seven sacksI’m not doing a comics poll this year – the slack is being admirably taken up with Pete’s new TV poll – but I still read a LOT of comics last year. Here, in no special order, were some of the best ones, new to me if not always to the world.

HOW TO BE HAPPY (by Eleanor Davis; Fantagraphics)

I loved this, a collection of beautifully composed stories and vignettes in a variety of styles, from gorgeous colour-saturated paintings to quick, fluid multi-page sketch stories that reminded me of Jules Feiffer (who’s also a reference point for Davis’ sharp observations of human neuroses). Some of the stories are glimpses into imagined worlds – like a near-future family reunion – others, like the eerie, funny, “Seven Sacks” – draw on folklore tropes. Davis’ skill at capturing the movement of bodies makes the simplest of ideas sing on the page.

PAPER GIRLS Vol 3 (by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang; Image)

paper girls 3

While the exact plot of Paper Girls remains inscrutable, three arcs is enough to get a handle on what the series does and how it feels. What it does, so far at least, is have its single volumes follow a simple structure within an overall architecture we’re only seeing in glimpses. How it feels is awesome.

So this third volume does the same things the first two did. The girls arrive in a new setting and figure out its rules: when it is, who they can trust, who they maybe can’t, and what the stakes are. As they uncover the story, it comes to a boil, and at the climax they (and we) go somewhen else. This is a tried-and-true formula for time-travel series – it’s hard to think of one that doesn’t employ it somehow. Where Paper Girls is clever is in disguising that repeating structure within a more complicated wider story, which Vaughan and Chiang present with a minimum of compromises: no reliable narrators, no glossaries of slang, no roadmap. Our narrative window is wider than the girls’, but not by much. The overall impression is chaotic, like a story which has been snipped up and rearranged, Burroughs-style.

So what we have is the rock-solid micro-structure of Doctor Who within the much riskier, looser macro-structure of (say) Lost, where we’re being asked to trust that the creators have a plan. Vaughan’s best storytelling trick – which infuriates some of the readers – is to be so imaginative, and so alive to the possibility that turning a comics page can make you gasp or laugh at the audacity of what you’re seeing, that Paper Girls feels arbitrary and confusing and thrilling even when we’ll probably all look back later and be able to figure out exactly what was going on.

This is not, as it happens, entirely dissimilar to being 12 years old, which is part of why Paper Girls works on an emotional and aesthetic level as well as being an enjoyable puzzle-box. Vaughan isn’t always the subtlest of character writers, but he’s superb at making you want to read more about the four leads and their dynamic, to the point where their constant separations are as painful for readers as for characters. And he and Cliff Chiang (whose command of the girls’ expressions, style and body language is exquisite) have channeled the aesthetic of how pop culture was when they were 12 – Stephen King books, Spielberg movies, early videogames – to create something which feels like 1988 as often as it comments on it. Somehow it all adds up to the most addictive, but also most satisfying, mainstream comic around right now.

WANDERING ISLAND Vol 1 (by Kenji Tsuruta; Dark Horse Manga)

wandering islandDid it help that I read this on holiday in a barely-inhabited Greek island? Oh yes. Would I have enjoyed it anyway? Certainly. Kenji Tsuruta’s delicate, detailed artwork is perfect at capturing the island life of Southern Japan and the romance of aviation. As the volume’s backmatter confirms, everything is thought-through and drawn-to-life. Even limber heroine Mikura’s reluctance to wear more than a swimsuit doesn’t feel entirely gratuitous.

The central mystery – a floating island circling the Pacific – is intriguing but Tsuruta’s real gift is capturing nuance on the face. Generally in stories with obsessed dream-chasing protagonists, it’s clear from the start that they have it right and their concerned doubters will be proven wrong. So it is in Wandering Island, but the degrees of exhaustion and obsession that Tsuruta delineates mean for once you can feel Mikura’s worry viscerally. It makes for a manga that’s deeply involving as well as gorgeous to look at.

I AM A HERO Vol 1 (by Kengo Hanazawa; Dark Horse Manga)

i am a heroHideo Suzuki is anxious to the point of hallucination, plagued by jealousy and low self-esteem, and trapped in a thankless, low paid job as a manga assistant. Just the type to discover his inner strength when the zombie apocalypse hits his dreary Tokyo suburb, then? Not really – Hideo wanders through his own story in a state of numbed shock and survives mostly by luck.

From the title down, I Am A Hero is a skilful, convention-twisting take on the overworked zombie genre, distinguished by its blend of disquieting imagery and ultra-dark comedy, its steady grasp of its protagonist’s psychology, and in particular by Kengo Hanazawa’s superb storytelling. This is a brilliantly paced comic, both on a macro level – the grim patience with which the first volume ratchets up the background horror behind its slice-of-no-life story – and on a technical one. The lines between reality and Hideo’s imagination are ambiguous but never confusing, the action scenes are brief and visceral, and Hanazawa has a gift for drawing the ordinary which makes its disruption all the more disturbing. His bizarrely flexible zombies, once they do appear, are impressively ghastly too – there’s a stunning sequence of double page spreads at the climax of v1, when we get our first close look at an infected victim: it’s an unforgettable bit of storytelling and a moment only the sequential nature of comics (and the generous page count of manga) could make possible.

GIRLS’ LAST TOUR Vols 1-2 (by Tsukumizu; Yen Press)

girls last tourAn odd one, this: two young girls and an armoured vehicle wander a barely inhabited post-collapse world. The tone is gentle, stories of friendship and survival; the setting is an endless industrial wasteland. It’s like a cross between the gargantuan post-human architecture of Blame! and the contented winding-down of mankind in Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou – all with sketchy chibi artwork (possibly best seen on Tsukumizu’s tumblr). Those are two of my favourite ever manga – so I like the idea of this a lot. The story content in the first two volumes walks the line between achieving a haiku-like simplicity of materials arranged for maximum effect, and being too quick to fully satisfy. Points for originality, for sure.

HOTARU’S WAY Vols 1-2 (by Satoru Hiura; Kodansha)

hotarus wayIt’s still pretty rare for josei manga (comics for Japanese women) to get translated at all, so even if Hotaru’s Way sticks fairly close to genre convention (and I suspect it does, in places) it’s a fun, refreshing change of pace. The heroine is a “himono” woman – a word which translates, somewhat horribly, to “dried fish”. She’s given up on romance and lives a relaxed life drinking beer, hanging out with friends and lazing around at home. Sounds fine, you might think, and it’s obvious Satoru Hiura thinks so too: Hotaru’s Way is a comedy, but it’s never critical of its heroine, even when her efforts to act against her nature go awry. Which, this being a rom-com, is every chapter.

The plot follows Hotaru’s romance with an affable, slightly bland younger man, but we know – even if she doesn’t – that the real chemistry is with her uptight older landlord/roommate, who’s moved in now his marriage is on the rocks. And he also happens to be her boss at a Tokyo events management firm. Are there hijinks? Of course there are hijinks, but Hiura keeps the focus on character rather than nudging things too far into farce. Hiura’s art works wonderfully, too – switching between ironically big-eyed/idealised shojo style for the romance scenes, a looser more cartoon-y look for a lot of the dialogue, and a clear, flowing line for the more naturalistic home and office scenes. There’s almost certainly a ton of nuance I’m missing, but I really enjoyed this one.

GOODNIGHT PUNPUN Vol 1 (by Inio Asano; VIZ Media)

goodnight punpunBleak, funny and excruciating in turns, Inio Asano’s coming-of-age manga follows protagonist Punpun through his penultimate year of elementary school. Punpun is anxious, somewhat passive but loyal and imaginative. But shyness, a chaotic home life and simple bad luck combine to make awkward situations invariably worse.

Obviously, the first thing you notice about Punpun is that he and his family are drawn as doodled cartoon birds, while everything else in the comic is rendered realistically. (There’s no sense that other characters perceive Punpun as anything other than human). Asano gets Punpun’s emotional state across by a using a marvellous bag of cartooning tricks (close ups, shaky lines, and copy-and-paste, to name only a few) juxtaposed with the rest of the world’s more standard storytelling. The result is a character whose alienation comes graphically across even as we sympathise strongly with him, and a style that captures a protagonist’s interior life with often hilarious clarity. Strongly recommended if you’re looking for something a little more acerbic in your manga.

APOSIMZ Vol 1 (by Tsutomu Nihei; Kodansha)


Tsutomu Nihei’s career traces a gradual arc towards accessibility. His latest manga is his most conventional yet – like Knights Of Sidonia, which it may tangentially share a universe with, it’s taking a traditional manga structure and fusing it with Nihei’s monumentalist sci-fi architecture. In this case the structure is an episodic quest for revenge with a hero learning the full extent of his powers… pretty standard stuff, but as usual Nihei’s design and sense of space and scale immediately elevates the story. He’s changed up his art style for Aposimz – a story of duelling cyborgs set on the bleak, frozen surface of an artificial planet – adopting a feathery, lightly inked style which has drawn a lot of Miyazaki comparisons. But this is a much colder, less spiritual world, and like most Nihei manga violence is always a probability.

TRANSFORMERS VS GI JOE (by Tom Scioli and John Barber; IDW)

transformers gi joeThe standard one-liner about this extraordinary comic is the observation that it feels like a kid playing with action figures. This is absolutely true. But just leaving it at that occludes the particular choices that Tom Scioli makes to get that intense, lost-in-play vibe. Transformers v GI Joe breaks with comics convention by removing almost all traditional panel-to-panel storytelling, preferring epic splash-page tableaux of ultra-condensed action. This is compression taken to its limit, with almost every page feeling like the title page of a new issue, and every single bit of extraneous matter glossed over in the search for the next thrill.

The comic is so intense and formally bizarre that you wonder if it might all be a put-on. It’s easy to imagine someone recoiling from this as hipster affectation: the aesthetic it reminds me most of is pop formalists PC Music, with their compression of decades of hits into dwarf-star miniatures of popcraft, where ‘catchiness’ becomes a kind of abstract quality the way ‘plot’ does here. Just as PC Music’s tracks are not relatable to as actual pop, so you can’t imagine a real kid sitting down with Transformers vs GI Joe and a glass of lemonade and losing themselves in it: it’s a comic about the peculiar ego death of play, not one designed to induce it. Certainly, reading more than a couple of issues on the trot gives a sickly tartrazine rush: it’s just TOO MUCH.

But that’s not to downplay what Scioli and Barber have done here: there’s very little like this comic. The fact that it’s so odd in structure means that a reader can get the intensity even if – like me – they don’t give a shit about either toy franchise involved. For those still baffled – and everyone will be at some point – thorough and enjoyably immodest notes by the authors round out the volume.

PROVIDENCE ACT 1 (by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows; Avatar)

providence moore

I re-read this in preparation for the final issue (see below). It’s still one of my favourite comics of the last few years, and my favourite thing Moore’s done for well over a decade. His encounter with Lovecraft creates a space where he can indulge his most Moore-ish habits and interests – magic, the nature of creativity, spotting patterns and connections, prolix stylistic pastiche, formal comics game-playing, and more – in ways that feel more productive and thematically appropriate than they sometimes have.

This first act (of three) sets the template for the series: in each issue, the protagonist finds his way into a Lovecraftian situation which he entirely misinterprets. Phrased like that, Providence is a comedy, not a horror comic. And that’s not wholly wrong. Of course, it doesn’t read or look like a comedy. The relentless beat of the storytelling, four horizontal panels to a page with few deviations, flattens the rhythms comedy (or indeed traditional horror storytelling) needs to survive. There’s little room for punchlines or jump scares in Providence – everything, the normal and the outlandish, gets a similar weight in Jacen Burrows’ detailed, clean-lined, sober artwork, which of course makes the line between the two blur even more. The smallest detail of a panel may be the pointer to something unnerving… or it may simply be a detail.

It’s exactly this steady accumulation of significance that makes Providence so effective. For a start, when you don’t exactly know what detail matters and what doesn’t, it brings on a state of paranoid watchfulness in the reader, creating an unsettling contrast with the blithe denial of the protagonist. You’re constantly looking back, checking details, comparing panels, noticing new things – whereas he strides onward through the story, oblivious. It’s the familiar effect of peeping between your fingers at a horror movie character making terrible decisions… except subtly and perfectly restaged for comics.

The dialogue magnifies this even more. Here’s where the comedy comes in: Moore has always had a compulsive attraction to irony, and developed several distinctive ways of using it in a comics script – running the dialogue and action of different scenes together so they act in counterpoint, for instance. In his 80s work he uses ironic techniques to the point where they are sometimes a real distraction. Providence represents this approach taken to its furthest possible extreme – almost every line of dialogue has multiple undertones and levels of nested meanings. When you pile up ironies to such an extent, the action starts to assume the slow, fraught pace of a bad dream.

This is the ultimate example of how Providence’s thematic concerns (and its plot) indulge what Moore loves doing anyway. For Moore, the Lovecraftian elements represent a reality that exists below, or intertwined with ours – two states of being in superposition, each dreaming the other. Moore writes a comic that makes this idea concrete through its plot, but also through its visual and verbal style.

PROVIDENCE #12 (by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows; Avatar)

providence 12

Whether by luck, careful planning, or – who knows – magic, no comic lingered as unpleasantly this year, or captured the dark spirit of 2017 so well, as Providence’s finale. It’s Moore returning to tricks he was using as early as his Time Twisters and Future Shocks work in 2000AD, the world shifting around the protagonists without them really noticing. They want to resist – they know stopping this from happening is important – but reality is changing too rapidly for them to adjust to each disintegrating and reforming norm. And so disaster happens, quietly and with appropriate ceremony.

You can make the criticism that this final issue has very little to do with the first 10 issues of Providence. That’s true – Robert Black’s story ends in #11, and the last issue acts as a summing-up of all Moore’s Lovecraft work. But it’s also, surely, a statement of rage and disgust at what’s happened since the series began. Providence is revealed as the story of a cabal of evil old white men with a plan to transform not just the world, but how the world works: an epistemic attack that infects media and culture until the tipping point occurs and reality is simply overwritten. And their plan works. Drawing parallels between this story and 21st century politics barely qualifies as metaphor – as Karl Rove put it, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

Or as one Proidence character puts it, “I’m trapped in a hell of melting facts.” He may be a sociopath with a swastika carved into his forehead, but I know just what he means.