As always, there are comics I haven’t had a chance to read that should probably be on this list. I haven’t seen either of John Pham’s new issues of Epoxy, for example, and I didn’t get to read Megan Kelso’s new minicomic. Take that under advisement with regard to my long-form and minicomics lists.
Top 30 Long-Form Comics/Collections of 2014
1. Recidivist IV, by Zak Sally (La Mano). A difficult, powerful, and personal work, this comic represents Sally’s exploration of the ideas of inhabiting a space. Whether depicting invisiblity, haunting a space, obsessing over a space, or abandoning a space, Sally merges these ideas with pen-and-ink drawings that are not only totally immersive, but at at times deliberately difficult to read without great effort, in the right light, and at the right angle. This is not a gimmick but rather an amplification of the theme of unearthing that which has been buried. It’s Sally at his best, abandoning any and all commercial pretenses for a frightening and fascinating object that demands multiple rereadings.
2. Education, by John Hankiewicz (Self-Published). Another challenging but engaging work, Hankiewicz masterfully engages in his “visual rhyming” formalist schemes while juxtaposing those images against a related but contrasting stream of dialogue and lectures. The two primary visual narratives involve a man going out for a day with his father and that man thinking about a class he has been teaching. The visuals throughout often snap into dream logic, fantasy, reveries, and other stream-of-consciousness sorts of narrative, as though Hankiewicz is simultaneously revealing the inner workings of a mind while consciously choosing imagery that frequently belies, undermines, or in some other way creates a tension between text and image. This is a huge achievement for an artist who has already had a remarkable career as one of the cornerstones of the comics-as-poetry movement.
3. Arsene Schrauwen, by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics). This is a staggering career achievement: a ramshackle, scatological, apocalyptic, scathingly satirical, and above all else hilarious story about the artist’s grandfather and his experiences in South America. The sequence where Arsene is trying to avoid the rain for fear of worms while his hut keeps springing leaks inspires both intense dread and hysterical laughter, but that is just an aperitif for the extreme weirdness that was to follow. Schrauwen somehow manages to top himself from chapter to chapter while adding in biting critiques of colonialism and gender roles.
4. Here, by Richard McGuire (Pantheon). McGuire’s original short story pioneered a certain kind of time-fractured storytelling style; he now expands it into a full-length narrative of sorts. The hook is that the book simply shows what happened in a particular space (for much of the narrative, it’s the corner of a living room) over several million years. Out of this conceit is spun a rich and overlapping series of images, brought into sharp contrast with the subtle but nonetheless informative color scheme. The overlapping panels presaged the appearance of multiple overlapping computer screens. McGuire transcends the gimmickry by exploring any number of human emotions, experiences, flaws, triumphs and tragedies. The mundane is meaningful and the meaningful is trivial in this book, as time and experience constantly loops around and in on themselves. It’s a tour-de-force.
5. Truth Is Fragmentary, by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books). The latest collection of Bell’s dryly humorous journals includes her three annual “July” daily journals, each an experiment in endurance that forced her to get more and more creative each year. Bell is at a peak level of production and expression in her career, with each new book being at least the equal and usually superior to prior excellent work. She’s also one of the funniest people in comics.
6. War Of Streets And Houses, by Sophie Yanow (Uncivilized Books). Yanow’s account of being present during a tuition strike in Montreal hits on issues of privilege, protest, and frustration with regard to mixing personal and political action. It’s clever, smart, and mixes naturalism with near-abstractions and shapes to create a picture that resembles the atmosphere of tumult she encountered. The mix of academic theory and research with her own personal experiences turns this from a potential polemic to a nuanced and philosophical study of an explosive time and place.
7. Lose #6, by Michael DeForge (Koyama Press). This is DeForge’s best all-around effort to date, as his bleak and brutal sense of the absurd is coupled with surprisingly stirring humanism and drawn in a “stupid” line style that makes perfect sense. The story, though populated with many familiar DeForge visual tropes (debris, snakelike figures, flattening the page), clicks in a way that feels entirely natural.
8. How To Be Happy, by Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics). This collection is astounding because of how hard Davis works to sequence each story and provide appropriate interstitial material. Seeing all of these stories at once provides a remarkable and surprising sense of cohesiveness, as many of them are about restless, lost, and sometimes doomed people. The drawings, the use of color, and the overall packaging all fit into this feeling of reading almost a hand-made item.
9. BUMF: I Buggered The Kaiser, by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics). Sacco’s return to satire after years of steely-eye reportage has been informed by his journey as a journalist, resulting in a brutally acidic, profane, and stunning assault on American politics, exceptionalism, and overall image. Sacco takes as much time taking shots at himself as a reporter and cartoonist as he does in conflating Richard Nixon with Barack Obama in a surreal, grim, but still funny evisceration.
10. The Hospital Suite, by John Porcellino (Drawn & Quarterly). This is a book that took Porcellino nearly twenty years to write and draw; it’s a painful account of a near-death physical illness, and his experiences with depression and OCD. It is harrowing, funny, straightforward but still poetic at times in the manner which we would expect from the creator of King-Cat Comics And Stories. It’s beautiful, emotionally raw and quirky, and provides an interesting companion piece to the issues of King-Cat he published during this period.
11. The Wrenchies, by Farel Dalrymple (First Second). A multilayered, meta epic about fantasy, trauma, growing up, and the terrors surrounding adulthood by way of a powerful zombie/spirit metaphor. It’s by far the best thing Dalrymple has ever done, reveling in and subverting the heroic quest as a trope and positing the idea of art as something that can save one’s life. It’s simultaneously full of hope and relentlessly downbeat, and the dense, scratchy nature of the art serves only to immerse the reader totally into this colorfully nightmarish world.
12. It Never Happened Again, by Sam Alden (Uncivlized Books). This features two short stories, including the pivotal “Hawaii 1997”, which sees Alden abandon his naturalistic style and adopt a more spontaneous, expressive pencil style that is less about detail and more about the emotional and sensory experience of a time and place. The other story, “Anime”, sees Alden begin to explore the lives of unreliable and even unlikable protagonists. Both stories involve a certain kind of peak moment, one that (as implied by the title) is the last time that moment occurred.
13. Doctors, by Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics). Narratively, Shaw’s work has often resisted a high-concept description. However, the idea behind Doctors–that one could briefly resurrect someone by sending a memory into their afterlife–is scalpel-sharp and clever. The moral ambiguity of the characters, the unresolved family relationships and the genuine empathy Shaw displays for all of the characters give it a richness and even warmth.
14. Baby Bjornstrand, by Renee French (Koyama). This is a touching existentialist sitcom about three humanoid boys and the strange-looking creature one of them comes to love as a pet. One of French’s funnier comics, she has an uncanny sense of how boys talk to each other, the nature of friendships, and the difficulty of finding connection. It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, with French bringing in any number of innovative formal touches like how she depicts dialogue by way of coloring the letters and then the corresponding character. French has been one of the most consistently excellent cartoonists of the last decade.
15. Henry And Glenn, Forever And Ever, edited by Tom Neely (Microcosm). What started as a joke on a cocktail napkin evolved into a hot-selling minicomic, a series and now finally a collection. Neely’s accidental brainchild involving Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig as cohabitating lovers is thoroughly silly and ridiculous, but also knowing, clever and handled with a remarkable attention to detail. That’s especially true of the queer creators who contributed stories to this anthology, like Justin Hall and especially Ed Luce, whose musical references are hysterically funny in addition to being funny drawings.
16. Distance Mover, by Patrick Kyle (Koyama). This is a masterful use of shapes and squiggles to depict the sheer otherness of alien worlds and societies, one that not only alters one’s understanding of physics but also of aesthetics. While the book uses a number of formal tricks to depict the warping of space and time, Kyle never abandons its emotional center. It’s also remarkably gentle in tone for a genre/sci-fi comic, which is a reflection both of its protagonist and the artist’s perspective.
17. UR, by Eric Haven (AdHouse). Paranoia, Jack Kirby-style monster comics, autobio affectations and nightmare logic are all put in a blender and set on “puree.” The result is a funny and frequently absurd comic that somehow manages to be true to every genre convention it touches on while gently mocking them.
18. Hip Hop Family Tree, Volume 2, by Ed Piskor (Fantagraphics). The most compulsively readable book of the year, the series gets better and better as its core cast of characters gets fully established and we get a bit more in-depth with them. Russell Simmons, especially as depicted by Piskor, was born to be a comic book character. Piskor’s style and design choices push the quality of this history of hip-hop over the top.
19. Beautiful Darkness, by Fabian Vehlmann and Kerascoet (Drawn & Quarterly). It’s a psychological profile of a dying girl disguised as a fairy tale, and it in turns is precious, exquisite, and tooth-and-claw brutal. The delicacy of the line and color scheme used by Kerascoet juxtaposed against the social Darwinism of the surviving fairies who emerge from a dead girl in a forest never fails to draw shock after shock–with the book’s final image emerging as the biggest shock of all.
20. Angie Bongiolatti, by Mike Dawson (Secret Acres). This is Dawson’s most complicated and conflicted book, as it examines personal and sexual politics around the time of 9/11. Dawson has always made an effort to depict characters of diametrically opposed backgrounds as humanly as possible, even if it’s obvious that some of their viewpoints are odious to Dawson himself. In this book, Dawson goes a step further and attacks his own point of view as a white male by making the title character the fulcrum of the book without making the reader privy to her thoughts. At the same time, a separate series of philosophical arguments against leftism and the Soviet Union is undermined by the experience of African-American author Langston Hughes, highlighting how one’s own privilege can obscure the point of view of others. The cartoony nature of his character designs gives each of them a slightly larger-than-life appeal, making the reader consider their roles in the story as well as their status as “real” characters.
21. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, by Stephen Collins (Picador). A funny, dry parable about conformity and the desire to resist change at all costs. Collins’s impeccable line, delightful use of language and understanding of how to escalate a conflict to absurd heights makes the book more than a simple fable; every aspect of the book is entertaining in its own right.
22. Over Easy, by Mimi Pond (Drawn & Quarterly). Pond’s autobio account of working as a waitress in a diner in the early ’80s is effortlessly compelling, as it chronicles her own sense of drift as a young person who desperately wants to be creative. The characters fly off the page, as reality is always far more insane than fiction. The color palette and her appealing line make the whole package irresistible.
23. Hilda and the Black Hound, by Luke Pearson (Nobrow). Pearson has mastered both the gentler aspects of creating a compelling children’s character along with the art of conjuring an exciting, kinetic comic book adventure. The fourth book in the Hilda series is the best, as the character is now established enough on the page to allow for a greater exploration of her environment. The design, the use of color and especially Pearson’s line are all impeccably beautiful without being slick.
24. Forming 2, by Jesse Moynihan (Nobrow). The second book of Moynihan’s insane mythological/sci-fi jumble of Greek myth, Judeo-Christian myth and Kirbyesque space god battles is as profane, hilarious and base as the first book. This time around, Moynihan pulls together a number of narrative strings and deepens characterizations. It’s an absolute delight.
25. Wendy, by Walter Scott (Koyama). This one grows on you as one continues to read it. It’s about an art school grad who neurotically traverses the art scene post-graduation, grapples with her own self-worth and battles for the affection of scuzzy men with double-dealing friends. It is raw and filled with dozens of funny images that nonetheless depict upsetting events. It’s sympathetic to the main character without ever letting her off the hook and features moments of genuine epiphany.
26. Heroes of the Comics, by Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics). While not technically a comic, this collection of illustrations of a wide variety of figures from the history of comics nonetheless shows how a single image can tell a story. Friedman presents figures both obscure and famous as working figures at their desks while providing historical info that is unsparing relating to exploitation. He manages to bring every image to life, be it beaten down or upbeat.
27. Ant Colony, by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly). DeForge’s first long-form narrative is a rambling cross between the realities of anthropomorphizing insect behavior with highly accurate scientific detail and exploring the ways such detail would affect an actual society. It’s funny, cruel and endlessly fascinating to look at, especially with the color scheme he uses.
28. Operation: Margarine, by Katie Skelly (AdHouse). Dripping with atmosphere and attitude, this desert biker fantasy has the flash and trash appeal of a ’60s bikesploitation film, but with an added sense of intelligence and awareness surrounding gender issues. Skelly’s characters tend to pose dramatically rather than move fluidly, but that choppiness and close-up/freeze technique is one not unlike that of film
29. Bumperhead, by Gilbert Hernandez (Drawn & Quarterly). A spiritual follow-up of sorts to his Marble Season, Bumperhead follows a kid through various phases of his life up to his old age. Whereas Marble Season was idyllic, given that it covered a single summer, this book is far more grim and fatalistic. Old passions die out or are never consummated. Wishes go unanswered. Some characters simply drift through life. It’s bittersweet at best, as characters full of verve and passion become cynical, apathetic and resigned, with only a spark of their old selves remaining. Hernandez masterfully manipulates these characters on his comic-book stage, giving them compelling lives even as he plants land mines in them.
30. Dragon’s Breath, by MariNaomi (Uncivilized Books/2D Cloud). Downbeat, spare and contemplative, these stories about the author’s personal experiences and lives that have touched her are in turn funny and grim, but her ability to get across the mood through different visual approaches sets it apart from other memoirs and slice-of-life narratives. (Full disclosure: I wrote a blurb for this book.)
Minis and Selected Pamphlet Comics
1. Art Comic #1, by Matthew Thurber. While one might think this vicious spoof of art school culture to be a bit too “inside baseball,” Thurber’s comic timing, funny drawings and embracing the utterly absurd transcend the specific details of the art world he describes, yet having knowledge of that particular scene is nonetheless highly instructive.
2. Theth, by Josh Bayer (Retrofit). Bayer’s latest installment about an outcast kid in the 1980s who loves crappy Marvel comics is especially powerful and downbeat, especially in how desperately he clings to his fantasy life in the face of bullying, abuse and neglect. Yet Bayer is careful not to depict him as a victim despite these events, as the boy is paranoid, dishonest and secretive. Bayer’s scribble-style makes this an intense, immersive read.
3. Labyrinthectomy/Luncheonette, by Chris Cilla. Cilla fuses underground traditions with bigfoot cartooning in order to create stories that are independent of both traditions. Sure, there’s weirdness, drugs, and sex, but they merge in a fascinating way with traditional narratives and surreal elements that also includes autobiographical details. The fact that Cilla’s stand-in character wears a Steve Lafler Bughouse t-shirt is a big tip-off, as Cilla’s work shares many of Lafler’s storytelling strategies: even the weirdest scenario is connected to something in real life. This leads to a richness and depth to the proceedings usually unseen in these sorts of comics.
4. Dog City 3, edited by Simon Reinhardt, Juan Fernandez, and Luke Healy. This collection of minicomics from students and graduates of the Center for Cartoon Studies as well as invited participants is a deconstructed anthology and art magazine. Packaged in a box that is in itself a comic, it contains a number of minicomics, a magazine, art prints, a poster, and other goodies. This issue features a forgotten comic strip by contributor Reilly Hadden’s grandfather from the 1930, as well as a wide variety of approaches. The editors are careful to include as many different perspectives and aesthetics as possible.
5. Windowpane 2, by Joe Kessler (Breakdown Press). Kessler once again throws complex color schemes, narratives surrounding belief and discovery, a collaboration about misery and deprivation, and so much more at the reader. He’s constantly pushing the edge of formal experimentation while staying within the bounds of narrative, and he does it in an entirely coherent manner.
6. Demon 1-8, by Jason Shiga. This is sort of the ultimate Shiga story, as it mixes certain genre tropes (as does Bookhunter), pushes the extremes of human interaction (as does Double Happiness) and serves as a kind of mathematical game (as does Fleep!). The give and take between a man who cannot die and the government agent who hopes to force him to work for him is remarkably clever and frequently totally unhinged.
7. Palm Ash, by Julia Gfrörer. This is a chilling, visceral story about faith, delusion and the paper-thin division between the two. It’s about a Christian in the early years of the faith who becomes famous for somehow calming down the lions sent to eat him in the arena. Whether or not his faith is real is less important than the fact that its mere presence is subversive, which is why the ending is deliberately vague. The scratchy art befits the subject matter, especially with regard to the way the Gfrörer depicts gesture and body language.
8. Hungry Summer, by Asher Z. Craw. Craw updates the myth of Baba Yaga and puts it in a feminist, modern context without removing an ounce of her capricious and sometimes menacing nature. Those who cross her are literally made to lose all corporeal substance. Those fascinated by her do so at their own peril, even when they do her a favor. Transformation, blurred gender, and other forms of identification and the power of everyday magic continue to be Craw’s main themes, but the oblique way they play out here makes them all the more fascinating.
9. Dumpling King 3-5, by Alex Kim (Oily). Each of these Oily comics is just 10 pages long, but Kim manages to pack an incredible amount of bizarre detail in each one. The series started as a murder mystery, edged into the supernatural and then went full bore into crazy mythology while staying absolutely true to its initial roots. Kim’s drawings range from painstakingly stippled to rough and angular in depicting emotion and creating mood.
10. Missy 2, by Daryl Seitchik (Oily). Seitchik’s autobio journal from her childhood days is amazingly insightful, sad, funny, and honest. Her thoughts about relationships, her body, her family and her place in the universe are melancholy, mean and absolutely spot-on. The transformation from idealist to cynic is both heart-breaking and familiar. Her minimalist drawing style nonetheless is painstaking in terms of its emotional impact.
11. Hungry Bottom 3, by Eric Kostiuk Williams. This issue finds the witty and introspective Williams telling us stories of traveling to Berlin and the gay culture he encounters there, and later continues his exploration of alternative drag culture in Toronto. It concludes with a very cute and heart-warming account of making out with his future boyfriend at a drag show. Williams’s draftsmanship is impeccable, versatile and naturalistic, but it’s that versatility that allows it to warp and bend as needed.
12. You Were Swell #2, by Sophie McMahan. McMahan’s takes on beauty, self-image, relationships and societal hierarchies are filtered through flat 1950s romance-style drawings by way of gruesome, warped and psychedelic images. Her facility as a draftsman and designer gives every story a powerful punch without any sense of being didactic.
13. Ink Brick #1, edited by Alexander Rothman and Paul K. Tunis. This is the first issue of a regular collection of comics-as-poetry, with contributions from familiar and new artists in the form. The editors spared no expense, with many pieces in color. Tunis and Rothman turn in excellent work in this issue, which also features an intriguing piece from John Hankiewicz and a moving story from L.Nichols about the impending birth of their child.
14. #Food Porn, by Meghan Turbitt. This is Turbitt’s breakthrough mini, as her lunatic sense of humor is paired with an unbeatable visual high concept: becoming sexually attracted to those who prepare the food she loves. It works because she’s willing to go to ridiculous lengths to heighten each and every gag.
15. I Don’t Hate Your Guts, by Noah Van Sciver. Van Sciver is one of the best young cartoonists around, and it seemed like he published a million comics in 2014. This diary comic works because of Van Sciver’s relentlessly self-deprecating sense of humor, as well as actually spinning an interesting yarn around the beginning stages of a relationship. He’s another artist who’s aces at depicting body language.
16. Magic Whistle 14, by Sam Henderson (Alernative). One of the funniest people in comics is at it again, with pages of potent gags, meta-gags and beautifully-designed shaggy dog narratives. The spareness of his art boils each gag down to its core, allowing for an occasional use of absurdity or exaggeration that instantly is recognizable as crucial to each punchline.
17. Bastard #1, by Max de Radigues. De Radigues is known for his sensitive portrayals of teens and the ways in which they interact. That’s why this comic is a fantastic bait-and-switch, promising more of the same at first and then veering off into a crazy family heist scheme. He goes from intimate to big, using a Southwestern America backdrop to change the scale and stakes of this story.
18. The Battle Of Lake Champlain, by Eleri Mai Harris. A clever, engaging and attractive historical account of the key battle of the War of 1812, told primarily through the use of primary documents. Harris turns a slightly crude rendering style into a plus through her use of color and page composition.
19. Skyway Sleepless, by Tom Kaczynski (Uncivilized Books). Yet another example of Kaczynski mixing architecture, paranoia, and postmodern life, this time adding in a hilarious critique of the art world and a culture of celebrity and exhibitionism. Every Kaczynski story tends to make me laugh a bit but also feel uneasy.
20. Dust Motes, by Kevin Budnik. Budnik is one of my favorite autobio artists working today. His journal comics addressing his anxiety, eating disorder and depression are bracingly honest and powerful. His line is slowly being refined into something simple and expressive, all the better to get at the way he expresses his quirky sense of humor along with his struggles.
21. Granville Syndrome, by Dawson Walker. This is a compelling two-person character study that takes on mythological overtones in its climax, as it’s about the ultimate pair of friends: one who can’t wait to get out of their small town and one who never wants to leave. The storm metaphor that Walker uses is heightened by his skill in depicting how its ominousness affects both of the protagonists, with a moody, atmospheric application of pencils.
22. The Homesick Truant’s Cumbrian Yarn #1, by Oliver East. This is a remarkable inner narrative about walking from one train station to another that’s witty, poetic and attractively scratchy-looking. Few artists can spin as much out of nothing as East.
23. The Lettuce Girl #4, by Sophia Wiedeman. The conclusion of Wiedeman’s feminist take on the Rapunzel myth is surprisingly sweet and sad, as she tells the story with a great deal of empathy for all involved. It’s visually intricate while retaining a certain simplicity in terms of its figures.
24. In The Sounds and Seas 2, by Marnie Galloway. Another silent, moving and mesmerizing series of drawings about ritual, the sea and conjuration. If the first issue was about evoking creativity and the elements through song and preparing for a voyage, then the second issue is all about the voyage itself. Galloway’s incredible craftsmanship isn’t just for show; the details of things like rope and wood have an intrinsically powerful quality that blends into the decorative elements of other parts of the comic.
25. Cartozia Tales 6, edited by Isaac Cates. This is a meticulously-edited comic that is a testament to the power of creative collaboration. It’s an all-ages fantasy title that doesn’t talk down to its readers, anchored by a solid core of young cartoonists (with Shawn Cheng as its most dependably interesting) and a host of fascinating guest-artists. Combining geography with narrative to create a real sense of time and place, and then switching characters and creators with each issue keeps the whole concept fresh, giving it an impressive quality not unlike long-form improvisational comedy.
26. Death In Oaxaca #1, by Steve Lafler (Alternative). This is a throwback pamphlet comic published by Alternative Comics, and it’s my favorite Lafler comic in some time. It combines a Mexican setting, sex, drugs, music, the psychedelic and the supernatural in one loose, easygoing setting. Lafler’s art is as loose and expressive as ever, with an astounding understanding of body language and gesture that carries every panel.
27. REM 1, by M.R. Trower. This is a smarter, more subversive version of the sci-fi story Divergent, in that it’s about a society where people are more or less predestined to fill a specific role in society at a certain age, based on their birthmark. When REM-313 doesn’t have any markings, they escape and are guided into a forest by a fellow outcast. Working with sci-fi tropes allows Trower a lot of room to explore identity, transformation, and defiance of societal norms in a way that’s visually dynamic and not didactic. Trower’s art made a tremendous leap going into this project; he’s far more confident and assured with figure work, backgrounds, and detail.
28. Jam in the Band 3 #4, by Robin Enrico. The final issue of a years-long project about the rise and fall of an all-female indy rock band. It’s autobiographical in terms of the ambitions and failures of the artists within, but each character has its own finely-crafted inner life as well. The ending is true to the spirit of each characters, especially the polarizing and ambitious singer of the band. Seek this out when Enrico collects the whole thing.
29. Old Timey Hockey Tales #2, by Rob Ullman. In a just world, Ullman would be making bank from doing his sports comics. This is a genre that deserves to be revived, and he has the versatility of line (rubbery and slightly cartoony while still retaining enough naturalism), storytelling chops and attention to detail of a true fan to make history come to life.
30. Shadow Hills 1-4, by Sean Ford. Ford revisits some of the themes of his first work, Only Skin, but he comes at it in a more interesting, visually arresting and emotionally complex manner. The image of characters being consumed by a black goo is especially powerful, given the way black ink dominates a page.