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The best comics of 2016

The world of comics is huge and ever expanding. All it takes is one look at Diamond’s weekly new-releases list to be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity and variety of books being published, and that doesn’t even include the sprawl of webcomics, self-published works, and publishers operating outside of the primary distribution model. The A.V. Club’s Comics Panel writers cover an extensive range of titles each week, and we’re covering the year’s best comics differently this year to highlight the vast assortment of options available to readers. Rather than a traditional list, each writer has chosen specific titles and larger trends that have made this year great for comics. From superhero revivals to major new works by established creators to rising stars carving out their place in the industry, the wide world of comics has been full of wonders this past year, and these are the titles that demand attention.

Oliver Sava

2016 has been a difficult year in the United States, and John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March: Book Three (Top Shelf Productions) puts the country’s current situation in chilling context as it depicts the events leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A painful account of the bigotry and violence Lewis experienced firsthand as a major figure of the civil rights movement, the final installment of the March series is a gut-punch that constantly reminds readers of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity, with stark black-and-white artwork that intensifies the power of Lewis and Aydin’s script.

While not autobiographical, Sonny Liew’s The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon Books) is another deeply personal graphic novel rooted in history, delving into the fictional life of Singapore’s greatest cartoonist and tracing his development as an artist alongside the growth of his nation. The book is an extremely ambitious undertaking that sees Liew working in a variety of artistic media and storytelling styles, creating a comprehensive profile of the main character while also showcasing the range of his talent. Fresh, poignant, and impeccably crafted, this graphic novel elevates Liew to new heights while celebrating the art form that brings him satisfaction.

Two of the year’s most exciting works came from cartoonist Ronald Wimberly via very different formats. Image Comics rereleased Wimberly’s Prince Of Cats graphic novel (originally published at Vertigo) in a striking oversized hardcover, giving new readers the opportunity to discover this out-of-print modern classic, which delivers an ’80s-inspired remix of Romeo And Juliet channeling the spirits of both old-school hip-hop and Shakespearean verse with an exhilarating visual style. The vertical-scrolling format of Wimberly’s Stela Comics digital series GratNIN: KGMR pushed him to explore a different mode of comics storytelling for his tale of three young Brooklyn ninjas, and he did exceptional work tying the scrolling motion into the visuals to intensify the action beats.

Low-selling superhero books are often the most interesting, and that was certainly the case at Marvel Comics this year, where titles like David F. Walker and Ramon Villalobos’ Nighthawk, Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk’s Mockingbird, and Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and Natacha Bustos’ Moon Girl And Devil Dinosaur produced the publisher’s best superhero stories. Socially conscious with a strong focus on the emotional lives of their leads, these three books address real-world issues surrounding racial tension (Nighthawk), gender equality (Mockingbird), and inner-city education (Moon Girl), and feature distinct creative visions that spotlight the potential for innovation in superhero stories.

Nighthawk looked at the corrosive effects of violence with brutal severity in both writing and visuals, hitting hard and relentlessly over the course of its short six-issue run. Mockingbird experimented with design, structure, and composition to reflect Bobbi Morse’s unconventional approach to the superhero lifestyle, and it’s one of the few Marvel titles that successfully used a Civil War II tie-in to enhance its narrative. MG&DD turns superhero concepts into thoughtful metaphors for the difficulties of childhood, and while it aggressively targets younger readers with its playful point of view and cartoonish visual style, the observations it makes about growing up resonate for a wide variety of readers.

While Marvel’s line took major damage from Civil War II, DC Comics was experiencing a major creative rejuvenation with DC Rebirth. Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Superman tells heartfelt, kid-friendly stories that focus on Superman’s relationship with his wife and son, and giving Clark Kent a family has restored the heart of the character. It’s a delightfully warm Superman comic, and the book’s youthful sense of fun and strong emotional foundation has made it a highlight of Rebirth. Christopher Priest, Carlo Pagulayan, and Joe Bennett’s Deathstroke is a very different take on super-family dynamics, one that looks at what happens when the patriarch is an amoral sociopath. Densely plotted, constantly twisting in unexpected directions, and electrified by Priest’s snappy dialogue, Deathstroke has transformed a bland character into someone complicated, compelling, and genuinely terrifying by committing to Slade Wilson’s wildly dysfunctional personal life.

It was a big 75th-anniversary year for Wonder Woman, and Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon’s The Legend Of Wonder Woman did remarkable work applying a modern storytelling sensibility to the heroine’s World War II origin. Like Superman, The Legend Of Wonder Woman is a feel-good superhero comic, and it offers a captivating reimagining of the heroine’s beginnings with a bold feminist spirit and lush, animated aesthetic. There were four different Wonder Woman origin stories this year, all intriguing in their own distinct ways, and writer Greg Rucka has performed admirably given his especially challenging task of untangling Diana’s complicated continuity in the main Wonder Woman ongoing series. With artists Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott, Rucka weaves a complex yarn by splitting the story into two timelines, and Diana’s present-day situation is enriched with each chapter of her new Rebirth origin.

Caitlin Rosberg

It’s impossible to claim that women are somehow a new arrival to comic books, though there are some that would say otherwise. What has been remarkable this year is how many different comics embraced narratives that have gone underrepresented in comics for far too long, intentionally making space for stories starring women who are fully formed, diverse, and often unsympathetic.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image) is a natural place to start. In a totally believable alternate future where unacceptable expressions of womanhood are punished with banishment to a brutal prison planet, Bitch Planet tells the story of the women who continue to resist. The noncompliant logo has been a rallying cry for women who love comics, and the backmatter essays are a crash course in intersectional feminism. Despite only releasing four issues this year, Bitch Planet has served as both a prescient warning and a powerful call to arms.

While Bitch Planet pushes hard against prescriptive femininity by rejecting a lot of traditionally feminine things, Faith (Valiant) does the opposite by enthusiastically embracing them, rebelling merely by existing and refusing to compromise who she is. Jody Houser, Pere Perez, and Marguerite Sauvage have given readers a character who is joyful and unabashedly nerdy, loves romance, likes cute things because they’re cute, and routinely kicks ass. Faith is a fat, feminine superhero in a world where only one of those things is generally acceptable, and it makes the book both innovative and necessary, proof that comics are for everyone and they’re finally starting to look like it.

Clean Room and Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo) each star two very different women pushed to the edge of what they can accept and forced to go further, all four surrounded by danger and each responding in different ways. Clean Room, by Gail Simone, Jon Davis-Hunt, and Quinton Winter, is a supernatural thriller that deftly walks the line between horror and intrigue as readers reach deeper levels of what appears at first glance to be cult. Astrid and Chloe aren’t the only women in the book, but they present as opposite forces, magnets that are dragged together inexorably until one flips over and they fly away again. Sheriff Of Babylon’s Sofia and Fatima appear to be both very similar and diametrically opposed at the same time, contradictory and layered. Sheriff Of Babylon is a nuanced and sharply intelligent portrayal of Iraq in 2003, proving both writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads’ skill at using claustrophobic and rigid panel layouts and lettering to pack a subtle but massive punch.

Oliver already mentioned the remarkable successes of the Wonder Woman books this year, but it’s impossible to talk about women at DC without at least mentioning Marguerite Bennett’s DC Comics Bombshells. The book has had a rotating group of artists, but what ties every issue together—much like The Legend Of Wonder Woman—is the joyful and emotional portrayal of women and female friendships at the heart of each story. Set in an alternate version of DC’s universe in World War II, Bombshells features familiar faces from all over the company’s character roster, thrown together in an attempt to fight fascism. There’s love and compassion in every page, and so many queer relationships it almost makes up for the lack of them elsewhere.

Of course, the larger companies are really just following where independent publishers and webcomics have been going for years. The Meek (webcomic) and Agents Of The Realm (webcomic) appear at first glance to have nothing in common but their shared format. But Der-Shing Helmer (The Meek) and Mildred Louis (Agents Of The Realm) share the ability to create stories starring very different women with more ethical quandaries and powerful contradictions than the average comic tackles in a decade. The Meek is in some ways classic high fantasy, weaving together three plots in a world where politics, magic, and belief get in the way of people surviving every day. Helmer has created not only a deep mythos for her comic, but also a cast and setting that are worthy of it; proof that complicated and compelling drama are not merely the purview of fantasy novels. Agents Of The Realm, on the other hand, is a magical-girl-gone-serious story of young women trapped by fate and struggling with duty and personal lives. The magical-girl and great-responsibility tropes can both feel stale and dull in the wrong hands, but by focusing on making her characters fully realized people, Louis keeps her comic sharp and emotional, tucking action alongside powerful relationships seamlessly.

What links all of these comics isn’t an art style or genre. They span the entire depth and breadth of what comics can and should do. But each of them features a cast of women who break the mold created in the last century of comics, distinct from one another and deeply human in their flaws and strengths. There’s no expectation of perfection—villains are just as valid as heroes.

Tim O’Neil

In a year that saw the company seemingly unable to staunch its post-Secret Wars bleeding, the only bright spot on Marvel’s horizon remained the Star Wars line. Darth Vader was a massive sales success, but it didn’t need to be good to sell well. Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca’s 25-issue epic defied expectations on its way to becoming perhaps the best Star Wars comic ever. Gillen and Larroca were faced with the challenge of answering an open question from the original trilogy, one you probably didn’t even realize was a problem: How did Vader come back from the crushing defeat at Yavin IV to being once again the Emperor’s right hand in Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back? The short answer is “He killed a lot of people,” but the long answer turned out to be 25 issues of impeccably structured political intrigue. Gillen’s Vader is Vader, the sith lord who sacked the Jedi temple and massacred the younglings without flinching, but still also the fallen Jedi with just enough of a spark of decency in his soul to eventually turn the tide at the most crucial moment. Larroca’s fiendishly consistent art—not a single fill-in for the entire run—captured the texture of the films with precise skill, from the cold and antiseptic interior corridors of Imperial Star Destroyers to the dusty grime of Tatooine. Proper Star Wars.

Outside the mainstream it was another banner year for reprints. Given the universal excellence of Fantagraphics’ Disney reprint line, it might be easy to overlook the ongoing excellence of its Don Rosa Library. But 2016 saw the series bring to a close Rosa’s career-defining masterpiece, “The Life And Times Of Scrooge McDuck” in Vol. 5 of The Richest Duck In The World. Rosa was dismissed for decades as a Carl Barks imitator, but the truth that these reprints reveal is far more interesting. He was able to take what Barks had built and create with those tools a sweeping epic with an expansive scope that no other Disney comic has ever come close to matching. On another level entirely was Fantagraphics’ unheralded Real Deal Comix, a beautiful volume collecting Lawrence Hubbard and Harold McElwee’s groundbreaking late-’80s underground, a significant work in both independent and African-American comics history that has gone largely unheralded in the 25 years since its original release.

Last year we featured the first volume of Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus (Top Shelf) on our best-of list, so it is only fitting that the second and final volume should also be represented. With two thick volumes of Bacchus, one volume of his autobiographical Alec stories, and of course From Hell (with Alan Moore) all in place, it’s difficult to argue that Campbell is not just one of the great cartoonists of his generation, but one of the greats, period. His mythological drinking stories have a unique flavor that can’t be described better than simply to say that they are uniquely and unmistakably Eddie Campbell.

The rerelease of Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures Of Urban Decay (Drawn & Quarterly) ushers the earliest work from the idiosyncratic and influential Ben Katchor back into print. Although Katchor’s strips, on subjects ranging from gentrification and “white flight” to modern sexual mores, may have been ahead of their time 25 years ago, the work on display here seems remarkably prescient in its deadpan focus on adult disappointment. The fabled NYRB entered the realm of comic reprints with a new edition of Mark Beyer’s tetchy, unsettled Agony, one of the great graphic novels to emerge from the first generation of Raw cartoonists. The reissue of the year, however, was Fantagraphics’ massive Meat Cake Bible, compiling every issue of Dame Darcy’s visionary ’90s series—although often overlooked at the time, Darcy’s excellent and eclectic work was a crucial influence on the generation of female cartoonists who came up in her wake. Put simply, the book belongs on the shelf of any serious comics fan.

New issues in longstanding series from Kevin Huizenga and Noah Van Sciver did not disappoint, with both Ganges #5 (Fantagraphics) and Blammo #9 (Kilgore Books) attesting to the continued relevance of the hated “floppy” as a format. Wren McDonald’s Sparx (NoBrow) and Lucas Varela’s The Longest Day Of The Future (Fantagraphics) both examined the near-future technological dystopias with tongues planted firmly in cheek. Marnie Galloway’s In The Sounds And Seas (One Peace Books) is a wordless dream vision of women, boats, and really long braids, the kind of book that defies description except to say that it’s gorgeous and engrossing like few other books released this year. Similarly unique, Brecht Evens’ Panther (Drawn & Quarterly) is a kaleidoscope and nightmarish retelling of Calvin & Hobbes, a reductive comparison despite being substantively accurate.

Finally, Gabby Schulz’s unfairly overlooked and singularly upsetting Sick (Secret Acres) deserves mention, a painful and highly intimate look at depression from the inside out. While Brian Chippendale’s Puke Force (discussed elsewhere) might well be the graphic novel of the year, there’s no shortage of significant releases.

Shea Hennum

2016 was a complex year. We lost a number of great artists, and we faced a political upheaval whose consequences remain to be seen. These challenging times call for challenging art, and contemporary cartoonists delivered in spades. Some of these challenges were to comprehension, while others were to our preconceived notions of race, gender, and sexuality. All of them were bold and beautiful.

Richie Pope’s Fatherson (Youth In Decline), the 13th issue in Youth In Decline’s series of author-driven monographs Frontier, tells his story with a rich color palette. Pinks and blues and oranges leap off the page, and Pope beautifully interrogates the panoply of black fatherhood. He takes a clever device, envisioning the titular Fatherson—a person instructed with both learning and teaching—as a sort of “grow your own dinosaur” being. Pope’s work in illustration is apparent, and his pages are given over to a single lush image without becoming stilted or stiff. With these discrete, static images, he tells beautiful stories. Each frame becomes a snapshot, a fleeting moment captured in time, and through these moments he examines a complex figure that may be angry, may be loving, may be cultured, may be petulant. With humor and striking images, Pope lends black men the humanity that much of fiction denies them.

Canadian author Michael DeForge similarly approaches a budding queerness with a metaphoric eye in his fantastical Big Kids (Drawn & Quarterly). In many ways a typical coming-of-age story, Big Kids materializes queerness—or more precisely, the fluid exploration of one’s budding sexuality—as a kind of physical change that innumerable people experience. Here they become trees, verdant beings whose bodies coalesce and interlock. Rendered with DeForge’s signature aesthetic—visually dense and strikingly composed, with thin lines and odd, almost grotesque, anatomies—Big Kids has the tenor of a Wes Anderson movie. Everything appears flat and ironic, but there is a misunderstood complex of emotions that characters simply cannot express.

Though visually distinct, Big Kids puts one in mind of another pair of releases this year: two works by Inio Asano, A Girl On The Shore (Vertical) and the first three volumes of his opus, Goodnight Punpun (Viz Media). Both stunningly rendered in Asano’s blend of the hyperreal and the perfectly stylized, each title, like Big Kids, offers a thoughtful look at the world of adolescence. A Girl On The Shore uses sex, sexuality, and intimacy to thoughtfully explore the intricacies of interpersonal relationships—and the failure of characters to express themselves healthily is another thread that ties the two together. Less concerned with sexuality per se, Goodnight Punpun shares DeForge’s use of growing up as a microcosm. In these early struggles with the world are the building blocks of all the joys and heartbreaks of the human condition—perfect fodder for an insightful artist—and, like DeForge, Asano explicates these budding lives with equal parts humor and drama.

More challenging still are a trio of works by some of the world’s most compelling cartoonists: Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art (Uncivilized Books), Peplum (New York Review Comics), and Agent 73 (webcomic). Each of them confronts the reader with storytelling modes that may be unfamiliar, that have to be learned and properly understood before seriously grappling with the work. In Peplum, the French master Blutch renders his dreamlike adaptation of The Satyricon with harsh inks—dynamic, thick brushstrokes that slash at the page. His story is full of omissions and elisions, functioning more like a patchwork dream, one whose significance can only be grasped as one experiences it.

Roman Muradov falls the other way with his Jacob Bladders And The State Of The Art, crafting a dizzying work that requires genuflection and rumination. And with Agent 73, authors Katie Skelly and Sarah Horrocks comfortably occupy the center. Recalling the comics of Guido Crepax and the movies of Jean Rollin, Agent 73 is both sensible and sensual. Meaning and insight may be parsed from Horrocks’ text, but the eye’s attention is occupied by Skelly’s lines and bold, garish colors. All three offer readers beautiful comics—visual delights that each satisfy in unique and inimitable ways. But all three also offer works that readers cannot rightly say how they feel about, what they think about. They invoke intuitive reactions immediately and intellectual ones that slowly grow in the back of the mind.

Varied in subject, style, and approach, the works that stood out in 2016 compelled their readers to feel, to think, to rethink. They served as salve for cultural irritants, and as a disruption for a cultural glut of stagnation. 2016 was certainly a good year for comics.