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Best Comics of 2011: The Weird, the Wacky and the Wonderful
Published on December 12, 2011 by guest author: Eric J. Perkins

I read a lot of comics. Not so many that I have a pile waiting for me at the comic book store every week, but probably more than the average adult. Enough that on my old blog, I presented a 5 part comics primer for the completely uninitiated. For my take on how I define comics and how they can be subdived, please take a look at the first part of that primer, which you can find here.

In general, I think comics are one of our most underrated forms of art. Here I present some of my favorites of this past year.

Best Continuing Series
Chew, written by John Layman, drawn by Rob Guillory
Tony Chu is a detective turned FDA agent. An FDA agent in an alternative future in which bird flu has killed 23 million Americans and the buying, selling, preparation of, or consumption of chicken is completely illegal. So the FDA is actually now one of the most powerful branches of the government. Also, Tony is a Cibopath, which means he can telepathically see the history of anything he eats ... except beets. Agent Chu eats a lot of beets, because really, not many people really want to know where their food comes from. Unfortunately for Tony, he can see the history of anything he eats, including human murder victims. That's why the FDA hired him, and that's why he kind of hates his life.

If this storyline sounds weird, it is. But weird in an amazing way. Chew is one of the most creative serial comics I've read in years. It's disgusting, exciting, and incredibly funny. Layman's dialogue is razor sharp, and every new character offers up a pleasant surprise. There is the bitter chef brother, the food writer who steals Tony's heart (she can write about food so well that you can actually taste it--a cibopath's dream), and Poyo, the killer rooster. Guillory's art falls into a rare cross-section of cartoony-but-beautiful. Nearly every panel has little hidden details. As the characters walk around FDA headquarters, you want to read every bulletin on the wall for a hidden joke or pop culture reference. 

I'm already dreading when this series comes to an end, even though that's probably a few years off. As with any good comic writer, Layman knows you can't stretch a series on forever and he's already planned out the story arcs up to the conclusion of the series. I'll enjoy it while it lasts, and if you've got a slightly quirky sense of humor, I think you'll enjoy it, too.

Other recommended ongoing series: Locke & Key, Morning Glories

Best Web-Comic-Turned-Coffee-Table Book
Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
(Note that some of the following is plagiarized from my own Goodreads review.) In case anyone missed it, the best weekly or daily comics are not in the newspaper anymore, but finding the best web comics is tricky because there's about a bazillion of them. That's why I generally wait for a publisher to offer one of them money to make a book. That's generally a good indication that the comic is worth reading. And Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant is very worth reading.

I find that most comics that try to appeal the literary crowd often turn out being pretentious and--even worse--not very funny. Beaton pulls off a neat trick by making an entire book of comics about literature and history that both make me feel smart and make me laugh. I knew when the very first comic was about the Brontë sisters and used the word "dickbags" that this was my kind of book.  She also successfully makes fun of Canadian stereotypes, book covers illustrated by Edward Gorey, and superheroes.

Of course, you can read these comics online for free. Maybe you should. But these comics made me laugh enough that I think she totally deserves my money.

Another highly recommended web-comic-turned-book(s): Wondermark, by David Malki!

Best Graphic Novel
Habibi, by Craig Thompson
Before I get into why this was such an easy choice for me, a few words on how I think about art and or pop culture. I like art (music/books/comics...what have you) that fares well in at least one of three different categories. 1.) Ambition/Innovation. Does this art try to do something that no one else has ever done before, or at least do it bigger and better than anyone else? 2.) Entertainment value. Do I actually enjoy the experience of listening to/reading/watching this art? 3.) Quality. This one's a little harder to define, but basically, was this art done well? Did it clearly take a specialized skill or talent to make it happen?

A lot of art falls into one of these categories. Fewer things score well in two of them. To illustrate how something could fall into two categories at the exclusion of the third, I'll use the example of film auteurs (obviously these are all completely subjective):

I'm explaining all of this because Habibi is the very rare piece of art--and it is most certainly is art--that scores high in all three categories for me. Not only is it my favorite graphic novel of the year, it's one of my favorite anythings of the year.

It's undeniably ambitious. Besides its tome-like length (nearly 700 pages), the number of themes it touches upon would be ambitious for any type of novel, graphic be damned. Love, sex (definitely two distinct things in this book), class warfare, Arabic numerology, environmentalism...all these are covered and more. Thompson's incredibly good Blankets (2003) did one theme very well, and I wasn't sure he'd be able top it. Habibi makes Blankets look like Garfield. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. Blankets is excellent, but the scope of Habibi is just much, much bigger.

One of the first things that drew me to Thompson's work was the detail and care he put into his drawing. It seems like you could look at some of his city-scapes for 15 minutes and still discover some minute detail. That said, the most impressive feature of Habibi is the incorporation of the Arabic alphabet into so much of the art. And he's not just using random pretty letters to make some of his pictures--I was amazed to look into the appendix and discover they all actually mean something. It's art within art within art, and it's hard to fathom how one person pulled this off without spending half of his life on it.

But with all that, is it actually engaging and entertaining? Ultimately, this factor is the most important one for me. Regardless of the innovation and the skill involved, I still have to enjoy it (and some of my favorite art is not particularly ambitious or well-wrought--it's just fun). Our protagonists, Dodola and Zam, are two young escaped slaves who start off in a mother-child like relationship, but are torn apart as the younger Zam gets older and the nature of love begins to change. They are separated against their will and their lives lead in two different but equally tragic directions. I am not really spoiling anything to they eventually find each other again, but the nature of their reunion is far some simple. Make no mistake--this "comic" is not comic. At times, it's relentlessly tragic. But it's also completely engaging and I often had trouble putting it down.

If you buy or read one graphic novel from 2011, make it this one. If you've never read any graphic novel, give Habibi a try. It's a prime example of what this under-appreciated medium can do.

Eric J. Perkins is a molecular biologist and father of two. He lives in the Boston 'burbs, and what little free time he has is spent listening to music, reading, and writing about music and reading.

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