13 Best Graphic Novels & Books About Comics from 2016—A Designer’s Guide

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You survived 2016 without having your head explode. So congratulations: You deserve at least one book by and about artists of comic strips, comic books and graphic novels. And here are some recommendations for designers who may also be animation addicts, history and/or biography fans, the politically and/or satirically oriented, the internationally inclined, eggheads, and/or just oddballs. And again: This was the oddest of oddball years, wasn’t it?

See you in the funny papers.

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Top Graphic Novels

Best Meta-Biography of a Fictional Southeast Asian Cartoonist

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
by Sonny Liew

Sonny Liew’s life story of an imaginary comics artist in a very real and vital Singapore, told with a spectacular display of stylistic dexterity. With its skillful use of multiple graphic formats and techniques, Charlie Chan Hock Chye is an exquisitely textured, multi-leveled tribute to a rich cultural heritage and an extended love note to the history of comics.

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Best Meta-Biography of an Alcoholic Norwegian Artist

Munch
by Steffen Kverneland

Steffen Kverneland executes Edvard Munch’s graphic biography in a lively spectrum of art Modernisms and other visual culture sources. It’s a masterful creative rendering of Expressionism’s intensely innovative and somewhat insane painter of pain and death. And yet, it’s very funny. Dare I say it? Munch’s a scream.

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Best Future Visions by a Drug-Addicted Norwegian Artist

Soft City
by Hariton Pushwagner; introduction by Chris Ware

Here comes the son of William Burroughs’ Soft Machine. The beats meet the Beatles in 1969 when Hariton Pushwagner dropped acid and began Soft City. Eventually it became a story of another day of delay inside a cold and clinical future. Its mood of oppressiveness is rendered with great obsessiveness in Pushwagner’s slender, agitated R.O. Blechman-ish lines, occasionally punctuated with big blots of black. And the minutely intricate and expansive detailing seem barely contained on the pages of the tall, oversize vertical hardcover that echoes the massive Brutalist architecture that contains its confined citizenry. How appropriate that this obscure science fiction fantasy has now been resurrected, just in time to give us a view of a new year that portends corporate capitalist rule.

“It does not fulfill the narrative expectations of what we’ve come to think of as a ‘graphic novel’ and ultimately maybe even should not be read as one. The book is more of a four-dimensional readable image, a frozen moving picture and a thing of beauty, despite its tyrannical imagery, and as such ultimately more effectively to be described as a ‘graphic poem.’” – Chris Ware

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Best Dada Fotonovela by a Canadian Cartoonist

Carpet Sweeper Tales
by Julie Doucet

Julie Doucet [included in the She Changed Comics book noted below] has refashioned her savage Dirty Plotte cartoon intensity, gender agenda, and acerbic wit with her new collage novel, a playful blend of imagery from 1950s and ‘60s Italian fumetti and domestic American magazines with 1970s punk flyer ransom note-styled text. Carpet Sweeper Tales’s amusingly abstract narrative is enlivened with the anarchic spirits of Hugo Ball and Hannah Höch.

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Best Satirical Depression Noir

Cousin Joseph
by Jules Feiffer

With Cousin Joseph, Jules Feiffer does—and in his own way outdoes—Raymond Chandler and Will Eisner.

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Top Books About Comics

Best Intro to Independent European Comics Artists

Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists
edited by Santiago García; introduction by Eddie Campbell

Spain has produced an enormous array of extraordinary comics artists over the decades, from Javier Mariscal and Daniel Torres to Esteban Maroto and Jordi Bernet. Hey, you can even throw in Picasso for The Dream and Lie of Franco. But what has it done for us lately? Plenty, as it turns out. Spanish Fever is an introductory anthology featuring more than two dozen talents, both the up-and-comers and the already-famous in their native land. Newly translated from the original by Fantagraphics, you’ll detect a similar sensibility to its earlier, acclaimed Mome series. The book includes cutting edge cartoonists who are expanding their country’s rich “tebeo” tradition while embracing the rapidly developing universal language of today’s international, independent comics culture.

“Times have never been better and the prevalent feeling is that we are living in a creatively golden age for comics. We can speak again what [artist] Juanjo Sáetz [below] calls ‘our mother tongue’ because ‘most of us who are in this book grew up reading comics.’” – Santiago García

left: Miguel Ángel Martín

right: Miguel Ángel Martín

Juanjo Sáez

Juanjo Sáez

David Rubín

David Rubín

José Domingo

José Domingo

Javier Olivares

Javier Olivares

Carlos di Diego

Carlos di Diego

Micharmut

Micharmut

Antonia Altarriba Kim

Antonia Altarriba Kim

Best Critical Analysis of a Superhero Writer-Artist

Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism
by Paul Young

If you—and by you I mean I—can barely tolerate most superhero comic books yet have a deep admiration and respect for the genre’s most skilled and innovative practitioners, then this analysis of the man without fear—rendered by the man without fear of merciless vigilante violence—makes for exceptional reading. I’ve already name-checked Frank Miller in my Print “origin story” of Daredevil’s most noteworthy comics artists, which you can read here. His countless contributions include resurrecting and reconstructing that sagging Marvel franchise in the early 1980s, creating iconic characters such as Elektra, and establishing dark undertones that shape much of the current Netflix TV series.

For Frank Miller’s Daredevil and the Ends of Heroism, Paul Young uses Miller’s early 1980s stint as a springboard. Leaping forward, he’s crafted a skillful exploration of the artist’s formative influences, creative innovations, and enduring artistic legacy. He’s also a smart and tough critic, scrutinizing Miller’s several shortcomings in addition to his aesthetic accomplishments. The book’s skillfully chosen images include revealing comparisons with Will Eisner’s The Spirit, Harvey Kurtzman’s “Corpse on the Imjin” and Bernard Krigstein’s “Master Race,” and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub. Unlike far too many ponderous, jargon-laden academic studies, Young gives us a refreshingly conversational and astutely engaging exploration of the visual genius and often warped sensibilities of one of the most important practitioners of the comics form.

“Miller could have held his own feet to the fire on several counts for his representations of women. He dressed Electra in a high-cut mini-leotard and gave her gloves and footwear that resembled bondage gear wrapped around her by someone in a big hurry.” – Paul Young

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

left: Frank Miller sketch; right: Frank Miller design and Klaus Janson pencils and inks

left: Frank Miller sketch; right: Frank Miller design and Klaus Janson pencils and inks

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

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Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

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Frank Miller and Klaus Janson

Best Hybrid Media Profile of a Canadian Cartoonist

Seth’s Dominion
by Seth; video by Luc Chamberland

Dominion is a splendid sampler of the work of one of alternative cartooning’s leading figures. It’s also a scrapbook-ish portrait of the artist as an aging comics artist. It’s a unique live-action documentary bio with vintage noir visuals that’s also interspersed with unpublished diary comic strips transformed into animated cartoons. It’s also produced by the legendary National Film Board of Canada. The artist’s “dominion” is an imagined city he’s constructed with cardboard maquettes. It also refers to his interior existence.

The subject of this double-front-covered book that’s also a DVD is the nom de plume-d Seth, of Palookaville, Wimbledon Green, and It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken fame. Its art object construction is as clever and witty, as straightforward and multi-dimensional as Seth’s art, which comes as no surprise to those of us who already admire his numerous award-winning designs for a variety of vintage comics reprints. Its book part contains Seth’s sketches, strips, and illustrations, cardboard buildings from his imaginary city, and Royal City Rollergirls logo designs. It also houses family photo album-style shots of Seth with Chip Kidd and Chris Ware, Julie Doucet and Lynda Barry, Art and Françoise, Robert and Aileen and his other cool friends. Its DVD also holds an hour-long George Sprott talk and other bonus video features.

Dominion is about a fascinating, versatile artist who specializes in a seemingly effortless evocation of bygone eras. It’s also about much more, including the filmmaker’s process of documentation over a number of years. But at its core, it’s about memories. It’s also profoundly memorable.

“Back in 2004 I gave a talk in Montreal. I probably wouldn’t even recall this except afterward a fellow approached me and asked if I’d be willing to be the subject of a documentary. ‘Sure,’ I said without even a moment’s thought. I figured, I’m not shy. And I certainly like to talk abut myself. I’d be a natural! I was flattered. Besides, I doubted I’d ever hear from him again.” – Seth

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Best History Book about Revolutionary Cartoonists

She Changed Comics: The Untold Story of the Women Who Changed Free Expression in Comics!
edited by Betsy Gomez

There oughta be a law that any comics history book must contain the most graphically glorious images possible. At this, She Changed Comics succeeds most admirably. Its stunning visuals complement the concise and informative profiles and interviews that cover these sixty-plus artists— and editors and writers—who’ve made a variety of contributions to advancing the voice of the medium. And the art also compliments and adds credence to their greatness. Several are well-known, and some you’ve already read about in Print: Kate Beaton, Trina Robbins, Tarpé Mills and Nell Brinkley, and many others. The rest you definitely should know about, and this book serves as a delightful introduction. And since it’s presented by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund—more details about that organization here—you’ll also learn about oppressive situations—book bans, imprisonments, death threats—that female comics artists around the world have encountered, endured and overcome.

These women changed comics! Angoulême Festival, take serious note: no more of your pathetic screw-ups and lame excuses this coming year, a.k.a., January 26th – 29th. Or you’ll get the book thrown at you.

“The idea that women don’t read and don’t make comics was wrong before it was ever uttered aloud. Women have been making comics since their inception… Today, after a long period of near-erasure, women comics creators are dominating the mainstream and New York Times bestseller lists, they’re increasing the diversity of the medium, and readership is once again approaching parity. This is possible because of the women who came before.” – Betsy Gomez

right: Rose O'Neill

right: Rose O’Neill

Nell Brinkley

Nell Brinkley

Ethel Hays

Ethel Hays

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Jessica Abel

Jessica Abel

Sue Coe

Sue Coe

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C. Spike Trotman

C. Spike Trotman

Best Biography of America’s Most Important Newspaper Comics Artist

Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
by Michael Tisserand

What separates Krazy Kat from the strips of its contemporaries? Bud Fisher, Rube Goldberg and Billy DeBeck are all masters of the deft, sketchy crosshatch, but only George Herriman could captivate and enthrall its readers with an enveloping sense of mystery and wonder. And he sustained that feat, building on the simplest of premises, over several decades. And its power to captivate and inspire has only broadened over the past 100 years, as he continues to influence today’s most important artists, from Dr. Seuss and Charles Schulz to Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, and from Tom and Jerry to The Simpsons‘ Itchy and Scratchy.

Perhaps no one in his field is as deserving of a top-notch, in-depth biography as Herriman. And with Michael Tisserand’s Krazy we now have a most valuable, studiously researched, and, indeed, definitive profile of the man that does him full justice. The book guides us through the early 20th Century newspaper boom, issues of racial bigotry and class identity, cultures of New Orleans and New York, the expanding population of Los Angeles and the expansive desert mesas of Arizona. And while Tisserand shines his light on the many secrets and enigmas of Herriman’s life and lineage, he also manages to heighten our fascination with this singular genius of America’s lively arts.

“In early 1910… a single sporting event, a heavyweight boxing match between black champion Jack Johnson and white challenger Jim Jeffries, became the focal point of racial hatred in the country. Herriman would become one of Hearst’s primary chroniclers of the bout, and he would rely on his close knowledge of minstrelsy to savagely lampoon a national hysteria that surrounded the fight from its press-hyped buildup to its bitter, bloody finish—a finish that would lead directly to the creation of Krazy Kat.” –  Michael Tisserand

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Best Reprint of a Satirical Comics Magazine that Lasted Only Two Issues

Trump: The Complete Collection
by Harvey Kurtzman; edited by Denis Kitchen and John Lind

These days, for better or worse—okay: definitely for worse or worse-r—use of the word “Trump” online is clickbait. So naturally, back in August my Print colleague Steven Heller got in on the action with a short piece about Harvey Kurtzman’s obscure-but-legendary late-1950s humor magazine of the same name in a short illustrated piece he titled “The Other Trump Was Actually Funny.”

And in my own Trump feature last year—which you can read here in full—I quoted Kurtzman biographer Bill Schelly thus: “It’s only the rarity of the magazine’s two issues and the lack of a good reprint collection that prevents Trump from being rediscovered for what it is: Harvey Kurtzman’s exploration of the slick magazine format to produce some of his funniest and most sophisticated work.” This egregious omission has now been eliminated, thanks to Dark Horse Press’s Kitchen Sink imprint.

In the same year in which the wrong Trump succeeded, all expectations for a quality reprint of the magazine have been vastly exceeded. The Complete Trump includes not only the two issues in full but also a wealth of incredible bonus extras such as contextual annotations, production boards, sketches from the likes of Will Elder and Al Jaffe, etc, and—HOO-hah!—art for a planned third issue. Below are some samples which expand on the images Steve and I used in our above-linked stories.

Trump, launched with such great promise in late 1956, was the culmination of Harvey Kurtzman’s biggest career dream: to edit an amply budgeted ‘slick’ color satire magazine, and one for a peer audience. Trump’s sugar daddy was none other than Hugh Hefner, an enthused Kurtzman fan and the magazine world’s rising star with Playboy. Kurtzman was riding the high crest of Mad, a successful phenomenon of his own invention, and with an ‘unlimited budget’ from Hefner, he could attract top talent. The stars seemed perfectly aligned.” – Denis Kitchen

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And speaking of Mr. Heller…

Top Recommendations of Comics Books that Steven Heller’s Already Covered This Year

Best Remarkable Renderings of Golden Age Comic Book Figures

More Heroes Of The Comics: Portraits Of The Legends Of Comic Books
by Drew Friedman

“Friedman’s attention to detail is compulsive in all the best ways, and his portraits reward close and continuous examination. Note, for example, the way the wavy lines in Murphy Anderson’s hair echo the motion lines on the page beneath his pen. In a subtle touch of editorial commentary, logo letterer supreme Ira Schnapp sits before his World’s Finest creation. Curt Swan’s generous profile is in dialogue with Superman’s elegant one. John Romita Sr., who brought the city to such vibrant life, is shown drawing a building, with Spider-Man barely in the frame. …It’s said that some cultures believe portraiture steals the soul—with his portraits, Friedman instills the soul.” –  Karen Green

“Drew Friedman’s More Heroes of the Comics is a comics nerd’s delight.” – Steven Heller, Print

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John Romita, Sr.

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Gladys Parker

Bill Ward

Bill Ward

Victor Fox

Victor Fox

Best Slipcased, Accordion-Fold Revival of a Political Artist

Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey
by Si Lewen; introduction by Art Spiegelman

The Parade is a powerfully-moving free-jazz dirge of a book that depicts mankind’s recurring war fever. It remains sadly urgent and relevant today.” – Art Spiegelman

“The book is an epic of anti-war, anti-authoritarian ideas first published in 1957 on the tail end of Joseph McCarthy’s red scare, blacklisting rape of democracy. The drawing style combines the polemical aesthetic of Weimar German graphic commentary with a children’s book sensibility. Dark and foreboding, it speaks to the manipulation of the masses and mob. It addresses mobilization as manipulation. Yet it is also beautifully abstract with a Modern underpinning.” – Steven Heller, Print

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