January 13, 2020

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Rob's Favorite Comics of 2019 Part 2: Blackjack or 21 Reasons to Love Comics

What happened to 2019? I feel like it was July and San Diego Comic-Con just a short while ago! Was this really a year I judged the Ignatz and Prism Awards and managed to keep my eyeballs from falling out from all the reading? Why yes, yes it was.

In case you didn't see my short list posted last week, a bit background on my 2019 reading:

I said it in 2018 and I'll say it again here in 2019--we have an embarrassment of comic riches right now. I read well over 200 different comics in various shapes and sizes--from very small minis to epic-long book length features--and I barely scratched the surface of what was out there. There are so many, many comics I never got a chance to read. That's why I use "favorite" instead of "best" --there's no way to call things best when you look and go, "Oh crap, I didn't even get to read Insert Title Here yet!"

My goal was to get the final list to about 10% of what I read, regardless of the form of the comic, its genre, or length. When I realized I could make a gambling pun, I went with 21 as my number for this year's favorites. Could have been 23, could have been 33, honestly. I really liked about 2/3rd of the 2019 books I read this year. They'd all be 3 stars or better on my Goodreads profile, and you can find some of them over there, if you care to look.

This list is really damned hard to make up, and if I had to do it again in a month, a few things might fall off and be replaced by short list selections. Favorites lists (or, if you must, "best of" lists) are subjective and change regularly up to when you post them. Without any more preface, here's the 21 comics I thought were my absolute favorites in 2019. I hope you liked them too--or if they're new to you, that you give them a try!

One final note: Look at the variety of publishers on here: 17 if I counted correctly. Part of that is due to me purposefully reading as widely as a I can, but part of is is just HOLY CRAP EVERYONE THERE ARE SO MANY GOOD PUBLISHERS RIGHT NOW.

Okay let's go!

Batman Kings of Fear by Scott Peterson, Kelley Jones, and Michelle Madsen, published by DC
Kelley Jones just gets better with age, honing his abstract style to do more storytelling alongside visuals that put Bats and his rogues gallery into perspectives no other creator has thought to try. The covers alone are worth picking this one up, and the insides are even better. Some of the panel layouts and way Kelley works off Peterson's cool concept--what if Scarecrow drugged Bats enough to get him talking--were so good I just stared at them for several minutes. And that's not to underplay Scott's work here as a writer--he really digs into the psychological concepts of Batman, even if I disagree with some of the answers we find in the series. I don't read a lot of DC material right now, but I'm glad I got to this one, it's highly recommended and requires no prior context beyond a general knowledge of the characters.

Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, Sanford Greene, Rico Renzi, Clayton Cowles, and others, published by Image
This one took a long time to get into our hands but it was well worth the wait. Set in the Harlem Renaissance, a family of African Americans are the only ones who can battle the monsters that form when hate overrides human nature, turning racists into literal monsters. It's a great concept, made even better by the way Walker and Brown mix in family dynamics, women's equality, and other little touches into the mix. With Greene's exaggerated style going wild with the monsters and battle scenes, this was an easy pick to be a 2019 favorite--and probably 2020, too, depending on when the series returns.

Cannonball by Kelsey Wroten, published by Uncivilized Books
Ebony, Emma, and Kelsey were three creators I strongly pushed for the Ignatz and so it's no surprise they all ended up on my list this year. Kelsey's Cannonball is about a young writer who is about as unlikable as you can get, running smack-dab into success and handling it about as badly as you possibly can. You know the type. Kelsey creates a great variety of characters for her protagonist to play off of, and again, you know them, too. The linework is really strong, with bright coloring, and it's going to be great to see how Kelsey follows this up. Will she keep doing awkward and awful people, ala Noah Van Sciver? Or move forward into other themes? Either way, she's a creator to watch!

Clue: Candlestick by Dash Shaw, published by IDW
Describing this one strains my abilities as a reviewer. Shaw uses all kinds of visual tricks to play to the board game theme, including incorporating other iconic game images, plays with perspective, style, and page layouts in ways that make you linger over the pages, and the whole thing is just absolutely absurd. I love how Shaw gets the iconic pawns into the picture and his web ensnaring the various suspects together works so well. There's even mini-games. It's such an awesome hodge-podge of "I can't believe Hasbro is so cool about this" and part of why IDW can adapt just about anything and make it fun to read.

Dr. Mirage by Mags Visaggio, Nick Robles, Jordie Bellaire, and Dave Sharpe, published by Valiant
I've been reading Mags' work for a long time now, and her growth as a writer really shows in this series, where she stretches out from her usual character types and works within the framing already established by other writers. Dr. Mirage has echoes of the Kims, Kates, and others, but this story feels different, and in a good way, showing Mags is only going to keep getting better and better. With Robles and Bellaire on art duties, the book is gorgeous. I love the way Robles forms the magical world of Mirage, using some very Ditko-inspired concepts but drawing them in his own, amazing, linger-over-the-pages style. Best of all, this is Valiant the way I like it (same as with Punk Mambo below)--something you can read that's inside a larger world but doesn't make you read every book. Make sure you fans of the magical side of comic characters check this one out.

Egg Cream #1 by Liz Suburbia, published by Silver Sprocket/Czap Books
Liz Suburbia does amazing work at little slice of life comics, and this is no exception. A collection of shorter stories, including one that continues a story about kids who were abandoned and their struggles to survive, Liz's linework ranges from minimalist to more detailed, depending on what she needs and is in the vein of Liz Price and Chuck Forsman. A longstanding vet of the indie comics scene, Liz's work just keeps getting better.

Friendo by Alex Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe, and Taylor Esposito, published by Vault
Friendo is the dark technology story we needed for 2019. A company offers a virtual friend who won't judge you--but will encourage you to buy as much shit as possible. When the tech goes haywire, it turns a loser's life into something else entirely. Panel Pal Alex does a great job taking some of the worst aspects of today's world and pushing them to extremes that, sadly, don't seem all that improbable anymore. Martin Simmonds' linework is perfect, able to capture the absurditty of it all while still making it feel like a world we could all live in--and may end up doing so, whether we want to or not!

Highwayman by Koren Shadmi, published by IDW/Top Shelf
There are a few exceptions to the rule, but usually being immortal kinda sucks if you're an ordinary person. Especially if you have no idea how you got that way in the first place? Shadmi takes us on a walk across different places and times in North America, as our protagonist searches for answers on why he's cursed to see humanity in all its rises and falls. There's a strong sense of mystery and each chapter provides an insight into a possible world we might become, but might not. The art is absolutely gorgeous. This one reminds me of European style comics, and is a perfect example of what Top Shelf brings to this expanded world of publishers.

Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers, published by Drawn and Quarterly
Ebony won a well-deserved Ignatz as a creator to watch, and this set of stories that are semi-autobiographical and drawn from the experiences of African Americans. The art is phenomenal, the people remind me of anyone I might bump into on the street, and Flowers weaves them into a compelling narrative. Can't wait, like Emma Jayne and Kelsey Wroten, to see what's next for Flowers as she continues her career.

House of the Black Spot by Ben Sears, published by Koyoma
It must suck to live in a small, idyllic town if you're about to be drawn into a comic book. Every time you turn around, someone wants to screw you over. No exception here, as Gear Town gets caught up in a scheme to take advantage of its land that only the detective work of the Double+ gang can stop--if they survive the experience! Ben Sears' use of geometric shapes to design his characters and settings are always a wonder to behold, and this bright, bold, full color work is one of his best at showing off his skills. With cute, endearing characters and a ghostly plot, this was a lot of fun to read.

Jim Henson's Storytellers: Sirens by Various Creators, published by Boom! Studios
I barely remember the TV show this periodic anthology is based on, but I recall being a bit sad it was Henson but didn't have Muppets. (I was young, okay?) Boom! uses this as a framing for various anthologies, which I think is really cool. This one centered around the legendary creature Sirens, and each creative team used the frame to tell a story with a moral, just like the show. This is an under-the-radar comic and I really dug it.

Moneyshot by Tim Seeley, Sarah Beattie, Rebekah Isaacs, Kurt Michael Russell, and Crank!, published by Vault
If you've ever read a Tim Seeley comic, you know that fun, sexy books are his stock in trade. Combined with Sarah Beattie for a book that's guaranteed to be either loved or hated, Tim's taken a bit of cynicism, a bit of reality, and a chance to really pile on the sex jokes in Money Shot. In the near future, science can't get funded because everything is about profit. Fortunately, so is porn. A group of scientists get together (literally) to use sex to pay for their research, but quickly get in over their heads (and inside a lot of other things) in a series that apparently took awhile to find a home. Thank you Vault for publishing this unique gem, drawn with a lot of skill in telling but not showing by Rebekah Isaacs. One of my favorite favorites, and I'm so glad it's a big enough hit to be getting extra issues.

Punk Mambo by Cullen Bunn, Adam Gorham, Jose Villarrubia, and Dave Sharpe, published by Valiant
Long-time Panel Patter readers know that horror is my bag, and Cullen Bunn is one of the modern masters of comic (and comedic, when called for) horror. He's extremely prolific, and even if not everything lands squarely, when Cullen is at his best (Harrow County), no one can touch him. Giving him a magical horror character with very few strings attached to the backstory was a stroke of genius by Valiant. Mambo herself is a ton of fun--a bit of a riff on Constantine, but different enough to work--and Bunn shows that the selfish persona she presents might not be all there is to her, while setting up some future story threads. Gorham's linework is excellent and creepy for the monsters, with nice color work from Villarrubia. Best of all, you can read this self-contained, too.

Section Zero by Karl Kesel, Tom Grummett, Jeremy Colwell, and Richard Starkings, published by Image
Karl and Tom are two creators I've been reading for a very long time. Kesel's done work on just about every character out there, and Grummett was a staple of superhero books. Section Zero is their creator owned book about a team of individuals who don't exist looking into things that *shouldn't* exist. It's a fun romp of a book that takes a step back in time to the 1990s, but the good art side of the 90s, which means this won't be for everyone. But if you like seeing a slightly dysfunctional team, secrets upon secrets, a fair number of word balloons, and really good linework, be glad that "there is no Section Zero" is just a tag line.

Spencer and Locke Volume 2 by David Pepose, Jorge Santiago, Jr., and Jasen Smith, published by Action Lab/Danger Zone
It's really hard to do newspaper strip homages. Most of the time, they're either too sappy, too obvious, or just crude crap that takes things to the eXXXXtreme. None of those work for me. But somehow, David Pepose found a way to take the idea of "What if Calvin's home life was awful?" and managed to turn it into a noir where there's just enough love shown even as the characters (and their strip peers) are bent and twisted that it's absolutely brilliant. Santiago, Jr. is the linchpin for this, able to go from a shady modern look to spot-on impressions of the Sunday Funnies. Seeing the various cameos in this one were especially fun, but I'm not sure what David has against Dick Tracey... If you slept on this one, please know that "Twisted Calvin becomes an on-the-edge cop with Hobbes 'helping' him stay alive" is one of the best comics you might not have read yet.

Stronghold by Phil Hester, Ryan Kelly, Dee Cuniffe, and Simon Bowland, published by Aftershock
A being of impossible powers must be kept thinking he's a schlub. When the plan starts to backfire, thanks to dissension in the ranks of the people devoted to keeping up the delusion, the entire Earth is at risk. The body count rises as the story goes, as this quiet war reaches a climax. This is one of the best writing jobs I've seen from Phil Hester, and it features one of my all-time favorites, Ryan Kelly, on line art. Ryan's able to swift from the mundane to the monstrous on a dime, his panel pacing is top notch, and the intricate details make this feel very realistic, yet not photo-realistic. Such a great series that I hope people keep picking up in trade over the next few years. It's also a model for the good things coming out from Aftershock.

Algernon Blackwood's The Willows by Nathan Carson and Sam Ford, published by Floating World
A classic cosmic horror story gets a facelift by Carson and Ford, turning it into a modern classic of horror comics. Two young women (originally young men who were basically ciphers) dare to go down a path of the Danube where no locals dare venture. Soon they are trapped between our world and one so full of horror that only the most masterful artist can put it onto the page--and Ford does just that. His details are unbelievably good, whether it's a splash page showing us just how doomed the women are or putting the horror into smaller panels that show the creeping horror that threatens to engulf them. Carson's writing style is fresh enough to be modern but also captures the feel of the original. An amazing collaboration, and I'd love to see these two do more original horror work in the same vein.

These Savage Shores by Ram V, Sumit Kumar, Vittorio Astone, and Aditya Bidikar, published by Vault
Sometimes a series will grab you by the lapels and say "I'm going to blow you away!" --and while it's really weird when a paper comic suddenly grows arms out of the gutters and does this, it's especially disturbing when your ipad touches you with new, unexpected plastic fingers.
This never happens to you? Okay, then.
Anyway, jokes aside, let me be about the thirtieth person to tell you that These Savage Shores is awesome. First there's the premise--British Vampires assume anything in India is inferior and learn quickly they aren't the top monsters. Then there's the dialogue, where Ram V really excels at hitting the right period piece notes without overdoing it. Add in the linework from Kumar, and toss in the best use of the 9-panel grid in comics in 2019 (fight me over this, I dare you), and you have a standout series from a standout publisher.

Trans Girls Hit the Town by Emma Jayne
It's not easy for me to put a mini-comic on the list these days. Part of that is because I'm not on the East Coast anymore, and so I'm not going to very many shows, which is where I usually grab my indie pamphlets. The other part is, that to be honest, there are so many great indie publishers right now putting out amazing science fiction/fantasy/horror comics that most of my time and interest lies these days. So how do you break through? Be a thoughtful look at the life of two characters who are trying to make their way through life, talking about ordinary things in a way that feels very realistic, drawn in a style that sets the scene. Emma was one of my creators I pushed for on the Ignatz ballot, and I think we'll be seeing many more great things from her in the future.

Vampirella vs Re-Animator by Cullen Bunn, Blacky Shepherd, and Taylor Esposito, published by Dynamite
The only person to make this list twice is Cullen Bunn, and it's well deserved. Dynamite has done some really fun Herbert West comics over the past few years and seeing him try to defeat death with the aid of interstellar demons that not even Vampirella may be able to stop was a fun romp. I loved the way Blacky Shepherd worked mostly in black and white with only a few splashes of color--it gave the book a unique feel. Dynamite does such a great job making these pairings and finding good creators for their crossover and licensed books, and this one was my favorite when I came down to putting the list together.

When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll, published by Koyama
This might be my favorite Gothic lesbian horror comic (and yes, I've read enough of them to form an opinion). I remember Emily Carroll from her amazing horror webcomics that really used the medium to its fullest, and if anything, her work is even better now. The pacing on this reads like a classic novella, and the twists and turns (and erotic art) keep you reading. I especially loved the little stories-within-a-story that Carroll uses towards the back half. The coloring is amazing, and because it's Koyama, the production values are second to none. One of the best  horror comics 2019 provided, and it's last here just because of the alphabet. Make sure you read this one, and then go back and read all of Emily's other work!