It’s nearly the end of the year, a time normally steeped in sundry traditions, but here in Pop Culture World it’s all about the love/hate relationship with the “Best of the Year” lists. There was a great deal about 2017 that I’d rather not revisit, for the sake of my own sanity and yours, but what was once again spectacular and vibrant was the comic book output from all corners of the medium, so let’s talk about that. Let’s spend a few minutes together and get overly stimulated about this sacred thing from our youth, this ritual booster we participate in, and remind ourselves that good things are actually happening in this world, and that we can be a part of them. How’s that for holiday spirit?
First, a word or two about the structure of this piece. What you’re about to read is a collection of notable favorites of mine that appeared at some point this year, whether they started, stopped, or continue chugging along. The books listed all appeared as weekly “floppies,” and though they may have been eventually collected in what’s known as trade paperback format, none are stand alone graphic novels or similar works. That’s a whole other bundle ‘o newsprint, and sadly one which I need to catch up on. The good news is that after a simple internet search you’ll find plenty of great sources that have already covered that aspect. (I know this because I turned those articles into my Christmas list)
I’ve divided this list into a series of categories which are one of the major defining elements of the comics that follow. I’m in no way trying to box these stories in, I’m just providing you with a guide post that can get you to some new reading that you’ll enjoy based on your own personal hierarchy of genres and aesthetics. There will be one comic in each category that I enjoyed most overall, followed by a few others that were right up there at the top. I’ll tell you a little about them, and then it’s off you go to your local shop to buy them for you and yours.
Comics From the Heart
God Country (Donny Cates, Geoff Shaw, Jason Wordie, John J. Hill – Image Comics)
This has been one hell of a year for writer Donny Cates, and this book in particular had a lot to do with that. Equal parts fantasy adventure, Southern swagger, and family drama, this miniseries follows one stubborn old bastard as he encounters a magic sword that frees him from his crippling dementia but does nothing to repair the rift that has grown between himself and his son, who now has a family of his own. Comics has a lot of father and son parables, but this one is specially designed to break even the toughest sumbitch down and start the water works. Throw in the gorgeous and gritty art of Geoff Shaw and the result is a visceral powerhouse of a tale.
Motor Girl (Terry Moore – Abstract Studio)
Terry Moore, the creator of the modern classic Strangers in Paradise, is known for seamlessly blending his humor and pathos, and thus his books feel very much like the real world, even when they feature people flying or rising from the grave or, in this case, communicating with a giant talking gorilla and little men from outer space. Sam, a military veteran badly wounded and horribly tortured during her tours abroad, may or may not be seeing things, but until she lowers her defenses and confronts her past she really won’t know for sure, and that might mean losing the only things that have helped her have some semblance of a normal life. This black and white beauty is an example of indie comics at their best.
Royal City (Jeff Lemire, Steve Wands – Image Comics)
Mind-bogglingly prolific creator Jeff Lemire somehow found time in his schedule to both write and illustrate this highly personal work about a family in a small industrial Canadian town, each member dealing with a tragic loss in their own way. It twists its way through intimate pain as it visits each character, confronting issues like creative burnout, the curse of the small town, and falling behind the progress of the modern world, while weaving in eerie supernatural occurrences. While I think anyone will enjoy this one, it will be especially potent to those navel-gazing down the barrel of middle age, with the comfort of an old flannel shirt and a mix tape for company.
Comics That Are Culturally Relevant
Glitterbomb: The Fame Game (Jim Zub, Djibril Morissette-Phan, K. Michael Russell, Marshall M. Dillon, Holly Hughes – Image Comics)
The follow up story arc to last year’s tale of Hollywood abuse given the form of murderous otherworldly forces, this time the narrative focus shifts to a young woman caught up in the resultant media feeding frenzy, and her struggle with the powerful allure of celebrity by proxy. This is, like its heartbreaking, real world source material, a collection of stories that need to be told.
Calexit (Matteo Pizzolo, Amancay Nahuelpan, Tyler Boss, Jim Campbell – Black Mask Studios)
This comic’s premise works as both frighteningly plausible modern setting and anti-fascist wish fulfillment. After the election of an autocratic US President who takes a strong stance against immigration, a revolutionary movement rises in California, which is proclaimed a Sanctuary State, and all hell breaks loose up and down the west coast as Homeland Security forces violently clash with those who would rather see their part of the country secede. Brilliantly illustrated, and full of relevant interviews and essays, this is the book for anyone with some fight left in them after the 2016 election.
Secret Empire (Nick Spencer, various artists and letterers – Marvel)
This will easily be the most contentious pick on the list. The big Marvel crossover event of the year, this culmination of recent Captain America-related storylines was kicked off with the huge reveal that the leader of The Avengers was in fact a sleeper Hydra agent all this time, and that he and his organization were going to step in and use a Cosmic Cube to restore true law and order to the world. Complaints about this ranged from “I don’t need politics in my superhero comics right now” to “This is all part of Marvel’s SJW agenda.” Without the context of the back story and actually reading the narrative to completion, I can see where the hate comes from, though I do not understand it. By the conclusion we saw just how powerful and inspiring heroes can be, and why we admire them in the first place. They fail sometimes, just like us. They can be corrupted sometimes, just like us. But they never give up, and they always come back stronger, even after those defeats, and that is what we need right now.
Comics That Are Visual Masterpieces
Nick Fury (James Robinson, ACO, Hugo Petrus, Rachelle Rosenberg, Travis Lanham – Marvel)
This is a series that I could have read for years, primarily on the strength of the art, but it sadly just got smacked with the cancellation stick. These pulpy spy stories were a blast to read, but even more fun to soak in through the eyeballs. This book was a visual masterclass, between ACO’s dynamic pencils and strong design sense, Hugo Petrus’ smooth and starkly lit inking, and Rachelle Rosenberg’s striking, nearly glowing color palettes. I so badly want this crew to keep working together, and I will pick up anything they work on in the future.
Extremity (Daniel Warren Johnson, Michael Spicer, Rus Wooton – Image Comics)
Now this one checks boxes in every category, from its heartbreaking story of revenge and squandered talent to its extensive world building, but the artwork completely runs you over in each and every issue. Daniel Warren Johnson’s visuals evoke the best qualities of European and Japanese comic art, while bringing to mind American visionaries like Paul Pope. The highlights are the brilliantly raw battle sequences, which spill from page to page, accompanied by huge, thunderous sound effects. This one has been at the top of my Wednesday stack since it began.
Black Magick (Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott, Chiara Arena, Jodi Wynne – Image Comics)
One of the golden rules of modern comic books is that you can’t go wrong with anything written by Greg Rucka. That certainly applies here, where he’s telling the story of a witch who is also a police detective, trying to keep those worlds as separate as possible. However, the icing on the cake is the lush, detailed greyscale art by Nicola Scott. Her contribution to the storytelling is a shining example of photo-realistic immersion, with characters and locations that mirror the ones so familiar to us. [Editor’s Note: for more on Black Magick, see our Summer Reads list.]
Comics That Scare the Crap Out of You
The Black Monday Murders (Jonathan Hickman, Tomm Coker, Michael Garland, Rus Wooton – Image Comics)
There’s a certain kind of power that is never really on display in comic books, and that is economic power. To be fair, that is mostly because you can’t visually represent it in a meaningful way that will interest readers. But what if you tie it together with occultism, and present a rabbit hole that leads to elite families and demonic forces, and go for a deeper, existential form of conflict? Well that’s exactly what Jonathan Hickman has done here, backed up with the shadowy visuals of Tomm Coker, and the result is more oppressive than anything ever thrown at a superhero.
The Unsound (Cullen Bunn, Jack T. Cole, Jim Campbell – Boom! Studios)
It’s no easy task to craft a narrative that will keep the reader engaged, yet also keep them completely off balance and out of their depth, but it’s really what more dark genre comics should shoot for, rather than gratuitous gore. This unsettling mystery based around a mental hospital plays to the strengths of the medium, throwing intentionally ambiguous images with discordant color schemes at us, making us scramble from page to page and from horror to horror, with very little opportunity to even attempt to make sense of what is happening and why. I can’t get enough.
Clean Room (Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, Todd Klein – DC/Vertigo)
RIP Clean Room. To many of us, this book (along with the also sadly cancelled Unfollow) represented a bright future for DC’s Vertigo imprint, with its disturbing body horror and nods to Scientology and peek at a world of truly evil beings that have nothing but seething contempt for humanity. It was some of Gail Simone’s best work, and I truly hope it sees a continuation at another publisher similar to what happened recently with Saucer State.
Comics With Great Narrative Hooks
Eugenic (James Tynion IV, Eryk Donovan, Dee Cunniffe – Boom! Studios)
The final series in a trilogy of stories about the dark side of human potential, this deftly executed cautionary tale provides so much food for thought in its first issue alone that your head will be swimming for days. You will go in expecting certain things based solely off of the title, but soon bear witness as it all gets twisted and turned on its head in ways that impressively reinforce the theme. If you’re a Twilight Zone/Black Mirror fan, don’t miss this one.
Victor LaValle’s Destroyer (Victor LaValle, Dietrich Smith, Joana Lafuente, Jim Campbell – Boom! Studios)
You have to tread lightly when revisiting the classics. In less than capable hands, the end result is just a ride on someone else’s coattails, rehashing something established in the hopes that there’s a payday waiting. What you get when an author has a genuine reverence for the themes in a story is something like this, which connects Frankenstein and its exploration of ambition, family, and vengeance to the modern day, where it is imbued with technological musings and sociopolitical dread. This book was a beautifully constructed gut punch, and one of the greatest surprises of the year.
Batman: White Knight (Sean Gordon Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth, Todd Klein – DC)
Well, this one’s simple: what if Batman and Joker had changed ideological places, merely by circumstance? In this miniseries, we see Joker seemingly cured of his instability by an overdose of a bizarre drug, and The Dark Knight, after years of fighting the worst in humanity, allows his code to wear away to the point that he is closer to a reckless, misguided menace than ever. Still, their conflict continues, only now the former Clown Prince of Crime is cleaned up and legit, and taking the war to the hearts and minds of Gotham City’s citizens, turning their favor away from the desperate endorsement of vigilantism and its associated hero worship. Sean Gordon Murphy pulls from the biggest pop culture corners of the fandom and shines a bat signal in their face, and it’s surprisingly refreshing. What he does with the often problematic Harley Quinn alone is brilliant.
Comics That Aren’t Afraid to Get Weird
Shade, the Changing Girl (Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, Ryan Kelly, Ande Parks, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Saida Temofonte – DC/Vertigo)
Vertigo-era Shade, the Changing Man is one of the greatest comics ever put to paper. It used the premise of being an alien in human skin, full of a wildly dangerous power known as “madness” to take the twisted narrative to strange places. This new version from the Young Animal imprint, brought to psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness life by artist Marley Zarcone, is a very worthy successor, revisiting the themes of wild youth and wanderlust, of the sensitive outsider looking for their place in the world, and executing them in a setting that addresses a younger target audience. This makes sense, since the core of Shade was always about growth and new perspectives and chaos, and that is inherently teen territory.
Kid Lobotomy (Peter Milligan, Tess Fowler, Lee Loughridge, Aditya Bidikar – IDW Publishing/Black Crown)
Speaking of things written by Peter Milligan, this year saw the mad poet of comics reunite with his former editor Shelly Bond, and her new IDW imprint, Black Crown, kicked off with this title. The story of a disturbed young man running a hotel that draws in oddities and dangers, this hallucinatory tumble down dark hallways has echoes of the good old days of the DC British Invasion in the best way. If you need something taboo in your life, something unapologetically awash in literary references, I strongly recommend an extended visit.
Paper Girls (Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang, Dee Cunniffe, Matt Wilson, Jared K. Fletcher – Image Comics)
These days the air is thick with 80s nostalgia, and there’s a love for all things involving precocious kids on bikes. Not satisfied to simply send his moppets on a supernatural adventure, Brian K. Vaughan instead drops the mother of all mystery boxes on them, taking his intrepid delivery foursome to places beyond our understanding, using the central throughline of how drastically the human dissemination of information continues to evolve in order to give the reader a few inches of solid ground beneath their feet to watch it all fold and unfold from. Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson’s art is just as bold as the writing, framing the past and the future in neon colors and crisp, effervescent lines.
Comics Full of Laughs
Shirtless Bear-Fighter (Sebastian Girner, Jody LeHeup, Michael Spicer, Nil Vendrell, Dave Lanphear – Image Comics)
The title says it all, really. Sometimes you just have an insane idea that makes you laugh, and you run with it, as hard and fast as you can. Somehow this parody of action movie tropes, featuring a naked man who loves flapjacks and delivers punches and wrestling moves to bears, never runs out of steam, serving up dick and poop jokes with its over-the-top pugnaciousness for a full five issues. A much needed, maple syrup-flavored break from the stresses of this year.
Curse Words (Charles Soule, Ryan Browne, Jordan Boyd, Michael Parkinson, Chris Crank, Shawn DePasquale – Image Comics)
I absolutely love that writer Charles Soule can go from his astounding run on a book like Letter 44 (which you should also go read), an apocalyptic sci-fi epic, to this, the story of a wizard from an evil dimension who comes to our world and discovers that it’s like his own used to be, and is worth saving from a similar fate. Combining forces with the hilarious Ryan Browne (yeah, you should read his stuff too, especially God Hates Astronauts), the duo unleash total insanity, from a talking koala bear to bringing the Eiffel Tower to life, to something known as a “hogtaur” and much more. It’s magically gonzo.
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Rico Renzi, Clayton Cowles – Marvel)
I’m always excited to read a new issue of this series. It consistently pulls off something that not nearly enough comics aspire to, and that’s providing an all-ages superhero story that is not only genuinely funny, but also one that emphasizes that there are ways to beat the baddies beyond punching them a lot. All this without being cheesy in a bad way, or boring and didactic. Sublimely illustrated by Erica Henderson, the ongoing adventures of college student Doreen Green and her friends will induce smiles and snort-laughs aplenty, unless you’re dead inside like Doctor Doom. Don’t be like Doom. He is a jerkface.
The Best Superhero Comics
Mister Miracle (Tom King, Mitch Gerads, Clayton Cowles – DC)
There’s a reason why Jack Kirby is considered the King of Comics. He is responsible for so many enduring characters, so many works of unfiltered imagination, and the sort of dynamic style that we most often attribute to superheroes. There have been plenty of great comics that gleefully played in the sandbox that Jack built, but few have been as impressive as this one. Locking in on the titular character’s theme of being the greatest escape artist in the universe, Tom King and Mitch Gerads put him in all sorts of situations he may not be able to slip free from: obligation to his home world, self-loathing, and death itself. It’s no accident that the nine panel grid made famous by Alan Moore appears so much in this book, as this may end up becoming, intended or not, the Watchmen of DC’s “Rebirth” era, which is especially funny considering how prominently the characters of that classic story are featured in many of the publisher’s core titles.
The Mighty Thor (Jason Aaron, various artists and letterers – Marvel)
I am in complete awe of Jason Aaron. His entire Thor-related Marvel run will be remembered as one of the best of all time, that much I’m certain of. What he started with the Odinson, and what he is now finishing with Jane Foster, is nothing less than a complete helmet-to-hammer dissection of the character, its many incarnations, and its place both in superhero and human history. This year the main title has explored the nature of divinity, the true meaning of worthiness, and the insanity of war. For bonus points, be sure to also read The Unworthy Thor, which taught the original God of Thunder some very hard lessons in the only form that makes sense to him: adventures where he gets to pummel his enemies.
The Black Hammer (Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston, Dave Stewart, Todd Klein – Dark Horse Comics)
Over the years, there have been numerous works deconstructing and examining the Golden Age of superhero stories, and I never tire of them. Creators like Alan Moore and Rick Veitch wanted to see their dark sides, Warren Ellis wanted to unearth their history, and Kurt Busiek wanted to see them interact with our day-to-day mundanity. What Jeff Lemire wants is to remove them from the world at the height of their popularity, and build a mystery around why it happened, watching what occurs when they are isolated and trapped in a different context. It’s fascinating, heartbreaking stuff, brought to life by the only artist I can think of whose style is appropriate: Dean Ormston. His work is simultaneously classic, minimalist, and enigmatic.
There you have it. I could go on and on, since it pains me to leave out so many of my other favorites, but alas, that just isn’t how “best of” lists work. Fortunately for you, there’s the internet, the fine, friendly people at your local shops, and my Twitter account, @rabbit11comics, where I’ll gladly throw more recommendations at you. Keep on reading, spread the word, shop small, be vigilant, and be kind. You can say a lot of things about this year, but one of them has to be that art was unrelenting.