Best of the Decade lists are not easy to make. Choosing ten seems arbitrary when you have to start knocking good books off, but you have to stop somewhere, so below I give you my dirty dozen. Still arbitrary, and a bit dirty because another five or so could have roughed their way in. Not to mention all the books I’ll remember the moment I post this…
Regrets aside, here are my favorites of the decade, in order of publication:
100% by Paul Pope 2002
No one draws noir comics like Paul. With undercurrents of sex, survival, grit and brutality, his cities are labyrinths crowded with neon signs, telephone wires, trash, fire escapes, and menacing shadows. All the near-future sci-fi in 100% holds up, too.
Blankets by Craig Thompson 2003
It took me a while to warm up to this book. I loved Thompson’s first book Good-bye, Chunky Rice so much, and at first Blankets seemed a bit too precious or sentimental for me. I have since gone crazy for Craig’s drawing style. I have revisited the book and found the story to be honest and engaging. And there’s no denying its impact on the culture of long form comics; Blankets, when it appeared complete at 600 pages, blew our minds.
Louis Riel by Chester Brown 2004
Louis Riel by Chester Brown is one of my favorite comics. I’ve always loved Chester’s art work, but he hit new heights with this one. The drawings are full of black ink and the figures are solid and chunky. A lot of people have noted the influence of Harold Gray, and while true, it still has that Chester Brown otherworldliness and is damn fun to look at. I knew nothing of Canadian hero/anti-hero Riel before, but I don’t think that made much difference; the story is fascinating and well told.
The Complete Peanuts 2004
This is a gimme. Collecting the complete works of the most important cartoonist of the second half of the century needed to be done. But as obvious as it seems, the format chosen by designer Seth and publisher Fantagraphics wasn’t. They chose to run the strips in chronological order, six daily comics followed by a Sunday strip. In twenty-five hard cover volumes. Revolutionary.
Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley 2004
What fun! Everything about this book is a gas. It sort of makes fun of Manga, and yet it kind of is Manga. Scott’s sort of awesome, but he’s also kind of a dick. The characters are deceptively simple versions of hipster/slacker friends; ex-girl friends, gay roommates, and garage bands playing out in campus dives, and at the same time, nothing is cliched. The fact that Scott Pilgrim has to defeat all of his new girlfriend’s evil ex-boyfriends - -in full blown, over the top, shopping mall destroying battle – -just clinches it.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel 2006
I have to think this was a difficult thing to do, putting yourself and your real family out there in a comic book, with every possible embarrassing and dysfunctional foible on display, and yet the results are transforming. Strangely, I felt by the end that I actually knew Alison’s father. A great book. And Fun Home was named Time Magazine’s Book of the Year!
Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip 2006
I only discovered the Moomins a few years ago while on a book tour in Finland, where the characters are still revered. But it wasn’t until I read this series of beautiful collections from Drawn & Quarterly that I really understood what the hub-bub was about. Gentle creatures with real human emotions, and surreal through-the-looking-glass stories. They remind me a little of Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
Flight 4 edited by Kazu Kibuishi 2007
I love all the Flight anthologies, and I’m friends with many of the artists, but volume 4 stood out to me as a solid collection of work from an emerging generation of cartoonists. It also contains what are, in my opinion, the two best short stories of the decade: Farewell, Little Karla by Tom Herpich, and Roomie-Pal by Graham Annable.
Rice Boy by Evan Dahm 2008
Rice Boy began life as a serialized web comic in 2004, and once the story was finished, it became a print-on-demand book. I came across it at a comic book show on the East coast. It’s a bit pricey, but it’s small press, and that’s what it cost to print. And it’s worth it. The full color art is clean, simple and inviting. The story flows in a very stream of conscious way, but still leans into the ending. It took me a couple of days to read Rice Boy, and when I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t wait until I was.
Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw 2008
At the beginning of Bottomless Belly Button, Shaw asks us to take breaks between the different parts of the book. For some reason I did so, and I think it was a good thing. All in all, this book was surprising to me. First, it’s so fat. There aren’t that many fat books on the Graphic Novel shelf. I like fat books. Second, the story is unexpectedly compelling; starting off with impressionistic images of beaches and a hand pushing down in the wet sand, it slowly becomes the turning point in the life of a family torn apart by divorce. I was also impressed by the mysteries in the story – - and really impressed by Shaw’s restraint in revealing only what he had to – - leaving much for the imagination, and keeping my thoughts on the book and its meaning for days afterward.
The Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire 2009
The first of the Essex County books was Tales from the Farm, which came out in 2007. It was followed by two sequels, Ghost Stories and The Country Nurse. The three Essex County books make up one of the best, and most organically interlocked trilogies I have ever read. The moment Lemire lets you know how these books are connected, you’ll raise your eyebrows and try to swallow the lump in your throat.
The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb 2009
What can I say? It’s Crumb doing the Bible! There probably isn’t a cartoonist who hasn’t harbored an ambition to try something like this at one time or another. I know I have. The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb is a straight take on the first book of the bible, and a near perfect one too, but after reading it, it’s definitely all Crumb. And you know what? He actually drew Jewish people. Maybe this says more about me than about Crumb, but after reading his version, I realized that I actually couldn’t draw any part of the bible…and maybe shouldn’t try.
There it is. For what it’s worth, my favorite comics of the decade. It was a great ten years for comics; graphic novels came into their own, spilling out of the comic shops and into mainstream bookstores and libraries. Hollywood fell in lust, making comics-based blockbusters and independent films. Web comics exploded. And as I traveled the world, I saw a huge, new generation of young cartoonists overflowing with ideas and enthusiasm, who had no preconceived ideas of what comics are, or what they could be about. Let’s see what’s next.
Lastly, I’d like to say a quick thanks to everyone who put Bone on one of their best of lists. The Bone: One Volume Edition appeared in 2004, and the color Scholastic series started in 2005, but the truth is, even though Bone finished up mid-decade, I sort of think of it as a nineties thing, so I was surprised and happy it wasn’t forgotten. A few of the lists that include Bone are The Onion’s A/V Club and Paste Magazine, both pop culture publications that cover comics, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Indigo & Chapters Bookstores Book Lover’s Best of the Decade. Thank you!
See you next year…