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.
5 (tie). The Human Target
Twelve issues, Twelve Days. The last twelve days of the life of Christopher Chance, to be specific. With every issue, Chance gets closer to both and answers, and his (implied) impending doom. This makes for a tense narrative, but it’s not one that writer Tom King or artist Greg Smallwood are willing to rush. Like most of King’s writing, The Human Target is a slow burn, building its narrative at methodical pace. If these are Chance’s last days, King and Smallwood want to savor them. Every panel is meticulous and gorgeous, every written line feels highly considered. This is a deliberate, purposeful comic.
Smallwood’s art is simply phenomenal, and every panel is devoted with care and love. The gorgeous, dark moody coloring and strong compositions evoke Walter Hill films and Saul Bass art. There’s style oozing out of every single panel and it’s truly very impressive. Instead of simply sketching a scene, Smallwood directs the reader’s eye with his compositions. Smallwood tells a lot of his dialogue in close up, and his skill for evocative faces is off the charts. Often he’ll just use eyes or lips to fill a frame. It’s sublime and terrific and even if the story wasn’t brilliant, this comic would just be nice to look at.
Only two issues in as of this write up, the future for “Human Target #1” is exciting. The first two issues have been absolute knockouts, each containing terrific revelations on the final pages. King seriously knows how to get his hooks into a reader. Anyone who has read the first two issues so far is going to very much want to know how it ends. – Ryan Fitzmartin
5 (tie). Lady Baltimore: The Witch Queens
Many folks hear “Mike Mignola” and immediately associate him with the Hellboy franchise, but one of his equally well known worlds in his creation is the Outerverse. This year, we had the chance to revisit the world of Lord Balimore through the eyes of his widow, the Lady Sofia Baltimore, in this WWII adventure.
As a new reader to the Mignolaverse, I’m looking for titles that are self-contained stories, and “Lady Baltimore” proves a perfect introduction. But as I discovered in my reviews of issues #3 and #5 for Mignolaversity, there’s a complex, nuanced, subtext underneath that expands and bends the world of the Outerverse, taking it to new places. A good creator realizes they have never reached their zenith in their creative abilities, and Mignola shows that time and again with his works, but in such a way that doesn’t alienate the new reader. In fact, it does the opposite: it makes them want to dig deeper, explore further.
The subtext extends to Michelle Madsen’s colors and Bridgit Connell’s linework. They infuse each character, major to minor and all in between, with visual personality that reinforces what we read in the script. When you have a creative team in synergy like this one, it shows. And we cannot underestimate the WWII setting and battle against literal demons as a lens looking out on to our modern world, where the same battles play out today.
The “Lady Baltimore” finale teases the return of a beloved character, which can certainly bring readers back for the next installment. But for me, it’s so much more that will have me back for Sofia and Imogen’s further adventures. – Kate KosturskiContinued below
4 (tie). Stray Dogs
I couldn’t have imagined how much I like “Stay Dogs.” The ad campaign, which promised “Silence of the Lambs meets Lady and the Tramp” made me roll my eyes. I wasn’t all that familiar with the work of writer Tony Fleecs and artist Trish Forstner outside of knowing that they did some “My Little Pony” comics. Nothing could have prepared me for this book. It’s a murder mystery from the perspective of some dogs. More than that, the killer takes the dogs of his victims as trophies. I knew that “Stray Dogs” was going to take delight in combining clashing tones- cute animals and serial killers- but I didn’t anticipate how good the central mystery would be! Rather than hitting the same joke over and over again, Fleecs and Forstner are extremely thoughtful about the world from a dog’s perspective. They see things from closer to the ground. Their memories aren’t the same as humans, which makes detective work very difficult. It’s easy to see the cartoony art style and dismiss “Stay Dogs” as a joke, but that would be a mistake. This is a carefully constructed mystery, on par with anything you’d find in a Phillip/Brubaker comic. Only this one has dogs! – Jake Hill
4 (tie). Robin
A great tweet that I cannot find once said that you can categorize everything as “anime” or “not anime.” As far as superhero comic books go, it’s hard to get more anime than Joshua Williamson and Gleb Melnikov’s “Robin.” This book, which follows Damian Wayne at a fighting tournament on a secret island in which he tries to prove himself against other young, skilled fighters, absolutely whips. Damian is a character from whom writers are able to mine a lot but for as long as he’s been around, the most frequent story for Batman’s son has been about nature vs. nurture. It’s not that there’s none of that here- there’s quite a bit of al Ghul content here- but Williamson has found more to mine from Damian’s story. This is a book about a boy stepping out of his father’s shadow (and his father probable has the most famous shadow since the Allegory of the Cave) and becoming his own person. Plus there’s his new community of friends and rivals from the island. Flatline, Damian’s new bestie and the subject of his affections, is the most prominent and fleshed out of these characters and she’s a treat. Respawn is a Deadpool analog and an absolute blast to read. Connor Hawke is utilized excellently as Damian’s greatest rival on the island. And of course Ravager is always a welcome presence and her background compliments Damian’s well.
Maybe the best thing of all in “Robin” is that it’s awesome. It rocks and rolls harder than most superhero comic books could even hope to at the moment. When your story revolves around a fighting tournament, it’s gotta look cool and the fighting must be excellent and Gleb Melnikov excels here. Melnikov does action about as well as anyone can. Every punch, kick, and flip is filled with energy. The pacing is electric. It’s all extremely cool looking. Most importantly, none of the action is superfluous. It all tells a story or reveals something about a character.
What a treat it is to have gotten a comic like “Robin” this year. With heart, intelligent writing, and incredible action, it’s proved itself a must read. Better yet, it shows no signs of slowing down. – Quinn Tassin
3. The Swamp Thing
DC has taken Alec Holland’s role as Swamp Thing just about as far as it could go over the past few decades. Alec Holland has died, come back from the dead, and fought his arch-nemesis Anton Arcane countless times. It was definitely time for DC to take a different approach to the Swamp Thing property. Thankfully, writer Ram V and artist Mike Perkins delivered a shocking change to Swamp Thing in “Future State: Swamp Thing.” The two-issue series delighted the reader in shifting protagonists, tone, and the time period. V and Perkins showed readers the middle of the storyline before properly introducing new series protagonist Levi Kamei in “The Swamp Thing” #1. Kamei’s origin story is masterfully revealed slowly by V and Perkins to build as much intrigue as possible. Perkins builds lots of tension on the page by foreshadowing Levi’s abilities. Perkins uses distorted angles and shocked expressions from Levi to ensure readers don’t feel comfortable. Right when Levi is having a moment where he isn’t feeling good Perkins is able to shift over to the supernatural realm. V and Perkins provide so many details to readers that the shifts in tone here feel earned. The best part of “The Swamp Thing” is the incredible level of ambiance. Characters hint at plot developments far before they happen. Readers know something is wrong with Levi but won’t understand the nuanced relationship he has with The Green until the end of the series. The beautiful art from Perkins can be used as an antagonistic force encouraging Levi to fight for the swamp. “The Swamp Thing” reinforces the ecological roots of the character and successfully finds a new direction for Swamp Thing. – Alexander JonesContinued below
When I walked into my local comic book shop and saw a new title written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire, I knew I had to check it out. After reading Sweet Tooth earlier this year, I had some high expectations that were met easily by Mr. Lemire. Mazebook starts by introducing a man living a monotonous and dull life doing the same thing day-in and day-out as he deals with the grief of his daughter’s death. As the story progresses, Lemire introduces more and more elements to have the main character question his reality and the reader as well.
A man is searching for answers hoping that his daughter may be somewhere out in the world. He just needs to open his eyes and stop limiting himself. Lemire’s trademark sketchy pencil style contributes to this story because it creates this uneasy feeling throughout the pages. I began to feel myself rooting for him as he pushed himself to talk to his ex-wife and question every step of the way because he understands that to anyone on the outside, he would be deemed crazy.
I think that’s part of Lemire’s story-telling style in that he creates these stories with characters you want to see succeed and be happy; they just have to be willing to take the chance. The world in Mazebook is portrayed in black and white, but when he dreams, we see colors that give the character hope. The story is almost over, and I do not doubt that Lemire will give this character, and the reader, the closure they deserve. – Alexander Manzo
1. The Nice House on the Lake
Horror comics are having a moment and the work of all-star creators like writer James Tynion IV are a big reason why. Though his stories often rely on the same basic concepts that have defined the horror genre for decades, his imaginative yet accessible plots, relatable characters and intuitive pacing all remind us the tale is in the telling..
In “The Nice House on the Lake” Tynion IV unabashedly borrows elements from archetypal “locked room” mysteries, psychological thrillers, 70s disaster movies and films like “The Big Chill” and “The Breakfast Club” to deliver a fresh, genre-bending take on the Apocalypse.
At the center of it all is Walter, a kind and generous, but decidedly strange mutual friend who’s orchestrated a gathering of 10 high school and collegiate friends and casual acquaintances. Ostensibly, they’ve all come to this secluded, architecturally stunning vacation home in Wisconsin to reunite and celebrate their friendships. Before they’ve even unpacked, however, the outside world bursts into flames and Armageddon begins.
Adeptly removing the question of when catastrophe will strike, the narrative swiftly turns to more interesting existential questions. In the words of Tynion IV himself in a recent interview: “Okay, are you going to look that horror in the face? Or are you going to keep your head down and just focus on the people around you and make the best of what you have?” The outside world is gone. What will you do about it?
Tynion IV builds the foundation with a vivid and imaginative setting and 10 unique, vibrant characters. His artistic collaborator at DC, Álvaro Martínez Bueno, along with colorist Jordy Bellaire, take those elements and launch the story into the stratosphere. Martínez Bueno’s cinematic framing and loose, frenetic lines give the book a sense of urgency and impending doom. Bellaire’s often underlit, surrealistic colors and streak-filled color washes constantly remind us of Walter’s lurking, almost omniscient, alien presence. Handwritten notes and lists, social media and email messages, typewritten word-for-word transcripts and abstract, personalized symbols for each character add a layer of gamification.
The actual house and grounds are both a sanctuary and a puzzle to be solved. Walter is a dungeon master who’s intentionally trapped 10 carefully chosen people with different skillsets and psychologies in the finite world he’s created. Everything is a clue and any move is possible as the characters seek to understand the rules and define their quest. Something bad is going to happen. The characters will each be tested. Will they try to fight back or willingly embrace their fate? With six more issues to come, anything seems possible. – John Schaidler