The world of comics exploded as never before in 2021, with top Marvel and DC creators finding new creative outlets, graphic novels thriving in bookstores, and several blockbuster series reaching their long anticipated and epic conclusions. The comics medium is a beautiful and interconnected ecosystem, and nowhere is that better represented than in Polygon’s list of the best comics of 2021.
From seminal manga available in English for the first time to the latest off the shelves of Marvel Comics, these books are all ready in paperback form for your eager hands — no worries for trade-waiters. Comics were considered eligible if they were collected for the first time, or published their final collection, in 2021.
By Shotaro Ishinomori
You may know of Jack Kirby, the King Of Comics. But there is another who holds that title. Shotaro Ishinomori, the apprentice of the legendary Osamu Tezuka, the mentor of the inimitable Go Nagai, and so much more. He is the undisputed King Of Comics in Japan. Heralded as a father of Tokusatsu alongside the likes of Eiji Tsuburaya (Gojira, Ultraman), Ishinomori is the creator of Kamen Rider, as well as Super Sentai — which would go on to spawn the iconic Power Rangers series.
A hugely under-appreciated and under-read figure in the west, Ishinomori’s done comics of every kind on every kind of subject: economics to jazz to biographies and more. This is the first time his iconic ’70’s Super Sentai comics have been collected into an English volume (published by Seven Seas Entertainment), and it’s a historic collection of an icon’s work. It’s the perfect place to begin with an artist whose entire oeuvre still remains staggering. He is an absolute giant of the form, remaining to this day one of the best action storytellers on the page. And it’s all too visible here, as you see the foundations of something that would go on to be a cultural juggernaut. It’s a master at work, depicting numerous varying iterations of the same core concepts within this collection, and it’s thrilling to read as you get to witness how different execution leads to different results. This is a comics classic. — Ritesh Babu
By Aminder Dhaliwal
Aminder Dhaliwal’s debut graphic novel Woman World should have been the first sign that the cartoonist was a hilarious but extremely on-the-ball voice for a diverse — if not entirely jaded — generation. Regardless, Dhaliwal’s new book Cyclopedia Exotica feels like a breath of fresh air among a sea of heavy-handed (and self-indulgent) inclusion narratives.
Originally serialized on her Instagram account, Cyclopedia Exotica opens with a history of cyclopses and their tumultuous relationship with the more dominant “two eye” standard. Eventually landing on the present era, the focus shifts towards loosely connected relationships between cyclopses, using each individual thread to tell stories about a world both accepting and yet somehow not always accommodating.
Helped by Dhaliwal’s playful, dynamic cartooning, the struggles of the cyclops characters stand true as metaphors for sexuality, race, disability, and a multitude of other oppressed groups while never reading as diminutive or didactic; instead using the grey areas of existing in a marginalized body as a way to connect characters, as well create a connection with the reader. Much like its opening dedication, Cyclopedia Exotica plants itself as something “for those who don’t feel seen,” with a lightness visible to just about anyone. — Chloe Maveal
By Molly Knox Ostertag, Maarta Laiho
When you’re rescued from drowning by a beautiful girl in the sea, what do you do? If you’re Morgan, a closeted gay teen in a tiny fishing town, you kiss her. It has to be a dream, right? Until she shows up at your home the next day saying true love’s kiss has turned her into a human. Because she’s a selkie, you see. The Girl from the Sea takes the classic Little Mermaid set-up and gives it a queer, modern spin. The book explores young gay love in all its beauty and messiness. While she can’t help but be pulled toward Keltie’s free spirit, Morgan is determined to keep her head down and keep her identity a secret until after high school. Her flaws and mistakes throughout the story will be relatable to a lot of teens out there just trying to survive. Molly Ostertag’s art is expressive, and Laiho’s colorwork here highlights the simple beauty of the setting while revealing the intensity of Morgan and Keltie’s connection. Even in its bittersweet ending, The Girl from the Sea is about love, joy, and hope for the future ... even when it seems so far away. —Katie Schenkel
[Ed. note: Molly Ostertag has contributed to Polygon as a freelance writer in 2021.]
By Ryan North, Derek Charm, Wes Abbot
John Constantine certainly doesn’t seem like he’d fit in a pre-teen book, but the all-star team of Ryan North and Derek Charm perform real magic in this middle grade graphic novel. In order to get himself out of a silly misunderstanding with certain vengeful British ghosts, Johnny “Kid” Constantine gets sent to a fancy boarding school in New England. Unfortunately, his new teacher might be an evil witch, his powers aren’t working right, and all his classmates think he’s a weirdo.
Like his adult counterpart, Johnny is a bit of a selfish brat, but new friendships with the rhyming demon Etrigan and fellow magic wielder “Anna” (DC fans can guess who that might be) teach him how to be a better person, and maybe even a hero! North balances humor and sincerity well in all of his books, and I particularly like how he handles Johnny and Anna’s friendship throughout the story. Charm’s art (especially his colors) are richly atmospheric and help sell the spookiness of the whole story — definitely great for kids who like scary mysteries that aren’t too scary. What a fun way to introduce kids to an iconic comic character! —KS
By James Harren, Dave Stewart
Ultramega faked out the reader with a simple, quippy hook: Three Average Joes are endowed as an Ultramega, tokusatsu-style battlers in a war against a plague that has infected every human on the globe with the possibility of sudden transformation into kaiju. Then, at the end of the first issue, every single one of them died horribly and the book jumped a decade forward into a post-kaiju-apocalypse coming-of-age story.
James Harren’s commitment to the details of his Kaiju Mad Maxterpiece setting — a crumbling human sports arena outfitted with a miniature plywood city so that diminished kaiju rulers can stage to-scale gladitorial battles with regular size humans being only one major setpiece — is matched only by his creativity in body horror. Guts bubble up with gas and explode, sphincters pucker and spew firehoses of neon acid (Dave Stewart’s colors, as always, are impeccable), limbs are detached to use as projectile weapons and a disembodied eye and severed head are, honestly, major characters.
It’s all, undeniably, gorgeous. Monsters leap right off the page while character designs tell you everything you need to know without reading a word. If nothing else, Ultramega wins the award for the book that made me start chanting its name over and over again when I saw it in the batch of that week’s press review copies, an award previously held by Gogor. — Susana Polo
By N.K. Jemisin, Jamal Campbell
While everybody on 2020 Twitter was interrogating the relationship between superheroes and copaganda, Far Sector — a book conceived and started in 2019 and finally collected in 2021 — was confronting the idea head on. Across 12 issues, N.K. Jemisin (yes, that N.K. Jemisin) spun a murder mystery at the edge of space, grafted just so slightly to the edge of DC Comics continuity. Newly minted Green Lantern Sojourner “Jo” Mullein, who just happens to look a lot like Janelle Monae, began to unravel a generational cycle of state violence against an exploited and disadvantaged underclass.
Indisputably one of the top science fiction novelists of this era, if not the top, Jemisin walks into the medium of comics as if she was born to it — which, in an era of high profile creators dipping into the comics world, is not at all a given. You would never guess this is her very first graphic novel, and not simply because she’s working with one of the best artists in the industry right now. Jamal Campbell breathes vibrant life and character into Jemisin’s intricate multi-species alien society, and their partnership leaves plenty of room for him to deliver his impeccable grasp of expression, motion, and framing. The last time Jamal Campbell drew a whole comic, it was also one of the best in its year, and with Jemisin on board it is not at all surprising that Far Sector makes the cut this year. —SP
By John Higgins
Telling a story from the early days of the infamous Judges of the long-running Judge Dredd strip, writer Michael Carroll and artist John Higgins’ Dreadnoughts explores the presence of police brutality just 14 years into our future — only six decades before the time frame of the original Dredd story — and how it begins the descent into Dredd’s fascist police state of Mega-City One.
Positioned as near-future fiction, Dreadnoughts paints an unsettling picture of how the justice system and democracy disintegrates — not by focusing on protests and resistance from oppressed citizens, but by placing a magnifying glass over the jackboots on the ground and the systems that give them power. Finally connecting the dots between the world we know and the world that the Judges of Mega City have been preparing us for for more than 40 years, it’s a book that forces us to reckon with just how close to a dystopian sci-fi comic we really are living.
Brutal, clever, and an intense visit into an unchecked reality, Dreadnoughts might not be the most lighthearted book to have come out this year, but the weight of its brilliance is nothing short of startling. —CM
By Naoya Matsumoto
The rare modern Battle Shonen book that actually centers on a largely adult cast of characters, Matsumoto’s Kaiju No. 8 is a delightful action ride. We follow Kafka Hibino, a clean-up worker of Kaiju disaster sites who yearns to become a Defense Force member and take on Kaijus himself. He’s failed all his adult life, and now he has one last chance at the age of 32. Except … he ends up becoming a Kaiju himself, and thus the target of the defense force and all mankind.
As funny as it is awe-inspiring and epic, Kaiju is a comic with real heart — a book about second chances and trying to become the person you’ve always wanted to be, even after endless failure, even if it feels like it’s too late. The kaiju designs are equal parts cool and creepy, and the action spectacle of kaiju clashes are gorgeous. Beyond all that, the actual texture of systems and world-building around the Kaiju-presence and mankind’s response is an immersive treat. Where else would you get Kaiju-intenstine clean-up, but also detailed breakdowns of Anti-Kaiju weaponry?
It’s hard not to love the try-hard underdog monster hero, and Kaiju No. 8 is another great example. —RB
By Daniel Warren Johnson, Mike Spicer
Beta Ray Bill is a character who only makes sense in comics: A lover of the warrior Sif, he’s a sensitive paladin warrior in personality. In execution, he is the orange, horse-faced Chosen Hero of a dying alien race given powers similar to Thor’s by Odin. This year, Daniel Warren Johnson gave him a five-issue character study every inch worthy of the legacy of artists like Walter Simonson and Jack Kirby.
Supporting characters include Skurge the Executioner, Pip the Troll, and a talking spaceship named Scuttlebutt, but more than an exercise in obscure Marvel Comics characters, Beta Ray Bill: Argent Star is simply a gonzo adventure comic about a man taking on far too great odds to trying and make his face look pretty again while ignoring the good stuff he’s already got right under his horse nose.
Johnson and colorist Mike Spicer deliver the spectacle of it all — gods, monsters, lakes of fire, guns the size of trucks — on page after page. Great beasts are defeated. One liners pay off. Endings are bittersweet. There’s an intricate cutaway drawing of a spaceship’s dozens of rooms, including tiny cubicles for Beta Ray Bill’s creative team to toil away at it. Simply a comic where when you finish one issue you immediately want the next. —SP
By Al Ewing, et al.
In All of the Marvels, which would be one of the best comics of 2021 if it were not a prose book, author Douglas Wolk points out that at its start, monsters were as core to the Marvel Comics universe as crimefighting or romance. Since 2018, Al Ewing and numerous artists have been reminding us that they still are.
Beginning as a ghost story, concluding as a primal scream begging to know why a just god would allow suffering, the series seemed to reinvent itself every six issues or so. It resurrected repeatedly, as its namesake, in a froth of snapping bones and stretching skin, to snake its crushing hands onto the neck of a new monster, eventually settling, as mentioned, on God Himself.
Four years ago, it was the series that finally showed the world Ewing’s potential. Completed and collected this year, Immortal Hulk is already a classic of the Marvel Comics canon — in the literary sense, not the continuity one. It is simply among the greatest Marvel stories ever told. —SP