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Last year, we said “…every work of art made in  is a small miracle. Every comic creator who put irons in the fire in a year that certainly didn’t lack fires deserves gratitude and commendation.” That’s no less true in 2021, a year where days felt like months and each month somehow also passed like a half an hour. Creators who put themselves out there this year did so with even greater precarity and more than a dash of shattered hope. But they helped us get through it all, and we should be immensely grateful.
If you, like us, are having trouble processing EVERYTHING that happened in the last twelve months, we’ve got some help for you! We read a ton of fantastic comics, and narrowed it down with the help of our illustrious readers into 20 books that we enjoyed the most.
20. Hellions (Marvel Comics)
Zeb Wells (W), Stephen Segovia et al (A), Rain Beredo (CA)
If you had told me even five years ago that a comic scene featuring Nanny and Orphan Maker, the little egg with lipstick and the giant toddler mech who used to kidnap mutant kids at the tail end of Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, would actually bring me to tears, I would have probably slapped you. The very concept is ridiculous.
That’s exactly what the last scene of Zeb Wells’ Hellions did.
Wells, Segovia, Beredo, and the rest of the art crew on this book took a collection of profoundly broken Marvel mutants, slapped them together, and turned out a compelling, nuanced, and utterly hilarious examination of how trauma shapes a person. This was easily one of the best comics of the Krakoa era of X-Men books, and almost certainly the most surprising.
19. Made in Korea (Image Comics)
Jeremy Holt (W), George Schall (A)
Made in Korea is a weird combination of hard sci-fi, whimsical family drama, and school shooting-era social commentary that blends all these themes together to actually work. Jeremy Holt and George Schall mix a lot of influences – there’s a bunch of Children of Men and A.I. in here, among others – to turn out a comic that works exceptionally well.
Earth’s birth rate has dropped precipitously, so parents have taken to ordering “proxies” online and raising artificial children as their own. Bill and Suelynn Evans’ proxy, Jesse, arrives with something special about her, and she proceeds to fall in with a rough crowd while her creator races to reconnect with her. The book starts off cute, then turns extremely eerie and more than a little damning. It’s great.
18. Ultramega (Image Comics)
Do you like kaiju? Do you enjoy Tokusatsu? Do you think that both of these genres are better when they’re perfectly matched? Or perhaps you think that what they both need is a dose of grotesque body horror to fully illustrate all of the weirdness inherent in both. If that’s you, then reader, you are in for a treat with Ultramega. Far more than just a skyscraper-toppling monster beat-em-up, Ultramega is horrific, strange, and yet imbued with a sense of emptiness in the wake of the carnage its characters leave behind.
17. Hollow Heart (Vault Comics)
Paul Allor (W), Paul Tucker (A)
Hollow Heart is the story of a profoundly unhealthy romantic relationship starring a sad sack government research technician and the mech-wearing Frankenstein’s monster he falls for-slash-experiments on. What a sentence to write. I love comics.
Allor and Tucker’s story is a horror book, but the horror doesn’t stem from the setting or the monster or any of the gory attacks that happen through the book’s six issues. Its horror is the reader feeling what’s inflicted on El, a quiet soul held captive by the government and taken advantage of by Mateo. Tucker’s art is outstanding across the board, but excels in coloring choices, and on El’s face, showing heartbreak with very subtle changes in expression. Allor bought a ton of goodwill with his outstanding run on G. I. Joe. With Hollow Heart, he jumped up to “buy on sight.”
16. Commanders in Crisis (Image Comics)
Steve Orlando (W), Davide Tinto (A)
One should be extremely reluctant to throw around casual comparisons to Grant Morrison, as they’re often unfair to everyone involved. That said, I’m going to do it anyway. Commanders in Crisis is bubblegum Final Crisis in all the best ways.
Steve Orlando machine guns ideas at you so fast that you have to force yourself to read at a normal pace. It’s so packed with Big Ideas that it’s easy to miss the personality packed in the script, but like everything else in Commanders in Crisis, it’s there in abundance. Davide Tinto’s art is bright, crisp, and every bit as high energy as the concepts, making every issue a dense delight.
15. Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons (DC Comics)
Kelly Sue DeConnick (W), Phil Jimenez (A)
Phil Jimenez was a legend twenty years ago. At the turn of the millennium, George Perez’s artistic spiritual successor was coming off of a run on the acclaimed The Invisibles with Grant Morrison, with whom Jimenez was about to reteam for the best stories of their seminal New X-Men run, just after a classic run on Wonder Woman. And while Jimenez has been incredible (and incredibly important) since then, nothing he’s done can hold even a faint, flickering candle to his work in Wonder Woman Historia.
This book needs to be seen in person, up close, possibly with a magnifying glass, to be truly appreciated. Jimenez’s art is so wrist-shatteringly intricate that it’s easy to lose the actual story and just drift off in awe at the detail on Hera’s boots, or trying to follow all the stories on the infinite pottery floating in the room. This isn’t meant in any way to discount the story that DeConnick wrote: her DC work hasn’t garnered the same attention as her Marvel stuff, but it’s very quietly been fantastic, and here it jumps a level to greatness. But holy hell, the art. For Jimenez to do career work is truly something else, considering how great his career has already been. But that’s what we get with this book.
14. Mashle: Magic and Muscles (Viz)
Ever wondered what it would be like to grow up in Hogsmeade in the shadow of Hogwarts? This hilarious new manga series poses that question and gives those of us who are sick of “the boy who lived” (and its author) a new magical world to live in. Uproarious and often ridiculous in the best way, Hajime Komoto weaves a tale about legacy, family, magic, and of course muscles.
Mashle is our hero, a young man who lives in a small and idyllic village next to a famed magic academy. He trains in the woods every day, but not in magic… in STRENGTH!!! Why? Well, Mashle can’t use magic which is a massive secret that both he and his father keep. But one day a quest for cream puffs puts Mashle in the midst of the small village and in the crosshairs of the local community. Soon his father and life are at risk and he only has one choice: enlist in the magic academy and come out on top or else!!! But he can’t do magic… will muscles be enough???
This is another expressively drawn and dynamic string to Viz’s bow. Mashle is a lovable himbo who just so happens to have almost supernatural strength. His underdog fight to the top is one to behold. Magic and mayhem fly off each page yet Komoto still manages to make this the cozy magical school manga we all need. So wipe off your wand, dust off your weights, and get ready to become engrossed in your new favorite fantasy comic.
13. Nightwing (DC Comics)
Tom Taylor (W) Bruno Redondo (A)
Nightwing is no stranger to the solo spotlight, and there have been plenty of great creative teams who have guided Dick Grayson around Bludhaven and Gotham City over the years. But has there ever been a truly definitive Nightwing book? A singular work that encapsulates everything cool about the character, with art that effortlessly captures the grace, joy, and (yes) sexiness that is Nightwing?
Well, if there wasn’t before, there sure as hell is now. Nightwing is perhaps the single most joyful superhero book on the market. Every page is alive with the same energy and wry humor you expect of its title character, and every issue invites repeated reads. Not because they’re overly dense, but just because they’re so much fun to experience. The last time a street level superhero from one of the Big Two was given this kind of playful exploration of his life and the very possibilities of the comics format it was Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, and, well…that worked out pretty darn well for everyone involved.
12. TMNT: The Last Ronin (IDW)
Kevin Eastman (W), Peter Laird (W), Tom Waltz (W), Esau and Isaac Escorza (A), Ben Bishop (A)
Speaking of returning to an already established history, in TMNT: The Last Ronin Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird finally released one of the most anticipated comics of the year, and the colorful yet dark dystopian story definitely delivers. The Last Ronin works as both a jumping on point for new readers and a deep nostalgia dive for fans of the original comics or the cartoons they spawned. In a futuristic New York that is clearly inspired by the world of 2000AD – and even includes a nice visual nod to Eastman’s one-time collaborator and British comics icon Simon Bisley- one Turtle stands alone. There is no team, no three other loving brothers, just a single survivor who is on a brutal mission for vengeance. And he will stop at nothing to take down those who have hurt him.
Sprawling and serious, but with a sincere edge, The Last Ronin feels both like an ’80s throwback and entirely in line with the current Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics at IDW. The art team of Escorza, Plata, and Bishop bring Eastman’s instantly recognizable layouts to life in vibrant fashion. Following the only surviving Turtle through the fantastical and fraught landscape is a rollercoaster ride, complete with fan favorite characters cast in entirely new roles. There’s a lot here to love. Even if you haven’t started it, yet this is the perfect TPB pick up.
11. Once and Future (BOOM! Studios)
Kieron Gillen (W), Dan Mora (A), Tamra Bonvillain (CA)
If this was 1991, people would be lining up outside comic shops to grab copies of Once and Future to save for their kids’ college funds. This sounds like a slam, but it’s not: this book is a blast, and Dan Mora being an art wizard who perfected the magic of McFarlane, Lee, and Liefeld is a huge part of it.
Mora spent this year of Once and Future designing new versions of the Knights of the Round Table, and the stylistic similarities to the Image Revolution guys are undeniable. The key differences here are two: instead of the infrequent nonsense that was often passed off as story in the old Image Revolution books, we’re getting a razor sharp story-about-stories from one of the masters of comic scripting, Kieron Gillen. And the second is that comic coloring technology has moved light years past what was possible in 1991, and that has led to a crew of utterly brilliant comic colorists in the game right now, a group that includes Tamra Bonvillain as one of the best. Once and Future is one of the best looking books every month, and it’s a ton of fun to read.
10. The Other History of the DC Universe (DC)
John Ridley (W), Giuseppe Camuncoli (A)
Award-winning screenwriter John Ridley is no stranger to comic books, as both a fan and creator. His first stint with DC Comics was on the newly acquired WildStorm line in the mid ’00s, even taking on their flagship Authority series. After working in film for the next decade plus, Ridley returned to DC and found a way to reinterpret his lifetime of comic book reading into an alternate look at the history of DC’s superheroes.
Years in the making, The Other History of the DC Universe centers a different hero in a different era in each issue. Issue one begins with Jefferson Pierce/Black Lightning setting up the mission statement of the series, recontextualizing the world of DC Comics through the lens of heroes of color. Next up are Mal and Karen Duncan/Herald and Bumblebee, and then we explore Tatsu Yamashiro/Katana. Issue four takes on Renee Montoya/The Question and we finish with Anissa Pierce/Thunder. It’s a full circle journey for Ridley and an emotional one. It’s clear how much each character means to the writer.
One of the most interesting things about the book is that it differs greatly from your average comic. This is a perfect pickup for someone who thinks sequential storytelling isn’t for them as it’s more akin to an illustrated novel. In that way it feels more like the experimental storytelling of The Sandman, while the prestige presentation harks back to the classic Marvel Graphic Novel releases of the ’80s. Basically, this is a historical monument to DC and the often overlooked heroes of color that have played such a huge part in their success.
9. Something is Killing the Children (BOOM! Studios)
* READER’S CHOICE*
James Tynion IV (W), Werther Dell’Edera (A), Miquel Muerto (CA)
Something is Killing the Children, our Reader’s Choice winner, started out as a genuinely creepy horror comic, using James Tynion’s exceptional skill at making readers feel something wrong long before the monster shows up. And then somewhere in the middle of the Archer Peak saga, the book turned over the creepiness and started adding in heavier action, and Werther Dell’Edera started to really shine.
Dell’Edera has a knack for pacing out a page. This book leans on double page spreads, but they’re almost always used for flow rather than for big, splashy action, and Dell’Edera’s layouts move the story along well. His figures and fight scenes flow beautifully, and he loosens and tightens his pencils almost as if your eye is going in and out of focus, to help keep the surreality of a world where kids are imagining monsters into existence centered in your mind. Our readers picked another banger this year!
8. It’s Jeff! (Marvel Comics)
Kelly Thompson (W), Gurihiru (A)
This is one of my favorite comics of all time, and it’s my four year old daughter’s first favorite comic ever. It’s Jeff is the vertical scrolling Sunday funnies story of Jeff the Land Shark, rescued by Kate Bishop in Kelly Thompson’s underrated West Coast Avengers book, with art from Superman Smashes the Klan’s Gurihiru.
Through the twelve issues released (so far), Jeff has been the darling of a superhero pool party; stolen Captain America’s shield to sled with the Young Avengers; eaten the Infinity Gauntlet; and swiped a superhero gathering’s Thanksgiving turkey. It’s almost completely wordless, but the story, the emotion and the punchlines are all brilliantly conveyed by Gurihiru’s art, and the stories are so much fun that we will go entire nights where my kid and I read nothing but Jeff comics for bedtime. If you have a young person in your life, this will completely justify an annual Marvel Unlimited subscription.
7. The Good Asian (Image Comics)
Pornsak Pichetshote (W), Alexandre Tefenkgi (A), Lee Loughridge (CA)
Comics are so good at noir, but only if the creators are capable. Pichetshote and Tefenkgi are extremely up to the task with The Good Asian, a noir detective tale that follows Chinese-American detective Edison Hark as he tries to solve a murder mystery in pre-World War II San Francisco, but the real story is Hark and the creative team taking aim at the model minority myth. This book is dark and violent and beautiful, with a self loathing main character dropped in the middle of a fascinating, tense setting.
6. The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town (Black Josei Press)
Robyn Smith is one of the most talented and interesting cartoonists working right now. Coming off the massive mainstream success of the DC YA OGN Nubia: Real One, Smith reprinted this stunning autobiographical comic through Jamila Rowser’s newly established publisher Black Josei Press. Gorgeous, moving, and an exercise in illustration as impact, The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town centers on Smith’s experiences as one of the only Black people in a rural Vermont town. Smith’s dramatic linework and ability to imbue each illustration with an almost overwhelming amount of emotion immerses us into their world and a glimpse of their experience. There’s a magic in Smith’s art and in this book which shimmers from each page.
This exploration of mental health and Blackness is not only a must read, but the physical comic is absolutely beautiful. If you enjoy the art of comics and cartooning but want to explore independent comics that are blazing a unique trail, make sure you pick this up and support Black Josei Press, as they’re the kind of publisher that make comics worthwhile. And while you’re at it make sure you’re checking out all of Smith’s brilliant work, because after The Saddest Angriest Black Girl in Town you’ll be in need of more of her exhilarating and gorgeous cartooning.
5. The Many Deaths of Laila Starr
Ram V (W), Filipe Andrade (A)
For a comic with only five issues, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr has quickly become one of the most talked about series of the year. Ram V and Filipe Andrade are a powerhouse team. Together they craft a beautiful looking tale with unexpected emotional heft. They’re not alone either, with color assists from Inês Amaro and some of the most exciting lettering of the year from AndWorld Design. Vibrant colors and dynamic linework draw you into this tale of life, death, and the inbetween. It’s truly a reading experience like no other thanks to the unique story, stunning art, and permanently drenched in sunset palette.
In another unique twist, our titular heroine dies in the first issue. But that’s just the beginning of her story. See, Death needs a body and Laila’s just became available. Sublimely entertaining and epic in scope, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr feels like a classic in the making. Entwining an engaging central mystery with folklore that’s absolutely drenched in atmosphere, this series has garnered a massive fan base and deserved praise. It’ll inspire the kind of childhood rush that comics used to make you feel.
Gene Luen Yang (W), Ivan Reis & Danny Miki (A)
The same guy who writes stellar all-ages books and historical stories has the ability to jump into a headline comic like Batman/Superman and bring out the best work of Ivan Reis’s career by twisting the comic storytelling form around on itself like a DNA helix. Almost literally.
“The Archive of Worlds” was the story arc coming out of Dark Nights: Death Metal, DC’s big multiversal reset book, so naturally the story jumped right into those possibilities, by introducing a robotic “auteur” filmmaker trying to splice together parallel worlds containing classic versions of Batman and Superman. The story had everything, from delightful looks at golden age heroes to brutal meta-commentary on the DCEU (this book took shots at the Snyder Cut the week it came out!).
How the story was told is where this gets brilliant, though: much of it is told through parallel film strips running across the page, with burns showing a crossing of the worlds, and Etrigan brought in at one point to help with the editing process. If you haven’t read this story arc yet, you’re missing out. It’s incredible.
3. New Mutants (Marvel)
Vita Ayala (W), Rod Reis (A)
Every year at least one comics creator makes the leap to greatness, and this year, Vita Ayala owned the hell out of this industry. Their Nubia and the Amazons book with Steph Williams and Alisha Martinez just missed out on making this list, and Children of the Atom with Bernard Chang works even better when taken as a companion to this book. But it’s New Mutants with the stellar Rod Reis on art that stood head and shoulders above almost the entire rest of comics this year.
This run of New Mutants seems to best fulfill the promise of the Krakoa era for mutants. It’s hard to miss the book’s influences – Reis is doing an almost comic strip impression of the great Bill Sienkiewicz on the same book, while Ayala’s character work, setting, and even some of the plot choices, echo the greatness of the Claremont run that started it all. But at the same time, this book examines deep questions raised by Krakoa – inherent contradictions in the resurrection protocols, ideas of redemption or even acceptance of some of the most vile villains in the Marvel Universe, and some of the hypocrisy underpinning the whole regime. This is a spectacular comic made by creators doing the best work of their careers, and it’s at the top of my reading list every week it comes out.
2. The Department of Truth
James Tynion IV (W), Martin Simonds et al (A)
Year two of Department of Truth was a banger, with guest art spots from greats like Elsa Charretier and Tyler Boss, but the success of this book falls firmly on two things.
The first is Simonds’ spectacular, mood-setting art. Simonds is like Bill Sienkiewicz if he worked harder in collage. He uses every square inch of the page to further the story, from patterned gutters to heavy, inky silhouettes. His sketchiness is essential to a comic that is about the blurry line between truth and fiction.
The second is how right-place right-time The Department of Truth is. The idea that collective will can turn conspiracy theories real is a hell of a hook. But we now live in a world where a measurable percentage of the American electorate is waiting for JFK junior to stroll into a Dallas park; where a major political gathering during a pandemic can lead to hundreds of cases of the pandemic disease while all of the people who got it there are swearing it’s anthrax; where NASA can hire a couple dozen theologians to figure out how pissed people would be if it turned out aliens were real (No reason! Just curious!). For a variety of reasons, we are now living in an almost post-truth world, and that makes The Department of Truth scary as hell.
1. Batman: Wayne Family Adventures
CRC Payne (W), StarBite et al (A)
Marvel and DC have both long wanted to get into the world of true web comics (rather than just digital comics you can read online) and this unbelievably charming DC webtoon does just that. Batman: Wayne Family Adventures is a massive moment for DC and superhero comics in general, especially when the series gained hundreds of thousands of followers in its first 24 hours online.
The delightful weekly comic follows Duke Thomas A.K.A. The Signal. Since his introduction in 2014, Duke has become a fan favorite member of the Bat-Family, and here we get to see him moving into Wayne Manor. While that sounds like a simple enough setup, the delightful cartooning makes this one of the most elegantly hilarious comics going. Oh, and if that phrase Bat-Family got you excited then you’re going to love this series as Wayne Family Adventures is the best Bat-Family comic going.
As Duke is moving into Wayne Manor, that means he has a lot of company. The extended Bat-Family has long been one of the most beloved parts of DC canon, and here it finally gets a comic befitting that following. Throughout the episodes, fans–and Duke–interact with Cass Cain, Damian Wayne, Dick Grayson, Steph Brown, Tim Drake, Barbara Gordon, and more. Each of the one-time sidekicks are portrayed perfectly. It’s the slice of life superhero comic we’ve always dreamed of. Balancing humor, heart, and perfect pacing, this is easily one of the best comics of the year. It’s exciting to see publishers embracing new formats and making brilliant comics to fit them. We can’t wait to see more of our beautiful children next year!