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Cover of Batman comic Image: Greg Capullo/DC Comics via Polygon

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The best comics of the decade

A panel-by-panel view of the 2010s

I like to say that everybody cares about comics even if they don’t know it, but the 2010s were the decade that everybody really did care about comics. Whether they were New York Times bestsellers or the inspiration for an industry-warping trend of box-office-topping movies, comics were the single biggest influence on pop culture in this decade.

The American comics industry itself was shaped by the reflected light of the brilliant Hollywood sun, and also by more local concerns. In 2011, Marvel and DC Comics began to release digital editions of monthly comics on the same day as their physical release. Publishing initiatives like the New 52 and Marvel Now! forever changed the face of superhero comics. The rise of social media fueled the evolution of webcomics and felled walls between fans and superhero creators (for better and worse).

In (roughly) chronological order, these are the best comics of this decade that could only have been written in this decade.


Helpless, Miles Morales watches Peter Parker’s final moments in Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #4, Marvel Comics (2011). Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli/Marvel Comics

Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man

Writing by Brian Michael Bendis, art by Sarah Pichelli

You can read more about the creative goals behind Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man in our feature on Miles Morales, but to sum it up concisely, Bendis, Pichelli, and their editorial collaborators were, basically, trying to make a “sequel” to Spider-Man. In the terms of comic book superheroes, that’s like stepping out into a busy street and announcing that you’re making a sequel to Jesus.

But they did it. The success of last year’s Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a testament to the clarity of purpose with which Bendis and Pichelli endowed Miles Morales from his very first series. We were already going to be talking about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Spider-Man in 2019. By iterating on “with great power comes great responsibility,” Bendis and Pichelli ensured that people will be talking about this Spider-Man in 2059.

Announced in 2010 and first published in 2011, Miles and his series were a preview of the decade to come, kicking off a trend of younger Marvel characters being placed in classic roles (a female Captain Marvel, Thor, and Hulk; a black Captain America). And the backlash against a “black Spider-Man” was a mere precursor to what would become rolling waves of backlash against “progressivism run amok” in comics.

Batman’s cape billows as he stands silhouetted against the bat-signal’s light on the clouds behind him. His face is in shadow, but his eyes shine white and bright, on the cover of Batman #50, DC Comics (2016). Greg Capullo/DC Comics

Batman

Writing by Scott Snyder, art by Greg Capullo

At the beginning of the 2010s, Scott Snyder was a rising indie talent with a lauded run on Detective Comics. These days, he’s one of the primary creative forces behind DC’s superhero universe. That rise began with the New 52’s Batman, a collaboration between him and distinguished artist Greg Capullo.

Rarely has a creative team made a character as venerable as Batman so uniquely theirs without a complete redefinition. Rarely has a creative team stretched a foundational superhero archetype so far without ever snapping it. I mean, they had the Joker wear his own skinned-off face as a mask, and included an arc in which Batman developed amnesia and had to be replaced with a clean-shaven Commissioner Gordon in a robot that really looked like a bunny.

From Batman, Snyder vaulted to being a sort of showrunner for the interconnected Batman books, then to the cosmos-shaking events of Dark Nights: Metal, and finally an expansive run on the crown jewel of super teams, Justice League. Ask 10 comics fans what the legacy of the New 52 is and they’ll give you 10 different answers. But they’ll all probably agree that Batman was one of the initiative’s unequivocal successes, indirectly redefining the DC Universe for years to come.

A cartoon drawn of Napoleon with a sabre adorns the cover of the Hark! A Vagrant! collection. Kate Beaton/Drawn and Quarterly

Hark! A Vagrant!

Writing and art by Kate Beaton

Though Hark! A Vagrant! kicked off in 2007, the webcomic’s first print compilation didn’t hit shelves until 2011, at which point it immediately spent six months on the New York Times Bestseller list, so I feel justified in placing it on this list as well.

I could write this entry entirely on the strength of Hark! A Vagrant!’s universal memetic potential, which has spawned such bangers as “I had fun once. It was awful,” “Old as balls,” “Aww yiss, Motha. Fuckin. Bread crumbs,” and that panel of Edgar Allan Poe squinting suspiciously at a letter. But that wouldn’t do justice to Beaton’s beautiful illustrations, her impeccable comedic timing and turns of phrase, or her deep love of history and ability to condense it and communicate it.

Alana and Marko, the adult leads of Saga. Alana has brown skin and translucent, green insectoid wings, while Marko has the pointed ears and curling horns of a mountain ram. From the cover of Saga #1, Image Comics (2012). Fiona Staples/Image Comics

Saga

Writing by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples

In the 1970s, in film, there was Star Wars. In the 2010s, in comics, there was Saga, a book that paved the way for a new kind of blockbuster Image Comic.

Brian K. Vaughan is a serial writer of serial epics, from Y: The Last Man to Ex Machina, but it feels like he has been honing that expertise for his entire career for Saga, which is also his most personal work yet. It is also an incredible showcase for the talents of Fiona Staples, known primarily as a cover artist before the book catapulted her star into the stratosphere.

A reader genuinely never knows what could be on the other side of a Saga page turn. It could be a battlefield full of colossal fire-spewing tortoises. Or it could be a princess’ vulva, as she gives birth to the heir of the Robot Empire.

Vaughan and Staples redefined the space opera with a hyperfocus on a single family, yet crafted so specific a galactic world that Saga will never be mistaken for anything else in its genre — nothing that tries to be “like Saga” will ever live up to its example.

Lucky the dog listens to Clint Barton and Kate Bishop argue, but he can’t really understand them. He perceives their smells as webs of graphic symbols like coffee mugs, flowers, and question marks, in Hawkeye #11, Marvel Comics (2013). Matt Fraction, David Aja/Marvel Comics

Hawkeye

Writing by Matt Fraction, art by David Aja and others

Hawkeye is the last series you’d expect to spin out of the increased visibility of the character after 2012’s Avengers, and yet it was the best case scenario. There are other stories of the superheroic merging with the mundane, but the Fraction/Aja Hawkeye run will reign as king of them for quite some time.

Fraction’s precise and rhythmic approach to story beats combined with Aja’s precise eye for layout and humanistic character art to craft the quintessential Clint Barton story. It’s the kind of comic people will still be reading for pleasure 20 years from now, and students will be studying in the Cool Professor’s class for even longer.

Thor swings his mighty hammer on the cover of Thor: God of Thunder #21, Marvel Comics (2014). Esad Ribic/Marvel Comics

Thor

Writing by Jason Aaron and art by many others

2010 was the decade of Jason Aaron’s Thor, an epic seven years in the telling. Across multiple titles, Aaron delivered a new vision for the thunder god, and a bold expansion of the borders of deep cosmic Marvel lore, one that is still felt in the pages of his Avengers.

Under Aaron, Thor lost his hand, his hammer, and even his name, as Jane Foster took up the mantle of thunder god on Earth. At the beginning of time, Gorr the God Butcher swore to create a godless age in revenge for his life of pain. At the end of the universe, All-Father Thor and his three granddaughter goddesses of thunder watch over the last people who will ever live.

All of these bloody, boisterous tales of gods, monsters, and family climaxed only this past summer, in one of the best crossover events Marvel’s ever done. I realize that sounds like faint praise, but every War of the Realms team was clearly having so much fun. And not in a “hey, it’s comics!” way where you have to squint and ignore the plot holes — just in some good, clean comic book fun.

Two stick figure characters build a sandcastle in a panel from the XKCD comic “Time.” Randall Munroe

“Time”

Writing and art by Randall Munroe

Platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, and Tumblr have allowed webcomics to flourish even when they don’t capture the universal zeitgeist of the internet. But as that audience fractured into more dedicated fanbases, the original webcomic of the internet is still going strong. In the last decade, Randall Munroe still found time to experiment with the form in the way that Scott McCloud always dreamed, with “Time,” a Hugo Award-winning comic in the form of 3,009 images posted every 30 minutes to an hour for four months.

Based loosely on the Zanclean flood theory, “Time” follows two nameless friends as they search for the reason why the river near their home is rising, and, once they find it, rush home to save their community from the formation of a new ocean. “Time” is XCKD in a nutshell: scientific minutia, melancholia over the state of the world, curiosity as the best part of human nature, and a sense that if we stick together and don’t give up hope, we can turn even the worst situations around.

Zombified Jughead lurches forward in Afterlife with Archie, Archie Comics (2013). Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Francesco Francavilla/Archie Comics

Afterlife with Archie

Writing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, art by Francesco Francavilla

Afterlife With Archie was not the first rumble of Archie Comics’ seismic evolution in the 2010s, but it was the first full on quake.

Life With Archie, the depressing, whacked-out multiverse series came first. But it never quite made it into more than comic book discussion hearsay, the sort of thing you told your non-comics reading friends about to freak them out, but didn’t actually read yourself. “Hey, did you know there’s an Archie book about how regardless of whether he marries Betty or Veronica, his life still sucks? And then he got shot and fuckin’ died?

By leaving the Archie Comics house style behind, along with the soap opera subject matter, Afterlife with Archie captured minds even in a decade where zombies were entirely commonplace and mainstreamed. Without Afterlife with Archie, there’d be no Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and no relaunch of the flagship Archie Comics titles from modern, mainstream comics creators like Mark Waid, Chip Zdarsky, and Fiona Stables.

Without Afterlife with Archie there’s no Riverdale (created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa). That’s not a world I want to live in, and I don’t even watch Riverdale.

Left to right, cover images featuring the summer camp adventurers the Lumberjanes, Kamala Khan in her lightning bolt shirt, and Squirrel Girl, rolling an outraged Doctor Doom away in a giant ball of squirrels. Various

Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooklyn A. Allen, Noelle Stevenson; G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona; Ryan North, Erica Henderson; and others

In my heart, I know it is unfair to lump these three comics together. But what would be worse would be to give the largest credit to one and list the others as runners up. And to give them all separate entries when I’ve put them all here for roughly the same reason would be repetitive for you, reader.

The 2010s were a decade when young female characters showed that they could play in the comics sandbox — and not just by doing it in the same way as all the boys. They could be heroes and redefine what it means to be a comic book hero.

In Lumberjanes, young women fronted a wildly successful indie all-ages book full of queer characters, created by queer women. With Ms. Marvel, Wilson, Alphona, and their editorial collaborators proved that you can map a Spider-Man origin story onto a big-hearted, Muslim, first-generation Pakistani immigrant, and books would fly off the shelves.

And with Squirrel Girl, North and Henderson started with a character was basically a joke about how a teenage girl could never be powerful enough to do a superhero’s job. As her series wraps this month, Squirrel Girl stands as one of the most sincere and sincerely funny books Marvel has ever made.

The gods of The Wicked + The Divine stand in a line, all looking some kind of sad, frustrated, or unhappy, in The Wicked + The Divine, Image Comics. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie/Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine

Writing by Kieron Gillen, art by Jamie McKelvie and others

The 2010s were the decade that online life just became life. With the rise of viral harassment, of “right to be forgotten” laws, and a generation of teens who couldn’t remember a time before internet access, there was no other moment in which The Wicked + The Divine could have been written.

For five years, Gillen and McKelvie’s magnum opus kept a finger on the searing hot button of the nature of fame and what it’s like to come of age in an era of human brands. It’s inextricable from the 2010s, and from the comics industry and fandom of the 2010s.

The silhouette of a woman with her arms upraised, with the text “Girl gangs... caged and enraged!” from the cover of Bitch Planet #1, Image Comics (2014). Valentine De Landro/Image Comics

Bitch Planet

Writing by Kelly Sue DeConnick and others, art by Valentine De Landro and others

Bitch Planet, structurally plagued by delays and an unfinished status, nevertheless had a palpable effect in the presence of its fandom and the echo of its roar. Even aside from all that, the book absolutely slapped, in its use of sci-fi world building, comics language, and the big solid one-liners you’d want out of any comic trying to reclaim the women-in-prison-sploitation genre.

Bitch Planet kicked in a door so that other comics could come after it. Comics with big, long “sit down and let us learn you something about the kyriarchy” essays at the back. And nothing that’s come after it — with the arguable exception of Bitter Root — has done it as compellingly or deftly.

It’s the sort of comic where you hope it’ll come back some day, but in the meantime, you trust the creators to know when, to the precise and deliberate moment, it will need to return.

T’Challa, the Black Panther stands in the capital city of Wakanda, two Wakandan flags burning behind him, on the cover of Black Panther #1, Marvel Comics (2016). Brian Stelfreeze/Marvel Comics

Black Panther

Writing by Ta-Nehisi Coates, art by Brian Stelfreeze

There are many non-comics writers who took a turn at comics writing in the 2010s, but none so explosive a pull as Marvel Comics announcing out of the blue that the company had tapped political commentator and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates to launch a new Black Panther series.

It took the fresh eyes of Coates and the experience of legendary artist Brian Stelfreeze to see where Wakanda needed to go next if it was to truly maintain its thematic role as an Afrofuturist utopia. Their first arc, A Nation Under Our Feet, embarked on a new era of Black Panther stories, as the Wakandan people demanded that the country transition to a constitutional monarchy.

Their take was so red hot that some of Stelfreeze’s designs influenced Ryan Coogler’s movie, even though details for it were still being pinned down when the story arc was being announced. Minus Stelfreeze, Coates’ run is still going strong, and — in that way that only comics can — is bending continuity into shape to put elements of Coogler’s work back into the main Marvel Universe.

Scott Free, Mister Miracle, is bound in heavy chains in front of a red theater curtain and under a bright spotlight. He has his arms out to his sides, and a lost expression on his face, on the cover of Mister Miracle #1, DC Comics (2017). Nick Derington/DC Comics

Mister Miracle

Writing by Tom King, art by Mitch Gerads

If all Mister Miracle had done was introduce the phrase “Darkseid is” to the lexicon, it would still have a place on this list.

Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ 12-issue miniseries is a study in contrasts. The storytelling is as novelistic as Watchmen, but with the operatic flair of early Fantastic Four. The saga is as intimate as parents holding their baby for the first time, and as violent as a ground war on a literal hell planet. It’s talking about redoing your condo, when you are a loving married couple, international celebrities, superheroes, and gods all in one.

The book is a meditation on depression wrapped up in an ode to the form and history of comics, specifically to industry titan Jack Kirby, famous for building the bones of superheroes as we know them — and for the saying “comics will break your heart.”

Mister Miracle breaks hearts and it puts them back together stronger.

The Hulk/Bruce Banner captures and eats a multiversal entity at the end of the universe in The Immortal Hulk #24, Marvel Comics (2019). Al Ewing, Joe Bennett/Marvel Comics

Immortal Hulk

Writing by Al Ewing, art by Joe Bennett and others

Immortal Hulk has a simple nugget of story: Bruce Banner discovers that if he is killed he merely rises at dawn as the Immortal Hulk. From this twist of a superhero powerset, Al Ewing and Joe Bennett delivered psychological horror, body horror, monster horror, cosmic horror, even good old fashion EC Comics grotesque-final-page-reveal horror.

Also, Banner might be a conduit for the devil below all devils to claw its way into the world and destroy all life in this universe and the next one so that it can finally be alone in the dark with its hatred.

Immortal Hulk has been around for barely a year and a half, and it’s only just setting the foundation for its true purpose. But that foundation, as it stands, is so strong that I feel no risk in saying that 10 years from now, people will be looking to put it on End of Decade lists and will be dismayed to find that Immortal Hulk started in 2018.

Promotional art for House of X/Powers of X, featuring dozens and dozens of X-Men characters. But the center of the image: Moira MacTaggert and Professor X sitting on a park bench, with Magneto standing behind them. Mark Brooks/Marvel Comics

House of X/Powers of X

Writing by Jonathan Hickman, arty by R.B. Silva, Pepe Larraz, and others

X-Men history is marked by extremely visible points of transition. 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1. 1991’s X-Men #1. 2001’s New X-Men. And now, 2019’s House of X/Powers of X (pronounced Powers of Ten!).

As Jonathan Hickman would put it, he saw a flaw at the heart of the last 20 years of X-Men stories. They could no longer be about a clash of ideology between mutants, about the question of nonviolence vs criminality. Now, the X-Men stories of the nascent 2020s will be about a battered minority uniting to claim their own space and their full potential. A new society, bounded by new rules of family, governance, and even death.

In collaboration with R.B. Silva, Pepe Larraz, graphic designer Tom Muller, colorist Marte Gracia, and other writers on the Dawn of X line, Hickman redefined the X-Men for a new era, and I have never seen the comics community so universally energized by a single book, ever.