The Best of 2009: Original Graphic Novels and Collections

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzuchelli (Pantheon Books) Yeah, it's made every single "Best Of Comics" list this year, and a few "Best Of Fiction" lists besides, but so what? It totally deserves it. Legendary Batman and Daredevil artist David Mazzuchelli disappeared for a decade, only to emerge with this hefty tome about a heartbroken professor of architecture who loses everything and decides to reconstruct himself from nothing, while examining the wreckage of his life to find out where it all went wrong. At a glance, the symbolic colour schemes and unconventional page layouts seem challenging and maybe even a bit pretentious, but Polyp's approach is shockingly digestible. Funny, truthful, poignant, and very easy on the eyes, Asterios Polyp is an instant classic. -DH

Masterpiece Comics, by R. Sikoryak (Fantagraphics Books) Every English Literature Professor's worst nightmare, R. Sikoryak's Masterpiece Comics retells several classic tales in the form of classic comics. Originally appearing in the Drawn & Quarterly anthology, Sikoryak gives us Bible stories re-enacted by newspaper strip characters (Blondie and Dagwood act out the story of Adam and Eve), a take on Crime and Punishment that stars a Dick Sprang-era Batman as Raskolnikov, and reimagines Wuthering Heights as a lurid Tales From The Crypt offering. Sikoryak plays it so straight that you can easily forget it's supposed to be a joke--a hallmark of classic subversion. -DH

The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens (IDW Publishing) Dave Stevens' lost pulp adventure classic, out of print for years, returns in two handsome hardcover editions--an affordable, regular-sized hardcover that collects the two previous Rocketeer graphic novels, and a deluxe, oversized, slipcased volume that is overflowing with all the bonus material a fan could ever want. Ace colourist Laura Martin provides vibrant new hues that ably support Stevens' lush linework without overpowering it. Story notes at the back of the Deluxe Edition hint at a planned third Rocketeer volume that would have seen Cliff Secord swept up in the Martian hysteria of Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast; sadly, Stevens succumbed to Leukemia in 2006, which makes this gorgeous collection the final, definitive word on his jet-packed hero. -DH

Blazing Combat by Archie Goodwin and Various Artists (Fantagraphics Books) It's always interesting to read literature that was banned at the time of its original publication. It's even more satisfying when the material happens to be an outstanding representation of a medium's potential. Blazing Combat collects the entire short-lived 1960s anti-war comic of the same name. The black-and-white comics were originally published by Warren Publishing in 1965-66, before American popular sentiment had turned against the war efforts in Vietnam. Sadly, very few of the four published issues reached the public; they were quickly pulled from newsstands and rejected by wholesalers. The issues, each containing several short war stories ranging from the War of Independence to the Vietnam War, were written almost entirely by Archie Goodwin and were illustrated by master cartoonists such as Alex Toth, Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, and Wally Wood. Much like the controversial EC Comics of the 1950s, each story in Blazing Combat uses shock endings and raw character emotion to evoke a reaction from the readers. Through this technique the creators were able to slip political and social opinions on unpopular topics such as racism, sexism, government oppression, or, in the case of Blazing Combat, the futility of war, into the comics. Each panel of Blazing Combat is a stunning work of art, and they are beautifully preserved on heavy paper in this hardcover book. Just as relevant now as when they were first published, these stories should still draw an emotional reaction from anyone who reads them. - RG

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 by David Petersen (Archaia) The wait for this book, the second volume of Mouse Guard, was agonizing. David Petersen's epic fantasy starring a small band of brave Guardmice is remarkably captivating and full of emotion. It's also full of gorgeous art, and Archaia does a great job with these hardcover editions. Reading the first volume two years ago made me feel a lot better about my mouse-infested apartment that winter. I pictured them scurrying around with little swords and little capes and I couldn't hate them. Eventually I did have to poison them, though, because seriously. Those things multiply like crazy. - RG

Johnny Hiro by Fred Chao (AdHouse Books) Not only was this one of the most exciting things to be collected into a trade this year, for me anyway, it ended up being one of the best looking trades of the year. Fred Chao's comic about a struggling young busboy in New York City is hilarious and charming. I particularly love Johnny's girlfriend, Mayumi, who is one of the most adorable love interests in the history of fiction. Also, this comic is peppered with hip hop references, and I like that in anything. And...I met Fred Chao at HeroesCon this year and he was super nice and drew me this awesome sketch. - RG

Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke (IDW Publishing) I had the pleasure of being part of a small crowd at a local writers festival this year to hear Darwyn Cooke read the first chapter of Richard Stark's novel, The Hunter. As he read the chapter, he ran a slide show of the pages in his comic adaptation of the novel so we could see exactly how it was adapted. It was really neat, and it made me appreciate even further how excellent Cooke's adaptation is. It's definitely a case of a perfect project paired with the perfect creator, with a lot of love thrown in. The two-tone pages are beautiful and moody and full of that Darwyn Cooke charm we all know and love. I can't wait for the next one! - RG

Tales From the Beanworld by Larry Marder (Dark Horse) Larry Marder stepped away from Tales From the Beanworld for more than a decade, but then he came back. Now all of  the original run of the Beanworld comics have been collected in fantastic-looking hardcovers from Dark Horse and the first of a series of books that will continue the saga has been released. You may have heard this story from me before, but let me reiterate: I first encountered the Beanworld when I bought Eclipse Comics first Marder collection in a used bookstore sometime in the late Nineties. I fell in love with the setting and characters and started looking around for more, but that was it. I never found the other trades, nor any of the single issues, not even a morally suspect electronic document from the World Wide Computernet. The amount of joy that these trades and the subsequent original material has generated in my life is difficult to calculate but is not insubstantial. Personal anecdotes aside, the Beanworld is a setting all its own, with rules and laws that emerge as the story does. Marder has certainly planned a lot of this out ahead of time, judging by how effectively events slot together as the plot advances, and as a result this is a marvelous example of long-form comic storytelling. It is, as has been observed, weird as hell, but for sheer entertainment value it is very hard to beat. - JM

The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell (Little, Brown and Company) While I think that these days, literature and movies put too much stock in the phrase "based on a true story," The Imposter's Daughter is an absolutely mind-blowing true story. Journalist and cartoonist, Laurie Sandell, grew up idolizing her amazing dad. And he wasn't just the type of amazing dad who makes good meatballs or coaches your hockey team; he was off-the-hook amazing. Her dad was a decorated war hero. He had several degrees from many prestigious universities. He had owned a boa constrictor. The pope was his BFF. When, in her early twenties, Sandell starts to research her pop for an article she was writing about him, it becomes evident that these stories just don't add up. With the help of a private investigator, she discovers that her dad didn't just drop a fib here and there—he was a pathological liar and a con-man. On top that, he was hundreds of thousands dollars in debt, and had wracked up much of that debt under Sandell and her sister's names. When she confronts her dad, her discoveries tear her family apart, send her on a self-destructive spree of confusion and guilt. This story is incredible, and while heavy and brutally honest, Sandell injects a dose of humour as well. The art is clean and simple. You might find it too simple if you're the type who drools over Alex Ross, but really, a stern-looking Wonder Woman wouldn't really fit the bill here. If you're recovering from post-holiday family drama, this book might put things in perspective. Sure your Aunt implied that you've gained a few pounds, but at least she was telling the truth. -TJ

This American Drive by Mike Holmes (Invisible Publishing) While not a comic per se, Mike Holmes' book expertly blends prose, illustrations and comic strips into a cross-genre bonanza of fun. Follow Canadian Mike, and his Texan girlfriend, Jodi, as they road trip it from Nova Scotia to the deep American south. Like me, Mike has warm feelings towards our southern neighbours, so expect more good-natured ribbing than biting social commentary. Actually, expect a lot of ribs, and burgers and biscuits and gravy, because Mike describes the many drool-worthy meals he and Jodi have as they eat their way down the eastern seaboard and into Texas. Mike's story-telling ability is surpassed only by his brilliant art. Plus, he's a cool dude—a real triple threat in the comics industry.  I recommend This American Drive for anyone who likes travel stories, mild culture shock, fatty food, smiling, eating, laughing, living or comics. -TJ (Check out some images here!)

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man by Matt Kindt (Dark Horse) God damn, this book looks great! Absolutely gorgeous interiors and brilliant book design, with a peep-hole hard cover! Great washed-out, moody colours, and beautiful letters! Somebody stop me before I make out with this book! On the heels of 2008's thrilling, noir-ish Superspy, Matt Kindt delivers another moving and imaginative graphic novel. The giant man, Craig Pressgang, is depicted through the eyes of three important women in his life, as he grows from an over-sized boy to a 3-story-high giant, from someone who's a little strange to a god or a monster. As Craig grows, the story slips from something you'd see in Ripley's Believe It Or Not, into a surreal, and at times terrifying story, as Craig grows too big for his house, his family, and the world. I loved last year's Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell, and 3 Story is in a similar vein: an deeply emotional story told with supernatural-eqsue overtones. Kindt reaches new heights with this book and 3 Story towers above the volumes on the shelf (you heard me). -TJ

Pixu: The Mark of Evil by Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon (Dark Horse) This original graphic novel from Dark Horse largely flew under the radar despite the rock-star creative team of Cloonan/Vasilis and Ba/Moon, all of whom are in a full awesome form. Pixu is a horror story, and boy did it scared the crap out of me. Although, I got freaked out just watching the trailer for Paranormal Activity, so this might read like Archie's wedding to tougher folks. Come to think of it, Archie's wedding was horrifying in its own way. All that Robert Frost. Anyway, Pixu follows the interweaving stories of five tenants in an apartment building, which is kinda depressing to begin with, but turns into a terrifying shit-storm of horror after an evil mark appears on the building. The story has some well-executed suspense, with over-the-top disturbing pay-offs. The creative team (which is almost a full hockey line) employ some cool story-telling techniques when the separate story threads start to bump up against one another. I also enjoyed the spiffy little hard-cover format. I'm hoping that 2010 brings more Becky Cloonan—preferably something I can read before bed and not have to sleep with the light on. -TJ

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (Pantheon) Josh Neufeld, of American Splendor fame, gave us one the most moving graphic novels of the year. A.D. is a comic book documentary that's part social history and part personal narrative, based on true accounts of a handful of people who suffered through hurricane Katrina. We're privy to the range of motivations and circumstances that led to why some folks evacuated early, others tried to leave but couldn't, and some weathered the whole storm in their homes. Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophic disaster that affected so many people in so many ways, and Neufeld shows us a diversity of loss. One story follows a young couple who evacuate their apartment and expect to return in a few days. They watch the news in horror to see that their entire block is under water, and everything they own is destroyed. The man was a comic book collector, whose entire collection is gone. While this loss could seem insignificant, Neufeld expertly portrays what it feels like for someone to lose their whole history, their whole sense of who they are. Most of us have seen photos of the Katrina aftermath, so you can imagine that this book is filled with astounding and heart-breaking images, from the squalor of the Superdome to thousands of destroyed homes. The A.D. website has supplementary material, including video and audio interviews with the people featured in the book. So Neufeld's book serves as an excellent teaching tool, as well as an amazing story. -TJ

Achewood Volume 2: Worst Song, Played on Ugliest Guitar by Chris Onstad (Dark Horse) Achewood is pretty much my favourite webcomic. It's full of Slavic robots and anthropomorphic cats and less anthropomorphic squirrels and set in a secret underground world of human-like animals, but really it could be about any collection of people that you know - everyone is individually interesting and messed-up and mired in the everyday, even as strange and fantastic things happen around them, and everyone's story is heavily intertwined with everyone else's.

I am very much in favour of collections of wonderful Internet phenomena in the first place (just in case, for example, Google explodes), plus, you know, money for Onstad. this collection really goes above and beyond, featuring not only all of the original comics and alt-text jokes but commentary on virtually every strip, bonus text pieces that set up the premise for the comic (basically, that a lot of anthropomorphic animals live in the author's house, for a variety of reasons) and incredibly stylish Art Deco stripes on the cover.

Volume 2 starts at the very beginning of the strip (Volume 1 was an experimental printing of the "Great Outdoor Fight" storyline) and though the strip only starts to take on its current form after the introduction of dirty-talking trio Ray, Pat and Roast Beef, having the early, more unfocused strips in there just plain makes me happy. If you have a Luddite who you love, give them this book so that they aren't missing out on one of the things that makes the Internet great. - JM

Tales Designed to Thrizzle: Volume 1 by Michael Kupperman

Thank God Fantagraphics decided to collect  Kupperman's hilarious comic into a hardcover book because I had a hell of a time trying to explain the damn thing to people who missed the issues. It's just something that you have to sit down and read, and when you do you'll laugh your ass off. I also love that the book presents the comics in full colour, though the two-tone printing in the original issues was also great. Having this book out there has made gift giving easy. I also highly recommend following Kupperman on Twitter. - RG

Grandville by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse) - I came this close to not even picking this book up, but then I saw that the subtitle was "A Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard Scientific-Romance Thriller" and my path became clear. What reasonable man could resist thaat combination of words, I ask you? And once I got it home, every part of that sentence paid off.

Here's the skinny: Grandville is set on an alternate Earth where a) Napoleon managed to conquer all of Europe, and possibly much of the rest of the world and b) everyone is anthropomorphic animals. The sub-titular DI LeBrock follows the trail of a murderer from recently-independent and fairly insignificant Socialist Republic of Britain to the French capital, finding romance, action and ultra-violence along the way to solving his case.

Why is this comic great? Well, for a start it's beautiful. Talbot's art is incredibly detailed without ever being cluttered or difficult to interpret. Grandville/Paris basically looks magnificent from all angles, cityscape to opium den. The fight scenes, of which there are many, are glorious and easily-interpreted - no scratching your head for five minutes trying to figure out exactly who has just punched who, even when seven or eight characters are all scrapping at once.

Secondly, this is a proper mystery story. LeBrock and his assistant Roderick track down clues, question witnesses, and solve a case. With the requisite number of shoot-outs, hard-bitten dames and chase scenes, of course. I read it all in one go, and then my girlfriend read it, and then i read it again. It's fantastic, and that's aside from the fact that it's also filled with references to European comics like Rupert and Tintin and the like, which I devoured when I was a kid. I really can't talk this one up enough. - JM

Rex Libris: Book of Monsters by James Turner - (Note: this one will be briefer than I'd intended, as I am incredibly disorganized and left my copy at home) The second volume collecting the adventures of Rex Libris, member of the Ordo Bibliotecha, and defender of reality, as he, well, fights monsters, first inside the pages of an index of creatures that has gone mysteriously awry and later in a heated battle to prevent Cthulhu from rising and devouring all of out brains.

Turner's vector graphics-rendered hero always looks fantastic, of course, whether fighting Nazi zombies or fighting regular Nazis or just walking through his oft-troubled library. This is a wonderful-looking book, and in a way that you'll find nowhere else. Also: lots of terrific monsters.

Oh, and there's a segment at the back that details some of the multitude of alien creatures that inhabit our solar system in the Rex Libris universe, and it's astonishingly entertaining. If James Turner's next book was just this sort of thing for two or three hundred pages then he would have at least one guaranteed sale, because I eat that sort of thing up, giant space molluscs and all. - JM

Honourable Mentions

Scott Pilgrim vol. 5: Scott Pilgrim vs the Universe by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press) A darker and moodier installment of an always great series. I was stoked to see the updated fashion sported by the SP kids. If you've never read this stuff, get on it now, because this time next year, even your mom will know who Scott Pilgrim is. -TJ

Beast by Marian Churchland (Image Comics) I talked up this re-imaging Beauty and the Beast when it came out and I feel it's worth another mention. Lovely art, and story-telling that leaves space, rather than laying it all out for you. Keep this stuff coming, Image! -TJ

Essex County Trilogy by Jeff Lemire (Top Shelf) I really can't say enough how much I love this comic. It's one of my favourite things I have ever read. And now it is collected into one beautiful book, available in either hardcover or paperback. - RG

Solomon Kane by Various (Dark Horse) I'll be talking about the series Castle of the Devil in the next post, but I'd just like to mention the two trades that Dark Horse put out this year collecting Solomon Kane's Marvel solo series and his appearances in the black and white Conan magazines back in the day. Also, the Castle of the Devil trade looks magnificent. - JM

Far Arden by Kevin Cannon Colleccts the series of 24-hour comics that chronicle the search for a mythical land among the piracy, betrayal and bears of the Canadian Arctic. Great fun, with some of the best sound-effects in human history. - JM