A note on methodology: For the sake of comparing apples to apples, this list is comprised solely of bound comics volumes released in 2018. Ongoing series released as individual staple-bound issues were only eligible in the form of their collected editions (which is why Mister Miracle isn’t here, given that its bound collection won’t be available until 2019). We also kept things simple by only surveying (a) volumes containing previously uncollected material and (b) comics initially released in English. Okay, on to the books.
10. All the Answers by Michael Kupperman (Simon & Schuster)
If the past is a foreign country, a parent’s past is a country that colonizes you. In blocky monochrome, Michael Kupperman, a cartoonist best known for his head-spinningly funny humor comics, takes a hard left turn into the dramatic. Here, he documents the early life of his father, who became briefly renowned in the mid-century for appearing regularly on a quiz show starring child prodigies. The pressures and idiosyncrasies of that curious role broke the lad to a certain extent, and the echoes of that shattering reverberated into the author’s relationship with his dad. In a thematic grace note, the book also provides remarkable insight into American Jewish identity, something that was crucial to the father’s fame and that has been totally lost on the son. All victories are high-interest loans, with the true cost obscured until it’s time to pay the piper.
9. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (First Second)
As great kids’ comics continue to dominate the charts and raise a generation that doesn’t give a shit about superheroes, the burgeoning canon gets a new addition in luscious pastel. Jen Wang offers up a compelling period piece set in the declining days of European aristocracy, when class lines were beginning to blur. So, too, were gender lines, at least in Wang’s view. This is a fairy tale in which a pauper girl and a prince are united by their shared love of dresses and elaborate femme presentation. Their friendship is as fervent as it is turbulent, and Wang renders their saga with a deceptive cartooniness, one that packs a far more subtly emotional punch than typically comes with this visual style. There are plenty of odes to being yourself out there in the youth-comics marketplace, but this one goes down with exceptional smoothness.
8. Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels (Lion Forge)
I hesitate to describe anything that occurs in Upgrade Soul. Although it doesn’t rely simply on the cheap thrill of twists to keep you interested, the surprises it affords to the reader are delicious and should be savored. Okay, fine, I can dish a little: Ezra Claytan Daniels here crafts a story about a pair of elderly geniuses who elect to have their consciousnesses put into upgraded bodies, only to find that they have in fact been cloned, with their old selves coexisting alongside new ones that look like toddler-size fetuses. From there, the story only gets weirder and darker, and Daniels keeps your eyeballs peeled with the help of his remarkable gift for lumpily tactile deformity and agonizingly evocative expressions. Daniels is a person of color, as is the male half of the couple, and one of the most fascinating leitmotifs of the book is its exploration of what identity and legacy mean in a specifically nonwhite context. In an industry that far too rarely gives POC the auteur’s chair, Upgrade Soul is a meaty counterweight.
7. The Pervert by Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez (Image)
The sumptuous watercolor ugliness of Seattle acts as backdrop to this chronicle of a trans escort meandering through an increasingly complicated life of copulation with tragic cartoon characters. In the form of The Pervert, Remy Boydell and Michelle Perez have conjured up one of the most unforgettable bildungsromans to grace the comics page in recent years. The anthropomorphic beast at the story’s heart is going through transitions both physical and mental when we pick up the narrative, and we thrill as they fuck and suck their way out of a haze of self-doubt and poor decisions. They never quite make it to clarity, but then again, who does? The elegant figure work here takes the so-called “furry” genre of human-animal art to the highest echelons it’s ever achieved in sequential art. No small trick.
6. Young Frances by Hartley Lin (AdHouse)
In the immortal words of the poets of Blink-182: “Work sucks, I know.” In Young Frances, up-and-comer Hartley Lin builds out a young woman’s life in illuminating detail and agonizing nuance. The tale told is that of Frances, who works at an office job she sorta hates but is pretty good at, and who spends her free time with a woman she sorta hates but is pretty good friends with. As her professional commitments pile up and her personal life spins out, she is forced to ask questions about what, exactly, happiness looks like and whether you’ll ever be sure that you’re on the path to it. The panel layouts are simple but the draftsmanship is sumptuous and the storytelling is top-notch, making for a narrative meal that leaves one satisfied and enriched.
5. I Am Young by M. Dean (Fantagraphics)
A string of evocative short stories, many of them about musical experiences, are presented in comforting curves and hallucinatory color. In the slim volume that is I Am Young, newcomer M. Dean immediately announces herself as one of the most relevant young voices in North American comics. Each swift piece of fiction raises your eyebrows with its unique melody, singing of a too-young bride, two best friends who dream of being writers, a girl on acid at a dance, and, over the course of several interspersed chapters, a pair of British Beatlemaniacs whose lives we see touch at various points in the history and afterlife of the Fab Four. If you’ll allow me to continue to abuse the music metaphors, Dean’s artwork is a symphony for the eyes, causing the reader to dance from one innovatively constructed page to the next, only slowing down enough to make you gasp again at the next cymbal-rush climax.
4. Passing for Human by Liana Finck (Random House)
In which twisted scribble-people learn that love doesn’t fix your life. Liana Finck is capable of elaborate pen work, but chooses here to be deliberately crude. Oftentimes, her figures in Passing for Human barely look like figures at all, but that’s sort of the point. In telling us about her own tortured relationship history and that of her beloved parents, Finck wants us to see that we’re all crudely constructed by our creator, whoever that might be. We are ourselves, but we are also our shadow-selves, the selves that we think no one can see, and, whether motivated by passion or fear, we collide into one another at reckless speed, destroying whatever was in our path. The story starts with a new first chapter over and over again, implicitly conveying the assertion that there is no such thing as a true beginning — except, perhaps, for the fact that this book is surely the beginning of a notable trajectory for a remarkable young talent.
3. Drawn to Berlin by Ali Fitzgerald (Fantagraphics)
As the conflicts and deprivations of the 21st century grind away at the foundations of global society, people move and the West loses its shit. In an age of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, let Drawn to Berlin, Ali Fitzgerald’s humanist memoir of drawing comics with refugees while investigating the ghosts of the German capital, be a much-needed corrective. The thick chiaroscuro of Fitzgerald’s pen bundles us up for a story about the ways in which people pretend life is simpler than it ever actually is. Flight is her subject, whether it’s that of Middle Easterners coming to Berlin today, that of Eastern European Jews coming in the interwar period, or that of her own journey toward greater understanding of her desires. Fitzgerald doesn’t quite know what she wants to be, nor what she wants the book to be, but that’s perfectly okay — ambiguity and lack of easy answers make this one of the best works of nonfiction sequential art to grace the page in a good long while.
2. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Drawn + Quarterly)
Grief and fake news swirl together in a heady brew that’ll turn your stomach. There has been much ballyhoo about Nick Drnaso’s latest book this year, and the attention is well-earned, as this is one of the most unsettling comics ever put out by a major publisher. A woman disappears and, driven by anxiety and grief, her significant other makes questionable decisions while shacking up with a friend who works a desk job for the military. As the circumstances of the disappearance are called into question by the paranoid fever swamps of the internet, both men’s lives are thrown wildly out of balance and one sees how chillingly easy it would be to find oneself trapped in a similar morass with no clear way out. Most alarming of all, perhaps, is what Drnaso builds in front of our eyes with an unmistakable visual deftness: chunky figures with incongruous smiles and dead exurban landscapes where terror is always just below the mind’s crust.
1. Berlin Book Three: City of Light by Jason Lutes (Drawn + Quarterly)
As our own era darkens, an epic sticks the landing and finds a relevance it could never have imagined at its inception. Jason Lutes began serializing Berlin in 1996 and, for more than 20 years, readers have been over the moon about this ongoing narrative of the sunsetting Weimar Republic. Two volumes had already been released, City of Stone and City of Smoke, both of them better than just about any comic ever published, and this year finally brings the completion of the story-cycle in City of Light. The Teutonic ensemble is all here: Marthe the artist, Kurt the journalist, Anna the bon vivant, Irwin the revolutionary, Silvia the street kid, Otto the Brownshirt, and on, and on, and on. We begin with shocking cameos from historical figures and then quickly get on with the business of taking everyone’s journey — and the journeys of a city and the democracy it failed to uphold — to a climax that both stirs and surprises. We do not end with the stereotypes one might expect from a story about the rise of the Nazis, which makes sense because Berlin was never really a story about the rise of the Nazis. As a goose-bumps-inducing series of two-page spreads brings matters to something resembling a conclusion, you’ll see that Lutes, with his nano-thin lines and perfectly rendered faces, was always trying to send us an urgent message: All that is good is only supported by all that is kind.