Year’s Best Graphic Novels, Comics, and Manga

The concept of putting together a compilation of the year’s best graphically illustrated work is fantastic. There are so many comics, graphic novels and the like released over a twelve-month period that it’s inevitable that something daring or inspired will slip through the cracks. And with more and more great work coming from smaller presses and not-as-well-known creators, a volume that pulls what’s deemed to be the best of the best is handy.

And on that level, Year’s Best Graphic Novels, Comics, and Manga succeeds brilliantly. Its 272 pages include an introduction from Neil Gaiman and write-ups on fifteen graphic novels, eleven stand-out monthly comics issues and four manga series, all designed for both seasoned comics fans and newcomers to the medium. The line-up is diverse, too. Blankets, Superman: Secret Identity, Scott Pilgrim, Blacksad, Suspended in Language, and The Original, a group of work that cuts across the spectrum of styles, moods and subject matter, are represented in the Graphic Novels section of the book. Similarly, in the Comics group, pages from Batman and Plastic Man are found alongside pages from Demo, Fables and Love and Rockets.

For a broad scoped introduction to quality work, Year’s Best is a can’t miss. But the book ultimately becomes a big tease.

Credit editors Howard Zimmerman and the late Byron Preiss for selecting choice cuts from the works included in the book; they’ve picked some great things. And if you have little to no familiarity with any of the novels, comics or manga in the book, you’re likely going to find more than a few pieces that catch your interest. But reading through Year’s Best is like going to a music store and listening to a 30-second sample of a great song at a listening station: the sample is predetermined, and if you’re intrigued enough to want to hear the rest of the song or album you’ll have to buy the album.

Those listening stations are, admittedly, selling tools. But does that mean that because you get a similar effect with this book that Year’s Best is a tool to sell more copies of a group of novels, comics and manga? Possibly; after all, the writers and artists responsible for the works in the book do live in a cash-driven world.

What’s more likely is that, unless you want a 1000-page behemoth, it’s impossible to include every page of every work listed in the book. And that’s fair enough. Like every year-end list, this one is meant to serve as a starting point to find decent works. (The fact that some of these works are from 2004 rather than 2005 and the issue of Batman included in the book, chapter three of the Hush storyline, is from 2003 is perhaps beside the point. If the Grammy’s can honor albums released in 2004 as the best album of 2005, anything goes.)

Where the selections become dicey is in their length. Some snippets are only a couple pages while others are decidedly longer. Why the disparity? Is it a coincidence that the shorter pieces are from major publishers, like DC, while the longer ones tend to be more from independents? And why include manga in the book when there are only four pieces representing the genre as opposed to the 15 graphic novels and 11 comics?

These are fair questions to ask when reading through the otherwise handy guide. It’s by no means a homerun as far as compilations though, more like a solid double. Hopefully this collection will enjoy the same type of success that the The Best American Series, books that highlight interesting reading readers probably missed, have enjoyed.

But perhaps future volumes of Year’s Best Graphic Novels, Comics and Manga would be better served by breaking it into three books, one for each genre. Grouping them together only weakens the works and their successes.