The final comics column of the year is upon us, and so thoughts turn to lists of great things. For me, the finest books of 2019 are Chris Ware’s Rusty Brown (Jonathan Cape) and Kevin Huizenga’s The River At Night (Drawn & Quarterly), both reviewed below. I also loved Luke Healy’s travelogue Americana (Nobrow), his most personal and accomplished work to date. Jayde Perkin’s self-published I'm Not Ready is another brilliant comic that is both personal and moving. Anders Nilsen's Tongues #2 (Self-published) continues the mesmerising setup of his retelling of Prometheus, making spectacular use of large format layouts.
Drawn & Quarterly had another excellent year, with my other standouts being Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow (also reviewed below), Linda Barry’s Making Comics, a book to draw out the inner comic artist in all of us through drawing exercises, and Ebony Flowers’ Hot Comb, a collection of short stories that continue to resonate long after they are finished. Avery Hill continued their extremely strong run with many great books, including Mimi And The Wolves Volume 1 by Alabaster Pizzo and Internet Crusader from George Wylesol, both of which also get reviews this time. Simon Hanselmann's Bad Gateway (Fantagraphics) delivered another brilliantly appalling episode in the lives of Megg and Mogg. Finally, Ian Williams’ The Lady Doctor (Myriad) is a nuanced, warm and empathetic book that I enjoyed immensely. Save our NHS. – Pete Redrup
My favourite book of the year has to be King Of King Court by Travis Dandro. An unflinching look at the complex figure of his father, Dandro’s memoir is told without self-pity or solipsism, instead with a brutal honesty that lays bare the wounds of a traumatic adolescence. Incredibly self-aware storytelling that makes me excited to see what he creates next.
Another favourite is Adrian Tomine’s short comic Intruders, released as part of Faber and Faber’s new Faber Stories collection. A haunting tale of post-traumatic stress told with Tomine’s signature realist style, it’s great to re-read this story originally included in his (brilliant) 2015 release Killing and Dying. It’s novel to see a comic included alongside serious literary works, and a clear indication of how important artists like Tomine are to the medium. – Joe Marczynski
Kevin Huizenga – The River at Night
The River At Night collects and expands Kevin Huizenga’s long-running Ganges comics in a single beautiful hardback volume that’s a little smaller in format than the six individual issues were. Divided into 19 sections, the third begins with an establishing panel showing that it is far enough into the evening to be fully dark, and we see Glenn Ganges making a pot of coffee from which he proceeds to drink several cups. He’s still on the coffee when his wife Wendy goes to bed, and this ultimately results in a long night of insomnia, the device around which this entire book is fashioned. As he fails to get to sleep his mind wanders and Huizenga uses this to muse about numerous topics from the minutiae of Ganges’ life to space and time itself.
This good natured, charming book is full of endlessly inventive layouts. The first few pages are a perfect illustration of how comics can communicate in a way no other medium can, as we get a philosophical exploration of the infinity of time. Ganges’ mind wanders as he walks to the library, his thoughts becoming ever more tangential until he’s woken from his reverie by a car horn from a former colleague. This thread is picked up a few sections later in the story Pulverize, a brilliant account of the Dotcom era. Glenn is working at a tech company started by a nerd who then brings in a corporate guy to manage it, where the staff all stay in the evenings playing a thinly disguised Quake while pretending to their partners they are working late. It’s an extremely well done piece, capturing the thrills of that sort of game at a time when multiplayer gaming required a local network as for most people, the internet was just too slow, and also skewering the business conventions of that moment in time.
The coffee inflicted insomnia results in endless failed attempts to get to sleep. Glenn gets up and potters about for a while, returning to bed to fail to sleep again. Books are read, including a splendidly oblique philosophical discourse selected for its soporific qualities, which unfortunately turn out to be insufficient in the face of caffeine. There is an aside about just how many books it is reasonable to own based on life expectancy and rate of reading. Another section brings musings on the fragmentary nature of our long and short term memories, with units of time laid out in grids for analysis. Huizenga is adept at moving from the very small - this is a great sandwich - to the very large - how the universe is arranged. There’s a brilliant chapter looking at the life and work of James Hutton, geologist, full of first-class illustration work that brings his ideas to life, and then a moment later Ganges is full of regret for not saying something at a funeral.
Huizenga captures the way the mind can wander off at the least opportune moments, and uses this as a framework to produce one of the most delightful, impressive comics I have ever read, as narratively sophisticated as it is beautifully illustrated. So many strands are pulled together here in a wide ranging but utterly coherent book. Time never moves as slowly as when you can’t sleep, or as quickly as when you are engrossed in poring over these pages. This is an essential purchase. – Pete Redrup
Eleanor Davis – The Hard Tomorrow
Set in an all too believable near future, The Hard Tomorrow is the new book from Eleanor Davis, always a cause for excitement. Hannah is a care worker and activist who would very much like to be pregnant and living in a home rather than the back of a truck. Her partner Johnny is slowly building them a house but has not yet grasped that making progress with this is not entirely compatible with being a full time stoner. They are living in an America that doesn’t seem a huge leap forward from the present, but one where all the changes have been for the worse. Davis’ suggestion for president is at once entirely plausible and utterly horrifying. The societal background is one of state oppression and protests against this. Most protesters are sincere, but there is a masked pair intent on damaging property which then provides the excuse for violent suppression.
Johnny is getting help from his friend Tyler who lives nearby in a place he calls the compound. There’s more than a hint of toxic masculinity about him as he assesses Hannah’s value based on the amount she could deadlift relative to him. Seemly surviving on a diet of energy drinks and eye drops, he’s a paranoid prepper and fervent red piller. Davis doesn’t hold back in depicting his many obnoxious ways, but also presents him in a way that shows a little sympathy - he clearly wants the best for Johnny, even if he doesn’t agree about his friend’s priorities. Her characters are all written in a nuanced way, believably human, fallible and worthy of redemption, and this is what draws us in. Davis is also a very talented illustrator, and the subtleties and complexities of the characters’ feelings are writ large on their faces.
It might seem paradoxical that a book that describes a society in an even worse state than the present can be so full of hope, but this is not about the bad things that others do, but rather the good things that we can do. It’s about making the world a better place - every character in the book is trying to get prepared for the particular future they think is coming, and is treated generously by Davis. What she gives us is a moment in some lives when some things resolve and others are left for us to imagine what comes next. This moment is so brilliantly drawn, the next step from where we are now, a document of recent changes and where they may take us. – Pete Redrup