Another year has come to a close, and in-between experiencing an existential despair heretofore unknown to me, I read a bunch of great comics. And so did our bevy of wonderful writers! And some of those comics happened to come from small presses, indie creators, self-publishing, and the internet. We’ve written up a collection of our favorites from this year, presented to you.
Hot or Not: 20th-Century Male Artists
A whip-smart guide on the hotness (or notness) factor of the vaunted male artists in the high art canon. For once, the male gaze is doubled back onto the male creator. Would we want to see Cy Twombly in something a little more comfortable or insist he wear a full body turtleneck? Was David Milne worthy of the hand job time machine or should our hands stay in the present? Hot or Not is the best kind of feminist revenge, educational and hilarious!
Sugartown is a story of a woman home for the holidays, missing her boyfriend, dealing with her feelings of jealousy and inadequacy regarding his other girlfriend, and accidentally falling in love with a random girl she met at a party. It wastes no time apologizing for being a queer and polyamorous story. It just gets right down to Feelings. It makes situations and feelings that are often portrayed as unusual, weird, or even (still, in this day and age) bad, and it makes them terribly mundane. It’s heart-warming and validating and, if you’re one of those unusual, weird, bad people who isn’t a queer, poly woman, it’s probably educational.
When The Devil Drives
Ken Lowery, Jake Ekiss, Ruby Boiko, Jennifer Furman
Like A Virus Productions
There are a lot of choices for post-apocalyptic fiction these days. It’s a very popular genre for a great many reasons that require more space to explore than this paragraph. There are also a lot of mediocre-to-bad choices in that category, which makes the rare quality one shine through. When The Devil Drives is fast-paced, dark, and intelligent. It’s about a courier pressed into service to pay off a family debt; all he has to do is deliver information through a warzone. Along the way he’ll have to handle street gangs, snipers, and viruses, all without any real weaponry–while he’s cybernetically upgraded, all of those upgrades are about speed of movement, not defensive capabilities.
Lowery specializes in tales that explore a kind of deep, emotional, and existential hurt; one of the fun things about following him as a writer is seeing the way that he plays with that through a variety of genres. When The Devil Drives is some of his best work, a self-contained single issue that immediately makes me want more of this world. He’s helped along by Ekiss on art, plus Boiko and Furman on colors, and they bring this world to life. Shiny and futuristic but with an inescapable level of grime. It’s not a happy story, but it’s a great one, and I highly recommend it.
You & A Bike & A Road
As I read You & A Bike & A Road, I was repeatedly struck at Eleanor Davis’ portrayal of herself. She is a tall, powerful figure with massive biker’s thighs. Davis travels most of the way from Texas to Atlanta on her bike, by herself. She endures loneliness, knee injuries, and inclement weather. Ultimately, Eleanor Davis gives us a quiet reminder that women can execute big plans for themselves, push their physical limits, and come back home to their perfectly unconventional lives. This feels like a big deal in the midst of the exhausting, continuing political debates that afford us less agency than most children.
Say Her Name
Self-published/South Side Weekly
Bianca Xunise won the Ignatz for Promising New Talent this year, and her heart-felt speech (delivered by proxy) reflected exactly why. Say Her Name is a personal and emotional look into her concerns about being black and policed in America. She worries about her father–who is 6’2″–and recounts her own encounter with law enforcement in the subway. Succinct and to-the-point, Xunise’s cute art of talking faces instantly invoke empathy and tell the story as simply as possible. I’m excited to see what projects she comes out with next.
SWEETROCK and The Fish Wife
These two 24 hour comics by Melanie Gillman have quickly become firm favorites since I saw them online during the annual celebration of comics creation, but I include them both as I purchased them as mini comics from Gillman this year at CALA and they are utterly gorgeous.
The Fish Wife tells the tale of a woman who, unhappy with her small village and unkind neighbours, is deliberating ending her life when she meets a woman from the sea who makes her a deal. She will marry her and make her happy for one year, but if after a year they’re still in love she’ll have to sacrifice her heart to feed the mer-woman’s children. Gillman’s illustrations are utterly immersive and though the comic is only a few pages long they manage to create an entire world, one that you don’t want to leave. My description honestly doesn’t do Gillman’s work justice; their work is akin to a contemporary fairy tale, otherworldly yet instantly recognisable in its depiction of some of our most intimate wants and needs. As with all their creative output The Fish Wife subverts your expectations and creates a new tale for an audience who is often ignored, exploited or used in historic folklore.
Continuing their thematic series of new stories that feel like you already know them is SWEETROCK. Gillman spins another beautiful yarn, this time about a small village where once a year a giant comes to take away a woman, and each year the men scheme to make sure she takes one who they don’t care about. Their misogyny and arrogance leading them to believe they’ve played a trick on the giantess. We follow the latest woman who has been chosen, as she travels with the giant and awaits her fate. Once again Gillman subverts our expectations, creating a moving, hopeful and beautiful story that once again shows Gillman’s talents for illustration and visual storytelling, as well as their knack for creating modern folklore that will hopefully outlast us all. The world would surely be a better place if children read Gillman’s stories and learned their lessons from them rather than the dark misogyny of the classic fairy tales we grew up on.
Marge Simpson Anime
This incredible zine first caught my eye when the artist began posting paintings on Twitter. Inspired by josei manga and invested in freeing Marge from her unfulfilling life, Majumdar created a series of semi-religious watercolors that explore the character’s queer awakening, her relationships with the women of her family, her anger, and the clash of her love for her children and need to be free of her husband. On one of my favorite pages Marge is surrounded by smaller versions of herself, dressed as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, who the character played in an episode titled “A Streetcar Named Marge.” Majumdar uses this seemingly simple but familiar visual to signal to readers that Marge is seeking freedom, just as she did when she separated from Homer to play Blanche, but also that she is experiencing a familiar kind of madness, which she must disentangle in order to reach her liberation. The visual languages of The Simpsons, of religious art–there is an annunciation in the first part of the zine–and of Marge’s silhouette or smaller Marge figures, used to show Marge diving into herself, or getting lost within herself, combine to create something so huge and emotional that I’ve been struggling for months to describe it in words. This stunning journey that Majumdar has created for Marge is one you cannot miss.
This is the most spelling pure romance story I’ve ever read. This has been a favorite for years, but it finally ended and now I can fully recommend it. Always Human is a sweet romance with little drama between two women in a Utopian future. They deal with societal ableism, with personal problems, with growing together and it’s a lovely piece. There is no vision of the future I’ve ever read in a book that I wanted to become real more than Always Human. It’s just so freaking cool and it still has its problems, but it feels like progress is made, keeps being made. The girls have amazing chemistry, and this comic actually includes music in it, making for a very compelling extra layer to the art of the comic, not only do you get stunning art and story, vivid colors, but also soft music that helps set tone and further the emotions behind the panels.
I loved Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez and have yelled about it constantly in 2017. It’s a beautiful story about an young girl whose gift of creating beautiful illustrations has caught the eyes of a sinister figure. It’s a great comic to read to your little one but also great for adults who want to read it again but just linger a bit longer on the beautiful art. The expressions on the characters faces are so lively, and it immediately brings you into the world that Alvarez is building. It still takes my breath away a year later.
What is a Glacier?
Sophie Yanow’s What is a Glacier? is a perfect encapsulation of the heavy anxiety that blanketed this year for me. It’s about climate change, death, breakups, travel, and meditation, all wrapped together in a travelogue. It’s a diary comic that’s not a diary comic, held together with themes rather than by calendar dates. Yanow’s looping lines, blobby clouds, and landscapes, are soothing to look at as her story dives into the anxieties of knowing that our planet is headed toward ruin, but also knowing that everything eventually ends. If you’re looking for a roadmap of vague catastrophes that lurk in the back of your mind, this is the best one I’ve found.
Nominated for the Outstanding Comic Ignatz, Canopy is a lush, wordless tale that fills me with a sort of nameless dread every time I read it. I don’t know, really, if it’s meant to be a horror comic, but each page left me feeling unsettled. Every character’s connection to one another is fraught with intense discomfort for you, the reader, even if the characters don’t realize why that might be. We begin in a home, a nuclear family of wife, husband, and daughter. The wife’s protective hold on her daughter is so full of love and well-meaning intentions, but we watch as Karine Bernadou illustrates how it encourages the father to leave, how the daughter grows into adulthood, naked and guileless, still at her mother’s teat until her mother is finally empty. The daughter is then blindfolded, cast out of the home into the world, still naked, and now hindered by how much she can’t see. Interspersed with her journey is memories of her father, a kind of sweet daughterly love until you realize how much that love is influencing her blind searching as a young woman. It’s metaphorical, you see, but it’s also not. She meets things that love her, she disgards things that love her, she stumbles around, healthy connections with others just out of her reach. Bernadou’s art is an unsettling storybook, all in white, black, red, and turquoise, illustrative and lovely the way all fairy tales can be, hiding something more real and bloody underneath.
Shauna J. Grant
Princess Love♥Pon by Shauna J. Grant tells the story of Lia, ordinary schoolgirl turned super-sparkly magical girl. Tasked by the Lady of the Light to save the saddened and despairing hearts of the world, Princess Love♥Pon does battle with magical ribbons, kisses, and lots and lots of pink.
Created by a Black woman and starring a diverse cast, Princess Love♥Pon embodies love in more ways than one. Aside from its romantic subplot and literally hurling love attacks, it’s a love letter to classical magical girl anime and manga. The frilly dress and bunny mascot would fit right in to any episode of Pretty Cure, Wedding Peach, or Hime-chan’s Ribbon, and at the same time gently laughs along with some of the tropes (Princess Love♥Pon does not do well with heels). Grant’s take on the shoujo style is absolutely adorable, and I especially love the stylistic choice to do the comic in shades of pinks and purples rather than a straight black and white. If you need a breath of friendship, unrelenting optimism, and teeth-rotting cute, this webcomic is worth your time.
Rio Aubrey Taylor
Jetty is a comic magazine regularly published for Rio Aubrey Taylor’s Patreon subscribers, though I was handed Jetty #4 at SPX this year and immediately consumed the whole thing as fast as possible. Jetty #4 is the story of Fill, a cyborg built to constantly change shape, and thus, a cyborg that experiences constant pain. Fill is our narrator, explaining “robot-hell” to us–how they can never be touched, how only one friend has a lead glove that with which to even touch them. Fill talks to us about gender, about pain, and that longing for someone to see past. The art is cramped and anxious, Fill’s changing robotic form boxy and complex over a black background that makes me think of an empty, lonely space. The urgency of the first-person narration, in its long breathless sentences, really kept me rapt and attentive, and I found Jetty #4 to be a particularly poignant look at both gender identity issues and what life with chronic pain often feels like.