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!

My Top Ten Comics of 2018

Of all the years I’ve been doing this best-of-the-year comics countdown, this was perhaps the hardest time I’ve had deciding on my final top 10. The quality has been insanely high this year. To demonstrate just how high, the top two entries of last year – Batman and Mister Miracle – both continued in this year and both maintained a strong standard, yet neither made the list this time round! The trend in this year’s list was “different.” Different in the number of new books on the list, but also in the variation in format and genre represented. Before jumping into the list proper, I want to bring up two honourable mentions, comics I loved that very nearly made the cut. One was Thanos by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw, which was a worthy showcase for one of Marvel’s greatest villains, with the “Thanos Wins” storyline surely destined to become a canon classic perennial seller as a collected graphic novel. It’s mainly its placement on the calendar, with half the series coming at the end of 2017 and the rest early 2018, that made it hard to nail it down as a definitive entry for either year. The other was Infidel, a scarily topical twist on haunted house horror from Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell. This was great, but I only read it this past week, meaning the list was already about finalised. Given the dizzying pedigree of the books you now know are not in the list, I’m sure you’re keen to see what did make it. So let’s get right down to it!

 

10. CRIMINY!

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In an era of Brexit and Trump, the creative team of writer Ryan Ferrier (no stranger to emotionally wrecking us with animal allegory stories, as evidenced by 2016’s Kennel Block Blues) and artist Roger Langridge hit us with a powerful parable about the immigrant experience, told through the lens of Daggum Criminy and his family of adorable cartoon creatures. Forced to flee when their idyllic homeland is turned into a war-zone by tyrannical bandits, our band of travellers go from place to place, struggling to find acceptance, instead met only with scorn and exploitation, until they take it upon themselves to change hearts and minds. Langridge is a bottomless well of visual innovation in his realisation of these fantasy landscapes, offering resplendent imagery and distinctive characters. And the story wears its heart on its sleeve, managing to be surprisingly moving despite the children’s book pastiche presentation. In some ways, it feels like a companion to the Paddington films, other stories which package up a call for compassion for those coming to us seeking refuge in talking animals. But Criminy! has more teeth, throwing us off with some moments which are actually surprisingly harrowing and disturbing.

 

9. GRAFITY’S WALL

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Ram V is a writer that has broken out a fair bit this year, garnering praise for various projects, chiefly Vault’s These Savage Shores. But perhaps his best work so far is this collaboration with Anand Radhakrishnan, a coming-of-age tale about 4 kids growing up in Mumbai, India. The book is broken up into 4 parts, each one focusing particularly on the perspective of one of the kids, giving us deep insight into each of their struggles and heartbreaks. Between them, they each have a unifying theme of having creative ambitions that they struggle to nurture against an environment that tells them at every turn that their hopes and aspirations are worthless. One wants to be an artist, another a rapper, another a writer, another an actress. All of them are other things in the story too, including criminals, but our focus is placed on what they want to be, what they could be if given the chance. Despite the far-off setting, so evocatively brought to life through Radhakrishnan’s art, it’s a story with sentiments that feel universal and deeply relatable

 

8. THE COMIC BOOK STORY OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING

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As a lifelong wrestling fan, this book was just sheer joy from start to finish. It was always going to be impossible to cover everything in such a wide-ranging topic in the space they have, but Aubrey Sitterson and Chris Moreno manage to tell what feels like a comprehensive narrative of the history of professional wrestling. I think it’s the kind of book that you could give to someone baffled by the appeal of pro wrestling, the kind of person who says, “Don’t you know it’s all fake?”, and sell them on what makes it such a magical artform. But even for someone like me, who already knew much of the content covered in the book (particularly the more modern stuff), I found immense value in not only the nostalgic return visits to moments and characters I recalled fondly, but in the evocative cartooning and wry wit of Chris Moreno’s renditions of these iconic characters. The most I’ve enjoyed a non-fiction comic (albeit one that revolves around ideas of artifice) in ages.

 

7. EAST OF WEST

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I’m at the point now with East of West on this yearly list, that I’ve not only run out of ways to talk about how brilliant this comic is, I’ve also run out of ways to remark on me running out of ways to talk about it! I’d have to take a look back to confirm, but at this stage I’m reasonably confident that East of West has been in my annual Top 10 Comics list for more consecutive years than any other comic. And deservedly so, as each issue continues to be a consistently excellent package of comics craft, a book I sorely wish got more credit as being one of the best on shelves. Last year at this time I remarked about how this year would likely be East of West‘s last year, as the series is drawing to a close, but due to some scheduling delays that end-point has been extended into 2019. So once again I find myself anticipating this modern classic going out with a bang!

 

6. ETERNAL

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Above all else, Eternal is a triumph of format. That isn’t intended to sell short the emotionally charged writing of Ryan K Lindsay, deftly weaving a tale of Viking shieldmaidens that stands as a parable on the devastation wrought by violence, with more than one shocking, harrowing twist in the plot. Nor is it intended to downplay the stunning visuals of Eric Zawadzski, taking another quantum leap after his previous game-raising turn in The Dregs to deliver a career-best showcase packed with breathtakingly ornate layouts and vistas and bruising fight choreography, all exquisitely coloured be Dee Cunniffe. But the most striking thing about Eternal for me is it demonstrates that there are different ways of telling a story in comics in the American direct market than what is so often utilised. It would have been so easy for Ryan and Eric to expand this narrative out (there was certainly scope to do it with the world they created) and do a standard 4-issue mini. Instead, they went for an original graphic novel, done in oversized, European-style graphic album format, and the result is a book that is like nothing else in my collection. Even in this age of digital comics, this is one you owe it to yourself to own as a physical artefact. Everything right down to the paper stock is a sensory delight. This opened my eyes to new avenues what is possible in comics. I think the main reason you don’t see this placing in more end-of-year lists is that it landed so early some have maybe forgotten it, but I made sure to note it down as soon as it came out, indeed it was the first entry with a bullet in my “Best of 2018 contenders” doc, and even after a quality year of comics that followed, this stands above most of them.

 

5. PETER PARKER: THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #310

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Okay, this one is going against my usual rules. I normally wouldn’t include a single issue of an ongoing run. Usually I judge the quality of the run as a whole in a given year. But in this particular case, I hadn’t been reading the run of Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man as a whole, and only picked up this last issue, “Finale,” on a whim based on strong word of mouth. It essentially is a self-contained oneshot standing apart from the run as a whole. And hey, it’s my list, I can change the rules if I want! If this list was judged purely on how often I’ve reread a comic, then Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #310 would be #1. I have it sat at my work desk next to my laptop, and over the months since buying it I’ve just periodically picked it up and pored over it. Written and drawn by Chip Zdarsky, it is a consciously low-key tale, built around the framing device of various citizens of New York City asked for their opinions on Spider-Man for a documentary project. What follows are a series of anecdotes by turns silly (like you’d maybe expect from a Zdarsky comic), sweet, and ultimately surprisingly moving and heartbreaking. Before all the buzz around the PS4 game, and before Into the Spider-Verse blew my mind, this comic relit that spark of  my love for Spider-Man, and honed right in on what makes the character so appealing at his best: that he’s a Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, a hero with relatable humanity who is a hero in small ways as well as big. “Spider-Man saves people. He does his best, expects nothing back. I think… I think we should all be more like Spider-Man.”

 

4. GIANT DAYS

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It’s unbearably obnoxious to call Giant Days “my comic book discovery of 2018” when it’s been around for years and rightly getting acclaimed all this time, and I’ve heard this praise for ages and been meaning to give it a try, but only got round to it this year. That’s some Christopher Columbus shit. And yet that’s how I feel. I inhaled the first 6 volumes that were available in early 2018, and have eagerly picked up every edition that’s come out since. And I feel like my comics-reading life has been poorer for not having Giant Days in it all this time. The story of a group of friends as they navigate university life in Sheffield, John Allison and Max Sarin’s series might seem simple in concept, but in the execution it is a wonder, reliably laugh-out-loud funny in a way few comedy comics can manage. The sitcom-like episodic format makes each issue an accessible read in a way so many long-running comics fail to do, and yet it also excels in long-term storytelling and character development. Just in terms of sheer craft and characterisation, Giant Days may be better at what it does than anyone else in comics right now. Indeed, perhaps the only reason Giant Days isn’t higher or even top of this year’s list is because I’m reading it in trade format, and so am the better part of a year behind and not read enough of the 2018 output to fairly judge it.

 

3. GIDEON FALLS

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Jeff Lemire has had a dynamite year. His Black Hammer franchise has continued to grow in popularity and acclaim, and news broke recently that he has signed a massive film/TV development deal for it, ensuring it’s going to become an even more widely recognised flagship title in the Lemire library. But as good as it is, my favourite Jeff Lemire series of the year is this other, less heralded Image Comics entry. Anyone who follows Lemire on social media or has read interviews with him is likely aware that he is an avid devotee of David Lynch, and a massive Twin Peaks fan. And Gideon Falls is perhaps his most overt ode to Twin Peaks yet, while still offering up its own distinctly sinister identity. The narrative of the series thus far plays out in two threads, with a priest with a chequered past settling in the small town of Gideon Falls and uncovering shady goings on in the town related to his doomed predecessor, and a haunted young man in an unspecified city elsewhere obsessively hunting for junk. The two threads are connected by the mysterious Black Barn, a structure not of this earth, within which dwells a truly ghoulish, terrifying entity. Lemire weaves a narrative that is enigmatic but also thick with suspense, while artist Andrea Sorrentino is melting faces with his stunning layouts, vistas you want to tear out of your comic and hang up on your wall.

 

2. CROWDED

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Crowded was optioned for film before the first issue was even released, and if you were to hear that news nugget, you might be nonplussed. But it all makes sense when you read that first issue. How could you not read that and instantly see the dollar signs of the kind of dynamite, sure-fire hit idea that doesn’t come round too often? Right from the opening pages, we are thrown into a world that feels fully-realised, one of the most evocative, credible portraits of dystopian future in recent memory. The future hellscape is not created by nuclear war or invading aliens. It’s rooted in what we see already in the present, the grinding cruelty of the gig economy and apps and social media as a substitute for human connection, only heightened to proportions that are nightmarish and yet scarily not incomprehensible. What if you could crowdfund murder? And worse, what if society not only let it happen, but we got a whole parasitic culture of celebrity and fandom branching out of it? The art team of Ro Stein, Ted Brandt and Triona Farrell make this one of the slickest looking books on the stands, with a combination of hilarious visual comedy and masterfully choreographed action, not to mention all the little details that help make this world feel all the more lived-in and immersive. But beyond the high concepts and big ideas, what really helps this soar are the character dynamics at its heart. Christopher Sebela makes both beleaguered bodyguard-for-hire Vita and bounty target/walking disaster Charlie Ellison feel like real people, flawed but with human cores that make us care about them.

 

1. THE IMMORTAL HULK

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I’ve been a fan of The Hulk my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are of the old TV series, and of my Gran telling Hulk-related bedtime stories at my request, mixed in with the likes of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk. He’s one of my favourite characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yet, I’ve never really found a comic run that’s truly resonated with me, despite several attempts, and despite some big names I admire giving it a shot. Then The Immortal Hulk came along, and it couldn’t be any more my jam. A take on The Hulk that goes back to the basics of the character – The Hulk as a monster that comes out at night, a terror to be feared rather than a superhero – then pushes deeper into those dynamics than perhaps ever before? A Hulk comic that reads like a horror series, pushing the genre bounds steadily further and further into this dark realm as it progresses? Yes, sign me up! Writer Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett (along with a couple of other guests) have given us a fresh, invigorating take on The Hulk, giving him his own sadistic personality with a frightening take on justice. The genius of the series thus far has been that, in the early going, it was very episodic, monster-of-the-week style one-and-done tales of this scary new Hulk. But then weaved through it were connecting threads, chilling references to a mysterious Green Door, hints that not only all the events of the series, but aspects of The Hulk going right back to his origins, were all part of a horrifying larger tapestry that was only now beginning to reveal itself. The cliffhanger we were left on as 2018 drew to a close, bringing all these seeds to harvest, was a heart-stopper. Up there with the best of superhero comics, and comics as a whole, this year. And I’m also ready now to suggest The Immortal Hulk might be the best Hulk comic ever.

 

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Here’s the annual tally of best-of-the-year winners, and how it looks 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

Like I said, this year was tough! There was drafts of this list where all of the top 4 entries were at #1, there was barely anything between them. And, as always, we end the year with me excited about a bunch of stuff that has just started or is coming up, primed to make a big splash in 2019.