December 30, 2021

Rob's 2021 Favorites Part 2: My Favorite Books of 2021


In my last post, I went over my shortlist of 25 comics I thought were pretty damned awesome. If you didn't get a chance to read one or more of those books yet, shame on you I encourage you to check them out as soon as you're able.

Today, these are the comics that really sang to me when I looked over the 200 books I read in 2021. They made me think about them over and over again. So much so that I had originally planned to make this list 21 (because I'm so clever, right?) but I just couldn't pare it down. These books are simply too good for that!

Last year, I said the following and it still holds true: 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 the short list missed this one by a whim or a whisker or a desire to chat a bit more about a particular title. I'm very pleased by the fact that there are 16 different publishers (and one self-published book) on my list (and I read from 54 publishers in 2021, plus self-published work). This is why I read the way the way I do--there's amazing comics everwhere!

I was also bothered last year by how many books I missed and that I'm not reading quite as diversely as I'd like. I think the former is something I'm finally making peace with. There's just no time to catch every cool book and I have no desire to start reading only certain kinds of comics. My diversity, however, could still use some work. I made an effort to read more widely in 2021, but there's always more I can do. It's the folks who claim otherwise you should watch out for!

So which books moved me in ways no other new books did? Why, I'm glad you asked...

Barbaric by Mike Moreci, Nathan Gooden, Duke, and Jim Campbell, published by Vault
To quote myself from last weeks' Catch It, Barbaric is "a weird combo of Howard, Moorcock, Leiber, and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog." In other hands that might not work, but Moreci is amazing at finding a way to blend high concept ideas (like space opera in Wasted Space) with characters you'd never find in your Tolkien. The key is that while the characters are in serious danger, they don't speak like people in a heroic epic. Instead, they sound more like your friends at the corner bar. It's a skill I've seen Mike use for a long time now and he's one of the best at it. In this case, Barbaric, we have a barbarian named Owen who has a curse to help people, whether he wants to or not. That's rough enough but his weapon talks to him and gets off on the blood of the evil. The trick is determining who fits that definition and in this first arc we see it's not always as easy as it looks. On the other hand, Owen might get his wish to be rid of the curse. It just means dying. Nothing major. Like many of Mike's collaborators, Gooden uses a loose style for his linework. The rough edges work well for the gritty setting of the book and he does an awesome job with the fight scenes, making them nice and bloody (with a tip of the cap to Duke on the colors). Barbaric is just plain fun to read.

Beasts of Burden Occupied Territory by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, Benjamin Dewey, and Nate Piekos, published by Dark Horse
I hope you went back and got the omnibus that had the first four Beasts of Burden stories in them, The Dark Horse Book of Horror (which isn't on this list solely because there was so much good new material I didn't go back and include reprints here at all). With new collaborator Benjamin Dewey, perhaps the perfect artist to work on this series (I admit bias, he's a friend), Dorkin and Dyer get the chance to keep expanding on this amazing world. This time around, it's a story set in post World War 2 Japan, pushing the boundaries even further. Dorkin and Dyer's dialog is as crisp as ever and combined with Dewey's amazing animal work, this was an easy pick for the favorites list. I can't wait to see what this trio come up with next!

Bunny Mask by Paul Tobin, Andrea Mutti, and Taylor Esposito published by Aftershock
Though perhaps best known as the Eisner-winning co-creator of Bandette, Paul Tobin is a master of disturbing horror, with Colder being the crown jewel--so far. Bunny Mask is a different sort of book, but it's no less creepy, page in and page out. A creature that wears a bunny mask haunts a man who got involved with a murder years ago and still carries some of the trauma from it. In fact, he might be romantically involved with her, assuming he's not just going completely insane. The creature's catch phrase "Is there sickness?" is positively chilling. Mutti, already an artist I expect to go far in comics, really outdoes herself on this one, showing the disruptions the monster brings with some amazing visual scenes of psychological horror. But when the time comes to go full on violence and gore, she's just as ready in her depictions. Add on top the excellent use of shadows, concealment to build suspense, and a great sense of artistic pacing, and Mutti should be getting talked about as a future Eisner winner herself. This was not a book I chose to read right before sleeping, and that's about the highest complement I can pay to a horror book! The story is set to continue in 2022, and I can't wait.

Comfort Creatures by Robert Henry Stevenson, published by Birdcage Bottom
If Ogden Nash ever collaborated with Salvador Dali, the results might have looked like Comfort Creatures, the only mini-comic on my list this year. A mixture of nonsense rhymes with accompanying illustrations, Stevenson's intricate detailing on each page is what makes this one shine and grabbed my attention. The zaniness of the concept is a solid start but without the little touches this wouldn't work nearly so well. On a creature made up of entertainment that "takes over the state," Stevenson not only has the neon billboard, Ferris Wheel, and other touches, he gives the creature a bulldozer for feet (complete with earth and trees falling away as it walks) and a construction claw hand. What about the other hand? What's new construction without plumbing, which drips from its spindling fingers. Every illustration is like that, and that's how you get onto my favorites list. I'm so glad JT Yost got this into my hands (Birdcage Bottom is one of the best micro presses around) and now I have a new creator to seek out!

Count by Ibrahim Moustafa, Brad Simpson and Hassan Ptsmane-Elhaou, published by Humanoids
One of the ways to get on my favorites list is to tell a story I wasn't expected to be interested in. Count fits that description based on its premise, namely a wronged commoner must help people rise up against an oppressive aristocrat. On its surface, the story's been done so many times and it's a trope I'm not overly fond of, either. But I really like Moustafa's art, so I gave it a chance. I'm glad I did, because it's an excellent comic that is one of the most lushly illustrated books I read in 2021. I had no doubt on that latter point, because Moustafa's lines are always beautiful, from the well-designed characters to backgrounds that really immerse the reader into the scenes and the world around them. What really impressed me, though, was how well Moustafa worked within the tropes he chose for the story. The wronged commoner isn't perfect, nor is he unnaturally able to do things others cannot. He's fortunate to have help and be able to build on the plans of others. The support networks is a huge part of the story here. The losses as part of the victory are palpable, too. I also loved the way in which the inevitable conflict is prepared, and the mercilessness of the main character. All of these pieces are done so well that it creates a whole that I'd recommend to anyone. I hope Moustafa creates more work soon as a writer-artist.

Cover Not Final by Max Huffman, published by AdHouse
AdHouse, run by Chris Pitzer, finally ended its publishing run. It's the end of an incredibly successful era, and I'll miss the consistency of Chris's choices. He's the one who got me into Joey Weiser's work, for example. Cover Not Final is a great swan-song book for me, because it's exactly the type of one-man, not-quite anthology piece that Chris published so frequently. For this one, Huffman creates a character who weaves in and out of the short stories, which all loosely revolve around crimes of some sort. They're done in a garishly colored, broken art deco format that feels delightfully retro. The content itself, though, leans more towards raw comics. Characters curse and scream and do all sorts of horrible things within the panels. It's a very strange comic and I enjoyed every page.

Discipline by Dash Shaw, published by NY Review Comics
I'm typically not a big fan of anything that would be described as "high art" but there's just no other way to describe Discipline other than it's an extremely literary comic and an extreme outlier for me. I think it's the subject material, namely the middle of the American Civil War, that helped. That and the fact that Dash's linework here is perfect for the subject material. Discipline is the story of a family ripped apart by the Civil War. Not because of slavery, but in how to oppose it. The Quaker faith struggled with pacifism and extreme abolitionist beliefs during the war. A young man leaves his community to go fight for the North and it costs him so very much as his family struggled with the fallout of an apostate and he struggled with the realities of war. Completely done in the style of 19th Century illustrations, this is a meticulous, well-researched historical fiction from Shaw.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Death by Various Creators, published by Ahoy
While the title changes periodically, this is effectively the same series as the one that helped launch the Ahoy line. (Still one of my favorite quips back to me in an interview. Why Poe? "Who is famous that we don't have to pay?") The premise of each issue by now is as familiar as Poe's most famous poem the Raven. A few stories either directly influenced by Poe's work and/or his life, plus some text pieces that follow similar lines. Some characters reoccur, others are one-offs. That's true of the creators as well, with Rick Geary, Tom Peyer, and Mark Russell being three who we see frequently, just to name a few. It's an awesome anthology that gives its creators a lot of leeway and freedom to work, reminding me very much of a mini-comic jam session that's got Ahoy's amazing production values. Not going to lie, this is one of the few comics I'd kill to do a story in because it's just so much fun to read and so very much my personal jam. (Quoth the Raven: "Pander Some More?")

Ghoul Next Door by Cullen Bunn, Cat Ferris, and Aditya Bidikar, published by Harper Collins
A boy gets a sort-of ghoulfriend in this story I raved about earlier this year on the site. the first of two Bunn stories on my final list (joining Gilbert Hernandez as the only other writer to do so!) is a textbook on how to write an all-ages book. The main characters are engaging and relatable, the set up goes just long enough, and there's a real sense of danger and potential loss. He's aided and abetted by some of Ferris' best art I've ever seen. She did a great job making things incredibly creeper and a lot darker than I'd typically expect from a book published by one of the major companies. Some of these scenes would fit right in with Bunn's more mature work with no changes. I can't wait for more in this series, which Bunn and Ferris promise is in the works.

Girls of Dimension 13 by Graham Nolan, Bret Blevens, Gregory Wright and Carlos M. Mangual, published by Aftershock
A group of young women discover they've been brought to a strange house by a variety of contrived circumstances in order to save the universe as we know it from the master of a dark dimension. With almost no training and experience and a dog as their primary guide, the future looks bleak, not just for Dimension 13, but for all the other 12 as well! As I said earlier this week, it's clear to me this is based on a love for the classic version of Doctor Strange, either as a failed pitch to Marvel or something created to be an homage. (We even get a namecheck to Ditko.) The premise is familiar even outside of Merry Marvel, but it's Nolan/Blevens/Wright's execution of it that works so well for me. It starts with the engaging characters you want to root for, but also feel might not be able to save the day. The stakes are nice and high, too, and I really like how Nolan doesn't reveal everything immediately--we find out around the same time the characters do. Blevens and Wright really shine here, with the design of the dimension feeling unique and yet echoing what Ditko or those who followed him might have crafted for a book like this. Some of them are just downright bizarre! Wright's colors make them pop, too, by ensuring only "our" reality looks completely normal. I'm typical adverse to comics trying to be someone else's comic, but this is how you do that idea right.

Good Night, Hem by Jason, Published by Fantagraphics
Jason returns to his fictionalized Hermingway and original character Athos (from The Last Muskateer) in these three short stories that find the writer at different stages of his life: Paris in the 1920s, during World War II, and his later days in Cuba. Contrasting Hemingway, who seeks fame and immortality, with Athos, who is immortal no matter what he'd actually prefer, is a really awesome idea. The bombast and bragging of Hem really works well as a foil for Athos, who wants nothing more than to enjoy life in the background. The sequence where Hemingway attempts to utilize their similarities for his own selfish desires really hammers this home, as does the way Hemingway gets his friends involved in a grand scheme to end the War. Jason's art is extremely distinctive, utilizing the character designs he's been known for over the past few decades extremely well. His stories have a unifying framework of design that's not overly complicated and allows for clear, philosophical storytelling. I'm curious if this is his definitive statement on these two men, or if we might see them interact with others in his long, excellent back catalog. Either way, I'm always glad to get a new book from one of my favorite creators--and one of the few non-friends where I collect every book he produces in English.

Groo Meets Tarzan by Mark Evanier, Sergio Aragones, Tom Luth, Stan Sakai, and Thomas Yeates, published by Dark Horse
Another series I wrote about in one of my few longer pieces for Panel Patter in 2021, Evanier and Aragones' farcical barbarian seeks out good cheese dip and ends up meeting one of the most classic pulp characters of all time. (When I seek out good cheese dip, I usually only run into Cathy. ACK!) In a trio of stories, Aragones shows off his unearthly art skills (the only creator I can think of who's more detailed on any given page is George Perez), paired with Yeates for the Tarzan sections. It's all sewn together by Evanier, who manages to write satire of Comic Con and Tiger King-like entertainment centers, parody Sergio and himself (and their friends), find a few new jokes for Groo, and write a legit serious and strong King of the Jungle plotline all at the same time. It's amazing how good this whole creative team is from top to bottom, working on a character originally designed as a throwaway. This is one of my top three Groo stories, I think.

Hypnotwist/Scarlet by Starlight by Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics
A hardcover flipbook(!!) taking two Love and Rockets stories and expanding on them. Fritz gets into double trouble in two B-movies that honestly would make pretty good films if actually produced by the right low-budget company. In the first, a pair of shoes takes a woman into an increasingly weirder world where she is confronted by surreal scenes that range from the sexual to the sinister to the silly. It's not something I would have expected at all from Hernandez, but it's outstanding. A bit of David Lynch, but actually coherent. In the second story, humans observe humanoid creatures they treat poorly. Eventually, as in all good horror, this abuse takes its toll and nature takes over, with tragic results that are subsequently ignored for personal gain. Much more straightforward but equally creepy, especially the ending that shows even the "good" people are god-awful. I don't think I read these in their shorter versions but I really enjoyed them both.

Lugosi by Koren Shadmi and Tom Napolitano, published by Humanoids
The Comics of the Night--what beautiful biographies they make! Shadmi looks at the life of one of the most talented actors of his generation, who gave as much effort to Dracula as he did to Glen or Glenda. Bela Lugosi's life was one of brilliance, arrogance, and tragedy, as his ambition and ability were the same things that got him in trouble. Not afraid to show the bad sides, too, Shadmi does an awesome job with walking the reader from Bela's "present" to his past and back again, weaving stories of acting ability and horrible husbandry. Using his foils as ghosts mocking him was an amazing touch. As with all biographies, it's a bit biased towards the subject, especially the Karloff-Lugosi dynamic and it has to broad brush a lot of his film career. Some of the scenes are just amazing, like where he envisions Lugosi in the Frankenstein makeup. Great biographical work.

Luna by Maria Llovett, published by Boom!
I'll keep beating the Maria Llovett drum until almost everyone joins in the rhythm and then I'll just keep on doing it for as long as she creates comics. The extremely prolific writer-artist, whom I first discovered on Faithless, is represented on my favorites list with Luna, an erotic horror-fantasy set in the era of the Summer of Love, when communes were thick on the ground, free love was a blessing/curse, and when unfortunately, people (mostly men) took advantage of the situation to create cults that were at best unhealthy and at worst, murderous. This is the fictional story of one of those cults, with the titular Luna drawn into a web she isn't expecting and learning there's far more about them--and her--than she ever knew was possible. The story grows stranger, like an awesome old Italian horror film, even as Llovett's depictions of the proceedings veer further and further from reality. Her panel layouts are amazing here--some of her best work that I've read. The colors, the blending of the real and the imagined, the complicated interweaving of bodies and identities--all of is is depicted on the pages of this comic. Absolutely stunning work and one of my favorites of my favorites this year.

Morrison Hotel by Leah Moore, Michael Avon Oeming, Ryan Kelly, Jill Thompson, and Others, published by Z2
Leah Moore and a ton of talented creators take us on a visual tour of the Morrison Hotel album by the Doors, known for its iconic cover that was completely unauthorized. One of the strongest Doors records, Morrison's imaginative lyrics (no offense meant to his collaborators, but in this case, we're working from the words) make for great comics. Moore's adaptations are solid, sometimes keeping most of the lyrics and story structure while at other times going off in her own direction and taking the song itself as inspiration. Each artist is given a chance to put their own stamp on the song/story, too. There's no attempts to make things consistent, except for the framing device, so we get the distinctive, angular work of Oeming paired alongside Kelly's detailed lines and Thompson's painted stylings. Ranging from the fantastical (Oeming's Waiting for the Sun takes Jim into a world of gods and philosophers) to the real world (Peace Frog is set against violence against protesters in California), Morrison Hotel is a love letter to a great album.

PaperaQ by Toyokazu Matsunaga, translated and lettered by Carlo Vanstiphout, Self-Published
A strange disease turns people into freaks in this extremely strange indie manga that periodic paneler AJ discovered and immediately brought to my attention. AJ's Interview with the translator is here, and it's a fascinating look on how this series came to be in English. I love manga in general, but especially horror manga because for whatever reason, Japanese creators seem to have an extra layer of ick that only they and a few selected western creators can manage. Reading a comic about a disease that has devastating consequences, quarantines, and other elements in 2021 certainly has an extra dimension of horror as well. Though the comic was started well before COVID was a candidate for word of the year, it definitely has a different impact as a result. The main diseased human we meet is just so incredibly odd and creepy, he's almost eccentric. He doesn't appear to be harmful yet as we move forward, it becomes clearer just how devastating contact with him can be. Matsunaga's art is a less refined version of what you might see in a "brought to America" manga--think of it as an indie creator more akin to Chuck Forsman. The lines aren't always perfect and the backgrounds can be limited at times, but the panel structure, characters and pacing are all top notch. I haven't read the entire thing yet, but I can't wait to see where the series goes. Any comic where people turn into chairless MODOKS is going to grab my attention, and this was an easy late-season add to my favorites list.

Penny by Karl Stevens, published by Chronicle
If you're a cat owner, you know that you imagine a rich inner life for your cat that's completely and utterly ridiculous. More so than any other type of pet owner, I think we cat people make our bundles of fur into tiny humans, with backstories, monologues, dreams, and any other things we can fit into their small, furry frames. That's the entire premise of this collection of strips by Karl Stevens, who imagines his cat Penny having everything from existential crises to simple, petty wants and desires. Written as a "memoir" from the cat's perspective, Penny goes through life day by day, wondering about everything from from why they keep getting moved from one place to another to how to escape captivity to the reason why the food in the bowl changes periodically. Stevens' art is extremely realistic, never cheating by giving the cat human emotions. The drawings are of everything we see in our own homes, just from a cat's perspective, right down to Karl and his partner. A lot of Stevens' musings via Penny are similar to those I've done with my own cats over the years, too, showing either all cat owners are deluded idiots or there's just something about them we all agree on. Either way, this was a joy to read and a book I savored over several sessions.

Psychodrama Illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics
For a person who didn't grow up on Love and Rockets the way others I know did, I sure am a fan of these side series, especially this year. A four-issue comic by Hernandez that featured 2 one-issue stories and then a heartbreaking 2-parter taking on the complicated subject of immigration. It's the latter that pushed this one into the final list. Hernandez could have easily created a bunch of one-note characters, angels and boogeymen to tell a morality play. Instead, he opted for a more nuanced approach that correctly reflects the feelings of those on the actual border, not talking heads trying to goose ratings on TV, solicit money for their political campaigns, or useless thumbs up on social media. There's also a further subplot that roils the situation even further, especially when it comes to the law. Gilbert's ability to capture ordinary people who give in to their darker impulses more often than that should is amazing in these issues and his artwork, if anything, is only getting stronger as he ages. Congrats to this series for also being the only other book to make it onto both my 2020 AND 2021 favorites lists!

Scout's Honor by David Pepose, Luca Casalanguida, Matt Milla, and Carlos M Mangual, published by Aftershock
The world has gone to hell, but luckily there's a book that provide a steady hand to bring order from the chaos, as long as it's followed to the letter. Those who shun the ways of the book may not share in its bounty. Of course, books are always open to interpretation, and that's the key to the best story yet from my long-time friend David Pepose. The book is a thinly-veiled version of the Boy Scout Handbook, and part of the issue is that it's clearly written for young men only. When that's challenged (in an extremely clever way), it starts a chain of events that leads to revelations about the whole society created around the book. The plotting is extremely tight here (no surprise given Pepose's Spencer and Locke), taking Kit through the world and back again to an imperfect resolution. At the same time, Casalanguida's linework is some of the best art I saw all year. The panel construction, character design and placement, and ability to show action were all top notch. This is a great standalone story that deserves more attention. 

Shadowman by Cullen Bunn, Jon Davis-Hunt, Joride Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles, published by Valiant
Jack has the power of a LOA infused in him to stop others from the "deadside" from destroying our world. But is that the best thing for him to be doing? Especially when the LOA of the dead, Baron Samedi, is the one egging him on? That's the question posed in this first volume of the new Shadowman series, with Cullen Bunn at the helm of Valient's darker edges that just got a bit more evil under his watch. I immediately liked the Shadowman character, but I found the comics so far a bit lacking. Bunn immediately, with the help of an outstanding art team in Davis-Hunt and Bellaire, found a way to make him more interesting, giving him a much-needed personality goose and providing a foil who's one part Groucho Marx, one part Gandolf, and one part pure evil. The perspective changes a bit, too, with Jack angsting about his own woes less and being more concerned with the meta concept of his role. I was blown away by the lines by Davis-Hunt, who crafts amazing action scenes, horrific creatures and finds a way to make all the characters emote, especially given Bunn's frequent jabs and quips. Bellaire reminds us all why she's one of the best in the color business with her tricks to make the different worlds and their meetings feel different, too. There's more Shadowman, albeit with some different artists, coming in 2022, and I can't wait.

Tamamo-Chan's a Fox! by Yuuki Ray, published by Seven Seas
I got this out from the library as a joke. A fox spirit who turns humanoid and becomes an attractive teenager with a tail only some people can see? Sure, this is getting a skim read and a put back. Nope! This was great, and one of two Silver Seas books to make my final favorites list (and two of the only three manga to get there period). The comic is set up as a series of one-page gags that link together, not unlike a daily newspaper strip in America, called a yonkoma in Japan. Tamamo-chan tries so hard but in icnreasingly comedic ways, she's unable to stop being a fox, like trying out for the track team on all fours. The jokes are rapid-fire and often broad farce and I loved them immediately. Yuuki Ray's art is pretty standard shojo school material, but does a great job making the jokes work. An unlikely favorite, to be sure, but I can't wait to read more of the series and get fully caught up!

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, Tom Luth, and Hi-Fi, published by IDW
The samurai rabbit wanders into a full second year with new publisher IDW and is still one of the all-time best comics going. Stan Sakai might be a bit more reflective in this mature stories, returning to some themes and locations from his earlier work with Usagi, but the art is almost as ageless as the character himself. There's a consistency in Usagi Yojimbo you don't find anywhere else, even in other books where the primary creator is still involved. As our hero moved through his old Shogun's territory, even fighting in a war that wasn't his because it was the right thing to do, we see how things have changed for Usagi, even as the world itself as depicted by Sakai has changed--which is more than just a new color collaborator. Things are a bit more gritty at the edges. The villains seem a little darker, perhaps reflecting on the world outside the comic. I'm hoping to have a lot to say on this in a fuller feature in 2022. In the meantime, I'll just say that I'm so very happy that we've got so many more stories to experience in this world, just as we do for Groo.

Wonder Cat Kyuu-Chan by Sasami Nitori, published by Seven Seas
Yes, I read a lot of books about cats. What makes you think that? Though very different in tone, style, and art from Penny, this manga shares the idea of giving a cat human characteristics. In this case, it's a desire to be a part of the world of his human owner, Hinata. There's a hint of Garfield in this one, but without the snark and antagonism. That might be partly due to the yonkoma format as well, which lends itself to similar gags. My favorite bit was the idea that the cat's markings were actually socks, a recurring joke. The extended sequence where Kyuu feels obligated to bring Hinata his lunch also leads to some great interactions with bemused humans. The jokes here aren't necessarily laugh out loud funny, but they're sweet. The backgrounds, in white/grey/pink, are also extremely basic, as are the character designs. This isn't meant to be deep comics, but any cat owner will definitely smile at the references, which take some of the things cats do in real life and expands them into a heartwarming story across the pages.

Zig Zag by Will Sweeney, published by Fantagraphics
Wrapping up my 2021 favorites is this strange short comic that feels like someone made a serialized comic out of black light posters and it's every bit as awesome as that concept implies. There's a loose story here about a series of civilizations that keep morphing and changing in size and shape using constructs, strange beams and space travel, climaxing in a final battle that circles things back around again. I think. As I said, the big draw here is the art. Sweeney uses a combination of grand-scale Kirby-like constructs and creatures mixed with almost neon-bright colors all across the spectrum from ruby red to bright purple. The panels are broken up by large, line-pattern gutters that change color from page to page. There's so many touches to the art that each re-read brings a new detail to light. The use of size and scale among the characters and how each rise and fall brings on another part of the story, linking them all together in a story chain, is extremely clever. It's got a broad scope that you don't see all the time anymore, with the strange blend of "minicomic" and "slick superhero" concepts only a few creators can bring to the table this well. It's eye-catching and cool and exactly the type of book I love to read from Fantagraphics.