By any measure, 2016 has been an interesting, exhausting, baffling year. However, despite a general air floating around the collective consciousness that we’re ready to put this year to bed, it’s difficult to argue that 2016 has been a joy for comic book fans. With that said, let’s throw the spotlight on the wealth of books 2016 has gifted us and lightened some very heavy days. In no particular order, here are some of our favorite stories to soothe the weary soul.

Legend

LEGEND #4 cover

With their Z2 Comics series Legend, writer Samuel Sattin and artist Chris Koehler present a post-apocalyptic tale of dogs and cats carrying the fire of civilization long after it appears that this world and a decimate humanity have long given up the ghost. In its initial five-issue run, Sattin and Koehler use this Watership Down/The Walking Dead mashup to speak to everything from friendship to animal cruelty to racism to economic inequality. The result is a yarn that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with other allegorical tales such as Watership Down, We3, and Pride of Baghdad, but is its own unique animal.

Doctor Strange

DOCTOR STRANGE #12 cover

Of the latest array of Marvel NOW! books that have debuted in the past year, it could be that no other character in the House of Idea’s menagerie benefited the most from a spit-shine than Doctor Strange. Writer Jason Aaron and artist Chris Bachalo have taken the parts of the good doctor and his history that work–his skill, his sometimes-arrogance–and used them to put Strange’s feet to the fire, breaking him down so as to build him back up, a better character for the process. Bachalo pays homage to the early Steve Ditko-era Doctor Strange art, producing esoteric and acid-fueled alternate dimension landscapes while still make the book very much his own. Aaron, likewise, is very much in his element, taking powerful characters—as he did with Cain in The Goddamned and the son of Odin in Thor—and making them vulnerable and accessible to readers.

Jem and the Holograms

JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS #11 cover

IDW’s Jem and the Holograms was one of the best gifts 2015 had to offer, and this year continued that trend. Jem and the Holograms is a series that, month-in and month-out, is one of the most enjoyable and most pertinent books on the racks. Writer Kelly Thompson manages to pack the series with themes exploring friendship, betrayal, and self-esteem—as well as giving positive, realistic portrayals of LGBTQIA characters, which is more than welcome in fiction where that’s often not the case. Artists from Sophie Campbell to Jen Bartel make the book a joy to read, with fully-realized characters that can’t help but jump off the page. Brimming with emotional impact, solid characterization, visually ebullient art, and just bald enjoyment, Jem is a shining example of creators who know their craft and aren’t afraid to make bold choices to serve both the story and the readers.

Batman

BATMAN #50 cover

This has been quite the year for the Dark Knight Detective: Writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo ended their epic, groundbreaking run on Batman, while Tom King began a new chapter in the Caped Crusader’s life with the title’s “Rebirth” relaunch. Both iterations of the Batman title tackled, in different yet congruent and intersecting ways, what it means for Bruce Wayne to be Batman—not just his need to protect the innocent and dispense justice, but also to be able to carry on as a human being in the world about him. It’s rare in comics to have back-to-back runs on a book with creative teams that “get” a character and execute that knowledge in unique, novel ways not yet seen before, but then 2016 had to give us some gifts for trudging through the awful parts, right?

Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye

CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE #1 cover

Part of DC’s “Young Animal” imprint, Cave Carson Has a Cybernetic Eye has been one of the shining pearls of the stable of comics overlord Gerard Way has brought to readers. Writers Way and Jon Rivera and artist Michael Avon Oeming bring an old-school sensibility to Cave, a Jonny Quest-meets-Doc Savage vibe with a post-modern deconstructionist flare that doesn’t trip of the sometimes-bizarre and fantastical stories the title offers. A depressed protagonist striving to do good and combatting loneliness makes for a hero we want to see succeed, maybe because we ourselves in him at times. Way and Rivera smartly use Cave’s cybernetic eye to comment on the unclear nature of emotion and how we all want to put the world and our lives in clearer focus.

Johnny Red: The Hurricane

Johnny Red: The Hurricane details a single mission in Johnny’s storied service record, and is everything that a war comic should be, revealing a landscape of horror, unimaginable courage, craven cowardice, love, brutality, honor, betrayal, and murderous hatred that is probably as close to the realities of the Russian Front of World War II as it is possible to get in sequential art. Keith Burn’s artwork almost literally soars, providing the finest depiction of aerial combat since Joe Colquhoun and George Evans picked up pencils – and for this correspondent’s money, Burns often manages to exceed even their best. Wordie’s colors perfectly capture the story’s shifting moods and scenes, the mud, the blood, the dark, and the light, while his winter skies, frozen grounds, and icy seas pull the reader relentlessly into the frozen hell of the winter of 1942. Garth Ennis also performs at his best and better, with a script that makes no bones about the realities of the Russian Front, or the people who fought there. His humor is dark, his compassion deep, and his understanding seemingly impossible for a man born years after the war was won, and a continent away.

This book is the classic war comics genre at its very best, and belongs on your shelf. Even if you don’t like war comics, you need this one, because Johnny Red: The Hurricane is also comic art at its best, a collaborative creation that works on every level, and leaves the reader in awe of the story as a whole – a brilliant, beautiful example of the medium’s possibilities fully realized. This is what it is all about.

The Vision

THE VISION #1 cover

From the beginning of The Vision, readers had an inkling that things wouldn’t end well for Marvel’s synthezoid and his family, living in the suburbs and attempting a life of normalcy. Tom King scrawled the writing on the wall pretty quickly for all to see, but that didn’t mean that we didn’t have hope as we followed each chapter through each gut-wrenching turn of events. The Vision’s dualistic nature—a robot wanting to live as a man—is one of the best explorations of the concept in fiction, comics or otherwise. The ending of the series was inevitable, as is the impact the book has, days—weeks—after you walk away from it.

Hawkeye

HAWKEYE #1 cover

Writer Kelly Thompson has shown over the past few years that she knows how to spin fun, dynamic yarns brimming with clearly-outlined characterization in such comic book series as Jem and the Holograms and A-Force. That’s why it was more than phenomenal news that she was teaming up with Leonardo Romero for Hawkeye, starring Kate Bishop in her first solo book as the adventurer with a penchant for archery. Kate is one of Marvel’s best additions to their menagerie of characters in the past decade, bringing an intelligence and sass to the Avengers’ world. Thompson’s words combined with Romero’s pencils in issue 1 shows that the duo will bring a street-level, whip-sharp sensibility necessary to make Kate’s tales work.

The Flintstones

THE FLINTSTONES #3 cover

2016 has been a year of surprises and DC Comics’ The Flintstones was certainly one of them. Part of DC’s rollout of reimagined Hanna-Barbera properties for the four-colored world of comics, writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh’s satiric take on the modern Stone Age family has proven to be one of most consistently smart comics on newsstands, month-in and month-out. Tackling topics from commercialization to monogamy to homosexuality, Russell and Pugh has been a gift this year, using Fred, Wilma, and the gang as proxies to remind us that the absurd and the sublime can be found in our world as easily it is in theirs.

The Goddamned

THE GODDAMNED #5 cover

Somehow, in a book that is ostensibly about characters about the Bible and some of its larger-than-life characters, what Image’s The Goddamned Trojan Horse’d us with is a deeply personal tale about human nature, free will, and the nature of choice. Writer Jason Aaron and artist r.m. Guera take the figure of Cain, transforming him from the man who brought murder to the world to the exemplar of self-possession and ownership. And while the savagery the creative team puts on the page certainly connects to readers at some visceral level, even the wince-inducing bone-breaking and random killings serve the story and, weirdly, never feel gratuitous. In a yarn filled with biblical myths and cannibalistic giants, we get a story that embraces humanity and takes it for what it is, light and dark, warts and all.

Kim & Kim

KIM & KIM #1 cover

With Kim & Kim, Black Mask Studios has produced one of the most bonkers, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink stories of 2016—and I mean that in the best way possible. Following galactic bounty hunters Kim D and Kim Q, sporting a fun pop/punk aesthetic, trying to score a huge payoff to help offset their fund shortage. The comic is very LGBTQIA-positive, with a wide diversity of characters, including one of the Kims, who is transgender. Never has a book left me smiling so much since IDW’s Jem and the Holograms started a couple years back, which absolutely kept me coming back for more. The book feels like a warm hug and the kind of laughter between friends when you’re punchy from being awake at 3:00 AM and someone sets off a chuckles grenade in the house. Writer Magdalene Visaggio, artists Eva Cabrera and Claudia Aguirre, and letterer Zakk Saam have produced a comic worth returning to when a smile is needed and the world seems grim.

A.D.: After Death Volume 1

What if death itself had been cured? What if you or anyone ever had to die? How would that affect the operating framework of society? Of how the world works? How would it affect you? Would the removal of death as a real concern change how you saw yourself? Your identity? Your very sense of being and how you viewed time and the infinite? These are the questions that writer Scott Snyder and artist Jeff Lemire address in Image’s A.D.: After Death, following Jonah Cooke, 825 years after death was eradicated. In After Death, Snyder and Lemire use Jonah to address how the nature of death, how knowing that death is a possibility affects our worldview, and how we cope with our mortality or lack thereof. After Death lingers like a spectre long after you’ve put the book away and go about the mundanity of life.

Spider-Woman

SPIDER-WOMAN #5 cover

Getting this out of the way first: Any book that can take the wide, varied, and often-convoluted history of Jessica Drew, also known as Spider-Woman, and distill it down to its best parts deserves to be on this list. But writer Dennis Hopeless does readers one better: After that distillation, he gives Jessica a depth of character that feels like it was always there for the taking if just for the right writer to come along to coax it out. This year followed Jessica as she coped with being a mother, doing it in such a way that didn’t ignore the baby a few issues after Jess gave birth, but addressing the good and the difficult head-on. Hopeless had Spider-Woman wrestle with questions of motherhood and identity in a way that we haven’t seen approached in other superhero comics, giving them the space they needed to be answered, even amidst the action and bombast swirling about Jess’ life. Those questions, a robust supporting cast of characters, and hilarious, droll comedy peppered throughout made Spider-Woman one of the best books Marvel produced in 2016.

The Red Hook/The Brooklynite

Part of LINE Webtoon’s “New Brooklyn” series of comics, The Red Hook and The Brooklynite venture out of New York City proper to explore Brooklyn as its own living, breathing entity, following characters that are still reeling from the borough seceding from the Big Apple. What makes the series shine are their unflinching looks at income inequality, gentrification, and other social issues in ways that haven’t necessarily been explored in other superhero fare.

Superwoman

Phil Jimenez took a concept that could have been a one-off—Clark Kent’s friend Lana Lang gaining superpowers—and created a book in Superwoman that addresses legacy, tragedy, the nature of heroism. Jimenez has created book that’s ripe with pathos, as Lana struggles to live up to her friend(s) legacy and become a superhero in her own right. But it’s also an enormous amount of fun—where else can you get a book that has the main character railing against the unfairness of the universe on one page, with a supervillain with a floating head above her armor on the next? Jimenez’s love for comics’ past and what comics can be is front-and-center, which is why Superwoman will continue to be a book to watch.

Ether

ETHER #1 cover

The use of magic in fiction is often a crapshoot, as its very conceit is regularly ill-defined, hard to grasp, even ethereal, leaving readers gobsmacked as to how to relate to the world the creators are building and how to connect to the overall narrative. The result can be frustrating and sometimes will do more harm than good in crafting an engaging yarn.

These are concerns that writer Matt Kindt and artist David Rubin are keenly aware of and address head-on, as they tackle the nature of magic in their new creator-owned series Ether from Dark Horse Comics. With Kindt and Rubin’s proxy Boone Dias, an empiricist and scientist who believes that magic is only science we haven’t been able to explain, the duo explore epistemology and how we know what we know. It doesn’t hurt that Rubin’s art evokes a Steve Ditko quality that makes Ether a circus for the eyes as well as the mind.

Dark Night: A True Batman Story

DARK NIGHT: A TRUE BATMAN STORY cover

Superhero tales have long been used as a vehicle to comment on our own humanity, as inspiration to strive for better or as self-reflection on who we are and where we find ourselves in the world. Paul Dini’s autobiographical tale of anger without a constructive outlet, fear of a world that’s hurt him, and the isolation that comes from that anger and fear is beautiful and haunting. The man who brought so many classic Batman: The Animated Series stories to world gives us one more, a yarn filled with the hope that not only can we aspire to be Batman, but also a hero to ourselves as well.

  • Seren

    Thank you for putting Spider-Woman on this list. I’m so happy to see my favorite comic book get the recognition it deserves. It’s been such a great book each month and never disappoints.