2016 was another robust year for comic books.
Marvel’s long-delayed Secret Wars saga finally ended, only to be replaced by a second Civil War and a Captain America twist no one saw coming. Meanwhile, DC Comics also launched a reboot event, Rebirth, and many smaller publishers continued to prove that some of the very best comic books — The Wicked + The Divine, Faith, Saga, Lumberjanes — don’t come from the big two.
But what excites me most each year is the new stuff: writers, artists, colorists, and letterers combining forces to debut new titles and give us something bold, something we’ve never seen before.
This year, creators pushed into unknown territories — like a world in which there is no death, or a place where social media and snot go hand in hand. They also put new coats of paint on some older superheroes and cartoons, reimagining the figures who shaped our childhoods.
From Wonder Woman to a girl with superpowered allergies to the most emotionally devastating book about the Flintstones you’ll ever read, here are the seven best new comic books created this year:
7) Shade, the Changing Girl (DC Comics/Young Animals)
Cecil Castellucci and artist Marley Zarcone’s debut for DC’s Young Animals imprint is impressive, a bleak teenage mean-girl drama that doubles as a sweeping, psychedelic science fiction dive. Shade follows a birdlike alien named Loma, from the planet Meta, who somehow manages to leap across the universe and inhabit the body of a comatose Megan Boyer, the prettiest, meanest girl in high school.
As Loma tours Megan’s consciousness, Castellucci’s prose cuts and curves, thoughtfully prodding at the idea of identity in one panel before effortlessly switching to the existential despair of teenage depression in the next. And Zarcone’s woozy art brings to life haunting other universes — seen when Loma-as-Megan lives her high school life — that are impossibly and delightfully strange.
6) Snotgirl (Image Comics)
Protagonist Lottie Person is a two-faced disaster, a beautiful fashion blogger crippled with unfashionable allergies and radioactive green snot. She has cruel nicknames for her nearest and dearest. She judges books (and by books I mean people) by their covers. And every single thing she does is motivated by the number of social media followers she’ll acquire, the fans she’ll woo, and the public image she’s built for herself — which artfully hides the superpowered snot and anything else she doesn’t want people to see.
In telling her story, writer Bryan Lee O’Malley and artist Leslie Hung have created a sharp, relentless look at how we puzzle together our identities based on the selfies we take, the Twitter followers we broadcast our thoughts to, and what we allow the world to see. And just like Lottie Person, Snotgirl is a lot smarter, a lot more ruthless, and a lot more biting than it wants you to think.
5) Faith (Valiant Entertainment)
Valiant’s Faith is built on the tried-and-true credos of hope, optimism, and alter egos. By day, Faith Herbert is an awkward geek working at a BuzzFeed-like news website; in her spare time, she is Zephyr, a superhero with telekinesis. Her life is in constant flux between fantasy and reality, and her comic’s perpetual question is: What does heroism look like in 2016?
If Clark Kent’s story were written today, it would look a lot like Faith’s. But the real gems of Faith’s tale come when writer Jody Houser and main artists Francis Portela and Marguerite Sauvage (artist Pere Perez joined the ongoing series in July) delve into a darker place (something Valiant has become known for) and carve out Faith’s own distinct journey.
4) Wonder Woman: Rebirth (DC Comics)
Wonder Woman is easily the most misunderstood high-profile superhero in pop culture. Her origin story has been endlessly tweaked; the same is true of her personality, which vacillates between extreme misandrist, feminist caricature, and a glorified girlfriend, depending on who’s writing her. Perhaps that’s why DC’s Rebirth returned the character to Greg Rucka, one of the few writers who fundamentally understands the character and arguably the one who’s written her best.
Rucka and artist Liam Sharp have given us a Wonder Woman who’s as confused about her legacy as many comic fans are. In the collected odd-numbered issues of Rebirth (the even-numbered issues tell a story about Wonder Woman’s first visit to the United States), she questions everything she knows to be true, and her journey becomes a commentary on heroism and identity and how those things tend to shift based on who tells her story.
3) Black Panther (Marvel)
No comic book enjoyed as much fanfare and anticipation in 2016 as Black Panther, from National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates and artist Brian Stelfreeze. Coates is a once-in-a-generation writer, and with that status comes pressure and scrutiny of his work. And to some extent, his name — at least initially — threatened to eclipse Stelfreeze’s art.
But despite the hoopla and some growing pains (Coates has written about how different it is to write a comic book versus writing a book), the two have crafted a well-balanced, thoughtful, and political book about a Marvel hero who had long felt a bit hollow. They turned Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa, into a man tasked with leading his country of Wakanda, and gave a voice and humanity to the Wakandan people. Black Panther centers on a hero who’s always existed and who’s become a stalwart in the Marvel universe, but it breaks new ground in building out the vulnerability of its title character and the world he protects.
2) A.D.: After Death Book 1 (Image Comics)
In the past couple of years, comic books have displayed a penchant for science fiction stories about space (see: Saga, Empress, Bitch Planet, Descender, Southern Cross) — setting tales in limitless universes and using them as vehicles to explore our terrestrial crags and problems.
In 2016, comics came back to Earth to feel out human life, illness, and mortality (examples include Reborn, The Beauty, and more). But A.D.: After Death, from Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire, might be the best. It proposes a world in which humans find a cure for death and, more importantly, discover what happens to human life, its value, and people’s relationships with one another when death is no longer part of the equation.
The book is a hybrid of illustrated short story and sequential comic book. Snyder’s writing deftly incorporates elements of both formats, and Lemire’s loose watercolors feel like a dream, while just below the surface a sinister nightmare looms. The result is a comic that’s as weird as it is beautiful, and as tantalizing as it is haunting.
1) The Flintstones (DC Comics)
The Flintstones television cartoon was a fixture of many of our childhoods. The Flintstones comic book wrecks that memory — in the best way possible. Writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh imagine Bedrock’s first family as living, breathing, aching people who think about mortality, trauma, community, expression, and economic inequality, a sly flip of the original cartoon as well as a commentary on modern humans.
Tying the Flintstones and their boxy animal-skin caveman outfits to weighty, thoughtful issues underscores not only the way we tend to imagine the generations and civilizations that preceded us but also how we tend to flatten and sometimes dumb down the lives of people who aren’t us. The spirit of the cartoon’s slapstick is still alive and well (there’s an ice cream–toting turtle servant), but the comic’s overarching story might make it the most emotionally moving book of the year.