The 25 Best Comic Books of 2016

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The 25 Best Comic Books of 2016

More than the previous few years, 2016 reached deeper into what the comic industry is and, more importantly, what it could be. On the Big Two front, Marvel further diversified its core titles with heroes who weren’t relegated to straight, white dudes crafted in the ‘50s. DC took major strides forward with its Rebirth initiative, embracing the soul of its heritage characters and a new majority of the market share for a few months.

But the indies seemed to shout the loudest this year. For all of comic journalism’s attention to Diamond Distributor’s lists, Raina Telgemeier is a one-woman industry who routinely dominates the majority of The New York Times’ Graphic Books list. That success should come as no surprise on the heels of work like Ghosts, Telgemeier’s searingly emotional and joyous look at mortality. But she has new company that won’t be leaving any time soon; Congressman John Lewis’ graphic novel autobiography, March, concluded with its third entry, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. It’s the first graphic novel to win a National Book Award and it’s rightfully being adopted as required reading in public schools.

In addition, stalwarts Drawn & Quarterly and Fantagraphics delivered a front-loaded bulk of innovative, mind-expanding tomes, writer Tom King infiltrated Marvel and DC with two of the most melancholy, heart-breaking comics of the year and Image continued to carry the torch of progressive genre fiction, with all-time greats like Saga, Southern Bastards and Lazarus losing ground on this list not due to a dip in quality, but an expansion of the playing field. This year may have been a garbage fire of bad vibes, but at least comics continued to foster dreams of a brighter 2017.

25. Moon Knight
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artists: Greg Smallwood, Francesco Francavilla, James Stokoe, Wilfredo Torres, Others
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood’s radical take on the Fist of Khonsu is a singular, disorienting sight to behold. Lemire—who’s addressed mental illness in other comics like Bloodshot and The Underwater Welder—approaches a character who was once a mercenary saved by the Egyptian god of the moon. That man has since dressed up as a vigilante named Moon Knight, protecting those who travel by night. Lemire asks what most reasonable readers might: is that normal behavior, even by superhero standards? Add the historical footnote that the term “lunatic” translates as “moon sick,” and Lemire and Smallwood have the perfect character to dissect mental illness from a cape-and-cowl perspective. Sean Edgar

24. Tetris: The Games People Play
Writer/Artist: Box Brown
Publisher: First Second

Tetris: The Games People Play is a layered examination of pixellated nostalgia, politics and philosophy. Box Brown’s second bio-graphic novel embraces the same obsessive research and personality as his previous work, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, this time focusing on Russian game developer Alexey Pajitnov. The affable genius escorts his idea through a bramble of Cold War bureaucracy and parasitic businessmen until his narrative arrives at something of a catharsis. But Brown isn’t content to reconstruct the convoluted beats of proto-gaming history; he analyzes the very philosophical pillars of why humanity games and its history to present day. Smart, obsessive and engrossing, Tetris’ storytelling blocks align perfectly. Sean Edgar

23. House of Penance
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi
Artist: Ian Bertram
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

House of Penance is a grand, gothic epic built on a foundation of pupil-dilating art, informed by one of the most bizarre incidents of late 19th-century history. Sarah Winchester—the widow of the man who founded the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—built a sprawling San Jose mansion to house the souls of the Native Americans and soldiers who fell victim to the weaponry her husband forged. Writer Peter Tomasi scripts in the constrained, eloquent dialogue of past-century spook slingers M.R. James or Bram Stoker, while artist Ian Bertram wraps the plot in winding, grid-bound tendrils of blood and architecture, conjuring a dwarfing sense of doom that no character escapes. The closest we’ll ever get to a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and M.C. Escher, House of Penance is horror that could only be accomplished in comics, and its morbid majesty has to be seen to be understood. Sean Edgar

22. Giant Days
Writer: John Allison
Artists: Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, Caanan Grall
Publisher: BOOM! Box

John Allison and artists Max Sarin, Caanan Grall and Lissa Treiman have spent the last few years building up a world and characters that are deeply human and relatable without losing a sense of just how messed up each of them is. No surprise, given Allison’s successful decade-plus creating webcomics, but it’s still a genuine pleasure to read a story about young women where they are supportive and loyal (sometimes to a fault), even while making an absolute mess of their lives, as is their right and duty as university students. Caitlin Rosberg

21. The Mighty Thor
Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Russell Dauterman, Various
Publisher: Marvel Comics

For all the misogyny a female thunder-wielder ignited in 2014, few could have predicted her complete dominance as the coolest Marvel superperson a few years later. Shifting from the heavy-metal opus of his opening “God Butcher”/“Godbomb” arcs in Thor: God of Thunder, Jason Aaron now weaves a meticulous tapestry of shifting allegiances and gender dynamics in a story that deserves every connotation of “epic.” All of Asgard has accepted that a mysterious lady now tosses Mjolnir save one man: Odin, the one-eyed king of the realm. Add in exploitive corporations, dark elves and branching fantasy worlds, and The Mighty Thor remains a story built on sweat and blood with huge relevance outside of its fantasy trappings. Sean Edgar

20. Copra
Writer/Artist: Michel Fiffe
Publisher: Bergen Street Press

Michel Fiffe continues to embarrass the heck out of every other person working in comics with his tour de force one-man assault, Copra. Written, drawn, colored, lettered and sequentially self-published by Fiffe, Copra began as a copyright-testing homage to the Ostrander-era Suicide Squad tales before evolving in its own bizarre way. Round Four continues the psychedelic assault of Fiffe’s highly expendable commandos, rendered in his masterful multimedia style. Copra collections can be challenging to nab, and the title is much more appreciable after reading the whole epic in order, but Fiffe’s mad creation continues to be one of the best comics in existence and is more than worth hunting down. Steve Foxe

19. Nod Away
Writer/Artist: Joshua Cotter
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Nod Away, a complex and beautiful sci-fi epic, alternates between a narrative of scientists working on a space station to tweak a biologically wired “Innernet,” and back to nearly wordless scenes of a man traveling by himself through the desert, toward an unclear goal. Dreamy, packed with interesting ideas and suffused with the same quiet-but-felt emotions as cartoonist Joshua Cotter’s debut, Nod Away fills a void that makes the author’s eight-year absence all the more evident. Hillary Brown

18. Harrow County
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artists: Tyler Crook, Carla Speed McNeil
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse’s creepy, atmospheric flagship spook title continues to dive deep into a southern-fried nexus of horror, folklore and nostalgia. The bulk of the series has focused on Hester Beck, a witchy woman who wasn’t afraid to make Faustian deals with the townsfolk. But that plot has branched into myriad directions equally chilling and visually arresting. Most importantly, writer Cullen Bunn and artists Tyler Crook and Carla Speed McNeil keep a dark and magical heart thumping throughout Harrow County, even while expanding its borders. Their haunted storybook remains dangerous and inviting, disturbing and wistful. It’s a fitting look at the past; though it may appear kinder and simpler, it obscures a history of violence and discord waiting to erupt again. Sean Edgar

17. Midnighter/Midnighter and Apollo
Writer: Steve Orlando
Artists: ACO, Fernando Blanco, Various
Publisher: DC Comics

It was disappointing, if not surprising, when Steve Orlando and ACO’s Midnighter came to a close in the beginning of 2016; the “DC You” title was a critical success and a fan favorite for its expansion of DC’s “violent gay Batman” into a fully fledged (and still very violent) leading man, but sales never matched the book’s near-universal praise. Despite being the first successful integration of Wildstorm characters into the DCU since the two universes merged in 2011, Midnighter seemed destined to become a high-quality footnote as Rebirth reshaped DC’s shelf space. Midnighter and Apollo, the six-issue follow-up with new artist Fernando Blanco, takes the sting out of the original title’s cancellation by serving up the bloodiest, most homoerotic take on Orpheus and Eurydice the superhero world has ever seen, as Midnighter punches his way through hell to rescue his solar-powered lover, Apollo. For DC readers concerned that Rebirth might turn back the clock on queer representation, Orlando and Blanco’s sexy, violent, epic and, yes, romantic miniseries shines bright when it’s needed the most, and hopefully bodes well for Midnighter’s continued leather-clad presence in the DCU. Steve Foxe

16. Patience
Writer/Artist: Daniel Clowes
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Colored in the flat, desaturated hues that Clowes’ readers will recognize instantly, Patience is the Ghost World author’s longest work to date. The story of a man traveling back in time to rewrite history and save his wife, the book stumbles and falters in a number of key spots. The politics are unclear, and, at times, it falls prey to the same objectifying gaze that it seems to be criticizing. But it’s ambitious and complex, and it grapples with a set of emotions—honestly, forcefully and at length. Clowes’ familiar linework is intact, and the book feels timeless. Or rather, Clowes nostalgically conjures a mish-mash of past aesthetics, imbuing Patience with a lust for a time that never even existed.

The book has found both incredible praise and worthwhile excoriation, but regardless of how you end up feeling about it, it really is something you should read for yourself. Shea Hennum

15. Cosplayers
Writer/Artist: Dash Shaw
Publisher: Fantagraphics

This collection of Dash Shaw’s introspective dive into the most theatric element of comic fandom ripples with humanity and texture. Whereas the cartoonist’s previous works like New School and Doctors weren’t afraid to suspend realism for wildly inventive takes on exploratory fantasy and sci-fi melodrama, Cosplayers borrows from Shaw’s intimate observations on the con floors. The Perfect in the title is especially interesting, as the art, and the characters, are imperfect by design: instead of rendering facsimile versions of genre culture’s gods, mutants and heroes, Shaw’s mission is to make the flawless mundane—to make reality asymmetrically mirror surreality. For fans of Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes, this is essential sequential art vérité. Sean Edgar

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14. The Legend of Wonder Woman
Writers: Renae De Liz
Artist: Renae De Liz, Ray Dillon
Publisher: DC Comics

DC Comics offered fans no shortage of Amazon origins this year, from Jill Thompson’s gorgeous Wonder Woman: The True Amazon to Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette’s controversial Wonder Woman: Earth One to Greg Rucka, Nicola Scott and Liam Sharp’s in-continuity Rebirth soft reset. For our money, The Last Unicorn illustrator Renae De Liz did best by Diana this year in The Legend of Wonder Woman. This nine-issue outing retells Wonder Woman’s origin on Themyscira and her first encounter with the world of man in a way that distills the best, most hopeful aspects of the character for a brand-new audience—as well as the legion of Wonder Woman fans unhappy with her inconsistent treatment over the years. Illustrated with a clean line and clear respect for the subject matter, The Legend of Wonder Woman Vol. 1: Origins is the best sequential introduction to a character everyone is going to be talking about in 2017, as the heroine becomes the first female character to headline a solo superhero flick. Steve Foxe

13. Moon Cop
Writer/Artist: Tom Gauld
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Tom Gauld is the book-lover’s cartoonist. His comics appear regularly in populist high-minded publications like The Guardian and New Scientist, where they focus on literary genres, both fiction and nonfiction. They’re silly, but in a serious manner, where a sandpaper-dry delivery renders the absurd amusing. Gauld demonstrates a very British way of executing humor—the appearance of noisy attention-grabbing is strenuously avoided for more casual methods of engagement. At the same time, the comics swim in melancholy, even when they aim to make you giggle. Gauld’s simplified forms, which often appear in silhouette, have skinny arms and legs. If they have faces at all, he often defines those faces only with eyes and an occasional nose. This visual technique, along with the figures’ restrained body language, can make the characters seem down, and an atmosphere of failure pervades the strips (because failure is much funnier than success).

His latest work, Mooncop, is a great exercise in restraint: a brief page count, panels with an Ernie Bushmiller level of minimalism, emotions expressed with body language and a few words. Yet, despite its location, it’s not airless. Gauld mixes sweetness and melancholy in a story that’s slim but not slight. Hillary Brown

12. Black Hammer
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dean Ormston
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Jeff Lemire’s portrait of a rural, dream-like (surrural?) town and the family of retired superheroes inexplicably trapped in its borders continues to be one of the most moody, captivating titles from the author in years. The comic pivots from the nostalgic battles of the characters’ pasts to the conflicts raging inside their heads as they navigate involuntary retirement. Ultimately, Black Hammer is an accessible, articulate comic that would be welcome to fans of post-prime-time series like The Leftovers and The Path, drawn with sinewy darkness by Dean Ormston. Sean Edgar

11. Monstress
Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics

Monstress may flaunt an exterior filled with unicorns, multi-tailed cats and angelic warriors, but much like its titular heroine, it hides something far more savage inside. Seriously: shit gets real dark real quick. Writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda fearlessly address human trafficking, experimentation and the horrors of war through the travails of Maika Halfwolf, a survivor hiding a blood-thirsty behemoth in her soul—both metaphorically and literally. Takeda contrasts an escapist world and adorable character designs against unflinching horror, illuminating warfare’s brutality no matter the context. Liu has also constructed an ornate background mythology, where ruthless humans, body-harvesting witches and magical hybrids don’t even attempt to co-exist. Though the denseness of the plot and the streams of exposition don’t make Monstress the most accessible of comics, there’s nothing else like it on the stands. Sean Edgar

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10. Ghosts
Writer/Artist: Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Scholastic Graphix

Raina Telgemeier is our generation’s comics ambassador, producing touching, funny graphic novels that not only reach a ton of readers, but engage folks who lie outside the male adult demo most associated with the medium. Ghosts adds an intoxicating dose of magic to the cartoonist’s masterful grip on character and relationship; protagonist Catarina’s family forces her to move to a shady NorCal town to facilitate her sister, who’s diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Not only does Catarina accept the presence of the playful undead, she also faces issues of mortality. Big issues for a kids comic, right? Leave it to Telgemeier to articulate daunting concepts with kindness and clarity, while packing her panels with a dizzying array of dancing skeletons and smiling ghouls. Sean Edgar

9. The Wicked + The Divine
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Jamie McKelvie, Various
Publisher: Image Comics

Few books capture the zeitgeist like The Wicked + The Divine. The gods of old are back as pissy, prissy teen pop stars, adored by countless fans for two years and then snuffed out… Only someone is extinguishing the current pantheon before its time. Creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie bring every skill they’ve honed together over the last decade of collaboration to their work on WicDiv, from McKelvie’s expert facial “acting” to Gillen’s knack for perfect “wish-I-had-thought-to-say-that-during-my-last-breakup” dialogue. WicDiv, much like Saga, knows exactly how to leave its audience gasping and grasping for the next issue, and its ability to reach readers beyond comic-shop regulars make it one of the medium’s best cultural ambassadors. What could have been a cynical row on Rihanna, Kanye, Gaga and other overexposed pop stars has become a meditation of mortality, morality and the seeming invincibility of youth, with ample style and pure coolness to spare. Steve Foxe

8. Big Kids
Writer/Artist: Michael DeForge
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

The experience of reading Big Kids is almost synesthetic; it puts inarticulable emotional states into unrelated visuals that evoke those feelings with pinpoint precision. How can a six-panel page of two squiggly lines intertwining suggest a late-adolescent sexual encounter? Do guilt and shame translate as a body slowly absorbing raindrops that feel like tiny, heavy metal balls? How does one draw the concept of becoming aware of a new dimension of thought and feeling? Big Kids posits crazy and ambitious goals, and cartoonist Michael DeForge doesn’t always achieve them, but his work here is reliably intellectual and emotionally intelligent, as well as garishly beautiful. Hillary Brown

7. The Vision
Writer: Tom King
Artists: Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Michael Walsh
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Under Tom King’s direction, The Vision was Marvel’s most interesting character, thanks to this witty, startling, gorgeous series illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Michael Walsh with colorist Jordie Bellaire. The premise is simple: the synthezoid Avenger literally makes himself a family and moves to the ‘burbs. Needless to say, shenanigans ensue, but not the type of winky, not-quite-funny antics of most of Marvel’s “quirky” titles: in this comic, the sci-fi horror plays out unflinchingly and tragically, like a lost Shakespeare play (The Visions of Verona?). This is a violent, over-the-top nightmare and a revealing look at domesticity. Mark Peters

6. Hot Dog Taste Test
Writer/Artist: Lisa Hanawalt
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Lisa Hanawalt’s second collection of work isn’t only about food, but it does have blurbs from Momofuku’s David Chang and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold on the back, so food is certainly a large part of it. Most food writing can fall into insufferable extremes: too full of adjectives, too gross, too focused on morality at the expense of deliciousness, too boring, too self-important and/or too much about the writer. Hanawalt manages to avoid any of these traps. She is appreciative of weird foods without coming off like a dilettante, and expresses a love of junk without seeming like a glutton. She can even be directly autobiographical without being annoying, exemplified in her comic about how she prefers her egg yolks thoroughly cooked. One explanation is that she keeps things brief instead of rhapsodizing for 6,000 words on breakfast. A better reason is that her comics on food are no different from her comics on anything: the product of a mind with a marvelously weird perspective. Hillary Brown

5. Paper Girls
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Publisher: Image Comics

Set in the 1980s, four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls are menaced by something even weirder and more malevolent than teenage boys. In this sci-fi mystery, writer Brian K. Vaughan brings the heart and charm of Saga to a story about kids that’s not just for them. This title is also a strong contender for the most Kirby-esque current comic. The lead characters are a gender update of The King’s many boy gangs, and Cliff Chiang’s art is bold and innovative. Whether illustrating a sci-fi gizmo or drunken stepmom, Chiang’s clear lines (and Matt Wilson’s evocative, day-glo colors) convey the wonder, fear and excitement of near-teenhood. This is one of the best recent comics to share with your friend who doesn’t read comics—especially if they have a hankering for the ‘80s. Mark Peters

4. Dark Night: A True BatmanStory
Writer: Paul Dini
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo

More than two decades ago, Batman: The Animated Series writer, producer and editor Paul Dini was attacked by two men with such ferocity that parts of his skull were “powderized.” The event ignited a crisis of faith in Dini, who grappled with his day job of telling stories of good perpetually triumphing over evil when…sometimes it doesn’t. Is it irresponsible? Do men and women dressed in costumes offer facile escapism that deters its fans from acknowledging the severity of existence?

What starts as a harrowing autobiography spirals into something far more daunting and analytical, placing the very concept of fiction on trial. Artist Eduardo Risso renders Dini’s narrative in striking violence and moody, sensual palettes, balancing the impact of the event around a whirlwind of failed romances and supportive friends. But Dark Night isn’t just gorgeous, it’s one of the bravest, most intelligent expressions of the medium in recent memory. Sean Edgar

3. Panther
Writer/Artist: Brecht Evens
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Let’s cut to the chase: Panther is fucking terrifying. Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens covers similar terrain as previous graphic novel, Night Animals, showing the perils of little girls cavorting with storybook monsters. In this lush, watercolored fever dream, adolescent Christine bonds with the talking, titular cat who emerges from the lowest drawer of her dresser. Panther regales Christine with fanciful tales of Pantherland before parading a medley of red flags, including emotional co-dependency, inappropriate touching and sketchy, sketchy, sketchy friends. As their time together grows, Panther stretches comic-book tension to its most affecting extremes, and attempting to reveal a metaphor or resolution is equally unnerving. Like some unholy love child between Winnie the Pooh and Harmony Korine, Panther is the harrowing comic event for 2016. Sean Edgar

2. The Sheriff of Babylon
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mitch Gerads
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo

The Sheriff of Babylon is a murder mystery set during the fallout of Saddam Hussein’s rule, though the audience is fully aware of who murdered whom and why they did so. Writer Tom King takes full advantage of Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to let the watcher feel empathy through the characters instead of themselves. Watching police trainer Christopher, diplomat Sofia and disgruntled ex-cop Nassir collide and repel is far tenser than any clue-finding exercise could be—and more addictive. But it’s the small details and delicious slivers of characterization that make this dissection of unilateral politics so impressive. In a subject that’s often morally simplified, King calls upon his years as a CIA agent to explore a world with onion layers of morality. When Sofia states, “There is something about dirty Arab children that makes senators say yes,” there’s a dark realization that countless variations of this conversation fuel every warfare and reconstruction scenario. The Sheriff of Babylon is a thinking man’s comic grounded in realpolitik horror, where the corpses of patriotism litter yesterday’s battlefields. Sean Edgar

1. March Book Three
Writers: Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell conclude the autobiography of Lewis’ journey through the Civil Rights Movement, and this book’s importance can’t be overstated. Lewis played an integral role in combatting racial inequality throughout the ‘60s (and beyond), and these graphic novels have expertly captured that battle, whether against Jim Crow legislation or even state authorities attempting to block the movement’s voting campaign in Alabama.

The very fact that the creators chose the comic medium speaks to the genre’s versatility and potency. Artist Nate Powell’s expressive facial expressions and soulful streets imbue a sense of melancholy and hope to this defining chapter of American history. With this finale, it’s impossible to imagine a work with this degree of emotion, submersion or relevancy as anything other than the narrative of the year. Sean Edgar

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