It’s been some years since I did a “Best of” post, mainly because by the end of the year, I’m so far behind on my comics reading that I don’t feel like I can really do a “Best of” post because I’ve left so much unread. This year, I decided I really wanted to do a “Best of” post because I like doing them, but I was really far behind on my reading. So instead of reviewing a bunch of graphic novels that I had fallen behind on (the biggest reason I fall behind on things is because I like reviewing what I read, but I never have enough time to do them all), I just read them and put them in an order I thought they would be, quality-wise. Then I went back and looked at the stuff I actually did review and thought about where the stuff I didn’t review would place amongst them, quality-wise. Presto! A “Best Comics of 2020” list was born!
Obviously, I always have to add the disclaimer that these are not the best comics of the year. I certainly didn’t read all the comics that came out this year, did I? I missed the majority of them, I should think, and that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I never see this disclaimer anywhere, which kind of annoys me. Anyone who does one of these lists can’t possibly have read all the comics that came out, so it’s really “The Best Comics I Read This Year.” Occasionally, these lists will include comics from several years before, which again, I don’t dig. I love that Marvel and DC have been more aggressive about collecting some of their older stuff, and some of that stuff is superb, but … they’re not exactly new comics, are they? It’s kind of annoying that today’s comics are competing with those old comics, especially when those old comics are viewed, very often, through the lens of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a powerful drug, and the critical faculties of many people become compromised when they think about how great everything was when they were twelve. I mean, we all know how great this show was, right? RIGHT?!?!?!?
So I don’t count old comics. Some of these, admittedly, came out in 2019, but I don’t read a ton of single issues anymore, so if the collected edition came out in 2020, I counted it. I also don’t have any manga on the list. I still buy manga series, but I rarely read them because I’m so far behind on the series I do buy that it would take too long to catch up. I figure once they actually end (which is a dicey proposition with manga), I’ll read them, but I don’t read volume by volume. I always try to keep up with non-American comics, but I’m at the mercy of translators, as I don’t read any other languages but ‘Murican. So no, this is not a “Best Comics of 2020” list. This is a “Best Comics I Read in 2020 That Weren’t Old or Non-‘Murican (For the Most Part; Some Things Have Been Translated!).” Such is life. I do, however, read a lot of comics, so I hope this list is more valid than someone who just reads Batman comics. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
I’ve broken it down in past years between ongoing series and graphic novels, but fuck that. This is just the 40 best comics I read this year (why 40? let’s call it a tribute to Casey Kasem, all right?). It’s 2021 – anything is possible!!!!
1. The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott (Avery Hill Publishing) by Zoe Thorogood. Recency bias might be in play here, as I just read this a few weeks ago, but I’ve thought about the other really good comics I read in 2020, and I just can’t put any of them higher than this. Thorogood’s debut (she’s 22 goddamned years old and this is her first goddamned comic, goddamnit) is about an artist who, well, is going blind. I know, right? It’s about art and what makes people create art and how that connects them to the world. It feels like a classic example of “write what you know,” and it is, to a degree, but Thorogood takes what could easily be a clichéd situation and imbues it with such amazing humanity and brilliant characters that it rises above the genre standards of this sort of thing. Billie Scott goes through a long dark winter of the soul, but she never loses her faith in people, and the people she meets during her travels challenge her in ways she never expected, in both good and bad ways (and Thorogood has fun subverting our expectations along the way, too). One thing that’s terrific about this book is that Thorogood never makes it too gloomy, so while bad things happen to Billie, good things do, too, and she’s able to sort through them as she goes. She takes this journey because she gets accepted for an exhibition at the beginning of the book but she also starts going blind, so she decides to do portraits of people she meets for the exhibition before she loses her sight altogether. It’s a nice idea, and it allows Thorogood to take Billie around and let her start understanding the world instead of just observing it. Thorogood’s angular, quirky art is wonderful, as well, as she completely immerses us in London, where most of the book takes place. Billie doesn’t have a lot of money, so she’s living in sketchy places, but Thorogood doesn’t romanticize the “artistic” life style nor make it spirit-crushing – it’s just a milieu that Billie has to navigate, and because it’s drawn with such precision, it helps create the sense of place very well. Meanwhile, she creates such interesting-looking characters to match their interesting dialogue, which makes us even more invested in Billie’s fate. It’s not a completely sad book (despite her impending blindness) nor is it a completely cheery book. It’s just a book about life. And that’s what makes it so good.
2. Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams Comicarts) by Derf Backderf. Derf’s massive and massively annotated work on the protests at Kent State University in 1970 is gripping reading, because Derf doesn’t get into polemical stuff too much, simply showing the events that led to the killing of four students on 4 May after a weekend of unrest at the Ohio college. He concentrates on the students, naturally, but he also gives us the perspective of the overwhelmed and overworked National Guardsmen, who were put in a horrible position. He shows how the situation spiraled out of control and what could have been done about it (as with anything horrible involving large groups of people, there were plenty of places where things could have gone a less horrible way), and while he certainly doesn’t absolve the men in charge who reacted so poorly not only on the Monday of the shootings but over the previous weekend, he does show how they came to their decisions, as misguided as they were. I didn’t know who died and who lived at the beginning of the book, so when Derf introduces a bunch of students, it’s tense thinking about who’s not going to survive, because he does such a nice job making these people real. The entire weekend is a mess, and of course the 4th is the worst of the days, and there’s such a horrible sense of inevitability about it. Naturally, the book is still relevant today, and that adds to its power, but even if it weren’t, the way we move through these few incredibly fraught days is excellent, with Derf making sure everything is covered. His art is terrific, as well, as we get a good sense of the campus and town, so that we move around it well, while Derf’s characters are beautifully realized, both the students and the forces of the government. The detailed art brings everything to life, and when people start dying, Derf makes sure the violence comes to the fore so that it hits harder – it’s gruesome but necessary, as most people don’t have much experience with how bullets can affect a human body. This is an important book, but it’s also an excellent, tense read, one that speaks to the situation still prevalent in the country, where the powerless feel that their voices won’t be heard and the powerful will simply crush them if they present any threat to the status quo. That’s the way of the world, true, but unspoken throughout this comic is that America is supposed to be better. We’re still working on it.
3. Undone by Blood volume 1: The Shadow of a Wanted Man (AfterShock) by Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Sami Kivelä, Jason Wordie, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou. Nadler and Thompson have carved out a nice niche for themselves, both together and as solo writers, so that I’m interested in everything they put out (not all of it is excellent, but so far, none has been awful). This book might be their best yet, despite the simplicity of it all – a young woman returns to an Arizona town a year after her family was killed there so she can exact bloody revenge. She’s reading a book about bloody revenge, too, so we get two bloody tales in one! Nadler and Thompson have an excellent ability to create fascinating characters quickly, so our protagonist, Ethel, is very interesting, from the way she goes about getting her revenge to her conversations with the town sheriff, who wants her to leave it alone and might be just a bit corrupt? Nadler and Thompson keep us guessing about which way the story is going, and Kivelä is particularly amazing on art, with Wordie doing a superb job coloring both the “present day” stuff (which is really 1971) and the Old West part. It’s a superb comic, and it looks like there’s going to be another story in this “universe” (the first issue of which was just solicited), so that should be keen. I wrote more about this comic here.
4. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? (DC) by Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, Nathan Fairbairn, and Clayton Cowles. There weren’t any more fun comics from this year than Fraction and Lieber’s romp through the weird corners of the DC Universe, as Jimmy Olsen tries to figure out who’s trying to kill him. We begin with a wedding and a blood-vomiting cat and it just gets wackier from there. Fraction writes a terrific Jimmy, a hilarious Superman, and a weird Batman, and the book is plotted wonderfully, jumping back and forth in time and keeping us on our toes all the time. Lieber’s superb artwork keeps up with the crazy goings-on, and the colors pop off the page. DC could easily do more books like this (they’re far weirder than Marvel), and it would be nice if they did. We shall see. I wrote more about this comic here.
5. Dial H for Hero volume 2: New Heroes of Metropolis (DC) by Sam Humphries, Joe Quinones, Colleen Doran, Michael Avon Oeming, Erica Henderson, Stacey Lee, Paulina Ganucheau, Jordan Gibson, and Dave Sharpe. Speaking of weird DC stuff, Humphries revived the Dial H for Hero book for a story about corrupting power and how people can resist it, wrapped up in a crazy-quilt of various people getting superpowers and doing weird things with them. Humphries also comments on comics themselves and how bizarre they are, which is always fun to see. Quinones does his usual excellent job on art, altering his style occasionally to fit the theme, and the guest artists do stellar work. As I noted above, DC has enough weird stuff lying around to do 12-issue things like this and make them brilliant, and Humphries not only tells a neat story, he uses the comic format to tell it in an unusual way, which is keen. I don’t know if DC did a giant 12-issue collection of this, but they should. It’s excellent. I wrote more about it here.
6. Dragman (Metropolitan Books) by Steven Appleby. Appleby’s story of a man who gains the power of flight when he wears women’s clothing is layered with metaphors, which doesn’t interfere with its twisty mystery but simply adds nuance to the proceedings. It’s a deeply humanistic tale, asking questions about love, identity, secrets, power, and hatred, and Appleby works through them wonderfully, giving us not only his protagonist but several other fascinating characters, not all of whom are admirable but who are still compelling. The book also works as an interesting critique of superhero comics, which you don’t usually get in “high-brow” work like this. It’s an excellent comic all around. I wrote quite a bit more about it here.
7. The Strange Ones (Gallery 13) by Jeremy Jusay. Jusay’s story is set in the mid-1990s, but it’s a universal kind of story, as it follows a platonic romance between two lonely people in New York. Anjeline, the narrator, meets Franck on the way home from Manhattan to Staten Island, and the two form a close friendship that weathers some serious challenges, including a tragic event that changes both their lives. Jusay takes his time with the development of their friendship, going off on weird tangents that don’t seem to mean anything but are important to show who these two are, and we get to know these two characters very well, so their relationship means more to us. It’s just a beautiful portrait of two people who find each other in a world into which they don’t quite fit, and Jusay does a superb job with it. It took him years to create this book, but it was worth the wait. My review of it is here.
8. Paying the Land (Metropolitan Books) by Joe Sacco. Sacco’s big, thick comics are always worthwhile, and this one is no exception. It’s not my favorite Sacco book (I think Footnotes in Gaza is still that), but it’s still damned good. We get a tough situation – the exploitation of the tribal lands of western Canada – and the many sides of the issue, along with the history of Canada’s relationship with the indigenous people of the area and why that has left an indelible mark on the present. Sacco gives us many fascinating characters and doesn’t offer any pat solutions, not unlike most of his books. If you’ve never read a Sacco book, why not start with this one? I reviewed it here.
9. Adventureman #1-4 (Image) by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, and Clayton Cowles. As I noted when I reviewed this, I’ve been a fan of Fraction’s for years, but he seemed to have tailed off in the past few years. He’s back with a vengeance, though, with Jimmy Olsen and this book, which is about a group of heroes from the past (basically Doc Savage and friends) who may or may not have been fictional, and a modern woman who stumbles across clues about their existence and begins to realize the world is pretty weird. Fraction isn’t reinventing the wheel with regard to the plot, but he tells the story with such verve and he makes his main character – Claire Connell – so interesting. Dodson’s art is probably the best work of his career, too, which is nice. There’s a really nice oversized hardcover out that you can just look at for long minutes because the art is so nice. I hope Fraction and Dodson can do this comic for many years to come. That would be nifty. Here and here is more about the comic.
10. Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës (Abrams Comicarts) by Isabel Greenberg. The Brontës are a bit of a cottage industry right now – at least two comics came out in 2020 that delved into their fantasy worlds – and Greenberg’s story is a very good example of the trend, as she gives us a fully realized world, both of the sparse Yorkshire where the four children grew up and the strange worlds they conjured to make their isolation more bearable. Greenberg’s odd story blends the fantasy and the real quite well, and she brings up interesting points about art and why people create it and the toll it takes. It’s a beautiful comic, too, which is nice. I didn’t love the other Brontë book as much, but that’s okay, because this is available! I wrote a longer review here.
11. Alienated (Boom! Studios) by Simon Spurrier, Chris Wildgoose, André May, and Jim Campbell. Alienated is about three teenagers who find an alien in the forest and what they do with it. It’s not a feel-good story. Spurrier does a marvelous job tapping into the anxieties of teens and why giving them a lot of power might not be the greatest idea, and Wildgoose takes some weird things and makes them beautiful and harrowing when called for. Despite its somewhat tragic nature, the book is powerful simply because we want these kids to do well, and it hurts when they don’t always take the right path. Spurrier is a terrific writer in general, and this is a good example of how excellent he can be. I wrote a bit more about this book here.
12. Bad Reception (AfterShock) by Juan Doe. Doe’s horror story about people trapped on an island without cell phones sounds schlocky, and it would be had he not tweaked it a bit – the lack of cell phones is voluntary (well, for most participants) because the two people in charge – who are getting married – want it that way, and the people get killed in order, from least to most, of how many social media followers they have. Doe takes this concept and explores the idea of celebrity, the lure of social media, and the way it twists people into creatures of greed and rage. It’s a nice, gory comic, beautifully realized by Doe’s art and colors, and it’s far deeper than you might expect. Doe has always been a pretty good creator, but this might be his best work. I broke it down more here.
13. Blue in Green (Image) by Ram V, Anand Radhakrishnan, John Pearson, and Aditya Bidikar. Ram V has had a couple of strong years, and if you’re only reading his DC stuff, you owe it to yourself to check out his creator-owned work, because it’s been really good. This comic is about a music teacher who gave up on his dreams of being a musician, but when his mother dies, a photograph in her house makes him want to discover more about her past and whether or not he would have been any good playing on stage. It’s slightly supernatural and I don’t think the ending lands as well as it could, which is why it’s not ranked higher, but for the most part, this is a beautiful look at old New York (well, the 1960s and 1970s, which for fogies like me isn’t exactly “old”) and the jazz clubs of the day, how we can know so little about our family, and what drives people to perform and whether that’s a good thing. We don’t get easy answers, which is why this is so powerful – Erik, the protagonist, isn’t necessarily a good dude, so while we sympathize with him, we can also see where he’s probably going wrong and how easy it is to do that. Radhakrishnan, who also drew Grafity’s Wall for Ram V this year, draws this in a far different style than that other book, which is extremely impressive because they’re both very good and they both fit the subject material. He uses a lot more scratchy linework and collage in this book, making Erik’s journey more eerie and mystical, which helps the supernatural stuff blend in a bit more. This is a fascinating comic that shows how good both these creators can be. I look forward to more from both of them.
14. Bionic (Top Shelf) by Koren Shadmi. I’ve been a fan of Shadmi for a long time, and while his ideas are always fascinating and his art is always weird and slightly perverse, he never quite pulls it all together to create a great book. Bionic is, I think, the first time he’s done that, with a slightly bizarre idea – a society that is on the cusp of cybernetic parts, and all that implies – that comes together as a superb teen romance book. Victor, a big nerd, falls hard for Patricia, who is the gorgeous queen bee in his high school. Even before a car accident destroys half of Patricia’s body, the romance is clever, as Shadmi doesn’t fall into stereotypes – Patricia isn’t a complete bitch, and Victor isn’t quite as inept as a classic nerd. But then she’s hit by a car, and her father, who runs a cybernetic company, replaces half of her with mechanical parts, and things get a bit weird. Patricia becomes bitter, obviously, and her friends treat her poorly, but she doesn’t immediately become nicer to Victor. Both characters, in other words, are fully realized personalities, and Shadmi knows that sometimes people do things that seem counter-intuitive but come from an irrational place. There’s also something weird going on at Patricia’s dad’s company, and Victor’s parents aren’t necessarily being honest with each other, and both Victor and Patricia have to realize some harsh lessons about the world. Shadmi’s art, which is always very rounded off and “soft,” which makes it more sexual than you might expect, helps create this uneasy feeling about the story, as it’s unclear how much Victor lusts after the woman or the robot, and Shamdi wisely keeps that subtextual, which makes it even weirder. Shadmi’s books are always interesting, but this one is gripping and compelling in ways that his other work hasn’t been. That’s neat.
15. The crime comics of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with Jacob Phillips on colors (Image). The final issue (for now) of Criminal came out in January, completing a superb arc of the series. Then Brubillips threw together Pulp, a story about a former Wild West gunslinger who writes stories for pulp magazines in the 1930s loosely based on his own life and who is roped into a robbery that involves Nazis. Yes, Brubaker gets cowboys and Nazis into the same story, because of course he does. Finally, toward the end of the year, we got Reckless, the first in a series of graphic novels about Ethan Reckless (sigh), an ex-FBI agent in the early 1980s whose business is finding things for people – other people, items, their souls … I assume that last one, of course. It’s very much like a Stephen J. Cannell show, which I have to believe is deliberate, and the first “volume” introduces us to Ethan and gives him a twisty trail to follow that involves his past as an undercover agent. Everything that Brubaker and Phillips do together is worth reading, but they’re really good at these gritty crime comics, and this year, we got three of them! How nice!
16. Heist, Or How to Steal a Planet (Vault) by Paul Tobin, Arjuna Susini, Vittorio Astone, and Saida Temofonte. Tobin gives us a story about a disgraced ex-con on a planet full of, basically, criminals who decides to steal the planet back from the corporation that took it over … with his help, so there’s a bit of redemption going on. This is a packed series, with so many twists and turns it leaves you dizzy, but Tobin is fully in command of the plot and we get fun characters pulling off a brazen heist, despite the chaos going on around them. Susini’s art is messy and fun, as he has a grand time bringing Tobin’s weird script to glorious life. I dig heist stories, so maybe I’m a bit biased, but I still dig this comic. I wrote more about it here.
17. Money Shot volume 1 (Vault) by Tim Seeley, Sarah Beattie, Rebekah Isaacs, Kurt Michael Russell, and Crank! This is a hilarious series with a fun hook – scientists who need to raise funds for space travel decide to have sex with the aliens they meet and broadcast it on pay-per-view, thereby providing their funding for more exploration. Even that hook, as fun as it is, is depressingly current, but we can’t think too much about that, because there’s sex to be had! The humans end up in the middle of a revolution on an alien planet, and of course, sex is a big part of the answer! All of this is drawn wonderfully by Isaacs, who does a great job with the alien creatures and the action but is also good at drawing attractive humans, so the nudity and sex is very well done. There’s another arc going on right now, and I don’t know how long Seeley and Beattie can keep it up (so to speak), but this is a surprisingly beautiful story of love conquering all. Doesn’t that make you feel good? (I didn’t exactly review this; I wrote a little bit about it here.)
18. A Radical Shift in Gravity (Top Shelf) by Nick Tapalansky and Kate Glasheen. Tapalansky tells a tale of the earth’s gravity going wonky and the environmental disaster that results from it, but it’s really about a man who is trying to raise a daughter by himself and finds that he can’t handle her growing up and slipping away from him. The gravity stuff adds a spice of danger to the book, because Earth is really becoming uninhabitable, but the human story is more important, and Tapalansky does a very nice job with it. Aided by Glasheen’s almost impressionistic artwork, we get a powerful book about loss and love. I wrote a longer review here.
19. Die #11-15 (Image) by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles. The third arc of Gillen’s epic deals with the fraying friendships of the principals and how they’re trying to get out of the game but they don’t trust each other enough to work together. After splitting them up in the second arc, Gillen brings them back together at the end of this one, but they’ve changed significantly, and it does not appear things are going to work out in a peaceful manner. Gillen continues to make this world fascinating, as it’s a nice blend of fantasy and modern elements, and he continues to delve into the psychology of playing RPGs in the first place, which makes this a weird commentary on what kind of people the friends are, not just how they move through the plot. Hans’s art is staggering as usual, and it’s nice that she is, I guess, recovered from what sounds like a nasty broken leg sufficiently to be drawing again. This is a weird but quite cool comic. I wrote a tad about this arc here.
20. Birthright volume 9: War of the Worlds (Image) by Joshua Williamson, Andrei Bressan, Adriano Lucas, and Pat Brosseau. Back in August, when this came out, I wondered about the fact that it doesn’t get more press, because it’s been consistently excellent for its entire run. I suppose it’s like what Layman told me about Chew – he thought he should have done new #1s every arc, because #1s sell better. Perhaps the fact that this is up to 45 issues is working against it, which would suck. It appears as if the next arc will be the final one, which makes sense, as this arc very much feels like we’re setting it all up for a finale, but that doesn’t mean that Williamson simply sets things up, as the book has always churned nicely through plot, and that’s what happens here. Still, at the heart of this all is a family drama and an undermining of some fantasy tropes, which is keen. And, of course, Andrei Bressan’s spectacular art continues to be a major reason to pick this up. I do hope people continue to discover this even after it ends, because it’s pretty danged keen. I wrote a bit about it here.
21. The Golden Age volume 1 (First Second) by Cyril Pedrosa, Roxanne Moreil, and Montana Kane (translator). Pedrosa, who’s always been a good artist, steps up his game even more for this book, which twists fairy tales into darker plots and runs with it, giving us a rich and eerie story about exiled princesses and love-sick peasants. Pedrosa and Moreil give us a princess who is trying to reclaim her throne, but even though she’s somewhat of a sympathetic character, she’s also a noble, so she can be arrogant and condescending to anyone who’s not noble. Meanwhile, the people in fairy tales might rally around the exiled leader, but in this, they’re much more revolutionary, and the princess certainly doesn’t like that. There’s a bit of magic, but the book is more grounded in reality than most fairy tales, which is also interesting. Meanwhile, Pedrosa’s art, as I noted, is superb, as he creates a dream-like world full of hidden dangers and breathtaking beauty. I don’t know how many volumes are planned, but this is an excellent start. I reviewed this here.
22. British Ice (Top Shelf) by Owen Pomery. This book is an interesting look at colonialism, cultural imperialism, and, on a more personal level, obsession and madness. Pomery invents a British territory in northern Canada and sends a diplomat there to figure out what happened to the previous diplomat, which all ties into the founder of the colony a century earlier. The book is set in 1984, and Pomery gets into Britain’s loss of empire, her place in the world, and what impact she’s had on local cultures. Meanwhile, the main character finds himself wrapped up in a mystery that ties back into the major themes. It’s a very nifty book, and it’s neat that Pomery can dig so deeply into such things without being too obvious about it. His second book this year, Victory Point, isn’t as good, but it’s worth a look. Anyway, I reviewed British Ice here.
23. Once & Future (Boom! Studios) by Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, and Ed Dukeshire. Two issues of the first arc came out in 2020, and the entire second arc, and I haven’t read the two issues of the third arc that have come out, so I can only comment on the first 12 issues, but Gillen’s story of a resurrected King Arthur has been terrific so far. He cleverly tweaks the concept by making Arthur a bad guy, basically, as he wants Britain for the British, which means no immigrants … including those lousy Anglo-Saxons that make up the large part of the island’s population. So we have a hero, Duncan, and his grandmother, who knows quite a bit about the old myths and legends and is helping Duncan become a hero, and we have British myths and legends coming to life and menacing everyone. It’s a fun story, as Arthur and Galahad come off not quite that well, and in the second arc, Beowulf and Grendel show up, because of course they do! It’s worrisome that Mora is now drawing Detective Comics because it might mean that the third arc is the last one, or maybe Gillen will get a new artist, or maybe the book will go on hiatus, but Mora’s art is typically excellent, and he really has fun drawing all the supernatural stuff, and his Grendel is really terrific. We shall see. I’m looking forward to reading the third arc! I wrote about this series here and here.
24. Coffin Bound (Image) by Dan Watters, Dani, Brad Simpson, and Aditya Bidikar. Watters is a pretty good writer, and he creates a strange world in this comic, one that is populated by bizarre and supernatural assassins (the two main ones are very cool creations) and people struggling on the margins of what’s left of society. Both volumes have some of the same characters, but they both could stand alone, despite the fact that they’re linked by people seeking death and salvation, albeit through very different means. It’s a creepy comic, in many ways, and kind of weird, but Watters is good enough to make it resonate even through the weirdness. Watters gets at what makes us yearn, and what we conceal from others, and how some things get stripped away to reveal the truth, and it’s all very sad and a little horrifying, even if it liberates the characters. Dani’s art is beautiful, a cross between Eduardo Risso and Frank Miller, and she makes this bleak world oddly beautiful, and he designs for the strange people within it are superb. I’m not sure if Watters is planning any more, but these two volumes are quite nifty. I mentioned the first volume here but didn’t write too much about it, and I wrote a bit more about volume 2 here.
25. Ghost Writer (Fantagraphics) by Rayco Pulido and Andrea Rosenberg (translator). This is black comedy set in 1943 Barcelona, as Pulido gives us a young pregnant wife who works on a radio program, writing fake letters from women seeking advice which are then answered on air. The radio station is run by the Catholic Church, so of course the letters are about women falling into sin and the Church encourages them to seek spiritual guidance. The young woman tells everyone her husband is out of town on business, but she’s really hired a private detective to hunt him down because he’s disappeared. Finally, someone is going around town murdering people, which makes everyone nervous. This is a nicely done book about hypocrisy and morality, and it’s a good twistily-plotted mystery, as Pulido knows when to give things away so that more mysteries are set up. His art is crisp and comical, making some of the more upsetting images odder and more surreal, looping back into the themes of the book. There’s a bit more than that going on as well, but I didn’t get a chance to write a long review. Just trust me!
26. The Mall (Scout Comics) by Dan Handfield, James Haick III, Rafael Loureiro, Dijjo Lima, and DC Hopkins. The Mall is a fun coming-of-age story set in the 1980s, in which three kids suddenly find themselves owning three different stores at the local mall. Hijinks ensue. I give away how they own them in my review, which I posted here, but I won’t now. Let’s just say things get violent for a pretty good reason, and the kids all respond to both the responsibility of owning a store and the violence that occurs in different ways as they struggle to deal with their pre-ownership lives and the price they have to pay to own the stores. It feels like the best teen movies of the 1980s (the Golden Age of Teen Movies) without feeling like a parody of them, and the crisp, bright art is both indicative of the times and a nice counter to the heavier parts of the story. I don’t think you have to have lived through the 1980s to enjoy it, but what the hell do I know?
27. Punisher Kill Krew (Marvel) by Gerry Duggan, Juan Ferreyra, and Cory Petit. While I don’t like the Punisher, I like specific Punisher stories, mainly because he does work in small doses in certain situations, and Duggan’s “War of the Realms” follow-up is one of them. Frank goes around killing monsters that invaded Earth, so he’s less of a villain than he usually is, and he’s doing it because certain monsters left kids orphaned, so there’s a good reason for it. Duggan also makes this low-key funny, as Frank collects the Black Knight, Juggernaut, and Foggy Nelson to help him, for various weird reasons. So while it’s extremely violent and even heartfelt in many places, it’s also fun, and putting Frank in outer space probably wouldn’t work very often but provides a nice odd contrast to his usual haunts. That it’s all drawn marvelously by Ferreyra certainly helps, of course, but this feels like the kind of story that would work even with lesser art (which you can’t say about some things Ferreyra draws), which is why it places this high on this year’s list. It is, of course, a 2019 comic, but the collected edition came out in January (which is where I wrote about it), so I’mma counting it!
28. Doctor Strange: Surgeon Supreme volume 1: Under the Knife (Marvel) by Mark Waid, Kev Walker, Java Tartaglia, Antonio Fabela, Cory Petit, and Clayton Cowles. Marvel unceremoniously canceled this book before the next arc could begin, but that doesn’t change the fact that Waid and Walker give us a terrific six-issue arc, even though it feels a bit incomplete because, naturally, they set some things up for later in the now non-existent series. But it’s still fun, as Strange takes a side job as a surgeon, because why not, and deals with his usual assortment of magical beasties. Waid is always good with ideas, and he throws a few in here – someone has pilfered Strange’s magic forge, for instance – and Walker’s art is stupendous. This actually makes me want to go back and catch up the Doctor Strange stuff Marvel has been putting out recently (I got the first Aaron/Bachalo trade and then fell off), so I guess it’s doing something right! I wrote a bit about this collection here.
29. Manifest Destiny #37-42 (Image) by Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni, and Pat Brosseau. Only three issues of Manifest Destiny came out this year, and I fear it’s in danger of being completely forgotten by comics people because of its increasingly wonky schedule, but the story of Lewis and Clark discovering monsters as they move west continues to be a gripping adventure story, as Dingess mixes history with fantasy and shows the real-world problems an expedition like this might have with all the horrors that it encounters. Roberts continues to draw everything beautifully, and Gieni’s colors are stunning as well. I don’t know how long the series is supposed to go, but I really do hope these guys can finish it the way they want and that it gets a good reassessment when it’s done. You should check it out! Here is where I wrote a bit about it!
30. Strange Skies Over East Berlin #1-4 (Boom! Studios) by Jeff Loveness, Lisandro Estherren, Patricio Delpeche, and Steve Wands. Issue #4 of this snuck out in January, so perhaps this is a 2019 comic, but I make the rules around here, and if it didn’t finish until 2020, it’s a 2020 comic! Anyway, Loveness has written some interesting books, but this is his best so far, even though this feels like it could have been maybe one more issue to really fill things out. It’s set in 1973, and an alien spacecraft crashes in East Berlin, which is probably not the best place for it to crash. An undercover American agent happens to be in East Berlin, and he gets into the prison where the Germans are keeping the alien they found, and things get weird and horrific. It’s a clever idea executed quite well, as Loveness gets deep into the paranoia of East Germany and what that can do to people, while Estherren’s art and Delpeche’s colors turn the world into a spooky, brutal place. As I noted, I wish we had gotten just a bit more of this, because it feels fast, but perhaps Boom! didn’t want to commit to more than four issues? Either way, it’s pretty neat. Read a bit more about it here.
31. Punisher: Soviet (Marvel) by Garth Ennis, Jacen Burrows, Guillermo Ortega, Nolan Woodard, and Rob Steen. Yep, two Punisher comics on this list, but like the first, this is an unusual Punisher story. While the first took Frank out of his element and added just a bit of humor, Ennis decides to write a Soviet-era war story right in the middle of his Punisher story, and Ennis is really good at war stories, so it works nicely. Frank meets an old Russian soldier who’s killing the same people Frank is, so they team up and wreak bloody havoc. Frank’s final boss solution is evil and clever, as well, so that’s nice. Burrows, who’s been a good artist for Avatar for decades, is finally getting some high-profile work, and his art here is wonderful. Dare I start liking the Punisher? Well, no, but I can deal with him in stories like this! Here is where I wrote about this series!
32. The Fire of Theseus (Humanoids) by Jerry Frisson, Francesco Trifogli, Antoine Pedron, and Blase A. Provitola (translator). Frisson turns Theseus into a woman, which instantly makes the myth comprehensible (in his eyes, and he’s not completely wrong) – why her father abandoned her and why she was sent to Crete as a sacrifice – and although the myths don’t really say Theseus was abandoned and then later sent to Crete as a sacrifice, the gender switch does make sense in Frisson’s retelling, because he tries to figure out the “truth” behind the myths, stripping away the supernatural from the story and creating a fascinating story of sexism, ableism, oppression, revenge, and bias. It doesn’t make a ton of sense that after only 20 years, the story would have changed as much as it did (the events of the book take place 20 years after the Minotaur’s death), but we just have to roll with it. Theseus fights the patriarchy like a good 21st-century feminist, but Frisson manages to make it believable even if it feels a bit too modern. He does nice work with Ariadne, too, as well as the actual Minotaur. The clean art by Trifogli brings ancient Greece to life – he draws the figures very well and depicts the action beautifully, but he also builds a nice world of cities and villages and landscapes, so it feels very much like a portrait of how Greece was back then. It’s a nice adventure that deals with current social issues but not in a way that overwhelms the clever ideas and the exciting storytelling, so that’s neat, ain’t it?
33. Breakwater (Avery Hill Publishing) by Katriona Chapman. Chapman tells a story about a woman named Chris who works in a movie theater in Brighton and befriends Dan, a new hire. That’s basically the entire plot – Dan is gay, which means the relationship remains platonic (and which annoys me on one level, as it seems to imply that men and women can’t be platonic friends unless one is gay, but whatever), and so they simply navigate their friendship until Chris starts to learn that Dan has some serious issues that he’s struggling to deal with. It’s a quiet, slow-moving book, but Chapman does a really nice job showing how their friendship evolves and why Chris would go to such great lengths to save it as Dan goes through his problems. She also taps into the idea of nostalgia, as the theater Chris works at is older and steeped in history, which Chris loves. It’s a nice, meditative story about the power of friendship, the way loss colors our lives, and the push and pull between comfort of a familiar life and the possibility of an exciting but potentially dangerous new path. Chapman’s art is nothing special, but it does match the quiet tone of the book, and she does nice work with the way the characters react to each other, which in a book like this is fairly crucial. So it’s the kind of book that doesn’t thrill, but is thoughtful. There’s nothing wrong with that!
34. The Amazing Mary Jane volume 1: Down in Flames, Up in Smoke (Marvel) by Leah Williams, Carlos Gómez, Lucas Werneck, Carlos Lopez, and Joe Caramagna. This book was also canceled unexpectedly, possibly due to the pandemic (although the old “low sales” might have been the culprit), and it’s too bad, because the first arc is a ton of fun. Mary Jane is making a movie in Hollywood, and it turns out the director is actually Quentin Beck, who wants to make something sympathetic to Mysterio. He does this by slagging on other villains, who show up to have words with him. Williams doesn’t worry too much about the villains and the big fight at the end, because she’s more interested in Mary Jane and the business of making movies, which she satirizes quite well in the book. It’s a neat comic that utilizes one of my favorite things – “real” people handling a superhero world – and the art is nicely “superheroic” in just a slightly off-kilter way. It’s too bad this didn’t even get a second arc, but you can still get this trade! I wrote some about this here.
35. Farmhand #11-15 (Image) by Rob Guillory, Taylor Wells, Jeremy Treece, Rico Renzi, and Kody Chamberlain. Guillory’s oddball sci-fi horror epic reaches its halfway point, and we get several revelations that upset the status quo – such as it is – and more problems for our core cast. Guillory’s art is great as usual, as he picked a good plot to fit suitably with his angular, cartoony style, but he’s turning out to be a good writer, as he gives his characters a lot of personality so that the readers are invested in their fates even as things get wackier and more horrific around them. I mentioned in my original review (see here!) that the coloring on issue #13 was a bit wonky, but other than that, the book looks great. I hope we’ll see the beginning of the second half in 2021 – that would be nice!
36. The Book Tour (Top Shelf) by Andi Watson. Watson has been doing YA stuff for a while, but he jumps back into “adult” fare with this book, which is about an author who finds himself in a Kafka-esque nightmare while on a tour promoting his new book (which sounds awesome from the little we hear about it, by the way – maybe Watson should write that!). G.H. Fretwell (a wonderful last name) leaves his wife and son behind to go on his tour, but it’s a disaster from the get-go, as nobody comes to the stores for his signings, and even the owners have trouble remembering that he’s supposed to be there. Meanwhile, he can’t get in touch with his publisher when problems with his accommodations arise or money problems come up, his suitcase gets stolen at his first stop (it only contained copies of his book, but it becomes important later on), and there’s a murderer out there who seems to be following him. Or maybe he’s the murderer? The thing I always dislike about these kinds of stories – which goes back to Kafka himself – is how impotent the main character is for so long – I get that Fretwell, in this case, doesn’t want to cause offense, and I’m like that in a lot of ways, but at some point, the mindless brutality of society against the individual become almost comical, even though it’s not supposed to be, and it seems like Fretwell would figure out a way to stand up to it if not stop it. So much of what happens to him borders on the ridiculous, which is of course the point, but it seems like he has options that he never considers to remove himself from the situation. Still, Watson does a nice job showing how things do tend to pile up and crush the hapless individual in a society that values facelessness and conformity, and while I don’t love his wispy art, it works here because the people are all somewhat blank, driving home the point even more. It would be nice if Watson did more “adult” work, but I guess YA stuff pays the bills!
37. Under-Earth (Top Shelf) by Chris Gooch. Gooch creates a prison underground, where the government can just dump people and forget about them, as they create a warped reflection of “regular” society in their hole. Gooch is Australian, so perhaps this is some kind of comment on his country’s origins, but we don’t need to think about that too much. Basically, he tells two stories that slowly converge – one is about Reece, a new arrival to the prison who has no idea how to live and eventually is befriended by Malcolm, a large dude who takes him under his wing. Malcolm becomes more important as the book goes on and provides a bridge to the second story, about two convicts named Zoe and Ele who work as thieves for one of the prison’s gang leaders. They break into the security tower for the prison to grab something for their boss, but then things get dicey and they decide to take revenge on him. Meanwhile, Malcolm becomes a fighter for the gang leader, which means he gets more money and power in this hierarchy, which he begins to use in ways that don’t really make his boss happy. It’s an exciting book, with enough social commentary that it’s not just a big heist or two, and Gooch does a nice job showing how prison brutalizes people that might not be that terrible to begin with. His art is good but a bit sparse, although that does help give us an idea of the wretched conditions of the prison and how little things make the convicts happy. Gooch is a young creator but he’s done some good work so far, so it will be neat seeing him mature.
38. Heart Attack volume 1 (Image) by Shawn Kittelsen, Eric Zawadzki, Michael Garland, Mike Spicer, and Pat Brosseau. This is a good story that deliberately parallels the protest movements of the Trump Era, as we get a group of people who develop weird powers thanks to gene therapy and the government that refuses to acknowledge them as humans and the protests that follow. It also deals with the media and its influence and whether that’s a good thing or not. It’s interesting because Kittelsen builds up his characters so that even the ones we think are villains aren’t just stock bad guys, and it adds nice nuance to what is an extremely fraught situation, both in the comic and in the real world. Zawadzki is a very good artist, and he does a nice job creating a near-future that is recognizable but also a bit more sinister, which is where it seemed we were heading under Trump and might still get to depending on what happens in our own near future. I don’t know if there’s anything brewing with a second arc, but it would be nice – this tells a good story, but it’s also clearly the start of something bigger, and it would be nice if Kittelsen and Zawadzki could get to that. I wrote a little about this trade here.
39. Titan (Oni) by François Vigneault. Here’s another science fiction story that illuminates real-world problems, as the best sci-fi often does. It’s set on Titan, the moon of Saturn, but it’s about a conflict between management and labor that could easily take place in a coal mine in central Pennsylvania. João da Silva is the new manager of the site, arriving to look at its efficiency and figure out a way to make it still viable, as the Earth is moving away from what the plant produces (it doesn’t matter what it is, ultimately). Phoebe Mackintosh is the labor rep assigned as liaison, and Vigneault does something interesting with the laborers – he makes them physically larger than the Earthers, as they’ve been genetically engineered to work on Titan and exist in its gravity. They can’t live on Earth because the gravity is too high, and that adds a layer of tragedy to their dealings with management. João and Phoebe fall in love, of course, and they both try to make things work at the site, but both João’s staff and some of the labor higher-ups are too committed to violence, no matter what, so they’re fighting a tough battle. Vigneault adds some conspiratorial plot points that make the book more of a “story” rather than just real-life shit that happens (conspiracies are tough to pull off in the real world), but for the most part, this is a good look at what happens when a business becomes obsolete and actual people are affected. They react poorly, perhaps, but not surprisingly, because it’s hard to deal with life when a large part of that life is taken away. Vigneault’s art is a bit cartoony, but it’s very detailed and intricate, so we do get a nice sense of both the otherworldliness of Titan and the powerful emotions roiling through the characters. It’s a neat book.
40. Dying is Easy (IDW) by Joe Hill, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe, and Shawn Lee. For some reason, I thought this was a graphic novel instead of a collected edition, so I saved it instead of reviewing it in my monthly reviews, where it should have been. Oh well. It’s a fun detective story, as ex-cop Syd Homes, who is trying to make it as a stand-up comedian, gets involved in a case when a colleague of his on the circuit is murdered and he’s the prime suspect. Oh dear. The dead comic was stealing jokes, and Syd did talk to his friends about killing him, but that’s no reason to suspect him, is it? So while he’s on the run from the cops, he’s also trying to solve the murder so he doesn’t go down for it. There are some nice twists, but it’s somewhat easy to figure out the killer, even though the reasons are a bit less clear. That’s not the biggest deal in the world, though, because it’s fun just following Syd around as he tracks down leads and gets involved in chases while wearing roller skates (seriously) and doing motorcycle stunts and other weird stuff. It’s not ridiculously funny, but there are some funny parts, and Hill keeps it zipping along nicely, with clues and red herrings and all the sorts of things you expect from murder mysteries. Simmonds is a fine artist, with his Sienkiewicz-inspired art giving us a nice, gritty ambience to Syd’s world. I don’t know why I didn’t write more about this in my monthly reviews, but I’m making up for it now, I hope!
So that’s 40 of the best comics I read this year. Others that are close (the top 50, maybe?) are Reaver, the first volume of which is very good and the second of which is a bit less so but still solid; both volumes of The Dreaming that came out this year, which Si Spurrier wrapped up very well; Gene Luan Yang’s Dragon Hoops, which others liked a lot more than I did but which is still a very good book; Grafity’s Wall, a nice coming-of-age story set in Mumbai; Hotell, John Lees’s fun and creepy horror story; the alternate-history fantasy Mezo, which I hope continues in 2021; the second Shadow Roads collection stands almost on its own and sets up more stories that I hope we get; Immortal Hulk keeps doing nice things but both volumes that came out this year came out in months where I was doing weird things with reviews, so I didn’t really review either one of them; Punchline is probably the best superhero book coming out right now, but it also came out in September when I wasn’t feeling a review, so you’re just going to have to trust me; and Spider-Woman and Spider-Man Noir are good solid stories with really good art. How’s that?
Whenever I’ve done these posts in the past, I’ve tried to do some other fun things, too. I did a “Top Ten Covers” section, but I don’t buy many single issues anymore, and while covers are usually reprinted in trades, they’re harder to find, so I’m not going to do that. I was also going to highlight some great art in less-than-great books, but here’s the thing: we have limits on our bandwidth, and images take up a lot of space. So I have to resize every image I put on the blog, and the image resizers I’ve found on the internet are less than optimal, so it takes me a really frickin’ long time to resize images. As you can see, I’ve already put a lot in this post, and if I try to do more cool art examples, I might go crazy and I’d definitely take a lot longer to post this, and it’s already getting late. (I refuse to do a “best-of” post before the year ends, much to the amusement and consternation of Kelly Thompson and some CSBG commenters, who made it a point to heckle me about it. That’s cool, though – I’m not super enough to get all the comics that come out in a year early, and sometimes there are some great books that come out really late in the year. But that means I do this later than most, and as I noted above, I had to catch up on some reading before I could even start it. So I’d like to get it posted!) So I’ll just note some terrific artwork in books without showing examples: Victor Santos continues to do amazing work, and while Against Hope, his violent revenge tale from 2020, could be better written, the art is superb. Alex de Campi gave us the very slight and inessential Dracula, Motherfucker!, which is set in 1974 Los Angeles, and Erica Henderson does magnificent work on the art, turning it into a weird, neon-lit fever dream, with a Dracula that is stunningly unlike any you’ve ever seen. Ilias Kyriazis continues his amazing under-the-radar work on The Crow: Lethe, where his slightly cartoonish style and precise line work help turn Tim Seeley’s gory story into a visual masterpiece. Little Bird was just a decent futuristic anti-religious tale, but Ian Bertram’s art makes any story he draws more disturbing and intense. Of course, James Stokoe turned up in Batman Annual #5, drawing a dumb Clownhunter story by James Tynion IV but making it a harrowing look at a lost soul and his desperation in the face of horror. We’re in a Golden Age of Comics, partly because there are so many wonderful artists drawing things other than traditional superheroes for the Big Two. It’s okay to check them out!
So those were what I thought were the best comics of 2020. Agree? Disagree? Let me know! I linked to Amazon below, and remember – if you get anything through that link, even if it’s not a comic, we get a little bit of it, which helps keep the lights on. Thanks for reading, everyone!