Top 5 Comic Books of 2020
It was certainly a strange year for comics, with massive events and publishing lines being halted, for the first time. “Comics were published during the war,” they said, and yet, the entire industry halted for several weeks and didn’t return to a state of normalcy for months. Editorial shakeups at certain Distinguished Companies, changes in direction, and the massive increase of comic properties being adapted have rapidly shifted everything from the speculator market to publishing initiatives themselves.
And yet, comics persevered, and some of them stood out above the rest. Weird tales, strange friends, journeys through adversity, all of them stand out on a level beyond your average book, all of them are worth picking up.
*every book on this list must have started, ended, or been published during 2020*
5 - Punisher Soviet
Writer: Garth Ennis
Pencils: Jacen Burrows
Inks: Guillermo Ortego
Colors: Nolan Woodard
Letters: Rob Steen
I’m starting this list off with Soviet, one of the best in a consistently solid decade of Punisher books, so you know I’m not messing around. Punisher Soviet follows Frank Castle (The Punisher) and new companion Valery Stepanovich as they hunt down Konstantin Prochenko, a Russian ex-military crime lord before he sheds off his former entanglements and goes legit. Valery is chasing him for revenge, Frank is chasing him because he’s the Punisher.
Garth Ennis is an excellent writer, but I find that as he has aged, he has gotten better at being subtle. Not soft, but maybe a little more refined. Punisher MAX started with Frank unloading an M240 into an Italian mob family, but here, a car bomb explodes off-panel and Frank walks through the aftermath. His pacing is immaculate, not a single panel is wasted and every moment lands, hearing Frank’s cold and calculating thoughts along the way, while having a few moments of levity and the rare bit of companionship that Frank occasionally brushes with.
That’s not to say it isn’t graphic. It wouldn’t be an Ennis book or a Punisher book without the signature gritty violence, and there is your fair share, but it isn’t gratuitous. It’s more contemplative, more scarring, both to the characters and to us. Jacen Burrows and the art team execute every moment perfectly, and when the horror and the trauma hit, they hit perfectly.
They say that comics can hit you in three different ways, they either hit you in the head, the heart, or the gut. In this regard, Punisher Soviet hits you hardest in the gut, although more accurately, the last few pages hit you in the chest like a bullet.
4 - The Other History of the DC Universe
Writer: John Ridley
Layouts: Giuseppe Camuncoli
Finishes: Andrea Cucchi
Colors: Jose Villarrubio
Lettering: Steve Wands
The most different on this list in terms of format and subject matter, John Ridley (Academy Award winner for 12 Years A Slave) brings a different perspective with The Other History of the DCU. So far, only one issue has been published, the size and poignancy of this prestige-format Black Label book focusing on Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce) from 1972-1995 has stuck in my mind for weeks now and I can’t not consider it.
Ridley doesn’t use traditional dialogue, opting instead for a mix of prose over artful layouts from Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi. This works exceedingly well, as standard comic book structure would be unfit to showcase all of the detail and context that Ridley’s script calls for. It feels more like memories that Jefferson Pierce is experiencing, with all of his emotions and thoughts as he grows up to discover his superpowers, watching the Justice League form and garner attention while being primarily white and men, fighting to better his community from his day job as a schoolteacher to his night job as a crime fighter and seeing the greater superhero community fail neighborhoods like this, far too concerned with cosmic events of importance to deal with peddling drugs and rampant poverty.
It’s a multilayered text, handling the emotional side of Jefferson’s personal life and career with the sociopolitical issues of John Stewart becoming Green Lantern, and Jefferson’s dislike of his aloofness and place as the “backup,” as it grows into understanding of John’s monumental task as the first colored superhero and his tremendous guilt. The art team demonstrates these moments in stylistic pages that take full advantage of the magazine pages, making you feel like you’re walking through a museum of this man’s history, and the lettering makes you empathize with Jefferson as you see him struggle, fail, learn, and change.
For a single issue story, it keeps your attention and gives you much to ponder. The following issues will center on Mal Duncan and Bumblebee of the Teen Titans, and Tatsu Yamashiro/Katana as they also find their place on the ever evolving superhero landscape, and will doubtlessly force you to confront the failings of their, and by extension, our society.
3 - Strange Adventures
Writer: Tom King
Artists: Evan Shaner, Mitch Gerads
Letters: Clayton Cowles
By this point, you’ve heard of Tom King. Batman, The Vision, Mister Miracle. The “Tom King treatment,” they call it, and for good reason. Using a less-used character to tell a story about trauma is one of the things he’s best at, and he does it here with Adam Strange, weaving a mystery seeping with PTSD and wrapped in war crimes.
The plot begins as Adam Strange, veteran of the Rann-Pykkt War, returns to Earth to publish his book, and someone who accuses him of committing war crimes ends up dead. Strange, wanting to clear up the situation, asks Batman to investigate, but when Batman refuses due to being too close, he chooses Mr. Terrific in his place, who goes on to find the truth and the lies with Adam’s story, the war, and his supposedly dead daughter.
It’s hard to not see the parallels written into the story, from the main characters and their treatment as heroes, to their families, to actual real-life parallels to the Iraq War. King’s writing is personal as always, drawing from his experiences as an ex-CIA agent to give a realistic portrayal of a man returning home from the war, only this man has a jet pack and a laser gun. Mr. Terrific shines here as well, as a genius called upon to discern the truth in a tangled web of lies by various parties, some of which may not even be aware of it.
Artistically, every page shines. Shaner and Gerads swap art duties, Gerads handling the current plot in his scratchy pencils and darker earth colors while Shaner handles the flashbacks of Adam’s time in Rann with crisp, full lines and bright, solid colors. The juxtaposition of these not only give you a clear distinction about which time you’re looking at, but the atmosphere of it all. It’s not a new trick but it’s usage here is some of the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s a credit to Gerads’ talent that his art in the present make you doubt Adam’s memories of the past.
With 5 issues to go, I’m excited to see where this series will go. The greater reveals are yet to come, but with a team this good working so clean, it’s absolutely worth following.
2 - The Department of Truth
Writer: James Tynion IV
Artist: Martin Simmonds
Letters: Aditya Bidikar
The Department of Truth is based on the idea that if enough people believe a conspiracy theory, then it becomes real. There are the people who fund the dark corners of the internet to cause these world-changing events to happen, the people shutting down the theories to maintain the truth, as it were, and everyone else caught in between.
James Tynion IV (Something is Killing the Children, Batman) rides the line between reality and fiction, weaving a political sci-fi thriller mystery (yes, all 4 of those) tackling everything from crisis actors to flat earthers. Martin Simmonds on art is amazing, his pages and layouts spectacularly drawn, every page sketchy, gritty, and neither dreamlike or nightmarish, but somewhere in between.
This is a relatively recent title, having only published 4 issues in 2020, but the level of quality on display here is undisputed, and is sure to land on the best of next year's books as well. An excellent contemporary title for anyone paying any kind of attention. I would say more, but they might have to kill me.
Hey, so a lot of great books actually came out this last year and I couldn’t let you get to the end without hitting these two like a WatchMojo montage. I also didn’t write very much in the second half of the book and I thought I’d bring a bit more attention to these.
7 - Wonder Woman: Dead Earth
Writer/Artist: Daniel Warren Johnson
Spectacular art and thrilling story featuring a darker post-apocalyptic story for the sensational Wonder Woman. Daniel Warren Johnson writes but he also illustrates with his signature gritty style. Not to be obvious, but it’s truly a wonder.
6 - Hawkeye: Freefall
Writer: Matthew Rosenberg
Artist: Otto Schmidt
The odd man Avenger gets himself tangled up in ways only Clint Barton can. Great art by Otto Schmidt (who previously did art on Ben Percy’s Green Arrow, funnily enough) and Matthew Rosenberg’s writing is both witty, dramatic, and harshly real.
1 - X of Swords
Writers: Jonathan Hickman and Toni Howard, with Vita Ayala, Leah Thompson, Gerry Duggan, Benjamin Percy, Ed Brisson, and Zeb Wells
Artists: Pepe Larraz with Mahmoud Asrar, Leinil Francis Yu, Viktor Bogdonavic, Phil Noto, Rod Reis, Stefano Caselli, Matteo Lolli, Joshua Cassara, Carlos Gomez, Carmen Carnero, Marcus To, and R.B. Silva
Design: Tom Muller
X of Swords is an 80s X-Men crossover wrapped in Hickman’s sci-fi/fantasy trappings. Like Inferno, Fatal Attractions, and X-Tinction Agenda, the overall storyline runs through every X-Men title (9 titles!), tied together by three one-shots at the beginning, middle, and end. At nearly twice the average crossover length, this is a colossal effort brought forth by dozens of incredible people, and their effort pays off.
This event draws heavily from a lot of Chris Claremont and Alan Davis 80s continuity, particularly in Excalibur dealing heavily with the Captain Britain Corps. The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, long lost in the land of Arakko with an Amenth army in tow, attempt to bring down the newly established mutant nation of Krakoa, but they must first pass through the Starlight Citadel in Otherworld, the realm of the all-powerful Saturnyne, who dictates that ten swordfighters from both Arakko and Krakoa must face off in a tournament to determine whether Arakko moves forward with their assault. The first half of the event is very much setup, taking some of what was previously established in the X-Men publishing line like Apocalypse opening a gate to Otherworld, Summoner’s arrival on Krakoa, and Cable’s recent acquisition of the Light of Galador and setting the board for the eventual clash.
There’s a lot of reframing of central ideas to the X-Men here, from taking away the newly attained immortality for mutants while in Otherworld to the entire history of Apocalypse. House and Powers of X did much to bring him to a new state, from a villain driven by survival of the fittest to a leader of mutants, proud to see them step up to their role in establishing their own society, but here we see him in a tragic role, as his family stayed behind to fight the Amenth horde after they split the ancient land of Okkara in two, and Apocalypse was sent with Krakoa to Earth, the first mutant of the second generation of mutants. You see his struggle not as a radical believer in evolution but as a man driven by necessity and loss, and when his long lost family returns, having succumbed to the horde, their betrayal cuts deep.
Jonathan Hickman has done events of massive scale with many moving parts before, and he does some of his best work here. When his X-Men run began, they gave him the title of Head of X, where the other writers consulted with him on the direction of the publishing line very much like an editor, and he has stepped up to the plate. Juggling multiple creative teams this cohesively is a Herculean task but it works like a machine. Many of the writers here deliver some of their sharpest books. Ed Brisson hits you with his best issue of New Mutants, a proper sendoff to his run on the title, while Vita Ayala delivers the best Storm story in years, making me excited for her taking over after Brisson. Benjamin Percy throws you for a loop in a two-issue arc about Wolverine going to hell in search of the Murumasa blade that is more metal than Death Metal, and Leah Thompson and Zeb Wells drop some great issues of X-Factor and Hellions, setting the atmosphere and dropping some leads about the failure of the resurrection protocols and Sinister’s plans post-XoS.
The all-stars, however, are Tini Howard, Gerry Duggan, and Hickman. Howard, a relative newcomer, handles a lot of the continuity and setup from her run on Excalibur, and her collaboration with Hickman is fantastic. Many of the pivotal issues go to them, and once the midpoint hits and the swordbearers meet, it’s buck wild. Hickman and Howard hit it out of the park, introducing Arakko’s side of the conflict with enigmatic and interesting characters. Hickman, as per usual, introduces conflicting ideologies and parallels, with Redroot, voice of Arakko, who fills a similar role to Cypher, Solem is an inverted Wolverine, Genesis is Apocalypse’s long-lost wife, as well as wildcard characters like Pogg Ur-Pogg who is a giant crocodile dragon-thing, and Isca, The Unbeaten, whose power is that she can’t be beaten.
Duggan gets plenty of mileage out of the various interactions between the swordbearers, as well as the differences between the ancient, hardened Arakki warriors and the new mutant society of Krakoa, with its hardships and graces. Howard writes the enigmatic Saturnyne meddling in the tournament and maneuvering the mutants like chess pieces to achieve her desired outcome, never knowing how she’ll play her cards until the end. And once the tournament is out in full, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the pages, with a dozen incredible artists contributing to the various books as Saturnyne stacks Krakoans against their betters in a series of thrilling, sometimes ridiculous encounters.
There’s some comedy, there’s high drama, there’s losses, and there’s career highlights in here for many of the artists involved. Mahmoud Asrar helps bring the new mutants to life and some incredible emotions, deserving of a lot of credit for the development and understanding that Apocalypse gets. R.B. Silva, of PoX fame, steps in for an issue to do some great pages in Excalibur. Carmen Carnero, Rod Reis, Marcus To, Matteo Lolli and Carlos Gomez do a lot of lifting a few single issues that consistently look great, and Joshua Cassara drops a lot stunning panels as well. And swords. Lots of swords.
Stefano Caselli designs mystical ballrooms and his share of both hilarious and dramatic interactions in Marauders, some pages by Leinil Francis Yu are used to tell the history of the great lands, and Phil Noto gives a new life to the long-time villain Gorgon, who burns like a star and gets redefined as a character entirely.
Designer Tom Muller gets no small credit on his work here, making each page of exposition work beautifully. As with his previous work on HoX/PoX and the Dawn of X, he sets the look of the crossover, with clean, sci-fi designs that go over the various swords and realms at play, as well as giving depth to Arakko and Otherworld.
Dozens of character get the spotlight, their moment to shine, again and again and again. Old classics like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Mr Sinister, Storm, Wolverine, Magik, Cypher, Exodus, Saturnyne, Professor X, Magneto, Captain Britain, Emma Frost, as well as newer additions like Gorgon, Penance, Solem, Death, War, Summoner, Redroot, Isca the Unbeatable, Pogg Ur-Pogg, Cable, Gwenpool, Havok, the White Sword, Shuri, Empath, and of course, Apocalypse. So many iconic, memorable moments stacked upon each other. Of course, the definitive X-Men artist of this new generation, Pepe Larraz brings the three XoS one-shots together, putting out some incredible work with his clean line work (and spectacular colors by Marte Gracia!). His work will go down with the greats in the mutant pantheon.
X of Swords is more than a crossover, it is an achievement in what comic books should be. It is a triumph of storytelling, moving dozens of parts with dozens of creators and somehow not falling to pieces. Eight writers and a dozen artists doesn’t seem like it would work, but with the proper teams working in tandem, passing the baton from one to the other, it works beautifully (and they practiced! See: Empyre: X-Men). It takes all of the setup in a year’s worth of books, sets the stage with decades-old continuity, and tells a story with payoff after payoff after payoff. It’s dramatic, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s comic-booky as hell, and it works, failing to collapse under its own weight while delivering on its premise and adding more to the direction of the line as a whole, and the best experience I had reading comics throughout the year. Truly a triumph of the comic book medium.
X of Swords will be collected in hardcover format. If you’re interested in ordering it or any of the other titles on this list, feel free to reach out to us here to order your collected editions, trades, or to start/add a pull.