You know, 2015 was a pretty grim year for comics. There have probably been worse years—and I’m looking at you, Heroes Reborn—but generating a top ten graphic novels of 2015 involved dragging in a lot of “pretty good” padding.
Fortunately, this is 2016, and although many things went poorly in 2016, we got some solid comics out of it. Let’s start with
I. The Ten Best Graphic Novels of 2016
1. Lucky Penny (Ananth Hirsch & Yuko Ota: Oni Press)
If you miss reading annual volumes of Scott Pilgrim, and the somewhat puzzling Snotgirl is not filling that Brian Lee O’Malley gap in your heart—look, Lucky Penny is not a Pilgrim ripoff by any stretch, but it stakes its claim on the same patch of charm that Pilgrim mined so well. The clean-line art is beautiful, the story is funny, but it’s Lucky Penny’s ineffable “comicness”—a series of rhythms that borrow both from manga and from the American alternative tradition—that makes it work so well.
2. Hippopotamister (John Green: First Second)
Hippopotamister is pitched young enough that it can feel more like a children’s book than like the traditional Barks/Stanley kind of kid’s comic, but it’s such a delightful kid’s comic that the cognoscenti shouldn’t blink. Publisher First Second’s semi-official description highlights Hippopotamister’s Joseph Campbell quest structure, which is so on point that I don’t know what to add, except that the book is also very funny and very tightly plotted: When you reach the end you’ll see how all the random gags are actually relevant to the story, a degree of forethought I don’t usually see in children’s books (or graphic novels)
John Green is also the artist on one of my all-time favorites, Teen Boat, q.v.
3. Demon Vol 1 (Jason Shiga: First Second)
Jason Shiga’s comics are always so rigorously thought out that they may turn out to be logic games more than actual comics (note: that’s a compliment). Demon turns that same rigor to the intricacies of a bizarre “super power” (which you’re probably better off not spoiling by reading the back cover of this book, or anything else about it). The resulting story has some of the same “supernatural battle-of-wits” vibe as Death Note, but with more of an autistic slant, as though Death Note were all from L’s perspective; oh, and if L were an amoral gore hound.
That description may be off-putting to some people, but if you’re at all interested in rotten people using death as a logic puzzle, you’ll love this book (warning: cliffhanger).
4. Cosplayers (Dash Shaw: Fantagraphics)
Dash Shaw at his least experimental turns out to be Dash Shaw at his best. This is straight up a less cool version of Ghost World, and that’s beautiful
5. Mean Girls Club (Ryan Heshka: Nobrow Press)
(I think technically this came out in December 2015, but neither I nor my LCS got a copy till two months later, so it goes on the 2016 list.)
Taking the “nobrow” moniker literally, this morbid slapstick short tale of girl gang vandals is like a Russ Meyer film directed by Tex Avery.
6. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe (Ryan North & Erica Henderson: Marvel)
I know I like just said this about Jason Shiga’s comics, but Unbeatable Squirrel Girl has the same virtue. While it is often hilarious and generally a good adventure story in the superhero vein, Squirrel Girl‘s best aspect is how tightly constructed its plots are. Squirrel Girl herself is a student of computer science—she’s like Jason Shiga plus empathy—and when she’s not literally defeating her enemies with code she’s defeating her enemies by thinking like a coder.
Anyway, this is an all-new direct-to-hardcover Squirrel Girl adventure, with an evil clone (more or less) and a host of cameos. If the hook, “can an unbeatable superhero be beaten by…herself” sounds like music to your ears, you should read Squirrel Girl, no matter how much you roll your eyes at superhero comics.
7. Mary Wept over the Feet of Jesus (Chester Brown: D&Q)
An effective combination of Chester Brown’s three great obsessions: Prostitution, the Gospels, and pure unadulterated crazy weirdness.
8. Founding Fathers Funnies (Peter Bagge: Dark Horse)
Based on a true story!!! This is exactly what you’d expect a Peter Bagge history book to be like—more so than his Sanger bio because there’s no eyeing the YA market here, so the founding fathers get to swear a lot. The result is hilarious without falling into the traps of making all the jokes knowing references accessible only to history buffs.
9. Carpet Sweeper Tales (Julie Doucet: D&Q)
Julie Doucet’s welcome return to comics (365 Days doesn’t count because I didn’t like it) is her most nakedly experimental work, a surreal collage fumetti (fumetto?) that sometimes makes almost no sense and usually makes absolutely no sense. The book’s opening suggestion that the comics be read out loud—frequently literally impossible—is just the first bird it flips at reader expectation; the fact that one of comics’ greatest artists has put out a book with zero of her own drawings in it is another gag in the same vein.
I could completely understand someone hating Carpet Sweeper Tales, and perhaps it’s a book best taken in small doses, but for anyone interested in the absurdist tradition, this is a real treat.
10. Patience (Daniel Clowes: Fantagraphics)
In a way I expect better of Daniel Clowes, because I expect THE MOST from Daniel Clowes, and this is not Clowes at his most. If anyone else had managed to craft such a dense, fascinating time-travel epic I’d probably have ranked it further up this list, just because my expectations would not have been so high. Still, there’s plenty to love here, and the loneliness of the Clowes protagonist is now the loneliness of being trapped in time. And look at that cover, surely one of the ugliest and therefor most beautiful designs Clowes or anyone has ever come up with!
II. The Best Floppy Issues of 2016
I didn’t make a list for this because it would be a pretty boring list. My favorite ongoing series of 2015 had been Giant Days, The Fade Out, and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl; my favorite ongoing series of 2016 are Giant Days, Kill or Be Killed, and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: which you will notice (if you know the comics involved) are practically the same thing.
The standouts I’d like to mention (other than Kill or be Killed) are Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s gorgeous Monstress (which I know started in 2015, but came into its own in 2016) and Mark Millar and Stuart Immomen’s Empress, which is pulptastically great and terrible in exactly the ways you expect a Millarworld space opera to be.
III. The Ten Best Reprint Volumes of 2016
(I know that Cosplayers and Founding Fathers Funnies had previously published material, but the volumes below are even more reprinty. I’m leaving out standard bundlings of comic titles I have previously picked out for top slots, such as Paper Girls or Criminal, assuming that would be redundant.)
1. Donald Duck: Terror of the Beagle Boys (Carl Barks: Fantagraphics)
Carl Barks is one of the undisputed masters of comics, and unless Drawn and Quarterly puts out more volumes of the John Stanley Library (where’s my Dunc and Loo, Seth?) Barks’s timeless stories are always going to be on top.
2. Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck: The Universal Solvent (Don Rosa: Fantagraphics)
…and Rosa’s will be right behind them.
Seriously, though, even if you’re not a Duck fanatic, the title story of this collection is such solid science fiction that you owe it a read (if you don’t want to buy a hardcover, it’s available other places).
3. Eltingville Club (Evan Dorkin: Dark Horse)
The cruelest and funniest take on nerd culture ever written (and therefore the evil flipside of Shaw’s Cosplayers, above), these stories are Dorkin’s masterwork (unless his masterwork is “Welcome to the Invisible College”; I flip flop). “Marathon Men,” in which our heroes try to watch an entire Twilight Zone marathon and are slowly driven mad by the caffeine, is a postmodern masterpiece, but this volume also includes the story of the Eltingville Club’s own evil flipside, the indy-comics purists of the Northwest Comix Collective. Both clubs strike too close to home for me; this collection is pure pain, but is nonetheless indispensable.
4. Kelly: The Cartoonist America Turns To (Ward Sutton: IDW)
Reading these political cartoons from The Onion straight through really drives home the point that Ward Sutton had not just been chronicling the foibles of America over the years: he was also painting a portrait of sad, proud Stan Kelly, the cartoonist ostensibly responsible for it all. Managing to bring a character to life solely through his fictional output is a coup of Borgesian proportions, and I’m having a hard time thinking of a time it was done this well.
The beloved webcomic mystery-solving tweens, reformatted and enormous. I’ve probably said enough about how much I love Giant Days that it would be redundant to harp on these books by the same author.
6. Donald Duck Sunday Comics Vol. 1 (Bob Karp & Al Taliaferro: IDW)
I know I’m beating a dead duck by this point, but these underappreciated slapstick Sunday strips are amazing.
7. Brighter Than You Think (Alan Moore: Uncivilized Books)
At his worst, Alan Moore is didactic and smug (actually, at his worst he’s cribbing plot points from Superfolks, but I mean at his almost worst), and this collection of his short pieces includes some in that vein; but it also includes some rarities that deserve to be preserved from oblivion, such as Moore’s Kool-Aid bio “The Hasty Smear of My Smile,” his Raw-era “Bowing Machine,” and his 9-11 story, which is actually good—an almost impossible feat. Even the pieces that fall flat are a reminder that there was a time when Alan Moore would try anything, and often succeed.
Features essays (by comics critic Mark Sobel) giving context to each story and details on its original publication, something every anthology should have.
8 Comics Dementia (Gilbert Hernandez: Fantagraphics)
Gilbert Hernandez has produced so many great Palomar comics in Love and Rockets that it’s easy to forget that his contribution to the first two issues was a surreal weirdorama outing that made no sense. Over the years he’s returned to the weirdorama format again and again between “normal” stories, sometimes unsuccessfully (Blubber) but sometimes, as in his 1996 miniseries New Love, with an inspired madness that drags art out of the scatology and deformed penises.
Comics Dementia has some of Gilbert Hernandez’s highpoints and lowpoints. But any collection that keeps “The Fabulous Ones” in print is a collection to celebrate.
9. The Living Mummy (Jack Davis: Fantagraphics)
Fantagraphics’ EC Artists’ Library is a great series of hardcovers, highlighting the amazing art from the greatest bullpen comics has ever seen (sorry, Silver Age Marvel! You’re #2). While Davis isn’t the best of the EC artists (there are several contenders, but my money’s on Wood), his exaggerated, slightly caricatured figures keep the horror both extremely disgusting and slightly at arm’s length (I mean that as a compliment).
10. Born to Be a Larve (Boulet: Soaring Pengiun)
You may think a blog in comics form is an idea that would have sounded less lame in 2004, and that’s a fair cop; but this blog is from 2004, collected in book form a few years later and only now translated for the American market. Even if these facts can’t keep you from hating, the impressive range of visual styles showcased in this volume should make up for the anachronism.
IV. Other books from 2016 I liked. Honorable mentions we can call them
In no particular order:
Why Would You Do That? (Andrea Tsurumi, Alternative Comics)
Little Dee and the Penguin (Christopher Baldwin: Dial)
Talk Dirty to Me (Luke Howard: Adhouse)
Bobbins (John Allison: Scary-Go-Round Press)
Badger: Battle of the Five Wizards (Mike Baron & Val Myerik: Devil’s Due)
Irene Vol. 6 (var.: Alternative Comics)
Adulthood Is a Myth (Sarah Andersen: Andrews McMeel)
V. Did you already make a list?
You probably already did, because I’m late with mine, but if you didn’t, you should. Share yours with me when you do.