Favourite Books of 2011 - John’s Picks

2011 was another great year for books. As has become an annual tradition here are my favourite books from the past year, just in time for your holiday shopping — every one of these, perfect for the cartoon/illustration/design nerd on your list. Or get yourself a little something. Treat yourself.

Nobrow 6

Okay, I’m a little biased because I am contributor to this hefty and colourful book (as is Drawn’s Matt Forsythe). But even if I weren’t a contributor this would top my list. Nobrow expanded their biannual art magazine to a magnificent double issue, now with comics, named, fittingly, The Double. The entire thing is masterfully produced using Nobrow’s signature attention to the printing process. And that lineup! Tom Gauld, Michael DeForge, Gemma Correll, Joseph Lambert, Kevin Huizenga, Luke Pearson, and a zillion others.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Not much can be said about Kate’s comics that hasn’t already been said this year. Her monstrously successful release and tour of this book, a collection of her best and most hilarious strips from her webcomic of the same name, is inspiring to anyone who creates content on the web.

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

A perfect (yes, perfect) picture book. Jon Klassen’s artwork is both lush and minimalist, and his writing is succinct and hilarious. Your kids’ eyes will widen, as will their smiles, when their little brains figure out the grisly (yes, pun intended) ending.

The Death Ray and Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes

2011 gave us two hardcover Daniel Clowes books, so that’s pretty alright, huh? I didn’t read The Death Ray in its original incarnation as Eightball issue 23, nor did I read Mister Wonderful when it was serialized in the New York Times Magazine. I’m clearly in the “wait until it comes out as a book” camp.

Mister Wonderful is Clowes’s most understated work. It may not be as funny as his usual output, but that doesn’t stop the main character from letting Clowes express his usual neurotic, cynical voice.

The Death Ray is a masterful non-superhero superhero story, and a rare graphic novel (if 42 pages sandwiched between two pieces of book board can actually be called a novel) that made me want to re-read it the minute I finished. Clowes is increasingly becoming the cartoonist I most want to study and dissect. I am constantly asking “how did he do that?” when I’m reading his work.

Paying For It by Chester Brown

Chester Brown’s autobiographical graphic novel about his experiences with prostitutes is surely the year’s most polarizing cartoon book. But regardless of your opinions on the subject matter, there is no question Chester is a powerhouse of a cartoonist. There’s no reason such a dense hefty book should be such a swift read — a testament to his talents as both a writer and a draftsman. His careful precise drawings are practically typographic, and any given panel reads as natural as words.

Everything Goes On Land by Brian Biggs

You can read my original review of Everything Goes on Land, but trust me — this is what you give to a kid when you want him to get lost in a book for a few hours in the other room. It is packed with fun drawings and enough details and interactive scavenger hunts to keep a car-and-truck loving kid occupied for days.

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists by Seth

From my original review:

I unabashedly love Seth’s new book, The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. It’s a prequel of sorts to Wimbledon Green, and sets the scene and describes the world in which Seth’s made-up history of Canadian cartooning and comics takes place.

NFB Animation Express 2

This is the one non-book entry to this list. I have such nostalgic feelings for NFB animation collections. As a kid I’m pretty sure I wore out every VHS tape with The Cat Came Back or The Big Snit on it. The latest in this tradition is Animation Express 2. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, as these things always are, but the NFB produces some truly great animation and my favourites are Patrick Doyon’s Sunday, Marv Newland’s experimental and abstract CMYK and Amanda Forbis & Wendy Tilby’s marvelous Wild Life.

Amazing Everything by Scott C.

From my original review:

Scott manages to infuse each brushstroke, each little dude with happiness, optimism, and joy. His is a refreshing and original voice in the world of picture-making, and this book is a sure-fire pick-me-up, reminding everyone who reads it just how fun drawing can be.

Comics Class by Matthew Forsythe

Drawn’s own Matt Forsythe released two splendid books this year. The most recent is Comics Class from Koyama Press, which makes its official debut this weekend at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival. The strips, inspired my Matt’s experiencing teaching comics to kids, are so funny it makes me wonder why he doesn’t do more non-wordless comics.

My Name is Elizabeth by Annika Dunklee and Matthew Forsythe

My Name is Elizabeth is Matt’s first picture book, and I’m not surprised it was a New York Times notable kids book. Matt’s two-toned gouache illustrations perfectly compliment the playful story about a young girl who expresses her displeasure with people taking liberties with her name.

Forming by Jesse Moynihan

From my original review:

Forming is an epic sci-fi creation myth that will have you chuckling like an idiot. Get a taste of the webcomic version, then add this bad boy to your bookshelf.

The First in Line by Mattias Adolfsson

Mattias’s effortless-looking sketchbook drawings are some of my favourite things to invade my Google Reader (his blog is here), and this independently-published collection is a great way to view every detailed ink line and watercolour splotch.

I Will Bite You by Joseph Lambert

Joe Lambert is one of my favourite cartoonists, and we’re seeing just the beginning of what will be a very interesting career. I Will Bite You is a collection of short comics pieces, each one showcasing Joe’s beautiful sketchy pen lines and poetic treatment of the medium. And just check out his sketchbooks on his blog.

Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design by Jennifer Bass and Pat Kirkham

The oft-imitated Saul Bass is probably cited as an influence by more graphic designers than any other figure. So it’s surprising that this is the first book dedicated to his work. You know him best for his title sequences and posters for movies like Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, and his identity work, designing some of the world’s most well-known logos (AT&T, Kleenex, United Way, Quaker Oats, and United Airlines, to name a few). This big book, designed by his daughter Jennifer is the authority on his life and career. It belongs on every designer’s shelf — especially those who fart out “minimalist movie posters” in half an hour and call it a day. Let the master show you how it’s really done.

Custom Lettering of the 40s and 50s by Rian Hughes

Its predecessor, Custom Lettering of the 60s and 70s made my list last year, and this prequel is just as wonderful a resource. Culled from advertising and other ephemera, there are thousands of different examples of lettering and calligraphy — all organized by style.

The Art of Pixar: The Complete Color Scripts and Select Art from 25 Years of Animation by Amid Amidi

A must-have for animation and illustration fans. Author Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew has a solid track record, and even for their lesser films, these Pixar Art Of books, usually devoted to a single film, are always brimming with wonderful art. What sets this particular book apart is that it spans the studio’s entire catalog and reproduces each film’s colour script — a series of lush, colourful preliminary paintings that are to the emotion of an animated film what storyboards are to the action. 

Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth and Drawing the Head & Hands by Andrew Loomis

Titan Books re-released two books by master illustrator Andrew Loomis this year: Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth and Drawing the Head & Hands. Originally published in the 1940s, these how-to books are time capsules of the golden age of advertising illustration. Modernist, abstract and avant-garde illustration styles were nowhere to be seen, Photoshop was science fiction, and realism was king. These faithful reproductions are as much beautiful art objects as they are practical resources. They’re only missing that wonderful musty old book smell and brittle dust jackets, but if that’s what you’re looking for, original copies will probably set you back a few hundred dollars on eBay.

Scenes from an Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine

From my original review:

Adrian Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage is a perfect little book. It chronicles the planning and build-up to Tomine’s wedding in comic strip form, and the occasional single panel gag.

Until now I have never really connected with Tomine’s work. But there is something just right about these little stories presented in a 9-panel grid. Reading the strips is a master class in cartooning. The figures and backgrounds are drawn with precision and masterful minimalism, the punchlines are timed just so, and the lettering and panel sizes are measured and considered to near perfection.

Tomine’s also released issue 12 of Optic Nerve this year, and it continues with this stripped-down comic strip style of cartooning.

Pinocchio by Winshluss

I nearly forgot to add this to my list, primarily because my copy is actually a few years old, and in French. But this English edition was released this year, and you really should snap this one up. It’s primarily wordless, which is why I have kept the French version, and it’s a master class in economical visual storytelling. Not a panel is wasted here in this modern retelling of Pinocchio in which he is, of course, a robot. It’s one of my favourite books period.

Even the Giants by Jesse Jacobs

Like Joe Lambert’s I Will Bite You, Even the Giants showcases the work of a young cartoonist still honing his skills and exploring the possibilities of the medium in short bursts. The book comprises a series of seemingly random comic strips woven throughout scenes of isolation, arctic wastelands, and snow monsters. The strips are poetic and suggest a stream of consciousness, but illustrated with detail and careful draftsmanship. I was blown away by Jesse’s 2008 minicomic Small Victories, and Even the Giants is a continuation of his brand of comics-as-art, and I look forward to what he has in store for us next.

Pope Hats #2 by Ethan Rilly

Ethan’s another cartoonist not rushing to pump out a graphic novel, despite his obvious capability, in favour of sharpening his skills through smaller works and traditional floppy pamphlet comics. The first issue of Pope Hats came out about three years ago, I think, and I can only hope issue #3 sees the light of day sooner than 2014. It’s remarkable how readable and engaging a story about law clerk with an office job can be in the hands of a skilled storyteller and craftsman. 

Dont’ miss Ethan’s interview at Squidface & the Meddler, and be sure to read his short comic Ex Montreal for a taste of his cartooning chops.

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