One of the upsides to 2018 feeling like a year that was never going to end was that it seemed as if there was an eternity to read comics instead of, say, giving into the existential dread lurking within you. With that in mind, let’s look back at some of the best and worst comics moments that pushed us forward and dragged us back through these dark, dark times.
Spoilers ahead, obviously...
Saga has spent six years being one of the best sci-fi stories around, and no matter how delectably fanciful it got, it was forever grounded by the real heart it found in its core relationship between Alana and Marko, and their daughter Hazel. So after an arc that mediated on the idea of how being witness to violence can change a person’s life in irrevocable ways, readers were shocked to see Marko killed off in a battle against the Will.
What made it all the more shocking was the news that immediately preceded Saga #54’s release—that it would be the last issue of the series for at least a year, as Vaughan and Staples took a break to recharge themselves…and presumably prepare to guide us into a bold new era of Saga unlike anything we’ve seen yet, and without one of its most important characters.
Creative Team: Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Though Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force have been synonymous with one another for decades, there came a point at which the pairing really began to hold both characters back in a way that’s only grown more obvious with time. Together, Jean and the Phoenix were one of the mightiest presences to ever exist within Marvel’s comics, but at the core of their bond was a toxic, endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth that caused both of them nothing but pain and trauma.
Powerful though they were together, Jean and the Phoenix needed to part ways in order to realize their discrete, respective destinies that we’ve seen teased in the comics time and time again. Because of the Phoenix, Jean never had a chance to live a life that was completely her own, and Jean’s existence meant that the Phoenix would never be able to move on to the countless other hosts fated to wield the entity’s power in new, fascinating ways. Of course, it’s more than likely Jean and the Phoenix will find their way back together, but for now, their breakup is a painful, but necessary step in the right direction that’s going to be great for them.
Creative Team: Matt Rosenberg, Leinil Francis Yu, Joe Bennett, Gerry Alanguilan, Belardino Brabo, Rachelle Rosenberg
Mister Miracle is a mindbending experience about characters enduring under the crushing dualities of life as members of Jack Kirby’s grand, bonkers pantheon of cosmic gods and as people just trying to live a happy life in the banal reality of modern-day Earth. Its biggest victories are rarely epic displays of action or sweeping sprawls—they are instead quiet moments of respite amid the storm, tiny moments earned with sweat and blood and tears.
But the moment Mister Miracle allows Scott Free and Big Barda to indulge in a little bit of comic book grandeur in its climax—as they hatch a suicidal plan to prevent the dread Darkseid from claiming their son Jacob’s guardianship, just as he had with Scott all those years ago—after issue upon issue of gritting their teeth and working through insurmountable despair, is a genuine fist-punching moment of exhilaration. Big action can rarely feel earned in mainstream superhero comics where schlocky battles are the norm, but Mister Miracle earns its moment of cape-clad comic book glory in a brilliant manner, framing it as a cathartic, stirring moment of release.
Creative Team: Tom King and Mitch Gerads
Doomsday Clock is a book that wants you to know how mysterious it is, what with its story of heroes getting mixed up between worlds and gradually learning that the events of Watchmen have had a much more profound impact on DC’s multiverse. That being said, the book’s slow release schedule made it somewhat difficult to keep most of its intrigue-driven momentum moving forward, save for one particular fact.
When we first meet The Mime, he lives up to his name by not speaking and pantomiming actions as if he was interacting with physical objects like weapons. Conceptually, it made for the kind of delusional villain one might expect from Gotham City, but Doomsday Clock very heavily suggested that there might have been more to the Mime’s presence than just acting things out. It wasn’t until issue #3 when the Mime literally blew someone’s brains out with just his fingers, though, that Doomsday Clock made clear just how dangerous, if ridiculous, the Mime truly is.
Creative Team: Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson
The thought of following up on Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca’s incredible run on Darth Vader seemed like an impossible task, but Charles Soule and Giuseppe Camuncoli’s second volume has had some fascinating things to add to the rich, sinister patina of the Dark Lord of the Sith. Few things have been as fascinating as how the series framed Vader’s fledgling relationship with Grand Moff Tarkin, which played out hauntingly in Darth Vader #18.
Set amid a predator-stalking-prey fight as Darth Vader hunts down a team of crack hunters and soldiers lead by Tarkin himself, the issue is not just a majestic display of Vader’s unstoppable force and the fear he can induce, it also throws up a mirror between the Sith and Tarkin. It invites us to consider just how ruthlessly cruel both men can be, despite the latter commanding a fraction of the power the former has.
Creative Team: Charles Soule, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Daniele Orlandini, and David Curiel
This might feel like a bit of a weird moment to nominate—after all, the titular First Family don’t actually return in the first issue of their revived ongoing series. But Fantastic Four #1 is about a yearning for the ideals Marvel’s original superteam championed, the optimism and hope Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben embodied together. As the earthbound Ben and Johnny are forced to face their emotions about the team’s disbanding after a false flag heralding Reed and Sue’s return goes very wrong in a public manner, it’s a surprisingly sentimental issue about not just how these characters, but the Marvel universe at large, deeply misses the Fantastic Four.
So when, at the end of it all, a real message of Reed and Sue’s return home arrives, it’s an incredibly touching moment of hope. Welcome back, FF.
Creative Team: Dan Slott, Sara Pichelli, Elisabetta D’Amico, Marte Gracia, Simone Bianchi, and Marco Russo
Saladin Ahmed’s Exiles brought a mishmash group of Marvel heroes together from the multiverse, and in true Into the Spider-Verse fashion, each of them embodied different kinds of tonal and aesthetic energy that made the series as kooky as it was charming.
Of all the book’s heroes, it’s the cowboy gunslinger T’Challa who stood out the most, because from the moment he steps onto the scene, the thing that immediately comes to mind is “Well, hot damn...when’s the Rootin’ Tootin’ Wakanda book coming out?” That said, despite his Wild West attire, Cowboy T’Challa still reads very much like his traditional 616 universe self. He’s honorable and just and worthy of his title as King, but it’s the promise of his larger world that makes him one of the most fantastic comics characters introduced this year.
Creative Team: Saladin Ahmed, Rod Reis
Regardless of how you felt about the fact Bruce and Selina’s much-hyped wedding never actually happened in Batman #50 (more on that later), the issue itself is a beautifully constructed tribute to their relationship. Framed in a similar manner to writer Tom King’s paean to the Batman/Superman friendship in Batman #36, Batman #50’s emotional spine is anchored by mirrored love letters written by Bruce and Selina to each other. It speaks to the emotional vulnerability that King has given his take on the Dark Knight over his run, contrasting Bruce’s unease at sharing himself with Selina’s uncanny ability to dig deep and see the man underneath the Bat-mythos.
Except, tragically, as the letter goes on to reveal, the man she can still see underneath all those layers of Batsuit and coping mechanisms is a young boy haunted by trauma, trauma that’s defined his heroic acts his entire life. Even if Bruce is willing to open himself up, can she selfishly rob the world of the Dark Knight just through the simple act of loving him? It’s a question that’s left to linger over not just Batman #50 but beyond it, as King’s long plan for the book continues. But even without a wedding to jostle the status quo with, Batman #50 stands as a special, powerful issue anyway.
Creative Team: Tom King, Mikel Janin, June Chung, Clayton Cowles, and More
You might say it’s cheating to nominate an entire issue of a comic book as a single moment, but a) we make the rules and you don’t, and b) few singular issues of a comic book nail an idea so perfectly as Chip Zdarsky’s standalone swan song to his time on Spectacular Spider-Man.
Framed through the context of a vox-pop style documentary about how the people of New York feel about their friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man #310 wears its heart, filled with love for its titular hero, so openly and earnestly on its sleeve, it’s hard not to also become enchanted by its love of the Spectacular Spider-Man. It is an issue that beautifully executes its single goal: to remind us that Peter Parker cares so much. And will never stop trying to show the world how much he does.
Creative Team: Chip Zdarsky
Announcing a new comic at New York Comic Con is a big deal. Announcing a new Star Wars comic at New York Comic Con is a really big deal, especially when it’s one about a figure as iconic as Darth Vader, and penned by beloved author Chuck Wendig. So when days later, Wendig revealed that he had been suddenly fired from the book, citing the Star Wars editor’s claim that his tweets about the state of American politics were too vulgar, things got, well…they got messy.
Wendig didn’t go quietly into the night as Marvel Comics might have hoped he would. He went on to call out the targeted campaigns championing so-called civility that have attempted to shut down the voices of left-leaning critics of Donald Trump and the manufactured pressure they put on companies like Marvel to silence talent they work with—pressure Marvel had buckled under just days after splashily revealing Shadow of Vader at NYCC.
Just a few months later, the company also made it worse by quietly canceling Shadow altogether and eventually announcing Vader: Dark Visions, a book that early looked and sounded a lot like it was doing what Shadow was setting out to do—and even shared a cover artist—just with a new creative team. Which is the direct opposite way of how you get people to forget about the book you canceled!
Creative Team: Chuck Wendig, Greg Smallwood
If DC Comics had just left Bruce Wayne’s penis in the first issue of Batman: Damned the way writer Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo intended, chances are that everyone would have talked about it for maybe a week or so before everyone’s attention got drawn elsewhere. Instead though, the publisher freaked out at the thought of people seeing a little batwang, as if that wasn’t already very much a thing fans over at Tumblr had been ogling for ages.
In making a mountain out of a molehill (sorry, Bruce), DC ended up coming off stuffy and slightly sex-panicky, an impressive feat given how sexualized superheroes and their ridiculous costumes have always been.
Creative Team: Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo
Iceman’s coming out in All-New X-Men #40 was one of the most surprising and controversial moments in the X-Men’s history. It challenged fans to accept the idea that legacy characters can change in important ways over time and that there still isn’t all that much queer representation in mainstream comics.
The story of the younger, time-displaced Bobby Drake coming into his own in the present day while learning to embrace his identity was one that spoke to readers who went through the kinds of emotional struggles that most LGBTQ+ people do at one point or another in their lives. Similarly, it was fascinating to watch the older Bobby marvel at his younger self’s resilience while not feeling quite as secure in his identity as a gay man, despite having the love and support of his friends and teammates.
All of this is to say that Bobby Drake’s narratives were rife with opportunities to approach important, timely queer narratives in X-Men stories, but all of that came to an end in the fifth issue of Extermination when the younger original five X-Men finally returned to the past in order to “save” the future. The reasoning was simple enough (the original five had to return to make sure that they ended up setting the events of the future in motion), but its implications were complicated and devastating, to say the least.
In returning to his own time, the younger Bobby was forced to give up his memories of ever having come out, effectively forcing him and his future self back into the closet. Even though there was a bit of a loophole that restored the older Bobby’s memories almost instantaneously, with them came a lifetime of having been closeted once again and lying to himself, something that would have been erased had the younger Bobby remained where he was.
You can make the argument that the choice to return the X-Men to the past was necessary for the sake of Marvel’s timelines, but with as many ridiculous, logic-defying plots as Marvel traffics in on a weekly basis, it doesn’t seem at all plausible that there was no other way to handle this that wouldn’t have erased Bobby’s sexuality.
Creative Team: Ed Brisson, Pepe Larraz, Marte Garcia
It’s perhaps weird to paradoxically have Batman #50 on here as a great moment and the drama around it as a terrible one, but once again: We make the rules. But it’d be weird to not acknowledge just how much messier DC managed to make the shocking upset that Selina and Bruce would actually not be united in holy bat-catrimony after months of buildup by firstly encouraging retailers to splash out on themed events and variant covers for the launch of the issue (stoked by incentive campaigns and fancy wedding invitation themed releases), and then secondly by undermining all of that by having the New York Times clumsily spoil Batman and Catwoman not getting married just days before Batman #50 hit shelves.
Retailers were left having parties for a wedding that was never going to happen, fans were left dismayed that the months of build-up had just led to another milestone step in Batman writer Tom King’s grand, 100-issue plan. People were pissed. So pissed, in fact, that King was given a bodyguard at San Diego Comic-Con, allegedly due to threats he received about Batman #50. Regardless of what you thought of the actual issue (we liked it an awful lot, given we consider it one of the best moments of the year!), this was a disaster that DC could have easily prevented if it wasn’t busy hyping up that its trick-show act was actually about just how spectacularly it could shoot itself in the foot.
Creative Team: DC Comics
Comicsgate is a loosely-organized, badly-coordinated effort to convince people that nobody wants to read comic books about characters who aren’t straight white men. Comicsgaters will insist that isn’t the case, but all one needs to do to disprove that is read the numerous accounts of comics creators and fans being harassed by members of the group with racist, homophobic, and misogynist vitriol.
While Comicsgate has no official “leader,” former Marvel and DC artist Ethan Van Sciver was one of its most prominent voices, who frequently dog-whistled his followers via his social media pages who then went forth and engaged in shitty behavior with people within the larger community. Figures like Van Sciver emboldened Comicsgaters to be their very worst selves and made a point of ignoring (or at least pretending not to see) the awful impacts of their actions.
This year, Van Sciver made the conscious decision to distance himself from Comicsgate because a number of his followers felt as if he, and other larger fish like him, were attempting to elevate themselves above the garden variety internet trolls. His departure from the digital mob doesn’t at all mean that it’s going away anytime soon or that he’ll become a force for good in comics, but it was truly weird moment in comics this year that we’re all to glad to put behind us.
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