1. Pascal Blanchet, White Rapids (D&Q)
It's rare to find a book as formally innovative and profoundly lovely as Blanchet's second graphic novel, which lays out the brief history of a northern Quebec company town in a series of full-page spreads that resemble Art Deco posters. Blanchet uses the clean designs of commercial art and the nostalgic pull of retro advertising to create an effect not unlike an extra-long children's picture book, pitched at adults. White Rapids is historical and wistful, and blazes a path that other fine-art-minded young cartoonists would be wise to follow.
2. The Luna Brothers, Girls: The Complete Collection (Image)
The increasing prevalence of large-format, slipcovered, super-glossy, super-pricey omnibus editions of existing comics can be a little depressing to comics fans, who may have already shelled out the bucks for the same content in issue form and then again in trade paperback. But there's no better way to experience the Luna Brothers' ambitious, beautifully illustrated 24-issue series Girls, a self-contained horror story in which a mysterious woman spawns a plague that takes over a small rural town. The gloriously muted art looks terrific in the glossy format, but better yet is the way the characters develop over time, as the crisis sharpens (and gets increasingly weirder and less predictable) and the increasingly strung-out characters are pushed to uglier and uglier extremes. The brothers explore a lot of aspects of gender, and they aren't kind to either side. But they're smart and knowing about the ugly prejudices and secrets that people hide, and the ways emergencies bring inner feelings into sharp relief. The story is as taut and intense as anything else in comics this year, but it's as personal and closely observed as it is savage.
3. Gilbert Hernandez, Chance In Hell (Fantagraphics)
If alternative comics can be equated to independent film, then Hernandez has become the medium's David Lynch or Guy Maddin, rolling his personal obsessions and freewheeling abstractions into stories that present as pulp, then take some very weird turns. In Chance In Hell, Hernandez channels his own paternal anxieties into a book that covers three stages in the life of "Empress," an orphan who starts out as a pre-teen rape victim, then becomes the ward of a frustrated middle-class poet, then ends up as the wife of a rich industrialist. Hernandez may be intending to explore the symbiotic nature of human exploitation, but mostly, he's just tripping through his fevered psyche, and drawing images and situations with the unwanted clarity of nightmares.
4. Jack Kirby, Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus (DC)
After serving as one of the architects of the Marvel universe throughout the '60s, Jack Kirby left the House Of Ideas in frustration in the early '70s, lured to DC with the promise of artistic control and greater recognition. Never one to think small, Kirby created the Fourth World titles, an intergalactic mythology pitting good against evil across the universe. The project collapsed before it could be finished, but left behind some timeless characters, huge ideas, alternately clunky and poetic writing, and Kirby's priceless art at its most daring. The still-in-progress Fourth World Omnibus series collects it all, from the ambitious launch of titles like New Gods, Mr. Miracle, and the charmingly counterculture-positive Forever People through the inglorious plug-pulling that ended The King's most ambitious undertaking.
5. Rick Geary, The Saga Of The Bloody Benders (NBM)
The ninth volume of Geary's Treasury Of Victorian Murder series dredges up the story of a serial-killing family that operated on the Kansas plains in the 1870s. (They dispatched their victims by inviting them in for dinner, then seating them in front of a canvas sheet, behind which lurked a hammer-wielding Bender.) Geary deploys his usual blend of portrait-style illustrations, detailed graphs, and deadpan narration, which only serves to make the grisly details of the case even creepier. Some writers and artists who specialize in history strive to make the past look more accessible to modern eyes, but Geary's books do the opposite, showing the world of a century ago as an alien place, stalked by monsters. In sensibility and style, Geary is working on a higher plane than just about every other comics creator in the business.
6. The Fillbach Brothers, Maxwell Strangewell (Dark Horse)
Another set of brothers dealt with crisis and quest in a very different way in the black-and-white trade Maxwell Strangewell, a bizarre cosmic adventure in which a McGuffin-man comes to earth, closely followed by crowds of aliens who want to control, destroy, or worship him. Dark, funny, dreamy, and deeply weird, the whole story starts out in left field and just keeps going.[pagebreak]
7. Matt Groening, Will And Abe's Guide To The Universe (Harper)
Groening's Life In Hell comic has become pretty pro forma over the last decade, as, um, a couple of other projects have bogarted his attention. But one aspect of the strip never got tired: Groening's illustrations of conversations with and between his two small sons, who brought all the warped logic of childhood to bear on topics from God to foreign countries to geeky fare like monster movies and Star Wars. Many of the old Life In Hell books are indispensable, and this one joins the best of the bunch: The collection of strips about interactions with Will and Abe lacks the acerbic despair of Groening's early work, but nonetheless, it contains some of the most adorable and enjoyable work he's ever done.
8. Mike Carey/Jim Fern, Crossing Midnight Vol. 1 (DC)
Mike Carey's ambition sprawled all over 2007, from excellent books like Re-Gifters to so-so efforts like Faker, but the best of the lot was his new ongoing series Crossing Midnight, which fuses traditional Japanese fairy tales with original mythmaking, gives it all a mystery twist, and sets it in the modern day. The latest issues have been a little unfocused, and it remains unclear where Carey is going, but the first five issues—already collected in a trade volume—are stellar, exciting work, with all the resonance of old stories and all the vivid intensity of new ones.
9. Frank King, Sundays With Walt And Skeezix (Sunday Press)
As if the yearly blessing of Drawn & Quarterly's vintage Gasoline Alley reprints weren't enough, now the comics archivists at Sunday Press have employed the same D&Q design team of Chris Ware and Jeet Heer to package 200 full-page Gasoline Alley Sunday strips into a handsome 16" by 21" hardcover. By the mid-'20s, King had begun to experiment with his art, working with silhouettes, shadows, close-ups, and even some light surrealism. In the Sunday strips—and especially in the weeks when Walt and his young ward would take a long walk or a drive in the country—King used the limited color palette of the comics page to render the outside world as though it existed in a perpetual state of autumnal twilight. He drew pictures worthy of getting lost in, and Sundays With Walt And Skeezix is huge enough to make that prospect seem plausible.
10. Stan Lee/Steve Ditko, The Spider-Man Omnibus, Volume 1 (Marvel)
You could choke an elephant with this book, the binding could be a little friendlier, and the price tag will make some fans think twice, but it's still terrific to have all of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's pioneering Spider-Man comics in one book. Ditko's dramatic, inimitable art is the perfect complement to Lee's prose, which transposes all the worries of adolescence to the shoulders of a skinny, gifted, guilt-ridden nerd named Peter Parker. The partnership ended badly, but for a while, Lee and Ditko were reinventing comics with each frame.
11. Various artists, Flight Vol. 4 (Villard)
The all-original Flight anthologies invite animators and graphic artists to explore the narrative comic form, with invariably lush and luscious results. Any page from any of the Flight books could blow up into a fantastic poster: The colors are amazing, glossy, and vivid, and the design is wildly varying and creative. But most amazing, the stories are invariably creative, expansive explorations of strange little worlds, surprisingly child-friendly but involved and challenging enough for adults.