Monday, 22 December 2014

The best comics and graphic novels of 2014

It bewilders me somewhat that 'best of' lists have become a point of contention in recent years- it seems like we're at a stage where we have to defend the making of a year end /best of list, or mark it with a litany of disclaimers: 'Subjective!' 'Not definitive!' 'I didn't read everything!'. I have to admit, I've never really thought too deeply about them- I mean- of course they're not definitive, of course they are subjective; who on earth could have read every comic published each year. Some people find the lists too mainstream, others point to the commercial aspect of them, but for me it's just a fun way to look back at the year, to consider and recognise some of the impressive work done, and bookmark potentially interesting things for further investigation. I enjoy reading them, I enjoy writing them. So, without further ado, below are what I consider the 20 best comics of 2014. My parameters for the list were simply that the comic had to be published in 2014; floppies, single issues, collections are all included here.

Titles of books are hyper-linked to artists or publishers store-fronts, and where applicable, I've linked to any reviews I've written of said book at the end of each entry (should you want to know more)- that's applicable to half the books here- it's been another bumper year in terms of the volume of releases, and the volume of good to very good releases. The list is not in an order of any kind- apart from the order in which it is in! If you'd like to comment on this, and discuss your own choices, you can do so here.

Polina by Bastien Vives, published by Jonathan Cape: The most criminally under-looked book this year, Polina released early in the year- January- and when you couple that with the fact that it's a French translation superficially about ballet, you may see some potential reasons people were perhaps put off. Vives is an outstanding talent, and he manages to make a formulaic bildungsroman narrative into an outstanding and affirming universal tale of the potential of life and its beauty. It's lifted by his exceptional art and superb figure work, lending the work both light and weight where needed. I think it's a testament that I read my review copy in December and it stayed with me over the 12 months to date- it was one of the first that came to mind when compiling this list. Seek it out. (Read the review)

Beautiful Darkness by Kerascoët and Fabien Vehlmann, published by Drawn & Quarterly: Since it's release in February, I have discussed Beautiful Darkness so often in reviews and articles, and seen it discussed, that I feel by now surely everyone knows how special this book is. It's rare that a text deserves all the praise or hype surrounding it, but Beautiful Darkness is that anomaly. Kerascoët's beautifully painted art blindsides the reader into confronting the juxtapositions between image and reality, nature and conformity, and the everyday choices we have to make, as a group of tiny beings fight for survival in the woods. (Read the review)

Here by Richard McGuire, published by Pantheon: I sometimes wonder which of the comics I read will stand the test of time, and a few decades down the line, be considered great. There's no way of telling, but if I were to put money on one, McGuire's Here would be it. A work truly set apart, its ambition is matched by execution and pay-off, at once personal and widely encompassing,  the history of a whole world is divulged by observing one small place in time. There are few comics that utilise the medium in such a way that they could not be told in any other way; Here is one of those. And if you think that's overly effusive, you should read the reviews and quotes its been generating.

This One Summer bu Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, published by First Second: This One Summer was notable in that it saw the remarkable Jillian Tamaki step up yet another staggering level of brilliance, to the envy and astonishment of all. Her lush, evocative, purple tones added to wistful achiness of Mariko Tamaki's perfectly pitched portrayal of two young girls on the opposite cusps of growing up. The accomplishment of taking what can be a very particular narrative, and making it appreciable on a wider scale was only emphasised by a parallel sub-plot reminding readers that adulthood is no guarantee of certainties of any kind.

Hilda and the Black Hound by Luke Pearson, published by Flying Eye Books: I think perhaps this year I learnt the meaning of 'all-ages' somewhat better: books that offer equally to readers of any and all ages, and this certainly qualifies, with bells on. Pearson's most accomplished Hilda book to date sees the blue-haired heroine take on the dual challenges of assimilating into a new neighbourhood and  looking into the appearance of the titular black hound- as well as a home-sprite without a home. There are few superlatives left that haven't already been cast in the Hilda series' direction: delightful, charming, individual, and increasingly wonderful to look at; I would say Perason's books are the kind I wished I had available when I was a child, bit I don't feel the slightest bit short-changed in being able to enjoy and appreciate them now. (Read the review)

Janus by Lala Albert, published by Breakdown Press: Nobody does alienation of self better than Albert: in both subject and literal depiction, and Janus is another eerie, compelling work in which her character chooses to wear a mask to alter the way she is perceived as well as the way she perceives herself, whilst exploring the paradoxes of being. The stark contrast provided between the blue, black, and white is beautiful and otherworldly; enmeshing the separate facets of clinical, submersion, and the unknown into one fluctuating stage. Her best work yet.

Sock Monkey Treasury by Tony Millionaire, published by Fantagraphics: Sock Monkey may be considered the more accessible of Millionaire's work, say- in comparison to Maakies, and yet it is perhaps the more accomplished in having to be more subtle and less obvious, less direct in its intentions and approach. It's astonishing, too, in that it marries an assortment of truly odd characters and influences with a wide range of topics: china dolls, a stuffed crow, a monkey made from a sock, who deal with murder and exploitation, suicide, and guilt, and responsibility- all while drawing richly from the often dark and strange undercurrent present in children's stories. Millionaire's illustrations are equally encompassing: from the beautifully coloured The Glass Doorknob reflecting the innocent wonderment of a new household addition, to the more heavily textured, prescient black and white intimating unease and dread.

How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis, published by Fantagraphics: Davis is one of those cartoonists who is talked about often as at the forefront of her medium, and as hyperbolic as such statements can be, this first collection of her work proves exactly why that's true. Her mastery over line, shape and colour is matched by the emotional intelligence imbued in them and the organic manner in which narrative and subject unfold; her work is an excellent example of how comics speak through the melding of pictures and words.  (Read the review)

Treasure Island 2 by Connor Willumsen, published by Breakdown Press: Willumsen is quietly doing something incredibly special with Treasure Island (and his work in general is exceptional); I picked up the first volume of this series after hearing very good things, and eagerly snapped up the second upon release. Where the first found scientist/explorer Joy tethered to the place where she's working, the second pulls the narrative in a whole other direction as we meet Joy's mother and brother- one of whom may be poisoning the other. Willumsen's fine lines coupled with the risograph printing give it a present yet otherworldly feel, reinforced by the madcap genius of the bonus dog strip at the end. Difficult to describe and encapsulate, but astoundingly impressive.

Missy 2 by Daryl Seitchik, published by Oily Comics: I read Darryl Seitchik's Missy comics at a point where I'd gone through a stack of books, none of which offended, but all of whom were forgotten as soon as they ended. Seitchik's diary collection of a growing young girl's entries into her 'Missy,' as she navigates her thoughts and relationships, pondering people's behaviours and her own reactions remains almost sweet in its curiosity and awareness even into adulthood. Seithcik's manipulation of layouts and semantics underlines that poignancy and depth. (Read the review)

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs, published by Koyama Press: Jacobs' tale of a newlywed couple eager to take in the sights and experiences of the first class safari for which they've signed up weaves man's separation, distrust, and exerted dominance over nature with slyly absurd humour and invasive body horror, as the brash confidence of the humans clashes with the unaware, overly naive jungle beings. But it's the art that elevates it into exceptional territory; appropriately lush, splendidly intricate sequences- each page gorgeously psychedelic with much to pore over.

Commuter by Kris Muka, self-published: Following Mukai's work has been a highlight this year, and this collection of strips around the dubious joys and challenges of travelling on public transport is all the more hilarious and recongisable for the accuracy with which it represents the peculiarity of commuter culture. Mukai's people drawing is simply some of the best around- her expressions, postures, and style characterful and engaging. The balance between comedy and a degree of brevity is the hardest to achieve, but it's perfectly done here. (Read the review)

Avengers #1, Marvel 100th anniversary special by James Stokoe, published by Marvel: Rumours of Stokoe working on a Marvel book were abound long before it was announced, and the hype, for a change, was able to match the comic subsequently produced. Looking into the possible  future of Marvel's A-team, Stokoe added some yellow, blue and red to his gradiented palette and it seemed like the magic increased further. It was everything you could want from a single-issue: accessible to all, beautifully composed, meticulously drawn, funny, affirming, rich with extra detail and touches, and not without a little heft. If he only produced 28 pages a year like this, I'd still be happy. (Read the review)

She Hulk by Javier Pulido, Charles Soule, Muntsa Vicente, Kevin Wada, Ronald Wimberley: I began reading She-Hulk with no expectations and it quickly became my go-to book for a fun, engaging read with lovely art. Everything seemed to come together- Wada's stunning, high-fashion covers, guest issues illustrated by Ron Wimberly, and Pullido's gorgeous, bold art, perfectly coloured by Vicente. For a first-time reader of the She-Hulk character, she was an immensley attractive character: humorous, no-bullshit, smart, and the ability to turn big and green when needed- something Soule used sparingly and wisely. The court showdown with Daredevil was a highlight, and in Alice and her monkey, Soule has created a side-character with a lot of intriguing potential. There should be a future for this series, but even if there isn't, it's been a run that will be remembered.

Nobrow 9 Os So Quiet by various, published by Nobrow: Nobrow release a volume of their flagship flip anthology of half comics/half illustration each year, and while it may not be the most experimental, its strength is derived from its delivery of solid excellence. The 'theme' for this edition was 'silence'- its interpretations and implications, and with contributions from Bianca Bagnarelli, Mikkel Sommer, Disa Wallander, Hellen Jo, and Kyla Vanderklught amongst others, the quality and conistency is indisputable. Pinks, -and purples especially- seemed to be the dominant colour-ways of the year, but few used it to as exquisite effect as shown by the array of work here. (Read the review)

Blacksad Amarillo by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, published by Dark Horse: I was looking forward to the new and fifth volume of Blacksad since it released in French and Spanish in December last year, and it didn't disappoint. The'change of tone provided by the 'road trip' storyline proved to be a shot in the arm, while Blacksad himself remained as familiar as ever (albeit a tad more mellow), this time managing to find trouble as he's tasked with the safe delivery of a car across country. Few can match the beauty of Guarnido's paintings,  or the utter brilliance of his anthropomorphic character work, which does so much to completely immerse the reader into Blacksad's world for a little while. (Read the review)

Internal Affairs: what is love? by Patrick Crotty, published by Peow! Studio: Peow Studio continue to release some of the freshest work within the medium; comics that genuinely excite the reader in terms of art and production, and remind you of what you loved about it in the first place. I was unexpectedly taken by the first installment of Crotty's adventures of an onion office intern last year, and this second book was even stronger in narrative and art- especially the art- in its ability to do so much with what appears to be so little: the half-tones, naive, incongruous scribbles and shapes, the spiky, collaged illustrations- it's a very singular language he's creating and it works tenfold here. (Read the review)

Diana by Ron Rege Jr, self-published:  This promptly sold out of its initial print run, so when a second printing was released, I didn't hesitate, despite it being a 28-page adaption of the Wonder Woman origin story- a character I've never really been able to connect with. Regé, manages to invigorate new life into the story, adding in historical context about the creators, intelligent commentary, as well as the mythic strands of its DNA. That freshness is mirrored in his crisp, Mucha-lite, linear style and it results in a fine comic that informs and captivates.

Demon by Jason Shiga, self-published: Along with The Short Con, Shiga's latest was the only other online comic that maintained an enthralling grip from update to  update: beginning with the suicide of its protagonist, only for the reader to return next week and find him miraculously alive once more. This cycle continued for a while, and the mystery surrounding this odd circumstance fit the episodic nature of updating web-comic very well. Things got more complicated, as the title began to impress its leanings on matters, Shiga being Shiga, mathematics came into the equation, too. Funny, crude, and as smart as hell.

The Absence by Martin Stiff, published by Titan: Stiff's tale of a man, already a pariah in his town, who leaves for war only to be the single soldier to return alive, horribly disfigured and still hated by all, is taut, intriguing, and maintains a grip on the attention throughout. It reads like a British prose novel in the tone and atmosphere he creates, veering into a host of genres and yet retains the ability to surprise. Stiff had been working on, and releasing the issues periodically and this year Titan collected them all into one dense and satisfying volume.