comics, comics criticism, dc comics, marvel, Perspectives, writing

The Urbane Turtle 2021 Year in Review – The Comics

In 2020, in the first couple months of this Urbane Turtle experiment, I posted a Year in Review of some of the various forms of media that got me through a difficult year. I was very explicit that it wasn’t a “Best-Of,” and I did not limit it to any medium.

But after a full year as a semi-professional comic critic, I want to share with you my Top 10 comics from the year that was. There is not much in the way of ground rules for how books qualify for this list. They had to release new issues in 2021. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks catching up on a backlog of releases and am happy to finally share this with you all.

I don’t want to waste much time on introduction. Here’s why you clicked on the link:

Before we get to the top 10, let me say this was a banner year for the comics industry. Somehow it came out of the pandemic with some of its strongest sales in the modern era, but it has also been an incredibly strong year in terms of quality. There are so many different kinds of books to suit so many different kinds of readers. Here are some of the books that almost made the Top 10, and might have in a less crowded field:

Honorable Mentions!

Shang-Chi by Gene Luen Yang and Dike Ruan 

TMNT: The Last Ronin by Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Tom Waltz, Esau and Isaac Escorza, Ben Bishop, Samuel Plata, Luis Antonio Delgado, and Shawn Lee

Catwoman by Ram V and Fernando Blanco

Robin by Joshua Williamson and Gleb Melnikov 

Infinite Frontier by Josh Williamson, Xermanico, and co.

The Good Asian by Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi

All of these books are entertaining and gripping in a variety of different ways, and I would certainly encourage you to check them out. None have any major flaws to speak of, they simply did not speak to me in the same way either on an emotional or visceral level as the rest of the books on this list.

Now, on to the numbers!

10. Inferno by Jonathan Hickman, Valerio Schiti, R.B. Silva, Stefano Caselli,  David Curiel, and Joe Sabino. Marvel.

Inferno is a tough one. I wrote about the first issue in my piece that contrasted it with Nick Spencer’s Spider-Man but since then the series has released 3 of its 4 issues. My feelings are complicated, because it is the best the X-Men has been since Hickman came out swinging with House of X/Powers of X. The sheer weight of its revelations, the satisfaction of the pay-offs, the various twists and turns packed into every single page are intoxicatingly dramatic and sweeping. Every issue feels like an event in itself, with enough meat and weight to fill several months of comics. This is what you come to superhero books for. 

That is also its greatest weakness, which is why it only barely cracks this top 10. The X-Men line has felt a bit rudderless for the last year as Hickman was likely politely asked to stall getting to these big revelations and twists and ultimately larger publishing plans didn’t align with his ideas. As such, the creative vision and dramatic force the X-Men books had coming out of House of X fizzled out over the last year. With Hickman’s announced departure for the line a few months ago, I was frustrated to see his various plot points that were seeded in that miniseries left unresolved. 

What we’ve gotten instead is all of those threads pushed forward at high speed, leaving it even more comparable to Nick Spencer’s run on Amazing Spider-Man. The execution and the creativity of the ideas, however, leave me wanting more as every issue closes. Not many other comics leave me so anxious to find out how its threads will reach conclusion or denouement. Hickman finally picks back up on the themes of transhumanist paranoia that were so compelling in Powers of X, which is what I wish I had been reading for the last year. Inferno satisfyingly unravels the secrets around Krakoa and the machinations of Moira X, which makes for compelling character drama but for me what makes Inferno sing are Hickman’s explorations of how the inevitable march toward human ascendency and supremacy inevitably leads to complete dehumanization. 

It’s not the ending I wanted to see or the way I wish we could have explored these ideas, but I’m glad Hickman is having the chance to tell his story more or less in full, and the final package is so viscerally exciting it’s hard not to enjoy, even if it is marred with disappointment that it will never be what it could have been. Above all, it shows what superhero stories are capable of when allowed the chance to make a statement. And if the worst I can say about a book is that I want more of it, well, that’s pretty high praise.

9. Action Comics & Superman by Philip Kennedy Johnso, Phil Hester, Hi-Fi, Daniel Sampere, Adriano Lucas, Miguel Mendanco, Christian Duce, and Dave Sharpe. DC Comics.

I slept on this Superman run until a week ago and what a mistake that was. Philip K. Johnson picks up threads left by Brian Bendis’s run, primarily the aging of his son John and his traveling to the 31st Century to work with the Legion of Superheroes. The result is Superman as a sad dad, which works supremely well and is a new angle on the character (but not the only rendition of him currently out there—see Superman and Lois). Johnson’s Superman, now publicly Clark Kent following the big revelation in Bendis’s run, is  trying to align both sides of his life, made more difficult by his powers slowly diminishing as a result of the adventures in the initial story arc.

In many ways, Superman under Johnson has been about Clark accepting his mortality, thinking about how to prepare his son, his family, and the rest of the planet Earth for a world without Superman. Here it intersects with Grant Morrison’s Superman and the Authority, when Superman discovers that War World, an artificial planet ruled by the despot Mongul, is holding possible Kryptonian slaves and making moves toward conquering Earth. When the Justice League and the United Planets refuse to help him take the fight toMongul, Superman puts together a black-ops team of ne’er-do-wells and young heroes to help him bring justice to the enslaved.

Johnson is aided by the sublime Daniel Sampere for some of the most dramatic stories of the run, who strikes a balance between his larger-than-life symbolism and the human within. Superman struggles to do the right thing, even when it puts him in conflict with his peers and the US Government and results in his isolation from the world. We rarely see this vision of Superman, doing what is right even if it means going it alone. Johnson’s background in the US military, I believe, is reflected in this story—He is committed to service to the country, amid a time when the government has never been more wretched and broken. What does it mean to be of service to the citizens of the world, when the structures that make up society are so twisted? You focus on doing right by the lowest—In this case, the chained of War World. This is not the selfish human suffering of a man burdened with power of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, this is a selfless lament of a man who could once do anything realizing there is so much he was unable to do before it was too late. War World becomes a symbol for Superman for every failure.

The mark of Johnson’s success is his doing the impossible: making Mongul not just an intimidating villain but a compelling, horrifying force. Johnson smartly frames this version of the character as just the latest in the long line of War World rulers to hold the title of Mongul, each ascending to power by killing their predecessor. With this new Mongul, Johnson has made the horrors of War World, a broad and extremely comic-book concept, more tangible and frightening, focusing on its little horrors and crafting a society around chains and a sadistic bloodthirst. It is the politics of militarism writ large. Murder is honor, deaths the chains that tie you to the grim enslavement of your servitude. To break the chain is to fear the backlash and punishment of your superiors.

If Superman is strength in service of the lowly, Mongul is strength in service of oneself at any cost. As Superman marches inevitably to his lowest point, Mongul is ascendant.

While the initial stories are broad sci-fi capers drawn with the stylized and kinetic artwork of Phil Hester, as Johnson zeroes in on his themes, Daniel Sampere steps in to do more of the art, and as mentioned the work is gorgeous, the light line work and realist figures grounding the amazing feats in a humanistic verisimilitude. With Action Comics finally bursting into War World, Sampere steps aside for artist Miguel Mendonca, whose art is just a bit rougher, more angular, and heavier on shadow. 

Colorist Adriano Lucas ties the latter two artists together, bursting off the page with dramatic and moody lighting that bathes Superman in light in moments of triumph, and hurdles him into the dark and blood-red skies of War World. This chapter is the darkest yet for the Man of Steel, and I am happy to say I can’t guess what happens next.

8. Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, Joe Bennet, Ruy José, Bellardino Brabo, Paul Mounts, and Cory Petit. Covers by Alex Ross. Marvel

What can be said about Immortal Hulk that has not been said month after month? Al Ewing is one of the finest writers working in superhero comics today, so deft at mining the past and the complex continuity of the Marvel Universe to blaze new trails and enrich past stories. Ewing thinks in big, cosmic questions, and his work grapples with the most salient questions of meaning, climate change, and life after death. His Hulk has been at turns crusader for the planet, hurt child, and embodiment of hellish fury. In the end, Immortal Hulk turns on an old story, a simple question:

Why Hulk always hurt so much?

He asks this of God—the old Hulk, the classic Hulk, the one who is but a child trapped in a cycle of pain and fury. God answers as God always answers: Without answering, truly. These things live ever beyond our understanding. Whether there is meaning, whether there isn’t, that is not for those of us toiling away to know in this life. Hulk is Job, a vessel for the pain of all humankind, the hurt, the confusion, the endless torture of living through news cycle after news cycle of violence, death, apocalypse, and brokenness.

Ewing takes this classic superhero character and turns his story into a biblical tragedy, a universal lament. It is a painful and cathartic and funny and brilliant series, marred only by the heinous behavior of its artist, who Ewing has had to disavow, and too often took away from the core of what makes Immortal Hulk so special. It’s impossible to ignore Joe Bennett’s contribution to this series, his grotesque imagery and menacing Hulk a core component to the cosmic horror and tragedy. I won’t go into the controversies Bennet brought, but it is perhaps fitting in the end, that this book, this story of imperfect broken humanity, was to be harmed so fully by its own cocreator.

There is plenty more to be said about Immortal Hulk, including the brilliance of thematically connecting Bruce Banner’s tragedy to the triumph of his Marvel predecessors, the Fantastic Four, as Oliver Sava points out on Polygon

Ultimately, Immortal Hulk ended as it lived, a triumphant, violent, grotesque reflection of our best and worst selves, alone in the wilderness of existence, pondering our pain.

7. The Six Sidekicks of Trigger Keaton by Kyle Starks & Chris Schweizer.  Image/Skybound

I wrote a review of the first issue of this one for CBR, which if I had not done I likely never would have read this gem of a series. Slapstick action comedy with a kick of the banal tragedy of the human condition? Well, how can I say no to that? I am a fan of The Venture Brothers, after all, and the mix of irreverence and pathos has long been my favorite genre of art.

When a man dies, the world mourns, unless that man is Trigger Keaton, the most unlikeable person in Hollywood, whose potential murder is the motivating action for this Image and Skybound series. Written by Kyle Starks with art by Chris Schweizer, The Six Sidekicks of Trigger Keaton is a slapstick action-comedy that explores aging in Hollywood, betrayal, and the complex webs of relationships that we build throughout our lives. With his expressive and idiosyncratic art and character design, Schweizer elevates Stark’s humor, making for a smart, fresh and thoroughly entertaining series.

Starks and Schweizer’s greatest success is introducing a full and unique cast of characters whose characteristics are established both through witty dialogue as well as distinct designs. This cast is the heart and soul of the series, far more than its silly mystery hijinks. Each is fleshed out over the course of the series, and we learn more about how Trigger Keaton’s abuses held them back or haunted them in some way. 

Schweizer plays on readers’ familiarity with specific genres and character archetypes to define the various sidekicks, and Keaton himself, with signifiers that draw on readers’ pop culture knowledge. Keaton’s cowboy looks and action charm are a clear pastiche of Chuck Norris, who modern readers most readily associate with a specific meme that granted the actor an ironic mythological quality. This visual shortcut creates an immediate perception of the character’s reputation but undercuts those familiar signifiers with the harsh truth of the broken man behind the iconography and legend. 

One of the most memorable characters in the series is Terry Komodo, Trigger’s second sidekick. He is visually coded as a tough boozehound but over the course of the series is revealed to be the most emotionally connected to the deceased and the most distraught over his loss. The complexity of the character and his relationship with Keaton is fleshed out gradually throughout the series and we learn that the pocket beers and karate bravado are just ornamental features to intentionally mislead and hide the vulnerability within. The rest of the cast are each carefully designed to set up a perception that belies the truth of their interior lives. 

Cultural signifiers are defined more by what they are not than what they stand for and by making characters who contrast with one another, their uniqueness is magnified. Paul Hernandez, the slouching nurse who was trained in martial arts by Keaton as a child, is a completely different character than the imposing former football player Richard Branagh. The series would not work without each of the six sidekicks feeling so fleshed out. 

Stark’s writing is laugh out loud funny, with quality one-liners and frantically paced farcical action. Schweizer punctuates his action with lovingly rendered hand-drawn sound effects that are funny in their own right and burst out of the panels. The choreography is dynamic and takes advantage of the cartoony style to stretch and contort characters to convey the force of their motion and impact. While a breezy and funny read, the series hides dramatic depths, resulting in a book that explores the difficult dynamics of relationships and childhood trauma. As the sidekicks come to know one another better, they realize all that they have in common despite their many differences

.

This is a lot of words to celebrate a book as funny and outlandish as one which involves a Stuntman War that sends bags of poop flying into the air.

6. Djeliya by Juni Ba. TKO.

Djeliya is a visual stunner from newcomer Juni Ba, a French Senegalese cartoonist with a style inspired by his West African heritage. Djeliya traces the story of Prince Mansour and his royal storyteller Awa, as they journey to reach the mysterious Wizard Soumaoro who guards an ancient power that he once used to destroy the world.

That broad overview, straight from TKO’s publicity gets at the basic overview but fails to get at the heart of the book. Like Samurai Jack (whose style also seems to be an influence on Ba’s visuals) there is an episodic nature to this book, despite its collection in a single package. Each chapter stands on its own either as background for the larger world or to flesh out the characters and let them explore this colorful and visually arresting world. The different tales, as told through campfire stories and whispered conversations, trace through a world inhabited by towering warthog warlords and djinns, a world of technology and magic, of societies and cultures broken and isolated.

Djeliya’s fables tell individual stories, moral plays and histories, that build together to tell a unified fairy tale of a world torn apart by its paranoia and fear of one another. The main character of the book, the royal Djeliya, the musical storyteller, Awa, carries the history of her people with her, acting as a conscience for the lost Prince Mansour and a connection to the past. 

By book’s end, Djeliya invites the reader to participate in the story, to observe all that you have read with fresh eyes, and, ultimately, determine how the story ends for yourself. It is a delightful trick of storytelling that works on the strength of Ba’s subtle work seeding the various fables with multiple meanings, filtered through the prism of the individual storytellers’ own myopic worldviews. Djeliya celebrates the power of stories, of knowledge and music and art to unite people.

5. Nightwing by Tom Taylor, Bruno Redondo, Adriano Lucas, and Wes Abbott. DC Comics

Nightwing might be higher if it hadn’t been diverted by this year’s Batman line-wide crossover. But it still stands as one of my favorite books of the year. As you’re likely to remember, I started 2021 with a massive retrospective on Dick Grayson. Much of what I wrote about wanting to see in a Nightwing book has come to fruition under Tom Taylor’s writing. More than anything else coming out of this Infinite Frontier era of DC Comics, Nightwing represents the regime change of recent publishing shake-ups, notably the departure of Dan Didio, who has long been infamous for his desire to see legacy characters and sidekicks sidelined.

With editorial constraints mostly lifted away, Nightwing has felt more fleshed out, more distinct, and more essential to the overall line than he ever has before. Taylor lifts from the character’s long history, building in particular off of Kyle Higgins’s mission statement in his final issue with the character, on being a safety net for others, to catch them when they fall. Taylor’s Nightwing is a man of the people, inheriting a fortune to rival Bruce Wayne and devoting it to his city.

This version of Dick Grayson also has what feels like a distinctive world around him for the first time, not just a mirror of Gotham City without the colorful villains. The new Bludhaven, carrying through the neon-soaked colors of the Rebirth-era, is as corrupt as ever but tinged by a brightness and resilience represented by the pink skies. With Adriano Lucas’s colors, Bludhaven is never fully darkened. Taylor is also creating new villains and utilizing old ones that are designed specifically to act as a foil for Grayson’s traits and personality, not just hired assassins and thieves. The mysterious new villain Heartless is the absence of Dick Grayson’s most powerful trait: his compassion. The return of Blockbuster as the criminal ruler of the city is specifically at odds with Grayson’s philanthropic mission. While he still lacks a bit in an original supporting cast, Taylor leans on the larger superhero community to flesh out Dick’s relationships, with Tim Drake and Barbara Gordon, in particular, being common fixtures of the book. 

The real star of this new era, however, is artist Bruno Redondo, who, for my money, is currently the most exciting artist working in superhero books today, and perfectly suited to usher Nightwing into an era where he might finally have the chance to truly step into a starring and central role in the DCU. Redondo illustrates Dick Grayson with balletic precision, tracing the character’s motion across the page. Nightwing is always in motion, never stoic or frozen in place. Redondo’s creative layouts are astonishingly clear, using small insert panels and transitions to make the action come alive.

Redondo’s masterpiece comes in issue 87, just released this month, which was designed to be a single, continuous image. There are no traditional panel lines, no scene transitions. Just Dick Grayson traveling across the city. It could be written off as a gimmick issue, and indeed Taylor’s narrative here is fairly light and breezy. But its execution is remarkable. There is so much character in just the way that Nightwing moves across the page, with Redondo doing just enough with his action lines to make it clear. The sheer draftsmanship of the architecture is to be applauded. But despite the straightforward plot, thematically it feels significant, particularly after the book was corralled back into Gotham for two months. Taylor and Redondo take us on a tour of Bludhaven, through the lives of the people who live within it in so many different and tiny details. It fleshes out both Dick Grayson and Nightwing’s relationship with these people. Bludhaven has never been so fully realized.

Redondo’s stunning linework is aided and abetted by the colors from Adriano Lucas, whose pink and purple palette gives the city a fluorescent and hazy feel that comes across as both grimy and full of a hidden brightness longing to break free.

This new chapter in Nightwing’s story reads like a culmination of Dick’s long years lost in the wilderness and is as pure fun as superhero comics get.

4. Radiant Black by Kyle Higgins, Marcelo Costa, Igor Monti, Eduardo Ferigato, Becca Carey, et.al. Image.

If you’ve been following me or my writing over the last year first of all, God bless you, second, you know by now that I am a big fan of Radiant Black. I’ve written a lot about it. Currently, Radiant Black is the only signed comic book I own.

The book has changed a lot from its first issue, expanding in scope and thematic ambition. What hooked me in that first issue that made the setup unique, its millennial point of view, the class struggle and lamentation of this specific economic moment, is both more true and less true now, but certainly different as the series unfolds. The origin that was set up in the first three issues was not the origin we thought we were building toward, and our protagonist has proven to be the character introduced as the best friend of struggling writer Nathan Burnett. It involves some genuinely shocking twists and has facilitated an exploration of grief and self-loathing that has made the last several issues of the series not just exciting superhero fun but rooted in true emotional depth.

Marshall’s story is much different than Nathan’s but both are rooted in the anxiety familiar to 30-somethings in America. If Nathan’s is a professional disappointment, Marshall’s is the existential fear that his life and potential have been wasted, trapped in a dead-end job, and resentful of his friends who left home and made something of themselves, or at least tried. Marshall is a washout, cloaking his fear and anger with a removed and cynical irony. Nathan viewed himself as someone with potential too afraid to live up to it, and saw his new superpowers as a second chance to make a difference. Marshall, on the other hand, sees himself as fundamentally undeserving of the power or responsibility. 

When I spoke to Kyle Higgins, he talked about his feelings of responsibility in writing a creator-owned superhero book, to take narrative risks and make big swings. This urgency is present in every issue as the series’ scope and true protagonist reveal themselves over time. This isn’t just a single superhero, it is a cosmic conflict that has entangled a group of unique individuals in its web. The scale is grandiose, but as the most recent issues show, Higgins balances that scope with smaller character explorations and conflicts. 

Worth noting, this book also knows how to embrace the fun at the core of superhero books, and the creative team is intentional about building a community around the book, having fun, and doing things that they think would just be cool, like the special Black Light Edition of issue 10 (which takes place within a Black Hole), to the Radiant Black Bath Bomb Box, which could be purchased through QR code in the body of an issue itself. 

Helping to bring this spectacle is series artist Marcelo Costa who has grown as an artistic talent through every issue, culminating in issue 10’s dynamic and experimental layouts that entwine the page in M.C. Escher style illusion and endless spirals. Costa’s style, with its sharp angles, harsh rim lighting, and sleek colors, gives the book a futuristic vibe. His approach to drawing the superheroic moments never forgets that these are not characters who are comfortable with their power or status but still learning. Guest artists Eduardo Ferigato and David Lafuente carry the torch, rooting the action in the characters and their emotions.

It’s also worth celebrating the way Higgins uses this book every month to lift new creative voices, making space for guest writers and backup features for creators he believes in. As Radiant Black continues and changes month-to-month, I find myself connecting with it more and more, excited to see what comes next. I’ve not felt so personally invested or connected to a superhero book like this perhaps since reading Ultimate Spider-Man as a teen.

3. Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Jimenez, Hi-Fi Romulo Fajardo Jr.,Arif Prianto, and Clayton Cowles. DC Comics.

I could gush about the beauty of this book for ages, but I reviewed it for CBR, and for once, I feel like what was published fully expresses the point I was trying to get across: this thing is a triumph. I was hesitant to buy into the hype around this book, knowing the art from Phil Jimenez was a one-off, but it is such a stunning achievement it is impossible not to praise it more.

Wonder Woman Historia is the history of the Amazons from their birth to the arrival of Steve Trevor on the island of Themyscira. It is the birth of Wonder Woman from the earliest threads that set her into being. 

Will future issues be anything like this or near as good or bordering on opulent excess? No, because Phil Jimenez’s work is singular and only rarely put to page. This issue on its own can exist as itself and never see another issue come out and it is a perfect thing in and of itself. 

Jimenez just knows how comics work. There are wild, inventive layouts, panels shaped like birds’ heads, panels that contain panels in the eyes of a character. Moments that make you gasp just because they exist and were drawn and exist only to make you gasp.

The opulence of the art and color works because the breadth and scope of Kelly Sue De Connick’s story are so vast and ambitious, to recontextualize millennia of mythology into a superhero world. It succeeds and in doing so surpasses its superheroic roots. It is, as I said on CBR, a feminist rallying cry, an empowering anthem of feminine agency. Wonder Woman is not even introduced yet, but already you can understand the path De Connick is taking for us to get there and understand her in a new light. She is of women, to be a voice for women, to be the ultimate in womanhood, and stand against the perennial, endless, staggering abuses of men and their patriarchal society. 

It is good in ways few comics can imagine being.

2. The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V, Filipe Andrade, & AndWorld Design. BOOM! Studios

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr is a fairy tale, a story of life and death, of aging and meaning. Buildings and crows speak, a cigarette narrates an issue, and Death is the central character. The series follows the god of death, laid off after the news comes that a baby will soon be born who will create eternal life, making Death’s job irrelevant—for efficiency’s sake. Death is bonded to a mortal host, a young girl named Laila Starr who committed suicide just as Darius, the child who would invent immortality, was being born. Death plans to kill this child so she can regain her old job.

Throughout the five issues, Laila Starr and Darius meet at various points throughout his life. Each issue is a complete tale, a story of aging and loving and losing, on its own. Death flits in and out of Darius’ life, shaping and changing him, as it does for us all. As Darius becomes more and more familiar with Death, Death begins to understand what it means to be mortal, to love and mourn and treasure memories of those gone before us.

It is a pleasant idea, Death being obsolete, in a world where our country has lost 800,000 people in two years to a single cause, with nearly 1,000 Americans dying a day still. Death is everywhere, all around us, a looming shadow and all-encompassing presence in ways it never has been for so many of us. The Many Deaths of Laila Starr posits not the dream of eternal life, but that death is not without beauty, that life is miraculous, all-too-short as it may be. It is an invitation to cherish the fleeting moments—of childhood, of adolescence, of adulthood—and recognize the magic there. 

In The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, death is just a department in an otherworldly bureaucracy, there is no wonder in the operation of the universe. But here on earth, oh, the magic to behold.

Ram V’s elegiac narration moves the story forward, his giving compassionate voice to mundane objects imbues even the banalest of items with pathos and significance. The art by Filipe Andrade is dreamlike, with light, unfettered linework that quivers and defies precise angles. Blacks and shadows are scribbled in. The artist’s stroke is ever-present, reminding the reader always of the creation at work. Andrade’s work is symbolic and expressionist, with visuals that represent how a moment feels to a given character. In the second issue, young Darius is said to have viewed the groundskeeper of his family’s estate as towering and tree-like. In the first panel this groundskeeper is seen, he is indeed tall, but not overly so. In subsequent images, his limbs sprawl across the page, and he stands beside a literal tree, as thick and long as the vegetation itself.

Closing the final issue of Laila Starr, it is impossible to not be overcome with a range of emotions, from sadness to gratitude, to even hope that life means more than its most painful elements.

When it came to pick my favorite book of the year, it was so close between this and my number 1, that there may not even be a difference between these books, either could be considered the best of the best. It is also worth noting, they share one of the finest and most imaginative letterers in the business, AndWorld Design.

1. The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV, Alvaro Martinez Bueno, Jordie Bellaire, & AndWorld Design. DC Comics/Black Label

When it came down to picking my favorite book of the year, I ultimately decided it had to be Nice House, whose first issue was so energizing and exciting to me I literally could not sleep the night after reading it. It inspired my most self-indulgent and academic piece on this very website and was full of such meaty symbolism to pick apart that I still find myself going back to that first issue as a model of how to introduce a new series.

This book works at a technical level than perhaps any other comic book I’ve ever read, and the art by Martinez Bueno plays a critical part in that. His meticulous planning around staging, geography, and panel design shine forth in ways that I’ve never seen anyone else emulate—and he does it without resorting to old tricks or standard grids. It is a formalist exercise that breaks old forms.

Set at the end of the world, a group of acquaintances are isolated in an idyllic lakeside house, left to determine how to live their lives with everything they know left behind.

I’ve already written a couple thousand words on this book, but to write a few more, here is why I feel that the Nice House On the Lake is not just a show stopping first issue but the most compelling ongoing narratives of the year.

This is a comic that is both of its moment and transcends its point in time. Opening with evocative imagery that taps into the paranoia and fear of our covid reality and the existential torment of the isolation of a year in lockdown as millions die. In its first six issues the series makes us question what society is in a world where we’ve been witness to ongoing collective trauma, stranded from one another through politics and geography. By embracing detail and symbols that reflect our lived reality, the horror of this strange purgatory at the end of the world is made all the more visceral. It would be a great book in any year, but its release on the tail end of the first most deadly wave of the Pandemic in the US gives the series a haunting verisimilitude.

As the series has gone on, with each issue focusing on a different character, we’ve been slowly introduced to new mysteries and new perspectives on the man who brought them all together. These changes in narrator keeps the series exciting and fresh and offers a chance for each of the large cast to shine. As Tynion reveals more about the House and the circumstances of its residents, the book and its themes of isolation, repetition, and  the challenges of existing amid world rocking disasters, of the tension between trying to find normalcy and facing the fullness of the truth become ever more fleshed out.

But while its themes are timely and its plot and characters are compelling, what really makes this the comic of the year for me is its excellence in the form and medium itself, which I tried to extrapolate in my semiotic analysis of the premiere issue. It has only become more apparent that this team is raising the bar for what comics can accomplish that other forms of storytelling cannot.

And there you have it; my highest accollades for a great year in comics. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to sound off in the comments, or yell at me on Twitter!

See you in 2022.

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