Editor’s Note: While most other comic websites push their writers to collaborate on one definitive list of the “best” comics of 2016, Comics Bulletin realized this year that such an attempt would be a folly. Instead, we asked our writers to submit their own lists, using their own criteria on what it takes to makes “the list”. Each lists offers a different perspective on the comics medium as a whole, giving each article a different flavor and justifying our choice to publish one “Best of” list a day.
The word “best” suggests some kind of Platonic ideal that’s unrealistic when relating to something as subjective as literature. What really makes a comic among the “best” of the year when there are so many different styles and genres that each bring something unique to the medium as a whole?
I tried to approach this list with careful consideration and ultimately narrowed down the many exceptional comics I read this year to 11 “best” comics. These 11 impacted how I thought of comics as a craft, changed the way I saw the world, or even made me a happier person. While you surely have your own “best comics of 2016” list by now, perhaps one of the comics included here will improve your 2017.
Sec by Sarah Ferrick (my review)
When I wrote about Ferrick’s “Sec” for Comics Bulletin Small Press editor Daniel Elkin, it opened up a dam of potential inside of me that I didn’t know existed. It’s impossible to not have a reaction to “Sec” as disturbingly visceral as it is; reading it is no different than standing in front of a canvas at a museum and trying to process every choice the artist makes. “Sec” taught me the important lesson of the abstract and how an artist provokes a reaction inside the reader that neither actor has any full control. We talk a lot in more plot-heavy comics about “relatability” and how that leads to “universality,” but true universality comes from this kind of work–how the reader inserts their own unique life experience in order to relate to what the comics creator puts on the page.
Vile Decay by Malachi Ward
Strangely, “Vile Decay” has only become more relevant in the months between my first reading it and the writing of this list. It’s concerned about the failure of leadership and the rise of fascism or human oppression between Biblical times (starting with a story that sounds very much like Sodom & Gomorrah, only made even more violent) and the future. Meaning that failure of leadership to protect its people and the rise of fascism is our concern now too… this book was created before Trump seemed like he would win the presidency, by the way.
Ward borrows from a couple of narrative styles that seem more traditional. We first see the protagonist in old age talking to her grandson in a wise, bitter way using the previously-mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah story. We end with her in youth, having a trivial conversation with a group of friends, seemingly before fascism has squeezed all the joy out of their lives. Ward’s textures are possibly the most deeply unsettling part of the book in that the “future world” city setting has these lines that look fluid on the page and feel like they go on forever. I spent two days thinking of those textures after first reading book and surely only the Presidential elect will stop me from thinking about them for the next two days now that I’ve reread it. Our leaders have failed us and “Vile Decay” saw it coming.
Libby’s Dad by Eleanor Davis
I always meant to write a review on “Libby’s Dad” but my feelings for it overwhelm me so much that it makes it very difficult for me to feel like I can do it justice. Here I try one more time: Libby’s Dad is a lesson in medium, perspective, and how to use color. To firmly plant her readers in a child’s perspective, Davis draws the entire comic in color pencil. The association we have with color pencils–immaturity, fun, joy–is what deepens the moral qualms of the story. Did Libby’s father really threaten his ex-wife with a gun? Or is it true that Libby’s mom is “crazy” and a liar? Maybe the story somehow lies in between? Well, the reader never finds out, because what matters is Libby’s friends’ fear of her dad and how that’s evoked in the two-page, dark blue-colored stretch of her bedroom as she goes to fetch him in the night. And how that’s evoked even further in their imagining of him shooting her in the head in the next page, the dark blue replaced with a white background to create the starkness around the lightly-penciled tableau.
Any conclusions in this book are filtered through a young girl’s mind, making any ultimately unreliable and unprovable. All Davis means to show is how society and community gossip can throw any already troubled suburban marriage into further imbalance via reputation–and in doing so explores the introduction of male-on-female violence to a group of naive young girls.
Boy, and does she do it with expertise.
Our Mother by Luke Howard (my review)
“Universality” is interesting because one of its few consistent themes is legacy. Howard’s “Our Mother” is maybe not something you can fully understand unless you have experienced mental illness, but even so, legacy allows any reader to get something out of it. The comic explores the legacy of mental illness through a series of vignettes that ultimately lead to Howard talking about and with his mother about her mental breakdown and how eventually the condition passed onto him. Howard’s look is sometimes funny, sometimes surreal. And for me, it’s all too familiar.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast (my review)
My grandfather, the first of my grandparents, died last year. Before then for a full year, his increasing dementia and decreasing overall health led to my family’s upheaval. My mother has done better since, but I’m not convinced she’s completely recovered from the experience. She was a “daddy’s girl” and the many choices she had to make in between arguing with my grandmother about their options never came easy.
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? let me empathize more with my mother than I could have otherwise. It also gave me a nice feeling of doom as I very well will end up in her and Chast’s position one day.
The Beyond Anthology, edited by Sfe R. Monster and Taneka Stotts
There are a lot of queer comics projects that come out of Kickstarter, but The Beyond Anthology is almost certainly among the best. It’s not only incredibly diverse in terms of the many definitions of queerness, but in stories as well. Almost every single contribution in this anthology excels in writing and art and leaves the reader with that WHAM feeling that comes from reading cartoonists at their very best. Because The Beyond Anthology contains such high quality, it’s hard to pick the highlights. However, among my honorable mentions are:
“The Graves of Wolves” by Ted Adrien Closson
“Versus” by Brian MacLean
“Optimal” by Blue Delliquanti
“The Monster Queen” by Savannah Horrocks and April J. Martins
“The Next Day” by A. Stiffler and K. Copeland
O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti
I first discovered Delliquanti via the previously-mentioned The Beyond Anthology contribution “Optimal,” which is a prequel to her webcomic O Human Star. Although this article contains all of my top reads of 2016, O Human Star has remained my unshakeable favorite since I tore through the first volume online earlier this year. About Alastair Sterling, who wakes up in a robot body 16 years after his death, his former partner, Brendan, and their transgirl/robot daughter Stulla, O Human Star varies neatly from sweet to heartbreaking to fascinating. Delliquanti’s expressive art brings softness to her characters and her careful story structure gives them all equal attention in their arcs. O Human Star gets you in the gut in just the right way, and also makes a relatively quick read.
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
One of the founders of gothic literature, Ann Radcliffe, explained that her stories were terror, not horror, stories. Terror implements the audience imagination into a tool against itself, stimulating them into panic from the uncertain part of danger. Horror, on the other hand, does not hide the nature of its threats.
With that in mind, many critics and marketers have wrongly classified Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods stories as horror comics when they are actually terror comics. Whether it’s the poetic hooks that curl their way through the pages in “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold,” or the open-ended dread in “His Face All Red,” Carroll is a menace. Her colors make a surreal beauty, like a woman in white. Her pacing keeps at a slow creep, a shadow constantly coming around the corner. The mark Carroll’s comics make on you never ever leaves because she’s merely turning the key in your mind. The rest is your work.
Adulthood Is a Myth by Sarah Andersen
There are times where book packaging fully explains the material inside and Adulthood Is a Myth is one such example. The fabric that spells out the title and colors the character’s sweater is soft to the touch and begs you to make an almost childish experience out of it. Pro-tip: it’s a wonderful thing to rub against your face when no one is looking.
Like its cover, this Sarah’s Scribbles collection is playful and inviting. Although it lands square against the “relatability” pillar of the reading experience, Andersen’s profundity in her observations of the world are striking. Few people organize the most anxiety-inducing parts of social interaction like she does. Less draw the frustrating parts of 21st century reliance on technology with such humor. And absolutely no one has described the anger of my uterus during my period with as much accuracy.
Take it from a person who rarely enjoys light reads: Adulthood Is a Myth is fucking great.
Midnighter #12 by Steve Orlando, ACO, Hugh Petrus, and Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Although the DCYou Midnighter title was originally intended to go for longer than its ultimate 12 issues, it’s a testament to the talent of any creative team to be able to conclude a superhero comic well in the face of such an obstacle. It turned out that Midnighter #12 technically didn’t mean the story’s end as the currently-ongoing Midnighter and Apollo series counts as its third arc. However, that quibble aside, Midnighter #12 acts as an ending issue in that functions as a matching bookend to Midnighter #1. It does this in an excellently-structured way while paying homage to its origins; Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority.
Obviously, you can’t appreciate Midnighter #12 fully on its own because the periodical as as self-sustaining format is essentially dead. But. But like every one of the 11 issues that came before it, it’s a joyful piece of work that wants to punch you in the face with how much fun it’s having. It’s very hard to believe that a random person who picks it up wouldn’t get anything out of it considering how action-packed and heartwarming and overall fantastic it is.
Also, in any event, how could you possibly not love Midnighter and Apollo together?
The Spire by Simon Spurrier, Jeff Stokely, and Andre May
Although the last issue left me with a lot of questions regarding The Spire’s take on gender and sexuality, the rest of the book is a master class in world-building. Stokely sketches a world built off his own imagination, a towering mountain of dusty hierarchy that functions as the perfect backdrop and foundation of the comic’s class warfare themes. Spurrier’s words show a deft hand in voice and wit, making every character as close to a real, breathing person as any fictional entity can get. Together, the two breezily introduce The Spire’s cultural world within every page without the dragging exposition that many less-skilled comics creators employ.
The Spire is one of the heavier, traditional reads on this list, plotwise and theme-wise. It is very political, from the clashes between The Spire’s royalty and foreign nations at the top, to the oppression of the poorer citizens below. Although its reality includes many non-human species, it has a bleakness that reflects our own world all too well.
But, on a more positive note: Can Steve Wands please letter every comic I read for the rest of my life? I might just write an ode to this man, who proves with every caption and speech bubble that lettering is an art all on its own.