Welcome to the Multiversity Year in Review for 2020! While this has been, by many accounts, a terrible year, there were a number of fantastic comics released in 2020, and over the next ten days, we’ll be highlighting our favorites across 25 categories. If you want to give your thoughts on our picks or share your own, feel free to do so in the comments!
Best Small Press Publisher
Every year, we award the best comic book publishers. But we noticed that while lots of us read lots of different comics, all of us read the same popular comics. Inevitably, the most popular publishers are over-represented. We wanted to boost all the cool work being done with smaller companies so we added a new category this year: best small press publisher. These are companies who make comics that are more difficult to obtain through traditional means, like through Previews magazine, which is where most comic shops order most of their inventory. You may see some of your favorites represented or you may learn something new in our best small press publishers of 2020.
The Nib owns political comics. That’s the end of my review. Read on if you want, but it’s all superfluous to the statement, “The Nib owns political comics.”
Matt Borhs (most well known is his “we should improve society somewhat” comic that was turned into a meme) started The Nib in 2013, and in spite of its tumultuous existence it has become the premier destination for leftist political cartoons. Nothing else comes close. They have been hoovering up nominations and awards since it was founded.
The Nib eschews the typical mild one-panel political comics that find themselves squished between editorials in newspapers, and instead publishes angry and personal views on current events, and longer form comics journalism and memoirs.
The internet hasn’t seen such a strong collection of comic artists since The Salon in the late 90s. I can’t prove that The Nib was inspired by Salon, but they did hire two of their more well known cartoonists in Keith Knight and Tom Tomorrow. (If I can magically persuade Matt Bohrs to hire Carol Lay, my dream team will be complete.)
If all that success weren’t enough, The Nib also publishes books. Recently they Kickstarted and published an anthology I reviewed earlier this year, “Be Gay Do Comics.” -Justin McGuire
This year, where every other publisher faltered, Panel Syndicate soared, taking three of the most talented and varied writers from the Image Comics catalogue of creators and giving us all something to read when the direct market dried up.
Ed Brubaker, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vincente’s “Friday” was such an emblematic product of this new era of Panel Syndicate, with the creators improving symbiotically just by collaborating with one another. Brubaker’s usual bend towards genre-reinterpretation (in this case serialised YA detective stories), gained this new kind of tonality under the pen of Martin. In that same vein, the palettes and figures of Vincente and Martin gained this new kind of expression when illustrating Brubaker’s words. It’s such a great indicator of the marked improvements you see under a publisher that provides as much agency as Panel Syndicate. That continued into Alex de Campi and Ryan Howe’s “Bad Karma,” which instantly became one of my all-time favorite indie comics. It’s a perfect buddy adventure that excels without trying to reinvent the genre, instead just leaning into a truly heartfelt story. Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett’s “The One You Feed” is probably not my kind of comic, but it still stuck with me more than half the stuff I read. Cates has a really directed fanbase, and him publishing a sequel to one of his biggest comics on a platform that inevitably wouldn’t make as much money as one of his usual releases says a lot about his integrity as a creator. Plus, any publisher that gets us more funky Dylan Burnett is a success in my eyes.
Generally, Panel Syndicate is just what I want comic publishers to look like in an ideal world. There’s none of that toxic three-month market spin before every release, each story is just out and on your doorstep the moment it’s ready. It’s also just liberating to read books that aren’t trying to justify a $3.99 price tag with splash pages and fight scenes, instead they can move at their own, more contemplative, pace. There’s probably something ironic in creators not trying to write to a price tag and ending up making something more valuable because of that. Panel Syndicate is what publishers should look to for inspiration, and I’m guessing it’s only going to get harder not to notice them in the years to come. -James DowlingContinued below
Small Press Expo is the time of year I look forward to the most. All those publishers and established and aspiring independent creators gathered with fans to chat comics, art, and whatever for three days. One publisher I always look for is Shortbox, to see what I may have missed in the years before finding them or to pick up a rad pin or sticker.
Started and run by Zainab Akhtar in the UK, this publisher has a business model quite different from others, one that captures the excitement of receiving a present without the frustration of not knowing what you’ve bought into. Every quarter, for two weeks, pre-orders for a block of five books goes up. They’re ordered as a unit — one box that is short, if you will — and often come with a print/some light fun item like a pin and CANDY. Miss this and don’t worry, the books often end up in the store, though due to the economics of being a small publisher, not every book gets a sizable (or any) extra copies printed for individual sale.
Now I know what you’re thinking. So what if the model is fun and inventive? What about the books! Well, considering Shortbox has had books in the Eisners in 2018, 2019, and 2020, I think that recognition speaks for itself. Akhtar is a curator and editor par excellence and the consistency of quality in the books she puts out is breathtaking. They range from highly experimental to meticulously crafted traditional narratives, from short to semi-long, from heart-breaking to gut-busting. The talent on display is truly something to behold and you never know what new creator’s work you will fall in love with next.
Primarily a cartoonist driven publisher (i.e. one person doing everything,) Shortbox introduced me to the impeccable, layered work of Rosemary Vallerio-O’Connell, the meditative stories of Jen Lee, the sharp, poppy imagination of Joe Sparrow, and so many more. It’s clear Akhtar and the creators she works with care deeply about the form and want to make comics that aren’t constrained by standards (page count, subjects, release schedules, etc.) bigger publishers have to follow.
The freedom afforded to creators with Shortbox means we can get things like the hilarious and bleakly Gillem-esque “Dead End Jobs for Ghosts” sitting alongside a story about heartbreak and the long-tail the grief it forms can sometimes have in “She Would Feel the Same,” the dreamlike, cyclical escher-painting that is “Interim,” the charming, soothing “Pipette & Dudley: Charming Dog Adventures,” and the sci-fi-oddity-stroke-relationship-drama-stroke-90s-skater-culture-toned “Outspace,” all at different lengths and different sizes, looking and feeling utterly different but wholly their own and proud of it. These books linger on the mind and excite you for the next set and for a publisher that is ostensibly one person out of their living room, that’s an amazing task.
Oh, and did I already mention you get candy with each box? No other publisher offers you that and that alone earns Shortbox a spot on this list. –Elias Rosner
Albatross Funnybooks isn’t the first name that almost anyone thinks of in comics publishing, even in the indie world. To the extent that Albatross is well known, it’s as a venue for the works of Goon creater Eric Powell. While the Goon is a great comic, and a notable property, Albatross isn’t any more just about The Goon than Dark Horse is just about Hellboy.
Powell’s company is home to a variety of great and unique characters, like interdimensional dogman adventurer Grumble. Writer Rafer Robert has created an engaging new title with Grumble, one that will likely run for a while. Grumble has an exciting mix of weird adventure and heartwarming fun, which makes it unique and worthwhile to read. Unique and memorable characters like Grumble, The Goon are the heart of Albatrosses’ work.
2020 has been a banner year for Albatross, as they’ve added more unique and interesting characters to their lineup. The first is Tank Girl, returning in a new series King Tank Girl, written by Alan Martin. Martin had been writing Tank Girl for Titan comics, but the switch to Albatross is new and exciting. Brett Parson’s art is downright gorgeous, and Martin’s writing the character in a time we’ve never seen her in before.Continued below
In addition to the launch of “King Tank Girl,” Albatross has published a new story featuring Steve Mannion’s ultra-pulp action heroine, Fearless Dawn. Dawn has had a scattered publishing history, mostly over at Asylum Press. The delightful Fearless Dawn meets Hellboy should serve as an introduction to new readers, and hopefully a long term revival at Albatross.
In picking up and reviving classic cult comics heroes, Powell has expanded Albatross this year, from merely a home for his own books, to a larger force in the industry. Relaunching old characters as well as elevating new ones, Albatross continues to expand and bring new and interesting characters to audiences. They’re definitely worth keeping an eye on to see what they put out in 2021. – Ryan Fitzmartin
Source Point Press
Sometimes when the horrors of 2020 become too much to bear, you just have to sink yourself into old school frights to escape from it all. And if you’re looking for a new place to do that, look no further than Source Point Press.
And their horror is not one size fits all. There’s your classic supernatural horror from “Touching Evil,” There’s fantasy that (if you are of a certain age) tugs at your The Secret of NIMH heartstrings from “Wretched Things.” Want a murder mystery with the dream of the 90s? You’ve got “Dead End Kids.” Classics also get a fresh update, such as “Hollow,” a re-imagining of the Washington Irving Halloween tale – – and just in time for the holidays, a Father Christmas with a vengeance in “Kringle.”
But when you’re not in the mood for the frights (or if horror isn’t your thing), you can still find a funny book or two for that escape. Explore the playful fantasy of “Bug Bites” and “Gutter Magic.” Fire up the goggles and go steampunk in “Boston Metaphysical Society.” Explore the outer reaches of space with “Thompson Heller: Detective Interstellar” and “Franklin and Ghost.” And when you just need a laugh, Source Point Press provides sharp, biting satire in the form of “Sham,” a series where public domain comics from the 1940s and 50s meets South Park-style irreverent humor.
It’s not just Source Point Press’s catalogue that impresses. It’s also smart industry decisions. Two years ago, they announced a partnership with Comics Experience, providing a path for emerging talent to see ideas come from mind to page to retailer. Comics readers get exposure to stories they may not see elsewhere, and creators have an supportive outlet that isn’t afraid to try something new and that protects the very valuable asset of intellectual property. The budget conscious reader can stretch their dollars even further with Source Point titles. Digital single issues retail at around $1.99, and the high quality paper of print issues makes the $3.99 price point for physical copies worth every penny.
There’s a grand Christmas tradition of ghost stories dating back to the 19th century. Source Point Press looks to be an excellent place to revive that tradition this holiday season. – Kate Kosturski