James' 2021 Favorites: Part 1 (Non-Fiction, Crime, Action, Drama)

Here's Part 1 of my favorite comics of 2021. This year it made sense for me to divide my picks into a few different categories, and 3 different posts. So, make sure to come back for Part 2 and Part 3). As always, these aren't the BEST comics (I have no idea what *best* means when evaluating something as subjective as art), just my personal favorites (listed in a number of categories). I hope you find something you enjoy!

Series of the Year (Non-Superhero)

Department of Truth by James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, Aditya Bidikar, and John Pearson, published by Image Comics

Department of Truth is a comic that I wish didn’t exist. Well, that’s not quite right. Department of Truth is a fantastic comic that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a dark, smart commentary on our current times. This is my feel-bad book of the year! What I mean to say is, I wish that the current circumstances in our country/world were such that a book like Department of Truth didn’t need to exist. The central premise of Department of Truth is based around the idea that belief itself shapes reality. Not just in an abstract, philosophical sense of "your perception shapes your reality" but in an actual "what people collectively believe can change and warp reality itself" sense. Think about how that power could be wielded and used to shape and reshape the world. And you will get the power of the Department of Truth. This is a book with a clear point of view that I very much appreciate. It's not subtle, but these are not subtle times that we are living in (my full review of issues 1-3 here).

Favorite Single Volume Works

Factory Summers by Guy DeLisle, published by Drawn & Quarterly

Factory Summers is an autobiographical look at the summers that Guy DeLisle spent working at a paper mill as a young man while studying art. It's work that's both challenging and tedious, and that sense of tediousness comes across in the story. Not that the book is tedious, but it's very deliberately paces, and you get the sense of what DeLisle's life was like during those summers when he worked overnight shifts at the mill. You had to be incredibly careful or you could be killed. At the same time, the work is boring and repetitive. But DeLisle really conveys all of those emotions along with how it was to have all of these people come in and out of his life. He's great cartoonist and a fantastic storyteller, and this is a really effective story about a very specific chapter in his life.

Save It For Later by Nate Powell, published by Abrams ComicArts

Save it for Later is a great read but not an easy one. Nate Powell is the fantastic artist in the March books, and you can tell that the fight for justice and belief in standing against what's wrong are very close to his heart. This is a series of 7 different vignettes from the last 5 or so years, all focused on his life and family, but how the politics of the time affect them, and how it inspires Powell to fight for justice and teach his children to do the same. The book begins with Powell's heartbreaking cartoon about the days leading up to, and the night of, the 2016 election. He's such a compelling storyteller that he brought me right back to those awful feelings I had that night, and in the days after. Powell is very clearheaded about al of the extremist threats we face in this country and the danger they present. Don't read this when you don't feel like being confronted with those dangers. But when you're ready, this is a compelling, powerful read. In fact, it's kind of a good companion piece for Department of Truth, as Save it for Later shows us the threats that exist that make a comic like Department of Truth possible and necessary. 

Favorite Action/Crime/Drama Series

Dead Dog's Bite by Tyler Boss, published by Dark Horse
Dead Dog’s Bite is a great slow burn of a mystery comic. I've loved Tyler Boss' work as an illustrator (I particularly love 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, and 2021's What’s The Furthest Place From Here is also among my favorites) and I'm thrilled to also see him take on writing duties as well. A girl is missing in town, and only her best friend really seems to care. And what is the connection between the missing friend and the peppermint candy factory in town? There's a lot to enjoy in this series. It's got great dialogue, and Boss' visuals continue to be terrific. He’s growing as a storyteller and he's finding new and interesting ways to present information on the page. This is a melancholy, moving story that I recommend. The ending feels a little unresolved but I think that’s the point. Life doesn’t always have easy answers. 

Friday Book One: The First Day of Christmas, by Ed Brubaker, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente, published by Image Comics

Did you read Nancy DrewHardy Boys, or Encyclopedia Brown stories when you were a kid? I definitely did. They were so much fun. It was incredibly rewarding to try to figure out the mystery. But even more than that, I loved reading stories where kids were smart and capable and could figure things out for themselves. I loved the idea of kids my age going out there, taking risks, solving mysteries (particularly since I was a pretty risk-averse kid myself). But what happens when those kids grow up? A 12-year old running around solving mysteries seems cute and precocious; at 18 years old, it seems odd. And what if one of your dynamic duo of mystery-solvers wants to just grow up and do normal teenager things, and the other one doesn't? Well then, it could get pretty awkward. That's the basic premise of the absolutely wonderful Friday. First published digitally through Panel Syndicate, this volume from Image Comics collects the first 3 issues of Friday. For anyone who ever enjoyed reading those kid-mystery stories, or for anyone who ever grew up and moved away from home and then came back and it was weird, this is an absolute delight to read. Artist Marcos Martin and color artist Muntsa Vicente perfectly create a charming, snowy New England town where weirdness is lurking just under the surface. And writer Ed Brubaker's script brings to life a wonderful combination of teen angst, self-awareness, and genuine mystery and terror (my full review here).

The Good Asian by Pornsak Pichetshote, Alexandre Tefenkgi, Lee Loughridge, and more, published by Image Comics

The Good Asian is an ambitious story, and a great read. It's a noir drama set in 1930's San Francisco, set primarily in and around Chinatown. This is an incredibly rich, informative read, teaching me a lot I didn't know about the time period and setting. Race is a prominent issue in this story (really the issue), and the titular character is an interesting one as he straddles two worlds, a Chinese American, taken in by a wealthy, powerful white family.  Writer Pornsak Pichetshote has given the characters in the story great, distinct voices, and I absolutely love the setting. Artist Alexandre Tefenkgi and colorist Lee Loughridge do remarkable work in bringing this world to life. If you're looking for a murder mystery that's going to be much more than just a mystery story (it's also an exploration of issues that are unfortunately as timely as ever), then you absolutely need to pick up The Good Asian.

The Grande Odalisque by Jérome Mulot, Florent Ruppert, and Bastien Vivès, published by Fantagraphics

The Grande Odalisque is a fun, sexy crime story that's incredibly entertaining and full of jaw-dropping gorgeous art. It's about two beautiful French women that are highly accomplished, successful art thieves. I mean really, I can stop there. If you're not hooked, I don't know what to tell you. You get to see them pull off heists and plan for a big job. There's some good emotional beats in the story, but really it's just a fun read.

November Vol. 4 by Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth, and Kurt Ankeny, published by Image Comics

November is a fantastic crime story told in 4 volumes, and the final volume was released early in 2021. I really love these stories so much. So, my recommendation isn't really "go read vol. 4", it is "go read November". It tells a number of interconnected stories involving criminals, cops, and other desperate people, taking place in the same city at approximately the same time in an unnamed city. Matt Fraction continues to be a gifted storyteller and a fantastic writer of real human dialogue. November is an absolutely gorgeous book. Elsa Charretier brings the story to life with terrifically paced, emotive, grimy yet stylish art. Charretier’s style feels classic (in a silver-age kind of way) but her skills as a sequential storyteller feel very modern. Charretier is a master of subtle facial expressions and body language (which are extremely important as much of the story involves quiet conversation), but she also uses creative panel and layout choices to play with pacing and time within the story. Her work is colored by the terrific Matt Hollingsworth who uses some creative, atmospheric coloring choices. Lettering is done by the talented cartoonist and letterer Kurt Ankeny. He hand-letters the whole book, and gives each character a distinctive font for narration (a font that suits the character well). The lettering is additive and effective and feels very much apart of the story. The whole presentation of the book is terrific (thanks to the involvement of Rian Hughes).  November is a must-read for fans of crime stories and great drama generally.

Friend of the Devil/Destroy All Monsters (the Reckless series) by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, published by Image Comics

There's a strong likelihood that at the end of any given year, There is going to be an Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips collaboration on my list of year-end favorites. These two have had an incredibly successful, fruitful collaboration over the course of many years, and they continue to produce terrific work. 2020 saw the release of Reckless, a self-contained story about a man named Ethan Reckless who's kind of like a private investigator, but not exactly. When people need help with something, they call a number and leave a message. Sometimes, he decides to try to help them solve their problem. The great news is there were two (!) additional stories about Ethan Reckless released in 2021, Friend of the Devil and Destroy All Monsters. These are fun action/crime stories that really convey a sense of place and time - that being 1980's Los Angeles. These are sometimes dark stories, but they have a feeling of lightness to them that's a little different than some of Brubaker/Phillips' other work (like Criminal, where you always know everyone is doomed). Sean Phillips (with colors from his son Jacob) continues to get better and better as an artist. He conveys so much emotion, and like I said, does an amazing job setting a story in a real place and time.  

That Texas Blood by Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips, published by Image Comics
Speaking of Jacob Phillips, he's the artist on another of my favorite comics of 2021, That Texas Blood. That Texas Blood is a fantastic murder-mystery crime story, but it's more than that. It's paced more like a movie from the 70's, when the director wasn't in quite as much of a hurry to get us from point A to point B to point C. The second arc of the story covers the Sheriff remembering a case from 40 years before, when he was new to being a cop.  This story takes pace in rural Texas, and while I've never been to rural Texas (just been to a few cities there), I found myself getting a sense of place from the story. These are towns that are very clearly not the big city, and the story moves at the slower pace of the small town. And I'm really loving it. Condon writes excellent, very naturalistic dialogue that certainly feels authentic to the place and also to the kind of story that he and Jacob Phillips are telling. And Phillips is building a wonderful world visually in the story. That sense of place I mentioned, really comes across in the art. It's dusty, and vast, with lots of space between any two places. The sense of loneliness definitely comes across. And Phillip's line is really strong and realistic. To be clear, not photorealism which I find unsettling and it takes me out of the comic. But a sense of really being true to life. Phillips' style certainly feels like his father Sean is an influence, but Jacob has his own style and it's really fun to read each issue and see his distinct style emerge. This book is an absolute delight, and one of my favorite books of the year.