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2021 Year in Review: Best Concluded Series

By | December 22nd, 2021
Posted in Columns | % Comments
Image by Mike Romeo

Welcome to the Multiversity Year in Review for 2021! To call this a weird year is a Hulk-sized understatement, but one thing that was a pleasant surprise was the sheer number of interesting and excellent comics that came out this year. We’ve got over 25 categories to get through, so make sure you’re checking out all of the articles by using our 2021 Year in Review tag.

Best Concluded Series
There are ongoing series and miniseries and graphic novels. Comics can come in many formats. But there are some universal truths: all series have beginnings and endings. We wanted to let different formats go head to head, so we created a new category to reflect that. Best completed series honors any 2021 comic that published its finale during the year. The series could have been going on for a few months or a few decades. To qualify for this list, a comic needs to be impactful. These are all stories that we think are going to stick in our minds, haunt our dreams, and keep us talking about them for years to come. These are our best completed series for 2021.

5 (tie). The Many Deaths of Laila Starr

It’s very fitting that one of our best concluded series this year is a book that’s all about conclusions. “The Many Deaths of Laila Starr” from Ram V, Filipe Andrade, Inês Amaro and AndWorld Design was hyper-focused on the ultimate end – what more would you expect from a series where Death is the main character? Yet for a series so concerned with mortality, the most remarkable thing about “Laila Starr” is its meditation on life.

Laila Starr is the reborn goddess of Death, cast out from paradise following the birth of a mortal who is fated to make her irrelevant by creating immortality. It’s a fable concerning some big questions about existence and life. What gives Death’s journey weight, however, is not the giant metaphysical musings that loom over the experience. The harder Death fights to prevent what would, in effect, be her own death, the more she becomes intertwined with the life of the mortal. It’s in their brief intersections that the series finds its voice, by keenly observing the impact one life can have on another.

All of this is stunningly visualized by the art team. Andrade’s illustrations are positively alive, and his and Amaro’s colors pack the comic’s world with a whirlwind of emotions. The visual palette evokes the surreal, magical experience of being alive rather than the mundanity of reality.

What elevates this fable is, fittingly, its ending, which resists offering easy answers and pat emotional catharsis. In its finale, “The Many Deaths of Laila Starr” reflects on its journey, embracing the ambiguity of the grand conclusion with openness and acceptance. The team stuck the landing of an already great series by understanding that the impact of death comes from how it makes us reflect on everything that comes before. – Reid Carter

5 (tie). Superman and the Authority

The sentence “Grant Morrison is returning to Superman” is enough to get many fans very excited. Morrison is responsible for some of the most revered Superman stories of all time. After an unfortunate leak earlier in the year, the book was announced in April and promised to set up a new status quo for Superman. “Superman and the Authority” started life as part of the cancelled 5G initiative. The book was later adapted to fit into the current Superman books. Rather than an older Superman assembling a team to make a difference on Earth it’s Superman as a dad assembling a team to liberate Warworld.

Throughout the book we get Superman at his best. A moment that stands out for me is when he converts Manchester Black to his cause not with a fight, but by believing the best in people. We also get Morrison at their best, with the wild imagination they are famous for. Don’t miss the literal body-shaming trolls or the Edgelords in issue two.

Midnighter (and my Twitter feed) describes this Superman as a “sexy-dad” and I think that’s a great description of what artist Mikel Janín and colorist Jordie Bellaire accomplish. As Superman recruits members to his team we get excellent contributions from a few other artists. Fico Ossio with colorist Sebastian Cheng helps recruit Natasha Irons. Evan Cagle and Dave Stewart take on Apollo and Midnighter. Enchantress is recruited and saved with art from Travel Foreman and Alex Sinclair. While Clark’s team is busy fighting a litany of foes assembled by Ultra Humanite and Brainiac, we are treated to a new OMAC, a new Lightray (The Flash from the Tangent Comics universe Lia Nelson), the Supermobile, JFK, and way more. The four issues are filled to the brim with big ideas and bigger art. Just the way comic books should be. – Matthew Vincenty

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4 (tie). Beta Ray Bill

Writer and Illustrator Daniel Warren Johnson brings “Beta Ray Bill” to a close with an epic smackdown and an emotional touch that is a hallmark of his work. He did it in all of his personal work, he did it on Wonder Woman, and now “Beta Ray Bill” as a mini-series turned out to be a more-than-worthy addition to the legacy of the titular hero.

Physically he is tested to his limits and Johnson uses a battle with Sutur to display not just his love for wrestling but his love for the character Beta Ray Bill. He accomplishes a deepening of the character on several fronts. But while Bill enjoys a level-up from this series, it is the emotion that Johnson brings to the character that has never been seen before quite like this.

Johnson treats Bill’s psychology with nuance.. the whole series is essentially a Faustian quest to be beautiful. His angst over his physical appearance was so strong that it drove him on a quest to go back to “normal” so he wouldn’t feel like a monster. He embarked upon a journey that dragged him and his friends all the way to hell (literally). He’s a sympathetic but also selfish hero and this pays off at the end of the last book with a bittersweet moment where Bill is back to his original form, now “fixed.” Yet all he sees is the monstrous form of himself looking back at him from the mirror. This is to remind us that what is important is not on the outside, but how you feel on the inside.

Friendship is another theme that Johnson excels at, and it was lovely to see him apply this to help a fan-favorite Marvel character shine. Along the way the friends who helped make his journey better solidifies what is a core element to the Beta Ray Bill archetype. He is a hero that never feels worthy enough; but because he’s a truly good person, he always has people support him, and through that we are able to learn the importance of friendship. Thor is a character that works well solo, but Beta Ray Bill is at his best when he’s with his friends. – Henry Finn

4 (tie). Far Sector

DC’s Young Animal imprint, a Vertigo-adjacent “pop-up” imprint developed in large part by musician Gerard Way, ended on a high note. While the imprint’s typical style was characterized by having indie creators revamp or reimagine characters from the lower rungs of the DC Pantheon, the last book published under the Young Animal banner was a Green Lantern book, and introduced us to new ring-wearer Sojourner “Jo” Mullein. This Green Lantern book also eschewed the indie creator-helmed template and introduced best-selling sci-fi/fantasy novelist N.K. Jemisin to the world of comics, with rising star artist Jamal Cambell (of “Naomi” fame) and high profile letterer Deron Bennett rounding out the group of creators.

What they created was, first and foremost, one of the strongest and best characterized settings in recent memory. Not to diminish Lantern Mullein’s contributions to the Lantern mythos in her short tenure, but The City Enduring, a “Dyson Swarm” at the edge of known space that marks the home for three strange and unique alien races, was a marvelous and invigorating place to visit in the all-too-short twelve issue series. The planets-sized artificial construct housed billions of citizens, both real and virtual, in a tangled web of concerns that seem very real and relevant to those of us here on Earth, save for one very large caveat – there are no murders. That is, until Jo shows up.

A noir at heart, Jo Mullein combines all of the characteristics of a bitter, sardonic private eye, with the qualities that lie at the heart of every Lantern – unwavering willpower in the face of overwhelming odds. Galaxies away from anyone who might have known her before she was a Lantern, truly alone, Jemisin and company deftly weave a tale where the villains aren’t so much individuals, but the societal structures that place certain individuals (or groups) in charge of others. The book is a very contemporary look at a very old problem, namely – By what right do others have to determine our destiny?

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Earning three Eisner nominations this year (for Best Limited Series, Best Cover Art, and Best Lettering), the series really was a team effort from the three primary creators. Campbell’s art is stunning throughout – his ability to show the way light bends and reflects being a significant highlight in this glossy and digital urban landscape. Bennett already has a firm resume at his back, but was certainly not sleeping through this assignment – his lettering matching the sometimes playful and quippy tone of Jemisin’s words with Cambell’s bold colors.

We’re already seeing Jo Mullein pop up in the DCU Proper, but without the colorful language, and without the @AT, Nah, and keh-Topli people surrounding her. Though it exists in a sector far from Earth, the City Endures, and I hope we get to revisit her someday. – Johnny Hall

3. Barbalien: Red Planet

When we were first introduced to Mark Markz in the original “Black Hammer” series, he wasn’t given a ton to do on his own, but there were some fascinating details sprinkled throughout setting up further investigation and discussion. With any ensemble story, Jeff Lemire had to give fairly equal time to all of the heroes. He has a strong friendship with Golden Gail, we know he is a gay man, and is, like the other heroes, grappling with their current circumstances. Like most things in this universe, he is a clear homage of something else from comic book history, in this case a take on DC’s Martian Manhunter.

Barbalien’s own miniseries sets up a lot more involving what we already knew about him, and continues to expand his character, his past experiences, and major social themes and scenarios which came together to be one of the year’s best concluded series. An incredibly dense and layered story, writers Jeff Lemire and Tate Brombal give us an intensive look at Barbalien’s exile from Mars for being both a traitor for not helping invade Earth and being a homosexual who was having a relationship with a human man. The timeline moves back and forth between his imprisonment and exile, and his time on Earth. The complexity of this series should not be understated or underappreciated. On Earth, Mark is presenting himself as a Caucasian man, hired as a police officer, and because he has arrived on 1980s Earth, he is hiding his sexual orientation as well. So rarely has there been a single character who has had to mask himself from so many different facets of his life.

As a cop he looks one way: middle aged and completely bald, within the gay community – at clubs, and with his prospective boyfriend he presents himself as mid-20s and blonde. Only within his home, alone, or occasionally fighting crime as the “Barbalien” is he his true Martian self. There isn’t one aspect of his life that isn’t impossibly complicated and damn near impossible to maintain. As a closeted gay man, he sees cops attacking, arresting, and nearly killing many within the LGBTQ community. He sees his partner, and other cops – his brothers on the force – attack people of color simply due to the shade of their skin. It’s an emotionally complex and harrowing series as a whole.

He has to hide his true face and occupation from those he wishes to spend his most intimate moments with, and he has to hide that true self from those who watch his back at work for fear that they would kill him if they knew the truth – and that isn’t even including the fact that he is a Martian. He is a deeply flawed character, who makes a lot of mistakes. He tries to do the right thing most of the time, but can also be hugely selfish. The decisions he makes throughout are completely understandable within the context of what he must see and deal with on a daily basis.

The last few years we have seen so much social and political upheaval and to have this series that focuses on systematic racism, police officers, homosexuality, riots, hate crimes and more – all things that were relevant within the 1980s setting of this story, and today, nearly 40 years later, made every turn of the page a powerful and sometimes painful one. Even when working with broad strokes to make its point the series still completely works. It is the layered fashion of both the character and the circumstances of the plot that keep it from feeling like it is slapping you in the face with its message.

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If you are unfamiliar with the greater “Black Hammer” universe, this is a great jumping on point to see how well it balances its homages of comic book tropes and just how intellectual and powerful these comics can be. It is a testament to these creators that they could make this book with so many ideas and themes running through every panel and it never feels weighed down or over-stuffed. It is an incredible example on how to outwardly and subtly discuss serious matters within a fantastical story. Mark Markz has become one of my favorite characters in all of comics, and it is because of this miniseries. “Barbalien: Red Planet” could hardly have come at a better time. It is an exceptionally written and drawn miniseries that needs to be read by as many people as possible. – Christopher Egan

2. DIE

Tabletop games and comics are two things that should absolutely go together. But while many comics adapt existing tabletop games (mostly successfully at that), “DIE” combines the two very differently: by trapping the main characters in a fantasy RPG of its own making, and rather than being a whimsical, magical romp, it’s a heart-wrenching struggle of identity, loss, and an attempt to return home. Not only that, but it’s not their first time there, and the last time they didn’t all return.

And it is absolutely glorious.

Throughout 20 chapters (one for each side of a d20), Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans took us through a vast world, where different fantasy themes and writers intersect, combine, and battle. But the references aren’t just there for fun – we and the characters alike know the danger of a “Mines of Moria” scene, and simply knowing that they’re entering an area referencing Lovecraft is a terrifying concept. Outside of the homages, it’s still a well-developed land filled with unique and interesting characters, deadly threats, and its own twists on the genre.

Beyond all that, though, it was a character-driven series, taking us through these struggles, dilemmas, and growth with the cast. They’re not a group of teens or kids in a mystical land that serves as a metaphor for adulthood – they’re adults with their own struggles and worries that influence every decision. It’s a story of identity, queerness, maturity, death, and so, so much more. And it will grab a hold of you until the very last page (which it did).

Stephanie Hans’ illustrations brought the world and characters to life in a blend of reds and blues and detailed artwork that’s absolutely mesmerizing. Each page is a painting that could be hung upon someone’s wall, filled with raw intensity and powerful shading that set every scene.

As “DIE” concluded, it wrapped up every point just the way it needed to. The character arcs were completed, we see the impact of their actions, questions were answered, and many a tear was shed. Kieron’s impeccable pacing brought the story to every beat it needed to hit on its way to the end, bringing it to an impactful conclusion. There’s no doubt that “DIE” was one of the best comics published and concluded during this past year, and the way it sticks the ending is proof enough of that. – Robbie Pleasant

1. Immortal Hulk

Well, by the very nature of winning this award, this is the last time we’re going to see “Immortal Hulk” gracing our best of the year lists. But it had its place near the top for the entire run of the book, which brought old fashioned horror back to the Hulk comics. We loved this series, which makes its one last hurrah unsurprising. But it’s hard to end a long ongoing series, and “Immortal Hulk” crushed it. Smashed it even.

Hulk mythology was always some of the weirdest stuff to explain to a new comics fan. Between the strange worlds, and weird villains, and multiple personalities, and heavy origins, Hulk stuff is dense. Ewing not only brought some of the strangest and most exciting pieces of Hulk continuity back into the conversation, he greatly deepened the mythology of the Marvel cosmos and the Hulk’s place in it. The concept of the One Below All is a vague villainous threat that could pay off in unexpected ways in future Hulk comics or literally any other Marvel series.

But “Immortal Hulk’s” ending wasn’t just great for how it contributed to the Marvel universe. It also came back around to resolve the themes that had been simmering through the long series’ run. The religious imagery, and Lovecraftian curses, and weird horror science all came together in one final story about Bruce Banner and Samuel Sterns. It’s always been hard to point to a definitive run of “Hulk” comics. Now there is only one possible choice. It’s unlikely we’re going to get a Hulk comic with as much impact as “Immortal Hulk” had for quite some time. It’s going to remain a Marvel classic. And it should! – Jake Hill

//TAGS | 2021 Year in Review

Multiversity Staff

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