Working in any large form news source, you usually have to stick with the popular digs. Superhero comics, for all their faults, are the backbone of the industry so a lot of my attention has gone to them. One thing my esteemed editor Andy Hunsaker and I want to work on in 2012 is bringing in more indie stuff for review. Nevertheless, I read all the indie comics I can because the stories are usually just face smashingly good. I decided it was time to give the devil his due so I came up with the 10 best indie books/series of 2011.
One quick thing before we get started. I realize an argument can be made that Vertigo and Image aren’t “indie” comic companies. Well, um, I don’t give a fuck. The stuff they release doesn’t get always get the push it deserves, even within said company. So loosen the grip on that PBR, indie comic hipsters, drop your sack in those stretch jeans and dig into my list.
10. THE WALKING DEAD
Writer: Robert Kirkman
While the recent spotlight for The Walking Dead has been squarely focused on the TV show, the ongoing series is really where it’s at. Rick Grimes and his crew have been through hell and back this year, culminating in the discovery that there may be hundreds more survivors in the post zombie apocalypse. At nearly 100 issues, The Walking Dead is consistently well-written and never fails to be an impactful book. More about man’s struggle to remain human when reduced to their survival instincts, writer Robert Kirkman has managed to sustain a story that could easily have become a one trick pony. Once again in 2011, The Walking Dead proved that it deserves every scrap of adulation it’s received.
9. GREEN RIVER KILLER: A TRUE DETECTIVE STORY
Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Jeff Jensen
Art: Jonathan Case
Anybody who even remotely touches on the world of serial killers has heard of the Green River Killer, the '80s boogie man that terrorized the Seattle area. In 1990, the case was put into the hands of one officer, Tom Jensen. This graphic novel is the story of that case as told by Jensen’s son Jeff. Brutal without ever becoming exploitative, Green River Killer is more the story of a father put under incredible pressures, but the grim tone and incredible art also speak to the horror of the crimes. Green River Killer has one of the greatest openings in recent memory, utterly terrifying and keeps you hooked into the book. Jensen weaves the past and present together with ease and the book never gets confusing. Jonathan Case’s black and white art is the perfect stark design for The Green River Killer. Telling this story without feeding into our lowest common denominator bloodlust is difficult, but Jeff Jensen pulls it off. I was surprised more people didn’t vibe on Green River Killer. Hopefully with this reminder they will.
8. SWEET TOOTH
Writer/Artist: Jeff Lemire
While writer/artist Jeff Lemire continues to astonish with his Animal Man run for DC, we shouldn’t forget about Sweet Tooth. This is a Lemire’s ode to the outsider, the tale of a mutant boy in a post-apocalyptic world and his shadowy father figure. Lemire writes Sweet Tooth with a sense of sadness that surrounds the rather bizarre subject matter. He injects great sympathy for the protagonist and, in current issues, is doing more to fill in the mysteries surrounding the world the story exists in. The real power to Sweet Tooth is the unknown. Lemire is never clear as to where the series is going next and that mystery keeps the excitement through every issue. If Animal Man is Jeff Lemire’s love letter to the dark and twisted, then Sweet Tooth is his poem to the disenfranchised and lost.
7. ANYA'S GHOST
First Second Books
Writer/Artist : Vera Brosgol
Not as many folks read this book as should have, which is a pity. A clever little fable about being careful what you wish for, Anya’s Ghost unfolds the story of Anya, a girl who needs a friend and gets one in the worst way. Anya doesn’t fit in with her strongly traditional family, she isn’t exactly popular at school and she can be a hellion. When she falls down a well and uncovers a skeleton, she becomes linked to its ghost. The friendship between the spirit and the anti-social heroine soon turns ugly and Anya must decide how to fight her new friend. Though written from a strong female perspective, Anya’s Ghost is beautifully drawn story that will touch anyone who has ever felt left out.
6. THE LI'L DEPRESSED BOY
Writer: S. Steven Struble
Art: Sina Grace
You can’t really fuck with a story involving a sad kid who gets his heart broken and listens to The Smiths. While most of Image’s comics are slap-down superhero or supernatural fare, Li'l Depressed Boy is a human story, something that anyone can relate to. Writer S. Steven Struble does the unthinkable, he takes an emo boy and makes him likeable. He also manages to keep the series cautiously optimistic instead of going for the easy all-negative vibe. In my weird and twisted brain, I see Li'l Depressed Boy as what happened to Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes once he grew up.
5. THE UNWRITTEN
Writer: Mike Carey
Art: Yuko Shimizo, Peter Gross
I was late to the game with this series and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Though 2011 was a bit of a transitional year for The Unwritten, it’s still head and shoulders above most of what’s out there. Centering on Tommy Taylor, the son of a famous novelist who is trying to figure out his own way through life, The Unwritten is a love letter to the power of stories. In a digital age we can forget how important stories are and how they shape and affect our lives. The Unwritten celebrates that idea as it bobs and weaves between superheroes and horror, adventure and fantasy. In 2011, some of the mystery elements vanished from the series and the more fantastical side took over. I dug that, I felt it worked. Some didn’t. No matter the petty squabbles, The Unwritten is a mind fuck of a good time.
4. PAYING FOR IT
Drawn And Quarterly
Writer/Artist: Chester Brown
This is not an easy book for people. Writer Chester Brown documents his disdain for romantic love (something he refers to as being destructively possessive) in this sad chronicle of a man using prostitutes as a replacement for true relationships. Paying For It is totally unflinching, if a bit one-sided. The explicit nature of the art allows Brown to not romanticize this unusual arrangement. The one-sided aspect comes in how he never shows the prostitute’s faces and never lets us see how working in the sex trade effects everyone involved. For me, Paying For It was more a personal odyssey, so the sex workers had nothing to do with it outside of their service and how that fed into the protagonist’s psychosis. I can see why that would irk some readers. I just felt that Brown was keeping them faceless because he wanted to see them that way. Faceless relationships he didn’t have to be involved in too deeply.
3. AMERICAN VAMPIRE
Writer: Scott Snyder
Art: Rafael Albuquerque
I fucking hate vampires. Sure, I dug Dracula, but the entire post-Interview With A Vampire explosion has made me sick of the whole damn genre. Enter writer Scott Snyder, who is so damn good he can even make me a fan of vampires. American Vampire takes an entirely different approach to the mythos. Using historical events and breaking vampires up into different species, American Vampire removes a lot of the gothic romantic crap out and injects a real life grit, making the series endlessly compelling. On top of that and Scott Snyder’s ridiculous ability to write, the “hero” of the story, Skinner Sweet, could be the most kick ass character in comics in a long while. He’s cool, heroic but fucked up, with his own sense of morality and good and evil. Snyder’s American Vampire continues to be one of the best indie books out there.
2. MISTER WONDERFUL: A LOVE STORY
Writer: Daniel Clowes
It’s hard to write real life and make it interesting. It’s hard to take the loneliness and despair we all come in contact with and make it relatable to a mass audience. Daniel Clowes has been doing that for years and with Mister Wonderful: A Love Story, he may have hit his most sanguine story ever. The story is simple, Marshall, a 40-year-old cynic, sits in a coffee shop waiting for a blind date. He is consumed with how he ended up in this sad and lonely state. He envisions his mystery date to be the one, the girl who will eat bagels with him and read sections of the paper he doesn’t like. When his mystery date Natalie finally shows, the ensuing night puts the unlikely couple to the test. Not just a thoroughly enjoyable story, but also a heartwarming one that beats within the heart of a cynic. Showing through the paper illusions we try to pass off as real and buckling down to what truly feeds our soul is what Daniel Clowes does best. Mister Wonderful: A Love Story is a brilliant slice of life that needs a lot more attention lavished on it.
Writer/Artist: Gabriel Moon, Fabio Ba
2011 sucked for me. For reasons I’d rather not go into, the entire year was a dark and devoid of good times. Within this sadness came the collected volume of the series Daytripper, one of the few indie books that wallows in optimism as opposed to cynicism. The narrative is loose at best, outlining the life of a protagonist who knows he’s going to die. Instead of focusing on death, the book gives us stand-alone stories about how beautiful life is when we stop and really take the time to notice it. The touching prose and beautiful art actually had me crying at the end of some stories. As much as I love superhero fare and horror comics, I also love when a book touches the humanity in all of us. Daytripper does that and still manages to keep a melancholy sadness that we can all relate to.
Editor's Note: Yes, the Daytripper series was first published in 2010, but we weren't doing this in 2010, and the collected series came out in 2011. So we're counting it. Besides, shouldn't art be timeless? Yeah, that's our excuse. It's still good stuff. Read it again.