It was the return of the masters, as books by acknowledged cartoon giants topped our fifth annual critic’s poll. Topping the list, Chris Ware’s amazing Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint, which follows the life of an average man—a page per year—from birth to death, showing the missed opportunities and bad decisions along the way, and using the comics narrative itself to replicate the experience of life itself.

It was hard to find much consensus among the year’s books—only Ware garnered four votes, fewer than past winners—and five books were tied with three votes each. The five runners-up included masters Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns for Wilson and X’ed Out respectively, one a stinging black comedy, the other an engrossing dark fantasy. Manga was representedd by the dazzling AX anthology, featuring avant garde work from some of Japan’s most innovative creators. The superhero crowd got a nod with Batwoman: Elegy, a well-told adventure story about a gay heroine who takes on a Lewis Carroll quoting villain. And the rookie of the year is undoubtedly Adam Hines’ mind-bending Duncan the Wonder Dog, a multi-media meditation on the relationship of man and animals.

In the list of books with two mentions, the span of genres reflects the vigor and diversity of contemporary comics, from books which whose physical aspect is part of the story—Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile and Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld—to clear-eyed explorations of real life violence and turmoil—Sarah Glidden’s How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and Yummy by G. Neri and Randy DuBurke. Manga and YA books were well represented overall—there was no dearth of memorable storytelling in any aspect of comics this year.

The list was assembled by polling regular graphic novel reviewers for PW. Critics taking part this year: Johanna Draper Carlson, Kate Fitzsimons, Bill Kartalopoulos, Janet Weber, Calvin Reid, Douglas Wolk, Chris Barsanti, Jason Persse, Kai-Ming Cha, Danica Davidson and Heidi MacDonald.

Several writers presented their overall thoughts for the year – these are gathered at the end of the piece. In addition, Cha’s look at the year in manga can be found here.

Four Votes

Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint, Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly)

This self-contained chapter from a work in progress may also be Ware's most thoroughly conceived individual work to date. Acme Novelty Library #20 sensitively considers subjective human consciousness, and explicates its ideas through deep engagement with the comics form and its stylistic surfaces. (BK)

Three Votes

AX: The Alternative Manga Anthology, various. Edited by Sean Michael Wilson and Mitsuhiru Asakawa (Top Shelf)

More like American indie comics than mainstream manga, this anthology of 33 artists from Japan’s acclaimed magazine on alternative manga opens a new window on Japanese comics. (CR)

Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III (DC Comics)

Rucka's Batwoman—a lesbian forced out of the military by don't-ask-don't-tell—is a force to be reckoned with in this surprisingly complex and affecting thrill ride that puts her up against a deranged gothic Alice in Wonderland crime boss; the lustrous art is something to behold. (CB)

Duncan the Wonder Dog, Adam Hines (AdHouse Books)

A powerfully imagined, emotionally complex and visually detailed, inventive experimental work set in an otherwise naturalistic world where animals can speak, reason and argue the moral consequences of their treatment by humans. (CR)

Wilson, Dan Clowes (Drawn & Quarterly)

A bitter loser’s struggle to find a human connection is shown through a tour-de-force of cartooning styles and black humor. Clowes adds another definitive portrait of a person alienated from the world to his stellar gallery of misfits and oddballs. (HM)

X’ed Out, Charles Burns, Pantheon

A Bizzarro version of 'Tintin' refracted through Burns's characteristically queasy body horror. As with his previous masterpiece, Black Hole, plot is (at least) secondary to stunning draftsmanship and an overarching sense of dread. (JP)

Two Votes

Afterschool Charisma by Kumiko Suekane (Viz)

Ignore the title that sounds like bad hentai. Imagine Clone High as a dark psychological thriller with a black, surprising sense of humor. Volume 1 came out in 2010, and I was immediately addicted. (KF)

All My Darling Daughters by Fumi Yoshinaga

The focus on the daily lives of women of all ages is still a rare subject for American comics, so this single-author manga anthology was a breath of fresh air. Yoshinaga, through a series of interlocking short stories, explores the mother-daughter relationship, considering how difficult it can be for parent and child to learn to relate as adults, each a person in her own right. Powerful in its emotions, the book also frequently surprises in showing unusual decisions with the confidence of knowing what's right for oneself, regardless of what others think. (JDC)

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)

Superb art by Jill Thompson gives amazing depth to a compelling story about animals who defend their neighborhood from a demonic menace. Although there’s an obvious cute factor, Dorkin’s animal heroes are strong characters with a dark side. (HM)

Bodyworld, Dash Shaw (Pantheon)

A goofy yet beautifully rendered, relentlessly experimental mash-up of the high school sports hero and psychedelic drug novel genres that quite literally turns the book on its head. (CR)

Castle Waiting Volume 2 by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)

The simplest actions—moving into another room, raising a child—are enlivened by being placed in an exceptionally illustrated fantasy environment, full of unusual outcasts who've formed a family. The cast is immensely appealing, both visually and through well-written dialogue. These recognizable fantasy characters act as people we might know, thanks to Medley's exceptional work. Always a pleasurable read underlined by a genius level of artistic skill. (JDC)

Bunny Drop, Yumi Unita (Yen Press)

A charming story of a young man who unexpectedly becomes a parent, as he adopts his grandfather's previously unknown six-year-old daughter (his aunt). The humor stems from realism, as both have some challenging growing up to do, but there's a lot deeper feelings shown than just "Isn't parenting wacky?" What would have been a sitcom in this country instead is almost poetic in drawn form. (JDC)

Chi’s Sweet Home, Konami Kanata (Vertical)

This sensitive and funny manga about a kitten will appeal to all ages. Despite its rather simple premise, Chi's Sweet Home is a lovable and endearing tale. (DD)

A Drunken Dream, Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics)

I'll admit it, I've enjoyed my share of manga, but I'm largely ignorant of its history. Moto Hagio's work was an eye-opener. Beautiful, gripping and delightfully weird, reading this book you can see her fingerprints all over shojo manga as we know it. At the same time it works as a solid refutation of the old canard that shojo is nothing but sparkly 14 year-olds with love-angst and magical powers. (KF)

High Soft Lisp, Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

Rosalba "Fritz" Martinez is one of the loopier characters from Hernandez's expansive Love and Rockets universe, but her ditzy, oversexed antics are peppered with poignant moments of loneliness and longing. As always, Hernandez sticks a beating heart at the center of his raunchy pulp adventures. (JP)

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, Sarah Glidden, (DC/Vertigo)

A young woman’s journey to back up what she thinks she knows reveals how much she doesn’t know. Glidden’s sober, will observed cartooning sheds a personal light on one of the thorniest problems of our times and announces the emergence of a new voice in non-fiction comics. (HM)

Love and Rockets: New Stories #3, The Hernandez Brother (Fantagraphics)

Los Bros. Hernandez show they are still at the peak of their cartooning form. In “Browntown” Jaime mines family history, cruelty and the hinted-at pasts of his well known cast for an unforgettable story of innocence lost. (HM)

Meanwhile, Jason Shiga (Amulet Books)

This book stands on its own as it breaks the mold from the traditional graphic novel. The concept of following different pipes to read a story is a huge feat itself. Every time I booktalk the book, kids say “Whoa!!!” and their eyes pop open because they’ve never seen anything like it. (JW)

Smile, Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic Graphix)

A girl’s early adolescence is marred by an accident that knocks out her two front teeth in this winning autobiographical tale. Telgemeier captures childhood issues of self-esteem at their most vulnerable and identifiable. (HM)

The Unsinkable Walker Bean, Aaron Renier (First Second Books)

A standout among this year’s bumper crop of YA comics, Renier’s tale of pirates and high sea adventure is firmly in the tradition of European comics with a rich color palette, sometimes outlandish characters who all have their own motivation, and a story that doesn’t shy away from painful consequences. (HM)

Weathercraft, Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)

Jim Woodring first hit his bullseye so long ago, and has been splitting his own arrow right down the middle so many times, that he's easy to take for granted. Don't. Weathercraft is a magnificent and slightly wicked little book: a whimsical farce about some of the nastiest, darkest metaphysical stuff there is, a banquet for the eyes that starts growing tendrils once it's inside you. I'd say it's concerned with how the world is sickened, what kind of personal transformations can heal it, and why an enlightened soul might choose to renounce enlightenment. But the wonder of Woodring is that almost everyone I've talked to about it has a totally different take. (DW)

Wednesday Comics by various, edited by Mark Chiarello (DC/Vertigo)

Giant, beautiful and a gorgeous experiment, this was the book I most desired this year. DC broke out their best writers and artists, let them play with DC's most popular characters and unleashed them on giant newspaper-sized pages in glorious Sunday Funnies color. Some contributions were brilliant, others were less so, but I enjoyed every minute of it. (KF)

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, G. Neri and Randy DuBurke (Lee & Low Books)

Both a systematic investigation of the roots of violence and a methodically rendered, moving fictional recreation of the true life story of Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, an 11-year-old from the Chicago projects who gained infamy from his killing of a 14-year-old neighbor. (CR)

Honorable Mentions (One vote each)

20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa (Viz)

Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean, Sarah Stewart Taylor and Ben Towle (Disney/Hyperion)

Artichoke Tales, Megan Kelso, (Fantagraphics)

Ayako, Osamu Tezuka (Vertical)

Biomega, Nihei Tsutomu (Viz)

Black Blizzard, Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly)

Dengeki Daisy, Kyousuke Motomi (Viz)

Drinking at the Movies, Julia Wertz (Three Rivers Press)

Ex Machina, Vol. 10: Term Limits, Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris (Wildstorm/DC)

FDR and the New Deal for Beginners, Paul Buhle and various (Steerforth)

Foiled, Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro(First Second)

From Eroica With Love, Yasuko Aoike (CMX/DC)

H Day, Renee French (PictureBox)

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Barry Deutsch (Amulet)

How I Made it to Eighteen: A Mostly True Story, Tracy White (Roaring Brook Press)

It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)

Kingyo Used Books, Seimu Yoshizaki (Viz)

Korea As Viewed by 12 Creators, Various (Fanfare/Ponent Mon)

Lucky in Love, George Chieffet and Stephen DeStefano (Fantagraphics)

March Story, Kyung-il Yang, Hyung-min Kim, and Camellia Nieh (Viz)

Market Day, James Sturm (Drawn & Quarterly)

Michael Townsend’s Amazing Greek Myths of Wonder and Blunders, Michael Townsend (Dial Books)

Never Learn Anything From History, Kate Beaton (Topatoco)

Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy!, Fumi Yoshinaga (Yen Press)

Olympians Series—Zeus: King of the Gods and Athena: The Grey-Eyed Goddess by George O’Connor (First Second)

Peepo Choo! Vol.1, Felipe Smith (Vertical)

Powr Mastrs 3, C.F. (PictureBox)

The Incredible Hercules: The New Prince of Power, Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente (Marvel)

Prison Pit, Book Two, Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics)

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press)

Special Exits: My Parents—A Memoir Joyce Farmer (Fantagraphics)

Sweet Tooth, Vol. 1: Out of the Woods, Jeff Lemire (Vertigo/DC)

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, Mike Carey and Peter Gross (Vertigo/DC)

Trickster: Native American Tales, Various, edited by Matt DEmbicki (Fulcrum)

Twin Spica, Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)

Two Generals , Scott Chantler (McClelland & Stewart)

Underground, Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber (Image)

Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics)

Wild Kingdom, Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly)

You'll Never Know, Vol. 2: Collateral Damage, Carol Tyler (Fantagraphics)

The Year in Review:

Johanna Draper Carlson:

This was the year that comics got serious about the digital realm. Everyone has at least some strategy and way to buy online, although the illegal alternatives are still well ahead of the official in terms of selection, portability, and ease of use.

The end of the year has been punctuated with news of well-respected, internationally known comic stores going under, or on their way—the two items are related, with some wondering just what a focused comic shop has to offer any more. The few dedicated superhero fans need somewhere to get their fix in good quality, of course, but many of them have been driven away by too-high prices breaking their ability to keep a complete collection. Casual readers attracted by the latest movie or cartoon find it much easier to browse and sample online, without having to seek out a specialty location. Graphic novel buyers get better deals, selection, and sometimes service by purchasing online. Fans of independent work read their webcomics or buy direct from the artist. There are too many publications out there and not enough customers for the old-fashioned "carry one of everything" outlet, the true strength of what the direct market used to be.

Print overall is old-fashioned, as we've seen by the struggles and challenges of bookstores, prose publishers, and newspapers these past few years. There's a lot of interest still in drawn works, especially those with unique perspectives and attractive presentation, but so many publishers have retreated to the safe option of the licensed work, a comic based on a TV show or successful novelist's name. In contrast, in terms of this list, we've reached a point where there are so many good books it's no longer easy to predict the top ten. In years past, there were obvious candidates, books that were clearly aimed at the critics for their acclimation. Now, people are just telling good stories. The downside of that diversity is the possibility for excellent works to be overlooked. I hope there's still room for the truly artistic work, a graphic novel that stands on its own with license or tie-in or brand extension.

Jason Persse:

2010 in a Nutshell: We're All Doomed!

As always, the sky is falling in the comics industry. Despite the fact that multiplexes are spilling over with superhero fare and erstwhile "comic" conventions on both coasts keep shattering attendance records, everyone in the old paper-and-staples sector is getting the vapors over $3.99 cover prices, the inevitable domination of digital comics, etc., etc. But rather than thinking in terms of cycles and the inevitability of change, many in the "industry" remain convinced we're in a state of crisis. Same as it ever was. Where are all the millenarians? Sequential art is firmly entrenched in world culture like never before. I have four different ways to read comics at any given time. The Internet has rendered the very concept of "obscure" meaningless and multiplied opportunities for new talent a hundredfold. For readers, at least, this has been a golden age of options and output. I, for one, say, "Long live the crisis!"

Bill Kartalopoulos:

This year felt like the return of the comic book, either reimagined as longer chunks of serialized narrative in book formats—Ware's Acme Novelty Library, Burns's X'Ed Out, C.F.'s Powr Mastrs, Love and Rockets—or slimmer, self-contained, densely wrought works—Clowes' Wilson, Huizenga's Wild Kingdom, Hensley's Wally Gropius—and even honest-to-god comic books either self-published by artists including Sammy Harkham and Matthew Thurber or published by speciality presses including Koyama Press, Sparkplug, Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, and Pigeon Press.