After a shaky 2020 thanks to the pandemic, 2021 was a banner year for comics - with many comics being called some of the best comics of the year. We're living in a golden age where comics are more accessible and vibrant than ever, with the greatest in superhero comics from Marvel and DC co-exist with hit manga from overseas, eye-turning webcomics taking advantage of digital media, and stunning independent work that can be anything from dazzling art to stunning literary fiction – and in the best cases, both.
While Newsarama's comic coverage generally leans more towards North American superhero work, our tastes are wide and varied. The only thing required by us to be considered for this list is to be not just good, but great.
With all that said, these are the best comic books of 2021 – did some of your favorites make the list?
Authors: Scott Snyder (writer), Francesco Francavilla (artist), Andworld Design (Letterer)
Publisher: Best Jackett Press / comiXology
What is it?
Night of the Ghoul brings a novel twist to the idea of ancient cursed artifacts by making the haunted object at the story's heart an iconic but long-thought-lost early Hollywood film called 'Night of the Ghoul'.
Why should you read Night of the Ghoul?
Night of the Ghoul hits the horror sweet spot that both Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla made their names on, but with the added touchstone of Hollywood's halcyon days and a penchant for the weird, akin to some of the best X-Files episodes.
This ongoing series is a pulpy Giallo, like something from the oeuvre of Stephen King, focusing on the mystery of a forbidden film created during (and about) World War I, and how the tragedy of the film's subject matter returns to haunting life with the its first proper screening.
The strange case of the movie's disappearance is only made greater when the circumstances of its discovery come to light, revealing a vast conspiracy involving a retirement home run by a cult, and exposing the real horror that can be found on a faded piece of celluloid.
Authors: Chip Zdarsky (writer), Marco Checchetto and Mike Hawthorne and Stefano Landini and Manuel Garcia (artists), Adriano Di Benedetto (inker), Marcio Menyz (color artist), Clayton Cowles (letterer)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
What is it?
When the villainous Kingpin is elected mayor of New York City, he throws Daredevil in jail, leaving Matt Murdock's former lover Elektra to fill in as Daredevil – while vowing to leave her murderous ways as an assassin in the past. 2021's Daredevil issues explore this dichotomy in the stories 'Doing Time' and 'Lockdown.'
Why should you read Daredevil: Doing Time and Daredevil: Lockdown?
These two story arcs form the backbone of the 2021 issues of Daredevil by writer Chip Zdarsky, core series artist Marco Checchetto, and more, which center on Elektra filling in for Matt Murdock as Daredevil as she tries to hold herself to Matt's standards while taking the Kingpin down while Matt stews in jail.
Meanwhile, Kingpin's reign as mayor of New York City begins to turn the 'Big Apple' rotten to its core, as his criminal enterprises reach new heights thanks to his political career. It all builds to the just-launched Devil's Reign crossover, in which Kingpin outlaws superheroes from New York all together,
Authors: Ram V (writer), Mike Perkins and John McCrea (artists), Mike Spicer and June Chung (colorists), Aditya Bidikar (letterer)
What is it?
Ram V and Mike Perkins replanted DC's Swamp Thing in new soil, with a new host named Levi Kamei. But instead of aiming to create a new concept for the classic horror character whole cloth, the duo have embraced the entirety of the Swamp Thing mythos by bringing a wide-eyed new point of view to arguably the weirdest (and richest) legacy of any character DC.
Why should you read The Swamp Thing?
Reeling from the death of his father, Levi Kamei finds an ersatz replacement in the leafy embrace of the Green - but his newfound bond with nature not without its thorns. So far, The Swamp Thing is a story about loneliness filtered through the horror/sci-fi ideas of the Green and the Rot, playing on the idea that you're never truly alone - even when you might want to be.
The Swamp Thing leans heavily into the idea of body horror mixed with real psychological trauma, bringing the story back to the DC Universe, introducing the new Swamp Thing avatar to well-known characters such as Alec Holland and Poison Ivy.
There's an overused adage about trees falling in a forest but no one being around to hear it. But with The Swamp Thing, that sense of remoteness is flipped on its head when you realize the trees are just as alive as you are.
7. Chainsaw Man
Authors: Tatsuki Fujimoto (writer/artist), Amanda Haley (translatior), Sabrina Heep (letterer)
Publisher: VIZ Media
What is it?
Chainsaw Man follows a devil hunter named Denji who has the ability to merge with his chainsaw devil of a pet named Pochita to become the maniacal Chainsaw Man. Think Deadpool, but without a Marvel (or Fox) filter. And more chainsaws.
Why should you read Chainsaw Man?
After its English language debut in 2020, Chainsaw Man ripped into fans with six collected volumes in 2021 – and what could've been a one-off hit has been turned into one of the biggest new comics franchises around, manga or otherwise. Make no mistake, though – Tatsuki Fujimoto's shōnen manga is violent, gory, and dark. If you're able to tread those waters, you won't find a better exploration of those themes anywhere in comics.
Just as Peter Parker's early days as Spider-Man were as much about fighting crime as paying his bills, Chainsaw Man centers on Denji's struggle to get out of a debt his father ran up before he died. That's where the ability to merge with his devil dog to become Chainsaw Man comes in.
Like Spider-Man, what makes Chainsaw Man work is the contrast between the real-life struggles of Denji to pay off his debt, eat healthily, and find a girl to love up against the the flesh-rending, blood-spattering side of his life as a chainsaw-headed devil hunter.
Authors: James Tynion IV (writer), Werther Dell'Edra (artist), Miquel Muerto (colorist), Andworld Design
Publisher: BOOM! Studios
What is it?
Something is Killing the Children is about monsters who terrorize young children, and Erica Slaughter, a monster hunter who boldly and defiantly tries to help - even if most adults in the world can't even see the threat.
Why should you read Something is Killing the Children?
After establishing this monstrous premise in 13 issues over the course of 2019 and 2020, 2021's return to Something is Killing the Children finally dug into the backstory of how someone could be trained, disciplined, and girded to stand up to terrible monsters.
The 'Me and My Monster' arc in 2021's volume of Something is Killing the Children clued us in to how Erica Slaughter became the monster-huntin' woman we've grown to love, but also shows the scared little girl that experienced her own trauma - and who now uses those experiences to help others in need.
This arc also delves into the Order of St. George that trained Erica to fight monsters, as well as the events the eventually made her strike out on her own as a freelance monster hunter. 2021's Something Is Killing the Children issues tell a supernatural version of Kill Bill, and Erica Slaughter is just as much the hero by the end of the story as Uma Thurman's iconic Bride.
5. Black Widow
Authors: Kelly Thompson (writer), Elena Casagrande and Rafael de Latorre (artist), Elisabetta D'Amico (inker), Jordie Bellaire (color artist), Cory Petit (letterer)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
What is it?
Long-time loner Black Widow finds something she's been missing for years when she settles down in San Francisco and creates her own bona fide Widow squad.
Why should you read Black Widow?
After overcoming a villain who created a happy (but fake) life for her and then taking it all away, Black Widow attempts to turn the page on her ledger by making a family unit of her own and settling down in one place.
In 2021's Black Widow #5 through #12, Natasha fights back against the villains who have manipulated her, enlisting a unique crew comprised of Yelena Belova, Spider-Girl, and a new character named Lucy - both to call on their help, and so she can help them.
Kelly Thompson and the artists involved really 'get' Natasha here – showing her tactical excellence, the damage she's accumulated along the way, and how she's managed to use both to become a better version of herself.
4. Far Sector
Authors: NK Jemisin (writer), Jamal Campbell (artist), Deron Bennett (letterer)
Publisher: Young Animal (A DC imprint)
What is it?
Far Sector is a forward-thinking Green Lantern story with a dash of classic Star Trek world-building and culture politics, but don't where: there are copious amounts of ring-slinging and space battles to keep any superhero fan happy.
Why should you read Far Sector?
DC's Green Lantern mythos gets a fresh injection of sci-fi from acclaimed novelist NK Jemisin with Far Sector, and this sci-fi is more than just space operas and fictional tech – it's a commentary on our own lives and culture through the lens of fantastical elements. Gotta love it.
Far Sector stars a newly recruited Green Lantern named Sojourner 'Jo' Mullein, who is assigned as a peacekeeper on a faraway planet after its society was rocked by the first murder in 500 years. While the story is full of magic rings and alien culture, Far Sector is eerily similar to what we are going through now – protests, police wrongdoing, and the struggle for underrepresented voices to speak up, and speak louder.
While Far Sector can be read as a simple space superhero story in the grand Green Lantern tradition, there is immense rewards in taking it all in as speculative fiction murder mystery that speaks to what we are going through in real life as well.
3. Lore Olympus
Author: Rachel Smythe
Publisher: Webtoon (digital), Del Rey (print)
What is it?
Lore Olympus is a modern-day reimagining of Greek mythology, centered around the epic love story of Hades and Persephone. This isn't stuffy language and sandals – its a a high-art romance using the classics to tell a story that's timeless, complete with the scandals, the gossip, the gab, and the harshness of strong personalities that is refreshingly honest in its portrayal.
Why should you read Lore Olympus?
The superhero genre is often called the mythology for our times – but Lore Olympus flips that adage on its head by re-framing actual classical Greek mythology for the modern day.
This webcomic-turned-graphic novel series shows the Greek gods are just as humane (and in some cases inhuman) as you or I, written and drawn without a need to know the source material (although that does give it some added nuance). Characters like Persephone, Hades, Zeus, Eros, and Artemis burst forward as fully-realized characters and not just profiles in a textbook – reminding you of people you know (and some people you wish you didn't).
Lore Olympus is a thrilling ensemble story as timeless as Little Women and Friends (yes, that Friends), even if the characters are older than almost any of the books on your shelf.
Authors: John Ridley (writer), Giuseppe Camuncoli and Andrea Cucchi (artists), José Villarrubia (colorist), Steve Wands (letterer)
Publisher: Black Label (a DC imprint)
What is it?
The Other History of the DC Universe looks at the in-story history of the DC Universe, reframing it through modern eyes to understand, accept, and in some cases overcome the pitfalls of our evolving sociopolitical climate through the years. Told from the perspective of DC superheroes of color, this five-issue series gives a fresh perspective to DC that celebrates the publisher's legacy - warts and all.
Why should you read The Other History of the DC Universe?
The Other History of the DC Universe is a love letter to DC Comics, and also a history lesson. And like true love, it understands the successes as well as the faults, and offers a path to be better.
Told in an illustrated book format, The Other History of the DC Universe spans from the '70s to modern times, telling the overarching story of DC history from the vantage point of Black Lightning, Bumblebee, Katana, Renee Montoya, and Thunder.
Superhero stories are known for punching, but The Other History of DC Universe pulls no punches in a different way – confronting ideas of racism, homophobia, and hate with love and understanding from a group of masterful storytellers.
Author: Barry Windsor-Smith
What is it?
For superhero fans, Monsters is a hyper-realistic mash-up of the origins of both Captain America and Hulk grafted onto a Norman Rockwell-esque landscape of America. But it's not a Frankenstein-ing of superhero ideas - instead its a melting pot that boils over into something greater as it follows a Baby Boomer down a dark path and into the jaws of the military-industrial complex.
Why should you read Monsters?
Like some sort of post-superheroic version of Frank Norris' McTeague, Monsters brings the subtext of Captain America and the Hulk's origins to the fore and plays them out through the lives of Bobby Bailey and his quintessentially American family.
While Windsor-Smith's art is best known for such grizzly heroes as Conan the Barbarian and Wolverine, with Monsters the artist/writer gives each character a sense of humanity… a humanity that at times can itself be monstrous. Smith's linework is confident and his compositions Rockwellian, showing him at the height of his powers and illustrating why his work has inspired current comics heavyweights like Steve McNiven and David Marquez.
There's often talk of the plutonic ideal of 'the Great American novel' – works that are a touchstone for the American experience, both good and bad. For our money, Barry Windsor-Smith's Monsters has found America's national character and could rightly be called 'the Great American graphic novel.'