Year-end “Best of” lists serve one purpose for me: call out something that I didn’t hear about, or meant to read/watch and forgot. To say the comics on this list are “the best,” maybe they are. Really, they’re ones I read that stuck with me. There may be others this year that you enjoyed that I missed, and I want to hear about them. I won’t objectively call them “the best;” subjectively, they’re just great.
Did at least one issue appear in 2021? Then it’s eligible for this list. To avoid ranking or fighting, I’m putting these in alphabetical order.
Brzrkr: Keanu Reeves (yes, Keanu Reeves), Matt Kindt and Ron Garney teamed to offer a new take on the idea of an immortal warrior. In prehistoric times, a tribe prayed for salvation. Something answered, delivering a baby that quickly grew to be an unstoppable warrior. Cursed to only know peace for short amounts of time, the child has to release its power in blinding rage. Blessed, perhaps, to have lost huge chunks of his memory in the 21st century, the immortal is now an asset for US black ops. The government wants to use him; he just wants to find a way to die.
Yes, Reeves likely started this comic to create a film role as close as he could get to Wolverine, but it’s really good. It’s also really violent, so bear that in mind. The first trade collection hit stores in October; there’s still time to climb onboard.
Bunny Mask: A child welfare worker investigates a possible endangerment case and winds up enslaved in a cave by the child’s insane father. Out of the deepest recesses comes a lithe woman wearing a bunny mask, freeing the enslaved social worker and healing his wounds. Of course, a whole new trauma has opened up, and years later he encounters the girl he’d tried to save. She’s an artist, and her work portrays a woman in a bunny mask. With each chapter, the mystery grows more creepy and disturbing. There’s a monster in their memories, and it’s urging every survivor on to repeat a cycle of violence. Paul Tobin and Andrea Mutti have taken a short break after publishing the first arc, and as much as I want to know what happens next, it’s good to have some time to catch my breath and ponder.
Bunny Mask: The Chipping of the Teeth is currently available in individual issues from Aftershock Press and on Comixology.
“Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?”: Norman Bates in Psycho. Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. All three monsters of American popular fiction were inspired by one real-life killer from Wisconsin: Ed Gein. Harold Schechter and Eric Powell have created a masterpiece of speculative historical journalism. Would that be the right term? Meticulously researched, with writer and artist combining to evoke a strange sympathy for the child who would grow to be a monster, this book begins with Gein’s cultural impact, then deconstructs how one family in one small town exposed that the monsters of our imagination aren’t otherwordly creatures; they’re us. (I promise I’ll move past horror, but in dark times trying to shine light continues to resonate.)
You can tell yourself it’s only a book, just like the slashers mentioned above are only in the movies. But you’ll be wrong.
The Good Asian: Pornsak Pichetshote, teaming with artist Alexandre Tefenkgi, followed up on his excellent horror story Infidel with this meticulous detective tale. It’s 1936, and in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a string of savage killings have begun. Caught up in solving it is Chinese-American police detective Edison Hark, struggling with his past, his people’s role in American society, and his failure to protect the people who trust him.
If at all possible, find this in individual issues at your local comics shop, because Pichetshote includes essays on his research in the back of each one. Inspired by the real Chinese-American detective who inspired Charlie Chan, the writer illuminates dark corners of US history, particularly in both Hawaii and San Francisco. You can just read Edison Hark’s story on its own and glean much, but the actual history adds weight to each chapter.
Overall, The Good Asian is an exciting mystery, and it’s not over yet.
The Immortal Hulk: It ended a few months ago, this magnificent Hulk epic. Though I’m still not quite sure of Al Ewing’s ending, that only means I have to read the whole thing again. With artist Joe Bennett and a few other talented writers and artists, Ewing makes that not just likely but rewarding. (That includes one of the best books of 2020, which was the crossover one-shot with the King in Black event — a “silent” issue with art by Aaron Kuder. It’s sublime.)
This book began with an intriguing twist and a healthy seasoning of body horror. (Both had been implicit in the concept of the Hulk from the beginning — it just took decades for someone to shine this particular light.) Then it became something else, crossing science fiction with an examination of Heaven and Hell and where a child-like monster fit in between. Ben Grimm, the ever-lovin’ blue-eyed Thing, pops in and out, evolving into the improbable role of kindly grandfather. At 50 issues and some one-shots, this is a run that will stand as a classic in years to come.
The Nice House on the Lake: A group of acquaintances attend a weekend party at a sumptuous lake house in Wisconsin. Though some know each other fairly well, their real bond is they all know Walter, the somewhat quirky owner of the house. But it turns out they don’t really know him at all, as outside an undefined radius around the house on the lake, the world comes to an end.
Walter? An alien who has been observing Earth for years, and developed an affection for the friends he made along the way. These friends of his will want for nothing as they live out the rest of their days. Unless what they want is the world.
James Tynion IV and Alvaro Martinez Bueno continue their collaboration from Detective Comics to deliver this disturbing horror tale still in progress. The first six issues will be available in a trade paperback from DC’s Black Label in March. Like Tynion’s Something is Killing the Children, this book takes a straightforward premise and twists it into something that demands (and rewards) your full attention.
Reckless: If you’re into crime comics, you already know how good the team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is. For this series of graphic novels, they swerve their noir sensibilities to present a broken hero. Ethan Reckless may have his issues, but he is a good guy. A former undercover agent for the CIA, he helps those who need it. Operating out of an old movie theater in Santa Monica, he’d rather be into films than detective work, but somebody’s got to do it.
Narrated by Ethan from somewhere in the present day, his adventures are looks back at Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s. Like a projector in his darkened theater, Reckless shines a light on the seedy underbelly of La La Land — from the counterculture to Satanic Panic. If you pay attention, you might learn something. But as always with Brubaker and Phillips, it’s characterization that makes this a cut above.
One of the best creative teams working in graphic fiction today, Brubaker and Phillips took another different route with Reckless. Each book in the series was released as a complete graphic novel in 2021, further evoking the pulp/men’s adventure feel of the character. More are due in 2022, but right now you can dive in to three rewarding volumes: Reckless, Reckless: Friend of the Devil, and Reckless: Destroy All Monsters.
Scout’s Honor: After the fall, society hangs on by a thread, guided by a scouting manual allegedly from the before times. Those that become Scouts are the protectors, but their code often veers from honorable to harsh and unforgiving. One young warrior on the cusp of adulthood learns the dark secrets of their past, fighting to create a better future.
Though you may have seen this post-apocalyptic landscape before, writer David Pepose and artist Luca Casalanguida use it to examine the human frailties that might have brought it into being. Questioning toxic masculinity and the blind loyalty that it often requires, there’s also a decent squint at religion — though there’s nothing nominally Christian about these Scouts. With each comic he releases, Pepose gets better and better. If you haven’t read his work yet, this is a fine place to start.
Second Coming: Only Begotten Son: In dark times, of course fiction is going to take a hard look at religion. When a large subsection of the population considers a former President to be sent by God, readers have to really think about what that means to them. Maybe it’s just coincidence that so many great comics this year have spent time deconstructing the Word and our attitudes toward it, but with Mark Russell, there’s no coincidence.
The sequel to, of course, Second Coming (one of the best comics of 2020), Only Begotten Son continues the saga of Superman analog Sunstar, his wife, and their roommate, the returned Jesus Christ. Sunstar struggles with the natural fears of becoming a father, while Jesus struggles with how much profit is being made in His name. Though the description may sound blasphemous, Russell and co-creators Richard Pace and Leonard Kirk offer a sensitive and respectful examination of Jesus, while cleverly blasting the hero worship that has taken the place of understanding His life. Though Russell often has a savage satirical viewpoint — and that’s not a bad thing — Only Begotten Son offers hope. If only we have the courage to see it and do something about it.
In a year that has sent many of us spiraling, it’s reassuring to see others wrestling with the same issues, and maybe helping point the way to a better path.
Stray Dogs: To describe too much of Stray Dogs might rob it of its surprise and power. It may look like Disney’s Oliver & Company, but this terrific book is much darker than that — and much darker than Dickens. Tony Fleecs and My Little Pony artist Trish Forstner broke out of their comfort zone while still making it look like their comfort zone. Part of the secret is Tone Rodriguez providing layouts to give it an action/mystery backbone, which Forstner then redraws to give it a more cartoony look. Whatever the secret in the sauce, it’s delicious.
Following lost dog Sophie who can’t remember what happened to her owner, the story centers on a pack trying to overcome the limitations of their memories and their prejudices to help Sophie find justice. If I had to put one book at the top of my list — don’t make me! Don’t make me! — this would be the one, mainly because it utterly surprised me and became the top of my read pile each month.
Winona Forever: I begin and end this list with an actor turned comics writer, but Shawn Patrick Boyd’s first comic doesn’t seem so specifically designed to provide himself a movie role. Instead, this is one part fond memory of his middle school days and one part religious conspiracy thriller. If Stranger Things crossed over with The Da Vinci Code but starred the Three Investigators, you’d come close to Winona Forever.
But it’s its own thing, aided by Elijah Henry, an artist who captures the 1980s with a style that moves from elegaic to ominous. Sometimes a bit cartoony — by design — Henry pulls off the tough feat of drawing distinct tweens in an adventure setting. While they may be elastic, their antagonists definitely feel rough-hewn and stolid, and the exaggerated emotions of adolescence pour off the page.
Boyd and Henry’s work is still largely spread by word of mouth, so let me point you in their direction. Two volumes of the first series have been released through Kickstarter and in a few select comics shops, and are available online now. Trust me that they’re only going to get better, and you want to start with them now.
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