This article was originally published at Loser City on December 7, 2015.
People tend to reminisce about long gone eras, arguing that things were always better way back when. But when it comes to comics, there’s no denying that the 21st century has seen the medium explode in unprecedented and unpredictable ways. For many people, that has come primarily in the form of the advent of the superhero blockbuster, and it’s certainly true that comic book adaptations are enjoying a dominance at the box office. Yet for those willing to look beyond Marvel and DC, there’s an even more exciting revolution taking part, as pop and art comics alike are undergoing a renaissance.
At Loser City, we feel that the 2010’s have been an especially exciting time to be into comics, thanks to the wealth of incredible material being produced as well as the emergence of more and more new perspectives from creators and fans who have historically been underserved in the medium. We wanted to take this opportunity here in the middle of the decade to look back at the phenomenal material that has already emerged and anticipate where comics are going next. Comics continues to have growing pains and a number of major issues hold the medium back from its true potential, but we have chosen this time to focus on the positive and hopefully introduce you to the works we believe are currently making up the modern canon. So without further ado…
100. X’ed Out
by Charles Burns
Published by Pantheon
Black Hole will almost certainly go down as Charles Burns’ greatest artistic achievement, but the second decade of the 21st century has seen Burns follow that work up with some of his most surreal material, beginning with X’d Out. The first component of a trilogy that reconfigures Tin Tin as a Lynchian meta-nightmare, X’D Out may not have Black Hole’s depth or narrative consistency but it features some of Burns’ most stunning artwork.
Aping Herge’s flat, brightly colored style, X’D Out is an adventure comic of a different sort, following a struggling young artist named Doug through a land of head injuries, body horror, fantastic creatures and traumatic memories. The fragmented nature of it combined with its abrupt ending makes it the kind of artistic experience that requires multiple consumptions, particularly since Burns uses minimalist iconography and stark coloring decisions to, as Matt Seneca put it, to force your “eyes to do something they wouldn’t otherwise.” That’s something that a lot of comics in this decade of the 21st century have excelled at, forcing a kind of alertness and new perspective, so it’s fitting that Burns would achieve that so early into the decade. – Nick Hanover
99. Space Brothers
by Chuya Koyama
Published by Crunchyroll
The Space Brothers are Mutta and Hibito, who saw an unexplained flying object just as they were on the cusp of puberty. We will become astronauts, they vowed — as adults, one has kept the promise, and one has broken it. Will the traitorous Mutta swallow his pride and fear of failure, to meet his little brother on the moon? Space Brothers follows the familiar training, win, training, win, training, training, training format of sports and fighting manga, with the genius twist of the goal established in the first chapter being the goal that endures throughout. It’s really really hard to get sent to the moon by NASA at the same time as your brother! The animated adaptation ran for ninety-nine episodes, and ends with triumph and satisfaction before Mutta ever leaves earth. The emotional and psychological strength straining, the building of relationships and support networks, is given so much earnest work that the goal of dual moonwalking is perfectly acceptable as a ticking-over motivator, while life keeps happening.
Despite an evident dedication to conceptual humanity, Space Brothers falls short of perfection. While Koyama doesn’t take black men or Indian, Japanese or American women out of space, and whilst each character driven in and out of the story are allowed personal warmth and an accessible internal narrative, their positioning and metanarrative duties don’t escape all vestige of regressive expectation. Space Brothers will eventually disappoint you, but the generous vistas it offers before, concurrently, and afterwards, are also yours for the taking. – Claire Napier
98. The Abominable Charles Christopher
by Karl Kerschl
Published by Abominable Books
This rather overlooked little webcomic is a story of journeys, not just the path of the eponymous hero, a yeti-like creature traversing the woodland, but of all the inhabitants that occupy Kerschl’s unique world. From boogying bumble bees to escaping circus bears, cockroach therapists to the cat who would be king, a huge cast of philosophising animals ensures that the reader never quite knows what to expect.
Paused in December 2014 when Kerschl started on Gotham Academy at DC, there are currently two collected editions of his webcomic available and fans of his Gotham work may be surprised by the highly detailed pen and ink wash that creates Charles Christopher’s tales. Often told in 3-4 panels, a familiar set-up for any casual reader, Kerschl occasionally expands to full panel strips for maximum impact. The gags are plentiful and needfully so, each of the longer and sometimes overlapping storylines are guaranteed to punch you right in the feels.
Hopefully Kerschl will return to continue these stories in time, as the humour and existential musings paired with the comic and educational cast makes for a fantastic read. – Laura Sneddon
“Is a children’s book a comic?” is a question I would have scoffed at and dismissed back when I was so precious to indicate that my interests were adult. But another common term for what we call a children’s book is “picture book” and that sure as shit sounds like a comic book to me. Emily Carroll is a cartoonist I wish had illustrated a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark book with her delicate, haunting figures; The Prince & the Sea carries on the tradition of a story in one of those aforementioned books with its haunting visuals married to prose with a lyrical meter and rhyme. At 12 pages long (the final one is a tad longer than the others) with each page generally comprised of one illustration, you could read this comic in just a couple of minutes, a perfect dosage for something that published online.
This isn’t the only webcomic on this list and definitely not the only one nominated but I believe that it is the one that uses the medium to the best effect. The final page utilizes the scrolling function of a webpage to have readers follow the titular prince and his mermaid paramour as they travel to the bottom of the sea with a series of tableaus revealed as the reader travels down to the end. It’ssimple but it’s effective and more than most creators ever think to do when publishing their work online. The difference between a comic published online and made to be read online is a pretty big one (*hint*it can be a bit harder to print the latter) and with her online work and recently published collections Through the Woods, Emily Carroll seems to know exactly what she’s doing. – Mark O. Stack
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Published by Drawn & Quarterly
Published by SelfMadeHero
Aama is a mindfuck. It’s a journey both literally and metaphorically. It’s astonishing science fiction that takes readers to a world that’s unimaginable, an expedition into the depths of a human soul. It’s an extraordinarily bizarre, completely astonishing series of four graphic novels that continually follows Frederik Peeter’s unique vision and forces the empathetic consumer to come along.
This is science fiction that’s deep, rich and complex, a true journey to a future Earth that’s extrapolated from current day and a world that’s unimaginable by anyone other than Frederik Peeters. It puts a fallible human at the center of the story to give readers a grounding in what will follow, then trusts the reader to keep up with events as they unfold in their sometimes surreal manner. It’s thrilling to feel this profound sense of confusion and discovery, to have events not be explained to me and to force me to go back through the book to find more details.
This is visionary storytelling. – Jason Sacks
94. It Never Happened Again
by Sam Alden
Published by Uncivilized Books
Composed of two discrete narratives–”Hawaii 1997” and “Anime”–It Never Happened Again evidences Alden’s quality and most pertinent qualities as a cartoonist. His protagonists are lonely outsiders, and his stories revolve around their (sometimes internal, sometimes external) struggle to connect to the people around them. “Anime” is the most obvious example of this; it concerns a weeaboo who flees to Japan in the hopes of finding a land of like-minded people. She is disappointed to find herself lonelier than ever before, and Alden palpably renders her heartbreak with a rough, unfinished aesthetic.
There is a distinct “alt comics” ethos that runs throughout Alden’s work (Sarah Horrocks wrote about his privileging of the cishet white male perspective with immense insight), but there’s also an interpretive originality. At no point is he regurgitating the work of his antecedents, and there’s never even a moment that reads more like he’s digesting his influences on the page. Alden’s stories feel familiar, but they also feel fresh. His narratives are uncanny like that, and he’s able to elucidate them with an uncommon amount of personality, which he combines this with a raw, hurried mark making that imbues his work with a powerful sense of energy. – Shea Hennum
93. Cross Game
by Mitsuru Adashi
Published by Viz Media
I think sports comics are one of the harder sells within the medium. If the person in question doesn’t like sports, or doesn’t like that particular sport, it’s a pretty immediate ‘no.’ And even if you manage to match a sport comic to its relevant sports fan, still, people find trouble understanding what could be so thrilling about the concept. With martial arts, at least, there’s the appeal of the ‘cool’ fight, and perhaps the same applies to boxing, but who really wants to read a comic about baseball? Or basketball? Or American football?
Well, you do. You just don’t know it yet.
I came to Cross Game with absolutely zero interest in baseball and left it with a newfound respect and interest in the sport. But that’s only secondary. Cross Game isn’t appearing on this list because it’ll make you like baseball. Cross Game is appearing on this list because it’s one of the most touching stories about love and loss that I’ve ever had the fortune to read. I don’t want to say too much, because I think going into the comic blind is the best way to experience it, but I will say that Koh Kitamura’s journey as ace pitcher for his high school baseball team is fraught with emotion from the very first volume. The comic is as much about his attempts to get his team to the nationals as it is to explore his relationship with two of his childhood friends, Wakaba and Aoba Tsukishima.
It’s about baseball, to be sure, but it’s about everything else too. I’ll warn you now that, right from the off, Cross Game will break your heart. Because what this comic is really about is how to put your heart back together. – J.A. Micheline
by Dash Shaw
Published by Fantagraphics
Seldom has a revolutionary work of art had a more appropriate title. Dash Shaw’s New School is the most beguilingly fascinating, smartly innovative, deliberately off-putting work of comics art that I’ve read in several years. Shaw has always been a creator whose work has been thoughtful and inventive, innovative and intriguing, but New School is a fundamental leap forward from his Bottomless Belly Button and Body World. New School is a frothy book of abstract ideas and abstract cartooning, a seemingly boundless exploration of a thoroughly unique, completely idiosyncratic approach to every aspect of comic art that stands apart from any other work of contemporary comic art.
Shaw gives readers such a great gift with this book, with his new school thoughts on representational art and abstract coloring and overlays, with his story that careens between nonsense and heartfelt passion, with his seemingly deliberate attempts to distance readers from the plot of the story that he’s delivering at the same time that he deliberately walks through a clear plot.
New School is the rarest of all great creations: a graphic novel of ideas in which the ideas are hidden and obscured, in which the reader isn’t compelled to do some work to make sense of their thoughts about this book but to do much of the work to make sense of this endless panoply of fascinating images and ideas that float across on the printed page. It’s profoundly disorienting and disorientingly sincere. It’s a generous work of art that also hides and obscures itself from the reader. It feels loose but has a tight structure that reveals itself with rereading. New School is a beguiling paradox. – JS
91. Wonton Soup
by James Stokoe
Published by Oni Press
James Stokoe has had a killer decade, with series like Orc Stain and for-hire assignments on properties like Godzilla and The Avengers proving that his detail heavy maximalism has made him a worthwhile heir to legends like Moebius, Seth Fisher and Geof Darrow. But I’m of the opinion that his masterpiece is the paradoxically intimate and epic Wonton Soup, particularly in the collected form Oni rolled out last year. A self-described “space trucker opera,” Wonton Soup pulls equally from sci-fi classics like Alien and the more obscure noodle Western Tampopo, following the exploits of a culinary student turned space merchant whose chief goal in life is to traverse the stars, partaking in alien dishes.
Stokoe’s art is of course the star, with the abundance of subtle, clever sight gags and astonishingly deep backgrounds and splashes. But the narrative is one of Stokoe’s best, an insightful examination of the creative process that should click with even the most culinary-challenged readers. Every page of Wonton Soup is full of love for art and taste, turning it into a visual feast that only becomes more appealing the further into it get you get. – NH
by Ichigo Takano
Published by Crunchyroll
Technically a science fiction or speculative fantasy story, Orange uses its time travel/alternate reality conceit as a framing device for deep, gentle ruminations on what-ifs. At the centre of both concurrent stories is a teenaged suicide — in one world it happens, and in the other the support network around the victim is given the chance to stop it. But there’s no sci-fi trickery or cool intrigue to their attempts to prevent their friend from dying. The option they’re offered is to do internal work and show external evidence: become better friends, better people, be braver and more compassionately vulnerable; to be there for a boy reeling from the impact of his mother’s suicide in the ways that, in the other world, they only began to understand after they suffered their own bereavement. Add the pains that crushes cause the shy, and an adult narrative giving hints about dealing with the life you’re living as your own best self, and if you don’t cry then at least you’ll be able to treat those who do with the appropriate space or comfort. Takano’s dedication to suggesting suicide as an action apart from malevolence, something responsive to psychological circumstances, is rare, calm, and kind. – CN
89. Wicked Chicken Queen
by Sam Alden
Published by Retrofit/Big Planet
Retrofit Comics have had an epic year, publishing a diverse range of works including Ben Sea’sEyelash Out, Olivier Schrauwen’s Mowgli’s Mirror, and publisher owner Box Brown’s own An Entity Observes All Things. The star in their crown though is Wicked Chicken Queen, a fairytale of dreams by genius Sam Alden. At surface level the comic tells of a chicken hatched from a found egg, adopted by the king of this strange island as his daughter, who goes on to become queen of the land. Marrying the woman who originally found her egg and withdrawing later in grief, the entire island is shaped by the unfolding story.
Each page features a whole image, the land rendered in impressionistic soft pencil as a whole yet still focusing in on individual characters and their unravelling paths, and with words adding to the fable along the bottom edge. The strange little people of the island see the changes wrought by evolving from monarchy to matriarchy to post-autocratic life, the latter with a change in style bleeding through to enforce the transition. Multiple layers abound, but it is the sheer grief and rage of the Chicken Queen that makes this such an emotional and unique read. – LS
Written by Ales Kot, Art by Morgan Jeske, Colors by Sloane Leong and Jordie Bellaire, Letters by Ed Brisson
Published by Image Comics
Dissections of the creative process have been a big thing in comics here in the 2010s. But Ales Kot followed up his acclaimed debut Wild Children with Change, one of the most challenging and daring works in the genre, partnering with the dream team of Morgan Jeske, Sloane Leong, Jordie Bellaire and Ed Brisson to concoct a near apocalyptic vision of LA where ghostly spacemen, hip hop auteurs, button pushing screenwriters and an omniscient tumor all collide. Kot’s abstract scripting may turn off some but Leong’s vivid coloring and Jeske’s grimy yet playful art ensure that the story is always visually arresting, leaping off the page as your brain works to discern the meaning of every phrase and panel.
As much as Wild Children made people take notice of Kot for his youth in revolt style, Changeannounced his arrival as an especially bold comics creator, the kind of art pop prankster more interested in pushing at the boundaries of mainstream comics than dialing back his eccentricities for larger audiences. Change also paved the way for the sprawling creative teams and avant aesthetics that would make Kot’s more ambitious series Zero such a stand out, though here it’s in service to a smaller scale meta-examination. Look beyond the Hollywood meltdowns and the doomed astronauts and creative geniuses and you’ll notice Change is a work about creativity and all the messy, dangerous, exhilarating elements that entails. – NH
by Reinhard Kleist
Published by Abrams
The Boxer by Reinhard Kleist is an exceptional graphic novel. It is the true story of Harry Haft, a Jewish boy from Poland who is commandeered to leave his family and his fiancée and is sent to the Nazi Concentration Camps, at which he is forced to become a boxer and literally fight for his life. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Harry survives the Camps, and after arriving in America after the War he becomes professional boxer and gets a chance to battle the great Rocky Marciano. But that chance comes with a wretched cost: Harry must choose between throwing the match and keeping the Mob happy or striving to win and keep himself alive.
It’s tempting to compare this outstanding book with the sublime Maus, which is one of the greatest graphic novels ever published. In fact, my first tweets and comments about The Boxer made that exact comparison because there are real similarities in quality, plotline and depiction of events between Spiegelman’s classic and Kleist’s new book (the subtitle to the second volume of Maus, “And Here My Troubles Began”, could also apply to The Boxer). But it’s the crowd opinion rules in this matter. While Spiegelman’s work is taught in schools and universities, The Boxer remains obscure. Don’t let the lack of popularity put you off, though. The Boxer is really worth seeking out. In this book, Reinhard Kleist has delivered a beautiful, haunting and terrible graphic novel that sticks to the soul and resonates deeply. The Boxer at least deserves to be shelved next to Maus. – JS
86. Thor: God of Thunder #18
Written by Jason Aaron, Art by Das Pastoras, Letters by Joe Sabino
Published by Marvel Comics
There’s a phrase that professional writer about comics Chase Magnett uses to describe certain books: this comic fucks. What does it mean for a comic to truly fuck? It’s gotta be fun and full of something resembling the combination of energy and competence bleeding onto the page. And in the world of cape comics, competence can sometimes be an impossible bar to clear. To call Thor: God of Thunder one of the best Marvel comics of the current decade would be damning it with faint praise but naming issue #18 the best of that series is a damn fine distinction. Illustrated by Das Pastoras and written by Jason Aaron, this comic is the story of a Viking era Thor bro-ing down with a dragon until the latter’s insecurities lead to a meltdown that sees one slay the other. Yes, this comic surely does fuck.
The fine lines of Pastoras’ pages, colored by him as well, keep the book from looking like an American superhero comic in the sense that there is some serious consideration, composition, and life put into things. The soft, squishy lines that make up Thor’s face in the opening pages sell his hangover bloat better than the dialogue. Even when drawing a dragon on the page, Pastoras is putting humanity on each page that marries well with the story Aaron has written about two friends with destructive habits and disapproving fathers finding the measure of their worth in conflict with each other. It’s damn good comics. – MOS
85. Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6
by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Published by Oni Press
Scott Pilgrim may be better known for Edgar Wright’s excellent adaptation, but the added length and scope of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic make it a true masterpiece of growing up after the turn of the century. The series climax features the final transformations of Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers as they come to accept themselves and what it means to be adults apart and together. There’s loads of action in this volume that plays out like a coked up Capcom game in pages you can’t flip fast enough. The clarity of design and storytelling reveal O’Malley to be a true master of cartooning throughout the exciting finale and much quieter, more poignant denouement of the series. O’Malley captures the essence of both a specific generation and moment in time here, crystallizing what the feeling and experience of being a twenty-something millennial is like and simultaneously touching upon more timeless themes of aging and love.
There have been two editions of Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour released this decade, the original and color edition. Colorist Nathan Fairbairn’s additions to the series cannot be understated, enhancing O’Malley’s story through a conscious choice of palette and its careful application. This comic is a rare instance where an updated edition notably improves upon the original transforming a millennial classic into something even more essential. – Chase Magnett
84. Wild Children
Written by Ales Kot, Art by Riley Rossmo, Colors by Gregory Wright, Letters by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
If it hadn’t been for Danny Djeljosevic, I would have stumbled on Ales Kot when many other comics readers did, somewhere around Change or Zero, but back in our Comics Bulletin days, Danny said “you should review this” and sent me a review copy of Wild Children. From the cover alone it was clear this comic would be doing things at least a little bit differently, with a minimalist, intentional design that stands out on the shelf and can be seen on Kot’s subsequent creator-owned work.
The interiors showcase Riley Rossmo’s talent as an artist and visual storyteller, letting him flex some of his sketchiest, messiest art to bring chaos to one panel while the same page will have some of the cleanest linework I have ever seen from him. While the artistic style is distinctly Rossmo, it moves from what I would call typical comic book art reminiscent of a Marvel/DC house style to pop-art-influenced panels to a technical, almost architectural style.
Kot has brought out the best in Rossmo, and I am eager to see them work together again, but Rossmo’s lines are only a part of the picture. Gregory Wright’s colors go from the muted tones used to appropriately represent a modern American high school to trippy psychedelic colors that recall some of my favorite Christian Ward art (while still feeling original in their use in Wild Children). Clayton Cowles’ letters bring Kot’s writing to life in a way that makes a sometimes wordy comic breeze by.
Wild Children would be an excellent book from a seasoned writer, but it was Kot’s first real published work in the medium, which made it particularly remarkable to me. What’s it about? Oh. A group of students takes over their high school and attempts to shake up the education industrial complex that makes them feel like a splinter cell of The Invisibles ready to open the minds of the 21st century. – David Fairbanks
83. Sacred Heart
by Liz Suburbia
Published by Fantagraphics
Before Shea Hennum interviewed Liz Suburbia, I had no idea what Sacred Heart was, but considering how quickly I have learned to trust Shea’s opinion, it made my list of comics to check out. Flash-forward to SPX 2015. There’s a pile of Sacred Heart on a table. $25 disappears from my wallet. The book is in my hand. I don’t question it. Suburbia’s art style and attitude remind me of Liz Prince: smooth linework that emphasizes her characters emotions and punk as fuck.
As with Prince’s recent Tomboy, Suburbia explores gender issues and ideas of adulthood inSacred Heart, where Ben Schiller is adjacent to mysteries and murders in her life in the mysteriously adult-free town of Alexandria. It’s the kind of high school life I sometimes wish I had, seeing friends’ bands play, making poor life decisions because you’re a fucking teenager, and loving the makeshift family you’ve constructed for yourself, because friends have become more than just those people you hang out with.
I have to respect how Suburbia is unafraid to punch you in the gut and and run. In many ways,Sacred Heart just ends in much the same way a life does: some things get resolved, others don’t, and there are as many or more questions than there were before. She’s got more planned, though they will be jumping further in time quite a bit, and I’m definitely curious to see where her characters go next. – DF
82. A Drunken Dream
by Moto Hagio
Published by Fantagraphics
Two lovers, starcrossed and hellbound, repeat a broken, cosmic romance for an agonized eternity; a girl with the body of a lizard suffers under her cruel mother until she learns her own terrible secret; two sisters joined at the hip, one beautiful but mentally deficient and one a deformed genius, slowly kill each other over the period of an adolescence. A Drunken Dream is fucking intense. Moto Hagio’s masterful stories recall nothing if not a certain classical gravitas, her narratives drawing on a folkloric sense of the tragedy of fate within families, her linework recalling those last eras of painting that celebrated the ideal before disintegrating into abstraction. But the remove that such beauty often creates is not here; her characters are sad, intimate portraits that suffer terrible loss and, if they’re lucky, are able to enjoy quiet redemption. Though driven by circumstance, Hagio’s protagonists, moving through her sprawling layouts, often fighting against their own diaphanous beauty, control outcomes through sheer force of their emotions. A Drunken Dream will crack you open, and you will be recreated wiser, more attuned, softer. These are stories worth treasuring. – CMJ
81. So Long, Silver Screen
Published by Picturebox
Movies have long held an interesting relationship with comics (particularly in the 21st century). They’ve influenced each other–practitioners of one even routinely jump over to the other–and consumers of both have fused their critical language. But nowhere is this relationship more satisfyingly interrogated than in Blutch’s So Long, Silver Screen. A big name in his native France, Blutch’s work had influenced cartoonists like Craig Thompson for years without ever being available in English, but with So Long, Silver Screen (the textual component of) his work finally became readable to the non-Francaphones among us.
A series of interconnected of vignettes, the book explores a number of disparate themes and ideas, and it functions critically in the same way that much of Godard’s work does. It is interrogative as much as it is narrative, and Blutch employs his deft draftsmanship and expressive figurework to lofty ends. Under his scratchy pen and precisely uneven line, the juxtapositional tools and iconography of cinema are inverted, trained inwardly to upset themselves and explain their own effects. The diegetic artifice is laid over the mimetic simulacrum, cartoonish figures populate illustrative landscapes, and the whole thing feels heady and essayistic. Blutch, however, never loses sight of the personal, and his perspective, his voice, his hand is never absent. The whole thing feels insightful in a way that the highest quality of criticism only ever aspires to, and it feels doubly as humane. – SH
Tune in tomorrow for part two, and for new entries each day after for the rest of this week!