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The 10 best comics of 2018

The 10 best comics of 2018

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A comics retailer and writer picks the can’t-miss books of the last year

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Image: Marvel Comics
Image: Marvel Comics

2018 was a banner year for comics. Manga ranged from blockbuster action franchises, like Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia, to mournful reflections on gender non-conformity, like Riyoko Ikeda’s Claudine. Kids gobbled up the latest installments of Dav Pilkey’s Dog Man, Svetlana Chmakova’s Berrybrook Middle School, and Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet. The garden of indie comics blossomed with creators new and old who experimented with genre, form, and style.

As a retailer in her third year of funnybook slinging, I serviced a public both conversant and curious, familiar with old standbys like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and eager to tackle what’s new from Ngozi Ukazu. If they made one thing clear, it is this: comics has a canon, and it’s growing all the time. 2018 exemplified that more than ever, and paring its plethora down to 10 representatives was no mean feat. But for old-timers, neophytes, and casual flippers alike, I present it to you: 10 sterling stand-outs in a year chockfull of them. Enjoy them, share them, and get ready for more.

Runaways by Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka

Image: Marvel Comics
Image: Marvel Comics

Rainbow Rowell and Kris Anka had an enormous pair of Sharpie-scribbled Converse to step into with their reboot of Runaways, the fan-favorite 2000s comic about a crew of superpowered teens with supervillain parents. Not only was the original series by Brian K. Vaughan a beloved entry point into cape comics, but it’s been long enough since its publication to acquire the faint glow of nostalgia.

Happily, Rowell and Anka aren’t interested in retreading old ground. Nowadays, Nico can’t stop thinking about Karolina. Gert is alive but stuck as a teenager among young adults. Molly is suddenly aware of how much less charming the world finds young women than apple-cheeked girls. Rowell was well-established as a YA author before she made her way to comics, and her character voices are warm, troubled, and yearning, and Anka is as comfortable depicting couture as heartbroken tears. This isn’t just a fantastic new run for steadfast fans. It’s a coming-of-age journey all its own.

Homunculus by Joe Sparrow

Illustration by Joe Sparrow
Illustration by Joe Sparrow

Daisy likes the color blue. Daisy’s favorite Beatles’ song is “Eleanor Rigby.” Daisy is a fractal membrane of quantum particles encased in a black metal shell. And Daisy, over the course of pre- and post-apocalyptic tale, is a survivor. Homunculus is about artificial intelligence, to be sure: how cognition takes form, how it grows, and how it might be used. But it is, above all, a story about what matters and what endures. We rarely see Daisy; Sparrow keeps each and every panel seen through her “eyes,” and there are rarely mirrors. But we see the world she sees and how it changes. And in that way, we see ourselves as well.

I Am Young by M. Dean

Illustration by M. Dean
Illustration by M. Dean

M. Dean has long been one of the brightest stars in the comics firmament; her securing of the inaugural Creators for Creators grant that funded this book was the most delightful non-surprise of 2017. But oh, what a glittering assemblage the result is: a collection of short stories, set between the 1950s and the 1990s, each centering on young people and the culture that makes them. Her panel layouts are deliriously inventive. Her coloring evokes the drab green of 1970s tile and the joyous California sunset with equal intensity. And her characters — with us for only a few pages, but as lasting in impression as those from a doorstop novel — catapult this book into greatness.

There are Miriam and George, who meet after a Beatles concert and spend the next few decades chasing that high. There is Roberta, who marries a man bound for Vietnam and is absolutely certain that doing so makes her far wiser than her 16 years. There is Kennedy, who is pretty sure she can write a brilliant novel until she actually tries. I Am Young is Karen Carpenter’s voice, Tom Jones’s swagger, and Chuck Berry’s howl. But above all, it is M. Dean.

Satoko and Nada by Yupechika

Illustration: Seven Seas Entertainment
Illustration: Seven Seas Entertainment

Satoko is Japanese, Nada is Saudi Arabian, and together, they’re ready to take on an American university. Sushi parties are held. Shady guys are avoided. Longings for homeland cuisine are satisfied. Above all, a friendship blooms and is captured with the kind of warmth and deprecation that makes the slice-of-life genre sing: our eponymous heroines’ joy in a finding a movie they’d like to see already in stock at a Red Box is as thrilling as any action climax. Yupechika’s gift for caricature brings to mind Kate Beaton; Satoko’s deadpan stare alone is worth the cover price. Satoko and Nada are a comedy duo for the ages and a friendship the comic-reading audience will, hopefully, be able to enjoy for years to come.

Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak

Illustration: Top Shelf Productions
Illustration: Top Shelf Productions

Carolyn Nowak’s work is magical in the tradition of Allende, Borges, and Okazaki, the kind of magic that examines the mundane through its embellishment. Tulips that taste like hot dogs, podcasts for movies no one’s ever seen to completion, and a mall where you can pay a tiger to lick your hair into an updo are among Nowak’s flights of fancy. The more time you spend in Girl Town, the more they resonate. Wouldn’t you like a significant other you never have to worry about trusting? Don’t you sometimes long for absolution that the world will never give you? You don’t finish the stories collected here so much as emerge from them: wistful, yearning, and as from all the best dreams, changed.

Beneath the Dead Oak Tree by Emily Carroll

Illustration by Emily Carroll
Illustration by Emily Carroll

A young maiden is romanced, misled, and narrowly escapes a dreadful fate — or does she? Emily Carroll’s journeys into the darkest part of the human heart are never straightforward, but this latest sojourn is particularly twisted. Told in rhyming verse, Carroll’s trademark use of deep reds and blue give the proceedings an eerie whimsy, and her layouts — always brilliant — furl and explode across the page. The horror that happens beneath the dead oak tree is as bloody and deranged as you might imagine, yet it is the manner in which such acts pervert the soul that Carroll explores, to a truly harrowing effect.

Street Angel Goes to Juvie by Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg

Illustration: Image Comics
Illustration: Image Comics

I first encountered Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s tenacious heroine in 2005. More than a decade later, she has not just changed with the times; she’s triumphed. In this installment, the skateboarding vigilante is ecstatic to spend time in juvie (under the truly inspired pseudonym “Shiraz Thunderbird”) with its movie nights, regular meals, and mandated therapy. The outside world cannot be avoided, but it might just be outsmarted. Rugg and Maruca have perfected the particular blend of sorrow and joy that makes the Street Angel series so special. Jesse spends as much time interfacing with a doofy wannabe-superhero as she does tearing up at a screening of Harriet the Spy. Street Angel remains, as it has for my entire adult life, one of the cleverest, funniest, and most heartfelt comics around.

Emma G. Wildford by Zidrou and Edith

Emma’s fiancé, Roald, has disappeared on an expedition to the remote northern reaches of Norway. No matter — she is certain that, as a modern woman of the 1920s, she can journey up there herself and rescue him from a frosty fate. This is a story, as you might imagine, about the can-do spirit that cannot be tamed, but it is also about the crushing injustice of womanhood and the bargains made in the face of it. In the hands of lesser creators, Emma might have been a heroine laid low by her own Strong Female Charactership. Luckily, Zirou and Edith are committed to Emma’s humanity, and that of the world she inhabits. The result is a stark and lovely meditation on the lengths and limits of love.

Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal

Illustration: Drawn & Quarterly
Illustration: Drawn & Quarterly

Luminaries across time and space have explored the concept of a world without men: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man, and the one and only Wonder Woman are but a sampling. Within a few installments of this comic, initially chronicled on Instagram, Dhaliwal proves she isn’t just part of that group; she is among its highest ranks.

Woman World — or as some members of the community call it, Gal Globe, Queens’ Quay, and/or Female Federation — is a pretty funny place: children like Emiko treat Blockbuster ruins like sacred shrines, baseball becomes a game involving kissing one’s grandma, and high heels are theorized to be some sort of esoteric tool. But it’s also a place where girls grow into adulthood, women fall in love, and the community must band together in the face of an opaque future. The women of Woman World (aka Dame District, Lady Land, etc) are, as Dhaliwal notes in an afterword, “learning to talk again because they’re not being interrupted,” and the results are utterly joyous.

John, Dear by Laura Lannes

Illustration by Laura Lannes
Illustration by Laura Lannes

This is a story about an incredible man and, the woman herself informs us, his ordinary lover. This is a story about a woman discovering holes in her skin that house small, white worms. This is, above all, a story about darkness. It is figurative, in that it is about the mortification of intimate relationships and the implacable advance of control one person can exert over another. But it is literal as well, and Lannes wields it like no one else in comics. Certain pages are so deeply inked that faces vanish and reappear depending upon the lighting one reads them in. Shadows mist along the edges until they swell into the abyssal plains. Lannes’ lettering — small, white, regular — flickers across the churning blackness like candles in the wind. This is, in every respect, a descent: into abuse, into erasure, and into the cavernous possibilities of sequential art.

Correction December 13th, 2:20PM ET: This story initially used a fan-translated image of Satoko and Nada. It has been replaced by an official image from the publisher.