The best comics of 2020

Shadow Of The Batgirl (DC Comics); A Map To The Sun (First Second); Séance Tea Party (Random House Graphic); Blue In Green (Image); She Would Feel The Same (ShortBox); Sports Is Hell (Koyama)
Shadow Of The Batgirl (DC Comics); A Map To The Sun (First Second); Séance Tea Party (Random House Graphic); Blue In Green (Image); She Would Feel The Same (ShortBox); Sports Is Hell (Koyama)

From the shiny hardwood floor of a basketball court to the far reaches of space, this year’s best comics took readers to all sorts of distant lands. Granted, “distant” gained a new meaning when people were expected to stay in their homes as much as possible. Like the entire entertainment and publishing industries, the world of comics was rocked hard by the pandemic, with distributors and publishers forced to make major adjustments. But that didn’t stop the publication of some exceptional comic book series and graphic novels. As the YA market grew, it continued to put out remarkable titles, with new publishers and fresh creative voices livening up the field. The strongest superhero books took audacious steps to reimagine existing characters and concepts, and in a surprising development, sports emerged as a major subject area, with three of the year’s best graphic novels tackling the topic from very different angles. Here are the 10 best comics of 2020, according to our Comics Panel writers.

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A Map To The Sun (First Second)

A Map To The Sun (First Second)

A Map To The Sun
A Map To The Sun
Image: First Second

There’s a moment very early in Sloane Leong’s A Map To The Sun that spotlights the visual poetry that makes this graphic novel so captivating. While introducing two of the main characters, Leong transitions between the teenage girls with a silent page that fuses their individual interests of basketball and surfing. A basketball falling through a hoop transforms into a person diving into water—a graceful, spellbinding move that gives the imagery a sublime quality, particularly when paired with Leong’s vibrantly expressive coloring. Leong uses moments like these to enrich her story of a new high school girls’ basketball team, which features characters and situations that are firmly rooted in reality, paired with an aesthetic that isn’t afraid to experiment to enhance emotion. Aditya Bidikar’s lettering adjusts seamlessly with these stark visual shifts, changing the colors of word balloons and borders to match the mood of Leong’s artwork. This all makes for an especially immersive experience, pulling readers into the characters’ heads to show off their distinct perspectives, an essential aspect of a narrative that is all about showing empathy for others during the trying times of adolescence. [Oliver Sava]

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Blue In Green (Image)

Blue In Green (Image)

Blue In Green
Blue In Green
Image: Image Comics

Blue In Green presents the underlying tension between genius and humanity inherent to the well-trod narrative of an artist selling their soul for musical talent while also incorporating elements of detective fiction. Erik, the narrator, goes home after his mother’s funeral and discovers his roots, along with his family’s musical history. Other than the sheer, cohesive talent of the creative team—writer Ram V, artist Anand RK, colorist John Pearson, and letterer Aditya Bidikar—Blue In Green is notable because it does so many new things beautifully. The colors, framing, and general design create the book’s vibrant sound, making Blue In Green one of the loudest books of the past year. And with pages that re-create musical staves, Blue In Green expands the notion of what a comic is. Because the back matter shows how intertwined the various roles of the comic team are in producing Blue In Green, the book serves as a reminder that artistic beauty is often a result of collaboration. This focus on unity with others is heightened by just how isolated we all were in 2020. The longing to play sonorously with the band, as Erik does, as the book’s creators do, and as friends might in a lively conversation, is heightened in our year of overbearing solitude. [M.L Kejera]

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Dragon Hoops (First Second)

Dragon Hoops (First Second)

Dragon Hoops
Dragon Hoops
Image: First Second

Gene Luen Yang’s Dragon Hoops follows a high school basketball team and its years-long attempt to win the state championship. Shifting from the personal to the historic to the personal again, Dragon Hoops features Yang’s most complex storytelling, as he weaves disparate threads together with precision and an eye for emotional impact. The tone-perfect coloring from Lark Pien (American Born Chinese) helps compress the parts of the story that need to be compressed, as the plot jumps from the present to the past and back again (sometimes all on the same page). Dragon Hoops has the feel of an epic and a complexity that many sports stories lack. It touches on the individual, on the team, on singular choices, and on entire lives. In doing so, it explores why seemingly inconsequential things like sports (and comics) matter and where we find and make meaning in our lives. [Tiffany Babb]

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Far Sector (DC)

Far Sector (DC)

Far Sector
Far Sector
Image: DC Comics

Far Sector was one of the best comics of 2019 after only two issues, and as the miniseries progressed, it reinforced its status as a new gold (green?) standard for reinvigorating a superhero property. Writer N.K. Jemisin, artist Jamal Campbell, and letterer Deron Bennett craft a sci-fi superhero story that uses the Green Lantern concept to explore the limits of policing and the challenges of reclaiming agency from a corrupt authority, executing an ambitious political thriller with style, humor, and nuance. Campbell’s design skills are pushed to new heights by this alien world, and Jemisin’s scripts show off the amazing versatility of her collaborator, who is as adept at graceful dance sequences as he is at devastating scenes of protestors attacked by the police. Separated from the rest of the DC Universe, Far Sector gives its central legacy hero the opportunity to carve out her own place in a franchise full of legacy recruits, and Sojourner “Jo” Mullein arrives with loads of personality and a complex backstory that enriches her connection to the Green Lantern mythos without leaning on it to drive the narrative. [Oliver Sava]

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My Hero Academia (Viz)

My Hero Academia (Viz)

My Hero Academia
My Hero Academia
Image: Viz Comics

There’s no stopping the juggernaut that is My Hero Academia. The anime’s stellar fourth season adapted a trio of arcs from the manga that shined a spotlight on other members of the cast outside of Deku. Following that, the Heroes Rising film took Deku and Class 1-A to new heights, showing their future potential as a cohesive unit and delivering one of the wildest, most satisfying superhero movies in recent years. But neither of those would be what they are without the source material they draw from. Released in weekly bites, creator Kōhei Horikoshi’s manga went all out with a year-long arc that saw the heroes of Japan—Deku’s class included—launch an assault against the villains that have caused trouble since the series began. In classic superhero fashion, things quickly go awry and the situation escalates into absolute chaos, but with the 1-A kids still in focus. It’s a joy to see them shine and show how far they’ve come since the USJ attack, particularly Bakugo and Yaoyorozu. Horikoshi is also using this arc to tie up a lot of threads left dangling over the years, no doubt clearing the deck for the kids to face even bigger problems when the manga returns in earnest in 2021. [Justin Carter]

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Séance Tea Party (Random House Graphic)

Séance Tea Party (Random House Graphic)

Séance Tea Party
Séance Tea Party
Image: Random House Graphic

Reimena Yee’s Séance Tea Party features characters struggling with loneliness and coming of age. Lora Xi, on the precipice of childhood and teenagerdom, befriends a ghost who, in her own way, is also terrified of growing up. Together they learn to embrace the magic of change. Yee’s work stands out because of this focus. With so much of the work in graphic novels being targeted, primarily, to young readers, it is refreshing to see a book that goes beyond imparting moral lessons. Yee’s breathtaking artwork teaches the reader to appreciate her unique style that often foregoes strict paneling, and for curious readers who might create their own works, the book’s back matter details the tools Yee used to create her book. Many people have taken up hobbies during the pandemic, and Séance Tea Party shows how one’s isolation can be filled with imagination. [M.L Kejera]

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Shadow Of The Batgirl (DC)

Shadow Of The Batgirl (DC)

Shadow Of The Batgirl
Shadow Of The Batgirl
Image: DC Comics

Although a lot of regularly scheduled comics saw interruptions and delays as Covid touched every part of the production schedule, there was a lot to celebrate, too. Middle-grade and YA books like Snapdragon continued to support the entire market with excellent stories and deep characterization, and long-running superhero properties like Hellblazer got injected with some much-needed energy. Shadow Of The Batgirl is the intersection of both trends, a YA book that brings a beloved but often benched character back into action, telling her story with a fresh perspective for a new audience. Cassandra Cain is a character who’s easy to dismiss and even easier to misunderstand, but writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux have given readers a new chance to get to know her, and the book is an origin story that embraces only the parts of the canon that still serve the character. Cass’ life is shaped by trauma, but this book opens up her future to something brighter and safer, which is an opportunity the character rarely gets in monthly issues. The art is lovely thanks to Goux’s expressive characters and detailed backgrounds, elevated even further by colorist Chris Peter’s bright pastels and dark blues and purples. Shadow Of The Batgirl is everything you can and should ask of a YA book, especially one that tackles a character with a very complicated history. It’s a perfect introduction to Cass, DC canon, and superheroes as a genre for any reader. [Caitlin Rosberg]

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She Would Feel The Same (ShortBox)

She Would Feel The Same (ShortBox)

She Would Feel The Same
She Would Feel The Same
Image: ShortBox

ShortBox has quickly grown from a publisher to keep an eye on to becoming one of the best publishers of indie comics around. This year has showcased some of its best books, including the unassuming She Would Feel The Same by Emma Hunsinger (of “How To Draw A Horse” fame). She Would Feel The Same documents the aftermath of a seven-year-long relationship between two women. Unlike the heartbreaking betrayals found in stories that touch on slowly deteriorating love, the women in She Would Feel The Same fall out of love simply and at the same time. They mutually decide to end their relationship, and after splitting up their belongings, there are no tears, no screaming—just a handshake. She Would Feel The Same explores the terrifying implications of the often unexamined truth that the foundations of one’s life can change overnight. This quiet comic is haunting, delving deep into what arises as one regains their equilibrium after a loss. It’s an incredible, mature work about relationships, aloneness, and time. [Tiffany Babb]

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Sports Is Hell (Koyama)

Sports Is Hell (Koyama)

Sports Is Hell
Sports Is Hell
Image: Koyama

Ben Passmore makes the kind of comics that are hard for some people to read. He tackles race and bigotry with the kind of clear-eyed focus that can make readers uncomfortable, and Passmore forces space for that discomfort and conflict without resolution. His work for The Nib is cutting and hilarious, sometimes at the same time, and his collaboration with Ezra Claytan Daniels on BTTM FDRS was one of our best books of 2019. Sports Is Hell exhibits much of the best of Passmore’s skills, offering pointed commentary about the state of both personal and universal politics. Set before the backdrop of the violent voyeurism of football, Sports Is Hell holds up a mirror that’s stripped of all the niceties that people hide behind. There is a protest that is called a riot, or maybe it’s vice versa. The toxic culture around fandom of any kind, sports and politics especially, is stripped bare and displayed for what it is. People who have the same goals find themselves wildly at odds when it comes to methods, and this wedge puts them in the line of fire of people who do not agree at all. Sports Is Hell isn’t a political cartoon in the way people traditionally understand them; it’s a book rather than a couple of panels, with an overarching plot and clearly defined characters that represent but are not real people. But it is a political comic in tone and meaning, exposing people and systems for their flaws and refusing to offer any trite solutions. It’s funny and heavy and starkly honest, and demands intention and thought from readers. [Caitlin Rosberg]

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We Only Find Them When They’re Dead (Boom! Studios)

We Only Find Them When They’re Dead (Boom! Studios)

We Only Find Them When They’re Dead
We Only Find Them When They’re Dead
Image: Boom! Studios

In We Only Find Them When They’re Dead, the gods of the cosmos are dead, their enormous bodies left adrift in the stars. What do you do when confronted with the fact that even in the endless beauty of space, there’s a grim reminder that all things die? If you’re writer Al Ewing and artist Simone di Meo, that’s just the beginning for a heist story wrapped up in a space odyssey. Ships travel the stars looking to find the corpses of these gigantic titans, looting their body parts in exchange for cash. Captain Georges Malik and the other members of the Viihan II want something more: to find where all the dead deities are coming from. Maybe even see a god before they become a gigantic corpse. Much like with Marvel’s Immortal Hulk, Ewing’s writing displays an appropriate gravity while also not being self-serious. There’s a sense of excitement that comes across in his writing, whether characters are reciting mottos or gods are getting cut up for a payday. Di Meo’s art is beautiful, equally colorful and cold. The story of the Viihan II and its crew is still fresh, and it’s a journey well worth taking. [Justin Carter]

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