Some of the best comics of 2017

Well, damp sack of Krampus, 2017 has sucked, huh? But it turns out that in between the crying and general existential dread, comics creators have still found time to pen responses to the rising ambient horror, or delightful escapes from it. 

We've been on hiatus for a while, and there's no best-of podcast this year. But apparently Roger wrote his 2017 list anyway. Muscle memory or something, we don't know.

Anyway, here's a quick roundup of the books we really, really liked, out of the reading we did get round to in 2017

Pantheon - Hamish Steele

Mythopoeia with the mind of a smutty schoolboy. Calling this an irreverent retelling of Egyptian myth doesn't quite cut it. This book is a big daft delight. 

The art style is this brash, side-on valley-of-the-kings-papyrus pastiche, via Saturday morning cartoons (leading to an amazing visual gag), and it covers the (mis)adventures of the ancient pantheon. From Atum wanking the world into being to the rise of man. 

It helps that the source material really is that weird - this is a well-researched piece, and also the funniest thing I have read in years. Pantheon has pitch-perfect comic timing and a real ear for change-of-register gags. 

Livestock - Hannah Berry

You know how we mentioned that the world is like a special recursive trash fire somehow made of other trash fires? This is a response. An indignant howl at the sickness of where we might be headed and the injustices of quite how.

A government department just let slip that they quietly legalised human cloning in a PFI blunder, and are now trying to clear up their mess. The public of course are more interested in the antics of suspiciously squeaky-clean, childlike, and on-message pop star Clementine Darling. 

Livestock really lets its world emerge, without ever feeling quite hectoring or overly on-the-nose. It's interspersed with social media splashes and tabloid fragments, and it opens deep in its own celeb-culture narrative, letting the reader slowly realize (and  want to scream at its characters for not caring about) what's going on. It's brilliantly constructed.

Hannah Berry's visual style here is soft, really letting the faux-cheery plastic monstrosity of it all unwind as you read. It's things astonishingly loudly unsaid, around completely plausible cynicism. It's media manipulation, energy companies lionized like sports teams, people like fungible meat. Read it with a stiff drink, but read it. 

Something City - Ellice Weaver

Beautiful life-vignettes in a colourful pseudo-pace. Ten intertwined stories in a strange city. We reviewed it here, and enjoyed it tremendously.

In particular, Weaver's visual style here feels really fresh. Layered-up screen prints give a feels that's both blocky/architectural and loose and casual. Again, check out the review for a bit more.

The Backstagers - James Tynion (writer), Rian Sygh (artist)

Actually lovely. You entirely can do sincere charm while winking to the reader a little and this does that. Who'd look backstage at a high school drama club? Surely the techies and prop makers couldn't be up to anything as interesting as the actors

Yeah, so, obviously there's an interdimensional portal to a world of confusing wonder and mild peril that must be kept at bay by endearing misfits. And such endearing misfits. Did I mention lovely? Backstagers is warm and kind, and kinda queer and inclusive. It's got a cartoony feel occasionally breaking into intricacy, and really good use of light. We did a podcast on what feels like a new wave of sincerity and this was front and centre in my picks.

Spinning - Tillie Walden

Tillie Walden excels at filling little spatial scenes with emotion and felt life. Her figure skating memoir is no different. Changing high schools, the pressure of competition, coming out and finding first loves, it's all there with her charged use of light and shade, and the movement of space around her.

Godshaper - Simon Spurrier (writer), Jonas Goonface (artist)

It's a neo-dustbowl bluesman future future. Technology doesn't work, and money doesn't exist, but everybody has their own personal god. Or almost everybody. Also, the colours are gorgeous. 

Spurrier has a history of bloody nailing high concept and this is no exception. 

It's the story of Ennay, a "godshaper" - a pariah with no god of his own, but the ability to shape the gods of others, and Bud, a god (fittingly) without a person. Also: a kind of weird fantasy skiffle/blues/something alt music genre, mobsters, pansexual nomads, and beautifully, gloriously weird visuals. A little bit like Carnivàle but funny and not relentlessly depressing. 

Things everybody else thinks are great but we haven't read yet 

Well, if anyone wants to buy us presents...

What? Of course it's just Zainab's list.

Still good!

The series we already loved and have carried on loving this year:

Other lists

Don't just take our word for it. Look:

So, yeah, 2017 had some comics, huh. What did we miss? Can haz comments? 

A Brief Ode to Foyles

Like most other vaguely literate twenty-something book nerds living in the provinces, I really like Foyles. There's something about going there - although I am at perfect liberty to do so whenever I please - which feels like a bit of a treat. The Jazz Café. The enormous poetry section, which was willing to sell me the collected works of Anne Sexton when a) neither of the Plymouth branches of Waterstones would and b) it was probably a bad idea to do so. And, of course, the really excellent selection of comics - far better, especially in terms of indies, than many dedicated comics shops outside of the capital.

And now they've turned the hoardings in front of their main shop on Charing Cross Road into a giant comic detailing the history of the Foyle family and the store. John Miers kicks things off in 1903, when the Foyle brothers failed their Civil Service exams and made rather a lot of money selling their textbooks, Donya Todd brings us up to the present day with a charming, witty literary salon, and Rian Hughes illustrates the future of the Foyles site. In between, there are panels from Karrie Fransman, Steven Appleby, ConSequential sweetheart Hannah Berry, Bryan Talbot and a whole host of other artists.

It's fantastic. And if you don't want the hassle of going to London, the entire thing can be read here from the comfort of your own home. The building works behind the hoardings are now partially blocking the pavement, which meant that a lot of angry people gave us very pointed looks when we stopped to read the comic properly, but it was totally worth it. I'm a huge fan of anything which uses public space to display artistic or informational content, either entirely visually or using text, instead of selling it for advertising. Sure, this is technically Foyles advertising themselves, but they do so in such an engaging and interesting fashion that this comic straddles the frontier between public advertising and public art. I'd rather there was more of this sort of thing than more pictures of David Beckham in his underwear, but I don't have a lot of influence in those spheres.

There's an entirely different blog post to be written on what this says about the rising status of comics in British culture, and how the explicit endorsement of retailers like Foyles (as well as the tacit endorsement of everyone who walks past it and doesn't recoil at the fact that their visual space has been infiltrated by cartoons) is contributing to the validity of the medium within society, but I promised that this ode would be brief, so I'll leave you with that as a thought and say no more.

Get thee to London, dear reader, to see this lovely thing and to do a spot of learning while you're at it. Bonus points if you can convince some of the rushing masses to slow down and read along with you.

Adamtine - devils and details

It's going to be hard to review Hannah Berry's Adamtine without spoilers, so I'll start with a tiny one to get us going: the crossword solution is "rhadamanthine"; the missing letters make up the book's title. That's not much of a spoiler, but it fills in a blank, a tiny detail. If you do know the word - and I had to look it up - it adds a layer, too. That's kind of the real spoiler: Adamtine is built up of these details and layers, and I'm going to talk about that. The plot has twists and reveals, and I'll try not to spoil them too much, but what really got me was how well the book is assembled to produce its effects. Hopefully, me banging on about how well Adamtine creates atmosphere won't spoil it doing that for you, but if you think it might, go and buy it and read it first. Really, do.

You can download a preview from Hannah Berry's website.

Adamtine 1

It may actually take less time to read than this article. I loved Adamtine, and got a little carried away.

Enough gushing; let's talk about the unutterable. The book's title is the missing piece of a crossword puzzle its characters can't solve and are disoriented by. The most they can manage is "it's not Righteous", and the clue is later fed back to them by the narrative, posed to them over an abandoned intercom by what emerge to be themselves a few minutes in the future. Freaky, huh? It's a neat little microcosm of the story itself - something threatening and inscrutable pressing in on its participants with a grim ironic advantage.

Oh, and it has to do with the judgement of the dead. The word "rhadamanthine" derives from Rhadamanthus, a minor figure from Greek mythology, a king of Minos associated strongly with the rule of law and inflexible justice. In the afterlife he is a judge of departed souls. The resonance in Adamtine is clear, as something judges each of the characters, first handing them a note that accounts for all of their transgressions, and claiming them after the narrative has taken us back through the memories of their guilt. But taken with some of the story’s eerier impossibilities – the loop of space and time between the two carriages, the complete matt blackness outside, the spectre of Rodney Moon, it offers us perhaps a slightly different kind of ghost story.

Adamtine doesn’t commit to this, indeed, it doesn’t commit to many certainties, but we may be witnessing either these people’s disappearances from life, or just as well their transition and judgement as the dead.

Adamtine: a slippery abstraction of “uncompromisingly just”, something unknowable, and definitely “not righteous”. Cool, but what’s it about?

Adamtine 3Four strangers are on the last train home. It is stopped in the countryside, decoupled from the other carriages, and it is pitch black outside. There is something in that darkness, and one by one, as their connections emerge, the characters begin to disappear. That's the basic structure of Adamtine. It's a pressure horror, a kind of Pitch Black for tired commuters with mysterious pasts. But this isn't a visceral horror of jump cuts, it's something more emergent and creeping. The thing in the darkness is the darkness - it's not distinct, and it seeps in from the pages' black gutters like running ink. It's a very immediate distortion of the characters’ present reality. The pages in the now have black backgrounds, the characters' recollections are white. The darkness pressing in is the boundary of the panels, the space outside the characters' knowable world. When it intrudes, coming for them, it decomposes the panels' hard edges and bleeds over their contents with flat black.

The bleeding is no accident - the shape of it suggests blood, and a lot of it. But there is no overt gore in this present. Those claimed by the dark simply vanish. Blood is reserved for the memories, for the past each of these characters contributed to. All of them played a small part in the death of a man: Rodney Moon, a serial murder suspect widely vilified. They find themselves now in a situation that reprises the circumstances of those murders.

Adamtine isn’t – overtly – an angry screed about justice in the court of public opinion, but it’s certainly set against that process playing out. Moon’s acquittal is deemed illegitimate by a public and media assured of his guilt. His defence is occult and implausible. Each of these characters believed him guilty such that they acted (or failed to act) in a way the ultimately lead to his murder. The moments we see of their pasts are largely the moments in which they decided his guilt, and the unacceptability of his innocence. Moon himself offers no comment. He has two words in the entire book. We never clearly see his face, and we are given no way to ourselves assess his innocence. Do we sympathise? Perhaps, but we must choose to. We perceive him only in terms of the thoughts of others. Even before his vengeful spectre haunts the train, he is an unknowable presence.

Uncertainty and unsettlement (indeed, Uncannyness) are a big deal in Adamtine. Two of the characters walk from one carriage to the next, a distance up the tracks, only to find that it is the same one and the objects they have discarded have reappeared. On their journey the dark presses in about them, and they’re drawn faintly, pallid. Their word bubbles are the clearest thing on the page, and as our eyes adjust to the contrast, and their conversation shifts around to their secrets, Moon’s abstracted face looms in from the gutters. You don’t necessarily even see it at first, or you half see it, uncertain as to what, quite, you've seen. It’s a beautiful piece of composition, and it’s part of the tracery of little details that hold Adamtine together.

Hannah Berry talks about this in a little detail in an interview with Forbidden Planet, discussing the ways in which detail builds horror. It’s well worth reading. In the same piece she makes the same remark she did at Thought Bubble – that there’s something especially torturous for an artist in setting something entirely on a train. The volume of finicky repetition must be exhausting, for sure, but it really pays off in those details.

Adamtine 4For example: the train windows. They’re meticulously shaded to show reflections in the darkness; until they’re not. Windows, doors, any glass surfaces in Adamtine behave realistically with very few exceptions, and those exceptions are not errors. Nobody got lazy here. When the windows are matt black, it’s because they’re no longer looking out into the darkness. Whatever is coming has started to envelop the carriage and is moving towards its victim. It is as though the windows are looking out directly at the gutters, as though the situation is no longer quite real. This is telegraphed most strongly for the first disappearance – Moon’s face appears, the blackness occludes the landscape outside, a man limply holds a crabbed little note, aghast, a door opens onto nothing, and through it the ink bleeds in from the gutters; he vanishes.

It happens each time. Would it be glib to call it a kind of visual pun? To suggest that when there is no longer reflection, certainty has come for you? That may be a critical over-reach, but impulsive certainty and black and white morality are at issue here.

So: creeping details, a liberal dose of the Uncanny, impossible topology, a little Greek myth, and a complete evasion of certainties in discussing the consequence of impulsive certainty. That’s quite a laundry list for Adamtine. There’s plenty more going on in the book, for sure. I haven’t even mentioned characterization for instance. But the last one I’m going to poke about in is pacing an visual attention. It’s just brilliantly done.

Adamtine’s panels are by and large small. They often focus on a tiny detail of action: a hand on a cup, a shift in expression or posture. They slice time into tiny definite pieces, and in those slices move the flow of time very deliberately. To read Adamtine quickly is to do so inattentively – the composition demands a degree of lingering.

Damatine, closeup of detail panels

One of my favourite examples of this is a page that utterly decompresses a few seconds of domestic tragedy. It begins with a plate smashing, held, frozen by the image. It skips into bursts of emotion, and then slows right down. The plate shards are juxtaposed as  a long panel next to a kitchen scene, and the sequence ends with a still closeup on a boiling kettle, itself split into two panels. This splitting of a single images recurs through Adamtine (and also Britten and Brülightly), either forcing us to linger on a detail as time passes around it, or superimposing the progression of narrative on something still and quiet. The panel division asks us to read the passage of time, the still image refuses, the eye almost bouncing off it. Plenty of cartoonists do this, but I've rarely seen it used quite so effectively to play with pace and attention as in Adamtine.

This technical excellence is not why you should read Adamtine – you should read it because it’s a brilliantly atmospheric horror story, well characterized, non-simplistic, and chock-full of great moments. But if you’re at all interested in how comics work then the way Adamtine is constructed is fascinating. Its use of detail and the emergent atmosphere are spectacular.