2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

And so it’s that time of year again : let the debating begin, I suppose, as the various “Top 10” lists begin to hit the internet in earnest, but one thing I think we can all agree on — it’s been quite a year in the world of comics. The underground lost luminaries Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, the mainstream lost Swamp Thing co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson — there have been some tough moments.

But there have also been a number of “highs,” as well — in fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that 2017 has seen more really fucking good comics published than any year in recent memory. To that end, then, we’re splitting this annual “best of” round-up into several columns, the basics of which will proceed as follows :

The top 10 graphic novels list will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a survey of the best original graphic novels of the year. A lot of stuff gets serialized, in whole or in part, online these days, but books that collect pages that cartoonists have serialized in such a manner will be eligible in this category as long as they tell a single, long-form story with something akin to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Collections of serialized short strips, trade paperback collections of single issues and the like, however, will not be listed in this category, since they’ll be going into —

The top 10 collected editions (contemporary) list, which will be composed entirely of previously-published (physically or electronically) works post-Bronze Age, which means anything that collects stuff from the so-called “Modern Age” (roughly the late-1980s right up to the present day) is eligible here. As for the older stuff —

The top 10 collected editions (vintage) list will be the home for all that, with any book and/or periodical presenting material from the birth of the medium up through the aforementioned Bronze Age duking it out for supremacy in this category.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and good as far as books go, but what of “floppies”? I’m glad you asked, and I came prepared with an answer — one which, believe it or not, actually took a little bit of thinking on my part —

The top 10 comics series list will feature both ongoing and limited series, anything published in single-issue format, with one caveat : annual (or thereabouts) publications like Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats will not be eligible here, nor will any series that saw only two issues published in 2017, since it just seems inherently unfair to have any series that either wrapped very early in the year, or that lots and lots of attention and care are put into, competing against stuff that has to stick to a strict monthly (if not twice-monthly, thanks DC) deadline. These less-frequent publications are, however, eligible in the list that we’ll be starting things off with here —

The top 10 single issues list, which is also the list that mini-comics and one-shots of various stripes will be included in.

Whew! Got all that? Okay, good. I only need to include a couple final caveats, then, before we get started :

1. These will not be lenghty, or even “capsule,” reviews — just quick summations. A good chunk of this stuff I’ve written about in great detail earlier in the year, and some of it I haven’t, but I don’t have either the time or the inclination to get into a “nuts and bolts” analysis of any of it now, and

2. Some stuff that came out very late in 2016 will be sneaking its way onto these lists, not only because I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it before writing my wrap-up columns last year, but also because many comics, particularly small-press comics, don’t find their way into the hands of most readers until a good few months after they’re released due to the fact that they’re not distributed by Diamond to bookstores or comic shops. Self-publishers, especially, often sell their creative wares on personal websites for some time before “catching on” with small-press distros like Spit And A Half, etc. And then there’s the whole situation with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which rolled off Korean printing presses in October of last year — but only a small batch of advance review copies made it here to the US before 2016 was out, the rest remaining stuck in the Panama Canal Zone until March of 2017, since the guy who owned the cargo ship they were coming over on had some back bills to pay before he could get his vessel out of hock.

Alright, with all that out of the way, then, let’s get on with the show —

10. I Wish I Was Joking by Tom Van Deusen (Poochie Press) – Van Deusen has long been one of the out-and-out funniest cartoonists out there, and this may very well be his best comic yet since he makes his stand-in “alternative” newsweekly reporter actually likable for a change. Less caustic than his previous works, but much more — dare I say it — charming.

9. Cosmic BE-ING #5 by Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham’s serialized Angloid story has its strongest outing yet, and also its most, believe it or not, down to Earth. Still “trippy” and “New Age” as all get-go, but far more anchored in workaday bread-and-butter concerns than prior installments. Graham’s remarkable illustration skills are really hitting a creative stride now, as well.

8. Trim #5 by Aaron Lange (The Comix Company) – Probably the most compelling issue of Lange’s annually-issued “solo anthology” to date, with intriguing explorations of his family’s German ancestry and a “cool” pastor he knew as a kid among the highlights. Plenty of laugh-out-loud gag strips, as well, most centered around the cartoonist’s art school days.

7. Lovers In The Garden by Anya Davidson (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics) – Some might argue that this is a “graphic novel,” but I’d call it “novella” length at best. Categorize it however you want, though, there’s no doubting that Davisdon’s assured cartooning makes her ’70s-grindhouse-style tale of dope dealers and cops a highly memorable read that holds together way better than most “vignette”-centered comics manage to.

6. Malarkey #2 by November Garcia (Self-Published) – Not just the best thing going in autobio comics right now, but the best thing to happen to autobio comics in years — and Garcia’s slices of life look even better with a little bit of color added to the mix. Possibly the most endearing comic you’ll read this year, which still seems a bizarre thing to say given most of its contents deal with alcoholism and neuroses, but there you have it.

5. Now #1 (Fantagraphics) – Eric Reynolds’ new anthology gets off to a more-than-promising start, with standout contributions from Eleanor Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Kaela Graham, Dash Shaw, and many others. 128 pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks? Come on, you can’t do better than that.

4. Crickets #6 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The most deliriously arresting chapter of “Blood Of The Virgin” yet, as Harkham delineates the immediate, and seemingly complete, ruination of his protagonist’s life in rapid-fire fashion with an intriguing mix of empathy and clinical distance. I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like Seymour all that much, but feels bad about what he’s doing to him regardless. Visually literate to a degree that’s almost painful.

3. Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – The winner of the 2017 Ignatz award for “Best Comic Book,” Passmore’s monologue on the reality of black life in America is concise, superbly-illustrated, and absolutely compelling. 12 pages you’ll never forget — because you’ll be reading them again and again.

2. Providence #12 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – The conclusion to Moore and Burrows’ “Lovecraft Cycle” is every bit as harrowing and terrifying as the previous 11 issues had suggested it would be, and then some — in fact, it’s downright devastating. It’s well past time to put this series in the discussion of Moore’s all-time best works, and Burrows absolutely pulls out all the stops in bringing the existential horror of the dawn of this dark new age to life. A bona fide masterwork.

1. Songy Of Paradise by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – Okay, I admit this one’s a bit of a cheat given that it’s an oversized (to put it mildly) hardcover boasting a $35 cover price — but for all that, it’s still only 32 pages long, so that makes it a “single issue” in my book. And a damn engrossing one at that, as Panter finally puts his Paradise/Purgatory trilogy to bed with its most deceptively “simple” (as in, it’s anything but) segment yet. Rest assured, though, even if you haven’t read the other two books, this is an accessible, engaging, thought-provoking work that reveals more of its hiding-in-plain-sight secrets with every reading. A truly seminal effort from one of the most important cartoonists of his generation — or any other.

Trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these comics, and I’m very comfortable with the “running order” I’ve placed them in. There were some damn close contenders that nearly made the cut, but time will tell if I get a chance to do an “honorable mentions” listing once the main event’s all said and done. One thing at a time, as they say. Speaking of which —

Next up I’ll be looking at my picks for the top 10 ongoing series of the year, so I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you good folks back here in a handful of days for that one. In the meantime, if you’ve got anything to say about this list, don’t be shy! What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I completely miss out on? Chime in and let me know!

Listening To “Your Black Friend”

By the time you read this, odds are better than good that Ben Passmore will have an Ignatz Award with his name stamped on it, as well he should — his early-2017 Silver Sprocket release, Your Black Friend, is a leading contender in the “Outstanding Comic” category, and while he’s got some stiff competition, it’s hard to argue that fellow nominees such as Libby’s Dad and Sunburning (both of which I recently reviewed at this very site) are great reading, while this is required reading.

Clocking in at just 11 pages of story and art, this is essentially a “high end” mini-comic presented in gorgeous and expressive full color on top-quality matte paper with heavy cardstock covers, and while something tells me an argument could be advanced for presenting it in black and white, I’m not going to bitch about the format or aesthetics of its presentation in the least, because it looks amazing and Passmore’s rich and eclectic coloring choices bring just as much to the table, visually speaking, as his smooth and expressive, borderline-playful figure drawings, and pitch-perfect, atmospheric inks. In terms of sheer cartooning skills, there’s no doubt : this guy’s got the whole thing figured out.

What he’s also got figured out, though, is what’s essential to the topic at hand here : the realities of being black in America, specifically of being black and having white friends. And while I like to think of myself as being fairly “enlightened” when it comes to the various issues Passmore delves into in this comic, his central point still definitely hits home like a ton of bricks, namely — stop fooling yourself, no matter how much us white folks might like to think we “understand” the black experience, we’re still, for all intents and purposes, not even living in the same country.

Personally speaking, I wondered how much of this comic was really going to be “necessary” for me given that I’m married to a black woman and therefore like to at least believe that I have a bit more insight into the day-to-day realities of the “two Americas” than somebody who only occasionally interacts with black American life on a purely social level, but as it turns out I’m right in the “target audience” that Passmore is aiming his cartoon monologue at, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t have to stop, think, and take the time to fully absorb what he was saying in damn near every panel. If you’re white like me, there are any number of things your black friends, spouses, significant others, you name it would love to say to you but, for reasons that also touched upon here, they simply choose “not to go there.” Passmore is doing their work for them in these pages, and from where I’m standing that makes his comic the closest thing to a genuine public service that I’ve read this year.

Here’s what elevates Your Black Friend from the level of “merely” great to genius, though : for a book explicitly designed to take the white reader out of his or her largely-unearned “comfort zone,” it feels amazingly comfortable. From the opening page, set in a coffee shop where our nameless narrator both admittedly tries to game white guilt to his advantage yet also finds himself  stuck overhearing a conversation loaded with racist assumptions at the same time, to the closing page that brings both of those things full circle, Passmore adopts a free-flowing, conversational style that couches what is (and by every measure has to be) an entirely one-sided diatribe in terms that will put even the most uptight white person — well, not exactly at ease, but at the very least in a frame of mind where they’ll be open to what’s being said. The utter lack of pretense in both his writing and art serves Passmore very well indeed — not many cartoonists can take direct aim at white privilege without seeming “bitter” to white audiences, but even this comic’s most “angry” passages first take a moment to quickly (yet surprisingly fully) explain exactly what our narrator is angry about and why it’s not only right, but frankly unavoidable, for him to feel that way. Yeah, our man does one thing to which a fair number of readers of any race will object (I didn’t, but shit — even the fact that I feel the need to point that out probably says something about me and makes it clear that I’ve still got a lot to learn, I admit it), but even there, it’s framed in such a manner that you’re forced to reflect on why you might find his action off-putting and/or disproportionate in regards to the situation that it arose from.

So, yeah — I dunno, man. I like to think that I’m a fair-minded critic on the whole, but I also admit to being something of a jaded one. There’s very little I haven’t seen done (and usually done better) in comics before, and yet when something is executed well enough in terms of story and art, I’m still fully capable of being impressed by it. What Passmore has done with Your Black Friend goes well beyond that, though. While it’s not the reaction he was aiming for in the least and my saying so might even fly directly in the face of his goals, I’m just gonna come right out and confess that I’m more than a little bit awed by what he’s achieved here — cliched as it may sound, if everybody sat down and read this thing, I honestly believe the world really would be a better place. Or, failing that, at minimum we’d have a much more complete understanding of why it’s not.