I lost track of my monthly reading lists in mid-October 2020. Between my work responsibilities, including coordinating class projects related to the 2020 US elections, and keeping up with Inktober, I couldn’t keep track of everything that I was reading. I started an October list. I kept reading, and I kept track of graphic novels that I read via Good Reads, but I had stopped keeping track of single issues and small press stuff that isn’t included on Good Reads. I plan to do a better job of keeping track in 2021, but I am not sure readers get much out of those posts anyway.
In any case, rather than try to piece together lists for October through December 2020 I decided to create a list of some of my favorite comics and graphic novels that I read last year. Before I start this list let me just say that it is not composed of books published exclusively in 2020. The stuff on this list reflects books that I enjoyed or creators whose work I took a deep dive into over the past year.
Early last year I began poking around the Internet looking for courses about creating comics, and I found the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW) in Gainesville, Florida. I bookmarked the site, but I wasn’t ready to get started with my own work. This fall I picked up two books related to SAW and penned by Tom, namely The Sequential Artists Workshop Guide to Creating Professional Comic Strips and The Art of the Graphic Memoir: Tell Your Story, Change Your Life. In both books Tom describes similar processes for creating comics. After working through these books, taking notes, and trying some of the exercises, I decided to go back to the SAW site and consider some of their courses.
I also read some of Tom’s work, specifically Rosalie Lightning and The Collected Hutch Owen, vol. 1. Rosalie Lightning chronicles Tom’s grieving process after the death of his daughter while Hutch Owen was a longstanding strip and series of comics and minis focused on a fictional gutter punk, anti-establishment character. They’re both excellent, and I found the distinctions between them compelling. Rosalie Lightning may well be one of the most compelling comics I read this year, and it helped me understand some of my feelings about and reactions to the ongoing devastation of COVID-19 in the US.
Between reading the guidebooks and his comics, I decided to give SAW a try and enrolled in one of their online courses. I had already started taking some online anatomy and figure drawing courses, so I decided to enroll in Justine Mara Andersen’s “Inking Basics” course. I have another post about all these courses that I’ll be adding to this site in a few days. In any case, Tom’s work and SAW have had a huge impact on me this year. They’ve played a pivotal role in helping me get started making comics. If you are considering moving beyond the fan culture of comics and becoming a creator, I cannot recommend their books and classes enough. If you simply want to read some excellent comics, then I recommend picking up Rosalie Lightning or any of the Hutch Owen collections. The former is widely available online through various booksellers. Some of the Hutch Owen collections are out of print. I found a few retired library copies via Thirftbooks.
As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, between the early 1990s and the late 2010s, I didn’t collect comics regularly. Up until I became a professor when I turned 40 in 2015, I never had money for comics. When you’re making $7 an hour, a $4 comic is quite a luxury, not to mention a $20 graphic novel. I hadn’t lost track of comics entirely over those two decades. I continued collecting Elfquest titles, and in the late 90s and early 00s, I worked at a Barnes and Noble in Albany, NY. At B&N, we could sign out hardcovers, and I would borrow graphic novels and DVDs from a co-worker who had quite a collection. (He lived at home with his parents btw, so he could afford all those spendy GNs.) My point is that comics didn’t entirely disappear from my life, but I missed out on a lot of stuff. For example, I never read Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise (SIP) or Rachel Rising (RR) when they were new. This year I made my way through 4 of 6 volumes of SIP (pocket edition) and all 7 RR graphic novels.
If you are unfamiliar with the titles, SIP traces the complicated relationship between main characters Francine and Katchoo over decades and through a lot of crazy situations. It’s sort of a romance comic and at times a noir or crime comic. RR is a horror comic that blends a lot of tropes (the undead, the anti-Christ, the apocalypse, Biblical references, etc.) in a unique way. Both titles are character driven. I would guess that most SIP fans find Katchoo to be the most compelling character, and likewise, Zoe may be the stand out from RR. And, Terry’s artwork is fantastic. I would guess that Alphonse Mucha is a big influence on his style.
Terry and his wife Robyn publish his comics under the Abstract Studio Comics moniker. Over the past year, they have developed a fairly robust YouTube channel where they answer questions from fans and give a behind the scenes look at running a small press and creating comics, which they have been doing for almost 30 years now. New videos are posted on Sundays, and the videos serve as a nice supplement to Terry’s How to Draw: 5 Lessons for the Serious Comic Artist, which is available for the Kindle and will be updated and reprinted sometime in the future.
I’ve read a boatload of autobio comics over the past year, and I suspect it has something to do with COVID-19. While I have never been the most social person, the pandemic and America’s horrific bungling of it has turned me into a bit of a hermit. I moved to my current residence in Oxford, Mississippi, 18 months before the pandemic, and at 45 years old and working in academia, one doesn’t make friends quickly. With college classes and everything related to my work moving online since March 2020, I’ve spent an insane amount of time alone in my small apartment. My dog, Spock, is a great companion, but he’s not much of a conversationalist, and social media does a better job distancing me from other humans than helping me make emotional connections. In this yawning gap of social interaction, I’ve turned to comics by folks like John Porcellino, Harvey Pekar, Jeffrey Brown, Casanova Frankenstein, Haleigh S. Buck, Liz Prince, Alison Bechdel, Noah Van Sciver, Chester Brown, Art Spiegelman, Riad Sattouf, Craig Thompson, Carol Tyler, Tom Hart, and James Kochalka, among others. In trying to figure out what has attracted me to these comics over the past year in particular I have come to the conclusion that I don’t need to relate to the folks whose lives are depicted in these comics in the sense that we have shared experiences, and good autobio work doesn’t offer some moral lesson. I don’t want to read about how some experience made the creator a better person if even in some small way. Good autobio comics show folks getting through life in idiosyncratic ways. They’re about learning to live with oneself. I suppose that’s exactly what I’ve needed this year.