Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Libby McGuire
Oliver Sava and Caitlin Rosberg

At the end of a decade that saw comics and graphic novels reach new heights of mainstream popularity, we saw the fruits of the medium’s rapid growth with a 2019 full of outstanding titles by up-and-comers and industry legends. The narrative and stylistic range of the best titles released this year is very impressive, starting with Clue: Candlestick’s board-game adaptation and ending with the lush fantasy adventure of Ye. Young publishers like Vault and TKO came into their own with remarkable new releases, delivering two very different takes on war stories, and in the world of superheroes, publishers did thrilling work revitalizing concepts like Green Lantern, the Hulk, and the X-Men by trusting unique creators to explore IP in fascinating new ways. This was an especially fantastic year for comics spotlighting female characters of all ages, from the kid-friendly witchy whimsy of Witch Hat Atelier to the adolescent turmoil of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me and middle-aged introspection of Is This How You See Me?. These are The A.V. Club’s 20 favorite comics of 2019.

Clue: Candlestick (IDW Publishing)

The board game Clue is no stranger to adaptations. Its defined cast of characters and narrative-based gameplay have made it the source material for a film and book series, and IDW has released multiple Clue miniseries offering fresh interpretations of the murder mystery. Dash Shaw’s Clue showcases how an eccentric creative perspective can enrich a decades-old concept that is repetitive by nature. Written, drawn, colored, and lettered by Shaw, these three issues create a lot of excitement through sheer graphic boldness, find new ways to heighten the most iconic design elements of the board game. Shaw crafts a murder mystery that blossoms into something unexpectedly poignant by the end, all the while keeping a strong through-line of humor with joke panels drawn in the style of New Yorker cartoons. There’s no shortage of imagination in his interpretation, and he maintains a level of interaction with the reader throughout, inviting them to solve the mystery along the way. [Oliver Sava]

Commute: An Illustrated Memoir Of Female Shame (Abrams Books)

As the subtitle might indicate, Commute is a raw and sometimes uncomfortable read, poking at an open wound and refusing to let it heal. Erin Williams, who both wrote and illustrated the book, has crafted a deeply personal graphic novel about her own experiences, but she’s also made something that has some universal appeal. Williams’ life will look very familiar to a lot of women around the same age who work in a major metropolitan area and struggle with money, performative femininity, the behavior of strange men, and gentrification. It’s not that Commute is about all of those things directly or even explicitly, but rather that all of those things touch Williams’ life and so she writes about them, draws pictures of them. She imagines the lives of strangers in sketchy, loose visuals and applies the same artistic style to her own, even though it’s more concrete from her perspective. There are no answers in Commute, but there are a lot of questions and small, intimate observations that add up to a powerful portrait of a life being lived the best it can be. Commute isn’t refined or elegant, but it is kind and honest in a way many memoirs rarely are, allowing ugliness to show where needed. [Caitlin Rosberg]

The Dreaming (DC Comics)

The Sandman predated the creation of Vertigo Comics by five years, and the universe Neil Gaiman created has outlived the imprint, which DC shuttered in 2019 after 26 years. The Dreaming shows why these ideas have endured over the decades, telling a deeply chilling story about what happens when the dream space that connects all living beings is corrupted and rewired. Writer Simon Spurrier is completely in sync with the unique voices established by Gaiman and later contributors, and Spurrier enthusiastically experiments with narrative structure because he’s working with a concept that is about exploring storytelling in all its myriad forms. Main artist Bilquis Evely and colorist Mat Lopes take Spurrier’s wild ambitions and turn them into crisply detailed images brimming with emotion, heightening both the beauty and the horror of the scripts. Guest artists like Abigail Larson, Dani, and Marguerite Sauvage tell stories crafted for their strengths, and the series also gives us the much-anticipated reunion of Spurrier and his Coda collaborator, Matías Bergara, who illustrates an unforgettable issue in hell. [Oliver Sava]

Delicious In Dungeon (Yen Press)

Thanks in no small part to a bevy of successful actual-play podcasts, tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons have been enjoying a resurgence in popularity that has begun to creep into comics. This may be most typified by the excellent The Adventure Zone: Murder On the Rockport LImited which came out this year, but there’s also Delicious In Dungeon, which has seven volumes translated into English so far. The book follows a band of adventurers as they delve into a dungeon that’s filled with all types of monsters and unexpected traps. Every level of the dungeon poses a different kind of danger, but the group has made it thanks in part to the knowledge of a dwarf warrior who has learned to cultivate and hunt the wildlife that lives in the dungeon so he can survive there without venturing back out for food. There is a larger threat looming over the adventurers, and layers of deception and magic to unfold. Creator Ryoko Kui’s art gains fascinating depth as the story does, too. The characters are designed intentionally and with a lot of personality packed into them, like some of the very best TV cartoons currently being made, and the dungeons themselves are fascinatingly rich, with enough structure that they hold up under the stories’ needs. The best part is the recipes sprinkled throughout every book; as the party encounters new monsters and items, their dwarf chef teaches them and the readers new ways to prepare their bounty, and the illustrated recipes that accompany his explanation are delightful enough to tempt readers to try at home. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Far Sector (DC Comics)

On the cover of Far Sector #2, Sojourner “Jo” Mullein relaxes with some Black Lightning fanfic, sitting underneath a poster of supermodel superhero Mari “Vixen” McCabe with a John Stewart Green Lantern bobblehead on her side table. It’s a far cry from the typical superhero cover, an image that emphasizes comfort and calm, speaking to the headspace we enter when we engage with our favorite media. It’s indicative of the immense care writer N.K. Jemisin and artist Jamal Campbell have put into making the newest Green Lantern an engaging, relatable character, keeping her grounded while she solves a murder case in a world steeped in sci-fi spectacle. DC only released two issues of Far Sector in 2019, but the confidence and specificity of the storytelling makes it one of the strongest superhero debuts in recent memory. Jemisin, a Hugo Award-winning novelist and short story writer, takes to the comic medium like a seasoned pro, giving Campbell a story that pushes him to new heights as he builds a rich alien environment, culture, and cast of characters. It was a huge year for Campbell, who introduced another new DC hero in the pages of Naomi, and DC is doing great work pairing him with collaborators who showcase his star power. [Oliver Sava]

Giant Days (Boom! Studios)

Giant Days has been a staple of a lot of best-of lists from critics and readers with wildly different tastes, one of the few titles that a wide spectrum of people can agree is great. John Allison’s ability to capture larger-than-life personalities dealing with everyday peccadilloes, and his eagerness to find joy in small intimacies, are at the heart of what makes Giant Days so special. The humor is remarkable and well-honed, and Max Sarin has continued to deliver bright, loud characters that never feel too big or too much to be believable. Sarin, Allison, and colorist Whitney Cogar are a dream team for comics, creating a book that skillfully balances emotional beats with comedic ones with the sort of consistency you could set a watch by. For a while it seemed like the only comfort for the end of Giant Days was how long it lasted, when what was initially supposed to be a six-issue run expanded to four years of delightful friendship-fueled ridiculousness. The sorrow from fans at the announcement of the finale and the longevity of the series’ run are both testaments to just how beloved and well-crafted these characters are; news of the whole team’s reunion for Wicked Things, a new book premiering next year also set in the Tackleford universe, is cause for celebration. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Gideon Falls (Image Comics)

The mystery of Gideon Falls has been unfolding for several years now, but as readers get closer to the heart of the mystery and the speed ramps up, the book has only gotten better. Character arcs have begun to collide, and plots that were set up at the very beginning have started to pay off. This year brought what is either time travel, multiple dimensions, or both. Andrea Sorrentino has continued to deliver appropriately grim, gritty, and gory art that feels claustrophobic and endless in turns. It can be hard to pull off horror in comics without resorting to extensive blood and guts, and while there is plenty of physical violence in Sorrentino’s work, the oncoming sense of dread is fueled far more by the sense of wrongness and uncertainty that Gideon Falls holds. Dave Stewart’s colors are muted and dark for the most part, but the brilliant red that accents the most terrifying moments serve the book very well. Gideon Falls may deal with a lot of the same themes as some of Jeff Lemire’s other work—things like legacy and fear—but the willingness to dive deep into the darkest parts of human nature and imagination makes the book really stand out. [Caitlin Rosberg]

The Hard Tomorrow (Drawn & Quarterly)

2019 was an ugly year for global politics, and unfortunately it doesn’t look like the future is going to get any less nasty. Eleanor Davis is scared, and she channels all her anxieties into The Hard Tomorrow, following an activist fighting fascism in the near future while trying to start a family. It’s a graphic novel that speaks to the current political climate with incredible insight, exploring the camaraderie that develops amongst activists and the resilience needed to push back against an oppressive authority with basically unlimited power and resources. Davis’ highly expressive linework and evocative designs give each character a distinct personality, and personal dynamics are so clear in the artwork that she doesn’t need to spend too much time in the dialogue explaining how these characters relate to each other. Davis is a cartoonist fixated on how the comic-book form creates a unique storytelling experience, and she leans into this for The Hard Tomorrow’s breathtaking final sequence, putting hope directly in readers’ hands to remind us why the fighting can’t stop until we create a better tomorrow. [Oliver Sava]

House Of X/Powers Of X (Marvel Comics)

Jonathan Hickman taking over the X-Men was going to be big, but there was no way of predicting just how big. In these two miniseries, meant to be read as one long 12-issue story, Hickman completely changes how mutants operate in the Marvel Universe. He gives them their own island nation, eliminates the line between “good” and “evil” mutants, and most dramatically, eradicates mutant death with a resurrection protocol that brings back nearly every dead mutant from the past. Featuring art by Pepe Larraz (House Of X), R.B. Silva (Powers Of X), and colorist Marte Gracia, these books are a master class in superhero rejuvenation, full of daring ideas that work with the complex history of the X-franchise while blowing everything wide open for a new era of stories. Designer Tom Muller works with Hickman to give the books a distinct aesthetic that carries over to the Dawn Of X ongoing series, and the use of data pages provides a documentarian view of the rapid changes to the status quo. For the first time in a long time, the X-Men comics feel like a place where anything can happen, and the weekly release schedule if HOX/POX resulted in some of the year’s most satisfying comic-book discourse as fans collectively lost their shit. [Oliver Sava]

The Immortal Hulk (Marvel Comics)

The Immortal Hulk started the year in hell and destroyed the universe by October. Writer Al Ewing takes the idea of “Hulk Smash” further than anyone before, turning the character into a cosmic force of destruction in the far, far, far future while also situating him as a global disruptor in the present. Hulk punches planets and dismantles broken political systems, making this a superhero book that embraces the most grandiose elements of the genre while also offering pointed commentary on the current sociopolitical climate of the United States. The core art team of Joe Bennett, inker Ruy José, and colorist Paul Mounts jumps from tense, grotesque horror to exhilarating action with ease, and bringing in more gamma mutates like Bruce Banner’s therapist, ex-wife, and best friend allowed even more opportunities for body horror that is both so creepy and so cool. The book had a murderers’ row of guest artists in 2019 including Kyle Hotz, Ryan Bodenheim, Tom Reilly, and Matías Bergara, with Germán García and Chris O’Halloran dropping an artistic A-bomb for the milestone Immortal Hulk #25. [Oliver Sava]

Is This How You See Me? (Fantagraphics Books)

Few social events are as loaded as high school reunions, where people are forced to reconnect with others from one of the most stressful periods of their lives. There’s a lot of pressure to present someone better than before, but these are also the people who can see through the bullshit. Jaime Hernandez has been telling stories with his Locas characters for nearly 40 years, so there’s a deep history for him to pull from when he gets them back together for a reunion at a punk show in Is This How You See Me? Like The Love Bunglers, one of the decade’s best graphic novels, time is the magical ingredient here. The narrative jumps between the past and present to emphasize the growth of these relationships, and the artwork accentuates how the passage of time physically transforms these characters. If you’ve read all of Hernandez’s track in Love And Rockets, this book hits like a sledgehammer. It’s a testament to how well he’s developed these characters over decades, and he nails the anxiety of entering this emotionally fraught space along with the thrill of reconnecting with familiar faces who have changed dramatically but haven’t lost their spirit. [Oliver Sava]

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (First Second)

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell draws characters who breathe. You can feel their nervous inhale when they’re about to start a tense conversation, the exhale of a longing sigh. Winding word-balloon tails ride waves of air, informing the pacing of the loaded conversations in Mariko Tamaki’s script. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me tells a powerful story about a queer teenage girl learning to reclaim her heart from her manipulative on-again/off-again partner, launching Valero-O’Connell into the top tier of talent working in YA comics by pairing her with one of the strongest writers in the industry. Tamaki brings all of the empathy and astuteness of her previous graphic novels like Skim and This One Summer to her script, giving her collaborator characters with a lot of different layers to explore. With its pale pink coloring and clean lines, Laura Dean has softness and warmth that makes it a very pleasant read, but the story doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the intensity of adolescence. It’s a time of huge change for a person’s mind, body, and social circle, and this graphic novel highlights the struggles and the satisfaction that come from finding clarity with your own identity and your personal relationships. [Oliver Sava]

November (Image Comics)

November is Matt Fraction at his finest, a noir mystery that has left readers with significantly more questions than answers at the end of this first of three volumes. The plot is fascinatingly fluid, moving among three different character perspectives and jumping through chronology without warning. None of that would be possible without Elsa Charretier’s hard work with both art and colors, using limited palettes to delineate which point of view and which timeline any given panel is meant to display. Even when the transition is for just one single panel, Charretier’s work is skilled enough to make it clear what’s happening. Her work is delightfully a little retro, in the same vein as Darwyn Cooke or Bruce Timm with lush curves and craggy faces alike. Though the plot is still unfolding, a few things have been made clear: A woman who’s lived a hard life was given the job opportunity of a lifetime, and there’s some extremely organized bad behavior on the part of the police. It’s a detective story with some massive conspiracies woven in, and even though the stakes are still pending, if the characters are to believed, this might be the end of the world. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Pretty Deadly: The Rat (Image Comics)

Pretty Deadly is a comic that deserves a museum exhibition. Few titles come close to the beauty, power, and emotion of Emma Ríos and Jordie Bellaire’s astounding visuals, and Kelly Sue DeConnick develops stories with shifting genre influences and poetic scripting that demand a lot from the art team. There’s a lot of history at play here, and Pretty Deadly functions as an anthropological study of shifting cultural tides, executed with passion and intensity that gives it immense entertainment value. After three years away, Pretty Deadly returns in 2019 with The Rat, a five-issue miniseries jumping into the crime-noir genre. The narrative ventures into Hollywoodland to investigate the murder of a young woman entering the rapidly growing movie business, providing a very different landscape to explore compared to the Western and war stories of the first two arcs. DeConnick uncovers the seediness beneath the glamour with her tale of addiction, obsession, and the loss of innocence, and the artwork perfectly captures this contrast of cinematic glory and artistic torment. Ríos’ lyrical layouts transform in exciting ways that make each issue a surprising visual feast, with Bellaire’s colors adding new layers of complexity and Clayton Cowles’ lettering providing a road map to guide readers through unconventional page designs. [Oliver Sava]

Sara (TKO Studios)

TKO Studios now has two generations of books under their belt, but when Sara first hit shelves last year, the publisher was still a bit of an unknown. Seeing Garth Ennis and Steve Epting’s names on the cover was more than enough for a lot of readers to give it a chance. Ennis and Epting have both earned fans with work like Preacher and Velvet, but Sara could’ve been a gamble. The book centers on a group of Russian snipers during World War II who are combatting the slow invasion of their winter-bound homes. The titular Sara and her squad are all women, clearly inspired by the very real female snipers that fought Nazis on the Eastern Front for much of the war. Epting’s precise, realistic art is well-served by Elizabeth Breitweiser’s rich colors, lending the Russian winter a depth and texture that would be easy to overlook in a vast wash of white. The context is real even though the specific characters and interactions may be fiction, and the whole book stands strong under the weight of actual events, both historical and current. Sara and her compatriots are the kind of compelling protagonists that readers crave, full of determination and the little quirks that make them very human, but dedicated to a greater cause than themselves. (Sara premiered in December 2018, after our best-of-2018 list had been created.) [Caitlin Rosberg]

Sobek (ShortBox)

Sobek made it to our midyear best-of list, and it’s held onto that slot as the back half of the year has passed. ShortBox has been curating a collection of independent creators and comics with a high bar for quality and creativity, and Sobek is part of that growing reputation of excellence. It’s a short comic, completely self-contained, which is a big part of the appeal in a year when many comics are relying on decades of canon and several tie-in titles to be complete. The pacing and comedic beats in Sobek are near-perfect and a largely text-free read lets creator James Stokoe’s artwork really shine. Every page is drenched in lush detail, inviting readers to slow down and really appreciate the skill that went into not only the visual feast but also the careful plotting and joke crafting. What’s really striking about Sobek is that, as a whole, Stokoe doesn’t show just how much effort goes into a book like this. The story is simple and the comedy is relatively straightforward, but both bely how much craft and work are required to make a book as graceful and perfectly executed as Sobek. [Caitlin Rosberg]

These Savage Shores (Vault Comics)

These Savage Shores has a simple, crowd-pleasing concept: What if the supernatural beings of Western culture faced off against those from the East? European vampires face off against an Indian rakshasa in this hard-hitting genre bender, telling a historical action-horror wartime romance about love and death during the early rise of colonial powers in India. Writer Ram V, artist Sumit Kumar, and colorist Vittorio Astone explore horror on two very different scales, from the grisly intimacy of vampire attacks to the monumental destruction of war. The team gracefully uses a nine-panel grid, finding the right balance of visual and written information to keep the story moving at a charged pace while still finding quiet moments of introspection and emotional connection. Kumar and Astone do exceptional work differentiating between the heavily industrialized London and the lush natural environment of Indian cities, making the latter a warm, inviting environment that is cruelly overtaken by both greedy men and bloodthirsty monsters. As vicious as the violence gets, the story is balanced by the tenderness between the demonic Bishan and his lover, Kori, putting affection at the center of this tragic tale. [Oliver Sava]

The Way Of The Househusband (Viz Media)  

On paper, The Way Of The Househusband shouldn’t work. A slice-of-life manga about a retired yakuza who spends his day taking care of his wife’s needs sounds farcical at best, perhaps even outright mean if it was mocking. But creator Kousuke Oono clearly adores slice-of-life stories and respects the power they have, and has made an immersive story with a lot of heart. This is one of many manga that is exactly what the title says, and is stronger for it. The man formerly known as the “Immortal Dragon” is married to a wonderful career woman and spends his days cooking, cleaning, and fending off the threats of men who were familiar with him in his previous life. Oono leverages a lot of visual humor, particularly slapstick and exaggerated facial expressions that are particularly common in manga. The former Immortal Dragon is the very definition of a wife guy, and watching his hijinks as he does his best to keep his past life from impacting his present one—whether he’s buying groceries or hunting down his beloved wife’s favorite figurine—is highly entertaining. The book is refreshing, goofy, and charming in the extreme; fans of Assassin Nation, another of this year’s great comics, should definitely check it out. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Witch Hat Atelier (Kodansha Comics)

Though Witch Hat Atelier was translated to English just this year, the book is quickly becoming a favorite for manga aficionados and new readers alike. The first four volumes were published in 2019, and the story has only become more fascinating and engrossing. Kamome Shirahama’s line work is astonishingly detailed and precise, and, combined with the rich world-building, it creates a real, weighty sense of place and time. Witch Hat Atelier is carefully and intentionally structured, which helps it avoid a lot of the issues that kids’ fantasy books often run into when combining young people, magic, and danger. As Coco and her fellow students learn more and come closer to becoming fully fledged magic practitioners, they face new challenges and secrets that come with real stakes. Animated by lovely visuals and character designs, the young magicians are put into a position where their choices can both help and hurt others, and are given opportunities to learn and grow from their failures. Witch Hat Atelier has the creativity, heart, and consistency to rival any middle-grade or YA fantasy series, and the beauty to build a lasting legacy with readers. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Ye (Top Shelf Productions)

Ye is difficult to describe, existing both outside of genres and straddling several of them at once: It’s not quite fantasy or YA, but it may also be both. It’s a story of self-discovery and learning the language to define that discovery, a hero’s journey where the hero is largely silent. The titular character is a young mute man who lives an isolated life, and is one day exposed to a dark force that has terrorized his whole world. His trip to find the cure for his darkness takes him on a wild adventure around the remarkable world author Guilherme Petreca has created for him. Petreca’s work on the backgrounds renders the setting into something possible and weighty even if it’s a little too weird to be real. The denizens of Ye’s world are draped in piles of knitwear and look like something Jim Henson would have had a field day with, expressive with larger-than-life personalities. Ye ends up learning more about himself than he expected, like any true hero’s journey, but he also uncovers a lot about how the world around him has shaped his own self-understanding. That sort of message could be cloying and tried in less skilled hands, but Petreca makes Ye a sympathetic and very human protagonist that readers can easily see themselves in and join on this journey. [Caitlin Rosberg]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter