Welcome to my final favorites list for 2014, where I talk about the comics I read that weren't speculative or superheroes. There's a ton of material that falls into this category, of course, and it's also the one that has the strongest ties to my SPX roots, as this is where the bulk of the mini comics and micro-presses are to be found, because my taste there runs to autobiographical stories, non-fiction, and other slice of life style works.
Remember, of course, that favorite does not mean best. Best implies objectivity, and putting together these end of year lists is the height of subjectivity. Heck, even after I write them, there's wondering if maybe I should have added or subtracted to them! It's also a lot of hard choices--leaving off Cat Person by Seo Kim was extremely difficult, for example, as was deciding that The Fade Out was going to be faded out of the final selections.
I read a lot of great comics every year, and I thank all of you, writers, artists, and publishers for what you do each and every day, often for little to no pay whatsoever, or at rates that break down to very small numbers when you look at them from an hourly perspective. Without you, I wouldn't be able to enjoy so much great material every year!
Before this gets too sentimental, let's look at what I named as my favorites for this category. One final note: Unlike some of the others, most of these got a review from me, so I'm not quite as wordy this time around. Maybe that's better, actually, LOL! Enjoy!
The Anthropologists (Sparkplug) by Whit TaylorTaking a serious, introspective look at a part of her life through a semi-autobiographical lens, our own Whit Taylor shows that her skills as a creator keep leveling up every year. This story about visiting indigenous people in Australia and feeling uncomfortable, especially with regards to how others think of them, may be set in another country but has implications for those of us in the United States. Wren's thoughts about her own identity after looking at that of someone else is really something to watch, and the way in which she clashes with her classmate, not openly, but in contrasting reactions and actions, shows how great the disconnects can be between people who are alike on the surface. Focused squarely on the people--Whit's not quite to the point where she can make Australia come alive, but that isn't the point here, anyway--this is a very deep mini about wondering what you're doing with your life, a theme that I can certainly relate to--and I bet you, can, too.
Down to the Sea Again (Self-Published) by Lucy BellwoodLucy's spent a lot of time on boats, and she even has an educational mini-comic series about all things nautical. When she had the chance to be part of a new voyage for an old whaling ship, she
Dragon's Breath and Other Stories (2D Cloud) by Mari NaomiFor several years now, Mari has been sharing parts of her life online at various places, and periodically in anthologies as well. This graphic memoir collects a bunch of them together for the first time, working roughly chronologically through her life, from childhood memories mixed with adult knowledge (in the title story, about her kindly but horribly racist grandfather) to watching some of her friends meet tragic ends to meeting an marrying her husband. Mari is absolutely unflinching, which is why she's such a good memoirist, so we get to see her good and bad sides, favors and flaws. She's lived a really exciting life where taking the safe route often wasn't even considered. The style varies from more traditional cartoon work to more experimental, free-flowing moments, and because these are from different years, some of the work changes in ability from page to page. It's interesting to watch Mari's versions of herself on the page, too, as she captures different looks and styles as her life walks across the 80s, 90s, and beyond. This was one of two outstanding memoirs I read in 2014, the other appearing on the list a few more entries down.
Little Nemo Dream Another Dream (Locust Moon) by Just About EveryoneThis tribute book by comic book store/publisher Locust Moon was part of a successful Kickstarter, and it's no wonder, when you look at the talent exploding from its oversize pages. Besides featuring some of my favorite creators, like Box Brown, Rafter Roberts, and Nate Powell, it's got superstars like J.H. Williams III, P. Craig Russell, and even folks who don't use initials in their name! Carla Speed McNeil, Peter Bagge, Jamie Tanner--I could go on and on, but you get the idea. While sticking closely to the theme, there are amazing and wide ranging takes, some of which include the creators' own characters. Innovative page work abounds, and while the price is prohibitive, it was simply too good to not put in on my favorites lists. (Did I mention Mike Allred and Farel Dalrymple yet?)
Magic Whistle 14 (Alternative Comics) by Sam HendersonSam is one of two criminally underrated creators on this list, and at least in Sam's case, I think some of that has to do with his style, namely taking those inane cartoons you tend to skip in literary magazines and turning them on their ear. With a deceptively simple style and a willingness to go as lowbrow as necessary to hit the joke, Henderson can be witty, crude, and silly--often all at the same time. While often at his best when doing something short (I own a one-panel gag where Sam draws Mr. Miracle to explain he has 4th World Problems), his long-form comics show that he's at home with running gags as well. There are dick jokes, a recurring theme of biting pieces off people's asses, and there's quite a bit of social commentary lurking about in Sam's brain that he puts on the page on a regular basis. This is a different end of the raw comics spectrum, kind of a bridge between, say, Mad Magazine and Johnny Ryan. It's easily to look past it, but that would be a mistake. Especially since sometimes, it's just fun to kick back and laugh at things that are woefully wrong and yet so very right.
The Nib (via Medium, at https://medium.com/the-nib) edited by Matt Bors and featuring Bors, Erika Moen, Rich Stevens, Jen Sorensen, Tom Tomorrow, and Many OthersWhen Google killed its best feature (Reader), my RSS use went into a tailspin, and I missed out on a lot of great webcomics that I liked to read, particularly ones with a political bent. Enter Matt Bors, who began editing a feature of the Twitter spin-off Medium called The Nib, which features a regular rotation of creators, such as Bors himself and one of the all-time best political cartoonists, Tom Tomorrow and This Modern World. There were plenty of other great creators in the initial wave, like Jen Sorensen on the political side and Erika Moen giving us the skinny on sex stuff with Oh Joy Sex Toy. Rich Stevens's Diesel Sweeties gave it a long-time heavy hitter, too. Best of all, Matt set it up so that we got daily e-mails so I didn't have to run around trying to find the content I was looking for. Amazing! The feature quickly gained steam and popularity (so many people I know read The Nib on a regular basis) and started adding guest features, which have included a murder's row of indie creators. I don't like all of his choices, of course--there's one that's completely offensive and bigoted that really annoys me--but that's to be expected. Political cartooning in corporate newspapers is pretty much down the shitter, but the web keeps it alive, and The Nib is the best place to find it, along with quirky tales, personal accounts, and even a live-drawing of a sailing race. If by some chance you aren't reading The Nib, make sure you check it, and get on the mailing list.
Noah Van Sciver's Minis (2D Cloud, Oily, and Self-Published) by Noah Van SciverWhat's better than a year with a Noah Van Sciver mini? A year with three Noah Van Sciver minis! Opening with The Lizard Laughed, a story of a deadbeat dad and the son who's come to kill him, a month-long look at Noah's personal life in the middle, and a set of stories based off daily sketchbook drawings to top it all off was a perfect way to whet my appetite for 2015, when we get a new long-form work from Noah. I've written extensively (and Erica even once chipped in a rare review) about Noah over the life of Panel Patter, and everything I like about him holds true here. He's one of the best at doing one-man anthology work, and if you think of these as a version of Blammo (which was collected by Ad House this year, too!), it makes up for not getting one this year. Noah is amazing at making unpleasant people compelling, with his distinctive, line-heavy work giving them a slight sense of unease that's heightened at just the right moments, such as the end of Lizard Laughed. The sketchbook includes a fun werewolf tale that'a a mini-within-a-mini, and seeing how Noah structures his days--and forms a relationship--was a welcome and rare look into his personal life in comics form. One of my favorite creators working right now, any of these would be a great way for you to introduce yourself to an extremely underrated talent.
Old-Timey Hockey Tales 2 (Self-Published) by Rob UllmanWhile Rob might be best known for his great drawings of attractive women, he's also a total sports nut with a fondness for the teams from my old home town (and thus also close to my heart), Pittsburgh. Rob's knowledge of hockey is particularly strong, and he shows it in this long-awaited mini that features stories from hockey's wide history. Ullman varies his style, working in black and white as well as color, being rougher or looser depending on the story and making a one-man anthology have a nice variety while still being of amazing quality and full of the slick, thick inks that is Rob's hallmark. This isn't going to be a favorite for everyone, but if you like hockey at all, man, this is one you need to pick up yesterday.
Panel Patter contributor Whit Taylor edits a high-quality set of stories that look at groups of people who are marginalized by their interests (though sometimes that's justified). I was very impressed with the quality of this anthology, which features a heavy focus on mini-comics creators, as I found myself wanting to read every entry carefully, not just skimming, as can happen in similar level works. There's a really nice sense of pacing, too, with longer stories mixing with the short, one-page pieces, and serious, more personal takes not being all jammed together. Rob Kirby mentioned anthologies having "batting averages" which is similar to my ratio comments, and we both agreed this one scores highly on our scales of quality for anthologies. Whether it's discussing how friends can move into their own subcultures or dissing Juggaloes (you really haven't lived until you see Noah's take on those idiots), this extensive look at the ways in which we classify ourselves is fascinating, compelling, and highly recommended.
Three (Image) Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, and Jordie BellaireThis stick in the eye to Frank Miller really struck me, because honestly, how often do you see a mini-series form Image that's historical fiction, not fictionalized history? A look at the dark side of the often lionized Spartans (who were a model for Hitler for God's sake, why do people idolize them?), this series has three Helot slaves end up taking on the wrath of all of Spartan by a series after they push things a bit too far for their masters' liking. Now they're on the run while their actions, which punch a hole in the pride and invincibility of the Spartans, spark a ripple of reactions throughout the land with deadly consequences. It's a story where the ending is inevitable but the getting there is amazing. Ryan Kelly turns in some of his best-ever art for this one, using his hyper-detailed facial work to really drive home the sneers and cutting remarks, while his overall lines bring bloody accuracy and sheer violence, along with just how petty these guys really were. In some ways, the art, too, is anti-Miller, in its ability to show truth instead of abstracting lines. With Jordie Bellaire coloring it--including dripping red blood randomly across multiple pages--this was a great read for any one who loves classical civs--or just a damned good story.
Tomboy (Zest) by Liz PrinceThe other outstanding graphic memoir from this year was this one, as another unflinching creator, Liz Prince spoke frankly about growing up decidedly heterosexual and yet also rejecting the tropes and stereotypes that many girls of our generation were forced to endure. I admit it was a bit hard to read about her mom being supportive of her rejection of gender roles while I was screamed at for preferring Strawberry Shortcake to socket wrenches and told how wrong anything non-masculine was for me. But that didn't stop me from appreciating her struggle, the reactions of those around her (particularly at school), and how discovering zines really helped change her perspective of what it might mean to be a young woman. Prince uses some great recurring themes to prove her point, along with iconic clothing to help dictate time period. Her linework gets things across without going into lavish detail, and while nothing can be remembered perfectly, Liz recreates this part of her life and how it's impacted on her adulthood with honesty and care, even for those who might not deserve it. I wish I'd had a book like this to read when I was a young person, it might have saved me from a decade plus of trying to find out who I really am, and knowing I wasn't alone in this meant a lot to me personally, even now. A loving mix of seriousness and sarcasm, like all of Liz's work, this was an amazing book I was so very happy to read.
Velvet (Image) by Ed Bubaker and Steve EptingI am an unrepentant fan of James Bond and similar stories (I even used to read Tom Clancy books), so it's no surprise that this story, in which the unnoticed department secretary turns out to be a badass former agent (which makes so much sense I can't believe we haven't seen this before) who smells a rat and ends up getting framed and has to go into the wind to try and clear her name--and stop the real criminal at the same time. This is set as a period piece, too, which makes it even better, as Cold War paranoia is always the best setting for spy flicks--it's part of why Bond has lost a step in these new movies. There's some great plotting, of course, from Ed, and I like that he makes Velvet a very human character, who makes mistakes but is still way ahead of her compatriots. She's not invincible, which gives a nice sense of danger, but at the same time, as male spies die around her, we don't feel like it's just because she'a a woman. There's even a nice twist on the "falling for the girl" trope, too. Meanwhile Epting just draws the hell out of this one, with very realistic, slick art. It doesn't feel photo-references, but we also could picture this happening outside our door, if we wanted to die in an accidental hail of bullets, that is. A great package, and I can't wait for more in 2015.
Honorable Mentions to: Eat that Toast (Czap Books) by Matt Czap, a series of short, funny pieces that are absurd and often really funny, It'll Never Happen Again (Uncivilized Books) by Sam Alden, two stories that show off Alden's artistic abilities and the craft of pencil-only comics, and Tally Marks (Monkeybrain) by Natalie Nourigat, the artist's sketchbooks while on an extended trip to Europe.