From superheroes to basketball, here are EW's picks for the best comics and graphic novels of the past year.

By Christian Holub
December 30, 2020 at 09:30 AM EST
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Credit: Marvel; Random House Graphic; DC Comics (3); Ahoy Comics; Macmillan; QUARANTINE COMIX; BOOM! - Archaia

2020 posed unique challenges for comic books, but many creators and publishers still managed to produce incredible stories anyway. Here are our 10 favorites, organized into superlative categories.

Credit: DC Comics

Far Sector doesn’t feel like most DC superhero comics. It may star a Green Lantern, but the story is set so far from Earth that no recognizable Corps members or Justice League paragons ever show up. That’s fine though, because writer N.K. Jemisin applied the same vigorous world-building that defined her award-winning novels in the Broken Earth and Inheritance trilogies to her first comic book series. With the help of eye-popping design work from artist Jamal Campbell, the City Enduring — a Dyson Sphere populated by three wildly different alien races that have managed to live in peace by making it illegal to feel emotions — feels as fleshed-out and lived-in as any previous DC setting.

Old characters aren’t missed, because you’re too busy finding out everything you can about the plant-like Keh-Topli, the charismatic Nah, and the synthetic @At (pronounced ‘at-at,’ they’re like if Twitter bots had their own society), as well as trying to untangle the central murder mystery driving the book. How does murder happen when emotions are impossible, anyway…?

Yet for all those sci-fi trappings, Far Sector is thoroughly a superhero story, and one well-suited to the year that was. As the issues have progressed, readers have learned more about fledgling Green Lantern Sojourner “Jo” Mullein (whose amazing design is brilliantly modeled after Janelle Monaé): She served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, and then returned home to become a cop until she (this must be pieced together from flashbacks) witnessed her partner brutally beat and maybe murder someone in a manner very familiar to anyone who attended a Black Lives Matter protest this year. The 2020 pandemic forced the world to look inward, and many people (in America, Nigeria, and elsewhere) found themselves asking hard questions about the nature of justice, and whether a police force whose first response is violence was really best-suited for a world of everyday catastrophe.

Far Sector gave housebound readers a beautiful escape into a wonderful sci-fi world while still interrogating these same questions, and for that it was the perfect superhero comic for 2020.

Related: N.K. Jemisin previews her upcoming Green Lantern comic

Credit: Macmillan

What right does a basketball comic have to be this epic? It helps that Dragon Hoops was written and drawn by prolific graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, a past recipient of both the Eisner Award for Best Writer and the MacArthur Fellowship. But Dragon Hoops makes perfect use of his past experience. Yang’s first work of nonfiction, Dragon Hoops begins in 2014 with its author as a character, wondering what subject he should tackle for his next graphic novel. This meta-ness never gets annoying, because though Yang is at the center, he never hogs the spotlight. 

After learning that Bishop O’Dowd, the Catholic high school where he taught math and coding in northern California, now boasts one of the most talked-about high school basketball teams in the country, Yang decides to follow along on their journey to the state championship. On the way, this science and superhero nerd learns everything he can about the backstories of every player on the team, as well as about the history of basketball itself.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining read that captures the thrill of sports while also going to some unexpected places. Dragon Hoops is equally readable for both basketball fans (who will enjoy Yang’s artistic depiction of the sport and cameos from players who have since made names for themselves in the NBA, like Ben Simmons) and newcomers who might just find Yang’s enthusiasm contagious.  

Read more: Gene Luen Yang gets personal in new graphic novel Dragon Hoops

Credit: Random House Graphic

Those of us comic fans who came of age in earlier generations still mostly associate the format with superheroes, horror/fantasy, or counterculture art. These days, the name of the game is bildungsroman. Every year it seems like there are more and more lovely slice-of-life graphic novels about the pleasures and pains of growing up as a young person in today’s world. It makes sense: In a zeitgeist so dominated by superheroes and spectacle, young people are finding more meaningful connections in stories about everyday life. Such is the context for The Magic Fish, the astounding debut graphic novel from writer and artist Trung “Trungles” Le Nguyen. 

Centered on a young Vietnamese-American boy named Tien, The Magic Fish is a beautiful story about language and culture. Tien was born in America to Vietnamese immigrants, so while he is a fluent English speaker, his mom still relies mostly on Vietnamese. The only way they can connect is through reading fairy tales together, which means that’s the only way Tien thinks he can come out to his parents about his sexuality. Nguyen makes an incredible color tapestry here, using blue for the fairy tales and red for the present and yellow for the mother’s Vietnamese past, but the most beautiful element of all is the way Tien and his mother learn to adapt folklore to the circumstances of their own lives. The world is not one kind of thing, and neither are our oldest stories about it.

Read more: The Magic Fish author Trung Le Nguyen discusses the heroism of fairy tales

Credit: QUARANTINE COMIX

COVID-19 was hard on everyone, and the comic industry was no exception. After lockdown measures were put in place across the country in March, the whole industry ground to a halt. For a few months, there weren’t any new comics. The most innovative response to this horrible situation came from the creative team of Image’s Ice Cream Man

In those early scary months of our pandemic spring, writer W. Maxwell Prince and artists Martin Morazzo and Chris O'Halloran produced six weekly short “Quarantine Comix." It helps that Ice Cream Man was already the best anthology comic around, so its format was adaptable to this new paradigm. Prince and his collaborators compressed their storytelling into four pages at a time, and found unsettling ways to comment on the strange quarantine status quo (the first issue directly took on the “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in a quarantine, so what have you done?” canard that was in the air back then) and provide evergreen horror stories.

Thankfully, those early months of quarantine are in the rear view mirror now. Comics are back on track, and Ice Cream Man has returned to its standard format. But these Quarantine Comix were a much-needed reminder of the format’s adaptability; if you ask around at your local comic shop, they might still have physical copies of the Quarantine Comix collection that was released in September.

Read more: What quarantine innovations can tell us about the future of comics

Credit: Marvel

The X-Men got swords! What’s not to love about that? Though X of Swords’ premise seemed simple, this is Jonathan Hickman we’re talking about here; the writer who has led the X-Men into their new era has lots of experience building massively intricate story cathedrals out of superhero comics. Under his direction, X of Swords culminated the first year of post-House of X mutant stories into a continually-surprising mixture of superhero crossover, martial arts tournament, and fairy tale fantasy. 

Thanks to Hickman and his co-writers — primarily Excalibur’s Tini Howard, but also Benjamin Percy (X-Force, Wolverine), Gerry Duggan (Marauders, Cable), Vita Ayala (Marauders), Ed Brisson (New Mutants), and Leah Williams (X-Factor) — we finally got answers to questions that had lingered since last summer’s House of X/Powers of X (namely, whatever happened to the other half of the mutant island Krakoa?) and even got to witness a fully-blown, emotionally-satisfying character arc for Apocalypse of all people. Also, Wolverine fought a planet. X of Swords refreshed Marvel’s magical cosmology with a whole new energy; we can’t be the only ones who went into the event barely knowing who Opal Luna Saturnyne was and left with a newfound interest in the politics of the Starlight Citadel. 

Don’t worry if you weren’t able to keep up with the admittedly complicated reading order; a big glossy hardcover collection is on its way in the new year, as newly-relaunched comics like S.W.O.R.D. point readers towards “what comes next” for the mutants of Krakoa. 

Read more: Ranking the X-Men's swords in X of Swords

Credit: DC Comics

Tom King has been one of the star writers of the last few years of superhero comics; he recently won the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Writer two years in a row for his work on Batman and Mister Miracle. His brilliant writing is once again on display in Strange Adventures, which divides its story of space-faring superhero Adam Strange into two interweaving parts. But as a result of that division, the real star of this book is the art team. 

Mitch Gerads handled the present-day story on Earth, while Evan “Doc” Shaner drew the flashbacks to Adam’s just-completed war on the planet Rann. At first the division seemed simple enough: Gerads’ graphic art seemed as well-suited to the paranoid politics of Mr. Terrific’s investigation into the “fake news” of Adam’s war stories, while Shaner’s clean-cut drawings seemed a natural fit for classical sci-fi heroism. But as the story went on, the lines began to blur; Gerads’ story found room for sympathy and connection, while Shaner’s war stories got progressively more brutal and upsetting. Is anyone telling the truth about themselves in this book?  

Partially thanks to a COVID-caused delay earlier this year, Strange Adventures is still only a little more than halfway through its 12-issue run, and so there are plenty of secrets left to reveal. But the artistic matrix has already distinguished it from any of its team members’ previous work, and has us waiting on the edge of our seat to see how it ends.

Read more: How the art of Strange Adventures captured a year of uncertainty

Credit: BOOM! - Archaia

Comic book adaptations of literary classics are quite common these days. Sometimes it seems like every month brings a new graphic novel version of acclaimed 20th century novels like The Handmaid’s Tale or Kindred. The deluge was threatening to get repetitive, but Ryan North and Albert Monteys’ adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five is great enough to justify the whole trend.

Anyone who’s read Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi novel about reckoning with the horrors of World War II by becoming “unstuck in time” knows that it’s already pretty perfect, but North and Monteys find innovative ways to use the comic medium to add extra dimensions to the story (and wouldn’t the Tralfamadorians be proud of that?). Graphic timelines lay out every stage of Billy Pilgrim’s life so you can keep up with his time travel, vintage pulp figments are used to color and differentiate Kilgore Trout’s stories-within-stories, and wordless boundary-defying page designs attempt to illustrate how the aliens from Tralfamadore see time. 

And yet, the most awe-inspiring image in this Slaughterhouse-Five must be the two-page spread of Dresden in all its beauty — as it must have looked before the Allies came. So it goes.

Credit: Ahoy Comics

Politics is always a part of all our lives, but every four years the U.S. presidential election throws this into even sharper relief. So 2020 was a year in desperate need of political satire, and the best material on offer came from none other than modern comics’ premiere satirist, Mark Russell. The last time a presidential election cycle swung around, in 2016, Russell was writing a Flintstones comic that was surprisingly and smartly political. But after four years of President Donald Trump, the need for subtle storytelling is pretty much gone. Might as well make your political satire as upfront as possible.

Billionaire Island is exactly what its title claims to be. Set in the near future, it revolves around a couple journalists and radicals finding their way to the titular island getaway where the ultra-rich have decamped to escape the consequences of the world they destroyed with their rapacious greed. But even as they try to give the billionaires some due comeuppance, these travelers find that the only thing more terrifying than oppressive overlords are all the less-rich people who are very willing to live in a gilded cage. Billionaire Island isn’t an arresting read because its inventions are absurd, but because it all feels horribly plausible.

Credit: First Second

This story does not go the way you think. The Golden Age’s premise starts out looking like recognizable fantasy fare: After the death of a medieval king, his beloved daughter gets pushed aside by court regents and viziers in favor of her more easily manipulated younger brother. On the run, with only a few steadfast allies by her side, Princess Tilda needs to regroup so she can reclaim her rightful place on the throne... or does she? 

Moving through the countryside, Tilda and her knights come face-to-face with an incipient peasant revolution that is clearly (to readers, if not these characters) much more justified and righteous. Tilda’s goal is rather selfish, when you think about it; she just wants to change one ruler for another and take the power for herself. These peasants, dreaming of a lost titular “Golden Age” when people lived without feudalist hierarchy and shared the bounty of the world together, want to fundamentally transform their society to make it more equal. 

The most successful fantasy story of the last decade was Game of Thrones, no matter what you think of the finale. GoT’s axiomatic principle was imaginable fantasy world governed by the same social structures and prejudices of medieval England. The Golden Age goes the other way, reminding everyone that divisions between lords and serfs are actually not as natural as the rocks or the trees. Don’t worry though, it’s far from a political lecture. Roxanne Moreil’s writing is sparing, allowing Cyril Pedrosa’s fluid art to guide you through the story. As the various characters reckon with crises of conscience, so does the art style flicker back and forth between dreamlike and nightmarish imagery. And this is only Book 1 of a saga, so there’s also a stunning cliffhanger you likely won’t forget soon.

Credit: DC Comics

The horror comics published by DC in the ‘80s and ‘90s set such a high water-mark for literate graphic novel storytelling that they are still referenced to this day. Reckoning with the legacy of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has been the challenge of all horror and fantasy comic writers for the last few decades, and it certainly hasn’t been easy. But over the last couple years, writer Simon “Si” Spurrier has proven himself capable of inheriting that legacy -- first by penning a legitimate Sandman sequel in the form of The Dreaming, and then by resurrecting one of Moore’s most iconic creations in John Constantine, Hellblazer. He had help from artistic collaborators Aaron Campbell (whose gritty style captures the unsavory aspects of Constantine’s dirty magical dealings) and Matias Bergara (with who, Spurrier previously created the wonderful fantasy comic Coda; here’s hoping they team up again someday).

John Constantine, Hellblazer has already been canceled by DC after 12 issues, so perhaps it’s too late to sing its praises. But this book was a master class on taking an old concept and bringing it into the present day in a vibrant way. Spurrier and his artistic collaborators pulled Constantine out of the apocalyptic climax of Gaiman’s original Books of Magic graphic novel and dropped him into the world of 2019 to find that all his old friends either hated him or forgot him. This older, battle-scarred Constantine had to reckon not only with his past actions, but also with an older future version of himself running around and screwing things up even more. But there were also problems bigger than Constantine himself — for all his screw-ups, he didn’t create the modern culture of xenophobia in Britain, or the austerity cuts to universal health care, or tell a certain Epstein-connected royal to spend lots of time with underage girls. In addressing these challenges, Constantine proved that he is still a hero for our times.

For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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