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The best comics of 2014: Graphic novels and archival editions

Highlights of 2014 include works by Feiffer, Hernandez, and more

2014 was an outstanding year for graphic novels and archival editions, with fantastic debuts from relative newcomers as well as major new works from some of the medium’s strongest voices. From brilliant autobiographical works to riveting translations of foreign comics, these books cover a huge range of material, with each showcasing a spectacular cartooning talent. Here’s part two of The A.V. Club’s picks for the top comics of the year; it includes graphic novels and archival editions. Part one, the best comics series of the year, ran yesterday.

aama (SelfMadeHero)

At the start of Frederik Peeters’ introspective sci-fi graphic novel series, a man wakes up weeping in the middle of a giant rock formation with no memory of how he got there. Verloc’s journey to that point is chronicled over the course of the plot, which exposes his drug dependence, uneasy family relationships, and forceful rejection of the technological implants that have become commonplace in this world. His story may occur in an interstellar landscape, but it is presented with an emotional honesty that grounds the events in a recognizable reality. The sci-fi aspects allow Peeters to venture into more experimental design territory with his artwork, but he doesn’t lean too heavily into genre elements, instead focusing on how to present Verloc’s personal experience with clarity and nuance. [Oliver Sava]

Ant Colony (Drawn & Quarterly)

Michael DeForge is one of the industry’s most idiosyncratic creators, and this graphic novel—reprinting stories that initially appeared online as Ant Comic—showcases his distinctive art style and ability to tell relatable, personal stories in an alien setting. That setting is a disintegrating ant colony in this title, which follows various surviving insects as they try to make new lives for themselves without their home. The plot unfolds via vignettes that fluctuate in tone; some are uproariously funny while others mine the depths of despair, offering a huge range of emotion over the course of the narrative. DeForge’s psychedelic designs create a visually unpredictable environment, and his streamlined linework pulls loads of expression from a cast of bugs. [Oliver Sava]

Beautiful Darkness (Drawn And Quarterly)

This graphic novel by writer Fabien Vehlmann and artist Kerascoët may look like a lovely watercolor fairy tale, but this is definitely not a story for children. It follows a race of tiny people that have made their home in a little girl’s body, and when the child dies, these minute men and women have to find a way to survive in a forest full of dangers. While lead character Aurora tries to survive, she discovers how this change in circumstances has impacted the behavior of those around her, pushing them to commit immoral acts in the name of self-reliance. It’s a disturbing read presented with cartoonish artwork that lends a youthful innocence to the plot, with Kerascoët’s rich watercolors creating a stark contrast between the natural beauty of the environment and the haunting ugliness of the story. [Oliver Sava]

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury USA)

It should come as no surprise that Roz Chast’s first actual “graphic novel” is pretty darn great. Although she’s been a working cartoonist for decades, this is her first attempt at putting a single narrative between two covers. Perhaps because of this combination of technical experience and formal naiveté, Chast pushes a number of boundaries by building a narrative not out of strict panel-to-panel continuity but through a complex mixture of comics, photographs, text, and even—in the book’s climax—a sequence of bare sketches. It’s a work of great wit as well as great emotion, a chronicle of the author’s parents through the final years of their lives, and a map to her own constantly mutating emotional terrain throughout the long ordeal. If it sounds like a downer, well, it is and it isn’t: The subject matter may be rough, but Chast’s artistry is an expression of pure cathartic joy. [Tim O’Neil]

Forming II (Nobrow)

Jesse Moynihan’s Forming series defies neat categorization. It’s mythological fantasy, yes, but it isn’t any kind of mythology you remember from school. Adam and Noah mix it up with Gaea and Zeus, and there are some space aliens in the margins as well. This is the dawn of Earth, but no one is walking around in a toga and inflicting curses on puny humans; the gods in this instance are mostly focused on killing each other, or going on quests for magic jewels to help kill each other. The plot is complex and just slightly nonsense, but who needs sense when you have a ripped Rhea jumping out a 10-story window on the side of a pyramid with baby Zeus strapped to her back, setting out to kill Ghob The Gnome King for ripping off Iapetus’ face? She spends the next few pages punching all the gorillas and bears in the world, and that’s really all you need. [Tim O’Neil]

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Picador)

With one hell of a title, Stephen Collins’ graphic novel makes an immediate impression, and the interior contents are just as gripping as the name. This contemporary fable is set in Here, an island where conformity and routine are the highest priorities. Everything outside of Here is There, a very scary place where disorder rules, and the world of There bleeds into the island when one of its residents begins growing an uncontrollable beard that becomes so big it creates a state of emergency. It’s a poignant parable about the value of individuality and going against the grain, presented with a charming art style that brings a smooth animated quality to the story without losing sight of the darker aspects of the plot. [Oliver Sava]

Hey, Mister: Come Hell Or Highwater Pants (Top Shelf)

After many years of absence, Pete Sickman-Garner returned to comics in 2014 with another installment of his long-running, if frustratingly intermittent, Hey, Mister series. The story of two dropsical barflies (Mister and Aunt Mary) and their weird child friend Young Tim as they deal with the metaphysical consequences of Satan sleeping on their sofa, Hey, Mister is bleakly, existentially funny in the most dissipated deadpan manner possible. Imagine The Iceman Cometh directed by Terry Zwigoff, and you might come close. There’s nothing flashy or experimental in Sickman-Garner’s technique. He’s an indie cartoonist of the old school, with a keen understanding of the fact that the funniest drawings are often the ugliest. If you like ugly, there’s lots of ugly here. And why wouldn’t you want ugly? Ugly is hilarious. [Tim O’Neil]

The Hospital Suite (Drawn & Quarterly)

John Porcellino is comics’ reigning master of minimalism, and The Hospital Suite is his most sustained narrative effort to date. Porcellino’s laconic storytelling, instead of floundering in the expanded page count, grows to fill the available space like a deep sigh in a temple. These are, above all, quiet comics, dedicated to telling a sad story in the most thoughtful manner possible. Turning the beautifully crafted pages, you feel the sensation of drawing breath along with Porcellino himself, suffering an extended health crisis predicated by lifelong vitamin deficiencies and recurring bouts of mental illness. It’s a rough, occasionally harrowing journey, but Porcellino’s dogged determination to keep a grip on his dignity in the face of the most humiliating physical and emotional debilitation is ultimately the very best kind of life affirming. [Tim O’Neil]

How To Be Happy (Fantagraphics)

Eleanor Davis’ breakthrough short story collection How To Be Happy was destined for success from the first. It’s a gorgeous book filled with exquisite cartooning. Davis switches between styles and subject matter with each story, flitting between melancholy, heartbreak, and nostalgia with a casual virtuosity. As a cartoonist Davis is an exceptional designer. Her pages, regardless of how sparse or packed, cohere as discrete units: There isn’t a bum illustration in the book. Don’t be fooled by the title, however, as there isn’t a lot of happiness to be found in these stories. But there is a great deal of wandering, and asking, and trying, and ultimately, isn’t the fulfillment found in the journey? [Tim O’Neil]

Jim (Fantagraphics)

This is not the first attempt at a comprehensive anthology of Jim Woodring’s sui generis “auto-journal” comics and stories, but it is the most handsome. Woodring remains one of the most essential cartoonists of the post-underground period, and his auto-journal comics are his most puzzling, and perhaps most essential. Billed as supposedly straight retellings of his own vivid waking hallucinations, they tear at the boundaries between autobiography and fantasy, bursting with the author’s most personal and terrifying thoughts transformed into whimsical symbolism. Woodring is a special kind of creator particularly suited to comics, and it’s difficult to imagine his psychological bestiary adequately suited to another medium but the printed page. By turns sexy, funny, scary, hopeless, and hopeful, they offer nothing less than a guided tour of the voluminous imagination of a definitively singular artist. [Tim O’Neil]

Kill My Mother (Liveright)

Don’t let the hype fool you: This isn’t Jules Feiffer’s first full-length graphic novel (that was 1979’s Tantrum). But nonetheless, there’s a reason why he’s been around so long. He’s good. Not very many cartoonists—artists of any stripe, really—can boast of having added an essential work to their canon in their ninth decade walking the Earth, but that’s exactly what Feiffer has done here. At once a steely eyed dissection of generic form and a comic romp through a world of noir-tinged nostalgia, it manages the neat trick of being equally funny, thrilling, and poignantly progressive. Feiffer is an old hand at screenwriting, and in deference to the genres on display the book is structured with the precision of a classic Hollywood farce. It’s cinematic without ever seeming needlessly obeisant to the rules of filmmaking, moving briskly through a pleasantly tangled plot with all the expertise of an old master casually flexing his muscles. There wasn’t another book like it this year, and there may never be again—unless, that is, Feiffer decides to make one. [Tim O’Neil]

Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Penguin)

The worst enemy Lena Finkle has may well be her own plot:A woman, freshly divorced and newly single, sets out to join the dating world in hipster-infested Brooklyn, runs into a cast of dysfunctional characters straight out of central casting, before having her heart broken by an emotionally crippled trust fund man-child. On its own, that’s not the most promising synopsis. But anyone with the wherewithal to look past the back cover blurb will find a delightful and touching examination of loneliness, depression, love, and the first-generation immigrant experience in America. Anya Ulinich is a first-time graphic novelist, and one of the book’s many pleasures can be found in watching her, page after page, growing and improving as an artist. When you close the book, you will realize that you have been profoundly moved in ways that you simply were not expecting. Without any reservation, this is the debut graphic novel of the year. [Tim O’Neil]

Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream (Locust Moon Press)

When it comes to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland, size matters. McCay took advantage of the 16-by-21 inch broadsheet size to deliver remarkable Little Nemo comic strips, and to pay tribute to the legendary artist, Locust Moon invites a huge variety of comic talents to show what they can do working in the same format. The result is an extremely diverse assortment of stories that use McCay’s influence as a spring board for all kinds of narrative, from new tales starring Little Nemo to autobiographical musings and experimental pieces about the nature of dreams. The size of the hardcover anthology is matched by the prestige of the creator lineup, which includes A-list names like Michael Allred, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Craig Thompson, among many others. It’s a stunning package from the small publisher, honoring McCay’s legacy by spotlighting the versatility of the comic-book medium. [Oliver Sava]

The Love Bunglers (Fantagraphics)

Jaime Hernandez keeps hitting home runs. It’s almost like he doesn’t know how to stop. Even readers who were accustomed to his standard level of quality were surprised when “The Love Bunglers” was first serialized in recent issues of Love And Rockets: New Stories. Here was a cartoonist who, despite all his acclaim (and there are few living cartoonists who have received more acclaim), seemed to have settled into a nice, comfortable holding pattern for the second act of his storied career. Little did we know that Hernandez still had some tricks in his bag. The Love Bunglers reads like the climax to three-and-a-half decades’ worth of Locas stories. You don’t have to have ever read a Hernandez Bros. story before to appreciate the achievement, but for those who have, it’s impossible to reach the end without shedding serious tears. It’s that good, heartbreaking, and breathtaking in even measure. It’s just about perfect, and you can put that on the book flap. [Tim O’Neil]

Nijigahara Holograph (Fantagraphics)

Past traumas reverberate through time in Inio Asano’s chilling manga, chronicling a story on two different timelines that show how the harrowing events that unfold at Nijigahara—a field behind an elementary school—impact characters long after their initial experiences. It’s a brilliant piece of psychological horror that is both deeply intimate yet expansive in scope, with a large cast of characters that are sucked into the terror in different ways. The cyclical, abstract story is challenging, but greatly rewards rereading, and it’s easy to get lost in Asano’s intricate art, which does outstanding work realizing the setting that is so important to the plot. [Oliver Sava]

RAV (Youth In Decline)

No book released in 2014 carried the same gut-punch mixture of adrenaline-fueled action and surreal comedy as Mickey Zacchilli’s RAV. Collecting the first handful of issues of her self-published mini-comic of the same title, RAV reads like manga if Shōnen Jump were produced by the guys who airbrush dragons on the side of Econoline vans, a genuine slacker-fantasy adventure. This is a kinetic reading experience: You can’t stop flipping the pages, even though you want to stop and linger over every melting, expressionistic line. It’s a fascinating block of comics, a queasy yellow tankōbon on thick paper with garish neon covers. Here’s hoping there will be many more just like this in the years to come. [Tim O’Neil]

Safari Honeymoon (Koyama)

Jesse Jacobs’ graphic novel is a darkly comic look at a newlywed couple’s traumatic, ultimately liberating honeymoon, but the narrative takes a backseat to the sensory experience of being in this verdant environment. Jacobs devotes many pages to silent moments showing the mysterious flora and fauna of this dangerous but beautiful wilderness, drawing attention to his skill for designing unsettling creatures and bizarre locales. Like the characters, the reader is pulled deeper and deeper into the terrain as Jacobs reveals more of this land’s hidden secrets. This makes for an especially enchanting read, even during the moments of grotesque horror. [Oliver Sava]

Seconds (Ballantine)

Bryan Lee O’Malley made a name for himself with the slacker action comedy Scott Pilgrim series, but for his new graphic novel, the cartoonist grows up to tackle more mature subject matter. The fiery-haired Katie is a 29-year-old chef working at the restaurant she started with her friends—most of whom have moved on from the establishment—and she’s looking for a new start. She wants a second chance, and she gets it when she discovers magic mushrooms that give her the ability to turn back time and undo her past regrets. O’Malley does exceptional work delving into his heroine’s psyche and building a narrative that balances the mystical and the mundane, and he’s considerably refined his artwork since the Scott Pilgrim days. The addition of colorist Nathan Fairbairn completes the package, and the creative chemistry between O’Malley and Fairbairn (who colored Oni’s Scott Pilgrim hardcovers) elevates the book’s visuals. [Oliver Sava]

SHOWA 1939-1944: A History Of Japan (Drawn & Quarterly)

Drawn & Quarterly’s translation of Shigeru Mizuki’s historical epic SHOWA is perhaps the great achievement in American manga publishing this year. Spanning the years from 1926 to 1989, Mizuki’s four-volume autobiography chronicles Japanese life during the lead up to and long aftermath of World War II; 1939-1944 is the second book, detailing the events of the war itself. Mizuki is, to put it plainly, a lazy bum, an under-motivated student driven to apathy by his country’s doomed rush headlong into an ill-fated war. Although he avoids it as long as possible, Mizuki is eventually drafted and shipped down to the South Pacific, where he sees some of the worst fighting in the entire war. He lacks the moral resolve to be a pacifist, but he sees the uselessness of war from its outset and is ruthlessly harassed by an Imperial army machine with no tolerance for dreamers. Mizuki’s canny, self-excoriating memoir draws the reader close and into the intimate heart of the 20th century’s worst conflict. [Tim O’Neil]

Sugar Skull (Pantheon)

It’s been two years since Charles Burns last took readers into the hallucinatory world of his graphic novel trilogy, and he doesn’t disappoint with the finale, revealing key plot details that have a dramatic impact on the overarching narrative. The big picture of Doug’s suffering becomes evident by the end of Sugar Skull, but Burns doesn’t offer the character any easy redemption, forcing Doug to hold on to the guilt that has crippled him for years. There’s a welcome clarity to this conclusion, but Burns leaves plenty of ambiguity regarding the story’s finer points, inviting readers to return to those earlier volumes to discover the meaning of recurring images and how the structure of the story reflects Doug’s mental state. It’s not an easy read, especially with Burns’ talent for unsettling visuals, but there’s a lot of satisfaction to be found for those who can stomach it. [Oliver Sava]

Syllabus (Drawn & Quarterly)

Lynda Barry has spent the last few years blazing new trails in nonfiction cartooning with a series of books dedicated to illuminating the mysteries of the creative process. On the heels of What It Is and Picture This, Syllabus is just what it says: Barry’s syllabus and lesson plans for her writing course “Writing The Unthinkable.” Only, this is a bit different from the usual college syllabus. Every page is illustrated and embellished, converted into a full collage with prose, drawing, and watercolor washes cooperating to create a reading experience like no other. The effect is not unlike that of a medieval illuminated manuscript. The text is suspended in a visual medium, making the observer unsure whether to read or admire. It’s possible do both. You don’t have to read it front to back; flip randomly and admire each page as a separate objet d’art. But once you pick it up, it’s not easy to put it back down again. [Tim O’Neil]

This One Summer (First Second)

A young girl’s adolescent awakening is at the center of Jillian and Mariko Tamaki’s lush graphic novel, a snapshot of summer that makes for a refreshing read any time of the year. Mariko Tamaki’s story explores Rose’s tumultuous emotional development and how it impacts her relationships with those around her, offering a multi-faceted look at the teenage experience that doesn’t shy away from the confusion, fear, and isolation of puberty. All these different feelings are amplified by Jillian Tamaki’s artwork, which frames images in a way that maximizes their emotional punch. The campground setting is immensely important to the narrative, and the art immerses the reader in the woodland environment with the amount of detail in the graceful linework. The delicacy of the storytelling heightens Rose’s pubescent fragility, but it also lends the book an ethereal quality that idealizes the memory of this one summer. [Oliver Sava]

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge And Donald Duck: The Don Rosa Library (Fantagraphics)

Fantagraphics’ systematic reprinting of every good Disney artist continues apace. After an excellent start with career-spanning reprint projects for Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson, the company proceeds onward to the more contemporary work of Don Rosa. Rosa is probably the third best artist, at least in English, to work on Disney comics (only faint praise if you forget that the first two are Barks and Gottfredson), and a comprehensive archival project is well overdue. It is especially welcome in this instance given Rosa’s troubled history with foreign licensors. His ample participation attests to the fact that he is fully onboard with Fantagraphics, and as such the backs of each volume are filled to bursting with commentary, trivia, and sketches straight from the Duck’s mouth. The work itself remains essential: More than “just” a Barks homage, Rosa carried the Good Duck Artist’s legacy into legitimately new territory, exposing and massaging the pathos and wicked humor at the core of every good nostalgic exercise. [Tim O’Neil]

Wicked Chicken Queen (Retrofit)

Sam Alden’s career as a comics maker is off to a good start. In 2013 he won the Ignatz Award for Promising New Talent, and just one year later he won another Ignatz for Outstanding Comic with Wicked Chicken Queen. It’s a strange book, to be sure, but not in a bad way. It’s strange in that it is both intentionally abstruse while also somehow inviting. The book tells the story—a myth, really—of a distant island populated by strange eyeball people who elevate a giant chicken to the position of their queen, and suffer the subsequent consequences both good and bad. The exquisite reproduction of bare pencil illustrations gives the object a homey feel, almost like looking over the shoulder at a close friend’s private sketchbook. As such, the images are idiosyncratic, at once ancient and deeply intimate; basically unable to be categorized, except to say they are indelible. [Tim O’Neil]

The Wrenchies (First Second)

Farel Dalrymple’s graphic novel, the first of a planned trilogy, is one of the year’s most ambitious titles, building a massive dystopian world that begs to be further explored. The plot operates on multiple levels: A group of young warriors fight to survive in a world where adulthood means certain doom; a boy goes on a fantastic adventure when he makes his way from the present day to the Wrenchies’ bleak future; and an adult man turns to comic books to create a magical fail-safe that could mean Earth’s salvation. These narratives intertwine in fascinating ways, and each gives Dalrymple the opportunity to show a different side of his art. His designs for the characters and settings of the future have a Heavy Metal edge, but he tones that down for the present-day sequences, highlighting his talent for gritty urban environments. [Oliver Sava]