Top Comic Books of 2016

If I had to guess, I’d say there were at least a million comics being released every month. At least it feels that way sometimes. Most of it’s meaningless drivel, the comic book equivalent of network television that’s only on for background noise while folding laundry. Yet that very glut makes the gems both harder to find and more precious once you do.

As much as I like to snark on the Big Two being all kinds of obnoxious, they have managed to eke out more than a few great series this year… not as many as the indies, mind, but a fair amount. I was deeply annoyed by DC’s Rebirth reboot, but longtime fans seem to relish the change and have flocked to the new titles in droves. Marvel, on the other hand, stumbled hard on Civil War II (and again with being unable to wrap up the crossover before launching new titles directly impacted by the conflict’s resolution). Not unsurprisingly, some of their best series were the ones that had little to nothing to do with Civil War II. Image, BOOM! Box, Dark Horse, IDW, Oni Press, and the myriad other small and alternate presses continue to churn out the new wave of great indie comics amidst the deluge of comic book versions of TV shows. On the diversity front, great progress was made on the page, but production is still a largely cis-het white male domain.

All of which brings us to this post. I’d call this less of a Best Of and more of a “here are some great SFF comics that debuted in 2016 and challenged the medium in ways their peers did not.”

 

Best of Marvel

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I’d be derelict in my duties as a comics reviewer if I didn’t have Black Panther (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, Chris Sprouse, Laura Martin, Joe Sabino) on this list. You already know the multitude of reasons why this series is amazing—gorgeous art, intense dialogue, an examination of the intersection of race and power through an Afrofuturist lens, etc.—and there’s nothing else quite like it on the market. Black Panther is powerful, beautiful stuff.

The previous Black Widow series was quieter and more of a psychological exploration of Natasha Romanoff the woman and what she sacrifices to be the Black Widow. The new Black Widow (Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Matthew Wilson) leans more on the thrilling spy caper side as Black Widow goes rogue and has to fight her way out of S.H.I.E.L.D., but the heart of Natasha still beats through the story. It feels a lot like a Marvel twist on the woefully underappreciated Image series Velvet with a dash of the late, great DC title Grayson.

Remember that arc in Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye run where Kate Bishop becomes a private investigator in LA? Well, she’s at it again, this time in Venice Beach in the new Hawkeye (Kelly Thompson, Leonardo Romero, Jordie Bellaire). Thompson and Romero have kept the silly humor and playful wit of Fraction and Aja while staking their own claim on a character most creatives don’t know what to do with. The first issue was a firecracker of possibilities. You may not think you need this on your pull list, but you do.

 

Best of DC

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Rebirth has a host of Superman-related titles, and New Super-Man (Gene Luen Yang, Viktor Bogdanovic, Richard Friend, Blond, Hi-Fi, Kelsey Shannon) is easily one of the best (with Superman: American Alien a close second). I’ll save you the convoluted Superman(s) backstory and give you the short version: the big blue boyscout is dead and China has manufactured a new Supes out of a teenage bully. Yang deftly plays on the superhero origin story and redemption of morally gray characters tropes.

Midnighter was one of the best series in the DC stables until it’s untimely cancellation (more on that in a bit), so it was pleasantly surprising when DC let Steve Orlando bring back the bloodthirsty gay superhero for a six-issue miniseries Midnighter and Apollo (Steve Orlando, Fernando Blanco, Romulo Fajardo, Jr.). Orlando digs deep into the DC longboxes for forgotten characters and cranks the violence up to eleven, but it’s the heat of the on-again off-again back-on-again romance between Midnighter and Apollo that seals the deal. It’s also got to be up there with Black Panther as one of the most daringly beautiful comics of 2016. Blanco and Fajardo Jr. deserve a huge raise.

If you haven’t yet read the Wonder Woman 75th Anniversary Special, I have only one question for you: why the hell not? It contains some of the best Wonder Woman stories in years, including one where Diana encounters a new metahuman which left me in tears with how adorable and sweet it was. This standalone WW collection is a heartwarming reminder that superheroes are more than glowering capes and punching machines. They make the world a better place by seeing the goodness in people.

 

Must have YA Titles

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BOOM! Box is on a roll right now. They’re producing a ton of thoroughly enjoyable all-ages comics, so many that it’s difficult to choose the best of the best. Goldie Vance (Hope Larson, Brittney Williams, Sarah Stern) is one of those series that makes me happy just knowing it exists. It’s a cute, fun little period piece crime comic with a queer biracial teenage girl protagonist. It never talks down to its audience, nor is it hard-hitting. It’s a cozy comics mystery with lovely art and engaging characters and just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it yet again.

Next best has to be The Backstagers (James Tynion IV, Rian Sygh, Walter Baiamonte, Jim Campbell). Like Goldie Vance, it’s diverse in the same way the real world is, a trend I hope becomes standard operating procedure in mainstream comics sooner rather than later. It also fills the void in the lack of comics with a non-white, non-straight teenage boy cast. And it does so with an entertaining story, vivid fantasy worldbuilding, clever artwork, and a flair for the melodramatic.

Black Mask Studios is also doing yeoman’s duty at putting out really interesting titles. One of their best is Kim & Kim (Mags Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam), a fun and funny comic heavy on the science fiction and fantasy. The Kims are compelling characters with rich inner lives who have raucous adventures in a vibrant ‘verse. Anytime anyone asks me for non-superhero comics recs, Kim & Kim is one of the first titles out of my mouth. Whoever decided not to pick up this four-issue miniseries to ongoing is failing at life.

 

The most “drop everything and read this right now” graphic novel

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There were a lot of strong contenders in graphic novel category, but for me it has to be Panther (Brecht Evens; Drawn & Quarterly). What starts off as a twee little story about a girl whose cat dies at the vet and discovers a new cat-like imaginary friend soon shifts into one full of looming dread and the chilling notion that nothing good can come from Panther or his troubling cohorts. And the art is just as astonishing as the story. In every panel Panther takes a different form to please Christine, but more than that the sheer talent required to produce something like Panther is mind boggling.

 

Best addition to the Star Wars canon

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Until recently, Poe Dameron held the number one spot in this section, but in early December we were graced with the ass-kicking awesomeness that is Doctor Aphra (Kieron Gillen, Salvador Larroca, Kev Walker; Marvel). Set shortly after the end of Darth Vader, Aphra is basically a wisecracking, swashbuckling Han Solo but way more selfish and shoot first, ask questions never. Like Rogue One, it’s a Star Wars story that isn’t a Star Wars story; it’s part of the larger universe without having much to do directly with the Skywalker familial squabbles. We’re only one issue in so far, but what a start.

 

Most bonkers team

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As a YA librarian I spend my days trying to convince teenagers to read more. The one genre I don’t have to do any book pushing on is comics, and of the ton of titles they consume, Doom Patrol (Gerard Way, Nick Derington, Nick Derington, Tamra Bonvillain; Young Animal) is the one they can’t stop talking about. Doom Patrol is DC’s attempt to revitalize an outdated cast for the new millennium, and they aced it. It’s The Runaways and Young Avengers for the next gaggle of teens (well, older teens, it is pretty…intense). This is a weird, quirky book with stellar writing and impressive art.

 

Worst cancellations

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I will be grumpy about DC’s cancellation of Midnighter (Steve Orlando, ACO, Hugo Petrus, Romulo Fajardo Jr., Jared K. Fletcher) until the day I die. What a phenomenal series. Even if Rebirth hadn’t put Midnighter on the chopping block, it had been on the cancellation bubble since pretty much its first issue. Despite it being a critical darling, it never sold very well, much to my chagrin. Steve Orlando and ACO worked miracles with this series. It was witty, vicious, and warm all at once. Besides his stint with his beau in Midnighter and Apollo, our bloody, computer-brained bruiser is guesting on Nightwing, which isn’t nearly as good as Grayson, but it’s better than nothing.

Speaking of DC unjustly cancelling beloved titles, let’s talk about their digital-first series The Legend of Wonder Woman (Renae De Liz, Ray Dillon). The abrupt and out of nowhere cancellation sent shockwaves through comics Twitter when it was announced only a few days ago by De Liz. Not only has DC offered no reason for the cancellation, but De Liz won’t even get to wrap up the story arc. The Legend of Wonder Woman was one of the best takes on Diana’s origin story to date. Both De Liz’s heartwarming and empowering storylines and her rich, expressive art will be missed.

I have the iconic cover for the eighth and final issue of Marvel’s Mockingbird (Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, Rachelle Rosenberg, Joe Caramagna, Ibrahim Moustafa, Sean Parsons) hanging up in my office, and it never fails to make me smile. Cain and Niemczyk produced a finely crafted series with and compellingly complex lead. Mockingbird was an intersectionally feminist work riddled with pop culture nods and side trips deep into geek country. Marvel has a lot of fantastic female-led comic books out right now, and Mockingbird was one of the best of the bunch.

OK, so Marvel’s The Vision (Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Jordie Bellaire, Clayton Cowles) wasn’t technically cancelled—Tom King wrapped up the story after signing an exclusive contract with DC—but it was still sad to see it end. The Vision was a storytelling powerhouse and veritable font of incredible artwork. Even the covers were jaw dropping. King wove an intricate, tragic story about what it means to be human, to experience love, and to struggle through sorrow. This series will go down in comics history as one of the all-time greats.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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