It’s hard to write anything timely without putting down the same words we’ve been hearing and seeing incessantly. Any reflection on this last year without mention of how truly awful it’s been is going to seem ungenuine. On the other hand, if you’re reading this, you lived through it just like I did; you don’t need me to say anything about it.
So let’s just go for it.
I present a group of titles (mostly standalone graphic novels) that came out in 2020 that I loved, and that may be worth spending some time with as we work towards something better. Support your local comic and book shops always; but right now, if any of these seem of interest to you, see if they have any of these, or if they can order them for you.
Also, as I finish this, many people in Texas are in a really rough position right now as a result of bad weather and bad governance. If you can, here are a couple of organizations that could use donations to help people people on the ground: Communities of Color United, and Black Trans Leadership of Austin.
There was a time when we lived right next to one of the busiest streets in town. It feels like an understatement to say we lived within walking distance of the grocery store, the 7-11, and the office supply store where I had worked for a year during college. It was hardly a walk at all. If we needed one more onion to make dinner, pints of ice cream or bags of gummy candy to sate cravings, or resumes printed, we could get what we needed in the space of only a few minutes. Sometimes I miss it.
I wish I could remember exactly what it was we were at the office supply store for that day: someone needed the right pen for a drawing, a specific kind of battery, or maybe they needed to print a clean Dungeons & Dragons character sheet. It was almost certainly a small, immediate need. But I was there for company, since it was always worth it to come with–we were always making fun out of nothing on the way and in the aisles when we got there.
Having spent a number of long, dull hours at this particular office supply store, I knew it was always worth passing my eyes over the clearance section. Occasionally, you could find a solid pair of headphones or a sturdy new notebook for a pittance. There wasn’t much of interest there that day, which is perhaps why I was so attracted to the thing I did pick up.
My name is A.J. Kazlouski, and I love comics. In 2019, I read plenty of them.
But not all of them, or even all of the ones I’ve purchased.
I manage Time Warp Comics and Games in Boulder, Colorado, and nearly every day I get to hear about quality comics that I won’t be able to make room for. This doesn’t even account for webcomics, which I used to read voraciously, but nowadays can’t keep up with.
All this being so, I won’t tell you that these five comics are THE BEST OF 2019, but I will say that I love and recommend them, and that they all happened to have come out or start between January 1st and December 31st, 2019. Even if I get caught up on my stack of new books in the coming weeks and find some new hits in there, I’ll be happy to have spoken to the achievements and quality of these titles. I encourage you to check them out with the assistance of your local comic shop, book store, or library.
Written by Ezra Claytan Daniels, art by Ben Passmore, published by Fantagraphics
I was stunned by this book. You can ask anyone who was nearby around the time when I had finished it–I thought frequently and loudly about BTTM FDRS for days. This is the impact of good horror: I’d lean against our kitchen counter and lose track of time talking about its nuanced narrative that grapples with class, authenticity, friendship, dating, the act of creation, and gentrification; all the while, BTTM FDRS remained an enjoyable and compelling read.
Having been a fan of Ben Passmore’s work thanks to his excellent Silver Sprocket-published books Your Black Friend and the quarterly Daygloayhole, I was ready to pick up BTTM FDRS on the strength of his name alone. Shamefully, I haven’t read any of Ezra Claytan Daniels’s other work, but I’m certainly going to fix that.
Darla, BTTM FDRS’s main character, graduates from art school and moves into an old building on the south side of Chicago, to start her career as a fashion designer. The building, newly remodeled for apartments, is the stage for the instances of shocking body horror and surveillance that bring Darla to uncover the secrets that live within the building’s walls. I won’t spoil anything more.
The pages in BTTM FDRS are wider than they are tall, which allows Passmore to create long panels can leave characters small at the edge of a quiet, unfurnished room, or large square panels that are tight on characters’ expressive faces. The importance of Passmore’s lettering can’t be discounted, either, helping sell a ringing phone in a dark room, or a heavy hammer against a metal wall. Daniels’s dialogue is smart, letting the thematic underpinnings of the book live within the conversations between the characters, who each have a distinct voice. BTTM FDRS finds opportunity for some good jokes, too, which are just as well-crafted as the horror.
I have purposefully not numbered the five books on this list, but I knowingly opened it with BTTM FDRS. This book deserves attention.
(Full disclosure: during a tour, Daniels and Passmore visited Time Warp in late 2018 to do a talk about their individual work and the upcoming BTTM FDRS. However, this was on one of my days off and I was too busy to go. I wish I cancelled my plans and went to that talk instead.)
INVITATION FROM A CRAB
By panpanya, published by Denpa
Every month, I look through the new edition of the Previews catalog that Diamond Comics Distributors produces, which tells retailers and consumers what’s going to come out in a couple of months. I do this, in part, as a kind of homework–what I glean from Previews often comes in handy at work. However, I’m mostly combing through the pages of these phonebook-sized things to make sure I order books like Invitation From A Crab, which otherwise I would likely never hear about.
The solicitation text for Invitation From A Crab reads as follows:
If you are ever fortunate enough to see a crab strolling through your neighborhood, please follow its lead. By slowing down to a crab’s pace and looking around and about in this world, you too may discover life’s many mysteries that are hidden in plain sight. This English-language debut from artist panpanya collects eighteen short stories detailing the comicical, creepy and whimsical world of Japan’s indie comic scene.
A few months later, in early January 2019, I took Invitation From A Crab home, and read, in its inside front cover, a definition of the word, “Crab.” In the inside back cover, I read about panpanya, who had debuted in the world of comics ten years before, and is, “An increasingly regular feature on award lists.”
I often think about how nice it would be to have the ability to read everything that interests me even a little. This is obviously ridiculous–I need to eat, sleep, and go to work so I can afford to eat and sleep and read in my apartment. But knowing that work like panpanya’s, even when decorated with accolades, may not even be available in the language that I comprehend, reminds me that there is no shortage of good comics that I wouldn’t be able to read even if I did have all the time to do so.
Invitation From A Crab is beautiful and strange, funny and sad. Composed of a series of short stories, with a shared protagonist among them, this character is an unnamed, simply-rendered, cartoon person who is sometimes going to work, sometimes going to school, and sometimes at home, sitting with a dolphin who is calculating a complex math problem over a period of eight years.
Each story in the book is punctuated with a surreal, yet mundane, sincerity. One of these, titled “Incomprehensible Memories,” involves a series of gifts given to our main character by their grandmother. As a child, these gifts are simple, bouncy super balls and noisy clackers, but eventually they become increasingly bizarre and indecipherable toys, which our protagonist imagines morphing into a huge, octopus-shaped robot with an unpronounceable name. After grandmother passes away, our protagonist discovers, among an assortment of other strange toys, a letter addressed to them that they cannot read–grandma’s calligraphy is too complicated. Another, titled “Hell,” is heavy with watercolor shadows, showing our character walking out of their train and facing an escalator of dolphin-faced strangers, all of whom are crying. The protagonist frets, wondering what’s happened as they pass in the opposite direction–only to discover that someone on the opposite end of the train station is cutting onions in a demonstration of a vegetable slicer. Other stories detail the struggle of a menial job, which is in the service of providing energy for someone else’s menial job, or about putting so much effort into planning the perfect day off that one manages to miss the whole thing.
If Denpa is listening, I would like very much to see them publish more English editions of comics by panpanya. The combination of simple character drawings with complex background details is an extremely appealing art style for work that hinges on the mix between the everyday and the absurd. Invitation From A Crab is an easy favorite.
SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN
Written by Matt Fraction, pencils and inks by Steve Lieber, colors by Nathan Fairbairn, letters by Clayton Cowles, main covers by Steve Lieber, published by DC
I’m not a big-time DC reader, but I make sure to catch work by creators I like. In 2020, I’m looking forward to reading Amethyst by Amy Reeder, and seeing Ramon Villalobos’s art on WildCATS. In 2019, DC announced that they were setting up an excellent creative team in Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, Nathan Fairbairn, and Clayton Cowles for Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. The book has yet to finish up (it’ll be twelve issues total; we’re about halfway through at the time of this writing), but I’m still happy to make space for it here on the list.
The chief mystery in Jimmy Olsen is the question of who is causing trouble for Superman’s hijinks-prone friend. We first find Jimmy attempting a big stunt for charity: a jump to earth from space without a parachute, aided by an injection of special stem cells–which, mysteriously, turn Jimmy, temporarily, into a huge turtle, headed right for the center of Metropolis.
The book is chiefly hilarious with its exploration of Jimmy’s myriad unusual adventures, but it also manages to explore Metropolis history through the deep roots of the Olsen and Luthor families, to be genuinely sweet, and formally daring. This is no surprise coming from Matt Fraction, whose run on Hawkeye is beloved for being funny, touching, and inventive, or from Steve Lieber, whose sense of timing and general ability to sell a joke with his art made Superior Foes of Spider-Man one of my all-time favorites.
Each issue is made of a bunch of separate parts: glimpses into the past as the great-great-etc. grandfathers of both Jimmy and Lex Luthor squabble over the land that will someday become Metropolis, today’s squabbles between Jimmy’s brother and Lex over a monument that the former wants to save and the latter wants to tear down (despite his own family raising it), Jimmy’s antics that repeatedly cause trouble, property damage, and revenue spikes for the Daily Planet, the various figures in Jimmy’s life who come to harm in strange ways… and so on. The book makes a great deal of fun messing with its timeline, so we’re right alongside Jimmy as he swings around the strings of his own “crazy board” trying to get to the bottom of who is trying to kill him.
At one point, Jimmy is commanded to wind down and make stories that don’t raise the Daily Planet’s insurance premiums. With this, Jimmy invites Superman around for an interview where Supes can reveal his “secret powers” to the world, which involve, in part, Superman’s ability to do card tricks, but only poorly. Jimmy feels a little remorseful that he’s taking his city’s hero away from more important work, but Superman reassures him: “Some nights, Jim? Horsing around with you is the only fun I get to have.” This, in addition to some truly delightful scenes involving everyone’s favorite grim, bat-themed detective, make for a softer, warmer image of DC’s world, even in the eye of Jimmy’s continual storm.
Jimmy Olsen is a comic that I was excited to read from the moment I saw its announcement, and that excitement thrives as I see its mysteries and history unfold while each page lovingly lampoons DC’s past and present. As I said, I’m not a big-time DC reader–I’m not as attached to its grand mythology as many of my coworkers or the regulars at my job are. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen reminds me that I still have that attachment nonetheless.
Written by G. Willow Wilson, art and main covers by Christian Ward, published by Dark Horse
Invisible Kingdom is a gorgeous and captivating sci-fi title brought to life by the combined efforts of two wonderful creators–Time Warp’s hometown hero and Kamala Khan co-creator G. Willow Wilson, and the unquestionably talented artist Christian Ward.
The twin engines of Invisible Kingdom’s narrative are its two main characters: Grix, the commander of a freight ship for Lux, ostensibly a super-powerful Space Amazon, and Vess, a newly initiated “None” of a religion known as the Renunciation. Grix is temporarily stranded with her crew as a result of Lux’s negligence–not providing a replacement for a faulty coolant system–and during the stop, she finds that the crew’s current shipment is a collection of empty boxes. Her and her crew’s efforts in this mission are meant only to cover for a massive transfer of funds to the Renunciation.
Vess, meanwhile, has made a pilgrimage to the Renunciation’s monastery after countless miles of travel on foot, all the while blindfolded, fasting, and relying on the kindness of others. Upon the relief of her arrival, Vess is trusted to be the Renunciation’s bookkeeper. In this, she also discovers her church’s monetary connection to Lux. Grix wants to keep her crew safe and paid, and Vess wants to keep her faith. How these two characters meet, and what they do with the information they’ve uncovered creates the opening arc of Invisible Kingdom.
This book is a continued delight, with Wilson’s excellent dialogue, and Ward’s beautiful pages, full of wonderful colors and character designs. It’s been easy to recommend Invisible Kingdom when I can open the book up and show how immediately striking it is to look at. Vess walks through a busy city, dense with posters for Lux and people who aren’t always willing to help her along. Grix’s ship flies through a deep space that’s never a flat, boring, stars-on-black background–it’s dense with blues and purples and pink planets with big, white Saturn rings.
Invisible Kingdom is ongoing, with no presently set schedule for ending, unlike the prior single-volume or limited run entries on this list. I hope we get plenty of Invisible Kingdom, because I’m happy to open up each issue. It has already managed to say a great deal about consumerism, faith, and the burden of terrible knowledge, and I look forward to what it says next.
Written by Kyle Starks, art and covers by Erica Henderson, letters by Deron Bennett, published by Image
I value humor, and I imagine this list gives that impression. Jimmy Olsen and Assassin Nation are on this list for similar reasons–they are excellent comedies that come from dream team creators. .
I adored Kyle Starks’s 2017 title Rock Candy Mountain, a comic full of great characters, jokes, and fights. I adored Erica Henderson’s time doing the art for Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, a comic full of great characters, jokes, and fights. These two books aren’t similar, per se, but they have in common an earnest and sweet center despite their genuinely silly premises.
I wasn’t shocked to find that I adored Assassin Nation for its great characters, jokes, and fights.
Assassin Nation begins with Rankin, the (former) biggest, baddest, highest-ranked assassin in the world asking the current crop of certified crooks to be his bodyguards. Maxwell Bishop, the now-retired widow who dethroned Rankin from the #1 spot years before, also accepts the invitation–but he’s only involved to take revenge upon the one who killed his husband, who Maxwell is certain is in the room.
No real spoilers here, but some of these assassins do not survive the first issue. It turns out, getting this many deranged, unhinged weirdos in one place creates some tension.
Let me be clear here–I laughed loudly and often at this book. There is a great deal of care in Assassin Nation for its (primarily) awful characters, and it pays off splendidly. Snappy dialogue, striking character designs, and well-rendered and well-paced action make for a fantastic first issue, and that momentum carries through the following four issues. Truths are revealed, dangerous games are played, and more characters die.
This is where Assassin Nation manages to pull off something unexpected–for a comedy that makes light of death, some of these deaths hurt. One assassin loses a sibling, and we watch their attitude change completely as they focus solely, blindingly, on revenge. Wistful Stan, a top ten assassin who’s only on the list as a result of a high number of nursing home mercy killings, finds a drone missile falling directly towards him. As it falls, the page flashes back to Stan’s first kill, which had prior been a secret–we know only that he thought about it all the time. This character doesn’t last long, but it’s a shock how much this creative team made me feel awful disappointment so quickly.
From the ending pages of the fifth issue of Assassin Nation, it seems uncertain if a second volume of this title is coming. Not for lack of possibility–the first volume has a satisfying end, but it also immediately sets up for what could happen next. I really hope it happens. Starks and Henderson have made a really special mess here, and I would love to see it get even crazier.
Dave and Fuck Tarington best buds for life.
With this, I present Abandoned Rocketship, the new iteration of a blog that I started in high school, in the late ’00s. For any of you who remember anything I did back then, thanks for hanging around. For anyone else, thanks for reading, and I’ll try my best to have more here for you as soon as I can.