Comic books, more than ever, aren’t just about superheroes.
In 2016, comic writers, artists, and editors once again proved that there’s life beyond Marvel and DC Comics, beyond our favorite caped crusaders and mighty mutants. We will always have (and love) gigantic blockbusters featuring the Avengers, Batman, and Superman, but the number of great comic books in different genres has been growing steadily for the past few years.
There are now comics of note in just about every genre; you could very easily compile a year-end list of only science fiction or fantasy or crime or science fiction–fantasy–crime comics, and still walk away with an exceptional library full of treasures.
The nine comics we’ve ranked below — well, 10 comics once you count our tie for the number one spot — have been our favorite established/ongoing series in 2016 (check out our favorite new comics here). They’re all staggeringly different from one another, but they all exemplify what comics can do when art, prose, and plot come together to create magic.
9) The Legend of Wonder Woman (DC comics)
DC announced in December that it’s canceling The Legend of Wonder Woman, which traces the superhero’s origins from her childhood on the idyllic island of Themyscira to her eventual choice to join the human world. We’re going to miss it in 2017. The book has been confident and clear in telling the story of Wonder Woman, a hero who’s often misunderstood — and at times inconsistently written. The Legend of Wonder Woman’s husband-wife writer-artist duo of Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon lean into their title character’s empathy and joy and make those qualities her defining traits, reminding us all of what makes her so super.
8) Monstress (Image comics)
Few comic books build such beautiful and strange worlds as writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda’s fantasy adventure Monstress. Their comic is complex, and a challenge in parts, but the reward is a lush, dreamy story full of robust characters. On the surface it’s about a young woman and a monster that lives within her, set in universe where witches eat magical little beings. But in 2016 it unfurled its dark wings into a story that cleaves at issues like inequality, politics, and race — a serious reflection of real-world issues, examined via fantasy.
7) Bitch Planet (Image comics)
The concept of Bitch Planet — a sci-fi take on grindhouse flicks that sends “non-compliant” women to an interplanetary jail to compete in a Hunger Games-ish battle to the death — is supposed to be pulpy, bonkers fun. And it totally is.
But writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and artist Valentine de Landro’s best work is in the comic’s softer moments, thanks to the attention and care they reserve for the inmates of the titular prison. This year the two gave us a deeper look into the father-daughter relationship and history of inmate Meiko Maki, a beautiful and devastating story that asks readers to consider how race, sexism, and violence shape each and every one of us.
The most haunting thing about Bitch Planet is that DeConnick and de Landro rarely provide satisfying, comfortable answers; it’s a comic that wants you keep asking questions long after you’ve finished the latest issue.
6) Paper Girls (Image comics)
Paper Girls is set in suburban Cleveland in the 1980s; it’s about a band of gutsy newspaper delivery girls who function as our eyes and ears to a strange alien invasion, and there’s mystery on every page. From writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Cliff Chiang, the wide-eyed saga is full of electric moments that shatter everything you think you knew about where its story was going.
This year, Paper Girls introduced a time-hopping element that brings everything to 2016 from the ’80s, which on the surface should make the story a little easier to piece together. But the book’s special shade of ultra-weirdness, complete with dino-steeds and the Paper Girls’ unexplained connection to a certain tech juggernaut, is plenty to keep readers gloriously off-balance.
5) The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (Marvel comics)
Centered on one of Marvel’s more playful heroes, Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl represents a couple of delicate balancing acts: one between geek-friendly comedy and superhero action, and another between deep Marvel canon-mining and more newcomer-friendly storytelling.
The comic is full of off-kilter jokes and witty asides (the footnotes North includes on nearly every page are as welcome as distractions get), tongue-in-cheek Marvel riffs (Squirrel Girl’s cheerful harassment of Tony Stark is an ongoing gag), and victories that turn on intellect and cunning more often than brute strength. And it had a banner year in 2016, which saw Squirrel Girl and her motley band of companions — including a ribbon-wearing squirrel named Tippy-Toe and the quietly trans-masculine Koi Boi — tangle with other oddballs of the Marvel universe (Howard the Duck, Moleman), as well as some of its most major players (many of which she beats up in the also-excellent standalone graphic novel The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up The Marvel Universe).
4) Midnighter and Apollo (DC comics)
There is no comic book romance better or more exciting than the one between Midnighter and Apollo. The former is a ruthless anti-hero with a computer brain that allows him to win fights by predicting moves before they happen; the latter is a golden being who uses solar energy to give himself laser eyes, super strength, flight, and super speed. Together, they’re the sexiest couple in all of superhero comics — whether they’re in the bedroom, washing dishes, or taking on demons.
Writer Steve Orlando and artist Fernando Blanco have struck a winning balance between soulful tenderness and prickly wit to create a relationship that aches and breathes. And like any good comic book couple, the stakes for these two are massive, as this miniseries tests whether their love is strong enough to endure literal hell.
3) The Flintstones (DC Comics)
Rife with the sort of visual and verbal punnery that characterized the 1960s TV cartoon, The Flintstones comic doesn’t seem like it would be a fitting venue for some of 2016’s sharpest social commentary; then again, 2016 has been an unusual year in a lot of ways, so here we are. Part of DC’s recent revival of a bunch of classic Hanna-Barbera properties, Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s take on Bedrock’s modern Stone-Age Family is a series of standalone stories (a nice nod to the cartoon’s episodic nature) that look sideways at modern concerns with a healthy dose of wit, satirical bite, and even melancholy.
The book finds Fred, Wilma, the Rubble family, and the other denizens of Bedrock struggling, to varying degrees, with the perils of encroaching modernity, opening the door for stories centering on consumerism, technological fear, religious zealotry, and even PTSD. But true to its source material, The Flintstones manages to keep things surprisingly light throughout, weaving an entrancing blend of razor-sharp satire and more comfy sitcom-esque humor. It’s one of the year’s biggest and best surprises.
2) Vision (Marvel comics)
Tom King’s Vision wrapped its 12-issue run this year, leaving behind one of the most innovative — and sad — standalone stories Marvel has published in recent memory. Centering on the A.I. Avenger (who recently made his way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War) and the family he created for himself, it’s a deeply humanistic science fiction tale about the suffering and trauma that accompany the “normal” lives the Vision family strives toward.
The conflict between the characters’ robotic nature and the suburban domestic milieu in which they’re attempting to function allowed Vision to dig deep wells of emotion, which overflowed several times over the book’s run; the back half of this series is basically one devastating gut-punch after another. Available in a pair of trade paperbacks, it’s worth reading beginning to end to experience some of the best storytelling — superhero, sci-fi, or otherwise — 2016 had to offer.
1) Saga (Image comics) — TIE
There should just be a guaranteed spot on year-end lists for Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s Saga. A space epic about a family — Marko, Alana and their child Hazel — with the odds stacked against them, it allows us to experience the achy, painful, and beautiful moments shared between parents and their children, set against a unique intergalactic backdrop. Saga frequently offers glimpses of truly bizarre stuff like audacious rocket ship fornication or weird, bug-like teachers, but it always stays grounded in the inescapable and relentless progression of life, and in the dignified, graceful way that only Vaughan and Staples could pull off.
1) The Wicked + The Divine (Image comics) — TIE
Over the past two years, no comic has been as thrilling as Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine. The comic began as an impossibly hip and clever take on celebrity and mythology: Every 90 years, ancient gods get to spend two years living with mortals, which they choose to do as pop stars because they love being worshipped. Imagining Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and Kanye West as fickle, narcissistic, and divine beings with supernatural powers makes as much sense as any theory about what drives idolatry and fame.
In its most recent volumes, the book has played with the ideas of fandom and creation, and this summer, it gave us the best superhero fight of the year, something the VMAs would kill for, before blowing up (some of) the rules and (some of) the characters McKelvie and Gillen have built. Our gods and goddesses are now living in a world of uncertainty. The first arc was about a murder and our characters finding truth in it, and now the tables have turned with the deities keeping a murder under wraps.
There are times when The Wicked + The Divine feels like a band or a pop star who just came off their first stadium tour and closed at Madison Square Garden. It’s time to go back the studio, and lucky for us, what’s ahead might be its best album yet.