Okay so before I start. Some disclaimers: 1.) I do not have infinite money. As a result, I did not read as many comics this year as I wish I had (maybe some day, I will put in some sort of tip jar or Patreon or something, and people can give me money to read comics and talk about them), so if there’s an amazing comic that came out this year and it’s not on here, it’s possible I just didn’t read it. 2.) My rules for this list are that in order to qualify, it must be a comic that was published, at least in part, in 2016, and it must not have been a comic I included in a previous year’s list (unless there’s some fundamental change in the title that makes it worth revisiting). And finally 3.) I went back and forth on the order for this list a LOT, so this is my order, but it may not have been my order yesterday, and it might not be tomorrow. It just is for the moment. With that said, before we get to the list proper, let’s do some honorable mentions.
Spider-Gwen – Jason Latour, Marvel Comics
This is a title that I technically could have included here, but it felt like cheating. The title relaunched post-Secret Wars, and so it’s a “new” title, but it’s really not. As I result, I didn’t include it, but it has been amazing so far. The first arc of the new run is a step up from the already fantastic story telling from pre-Secret Wars, and Robbi Rodriguez’s art just keeps getting better and better (which is one reason it’s so sad that he will be leaving the title, and comics in general, later this year). I particularly love the way they are fleshing out Earth-65. I love the Earth-65 Captain America, and the twist on Matt Murdock continues to be more and more compelling, too. Just love this book. It may not be AS groundbreaking as it was last year, just by virtue of being around for a bit and other titles becoming more inclusive, but it continues to push boundaries in new and interesting ways. If you were waiting to check this one out, now is a good time, and 2016 was a great year for it.
Princess Leia – Mark Waid, Marvel Comics
This title wrapped up in 2015, disqualifying it from the list, though I read it in 2016. It’s a great mini-series that follows Leia’s effort of gathering the survivors of Alderan after A New Hope, and it does a commendable job in bringing some new lore into the series while fleshing out Leia as a character in a way that gives her a bit more agency than she had at that point in the film series. The passing of Carrie Fisher just made this more important to highlight. It’s a great treatment of that character. If you are a Star Wars fan, give this one a read.
Namesake – Isabelle Melancon and Megan Lavey-Heaton, http://www.namesakecomic.com/
I haven’t decided if comics that are pure webcomics are going to be included on this list, and until I do, I will reserve them for honorable mentions (it also makes my job easier, because it limits my choices). Namesake is one of the most beautiful webcomics out there, though. The use of splashes of color on black and white is a technique that is often done poorly, by relying on it too heavily, but here is done with care and expertise. If something is colored, it matters. And it makes the full color volume covers pop out even more. I should point out that like most webcomics (or comics in general) the art and writing gets better as the artist gets more practice, so if you are not in love with it at first, give it some time. In addition to the gorgeous art, the central conceit of the comic that of there being “Namesakes” who are able (and destined) to affect their respective “fictional” realms is a really cool and well-done look at the “drawn into a fictional story” genre. I thoroughly enjoy this comic, and I highly recommend it. Plus there’s a character whose look is inspired by Daveed Diggs’ Thomas Jefferson. Gotta give it a read, just for that.
Old Man Logan – Jeff Lemire, Marvel Comics
I really struggled on if this was going to be #10, ultimately I decided that while it was one of the better comics I read this year, I ultimately enjoyed the comic at #10 more, so this got relegated to honorable mentions. In part, because I wanted to say that if you are looking for a dark and gritty look at Wolverine that does not sacrifice the joy of reading comics, this is a good place to turn. I’ve never been a big fan of the Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns method of gritty comic book creation. It seems to sap the joy out of the experience for me. But here we have a Logan who is completely broken in a world that is not. We have humor and some light in the other characters in the series, and that makes his actions and tragic backstory even more compelling.
Now without further ado…
#10 Spider-Man/Deadpool – Joe Kelly, Marvel Comics
This comic is just fun. It has an interesting plot, sure. And the art is what I would call “inoffensive,” which is to say, it isn’t amazing or ground breaking, but it’s not risky. It’s art that people will like. Nice and clean and comic-booky. Where this title shines, though, is in the fun factor of its concept, execution, and writing. Spider-Man being forced to be the straight man (because Deadpool is so over-the-top) is entertaining as hell, and the fact that there is some real heart in this comic under the current of humor just helps the concept along. Also, on a meta-level (and when dealing with Deadpool, you gotta go meta-level), I love the idea of taking Deadpool, a character that has always been a parody of another character: “Deathstroke” from DC Comics, and then remarking on all the ways he is a rip off of Spider-Man. It is just a wonderful bit of humor in and of itself. This is an idea that was cooked up in some random “wouldn’t it be cool if we did this mash-up” idea at a bar, and it just worked better than it had any right to.
#9 Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – James Tynion IV, DC Comics/IDW
Speaking of “wouldn’t it be cool if we did this mash-up” ideas that work better than they have any right to… Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles feels like something I would have thought up in my bedroom when I was 8, except executed in a way that I enjoy in my 30s. Everything about this comic is wonderful, and the whole time you are just thinking “This shouldn’t work, but it does.” I am especially impressed with the art of Freddie Williams II, which does an excellent job of melding these two franchises in a way that serves both character designs extremely well. The plot is well-executed, the jokes are hilarious, the character’s reactions to each other calls to mind the old cross-over cartoon episodes of the 90s in a way that creates a strong sense of warm, pleasant nostalgia for me. That was my overwhelming thought while reading this comic, “I could definitely have seen this as a cartoon crossover episode when I was a kid.” Which is funny, because, apparently, DC and IDW were thinking the same thing.
#8 Wonder Woman Earth One – Grant Morrison, DC Comics
The Earth One line of comics is an interesting concept that has always intrigued me, but I haven’t read much from it as of yet. The basic premise here is that DC created this new continuity to retell classic stories with modern storytelling sensibilities, and in a form that is released as a graphic novel only, as opposed to issue by issue, so that the full season’s story is created to be consumed all at once with a clear arc. It’s an interesting approach to what is often called “writing for the trade,” which is to say writing in such a way that it will make sense as a trade paperback, but not necessarily at the start of the run. By releasing the whole volume at once, and have it created to be released AS a graphic novel, and in a season format, It’s basically the Netflix TV series structure of comic books.
In this case, I was especially drawn to this volume, because it is Grant Morrison writing it, and it’s Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has actually gotten a LOT of love in comics recently. If you look at some “Best Comics of 2016” lists, you will notice that almost all of them include a Wonder Woman comic, and they aren’t all the same comic. This is my pick. It started out as a good comic and turned into a great one. I loved the frame narrative structure of Wonder Woman being on trial for going to man’s world as you hear several sides of the story from the history that led up to this point, and I love how the layout of the panels supports that narrative style. I loved the fact that now, in a post-comic code world, and in a graphic novel where there is even more freedom, we can have a comic that overtly makes Diana a lesbian (or at least bisexual), and, in fact, is not shy about showing that the Amazon society she comes from is full of women in same sex relationships and that love between women is a big part of their society. I love how very alien some things seem, and I mean that both in the way that some things are strange and different in ways that don’t make sense to readers (who are, after all, from “man’s world”), and in the way that some things seem utopian in a way that makes readers wish the world was a place that could support such ideals. It’s a wonderful blend that makes a reader feel like an outsider, while still making them appreciate the society that Diana is coming from. But the book REALLY turned around for me when Steve Trevor used the plight of African Americans and the African slave trade as the reason why he sided with Diana against his superiors. The thought that “those of us who are or will be subjugated by those with privilege and power have a responsibility to stand up to that power together” is a powerful one and was an unexpected inclusion.
Once it happened, though, the whole book came together for me. The sort of thesis of the book became clear. This is a comic that is interested in Wonder Woman as a champion for equal rights and representation, of course. She’s a warrior, and she will fight for what she feels is right. But it is also interested in exploring her role as a positive and optimistic force of change, who can be a banner to gather around and unite those who would fight against oppression. And, most importantly, the comic makes it clear that fighting against oppression and offering a hand to those who would fight with you, even if they come from the group that you are fighting against, are not things that are mutually exclusive. It’s a careful line to walk, and it risks a lot by braving it. But this is not a comic that is saying “don’t blame men for the terrible things men do.” It’s a comic that is saying “if you do not want to be associated with the men doing these terrible things, and you are a man, it’s even more important for you to stand with us, and when you do, we will unite.” This is an idea that has become even more politically relevant since this book was published, and I hope people are listening.
#7 Descender – Jeff Lemire, Image Comics
Man this comic is pretty. Descender is a comic that is basically what you would get if you took the “giant alien apocalypse” angle of Mass Effect and blended it with the “we created evil Robot AI” angle of Battlestar Gallactica, and it’s great. It’s engrossing and moving and has deep, interesting character development and an amazingly fleshed out world. And to top it off, Dustin Nguyen illustrates the comic in a gorgeous water color style that just makes every panel look like it could be framed and put on your wall. For Sci-Fi fans, especially, but really just for anyone who wants a complicated, mysterious, and character-driven story and gorgeous art, this is a comic you must be reading.
P.S. If you would like the first two volumes of Descender, along with a bunch of comics from last year’s list. The current HumbleBundle is the Image Comics 25th Anniversary Bundle and has them, AND you can donate to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation while you are at it! But it ends in the next 2 days! So hurry!
#6 The Vision – Tom King, Marvel Comics
Oh man… this comic is a trip. In a lot of ways, this feels like it should be published over at Image, and coming from me, that’s a big compliment. So the basic premise of this comic is Vision decides to create a robot family for himself: A wife, a son, and a daughter. Then he takes them and settles down in suburban America. Seems a little creepy, but whatever. This is a universe where we have dudes made of orange rock walking around. So a robot family… not terribly out of the ordinary. But… then the book takes a sharp turn right out of Tomorrowland and into Murdersuspensethrillerland. In addition, the narration is a haunting reminder of the ever growing darkness of the plot, constantly reminding you that things are not going to end well in this comic.
This comic should be used as a blueprint any time that someone wants to explore what it would be like to do a dark comic within an established universe with an established hero, because it does it right. Vision is still clearly a good person, but he has to make hard decisions, because of his love for his family. Things cascade in a way that make characters both sympathetic and also morally wrong, and, most importantly, unlike most comics that try to pull the “dark twist on a good character” angle, it accomplishes it without resorting to making the world a bleak and desolate place to live. It’s just engaging as hell to read. I couldn’t put it down. In fact, I read this at the end of issue 1 of Spider-Man/Deadpool, because it was just included there, and then I immediately went and read all of this, instead of reading Spider-Man/Deadpool. So… yeah… It’s really good. I saw this on a lot of people’s #1 spots for their lists, and I don’t blame them. It could very well be the most surprisingly well-done comic of the year. As far as new comics go, it’s certainly in the top 3 most well written comics of the year.
#5 Black Panther – Ta-Nahisi Coates, Marvel Comics
Another one of the best written new comics of the year, Black Panther is a great example of what happens when you place value on the writing talent for your comic book. Ta-Nahisi Coates is not a comic writer, but he is an established writer with a serious number of accolades. As a result, this comic reads differently than your typical Marvel comic. This is another comic that would feel right at home over at Image. It’s character-driven, it feels interested in different aspects of Black Panther than we are used to seeing. It’s not really a super hero comic so much as it is a comic about Africa, and about being a King, and about interpersonal relationships in an epic world.
The premise here is T’Challa has returned home to Wakanda to take up the mantle of king once more after the death of his sister. But it has much more to do with the state of Wakanda as a country than the antics of a superhero. All of the characters in this comic have understandable motivations, and no one seems wholly evil. Even the villains are at least understandable as characters. This is a comic deeply concerned with problems that are very real to Africa today, in addition to basic human problems like parental connections, the responsibility of authority, the problem with being a marginalized group, choosing love over duty, etc.
On a more technical point, this series doesn’t shy away from its dark colors, which is actually very progressive of it. Often, you have black characters presented as lighter-skinned, because society’s messed up perception of attractiveness sees lighter skin as more appealing. But not only does this comic allow for darker skinned characters, it actually embraces them and incorporates the darker skin into gorgeous imagery by playing with light in ways that artists who are shyer about their use of dark skin would not.
I would also like to point out how much I love the characters portrayed in this panel. They are a lesbian couple who are on a mission to liberate women from the systematic oppression they face in Wakanda. They are just incredible, and their arc has been a joy to read. The real strength in this title is in its ability to create various groups of interesting, complicated, and engaging characters whom you can sympathize with as a reader and grow attached to. It feels like a smaller scale version of Saga in that way. And if that kind of comic writing is a growing trend, it’s certainly one I can get behind.
#4 DC Universe Rebirth – Geoff Johns, DC Comics
This is bar none the best single issue of a comic I read this year. I’m a big fan of rewarding writers for excellent structure. And this is structured masterfully. The basic purpose of this comic was to revitalize the DC Universe in more ways than one. Yes, it was designed to sell some comics, and win readers back by doing a sort of soft reboot of their titles, but also the DC Universe had begun to feel drained of joy. The New 52 really brought with it this reliance on gritty realism and darker, bleaker storytelling about disconnected and solitary characters, and that just doesn’t work for these characters. What is so wonderful about this comic is it breathes that life back into the DC universe, but it does so in such a way that doesn’t ignore the spectacle. It acknowledges the bleakness, and it creates an in-universe reason for it: a villain that our heroes need to band together and fight against. And that’s a fight that we, as readers can get behind, because it’s a fight to bring back the universe we love.
But that isn’t the only reason why this was such a great issue. The actual individual plot of the issue was also phenomenal. We see Pre-52 Wally West trying one last desperate time to warn of the danger he saw to his universe, and to tell people that everything in their world is wrong. This leads the reader through a tour of sorts of the current DC Universe, and it also makes you really care about Wally and his ever shortening time in existence. It’s beautifully written and included moments of heart break and joy. The last triumphant moment of the comic is so momentous that you can almost hear the uplift in the soundtrack as you read it. It worked as a story, it acknowledged a mistake and worked to fix it (something you almost never see publishers do), it brings back a well-loved character without sacrificing his more diverse New 52 incarnation, and it jumpstarted the Rebirth series of comics, which have, by and large, been top notch. Best individual issue of the year, easily.
#3 Superman: American Alien – Max Landis, DC Comics
Another comic on everyone’s list and for good reason. This is such an original and refreshing take on Superman. Max Landis makes this comic NOT about Superman, but about Clark Kent. It’s a comic about what it’s like growing up as an alien in a small town in Kansas, and what it’s like to have friends who know you are an alien, but are also just your friends from high school who are worried about you. It blends genres, and it shifts in tone as Clark enters different stages of his life. It reads like a bildungsroman with Clark’s journey to adulthood being the main point of the plot. We begin with Clark as a child, afraid of his newfound powers, trying to learn to control them, and we see how it impacts his family, and his community. We see him as a teenager, making mistakes, doing things teenagers do, it’s a comic about Superman the way that The Walking Dead is a comic about zombies. Sure, it’s there. He has Superpowers, but it’s more focused on how the existence of those powers affects Clark’s daily life and the lives of those around him than it is about him using them to fight crime. It’s about the Clark’s struggle to deal with those powers and find a place for himself within the world.
Visually, the comic shifts from chapter to chapter. Seven chapters with seven different artists all picked to capture the tone that Landis wanted in the comic. I’m more of a fan of some of this art than others (I have a personal preference for art with more definition, rather than less. I don’t typically like the sketchier, or wispier, less defined comic art, and there is some of that in this book), but even when I wasn’t a huge fan of the art style, the writing was top notch. I was so deeply interested in the character of Clark Kent and his journey. When I finished, I immediately wanted to flip the comic over and start again (I didn’t. Instead I wrote this. You’re welcome). Definitely the best Superman comic I have ever read, and almost certainly the best written new comic to come out in 2016.
#2 Injustice: Gods Among Us – Tom Taylor, DC Comics
So I knew this comic existed, but I didn’t actually start reading it until this year. I always assumed it was just a cheap tie-in comic to a fighting video game, which, I figured, couldn’t possibly have a good story. When’s the last time someone played a fighting game for the story? I would ask, especially one that is based on comic book characters. As it turns out, I was wrong on all fronts there. The video game is actually great, and it has a fantastic story (can’t wait for the next game to come out in a few months), and the comic is even better. This comic is some of the best writing I have seen in a multi-year spanning title from the Big Two in the last 20 years, probably. The writing is so good in this comic that when someone delivers a piece of dialogue that would be an average level of cliché in a normal comic, I find myself first kind of groaning and then realizing that I only have a problem with it here, because the average level of writing is so high. The premise, if you aren’t aware, is: What happens if Superman is pushed to break his moral code and decides to take a more authoritarian approach to protecting earth? He is enticed to kill joker right at the onset, after being tricked into killing Lois and his unborn child in the first few pages of the comic, and that’s the tipping point. From that point on, the comic becomes about the five years leading up to the video game and how the universe changes throughout those five years. We see, as readers, who chooses what side and why, and how those who choose Superman’s side justify their actions, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how Superman changes as a character to justify his own actions.
Sometimes, this is better executed than others, but the character writing is always superb in this comic. This is true of all of the characters, but there are definitely some standouts, Harley Quinn being chief among them. If you are a fan of Harley Quinn, and you want to see someone write her extremely well, read this comic. This is a comic that tackles difficult character issues with a level of care and gravity that you usually don’t see. A lot of that comes from the freedom of writing a limited run series in a separate timeline. Characters can die here, and when they do, they stay dead. That adds a kind of weight that we don’t usually see in big superhero comics where nothing, it seems, is permanent. This comic got me thinking a lot about what it is that makes comics like this and the comics over at Image a higher average quality than your typical superhero comic, and I really think it is the need for those in-universe comics to maintain a kind of status quo for the sake of the continuing universe. And, as a parallel point, the fact that said universe doesn’t have an end to write towards, so you can’t plan a coherent arc for it. You can’t kill Spider-Man in the main Marvel continuity, because people want to read Spider-Man comics. And they want to read ABOUT Spider-Man in them. But if you had a comic series that had a clear end in sight, you could, and it would be tragic and heavy, but you could do it for the sake of your story, and you would have an easier time finding the right place to do it in, because you can map out a large arc for your comic. As they do in Injustice
The comic is split up into years, with the final year wrapping up in 2016 (a new comic is now being released called “Injustice: Ground Zero” that bridges the gap between Injustice and Injustice 2), and each year has a sort of theme to it, Magic, Lantern Corp, etc. As a result, every year has a slightly different tone, but they are all excellent (the earlier years, which are written by Tom Taylor are a little bit higher quality, but all of the writers to an good job of continuing his work). And they are all working to build towards a set end. It’s clear that the story was mapped out ahead of time with an idea of how to get from point A to point B. Point B, in this case, being the start of the Injustice video game. That makes for a better story, and it makes for smoother character development. Overall, it just makes this a great comic.
#1 Sunstone – Stjepan Sejic, Top Cow/Image
Quick warning here, Sunstone is definitely not for children and not safe for work. It has nudity, explicit sexual content, etc. So if you are offended by that stuff, give this one a skip, even though it’s amazing, but if you aren’t. Check it out, and also read on…
This is a comic that I don’t think anyone has on their list, and that’s a shame. Sunstone is a comic that started on a Deviantart page where you can still read all of it for free here: http://shiniez.deviantart.com/ (WARNING: NSFW), but is also being published in beautifully retouched and re-edited graphic novel format by Top Cow, a partner studio to Image, (seriously, these books are gorgeous, and they are worth picking up, even if you already can read it for free). It’s a comic about two girls in a BDSM relationship, which, I’m aware, sounds like I’m recommending porny fanfic, but I’m not. This comic is adorable, heart-warming, and just… real. It just feels real.
Stjepan Sejic while, perhaps, a bit slow to release new strips (mostly due to some chronic health problems), is so good at writing real, complex characters and reminding us how great of a story life is. Lisa, one of the protagonists, and the narrator of the story, laments that her story has very few twists and not much plot, because it’s “just life.” And she’s right! And it’s a great story, because life in its incredible mundanity is an amazing story in and of itself, and this is a story about character exploration and development. Like Superman: American Alien, it’s a story about how a person deals with their life. That kind of story doesn’t need big plot twists. It just needs to be well-written, beautiful, and make you care about the characters, and this comic does that better than any other comic I read this year.
Sejic is on record as saying that writing Sunstone retaught him how to write character driven fiction, and I think it retaught me how important character driven fiction is, and how deeply it can resonate with its readers. In fact, just reading this comic helped me through my own personal troubles earlier this year, so I have a sort of personal fondness for it. I don’t reread comics, like… ever, and I reread this one from start to (nearly) finish (it wasn’t done at the time) five times. It’s a shame that more people aren’t familiar with this wonderful little indie comic. It’s definitely the best one I read this year. Check it out.
Interesting, I think I’m most sold on Sunstone and Superman: American Alien.
As to the latter, I did end up dropping Walking Dead hard for reasons similar to that of Dan Drezner dropped the TV show. Basically, even in character driven stories, the world itself often has a message. So, ultimately the question of how the comic handles the larger context of the big blue boy scout will be important for me. (And thank you.)
Sunstone is probably more straightforward. I do greatly enjoy slice of life, as long as a fair number of the characters do have aspirations beyond their day-to-day. With melodramatic stories, sometimes the development can just be moving in circles, but that doesn’t sound like a problem here.
Black Panther is the only one of these I’ve read, and I’ve found it bold but also challenging as a reader. I think it’s worth exploring the Image vs. Marvel feel question in more detail because a lot of the themes of the story, grapples with Black Panther’s and Wakanda’s deep and often convoluted canon. I’m a little behind, as I haven’t had the chance to visit my a local comic store recently, and catch up. But some of the best writing about it that I’ve seen are was in the LA review of books by Osvaldo Oyola. I think Coates is trying something hard and demanding a lot of the reader. I’m not sure he’s pulled it off, but I respect the effort and I’m going to keep trying on my end.
Black Panther is definitely more demanding and literary than your typical comic, even your typical comic at Image. In that respect, it actually reminds me a lot of the Spider-Man event, Kraven’s Last Hunt, which is also somewhat demanding literature, though not on quite the same level. But I really appreciate the degree to which we are seeing a shift from the old standard comic thematic and plot elements that are more action-oriented into ones that are more character-driven, at least once in a while.
I definitely get that about The Walking Dead, and I am actually of the opinion that it is actually one of the worst books at Image, which is NOT to say I think it’s bad. It’s basically me saying that it’s like the worst cookie in the best cookie shop in town. But I think a lot of that has to do with the extent to which it has been running. It has, essentially, become its own continuing universe. Presumably, there’s an end, but we have no idea when. And it is beginning to feel like the arc of the story is no longer as smooth as in comics with shorter runs. In the case of Superman: American Alien, the brevity of the book is to its advantage. I am excited, but nervous at the rumors of Landis writing a follow-up, because I really appreciate the narrative structure that he’s created.
And yeah, Sunstone does slice of life really well. It is heavily focused on the love and sex life of Lisa and Ally, but it is also about how they balance those things with other aspects of their lives, and, to a large extent, its about the importance of some things that often society sees as less important regarding someone’s sex life, and the importance of friend circles that understand you. I always feel a bit weird recommending it, because it is so very very sexual in nature, but Sejic does such a great job of presenting those things in necessary and respectful ways. And plus, it’s just fun (most of the time. There has to be some drama.) I actually have a full review of this comic coming someday… But it’s hard to write, because I have so much to say about the narrative elements. But yeah… it will be up at some point!
I just read the first trade of Spider Gwen and loved it. I’ll be continuing that one for sure. Might check out Sunstone as well.