Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Are these the best comics of 2021? Maybe, maybe not, but they’re on a list!

I like doing Best of the Year lists, and I always try to be comprehensive with my reviews, but then real life gets in the way and I don’t get to write reviews of everything I’ve read and I don’t even finish everything I bought before the end of the year, and then it’s late January and I think I should probably do a Best of the Year list, after everyone has already moved on. But I’m nothing if I’m not late to the party, so let’s go!

As I have mentioned in the past, I love “best-of” lists that act all authoritarian, as if the people making them have read every comic in the world when, in reality, they’ve only read everything Drawn & Quarterly published. I make no claims to authoritarianism, because if I did, I’d run for Senate as a Republican! But these are the best comic I read in 2021, with the usual disclaimers that I don’t count the many, many old reprints I did read, because those might have been the best comics of the year they were published! I won’t do what I did last year, which is include a bunch of artwork from the books. It’s getting late in the month and I just don’t have the time. I will link to the reviews I wrote, so if you want to check out some art, you can do that! Of course, some of these I didn’t review at all. Oh dear. Such is life. You’ll just have to take my word about the art in those books!

So here are my top 50 comics of 2021. Try to contain your excitement!

1. Monsters by Barry Windsor-Smith (Fantagraphics). BWS’s first comic in years is a repurposed Hulk story that he turned into a marvelous Frankensteinian tale, with themes of child abuse, racism, and military overreach shot through it. It’s a powerful story, and the art is absolutely magnificent, perhaps BWS’s best work. The dude is 72 years old, but still producing incredible work like this. Let’s hope it doesn’t take him another 30 years to complete another book! I reviewed this here.

2. Raptor by Dave McKean (Dark Horse). McKean’s art is as amazing as ever, and his story – about a character in a book who begins to interact with his writer and what becomes of that – is clever and insightful. It’s yet another very good creator at the top of his game. I wrote a review of this here.

3. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond by Dave Sim and Carson Grubaugh (Living the Line). Yes, Sim is a strange dude, and yes, there are two or three pages in this 300-page epic that will make you cringe because of his beliefs, and yes, Sim sees conspiracies in the jar of Nutella in his pantry, but this is a work of a mad genius, and it’s brilliantly done. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and Sim’s ramblings are entertaining even as you hope he’s taking his lithium. It’s a scene, man. I wrote a longer review here.

4. Die #16-20 by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles (Image). Gillen and Hans bring their role-playing comic to a close, and naturally, Gillen doesn’t do quite what we expect of him. He’s always good at having his plot flow from the characters, and he does so here, which makes it far more thoughtful and gut-wrenching because it’s coming from a place that feel real, and not driven by an outside agency. Hans’s gorgeous art remains stunning to look at, and I hope she does another series soon and doesn’t return to just doing covers. I wrote a bit more about this arc here.

5. The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This book is a bit of a return to form for Bechdel after the decent-but-not-great Are You My Mother?, as she delves into her own quest for physical perfection and what that says about herself. She also dives into the history of physical fitness, as well as putting her relationships under the microscope. Bechdel is a very talented creator, and so it was good to see her latest work. I wrote a review here.

6. The Department of Truth volumes 1 & 2 by James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, and Aditya Bidikar (Image). If only volume 1 came out this year, this might have been a spot or two higher, as volume 1 is absolutely wonderful, but volume 2 was just a bit less so, so the ranking slipped a little. I don’t make the rules, people! (Oh, wait a minute, yes I do.) Anyway, this is still a terrific series, with Tynion giving us a government agency that’s committed to stopping conspiracy theories from becoming real, which they do if enough people believe in them. Of course, there’s more going on, but that’s a great hook, and Tynion has been doing excellent work with it. Simmonds is a terrific artist, perfect for the tone of this book, and it’s nice to see him getting some higher-profile work. Give this sucker a try – it’s really keen. I wrote about volume 1 here and volume 2 here.

7. Die! Die! Die! #9-14 by Robert Kirkman, Scott M. Gimple, Chris Burnham, Nathan Fairbairn, and Rus Wooton (Image). Kirkman’s bonkers spy story is probably done with this second arc, but it goes out with a bang, as Barack Obama boxes an alien with the fate of the world at stake. It’s just that kind of comic. Burnham’s amazing art goes a long way toward making the insanity work. I certainly wouldn’t mind more of it! I wrote about these issues here.

8. Meadowlark by Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth (Grand Central Publishing). Hawke and Ruth’s second collaboration is a story about a kid whose father is somehow involved in a prison break, but the kid doesn’t know much until he gets swept along with his dad on one very bad day for all involved. It’s a gripping story with astonishingly beautiful art, and I’m hopeful these two team up again. I wrote about it here.

9. Friend of the Devil & Destroy All Monsters by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Jacob Phillips (Image). Brubillips released two Reckless books this year, but I only had time to review the first (which I did here). They’re both excellent, though, as you might expect. In the second one, Ethan alienates Anna, his assistant, and that subplot is very important to the book, especially as it leads into the next one, which should be out in March, I think? Anyway, these are terrific comics, and I hope the two gentlemen do many more than four (although I fear they might not, given what’s been going on in these two volumes). Check them out!

10. Strange Adventures by Tom King, Mitch Gerads, Evan Shaner, and Clayton Cowles (DC). King’s Adam Strange story, which is full of war, betrayal, romance, and hidden agendas, is an excellent comic set in a DC Universe that doesn’t feel quite right (which is one of the issues I had with it). But DC let King really tear apart Adam Strange’s life, which is never a bad thing, and the split of art duties between Gerads on Earth and Shaner on Rann works very well. I might not love King’s Batman work, but he does very well on these 12-issue stories about the more obscure DC characters they let him write! I wrote more about this collection here.

11. November volumes 1-4 by Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, Matt Hollingsworth, and Kurt Ankeny (Image). Only volume 4 came out in 2021, but I counted the entire thing, because that’s just how I roll. Fraction’s story of several women involved in seedy activities over the course of one night is well plotted and illuminates several interesting aspects of what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, and Charretier’s art, along with excellent coloring and superb lettering, make this a visual feast. It’s very keen. I wrote a longer review here.

12. Marvel Snapshots by a whole bunch of creators (Marvel). This journey through the Marvel Universe is fun, mainly because the creators tend to focus on “regular” folk, which I love, and while there’s plenty of action, the ordinariness of the characters comes through very well. Plus, the art is superb. I wrote more about this book here.

13. The Golden Age Book Two by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa (translated by Montana Kane) (First Second Books). I didn’t get a chance to review this, but the second (and final) part of Moreil’s and Pedrosa’s The Golden Age takes the wonderful set-up of the first book (which I did review, here) and gives us its logical extreme, as the usurped princess from the first book rebels against her brother while other rebels want to get rid of the monarchy entirely. It’s a tense war comic, as Tilda – our nominal heroine, although, like the other characters in the book, she’s far too complex for that label – tries to use what she learned in the first book and stay true to her goal, but finds that rather difficult. Pedrosa’s art is, as usual, stunning. This is a neat comic. Get them both and read them straight through!

14. Tunnels by Rutu Modan (translated by Ishai Mishory) (Drawn & Quarterly). Modan is an excellent creator, and in her latest work, she gives us a protagonist who believes she can find the Ark of the Covenant, but it’s underneath a Palestinian village, so she has to dig under the village to get to it. Many others get involved, including two Arabs whom she knew years before, when the land wasn’t quite as divided. It’s a fun adventure book, with a lot of subtext about the divisions in Israeli society and between the Jews and Muslims in the area. Modan isn’t stridently political about what’s going on, which of course makes this a very insightful look at the politics, and while there’s an underlying layer of sadness about the situation, the book isn’t dark and depressing. It’s a fascinating portrait of a divided land, a place everyone loves deeply but can’t figure out how to live in without hating the others around them.

15. Needle & Thread by David Pinckney, Ennun Ana Iurov, and Micah Meyers (Mad Cave Studios). This is a super YA comic about two people who bond over sewing. I know! Noah is a kid whose parents want him to go to UCLA so he can find a “real” career, but he wants to go to an art school so he can hone his sewing talent. His parents aren’t cruel to him about it, but they aren’t very supportive, either. Azarie is the daughter of the mayor, and she’s under a lot of pressure to be “perfect” when she just wants to nerd out as a cosplayer. They get together (not romantically, which is very cool) and decide to enter a cosplay contest at a comics convention, but of course the course of nerd bliss never runs true, and they have to overcome their parents’ pressures and the opprobrium of their friends (hers more than his, but still both) before they can do that. It’s a really well-written, well-drawn comic, and it’s nice that Pinckney avoids the stereotypes of this kind of thing even as the plot veers toward the familiar (the parents, the friends, the falling-out they have to have). I imagine this flew under the radar a bit, but it’s very good.

16. Ballad for Sophie by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia (translated by Gabriela Soares) (Top Shelf). While the plot of this book is nothing special – a pianist rises to fame and falls, and the book has a framing device in which a young reporter interviews him about his life as he slowly dies in a decrepit mansion – it’s the execution that makes it so good. Cavia’s art is wonderful, bringing Julien Dubois to fierce life as he moves from young prodigy to international star to cranky old man. His coloring is excellent, too, as he uses deep blues and vibrant reds to marvelous effect. Melo’s story is familiar, of course, but he tells it with such verve, and the small deviations he makes from the standard story are nicely done, as is the way the characters evolve, both in the past and the present. It’s a story you’ve read before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not told really well!

17. Friday Book One: The First Day of Christmas by Ed Brubaker, Marcos Martín, and Muntsa Vicente (Image). Brubaker decided to do a story about a teenage detective who grew up and moved away returning to town after her first semester in college, and the results are terrific. He uses the tropes of the teen detective story very well, and his two main characters, Friday Fitzhugh and Lancelot Jones, are fascinating archetypes who transcend their roots quite nicely. The mystery Friday gets dragged into is weird and creepy, and Martín, naturally, is excellent on art. It ends on a nice cliffhanger, and I’m looking forward to more!

18. The Immortal Hulk volumes 8-10 by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Alex Lins, Rachael Stott, Ruy José, Belardino Brabo, Matt Milla, Paul Mounts, Chris O’Halloran, and Cory Petit (Marvel). Ewing’s weird body horror comic has been the best ongoing Marvel has done in the past few years, and while it ends a bit weakly because Ewing couldn’t take the Hulk off the board completely, it’s still brilliant, and this past year saw it come to a fairly good end despite Ewing having to stay in the sandbox. Ewing took some familiar faces – the Leader most notably – and did some nice things with them, and Bruce’s parental trauma is always a good well to dip into. Bennett’s art is terrific, too. It’s just a very good examination of one of the weirder major heroes in Marvel’s arsenal. I reviewed the three trades here, here, and here.

19. Black Widow volumes 1 & 2 by Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, Rafael De LaTorre, Elisabetta D’Amico, Jordie Bellaire, Carlos Gómez, Federico Blee, and Cory Petit (Marvel). Looking to take over from Immortal Hulk as Marvel’s best ongoing is Thompson’s Black Widow, which is very good. The first trade, in which Natasha finds herself married with a child, is excellent, as she gets her life ripped away and takes her revenge, while the second, in which she begins assembling her own team of ass-kicking women, continues the awesomeness. Casagrande’s line work and layouts are amazing, and the book looks great, from the pencil work to the coloring. I hope Kelly gets to write this for a long time. I reviewed the trades here and here.

20. Home Sick Pilots volumes 1 & 2 by Dan Watters, Caspar Wijngaard, and Aditya Bidikar (Image). Watters’s story about the government weaponizing ghosts is weird and interesting, and the fact that he’s using young people as his protagonists makes the discord better, as we get the protagonists’ natural skepticism butting heads with the way the government is using them and the ghosts. It’s not exactly a frightening book, but it can be chilling, and Wijngaard’s superb, precise line work and coloring give the book a unique and creepy look. I reviewed the two trades here and here.

21. Crossroads at Midnight by Abby Howard (Iron Circus Comics). Howard gives us several horror stories of people at metaphorical crossroads and how some of them make the worst possible choices, and it’s very creepy and excellent. She hints at a lot, which always makes horror better, and her rather quiet artwork helps create a “real” world that feels violated when the horror intrudes. It’s a terrifically weird and disturbing book. I wrote a longer review here.

22. Far Sector #1-12 by N.K. Jemisin, Jamal Campbell, and Deron Bennett (DC). Jemisin’s Green Lantern story took its sweet time coming out, but it was worth it, as she did a terrific job with a tale that, at times, felt a bit too relevant (as in, Jemisin was leaning too hard into it) but which is still a great sci-fi yarn. Green Lantern Jo Mullein is trying to solve a murder on a distant world during a time of civic unrest and also trying not to get too involved in said civic unrest. It’s a powerful story, and Campbell’s art is really good. Who doesn’t love a good mystery in space? I wrote about this here.

23. The Book of Maggor Thoom by James Turner (SLG). Turner gives us his usual wacky take on a serious(-ish) subject, as a demon from hell loses his enthusiasm for his soul-collecting job and decides to head to Earth to see if he can regain it. Hilarity ensues. As usual with Turner, the humor is tinged with a nice pathos, making it occasionally more thoughtful than laugh-out-loud funny (although there’s a good amount of that, too), and his art is a bit rougher than usual, but it’s still marvelously funky. I didn’t get a chance to review this, but if you’re a fan of Turner, you’ll dig this, and if you’ve not seen his work, here’s a good place to start!

24. American Ronin by Peter Milligan, ACO, David Lorenzo, Dean White, and Sal Cipriano (AWA). Milligan’s cool assassin story is neat, as he takes a fairly standard plot – the killer turning against his employers – and gives it a nice spin, with a sci-fi bent and some interesting identity problems, which has been Milligan’s bread-and-butter for decades now. The art is superb, too, so there’s that. I don’t know if we’re getting more (the book ends with a hint at it), but this volume stands more or less on its own. I wrote a bit about this comic here.

25. The Shadows by Zabus and Hippolyte (translated by Matt Madden) (Dark Horse). This story of immigrants trying to get to the Promised Land is depressing, sure, as lots of people die along the way, and it’s not even that terribly uplifting at the end, so you might be bummed out by it, but it’s a gripping tale, one that’s relevant today without being overly obnoxious about it (like Far Sector veers toward a few times). The art is excellent, too. I wrote a longer review here.

26. Jeanne & Modigliani: Paris in the Dark by Nadine van der Straeten (translated by Renou Aaron Benteau) (Black Panel Press). In this book, we get the relationship between the artist and his muse (who was a terrific artist in her own right), told mostly from her perspective, and it’s a tragedy on many levels. It’s a fascinating book with beautiful art, and I wrote quite a bit about it here.

27. The Dreaming: Waking Hours by G. Willow Wilson, Nick Robles, Javier Rodriguez, M.K. Perker, Matheus Lopes, Chris Sotomayor, and Simon Bowland (DC). DC keeps bringing back Sandman properties, but that’s okay as long as they get good people to work on them, and Wilson’s arc on The Dreaming is a good one. A dream falls in love with a mortal, so he escapes the Dreaming to find him, and a witch goes to Faerie to sort some things out. And, of course, there’s Todd, the Character Find of 2020/2021. TODD NEEDS HIS OWN SERIES!!!!! Take a look at my review here.

28. Taskmaster: The Rubicon Trigger by Jed MacKay, Alessandro Vitti, Guru-eFX, and Joe Caramagna (Marvel). If you don’t like Taskmaster and White Fox as much as I do, you might not like this as much, but it’s a terrific adventure, with a fun MacGuffin and our hero just trotting the globe kicking ass and cracking jokes. Just a lot of coolness going on. Take a look at my initial review here.

29. The Delicacy by James Albon (Top Shelf). This is story of two brothers who move to London, one to open a restaurant, the other to farm (he lives a bit outside London) and the mushrooms they discover that help make their dreams come true. It’s an insightful story of celebrity culture, the price of fame, and what ties us to others, and it’s quite gripping. I wrote a review here.

30. Iranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard and Deloupy (translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger) (Graphic Mundi). This is a powerful book in which journalist Deuxard went to Iran and interviewed young people – the oldest one is 30 – about being in love (or lust) in a very sexually repressive country. It’s fascinating, because it’s not what you expect. Obviously, the people find ways to fuck, and they’re not terribly shy about admitting it … although it’s possible because Deuxard is a foreigner and they know they won’t get in trouble, as I imagine being so frank about their sexual activities around Iranian authorities would not go well. One woman talks about what a paradise Iran is for women, because men are expected to take care of them and they don’t have to work, so it’s awesome. Deuxard brings up the hypocrisy of the ruling mullahs a few times, as these profoundly religious men have a scheme whereby they can “marry” someone temporarily just so they can fuck them. It’s a very interesting book, and even with the openness of the subjects with an interviewer who’s not going to report them, there’s a depressing sense of menace and secrecy, as even the woman who loves Iran is flaunting the sex laws and would be imprisoned if anyone knew about it. It’s a somewhat sad look into a police state and the willingness of people to make accommodations to that state even as they don’t agree with it. It’s a very keen comic.

31. Mountainhead by John Lees, Ryan Lee, Doug Garbark, and Shawn Lee (IDW). This is a nice horror story about a boy who was abducted years earlier and has been returned to the family he never knew, who live in a mountain town where bad things are beginning to happen. It’s a good hook, and Lees makes sure the domestic drama is as strong as the horror. Nice art, too. I wrote about this here.

32. Muhammad Ali, Kinshasa 1974 by Jean-David Morvan, Abbas Attar, Rafael Ortiz, Hiroyuki Ooshima, (translated by Jessica Burton) (Titan Comics). Morvan did this comic about Abbas and the photographs he took of the famous fight, but that wouldn’t have sold, so they stuck Ali’s name on it. Ali is the focus of the photos (poor Foreman gets the short shrift a bit), and this is a gripping and fascinating look at the photographer and how he related to Ali. The photos in the book are very good, as is Ortiz’s dynamic art. I wrote a review here.

33. Wika by Thomas Day, Olivier Ledroit, and Jessica Barton (translated by Christopher Pope) (Titan Comics). An orphaned fairy leads a rebellion against the king is not the most unique story, but Day does nice work with it, and Ledroit’s ornate, baroque art is staggering. This is a beautiful comic. I wrote about it here.

34. Ice Cream Man volume 6: Just Desserts by W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Chris O’Halloran, and Good Old Neon (Image). This entire series has been good, but volume 6 rose above the rest, with the Watchmen parody the highlight of the collection. I’m still surprised Prince has been able to do this series for as long as he has and still deliver quality stories, but there it is. I wrote a review of this here.

35. Fly by Night by Tara O’Connor and Triona Tree Farrell (Random House Graphic). O’Connor gives us a nifty YA book about a girl who returns to the New Jersey town where she grew up after her twin sister disappears in the Pine Barrens (she doesn’t live there because her parents divorced and she went with her dad while her sister stayed with her mom). She tries to solve the mystery and gets involved with … the Jersey Devil? Ah, but is it really? Meanwhile, some evil rich dude is trying to develop the land, which of course the good hippies in town are against. It’s a nice quasi-coming-of-age story, with a lot of moving parts that O’Connor does a good job with, and it’s heartfelt and tragic in places and it shows people learning some tough lessons. O’Connor hasn’t done a bunch of comics, but she’s quite good at them.

36. Salt Magic by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock (Margaret Ferguson Books/Holiday House). Speaking of YA books, Larson and Mock reunite for this book, in which a girl in Oklahoma can’t wait for her brother to come back from World War I, but she’s disappointed because he’s changed so much (he’s grown up, of course). After he marries, he’s cursed by a witch, and his sister has to go on a quest to lift the curse. It’s a gripping story, and it doesn’t quite go where you think it will, and Larson gives us a bunch of fascinating characters. Mock is a fine artist, and her renditions of the strange places Vonceil visits are wonderful and a bit creepy. This is a nifty comic.

37. Heroes Reborn: America’s Mightiest Heroes by Jason Aaron and a bunch of artists (Marvel). I’m a big proponent of letting good creators loose on superheroes without worrying about continuity or telling a longer story, and Aaron doing the Squadron Supreme with a bunch of good artists – McGuiness, Keown, Kuder, Guera, and STOKOE!!!!! among them – is just the ticket. Ostensibly, there’s a bigger story here, but each chapter could easily stand on its own. It’s just a fun superhero jam. I reviewed it here.

38. The Secret Land #1-4 by Christopher Emgård, Tomás Air, and Mauro Mantella (Dark Horse). I would have liked this to be maybe five issues, because it felt a bit rushed, but it’s still a keen series in which a woman infiltrates the Nazi command in Antarctica at the end of the war, where they’re trying something occult-y and therefore wildly dangerous. Things get weird. It’s a cool thriller with good art. What’s not to dig? I reviewed it here.

39. The Silver Coin volume 1 by Michael Walsh, Chip Zdarsky, Kelly Thompson, Ed Brisson, Jeff Lemire, and Toni Marie Griffin (Image). Walsh’s interesting series about a cursed coin that various people pick up over the years and the horrible things that befall them benefits from his excellent art and the very good writers he got to write each chapter, as they indulge their horror inclinations to the fullest. I’m still not entirely sure how he can do more stories, but I’m looking forward to reading them! I reviewed this here.

40. Bermuda #1-4 by John Layman, Nick Bradshaw, and Len O’Grady (IDW). Layman’s adventure tale is fun as all heck, and I really hope there’s more (there could be, but this still stands somewhat on its own), because I like Layman and want him to get the monies. His story of a boy stranded on a strange island in the Bermuda Triangle, where he befriends a young woman named Bermuda, who helps him get back home, is not the most unique thing in the world, but Layman knows how to tell it. Bradshaw’s art is phenomenal, as you knew it would be. Everything works! I wrote a bit about this here.

Forty comics feels about right, doesn’t it? I could go to 50, but 40 is about 10% of my total for the year, and that feels pretty good. These aren’t all the good comics I did buy – I know we don’t show tags here at the blog, but I still use them, and you can check out my “strongly recommended” tag (all of the ones I “strongly recommend” are on this list) and my “recommended” tag (only some of those show up in this post) in case you want to see other things this year that I really liked. I also review the trades I get at the “What I Bought” category (which is different from tags!), in case you want to check those out.

So that’s my list. It might not be comprehensive and the comics on it might suck, but that’s the way life goes, I guess. I hope you find something here that you might like or that you missed the first time I wrote about it (as I note, I didn’t write about everything I bought, but every year that’s my goal!), because everyone likes finding new and groovy comics, right?


  1. tomfitz1

    BURGAS; I probably read 7 or 8 titles on your list.

    I have to agree with you on # 1 – MONSTERS.

    Just can’t believe that it took BWS 30 years to do this.
    What was he doing the rest of the time? lol

    Read the Brubaker books except for NOVEMBER. Anything he does is usually pretty damn good.

    The rest of the list, maybe I’ll read them, maybe not. Life is too short to read everything.

  2. Der

    I’m thinking of adding The Strange Death of Alex Raymond to my wishlist* it appears bonkers in a good way. I haven’t read anything by Sim but your review made me interested

    *Wich means that the title will stay in my wishlist for years and never get bought and one day I will ask myself why I put this there and then continue to ignore it forever

    1. Peter

      I just got SDoAR last week and it’s an interesting experience so far (I’m about halfway through). It is one of the densest comics I’ve read in the last couple of years. I would recommend it, though it is certainly a bit bonkers. There is just so much going on (on the page and behind it) that it’s extremely interesting even if, like me, you’ve never really read any Sim nor classic Raymond/Foster/Caniff strips.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.