The best comics of 2019

December 20, 2019 at 11:30 AM EST

Best comic: House of X/Powers of X (Marvel)

The X-Men have always been avatars of change. When they were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, they broke from previous Marvel superheroes by gaining their powers from genetics rather than freak accidents. They represented the next stage of human evolution.

When writer Chris Claremont and artists like John Byrne and Dave Cockrum took over, the X-Men transformed again—from lily-white WASPs to a colorful cavalcade of mutants from across the world. In the ’90s, they developed into the big-muscled, gunslinging heroes typical of that era. As the 2000s dawned, the X-Men heralded a new superhero century, from Bryan Singer’s movies to Grant Morrison’s comics. Then the X-Men stopped evolving. Their movies paled beside the world-conquering blockbusters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; their comics relied on time-hopping gimmicks.

Enter Jonathan Hickman and his mutant revolution. In an age of superhero glut, Hickman has distinguished himself with structural innovation. He’d received popular acclaim for his runs on Avengers and Fantastic Four, but the X-Men always had his heart; they’re the only superheroes he’s truly loved since childhood. He was finally given the reins to Marvel’s mutants earlier this year, and produced a story combining that lifelong passion with the most finely honed storytelling of his career, capable of both introducing new readers to the unbridled joy of superhero comics and reminding old fans why they first fell in love with these characters.

This X-Men story, told across 12 weeks this summer, is split into two interwoven comic miniseries: House of X and Powers of X, illustrated by Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva. It might sound like needless complication—born out of the fact that no human artist could illustrate a weekly comic for three straight months—but the two halves feed into each other. The House of X half marks a new beginning for Marvel’s mutants. Setting aside their differences with old enemies like Magneto, Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men stun the rest of the world by declaring a new sovereign mutant nation-state on the sentient island of Krakoa. Powers of X, meanwhile, jumps around in time to show both the necessity of that decision (the dystopian futures awaiting if mutants continue fighting among themselves) and the possible ramifications (unity taken to its extreme).

The connective tissue between them is Moira MacTaggert, a longtime X-Men ally (portrayed by Rose Byrne in the most recent films). Hickman invests her with new importance: Anytime she dies, the world resets to the time of her birth—the only difference being that she can perfectly recall the events of her past lives. Thus, she knows it’s time for change. At her urging, Xavier sets aside his dream of peaceful coexistence with humans and starts making demands to secure mutants’ future.

The parameters of this new world are defined not just by Larraz’s and Silva’s dynamic art, but also by infographic “data pages” from Hickman and designer Tom Muller, taking readers behind the scenes of everything from the different properties of Krakoa’s flowers to the timelines of Moira’s many lives. It’s not just the X-Men who are changing, it’s the very structure of their comics.

This new take on old characters cuts through the mass of overabundant pop culture. As new issues came out each week, fans congregated on social media to share theories and insights. The excitement of unraveling those mysteries is still intact for anyone reading them in collected form. After all, one reason House of X and Powers of X resonated this year goes beyond a weekly comic club: Mutants are standing up and refusing to be taken advantage of at the same time that people across the world are doing the same.

In one of Moira’s lives, a mutant supervillain asks her: “Do you have any idea how much they hate us?” Knowledge of that hate can destroy a people’s spirit—or lead to unprecedented solidarity. And that can inaugurate the biggest changes of all. Welcome to the age of Krakoa. —Christian Holub

Best writer: Al Ewing, The Immortal Hulk (Marvel)

Who could have seen this coming? Even at the height of the Marvel zeitgeist, it’s fair to say the Hulk isn’t widely loved; the ascendant MCU doesn’t have room for a solo feature film because his first two bombed so badly. Yet in the hands of writer Al Ewing, Hulk has become the focal point of a new superhero classic in the making. That’s a testament to Ewing’s skill, glimpsed in short-lived past favorites like Royals and The Ultimates but now finally given a major Marvel character and a long-form series to work with. The Immortal Hulk is, among other things, one of the first comics since Watchmen that actually earns its overly literary epigraph quotes — mostly because they, like everything else, get twisted into new shapes by Ewing to fit his all-encompassing design. Almost every single supporting character and villain of importance from the Hulk’s past pops up in fascinating ways over the course of The Immortal Hulk, but you don’t need to be familiar with them to get engrossed in Ewing’s story as it starts with straight-up horror and then accumulates elements of black ops thriller, metaphysical meditation, far-future sci-fi, and more as it explores the nature of evil and duality in the most thrilling manner possible. But although we’re focusing on Ewing’s writing here, equal credit for The Immortal Hulk’s greatness must go to artist Joe Bennett, who appears to be doing the best work of his career right now. —C.H.

Best artist: Matías Bergara, Coda (Boom!)

2019 was a great year for fantasy stories in comics. We’ll talk about another one of them in a bit, but Matías Bergara’s astounding work on Coda (co-created with writer Simon Spurrier) must be highlighted. True to its title, Coda plays like an epilogue to a classic fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings. The great dark lord has been overthrown, but all magic has been drained from the world as a result of the final battle. A bard named Hum is our guide through the wreckage, a sarcastic misanthrope passing through the scattered communities of people trying to rebuild their world in search of his wife, a brave and noble warrior whose only obstacle to re-inspiring people with her classic brand of heroism is the fact that she’s an orc. Coda puts Middle-earth through a Mad Max filter; it’s a tricky visual balance, but Bergara makes it work. The breadth of his imagination and the humanity of his fantastical characters astound from one page to the next. —C.H.

Dark Horse

Best new series: Bitter Root (Image)

Bitter Root understands the destructive power of racism. Written by David F. Walker and Chuck Brown, the Harlem Renaissance-set series follows the Sangerye family as they defend the city from monsters — specifically people who turned into demons after their souls were corrupted by racism and fear. However, the book doesn’t just stop there. It also explores how the trauma of racism can have similarly disastrous consequences on victims, too. Yes, this is heavy stuff, but it’s also incredibly entertaining, especially thanks to Sanford Greene’s action-packed and scary art. —Chancellor Agard

Dark Horse Comics

Best return: The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion (Dark Horse)

It only took a decade, but writer Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance) and artist Gabriel Bá (Daytripper) finally returned to the world of the Umbrella Academy — just in time for the live-action Netflix adaptation! But while Umbrella Academy the show spent its first season exploring the first two volumes of the comic, Hotel Oblivion the comic blew all its characters into the stratosphere — literally in many cases. The long wait was apparent in the obvious glee Way and Ba took in finally detonating plotlines they’d planted years ago. The climactic melee at the end is the most epic The Umbrella Academy has ever gotten, and that’s saying something. Even better, the shocking cliffhanger ending indicates there’s a lot more excitement to come. Welcome back, kids. —C.H.

Image Comics

Best graphic novel: November (Image)

Writer Matt Fraction and artist Elsa Charretier’s graphic novella is one of the most intriguingly confusing and stunning stories of the year. Set on a night of violence in the city, November introduces the reader to three normal women who are thrust into a dangerous noir situation that involves a mysterious man connected to the criminal underground. By design, it’s unclear what’s exactly going on because the story unfolds in a non-linear manner and this is just the first volume of a three-part story; however, that doesn’t matter because the characters are immediately compelling, while Charretier and colorist Matt Hollingsworth establish a dark and suspenseful tone. —C.A.

Image Comics

Best fantasy: Die (Image)

Writer Kieron Gillen has described this comic, his follow-up to The Wicked + the Divine, as “Goth Jumanji.” The comparison makes sense, since Die’s protagonists enter a fictional game world (based on Dungeons & Dragons rather than traditional board games) and find it more real than they ever could have imagined. After a few years inside, they barely make it out of the game with their lives — and are forced to leave their team leader behind. Decades later, he manages to pull them back in, and the result allows Gillen to wrestle with all his favorite fantasy ideas, undermining classic tropes while also loving the genre enough to create a fully-fledged Die role-playing game that can be played here in the real world. 

Though she contributed to The Wicked + the Divine, Stephanie Hans is a full co-creator of Die, and she makes the most of her official debut as an interior artist. Her juxtaposition of giant steampunk nightmare dragons and tiny hobbit-like British soldiers in issue #3 makes for one of the most horrifying representations of World War I we’ve gotten in the last few years — and that’s saying something. —C.H.

Fico Ossio for Dark Horse

Best anime homage: No One Left to Fight (Dark Horse)

We here at EW don’t read enough manga to intelligently include it in our year-end comic lists, but mainstream comics got a refreshing injection of manga/anime flavor this year with No One Left to Fight. So often described by writer Aubrey Sitterson and artist Fico Ossio as “The Comic You’ve Always Wanted,” No One Left to Fight took classic fighting stories like Dragon Ball in a fascinating new direction. Sure, Goku and Vegeta can beat down any number of aliens and monsters, but what happens when someone who only lives for fighting hits their 30s? That’s the situation No One Left to Fight protagonist Vale finds himself in: Having beaten every villain, he now finds himself tormented by visions of what his life might have been if he had made other choices. The storytelling is very patient, with Sitterson rolling out world-building details bit by bit while Ossio hides indicative details in characters’ multi-faceted designs. But as tensions start to flare, Ossio’s colors really light up the place. It all culminates in the final issue (for now), when suddenly there is someone to fight again, and the pages practically explode with eye-popping action. —C.H.

Best Comic Strip: Nancy by Olivia Jaimes

The comic strip character Nancy was created by Ernie Bushmiller in 1938, but somehow she’s become one of the best webcomic characters of 2019. New author “Olivia Jaimes” (a pseudonym) took over the long-running strip last year and has made it a delight to read each day whether you find them in newspapers, tweets, or the new physical collection. In particular, Jaimes nails the internet-fueled ennui of modern youth. —C.H.

Superhero of the Year: Superman (DC Comics)

Superman’s future may be up in the air on the big screen, but he took on renewed relevance pretty much everywhere else in 2019. Just look at his eventful year in the pages of DC Comics alone. The Boy Scout helped reintroduce the Legion of Super-Heroes in Superman #15. Then only a few issues later, he revealed his secret identity to the world in #18 (by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Ivan Reis), which was surprisingly poignant and felt like a true game-changing development even though the publisher did something similar five years ago. DC also reinvigorated the world around him with the debuts of Greg Rucka and Mike Perkins’s Lois Lane and Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber’s idiosyncratic Jimmy Olsen. (There were some lows, though, like Superman’s confrontation with Doctor Manhattan in Doomsday Clock).

The Man of Steel also made an impact beyond comics, too. HBO’s Watchmen, a sequel to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark comic, powerfully used his origin story as one of the main ingredients of its exploration of race and superhero stories in America. Then over on The CW, the annual Arrowverse crossover “Crisis on Infinite Earths” highlighted the 81-year-old character’s many dimensions with three different Supermen played by Tyler Hoechlin, Smallville’s Tom Welling, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Brandon Routh, who seamlessly stepped right back into the character’s tights 13 years after Superman Returns. And there’s hope for more Superman on TV next year because The CW is developing a Superman & Lois Lane pilot around Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch. Basically, the Man of Tomorrow’s time is now. —C.A.

Liam Sharp for DC Comics

Honorable Mentions

Coffin Bound (Image)

Gideon Falls (Image)

Invisible Kingdom (Dark Horse)

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me (First Second)

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