December 5, 2021

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The Best Comics of 2021 (So Far)

17 min read

2021 is officially halfway over, and the milestone of the Fourth of July weekend has led some to look back on the past six months of an unforgettable year. For those in the realm of comics, the year so far has seen some significant evolutions, both in terms of how titles get to readers, and in terms of the comics themselves. In and amidst the ever-growing number of events, relaunches, and highly-anticipated first appearances, there have been some truly groundbreaking and creative titles, each of which illustrates exactly how much the medium of comics continues to be capable of.

ComicBook.com has made a habit of highlighting some of the best installments, both through our “Weekly Pull” recommendations as well as our comprehensive reviews for each week of new releases. But as we reach the midway point for the year, we wanted to spotlight the titles published in 2021 that have really stood out to us, and that definitely deserve continued praise in the months to come. From ongoing series and miniseries to OGNs and manga, our staff has narrowed down the best titles of the year (so far). So, if you’re looking for a new title to dive into during your Fourth of July vacation, or just want to build out your readings list for the remainder of 2021, we’re here to help. Here are some of the ComicBook.com staff’s favorite titles from the first half of 2021.

Asadora (Viz Media)

(Photo: Viz Media)

 

Naoki Urasawa is one of the great manga creators of our time. He loves a big story full of secrets related to an apocalyptic threat, and in Asadora! he’s applying that aesthetic to the kaiju genre. Yet, despite the giant monster lurking in the background, Asadora! is an intimate and human tale, following the title heroine from childhood through adulthood as the truth slowly comes to life. That also allows Urasawa to revisit pieces of Japanese history, all depicted with his strong linework. Asadora! is a life story wrapped in historical fiction and a mystery thriller, all done by a master’s hand. — Jamie Lovett

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Barbalien: Red Planet (Dark Horse)

barbalien red planet
(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)

Yes, I nominated two Black Hammer titles for this list — not because I’m Black Hammer Stan #1, but because both of the titles fully deserve it. Barbalien: Red Planet is undeniably vulnerable and packs the heaviest of punches. Set at the height of the AIDS crisis, Red Planet is a story of breaking barriers and finding your identity. Tate Brombal burst onto the scene with one hell of a mainstream debut, and having Gabriel Walta’s exemplary art along the way really helped boost this book to another level. This book is one gut punch after the next, and is a must-read for any comic reader whether or like sci-fi/superhero stories or not. — Adam Barnhardt

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Beta Ray Bill (Marvel)

beta ray bill
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

What is most striking in Daniel Warren Johnson’s superhero work is how he synthesizes the deeply personal with the commercially universal. Readers saw him transmute the thematic heart and potent style of comics like Extremity and Murder Falcon into Wonder Woman: Dead Earth, which was every bit as powerful. Now Johnson has done it again with one of Marvel’s cult-favorites: Beta Ray Bill. With only one issue remaining in this miniseries, Johnson took a spin-off from recent events in both Thor and Venom to tell a definitive tale about an alien seeking his place in the universe. The scope of the series has resulted in some of the most impressive splash pages and spreads of the past several years as Beta Ray Bill and his comrades travel through space and Hel aboard the enormous starship Skuttlebutt. Johnson’s skill in exaggerating forms to convey power is undeniable and even the smallest panels (in size or scope) possess the same detailed depictions and storytelling instincts that make all of Beta Ray Bill an undeniable thrill to read. However, Johnson’s greatest achievement and the thing that sets Beta Ray Bill apart as one of 2021’s best new series is the hero himself. As an exploration of belonging and identity, Beta Ray Bill is effects the heart every bit as much as the eye in a story that’s universal in more ways than one. — Chase Magnett

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Black Widow (Marvel)

black widow
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

In a roundabout way, the year’s worth of frustrating delays that have befallen Marvel’s Black Widow movie are a blessing in disguise — because it means that viewers have the current Black Widow run to dive into after the credits roll. After Natasha Romanoff is suddenly thrown into a state of suburban domestic bliss, the iconic superspy is forced to reckon with her past, present, and future, as a gallery of allies and adversaries cross her path. Kelly Thompson’s narrative uses Natasha’s superspy roots to unravel a conspiracy about agency, identity, and trauma without ever sacrificing spectacle, and every line of dialogue she writes for Natasha, Yelena, and those in her orbit over the existing seven issues is electrifying. Elena Casagrande’s art and Jordie Bellaire’s colors rise to the occassion and soar above it, with some of the most kinetic and awe-inspiring fight sequences I’ve seen in modern comics. Black Widow will not only fulfill fans who want more of her story after her upcoming solo movie, but it could easily become one of the strongest solo outings she (or any Marvel female character) has ever had. — Jenna Anderson

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Chainsaw Man (Viz Media)

chainsaw man
(Photo: Viz Media)

In a world of superheroes and feudal era demons, there is one manga making a bold reputation for itself. Chainsaw Man may not sound like a groundbreaking series by name alone, but creator Tatsuki Fujimoto is not to be underestimated. In the last year, Chainsaw Man has elevated itself with an introspective story worthy of everyone’s respect, and Viz Media is still cranking out volumes for stateside readers to enjoy.

The series itself is dark, morbid, and pensive in the most anxious way. Chainsaw Man tells the story of a young man named Denji who lives in a world of devils. These brutal monsters are his source of livelihood, but when a fight gets out of hand, Denji’s life is changed forever when he must become one of the monsters he hunts. His story continues as Denji is forced to kill should he want to keep his life, and Fujimoto handles this dilemma with careful narration. The series is a lot to handle as its in-your-face action is not the least bit apologetic, but that will be refreshing to readers who expect all manga to read the same. So if you haven’t yet, this manga is something with checking out. — Megan Peters

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Future State: Dark Detective (DC)

future state dark detective
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

The Future State event in DC Comics was a big one with a lot of interesting books and stories, but writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Dan Mora’s Future State: Dark Detective is easily one of the best of not just that batch of stories, but of comics this year thus far. The series not only fits into the near-future dystopia that Future State was offering readers while still staying true to what readers expect from a Batman story, but also manages to somewhat reinvent the idea of Batman by taking the character back to his detective roots while also imbuing him with weaknesses and flaws all wrapped in a larger mystery that continues to pay dividends in the main-line Batman stories. It’s a standout series, one that delivers on multiple levels. — Nicole Drum

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Future State: Kara Zor-El: Superwoman (DC)

future state kara zor el superwoman
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

Let’s be real — even with a long-running TV show and a blockbuster movie appearance on the way, Supergirl doesn’t always get her due in the pages of DC Comics. While her status quo in the Future State event at the beginning of this year could have wallowed in that sensibility, the team of Marguerite Bennett, Marguerite Sauvage, and company did something else entirely — and created one of the most profound stories the Girl of Steel has had yet. The two-issue arc sees Kara serving as the protector of a refugee colony on the Moon, only for the arrival of an alien fugitive to force Kara to have to face her legacy and her place in the DC universe. Bennett’s script is filled with moments that — months after reading them — I still can’t reminisce on without getting emotional, as a sense of hope and reverence for what Supergirl represents is apparent on every page. Sauvage’s art is a gorgeous complement to it all, with one of my all-time favorite costume redesigns for Supergirl. In its entirety, Future State: Kara Zor-El: Superwoman reads like a beautiful piece of poetry — one that is optimistic, emotional, and incredibly telling of what the Maid of Might is capable of. — Jenna Anderson

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Heaven No Hell (Drawn & Quarterly)

heaven no hell
(Photo: Drawn & Quarterly)

DeForge has long since proven himself to be one of the most astute and idiosyncratic observers of modern life in the comics medium. Each new release, whether it’s an excellent bound volume like Heaven No Hell or an ongoing webcomic, is cause for attention as DeForge simply does not miss. More than a dozen short narratives collected in Heaven No Hell make that clear to newcomers and longstanding readers alike. DeForge’s characters are consistently ordinary, obsessed with past grievances and small details, and are made more accessible through their unique forms on the page. Flat, geometric depictions create a space where shape and size are every bit as important to detailing these recognizable concerns and emotions as the words surrounding them. As readers are lured in by DeForge’s style, he examines a sprawling array of problems that earn this collection’s haunting title, ranging from the omnipresence of big tech in our most personal moments to the search for meaning in mindlessly manufacture mass culture. Readers will find themselves challenged by recognizable characters, hauntingly recognizable conflicts, and one of the most accessible and honest artistic styles in comics today. — Chase Magnett

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Iron Man (Marvel)

iron man
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

If you’d told me a year ago that I would be this unabashedly, consistently excited about an Iron Man ongoing comic, I don’t think I would have believed you. But Christopher Cantwell, Cafu, and company have done the impossible — they’ve effortlessly married the blockbuster spectacle that Iron Man has been given in the movies with the ambitious, complex ethos that has remained unique to Tony Stark since the Bronze Age. After Tony debates hanging up the metal cowl and moving on from his problematic public persona, the return of a menacing former foe complicates everything, and pulls himself, Patsy Walker/Hellcat, and a ragtag group of heroes into an ongoing cosmic fight. Cantwell’s approach to every character — whether it be Tony, Patsy, Korvac, or anyone else in the series’ ensemble — is thorny and complicated, but also incredibly moving, in a way that I’ve desperately wanted to see realized in the comics. Cafu’s art (and Alex Ross’ redesign for Tony’s armor) takes the timeless quality of Iron Man and brings it into the modern era without a single gimmick in sight, allowing the heart of the story to really shine. This run of Iron Man hasn’t even published ten issues yet, but I already know it will end up being one of the definitive chapters for every character involved with it — and easily one of my favorite Marvel titles in recent memory. — Jenna Anderson

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Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters (Oni Press)

jonna and the umpossible monsters
(Photo: Oni Press)

Chris Samnee has been acknowledged as one of American comics’ modern masters for several years now after providing definitive work on the likes of Daredevil and Thor: The Mighty Avenger, alongside too many others to count here. While he continues to deftly portray superhero stories in the pages of Fire Power, the original, creator-owned work Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters is shaping up to be this master’s magnum opus. The first issue remains one of the best comics debuts of the past decade. Without prescribed constraints on space and time, Samnee, accompanied by his co-writer and wife Laura Samnee, carefully develop character, setting, and conflict through the actions on the page. Readers are shown every important detail in a truly immersive reading experience. Small interactions between characters offer levels of information to be explored and spreads of monster battles are nothing short of stunning. Each issue of Jonna reads like a gift, but the greatest gift of all is the recognition that this saga is just beginning. With only four issues published so far, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves why the comics medium is so powerful with a story that perfectly embodies that power. — Chase Magnett

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Jujutsu Kaisen (Viz Media)

jujutsu kaisen
(Photo: Viz Media)

Jujutsu Kaisen is one of the latest series under Shonen Jump’s umbrella to contend for a Big Three spot. Like Bleach and Demon Slayer before it, this supernatural tale entices fans with a colorful cast of characters who wield extravagant powers. But thanks to creator Gege Akutami, Jujutsu Kaisen spices up its reputation with difficult themes and nihilistic dabbles. If you aren’t familiar with Jujutsu Kaisen, the ongoing series is brought to the United States by Viz Media, and its story is primarily supernatural. Its hero Yuji Itadori lives in a world where Cursed Energy causes mayhem in everyday life, so a secret society of Jujutsu Sorcerers must keep the public safe. His life turns upside down when Yuji saves his friends by consuming a deadly curse and finds himself stuck in a new life. And as you can imagine, this new society is less than welcoming. Akutami has built a solid cast of characters who keep the world of Jujutsu Kaisen grounded. The manga thrives off chaos as cataclysmic events threaten to upturn the world. However, Yuji’s persistence is inspiring to even the most hard-hearted of readers, and his impact on the Jujutsu Society is something special to see. — Megan Peters

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Lady Baltimore: The Witch Queens (Dark Horse)

lady baltimore the witch queens
(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)

Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden’s Baltimore series expands its horizons in tremendous ways with the all-new Lady Baltimore, picking up from the conclusion of their previous eight volumes but forging a path that is uniquely its own and is very welcome to newcomers. Artist Bridgit Connell makes the series sing thanks to her pencils while also quickly filling the shoes of superstars Ben Stenbeck and Peter Bergting who came before her. In part Connell is the lifeblood of this new chapter, bringing a new look to the world and balancing the dramatic, the monstrous, and the magical with ease. What Lady Baltimore proves is that there’s still life in the OuterVerse and that there’s potential for this world to be just as expansive and long-lasting as Hellboy. — Spencer Perry

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Maniac of New York (AfterShock)

maniac of new york
(Photo: AfterShock Comics)

Writer Elliott Kalan and artist Andrea Mutti have crafted the best slasher movie you’ve never seen in the form of AfterShock’s Maniac of New York. The series expounds on tropes and avenues of the horror subgenre by giving us the tale that no franchise ever would be able to attempt on the big screen by fully utilizing the New York setting while also focusing on its non-killer characters and the trauma they’ve experienced by the evil “Maniac Harry.” If you, like most sensible people, found Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan underwhelming due to its title’s promise, this is no doubt the story you thought you were going to get to see, and it delivers. — Spencer Perry

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The Many Deaths of Laila Starr (BOOM!)

many deaths of laila starr
(Photo: BOOM! Studios)

At this point, The Many Deaths of Laila Star is only three issues in, but each of those issues is a near-perfect comic. Ram V’s writing and Filipe Andrade’s art teams up to present an inventive, elegant, richly human story that asks big questions about life, death, and the meaning of it all in a tale that brings the god of Death down to the human world on a mission to save her job by eliminating a human who invents immortality. While Death has an agenda, as she lives human lives – and experiences death over and over – as Laila Starr, she’s learning what it is to exist, to be human, and to experience. It’s fitting because the series is an experience as well. This is hands down not only one of the best of the year, but I’d wager one of the best of all time. — Nicole Drum

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Monsters (Fantagraphics)

monsters
(Photo: Fantagraphics)

What is left to be said about Monsters at this point? Since its long-awaited debut in April, this volume, almost 40 years in the making, has caught the attention of nearly every media outlet beyond comics standard scope and was met by rave reviews and a critical appraisal of its medium. What may surprise NPR listeners was no surprise at all for comics readers, though, as Barry Windsor-Smith has been a renowned artist here the entire time. What Monsters did accomplish, however, was revealing new depths to Windsor-Smith’s storytelling and art. His examination of the very concept of monstrosity is novelistic in nature, embedding itself across multiple generations of American history to examine metaphorical monsters alongside the very literal ones appearing on the page. Detailed depictions of tortured faces and lovingly detailed handwriting alike make Monsters an immersive reading experience, never allowing readers to look away for long no matter how terrible the events depicted may be. Monsters is a culmination of careful artistic consideration, skillfully practiced and varied draftsmanship, and Windsor-Smith’s expansive comics career; it bears all of those expectations well, which is why it stands as a true cultural touchstone in 2021 as it reflects our current moment alongside the many decades leading to it. — Chase Magnett

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Nightwing (DC)

nightwing
(Photo: DC Entertainment)

Ol’ Dick Grayson has had some problems as of late. There was even a time he wasn’t even Dick Grayson and instead, called himself Ric for what felt like millennia. Now he’s back and pumping out some of the best superhero stories you can find on the comic shelves this year. Thanks to Tom Taylor and Bruno Redondo, the latest Nightwing arc has become a testament to what cape books can be. You don’t need Superman, Batman, Wolverine, or the X-Men to be a true A-list in the superhero world, and Taylor and Redondo prove just that. Each issue of the latest Nightwing arc is jam-packed with a fiery passion that should reignite your love of superheroes with each passing panel. Because of that, Nightwing most certainly should be in any and all conversations for Comic of the Year because let’s be frank — if the first few issues of this run are any indication, fans of Dick Grayson may be in for an all-time great. — Adam Barnhardt

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Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy (Dark Horse)

skulldigger and skeleton boy
(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)

Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy had issues released in three separate calendar years and, if we’re being frank, it could have earned Comic of the Year nominations in any one of those years. The darkest tale from Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer universe yet, Skulldigger and Skeleton Boy dives into this superhero world’s version of a street-level character, one that beats down the bad guys with a flail with a metal skull at the end. Call it dark and gritty, because it definitely packs a punch — but it also carries an insane amount of heart with it. Only one issue of the title was released this year (the finale), and that’s more than enough to earn a Comic of the Year mention from this writer — primarily because it’s arguably the best issue of an already dynamite series. Better yet, you don’t really need any prior knowledge of the Black Hammer world to enjoy this — jump right in and have yourself a jolly good time in this blood-soaked series somewhere between The Punisher and a neo-noir crime thriller. — Adam Barnhardt

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Spider-Man: Spider’s Shadow (Marvel)

spider man spider's shadow
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

What If stories are tricky. They either collapse under the weight of nostalgia or they fall apart in trying to be too much of something they aren’t. That is absolutely not the case with Spider-Man: Spider’s Shadow. Answering the question of “what if Peter had kept the alien black suit?” Chip Zdarsky writes something that is both honest to the history, but also feels fresh, new, and current. Pasqual Ferry’s art along with Matt Hollingsworth’s colors is fantastic. It’s one of those books that just fires on all cylinders every issue, offering a really incredible perspective. It’s one of the best Spider-Man stories in a long time and very much one of the best books this year. — Nicole Drum

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Stray Dogs (Image)

stray dogs
(Photo: Image Comics)

Image Comics’ Stray Dogs is a freight train that hits you without warning, a tremendous narrative that packs a punch with every issue and combines two things that shouldn’t work together: the precious, adorable world of talking dogs that appear ripped from a children’s animated movie and the dark and disturbing world of psychotic men that kill. Writer Tony Fleecs’ has drafted one of the best first issues of the year and maybe the decade with Stray Dogs #1 and was deftly able to up the stakes and maintain its quality throughout. Trish Forstner has tremendous command of the balancing act at the heart of the series, making the adorable look of the series work in tandem with the horrific. It’s a combo that on paper shouldn’t work but both Fleecs and Forstner make it look easy. — Spencer Perry

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Ultramega (Image)

ultramega
(Photo: Image Comics)

James Harren and Dave Stewart have used their platform at Image Comics to create a book that feels like you’re riding on a lightning bolt. The story by Harren is definitely an original one, but it is bolstered to insane degrees thanks to the energetic art of Dave Stewart. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better first issue that I’ve read in the past few years as the comic grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. It’s an ultraviolent, ultra colorful cavalcade of kaiju brawling which has easily earned its place as one of my favorite books of 2021 so far. — Evan Valentine

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Way of X (Marvel)

way of x
(Photo: Marvel Entertainment)

Nightcrawler has long been one of the X-Men’s most captivating characters, and Way of X gives him a chance to take the lead in the Krakoan era. It also offers Si Spurrier, teaming with artist Bob Quinn, the opportunity to return to some of the stranger X-Men characters that he handled during his run at Marvel on titles like X-Men: Legacy, X-Club, and X-Force, including Doctor Nemesis and Legion. Here, Spurrierand Quinn uses these character to explore big questions. Nightcrawler’s search for mutant religion becomes a more personal quest about how someone brought up on tradition adapts to a more progressive world and worldview. And then there are questions about Krakoa itself and whether a society without limits can stay standing. Anyone who has ever asked themselves the questions that Kurt is wrestling with or who wants a high-concept look at the current X-Men status quo should read Way of X. — Jamie Lovett

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