The Wednesday’s Haul Least Objectionable Comics of 2009 (aka: The best of 2009)

If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I may have said that 2009 was a good year but not a great year.  After living with this list, honing it down a bit (originally it was over 18 books, not it sits at 13,) I’m a bit more impressed with the comics of 2009.  For some reason, I’m generally not one to preach the gospel of comics to non-readers (I tried it with my wife and failed many years ago) but I don’t think there’s a single book on this list that I would hesitate to give out to anyone, comic fan or not.  I think 2009 was a year where I probably read less books (a trend that will continue in 2010) but I found I enjoyed the stuff I read a lot more. 

Much like the Oscars, I’m kind of amazed by how much of this list is from the latter half of 2009.  Maybe my memory is better about more recent works but looking through my notebook and through the stuff that I wrote during the year, these are the books that make me smile when I think about them.  Of course, I may look back in a year or two and wonder just what was I thinking putting Jonah Hex #50 or even Asterios Polyp on this list.

And here’s the disclaimer part– these are all personal choices out of the stuff I read during the year.  As I said above, I didn’t read as much stuff this year as I had before and I still read books based more off of personal preference so I know there’s stuff that’s appearing on other lists that’s not on here. 

With that, here’s my personal list of the best books of 2009 in no particular order…

  • Footnotes In Gaza— A late entry but it was snuck out just in time to make the list this year.  Joe Sacco gives names, faces and stories to people that we only see in 30 second clips on the evening news.  This book is about 1956 in the Gaza Strip, 2003 in the Gaza Strip and even his own struggles to make the book.  I think the biggest praise I can give Sacco’s book is that since reading it over the Christmas holiday, I’ve been trying to find out more about what’s happening in Gaza and Israel today. 

  • Jonah Hex #50— I only pick up sporadic issues of Jonah Hex, more dependent on who’s drawing it than anything else.  But I’ve got to say, with a good artist, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti really raise the level of their writing.  In issue #50, they created a fantastic mini-epic western that gave the Hex character a heart that I don’t think he often has.  Too much, the character is a vehicle for telling stories that I don’t know if he’s an actual character at all; Hex is maybe more like the Crypt Keeper, a host and center for a type of story and the character is not allowed to have any kind of development or growth at all.  Maybe people aren’t looking for that from the character but Gray and Palmiotti have a nice balance of giving the character room to change while maintaining the status quo.  And the Darwyn Cooke artwork doesn’t hurt at all either. (reviewed here.)

  • Pluto v1-6— For me, you could toss a coin to figure out which is better, Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto or his 20th Century Boys.  I really relate to Kenji and the story in 20th Century Boys and I think it will be on a “Best Of” list for the next couple of years but I probably enjoy how Urasawa is telling the story in Pluto better.  I’ve gone on before about the quiet and reflective storytelling in Pluto and I think that’s what makes Pluto stand out a bit more than 20th Century Boys.  Maybe similar to the way that Gray and Palmiotti humanized Jonah Hex, Urasawa makes the robots in Pluto so much more personable and human than the actual people in that book, who are all cold and a bit shell-shocked by a world that they’ve allowed to run away from them.  (reviewed here and here.)

  • Umbrella Academy: Dallas— In the span of two miniseries, Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba have reminded me of what I want from my superhero comics.  Blending Morrison’s Doom Patrol with equal parts of Marv Wolfman and Chris Claremont, Way is writing stories about characters who happen to be super heroes, not superheroes who happen to be superheroes.  Sure the writing is a little crazy and the art doesn’t look like Jim Lee but the heart of The Umbrella Academy is about a screwed up family in a way that the Teen Titans or the X-Men only wish they could be.  (reviewed here, here, here and here.)

  • Scott Pilgrim vs the Universe— I don’t know if it’s fair to count this book among the lesser Scott Pilgrim but after a year, I don’t know if this volume has stuck with me the same way that previous volumes have but I still like how it feels that Bryan O’Malley has grown since starting this series years ago.  He manages to pull out emotion and heartbreak from these characters that I don’t think he could have done before.  Maybe after the last volume is out or next year’s movie is out, I’ll finally write my piece on how I think Scott Pilgrim may be the Love & Rockets of the 2000s. (reviewed here.)

  • Phonogram: The Singles Club— Most of the time, I have no idea what music Kieron Gillen is writing about but it doesn’t matter.  Once I learned to not pay attention to the specifics but to try and take in the love of music, Phonogram made a lot of sense to me.  The Singles Club has been a great series, showing an ensemble cast enjoying one night at a club.  What Gillen and McKelvie are doing here for some reason reminds me a lot of how a director like Robert Altman used his large and sprawling casts.  Gillen and McKelvie are separating out out the stories a bit more, with each character getting his or her own issue but all of the stories are weaving in and out of the same larger narrative.  There’s a lot of magic that can happen in just one night and Phonogram: The Singles Club is doing a nice job at showing us just what can happen. (reviewed here, here and here.)

  • Detective Comics #854-860— After #860, I’m starting to wonder if what J.H. Williams III is doing on Detective is really all that different than what David Mazzucchelli did with Asterios Polyp, using and changing the formal elements of the story to mimic and highlight the narrative elements.  Of course, Williams was already doing something similar on Promethea but his Detective Comics artwork is much more condensed and schizophrenic in a single issue.  That last issue had at least three different art styles, each conveying a different part of Kate Kane’s life and you could actually see the art transition as Kate transitioned from one state to another.  (reviewed here and here.)

  • The Muppet Show V1—  Roger Landridge’s The Muppet Show was a pure delight, capturing the magic and comedy of the original Muppet show while transitioning it almost perfectly into a comic book.  Landridge recreated the variety show structure of The Muppet Show but never lost track that he was creating cartoons and not a television show.  (reviewed here.)

  • Real— Takehiko Inoue’s manga follows the lives of three basketball players after tragedies in their lives.  While his other basketball manga Slam Dunk is played for laughs, Inoue pulls out the drama in this series.  While I think the last couple of volumes have gotten a bit long, Real still packs each volume with emotion.  Inoue is also great with the action and I love seeing the games he creates.  He captures all of the energy and excitement of basketball whenever he shows people playing the game.

  • Asterios Polyp— While the plot is relatively simple and conventional, it’s the way that David Mazzuchelli tells the story that makes Asterios Polyp great.  There’s not a single visual element in this book that isn’t carefully thought out and constructed.  From the different levels of perception to even the different fonts used for everyone’s dialogue, Asterios Polyp is a carefully constructed piece of art.  It’s an accomplishment even if it’s a thin story.  (Personally, I finally read Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik’s City of Glass this year and found that to be a much better book, playing with both narrative and structure much broader than Asterios Polyp did.)

  • GoGo Monster— Taiyo Matsumoto creates an alien landscape in the form of a grade school and then slips into a 2001/Stanley Kubrick homage in the end to create a completely haunting book about our childhood fears.  From his sharply defined artwork to the monstrous faces he gives to the other kids and to IQ, the boy who wears a box like some kind of shield from the world, GoGo Monster creates its own world and sucks us into it.

  • The Complete Essex County— Individually, the three books that make up the Essex County trilogy are fantastic but seeing them in one big book puts them in another light.  In this volume, you can even more clearly see how all three books are actually part of one, generational story.  Reading The Complete Essex County is a different experience than reading the books individually.  This isn’t so much a collection of three older works but a reconceptualization of them. (the individual books reviewed here and here.)

  • Children of the Sea V1— I don’t know if I’ve read any book this year as evocative as Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea.  At first I didn’t know what to make of this book.  It didn’t look like the manga I was used to and it took me a bit to get into it but once I found myself involved with the book, I felt it was something special.  Perhaps it’s because I saw Ponyo around the same time but I felt that there was a connection between Children of the Sea and Hayao Miyazaki’s work as both seemed to be exploring our relationship to our environment.  I just got V2 and it’s sitting on my desk at home.  I’m looking for the right moment to immerse myself into Igarashi’s artwork.

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