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.
Michael DeForge is one of the industry’s most idiosyncratic creators, and this graphic novel—reprinting stories that initially appeared online asAnt 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.
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.
The Hospital Suite
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.
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.
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.