James' 2021 Favorites: Part 2 (Superheroes, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction)

Here's Part 2 of my favorite comics of 2021. This year it made sense for me to divide my picks into a few different categories, and 3 different posts. So, make sure to check out Part 1 and Part 3). As always, these aren't the BEST comics (I have no idea what *best* means when evaluating something as subjective as art), just my personal favorites (listed in a number of categories). I hope you find something you enjoy!

Series of the Year (Superhero)

Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow by Tom King, Bilquis Evely, and Mat Lopes, published by DC Comics

I read lots of good comic books, and sometimes read excellent comic books, but it’s only occasionally that I read something that I would really describe as being extraordinary or special. Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow is one of those special, extraordinary comics and my favorite superhero comic of 2021. It’s a thoughtful, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, occasionally very funny comic, that’s brought to life with truly next level art and colors. This is some of my favorite work ever from writer Tom King (which is high praise because I love a lot of King’s work), and the combination of artist Bilquis Evely on art and Mat Lopes on colors is an absolute revelation. If you’re not reading this comic, you’re missing out on something really special (my full review here).

Favorite Superhero Comics (Marvel and DC)

Black Widow by Kelly Thompson, Elena Casagrande, Rafael Delatorre, and Jordie Bellaire, published by Marvel Comics

Kelly Thompson is one of the best writers of superhero comics out there. Captain Marvel is an excellent book, and Thompson previously wrote Hawkeye and West Coast Avengers (both excellent comics). And Black Widow is another home run, thanks to sharp writing and absolutely jaw-dropping art (from artists Elena Casagrande and Rafael Delatorre and colors from the always-excellent Jordie Bellaire). The first arc of this comic was incredible, and absolutely, savagely heartbreaking and you need to go read it right now. This current arc follows Natasha and Yelena fighting evil in San Francisco. There's a great story about the way people can be manipulated by someone feeding their desire to feel special. The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous, as are all of the characters. The people are beautiful, the action is stunningly rendered with intricate and inventive sequential storytelling, and the colors from Bellaire just pop off the page. Natasha Romanoff is a great character who deserves a great comic, and she has one.

Eternals by Kieron Gillen, Esad Ribic, and Matt Wilson, published by Marvel Comics

Thanks to some excellent timing this year there is an excellent Eternals comic to enjoy along with the excellent Eternals movie. Worried you don't know much about the Eternals? Don't worry. No one does. That's kind of the thing with the Eternals, and writer Kieron Gillen knows it and makes it part of the story. The Eternals are subject to a continual cycle of death and rebirth, and each time they come out a little different. But they have memories going back for thousands of years. They fight the Deviants and act as heroes for the Earth. But the Marvel Universe has a lot of heroes. Tons of them. In NYC you can't go 2 blocks without bumping into a superhero. So do we need the Eternals? While those questions are going on, there also seems to be some issues with the resurrection cycle, and the computer that helps maintain the Eternals. This comic has fantastic dialogue (no surprise from Gillen) and stunning art from Esad Ribic and colorist Matt Wilson. Ribic is so great at showing action and drama, and Wilson does great color work complementing Ribic's lines. 

Far Sector by N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell, published by DC Comics

Worried that you don't know much about the Green Lanterns? Or that you don't care that much about them? But you're looking for a terrific sci-fi comic read with gorgeous art? You're in luck, I've got the perfect comic for you. It's Far Sector. In short, Green Lanterns are space cops assigned to different sectors of space. Having some pretty mixed feelings about cops these days? No worries, the main character in this story shares those feelings. Far Sector is the story of a Green Lantern named Jo Mullein assigned to The City Enduring, a giant floating city structure housing 3 alien races that is home to some 15 Billion inhabitants. There's been a murder, the first one in centuries, which is seemingly impossible (as the entire population is subject to a modification that dampens all emotions). It's a complex, weird place for Jo to be, and she's learning very quickly on the job. This is a fantastic sci-fi read. Jemisin is of course an acclaimed sci-fi novelist, and her skills have translated very well to comics. Thankfully, the work is brought to life by Jamal Campbell, who does absolutely astounding work. It's a terrific read. 

Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose and more, published by Marvel Comics

Immortal Hulk just concluded after 50 or so issues and a few one-shots. Now that it's concluded, it's a perfect time for you to go read it if you haven't already. This comic has been a return to the Hulk's horror roots; it began as a story of Hulk as a dark avenging force in the night, righting wrongs with a malevolent grin, but as the story has unfolded it’s clear that writer Al Ewing is telling a much bigger story about evil, destiny, and the darkness within (full of obscure Biblical references for you Holy Scripture fans out there). The art from Joe Bennett (and a few guest contributors) is scary and intense and with moments of dark humor. And when I say scary, I am saying there is some incredibly horrifying, freaky-ass stuff in these comics. Some very intense body horror that is appropriately horrifying (like Junji Ito-level stuff). This is an INCREDIBLY ambitious book, one that's telling a story about the nature of good and evil, and about inescapable darkness. It's a story that spans billions of years and is playing with huge ideas. This story has brought to life a whole new Hulk persona. This is a Hulk who sees through you, and can sees people’s lies and hypocrisy and secret desires laid bare. And he doesn’t just defeat foes physically, he’s smart in a calculating, cruel way. It's also a book that has elevated The Leader (who I thought of as kind of a joke) into a terrifying villain. This is the definition of a must-read book.

Other History of the DC Universe by John Ridley, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Andrea Cucchi, and Jose Villarubia, published by DC Comics

I very much enjoyed The Other History of the DC Universe. Each issue in the series focuses its attention on a DC hero from an underrepresented group (like Black Lightning, Bumblebee/Guardian, or Katana).  This comic series exists to shine a light on DC characters representing marginalized groups of people, in order to make clear that the "canonical" history of the DC universe is not the only perspective that needs to be heard. This is always timely and always important, but given the terrible anti-Asian violence in recent weeks, this is unfortunately more timely and important than ever (hey, #StopAsianHate). This isn't exactly a comic, it's more of a series of illustrated memoirs of each character. The pages have text and have art evoking that particular storyline or time period. It's an untraditional format but I think it works very well, and tells a terrific and important story.   

Strange Adventures by Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Evan "Doc" Shaner, published by DC Comics

Strange Adventures (which concluded recently) is a mystery, a commentary on race, political intrigue, paranoia, "the fog of war,” and what it means to be a hero. And it's also an absolutely gorgeous book courtesy of Mitch Gerads and Evan "Doc" Shaner, both of whom bring their A+ game. There's a lot to unpack in Strange Adventures, and the series is focused on the central and overlapping ideas of truth and propaganda, heroism, and who gets to say who is or isn't a hero (and more broadly, who controls truth). The art duties are split between Gerads and Shaner who have very different styles. With multiple artists, the creative team seems to be drawing a contrast between the everyday *normal* life as experienced on Earth (done by Gerads) and the world of war and invasion and adventure (done by Shaner). This is a complex comic full of layers and ideas, and I recommend it strongly.

Favorite Superhero-Adjacent Comics (NOT Marvel or DC)

The Black Hammer Universe by Jeff Lemire, Caitlin Yarsky, Tyler Crook, Tonci Zonjic, Dave Stewart, Nate Piekos and more, published by Dark Horse

Jeff Lemire's Black Hammer stories are an interconnected universe of characters and stories. They're often superhero-related, but very often the stories go into mystery, horror, science fiction, or the surreal. This year saw a number of different Black Hammer series, and I'm loving all of themUnbelievable Unteens is no exception. It's the story of an artist living in Spiral City who draws a teen superhero comic, only it turns out that the stories she is drawing are in fact real, and are based on the adventures that she and her fellow "Unteens" had years before (they're very melodramatic X-Men type stories). But the truth is coming out, and everything is going haywire. This series is a lot of fun, and artist Tyler Crook is (unsurprisingly) doing amazing work. I also really enjoyed the Black Hammer Visions series of one-shots. Each issue is an exploration of a different aspect of that universe, sometimes focusing n the heroes but other times just focusing on people who live in that weird universe. There's also been Black Hammer Reborn, which is the story of the daughter of the original Black Hammer character taking up the mantle, and putting it down for many years, but taking it up again as a middle-aged woman, when new threats come to Spiral City. Artist Caitlin Yarsky has been doing amazing work on that one. All of the books are great.

The Blue Flame by Christopher Cantwell, Adam Gorham, K. Michael Russell, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, published by Vault Comics

The Blue Flame begins as an homage to classic pulpy science-fiction comics from decades ago. We join the character of the Blue Flame as he finds himself floating in space, not sure how he got there. He makes his way to an inhabited planet, and is confronted by the local population. After a brief skirmish, he surrenders himself to the locals who bring him before a judge or leader or some sort, who informs The Blue Flame that all of humanity is on trial, and he is there as their representative! The Blue Flame is also the story of a man named Sam who was acting as a local vigilante superhero in Milwaukee when he and his group were the victims of a shooter, and is the story of Sam's painful and difficult road to recovery (alongside his very pregnant sister and her partner). I'm a big fan of Christopher Cantwell's (Halt and Catch Fire) other comic work (She Could Fly, Everything,  Doctor Doom, Iron Man). Much like those other series, Blue Flame is profoundly weird but also incredibly relatable. Sure, there are aliens and a trial in outer space for the fate of humanity, but it's ultimately the story of a few people trying to survive in this world. And every artistic and design element of the comic is really top notch, from artist Adam Gorham, colorist Kurt Michael Russell, letterer Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou, and design by Tim Daniel. It all comes together seamlessly in this fantastic, big, ambitious, heartfelt comic. I highly recommend it (my issue 1 review here).

Favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction Series

Barbaric by Michael Moreci, Nathan Gooden, Addison Duke, and Jim Campbell, published by Vault Comics

Barbaric (from the excellent creative team of writer Michael Moreci, artist Nathan Gooden, colorist Addison Duke, and letterer Jim Campbell) is a terrific fantasy series, and I loved the first arc. Particularly for someone like me who isn't much into fantasy stories. I think this story feels less to me like a “fantasy story” than it feels like “a strong story being told in a fantasy setting”. It’s an insightful, funny, entertaining story. But the reason you should pick this story up in comic form (apart from the simple fact that that’s the format it’s in) is the art. This comic bursts with life (and death!) and energy thanks to the work of Gooden and Addison Duke on colors.  Gooden has a fantastic style. It's incredibly compelling, muscular, brutal linework, an immensely appealing style. Not to be super cliche, but it's very metal. This book is an absolute blast and you should pick it up (my issue 1 review here).

Echolands by J.H. Williams, Haden Blackman, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein, published by Image Comics
Echolands is a fun, literary series in the tradition of Sandman and The Unwritten. It’s also one of the most astounding looking comics that I have read all year. Every one of the pages in the comic will leave you mouth agape. To start, the book is presented in a landscape format and often the action takes place across both pages, giving this comic an incredible sense of scope and distance between points. J.H. Williams is an absolute master illustrator, coming up with endlessly inventive panel layout and design. He’s also just a fantastic sequential storyteller, so all of those artistic flourishes are not at the expense of storytelling. Dave Stewart colors this book, and it's some of the most incredible color work I’ve seen. I can’t even imagine how much time it takes to color this book. The story involves many different characters that come from many different fictional universes, whether those are comic books, fairytales, or something else. Each of the characters isn’t just colored distinctively, but they look like they are from different universes, and Stewart, does this across the entire book. Echolands is an absolute delight to read, and I highly recommend it.

The Many Deaths of Laila Starr by Ram V and Filipe Andrade, published by Boom! Studios
The Many Deaths of Laila Starr is a lovely, thoughtful series (written by the fantastic Ram V) with gorgeous art from Filipe Andrade. The story centers around the Hindu goddess of death, who loses her job because there is a human being born that is going to invent a cure for death. Naturally, she’s not thrilled about this and so she heads down to earth and inhabits and human body in an attempt to stop this person from developing a cure for death. Unfortunately, she dies long before she’s even close to being successful in her attempt. Even more unfortunately for her, she dies over and over again each issue, unsuccessful in her attempts to stop this person from developing a cure for death. Along the way she has all sorts of experiences on Earth, interacting with people along the way. This is a gorgeous meditation on life and death and the impact we make and what we leave behind. It’s also an absolutely stunning series, with a gorgeous fluid art from Andrade.
Mazebook by Jeff Lemire, published by Dark Horse

Jeff Lemire is one of my favorite creators in comics. He's certainly prolific as both writer and artist, and has created a ton of great work in multiple genres. But there are definitely themes that feel like they're important to him, to which he returns. Themes such as loss, trauma, mourning, and regret. He often does so on his written and drawn work, including in Mazebook. It's a sad story about a father, whose daughter died a number of years before. He thinks he is seeing clues left by her in different puzzles, and goes out to search for them and follow up on them. Is he imagining things? Is it just wishful thinking? Is some of it really happening? I'm not sure, and as with most of Lemire's work, the answers are often complex and not clear. But the journey is as important as the destination, so I'm glad to follow Lemire on this one. He just really gets the sense of emptiness and longing, and does a great job weaving in elements of the fantastical. I'd definitely recommend Mazebook for fans of his prior work, and for anyone who wants to get sad (in a good way) reading an excellent story.

The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV, Alvaro Martinez Bueno, and Jordie Bellaire, published by DC Comics
This book is so good, and so terrifying, but not for the reasons you might think a book called "The Nice House on the Lake" is terrifying. You might picture some sort of Friday the 13th slasher-type story, and that could not be further from what this story is. I don't want to give away anything abut this story, except to say that it is fantastic, and James Tynion is firing on all cylinders right now with 3 different, excellent non-superhero books (this one, Something is Killing the Children, and Department of Truth) (links to my reviews here and here). He's got an incredible read on the zeitgeist, as his books feel incredibly timely and topical and relevant for all sorts of depressing reasons. The art from Alvaro Martinez Bueno is absolutely stunning. I didn't know his work before but now I will absolutely want to seek it out. Fans of horror and great storytelling and art, you really need to check this book out.

Primordial by Jeff Lemire, Dave Stewart, and Andrea Sorrentino, published by Image Comics

Primordial is the new book in 2021 from the creative team that brought you Gideon Falls. That's great news, because I loved Gideon Falls. It was an amazing, weird, sci-fi-horror meta-story, with tons of twists and turns. Primordial is a period piece, but it sets up a different 1960's than we remember. There's no space race. Something has scared America and Russia away from going out into space. We don't know what yet exactly, but whenever it is, it prompted both nations to switch to using animals in test flights rather than human beings, and to eventually stop running test flights altogether. As the story moves along, we do see some of what has happened to these animals, and I don’t wanna say too much, but this comic is fun and weird and absolutely worth a read. Artist Andrea Sorrentino is doing some of his best work yet, with weird, innovative, mind blowing layouts and splash pages. The work definitely has a Frank Quietly vibe to it, which goes along with the weird nature of the story that feels a little bit like a Grant Morrison story. These are among the highest compliment so I can give about a comic. Dave Stewart does wonderful work in coloring the drama scenes that take place on earth, and the vivid and weird scenes that take place… Elsewhere. This is a must read for sci-fi fans.