2013's Best Graphic Novels

Perverse heroines and supreme sacrifices in the year's best comics

In his seminal 1936 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that original artworks lost their "aura" of cultural authority and transcendent beauty when disseminated on a mass scale. A magazine photo of The Dying Gaul, for example, conveys little of that Roman sculpture's tragic corporeality nor its Hellenistic narrative of defiance conquered. But great artists have long drawn specifically for reproduction (think of Durer's prints) and we lead off our seventh annual roundup of outstanding comics with The Best of EC Comics Artist's Edition, Volume 1 (IDW, 168 pp., $125), which features original boards printed at their full 22-by-15-inch size. Bernie Krigstein's atmospheric catacombs, Roy G. Krenkel's futuristic vistas, and Johnny Craig's surreal shifts of scale transcend the often ludicrous scripts in these 1950s crime, sci-fi, and horror stories. These virtuosi (and the seven other masters included here) used coarse Zip-A-Tone, volumetric crosshatching, and bold black contours to set off the era's limited color palettes. (Which illustrates why the graphic tonalities of the Gold and Silver ages look terrible when re-colored with today's computer-gradated spectrum, analogous to the way colorized black-and-white movies feel like heavily made-up drag queens.) With flourishes of yellowed rubber cement, printer's stamps, dollops of white correction fluid, and scribbled blue editorial notes, these panels remain supreme mass entertainment even as they've evolved into serendipitous modernist collage.

Blaring pinks, greens, yellows, purples, and other chromatic collisions characterize The Adventures of Jodelle (Fantagraphics Books, 164 pp., $45), Guy Peellaert's Pop Art blast from 1966. The Belgian artist employed sinuous line-work to propel a perverse heroine — based partly on a Lolita-ish pop singer, sword-and-sandals epics, and James Bond-ian hijinks — through an ersatz empire, half ancient Rome, half glitzy U.S. of A. Sexy spies and hunky warriors grapple as sports cars towed by white stallions zoom past such landmarks as a Guggenheim-Museum-cum-ice-cream-parlor. Peellaert (1934–2008) conjured the disturbing allure of this proto-adult comic less from the sadistic machinations of his outlandish characters than through color clashes that practically warrant seizure warnings.

In 1973, Peellaert used a completely different style of airbrushed photo collage for Rock Dreams, a book imagining music idols in outré tableaux, such as Sam Cooke shot dead on a motel room floor in his tighty-whities. Peellaert's gritty ambience has been thrillingly updated by Lee Bermejo in the Rorschach half of the prequel Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach Deluxe Edition (DC, 256 pp., $29.99). Brian Azzerello's blowtorch script imagines New York's 1977 blackout and looting as the formative turf for Rorschach, the most brutal of the costumed vigilantes populating Alan Moore's groundbreaking 1987 series. Bermejo's illuminations of fetishistic and fatalistic decadence are not for the faint of heart, but that's all in a night's work for graphic literature's most savage — and beautifully wrought — antihero.

The title of Charles Rodrigues's Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend (Fantagraphics Books, 184 pp., $29.99), says it all. There are plenty of laughs here, but you'll need a strong stomach to chuckle along when Ray discovers the gaseous consequences of using cheap embalming fluids on his best bud, or to guffaw as "The Aesop Brothers, Siamese Twins" proposition hare-lipped prostitutes. Rodrigues (1926–2004) deployed scratchy ink contours for his cartoonish — though accurately proportioned — figures,a schism perhaps explained by a relatively conservative Catholic allowing his id to romp across the pages of National Lampoon from 1970 to 1993.

Few imaginations are more free-ranging than the writer Grant Morrison's, and one of his most complexly outrageous works, The Filth (2002), is given a PhD-level explication in Tom Shapira's Curing the Postmodern Blues (Sequart, 186 pp., $12.99). Despite the deliciously detailed artwork by Chris Weston and Gary Erskine, even rabid Morrison fans were put off by The Filth's seemingly willful obtuseness and blithe depravity — murderous spermatozoa ravage Los Angeles! — but Shapira's treatise gathers up plot threads and illuminates character motivations to reveal the tale as an attempt, in Morrison's own words, "to turn the very basic horrors of existence into comedy and poetry."

The more straightforward story of murder and cattle rustling in Charles Santino's adaptation of Louis L'Amour's Law of the Desert Born (Bantam, 160 pp., $25) gains a noir patina from the moody grays of Thomas Yeates's ink-wash technique. The dialogue is spare, befitting protagonists dwarfed by vast desert wastes roiled by distant thunderclouds and sudden rifle shots.

In Sandcastle (SelfMadeHero, 112 pp., $19.95), writer Pierre Oscar Levy and artist Frederik Peeters update another venerable genre, bringing Twilight Zone–like creepiness to a day at the beach. The discovery of a woman's nude corpse seems suddenly mundane when the beachgoers realize that they are rapidly aging and that a sinister force is preventing them from leaving. Peeters's fluid black brushwork conveys mounting horror as paunches and wrinkles steal upon even the youngest vacationers.

In Sacrifice (Dark Horse, 168 pp., $19.99), Sam Humphries (words) and Dalton Rose (art) take troubled youth Hector off his seizure meds and plunge him into ancient Aztec civilization. The palette is Day-Glo, the blood copious, the story a heartfelt meditation on the gulfs between family and society, suicide and sacrifice.

For Occupy Comics 1 and 2 (Black Mask, 44 pp., $3.50 each), the creators sacrificed all profits to the cause while offering widely varying artwork and stories that educate and entertain in equal measure. Alan Moore's multi-part essay, "Buster Brown at the Barricades," begins with stonemasons razzing ancient Egypt's pharaohs in blasphemous carvings that foreshadow the healthy skepticism of Mad magazine. By Issue 2, Moore is deep into one of the 1 percent's most heinous con jobs: screwing Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster out of future royalties for $130 in 1938.

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