All told, 2019 was a strong, strange year for comics. The past 12 months featured some of the best indie titles in recent memory, yet the output of mainstream outfits like Marvel, DC, and Image can best be described as “mediocre, with a few high points.” Considering the strongest work in the medium didn’t come from publishers with the glossiest names, you might have missed a few things. Below are our picks for the best of the year. Use this as a reference to make sure you didn’t miss any of 2019’s most stellar comics.
The River at Night (Drawn & Quarterly)
A reworked collection of material that first appeared in his acclaimed series Ganges, Kevin Huizenga’s latest book is likely his masterpiece, finding a way to marry his formalist experimentation with a heartfelt sincerity and curiosity about how we interact with the world—and the people—around us. It’s also the most accurate depiction of the surreality of insomnia, and the strange thoughts that it provokes in those afflicted, filled with moments that will seem instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent a sleepless night. Funny, intelligent, and beautiful, it’s the book that—if there’s any justice—will finally make Huizenga into the household name he’s always deserved to be.
House of X/Powers of X (Marvel Entertainment)
A bold, exhaustive—and, at 12 issues, exhausting—revival of Marvel’s X-Men comic book franchise, House of X and Powers of X (the latter pronounced “powers of 10,” confusingly) did away with the status quo in ways big (death is no longer the end) and small (everyone now lives on an island, just as they did in the “Utopia” era of a decade earlier). It’s an ambitious attempt to jump-start what had become a creatively stagnant property that leaves little on the table, even predicting its own demise through flash-forwards—kind of—and heavy foreshadowing. It’s not entirely successful, but it still feels like a shocking and necessary way to reinvigorate ideas that have been around for half a century.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (First Second Books)
Mariko Tamaki’s funny, touching tale of high school relationships—not just romantic, despite the title—and of overcoming the toxic influences in your life is a joy, underscoring just why she’s one of the most vital writers in the industry today. Yet the true star of this YA graphic novel is the art by Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. Her work is at once firmly stylized and achingly beautiful (the color palette alone is wonderful); it’s also lifelike and filled with poignant performances from each character in the story, from Freddy—the nervous “me” of the title—to Laura herself and the rest of the cast. It’s the queer teen romance story you’ve longed for, even if you didn’t even know you were longing for one.
The Hard Tomorrow (Drawn & Quarterly)
Quietly ambitious and effortlessly heartbreaking, Eleanor Davis’ The Hard Tomorrow felt like a book that was entirely in tune with the world today, and humanity’s hopes for a better world to come. Centered on a caregiver and political activist, the book makes clear how blurred the line is between the personal and political as events overtake her, and as a result put her relationships at risk. It’s an emotionally turbulent read, and one of the kindest books of the year; it’s also, visually, a break from Davis’ earlier work into something with more detail and specificity. It’s the perfect response to 2019, and perhaps the book of the year for that reason alone.
Is This How You See Me? (Fantagraphics Books)
If Laura Dean is the ideal book for our inner high schooler, Is This How You See Me? is a title from the other end of the age spectrum, as Jaime Hernandez tells the story of Maggie and Hopey, two people revisiting their youth in middle age by attending a punk reunion show and realizing how things have changed (and how, of course, some things never will). Hernandez’s work has matured to display such subtlety and sensitivity that it’s no surprise this book is capable of turning nostalgia for lost youth into a melancholic pleasure. Is Jaime the finest living cartoonist around? Reading this, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
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