If 2020 was a living nightmare, then 2021 was… well, what exactly? Clearly some things did occur this year, but everything feels sort of unreal or somehow ephemeral — and that which we know happened feels all too strange to have fully mattered. (Aside, of course, from more stress, grief, and longing — 2021 let us keep those.) It’s as if we were all caught up in this giant sociocultural limbo, and most of us just want to see what fresh hell 2022 brings.
But if absolutely nothing else, 2021 was a remarkable year for comics. From big releases at DC and Marvel, to a slew of indie hits at Image, BOOM!, and others, there was plenty to read. And after the madness of 2020, with the industry shutting down and then dealing with a slow return the rest of that calendar year, 2021 at least felt like a return to some semblance of normalcy. Creators took all that in stride, and they crafted great stories to help entertain, explain, and contextualize the weirdness of the times. If nothing really did happen, then at least comics made all of this seem all that less strange or harrowing, even in their very own way.
In honor of so much great art, our staff have assembled a list of their favorites. Whether it’s ongoing titles, artists, single issues, and even publishers, it’s our small way of giving back to the great work done this year. So here’s to 2021: the year comics kept on reaching for the stars — whatever that means in the here and now.
– Chris Coplan, Comics Editor
(Editor’s Note: And stick around for part two on Thursday morning. We’ve only just begun…)
Best Comic to Show a Lapsed Fan
I am a diehard fan of Batman. He’s my favorite character ever created, and that’s made the last stretch of his comics very difficult for me. I’m very particular in the traits I want from my Batman, and as a lapsed fan who really hadn’t clicked with the character since the start of Rebirth, Mariko Tamaki’s Detective Comics felt like coming home. Her Bruce Wayne is very much the Batman I loved growing up–the kind, compassionate crimefighter who was full of more love for his fellow man than even Superman himself. If you love Batman, and like me somehow found his last few years making you question why you ever bothered anymore, you may find that spark of love reignited by this book, too.
– Reg Cruickshank
The Amazing Spider-Man
Just in time for Spidey’s 60th anniversary in 2022, The Amazing Spider-Man has been given an all-new direction from an all-new creative team (to include story/writing from Kelly Thompson and Saladin Ahmed and art by Jorge Fornes). If you, like me, have been burnt out by ASM over the past few years, this has been a refreshing change of pace. Starting in issue #75, the “Beyond” storyline sees Ben Reilly’s return as a corporate-backed wall-crawler while Peter Parker is out of commission. Each issue is a self-contained story, too. Of course, there are hooks and cliffhangers to get you to the next issue, but I find myself satisfied after each 20-page installment. While “Beyond” may be a modern Spider-Man story, it feels like going back to reading some of the classics. If the Spider-Fan in your life is hyped up by the PlayStation games or Spider-Man: No Way Home, this is the perfect reintroduction to the series.
– Dan Berlin
Hardware: Season One
One of the most exciting developments of the year has been the return of Milestone Comics. All three “return” series have made strong first impressions, but my choice for this category is Brandon Thomas, Denys Cowan, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Chris Sotomayor on Hardware: Season One. Simply put, this is a series that reminds me of how exciting comics can be when done right. The book wastes no time warming up; we quickly learn who our hero is and join him on his journey of struggle and retribution. The aesthetic is excellent, the stakes feel real, and the story reads completely uniquely from anything else currently on stands. Whether you were a fan of the character’s original series or are a new reader jumping in, I highly recommend this title.
– Alex Cline
My choice would probably be Mystique bringing Destiny back in Inferno. We all knew it was coming at a certain point, but it was just such a fun thing to see, and watching the drama unfold has been a blast. If you told me Irene Adler would be back in comics a few years ago, I never would have believed you. Plus, her coming back in a younger body? Never would have seen that coming.
– Lia Williamson
If you told me at the beginning of the year that I would be cackling to myself about Rorschach I would say, “Have you read a Tom King book lately?” Instead, I am a fool, as Jorge Fornés, King, Dave Stewart, and Clayton Cowles formed a creative team behind one of the most fun comics I’ve read all year.
– Keigen Rea
Tom Taylor’s Dark Knights of Steel and Dark Ages books actually worked
There’s no denying that writer Tom Taylor is a brilliant talent, but even he had me doubting his one-two punch of Dark Knights of Steel (at DC) and Dark Ages (from Marvel). The former was a medieval retelling of the DCU, with Superman as a prince and Batman as his loyal knight (oh, and so much palace intrigue). The latter, meanwhile, imagined a Marvel universe where electricity had ceased to exist and how that inevitably changes everything for heroes and villains alike.
Were these narrative arcs a little hokey? Yes, they’re stories predicated on some rather iffy foundations. But Taylor delivered in terms of both projects: Dark Knights played up the humanity with a greatness that transcended any Medieval Times vibes, and Dark Ages was able to use this new world to explore something fresh and exciting about Marvel’s inner workings. It’s one thing to say “brilliant writers mike brilliant art,” but Taylor was able to do this on two fronts — not only because he’s gifted, but both stories coming together, at different publishers, worked well together in the sense that they found enough “commonality” in their approach, narrative, and characterizations to support and empower the other. This is a genuine feat that could have been less than what it actually proved to be: a master class from a true comics genius.
– Chris Coplan
This category was the easiest pick for me. Inferno excels on the #1 front that’s essential but that so many other events nonetheless struggle to fulfill: it’s legitimately exciting to read. I can’t go into the specifics of all the “Oh s**t” moments without entering spoiler territory, but I can say that they use the best kinds of twists: additive reveals, perfectly rooted in the characters’ motivations and pivotal plot concerns and yet still unforeseen until the moment of their occurrence. It’s like sleight of hand, expertly formulated and planned while keeping you on the edge of your seat as an audience member.
Some of the drama is long awaited payoff for years worth of stories, while fresh seeds of potential are being simultaneously being sewn. This is not a story imposed upon the X-Men for marketing sake, but one which the entire Krakoa Era has been building up to and will build further toward the future from.
– Alex Cline
It has been an eventful year in comics, especially with Marvel having big events like Darkhold, Heroes Reborn, and Death of Doctor Strange. But the event that topped them all has to be DC’s own Future State. It’s one of the bolder choices in comics in some time, as it dropped readers into a universe that was brand new but nonetheless familiar. Spinning out of the multiversal destruction of Dark Nights: Death Metal, the event allowed creators to remix heroes and defy our expectations in short but sweet two-to-three-issue story arcs. With a looser main arc, there was an easier overall buy in, making it better for readers to pick and choose what they wanted to read rather than be forced to read a main title. Taking place over eight weeks, the event changed the face of DC Comics for a length of time that also made it feel more bold and purposeful. Hell, it was an event so encompassing AIPT even ran an awards article celebrating its achievement!
– David Brooke
Future State was scary in that the future is always an uncertain mess of anxiety and nerves. But for something that was scarier on a different level entirely, DC also presented Fear State from August to December. Spanning a wide array of titles, it’s the direct “sequel” to Future State, and without spoiling too much of the story proper, basically sees Scarecrow and Gotham industrialist Simon Saint team up to control the city through a mix of fear and military aggression. It was a story that really tested the mettle of the larger Bat family, and also allowed them a chance to explore their relationships/connections in new and interesting ways. It explored the larger threat of Scarecrow, and gave a rise to a different kind of villainy and threats in Gotham. It set the stage for Future State in a brilliant way, and yet it felt like its own single kind of occurrence. In short, this event did a lot to both establish and expand everything in the “Gotham line,” and was a deeply satisfying event for longtime readers and others looking to get in on the ground floor of what’s next in the DCU. Oh, and one word: Ghost-Maker.
– Chris Coplan
Best #1 of the Year
In its first issue, Echolands used every square inch of its space exuding promise. Dropping the reader into the mystery of a world that is comprised of smaller “worlds” (the denizens are each illustrated in distinctive styles separate from our protagonist), the issue begged for deep study, introduced a compelling lead and a disturbing antagonist, and left readers with so many questions. Add to that a backup feature of an ongoing prose interview by writer W. Haden Blackman, and the delightful account of all the music artist JH Williams III listened to as he worked on the book, the issue set the tone for exactly the type of book it continues to be: one with epic scope, deep narrative, and virtuoso artwork. And style. Just so much style.
– Colin Moon
The Nice House on the Lake #1
A perfect #1 has to achieve success on dual fronts: establish entirely new concepts, concerns, and momentum for future issues, all while being satisfying as a single reading experience in and of itself before said future issues’ resulting follow-ups. The Nice House on the Lake (from James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno) immediately throws its characters into the ultimate pressure cooker situation and introduces mystery after mystery with foreboding imagery and plot conceits that are universally unnerving in their specificity. So much is shown and yet so little is known, kicking off one of the best series of the year.
– Alex Cline
Two Moons #1
I didn’t actually come to Two Moons until the third issue arrived — and then I consumed all of it one frenzied sitting. It’s a powerful story (courtesy of writer John Arcudi and artist Valerio Giangiordano) that expertly blends horror and historical fiction, following a Pawnee man called Virgil Morris (the titular Two Moons) as he battles for the Union in the Civil War all the while grappling with his shamanic ancestry and connections. All that magic and history only helped to expand this jarring exploration of war, and it all felt so deeply real and yet still otherworldly. The debut issue, especially, is super effective in laying out the world and story to come without overpowering the reader (well, at least too much). The debut issue also creates a great undercurrent of humanity, and as we connect initially with Virgil and his fellow soldiers, all of that emotional potential becomes key to the supernatural elements building up down the line. It’s hard to do good horror and historical fiction, and it’s even more impossible to do both together without getting bogged down. But this #1 lays out the world with efficiency and lays all sorts of wonderful traps that the entire story delivers on — and then some.
– Chris Coplan
Best Original Graphic Novel
No One Else
Quietly tragic and viscerally real, No One Else by cartoonist and New Yorker artist R. Kikuo Johnson is a slim treat of a graphic novel, one that illustrates the way grief can impact people in radically different ways. Subtle of line, with just hints of color, the book creates physically quiet but emotionally loud moments that come off genuine, felt, and perhaps reminiscent of the reader’s own life. It’s one of the few graphic novels that I’ve read a digital copy only to turn around and pre-order a physical copy before I even sat down to write the review. It’s one of my favorite books — graphic novel, ongoing, or literary — of the entire year.
– Colin Moon
The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher
One need look no further than the creative team than to understand my pick: Ryan North and Derek Charm. I mean, come on. This take on Johnny Constantine is funny and endearing, features a great appearance from Etrigan, and as always Charm’s artwork is overflowing with…charm. Great for both children and adults.
– Alex Cline
Nubia: Real One
So many excellent OGNs were released this year, but I think one that deserves more attention is Nubia: Real One. Published under DC’s young adult imprint, L. L. McKinney reimagines the amazon as a 17-year-old girl struggling with being both a Black girl and someone who has to deal with her superpowers in a modern-day setting. Robyn Smith’s incredibly unique and expressive art tells Nubia’s story with a refreshing joy but also tension as she grapples with heartachingly real racism and misogyny. It’s a book so honest and rich I was surprised a major publisher greenlighted it, but I’m very glad they did.
– Madeleine Chan
Arkham City: The Order of the World
I’ve touched on this series’ visual majesty in my picks for the top artist (Dani) and colorist of the year, but there’s no overstating it: Arkham City‘s vision of Gotham is intoxicating. A Batman book sans Batman, it follows a therapist who formerly worked at the now-closed Arkham Asylum as she endeavors to do right by her patients, dangerous and twisted though they may be. The series’ elevation of the Ten-Eyed Man from irrelevancy to star power is jaw-dropping (thanks to writer Dan Watters), and the pacing is exemplary. Magical, sad, and unpredictable, this series has been one of the year’s major high points.
– Alex Cline
Despite its bleak subject matter, Karmen is a book packed with joy and celebration of life. Writer/artist Guillem March presents a sort of sunny, Mediterranean version of Death of the Endless in Karmen, who looks to illustrate the weight of living to someone who has thrown life away. The concept and sentiment might not feel terribly groundbreaking, but March’s beautiful world, the character’s wonderfully expressive faces and bodies, and the general European lack of American-Puritanical body-shame break ample ground. It’s a book that celebrates the human form without sexualizing it, all in the effort to make life feel wonderful to live.
– Colin Moon
Superman and the Authority
Grant Morrison bids farewell to Big Two cape comics with a deeply affectionate send-off that pushes Superman and his longtime foe Manchester Black into new roles via a very Dick-and-Damian Dynamic Duo relationship. Mikel Janín and a talented band of guest artists bring modern superheroic thunder, from the delectable hunkability of silver fox Clark Kent to a superheroic brawl that pits the Authority against a hastily-assembled band of schmucks who aren’t wholly sure what is going on but are certain they’ll come out on top. The end result? A blast. An absolute blast. What a joy this book was to read.
– Justin Harrison
The Many Deaths of Laila Starr
It’s rare that a comic makes you think about life and death in such a profound way as The Many Deaths of Laila Starr does. A modernized gods story like no other, writer Ram V tells a contemplative yet simple tale about a goddess of death who’s lost her job due to prophesied mortal immortality. As the five issues unfold, different facets of the sanctity and purity of life are explored, and Filipe Andrade’s breathtaking art grows more emotionally and existentially potent. It’s not just because of the stunning foil variant covers, but this has to be an all-time favorite of mine.
– Madeleine Chan
Made in Korea
The most gorgeous comic I read this year, Made in Korea (from writer Jeremy Holt and artist George Schall) plants itself at the intersection of gender identity, personhood, autonomy, and robot sh*t in a way that feels perfectly tailored for me. This isn’t necessarily the comic that defined my 2021 in a way that others may have, but it was the one that I constantly marveled at, and wondered how something this beautiful and meaningful could exist at all.
– Keigen Rea
Colorists are unsung heroes in this industry — they play pivotal roles in the quality of final art on display, and yet seldom get the recognition they deserve. One such colorist deserving of high accolades is Dave Stewart, whose work this year on Arkham City: The Order of the World is just breathtaking (same with Vinyl). There’s no overstating how important his work is to enhancing the book’s tone, from its scariest moments to its silliest (which are still quite creepy). Stewart crafts a beautifully eerie vision of Gotham that I adore, and that I desperately hope we’ll get to see again once this mini-series wraps up.
– Alex Cline
This year was an exceptional year for comics color art. Just look at Mike Spicer’s work on The Swamp Thing and Beta Ray Bill. It was a no-brainer, then, to have Lopes take the spot for the second year in a row when you consider his incredible ability to give comics characters and worlds life. From the rich alien planets in Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow to the magical realms in The Dreaming: Waking Hours and even the incredibly lush Savage Land in Ka-Zar: Lord of the Savage Lands, Lopes killed it at every turn. Sure, each of those series had pencilers that were beyond good, but it was Lopes infusing these characters and stories with a layer of beauty that’s truly unmatched.
– Dave Brooke
The right colors can make or break any page, panel, or moment in a given issue. In the case of Jordie Bellaire, she gets this nuance like few other creators, and her colors always seem to respect the art and try to build it up without overwhelming everything else. In 2021, Bellaire had a few important projects, including the excellent Wonder Woman: Evolution and the ongoing Black Widow. (And just look at her work on Batman: The Imposter.) Every project isn’t just a sight to behold, but this wonderful microcosm of ideas and energies, and she knows how to play up emotions and story tidbits by messing around with the depth and intensity of every color. It’s a subtle art, but when done right, colors make all the difference. And Jordie Bellaire’s work makes all the difference between solid storytelling and something that sticks with you for days on end.
– Chris Coplan
James Tynion IV
James Tynion IV has become a frequently-cited name in these lists over the last several years, and when it’s right, it’s just right. Frankly, the dual powerhouse series The Nice House on the Lake and The Department of Truth would be enough to cement Tynion’s status as the top writer of the year even before taking into account all his other strong work. I tend to save the best for last, so those two series have been at the bottom of my floppy piles month after month, waiting to blow me away and remind me of the sheer potential of comics as a medium. I’ll also shout out his work on Wynd, one of the best all-ages series of the year.
– Alex Cline
Kelly Thompson’s Captain Marvel might just be my favorite take on the character thus far — and I’ve read a lot of Captain Marvel. She just seems to get Carol’s character and has taken her in such fun directions. The future plot with Ove was so fun, and I appreciate how she isn’t afraid to do unexpected things. She doesn’t play it safe, and she really explores characters and gives them a full arc. She’s great at cliffhangers and always leaves the reader wanting more. Similarly, her work on Jessica Jones and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are also hugely worth reading.
– Lia Williamson
I think it would be hard to argue against Ram V being the writer who had the best 2021. Hot off of last year’s critical hit Blue in Green, Ram hit hard at the start of the year with the Future State issues of The Swamp Thing — some of my favorite issues of the event — along with the announcement of a miniseries at BOOM! with Filipe Andrade, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, which is undoubtedly on best-of lists everywhere. Throughout the year, The Swamp Thing maintained its place at the top of the industry, Catwoman stayed consistently entertaining, and Justice League was worth buying if only because of the Justice League Dark backups. He’s ending the year with the launch of Venom, which very well be the next superhero epic in the making, as well as Radio Apocalypse, undoubtedly his new indie darling, and the announcement that he’ll be helming a new Carnage series in 2022. No matter how you cut it, Ram V has had a killer year, and the coming one seems full of its own bangers.
– Keigen Rea
Best Ongoing Series (Part 1)
Nightwing transformed into Ric Grayson after taking a bullet to the head in Tom King’s Batman run, resulting in both memory and personality loss. It was an interesting experiment, but sadly it took Dick Grayson out of the equation. Tom Taylor and Bruno Redondo’s Nightwing #78, then, was mind-blowing and understandable why it became an instant sellout: they brought the hero back and made him hopeful again. That injection of positivity helps to attract people to want to read comics; yes, it is great to see the hero struggle, but we don’t want to wallow in despair. Here we get dynamic heroism both in the writing and in the beautifully designed panels by Redondo . The banter between characters is charming and authentic, the new villain Heartless is scary, and Grayson is worthwhile outside his slick Nightwing costume. The current direction of the book feels like it has a creative team (editors, colorists, and everyone involved) that genuinely loves Grayson, and it shows in their monthly offerings.
– Christopher Franey
Once & Future
Once & Future has made a point of escalating and escalating and escalating again. An undead King Arthur led to the return of Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel’s Mother. Their return then paved the way for a quest that ended with the undead Arthur decapitating the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on national television. Bonvillain and Mora make magnificent monsters, chief among them the increasingly mutilated and mutated Sir Galahad. Writer Kieron Gillen delves into the way playing a role can devour someone and what it takes to hold on to yourself amidst massive upheaval. (Plus, the giant monsters are really flipping cool thanks to artist Dan Mora.) It’s consistently a delight.
– Justin Harrison
The Department of Truth
It’s one of the smartest books on stands. It’s also one of the most visually beautiful and among the most emotionally mature. The Department of Truth (from James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, and Elsa Charretier) manages quite a feat: it takes a wildly fantastical premise and explores it to deliver perhaps the best political commentary of any American comic this year. Creative, heartbreaking, and wholly original, it occupies a niche I didn’t know I needed until I read it.
– Alex Cline
Guardians of the Galaxy
Though the run has ended now, writer Al Ewing took the Guardians of the Galaxy and did incredible things with these space misfits. He — alongside artist Juann Cabal — delved into their characters with such expertise that I found myself loving characters I was apathetic on beforehand. His plots always honor the history of the series while adding new and exciting things to keep the reader on their toes. Hopefully Ewing gets another shot at writing this team in the future.
– Lia Williamson
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