With 2018 winding down, Smash Pages’ contributors take a look back at some of their favorite comics of the year, from Hey Kiddo and Spectacular Spider-Man #310 to Wet Moon and The Secret Voice.
Silver Spoon, by Hiromu Arakawa (Yen Press)
Arakawa is best known as the creator of Fullmetal Alchemist, but you couldn’t get any farther from that series than Silver Spoon, a comedy about a city boy who goes to agricultural school in rural Hokkaido. Yuugo Hachiken worked hard and did everything he was told, but he still didn’t get into an elite high school, so he takes what he thinks is the easy way out by going to a school that’s not academically focused—or so he thinks. In fact, the students at Ooezo Agricultural High School are very knowledgeable in their fields, but those fields are things like genetics and animal husbandry. The rubber really hits the road in the practical lessons, though, and Hachiken quickly realizes he is out of his depth when it comes to herding chickens, riding a horse, or fetching a stray calf. There’s a lot of city mouse-country mouse comedy in this series, but it’s also a fascinating look at where our food comes from (at least in Japan), and the different agricultural models espoused by different farmers. In fact, like Hachiken’s classmates, this book is very smart and sophisticated in addition to being endlessly entertaining.
Meal, by Blue Delliquanti and Soleil Ho (Iron Circus)
The idea of eating bugs may elicit an “Eeeww” from most people, but Delliquanti and Ho go beyond the ick factor in this romance about an insect cuisine enthusiast and a chef who wants to start a new restaurant based on the dishes of her youth—dishes that include ants, grasshoppers, and tarantulas. There’s a love story woven in there as well. Yarrow has just moved to a new city in hopes of getting a job in the kitchen of Chandra Flores, insect chef extraordinaire, who is about to launch a new restaurant. Milani, her neighbor, is friendly and helpful but the two have a little trouble making it click. At the same time, Chandra suspects that Yarrow is only into insect cuisine because it’s sensational, while to her, it’s part of her heritage. There’s a lot in this slim volume: Love, food, bugs, and bugs that are food, and the creators even include a couple of recipes at the end of the book.
Petals, by Gustavo Borges and Cris Peter (BOOM! Studios)
A bird in a top hat and cape walks through a snowy forest. He meets a young bear who is trying to gather kindling. That’s the beginning of this beautifully painted, almost wordless graphic novel. The bird produces magical things from his top hat, including a flower whose petals heal the sick—but he can’t cure his own illness. It’s a straightforward story, sad but in a way that will make you smile, and the art is absolutely gorgeous.
Hey Kiddo, by Jarrett Krosoczka (Scholastic)
This story, pitched at a young-adult audience, is Krosoczka’s memoir of growing up in the care of his grandparents, because his mother was addicted to drugs and was often in either jail or rehab. Krosoczka’s grandparents were loving but flawed, and he shows the flaws right on the page. Similarly, he depicts his mother as affectionate but troubled, and the revelation of the full extent of her addiction comes a little at a time, not all at once. The book is drawn in a sketchy, almost cartoony style, which helps keep the tone from getting too heavy.
Grand Theft Horse, by G. Neri and Corban Wilkin (Lee & Low Books)
Neri’s aunt Gail Ruffu is the real-life heroine of this graphic novel, which shows the unsavory side of the horse racing business. Fascinated by horses since she was a child, Ruffu becomes a horse trainer and has strong opinions about how to do it right. When she and her lawyer buy a horse together, the deal is initially that she will train the horse until it is ready to race, and he will keep his hands off and collect the winnings. When he gets some new partners, though, he starts pressuring Ruffu to race the horse too early and too soon after an injury. Convinced that this would be fatal to the horse, she takes it (this is technically not stealing, as she is part owner) and hides it away, as she tries to wrest custody away from the lawyer but is thwarted by corrupt racing administrators. Wilkin’s art is phenomenal, and the behind-the-scenes look at the horse racing business is eye-opening.
Weegee: Serial Photographer, by Max de Radigues and Wauter Mannaert (Conundrum)
Weegee was the ultimate voyeur, and he brought the world with him: In the New York of the 1930s and 1940s, Weegee photographed murder scenes, often arriving before the bodies were cold, sometimes getting there before the police. His almost psychic ability to detect mayhem earned him his nickname, which is based on Ouija (as in Ouija board). In this comic, de Radigues and Mannaert show Weegee going about his business, mingling with the murdered and the murderers, stopping off in bars, and talking with the people in his neighborhood. It’s pretty cool to see this other side of Weegee, the slightly more human side of the guy with the big camera and the bad attitude, and Mannaert’s art really brings the era and the photos to life.
Spectacular Spider-Man #310 (Marvel Comics)
When I read Spectacular Spider-Man #310, I was not expecting to read a masterpiece. Chip Zdarsky created this stand-alone issue to give us a look at the life of Spider-Man though a documentary lens. We are used to seeing Spider-Man fight super-villains and mob bosses, but this issue is grounded in the story of a boy and his mother, and how Spider-Man impacts their lives. Loaded with humor, intrigue, suspense, and human emotion, Zdarsky crafted the best comic of the year, and perhaps one of the best I ever read.
Frank (Renegade Arts Entertainment)
There is a running joke among Canadians on how our history is generally boring, but Ben Rankel rose to the challenge and wrote the graphic novel Frank. Frank is a tragic Canadian historical mystery set with the backdrop of Frank Slide, Canada’s deadliest natural disaster. The suspense will keep you reading, even though you know destruction is eminent for the poor townspeople. The artwork is immediately eye-catching and unlike many historical pieces, Rankel chose to use bright, high contrast colors that pop, as opposed to muted sepia tones. The history was well researched yet historical accuracy does not weigh down on the human elements or the suspense of the story. Rankel particularly shines as a writer where he seamlessly tells a tale with modern social consciousness yet still have it set in in 1903.
Gothic Tales of Haunted Love (Bedside Press)
For something a little bit lighter, I recommend the year’s best comics anthology, Gothic Tales of Haunted Love. These 19 short stories are a throwback to the classic 1950s-60s romance comics like Young Love or True Romance, combined with a lively dark, gothic twist you might find in The Haunt of Fear or Tales from the Crypt! Each story stands out with their own merit, and are diverse in concept and in character as well as in art and writing style. Hope Nicholson continues to deliver some of the best anthology collections ever seen in modern comics and graphic novels.
2018 has been a very strange year and I have read a lot of books. I had to look back just to jog my memory about what I read and discovered many that I didn’t remember reading. I discovered others which made me think, that book came out this year and not three years ago? I read well over 100 books this year and most just weren’t that good (Not comicsgate bad, just failed to deliver on their promises and potential) but there were some really amazing books to come out this year.
1. The Complete Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet. I’ve read Doucet’s work in the past, but I’ve never read all of Dirty Plotte and it manages to be even more than I expected. A brilliant work, which is collected with a lot of other material. Just a treasure.
2. Berlin by Jason Lutes. I cannot conceive of what it means to spend this many years on a single project. Or what it means for such a project to go from being an interesting piece of historical fiction to a story that feels so timely and terrifying. Like any project this big, involving this many characters and stories and themes, there are aspects to nitpick, there are parts that work better than others, but the result is something epic that is more than the sum of its parts.
3. The Ghost Writer by Jules Feiffer. The final volume of the trilogy was possibly its best. It’s also the most political, taking place in Hollywood during the blacklist. Many of the characters in the earlier volumes are back and their links to WWII, the Depression, the labor movement and its violent clashes, how women fought for their very survival only to be reduced to a cliched “femme fatale” and the dirty work of private eyes are as vital as ever. Here those characters and concerns are tied into McCarthyism and far right politics of the era. The trilogy stands as both great noir and an exploration of the genre, where it came from, and what it means. Feiffer has been one of the nation’s great artists for decades, and at 89, isn’t slowing down.
4. Belonging by Nora Krug. An exploration of what it means to be German in the 20th Century. As an adult Krug returned to Germany where she grew up and tries to understand what it means to be German, explore her family’s history and make sense of her legacy and inheritance. Beautifully drawn and designed and impossible to forget.
5. Flocks by L Nichols. Quite simply, one of the best comics memoirs I’ve read in a while. An emotional and powerful story, which I had read parts of before when individual chapters were published, but the collected edition which came out this year is truly more than the sum of its parts. It manages to be not just much more than a series of events, but an emotional journey. I read a lot of books this year, and while I don’t remember every aspect of this book, I do remember how it made me feel.
6. Wet Moon: Book 7, Morning Cold by Sophie Campbell. I’ve gone on the record in multiple publications about my love and respect for Campbell’s work and to my mind Wet Moon is the best of them. This final volume ends on as close to a perfect note as one could hope for. Today Campbell is best known for Jem and TMNT and she’s making more Shadoweyes volumes, but I hope she’ll make another project like Wet Moon. A quiet slice of life story set in a strange place, with mysteries never quite explained, with characters interesting enough that it didn’t need a plot. There’s nothing quite like it on the stands, now or when it began.
7. Why Art? by Eleanor Davis. It’s a provocative title, and one that makes the book sound like a manifesto, but instead is a playful story of creation and work. It’s a book I’ve gifted to a number of people, and it’s one that I’ve reread.
8. The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein. I will admit to a passionate love and respect for the work of Hannah Arendt, so I’m a biased reader, but I loved how the book managed to capture Arendt’s genius, to convey her ideas and the world she was born into, the cultural and intellectual world she moved in throughout her life.
9. Che: A Graphic Biography by Jon Lee Anderson and Jose Hernandez. It’s hard to tell an epic story, even with this many pages, and perhaps even harder to depict one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th Century. But this biography manages to humanize and explore Che in different ways.
Hawkeye: Kate Bishop by Kelly Thompson, Leonardo Romero, et al.
Kim & Kim by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, et al.
Pretty much every book I named is at best, dramatic and complicated and at worst bleak. These two books managed to be thoughtful and funny and emotionally touching and action packed and fun in ways that comics often promise to do – and that the comics medium does very well – but often fail. People often have this idea of comics as exciting and witty and smart and sharp and fun, but also engaging and engrossing – and these are the kinds of books they’re talking about. I know the creators have done a lot of other work this year, and even better work, but these two series helped make 2018, the comics industry – and my life – fuller, funnier, and better.
The Secret Voice by Zack Soto
This is probably an odd one to have on a 2018 list; I first read it in serial form a few years ago, but the collected edition won’t actually be officially published until next year. Through the miracle of Kickstarter, though, I’ve already got my copy. Comics, right? Whatever route this book took to get into my hands, I’m glad it did. “This is me pouring all my love of adventure and fantasy narratives, artcomics, manga, and eurocomics into one misshapen container,” Soto told Alex Dueben earlier this year, and that love shows on every page. WithThe Secret Voice, Soto has proven to be a master world builder and storyteller with this project; it feels like there’s so much backstory behind the characters and setting, but he does an excellent job of revealing just enough to keep the story intriguing (and not overwhelming). I can’t wait to include it on my best of 2019 list next year.
Bastard by Max de Radiguès
A historic heist — 52 simultaneous robberies at the same time, in the same city — is an intriguing premise for a graphic novel in and of itself, but that’s not really what this book is about. The story actually picks up after the heist, as two of those 52, April and Eugene, deal with an aftermath of hiding from the cops and their fellow criminals, as they plan a new life for themselves — maybe? de Radiguès shows vs. tells you what’s going on, as the story of a complicated relationship between mother and son unfolds on the pages, filled with twists and turns that you weren’t expecting. It’s a bloody, painful, sweet, touching and clever story.
Amazing Spider-Man #801 by Dan Slott and Marcos Martin
Two creators wrote their swan songs for Spider-Man this year, as Chip Zdarsky signed off on Spectacular Spider-Man and Dan Slott ended his 10-year run on Amazing Spider-Man. Since two of my colleagues already talked about the former, I thought I’d turn my attention to the latter. While issue #800 of the flagship title serves as the exclamation mark for Slott’s epic run on the title, it’s his team-up with Martin in issue #801 that really caught my attention. The stand-alone story is less about the daily trials and tribulations of Peter Parker, his alter ego and the villains he faces, and more about the overall impact heroes can have on the people the anonymously serve. Expertly drawn by Martin, it captures the essence of Spider-Man in a single issue.
Farmhand by Rob Guillory
We are living in a post-Chew world, as John Layman and Rob Guillory’s epic foodie tale wrapped up almost two years ago now. Depressing as that thought is — I still miss Tony and the gang — the silver lining is that both creators have new projects to fill the void. Guillory returned this year with Farmhand, a family farming/horror tale of a guy who grows hands, feet and other body parts like he would vegetables. The real story, though, is about the family dynamic, between Ezekiel Jenkins, who recently returned to his hometown, his kids and their relationship with their grandfather, who came up with this bizarre use for ears of corn. Like, literal ears of corn. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s weird and it’s all Guillory, who appears to be having a ball with it.
RuinWorld by Derek Laufman
I’m not sure if this miniseries published by BOOM! Studios would have made my “best of” list if it wasn’t for my six-year-old son. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a very well done, fun adventure story, about a fox and pig and their quest and their shenanigans. But the thing that really stood out for me this year was that it’s probably the first comic I ever bought exclusively for my son. I read him my comics all the time, but this was the first one that was really his. We read the second issue in Colorado, on vacation, with his cousin in the bed next to his. He wasn’t interested in it until we started reading it, and the next thing I knew I had two kids who wanted to know more about Pogo and Rex. So big thanks to BOOM! and Laufman for helping build a bridge from comics being “something I read with dad” to “something I enjoy on my own.”
Ian Boothby and Gisèle Lagacé are responsible for this magically, charming book. Exorsisters is a wonderful cocktail of equal parts Supernatural and Archie. Cate and Kate Harrow, identical twins and paranormal investigators, are instantly endearing characters. Unlike many “plucky characters fighting the forces of evil” stories, Exorsisters focuses on smaller, more personal cases. It’s less time spent stopping the apocalypse and more time helping helping a bride find her kidnapped-by-demons-groom. Ditching the big stakes stories, means focusing on characters and Lagacé and Boothby do excellent work here. The body language and expressions of the Harrow sisters are wonderfully rendered and their dialogue is witty but naturalistic. On their own, those two points would be enough for me, but they are topped off by wonderful monster designs.
Over the decades the Hulk and his book have taken on many different forms (rampaging monster smash up, helpful fugitive on the run, a psychological exploration of our different sides) and have found success with each transformation. That’s the strength of the property — its flexibility. And while some writers have flirted with the horror of the Hulk before, this is really the first book to run screaming into that direction, infusing the Strongest of the Them All with Stephen Kingesque character, atmosphere and tone. Al Ewing and Joe Bennett return to an original aspect of the Hulk (he comes out at night) and use it to tell a strong, suspenseful story about the thing that lurks beneath the monster(s) of the MCU.
It’s very easy to write a terrible Venom. Two decades of over exposure and symbiote fatigue have made “terrible venom” almost the default setting of the character. Agent Venom avoided this by handing the symbiote over to Flash Thompson and broadening the scope of Venom’s stories. As such returning the symbiote to Eddie Brock, would feel like a reset back to the big chests, tiny legs, overly rendered nonsensical stories of the ’90s. A default throwing in the towel. Instead, Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman (doing some of the most beautiful work of his career) take that towel and turn it into magic. Framing Brock as a haunted man, in a co-dependent relationship with Venom (they’ve been together a very long time after all), makes for a compelling point of view character in a story that has zero desire to reset the character to the 90s. Simultaneously picking up threads from the Agent Venom run, exploring the role of the symbiotes as a race of beings in the MU AND having Venom fight a cosmic eldritch monster symbiote nightmare dragon, Venom is the anti-version of everything that one would expect from the phrase “Eddie Brock Venom Comic.”
Fav Single Issue: Spectacular Spider-Man #310
Similar to the amazing Into the Spider-verse, this is a love letter to the character. Chip Zdarsky’s final issue focuses on who Spider-Man is via series of man-on-the-street documentary interviews, specifically using one woman’s story about her son and Spider-Man to help frame the impact that the wall crawler can have on someone. This issue draws its power not from spectacle and bombastic super powered throw downs, but from how simple human connections can be and how what makes greatness isn’t being able to swing from webs or lift a car or wrestle with super villains, but about getting up every day and doing the best we can however we can. Beautifully drawn, fantastically written, and instantly an iconic single issue.