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The 20 Best Comic Books of 2011

December 4, 2011  |  8:45am
The 10 Best New Comics of 2011, Page 2

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5. Celluloid
by Dave McKean
Fantagraphics

Justice Potter Stewart famously proclaimed that he could not define pornography, but knew it when he saw it. Today, Stewart might have a bit of trouble discerning the content of Dave Mckean’s gorgeous picture book, Celluloid. The visionary art director behind The Sandman’s covers creates a coital masterwork that elicits beauty and excitement in equal measure. The call for classy, female-friendly erotica is a burgeoning topic that’s ensared everyone from Alan Moore to indie film god Lars von Trier; suffice to say that its appropriate exploration requires more space than this review allows. The fact of the matter is that McKean is an absurdly talented artist whose eclectic multimedia tastes would render any subject, including 14-breasted grape nymphs, surreal and otherworldly. Celluloid is a treasure of technical finesse and sensual mystique that transcends its potential controversy. (SE)

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4. Big Questions
by Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly

Don’t get me wrong. I love comics. But it’s rare that they rise to the level of real literature, even when they’re very good. Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions, on the other hand, should knock snobs like me on our posteriors. Harold Bloom writes that potentially canonical writing has “a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncracies,” and Nilsen’s brick of a book starts out the first and ends up the second. The reader is both mystified by its story (an unexploded bomb and a plane crash into a rural area, where they are investigated by birds) and, almost against his or her will, captivated by it. Nilsen’s spare but beautiful drawings and that abiding strangeness create a sense of awe that is rarely produced by cultural efforts. Much of the book is not easily explicable, and rather than being frustrating, its willful obscurity instead suggests you need to submit to the artist’s vision, not fight the current. Nilsen is not going to lay out clear answers, as the title implies, but the questions, big as they are, don’t come with any sense of pomposity, and there is much in the way of both humor and tragedy contained within. Not since Bottomless Bellybutton have I read something so rich and strange. (HB)

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3. Anya’s Ghost
Vera Brosgol
First Second

Expectations are bound to be high when Neil Gaiman provides a blurb calling your book a “masterpiece,” but damn if Vera Brosgol doesn’t impress nonetheless. Considering that this is her full-length debut, it’s all the more notable, like a Badlands situation where a fully formed new voice blooms overnight. Anya’s Ghost is aimed at the young adult market, as is much of First Second’s catalogue, but it’s a real, and not a guilty, pleasure. Brosgol mixes an assured line with a muted color palette and a gift for writing round characters. She isn’t afraid to make her protagonist unsympathetic at times, but those rough edges mean greater realism, and although the general conclusion of the narrative (“be yourself”) is a hoary one, the way Brosgol gets there is unpredictable and even a little bit scary. (HB)

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2. Hark! A Vagrant
by Kate Beaton
Drawn & Quarterly

It’s not that Kate Beaton dances on the thin line between stupid and clever. Instead, she plays both sides of the net between them, often simultaneously. Her mostly three-panel strips (and she has an instinctive sense of the rhythm of that form) address classic literature, Canadian history and all manner of cultural highbrow whatnot, but they never make you feel as though you’re being forced to eat brussels sprouts. There is no “I should like this” as you flip pages or polite smirking as with many a New Yorker cartoon. Rather, Beaton zeroes in on the ridiculousness of all her subject matter and deftly gives Bram Stoker, the Bronte sisters, Shakespeare and Simon Bolivar a Wet Willie. Her drawings aren’t neat—the pen strokes scritch and scratch all over the place—but the faces and postures of her characters are fiercely expressive and hilarious. She also has an excellent grasp of what’s funny, using profanity, absurdism, sexism, racism, acknowledgment of sexism and racism, and pop culture to provoke laughs. You will probably laugh hard enough at this book to annoy anyone else in the room. I know I did. (HB)

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1. Habibi
by Craig Thompson
Pantheon

Craig Thompson’s new book has been long in the making, but the resulting 3.3 pounds of intricate happenings and stellar art is totally worth the wait and a huge leap forward for him. Habibi reminds one of nothing so much as the work of novelist John Barth, with its clear love of patterns, narrative and beauty. Like Barth, Thompson structures his work finely and complexly, taking a page from the 1001 Nights in more than one way. There are no throwaway details in Habibi. Its nine chapters mirror the setup of a protective talisman, weaving connections between numbers and letters and reveling in the magic both provide. But it’s not just fun to take apart and put back together. Its deep affection for tale-telling is reflected in the love the two main characters have for one another, and Thompson’s sincerity coexists with his games. He impressively evokes grief and loss, difficult emotions to get a handle on without resorting to a Vader “noooo,” and the intricacy of each page suggests his involvement with its source material. Thompson may be an outsider, but Habibi doesn’t come off as Orientalist, even in its admiration. Rather, it’s long-steeped in the tradition it portrays, and the fragrance of Arabic art (minus, of course, the human figures who appear throughout) permeates the book. It’s also incredibly compelling and readable on many levels. (HB)

On the next two pages we look at the best collections and reissues of 2011.

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