By Rich Johnston and Hannah Means-Shannon
Following on from last year’s “Best” lists to create a Bleeding Cool tradition, Rich Johnston and Hannah Means-Shannon put their heads together to pick out the landmark works in the comics medium of 2014, here specifically presenting the best graphic novels. This category has been delineated based on personal agreement that multi-volume collections of single-issue works can and do stand as complete narratives and change the way in which we perceive story units, whether we purchase a free-standing graphic novel or a volume of a longer-running work. However, volumes in a sequence that do not manage to produce a degree of internal cohesion, or are too decompressed to create entire, rounded stories do not meet our qualifications.
Without further digressions into explanation, we present you with Bleeding Cool’s 11 Best Graphic Novels of 2014. It has been quite a year, with plenty of key and noticeable features that suggest fairly radical change and innovation at work throughout the medium.
11. The Love Bunglers From Fantagraphics, by Jaime Hernandez
It began so many years ago. And now, decades later, we have the end of the story of Maggie and Hopey. A story that started with such brightness, vivacity and genuine excitement has changed as Maggie has settles into middle age with a thud as an apartment manager. Yes, our Maggie. Which means she is in dire need of an injection of Hopey, now separate from her in a new relationship, all the while that her old flame Ray is trying to rekindle the flame. Still channeling the remnants of an Archie Comics sensibility that’s been put through the wringer, this is a heartbreaking tale told with a sparseness, a brevity and a control of line that is masterful. And brings Jaime Hernandez to the level of Dave Sim in telling the story of a life over the decades.
10. To End All Wars by Various, from Soaring Penguin Press, edited by
Twenty-seven stories about the First World War, timed for the hundredth anniversary of its beginning. Spanning countries and continents, land, sea, air and back at the home countries, the war is given many perspectives that enrich an understanding of the scale of the conflict, and the impact it had on soldier and citizen alike, whether French or African, taking focus away from the usual English/German front line drama. There is no Christmas football match here. There is poetry, yes, but it is from a Welsh farmer rather than a Classics post graduate. It begins with a comparison with the beginning of the war with current investigations into more recent wars, including the abuse of power and oil rights. As some tried to reinvent the carnage as a just war, this anthology is on its own front line, reminding people of the true unjustifiable horror, and the the way certain people had plenty to gain from the conflict. A political polemic it is not, however, with many voices changing the tone and argument from chapter to chapter. Extra praise must go to Neil McClement’s art in the midst of battle, ink thrown up from tight crosshatching into the reader’s face, creating a true hell hole, and a reinvention of Mata Hari away from the usual. A remarkably well-chosen and commissioned set of pieces that complement each other without repetition, without any story you want to skip. Quite, quite remarkable.
9. Mind MGMT Vol. 4: The Magician from Dark Horse Comics, written and illustrated by Matt Kindt with “Dream Job” colors by Sharlene Kindt
Just like last year, we are hard-pressed to choose between multiple volumes of Mind MGMT that were released this year, since both challenge our expectation of the comics medium, create new ways to examine characterization in psychological terms, and even speak to our cultural and historical legacies coping with war and international conflicts. It isn’t too outrageously difficult a choice, though, to pick Volume 4: The Magician as a major landmark in graphic novels in 2014. Creator Matt Kindt has composed a more than solid arc in this single volume, raised the emotional intensity of the whole series, and confronted many of the elements intrinsic to this psychic super-spy storyline. Here central characters Meru and Henry Lyme find themselves in the cold in more ways than one, and all the elements that have enabled legacy spies to work together break down, leaving the specter of the Mind MGMT organization to cast its largest shadow yet over the future. Mind MGMT Vol. 4 is a major achievement in visual narrative full of experimental flourishes that will be prompting the imagination of comic artists for decades to come. You can read our previous review of the volume here.
8. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath from SelfMadeHero, adapted and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard from the original novel by H.P. Lovecraft
I.N.J. Culbard is not a newcomer to comics in the least, and he’s even produced two previous adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but in the same year that he’s also released his new graphic novel Celeste, both written and illustrated by him, he’s also produced a Lovecraft adaptation that reaches new heights in visual storytelling. Working with a story that includes increasingly expansive dream-landscapes may be freeing for an artist, but it also poses challenges of grounding the reader in a sense of tangible reality, and Culbard use of architecture, natural environments, and remarkable color-choices does just that. For a sense of having explored strange new worlds, and encountering perils there that actually generate adrenaline reactions in the reader, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath exceeds expectations, moving comics forward in narrative techniques. You can find a previous review of this graphic novel here.
7. The Graveyard Book Vol. 1 and 2 from Harper, an imprint of Harper Collins, a graphic adaptation by P. Craig Russell from the original novel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by P. Craig Russell, Kevin Nowlan, Tony Harris, Scott Hampton, Galen Showman, Jill Thompson, Stephen B. Scott, David Lafuente, with colors by Lovern Kindziersky, and letters by Rick Parker
This is a tie for #7 between the two self-contained volumes in adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning young adult novel, but choosing between them would be like dissecting the ingredients of a stellar meal that’s been carefully crafted. Add to that the fact that these two volumes are the work of a large cast of comic creators at the top of their game and any division between them becomes artificial at best, and at worst, totally unnecessary. P. Craig Russell’s guiding influence, and his own illustrated chapters of the narrative, shine out, bringing both epic elements and accents of the vulnerably human to the story. Lovern Kindzierski’s colors play an emphatic role in interpreting the tonal movements of the story, also striking a visual consistency for the world of the narrative that bind the work together and leave a strong impression. As letterer for both volumes, Rick Parker’s painstaking hand-drawn work also ties the story together with a relentless sense of voice and personality that give the entire work a sense of quality, and each of the illustrators keys into an overall sense of practical humor and wonder that creates harmony in the story rarely seen in such a team-effort. These volumes establish a new high water-mark for comics adaptations and from here on out, adaptations that don’t allow for the full creative expression of their artists to a create a new work simply won’t be good enough to attract discerning readers. You can read our previous review of Volume 1 here.
6. Grandville: Noel from Jonathan Cape, by Bryan Talbot
One that sneaked in at the end of the year, but how wonderfully so, and perfectly pitched for the time of the year. This sumptuous telling of an anthropomorphic Victoriana steampunk world dominated by French culture, and an alternate history of our own world took on great resonance with the fourth volume as we gain new insight into the way the world is, with the first chapters of the Bible excised as this world’s origin beginning with the opening of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. The religious resonance goes deep with a cult taking on society and the oft-maligned authority being necessary to help take it down. There is sex, violence, religion, politics and all given an insanely beautiful sheen, and the animal faces not just Greek mask facades to show emotion and character type, but deep wired into the way this world works and prejudice. These are given to very reader of the book, something that sets it apart from one of its serious influences, Blacksad, say. Talbot’s other work this year, Sally Heathcote was a strong contender, but Noel is a masterpiece.
5.The Wrenchies from First Second, by Farel Dalrymple
For something seemingly aimed at a young adult audience, this is a rather complex layering of stories within stories within stories and twists and turns of narratives closer to a post apocalyptic Tristram Shandy or Spike Milligan’s The Bed Sitting Room. When it begins, you actually have a kind of handle on where this is going, featuring brothers who gain a reputation and desire to be demon hunters, before focusing on one of the brother’s lives, and expanding upon it at length. But there is a battle to be fought and more characters to be brought in, as science fights against magic, not just for dominance but for the narrative itself. And all brought to life, Wrenchies, Shadowsmen and all in a beautiful cartoony painted style, that’s everything Rat Queens has wanted to be but wasn’t. Surreally insane – but an insanity that’s catching.
4. The Bunker Vol. 1 from Oni Press, written by Joshua Hale Fialkov and illustrated, colored, and lettered by Joe Infurnari
The Bunker, which first attracted a high degree of attention as a self-published digital comic made an equally big splash and furor when it came to single-issue print with Oni Press. With covers and artwork that immediately struck readers and highly unusual and distinctly “indie”, the comic nevertheless had strong narrative qualities and concepts that made it clear that it would make a mark in comics. When tracking degrees of influence, we can already see comics art styles and storylines that have made it into print based on the experimental qualities of this time-travel and interpersonal drama narrative. Sometimes someone just has to do things “first” before the floodgates open. One of the most memorable aspects of The Bunker is the color-scheme which is both soft and strangely harsh, complemented by the very similar qualities Infurnari brings to his intensely layered linework. Because The Bunker is a complex narrative, the experience of reading the single issues versus the collected volume is actually quite distinctive, each with their own points of recommendation. This first collected volume not only gives you a solid, satisfying serving of what The Bunker is all about, but also feels like it turns up the volume on the intensity of the series when read as a unit. The collection also makes the strongest statement yet of the ways in which the comic will continue to influence the direction of new and innovative narrative styles.
3. The Woods Vol. 1: The Arrow, from Boom! Studios, written by James Tynion IV , illustrated by Michael Dialynas, with colors by Josan Gonzales, and letters by Ed Dukeshire
The Woods is a comic series that also stands as a milestone of changing trends in sequential narrative, paving the way for many of the newer comics of 2014 and beyond. It takes an essentially teen-based narrative in a school setting, radically shifts any sense of safety in this chosen milieu, and catapults us into alien encounters with a creeping sense of hostility in both the environment and in human relationships. That contrast is played unselfconsciously and with full commitment by Tynion IV and Dialynas. When this charmingly drawn, beautifully colored and scary as hell comic can affect us so deeply, what else might comics accomplish in similar rule-breaking veins in the future? When the artwork on a comic is particularly immersive, and the narrative is constructed with arc-units in mind, reading it as a collection becomes a singular experience of its own, and such is the case with The Woods. Reading Volume 1 takes you into a closer examination of characters and their personalities in comparison to one another, and you also get a heightened sense of scale, of these relatively small humans engulfed by a world where it feels like anything at all could happen. Some of the over-arching themes also feel more pronounced as a first volume unit as the pieces of the puzzle come into alignment about the dangers of rebellion for its own sake, power and order imposed on the basis of egotism or fear, and even the virtues of thinking outside the box. The risks that The Woods takes, all quite confidently handled, will continue to impact the kinds of comics we see making their way into shops in the coming year.
2. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir from Bloomsbury, by Roz Chast
I thought I might have had my fill with such narratives after the wonderful Fun Home. But clearly not. This incredibly disturbing memoir, drawn with the lightness and pastel touch makes for a clearer passage for the reader to get from one end to the other without trying to use the pages to cut their own wrists. In this story, it’s not so much about people dying, but them not. The story of Roz’ elderly parents and the way she copes with their care in old age, contrasts with a style more reminiscent of a colour Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, which also gives the book greater appeal. Unlike other autobiographical works, this stays focused on its primary subject matter far more. A fantastic summation of family life as “dark love”, the pain we cause each other as a direct result of loving each other so much, which mirrors the contrast in style and tone with the contrasts of emotion. A gripping, uncomfortable tale that makes me look around my own life and the things I hoard, the things I keep in the constant opinion that I will one day need them, will be my legacy, my husk, and in my absence define myself in the place that I leave.
1. Here from Pantheon, by Richard McGuire
This book was only just published, but it rose straight to the top of my personal cart for the year, joining the pantheon of the likes of Building Stories, From Hell, Black Hole, Scott Pilgrim and Fun Home with its quite remarkable achievement. Based on McGuire’s famous six page strip from Raw Magazine in the eighties, which takes just one scene, the corner of a room, that singular space portrayed through thousands of years, with images upon images, this is how it used to look…
…even translated into film…
…but this is how it looks now.
For three hundred pages, created a dense interconnection of lives, loves, space, as much about the absence as the presence, with the corner of the room now transformed into the central gutter of a double page spread. Some have resented the change, but I think they are fools. Thirty years in the making, this is by far the major achievement in comic books of the year and deserves all the accolades being thrown at it. Outstanding. Just give it the Eisner, the Harvey, and get it published in French so it can win the Angouleme. This is what comics are about.
Honorable Mentions go to:
Seconds, from Ballantine Books by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Hellboy in Hell Vol. 1: The Descent from Dark Horse Comics, by Mike Mignola and Dave Stewart
Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City, from Nobrow, by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez
Sugar Skull from Pantheon, by Charles Burns
Harlem Hellfighters from Avatar Press, by Max Brooks and Caanan White
Bumperhead from Fantagraphics, by Gilbert Hernandez
Legends of the Tour by Jan Cleijne
Hip Hop Family Tree Book Two (1981-1983) from Fantagraphics, by Ed Piskor
Verity Fair: Custard Creams And Pink Elephants from Borderline, by Terry Wiley
This One Summer from First Second, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
How To Be Happy from Fantagraphics, by Eleanor Davis
Polina by Bastien Vivès
Showa 1939-1944: A History Of Japan from Drawn & Quarterly, by Shigeru Mizuki
Aama from SelfMadeHero, by Frederik Peeters
Beautiful Darkness from Drawn & Quarterly, by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët
Saga Deluxe Edition: Vol 1 from Image Comics, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream from Locust Moon Press, by Various