While historically ‘best of’ lists are best suited at year’s end, the reality is that waiting until then actually leaves some doubt throughout the year itself what is considered great as it’s happening. With that in mind, throughout 2021, I’ll be regularly updating Comic Book Herald’s best comics of 2021 guide, so that the work can function as a check-in for your next series to read, and by year’s end, a summary of everything we recommend.
Related Best Of Lists:
Below you’ll find all the best comics released primarily in 2021. See a graphic novel or series you love missing from the list? Let us know in the comments!
The Best Comic Books of 2021!
I’m blown away by the confidence, focus and creative synergy in The Department of Truth, the Image Comics series from James Tynion IV, Martin Simmonds, Aditya Bidikar and editor Steve Foxe. The series tackles the nature of conspiracy theories, in a world where belief in various real-world conspiracies transfers to manifesting those false ideas into reality. So flat-earth rallies lead to helicopter rides to the true edge of the world, and false flag school shootings lead to one of the most heartbreaking and chilling comics I’ve read.
To keep conspiracy from overtaking truth, there’s The Department of Truth, one part Men in Black, one part Planetary. Creating a platform to explore the insidious nature of conspiracy in modern culture is one thing, but managing to make it horrific, entertaining, mysterious, and engaging? That’s some good comics.
Check out Comic Book Herald’s full review of the Best New Graphic Novel!
Ice Cream Man has been on some version of my best of lists since 2018, and since 2020 the title of Comic Book Herald’s favorite ongoing series is Ice Cream Man’s to lose. W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, and Chris O’Halloran are simply the most inventive creative team in comics on an issue-by-issue basis.
Elsewhere, Haha is very much a spiritual spinoff, with writer W. Maxwell Prince shifting his unique brand of surreal philosophy from cosmic Ice Cream Men to all manner of costumed clowns. The darkness of the Ice Cream Man universe certainly follows, although Prince and his new-artist-per-issue collaborators play the stories a bit straighter, less reliant on a conceptual hook, or interconnected supernatural flavor of the day.
For more, check out my interview with W. Maxwell Prince!
Ritesh Babu: Ed Brubaker’s been having a tremendously successful few years now. But amidst all of them, Friday is perhaps the most overlooked, being a Panel Syndicate release without buzz. But it is perhaps the writer at his best, in a really fun spin on the Kid Detective Story. Brought to life by the spectacular Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente, it’s a really lovely ‘Well whatever comes after the story?’ take that looks at those middle-grade books through a new prism. It’s not particularly new, as it’s been done before in prose, but it is a really refreshing read in comics that just transports you away. It’s the most ‘different’ endeavor from Brubaker’s other works of the period, and is the kind of thing you could hand to just about anyone.
Aminder Dhaliwal’s graphic novel satirization of society’s discriminations and treatment of marginalized communities is an almost impossible blend of scathing, hilarious, and heartfelt. In her Drawn & Quarterly follow-up to 2018’s Woman World, Dhaliwal imagines a universe full of Cyclopes, where a primary “othering” occurs based on how many eyes an individual has.
The satire is incredibly strong – there’s a page in particular about who gets to write minority literature that I haven’t stopped thinking about – but honestly, it’s the structure that blows me away the most. Cyclopedia Exotica is almost entirely two-page vignettes, oscillating between the lives of various Cyclops, and the majority of the time it’s set-up, set-up, punchline. There are exceptions that elevate the work, but the bulk of its 225 pages find Dhaliwal trying to land a comic strip gag every two pages, and the success rate is astonishingly high for that kind of volume. Easily one of the best graphic novels of the year, and one I expect we’ll see on ‘must read’ lists for a long time to come.
For more, check out my interview with Aminder Dhaliwal!
Even if Wake wasn’t gorgeously illustrated by Hugo Martinez, in a remarkable showcase of artistic styles to imbue historical excavation with wonder, it would still be an essential document of Dr. Rebecca Hall’s years-long journey to uncover the role of women in slave revolts throughout American history. Dr. Hall’s commitment to uncovering these ignored, undocumented, and regularly erased stories is remarkable, as is the seamless and imaginatively rendered graphic novel. While certain privilege can help many of us feel like slavery is in the long dead past, works like Wake work to achieve a message similar to Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred; a regular reminder that we are, all of us, living in the wake of slavery.
For more on Wake check out my interview with Dr. Hall!
N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell’s excellent addition to the long history of DC’s Green Lantern mythos feels mildly like cheating because it’s a 12 issue series that has taken long enough to come out that it’s been on the CBH best of lists since 2019! Nonetheless, the story of Jo Mullein is excellent enough that it warrants a recommendation as long as the work’s in production, and I hope for comics’ sake, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Jemisin and Campbell in the medium.
Juni Ba’s TKO Studios graphic novel is an artistic delight, navigating the sweet spot between West African folklore, Samurai Jack, and Hellboy. Few works balance the delicate underutilized reference points of Ba’s Senegalese heritage with this much thrilling action, adventure, and anthropomorphic warthogs and foxes in dire need of comeuppance. The cartooning and vibrant splahses and hand-written sound effects bring to mind the thrill of Daniel Warren Johnson, but in his most significant writing to date, Ba proves an incredibly thoughtful storyteller, full of heart and subtlety.
For more, check out my interview with Juni Ba!
While I’m sure I would have enjoyed Scarenthood years ago, the post-kids experience definitely sends this four issue miniseries from Nick Roche and Chris O’Halloran soaring up my favorites. Equal parts the comedy of getting to know other parents at daycare, and the horror of unleashing an eldritch evil underneath their school (ok, only one of those is particularly familiar), Scarenthood is immaculately constructed and one of the most charming comics I’ve read this year.
For more, check out my interview with Nick Roche!
When I asked CBH writers to contribute to 2020’s year-end best of list, I was surprised when Sara Century added an entry for TMNT. For whatever reason, the turtles have remained far off my radar throughout most of my comic obsessive years, always on the backburner of something I’d like to dig into if only I had the time. This despite the fact that growing up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably trailed only X-Men for childhood fandom favorites.
Well, I’m glad Sara made the recommendation because the latest era of TMNT – “Turtles Reborn” by writer/artist Sophie Campbell – is absolutely wonderful. Even with only passing familiarity to the “City at War” event that proceeds this era, I was able to dive in and fully enjoy the new status quo for the turtle-verse. It’s an incredibly thoughtful, rich set-up for story, with amazing character work. Campbell’s writing and interiors are a perfect fit for this franchise, and I hope to continue reading this era of TMNT as long as it lasts!
For more on TMNT check out my interview with Sophie Campbell!
Matt Fraction, Elsa Charretier, and Matt Hollingsworth’s four issue graphic novella cycle concludes with 2021’s November IV, bringing all the chronologically disparate pieces fully into focus.
Check out Comic Book Herald’s “Best New Graphic Novel” full review!
Getting into Canto from David M. Booher, Drew Zucker, Deron Bennett & IDW Publishing is one of my favorite moves of the entire year. The sophisticated all-ages fairy tale follows the clockwork knight, Canto, as he attempts to free his people from the magical enslavement of The Shrouded Man. The irony that Canto and the clockwork knights have had their hearts replaced with ticking clocks is not lost, as Canto’s bravery and sheer fortitude in the face of the impossible is delightfully charming. Canto draws inspiration from “The Wizard of Oz,” and Dante’s “Inferno,” but in modern comics terms, it’s very much in the conversation with Bone, Amulet, and Klaus.
Who would want to live forever? Stillwater by Chip Zdarksy, Ramon Perez, and Mike Spicer is far from the first time anyone’s asked the question, but it’s one of the most memorable answers in recent memory, distilling the prospect down to a single small town, and their mysterious never-ending, never-changing lives. Zdarsky’s post Sex Criminals comics career is off to a fascinating start, with the strong opening of a run on Stillwater, plus the continued intrigue of his classic-in-the-making work on Daredevil (not to mention, TONS of other projects).
You don’t have to say more than “punk rock haunted house” to get my interest, but a creative collaboration between Dan Watters, Caspar Wjingard, Adita Bidikar and team certainly doesn’t hurt. early in the run, Home Sick Pilots is a brilliant blend of teenage angst, found family, and supernatural legacy begging to welcome you inside.
The full Comic Book Herald “Best New Graphic Novel” review!
Ritesh Babu: What is it like when the fantasies of your youth haunt you in your adulthood? It’s a pertinent question, particularly as we live in a nostalgia-driven culture. But Die takes that and runs with it to consider everything from the changed priorities over the ages to intimate questions of identity, even pertaining to gender. Who are we? Who do we tell ourselves we are? And who do we want to be, really? And what is the price of it all? What does that make us? These are all questions Kieron Gillen’s work has long been obsessed with, and here, along Stephanie Hans, they’re rich fodder for a glorious 20-issue ride across the realms of fantasy.
Ritesh Babu: If Die is the depressive and more ‘serious’ rumination upon conceits very personal to Kieron Gillen, then Once & Future is the deeply dumb action adventure serial alternative. But make no, mistake, this is Dan Mora’s show. Mora is, of course, the premiere artist of the current moment and this is his great, big concert. It’s a comic wrestling with the eerie nature of narratives, how they warp, how they can be warped, and who gets to do the warping, all in a post-Brexit context reckoning with nationalism and British identity. But does it also have The Questing Beast and cartoonish silliness? Also yes. This is Kieron Gillen doing what Grant Morrison did before him–submitting to the blockbuster grandeur, genuine warmth and stylish brilliance of Dan Mora’s cartooning. This is Gillen at his most mainstream, accessible, and just plain fun. And it’s one of the best things running.
Recommendation #2: My interview with writer Tate Brombal on all things Barbalien!
Rory McConville, Joe Palmer, Chris O’Halloran and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou team up for an incredible effective, impossible to put down tale of two brother hitmen trying to wrap up one last job before retirement. I gave this graphic novel a peek just to see if it would be up my alley, and an hour later I was wrapping up the entire affair. The worlds of organized crime families will ring true for fans of everything from Fargo to Boondock Saints, but it’s McConville and Palmer’s characterization throughout that sells this is a lot more than an “another” crime drama. The cover for the graphic novel is by Declan Shalvey, which honestly makes a lot of sense considering 2020’s Bog Bodies is one of the most recent comparisons that stood out to me as well.
Kat Leyh is a singular creator, coming fresh off 2020’s hit Snagdragon and churning out a more adult (and substantially boozier) focus on three mermaids who go out for a night on the (human) town and get stuck with legs. It’s a wonderfully produced graphic novel, full of humor, seriously diverse character work, and heartwarming friendship.
For more, check out my interview with Kat Leyh!
I’ve never been a boxing fan, and honestly, that’s a big part of the appeal of learning more about Muhammad Ali through this experimental work of comics and photojournalism. The graphic novel from Titan Comics combines the comics work of Jean-David Mornaz and Rafael Ortiz, and merges it with rare photos by Abbas of Ali’s fight against George Foreman in Zaire, 1974, aka “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The end result is a unique work of varied histories, culminating in one of the biggest sporting events of the 70s. I’m not sure how additive this book would be for an Ali or boxing fan – or for an Abbas fan for that matter – but as someone with limited knowledge of either, I found it completely fascinating.
Check out Comic Book Herald’s review of the Best New Graphic Novel!
The really incredible thing about the Chip Zdarsky era of Daredevil isn’t just that it’s fantastic, but that – especially when combined with series regular Marco Checcetto – it’s perpetually making a case that it’s the very best Marvel Comic in the entire house of ideas. The build from issue one to twenty-five, with an astounding “One More Day” annual thrown in for good measure, is just a masterclass in rising stakes, thematic evolution, and character work. 2021 issues of Daredevil kick off with King in Black tie-ins, a possible death-knell for an ongoing run, yet Zdarsky and company simply don’t miss a beat, integrating the Venom-based insanity of the main event seamlessly into their tale of Daredevil, Kingpin, Elektra and Hell’s Kitchen.
For more, check out my interview with Chip Zdarsky!
Take Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” and replace chess with bare-knuckle boxing, and the setting with 18th century London, and you’ve got yourself the framing for Legendary Comics’ Championess. Kelly Zekas, Tarun Shanker, and Amanda Perez Puentes craft one of the most obviously silver screen ready “based on a true story” narratives I’ve read this year, the story of Elizabeth Wilkinson making a name for herself as a boxer.
The adapted history is fascinating in and of itself, but it’s Zekas and Shanker’s personality and humor written into the main character that drive the graphic novel. Elizabeth is a wonderful character, and the addition of a mixed race heritage adds layers of complexity and relevance to her rise to earn respect in her chosen sport.
For more, check out my interview with Kelly Zekas and Tarun Shanker!
Honestly, at a certain point, I’m borderline embarrassed with how many Vault Comics new series launches I want to include on year-end best ofs. I’ve been called a ‘Marvel Shill’ (I wish!), but I have this weird internal resistance to promoting literally everything Vault does as potential year-end best of quality. I’m my own free-thinking pound of beefcake, ya know?
And yet, Vault’s internal quality filter is insanely good, and the reality is the publisher simply knows how to combine some of the best creators in comics with excellent concepts, and in the case of I Walk With Monsters, subtle, twisting horror. I already knew I liked Paul Cornell’s writing an awful lot (what’s up, Captain Britain & MI13!), but Sally Cantirino’s art that completely blows me away, and sells me on yet another Vault book on the best of 2021.
For more, check out my interview with the whole creative team!
David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson’s historical graphic novel is an essential dive into the nuance and depth of America’s Black Panther Party. Personally, I had a very limited understanding of what the Black Panthers actually did, with my perception of the party shrouded mostly in vague ideas of militancy and violence. Which, as I read this graphic novel, is also exactly the intent of then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and the government’s cointelpro operations destabilizing and diminishing the party at every turn.
The history of the Panthers is not easy, and Walker and Anderson do a great job painting a full picture, warts and all, while highlighting the underdiscussed social good, the irrefutably complicit role of law enforcement, and extremely relevant points the party was founded on. As Walker writes in the afterword, “It is perfectly fine if, after reading this book, you’re not sure how you feel about the Panthers or you have mixed emotions.” This was my experience, but crucially, I have a lot more information to inform these emotions now.
I would also recommend Run as a strong companion piece to the Black Panther work, as the histories overlap. Run is the sequel to March, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury and Nate Powell. I anticipate that when the Run trilogy is complete, it will be every bit as vital as March.
Written by academy-award winning John Ridley, the Black Label prestige series The Other History of the DC Universe has been hotly anticipated since it was announced literal years ago. Miraculously, the work has lived up to the hype, with Ridley and Guiseppe Camuncoli teaming up to reframe DC’s enormous shared history through the lens of minority heroes like Black Lightning and Mal Duncan.
In what might by the least accessible work of writer Jonathan Hickman to date, we find instead one of the most rewarding, rereadable sci-fi explorations I’ve read in comics. Decorum is the hard science fiction world-building fans of Powers of X have been waiting for the return of in X-Men comics. The eight issue comics’ willful abrasions make the text nearly unknowable until the story is complete in full, apart from the escalating realization that artist Mike Huddleston is operating on another level. Watching Huddleston interrogate and explode the basic tenets of sequential storytelling feels like what I imagine readers experienced with the likes of Bill Sienkiewicz in the 1980s.
James Harren is an incredible artistic talent, making a formal writer/artist debut in Ultramega. The “Invincible for Kaiju” first issue is one of the best opening chapters to a new series I’ve read in a few years, and promises an amazing visual spectacle and world full of mysterious giant-sized powerups.
Writer Stephanie Phillips is one of my favorite up-and-coming creators in comics, and her latest from Aftershock Comics with artist Tony Shasteen is a great example why. Nuclear Family takes the alt-history nuclear fallout premise, and adds substantial layers of unexpected intrigue and mystery, consistently taking the story of post-“the bomb” Milwaukee to new and surprising places. Plus, the marriage of 1950s into the 60s science fiction with satirical historical back matter (like how to identify a Communist!) gives Nuclear Family a unique voice and position in comics this year.
Ram V’s one of the most exciting creators in comics, and this Boom Studios collaboration with Filipe Andrade has all the makings of a possible classic right from its first issue. Fans of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and American Gods may be particularly interested, but there’s much more going on here than a creative unit playing with mythology.
I’m not surprised that I like SWORD by Al Ewing, Valerio Schiti, Marte Gracia and their X-Men line collaborators, but I am surprised how rapidly the focus on Marvel’s mutant space program launched into my absolute favorite comics. The first issue of SWORD packs a punch like the finest moments of House of X / Powers of X, and Ewing is firing in 2021 in a way he never has before (which is saying something for a storyteller known for the likes of Ultimates and Immortal Hulk!). Not to mention, SWORD pulls off the remarkable feat of (nearly) launching straight into a linewide Marvel crossover event (King in Black), and still retaining its core purpose and sense of story. Al Ewing and team are somehow pulling double duty on establishing a new Marvel Space Age and fitting into the grand scheme of Hickman’s X-Men, and honestly, I couldn’t be more impressed.
Zeb Wells, Carmen Carnero, Stephen Segovia, and team’s X-Men line book of mutantkind’s “Bad Batch” continues to compete for best of the Hickman-era X-Verse. Nothing at Marvel combines the same level of humor, punch, and – somehow – integral relevance to massive shared superhero continuity!
Ritesh Babu: Bitter Root is, without question, one of the best ongoings of the last decade. And this year, it still remains that way, maintaining its quality. Set in the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance, we follow the Sangerye family as they deal with horrors born of bigotry. It’s big genre storytelling that deals with race, and racist ideologies, and how they affect a people, particularly as the shadow of the Tulsa Massacre haunts the text. Each issue comes with a brilliant essay by a Black writer, whether they be an academic, a professor, or a poet. It’s a lovingly put together piece of brilliant care and craft, and it does something almost no other book in the market even attempts. If you love The Good Asian, you’ll find its brilliant predecessor right here in Bitter Root. Those two are a hell of an experience.
So here’s the premise of Pelican Bastards by cartoonist Michael Aushenker: These pelicans? They’re absolute f*****n bastards.
A delightful blend of absurdist comedy, Pelican Bastards has been a highlight of my exploration of webcomics and digital platforms this year (shouts to The Beat’s “A Year of Free Comics“). I didn’t know I needed pelicans committing crimes and being the biggest jerks, all mixed in with a police procedural in the spirit of Naked Gun, but Aushenker has shown me I absolutely do.
Ritesh Babu: The A.I story is one of creation. It is one of humans as makers, and it is also one of the future. It is ‘what comes after’, it is what succeeds us. Which is why children are an easy go-to for A.I tales. Jeremy Holt and George Scall’s Made In Korea leans into the prevalent implication then that the A.I story is an adoption story, and explores that conceit in a science-fiction context wherein biological parenthood is no longer a reality. The end result is a really striking, memorable comic defined more by its confident, silent implications and unsaid moments than by any possible bombast. It’s a comic about parenthood and humanity that looks like no other on the stands.
Stan Sakai is the Greg Maddox of comic creators, maintaining his absolute mastery of the Usagi Yojimbo saga longer than anyone could have predicted. Sakai and Usagi continue this incredible history of excellence into 2021 during the ongoing run from BOOM Studios, where Usagi’s stories are fully colored and as essential as ever.
Check out Comic Book Herald’s “Best New Graphic Novel” full review!
My expectations for After the Rain were absolutely blown away, as this adaptation of a Nnedi Okorafor short story is an exceptional graphic novel, kicking off the incredibly promising Megascope line of comics curated by John Jennings. As scripter and colorist here, Jennings and artist David Brame convert Okorafor’s afrospeculative fiction into a creeping, encroaching, Swamp Thing esque horror story about a young woman’s transition from America to her African roots. Brame and Jenning’s art and panel layouts are mind-boggling yet natural, and worth the price of admission alone.
For more, check out my conversation with John Jennings on After the Rain.
The success of Megascope continues throughout 2021 with Black Star, the tense sci-fi thriller from Eric Anthony Glover and Arielle Jovellanos. I get sent a fair amount of comics these days, and often I’ll pick one up and start reading to see if it’s one I’ll want to pursue later. That was my intention with Black Star, but instead, I simply read the breathless, beautiful tale from cover to cover. Gripping is an understatement. Glover and Jovellanos craft a silver screen ready saga following scientist Harper North’s trek across an increasingly uninhabitable landscape, in a race against the clock to escape a crashed planet… and perhaps something else.
Tyler Boss was the second comics creator I ever interviewed for “Creannotators,” based on his incredible collaboration with Matthew Rosenberg, 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, so I waited with bated breath through a pandemic delay of a full year for the second issue of Boss’ solo work. Dead Dog’s Bite (published by Dark Horse) is entirely told by Boss, and his incredible sense of layout, pacing and composition is just as compelling here as 4 Kids. What sets Dead Dog’s Bite apart is a Twin Peaks esque small-town murder mystery, quirky cast of characters, and enigmatic narration.
Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi’s The Good Asian delivers that near impossible balance between historical fiction and pulp-noir where the integration is so thorough the reading experience is a simultaneous blend of education and entertainment; sorrow and suspense. Chinese-American Edison Hark feels like the kind of noir detective that’s been with the storytelling tradition since the 1920s, and the real-life grounded history of America’s Chinese Exclusion Act, and the impact on a generation of citizens growing up under an immigration ban, packs a particular necessary punch amidst repulsive, growing anti-Asian sentiment through 2021. Timely, gripping, and essential.
For more on The Good Asian, check out my interview with Pornsak Pichetshote.
One of the hardest creative challenges in 2021 is coming up with a superhero comics concept that stands out from the badly overcrowded pack. With the right blend of Steve Gerber’s Omega The Unknown, the strange adventures of DC’s Adam Strange, and Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormsten’s Black Hammer, that’s just what Christopher Cantwell, Adam Gorham and team have managed to pull off with The Blue Flame via Vault Comics.
The Blue Flame pulls off an impressive, mysterious hybrid of space faring cosmic superhero, and ragtag vigilante amateurs on the streets of Milwaukee, spanning heady topics like mass shootings, depression, addiction, family, and oh by the way, the case for humanity. It’s an ambitious, gorgeous work, and absolutely one of the year’s best.
Ritesh Babu: Lettering is perhaps the most important part of comics that is also at once most misunderstood, or at least downplayed. People often consider it ‘just placing words’ or dub it The Invisible Art, and many just plainly struggle to grasp it, much less being able to talk about it. And it’s that inability and failing that leads to all of the above troubles. Thankfully Nate Piekos’ book is a brilliant gateway into the world of lettering, and is incredibly educational. You could be a fan, a critic, or a creator, and you’ll still find tons of valuable things in here. It’s a tome of incredible knowledge from a master.
Ritesh Babu: It’s hard to occupy the space that Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben once did. But Ram V, Mike Perkins, Mike Spicer, and Aditya Bidikar’s new voyage into the green proves that not only can it be done well, it can morph that very space. Moving beyond Alec and his web of connections, the team plunged us into the world of Levi Kamei, an Indian man wrestling with questions of identity and generational trauma.
What is it to be colonized? What is it to be morphed under the heel of imperialism? And how is capitalism irrevocably tied to such ventures? The Swamp Thing explores all of this, utilizing The Green as memory itself, including cultural memory. It’s sad, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s so very real. This is Swamp Thing as you’ve never seen before, and it’s Swamp Thing at its absolute best, worthy of the legacy and lineage it inherits from the likes of Moore.
Kim Seuk Gendry-Kim’s follow-up to 2019’s widely acclaimed Grass is heartbreaking, eye-opening, and gorgeously rendered. The Waiting is Gendry-Kim’s fictional account of separated families during the Korean War, based on her mother’s real separation from her sister as North and South Korea split asunder. Given the attention to detail and interviews with separated families, the graphic novel, translated by Janet Hong, reads like an autobiographical account of the Korean War, much like Art Spiegelman’s Maus was for World War II. As with so much of history, the stories of refugees, broken homes, and war-ravaged nations is all too relevant today.