Comics are good. These are the best of 2023.
Related Best Of Lists:
Below you’ll find all the best comics released in 2023, updated throughout the year as I read more great books. See a graphic novel or series you love missing from the list? Let us know in the comments!
Best New Comics of 2023
Truth be told, I could have picked this comic purely based on the concept and creative team. John Allison and Max Sarin of Giant Days fame doing ‘What if Agatha Christie got really into the Great British Bake Off?’ Yes please!
Honestly, The Great British Bump Off is an even easier book to jump into than Giant Days, eschewing the fan-favorite slice-of-life for a straight up murder mystery set under the watchful eyes (eye) of Paul and Pru stand-ins. Sweet, funny, and tickles the who-dunnit itch we all never get enough of.
Ryan North and Erica Henderson worked so well together for so long on Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl that any other projects they work on are always going to live in the shadow of Doreen Green. For familiar readers like myself that’s the greatest challenge facing Danger and Other Unknown Risks: What does this collaborative YA graphic novel have that Squirrel Girl didn’t? It’s not enough that North and Henderson are effortlessly charming, funny and skilled because – fairly or not – those are givens!
For the first half of Danger, I struggled to find significant degrees of separation, in this work detailing Marguerite, Daisy (her talking dog), and Jacine’s efforts to save a fallen world from dark magic. But when the book hits its big twist, and the full picture of Marguerite’s adventure and her relationship to the magic of her mentor Bernard becomes clear, I finally saw it: A blend of sci-fi, magic-fantasy and YA comedy that stands out as one of the best of the year.
I’ve picked up a bunch of comics this year fairly confident I wouldn’t connect with the style or source material, but nonetheless willing to give the work a try given the source of the recommendation. This happened with The Invisible Man and His Soon-To-Be Wife by Iwatobineko (still an all-timer of a title, and very sweet, but not for me) and Blood of the Virgin by Sammy Harkham (this might actually be great, but 75 pages in I couldn’t connect, so I stopped). I’ve read so many comics that it’s hard to enter a work with no expectations or hopes at this point. Part of the thrill with reading the newest releases in a given year is finding those rare moments where my anticipatory senses are all wrong.
That happened in a lot of the best ways with What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim?, a Yen Press manga release by MyeongMi Kim based on the original story by GyeongYun Jeong. I expected this would be another sweet-yet-weightless romance book, but the work is wonderfully engaging, and although it’s not as funny, brings to mind my love for Kaguya-Sama: Love is War. Here’s the premise: Youngjun Lee is a rich narcissist who can’t understand why his excellent secretary Miso Kim would want to leave his side and quit her job. The series, which ran in 2021 on Tapas as a digital webtoon before physical release, finds a brilliant blend between taking its story very seriously, and injecting stylistic humor to keep the narrative lite (Kim’s use of sound effects is particularly funny, often breaking down the lines between sound, caption, and meta-commentary). So far, the work’s keen on playing against type, too, setting up all the Hallmark romance movie trappings before revealing the story plans to avoid, circumnavigate, or otherwise destroy them. I did not expect I’d be eager to read Vol. 2 – As usual, I’m thrilled to be wrong!
Never let it be said that a good pun can’t get you on Comic Book Herald’s best comics of 2023. During my annual “I better see what’s happening on Webtoon” sojourn, the punny romantic-comedy about an unlikely couple falling for each other in the gym stood out above all others. In many ways it’s a classic odd couple set-up through the filter of 2023, with Braydin the arrogant TikTok influencer butting heads with Alex, the near-professional gamer and hobbyist body-builder. If you just told me that, I probably wouldn’t read it, but creator LummyPix infuses humor akin to Aka Akasaka’s “Kaguya-sama: Love is War,” with desperately overthought internal monologues driving some very charming comedy. The early moments of the cocky Braydin’s absolute disbelief that Alex can lift so much more than him – and her, a mere girl! – lead to some well-deserved come-uppance, as does Alex’s overconfidence that she can outflex Braydin in every aspect of life. It’s a solidly balanced rom-com that isn’t as lopsided as it may initially seem.
And frankly, if you’re just here for the swole girl pin-ups showing off her sick gains, no one could blame you. LummyPix takes great joy in showing off Alex’s physique, although generally speaking I rarely find the work leering or without purpose. Perhaps it’s because as the series progresses LummyPix dives deeper into Alex and Braydin’s backgrounds, their anxieties, and the difficulties in their pasts that charge them both forward. It’s not reinventing the wheel, and no, it’s not *as good* as the glorious “Kaguya-sama,” but I’m glad to have found this one on Webtoon.
It is hard, nearly impossible, to keep pace with the future. The rate of progress is so fast, and the process of distilling it into story usually so laborious, that using comics as a way of commenting on ripped-from-the-headlines narratives often runs the risk of falling half-a-step behind. This is the herculean feat James Tynion IV is attempting through a trilogy of thematically connected, fascinating works: The Department of Truth, The Nice House on the Lake, and now W0RLDTR33. In catching up with the first arc of W0RLDTR33, issues #1 to #5, this was the truth I kept coming back to: James Tynion IV has an uncanny ability to take the darkest corners of modern culture and turn it into hyper-compelling, tense mystery and horror. And somehow he does it *while* keeping pace.
W0RLDTR33 certainly treads that line. In less capable hands, a book that takes on live-streaming murders and the danger of the internet sure sounds like the epitome of “Ok, Boomer.” Tynion IV and collaborators Fernando Blanco, Jordie Bellaire and Aditya Bidikar narrowly tip-toe that tightrope, building a world and a cast of characters that spans the history of the internet, and literalizes the “demon” let out of the cage with the acceleration of the digital era from the late 90s to present day. Where The Department of Truth is fueled by contemporary conspiracy, and The Nice House on the Lake captures the dread of impending apocalypse, W0RLDTR33 is fueled by the increasingly prevalent line of thought that the internet broke something human in all of us. Through five issues, I can’t say my hair’s been blown back as much as the other two books I’m mentioning (to be fair, I have less and less hair all the time!), but I’m 100% along for the ride.
Blanco and Bellaire are doing extraordinary work, too, merging the haptic feedback of Mitch Gerad’s work on Mister Miracle with the Sienkiewicz-inspired chaos-expressionism of fellow Tynion collaborator Martin Simmonds. Intriguingly, the team of W0RLDTR33 is often working in the less commonly used 12 panel grid, I suspect in a deliberate attempt to capture the attention-exploding split-screen effect of all the apps, sites and voices pulling us in every direction. Amazingly, Blanco (a superstar-in-the-making) doesn’t sacrifice detail or expression working in these restrained proportions, and shows a gifted understanding of panels-with-purpose. The final two issues weave in some exciting left turns, and as long as this creative team is on board, I’m compelled to see the series through to the end.
What if Sherlock Holmes looked like slasher-film Ben Grimm, was a world-renowned pacifist, and found themselves placed right in the middle of The Maltese Falcon? That’s where Matt Kindt kicks things off with French artist Jean-Denis Pendanx, in the first straight-to-graphic-novel release from Kindt’s Flux House imprint at Dark Horse Comics. While Kindt has established a very particular world of whimsical espionage across a wide variety of some of my favorite comics (Mind MGMT, Black Badge, or even this year’s Spy Superb), Mister Mammoth is pure detective-noir, with the world’s greatest crime-solver set to uncover a mystery that gets increasingly complex and personal with each new revelation. This work marks Pendanx’s US debut, and it’s marvelous, evoking similar mystery thrills of Blacksad. 120 pages of gorgeous modern-noir with a 7-foot tall comic book figure in the lead? Sign me up. Plus, Mister Mammoth builds to one of the better puzzles in Kindt’s oeuvre.
There’s no more reliable bet in comics than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips teaming for a new neo-noir graphic novel, with Phillips’ son Jacob coloring since about 2017. I suppose if you’ve tired of neo-noir (more like need-no-noir!), Brubaker and Phillips might feel a bit stale and repetitive. But as a fan, that’d be like complaining Steph Curry hits too many 3-pointers. Is he repeating himself? I guess so, yeah, but what a delightful feat!
Night Fever follows a middle-aged book salesman touring France, and a mid-life crisis that drives him into the seedy underbelly of drugs, sex and of course, violent crimes. Brubaker focuses heavily on the choices we make that determine the paths of our lives, and how the parallel road untraveled always feels like just maybe it was the life you should have had. I won’t lie, for a Big Daddy in his mid-30s, that hits a little too hard. So, minus 100 points for forcing me to really think about my life choices and whether or not this is what I want for myself? I would rather not, thank you very much!
But of course, Night Fever is a tense, gripping read, pulling you into its orbit and demanding you finish it in one gulp like all the best Brubaker / Phillips. Within their incredibly rich library, Night Fever probably doesn’t eclipse the duo’s best works (Criminal, Fatale, Pulp), but it holds its own with The Fade Out or even Reckless. And that’s more than enough to make it one of the best comics of 2023.
The end of the year crunch to catch up on all the best comics of 2023 that I may have missed really hit a wall with the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. Video game companies should be a little more understanding imo. My free hours are predominantly eaten by webslinging, venom punching, and a surprising obsession with bees. Nonetheless, I made time for Ram V and Filipe Andrade’s Rare Flavours, which is immediately established as one of the year’s best works, and a comic you’ll absolutely want to say you were there for.
Ram and Andrade’s previous collaboration, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, is one of the best comics of the last few years, and that’s the bar for Rare Flavours. Through two issues, it’s rising to the occasion, working in Ram V’s knack for combining the whimsical, mythical, and violent-tragedy of life. If you see these creators on a title, it’s simply a lock for one of the most interesting stories in publication.
Victoria Ying’s First Second publishing debut is a gorgeous yet unsettling depiction of disordered eating in a high school girl named Valerie. While you might feel like you know this story through media, Ying is careful to focus on the ways disordered eating, and the cultural and familial pressures in Val’s life, come to dominate her every waking action and thought. This can be a hard read, especially if you or someone you know struggles with disordered eating, or even addiction, but it’s also a hopeful read culminating in the values of friendship, identity and family.
To this point Ying’s work on City of Secrets and Diana: Princess of the Amazons is geared towards younger readers, but on Hungry Ghost the struggles and mental toll are meant for a slightly more mature audience, and Ying captures this teenage experience with deft awareness. The recurring use of pink and turquoise adds a calming, almost meditative quality, interrupted by dark greys and brown during the tensest moments. I won’t spoil the conclusion, but I was also fascinated by finding hope in an ending despite, as Trung Le Ngyuen puts it on the back-cover blurb “people in your life who might stand in the way of… self-love.” It’s a smart, engaging read with the potential to really help someone who needs it.
I remember in my early 20s, in the earliest stages of Comic Book Herald, I started to get emails from artists promoting their comics on Kickstarter, or simply looking for coverage. And I distinctly remember how some of those would hinge all their marketing on the fact that the comic was queer, or featured LGBT+ (the acronym usually stopped there in those days!) characters. I won’t lie, at that point in my life, I didn’t get it. There wasn’t aversion to the purported queerness of the work so much as confusion as to why these artists would emphasize that at the expense of telling me what kind of story was going to be told.
A decade later, and the situation is largely inverted. I am a lot more likely to give works promoting their queerness a chance, simply because I’ve seen how these marginalized creators can otherwise go ignored or undercelebrated. Plus, from a self-interest standpoint, new queer perspectives offer the possibility of a tonal specificity that I won’t find in other works from more familiar creators, and that often leads to interesting work. The thing that the “anti-woke” dog-whistle of “We just want good stories” misses, or willfully ignores, is that often times the clearest path to a quality fresh narrative is through diverse voices that can capture aspects of worlds you don’t already know.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that on the surface Archie Bongiovanni’s new graphic novel, Mimosa, doesn’t sound all that inventive. A group of four friends are getting older, and their personal lives start getting in the way of their relationships, so they plan a new dance-party meet-up for thirty-somethings. There is a decidedly limited hook when the premise is stated so flatly!
But that’s *not* the story. The story is queer! And here that means Bongiovanni reflecting queer life through tone, character, dialog, action and story. The value of all of this is graphic novel with a very specific lens into a fictional world that feels like it could quite easily be happening anywhere from Chicago to LA right now. Importantly, too, Bongiovanni’s characters are *messy*, at times funny, cruel, sensual and petty. All the things fully realized friends can and should be. In many ways, Mimosa reminds me of Fire Island and an ability to uniquely give life to facets of queer experience.
One of the more memorable interactions I’ve had in an interview came when I asked Si Spurrier about his run on Hellblazer – critically adored, and cut down after only 12 issues – and he had such an honest, open air of disappointment and sadness to his answer (paraphrased here from memory): “Sometimes you get to write the book you were born to write… and it just doesn’t work out.” I found it heartbreaking.
So, few things in comics this year give me greater joy than watching Spurrier and Charlie Adlard just do a Constantine book and call it something else via Boom Studios! Damn Them All is essentially the story of Constantine’s niece, after his death, and her challenges navigating his occult lessons and related baggage, as well as her own personal demons. Adlard and Sofie Dodgson’s rendering of the impossibly demonic avoid the unknowable in favor of renditions the human mind can comprehend, which works quite well in a book where the demons of hell are mysteriously made feeble and subservient. Likewise, Spurrier’s time in the X-Office pays off with incorporated textual interstitials laying out Alfie’s last will and testament (our Constantine substitute) and encyclopedic entries on the occult. Maybe this is the book Spurrier was born to write; damn all those who try to stop it!
In the running for best comic to come out of the Substack Exodus, The Oddly Pedestrian Life of Christopher Chaos is a riveting exploration of teen angst, queer discovery, and every person’s desire to just feel goddamn “normal” for once! ‘Christopher Chaos’ is an idea from James Tynion IV, with Tate Brombal, Isaac Goodhart, Kurt Michael Russell and Aditya Bidikar working in tandem to cement last year’s Substack releases as a brilliantly promising world of monsters a la Tynion’s Something is Killing the Children, and the collaborative work with Brombal on House of Slaughter.
The print run via Dark Horse comics will extend into an ongoing series, which is great news for all of us. I could write more about what a delight this comic is, but fortunately Sean Dillon and Ritesh Babu already did that:
“Christopher Chaos, much like Brombal’s prior Barbalien (also lettered by the ever-excellent Aditya Bidikar), is a book steeped in the experience of being queer. It is about being the absolutely neurotic, anxious mess of a queer teenager. An experience we can all understand and relate to. Only it, y’know, has more Werewolves, Frankensteins, and crazy Cult Cops Of Complicity that want to help enforce the normalcy of the world.”—Comic Book Herald
Alex Paknadel and Caspar Wijngaard’s Image Comics series is a masterclass in comics sci-fi, a lament to the fallacies of control from two creators completely in control of their craft. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, meets Arrival, somehow all meets a reverse Kamandi Last Boy on Earth in this gripping, cerebral gem. Paknadel comes from the Grant Morrison school of refusing to hold the readers hand, and trusting they’ll have the concentration and intellectual hunger to keep up. Meanwhile, fresh off incredible work on Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt and Home Sick Pilots, Wijngaard continues to prove himself as one of the best artist/colorist combos in all of comics, perfectly suited for the violence and alien designs of All Against All.
I picked up “My Father Was a Good Man” because of the cover art of a Fenris-sized wolf about to devour a young hunter, which highlights both the thrill and risk of the Shortbox Comics Fair. “I don’t really know what this comic is going to be, but damn that wolf likes cool!” Adeline Kon uses their 37 pages to set up, dismantle and reassemble an entire father-daughter relationship, which works as both narrative unpacking the legacy of our parents, and as a queer horror story.
Kon has a keen understanding of when to unleash a supernatural feral wolf on an otherwise steady dose of realism, with incredible page layouts of swirling violence and haunting sound effects when the memories are too traumatic to fully process. At its best, the short story is reminiscent of some of Tillie Walden’s or Emily Carroll’s comics, with a lead hellbent on protecting her father’s legacy by any means necessary. An incredible blend of symmetry paces a work that swells and builds to ask the question: “Was my father a good man?” My favorite of the Shortbox comics I read!
Since 2020, it seems there’s been both an increased appetite for diverse perspective and voices, and an increased willingness for publishers to support those voices. This is a great thing, full stop. The challenge, though, is it means a lot of creators are occupying similar autobiographical territory in a condensed historical span, and it’s increasingly challenging for creators to authentically tell their stories, translate their experiences, AND stand out from the crowd. It’s an under-remarked hurdle demanding yet another challenge for minority creators to put out undeniable work; they don’t have the luxury of mediocrity.
In “The Talk,” Darrin Bell – the first Black editorial cartoonist to win a Pulitzer Prize – pulls this off with one of 2023’s best graphic novels. Bell shares his life experiences as a Black man with striking specificity, humanity, humor and vulnerability. There’s a magic to Bell’s pacing as his traumatic experiences carrying a childhood water pistol and his white mother demanding his teachers account for their unconscious and conscious bias are as poignant as his later career as an editorial cartoonist intersecting with the most strenuous racial politics of the aughts. Given the work’s title I imagined the graphic novel would concentrate primarily on Bell’s childhood and interracial parents, but he finds a way to capture his whole life to date, and to bring “The Talk” full circle. It’s an incredibly high degree of difficulty that only gets stronger, only coalesces into more and more insightful revelations as the book proceeds. One of the strongest autobiographies I’ve read this or any other year.
Wes Craig’s work on 8 years and 56 issues of Deadly Class with Rick Remender is honestly some of the most underrated storytelling of the past decade, despite the book’s success. Even knowing that I slept on the first three issues of Kaya, but now that I’m caught up, this is clearly one of the best comics of the year. Craig’s fantasy world design is reminiscent of Horizon Zero Dawn by way of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, with enough splash pages of lizard-warriors and giant spiders to thrill the Jeff Smith fan in all of us. At its core, though, Kaya is the story of a hardened warrior sister and her little brother, who’ve lost their tribe and need to find their way in a threatening, complicated world. It’s a time-tested formula told magnificently, and well on its way to status as an all-ages classic.
What’s your first memory? Mine’s playing with a Batman action figure and accidentally cracking a window. Or when my baby sister came home from the hospital. Or maybe it’s the first time I had cheesecake from a local favorite shop. Honestly, I can’t say for sure. For Thien Pham, it’s when he was five, leaving Vietnam on a horrendously overcrowded boat, trying to drink saltwater because he was so thirsty. It’s the taste of a watermelon and rice ball from a ship bringing aid, and then it’s holding tight to his mother as pirates raid that same ship. It’s an opening sequence so evocative and memorable that it stood me up and forced me to stare my privilaged upbringing directly in the eyes, as Pham’s own journey of immigration to America gets underway.
Pham’s all-ages account of the journey from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Thailand to California is a strikingly unforgettable memoir, capturing that first memory all the way up to Pham’s journey to American citizenship as an adult. The specificity of a single immigration story highlights the hardships and tremendous hurdles Pham’s family overcame both arriving to America and making a living once here. It’s a story you think you know told with the confidence to make it clear that if you haven’t been through it, you really don’t. Pham’s visuals are geared for younger audiences without feeling rudimentary, and Pham exhibits a wonderful sense of when to break up traditional comics pages with single image blocks, or in the early going, all black tension. I fully expect “Family Style” to sit proudly alongside graphic novels like The Best We Could Do in recounting the AAPI experience.
As it goes with most deeply cool literary figures, I’d never heard of Anais Nin prior to this graphic biography, which concentrates on Nin’s relationships, writings and erotic art in the 1920s. Biographies can often overdose on fact, but Swiss cartoonist Leonie Bischoff allows her narration and floral-impressionism to fully inhabit the inner workings of a fascinating woman who would come to be known as a leader in women’s erotica decades later. It’s Nin’s navigation of her sexuality and ever-expanding polyamorous nature that drives a shockingly engaging narrative, while Bischoff takes every opportunity to translate unseen journeys of self into works of art.
I picked up the book anticipating I’d learn a bit about the history of literature (and I *did* learn a lot about Henry Miller!), but I was stunned by Nin’s character, and the complexity of her diaries and decisions. Nin’s affairs range from beautiful and uplifting (with Miller) to highly concerning (her therapists) to, uh, her dad. The graphic novel already won an audience favorite prize at the 2020 Angouleme International Comics Festival, and is now translated by Jenna Allen and released through Fantagraphics for an English-speaking audience.
In days of pimple-pummeling pubescence, when blood boiled with angst and confused secretions,
My warriors-in-weird and I learned of the legend of mythological monster-masticating masculinity, Beowulf.
No Co-Nan to guide us through barbarous days of aught, no Eternal Warrior to inspire our innate ID;
‘Twas Beowulf who unfurled the sparks of academic violence in our collective clouds of dream.
As my tangled verse above may or may not convey, as a teenager my friends and I were *weirdly* into the legend of Beowulf. As such, I’m always game for modern interpretations or responses, most famously seen in comics in Matt Wagner’s fascinating Grendel. Zach Weinersmith and Boulet’s interpretation of the legend through the eyes of children immediately grabbed my attention, and given publication from the consistent quality of First Second I had high hopes.
I expected to find Bea Wolf cute. I didn’t expect it to be in contention for my favorite comic book of the year.
Weinersmith and Boulet’s child-king hordes are delightfully cute, yes, but there’s a truly impressive immersion into recrafting the legend that elevates the work far beyond a nod, smile, and “ok, I got it.” Whether it’s Weinersmith’s sly, recurring poetic humor capturing the purity of childhood, the sleaze of teens, and the tedium of adulthood, or Boulet’s black-and-white page-by-page rendering of everything from treasure troves of Halloween candy to lakes full of Sea Monsters, Bea Wulf constantly exceeds expectations.
Despite its youthful cast, this is far from “Beowful for Kids.” The entire book is written in Weinersmith’s updated Old English verse, complete with Beowulf-esque kennings, casting a lyrical spell that requires full buy-in compared to more standard prose or even Seuss-ian rhyme schemes. All told, it’s a wonderfully creative retelling, and one of the best comics of 2023.
Here’s a sampling of the real work’s verse!:
“But greatest among girl and boy is the ungrounded geezer-brawler,
Fight-master, smasher of sea-beasts, matchless monster-stomper
Who topples sorrow-towers, who tore the tie from the time stealer.
Bea Wolf, Legend-Kid, Everlasting Flashlight of Fun-Lovers!
I stumbled across This Country more or less by accident, when I happened to see Heid MacDonald of The Beat share a link to a webcomic from Mahdavian about what gun culture is like in rural Idaho. The short comic was engaging, and since it was only an excerpt of Mahdavian’s full experience moving from San Francisco to “middle of nowhere” Idaho, I committed to read the remainder.
I’ll admit, I felt a great deal of hesitancy diving into This Country, and the book sat on my to-read pile for weeks, with a looming sort of dread. I think this feeling primarily stems from fear for Mahdavian, an Iranian-American cartoonist, and the anticipated Trump-era bigotry and hostility he might face on this adventure into Idaho. Given director Christopher Guest partially describes the work as “haunting” in his blurb, and that the opening teases Mahdavian and his insanely charming wife Emelie would leave Idaho after 3 years, the concerns are valid. This is certainly a reflection of my own mental health, but with the onslaught of woe in the world, my appetite for a graphic novel that confirmed deeply conservative Idaho is, in fact, deeply conservative was not heavy.
While that’s certainly a significant part of Mahdavian’s experience – there are some truly “haunting” displays of casual racism and people truly unwilling to ever accept change – it doesn’t overwhelm the adventuring couple’s aims to build a home and start a family in America. The politics of the era and of the region could so easily override everything (and Mahdavian would be will within his rights to go that route!), but that’s not the human core of this gorgeous, funny, expertly constructed autobiography. This Country is a celebration of nature, an honest window into small-town rural life, a scholarly look at the connections between Greek mythology and American culture, a couple’s emotional journey to build together, and yes, a glimpse into the generations-deep fear of the other and the new that inspires so much of what ails the nation.
For my money, it’s an instant classic in the grand tradition of autobio comics.
With digital streaming services and review copies, it’s a rarity these days that I buy a whole graphic novel from a creator I don’t know sight unseen, but that’s what happened when I saw Zack Quantaince raving about P.B. Rainey’s “Why Don’t You Love Me?”. Zack (formerly Comics Bookcase, now of Comics Beat) called the Drawn and Quarterly book “the first must-read graphic novel of 2023” and “one of the most surprising graphic novels in years.” Color me hooked!
Now, “Why Don’t You Love Me?” is a little tricky to talk about because it revolves heavily around some twists and turns, and I think knowing what they are would undo much of the work’s spell. In his back-cover blurb, Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Netflix Sandman, not Flint Marko) says, “…I thought it read like any number of… vapid early 2000s stories… the cartoonist’s way of telling you they hated everyone and everything. And then it came into focus and it wasn’t that thing at all… What a masterwork.” This sums it up quite nicely, but it also highlights the difficulty of Rainey’s magic trick. In order to see the full picture, and get to the payoff, there’s a lot of uncomfortable cruelty to wade through, particularly as a parent. The entire work is told in Sunday newspaper strip style black-and-white, detailing a man and woman’s challenges navigating the routines of family life, work and relationships. I found myself alternating between intrigue, disgust, laughter and heartache. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes I had to put the book down and say – not today. Sometimes I couldn’t put it down!
Masterwork? I don’t know. I’m still on-the-fence on that one. But a 2023 must-read, and one of the more fascinating graphic novels this year? Absolutely.
Including Ashes as a new 2023 graphic novel is a mild misdirect, considering Alvaro Ortiz’s work debuted in Spain over 10 years ago. But considering this marks the first time Top Shelf Productions has translated Ortiz’s work into English, it’s going to be many readers first time exploring the artist’s work, and it’s more than worth stretching the rules to encourage more familiarity.
Ashes is the story of three 30-something, estranged friends reconnecting for a road trip after the fourth member of their former crew dies suddenly. They are tasked with delivering his ashes to a mysterious “X marks the spot” he left behind. While full of the pathos and relatable isolation that stems from friendships gone stale, Ortiz’s humor, pacing and unexpected whimsy separate Ashes from the long line of melancholy odes to loneliness. There are quirky roughnecks on the friends’ trail, Mojo’s pet monkey, and a brilliant use of one-page asides to either explore the history of cremation, or, well, that aforementioned monkey. The end result is a delightful graphic novel desperately waiting for a movie adaptation, and yet another explosion of attention.
For another English translation of a modern masterwork, we have Deena Mohamed’s Shubeik Lubeik, now translated from the original Arabic via Pantheon (the series originally ran as 3 distinct parts from 2017 to 2021). Mohamed’s carefully constructed economy of magic wishes drives an astonishingly rich not-so-alternate reality where the wealthy can afford “1st Class” wishes that can grant them nearly anything, and those in need are left to take their chances with risky “3rd Class” wishes. Through all the detailed exploration of wish manufacture, sale, and legality, there’s a character driven, intersecting story of a Kiosk vendor with three licensed first-class wishes just waiting to be sold and used.
Shubeik Lubeik draws from Salman Rushdie, Arabian Nights, modern marketing techniques, and Jonathan Hickman-esque infographics to craft something wholly unique and captivating. It’s a brilliant use of fantasy to elucidate a metaphor so plain it’s like staring out the window. Even after 500+ pages, I still wish there was more.
A serious contender for comic of the year, and the kind of triumph that makes me want to read everything Julia Wertz has every published, including and possibly limited to Fart Party Vol. 2. I’ll admit, despite the caveat that this would be a “completely average recovery story,” I still fully expected Wertz’s autobiographical accounting of alcoholism to lean heavily on childhood trauma, shocking relapses, and at least one unforgivable mistake. All the things rock n’ roll biopics have taught me to expect. Instead, Wertz eschews the trappings of recovery stories for an honest, hilarious and often deeply poignant memoir about a New York City cartoonist who gradually comes to the understanding that their drinking is limiting what their life can be. It’s a recovery story, yes, but it’s moreso a laugh-out-loud funny exploration of entering your 30s, grappling with addiction, and figuring out what it is your life could be.
Emily Carroll is on another level. Works like Through the Woods and When I Arrived at The Castle are the kind of formally inventive modern horror comics that are almost without peer. Carroll’s blend of lush, unknowable horror, tense erotica, and innate sense of spatial variance makes her one of the most fascinating storytellers in all of comics.
So naturally, for 2023’s A Guest in the House, Carroll decided to level up.
This book grabs you by the shoulders and holds you underwater until you’ve finished, alternating between the repetitive mundanity of homelife and the shocking impossible expansion of the ethereal. Put less pretentiously, it’s a ghost story, and a damn good one. The work follows Abby, newly married to a successful dentist, and the mystery and legacy of the Dentist and her new stepchild’s mother’s death. Carroll’s much too clever to play this by-the-numbers, and by the end of the book it’s quite clear that the mystery is never the point at all! It’s a thrilling, scary journey tightroping across the wobbly foundations of sanity, and exactly the kind of book that demands an immediate second reading.
But that’s just the story! Carroll’s found an incredible balance here between the black-and-white familiar comforts of dinner with the family in front of the TV, and dreams of dragons, knighthood and ghosts that explode with viscera-reds and lady-in-the-lake glowing blues. Every page turn offers a daring reveal, every choice measured and no space wasted for effect. A Guest in the House just might be the best comic of the year.
The Legacy Ongoings
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress has now been in publication for 8 years, approaching 45 to 50 issues in one of the best fantasy comics of all time. While Liu and Takeda teaming up for the new Night-Eaters series of graphic novels is of course exciting, don’t let it distract from the ongoing truth: Monstress will be one of the best possible comics on shelves until the story of half-wolfs, old gods, and cursing kittens decides to reach an end!
Nate Stevenson’s ongoing Substack email diary comics are appointment viewing week in and week out. Whether Stevenson is detailing all the emotion of his journey with gender, identity and body image, or sharing infectiously sweet inside jokes with their partner Molly Knox Ostertag, the work is inspired, heartfelt and moving.
Much ado was made about big-name American comics creators taking big paychecks to publish comics via Substack, yet Stevenson is the only creator whose e-mails I actually open and read with any kind of regularity. I’m still skeptical about comics in your inbox as a publishing model; this is the exception.
Matthew Rosenberg and Tyler Boss’s Warriors meets post-apocalypse Fallout has only gotten weirder as it enters its second year, and thank our gods Hall and Oates. It’s like reading a modern Lord of the Flies, except if Lord of the Flies didn’t make you feel like shit. In addition to the design and storytelling mastery, the comic utilizes an effective structure of bite-sized chapters, segmented by single pages of dialog, and it’s a unique enough stylistic technique to encourage total immersion. I think year two will be vital for What’s the Furthest Place From Here to upend expectations, and deliver a significant push into what a future could look like if this series is really going to have legs. Given that Rosenberg and Boss, here with letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, are so good together, I hope it does.
The beating heart of Krakoa era X-Men comics, Al Ewing’s work on X-Men Red continues to sustain and justify the post Jonathan Hickman Xperience, while simultaneously offering what may be the best Marvel Comic book of them all. X-Men Red is centered on Arakko, the mutant terraformed and re-named Mars, looking at an all new society of mutants now living alongside some familiar faces like Storm and Sunspot. Like most of Ewing’s best books, X-Men Red celebrates the unique potential of superhero continuity without creating barriers to newer readers, and most importantly, feels genuinely fresh and “rule-breaking”, fulfilling the promise House of X and Powers of X suggested in 2019.
Despite a full appetite for the works of Tom King and Elsa Charretier, I held Love Everlasting off my favorite comics of 2022. The high concept – one woman, Joan Peterson, is trapped in an endless loop of Golden Age romance comics – is engrossing, and good lord is Charretier a perfect fit to tell these stories through a modern lens, but King’s commitment to the bit was almost too strong. As Love Everlasting develops, there’s an undercurrent of deep mystery and strange characters lurking behind the reasons for Joan’s imprisonment in false loves. It’s this layer of unreality – not dissimilar from the early episodes of WandaVision, Pleasantville, or of course, Twilight Zone – that propels the book forward. In between, though, there’s simply a lot of deeply earnest reproduction of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Young Romance! While the comics nerd in me appreciates King’s abiding love of the medium, the experience of actually reading these exercises in resuscitation is often tedious.
The second volume of Love Everlasting, released in 2023, begins to recognize the limits of the endless cycle of romances throughout time and space, and instead digs in to one lifetime. It’s a welcome change of pace, as an increasingly frustrated Joan has to navigate a marriage, children, and eventual, accidental real love with the knowledge that her mother, the mysterious gunslinger, and whatever forces control her fate could pull her out and into a new love story. King and Charretier avoid some tropes while purposefully deploying others, but by forcing us and Joan to truly settle in, build a level of emotional resonance that can never be achieved through the helter-skelter jumps of the first volume. I’m still not entirely sure how this book can sustain itself, but that’s part of the thrill, watching creators walk this tightrope and invent new and surprising ways to put on a show. Love Everlasting is compulsively readable, and one of my favorite experiments in comics.
No comic book has been a contender for my annual favorite for longer than Ice Cream Man (debuted 2018). Every time I think surely the book must run out of steam at some point, W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, and Chris O’Halloran surprise me with yet another inventive new approach to a single issue of comics. No comic works harder to explore the potential of the medium, and to treat each issue like a chance to create the best 22 pages you’ll read all year. It’s probably the only book where the creators could openly mock the overarching narrative and cosmic mythology they’ve built, and somehow that makes me like it more.
Every new year of Ice Cream Man comics is a chance to live through an all-tie great run stacked scoop over scoop right before our eyes. Isn’t that why we do this? Isn’t that what comics are all about?