As you may guess, I read a lot of graphic novels over the course of a year, although they are not all winners and I do not review all of them on this blog. What follows is my list of the books I enjoyed most this past year.
This is probably the best book I read in the last year, and in the top two at the very least. There is so much detail, artifice, and craft put into this book it is amazing. It is about a secret government agency that finds and exploits people with powerful mental abilities and what happens when it finds that it cannot possibly control them. I have read it multiple times and been struck by nuances of the deceptively simple-looking art, the gripping, airtight plot, and the best kind of cloak and dagger stories. This book is incredible, inventive, fresh, and exciting, and it's the first part of a series that I cannot help but to follow.
Boxers & Saints
Even though they are two books, I am putting them together because I cannot imagine thinking about one without the other. I expect them to be high on many people's lists this year - they're up for the National Book Award, for Pete's sake! What I admire perhaps most is how they are ostensibly about historical events but still speak to contemporary times and issues so clearly. They are about loyalty, belief, war, and trying to make sense of battling people who seem alien to each other, all major issues when we look at current world and national events. These insights are intensified when we get the accounts from viewpoints on two sides of the conflict, adding much gravitas to how things turn out. These books linger with me still.
Part memoir, part cook book, Lucy Knisley's book is a brilliant, vibrant, enjoyable, and unique reading experience. I connected with her childhood experiences and her coming-of-age tales set in upstate NY, laughed at her missteps and teachable moments, and am still wanting to try her carbonara recipe. To be cliché: delightfully delicious and will leave you craving more!
Maybe because it's set in a time when I was a kid and I can relate, but I felt that Gilbert Hernandez's first overtly autobiographical book was a beautiful, truthful, and resonant look at childhood. In its pages, the children play and fight; they learn about life and death; they imagine different worlds and fumble around about love. Its colorful characters, well defined relationships, taut pacing, and situations that can make you laugh and cry are all examples of why he might be the greatest comics creator working today.
You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack
I am bending the rules a little here, because this is not really a graphic novel but a collection of one page comics. But Gauld's humor, wit, insight, and literary references just make me so plain happy, and his elegant yet charged drawings resemble beautiful woodcuts. This book made me laugh out loud several times, and it holds up after multiple rereadings, which is grounds enough for me for its inclusion here.
As per usual, Jim Ottaviani provides a compelling and informative story here, telling about long-ranging research studies on chimps, gorillas, and orangutangs as well as the people who did them, but if truth be told I am also including this book here because Maris Wick knocked the ball out of the park with her illustration. A book that uses the graphic novel format to full effect and also provides an approachable, intriguing, and scholarly narrative, Primates is a great introduction into the worlds of science and primatology.
Heck is a man whom people pay to go to Hell and communicate with the lost souls there. Part noir and part Dante's Inferno, this story about a pair of adventurers looking to make a buck off an entrance to the underworld is full of humanity, friendship, suspense, and metaphysical musing. I loved the cliffhanger chapter endings and found myself compelled, surprised, and quizzical about what I was reading. One of this year's unheralded great graphic novels.
This sequel to Far Arden is every bit as exciting, hilarious, and heart-breaking. It follows a sea-faring adventurer on a quest to find his lost love, deter a Russian rocket launch, and possibly go to the Moon. The art is as inventive, fun, expressive, and even more polished than in that first volume. This book is a testament to the potential of sequential art, and if I could, I would make sure Kevin Cannon was an extremely rich man because I required the entire world to buy his books.
This may have been the most energetic, fresh, and fun graphic novel on this list. Battling Boy is a young god/superhero with an array of t-shirts that endow him with specific powers and abilities. He is stuck on a world beset with monsters and crooked politicians, and while he can punch the former to solve some of his problems he has to learn to deal with the latter as well. This book really captured the feeling of what superhero comics used to feel like for me as a youngster.
The Legend of Ricky Thunder
If you like professional wrestling, hilarious jokes, and battles with aliens bent on conquering the Earth, then this is the book for you. Ricky Thunder is a world champion wrestler who finds himself in a high-stakes match, with the fate of the Earth in the balance. If he wins, the Earth is saved. If he loses, then we are all done for. Full of frenetic action and fights as well as laugh-out-loud gags and situations, this book is charming and so entertaining, an absolute winner. Not really available from most (any?) bookstores, it is available directly from the author here.
Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 1
I love old-school rap songs and artists, the art in Bronze age superhero comics, and Ed Piskor's nonfiction work, and this book combines all three. The history of rap music, from the streets of the Bronx to the earliest recordings to the first few commercial hits, is chronicled here. Educational and entertaining in the best ways, this book collects webcomics that you can read for free but is such a wonderfully composed physical object you should run out and buy it now.
Powerful, spare, and addictive. This incredibly readable and provocative tale of runaway teenagers and the mayhem they create and endure took me by surprise and affected me in unexpected ways. It's not for children, and it is disturbing, but it is also one of the strongest, most visceral, and emotional comics-reading experiences I have had in a long time.
And finally, I cannot help but to include one more book that would have been on my "best of" list last year if I had read it in time:
This book does that rarest of things for me: it lives up to the hype. It is the graphic novel you should give to people who don't know they like graphic novels. A mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy with a dash of Romeo and Juliet, the story here is exhilarating, surprising, inventive, and breath-taking with its twists and turns. Given that I am an old man who can still recall such a thing, I'd say the feeling I got reading this book was a lot like the sense of wonder Star Wars invoked in me as a young'un. Saga is excellent.
That's it. There's my list. Happy New Year!