The Best Comic Books & Graphic Novels of 2021 (So Far)

These are the brand-new titles to pull next.

best comics of 2021, geiger
'Geiger' | Image Comics
'Geiger' | Image Comics

Comics are unquestionably unique. The interplay of art and words—as well as its particular audience and the serial medium used by many creators—allows for stories that don't exist anywhere else, even if those stories are increasingly being adapted for film and TV.

Last year was a weird year for comics (and every other damn thing). Conventions were canceled. Local shops that serve as a hub for comics communities shuttered or moved to curbside pickup. Fewer comics were released due to the pandemic and an abrupt halt to distribution for many publishers in March. If all of that threw you off your normal comic-book-reading, there are a lot of outstanding releases already in 2021 to welcome back your reading habit.

Throughout the year, this list will be updated to include some of the best comic book and graphic novel releases of 2021. It should go without saying, but I'm going to say it anyway: Any best-of-the-year list, whether it openly addresses the issue or not, is subjective. This list is absolutely that, and evolving, with hopes to include a wide range of publishers, as well as floppies and graphic novels, one-shots, and ongoing series, with more comics added as they're released or complete an arc. The year is already shaping up pretty wonderfully with exciting stories about alien outsiders trying to find their place on a new planet, radioactive vigilantes, hardboiled detectives, shapeshifting humans, and modernized fantasy folktales. Here are the best comic books and graphic novels to be released so far this year.

best comics of 2021
Image courtesy of Dark Horse

Barbalien: Red Planet

Story: Tate Brombal and Jeff Lemire
Art: Gabriel Hernandez Walta
Color Art: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Aditya Bidikar

Of all the tortured heroes trapped in Rockwood in the original run of Black Hammer, Barbalien was possibly the most emotionally engaging. He wasn’t full of rage like Gail Gibbons, lost in his own mind like Colonel Weird, or shrouded in mystery like Madame Dragonfly. This Eisner-nominated spinoff—one of many in the Black Hammer universe—digs into the omnipresent sorrow around the Martian shapeshifter Barbalien, who lives simultaneously as the alien Barbalien and the police officer Mark Markz, as well as, briefly, "Luke." The five-issue run is set against the backdrop of an AIDS epidemic and mass protests in Spiral City. Barbalien is being tracked by the Martian bounty hunter Boa Boaz. He's struggling with the ethics of his job on the police force when he lives as Markz. And he's discovering himself through his love for the activist Miguel when he lives as "Luke." It’s a beautifully constructed story that, like many Black Hammer comics, isn't so much about superheroes as flawed individuals struggling to understand their place in the world.

Barbaric

Writer: Michael Moreci
Artist: Nathan Gooden
Colorist: Addison Duke
Letterer: Jim Campbell

Barbaric has garnered a lot of buzz for a comic that only has three issues to its name. The premise feels almost deceptively simple: Owen is a barbarian who was cursed to only serve the "good." But "good" isn't easy to define, and helping people is pretty much never what he wants to do. For a man cursed to help others, he leaves a shocking trail of blood and bodies. 

Owen travels with his talking axe, Axe. The weapon directs him toward what to do, holding him true to the terms of his curse, but it also has a drinking problem and gets violently inebriated on blood. They're often at odds, since the bloodthirsty axe is always looking for more to feast on and Owen has a lot of rage about the awful things he wants to do that the curse prevents him from doing. It's a funny, gory, weird comic with stunning art in muted colors. The first arc may only last three issues, but Vault has already promised "multiple new miniseries" and one-shots in 2022.

Beta Ray Bill

Writer and Artist: Daniel Warren Johnson
Color Artist: Mike Spicer
Letterer: VC's Joe Sabino with Daniel Warren Johnson

Beta Ray Bill isn’t exactly a household name among Marvel heroes. The horse-faced part-android proved his worth in the '80s in Walter Simonson's The Mighty Thor by lifting Thor's hammer, Mjolnir. That led him to a job as Asgard's "Master of War." This new five-issue miniseries features a forlorn Bill in a downward spiral living in the shadow of Thor, who has become the All-Father of Asgard in Odin's absence. Thor took credit for Bill’s victory over Fin Fang Foom, his cherished weapon Stormbreaker is broken preventing him from returning to his humanoid form, and he has been rejected by his love because he can't transform. It’s hard to be Bill, who is on a mission to take back control of his life. Yes, it sounds a bit moody, but there are, of course, big battles with skyscraper-sized demons and the dragon-like Fin Fang Foom. Oh, and there is an intense ping-pong match that feels like an epic skirmish. The art is atypical for a Marvel series, which may turn off some Marvel fans. Still, the story is beautifully written and drawn by Daniel Warren Johnson, who has a dark sense of humor and a distinctive style. At times the art is grotesque; at others, it might remind you of the intersection of Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson with splash pages that demand you slow down and spend time inhabiting this world.

best graphic novels of 2021
Image courtesy of SelfMadeHero

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles

By Fermín Solís
Translated by Lawrence Schimel

This Spanish graphic novel, which is getting its first official English language translation, follows a brief period in the life of surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. After the release of 1930's L'Age d'Or, Buñuel struggled with his belief in the power of surrealism. Along with his friend and movie producer Ramón Acín, Buñuel began work on the documentary-ish Land Without Bread in the remote, impoverished region of Las Hurdes. The surreal rendering of his time there deals with his personal struggles and the moral ambiguities of making a film like this, as well as confrontations with nightmares from childhood. While it is, in a sense, a loving portrait of the complicated filmmaker and artist, it doesn't shy away from his flaws. It's a probing exploration of the complexities of making art, a fascinating look at the life of an iconic filmmaker, and a beautiful book where the line between waking life and dreams is playfully blurred. 

Cardboard Kingdom 2

Art by Chad Sell
Story by Chad Sell, Vid Alliger, Manuel Betancourt, Michael Cole, David DeMeo, Jay Fuller, Cloud Jacobs, Barbara Perez Marquez, Molly Muldoon, and Katie Schenkel

This book has a totally different tone from others here. Cardboard Kingdom 2 is for young readers, but it's a love letter to the imagination and whimsy of childhood that anyone can enjoy. Though, of course, childhood isn't simple. The kids in the "kingdom" aren't exempt from the difficulties of growing up—divorce, depression, and learning to accept themselves among them. The first Cardboard Kingdom read like a series of interconnected short stories tied together by a neighborhood of kids who created alter egos out of cardboard costumes. The sequel is more of a connected single story, following the kids who are haunted by sightings of a monster in their neighborhood around Halloween, each tracking it in their own way as they deal with bullies, finding love, and how hard it can be to be a friend. It maybe doesn’t rise to the heights of the first installment, but it doesn’t need to. It’s its own book, with its own adventures, and they’re worth taking. 

Image courtesy of TKO

Djeliya

By Juni Ba

Dejliya is a winding epic fairy tale, a fantastical reimagining of West African folklore. It follows the quest of Prince Mansour and the royal musician Awa, living under the tyranny of the wizard Soumaoro, who has broken the world. It has a sharp sense of humor combined with stunning art that wears the influences of Senegal-born creator, Juni Ba, on its sleeve. You'll see nods to inspirations ranging from manga-inspired fight scenes to Cartoon Network humor, Usagi Yojimbo to Wu-Tang Clan. The characters burst with color and recede into shadows, surprising expectations in every leg of the journey. There's so much to enjoy on every page, including the back matter that delves into the folklore that inspired the book.

Hand Me Down

Writer: Alex Paknadel
Art: Jen Hickman
Letterer: Simon Bowland

This one-shot from TKO might not be the typical fare for a list like this, but one-shots—especially those not associated with Marvel or DC-type universes—are an art of their own, and Paknadel and Hickman have it figured out in Hand Me Down. The story seamlessly combines the supernatural with a slice of life story that manages to surprise repeatedly over its short 16 pages. The married couple at the center of the story is in trouble, though only Lyra knows it. Reuben is too obsessed with climbing the ladder at work to notice. He's excited to have moved the family to a white, suburban neighborhood that denotes a rising social standing. Their evolving lifestyle doesn't sit quite right with Lyra, who is Black. After Lyra flees a party thrown by the revered “Magnus from work,” Reuben stays behind and something takes over him. It’s a delicate balance between a quiet story about a marriage in dire straits and Hellboy-esque stories of the occult.

Geiger

Creators: Geoff Johns & Gary Frank
Colorist: Brad Anderson
Letters: Rob Leigh

Johns and Frank have created a rich post-apocalyptic world in Geiger, piecing together snippets of other worlds that have come before it. Tariq Geiger, the titular anti-hero, lives in a nuclear zone where almost nothing can survive. He stands vigil at a fallout shelter in the desert. Inside, his wife and child are trapped. He stands guard waiting for the day when it can safely be opened, freeing his family. In the meantime, he's a terror for anyone who dares venture into his land. Meanwhile, Las Vegas has been divided between colorful warlords, including a Joffrey Barathon-esque child-king who wants Geiger dead. 

This kind of set-up after the initial arc isn't unfamiliar to comics readers. Johns and Frank have built a detailed world, full of mysteries and odd characters you want to know more about. But they remain out of reach because we're focused on a much more narrow set of circumstances, which, under a veil, is essentially a superhero origin story. Geiger has been saddled with two kids on the run from Vegas, carrying something everyone wants to gain control of in the nuclear wasteland of America. The finale might leave you wanting more from the loose ends and unexplored areas of the country. (At times, it's clear that teasers for future stories in this world are being seeded throughout. There is a lot more Geiger already in the works at the close of the six-issue arc, including a Junkyard Joe spinoff and an 80-page special in November.) It can be a little hamfisted at times, but Geiger is fun, the art and colors are entrancing.

i walk with monsters
Vault Comics

I Walk With Monsters

Writer: Paul Cornell
Artist: Sally Cantirino
Colorist: Dearbhla Kelly
Letterer: Andworld Design

I Walk With Monsters manages to be a quiet comic about Jacey, who lived through traumatic childhood experiences, while also being a horror story about monsters that live among us. Jacey and her shapeshifting dog companion, who is also something of a father figure in his human form, are hunting down the man who abducted her brother as she decides whether she has it in her to confront and kill him. The art is not only gorgeous but evokes the feeling of falling back into traumatic memories with an eye that is both unflinching and sympathetic. It’s a striking six-issue series that wins the award for the most tender and emotional you’ll feel seeing someone say “fuck you” and getting the response “fuck you, too.”

Nottingham

Writer: David Hazan
Artist: Shane Connery Volk
Colorist: Luca Romano
Letterer: Joamette Gil

Yet another retelling of “Robin Hood” might not rouse your enthusiasm, but Nottingham isn't a standard tale. It’s a bloody grimdark interpretation of the folklore hero who steals from the rich and, well, you know what he's supposed to do with the money. Though, this Robin Hood—simply called Hood here—is more likely to brutally murder the rich before pinching their pocketbook. Don't expect this to look anything like the story of Kevin Costner or that anthropomorphic fox, even if the usual cast is present: Hood, a not-so-innocent Marian, a Sheriff with a brutal past, Little John, and Friar Tuck. Shane Connery Volk crafts macabre panels for the five-issue series, depicting Hood and the Merry Men in eerie rictus grin masks, often blood splattered. You can’t trust anyone, and you’re never really sure who will come out on top in this retelling that carries shades of the twisting political machinations of A Song of Ice and Fire.

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Dustin Nelson is a Senior Staff Writer at Thrillist. Follow Dustin Nelson on Twitter.