It’s been a strange year, in many ways. And one such way is that it has upended how a lot of entertainment has been consumed. The most obvious change this year has been with film, where the experience of going to the cinema has largely given way to watching stuff at home on streaming services or after purchasing from iTunes. But even with comics there has been changes, with me barely getting out to the comic shop this year, instead getting stuff sent to me by mail at my LCS. And as such I’ve shifted a bit in my reading tastes, becoming less connected to the weekly new comics haul (since even my new releases arrive at a slight delay with shipping) and inclined more towards catching up on older stuff and reading OGNs/collections. But with being at home for so much of the year, I’ve still managed to read A LOT of stuff.
A regular reminder that my qualifier for eligibility is that the comic is either a graphic novel released in its entirety this year, a foreign language work released in English for the first time this year, or if it’s an ongoing/limited series, that at least 3 issues were released this year. For 2020 in particular, that’s disqualified quite a few things, as it feels we had some major players like Sea of Sorrows and Home Sick Pilots only have one issue out at the time of writing this list. But they’ll be books to watch out for in next year’s rankings to be sure!
Much has been made of the format of Pulp, the Western/noir mashup from the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Long champions of the single issue format, their choice to lean into the OGN model sparked much chat about this increasingly being the future for comics. But aside from that discourse, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the comic contained within these hardcover pages is great. A story about a former Wild West outlaw, now an old man living in1930s New York struggling as a writer, selling pulp story reworkings of his own life and experiences, it’s another pristine exploration of pained humanity and bad decisions that this team does so well. I’ve not read Reckless yet, though, saving that for Christmas, and that might knock this out of the list!
This was an early lockdown standout for me. It seems buzz on this was quite quiet during its initial single issue run, but particularly on the build-up to the release of the Volume 1 collection, it started picking up more buzz and momentum. And with good reason. It’s a smart new spin on vampire lore, using a vampire narrative as a prism through which to interrogate heirarchies of class and race. And Jason Shawn Alexander’s art is just next level good, be it in the immersive, intimate detail of the human characters or in depictions of the vampires that are proper frightening and monstrous. I can’t wait to read the second volume, and am a little sad I have to wait until 2021 for it!
8. WICKED THINGS
Giant Days has become one of my all-time favourite comics. But I was always behind the curve on that series, reading it in collected volumes. I still have the last volume to read, actually. And so with Wicked Things, the new miniseries from John Allison and Max Sarin, set in the same universe and seeing the supporting character of improbable child detective Charlotte Grote spinning off into her own yarn, I wanted to be right in at the ground floor with the single issues. As it happens, my biggest disappointment with this comic is that it IS a miniseries, as I already feel like I could happily read 40+ issues of Charlotte’s adventures, digging deeper into the quirky world of celebrity detective culture that this series opens up. It has that Giant Days comedy brilliance, but Allison and Sarin also do a great job of setting up genuine stakes and peril to up the ante of the drama.
I’ve talked before about this top notch Appalachian horror from Alex Paknadel, Nil Vendrell, Giulia Brusco, Ryan Ferrier and James Maddox feels like a thematic cousin to Mountainhead. Developed separately and simultaneously, but with many similar ideas and plot turns, and then you factor in the fact that in both cases it’s writers from the UK looking in from outside to comment on strangeness in the American (or, in my case, Canadian) heartland. But where Redfork really excels is in how it brings this community to life, digs into the factors that have blighted the place and the people within it, doing what a lot of the best horror these days does by getting to the monstrous stuff from the angle of real life darkness that’s relevant to the lived experience of many. Alex has had a strong couple of years with the output he’s been delivering, but this may be his best work yet.
By this point I believe I am well established as a fan of Daredevil, but I’ll admit that following the conclusion of the seminal Waid/Samnee run, I drifted away from the comics. But this run from Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checcetto, among other artists, has brought me right back, emerging as arguably the best title Marvel is currently producing. It was already noteworthy last year, where I remarked on how it was a series being slept on. But one year down the line and that is even more the case, as the story has gone from strength to strength, with Zdarsky giving us some compelling exploration of what’s going on inside Matt Murdock’s head, as well as prime fodder for The Kingpin and other members of the supporting cast. I feel it’s starting to get more recognition now, but here’s hoping that 2021 is the year where even more of us acknowledge how consistently great this run has been.
5. UNDONE BY BLOOD
In many ways, Undone By Blood works as a nice double-bill with Pulp, which featured earlier on the list. Both are comics that play with a two-pronged narrative, one featuring an old hard-boiled Wild West tale, with another presenting a harsher reality at a later point in the 20th Century. In this case, the latter-day strand is set in the 1970s, and the connective tissue of the two threads is that the protagonist of the 1970s arc (Ethel Grady Lane, an instantly compelling character) is reading the Wild West story as a novel, which we experience in both comic and prose form. And given how great Pulp was, it’s not lightly that I say that Undone By Blood is the superior of the two. The all-star creative team of Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Sami Kivela, Jason Wordie and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou are firing on all cylinders here. Sami’s work has never been more beautiful and evocative. Zac and Lonnie display a master of wordsmanship in those prose entries that makes me feel like I ought to pack in this whole writing lark as clearly I’m an amateur. This comic pulls off the trick of making me love both storylines equally, where whenever we cut to one, I’m anxious to get back to the other, while still being gripped by what I’m reading. Quite possibly AfterShock’s best ever comic.
4. BLUE IN GREEN
I’m at a disadvantage in talking about Blue in Green here, as having already talked at length about the comic when writing about the work of Ram V, I don’t know how many more ways I have left to say that it’s brilliant and essential reading. Back when I first heard about the release of a new comic from the creative team of Grafity’s Wall, a horror comic at that, this became my “event comic” of 2020. It certainly delivered on expectations. Frightening, and not in the way you might expect, getting under your skin and giving voice to the unspoken anxieties and insecurities you have buried deep down (or that I have, at least). In fact, though the plots are completely different, in a lot of ways Blue in Green felt like a fitting comics medium companion piece to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in the particular bad vibes it evoked. The whole creative team shines, here, with Ram V giving us some immaculate writing and some of the most resonant internal monologue I’ve seen in a comic in forever, Anand RK displaying a whole new facet of his talents with a breakout performance and some of the most distinctive visuals of the year, and Aditya Bidikar flexing his muscles with a masterclass in just how creative a force in a comic the letterer can be when it comes to shaping mood. A haunting comic that lingers long after you’re done reading.
3. VENUS IN THE BLIND SPOT
I initially wasn’t sure about including this one, These are mostly old Junji Ito stories, including a couple which I have read previously through unofficial translations. But this is their first time collected in this volume, the first time officially translated into English for most of them, and with new color pages and elements to make this collection a new, distinct product from Viz. Contained in these pages are some of the greatest Junji Ito short stories ever, including Enigma of Amigara Fault, The Human Chair, Billions Alone (formerly known as the catchier Army of One) and The Licking Woman. All intensely disturbing tales with truly horrifying imagery that will stay in your brain. But possibly what I enjoyed most in this collection was a story that’s not scary at all, an autobiographical comic called Master Umezz and Me, chronicling Junji Ito’s lifelong love for the work of mangaka Kazuo Umezz. Here, we get so much insight into Junji Ito himself, as well as some nice commentary on the appeal of horror and chasing entertainment that scares us.
2. THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH
This comic kicked my ass. Built on a killer premise – what if we live in a world where things become more true the more that people believe in them, and that thus in this age of conspiracy theory reality is in greater danger than ever before? – the execution is even more frightening and compelling than you’d imagine. The first issue was a pristine establishment of the concept, but then each subsequent issue has hit like a haymaker, shining a light on something that makes me angry or upset then making me afraid of it too. James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds and Aditya Bidikar have gifted us with a comic that feels truly essential, where every chapter is a must-read and something you immediately want to talk to people about. If anything, even though it’s clocking in at #2, if anything this could be underrating it. And that’s because, at just three issues in, this series is just getting rolling. And if it keeps on going at this level of quality and building momentum as it continues to unfold, this could ultimately emerge as one of the great comics of this era. It already has that vibe of something really special about it. We’ll see where things go next year!
1. SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN
This comic ranked very respectably last year based just on the first few issues. And then, after that, I let the issues build up in my to-read pile, me buying them without actually getting round to reading them. Eventually, I had a little stack piled up and decided to do a catch-up one nice, sunny day. I blasted through them, and the reminder of just how fantastic this series is hit me like a mack truck. This might be my favourite Superman-related thing in any medium I’ve experience since All Star Superman. Jimmy Olsen is my favourite superhero of 2020. I love Steve Lieber’s fresh, modern take on the character (while still capturing some of the traditional quirks), while writer Matt Fraction manages to make him goofy and likeable and still the kind of exciting adventurer that Superman would want to be his pal. The comic is laugh-out-loud hilarious, with each issue containing at least a couple of guffaw moments, but that shouldn’t distract from how intricately plotted this all is, too. I bought the whole thing in single issues, but I’ll confess: I bought the graphic novel as a gift for a friend, and part of me wanted to clutch on it myself, just to have it in my bookcase. Because perhaps more than anything in the last several years, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen feels like it could become an all-time canon great book for DC, something they ought to keep in perpetual rotation.As always, here’s the annual tally of the best-of-the-year winners, from 2010 through to now…
- 2010: Scalped
- 2011: Scalped
- 2012: The Underwater Welder
- 2013: The Manhattan Projects
- 2014: Southern Bastards
- 2015: Southern Bastards
- 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon
- 2017: Batman
- 2018: The Immortal Hulk
- 2019: House of X / Powers of X
- 2020: Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen
And that was 2020 in comics! 2021 is already loaded with exciting comics, and a few potential front-runners for next year’s top prize. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out!