December 29, 2021

Rob's 2021 Favorites Part 1: The Short List of 25 Awesome Books


2021 was a year that existed. Maybe. Depends. If this really is a simulation, does this past year actually exist? And could we get the cosmic administrator to stop hitting the "induce a disaster" button, please?

As with 2020, while the year itself had many issues on a macro scale, I remain blessed with my job, my home, and my health. I am so very lucky and fortunate, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about that. (Especially when you live on the West Coast, where a visible reminder that millions don't have a roof over their head greets you with every fading, buckling tent alongside the highways and streets.) I don't have any answers for how to make things better (let alone getting back to 2019 levels) and even if I did this isn't the place for them. But I want to acknowledge that just being able to sit down and type this all out without worrying about my next meal or what happens if I do get a breakthrough case of COVID is a luxury others can't afford.

Moving into comics now: I made a conscious effort to read more new comics this year and do more features of them for Panel Patter via the Catch It column, and I think I did a pretty good job. I was able to sample 200 titles this year that were published in 2021, 50 more than last year! Great going, 2021 Rob! Now you've set a bar for 2022. (Bad going, 2021 Rob?) This came at the expense of reading more of my older books, but I still managed to get a good chuck of the physical books on my "I really need to read this" pile completed, but my digital backlog is still insanely high. ("I'll read these when I retire." Erica: "You're never going to retire, you like your job too much!")

But even with 200 books, there's just so many good titles I had no time to read. I didn't get to nearly enough from Drawn & Quarterly, for example. My Richard Sala came in too late to read fairly for the list, as did Humanoid's biography of science fiction. The Black Hammer Universe exploded too large for me to keep up with. Same for the X-Men books. I basically have accepted that I'm unlikely to read much, if any DC in-universe books in the same year they come out. (I did get Marvel Unlimited and am very glad I did, because I'm MMMS at heart and always will be.) Because I'm a comics omnivore, I'm never going to get to everything I'd like. 

As with last year, I tried very hard to sample new things but stay clear of books I had a feeling I wouldn't like. I think I did a pretty good job of that. There were really only about 10 or so books where I wanted to swear off reading for the rest of my life and go play Cities Skylines instead. No, I'm not telling you what they were but one of them shares part of its title with a Roger Corman film.) Add in another 25 or so "Wow, that was disappointing" books and all in all, for reading 200 items across FIFTY-FIVE(!!) publishers, I think I did pretty good at ensuring I skipped over items that wouldn't be my thing while still trying to expose myself as much as possible to new ideas and new creators.

The end result, as you'll see, was a little mixed in terms of getting more new names into my lists. I admit, I'm the type of person who reads broadly, but if I like you, I devour anything and everything you publish. That means it can be hard to break out of the "long list" and into my rotation. But once you do, like Maria Llovett, for example, I'm a fan for life. 

Okay, that's enough preamble. Let's get down to it! as with past years, my short list + favorites = roughly 25% of what I read. So this year, that means 50, which is high, but whatever. My site, my list, my rules! Today we'll be going over the 25 books I thought were awesome but didn't quite get to the favorites list. Almost all of these were extremely close calls. If you made this list and you care about my opinion as a comics reader, congratulations. Your work is important to me if it's on this list. I loved it and I'd recommend it to anyone. 

Last year, I added a few notes to each book and I'll be doing that again this time, too. It's almost like I wrote them to be things you could put in a tweet so creators can promote themselves. I'm sure it's 100% coincidence.

Without further ado, here we go! These are in alphabetical order, as per usual.



Adventureman by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson, and Clayton Cowles, published by Image
This series returned in 2021 and I am so glad to see it back! Pulp Adventurers disappear, only to be brought back by the memories of a woman who's now caught up in struggles nearly impossible to believe. Drawn in stunning fashion by one of my favorite artistic pairs in comics.

Asadora by Naoki Urasawa, published by Viz
I was late to the party on this series by one of the best manga creators currently active. What looks to be a story of one girl's determination remains that at its core, but there's just so much more going on as Urasawa both deepens and unveils the mystery page by page in a hybrid artistic style that's extremely distinctive.

Avengers Mech Strike by Jed Mackay, Carlos Magno, Guru-eFX, and C’s Cory Pettit, published by Marvel
I picked this one up as a joke, I'm not even going to lie. "This is just ridiculous," I thought. Then I started reading it and realized that Mackay, Magno, and company were crafting an awesome all-ages story that was completely and utterly over the top--just the way Stan and Jack did at every opportunity. This is a better Avengers story than is currently running in the main book (and I like the main book).

Backtrack by Brian Joines, Jake Elphick, Doug Garbark, and Jim Campbell, published by Oni Press
It's really hard to a car racing comic right, but this creative team put the genre on notice that it's not just possible--there's now a bar to meet as well. A time-traveling caper with deadly consequences if you can't keep your car going, this series only gets a short list because it really came out in 2020 and the trade in 2021, so I'm cheating a bit just to mention it one more time.

Batman and Robin and Howard by Jeffrey Brown, published by DC
Sometimes it's hard to believe how successful Jeffrey has been, going from tiny minis to his empire of Star Wars books. Here he takes his quirky parent concept to Gotham, where Bats decides Damien needs to be in regular school and off patrol for awhile. But crime is awash everywhere, and soon Bruce is trapped at the machinations of a supervillain of a different kind (but no less evil!). A great story of friendship, growing up, and being a concerned Dad, all with some awesomely comic visuals from Brown.

Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Sanford Greene, Chuck Brown, Sofie Dodgson, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, published by Image
This series about a black family trying to hold back the evils of hatred who manifest as literal monsters, transforming those who shelter the hate moves into a third volume. The impact isn't quite as strong as the first few issues, but it's still an awesome comic with a moral that merges into the story, rather than being tacked on. Not sure if we'll get more or not, but this was one hell of a ride if it's finished.

Department of Truth by James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, Aditya Bidikar, and Others, published by Image
The nature of truth has been in hot debate for the past few years. Tynion, Simmonds, and Bidikar decide to take it literally, in a world where it's claimed what people believe determine reality! This series is a brain-melter, and veers close to being obscure for obscurity's sake, but hasn't toppled over yet. I simply cannot believe how good Simmonds art is on this--a side of him I didn't know was there. And Bidikar's lettering choices really have to be perfect for any of this to work.  Disturbing stuff--but very, very good.

Dragon Racer by Joe Weiser, published by Oni
My friend Joey expands his Ghost Hog universe, with a small dragon determined to make it big in racing. His heart exceeds his skill, but that's what really matters in this all-ages story that teaches a lesson or two along the track. Weiser's art is on point as always, with a wide variety of creatures in colorful combos.

Godzilla Rivals by Paul Allor, Mary Kenney, and others, published by IDW
An anthology series featuring Godzilla against his rogue's gallery and sometime allies, which lead off with a comic that was a clinic on how to tell a Godzilla story. From there it became a bit more ordinary (and thus out of the running for the final list), but anytime I get to read about kaiju destroying things, I'm a happy comics reader!

HaHa by W. Maxwell Prince and Others, published by Image
This sidecar series to Ice Cream Man (also on my short list) was themed with clowns and had moments of brilliance (especially the issue done with Roger Langridge that was silent and the opener with Vanessa Del Rey) but a few too many were just okay, with either too light of a themed touch or just didn't really go anywhere. A lot of fun, but that kept it off my final list.

Ice Cream Man by W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Chris O'Halloran, and Good Old Neon, published by Image
Similarly, Ice Cream Man lost by a whisker because I thought it lost a little steam in 2021. It's still an awesome ongoing series that has some of the darkest moments going in all of comics, but the hints about the titular demon actually make me less interested, not more. It also felt like there was a bit too much leaning on gimmicks and pushing the possibilities, which sometimes was excellent but at other times, I'd have just preferred a bit more straightforward horror. A great series though that's held its own for over 25 issues now. That's pretty hard for any team to manage, and I'm sure this will be in the mix of my lists again in 2022.

Iron Man by Christopher Cantwell, Cafu, and Others, published by Marvel
I've become a big fan of Cantwell, as are many of the Panel Patter team. His take on Tony Stark, which really emphasizes that no matter hard hard Stark tries, his own ego gets in the way, is a strong one. This Stark can't help but hurt other people or put them in harm's way. Plus he's added Frog Man to the cast and shows Ben Reilly as he should be, a D-lister right alongside him. Cafu is the main artist but as with all things Marvel, there's a lot of filling in. I'm really curious where this mind-trip with Korvac as the antagonist goes.

Johnny Boo and the Silly Blizzard by James Kochalka, published by Top Shelf
James Kochalka is our generation's Dr. Seuss. He may not rhyme but his ability to create silly, ridiculous characters for kids that are still enjoyable by the adults reading them to kids is unparalleled. His linework hasn't changed in 20 years, and that's part of the charm. These characters, innocent and blunt at the same time, are old friends that I hope we get to visit with for many years to come--and I hope eventually James get the recognition he deserves for these, Dragon Puncher, and the others in his all-ages work.

Monster Fun Halloween Spookacular by Various Creators, published by Rebellion/2000AD
Rebellion's been doing more in their all-ages line lately, and this one I thought was particularly well done, featuring a variety of styles and a whole host of creators. I wrote more about this one here.

Murky Water by Kel McDonald, Self-Published
While all of my friend Kel's stories will eventually reach print, I've been so very happy to be on her Patreon and get this series (and others) for only $1 a month. This is the latest part of her City Between series, with Detective Maria finally understanding the world she's in--doesn't mean she has to like it. Snarky, smart, and fun stuff.

Non-Stop Spider-Man Joe Kelly, Chris Bachalo, and a lot of others, published by  Marvel
I really wish we'd have gotten to see where this was going to end up, and I almost thought about pulling it for another title because of the abrupt ending, but this series was exactly as advertised--Peter Parker on a non-stop, no holds barred story that was drawn in a way that we rarely see Peter shown (and more's the pity for that). 

Out by Rob Williams, Will Conrad, and Marco Lesco, published by AWA
Like a lovechild of Hellboy and 2000AD, this was one I didn't expect to enjoy and came away really engaged in the story, an easy way to make it from the "long" to the "short" list. Growing increasingly desperate, the occult-tinged Nazis unearth a monster with Teutonic heritage being stored on a POW camp filled with potential victims. A lot of fun so far, with just the right amount of familiar and new to the premise.

Proctor Valley Road by Grant Morrison, Alex Child, Naomi Franquiz, Tamra Bonvillain, and Jim Campbell, published by Boom!
It's been awhile since I liked something from Grant Morrison, but this more pared down horror story with ordinary people that still had some great Grant moments was just a great little tale. Or maybe it's because of having more co-writers. Either way, I enjoyed this a bunch.

Silver Coin by Michael Walsh, Chip Zdarsky, Kelly Thompson, Ed Brisson, Jeff Lemire, and Toni Marie Griffin, published by Image
A mysterious coin changes the lives of people who encounter it--but not in the way they'd ever imagined in this anthology series crafted by one of my favorite artists, Michael Walsh, along with scripting from some of the best names in comics. Creepy and with incredible theming, this one was everything I hoped it would be, and I'm looking forward to what Volume 2 brings...

Six Sidekicks of Trigger Keaton by Kyle Starks, Chris Schweizer, and Liz Trice Schweizer, published by Image
An asshole actor is murdered and only the people he screwed along the way, ranging from a sincere newbie to an ex-football star, can find out who did it--if they even care enough to try. Zany as ever in his scripting, Starks keeps the quirky cast moving, fighting stuntmen and Samoans. I've always liked Schweizer's art and his angular antics and blocky style were perfect for this little romp.

Tales of Mother F Goose by Frank Tieri, Joe Eisma, Matt Herms, and Carlos M. Manguel, published by Aftershock
I rarely put one-shots on these lists, but I just absolutely loved what Tieri, Eisma, Herms, and Manguel did here, taking multiple nursery rhymes and making them nursery crimes. And I didn't see the ending coming, either, which is rare for me. 

The Fang Weekend at Medusa's by Marc Palm, published by Self-Satisfied/Fantagraphics
The Fang is a monster who's also a monster-killer, with a Wolfman and others under her bloody belt. But she's getting stoned in a bad way when up against the scheming Medusa in this second book that takes this a bit more seriously, but still has monster-baked humor in its DNA. Just as messed up as I had hoped, in a totally good way.

Vampiverse by Thomas Sniegoski, Jeannine Acheson, Daniel Maine, Francesca Cittarelli, and Taylor Esposito, published by Dynamite
Yes, this totally is doing the Spiderverse thing. So what? After years of seeing people try to alter the main character and failing, it's been amusing to watch the creative team come up with new versions of Vampirella only to kill them off issue after issue. I like alternative takes on characters and this one's been a great ride so far.

Wicked Things by John Allison, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar, and Jim Campbell, published by Boom!
This is almost cheating, as the trade is what came out in 2021, but I really, really liked this mini about a character from Giant Days, which is weird because I didn't like Giant Days. Lots of great comedic moments here and watching an amateur detective try to interact with the cops who want to put her in prison while staying out of jail was a great premise. A lot of credit to Sarin and Cogar for their ability to keep the visual gags going while Allison brings the patter.

Worst Dudes by Aubrey Sitterson, Tony Gregori, Lovern Kindzierski, and Taylor Esposito, published by Dark Horse
I have a love-hate relationship when it comes to comics that evoke the "raw" sub-genre. I often find them crude for crudity's sake. In other words, I expected not to like Worst Dudes because that's what I was expecting. Instead I got a sarcastic romp that was raunchy as all hell with people who are, in fact, some of the worst people around. But when your climax involves jealous god wanna-be types duking it out after pages of an obscene Snagglepus type trying to get it on over and over again, well, you're just so silly and over the top you win me over. Probably the least-likely book I read in 2021 to make it to this list if you'd have asked me before I read it.