It's been a stellar year for comic books. Long gone are the years when a niche past-time is delegated to small corner stores and Internet message boards. Today, comics are everywhere. They stand at the forefront of pop culture with the ripples felt in television, film and more. It's never been a better time to be a comic book fan.
This year brought us more than enough to stack up and read for the holidays. Star Wars made its return to Marvel with a collection of series worth reading before or after you've seen The Force Awakens. Marvel's universes ended (or rather, are still ending) and their books are currently relaunching with diverse, powerful heroes like Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man (Miles Morales) and Moon Girl.
And DC has been no slouch either, with characters like Midnighter going places only few comics have ever gone before. The publisher's work on its main heroes has been no less than spectacular either, with great strides made in Batman, Superman, Justice League and Green Lantern, all working to shake up decades-old foundations.
But this year really belongs to the odd-one-out publishers who are now going all-in. The creative powerhouses of ONI, Image and Archie Comics combined independent publishing with creative freedom to bring us reimagined classic characters in Archie and all new experiences in Plutona or We Stand on Guard.
With that said, take a look at our top picks for the best comics this year:
Secret Wars is the very obvious elephant in the room. This years-in-the-making event has been no less than wonderful, at least in its main premise. The Marvel universe we know and love has come to an end and Doctor Doom is the new god of a domain called Battleworld, where bits and pieces of universes prior are thrown together.
The main Secret Wars book is scripted masterfully by Jonathan Hickman, who has finally seen the seeds he's sown for the last five years come to fruition. A group of main universe characters survive the initial 'end' (Star-Lord, Thor, Captain Marvel, Reed Richards, etc.) and work to take down Doom. The art from Esad Ribic is beautiful and pops on every page, with more than a standout spread in every issue. The series doesn't quite come to an end until January, but it's been a standout and will be a great send off for Hickman.
Huck came to fruition when famed comic writer Mark Millar expressed his distaste for the latest Superman film, Man of Steel. So in Millar fashion he did what only he would: create a new hero in the vein of Superman but tell his own story. And Huck is just that, a Superman in a different place at a different time.
But Huck begins as a small-town boy with developmental problems who just wants to help out the townsfolk. To this decree, he makes a list every day of the things he wants to do. This could be mowing someone's lawn, saving a cat from a tree or fixing a car. But when the kidnapping of a group of girls in a Middle Eastern country sends him speeding overseas to the rescue, his identity is put at risk.
This is a retelling of what it means to have a secret identity and the power to do real good in the world. It's lighthearted and succinct; Superman meets Of Mice & Men.
When Marvel reacquired the rights to the Star Wars comic books, we were more than ecstatic to see what stories the publisher's teams had planned for Luke and co. as the blanks between films are filled in. What we weren't expecting was how much depth was possible, and this is explored tenfold in Darth Vader's solo series.
From the films, we know Vader as a cold, faceless villain with a tattered past. He's brutal, but realizes his wrongdoing in the end as his son comforts him. In the comics, we see the beginning of that. We see Vader the moment he learns of the existence of a Skywalker boy and how truly conflicted he is. And if you thought Vader was in it for the Empire, then you were dead wrong.
This series shows that Vader is his own man and he's got his own company to keep things going under the Empire's nose.
One publisher that has been upping the ante all year has been Vertigo Comics, the home of cult series like Fables and Constantine: The Hellblazer (until DC brought him into the fold.) While there were more than a few great Vertigo series to choose from, Clean Room stuck out as a great horror book with a lore just asking to be explored.
The story revolves around the Clean Room, a place where members of a cult go to be absolved of their sins or troubles or what have you. Journalist Chloe Pierce, the main character, decides to research this cult after her fiance dies just three months after reading a book written by the cult's leader, Astrid Mueller. The comic is tense, raunchy and gory, but it's a hell of tale.
I would just really like to shake the hand of whoever walked into Marvel's offices and said, 'Hey, let's take the Ms. Marvel persona and give it to a young Muslim girl from Jersey City.'
Ms. Marvel is easily one of the best things to happen in the last few years of comics, and with writer G. Willow Wilson still at the helm in this second run, the tale of Kamala Khan continues to be relatable, exciting and progressive.
While many attempts to shoehorn diversity in pop culture end up ignored or white-washed, Ms. Marvel stays true to its tone. Khan is a girl from a devout family who is just trying to live a regular teenage life, and also live up to mantle of her predecessor Carol Danvers while retaining a totally different power set as an Inhuman.
Kamala Khan is the Peter Parker for this generation.
Midnighter is what happens when you combine Batman and The Punisher. And by that I mean he kills people, but he's not a bad guy! No, Midnighter is so much more.
Originally a character from the WildStorm imprint, Midnighter is a nightlight vigilante with cybernetic implants. He's a proponent for everything right about the way comics are headed. Midnighter is a strong, empowered and kickass gay protagonist, and writer Steve Orlando makes sure he owns it.
With a story spun out of the pages of DC's Grayson, Midnighter is sent on a journey of self-realization, but it all turns to [expletive] when the man he loves is either A) used to destroy him or B) was always a bad guy and now the jig is up. But this confusion is where Midnighter succeeds as a story about morality, justice and the real meaning behind comic book vigilantism. Is it always the right way, even if you've got cybernetic implants?
Plutona is the kind of story you get when you focus on the underbelly of the superhero world. In this case, what happens when a group of kids find the lifeless body of a superhero? Each issue in this six-part series deals with the repercussions of this.
Do they tell their parents? Do they take photos of the body and sell them to tabloids? Do they do nothing? When one kid is a tattle tale, one a cigarette-smoking 12-year-old and another a super fan, you get more than a few clashes (Think Stand by Me with a bit of The Goonies.) It's emotional, relatable, and a notch in the belt of writer Jeff Lemire, who has brought and continues to bring wonderful stories to life. See below.
Man, Jeff Lemire is on a roll. But Descender is something even more special as a sci-fi tale that looks at the very core of what it means to be human. Sure, we've seen it in films like A.I. or I, Robot, but never like this.
The main protagonist, a young robot boy, is woken up after a long dormant period where a war has ravaged the galaxy. He has memories, or so he thinks, of the family he lived with. He dreams of a mother, a father and siblings.
In his new journey, he comes across a key scientist who built his model of robots along with different species of alien and even a robot dog. The robot dog is the best. But in the present, robots are outlawed and he is on the run from bounty hunters at every turn. And be sure to take in every page, because artist Dustin Nguyen is pure perfection here.
I'm beginning to wonder if Scott Snyder's Batman run will ever leave our minds as a nearly perfect comic series? Well, not this year.
This year, Batman ended and began anew, as Bruce Wayne's final confrontation with the Joker left him seemingly dead. Now, Commissioner Gordon has taken up the mantle of Batman, along with a new robot suit and an army of Robins gathering in the city (see: We Are Robin). There's a menacing new villain in the form of Mr. Bloom, and he's a scary one.
Yet Bruce Wayne reappears, apparently not dead, as a kindhearted benefactor to an orphanage. He's unaware of the cape and cowl and is attempting to live a normal life, but everyone knows how it is in Gotham City. This run of Batman continues to show that the costume is more than that, it's the idea from The Dark Knight and the beacon of hope for not only Gotham, but for everyone.
Yes, you knew it was coming. Archie, the crown jewel of the comic book world. He's been around forever, from the pages of the newspaper to weekly digest magazines. Now, Archie has arrived in modern day and he's brought all of Riverdale with him.
Writer Mark Waid (Daredevil, All-New All-Different Avengers) and artist Fiona Staples (Saga) kickstarted this new take on the character earlier this year to insane critical acclaim. The story is fantastically real and echoes with imagination and emotion. Each panels tells a story that compliments the art and the script and brings to life characters that have seemed corny for so long. Now, with Staples out and artist Annie Wu (Hawkeye) in, the legacy can continue.
Archie has always been a keystone and he's ready for the spotlight again. Seriously. Read this book.
Honorable Mentions: All-New, All-Different Avengers, Batman & Robin Eternal, Grayson, Hawkeye (well, the end of it), I Hate Fairyland, Invader Zim, Justice League, Karnak, Klaus, Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaur, The Omega Men, Paper Girls, Saga, Sex Criminals, Silk, Unfollow, We Stand on Guard.