Without a way in, comics can sometimes feel like a medium that requires expertise just to become a reader. Even excluding the vast archives and lore of mainstream comics, there is so, so much out there: online epics spanning thousands of pages, countless web platforms for long and short-form comics, and thousands of artists producing everything from sugary four-panelers to sticky erotica to prickly, experimental memoir. Small-press and self-published comics can be something of a mysterious thing for new readers, since it can be hard to find stories that by their nature aren’t widely advertised outside their immediate circles.
I hope that this column serves as a recommendation for a small fraction of the very best comics being made on and off the internet. It’s meant to help with the starting, the discovering, the casual picking-up of a floppy or PDF; and I equally hope it helps the brilliant and dedicated artist-workers I discuss find new readers.
With that said, here are some recent gems in the medium, mostly limited to self-published, small-press, and/or digitally platformed works:
I’m starting the round-up with this novella-length comic because its premise is something I can barely imagine reading in prose––even experimental and non-mainstream fiction. (Though as a fiction editor, I hope I’ll meet some stories like it in the future.) Set in the Neolithic Jordan Valley, Shattered Spear lends the life-and-death drama of its two ancient characters a domestic ordinariness, rather than a shallow or fantastical exoticism. There’s Naihu, a learned spellkeeper in search of her missing brothers, and Pitu, the wandering thief whose attempted burglary of Naihu’s tent begins the plot; despite their violent meeting, the two become increasingly intimate travel companions.
Drawn in broad, soft, simplified shapes, Shattered Spear pulls subtlety from its limited palette, flat colors, and painterly backgrounds — an aesthetic contrast to Heikkilä’s other big work, the ink-rich erotic series Letters for Lucardo, where he delights in adding frilly eighteenth-century details and romance novel tropes. Here, the story has a clean, neat narrative structure, ending with an uneasy revelation that recasts everything that has gone before it as a crystalline, fated tragedy.
But Heikkilä has the most significant exchanges happen in the midst of ordinary activity: smoking rabbits out of their holes, drinking casked wine from the same cup, sleeping chest-to-back on a spread fur. Heikkilä brings together these two modes to form a comic that’s neither a thin allegory for the present nor a purist claim of total authenticity. He reaches across cultural, temporal, and gender differences to make an expertly crafted and carefully felt world.
2. Ibrahim Ineke and Sloane Leong’s Twice Fated, Thrice Tried (self-pub, 2019)
Individually, both Ibrahim Ineke and Sloane Leong are talented artists — and as a result, there’s much to like in Twice Fated, Thrice Tried, Ineke and Leong’s recent collaboration. The narrative follows a pair of twin sisters who, after being starved and abused by their father, become fraudulent seers with the gimmick of eating everything that they are given (including poison). Yet, this new life brings new misfortunes and dangers, which the sisters are not prepared to face.
There’s shades of Octavia Butler in this work, with its straightforward yet intense psychological narrations of girls living under extreme duress. But in terms of its overall formal strategies, I’m not sure that Twice Fated, Thrice Tried is a successful experiment. Heavy on the prose, and sometimes repeating the prose half’s dialogue in the corresponding visual sequence, the work struggles to meld the separate pieces of this collaboration. Is it a comic, as Leong describes it, or a short story to which sequential drawings have been partly added, partly integrated? I honestly love work that spills out of its media containers, even in all its potential awkwardness––perhaps this piece only failed to make use of that medium-uneasiness.
The work’s opening demonstrates compelling writing and gorgeous drawings. But it’s the opening that I struggled with most, where readers have to acclimatize to any new formal rules of reading/looking. Because Leong’s prose is heavy rather than spare, there’s an unwieldiness to the conjunctions between text and image that speaks to a developing relationship, something promising that is not fully worked out.
Once the narrative gathers momentum, the ride becomes a little smoother–-but this relies partly on the increasing division between the comics and prose. It sucked me in at that point, and recommend checking this piece out if you’re a fan of dark fables and speculative writing. In all, I found both the virtues and problems of Leong and Ineke’s piece interesting to consider, especially given the story’s gorgeous colors, chilling drawings, and suggestive prose.
3. Inés Estrada’s Alienation (Fantagraphics, 2019)
Estrada is an aesthetician of the nasty — a zine-maker and apparel-designer who draws grubby, unsettling filth in ornate beauty. Alienation is her first graphic novel, although the comic was originally a series of zines before it was picked up by Fantagraphics. A content warning for coercive reproduction, stalking, and body horror is probably necessary before reading this one.
There are lots of stories about the “virtual” part of virtual reality creeping into meatspace, but Alienation is far more interesting than the Netflix anthology show it’s been compared to. Porn performer and techno-optimist Elizabeth is an Iñupiat woman who spends most her time in the virtual realities made possible by a surgically implanted “Google Gland.” But she begins to be stalked by an entity that may not even be human, something capable of hacking her body and even her subconscious. Alienation is not a shy book: it’s very obvious and hardheaded in its critiques of capitalism and climate destruction in a way that I appreciate. Estrada saves ambivalence for the things that need it, like the relationship between pleasure, leisure, and virtual reality. In Estrada’s hands, the imbrications of world, technology, and the naked body aren’t to be feared in principle, but rather become terrifying in the context of racial capitalism, settler colonialism, and extractive humanism.
While independent comics right now tend to reflect their artists’ career crossover in animation or editorial illustration, Alienation draws from the style of an edgy teen’s notebook sketches, developed into an extravagant and intentional zine aesthetic. Estrada uses a measured, steady six-panel page design to establish domestic patterns and then register their dramatic interruptions, often with psychedelic splash pages and sequences that break the fourth wall. And wow, do they work.
Alienation isn’t the kind of book that you love; it’s the kind of book that you’re afraid of.
4. Xia Gordon’s Tuning (self-pub, 2018)
I’ll get to everything else that is beautiful about Tuning in a second, but first I have to talk about Xia Gordon’s exquisite lettering. Gordon excels in the intimacy of visual design and lettering, taking a layered, shapeshifting approach to text in this comic. There’s an assemblage of banal Helvetica (iPhone screenshots), loose scrawl (sketchbook notes-to-self), and loopy round all-capital captioning. Where the lettering becomes more urgent and slanted, or more scratchy and illegible, the reader registers an emotional shift without ever knowing why they feel that way.
Tuning is a journal comic and a comic poem at once, although maybe both are misnomers. Tuning may be, instead, a comic that quotes and displaces its artist’s journals and poems, rather than a comic that inhabits either genre. I say that because it feels like the journal entry and the daily poem (as well as the other ready-to-hand texts that make up this comic, like text drafts to unknown recipients, pages of James Baldwin, and lyrics by Moses Sumney) are the materials of Gordon’s self-dowsing performance, rather than the presented, final object. Over the course of twenty pages, Gordon collages together a delicate record of self that acknowledges and feeds the instability of trying to tune into your own bodymind.
Gordon’s drawings are beyond my ability to do them justice: bodies reduced to gestural, sweeping curves of oil pastel (or a crayon-y digital simulation). I’m in love with the quiet confidence that Gordon leaves here on the page, something felt through probing, collaging, and abstracting rather than straightforwardness bluntness.
5. 象牙塔 / Xiang Yata’s Captivity (Paradise Systems, 2018)
Every entry on this list could be rightly be called strange or mysterious in its own way, but this comic by Xiang Yata (lit. “ivory tower”) definitely sets itself apart. Captivity doesn’t so much retell the Rapunzel story as draw key images from from it to make an ornate, hushed comic that more closely resembles “The Green Ribbon.”
In Captivity, everything is either a sea of elaborately textured middle tones or a silhouette of absolute black. For the former, Xiang uses what looks like sharpened graphite to extraordinary and surreal effects: the man who climbs the captive princess’s tower first encounters her as an abstract texture — endless hair spilling out across a two-page spread. That hair is the uncanny star of Xiang’s comic, since its appearance is often the end of being able to discern one figure from another, or to discern figure from ground altogether.
More strange, even, is the endless head of cabbage from which both princess and rescuer feed: eating it has sensual, spiritual effects (“I am the ocean while great creatures play amongst the waves…I can hear the sounds of flowers blooming”), and severing it from the root brings about cataclysmic consequences. (The Chinese word for cabbage, by the way, is something like “spooled heart vegetable.”)
Xiang’s talent for the absurd, funny, and sad is reminiscent of Donald Barthelme or Sabrina Orah Mark, if anyone wants a prose fiction comparison. The imagery doesn’t all come together into a clean allegory, and I’m glad that it doesn’t — loose ends give you something to hang onto after it’s all taken place. I’d like to see a lot more from Xiang. The odd, intense feelings that reading this comic arouses were not what I expected from so clean and orderly a comic.
6. Seosamh and Anka’s Nom de Guerre (self-pub, 2018)
This crackly, enigmatic mid-length comic from Seosamh and Anka serves as a companion piece to their longer webcomic Superpose, but you don’t need to know anything about Superpose to read Nom de Guerre. Where Superpose is a sprawling epic tracing multiple characters across their different trajectories, Nom de Guerre is a compressed one-act drama, taking place over the course of a single night and following the members of a single family — the Vegas. It feels more like a glimpse into a multi-generational novel than a short story, and so the comic sort of leaks at the edges. Every character detail and proper name in it thrums with a broader significance that can’t quite be made out just yet.
Angry brothers Joey, Rustam, and Jana make up the central cast here, but all of them are angry in different ways, and each expresses that rage and resentment differently — imperfectly — messily. This comic, like the creators’ other work, is about outlining the contours of a trap: what it feels like to be stuck, to have inherited and grown into a violence that is ongoing. Still, while their longer epic work takes its time to dip into the messy static-laden traumas of its characters, Nom de Guerre dives headfirst into the worst of the pain. (A content warning, therefore, for depiction of physical abuse.) Its mark-making is expressive and varied, with wet-on-wet washes, scraped-rough arcs of brushed ink, and coarse charcoal textures. There is something new to admire on every page.
Of course, Seosamh and Anka’s real genius always lies in their character writing: in allowing their characters serious imperfections and messy trajectories through conflict, including abuse. Their characters have more life in them than most real people.