As we come to the end of another year, it’s time to survey the landscape and determine what the “best of the best” was. My only rule for inclusion on this list is that the book in question has to be an original work, not serialized in single issues or online prior to publication — in other words, a “graphic novel” by definition, not just in name, and constructed specifically with that format in mind. And so, without any further ado —
10. Blood And Drugs By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books): A visceral, harrowing firsthand account of addiction and recovery on the social and economic margins by a cartoonist with a busted hand. One of the most immediate and unmediated works in recent memory, this one will leave an indelible mark on your brain.
9. The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade By Viken Berberian And Yann Kebbi (Fantagraphics): Exploring architecture and gentrification as inherently political topics, this exquisitely-illustrated book has much to say about damn near everything, yet never feels like a treatise or lecture. There’s nothing rotten about it at all, comrade.
8. Theth: Tomorrow Forever By Josh Bayer (Tinto Press): Incorporating elements of memoir and metafiction to tell this remarkable coming-of-age tale, Bayer uses genre to explore deeply personal topics and to paint a portrait of a life that could well and truly “go either way.” Utterly unique stuff that will make you glad your late-teens and/or early-twenties are over with.
7. The Death Of The Master By Patrick Kyle (Koyama Press): Meet the new boss, same as — ah, you know the drill. But you’ve never seen that axiom bought to life in such a formally inventive and wryly satirical manner. Kyle is in full command of his considerable gifts here, and you pass on it at your peril.
6. Gender Queer By Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge): An intellectually and emotionally resonant memoir of awakening that addresses issues of gender and sexuality, or their absence, with frankness, insight, honesty, and even a little bit of humor. One of the year’s most important and engagingly-drawn books.
5. Pittsburgh By Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics): A lavishly-illustrated account of a family and a city’s declining fortunes and the oblique reasons behind them, this is the crowning achievement of Santoro’s career and a testament to the power of emotional survival and perseverance. As formally exciting as it is deeply personal, this is a book that richly rewards re-reading and reveals new thematic depth every time you do so.
4. Grip Vol. 2 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press): The second volume of Westvind’s soaring, elegiac tribute to working women everywhere serves as both perfect companion piece to, and necessary extension of, the first. Bursting with dynamic action and illustration, this is a genuinely triumphant and transcendent work.
3. The Hard Tomorrow By Eleanor Davis (Drawn+Quarterly): A moving and very much “of the moment” exploration of what it means to be human, to be involved in a relationship, and to bring new life into the world, Davis’ boldest and most ambitious work yet cements her reputation as one of our most important contemporary cartoonists. This is who we are, where we are, and what we hope for all wrapped up in one one visually sumptuous package.
2. Bezimena By Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics): A searing and disturbing portrait of obsession and mania, this psychologically violent work is as essential as it is difficult, and Bunjevac’s amazingly detailed cartooning is the very definition of darkly alluring. Tough to read, sure, but absolutely impossible to forget.
1. How I Tried To Be A Good Person By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics): A towering achievement in the field of comics memoir, Lust’s dense and thorough-going examination of a pivotal and formative period of her life leaves no stone unturned and stands out for its absolute emotional honesty. Brave, confident, and visually literate in the extreme, this is one of those rare books that establishes its author as a true master of the medium.
And we’re done! It’s been quite the task compiling this list, but I suppose that was to be expected — after all, it’s been quite a year. 2019 saw more quality comics releases than anyone could possibly keep up with, and to call that a “good problem to have” is to sell the situation far short. In point of fact, we’re living in a new Golden Age of creativity and expression in the comics medium.
Tags: Birdcage Bottom Books, Columns, Comic Books, Comics, Drawn+Quarterly, Eleanor Davis, Fantagraphics, Frank Santoro, Graphic Novels, Josh Bayer, Koyama Press, Lale Westvind, Lance Ward, Lion Forge, Lists, Maia Kobabe, New York Review Comics, Nina Bunjevac, Patrick Kyle, Perfectly Acceptable Press, Tinto Press, Ulli Lust, Viken Berberian, Yann Kebbi