Out of the forty-odd graphic novels I read in 2008, these ten were my favourite. Note that they weren't necessarily published in 2008; I just happened to get around to them in that year. I tried not to pick two volumes from the same series (if the other volumes are good I mention it.) Okay, counting down:
10. DC: The New Frontier, volume 1, by Darwyn Cooke. 2004. 208 p.
Cooke re-imagines the origins of the Silver Age DC universe in the Cold War Space Race. Fighter pilots-turned-astronauts jostle with G-men in the shadow of the Korean War and McCarthyism, and everyone's got that hard-drinking Rat Pack style. The art is striking - retro yet not outdated. Some of the storylines are brilliant: Steel, survivor of a lynching, stalks the Jim Crow South slaying members of the Klan; Hal Jordan (later to be Green Lantern) is a hot-shot pilot who refuses to kill ; the Martian Manhunter is endearingly humorous and idealistic. Unfortunately Cooke tries to include just about everyone from the Silver Age. All the old WW2 soldiers, fighter pilots, science-action characters, and murderously ruthless (but basically good at heart!) FBI and CIA agents blur together into one big puddle of square-jawed, buzz-cut testosterone-soaked chest-thumping All-American blah-blah-blah-who-gives-a-crap? This problem becomes unavoidable in the second volume; and the Big Threat revealed therein is kind of lame. So maybe just read the first one.
9. X-Men: Divided We Stand, by Mike Carey, et al. 2008. 136 p.
Ten short stories about individual X-Men, by a variety of authors and artists. The quality varies, but overall it's pretty entertaining. There are some real gems, including a theological-philosophical tale in which Scalphunter is visited by Nightcrawler in both his priestly and demonic guises. I posted a little about the book here and here.
8. The Frank Book, by Jim Woodring. 2003. 351 p.
Plenty of writers and artists try to be surreal. Jim Woodring accomplishes it, maybe because he's not trying so hard. The younger Woodring experienced highly convincing hallucinations, and that's what Frank reads like: a kind of fevered dream that you can't shake off. Frank and his friends and enemies wordlessly wander through a mystical, wondrous and sometimes deeply disturbing (this book is not for kids) dimension that's part Krazy Kat, part early Disney and part oblique parable.
7. Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, by Joss Whedon. 2004. 152 p.
He's not Grant Morrison, but he is Joss Whedon, so he'll do. He picks up the New X-Men where Morrison left them, adds a character, and flings them into one exciting adventure after another. It's typical Whedon, so we get heaps of deadpan, witty repartee, some tough-as-nails women, plenty of relationship issues, lots of violence, and wouldn't you know it - dramatic twists and cliff-hangers! I quite liked the art. All four volumes are good. The drawback is that it's typical Whedon, and if you've seen enough of his TV work this will all start to seem kind of familiar. But enjoyable.
6. Supreme: The Story of the Year, by Alan Moore. 2002. 332 p.
With Alan Moore, the expectations are high. Supreme doesn't disappoint. Having started his career by deconstructing superheroes, Moore has more lately moved on to reconstructing them, to seeing how they work and celebrating what's great about them. With Supreme, Moore revamps a lousy Rob Liefield character (or is that adjective redundant when talking about Liefield's work?) and uses him to do a lengthy and insightful meditation on all things Superman. He plays with the changing nature of superhero stories (all those retcons!) and casts an affectionate eye on the DC Golden and Silver Ages. The style and quality of art varies quite a bit throughout the volume (in part intentionally, to evoke different eras) but the writing is consistently good. (The second volume, Supreme: The Return, is also pretty good and features a wonderful homage to Jack Kirby.)
5. Superman: Birthright, by Mark Waid. 2005. 314 p.
A clever yet sincere up-dating or reboot of the origins of the Man of Steel. It never became canonical but it's still a great new window on the character of Superman, on his compassion and moral power. And it's got a cool vision of the Kryptonians. Click here for the brief review from Say It Backwards that prompted me to read it.
4. The Invisibles, volume 2: Apocalipstick, by Grant Morrison. 2001. 208 p.
The Invisibles is not for those with weak stomachs, and it's bound to offend just about everyone at some point or another. And Morrison admits freely that he was experimenting with drugs while working on the series. He also says that it was designed to be grasped on the second or third read, rather than the first. My first-read impression is that it's a massive sprawling haphazard thing with one big-clever-Morrison-idea piled atop another. They don't always fit together all that well. And I think he's used some of those ideas more effectively elsewhere. But there's plenty of brilliance: from Barbelith to Totep to Triple-U! It's challenging, mystical, cryptical, bad-ass, anarchistic and strange. I think this volume was the most consistently excellent, with a few powerful one-shot tales and with a story arc focusing on transvestite shaman Lord Fanny.
3. Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus, volume 1, by Jack Kirby. 2007. 396 p.
It's King Kirby. Of course it's awesome. It's larger-than-life, exploding-off-the-page, primary-colour awesome. You can actually use this book as a sacred relic to destroy vampires, zombies, bankers and other evil creatures. Just hold it up and shout "TAARU!!!" A blinding light, the Astro Force, will come forth, striking the evildoer and blasting it to oblivion with a mighty Kirby Crackle!! BAZOOM!!
Ahem. The other volumes (which I've been reading this year) are even better (if I were reviewing all four, they'd be at number one on this list.) Grant Morrison provides an almost-embarrassingly gushing introduction to this volume, in which he compares the Fourth World saga to the Bible, like, three or four times. I'm not sure I would have at first understood the awesome nature of the original New Gods if I hadn't been primed for it by Morrison's mythic interpretations of them. I might've been a noob and said: "Why is Jimmy Olsen trading quips with Don Rickles? Who are these newsboys? What the- death on skis??" But, really, you'd have to be blind to miss the raw primal creativity, the sheer cosmic wonder of it all: the flaming disembodied hand writing the commandments of the Source, the divine Mother Box, furious tormented Orion, forbidding majestic Darkseid, "TAARU!" and the Mountain of Judgment and... and... GEE WHIZ! Any children I have will grow up in a nursery that has big, brightly-coloured Jack Kirby characters stenciled on the walls. They'll grow up to be hero-artists, awesome, mighty, and strange.
2. Astro City: Confession, by Kurt Busiek. 1997. 208 p.
This book was electrifying. It knocked my socks off. The Confessor! The Cross-breed! The cover! I... wait, just read Paul's review here.
You should also read the first book, Astro City: Life in the Big City, which is very good. And the rest of the series. But Confession was my favourite. And it's got oodles of religious references. One of the most intriguing takes on religion that I've ever seen in a superhero comic.
1. Top Ten, book 1 by Alan Moore. 2001. 208 p.
Ok, I know I'll get flak for rating this above The Fourth World, The Invisibles, and Astro City. Those are classic works. But for humour and deft, quick character development, Top Ten was the most fun I had with a comic book in 2008. It's part of Moore's reconstruction effort which I mentioned above. In a city where everyone has superpowers, who watches the watchmen? The job falls to a motley group of officers at the 10th Precinct Police Station. Moore has a lot of fun with the backdrop, but it's the interactions amongst the police, and between them and "ordinary" citizens that make the book work. It feels like we're catching a glimpse of the diverse lives of some real people. Moore includes some fascinating religious characters, whom he treats with respect.
You should read Moore's second volume, as well as his prequel, Top Ten: The Forty-Niners (from 2006.) Don't bother reading Paul Di Filippo's contribution to the series, Beyond the Farthest Precinct. It's not the worse comic ever, but after seeing what Moore can do with these characters, it's disappointing to have them reduced to idiotic two-dimensional caricatures - the religious ones most of all. And the plot is largely lifted from PKD's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. You may also want to skip Smax, Moore's fantasy spin-off of Top Ten. It's got some good moments, but don't spend any money on it.