It’s that time of year again, where every single nerd news site tells you what the best-of-the-best comics of the year are. I’m always wary of trying to make blanket statements about literature, but I did want to share a few of my favorites from this past year. I’ve done a LOT of reading, and I feel as though I’ve branched out more than usual (or more like, there have been more titles in Western comics that have appealed to me than there have been in the past).
I didn’t give myself a limit to the number of books I chose, nor any kind of guideline as to theme, tone, etc. I just picked the ones I felt strongly about! These are listed in roughly the order I read them in, and by no means in order of quality. They’re all top-notch, anyway!
The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang
Prince Sebastian has a BIG secret: sometimes he likes to wear dresses and go out on the town as Lady Crystallia. In addition to keeping this part of himself hidden from Parisian society, he has to deal with his parents determinedly seeking out a bride for him. Enter Frances, an extremely skilled seamstress with dreams of fashion design whom Sebastian employs to outfit him for all occasions, public and secret. The story of these two growing together and learning to be their best selves is captured incredibly in Wang’s bright, flowing artwork. Plenty of humor helps to balance out the heart-rending moments that remind the reader to never lose sight of the things that make them unique.
Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu
I genuinely did not expect to adore this book as much as I do. I’m not well-versed in the non-fiction graphic novel, and I’m often suspicious of cheery, pink-emblazoned “girl power” books — not because I don’t believe in girl power, but because it’s hard to encapsulate in one book what it is about womanhood that is so unique. That said, I was truly fascinated and enthralled by the stories that Bagieu, in her whimsical style, has presented in this hefty tome of awesome and awe-inspiring women. Women from all backgrounds, in all types of careers, with differing needs and goals, and with all sorts of romantic entanglements and personal dramas, are presented for the reader with reverence, joy, and good humor.
Go For It, Nakamura!, by Syundei
I have been seriously reveling in the increased publication of good, sweet, not-super-fetishistic BL manga this past year or so. In this exquisite example, young Nakamura knows for sure that he’s gay, and also knows for sure that he’s in love with his classmate, Hirose. The problem is, he doesn’t even know how to become friends with Hirose, never mind try to ask him out! Between caring for his pet octopus, perusing questionable BL for romance tips, and just generally trying not to act overly weird, will our stalwart hero ever secure Hirose’s friendship? A familiar story for anyone who was shy in high school, Go For It, Nakamura! uses awkwardness, hilarity, and genuine heart to create a sweet and fuzzy one-shot that will make you yearn for more. Syundei’s artwork is adorable, and very reminiscent of that of manga powerhouse Rumiko Takahashi.
Tokyo Tarareba Girls, by Akiko Higashimura
I wrote about my initial reaction to volume one of Akiko Higashimura’s forays into 30-something woman angst back when the print version first came out. The series is now three print volumes in (with all volumes available digitally), and it has not stopped being maybe the most anticipated title in my pull at work. Higashimura’s ability to poke fun at the stupidity of a woman’s society-bred anxieties while treating the same character with sympathy and understanding is so incredible to me. I often find it hard to articulate what it is that makes this series so good, because it’s really everything. Please…I don’t often make demands, but read Tokyo Tarareba Girls.
Claudine, by Riyoko Ikeda
I find this manga hard to recommend, even though I love it. It is a quick read; I read it from start to finish on my half-hour bus ride home from work one day. But it is also a dramatic and sad read, in true 70s shojo fashion. Our protagonist Claudine is assigned female at birth, but knows in his heart that he is a man. Even his own father embraces Claudine as more of a son than a daughter, going riding with him and treating him like his older brothers. Society in early 20th century France, however, is not as kind. To the rest of the world, Claudine is a girl, and the tragedy here lies in the outmoded concept that any woman he might love will never lead a fulfilled life with a “woman” partner. So in many ways, this is a fantastic achievement, being a trans story from 70s Japan; but it is also a story about a trans man from the perspective of a cisgender woman, writing at a time when shojo manga was about deep, dramatic personal struggles and utilizing queerness as a vehicle for those struggles. If you can go into it with the understanding that it is a sad story (and yes, I did cry on that fateful bus ride home), it is a simply gorgeous and heartbreaking work of tragedy.
Making Friends, by Kristen Gudsnuk
I’ve been in love with Kristen Gudsnuk’s work ever since I read the first issue of Henchgirl, back when it was released by Scout Comics. Her artwork is fun, her dialogue is funny, and she makes plenty of obvious anime references that I feel are speaking directly to me and my sense of humor. So of course I was thrilled when Making Friends came out, and I was not disappointed. Protagonist Dany is starting middle school, where she is separated from her friends and everything that was familiar to her. She turns inward and begins to draw in the sketchbook she recently inherited from her recently deceased great-aunt. Soon she discovers that anything she draws in the sketchbook — including the head of her favorite anime badboy — comes to life! She quickly devises a plan to create a new, perfect best friend. But as we all know, magic has serious consequences, and Dany is going to have to figure out how to fix the mess she’s made. Gudsnuk does an excellent job of keeping this story about friendship and responsibility from becoming saccharine or tropey, instead treating every character with equal weight and relying on her uncanny knack for coming at a story from a slightly sideways perspective.
Satoko and Nada, by Yupechika and Marie Nishimori
This was absolutely one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and man oh man did it hit a home run for me. Upon initially receiving it I was uncertain, as it is laid out in 4-koma format, which I usually find cute but not particularly compelling. And yet in this easy gag style, with simple illustrations, Satoko and Nada manages to be a profoundly intimate story of friendship between women and across cultures. Nada is a college student from Saudi Arabia who is looking for a roommate. Satoko, a student in the same school, has recently arrived from Japan and chooses to become that needed roommate. Thus begins this tale of two people from very different backgrounds as they live together and learn all about each other and about their multicultural friends. Warm-hearted, informative, and full of meme references, this manga really surprised me in the best possible way. I want everyone to read it!
(Just an honorable mention here: I reread two of my absolute favorite series this year: Pet Shop of Horrors, by Matsuri Akino, and The Wallflower, by Tomoko Hayakawa. One day, I’d like to write at length about both of these series, but as they’re old and hard to find, I opted against adding them to this list. Look forward to an analysis of them one day, because I am very attached to them both!)
As you can see, I read a lot of very heartwarming stories by or about women this year. I have been immensely impressed by the range in stories and creators I’ve had access to, and that’s something I want to see continue to grow year by year. My reading list has been a bright spot in what has been a very tumultuous year otherwise (personally and in the world at large), and it gives me hope that more differing voices are being tapped to tell more and varied stories.
Looking forward to reading more in 2019!