With so many hairpin turns over the last 10 years, it makes sense that the greatest and most inventive works in comics would come from unexpected, contradictory corners: young adult and horror. As the YA comics market boomed, it attracted more and more brilliant cartoonists, with superstars such as Raina Telgemeier finding a huge readership outside the world of superheroes. At the same time, new voices such as Emily Carroll and old ones such as Al Columbia produced far darker, yet necessary, visions of the world
Over this decade of upheaval, many fortunes have reversed. DC relaunched its entire shared universe as The New 52 in 2011, then threw in the towel and returned to the status quo after five years. Marvel spent the decade integrating the corporate values of its new owner, Disney, into its editorial decision-making to become far slicker, if more divided between nostalgia plays for older readers and squeaky-clean comics for kids. Some reclusive creators produced new work, including Columbia’s Amnesia: The Lost Films of Francis D Longfellow. Some industry stalwarts received long-due accolades, such as Lynda Barry’s MacArthur “Genius” grant. And the decade produced a pile of amazing, beautiful comics, many of them from voices that hadn’t been heard before 2010. Here are my favourites.
A gleefully disgusting tour of a prison planet that is more or less hell, starring an alien murderer named Cannibal Fuckface, Ryan’s six-book series has absolutely no redeeming moral qualities – and is a queasy masterpiece. Ryan’s series is a fascinatingly extreme exercise in seeing just how far the artist can go – not just in terms of depravity, but also in terms of sheer size.
Beaton’s beloved webcomic skips lightly among minutiae from Canadian history, English literature, 80s corporate culture, and superhero fandom, yet it’s all of a piece, her subject matter as deceptively messy as her gleeful drawings. The resulting collection of curiosities is both unmistakably feminist and snortingly funny. Indeed, some of her lines are so pithy and memorable that, over the years, they’ve been stolen from her to sell other people’s merchandise. As far as posterity’s concerned, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure Beaton has turned more than one person on to Wuthering Heights just so they could better laugh at her Dude Watchin’ With the Brontës strip, or sent them frantically trawling Wikipedia for the backstory behind this or that eccentric Canadian politician. It is a riot, yes – and, like all the best riots, it’s also an education.
Taking its title from one of Shakespeare’s insulting names for Tybalt, the Capulet cousin in Romeo and Juliet whose death sets the tragedy in motion, this marvellous graphic novel sees Wimberly cast Tybalt as his lead and set his story among katana-wielding gangs in 80s Brooklyn. The art is a vibrant fusion of graffiti-style neons and stylish sword-fight sequences, but Wimberly’s text is perhaps the book’s most significant accomplishment. Sampling Shakespeare’s lines and embroidering them with 80s hip-hop slang and rhythm, bard-worthy puns and insult contests that somehow jibe perfectly with his retro milieu. A pure delight.
The return of Gaiman’s acclaimed Sandman series was never going to be bad, but it could have been like dinner with an old friend after several years apart: pleasant but awkward in places. Yet Overture is every bit as good as the best of the original series, and a nice reminder of how impossibly weird the Sandman series is: it’s set, after all, in the DC Universe of Superman and Batman. Gaiman is a generous writer and Williams really goes for broke, drawing ramshackle buildings with a different panel in every room, a two-page image in which the panels are inscribed on teeth, and massive gatefold spreads that spill the book’s profusion of odd characters and places on to extra-large leaves. A feast.
The Tamaki sisters craft a delicate web of bonds between family and friends in their young-adult graphic novel centered on the tenuous friendship of two adolescent girls, Rose and Windy. Jillian’s lush renderings, drawn entirely in shades of blue, serve as a perfect counterpoint to Mariko’s economical script. Rose, our heroine, realises she wants to take part in the adult world around her, but soon learns the secrets and weaknesses of the older people around her. A supremely confident work.
Each of the short stories in Tomine’s masterly collection is drawn in a different style, but all are brimming with wit and pathos. Tomine’s mania for process is well-known: every interior in his graphic novel Shortcomings was carefully modelled on a real location – a huge expenditure of effort. In Killing and Dying, Tomine makes a dazzling feature of his capacity for taking pains, while also showing his gifts for rich characterisation and spare, cutting dialogue.
Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (2015-17)
The capstone to Moore’s remarkable career in comics, Providence is a horror narrative of staggering depth and detail. The book works as a complex meditation on identity and morality, but it’s also a huge addition to the body of narrative gamesmanship surrounding HP Lovecraft, who lived and worked in the city that gives the story its name. Providence (the comic) at first appears to be a collection of oblique, linked short stories and then resolves into a gigantic vision of inevitable – providential – destruction, wrought by countless tiny, familiar failures. Burrows’ magnificent, period-perfect art fills each panel with so much earthbound detail that the supernatural intrusions are not merely jarring but genuinely shocking, subverting the reader’s senses of time and place in ways that only comics can manage.
North and Henderson brought a light heart and good intentions to the Marvel Universe in the form of Doreen Green, a cheerful college student who, as often as not, triumphs over her enemies through reasoned discourse and friendly persuasion. It’s a rare superhero book in which the outcome of a climactic battle is often that everyone wins. Their comic is a constant joy overflowing with sight gags, maths jokes and strange Marvel trivia. Henderson’s art in the first eight volumes has a hilarious deadpan quality, with Charm ably taking up her pen when she left off. The story’s 58 issues (plus one terrific stand-alone graphic novel, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe) are easily the best thing Marvel produced this decade.
The melancholy comedian behind Ghost World, Ice Haven, and Wilson goes for the unexpected in his most beautiful graphic novel to date: a candy-coloured sci-fi story about a time machine and a dystopian future. Clowes’ previous science fiction outing, The Death Ray, was as pretty but not as subtle; Patience’s narrator, Jack, is a touch crazed and missing quite a few things that a careful reader will see. As Jack falls apart, the book blossoms into ever wilder, two-page spreads that recall the great Marvel Comics weirdos of the 60s. And the climax is unexpectedly touching.
Every page in Ferris’s enormous debut is a wonder. It is a murder mystery, a coming-of-age story, and a rumination on the iron grip of the past, nominally set in 1960s Chicago but frequently taking place within paintings at the Chicago Art Institute and the covers of notional horror comics. Drawn primarily with multicolored drugstore-quality ballpoints, this unconventional medium gives the art depth and breadth, as well as eye-popping colour deployed in beautiful, surprising ways.
An astounding feat of craftsmanship and patience, Lutes’s 22-years-in-the-making graphic novel about the last years of Weimar Berlin ought to feel ponderous but is more urgent than ever, as Lutes examines the way fascism divides families and ends friendships. This huge book is both profound and precise. Lutes renders a cast of Dickensian size in careful, consistent strokes, with his characters forced to choose between political loyalties; between combat, flight and assimilation; between one another.
Woodring’s long-lived, mute hero, Frank, finally comes to rest in this fourth instalment. Every panel looks like a Dürer woodcut – never has an artist created a world so vivid without a single word spoken. Frank is one of the great works of art the US has produced, and Poochytown is its crown.
A mercilessly recursive graphic novel about a man named Glenn, who spends his evenings exploring the depths of his own psyche as he fails to get to sleep. It is so visually inventive and so clever about the ways our brains fool themselves that it’s impossible to put down. Huizenga’s throwaway jokes rival The Simpsons (a promotional blurb on the cover of a book called A History of a Synecdotal Item reads: “I heard this was really good”) while peeling back the layers of Glenn’s life, so we understand his relationship with his wife, his place in the world and even the nature of consciousness itself.
A couple in rural Kentucky live in a campground filled with a pickup truck, a trailer, a shed and a house that may never get built. As they work, meet idealistic activist friends and fall foul of a cruel legal system, they try in vain to have a child. There’s so much pure life in Davis’s slim graphic novel, with every page depicting an underexplored truth of hardscrabble American life. Davis’s characters appear sometimes in quick, cartoonish lines as she describes their movement over many panels; sometimes in full, breathtaking portraiture. A book of rare beauty and plasticity.
Carroll’s first full-length graphic novel is an ingeniously constructed deathtrap for the willing reader. Its Angela Carter-style setting threatens to turn into a fairytale we might recognise; instead, it goes full Borges, fragmenting into interlocking stories of others who have fallen foul of the witch at the book’s centre. Clever, dirty and incredibly scary, it’s an announcement of vaulting ambition – and a welcome one.