In such a collaborative medium as comics, it can be difficult to say where a writer’s influence on the story ends, but there’s no question on where it begins: words on the page. Whether they thrill, elate, chill, or deflate, the best writers create characters, settings, and situations we want to return to, again and again. These are our top 10 writers of 2016.
10. Chip Zdarsky
(Howard the Duck, Jughead)
It’s been a pleasure to watch Chip Zdarsky evolve from “that guy with the funny talking duck book” to “that guy whose funny talking duck book made me cry.” We suppose that transformation truly began at the tail-end of 2015 with Howard the Duck 2, but 2016 found Zdarsky striking a powerful balance between humor and pathos, exploring Howard’s life and relationships with surprising honesty and delivering a fully earned, emotionally resonant finale — all while never letting up on the wonderfully absurd premises, meta-commentary, and scathing Spider-Man burns that had already come to define his work. Zdarsky carried those same skills over to Jughead, whose final arc juxtaposed a zany Mantle-family reunion with Jughead’s very real fear of being abandoned by his best friend. If Zdarsky’s work grew this much in 2016, we can’t wait to see what he does next year.
(Jughead, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl)
Mainstream comics come with a lot of constraints — page dimensions, publication schedules, regular interference from crossover events — so creators need to be inventive to make each issue feel fresh. Fortunately, Ryan North has been revelling in restrictive constraints since he launched Dinosaur Comics back in 2003. Figuring out how to keep the same six panels interesting week after week left North with a keen sense of not only how to pace a joke, but how to fit those jokes in unexpected places. That’s most obviously reflected in the running commentary North keeps at the bottom of each page of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, but the truly remarkable thing is that all of that snark doesn’t undermine the series’ massive heart, which grew ever larger in 2016. We may have come to Squirrel Girl for the laughs, we stayed for its infectious charm.
8. Jason Aaron
(Doctor Strange, Mighty Thor, Star Wars, Unworthy Thor)
Perhaps no writer on this list stoked our imaginations more in 2016 than Jason Aaron. He continues to push, expand, and redefine the various worlds of his series, be it by creating new friends and foes for the Star Wars universe, expanding the breadth of The Mighty Thor not only to new realms, but into the far past as well, taking The Unworthy Thor to the far reaches of space, or throwing out Doctor Strange’s magical rulebook altogether. You never know what you’ll see next in an Aaron book, and that’s thrilling, but despite all that wonderful weirdness, Aaron never loses sight of the simple, grounded motivations that drive his characters, whether it be Jane Foster’s fight against her cancer, the Odinson’s more personal struggle with his own identity, Doctor Strange’s attempts to essentially start his magical career over, or the Rebel Alliance’s never ending battle against tyranny and oppression. The spirit of adventure is alive and well in Aaron’s writing.
7. Greg Rucka
(Black Magick, Lazarus, Wonder Woman)
It’s tempting to pigeonhole Greg Rucka as the writer of badass women (at least, in 2016), but the word “pigeonhole” doesn’t do justice to just how widely ranging those badass women are. In Lazarus, Forever battled enemies foreign and familiar, and Sonja Bittner got in some truly badass moments as well. Black Magick found Rowan Black on the defensive, preparing for either old enemies with new tactics, or totally unknown newcomers. But nothing exemplifies the diversity of Rucka’s style this year better than Wonder Woman, which followed Diana at two very different points in her life. “Year One” detailed her optimism as she first left Themyscira, while “Lies” chronicled her more jaded attempts to return. Even when he’s writing the same woman, he finds multitudes. Even with all of these big differences, it’s really in the subtleties that Rucka truly distinguish these characters — a word or two, or even a beat of silence is all he needs to make them come alive.
(Barrier, Paper Girls, Saga)
A perennial on our best writers lists, it’s easy to take Brian K. Vaughan for granted. Whether it’s crafting nuanced characters, hooking us with a perfect cliffhanger, or steadily building rich worlds for his stories to inhabit, Vaughan can deliver. And that’s just the surface-level — delve a little deeper and you’ll find Vaughan spent 2016 refining the themes of all of his series, from the tight and punchy Paper Girls to the sprawling Saga. Of course, Vaughan being Vaughan, there were some unexpected twists complicating those themes, resurrecting old characters — or, in the case of Paper Girls, cloning some young ones. Point is: Vaughan pulls it all off with such nonchalance that we can sometimes forget just how impressive it truly is.
5. Chelsea Cain
(Civil War II: Choosing Sides, Mockingbird)
When novelists switch over to writing comics, it can often take them a while to adjust to the new medium. Not so for Chelsea Cain, who burst into the comics scene this year like she’d been writing them her entire life. Cain kicked off the very first issue of her very first ongoing series with a “puzzlebox” concept that just dared the audience to keep up with her, and never slowed down from there; the episodic-yet-interconnected nature of Mockingbird’s first arc, the use of Bobbi’s perspective to make us question what’s “really” happening, even the extras (such as paper dolls) included in the back of each issue display an understanding of (and love for) the medium of comics that even veteran creators sometimes struggle to reach. Cain’s excellent Jessica Jones story over in Civil War II: Choosing Sides, meanwhile, proves that Mockingbird was no fluke. Let’s hope Cain comes back to write more comics soon; it’ll be our loss if Mockingbird is the last we see of Chelsea Cain at Marvel.
(All-New X-Men, Spider-Woman)
We know it’s cliche to refer to a series as an “emotional rollercoaster,” but after the year that Spider-Woman just had, we’re lacking a better turn of phrase. Whether it was the stratospheric high of childbirth (albeit under the most stressful conditions) or the gutting low of Jessica losing a dear friend, Dennis Hopeless made it sing. In between, Hopeless paints a rich continuum of love, hurt, laughter, disappointment — the whole spectrum of feelings and moments we might call “life.” But, man, has it been a trying year for Jess. Becoming a parent might be enough stress for some, but this year put Jess through battling an alternate-universe male counterpart, falling out with her best friend, and losing her friend/sidekick/nanny, just to name a few. Hopeless didn’t pull any punches — there were some genuinely tough moments this year — but they come across with such compassion that we never always want to come back for another ride.
(All-New Inhumans, Daredevil, Death of X, IvX, Obi-Wan and Anakin, Poe Dameron, Uncanny Inhumans)
Even as he’s limited the number of projects he’s working on at one time, Charles Soule will always be the guy who was writing seven monthlies at once. It’s an impressive reputation, but in emphasizing the quantity of his work, we neglect the consistent quality of everything he touches. Indeed, while the volume of Soule’s writing continues to be remarkable, it’s the depth of his stories that makes Soule one of our favorites this year. Whether he was detailing political gamesmanship in Uncanny Inhumans, meditating on the roles of artist and critic in Daredevil, or celebrating characters old (Obi-Wan and Anakin) and new (Poe Dameron) in his Star Wars work, Soule’s seemingly inexhaustible imagination found new angles on all of his series. Soule also found fertile ground in his collaborations with Jeff Lemire, detailing the current state of Mutant/Inhuman relations in series like Death of X and IvX. The former brought a fitting end to one of X-Men’s most indelible characters, and the latter promises even more tragedy for both parties.
2. Tom King
(Batman, Omega Men, The Vision, Sheriff of Babylon)
We may not have read the entirety of King’s now-legendary “Trilogy of Best Intentions,” but the shadow of his accomplishments at DC, Marvel and Vertigo (for Omega Men, The Vision and Sheriff of Babylon respectively) cast a thematically rich shadow over the rest of the industry. It also landed him a gig writing Batman, which found him taking the character in bold new directions, pushing the notion of hyper-competency to its very limit. For us, King’s greatest triumph this year was drawing The Vision to an emotional, unsettling close, and forcing us to question the nature of humanity along the way. The result is a beautifully idiosyncratic series so dense with themes and symbolism, we’re still unpacking it to this day.
1. Nick Spencer
(Astonishing Ant-Man, Captain America: Sam Wilson, Captain America: Steve Rogers, The Fix)
Master provocateur and satirist Nick Spencer has had a banner year. In a landscape where even the ballsiest of Marvel comics struggle to take stances stronger than “can’t we all just get along?”, he unleashed a pair of Captain America series that take every conceivable institution to task for their centuries of mis-managing and misshaping the American identity. Racism, sexism, the militarization of modern police forces, immigration — there’s almost no hot button issue that Spencer leaves unturned with Sam Wilson and Steve Rogers. That’d be a feat in and of itself, but Spencer’s stories are also arrestingly funny, action packed affairs. Remember, while Sam Wilson was dealing with racists who couldn’t accept him as Cap, he was almost momentarily turned into a werewolf. Plus, all this gabbing about the Captains America neglects his excellent crime stories in both Astonishing Ant-Man and The Fix. The latter of which taps a cynical vein of dry hilarity that is equal parts insightful and depressing. These series are all unflinching in their perspectives, which makes Spencer has brave as his heroes.