There were a lot of great comics last year, and we here at Comic Booked have written a fair bit about them so far. But we tend to be a bit prejudiced towards monthly comics, as they’re the books that we see repeatedly throughout the year. They’re the books we write about constantly, the books that are always a part of the discourse. But for those of you looking for something that you may have missed at the comic shop this past year, here’s my personal list of five of the best graphic novels from 2013.
1. March, Book One, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Comics)
You won’t find a more powerful graphic novel this year or most others. March, Book One is plagued in its earliest pages by a lackluster framing device that leans just a little too heavily on gee-whiz Americana, but it isn’t unearned. March chronicles the childhood of John Lewis – a congressman from Georgia and a well-known leader in the civil rights movement – from his youth working on the family farm to the beginnings of his activism. While Lewis, the only surviving member of the Big Six, is a powerful figure in American history, the heart of March is about the build-up, about him coming to understand his place in segregated society and learning how to fight against it, and that’s why March works as well as it does. This isn’t a dry historical document, but a deeply personal story of a small group of people who fought for the life they deserved, and it is that immense emotional power that will stick with you.
2. Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life, by Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics)
A pair of teenage girls – cynical and world-weary in a way that only teenagers who haven’t done or seen anything can be – decide to hike from Austria to Italy. They don’t have any money or passports, but that doesn’t stop them. Along the way, Lust and her companion Edi run into hard times and face difficult choices. They are subjected to ‘help’ from men who never talk about what they expect in return and won’t take no for an answer. They are subjected to attention from the police and from the criminal element. They scrounge for food, steal what they can’t earn, and go wherever they like. Ulli Lust isn’t afraid to take the story to some incredibly dark places, but even when it borders on true heartbreak, it never loses the foolhardy sense of adventure that inspired the trip in the first place. It’s a deeply personal story that feels vital and universal in the best ways possible.
3. Boxers & Saints, by Gene Luen Yang (First Second Books)
Yang is quickly becoming the master of smart, approachable character-centric stories with a fantastic bent, a description that matches Boxers & Saints to a tee. Boxers and Saints (two graphic novels that function as flip sides of a single narrative) follow a single vital figure on each side of the Boxer Rebellion in late 1800′s China. In Boxers, we see how Bao goes from a moral child to an extremist rebel in a heartbreaking story that chronicles Bao’s fight against Christianity’s (and the West’s) incursions into China without justifying it – or judging it too harshly. In Saints, we see the other side of the struggle, following a lost Chinese girl named Vibiana who finds acceptance in Christianity that she never found in her home or with her neighbors. Their stories entwine for only one heartbreaking moment, but it’s enough. Any year in which Boxers and Saints aren’t THE best graphic novels I read is a good year indeed.
4. Julio’s Day, Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
100 pages. 100 years. The entire life of a family, starting with the birth of young Julio and ending with his death. In this brief story, you’ll find everything from heartbreaking drama (I can’t think of many characters this year I despise more than Uncle Juan, whose early actions foretell later tragedy) to slapstick that borders on body horror (the blueworm poisoning sequence), all built around the everyday life of Julio’s family. What is perhaps most impressive is just how thorough Julio’s Day really is, dedicating time to building (or destroying) the lives of Julio’s parents, his siblings, his nieces, and his nephews. At its core, Julio’s Day is a book about all the ways you can live your life – or avoid living it, because of what you fear. But what is the difference between the two?
5. Quantum and Woody: The World’s Worst Superhero Team, James Asmus, Tom Fowler, Jordie Bellaire (Valiant)
Valiant has been pretty consistently putting out great work, but it’s rare to see a book that makes me smile quite so reliably as Quantum and Woody. The “world’s worst superheroes” live up to their name in this introductory volume, which features slacker low-key criminal Woody and his straight-laced, anger prone brother Eric as a pair of superheroes united by their father’s death and divided by… well, pretty much everything else. Like many of the best comedy books on the shelves, Quantum and Woody grounds its most absurd impulses – and there are plenty of those – in understandable human drama, in well-crafted action set-pieces and big sci-fi stakes. Quantum and Woody is ridiculous, but it’s well-made, exciting ridiculousness that fans of superhero comics definitely need to be reading.