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The 20 Best Comics of 2017 (So Far)

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The 20 Best Comics of 2017 (So Far)

In an interview with Shea Hennum, First Second Editorial Director Mark Siegel used the term “new mainstream” to describe the democratization of comics—an explosion “out of super-hero and memoir, blending all kinds of art styles and narrative approaches, to explore every aspect of fiction and non-fiction, from cooking to physics, from mystical fantasy to a history of the game Tetris.” It’s a potent dream that’s been fantasized often and articulated in many different ways, the thesis accusing publishers of treating comics more as a genre than a medium capable of telling any story. So…are we there yet?

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If this list of our favorite comics of the year thus far is any indication, that answer is a strong maybe. Our favorite comic of 2017’s first half is a mystery and three biographies sit within our top 10. Other genre outliers include an epic poetry comic translation (Beowulf was a superhero?), a bunch of surreal sci-fi and an adult continuation of a ‘60s cartoon. Let’s break it down in the chart to the left. Admittedly, drama is a bit of a catch-all that holds an umbrella over both Fred Flintstone and disgruntled alcoholic ex-hockey players, but work with us.

Whether Paste’s taste dovetails with an expanded, intellectually diverse landscape of sequential art, we can confirm that these works are unanimously excellent. From Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman’s grandiose meditation on morality and godhood in The Mighty Thor to Jillian Tamaki’s exploration of technology and isolation in Boundless, the panels from the past six months haven’t been afraid to challenge us in the best way possible. Check back in December when we tally up our favorite books from the whole year.

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20. Beowulf
Writer: Santiago García
Artist: David Rubin
Publisher: Image Comics 

Ether’s David Rubín may not have adapted Beowulf solo—he worked with writer Santiago García after the first attached artist had to bow out for health reasons—but this Spanish import stands alongside Rubín’s own two-volume retelling of Heracles, Hero, to cement his reputation as a preeminent interpreter of the grand heroic saga. Beowulf eschews most of the anachronisms of Rubín’s Hero, which was as much a tribute to Jack Kirby and the superhero myth as it was to Greek mythology, opting to portray a relatively straightforward take on the oldest English-language saga—”straightforward” being a relative term in Rubín’s prodigiously talented hands. While there’s little in the text that would shock Seamus Heaney, Beowulf’s most famous modern translator, García and Rubín instill their version with subtle suggestions and visual decisions that shed new perspective on this much-discussed story. The best example is one of the quietest: before Beowulf’s first sinewy tussle with the bloodthirsty monster Grendel, he lies in wait naked in the mead hall (a detail dictated by the epic poem). Rubín breaks down Grendel’s discovery of this idealized man into dozens of panels, including close-ups that suggest a sexual awakening in the monster. It’s a small moment, not explicitly present in the source material, that tilts the reader’s take on the story just enough to suggest that we may not yet have plumbed the depths of what Beowulf has to offer. Steve Foxe
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19. Shattered Warrior
Writer: Sharon Shinn
Artist: Molly Knox Ostertag
Publisher: First Second

The story of Shattered Warrior takes place on a planet populated by humans that has been conquered by much more powerful and technically adept aliens, the Derichets. A young woman, Colleen, works in a factory overseen by these tyrants, extracting valuable minerals from hunks of rock. Her family is dead, and she tries to lay low, but when her younger sister is found, she discovers a new sense of purpose. The foundation of the plot isn’t all that promising, unless you are easily romanced by simple speculative fiction. But what the authors do with it is what makes the difference. The book has an ability to pick you up and carry you along on its emotional flow. It’s an escape and it’s a manifesto that says forging new connections is the best thing you can do in a world where your oppressors hold all the power. It’s a book about the strength you gain from letting yourself be vulnerable, which makes it both good and important at the present moment. Hillary Brown
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18. Roughneck
Writer/Artist:   Jeff Lemire  
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Gallery 13

Jeff Lemire, the master cartoonist of dysfunctional families and rural stillness, returns with this 272-page tome that may be the most concentrated example of his aesthetic. Lemire has cultivated a resonant library of deeply personal work, unmistakable in its themes and sketchy, emaciated lines. Roughneck revolves around a former hockey player who takes refuge in an abandoned hunting lodge with his sister, pursued by an abusive ex. With a book this thick, Lemire has room to dig his scalpel even deeper into these characters while submerging them into the haunting wooded atmosphere that stands as his most frequent character. Sean Edgar
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17. The Wild Storm
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Jon Davis-Hunt
Publisher: DC Comics 

Late-period Warren Ellis is an interesting writer. He tends to float around Marvel and DC, dropping in for a visit when the mood strikes. In those cases, we’re lucky to get six issues of Moon Knight or Karnak, as it seems that Ellis has reserved his long-form energies for some of his more ambitious, creator-owned work including Trees or Injection. Who can blame him? But now, we’ve been blessed with a 24-issue series from the writer (four issues of which have hit shelves) at DC, in the form of The Wild Storm. It has all the makings of a series from the comic icon: thoughtfully crafted science fiction, scene-chewing super-geniuses, hyper-detailed gore, oligarchic intrigue and a “transkeletal drysuit” (plus other assorted Ellis jargon). With 20 more issues to go, Ellis has plenty of room to stretch, which means we’re able to spend time with these characters, to learn about their world and to let the mystery of The Wild Storm unravel with each bullet shot, bone broken and head exploded. Jakob Free
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16. Saga
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples 
Publisher: Image Comics 

If Saga’s 43 issues have confirmed anything, it’s that writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples are in this for the (very) long haul. At the end of this winding expedition of family, loyalty, sex and bananas sci-fi, grad students will write their thesis on this landmark comic and upcoming writers will avoid the genre, woefully lamenting, I’m not touching that shit after Saga. The first act witnessed two star-crossed alien lovers give birth to a hybrid baby, united in an us-against-the-universe struggle as two amoral armies pursued them. The second act showed how the greatest battles—drug addiction, infidelity and doubt—can emerge in the most peaceful lulls. The third (each consists of 18 issues, collected in hardback books) is only six issues in, but struck a massive, personal blow against parent heroes Alana and Marko in the last issue. Reading Saga is experiencing an obsessive simulation of a family’s life-span, far more real than any comic with preying mantis school teachers should ever be. The creative team hasn’t stopped melding sucker-punch creativity with gut-wrenching drama, and not one issue has failed to warrant our endorsement. Sean Edgar
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15. Shade the Changing Girl
Writer: Cecil Castellucci
Artists: Marley Zarcone, Chynna Clugston Flores
Publisher: DC Comics/Young Animal

Like most of the Young Animal lineup, Shade fills the void left behind by ‘90s mature-comics staple Vertigo, a weird and wonderful adventure that feels like a gem from an indie publisher. A play on Steve Ditko’s Shade, the Changing Man (better known from Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo’s long Vertigo run with the character), Shade would be captivating if it only focused on the titular character’s alien origins and her adventures as she explores a foreign planet. But what really makes the book shine is the balance of the fantastical and mundane, recognizing that being a teenage girl isn’t all that different from being a super-powered alien with a magic coat that allows you to possess other people. Our teen years are marked by a youthful drive to escape the known and safe alongside curious shock at the behavior of others.

Marley Zarcone’s crisp but flexible art and colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick’s palette are vital to making Shade into something both psychedelic and familiar, melting the reality around protagonist Loma even as she manipulates it to her will. This kind of introspective, kaleidoscopic jaunt isn’t unheard of in comics, but it is rare, if not completely unprecedented, to have it star a young woman. Loma is allowed to participate in all of the behaviors for which society often derides young women: she’s mean to her friends, obsessed with her social standing, constantly reaching for something new and unique. But this doesn’t make her any less compelling of a protagonist, or her journey of self-discovery any less important and enjoyable. It’s the perfect bridge to more adult comics for fans of shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, rife with complicated characters and exciting adventures, but rooted in the desire to know both the world and oneself. Caitlin Rosberg
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14. The Flintstones
Writer: Mark Russell
Artists: Steve Pugh, Rick Leonardi
Publisher: DC Comics 

Paste is still mourning the loss of Mark Russell and artist Ben Caldwell’s Prez—could there be a better time for a spunky political palate cleanser?—but at least Russell still has The Flintstones to broadcast his subversive, socially skewed wit. Alongside artists Steve Pugh and Rick Leonardi, Russell has tackled commercialism, monogamy and race in this comic continuation of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon. This year has also introduced the goofy green alien, The Great Gazoo, as he grades humanity an “F,” while the town of Bedrock grapples with the local church’s use of indulgences. Russell addressed similar territory in his hilarious prose Bible remix, God Is Disappointed in You, resulting in plenty of scholar-grade vitriol. Sean Edgar
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13. Extremity
Writer/Artist: Daniel Warren Johnson
Publisher: Image Comics/Skybound

Paste named Extremity one of its most anticipated comics of 2017, and for good reason: Space Mullet’s Daniel Warren Johnson has long been one of the comic industry’s best-kept secrets, an “artist’s artist” who hasn’t quite broken through to the wider readership. Extremity, his violent, bizarre Skybound debut, should finally rectify that travesty. Like an outer-space Fury Road, Extremity is a bloody, fast-paced tale of tribal warfare in a sci-fi world that never conquered class stratification. And like Fury Road’s George Miller, Johnson thrusts his readers right into protagonist Thea’s revenge-driven conflict at breakneck speed. Steve Foxe
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12. Sticks Angelica
Writer/Artist: Michael DeForge
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Sticks Angelica is not Michael DeForge’s most serious work. Rendered in black, white and magenta, it’s a vehicle for play. That’s not to say it doesn’t have melancholy moments. The plot is full of missed connections between characters and places, the meaning behind an utterance failing to jump the gap from one brain to another. All of these scenes are faintly sad, but they also have some sweetness to them. The geese, fish, deer, bears, humans, insects and rabbits who populate the book keep trying to reach one another; sometimes, but not frequently, they succeed. The ideas are interesting, and the individual strips, with their delicate patterns and intelligent use of color, produce a mindful, existential experience. Is there meaning in the world? In the wilderness? In the universe? Who knows. But there is art, and DeForge is making it. Hillary Brown
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11. Solid State
Writers: Matt Fraction, Jonathan Coulton 
Artist: Albert Monteys
Publisher: Image Comics 

Things are stranger than they seem, Now I remember what I dream /
What if Kurzweil doesn’t make it? What if all the switches get stuck on destroy?

This question makes up the refrain of Jonathan Coulton’s “All This Time,” a lovely little ditty whose soul-wracking existentialism and infectious dream pop-melody provide the raw speculative kernel from which Matt Fraction and Albert Montey’s Solid State blossoms. Nothing so plain as a comic commissioned in some promotional bid for cross-medium synergy, Solid State is an entity all its own apart from the album from which it claims its namesake, and yet the two fit together so that their compliments and contrasts give rise to exciting new readings and possibilities not only for the text itself, but for the future of the media they represent. Set at the dawn of the singularity and brink of human extinction, two men separated by time and space with nothing in common save a first name (Bob) set out on their own separate journeys to bridge the divide between the mistakes of the past and the mysteries of the future. Equal parts wonderful, terrifying and mind-expanding, Solid State’s tale of serendipity, causal chaos and the unforeseen perils of science gone sycophantic yields a edifying experience that any reader, comic fan or no, would be tragically remiss to pass on for nothing save the reason of, “Oh, it’s just an album comic.” Solid State is what happens when three masterful storytellers reach into the zeitgeist, grasp at the root of our loneliest fears and most secret hopes, and manage to pull out something that’s not only entertaining, but resonant in its intimate profundity. Toussaint Egan

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