The Tearoom of Despair is closed for the summer holidays, because it’s hard to get worked up about things when you could be sitting on a sunny beach, sipping cool cider and watching the waves roll in.
(Normal service will resume, as ever, on January 7.)
But there is always room for a best of list at this time of year. It’s always impossible to compare the quality of vastly different comics, just because they share a medium. But I can truly say which ones I enjoyed the most, and which ones had the biggest emotional punch, and it was surprisingly easy to rank that enjoyment.
There are the usual caveats: Despite a brilliant local library and a $40 a week habit, I haven’t read everything I would like, and reserve the right to retroactively declare that the best comics of the year included something like Habibi or Ganges #4 or the latest Criminal series or Prison Pit or one of the other half dozen pieces of brilliance I just haven’t got around to yet
And there are entire series I haven’t got into yet, even though I know they’ll be bloody good for me. So I will probably fall in love with something like the much-adored King City long after everybody else has moved on, or wonder why it took me so long to get into Godland in 2015 or so.
Some comics that missed out on the list, even though I found them all immensely enjoyable, are Sweet Tooth, the Chronicles of Wormwood, Incognito, Holy Terror, Absalom and Justice League Dark, while Johnny Red and Roger Langridge’s The Show Must Go On were both some of my favourite comics of 2011, even though they were written and drawn decades ago.
I was surprised to note that there were no Grant Morrison comics in my top ten, which must be the first time that has happened in 20 years. But most of his creative energy seemed to pour into Supergods, and Action Comics is severely hampered by occasionally substandard art while Batman Inc still seems weirdly limiting.
But I'm still painfully predictable and a bit ashamed of that. There are six of them that are by British writers, and there are no female creative voices in my favourite comics of 2011, which is deeply embarrassing, although I do think that’s something we all have to get better at.
So these are the comics I enjoyed the most in the past year – and I tend to like comics that are fast and funny and and colourful and smart - so that’s just the way it worked out.
10. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century – 1969
Because I'm always up for a beautiful technocolour apocalypse in Hyde Park, with O’Neill’s terrific grotesques dragged into the sunshine of the 1960s and confronting a couple of dark truths behind the Age of Aquarius. You can play spot-the-reference all you like, but it was still a thoughtful meditation on the idea of immortality and an inability to change with the ages, no matter how hard you try, and I’ll take that over wondering who The Karkus was.
The bleakness of those final pages, when everything has been broken down and needs to be built back up again, was a stark contrast to the primary coloured adventures of the previous decade, and a wonderful way to set things up for the final Century story.
Roll on, 2009.
9. Kick Ass 2
Kick Ass 2 is an appalling tasteless comic, offensive and stupid and a symbol of all that is wrong in the world.
But I can't help enjoying it, probably because it's so dedicated to tastelessness that it takes it all the way. It's like an early John Waters film - they're actually terrible things to watch, but you have to admire the fact they don't pussy out, and go All The Way, even if it means that literally eat their own shit.
So in the second Kick Ass story, there are cute kids callously cut down, innocent people suffer horrible and humiliating fates, there are characters who are homophobic, sexist and racist, and absolutely nothing is sacred.
But this also means there is never any sense of anybody taking their foot of their pedal, and some rampant acceleration is always good for the soul. It’s actually nice to read a comic where the creators don’t stop every couple of pages and think it’s gone too far, or is a bit much. And if they are doing that, they’re not letting it stop them barreling ahead.
Millar’s gleeful need to offend as many people as possible turn most right-thinking people off his work, but in an age of stories that have been focus-grouped into inanity and constant concern about ‘sending the wrong message’, I’m always up for a fast-paced and ridiculous story about bad people doing terrible things.
Besides, I also love stories about people that have been turned into weapons trying to be people again, and I still get a kick out of seeing them give in to their most horrible desires. When I read the most recent issue of Kick Ass and it ended the only way it could – with Hit Girl bloodily and finally stepping in to sort out all this shit – I swear I heard the sound of a gun cocking, or of a sword being unsheathed.
The expected carnage is breathlessly anticipated.
8. Jack of Fables #50
Speaking of nothing being sacred and expected carnage, it was a fond farewell to the most successful Fables spin-off earlier this year, and it all ended with all the comic's characters wiping each other out in amusing and ironic fashion, before Jack cheats the devil and goes on his way to new adventures.
It was the sheer enthusiasm with which characters were disposed of that was so appealing, and a hard-bitten desire on the creators’ part to break all of their toys before they put them away for good, so nobody else can ever play with them.
Jack of Fables finished the only way it could. With blood, fire and absolute free-wheeling farce.
7. Shaolin Burning
A terrific Kung Fu comic by New Zealander Ant Sang, Shaolin Burning got a fair bit of local media attention at the time it came out, but hasn't really been seen in the bigger world.
It's worth keeping an eye out for - the speech anachronisms are a little jarring at first, and it's a lot bloody harder to convey martial arts in comics than it looks, but Sang gets there with some dynamic action sequences. The overall plot is harder to get into than it looks, but there are some great individual moments.
There is a lovely little tribute to Martin Edmond, and some of the late artist’s lines can be seen in a powerfully outstretched arm, but Sang also brings an animation background in to his comics, and it can be seen in his beautiful character designs and marvellously-paced individual sequences.
There have been the usual bunch of thoughtful and slightly dark comics coming out of New Zealand in the past year, but Shaolin Burning was the only one that had the balls to grab my attention by slapping me around until I gave in. That’s a good thing.
6. Secret Avengers
I'll always have a place in my heart for sharp, well-drawn single issues of superhero comics that come in, have a bit of fighting, a bit of crazy science and a couple of cool lines, and then piss off again before they outstay their welcome. Result.
5. Nikolai Dante
This would be higher on the list if there was more of it, but I only read 42 pages of new Nikolai Dante comic in 2011 (I haven’t seen the story in the 2012 issue yet).
Fortunately, those 42 pages are typically spectacular, with the usual witty and considered scripts by Mr Robbie Morrison, superbly rendered by Mr Simon Fraser.
Nikolai Dante is one of the best comics I’ve ever read, and still cannonballing towards an epic conclusion in the nest year or so. This year, it set up the final act of this long and crazy story with The Memoirs of Nikolai Dante in 2000ad prog 1731, summing up the tale so far, setting the stakes for the forthcoming climax, and ending with a good joke with whatever-his-name-is-there.
There was also a five-part serial, full of action and incident, which ended with Dante back in the dungeons, racked with despair. But the story isn’t over yet, and there is no doubt that Dante will come out on top. (There is still considerable doubt as to whether he will actually survive his victory.) Me, I’m still convinced that Lulu hasn’t betrayed Nikolai at all, and this was just his utterly mental way of getting into the palace…
And in those 42 pages, there was one of those moments that perfectly sum up everything I love about Nikolai Dante, and shows his passion, compassion and zeal for life. He’s talking to his pirate queen mother, and she asks him if he can forgive her for abandoning him as a child. Dante has every right to be angry. But then again….
“Ha ha ha! Mama, I was a pirate when I was ten years old. I’ve been a thief, gentlemanly or not. An aristocrat, an adventurer. I’ve commanded armies, won and lost fortunes.
“I’ve fought some of the most evil men that ever lived and put them in their graves. I’ve fooled around with the most beautiful women in the world and a real-live princess agreed to marry me.
“Forgive you? I should thank you! People’ll still be talking about me centuries after I’m gone.”
Diavolo, that’s good comics.
4. The Boys
Garth Ennis’ latest longform comic is, like Dante, rapidly reaching some horrible conclusion. All the necessary background has been explained, and all the players are where they need to be in the end and there will be blood.
The superhero decadence is still a big part of The Boys - and it is still either truly disturbing or really funny - but the real story of this comic is about the corrupting influence of irresistible power, and this is all coming to a head.
The Billy Butcher spin-off comic has helped set this stage where all debts will be paid, and the revelation of why The Boys’ leader hates superheroes so much is just as horrible as promised.
In fact, the terrible fate of Billy’s wife was probably the single most intense thing I saw in a comic book all year – a mind-numbingly traumatic event caused by a superhero’s callous indifference that justifies everything Billy does, in his own mind at least.
That level of intensity is harder to find in modern comics than it really should, so I cherish those moments when they do come.
3. OMAC/ Daredevil/ All Star Western
All of these new comics scratch a certain itch that I thought had gone dormant, an insatiable need for fast, funny and furious action comics that didn’t treat me like a child.
I still want new and shiny and smart science fiction/superhero/western comics more than I ever realised.
2. Judge Dredd
The ongoing adventures of Judge Joe Dredd were my favourite comics of 2010, and almost made it to the top of this list again, with only a stunning piece of Hernandez brilliance heading it off.
Dredd’s year did get off to a pretty average start, with the first half of his 2011 adventures consisting almost entirely of the usual short, snappy, one-off stories that have filled out his history over the years. There was some really nice art, including the long-overdue re-appearance of the Brendan McCarthy Dredd, and some phenomenally efficient short stories by new writers such as Al Ewing and Michael Carroll, who have both nailed the unique voice of the Dredd strip remarkably quickly.
But the brilliance of Judge Dredd always comes from the sharp pen of John Wagner, and he returned to the story in the second half of 2011 with Day of Chaos, one of the big Dredd mega-epics that is composed of a whole lot of smaller stories. The actual overall point of Day of Chaos is still relatively unclear – it has something to do with the long-suffering Sovs and the daftly twisted PJ Maybe – but it is a story about retribution and justice finally being done.
It wouldn’t even be surprising if Day of Chaos does feature the long-promised death of Judge Dredd. For a couple of minutes I thought they had actually done it in the storyline, with Dredd apparently shot through the head in the sixth chapter of the story. He survived that brush with death, only to instantly get his throat sliced open. Dredd is made of stone, and he wouldn’t let something like a slit throat put him down, but Judge Dredd could still die at any time.
And that’s okay. He’s come to terms with his own humanity, and – in a Michael Carroll story that I could have sworn was written by Wagner – even admitted that he is comforted by the thought of new generations of judges, knowing that there will be a new batch of lawmakers to take his place when he is gone.
That day is coming, and possibly soon, but for now, there are still new adventures of Judge Dredd every week, and it’s just as funny and clever as it always was. I truly enjoy reading a new Dredd every Thursday, and after another year that was mostly brilliant, I’m always looking forward to the next chapter.
1. Love and Rockets: The Love Bunglers
The instant when I realized what was going on in the montage scene near the end of Jaime Hernadez’s Love Bunglers was the single most genuinely moving moment I’ve had reading a comic book in many, many years.
Jaime’s work in Love and Rockets New Stories #4 is funny, sad, heartbreaking, life-affirming, clever and wicked, and sings with an emotional depth that few other stories – in any medium – could ever hope to match.
The best comic of the year. No question.