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It’s beginning to look a lot like the holiday season, which means different things to different people. For some, it’s the opportunity to spend time with loved ones; for others, a chance to finally dig out Phil Spector’s Christmas album and stick it on repeat for the next month. The end of the year also means that it’s time to look back at the best releases of the past 12 months, which is where I come in. Below are nine of the best comic books to hit shelves in 2021, running the gamut from superhero movie source material to the memoir of one of America’s most beloved political figures of the past few decades.
Think of these as the ideal gift guide for the comic book lover in your life — even if that happens to be you.
I’m not sure that anyone really expected one of the year’s most touching, insightful looks at disability, bigotry and the human condition to be a collection of shorts about a world filled with various cyclopses (Cyclopii?) originally serialized on Instagram, but Aminder Dhaliwal’s follow-up to the wonderful “Woman World” is an utter joy from beginning to end: a book about navigating xenophobia and simple, well-intended misunderstandings on a regular basis while maintaining a sense of dignity — and a sense of humor — at the same time. Hilarious, sneakily subtle, and quite often, beautiful.
Years in the making, comics veteran Windsor-Smith returned to the medium with this mammoth revision of some familiar superhero comics tropes, as a U.S. military experiment to create a super-soldier results in something far less camera-friendly, leaving behind a mystery that will ruin multiple lives as it’s slowly uncovered across years. Filled with obsessively-detailed artwork and a pervasive sense of loss, “Monsters” is that rarest of things: a deconstruction of the superhero genre that gives to the source material more than it takes.
‘The Good Asia’
Talking of revisionist takes on genres we all know and love, “The Good Asian” takes a new look at film noir and private eye stories in general via a story set in 1930s San Francisco, where a Chinese-American detective’s efforts to solve a missing person case run afoul of… well, the racism that exists in 1930s America. Heavily researched and rooted in real life, the result is something that feels brand new and ground-breaking, while continuing to honor the traditions of the stories it draws on, both real and imagined.
‘Rorschach’ and ‘Strange Adventures’
These two projects by former “Batman” and “Mister Miracle” writer Tom King tell different stories, but ones that feel very much in conversation with each other; in “Strange Adventures,” the hero of an intergalactic war’s attempts to sell his version of events slowly fall apart as his trauma becomes more obvious, while Rorschach — set in the world of “Watchmen” — is about an attempted murder seeming committed by someone who was, themselves, a product of traumatic events. Taken separately, they’re impressive works featuring some stunning artwork; taken together, they’re some of the most essential pieces of superhero storytelling released in years.
Acclaimed sci-fi novelist Jemesin (“The City We Became”) makes her comic book writing debut with this dizzying take on the Green Lantern mythos, in which a human attempts to bring something resembling law and order to a distant part of the universe — hence, “far sector” — populated by A.I.s that feast on human internet memes and aliens that have worked to rid themselves of all emotion. There’s a lot more going on underneath the surface as should be expected in any murder mystery, but it’s Jemesin’s worldbuilding and Campbell’s amazing artwork that stand out in this book.
‘The Many Deaths of Laila Starr’
The title of this wonderful magical realist tale only hints at what’s within; Laila Starr, for example, isn’t just a regular person who happens to die more than once — she’s actually the Hindu personification of Death made mortal flesh, come to modern day Mumbai on a mission to maintain her very reason for being. But can Laila really take the necessary steps to prevent humanity from evolving into a whole new state of being, or will her own journey on Earth take her to places she couldn’t imagine?
‘Eternals Vol. 1: Only Death is Eternal’
Who really expected that, in the same year that the obscure 1970s comic became the next big Marvel Studios movie, a comic book revival of “Eternals” would mine new ground and redefine the entire concept, adding no small amount of tragedy to the core story to make it a truly Marvel idea. What price is too high to protect the world — and what happens when you’re not aware of who’s been forced to pay that price all along?
‘Run: Book One’
The first of three volumes making up a second graphic novel memoir by the late Lewis — almost entirely completed by the time of his death — “Run” picks up where “March” left off, with Lewis in the 1960s, dealing with the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act passing. With the counterculture picking up pace alongside long-overdue changes in the U.S.’s attitude towards race, it was only a matter of time before the pushback came…
What initially sounds like the set-up for a “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-style romp — a race against time to complete an archeological dig to uncover a religious artifact of great significance — is, in fact, the background for what might be Modan’s most political book yet, as both Israelis and Palestinians work in disputed territory in the Middle East to try and discover what might be a true conduit to God. Biting, bracing, and bold in both its satire and ambition, “Tunnels” is a book that works on multiple levels, and is successful on every single one.
‘Brink: Book Four’
Ignore the “Book Four” in the title; the latest installment of this British science fiction comic can easily serve as a standalone introduction to the series as a whole, and the sly sense of humor that pervades the “True Detective” meets “The Expanse” set-up of the whole thing. If the idea of a criminal investigation into a viral video that drives viewers insane on a planet that fines you every time you swear seems absurd and unsettling, that’s the point — and things only get stranger from there.