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The 21 Best Graphic Novels of 2012

Love comics but sick of capes? Then check out this rundown of the year's best true art books.

Cardboard

So much has happened in comic books in 2012. Mutants and Avengers fought for domination. Amazing Spider-Man ended after 700 issues. Batman battled the Joker. DC’s New 52 gained momentum. In short, it was a great year for men in tights. That being said, what about the quieter stories, the more personal tales told through sequential art?

As 2012 winds down, I was left thinking of all the graphic novels I read that were infinitely more human and emotional than the big two. Sure, Vertigo had Punk Rock Jesus and Sweet Tooth, but the majority of what we heard about was superhero in nature. That seemed unfair to me, so I went back through all the graphic novels I read this year and found twenty-one that rose above the rest. So, for your Christmas reading like I present The 21 Best Graphic Novels Of 2012.

 

A Wrinkle In Time

 

A Wrinkle In Time

       Writer/Artist: Hope Larson

       Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

Most of us over the age of 35 have read, re-read and then read again the brilliant novel A Wrinkle In Time. This was Madeleine L’Engle’s fantastical story of Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, Calvin O’Keefe and the three Mrs. – Who, Whatsit and Which – who band together to save our universe. As often as it’s been adapted, the book was never given the graphic novel treatment until now. Writer/Artist Hope Larson stays true to the story and even manages to retain L’Engle’s voice while presenting the tale in a new and exciting fashion. No, it’s not as good as reading the novel, but Hope Larson comes damn close.

 

The Secret of the Stone Frog

 

The Secret Of The Stone Frog

       Writer/Artist: David Nytra

       Publisher: Toon Books

 

For anybody who loves quest books, fantasy tales or bedtime stories, get ready for The Secret Of The Stone Frog. Leah and Alan find themselves in an enchanted forest with only each other for support. As their adventure unfolds, they meet stone frogs, giant rabbits, pet bees and other assorted characters. Nytra not only tells a masterful story, his illustrations have to be seen to be believed. The Secret Of The Stone Frog is one of those timeless classics, where both adults and kids can be entertained.

 

My Friend Dahmer

 

My Friend Dahmer

       Writer/Artist: Derf Backderf

        Publisher: Abrams Comic Arts

 

Award-winning political cartoonist Derf Backderf turns to his childhood for this haunting, original and often tragically human graphic novel. At one point in his adolescent life, Backderf shared classrooms and rides home with Jeffery Dahmer, one of the most notorious serial killers of all time. While never excusing his horrible crimes, Backderf paints a human and sympathetic portrait of a true outcast struggling against urges that are pulling him into madness. Backderf does an amazing thing here by humanizing Dahmer and giving profound and sometimes funny glimpses into the what helped create him, without ever being disrespectful to his victims. This is must-read stuff folks.

 

The Beginning of The American Fall

 

The Beginning Of The American Fall: A Comics Journalist Inside The Occupy Wall Street Movement

       Writer/Artist: Stephanie McMillian

        Publisher: Seven Stories Press

 

Code Green writer/artist Stephanie McMillian turns her sizeable talents towards the Occupy Wall Street movement, bringing readers a mix tape of drawings, interviews, dialogs, reflections and human insights. The Beginning Of The American Fall takes a candid and frenetic look at this powerful and often inconsistent movement from the inside. Most of us watched Occupy Wall Street unfold on TV, but Stephanie McMillian stood in the middle of it and graced us with this touching and delightful look at the experience.

 

Blacksad: A Silent Hell

 

Blacksad: A Silent Hell

       Writer/Artist: Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido

       Publisher: Dark Horse

 

Detective John Blacksad returns with another rollicking adventure in the world of dames, murder and fisticuffs. This time, Blacksad ventures into 1950s New Orleans to try and uncover the mystery of a missing pianist. Set against the backdrop of Mardi Gras and the hot jazz of New Orleans, Blacksad goes up against his harshest mystery, involving voodoo and drugs. If you love a good crime story, nothing beats the Blacksad line.

 

Blue

 

 Blue

       Writer/Artist: Pat Grant

       Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

 

Blue is an incredibly layered work. At first glance, it’s a simple story of three teenagers who, after skipping school to go surfing, find themselves investigating rumors of a dead body in their town. Look deeper and you get the exploration of Australia’s views on migrant culture, terrorism and casual racism through the eyes of the main characters. The art is at once fantasy, reality, slightly odd, but constantly enjoyable. Blue is one of those rare times when more is happening below the surface and you have to really pay attention to understand it.

 

District Comics

 

 District Comics

       Writer/Artist: Scott O. Brown, Rebecca Goldfield, Chad Lambert, Jim Ottaviani

       Publisher: Fulcrum Publishing

 

Hey history buffs, step up and be happy. District Comics is a collection of work from four award winning cartoonists and writers about Washington D.C., from it’s time as a new settlement by the swampy Potomac to the modern day city of political movers and shakers. From 1794-2009, District Comics covers everything from the first duels and political dealings all the way to the D.C. punk scene and much more.


 

Cardboard

Cardboard

       Writer/Artist: Doug Tennapel

       Publisher: Graphix

 

Doug Tennapel, the man who gave us the genius Earthworm Jim, lays down an old-fashioned adventure story with some cool twists and turns. Main protagonist Cam is given a cardboard box for his birthday. Hating it, but with little else to do, Cam and his friends make it into a man. From there, the neighborhood bully gets involved and, when his natural evil surrounds the box, bad things happen. Can Cam and his boys save their town from the cardboard monsters? You’ll have to read to find out.

 

The Hive

 

The Hive

       Writer/Artist: Charles Burns

       Publisher: Pantheon

 

From the writer/artist who gave us The Black Hole comes The Hive, a sequel to Charles Burns’ X’ed Out. Doug, the hero of X’ed Out, is now in a dark, alternate world that lays as a broken mirror reflection of our own. Here, Doug is a lowly employee that carts supplies around the hive. How does this tie in to X’ed Out? What is this mysterious incident that shattered Doug’s life and what does it have to do with his girlfriend Sarah and her ex-boyfriend? The Hive is the second part of Burns’ trilogy and it could be his best work so far.

 

Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes

 

Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes

       Writer/Artist: Mary M. Talbot, Bryan Talbot

       Publisher: Dark Horse

 

It really doesn’t get much better than Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes. Mary Talbot’s story, which is part historical and part autobiographical, is something to be treasured. Contrasting the coming-of-age stories of Lucia, daughter of James Joyce, and Talbot, the daughter of Joycean scholar James S Atherton, Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes weaves a rich tapestry of triumph, tragedy, gender politics, dying dreams and personal tragedy. Bringing this triumph to life is Bryan Talbot, who uses his atmospheric style to give humanity and emotion to Talbot’s words. Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes is simply stunning.

 

Marbles

 

Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me

       Writer/Artist: Ellen Forney

       Publisher: Gotham

 

When Ellen Forney was thirteen, she was diagnosed as bipolar. Afraid medication would stifle her creativity, Forney started down a long road of trying to find mental stability while still remaining creative. The relationship between crazy and creative has never been more entertaining or visceral. Forney uses the power of her story and her crisp artwork to make Marbles an emotional rollercoaster.

 

Everything We Miss

 

 Everything We Miss

       Writer/Artist: Luke Pearson

       Publisher: NoBrow Press

 

Few work tragedy into art the way Luke Pearson does. Everything We Miss is his ode to what gets lost in our periphery. Those things we don’t see or simply can’t see because we are too focused on our own lives. Using the story of a failing relationship, Pearson shows us the tiniest bits and pieces that surrounded it and how those missed things led to the end. A poignant and painful story, Pearson elevates Everything We Miss by adding his unparalleled ability at visual storytelling. If you’ve ever longed for something, lost something or felt that you’d missed the important things in life, Everything We Miss will touch and sadden you.

 

The Carter Family: Don't Forget This Song

 

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song

       Writer/Artist: Frank M. Young, David Lasky

       Publisher: Abrams Comic Arts

 

I seriously believe this was written just for me. As an enormous fan of the Carter Family, this graphic novel gave me endless joy. Frank M. Young and David Lasky tell the story of the rise of the Carter Family, the most inspirational and important country act in the history of the medium. No stone is left uncovered here and, no matter how much of a fan you think you are, this graphic novel will show you things you didn’t know. An absolute must have.

 

Drama

 

Drama

       Writer/Artist: Raina Telgemeier

       Publisher: Graphix

 

On the heels of her successful first graphic novel Smile, Raina Telgemeier gives us her next tour de force, Drama. The story centers on Callie, a young girl with a love for the theater but a sad lack of talent for it. Not being able to star in the school musical, Callie becomes the set designer, a small problem when you have no carpentry experience. Through colorful characters and plot points that hit close to home, Telgemeier paints a vivid picture of fake friends, first crushes and all the things that make pre-teen life so, well, filled with drama. Imagine a modern day Judy Blume and you’ll get the idea.


 

Sailor Twain

 

Sailor Twain: Or The Mermaid In The Hudson

       Writer/Artist: Mark Siegel

       Publisher: First Second

 

Are you a fan of Mark Twain? Do you ooh and ahh over Edgar Allan Poe, Hemingway’s love of the ocean, or good old-fashioned mythology? If so, then feast your eyes on Sailor Twain, Mark Siegel’s wonderfully drawn and beautifully told epic about three lives on a collision course. Take one captain who rescues an injured mermaid, add a popular and reclusive author who makes an unusual public debut and mix in a French noblemen looking for relief from a curse. Together, these three stories blend to make Sailor Twain one of the most interesting graphic novels of the year.

 

Are You My Mother?

 

Are You My Mother?

       Writer/Artist: Alison Bechdel

        Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

This is sequential art as literary storytelling at it’s absolute finest. Alison Bechdel’s gorgeous unity of pictures and words pull together a story of love, loss and the eventual road home when dealing with an extraordinary parent. Are You My Mother? rattles with genius not just because of what’s on the page, but the deeper and more telling themes that it touches on. At once deeply personal and still universal, Are You My Mother? is one of those rare times when comic books rise to the level of true art.

 

The Coldest City

 

The Coldest City

       Writer/Artist: Antony Johnston, Sam Hart

       Publisher: Oni Press

 

I love a good spy story. Give me double-crosses, cloak and dagger noir style, espionage and I’m a happy guy. This is why The Coldest City made me jump up and down like a kid at Christmas. Set in Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Coldest City focuses on British agent Lorraine Broughton’s search for a list of secret operatives from every side, lost when an M16 agent is murdered. This story has everything. Action, intrigue, double agents, bad defections and social unrest all coalesce to give Agent Broughton a real run for her money. Writer Antony Johnston and artist Sam Hart weave an intricate spy story through the waves of one of the most tumultuous times in our history.

 

Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

       Writer/Artist: Ulli Lust

       Publisher: Fantagraphics

 

Just like the film movement of the late-'60s/early-'70s, Europe is at the center of a new movement of graphic novels. One of the best examples is Ulli Lust’s autobiographical tale of the summer she hitchhiked through Italy. This is a punk rock tale, an in-your-face recollection of a fantastic time in Lust’s life and how she sees that time some twenty-five years later. Filled with cool characters and unflinching reality, Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life is a like Another State Of Mind mixed with On The Road.

 

Drawn Together

 

  Drawn Together: The Collected Works Of R. and A. Crumb

       Writer/Artist: R. Crumb, A. Crumb

       Publisher: Liverright

 

You really can’t get better than the collected works of R. Crumb and his wife Aline. Through this collection, we get to look back at the major times in their lives and their incredible collaborations. From their first work together in 1972, to the birth of their daughter Sophie, to their pilgrimage to France to live a life outside the United States, Drawn Together is just about as good as comics get.

 

The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist

 

The Art Of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist

        Writer/Artist: Alvin Buenaventura

        Publisher: Abrams ComicArts

 

Over the last 25 years, few artists have had the impact on the independent comic book scene that Daniel Clowes has. Eightball, Ghost World, David Boring, Ice Haven, Wilson, Mister Wonderful – all of these books showcase just how astounding and necessary Clowes is. While this isn’t technically a graphic novel, it is one of the most important books to come out in 2012. Author Alvin Buenaventura, with Clowes full cooperation, gives us all of Clowes' best known illustrations as well as rare and unpublished work. If that wasn’t enough, you get multiple essays about the man, including ones from designer Chip Kidd and Acme Novelty Library genius Chris Ware. If you claim to love comic books, this is a must have.

 

Building Stories

Building Stories

       Writer/Artist: Chris Ware

       Publisher: Pantheon

 

What the hell can you possibly do with Chris Ware? As soon as you think comic books have reached their absolute limit, Ware steps up and demolishes those notions. From Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid On Earth, to the Acme Novelty Library, to his work with The New Yorker, Chris Ware’s talent seems to have no end. Building Stories is a mix of  narratives from those living in an apartment complex. While Ware could have given us the book of the year simply by virtue of his emotionally complex writing, he takes it one step further. Building Stories is a box of stories, literally. A giant cardboard box featuring 14 various pieces of paper. Some pamphlet size, some normal, some strips, some just bizarre notions from Ware’s mind. Each of these pieces is a story and together they make up the building. Building Stories forces the reader to become active in the experience. You have to keep things in order, hold pieces of paper up and really feel what’s happening. In our ever-growing technological world, only the genius of Chris Ware could show us how important the tangible truly is.

 

Building Stories

 

There you have it, my list of the 21 Best Graphic Novels Of 2012. Now that you have this list, I command you to go shopping and buy all of these outstanding books. For you, for family, for friends, whoever gets one of these will be a much better person.