As cruel as 2016 was to celebrities, it was a hell of a year for the world of comic books. I’ve been reading sequential art for 31 years, and I can’t think of a richer time for creators to unleash their imaginations, and for publishers to provide those stories directly to eager readers.
It seems like a lot of creators (writers, artists, etc) have truly achieved a level of work that has elevated the art form to a transcendent level. In fact, with comics branching out with new publishers and new avenues for spectacular work, assorted writers and artists are now more well-known; I for one am on the look out for books colored by Tamra Bonvillain, or with inks from Mick Gray, or edited by Andy Schmidt.
Anywho, what follows is a list of books I went bonkers for. Are they the most critically acclaimed? The best-selling? Nah, not necessarily. These are the books that I loved so much I recommend them to everyone who expresses an interest in comics. Truthfully, it was a bitch to narrow this list down to only 16, but here’s the list, starting with numero dieciseis:
Justin Jordan, Felipe Sobreiro, and Tradd Moore combined for a Luther swan song, finally bringing their character trilogy to a blood, frenetic close. It was satisfying to see the overall evolution of Luther conclude in this series, and equally satisfying to see him go bonkers all over his opponents. Combine the action with the manic quipping from Petra, and you’ve got a book that left quite a…ahem…a legacy.
15. Green Arrow – DC Comics – It’s funny – I didn’t notice when Ben Percy began his run on New 52 Green Arrow, but I sure as shit went back and devoured it after I read his Green Arrow Rebirth one-shot.
Percy has brought back an Oliver Queen who would stop mid-robbery-foiling to argue against gentrification, as well as one who is head-over-heels for the Black Canary. Combine his old-yet-net storytelling with the absolutely stunning art of Otto Schmidt and Juan Ferrerya, and you’ve got a true return to form that heralds back to a golden time for the Emerald Archer.
14. Hellboy in Hell – Dark Horse – Ahhhhh, shit. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry at the end, but I still did because I love Hellboy when he’s portrayed in Mignola’s iconic heavily-inked style.
It was a hell of a walkabout as our big red buddy traversed the streets of the underworld, getting into quarrels with restless spirits, and then ending things in a way that was peaceful, serene, and a wonderfully comfortable ending for a character whose destiny was perpetually foretold… but not what he wanted.
13. Tokyo Ghost – Image – Well-crafted comics that have served as almost haunting parables are a rare breed, and Rick Remender’s epic storyline of a global society hopelessly addicted to electronics is better than most any social commentary out there.
The series is brought to breathtaking life by Sean G Murphy’s distinct artwork, a dirty-yet-sharp look at landscape completely corrupted by tech juxtaposed with a purse, organic Tokyo. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth made these settings come to life with vibrant colors and dark settings. These guys absolutely KILLED it.
12. Saints – Image – When we first talked to Sean Lewis and Ben Mackey about their upcoming Saints book, I was immediately won over by the premise: random people gifted the powers of deceased saints. And then, the story began and I was hooked.
Lewis was able to craft a narrative that looks at religion through secular eyes – Blaise doesn’t know what’s going on to him or his Jesus Pimp, but the reader sees just how the various branches of Christianity would want to use the powers to control the masses. Mackey also excelled at his character designs, and as things got bigger and weirder he happily complied: his versions of demons and archangels are as epic in scope as they are bizarre.
11. Weird Detective – Dark Horse – Fred Van Lente is one of those writers who can take a lofty concept and inject humor into the spots that keep the reader grounded. This is precisely what happens in his Cthulu meets Law and Order mini-series from Dark Horse.
It’s amazing how funny it can be for an inter-dimensional body snatcher to describe his myriad extra senses, or how he’s made friends with a surly cat, but Van Lente’s narration coupled with Guiu Vilanova’s sublimely subtle artwork makes for a stellar mini-series that was all too short for my liking.
10. Manifest Destiny – Image – I was late getting into this title, but I’m grateful to any deity involved who pointed me towards it – writer Chris Dingess and artists Mathew Roberts & Owen Gieni turned the tale of Lewis and Clark into a terrifying exploration into the unknown.
This year saw the Fezron massacre and the sasquatch tale unfold, each as chilling for their examination of the supernatural as their examination of mankind’s depths for cruelty. Dingess crafts a haunting narrative through both Lewis’ and Captain Helm’s journal entries, showing a slow descent into madness from the latter.
9. The Vision - Marvel – The book that firmly cemented Tom King into the pantheon of great modern writers, the Vision is about….a robot who wants a family in the suburbs.
It was a testament to how incredible this book was that such a dumpy premise could be expanded upon so greatly – Gabriel Walta and Jordie Bellaire used every physical nuance to maximum effect, and King’s narrator prepared us for the worst, and readers were still crushed by it. It’s a real credit to these creators that they made a book that, every month, destroyed readers and still left them crying for more.
8. Animosity – Aftershock – In a year in which Mike Marts’ brand new publishing house had a stellar stable of new books, Marguerite Bennett’s Animosity was the cream of the crop.
Bennett’s vision, brought to stunning life by Rafael de Latorre, tells the tale of animals gaining sentience worldwide (the opening issue’s splashes of this sequence were magic), and their rebel against humanity. It turns out animals can be just as big of douche goblins as we humans can, and seeing the many different aspects of these creatures is a treat. Seeing how the hound Sandor navigates these furry political lines to save his human, Jesse, is deliciously tense.
7. Autumnlands – Image – This is the book I always want to shove into the hands of fans of magic and sorcery…and everyone else. I adore this book..
The creative tandem of Benjamin Dewey (whose incredible pencils give true humanity to the anthropomorphic animals) and Jordie Bellaire (whose colors set the ambiance better than any soundtrack) make this a book one could purchase on artwork alone, but goddamn, does Kurt Busiek do some of the best world-building I’ve ever seen; the narrative is good at presenting a new mystery while slowly solving another, all while establishing the modern mythology of the land. His characters speech is identifiable (with a serious acknowledgement to Comicraft’s outstanding work on the lettering – everything they do only enhances the story).
6. Midnighter – DC Comics – There’s a lurid pleasure in anyone who’s read Midnighter in the Authority, or Stormwatch, or his previous solo title: this is a character who shows malevolent glee while inflicting pain on evil doers and in a really rad variety of ways. Enter scribe Steve Orlando, who was one of those early readers, and who found a way to update the brawler for new audiences. Even better - Orlando's take was so good that after the solo series was canceled, DC brought him back for the Midnighter and Apollo mini!
This Midnighter was a bachelor whose sexuality was prominent, whose missions were self-imposed, and whose actions were brutal. The storylines were off-the-wall creative, using elements of SciFi and melodrama combined with some of the best-choreographed action sequences I’ve ever seen (HUGE props to series artist ACO for not only his reimagining of the character’s iconic costume but again to those organic fight scenes). Orlando also got to dive into the DC toy box for characters and made this book a spiritual successor to the gonzo Authority runs of Millar, Hitch, Ellis, and Quitely.
5. Nighthawk – Marvel – I’m still shocked this book got the ax - David F Walker and company crafted a compelling story that looked at the ramifications of racial tension and racial violence in downtown Chicago, all through the eyes of a vigilante from a parallel Earth.
The supporting cast was tremendous, from Detective Burrell to Nighthawk’s partner Tilda (the villain formerly known as Nightshade), to the villains (corrupt cops, serial killers, and a millionaire craving gentrification), to the gadgets and city itself. Walker provided the terse narration, the hypnotizing dialogue, but Ramon Villalobos created a world of powerful visuals. These two creators made something powerful for this day and age, a work that resonates with readers on myriad levels, and told a bold story that many publishers would be too timid to attempt.
And yet the damn thing was still canceled (…yup, still bitter).
4. Renato Jones: The One% – Image – Speaking of books that resonate due to topical tropes, Kaare Andrews split the scene wide open with a book that attacks a culture where cash is power, and power means you can do whatever the hell you want.
Renato Jones is the cover for the Freelancer, a man who infiltrates the wealthy monsters and destroys them without mercy. He is precise, efficient, and has become a boogeyman of sorts to those in power. And this exciting tale of lower-class vengeance is told in a way that really embraces the power of the medium; Andrews uses panels, colors, and lettering in ways that would only work in comics, bringing back a vintage feel lost in the sharp, clean world of modern comics. Everything about this book is engaging, and thank God we’ll be getting more – one miniseries just ain’t enough.
3. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – IDW – With 20+ years of TMNT fandom under my belt, I can honestly say that the things that co-creator Kevin Eastman is doing with Tom Walz and frequent Turtle-artiste Mateus Santolouco are some of the most bombastic, ambitious things ever done to the green teens.
So far in this series we’ve had incredible re-imaginings of the Turtles’ origins, of their supporting characters, and of how the group dynamics work within the family. This year alone has seen the ultimate battle with Shredder come to pass, Donatello returns, Splinter taking control of the Foot Clan, and the Turtles themselves making some extremely difficult choices. Walz and Eastman are really crafting a poignant tale that hits all the right notes, and Santolouco is producing the best TMNT art ever seen. This book is the best the TMNT has ever seen.
2. Hillbilly – Albatross Funnybooks – Eric Powell has always seemed like a comic book golden child thanks to his beautifully presented Goon books, but he’s found a new way to tell incredible stories by what may be his career-defining book.
Hillbilly is the tale of a backwoods wanderer that is essentially the Swords & Sorcerers niche wrapped in the Appalachians. The supernatural is very prevalent here, as is a strong horror feel, but it comes together in such a powerful way that even though only four issues have been released it’s still my second-favorite book of the year. Powell is a master storyteller – both artistically and as a writer – and the fact he’s doing this almost all by himself is astonishing.
1. Kill or Be Killed – Image – This book caught me 100% by surprise.
“Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker tell crime stories, pure and simple,” is what I thought.
And then I bought the first two issues of this book, read them, and then read them again.
This is such an unique book that it’s captivated me completely: the simple premise of ‘Kill someone or you get killed’ is one that can be executed (no pun intended) many different ways, but that unfurls here is a tale of depression, passion, frustration, lunacy, and maybe even demonic entities. Hell, Dylan, the main protagonist, is seeing a demon as his motivator while me and other fervent readers STILL CAN’T FIGURE OUT IF IT’S REAL OR NOT.
Brubaker provides fully developed characters with motivations we can all relate to, deep-seeded feelings of loneliness and futility and unrequited love and exhilaration, and it all echoes in the vacuum of this world he’s created. Dylan is by far one of the most fascinatingly crafted leads I’ve read, with his actual narration of the story giving us just what we need to hear to process and move along.
Phillips is knocking all the characters out of the park, with Dylan’s expressions alone conveying incredibly succinct feelings in nearly every panel. He has a very realistic tone, with deft inks capturing the darkness in every scene. Elizabeth Breitweiser’s colors are so superb one would think it’s a single artist putting out these amazing images. She sets a perfect mood in any situation, with palates that mirror the interior tension in every scene.
This book can be extremely violent. It can be uncomfortable with the way it deals with depression and anxiety. But at its core it’s a book whose characters want to do the right thing in context of the narrative. Dylan is just trying to get by without putting his own life at risk, doing what he can to put a positive spin on his terrible sentence. Trying desperately to hold onto love. God, it’s so damn good.