We all love a good one-off or anthology, but it’s the thrill of a series that keeps us coming back to our comic shop week-in, week-out. Whether it’s a brand new creator-owned series or a staple of the big two, serialized storytelling allows for bigger casts, bigger worlds, and bigger adventures. That bigness was on full display this year, as series made grand statement after grand statement about what they were all about. These are our top 10 series of 2016.
Mockingbird’s all too brief run kicked-off with one of the most daring issues of the year, establishing a “Puzzle Box” concept that required patience and critical thought from an audience who might not always be willing to grant that to a new, untested creative team. Those who stuck around, though, were richly rewarded for their faith; Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, and Ibrahim Moustafa provided a series firmly rooted in Bobbi Morse’s perspective on the world, providing fun, gorgeous (and quite often sexy) globe-trotting adventures while also exploring science, feminism, and Bobbi’s relationships across the Marvel Universe. It’s hard to discount what an important series Mockingbird became in 2016, but what shouldn’t be ignored is how well it captured Cain’s love of Bobbi Morse — and of comic books as a medium — in the process.
It can be difficult for long-running series to hold on to the spark that made its earliest issues so exciting — even the best series lose their lustre after dozens of instalments. Fortunately, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples built novelty right into the premise of their series, insisting that their fugitive family keep moving just to stay alive. Everything else — including exactly what “keep moving” means — is subject to change. This year reunited our long-estranged family before marooning them on a comet destined for destruction. Those twists and turns keep the story lively, but it’s the long-seeded emotional investments that get our blood pumping, whether it’s the heartwarming reunion between Hazel and Marko, the heartbreaking departure of Izabel, or the giddy joy of seeing Ghüs kick some ass.
Squirrel Girl doesn’t lose, and neither do Ryan North and Erica Henderson. 2016 continued their remarkably consistent run on The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, bringing us more of the title’s trademark laughs, spirit, intelligence, and commitment to empathy while also stretching out in unexpected new directions. North and Henderson tackled a story from the point of view of Mew (Nancy’s cat) and turned another issue into a flawless recreation of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, but also explored vital, timely ideas of consent and “nice guys” with their Mole Man story, and fleshed out their supporting cast, Marvel guest-stars, and even a few fun new characters in the Enigmo arc. No matter which direction it took, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl continued to eat nuts and kick butt, ensuring that it remained one of Marvel’s most entertaining and original titles.
Jason Aaron has been taking Thor in bold new directions for years now. Where Thor: God of Thunder addressed Thor’s legacy, Thor flipped that question on its head, forcing us to consider how that legacy might extend beyond the man himself — and indeed, what happens when a woman picks up that legacy. Having finally revealed Jane Foster as the woman behind the hammer, Mighty Thor moved on to building out the world around her. Aaron expanded on mythology he’d been developing since Thor: God of Thunder and explored the origins of characters, conflicts — even Mjölnir. That far-flung myth-making has required equally bold artists, but Aaron is perfectly matched in his collaborators Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson, who imbue each moment with the divine through sheer gorgeousness. Together, they make Mighty Thor’s world as thrilling and unpredictable as the character herself.
Part emotional expose and part revenge fantasy gone wrong, Glitterbomb takes a hard look at the role women play modern art and culture and simply demands better. Writer Jim Zub takes a Ghost Rider-esque premise — a normal person possessed by the spirit of vengeance — and magnifies it by making that “normal person” a fading starlet, eager to keep working. Farrah’s world at first appears beset by casual sexism and the general ickiness of Hollywood, but as the monstrous influence of her murderous demon reveals itself, so too do the depths of Farrah’s experience. Artist Djibril Morrisette-Phan never shies away from the sunbathed beauty of Los Angeles, nor the twisted ugliness a life in showbusiness takes on a woman. But rather than keep Farrah’s crusade discreet and quiet, as you might expect from a serialized story, Zub and Morrissette-Phan race to the point where they can blow it up on national TV, practically demanding these injustices get widespread attention.
The Wicked + The Divine kept us on our toes in 2016. Most famously, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie shook things up by enlisting a cavalcade of talented creators to turn issue 23 into a perfect replica of a glossy magazine, but that go-for-broke sense of experimentation carried over to the narrative as well. Throughout WicDiv’s explosive fourth arc allegiances constantly shifted, new secrets constantly came to life, and we were never quite sure what to think of Ananke and Persephone at any given moment. McKelvie and Matthew Wilson delivered some of the most thrilling action of their career, but Ananke’s gruesome, unsettling murder seemed designed to make the audience uncomfortable with all the gorgeous violence they’d just witnessed. That kind of contradiction speaks to the core of WicDiv — the appeal of fame vs. its grimmer realities — and ensured that any given issue was packed full of surprises; each installment was a potential gamechanger, and who would want to miss that?
If 2015 proved that this iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wasn’t beholden to the events of its many predecessors, 2016 confirmed that they were fully committing to those deviations. Picking up in the wake of last year’s devastating issue 50, this year found Splinter in control of the Foot Clan, adopting ever more aggressive tactics that served to alienate the Turtles. It’s a heartbreaking turn for the character, but every inch of it is earned, detailing just how the overwhelming responsibility of commanding an army might lead even those with the noblest intentions to see the world like a military leader. Along the way, we also got a crackerjack murder mystery and hints of the mythological elements that underpin this series, all delivered with the consistently dazzling (and diverse) art styles we’ve come to love on this series.
3. Darth Vader
It really cannot be overstated how prolific of an artist Salvador Larroca is. The Darth Vader series, drawn exclusively by Larroca, delivered on both the entirety of the Sho-Torun War storyline and the bombastic conclusion to Larroca and Kieron Gillen’s character exploration masterpiece. And that’s just February to October. This is the year that saw Vader at his most patient and diplomatic with Queen Trios of Sho-Torun and at his most cruel and ruthless as he stomped out Cylo and the Emperor’s candidates to replace him. It’s the full psychological spectrum from a character that is too often reduced to a cool cameo or Christ allegory. The final three issues depict Vader’s non-stop assault on his enemies, bringing him within an inch of death multiple times with nothing but his own suffering to motivate him to succeed.
“Regular people with superpowers” has been Marvel’s brand from the start. Whether we’re talking about the Fantastic Four or Peter-Parker, Marvel’s most thrilling innovations were making their superheroes look a little more human. Of course, being geared towards adolescent boys (and written by adult men), the definition of human experience was decidedly narrow. It’s no surprise that, while Marvel had long explored what it’s like to be a nerdy kid with superpowers, they had yet to consider what it’s like to be pregnant with superpowers or a new mother with superpowers. It turns out the responsibilities that come with those superpowers don’t go away just because you have a kid. Which is to say: Spider-Woman has a simple, clear, but also novel premise, though it’s so much more than that premise. Writer Dennis Hopeless has explored new parenthood from every conceivable angle while slowly reintroducing the interpersonal dramas that defined the previous volume of the series. Meanwhile, his artistic collaborators Javier Rodriguez and Veronica Fish have captured the in all their glorious detail the joys, sorrows, angst and anxieties of early parenthood.
1. The Vision
As unapologetic pseudo-intellectuals, we often throw around phrases like “thematic density” and “aesthetic clarity,” but never are they more applicable than with The Vision. Tilting at one of the most fundamental questions of humanity — what it means to be human — might seem like a tall order for a superhero comic, but The Vision had the maturity to pull it off with style. Writer Tom King distanced us from the characters with a clinical, third-person narrator, an effect enhanced by artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s cool precision, which paradoxically made their actions seem all the more human. That paradox reflects the tensions that made this series so alluring, keeping us wondering when — not if — the shoe was going to drop. It was an ambitious series that somehow ended with a modest, devastating tragedy.