Comics had another strong year in 2019, with two books making it to Heat Vision's decade’s best list and a number of others getting close. It was a particularly good year for personal work that delved into the emotional side of the medium, even as superhero comics found themselves looking for alternatives to the status quo in order to be heard. Wondering what to read over the next few days as 2020 looms large? Start with these 10 offerings.
The River at Night by Kevin Huizenga (Drawn & Quarterly)
The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (Drawn & Quarterly)
Both of these books appeared on Heat Vision's list of the best comics of the decade, and I’ll direct you over there to learn more about them individually. It does, however, speak to just how good both are, and also just how strong a year Drawn & Quarterly had as a publisher that these two titles were released within a couple of months of each other. If 2019 was an oddly flat year for superhero comics as a whole, the same couldn’t be said for more personal, experimental works, and the publishers that focus on such material shone as a result.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero O’Connell (First Second)
It’s reductive to describe this as a queer John Hughes movie on paper — and, arguably, misleading, as this is far more subtle and less broadly comedic — but Tamaki and Valero O’Connell’s high school romance is as honest, heartbreaking and ultimately rewarding as Hughes’ work at its best. Tamaki has been consistently putting out strong work for years now, and if there’s any justice, Laura Dean will be the book that makes Rosemary Valero O’Connell a household name, with beautifully subtle — and subtly beautiful — line work and colors throughout.
Is This How You See Me? by Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
Hernandez is one of the undisputed masters of comics working at this moment, and Is This How You See Me? makes it very clear why; with understated ease, he offers up a meditation on growing older that’s also a comedy of errors as Maggie and Hopey return to the punk scene of their youth at a reunion show, only to find out that they’re not the people that they used to be. (Except when they are.) Gentle, kind and, honestly, more relatable than I should feel comfortable admitting to.
Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos by Lucy Knisley (First Second)
The latest — and, reportedly, final — in a series of autobio comics from Knisley (following 2013’s Relish and 2016’s Something New), Kid Gloves follows Knisley and her husband as they try to have a child, which proves to be more difficult than it first appeared. As with earlier efforts, Knisley adds research and information related to the story at hand to create something that’s educational as well as entertaining, with the result being something utterly involving and genuinely moving.
Hide & Seek: A Cryptic Triptych by Maria Frantz, Caitlin Like and Aud Koch (Self-published)
Described, wonderfully, by the creators as “79 pages of gorgeous smooching magic,” this anthology of three stories by Frantz, Like and Koch isn’t just charming, romantic and… well, magical; it’s also a wonderful example of comics and the strength the medium has in its ability to tell similar stories in entirely diverse ways. Comparing the approaches taken by each creator in service of the shared purpose of the book is instructive, but each story has its own individual pleasures.
The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, et al (Marvel Entertainment)
As stated above, it’s been a strange year for superhero comics as a whole, but hardly a bad one, especially as Ewing and Bennett’s creepy body horror take on Marvel’s iconic strongman continued — and continued to get darker and more disturbing as it grew larger in scope. Even after the initial storyline concluded, the series reinvented itself as the year closed, promising that 2020 will see a Hulk (and a Bruce Banner, more importantly) at war with the way the world works, with the reader not entirely sure that he’s wrong. It's miles away from the cuddly version of the character as seen in Avengers: Endgame, and all the better for it.
House of X/Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva et al (Marvel Entertainment)
Marvel also hit pay dirt with Jonathan Hickman’s bold reinvention of its moribund X-Men comic book franchise, which not only rewrote the history of mutant-kind, but changed the focus of the future of the property as well by removing death as an obstacle and placing a new emphasis on transhumanism as the ideological alternative to evolution. It introduced the new status quo for a number of ongoing comic book titles, but it was the eagerness to overturn the previous Way Things Are — and the speed at which it permanently rewrote the rules — that made it a breathtaking experience to read.
Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child by Frank Miller and Rafael Grampa (DC)
Somehow, the latest installment of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight — a story he started three decades earlier — was his most vital and alive work in years, finding new energy and youth not only in its protagonists, the children of Superman and Wonder Woman, but also his new collaborator. Grampa’s art has obvious nods to Miller’s earlier illustrations as well as a number of other comic book influences, but its dynamism and aesthetic is something unique in itself, helping The Golden Child to feel like a summation of superhero comic history and a signpost to a potential future.
Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt by Kieron Gillen and Caspar Wijngaard (Dynamite Entertainment)
Watchmen was everywhere this year, more than three decades after its release. While the HBO show was the most high-profile example, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt — which features the character who served as inspiration for the series’ Adrian Veidt — was the most playful, deconstructing the original’s formalist structure and influence while finding time to show off its own inspirations and digressions, all the while telling a meta-textual adventure story about what happens when the world’s smartest man isn’t happy with dealing with just one world. It’s a love letter to comics, and maybe to superhero comics, as well.