It’s been another great year for comics, and if there’s been a dominant theme of the year, it would be change. Most notably, we had the big change of DC relaunching its universe in September. In terms of my comic reading, there are some changes as well. Marvel has been all but entirely cut from my pull list, while the aforementioned relaunch has seen me now juggling more DC titles monthly than ever. A lot of titles that featured in my top ten last year, such as American Vampire, Sweet Tooth, Chew, Morning Glories and even The Walking Dead, failed to make the cut this year, though with the exception of Morning Glories, I still read and enjoy all of them. Other honourable mentions include high-octane Western The Sixth Gun, stylish fantasy romp Demon Knights, and The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, which might very well have made the top ten if more issues had been released this year. And that’s not to mention the comics of this year that I’m still meaning on getting round to: I finally read Daytipper this April, and if I’d read it in 2010 it would have had a good chance at topping the list. But enough about what’s not on the list, scroll down and take a look at what did make the cut!
10. AXE COP: BAD GUY EARTH
In terms of boundless creativity, there was no comic this year to match Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider it was written by a 6 year old. Many comics have tried to match that sense of spontaneous, zany joy so effortlessly created by Malachai Nicolle and his artist brother Ethan, but none quite managed to pull it off. Axe-wielding, psychotic cops, flying, fire-breathing dinosaurs, using the power of prayer to make everyone in the world simultaneously poop their pants, the ideas and high concepts are fired out at a dizzying rate. It’s also absolutely hilarious, with a new laugh-out-loud moment on almost every page. This might not pack the depth and nuance of the other entries on this list, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any other comic that has as much pure fun.
9. SECRET SIX
Overall, DC’s New 52 initiative this year has most definitely been a huge success. Sales are through the roof, and I’m buying more quality DC comics each month than I have in a long time. But there have been bad points about it too, and there is perhaps no greater casualty of this relaunch than the loss of Secret Six: not just in terms of the title being cancelled, but in terms of the events contained within it apparently being erased from continuity to make room for the unfortunate Suicide Squad relaunch. I had said repeatedly that Gail Simone’s offbeat supervillain team book was perhaps the most consistently great title on DC’s publishing schedule. But while the plots were solid, more than anything it was the characterisation of this oddball roster of psychos and outcasts that made this series soar, with them becoming less like a team than a family. In this final year of this 36-issue run (not including the two mini-series’ that came before), the knowledge of the impending end gave Secret Six added poignancy, and the emotional weight of saying goodbye to old friends. And it is goodbye. I’m sure these characters will all show up elsewhere in the DCU (many already have), but they won’t be like they were here.
8. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY
How embarrassing for Marvel that, with all the hype that went into The Mighty Thor – the relaunched series from the powerhouse pairing of Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel that began just in time to tie in with this year’s Thor movie – it ended up getting totally upstaged in the quality department by Journey into Mystery. Sure, Journey into Mystery might not have the sales to match, but discerning readers quickly figured out where to get their best monthly dose of Asgard. Indeed, this series from writer Kieron Gillen and a variety of artists (most prolifically Doug Braithwaite) could very well be the best comic in the Marvel Universe. The surprising thing about this series as it has developed is that it’s truly an ensemble piece, with characters quietly building up complex, interconnected histories. But the star of the show is undoubtedly Loki, here reborn as a child. He still has the witty, manipulative nature of his older self, but has not yet been corrupted by a lifetime of disdain, so to a degree his innocence is intact. It’s a compelling look at nature VS nurture, and makes Loki one of the most intriguing protagonists in comics right now. Journey into Mystery spent much of 2011 making lemons out of lemonade with a Fear Itself tie-in that was better than the actual event. In 2012, Kieron Gillen gets to tell his own story, and I’m fascinated to see where that story goes.
It was a good year for horror, with Severed being the first of several entries in the genre to make it into my top ten. This Depression-era period piece by co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft and artist Atilla Futaki stands distinct from much of the rest of the horror output of the comics world by actually being scary. While too many creators mistake making a reader recoil from the page in disgust and say, “Eeeew,” for frightening them, Snyder and Tuft know how to turn the screws and leave us as readers with a knotted feeling of dread in our stomach, waiting for something terrible to happen. The whole bear-trap sequence in issue #3 in particular was a masterclass in simmering dread. The pace is slow, and over 5 issues Severed has taken its time on having the paths of our youthful hero Jack and the monstrous, cannibalistic child-killer known only as The Salesman cross and intertwine. But this has worked wonders, as the meandering plot has allowed us time to grow truly attached to the characters, making the horrific things that happen to them genuinely upsetting. There are 2 issues left, and though I know it’s unlikely to end well for poor Jack, I can’t look away.
While we’re on the subject of horror, this miniseries by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal operated with a deep understanding of what makes the genre work so well. Like some of the best horror movies – The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby spring to mind – Echoes retains for as long as possible a sense of ambiguity over whether our protagonist is plagued by external horrors or simply their own hysteria. I won’t spoil whether it turns out to be the former or the latter, as you really need to read it for yourself, but I will say that the nightmare loving husband and diagnosed schizophrenic Brian Cohn finds himself in is utterly compelling, not least because Cohn himself is so well developed by Fialkov that we grow to care about him and, in spite of the genre, invest in his well-being. But a big part of Echoes’ success is the artwork of Ekedal, perfectly measured to maximise tension and make the horror feel tangible and real. I can see this being a very successful, very scary movie in the future, but this is more than just source material ripe for the picking: Echoes is a quintessential horror comic, as its creators skilfully use the tools of the medium to draw its frights.
5. CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT
Before I read this latest volume of the acclaimed crime series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the only exposure I’d had to Criminal was through the first volume, Coward. I read that, and thought it was a good heist story, cleverly plotted and slickly drawn, but never felt desperate to try other volumes. Perhaps because I read it around the same time I picked up the first volume of Scalped, which got a lot more of my attention. But I don’t know what it was – perhaps my interest in the upcoming Fatale by Brubaker/Phillips, or perhaps the eye-catching cover of the graphic novel that drew me in when I was browsing for a graphic novel to try – but I decided to give The Last of the Innocent a go, picking it up as a last-minute Christmas present to myself. I’m glad I did. The Last of the Innocent is much better than Coward (which was good in its own right), not just in terms of the depth of the storytelling, but in the ambition of the visuals. The two combine to give us a powerful tale of the cruelty of nostalgia, and the hell a man can create for himself while in search of something better. At last, I’ve bought into the Criminal hype.
4. ANIMAL MAN
When reading about the various titles in DC’s New 52 relaunch, I expected Animal Man to be good. I liked the work Grant Morrison did with the character, and reading books like Sweet Tooth and Essex County had already ensured that seeing the name Jeff Lemire on anything was like a watermark of quality. But still, I was taken aback by just how good Animal Man was, standing out as one of the very best titles of the relaunch. Perhaps it’s because, while Jeff Lemire’s storytelling is just as great as I’ve come to expect, with the family dynamic of everyman hero Buddy Baker and his wife and children acting as the heart of the book, the art of Travel Foreman took me completely by surprise. It’s not been to everyone’s tastes, but I love it, his ethereal style adding an undertone of weirdness to even the more conventional scenes, but truly coming to life with the sequences of Lovecraftian monster horror. When combined, the end result is one of the most distinctive titles of the Big Two. I may have been taken by surprise after the first issue, but now Animal Man is a title I thoroughly expect to blow me away each month. It hasn’t let me down yet.
3. SWAMP THING
The other crown jewel of DC’s New 52, this one from the powerhouse pairing of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette. While Animal Man was an unexpected pleasure, I had high hopes for Swamp Thing from the moment it was announced. I hold the classic Alan Moore run in very high regard, ranking it as one of my all-time favourite comics. So it is no small praise to say that Snyder not only lives up to the legacy of that landmark run, but expands on and enriches the mythology it established, finding new wrinkles and dark avenues that fit in so organically to the tapestry that it’s almost as if Alan Moore put them there. But it’s not just Moore Snyder pays homage to, revisiting in new ways some of the original themes explored by Len Wein in the first ever Swamp Thing stories, restoring Alec Holland to the mix and examining who he is and what drives him when you take the big green plant monster out of the mix. Paquette, meanwhile, continues the grand tradition of visual innovation explored by artists such as Bernie Wrightson and Stephen Bissette, giving us rich montages that, in spite of the gruesome subject matter they are often depicting, must still be referred to as “beautiful.” Along with Animal Man, Swamp Thing is crafting an immersive mythology that stands as one of the most interesting corners of the whole DCU.
2. DETECTIVE COMICS
2011 was a vintage year for Batman comics. Though delays hurt its momentum slightly, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated has continued to impress, with a couple of great one-shot issues proving particularly memorable. Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman & Robin has been one of my surprise highlights of the relaunch. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, meanwhile, could very well be my favourite of all the New 52, and if it keeps on going the way it is, I’d say it’s already a strong contender to rank highly in 2012’s year-end list. But if I had to just pick one Batman comic to place in the list for 2011, it would have to be Snyder’s previous work on Detective Comics. Bruce Wayne was completely absent, with Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon instead taking centre stage in a dark, twisted powerfully drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla. The idea that Gotham City itself is a kind of antagonist for our heroes is not a new one, but the execution of the idea was as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it. The Black Mirror, the graphic novel collecting this 11-issue run, is already poised to enter the canon of all-time great Batman stories.
Yes, I know, I’m very dull and predictable. It topped the list in 2010, and Scalped breezes to the top spot once again in 2011. But the crime saga from Jason Aaron and (among others) R.M. Guera has earned its placing by being the most consistently excellent comic on the shelves, month after month. The year got off to a powerful start with You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, a character-driven 5-part tale exploring how various members of our cast would respond when faced with life-altering decisions. Some of those choices were surprising, others were crushingly inevitable, but all made for fascinating reading. Then, Scalped got to celebrate a landmark 50th issue in memorable fashion, taking a break from the ongoing narrative to give us a standalone tale that nevertheless managed to concisely encapsulate the themes of the entire series. And now we’re in the midst of Knuckle Up, where the agonising tension and the deaths of long-standing characters puts me in mind of The Gnawing, the gut-wrenching arc that helped seal Scalped’s spot at the top last year. But perhaps the drama has even more potency this time round, tempered with the knowledge that the end is nigh, that after issue #60 the story of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation and its residents will be over. Savour it while you can, comic fans: one of the all-time great overlooked classics of the comic medium is reaching is coming to a close. We’ll see if its final chapter can top next year’s list and make it a hat trick.