An Ode to ShortBox, and Some Recommendations Before They Close Up For Good

Back in 2014, Drawn and Quarterly released an English translation of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s graphic novel Beautiful Darkness, a comic that earned buzz for a whole lot of reasons, but Kerascoët’s remarkable art in particular. It went on to be nominated for an Eisner Award the next year, but even the initial conversation around it was towering in its positivity. So much so that I simply could not resist it. I had to read this comic, and sure enough, I bought a copy of it and did just that.

I was of course wowed by the art. Kerascoët’s work earned every bit of its hype and then some. But in the reading of the graphic novel, there was just something about it that left me cold. It didn’t completely connect for me, and I wasn’t sure why. More than that, I was so far off the consensus that I almost felt as if I read the comic wrong. Maybe I was missing something? With that idea in mind, I decided to turn to someone else’s interpretation, someone whose perspective on comics always impressed: Zainab Akhtar. She wrote a piece about Beautiful Darkness for Comics & Cola, the Eisner-nominated site she used to run, and it completely opened my eyes. Through her writing, Akhtar helped me better understand the complexities and brilliance of this graphic novel, to the point that when I reread Beautiful Darkness, I appreciated it on a completely different level than before.

That’s the gift of great comics criticism. It’s also the gift of someone who has incredible taste, an eye for what makes a comic so special, and insight into how to maximize the potential of the medium. That’s Akhtar, a person who understands and appreciates comics on a level I could only dream of. So, when Akhtar launched ShortBox — a comic publisher defined and guided by that same understanding of the medium — back in 2016, it rapidly became apparent that it was worth following and supporting…if you’re into great comics, that is.

ShortBox started as a quarterly box of minicomics and art, all lovingly packaged in a way the elevated the whole endeavor, with candy included for a little extra treat on top. That’s how it began, but the publisher has evolved quite a bit over the years. Whether it was through Kickstarters for projects like The Real Folk Blues (a Cowboy Bebop fanbook loaded with incredible talents like Nick Dragotta, Ronald Wimberly, and Leslie Hung), Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s collection Don’t Go Without Me, original graphic novels like Genie Liang’s A Cat’s Day, and the lovely slice of life study artbook that is Winchestermegg’s Out of Style or through the hundreds of releases the publisher has featured in its digital comics pop-up shop ShortBox Comics Fair, ShortBox has always impressed with its wide-range of unique and finely crafted releases. No matter what path its comics have taken, though, the same principles and perspective guided the publisher. Akhtar’s curatorial vision has been a constant throughout its existence.

I’ve sung ShortBox and Akhtar’s praises throughout the years, even touting her as one of the most interesting people in all of comics a couple years back, but it’s for a good reason: There are very few people who understand comics and how to elevate the medium and its creators better than Akhtar. Each ShortBox release and Comics Fair has been an event for many comic fans. I’ve eagerly supported and enjoyed many of its projects throughout the years, with plenty being featured (or even leading the way) in the SKTCHD AWRDS. It’s been a heck of a run for the publisher, one filled with great comics and a wondrous approach, including physical releases with a level of production that makes me weep out of joy.

But now it’s ending. Thursday, February 29th is ShortBox’s last day of operations — although the ShortBox Comics Fair will continued onwards in October! — for an array of reasons Akhtar recently shared on Twitter. With the conclusion of this era upon us, I wanted to take a second to highlight the greatness of this publisher. It’s been less than a decade since it arrived on the scene, but what a stretch, one filled with remarkable releases and, delightfully, a fair bit of candy as well. ShortBox will be missed, and I cannot wait to see what comes next for Akhtar, if other comic avenues beyond the Fair are a path she decides to take going forward.

That said, while I wanted to celebrate ShortBox’s journey and impact, I also wanted to guide you — a person who is presumably interested in great comics — one final time towards my favorite releases from the publisher. I already touted many of these in a previous edition of Comics Disassembled, but with tomorrow being the final day for ShortBox, I wanted to expand on that. After all, each of its comics are 30% off until the online store closes its digital doors tomorrow for good. You really have no excuse to resist their charms. So, let’s look at the releases I’ve enjoyed the most from the publisher’s existence, at least amongst those that have not sold out quite yet. There’s no better time than now to order them, because going forward, it might be pretty tricky to track some of these down! So, without further ado, let’s feature some excellent ShortBox releases (in alphabetical order by title), and where you can buy them before it’s all done.

Emily Carroll’s Beneath the Dead Oak Tree

This comic is around the page count of a regular single-issue comic, albeit at an A5 size instead of typical comic dimensions. That’s about where that comparison ends. Simply holding it in your hands will make you realize that it’s a completely different species of comic in so many ways. This is a remarkably well-produced release, printed on a sturdy paper stock that feels wondrous to the touch and makes all of its colors leap off the page. It’s worth picking up just to recognize how amazing comics can be from a production standpoint alone.

But then you get to the actual main event. Oh yeah! This is an Emily Carroll comic! I talked with Carroll about this on the podcast a bit last year, but Beneath the Dead Oak Tree is the cartoonist at her most inventive, telling a story through rhyme that’s about anthropomorphic animals caught in the drama of courtship, balls, and gruesome murders, and the domestic unrest that combination can create — although not in the way you might expect! More than that, it’s Carroll turning the comic book medium into a symphony, following no rules but her own and crafting something that is singularly hers in the process. This one gets slept on a bit compared to other Carroll releases, but it really shouldn’t. It’s a stunner, one that’s perfect for fans of her work and other horror tales like Becky Cloonan’s By Chance or Providence.

Joe Sparrow’s Cuckoo

This comic is one I wrote a fair bit about last year, touting it as one of my Comics of 2023, and for good reason. Cartoonist Joe Sparrow’s a remarkable talent, someone whose gifts pour onto the page and light your brain on fire in the process. And his gifts are focused on a story about young people with superpowers that is less about the powers and more about what they mean for your identity and understanding of yourself as a person, a coming of age tale triggered by an object that gave people telekinesis. In the process of digging into all that, Sparrow wows with his art and vision, creating a lead in Dorothy Weaver you cannot help but root for as she negotiates her new reality and the questions and answers it presents her with. Cuckoo’s a heck of a comic, and one of the only full-length graphic novels ShortBox published in its run.

Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s Don’t Go Without Me

This is another release that earned a SKTCHD AWRD, as Don’t Go Without Me was one of my Comics of 2020. But I was by no means the only person touting it, as this collection of three short stories from cartoonist supreme Rosemary Valero-O’Connell features an Eisner-nominated story with this release being enough to deservedly earn Valero-O’Connell an Ignatz Award win for Outstanding Artist. Each of the three stories are science-fiction, but like with Cuckoo, each is really a path to better understanding human nature and the complex emotions and feelings we all have. They’re also filtered entirely through Valero-O’Connell’s vision as a cartoonist, with art that will leave you staring slack-jawed at after each page turn. This is one of the best looking comics you will ever find, and I’m not just saying that because the cover is embossed in gold in select parts. That helps a ton — I’ve always been impressed by how ShortBox would use foil from time to time — but it’s only a small part of the wonders of Don’t Go Without Me, a remarkable effort by a virtuoso talent.

Joe Sparrow’s Homunculus

While Cuckoo is the only Joe Sparrow release I’ve written about on the site, let me bold enough to say this: I actually think Homunculus might outdistance it for me. That might not even be that bold, as this comic was nominated for the 2019 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. But it’s a wildly impressive work, a story told from a single perspective — the first artificial intelligence in the world, one that comes online not long before society falls apart — that observes the world from a fixed viewpoint and mostly through engagements with its creator, a young scientist that’s struggling in the non-science parts of her life. It’s the type of story that will impress you with its unique take on science fiction before you find yourself crying, completely unexpectedly. Homunculus is a truly moving work, and a wonderful study of humanity, for all its plusses and minuses.

Xulia Vicente’s I See a Knight

While the rest of this list is largely filled with names I already had some level of familiarity with, Xulia Vicente was completely new to me. The reason I even ended up picking this comic up was because it was part of a 2021 Kickstarter ShortBox did, one that came with four other comics. I am so glad I ended up getting it, though, as I See a Knight is quite possibly my favorite print release from ShortBox’s time. 1

I See a Knight about the length of a double sized single-issue, a release that was lovingly produced with exceptional paper stock. Those qualities ensured I was impressed before I even read it. But then I did, and it easily made my list of my favorite comics of 2021, as Vicente crafted a unique story of a young girl that finds herself followed by a headless knight, and the relationship those two form throughout the former’s life. Vicente’s art is truly excellent, with each and every page of it being exceptionally crafted. But the heart and soul of the story is in the relationship at the core of it. When you get to the end of this tale and reach the emotional crescendo of their relationship, you cannot help be awed by it, even as you’re devastated at the same time. If I had to pick one comic you had to buy from the remaining lot, this very well could be it, even if I’d advise you to grab this whole list while you’re doing that.

Lissa Treiman’s Minotaar

Is it overdoing it to say that once again, and for one final time, this ShortBox release was one of my favorite comics of the year it arrived, earning a SKTCHD AWRD as one of my Comics of 2019? Maybe. But it’s true! And that’s because while it’s a tale of friendship, the complicated nature of that idea, and the trying, labyrinthine experience of shopping at a place that’s definitely not Ikea, 2 it’s also just a blast of a read that explores those ideas while taking an inventive approach to the comic book medium. Does it help a lot that it has a map as a key narrative point, one that folds out from within the comic itself? Yes. Yes it does. But that’s just an aspect of the creative brilliance behind it.

Lissa Treiman is a remarkable cartoonist, someone many of you are likely more familiar with thanks to her work on Giant Days. But Minotaar finds her at her most unrestrained, and in the process of executing that unfiltered vision, delivers a comic quite unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere that hits hard both in its craft and in the story it tells.

James Stokoe’s Sobek

I’m tempted to say “It’s James Stokoe” and call it a day, but that would be unfair to you, my dear reader, and to Stokoe himself. Yes, it is in fact James Stokoe, and that should be enough because the guy is a genius. And yes, this was Eisner-nominated for Best Single Issue/One-Shot, finding itself up against another ShortBox release in Minotaar. But my word, it’s also so much more than all of that, as Stokoe delivers a rip-roaring read filled with his gloriously detailed art and signature vibe. This comic looks incredible, and it’s just fun in that unique Stokoe way. While each of these comics are excellent, Sobek is inarguably the most entertaining. If you’re looking for a blast of a comic that’s also — say it with me — stunningly produced (that gold foil on the cover!), look no further than Sobek, the best comic about a giant crocodile god the medium has ever seen.

  1. It gets the “print release” caveat because Lucie Bryon’s Ocean from the 2023 ShortBox Comics Fair tops my personal ShortBox power rankings.

  2. Standing in for the labyrinth from the Greek Myth about Theseus and the Minotaur.