Another year has come to an end, and we wouldn’t have gotten here without some pretty incredible comics to read along the way. We’ve had new dawns and final ends, epic sagas and intimate tales, serious drama and serious silliness. But above all, we’ve had some serious fun—and these series are the ones we had the most fun with all year.
DIE, Image Comics
DIE is a comic that loves comics as a medium as much as it loves roleplaying games and the mechanical intricacies behind them. But above all, it loves how these two forms can come together to tell truly engaging and compelling stories.
Set in a world where a group of teenagers get sucked into a dark fantasy roleplaying game—and after escaping the traumatic experience, are forced to return to it as adults and confront the friend they left behind—DIE is driven by not just the gripping character drama of its deeply damaged protagonists, or its insightful subversions of fantasy tropes, or Stephanie Hans’ stunningly painterly artwork, but a remarkable grip on how the very mechanical act of play itself can shape storytelling.
Even in its bizarre world of a tabletop RPG made real, DIE never forgets the conceit that its characters are trapped in the world of a game, one defined by rules and systems its players can perpetually poke at and interpret to tell their stories (or, in DIE’s case, survive the suddenly very real threat of being in a world of steampunk empires and fantastical horrors).
It’s whip-smart. It’s gripping drama. It’s perhaps the most visually stunning comic of the year. And, if you love RPGs, it’s a fascinatingly intellectual insight into the process of building a game’s world that feels like a true love letter to the very act of roleplay. And, for those of you who play tabletop games? Try out the beta rules: They’re not just fascinating mechanically, but the new additions given in each issue so cleverly tell stories of their own you’ll practically gasp with each update.
Creative Team: Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles
The White Trees, Image Comics
Three strapping heroes of legend walk into a massive throne room to speak with their king only to learn that their children have been kidnapped by enemy forces, and it’s up to the trio to team up and set out to save their loved ones from danger. It’s a simple enough premise for a comic like The White Trees, but where the series sets itself apart—especially for a high fantasy comic—is the way it delves into the humanity of its characters with frank depictions of them at the peaks of their emotional (and sometimes carnal) heights and in the pits of their existential lows.
Creative Team: Chip Zdarsky, Kris Anka, Matt Wilson, and Aditya Bidika
Spider-Man: Life Story, Marvel Comics
Superheroes and superhero comics are defined by impermanence. These characters are expected to be rebooted, reworked, retweaked. Artists, writers, colorists, and letterers come in, make their mark, and take their leave ready for a whole new team to completely overhaul everything their predecessors did. Change is constant, almost to the detrimental point that it can feel like major character moments are robbed of some of their drama, because fans know—and expect—those moments to be resolved for a return to the status quo, or retconned out of existence.
Spider-Man: Life Story is an audaciously bold miniseries that has an incredibly simple premise: what if that wasn’t the case? Examining the life of Peter Parker over a series of five decades, charting his career as Spider-Man from its earliest days to a present where he’s worn the mask for most of a long and tired life, Life Story is a compelling, bittersweet examination of one of the most famous histories in comic books. Placing Peter at the heart of a tale that both interweaves itself through decades of comic book and real-world history, Life Story’s thought experiment doesn’t just work, but delivers a definitive look back on not just the life of Marvel’s greatest hero, but the world we live in.
Creative Team: Chip Zdarsky, Mark Bagley, Andrew Hennessy, John Dell, Frank D’Armata, and Travis Lanham
Napoleon Dynamite, IDW Publishing
Tongue-in-cheek as it is, Napoleon Dynamite captured the overall essence of how off-kilter and ridiculous America’s current political climate is with an odd story about what happened after Pedro won his high school’s student council election during the events of the original film. The idea that the school’s new president would be able to assume power without there being some sort of investigation into whether the entire voting process was somehow tainted is almost unimaginable. Pedro isn’t exactly the type to cheat, but that’s almost beside the point considering how cutthroat these kinds of competitions can be, no matter how seemingly inconsequential a political office like this might be to people looking from the outside in.
Creative Team: Carlos Guzman-Verdugo, Alejandro Verdugo, Jorge Monlongo, Christa Miesner
Nancy, United Media
Yes, Nancy is not a “genre” comic. She and her friends aren’t superheroes or magical warriors or sci-fi supersoldiers, they’re just school kids getting by in 2019, doing things kids do, like trying to get internet famous, skipping robotics group practice, and doing as few household chores for Aunt Fritzi as possible. And yet Nancy has been a comic we’ve kept on coming back to as the action-packed explosive world of mainstream genre comics have screamed at us with shocking twists, high drama, and endless (endless) event crossovers.
Effervescent in its wit, there is both an incredible purity to the simple joy of Olivia Jaimes’ radical—and at first, controversial—take on the classic newsstrip and a sharply insightful use of it as a structural tool, playing with panel space and literal form to tell bitingly funny, bite-sized stories that bend the very limits of traditional comics. A traditional newspaper comic for the digital age, even in its second year Nancy’s reinvention is still one of the biggest and most delightful surprises of recent comics history.
Creative Team: Olivia Jaimes
The Girl in the Bay, Dark Horse
Murder mysteries in which the central characters have to figure out the truth of how they died (or in this case, merely went missing) can be tricky narratives to pull off in fascinating ways. But The Girl in the Bay manages and then some by keeping its tone grounded enough in reality to make the supernatural elements feel creepy but undeniably believable.
The more Kathy learns about what happened to her 50 years in the past, the more she realises that her future, though threatened by malevolent forces, isn’t fully set in stone—because for the first time in decades, she’s in a position to actively influence the things happening around her. The comic took a tale that could easily have been about the feeling of powerlessness and instead turned it into a riveting parable about taking back control of one’s life.
Creative Team: J.M. DeMatteis, Corin Howell, James Devlin
The Wicked + The Divine, Image Comics
Endings are hard. Well, good endings, the ones that feel like they put a definitive mark on something, while also staying true to the arcs and themes that have coalesced across weeks, months, and years of a journey—the ones that can scratch off satisfying at least a plurality of their audiences—are hard. Ending a tale of gods and pop as beautiful and inspiring as WicDiv has been for half a decade seems like an exercise in actual divinity. And yet, this year Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles brought the series to a close with a grace on the page that reads as almost frustratingly easy, despite being anything but.
Although the journey to get there, like much of The Wicked + The Divine, was an exercise in meticulous, bold, and heartbreaking storytelling, a special note has to be made for WicDiv #45. The remarkable balancing act it plays to deliver a joyful, bittersweet, and yet powerfully hopeful meditation on the power of writing your own story is breathtaking—and that’s before we even get to the structural genius of closing that mediation with a simple, yet beautiful act: a future on a literally blank page, the invitation for you to interpret, to create, to write and draw and live a new story of your own design. We’ll miss this incredible book terribly, but it went out in the best way possible.
Creative Team: Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, and Clayton Cowles
Something Is Killing the Children, Boom Studios
Based on just its title alone, Something Is Killing the Children made it obvious that it was going to get right down to important business: scaring the absolute crap out of you with a haunting mystery about the titular evil things stalking the shadows, picking off unsuspecting kids one by one with increasing levels of brutality and gore. Something Is Killing the Children was slick, stylish, and unsettlingly “quiet” for a comic in this genre, which isn’t necessarily the way you would normally describe a story about vicious beings murdering people, but it’s precisely what made the story bone-chilling to read and what’ll make it stick in your mind long after you’ve put the book down.
Creative Team: James Tynion IV, Werther Dell’edera, Miquel Muerto
The Immortal Hulk, Marvel Comics
It is a great pleasure to have The Immortal Hulk on this list in 2019, if only because it means the series, which is into its second year at this point, continued being one of the most haunting and gripping series that Marvel has on shelves at the minute. Immortal does two things consistently and brilliantly: Firstly, it is a horrifyingly tense personal character drama between Bruce Banner and the Hulk as a persona itself, a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy where the Hyde is just as deceptively smart and justice-driven as the Jekyll.
Secondly, it is a loving (yet nightmarish) celebration of not just the Hulk’s gamma-radiated history, but all the weird characters Bruce Banner and his dread radiation have touched over those decades. It draws on a vast amount of characters to support Bruce and the Hulk’s history, and has created an iteration of this character that, after a few years away, felt stuck in a place where no one had anything particularly incisive to say about the Hulk (thankfully, the void was filled by Amadeus Cho’s delightful Totally Awesome Hulk). Immortal Hulk remains one of Marvel Comics’ boldest books.
Creative Team: Al Ewing, German Garcia, Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Paul Mounts, and Cory Petit
Everything, Dark Horse
Consumerism is a vicious demon that comes for so many of us, thanks to the concerted efforts of megacorporations hellbent on convincing us that tchotchkes and gizmos will fill the voids in our souls and make us feel like more whole people.
In Everything, that demon manifests itself as an unassuming superstore, the likes of which have popped up in towns across the world and provided people with access to both goods that they need and aspirations of hoarding physical objects that they don’t. By turning the qualities of a megastore into the very fabric of a place rather than merely a discrete store, Everything was able to infuse its story with a kind of insidiousness that often felt inescapable, inevitable, and all too reflective of our own reality.
Creative Team: Christopher Cantwell, I.N.J. Culbard, Steven Wands
Bitter Root, Image Comics
Bitter Root kicked off late last year, and although only three (of its so far five) issues were released in 2019 (along with a single one-shot), those issues and the series’ first arc at large delivered one of the most compelling realisations of a world we’ve seen in comics this year. Balancing a tight tale of a family of monsters hunters in ‘20s Harlem with the stark reality of the world in that time and place, Bitter Root’s examination of the Sangeryes is visually striking, thematically resonant, and a laser-focused meditation on the history of black America (supported by insightful essays and writing material in the back of each issue that is as fascinating to read as the book itself). A comic with a clear message, it never feels overtly moralizing, but simply an education as stark and brutal as the rad-as-hell monster-fighting horror that plays out in as the family goes about its work.
Creative Team: David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, Sanford Greene, Rico Renzi, and Clayton Cowles
Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter, Aftershock Comics
The specific details of what exactly went down during the time when Mary Godwin and her soon-to-be-husband Percy Bysshe Shelley journeyed across Europe with Lord Byron and Claire Clairemont are shrouded in mystery due to the fact the only records of their travels—entries in Mary’s journals—became rather irregular until she returned to London about a year later.
What we know from the historical record is that it was during this time that Godwin wrote the first manuscript for her famed novel, Frankenstein, but the truth is more complicated in Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter, a charming twist on the author’s life that instead imagines a world in which her writings were directly influenced by her very real encounter with the dreadfully supernatural one night while she and her companions are forced to hide out in an abandoned castle. It’s the sort of tale you can imagine Shelley herself getting quite the kick out of were she ever to have the chance to read it, and it makes you appreciate just how much her work has influenced the whole of modern horror.
Creative Team: Adam Glass, Olivia Cuartero-Briggs, Hayden Sherman
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, DC Comics
The act of reviving a Jimmy Olsen comic in 2019 should tell you that from the get-go that Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, Nathan Fairbairn, and Clayton Cowles were prepping for a zany time. But we couldn’t guess how gleefully bonkers a story Superman’s Pal was going to tell. Balancing depressingly on-point commentary on the state of media, print and digital, in the modern day with a tongue-in-cheek inanity that comes from the inherent reality of Jimmy Olsen being the best friend of one of the most iconic and powerful superheroes around, Superman’s Pal is a surrealist celebration of golden and silver-age weirdness that carries a deep love for classic comic book storytelling. It also gave us the most accurate panel for any online writer and editor relationship ever created for a comic book.
Creative Team: Matt Fraction, Steve Lieber, Nathan Fairbairn, and Clayton Cowles
Once & Future, Boom Studios
Once & Future is a comic that’s in direct conversation with the UK’s current political climate. But instead of merely focusing on specific characters rendered in the style of real figures, the story instead takes an interesting look at the kinds of stories people cling to in times when they feel as if larger cultural ideologies are in a state of flux.
The Arthurian magic and mystery at work in the comic serve as a basis for its heroes to embark upon the journey of a lifetime to save the world, but when you zoom out even just a bit, you can see Once & Future asking questions about what it is about the legends associated with the boy and the stone that makes people want to come back to them time and time again.
Creative Team: Kieron Gillen, Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain, Ed Dukeshire
House of X and Powers of X, Marvel Comics
It’s been a weird while for mutantkind. They’ve petered out at the box office, as moviegoers salivate at the prospect at the end of the current mess cinematic universe so that their new master Disney may return them to the fold of the MCU. In the comics, after an uncertain period in the shadows came to an end with a middling line re-shuffle, it’s felt like Marvel’s perpetually persecuted underdogs, outside of a rare standout series like X-Men Red, were being left to spin their wheels. What could another re-shuffle—even one from the writer of New Avengers and Secret Wars—possibly do for Xavier and his children?
Turns out, it could do everything. The duology that is House and Powers—lovingly called HoXPoX by fans—carried with it a bold proclamation. House tells a poetic tale of a present where mutantkind was ascendant and with its own sovereign nation, while Powers tells a future where that sovereignty was threatened and the new mystery of Moira McTaggert unfolded (in one of the most audacious reveals of the year). Not only did it re-interpret mutantkind as a proudly, truly alien and esoteric group with a sense of almost alarming conviction, it deftly re-contextualized and gave weight to over half a century of reboots, retcons, shake-ups, and events across X-history, tying them all together in a stunning move that paved the way for perhaps the grandest chapter in the X-Men’s entire existence.
There was something remarkable about being in the moment of House and Powers’ release this year, being buffeted each week with every reveal, passing the time between each chapter with frenzied speculation about what may come next and what it could all mean. It’s almost sad that the twin series, now collected, cannot be experienced that way again. But that does not change a simple fact: the X-Men are back, more fascinating and mysterious than ever, and are at the vanguard of a new age of some of the most incredible superhero storytelling in a mainstream comic.
Creative Team: Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, Marte Gracia, R.B. Silva, David Curiel, Clayton Cowles, and Tom Muller