This year brought a lot of very serious comics, but not all of them were much fun. Even the ones that were often had more than usual to do with morality. Maybe that’s just characteristic of the times we live in, in which our moral fiber is constantly being tugged on and twisted and stretched. Here’s what I read and really liked, as an unranked list:
How I Tried to Be a Good Person, Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics): Ulli Lust’s book is as lush and unjudgey as the plants she draws, plus possibly better comics than Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life.
Tonta, Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics): I know everyone loves the Maggie and Hopey stuff more. Heck, I probably do, too, but there’s something very free about this compilation of Jaime Hernandez’s comics about a non-bombshell teenager.
BTTM FDRS, Ben Passmore and Ezra Claytan Daniels (Fantagraphics):Proves you don’t have to be completely serious to provide finely serrated social commentary on the intersections among racism, gentrification and class stratification.
Leaving Richard’s Valley, Michael DeForge (D&Q): Are all comics about gentrification now? A lot of them are. Michael DeForge once again takes something small and strange and works it into a fucking diamond.
MacDoodle St., Mark Alan Stamaty (NYRC): Not new but a real left-field delight, crammed with jokes visual and verbal that skitter around the edges of the panels like tap-dancing cockroaches.
The White Snake, Ben Nadler (TOON Books): Why do we love fairy tales? A lot of it isn’t in their familiarity but in their bold strangeness. They’re like the stories our children tell us, inventive but apt to go down strange paths. Ben Nadler’s reinterpretation of this one for Toon Books is all those things: beautiful, shocking, odd, colorful.
Pittsburgh, Frank Santoro (NYRC): An itchily gorgeous exploration of process that is about how we make stories and how Frank Santoro made this story and how he, himself, was made and the stories others told him about that, all at the same time. It’s got layers, man.
Hilda and the Mountain King, Luke Pearson (Nobrow/Flying Eye): Also, possibly, about gentrification, and as good an example of perfect comics form as anything else out there. These books have heart because they feature real peril, whether it’s on a small scale or a town-wide one.
The Hard Tomorrow, Eleanor Davis (D&Q): Speaking of heart! There’s no book from 2019 that’ll stay with me more than this one, even though it can hurt to look at it because it’s so dyed in feels. Much more to say on this one soon.
The River at Night, Kevin Huizenga (D&Q): Don’t read this if you, like its main character, are trying to fall asleep. That’s not only because focusing on insomnia makes it worse. It’s because the intricacy of the concerns that float through Glenn Ganges’ head (ideas about ideas, about time, about comics structure as it relates to real life) will awaken the same ones in your own. It might be about a dude puttering around his house or lying in bed thinking, but it’ll keep you up.
Stig & Tilde: Vanisher’s Island, Max de Radigues (Nobrow/Flying Eye): Beware of guys who think they’re nice! More on that, and the whole book, here.
Bone Saw, Andrew Peña, (Self): I bought this at Fluke and promptly dropped behind a bookshelf that’s too heavy to move, but I miss it. It’s short and hyper and makes great use of hot pink as a second color. Sort of like Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room if it were a lot more cheerful.
Walking off a Cliff into Oblivion, Patrick Dean (Self): Dean made these comics and drawings after being diagnosed with ALS, as his body started to shut down slowly. They are incredibly painful to read and yet somehow funny at the same time, with great ink washes and lines that feel truly earned.
I'm aware that I may not have read my favorite comic from 2019 yet, because I have quite a bit of backlog and I know there's some amazing stuff in there (Marcelo D'Salete's Angola Janga being a case in point). Out of the all the book-length works I've dug into this year, however, I think George Wylesol's Internet Crusader was one of the most inventive. It's a goofy, slacker comedy set in the context of an apocalypse narrative told through the screen of late '90s desktop computer. Relying so much on an aesthetic experiment means that it could have been an interesting failure, but it is instead an impressive success.
I'll take the rest of this opportunity to highlight some indie press publications from Europe which deserve attention. There is a great amount of incredibly creative, DIY artist collectives and scenes of co-supportive creators this side of the Atlantic, and below are some anthology publications from just a few of them. Almost all of my choices here are first installments of what promise to be somewhat regular titles, this trend between my picks is a coincidence, but I hope it points towards an exciting near future for the European zine scene.
Strange Sequences is a Belgium publication which promises and delivers "weird fiction." It's curated by Ghent based artist Thijs Desmet, and features creators based in Belgium but who originate from various countries, including France, Spain, and Denmark. Many of the artists are graduates from Ghent's esteemed Luca School of Arts. Aside from Gabri Molist's black and white, geometric style, this collection's art has a tactile quality to it, with lots of muted colors, chalk textures, and paints on display.
Wasco has been a foremost member of Amsterdam's comics scene since the 1980s. Towards the end of 2019, he launched Aline, a new anthology of Dutch talent. The Netherlands already has a great comics scene, notably Rotterdam's punky KUTLUL. The addition of the oversized and magazine format Aline suggest that the country's scene is in good health. Two contributions of note: Ludwig Volbeda's collage of notes, thoughts, and sketches creates a meditative and intimate sort of dreamy realism that is irresistible; and Shamisa Debroey's watercolored rendition of experiences in modern dating culture.
Gutter Fest is one of Barcelona's two annual zine and print fairs. That Fest's founder, Pablo Taladro, published a new selection from Spanish artists in the form of Auto Bulling via Maquina Total press. Broadly, the collection embraces a largely irreverent comix philosophy and style courtesy of artists such as Ana Glavañ, Jorge Parras and Genie Espinosa. The content is uniformly printed in a dark blue ink which gives the whole thing a slightly melancholic feel.
Tommi Musturi is no stranger to Fantagraphics, his The Anthology of Mind was published by this journal's publisher's this year in fact. Here, I'd like to highlight his recent bi-yearly series titled Future. As ever with Musturi, it boasts a baffling array of styles, types and ideas. It's not an anthology of different artists, but it's certainly an anthology of ideas (as the title of his recent collected volume asserts as well).
Top 10 of 2019 (in alphabetical order, excluding Fantagraphics titles)
Excuse Me by Lianna Finck, (PRH)
"The Battle of Boyle's Thirty Acres" by Sammy Harkham, from Victory Journal #16
"How to Draw a Horse" by Emma Hunsinger, from The New Yorker
Yellow Flag Intelligence Squadron #1 by David King, (Reliable Comics)
Eight-Lane Runaways Part 4, by Henry McCausland, (Otto Press)
pantspants, by Josh Mecouch,
Duh Ha-Ha, by Casey Nowak (Diskette Press)
Jaakko Pallasvuo's instagram account
SUV, by Helge Reumann (Atrabile)
Bradley of Him, by Connor Willumsen (Koyama)
This year passed in a blur for me. While big academic and personal milestones came and went like Indiana Jones boulders (what is this, Ready Player One? "We're thinking beyond movies - Imagine being germ free!" -Tim Heidecker), I somehow did read a lot of comics. Even so, to be honest I feel a tad out of touch with "the scene." The first few times I tried to come up with my favorite comics of 2019, I thought of lots of things which often weren't from this year and sometimes weren't even comics at all! For comedic value I'm going to list the things that weren't comics first:
The best comics of the year are Seneca's Tragedies, a manuscript of Seneca's Tragedies I found on e-codices with little illustrations of people being stabbed, John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, Spontaneous Combustion, Scott 4 (RIP!), Rose Garden, Rammellzee, author photos of William H Gass, author photos of Yukio Mishima, the New On Cinema Oscar Special, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a VHS of the movie Snake Eyes, a poster of the movie Snake Eyes, Alita Battle Angel, Young Thug as a concept, and, of course, the Aeneid.
Now, some actual comics I loved this year:
Two comics this year stand above the rest for me right now - the new translation of Urusei Yatsura by Rumiko Takahashi, and Alienation by Ines Estrada (get well soon). Both are manic comics that read as if they're being smuggled into existence before your eyes. Urusei Yatsura is one of those comics that makes me grin just by thinking of it, jam packed with singular premises and ape-brained pratfalls. Every drawing and set piece is so consistently hilarious and absorbing it almost feels impossible. Alienation also offers a feast of sight gags and absurd riffs but in the service of gallows humor and tragedy, accelerating our Extremely Online purgatory into deeper gloom with so much genuine empathy it stings.
Michael Deforge had two great books this year, the collection of his staggeringly great comic strip Leaving Richard's Valley (probably the best comic of the decade if you ask me!), and Stunt, a tender meditation on unbearable sadness and ideation, a small triumph and a worthy swan song for Koyama Press. Koyama's final season of books was overall fantastic - I would point anyone looking for exciting, relevant formally vital comics to When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll, Sports is Hell by Ben Passmore, and Bradley of Him by Connor Willumsen as examples of the heights this medium's best storytellers can reach with the right support for their creativity.
The new run of Michel Fiffe's Copra brings back the 90s action comic thing of a big group fight in a spacious vaguely science-y lab to great effect. Kat Verhoeven's Meat and Bone depicts the thorny intersections of mental health and interpersonal relationships with compassionate focus and perspective. Sarah Horrocks' self published Aorta promises an especially gnarly and avant-garde spinoff of Gundam Wing. Was Tongues by Anders Nilssen a this-year comic? Tongues owns.
This was a really good year for manga in translation. Viz definitely pleased my bookshelf fetish side the most with their handsome hardcover editions of Kazuo Umezz's The Drifting Classroom (the best comics evarrrr), and Hirohiko Araki's JoJo's Bizarre Adventure Part Four (swoon!). I reconnected with an old friend this year over an hours-long chat about JoJo's, such a gift to humanity the vampire Araki has been. The lyrical, lovely textures of Panpanya's Invitation from a Crab make reading feel like petting a cat. The most recent volume of Inio Asano's Dead Dead Demons is stunning. The Poe Clan, nuff said. Yoshikazu Ebisu's The Pits of Hell spits up super-rough capitalist nightmares (jokes?) and might make for an edgy double feature with the first volume of Nobuhiko Fukumoto's Kaiji for maximum salaryman despair.
There's a lot I'm forgetting, or want to read still and haven't yet. I'm betting The River at Night will be a new all-time fave for me because insomnia is increasingly relatable tbh. So many good comics this year! Anyway, my real favorite comic that I read in 2019 is a collection of Larry Hama Venom comics, which rock because Hama's Venom is basically a wise-cracking dad who loves murder. I love my girlfriend, my family and my friends who support me, but honestly I love Venom more.
RIP Monkey Punch, RIP Tom Spurgeon+
The Hard Tomorrow, by Eleanor Davis (D&Q)
Moonbound, by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Moonbound (Hill & Wang)
Little Teeth, by Rory Frances and Jae Bearhat (Czap Books)
Snow, Glass Apples, by Neil Gaiman and Colleen Doran (Dark Horse)
The River at Night, by Kevin Huizenga (D&Q)
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge)
Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis (Walker Books)
The Seventh Voyage by Jon J Muth (Graphix)
Penny Nichols by MK Reed, Greg Means, Matt Wiegle (Top Shelf)
For Real by James Romberger(Uncivilized Books)
Pittsburgh by Frank Santoro (NYRC)
The Arab of the Future, Volume 4 by Riad Sattouf (Metropolitan Books)
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O'Connell (First Second)
The Life of Frederick Douglass by David Walker, Damon Smythe, Marissa Louise (Ten Speed Press)
Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot of self published mini comics. There are so many people making beautiful underground comics these days, and given the economic realities of comics for even those making “above ground” work, it defies logic. I tend to think this is good. For whatever reason, people publish zines and mini comics and put their all into it for reasons other than money. Art for arts sake tends to be vilified these days, but if you scan the best work being made in comics these days, it’s hard not to see it as exciting fulfillment of a kind of idealism. For those who read these things, this is all very good...there are a lot of really really vital $5 mini comics out there these days. There’s a less rosy question involving ‘but how can we expect all of these artists to sustain themselves, year after year, making such exciting work when there’s so little [money/acclaim/discussion/take your pick] to give them in return?’ Lots needs to change, but one positive note we can look to this year is Kim Deitch’s Reincarnation Stories, my pick for book of the year. There is nothing, anywhere else in the world, like Deitch’s work. As a fan, I feel lucky to have a major new book by him this year. His art is as strong now as it has ever been, if not at its absolute strongest. So, in a small moment of optimism, we can look at a brand new book by an artist that has been at it for 50 years, with many lean times, countless stretches of zero recognition, plenty of moments where it would have been fine to say ‘ok, I've had enough,’ who, instead, did this book.
Deitch’s work often takes some people a while to warm up to. It’s not immediately understandable (though all the keys are there if you take the time to look for them) or simply seductive. My hope is that cartoonists of the future will all become much, much more of the later and the former, simultaneously. This book should be used as license to do so.
These are in no particular order except that the first two books are my two favorites. I don’t know which one I loved best.
- Pittsburgh by Frank Santoro (NYRC)
a gorgeous combination of family saga, coming-of-age memoir, and tribute to Pittsburgh.
- Creation by Sylvia Nickerson (D+Q)
This book about the effects of gentrification on a steel town in Ontario feels both epic and intimate, and deeply spiritual.
- Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival Edited by Diane Noomin (Abrams ComicArts)
The cumulative power of these stories is considerable—and damning.
- Rat Time by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press)
Keiler Roberts makes my list every year she puts something out. Her work is always funny in a meaningful way and vice-versa.
- Life on Earth Book Two: Gravity's Pull by MariNaomi (Lerner)
This second part of MariNaomi's YA trilogy is filled with innovative but accessible cartooning and the story and characters are always relatable. Left me dying to find out how things will wrap up in Book Three next year.
- How I Tried to Be a Good Person by Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics)
A more-than-worthy follow up to Lust's brilliant debut Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life.
7. Off Season by James Sturm (Drawn & Quarterly)
In this domestic drama, Sturm captures our fraught sociopolitical moment acutely and uncomfortably (in a good way).
- Motel Universe by Joakim Drescher (Secret Acres)
Drescher's extravagantly weird satire hits the spot in these extravagantly weird times.
- Bradley of Him by Connor Willumsen (Koyama)
A pleasingly puzzling book, guaranteed at least a couple of follow-up reads. Willumsen's graphics are a tour de force.
- Rooftop Stew by Max Clotfelter (Birdcage Bottom)
Can we get a follow-up collection soon? Max is a wonderfully dark and hilarious cartoonist.
A few self-published gems:
- Existing in Fragments (2017-2018) by Tyler Cohen
This powerful collection of short stories needs to be expanded from a zine into a full-fledged book. Just sayin’, publishers.
- Walking Uphill by Kelly Froh
This one made me relive my own twenty & thirty-something misadventures. But I like it anyway!
- Black Tea #6 by Jason Martin
In which Jason makes the shocking true confession that he’s become a big hockey fan.
- You Don’t Get There from Here #51 by Carrie McNinch
Reminded again of what a terrific cartoonist Carrie is.
Five more great books (honorable-type mentions):
- Bttm Fdrs by Ezra Claytan Daniels & Ben Passmore (Fantagraphics)
- Naked Body: An Anthology of Chinese Comics Edited by Yan Cong, R Orion Martin, & Jason Li (Paradise Systems)
- Persephone’s Garden by Glynnis Fawkes (Secret Acres)
- A Fire Story by Brian Fies (Abrams Comic Arts)
- Guantánamo Kid by Jérôme Tubiana and Alexandre Franc (SelfMadeHero)
Coda by Simon Spurrier, Matías Bergara & Michael Doig (BOOM)
The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (D&Q)
Silver Surfer: Black by Donny Cates & Tradd Moore (Marvel)
When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll (Koyama)
Is This How You See Me? by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
Nature of Nature’s Art: Syconium by Zachary Braun (Self)
Feast for a King by Kosmic (Self)
Skip by Molly Mendoza (Nobrow)
Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest & Ian Bertram (Image)
Sobek by James Stokoe (Short Box)
1.Parade by Yuichi Yokoyama (888 Books)
2. N for Nadelman by John Hankewicz (Self)
3. Worn Tuff Elbow #2 by Marc Bell (Self)
4. Bradley of Him by Conor Willumson (Koyama)
5. Hercules and the Orbs of the Wold: A Tale of the Gigantomachy by David King (Reliable)
6. For Real by James Romberger (Uncivilized)
7. Tad Martin Lucky Number Seven by Casanova Frankenstein (Domino)
8. Blood of the Virgin by Sammy Harkahm (from Kramer’s Ergot X)
9. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf)
10. Clue: Candlestick by Dash Shaw (IDW)
Bubbles (self-published) - This is a folded and stapled b&w zine about comics that you have to buy off of Instagram or find at a show somewhere; the author credits himself as Bubbles, the title of the zine. There's four issues so far, with several long interviews in each; my favorite is the issue #1 chat with '90s manga translator Hiroo Yamagata, which touches on western aesthetes' awful taste in Japanese comics. The general focus of the magazine is on older, 'weird' manga in translation and hard, rough art comics. It is a beautiful miracle, and I pray Bubbles is not burned out by all the things that burn you out.
The Pits of Hell, Yoshikazu Ebisu (Breakdown Press) - A sensation upon its Japanese release in 1981, this new translation of the oft-mentioned Ebisu's debutante story collection gallantly speaks to the need for experiencing art for one's self, because this stuff is far darker, angrier, more hateful and ironic and bitterly, bloodily shuddering than any of the writing about the artist has ever suggested. A disquieting panorama of amoral anger steaming up and out of frustrated people, framed as a sinister joke, it is absolutely unlike any other comic I've read this year.
Constantly, gg (Koyama Press) - The copyright on this is gonna read 2020, but it was up for sale at shows this year, so, I dunno, put the cuffs on me, officer. An excellent, small-scale, near-wordless depiction of private turmoil, gg deploys translucent visual effects and extreme high-contrast colors to demonstrate how the things that weigh on you do not attack you so much as exist in parallel, like a separate you through which your perspective shifts only very slightly, to profound involuntary effect. This is an artist who marries the spectacular to the particular in endlessly inventive ways.
N for Nadelman, John Hankiewicz (self-published) - Sixteen pages makes this the shortest book on my list, but Hankiewicz conjures a whole opera of recitative dialogue and aria-like bearing of the mind in this story of a woman from an art gallery visiting the sculptor Elie Nadelman in the difficult final years of his life. Drawings, dialogue, and narrative captions uncouple from each other and only occasionally veer back together to present a simulacrum of reality; but, the bulk of the space addresses the slippery idea of looking at art and people in simultaneity, with each seemingly accidental match between word and image representing a subconscious or theoretical plane of understanding. Nobody else in the world makes comics like this.
Smoke Signal #32, Herr Seele & Kamagurka (Desert Island) - In which the long-running Brooklyn giveaway newspaper devotes an entire issue to becoming the largest-yet collection of English-language episodes for Cowboy Henk, the wonderfully raunchy absurdist comic from Belgium, occasionally glimpsed around these parts in old magazines like RAW. I'm not sure I can convince you that Cowboy Henk is worthwhile if you don't already feel that way, but if you do - this is a LOT of Cowboy Henk.
No Visitors, Season Four, HTMLflowers (self-published) - A legitimately provocative 'literary' comic, these 20 pages offer a concrete-hard look at an impoverished hospital inpatient opposed to notions of communal support or progressive rhetoric, embracing instead the notion of self-destruction as a human dignity which the disabled are forbidden. It's not that the doctors are wrong, or that the protagonist is a *good* person; it's that to be very ill is to be consigned to a narrative that was invented, cloyingly, by the greater society. But the artist does not say this directly - we are instead locked into the perspective of the character, and we intuit the hard walls of their situation.
The River at Night, Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly) - Obviously, this one needs no introduction, but be advised that the totality of Huizenga's long-gestating cartographic disquisition on the mental processes of a sleepless man is even more intuitive and fascinating in collected and reoriented form. It's fucking deep, man!
that Keith Giffen comic in But is it... Comic Aht #2, David King (Domino Books) - Not to take anything away from the rest of Comic Aht #2, the latest magazine of and about comics from Austin English & August Lipp, but there isn't a funny comic I haven't thought back to more this year than King's brief bio-comic on the transition of mainline comics artist Keith Giffen to a loose & liberated style as seen in books like Trencher. Both a funny depiction of a very nervous man, and a portrait of a commercial system that only allows self-expression as a type of genre: subject to the tremors of the market, working the artist down to the nub. Farcical and compassionate.
Grip Vol. 2, Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable) - I had volume 1 on my list last year, and the second half of Westvind's magnum opus of superheroic handiwork is a worthy expansion on its ideas. Now isolated from her working companions, Westvind's heroine reworks the very rocks of the ground into a metaphysical vehicle to the heavens; a collected edition is due next year, and if you want to see a comic hum and glow in your hands, I would not miss it.
LAAB #4, Ronald Wimberly & Josh O'Neill, eds. (Beehive Books) - A moving opening, in which Wimberly and the artist Ben Passmore discuss leftist activism as a means to better one's living, rather than martyring one's self, leads the reader into a most concentrated anthology project, one focused intently on the idea of Living in the present day. And to live is to deal with monsters - vampires, a werebeast and the Frankenstein monster all figure in to this collection of comics and writing, which endeavors to locate the space for expression of minority perspectives in the commercial culture. By its accumulation, no collection of comics felt more like 2019.
1. Glenn Ganges in The River At Night, Kevin Huizenga (D&Q)
Two of the best comics of the decade broke new formal ground to discuss the mechanics of time. One is Richard McGuire’s Here, which The River At Night is not really that similar to. They are ideal counterparts though, because Huizenga’s book situates itself firmly inside of human consciousness while McGuire aspires to a state outside of it. This book is a masterpiece I’ve been living with for the past ten years, as it was serialized, and I expect I’ll be living with in my memory for the rest of my life.
2. Rusty Brown Part One, Chris Ware (Pantheon)
I haven’t even read this yet. I read two chapters years ago. They were really good. If you don’t like me holding a spot in reserve, Ware named Kim Deitch’s Reincarnation Stories his favorite of the year, and I actually read that one already and liked it a lot— it was maybe the first time a Deitch book has really “clicked” for me. It’s bonkers.
3. Cats Of The Louvre, Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz)
I didn’t expect the best drawings of the year, and the best action sequences, to be of cats and cat-human hybrids. The surprise just makes this book feel even more like a gift. The sense of warmth and charm that’s always in Matsumoto’s work is presented here with a children’s-movie logic that makes for something really weird, but deeply endearing.
4. Leaving Richard’s Valley, Michael Deforge (D&Q)
A year’s worth of comic strips makes for a very satisfying reading experience. I like more of the characters here than any graphic novel I can think of, because these ones make funny jokes. It’s delightful. Deforge started serializing a sequel called “Happy New Year, Caroline Frog” on Instagram at the start of December and I got so psyched.
5. Clue: Candlestick, Dash Shaw (IDW)
The way this comic weaved in activity-book puzzles made me laugh at its audacity. I was already laughing along with its jokes. I could not believe a Clue comic would be this good, but I also can’t imagine how you would make a Clue comic any other way. On some level the act of making a character-driven narrative comic out of the Clue board game must have been as much a puzzle to solve as any Shaw presents here. We're lucky he has the sort of mind that has so much fun solving puzzles, and is able to communicate that feeling.
As always, I flinch from the word “best” when applied to artistic endeavors – so instead, let’s talk about Rick Veitch’s Maximortal. No, it’s not new. Just new to me. It’s a gruesome parable from the early 90s, splitting its focus between a superhuman infant with a penchant for decapitation and the tragedy awaiting comic creators during the first superhero boom. Siegel and Shuster stand-ins create True-Man, seemingly psychically inspired by the existence of a real “maximortal”, only to have their work stolen from them. Meanwhile, the infant is weaponized by the US government and revealed to be the Little Boy dropped on Hiroshima.
Maximortal reads like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay that’s been dunked into an overflowing toilet. (It came out years before Chabon’s book, too.) I used to avoid walking past the horror section in video stores as a child. All that faded, lurid box art, staring down at me from dusty shelves. The cover of the first issue of Maximortal now haunts me in the same way: the infant, perched on the shoulders of his adopted father, somehow manipulating him like a puppet by forcing his hands into his father’s brain. Superman-but-bad stories are a dime a dozen, but Veitch’s work here is far more strange and ambitious than that. It’s about pulp and art; shit and gold. In an era of superheroes earning billions while comic creators crowdfund their healthcare, Maximortal is definitely worth revisiting.
2019 seemed to be fraught with peril. You can say that about any year, really, depending on your particular experience of it, but this year seemed to be especially doomstruck and dire, with half the world experiencing intense anxiety about climate change, a rise in authoritarian governance, and ever-increasing economic inequality, and the other half more or less in denial about those same things. Everyone from the just-awakened young to the grizzled old veered between optimism and despair; it’s indicative of the times that I ricocheted between doing local and national organizing work with an itchy positivity that a socialist utopia is truly within reach and poring through the collected works of the Dark Mountain Project, a network of intellectuals, artist, writers, and others creating under the assumption that the human moment is essentially over and everything we do should be documenting life at a time when human civilization is quickly becoming something referred to in the past tense.
Perilous times result in perilous art, and while we haven’t yet reached the critical mass of radical popular art that the culture achieved during the 1980s, there’s been no shortage of comics – beautiful, terrible, thoughtful, reckless, rigorous, mysterious, hopeful, and cynical – that reflect the realities of the present. Some of them I’ve reviewed in the pages of this very publication, and I won’t rehash them too much here, but just urge you to seek out the books while you still can: Luke Healy’s Americana (Nobrow), a young Irishman’s travel journal that is saturated with an extended meditation on the role America plays in the foreign imagination; Nate McDonough’s Blue Lives (Grixly), a brutally funny and savage dismantling of the self-made hagiography of the American cop; Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow (Drawn & Quarterly), an emotionally powerful reckoning with a future that seems as if it might arrive by the time you read this; Tiitu Takalo’s Me, Mikko, and Annikki (North Atlantic), a lovely meditation on communal effort and the importance of institutional memory; and James Sturm’s Off Season (D&Q), a contemplation of the messy ways politics can loom over our personal lives.
But there was a lot more than that happening in the world of this amazing medium. Here’s a handful more comics that I loved in 2019.
All the Presidents by Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics). Friedman has always had a genius for making celebrities seem both magical and mundane, reinforcing their power to sway and enchant us while anchoring them to reality through often obscene or vulgar details. His book illustrating each president of the United States to date isn’t quite as nasty as some of his other work, but the way his always-masterful art makes this collection of mostly dough-faced middle-aged white men so intensely real and human strips away some of the awe we might otherwise feel paging through their accomplishments and thinking about their legacies. We have always overestimated the role of the President in politics, and Friedman does us the service of reminding us through his unofficial portraits of how great men are only as great as we pretend they are.
Cartoons by Eli Valley (https://www.instagram.com/elivalley). It’s not a great time to be a Jew, and it’s even worse if you’re critical of Israel and of mainstream narratives of Jewish identity. Just ask Eli Valley, the cartoonist who illustrated last year’s Chapo Trap House Guide to Revolution and, before that, the terrific 2017 collection Diaspora Boy. While genuine anti-Semitism is on the rise, frivolous charges of anti-Semitism have been deployed by anti-left centrists and right-wingers alike, resulting in a chaotic frenzy where the real thing is often ignored or minimized but false accusations are enough to sway an election. Valley’s grotesque, kinetic, and outlandish work, pulsing in a main vein that extends from the black heart of Ralph Steadman, has been the perfect reaction to this development, and has made him one of the most hated figures on Twitter – and one of America’s most important cartoonists.
Everything by Christopher Cantwell & I.N.J. Culbard (Dark Horse/Berger). The shopping mall with a cheery façade and a sinister underpinning is now old enough to have transcended its ‘80s genre origins and reified into the contemporary nostalgia-for-‘80s-genre genre. But this intriguing, quietly surreal take avoids the cheap jolts of remember-dis? for something much more satisfying. A sort of horrific companion piece to the surprisingly good workplace sitcom Superstore, Everything delivers its late-capitalist nightmare in the form of a megastore that gives customers, well, everything. Cantwell (not to be confused with the crying Nazi of the same name) delivers a subtle, involving story that draws you in and avoids most of the obvious traps of the consumer-capitalism-as-demonic-influence concept, slowly shaping memorable characters and images, and Culbard’s art is particularly cinematic and intense, matching colors and light to the narrative and letting the images speak for themselves with minimal hand-holding.
Is This How You See Me? by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics). I know, I know: middle-aged comics fans idolizing the Hernandez Brothers is as predictable as the tides, and believe me, I feel pretty guilty about it, not to mention how unseemly it is to have so many books on this list published by the people cutting the check I’ll get for writing it. But what can I tell you? I’ll stop putting their names on best-of-the-year lists when they stop producing incredibly good comics, which will probably be a few years after they’re dead. The latest triumph is a book that takes what drew so many people into Jaime’s world in the first place – the rocky but reliable friendship (with benefits) between Maggie and Hopey – and smacks it with a cruel but fair dose of reality, asking what that friendship must look like as their lives diverge, change, and drift with age. It’s a familiar process to everyone old enough to have lifetime friends, and Jaime works his usual magic, making it every bit as sad, thrilling, heartbreaking, and familiar as it is in the real world.
Nancy: A Comics Collection by Olivia Jaimes (Andrews McMeel). Every decade or so, someone comes along who allegedly makes the newspaper comics page ‘worth reading again’ or some such claptrap. It’s pretty unexpected to have it be someone like the mysterious and pseudonymous Olivia Jaimes, and even more unexpected to be via the process of breathing hilarious, shocking, and meta-comical new life into a strip as ancient and established as Nancy. But Jaimes and her delightful new Nancy live up to the hype; I can’t remember the last time a strip delivered at such high percentages and made me actually look forward to getting the paper every day (or, you know, its online equivalent, I don’t live in a goddamn cave). This may not seem in keeping with my focus on political works, but in a way, this Nancy – tech-savvy, permanently online, simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-hating, and obsessed with her own image in social media – is only a reflection of Weird Left Twitter and the Discourse writ large.
I have to level with you: most of my comics reading in 2019 has been hopelessly behind the times. It’s not that I haven’t been reading any at all, just that I’ve mostly focused on older titles -- series -- that I needed to read for research on long-form pieces or as simply interested in reading because until now I’d never had the time for them. So you’ll forgive me if you see few titles from 2019: this list reflects less what’s happening in the world of contemporary comics than my own prejudices and whimsies. If you don’t see any of your favorites here it’s not a judge of anything but my own bad reading habits.
- One Piece by Eiichiro Oda (Viz): A bit of a lie, but here IS the one piece (har har har) of comics culture I’m up to date on and boy, has it been a banner year for the series. The Wano arc isn’t One Piece at its most adventurous: there’s very little all that strange or exotic to see in author/artist Eiichiro Oda’s pastiche of Edo-era Japan. Nor is it One Piece at its most frantic. It’s been a much slower, more deliberate year for the series that’s seen more time spent developing the historical and emotional stakes for the country than it has been on giving Luffy and co. a satisfying group of freaks to knock down and frankly, that’s been fine by me. It’s an appropriate attitude to adopt as the series moves into what the author promises is the end game and starts doling out revelations about questions we’ve had for a significant chunk of its twenty-year history and I’m thrilled to see it.
- Abara by Tsutomo Nihei (Viz): Nihei possesses an apocalyptic vision unmatched anywhere in comics and Abara strikes me as the most visceral example of his sensibility. Not as grinding and horrifying as Blame!, not quite as relentless as Biomega, Abara is just explosive and strange and disorienting in ways even Nihei’s other work don’t dare to be. It sometimes feels like we don’t have that many artists up to the task of capturing the nightmare we live in so it’s reassuring that we still have Nihei (even if he’s gotten a little more tame in the decade since Abara’s original publication).
- Cats of the Louvre by Taiyo Matsumoto (Viz): My review went up on TCJ just days ago so there’s not much I want to say here, only to affirm that Matsumoto’s work is always a treat; we’re lucky we get to see a year with a release from him that’s this pleasurable (and if you stick around long enough in 2020 you’ll finally get to see Ping Pong have an official English release, too).
- The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezz (Viz): I sadly haven’t had time to check out Viz’s reissue of this classic but I’m just thrilled to see that it’s accessible again for American readers (and in such a beautiful package). If you haven’t read it yet there’s no better time than now.
- Breaking the Frames by Marc Singer (University of Texas): Not a comic, no, but it’s the finest work on comics criticism I was lucky enough to read this year. Few critics write as lucidly as Singer does, fewer still possess his dedication to research and fact-checking or his unapologetic approach to argumentation (it’s refreshing to see somebody unafraid to get his teeth a little bloody), so for a reader who prefers his text in print rather than on a screen (no offense to any of my many talented contemporaries at the Journal or elsewhere on the internet) this was a real treat.
Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley (First Second)
Way more than just a pregnancy memoir, this is a definitive guide that touches on every high and low of the experience and goes deep into myths, stigmas and the long history of women either being left alone to figure everything out or being berated by every know-it-all scold that passes them on the street. This is a must read for anyone thinking of having a kid (especially guys).
The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (D&Q)
Davis is one of our best cartoonists working today, so everything that she does is worth a look and this one of her best. It’s a broad, nearly farcical rendering of the 2019 socialist, activist Left but told through the point of view of the most complex and interesting character I’ve read this year.
Criminal by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Jacob Phillips (Image Comics)
It’s also worth reading anything Brubaker and Philips put out and I was excited to see them return to the series that not only made their names but that, back in the early aughts, was one of the books that helped break mainstream comics readers of their debilitating superhero addiction. This is a comic that is unashamed about being a comic and even manages to pull off a gritty crime story about an aging comic artist at a convention.
Guts by Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic)
The book of the year according to my daughters and all their friends and it’s probably Telgemeier’s best. She doesn’t get enough credit for her creative cartooning skills but it’s encouraging to know that she’s inspiring thousands of young cartoonists to push the form in their own ways. She uses her influence very responsibly and this book tackles the important subject of childhood anxiety in a personal and I think very beneficial way.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (First Second)
Just an absolute star-making performance by artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell who gives it her all on every panel even when drawing telephone poles or restaurant counters but especially when depicting the self-consciousness of young love. She’s the next Tillie Walden.
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware (Pantheon)
I’ve read this all in its original installments over the past two decades and it seems strange to finally see it collected. The comics industry has transformed vastly since Ware started this and he now finds himself relegated to the old guard, but hopefully not considered irrelevant because some of his best work is in this volume.
White Bird: A Wonder Story by R.J. Palacio and Kevin Czap (Knopf)
It’s not really fair when the author of one of the most successful YA novels of the decade (Wonder) also turns out to be a pretty talented cartoonist capable of knocking out a gorgeous 200+ page graphic novel (though I suspect inker Kevin Czap did some of the heavy lifting). This sort-of-sequel to Wonder goes back to Nazi-occupied France and manages to smartly link the horror of the Holocaust with a topic most kids today can understand: bullying.
House of X #2 by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz and Martels Gracia (Marvel)
The House of X/Powers of X dual series had its ups and downs for me but I am grateful for how the eventfulness of it brought me back into the excitement of buying a comic the day it came out so as to excitedly follow the discussion online. The standout moment of the series was this issue, a mind-blowing story of multiple lives and the most epic mutant power we’ve ever seen in an X-men comic.
It is inherent to the state of the cosmos that all things shall be of giant proportions – so weary eyes who'd easily miss any minor character should get the opportunity to observe every detail in a greater scheme than themfuckingselves.
Now this is how the tabloid-sized comics page came into word and paper, destined to be the first witness to the forming of art in a medium often associated with people barely capable of reading. Yes, and that IS part of the story of the newspaper comic; just think of all the immigrants, especially Germans, and dem rapping hard consonants in der Fritzkrieg between Hearst and Pulitzer, the latter still acting as a guarantor of the quality of the activities of Chris Ware, at least that's what I've heard through TCJ's grapevine lately.
But, where does this seemingly inborn need in certain parts of the comics scene for brick-like hardbacks come from, here NOT repeatedly thrown through a bunch of panel borders by a lovesick mouse? Well, there is a longing for sizes that actually do matter and, even more, to make this horrible artform gain more cultural weight and value by revoking its limitations format-wise.
Because it's family business. Which ain't funny at all. Like comics is and Christmas.
However, in her SFF novel The Obelisk Gate, N. K. Jemisin states that “Father Earth did not always hate life.” It's more that “He hates because he cannot forgive the loss of his only child.”
What could basically be the blueprint for a lot of antique tragedies also carries Jules Valera's mini comic, so in logical conclusion the artwork puts differing styles against each other, while managing to integrate them simultaneously thus visualizing its plot appropriately, making it the most lucid meditation on gravitational attraction I've read all year.
Other mothers' beautiful daughters:
*ITEM* In Pretty Deadly: The Rat Emma Rios delivers some of her best artwork to date, which does look mostly like pioneer of silhouette animation Lotte Reiniger being on a spray painting rampage.
*ITEM* Kinswoman Maria Llovet is an excellent dessinatrice, her Historietas (Spanish for comics) often look like a modern update of Purita Campos, who sadly passed away this year and whose comics for girls were a huge influence in forming my tastes.
*ITEM* I've barely seen a science fiction series look as alien as Strayed and focus on perspective in a way that makes heights and distances integral parts of the storytelling. What Juan Doe achieves here is absolutely amazing, considering him being the co-author, artist and colorist in one person. Besides that, Doe's delivering the best coloring in an SF series since Sloane Leong's Prism Stalker, which urgently needs to become a category on its own in any comics-related award show.
Also, writer Carlos Giffoni's premise of every mind embodying a world of its own is reminiscent of Ada Palmer's SF series Terra Ignota, wherein she built the strangest of worlds from the minds of philosophers like Voltaire or Hobbes. Not Calvin & Hobbes obviously, but as the letter column indicates, there is cat content in Strayed, albeit pointing more in a Cordwainer Smith direction.
*ITEM* Should be bored by Anna Haifisch for a long time now but am always baffled how she manages to consistently outdo herself. Her latest collection of comics, released as Schappi in Germany, gathers some of the stuff that had been scattered all over several floors like toys in the attic and comes along with sadness-celebrating while still self-empowering æsthetics. A detailed insight in this beautiful book, written by my co-authoress Heike, gives you the exciting details.
*ITEM* By reading our report from Hamburg's Comicfestival you might notice that Jul Gordon gets mentioned in an almost disproportionate manner, but she's a dessinatrice with great potential to watch out for, which gets verified here.
*ITEM* Oh, and I liked Viktor Hachmang's Twin Mirrors a lot.
*ITEM* Amphetamines would've been great while reaching a very low point during spring, but instead of taking those I wrote this. I've never written in that style before and probably will never do again. *It* very personal and it's also connected to my daytime job. Plus, Arjuna Susini is one of the most gifted talents around today, just check out his use of facial expressions.
*ITEM* It was and still is very sad seeing Tom Spurgeon leaving us, so I payed a final tribute to my beloved CR feature Five For Fridays which often cost me a lot of sleep – and Tom a lot of nerves, to be honest.
*ITEM* Finally, I've known Jutta Harms from the start of my – ahem – career in comics criticism and though we had our differences about the term 'Graphic Novel' – which found use in Germany as a marketing term to make proof of quality – I'm sad to see her go so soon, because within the German comics scene she was one of the few highly influential women – see also Anna Haifisch's heartwarming tribute here.
Although I had a few things of my own come out this year, it has probably been the single year in decades that I read the fewest comics. I bought or traded for some books that look good that I just have not yet gotten to read, probably because I watch too much TV, which it seems is where most of the good storytelling is happening---but I will read these books: Frank Santoro’s Pittsburgh, Connor Willumsen’s Bradley of Him, another Tillie Walden GN, books by European pals like Ame Ziane. But I can’t give them picks if I have not read them yet. I didn’t even get Chris Ware’s new thing yet. And mainstream comics? Well, I think nearly all of their writers are complete assholes, because many of them either have their names on the covers much bigger than the names of the artists, or they allow their collaborating artists’ names to be left off entirely. A big writing star now is some dick that calls himself “king” and rewrites old Kirby books like Mister Miracle and everyone kisses his ass. He’s going to help ruin the Kirby New Gods movie, oh yay. All these dildos deserve to be boycotted.
What did I read? Well, I liked a comic called Pope Hats (#6, Adhouse), by Hartley Lin (who used to call himself “Ethan Rilly” back when we both were nominated for the same Eisner but lost to a canny Irish lass)—nicely drawn bits of literary vignette, that have that sort of middle-class The New Yorker vibe that one gets with Tomine, Bell and Ware nowadays.
And my favorite thing that I got was the latest Kramers Ergot (#10), from Fantagraphics. Editor Sammy Harkham’s piece is, as always, the single strongest thing in the whole magazine. But this piece is actually one of the best things that Sammy has ever done; a digression from his ongoing faux-Roger Corman studio epic “Blood of the Virgin,” in this case a story from the early cinema, as a naive cowboy becomes involved with a producer who manipulates, deceives and exploits his increasingly resourceful young protégé. The piece is drawn in Sammy’s breezy light-touch nearly-bigfoot style, while a great deal of the heavy lifting is carried by the magnificent color. A masterpiece.
The rest of Kramers is a mixed bag, as usual; It holds probably the best-ever C.F. piece, “Liquid on Neutral,” a typically obtuse but brilliantly colored effort that channels Moebius and Peter Max in equal parts; and “Sarka,” a super intensely ultraviolent and psychedelic breakout romp by the surprising Lale Westvind. And there are some other cool pieces: one by the aforementioned Connor Willumsen, the well-deserved re-emergence of the great National Lampoon strip “Trots and Bonnie” by Shary Flenniken; and Kim Dietch’s explication of a silly bondagey collab he did with Spainback in the day in the E.V. Other---and a few other interesting bits. And then as usual, there are the things that make me wonder WTF is this even in print for. But overall, Kramers is a very worthy and extraordinary package, the rare sort of anthology that keeps comics vital and exciting.
These Savage Shores – Ram V, Sumit Kumar, Vittorio Astone & Aditya Bidikar (Vault)
The best comics are often alchemical, the right combination of art, writing, coloring and lettering, a place for each and everything in its place. These Savage Shores takes vanilla vampire fare and doesn’t give it a twist so much as tear its head off as a reminder to readers there are more myths out there than dreamt up or borrowed by white people. V is as well versed in the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa as he is in Stoker and he uses each source to tell a story of love and war and the costs therein for the living, undead and immortal. Kumar is a revelation, a cartoonist who understands the formalism of a nine-panel grid so well he breaks it at will, but always within the context of cartooning and in service to the story. Astone and Bidikar neither act as caretakers nor the last in the line of production. Their contributions to These Savage Shores color and lettering, respectively, work with what V and Kumar bring to tell a comic book story—which is, too often, a damn rare thing these days.
Maids – Katie Skelly (self-published)
Maids sees Skelly apply her powers to the real life story of the Papin sisters. Were they cold blooded murders? Heroes of the underclass and underserved? Or had they had enough of their abusive bourgeoisie mistress and had to cut a bitch and cleave her head with a hammer? These are uncompromising comics by an cartoonist with something to say about what it means to not be a coward. Buy her comics.
Silver Surfer: Black – Donny Cates, Tradd Moore, Dave Stewart
Nobody bought a ticket for this ride because of Cates and Stewart, sorry. This is Tradd Moore’s trip (and what a trip it was) with the ‘Sentinel of the Spaceways.’ Every page, panel and line of Silver Surfer Black deserves a long soak. A masterclass in mark making and proof comics is a visual medium when (if?) you give the cartoonist some.
(tie) The Green Lantern – Grant Morrison, Liam Sharp, Steve Oliff, Steve Wander and Far Sector – N.K. Jemison, Jamal Campbell, Deron Bennett
I don’t give a green flying fuck about Green Lantern comics. And I don’t care who your favorite Green Lantern is/was or why you hate Hal Jordan. Whichever one he is. This latest Morrison and Sharp iteration of space cops is Grant Morrison doing Grant Morrison shit and Liam Sharp drawing the hell out of whatever wheels within wheels, multiverses within multiverses Morrison dredges up from the silly symphonies of the Bronze Age. But damn these comics are entertaining as hell: planet of the vampires, a skyscraper-sized Green Arrow, a Batman Green Lantern, a stoner Green Lantern and an eater of planets (no not him) made up like Michelangelo’s God. It’s a disposable bargain at $3.99. Far Sector, on the other hand, at only two issues, is a work in progress for Jemison as she figures out how to write for comics. She will because she’s a stone cold wri-ter and once she groks to trust Jamal Campbell to do his job, watch out. And trust him she should. Campbell’s cartooning is fresh and showy, but unassuming in way that feels tight but loose. His character designs are eye-popping from Lantern Sojourner Mullein’s pompadour a la’ Janelle Monáe to creatures who have to hide their ever-hungry mouths behind Edwardian collars borrowed from Elvis’s ‘68 Comeback Special, it’s details like these that makes this a comic to watch in 2020. Curious that the lever-pullers at DC’s Young Animal imprint don’t tag (sell) Far Sector as part of the Green Lantern family of comics, perhaps that’s because it’s for reade
Eleanor Davis, The Hard Tomorrow (D&Q)
Eleanor Davis has developed a truly impressive range, producing everything from surreal parables to searching journal comics, but somehow she manages to add a new one to her repertoire here. The Hard Tomorrow is an all too realistic look at a dystopian future so near that it might as well be the present, but as well realized as it is, the social backdrop is there to throw the characters and their decisions into sharp relief. Davis is unsparing in showing us how her characters hurt each other even with the best of intentions, all conveyed through her perfect eye for detail. (The firing range contains one of the most disturbing images I’ve seen in comics.) And yet despite the grim subject matter, Davis never gives into cynicism or despair. She knows exactly when to slow down, zoom in, and focus on what motivates her characters to fight for a better world.
Jaime Hernandez, Is This How You See Me? (Fantagraphics)
Very few cartoonists have the opportunity, much less the ability, to develop a cast of characters over nearly forty years and make us care about them at every stage along the way. Jaime Hernandez has both, and his work has only gathered more force with each new decade. His layouts, linework, and figure drawing are as good as they’ve ever been here, joining youthful energy to sober reflection in a story that takes us from a reunion show for middle-aged punks to Maggie and Hopey’s first days together and back again. The Love Bunglers was a tough act to follow, but damned if he didn’t pull it off.
Michel Fiffe, Copra (Image)
This was a welcome return. The Image Comics relaunch of Copra picks up in the middle of an ongoing storyline without missing a beat, but unlike most of his inspirations from the 80s and 90s, Michel Fiffe is always willing to upset his own status quo. This comic takes more risks, visually and narratively, than any of its component parts ever did.
Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen (DC)
Fraction’s humor can grate when he’s on the wrong title, but his snarky captions, convoluted time-jumps, and endless accumulation of comics references all work perfectly here. Because really, what the hell else are you going to do with Jimmy Olsen?
Tom Peyer and Jamal Igle, The Wrong Earth (Ahoy Comics)
This one is better than its premise, and it’s a pretty good premise: what happens when two different versions of the same superhero (one Adam West, one Frank Miller) switch worlds? To their credit, Peyer and Igle skip over the easy moralizing in favor of satirizing the troubling aspects of both kinds of superhero fantasy. Igle contributes solid character designs throughout, especially one henchwoman who would have been the perfect Harley Quinn to Cesar Romero’s Joker, if anybody had known what a Harley Quinn was back then.
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Criminal (Image)
Another series that made a welcome return in 2019. Brubaker and Phillips spent most of the year building up to a big storyline that delves deep into the comic’s long-buried history, with each chapter told from a different but equally doomed point of view. And if that sounds like the sort of thing James Robinson would have done in Starman in 1995, maybe that’s part of the charm.
Emil Friis Ernst, Dr. Murder and the Island of Death (Backyard Barons)
The story is a little too Venture Bros., to be perfectly honest, but the main attraction here is Ernst’s artwork, which combines the best features of 60s action strips and psychedelic poster art. The vibrant colors and flowing lines pulse with life, and Ernst’s figures move beautifully.
Cole Pauls, Dakwäkãda Warriors (Conundrum Press)
Cole Pauls is a Tahltan First Nation artist who created Dakwäkãda Warriors to preserve the Southern Tutchone language that he grew up with. As such, the story and figure work in this bilingual comic are aimed squarely at kids, with Power Rangers-style retellings of creation stories and allegories for colonialism. Pauls adapts the formline aesthetic of Pacific Northwest nations into his art, making this one of the most visually distinctive comics of the year.
- The Drifting Classroom: Perfect Edition, Vol. 1 by Kazuo Umezz (Viz): A hellworld so precise and cruel in its punishments that Fletcher Hanks could weep with envy. The most hysterical, aggressive manga ever in a very nice reprint.
- Vivisectionary by Kate Lacour (Fantagraphics): Appreciating the sublime from inside a k-hole. Lacour presents a nature not beautiful in spite of its ambivalence, but because of it.
- Face Fatigue by Tia Roxae (Silver Sprocket): Haunted cosmetic surgery giallo, case closed. A gnarly delicacy; you can see the blood under everyone’s skin.
- Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics): How do you process trauma? How does trauma process you? A fucking nightmare that apologizes for nothing.
- Thuban Press Guide to Analog Self Publishing by Julia Gfrörer (Self): What a nice zine to have put together. Who knows how many freaks it will bring to the fold.
Given the volume of new material flooding the market every year, I’m extending my top 10 list to cover the last two years since there is plenty of excellent 2018 stuff I didn’t get to until this year.
1. Pittsburgh - Frank Santoro (NYRC)
Quite possibly the book of the year and unquestionably Santoro’s best work. Not only is Pittsburgh a moving, personal reflection on his parents’ divorce and its aftershocks in his own life, it’s also a loving tribute to the city he grew up in.
2. They Called Us Enemy - George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf)
This is George Takei's graphic memoir about growing up in the Japanese internment camps in the US during World War II. Like its spiritual predecessor, Barefoot Gen, it's not only essential reading, it’s also a sad reminder that America was a fascist shithole long before Trump came along. Takei’s celebrity inevitably overshadows this project, but Harmony Becker’s art is a revelation.
3. Kramers Ergot 10 (Fantagraphics)
Kramers always features an eclectic cross-section of comics and art, but I thought this was the best volume since #4. Highlights include Conor Willumsen’s “Europe,” Kim Deitch’s “If It’s Weird, It Works,” C. F.’s “Liquid on Neutral,” and, of course, Sammy Harkham’s latest installment of “Blood of the Virgin.”
4. The Hard Tomorrow - Eleanor Davis (D&Q)
Although I found the ending problematic, this was still Davis’s best work in years, probably since You & A Bike & A Road, and easily one of the best graphic novels of the year.
5. Twists of Fate - Paco Roca (Fantagraphics)
A Spanish WWII masterpiece that has deservedly been compared to Maus.
6. Pleading With Stars - Kurt Ankeny (Adhouse)
An impressive debut collection of short stories that explores various genres and styles. Ankeny is an artist with immense range and skill.
7. Bad Weekend - Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image)
A Criminal story set in the world of comic books, with unflattering allusions to Gil Kane and Alex Toth. The story succeeds both as an indictment of the industry and as a crime noir mystery.
8. Ice Cream Man - Martín Morazzo and W. Maxwell Prince (Image)
For the second year in a row, this is my favorite mainstream book.
9. Upgrade Soul - Ezra Claytan Daniels (Lion Forge)
One of the best science fiction graphic novels I’ve read in years. Great art, grotesque yet endearing characters, and a fascinating concept. I look forward to re-reading this one day.
10. Batman: Creature of the Night - Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon (DC)
While Frank Miller continues to napalm his legacy, Dresden-style, Busiek keeps churning out high quality superhero yarns with heart, and John Paul Leon is on his A-game, as usual.
Honorable mentions: Holy Hannah - Will Dinski, Dark Stories - Alfonso Font, Kingdom - Jon McNaught, Dementia 21 - Shintaro Kago, A Fire Story - Brian Fies, The Nib, Sky in Stereo Part 2 – Mardou, Floppy #1 - Karl Stevens, War Bears - Margaret Atwood and Ken Steacy, Pope Hats #6 - Ethan Rilly, Taxi! - Aimée de Jongh, and The Freak - Matt Lesniewski.
Grip 2 by Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) - A graphic narrative with a WTF eyeball-blasting power and primacy the likes of which I haven't seen since Kirby's New Gods series. Review to come as soon as I climb out of the pits of Hell.
The Pits of Hell by Ebisu Yoshikazu (Breakdown Press): Reprint of bonkers 1981 manga cult classic. Review to come, as soon as I climb out of the pits of Hell and swat away the flying saucers buzzing around my decapitated, pachinko-obsessed head.
Treasures Retold: The Lost Art of Alex Toth, edited by Dean Mullaney (IDW The Library of American Comics): A head-spinning assortment of Toth work I'd never seen before, perfectly presented in a deluxe format. If possible, I love and respect Toth's work more than ever after savoring this new collection.
Ed Leffingwell's Little Joe by Harold Gray, edited by Peter Maresca and Sammy Harkham (Sunday Press): Deliciously weird Harold Gray story and art on a western comic strip I've never read. It's like a book I'd find in a dream and wake up wishing was real. And guess what? It's real! Flawless presentation in original size and colors, sigh. Thank you, Sunday Press!
All Time Comics: Zerosis Deathscape issues 0-6 by Josh Bayer, Josh Simmons, Trevor Von Eden, and a bunch of other fascinating cartoonists. (Floating World Comics): It's the 1980's again! This sprawling gonzo superhero series builds on the universe created by Josh Bayer and a small army of legendary and modern cartoonists starting in 2017. It is fascinating and disorienting to see Josh Simmons inject his singular brand of darkness into a superhero saga. A trade paper collection of the early issues was also published by Floating World and is the goods.
Spirits of the Dead by Richard Corben (Dark Horse): This is a trade paper reissue of the 2014 classic with a new story, "The Man of the Crowd." Ever since this modern horror master broke out with his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations in 1970s Warren mags, Corben has been the main man when it comes to comic book adaptions of the dark short stories and poetry of this seminal literary figure. Here, we get a book of sixteen full-color Poe adaptations by Corben, which is a treasure, boys and ghouls.
Rooftop Stew by Max Clotfelter (Birdcage Bottom Books). Gee whiz, it's about time we got a book collection of one of the best of the Goop School cartoonists. There is nothing else like these fleshy, sweaty, sticky, rotting, protruding, obsessively hatched comics by this transplanted son of the South residing in Seattle. This collection breaks your heart, steals your beer, and tickles your ribs. So good.
Hoo-Hah! series by Bruce Simon and Ron Evry. This under-the-radar self-published book-zine series offers restored rare material related to American cartoons, film, and humor. 2019's issues offered an abundance of newspaper panels reprints by the great J.R. Williams (Out Our Way) whose gentle, life-affirming comics are set in small towns, western plains, and a bustling factory. Robert Crumb digs Hoo-Hah!: "I found the J.R. Williams book great. Never saw those cowboy cartoons before. They are rich, they capture the sweeter side of the cowpoke way of life but obviously avoid the rowdy, alcohol-induced violent side, the bar fights, the whoring, etc. J.R. had a beautiful inking style, plus he could really draw..." Find 'em at http://hoo-hah.net
Pittsburgh by Frank Santoro (New York Review of Comics). What can I possibly say about this masterpiece that hasn't already been said? Ever since I bought the astonishingly evocative original newsprint edition of Storeyville at the Million Year Picnic in Harvard Square in 1995, I've been a Santorohead.
Constant Companion by Noah Van Sciver (Fantagraphics Underground). 2019 was the year I became a rabid Van Sciver fan. Lucky enough to score back issues of Blammo in a trade, I bought everything I could find by this guy. I love his historical comics the best, but it's all great and the way he weaves autobio comics with short stories with satire with obscure history makes for a rich and satisfying read. Lately, he's gotten into rendering nature, which kinda seems to surface in this nicely printed trade black and white collection of sketchbook drawings and comics. I love it when these types of cartoonist's sketchbooks include previously unpublished comic stories, too and there's a bunch of those in this book, which makes it a must-have for a Sciverhead like me. Review to come as soon as I climb out of the pits of Hell, etc.
I'm reading Ishmael Reed's 2011 novel Juice! right now. The narrator, a version of Reed, is a cartoonist whose comix on the O.J. Simpson case cost him his career and family. It's not a comic, but it's comic, and I love it.
Reed and Reed's narrator repeatedly evoke George Herriman's Krazy Kat strips, and I've returned to their slapstick surreal ebullience. There's an ecstatic nihilism to Krazy Kat (or do I mean nihilistic ecstasy?), a radical absurdity that seems to both diagnose and describe Our Big Dumb Zeitgeist of 2019 in the most perfectly oblique way. The strip's (il)logic runs on a strange Dada engine, crashing into both sensibility and decorum. It's a wonderful anarchist romp. I have no idea if there was some new Krazy Kat compendium that came out in 2019, but Herriman's strip is the best critique of 2019 I can think of. (Also: Read more Ishmael Reed.)
Speaking of: Drew Lerman's collection Snake Creek reverberates with the spirit of Krazy Kat mixed and mushed with the apocalypse ghost swamp of Walt Kelly's Pogo, along with tinges of Garfield Goes Total Nihilist. (Who am I kidding? Garfield was always a total nihilist.) Lerman's shaky strips approximate our own shaky days and shaky daze, evoking a Florida fit to sink into its own wild psychosphere.
I loved Rat Time by Keiler Roberts. I missed one of my nephew's baseball games because I started reading it one Saturday morning and then lied about having to do something work-related---like an emergency---because I wanted to finish up Rat Time instead. It made me feel Warm (& Fuzzy), despite how dry Roberts' humor is. (Desiccant dry, folks.) Roberts' autofiction is utterly real.
I also really admired Ben Passmore's comic Sports Is Hell, a send-up of American massculture that simultaneously stings and enlivens its reader. The novel takes place during the aftermath of a Super Bowl featuring a Kaepernickesque (Kaepernesque?) star player. The Big Game devolves into a Big Riot, with its heroes fighting their way through the madness---think Walter Hill's film The Warriors by way of George Herriman's Krazy Kat. I hope Ishmael Reed will read it.
Veggie Team #4: Betrayal, Ginger Craghead-Way (Self-published). Is it weird to list your friend's kid's comic on a best of list? Maybe. Oh well. I love that there are now four issues of Veggie Team and you can see clear improvement in both the writing and art. The best panels here have traces of Mickey Z and even a pencil scratchiness reminds me of Warren Craghead himself. Plus, look at that cover! Don't you want to know who betrayed the Veggie Team?? I sometimes forget that making comics should be a joyful process. Veggie Team helps me to remember that.
The Hard Tomorrow, Eleanor Davis (Drawn & Quarterly). Other people will probably talk about this book and maybe they will say something about the important ideas it presents and how it presents those ideas in a way that is compelling but never preachy, clear but also allowing for subtlety. So I'd like to talk instead about how The Hard Tomorrow succeeds as a comic. Davis understands when a carefully rendered gun or a lush forest are necessary to her story, but she lets other panels be quiet and simple. She understands when a face can be four lines and when the eyes should shimmer like a shoujo manga. The moments excluded from the book are just as essential as the moments we see. I cried at the end and you probably did too.
Blood of the Virgin, Sammy Harkham (from Kramers Ergot 10, Fantagraphics). This is close to a perfect short story. It captures an entire life in 24 pages. It makes a compelling argument that Harkham understands better than anyone else how to distill the lessons of the best newspaper strips--including the lesson of what to do with a larger print size--into a modern work. It's also an impressive piece of color work from a cartoonist who has never previously published a story in full color.
Is This How You See Me?, Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics), This is a great book, but it's also an answer to the question "What do you do after you've made Love Bunglers?" The answer, of course, is that you keep making comics. Jaime continues to make amazing work at more or less the same pace he's always made it, and at a stage in his career when he'd be fully justified in calling it quits. I find this incredibly comforting and inspiring. In fact, if you really wanted to I think that you can make the case that this work is more impressive than Love Bunglers, because it doesn't rely on storylines that have been built up over decades to pack an emotional punch. It's just a solid, perfectly crafted Maggie and Hopey story.
The River at Night, Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly). I already said most of what I have to say about this one. But I've reread it countless times now, and I almost always find something new. I really love this comic. Wasn't it Spurgeon who said that Kevin Huizenga is smarter than all of us? He was right.
PHASES_01, Rachna Soun (Late Comeback Press). This is a collection of 30 simple, unassuming four panel comics. They're quiet and lovely and the colors are well chosen. It's comforting, like a lazy afternoon. It builds up a compelling sense of mood and atmosphere with careful repetition and few words .