Here is a list of some of the best comics that made it onto the Comics Grinder radar. Best-of-the-Year lists are useful in many ways for book publishers, comic book shops, academics, librarians, and even play a role in determining awards for the following year. One of the best sources for analysis on all these lists is from comics scholar Jamie Coville’s annual master list. I have yet to compile anything so comprehensive as a list that closely follows the various potential categories and subgroups involved but I have picked up a few things along the way as a comics journalist and comics creator. For example, here’s an insightful nugget: I really don’t think children’s books are quite a right fit but I don’t completely rule them out especially since there’s a push to include them in the conversation and sometimes it really makes sense. Basically, I don’t rule anything out as you just never know what you can learn from casting a wide enough net.
I’ve also learned it is important not to try to be so clever that you avoid the obvious. And while it might be fun for some to engage in various posturing, at the end of the day quality matters so you go wherever the trail leads you and, if some titles will appear on everyone’s lists, well, that’s just hunky dory. Sometimes I wonder about the publication date on books. Does it make sense to launch a title towards the end of the year in order to place it closer on the radar of best-of-year lists? Will that book, in fact, be considered again at the start of the new year or has it sacrificed a year’s worth of building up momentum? That kind of thinking can make one’s head spin. Ultimately, your typical work of comics is years in the making so doing whatever you can to get a good window of time to promote it is certainly a worthy goal. In fact, I know of some titles that have managed to hang on into another year for award consideration. So many books; so little time to publicize them! That clock keeps ticking. And then there are all the gems that can somehow get lost along the way. C’est la vie. That’s where I step in as much a possible. Hope you enjoy this list and I’d be curious to know what you think should be included.
Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics)
This is the title that has been on everyone’s lips. Those who have read it have been justly rewarded. The big secret here, for those aspiring cartoonists attempting to crack that nut, is to follow Glenn Head‘s lead: focus on what it is you are really compelled to work on, turn it into a short work, then revisit it, let it gestate, and, if you’re onto something, you might just reach a level of success this graphic novel has achieved: an auto-bio work that has gone through the wringer of soul-searching and figuring out for the course of many years.
Crisis Zone by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics)
One of my cherished comics memories is seeing a beautiful display for Simon’s work when I was in Paris. That was for 2019’s Bad Gateway. Well, the good stuff just keeps getting better, baby!
The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing (writer), Joe Bennett (artist) (Marvel Comics)
The Hulk is a reliable source of entertainment right up there with Batman but not all Hulks, like not all Batmans, are the same. For the last 50 issues, The Immortal Hulk comic book was the place to be for some of the gnarliest work in comics you could hope to find among the ever spinning spinner rack at your local comics shop (virtual or otherwise). This is The Hulk cast in the spirit of the best of the golden age of horror comics. If you’ve been waiting, then the time is now to take in this fabulous run with the last collected trade dutifully shelved.
Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith (Fantagraphics)
Speaking of horror comics, and titles that have been talked about a lot, here is a mammoth of a book to satisfy the most discerning reader of comics. It also happens to be one of those books that has had quite a long period of development, around 35 years in the making. It’s a fabulous story about experiments gone awry and deranged Nazis. It might seem like a story you may have already read but it’s not. This is something very new, fresh and vital.
Chickaloonies by Dimi Macheras and Casey Silver (80 Percent Studios)
Here is something very authentic and refreshing that needs to be on your radar if you enjoy engaging family-friendly comics. As I pointed out in my review, this is a unique look at Alaskan Native tribal stories. This is an excellent example of the power and magic of the comics medium.
The Domesticated Afterlife by Scott Finch (Antenna Works)
Here is a title that has emerged this year but, like I say, it’s one of those books that really needs to be carried over into the new year. Many of your best comics start out as modest undertakings. Even Superman began as a modest undertaking. Talk about fantastical stories, this one you’ll want to seek out. Here we have a world within a world and a story within a story. Cut to the chase, so to speak, and you’ve got heroes to root for and a cause that hits very close to home.
The Cola Pop Creemes by Desmond Reed
Here is another title that needs to straddle one year into the next and also proves that your best comics can come from anywhere, even a limited self-published run. In fact, this book isn’t officially out yet! This year has only seen a small batch release. Well, you can thank my ear being close to the ground. Keep you eyes out for it and I’ll definitely have more to say once this fun-filled book of madcap adventures is out by its new publisher.
Ballad for Sophie by by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia (Top Shelf Productions)
This is one of the most striking comics I’ve encountered. It’s really such a pleasure to immerse one’s self in this fanciful contemplation of what matters in life. Check out my review and I think you’ll agree that we’ve got a keeper here.
The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel (HMH Books)
This title will come as no surprise for making onto this list but it might surprise some readers who have not been keeping up with this master cartoonist. As I point out in my review, Alison Bechdel demonstrates that she is in top form without forcing it.
1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona by Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics)
2021 has really been a banner year for comics and you’ll probably find yourself discovering many titles from these productive pandemic times. Be sure to make room for Steve Lafler’s ongoing 1956 series which features city life, jazz, and a good amount of gender-bending good fun. Yes, as the classic movie suggests, some like it hot!
Penny: A Graphic Memoir by Karl Stevens (Chronicle Books)
For impeccable draftsmanship alone, Karl Stevens is a noteworthy auteur cartoonist but he is so much more, including a writer with a wicked sense of humor. Once you discover his talent, you’ll want more. A great place to start is his collection chronicling the misadventures of his beloved, well, maybe “pet” is now an outdated term….companion animal. Once you meet Penny, you may have a whole other idea of what term to use.
Orcs in Space (with Francois Vigneault) (Oni Press)
It is exciting to see the rising star of Francois Vigneault, who dazzles the reader with his auteur work in Titan and recently teamed up to be part of the all-ages comic book series set in outer space. Among the many comics for kids, here is one with a very distinctive sense of style and humor.
Covid Chronicles, edited by edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson (Graphic Mundi)
Covid Chronicles is something special. One of the things that I find frustrating when it comes to awards is to have one particular story cherry picked out of an anthology in order to receive an award and sort of shove the anthology to the side. Sure, that may only seem to be the case but I’m just saying. I am making the case for this anthology to receive full credit as one of the most vibrant and comprehensive comics anthologies to date.
Greenie Josephine by Christopher Sperandio (Argle Bargle Books)
Taking things into a completely different direction is the highly inspired comics-derived art of Christopher Sperandio. As I pointed out in my review, there’s nothing quite like it: a sustained recontextualized work of comics taking vintage comics in the public domain and giving it a completely new life in Sperandio’s spirited social commentary.
Helem by Stanley Wany (Conundrum Press)
Another work that takes on a less beaten path but a worthy one nonetheless is this beautifully eerie collection of interconnected mysterious and melancholy tales. As you’ll see in my review, I am quite impressed with Stanley Wany’s mastery of visual storytelling and I just can’t wait to see more.
Passport by Sophia Glock (Little Brown & Co. Young Readers)
As I have long maintained, a work of comics is best defined as a collected series of sequential work created by an auteur cartoonist. Despite what any armchair enthusiast might proclaim, in the end, it’s a visionary work by one person that best defines this whole kit and caboodle. Glock’s book takes the reader on a quirky offbeat journey into the inner life of a teenager.
The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (Drawn & Quarterly)
Set in the very recent past (near present?) of 2020 in South Korea, this is an extraordinary graphic novel that keeps to a mellow and steady pace to reveal some urgent truth. The trials and tribulations of survival, whether you are young or old, are on full display in this enchanting work. This is the follow-up to Gendry-Kim’s Grass, which was on everyone’s best-of-year list when it came out in 2019.
It is no secret that some of the very best graphic novels published in the United States come from Abrams–and many are picked up by Abrams across the pond from SelfMadeHero. This book is one fine example and is part of a series on Freud. In this volume the focus is on the infamous case of Horace Frink who acted as a human guinea pig experiment for Freud for better or worse. I keep saying that the auteur cartoonist is the ideal but I’m not afraid to sort of contradict myself and say that here we have another ideal: the perfectly matched team of writer with artist, of which there are many examples. Both talents and sensibilities meld together to tell one of those quirky tales of truth being stranger than fiction.
Hokusai: A Graphic Biography by Francesco Matteuzzi (writer) and Giuseppe Latanza (artist), translated by Edward Fortes (Laurence King Publishing)
Just to keep making the point in the other direction, here is another wonderful book by a creative team, this time a look at the life and work of legendary Japanese artist Hokusai (1760-1849) who lived during the Edo period and created much of the style and look of what we associate with iconic Japanese art, a highly stylized light and linear approach evoking everything from lovers to crashing waves. Hokusai is a favorite for many reasons and not least of which was is persistence as he created his greatest work well beyond the age of 40. Biography is one of the prime subjects for graphic novels and this is one of the great examples of it.
Returning back to the auteur model, here is a story about legendary Surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel. It is in very good hands with renowned Spanish cartoonist Fermin Solis. We also end with a big nod to Europe. Those of us in the United States can sometimes suffer from our own form of tunnel vision. The truth is that comics are being created and consumed across the globe. This is the story of the making of a film that completely changed the outlook of one of the darlings of Surrealism. After filming in the little village of Las Hurdes, Bunuel was chastened and gained a greater respect for the harsh realities of life.
Run Home If You Don’t Want to Be Killed: The Detroit Uprising of 1943 by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams (University of North Carolina Press in association with Duke University)
University press publishers continue to break new ground as publishers of graphic novels. One of the most impressive titles comes from UNC Press and presents over a decade of work by its author. As the reader is made fully aware, in 1943, the United States was caught defending segregation at home while defeating fascism abroad. Detroit, with its bubbling racial tensions, was a tinderbox just waiting to explode. We are all, as readers, becoming more familiar with the combination of words and pictures to sum up and highlight compelling subjects. Williams has a very natural way with the comics medium and makes a significant contribution with this book to expose and understand the specific details of this important period in American history.
The Flutist of Arnhem: A Story of Operation Market Garden by Antonio Gil (Dead Reckoning)
Among up and coming publishers, Dead Reckoning has established quite a strong track record of impressive graphic novels. In this book, we take a different look at the year 1943 from the last book on our list. Heroes can emerge despite the odds and the chaos of war. This is such a story. After a Nazi sweep, John Hewson is the last man standing among Dutch special agents. He’s a very wanted man by the Nazis, especially since he has, in great detail, all the positions of the German army from Holland to Germany, vital information for the Allies. It’s a race against time to save Hewson. Antonio Gil doesn’t let the reader down for a second.
Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War by Imogen and Isabel Greenberg (Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams)
Greek mythology comes to life in this all-ages book that will appeal to readers in their teens and up. Diehard superhero fans are well aware that some of their favorite characters are based upon mythology and, more likely than not, Greek myth. With that in mind, this little book will prove to be a hit with any number of readers as it goes into concise details on the origin story of Athena. Bit by bit, in greater detail, the reader ends up covering quite a lot of ground all while enjoying the whimsical narrative provided by the Greenberg creative team.
Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by John Jennings (writer) and Damian Duffy (artist) (Abrams)
Together again, we have the creative team behind Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, winner of the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Adaptation from Another Medium. Octavia E. Butler’s unique vision comes to life once again in this dystopian tale. There might be a glimmer of hope but it’s going to be hard won.
As I’ve pointed out, Abrams and SelfMadeHero can make for quite a team in working together to provide some of the very best graphic novels. Well, Orwell is perhaps one to go very near the top. This not only involves one of the most fascinating of writers but is a tour de force of comics including various special contributions from such greats as Blutch and Enki Bilal. Overall, if you are a fan of the crisp and urgent style found in Jason Lutes’s Berlin, expect that vibe here. This is Orwell, a man who lived many lives on his own eccentric terms. If there is any justice in the world, you will be hearing more about this book and it will be honored with some recognition come award time. If not, we’ll have to create a special award!