Whatever descriptor you want to throw at it — challenging, harrowing, horrible — 2020 rocked our collective understanding of the world and how it works. Despite all of the hard times and heartache, cartoonists kept on making comics, and good ones at that. In the finest tradition of media websites everywhere, SOLRAD decided to create its own “Best of 2020” list by asking all of our contributors for a list of five notable comics that they read in 2020.
We did not demand that contributors turn in a list of “Best Comics” although many writers did turn in such a thing. We asked for writers to tell us, in a few short sentences, about books that they loved, or that challenged them, or that changed their perspectives this year. Some folks turned in five books as requested, some fewer, and some more, but regardless, the result of this inquiry is fascinating, and I am happy to share this collection of perspectives with you for the new year.
Andrew Neal, Cartoonist, “Meeting Comics”
Max Huffman, Whisnant (self-published) — Max’s art keeps getting better as his stories keep getting weirder. I like this trend. I bought a couple pages out of this because the sequence made me laugh.
Audra Stang, The Audra Show (self-published) — There’s a page in The Audra Show #5 where a character says “I want to fuck you and kill you” that has made me laugh out loud six times. A rare achievement.
Ex Mag Volume 1 – Fullmetal Dreamland (Cyberpunk), edited by Wren McDonald (Peow Press) — The first issue of this – the cyberpunk one – is the most consistently solid anthology I’ve read in years. The theme seemed to really inspire the cartoonists.
JB Roe and Erik S Gutierrez, Daikaiju Team Alpha (Really Easy Press) — The colors in this comic are so good and so unifying that I didn’t notice until most of the way through that different pages were drawn by two people with very different styles.
John Allison, Max Sarin, and Whitney Cogar, Wicked Things, (Boom! Comics) — Here’s my “mainstream” pick of the year: A silly, fun detective story with gorgeous art by Max Sarin.
Daniel Elkin – SOLRAD’s Editor-in-Chief, Comics Critic
Hi friends. It’s your SOLRAD EIC, Daniel Elkin. Hope you are well. It’s been a thing lately, hasn’t it? Well, we keep on moving forward with an infinite capacity for hope. Stretching our arms out towards the green light. And oftentimes, while looking towards the future, we know that it can not, will not, be possible if it were not for the past. And so, we look back, assess, reassess, and gain what we can from all of it. So it is with comics.
While my comics reading has tapered off significantly of late, and my writing about comics has been basically non-existent, there were some comics that I read that I liked quite a bit. And I’m going to use this platform to highlight them (in no particular order):
- Alissa Chan, Interim (Shortbox) — Interim is like a rebus inside a Möbius strip that is really an ouroboros. It’s one of those books that is as much a narrative as it is a puzzle, and Alissa Chan puts all the pieces together in a way that leaves you scratching your head in acknowledgment of what you think you understand. It’s beautiful. Crisp lines, a muted palette, and inventive layouts all contribute to everything that makes this book a work of art.
- Elisa Macellari, Kusama (Laurence King Publishing) — This “graphic biography” suffers from all the problems I have with “graphic biographies” — they are too expansive to fit into the confines of their format and thus get muddled and hurried and lose perspective. But there is so much that is beautiful in this story of an uncompromising artist, fearless, insane, and unique. Much of this has to do with artist Elisa Macellari. Her work is superlative here, capturing that which makes Kusama such an icon while grounding her in her life and exploring the thin line between genius and madness.
- Jonathan King, The Inkberg Enigma (Gecko Press) — Sometimes in the midst of a global pandemic, you just need to read a well-executed all-ages horror mystery comic to make things a little easier for a while. Thank goodness for Jonathan King’s The Inkberg Enigma. It’s a fun, beautifully drawn, charming adventure that is just an all-around solid comic, full of believable young characters, dastardly villains, a real sense of place, and, of course, surrealistic Lovecraftian horror.
- November Garcia, Malarkey #5 (Birdcage Bottom Books) — What more can be said about the autobio comics of November Garcia that hasn’t already be said by those much more astute and lucid than I? Brutally honest, wildly funny, full of keen insights and heartbreaking realizations, Garcia’s comics are the access we need into her life to make us realize that we are not alone. Yeah, sure, you’re reading about what Garcia has filtered to us through her narrative choices and devices, but it always seems like you are reading about something that much more acroamatic.
- Patrick Wray, The Flood That Did Come (Avery Hill Publications) — I can’t really explain why I liked this book as much as I did — but it just kind of came out of nowhere and captured my attention in a way that few things did in 2020. I got into a debate with a friend of mine about whether or not this book can even be called comics (of course it can). There is something about Wray’s recursive use of imagery, the simplicity of his lettering and coloring, the whole slapdash nature of this book’s construction that somehow belies its over-arching truths. I keep coming back to this book as if it were a bulwark against the real flood that I most feared this year.
Lane Yates – Cartoonist and Comics Critic
Best Comics 2020 (in no specific order):
- Andy Douglas Day, Boston Corbett, (Sonatina) — This is very easily my favorite comic of 2020 because of its long-form dedication to a singular offbeat tone and unnerving style that Andy Douglas Day has clearly mastered. Boston Corbett is continually hilarious and frequently moving. Every person you have seen evangelizing for this 1300 page book is not joking. I think it’s essential reading; don’t be intimidated – you can knock it out in a weekend.
- Julia Gfrörer, Vision (Fantagraphics) — Julia Gfrörer makes some of the most technically sophisticated drawings of anyone currently working in the small press “comix” sphere and Vision is an excellent showcase of her characteristic ability. What I like about Julia’s comics most of all, however, is her ability to write naturalistic dialogue that clearly traces the silences and repetitions of conversations had without the acknowledgement of a viewer. Vision is an incredibly sophisticated demonstration of Gfrörer abilities.
- Elijah P Parker, Shadow, Chug, et al.Abbeycourt Manor/Gamer Dilbert/PowerUP COMICS (self-published) — As ridiculous as these comics may appear (and their apparitional quality is fully situated within their ridiculousness) I believe they’re on to something and I read them every day. Most of the panels are static ridiculous jokes, there’s hardly any drawn backgrounds, and there’s absolutely no technical mastery to speak of. The beauty of these comics is their authentic quickness and their authentic disregard for anything that could be referred to as “beauty” altogether. It’s a middle-finger to anything you think makes a comic good, and I think that’s really fucking cool.
- Alex Graham, Dog Biscuits (self-published) — This is the hallmark of contemporary psycho-drama in serialized comics. Like Simon Hanselmann, like Love and Rockets, like American Splendor, or whichever flavor of contemporary history you prefer to consume, Dog Biscuits has premium character writing. Alex Graham has made a thoroughly exciting comic with authentic characters that transcend the relatability Instagram comics matrix.
- Cassanova Frankenstein, Tears of the Leatherbound Saints (Fantagraphics) — Starting with the Teenage Dinosaur publication of Tad Martin 6 and the Domino Books publication of Tad Martin 7, the past two years have seen a resurgence in interest in the work of Casanova Frankenstein: for very good reason. Tears of the Leatherbound Saints (unofficially Tad 8), is real-life comix. It covers American labor, corporal punishment in schools, and punk fantasies full of southern grit. The book is visibly a book; there are visible blue pencil lines, taped on dialogue boxes, and Strathmore margins can be seen at the bleeds and the print barriers. Casanova Frankenstein is criminally underappreciated, though I’m not the first person to say that.
Honorable Mention: Jaako Pallasvuo, Avacado_Ibuprofen (self-published): I frequently don’t know if these comics are sincere or are trying to portray a specific “art-world” mentality, but I believe this is the point. All I know is that I will walk away from an avacado_ibuprofen post with a sense of faint identification with the speaker, and a lurking anger that I do, indeed, feel seen by their mentality. It’s an ArtForum contributor’s approach to a webcomic: take it or leave it.
Michael Aushenker – Cartoonist, “Pelican Bastards” Webcomic
TOP 5 COMICS I DISCOVERED IN 2020 (Note: Some entries were released prior to 2020)
- Yoshikazu Ebisu, The Pits of Hell (Breakdown Press) — These surreal, straight-faced minimalist jabs at the soul-sucking corporate world peopled by conformist salarymen doubles as a hilarious social commentary on Japanese society. This English translation of Ebisu’s 1981 collection of his classic GARO magazine short stories has had a profound effect on me on multiple fronts, not only unlocking for me a slew of other excellent reads — including the Japanese Ebisu collection “The Salaried Man Had a Narrow Escape” and the Japanese alt-comics anthologies “Comics Underground Japan” and “Ax” — but proving inspiring on my current work as a cartoonist. Breakdown Press has done the comics industry a service by translating these quintessential heta-uma comics, and the sardonic Ebisu is my favorite absurdist cartoonist since Belgium’s Herr Seele (“Cowboy Henk”).
- Kyoko Okazaki, Pink (Vertical Comics) — A glowing, on-the-money review by Alex Hoffman led me to Okazaki’s “Pink” and “Helter Skelter.” Both are excellent reads, but “Pink” is her masterpiece: A fun, elegantly illustrated romp about a part-time prostitute’s complicated love life that simultaneously updates and criticizes the sexist roles of women laid out for generations in fairy tales…but the defiantly independent and clever Okazaki does it with such a light touch that you’ll never feel preached to (plus, that voracious, unbridled id of a pet alligator Croc). But what I love most about Okazaki’s work is that it showed female cartoonists in Japan another path in manga that doesn’t involve formulaic, kawaii-style coquettish characters with big eyes.
- Yeong-Shin Ma, Moms (Drawn & Quarterly) — This 2020 release is an instant classic. Ma’s whopping chronicle of the dating life of his single mother and her fellow middle-aged divorcee friends — and the dysfunctional relationships with deadbeat boyfriends that they tolerate — is a bold and Herculean feat that humorously and sadly covers a vast array of emotions in stark detail and excellent character design. Ma is a cartoonist whose work I hope to read more translations of. Kudos to Janet Hong, who carefully translated both “Moms” and another good read from Korea, Ancco’s “19.”
- Olivia Jaimes, Nancy (Andrews McMeel Publishing) —This hardcover collection of Jaimes’ syndicated comic strip is not merely entertaining but mind-blowing in its contemporary reinvention of Ernie Bushmiller’s beloved classic. Jaimes did not simply modernize “Nancy” for the Snapchat generation, she took it to another level with her organically diverse supporting cast of characters and imaginative layouts and meta gags. Simply put, I’ve never seen a takeover of a comic strip that rivaled its creator in quality and sensibility — she is closer to Bushmiller in talent and scope than Sagendorf was to Segar. This is one smart cookie of a comic and the most alive new strip in syndication today — Sluggo is lit!
- Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Man Without Talent (New York Review Comics) — Tsuge’s self-deprecating, warts-and-all memoir comic is a voyeuristic invasion into a complicated marriage as a struggling cartoonist is forced to undertake a parade of humiliating professions in order to support his family. Too many memoir comics can be solipsistic acts of narcissism that do not rise above a batch of inside jokes, but Tsuge masterfully goes beyond his own little world to reflect his environment and how it bears down on his struggle. A sensitive and poetic work beautifully rendered.
Jef Harmatz, Cartoonist, “Danger Diver”
- Connor Willumsen, “I Needed The Discounts” (New York Times) — Willumsen’s near-future parable of a city-dweller who dons an ever-upgrading tech-loaded tracking suit in exchange for coupons is an askew and insightful look at how social media and algorithmic learning are impacting our lives. After reading the strip online, I dug through my partner’s pile of not-yet-recycled Sunday editions of the NY Times, where I was flabbergasted to see the entirety of “I Needed The Discounts” on one single ledger-sized page. In print and all together, the density of the panels and the effortless intricacy of the page layout provided a new dimension to the comic’s interrogation of our technology-driven information overload.
- Katie Skelly, Maids (Fantagraphics) — Skelly debuted nearly a decade ago as a strikingly fully realized cartoonist, yet with each new book she impossibly seems to come even more into her own – every new book becomes her best yet, and Maids is no exception. Her interpretation of this early 20th century true crime story uses bold colors and fluid linework to tell an intimate story about sisterhood and class dynamics. Released during the pandemic, the story takes on extra significance as so many people find themselves, like the story’s Papin sisters, locked inside a house with people they despise and no financial means of escape.
- Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salty Seas (IDW Publishing) — It’s a new cliché to declare that stories about travel have soothed our sedentary souls during this pandemic year, but I gravitated to Pratt’s boldly drawn renditions of early-twentieth-century island hopping. It’s an old cliché to say that Pratt’s comics are among the finest ever made, and the IDW/Eurocomics editions, with sharp new translations by Dean Mullaney and Simon Castaldi, wonderfully showcase the decades-old material. “Ballad of the Salty Seas” is the final edition in this reprint series, though it was actually the very first Corto Maltese story, and serves as a perfect introduction to the character and the two-fisted, progressively-bent world he traverses. In my favorite sequence from this story, a daring escape from a pirate king’s secret isle pauses for a quiet and moving few pages in which a Māori man relays to a young colonizer the story of his ancestors’ arrival in New Zealand.
- O. Schrauwen and Ruppert & Mulot, Portrait of a Drunk (Fantagraphics) — Another sea-faring adventure, but of a more malicious sort. A gorgeously drawn (and painted) tale of just the nastiest sonovabitch thieving, guzzling, and murdering his way in and out of a classic pirate adventure story. Even through its metaphysical underpinnings, this comic’s high-key cynicism never stops being funny.
- Michael DeForge, Birds of Maine (self-published) —Though they’ve been around for a while, 2020 seemed to be the year of the Instagram comic, punctuating our endless scroll of anxiety-inducing content with gibes and japes. Michael DeForge, one of the pioneers of the format, ruled the roost with his ongoing saga of a future bird colony on the moon. The comic is pleasantly meandering – primarily hilarious digressions about bird internet, bird orgies, and bird hardcore bands, drawn in a stunningly abstract Day-Glo style. DeForge put out another contender for “book of the year” before the pandemic started (the astonishing Familiar Face), but the still ongoing Birds of Maine is hitting my sweetest spot as a daily quarantine treat.
Sara Jewell – Artist, Comics Critic
Sara’s ‘Comics You Should Read’ 2020!
- Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing after TEN (Fantagraphics) — A visual artist myself, I dissolved into tears both times reading this book, and while telling someone else about it, a visceral response to understanding the circumstances under which some of the drawings it features were made. Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber collaborate on a memoir of Chong’s life, including drawings from both before and after she loses her sight and negotiates a changed relationship to her body and autonomy due to Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN). Chong and Webber are both aware of and challenge how graphic medicine narratives are so often forced to center on educating and mollifying an abled majority.
- Emma Hunsinger, She Would Feel the Same (Shortbox) — “It’s still a love story…” Emma Hunsinger’s Shortbox debut chronicling the abrupt, neat and tidy ending of a long-term relationship between two women is funny and devastating in equal measure. A spare, invariable line unrestrained by panel borders showcases Hunsinger’s knack for dialogue and nailing down character by contour. Above all, this comic shines in its use of subtle metaphor and implication, unfolding with cleverness and economy.
- Otava Heikkilä, Sasha from the Gym (self-published) — A queer erotic comic by the creator of Letters for Lucardo, Sasha from the Gym centers on charged dalliances between two transmasculine characters who frequent the same gym in the small hours. Heikkilä is a master of the unsaid and speaks volumes with framing, composition, and subtle nuances of expression and body language as his two central characters appraise one another and finally, collide. Sasha from the Gym is as seductive and quietly radical as its eponymous character.
- Sophie Yanow, The Contradictions (Drawn & Quarterly) — Sophie Yanow’s autofictional account of a young woman studying abroad in Paris and encountering new ideas bucks all expectations such a synopsis and genre might engender. Yanow invites the reader to accompany her character in considering, perhaps for the first time, the mundane and often painful reality of living out countercultural ideals. Yanow conveys an authenticity of experience that is at times maddening in its prosaic fidelity.
Rob Clough – Contributing Editor of SOLRAD, Comics Critic
Best Comics of 2020:
- Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Man Without Talent (New York Review Comics) — Published in English for the first time, Tsuge’s epic, quasi-autobiographical story of a cartoonist who quit drawing in favor of a host of ridiculous side-hustles is poetic, hilarious, emotionally fraught, and deeply rooted in mourning for a culture that was lost.
- Leslie Stein, I Know You Rider (Drawn & Quarterly) — This philosophical memoir touched on issues related to ethics, aesthetics, and being, as Stein centered it around her decision to have an abortion while in search of personal connections and the sublime appreciation of beauty.
- Simon Hanselmann, Crisis Zone, (Self-Published) — Published on Hanselmann’s Instagram account, Hanselmann’s take on COVID, parenthood, protests, police brutality, Animal Crossing, and so much more was a relentless, hilarious, thrilling, and often genuinely touching whirlwind of a comic.
- Naked Body, edited by Yan Cong, R. Orion Martin, and Jason Li (Paradise Systems) — Published in America in early 2020, this anthology of Chinese underground artists was literally illegal in their home country, as both independent publishing and the depiction of nudity are outlawed. The astounding variety of styles built around the theme of nudity is impossible to pin down to any particular influence, but they all crackle with energy and purpose.
- Sophie Yanow, The Contradictions (Drawn & Quarterly) — Yanow’s fictionalized coming-of-age story depicts her character Sophie falling under the spell of a radical anarchist vegan, but she soon comes to understand that the nuances and complexities of human interaction rarely fall into neat categories. Her blocky art style is sublimely beautiful and expressive
Tom Shapira – Comics Critic
Best Comics of 2020:
- Paul Jon Milne & Douglas Noble, Unfinished Fights 2: A Fight On The Mountain (self-published) — Poetry in motion, or at least in panels. Paul Jon Milne and Douglas Noble’s semi-adaptation of Ossian’s cycle of poetry is as lively a comic-book as you will find, powered by muscle art that verges on the ridiculous before breaking through to the sublime. It’s an extremely earnest and powerful treatise about love and passion and man with too many muscles, which brings the poem from the dusty shelves of library kicking and screaming into the present.
- Chloe, My Life to Live (self-published) — Chloe’s tale of love, cinema and the love of cinema was first published on her Patreon in 2019 but only made wildly available in 2020, and it would be a sin if more people were not exposed to this small masterpiece which just burns with humanity and passion. It’s a comic that loves life, and would make you appreciate the joys of it more.
- Olivia Hicks, Sarararara: All American Girl (self-published) — Olivia Hicks’ ongoing webcomics / print-zine project certainly ramped up in 2020. From a gentle comedy based on inserting an alien element, the titular creature, into the world of white-bread 1950’s romance comics into something almost Cronenberg-esque in its exploration of American ills and sexual repression (though with less body horror and more cute girls and boys). One has to admire the way Hicks shifts so easily between comedy, commentary, and actual tension.
- Jenn Woodall, Marie and the Worrywart (Silver Sprocket) — This year, more than any other, I was alone with my thoughts; and when it happens they often turn inwards and towards darkness. Jenn Woodall’s short story feels like an apt description of that process, of the slow takeover of fear and anxiety; there isn’t a magic solution nor an eternal fall, it’s just something you have to learn to deal with. One day at a time.
- Sarah Horrocks, Aorta – Book II (self-published) — Sarah Horrocks’ tribute to giant mecha manga kept on kicking ass, taking names and shedding a single solitary tear in front of the setting sun. It’s not simply an homage, and is certainly far away from self—aware jokiness, but rather an emotional continuation: applying the artist’s skills with depicting not so much of these are but how they appear in our memories.
Francesca Lyn, Cartoonist, Scholar, Comics Critic, and Fieldmouse Press Board Member
Whit Taylor, “Black Mothers Face Far Worse Health Outcomes. How Do We Fix It?” (The Nib) —Published by The Nib, “Black Mothers Face Far Worse Health Outcomes. How Do We Fix It?” combines graphic medicine with autobiography. Taylor confronts the realities of healthcare in the United States through the dangers of being a Black pregnant woman, underscoring that understanding this complex horror necessitates an intersectional perspective. This excellent reportage is made more immediately poignant as Taylor is an expectant mother.
Bianca Xunise, “Rebelling From the Rebel Girl Trope” (The Nib) — Also published by The Nib, Bianca Xunise’s “Rebelling From the Rebel Girl Trope” explores the intricacies of identity formation. The Six Chix cartoonist examines how she has been shaped by the media she consumes. Though this comic is quite short, Xunise condenses the conflicting messages many women absorb.
Cathy Guisewite, “Scenes from Isolation” (self-published, Instagram) — In a series entitled “Scenes from Isolation” the familiar comic-strip character Cathy experiences the pandemic through a series of single-panel comics. While “Scenes in Isolation” is distributed through the photo and video sharing social media platform Instagram, the comics’ presentation emphasizes the handmade nature of the comic through including the soft, torn edges of the paper and placing the comic on a construction paper background. This careful construction reinforces a sense of space and a gentleness to a comic book character that has always emphasized the importance of feeling her feelings even if those emotions were conflicting. It is comforting to know that Cathy is out there, freaking out yet giving herself the space and time to do so.
Gabrielle Bell, Inappropriate (Uncivilized Press) — My favorite living cartoonist is Gabrielle Bell. Hilarious and endlessly fascinating, Inappropriate is a series of short stories that defy easy categorization. Bell is at her best when she embraces the surreal in order to embody the awkward moments we all have. Her stories always have a visceral quality, allowing for a sense of familiarity even in the most absurd situations.
Ben Passmore, Your Black Friend and Other Strangers (2017, Silver Sprocket) — Though first published by Silver Sprocket in 2017, Your Black Friend and Other Strangers by Ben Passmore is timely read and one I found myself recommending to many different people all summer. This is a really important short collection of comics by one of the most dynamic cartoonists working today. Passmore articulates tensions of identity in a distinctive color palette that primarily relies on analogous hues. The colors, paired with a strong graphic presence, impart an otherworldly quality that contrasts with the subject matter.
John Porcellino, The Hospital Suite (2014, Drawn & Quarterly) — Returning to John Porcellino’s spare, elegant drawings helped get me through almost a year of being isolated. The Hospital Suite details Porcellino’s life as he deals with a series of sudden, mysterious illnesses. Throughout these harrowing experiences Porcellino always manages to share his utter delight at the sublime that can be found in the everyday.
Charles Hatfield – Comics Scholar & Critic
- Gene Luen Yang, Dragon Hoops (First Second) — The story of a basketball championship season, but also a memoir about why Yang decided to end his long career as a high school teacher. This triumphal story of athletic victory ventures into unexpected, nervy territory, and so it self-reflexively frets over Yang’s authorial choices, with self-accusatory, metatextual gambits that recall Spiegelman’s Maus. The result is not, I think, Yang’s best book, but is a socially and ethically complex story about race, gender, community, and the value and challenges of team sport. Clear, unerring, and energetic cartooning: a visual high for the artist.
- Jordan Crane, Keeping Two, Part Seven (self-published) — This small booklet looks to be the penultimate chapter in Crane’s long-running graphic novel by parts, a project that dates back I don’t know how many years. I’ve been following it with wonder and anxiety. I’m not sure how well this chapter will work for readers without the larger context, but taken as a climax of sorts, it’s a nerve-rending tour de force of anxious, tender, graphically inventive storytelling – one of the few comics to push me to the point of gnawing my nails. I was, literally, short of breath as I read.
- Derf Backderf, Kent State (Abrams) — April 30-May 4, 1970: five days of fury and violence, and then slaughter, covered here in exhaustive detail. Dogged, meticulous, and didactic, this account of the National Guard’s mass shooting of students at Kent – and the tense days of dissent, demonstration, and brutal crackdown that preceded it – is quite a feat of historiography. Despite its foregone conclusion, sometimes clunky expository dialogue, and inevitably debatable choices as a “dramatic re-creation,” the book builds to a wrenching finish, timely to the extent that it is still terrifying. Backderf’s account, patient, slow, and angry, attains an appalling clarity.
- Lisa Brown, The Phantom Twin (First Second) — This Gothic-tinged YA romance has stayed with me: Two sisters, conjoined twins, perform in a carnival sideshow, until a failed separation surgery kills one of them, leaving the other literally haunted. The surviving sister, seeking community among the sideshow’s freak performers, bonds with a free-spirited tattoo artist, but is also courted by a muckraking reporter trolling the carnival for scandal. Brown conjures the freaks’ workaday world with a droll, Richard Sala-esque style (Gorey fans may dig); the outside world appears cold, menacing. Creepy at first, in the end affirming: a delicate high-wire act.
- Noah Van Sciver, For Art’s Sake (self-published) — Quirky, funny, and poignant, this slice of autobio comix (another small booklet) recalls Van Sciver’s would-be transformation into a great painter as well as the comically sad disintegration of his relationship with a flatmate and friend. Van Sciver’s rumpled, post-Crumbian style, so perfectly used in various historical and biographical comics (both solo and collaborative), well suits this pitiful personal story, a mortifying confessional that made me laugh and wince at once. The satiric impulse exercised in his Fante Bukowski stories hits just as hard when the fool under examination is Van Sciver himself.
- Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber, Dancing after TEN (Fantagraphics) — This collaborative memoir poses questions about co-creation and about comics by and for people with visual impairments. Artist Chong suffered a rare traumatic reaction to medication that rerouted her life and robbed her of sight. Surgery restored some of her vision, but that didn’t last; however, even as her sight faded, Chong was able to complete many drawings toward a memoir. Years later, Chong shared those with Webber (author-artist of Dumb) and together they completed her story, in a dialogic interweaving of styles. I taught this, and the yield was tremendous.
Tom Lake – Cartoonist, “Near Death Flying Turtle”
My Favorite Comics of 2020:
- Glaeolia Volume 1, edited by ka, and Translated by zhuchka, Anna Schnell, rkp, and emuh ruh (Glacier Bay Books) — This is a collection of comics from small press and self-published manga artists being translated to English for the first time. It’s incredible. How did they weave together such delicate themes of time/childhood/memories? How did they capture the in-between-ness of being alive across so many different stories? How?
- Kousuke Oono, Way of the Househusband (Viz Media) — There is a pure joy I experience from reading this comic. A former Yakuza decides to stay at home while his wife works, and he just… does domestic stuff? Why is it so funny and warm? It’s the commitment to the premise and the comedic timing I think.
- Ex Mag Volume 1 – Fullmetal Dreamland (Cyberpunk), edited by Wren McDonald (Peow Press) — If you are a Peow fan, this anthology was an EVENT. This sucker was stuffed with incredible art and stories. All done with one spot color (green) and Peow’s detailed book design and layouts. The story about the Grandma being hunted by the Dolphin person kicked my ass.
- Charlotte Mei, Pipette & Dudley – Charming Dog Adventure Comic (Shortbox) — Do you want to read a comic that is undeniably adorable, and fun, and wonderful, about a cute girl and her even cuter talking dog/best friend? Did I mention it is painted? PAINTED. Like a Saturday morning comic that I never wanted to end. Made out of paint. On paper. I’ll stop now.
- Yoshitoki Oima, To Your Eternity (Kodansha Comics) — Yoshitoki Oima goes all in with her epic, existential, heartbreaking story about being a sentient orb slowly becoming human, and then maybe something more? I like how she manages to avoid most long-running manga’s story-fatique by knowing when to reveal the next transformation or twist, allowing the story to grow more complex as the main character goes from element to animal to human. Like an acorn slowly sprouting, the series expands and transforms itself continually.
Anna Sellheim, Cartoonist and Comics Critic
Coming up with a top 5 comics list was incredibly difficult- not because there were oh-so-many comics to choose from, but because I felt like I had barely read anything this year. I asked a ton of other cartoonists and comic reading friends, and they all said the same thing. It wasn’t until we all dug a little deeper to realize we had been reading a lot of comics, but they were mostly online, continuing series, or rereading old favorites. The majority of my favorite comics from this year were read online, which is not my normal M.O. I primarily read zines. I get all of my zines at conventions, and with all of them being canceled, I read very little print this year. As a cartoonist whose work is primarily zines, this is disheartening and a bit scary. But I still read some great work this year, and I think my tastes were broadened by delving deeper into online work.
Inio Asano, Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction (Viz Manga) — Dededede is an ongoing series that follows a group of teenage girls’ daily lives while a spaceship of possibly hostile aliens hovers in the sky, having been there for years. This is literally the best comic I have ever read. It shows how government agencies, conventional news outlets, social media, and every other aspect of everyday life would be affected by having to face the possible end of the world every day for years on end. Both the art and the writing are stunning. All of the characters look unique but they all fit in the same universe. The masterful use of realistic backgrounds and great character design makes some of the best, most harrowing moments told through art alone. It also parodies a lot of gross tropes common in manga — fetishizing teenage girls is by far my favorite, but also tropes about beautiful, desirable men, and conspiracy theory nuts dominate.
Jaakko Pallasvuo, Avocado_Ibuprofen (self-published, Instagram) —Jaakko Pallasvuo is a fine artist who started doing comics critiquing the fine art industry and the feeling of futility as an artist on Instagram during the COVID-19 pandemic. They often, though not always, add a mix of pop culture elements as well. These 10-panel-or-less comics on Instagram do more to critique fine art culture and our current society’s fucked up relationship to art more than Wendy Master of Art (Scott Walker, D&Q 2020) was able to do in almost 300 pages. These comics are eloquent, razor-sharp, and are often brutal, while still somehow being self-aware. They elevate art itself while critiquing the industry that is supposed to be bringing it to the masses.
Meredith McClaren, Hell.Hath.No.Fury. (self-published) — Meredith McClaren is a cartoonist that is wildly underappreciated. I first discovered her work as the artist of Jem and the Holograms, where she took an incredibly bland story and made it wonderful solely through her charming art and cartooning. Hell.Hath.No.Fury is the best horror story I have ever read, with a final beat that is gut-wrenching. I do not know to give a full synopsis of this comic without ruining it, but the terror, anger, and sadness this short zine made me feel are so visceral that I have not been able to reread it in full. I have looked at bits and pieces again to appreciate it and for this review, but I get a physical reaction from how upsetting this book is. If you are a fan of horror stories, this is a must buy.
Alec Robbins, Mr. Boop (self-published, webcomic) — Mr. Boop started as a simple internet comic whose premise was “What would it be like to be married to Betty Boop”? Hilariously told, it involves a lot of hammy, effusive, on the nose dialogue and orgies with a lot of fictional characters. Over time, the comic has grown into a multimedia experience, including fictional video interviews and documentaries, all woven seamlessly into the story. I am not sure how those will be handled by the Silver Sprocket collections, but I do plan to check them out at some point. The series last week, in a way that felt both satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time- which may sound bad on paper, but given what the ending was parodying, it was kind of perfect.
Jackie E. Davis, Underpants and Overbites (self-published, Instagram) — Another comic I came across on Instagram, Underpants and Overbites is the autobiographical strip by Jackie E. Davis as told through lump-people. Davis does a brilliant job mixing sweet, profound, snarky, and goofy comic strips and that is the key to why her work is so enjoyable to read. If she made only sweet and profound comics her work would be saccharine, if she made only snarky comics her work would be obnoxious, and if she made too many goofy comics her work would be annoying. But as is, she is able to do comics in all categories and her work is a pleasant place to escape to in a horrible year, even when she discusses difficult topics.
Kay Sohini – Comics Scholar and Critic
I read (a lot of) comics every year. But this year, and I say this without exaggeration, comics sustained me. Reading comics this year saw me through the pandemic-spurred isolation, through loss, and in general through the bottomless bleakness of 2020. Consequently, it’s hard for me to pick only five, but if I have to, I would go with Zoe Thorogood’s The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott (Avery Hill Publishing), a masterful debut by a newcomer that makes ingenious use of the medium to viscerally capture one artist’s struggle with identity, creative block and impending loss of sight; Kiku Hughes’ socio-politically topical and genre-blending debut, Displacement (First Second Books) (that I wrote about here!); MK Czerwiec’s (aka the “Comic Nurse”) edited collection Menopause: A Comic Treatment (Penn State University Press), the first comics anthology to feature stories of menopause from the perspective of artists/scholars/practitioners in the field of Graphic Medicine; The Reveal’s weekly series “In/vulnerable: Inequity in the time of Pandemic”, illustrated by Thi Bui and published online in The Nib; and lastly, “Rescue Party” a collaborative series by Desert Island, which, along with “In/vulnerable”, are two of the many web-based comics published during and about the COVID-19 crisis that demonstrated comics’ role in documenting lived experiences, in building community, in coping with grief through drawing, in accessibly disseminating vital scientific information, and in addressing social injustices.
Alex Hoffman – SOLRAD’s Publisher, Comics Critic
I’m not going to write about individual titles, because I think most of these are pretty self-explanatory, or that my fellows on this list will have already done the work for me. However I will say that hunting through the algorithm for a comic on Instagram became something of a regular habit in 2020. I made sure to keep up with Michael DeForge, Alex Graham, and Simon Hanselmann on that horrible platform, and I was rewarded for it. I miss RSS feeds.
So much great stuff came out this year despite COVID, but I think the major thing I missed this year was getting my hands on comics at shows. I read a lot more “book” books this year, and I missed the little stuff. That made subscriptions like Ley Lines much more enjoyable, and made me more excited about the minis and zines I did receive. It was a great year to work on my “to read pile” but as all book addicts know, those things only grow, they never actually get shorter.
For the beginning of the year I have Jonathan Hill’s Odessa and the two latest books from Junji Ito up to read, and I’m excited about both. I’m also going to be digging into the latest books from Naoki Urasawa (Mujirushi, Sneeze).
I separated out my list into two lists, and because I don’t know when to stop, I listed a few more books than the requested five.
Best Webcomics of 2020 (That I Didn’t Publish)
- Alex Graham, Dog Biscuits, (self-published, Instagram)
- Simon Hanselmann, Crisis Zone, (self-published, Instagram)
- Shing Yin Khor, Stone Fruit Season (Catapult)
- Eleanor Davis, Giving Thanks in 2020, (New York Times)
- Michael DeForge, Birds of Maine (self-published, Instagram)
- Connor Willumsen, I Needed the Discounts, (New York Times)
- Lauren Weinstein, A Story of Mothering-in-Place During the Coronavirus, (The New Yorker)
Best Print Comics of 2020 (That I Didn’t Publish)
- Yoshiharu Tsuge – The Man Without Talent (New York Review Comics)
- Kuniko Tsurita, The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud (Drawn & Quarterly)
- Moa Romanova, Goblin Girl (Fantagraphics)
- Waka Hirako, My Broken Mariko (Yen Press)
- Pascal Jousselin and Laurence Croix, Mister Invincible (Magnetic Press)
- Disa Wallander, Becoming Horses (Drawn & Quarterly)
- Julia Gfrörer, Vision (Fantagraphics)
James Romberger – Artist and Comics Critic
I was forced into exile away from NYC by fears of COVID in mid-March, so I was nowhere near a comic shop for most of 2020. But one comic I did manage to keep up with is Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy by Jeff Lemire and Tonci Zonjic (Dark Horse). Perhaps because writer Lemire is an artist himself, he is able to give the prodigal Tonci plenty of fun action stuff to draw in this pulpy, nightmarishly gleaming mutation of the classic dynamic duo and its villains. Zonjic’s precise cartooning and colors (and the strategic lack thereof) shine.
Big Black: Stand at Attica by Frank Smith, Jared Reinmuth and Ameziane (Boom Studios) joins Amezaine’s Muhammed Ali and Miss Davis as exciting, essential comics and substantial works of African American graphic biography. Big Black grips the reader in the torments endured by the narrator as an inmate caught up in the heart of the 1971 Attica uprising. The terrible progression of abuse to torture and massacre is brought to life by the artist’s varied and dynamic layout strategies and his inspired use of restrained tonality and limited color.
The other floppy comic I got is the regurgitation of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell et al (Dark Horse). I’ve long admired Russell’s interpretative graphic editings of Gaiman, who is a cunning enough wordsmith, but tends to appropriate all of human endeavor to copyright it to himself. As in The Graveyard Book and other Gaiman projects lately, Russell imposes his spare, effectively elegant visual timing on the whole book for some parts to be finished by other artists; his layouts make for unified reading, but waste a distinctive design stylist like Mike Mignola. .
I liked Adrian Tomine‘s self-indulgent The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist (Drawn and Quarterly) okay, certainly more than my pal, this site’s Ryan Carey did. But while well-crafted and funny–I laughed out loud a few times—and I do relate as a fellow cartoonist to Tomine’s predicaments—I felt far more his reaching to give us a PTSD housebreaker and reg’lar ‘Murican sports fans in his more resonant recentish short stories.
So this isn’t much of a “best of” list, but just the only new comics I read this last hideous year. The only others I saw were in The New Yorker, which continues to look exactly like every other issue since the magazine began. The reporting can be impressive, of course, but the visual treats are few and far between: occasional covers by R. Kikuo Johnson and a few others that miraculously elude art editorial’s toffee-nosed tendencies—and the cartoons of the brilliant Liana Finck, a real live wire who somehow can make even inanimate objects like fire hydrants funny with a few wobbly lines, nearly vibrating in the periphery of her offhanded, drily ironic gags.
Ryan Carey, SOLRAD’s Lead Comics Critic
Over on my Four Color Apocalypse blog I’ve broken down my favorite comics of the year into six separate categories, as is my custom, so for this list I’m trying something a bit different: making a “consolidated top five” of sorts, ranking my absolute favorite comics of the year in order regardless of whether they were collections of newer material, collections of older material, webcomics, graphic novels, etc. It can be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, I suppose, but in any case, these were the five comics that I enjoyed most this year :
- Alex Graham, Dog Biscuits (Self-Published) — It doesn’t get much more 2020 than choosing a daily webcomic as the year’s best, but Graham’s constantly-evolving story would stand out in ANY year. The level of sheer imagination it takes to produce a new installment every day is one thing, but to keep it constantly surprising and inherently relevant throughout? That’s “next level” stuff all the way. Graham has been producing some of the very best comics around for several years now — with this she has established herself as a true auteur of the highest order.
- Andy Douglas Day, Boston Corbett (Sonatina) — Day’s massive three-volume epic is literally impossible to define or categorize — or even to compare to much of anything else. Ostensibly it’s “about” the man who either killed John Wilkes Booth or claimed to have done so, but in truth the figure of Corbett himself is just a central organizing principle for one of the most unique and distinctive voices in contemporary cartooning to weave a multi-dimensional web of his own highly-personal interests and concerns around. The phrase “a comic like no other” is used far too frequently these days — this is the real deal.
- Milt Gross, Ed. Pete Maresca, Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross (Sunday Press) — A long-overdue collection of Dave’s Delicatessen, Nize Baby, and Count Screwloose strips from the master of smartly-constructed slapstick, with all strips presented at their original size, this is more than just a great read, it’s a legitimate historical marvel. It’s also precisely the tonic we needed at the end of an exhausting year. Both timely and timeless, then, as well as an item you’ll take absolute, unmitigated joy in owning.
- Mara Ramirez, Moab (Freak Comix) — The most stunning full-length debut in recent memory, full stop. Ramirez crafts a travelogue of the heart, limning the contours of a fraying relationship within the context of classic “road trip” settings. Her eye for geographical detail is impressive, sure, but her REAL strength is teasing out EMOTIONAL detail and framing complex interpersonal dramas in entirely unforced, non-manipulative fashion.
- Julia Gfrörer, Vision (Fantagraphics) — Over the past several years Gfrorer has created a genre of comics entirely her own, and her latest work represents the apex of everything her body of work has been building towards. Feminist historically-based horror that explores need, longing, and intimacy with a deep frisson of terror underneath it all, no cartoonist I can think of better understands that what we desire most and what we fear most are often the same thing.
Nicholas Burman, Comics Critic
- Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Man Without Talent (New York Review Comics) — I waxed lyrical about this book on SOLRAD earlier in the year, and nothing’s trumped it since. The Man Without Talent demonstrates Yoshiharu Tsuge’s deft control over narrative and a reader’s emotions. The cartooning is expressive and – where it needs to be – lush and precisely detailed.
- Casanova Frankenstein, Tears Of The Leatherbound Saints (Fantagraphics) — Frankenstein’s roots in the punk and subversive rock scene shine through in this anthology of tales from his youth. This is (somewhat) autobiographical comix made by an author who’s unafraid to let sticky, uncomfortable details remain in his recollections and in his retellings.
- Lucy Sullivan, Barking (self-published) — This breakout book presents readers with a unique visual voice and an artist with ample confidence for playing with page layouts and narrative techniques. Barking is rooted in the author’s own experiences, and that’s noticeable to the general reader insofar as it is a work put together with an incredible amount of care. I’m excited to see what Sullivan does next.
- Michael Olivio, DCXXXL (self-published) — An awesomely riso-printed anthology of Olivio’s small press / self published work from throughout 2020. Olivio’s virtuosity in various styles is on display here, as is his interest in experimenting with color and printing processes.
- John Pham, J&K, (Fantagraphics) — The inclusion of the mini vinyl record, booklet, and faux collector’s cards with this book took up a lot of the conversation surrounding this release. And for good reason, it was expertly crafted detail. It’s also worth noting Pham’s effectiveness in combining newspaper strip-esque simplicity with a formalist’s care over color and form. J&K packed an emotional punch as well as a material one.
Reilly Hadden, Cartoonist, “Kricket the Cat”
This year I found solace in regularly updated interesting, weird, funny, upsetting comics. Mostly on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Patreon. These are my favorites and they mean so much to me. I am extremely grateful to these artists who helped get me through all of this.
- Ness Ilene Garza, Badhandscomics (self-published, Instagram) — An ongoing series of really excellent Instagram comics that kinda blew up early on in quarantine because of a series of strips about Ness’s experience working in an Amazon warehouse. Since then their Instagram account has been a constant treasure trove of incredible drawings and deeply personal comics.
- Alex Bullett, Goblins Goblins (self-published, Instagram) — An ongoing single-panel comic strip about goblins having wise conversations about life’s difficulties while they wander through nature and sites of past battles.. Funny and sad and just beautifully drawn.
- Alec Robbins, Mr. Boop (self-published, webcomic) — A comic about Alec Robbins being married to Betty Boop. It’s very stupid and hilarious, and honestly thrilling in places. It’s existence has been a comfort and I’m sad it’s ending.
- Ayumu Arisaka, En-Chan’s House, Chp. 1 (Glacier Bay) — This year I’ve been really excited about the new publisher Glacier Bay and their new indy manga anthology series Glaeolia, and was sure I was going to include the excellent first volume on my list, but then a couple of days ago I read this first chapter of a new digital comic from Glacier Bay and Ayumu Arisaka and it totally blew my mind. I’m not even totally sure what it’s really about (it’s just the first chapter) but the imagery and atmosphere in this comic work extremely well for me. Pretty much exactly what I’m always looking for in comics.
- Julia Gfrörer, Vision (Fantagraphics) — I read this over the last year in mini-comic form, printed in chapters on pink paper. Julia is my favorite modern artist and every time she releases new work it fills me with inspiration and gets me excited about drawing comics. Her new book is really sad and it made me feel really sad. I love it when comics give me a visceral reaction and Julia’s the best at that.