As we continue our look back at 2020, the Smash Pages crew offer their personal picks and perspectives on their favorite comics, comic strips and graphic novels from the year. Hopefully you’ll see something in this post that you haven’t read yet but will take some joy in discovering.
I never feel like I’m actually “done” with these “best of ” lists for each year, as I’ll likely see something on one of my colleagues’ lists or on some other website or Twitter feed or whatever that I haven’t read, whether that’s tomorrow or next month or even a year from now. So consider this a perpetual work in progress.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine
Tomine’s latest graphic novel, presented in a format the mimics quite well an artist’s notebook, is filled with funny, self-deprecating diary-like entries that start with his early life as a comic fan and continue throughout his career and his life. While the stories about the industry are entertaining and offer a glimpse into the mind of an artist, it’s the more personal stories about his family and health scares (acid fucking reflex! I can relate) that really make this one shine.
Slaughter House-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North and Albert Monteys
As a huge Kurt Vonnegut fan in my younger days, I was very wary when BOOM! Studios announced this adaptation of one of his most famous novels, Slaughter House-Five. Comics are great at continuing stories from other media, but direct adaptations that can be held up next to the source material and offer something new to it are few and far between. I was pleased that in this case, North and Monteys were able to not only stay true to the original story, but also take advantage of all the tools and techniques offered by the comics medium to make this story their own.
Nancy by Olivia James
Every single day in 2020, the comic strip Nancy was a multi-layered meta delight, bringing joy and wit that was sorely needed in that dumpster fire of a year. I suspect we’ll need Nancy for many years to come.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen by Matt Fraction Steve Lieber (DC Comics)
Fraction and Lieber’s tribute to not only Superman and his supporting cast, but also the comic tropes of the past, made Jimmy Olsen everyone’s pal in 2020.
Second Coming by Mark Russell and Richard Pace (AHOY Comics)
This was on my list for last year, and a quick check of the publication dates reminded me that it actually finished last January — not to mention its followup miniseries, “Only Begotten Son,” crash-landed in December, right before the year ended. So here we are again. Kudos to the creative team for weathering the storm of controversy that greeted it before publication, and to AHOY Comics for bringing this excellent story, and its sequel, to comic shops.
The Other History of the DC Universe #1 by John Ridley, Giuseppi Camumcoli, Andrea Cucchi, Jose Villarrubia and Steve Wands (DC Comics)
This novel-esque retelling of the story of Black Lightning pulls from his sparse history and cast it in a new light — and in a unique way that’s not quite a comic book, but also not really a novel or short story, either. This isn’t simply text with spot illustrations; this is actually a marriage of comic and prose, and most importantly, it’s really good. And we’re only one issue in, with more to look forward to in 2021.
Year Zero by Benjamin Percy, Roman Rosanas and Lee Loughridge (AWA)
This comic read more like an anthology, telling five different but compelling stories about how a zombie plague has impacted the people in five different places around the world. It took a somewhat tired genre back to basics, and just told a good story.
Fire Power by Robert Kirkman, Chris Samnee, Matt Wilson and Rus Wootan (Image/Skybound)
Fire Power is a kung fu epic, sure, but the real joy of the story is the family dynamic that Kirkman and Samnee have set up for the main character, a former ninja hero who has gone on to live a quiet life the suburbs. I love the use of the setting here, as Samnee really brings the normalcy of it to life, then contrasts it against this ancient order that wants their guy back. Small-town America vs. an ancient order of ninjas makes for a really fun and interesting ride.
Titan by François Vigneault
Titan tells the sci-fi story of the colonized moon of Titan and tensions that rise between the Terrans who live there and the genetically engineered workers they’ve created. And like most great science fiction stories, it reflects the world we live in, showing an escalating race and class war that, well, seems very appropriate for 2020.
Shadow Service by Cavan Scott, Corin Howell and Triona Farrell
Shadow Service introduced a compelling main character with witch powers and the creepy organization that wants her to help save the world. It’s a nicely done comic from Cavan Scott and Corin Howell, whose already creepy artwork is made even better by the mood-setting coloring of Triona Farrell.
Hedra by Jesse Lonergan
Using innovative art and layouts, Lonergan creates a wordless-yet-remarkable science fiction experience akin to 2001 or a Moebius story. It’s one of those comics that comes along every once in a while and reminds you of what’s possible in the medium, as each page can be poured over countless times for smaller details, but also can be taken in as a whole.
That Texas Blood by Chris Condon and Jacob Phillips
Having grown up in Texas, I have some familiarity with the setting for That Texas Blood, but honestly, these stories could have taken place in just about any small town. It’s as much about setting and tone and mood and character as it is about plot, and maybe even more so. And the creators captured all of that very well.
Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky, Marco Checchetto and Mattia Iacono
Like many creators before him, Zdarsky is doing some of the best work of his career on Marvel’s Daredevil. In particular, the “Inferno” storyline brought our hero together with his greatest enemy in battle to save his ‘hood — and also produced some of the best choreographed fight scenes in a comic this year. So kudos to Checchetto and Iacono for their magnificent work on this title.
Ice Cream Man Presents Quarantine Comix by W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Chris O’Halloran and more
As the quarantine hit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the comics industry came to a halt — and the creators of Ice Cream Man began putting out short stories on the web to benefit comic book retailers. This was a great cause, but also produced some of the year’s best comics.
Batman: The Adventure Continues by Paul Dini, Alan Burnett and Ty Templeton
I was a big fan of all the various cartoons and comics that sprung from the original Batman: The Animated Series, and it’s been fun to revisit that world again in this series that reunites some of the original creative team. And they haven’t lost a step in this rendition of the character.
Cloven by Garth Stein and Matthew Southworth
Novelist Garth Stein jumps head first into comics, with Matthew Southworth as his guide — or lifeguard, maybe, to stick with the analogy? Either way, this collaboration made for a wild, wonderful and visually stunning graphic novel about genetically modified goat people running through the streets of Seattle.
2020 for most people was a year of real-life horror, but we still looked to the horror genre to escape. Horror may have helped save us this year. 2020 seemed to be a Golden Age of horror, as a plethora of comics were released to wide acclaim.
James Tynion IV wrote Something is Killing The Children with the talented team of Werther Dell’Edera and Miguel Muerto on art, making us fear what we couldn’t see.
Tynion IV also made us fear conspiracies becoming truth in Department of Truth with Martin Simmonds and Aditya Bidikar.
Chip Zdarsky, Ramon Perez, and Mike Spicer took us on a twilight zone like tour of a creepy small town that doesn’t age but you can’t escape in Stillwater.
Nick Roche and Chris O’Halloran played on parents fears in the funny yet terrifying Scarenthood.
Sea of Sorrows by the rising Rich Douek and Alex Cormack brought us down into the deep dark sea where the quiet is deafening.
Sentient by Jeff Lenore and Gabriel Walta took us deep into space on a colonizing ship, while also playing on parents fears in a tense sci-fi horror tale.
The Plot by Tim Daniel, Michael Moreci, Josh Hixson, Jordan Boyd, and K. Michael Russel delivered a disturbing take of a house and family secrets.
Speaking of haunted houses, Home Sick Pilots came out of nowhere when it launched at the end of the year by Dan Watters, Caspar Wijngaard, Aditya Bidikar, and Tom Muller.
Death and music played a big role in the excellent and twisted tale Blue in Green, told by Ram V, Anand RK, Aditya Bidikar and Tom Muller.
DIE was a critical hit with its fantasy horror of a group of kids lost in another dark reality with fire consequences by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans.
Finally, the cold, bleak expanses of the tundra, the dark woods and mysterious lifeforms were explored with excellent pacing in The Black Stars Above by Lonnie Nadler, Jenna Cha and Brad Simpson.
There was something for every horror fan this year, however you wanted to escape. 2020 may have been as horrible year, but these books delivered the best horror comics we’ve seen in quite a while. Congratulations to all the creators mentioned as you brought me joy with some of the best books of the year in any genre.
It goes without saying that 2020 turned into a very weird year for my comics-reading habits. I probably read as much old material as I did new, even when the weekly shipments returned. Of course, webcomics like John Allison’s Steeple and Shaenon Garrity and Jeffrey Wells’ Skin Horse didn’t interrupt their regular schedules; and neither did the newspaper strips which appeared daily in my inbox. For this list, though, I am sticking to the new stuff.
10. The Avengers (Marvel), written by Jason Aaron and drawn by Ed McGuinness, Javier Garron, and others. I had fallen behind in my Avengers reading, but found the time to catch up. It was time well spent, because once again Avengers has become the Marvel series for people who barely read any Marvel books. In 2020 the Avengers helped birth a new Star Brand, stopped Moon Knight from taking over the world, and are now wrestling with who gets to be the Phoenix. Those kinds of adventures bring back fond memories of my beloved 1970s Justice League of America, when the JLA (and probably the Justice Society) would revisit a particular corner of DC continuity. Aaron has folded in subplots about mysterious connections to Mephisto and prehistoric versions of the team, and those are fine. However, if you just want a monthly dose of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, this is an excellent way to scratch that itch.
9. Dark Nights: Death Metal (DC), written by Scott Snyder and pencilled by Greg Capullo. I’m not going to say that Death Metal was a perfect 2020 metaphor, but it did feature a series of escalating catastrophes married to an underlying current of cynicism. However, it was definitely a metaphor for commercialization versus creativity – and going over the top was just the beginning. Snyder and Capullo took the concept of stories that “mattered,” continuity-wise, and blew that up to say that “everything matters.” Sometimes exhausting but never dull, Death Metal declared, boldly and loudly, that no DC story would be left behind.
8. Mark Trail (King Features), by Jules Rivera. A nimble relaunch of a stodgy adventure serial is nothing new, but Rivera infused Mark Trail with a winning blend of deconstruction and exuberance. Everyone knows Mark isn’t the most innovative journalist in Lost Forest, but no one really minds. Mercifully, the “Mark is old and can’t grok technology” jokes have been kept to a minimum. Instead, Rivera has added a bit of drama (Mark’s dad is a crook? What’s up with Cherry’s family?), and even managed to work the Sunday wildlife features into the strip’s overall narrative. Just like that, Mark Trail is both relevant and fun.
7. Nancy (GoComics), by Olivia Jaimes. Meanwhile, Nancy remains enjoyably random. Whether the characters are philosophical, metatextual, or just plain silly, Jaimes’ interpretation of Ernie Bushmiller’s unexpectedly-deep creation has established a distinct identity of its own. She has made Nancy the most appealing comic anti-hero in newspaper strips since Bill Watterson’s Calvin, and has placed around her a set of family and friends in various stages of world-weariness. It all makes Nancy a daily joy to read.
6. Action Comics (DC), written by Brian Michael Bendis and pencilled by John Romita Jr. While Superman was a showcase for Bendis (and penciller Ivan Reis)’ cosmic prowess, Action stayed on Earth to explore subplots in Metropolis. Since the year ended with Bendis’ departure from the Superman books, readers got closure on the fate of the Daily Planet and the just desserts for villains like Red Cloud and the Invisible Mafia. Action also juggled a decent-sized cast effectively, giving Lois and Clark the attention they needed while not forgetting about the Planet crew, two Superboys and the occasional ordinary citizen. It was a great Superman serial, and it has set a high bar for the next creative team.
5. Star Trek: Year Five (IDW), written by Jim McCann, Jackson Lanzing and Colin Kelly and drawn by various artists. The Enterprise‘s mission is headed down the home stretch, but you wouldn’t know it from this series. It brought back old foes like the Tholians and Harry Mudd, but at its centerpiece in 2020 was a thrilling storyline pitting Captain Kirk against the mysterious Gary Seven. They’re due for a rematch in 2021, and it should be a doozy.
4. Young Justice (DC), written by Brian Michael Bendis and David Walker and drawn by John Timms, Scott Godlewski and others. Despite all the attention DC usually pays to explaining the whys and wherefores of its shared superhero universe, this latest incarnation of Young Justice basically emerged fully-formed from the shadows of the late 1990s. Essentially it hand-waves the return of this Superboy, Impulse and Wonder Girl, in order to throw them into the same group as Jinny Hex, Teen Lantern and a nicely retro version of Tim Drake. Young Justice was an excellent hangout comic which offered nothing more than the chance to spend 20 pages a month with these characters. Maybe that would have gotten old (as it were) before too long; but I was sorry to see this book go.
3. Far Sector (DC), written by N.K. Jemison and drawn by Jamal Campbell. The Green Lantern Corps has been around for over 60 years, but Far Sector is the first comic since 1992-94’s Green Lantern: Mosaic to take a deep dive into what it means to be a GL. Earthling Jo Mullein is on a special assignment to a world where emotions have been managed virtually into nonexistence, and while there must solve a murder with vast political implications. It doesn’t have much to do with the Emotional Spectrum or giant green boxing gloves, but it’s a great sci-fi mystery and a welcome expansion of the Green Lantern mythology.
2. Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (DC), written by Matt Fraction and drawn by Steve Lieber. Plunging headlong into Jimmy’s history as a goofy Silver Age headliner, this miniseries was a sweeping saga of family rivalries, murder, and high comedy, all told in breathless style via a patchwork of interconnected vignettes. Along the way Jimmy teamed up with Batman, Metamorpho and Dex-Starr the Red Lantern cat, and faced off with Lex Luthor and his own brother. The ending reframed Jimmy’s role in the larger Superman family, but otherwise didn’t change his most important qualities. He’s still Superman’s buddy, and he still manages to justify his existence in a world which desperately needs comic relief.
1. Superman Smashes The Klan (DC), written by Gene Luen Yang and drawn by Gurihiru. Clearly this was a big year for Superman comics, and none of them was more important than this miniseries (and its subsequent collection). SSTK works on many levels: as a period piece adapting a classic radio serial, as an extended riff on Superman’s origin, and as a powerful tale of friendship triumphing over hate. At first glance it appears aimed at a young-adult audience, but there are images and themes which are appropriate for all ages. Yang and Gurihiru also give the Man of Steel his own identity issues, which naturally are contrasted with the Chinese-American kids who find themselves the targets of racists. Superman is often considered an aspirational figure, but rarely has he been such an accessible role model. SSTK is definitely the best Superman story since All-Star Superman, and honestly I would have a hard time choosing between them.
Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to reflect on any of the nonsense catastrophe that was 2020? If we, as a society, could just collectively go “Welp, that happened,” and moved into the future right away and left the think pieces and ruminations for when we had any breathing room to comprehend it all?
Well, if this year taught me anything is that it’s nice to want things, so here’s a short three in no particular order on what personally didn’t suck in a year that brought all of us to our knees across the globe.
Justice League International
Here in sunny California, the world effectively shut down in March. Kids were pulled out of school, there was growing shock coming out of the media that yes, there is a deadly virus out there and yeah, we’re all going to have to be inside for a while, and I was still young (haha) and naive in thinking that this could all be over in a month or two. Then Diamond wasn’t shipping books and, I am not afraid to say, I panicked. I panicked hard that the whole comics industry could slow to a halt so fast. There was a brief moment where I started wondering what my job would look like if there were no new books on Wednesdays anymore. If this was it, if comics took the hit and we just never got back up again. We always felt like we were on thin ice like every other periodical and sure, books would be published again, that’s a matter of history, but comic books?
I needed comfort food. A comic I could dive into and just bask in the artistry of it all, not the overarching plotline history that came from it, not the excitement of the new issue that leaves you in anticipation for next month’s delight, not even a short story crafted for a single issue. I needed a comic that was honest, that felt recognizable and real, but most of all, I needed a comic that would make me laugh. So I grabbed a copy of a Justice League International collection, sat on my couch, wrapped myself in a big blanket and said BWAH-HA-HA.
Being the True Believer I am, it was weird that this book called to me as much as it did in those first months. Maybe in the early days of lockdown, I was tired of visiting my family and just needed to check in on the neighbors, so to speak. The characters were classic and unafraid to be human, to laugh or be rude, imperfect and not the paragons of Justice we see today. Early issues have a surprising amount of ‘80s politics in them, fears of nuclear armament, political destabilization, the role of the UN in international politics. Our heroes were competent enough to save the day and still sharp enough to quip about it with all the timing and wit of an Abbott and Costello routine. 2020 was a good time to look at heroes with all the ability and power they have and remain just a little out of their league.
Comic Collection Sorting
Everybody I know had a “thing to do” while in lockdown. This was it! We were going to bake bread, watch Tiger King, write the Great American Novel — some objective was going to get completed to make the terrible circumstances we were trapped in worthwhile. For me, it was finally taking a look at my comic collection.
Unless you buy digitally or immediately pass on your copy after you’ve read it, it’s more than likely you, Dear Reader, have comic books. If you’re an obsessive like me, you have a LOT of comic books. Some get tossed into piles, some stay in the bags you bought them in, some are in boxes, some are bagged and boarded, some just sit under the couch. I’ve learned the worst place for your comics to be is in endless long boxes shoved up against the wall in your basement and slowly gathering dust, but I will say it’s a good place to start.
I’m not going to go into the specifics of how I’ve been organizing and sorting through 10 years or so of comic collecting (that’s for another longer piece next year I’m working on called “This Old Longbox”), but the act of looking at them all, putting them in order, flipping through old pages and seeing what was worth spending money on this last decade was absolutely cathartic and relieving to why I read comics, why I keep them with me and why they matter to me as a person removed from being a “fan.” If I had to do any bogus ‘self-reflection’ and ‘meditation’ on myself this year, I’m glad I was able to do it through the medium of comic collecting.
I don’t think anybody got what they wanted this year. Certainly not what they intended, but as a wise man said, “We did get what we needed.” We needed public unrest. Humanity had been pressed to a breaking point due to things wildly out of our control, so the idea that we could take to the streets and demand what was under our control to get better was huge. Marching, community outreach, activism, public discourse (for all the good and ill that can come of it), that’s a part of 2020 that can’t be denied. And while I certainly couldn’t rise up and join the masses yearning for equality and justice, I could support them. I could take steps to add aid to the cause. Extra if they were gonna make a comic.
I have backed 11 different comic Kickstarters this year, everything from collections of already published work like physical copies of Oglaf.com to continuations of books that never made it like Fairy Quest #3 to, most importantly, books that would never see the light of day if not for hard-working people who believe in their stories and the willingness to fight and be heard, like Insider Art and Beef Bros. I don’t want to reduce anyone’s hard work in the fields of political justice or social reform into consumerism or lazy bandwagoning, but being able to help someone be heard, whether through art or outreach, felt life-affirming in a year that took so much power from us.
2021 is new and it’s ours. Last year we had no idea of what we were in for, but now, it’s time to start looking for the light at the end of this tunnel. As a wise man once said: Face Front, True Believers. Happy New Year.