It’s almost the end of the year, which means that everybody is coming out with their “Best of” listicles. So why not go with the flow? Here is what I think are the best comic books of 2016, in no particular order.
Okay, that’s a bit of a lie, because there are in a bit of order. This first post is all books that started prior to 2016 and are merely returning through 2016 or ended in 2016. I’ll write another post for all the books that started in 2016.
Superman: American Alien (DC)
Written by Max Landis, with art by Nick Dragotta, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joelle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, and Jock.
Man. This book was certainly a surprise. Max Landis, the writer of the movies Chronicle and Victor Frankenstein, is perhaps better known “that dude who did a video about the death and return of Superman” or “that dude who always sounds like a douchebag.” When this book was announced, most people brushed it off — but when it came out, it turned out to be one of the best looks at Clark Kent there had ever been, looking at him through various lenses. The book wasn’t about Superman — heck, Clark doesn’t even become Superman until near the end of the mini-series — it’s all about Clark and his feelings of alienation, loneliness, friendship, and longing. The mini-series took an interesting approach in skipping around from his childhood to him being a teenager, then young adult, then adult in Metropolis, but it never seemed like it was retelling anything that had been told before. And, more than anything else, it made Clark Kent seem like a real person and yet still be the paragon of virtue that we all know him to be.
DC Comics: Bombshells (DC)
Written by Margueritte Bennett, with art by Marguerite Sauvage, Laura Braga, Stephen Mooney, Ted Naifeh, Garry Brown, Bilquis Evely, Mirka Andolfo, Ming Doyle, Sandy Jarrell, Maria-Laura Sanapo, and Pasquale Qualano.
This digital first series started back in 2015, inspired by a series of World War II-style pinups of superheroines, not something that you might think would turn out well...and yet, this alternate universe vision of a world where a league of superheroines went to war with a black magic-infused army of Nazis and evil Atlanteans and goddamn Cthulhu is one of the best things out there. This is helped by the bevy of artists that churn out clean lines for each character and the sole writer, Marguerite Bennett, who manages to keep on introducing character after character (Mary Marvel! Vixen! The original Batgirl!), while still keeping all of the characterization excellent and making each battle awesome and heartbreaking.
Clean Room (Vertigo)
Written by Gail Simone, with art by Jon Davis-Hunt.
Gail Simone has written superhero comics for so long that when she gets a chance to write her own creator-owned work, she goes in a wildly different direction. Clean Room is nothing at all like Birds of Prey or Batgirl. Clean Room is pure and unadulterated horror. There is nothing nice about Clean Room — it is page after page of unrelenting creepiness.
The story revolves around Astrid Mueller who, due to a childhood incident, can see, well, let’s call them “spirits.” Except they aren’t really spirits at all, they are horrific abominations. And now Astrid is the head of a “self-help” organization and just wrote a new book....and when Chloe’s husband reads the book, he blows his brains out. What follows is Chloe’s examination of Astrid and what is really going on, all wrapped up tight in a bow of exquisite tension and horror.
All-New Wolverine (Marvel)
Written by Tom Taylor, with art by David Lopez, David Navarrot, Marcio Tanaka, Ig Guara, Nik Virella, and Djibril Morisette-Phan.
When the original Wolverine died, many thought it wouldn’t last a year. However, when Laura Kinney, formerly X-23, took over for Wolverine in All-New Wolverine, many hoped that Logan would stay dead, because of how delightful Laura was in playing the Wolverine role.
Part of it is the fact that Tom Taylor knows Laura’s history inside and out and can reference it easily. Another part is that Laura has moved on from her past and has become someone new thanks to Logan and her friends. And part of that new personality? Not being such a grump like Logan was. She adopts her own clone, Gabby. Hell, she teams up with the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. And then get’s a real wolverine for a pet! (His name is Jonathan.) Together, Laura, Gabby, and Jonathan make up a trio of awesomeness that is a worthy successor to Logan himself (and perhaps even better).
(Also, the day after I started writing this article, it was announced All-New Wolverine would survive post-ResurrXion. Yippee!)
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Marvel)
Written by Ryan North, with art by Erica Henderson, Andy Hirsch, Kyle Starks, and Jacob Chabot.
Speaking of the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, her book was also one of the best of the year, as it should be. She went up against a time traveling Doctor Doom (and took him down with a bunch of her own time-traveling doppelgangers in a hilarious callback to her first appearance), reformed the formerly Nazi supervillain Brain Drain into a nihilist college student/burgeoning superhero, teamed up with Ant-Man and his Ant-Van, and even fought her own evil clone (although she wasn’t technically evil, just misguided) in the awesomely spectacular The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe. The best part of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s book, though, is the fact that it is not content to rest on its laurels and coast on any single joke — instead, North and Henderson push the envelope in terms of storytelling, one issue being a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, another issue being completely set the world of dreams. It makes the book so much better, while keeping Squirrel Girl on her (tippy) toes.
Survivors’ Club (Vertigo)
Written by Lauren Beukes and Dale Halverson, with art by Ryan Kelly, Mark Farmer, and Peter Gross.
What if all those movie monsters were real? What if they actually attacked people and the survivors of those attacks formed a support group? Well, that’s pretty much exactly what Survivors’ Club is about, plus an excellent mixture of black comedy, satire, and a whole lot of references to classic horror movies (only their details slightly changed).
Beukes is a well known science fiction/horror writer, with books like The Shining Girls and Broken Monsters, so she brings a lot of excellent tension to the story, while Ryan Kelly makes every character look twitchy and every scene look like it might descend into some apocalyptic madness at any moment. (It helps that one character is perpetually haunted by her “Auntie,” a Japanese ghost creature.) The characters are all fully fleshed out (even without flesh) and the story finds itself in places I never would have expected, but which work beautifully anyway.
The Wicked + The Divine (Image)
Written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Jamie McKelvie, Stephanie Hans, and Kevin Wada.
The Wicked + The Divine is one of those books that I can honestly say just keeps getting better and better. It’s a book that I can’t predict, I book that I cannot put down, even as it does horrible things to characters I love.
The Wicked + The Divine is about a group of kids and young adults who all get the powers of gods and will go on to be celebrities, with the caveat that they will also all die in two years. The first two storyarcs were great, but pretty much all about setting up the pieces, which meant that, after a brief interlude, the next arc was all about knocking everything down. From deaths to resurrections to HOLY GOD EVEN MORE DEATHS, this book is simply amazing. And it isn’t afraid to get experimental either — the one shot Wicked + Divine: 1831 shows us what would have possibly happened had Mary Shelly and her group of friends all had the power of gods and what might have become of Frankenstein’s creature, while issue #22 is actually an issue of Pantheon Magazine, complete with beautiful illustrations by Kevin Wada. I have no idea where WicDiv is going next, but I will be along for the ride.
The Vision (Marvel)
Written by Tom King, with art by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Michael Walsh.
Dear god, what can be said about The Vision that hasn’t already been written? Hell, even I’ve written about it. But that’s the thing about a great work of art: you keep talking about it, discussing it, arguing about it, thinking about it, even after it’s all over. The Vision was a strange beast, a drama set entirely in a suburb, yet starring a family of synthezoids; it was a horror comic, a comedy at times, a tragedy all the time, and yet still somehow ending on a note of hope (or was that false hope?). It was a comic unlike any Marvel comic I have ever read.
It was about...well, it was about the Vision and the family he created and the family he ended up with. The rest I turn over to Tom King, who explained the entire comic in the letters page:
“It is a tale of blood and kisses, of brothers and sisters, daughters and sons, husbands and wives, of betrayals and high school and guns and lasers and bureaucrats and Avengers and neighbors and suspicion and robots, red skinned robots peacefully living amongst us, red skinned robots trying to live peacefully amongst us.”
The Legend of Wonder Woman (DC)
Written and illustrated by Renae de Liz.
Despite the fact that there have been many, many, many versions of Wonder Woman over the years, her early years during World War II have never really been explored that much. In the mainstream DC continuity, they have, in fact, been erased, with her arriving in Man’s World during the modern day. (The continuity tangles this created post-Crisis necessitated that it be explained her mother Hippolyta served as Wonder Woman of the JSA during the Second World War.)
Renae de Liz restores all that beautiful history, starting from Diana’s childhood and then going forward to her discovery of Steve Trevor, her vow to lead him back to his home, her meeting Etta Candy (and the Holliday Girls) and becoming Wonder Woman. It’s a complete retelling of her Golden Age adventures — complete with Golden Age villain the Duke of Deception — but all done with a modern day sensibility. De Liz delights (sorry) in writing these characters, with an exuberant Etta (so sorry) to a determined Diana (not sorry at all actually) as she becomes more and more convinced in her mission to help people. De Liz’s artwork, too, is outstanding — all these characters look real. The first season of Legend of Wonder Woman has come to an end; let’s hope we get another season of awesomeness.
Giant Days (Boom!)
Written by John Allison, with art by Lissa Tremain and Max Sarin.
John Allison’s webcomics, such as Scary Go Round, have always had a mixture of slice of life comedy and magical realism. (One of his characters becomes Queen of Hell. Don’t ask.) However, Giant Days has less magical realism (though not all of it is gone) and much, much more slice of life comedy. And for that it is all the better, since it gives us three amazing characters to follow — Esther de Groot, Susan Ptolemy, and Daisy Wooton — as they navigate the trials and tribulations of university. It is sincerely one of the most hilarious comics I have ever read — from trying to untangle their ever increasingly complicated love lives to cramming for exams to trying to find a place to live together, the most mundane things become comedy gold. It is also features the great line, “Wanna go somewhere and fail the Bechdel test repeatedly?”
Patsy Walker, A.K.A. Hellcat! (Marvel)
Written by Kate Leth, with art by Brittney Williams.
Well, this one is just fun.
Okay, fine, there’s more to it than that. This is a book that really shouldn’t work: it stars a third-tier character that started off as a Archie-esque character and then was turned into a superhero in the ‘70s, married the Son of Satan, died, was resurrected, and then generally forgotten about.
Thank god for Jessica Jones, am I right? With Trish Walker breathing new interest into Patsy Walker, Marvel handed over the reins of the character to Kate Leth, who took a look at the entire history of the character and said, “I can work with this. ALL OF IT.” Yes, we see characters from the fifties that haven’t been used in decades. We see Patsy’s childhood rival, Hedy; we see her ex-husbands (both of them); but, most importantly, we see her friendships, from her old friends to her new ones. Because, like Squirrel Girl, that is Hellcat’s real superpower. Well, that and magical karate.
Ms. Marvel (Marvel)
Written by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Takeshi Miyazawa, Adrian Alphona, Nico Leon, and Mirka Andolfo.
Kamala Khan continues her winning streak in our hearts, generally by being awesome. This year, that presented a little difficulty, especially since she became a part of the All-New, All-Different Avengers and became superbusy and famous and soon had to take on that most villainous of villains: gentrification. Well, okay, it was gentrification by Hydra, but still.
Civil War II also hit Ms. Marvel hard and while the story remained incredibly engaging (much more engaging than the main crossover), it was hard to see it tear Kamala’s world apart, although the way G. Willow Wilson preceded each issue with a flashback to Kamala’s family history and then childhood (all illustrated by the amazing Adrian Alphona) was incredibly fantastic. Going forward, this book is still one to watch with awe.
Paper Girls (Image)
Written by Brian K. Vaughan, with art by Cliff Chiang.
This book was Stranger Things before Stranger Things existed. It took place in the 1988, in a small suburb in Ohio, where four girls came together on Halloween morning to deliver some papers. This morning, however, turned out to be different when suddenly there was an invasion of...well, it’s kind of hard to explain. Time travelers, basically.
The plot is hard to follow, but you don’t really read Paper Girls for the plot. You read it for the gorgeous artwork by Cliff Chiang and brilliant colors by Matt Wilson and the depth of characters by Brian K. Vaughan as he singles each girl out to run through the wringer. Starting with issue #6, the girls find themselves not just out of their wheelhouse, but out of their time — specifically, they find themselves in 2016 with an older version of one of them. Things go off the rails even more, but that’s the genius behind Paper Girls: anything can happen. Even two giant tardigrades fighting each other.
Written by Marguerite Bennett, with art by Ariela Kristantina.
It’s kind of hard to describe what Insexts is about without sounding like a madman. It’s about two woman living in the Victorian Era, one of whom is married to a Lord and the other is her lady’s maid. They have fallen in love with each other and so conspire to kill Lady’s abusive husband by turning into insect monsters. And then Lady gives birth to a son. And there’s also a serial killer out there killing prostitutes (because of course there is). And a religious order of werewolves. And...
...well, you get the idea. It’s hard to describe. But once you start reading, it’s hard to put down, because even taking all those weird elements, they all work together. This is a book about an oppressive age for women; a place where women were seen as second class. It’s a horror story. However, unlike other horror stories, the damsel is also the monster.
This book is also incredibly NSFW (there are lesbian sex scenes in pretty much every issue), so I would advise against reading it on the bus.
Bitch Planet (Image)
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, with art by Valentine de Landro and Taki Soma.
I cannot imagine another book that is more relevant today and will continue to be relevant these next four years. Bitch Planet is the ultimate outcome of letting men control women’s bodies. Bitch Planet may seem like sci-fi satire that can never truly happen until oh shit yes it can.
Bitch Planet is what happens when you give Kelly Sue DeConnick a place to open her brain and spew out the darkest future imaginable. It’s a place where women can only exist as long as the men approve. If a woman does something without approval, if she’s fat or ugly or mean or gay or transgender, she is declared Non-Compliant and shipped off to Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, better known as Bitch Planet. Although the schedule of the book is a little wonky (four issues in eleven months), the book itself is so good that I can hardly complain. It’s a book that doesn’t sit down and talk to you; it grabs you by the shoulders and screams at you.
And that’s that for the Best Returning Comics of 2016. Next up: best comics that started in 2016. There are a lot!