From war-torn South Vietnam to the apartment of supernatural stoners to a psychedelic plane of reality inside a laundry machine, the best comic books of 2017 (thus far) have taken readers to some fascinating places. The A.V. Club has assembled a list of the can’t-miss titles from the first half of the year, and it’s an assortment that spotlights just how much variety there is in comics and graphic novels. This list features heartbreaking autobiographical works with stunning visuals, superhero books that challenge expectations of the genre, and experimental projects by some of the industry’s top talent, all of which take full advantage of the creative opportunities afforded by the medium. Summer is the perfect time to relax with a great new comic and get swept away to another time and place, and these are some of the best options released this year.
Marvel has received a great deal of criticism lately (some of it from this site), but it’s worth pointing out when it does something right. Laura Kinney, a.k.a. the All-New Wolverine, is a character who really shouldn’t work: A female clone of Wolverine! Yet dozens of successive creators have worked hard to make her not just passable but compelling, a character who has followed in her clone progenitor’s footsteps by become gradually less violent and dangerous while eschewing the hyper-masculinity that made the OG Wolverine a walking stereotype of a Stetson ad.
Tom Taylor writes Laura as a thoughtful, resourceful, and caring hero, a woman who consciously works to overcome her violent past. She’s not as cold as she used to be, a consequence of becoming a surrogate parent to a younger clone of herself named Gabby. They have a home in New York, complete with a pet Wolverine named Jonathan. It’s a charming book in a way that is rare in today’s market: modest without being slight, occasionally cute without being too clever. It relies on long-term characterization to propel the characters into interesting and novel situations. Current storyline “Immune” thrusts Laura into the role of a healer, forcing her to sheathe her claws to battle a virus that can only be tamed through exposure to her healing factor. Although the book suffers from the same revolving art that afflicts much mainstream output in 2017, Leonard Kirk’s recent arrival is a positive sign of long-term stability in a market where any book reaching double digits—even an X-Men spin-off—is far from guaranteed. [Tegan O’Neil]
Black Cloud is one of those rare comics that seems to have been created by the exact right team. Writer Jason Latour has had a slew of successful titles with very different themes, but he really shines when he’s got a team of people to work with in cooperation, the type of creative that gets stronger as his team does. Greg Hinkle and Matt Wilson provide art and colors respectively, and they’re both at the top of their game for this book. The characters are sharp and well defined both in personality and visuals, and Wilson’s talent pushes this from a good, fun title into something remarkable. It wouldn’t be the same book without him, the color absolutely integral to telling a story that moves between reality and a variety of dream spaces without missing a beat. In just a few short issues, Black Cloud has tackled questions of privilege and responsibility, without ever feeling heavy handed or preachy—a particular skill of Latour’s when he’s got a good team around him, which he usually does. Black Cloud is, at its heart, fantasy that’s truly urban in scope and vision, like Inception with a better hook and a much-improved color palette. The pacing is great, the story is interesting, and the visuals are absolutely worth the price of admission. [Caitlin Rosberg]
A major part of the joy of reading comics is being pulled into the unique perspective of a singular artist, and Jesse Jacobs’ Crawl Space is a stunning example. The washer/dryer in Jeanne-Claude’s basement is a portal into a psychedelic world, and Jacobs delivers breathtaking visuals that arrange rainbow-colored shapes into hypnotic patterns that vibrate on the page and immerse the reader in this spectacular setting. Crawl Space is worth the cover price simply for these gorgeous tableaus, but these visuals are tied to a compelling, meditative story about the challenges of adolescence, including the difficulty of maintaining a pure spirit and the danger of befriending corrupting influences. As news of this heightened plane of existence spreads through Jeanne-Claude’s school, her friends journey through the washer/dryer and compromise the integrity of the environment, warping it into a nightmarish version of its former state. There’s a strong emotional throughline, but Jacobs also takes the time to slow down and linger on different aspects of the setting, emphasizing how different it is compared to the stark black-and-white reality outside of the laundry machine. [Oliver Sava]
Revisiting a beloved cast that was skillfully shepherded by someone else is a daunting task no matter what, but facing down legions of fans who are going to compare you to Grant Morrison, especially so. A lot of readers were hesitant at best when Gerard Way joined DC’s staff, but Way has proven to have a steady hand and a creative bent that’s really well suited to comics. Though he’s contributed to all of the Young Animal books as an editor, the writing he’s done on Doom Patrol has in many ways led the pack. The book feels familiar without being stale or borrowed from another writer, and walks the narrow line between having too much backstory for newbies and too much information to be interesting for long term fans. What really makes Doom Patrol a must-read every month is Nick Derington’s crisp, beautiful art. Faces are expressive and body language spot-on, but none of that sacrifices the kinetics of action sequences or the rich texture in every panel. Derington is incredibly skilled, and that skill helps keep the book moving forward when it could get bogged down quickly in nostalgia or pop culture references. Overall, Young Animal is helping to solidify and reiterate DC’s move away from the New52, grim and gritty as it was, toward something with a little more hope and a lot more heart; Doom Patrol, with Way and Derington’s penchant for adventure with laughter and emotion, is a huge part of that. [Caitlin Rosberg]
As with any anthology, Mirror Mirror II features some entries that will leave more of an impression than others, but the totality of the work presented is both haunting and astounding. Collecting comics, prose, and illustrative work from such luminaries as Clive Barker and Al Columbia, as well as work by younger authors like Céline Loup and Trungles, editors Sean T. Collins and Julia Gfrörer have curated quite the book. The theme unifying all of these pieces is the convergence of the erotic and the macabre—some works being more explicit than others—but that may be the only commonality between them. Each one offers a striking aesthetic vision. And though some will resonate more deeply than others—which works stand out will most certainly depend on the reader—they accumulate to form an impressive volume. An enormity of spectacle is brought to bear on exploring the commingling of the pleasurable with the painful, the fantastic with the nightmarish, and the result is a series of truly shocking and often deeply moving images. Mirror Mirror II is troubling and challenging, but it is also rewarding and stunning—a thrilling experience that readers won’t soon forget. [Shea Hennum]
Emil Ferris’ debut graphic novel was delayed four months due to extenuating circumstances that left the book’s entire first print run literally lost at sea, but it was more than worth the wait. Telling the story of a girl living in 1968 Chicago, this structurally ambitious, impeccably illustrated work is an illuminating coming-of-age tale, contrasting Karen’s experience with that of her late upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, who grew up in Weimar-era Germany. As Karen learns more about herself, she discovers the tragic history of her neighbor, who lived through the rise of the Nazis and had to make constant sacrifices to ensure her survival. This took a massive toll on Anka’s physical and mental health, but that doesn’t fully explain the mysterious circumstances surrounding her apparent suicide. Presented as the drawings in Karen’s sketchbook, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is rendered with intricately hatched pen, and Ferris does magnificent things with this simple tool. It’s a very dense read, but an extremely rewarding one, and the attention to detail in both the scripting and the artwork forces readers to slow down to take in all of the information on the page. [Oliver Sava]
Simon Hanselmann is prolific enough to overlook. Few virtues endear creators less than consistency, after all. The arrival of one more book on the heels of so many previous excellent books might not seem cause for celebration… or at least, it might not if Hanselmann weren’t one of the most gifted cartoonists alive. His stories focus on the adventures of Megg, Mogg, and Owl—a green-skinned witch with clinical depression, her cat/lover familiar, and the uptight owl who pays 80 percent of the rent and can actually hold down a job. Dirtbag pal Werewolf Jones is always hanging around somewhere in the background. (Everybody knows a Werewolf Jones.) The set-up never varies but Hanselmann’s talent for invention is near infinite. There are single-page gag strips about killing spiders and longer narratives about hanging out at the water park and getting dragged into attending engagement parties, but the common thread throughout is Hanselmann’s deft touch with character-based comedy. Hanselmann leavens the dread with invariably excellent and highly expressive detail-intensive cartooning. His stories are always about people fucking up their lives in real and recognizable ways, trapped in a banal world filled with the unremitting humiliations of being sad and poor in the 21st century. It’s a depressing world, but very much our world. [Tegan O’Neil]
Shade, The Changing Girl (DC) by Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, Marguerite Sauvage, and Kelly Fitzpatrick
High school is already tough, but it’s even harder when you’re an alien that has just been thrown into the body of a mean girl despised by every person she knows. Writer Cecil Castellucci has done phenomenal work reinterpreting DC’s Shade The Changing Man concept for a YA audience, and while the book is technically for “mature readers,” it’s the perfect title for alienated teens. Working with regular artist Marley Zarcone and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick—with ink assists from Ande Parks and Ryan Kelly and exceptional fill-in art by Marguerite Sauvage, along with a variety of creators on back-up stories—Castellucci has found an intriguing new approach to both adolescent angst and the quarter-life crisis, and this creative team has a tight rapport that makes every issue a confident, surprising exploration of Loma Shade’s journey into the madness that is humanity. Shade’s first arc focuses on the dynamics within the high school, but since then it’s ventured into Gotham City to delve into the urge to run away to an environment where you can lose yourself in the crowd, offering a change in setting that brings out new elements of the story. Experimental and emotional with an endearing lead character and supporting cast, Shade isn’t just one of the best books of DC’s Young Animal line, it’s one of the best books in all of superhero comics. [Oliver Sava]
The world of graphic memoirs has been dominated by women for several years, from Raina Telgemeier to Alison Bechdel to Lucy Knisley. But Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is in a class all its own, weaving history and family together in an intricate knot of storytelling that’s been years in the making. The story of Bui’s family unfolds in complicated, non-chronological layers, pushing through the author’s own discomfort in speaking to her parents about their past, but forcing readers to sit with their own as they discover all of the grief and trauma Bui uncovered. Her family moved to the United States from Vietnam in the aftermath of America’s involvement in what’s called the Vietnam War, and Bui uses her family’s story to dig into the nuance and contradiction of the conflicts there. Her art is mostly ink and watercolor with sharp, deep blacks and washes in shades of orange, honest in portrayals of her parents and siblings without being cruel. It’s a complicated story on both a global and personal level, and telling the story out of order gives readers space to consider things in isolation first, slowly pulling back to see the larger picture. It’s an arresting, emotional graphic novel about the pain the world causes in intimate relationships, and how that pain gets translated through relationships. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Though it may be a sci-fi story full of psychics and UFOs and futuristic architecture, Manuele Fior’s The Interview never loses sight of its very human narrative. The year is 2048 and Italy has been “disunified.” Raniero, a psychologist whose marriage is failing, meets a young patient who opens his heart in surprising and unclear ways, and Fior’s story of their relationship pries open and exposes the gaps that exist between all people. The book is a simple, direct story about love, lust, and loss, and it bristles with a dynamic energy that keeps it moving at a brisk pace. Fior’s particularly striking aesthetic helps to shepherd this energy along, and the elegance of his compositions and his panel-to-panel rhythms make the book both a joy to read and a compulsory re-read. That is to say nothing of the sheer beauty of his cartooning; numerous sequences vie eagerly for some of the year’s most audacious, and they all do so quietly, carried almost entirely by silent images, with charm and confidence. Similarly, Fior lends the characters of The Interview incredible depth and texture, illustrating the book with an attention to their interior lives—making their complex dilemmas felt through well-observed, naturalistic acting—an impressive feat given how stylized and expressive his aesthetic is. The whole thing exemplifies the best that comic books have to offer as both an artistic and as a literary medium. [Shea Hennum]
How do you find meaning in an eternal life? This is the question at the core of The Old Guard, the new ongoing series from writer Greg Rucka, artist Leandro Fernández, and colorist Daniela Miwa that follows a team of immortal soldiers thrown into the biggest battle of their long lives when their secret is discovered. This concept allows Rucka to take advantage of his deep knowledge of military history, and the art team brings the different time periods to life in comprehensive detail. The story is anchored by the experience of Andy, the leader of the group who is over 6,000 years old, and Rucka fully embraces complex perspective of the world and her fraught relationship with immortality. Rucka has always had a talent for creating multifaceted female characters, presenting Andy as highly competent, deeply flawed, and a total badass. The best thing about this series is the blockbuster action, and Fernández is creating intensely exhilarating fights that are amplified by Miwa’s vibrant coloring, which uses an unconventional, primarily pastel palette that distinguishes this book from other action titles. [Oliver Sava]