Best Graphic Novels of 2009

Here’s what I thought were the best graphic novels of 2009, in order. For more information on any of the following titles, the links take you to my reviews.

  1. Johnny Hiro — Thoughtful adventure and an impressive love letter to New York City.
  2. Masterpiece Comics — Amazing comic/literature mashups that had me marveling at R. Sikoryak’s skill at art mimickry.
  3. Sinfest — The best webcomic out there, collected into book form this year by Dark Horse.
  4. Nothing Better: Into the Wild — Philosophy and faith explored through a realistic (and often funny) look at college life.
  5. Drawn to You — This comic collaboration between Lucy Knisley and Erika Moen is like reading a combination interview and letter exchange.
  6. Kabuki: The Alchemy — David Mack’s story of an assassin has changed and grown as the artist has, concluding here with a mind-bending postmodern exploration of the nature of creation of both self and art.

Yeah, only six this year. I did more manga reading, fewer graphic novels, and those are the books that impressed me. If I was doing a combined list, I could easily make 10 by including some of the best manga of the year, but I thought I’d separate the two this year, given their different audiences.

What else should I have considered? Before you answer that, here are some popularly recognized books on lists of this type that I didn’t select, and why:

  • Asterios Polyp — Impressive craft that lacks the narrative heart that would make it great.
  • A Drifting Life — Terrific book, but it’s manga (and on my separate list), and it’s a bit overwhelming due to its size and historical scope.
  • Parker: The Hunter — Too much a product of its time in its treatment of women and glorification of tough-guy violence. Beautiful illustrations, though.
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe — A terrific installment, but it didn’t strike me as wonderful as the earlier books. In part, that’s human nature, where “just as good” feels like “not as good” because we expect more and better every time. I’m also looking forward to the coming conclusion. Setting up for that just isn’t quite as satisfying.
  • Stitches — Morose autobiography about terrible parents. Don’t we have enough of that in comics? Plus, every surprise in the story was revealed in the press material, making it feel like a slog to get to the point. Too much setup, not enough payoff. It may have helped the artist to tell his story, but it didn’t help me to read it.

I wouldn’t make an argument for this next title on an art or craft basis, but for pure enjoyment, The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse was one of my favorites. I was glad to get one more visit with these beloved characters.

For comparison, here’s last year’s list and one from the year before.


11 Responses to “Best Graphic Novels of 2009”

  1. A roundup of best-of-the-year (and decade) pieces | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Johanna Draper Carlson names her Top 6 graphic novels of the year, plus six more that didn't make the [...]

  2. Drew Thomas Says:

    Too bad about Stitches. I thought it was beautiful.

    Imposter’s Daughter, the Storm in the Barn, and Far Arden were some of my favorites.

  3. James Schee Says:

    “I wouldn’t make an argument for this next title on an art or craft basis, but for pure enjoyment, The Middleman: The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse was one of my favorites.”

    Honestly that’s why I wish there were more “My Favorites…” of the year lists rather than “Best of…”

    The Best of list you have, 1 or 2 seem interesting (I’ve even read two of the ten counting the four you added) but I don’t know how many of them sound like they’d be really entertaining reads.

    Of course when I looked at GNs as a whole this year, or perhaps even comics as a whole. Other than a few manga titles I didn’t find a whole heck of the lot entertaining this year.

    Where are the books like Rucka and Lieber’s Whiteout? Or Carla Speed Mcneil’s Finder? Or even fun teen comedy like Chynna’s Blue Monday? Where’s the slice of life work of an Andi Watson? Or masterful hidden depths of a Linda Medley Castle Waiting?

    Maybe its because I have yet to really get into web comics, so I’m missing the really good young/new creators. Or that I haven’t been able to make it to a con in a while.

    I just know I read far fewer comics this year than I have in a very long time. All the creators I liked have seemingly gone away or become work for hire creators doing something that’s perhaps solid but ultimately forgettable at the big two.

  4. Johanna Says:

    James, there’s always been a conflict between art-oriented “best of” lists and entertainment. It’s the “why don’t critics pick popular movies” argument all over again. But yes, I agree with you that there’s a certain kind of comic that’s less available than it used to be. It may be a casualty of the move to graphic novels.

    Drew, thanks for sharing your picks. I’ve only seen Far Arden; I’ll have to check out the other two.

  5. Alex Says:

    Johanna,

    I always love reading best of lists from the people I admire. I must admit that I couldn’t disagree more with your assessments of Stitches and Asterios Polyp. Stitches I’m a huge fan of and the press material may have ruined the book for you – I avoid reading them beforehand – I don’t think it diminishes what David Small managed to accomplish.

    And as far as there being too many bad parent autobio comics…C’mon. There’s a hundred bad fantasy movies released each year, it shouldn’t influence your opinion of Lord of the Rings. There are far too many navel-gazing autobio comics with nothing to say, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for one with style, structure and real talent to shine.

    I will second Drew’s suggestion of Storm in the Barn, if only for the art and the pacing. The story is just okay but Matt Phelan is an artist born to make comics.

  6. Johanna Says:

    I’d love to hear you elaborate on what you think Small accomplished, Alex. My take on the book was that it was all about the shock: “I had cancer and my parents didn’t tell me!” But I didn’t get a good sense about what happened after, about why this was really significant to his life. That’s why I thought the book was unbalanced — too much lead up, not enough reaction.

    And I never made it through LotR, either book or movie, either, so that comparison may not have had the effect you intended. :) Seriously, yes, it becomes more difficult for autobio to stand out, but that doesn’t mean a book can’t. I didn’t think this one succeeded at doing so, though. (I talk more about this in an upcoming interview with Tom Spurgeon, actually.)

  7. Alex Says:

    Okay, Johanna, worst metaphor EVER. Now I have to think of something else. :)

    Seriously though I do believe that there are too many autobiographical comics and that most of them are not very good. When I read Stitches I knew about the shock of his cancer but reading it (and i read it a few times – shameless plug, read my interview with Small on CBR), it’s not about the shock. It’s about this family with parents who are incapable of raising children, and not just the parents but we also see it with his grandmother who is really insane and troubled. And yet despite drawing this portrait of his parents as so emotionally distant that they couldn’t help but be anything except bad parents, they’re sympathetic characters. Especially his mother who is fairly monstrous is ultimately the tragic figure of the book.

    A lot of autobiographies (comics and prose) tend to be about events that are much smaller and less resonant than what Small writes about. There’s also a tendency to be fairly narrow in scope, not just focusing around events that aren’t especially important but rarely venturing beyond the central character telling the story and yet Small is as concerned if not more so at depicting the people around him.

    It’s brutally honest. The book never lapses into cliche and I’m sure there were many scenes that he could have used with regards to his fighting with parents. It isn’t art that saves him or the love of a woman which is the typically plot line. Instead it’s his therapist being nice to him and he manages to slog through.

    Also there’s the fact that the book is tightly plotted, where in my mind most autobio comics tend to be meandering stories without plot. (Or, they tend to be poorly written Pekar-esque scenes stretched out to a length where there’s nothing of value or interest – but admittedly, that’s another point for another time)

  8. Johanna Says:

    I think we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I very much appreciated hearing more about what you saw in the work. Thank you for showing me a different view.

  9. PWCW Best of 2009 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] I’ve put in my list every year.) This time, I combined entries from my 2009 best manga and my 2009 best graphic novels lists — but for some reason, I only got quoted when it came to the [...]

  10. Coming Up: Graphic Novels Due June 2010 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] Nothing Better: Into the Wild (APR10 0929, Dementian Comics, $15); in fact, it was one of my Best Graphic Novels of 2009. Now you can order it through your comic shop, and if you enjoy funny and heart-warming stories [...]

  11. Best Graphic Novels of 2010 » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] very pleasant contrast to last year, where I couldn’t even fill out a top ten, I had more good books to choose from than slots. [...]




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