Graphic novels: Turn it up to 11

Curvy young Goths, psycho superheroes and Red Indian King Lears – Tim Martin rounds up the best comics
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The Independent Culture

There were plenty of good comics this year, but few better than the ones that told you how to make your own. Will Eisner, who died in 2005, was one of the medium's legends, the creator of The Spirit (film out this Christmas) and an inspiration for the stubborn, visionary Joe Kavalier in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay. His Comics and Sequential Art (Norton £12.99) is the classic text on drawing and understanding comics, based on a sequence of lectures that Eisner gave at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Whether or not you're interested in creating for yourself, these lavishly illustrated observations on imagery, timing, framing, character anatomy and the rest will enrich the way you look at the medium: and there's a slew of Eisner companion volumes, including Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (£12.99) and the sketchbooks New York and City People (both £12.99) to continue with.

The small UK publisher Self Made Hero continued to stake out a territory in weird ideas. Prominent in its current catalogue is the Manga Shakespeare series, which offers a variety of fast-moving anime takes on the jewels of Eng Lit that are billed as learning aids, but if you've ever lamented the absence from the London stage of a Red Indian King Lear, a medieval-Goth Richard III or a futuristic cyber-Hamlet, your fix is here. More recently, SMH has been publishing comics adaptations of certain landmarks in world literature: this year's titles included a slightly wooden but visually striking take on The Master and Margarita by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal and a suitably brittle and affectless The Picture of Dorian Gray by Ian Edginton and Ian Culbard (all £12.99). But there's also one stone-cold gem, a creepy, elaborate and beautiful take on Kafka's The Trial (right) by the French artist Chantal Montellier and the writer David Zane Mairowitz, that owes as much to the dark-hued surrealism of Jan Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay as it does to Orson Welles's influential vision of Kafka.

Soap opera, social comedy, punk rock, lesbianism and (aargh!) magic realism: the strange brew that is Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's Love and Rockets is an acquired taste, but unsheddable once acquired. Perla la Loca and Beyond Palomar, two recent volumes of the complete reissue, give an idea of the two main arcs in this long-running and wayward narrative, while Amor y Cohetes (all Titan, £9.99) rounds up a number of weird treasures from along the way.

Rapidly becoming just as much of a cult are the writings and drawings of Adrian Tomine, whose Sleepwalk (Faber £9.99) is the latest in Faber's reprint series. These brief portraits of urban oddity and unhappiness, some only a page or two in length, are inky-black in colour and content with an eye for the decisive moment that trumps many of Tomine's text-only contemporaries. As do Jeff Lemire's Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories (Top Shelf, both £6.50), which centre around the lives of two brothers in rural Canada in the second half of the 20th century. Illustrated with Lemire's unique touch – at once spindly and solid, as though Tim Burton were imagining Steinbeck – these are fantastic comics that deserve a wider audience.

This year looks to have been Marianne Satrapi's annus mirabilis, with the success of Persepolis in cinemas pushing sales of the (excellent) originals through the roof. Embroideries (Cape £8.99) doesn't have the sweep of Satrapi's longer work, but it's a charming miniature: the frequently filthy after-dinner talk of seven or eight Iranian women when the men are out of the way. Deceit, arranged mismarriages, aberrant genitals and one lover who "slept under the bed and let out cries like a jackal": this is wonderful, irreverent stuff. Ultimately less biting, but great fun nonetheless, was Lise Myhre's Nemi II (Titan £9.99), a second collection of misanthropic musings and crosspatch soliloquies from a curvy young Goth.

Other highlights included the haphazard but compendiousYale Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories (£16.99) and the deliciously pulpy Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics (Robinson £12.99).

There was plenty of fine superhero stuff this year, too, though not all of the usual stripe. "My boy sidekick Laddio heard me doing the Tek-Mobile up its tailpipe last night," wails the metal-clad superhero Tek-Knight to his psychiatrist in The Boys (Titan £11.99), Garth Ennis's horrid, misogynist, juvenile, stupid and thoroughly jolly take on the men-in-tights myth. Ennis's sombre, psychologically murky writing on the Punisher franchise is some of the best stuff in recent comics, and The Boys suggests that he needed somewhere for all those repressed willy jokes and beered-up lad talk to go: here they are, turned up to 11, in this tale of a gang of black-trenchcoated mercenaries who form humanity's last line of defence against legions of vapid, musclebound, priapic and perverse "supes". Far more fun than it should be.

If you haven't yet come across the work of Brian K Vaughan, this year was full of good reasons to do so. Whys and Wherefores (Titan £8.99) marked the conclusion of his series Y: The Last Man, in which a young man called Yorick and his pet monkey made their way through the new dawn of civilisation that followed the extinction of all other male creatures on the planet. There were also two more volumes of Ex Machina (Titan £8.99), a compelling mixture of politics and sci-fi, in which the mayor of New York balances the daily drag of city hall politics with the onerous task of being the world's only superhero.

Marvel's archives reminded us of the pulp past of two of the year's big-screen heroes, offering glorious escapist zap-pow-whop in the form of Iron Man 1963-64 and The Definitive Incredible Hulk (both Marvel, £15.99). And 2000AD Books, long the proving ground of some of British comics' finest talents, brought out three collections of the ultraviolent bounty-hunter series Strontium Dog (Agency Files, The Final Solution, The Kreeler Conspiracy, all £13.99) that should guarantee a Christmas of joyful adolescence-reliving for the overgrown bloodthirsty child of the family. If, that is, he or she isn't submerged in Watching the Watchmen (Titan, £24.99), Dave Gibbons's peerless making-of volume on what many consider the best comic of all time, or in the deluxe hardcover (£25) that appears just in time to catch the wave of the forthcoming film.

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