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The best graphic novels and art comics of 2013

In a year that saw major new releases from alternative comic-book visionaries (Gilbert Hernandez released five new titles), the next generation of independent cartoonists stepped up its game to share the spotlight with the masters. New voices like Charles Forsman and Isabel Greenberg produced some of 2013’s most distinctive graphic novels, and the quickly expanding realm of digital comics has made it easier than ever for aspiring creators to get their material into the world. Here are The A.V. Club's picks for the top art comics and graphic novels of the year. 

10. Emily Carroll, Out Of Skin (Self-published)
Grimdark indie comics—murky, fabulist, surreal, and eerie—have been on the upswing over the past couple of years. What sets Emily Carroll’s Out Of Skin far apart is an eye for dimensionality. Utilizing the full narrative potential of the webcomics format without drawing attention to its own form, the stand-alone story lets its bursts of body-horror bob along in black voids. Carroll uses her panels as filthy windows, gaping wounds, and dilated pupils that open up into a fable of gruesome love, macabre grace, and ripe corpses in the time of the Pilgrims. It’s grim and dark, sure, but Out Of Skin’s autumnal atmosphere is also evocatively shaded and fully realized. [JH]

9. Gabriel Hardman, Kinski (Monkeybrain)
A man’s infatuation with an adorable canine is a peculiar starting point for a black-and-white crime comic, but Gabriel Hardman’s digital Monkeybrain title has built a nail-biting narrative around Joe’s desire to own this black lab puppy, even if it means breaking the law to get it. Joe wants Kinski because of the childlike sense of freedom he associates with the animal, an idealized mental image that directly contrasts with his pathetic state. The dog is supposed to be Joe’s escape from the crushing routine of his life, but like any good crime story, things don’t go the way he planned. The script’s film noir influence is heightened by Hardman’s stark artwork, filling panels with heavy shadows that cut through the sunny desert environment to reflect the lead character’s descent into darkness. [OS]

8. Gilbert Hernandez, Julio’s Day (Fantagraphics)
Comic books have a unique way of evoking the passage of time within static images, and Gilbert Hernandez is a cartoonist that is keenly aware of how he can use the medium to manipulate that chronal flow. Depicting the 100 years of Julio’s life with a page for each year, Julio’s Day spans the entire 20th century to provide a heartbreaking look at one man’s struggle to overcome his personal fears. The expansive yet intimate story highlights major themes of Hernandez’s work like sexual liberation and class conflict, exploring how cultural opinion addresses these issues when they cycle back into prominence with new generations. The century flies by in this briskly paced read, condensing one man’s life into a collection of personal vignettes that linger in the mind long after Julio has taken his last breath. [OS]

7. Cole Closser, Little Tommy Lost: Book One (Koyama)
Calling the first volume of Cole Closser’s Little Tommy Lost a pastiche of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie would be giving it due credit and selling it a bit short. Yes, Closser’s blank-eyed Little Tommy exists in a Dickensian, Depression-era orphanage full of skulking man-monsters, sinister plots, and gosh-wow dreams. But Little Tommy Lost touches on everything from Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo to Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, all while bringing a luxuriously scratchy, not-quite-meta self-awareness to his celebration of the classic daily and Sunday newspaper strip. And the cliffhanger at the end of Book One augurs a broader palette—and plenty of breakneck adventure—to complement Closser’s retro-comics poignancy. [JH]

6. Peter Wartman, Over The Wall (Uncivilized)
Debut graphic novels don’t come much more assured and mature than Peter Wartman’s Over The Wall—which is ironic, considering the book is ostensibly for kids. But like Jeff Smith’s Bone before it, Over The Wall speaks to archetypal tropes and universal themes, even as it cuts right to the emotional heart of a tale of friendship, adventure, mystery, and the elusive interplay between memory and love. On the surface, it’s a pretty basic hero’s journey to the heart of an abandoned city populated by demons, one in which a young girl must find her abducted brother. Beneath that, it’s deceptively resonant—due in no small part to Wartman’s elegantly simple dialogue and immaculate, eye-dazzling, yet achingly subtle draftsmanship. [JH]

5. Paul Pope, Battling Boy (First Second)
When it comes to pure, unbridled fun, no graphic novel this year tops Paul Pope’s Battling Boy, which brings together Eastern and Western graphic-storytelling sensibilities for an unforgettable coming-of-age story. The plot follows the titular young god as he’s thrust into a strange new world as part of an adolescent ritual, armed with 12 magical T-shirts that give him animal superpowers. Battling Boy must save the citizens of Arcopolis from giant rampaging kaiju and monsters that roam the city streets after dark, an overwhelming mission that results in some of the most exhilarating action sequences of 2013. Each scene is bursting with youthful energy, but Pope never forgets about the pubescent heart of the story, creating a strong sense of Battling Boy’s doubts and fears as he takes the first steps toward a life of independence. [OS]

4. Isabel Greenberg, The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth (Little, Brown and Company)
Isabel Greenberg combines comic books and classical mythology in her collection of stories The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth, bringing a casual, entertaining sensibility to adaptations of “Noah And The Flood,” “The Tower Of Babel,” and “The Odyssey,” among others. Greenberg’s pieces are more than just retellings, working in service to a grand narrative about a young storyteller god and his two children, and the effortless execution makes it easy for Greenberg’s bigger ambitions to sneak up on the reader. The way she ties the story threads together in the end is a delightful surprise, providing a fitting conclusion to an assortment of tales that has charm to spare. [MW]

3. Gene Luen Yang, Boxers and Saints (First Second)
There are two sides to every conflict, and Gene Luen Yang’s pair of graphic novels provides a comprehensive look at China’s Boxer Rebellion through the perspectives of two young people with different allegiances. Boxers is the more expansive of the two, detailing Little Bao’s growth from ignorant young boy to rebel leader, while Saints expands on the history of a Christian girl who only appears briefly in Bao’s story but has a major impact on his life. Yang does admirable work emphasizing the universal adolescent feelings felt by his two leads, creating two characters that are relatable to contemporary readers even if their circumstances aren’t. His artwork realizes the time period with a smooth, animated line, producing crisp visuals that navigate the scripts’ emotional beats with ease. [OS]

2. Rutu Modan, The Property (Drawn And Quarterly)
Rutu Modan’s family drama begins with a plane ride from Israel to Poland, showing rowdy passengers paying no mind to the tragic history of their destination. During the return flight, the mood is dramatically subdued, revealing that Mica Segal and her grandmother Regina aren’t the only people who had a sobering experience abroad. Mica joins Regina in Poland to uncover what happened to her family’s property when they left the country before World War II, a week-long trip that forces the women to come to terms with a shameful family secret. Modan has an exceptional eye for detail, bringing bustling Warsaw streets and idyllic Swedish landscapes to vivid life, and she creates a cast of incredibly realistic characters by using actual actors as references. The Holocaust is always weighty subject matter, but Modan’s story is executed with tenderness and a sense of humor that brings refreshing buoyancy to the proceedings. [OS]

1. Chuck Forsman, Celebrated Summer (Fantagraphics)
Chuck Forsman is a cartoonist with a talent for expressing the emotional turbulence of adolescence and early adulthood. While his debut graphic novel, The End Of The Fucking World, focused on the tension and violence of teenage years, Celebrated Summer is a quieter exploration of the fears and desires of two young men on the cusp of maturity. Those feelings are amplified by the drop of acid that starts Mike and Wolf off on their carefree summer day, which forces them to cast a critical eye inward rather than taking them on an intensely psychedelic trip. There are moments of hallucinogenic visual splendor, but they are fleeting, whereas Wolf’s anxieties stick with him after the drug has worn off. With an art style that combines the animated simplicity of Charles M. Schulz and the detailed linework of Chester Brown, Forsman establishes himself as one of the most promising alternative-comic creators. [OS]