Lone Pine, California is a small town of some 2,500 people located along US 395, about 230 miles north of Los Angeles. To its west is Mount Whitney, highest mountain in the lower 48 states; to the east is Death Valley, where its lowest level, Badwater, is 282 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere; and to the north is Manzanar, where thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Nearby are the Alabama Hills, where several western movies have been filmed, including How The West Was Won.

Despite all the geographical data and American history surrounding it, Lone Pine is quiet, the perfect place for Mary and I to get away from it all, the ‘all’ this time being the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl in my home ‘town’ of Pasadena. As with every road trip we take, I bring along way too many comics to read, thinking I’ll have time to read a good portion of them in the evening after our adventures on the road by day. And as is always the case, no such luck; I think I read a total of four comics on this particular weekend trip. Here I thought I was going to read and write about my selections for favorite comics of 2006. Instead, I have more notes for a travel book than a personal and complete Best of Comics 2006 column.

Still, I’m putting a “Best of” column together anyway, albeit in different parts, because I’m impressed at what a great wealth of worthy material is available that was published at the end of 2005 and throughout 2006. I’ve been toting around twenty books the past couple of weeks to read wherever I go, a wide, diverse range of comics and graphic novels, all of which together comprise the best of what I’ve read this year. Much to my surprise, none of them made Publisher’s Weekly list of ten best graphic novels of 2006. I haven’t even read the most heralded graphic novel of the year, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, and yet I know that a few of my selections rank high as compelling literature, certainly, I would think, on the same level as Bechdel’s memoir.

So for starters, here are my thoughts on a few of my favorite graphic novels of 2006, in no particular order.

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
(Vertigo/DC Comics)

A pride of lions escape a bombed Baghdad zoo during the Iraq War then seek safety in a war-torn city. When I finished this beautifully written and drawn graphic novel, the first thing I thought was, “Man, I wish there was a real Zatanna in this world and that she’d cast this major spell, ‘Raw ytilatnem ni eht sdnim fo dniknamuh, hsinav!'” and that would be that. As beautiful as this story is, it’s inspired by and played out amidst the horrors of war. The ending is heart-wrenchingly tragic, and what’s worse is it’s inevitable; you just know it’s coming as the story progresses. There’s some important symbolism sprinkled in during the tale, but I feel it’s there to give the ending an uplifting feel so the reader isn’t too bent out of shape emotionally. But it rings as hollow consolation because you can’t help but be snapped back to reality and realize that war, no matter how justified, is a horrible thing, and hundreds of years of civilized progression isn’t going to render it mute anytime soon. Sadly, I guess it does come down to a Zatanna or higher power; it certainly isn’t man that’s going to preserve himself or the lions.

by Gilbert Hernandez
(Vertigo/DC Comics)

Surreal twists complicate this tale of teenage angst and modern folklore in a small rural city, and the reader is as confounded as the story’s characters. Hernandez takes a love story and shifts perspective radically, jarringly, standing what is real on its head and giving it a concussion. Yes, this tale left me dazed and confused, although the second reading clarified matters tremendously. The story has continued to haunt me on several levels, and while it doesn’t pack the gut-punch of Blood of Palomar, Sloth‘s subtle resonations carry its own unique power. I’ll never look at those repetitious lemon groves along the side of the highway in the same light again.

The Fate of the Artist
by Eddie Campbell
(First Second)

Campbell leads an investigation into his own disappearance, tricky as that may sound, but he hasn’t really disappeared, it’s more metaphor as Campbell is trying to find himself in the midst of the quirky world that is his own as both serious artist and family man. In the end he finds self-realization, but I don’t feel that the destination is what this graphic novel is all about, at least I hope it isn’t. To me it’s more about the journey. The Fate of the Artist is a rather erratic and self-indulgent journey to be sure, but in the way that John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band was self-indulgent. Campbell doesn’t strip himself as bare as Lennon did, but his inward travels offer glimmers of genius and varied points of view that reveal an assured artistic hand. When Campbell gets the answer he’s looking for I’m happy for him and genuinely amused, but I feel set up, as if he knew the answer all along and felt that getting there was more of a discovery than the end result, which, on the other hand, means we’re both on the same wavelength, and that helped make The Fate of the Artist hugely satisfying.

by Kevin Huizenga
(Fantagraphic Books/Coconino Press)

This amazing graphic novel published in durable, oversized comics form reveals a seemingly random sampling of the simple things in everyday life, the day by day events we take for granted, and then it leaves us chilled and disturbed by the thoughts of Glenn Ganges as he lies fully awake in bed one night. What I found subtly terrifying is that this man could be you or me on any given sleepless night. Yet with this realization comes the comfort that we’re not alone, that his fears are shared fears, and that carries a lot of solace.

And that was my writing output on comics for the last day of 2006 and the first day of 2007; not bad for downtime on a road trip, but it’s never the lofty amount I’m always striving for (it was still a great trip, as they all are). That’s okay, maybe next time. Hopefully I’ll have some more “Best of” entries next week (if a fond look back at DC’s output in January of 1977 doesn’t get completed first), where I’ll be focusing on comics that I don’t think anyone has placed on their list of favorite comics of 2006 but I found them all personally rewarding for different reasons (unless, of course, you have Green Lantern #11 on your list, in which case you are, like me, a big Hal Jordan fan and you know as well as I do that it was one terrific comic). On a perfect closing note: Happy New Year one and all!