Episodic storytelling is the name of the game in monthly comics. Month- or even multi-year-long arcs are fine, but a series lives and dies by its individual chapters. From self-contained one-offs to issues that recontextualize their respective series, this year had a ton of great issues. Whittling down those issues to a list was no easy task (and we look forward to hearing how your lists differ in the comments), but we would gladly recommend any (and all) of these issues without hesitation. These are our top 10 issues of 2016.
(Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez)
Moreso than any other publisher, DC Comics is defined by its history. If the New 52 was an attempt to shed that history, than DC Universe Rebirth 1 finds the publisher lovingly embracing it instead. Geoff Johns and his murders’ row of top-notch artists lead their readers through a tour of the DC Universe as they highlight the ideas of love, hope, and legacy, seeding plots for the upcoming “Rebirth” initiative. The meat of this issue, though, is Wally West’s struggle to return to life, a tale that’s simultaneously tear-jerking and life-affirming, and which highlights the aspirational, wish-fulfilling nature of the DC Universe. “Rebirth” itself has proven divisive, but DC Universe Rebirth 1 is a welcome reminder of just how utterly magical this world can be, when given the opportunity.
This issue also introduces the bizarre Watchmen twist, which, love it or hate it, deserves points just for its sheer audacity.
9. The Fix 3
(Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber)
It’d be tempting to label Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s work on The Fix and Superior Foes of Spider-Man as stories about corrupt villains with hearts of gold, if only, y’know, they had hearts at all. It’s an alluring blend of cynicism and sincerity with a healthy spike of disarming honesty. In issue 3, The Fix turns that honesty on Hollywood starlets, tracking the horrifying rise and fall of Elaine, a sort of mash-up of every actress that’s ever come out of the Mickey Mouse Club. Spencer’s narration doesn’t disguise the forces that drive Elaine to excess, shining a harsh light on America’s preoccupation exploiting the virginal for sexual purposes. By the end, everyone’s trying to take advantage of this girl and SHE FUCKING DIES. The characters may not have hearts, but the story itself is almost nakedly heartfelt in its plea for some sense of sanity.
(Nick Spencer and Jesus Saiz)
“Hail Hydra.” Only Nick Spencer can take two words — two words that have been uttered in most issues of Captain America — and use them to light the internet on fire. It’s easy to forget that this issue was anything more than that earth-shattering twist, but it’s actually a shockingly well-realized exploration of where opportunity comes from and what it looks like to turn to a force you know to be evil. The story takes an in-depth look at the origin of the suicide train-bomber, casting him as a victim of circumstance without giving him too dire of a backstory. It’s all just missed opportunities and goals deferred until the attacker is fighting for his last scrap of identity. There’s a parallel to Hydra Cap here that people tend to miss when lobbing death threats at Spencer on twitter.
7. Ms. Marvel 7
(G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona)
Civil War, Schmivil War! Kamala Kahn has more important things to worry about than a dust up between superhero factions. Take, for example, the delightfully low-stakes science fair competition that pits Kamala against Miles Morales and his science club. It’s a hero vs. hero story that is alarmingly true to the worlds Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel occupy. Sure, there’s a flying shark in some kind of floating aqua-bubble, and one of the experiments does threaten to explode and kill everyone, but the majority of the story is refreshingly grounded. Never is G. Willow Wilson’s voice clearer than when she’s writing kids talking to kids, and that’s exactly what this thing is, cover-to-cover. The issue is also a return-to-form for artist Adrian Alphona, who relishes in the charming absurdity of every beat of this story. You’d be hard pressed to find an issue in this cross-over that has more fun with the concept of pitting two of our favorites against each other. And hey: there’s a bonus Nova tossed in there for good measure.
6. Batman 51
(Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo)
Gotham is mythic. Gotham is eternal. Gotham is — in many ways — the defining feature of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman. Or, to put a finer point on it: “Gotham is…” is the phrase that will ever define that run. Its importance was established in their first issue, but seared into our collective memories in their last (for now). Batman 51 saw not only the return of that iconic Gotham Gazette feature, but forced us to consider more deeply the relationship between Batman and Gotham — specifically, who Batman is if Gotham isn’t in crisis. The result is an issue that plays triple duty as a love letter not just to Batman, not just to Gotham, but to the readers as well, all while hearkening back to the opening moments of their first issue. It’s precisely the kind of structural feat that made Snyder and Capullo’s work on the series so thrilling, carried off with the same grace that always made it such a pleasure to read.
5. Deadpool 20
(Gerry Duggan and Matteo Lolli)
Man of Steel critics love to trot out the All-Star Superman story where Clark talks a suicidal woman off a window ledge as a prescription for how to fix Superman. It’s a moving story, but maybe fans are setting the bar a little low when it comes to compassion. Superman being a kind, empathetic person is hardly a story. But Deadpool? Oh yeah: that’s something. Writer Gerry Duggan took an issue off from his various insidious plot engines to tell a one-off story where a jumper’s only hope is Wade Fucking Wilson. Duggan never cheats by giving Deadpool unnatural or unearned empathy, instead letting Wade’s joie de vivre affect the woman and the reader in equal measure. Artist Mateo Lolli doesn’t pull his punches either — part of finding peace in a night out with Deadpool means embracing a lot of gruesome violence. Perhaps most refreshingly, the only conclusion the issue can muster is Danielle seeking help. In real life, there are no infinitely patient stranger-saviors and there are no easy answers for suicidal thoughts.
(Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez)
“Having a kid changes everything” is the conventional wisdom on parenting, though very few parenting stories manage to convey that message without stating it outright. Then again, few parenting stories have the patience to really sit with those changes the way Spider-Woman 5 does. Pacing out Jessica Drew’s evolution from overwhelmed new mother to her return to superheroics sounds straightforward enough, but writer Dennis Hopeless throws in some warranted anxieties about the dangers of her job and (perhaps less-warranted, but no less relatable) fears about leaving her child with a sitter for the first time, creating a remarkably nuanced portrait of the first few months of parenthood. Cramming those months into one issue might daunt a lesser artist, but Javier Rodriguez pulls out every stop to give each moment a unique emotional tone without ever feeling rushed or cramped. It’s an issue as varied in 20 pages as many series can hope to be in a year, and one that truly did change everything about Spider-Woman.
3. Superman 10
(Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason)
There’s a promise to “Batman vs. Superman” that is seldom delivered on. Those are two of comics’ biggest personalities, seemingly opposing ideologies with similar ends and drastically different means. Under all of that philosophical squabbling, however, it’s hard to deny that the conflict between Caped Crusaders is not only arbitrary, but funny as hell. Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Superman 10 takes that fundamentally hilarious concept and filters it through the 10-year-old sons of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent, making for one of the more charming superpowered dust-ups of the year. Damian is even more Damian-y (read: more of an asshole) and Jon is even more Jon-y (read: more of a boy scout) than their fathers could ever dream of being. The concept is so simple, it’s almost elemental, and the execution reminds us why we like all of these characters so much.
2. The Vision 6
(Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta)
What does it mean to be human? This was the question at the heart of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision, which delighted in finding ever new angles on the nature of humanity. Issue 6 framed the question in terms of P vs NP — a computer science question that deals with questions that humans can easily answer but that computers (and presumably synthezoids) cannot. Agatha Harkness uses P vs NP to frame Vision’s solutions as random, incorrect stabs in the dark, though in so doing might just reveal how human his solutions truly are. That the constant references to Vision’s inhumanity always made him more human was always a feat of the series, but comes to a very fine point in this issue, as the Vision’s choices take a turn for the bizarre. As midway point of the series, this issue served as a turning point of sorts, distilling the moments that came before while laying key groundwork for the breathless second half of this run.
(Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic)
Check your calendars — this issue came out during the very first week of 2016, closing the loop on an event that the publisher had moved on from months prior. But Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s masterwork has one of the most life- and art-affirming conclusions of any story. For all the walls-made-of-Ben-Grimm and vaporized-Cyclops-Phoenixes, power in this series ultimately shifted based on simple, human kindnesses — and silly ones at that. One of the turning points in the issue is Miles Morales offering Molecule Man a hamburger he has stashed away in his suit. Secret Wars 9 allowed for a return to the old Marvel Universe in some ways, but with a aggressive, adventurous insistence on positivity and novelty. So much of Hickman’s mega-epic wrestled with impossibly huge questions of Master Morality and the true meaning of evil that it’s refreshing as all get out to see gee-whizardry save the day. Plus, the ending installs Marvel’s first family as the progenitors of the entire Marvel Universe — a fitting place for their legacy to land.
Want more Best of 2016 lists? Check out our Best Covers list!