Hark! A Vagrant
Kate Beaton (Webcomic/Drawn & Quarterly)
Beaton is one of the smartest, funniest cartoonists out there. Hark! A Vagrant catches the best of the early decade webcomic ethos - it’s loose and fast, about anything and everything and just funny as hell. She’s got bits about Tesla, a ton of jokes about Austen and classic literature, idiot Victorian chimney sweeps. All of it lands because Beaton’s got a sharp eye and a strong voice for absurdity. I think my personal favorite remains "Straw Feminists".
The Hard Tomorrow
Eleanor Davis (Drawn & Quarterly)
The Hard Tomorrow stressed me out, and then lifted me up at the end. It’s very much a comic about our current moment (and by “current moment,” I mean the singularity that the last four years have compressed into). It doesn’t capture the terror that some groups might feel, but it does a great job of conveying that background hum, like a cultural migrane, that makes everything more difficult in the world. And then, intentionally or not, it swings the story back around and pumps you full of hope and meaning with the last ten pages. It’s incredible comics work from Eleanor Davis, an amazing talent.
Showa: A History of Japan
Shigeru Mizuki (Drawn & Quarterly)
Technically, Showa is like, 30 years old. But it took 25 of those years for it to be released in the States, and there are no rules to this list, so I’m counting it.
Mizuki is one of the fathers of manga as a form, and as someone who came to his work after reading folks like Otomo and Urasawa, and decades after becoming familiar with anime, his work feels quaint and unsophisticated. Which is a really interesting pairing with the subject matter - Showa is a history of Japan in the Showa era, spanning the ‘20s through the late ‘80s, a period of massive transition for Japan that I mostly knew from broad strokes. He switches back and forth between a hyper-detailed realistic style that looks like (and sometimes is) tracing, and the cartoony manga style he uses to illustrate personal moments that tie into that history. It’s an incredibly effective storytelling technique and a useful way to bring the reader’s attention past the big picture and down to the regular peoples’ perspective of that big change. Showa is an incredible history book, and a masterpiece of the form.
Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly)
Lutes has been working on this for 20 years and finished it in 2018, and you can see the unbelievable care and craft in every page. Berlin follows a couple of working class people through the fall of Weimar Germany in the late 20s until the Nazis take over, and even though it’s fictional, it’s incredibly interesting to see Germany’s collapse as it related to regular people, and not as big, momentous historical events. The history comes across as a much more jagged line. Lutes is wonderful at using the pace of layouts to tell the story, and his art is immaculately clean and clear.
Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly)
Time has sped up immensely in the last three years. Things that feel momentus happen and are forgotten four hours later. Trends are microtrends, fads are localized without geography, and entire 24-hour news cycles are compressed to the space between weathers on the 1s. So it’s really weird how a collection of in-the-moment short comics drawn (presumably) in 2016 feels extremely relevant and timely now. Tamaki takes a bunch of quick stories - about a mirror Facebook that shows you what might be in a parallel world; a Twilight Zone-esque cultural phenomenon mp3; a porn sitcom from the ‘90s gaining more than a cult following 25 years later - and uses the characters to say something interesting about them or us or our world. It’s a great book.