by Jarrod JonesBraving the gauntlet of Big Two events, prestige format risk-takers, off-the-radar indie releases and a non-stop avalanche of floppies is DoomRocket’s HOT PRESS. With so many comics out there screaming for your eyeballs, HOT PRESS is here with recommendations, commentary, and general chatter concerning the comics industry. This week: DoomRocket’s Best Comics of 2021.

One thing about my day-to-day life that has changed since I put DoomRocket on hiatus at the beginning of 2021 is the amount of comics I read in a given week. I still have a weekly comics podcast to manage (new episodes later this month, I promise!) and it’s important that I keep up to date, it’s true. I’m going to attempt to change that in the new year, maybe it’s a sign that I should dust this old comics site off and let it hum again. Do I even have the time anymore? It’s bonkers, comics.

Welp *claps hands together* we’re gonna try something different on this week’s long-in-the-making edition of HOT PRESS. I have a stack of comics that have either debuted in 2021 or wrapped up in 2021 right here next to this ol’ laptop of mine and I’ve just drank two pints of cold brew. I think, instead of talking about the big comic to-dos and various industry whats-its of the week (or drop an array of pithy comic reviews in your lap), it would be a better use of our time to talk about the best stuff comics has had in store for us in the year 2021. So let’s do that!

The Good Asian. (Pornsak Pichetshote, Alexandre Tefenkgi, Lee Loughridge, Jeff Powell, Grant Din, Erika Schnatz, Will Dennis. Image Comics.) Noir in comics is easy: inky shadows, a fedora, a hardass with a cigarette dangling from their sneering lips. The alchemy is elementary. Acing noir in comics, however, that is a different kind of beast. The Good Asian is power-packed noir, an arresting tour-de-force of topicality and atmosphere that pulls you in by the lapels and smacks you around a bit. Plus, underneath this concrete-rough tale starring Chinese-American detective Edison Hawk, there lies a warmth and wisdom that often eludes similar material, a story that feels both timeless and timely. May its hardcover run become Image’s latest and greatest perennial. It’s that good.

Barbalien: Red Planet. (Tate Brombal, Jeff Lemire, Gabriel Walta, Jordie Bellaire, Aditya Bidikar. Dark Horse Comics.) The uniquely eclectic treasure trove that is the Black Hammer saga continues to yield riches. Here, funhouse mirror versions of DC and Marvel heroes are often handled with more care and grace than the original characters, and this tale—a Martian Manhunter riff about identity that’s set during the AIDS crisis—might be among its most potent. Touching but not schmaltzy, dramatic without sacrificing its pulpy roots, and illustrated with an earthy magnificence by Gabriel Walta (with copper-rich hues from Jordie Bellaire), the promise of Barbalien put newcomer Tate Brombal on my radar but its execution solidified my trust in him as an important new voice.

Night Hunters. (Alexis Ziritt, Dave Baker, Robert Negrete. Floating World Comics.) They’re both endless miles of glass and concrete and neon, they’re both filled with the disenfranchised and the hopeless, they’re both policed by fascists. Gran Caracas ain’t Mega-City One, but these two megalopolises cut similar figures. In Night Hunters, however, the status quo has become untenable and this Ziritt/Baker/Negrete joint doesn’t mince words when it comes to those who police us; they’re vicious, ambitious, and take great pleasure in their violent work. (There’s one bit in issue #2 where cops fire into a growing riot, bellowing, “we’re protecting you!”) Packed with Baker’s laser-precision dialogue and Ziritt’s trademark shocks of magentas, yellows, and moody blues, Night Hunters is cyberpunk comics committed to making you thrill, hurt, hope.

Batman: The Imposter. (Mattson Tomlin, Andrea Sorrentino, Jordie Bellaire, Steve Wands. DC/DC Black Label.) Propulsive Gotham City stunner that will dazzle your eyes, cook your brain, and leave you begging for more. Tomlin & Sorrentino’s Batman is a darkly driven rich kid who died a hundred deaths before ever putting on his freaky leather cowl. We’ve seen that a million times, yes. Here’s what sets this Batman apart from the rest: he feels as though he could actually saunter out from our dimly-lit downtown alleyways. He sleeps in garbage, blows up expensive motorcycles when they cease to have any use, brazenly leaves behind traces for the GCPD to follow—zip lines, patrol patterns, a string of broken malefactors in the hospitals—this is a Batman who feels mortal, a wealthy dumb-dumb recklessly aiming for some kind of terrible end. And when he does crazy shit in Sorrentino’s highly-detailed, tangibly real metropolis (which is often) he suffers consequences both fair and otherwise. I want more of this just to see where the true boundaries of this story really lie. I bet they’re gnarly, dangerous, possibly operatic.

“Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?” (Harold Schechter, Eric Powell. Albatross Funnybooks.) True crime is a seedy wasteland of lurid sensationalism and opportunism, I often find. Then, every once in a while, there comes something as thoroughly researched and delicately assembled as “Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done?” If you have the stomach for it, you’ll find a fine example of journalism comics: illustrated with smoky, eerie atmosphere by Powell, Schechter’s true-life account of serial killer Ed Gein often feels like flipping through a family album where hurt and trauma are the contents instead of smiles and happy memories. It never asks you to empathize with Gein, but it does go to great pains to make you understand the path of human misery that can turn a child into a monster. It will leave you staring into the middle distance for a good, long minute, ruminating dark things about yourself and the countless people who’ve walked through your life.

Fear Case. (Matt Kindt, Tyler Jenkins, Hilary Jenkins. Dark Horse Comics.) A contagious idea that breeds death and destruction. Sound familiar? Matt Kindt & The Jenkins have a doozy of a thriller to share with you: Fear Case presents two Secret Service agents tasked with investigating a strange black box that has a knack for popping up during horrific moments in history, and finds them both at the end of their assignment and at the end of their tethers. Bad things will happen if they continue their investigation, they know this, and yet… they’re so close to the truth. Gripping, oddly funny, and harrowingly bleak, Fear Case is a jet-black dive into consipiracy and ambition where one always leads to the other and both have the power to break you in half. Try to put this book down, you can’t.

Monsters. (Barry Windsor-Smith. Fantagraphics Press.) A passion project almost as old as I am (er, don’t look that up) and holy smokes totally worth the wait, Monsters is everything it could have been. Barry Windsor-Smith’s 360-page epic began as a 22-page Hulk story which he pulled from Marvel to shop a reworked version over at Dark Horse and DC, only to then let it stew and grow and morph into the savage dramatic intensity that we finally have in our hands today. Fantagraphics’ presentation is stately, an oversize hardcover event that nuzzles up quite naturally to Moore & Campbell’s From Hell and McKean’s Cages. That’s pretty heady company, but Monsters—a tragedy told with unflinching, comprehensive power by one of the best to ever do it—is a fit companion. One of the most absorbing reads of 2021, and one I will revisit often.

Far Sector. (N.K. Jemisin, Jamal Campbell, Deron Bennett. DC/DC’s Young Animal.) Emerald constructs of sheer willpower hurtled at injustice and inequity, a superhero who looks like an ethereal pop star and has just the biggest heart, the rigid and flimsy structures of our inadequate real world put to a particularly thrilling stress test, Far Sector brought the goods this year. As what looks to be the final dispatch from DC’s energizing Young Animal imprint, Jemisin’s first foray into the comic book industry was an undisputed smash with critics and, paired with Campbell’s gorgeously polished characters and galactic environments, soon revealed itself to be one of the most daring and original new series DC has published in recent memory. May Jo Mullein soar the spaceways as Earth’s Green Lantern for decades to come.

Ka-Zar: Lord of the Savage Land. (Zac Thompson, Alvaro Lopez, Matt Milla, Joe Caramagna, et. al. Marvel.) Family drama set in the Savage Land where crazy beasts and even crazier mysteries do dwell. The action is crackerjack; Lopez’s panel work pops, whirls, crackles with cartoonish energy, and Milla’s easter egg palette goes berserk right when it needs to. Which is often. Carl Barks’ quill dipped in LSD. Thompson is a wildly inventive weirdo writer and one of my favorites; he explores icky places both physical (I Breathed a Body and Come Into Me, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Lonnie Nadler) and cerebral (Lonely Receiver) and his visceral excursions are always, always worthwhile. Thompson’s a right perfect fit for Ka-Zar, nudging this wild-maned Kirby-Lee innovation towards his strange new destiny as a Cronenbergian warrior-philosopher who can tame the most savage of beasts. Ka-Zar is oddball stuff, and largely unsung.

Nightwing. (Tom Taylor, Bruno Redondo, Adriano Lucas, Wes Abbott, Jessica Chen. DC.) Nightwing is perfect-storm superhero comics. The right writer, the right artist, colorist, letterer, editor, the right moment. After a couple years stuck in an interminable amnesia subplot, Dick Grayson jumped back into to his black-n-blues in 2021 with a run that continues to feel like a return to form and a brave new world. Redondo’s lines are slick, his figures a mastery of anatomy and athleticism, his panel work at once innovative, breezy, next-level, and Post-Crisis Classic. Lucas’ colors absolutely pop: time Square neons and unfussy flats and the intermittent burst of rampaging red. Taylor’s rightfully lauded as one of comics’ most energizing and optimistic writers, but he is also powered by a bit of low-key smartassery, a pitch-perfect steward for one of DC’s most wily and popular superheroes. We are watching a legendary run take shape in real time, it’s exhilarating.

Leonardo Romero, Jordie Bellaire, Nate Piekos, ‘The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys’. (Dark Horse Comics.) Leonardo Romero ought to draw all the superheroes. Hell, he ought to design all the superheroes. Flip through the trade collection of The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys: National Anthem and scan his design notes towards the back. Romero is a wizard. He also never, ever strays off-model; in effect, Romero’s supers take on a life of their own as they zoom through every panel in this Dark Horse stunner. Layer on top of all that glory Jordie Bellaire’s crackling color flats and acid-burned distortion, and you have true pop comics, full of all the verve, sass, and technicolor power you can handle. Nate Piekos’ Blambot bonafides and world-weary discipline brings it all home, a potent power dream team that made Gerard Way & Shaun Simon’s melodrama truly sing.

Bilquis Evely, Matheus Lopes, Clayton Cowles, ‘Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow’. (DC.) There are few mainstream superhero comics that look as good as what Bilquis Evely and Mat Lopes have cooked up in Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow. Twilight gallops through an alien prairie, the crystal-blue shores that sit between home and the beyond, a good-ol’ fashioned hangoer puke, this book runs a unique gamut. Teamed with letterer supreme Clayton Cowles, who’s clearly having just as much fun navigating the cosmos as Evely & Lopes (not to mention series writer Tom King), Supergirl is handily the most captivating Super-book currently on the stands.

Ram V., ‘The Swamp Thing’, ‘Justice League Dark’, ‘Catwoman’. (DC) ‘The Many Deaths of Laila Starr’. (BOOM! Studios) Ram V. is the real deal: confident in his philosophies, explorative in his themes, geeky in his sci-mystic improbabilities, a sucker for a brilliant spectacle. A brainiac superhero scribe. Feels like he was destined to write The Swamp Thing considering his bonafides and his work there has been astonishing to read. But it was also V’s sleek interpretation of the misadventures of Selina Kyle in Catwoman, his gonzo swashbuckling work in Justice League Dark, and the ethereal touches he applied to The Many Deaths of Laila Starr that kept Ram near and dear to my heart in 2021. Call me a fan, I don’t mind.

John Allison, ‘Steeple’. (Self-published/Dark Horse Comics) John Allison is the best humorist in comics today, I tell everybody every chance I get. Giant Days was my portal to Allison’s work, and after laugh-crying through 50+ issues of one of the best comics ever put to print I made the fateful decision to follow him ever since. Glad I did; Steeple is shaping up to be Allison’s most narratively ambitious work since Days, a page-by-page web series that builds upon his crackerjack Dark Horse Comics miniseries from two years back. (A new collection of Steeple, I’m happy to report, is forthcoming.) Visit the sleepy hamlet of Tredregyn, where the Church of Satan does dwell—as do mystery monsters, freaky townies, aged tough-guy priests, and other peculiar creatures of folklore. It’s there you’ll find yourself cozied up to a soap-operatic fusion of Allison’s sharp wit and brilliant characterization, Dark Shadows for the philosophically ambiguous.

The Nice House on the Lake #1. (James Tynion IV, Álvaro Martínez Bueno, Jordie Bellaire, AndWorld Design, Chris Conroy. DC/DC Black Label.) A group of strangers are invited to—well, it’s in the title—and soon discover to their horror that their host, a mutual friend who’s being overtly generous and more elusive than usual, has one hell of a weekend in store for all of them. If you haven’t read The Nice House on the Lake just yet, I won’t say one word more concerning the plot. Go ahead and subscribe to this book via your local comic shop. (It returns in March.) You’re gonna do it anyway. Because after you read this first issue, you’ll set it down and wonder how comics can still be this good. High-end horror made for those who dare to despair.

Time Before Time #1. (Declan Shalvey, Rory McConville, Joe Palmer, Chris O’Halloran, Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, Heather Antos. Image Comics.) Time travel shenanigans with brains. Best bit? It doesn’t show off. Here’s a book without an ounce of exposition on it, just two fellas living their lives as time travel couriers for a shady-as-fuck syndicate, trying to figure out how to get out of this mess between time jumps. Sharp dialogue, Mignola-esque creativity (and the attendant chunks of ink that comes with it), this is one Thargian future shock that will fuse its premise to your brain, I promise you. Sets up its own rules and then pushes them to the point of breaking, this one’s a blast. (Plus: two prime-time twists before the last page, one that will go and break your heart without even trying.)

Penultiman. (Tom Peyer, Alan Robinson, Lee Loughridge, Rob Steen. AHOY Comics.) Penultiman is a superhero comic from AHOY, which means there’s more going on here than mere status quo fisticuffs and whatnot. Our hero, Penultiman, the closest humanity has to the perfect man, has grown to dislike who he is. His android helper, Antepenultiman, decides to help him work through his ennui, things do not go as planned. It’s tricky to discuss this ending without giving the whole game away—I implore you, read this book—but with a set-up like that, and considering its creative pedigree, I can say it was next to impossible for me to guess how this would end up. Not only was the ending to Penultiman just as twisted and recognizably, aggravatingly, human as it should have been, it was more. At the end of an emotional, irreverent superhero journey comes catharsis. And the twist of a knife. Brilliant stuff.

The Immortal Hulk. (Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Paul Mounts, Cory Petit, et al. Marvel) 50 pulse-pounding issues and a shit-ton of tie-in one-shots knocked out by some of the industry’s best, The Immortal Hulk‘s run has been undeniably great. That such a run could endure under the banner (hyuk) of Marvel Comics is unique these days, that it was this consistently great and ultimately stuck the landing with so much narrative momentum behind it is, tragically, rare. Is The Immortal Hulk the best thing Marvel’s done in decades? I think so: A bold rumination on psychology and identity set against a cosmic backdrop, its scale was immense, its jet-black humor surprising, its taste for mayhem shocking. In an era of reboots and truncated high-profile runs, something this ambitious, rewarding, and downright glorious ought to be celebrated.

Kaijumax. (Zander Cannon, Jason Fischer, Dylan Todd, Zack Soto. Oni Press.) Scale and intimacy at once, suffering then perseverance and then on to the next day, crime and punishment, justice and other myths, monsters, just folks. You wonder how so much of our lives can exist in a daffy-looking comic with giant stampy lizards. Zander Cannon’s Kaijumax might be coming to an end very shortly, but there will soon be six published volumes of one of comics’ finest series to collect, to revisit again and again just like the best tv show you ever watched. I’ll never get tired of saying it: Kaijumax is really that good. Seek it out.

That’s all I have for this week. Comics are cool.

More HOT PRESS:

HOT PRESS 11/10/21: Mosley & Reilly’s ‘The Thing’ clobbers a solid week of comics

HOT PRESS 11/3/21: ‘My Bad’, ‘Newburn’ & ‘The Human Target’, other good stuff

HOT PRESS 10/12/21: ‘What’s the Furthest Place from Here?’, ‘Batman: The Imposter’, and ‘Undone by Blood’

Send all submissions, inquiries, and correspondence to jarrod@doomrocket.com.