Great comics come out every year, and this year was no different. At Marvel and DC, superheroes supered; weird science fiction and fantasy flourished at the indie publishers; Viz Media brought the best of manga to Western shores; and the YA graphic novel even further cemented its place as the real mainstream juggernaut of the industry.
What changed this year is that we started thinking about which comics were the greatest a lot earlier. We kicked off this list of the best comics of 2019 in January, and added to it year round — no recency bias here.
These are the comic books that made the Polygon staff lean in and lose ourselves, or sit up and go, “Wow” in 2019. It can be hard to know where to start in an ever-expanding and international comic book market, but here, all you have to do is keep reading.
Polygon Essentials is a collection of persistently updated lists of the best of the best games for each platform — from the hardware’s launch to its end of production — as well as the best entertainment across virtually every medium. For folks new to a platform, think of this as a starter kit. For long-term fans, consider it a list of what to play or watch next. We’ll be updating these lists often, with entries listed in reverse chronological order. To see a collection of other titles we recommend that might not have made the Essentials lists, check out Polygon Recommends.
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Writing: Tom King, Art and colors: Mitch Gerads, Letters: Clayton Cowles
Mister Miracle is the greatest escape artist in the universe. Mister Miracle is about becoming so accustomed to escaping that we forget when to stop.
The twelve-issue miniseries, collected for the first time in 2019, begins with its title character surviving a suicide attempt, and goes many places from there: war, sex, show business, renovating your condo, governing a planet. A baby’s first birthday party is planned. A god tears out his own eye.
From an outside-of-comics perspective, Mister Miracle is a barely-third-tier superhero. From the vantage point of comics history, he’s a can’t-miss character, a whole cloth creation of Jack Kirby, one of the medium’s greatest talents, at a time of peak creative freedom. King and Gerads weave layers upon layers of meaning into the series, allowing it to unfold more meaning the deeper you’re willing to look.
For everything else that it is, Mister Miracle is an ode to the form and history of comics. A love letter to Jack “Comics will break your heart” Kirby and the work he did when most disillusioned with the industry.
Mister Miracle will show you it’s possible to put a heart back together again.
The New World
Writing: Aleš Kot, Art: Tradd Moore, Colors: Heather Moore, Letters: Clayton Cowles
If a dystopian state where police brutality is manufactured into must-see reality TV can be as colorful as The New World, well, reality has a lot of catching up to do.
Stella Maris and Kirby Miyazaki are an unlikely Romeo and Juliet. She’s the hard-partying, drug-swilling televised state-sanctioned bounty hunter in the post-nuclear war New California; he’s the “straight-edge, gluten-free militant atheist” revolutionary who wants to tear her grandfather’s police state to the ground. But their romance will be just as destabilizing to the society around them.
I first knew Aleš Kot as the writer who expertly wrestled Bloodborne to the page in a form that said as much about video games as comics, and watching them tackle a completely original setting in The New World does not disappoint. Tradd Moore’s art is so pregnant with motion it feels like I could press play on it, his characters so expressive I would buy the iTunes season pass. Psychedelic would be the easy way to describe Heather Moore’s colors, transcendent might be more accurate to the emotion they create.
Just when I think I’ve had enough of The New World, I find myself paging through it again — and that it’s hard to stop.
Writing: Christopher Sebela, Pencils: Ro Stein, Inks: Ted Brandt, Colors: Triona Farrell, Letters: Cardinal Rae
In a near-future world where every job is assigned by an app, Reapr is the Kickstarter of assassination. Nominate a target and anyone else who’d like to see them bite it can donate, crowdfunding the payout to whatever amateur killer caps them before the four-week timer is up. But if they survive, they can never be the target of another Reapr campaign — ever.
Crowded. Crowd-ded. Crowd dead. Get it?
Sebela (again) has a deft hand with parodying online culture that keeps Crowded firmly in that deliciously cringe-y realm of “Oof, too real,” while Stein’s got the kind of talent for character design and layouts that I’d love to see in any book. And their talents shine together in the book’s characters — exhausted talent managers, professional killer/live streamers, and, of course, the book’s odd couple target/bodyguard pair, Charlie Ellison and Willa Dourlet.
Read it now, before the Rebel Wilson-lead movie adaptation hits theaters, so you can say you liked it before it was cool.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me
Writing: Mariko Tamaki, Art: Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me raises one of the more pressing issues concerning Gen Z queer kids: How do you balance getting upset about public, petty relationship issues while still being grateful to your queer forebears that you even get to have public, petty relationship issues at all?
Frederica knows that she owes a lot to the women who fought for her to openly date Laura Dean, the most popular girl in school — but at what point can she admit that Laura Dean’s constant on again, off again emotional manipulation isn’t fine? Frederica tries and fails to balance her relationship with her friendships, sacrificing her relationship with her best friend, Doodle, in lieu of sticking it out with Laura Dean. Few works have so perfectly captured the nuance of what it means to be a romantically troubled queer teen, and Laura Dean does it with grace and empathy to spare. With gorgeous page spreads, a muted color palette, and character design just as compelling as the narrative, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is one of the best comics of the year. — Palmer Haasch
Cosmic Ghost Rider: Baby Thanos Must Die
Writing: Donny Cates, Art: Dylan Burnett
One of the unique subgenres of superhero comics is the Cosmic, a setting birthed in pre-space age days of the Flash Gordon serial; nurtured under the arcano-astral visuals of Kirby, Ditko, and Mobius; and matured under the influence of Lucas, Herbert, and Clarke. It’s a place where gods and spaceships are equally common and the vast emptiness of space is veritably teeming with interstellar empires and final frontiers.
Cosmic stories can be a challenging hook for new readers, precisely because they have so few parallels outside of superhero comics settings. But then ... there’s Cosmic Ghost Rider: Baby Thanos Must Die.
It’s a comic about what happens when an alternate universe version of the Punisher — who has gained the powers of both the Ghost Rider and Galactus’ herald, the Silver Surfer — decides to go back in time and kill Thanos in his cradle. Basically nothing goes the way you think it would go from there.
The most surprising thing about Cosmic Ghost Rider: Baby Thanos Must Die is that as bizarre as Donny Cates’ plot is, and as inventive as Dylan Burnett’s art is, the book is totally accessible, and totally convincing of the madcap fun that can be found in the cosmic genre.
Writing: Simon Spurrier, Art: Matías Bergara
What if The Last Unicorn was metal? What if Schmendrick the Magician was a bard, but way more more self-centered, and also rode an enormous, hairy, foul-tempered, obsidian, five-horned unicorn?
Hum, the hero of Coda, is on a Mad Max-esque wander through the fantasy post-apocalypse because he wants to rescue his wife, who he says was kidnapped by orcs. But the tale is neither your standard fantasy yarn nor even your run-of-the-mill cynical subversion of the standard fantasy yarn.
Following its musical namesake, the book is about when something comes to an end and then keeps going, a post-apocalyptic epic about what it takes to truly break the bad habits of society and properly move on. Si Spurrier’s Hum is our falstaffian protagonist, taking advantage of his world’s hunger for a hero to believe in, as he searches for his own equally deluded happy ending. Bergara’s art fills the book with broken cities and crumbling dragon skeletons, trading caravans run by a mermaid crone in a bathtub and mobile bandit cities drawn by ponderous giants, all rendered with the kind of eye for light and color and composition that will drop your jaw.
Coda deserves a quiet read where you contemplate what it really takes to set aside the old harmful ways and forge new and unknown ones — and it also deserves to be splashed across the side of an old van in neon colors.
Writing: Kieron Gillen, Art: Stephanie Hans
Die begins with five estranged forty-something friends, called together after they all receive a strange note. Twenty-five years ago they were six friends about to start a new tabletop campaign, when they were somehow transported inside the world of the game itself. It took two years, and a magical oath to never talk about what happened to them, but five of them managed to escape.
Now, with every wound of their past still simmering, the remaining adults are dragged back into a world built from their greatest teenage triumphs and failures, overseen by their vengeful gamemaster — the friend they had to leave behind.
Kieron Gillen just closed his five-year run on The Wicked + The Divine, a book that might be said to be about a young person’s longing to grow up but fear of growing old, and Die looks like the inverse. An adult’s longing for the freedom of youth and fear that it can never be recaptured. But that’s just one side.
Keep turning Die around and you’ll find the fantasy genre — in particular the aspects shaped by gaming — de- and reconstructed with the surgical precision that can only come from someone who loves gaming and fantasy so much that it has become a part of themselves.
All of that creative energy is paired with Stephanie Hans’ haunting visualizations of concepts like “the fae but they’re an alien AI” or “a cyberpunk rogue but your abilities are fueled by drugs and the drugs disappear every morning like fairy gold,” making every issue a journey of visual discovery as well. Die delivered one of the hardest gut punches in comics I read this year.
Komi Can’t Communicate
Writing and art: Tomohito Oda
Shouko Komi is the school beauty. Everyone loves he for how cool and stoic she is, but she’s actually too shy to talk, due to extreme social anxiety. With the help of her extremely plain classmate Hitohito Tadano, she begins to open up, communicating through writing in notebooks. With Tadano’s help, Komi makes a goal to make 100 friends. As Komi expands her friendships, it turns out that tons of people have trouble making friends.
For anyone who feels shy or has social anxiety, Komi Can’t Communicate is relatable while not being upsetting. Reading and seeing Komi tackle her problems is inspiring. —Julia Lee
Writing and art: Paru Itagaki
Beastars is often compared to Disney’s Zootopia, and as much as that comparison might seem embarrassing, it’s not wrong.
In a world of anthropomorphic animals, Legoshi is a huge, daunting gray wolf with a heart of gold. Similarly to Zootopia, this animal world has a strange divide between herbivores and carnivores. The carnivores are tired of being looked at like monsters, and the herbivores live in fear that one day their carnivorous friends might snap and eat them. Legoshi’s school divides further as an unknown carnivore student murders and eats an alpaca on campus.
From there, Legoshi starts working as a stagehand for the school’s prince, a red deer named Louis, and starts to fall in love with a white rabbit named Haru. He has to learn how to fight off his primal desires, and figure out if his love for Haru is genuine love or a predatory instinct to eat her.
The plot thickens the more you get into the story. There’s a mafia. There’s an underground meat market. There’s the answers to all the weird questions you had when watching Zootopia about how an animal society would work. —JL
Writing: Kyle Stark, Art: Erica Henderson
When Erica Henderson announced that she would be leaving The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I mourned the departure of one of my favorite artists from one of my favorite books. Assassin Nation not only made me feel better, it made me feel like I’d gotten a more than fair trade.
Squirrel Girl was a dense book, in panels per page and text per panel, and Assassin Nation’s more relaxed layouts allowed Henderson to stretch, amplifying everything that was great about Squirrel Girl’s look — character design and expression, lighting and color, action, comedic timing. Even the sound effects are a cut above.
The five-issue series, written by Kyle Stark and drawn by Henderson, opens when a crime kingpin who’s had too many close calls with his security team hires the top 20 assassins in the world to be his new bodyguards. It’s a John Wick-ian who’s who of assassin archetypes, from the killer twins to the veteran back for one more job to the unassuming older lady to the absurdly-still-alive neophyte.
And then there’s a character whose given name is Fuck Tarkington, and that’s all I’m going to tell you about him.
Stark and Henderson paint a cast of characters you can’t wait to spend a whole series with, and then begin to ruthlessly cull them — it’s a book about assassins, after all. In only five issues, they deliver the kind of joke payoffs and dramatic deaths that another team might need a year to tee up.
I guess what I’m saying is: Assassin Nation is like if the Muppets made a John Wick movie, and it deserves the full Ocean’s 11 treatment.
Spy x Family
Writing and art: Tatsuya Endo
Loid is a spy who goes by the name “Twilight.” Yor is an elite assassin nicknamed “Thorn Princess.” Anya is a little girl who can read minds. Once you shove them all together, they are the Forger family.
Loid has been tasked with investigating a target who has a child enrolled at a special school. To help his plan, he adopts Anya, and gets Yor to agree to pretend to be his wife, as the school requires two parents in order to let children enroll. Keeping everyone’s special abilities hidden is a challenge, and shenanigans ensue as everyone tries to keep it together for the sake of the happiness of the other family members. —JL
Writing and art: Ken Garing
Gogor is pronounced “GOG-or,” and that’s precisely what I would excitedly chant to myself whenever I downloaded my Image Comics review copies for the week and saw that a new issue of Ken Garing’s Gogor was available. “Gogor, Gogor, Gogor.”
Gogor feels like something out of another age, a comic I’d pull off an unfamiliar library shelf and fall into headfirst. Here was an entirely new world fresh for the discovering, beginning with Armano, a young student whose place of learning has just been overrun by jackbooted, beetle-riding soldiers. He escapes on his giant flying mole with an important charge: Awaken the legendary Gogor.
Garing’s tale is a delicious cocktail mixed from Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal, Jeff Smith’s Bone, Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, the entire oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki, and even a bit of George Lucas here and there. Garing echoes these beloved weird fantasy stories but maintains his own distinct flavor, and adds in his own riotous creature design, clear lines, bold colors, and a breathtaking eye for layout and timing. There are moments in Gogor that accomplish more with four wordless panels than other comics creators could manage in a double-page spread.
The only bummer of Gogor is that its story was planned for 10 issues, but due to low sales, had to end with #5. Reader, please go buy Gogor in trade so I can find out how it ends.
Naomi: Season One
Writing: Brian Michael Bendis and David F. Walker, Art: Jamal Campbell, Lettering: Josh Reed, Carlos M. Mangual
The state of superhero comics is that it takes a heroic effort and a lot of luck to produce a new character who doesn’t have any ties to an existing property. Naomi was the most masterful introduction to a new superhero I read this year.
At its simplest, Naomi is the story of an eponymous teen girl, a transracial adoptee in a small American town who is inspired to investigate her own origins after a chance encounter with Superman, the world’s most famous orphan. I would tell you where it goes from there, but one of the joys of reading the book was that I always felt like I knew where the story was going — only to have that assumption destroyed as it zigged off in another direction.
That — and the fact that I would now die for my brave daughter, Naomi, and her entire supporting cast — is to the credit of writers David F. Walker and Brian Michael Bendis. But Naomi also gets a healthy helping of loveliness and wonder from the art of Jamal Campbell.
The book was my introduction to his work, and I could not have been more blown away. Campbell’s action is clear, his colors vibrant, his character designs varied, and his layouts breathtaking. I looked forward to seeing his work as any character in the series, and I’m counting the days until the series returns.
House of X/Powers of X
Writing: Jonathan Hickman, Art: Pepe Larraz, R. B. Silva, Colors: Marte Gracia, Lettering: Clayton Cowles, Graphics: Tom Muller
One of the great universal truths of superhero comics is that event books are not good. Publishers announce them with pleading promises that this one really will be something you’ve never seen before, and things really will never be the same. Even event comics that work are usually, at best, Fun If You Like That Sort of Thing.
This summer, Marvel Comics shut down the entire X-Men line for three months, to run weekly installments of House of X and Powers of X (pronounced “Powers of Ten”), two series that were one. The book showed readers things we’d never seen before, and in the aftermath, it seems undeniably clear that the X-Men will never be entirely the same. The books weren’t merely fun; they ignited.
Praise for House of X/Powers of X is not controversial — the last time I saw the comics community so happily united in just enjoying the suspense of a good story was when Ryan North got stuck in a hole. Nor was the interest exclusive to Comics Twitter. Since August, I’ve had non-comics-reading co-workers grilling me on when the book hits trade.
HoX/PoX didn’t just tell a good story in a well-crafted way. It was relentlessly ambitious in redefining one of the most revolutionary concepts in the superhero genre, and it was one of the best science fiction stories, period, that I experienced this year.
Dial H for Hero Vol. 1: Enter the Heroverse
Writing: Sam Humphries, Art: Joe Quinones
Dial H for Hero is a sporadically running, constantly self-reinventing DC Comics series with a consistent central conceit: the H-Dial. That is, a rotary phone dial that, when used to dial H-E-R-O, transforms the dialer into a different, wholly original superhero for a limited amount of time. This year, the H-Dial saw a triumphant return at the hands of Sam Humphries and Joe Quinones, and the series is really knock-your-socks-off great for anyone who reads any kind of comics.
Humphries and Quinones follow teens Miguel and Summer, as they embark on a cross-country adventure to deliver the H-Dial to Superman and keep it from falling into the nefarious hands of Mister Thunderbolt and the Thunderbolt Club. The characters are endearing and the story is delightfully creative, but, without placing a slight on them, the real shine of the book is Quinones’ art.
That’s because Humphries and Quinones’ Dial H has one further twist on its predecessors. Every time a character in the book transforms themselves into a new superhero with the H-Dial, it’s a superhero based on another famous comic artist’s style, and it’s drawn to match.
Every issue, Quinones contorts himself into more and more pitch-perfect facsimiles of talents as diverse as Bruce Timm, Chris Ware, Rob Liefeld, Charles M. Schulz, Akira Toriyama, Tank Girl’s Jamie Hewlett, and more. In one notable occasion, he renders spoofs on Mobius, Frank Miller, and Captain Underpants’ Dav Pilkey all on the same page. And while the series does boast a guest artist or two, it’s far fewer than you might think.
Dial H for Hero will surely come around again in a decade or so, but the 2019 version may stand out quite a bit longer than that.