1. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (Drawn and Quarterly)
Kate Beaton’s work isn’t challenging, per se. As anyone who has fallen down the rabbit hole of reading her hundreds upon hundreds of web comics can tell you, it’s easy to gobble up her strips without scratching your head about any of them. The vast majority of her work is light, hilarious, and endearing. So what is her latest collection of work doing on a list that’s otherwise populated by dense, weighty tomes? It’s the same reason Lucille Ball, Mel Brooks, and Charles Schultz are creative icons: Funny doesn’t come easy. Beaton is the leading light of North American cartooning right now, a human wellspring of laugh-out-loud punch lines with a fantastic visual and verbal lexicon that is wholly her own. Step Aside, Pops has everything that has made her an emerging titan: arch-but-humane reimaginings of history and literature, progressive commentary that’s as observant as it is goofy, formally innovative riffs on antique book covers, gags about pigeons — it’s all here, along with insightful author commentary on each set of strips. It’ll be fascinating to see where she goes, but for now, it’s just a privilege to spend time in the world she’s making.
2. Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly)
Ho-hum, another masterpiece from Adrian Tomine. It’s been a few years since we got a book-length work from this venerable master of the medium, but this collection of short stories reminds us that his unique talents have in no way faded with age. Indeed, he’s growing as a visual storyteller: “Intruders” has him breaking from the smooth-textured style he’s famous for; “Translated From the Japanese” is more like an illuminated manuscript than a comic; and the title story conveys dialogue and sound effects in bold new ways. But never mind all that formal stuff: The centerpieces, as always, are his well-observed plots and struggling characters. No one uses minimalism to grab your heart quite like Tomine.
3. SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn and Quarterly)
There was a time when full-page comic strips were the dominant form of American sequential art, but they’ve been in steep decline for decades. Thankfully, we have the brilliant mind and pen of Jillian Tamaki to revive it to awe-inspiring effect. SuperMutant Magic Academy is a series of strips about a school that’s part Hogwarts and part Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, but nothing about it feels like stale parody. The lockstep rhythm of charming setups and surreal punch lines aggregates into a lengthy, funny work about growth and confusion.