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.
Kids, it’s 2016 and I’m done with publication years. When you meet a book matters more than when the book met the world. You’re a certain sort of person when the text comes into your life and if you read it at a different time, you’d likely see it in a different way. What’s more: there’s just too much in the world for me to focus on what was published when–so this list represents the best of what I experienced in 2016, independent of its publication date. It represents me, my year, where I started, and where I ended. Hope you enjoy the ride.
10: Kyoko Okazaki’s Pink (1989, tr. 2013)
I read both Pink and another of Kyoko Okazaki’s works, Helter Skelter (1995) this year, but Pink was the one that stood out. It was actually Comics & Cola’s Zainab Akhtar who lent me both comics while I was paying her a visit. We agreed that the strongest feature of both is Okazaki’s ability to construct women’s faces (and bodies) in a way that somehow combines both fragility and ruthlessness.
Everything is, at once, solid, sharp, and soft. Okazaki’s linework conveys all the conflicting things I’ve had to be as a woman in a man’s world. This is fine in Helter Skelter, which tells a story about women that I’ve largely seen before, but it’s much more affecting in Pink. There’s this sense, when you read the comic, that literally anything can happen. If Yumi, an office worker in her 20s, can keep a crocodile in her tiny apartment and feed him twenty pounds of meat a day, then–who can say what’s coming on the next page? Still, Okazaki is careful to make the possibly ridiculous seem perfectly realistic and controlled, but the message itself, a conversation on capitalism, consumerism, and having it all, is a study on the ridiculousness of the entire system.
Pink is as old as I am but it’s still doing more thematic and textual heavy lifting than most of what’s on the shelves today. Okazaki is a once and future queen.
9: Lee Gatlin’s Punisher (2016) & Tears of a Clown (2016)
I’ve written about Lee Gatlin’s comics twice this year already but I’m here again because I still think about them and laugh.
I love Gatlin’s cartooning: Spider-Man’s long, narrow neck and tiny round head that screams “nuisance” from the very first panel of Punisher, or Batman’s body language and costume that immediately make a mockery of the character’s self-seriousness. The designs are clean, simple, and so comedically effective.
It’s also the spirit of the comics. I selected the two that I love the most, but all of Gatlin’s work is filled with such affection. You can’t make fun of these characters in the way that he does without loving them.
Gatlin’s Peter Parker is an endearingly annoying nerd who’s filled to the brim with dad jokes; his Commissioner Gordon is bewildered by just how weird things have got in Tears of a Clown, Part II. I love his Alfred, who is unfazed by absolutely everything.
Gatlin cartoons for a local magazine in Athens, Georgia, The Flagpole, but we’re lucky enough to get to see them any time we want, all around the world. It’d be a dream to see him cartooning a weekly superhero strip next year, but I absolutely love the gifts he gave us in this one.
8: Hannah Blumenreich’s Spidey-Zine (2016)
To be honest, though Peter has appeared twice on this list in succession, I’m not really a Spider-Man fan–but Hannah Blumenreich’s pay-what-you-will zine is appearing on this list because it’s the best superhero comic I read this year and, like Lee Gatlin’s work, reminded me what superhero comics could be. Gatlin is a strip-style cartoonist–he is something of a newspaper man–but Blumenreich hits the heroes right where they often live, in a style that could easily (and will, in March 2017) find itself at home in the direct market.
Blumenreich imagines Peter Parker as a full person, with things he loves, worries about, and wants. Even if I am, for the most part, not a Spider-Man, I can be wooed by any story that presents me with a fully-realized human being. Peter yells about Gilmore Girls and makes sure a young woman gets home safely–while haranguing her about Cowboy Bebop. And then there’s his design, a freckled teen with a little bit of a squished face, unruly hair, and the occasional bandage. Every part of the zines screams of the highs and lows of humanity–and of the silences too.
It’s that feeling of spirit again, that feeling of heart. Blumenreich’s work will show you a different way is possible–and firm your resolve not to accept anything less.
7: Kou Yoneda’s Twittering Birds Never Fly (2011, tr. 2014)
BL gets a bad rap, I think. For lots of reasons, up to and including cultural othering, devaluing of romance as a genre, and social discomfort with sex (especially sex between non-cishet partners.) Most of it is bad, but most of every genre is bad, you know?
Anyway, I say all this to say that I’ve been something of a BL connoisseur since my late teens and my primary goal for a while now has been to track down titles that represent the best it has to offer (and, for the sake of my friends, are licensed in English.) This year, a series called Twittering Birds Never Fly made the grade.
What speaks to me most about the comic–aside from Yoneda’s flawless control of comedy within drama–is how sex is used. It’s gratuitous but that gratuity has function. The story features Yashiro, a yakuza boss who loves sex, and his subordinate Doumeki, who is impotent and dedicated to his boss in whatever situation necessary, professional or otherwise. The presence of gratuity–not cheap, but instead, textually significant–balances with the non-sexual, emotional features of their relationship. The way partners have sex is as much a part of the text as who they have sex with–and including when the main couple eventually do have sex with each other.
Twittering Birds Never Fly is one of those rare romances that remembers that sex is as much a narrative tool as anything else that appears on the page.
6: Zachary Clemente, Arielle Soutar, and Grim Wilkins’ Petrichor (2016)
I was sitting in the hotel café at SPX 2016 when my friend (and Comics Bulletin’s Interviews Editor!) Joe Schmidt, showed me a comic he’d just picked up. It was a minicomic called Petrichor and after glancing through it for a few minutes, I got up from the café and went back onto the show floor to go buy it. That’s the kind of arresting piece Petrichor is.
Grim Wilkins’ art is satisfyingly fluid. Everything flows. Everything is shifting.
This is an incredible strength particularly on the angle of of world-building in a short period of time. Clemente shows an impressive amount of restraint by allowing Wilkins to show us this new, mysterious world instead of insisting upon telling us. Lettering by Soutar goes the extra mile in establishing ambience, rather than simply staying out of the way.
In just a few pages, this team brings you something beautiful and expansive. There’s a feeling that this world existed before we started reading about it and will go on without us when we’re done. An impressive feat by all involved.
5: Tillie Walden’s A City Inside (2016)
I read A City Inside at a bus stop.
My friend Shea Hennum has been telling me about Tillie Walden for a while now. I tried I Love This Part (2015), but I didn’t really become a fan until reading her webcomic On A Sunbeam (which is essentially I Love This Part in space.) After reading several beautiful chapters in one sitting, I decided to pick up the rest of her works. A City Inside, though a quick read is a study of aging, of adulthood, of continual growing pains–and one that really moved me.
What I like about all of Walden’s comics are the pacing and the undercurrent of affection. She’s not afraid to employ silence as a way to say everything. And she’s also not afraid of a reader missing something. Her comics are cool, calm, relaxed–and confident. They are unconcerned with you, the reader.
A City Inside particularly harnesses Walden’s comfort with quiet, while simultaneously showing off her strong architectural hand. And, in truth, after a very difficult and emotional year, it was relieving to see someone put the crumbling city I’ve been harboring inside on the printed page. The control displayed in her story construction and linework is second only to the feelings she’s able to evoke.
4: Aaron McGruder’s A Right to be Hostile: A Boondocks Treasury (2003)
In connection with A City Inside, I’m finding that the feeling of being understood is, in one’s adult life, seemingly hard to come by. People who understand us can be few and far between but art, even at a distance, can sometimes bridge that gap.
A Right to be Hostile is over a decade old but my sense of kinship to protagonist, Huey Freeman, is undeniable. The newspaper strips within the collection are dated to some degree and somewhat specific to the politics of the era, but as many of us know–the more things change, the more they stay the same. The tragedy and the joy is that these strips remain relevant, that I see myself in a righteously angry black kid living a life where the punchline is that he’s just too politically pissed off to be taken seriously. His brother, his best friend, his grandfather, all of them love Huey while thinking he goes too far sometimes.
It’s all a little too real, all a little too personal–and in this wretched political year, it’s just the comic I needed to help me lick my wounds. It’s a book full of comics telling me I’m not crazy, while still giving me the hard truth–that everyone’s going to think so anyway.
3: Satoshi Kon’s Opus (2010, tr., 2014)
Oh man, this comic. It’s hard for me to talk about it. The main reason: the villain is a transphobic “man in a dress” trope, which means I cannot (and will not) recommend the work without severe reservation/preparation. Secondly (and less problematically), I can’t discuss it with someone who hasn’t read it because the striking parts of the text rely on the reader not knowing certain things–so I’ll try to tell you how the book feels.
It feels cosmic, kind of. I don’t believe in a higher power (you know, aside from myself) but looking at the way the comic ends, the way Kon’s life ended–it’s a good argument. It shows the seams of the universe a bit, which is in keeping with the themes and Opus’ story. The comic is about a cartoonist who gets sucked into his own comic, which in turn causes the seams of his construction to come to apart.
Metafiction has this tendency to become self-important, to insist upon winking at the audience to make sure they saw how clever the creator is. Opus, though, isn’t concerned with letting you know how smart it is and allows you to draw conclusions on your own. It’s perfectly satisfied to focus on the shape of the main narrative, which is a testament to Kon’s ultimate restraint.
Opus is a comic that’ll make you respect the god-like powers of the creator–and possibly the god-like powers of The Creator, if you know what I mean?
I think you know what I mean.
2: Tillie Walden’s The End of Summer (2015)
Tillie Walden appears on this list twice because she’s killing the game. The End of Summer represents all of the architectural skill on display in A City Inside, but in a fascinating world. The story focuses on a royal family that lives in a land where the winter weather is so poisonously severe that everyone has to go indoors until summer. The family has several children, one of whom was born with a congenital illness that has shortened his life dramatically. And it’s essentially the story of this family cooped up–quietly, delicately, sinisterly–in this massive palace in the middle of a deadly winter.
It’s Walden, so you know the pace—gentle and subtle. The world is engaging, crystalline. I want to know more about everything and Walden’s a master at building ecosystems–things that move and imply movement elsewhere, chains of events. The protagonist, the dying child, provides a solemn, regretful narrative that reveals just enough, always. The comic is a masterpiece. A best of the year, but really, a best of all time.
1: Ronald Wimberly’s Prince of Cats (2012)
And so we arrive at #1.
Looking back on this list, what I think each entry has in common is the way each reminded me of artistic potential. In November of last year, I hit a rut in comics and found it difficult to recover. I didn’t want to read anything. I couldn’t bring myself to. And then, finally, I made my way to Prince of Cats.
My experience of Prince of Cats is emblematic of the sensations inspired by everything in this list because Prince of Cats is the piece that woke me up. There’s this feeling you get after you read something so deliciously good, this sudden awareness that you’d been eating dirt before that moment, this total shock that you had no idea that what you were eating was dirt until you were shown the light. That’s what Prince of Cats was for me. A promise to myself–not to bother reading anything that didn’t make me feel the way reading that comic felt.
Critic (and aforementioned friend) Shea Hennum describes it as a détournement of Romeo and Juliet, which is exceptionally accurate. The comic centers its the story on Tybalt and shifts the setting to Harlem, populating the cast almost entirely with black and Latinx depictions and riffing off chambara aesthetics. Wimberly is beholden to the original play only insofar as it suits his purposes, his desired themes and narratives. The level of control is masterful, but more impressively, the themes are touched on so elegantly while still being really, really fun. It’s a fun book! But a heartbreaking one, even knowing how things will end for the young Prince of Cats.
The text, the images, everything is so rich. Every image is doing hefty thematic work, while moving along the action, the romance. It’s everything you can ask for in a piece of art. It does everything you can ask for. But for me, personally–it was a wake up call to demand more from myself, more from my art, and more the art of others. In this year and years to come.