The Annual Round-Up for 2011 With The Walking Dead, Scalped, Sweet Tooth & More 2011 Hits!

2011 was a big year for comics, for reasons other than just DC’s New 52.  Here’s what I thought of the year that was.

Best Comics of the Year:

I was going to back through all of my Weekly Round-Up columns for the year and calculate a Top Ten list based on which books I’ve named ‘best of’ each week.  The problem is, that out of the 52 weeks of the year, I honoured 28 different titles that way.  Also, with mini-series and monthly comics, often the series is more than the sum of its parts, as the cumulative effect of the story, or some distance from reading individual issues, changes the reader’s opinion over time.  So, in inexact order, here’s what I thought was the best of the year.

Scalped got named ‘best of the week’ nine times this year, and I think they only published ten issues in 2011.  Scalped is hands-down the book I most look forward to each month.  Jason Aaron and RM Guera’s sweeping story of life on the Prairie Rose Reservation is incredible.  The series is building towards its conclusion now, and big things are happening in each issue.  I’m surprised by how much I’ve come to care about some of the characters in this comic, and I can’t wait to see how everything is going to work out for them.  This is one of the best crime comics ever written, and I think that anyone who has enjoyed Aaron’s Wolverine, X-Men, or Punisher should buy one of the Scalped trades – you’ll be amazed by how much better it is.

A close second for my favourite comic is The Walking Dead, which had an amazing year.  Rick Grimes and his people settled into their new community, although that was not without its problems, and one major cast member took a bullet in a scene that just about had me drop the comic in shock (and I’m not that kind of a reader).  This book is consistently great month after month, as both Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard pour their hearts into it.  As well, the TV show’s second season was awesome.

Brian Wood has had a bit of a difficult year, in that he’s had one series cancelled, and he seems to have been cut loose at DC/Vertigo (which is Dark Horse’s gain – he’s doing The Massive and Conan for them now).  None of that has affected the quality of his work though, as both DMZ and Northlanders have been excellent.  DMZ finished very well, and Northlanders, which is going to be cancelled at issue 50, has been very good, with it’s long-form Icelandic Trilogy, and some good done-in-one issues.  The quality of the art on that book has been great this year.

Some other Vertigo titles have maintained a high level of quality this year as well, as a couple of the writers there became the darlings of the New 52 relaunch.  American Vampire (written by Scott Snyder of Batman and Swamp Thing fame) has been very good, both in its parent title and its spin-off mini-series Survival of the FittestSweet Tooth, written by Jeff Lemire, who has gotten great acclaim for Animal Man, has also been excellent, although Lemire has not drawn every issue this year.  Luckily, the art on those issues has still been terrific, as they’ve been drawn by Matt Kindt.

As well, The Unwritten has really stepped up, experimenting with a twice-monthly publishing schedule, and explaining a number of the secrets that have filled the book since its inception.

In terms of independent monthlies, The Sixth Gun has been one of the most consistent comics on the shelves.  Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt have done some fantastic work on this genre-bending mash-up of Westerns and magic.

This has also been a wonderful year for mini-series at Image.  Jonathan Hickman’s The Red Wing was a little confusing, but ultimately a very impressive time travel space opera, with art by Nick Pitarra.  These two are teaming up again for The Manhattan Projects, which is an on-going starting in March.  I can’t wait.  The Infinite Vacation, by Nick Spencer and Christian Ward, got off to a great start but has kind of disappeared.  I’m hoping it gets finished soon.  I also really enjoyed Nathan Edmondson’s Who Is Jake Ellis?, an espionage story about a man with another man living inside his head.  Tonci Zonjic’s art made it one of the best looking comics of the year.  Echoes, by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal was one of the creepiest comics I read all year.  It was about a schizophrenic man who discovered that his father was a serial killer, and then began to believe that he may be one too.  It was amazing.

Finally, this was a good year for new issues of incredibly random, unpredictable independent comics.  Adrian Tomine gifted us with a new issue of Optic Nerve, and Michael Kupperman treated us to more Tales Designed to Thrizzle.  Ethan Rilly finally continued his excellent Pope Hats as well.  I guess this is a good place to also discuss Sam Humphries and Steven Sanders’s Our Love is Real, a self-published and self-distributed one-off about a future society where people have sex with animals, vegetables, or minerals, but not each other.  I should probably also mention Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer, which was launched to universal praise, and was probably the nicest looking comic to come out all year.  Too bad the second issue hasn’t even been solicited yet, as I really want to read more.

The best superhero comic of the year was Xombi, by John Rozum and Frazer Irving at DC.  It captured the feel of Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol, while being its own unique thing.  There was a ton of originality to this book – powered nuns with pun-based names (Nun the Less has shrinking powers), ancient floating cities, and some very creative villains.  Too bad it only lasted six issues; I wish DC had held off and made it one of their New 52 titles – then it would have gotten the audience it deserved.

The second best superhero comic this year was the last run on Detective Comics, written by Scott Snyder and drawn alternately by Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  This was the best Batman I’d read in years, as James Gordon and his family were given centre stage for some very creepy and effective stories.  Snyder had a real good handle on Dick Grayson as Batman, and the book looked terrific.  I know that Snyder’s current work on New 52 Batman is getting a lot of praise, but this was so much better (the art has a lot to do with that).

Other Notable Comics of 2011:

The other independent and creator-owned comics that I enjoyed the most this year were Spontaneous, the latest Criminal mini-series, the relaunched Dark Horse Presents anthology series, Chew, Blue Estate, Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker, Li’l Depressed Boy, Morning Glories, The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, Xenoholics, Pigs, Skullkickers, Witch Doctor, All Nighter, and Severed (this was the year of Scott Snyder).  Invincible had another terrific year, as Robert Kirkman pushed the characters into new situations and really tested their convictions.

Becky Cloonan’s mini-comic Wolves was one of my favourite things this year, and Rick Veitch’s The Big Lie was thought provoking and fun.

One doesn’t normally expect much from licensed comics, but John Ostrander continued his expectation-shattering work with the Star Wars universe, finishing up Star Wars Legacy wonderfully in the mini-series War, and starting his new Agent of the Empire series.  At Boom!, Farscape ended its run with a huge, year-long storyline that had me anticipating each new issue more than I ever would have expected.

One of the biggest surprises of 2011 was how amazing Darryl Gregory and Carlos Magnos’ Planet of the Apes series is.  It is beautifully-drawn, and contains a ton of political commentary that could be as much about the state of Israel as it is Ape City.  The secondary title, Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes, by Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko is just as good.

At DC, I mourn the passing of Secret Six (the new Suicide Squad book does not fill the gap at all) and Batman Incorporated, but have been very happy to buy monthly issues of books like Batwoman, Swamp Thing, and Animal ManThe Flash has been a pleasant surprise, as has Wonder Woman and The ShadeBatman and Robin also deserves way more recognition than its been getting.

Too much of the year at Marvel was taken up with Fear Itself, but in and among the endless tie-ins, there have been some very good comics.  Vengeance is one of the best books they’ve published in years, and Uncanny X-Force went from being a guilty pleasure to a book I really look forward to reading each month.  As well, Amazing Spider-Man has been great, and the new Daredevil series is gorgeous.

Jonathan Hickman’s titles have also been better than I would have expected.  I haven’t gotten this much enjoyment out of the Fantastic Four since John Byrne was on the book.  Likewise, Warren Ellis’s Secret Avengers has been sublime.

I loved the second issue of Matt Fraction’s Casanova: Avaritia, and can’t wait to see how that series ends.  It makes up for Fraction’s letting me down in just about every other area this year.

The Year in Graphic Novels:

The best graphic novel that I read all year was also the first.  Lint, the 20th installment of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, tells the life story of one man from birth to the grave.  As with all Chris Ware comics, it’s gorgeously drawn, quite thought-provoking, and very literary. Similar to this book is Daniel Clowe’s Wilson, a study in curmudgeon-ism told in a series of one-page strips.

Memoir became a theme to my reading this year, with Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life being one of the more impressive books I worked through (it is one big tome). As well, I found Sara Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, a fascinating window into a country I rarely hear anything positive about. I appreciated her ability to show Israeli reality as diverse and accepting, while still holding the society accountable for the ills it heaps on the occupied territories.

Local cartoonist Zach Worton’s graphic novel about The Klondike scratched my itch for good historical comics, while telling a variety of stories from the same era very well. This book is highly recommended.

This year Dark Horse collected into one volume the European series Vampire Boy, written by the (recently) late Carlos Trillo and drawn by the always-brilliant Eduardo Risso. This book plays around with the vampire genre, giving it roots in Ancient Egypt, and was surprisingly touching.

The best new discovery I made this year in terms of collections and original graphic novels is Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder. Dark Horse published a new story, Voice in its own volume, and I was completely blown away by the depth of her world, and the skill with which she tells stories of the people within it. Shortly after that, Dark Horse began releasing the two-volume Finder Library series (the secondof which I am most of the way through as of this writing). These collect all 38 issues of the original comics series, plus whatever additional material was published along the way. The first volume should be required reading for any fans of fantasy, science fiction, or just character-driven, beautiful comics.

Late to the Party:

No matter how many years you’ve been reading comics, you’re always going to find some title that you’ve never heard of, or that you ignored and were wrong to.

I haven’t put much time into webcomics, because I generally hate reading my comics on the computer, but I have become addicted to Wondermarkthis year, reading two of the Dark Horse collections, and stopping by the site a few times a week to read the newest strips.  David Malki repurposes old illustrations to make his strips, and they are very funny.

A long-running series that I was always aware of but had never read before this last year was Wet Moonby Ross Campbell.  It’s a very adult young-adult series about pansexual goth kids going to college in the Deep South.  I never thought I’d like this series, but I find I devour every installment that I get.  I just hope that Campbell has a new volume in the pipeline.

This was also my year for two other discoveries that I really should have been up on for years.  The first is Tony Moore.  I read his Echo, and loved it, and have now started in on Strangers In Paradise.  The other is Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto.  In this series, he reworks an old Osamu Tezuka Astro Boy story for a more modern audience.  I’m only 3/8s of the way through the series right now, but I can’t wait to finish it.

Best Music of the Year:

1. The Roots – Undun

2. Dessa – Castor, The Twin  (Doomtree!)

3. The Weeknd – House of Balloons (I still like this more than Thursday or Echoes of Silence)

4. Zara McFarlane – Until Tomorrow

5. Doomtree – No Kings

6. Blue Scholars – Cinemetropolis

7. Blue Sky Black Death – Noir

8. Foreign Exchange – Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange

9. Atmosphere – The Family Sign

10. The Knitting Factory re-releases of Fela Kuti’s albums (admittedly,they all came out in 2010, but I bought six or seven of them this year and played the hell out of them).

Best Books of the Year:

It’s not just about comics.  Books without pictures are also important.  These are the best ones I read this year:

John Sayles – A Moment in the Sun

Dave Eggers – Zeitoun

Joseph Boyden – Through Black Spruce

John Brandon – Citrus County

Colson Whitehead – Sag Harbor

Dany Laferriere – Heading South

David Mitchell – Black Swan Green

Roberto Bolano – Amulet

Joseph Boyden – Louis Riel & Gabriel Dumont

Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott – Donald

So what were your top picks for 2011?  Comment, and tell us what you loved this last year.

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