Comics That Challenged Me in 2014: Part 1

It’s December which means it’s time for anyone writing about comics to put together their “2014 Best Of” list. I’ve been thinking about the idea of crafting a best of list and what that means in a diverse and content rich medium like comics. The word “best” implies a finality even if the writer only intends to talk about the things they liked the most over the past year. It also is difficult to capture everything – I haven’t yet read the Jules Feiffer book or finished The Hospital Suite. I read practically no “mainstream” books, despite constant raving about the Image slate.

Instead of dragging in the best-of list, I thought I’d try a different track and talk about work that was challenging to me as a reader in 2014. This could be work published at any time, but I had to read it this year. Most have been published in 2014.

Since this is a list of comics that challenged me, it’s intensely personal. But I suspect that every “best of” list is personal to some varying degree.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Complete List

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“My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat” – Michael DeForge (self-published, 2014)

I’m a huge fan of Michael’s work, and many of his comics have already been recognized by other lists, but I wanted to call out a shorter piece he published in mid-August this year, “My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat.” The comic about a group of dogs circling the globe and importantly, the death of the narrator’s sister.

Reading “My Sister Dropped Dead From The Heat” made me consider the reasons for repetition in a work. Here DeForge is being deliberately repetitive, repeating images and the phrase “my sister dropped dead from the heat.” It calls to mind the idea of mourning, that catatonia of grieving, repeating that wretched moment over and over as we struggle to process it. It feels like a comic both about grief and moving forward – can you? Do you? Or is moving forward only moving in a circle, destined to come back around to the same grief?

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Ley Lines: Unholy Shapes – Annie Mok [heyanniemok] (Czap Books [kevinczap] & Grindstone Comics [wormulus], 2014)

Kevin Czap handed me a copy of Unholy Shapes at Genghis Con this year, and I’m glad. The Ley Lines series is dedicated to “exploring the intersection of comics and the various fields of art & culture that inspire us” and for me it gets at something I truly don’t have a good understanding of.  It seems to me that there is a true lack of discussion about influences and other culture in comics criticism, when clearly there is much to be gained from doing so. I feel like I’m lacking in education here. I’m going to try to improve that in 2015.

Mok’s work is solid and emotional, using the metaphor of the Nosferatu as a figure of abuse in combination with a biography of Egon Schiele to tell a deeply personal story. With its images of Schiele paintings juxtaposed against thoughts on R. Crumb and the value of genius, I find Unholy Shapes both extraordinarily intimate and also ideologically dense.

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Dear Amanda – Cathy G. Johnson [cathyboy] (self-published, 2014)

There’s so much I feel I’ve said about Cathy’s excellent Dear Amanda. I wrote a fuller review of the comic right after it debuted at SPX, and I don’t have much more to say about how good it is. What I will say is that Dear Amanda is saying some complex things about relationships, gender, and exploitation that took me time to try to parse. Even now when I reread the book, it feels more complex – there’s a sense of voyeurism and loneliness and aching that festers even as the relationship between Belén and Ginette grows in the beginning and middle of the book – I feel like I missed this the first time around.

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Junior Detective Files – Alex Degen [adactivity] (Sonatina Comics [sonatinacomics] , 2014)

Alex Degen’s work always feels very dense to me, and with Junior Detective Files, Degen has struck on the vein of gold that is childhood nightmares. Each page a different scene, a different fear, loaded up and ready to go. Pair this with a symbolic imagery that flows throughout the book – taxidermy, stuffed animals, cults, sacrifice. Each image reads like a painting, a memoir, and a death sentence.

Degen seems to be showing his reader that it was indeed right and perhaps salutary that we were afraid when we were children. Perhaps it is best to remain afraid.

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Sex Fantasy #4 – Sophia Foster-Dimino [sophiafosterdimino] (self-published, 2014)

Foster-Dimino has been creating her Sex Fantasy series for about a year and a half now, most of them published around the same time as big comics conventions. Sex Fantasy #4 was published in time for SPX this year, and Sex Fantasy #5 was released only a few days ago.  

Foster-Dimino articulates specific feelings in a way that connects to my lived experience. One series of panels especially captures this feeling in Sex Fantasy #4 – “Have you noticed that when people ask you for something / you give them a thing that is not quite like what they asked for, in ways that make them uncomfortable.” Yes, a million times yes. 

Sex Fantasy is intimate. It is also extremely oblique. Foster-Dimino has an eye for construction and gesture; everything feels significant. The challenge for me throughout this work is to understand the inferred connections that I feel so viscerally but sometimes struggle to understand intellectually. Sex Fantasy #4 was the comic that made the list, but the entire series is worth reading, and rereading, and rereading. 

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Five a week until we’re done. See you around.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Complete List

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