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Comics Wire: The best comics of 2020; plus Avengers, Jinny Hex & this week's hot reads
Welcome to Comics Wire, SYFY WIRE's weekly comics column that gets at the pulse of what's going on in comics right now. We've got what you need to know about huge crossovers, real-life issues facing the industry, cool first looks, the week's hot new comics, and everything in between.
It's been an extremely strange year on every front, and comics is no exception. We launched this very column back in March, after weeks of discussions, on the very week that Diamond decided to pause shipping to local shops, which meant we launched a comics column on a week when there were almost no comics. I suppose that could've been considered a bad omen at the time, but here we are nine months later and comics are not only back, but as vital as I've ever felt them as a fan.
I read hundreds of issues of comics this year, both in service to this very column and as a reader who just likes keeping up with certain characters and creators, and as I think back on all of them now at the end of 2020 the overriding emotion is gratitude. Sure, I didn't love all of those comics, but simply having them there week after week, filling my eyes and my mind with strange worlds different than my own, was often enough for me. That some of those books turned out to be absolute masterpieces sometimes just felt like a bonus.
So here I am, with gratitude in my heart for all the comics I got to read this year, all the time I got to spend writing about comics this year, all the creators and comics pros who've supported this column, and of course all the readers who've been here for nine months, whether you stop by every week or you're just dipping in and out as it suits you. I can honestly say that 2020 would have been much darker for me if I didn't have comics, and while I'm only highlighting the very best in the list below, I want to be clear: I'm grateful for every second, every page, and every panel.
With all that in mind, these are the 25 best comics I read in 2020, the absolute cream of a rather large crop that still live in my brain days, weeks, and even months after I finished reading them. I only wish I had more space to write about just how great they all are, but if you go back through back issues of Comics Wire I suspect you'll find more in-depth praise for quite a few.
The Autumnal: Daniel Kraus and Chris Shehan's The Autumnal felt like exactly my kind of comic the moment it was announced, and I was thrilled to find that remained true through page after creepy page. It's a beautiful, and beautifully dread-laced, new folk-horror classic.
Billionaire Island: Given what 2020 turned out to be, a concept like Billionaire Island might have worked in the hands of a lot of different creators, but only Mark Russell and Steve Pugh could make it this biting, inventive, and thoroughly unhinged throughout.
Bitter Root: Bitter Root had a big night at the Eisners over the summer, and for very good reason. Chuck Brown, David F. Walker, and Sanford Greene's 1920s fantasy adventure may have debuted back in 2018, but it's just as vibrant, relevant, and thrilling as ever as we close out 2020.
Black Widow: Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, and Jordie Bellaire's Black Widow run is a witty, action-packed, endlessly creative reminder that sometimes the best superhero books are intimate, tightly focused, and deeply rooted in a very specific, well-executed tone. If you haven't jumped on this one yet, catch up while you have the chance.
Blue in Green: Sometimes a comic just knocks you through the wall, and that's what Ram V and Anand Rk's haunting blend of horror and jazz did to me. Blue in Green is a staggering achievement that reminded me that this medium's capacity for surprising new forms is endless.
The Department of Truth: James Tynion IV had another amazing year, but even among his other 2020 achievements his collaboration with Martin Simmonds on The Department of Truth stands out. Tense, inventive, and beautifully paced, I can honestly say this book delivered my favorite first issue of the year.
Dark Nights: Death Metal: If you read this column regularly, you know I'm a sucker for everything Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo set out to do with Death Metal, but that doesn't make it any less of an achievement. It's an epic, bombastic, face-meltingly good comic, and I'll be sad to see it go in just a few days.
Darth Vader: How Marvel has managed to launch three separate volumes of Darth Vader in five years that all turned out to be great is beyond me, but they've done it again with Greg Pak and Raffaele Ienco's run with the character. It's ambitious, dark, and infused with a level of mythic meaning that makes every issue hum like a lightsaber blade.
Dracula, Motherf***er!: Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson delivered an instantly iconic Dracula story and an instantly iconic piece of exploitation horror in the same breath, imbuing the mythology behind the world's most famous vampire with a fierce new energy that made me long for this book to be at least twice as long as it actually was.
The Dreaming: Waking Hours: The Sandman universe has always been a world of stories about stories, and with Waking Hours, G. Willow Wilson and Nick Robles proved that idea still packs monumental thematic and emotional power with this achingly gorgeous story of a rogue nightmare.
Far Sector: Months ago, I said that N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell's Far Sector might be the most relevant superhero book on the stands right now. Several months and new issues later, this story of a young Green Lantern out on the edge of the galaxy is still proving that statement true.
Lonely Receiver: Zac Thompson and Jen Hickman's Lonely Receiver is a constant surprise with each new issue, a truly haunting breakup story for the artificial intelligence age that's one of the most inventive comics I laid eyes on this year.
Lords of Empyre: Emperor Hulkling #1: I loved the whole Empyre event, but nothing within the main story could come close to the magic of this warm hug of a one-shot by Chip Zdarsky, Anthonly Oliveira, and Manuel Garcia. For me, it remains the perfect tie-in comic.
The Magic Fish: Trung Le Nguyen's The Magic Fish is one of the most beautifully crafted graphic novels I've read not just this year, but in recent memory. Every page is packed with gorgeous, emotionally resonant comics craft all wrapped into a sweeping-yet-intimate tale about the power of stories to shape our connections with the ones we love.
Marauders #13: Even among the greatness of X of Swords as a whole (more on that in a minute) I feel like I have to stop and talk about just how exceptional this issue from Vita Ayala and Matteo Lolli is. It's easily the best Storm story I've read in years, and she's not exactly an underserved character among the X-Men. It's a gem among gems.
Once & Future: There was always a chance that Kieron Gillen and Dan Mora's Once & Future would lose some of its urgency and shine after that initial high-concept buzz wore off, but 2020 has proven that's absolutely not the case. This is still a fantasy-horror delight month after month, and I'm honestly at a point where I hope it never ends.
The Plot: Tim Daniel, Michael Moreci, and Joshua Hixon's The Plot is set to wrap up its story with a final issue in February, and you should absolutely jump onboard and catch up before then. This creepy family saga remained one of the best horror comics on the stands throughout 2020, retaining a powerful aura that will resonate for at least a couple more months.
Reckless: It was already a good year for Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips comics thanks to stuff like Pulp, but then Reckless came along and blew the rest of their 2020 work out of the water. It's got swagger for days, and serves as another reminder that Brubaker and Phillips still have a case to make as perhaps the most consistently great team working in comics right now.
Slaughter-House Five: It still honestly feels like Ryan North and Albert Monteys did something impossible with Slaughter-House Five. They took a singular work of prose and somehow, against all odds of such an adaptation ever really pulling off the same magic, turned it into a singular work of comics. It's just gobsmackinly brilliant in its execution.
Stillwater: If you'd told me at the start of 2020 that Chip Zdarsky's best work of the year would be a new horror comic, I might not have believed you, but on top of exceptional work on titles like Daredevil he also managed to deliver an incredible new series launch alongside Ramon K. Perez. Stillwater is both one of the best new creator-owned books of 2020 and a must-watch title heading into 2021.
Superman Smashes The Klan: I don't know if I can possibly say anything about Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru's Superman Smashes the Klan that hasn't already been said, so I won't try. Instead I'll just say: It is absolutely as great as you've heard it is, and if you still haven't read it you should rectify that in the new year.
Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber spent 12 issues engineering one of the funniest, most creative, and most joyous explorations of a modern superhero universe in recent memory, and the result is a jolt of pure happiness that could never have been long enough for me. I still want more.
We Live: We live in a time when, perhaps unsurprisingly, new versions of post-apocalyptic futures are popping up in fiction all the time. For my money, as far as comics in 2020 are concerned, those futures never got brighter or more fun than We Live, Roy and Inaki Miranda's beautiful journey into a thrillingly uncertain late 21st century.
We Only Find Them When They're Dead: Sometimes, no matter how good an idea sounds, you just can't prepare yourself for how delighted you're going to be when you see the finished product. With We Only Find Them When They're Dead, Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo delivered exactly that kind of book, a high-concept cosmic thrill ride that floored me and would make Jack Kirby proud.
X of Swords: Giving some of the best mutant characters in Marvel Comics mythic swords and letting them slash it out in a tournament was always going to carry a certain allure for me, but I couldn't have imagined just how ambitious and strange this delightful event book would get. Jonathan Hickman, Tini Howard, Pepe Larraz, Mahmud Asrar and the entire X of Swords team did something monumental and beautiful with this crossover, and I suspect we'll still be finding new things to love about it in countless re-reads to come.
New Comics: Jinny Hex, Avengers enters the Phoenix, and more!
Now that we've talked about the best comics of the year, it's time to talk about the best comics of the week.
Jinny Hex Special #1: I've talked before about how the legacy aspect of the DC Universe is one of the strongest points of its design (even if that design was, at times, maybe a little accidental), and I love when DC Comics leans into that aspect of its characters, embracing decades of shifting stories and relationships to weave a larger tapestry in which characters are constantly learning and re-learning what it means to be a hero. When the right creative team gets their hands on a legacy character they can spin absolute gold out of those thematic explorations, but sometimes it takes a little while for those particularly rich narrative wells to be tapped.
That's, very happily, not the case with Jinny Hex Special #1, the new Young Justice spinoff one-shot from writer Magdalene Vissagio and artist Gleb Melnikov. It's a slightly oversized issue, clocking in at a little more than 40 total pages, but even with that in mind the sheer number of things it's able to accomplish in a single story -- narratively, aesthetically, emotionally, and beyond -- is rather astonishing. The issue follows the title character as she's trying to get a family business back on its feet, only to have her life suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious stranger claiming a family connection of his own. From there, a box of Hex family memories ultimately leads to a journey back to the Old West (because comics), a battle for the future of her family and her town, and of course, a sense of what might be next for Jinny Hex.
What drew me into this issue, apart from the intrigue of getting to see how a character like Jinny Hex was able to stand on her own, was the deep sense of lived-in warmth that permeates the pages. Vissagio's witty dialogue and Melnikov's effortless expressiveness convey right away a sense that these are not characters you barely know, but old friends you're getting to look in on, and it's a wonderful way to dig into a story like this. From there, though, the issue really starts to soar as it manages to lay bare everything from the more fantastical aspects of Jinny's legacy to the emotional choices beating at the core of this thrilling one-shot. It's a book that lays out a sweeping narrative agenda in the opening pages and then manages to pay off every single beat along the way, right up until an ending that's just begging to lead into a new ongoing series for the character. I hope that happens, because it would be an absolute joy to go back to Jinny's corner of the DC Universe.
Avengers #40: I'm generally rather in awe of Jason Aaron's ability to just keep remixing and refreshing various nooks and crannies of the Marvel Universe, even the ones many fans might consider long-since played out. It's the kind of thing that made his expansive Thor run such a joy, that made War of the Realms one of the best Marvel events ever, and has continued to make his Avengers run an absolute bright spot in the Marvel line.
Even with that in mind, though, I sometimes wonder if Aaron's brand of playful audacity will ever overstay its welcome, and a great many fans thought that might be the case when Marvel announced the next Avengers arc would be a battle over the Phoenix Force. Back when "Enter the Phoenix" entered the conversation, I was convinced that if anyone could pull such a thing off, it would be Aaron, and now that the first issue is out I'm happy to say that it seems he and artist Javier Garron have indeed managed to do something fresh, engaging, and thrilling with their version of the Phoenix story.
Rather than attempting to lay a lot of groundwork upfront (something that, to be fair, the prelude issue helped along at least a little), Aaron and Garron throw us right into the deep end of this story with a launch issue that follows Captain America's angle on the action as various friends and foes vie for the power of the Phoenix. Why they're fighting, what they hope will happen, and what the endgame for all of this is will have to wait, and that kind of anticipation-building structure does this issue a huge favor right away. It plays into what we already know (or think we know) about the Phoenix Force, into its hunger and power and boundless reach, so that we can focus on a very specific set of character perspectives that Aaron has already proven over and over again that he can write the hell out of. Throw in Garron's beautifully bombastic art, and you've got the start of something intriguing that's primed to send the Avengers into 2021 the right away.
Lost Soldiers #5: I love stories that remind me that, with the right attention to craft, we will never run out of new ways to revisit old themes. Lost Soldiers is a comic that, from a distance, you might think you can predict, because it's rooted in certain ideas about war and what it does to the men who fight it that are certainly well-trodden, if not tapped out. Trauma, repression, the impact of sustained violence on a human heart and mind if it goes unaddressed. These are all things we think we recognize from a thousand stories before, and so we think we can see what Lost Soldiers is about to do to our own hearts and minds.
Then you start reading and you find that writer Ales Kot and artist Luca Casalanguida are not just pulling themselves through the same trenches a thousand war comics have crawled through before. Instead they're dancing limbing up and over them, charging forward with new things to say about things we think we understand, making emotional and thematic and artistic leaps that make old things new again. Through parallel stories set 40 years apart, Kot and Casalanguida tell the tale of three men linked by wars past and present, and how one man's decades-old grudge threatens to spill over into something else entirely.
With each passing issue of this miniseries, whether they were documenting the bonds of brothers in arms or the heat of battle, Kot and Casalanguida added a new layer to our understanding of these characters and their struggles. With this, the series finale, they bring it all together in a monumental, stirring conclusion that trembles with thematic weight but never buckles under it. Whether we're talking about Kot's precise, bullet-tight scripting or Casalanguida's beautifully dense art, this is a stunning achievement in comics storytelling that reminds us of the power this medium can bring to bear on any genre.
Stranger Things: Science Camp #4: Like so many fans, I'm finding the wait for more Stranger Things to be a bit challenging, so I'm very glad there are comics out there to tide us over. Stranger Things: Science Camp is among the latest of these little side stories, and because it follows my personal favorite character from the series, Dustin Henderson, I was both very interested in it and a little worried about it. Of course, this is Jody Houser story, so it turns out I had very little reason to worry at all.
As you may have guessed if you're a fan of the show, Science Camp -- scripted by Houser with art by Edgar Salazar -- follows Dustin in the weeks before Season 3 as he spends his summer at Camp Knowhere, a summer camp specifically for science nerds where he just happens to meet his future girlfriend, Suzie. Of course, before Dustin can bond with a special girl and establish himself as something of a standout among the other campers, he first has to deal with the sudden emergence of an apparent masked murderer that's been taking out counselors left and right.
Houser has a knack, which she's also recently shown off with Doctor Who, to make these stories feel like their live-action counterparts without ever leaning too hard into simply copying beats or references, and she nails that again here. It feels like a Stranger Things story, more specifically a Dustin story, and there are even helpful flashbacks to keep us in tune with the feel of the series, but it never feels like some pale imitation. Salazar's engaging, often witty art certainly helps with that, as he manages to make the story feel like a hybrid of Stranger Things and camp slasher fare like The Burning, and together with Houser's words those sensibilities merge to make something vibrant and loaded with fun. It's a wonderful new entry into the Stranger Things canon, and if you've been missing the show I highly recommend picking up all four issues.
Dungeons & Dragons: At the Spine of the World #2: The great thing about Dungeons & Dragons is that, provided you stick to the paramenters of the particular version you're playing in, it can pretty much be anything you want, and the same is true of stories derived from the legendary RPG. If you're writing a D&D comic, for example, as long as the creatures look like the creatures and the world feels adequately infused with fantasy adventure, you really can take the story in just about any direction you want. That's a blessing, but it could also be a curse, as any given story meant for public consumption could just devolve into your own private version of a campaign you ran for you and your friends.
All of which is to say that crafting a fun Dungeons & Dragons story that will appeal to a wide readership is trickier than the blank canvas of the game makes it look, so it's always fun when a creative team manages to pull it off. So far, writers Aimee Garcia and AJ Mendez and artist Martin Coccolo are definitely pulling it off with At the Spine of the World, the story of an unlikely team of adventurers who venture out into a frozen landscape in search of hidden magic that could save their town.
The book looks stunning both as a rendering of D&D characters and creatures and as a fantasy adventure all its own, as Coccolo's pages lay out the individual personalities of each member of the party and the chaos of their battles with deft, clean beauty. Personality is also key to the success of Garcia and Mendez's script, which has to convince us not just to follow the story, but to follow these adventurers we've only just met. Though issue #1 does a great job of establishing each of them, issue #2 feels like the real test in that regard, and their script rises to meet it. The wit, tension, and warmth radiating through the party all carries the whole issue to becoming something special, something that feels like a proper D&D adventure while also appealing to casual fantasy fans. I can't wait to see where this goes in the next two issues of the miniseries.
And that's it for Comics Wire this week. Happy New Year. We'll see you in 2021, and until next time, remember what John Custer told his son Jesse in the pages of Preacher:
"You gotta be one of the good guys, son: 'Cause there's way too many of the bad."