by Molly Jane Kremer, Arpad Okay, Clyde Hall and Jarrod Jones. These are the ongoings, minis, and OGNs that saved us, made things better, and represented the absolute best that comics could be in 2018.
Delicious in Dungeon. (Ryoko Kui, Taylor Engel, Abigail Blackman, Yen Press) Delicious in Dungeon has grown into something new this year, and I love it. It’s still the same adventuring party, more or less, and yeah, they’re still eating any monster they can cook after defeating. But the story isn’t continuing, it’s building upon itself into something more complex. Something richer.
It turns out Delicious in Dungeon isn’t a manga about food, it’s about nutrition. The recipe cards continue to be there, meal acquisition will always be as much a part of the book as swordplay and treasure. But now Ryoko Kui is serving a side of science. Anatomy of foes (and friends). The dishes and cutlery used to prep and cook. The cultural footprint of food in the dungeon.
However, the book has largely shifted from the story of the meals to those who make them. What makes a good adventurer? The dungeon tests their bond, their weaknesses, reveals their secrets. From clones to nemeses to nightmares, goals achieved and annihilated, you’ve spent a lot of sessions with this group. The deeper they go, the greater the danger, the closer to them the reader grows. Warts and all.
Which, believe me, you’ll see. Delicious in Dungeon can be pretty gross.
And that’s great. It’s not all doom and gloom; Delicious in Dungeon remains a funny, touching read equal parts thrilling and zany. If anything, all the silliness helps make the mounting darkness that runs seamlessly beside it even more powerful.
The book’s constant is the quality of art. A near perfect balance is struck between cute and detailed. Delicious in Dungeon will fly from elegantly worked drawings of creatures and armor to wiggly cartoonish faces and physical discharge; a blend of Rumiko Takahashi and Erol Otus. The monsters look real, the food looks scrumptious. — AOK
Friendo. (Alex Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe, Taylor Esposito, Vault Comics) The Friendo series has only three issues so far, yet they take us on an e-ticket ride to a tomorrow so corrupted by greed, online marketing, and amoral tech application. Writer Alex Paknadel is fluid in corporate-speak and uses it to make the bottom-line mentality of his narrative unnervingly plausible.
Leo is an unlucky resident of this brave new world. When he’s gifted a set of Glaze spectacles, a virtual guide called Jerry is instantly programmed as his perfect shopping companion. Then an accident scrambles Jerry’s directives, erasing safety protocols and awaking a monster in the machine. The Glaze Marketing Department realizes the problem but allows it to continue as liability-free consumer research.
Issue #3 contains the sharpest observations on our nihilistic culture, where it’s taken us, and its possible destination. If you have the means, why not secede, form your own republic or protectorate, and establish your will as law? As far-fetched as that may seem, Paknadel fills this issue with dialogue not far removed from spoken views of my countrymen. It’s an ultimate expression of ‘get off my lawn’ mentality coupled with copious amounts of firepower to enforce one’s wishes. Leo and Jerry get crossways of just such an individual, leading to involvement by a deadly assassin who has a penchant for bunny ear headwear and wetwork.
With countless comics writers turning to dystopian nightmares for their stories, Vault’s Friendo separates itself from the herd. It’s a fierce reproofing of cultural folly, holding up funhouse mirrors reflecting a warped future best avoided. It’s also the kind of storytelling I can’t anticipate; each issue is a refreshing dose of unexpected results and surprising plunges into other disturbing aesthetic layers. — CH
Prism Stalker. (Sloane Leong, Ariana Maher, Image Comics) Sloane Leong’s Prism Stalker is one of the most arresting and visually unique comics to be released this year. Leong writes, draws, and colors this day-glo sci-fi odyssey, crafting a story that’s as enveloping as the comic’s oft-gooey, viscous surroundings. Refugee Vep is accepted an elite training program, which she sees as an opportunity to save the rest of her indentured family. A grueling gauntlet ensues as Vep tries to master the powers this new planet offers, and manages to understand herself a little better in the process.
Leong paces this comic thoughtfully. Instead of jumping directly to the action, she allows us to see protagonist Vep’s struggle with mastering pneuma, the planet Eriatarka’s latent energy she manipulates to fight its native inhabitants. We also witness Vep’s struggles to get along with the myriad alien races training alongside her, even when a few of the nastiest ones are from her people’s home planet. It takes until the final issue for us to see Vep unleash her new talents, but even then, she questions the need for violence and what exactly this place is molding her into. The subtle uncertainties expressed and unexpressed make Prism Stalker feel that much more honest, that much more intricately devised.
Everything looks alive; if our eyes lingered any longer on these panels, the walls might throb and pulse around their inhabitants, sighing fluid and color. Every environment Prism Stalker offers looks made of organic materials. It’s a startling and welcome about-face from the clichéd metal and steel that typically proliferates science fiction. The multitudinous alien designs run the gamut between anthropomorphic wolves, small poké-esque bugs, and what could be a tiny version of The Neverending Story’s Falcor. Some well rendered (and hecka unsettling) body horror is woven into the narrative, as well: a character is even broken down into individual cells during a climactic sparring match.
For all of the tremendous sci-fi produced by Image Comics, Prism Stalker feels like one of their most original galactic forays in years, the art style a spiritual descendant of Prophet artists Simon Roy and Giannis Milonogiannis. Sloane Leong is a master cartoonist. Whatever she publishes next should be an automatic read. — MJ
X-Men Red. (Tom Taylor, Mahmud Asrar, Ive Svorcina, Rain Beredo, Carmen Carnero, Rogê Antônio, Cory Petit, Marvel) Full disclosure: I’m not an avid X-Men fan. I’ve read certain runs and I’ve enjoyed a few of them, but even for a well-read Big Two aficionado like me, the X-Men’s wildly convoluted history had always kept me at arm’s length.
X-Men Red came along this year to shake that apathy right out of me. I’ll admit, it was a relatively easy thing to do; the presence of Tom Taylor alone (who had written expansive team books for DC such as Earth-2 and Injustice) was enough to lure me in, but that its arc was in some respects the spiritual sequel to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s run on New X-Men was draw enough. I sat on reading it, however. And then the hammer dropped with the news that X-Men Red was coming to an end with issue #11. I dove right in. And I can’t think of a better superhero book that came out in 2018. I’m positive there wasn’t one.
“The Hate Machine” is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle spandex stories. An alignment of the perfect creators working with the perfect characters at the right time in history. It’s damn-near perfect. Many X-sagas let the spectacle get in the way of the message. This one honed in on what makes these characters endure year after year after year. Led by a revitalized and ready-for-a-fight Jean Grey, X-Men Red zeroed in on the allegory of mutant perseverance in the face of persecution and dared to dream of a better tomorrow. For mutants. For us. — JJ
The New World. (Aleš Kot, Tradd Moore, Heather Moore, Clayton Cowles, Tom Muller, Image Comics) The New World is gorgeous. Aleš Kot has penned an optimistic, cynical dystopia, a dark time whose bright future is a testament to the power of love. The New World is forged by the strength of the human spirit. The capacity for kindness, and triumph in the face of evil. It’s intimidating, sad, wildly romantic, and my oh my do the Moores make it pretty.
Tradd and Heather Moore are homogeneous collaborators. Tradd draws, Heather colors, but I defy you to distinguish where one’s work stops and the other’s begins. Clean details, vibrant color, a ton of cartoon wobble. A heartwarming thing to look upon. The New World’s figures are fleshy and vivacious, each wreathed in a mountain of tiny details.
The New World is heavy with romance and mile-wide smiles that are easy to get lost in. Check it: America is toast and California survives. The best cop on TV just won’t kill. The whiniest hacker on the planet wants to shut down the system. They fall in love. They are hunted by the state. Don’t sweat it, they’ve got an army dad, an absolute unit of a cat, and love on their side.
PMA is everything. Kot and company tell a tale more empathetic than a future cop cyberpunk story has any right to be. Confident, sassy characters who exist, surprisingly quiet in a way and in a way bigger than possible. They believe, they succeed.
Where are our celebrities like Stella Maris?
The New World will leave you charged, radiating bonhomie just like its star-crossed dreamers. It’s a reminder that the human spirit always thrives. All things evolve, and the worst circumstances make for a hothouse — one that cultivates the individuals who change the world. — AOK
Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles. (Mark Russell, Mike Feehan, Mark Morales, Paul Mounts, Dave Sharpe, DC) 1953 America was never so animated as in this six-issue series scripted by Mark Russell. To wit, anthropomorphic talking animals never existed alongside human citizens. But Russell manages to bring the era of Cold War and censorship to life and into sharp focus with an assist from many vintage Hanna-Barbera characters. Snagglepuss, Quickdraw McGraw, and Huckleberry Hound were never depicted like this. Nor were they perceived by their fans in Russell’s parallel reality as he reveals them in their private lives.
That cleverly solidifies the validity of Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles and its depiction of a time when not conforming to the ‘norm’ could be hazardous to your career. With real life celebrities scattered throughout, it charts the fall from grace of America’s greatest playwright, Snagglepuss. Here he’s an urbane feline cut from an Oscar Wilde cloth, a southern writer known for equal parts scalding cheek and eloquent observations on the humanoid condition.
In a nation defining the essence of being Un-American, with a government using fear of the Red menace to promote an agenda against perceived deviants and communist sympathizers in the entertainment industry, Snagglepuss has a choice. Cooperate, name names, and continue his hidden homosexual lifestyle. Or stand by his principles and watch his career evaporate.
His dilemma enables Russell to examine truths about friendship, love, creative pursuits, and the tragedy of being forced to live according to someone else’s concept of normal. In the end, the narrative even manages to align with the later cartoon careers of the main characters, a surprising and satisfying twist to a story juggling elements of Good Night, and Good Luck and Trumbo. — CH
Shanghai Red. (Christopher Sebela, Joshua Hixson, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, Image Comics) This has been a banner year for writer Christopher Sebela, who has another series, Crowded, featured in this particular directory of 2018 excellence. But while that series bumps us up into the near- and nearly-believable future, Shanghai Red takes us back about a hundred and thirty years to late 19th century Portland for a cold-blooded historical revenge saga that’ll curl your toes with its brutality as much as impress you with its depth of research.
Portland is depicted as quite the wretched hive of scum and villainy here. Sebela and artist Joshua Hixson don’t gloss over a thing as we watch our protagonist Red cut a swath of bloody revenge across the city after returning home from being “shanghaied”, or kidnapped and forced to join the crew of a ship. Sebela goes deep into Red’s (or Jack’s, as they prefer to be called) characterization, with their burning need for retribution, fondness for their sister Kate, and identity issues all swirling into a miasma of hate, love, and unwavering focus to find the sole architect of their misery.
Hixson (with Roman Stevens on color flatting) gives us a Portland wreathed in deep shadow. Inky brushy blacks creep into bright orange-reds, which bleed into oppressive skies the color of mud. Through the art we can feel Jack’s discomfort within the city that betrayed them, and the harshness of their brutal resolve, but also the relief in finding Kate and discovering that there could still be somewhere to call “home” together. Don’t expect a happy ending per se. Expect a satisfying denouement and a story that will haunt your thoughts long after you’ve read the final page. — MJ
Bad Friends. (Ancco, Janet Hong, Drawn & Quarterly) Ancco’s Bad Friends is a snapshot of a point in time for Seoul, South Korea, and for two young girls named Pearl and Jeong-ae. South Korea was enduring a crisis in those days — the financial, cultural, and spiritual sort that alienates generations and causes rifts in established familial trust. For Pearl and Jeong-ae, who often take the brunt of their parent’s many frustrations, life feels like it’s on pause.
So they do what any pair of teenagers would do. They rebel to their own peril. Each wave of defiance elicits a severe thrashing from their fathers, though Jeong-ae, whose own abuse often occurs off-panel, takes the most violent of paternal reprisals. Pearl seems to rise above her own abuse — from her father, from overzealous teachers — because of the strength she derives from Jeong-ae. They’re going through Hell together, hand in unlovable hand. And then, one day, Jeong-ae disappears.
Bad Friends hurts. You want so much for these characters to be okay, to escape the cycles of violence to which they always seem to fall prey. Ancco’s soft pencils and charcoal voids underscore the book’s grim subject matter. They give shape to the oppressive ennui Pearl and her friend try to evade at every turn. And yet Bad Friends is lovely, warm even, despite this environment, despite its many sequences of violence. The fleeting moments of genuine humanity that often occur between these two friends is what gives Bad Friends its power. Two young women, growing up in a society that will always try to hold them down. And naturally, they hope to always be there for their friend, to help each other up.
Translated by Janet Hong, Ancco’s humor and dry wit reaches out beyond the borders of Seoul, beyond the decadence of Gangnam, beyond the agonies of adolescence to other shores where new readers might have a chance to discover this tome of heartache and hope. It’s small, but it is no less precious. — JJ
Land of the Sons. (Gipi, Jamie Richards, Fantagraphics Press) I love how totally wrecked everything is. No stylized dystopia. There’s a weird, hidden romance with doom in ruined-world future books. Look how cool it is, this flaming mess we’ve made of the planet.
Not in Land of the Sons. You get a swamp. You get an abandoned industrial center. A pig farm. No cool spots, just wasteland. Mad Max without any Big Dick Energy. A thoroughly Gummo book.
Gipi’s story is about the last two innocent boys, illiterate orphans in an evil world who are trusted with a mystery book. The dog eat dog society (if you can call it that) takes away all they’ve got. They decide to take it back. Nothing goes according to plan.
Land of the Sons snowballs from creepy to outright disturbing to exhilarating. As with all books set at the end of days, the one thing worse than death is other people. Still, we hope and persevere. The most precious commodity is us. The greatest danger is them. Deciding who is who is not easy, but nothing worthwhile is.
Gipi’s story is comic book neorealism. Poverty needs no apocalypse, the darkness of the soul exists without fanciful trappings. Shock at the state of the world is a trick to get us to look closer at its characters. Humanity, good and bad, is compelling. A messed up story is worth telling. Listen.
The art style is the chicken scratch of pencil, a dreamy gathering of faint forms in the fog. Lupine faces of a raccoonish quality. Everything has the texture of old meat, or lead filings. Pocked. Rubbery. Gristle. It’s gross. It’s vitalic. It’s an impossible mixture of form and formless that’s undeniable.
Horror. And hope. Land of the Sons is a real Grimm story, easy smiles and folks with their faces eaten off. — AOK
Incognegro: Renaissance. (Mat Johnson, Warren Pleece, Clem Robins, Berger Books/Dark Horse Comics) Journalist Zane Pinchback returns in a prequel to 2008’s Incognegro. It’s a chance to see Mat Johnson’s hero younger and more naïve as he begins his newspaper career. Zane’s a very light-skinned African-American, light enough that, with a bit of pomade, he can pass for Caucasian. In the original series, Zane had become adept at ‘passing’ to do investigative reporting for his newspaper, the black-owned New Holland Herald. He wrote exposé articles with first-hand accounts of lynching in the South, a crime devoutly ignored by white newspapers. Incognegro: Renaissance takes place some fifteen years earlier, as Zane tries to prove himself to his editor and solve a Harlem murder officially considered suicide.
The prequel proves that Zane could have chosen to pass permanently, a means to tap into white privilege and expand his own career options. Instead, he uses the tactic at great personal risk to challenge the status quo and secure some measure of justice for others.
That, my friends, is a hero. Johnson’s noirish mystery uses Zane’s selflessness as a shining example to cast long, deep shadows across the period of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s an era when white musicians and artists mined and mimicked the creative expression of black American culture, passing it off as their own. It may not have been in the same deplorable class as lynching, but still constituted a theft of intellectual property and cultural identity that, Zane suspects, led to the murder he’s solving.
It’s a story that needs telling, for its historical basis. To better determine how far racial equality has come in America, to experience what continues to fuel desire for better racial representation. To see where we’ve been, and what must change for us to continue forward. — CH
Sleepless. (Sarah Vaughn, Leila del Duca, Alissa Sallah, Deron Bennett, Image Comics) I love fantasy, but sometimes (as a reader/viewer of the female persuasion) I think the genre might not love me back. Often the story points that might be considered, consciously or not, as “too feminine” are left by the wayside, or even vilified in a lady baddie. Thankfully, there’s more and more fantasy being created by women and people of color, Sleepless being one of them—and it’s fantastic.
The fact that protagonist Lady Pyppenia (or Poppy) has a fennec fox named Bini who follows her wherever she goes might bring your mind to princesses of the Disney variety, but banish that thought. This is aimed for an older audience (though not that much older; it functions well as young adult fiction). Also, it’s smart. Poppy is a woman of color, and is never the wallflower damsel waiting for Cyrenic (her faithful Sleepless knight) to save her, although the subtle inclusion of their budding romance is a definite perk. Sleepless even passes the Bechdel Test, as Poppy’s lady cousin is at first thought to be an enemy, but ends up becoming one of Poppy’s closest friends.
There is some politicking for the throne that goes on, but it’s nowhere near the cutthroat machinations of Game of Thrones. But let’s indulge that GoT comparison anyway: Sleepless avoids the genre’s more brutal aspects (pretty exciting to read a medieval-esque fantasy with *gasp* no sexual assault) while still delving into the many in-court intrigues, which allows just enough doe-eyed glances between Cyrenic and Poppy for an added grain of genuine sweetness.
Some fascinatingly new and interesting tweaks to the fantasy genre are added, mainly that of the Sleepless Knights, who abstain from sleep for the rest of their lives in order to better protect their charges—Cyrenic is one as mentioned, though he may be succumbing to the madness that eventually takes members of the order.
Sleepless embraces its female audience, and beyond that is a ridiculously readable comic that I recommend to everyone I know (and now, to you). I’m sad that its eleventh issue next month will be its last, though I also can’t wait to see where (or with whom) Poppy and Cyrenic end up as the curtain falls. — MJ
Eternity Girl. (Magdalene Visaggio, Sonny Liew. Chris Chuckry, Todd Klein, DC’s Young Animal) Magdalene Visaggio puts us inside the head of Chrysalis, the main character of Eternity Girl, and makes us feel every aching moment of her so-called life. At first, she despairs. Scratch that. She’s beyond despair when this book begins. Despair is as common to her as anything else. Depression to Chrysalis, now just Caroline, is a deep-rooted housemate that refuses to share the rent. And she’s over it. Caroline has attempted suicide so many times that it’s become a part of her routine. Therein lies the problem.
In Eternity Girl Caroline can’t die, because, well, it’s in the title. But she’d like to.
Eternity Girl is a different kind of superhero story. I hesitate to even call it a superhero story. It’s that yummy kind of Young Animal adventure, where cape comics aren’t so much deconstructed but shattered, like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, reassembled in the wrong order. Somehow, it makes even more sense this way, considering how often these never-ending battles pop up, how we constantly buy tickets to the parade of cosmos-shattering conflicts. This comic makes strides to explain away the particulars of super-powered melodramas, lets us instead feel the opera hum through the page. Here we tap the power cosmic by snuggling into the infinite headspace where doubt does dwell. If we never see another Young Animal title again, and I really, really hope that’s not the case, it was worth saying goodbye just for Eternity Girl alone. For me, it’s the best thing DC published in 2018.
I used the word “yummy” to describe a story about depression just now. I stand by that. Because over the course of six issues, Visaggio and Sonny Liew expand our understanding of Caroline’s plight by tossing us into different planes of reality and consciousness. The comic cracks, opens, swallows us whole. There are dreamscapes in here that match those in Sandman. Caroline goes on a journey to find meaning. It resonates, becomes captivating even. The further we dive the more colorful things get, thanks to Chris Chuckry’s Easter egg palette. It’s scrumptious, arriving at epiphany. Yummy.
Damn Mags for making us love this cosmic fluke, this stone in the stream. I miss Eternity Girl now that it’s gone. I’ll revisit it for (my) eternity.– JJ
Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction. (Inio Asano, Satsuki Sato, Ran Atsumori, Buuko, John Werry, Annaliese Christman, Viz Signature/Viz Media) The kids in Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction are simply the most. They’re funny, loud, earnest nerds. They’re the families, teachers, and friends, the reporters, soldiers, and your friendly neighborhood alien. Everyone involved brings something relatable and affecting to the page.
Dead Dead Demon’s is a quiet wartime book, more ennui than actual danger. Aliens invade, well, they land — well, a spaceship has been lingering over Japan for years now. Every once in a while something falls off and people die. The threat is there. But you’ve got to keep going to school.
So these great girls, they’re living in the twisted state of pretend normality. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Just trying to enjoy life. Very little happens and that’s fine. Demon’s is sweet and funny and mostly mundane. It is as close to Love and Rockets as I’ve seen any modern comic get.
Look, killing aliens to save lives just makes things worse. But society is driven to destroy the “other,” what can you do? Trade the bombs for marshmallows. Build the girls up to lose them. Build it all up to lose everything. It’s ennui but sometimes the sky is actually falling.
The art is the manga soft/loud dynamic to the extreme. Super cute or hyper detailed with no mixing! The simple characters, bright eyed and drooling, a parallel of BD linework, flawless contours and subtle textures, capture broad strokes of feeling we can project ourselves onto. The complex real world cityscape, high relief photo realistic settings the girls float through, is something we can relate to. We too are sunshine glued by gravity to chaos.
Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction is everything great about comics to date. It is heartfelt and goofy, melancholy and genuine, an important and rewarding work of art. — AOK
The Immortal Hulk. (Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Paul Mounts, Martin Simmonds, Cory Petit, Marvel) The Hulk was once a nocturnal monster and now he is again, which makes The Immortal Hulk series one of my favorite horror comics of the year. The science fiction is still present, but instead of a Cold War version of Jekyll and Hyde, it’s become the stuff of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Al Ewing and company have sufficiently reminded me why, as a kid, the Hulk was full bore scary as hell.
Ewing’s taken the green goliath back to his earliest days in many ways, including night transformations and shady weaponization efforts by the military. But his Hulk isn’t a dull and child-like brute; he runs on instinct, intuition. He senses that your blood drops ten degrees colder when you see him, and he grins. Task him, he’ll push a building on you and not be burdened with remorse. He also can’t remain dead, so not only does Hulk never get tired, Hulk never stops coming (after a brief dirt nap).
The tonal change in the book has come about without tossing away years of continuity or affecting a reboot, something that a lesser creative team could not have accomplished. In the first issues, Banner is reunited with people from his past, Avengers to Sasquatch, and it still fits together handily. As a series, The Immortal Hulk has given us a practical, scheming, intelligent monster who’s immortal and morally less encumbered than previous versions. But if we need a scientist with a conscience, we still have the other guy. — CH
Coda. (Si Spurrier, Matías Bergara, Michael Doig, Colin Bell, Jim Campbell, BOOM! Studios) When I first started reading BOOM! Studios’ Coda, I was unprepared for how much I would unabashedly love it. It immediately became one of my favorites being currently published, and I’m not the only one who felt so strongly about it: the first issue went back to print and subsequent issues (at my store at least) have been selling like proverbial hot cakes.
Si Spurrier has had an immensely big year, from taking over the Doctor Aphra ongoing from Kieron Gillen to working on both the Labyrinth and Dark Crystal Henson comics; to even helping revive Neil Gaiman’s Sandman in The Dreaming, one of the new DC Vertigo flagship titles. The success and acclaim surrounding Coda must be the icing on the cake, since this is his co-creation with Matías Bergara, who, with color assists from Michael Doig, establishes himself as an industry heavy with this book with shockingly good art and colors. (Check out my Best Artist write-up on him if you don’t believe me.) Letterers Colin Bell and Jim Campbell incorporate Spurrier’s (occasionally profuse) narration seamlessly into the pages, and both of them use SFX that pops yet blends with the comic’s oft-neon hues.
The odd subgenre of post-apocalyptic, dystopian high fantasy (Remender, Opeña, and Hollingsworth’s Seven to Eternity also comes to mind) seems to be in the midst of a mini-boom, probably because the idea that “the bad guys won” resonates now in a way unimagined even five years ago. Beyond that unsettling little reminder of current events, this is a beautiful, at times lyrical comic that — since its clever plot reveal regarding exactly what protagonist Hum is so desperate to save his wife Serka from — has unexpectedly explored married life, and exactly how much change you can expect (or in this case, force) from your partner. With only four issues left of its limited run (*sob*) there are certainly plenty of surprises left in store. — MJ
Upgrade Soul. (Ezra Claytan Daniels, Lion Forge Comics) It was impossible for me to not be taken in by Upgrade Soul‘s pseudo-science, especially now when my body is softening, slowing, nearing middle age. (It’s not really that dire. *pauses* It might be that dire.) Consider this: A small pack of scientists take your mind — or your consciousness, anyway — and place it in a younger, firmer, stronger version of your body, one that will age far more slowly than the vessel you’re currently rocking. A complete physical clean slate, free from sickness and aging, a literal gateway to “If only I could be in that body with what I know now.” Sounds incredible, I know.
But nothing, not even fantasy science, comes without a cost. And the characters in Ezra Claytan Daniels’ Upgrade Soul pay big-time. Whether people are punished for their vanity, or for indulging their innermost desires, Daniels’ unfolds his events with an omniscient distance and lets his characters run away with the story. In a micro-epic that spans decades, Daniels details the rationale behind why an affluent, elderly couple would ever want to continue their lives after having already lived their own to utter completion. Answers rarely come easy, and in this story some decisions are downright mystifying. It’s a perfect analysis of the heart and how it can often demand too much of us.
Upgrade Soul challenges our perceptions of perfection and almost calls us out for ever daydreaming the easiest way to it. It asks us to consider what “better” means to us, how we quantify it, how we apply the concept to ourselves and the way we are. Is it hubris to push science to perfect the human condition? Probably. But I don’t recall ever reading a graphic novel that detailed how utterly poignant (or was it harrowing?) that endeavor could be. — JJ
On A Sunbeam. (Tillie Walden, First Second Books) They say we live in a new golden age of comic books. I’ve read On A Sunbeam, and I know they’re right. Tillie Walden has created one of the most stirring, beautiful, meaningful works of fantasy the modern medium has seen. Two stories, split and rejoined. Loser joins a family who once brought her true love to her, and may just do again.
They are builders of broken homes. On A Sunbeam is no stranger to metaphor, nor is it shy about being romantic. It is a church falling down with a forest growing through it, Lina Bo Bardi laying bricks in the Lascaux caves, lit by the corona of an eclipse, a dusting of stars, the fire of burning hearts. On A Sunbeam is the friends we build a life with. On A Sunbeam is the power of fate.
Choosing your family is such a mood. Walden writes memorable characters. Bright. Mysterious. Funny. Sad. A mirror to you and your friends despite the boarding school being in space, despite the flying fish or being aliens. It’s us, imperfect but bound together. On A Sunbeam is real. It’s true love.
The color in this book is bold and experimental, a new take on vividly dark. Just past magic hour, the cusp of sundown. Everything is bruised fruit and shadow and the void pierced by magnificent starlight. No film could capture Walden’s hues. They are a poem spoken in shades that must be witnessed directly.
The locations are breathtaking but the struggles of the people in them is what makes On A Sunbeam a modern classic. Everyone is unapologetic and powerful, yet fragile and faceted. Their messy lives overlap, for better or for worse, a house of empathy, dignity, curiosity, and adventure. Be brave. Be realer than real. Be mine. — AOK
Crowded. (Christopher Sebela, Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell, Cardinal Rae, Image Comics) Christopher Sebela was my pick for Best Writer of 2018 and Crowded is the perfect venue for his strongest talents as a storyteller. He’s peopled it with an array of interesting, offbeat characters and graced them with dialogue that’s as full auto as it is clever. Most of them have fully-realized history apart from the main storyline, but those are nimbly included without use of a back-story roadblock.
Crowded is only one of two 2018 ‘near-future imperfect’ titles to get the tech and human elements this flawless in a comics market flooded with similar concepts. Crowdfunding is a current trend, mostly for positive and creative endeavors. Sebela posits what crowdfunding assassination might be like, and the world changes needed to make it a reality.
We still don’t know exactly what Charlotte’s done to deserve a crowding total over a million dollars. We know she’s more than she seems, a bubbly cog working a dozen Craigslist jobs. But she’s definitely done more than cut a few people off in traffic or park in her neighbor’s spot. Vita’s her hired armed guard, one with low feedback ratings because she has a code and doesn’t change it just to please a customer.
Add in a hunter with his own live online kill feed, another hunter all about the pursuit, a bug-eyed little Dog, and parades of amateur hunters, and you have one grim story of legalized murder-for-hire that still never fails to be a good time. — CH
The Mighty Thor. (Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Matthew Wilson, Joe Sabino, Marvel) I’ve been telling everyone that this run on Thor is one of the best superhero comics of the decade, if not ever. And here we were, witnesses to its glorious Valhalla-worthy end, a moment befitting an epic of this magnitude. (Dauterman and Wilson will reunite with Aaron for the War of the Realms event next year, thanks be to all the gods).
Though Jason Aaron’s run on his various Thor books began a couple years before Jane Foster was granted Mjölnir (and continues on in adjectiveless Thor with Mike del Mundo) “The Death of the Mighty Thor” story arc felt like a culmination of all his years writing the Asgardians. (According to Aaron, this was the end to the second of three planned acts within his Thor run.) Fittingly, “The Death of the Mighty Thor” revisits many of the themes previously touched upon in Aaron’s run: faith in religion, faith in yourself, how much of a badass Jane Foster is, both as Thor and as her own determined self.
Dauterman and Wilson’s art is more of the same higher-than-high caliber from one of the most talented art teams in modern superhero comics. Very few can even approach their levels of awe-inspiring, and they stretched themselves to the limit for the finale issues of Mighty Thor. I’m not ashamed to say #706 made me cry, and it was as much due to Aaron’s erudite end of things as it was Dauterman and Wilson’s compassionate, perceptive depictions. They still wildly rocked it on the many action sequences, don’t get me wrong—but they still managed to slowly yank your heart out of your chest while doing so.
Though Jane may not currently wield any enchanted hammers, she survived and continues to fight her battle with cancer, equally inspiring as thunder goddess and human. Aaron, Dauterman, and Wilson have finished a nigh-perfect superhero run, and we’re all a little better for having read it. — MJ
Eternal. (Eric Zawadski, Ryan K. Lindsay, Dee Cunniffe, Black Mask Studios) Sometimes you just want to read a story about a mean sonuvabitch finally getting theirs. Eternal offers this. It’s clean as a freshly-unsheathed blade and cuts just as deep. Venture into the snowy lands of Hvallatr. Discover the wanton havoc wrought by men. Witness a people at the mercy of the cruel sorcerer Bjarte. Villages are razed to the ground, countless folk are murdered in their homes. Bjarte has no real incentive to stop the slaughter, save for Vif.
Vif the shieldmaiden. Hers is the story of Eternal, a warrior who is burdened with the knowledge of grief and survival. “It’s not about violence,” she says early on, in a flashback knotted in runes and presented in glorious wide angles. “It’s about control.” And when Bjarte takes up a hobby haunting the forests just outside of Vif’s home, cackling mercilessly seemingly for the sheer hell of it, Vif gets to work exercising that control. Her decisions give Vif agency. But they come at a high price.
Violence is inevitable in a time such as this. Rat bastards like Bjarte push and push, taunting, laughing, secure in their power over others. In Eternal, retribution is king. You watch conflict sprout from the ground, borne of blood, tears, cries for vengeance. Hate is a pure thing here, no gray areas, no cause for doubt. There’s evil in these lands and they don’t deserve quarter, or pity, or mercy. Vif never relents. Neither does Eternal, a book as pure as the driven snow, as hot as the blood that stains it. — JJ
What was your favorite comics of 2018? Let us know in the comments section below.