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2017 in Review: Best Original Graphic Novel

By | December 18th, 2017
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It’s that time of year! The Multiversity Year in Review is here, and from now until Friday, December 22, we will be talking about favorites in a variety of categories. Let us know what we missed in the comments!

Best Original Graphic Novel

These are long form, self-contained books that are not collections of single issues, but are instead artistic visions that have been presented in one deliberate chunk.

5. The Best We Could Do

Motivated by the birth of her own child, first time mother Thi Bui spent twelve years painstakingly crafting her graphic memoir, “The Best We Could Do.” The result is a masterwork that succeeds on a scale that is simultaneously epic yet incredibly intimate, balancing universal themes and big ideas with the highly specific, multigenerational story of her birth family’s life war-torn South Vietnam.

Poring over the book’s artfully constructed pages you quickly realize that you’re not just a passive reader, but an active participant. Creator/narrator Bui takes you on her incredible journey as daughter, mother, artist, and refugee, traveling from present day America her native Viet Nam of the war torn 1970s, spiraling through time, vacillating from past to present and back again, as you both piece together the story, one detail at a time.

In what could be described as a microcosm of the entire piece, Bui shares a glimpse of her process in a brilliant four-panel page, rendered in the book’s characteristic monochromatic burn-orange look, reminiscent of antique sepia tone photos. “To understand how my father became the way he was,” she narrates, “I had to learn what happened to him as a little boy. It took a long time to learn the right questions to ask.” As we read these words, Bui’s illustrations deliberately play with the concept of time. She portrays her father first as a young man, then a young boy, then an adolescent and finally as the present day father she struggles to figure out. All the while, at every stage, a cigarette burns between his fingers, his daughter patiently watching, waiting for him to speak.

Amazingly, from beginning to end, Bui’s incredibly personal narrative somehow remains objective, largely told with the detached, matter-of-fact tone of a journalist or historian. And yet, she also infuses virtually every page and panel with remarkable empathy. She not only shows us the story (instead of telling us about it), she strips away any artifice and takes us right along with her. Like other classic examples of the form, such as Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” or Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” to name just two, the magic of “The Best We Could Do” is how it interweaves, explores and contextualizes the personal and the political. There aren’t any fancy tricks, verbal gymnastics or visual sleight of hand. It’s just incredibly well done. A powerful reminder that “history” is the collection of individual stories, lived by real human beings. Bui’s characters are not perfect, but her graphic memoir is damn close. – John Schaidler

4. Roughneck

By now, you’ve heard of Jeff Lemire. The man has dominated the superhero mainstream with great runs on “Old Man Logan” and “Green Arrow,” but his roots are set in gritty, slice of life stories that show the best and worst of human nature. “Roughneck,” his latest of these ventures, is an emotional, gut punching rollercoaster up with his other work like “The Underwater Welder” and “Essex County.” “Roughneck” tells the tale of a retired hockey player who made his way to fame with a vicious, street fighting demeanour on the rink. Like the best of Lemire’s work, it involves his reunion with family, with family secrets being unearthed and coming to life.

What’s different here, and just as enticing, is these protagonists aren’t as immediately likeable as Lester from “Essex County,” or Gus from “Sweet Tooth.” Derek, the protagonist, is an alcoholic with severe anger issues, who doesn’t know where to draw the line. His sister, Beth, is a junkie who got in with the wrong crowds and can rarely summon the strength to even get out of bed most days. Yet Lemire finds the delicate balance between despicable and respectable, and pulls on our heart strings to care about these characters as if they were out own kin.

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The other big draw here, of course, is Lemire’s excellent cartooning. “Roughneck” features a mostly blue and white palette, conveying the cold Canada air and malice within the story excellently. But within the details, lies a great portrayal of humans raw and emotional in the same style we’ve come to know and love. There’s still lots of that close-up, almost confessional room portrait style panels that almost gives us a glimpse into the soul of Derek or Beth. But there’s some really great panoramic scenes that combine urban with nature, my personal favourite being when the bars of Derek’s prison cells become bamboo shoots in a forest as he forgets where he is at a moment.

Ultimately, if you love Lemire then you know what you’re getting with “Roughneck” but in no way is that a bad thing. Lemire pushes his cartooning style to the max, creating a rich, beautiful setting with storied and complex characters to live in it. If you need something to bring out the tears, look no further than this. – Rowan Grover

3. Savage Town

From the moment I opened “Savage Town” and saw the dedication page declare “For Steve Dillon,” I knew I was in for a treat. Declan Shalvey, Philip Barrett, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles, Emma Price, and Sebastian Girner do something truly beautiful in this graphic novel about a gang war in a small Irish town full of betrayal, violence and a many pints of beer. Shalvey has been on the rise this year and is continuing to show he is a man of multiple talents, and he is one of the rare writer/artists to be on the lookout for. Barrett’s art channels the grittiness and gore of Dillon with the sleeker lines of someone like Shalvey for something in the middle that portrays the grime and the complexity and violence of this world. Bellaire is at the top of her game, and the way she uses shadows on faces and objects throughout the book is really impressive.

There are so many facets to the conflict in “Savage Town,” tackling questions of poverty, violence, family, betrayal, friendship, love and so forth all with a veil of hilarity. This is truly an Irish comic, and all of Shalvey’s Irish vernacular is really something. I laughed and felt and was grossed out all in the span of 120 pages, and I think that’s the point. This book is some of the best of Image and comicdom from 2017, and I would follow Shalvey and Bellaire and Barrett anywhere after this.

This is a wonderful tribute. I think Dillon would be proud. – Kevin Gregory

2. Spinning

Tillie Walden’s memoir of ice skating, growing up, and coming out is an incredible achievement.

It is incredible in its heart and honesty, “Spinning”  is instantly relatable, a classic coming of age story, while also feeling fresh and unique. What differentiates this from the more archetypal coming of age story is perhaps its scope and reality, the way it blends the specifics of Walden’s real life with universal experiences, and unifies the disparate, messy threads of life into a single, coherent piece. The “Spinning” of the title is a direct reference to the figure skating that Walden participated in for twelve years, but it is also emblematic of the way Walden tells her story, weaving in and out of all aspects of growing up. Even the way the word is written on the cover suggests this, with the letters almost merging together.

It’s incredible in its approach, veering away from Walden’s previous work, “Spinning” remains grounded in real spaces, within grids and rigid panel borders, rather than the shifting planes of space and panels in her earlier work, where size and space are relative and malleable. To tell the story of the reality of her life, Walden needed the grid to manage all the messy parts of the real world. Walden’s art is focused on the characters, faces are strongly emotive, there’s a constant sense of living movement to her figures. Walden’s use of colour continues a focused precision, mostly just using this beautiful deep purple with sudden deliberate injects of bold yellow, Walden does a lot with a little.

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It is incredible in that Walden is so young, only 21, yet is able to reflect so effectively on her life only a few years before. A 21-year-old writing a memoir may seem absurd, but I think the book is helped by how fresh the memories are, the emotions are still within reach and they come out on the page. Perhaps it’s a kind of cathartic exercise, expelling the lingering emotional presence of youth through art so Walden can continue into adulthood.

“Spinning” is a book that is filled with relatable and honest emotion, great cartooning, and powerful reflection. It shows Walden as a master of her craft, who at a young age knows how to utilise the tools of comics to make one of our favourite graphic novels of the year. – Edward Haynes

1. My Favorite Thing is Monsters

Oh boy, what a story. The praise for Emil Ferris’s book is universal, appearing on every end of year list I have read so far, and is making headlines because of her wonderful art and storytelling. But first, some incredible context, “My Favorite Thing is Monsters” is the debut of a 55-year-old author, who struggled hard making it and getting it to our hearts, it was a complete fight against destiny.

Ferris was a freelance illustrator and designer, when she contracted the West Nile fever from a mosquito bite at age 40. She was paralyzed from the waist to her feet and lost her right-hand mobility. She eventually regained functionality and, despite constant pain, she got up and went to college to study at the School of Art Institute of Chicago, where she started working on her debut book, and earning two Ignatz awards: Outstanding Artist and Outstanding Graphic Novel, making it an extraordinary example of art saving the artist.

Originally “Monsters” was set to be released October 2016, but the Chinese company that was supposed to ship the books was declared bankrupt and the goods of the ship, meaning, the entire 10,000 print run of the book, was seized at the Panama Canal until the debts were cleared and the book was finally in stores on February.

If a story so appealing didn’t get your interest already, lets talk about the book. Made with ballpens and felt tip markers in lined notebooks, Ferris drew inspiration from EC Comics, Art Spiegelman, Universal and B-movie monsters to tell a story in the form of a diary about 10-year-old Karen Reyes, a self-proclaimed wolf-girl, in the late 60s in Chicago, as she tries to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor, a Holocaust-survivor named Anka. As Karen learns about Anka’s past, the story begins to densely unfold, making wonderful observations about the meaning of humanity versus being a monster, race, and sexuality. And, although being a story 20-years in the making, it perfectly fits to this year’s landscape.

This is truly a magnum opus, set to be studied and admired on the coming years and decades.


Editors’ Commentary:

Matt: This is a great list. I think our staff selected a strong and varied group of books, all of which have the potential to reach and touch audiences beyond even the little book corner that is comic-dom.

Alice: One of the best things about OGNs is how varied they can be in both style, form and story. From the layering of ballpoint pen ink in “My Favourite Thing Is Monsters” to the authentic dialects of Ireland in “Savage Town,” this list feels well varied and distinct.

Brian: Matt and Alice said it all – this is a great list, full of diverse voices and really unique stories. This is a category I wish we extended to ten this year, because there were some truly amazing books left off the list – “Mr. Higgins Comes Home,” “The Nameless City: The Stone Heart,” “Beowulf,” “Hellboy: Into the Silent Sea,” and “Afar” all just missed. Th

//TAGS | 2017 Year in Review

Multiversity Staff

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