I think most of us are in agreement that 2016 was one of those years that took the wind out of a lot of our sails. It was easy to stagnate and bob in the middle of unchartered waters looking around at our dwindling supplies with terror in our eyes. In fact, 2016 made me take full stock and prioritize in ways that I never have before.
As Coleridge once wrote, “Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”
Still, even unmoored in the vastness of this ocean and all its oncoming storms, there were little moments of calm when the sun cracked through the clouds and reflected beautifully on the tops of the waves. There were still brave artists making profound works and unleashing them into the world. Thank you all for that.
The following are 15 of my favorite comics I reviewed in 2016. Click on the titles to read my full write-ups. All italicized parts are taken from those reviews.
Written by: James Robinson
Art by: Tony Harris
Published by: Marvel Comics
Earlier in the year, Chase Magnett and I started a comics criticism column called Crocked Critics which, ostensibly, was to be the two of us drinking too much and talking about shitty comics. In the middle of April, we geared up and drank up and dove into this obvious corporate cash-grab crossover crap, only to find it to be one of the most impressive books I read all year.
C-3PO wonders “How important have I been?”
Which hits right to the core of all of us. Right? As we are essentially the summation of our experiences (sprinkled, as it were, with a fine dusting of genetics), it stands to reason that the ultimate human question is “How important have I been?” To have these words come out of a construct, a droid, throws so much sand in the eyes of philosophy that I kind of went weak in the knees when I read it.
What the hell is James Robinson’s end-game here? How much of this is pre-ordained by the corporate concerns of Marvel/Lucas Films/Disney — and how much of this is the expression of an artist who, given the simple task of explaining how C-3PO got his fucking red arm, takes that narrow conceit and shows his true artistry?
14. I Feel Weird #1
Created by: Haleigh Buck
Published by: Hey Boy! Press
Haleigh Buck is writing I Feel Weird to heal herself and, by doing so, help to heal others. It is a diary comic of sorts, chronicling Buck’s own battle/recovery with mental illness. It’s deeply personal and communicative. I shared this with some of my students and they really took to it. They were glad it existed. Issue #2 of the book is equally spectacular.
And it is this that transforms I Feel Weird from diary to art -- that liminal space between experience and transmutation -- from immediacy to contemplation in the moment of creation. By the very existence of these pages, the reader carries through, confronted with the emotional crotch-kick of Buck’s narrative, knowing that through her art she has put distance to her inner horror and has reconstructed it into something for us all.
13. Casanova: Acedia
Written by: Matt Fraction
Art by: Fábio Moon
Published by: Image Comics
Is anyone even reading this series anymore? Two years in and we are only at issue 7? The irregularity with which it comes out is somehow perfect given the nature of its contents. This is one bonkers book. Full of fun and inside jokes and action and dicks and dimension hopping and rocking and rolling, Fraction and Moon are cooking one big sandwich on the Foreman Grill with this iteration of their decade long ode to super-spy comics.
I’ve also been suffusing all of my reviews with Bowie lyrics. And Bowie died. Fuck that.
I still love this series, though.
But the train that is Casanova constantly holds together. While Fraction may be putting the loco in this locomotive, the real engineer continues to be Fábio Moon. At the center of it all, at the center of it all. Art and colors. Dynamic. Fluid. Beat for beat. Beautiful.
12. Other Selves
Created by: Theo Ellsworth
Theo Ellsworth continues to show the world that he’s got his own thing going on, and that thing may, in some small way, end up saving the world, one self at a time. This is a 64 page black and white self-published mini that Ellsworth put together for this year’s Linework NW and it’s all Ellsworth, full of meticulous and dense pages of direct address and dream-like images.
Ellsworth calls this book a “psychic chiropractic adjustment” (to be filed under: “Hand Drawn Inner-Space Documentary Comics”). Here he is an artist viewing himself as the one who is in control of creating the Other Selves of his imagination. As he probes deeper and deeper into his self-creations, though, things get weirder and weirder, layering levels of the fantastic and the imaginative, each self in control of itself. Finally his inner workings are so far out that a part of him unleashes the “Reality Control Officers” into his “Personal Imaging Zone” admonishing him to “Go back to reality! Now!” What remains is a battle between inspiration and sense, art versus logic.
11. Time Clock
Created by: Leslie Stein
Published by: Fantagraphics
Continuing her Eye of the Majestic Creature series, Leslie Stein keeps unfolding the life of her semi-autobiographical doppelganger, Larrybear, and her gang of friends. This one is sad and funny and beautiful.
Larrybear’s interactions with those she loves and those she stumbles into are confessional on either end. Though Stein suffuses much of these moments with humor or absurdity, they have an emotional truth at their core. Those whose lives she touches see their interactions through the lens of their own distractions and understandings. Larrybear exudes an endearing and surreal sweetness that brings others into her various spheres, comforting or confusing them in a manner that is seemingly just what they both need at that juncture.
Whether it be popping pretensions or providing inspiration or affirming humanity, Larrybear seems to say or do the right thing, no matter how off-kilter it is. There is nothing mean anywhere, even in the casual, but rather there is an over-riding kindness that cannot be helped.
Even as Larrybear draws inside herself and faces her own uncertainty, Time Clock seems to acknowledge that above all else, we have no other option than to acknowledge that we are all in this together.
So why not choose kindness?
10. Silver Wire
Created by: Jordan Shiveley
Published by: Uncivilized Books
This is another small book that seemingly slipped under a number of people’s radar, but it is a quiet, powerful book that deserves a wider audience. Shively calls it a “mouse tragicomedy” and it is all about the casualness with which we loathe ourselves and how, by harming ourselves, we do the most damage to the people we would never want to hurt at all.
Silver Wire works because of its pacing. It unfolds from minutia to the larger world and back again. Even in its most dramatic moment, Silver Wire takes the time to linger on the soft gestures that Shively uses to convey emotion -- the distance engendered by both the choice of using mice and the choice of taking everything down to basic shapes in his rendering. Somehow this makes the emotional beats that much more potent. In these layers of erasure the reader finds their own faces and connects, as if the hardest punch comes from the softest hand.
Created by: Robin William Scott
Published by: Good Comics
Sometimes a book comes to you at the absolute right time for its true weight to rest in your hands. So it was with Every Life I Ever Lived. Given the overwhelming chaos unleashed by the last half of 2016, Scott’s gentle reminder to look around and pay attention to the little moments, to understand life is its own work of art, was healing.
Every Life I Ever Lived is essentially a collection of diary comics. It is comprised of 100 (mostly) four panel strips capturing Scott’s daily routine, one day at a time. Herein, Scott details the meals he ate, the beers he drank, and the television he watched. He captures his time at work, his concerns about learning to drive, and his problems with sleep. In the pages of Every Life I Ever Lived there is no pretension, no didacticism, no polemic against modernity, and no exhortation to the “better person.” Rather, there is a laser focus on the platitudinous and bromidic, the marking of time and the distractions sought — the tiny moments of life.
In seeing his “Self” in his days he sees his “Self” as it is, wobbly at times, unsure and detached — he reaches out and reaches in, and in this, becomes the everyman, and in this, becomes heroic.
Created by: Simon Moreton
Published by: Killgore Books
Simon Moreton creates art that is beautiful in the complexity of its simplicity. He pares down storytelling to the essentials: the essential moments, the essential lines, the essential beats. Between his self-published zines and his published longer works, the oeuvre of Moreton is to be treasured for how it exposes the world to the possibilities of quieting down a little.
It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed when you remove the details. Such is the premise of the art of British cartoonist Simon Moreton. In What Happened, his latest release from small press publisher Kilgore Books, Moreton combines thin lines, thick scribbles, and a profusion of Dot Toning in order to craft an April to September tale of childhood summer that softly and deftly evokes what changes and what stays the same in the process of growing up.
Created by: Clara Jetsmark
Published by: Uncivilized Books
I picked up an early edition of this book at SPX this year without any sense whatsoever as to what it contained. What it contained, though, was something magical. Smart, outstanding, and bonkers, My Dead Mother came at me from unexpected places; each page went sidewise, yet I ended up really happy with the destination.
In My Dead Mother, it is only when women carve out a path for themselves that actualization occurs and the cycle of dependency is broken. Yet Jetsmark is never thematically heavy-handed in her book. She uses the elements inherent in comics to make her point and relies on her deft and tight cartooning to allow her motif to unfold. There is as much a clarity to her tight lines as there is to her storytelling. In the midst of such a daring narrative, one that could easily become bogged down in the preciousness of the idea, there is an undeniable confidence in Jetsmark’s art which transfers to the book’s easy readability.
6. Our Mother
Created by: Luke Howard
Published by: Retrofit/Big Planet
Our Mother is a book that only congeals upon finishing. It’s one of those books that you have to have faith in -- as its rewards are many, but require patience for the payoff. Howard’s art in this works perfectly for what he is exploring here, and, though seemingly slight, it hits with power.
Our Mother is an incisively transcendent exploration of the effects of anxiety disorder. It works in a structure that seems dispassionate, yet ends up poignant and ardent as it gets to the truth behind trying to comprehend that which is incomprehensible. It sticks because of its humanity; it punches through the shut doors in our brains in welcoming ways, opening passages to a collective understanding of what has happened, how it shapes us, and where it leaves us as we step forward. Sometimes we become who we are by what has happened to us, not through what we have chosen to occur.
Created by: Eleanor Davis
Published by: Youth In Decline
Ryan and Jane Sands are doing some amazing things over at San Francisco based publisher, Youth in Decline. One of those things is curating an amazing comic series called Frontier. Pretty much everything in this series is something you should have or should be reading, but in 2016, the clear winner was Eelanor Davis’ contribution, BDSM. There isn’t a line wasted in this book.
Whether it is confronting the ramifications of power in what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey conceptualized and labeled “the male gaze,” or understanding the interpersonal dynamics of dominance and submission in a sexual relationship as it plays out in both a public arena and a private space, Davis uses the framework of a tight narrative structure to expound upon her ideas, allowing the reader to assign understanding a posteriori. In the end, though, the reader ultimately has to confront themselves.
4. Nod Away
Created by: Joshua Cotter
Published by: Fantagraphics
The density and intricacy of Joshua Cotter’s art and narrative in Nod Away are breathtaking. The very thought of him continuing this for another seven volumes boggles the mind. And yet, if he pulls it off at the same level as this first volume, it may become contender for one of the most amazing artistic achievements in comics in the modern era. This is so good.
Ostensibly this first volume is a sci-fi story that circles around issues such as the human desire for exploration and connection, the power structure inherent in gender politics, and the gray area created in the intersection between science and morality, but, as the book unfolds, the reader feels there is something more complicated occurring in the periphery. Cotter is exploring profound questions of consciousness itself by creating a story that asks them indirectly.
Created by: Nick Drnaso
Published by: Drawn and Quarterly
Growing up in suburbia breeds a certain ennui that is a beast unto itself, available to nobody other than those that inhabit those spaces. I was one of those, and Nick Drnaso’s Beverly hit me in all those old wounds that I thought had scabbed over many years ago. I loved this book so much that I even lobbied hard and successfully to get Keith Silva and Taylor Lilley to write about it with me.
The quest to assimilate is the definition of suburban life. Sure we may try to one-up the Johnsons with a shiny new fully-featured “Hypersonic Red” 2016 Prius Three in order to “Be Someone,” but it’s all tightly bound by the norm– you can only go so far. Thus the repression. Which breeds the ennui.
All swaddled in the smugness of privilege.
As Tyler and Cara’s dad says to his young son, “Cherish these years. You will miss them someday.” There’s perfunctory abuse in these words. It is as it needs to be. It is expected, don’t you see?
Drnaso gets it as if he’s lived it. Beverly connects because it captures the concrete sponge we use to whitewash the lives of suburban white America. It so easily reveals the effortless castigation of the stranger, because one of us would never do us any harm.
2. BLAMMO #9
Created by: Noah Van Sciver
Published by: Kilgore Press
Watching Noah Van Sciver mature as a cartoonist has been amazing. With each successive release, his drawing gets more detailed and his story telling more intimate. This year, BLAMMO #9 came out and it captured me from the beginning to the end. Van Sciver makes so much out of so little; his pacing and choices are spot on. This book is hard to shake, as it speaks deeply to human insecurity and longing.
“Culmination” — it’s a word that is easily bandied about by often thick intellectual types who caper about places of higher learning wearing paisley sweaters and corduroy pants. Derived from the late Latin word culminātus (past participle of culmināre, “to come to a peak”), its definition runs along the lines of something like, “to reach the highest point, summit, or highest development … especially as attained after a long time.” I bring this all up for the following reason: cartoonist Noah Van Sciver has been producing his one-man anthology series Blammo for almost over a decade now, and Blammo #9 serves, in many ways, as a culmination of his development as a cartoonist, artist, and man.
Created by: Andrew Burkholder
Published by: 2d Cloud
If you haven’t read this book, you need to read this book. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Andrew Burkholder, get familiar with it. In all of 2016, no other comic affected me so viscerally and intellectually as ITDN. It may be one of those books that’s “not for everyone” -- but, believe me, it is for you. As the year progressed, I went back to ITDN again and again, each time discovering something new that Burkholder had done within its pages, each time discovering something new about my thoughts and feelings about what I was experiencing.
Sometimes works of art put you in the uncomfortable position of having to confront the fact that some of your perceptions of the world are not as solid as you thought they were. This is especially unnerving when fundamental, foundational concepts — one’s that you base conceptions of reality upon — become soft in the face of a new understanding. You enter the experience with this work erect in your conceit, and leave it fluid, awash in the world, uncertain of your next step.
Such is the result of the confrontation with Andrew Burkolder’s new release from 2dCloud, ITDN, quite possibly one of the most profound aesthetic experiences I’ve had in the medium in a long time.
Words by: Eddie Wright
Art by: Jamaica Dyer
Created by: David Enos
Published by: California Clap
Created by: Ryan Heshka
Published by: Nobrow Press
THREE BOOKS I LOVED IN 2016 BUT NEVER GOT AROUND TO REVIEWING
Created by: Julia Gfrörer
Published by: Fantagraphics
Jacob Bladders and the State of the Art
Created by: Roman Muradov
Published by: Uncivilized Books
Created by: Eleanor Davis
Published by: Retrofit/Big Planet
THE ONE BOOK I UNABASHEDLY HATED THE MOST IN 2016
Words by: Paul Dini
Art by: Eduardo Risso
Published by: DC Comics
This fucking book got me so mad that I had to write a screed/rant regarding everything I found poisonous about it. It is a garbage book with a garbage message that needs to be put in the garbage can of history and set on fire. And if you disagree with me, you better come at me with some seriously valid criticism, otherwise sit down, shut up, and leave me alone.
I don’t know how much criticism I’m going to be able to write in 2017. I’m turning 50, quitting smoking, and Trump is our president. This is the proverbial trifecta in terms of battening down the hatches and waiting out the storm.
Yet, as one of the witches says in Macbeth, “Though his bark cannot be lost, Yet it shall be tempest-tossed.”
I wish you all strength, good will, and the quiet respite of good comics in the coming year.