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TNIAAM’s top comic books of 2021

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We’ve been doing some reading, in case you wanted some recommendations.

Marvel Comic Books On Sale In Suzhou Photo by Guan Yunan/Visual China Group via Getty Images

It was a banner year for comic book fandom with four Marvel movies, five Marvel shows and we suppose DC did some things as well (can’t confirm). But even off-screen, there were plenty of impressive new stories told through comic books, and plenty of those weren’t related to the industry’s “big two” at all.

So while we certainly mention both Marvel and DC below, there’s also a spotlight on some of the year’s best individual comic book issues from independent publishers as well. Feel like there are books you want us or others to know about? Share your own picks below.

1. Something Is Killing the Children #14 (James Tynion IV/Werther Dell’edera)

James Tynion’s work has long been something to be noted and his combination with Dell’edera’s wonderful art style works amazingly for this unique concept book published by Boom Studios. If you haven’t checked out this series and are interested in branching out into the indie world, you’ll be sucked down a rabbit hole quite quickly. Don’t dive in here, as you can imagine, but the first three trades are out and are well worth grabbing leading up to this.

2. Way of X #5 (Si Spurrier/Bob Quinn)

For most of the Dawn of X era in Marvel canon, Kurt Wagner was left to the wayside. A fan favorite, Nightcrawler would “BAMF” in and out in minor snippets but not get any major page time. Si Spurrier changed that in Way of X and with Nightcrawler leading a philosophical and theological miniseries of X-Men proportions, the miniseries is a highlight for the modern X-Era and well worth a read.

3. Daredevil #28 (Chip Zdarsky/Marco Checcetto)

Zdarsky’s work on Daredevil has been one of the best things going at Marvel for the last few years, and issue 28 shows how much he’s willing to examine Matt Murdock as a man and a hero — and call everything he claims to stand for into question. The societal commentary here is earnest and populates future issues as well. But really, it’s well worth your time to read all 36 issues of this run.

4. The Many Deaths of Laila Starr #5 (Ram V/Filipe Andrade)

This is the last of five issues, so won’t get into too much detail to avoid spoiling. But basically, the series is about the Goddess of Death (basically) coming to grips with the meaning of life and the value of death. It sounds heavier than it is, and it’s rendered extremely well with light humor as well. Despite the subject matter, it’s also a quick read.

5. Human Target #1 (Tom King/Greg Smallwood)

This one just slays. There’s no two ways about it. The premise is that Christopher Chance is hired to disguise himself as those that may be the target of a murder attempt. He’s done it for a long time in the DC-sphere. Now the mastermind of Tom King gets to take first person narrative look at Mr. Chance on a wild ride of his own. This issue, as a stand alone and as a set up for what we’ve seen in the subsequent two issues is just absolutely amazing.

6. Moon Knight #3 (Jed MacKay/Alessandro Cappuccio)

Likely as a lead up to the upcoming live action series starring Oscar Isaac, Marvel relaunched Moon Knight, the street-level story of a former military operative with dissociative identity disorder possessed by the Egyptian god Khonshu. Seems normal and straightforward right? Well, add into that a new villain with some ties to Marc Spector and we’ve got ourselves a party.

7. Star Wars: The High Republic #2 (Cavan Scott/Ario Anindito)

The Star Wars: The High Republic launch has been a breath of fresh air in all of the media that is being put out surrounding it. The novels are good, the comics are good, everything is leading to a standout, novel voice in the Star Wars universe. Cavan Scott has crafted a nice corner to the world in this ongoing title as well, and while he’s stepping back after his current run, it was a good point to jump in on.

8. Amazing Spider-Man #80 (Cody Ziglar/Mike Dowling)

The entire “Beyond” run has been a welcome refresh to the title after Nick Spencer’s extended attempt to make Boomerang a thing, but issue #80 stands out for highlighting the best of the story so far. Ben Riley’s deep seeded character insecurities (and how they differ from Peter Parker’s) are front and center, brought to life with concise yet momentous writing. Additionally, the visuals are absolutely stunning, and while no one artist stays on the book for long, all of the art is some of the best on the rack at the moment and even if this whole story lands narratively flat, the art will be amazing.

9. The Me You Love In the Dark #4 (Scottie Young/Jorge Corona)

Knowing this story only lasts five issues, you expect the long-hinted turn before it comes in issue No. 4, but that doesn’t make it any less jarring to see happen. In essence, this is a ghost story. But there’s a lot more to it in terms of shaping how one identifies and defines themself by those around them or their work — and the importance of having a “you” without those external factors.

10. The Nice House On the Lake #1 (James Tynion IV/Alvaro Martinez)

Speaking of turns, The Nice House On the Lake gets to that in a hurry here in issue No. 1, and it’s a jarring reset of what you think the story will be about. Tynion does a great job across his more horror-specific stories of jump scares and growing danger as well. This first issue does a lot of work setting the stakes of this world and the horrors it entails, while also leaving a ton to the imagination about what’s next.

11. Strange Adventures #10 (Tom King/Mitch Gerads)

Admittedly, some of this is the “typical” Tom King formula for success — limited series, lesser male character, weird corner of their existence you never even considered. But Strange Adventures gradually unwraps a mystery around Adam Strange, and actually winds up centering heavily on Alanna Strange, his wife. Things come to a head in issue 10, and the focus on Alanna’s point of view keeps the intensity and anger up when paired with King’s writing and Gerads’s art.

12. Thor #11 (Donny Cates/Nic Klein)

Donny Cates may hold the “The best comics writer” belt at the moment, largely due to how well he has transitioned Thor off of Jason Aaron, the belt holder before him. “Prey” is a haunting story, and this issue plays up that tension with a romantic date between old friends intercut with foreboding panels that alter between B plots that feel like they could be A plots. Klein has nailed the Asgardian style with his own much darker twists that play extremely well here, and if you like this book you should read all of Thor today.

13. Hulk #1 (Donny Cates/Ryan Ottley)

I was a big fan of Immortal Hulk, but also felt like issue #50 (released earlier in 2021) just didn’t land as well as it could’ve given the epic that was sprawled out in the years prior. Hulk #1 seems to understand that, so it spends the entire first issue flipping the Hulk/Bruce Banner mythos on its head and then flinging it into the far reaches of what seems possible for the character. Credit to Cates and Ottley for really bringing to life a wacky and unsettling new take on a long-standing character right from the jump.

14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin #2 (Kevin Eastman/Peter Laird/Esau Escorza)

I know, I know, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles isn’t anything but bad movie reboots at this point right? Wrong. IDW has been putting out a really surprisingly good run of TMNT books for a while now. This however is a spinoff by the OG writing duo of Eastman and Laird and is the official “final story” in their arc of the Turtles. Lone Turtle, set in the future, avenging the loss of the rest of his family? It hooked me and it’s real well done and worth a read. The final book is actually coming out February 2022.

15. Non-Stop Spider-Man #1 (Joe Kelly/Chris Bachalo)

The first time I saw Bachalo’s art in his and Aaron’s “Doctor Strange,” I was captivated. His work on Non-Stop is just as breathtaking and dynamic, and the entire run plays with space and action in a way that feels very uniquely Spider-Man. It’s a huge reason why this book feels so action packed when the story (at first) is simply Spidey trying to figure out who is selling drugs to students at Empire State, and the opening comic sets the stage for a unique, dark, and action packed story that Kelly and Bachalo absolutely nail.

16. Avengers #43 (Jason Aaron/Javi Garron)

Garron is probably my favorite comic artist if only because he blends the old school “action dancing” with hyper dynamic anatomy that makes each character feel larger than life in a non-pouches and shoulder pads way. That talent is stretched to the max in a Battle Royal over the Phoenix Force that pits so many against each other, including Wolverine and Black Panther. The entire story ends with a bit of a head scratcher, but the build is fantastic character work that shows why Captain America and Black Panther are leading Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

17. Black Widow #5 (Kelly Thompson/Elena Casagrande)

Thompson’s one of the best writers in the game right now, and Black Widow #5 (along with the last issue of 2020, #4) is a great example around why. Given what Natasha is put through in the early going of this series, a married life plot line — we’ll leave it there to avoid spoiling — could be handled poorly in less deft hands. Instead here, it’s used to get to the heart of what makes the modern rendition of Nat compelling and damaged as a character, and why it’s also part of her strength.

18. Justice League: Last Ride #1 (Chip Zdarsky/Miguel Mendonca)

The true challenger for Cates’ “Best writer” belt is Zdarsky, and while his Daredevil has gotten plenty of critical acclaim, his Justice League story was a delight to read, as he somehow balances out the team in a fulfilling way while setting up the literal title of the book: After some tragedy that split the league, they have to reunite to protect Lobo at the location of the fallout. The whole run slaps, and it’s one I’d highly recommend in trade when released.

19. Iron Man #5 (Christopher Cantwell/Cafu)

Cantwell has done a great job doing what every comic writer tries to do when they say that they’re bringing a character back to the their basics in pitting Tony Stark against Korvac, and this issue delivers on tearing Tony Stark down in a way he hasn’t since those iconic comics playing up his alcoholism. What puts the book over the top is not just the fantastic art or the completely out of left field team up that somehow works, but the emotional stakes put into Hellcat that puts her just as much in the A story as Iron Man.

20. Once & Future #20 (Kieron Gillen/Dan Mora)

Arthurian legend? Turned on it’s head to modern times by Kieron Gillen? Great art by Dan Mora? Once & Future has been one I’ve (Steve) been pulling since the first issue, as the concept of it intrigued me and this latest arc continues to hit it out of the park. The former Uncanny X-Men (and current Immortal X-Men) writer is even better when he’s playing in his own sandbox.

Honorable mentions:

  • Stillwater #5 (Zdarsky/Perez)
  • X-Men #3 (Duggan/Larraz)
  • Spider-Woman #13 (Pacheco/Perez)
  • Department of Truth #5 (Tynion/Simmonds)
  • House of Slaughter #2 (Tynion/Dell’Edera)