, through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and into the era of restructuring and reform following the death of Mao in 1976. Li is very much an insider of the political apparatus of Communist China, and he is unapologetic about his own participation in activities that might well come off as unappealing and unsettling to the readers, including the production and distribution of propaganda (he worked as a state artist for the Party for much of his career). This self-censored look inside the mind of professional propagandist is certainly part of the appeal of the book, which over its 700 pages paints a portrait of a complicated character and an important period of modern history. As Li puts it at the end of the book: “So yes, of course we are proud of what we’ve made, even if it’s not perfect yet.”
Shigeru Mizuki, Nonnonba
The publication of emminent mangaka Shigeru Mizuki’s work in English, begun with last year’s release of Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, continues with this book, a semi-autobiographical account of growing up in the Japanese countryside of the 1930s. The story is patient and subtle, weaving a funny and moving tapestry of childhood tragedies and folkloric myths, as Shige, our young protagonist, spends many of his days in the company of the titular grandma of the story, listening to her many tales of yōkai and yūrei, fantastic creatures who often impose themselves directly into the visual narrative of the comic. Shige begins to see the world around him the way NonNon does, even befriending a disheveled yōkai at one point in the story, and in this way NoNonBa is the perfect bridge between Mizuki’s more realistic books and his more widely popular works of supernatural fiction, such as the great Kitaro (scheduled for a release in the US by Drawn & Quarterly in early 2013).
Joe Daly, Dungeon Quest book 3
The weird voyage of Millenium Boy, Steve, Lash, and Nerdgirl continues in the third volume of Daly’s magnificent stoner adventure. The riffing on classic roleplaying tropes is often hilarious, but the true comedic brilliance of the series lies in the way Daly writes the often drawn out pages of dialogue between the main characters. He manages to capture the way people talk in real life perfectly – especially after the consumption of copious amounts of weed and mushrooms. This book is twice the length of the previous volumes, delving into the history of the world through the clever use of hieroglyphic exposition and a book-within-the-book (Millenium Boy’s newest esoteric book, The Romish Book of the Dead), and introducing the new character of Lou. And of course, the homoerotic awkwardness and the uncomfortably realistic violence we have come to expect continues unabashedly.
Study Group Comics
Last but not least on the list is the new digital incarnation of Study Group – a great publisher of comic book anthologies and mini-comics, and an outlet for experimental sequential art and thoughtful criticism alike. The website is both a webcomic portal and a blog, with work on display by a large number of talented creators, including Zack Soto, Jennifer Parks, Farel Dalrymple, Kazimir Strzepek, and Aidan Koch. It presents a combination of ongoing titles, typically updated on a weekly or biweekly basis, and shorter one-offs, such as Tom Neely’s Doppelganger and Julia Gfrörer’s Black is the Color. As with any anthology project the quality of contributions varies and the breadth of style and genre is so wide that not all of the content will appeal to all readers. Despite this multitude of perspectives the project retains a clear sense of cohesion, and comes off more as a carefully curated exhibition than a collection of randomly selected works. With the notable dip in quality of the last volume of Kramers Ergot and the possible decline of print publications in general, a project like the Study Group website is even more exciting, and the open-ended creative space it offers readers and creators is a wonderful addition to and a shinning light for the future of comics.
* Some of the notable titles left out due to this criteria include Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind box set (Viz Media); Kevin Huizenga’s Gloriana (Drawn & Quaterly); Brandon Graham’s King City (Image); Jodorowsky and Janjetov’s Before the Incal (Humanoids); Brendan Leach’s The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City (Top Shelf); Van Lente and Dunlavey’s The Comic Book History of Comics (IDW); and Gary Panter’s Dal Tokyo (Fantagraphics).