THE TEN BEST COMICS OF 2014
by BK Munn
Oh Jesus, this is late.
We are still a tiny country, comics-wise, but we swing above our weight. By my estimate there must have been 50 or 60 cartoonists in this country who published substantial work in English over 2014, not counting work-for-hire gigs, illustration or random webcomics/tumblr stuff. Don’t ask me to list them all. Suffice: Much of this work is world class and the best of it is better than anything else out there. I didn’t see everything, by any stretch of the imagination, and there are still some things that I’d still like to see that I suspect have a good chance at making a list of this sort. I didn’t read that retrospective Valium collection or Jimmy Boulieu’s My Neighbour’s Bikini, for instance, and I like the work of both of those guys. I also didn’t read the Sophie Yanow book about the Montreal protests or the Tings Chak book about the architecture of migrant detention; two books of a political bent that I am intensely curious about. I didn’t see the Collier mini about Alex Colville, etc, etc.
There’s a ton of stuff out there like that that somehow slipped through the cracks here at Sequential HQ. And there’s also a bunch of stuff I just sort of eliminated from this list arbitrarily, cause I’m a jerk, I guess. For instance, I really liked Dream Life, the graphic novel by my friend and the publisher of this site Salgood Sam, but since he drew me into the background as a cameo which is basically the highlight of my life I can’t really comment objectively. Also, I don’t follow much in the way of serialized creator-owned work published by the larger U.S. publishers (by which I mean Image, not that superhero shit), so whole swaths of that world remain excluded from this list. By the same token, I generally read a fair amount of mini-comics every year, but 2014 was sort of an off year for me. I didn’t attend TCAF and hardly ordered anything through the mail directly from cartoonists so there’s very little of that sort of thing here.
The list below is made up of books that you can go out there and buy in a physical format. With one exception, I think they are all still in print. They are for the most part graphic novels or single-artist collections of short stories, which is mostly the sort of thing I lean towards for awhile now. The books here are works that I not only enjoyed on a deeply personal level but they are also books I feel bear repeated scrutiny as works of art and have something to recommend beyond a momentary thrill, a laugh, or a slick ink line.
Nelvana of the Northern Lights
by Adrian Dingle
This is a comic book I have been waiting to read for over 35 years, since I first saw a few pages excerpted in a beat-up copy of The Great Canadian Comic Books in my local library. The book collects the complete adventures of the titular Nelvana, Canada’s first female super-hero, originally published in the 1940s by Toronto’s tiny Hillborogh Studios and Bell Features. Inspired by Group of Seven painter Franz Johnson’s stories of Inuit life, Dingle created a magical hero that managed to be largely respectful of Inuit culture while at the same time serving as a popular entertainment for Canadian children during the grim years of World War Two and after.
Dingle was a trained painter and his brushwork has a beauty and power that is lacking in many of his contemporaries, many of whom were little more than teenagers when they drew the strongman, jungle princess and funny animal strips that make up the so-called “Golden Age”. Later a well-known magazine illustrator and art teacher, Dingle brought an adult sensibility and practiced hand to these pulpish tales, and it is really quite a revelation to have this charming work together again for the first time. The rediscovery of these 1940s comics (extremely rare and expensive to collect in their original format) by a modern readership has been one of the big stories of the past few years and the effort made by the researchers, fans, collectors and publishers (including a well-funded Kickstarter campaign) to bring these stories back to print has been little short of awe-inspiring and very gratifying to cynical old fans like myself.
Descant 164: Cartooning Degree Zero
This all-comics issue of the long-lived Canadian literary journal was a brilliant snapshot of the current state of Canadian comics. Edited by Sean Rogers, one of our best comic critics, and the critic who has the best use of swears, the book is an anthology chock full of short works and critical pieces by the best of the cutting edge of (mostly) younger cartoonists. Rogers commissioned all the work here and his taste is impeccable: all the comics are very good and the text pieces, including work from Mark Kingwell, Rachel Richey, and cartoonist Mark Connery are pretty sharp as well. I wish a big brick of a comics anthology like this came out once a year but unfortunately the issue is sold-out and Descant is actually ceasing to exist after a 40-year run. Once again, comics ruins everything. Track this book down if you can. It’s the Comics 2000 of 2014.
by Michael Cho
Michael Cho’s Shoplifter begins with a bravura piece of comics storytelling, a cinematic sequence that transforms an absurd ad agency meeting into a cartoonist’s catalog of modern types. A bottle of perfume is passed hand-to-hand down an office table while a group of faceless copywriters pitch their marketing ideas in adspeak until the bottle ends up in the hands of our protagonist. Cut to a torso shot of her with the bottle. After an offpanel prompt she gives her pitch. Cut to a group shot of the table’s reaction, revealing the faces that belong to the hands and a wider view of her world. Meet Corrina Park, junior copywriter. Yadda yadda yadda. Forget about the cliche, forgettable plot here. Shoplifter is more Cho’s story than Corrina’s.
The book is a wonder of pacing, with great beats, fantastic panel transitions and gorgeous drawing; a tiny perfect graphic novel, wrapped up with a pink ribbon.
Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
by Joe Ollmann
I’m on the record ranking Joe Ollmann as one of the best cartoonists anywhere and this omnibus collection of stories from his previous books (plus a couple new stories) is a distillation of everything about his work that I love: ugly, oddball characters suffering through horrible indignities and the tiny epiphanies that almost make it worthwhile. If you don’t own every Joe Ollmann comic you are missing out on the beautiful miserableness of life.
by Patrick Kyle
One of the highlights of the past year for me was receiving regular chapters of this book in the form of a risographed mini comic, mailed out as subscriptions by Kyle in a old-fashioned 21st-Century print-focused version of patronage. The closest I got to that old serialized thrill of the monthly comic, Distance Mover was originally partly about the joy of anticipation and reflection, as I eagerly awaited the arrival of old-fashioned “real mail” to break up the monotony of my month, delivering another piece to the narrative puzzle of Kyle’s dopily cosmic saga. Although now collected as a slight graphic novel by Koyama Press, Distance Mover was as much about the medium as the message, but it remains a hippy punk comics love letter full of lumpy characters and far-out themes of art, and life, and the world.
by Nick Maandag
The best comics are about shit, let’s get that straight from the start. From Ignatz’s bricks to Chester Brown’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” and beyond, comics is stuck in the anal stage of development. The good news is that Nick Maandag is our comics analyst and he will talk us through it. Maandag is very funny, the king of deadpan comics delivery, and he really throws everything at the wall to see what sticks in this corporate satire about a CEO who decides to implement a radical new bathroom policy to increase productivity. Digging into the dump of our late-capitalist asswipe culture, Facility Integrity is the real shit.
This One Summer
by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
Since Skim, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki seem to be specializing in the “Young Adult” coming-of-age end of the comics spectrum, with all the attendant beats and subject matter that genre category implies. It’s not always my thing, but I can’t deny the beauty and joyousness that results from their collaboration, and after all, adolescent coming-of-age narratives never stopped Alice Munro or J.D. Salinger from achieving greatness. Mariko has the ear for wonderful realistic dialogue but let’s face it, the whole success of this thing hinges on Jillian’s excellent comics storytelling skills. Just a wonderful thing to watch unfold.
by Jesse Jacobs
Jesse Jacobs creates beautiful art and his comics have a fantasy dreamlike aspect that is at once charming and horrifying. More “organic” and less angular and sharp-feeling than the art of his contemporary Michael DeForge, Jacobs’ comics nonetheless are capable of an intense emotional power and impact; disturbing and hilarious in equal measure. His previous graphic novel from Koyama, By This You Shall Know Him , was a cosmic creation myth with enormous scope and monstrously huge characters, and at first glance this new book seems like a Biblically-themed sequel, as if after creating Heaven and Earth, Jacobs has now turned his eye to The Garden of Eden.
Safari Honeymoon is a much more intimate work, concerned with just three characters, a honeymooning couple and their guide, set loose in one of the freakiest version of Eden you are likely to encounter in a comic book this year. The ever-changing alien landscape the trio encounter on this doomed honeymoon is a Jacobs specialty, full of deathtraps and insanely infectious lifeforms delineated with a playful inventiveness. The characters wander through this deadly landscape with a blithely ignorant hubris, mired in their own solipsistic existence. Even The Guide, supposedly hipped to the myriad dangers of his surroundings and more in synch with its rhythms, is more concerned with maintaining the trappings of civilization he has been hired to provide for The Man and The Woman (protection, shelter, gourmet cooking) and with his own human feelings. These grimly comical misadventures are endured with a deadpan cluelessness that is itself part of Jacobs’ larger point in what is ultimately a profound anti-imperialist, environmentalist parable rendered in a cutesy comic book package.
by Walter Scott
More than any of the other books on this list, Wendy gave me the most immediate pleasure on first reading, if only measured in terms of profane laughter. I was not familiar with Scott’s work before reading this book and he breezed into my life like a gust of fresh comics air from some far off land. Of course, this far-off land is really the scuzzy underworld of the Canadian art scene, where recently-graduated painters, mixed-media posers, and various hipsters and psychic vampires congregate in search of government grants, free drinks and messy sex, and where the titular Wendy drunkenly staggers through a variety of misadventures like some postmodern, MFA version of the Cathy comic strip. The book follows Wendy on a journey of self-realization as she desperately tries to extract herself from this dead-end scenario. Supposedly leaving behind the world of intellectually abusive relationships and one-night stands, she travels to an artists’ retreat in an effort to boost her career, only to find that her insecurities and personal failings (and the toxicity of the scene) are not location-specific. There is a fair bit of satire, episodic slapstick and minor epiphanies along the way and Wendy is fleshed out a little bit, but the key appeal of the book is as an introduction to the work of a smart young cartoonist. I think Scott’s strengths are in his dialogue and easy, “cartoony” drawing style, which, when paired with his wit and art-world savvy, make for a funny engaging read.
Ant Colony and Lose #6
by Michael DeForge
(Drawn and Quarterly, Koyama Press)
I could easily have taken up the top five with these books and others by DeForge but thought it easier and “fairer” to lump them all together in one entry. This is the curse and blessing of DeForge: an embarrassment of riches. In a “look on his works ye mighty and despair'” way, he has blessed us with such a plentiful assortment of comics, produced in such an array and variety as to put many other creators to shame, without any noticeable ebbing in quality over most of his oeuvre. How are we sanely to digest this output? How can we keep up? My solution here is just to mention the larger books of new material and disregard, for the purposes of this list anyway, all of the minicomics, webcomics, and anthology pieces also published in 2014, as well as the massive A Body Beneath, which collects the earlier issues of Lose. Ant Colony is DeForge’s first D&Q book and it is a very handsome edition, collecting the story first serialized online and preserving that comic’s wonderful psychedelic dayglo colouring and original formatting. One of DeForge’s longest works (his first “graphic novel?”), the ant story has all the DeForge trademarks: pedestrian human struggles made strange by their transposition over bizarre environments and creatures, in this case the daily doings of an ant colony is rendered as an epic psychodrama through the cartoonists’ unique perspective, with (predictably) disgustingly humourous results, all in service of a generally existentialist theme. Sort of like a postmodern horror movie version of the anthill characters from Johnny Hart’s BC comic strip. Likewise, the latest issue of DeForge’s annual solo anthology presents a group of very strong stories dealing with themes of loneliness, alienation, and the nature/civilization divide, including the epic “Me As A Child.” It speaks to how DeForge has in his own way transformed our expectations for comics that parts of this Lose feel a little bit like the creator is treading water. We’ve come to expect each new panel to break new ground, overwhelming us with the virtuosity of the wunderkind, but this issue feels a bit more pensive and measured, perhaps signalling he’s begun to enter his “mature” phase, complete with ironic hints at navel gazing and gestures to previously-trod territory.
by Mark Connery
Please enter with me the world of Mark Connery’s Rudy, a godforsaken wasteland of minimalist mark-making, dumb jokes, and non-sequitors that has successfully remained hidden from the larger comics world for decades now. For the uninitiated, Rudy answers the question nobody asked, “What if Krazy Kat was drawn by a Mark Beyer in Etobicoke?” Connery’s brand of anarchic punk stream-of-consciousness absurdo-surrealism is a blast of ludicrous art-for-art’s-sake comics-making that sometimes stumbles onto a narrative thread but mostly attests to the need to just lay down some killer lines or take a gag too far. Rudy is a cartoon cat. Things happen. Or not. Sometimes the cat has some sort of adventure. Sometimes a whole bunch of things seem to be just drawn in panels and arranged sequentially. Deal with it. It’s comics. Connery has been creating these for over a decade now, mostly self-publishing but occasionally appearing in an anthology alongside like-minded comics dadaists or jamming with Marc Bell and his cohorts. These efforts have been largely scattershot and ephemeral, printed as small-batch mini comics or by now-defunct presses, so it is wonderful to have this work from a major talent collected all in one giant package. I think of all the comics on the list, these Rudy stories have the potential to delight the widest variety of readers for ages to come. It’s the type of book that we delight to discover in isolation, it seems so weird and personal; so much the product of a unique consciousness, unencumbered by other people’s ideas of narrative and “proper” comics making. But Rudy’s weirdness is totally accessible. There is a recurring family of characters who relate to each other using their own form of love and schizo-logic, and their various transformations and recombinations should be no stranger to us than the antics of Tom and Jerry (or Itchy and Scratchy) or the cast of Beano. Rudy is pure comics joy.
by Nina Bunjevac
This is some serious shit, right here. Bunjevac’s Fatherland reads like a medical illustrator’s autopsy report on a shitty childhood, if that childhood involved living in fear of a terrorist father bent on dragging the nationalist hatreds of his native Yugoslavia to the suburbs of Ontario. Bunjevac writes her own family history here, wresting the story of her father from her reticent mother, trying to flesh out the bare bones narrative previously only guessed at or whispered about in a brilliantly structured tour de force. Her photo-realist, pointillist-style cartooning, previously only seen in the service of bittersweet, ironic vignettes starring lovelorn barflies, is here turned to more sombre subject matter and it’s a perfect fit. Bunjevac is at the top of her game and Fatherland is a major book.