January 3, 2019

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Rob's Favorite Comics of 2018: The Final 29!

I keep talking about how good 2018 was for comics. I mentioned on Twitter a few days ago that I think this was the hardest year I've ever had in terms of making my final picks. Just so much good work out there--so much that I had to share my short list in addition to this one for the first time. (I think I'll do that every year now--it was a lot of fun!)

You'll notice this year that instead of several genre-based (sort of) lists, I've gone to one combined list. More and more, genre lines are blurring, and I never did like my "indie" or "all the rest" or whatever I used for the books that didn't quite fit. So after working different forms of list, and checking them all twice, I finally decided, "Ah, screw it!" and here we are, one big old list full of superheroes, super-creepy horror, super pseudo-science, and super affirmations. It's got work from two of the biggest publishers and a pick from one of the smallest (but best) publishers I know. You'll find a great allegory for the elimination of Native American culture by effective child theft alongside a story set within the all-too-real world of Portland's deadly underground tunnels. Heck, there's even a reprinted series that was a throwback to EC horror-style stories right next to a comic that makes fun of the many EC knock-offs! My list is a complex mesh of the multi-faceted world of comics right now, and I wouldn't have it any other way.



Despite the new look, I'm still listing these books alphabetically. It was hard enough narrowing this list down to 29, asking me to rank them would be a bridge too far. (I will tell you my Comic of the Year along the way, however, and it's probably no surprise if you ever hang out with me on Twitter.) Let's get started, shall we?

100 Demon Dialogues by Lucy Bellwood, self-published
Once upon an inktober or two, Lucy came up with the idea of drawing her nagging doubts, fears, and insecurities, and talking back to them. The project expanded and became 100 Demon Dialogues, where Lucy pushes back against the things "said" to her by her inner thoughts. In the end, though this doesn't quite tell a story, we see that the demon doesn't want to harm--it's just afraid of being hurt, too. A great look at what plagues all of us and the power of sharing fears.

Abbott by Saladin Ahmed, Sami Kivela, Jason Wordie, and Jim Campbell, published by Boom! Studios
I wrote about Abbott a few times last year, because it's such a great comic. It's a period piece, set in the 70s that has the look and feel of the era and the politics that go along with it if you're an independent black woman trying to work within the world of the cops and newspapers. It's got great horror elements, strong dialogue, and a plot that keeps you going right through the end. Ahmed's ability to write a comic is unbelievable given his newness to the medium, and this is the first of two books from him on my list. Meanwhile, Kivela's artwork really impressed me with its layouts and style. Just a great comic I hope everyone reads so we can get more stories in Abbott's world.

Assassinistas by Tini Howard, Gilbert Hernandez, Rob Davis, and Aditya Bidikar, published by IDW
It's fitting that this title is right after Abbott, because Tini Howard also makes my list twice (and almost got the hat trick with Euthanauts, which was on my longlist). My representative of the amazing Black Crown Line edited by Shelly Bond (there's not a single title I've read so far that I didn't really like), this team-up of Howard and Hernandez is a great comedic romp through the tail end of exploitation films in the early 80s, with a group of women who mostly retired after killing people for money who get drawn back into the world due to family obligations, taking some less-than-willing family members along for the ride. Howard's scripting is pitch-perfect and Hernandez really excels at the visual comedy here.

Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, Rico Renzi, and Clayton Cowles, published by Image
It's normally pretty hard to get onto my final list if you only published two issues during the year, but Bitter Root is just that damned good. A horror comic set in Renaissance Harlem, complete with the racial politics also featured in Incognegro (see below!), the premise is that a family fights monsters begotten of hatred. And as their numbers dwindle, hate seems to be on the rise. Greene's linework plays well here, with his exaggerated figures making for amazing, distinctive monsters and a strong sense of movement. Walker is always ready with a strong plot and script and this is no exception. Bitter Root needs to be a breakout hit in 2019. Let's make it happen.

Black Hammer and related Series by Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston and others, published by Dark Horse Comics
I admit I was late to the Black Hammer party. At first blush I saw yet another indie creator doing a riff on existing superheroes, and I overlooked it until catching up in trade. Yikes, was I wrong! I should have trusted Lemire and his collaborators (from co-creator Ormston to David Rubin to Rich Tommaso) to find a way to take the story in directions that made them unique. This entry is kind of a catch-all for the various books in this extensive world, and part of why I love this so much is that Lemire didn't just have a riff on a superhero concept--he's got an entire world he's developing here, with no end in sight. Ormston's art style is very distinctive, making for a world of heroes who aren't quite as heroic as you're used to, and the other have followed this theme. I'm still catching up on some of these tales, and I can't wait to get current.

Blammo #10 by Noah Van Sciver, published by Kilgore Books
The one-person anthology is something of a lost art. Fortunately, Noah carries the tradition on, taking time away from his multiple other projects (Fante Bukowsi and One Dirty Tree, just to name two) to continue this fun series that features everything from an adaptation of a story about Mark Twain's contemporary Artemus Ward and Mormons, a heartbreaking story about a dead cartoonist's potential legacy, and a great story of the time Noah found "The Hypo" in a used book store. It's amazing just now much gets packed into one issue! Noah's storytelling skills just keep improving with age. I really hope Blammo keeps going for years and years.

Dark Nights Metal by Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, James Tynion IV, Mikel Jannin, Jonathan Glapion, Steve Wands, and Others, published by DC Comics
Superhero comics are at their best when the creators just say "screw it" and go with the stupid, weird idea that's in their head. That's what Synder did here, coming up with a series of worlds in which Batman's fears overtook him, with tragic results. When those worlds are in danger of collapsing, they combine forces to take over "our" Batman's Earth, and not even the Justice League and all their cohorts look strong enough to stop them. But hey, this is Batman we're talking about--and he'll do anything (even team up with his arch-nemesis) to stop the destruction of all he knows. The whole thing has all the lovely strangeness of a Silver Age story combined with raised stakes fitting a modern take and some really awesome visuals, primarily from Capullo. I openly laughed multiple times, enjoying the sheer fun of every page. This story has severe consequences, but it doesn't require massive characters deaths to tell it, and I wish more creators would take Snyder's cue and do the same. If you can't appreciate a story where the JLA becomes Voltron to beat Mongul, Bruce rides a dinosaur (and later, a Joker-dragon), and ends with Alfred playing drums, I don't know what to tell you. More of this, please, DC!

Daygloayhole Quarterly by Ben Passmore, published by Silver Sprocket
Ben Passmore is great at social commentary. I usually see it in the form of contemporary settings, either in nonfiction on The Nib or via works like Your Black Friend. Here, Ben shows he can do the same thing in a futuristic hellscape, where one of the few remaining things left is pornography, cops who don't realize they've nothing left to protect, and weird creatures who threaten all who still live in this world. Ben uses an avatar of sorts for himself to wander the world and reflect on it, sometimes shifting off to other characters. All of the stories feature a reflection of the world we live in now, highlighting some of its more unpleasant aspects. It's all drawn in a style that fits the old underground comix look, dirty and grimy, but Passmore isn't his predecessors--he's not racist or sexist. This is the kind of "raw" style of work that I enjoy when done right, such as by Josh Bayer or Pat Aulisio. I'm really curious if Passmore has an ending in mind for this series, or if his characters will roam this strange, depleted earth for awhile yet.

Exiles by Saladin Ahmed, Javier Rodriguez, and others, published by Marvel Comics
Marvel's Multiverse is part of what makes it so much fun. Almost two decades ago, Judd Winnick and others played in the sandbox with the idea of a team of alternate reality heroes forced to work to save the multiverse. In 2018, Saladin Ahmed and Javier Rodriguez brought the concept back with a few twists, keeping Blink but bringing in new figures, including movie-style Valkyrie, a Tiny-Titans style Wolverine, and the disgraced Nick Fury. When a series gives us Ben Grimm-as-Blackbeard, adds Captain America Peggy Carter from Marvel Puzzle Quest, and pits T'Challa as a gunman against Magnego in the Wild West, you've got a series that knows exactly how much fun it can have--and plays it to the hilt. The series is fun fun fun but with high stakes, too--a combination we don't see nearly often enough anymore in comics, as the dark and serious vibe still dominates. Rodriguez and company draw whatever zany idea Saladin has in mind, with some really stunning visual pages, especially in the climax to the first arc, which features Kang powered up to Galactus-level might so he can destroy entire realities. Yes. That's exactly what you read. Kanglactus. See what I mean?

Farmhand by Rob Guillory, Taylor Wells, and Kody Chamberlain, published by Image
It would be awesome if we could grow replacement limbs and organs right? Right? Not so fast. Farmhand offers a cautionary tale as a man visits his famous, groundbeaking father, who seems to have solved a major problem. Except there's more malice than medicine involved. Creepy, sometimes icky, and incredibly enjoyable, this literal body horror story hit all the right notes for me.

Fashion Forecasts by Yumi Sakugawa, published by Retrofit
Yumi's work is always pushing the boundaries of the printed page, and this is no exception. As usual, it's part drawing, part book of philosophy, and in this case, part installation art display. The theme is what fashion might look like if we all opened up our imagination and allowed our creativity to run wild, without worrying about societal norms. Some are practical, like emergency chopstick earrings, while others recognize our ancestors or respect and celebrate age. There's also some photos of the installation, pages featuring loose sketch ideas, the original concept, and a bit of philosophy at the end. There's no worries about figures or proportions or making sure everything looks quite right. It's unrestrained id, and a lovely breath of fresh air in a year where constrictions threatened to choke us all in their grip.

Frankenstein by Junji Ito, published by Viz
I'm pretty sure Uzumaki was when I came to realize how amazing horror manga was, starting an obsession that's lasted for well over a decade now. Ito is, bar none, one of the best at horror comics from any country. In this collection, he provides perhaps the best adaptation of Mary Shelley that I've read (and I've read a lpt of them), pacing the story fast enough to move for a modern reader yet also lingering on the ghoulish nature of Victor's work. His creature design is clearly inspired by Karloff, but there are touches, like the eye scars, that are all Ito. Paired with some of his own horror work, including a person trapped in a wall and kids finding their own graves, this is probably my favorite Ito offering from Viz since Uzumaki.

Friendo by Alex Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe, and Taylor Esposito, published by Vault Comics
2018 found multiple creators looking at how modern technology might change our lives forever, and not necessarily in a good way. Chris Sebela wrote Crowded, focusing on the gig economy taken to eleven, while Alex went in a different direction, looking at the idea of a virtual assistant that's really designed to make us buy buy buy! When our protagonist, Leo, gets zapped while the device is on, his assistant starts making some very strange decisions for him, causing Leo's life to get even more complicated than being part of a Wizard of Oz-themed sexy dance team. As the assistant grows in power, the menace of both the creation--and its corporate creators grow. It's a great concept, played with just the right amount of humor by Paknadel, who does an excellent job of balancing Leo's character--he's unlikable, but not enough to make him hard to follow as a lead character. And I can't say enough about Martin Simmonds' linework here--he creates a world that's simultaneously shiny and sinister, the crud that keeps getting shoved aside hiding at the edges, just waiting to explode. And his facial expressions are to die for. Be a friend-o to yourself and start reading this one.

Hack/Slash Resurrection by Tini Howard, Celor, K. Michael Russell, and Crank!, published by Image Comics
Cassie Hack's tragedy is not that she was the daughter of a serial killer and feels compelled to kill all the slashers she meets. It's that she can't move on from the fate she's selected for herself. It's a theme that Tini Howard uses so well in this series, mixing the humor and violence and sexiness we've always had with a great touch of keeping Cassie trapped in the world she lives in, seemingly unable to break out. It's a great slow-burn while you get fun, Scooby-Doo style romps and guest appearances by Vampirella. Celor's art carries on in the attractive women drawn well style, and does a good job of matching Howard's pace. A fun comic I'm glad I started reading years ago continues to remain strong in these new creative hands.

Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, and others, published by Marvel
I love the Hulk, but the character can be very hard to use properly. Hell, even Stan, Jack, and Steve had trouble getting him to work and put him on the shelf after six issues initially. Enter Al Ewing, who leaned in hard to the idea of Hulk-as-horror, sending him to face monsters of all kinds, including the worst of all--Bruce's father. A clinic on how to write single issues in the modern era, Ewing's plotting is top notch, and the idea that this time, Banner's split into a very different relationship with the Hulk persona gives us a fresh take that in some ways, hews closer to his original presentation, I think. Bennett is the main artist, and his Hulk looms over everything without being insanely huge. This was my comic of the year in 2018, and might just go two for two in 2019 if it keeps up.

Incognegro Renaissance by Mat Johnson, Warren Pleese, and Clem Robins, published by Dark Horse
A reporter uses his ability to pass as white to investigate a death the authorities don't seem to care about--that of an angry black author whose work may be getting misused by a white writer. It's a dangerous path in any circumstances, but Zane's got to be extremely careful because those who trespass where they "don't belong" often get it the worst. A murder mystery, a love story, and a look into a past we prefer to forget sometimes, Incognego is a great story. Johnson's pacing of the mystery is great, taking the reader on twists and turns. Pleese, working in black and white and greytones, really makes the world feel alive and set in the Harlem of the Jazz age. This is their second collaboration, and I hope we see Zane return again soon.

Iron Scars by Colleen Frakes, self-published
A small community of people live in a world of magic. A small group of quirky witches (including one that's basically a sea creature and another that prefers to be a bird) do their best to guard everyone against the fairies, who are by no means friendly. When the kids realize one of their own isn't who she appears to be, the fragile balance starts to break down in one of Colleen's best comics in a long history of great work. The characters are easy to love, the plot is a lot of fun--and really, only just starting to develop as we enter the second set of stories, and Colleen's use of black ink here is really phenomenal. I can't wait to read more in this world in 2019!

Moth & Whisper by Ted Anderson, Jen Hickman, and Marshall Dillon, published by Aftershock
The Moth and Whisper were at the top of the spy game, in a world in which identity is everything and most people have nothing. Their child carries on after they disappear, trying to unlock the secret behind their demise. Using all the tricks that worked for the pair, this new hybrid of Moth and Whisper must try to keep one step ahead of both the authorities and criminals, but are they as good as their parents? One slip could lead to losing everything. An intriguing premise about masks and hiding your true self blended into a high-tech dystopia where the children of powerful people want to carve their own identity adds a lot of depth here. Hickman's art does a good job of showing the hidden vulnerability of the main character, but is a little stiffer than I'd like. Overall, though, this is a great story that is a great example of the good work Aftershock is doing right now.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Comic by Joel Hodgson and a Ton of Other People, published by Dark Horse Comics
No shock that this one is on here, as a long-time fan of the show. I wasn't sure how they'd opt to handle the comic, but the idea of sending Jonah and the bots (even the new ones for the Netflix series) into the comics themselves, and re-bubbling them instead of just riffing as they read the pages was a pretty cool idea. Sure, we've seen this before (Marvel Romance Redux, President Supervillain on Twitter, and so on), but the mix of new and old pages, the skillful integration of the art (Mike Manley on issue one does it almost seamlessly), and of course, the jokes make this one unique. This is probably more for MST3K and old comic fans than a general audience, but I love that it exists.

Nix Quarterly by Ken Eppstein, Michael Neno, Gideon Kendall, Mark Rudolph, Liz Valasco, Pat Redding Scanlon, Matt Minder, and Matt LeJeune, published by Nix Comics
Well, it's not a true quarterly, but Ken's ongoing horror anthology is just as good if not better than it always was. Mixing sex, drugs, and rock and roll with horror is totally my jam, and Ken's ability to find ways to keep it fresh make me eagerly await each issue. The highlight in this one is showing that the anti-hero Vicar may not be as pure as he lets on ,as his vengeance spills out past those who need it. There's also a cool story about a woman who resurrects dead thugs to get revenge, drawn by Kendall in a style that reminds me of Eric Powell. Working with a variety of artists, Nix Quarterly is a great variation on the horror anthology.

Prism Stalker by Sloane Leong (with Ariana Maher), published by Image Comics
Panel Pal Kel McDonald hand-sold me on Prism Stalker, and I'm very glad she did. As I mentioned above, it uses the genre of science fiction to tell a story about family separation and cultural erasure, standing in the long tradition of speculative stories with social commentary. Still, many do the same thing, but often fall flat because they forget that the comic can't get people to think about things if they aren't any good or are ham-handedly obvious. Prism Stalker is neither. It's a gorgeous book, filled to the brim with color and set in a world where the only thing possibly more interesting than the settings are the alien designs themselves. I feel in love with this book from page one, and you will, too. It's a great combination of politics, art, and craft.

Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu, published by Viz
In the future, an orphanage trains children to be as smart and as strong as possible so that they can "graduate" and find a home outside the confines of their grounds. It's a world of love, laughter, and playful competition--until the shocking truth is revealed to the four kids most likely to be next in danger as the true purpose of their training is revealed, in a great shock horror moment that I never saw coming. After quickly getting to the danger, the series swerves into a desperate bid for survival while pretending everything is fine, with characters layering lies upon lies. Posuka Demizu makes the world look like Mary Poppins with a side of the long-running manga Bleach. It was an unexpected hit for me, and I expect this to hit even bigger once the anime really gets rolling alongside it.

Shanghai Red by Chris Sebela, Joshua Hixon, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, published by Image
Digging into Portland's dark history, Sebela and Hixon take readers back to a time when ships needed crews and didn't care if their new seamen were willing and able to serve. Dumped from the saloon to the sewers, many a man died along the way, and those who didn't had their life destroyed. When a woman who poses as a man to get the jobs she deserves is shanghaied, she vows to live and get her revenge. Watching that revenge play out is the main story of Shanghai Red, which features bloody fights, a struggle against power, and the cost of a blood feud on those around you. Chris Sebela wrote a ton of great comics this year, but this one was his best. It gives us a character who has every right to kill, yet doesn't present her vengeance as being necessarily the right path. We get women who want to take control of their lives, at a time when women struggled to do so. (Oh hell, who am I kidding? Women STILL struggle for their right to agency.) And on top of that, Hixon's artwork is perfect for the tone--it's dark, but we can still see the action, and when we move into flashbacks, there's a clear contrast. He also shows the violence and desperation on the characters' faces and the hopelessness of the Portland tunnels so very well. This was one of the best comics I read in 2018.

Submerged by Vita Ayala, Lisa Sterle. Stelladia, and Rachel Deering, published by Vault
Everyone knows there's something sinister about New York's subway system, but Ayala takes that to a whole new level, turning an abandoned branch into a mythological exploration, as a brave young woman looks to save her no-good brother. As with every Vault book I've read, this comic is gorgeous, with rich colors that are somehow both bright and muted at the same time, linework that really shines when we start getting into the creepy parts of the tale, and a concept that takes familiar themes and brings a fresh angle. I love the idea of Charon-as-subway-conductor, and the final surprise of the first issue really sets up the rest of this cool series.

The Inspector  by Liam Cobb, published by Breakdown Press
What if the Michelin Man was the one who went around and got the inexplicable restaurant ratings that used to be a big deal? (Maybe they still are, I dunno.) And what if his culinary tastes ran to the incredibly strange, leading to a deadly secret that threatens to swallow him whole? That's the awesome premise of this mini, drawn in a very straightforward, European style while presenting ludicrous dishes, awesome backgrounds, and a color scheme that adds to the weirdness. A random grab at Short Run turned into one of my favorite books of the year.

These Savage Shores by Ram V, Sumit Kumar, Vittorio Astone, and Aditya Bidikar, published by Vault
From the big poster I saw at SDCC to the first issue, this comic hasn't disappointed one bit. The first issue immediately upends expectations, opening with British vampires, one of whom gets sent to India to show that they can hide from consequences. Except that they can't, because the "savage shores" have creatures of their own, and their power rivals or surpasses that of Europe. It's a great use of horror to make a statement about colonization and the way in which the British Empire perceived the lands it ruled--and just how wrong they were about the people who lived there and their agency. On top of the great use of 9-panel grids, Kumar's intensely detailed artwork and ability to hide the horror until just the right moment made this yet another Vault comic to hit my favorites list in 2018.

Thirteenth Floor by John Wagner, Alan Grant, Jose Ortiz, and Mike Peters, Published by 2000AD
Once upon a time, Britain had a horror anthology in the 80s, and like all good horror anthologies, it needed reoccurring features. One of them was the thirteenth floor, a series of tales of terror about a smart apartment controlled by a computer who took protection of its tenants extremely seriously. When it deemed you a threat, you would exit on the 13th floor...and never return. Throwback horror to the old Warren style is catnip for me, and these stories, while preposterous and a bit dated at times, entertained me thoroughly. It's just fun creature feature time, and it's cool that 2000AD is making these collections available. Plus, it's Alan Grant and John Wagner, what more could you ask for?

Trekker by Ron Randall (with Caitlin Lake), self-published
Trekker has been Ron's life's work for decades. He's since taken Mercy St. Clair, a futuristic bounty hunter whose desire to help people has gotten her in deeper trouble across the galaxy, into the world of webcomics and Kickstarter--to great success. Given Ron is one of the nicest people in comics, I couldn't be happier for him, or fans of the character. In this set of stories, Mercy plans to unlock the secrets of her family history, no matter how dangerous the road is in front of her. We're in the world of a space western in this arc, and Mercy balances law, order, and love--slickly drawn from start to finish. Ron's protagonist is doing her best to take charge of her life here, and while it might just kill her, I'm happily along for the ride. Sci-fi fans who want a comic with a woman leading the charge need look no further.

Valley of the Silk Sky by Dylan Edwards, self-published
A richly imagined fantasy world with extensive history explained on the webcomic's main site, Valley of the Silk Sky features several sets of characters whose stories weave in an out of each other, even if they don't know it yet, just part of the complexities that abound. As we watch one character try to make a living as a scavenger in a dangerous world, another to prove their worth, and others seeking to unlock secrets, Dylan is able to slowly but surely introduce us to a setting that features so many familiar elements and yet each is done so differently and with care rarely seen in terms of worldbuilding. With amazing, vivid coloring, Valley of the Silk Sky looks just as lush on paper as it did online. There's so much more to tell in this world, and Edwards is only getting started. You can read this online here, or purchase the books from Dylan or a really cool comic shop near you that caters to indies.