After the pandemic-impacted 2020, Marvel’s 2021 is slowly but surely back on track, with a wide variety of excellent comics. All in all, it’s a good time to be a Marvel fan, and I’m listing out my favorite picks for those looking to dive in.
It’s an interesting year for Marvel, three years after the launch of the “Fresh Start” era, as some of the line’s biggest titles (Black Panther, Immortal Hulk, Venom, & on a technicality, Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men) wind down throughout the year. Even with that turnover, “Fresh Start” is heartily sustained through the Krakoa era of X-Men, an exciting new Marvel Space Age, and a healthy variety of quality throughout the broader universe. Honestly, even some of the big time runs I’m least enthused by (Jason Aaron’s Avengers and Nick Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man) are remarkably consistent, and offer plenty of intriguing moments. It’s a truly good time to be a fan of Marvel Comics.
Below you’ll find my picks for the best Marvel Comics of 2021, updated throughout the year to reflect new books I’m excited about. Check them out here, and let me know anything good I should be reading in the comments!
Honorable Mentions: Carnage: Black White & Red, Taskmaster, Black Widow, Beta Ray Bill, Power Pack, Way of X
Creators: Zeb Wells, Stephen Segovia, Carmen Carnero, Ariana Maher
Relevant Issues: #8 to #18
Hellions is so good, such a stunning blend of heart and humor, that we don’t even talk any more about how weird it is that a contender for best X-book stars Mister Sinister (yeah), Psylocke (yep), Havok (ok), John Greycrow (…), Wild Child (…), Empath (…) and Nanny and Orphanker (what?!). In so many ways, it’s the promise of the Krakoa era fulfilled, where any mutant can be a star, and totally revamped concepts can thrive.
Honestly, the only thing that *hurts* Hellions at this point is the launch of books like SWORD and Way of X that are inherently more integrated into the big picture of what matters in X-Men comics right now. But in many ways, that’s also freeing, allowing Hellions to just be the laugh-out-loud Suicide Squad reimagining we didn’t know we needed.
Creators: Al Ewing, Valerio Schiti, Marte Gracia, Ariana Maher
Relevant Issues: SWORD #2 to #12
Creators: Al Ewing, Juann Cabal, Federico Blee, Cory Petit
Relevant Issues: Guardians of the Galaxy #10 to #16, Annual #1, GotG #17 to #21
Al Ewing’s been good and properly cosmic for a long time, as evidenced by such contemporary must-reads as Ultimates and honestly a good chunk of Immortal Hulk! Giving him the reigns to Marvel’s cosmic landscape – which has been oddly unfocused despite the cosmic focus of events like Empyre and King in Black – is a huge win, and has enormous potential for fans of Marvel heroes across the galaxy.
Between the excellence of SWORD (a part of the X-Men’s “Reign of X”) and the increasing complexity and diverse shifts of Guardians of the Galaxy, Ewing’s Marvel Age of Space is shaping up to potentially compete with the halycon days of Annihilation-era mid 2000’s Marvel Cosmic.
Creators: Chip Zdarsky, Marco Checceto, Marcio Menyz, Clayton Cowles
Relevant Issues: #26 to #37
The final Daredevil issue of 2020, Daredevil #25, ended on a major turn for the excellent Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checceto run, one which offers the potential for him to move his run further out of the shadow of all the great Daredevil runs that preceded his. If you don’t know what that turn is – somehow, still – get to reading Daredevil, and skip ahead to the next pick!
Starting with King in Black tie-ins, the 2021 version of Daredevil follows Elektra Natchios as the Daredevil of Hell’s Kitchen while Matt Murdock fights for survival in prison. And as so often happens when a known Marvel player takes on a legacy mantle (here’s looking at you Bucky, Sam, Flash, Carol and Shuri), it makes for great comics!
Creators: Jed MacKay, CF Villa, Brian Reber, Ferran Delgado
Relevant Issues: #2 to #7, Annual #1, #8 to #13
I’ve probably told this story before, but I’ll never forget Yokira Cebulski holding up a copy of J. Scott Campbell’s cheesecake pin-up cover of Black Cat #1 at C2E2, excitedly asking “Who likes Black Cat?!” and the mixture of confused, muted clapping that followed. It’s not like Felicia Hardy isn’t a popular, enduring supporting player in the Spider-Man Universe, but if there was a market for a genuinely great Black Cat ongoing, surely that would have presented itself before 2019?
Yet, Jed MacKay and Travel Foreman turned the story of Black Cat into one of Marvel’s best series, and MacKay impressively continues the feat in 2021, forced to relaunch Black Cat with a new #1 as part of the King in Black event, and sticking the landing time and time again. A huge part of the hook of this comic is that MacKay and company have turned Felicia’s story into a heist across every corner of the Marvel Universe, deliberately bouncing from reference point to reference point in a way that is seriously entertaining for longtime Marvel fans. Plus, I’ve truly never been more entertained by Felicia and her posse, one of the most entertaining “Crews” in Marvel Comics of the past few years.
Creators: Kieron Gillen, Esad Ribic, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles
Relevant Issues: #1 to #6
I used to make jokes that Jack Kirby’s Eternals were primarily good for helping readers get some rest on those sleepless nights, and well, I still will from time to time, but 2021 is certainly the most invested I’ve ever been in the Eternals. A lot of that has to do with the impending introduction to the MCU, with much of my enthusiasm also boosted by Gillen and Ribic’s ongoing Eternals.
Eternals is Gillen’s return to the Marvel Universe after four years away, and it’s a brilliant fit, with the very open, yet very vast mythology of Eternals as his playground. Combine that sprawling mythology with Esad Ribic’s, who has one of superhero comics highest batting average across runs on Thor: God of Thunder and 2015’s Secret Wars, and Eternals fits right into the exciting creator-driven world-building of the likes of X-Men and Hulk franchises.
Creators: Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Chris O’Halloran, Cory Petit
Relevant Issues: #42 to #50
There’s really no right time for Immortal Hulk to end, as Al Ewing, Joe Bennet and team have crafted a take on Hulk so instantly iconic, I can’t fathom any readers who won’t feel a tremondous absence following the run’s conclusion with 2021’s Immortal Hulk #50. Nonetheless, Ewing and co. have certainly earned the right to give their saga the rarest of rewards in comics: a proper ending on their own terms.
Immortal Hulk will go down as a constant presence on “Best of Marvel Comics” lists in years to come, and with the exception of Greg Pak’s long run starting with “Planet Hulk,” it’s honestly hard to even consider other contenders for Marvel’s best Hulk work (no, I didn’t forget about Peter David’s very long – and frequently very interesting! – work).
I don’t want to see Immortal Hulk go, but you know what? Sometimes the green door beckons.
Creators: Jed McKay, Alessandro Cappuccio, Rachelle Rosenberg, Corey Petit
Relevant Issues: Moon Knight #1 to #6
Moon Knight isn’t quite at Daredevil levels of strongest comics per ounce in the Marvel Universe, but the last decade has solidified the story of Marc Spector and Mr. Knight as one of the more interesting creative tapestries in superhero comics. Writer Jed McKay continues an incredible hot streak with Marvel Comics, and artist Alessandro Cappuccio and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg are performing at a superstar level.
I think the most exciting thing about this relaunched Moon Knight is that McKay and team are leaning into the full modern history of what’s made the character exciting, from Declan Shalvey’s Mr. Knight redesign to Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s surreal psychological mystery. McKay is capturing Spector’s Judaism, disassociative identity disorder, and feelings of depression as a failed mercenary turned West Coast Avenger. It’s a captivating read, and a series I look forward to reading for a good long time.
Creators: Jonathan Hickman, Mahmud Asrar, Sunny Gho, Clayton Cowles
Relevant Issues: #17 to #21, Inferno #1 to #4
Ranking “X-Men” in 2021 is a little tricky because the Jonathan Hickman written run on the title ends during the summer Hellfire Gala with issue #21, before Gerry Duggan and Pepe Larraz take over with a relaunched “X-Men” #1 for the remainder of the year.
As it stands, the Hickman run on X-Men ends on a powerfully strong note through issues #18 to the conclusion, as Hickman returns to plot threads seeded early in his run (issue #5’s Children of the Vault return in X-Men #18 to #19, and issue #6’s story of Mystique, Destiny, and Nimrod returns in X-Men #20). For my money, the run ends in precisely the way House of X and Powers of X promised, with huge payoffs on seeds, mysteries and ideas that make this era of X-Men so exciting.
Creators: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Leonard Kirk, Matt Milla, Joe Sabino
Relevant Issues: Captain America #27 to #30
2021 has been a year of critics and fans *finally* coming to terms with the weight and approach of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Marvel Comics, both as Black Panther ended with his second set of 25 issues (a series that belongs on this list but for the fact that only 2 issues actually came out *this year*), and as Coates Captain America cemented more of its fascinating focus and purpose.
That Captain America is a political work should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading comics since – checks notes – World War II, but Coates’ late 2020 and 2021 issues of Cap are particularly incisive of this American cultural moment.
I’ve said as much before, but Marvel fans are going to look back at the five years of Coates as a major force in the Marvel Universe, and lament that this work wasn’t more fervently appreciated in its time.
Creators: Vita Ayala, Rod Reis, Travis Lanham
Relevant Issues: #15 to #20
The X-Office’s New Mutants went from the weakest most rudderless book in the line to one of the best, and all it took was the creative overhaul adding writer Vita Ayala and artist Rod Reis. That infusion, and a newfound, much-needed focus on the youth of Krakoa, turned New Mutants into a must-read from jump.
I’m consistently impressed how *much* story Ayala and Reis pack into each issue, frequently balancing no fewer than three distinct plot threads, yet somehow giving each equal weight and attention. Whether it’s the mysterious nefarious presence of the Shadow King, the growing concerns of Gabby aka Scout, or the old guard New Mutants (Karma, Dani Moonstar, Rahne Sinclair, Magik) training young mutants, this title is an absolute highlight of the Reign of X.
Creators: Gene Luen Yang, Dike Ruan, Triona Farrell, Travis Lanham
Relevant Issues: Shang-Chi (2020) #1 to #5, Shang-Chi (2021-) #1 to #7
The biggest challenge I’ve had with Shang-Chi is comparing the relaunched miniseries, and now ongoing 2021 Marvel series launch to previous works of incredible creator Gene Luen Yang. In 2020, Yang’s work on Dragon Hoops and Superman vs the Klan was literally my favorite in all of comics, and similar accolades can be thrown at the likes of Boxers and Saints or American Born Chinese. Yet, when Yang’s taken over superhero properties (for example Superman), the work has never wowed me in the same way.
This holds for Shang-Chi, but honestly it may be an entirely unreasonable bar. Compared to the rest of Marvel – and literally the entire history of Shang-Chi comics in Masters of Kung-Fu – Yang’s reimagining of Shang-Chi’s place in the Marvel Universe is the most I’ve ever enjoyed the character. Yang, Ruan and the team craft an engaging Five Weapons Society, integrate compelling elements of Chinese history, and are doing some challenging work exploring how Shang-Chi presents himself to his family vs. the western Marvel Universe as we’ve come to know it. On top of all that, Yang and team are getting to have fun exploring all corners of the Marvel Universe, from Spider-Man to Wolverine to criminal auctions including the likes of MODOK and Madame Hydra.
Creators: Leah Williams, David Baldeon, Israel Silva, Joe Caramagna
Relevant Issues: #6 to #10
You know, for its first half, X-Factor felt like a delightful “hang out” comic, giving fans a unique opportunity to spend time with the diverse (and predominantly queer) gang of mutants investigating & confirming mutant deaths for Krakoan resurrections. As the series progressed into 2021, though, the creative unit brought storylines spanning the Mojoverse and the Morrigan full circle, into a frankly astonishing gambit of bringing everything full circle.
Leah Williams is my favorite of the new wave of X-Men writers, and combined with the visuals of Baldeon and Silva – some of the best panel layout explorations in Marvel – X-Factor has been a consistent delight. That Marvel is ending the series with its 10th issue – despite satisfactory sales, huge fandom, AND literally the best queer representation in anything from the publisher – is frankly just confusing.
Creators: Chip Zdarsky, Pasquel Ferry, Matt Hollingsworth, Phil Noto
Relevant Issues: #1 to #5
Chip Zdarsky is no stranger to putting Peter Parker through hell, as evidenced by the precurser limited series, Spider-Man: Life Story. Itself a variation on “What If,” Life Story played with the idea of Peter Parker actually aging through the decades – instead of operating on Marvel time – and the effect that a life like *that* would have on a character. Spider’s Shadow is back to Spidey stories grounded in the sliding timeline, set specifically after Peter Parker famously obtained the black symbiote costume in Secret Wars #8.
Honestly, the series’ primary question – What if Peter never got rid of the symbiote? – isn’t really that interesting. We’ve seen Peter wrestle with that decision across a wide variety of story, from the original to animated series to feature films to the Ultimate Universe comics. What elevates Spider’s Shadow is how fully Zdarsky and Ferry lean into the premise and proceed to execute fully formed world building shaking up the pieces *around* Peter Parker. It’s a small change on paper, but the shifting of Marvel’s “What Ifs” from one-shots to miniseries really upgrades the potential, and it’s already showing.
Creators: Donny Cates, Nic Klein, Matthew Wilson
Relevant Issues: #9 to #15, Annual #1, #16 to #20
Despite outstanding cosmic visuals from Klein and Wilson, the Donny Cates written era of Thor, following the years long tenure of Jason Aaron, got off to a sluggish start. The “Black Winter” felt a lot like Cates strip-mining his own recent Marvel greatest hits – a Knull-like cosmic figure as the villain, throwdowns with Galactus to establish scope and scale – without much that really spoke to the unique opportunity of Thor, King of Asgard.
After the opener, though, Cates, Klein and team have really opened up with a run that feels like *their* Thor. “Prey” in particular is conceptually strong, but honestly even more than that, it’s deeply committed to using the long history and legacy of gods of thunder in energizing, exciting ways. I’m fully back in on this run, and look forward to where Cates, Klein and Wilson can take it from here.