Greetings, ‘Rama readers! With 2019 in the rear view mirror, it’s time for our end-of-the-year tradition with the Best of Best Shots 2019!
It’s been a big year for the comics industry, with Marvel wrapping up its long-running arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Endgame, topping Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all time, while Disney’s acquisition of Fox has meant the return of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four in the MCU; meanwhile, the House of Ideas made big swings in the comics sphere with brand-new runs of Jonathan Hickman’s Dawn of X, Conan the Barbarian, and a post-Empire Star Wars, among others.
DC, meanwhile, concluded its long-running Doomsday Clock saga, while also heralding Brian Michael Bendis as the new steward of Superman and the Legion of Superheroes, revealing the Man of Steel’s secret identity while bringing back the heroes of the 31st century. DC also had two big box office hits, starting with the coming-of-age superhero story Shazam!, before winning a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s haunting performance in Joker, all while announcing Robert Pattinson as its next Dark Knight in 2021’s The Batman. Yet DC also had major shake-ups to its corporate structure, phasing out its long-running Vertigo line, while introducing its new Hill House horror imprint, spearheaded by Locke & Key creator Joe Hill.
Arguably the biggest story of the indie scene came from the announcement of Lion Forge merging with Oni Press, causing big shake-ups for both publishers. Meanwhile, several long-running Image Comics series wrapped up in 2019, including The Walking Dead, The Wicked + The Divine, East of West, Black Science, and more. Despite Disney’s purchase of Fox curtailing a Mouse Guard film, BOOM! Studios continued to break new ground in 2019 with new series such as Once and Future and Something Is Killing The Children, climbing to a fourth-place spot for overall retail sales in December. Dynamite Entertainment, meanwhile, saw its seminal series The Boys score a massive hit with a live-action series on Amazon.
Yet there were unfortunate happenings in 2019 as well, including Mad Magazine publishing its final issue in December, IDW shutting down Shelly Bond’s Black Crown imprint after two and a half years, while Bedside Press closed after admissions of sexual assault by the publisher’s founder, Hope Nicholson. Furthermore, comics journalism lost a longtime champion with Tom Spurgeon, who passed away in November.
It’s been a big year, but somebody’s gotta cover it — so without further ado, let’s kick off the Best of Best Shots 2019!
Bronze — Whedonverse Revamp (BOOM! Studios): Buffy, Angel and Firefly have all had comics in the past, but they’ve had to play to the existent continuity of the properties they’re following on from. In the case of the third, a couple of characters killed in Serenity could only appear in prequel material. With the Whedonverse moving over to BOOM!, they’ve been liberated from these constraints by creating an Ultimate-style universe for them to play out in. Jordie Bellaire, Bryan Edward Hill and Greg Pak all have the voices and tones of their respective series down, using that as the guiding principle and weaving tales that have familiarities while going in much different directions. Firefly has seen Pak and Dan McDaid tell a grant story about the Unification War and what both sides tried to hide. Meanwhile, Bellaire, Dan Mora and David Lopez opted to take Buffy and her supporting cast back to high school, building to an exciting and grand crossover and first meeting with Hill and Gleb Melnikov’s moody vampire with a soul. The basics were there from the beginning and reading all three is like a breath of fresh air, giving the properties new life and the freedom to go somewhere new.
Silver — Kieron Gillen (BOOM!/Dynamite/Image): 2019 was the year of two great follow-ups to the original Watchmen: one being the HBO series that’s a quasi-sequel to the events of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original maxiseries, and other was Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt. Its five-issues saw Kieron Gillen, Caspar Wijngaard, Mary Safro and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou deliver a state of the union on the comics industry: how it’s changed (and how it hasn’t) since 1986, and where it could formally and artistically go. It’s a superhero book that can only come from a writer who thought he’d had enough of writing them, and the idea of breaking the formula is also in line with how he, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles brought The Wicked + The Divine in for a spectacular and touching conclusion. His other two books of the year, Die with Stephanie Hans and Cowles, and Once & Future with Dan Mora, Tamra Bonvillain and Ed Dukeshire, are concerned with how fantasy and storytelling are entwined, albeit in different respects. The former’s melancholy while the latter’s jauntier, and it’s the spectrum of his writing that makes this one of the best years Gillen has ever had.
Gold — Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics): The Year of Carol started with a relaunch of her ongoing series by Kelly Thompson, Carmen Carnero, Tamra Bonvillain and Clayton Cowles that put her back on Earth. The time between Kelly Sue DeConnick’s work and this run has had points of interest though nothing has been as a strong a take compared to where Thompson and her collaborators have taken her already. And then in March came a moment which I had been anticipating and nervously waiting on for almost five years – her solo film. Having followed all the news since its announcement, from the reveal Brie Larson would be player her, to the extensive search for a directors, delays as the Phase 3 schedule shifted and endless Skrull speculation – what the film would end up being like in terms of story and approach. But thanks to Ryan Boden and Anna Fleck, the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally got its masterpiece, eschewing the usual approach to an origin story in favour of a journey of self-discovery and a nuanced take on the Kree-Skrull conflict she found herself conscripted into. I will never forget the cinema shaking with the sheer force of the black box recording finally unlocking her memory.
Item to Watch in 2020 — Wicked Things (BOOM! Studios): Speaking at Thought Bubble in November, John Allison talked about how he never intended to have a big universe with recurring characters and continuity, that result having spun out of having continually spun out new series from supporting characters. The Bobbinsverse has been running for two decades now, and while this was the year that he, Max Sarin, Whitney Cogar and Jim Campbell wrapped up their smash-hit Giant Days in touching fashion, they’re getting straight into another project. This time it’s a limited series, Wicked Things, and puts Lottie Grote in the spotlight as lead after being a part of previous projects like Scary-Go-Round and Bad Machinery, not to mention being the reason that Daisy broke up with Ingrid. She’s always been a headstrong character, a quality that’s helped her mystery-solving, but now she’ll have to come to terms if that’s who she still wants to be. Allison has one of the strongest and most distinctive authorial voices in the industry while Sarin and Cogar’s cartooning is some of the liveliest you can find. The pitch for the series is reminiscent of Veronica Mars and it’s sure to be a treat from a creative team at the height of their powers.
Bronze — We Are Here Forever (Quirk Books): 2019’s been rough, and so has the decade, to be honest! If you’re looking for some sweet, warm comics to help you usher in 2020 with some positive vibes, use your holiday spending money on We Are Here Forever from Quirk Books. This collected edition of Michelle Gish’s webcomic centers on the adventures of the Puramus, delightful four-legged critters whose quest for friendship and knowledge takes place on an Earth unencumbered by humans (and, seemingly, most other animals). As a curated collection of Gish’s webcomic, it’s easy for readers to dive in regardless of your familiarity with the source material, and not being a full collection means there’s plenty for you to enjoy on Gish’s website once you’ve finished reading the 225-page print edition. The design of the Puramus is attuned for Maximum Cuteness, and that, combined with Gish’s bright colors give the book a warmth and sweetness that cuts through any uneasiness the lingering mystery of the otherwise uninhabited Earth might bring.
Silver — War of the Realms: Journey Into Mystery (Marvel Comics): Penned by the McElroy brothers (and father) of Maximum Fun podcast fame, with fantastic art from André Lima Araújo and Chris O’Halloran, this five-issue War of the Realms spin-off was about as close to perfect as it gets for an event tie in. Clint, Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy used a ragtag cast that featured recent superstars like Kate Bishop and Miles Morales alongside surprise returns like Death Locket to great effect, delivering an adventure comedy that falls somewhere between Adventures in Babysitting and Three Men and a Baby. Araújo offered up stellar action sequences worthy of any great ‘80s blockbuster throughout, with layouts perfectly attuned to the McElroys’ comedic timing. This miniseries (already out in trade) is easy to dive into regardless of how familiar you are with the McElroys’ body of work or, most importantly, the rest of the War of the Realms event. This comic is extremely good, and very funny, and you don’t have to have read any other books to be able to follow what’s going on, which is refreshing in a world where apparently even blockbuster space operas require extended universe reading to make sense.
Gold — Midas (BOOM! Studios): Speaking of space operas: please read Midas, and then also give it to the young reader in your life so they can read Midas. Inspired by, unsurprisingly, the story of Midas, the king cursed with a golden touch, this retelling written by Ryan North extrapolates the myth to its most devastating extreme. What if Midas’ golden touch was contagious? In a universe where Earth is a gilded graveyard where Midas’ dangerous gift is a highly-guarded weapon, a scrappy band of scavengers track it down in the hopes of turning the tide of war in favor of a floundering rebellion. North offers up a clever, fresh turn on a well-worn mythological path that blends his distinctive humor with a horror-tinged interstellar adventure that will have you instantly hooked. Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb deliver out of this world action sequences - particularly the surreal, breath-taking final confrontation - and nail the haunting emptiness of a glittering, lavish paradise entombed in riches by one man’s avarice. The trade collects the entire eight-issue series, and would make a great gift for any young reader in your life who loves the weirder side of science fiction.
Item to Watch in 2020 — Kill A Man (AfterShock Comics): Steve Orlando is writing a graphic novel about a gay MMA fighter with Phillip Kennedy Johnson, illustrated by Alec Morgan. That’s it! That’s my pitch. Orlando has an incredible body of work but his creator-owned work is some of the best I’ve ever read — two years after the trade, I’m still constantly recommending Namesake, which I will sneak in a plug for now. Kill A Man centers around James Bellyi, son of an MMA icon who watches his father die in the ring... at the hands of the man, years later, he’s forced to turn to when being outed as gay costs James his family and career. Orlando has done top-notch work exploring queerness and masculinity in both his DC and creator-owned work (see also: Virgil) and this OGN, currently slated for summer 2020, is guaranteed to deliver an emotional gut-punch.
Bronze — Dial H For Hero (DC): Sam Humphries and Joe Quinones reinvented the DC cult classic Dial H For Hero for the modern age with their infectious leads, Miguel and Summer. They took on the task to make this niche franchise easily accessible for new and old comic fans alike. Every issue redefined itself from the plot’s twist and turns to the celebration of different forms of superhero storytelling. Dial H For Hero is a must-read that you shouldn’t let slip under your radar. I’m very happy the series expanded to a maxi-series, and hopefully DC and Wonder Comics have even more plans for this franchise and its characters.
Silver — Invisible Woman (Marvel Comics): Mark Waid and Mattia De Iulis deservingly brought Sue into the spotlight with their sleeper hit Invisible Woman. They inventively showcased the sheer power of Susan Storm-Richards as not just a superhero but also a super spy. The overarching plot takes a look at the inner strength Invisible Woman must use to fight against the temptation of using her powers to her full potential and killing the obstacles that stand in her way. On pencils, De Iulis proves with his work on this title that he’ll be a comic book superstar in no time with his breathtaking visuals and poignant emotional beats. The creative team delivered the best espionage series of the year in the most unlikely place, but that just proves that you should never underestimate Invisible Woman.
Gold — Valkyrie: Jane Foster (Marvel Comics): Valkyrie: Jane Foster took all the comic book tropes we know and love and flipped them on their head in 2019. Writers Al Ewing and Jason Aaron beautifully balanced the life of Jane Foster as a medical professional/cancer survivor with her new responsibilities as a Valkyrie. She is the true Rainbow Bridge between Midgard and Asgard, and CAFU’s visuals have beautifully reflected Jane’s seamless connection to both worlds. Valkyrie: Jane Foster is an enjoyable next chapter for the character that makes room for her to continue to have an important role at Marvel as she gives a unique voice and perspective to the universe.
Item to Watch in 2020 — Heavy Vinyl Y2K-O! (BOOM! Studios): Heavy Vinyl’s sequel will kick off the new decade by telling a story about the infamous Y2K, the true start of everyday technological paranoia. Carly Usdin and Nina Vakueva’s Heavy Vinyl blew me away when the title first came out. The story focused on a group of teens who work at a Vinyl record store and double as a vigilante fight club. There were a lot of great character beats created within that first volume that I’m excited to see the creative team explore with Y2K-O! On top of a stellar story, it will be interesting to see how BOOM! plays with the unique schedule of releasing their story first on Tapas, and then collecting it as a graphic novel. Heavy Vinyl has it all: romance, action, and rock n’ roll. Don’t let this slip under your radar when deciding on what books to add to your 2020 pull list.
Bronze — Gender Queer: A Memoir (Lion Forge): Maia Kobabe’s exploration of eir life, a story of journeys and struggles, shows us the complexities of gender identification, from the inner turmoil of trying to figure out who e is to the social pressure of growing up without fitting neatly into a male/female binary world. Kobabe puts eir life journey on display for all of us to see where ey was identified at birth as female but ultimately accepting eirself as nonbinary and asexual. The book invites empathy and understanding about gender and sexuality in ways that are still probably new and maybe even a little scary for all of us who are rooted in a firmly male/female binary way of thinking. By putting eirself out there, Kobabe kickstarts a discussion in eir readers that e has spent a lifetime living with.
Silver — Kid Gloves (First Second): We’ve seen in Lucy Knisley’s previous books that she takes personal events like marriage or even vacationing with her grandparents and find these universal struggles in them. Kid Gloves continues this work as Knisley opens up her experiences of pregnancy, miscarriages, and difficult childbirths to work through her own pain and joys in ways ring true because they are the ways that we don’t want to talk about it; they’re too personal and painful for most of us. For as personal that these moments are, Knisley knows that these events and feelings aren’t unique to her. Her experiences may not be unique (even though we don’t talk about it, many of us have lived through these same pains,) but it’s her perspective on it that helps us all through these traumas. In her comics, she permits herself and us to feel all of these emotions but she also provides social, political, and personal context to give us a view of where these emotions are coming from. Lucy Knisley’s comics bring order and promptness to disorderly times.
Gold — Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (First Second): Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell give us room to feel sad and alone in their story of high-school love. Falling in love is never easy, and when the other person doesn’t seem as invested in the relationship as you are, it’s even more difficult. Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell tell the story of Freddy, her girlfriend Laura, and her best friend Doodle, digging into the thrills and heartache of trying to open yourself up to another person. Tamaki’s writing could be considered soap opera-ish, but she grows a sense of vulnerability in her Freddy as she struggles to be in a relationship with Laura, who doesn’t seem to want to put the same amount of work into it as Laura does. But even Laura, who is a bad girlfriend, doesn’t seem to be a completely bad person— she’s not good at the relationship thing, but what teenager is? Valero-O’Connell frames the story to allow the characters and the readers time to sit with their emotions. This comic gives us time to feel for these characters and their awkward, teenage learnings about love.
Item to Watch in 2020 — How We Talk About Comics in 2020: Since Tom Spurgeon’s death in mid-November, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about his impact on the dialogue of comics, from his days at The Comics Journal to his own Comics Reporter website. Spurgeon wasn’t always on the right side of the discussion of comics, but he provided a voice that almost always steadied a conversation and focused it, particularly around the issues of the state and health of comics and cartoonists. Now there’s a void in that kind of thinking and evangelizing of comics; that voice that calmly and articulately tells us “we should be better and we need to be better” is missing. As the internet comic culture has flowed and ebbed over the last 20+ years, there have been many times when we’ve needed someone to be the adult in the room, and that was usually Spurgeon (though I think he’d have hated to be called that.). And while Spurgeon was an authority on comics, he rarely spoke from a place of authority. Instead, he spoke about community, friendships and relationships that were found comics. Without him, we’ll have to see how we discuss comics going forward, in an environment that too often is more concerned with clickbait headlines and website traffic than in the wellbeing of the medium we love and the people who create those comics.
Bronze — The Plot (Vault Comics): It’s unfortunate that horror comics are often maligned for being dependent on either page-turn shocks or grotesque visual horrors. Both are effective in their own measure, and this isn’t to diminish the artistic prowess of the creators who employ either to tremendous effect, but horror comics often come down to an issue of how much they can shock the reader. As a result, they don’t really incentivize returning to their worlds often. The Plot from Vault Comics is no such book. Writers Tim Daniel and Michael Moreci and artist Joshua Hixson kicked off Vault’s Nightfall imprint with the most atmospheric and tense comic of the year. The way that it marries 1970s horror cinema aesthetics and sensibilities with classic gothic tropes and motifs makes this story of generational secrets amid a New England bog one which will be the kind of title that comics fans give to non-comic fans who want to read good stories.
Silver — Excellence (Image Comics): Rarely do you read something that feels as fully baked, on a conceptual, artistic, and narrative level, as Excellence. This comic was the single best new creation in comics this year. Series writer Brandon Thomas crafted a world that felt fully realized in a way that few books do and a main character, Spencer Dales, that immediately endeared himself to readers. While the writing has been stellar throughout, series artist Khary Randolph and colorist Emilio Lopez take those strong foundational materials and create a visual experience that feels fluid and dynamic. Each issue of Excellence feels like you are watching an incredible piece of animation, and it’d be a surprise if this book doesn’t somehow find its way to that medium in some capacity. Frequently intense, often heartwrenching, and unendingly cool, Excellence lives up to its title.
Gold — House of X/Powers of X (Marvel Comics): The word “event” has become somewhat poisoned in the realm of comics. It isn’t uncommon for the most diehard of fans to be surprised to see the third issue of an event that they didn’t even know was going on, or for them to roll their eyes when a new one starts. For as much as the industry at times seems to rely on events, they rarely ever warrant that word. House of X and Powers of X were an event. The closest readers have seen to a comic experience that was as nearly universally lauded and frequently discussed in online and real life communities was DC Rebirth, and while House of X/Powers of X may have had a steeper price tag, it was a weekly onslaught of discussions among comic communities, of speculations and in-jokes, and it felt like everybody was experiencing something worth being called an “event.” The late summer and early fall of 2019 belonged to Jonathan Hickman, artists Pepe Larraz and R. B. Silva, and colorist Marte Gracia, and it would be tough to argue that these two explosive series are going to be what most people remember when they look back on 2019.
Item to Watch in 2020 — Usagi Yojimbo Color Classics (IDW Publishing): It might seem strange that a story released in the mid-eighties is something that you should have on your radar in 2020, but if IDW’s relaunch of Stan Sakai’s longrunning Usagi Yojimbo taught us anything, it’s that there’s something special about this rabbit bodyguard. While the series has always been one that is welcoming to new readers, starting January you will get the chance to read the original stories given new life through the addition of colors, back-up stories, and making-of material. For longtime fans this is obviously a delight, but for anyone who picked up the series for the first time in the back half of this year, Usagi Yojimbo Color Classics might be the best new-to-you thing for 2020.
Forrest C. Helvie:
Bronze — Dogman (Scholastic Graphix): A favorite of the middle grade crowd, Dav Pilkey’s ever-popular graphic novels continue to dominate the scene with hundreds of thousands of copies sold every year. Beyond the slapstick and simplistic art of these books, however, parents will quickly find the 2019 “Do Good” theme is one that all parents can appreciate in his two latest graphic novels from 2019: For Whom the Ball Rolls and Fetch-22. The artwork may not impress parents, but it serves to inspire many children to pick up paper and pencils of their own to make their own comics, which Pilkey readily gets behind in his “built in” tutorials. Upon closer examination, however, the many embedded allusions to literature can be seen (or found through reading his guide at the end of each book) along with a rich vocabulary quietly woven into the slapstick silliness of Dogman, Petey, Chief, and the rest of the gang.
Silver — Guts (Scholastic Graphix): Raina Telgemeier delivered another fan-favorite book with her latest auto-biographical comic with Guts, a story about not only the typical struggles of coming of age, but also the challenges that come with dealing with anxiety. Readers young and old will readily identify with the struggles of dealing with mental and emotional health issues, which this book tackles head on in ways that are simultaneously humorous and touching. Telgemeier’s skills as both writer and artist come across clearly in her depictions of the stress she experiences with her anxiety and IBS and the ways in which she learns to cope with these difficulties. And let’s not overlook the fact that this latest memoir had a print run that was twice as much as the highest selling direct market book for 2019 despite being published in September! While comics may have a Big Two, there is no question that Raina Telgemeier reigns supreme over the four-colored universe.
Gold — Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Amulet Books): With over 10 million copies of his series sold in 2019 alone — and 200 million copies in the past ten years — the importance of Jeff Kinney’s wildly popular series cannot be understated. With his most recent book Wrecking Ball touring across the country in 2019, Kinney’s stock continued to soar. Even parents will appreciate the “joys” of home improvements that this latest book explores. Occupying a hybrid position between comics and middle grade novel with its combination of prose and simple, cartoonish artwork, Greg Heffley’s adventures are a sure-fire hit with the younger crowd, even if the books challenge more traditionalist notions of what constitutes comics. Nonetheless, it’s hard to overlook how many younger readers flock to their school book fairs when a new entry in the series rolls out. Were the direct market to experience a sort of surge of this kind, the naysayers would quickly be silenced.
Item to Watch in 2020 — PanelxPanel: When it comes to comics criticism today, few are doing it better than Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou and his team at PanelxPanel. An entirely self-published work, this comic e-magazine provides a mix of comics criticism, journalism, and original comics from many of today’s best and up-and-coming professionals in the field. Fresh off an Eisner Award in 2019 for his work, Otsmane-Elhaou recently announced that he will be publishing a series of one-shot books that will take readers on a deep dive of a particular comic story arc, creator, or topic. With four such volumes launching in 2020, it’s a sure-fire bet that mainstream comics criticism will be leveling up thanks to publishing ventures such as this.
Bronze — Star Trek: Year Five (IDW Publishing): A lot of licensed comics were released this past year, but none of them reached the resonance and fun of Star Trek: Year Five. Led by a stocked writer's room of talent including Jody Houser, Jackson Lanzing and Colin Kelly as well as rich, screen-accurate artwork from Stephen Thompson and Charlie Kirchoff, this series took readers and fans throughout a wholly unexplored section of Trek history. And even better, each issue proved to be more fun than the last — sectioned off into character focused and punchy two-to-three-issue arcs, Star Trek: Year Five brought back the pulpy, idea-heavy fun of The Original Series and translated it neatly into monthly comics. 2020 also will find more people joining the staff, in particular Doctor Who's Paul Cornell, adding to the team's ongoing adventures for Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the U.S.S. Enterprise. There were a lot of Star Trek comics released in 2019, but Year Five always stood out among the pack.
Silver — The Green Lantern (DC): 2019 found Grant Morrison returning to monthly comics and delivering one of the more weirder ones he's ever done in The Green Lantern. Conceptualized along with the immense artistic talents of Liam Sharp and Steve Oliff, The Green Lantern presents the team in full on "space opera" mode, throwing Hal Jordan into crazier and crazier situations. Situations like having to outbid "God" for the human race and fighting across a planet of vampires. Each issue felt like part of some unproduced Green Lantern event filtered through the lens of old-school 2000AD-esque pulp, even as some issues felt overwritten and purposefully obtuse in the old Morrison style. But the artwork and scope of the series proved undeniable, setting The Green Lantern apart from other, run-of-the-mill solo hero efforts.
Gold — Immortal Hulk (Marvel Comics): There is a Green Door below it all, and Immortal Hulk threw it open wide for readers in 2019. Shepherded by British scribe Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett, along with a bevy of guest artists, Immortal Hulk resurrected Bruce Banner with a dark bang. Starting as moody single tales of horror starring Banner and new Hulk persona, the Devil Hulk, this series staked a claim early as, at the very least, impressive. But as the series continued, Ewing and Bennett reveals a horrifying scope and ideology for the Devil Hulk, expanding the lore of the series with shocking body horror and consistently improving narrative turns. From Hell to the end of all reality, Immortal Hulk stood strong amid a very stacked year of comics. Item to Watch in 2020 — X-Men (Marvel Comics): As we slept, the world changed in the debuts of House of X and Powers of X this year. Afterward came the Dawn of X, in which a whole new line of X-books were unleashed onto readers to good to fair reception. But exactly how much further is Jonathan Hickman and the rest of the Dawn of X teams willing to go in 2020? We know Young Cable is receiving a solo title. We also know that 2020 will mark the return of Giant Sized X-Men, focused on single characters with a rotating creative team. But what of the fabled X-Corp title? Or the other "Tini Howard Book" Hickman keeps teasing us with on Twitter? I have a feeling the Dawn of X is only going to grow stronger as we head into the new year.
Bronze — These Savage Shores (Vault Comics): Vault Comics was basically a hit parade in 2019, and These Savage Shores absolutely stood out amongst some great competition. Ram V and Sumit Kumar’s work bucks against the American/Eurocentric view of fiction and fantasy that so many of us (especially in the comic sphere) have grown accustomed to. The result is something that feels new and exciting. There’s something secret and special about it; like Ram V and Kumar have tapped into some forgotten history that’s only just now being revealed. Kumar’s art is dense and detailed in a way echoing V’s prose. But more than anything, it's just some of the most fun you can take home from a comic book store.
Silver — Dawn of X (Marvel Comics): Before the MCU and droves of comic book-based films, readers of a certain age will remember the seeming ubiquity of the X-Men. But when the Avengers took up the mantle as the House of Ideas’ premier superhero team, it felt like maybe time was up for Marvel’s merry mutants. Various reboots and big-name creators couldn’t ever fully right the ship — turns out they just weren’t thinking big enough. Enter Jonathan Hickman. Beginning with the tandem miniseries House of X and Powers of X, Hickman rewrote the book on what we thought we knew about the X-Men with savvy retcons and big-picture changes that could have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the line. As a myriad of creators have joined the X-ranks in the ensuing months, it’s clear that Hickman’s meticulous planning has paid off. It’s been a long time since Marvel had a book that could be considered “appointment reading” but the new status quo has the X-Men feeling like they’ve finally broken out of the nostalgia loop that so many capes comics get stuck in.
Gold — Die (Image Comics): What do you do when your career-defining, critically acclaimed creator-owned comic series reaches its conclusion? Well, if you’re Kieron Gillen, you just write another one. Die debuted right at the close of 2018, but really built up steam in 2019, cementing Gillen as one of the most consistent and imaginative creators working in comics today. If WicDiv and Phonogram were sigils to his obsession with music, Die sees Gillen deconstructing another foundational element of his life: tabletop gaming. The writer has always been interested in exploring our cultural touchstones and what they say about us as people, and Die is no exception. Despite its vast setting and intricate story elements, it still feels personal and incisive. Artist Stephanie Hans’ lush, painted artwork plays a huge role in the book’s success as well as she balances the intimacy of a role playing game with the massive stakes and world. At its heart, Die isn’t just a story about friendship and the people we have been along the way — like the best kinds of art, it also reminds us of who we are and who we want to be.
Item to Watch in 2020 — Jamal Campbell (DC): If 2019 is any indication, there are big things in store for Jamal Campbell in 2020. His work on Naomi and Far Sector alone has shown his incredible range, attention to even the most minute details and storytelling prowess. There is a grace to his linework that allows him to take stylistic chances when the work calls for it and the design of his worlds are immediately captivating. DC clearly believes in him, pairing him with Brian Michael Bendis and N. K. Jemsin, and I suspect we’ll see him on even more high-profile titles in the year ahead.
David Pepose, Best Shots Captain:
Bronze — G.I. Joe (IDW Publishing): Writer Paul Allor and artist Chris Evenhuis redefined the Real American Heroes in their reboot of G.I. Joe, which revamped the characters as guerilla freedom fighters in a country that’s already surrendered to Cobra. Echoing our modern-day politics as small-town Missourians debate whether Cobra has enslaved them or helped keep their city on the map, G.I. Joe has been at times heartbreaking, harrowing, and action-packed. Evenhuis and colorist Brittany Peer have been a tag-team to be reckoned with, with ultra-smooth linework playing off some beautiful pastels. Thought-provoking and complex, G.I. Joe is the best licensed book you’ll read all year.
Silver — Silver Surfer: Black (Marvel Comics): Like a psychedelic black light poster brought to life, Silver Surfer: Black felt like the natural progression of Jack Kirby and Moebius’ insane sci-fi aesthetics reimagined by a brand-new generation. Writer Donny Cates one-upped his already stellar Marvel cosmic work on Thanos, as he portrayed Norrin Radd’s long dark night of the soul as he battled the symbiote god Knull, but the real scene-stealer for this series was artist Tradd Moore, who turned every page into the comic book equivalent of a thousand-watt guitar solo. From the corrosive effect as the Silver Surfer quickly turned black to the ever-shifting void of space to the way that the Surfer’s board would warp and flex depending on the situation, Silver Surfer: Black was by far the most visually dynamic book the Big Two had to offer in 2019.
Gold — Watchmen (DC/HBO): Given the singular genius of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ long-seminal work, it’s almost a thermodynamic miracle that the just-wrapped Watchmen series spearheaded by Damon Lindelof would not just be watchable, but a series that somehow lived up to its predecessor. Tackling American racism and the mythology of caped crusaders, HBO’s Watchmen was a revelation, particularly actors like Regina King giving a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it performance as the vigilante Sister Night, Jean Smart crushing it as a post-Silk Spectre Laurie Blake, Jeremy Irons chewing on the scenery as Adrian Veidt, and Tim Blake Nelson giving a haunting twist on Rorschach as the traumatized human lie detector known as Looking Glass. Ambitious, sweeping, and sometimes bewildering, Lindelof and company took viewers across space and time with this bold new take on the industry’s most divisive series — and while one can absolutely understand and respect those refusing to watch the Watchmen on principle, this adaptation’s sense of craft remains unimpeachable.
Item to Watch in 2020 — BOOM! Studios: There are few publishers who have electrified the market the way that BOOM! Studios has in 2019, jumping to fourth place retail share behind Marvel, DC and Image in November. With hits like Something Is Killing The Children, Once and Future, Strange Skies Over East Berlin, Folklords, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more driving the publisher’s numbers this year, the biggest victory BOOM! has pulled off is that the interest in these series has sustained month-to-month. Promoting aggressively across both retailers and the press, BOOM! is poised to make some noise in 2020.