The Best Comics of 2021 by me, the celebrated author, Séamas O’Reilly
Oh hi! I don’t use Medium much, and have not in fact done so since last year’s Bumper Comics Of The Year Extravaganza but thought I’d dip back in because it proved quite popular and I receive regular (i.e. more than once all year) requests for me to choose a few of 2021’s comics highlights.
Since we last spoke, I’ve become an award-winning author due to my extremely good and very cool memoir of my childhood, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?. This has been a very nice and quite unexpected turn of events as I wasn’t sure anyone would read it, but they did and I’m glad and you should also buy it and read it and tell everyone you like it also.
Anyway, as people who will have known me before my latter-day change in fortunes might attest, my yearly Comics Round-Ups for the Irish Times (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016) have always been quite popular and this year I did a smaller, graphic novel focused piece which you can read here (and from which I will be liberally cribbing for a few of the selections below).
This is, obviously, an incomplete and personal view of just those comics I’ve sought out, had recommended or been sent for free as one of the few (only?) perks of being a journalist who likes comics in this hemisphere. So, if there’s stuff I’ve missed, feel free to let me know on Twitter.
In any case, given the absence of a print avenue for the full extent of my thoughts on the year in comics, however, I am once again putting everything down here for you to gorge on, unabridged.
So that’s what this is. Let’s begin.
(All images sourced from the web/comixology/Kindle screen grabs and all rights belong to their creators. I will immediately remove any and all art should anyone wish me to)
((Also, also, there’s very little here pertaining to crossover events or big, sprawling multi-title sagas because writing is still not lucrative enough for me to afford to buy dozens of interlocking titles in the hopes they cohere into a spellbinding narrative and I simply do not have the time.))
I began last year’s round-up with this image by Michael Kupperman, one of my favourite comic creators, and one of the most consistently funny and rewarding artists working anywhere within the medium or, to my mind, the arts themselves. I state this obviousness here because this year, I’ve been recommending him a lot. Like, a lot, a lot. Perhaps it’s my enthusiasm for his style, perhaps it’s the surplus of downtime we’ve all experienced in the past year, perhaps his work is just really, really, really, consistently good- whatever the reason, Michael has been, undoubtedly, my number one recommendation for just about anyone I meet who’s not sure if they like comics, or doesn’t really know if it would be their bag.
I invariably direct them to Tales Designed To Thrizzle, a series which first started in the mid-00s but which, to the dozen or more people I’ve introduced it to in 2021, might as well have been written in 2054 or 1895 or any year in between, provided at least one benevolently insane genius was still alive and had a pencil in their hands. The series has several volumes which serve as a gateway drug to potentially fatal comedy, each of which are flawlessly funny in that smart-stupid way of all great comic writing, so it would be foolish of me not to say you should dig in, and do so immediately.
Michael also wrote All The Answers, a moving and beautifully drawn graphic memoir of his father’s time as a child prodigy and 1950s media sensation l the massively popular “Quiz Kids” radio and TV programmess. I spoke with him about it for the Guardian on its release, and it duly became my #1 recommendation for that year in my Irish Times roundup for 2018.
Michael is now creating ongoing content on Patreon, which is every bit as absurdly good as the above, but which I can’t share here because I’m not sure of the etiquette of doing so from creator-funding platforms. Suffice to say, my number one recommendation of the year is for you to go and do that.
BEST COMICS THAT I MENTIONED LAST YEAR BUT WHICH WENT ON THIS YEAR
As I stated last year, the appeal of Far Sector by N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell (DC) is in its masterful world-building. The precis, as then, is that Lantern Jo Mullein, originally from Brooklyn, finds herself on the beat of a distant world — the far sector of the title — made up of the remnants of three races whose former warring had destroyed their previous homeworlds. In order to placate these antagonistic species — respectively; vaguely reptilian humanoids, anthropomorphic carnivorous plants, and a species of sentient artifical intelligences — the society has accepted genetic programming which undoes all emotion, meaning Jo does not just feel like a stranger in a strange land, but is also the only person on the planet legally allowed to feel… anything.
The series’ 12-issue run tied up this year, by drawing tight its many strands of planetary conflict, political intrigue and internecine skullduggery, all with the same rip-roaring action and well-deployed, sparky dialogue that made it such a 2020 highlight. It’s as good as superhero writing’s been for a long time, and I sincerely hope we get another helping of Far Sector, some time before the far future.
Also, not for nothing, but I’m pretty sure it predicted NFTs a whole year before they were a thing? That was a bit mad.
Elsewhere, The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (Marvel) concluded its 50-issue run of gristle, gore and body horror. Much of the final runway of the series takes place in the green, which is something between a ninth circle of hell for Hulks, and a sort of otherworldly cloud computing platform from which they can depart and inhabit gamma-affected humans. It’s heady stuff, and involves more and more body swapping (and body annihilation) as the series goes on. It’s a testament to the series’ appeal that I never got tired of turning each page, to see all the new ways it found to turn its characters inside out.
It also featured the following homage to Days Of Future Past’s famous cover, which is always nice to see.
Which is lucky for us because we saw the exact same lift in The Swamp Thing, a few weeks later.
It’s comforting! Like a Wilhelm scream of comics, keeping a 40 year old cover alive for posterity. I’m sure I’ve missed others from 2021, so lemme know.
BEST ANNOYINGLY GREAT FIRST GRAPHIC NOVEL
The protagonist of In. (Hodder) is Nick, a cartoonist dwelling in an unnamed contemporary city, which feels like a mish-mash of the more self-consciously cool blocks of New York or London (the architecture looks distinctly Brooklynite, whereas our protagonist refers to his mother as “mum”) but it could be set anywhere where the coffee shops have ironic names and charge their patrons by the number of pages they write of their screenplay.
Nick lives the empty, freelance-class life of the jobbing artist, and finds himself incapable of making human connections, even in the face of a personal tragedy he lacks the vocabulary to process. His family, prospective dates, baristas and even the man summoned to fix his toilet, all become a gauntlet of small talk and placeholder chat — dialogue captured brilliantly by McPhail’s perfect pitch for the stilted flow of human conversation.
There are books which get called funny because they raise a few sensible chuckles, and then there are books which have you wheezing with laughter and reading out multiple paragraphs to whichever long-suffering companion happens to be within hearing. In. is very much the latter kind of book, which makes its bracing dives into pathos and profundity all the more risky, and all the more stunningly rewarding. In short, there are few better cartoonists than the New Yorker’s Will McPhail, and we can now officially confirm there are few better graphic novelists.
BEST COMIC BY RAM V UNTIL THE NEXT COMIC BY RAM V YOU READ
Many sci-fi and fantasy stories have theorised about a future where Death is made redundant, but few have actually shown her being handed her pink slip. The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V, Filipe Andrade and AndWorld (Boom Studios) begins with the god of Death getting sacked, and follows her as she reincorporates in the body of Laila Starr, a citizen of Mumbai who lives, and dies, while following the life of the child destined to gift humanity everlasting life.
Ram V has cornered the market in savvy, wordy, and emotionally layered comics writing for the past two years with These Savage Shores, Justice League Dark and his run on The Swamp Thing all delivering intricately plotted and mind-bending plots as easily as they dole out intimate character details and cutting humour. Laila may well be his best yet, a knotty and probing rumination on life, death and duty, told with such panache, its elegance and profundity might catch you off-guard. This is a story that will seep into your nostrils and under your fingernails, and one of the very best you’ll read this or any other year.
BEST COMIC WHICH ACKNOWLEDGES THAT THE PANDEMIC ACTUALLY HAPPENED
Simon Hanselmann’s Crisis Zone (Fantagraphics) collects a year’s worth of webcomics in his Megg, Mogg and Owl series, which were originally released on Instagram for free during the pandemic year. If you think that sounds like lightweight fare to be gathered in a collection, you’d be sorely mistaken: Crisis Zone is one of most dense and rewarding graphic novels you will read all year. Unique among this year’s entries, it was written during, and about, the pandemic, albeit in a universe several degrees removed from our own.
The series’s titular characters — Megg the witch, Mogg the house cat, and Owl, their uptight, risk-averse companion — end up bunking together as Covid lockdowns sweep the world, and are soon joined by an increasingly volatile roster of additional hangers-on, Werewolf Jones and his unruly kids, and Draculas, Jr and Sr.
All of which results in panic, disease, some live sex shows and at least one massively fatal treehouse fire. Crisis Zone is a scatological, profane and murderously funny trip through the horror and mundanity of lockdown life, but it’s also a searing indictment of the human condition, whether its characters are human or not.
BEST SIGN WE ARE ALL DOOMED TO LIVE INSIDE A NEVERENDING TECH DSYSTOPIA
MADI By Duncan Jones, Alex De Campi & Various Artists (Simon & Schuster) is a large project in every sense of the word. At over 300 pages long, it tells a story that spans several countries, told by two writers, 17 artists and a dozen colourists. Its deluxe hardcover form is roughly the weight of a runaway child. This is not, to put it mildly, a book you can imagine being blown away by a strong wind.
Neither, however, should its narrative be taken lightly. The joy of MADI is in its propulsive, future-facing vision of a near-present tech dystopia. The grim convenience of a social contract between a passive populace and the hyperconvenience afforded them by a ruling techocracy who also happen to be armed and dangerous. Set in a world of privatised paramilitary security forces governing every corner of the globe, it feels as gnawingly close to our horizon as the best Verhoeven action movie you’ve never seen.
When I spoke to Jones and De Campi in May, they emphasised its satirical, even prophetic, intent. But aside from all the soothsaying, it’s a rollicking big adventure that will keep anyone hooked in the time it takes them to uplink their lifeforce to an external outlink matrix.
It also makes me wonder who wore it better, MADI’s Shanghai KittyCops…
….Or Gotham City’s Batcops
The latter of whom feature in…
BEST HEIST CREW
What do you do when the world changes around you, without you even being there to see it? Such is the fate of Selina Kyle in Catwoman: Lonely City by Cliff Chiang (DC) which shows the purring pilferer emerging from prison following the Fool’s Night massacre which decimated Gotham’s super-population and ushered in a cheery police state of Dark Knight-themed Batcops, overseen by new mayor, and reformed Two Face, Harvey Dent.
This set-up would be a fine one for a more straight-down-the-barrel, hard-boiled crime caper, but in the hands of Cliff Chiang it becomes something even greater than those parts; a brilliantly vibrant comeback narrative, filled with great action thrills and wonderful character details. There are few books that could manage to wring laughs from a carceral state, and genuine melancholy from a bittersweet reunion between retired supervillains, kvetching about old times.
This is a comic that features Catwoman catching up with the Riddler over cocktails, and engaging in a weeks-long training montage with Killer Croc, without your suspension of disbelief being ever, well, suspended. That Chiang’s delicately rendered story is also a thrilling heist caper, packed with the drama and suspense of Catwoman’s usual ouevre, is a rarer feat still. Two issues in, I’m excited to see where this goes next.
Also, it features this fairly unexpected blast of Irish from Gotham’s finest cat burglar.
Which leads me to…
BEST PROOF THAT DER’S STILL MORE TO IRELAND DAN DIS
Scarenthood by Nick Roche and Chris O’Halloran (IDW) finished up its first volume this year and did so with a suitably impressive bang. One of my favourite ongoing series, it manages to combine extremely relatable lols — even to those unused to Ireland, parentage, or eldritch demonic possessions calibrated through pagan symbolism and Catholic iconography. A community, brought together by their shared use of a local pre-school, is caught up in a horror mystery involving missing children, otherworldly possession and mass market journals for homespun Irish writing.
Scarenthood earns its creepier moments via the bedrock of empathy you feel for its characters, who are real, flawed, modern, and, at the risk of losing overseas readers with such Hibernian coinages, sound.
For all the panoply of Gods, monsters and beasts conjured by the world of fiction, I’ve long lamented the paucity of sound characters in fiction. There are so many we loathe and love, but few we might actually like. Scarenthood’s ability to buck this trend, in creating a core group of castmembers I’d actually like to be actually friends with in actual real life, should be celebrated! Buy it in collected form so they’re forced to make more.
In Ghosting by Debbie Jenkinson (Silver Lining), Dublin Bus driver Stevo suffers the abrupt disappearance of his new Italian paramour, leaving him with pain, paranoia and dark thoughts about what might have gone wrong. Left to navigate life by himself, he’s torn between accepting that he’s been ghosted for the very same mundane reasons his friends tell him, and investigating to see if something more sinister is afoot.
Ghosting is a gripping tale of contemporary Dublin, told with a humour and melancholy perfectly suited to Jenkinson’s scratchy, characterful drawings. Long after reading, like the memory of a whirlwind romance, Ghosting lingers in the mind.
There’s also a bumper crop of creators in Turning Roads by Various Artists (Limit Break), an anthology of short tales drawn from Irish myth, legend and folklore. Changeling by Colin O’Mahoney and Mari Rolin reimagines the baby-snatching faerie story as a rumination on the church’s treatment of women and children. Hugo Boylan and Hugh Madden remix the King of Cats into a Miyazaki-scented slice of life, while British artist Dominique Duong borrows from the Irish faerie mythos to establish an altogether more horrifying take on Fairy Cakes’ titular foodstuff.
With 18 different stories from 36 creators, it’s another welcome demonstration of the rude health of Irish comics. The tales may be short, but there’s something here for everyone to sink their teeth into.
BEST YOU KNOW THAT THING WHEN THE ARTIST HAS TO DRAW SOMEONE WEARING PLAID AND DEPICTS IT AS A SINGLE, UNMOVING BLOC OF FABRIC FOR SOME REASON
A tough call but it’s gotta be a two-way tie between Department Of Truth…
And Dead Dog’s Bite.
Speaking of which, Dead Dog’s Bite by Tyler Boss (Dark Horse) was a real gem of a book, written and drawn by the artist behind the Michael Rosenberg-scripted 4 Kids Walk Into A Bank, one of my favourite comics of 2017. The small town with a dark secret, missing teenager mystery thing has been so well-worn at this stage in print and on screen, it’s refreshing to see a treatment of the form as offbeat and original as the events which unfold in the pleasant environs of Pendermills.
The premise is simple enough. Our protagonist, Josephine Bradley - Joe for short- is intent on discovering the whereabouts of her best friend Cormac (who is a woman, in either a display of admirable progressivity on the part of Irish-American naming customs or, perish the thought, their continued inability to discern male names from female, as gaeilge) who has disappeared from her picture-postcard-perfect small town. As with any of these things, the true fruit is in the piercing — and this utterly boilerplate premise is suffused with life through Boss’ masterful dialogue and off-kilter plotting. Arguably the greatest compliment I can give to this series is also my chief complaint; it’s too short by half, and I will be gorging on whatever Boss does next with relish.
BEST EMOTIONAL GUTPUNCH
Unlike most little girls, Olivia is followed around by a headless knight that only she can see. Over the course of the appropriately titled I See A Knight by Xulia Vicente (Shortbox), written and drawn in the artist’s beautifully fluid, manga style, Olivia comes to love and respect her watchful guardian and learn the secret of its presence in her life.
The revelations come slowly — or about as slowly as 36 pages allow — but pack a giant emotional punch, in this beautifully rendered and quietly devastating reflection on childhood, grief and the responsibilities of a headless knight to its terrestrial ward.
Tender is one of those adjectives that feels like faint praise, occasionally conjuring thoughts of something willowy, complacent or insubstantial. Nothing could be further from the truth with No One Else by R Kikuo Johnson (Fantagraphics) which proves just how powerful tenderness can be. Single mom Charlene cares for her son Brandon by herself in their home on Maui island, Hawaii. A diligent parent, she is distracted by recent tragedy and by the insane rigour of her attempts to get into med school, leaving Brandon longing for both his absent dad and his missing cat, Batman. Into this mix comes Robbie, Charlene’s slacker brother, who returns to the family home, offering welcome help, and unwelcome criticism of the family dynamic he encounters. There are few fireworks, or grandstanding moments of high drama, just the lived-in, uncannily real machinations of people just trying to get by. Johnson’s clean lines and clarion-clear dialogue only add to the bittersweet beauty of this gorgeous family portrait.
In Stone Fruit by Lee Lai (Fantagraphics) the central family involves couple Bron and Ray, whose troubled relationship is held together by their love for Ray’s young niece, Nessie. Together, the three are depicted as wild, wide-eyed mythical beasts, untethered by adult pressures, a world apart from the fractured gloom of everyday life.
When Bron leaves Ray to attempt reconciliation with her religious family, the spell comes undone, and all three have to reckon with the untangling of their improvised family unit, and where it leaves them once it’s gone.
Stone Fruit is at its most affecting when it dives into the weeds of missed connections and stunted emotional states, with unflinching honesty and sometimes outright bleakness. Like the fruit of its title, it’s sweet and deeply rich, but the hard centre can’t be avoided, however much we may try.
For three summers in the mid-80s, Guy Delisle worked at the Anglo-Canadian papermill in Quebec, enduring stifling heat and dangerous machines to make the money needed to fund his studies. Factory Summers (Drawn & Quarterly) is the gently absorbing account of those years, filled with the restless ennui of teenage life, and smattered with surprisingly interesting tidbits from the process which goes into making the very substance his comics are printed on.
It’s likely those processes have changed a lot in the intervening decades, and it lacks the stomach-tensing clamour of his work on Hostage or Pyongyang, but Factory Summers shows that the quotidian struggles of holding down a backbreaking summer job, surrounded by odd characters and youthful ignorance, remain entirely timeless.
Finally, Tunnels by Rutu Modan (Drawn & Quarterly) is part-adventure, part-commentary, part-Edwardian farce. In fact, the list of hyphens you could throw its way might lead you to think it’s a bit of a mess. Suffice to say, it’s anything but.
Nili is an amateur archaeologist racing to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant using a series of underground tunnels which may lead her to her prize, or might take her deep into dangerous territory. Modan’s beautifully clean lines draw obvious comparisons with Hergé, but it’s a style that suits both the thrills of its main storyline and the deeper undercurrents of social and familial turmoil which lie below the surface like so many hidden tunnels. This is both a thrilling, fun adventure and a clever, understated character piece, which skewers the foibles of greedy academics and the folly of right-wing settlers, without ever seeming like it’s hitting you over the head with one of its beautifully drawn shovels.