The Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2012

Jeffrey Dahmer, meet alien dinosaur

The best comic artists transmute simple materials—pens, brushes, ink—into supreme expression. Our sixth annual survey of standout graphic novels and comics begins with an artist who brought something new to the game.

Mention the word "airbrush" to your average comics fan and one of Richard Corben's buxom adventuresses, brawny antiheroes, or gelatinous monsters will most likely spring to mind. Gathering all of his Creepy and Eerie magazine stories from the 1970s, Richard Corben (Dark Horse, 320 pp., $29.99) showcases the fine airbrush gradations that allowed the artist to dispense with those heavy black outlines used to trap flat colors since the earliest days of Sunday comics. Taking a cue from Technicolor films, Corben (born 1940) would often deploy multiple light sources within a single panel; in "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Noise," a cleaver-wielding ghost skulks amid boozy purples and sickly greens, the shape of her weapon echoed by a slowly opening door. In a black-and-white adaptation of Poe's "The Oval Portrait," Corben lavishes voluptuous gray tones on the painting, while the doomed heroine succumbs amid scratchy pen marks. He sometimes wrote his own scripts, often with a dollop of humor reminiscent of Abbott and Costello's meet-ups with Frankenstein, Dracula, et al. While the figures in 1973's "Terror Tomb" are cartoonish, Corben's dramatic lighting and abrupt shifts from close-up to vast Egyptian vistas are as lushly imaginative as anything Lucas and Spielberg conjured later in the decade.

Corben wasn't the only artist expanding the range of comics during that fertile era—in 1972, Malcolm Mc Neill joined William S. Burroughs to create a graphic novel combining Mayan legend and Beat phantasmagoria. As Mc Neill recounts in The Lost Art of Ah Pook Is Here (Fantagraphics, 168 pp., $39.99), "I was dealing with a huge cast, sometimes moving back and forth between time periods over the course of one or two sentences." Publishers could not figure out what to do with Mc Neill's large (up to 10 feet across) renderings of multi-sexed beings, bandoliered guerrillas, public orgies, and other Burroughs chimeras. The artist's rich realism shines through the quick ink layouts, pencil drawings, and Bosch-esque paintings finally reproduced here. And while the original narrative was never concluded, these often fragmentary images evoke both jungle-encrusted ruins and "soft machine" hallucinations.

Less realistically drawn and every bit as strange, My Friend Dahmer (Abrams ComicArts, 224 pp., $17.95) recounts artist-writer Derf Backderf's real-life adolescent friendship with—or, more accurately, tolerance of—weirdo classmate Jeffrey Dahmer. The narrative begins in a small Ohio town and traces Dahmer's fascination with dead animals, his increasingly heavy drinking, and the disintegration of his inattentive parents' marriage. Backderf evokes '70s ennui through carefully delineated period furniture and slovenly teen fashions, and his angular style is perfect for the "spaz" act that Dahmer used to entertain classmates before graduating from high school and becoming a serial killer.

Artist-writer Tony Bourne delivers fictional bloodletting in The Fed (hammermachine.deviantart.com, 68 pp., $19.99). As in too many indie comics, Bourne's could use some copyediting help, but his lithely drawn figures and kinetic action sequences more than carry a narrative that has callous federal agents caroming between teenage hackers, an alien dinosaur, and bulletproof killer clowns. Ridiculous, cynical fun.

"If we weren't rational beings, we couldn't be irrational," complains Alison Bechdel's character in her autobiographical Are You My Mother? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pp., $22). Bechdel's multi-textured drawing styles and layouts add resonance to a thorny relationship with her caustically witty mom. Multiple shrink visits and a feisty girlfriend offer both help and confusion as Bechdel stubbornly gropes for the answers that confound us all.

In The Hive (Pantheon, 56 pp., $21.95), Charles Burns continues the gorgeous mindfuck he began in 2010's X'ed Out, entwining a teen love affair with scenes set in claustrophobic warrens overflowing with toxic chemicals and foulmouthed mutant laborers. Burns's undulating brushstrokes and off-kilter palette imbue this squirmy drama with a toothsome funk.

There's drama galore in Fashion Beast (Avatar, ca. 24-page story per issue, 10-issue series, $3.99 each). In 1985, Alan Moore wrote a screenplay based on Malcolm McLaren's vision of an evil fashion house lording over a dystopian society. This new comic book version revels in drag queens, bitchy designers, and hints of nuclear winter—don't you miss the '80s? Moore's complex stage direction can be sensed behind illustrator Facundo Percio's long, wordless takes of various characters strutting along grimy streets and glowing catwalks.

Multiple artists flesh out writer Grant Morrison's Batman Incorporated Deluxe Edition (DC, 264 pp., $29.99), in which Bruce Wayne spreads his cape-and-cowl franchise to various international do-gooders as threats from ever more operatically scaled villains expand beyond Gotham. All of the artists are strong enough to keep up with Morrison's coruscating dialogue and dense plotting, but Scott Clark and Dave Beaty's "Nightmares in Numberland" astonishes with luminous graphics that combine video game verve with visceral humanity. They shoulda let these guys do the Tron sequel.

Harvey Kurtzman was a much more bare-bones artist: Brush. Pen. Ink. Period. In the early 1950s, before he created the comic book that eventually morphed into Mad magazine, he labored over elaborately researched war comics. Corpse on the Imjin (Fantagraphics, 240 pp., $28.99) collects these stories, all of which Kurtzman wrote and many of which he drew in his sweeping, expressive line. There are few heroes here, only the crushed victims and scarred survivors of war's capricious mayhem.

Mort Drucker arrived at Mad magazine in 1957, and over six decades has masterfully caricatured countless movie stars and politicians. Mort Drucker (Running Press, 272 pp., $30) includes scores of his parodies, but perhaps the most brilliant is 1963's "East Side Story," written by Frank Jacobs. Here's Drucker's snaggle-toothed Khrushchev singing, "I feel vicious, oh so vicious/I feel vicious, malicious, and low!" while JFK and our allies chime: "Nikita! We've just seen a Red named Nikita!" Set against high-contrast photos of the U.N., Drucker's dazzling cartoons took a bit of the chill off the Cold War.

And, finally, there is Chris Ware, a one-man argument against the facile glow of the Internet in favor of the delicious tactility of print. Crammed with tales of angst-ridden lives lived in rundown apartments and gentrifying burbs, Building Stories (Pantheon, various volumes in boxed set, $50) comes packed in a carton evocative of a board game. Ware's bleak stories of expanding waistlines and shrinking incomes are so compelling that you can't stop unfolding and turning the pages of the jumbo broadsheets, tiny pamphlets, and hardback books in this collection. The complex interplay of his impeccably rendered figures with graphics and text does what the best comics have done for more than a century now: thrill eye, hand, and mind in concert.

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