Best Small Press, Indies, & Webcomics of 2020!

Pave 7 volume 1 Tokyo Tarareba Girls

This 2020 was tough for me as an indie comics reader because, well, there were no cons for me to pick up wares! No zinefests or the pleasure of perusing the indie racks at my local comic shop. Luckily, there were virtual fests and cons for me to find some good books, and Webtoons are always there for me. Take a look at our writers’ favorite reads for 2020.

The Black Mage
Daniel Barnes (writing), DJ Kirkland (art & colors), and Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou (letters)
Oni Press (squeaking in as “read this year”)

Two young adults, one Black and male, one white and female, sit on top of a stack of spell books, shooting magic from their hands and wand. Cover for The Black Mage, art by DJ Kirkland (illustrator and colorist)

This book combines magic boarding school elements, Final Fantasy and Street Fighter video game moves, and a dash of Black history to create a satirical take on fantasy fiction. Its protagonist, Tom Token, attends a prestigious magic school as the first Black mage only to find a conspiracy that dates back to the Civil War. Daniel Barnes’ witty writing lampshades racist comments and encounters that Black people experience while claiming space for the fantastical through its epic take on Black historical figures Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Henry. Hassan Otmane-Elhaou’s anime-influenced lettering makes the action pop and DJ Kirkland’s colors and art style are dazzling.

— Latonya Pennington

Tokyo Tarareba Girls Returns
Akiko Higashimura
Kodansha

Tokyo Tarereba Girls Returns cover, by Akiko Higashimura, Kodansha, 2020

I love my Tarareba Girls and the only thing that could have made them better was a sequel. So I am thankful I read the series this year because I didn’t have to wait long for one! After a quick prodding from my Tarareba buddy Carrie, I picked up Tokyo Tarareba Girls Returns after it dropped digitally in English and it is a perfect sequel. The story continues a few years after the end of the main series, although it’s not quite 2020, the previously established marriage deadline. Regardless, we get to watch one of our girls get married and all the wonderful shenanigans that ensue. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel like Higashimura lives in your house and transcribes dialogues you have with your friends. And then takes photos of the most awkward moments of your adult life and traces over them for a comic. Then you’ll remember she wrote this multiple years ago and wonder if it was a prophecy. It’s a wonderful reminder and continuation of the lessons of the series; we make and choose our own happiness and that can come from fulfillment in a variety of ways. A great call to action for my Tarareba Girls and Cool Women.

— Paulina Przystupa

Eniale & Dewiela vol. 1
Kamome Shirahama
Yen Press Cover for Eniale & Dewiela vol. 1, by Kamome Shirahama, Yen Press, 2020

Good Omens meets The Dirty Pair in Eniale & Diwiela. The debut manga series by Witch Hat Atelier’s Kamome Shirahama is the story of an angel and a demon who may be mortal enemies in the battle between heaven and hell, but are united in their love for the finer things in life, like the latest in human haute couture. Featuring exquisite, highly-detailed art from Shirahama, Eniale & Diwiela is saucy, whimsical, and very, very funny, as the antics of our cosmic compatriots tend to have dramatic consequences for us mere mortals, like Eniale’s ambitious plan to create a heavenly hot spring somehow leading to a zombie uprising on Earth. 2020 may have felt apocalyptic, but with Eniale & Diwiela, at least we can laugh about it.

— Kayleigh Hearn

Maids
Katie Skelly
Fantagraphics

The cover of Maids by Katie Skelly -- the back of two girls wearing maid uniforms, their white apron bows tied. They hold hands on a red background surrounded by gold gilt.

A freshly-plucked eyeball turning into a doorbell, a maggot writhing on a strawberry cake—these are some of the horrible, beautiful images in Maids. Katie Skelly reimagines the true story of Lea and Christine Papin, two young French maids who brutally murdered their employers one cold February day in 1933. Delving into this inscrutable crime, Skelly presents the Papin sisters as outsiders abused by their family, their Church, and their cruel and controlling mistress, until tensions simmer to a fatal boil. A haunting depiction of defiance in the face of crushing inequality, the true horror in Maids isn’t found in its violence, but its damning final line: “She worked as a hotel maid until her death in 2001.”

— Kayleigh Hearn

Devil No. 4
Jangjin (writing), Woombeee (art)
Webtoon, ongoing since August 2019

A melancholy young man with silver hair looks out of frame, art by Woombeee for Devil No. 4.

This is the only Webtoon that has ever made me root for the heterosexual couple to get together. The premise is simple: in the bureaucracy of Heaven and Hell, devils earn their place by tricking humans into signing away their souls to them. But one poor student just won’t sign with the titular Devil No. 4. At first glance, Devil No. 4 is a familiar story, a Good Omens (TV) -esque look at the bureaucracy of angels and devils, along with a human girl falling for a devil. But every episode explores unusual gender and power dynamics. Angels can change their gender presentation between male and female, but devils cannot, and once an angel decides they favor one physical form over another that signals the start of their fall from grace. It’s like that @dril tweet, “this whole thing smacks of gender.” I really didn’t expect this much nuance from what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill paranormal romance Webtoon. Devil No. 4 gracefully explores themes of gender roles, free will, materialism, and belief, and friendship to a level I never saw coming.

— Masha Zhdanova

Drugs and Wires
Io Black (writing), Mary Safro (art)
Self-published online, ongoing since 2015

Drugs and Wires is a comic that took me a while to pick up, but when I finally did, it felt like coming home. In the far-off future of 1995, cyborgs and virtual reality are as common as computers today. The story follows Dan, a recovering VR junkie who nearly died after a strange digital virus known as the Worm hijacked his system, and Lin, an unlicensed cybernetics installer and the sketchiest surgeon known to man, as they navigate life in the post-Soviet hellscape of Unylsk, Stradania (which literally translates to Depression City in the Land of Suffering). I love the satirical tone and dark comedy, and the gritty, grimy cyberpunk feeling of the whole story. The characters are easy to love and root for, even the hilariously terrible Vlad Adsky. The art is clearly influenced by John Allison’s body of work, which I also love, and the character acting, expressions, and environments are all very solid and believable. What really grabbed me personally is the skillful combination of real former Soviet Union aesthetics and vibes and the world of VR and cyberprosthetics, and the unusual worldbuilding. The way the apartment buildings and the food and clothes are specific enough I can practically smell them makes this an immediate favorite. The last few chapters started exploring the world of Stradania a bit more as Lin decides to run for a government office and ropes Dan into her political machinations, and it’s fascinating. It’s good and I like it!

— Masha Zhdanova

The New Yerby: Spring 2020
By Liz Yerby
Self-published

This feels very selfish to list, because it’s a ridiculously personal choice! I bought a crap ton of zines this year and I am always very drawn to perzines, but there’s something about Liz Yerby’s work that hits all the right perzine notes for me. (Is it fair to call this zine a perzine, actually? Should I call it autobio instead? Whatever, don’t @ me.) This issue of their zine has drawings of their adorable puppy, slightly embarrassed discussion about being occasionally attracted to cis men, little Charlie Brown sketches — tiny shoutouts to Yerby’s INCREDIBLE gay Peanuts comic, “sir, is this love?” — and a stunning center insert that folds out into a full-page “Big, Queer, Historical Web.” If you listen to Morgan M. Page’s trans history podcast, One From the Vaults, you will especially love this web because it is queer! History! Gossip!! Solid lines indicate people who definitely hooked up and dotted lines indicate Yerby’s speculation about a hookup/relationship. Did Diego Rivera hook up with Leon Trotsky?! Did Frida Kahlo hook up with Georgia O’Keefe?! The speculation in this web is JUICY, informative and very sweetly illustrated! The way the zine movies from autobio comics to this fold-out infographic to collages and sketches is brilliant and beautiful. Yerby’s shop is closed at the moment but it looks like they plan to reopen it in the new year and hopefully sell more copies – and more copies of their Peanuts zine.

— Alenka Figa

Anastasia: Part Two
Joanna Karpowicz (art); Magdalena Lankosz (story)
Europe Comics

A dark-haired woman is seen from the shoulders up in a pool. She stares wistfully at the water, eyes downcast, against a backdrop of green grass and black background

An extremely powerful experience, Europe Comics’ Anastasia series rightfully points an accusing fingertip at the misogynist, pedophiliac world of Old Hollywoood. Our titular heroine suffers awful and titanic abuses so that she may rise from the ashes and reclaims her life, and it is not an easy journey. From meeting clandestinely with silent legend Mary Pickford to saving orphans from physical abuse– from diving off the deep end to saving herself. Anastasia blossoms into a strong, self-assured woman and actress–a delight to behold. Incredible art by Karpowicz highlights the tragic beauty of the story perfectly, bursting forth in moody, melancholy swirls of murk.

— Lisa Fernandes

Lavender Jack
Dan Schkade (art and story), Bre Boswell (editor)
Webtoons

cover image depicting Lavender Jack in an action pose

Lavender Jack has no business being as good as it is. A thrilling, socially conscious, and utterly engaging pulp-tinged adventure, the series spent 2020 following up on its initial success to wonderful results. The shift from a Burroughs-influenced antagonist to the more theatrical pulp serial threat in The Black Note, in addition to some shockingly well-executed trans representation for a cis creative team, gives the second season a unique, but just familiar enough, identity and pushes the series to even greater heights than its first. Read it. It’s free, it’s amazing and it is more than worth your time.

— Zoe Tunnell

Sharpe & Rabbit
VVBG (art and story), Gabby Luu (editor)
Tapas

A strong jawed blonde man embraces a skinnier dark-haired man who is wearing fingerless gloves. There is a height difference. Cover of Sharpe & Rabbit, by VVBG, Tapas

AJ “Rabbit” Young is a young man stuck working at a seedy roadside nightclub in a small mountain town, dreaming of escape to sunnier locales–away from his creepy possessive boss, racist customers, and frustrating sense of failure and isolation. He gets a chance when his former math teacher, Mr. Sharpe, unexpectedly shows up at said nightclub, revealing his true identity as an undercover hitman and enlisting AJ’s help in undertaking a dangerous mission.

What VVBG does best in their BL work is taking elements of more established, “masculine” genres–in this case, grim action-mystery–and exploring them with queer characters and relationships that for me personally, hit an enjoyable balance between its believable, mundane details and more fantastical relationship beats that are familiar to the genre. I enjoyed how a lot of attention is paid to AJ’s anger and frustration at the absurdity of his situation, as well as to his more vulnerable and quiet moments of reflection as he tries to imagine what he wants for his own future–as well as for his growing relationship with Sharpe. The artwork of the series absolutely deserves specific praise–the cold, wintry setting is hostile and unwelcoming to AJ, who sees the town as a force that hates him, while the glowing, dull red interiors of his workplace offer shelter, but not safety. It feels like a very lived-in and weary world, and while there is a definite aesthetic and beauty to the character designs, they inhabit their world well. Sharpe and Rabbit is a darker story, and I have yet to see how it will handle some of its elements in the future. Still, it has a lot of humanity to it beyond simply having a sensational premise, and I’m curious and invested in seeing how it develops.

— Taylor Leong

Gourmet Hound
Leehama
Webtoons

Image from Gourmet Hound, a Webtoon by Leehama. The main characters, a tall blonde man with glasses and a short redhead, stand back to back, the man with a frying pan and the woman with a sandwich.

Through a wonderful twist of fate I found the wholesome comic Gourmet Hound just as it was coming to an end in the spring. It was just the warm and interesting story I needed at the start of the pandemic. The best part wasn’t the romances (which are certainly sweet) but the deep friendships and other relationships between the characters that unfold. The plot is loosely based around main character Lucy’s quest to discover what happened to the head chef at her recently departed grandmother’s favorite restaurant. But what really unfolds is a lot of people dealing with the grief and hurt of big life transitions. If you like watching food/cooking shows and young adult dramas, this is the perfect cross between the two! It was lovely for once to start a comic on Webtoon with plenty of episodes (170 to be exact) and actually have the story wrap up satisfyingly without having to experience the impatient week long wait between episodes. One of the funny quirks of this story is that Lucy has a sort of super power, an unusually strong sense of smell gives her a magic-like palate for identifying and tasting foods. People keep suggesting to her that she should go into some kind of culinary career because of this. I loved that Lucy continues to insist that she doesn’t want to and that just because you have a skill doesn’t mean you have to use it to make a living. Instead, she just loves food. Her career is a separate matter. It was nice to have a story where a certain skill didn’t have to be monetized as often happens in modern society. (No, I do not want to put my knitting on Etsy, random Facebook friend from high school.) Last but not least it had a lovely diverse cast of characters, which felt refreshing for a romantic slice of life comic.

— Lola Watson

Kat Overland

Kat Overland

Small press editor Kat Overland is a displaced Texan now living in Washington, DC, where she is perpetually behind on reading her pull list. She's a millennial, Latina, exhausted, and can often be spotted casually cosplaying America Chavez and complaining.
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