January 2, 2018

, , , , , , , , , , , ,   |  

Rob M's Favorite Indie Books of 2017

It's the end of the year, so now as people who write about comics, it's time for us to talk about the books we liked best from the past year. James has already done his thing in his own inimitable fashion, and Scott should be working on a list which I believe he is checking twice. (The man has a complex spreadsheet, it's really impressive.) Mike's piece ran earlier today. One of these years, we'll do one as a team. But not this time. We're just lucky to all still be here, after recent events.

Careful readers will notice two things: One, this is my first year doing lists in awhile. All I can say is that after 2016's election in the US, I was barely thinking about comics. The second is that yet again, I've changed how I looked at the comics I read in 2017. I'm pretty happy with this breakdown, so it might stick. Or it might not. We'll see.

I decided to start with the one that has the most candidates for me, books I've loosely lumped into the indie category. These are the books that I didn't feel fell cleanly into a genre like horror or sci-fi, though one could make an argument for a few of them, I'm sure. Anyway, these are my lists, my rules, my categories.

I'd also like to note that there are so many good comics I didn't get to in 2017 that I'm sure would have made my list, like Spinning by Tillie Walden (who shows up on another of my lists) or even the new Groo series, which I just never got a chance to read. So don't take my lists as exhaustive--they're just the books that stuck with me in a really shitty year that found me taking months to even want to look much at comics again. I hope 2018 is better.

And if you didn't get to any of these books, I highly encourage you to do so. They're all excellent. That's why I list alphabetically instead of using numbers. I'm not going to tell you that a comic showing just how sad the current US President is two numbers better or worse than the story of running a fan site in the wild, "early" days of the internet. They're both amazing and worth your time, for different reasons.

Let's get to the list, shall we? It goes up to 11, for no other reason than I can't let James claim all the jokes...



As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman, Published by Iron Circus Comics
Gillman's story of a young queer Christian of color questioning her faith and her place within an overtly white outdoor camp has been a webcomic for quite some time now, and I was so happy to hear that Spike was bringing it into print. Even if you didn't grow up with lingering questions in your mind, it's easy to identify with Charlie, who at thirteen is having a major crisis of faith--and the clueless, white-based camp isn't helping anything. Mel's colored pencils give this comic a distinctive look that can provide details like the slightly changing shades in one person's hair. They also do a great job of making the characters distinct, both in terms of personal and visuals, while also really giving the reader a strong sense of place, something not all indie creators can do.

Chronicles of Fortune by Coco Picard, Published by Radiator Comics
I spoke a bit about this one when I mentioned Radiator's sale. While the size might be off-putting for some, this comic requires time to build its world, none of which is wasted space. Picard layers depth, even as the drawings themselves are single, thin lines that don't even try to be exacting in their depictions, reminding me a lot of Eleanor Davis' black and white comics. The main character is a woman who feels uncomfortable in her own skin, so she creates a superhero persona and then it becomes impossible for the readers to determine what's actually happening, and what is merely in her mind. What's great about that is how Picard draws the mundane (like office gossip sessions) exactly how she handles the unusual, like a thought-projecting mountain that moves in. It's a really powerful work that sticks with me because of how Coco presents her story.

Complete Strange Growths 1991-1997 by Jenny Zervakis, Published by Spit and a Half
They're all a little older than me, but I love reading the work of people like John Porcellino, Anne Thalheimer, and others, who started their comic work firmly within the world of zines. It means that their comics worry less about being a Comic (and all that it entails) and more about having a strong personal connection with the reader. I hadn't run into Zervakis' work, but thanks to John, I had the pleasure of reading this collection and savoring each page. (In fact, unlike most comics, I read this one in zine-sized chunks, to recreate the feel.) Running the gamut from personal stories to short writings to fictionalized accounts, Zervakis captures what it's like being a person who writes or draws their life for others to see. Working originally in pencil and ballpoint (which was recreated amazingly well by John in terms of the finished product), you can watch Jenny grow before your eyes as an artist, adding depth and clarity to her work as the years go by.

Deadwater by Jen Vaughn, Self-Published
It's so great to see Jen doing more work these days, as I loved Avery Fatbottom and her work in Cartozia Tales. This one-shot is set in the time when people needed guides to go West, and were reliant on them being trustworthy. In Deadwater, there's a bit of a cloud, as a young woman who is finding her own identity discovers when she peeks closer into her father's business. It's a dark tale with a great twist and a cool ending, and queer to boot. Jen's thick lines create flowing characters that work very well when she's drawing women especially, showing them as more than posing people. I also love her use of greyscale to better effect than others deal with full color. Not sure if this one is available anymore, but I love having it.

I Am Not Okay with This by Charles Forsman, Published by Fantagraphics
Quite possibly no one writes disturbed youth characters as well as Chuck does. From the now-adapted End of the Fucking World to this latest work, it's clear that he's able to tap into that level of frustration and hurt that we all experienced, taking it down the darkened roads that we only imagined instead of acting on. (If you never, ever had a dark, violent thought in your life, I envy you.) Given the freedom of the comic page, Forsman can even take it into the land of the fantastic. Sydney, drawn to look a bit like Olive Oil, is a queer teen of 15 stuck in a world that seems to hate her and a family dynamic that makes it worse. Add on top mental powers that she can barely control, and Sydney's life is a tragedy waiting to take place. Forsman creates a high school of the worst kinds of people, drawing them in all shapes and sizes that again have that newspaper strip look to them, adding to the impact of the violence. Sparse backgrounds set the seen as we watch things go from bad to worse for Sydney in one of Chuck's best books--so far.

In Between by Mita Mahato, Published by Pleiades Press
I'm still new to the idea of poetry comics, but I like the concept a lot--another work will show up on a later favorites list--and why some might say, "How does that differ from a regular comic?" the answer is as distinct in my head as it is hard to describe. Some day, I'll write a post on it. The short version is for me that just as how words can shape a poem and do more than they do as prose, so does the mix of visuals and text come together in ways that are unique to creating a poetry comic vs a traditional comic, regardless of how experimental it is. Using paper cutouts to create a three-dimensional effect like the webcomic My Cardboard Life by Phillipa Rice, Mahato even uses unrelated text to form images within her work. Ranging from cut-out space ships to static objects used to make human-shaped bodies jarring, Mahato made my favorites by being distinctive from anything else I read in 2017. I look forward to more from her.

Language Barrier by Hannah K. Lee, Published by Koyama Press
A collection of short stories collected by zines, Lee's work focuses quite a bit of how woman are treated, including the absolutely brutal section where fake compliments from men are mixed with images of (presumably the author's avatar) being broken down until it's nothing more than pieces in a fruit bowl, mixed with the oranges. The same section features a woman slowly decomposing while inane conversation by men goes past. It's brilliant work, and only a small section of Lee's collection, but I kept thinking about it days after I read it. With other sections including really cool drawings of shoes I want to wear and brilliant, vibrant coloring throughout, this was a surprise hit for me--but that's Koyama for you--always finding new creators for me to follow.


Shit my President Says by Shannon Wheeler, Published by Top Shelf/IDW
There were three really cool books who went after the Fuehrer this year, each in their own way. In the end, I think Shannon's sticks with me the most. While there's no denying the unbelievable variety of R. Sikoryak's styles or the sheer raw power of Warren Craghead III's grotesques (and a special mention to the Twitter handle President Supervillain), I found Wheeler's decision to show 45's childishness via a young boy wearing a man's clothes, acting out some of the things he's said over the past few years to be so compelling I picked it to be on this list. (I think I'll try to do a long-form review of the three side-by-side in 2018. Someone hold me to that.) The sheer look of sadness as the man-child knows he's paid for the women bouncing on his bed shows just how sad the man with incredible power really is, when you look at his own words. Wheeler's style is similar to what you might see in the New Yorker, and I sometimes dislike his understated illustrations, but here he absolutely nails it. Showing reality in small, pithy terms is hard, especially when it's so easy to mock the vile man who won. I place this one here to recognize that.

Short Order Crooks by George Kambadais, Lesley Atlansky, Christopher Sebela, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, Self-Published
What do you do when your life isn't going the direction you hoped? Borrow money from illegal sources and open a food cart that's completely unsuccessful because you can't be bothered to open in time for the lunch crowd. When a young displaced woman provides better food than you ever did, maybe things are looking up--except for being asked to help the mob go after its rivals, that is. This preposterous set-up that takes its inspiration from Portland's many, many food carts and a dash of criminal comedies, blended together by the excellent linework of Kambadais, whose square-shaped characters fill out each panel and are set to burst out at the reader. I don't often put a "one issue so far" series on a favorites list, but I loved every minute of this one and can't wait to read the rest.

Small Stories by Shing Yin Khor, Self-Published
Small in size but large in quality, this field-notes sized collection of short watercolor works from Shing range from a lengthy reflection on relationships to short poems with illustrations to a daughter reflecting on what items had meaning to her mother. All of them are tightly constructed, with colors that blend into one another, making for a sense of non-reality, even when they characters themselves feel very human. Though not explicitly autobiographical, they feel personal. This is one of those rare comics I read and re-read to help better understand.

Weird Me by Kelly Phillips, Self-Published
I'll never forget my mother calling me into the living room to hear this song she knew I'd love for sure, "Eat It." Thus began my Weird Al fandom. And while I've enjoyed his work over the decades, I'm not even close to Kelly's level of devotion, which included convincing family to drive her to multiple shows, going to a fan convention, and...running a Weird Al fan site that helped get UHF onto DVD! Holy crap! I've been a long-time fan of Kelly's, going back to the first Dirty Diamonds, and I was excited when I heard she was collecting these minis. Kelly's story is most positive, but shows the darker side of both fandom and the internet, and how lucky she was not to have anything bad happen as a teen working within a largely adult fanbase. Her greyscale art flows across the page, worrying not about panels (unless she wants them) and integrating text and visuals in a manner that seems to elude most.

That's my favorites, but of course there were many others I read that were good, too--but it's not a very good list if you include everything. How about you? What indie books did you like that I missed and need to read in 2018? Did you read any of these? I'd love to have a conversation, something that seems lost these days. You can either comment here or hit me on Twitter at @rob_McMonigal