The ’00s were a turbulent time for the comic-book business, as mainstream publishers like DC and Marvel suffered the sales declines affecting nearly all print-purveyors, while publishers of what used to be known as “alternative” comics saw some of their products hitting bestseller lists and turning up on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. Superheroes were more popular at the multiplex, but in terms of readership and buzz, the story of the decade was how a handful of high-profile non-genre books helped advance the medium’s standing in literary society. And there were other big stories over the past 10 years: the inroads made by online comics, the ascendancy of writers at “the big two,” the proliferation of outstanding archival collections of classic comics, and so on. Below, The A.V. Club’s regular Comics Panel team tries to touch on all the above, via our picks for the 25 best comics of the decade and the five best archival projects. These lists are presented alphabetically, and contain a mix of graphic novels, ongoing series, comic strips, and single issues. Limiting ourselves to 25 meant reluctantly leaving out a lot of our favorite titles (no Hernandez brothers, no Walking Dead, no Scott Pilgrim, no Astro City), so as always, we invite you to advocate for your absent favorites in the comments.
The Top 25
Achewood, Chris Onstad (achewood.com, 2001-present)Achewood
is one of the few that’s proven worthy of the challenge. Hiding some powerfully good storytelling behind simple art, Achewood
quickly evolved from a reliably funny gag strip to a still funny but surprisingly deep character-driven comedy that’s stayed sharp no matter what bizarre direction it’s veered in. Ray and Roast Beef, the central funny-animal protagonists—human-like in their bad behavior, if nothing else—form the strip’s spine, and Onstad has found humor and meaning in their enjoyably quirky argot and exploration of the meaning of adult friendships. When he wants to go for more broad or surreal humor, he’s been able to draw on a bench of supporting characters as deep as any great sitcom’s.
Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth
The Acme Novelty Library, Chris Ware (Pantheon, 2005)
, bringing a story that Ware wrote and drew in the ’90s more critical attention and prestige than any comic book had seen since Art Spiegelman’s Maus
. Since completing Jimmy Corrigan
, Ware has been busy with the as-yet-uncompleted Rusty Brown
and Building Stories
novels, as well as with scattered strips in The New Yorker
and elsewhere. Strictly speaking, the most influential and acclaimed comics creator of the ’00s doesn’t have a single completed work to hold up as one of the decade’s best. But Pantheon’s 2005 hardcover collection of Ware’s full-page strips, fake ads, and archaic bluster (sometimes referred to as The Acme Novelty Library Annual Report To Shareholders And Rainy Day Saturday Afternoon Fun Book
) suits as both an intro to Ware and a representative sample of his ’00s work. Though about half the strips were drawn in the ’90s, Pantheon’s Acme Novelty Library
has been packaged in such a way that it traces Ware’s evolution from the darkly humorous gags of “Rocket Sam” and “Big Tex” to the more poignant and despairing “Tales Of Tomorrow” and “Chalky White.” Between the jokes, Ware weaves in stunning formal experiments that attempt—through design alone—to map out the recurring cycles of life and art. Funny, sad, ingenious, and beautiful, Pantheon’s Acme Novelty Library
provides ample evidence of Ware’s unique brilliance.
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC, 2006-08)
takes the notion to an extreme, dropping the emotionally fragile Superman from the early-’60s stories of Jerry Siegel and Otto Binder into the body of a friendly god. Given a year to live in the first issue, Superman spends the rest of the series’ 12-issue run trying to set his life in order. In the process, Morrison puts a fresh spin on old Superman ideas—Bizarro, Jimmy Olsen’s monstrous transformations—and introduces some of his own, including a story in which Superman is secretly responsible for the world you’re living in right now. It’s enough to send even the most jaded comics fan outside to look up in the sky.
American Elf, James Kochalka (americanelf.com/Top Shelf, 1998-present)
offer far more than the solipsistic scribbling of yet another autobiographical cartoonist. Limiting himself to a maximum of four panels per day of his life, Kochalka distills oceans of poignancy into tidy, even Zen-like teacups. Kochalka’s strips, as always, possess a deceptively innocuous virtuosity, and his prosaic yet dreamlike anecdotes about daily life, fatherhood, and videogames controlled by erect penises deserve multiple readings—not to mention recognition for making a seamless crossover between webcomic and graphic novel. Above all, though, American Elf
is drop-dead funny, and Kochalka’s organic, semisweet humor skims self-deprecation without plunging into self-loathing.
Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon, 2009)
, Mazzucchelli proved that it was worth the long wait for him to take possession of his own voice. The book follows a middle-aged architect whose fate seems governed by ancient urges and forces he can barely perceive. His story is rich and evocative, and made all the more astonishing by how carefully the art matches the plot: Mazzucchelli’s confident visuals illustrate every divergence and digression of the clever, funny narrative just so. Asterios Polyp
represents one of the best-ever fusions of art and story, in a medium where such fusions are supposed to the very reason the medium exists. This book is the rare example of something that feels like an enduring classic the moment it appears.
Black Hole (Pantheon, 2005)
, and not just of the emotional kind, although there’s plenty of that, too. No, what’s striking about this graphic novel—which tells the story of a group of sexually active teenagers in 1970s Seattle who fall prey to a mutating STD known as “The Bug”—is how much ink is spread across the panels. Sometimes the blackness dominates the landscapes and throws characters into sharp focus; at other times, it merely lurks in the background, ominous and omnipresent. Burns wrote and drew Black Hole
over the course of 10 years, and the end result is a work of haunting, nauseating loneliness, using “The Bug” as a metaphor for the transitional period between adolescence and adulthood, a time when the need for companionship is as strong as the inability to grasp it. The darkness, then, is inevitable. Plenty of indie comics explored alienation and despair in the 2000s, but few did so with Burns’ unflinching, unsparing compassion.
Good-Bye, Chunky Rice
Blankets, Craig Thompson (Top Shelf, 2003)
, a strange, poetic, but deeply felt and meticulously illustrated book about love, loss, and moving on. Then he disappeared for four years and re-emerged with a staggering sophomore effort that considerably upped the stakes: Blankets
, an autobiographical, gorgeously lyrical book about first loves and religious obsessions. The story, about a young Christian man coming of age and struggling with an oppressive but comforting faith, delves into different forms of manufactured security, from relationships to religion; along the way, Thompson’s on-the-page avatar lets his imagination carry him out of his suffocating world of bullies and repression. Even more so than Good-Bye, Chunky Rice
, this is a painful book, but it carries a sweetness that borders on profundity. It’s essentially Elliott Smith’s music in autobiographical-comic form.
Box Office Poison
Box Office Poison, Alex Robinson (Top Shelf, 2001)
was first published in single-issue form from 1996 to 2000, via indie Antarctic Press. But it gained a whole new level of awareness when Top Shelf published all 21 issues in a single mighty tome in 2001. And the graphic-novel version is a better format for such an intricately executed story, which develops a core cast of interrelated New York twentysomethings, but spirals off in all sorts of ambitious but microdetailed directions, turning bit players and background characters into real people with complicated backstories. Half the genius of Box Office Poison
is that Robinson makes his New York a fantastically detailed, lived-in place; the other half is that he doesn’t take it painfully seriously. He periodically steps outside his narrative to pose questions directly to his characters, and to let their answers to random queries further characterize them. The results are rich and realistic, yet surprisingly puckish and just plain funny.
Criminal, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Icon, 2006-present)
. The ongoing series, which debuted in 2006 (and won the Eisner Award for Best New Series the next year), updates hardboiled crime and noir tropes with jagged emotion, beautiful pacing, and a stark atmosphere that leaves plenty of room for gray—both graphically and morally. Like Sin City
minus the steroids, Criminal
proves that the decades-old genre of crime comics still has plenty of bang left in it.
Daredevil, Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev (Marvel, 2002-06)
in the 1980s has proven tough to follow, but for four years, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Alex Maleev (with some occasional assistance) delivered another string of all-time-great stories starring the long-suffering defender of Hell’s Kitchen. Bendis didn’t ignore Matt Murdock’s past, but his run on the series seldom depended on what had come before. He also found new ways to pull the ground out from under the hero, whether by forcing him to deal with being unmasked by the press, or making him cope with the unforeseen problems of winning a seemingly decisive battle with the Kingpin. With Maleev, Bendis indulged a taste for noir-inspired urban dramas and drew in a lot of viable second-stringers—Luke Cage, Bendis’ own Jessica Jones—to fill out the supporting cast for stories that made superheroics again feel at home in back rooms and rain-soaked alleys, where none but the brave and the wicked dare set foot.
The New Frontier
DC: The New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke (DC, 2003-04)
, writer-artist Darwyn Cooke returned the heroes of DC’s Silver Age into the jet-age Cold War era that forged them, and charged them with saving the world while figuring out what it means to be heroes in a time of tremendous change. While acknowledging the real-world historical problems that the comics of the era happily ignored, Cooke’s series works like an anti-Watchmen
, reassembling the superhero mythologies Alan Moore spent much of the ’80s picking apart. (That’s no slant against Moore, whose America’s Best Comics line engaged in a similar project.) It’s a smartly written series and an even better looking one, thanks to Cooke’s clean, animation-inspired art, which makes characters like Wonder Woman and Green Lantern look classically iconic, yet startlingly new.
Eightball #23 (“The Death Ray”), Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics, 2004)
#22 and #23, respectively. Both are broken up into one- or two-page chapters, drawn in a range of styles from simple cartoons to naturalistic sketches to full-scale, dynamic action layouts. But while both stories are excellent, “The Death Ray” is a straight-up masterpiece, using comic-book staples like superpowers, teen angst, and fight scenes to comment on how the petty grudges of young adulthood resolve into a system of values, subtly guiding the way the world is run. The story follows Andy, a tense, middle-aged loner who recalls his high-school years in the late ’70s, when he took up smoking and acquired superhuman strength, along with a death ray capable of disintegrating its targets. “The Death Ray” could be read as a critique of American foreign policy, or a kiss-off to superheroes, or just another of Clowes’ keen dissections of teen ennui, with the details of a young man’s first cigarette and his first punk-rock album serving as more than just coming-of-age signifiers.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
(see below), Houghton Mifflin took a chance on another autobiographical graphic novel by a female artist. Alison Bechdel honed her chops for more than two decades on the wonderful strip Dykes To Watch Out For
, but Fun Home
—her amusing, difficult account of childhood and her relationship with her academic father—was a massive leap forward. The art is far and away the best Bechdel has ever done, with her usually strong, simple, expressive ink lines bolstered by successful use of color wash and framing. Incredibly detailed, intricate, and allusive, Fun Home
puts its intellectual and densely referential tone to work in a story saturated with real human drama, such that it never seems affected or dry. Unsurprisingly, the book was a critical success; more unusually, it became a bestseller, helping discredit the belief that there’s no audience for sophisticated comics storytelling in America.
George Sprott, 1894-1975, Seth (D&Q, 2009)
slowed to a crawl (hampering the long-gestating graphic novel Clyde Fans
), he’s been active designing archival collections, doing commercial illustration, and knocking out short graphic novels in his sketchbook. This year’s George Sprott, 1894-1975
is sort of an amalgam of Seth’s work this decade; it’s an oversized, hardbound graphic novella that expands on a series of serialized one-pagers Seth drew for The New York Times Magazine
, all about the last days of an arctic adventurer turned TV host. Some of the book looks simple and sketchy, other parts look far more detailed, and the book as a whole is handsomely designed. More importantly, George Sprott
continues Seth’s career-long obsession with constructing worlds for readers to get lost in, built from fictional places and characters that feel realer than real.
The Golem’s Mighty Swing
The Golem’s Mighty Swing, James Sturm (D&Q, 2000)
, about a barnstorming 1920s Jewish baseball team that tempts fate by engaging in a seemingly absurd promotional gimmick. Sturm lets the tension mount and mount, portraying the personal stories of compelling individuals against a bigger backdrop of racial prejudice and class issues. With his focused depiction of motion and his keen eye for detail and expression, Sturm creates one of the most thrilling sports stories in American comics history. The Golem’s Mighty Swing
features a somewhat bewildering coda, but every other page delivers a reading experience as deep as the comics experience can get.
The Goon, Eric Powell (Dark Horse, 1999-present)
. Though, thankfully, still not above some well-executed scatological humor, Powell’s stories have grown more complex and the drama deeper as the series has progressed and the mythology behind our hard-hitting hero has deepened. Powell’s Lonely Street has become an increasingly rewarding place to hang out. (Just look be careful not to take a knife to the eye.)
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography
Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography, Chester Brown (D&Q, 1999-2003)
showed just how far journalism can stray into subjectivity, even when the biographer himself can’t seem to decide how he feels about his subject. Brown made his name as one of underground comics’ daring, endearing weirdoes, but Louis Riel
is his most culturally relevant work to date, in spite of its edge of unsettling surrealism.
The Mystery Of Mary Rogers
The Mystery Of Mary Rogers, Rick Geary (NBM, 2001)
is especially fine, turning the real-life case that inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Mystery Of Marie Roget” into a thoughtful meditation on the origins of stories. Geary’s style—which combines portrait-style illustrations, detailed graphs, and deadpan narration—suits the tale of a woman whose body washed ashore in New Jersey in 1841, sparking rampant, lurid press speculation about whether she was raped and murdered, or whether she was the victim of a botched abortion, or whether something even more appalling happened to her. Geary portrays the culture of New York in the mid-19th century as a hybrid of European sophistication and frontier barbarism, and as he muses on how a case can scandalize a community yet remain an utter mystery, he shows how fiction is born from our unceasing fascination with the lurid.
One Hundred Demons
One Hundred Demons, Lynda Barry (Sasquath, 2002)
takes an art-school exercise (“paint your demon”) as the jumping-off point for 17 stories about growing up as the funny-looking, lower-middle-class daughter of an abusive Filipino mother and an absentee father. As always with Barry, the art in One Hundred Demons
is minimal but rarely cutesy, the dialogue pinpoints the inarticulate but meaningful grunts of children, and the captions vividly recall the minutiae of the past, from the sensations of falling out with a close friend to the textures and smells of a discarded toy. But Barry also makes a real leap forward with One Hundred Demons
, incorporating some of her philosophies of creativity into a book that combines found objects, obsessive filigree, and unflinching examination of past failures.
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon, 2000)
made Marjane Satrapi’s reputation as an artist to watch, and spawned an acclaimed animated adaptation. Some critics have taken the book to task for Satrapi’s self-flattering depiction of her own experiences, and for its negative views of Iranian religious society, but close reading reveals Persepolis
to be a painfully honest, warts-and-all portrayal of its author, who owns her occasional bouts of egotistical selfishness and prejudicial thinking as much as she does the more positive aspects of her character. From her holy-terror childhood to her haltingly rebellious adolescence to her deeply troubled college years, Satrapi portrays herself as a complex figure, neither pure nor damned. This deep self-evaluation, along with the lovely art (which owes more than a little debt to Charles Schultz), is what makes Persepolis
Promethea, Alan Moore & J.H. Williams III (America’s Best Comics/Wildstorm, 1999-2005)
surprising is how the series developed. Originally intended as Moore’s sophisticated riff on Wonder Woman, Promethea
was an exceptional superhero comic from the start, but Moore grew bored with it. So rather than continuing to crank out stories in a more-or-less traditional format—or abandoning the book altogether—Moore decided to turn Promethea
into a freewheeling exegesis on magic, philosophy, transcendental spirituality, and the nature of fiction. Moore’s scripts grew ever more discursive, and artist J.H. Williams III shadowed him every step of the way, providing innovative, experimental visuals that helped turn the stories into something much more symbolic and meaningful than some didactic lecture on mysticism. Like the best of Moore’s work, Promethea
began somewhere familiar, and landed somewhere far stranger.
Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea, Guy Delisle (D&Q, 2006)
and Safe Area Gorazde
. Quebec’s Guy Delisle carried on the tradition in the ’00s with Shenzen
, the latter of which chronicles the time he spent working for a low-budget animation studio in North Korea. It’s simultaneously funny, chilling, and enlightening, providing a rare, detailed look at life behind the last Iron Curtain and its forbidding capital: the closest thing to a real dystopia anyone could hope to find on Earth.
Angry Youth Comix
Tales Designed To Thrizzle, Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics, 2005-present)
. And for those who prefer slightly more elevated absurdity, Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed To Thrizzle
has offered twisted homages to kiddie comics and clip-art, recombined into strips that make the whole medium seem inherently silly. No one does giddy surrealism quite like Kupperman, who hops happily from stories about Mark Twain and Albert Einstein as rogue cops to tales of Sam Spread: Sandwich Spread-Obsessed Detective, all between bizarre prose pieces and fake ads (“Gay Yokels: Fine dining for the hillbilly homosexual!”) Tales Designed To Thrizzle
is like Acme Novelty Library
for those who which Chris Ware would be less fussy and more funny.
Why Are You Doing This?
Why Are You Doing This?, Jason (Fantagraphics, 2004)
marked Jason’s first attempt at a full-color graphic novella, and it’s quintessentially Jason both in its story—a Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller about a lovesick slacker framed for the murder of his best friend—and in its style, which alternates taut action sequences and idle scenes of nothingness. Typically for a Jason book, Why Are You Doing This?
builds to a gut-punch ending that attempts to answer the titular question. Why do people fall in love, chase each other, kill each other? Because this is a story, and stories need to be interesting.
Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan (Vertigo, 2002-2008)
Bone one-volume edition, Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books, 2004)Bone
collected in one edition isn’t just a reduction in storage space. Jeff Smith’s magnum opus reads more like a novel than a comic, and Bone: One Volume Edition
is the story’s ideal state: a huge, afternoon-killing volume that will dominate any bookshelf it calls home. Bone
starts small, with the three Bone cousins, Fone, Phoncible, and Smiley, exiled from Boneville and uncertain about their future. Things get considerably more complicated from there, as the three leads face off against rat creatures and the Lord of Locusts, and get entangled in the lives of humans living in a nearby valley. Smith’s plotting sticks to basic fantasy tropes, but his careful attention to character is what makes the book work so well. The Bone family, inspired by Walt Kelly’s Pogo
, are well-realized and endearing, and Smith’s art captures each mood and sight-gag perfectly, with a cartoony style that carries a surprising emotional weight. It’s a grand tale well told, presented in the best possible way.
The Complete Peanuts
The Complete Peanuts, Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, 2004-present)
has framed Charles Schulz’s enduring masterpiece about as well any lifelong fan could’ve hoped.
The EC Archives
The EC Archives, various (Gemstone, 2006-present)
, while fairly pricey, is worth every penny, featuring gorgeously colored hardcover restorations of the imprint’s legendary and controversial crime, war, horror, and science-fiction tales. From Weird Science
to Tales From The Crypt
, the series is a fitting showcase for the highly influential—and still gripping—work by some of the comics medium’s greatest creators, including Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta, Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, and EC’s mastermind himself, William Gaines.
Krazy & Ignatz, George Herriman (Fantagraphics, 2002-present)
is easy to describe but almost impossible to explain. It was a comic strip published in newspapers for three decades (starting in 1913), with a simple premise: Krazy Kat loves Ingatz the mouse, who doesn’t like Krazy much, and shows his irritation by throwing bricks at the poor infatuated feline. Officer Pup loves Krazy, and he expresses his love by trying to prevent Ignatz from brick-throwing, but Krazy interprets Ignatz’s abuse as a sign of affection, and is constantly undermining Pup’s efforts. Herriman uses this triangle of perpetually thwarted desires as a framework for an endless series of puns, philosophical gags, and slapstick, set against the starkly surreal Coconino County. The strip is influential (Calvin And Hobbes
’ Bill Watterson is a big fan, for one), but had been difficult to find until Fantagraphics set about continuing Eclipse Comics’ defunct reprint series. The Krazy & Ignatz
books have been a godsend to comics fans, with each volume repackaging two years’ worth of Sunday strips in attractive, Chris Ware-designed softcovers. Each book is bizarre, sweetly amusing, and blissfully continuity-free.
Sundays With Walt & Skeezix, Frank King (Sunday Press, 2007)
comic-strip-reprint project has been the most revelatory, but a strong case could be made for Drawn & Quarterly’s Walt & Skeezix
books, which have gone back to the early days of Gasoline Alley
(starting with the arrival of the foundling Skeezix in 1921) and have showcased the gentle humor, graphic mastery, and deep human insight of the strip’s creator, Frank King. The daily strips collected in Walt & Skeezix
tend toward the subtle, while the 200 full-page Gasoline Alley
Sunday strips in Sundays With Walt & Skeezix
are more astonishing in their artistry and imagination. 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—especially in the weeks when Walt and his young ward took 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. For Sundays With Walt & Skeezix
, Sunday Press employed the regular Walt & Skeezix
design team of Chris Ware and Jeet Heer to package an assortment of King’s best Sundays into a handsome 16” by 21” hardcover. The book makes a nice companion piece to Ware’s own oversized book collections Quimby The Mouse
and Acme Novelty Library
, showing a little of Ware’s inspiration for pages that practically engulf readers in their precise, heartrending detail.