It's the start of January; let the nostalgia begin.

*All right, here's the 'best of' list. In light of the fact that this is a final, immutable talley of quality for 2008, and that all excluded works are likely to be withdrawn from circulation and promptly burned for the health of the art form, I've expanded the list to 20 items rather than the usual 10. Your favorite excluded work was #21.

As always, because I hate fun and quality, I don't count reprints or archival collections of material already published in English. Er, except for Slam Dunk, which is in the odd position of being a restart of a prior, doomed translation project, with a separate English translation also available outside of North America. Further, be aware that my year's reading was absolutely not in any way close to comprehensive (I'm really gonna regret having not gotten to Theo Ellsworth's Capacity or even located a copy of Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy beyond a passing glimpse at a convention table, I can feel it) - webcomics and ultra-limited minicomics are a particular weakness. I beg your forgiveness, and commend this huge stack of lists to your attention; it's been a year of varied favorites!



20. Slam Dunk Vol. 1 (of 31): And why not start things off with a classic beginning? This has been a big year of translations for superstar sports mangaka Takehiko Inoue, although I'll cop to not particularly liking much of Real, his later, 'serious' basketball work; while gorgeously composed, it frequently, uneasily bolsters its gritty pretense with overbaked melodrama, leaving its would-be affecting portrait of errant youth distinctly unconvincing and slightly ridiculous (the same problem troubled another of the year's critical darlings, Inio Asano's solanin). No, give me Slam Dunk, maybe the sports manga of the '90s, and this year's only unashamedly juvenile comic that got me feeling happily teenaged myself. Inoue's high school is a veritable circus of unstoppable hormones, antic comedic anxiety and decidedly adult-looking boys greeting each other with their fists - an endearingly faux-dangerous place built to tantalize even-younger boy readers, and the perfect place for basketball to focus a tough guy's momentum and maybe save his goddamned soul. My only wish is that VIZ would release it faster. Review here.

19. All Star Superman #10 (of 12): Now that we're safe and sound at the end of all things, it's fun to look back on this already-revered Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely/Jamie Grant project and enjoy how cocky it was, all but begging comparison to a pair of noted Alan Moore super-works (Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Supreme: The Story of the Year), then handily surpassing them both. This was the best issue of the lot, one that writer Morrison specifically set aside to "condense and amplify the themes" of the whole work, becoming the one comic book you could hand somebody to show 'em what this Superman guy is all about. I'm not sure if it quite succeeds on that level -- it's ultimately a bit too beholden to the larger series' Superman is Dying! plot points to really function as an independent unit -- but there's no denying the poignancy of this issue's time-jumbled portrayal of a fading man from the heavens striving to act like a wonderful god, and the humankind of two universes rising to cope with a savior that's either absent or soon-to-be so, yet never not an inspiration. Review here.

18. MOME Vol. 12 (Fall 2008): Simply the best-yet issue of Fantagraphics' occasionally beleaguered house anthology, smartly splitting its obligatory 'established master' story slot between two L'Association giants, Killoffer & David B., both of whom bring (newly translated) works that play to their considerable aptitude for, respectively, slow-build confessional horror and dreamy allegorical fantasy. Toss in some short treats from excellent regulars like Tom Kaczynski and Al Columbia, plus a flat-out awesome piece of free-associative anxiety-of-influence comedy by North American publishing newcomer Olivier Schrauwen (of the superb English-language, Belgian-published My Boy), and by god you've got yourself a comic. Granted, not everything in here sparkles quite as much (the story of anthologies, eh?), but never has the great so outweighed the decent for MOME. Review here.

17. Speak of the Devil #5 (of 6): New Gilbert Hernandez, best-of list, etc. Yeah yeah. Beto also had some decent (if uneven) stuff in the new (and accordingly uneven) Love and Rockets: New Stories Vol. 1, but this latest Dark Horse-published entry in his movies-within-L&R project stuck with me the most, especially this sun-bleached, blood-drenched reverie among three beautiful knife-kill murderers, cruel and cool like the better exploitation cinema. 2007's early issues got needled a bit by some critics (like me) for being airy and insubstantial in a way that wasn't flattered by serialization. Surprise: it got better! A trade is now available for connoisseurs of grimily poetic slashin'. Review of the whole series here.

16. Kramers Ergot 7: Hey, remember that huge $125 comics anthology from Buenaventura Press everyone was talking about a few months back? It totally came out a few weeks ago! And its famous 21" x 16" golden oldie newspaper funnies size creates an odd tension: is it a particularly contemporary expectation to want the 60(!) included artists to 'use the size' in a novel way? Isn't it more fitting for cartoonists to just do their thing at grander dimensions, since working big couldn't entirely be a consideration for early 20th century artists who knew 'big' as the standard? Are these even sound qualitative judgments, given the unique situation such work finds in the 21st century? Still, the best of this project's short works carry quite an impact, and the proportions seem to have inspired a beguiling sense of optimism in otherwise famously downbeat storytellers like Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine. Review forthcoming.

15. The Drifting Classroom Vol. 11 (of 11): It takes a special kind of comic for someone to refer to its features as "100 uninterrupted pages of children screaming," and for me to nod my head and think "that's fair." But so it went for Kazuo Umezu's VIZ-published, high-volume '70s survival horror masterwork of schoolchildren trapped in a future hellscape, the sort of thing where you'd swear in vol. 9 that the only means of getting more over-the-top would involve robots and dinosaurs, and then vol. 10 actually contains robots and dinosaurs. But I liked the finale best of all, as Umezu shoves his saga screaming toward resolution and in the process swings his louder-is-nearly-as-good-as-loudest aesthetic toward the wholesome traditions of shōnen manga. An adversary extends the hand of friendship to a fallen foe! Kids join hands to rend the very fabric of time through hope and explosions! Parental guidance actually drops from the sky! Irony is cuffed to the mat with one swing! And then, just as the curtains close, it slowly dawns on you that a big ol' chunk of the tale has built into a genuinely moving allegory of a parent coping with the loss of a young child, on top of an eerily convincing cry for planetary preservation, and you wonder how Umezu did it, and yes, then you appreciate the potential of the unsubtle. Review here.

14. Fight or Run: KH Best of Year Book 1. I like that Kevin Huizenga spreads a wide variety of comics out across different publishers, and that each of those projects has such a unique character - if you're gonna be a pamphlet-format/short story specialist in a shelfbound era, leading a twilight toast for the independant comic book, you might as well become as many things as the brief format can allow. This is the artist's Buenaventura Press thing, an endlessly clever, always-kinetic adaptation of one-on-one fighting video game tropes to the comics form, gleefully banging its head off the walls of funnybook action as its funny characters either bang on one another or flee to parts unknown; the latter option offers some unexpectedly comprehensive victories. Some may call it slight, but if only every small comic was so individually unruly! Review here.

13. Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 (of 6): Don't take this year's lower ranking of C.F.'s PictureBox-published fantasy epic as a grave omen of nosediving quality or anything - it's a different year, with different comics, and the story is obviously missing a certain shock of the new (although the new addition of selected color sequences is a pleasant shock of its own). There's still atmosphere to spare, and an uncanny sensation of place built from moments of sex, violence, connivance and conversation, not to mention an unexpectedly sweet sensation of shared humanity beneath the artist's easygoing use of magical questing accoutriment, and possibly the best lettering in small-press comics. And maybe a magick subtext I've totally missed? Seriously though, those colors are fucking nice. Review here.

12. Swallow Me Whole: By far the best work I've read from artist Nate Powell, a thick Top Shelf graphic novel keenly focused on the deeply underused theme of sibling love (no, not that kind, pervert). Fly-on-the-wall observations meld with inner voices and terrible visions as two troubled kids advance through the little-big issues of life, while the big-big issue of mental illness prepares to leap onto everything. Several outstanding scenes lead into a bravura finale of near-religious imagery and accordant sacrifice; it's only gotten better the more I've dwelled on it. Review here.

11. Gus and His Gang Vol. 1: You don't often hear about an English-language publisher's particular organization of a foreign comic having a substantial effect on the work's impact, but that's basically what First Second has done by paring up the first two French tomes of Chris(tophe) Blain's ongoing Old West comedy in one package. I totally understand why early reviews of the first album criticized the artist for devoting his tremendous cartooning (and Blain is outstanding with matching loose character art with perfect variations on a grid-based visual foundation) to cowboys-in-lust frivolity, but I also found that the second album did a stellar job of teasing out the deep longing that coursed through the frolic that came before, outlaws and villainy transformed into potent metaphors for fleeting liberation, gone as quick as the robbery scenes cut off by Blain's comedy of omission. Review here.

10. Omega: The Unknown #10 (of 10): I know I tend to give prose writers trying their luck at comics a hard time, so let me give it up for 2008's finest capes 'n tights comic, bar none, the conclusion of a sequential journey by Jonathan Lethem, aided and abetted by co-writer Karl Rusnak, primary artist Farel Dalrymple, colorist and occasional guest artist Paul Hornschemeier and not-particularly-secret uncredited bonus artist Gary Panter. In all candor, this issue won't make a lick of sense if you haven't read the whole series, but the devout are in for a smashing joinder of victory and dread, as plotlines slowly fade, alienation continues to simmer, and the series' ongoing critique of franchise decay (yep, it sure is a revival of a corporate superhero) mutates into a nightmare parody of entertainment from which none can escape, especially the 'hero.' But Omega and company did accomplish one seemingly impossible feat: a 'literary' superhero comic (and a critical one at that!) which nonetheless seems entirely Marvel in its vivid urban setting and intense angst. Review here.

9. Angry Youth Comix #14: Sometimes the simplest ideas stick with you the most. For example, this: the best work of Johnny Ryan's career, and another evolutionary step taken by his Fantagraphics series toward sheer comedy-of-atrocity dementia. Its whole basis is the elementary idea that slapstick pratfalls aren't very funny when you're the one doing the falling, and by god does Ryan run with it, all the way through puddles of shit, life-destroying disability, medical creativity, child homicide, cybernetic sex addiction, the cold-hearted agony of revenge and so many laughs. This may be a funny book -- sometime really funny, and disarmingly well-crafted -- but it ends up as the most effective bit of comics horror I've read all year, made all the better by keeping the comedy in focus. Scroll down for a review here.

8. Three Shadows: First Second had a really strong 2008 in terms of sheer quailty -- besides all the stuff on this list, there were perfectly fine works by European masters Lewis Trondheim and Emmanuel Guibert, in addition to a flawed but highly ambitious Prince of Persia adaptation -- but this was probably the surprise of the bunch. I suspect few English speakers had heard of animation veteran Cyril Pedrosa, despite his 10 years in comics, but he clearly devoted his time to building up a versatile approach to comics creation, one he pours out in the service of a sprawling I-can-do-anything story that circles the unlimited fears a parent has for their child, be they of personal, societal or political cadence. It's free-flowing, openly digressive work, maybe the least tidy of all the year's excellent comics, yet somehow even more powerful an emotional force for its flaws. You'll be waiting for Pedrosa's next one. Review here.

7. Ganges #2: KH Best of Year Book 2. Everyone on planet Earth has already sung the praises of this one at length -- lucky that I never got around to a formal review, r... right? -- so let me just assure you that Kevin Huizenga's Fantagraphics thing (in the large, slim Ignatz format) remains his most satisfying forum for blending his countless interests into fully-formed straightforward narrative works. Interestingly, video games are also the topic of this one, which follows a very Fight or Run-style overture with a more considered take on personal projection and gaming, and how fantasy worlds come to mark the places we've been. Moving, restless, layered - it deserves the hype.

6. Cryptic Wit #2: Both the best self-published pamphlet and my favorite humor comic of the year. Now, I'm not delusional - I know this latest Gerald Jablonski opus is the very summit of 'not for all tastes.' It's 32 (color!) pages of dense, exhausting single-page vignettes spun out of one of three ultra-particular scenarios, in which stylized, often self-referential rat-a-tat dialogue literally spirals around upwards of 30 microscopically detailed panels per sheet. I suspect it may actually be impossible to read in one sitting; I tend to hit one or two pages before bed myself. And I love it - Jablonski's work is pure comics, sprung from an eccentric but skilled grasp of old-timey funnybook humor for humor's sake, and his bizarre depictions of barnyard strife among talking animals and uncle-nephew chats about school have an amazing cumulative power, divined from an approach you'd swear could never work, until you're seeing it. Review here.

5. BodyWorld: Abhay's right. I mean, I liked The Bottomless Belly Button -- make no mistake, not appearing on a year's end 'best of' list is hardly a searing indictment of a work's quality -- but the Dash Shaw work that really lit me up was newer, more daring, more colorful, funnier, ongoing and free for all to read. That's right, the high-end bookshelf barons at Pantheon might have already snapped up the print rights, but you can enjoy all the newest developments as they happen, including the recent, astonishing Origin of Johnny Scarhead sequence. Free archives too! It's pretty tough to even describe BodyWorld at this point; I guess 'psychedelic high school sci-fi soap opera/mystery/drug comedy' will do. Just know it's got a strange researcher entering a curious town, and that Shaw's art is fluid unto ecstacy as it grapples with flying bodies and curling minds, and that you should go read it. Right now. As dense and thrilling as any pop comics serial I've read in 2008. Review of early chapters here.

4. ACME Novelty Library #19: Chris Ware and pulse-pounding sci-fi thrills - a match made in heaven? Aw, but Ware's an old hand at science fiction (I've eternally got my fingers crossed for an original Frank Phosphate graphic novel in the European album format), and there's plenty more going on here. Honing in on frustrated writer Woody Brown -- a character from the artist's ongoing Rusty Brown serial, although you don't need to know anything beyond what's in front of you -- Ware bisects this issue into a barnstorming comics adaptation of Brown's most acclaimed short story and the sorry saga of the author's coming of age smack in the middle of the 20th century. Both segments inform one another in compelling, intricate ways, smartly parlaying the artist's unmatched skill with reconfiguring his work to different forms (this was all weekly newspaper pages when first drawn, remember!) into sharp visual connections between memory and fiction - you'll hardly believe how Ware's tiny panels can go from capturing the claustrophobic hell of a low-oxygen chase scene to a joyful explosion of a man's memory as he races up a flight of stairs to an unhappy fate, or how the former so deftly foreshadows the latter. A dizzying, multifaceted character study via awesome craft. Hell, it's also got one of the sleekest book designs of the year, but that's kind of a given by now, right? Review here.

3. Travel: Yuichi Yokoyama, the man who fell to Earth. What is the obscure mission of his cracked studies of human behavior? Is it really to defeat the humanism of activity, and thus embrace eternity? Could it be an application of boy's manga tropes to the banal, illustrating the dehumanizing effect of the all-action aesthetic? Or is he secretly so in love with this planet that he can't help but imbue the slightest motion with beauteous, badass power? All that's for certain is that this is a PictureBox comic about a train ride, and all the crazy-beautiful-terrible potentials that lurk in the basic occasion of it all when a fresh-thinking man's your sequential conductor. Nothing else like it in the cosmos. Review here.

2. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard: It probably shouldn't be much of a surprise that Eddie Campbell has quietly become one of the most prolific creators of high-quality bookshelf-ready comics in recent years - the 1995-2001 iteration of Bacchus was one of the few self-published comics of its day to actually see release on a mostly monthly basis, after all. But it's still marvelous how frequently Campbell presents such fine books -- soon his larger series will be entering the massive omnibus phase -- and this First Second publication (written in collaboration with Dan Best) is among his finest, a top-notch work of formal mastery, comedic tale-telling and empathetic characterization seeing a young man craft the story of his life through adventure, error, fraud and determination, as extra-worldly presences comment from the margins and lively events dominate his human vision. As lovely and poetic an evocation of life ongoing as I've read in recent comics. Review here. And raise your glass to The Playwright, in 2009!

1. What It Is: Hmm, but what is it? Right now it's an increasingly divisive book from Drawn and Quarterly, which makes sense. Of all the comics released this year, high-toned or low-down, this has the most forceful sense of purpose, and the most uncompromising message. Lynda Barry's lyrical autobiography/philosophical text/how-to creative guide strongly evokes one of this year's best archival reprints, Where Demented Wented: The Art and Comics of Rory Hayes, which is utterly soaked in the idea that the notorious underground legend created comics with regard for nothing but catching lived perceptions on paper. What It Is is much the same in attitude, but determined to whisper its words to the living, away from the aesthetic safety of the crypt. It's not just that Barry's work denies the applicability of critics or editors or peer review; no, it's just as disinterested in publishers, readers, capitalism, careers, 'making a living' - anything other than the creation of art as an act of primal personal freedom, a need of paramount importance to life itself. And Barry repeats, and demonstrates, and pontificates, and makes it all seem like the most simple and natural conclusion a person can reach, so basic you can confuse it for banal, twisted and turned every which way into a prolific beauty, a profound song. Review right here.

And I fucking liked the collage! Yeah, that's goddamned right! In fact, I'm calling it now - 2009 is all collage! Fantagraphics? Collage! PictureBox? Collage! First Second? Children's publishing collage! Kramers Ergot 8 is a 60-foot collage propped up against the Marriott Bethesda North Hotel & Conference Center! Ultimatum #5 is the Ultimate Collage! The Battle for the Cowl is won by writer/artist Tony Daniel and the fists of collage, via collage! Where's my paste? My notebook? My pillow?? Where's the Publish Post button?! I am personally killing 2008 with my two hands, right this second.

Oh, and thanks for reading; more words to be arranged in 2009.