Welcome to our annual look back at our favorite independent comics of the past year. 2012 was the stronest year for independent comics we have seen in quite some time, with numerous notable releases, fantastic starts to new series, and a few goodbyes as well. Join us now as we take a look at our top 5 (as well as a few other awards!)
5: The Secret History of D.B. Cooper by Brian Churilla. The legend of DB Cooper looms large in the Pacific Northwest. A man hijacks an airplane then leaps out somewhere over the Washington wilderness with $250,000 in cash, never to be seen or heard from again. But, for Brian Churilla, that leap into infamy was the least interesting part of DB Cooper. According to Churilla and his “sources”, Cooper was part of a secret government program that allowed him to assassinate people via an inter-dimensional landscape. Full of spot-on dialogue and surreal visual landscapes heavily influenced by Mike Mignola, The Secret History of DB Cooper was exactly what comics should be: brash, experimental, and a whole lot of fun. Why it isn’t higher: It is not higher on our list is because it was canceled too soon. Churilla had a sprawling epic in mind when he created the series, but was forced to end it all too soon. It could have been amazing. Instead we are left with questions of what might have been.
4: Archaia FCBD 2012 . Usually the Free Comic Book Day books are something that are pleasant enough for a weekend, but fade from memory by the time the following weekend rolls around. However, this year Archaia went above and beyond to create a unique reading experience which stuck in our brains all year long. Starting with the package (a handsome hardcover edition) and continuing throughout the book (stories included original Mouse Guard, Rust, Cursed Pirate Girl, and Dapper Men tales), the Archaia FCBD book set a new standard for the annual event. Instead of being brief previews, or inconsequential fluff pieces, the stories in the Archaia book actually worked on their own, independent of the original source material. The stories were engaging, entertaining, and created a real sense of excitement for the upcoming projects. Why it isn’t higher: It was too short!!!!!! I loved all the stories contained therein, but they were just morsels hinting at the full meal to come. Best sample platter ever? Yes. Best full meal? No.
3: Brandon Graham’s King City. This was the year we finally figured out what all the fuss was about. Brandon Graham exploded on the comic scene this year, with high profile work on the relaunched Prophet from Image, the re-started Multiple Warheads from Oni Press, as well as covers for Godzilla Half Century War from IDW, and reprints of his early porn comics from Amerotica. But, what started it all was the release of the collected King City, a sprawling epic of psychedelic imagery, sexy women, and swiss army cats! King City is the kind of book which needs to be read at least three times: once for the story, once just to look at all the hidden pieces in the art, and once to take in the entire package. the book is surprisingly sensitive and full of emotion. It is not necessarily evident from a quick flip through the pages, but becomes readily apparent when reading the relationships between the characters. When reading the book, I found myself taking pictures of various pages and panels, and then sending them to friends with messages like, “OMG look at this!”, and “Holy crap! Do you see what he did here?”. King City will blow your mind and open your eyes to what comics can be. Why it isn’t higher: It is a reprint. Were King City to be an original piece created this year, it would have ranked higher. However, when all things were equal, we gave the nod to pieces which were originally published this year. But don’t let our arbitrary rules hinder your enjoyment of the book!
2: The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire. Imagine a well-crafted and deeply haunting episode of the Twilight Zone. Now take that episode and give it to the man who created the Essex County trilogy, and Sweet Tooth and you have something that will not just be a psychological thriller, but also will be a visual treat. The Underwater Welder has been a passion project for Jeff Lemire for several years. Announced just after the release of the collected Essex County, Lemire got right to work on Underwater Welder. However about that time he also began Sweet Tooth and then became the writer on various DC titles. In short, it looked like Underwater Welder was going to be shuffled to the back burner. However, he forged on and created the pages in his off hours, late at night, and even took a short leave from his high-paying DC gig to finish the book. But why? What is so important about this story? Simple. It is personal. Jeff Lemire is all about familial relationships, particularly those between fathers (or father figures) and sons. However, during the course of writing and illustrating Underwater Welder, Lemire, himself, became a father. Suddenly the book became far more personal and real than any of his other works. All of that emotion and connection comes out in the pages of the book. Lemire starts with tightly crafted, nine-panel pages, then explodes the page structure once the main character is under water. Much like Lemire’s life, the original story takes on new dimensions once the life of the artist becomes tangled in the piece he is creating. This is a must read and should be on everyone’s book shelf! Why it isn’t higher: Underwater Welder was at the top of our list for quite some time this year. However, in the end it was just a book. In order to be the best of the year, it would have to be something even more!
1: Building Stories by Chris Ware. Every so often a story comes along which transcends the medium and redefines what it means to be a “comic book”. Chris Ware’s Building stories does all that and then more! Told over a series of seventeen separate books, pamphlets, and pieces of ephemera, Building Stories tells the tales of three interconnected lives (as well as the lives of a bumblebee and the building itself). All three of the stories are are incomplete on their own, but once they are all pieced together a picture unfolds of a moment in time and space. Told in Ware’s iconic, deconstructed visual style, the meanings and themes of the story unfold differently for each reader depending on the order in which the pieces are read. Like our own lives, Ware gives the reader the illusion of control. We all believe we control our lives, but really so much of who we are and what we do is closely tied to where we live and the people with whom we interact.
When we received our copy of Building Stories, we took it to the local pub and had a look at it there. It was immersive and overwhelming. The wait staff kept coming over to look at the ever-growing pile of colorful pages which spilled from the box. When was the last time you opened a comic and it drew in complete strangers?
Building Stories succeeded where all the other books on our list failed. It did something entirely different. Building Stories took all kinds of risks. It was larger, making it difficult to shelve. It was told in un-numbered pieces, making it impossible to determine a beginning or an end. Nothing about Building Stories was safe. In order for comics to grow, they need to take risks. They need to step outside the carefully constructed bounds of corporate identities and marketing strategies. In short, we need more books that push the boundaries. More books like Building Stories.
Honorable Mentions: MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, Pete and Miriam by Rich Tommaso, Rohan at the Louvre by Hirohiko Araki, and Ichiro by Ryan Inzana.
Favorite Self- Published Comic: Last Train to Oldtown by Kenan Rubenstein. Kenan Rubenstein is one of our favorite comic creators. Normally we sing the praises of his tiny, foldy-comics. but this year he produced the first volume of a full-length story. Last Train begins with what looks to be a typical story of teenage bullying. However, cracks in the facade slowly emerge letting the reader know there is more than meets the eye. Part fantasy, part commentary, Last Train to Old Town is something special.
While it is beautiful to look at on the web (which I encourage you to do), it is even more amazing in person. Kenan hand-makes each book sparing no expense. When you order a copy of Last Train to Old Town, what you receive is a miniature work of art. More passion and soul goes in to a single book from Kenan than the entire output of the Big Two combined.
Comic or Creator Deserving of Wider Recognition: Ross Wellington by Brian Ellis and Mark Van Handel. Why has no publisher picked up this book??? Seriously, there is a hit to be had right here, just waiting for a publisher. Don’t believe us? You can read the book on line for free!
Ross Wellington is a Film-noir detective story with a gumshoe protagonist who just happens to be an alien. Much like Dark Horse’s Resident Alien, the fact that the main character is an alien actually enhances the story instead of becoming a hinderance. Told clearly through great dialogue and gorgeous art, Ross Wellington is the kind of book wat which more publishers should be looking .
Most Pleasant Surprise: Valiant Relaunch. We were excited when Dark Horse tapped Jim Shooter to write the Valiant/Gold Key characters Magnus: Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar. However, once they actually hit the page, we were underwhelmed. So, when it was announced that the entire Valiant univers was to be re-started we were a bit hesitant with our excitement. we had been burned before. However month in and month out Valiant has produced some of the finest comics on the stands.
Characterization reigns supreme in the Valiant universe, with each title and each character having their own distinct feel. Even titles which previously held no interest (looking at you, Harbinger) are now must-reads. Hopefully Valiant will continue its course of careful expansion, quality over quantity, and begin to show the Big Boys how it is done!
That’s it for us in 2012. Now it is your turn! Tell us about your favorite books of the past year. What were your big surprises? What do you think is a book or creator deserving of wider recognition? Know of any good self-published book? Sound off in the comments!