Note: this is not, nor should it be construed as, a "top 10" or "best of the year" list. Quality, while obviously important, isn't my only criterion for enjoying comics. It's about a feeling too. So this list is ten comics that hit me hardest this year, that took me furthest into the unnameable thing I get from the medium. I also think they are all terrific reads, and if I were to do a top 20 or 25 they would all certainly make it on the list. But there were books this year that are better than some of the ones listed here (X'ed Out, The Outfit, THB #2, Mome), there are ones I didn't get to yet (The Wrong Place, It Was The War Of The Trenches), and there are ones that I decided not to list because they were all or mostly reprinted material (Wally Gropius, The Unclothed Man, Captain Easy, that Rand Holmes biography, Absolute All Star Superman). You should check all those out too.
So what we've got here is a list of ten (or 38) comics I really loved that came out in 2010. They're not ordered because that kind of value judgment doesn't really appeal to me, but also because I couldn't come up with a good 10-to-1 progression. My favorite comic of the year was The Whale. I thought the best comic of the year was Lint. I'd feel dishonest putting a "number 1" tag by either, and making the other one number 2. I guess this is my top 10 number 1 comics of the year, then. I really hope you will read them all, and after that maybe you can figure it out for yourself.
In alphabetical order:
- Afrodisiac, by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg. AdHouse.
In a lot of ways this January release was the perfect comic to kick off 2010 with. Part indie-cool hero comics farce, part passionate homage to the sleaziest and most bizarre aspects of '70s Marvel action books, it works away beautifully at very specific influences while never forgetting that it's got all of comics, not just one set of tropes or genre, to work in. Rugg's cartooning has never looked better or been more formally audacious, and he and Maruca nail the goodole action comics story over and over again over the course of a hundred beautifully designed pages. And while the boundary-pushing in both form and content is thrilling indeed, the real meat of this book is just how convincingly its creators pull a unique, fully-formed aesthetic from the scraps and leavings of yesteryear's tossed-off hackwork. All good comics stories could only be told in the comics medium, but Afrodisiac could only be told in the exact version of the comics medium we have, the one where reading some Paul Gulacy comics after a Clowes book can really blow your mind. Rock solid and brave as hell from start to finish, Afrodisiac is a minor miracle; superhero comics that put an awareness of the medium's sprawling entirety to work on the page.
- Batman Odyssey #1-5, by Neal Adams. DC.
In the year that Grant Morrison's decline made superhero comics less worth following than they were at any point in the previous decade, who could've guessed that Neal Adams of all people would deliver the craziest, most unrestrained and challenging hero book on the stands? Not me, but somehow that's still the way it happened. Batman Odyssey is all the criticism leveled at superhero comics over the past 45 years rolled into one sublime steamroller: juvenile, gory, incomprehensible, illiterate, pointless, rambling, decompressed, supercompressed, sexually repressed, shackled by continuity and self-reference, just plain daffy. But those can all be really fun things to read, and Adams seems to take them not just as part and parcel of the cape-and-cowl story, but as the big draw, the things superhero comics bring to the table. And he's got a point, because Odyssey is as intense and electrifying and addictive as smoking crack cocaine, a journey into the pure distilled essence of what may just be the strangest of all fiction genres. And underneath it all is the question of whether or not Adams, one of the pillars the modern version of said genre built itself off of, even knows what he's doing. Whether it's a serious attempt at laying bare some foul fundamental truth of hero comics or the uncomprehending seizures of a genius gone off the rails, it's more exciting than just about anything else with a monthly release schedule right now.
- Brendan McCarthy comics (Spider-Man Fever #1-3, plus shorts in Captain America: Who Won't Wield The Shield, House of Mystery #27, Age of Heroes #4, and 2000AD #1712-1713). Marvel, DC, 2000AD.
Comics' most quixotic artist? Hard to say, but if you were to look at this year alone, Brendan McCarthy takes the crown without half trying. What had to be the most anticipated return to the medium in years (in the circles I like to hang out in, anyway) started with a bang -- Matt Fraction collab! big Marvel miniseries! -- before withering into random anthology shorts you couldn't find without the internet to help you. Then there were the rejected pitches and comics drawn but never published, the big year-end art sale, the retreat to a non-US distro British publication, and the lurking feeling that McCarthy had failed in his big bid for mainstream commercial-comics success. It's too bad though, because the comics he's making are about as close to outright Kramers Ergot art-on-the-page as superheroes have seen since... god, probably since last time McCarthy made comics. Whether it's the chopped'n'screwed Ditko Dr. Strange remixes, the career-best linework on the Captain America short in Age of Heroes #4, the Frank Miller/Heinz Edelmann hard psychedelia of the Judge Dredd two-parter, or the thrown gauntlets to the digital coloring profession that every passing page seemed to be, McCarthy is obviously still full of ideas about comics, ready to take them places they haven't been before. Hopefully he sticks around to take them there, but if not we got a good hundred-plus pages out of him that will last far beyond the year that gave them to us.
UPDATE: McCarthy himself dropped by the comments section to give us all the real narrative behind his year in the medium, ironing out my overly romantic little fantasy right quick. Thanks Brendan!
- The Bulletproof Coffin #1-3, by Shaky Kane and David Hine. Image.
Also in '90s glo-fi Britcomic artist returns this year: Shaky Kane and the masterpiece all his Deadline strips and random one-shots promised for so long. This six-issue miniseries, which just wrapped up today, is first and foremost an attempt to resurrect the Silver Age. Its heroes destroy villains without remorse or neurosis, its colors lay flat and dazzling over the panels, and its story pulls no punches and saves nothing for next issue. But, as both we and Bulletproof's name-shifting fanboy hero discover, you can't go home again. Comics have changed since the heady days of Kirby, Swan, and Steranko, and from the Frank Miller/Geof Darrow grit in Kane's art to the post-Morrison self-referentialities dripping from Hine's scripts, this book is simply too smart to be what it wants to be.
It's a metaphor for the superhero comics themselves, of course -- no matter how much it may appeal to us we can't be children anymore, so grow the fuck up Geoff Johns & co. -- but it pulls no punches with its readers, either, sneering at us for buying into this corporate-controlled property graveyard that once held true genius. In its final, virtuosic fade back into reality from Kane's technicolored fantasyland, it pulls all that remorse and neurosis and complexity onto the pages before presenting a completely blank slate, a final page of pure white. The superhero comic is over. What do we draw now? Do we draw anything? Or do we file this one in the longboxes with the rest and go do some living? The choice is ours, and the heroes that taught us wrong from right are no longer anywhere to be found. This is kids' comics doing very grown-up things, and looking incredible in the bargain.
- Deadpool Max #1-3, by Kyle Baker and David Lapham. Marvel.
Then again, when something dies, especially something as ridiculous and self-important and incredible as superhero comics, it's always essential to have somebody dance on the bones. Enter the greatest cartoonist of all time, the medium's best writer of mentally-ill characters, and the last superhero who'll ever make any impact on the public consciousness. Deadpool Max is a conundrum, half vicious satire of everything ugly and stupid and cruel that hero comics get away with, half unprecedented amplification of those selfsame problematic elements. It's very funny comics, but it doesn't take much laughing before you start hurting when all the jokes are about rape or racism or disability or serious injuries. Lapham works with a skewer like nobody else, but he gives himself the worst of it, and it's such a strange thing to witness that at a certain point the wisest thing to do is give up and just look at the pictures.
Luckily, this is the best and most innovatively drawn comic of the year. Kyle Baker, after decades as the medium's most talented working journeyman, has found a home on the high-paying, creatively free gig that was always the place he'd make his masterpiece. And he's wasting no panels doing so -- the color on this book is a primer in how to make raw digital graphics work in the medium, something that's going to be informing the best-looking mainstream comics for at least the next decade, but just as impressive is the vast array of cartooning styles Baker spreads across his panels, moving from Looney Tunes to art-comix to Euro refinement to pure Kirbyist hero charge in single sequences, using more pure comics grammar in half-pages than most artists to over the course of entire books. Paradoxically, the first post-superhero superhero comic finds its power in what made the genre worthwhile from the beginning: great writing, great art, and a ravenous hunger for the new.
- Lint, by Chris Ware. D&Q.
Chris Ware is about the closest thing to a guarantee you can get in comics; he's simply the most talented artist working in the medium today. But even guarantees can carry a few surprises, and watching Ware up his game to all-time-seminal-text proportions in 2010's installment of the ACME Novelty Library series was honestly one of the biggest shocks of the year. In Lint Ware goes far beyond everything he's done previously, sloughing off the tropes and mannerisms that have defined him for so long for the wide-open feeling of work by a cartoonist with no limits. A large part of it comes from Lint's embrace of influence; Ware's had one of the most immediately recognizable visual styles in comics for over a decade at this point, but here he mixes things up, lending his formal mastery to pastiches of Roy Lichtenstein and Richard McGuire, quoting Jack Kirby and Frank Quitely like he's owned them for years, and taking a foray into art-comix that encompasses the styles of what seems like a good half of the idiom's leading lights. Lint is bravura comics, unafraid to try whatever it wants with the page, powered by a wealth of sheer talent that nobody else working in comics can even come close to.
But it's Ware's storytelling that's really evolved. In Lint there is no self-reflexive dwelling on individual feelings or neuroses, no glowering attention paid to mere facets of life. Between its embroidered covers this book tells more than just about any comic you care to name, the entirety of one modern American life that's oh so typical in its individuality. The pages skip from year to year, the panels from emotion to emotion, and by the unparalleled graphic representation of death and what comes after it that closes the book, it seems that nothing has been left out. Of course, 72 pages are too short for that to be true, and Ware's a lot smarter than that too. The real grit and power of Lint's story is what's missing, what ugliness the beautiful panels don't show. All we know is that it's there, and but for the explosive art-comix sequence we're left to guess at it. This is as close as the comics medium has come yet to creating a real person, and as in real life we can only guess at what lies beneath. All we have is the pages, but they're enough for at least another year of study.
- Michael DeForge comics (Lose #2, Spotting Deer, Peter's Muscle, SM, Maxim's Top 100, plus shorts in Smoke Signal, Monster, Wowee Zonk, Strange Tales, StudyGroup 12, Vice Comics, probably some I'm forgetting). Koyama Press/self-published/Desert Island/Marvel/et cetera.
Dude had an epic year, in case you're not getting that from the small manuscript of text up there. In fact, Michael DeForge, trampolining from last year's killer debut issue of Lose, just about took over comics in 2010, making better minis than anyone else, putting out two beautiful feature issues with Koyama, hitting anthology after anthology with standout shorts, and finishing out the year with A Goddamn Marvel Story. It was such a thick blizzard of incredible comics that the concerted fan had little choice but to try and keep up, letting page after vigorously cartooned page seep in through the eyes and blow the mind. Following DeForge as he ripped this year's string of gems was about as close to an endurance-level sport as comics reading gets.
But amidst the massive quantity of top-notch work and the pyrotechnic feeling of even more potential waiting for its time to come, there was a very definite aesthetic being laid down, evolving and revealing further facets of itself with every new page and weirdo snap ending. DeForge trades in comics as iconography, his glossy, superslick lines equally suited to recreating Steve Ditko and Bill Amend characters, his panels giving what feel like definitive visualizations of the everyday acts comics are shy about showing. His people sweat and salivate, his environments decay and grow fungus -- everything is in thrall to a process, a gelatinous creep forward, and the unease it engenders. DeForge's cartoons are smooth and soft, but there's never much of the cute or cuddly to them. And when there is, you know the maggots will be swarming over them soon enough. It's not immediately obvious what larger concerns DeForge is getting at yet, but watching his focus narrow to a laser-beam intensity is reason enough for a hundred times the pages he made this year. It isn't often that the new kid on the block does work this immediately arresting while promising so much to come, but DeForge is obviously a cut above just about anyone else making comics right now.
- Powr Mastrs 3, by CF. Picturebox.
This year has to have been the biggest moment for mainstream/alternative comics unions since... god, since the golden years of Heavy Metal. Creators like DeForge and Kane/Hine and Rugg/Maruca made work that embraced the delights of both strains of comics with equal conviction. The new, best-yet volume of Powr Mastrs belongs to that moment as well, but where other cartoonists arrived in between comics traditions by taking up influences from both, CF followed his own star. Powr Mastrs has all the personal expression and bizarre idiosyncracies of the hardest alt comics, not to mention a dose of pure searing art-comix vision. But as winding and psychological as it gets, there's an equal weight of kinetic hyper-action, high-concept fantasy dazzle, and broad readability to the book.
Pages of total abstraction give way to a white-knuckle chase sequence, adventure shorts become exercises in contextless high-impact picture making, and page by page the barriers between all the comics conventions we hold onto break down. This is comics for the future, everything that's exciting and unique about the medium presented all at once, with a hint that the mind behind it knows exactly what's comes next but wants to let us savor the suspense for a while. It helps that CF's grown as much as an artist as he has as a conceptualizer, his storytelling flawless, his individual panels sublime on their own. As sheer visual spectacle, carrying hints of Kirby and Panter and Moebius while always remaining its own, this book is tough to beat. And as a story, as a hermetic philosophical text, as a deeply felt poem in images, as ideas, there's nothing else like it in the medium.
- Smoke Signal #3-7, by various artists. Desert Island.
The best anthology of 2010 wasn't just the one that had the highest-quality work in it. It was about the feeling pulsing across its massive newspaper-format pages, about the totality of what was being presented, about the way it put forth not one style or concept or genre of comics but the medium unbound, work of various appearances and various quality by various creators. You couldn't ask for a better survey of non-mainstream comics than this year's issues of Smoke Signal, where breakout minicomics stars rubbed shoulders with out-of-nowhere European visionaries and established indie legends. Every page was a new thing, completely its own, and a ridiculously high percentage of them were not only impressive but sensational. This comic is also just plain fun to follow -- its editorial voice became stronger and surer with every issue this year, each one a huge step forward from the last. Not to mention, it's an invaluable place to find new work from established creators who aren't around as often as we'd like them to be. Where could you see non-Wally Gropius pages by Tim Hensley this year? Where did Dash Shaw do his most advanced comics? Where did Taylor McKimens drop a few eye-destroying broadsheets? Where did Chester Brown draw the Fantastic Four? It all happened here, in a little newspaper published out of a little shop in Brooklyn, on pages whose sense of fun and freedom overpowered metric tons of other more self-important work done this year.
- The Whale, by Aidan Koch. Gaze Books.
No comic ran deeper this year than The Whale. On pages drowned in wave after wave of graphite dust, Aidan Koch suggested more than told a devastating story of death and life's seemingly impossible existence in the face of it. Koch's comic is almost unearthly in its beauty -- a few spare strokes and hazes of erasure laying out entire fog-drenched landscapes, sheets of scratched static crackling over one another, everything always pulsing with energy, a slow beat running through disconnected panels that overwhelm time after time, page turn after page turn. Koch's art is total immersion, both in the substances it's made of and the immensity of space and texture in its panels. Everything in this comic is there to be touched with the eyes, drowned in, felt.
And what a feeling it is. Koch brings us not just to the wintry beach her story takes place on, but deep inside the nameless woman through whom we see it happen, never pulling any punches with the unrelenting mix of loss and struggle that surrounds her. The Whale plays with heavy themes that can go wrong in a second -- along with mere death there's suicide, the afterlife, existential doubt, and a very strong undercurrent of spiritual possession -- but the handling of them is so deft, so honest, that it all seems right, like it couldn't have happened any other way. This comic is a trip inside something, a handful of pages to be experienced far more than read, and though part of it is a journey into the raw potential of the comics medium, there's something more, an unnamed feeling that clings to every page. Koch uses words and pictures not to show but to evoke, and her comic is a haunting, vividly affecting piece of pure poetry that lingers far after the final page.
See you next year!