This sort of list is never easy to write with any kind of objectivity, and this year I’ve found it especially difficult because a lot of the titles I put at the top of my list at the beginning of the year were delayed due to the pandemic, so I can’t honestly say I’ve got enough material to judge them fairly.
The upside of these delays is that I’ve ended up reading a lot of new stuff that I potentially wouldn’t have otherwise, which has in turn resulted in me spending more time supporting Kickstarters and indie creators. There have been so many great new titles being released, which is really encouraging as we move into 2021 with a more positive and hopeful outlook.
However, all of this has also meant that whittling lists down to anything approaching a manageable size has been a bit of a nightmare! That being said, I have – after some serious soul searching – managed to get close to a definitive list. So here goes, my own picks for the very best of 2020:
I honestly can’t give you a definitive number one title of 2020. I actually doubt that, if pressed, I could give you a top five without lots of procrastination, so what I’m giving you instead is a few titles that I think were as close to perfection in what they set out to achieve as I think is humanly possible.
So, in no particular order:
SEA OF SORROWS (IDW Publishing, Rich Douek/Alex Cormack/Justin Birch) – I’m starting with this one because with the massive delays that surrounded its launch, I think this title deserves a bit more publicity than it may have had. Douek, Cormack and Birch blew me away last year with Road of Bones, and Sea of Sorrows is at the very least the equal of that story and has the potential to be another step up again.
Set in the 1920s, this is a horror/thriller that combines the golden age of treasure hunting films – films that you’d imagine Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson appearing in – with the taut, nerve shredding tension of a John Carpenter story set on a boat in the middle of the Atlantic! Between Douek’s incredible ability to build tension and dread, and Cormack’s sublimely grotesque and haunting artwork, this is a story that even after having only seen the first issue, I know is going to be another massive success for the team. I can’t wait to see the rest of the series.
MOUNTAINHEAD (IDW Publishing, John Lees/Ryan Lee/Doug Garbark/Shawn Lee) – It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I’ve got a John Lees title in my list. He is a regular feature of my inane ramblings about horror comics. Mountainhead is however, so different from anything that I’ve read by him before that it took me completely by surprise. This is a Lovecraftian, Carpenter-esque, cosmic horror story with pretty much every element I could ask for crammed into one 5 issue story.
Ryan Lee and Doug Garbark’s artwork on this series is just incredible, the layout/design, the little details going on around the edges of the panels allowing the others to insinuate themselves into the story and into our protagonist’s consciousness’, and the almost fanatical level of detail in even the quietest of moments. The story itself has definitely got the Lovecraftian Elder Gods thing going on. It has elements of Stephen King. It has Carpenter’s incredible use of isolation and paranoia. It has a David Cronenberg/Junji Ito level of body horror. It has tension, comedy, drama… it is perfect.
BLACK STARS ABOVE (Vault Comics, Lonnie Nadler/Jenna Cha/Brad Simpson/Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou) – Set in the Canadian Wilderness of the late 1800s, Black Stars Above is a tale of cosmic horror, isolation, creeping dread, and paranoia (you may be sensing a bit of a trend in my preferred reading habits right about now). This is a book that I absolutely fell head over heels in love with. It’s a thing of beauty to read, Lonnie Nadler’s attention to detail in the historical details alone is worth its own write-up, and the tension, paranoia and mounting horror that builds all the way to the end is art in its own right. I particularly liked that while this is very much a cosmic horror tale, it’s not “Lovecraftian” per se. There are strong influences of Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce, and Arthur Machen but very little that I would ascribe to H.P. Lovecraft.
Jenna Cha and Brad Simpson’s artwork in this series is simply beautiful. As a team they have managed to truly capture the otherworldly and define the indescribable. They’ve made vast beautiful wilderness’ appear claustrophobic, and have brought Nadler’s paranoid spiral into madness crawling and screaming from the page. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is one of my favourite letterers, and the work he does on this book is nothing short of incredible. There is quite an extensive section in issue three that is presented as a journal entry which, is reasonably unusual but when it’s done well it really works, and this is done exceptionally well. From start to finish there is not one missed step and every line of text, every panel, every page is delivered perfectly.
HOTELL (AWA Studios, John Lees/Dalibor Talajić/Lee Loughridge/Sal Cipriano) – Telling the tales of the Mysterious Pierrot Courts Hotel out on Route 66, Hotell takes anthology horror and turns it on its head. Each issue weaves its own terrifying story of the lives of the guests of the Pierrot Courts, using the baggage they’ve brought with them against them, to find out whether they have the strength to conquer their own demons before the less metaphorical demons of the Hotell claim them. I deliberated long and hard as to whether it was fair to have two John Lees titles in this list but Hotell is just so damned good that I couldn’t leave it out.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Mr. Lees’ writing and the way he weaves so many horror genres together in this series is just masterful. On the surface it reads like an anthology, somewhat like Creepshow or Tales from the Crypt, but interspersed throughout is a thread that connects protagonist and antagonist alike as it builds towards an explosive finale. Dalibor Taljić & Lee Loughridge’s artwork takes you back to the golden age of EC comics but with a darker edge that leaves your heart pounding at times. This was a very short series but I’m hoping that the amazing success of the collected edition will mean that we’re going to get more stories from the Pierrot Courts Hotel in the not too distant future.
IND-XED (Cabal Comics, Fraser Campbell/Lucy Sullivan/ Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou) – IND-XED is a low-fi, sci-fi comic that is influenced (to use Fraser’s own words) ‘by the likes of The Grapes of Wrath, Children of Men, Fahrenheit 451, Alphaville, The Road, 1984, Sweet Tooth and Y: The Last Man.’ I was also really reminded of the heart-breaking loneliness of Flowers For Algernon and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. In a world where without rhyme, reason or warning a person can have their entire life erased, and be outcast, never to be spoken to, acknowledged, even touched ever again, Meredith wakes one morning to find that she has been branded a ghost, has been Ind-xed; now she must make her way alone to find answers and try to get her life back .
When I pick up a Fraser Campbell title, I’m usually braced for something deeply disturbing and/or utterly horrifying. IND-XED however, is something completely different. This is a story that took me completely by surprise, it is haunting and heart-breaking and it will stay with you for weeks after you read it. Lucy Sullivan’s art is equally haunting, and beautiful and has its some really good moments of bitter-sweet humour, and Lucy Sullivan’s artwork is fast becoming a favourite for me. Tying narrative and artwork together beautifully is Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, who does yet another fantastic job on lettering.
There’s not going to be much surprise here, so in no particular order:
JOHN LEES – John has consistently produced comics that have hit the top of my list for some time now; this year alone he has two entries in my ‘best comics’ category, so it would be pretty safe to assume that he’s one of my favourite writers. I can’t think of a single occasion when I’ve picked up one of John Lees’ books and haven’t been blown away by just how good he is at what he does. Whether it’s horror, thriller, drama, humour or even romance, I’ve yet to see a single missed step, and I’ve never read one of his story’s where I haven’t wanted more, even from stories that are very obviously one-shots. I’ve often talked about the way John Lees writes his characters, and it’s something I will continue to do for a long time yet. Every character on the page of a John Lees comic has a story, it might not be one we ever get to hear but you always feel like they have something to tell us. On those occasions when a random character that you paid little attention to in an earlier issue or a different arc of a story reappears, there is a welcome familiarity and also a burning urge to go back and look for what you missed the first time round. This is a great skill, and combined with his ability to make you laugh, cry, and want to vomit in fear all in the same page. there’s no doubt that John Lees will be way up the top of my favourite writers list for many years to come. With news of more tales from Sinkhill on the horizon, and the prospect of more Hotell to come, if Lees does nothing else next year, it’s going to be a very interesting 2021.
RICH DOUEK – Given how much I’ve raved about Sea of Souls; it would be more of a shock if he wasn’t on the list this year. I love Douek’s world building and attention to detail. The fact that he gets these things so right means that the narrative he weaves around them is so much more solid and believable. Douek’s characters, largely because of this attention to detail are all very real and visceral and believable; here is a very solid feel to every character that you see on the page, with (to my knowledge) no such thing as a throwaway character. Much in the same way that John Lees writes, even the incidental characters seem to have their own story that’s just waiting to be told. Douek is also very good at building tension and terror, much in the same way that John Carpenter does in The Thing or Prince of Darkness. What I’ve read so far is very much of the school of ‘Less is More’, and suggestion and insinuation are tools that really pay off in how Douek weaves his tales.
LONNIE NADLER – I talked about Rich Douek’s attention to detail in his writing, but Lonnie Nadler really does go the extra mile in his research. You only have to look at the meticulous research that went into Black Stars Above, particularly that of the Métis people and the environmental and cultural isolation of the fur trappers of the time, to really appreciate what depth can be added to a narrative and characters. Nadler also, in my humble opinion, has a superb understanding of the Lovecraftian genre. As I’ve said above, not just all things Lovecraft but also those who helped define the genre and what the essence of that is. I’ve read a lot of stories by Nadler, in a number of different genres, and it is evident in each of these that he strives to push the boundaries whichever tale he’s telling and that, for me, is why he’s always very high on my list of favourite writers.
ALEX CORMACK – For the second year running Alex is, for me, one of the absolute best artists working in comics. His characters are real and grotesque and beautiful and above all emotional. There is never a wasted opportunity to give a detail that makes a character unique, or to show their imperfections. He has a staggeringly good understanding of how to draw out the tension in the narrative of a story or to deliver an explosive and visceral shock without skipping a beat, and his grasp of how to horrify with minimal effort is almost supernatural. It is very difficult to find something new to say about Alex given how vocal I’ve been about his work over the last three years writing for Big Comic Page, but if you’ve never picked up a book he’s worked on, get out there and find one, there isn’t a single one I can think of that hasn’t been in one of my best of lists in the last few years, so there is (if you trust me) no way you can go wrong.
JENNA CHA – Jenna’s work on Black Stars Above alone is what gets her on my list this year. With a story that is so bound up in the undefinable and unknowable, she has produced an incredibly beautiful and at times chilling vision of Lonnie Nadler’s late 19th Century tale. There were a number of things that stood out for me in her work on this book, firstly the ability to take a vast, sprawling and beautiful wildernes and make it seem claustrophobic and oppressive. Secondly, the depiction of The Child (no, not that one), a creature that by definition should be so alien as to be beyond description or depiction is delivered to the pages in such a way that it truly embodies the otherworldliness of a Lovecraftian creature but still manages to convey emotion and garner empathy and sympathy. Lastly, it’s all in the little details. Lonnie Nadler went to great lengths in his research for the book and Jenna Cha’s artwork reflects this in even the minutest details such as the weave and pattern of a scarf.
LUCY SULLIVAN – For those of you that don’t know her work, Lucy is responsible for the extremely thought-provoking and beautifully delivered story Barking. This year has seen the very successful Kickstarter campaign for IND-XED which she worked on with Fraser Campbell & Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, and I absolutely loved the artwork in this book. Where the artwork in Barking was at times harsh and the progression of the art was deliberately jumbled and confused to give a real feeling of the utter mental disarray of protagonist Alix Otto, IND-XED has a much more dreamlike quality, almost as if you’re watching the story unfold through smoked glass. I was totally absorbed in the artwork on this title, and it dragged me in so deeply that when I reached the final denouement of the story, it actually brought me to tears which, I can tell you is something of a feat. Now, while I have to give credit to Fraser for the narrative that took me to the edge, it was Lucy Sullivan’s artwork that pushed me over that edge, and that is why she has to be on my list this year.
HASSAN OTSMANE-ELHAOU – It seems that everywhere you turn this year, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is involved in something new. What I always seem to fail to grasp with most letterers is that, unlike artists or writers, they have to work with many, many different styles which makes it very difficult to define something as being definitively by a particular letterer. This is very evident in the work I’ve seen from Hassan, but it is also very evident that he is very good at whatever style he is asked to work with. I do however think that there is a style that Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou absolutely shines at and for me, this is best shown in his work on Black Stars Above. With regards to the small details that I’ve praised both Nadler and Cha for on this title, the work that Otsmane-Elhaou put into the book should receive no less recognition. It may seem like the simplest thing, but all the journal entries are presented as handwritten text and Hassan has added in spelling mistakes and crossings out to give it a more real and authentic feel. By contrast, if you take a look at IND-XED, the style is much less defined and adds to that dreamlike quality of the artwork but in a way that knits together narrative and art seamlessly.
SHAWN LEE – There is no way I could not have Shawn Lee on my list. With my “Best Of” this year being so inextricable linked with the work of John Lees and Alex Cormack, I couldn’t possibly leave him out. As I’ve said above, it is very difficult to define a letterer’s style, but Shawn Lee’s style is (for me at least) instantly recognisable and is as much a part of the artwork as everything else. I have said this before but where he excels for me is his sound effects. I have also said before that he has produced for me the greatest sound effect in the history of comic book sound effects, and that is to be found in issue six of SINK (go check it out if you don’t believe me). What I’ve particularly enjoyed this year is seeing his work in Mountainhead where, as I’ve said above, he has combined his work seamlessly with Ryan Lee’s artwork so that the whole thing could easily just be one piece of art.
Oh lord, where do you even begin with this one? Objectively I’d have to say IDW PUBLISHING because they’ve produced two of my top titles this year, but I’ve also got to give a huge shout out to CABAL COMICS, and AWA UPSHOT and VAULT COMICS, and MADIUS/MAD ROBOT and… basically anybody out there who has managed to publish a creator’s work in this year of madness.
I’d also especially like to mention the work that Comic Printing UK have been doing this year to keep the small press/indie guys going.
The writer of this piece was: Mark Scott
Mark Tweets from @macoy_comicgeek