by Arpad Okay, Kate Kowalski, and Jarrod Jones. They are the storytellers, the gatekeepers of myth. They are the stewards of legends, and they’re pretty cool people by our reckoning. They are the best writers of 2020.
Trung Le Nguyen. (‘The Magic Fish’, Random House Graphic) The Magic Fish is a sweet, delicate thing. A story about trying to come out through a language barrier, a recognition and reconciliation of trauma, a story of the bond of friendship. Trung Le Nguyen writes young and old coming into their own and writes them true. Trungles also writes of mermaids and bones, ballroom gowns and bakeries. The Magic Fish is fairy tales and those who read them, told through their parallels. The book is a pastry: glacé, tart, and time come together so that no individual flavor is lost but the story is a single delicacy. The story is compelling, the family charismatic and real—how they act and speak. The fantastic storybook demands are met with sumptuous and elegant artwork. The hair is exquisite. Beyond telling a good story, The Magic Fish is well told. Trungles’ use of the medium of comics strengthens the story in ways that influence the reader more than the plot. The use of color to differentiate past, present, and fiction is used in sequence to show how moments encountered in reading can stir memories and shape the reader’s reality. The way The Magic Fish tells it, the reader experiences the story at the same time as the characters. An exploration of echoes as an attempt to learn to speak. Trung Le Nguyen is well worth listening to. — AOK
Carmen Maria Machado. (‘The Low, Low Woods’, art by Dani, colors by Tamra Bonvillain, letters by Steve Wands, Hill house Comics/DC) Machado, a skilled folk artist, weaves her lore with supernatural tones and queer themes. Mythology is her bread and butter but she shapes and reimagines the tale you think you knew into a whole different story by dealing in perspectives: shifting ones, evolving ones. She can heighten the seemingly mundane to a heart-racing tempo and make a grotesque monster hurtling towards you through the woods an everyday occurance.
Everything I’ve read by Machado feels like a fever dream and The Low, Low Woods is no exception. Her signature style and themes fall beautifully into these gritty, soot-stained panels. Machado’s image-heavy prose lends itself to be translated into the medium—moments pieced together by her slow-raveling exposition and horrific reveals. The Low, Low Woods is a dark piece of Americana myth, a tragic epic, a knot that will sit in your stomach for a good, long while. I hope to see Machado pen more comics and soon. — KK
Mark Russell. (‘Billionaire Island’, art by Steve Pugh, colors by Chris Chuckry, letters by Rob Steen, AHOY Comics) Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, writing comedy is tough stuff. Stringing together a row of solid yuks into a coherent story that somehow then becomes an absolute sum of its parts—like, say, a despair-inducing observation of contemporary life, an entertaining romp of revenge and catharsis, an indictment of who we are and how we let things get so bad—that, that, is damn-near impossible to pull off.
And yet Mark Russell did it, has done it, and will likely do it again in the years to come. Billionaire Island, the book Russell put together with Steve Pugh, Chris Chuckry and Rob Steen in 2020, operates with precision comic timing, a gag-per-page Swiftian satire where worship of the wealthy is about the most idiotically dangerous thing anybody could engage in, because it is.
Russell doesn’t hold back. In Billionaire Island the fortunes of the stock market are decided by which bowl the world’s richest dog chooses to eat out of at a given moment, because the reality of it all makes just as much sense. Corporate subordinates hold onto the razor-slim possibility that their unabashed ass-kissing will push them up the ladder by a single rung (it won’t), while loudly expectorating their thanks to the overlords who stuff them in actual cages because the food’s good and the hay gets changed on the daily.
And as it lands one brusing jab after the other into the swelling gut of society’s elite, Billionaire Island expertly lands moments of human decency that you don’t see coming because you’re too busy laughing. Billionaire Island doesn’t forget where it comes from, just as Mark Russell doesn’t let us forget who we are and where we’re going, if we’re not careful. Comics is a richer place with him in it. — JJ
Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. (‘Don’t Go Without Me’, ShortBox) Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s wandering stories are hallucinatory experiments in perception and meaning. The iconography in Don’t Go Without Me is ancient, it’s modern, with authentic and relatable characters. Concerns of the heart told as riddles, observations, visual poetry. Space and time and magic and promises. Valero-O’Connell’s psychedelics set on the other side of the sunset gate are brought on by the existential concerns we carry through with us. But when meaning looms large, the riddles ease back into silence. The spirit speaks instead as we see dreams. A cosmonaut explores being a ghost of memory. A fairy story will take the wealth of magnificent, tiny details that make up a person and consume each of them like striking a match. Tears and salt water surf.
Don’t Go Without Me highlights what’s at the core of us that makes us love by surrounding it with the impossible. Love is put to the test in conditions beyond the limits of the real. Valero-O’Connell moves from high fantasy to hard science fiction to fireside legend without skipping a beat. The moments presented to the reader—be they kaleidoscopic chimeras or the quiet details only lovers notice—are all fleeting, all dreams, all more real than anything else on earth. Valero-O’Connell has so much talent, so much potential, and Don’t Go Without Me is a showcase of writing techniques that maximize every aspect of sequential art. The layouts, the colors, the balance of reading pictures to reading words, it’s all quiet brilliance and perfect pages. — AOK
N.K. Jemisin. (‘Far Sector’, art by Jamal Campbell, letters by Deron Bennett, DC’s Young Animal/DC) A lone Green Lantern patrols an isolated planet in the far reaches of space, no back-up for lightyears, a murder mystery on her hands and a broken society just one calamity away from destroying itself from within—it’s not hyperbole to say Far Sector is about as immersive, compelling, and relevant as mainstream comics get.
No surprise that a book packed with intrigue and power comes from N.K. Jemisin, recipient of the Nebula and Hugo and other wildly prestigious honors (for writing The Broken Earth series, among other equally astounding tomes) who, working alongside Jamal Campbell and Deron Bennett, has boosted DC’s prestige ambitions with a title imbued with the emerald glow of character and humanity. Jemisin’s stories of right and wrong thrive in slate-grey environments where choices come rife with anguish, people are… well, people, and the end results always come with a price. Far Sector is no different.
Sojourner Mullein, Green Lantern of Earth, up against an epidemic of emotion with only her ring and her will to keep things together. It’s the themes of Far Sector that make it timely, but it’s the way N.K. Jemisin has written it that will make it evergreen. — JJ
Zao Dao. (‘Cuisine Chinoise: Tales of Food and Life’, translated by Brandon Kander and Diana Shutz, lettered by Adam Pruett, Dark Horse Comics) Legends and losers come head to head in Cuisine Chinoise, which feels like a fairy tale book found at zine fest. Big stories in big format and gorgeously, really stunningly illustrated, but the magic monkey is a total mess and the son of a soup maker is in serious danger of giving it all up for a suit-and-tie job. I was shocked to feel so similar to the kid with fangs who makes offal stew for spirit collectors, but Zao Dao’s Tales of Food and Life showed me. Everyone eats. Monsters, friends, little old women with loose teeth. The relatable characters and genuine friendships were a facet that came as a surprise, as Zao Dao pulls no punches when it comes to spectacle, and I came to Cuisine Chinoise expecting fantasy and food rather than familiar and funny. The shorts that comprise the collection are told like a museum instead of a convention center. Witness royal gluttony so unbecoming the court is laid to waste in a field of grass. The creatures that come calling for a soul whose time is up appreciate meal made from a basket of grotesque when it’s prepared from the heart. History, call it tradition, as told by a modern mind. Zao Dao’s characters are earnest and the writing is starry eyed, dreaming of something sweet. She has written a tremendous amount of herself into this book, but like any good tall tale, the embellishments are inseparable. — AOK
Dan Watters. (‘Coffin Bound’, art by Dani, colors by Brad Simpson, letters by Aditya Bidikar, Image Comics; ‘Lucifer’, art by Sebastiàn Fiumara, Max Fiumara, colors by Dave McCaig, letters by Steve Wands) Watters is a world builder. He creates utterly fresh alternate realities. In Coffin Bound he’s crafted grindhouse cinema with a theological underbelly and heavy apocalyptic vibes. His imagining of actual hell and its denizens and dealings in Lucifer feels grandiose but obvious, like scripture. The writing in both of these works is poised, a bit earthy at times, blunt but expansive like a biblical or Homeric translation. Both stories stand as testaments to his skill with prose and dialogue.
Sneaking in just before the end-of-year cutoff, Home Sick Pilots feels a bit different. More contemporary and shiny with new-world sensibilities—there’s a hot streak of optimism, at least in the first issue. With this latest venture, Watters proves himself a master collage artist—pulling together disparate elements to form something truly unique (a Herculean task in this day and age). I cannot wait for more of this haunted-house-mech-suit-punk-rock amalgamation in the new year. — KK
Ram V. (‘Blue in Green’, art by Anand RK, color art by John Pearson, letters by Aditya Bidikar, design by Tom Muller, Image Comics; ‘Justice League Dark’, art by Amancay Nahuelpan and others, colors by June Chung, letters by Rob Leigh, DC; ‘Catwoman’, art by Fernando Blanco and others, colors by FCO Plascencia, letters by Tom Napolitano, DC) Things are truly shaping up for Ram V. As we’re talking about somebody who often writes about destiny and prophecy it’s fun to speculate that there was always something in the cards for Ram’s comics career, but that kind of hokum only truly exists in the pages of superhero comics and other flights of fancy, and besides, we know better. It’s Ram’s determination to get the story he wants to tell—sometimes terrifying, often beautiful, always thoughtful—across for his artists, his editors, and most fatefully, his readers. He has succeeded every time.
It’s no wonder at all, really, why 2020 has been Ram’s year. Last year’s These Savage Shores put Ram and his creative team on the radar of more prominent editors and soon the welcoming horns of the Big Two did sound. Ram paired with James Tynion IV on Justice League Dark and soon slid into the driver’s seat of DC’s high-profile superhero-horror book. It’s been a good fit for Ram, though his work on Catwoman has become my personal favorite of his ascension so far; Ram’s Selina Kyle, world-weary but fierce, cunning but mindful, has been a masterful pairing of creator and character rife with energy, danger, and promise.
But it was Ram’s most personal work, Blue in Green, that secured his slot on our list this year. Re-teaming with his Grafity’s Wall co-creator Anand RK, color artist John Pearson, letterer Aditya Bidikar, and designer Tom Muller, Ram indelibly crafted a movement of history, regret, and horror. In it, Ram guided a musician through the ruin of his adult life and into a past that he’d rather bury with his late mother, where sinister ghosts and crippling isolation are waiting for him. With its slick Reid Miles packaging and earnest passion for the form of jazz Blue in Green flowed like musical improvisation, punctuated by soft Gershwin interludes and Davisian shocks of razor sharp trumpets. I still hear them. — JJ
Kat Leyh. (‘Snapdragon’, First Second Books) Snapdragon is funny, filled with sweet and strong characters to instantly love. Kat Leyh is smart, and it shows, both in the comic timing of the dialog and the layering of the plot, the degrees by which the whole story is revealed to the reader. Is “Uh. Uh? Uh?!” 2020’s best bit of comic dialog? Yes. It is a gleeful ride from the jump that gets better and more meaningful with each page until closing the book is equally a thrill and a regret.
Snapdragon is poignant. A transgenerational romance! A unique girl who finds her niche! Friends and family growing into their greater selves. Puppy in trouble but makes out okay. Motorcycles and taxidermy. Ghosts? Supernatural or just in touch with nature, you’ve got to expect a tinge of horror in a story about a young upstart and a swamp witch. There’s danger because there’s stakes, it’s thrilling because it’s so well written. Domestic violence is as much of a threat as the paranormal in Snapdragon. The relationships are rich, and their complexity brings conflict. A book that makes you feel everything, regularly.
It’s powerful and I loved it. The story is fun despite its flirtation with horror and gravitas, swift and endlessly surprising. If you aren’t in tears by the story’s conclusion, the sketchbook epilogue is going to get you. Utterly satisfying from cover to cover. — AOK
Al Ewing. (‘The Immortal Hulk’, art by Joe Bennett and others, inks by Ruy José and others, Colors by Paul Mounts and others, letters by Cory Petit, Marvel; ‘We Only Find Them When They’re Dead’, art by Simone Di Meo, color assists by Mariasara Miotti, letters by Deron Bennett, BOOM! Studios) Consider scale. Al Ewing does. He grapples with scale on a daily basis. Ewing has long finessed his career into something gargantuan, legendary, telling sprawling stories of monsters and gods and us little people trying to carve out a piece of our own Steinbeckian completeness as we live amid their shadows.
Ewing and his creative team on The Immortal Hulk—Joe Bennett, Paul Mounts, Cory Petit and other worthy creators—have been smashing expectations for so long now it’s almost tempting to begin taking the run for granted. That would be a mistake for several reasons, chief amongst them being the sheer boldness of Ewing’s tale, which pit an “out-of-fucks” Bruce Banner against the institutions that have failed the world for ages, creating an opportunity for sinister forces long dormant to rise again and crack the earth—using Banner’s body as the hammer.
What’s been guiding Ewing along this green long mile? Milton and Blake and the Bible, and a metric ton of other monumental things, besides. Not since Alan Moore lost himself in a swamp all those years ago has a superhero book felt so unrepentantly wicked, beautiful and horrifying, huge. — JJ
Who was your favorite writer of 2020? Let us know in the comments section below!
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