Every December, comics journalists scramble to cobble together lists of their favorite series and graphic novels published in the last year. Unlike ranking movies or TV, this task is exceptionally hard because the medium has so many formats: do I include archival material? Should there be a list for serials and one for bookshelf comics? This series came out last year, but the collection wasn’t out until this year… et cetera, et cetera. But all the publications somehow pull themselves together and push through their nagging questions of “did this even come out this year?” and “what am I forgetting…?” to finally hit “publish.” Yet, Year End lists are almost indistinguishable from one another, and the same few books show up on most of the lists. This list is designed to spotlight the books just as good in the Venn diagram of best-of adulation, but may not have received the marketing campaign push or distribution to float on the mainstream critical radar. Click on the book’s title for a link to either the online comic or the store where you can purchase a copy.
Writer/Artist: Pete Toms
Rendered in Pete Toms’ simple, unadorned style, The Linguists is a stew of ideas—the act of creation, the necessity of community, postgraduate ennui, the problems of authorship. The characters are bored and naive, and they’re all circling the drain of blind-alley academia. Each of them has to realize the state they’re in, and for some, that includes violence and death. In this way, The Linguists is almost Cronenbergian in its use of bodily self-disfigurement to illustrate its points, but Toms’ cadence is unaffected and unironic. It’s not homage so much as it is a familiar means to a distinct end, and The Linguists is a legitimately challenging work. It’s not a hollow center couched in pretension, as so many “alt comix” are, but it is opaque; you can’t quite name it, but there is something at work here, something that needs to be talked through, thought through, argued over and vivisected.
Writer/Artist: Jen Lee
Jen Lee never ceases to impress. Her comics are honest and raw and emotionally incisive in a way that so few things are. And stylish. The expressive, deeply human animals that populate her post-apocalyptic online adventure serial, Thunderpaw, are fashionable enough to strut down a cat walk, and her aesthetic is “so cute that it’s cool.” She’s an accomplished artist who can illustrate sumptuous “funny animal” images. But she’s also an accomplished cartoonist, a writer of images, and she knows how to use her form. Many of her panels are GIFs, slight ad infinitum movements that captivate and intrigue, and many of her pages make full use of the infinite canvas afforded by the web. Height and length are powerfully represented with these tools, and Thunderpaw is as formally interesting as it is aesthetically pleasing.
Writer/Artist: Sloane Leong
Sloane Leong’s work is always compelling, but she is at her best in the oblique mode featured throughout A Body Made of Seeing. The narrative is all internal monologue, and the protagonist laments the physicality of her body and recoils at the way others engage with it. The whole thing teems with body horror imagery, and Leong laces her Mondrian blocks of color with rough, scaly textures that will make you want to itch the hard-to-reach segments of your back. Leong’s montage-like pages and curvilinear figures cohere into something both resonant and something whose meaning manages to remain just out of reach.
Writer/Artist: Cathy G. Johnson, Mickey Zacchilli, Sophia Foster-Dimino
Publisher: Youth in Decline
Taking the form of a triptych, Lovers Only plays at romance without ever crossing the boundary into sex. This, of course, is a subversion of the expectations created by the title, and its three authors finesse that space. Each story examines a different aspect of relationships, exploring the underrepresented space between friendship and romance, between mutual affection and consummation. Sophia Foster-Dimino accomplishes this through nostalgia and patience. Her methodical cartooning stands in opposition to Mickey Zacchilli’s anarchic and noisey pages. Each story is made greater by its juxtaposition, and the whole serves as an invaluable portrait of the teenage conflation of lust and love, one that lacks the usual judgemental insistence that the two be bifurcated and discrete.
Writer/Artist: Cathy G. Johnson
Publisher: Czap Books & Grindstone Comics
Each panel in Cathy G. Johnson’s “Thank God, I Am in Love” is a close-up of a painting, a hyper-focused examination. Johnson scans across the works of Vincent van Gogh, examining their textures and lines; the thick, gloopy brushstrokes that become abstract upon too-close examination. The narration that accompanies these close-ups is a paean to van Gogh, but Johnson doesn’t directly address her subject. Because she avoids her subject, the narration takes on a poetic quality, a commentary on the emotional necessity of art, on the importance of artifice. Ley Lines is totally divorced from its explicit subject (named on the back cover), but it grows in applicability, in resonance, in power. The whole thing is a mystical demystification of artistic profundity, and it is as rewarding to read as it is lushly rendered.
Writer/Artist: François Vigneault
Publisher: Study Group
Originally appearing online, François Vigneault’s Titan focuses on the material conditions that disgruntle the proletariat. Taking place on the titular moon of Saturn, the specifics revolve around a corporate middle-man named João da Silva and his inter-office relationships with the laborers in his employ. The premise is simple and straightforward, by Vigneault recreates the cramped spaces of the narrative in his dense pages. They’re reminiscent of the high-panel-count pages of European albums, but reproduced in a mini-comic format, they become claustrophobic. Characters feel uncomfortably close to one another and that tension remains palpable. Hard sci-fi usually prioritizes technology over characters, but Vigneault beautifully illustrates inter-class dynamics, and, in doing so, foregrounds the very human relationships that make Titan more than a bushel of techno-babble.
Writer/Artist: Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll writes comics that perform their basic functions only in the most cursory of ways. Sometimes her horror comics are out-and-out horror, but sometimes they create a sense of unpunctuated dread by skirting any conventional implications of the genre. “The Groom,” which concerns two young girls who happen across an unfinished diorama that is both attractive and repulsive in its incompleteness, is the latter. By carefully manipulating her color palette—drab and muted throughout, with occasional dabs of brightness (including one effective shift to bright, spring colors)—and her innocuous, storybook linework, Carroll wonderfully approximates the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, a time when the smallest of things have the potential to be the most confusing and scary.
Writer/Artist: Connor Willumsen
Responding to Ron Wimberly’s “Lighten Up,” Connor Willumsen recounts his own experience with Marvel’s internal standards and practices. Willumsen works in an essay format, and the result is a dissonant combination of words and textures that heightens the bizarre subject of the short. Willumsen was asked not to render Wolverine in certain sex positions, and the artist illustrates all the verboten images with a loose, direct style. His illustrations hang free-standing, divorced from all panel borders. This approach creates a dreamlike collage, and it effectively replicates the “Like…what?” cadence of Willumsen’s speaking voice.
Writer/Artist: Sarah Horrocks
Under Sarah Horrocks’ pen, figures take on a brooding posture. Characters arch their backs, their arms distended and distorted. Pages become less a series of moments, and more pure channels of tenor and atmosphere. They elicit an affect, and that affect takes primacy over all following pages. Invoking the Giallo films of the ‘70s, Horrocks positions The Leopard Vol. 1 as a locked-room mystery, but it’s less about whodunit than textual exchanges and bestial eroticisim. Horrocks slathers her slinky, haute couture images with shrieking hues of orange and red, and the result is akin to a cup of black coffee, that curious combination of bitter and smooth.
Writer/Artist: Richie Pope
Premiered earlier this year at SPX, Richie Pope’s mini-comic about a young black man gifted with strange powers is soft-spoken and still. Pope explores the idea of black excellence to address how blackness is criminal in America, and the work is as inventive as it is vital. Pope invokes the narrative voice of a documentary, and there’s a genuflection throughout that lends the work a powerful solemnity. Newdini maximizes this approach with spacious pages—only two panels per page and minimal text, which gives Pope’s smoothly-textured lines room to breathe. This pacing slows the story down to the crawl of a haiku; each beat is emphasized and lingered on, leaving the reader with a lot to think through.