My Top Ten Comics of 2020

It’s been a strange year, in many ways. And one such way is that it has upended how a lot of entertainment has been consumed. The most obvious change this year has been with film, where the experience of going to the cinema has largely given way to watching stuff at home on streaming services or after purchasing from iTunes. But even with comics there has been changes, with me barely getting out to the comic shop this year, instead getting stuff sent to me by mail at my LCS. And as such I’ve shifted a bit in my reading tastes, becoming less connected to the weekly new comics haul (since even my new releases arrive at a slight delay with shipping) and inclined more towards catching up on older stuff and reading OGNs/collections. But with being at home for so much of the year, I’ve still managed to read A LOT of stuff.

A regular reminder that my qualifier for eligibility is that the comic is either a graphic novel released in its entirety this year, a foreign language work released in English for the first time this year, or if it’s an ongoing/limited series, that at least 3 issues were released this year. For 2020 in particular, that’s disqualified quite a few things, as it feels we had some major players like Sea of Sorrows and Home Sick Pilots only have one issue out at the time of writing this list. But they’ll be books to watch out for in next year’s rankings to be sure!

10. PULP

Much has been made of the format of Pulp, the Western/noir mashup from the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Long champions of the single issue format, their choice to lean into the OGN model sparked much chat about this increasingly being the future for comics. But aside from that discourse, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the comic contained within these hardcover pages is great. A story about a former Wild West outlaw, now an old man living in1930s New York struggling as a writer, selling pulp story reworkings of his own life and experiences, it’s another pristine exploration of pained humanity and bad decisions that this team does so well. I’ve not read Reckless yet, though, saving that for Christmas, and that might knock this out of the list!

9. KILLADELPHIA 

This was an early lockdown standout for me. It seems buzz on this was quite quiet during its initial single issue run, but particularly on the build-up to the release of the Volume 1 collection, it started picking up more buzz and momentum. And with good reason. It’s a smart new spin on vampire lore, using a vampire narrative as a prism through which to interrogate heirarchies of class and race. And Jason Shawn Alexander’s art is just next level good, be it in the immersive, intimate detail of the human characters or in depictions of the vampires that are proper frightening and monstrous. I can’t wait to read the second volume, and am a little sad I have to wait until 2021 for it!

8. WICKED THINGS

Giant Days has become one of my all-time favourite comics. But I was always behind the curve on that series, reading it in collected volumes. I still have the last volume to read, actually. And so with Wicked Things, the new miniseries from John Allison and Max Sarin, set in the same universe and seeing the supporting character of improbable child detective Charlotte Grote spinning off into her own yarn, I wanted to be right in at the ground floor with the single issues. As it happens, my biggest disappointment with this comic is that it IS a miniseries, as I already feel like I could happily read 40+ issues of Charlotte’s adventures, digging deeper into the quirky world of celebrity detective culture that this series opens up. It has that Giant Days comedy brilliance, but Allison and Sarin also do a great job of setting up genuine stakes and peril to up the ante of the drama.

7. REDFORK 

I’ve talked before about this top notch Appalachian horror from Alex Paknadel, Nil Vendrell, Giulia Brusco, Ryan Ferrier and James Maddox feels like a thematic cousin to Mountainhead. Developed separately and simultaneously, but with many similar ideas and plot turns, and then you factor in the fact that in both cases it’s writers from the UK looking in from outside to comment on strangeness in the American (or, in my case, Canadian) heartland. But where Redfork really excels is in how it brings this community to life, digs into the factors that have blighted the place and the people within it, doing what a lot of the best horror these days does by getting to the monstrous stuff from the angle of real life darkness that’s relevant to the lived experience of many. Alex has had a strong couple of years with the output he’s been delivering, but this may be his best work yet.

6. DAREDEVIL 

By this point I believe I am well established as a fan of Daredevil, but I’ll admit that following the conclusion of the seminal Waid/Samnee run, I drifted away from the comics. But this run from Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checcetto, among other artists, has brought me right back, emerging as arguably the best title Marvel is currently producing. It was already noteworthy last year, where I remarked on how it was a series being slept on. But one year down the line and that is even more the case, as the story has gone from strength to strength, with Zdarsky giving us some compelling exploration of what’s going on inside Matt Murdock’s head, as well as prime fodder for The Kingpin and other members of the supporting cast. I feel it’s starting to get more recognition now, but here’s hoping that 2021 is the year where even more of us acknowledge how consistently great this run has been.

5. UNDONE BY BLOOD 

In many ways, Undone By Blood works as a nice double-bill with Pulp, which featured earlier on the list. Both are comics that play with a two-pronged narrative, one featuring an old hard-boiled Wild West tale, with another presenting a harsher reality at a later point in the 20th Century. In this case, the latter-day strand is set in the 1970s, and the connective tissue of the two threads is that the protagonist of the 1970s arc (Ethel Grady Lane, an instantly compelling character) is reading the Wild West story as a novel, which we experience in both comic and prose form. And given how great Pulp was, it’s not lightly that I say that Undone By Blood is the superior of the two. The all-star creative team of Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Sami Kivela, Jason Wordie and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou are firing on all cylinders here. Sami’s work has never been more beautiful and evocative. Zac and Lonnie display a master of wordsmanship in those prose entries that makes me feel like I ought to pack in this whole writing lark as clearly I’m an amateur. This comic pulls off the trick of making me love both storylines equally, where whenever we cut to one, I’m anxious to get back to the other, while still being gripped by what I’m reading. Quite possibly AfterShock’s best ever comic.

4. BLUE IN GREEN 

I’m at a disadvantage in talking about Blue in Green here, as having already talked at length about the comic when writing about the work of Ram V, I don’t know how many more ways I have left to say that it’s brilliant and essential reading. Back when I first heard about the release of a new comic from the creative team of Grafity’s Wall, a horror comic at that, this became my “event comic” of 2020. It certainly delivered on expectations. Frightening, and not in the way you might expect, getting under your skin and giving voice to the unspoken anxieties and insecurities you have buried deep down (or that I have, at least). In fact, though the plots are completely different, in a lot of ways Blue in Green felt like a fitting comics medium companion piece to I’m Thinking of Ending Things, in the particular bad vibes it evoked. The whole creative team shines, here, with Ram V giving us some immaculate writing and some of the most resonant internal monologue I’ve seen in a comic in forever, Anand RK displaying a whole new facet of his talents with a breakout performance and some of the most distinctive visuals of the year, and Aditya Bidikar flexing his muscles with a masterclass in just how creative a force in a comic the letterer can be when it comes to shaping mood. A haunting comic that lingers long after you’re done reading.

3. VENUS IN THE BLIND SPOT 

I initially wasn’t sure about including this one, These are mostly old Junji Ito stories, including a couple which I have read previously through unofficial translations. But this is their first time collected in this volume, the first time officially translated into English for most of them, and with new color pages and elements to make this collection a new, distinct product from Viz. Contained in these pages are some of the greatest Junji Ito short stories ever, including Enigma of Amigara Fault, The Human Chair, Billions Alone (formerly known as the catchier Army of One) and The Licking Woman. All intensely disturbing tales with truly horrifying imagery that will stay in your brain. But possibly what I enjoyed most in this collection was a story that’s not scary at all, an autobiographical comic called Master Umezz and Me, chronicling Junji Ito’s lifelong love for the work of mangaka Kazuo Umezz. Here, we get so much insight into Junji Ito himself, as well as some nice commentary on the appeal of horror and chasing entertainment that scares us.

2. THE DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH  

This comic kicked my ass. Built on a killer premise – what if we live in a world where things become more true the more that people believe in them, and that thus in this age of conspiracy theory reality is in greater danger than ever before? – the execution is even more frightening and compelling than you’d imagine. The first issue was a pristine establishment of the concept, but then each subsequent issue has hit like a haymaker, shining a light on something that makes me angry or upset then making me afraid of it too. James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds and Aditya Bidikar have gifted us with a comic that feels truly essential, where every chapter is a must-read and something you immediately want to talk to people about. If anything, even though it’s clocking in at #2, if anything this could be underrating it. And that’s because, at just three issues in, this series is just getting rolling. And if it keeps on going at this level of quality and building momentum as it continues to unfold, this could ultimately emerge as one of the great comics of this era. It already has that vibe of something really special about it. We’ll see where things go next year!

1. SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN 

This comic ranked very respectably last year based just on the first few issues. And then, after that, I let the issues build up in my to-read pile, me buying them without actually getting round to reading them. Eventually, I had a little stack piled up and decided to do a catch-up one nice, sunny day. I blasted through them, and the reminder of just how fantastic this series is hit me like a mack truck. This might be my favourite Superman-related thing in any medium I’ve experience since All Star Superman. Jimmy Olsen is my favourite superhero of 2020. I love Steve Lieber’s fresh, modern take on the character (while still capturing some of the traditional quirks), while writer Matt Fraction manages to make him goofy and likeable and still the kind of exciting adventurer that Superman would want to be his pal. The comic is laugh-out-loud hilarious, with each issue containing at least a couple of guffaw moments, but that shouldn’t distract from how intricately plotted this all is, too. I bought the whole thing in single issues, but I’ll confess: I bought the graphic novel as a gift for a friend, and part of me wanted to clutch on it myself, just to have it in my bookcase. Because perhaps more than anything in the last several years, Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen feels like it could become an all-time canon great book for DC, something they ought to keep in perpetual rotation.As always, here’s the annual tally of the best-of-the-year winners, from 2010 through to now…

  • 2010: Scalped
  • 2011: Scalped
  • 2012: The Underwater Welder
  • 2013: The Manhattan Projects
  • 2014: Southern Bastards
  • 2015: Southern Bastards
  • 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon
  • 2017: Batman
  • 2018: The Immortal Hulk
  • 2019: House of X / Powers of X
  • 2020: Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen

And that was 2020 in comics! 2021 is already loaded with exciting comics, and a few potential front-runners for next year’s top prize. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out!

My Top Ten Comics of 2019

Today, I hit something of a landmark. With this year’s countdown, I’ve now been ranking my Top 10 Comics for 10 years. That’s a decade of great comics! The first list featured Scalped (crazy to think that was so long ago now!), which is now a solid contender for my all-time favourite comic. Are there any comics in this year’s lineup that could have the same staying power? It was certainly another fantastic year for comics. There are a couple of Marvel and DC entries in my list, and a variety of indie publishers are represented, along with some small press, too. Let’s take a look at my final top comics list of the 2010s!

 

 

  1. BATMAN UNIVERSE

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Tom King’s epic run on Batman reached its finale at the end of this year, and we had the usual wealth of Batman-related ongoings, minis and graphic novels alongside it. But my favourite Batman comic of the year was certainly Batman Universe. I knew instantly that I’d love this mini-series as soon as I saw that Nick Derington was on art duties. Anyone who follows the acclaimed Doom Patrol artist on Twitter will already have been well aware that he draws a killer Batman, and would have been clamouring to see him get a chance to tell a full story with the Caped Crusader. And paired with legendary colorist Dave Stewart, Derington gifted us with one of the best looking comics of the year. And then there’s the writing of Brian Michael Bendis, further demonstrating that the move across to DC has rejuvenated him and led to some of his best work in years. His time-and-space-hopping adventure showed that you can tell a Batman story that’s fun and light-hearted (and even letting Batman himself be charming and funny rather than brooding and sinister) while still feeling compelling and authentic.

 

 

  1. SUPERMAN’S PAL JIMMY OLSEN

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I did not realise quite how much I’d missed Matt Fraction’s presence in comics until he returned to the limelight with this maxi-series about the Daily Planet’s beloved hotshot reporter Jimmy Olsen, reminding us all of what a fantastic storyteller he can be. This series seems to avidly follow the philosophy set out by Grant Morrison when developing his take on Jimmy for All Star Superman: rather than being a loser or a bore as so often portrayed, it would stand to reason that in order to stand as Superman’s pal, Jimmy Olsen would have to be pretty cool in his own right. And so here we get Jimmy Olsen: daredevil adventurer, master of disguise and endlessly resourceful investigative journalist, who also happens to be a goofball… but in an endearing way. The sprawling narrative is filled with tangents and strange asides, with us getting the sense it’s all coming together as one massive mystery (or story, in the journalistic lingo) taking shape. But the intricate plotting never comes at the expense of being consistently laugh-out-loud funny. And all of this isn’t even noting how beautiful it all looks with Steve Lieber drawing it! Not only is his Jimmy design spot-on, but the playing around he does with form on the page in certain standout sequences is jaw-dropping in its invention.

 

 

  1. GIANT DAYS

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Last year, Giant Days made its debut on the list, and I said the only reason it didn’t rank higher is because I was reading it in trade form, and so I was too far behind to give a fair summation of the actual content from 2018. Well, that applies once again in 2019, and given how the release of collections seems to have become more sporadic and I’m thus further behind on the series than I was at this time last year, it applies even moreso now, reflected in the book’s lower placement on the list. It’s certainly not a reflection on the book’s quality, which remains peerless. It’s still as funny, but the longer I read the series, the more its big strength is revealed to be the deepening attachment to the core ensemble of supremely likeable characters, heightened by the bittersweet knowledge that their time at university is approaching its close. Of course, for current readers, that close has arrived, with the series coming to an end. I look forward to seeing how the story ends in 2020, while part of me is also dreading having to say goodbye to Susan, Esther, Daisy, Ed, McGraw and co.

 

 

  1. EAST OF WEST

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Here’s another case of me repeating myself! Last year, I made a joke that, on the previous year’s list, I had remarked that East of West was coming to an end and would be finished by the following year, and yet due to delays it was still ongoing. And here I am, another year later, and even more delays have meant that East of West has still to reach its conclusion! Though with the last issue due out next New Comic Book Day, this will at last be the final time East of West appears on the list. Looking back at my #1 comics throughout the past decade, I feel quite sad that East of West never reached that #1 spot, with its highest ever placement being at #2. Because, by this point, East of West has featured on the majority of those lists, ranking more consistently than any other comic, and perhaps standing the test of time better than other, higher-ranking books from over the years. Once it’s over, Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin’s breathlessly ambitious apocalyptic sci-fi Western will surely enter the canon of all time great stories of the medium.

 

 

  1. THE IMMORTAL HULK

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Last year’s winner has dropped a bit in the standings in 2019, and yet that is no reflection on the comic’s quality, instead demonstrative of just how fantastic the five titles in the top half of the list are. The Immortal Hulk remains as great as ever. In its first year, Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (along with the occasional guest artist), subverted the superhero elements of The Hulk and gave us a series that leaned much more into horror. This year, they got even more ambitious, expanding the scope of the story into a cataclysmic, cosmic scale and engaging in some fascinating narrative experimentation. Some of the long-running storylines that had been in play since the beginning came to a dramatic conclusion around issue #24, and since then the comic has entered a new phase, with Bruce Banner and The Hulk newly liberated and empowered to enact their plan for the world, picking up an unlikely following among the angry and disenfranchised of the world, in a story rich in relevant socio-political allegory.

 

 

  1. HOUSE OF SWEETS

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I’ve loved House of Sweets since before it was even a comic. I first encountered the comic when it was just a script from Fraser Campbell, and it instantly established itself as one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, dense with heady, nightmarish terror. And it only got better when Iain Laurie, Dave Cooper and Colin Bell – the UK Comics Dream Team – came onboard to turn that brilliant script into a singular vision of horror and madness in comic book form. Playing like Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf spiked with a dash of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, this dread-laced tale of grown-up siblings revisiting their childhood holiday cabin in the woods, unaware that something dark and unnatural is waiting for them, is the only entry on the list not released by a major US publisher. At the time of writing, it’s crowdfunding on Kickstarter, and if you haven’t already, I couldn’t recommend jumping onboard enough.

 

 

  1. ROAD OF BONES

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One might consider me biased here, considering the artist on this project is none other than my Sink mucker Alex Cormack, and publisher IDW released this as part of a horror one-two punch followed up by my own Mountainhead. But whoever made this comic and whatever publisher released it, I’d have been singing its praises, considering that writer Rich Douek gave us one of the most powerhouse concepts of any story in any medium this year. It starts off rooted in very real historical horror, telling the story of desperate people imprisoned in the gulags of Stalinist Russia for dubious slights against the glorious leader. But once a trio of protagonists escape in the early going, the story curdles into something different, something even darker, a story of cannibalism, shifting allegiances, and dark forces lurking out in the cold and dark. And – much as it pains me to say it! – Alex Cormack does some of his career-best work bringing this grim, snow-swept world to life.

 

 

  1. FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN

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It’s not been long since I sang the praises of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man at great length, so I won’t go too redundant in repeating myself here. But in what has been a vintage year for Spider-Man comics, with us gifted with an array of quality titles – Amazing Spider-Man, Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Superior Spider-Man, Ghost-Spider, Spider-Man: Life Story, Spider-Man: Full Circle and more – this one stood out as the very best. The best issues were the ones with the excellent Juann Cabal on art duties, but the consistent thread running through the entirety of the series was writer Tom Taylor, who injected Spider-Man with a warmth, kindness and relatable likeability better than just about anyone I can think of in recent years. The limited duration of this finished-too-soon gem of a series makes me think that it’ll surely soon be getting released as a big deluxe single volume. When it does, if you let this book go under your radar, I’d highly recommend correcting that error.

 

 

  1. THESE SAVAGE SHORES

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There was very little to separate the top two entries in my countdown, with both absolutely blowing me away and, in their own way, serving as stunning showcases of what comics are capable of. Here, we get an innovative twist on the vampire story, set against the backdrop of the East India Trading Company attempting to assert its influence over India in the 18th Century, with clashing cultures and ways of life juxtaposed with supernatural beings of different cultural lineages colliding. Vault Comics have been putting out quality titles since their formation, but These Savage Shores feels like the breakout publisher’s “killer app,” a potential flagship book that could be viewed as a pivotal comics text of the era, populated with indelible characters who feel instantly iconic, bolstered by the lush visuals and impeccable character design of Sumit Kumar. The plot that feels big and cinematic and yet also dense and literary in a way comics don’t always manage or even aspire to. Ram V blew me away last year with Grafitty’s Wall, and this is even better, Ram cementing his status as one of the best comic writers active today. He’s one marquee superhero run away from becoming an A-list superstar, if he’s even interested in such a thing: I’ve loved his dalliances in that terrain and would be keen to see more, but would be just as happy to see him continue to do distinctive original works like this.

 

 

  1. HOUSE OF X / POWERS OF X

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I’ve been part of comics online discourse for many years now, currently most prominently manifested in Comics Twitter. And one topic of conversation I’ve brought up plenty of times before is that, while in these online circles you’ll find heated discussion about the latest contentious comics topic, or the latest iteration of the soul-crushing artist VS writer debate, it’s rare for an actual comic itself to tap into the conversation zeitgeist, capturing that “appointment TV” vibe of bringing people together with each new instalment, buzzing over new developments and speculating over where it’s all going. But then Jonathan Hickman’s dizzyingly ambitious reinvention of the X-Men, realised in two overlapping minis in House of X and Powers of X, did just that. With the first issue, the concept of what the X-Men are is exploded, mutants re-established as the future of the world and the X-Men re-positioned less as superheroes than emissaries of a new world order. The second issue is a dizzying tour through a thousand years of history from the first moment Xavier conceived of his dream for mutantkind to the last dying embers of Earth where machines rule over what little remains. The third issue uses a simple but genius retcon to transform stalwart supporting player Moira MacTaggart into the most fascinating, vital figure in the whole X-mythos. And so the series continued, each week offering new shocks and revelations. House of X / Powers of X actually reminded me a lot of Watchmen, in both its structural intricacy and its deconstruction of longstanding genre tropes: in this case less superheroes in general than the well-worn tropes that have accumulated around the X-Men in particular. But where this stands apart from Watchmen is that, rather than being intended as a last word, this is a new beginning, establishing a blueprint that has launched a whole new line of X-Men comics and could shape the direction of the books for years to come. All while also acting as a complete, rewarding read and powerful statement on the X-Men.

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As always, here’s the annual tally of the best-of-the-year winners, from 2011 through to now…

  • 2010: Scalped
  • 2011: Scalped
  • 2012: The Underwater Welder
  • 2013: The Manhattan Projects
  • 2014: Southern Bastards
  • 2015: Southern Bastards                                                                                               
  • 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon
  • 2017: Batman
  • 2018: The Immortal Hulk
  • 2019: House of X / Powers of X

And that’s a wrap on the year in comics, the decade in comics! Here’s to the next decade being just as filled with great books!