Thanks for checking in. It’s 2021 now.
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.
The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen
You can see a few pages of art from the book here: http://www.trungles.com/the-magic-fish
Trung Le Nguyen is an incredibly skilled artist. Following him on Twitter made this clear, and reading his contributions to the fourth issue of the Image comic series Twisted Romance convinced me of his ability to carry a story. Written by Alex De Campi, Twisted Romance was an anthology series of unusual romance stories, and the fourth issue featured Nguyen taking full advantage of the beauty and wonder invoked by classic fantasy fairy tales–a big dragon and a princess and the burdens of growing up. The Magic Fish, Nguyen’s full-length graphic novel debut, has everything that his Twisted Romance story had and more. Not only is The Magic Fish full of fabulously rendered, lovingly told fairy tales, but it’s also a tender coming-out and coming-of-age story, closely connected with an immigrant story. It’s sad and sweet and gentle and I start this list with it because it’s an easy recommendation. The only sort of person I wouldn’t recommend it to is probably the sort of person I wouldn’t want to talk to about comics anyway.
Tiến is a young man who loves sharing fairy tale stories with his mother Hiến, who started reading them as a method for practicing her English skills. However, the practice stuck–and these stories thread their way through the book as Tiến navigates the complicated position he finds himself in. He has a crush on his longtime friend Julian, but doesn’t know how or if to tell him. He’s in no hurry to confess, but has been working actively towards coming out to his parents–but he doesn’t know the words in Vietnamese and can’t find them in the pre-internet era the comic is set in.
I don’t want to give much more than that away. The fairy tale stories compliment Tiến’s and also Hiến’s stories wonderfully, with their various themes of transformation, secrets, romance, familial tension, and generational divides. The whole book is delivered with Nguyen’s art style–limited color palettes, incredible linework (featuring his beloved “spaghetti hair”–when you see it, you know it and love it), expressive characters, and excellently designed page layouts. I know for certain there will be kids who read this book and feel seen, and for that alone I’m glad this book exists–that it is beautiful and well-made is a huge bonus.
Maids by Katie Skelly
You can see a few pages of the book here: http://www.katieskellycomics.com/maids
Maids, much like the 2019 movie Parasite, has been kicking around in my head ever since I let it in. Maids is a loose telling of the true story of the Papin sisters, which may have been a point of inspiration for Parasite. I bring the movie up because it and Maids make for complimentary pieces with similar but different themes of class struggle, and the need to release the tension built up in the midst of that struggle.
Lea and Christine have fun and make minor mischief while working at every whim of their cruel employer, madame Lancelin. Meanwhile, the madame’s daughter, Genevieve, is due to be married to a man who happens to have no qualms about speaking suggestively to the maids. While we aren’t encouraged to have much sympathy for Genevieve, who also treats Lea and Christine with a dearth of basic respect and consideration, we understand the impacts of misogyny upon her life, too. However, the multi-headed cruelties inflicted upon the sisters by misogyny and class struggle are so obviously worse that we understand exactly the pressures on the sisters–those which made them destroy the immediate source of that pressure.
The rich are getting richer all the time on the backs of the poor. Maids is in part about this, and also about finding solace in your family. And also murdering your boss.
Katie Skelly also contributed to Twisted Romance with a sexy and strange vampire story, and I really enjoyed her psychedelic sci-fi graphic novel Nurse Nurse. Skelly’s penciling style is almost the opposite of Nguyen’s–instead of lush details, Skelly’s cartooning is about delivering its emotional beats with only exactly what is necessary, and it helps make Maids a quick and biting read.
Just a small warning here: Maids, as you can imagine, features a non-zero amount of blood, as well as some violence against animals, a loose eyeball here and there, and a maggot being placed gently onto a cake. Given Skelly’s art style, I found all of this easy to stomach (and eyeball stuff in particular usually messes me up something fierce), but nonetheless I mention all of this as a courtesy.
Chainsaw Man by Tatsuki Fujimoto
You can see a preview of the first volume here: https://www.viz.com/read/manga/chainsaw-man-volume-1/product/6419
I go from one book where I am comfortable with putting a content warning at the end, to one where I have to start out with one.
Chainsaw Man is full of blood, gore, vomit, horniness, nightmarish demons, a couple of bad dates, careless treatment of cooked vegetables, zombies, beloved character deaths, a guy with a chainsaw for a head riding a devil shark, and much more. I think it’s a much smarter comic than it appears, but I also know that it won’t be for everyone. Results may vary, but I bring it here because I truly love it and have had trouble shutting up about it.
Chainsaw Man is about a teenage boy named Denji, who is under a staggering quantity of mafia debt inherited from his late father. Denji has been trying to pay this debt by selling off his less-important body parts and organs, but the real money comes from doing odd jobs with the assistance of his best and only friend, the chainsaw/dog/devil hybrid, Pochita. The best of these off jobs are the ones where Denji is to hunt and kill the devils that terrorise the world. This is all established in the very first chapter of this manga, and then things get better, worse, funnier, and stranger.
Despite all the grime, Chainsaw Man actually has all the classic, wholesome shonen manga themes–that growing up and learning is hard, but the power of friendship and found family makes it easier. It has a broad cast of loveable weirdos with different skill sets, and stubborn perseverance is the key to taking on an evil bigger than oneself.
However, Chainsaw Man is done with so much style, humor, and abandon that even in its most traditional, it still works. It balances its bizarre, lushly-rendered fight scenes with its quiet, surprisingly touching moments–these are jabs and crosses in nonstop consecutive punches to the chest. It’s a wonderful comic to binge read, and I think it rewards rereading, too. At present, the title is on hiatus after a splendid, bittersweet conclusion to its first major story arc. I really can’t wait to see what’s next, and I hope that its upcoming anime adaptation helps it get even more attention that it rightly deserves.
A Gift For A Ghost by Borja González
You can see an excerpt of the book here: http://www.tcj.com/excerpt-a-gift-for-a-ghost/
If this list hasn’t already made this obvious, I’m always a sucker for a coming-of-age story. Borja González’s A Gift For A Ghost is unique in that it is two separate coming-of-age stories separated by the greater part of two hundred years.
In 1856, a debutante named Teresa is approaching her debut, and Teresa’s mother applies a great deal of pressure on her to make the occasion an impressive one. However, instead of pretty piano playing and reciting sweet poems, Teresa is a lot more interested in writing poems about her own 19th century version of Ghost Rider and making silly horror puppet theater with her little sister.
In 2016, Laura starts a punk band with her friends Cristina and Gloria called The Black Holes. They practice a little bit, eat ice cream, and go swimming. Laura only wants to write songs about worms and things she learned from Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan. She also doesn’t want to dress in anything but fairy princess dresses and kaiju costumes.
The stories of these two young women intersect and leave an opportunity for the two, in some way, to commiserate about how difficult it is to be a young weirdo. González provides lovely artwork for this, with heavy shadows, vibrant, flat colors with limited palettes, and well-detailed spaces that ground our characters in the places where they learn a lot about themselves very quickly. The characters are emotive, despite them all being rendered without facial details. Small panels will deliver subtle humor, and full-page illustration pages deliver quiet, vast angst. It’s an easy book to read quickly, but I recommend taking your time with it, the way you would one of those endless teenage summer afternoons.
I don’t have a ton of experience with González’s work, mostly because A Gift For A Ghost is his first long-form work, and his short story La Reina Orquidea doesn’t seem to have been translated into English. But I hope I’ll be able to read what he has coming next, because this is a marvelous and creative debut that subtly but unmistakably conveys the emotional depths of its players.
A Map To The Sun by Sloane Leong
You can see an excerpt of the book here: https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250146687
Not to conform to stereotypes any more than I usually do, but this big-time comic book fan is not especially invested in sports. I’m not a hater, I absolutely think sports are valuable, I just don’t have the time to invest in paying any attention to them. But I try to make time to enjoy comics about sports.
The basic structures of serialized comics and organized sports are suited for each other. There are countless sports manga titles, although outside of Japan it seems like long-running sports titles don’t have the marketability to stick around. However, Sloane Leong’s A Map To The Sun is more than enough proof that we need more stateside books that use sports to anchor their stories. I adored Leong’s shamefully short-lived series Prism Stalker, a sci-fi biopunk story that had wild colors and body horror in spades (thankfully, Prism Stalker is set to come back in the future with a new publisher and a new format, so look out for that). In A Map To The Sun, Leong shows off in a completely different context, in a down-to-earth story about a high school girls’ basketball team, and the lives of the team’s five players and their coach.
Ren is a skilled basketball player with a healthy relationship with her dad. However, her troubled older sister comes back into their lives, and nothing gets easier as a result. Luna is an outgoing and confident old friend of Ren’s, but after a long absence between the two a gap has opened up, and Luna can’t make sense of it. Nell’s working to improve her abilities as a basketball player for herself and the team, but she has to suffer the cruelties of her fellow students and the casual and caustic attitudes of her brothers. Sometimes it gets to her. Jetta has an awful dad and awful secrets she isn’t sharing with her friends. So-Young is less sociable than her mean little sister Na-Young, and content with going home and living a separate life online. Na-Young pesters So-Young into taking her to a party, which puts the tall So-Young in the eyeline of a drunken Luna who is looking to recruit for the team. Their coach, Marisol, is learning on the job while managing a thin budget and a culture that actively demeans women’s sports. These are all rich characters, and I couldn’t help but cheer their successes and feel crushed when they find reason to fight with each other.
Leong renders these characters with dynamic neon color palettes and in some incredible page layouts. A remarkable action page is paneled like the layout of a basketball court, with four half-moon panels and two big hourglass ones. There was a great deal of care put into this book, and that’s clear on every page.
Just to be clear, A Map To The Sun has depictions of familial verbal abuse and implied physical abuse between a couple. In addition, there are also instances of self harm, underage drinking and some discussion of other substance abuse, bullying about appearance and weight, and a physical relationship between a high school teacher and one of their students. None of this is included for cheap shock value, nor glorified. I didn’t find any of this content too difficult to read myself, but, of course, that may not be the case for you.
Here I’m going to say a few words about a trio of other books that, frankly, deserve as much attention and recognition as all the others in this piece, but I don’t want to make this too much longer. I would simply feel awful not shouting them out.
DC has been putting out lots of YA fiction-influenced, standalone graphic novels lately–almost certainly out of a desire to make sure the kids like DC characters into the future and to try and get some of that Scholastic/Graphix money. Swamp Thing: Twin Branches is a beautiful book that came out of these efforts. I picked this book up specifically because of Morgan Beem providing artwork. Beem is a Denver-area artist who I was a fan of even before she donated some original comic art pages to Time Warp (the comic shop where I work) to help us pay bills in the midst of the pandemic. Her art was finished in Twin Branches with colors by another Denver-area artist, Jeremy Lawson. Usually Beem’s art is adorned with her own beautiful watercolors, but Lawson did an excellent job with this book, providing deep shadows in teenage house parties and vibrant greens for the various pieces of plant life that are central to the book. Twin Branches is a sensitive and dramatic story about twin brothers Alec and Walker who can’t help but grow apart as they are moved swiftly and unexpectedly to a new place. I’m not familiar with any of Maggie Stiefvater’s other work (she’s a bestselling fantasy novelist), but she and the artists on Twin Branches made something special in this book. Alec manages type one diabetes, and this inclusion is welcome. It reminds me of an old friend from high school who was always heartened by seeing her condition being represented in media this way. By the way, I know very little about Swamp Thing as a character and had no trouble following this one–no prior knowledge required.
I am fond of both Alex de Campi’s writing (the aforementioned Twisted Romance, and I would read a hundred more issues of Semiautomagic if there were that many), and Erica Henderson’s artwork (Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is easily one of my favorite superhero comics ever, and I wrote about Assassin Nation in my 2019 list). The two teamed up for Dracula, Motherfucker! in 2020, and it doesn’t disappoint. This book is a heavy-shadowed pulp revenge story set in 1970s Los Angeles and also a twist on the mythology from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Each page of this book is killer, and I saw from de Campi’s Twitter feed that it’s going back into a new printing after selling out. This success is deserved, and I hope de Campi and Henderston find occasion to team up again.
2019’s BTTM FDRS was probably my favorite comic of that year, due in no small part to Ben Passmore’s contributions as the artist on it. In 2020, Passmore followed up this book with Sports Is Hell, which is a venomous and funny comic about many things all at once, including Philadelphia-flavored football culture, but more specifically about violence and who is allowed to perpetrate it, how worthless and flimsy white, neoliberal posturing is, and the failures of low-effort, performative protest. I haven’t read a comic by Passmore that I haven’t loved and haven’t spent time thinking about. Check out his short political comics on The Nib, too.
Thanks for reading. I intended to have this up earlier in 2021, but working is hard, especially right now. After work, having the energy to do anything other than scroll through Twitter and worry is hard. After that, (shockingly!) it’s hard to go to sleep, and then the next day at work is even harder. Despite that, I managed to turn on my computer enough times to get this typed out, and I’m going to be proud of that. Do your best, make all the noise you can. Maybe read some comics–that always does me a lot of good.