January 5, 2021

, , , , , , , , , , , ,   |  

Rob's Favorite Comics of 2020 Part 2: The Sweet Sixteen


Yesterday, I showed you my shortlist. Any one of those comics kicked ass and if you haven't read them yet, you should definitely do so.

Today, it's the comics that really struck a chord with me this year. These are the 16 comics that I liked the best in 2020. It actually should be 15, if I was following my guidelines strictly. But when I looked over this list, there wasn't a single one I wanted to remove. So here we are.

I am only sure of three things:

1) If I had to make this list a month from now, it might look slightly different. This is part of why I call it a favorites list, not a best of. A lot of books on yesterday's list missed this one by a whim or a whisker.

2) Going to self-own here and note that on both this list and my short list, I did not list as many books with significant involvement by women as usual. Part of that is that I buy a lot of those at cons, but that's not a great excuse. I could also plead "2020" but that's hollow, too. I screwed up, plain and simple. I'm going to try harder in 2021 to ensure I'm not missing out on the great work being done by women. 

3) In no way shape or form did I read every excellent comic this year. I missed Bowie, didn't read enough manga, wasn't able to catch up on Sophie's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles run, and because of the lack of cons, I read a lot less self-published comics. Some publishers were just an embarrassment of riches and I was only able to scratch the surface (looking at you, Rebellion and Avery Hill, just to name two.) I'm sure I'll pick some of those up as 2021 goes along and enjoy them a ton.

And now the moment almost no one's been waiting for....my favorites for 2020, the Year We Won't Invite to the Family Reunion.

Batman Tales: Once Upon a Crime by Derek Fridolfs, Dustin Nguyen, and Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics
I rarely use the word best, but I called this the best Batman book of 2020 and I'm sticking to it. Proving that a good set of characters can be adapted to any story, Batman's family along with the Dark Knight himself find themselves cast into famous nursery rhymes. Each story has a different tone to it, and it's amazing how well Fridolfs fits the characters to their stories. Alfred is perfectly "cast" as both Jiminy Cricket and Alice, with both stories doing a great job of having little cameos by other villains. It's really amazing stuff, and Nguyen's painted art really makes all of the visual jokes work. How good is Nguyen? He can even make Harvey Bullock look adorable. An amazing all ages work.

Batman Universe Brian Michael Bendis, Nick Derington, Dave Stewart, and Josh Reed 
Published by DC Comics
The beauty of Batman is that he works in so many different ways. He can be a fairy tale hero (as in Batman Tales), he can be the well-meaning hero of Adam West, he can be whatever the hell Morrison was doing, and he can be the grim and gritty oppressively dark Batman that we see all too often. So when Bendis wrote Bats for the short-lived Walmart experiment, he opted for the classic Dark Knight of the late pre-Crisis and early post-Crisis era, and it's a perfect fit for his audience--and me. This Bats happily works with others in the DC Universe, ranging from Hal to Ollie to...Jonah Hex. He battles dinosaurs (and mentions how much he loves them!) and dons a Hawkman rig, all in the name of keeping a priceless artifact with dangerous powers away from a bevy of villains. It's a total romp and it's total fun, with Nick Derington gleefully playing the DC sandbox, doing everything from sketching out an army of Riddlers to (a) Gorilla city. I'd take a ton more of stories like this and a ton less "Joker kills thousands while Bane chews on the bones of senior citizens" or whatever. Bendis has a lot of faults but when he's on, there's a great comic to be had--just like here.

Bill and Ted are Doomed by Evan Dorkin and Roger Langridge (with Ed Solomon)
Published by Dark Horse
Two of my favorite creators come together on a licensed comic that's far better than it has any right to be. Then again, when the men behind Milk and Cheese and Fred the Clown get together, the result is always going to be amazing. This Most Excellent series features gags like the Necronmiclown band, because Evan and Roger are international treasures who should be multi-millionaires. Watch as they get even sillier than usual (which is saying something for them!) with the verbal and visual jokes coming so fast you'll have to go back and re-read to catch them all. It would be totally Bogus if you miss this one, trust me.
 
Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, Sofie Dodgson, and Clayton Cowles 
Published by Image Comics
Things go from worse to even worse as the scattered members of the Sangerye family try to stamp out an evil that goes far beyond anything even their ancient matriarch has seen before. The power of evil threatens to take advantage of the division of good as this amazing series just keeps getting better and better. Walker & company make the connections between the hatred we are seeing every day in the United States with the hatred of our past come through crystal-clear, and the struggle to give in feels so real. I could sense and relate to the desperation on the pages, especially given all that's happened this year. Greene crafts ever-more-horrifying demons that go side-by-side with the real world issues instead of supplanting them, a different approach to allegory that I found brilliant. Nothing here is heavy-handed except the ink lines. Walker's excellent character work in the dialogue keeps a large cast varied and Greene's linework is perfect in its exaggerated style. This is the book we need in 2020, because it refuses to provide any easy answers to the problems presented.

Blood on the Tracks by Shuzo Oshimi 
Published by Vertical
The term "that escalated quickly" is an internet joke that completely applies to this series, which in its first volume makes it clear something's not right in Seiichi's family, then ends with a cliffhanger that changes things from the slow-build you're expecting to a horror movie. Poor Seiichi has to deal with the fallout of his mother's obsession with him. Things are creepy and unhealthy and will definitely make your skin crawl. Oshimi's linework is superb, and I love the way he sets up the panels to creep the reader out, especially the looks from mother to son. The translation into English is trying a bit too hard to be modern, but that's a minor quibble. I didn't read enough Vertical manga this year, but it's good to know their quality level hasn't changed a bit. 

Department of Truth #4 by James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, and Aditya Bidikar
Published by Image Comics
This series' high concept--that consensus reality could overwrite what actually happened--is just so darn good. It's very hard to do Philip K. Dick-style work in comics and Tynion, along with his partners in crime, Martin Simmonds and Aditya Bidikar, really are outdoing themselves. While Bidikar is always a great letterer, I had no idea that Simmonds had a Bill Sienkiewicz side to his style. It's outstanding and really helped jump it to the front of the line. This comic's design is ambitious and experimental, stretching the boundaries but not breaking them. It also is willing to take on some really tough issues, like school shooting deniers and the Q-anon folks. A comic like this doesn't come around too often and it's a great approach to current events without doing the "ripped from the headlines" riff. 

Eddie's Week by Patrick Dean 
Published by Birdcage Bottom
Eddie's a normal guy in a not-very-normal town, with hints of monsters abounding on the streets. When the prison gets the bright idea to house some of their charges with citizens of Eddie's town, he's "volunteered" for the program by a flim-flam manager overseeing the program. While Eddie's prisoner isn't so bad, his ties to crime drag Eddie away from his romantic plans and into a very strange world involving honey, bear-men, and other absurdities in what sadly will likely be Patrick's last long-form comic. It's a shame because this one is a clinic in terms of how to craft a graphic novel. I don't normally get as deep into structure as other reviewers, but I really want to take an in-depth look at just how well-constructed this book is. Patrick integrates the pacing of the art panels, the plot, the dialogue, and the interactions of the characters in such an amazing way that this, among everything I read in 2020, might be the most complete and well-rounded of them all. Zany and increasingly improbable (the slow burn into outright fantasy is another great trick Patrick pulls off here), Eddie's Week should be taught in cartoon classes. I'm really happy to hear it's selling well, too. This is the comic from my 2020 list I would give to any reader and be pretty damned sure they'd love it.

Edgar Allan Poe's Snifter of Terror by Mark Russell, Hunt Emerson, Dean Motter, Rick Geary, Linda Medley, and Others
Published by Ahoy
This irreverent horror anthology is just so much fun, and if anything, keeps getting better as time goes on. Poe may be public domain (and therefore easy to integrate into stories!), but part of his enduring legacy is the quality of his writing. That means that when it comes time for creators like Russell, Geary, and Medley (who are all awesome storytellers in their own right) to pick up his toys and break them in hysterical ways, there's plenty to work with. Dean Motter really slams them all together in his "The Tell-Tale Black Cask of Usher," which is definitely a highlight of this year's offerings. I'm so glad this one has landed with enough people to keep going. Either that, or the contributors are just really cheap to hire. Could go either way here, honestly.
 
Frankie Comics by Rachel Dukes 
Published by Oni
Like Titan below, I've read the Frankie Comics in various forms, and I'm pretty sure Rachel holds the all-time Panel Patter record for being interviewed here on the site. Frankie is based on Rachel's cat and at one point even had its own plush doll. The stories here are cute vignettes about being a cat owner. I know there's a ton of these kinds of works out there, but Rachel's are still some of my favorites and it's awesome to see her work collected here. A great gift for the cat lovers in your life.
 
Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Paul Mounts, Ruy Jose, VC's Cory Petit, and Others 
Published by Marvel
This is probably the most daunting entry for me on my list, from a review perspective. This series, which blew everyone away when it started and just continues to get better and better, has been written about so many times by so many people, including myself when I had it on a previous favorites list. The Hulk's multiple personalities in some ways is an analogy for the way long-time characters are treated, with some versions barely having any resemblance to what came before. Yet somehow, while carving a new horror niche with Bruce Banner that's absolutely brilliant, Ewing manages to weave what's come before into his story, whether it's reminding us of his old supporting cast, villains with a grudge, or Tony Stark's inability to deal with the Hulk that goes all the way back to Avengers #1 with Stan and Jack at the helm. What's also amazing is the way Joe Bennett makes this Hulk all his own, portraying him in a way that's menacingly evil like the savage version, conniving like his Grey version, and a powerhouse like the traditional Green Guy. His style is loose enough to allow for extreme variations, too, allowing him to match Ewing step for step. This is a run people will be talking about for decades and with good reason.

Moriarty the Patriot by Ryosuke Takeuchi and Hikaru Miyoshi 
Published by Viz
Many, many writers and artists have taken on the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it's just to slide stories within the world created in the magazines. Others go for a re-imagining of the basic set-up. In the case of Moriarty the Patriot, we have a little bit of Column A, a little bit of Column B. The premise here is that before he became the Moriarty we know and loathe, there was a good man who made hard decisions, righting wrongs by any means possible. Everyone's the hero in their own story, right? But can you do the right thing the wrong way? Did we have the wrong hero all this time? I highly doubt it, but as a fan of almost all things Holmes, this series is a lot of fun to follow, especially with the gorgeous art by Takeuchi. The linework shines even when dueling with lots of snappy, well-translated dialogue. I can't say enough just how pretty everything looks here, even the crappier parts of late Victorian life. A combo of strong story and art places this one firmly on my favorites list, despite only reading the first volume.

Psychodrama Illustrated Gilbert Hernandez 
Published by Fantagraphics
I'm one of the rare people who came to the Hernandez Brothers from Gilbert's solo work, rather than as a fan of Love and Rockets. Therefore I'm used to seeing Gilbert draw in a wide variety of styles and not so much this version of him, which is appropriate for a Love and Rockets spin-off. The stories here are related to the Fritz branch of the series, and really don't put anybody in a great light, which of course is the point. The art isn't going to work for everyone but if you're wondering if this Eisner Hall of Fame artist has still got it--the answer is an unequivocal yes. 
 
Spring Rain by Andy Warner 
Published by St. Martin's Press
Long-time Panel Patter readers know that I've enjoyed Andy Warner's work for many years now, even before he started doing work for The Nib, among other places. I consider him the gold standard for graphic non-fiction. Here, while also providing a great historical backdrop about the revolution in Lebanon while he was there, Andy opens up about a very difficult time in his personal life. His time in the country was filled with a lot of personal issues and poor decisions and they do not in any way leave him in a good light, whether it's secretive sexual meetings or being beastly to people who cared. Andy's also very open about the fact that he isn't even sure if everything is the truth, because of the difficulty of memory to tell an accurate story--especially one like this. As always his backgrounds are top notch and keep you in the setting, and he does a great job of balancing dialogue with informational captions. This book is so incredibly personal, and I had to take a long time to read it fully because of the emotional punch. While I may not have done the same things as Andy (Hell, I've barely been to Canada and England), I could feel and relate to his pain of recollection. Stunning work here.

Titan by  Francois Vigneault
Published by Oni
It is incredibly hard to find good science fiction by creators working outside the monthly single issue format. While Titan is being published by Oni Press, its original format was smaller, effectively self-published comics by Vigneault. (I think I still have mine.) The biggest issue many face when drawing a book like Titan is trying to balance the feel of an indie comic with the details needed for things to work credibly in a sci-fi setting. Vigneault handles that perfectly, and his plot is a nice variation on the theme of conflict between labor forces, in this case the genetic giants of titan and their earth-based masters. Toss in some romance and personal angst and you have a great blend of zine feel combined with the quality of Oni Press.

X-Men Line by Jonathan Hickman, Tini Howard, Gerry Dugan, Leinil Francis Yu, Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, Ed Brisson, Rod Reis, Marcus To, and many, many others
Published by Marvel
Whether you blame the creative teams, editorial, the Fox-had-the-rights thing, Bendis messing with time-lost kids, or any of several other reasons, even fans of the books have to admit the X-Men really need some kind of reset. Now for the first time since the Grant Morrison and a Team of Artists years, I'm fully engaged and on board for whatever the hell Hickman and his collaborators are doing with the X-Men. I don't care that it doesn't necessarily mesh with prior continuity. I don't care that it might not link up well to preceding books. I don't even care that poor Hank McCoy seems to be getting the short end of the character stick. What I do care about is that the characters are written almost entirely in-character despite the wildly-changed setting, that there's a strong theme, a story arc that's arguably the most massive one for Hickman yet, and that he's implying Logan, Scott, and Jean are more than just a boring romance triangle. The rest of the creators are really working well (with a few exceptions) in Hickman's sandbox. This is going to be fun, and while I'll always like Hickman best for his indie work, I'm all in here.

Tales from the Umbrella Academy: You Look Like Death by Gerard Way, Shaun Simon, INJ Culbard, and Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse
Klaus is in over his head--even more so than usual--as he gets mixed into deadly Hollywood grudges that make his grifting more dangerous than just getting murdered by a vampire chimp with a grudge. This is goofy and fun and frequent 2000AD Artist INJ Culbard does amazing work on a much more lighthearted story than I'm used to seeing him do. His artistic comedic timing punctuates the absurd jokes each and every time. It's not a secret this spins a bit more from the TV show than the comics, where Seance is a scene-stealer. Who cares? It's a ton of fun anyway.