10 Favorite Comics of 2018

Arsene Schrauwen

I’m not a professional comics reviewer, so this list is simply based on personal preferences. I’m not looking for objective metrics of quality, I’m much more interested in how a specific work makes me feel or think, or if it surprises me. There are a LOT of 2018 comics I haven’t been able to read, so this also isn’t comprehensive. This list also doesn’t contain any Uncivilized Books titles (all of which I loved, naturally, but I’m biased), for obvious reasons. This list originally appeared as part of a massive round-up on The Comics Journal. There a some spoilers below. Here are my 10 favorite comics of 2018, in no particular order:

Young Frances by Hartley Lin (Adhouse)

Hartley Lin created a stunning graphic novel. The cartooning is flawless, with incredible attention to detail. The story is about Frances, a young legal clerk pulled into the orbit of the menacingly charismatic executive Castonguay. It has some familiar beats about trying to hold on to an authentic self without getting lost in a messy corporate world of petty power struggles. But the execution elevates the story. Hartley’s precise drawings, his framing, sly references (Castonguay as Daddy Warbucks), surreal touches, and great propulsive editing kept things alive and a pleasure to read.

Passing for Human by Liana Finck (Random House)

I was already a fan on Liana’s Instagram feed and her New Yorker cartoons. Passing for Human is beautifully told, via a series of re-starting narratives. One thing that stood out is Liana’s drawing ability. Her drawing style is raw and resembles doodles, but she is fearless and can draw anything with it. A complete world emerges: tiny houses, animals, humans and their lost shadows. Mythical, magical, and absorbing.

Brat by Michael DeForge (Koyama)

Brat contains the word art. One way to read DeForge’s Brat is to substitute Art for Brat; art performance for prank; critical cynicism for temper tantrum; artistic calling for juvenile delinquency. Brats are artists. The titular brat, Ms. D, is an juvenile delinquent/artist struggling with relevance. Once the hero of all brats, Ms. D finds herself older, and no longer a ‘juvenile’. Is she still relevant?

Ms. D embarks on a new project, that, at first glance, appears as a mysterious terrorist plot. Finally, her big performance turns the audience, an entire town, everyone, to become brats! The entire population of the city loses it’s collective mind. The results are at first predictable: graffiti, property damage, zoo animals on the loose, and at least one death (the Mayor gets eaten by a lion). But then, the loss of collective control produces a kind of utopia. In the aftermath, the town rids itself of instruments of control that turned out to be unnecessary. Banks and police? No longer necessary. Hunger? Gone. These things were just accrued, stratified historical layers of a society weighing us down. Once you release the brat, it all falls away. We don’t need these things.

What happens day after brat Armageddon? DeForge alludes to it. But things don’t seem to have changed much. Our hero remains rich, so even if some banks are gone, wealth remains. The world didn’t change all that much. Her former intern, Citrus, is now a star delinquent. Delinquency still exists. Maybe we need a bigger temper tantrum? Or the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Blammo by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore)

No one does the one-artist anthology like Noah Van Sciver. Blammo is the heir of the 80-90’s single artist anthology comics like Eightball, Optic Nerve, or Dirty Plotte. Every issue fills me with joy and nostalgic pangs for that time.

Tinderella MS Harkness (Kilgore)

MS Harkness has emerged as a vital member of the Minneapolis comics scene. Her incredible work ethic has already yielded many mini-comics and her first graphic novel, Tinderella. Self-deprecating, self-abasing, fearless and fun, there are few books out the like it. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but it’s a promising foreshadowing of things to come.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

I didn’t know what to think of first when I to started read Sabrina. I was repelled by it’s quiet abandon, it’s cold artwork, and it’s meandering repetitions. But half way through, something flipped in my brain. I did a 180 and absolutely fell for this book. It reminded me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Both books revolve around damaged characters trying to recapture something utterly lost and unrecoverable. It’s an impossible task. We’re placed in an uncomfortable voyeuristic position – watching the characters grasp at memories and fragments as they slowly evaporate – and we can’t look away.

The Complete Julie Doucet by Julie Doucet (Drawn & Quarterly)

While working on Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucet with Anne Elizabeth Moore, I re-immersed myself in Julie Doucet’s comics of the 80’s and 90’s. It was another reminder of the incredible versatility of the one-artist anthology format. It enabled the artist to experiment, take detours, and continue on a primary narrative at the same time, while producing regular work, on a (somewhat) regular schedule. Julie filled every page of Dirty Plotte with incredible one-page bizarre experiments, ongoing stories (My New York Diary), and small one-off masterpieces of short comics. It’s really great D&Q brought this important work back into print.

Older Comics read in 2018:

Anti-Gone by Connor Williamsun (Koyama)

It took me a while to finally read this book. It was very much hyped after it’s release last year. When something is hyped, I tend to tune it out. I’m glad I finally read it. Connor’s minimalist cartooning is the perfect match for the absurd vacuous characters literally floating around a dystopic post apocalyptic world. It hits close to home. We are these characters. We are empty beings, getting stoned, floating easy as the world burns. Beautifully executed. Near perfect graphic novel.

Arsene Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics)

Olivier Schrawen has an incredible ability for the absurd. Arsene, ostensibly a Schrauwen ancestor – gets involved in an absurd folly – a Utopian city in the middle of a tropical jungle. The book comes with explicit instructions to pause reading between certain chapters: a week, two weeks. I followed the directions to the letter, and I must say it enhanced the reading enormously. By the time I’d return to read the next chapter, the previous chapter had receded in my mind, like a dream. It perfectly suited the book. Finally, when Arsene and crew reach the jungle site of the utopian city, the absurd world had wormed itself into my unconscious, providing the perfect imaginative fuel for the finale to come.

Eddy Current by Ted McKeever

I wrote about Eddy Current in my column and here on this blog. It remains one of the best comics I read in 2018.

eddy current by ted mckeever

Superheroes & Cities

superman vs building, superheroes and cities

If you’ve read my Comics Journal column on Ted McKeever’s Eddy Current (and the outtakes here), you probably saw a brief detour I took to discuss the relationship between superheroes and cities. I’ve expanded that topic a little more on my twitter account. Check out this thread:

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.

Black & White Urban Noir On Ted McKeever's Eddy Current

My Comics Journal column about Ted McKeever’s Eddy Current is live! See how Eddy fits into the 1985-87 Event. Also, I couldn’t help myself, but I go into a fun tangent on the portrayal of cities in superhero comics. Here’s a taste:

As required by superhero conventions, Eddy lives in a fictional city with a ridiculous name: Chad. The city resembles New York, especially the New York of the 80’s: grimy, with underfunded infrastructure, populated by lowlives and criminals, and loomed-over by gleaming towers of the ultra wealthy ruling elites. Chad is Metropolis and Gotham in one. This is where McKeever really shines. His keen eye really brings the city to life. He finds moments of stillness and quiet beauty in studied depictions of abandoned warehouses, gas stations, desolate alleys, and diners. Clean lines, attention to detail, exquisite framing. These moments make Eddy stand out from other comics of the Event.

Read the whole column here. Oh and check out some Eddy Current art outtakes in my previous post.

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.

MIX + Minneapolis / St. Paul Comics Scene Report

mix 2011 poter by tom kaczynski

My Minneapolis / St. Paul comics scene report went up over the weekend on Frank Santoro‘s Riff Raff column over at the Comics Journal. Frank asked for 400 words. I pretty much ignored him and turned in 2000. Not on purpose Frank!

After having lived in New York for almost a decade I expected a hard adjustment to a smaller Minneapolis scene when I moved back three years ago. But it became quickly apparent that the Minneapolis/St. Paul comics scene was nothing to sneeze at. In fact, the Twin Cities really are one of the great comics places in the US. Anyway, I’m sure I missed a lot of people in my report, so feel free to point them out! Heck, if you think you can do a better & more exhaustive Mpls/St. Paul report go for it! And Let me know when/if you do it. Actually, wouldn’t it great if there was a sort of ‘annual report’ that summed up the comics scene every year? I’d love to see something like it. Check out my effort out if you haven’t already.

As part of the report I was also going to do a MIX 2011 report, but things got wordy and I’m sure Frank appreciates that I didn’t include it in the piece. Instead I was going to detail my impressions on this blog. However, in the meantime, cartoonist Dustin Harbin wrote a great exhaustive report on the eXpo. He pretty much nailed it. Instead of wasting more pixels on yet another report, you should all just read his. I really appreciate his honest take. From my local perspective it was a great show. An amazing array of guests (Koyama Press! Adhouse! Top Shelf! Jim Rugg! Dustin Harbin! Ander Nilsen! Sarah Glidden! Julia Wertz! John Porcellino! Mike Dawson! Eamon Espy! Jon Lewis! Karen Sneider! Robyn Chapman! Rina Ayuyang! David Huyck! Microcosm! + more!) arrived and seemed to have a great time. I made decent money, but it’s hard not to do that at you local show when you don’t have travel expenses to contend with. My main concern was with the out of town guests. I really wanted them to do well, have a great time and come back in the future. I hope they will. Kudos to Sarah Morean for pulling off a great show. Check out Dustin’s report. Oh and I uploaded all my MIX pics to Flicker if anyone cares.

mix 2011 banner by tom kaczynski

Uncivilized Books News

Adalbert Arcane

A few new things happening at Uncivilized Books:

  • All books are available again. The shortages that happened due to the Brooklyn Festival and the holidays are a thing of the past. Anyone who has been waiting to get their books: Thank You! You should be getting them very soon.
  • The Uncivilized Books site had a small update. It now has a blog run by Adalbert Arcane (pictured above).
  • Last but not least. The Booke of Logos mentioned a couple of days ago is now available on the Uncivilized Books site.

New Comics at Uncivilized Books

I meant to post this sooner but various things conspired to prevent it. This is just a brief note that new comics are now available on the Uncivilized Books site. All of these debuted at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival and are now available for purchase via the magic of the interwebs:

DIARY by Gabrielle Bell

Diary is the follow up to Gabrielle Bell’s acclaimed L.A. Diary. This pamphlet continues Gabrielle’s autobiographical project with stories set in Minneapolis, New York and California. The star of the book is ‘Manifestation’, Gabrielle’s ‘adaptation’ of the notorious Scum Manifesto. Tom Kaczynski contributes a one-page introductory comic.

KLAGEN: A HORROR by Jon Lewis

KLAGEN: A HORROR briefly considers the movements and practices of the death cult which has silently infiltrated every level of society throughout our world. Drawn in dirty gray and black, it sheds no more light than is prudent and gives no false hope. One closes this small book feeling that although we live in God’s house, God has not been home for a long, long time.

TRANS-UTOPIA by me

The long awaited fourth part of the well received Trans series of books (which includes Trans-Alaska, Trans-Siberia and Trans-Atlantis). The cartoon journey through philosophy, pop-culture, politics and the occult arrives at its destination: Utopia…

I’ll have a longer post on Trans-Utopia and utopias in general soon.

uncivilized books at brooklyn comics and graphics festival

SPX 2010

SPX is upon us again. I missed it last year, so I’m very excited to be there this weekend. Here’s what’s in store for the show:

On Saturday, Sept 11, from 5-6 p.m. I’ll be at the Fantagraphics table signing Mome’s and various mini-comics contraband. I’ll be signing alongside fellow Mome contributor Derek Van Gieson.

On Sunday I’ll be part of a panel titled Developing Iconographies. Here’s the brief from SPX programming:

Sunday, Sept 12, 2:30 | White Flint Amphitheater

Distinct from drawing as an art discipline with its own self-ratifying purpose, artists in comics create pictures as part of a visual language. Moderator Ken Parille will investigate the ways in which comics artists develop visual iconographies in individual works and throughout bodies of work. Cartoonists Eamon Espey, Kevin Huizenga, and Tom Kaczynski will participate in this discussion, illustrated with slides of the artists’ work.

The discussion should spirited, I hope all of you out there come and ask some problematic questions!

But what would SPX be without the comics. I’m happy to announce that my micro-publishing venture, Uncivilized Books, has once again teamed up with Gabrielle Bell to produce another mini-collection of her acclaimed diary comics:

Diary by Gabrielle Bell

The book includes her diaries set in Minneapolis, California & New York. The star of the book is Manifestation, Gabrielle’s ‘adaptation’ of the notorious Scum Manifesto. I also contributed a short comic-intro. We’ll have copies of L.A. Diary as well.

Another recent Uncivilized Books production will be on hand: The Petrified Catalogue by Dan Wieken. The book debuted at MIX last month, and this is the first time it’ll be available outside of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

the petrified catalogue by dan wieken

Last, but not least, I’ll have my usual assortment of comics along with Structures 1-11, a collection of architectural drawings that are part of my research for a future story:

strucutres 1-11 by tom kaczynski

We’ll be sharing a table with Julia Wertz, Jessie Reklaw, Andrice Arp, Jon Lewis & Karen Sneider. Stop by and say hello!

Comics Education: The English Department

isaac cates by tom kaczynski
Isaac Cates by Tom Kaczynski
As I worked on my comics education series of posts (one, two, three, four, five, six), Isaac Cates generously consented to answer a few questions I had regarding comics in the English Department. Isaac is currently an English Lecturer at the University of Vermont and has taught many classes on the Graphic Novel (as well as many other topics including Poetry). He is also the co-editor (with Ken Parille) of Daniel Clowes: Conversations and has contributed an essay to the recent The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. He’s also a cartoonist and some of his work can be seen on his blog.

My questions were pretty general as I’m just trying to get at a broad view of comics in the English Department. Isaac’s thoughtful answers sparked a lot ideas and many further questions. Maybe we’ll do something more in depth in the future?

Tom K: I don’t know that much about comics in the English Department. The only prominent cartoonist I can think of that came out of an English program is Adrian Tomine… which is actually a pretty unusual thing… I can’t think of anyone else of the top of my head…?

Isaac Cates: I don’t know of other “big name” cartoonists who have come through English departments, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a fair number of English majors in the cohort or “generation” of cartoonists attending small-press conventions nowadays. Do we know what Sarah Glidden majored in, for example? (For that matter, what was Kevin Huizenga’s major? Or Jon Lewis’s? Or do those guys have degrees? I honestly don’t know.)

But there’s a reason (which I’ll get to) why more cartoonists would do the art major than the English major, even in colleges where the Art Department frowns on cartooning and comics. (Don’t know why that’s the attitude in so many art departments; Picasso and Goya were both kick-ass cartoonists.) But let me address other questions first …

TK: Do you know anything about the history of comics in English departments? When did they start to get studied seriously?

IC: There are a smattering of serious review-essays from earlier in the 20th century (a lot of them collected in Arguing Comics), but those are mainly written outside the academy as appreciations, with different goals from those of scholarly criticism. Academic criticism on comics in America seems to begin roughly around the time that people start writing about Maus. For me, an early landmark book is Rusty Witek’s Comic Books as History (1989). Other people wrote about comics before Witek, of course, but he was one of the first to write about them in the same way you’d write about a novel or a poem, and not merely as products of a particular cultural moment. The real boom in writing about comics happened after the turn of the millennium, I think.

But as far as “when did people start teaching courses on comics”—I’m not totally sure. I was under the impression that not many people were doing it in 2001 when I taught my first comics seminar, and certainly there were fewer books to put on the syllabus back then. But it must vary a lot from school to school. I might have got my idea that comics in the English Department was a new thing because I was in a fairly conservative department at the time. I should say, though, that I never had trouble getting a course approved: every department I’ve worked in seemed to understand that there was a real body of writing there that needed to be taught.

TK: From my (very narrow) experience in CSCL (Cultural Studies and Comparitive Lit) and English classes at the U of M in the 90’s, comics were quite welcome as objects of study, or even as a format for delivering assignments. What has your experience with that been?

IC: I never saw a comic book on a syllabus as an undergrad, but I wasn’t seeking them out. I imagine someone was teaching Maus even back then, and the second volume came out while I was in college. I will say, though, that I increasingly see comics on syllabi that aren’t dedicated to comics—someone teaching Fun Home in a gender studies class, or Blankets in a course on the contemporary novel. I think that’s something that has really changed in the past decade, or maybe the past fifteen years.

TK: Can you describe the type of students that attend your classes? Cartoonists? Comics curious? Writers? Readers? Etc.

IC: The first time I taught comics, several of the students in the class were hard-core comics readers and went on to produce comics of their own. (I think four of the students in an eighteen-person seminar self-published mini-comics later. One of them, Shawn Cheng, is still doing it quite successfully.) Since then, the percentage of would-be cartoonists seems to be dropping, mostly because there are a lot of other students interested in taking a course on the graphic novel. The comics-curious and the devoted graphic-novel readers are diluting the numbers of cartoonists, would-be cartoonists, or superhero fans: the pool of interested students gets larger and larger as the graphic novel gets a firmer purchase on the ordinary student’s college and pre-college readerly awareness.

More on the budding cartoonist in a second.

TK: How much do you focus on comics writing as opposed to the art in your classes? Other classes? How do students deal with the fact that some ‘writing’ is done without words?

IC: I don’t know what other teachers do, though I imagine there are quite a few English profs who talk about characters and story and text without “close reading” the visual aspects of the book, whether those visual aspects are layout, storytelling, or drawing. Actually, part of what I’m trying to accomplish with the book I’m writing for Yale is a sort of “how to read comics carefully as comics”: starting to see how decisions about visual storytelling affect the reading experience.

But yeah, I spend a lot of time talking about things like layout, perspective, the interrelation of text and image, drawing style, cross-hatching, and so forth. Probably it bores some of my students, but I think for most of them it makes them conscious of a layer of intentional meaning that they were receiving at best unconsciously before. I think it’s important to make them aware of stuff like perspective, which can influence the reading of a panel very subtly, for the same reasons I want poetry students to be aware of things like meter and etymology. In that way, I’m lucky to have some cartooning experience, though I mainly started cartooning so I could figure out how to talk about comics in this way.

TK: What are some of the essential comics you guys study? Does it change a lot year to year?

IC: I don’t know what goes in the “canon” for other people, but I know I have never done a course without Maus, Understanding Comics, Ghost World, something by Chris Ware, and something by Will Eisner. I used to insist on Jimmy Corrigan, but I’m experimenting to find a Chris Ware book that every student will actually finish. (Jimmy Corrigan is tough, and long, and it always comes at a difficult point in the semester.) I can report that Quimby the Mouse is not that book. I used to always teach To the Heart of the Storm, but lately I’ve switched to Contract With God, so I can show students the “first” “graphic novel.”

And now that it’s published, I will probably never do a class without Fun Home. Maybe more than any other graphic novel, that one begs to be read in the English department.

I have to change the syllabus a bit from year to year because things don’t stay in print. I love teaching [Posy Simmonds’] Gemma Bovery, for example, but I switched to Tamara Drewe for the fall because for some reason Gemma is out of print. Also, Tarama Drewe has a movie adaptation coming out, and that’ll make for some interesting conversation, I suppose.

And I try to swap a few things out here and there to keep my own teaching fresh. Probably I’ll try teaching [David Mazzucchelli’s] Asterios Polyp once it’s out in paper. I’m teaching Jason Lutes’s Berlin for the first time this semester, finally lifting my self-imposed ban on teaching isolated parts of larger projects.

TK: What are the essential texts on comics criticism you use?

IC: Other than Understanding Comics, I don’t use criticism in the classroom much. Maybe that’s a shortcoming on my part, but I don’t use much criticism in my other literature courses, either. I’d rather keep the experience of the students focused on the “primary” reading, rather than secondary materials and tertiary arguments, if that makes sense.

And what I do with Understanding Comics has grown more and more contentious over the years. Now I think I’m mainly going to assign parts of it in order to get the students to argue against McCloud, to get them thinking about navigating their own answers to the questions he raises. (“What defines comics?” “What is the essential thing that makes comics work?” “What goes on between panels?” “Why do we like cartoons?” “What is art?” Well, probably not that last one.)

TK: Feel free to add anything else that you think is relevant.

IC: Okay, here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately:

English departments are getting more and more comfortable having courses in which we study comics the way we do in other literature courses. And many English departments also have creative-writing courses, in which students write short stories or poems or non-fiction essays that approximate the creative work they’re reading in their other courses. I wonder whether anyone has taught a creative writing course on making comics, within the English department.

Or, rather, I wonder whether it’s been done more than twice in college English departments. Matt Madden did a “creative writing: comics” in the Yale Summer Programs, when I was organizing creative writing for them, and I did it myself once at Long Island University. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be done more, except that most English Departments don’t have cartoonists working for them and wouldn’t hire a cartoonist for this purpose. I actually think that many English departments would be more amenable to teaching comics-making than most Art departments.

That’s one change that would probably make a big difference in the direction of comics in the coming generations, don’t you think? On the other hand, if creative writing courses did for comics what they’ve done for poetry in America, making them more insular, more professional, and more “academic” in the worst senses of that word, then I’d rather not start walking down that road.

Maybe the ideal thing in college would be a two-course sequence (or even a simultaneous two-course “block”) that had someone in the English department teaching story structure and storytelling, and someone in the art department teaching figure drawing, perspective, inking technique, and so forth. I’m not trying to suggest that everything about cartooning is the province of the English department, but I would certainly want to challenge anyone who thought it all belonged in the art department.

TK: Thank you!

tom k by isaac cates
Tom Kaczynski by Isaac Cates