The best stuff of the year for the comics nerd in your life
Some of my best memories of Christmas are finding a quiet corner by the tree to read my new comics while the rest of the family watched football or It’s A Wonderful Life for the millionth time. In that spirit, here are some ideas for the geeks in your life, or to buy for yourself if you are a sad and lonely comic-book guy. This list is by no means comprehensive, and I’m leaving a lot of good stuff out: Dark Horse’s reprints of Geoff Darrow’s visually stunning and weirdly hilarious Shaolin Cowboy; Mike Mignola’s new Hellboy comics; IDW’s collection of Wynonna Earp, including some issues written by the stars of the TV series; and much more. But whatever you celebrate, here’s your chance to escape into a more colorful world while it’s cold and gray outside.
Maybe the reviews for the movie would have been better if they’d stuck closer to Kieron Gillen’s and Esad Ribić’s latest reinvention of the Eternals for Marvel Comics. For starters, Ikaris fights Thanos. A lot. But more than that, Gillen has a talent for grounding heroic myths in the current moment, and here he brings Jack Kirby’s ancient-astronaut saga to life in a way that’s never been done before.
The Eternals are both a little bit terrifying and a little bit sad, anchored to existence for millions of years to fight a war they can never win. Narrated by the Earth itself, a broken machine the Eternals are required to fix, the book brings suspense and mystery to characters who cannot, by definition, ever die. The art looks like Greek sculpture. And the final reveal of the opening story arc is an utterly devastating blow, perfectly landed. The first collection is available now from Marvel.
THE DREAMING: WAKING HOURS
DC Comics has had a rough couple of years, with layoffs and executive turnover, which has led to some promising comics being abandoned or ignored. At one point, there was an entire line of comics based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, which is still one of the best-selling and most groundbreaking works in the medium. The fate of those books is uncertain now, which is unfortunate, because we could use a lot more of G. Willow Wilson’s Waking Hours.
Wilson has created a true expansion of Gaiman’s original world, with new characters and stories that add to the mythos rather than aping it. My favorite is Heather After, a modern-day sorceress from a withered branch of the Burgess family tree. She wanders fearlessly into the worlds of the Endless, picking up companions and experience along the way. The whole series is a bit like discovering new drawers in the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, and I hope it comes back after its initial 12-issue run. But if it doesn’t, the trade paperback is available now from DC Comics.
Al Ewing’s horror-tinged take on Bruce Banner and his inner demons came to an end with its 50thissue this year, with Ewing managing to touch every iteration of the big green guy and include almost all of his twisted history. (Did you remember Bruce’s wife Betty was once turned into a hideous feathered harpy? Ewing did.) The series explores what it’s like to be made into a monster by pain and hate, and how anger is often mistaken for strength.
It’s still a superhero book, though, and there are fun side-trips into the other corners of the Marvel Universe through the Hulk’s eyes. You finally get a chance to see the Avengers the way Hulk does—as the perfect, beautiful in-crowd of bullies who torment him for his failures. Ewing puts the Hulk’s trauma and rage to work against the Devil himself, and the outcome is always teetering on the edge of doubt. It’s some of the best comics storytelling to come out of Marvel in years. The collected editions are available as paperbacks and in hardback omnibuses from Marvel.
THE GOOD ASIAN
An impressive new noir series from Pornsak Pichetshote and Alexandre Tefenkgi, this book tells the story of 1930s Chinatown from the perspective of the people who live inside it, and the detective Edison Hark, who grapples with its corruption and his own mysteries. The detective story is almost infinitely malleable and adaptable, and by flipping the script, Pichetshote is able to breathe new life into the ground broken by Chandler and Hammett. Hark is a complex hero, carrying his own share of pain and darkness, but he is driven to find the truth as he grapples with what he owes the people around him. It’s great launch to what will hopefully be a long series. The first four issues are available now in a collected edition from Image Comics.
Despite a buggy relaunch that has made the search function nearly unusable, Marvel Unlimited’s online comics service is still the best way to read most of the company’s massive catalog without going broke or dying under a toppled pile of old comics. The service, which is available for $60 with a holiday discount, gives you access to more than 29,000 back issues on your tablet or phone, including complete runs of the early classics. It beats the living daylights out of DC’s competing service, DC Universe Infinite, which still has huge gaps in its library. For someone who wants a wider selection outside the Big Two, there’s Comixology Unlimited, which has a new slate every month of comics from Marvel, DC, and other presses like Image, Dark Horse, and IDW.
ALL OF THE MARVELS: A JOURNEY TO THE END OF THE BIGGEST STORY EVER TOLD By Douglas Wolk
This book would be a good companion gift to Marvel Unlimited. While short on pictures, it’s the chronicle of Douglas Wolk’s somewhat lunatic effort to read every Marvel comic ever published (with one or two exceptions). This is more than just an obsessed fan, however; Wolk makes a case that the Marvel Universe is a piece of living mythology that changes and expands with every new reader. The book bounces between intro material for people who might have seen one or two of the Marvel movies and deep dives into comics lore. It’s entertaining and even inspiring for a completist like me, who has to know exactly what Dr. Strange did in that one cameo appearance in the pages of Alpha Flight #6 in 1984. (Not much, TBH.) Available from Penguin Press.
DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH
A series that hits a little too close to home these days, from James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds. Imagine that all of the conspiracy theories out there are true — all of them, even the ones that contradict the others. That’s what FBI agent Cole Turner discovers when he stumbles upon two warring factions of Men In Black: one trying to keep reality as it is, and the other trying to unleash the lunacy of all the Flat Earth, QAnon, Reptilian nightmares out there. Simmonds’ art, reminiscent of Bill Sienkiewicz, adds some nicely creepy imagery to the story. It’s undeniably compelling, even when it delves into conspiracies that have an actual, human cost in the real world. The first two collections are available in trade paperback from Image Comics.
John Ridley does not have to write comic books. He won an Oscar. He has made roughly a gazillion dollars in TV. But he clearly loves the medium. His knowledge and dedication are on every page of this alt-history of DC’s long, slow crawl toward representation of non-white characters, as told by the characters themselves. Usually written by white men, these heroes were the first time some kids ever saw people who looked like themselves alongside Superman and Batman. Ridley takes the sometimes embarrassing and insulting moments and makes them a part of a larger narrative, creating a world where the Teen Titans exist side-by-side with the riots of the late ‘60s and Black Lightning won the decathalon in the 1972 Olympics. It finally tells the parts the earlier comics left out, filling in their gaps and deepening their meaning at the same time. Available in hardcover from DC Comics.
A project that picks up some of the loose threads left by Alan Moore in his genre-defining work Watchmen, and more recently, Damon Lindelof’s HBO series based on it. Tom King and Jorge Fornes create a political mystery drenched in the paranoia of a 70s conspiracy thriller and executed with precision and craftsmanship. King shows off his mastery of slow-drip revelation, hidden in dialogue and panel shots, and Fornes’ art is a masterpiece of composition on nearly every page.
There have been criticisms that this did not have to be a Watchmen story, or even a superhero story at all. Maybe so. (Moore has famously disavowed any attempts at sequels or spin-offs, which is obviously not stopping DC.) But the setting is what makes it intriguing. We get to see another fractured piece of the world broken by Moore’s characters, and how its people still cling to the myth of the masked vigilante who will fix everything — despite how it has turned out repeatedly. The meaning will vary for different readers, but there is a message for our times for anyone who wants to see it. Available in hardcover from DC Comics.