The Best Comic Books & Graphic Novels of 2021
These are the brand-new titles to pull next.
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.
The first year of the pandemic 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 were a lot of outstanding releases in 2021 to welcome back your reading habit, even if there were plenty of obstacles this year as well.
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. It aims to include a variety of publishers, as well as a mix of floppies, graphic novels, one-shots, ongoing series, blood-soaked stories, and comics for younger readers. No matter your preference, there were stories worth getting excited about from alien outsiders trying to find their place on a new planet to radioactive vigilantes, hardboiled detectives to murder-for-bitcoin operations on the dark web. Here are the best comic books and graphic novels of 2021.
Writer: Pornsak Pichetshote
Artist: Alexandre Tefenkgi
Colorist: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Jeff Powell
This hardboiled detective tale is set in the 1930s when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in effect. "It was America’s first immigration ban," Pichetshote writes in a letter at the back of Issue #1. "So, by 1936, you had the first generation of Americans—the Chinese—to come of age with that immigration ban being all they knew."
The Good Asian not only uses racism and the struggles of immigrants of that era as a backdrop, but it's also integral to the story of Edison Hark. The Asian detective must navigate the divide he straddles between white law enforcement and the Chinatown community as he investigates the disappearance of the lover of his wealthy, white adoptive father.
What is great about this series—beyond nuanced characters, gorgeously mood-setting art, and an impressively layered story aided by historical consultants on the creative team—is that it's simply a good noir. The tone, the twists, the double-crosses... they would all fit among the best film noirs of the '40s and '50s. This is the kind of textured plotting you might expect from Raymond Chandler if he were writing today.
Writer: Ram V
Illustrator: Filipe Andrade
Color Assists by: Inês Amaro
Letterer: AndWorld Design
At best, death is a frightening inevitability. Yet, Ram V and Filipe Andrade's story about Death losing her place among the gods as death is eradicated on Earth makes it seem less so. Death, after being fired from her position, takes up residence in the body of the recently deceased Laila Starr. She has become mortal because a baby, Darius Shah, has been born who will eventually eliminate death in the world. Death starts her new life as Laila on a mission to kill Darius. Yet, Death is not so good at living.
The story is willing to be patient as Laila/the mind of Death sorts through the problem of mortality, her own included. (Even if she's given a few chances at mortality, as the title indicates.) The story takes the long way to anything that could be considered a resolution, asking what it is to be alive. The place of arrival might be familiar. "This is the miracle... No grand magic, just a quiet breath taken to yourself," Darius opines as an adult. But like life itself, the magic of The Many Deaths of Laila Starr, besides the actual magic, is the journey.
It's a dialogue-heavy five-issue run—a refreshing turn for a mini-series to be willing to accept its own inevitable death instead of leaving the door wide open to another arc—that is largely told in narration. Yet, the philosophical bent doesn't slow the story. The ponderous perspectives shift from issue to issue, whether it's told by Death, a cigarette in her pocket, a temple, or a crow. Among the many dark stories on this list, Laila Starr is a loving meditation on hope and the beauty of the present.
By: Barry Windsor-Smith
Windsor-Smith hasn't published new work in 16 years and has been working on this story for 35 years. Monsters adds something significant to his already formidable oeuvre, which includes work at Marvel on X-Men and Daredevil in the late '60s, Conan the Barbarian in the '70s, and indie comics like The Freebooters and Young Gods. This book demands the kind of stoic consideration it took to arrive.
The more than 300-page graphic novel moves backward, for the most part, from Bobby Bailey joining the military in 1964. He's homeless with no family to speak of. A secret program seems an opportunity in his misfortune. It makes the young man a test subject for genetic experimentation that, predictably, doesn't go great. Windsor-Smith isn't content to allow readers to assume the kind of misfortunate that might bring an individual to this crossroads. With an unflinching pen, it shows the abuse and terror of Bobby's life, the blind eyes and coincidence that converge to comprise the trauma of his life. While Bobby is the ostensible main character, the story spirals around him with the focus drawn to many others in his orbit: a military general, a Nazi doctor, his mother, a father returning from World War II, and a police officer who wants to do right by the boy.
Monsters is immaculately drawn, pulling the reader into the quiet moments of this story, notes in a journal, a descent into cannibalism, the tension of confronting an abusive father. It's not light reading. The close-ups on child and domestic abuse are unflinching and refuse to turn away from the suffering. Windsor-Smith lingers on these moments, giving us the interior life of characters at their most vulnerable.
It's epic within the narrow scope of its focus, tracking back through intersecting layers of trauma suffered by individuals and, in its own way, America. There are many monsters in the plot, some accidental, others malicious, but in true Mary Shelley fashion, none of the monsters are the one being called "monster."
4. Far Sector
Story: N.K. Jemisin
Art & Color: Jamal Campbell
Lettering: Deron Bennett
Sci-fi author N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The City We Became) takes on the Green Lantern. Though, it's not really tied too heavily to the DC Universe you're familiar with. You could know nothing about any superhero and never be lost. Sojourner Mullein is a fledgling Lantern—and Janelle Monáe look-alike—sent to the City Enduring at the edge of the universe. It's a world with three species of beings that almost destroyed each other. To come back from the brink of destruction, its governing body forced everyone to take medicine that removes their emotions. Though, there's a black market for drugs that will let you temporarily experience those forbidden feelings.
Mullein is new to the world as well as the politics and history that sit below the surface of every interaction. She sees parallels to the racism from her home world, Earth, but that doesn't make it easier to navigate these unfamiliar waters. It's a masterfully constructed 12-issue run with kinetic art and character designs, as well as a mysterious problem at its heart. Yes, Mullein is a Lantern, but her powers are limited. It plays out like a detective story with the Lantern navigating backstabbing politicians, her own history, love interests, and what it means to feel in a world that isn't supposed to have emotions.
Writer: James Tynion IV
Artist: Alvaro Martinez Bueno
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: AndWorld Design
A loose-knit group of friends are invited to Walter's cabin in Wisconsin. Not everyone knows each other, but everyone knows him. Only they don't know Walter as well as they thought, and their trip to the, ahem, nice house on the lake is more accurately a trip to shack up for the end of the world. There are huge surprises in almost every issue, and those turns never feel forced. Apocalypse stories are familiar enough in movies and comics, but the characters feel grounded in this moment. They are a reflection of people you know rather than a Brad Pitt- or Gerard Butler-type who will rise to the moment and save us all. These characters are messy and might not be able to even save themselves. The mostly nice people on the lake worry about their loved ones, but they are also caught up in their own shit, house rules, bickering over the mundane realities of cohabitation. They can't even decide if they should try to save people trapped in the unseen apocalypse or if they should savor the safety they've been offered. Because, in this house, some otherworldly is happening. They want for nothing in the nice house by the lake, so they want for everything.
James Tynion IV has been inescapable this year (Batman, Something Is Killing the Children, House of Slaughter, DC vs. Vampires, The Joker, et al), including a big announcement that he's leaving DC to release independent comics through Substack. He's at his best working in horror that is rooted in somewhat everyday psychological fears. The Nice House on the Lake is that, even if it starts stronger than it finished the year. Nothing can be trusted. Your friends, your imagination, the rules of reality, what you see, and even who you have been are all suspect in this apocalypse.
6. Red Room
By Ed Piskor
In Red Room, Ed Piskor has crafted a meandering story that almost functions as a series of one-offs centered around "red rooms." Those are dark web live streams where people pay exorbitant amounts of cryptocurrency to watch people be creatively murdered, live. It's as gruesome as it sounds.
It would be easy for a story like this to veer into campiness as a way of not looking the horror right in the eyes, but Piskor doesn't flinch. He explores the kind of world that allows these rooms to exist, the rivalry between streamers, how groups recruit new "stars," the fandom that follows streamers like Poker Face, and how they procure their victims. That brazen look into the horrors of the internet brings along a sort of complicity that you feel not only because you're reading the comic, but because the unrepentant stars of the red rooms make it feel like violence is inherent to the existence of the internet.
Red Room is absolutely not for everyone—at one point in the first issue, I had to set it down for a second to catch my breath before diving back in—but it's kind of like a car wreck; the kind of thing you shouldn't stare at, but you can't help yourself, even if you know it's going to give you nightmares.
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.
Writer: Al Ewing
Penciler: Joe Bennett
Inkers: Ruy José & Belardino Brabo
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
Al Ewing and Joe Bennett took over the Hulk, crafting what might be one of the big green guy's greatest runs. It turns the Hulk's life into a horror story that almost functions as a series of one-offs (at least, early in its run) while still building a story that draws in almost every character who has had gamma touch their lives in some way.
Bruce Banner is trapped in his head. In reality, his body is sifting through various incarnations of the Hulk—Joe Fixit, Devil Hulk, et al. With Hulks on the outside and Banner on the inside, he's vulnerable in so many ways, revealing how an abusive father shaped "the other guy." The Hulks appear and disappear moving from reality to Banner's head to an ethereal realm that is pure gamma horror ruled by the One Below All. In various forms, the Hulk takes on his father, a minotaur, body horror, The Thing, and foes of his past reborn as pulpy gamma-drenched villains. Ewing and co. wrapped the run in 2021 with Issue #50. Reading all 50 is a long time to stick with a series, but The Immortal Hulk was remarkably consistent, and the finale was worth the wait.
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 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.
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.
By: Shing Yin Khor
Mei lives in a late 19th-century logging camp in the Sierra Nevadas. She and her Chinese father work the kitchens and feed the loggers—though the white loggers eat first and the Chinese workers second. By night, Mei gathers children around the fire to tell stories of the gigantic Auntie Po and her blue water buffalo, a turn on Paul Bunyan. Auntie Po protects their logging camp from evil corporations, log jams, and less reality-tethered threats like dog-sized mosquitos.
Though it's based on research into the life of Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, it's also a story that resonates with the racial tension in America. The racism faced by this immigrant community and the allyship of words versus the allyship of action are front and center in the life of Mei and her father. Against that backdrop, the queer protagonist must find her place in the world and discover who she is. The muted watercolors provide tenderness in the sweet moments, but also provide a stark contrast as anti-Chinese sentiments stir in the region and the characters are faced with brutal realities of life in America.
12. Once & Future
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Illustration: Dan Mora
Colorist: Tamra Bonvillain
Letterer: Ed Dukeshire
There has always been a link between comics and mythologies. Gillen and Mora not only mine the lore of King Arthur in Once & Future, but they have also crafted a series about the power of those stories. In this world, the stories are real. Or, they have the potential to be real, to tangibly impact the world. Duncan has just discovered his family's ties to this world of monsters and mythmaking. Bridgette, his chain-smoking grandmother who happens to be a retired monster hunter, escapes her retirement home and drags Duncan into the family business to stop Merlin from resurrecting an undead Arthur. Standard family drama, right?
At least, it was that simple when the series started in 2019. The issues released in 2021 span the third and fourth arc, when the story starts to get exceptionally strange. The mythic layers may be borderline confusing at times if you're not familiar with them. Nonetheless, when you set all of that aside, what is left is an epic quest for the soul of England in a very literary sense. There are zombies, gorgons, wizards, and a dragon and Percival, the Green Knight, Beowulf and a whole lot more. Duncan must battle back against forces that only exist because of the power of these stories. The story is busy at times, but it's a fun, gory, zombified comic and has depths to submerse yourself in if you love British history and the myths surrounding King Arthur.
Story: Rodney Barnes
Art: Jason Shawn Alexander
Color: Luis Nct
Lettering: Marshall Dillon
Like a fine bottle of blood, Killadelphia has become better with age. What started in 2019 as a story about a brood of vampires hiding in Philadelphia, led by a blood-sucking John Adams (yes, that John Adams), has blossomed into a rich, supernatural world. The story in the first arc didn't solve Philadelphia's vampire problem. It made things worse, but James Sangster Jr. is still investigating the vampires in an effort to stop whatever their plan might be with the help of his coroner girlfriend and his undead detective father.
It's a blood-soaked story that improbably manages to give vampires yet another fresh turn. With undead presidents in the modern world, it digs into how they might view the modern world. Slave-owning founding fathers must face a former slave and the history of injustice that exists in the country they created in order to remake the US, again. Those vampiric goals sit beside a sobering father-son relationship that even the amends-making of death can't fully repair. Also, vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.
Writer: Mike Carroll
Artists: John Higgins, Jake Lynch
Dreadnoughts digs into the early days of the judges in the world of Judge Dredd, connecting the dots from our present to Dredd's Mega-City One. There are protests against the ascent of the judges—police officers who can arrest individuals and sentence them on the spot—but the focus is on the judges and not the resistance. It's bleak in its representation of a near-future where the justice system has eroded into a brutal police state. The slide into such a fascistic society feels plausible in the hands of writer Michael Carroll and artist John Higgins, whose visions of the world before Dredd are rife with corruption, shady political dealings, and a populace caught between a rock and a hard place. And that's all before the judges reach the height of their cold-blooded power.
The futuristic whodunit in the midst of a fascist police state is an enjoyable if unsettling read. It's hard to walk away without confronting how closely our present resembles the early years of the Mega-City dystopia.
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.”
16. Black Widow
Writer: Kelly Thompson
Artist: Elena Casagrande
Color Artist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: VC's Cory Petit
It's become a familiar sight for a great Marvel or DC series to disassemble a character and rebuild them in order to mark a new era or that creative team's distinct vision of the character. (See: Batman: The Imposter, below.) It has worked beautifully in recent series like Venom and the Immortal Hulk. (And this certainly isn't a brand-new phenomenon.) In a sense, that's what happens in Thompson and Casagrande's Black Widow series. Though, it's more subtle than those other examples. It's the villains in the first arc who tear Natasha down, erasing her memories and giving her a family that is ripped away. However, she is the one who rebuilds herself, takes control, and puts herself on a new path.
Sure, White Widow, Spider-Girl, Hawkeye, and the Winter Soldier make appearances throughout Black Widow, but this series isn't focused on superheroes as much as Natasha Romanoff as a spy. Usually depicted as a bit of a lone wolf, Romanoff leans on friends—insofar as she allows anyone to get close—like White Widow to move on from the traumatic events of the first arc. Before it sounds lost in Romanoff's interior world, it's worth noting that the action sequences simply kick ass. Casagrande is crafting action like almost no one else in comics. The pages are visually stunning, often skipping the use of multiple panels to depict action using a single panel through which the character moves freely. It's effective and visually exciting.
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—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.
Writers: Harold Schechter & Eric Powell
Artist: Eric Powell
Designer: Phil Balsman
Hearing that Powell has taken on the story of Ed Gein doesn't feel surprising. The creator's morbid, dark sense of humor is what has made The Goon an outstanding comic for two decades. Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? is not what you might expect, however, if you're entering hoping to find Goon-esque punchlines in Wisconsin's version of Lonely Street. It was created with prolific true-crime writer Harold Schechter, who wrote a book about Gein in 1998.
Together, they present a deeply researched graphic novel told with, at times, journalistic remove. The tragedy of Gein's life is made plain. It doesn't shy away from the events of his traumatic childhood. It looks at Gein's life with a modicum of pity, allowing him to be human in the years that precede the horrendous crimes that would make him the inspiration for films like Psycho and Silence of the Lambs.
Powell's art is as haunting as ever, even if it almost feels brushed aside in the final third of the book where the trial and imprisonment of Gein are treated more like a documentary than a comic. Details from Gein's neighbors, the witness stand, and Gein's interrogation are presented through talking heads that grind the art's momentum to a halt. Yet, despite the occasionally static art—these runs aren't visually exciting but are nonetheless effective—the story is compelling without ever sensationalizing. In fact, it appears to chide the sensationalization of true crime as entertainment in a couple of moments as Gein's life is spun into unsubstantiated tales by his neighbors and a tabloid journalist. An out-of-town reporter explains it to a coworker: "Something out of the human imagination, I guess. When a homicidal maniac like Gein comes around, the mind just can't grasp the reality, so he gets turned into a legend." The impact of Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? comes in part because it isn't a legend but a story of trauma and depraved crimes taking place in a community that feels like so many other communities.
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.
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-offs in 2022.
Writer: Mattson Tomlin
Artist: Andrea Sorrentino
Colorist: Jordie Bellaire
Letterer: Steve Wands
Batman has been reinvented over and over through the years. Or, rather, he's been tweaked: darker here, even darker there. His mother's name is Martha here, he's an old man there. The batsuit has nipples here, he carries shark repellant there. Batman: The Imposter, written by Mattson Tomlin—who worked on the upcoming film The Batman—isn't a total reinvention. It comes at Gotham's vigilante from another angle, interrogating our suppositions of who this character must be.
Bruce Wayne has only been Batman for a year at this point, and there's another Batman on the streets, killing people. Alfred abandoned him. He lives alone, nursing wounds by stopping by his therapist's office because, in this telling, the Caped Crusader doesn't have superhuman strength. When he gets punched, he bruises. When he gets shot, he, well, gets shot. He doesn't have the high-tech gear you've come to expect because, while he's still rich, he doesn't have access to his trust yet. There are limits to his means, and it requires him to hide vehicles around town and string up cables across rooftops to make his narrow escapes. Sorrentino's art highlights the young Batman's vulnerabilities—both physical and emotional—with clever framing and beautiful action sequences. This is the story of a scared young man, wrestling with who he is and who he will become.
22. Black Star
Writer: Eric A. Glover
Illustrator: Arielle Jovellanos
Black Star is a straightforward story. Space travel has become something done only in dire circumstances in this future. Too many things can go wrong, and they do on this trip to Eleos. Only two astronauts survive the crash and only one can make it off the planet alive. It's a race between two crew members who don't like each other even under the best circumstances. The clock is ticking, and that intensity comes across in every second of the story. Even in this race-the-clock sci-fi story, you feel the pain of these characters, the baggage they've brought with them on a dangerous mission. The energy packed into the story might make you pound through it in a single sitting and then sift through it once more to make sure you got everything leading up to the surprising ending.
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 the 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.
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 antihero, 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 narrower 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 ham-fisted at times, but Geiger is fun, the art and colors are entrancing.
25. Hand Me Down
Writer: Alex Paknadel
Art: Jen Hickman
Letterer: Simon Bowland
This one-off from TKO might not be the typical fare for a list like this, but one-offs—especially those not associated with "the big two"—are an art of their own, with unique challenges for creators and rewards for readers. They're too often absent from lists like this.
Paknadel and Hickman provide everything you want from a standalone one-off 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 him over. It’s a delicate balance between a quiet story about a marriage in dire straits and Hellboy-esque stories of the occult.
Others comics and graphic novels worth mentioning from 2021: After the Rain; Beyond the Breach; BRZRKR; Bunny Mask; Crisis Zone; The Department of Truth; Die; Gamma Flight; Made in Korea; Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa, 1974; Poison Ivy: Thorns; The Silver Coin; The 6 Sidekicks of Trigger Keaton; Something Is Killing the Children; Witchblood; Write It In Blood.