Best Graphic Novel 2015 | Saint Cole | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword

Although he pens comics for Westword every week, that's just a fraction of Noah van Sciver's creative life; he's also published tiny zines, a full-fledged Blammo comic book and a well-received Fantagraphics graphic novel, The Hypo. He's now moved on to Saint Cole, which tells the ordinary story of an ordinary man — the kind of guy who supports his family by working as a pizza-delivery boy and blots out his misery with drugs and alcohol. Van Sciver has a drawing style that evokes everything from old-time classic comic strips to the skilled sketches of Robert Crumb, but his storytelling is all his own.

Jill Hadley Hooper's sensitive illustrations appear on book covers and in national magazines and newspapers, and her paintings get show time at Goodwin Fine Art. But they were also tailor-made for the pages of Patricia MacLachlan's The Iridescence of Birds, a picture book released last fall about the young Henri Matisse and early influences on his career as a painter. Hooper skillfully meshes the sights and experiences of the artist's boyhood in northern France with the spirit and exuberant color of his later works in her block-print illustrations.

While war in the Middle East seems unwinnable, a book that profiles three women who've served in the National Guard won a major victory for a Colorado author. Last year Helen Thorpe, whose Just Like Us took the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2009, published Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War — and not only did Thorpe's efforts earn her good reviews and a segment on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, but Time named it the magazine's top non-fiction pick for 2014. "The mobilization of the U.S. National Guard to Afghanistan and Iraq is one of the most remarkable chapters in the war on terror, and Thorpe's reporting draws on the experiences of three female soldiers to illustrate it," Time said. Illustrate it, and remind us all that no matter how distant the battlefield, war can hit very close to home.

Jeff Miller's grandfather never talked much about how he happened to meet Jeff's grandmother while he was assisting civilian relief efforts in German-occupied Belgium during the Great War. That reticence stirred Miller's writerly curiosity about the little-known exploits of the American-led Commission for Relief in Belgium, which went to ingenious and extraordinary lengths to prevent the starvation of millions trapped behind enemy lines during the long, bloody conflict. Thirty years ago, Miller inherited many of his grandfather's CRB papers and his grandmother's diary, which offered fresh insights into that grim struggle. That led to a sprawling historical novel, a project that Miller eventually shelved, and now to something even more ambitious: a three-volume nonfiction account detailing the biggest relief effort the world had ever seen, self-published through Millbrown Press. The first volume, Behind the Lines, showed up in bookstores just in time to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the CRB on October 22, 1914. Hungry for a good read? Miller delivers.

Aurora isn't messing around when it comes to the arts, something it proved a year ago by naming Slam Nuba veteran (and a member of the group's 2011 National Poetry Slam champion team) Jovan Mays as its first civic poet laureate. Mays grew up in Aurora with a mind for the power of community; as a performer, he's electric, and his enthusiasm for spoken word is easily shared with others on a human level that cuts through the barriers of poetic hogwash. He'll hold the post through December 2016, and one thing's for sure: He'll be hard to replace when his time is up.

Uche Ogbuji won a 2014 Colorado Book Award for the poetry he penned in Ndewo, Colorado. Born in Nigeria, Ogbuji traveled the planet before landing in Boulder to work as a computer engineer and raise a family. In his poetry, he blends his love for the environment and the Rocky Mountain region, his scientific know-how and his passion for language, telling concise stories that delight both the left and right sides of the brain.

Slam poetry is often spoken in tones that reflect the meaning of the words being recited, and competition judges take delivery and enunciation into consideration. ASL Slam isn't audible, however, because it's in American Sign Language. Every month, the local chapter of this national group hosts a slam at Hamburger Mary's as a way for literary artists in the deaf community to perform and promote their work. Competitors slam, rap and rhapsodize with their hands, taking the art of slamming to a whole new level.

Author Kent Haruf, author of luminous novels about life on Colorado's eastern plains, died last fall, and this year, the Denver Center presented Benediction, dramatized by Eric Schmiedl, the third of Haruf's novels the company has staged. Set in the fictional town of Holt, it tells the story of Dad Lewis, an old man dying with unresolved wrongs and griefs on his conscience. It didn't hurt that the estimable Mike Hartman returned to town to play the role with his customary guts, talent and integrity. A web of ancillary characters brought the small, fictional town of Holt to life, and the result was a sense of tribute, peace and, yes, benediction.

An original piece created by the company itself, Naughty Bits sets up three stories, all involving the famed Roman statue of Hercules — the one that was lovingly restored in the eighteenth century except for one teeny part: his penis. There's a wealthy mansion owner and his sexy, satiric mistress, an eccentric art historian, and a romance novelist who has some problems with real men but is working on a book in which a Lady Louisa falls in love with the statue. These characters all inhabit different time spheres, but their worlds eventually intersect, to insanely comic effect. No one can be as smart, inventive, entertaining and original as Buntport at its best — and the company is at its best here.

With its complex set requirements, numerous characters and thoughtful plot, Ambition Facing West is an ambitious choice for a small company, and BETC did it proud. The play deals with three generations of an immigrant family: Stipan, who leaves Croatia for the States before World War I and marries a fellow immigrant from Italy; his daughter Alma, who changes before our eyes from an idealistic youngster to a no-nonsense businesswoman; and Alma's bored and very American teenage son. The play touched your emotions even as it made you think.

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