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The best comics of 2016 so far: The A.V. Club’s catch-up guide

Image: Nick Wanserski
Image: Nick Wanserski

The comics landscape is expanding every year, and it can be difficult to find what’s good in the sea of ongoings, miniseries, graphic novels, digital comics, and webcomics. 2016 has featured new works by some of the industry’s top talent as well as impressive projects by up-and-coming creators, so The A.V. Club created a handy catch-up guide to direct readers to the most engaging and inventive comics published over the first half of the year. There’s a Deadpool one-shot and an all-ages retelling of Wonder Woman’s origin for superhero movie fans, alongside more highbrow titles like a graphic exploration of prostitution and religious obedience in the Bible and fictional biography that also chronicles the history of Singapore. Both long-time comics fans and newcomers will find books to enjoy on this list, and the wide variety of genres and creative voices spotlights the range of storytelling possibilities provided by the comic-book medium.

Frank In The 3rd Dimension

3-D illustrations are tricky to get right, but Jim Woodring and Charles Barnard’s Frank In The 3rd Dimension is a breathtaking success, using the added dimension to spotlight the richness of Woodring’s artwork. The book consists of 27 full-page snapshots of Frank and friends in various scenarios, with each image offering an isolated glimpse of a larger story that goes untold. Plot is unimportant, and the book is ultimately a showcase for how intricately detailed 3-D conversion can bring remarkable texture and depth to 2-D linework. Woodring is the perfect artist for this display, and his bizarre, occasionally grotesque designs combined with his thick, powerful inks make for particularly striking imagery when Barnard breaks the illustrations into hundreds of slightly modified 3-D layers. Dramatic changes in depth create sprawling vistas, but even more impressive are the smaller shifts, giving the pages a highly tactile quality by reinforcing the surface textures. Frank In The 3rd Dimension is a marvel in anaglyphic 3-D illustration, and it’s worth checking out to see the magic Woodring and Barnard create on the page. [Oliver Sava]

Ganges #5

Kevin Huizenga remains underrated. Few who have read him doubt his status as one of the foremost cartooning talents of the English-speaking world—but fewer have read him than should. Perhaps the current work is the one which, when collected, might endear him to a larger audience. Huizenga continues the saga of Glenn Ganges, a modern-day Walter Mitty whose internal universe is every bit as lush and vibrant as his day-to-day life is uneventful. But Glenn’s “adventures” tend to lean more toward historical tangents on the life and career of geologist James Hutton than quotidian action spectacles. Although part of an ongoing narrative, the plot is simple: Glenn is laying in his bed unable to sleep while thinking through the events of his day. He flashes back to fights with his wife Wendy from throughout their marriage, disagreements and confusions fueled by petty emotions. As the back cover says, “Glenn Ganges reads a book about geology. Later, when he is in bed, he is unable to sleep.” It may not seem like a lot, but Huizenga pushes and pulls at the walls of Ganges’ consciousness like taffy, using the full extent of the comics page to communicate intangible changes in perception. There’s nothing really like it anywhere else. [Tim O’Neil]

The Legend Of Wonder Woman

While fans were waiting for the return of Greg Rucka to the Wonder Woman book, many were turning to the digital-first Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman and Legend Of Wonder Woman titles to tide them over. A perfect example of just how strong a story can be with a single creator at the helm, Legend Of Wonder Woman is both written and drawn by the remarkable Renae De Liz. It’s an all-ages story that focuses on personal choice, the strength of both duty and friendship, and the difficulty in growing into your own skin under the watchful eye of an expectant community. Taking Diana back to her roots in World War II grounds the book firmly in history without limiting the impact as De Liz’s adept handling of the characters and their concerns makes them universal. The return of Etta Candy is a welcome one, and particularly in the face of the impending Wonder Woman movie, the book is the perfect companion for new fans that want to learn about the character. De Liz and her husband Ray Dillon, who contributes inks, colors, and letters, have created a world full of both worry and wonder, the latter of which has been imprudently missing from depictions of Diana for a while now. [Caitlin Rosberg]

A Girl On The Shore

One of several new-to-English works released by cartoonist Inio Asano this year, A Girl On The Shore is an arresting story of adolescence. Rendered in Asano’s signature blend of photorealistic backgrounds and lightly stylized faces, the book concerns the emotionally distant, sexually voracious relationship between two young adults. As they come into adulthood, they retreat into prurient thrills, and they attempt to smother their hopelessness with more and more aggressive sexual experiences. Asano’s greatest skill as a writer is his ability to obtusely render complex relationships, and A Girl On The Shore evidences that talent with aplomb. Under his pen, blank stares and unaffected declarations of apathy and pain pierce the heart. He composes his characters’ tragic interior lives with ennui, alienation, and an absent familial support structure. These characters, just children on the cusp of coming into their own, are unable to meaningfully engage the world or the people around them. But Asano refrains from descending into nihilism; a complex balance of melancholy and idealism propels the narrative, and A Girl On The Shore is buoyed by Asano’s insightful observation of human emotion and his confrontational and beautiful rendering of it. [Shea Hennum]

Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur

Lunella Lafayette doesn’t want to grow up. A girl with a brilliant scientific mind, Lunella knows that she has the Inhuman gene, and she dreads the inevitable day when that gene will be activated and she’ll transform into a new person. Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur is the most direct descendant of Marvel’s hit Ms. Marvel series, with co-writers Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare using Inhuman Terrigenesis to explore the growing pains of a girl of color faced with an adolescent identity crisis. Their dedication to that central metaphor has made MG&DD one of the most delightful, insightful superhero titles on the market, and the art team of Natacha Bustos, Marco Failla, and colorist Tamra Bonvillain brings a thrilling energy to this tale of a young girl and her giant red Tyrannosaurus rex. Oh yeah, there’s also a dinosaur in this book, and Lunella’s Inhuman power forces her to switch bodies with it when she’s angry, causing all sorts of complications for her at school. Featuring a diverse creative team telling a warm, fun story appropriate for all ages, MG&DD is a rarity in superhero comics, and hopefully it will continue following in Ms. Marvel footsteps and influence future comics. [Oliver Sava]

Citizen Jack

Politics aren’t exactly a panacea in comics, but it’s not often that they are the explicit and core subject of a book. Titles like Prez and Vote Loki certainly come close, but often lack a sense of reality and impact, and require a suspension of disbelief that just barely pushes it outside the realm of possibility. With Citizen Jack (Image), writer Sam Humphries and artist Tommy Patterson take readers on a roller coaster of politics and supernatural horror, tangling intrigue and personal vendettas so deftly it’s hard to imagine Jack Northworthy’s rise to power is all that different from real-life elections, even with a demon helping him. Preternaturally predictive of the election cycle America is caught up in right now, Humphries leverages his skill to give readers an excellent comic that’s just funny enough to laugh at and just real enough to be uncomfortable while doing so. Patterson’s art is evocative, full of gritty lines and an amount of gore to show he understands the fine line between just enough and way too much. Citizen Jack is only six issues long, but it’s a wild ride of Fargo meets Manchurian Candidate, with a dose of classic horror and a David Lynchian sense of humor, and it’s impossible to put down. [Caitlin Rosberg]

The Spire

When Boom! Studios’ The Spire wrapped up in March of this year it saw the ending of one of the richest comics universes in recent memory. It’s a fantasy story, with a variety of wild and weird people—calling them creatures is wrong—though some are not human, all possess undeniable humanity. The story follows Shå, a queer female police captain, who investigates a series of murders of the aristocracy. This makes it, in part and inevitably, a comic discussing class struggle, as well as a mystery. It’s a whodunnit that’s also concerned with the “why,” with writers Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely and colorist André May creating a strikingly full world. As single-issue direct market comics continue to shrink in size while rising in price, this is an unusual, strong feature. Every issue feels significant, impactful, and rich—perfectly paced and perfectly developed. There is patience here, of a kind that’s harder to find in Western comics. [J.A. Micheline]

Deadpool: Last Days Of Magic #1

It would have been difficult, just 10 years ago, to imagine a world where Marvel was publishing Deadpool tie-ins to Dr. Strange-centered events. And yet, this world is here. While some may have overlooked the book as superfluous, it surprised by presenting a thoroughly engrossing story that somehow managed the neat trick of making Jason Aaron’s current Dr. Strange storyline seem far more interesting than it actually is. It also works well as a postscript for the first volume of Gerry Duggan’s run on Deadpool, reaching back four years to 2012. Anyone who may have been missing the distinctive supporting cast established by Duggan and early co-writer Brian Posehn in the first volume will be happy to hear that hapless magician Michael Hawthorne is back, along with the ghost of Ben Franklin. Given the character’s recent meteoric rise, there is no shortage of Deadpool ancillary projects to be found, but series writer Duggan’s presence (alongside artist Scott Koblish) marks this issue as significant. And sure enough—well, not to give anything away, but Duggan manages to turn an obligatory crossover tie-in to his advantage by crafting one of the best issues in a generally very strong run. It’s simply a remarkably constructed done-in-one comic book of the kind that one is tempted to believe simply does not exist anymore, complete with a surprising gut-punch of an ending. If they’re going to make so many damned Deadpool comics, I guess it makes sense that a few of them might be pretty good. [Tim O’Neil]

Empress

Mark Millar and Stuart Immonen are far from unknown names to most comics fans, so it’s a bit of a shock that people aren’t constantly talking about their new project, Empress. Set in a galaxy that’s not entirely unlike our own, the story follows a mother and her three children as they flee from the tyrannical rule of her husband and their father. Aided in their journey by a loyal guard and his contacts, the group faces exactly the kinds of challenges and dangers you’d expect when running from a guy who executes people for not beating up their friends fast enough when they question his rule. Millar knows how to keep stories moving and Empress has the best of Apokolips and Mojoworld in it, but it’s the combination of his writing with Immonen’s remarkable art that really sells the book. Immonen can be a master of subtlety, using white space and absence as he did in Russian Olive To Red King, but with Empress he gets to open the throttle: there are aliens riding T. rexes, massive monsters in the middle of unending oceans, and avalanches that smother both characters and panels. Empress proves just how good epic comic stories can be, when not tethered to decades of backstory and interference. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Jughead

The best of the Archie Comics’ rebranding captures a retro feel from the original while modernizing its cast of teenagers. Flagship series Archie by is a fun romp with the eponymous klutz through Riverdale, but his best friend Jughead is a much more entertaining host. Jughead, written by Chip Zdarsky with art by Erica Henderson, revels in the absurdities of teenage life, and no one finds it all more absurd than the hamburger-loving slacker with a heart of gold. Volume 1 begins with a hilarious spread of Jughead playing a dragon-killing RPG video game, but a new principal at Riverdale draws him out of his junk food stupor, as only he sees Principal Stranger for the menace he is. Zdarsky further modernizes the Archie universe by inserting a day dream every issue that usually parodies some pop culture brand, be it the quest to bring hamburgers back to the cafeteria that take the form of a Game Of Thrones quest or a spy scene lifted from the Man From U.N.C.L.E. when the teens spy on a faculty meeting. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Frontier #11: “BDSM”

Beautifully composed of the interplay between huge chunks of white space and masses of black ink, Eleanor Davis’ “BDSM” functions as a lustful dance. These shapes and shadows push and pull against each other, creating a balletic movement of absence and presence. The story is a brief (budding?), ambiguous romance between two adult film actresses, Lexa and Victoria. They meet at work—on a BDSM fetish film—and Davis adroitly uses this context to explore the ideas of consent, desire, lust, romance, and performance. She doesn’t offer bald and banal psychological insight into her character, and the obtuse ending provides no easy answer. Instead “BDSM” offers a sensual and compelling narrative about people unsure of what they themselves want—people who may even be uncomfortable with their own kinks. Short and quickly read, Davis’ monograph invites re-readings and rewards a continued engagement. Her black and white art—with its stark contrasts and curvilinear lines—looks gorgeous, and her characters’ simple yet expressive features are strikingly opaque. It’s never clear what, or who, they want, but under the skin you can sense them wrestling not only with the world but also with themselves. [Shea Hennum]

Orange

Though first serialized in 2012, Ichigo Takano’s Orange didn’t reach print in English until January of this year. It tells the story of Naho, a 16-year-old girl who begins receiving letters from her 26-year-old self, who is attempting to prevent the deep regrets of her present—regrets that have to do with the appearance of a new kid at school, Kakeru. Kakeru rapidly becomes a part of Naho’s group of friends and, naturally, the two begin to interact with each other. Orange has a very gentle touch that is evident from its first chapter, which is at once evocative, joyful, and heartbreaking. The skill in storytelling—artistically, structurally, tonally (though this is arguably saying the same thing three times)—is evident from the very beginning. You’ll find yourself caught, but it’ll be too late. Because in the first chapter, you can already tell that these gentle feelings and deep regrets will also be your own—and that you will visit these things upon yourself with each page turn, of your own volition. Because this is a comic that you immediately know, that you immediately understand will hurt. It’s a sugar sculpture, all subtlety, a study in small moments. [J.A. Micheline]

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

2016 has been a phenomenal year for graphic novels, but few can compare to the genius of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, Sonny Liew’s biography of Singapore’s greatest cartoonist: the fictional Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Liew has produced consistently compelling work in the past, but this graphic novel is his masterpiece, revealing his mastery of a huge range of rendering techniques and textual and visual storytelling styles. Presented as a multimedia package consisting of sketches, photographs, paintings, newspaper clippings, and many, many comics, this graphic novel is an extremely ambitious undertaking, sending Liew to new heights as he hones all these different elements of his craft. The scope of his artistry is matched by his understanding of personal relationships, specifically those of a cartoonist and the people and publishers that surround him. The overarching narrative is sincere and inspiring but also honest about the realities of this lifestyle, and the detail that goes into Liew’s dissection of his lead makes for a fascinating, complex character study. It’s one of those graphic novels that takes full advantage of the myriad creative opportunities afforded by the medium, melding various styles and techniques and media to create an immersive history of one man and his country. [Oliver Sava]

Peplum

Peplum reads like a dream. Loosely adapted from Petronius’ Satyricon, a Roman novel of which only fragments survive, Peplum is episodic. Not that it starts and stops with an disruptive rhythm, but it has a dream-like flow, moving inward and outward, lilting along through scenes of great violence and great sensuality, each set piece crashing into one another. The book lacks a coherent or meaningful plot per se, but its individual scenes act as microcosms of comedy, drama, sensuality, and horror. This makes sense, as translator Edward Gauvin’s introduction identifies Peplum as the moment when the author, Blutch, began emphasizing the moments most exciting to drawn/read and began disregarding the more requisite connective tissue. Peplum is all the better for it, and the result is a work both visually and emotionally arresting. Here, in poetic and aesthetic glory, Blutch explores the attraction of death and the psychotic longing to encounter the sublime. He inks his pages with heavy cross-hatching and smeared, sticky brush strokes, carving out images of white space untouched by the abyssal blackness. The result are panels and pages that appear to be drawn by a mad man desperate to express himself before his impending death—an aesthetic well suited to the narrative. [Shea Hennum]

Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus

Is it possible that the current generation of comics readers may be unfamiliar with the work of Chester Brown? Slow, deliberate, eccentric, and highly personal, his comics are consistently unsettling. His last work, 2011’s Paying For It, was devoted to Brown’s experiences as a john. Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus continues the theme of his previous volume, apparent with the subtitle Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible. Brown’s copious hand-lettered footnotes point to a body of biblical scholarship informing the work, but much of the scholarly veracity is cast into doubt by his obvious bias in reconstructing God in his own sexually tolerant image. Perhaps one day we will look back on the last decade as Brown’s “difficult” period, or perhaps the present volume foreshadows a far less interesting future for Brown as an increasingly isolated figure whose didactic work finds little purchase in the marketplace. Whichever the answer, Brown’s work still remains vital and skilled, even if the reader recognizes the futility of arguing with a man so deeply lost in a fit of private obsession. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess. [Tim O’Neil]

Superhero fan comics: Lee Gatlin and Hannah Blumenreich

This is a bit of a cheat, because these are two separate sets of comics by two separate creators, but their appeal is similar enough to appear together here. Lee Gatlin’s Spider-Man (and other superhero) online comics and Hannah Blumenreich’s Spider-Man zine provide the best superhero material you’ll see this year—and the best Spider-Man you’ll have seen in quite some time. Gatlin cross-posts his comics on both Flagpole Magazine’s website and on his own Tumblr. His fan comics are impressively engaging, with hilarious characterization of Peter Parker and other characters. They remind you of the power of strip comics, and show what’s missing from a lot of our heroic narratives.

Hannah Blumenreich’s work is similarly engaging. Her zine is available for free on Gumroad and depicts Peter at his most human: He’s incredibly weird, funny, and sad. Most of all, he’s a real person again. This is groundbreaking in the face of mainstream superhero storytelling that focuses more on superheroes as symbols and metaphors, and more on the “big picture” than on the characters’ humanity. [J.A. Micheline]