The 25 Best Comics of 2016 (So Far)

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The 25 Best Comics of 2016 (So Far)

After analyzing the best offerings from massive comic publishers like Marvel and Image while DC slowly presses the rebirth button, Paste decided to do a final mid-year tally of its favorite comics from the past six-ish months. And though we’re categorically devoted to promoting sequential art excellence devoid of genre or publisher size, damn did things get eclectic quick. Our favorite comics, graphic novels and collections scale food-obsessed anecdotes, androids terrorized by suburbia, inverted bedtime stores and the very honest travails of one young woman seeking fulfillment—just to name a few. Let us know what comics have elevated your 2016 in the comments.

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25. Moon Knight

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Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Greg Smallwood
Publisher: Marvel Comics

We’re only four issues into Jeff Lemire and Greg Smallwood’s radical take on the Fist of Khonsu, and it’s truly a singular, disorienting sight to behold. Lemire—who’s addressed mental illness in other comics like Bloodshot and The Underwater Welder—approaches a character who was once a mercenary saved by the Egyptian god of the moon. That man has since dressed up as a vigilante named Moon Knight, protecting those who travel by night. Lemire asks what most reasonable readers might: is that normal behavior, even by superhero standards? Add the historical footnote that the term “lunatic” translates as “moon sick,” and Lemire and Smallwood have the perfect character to dissect mental illness from a cape-and-cowl perspective. Sean Edgar
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24. Midnighter

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Writer: Steve Orlando
Artists: ACO, Alec Morgan
Publisher: DC Comics

Midnighter has always been an important character in the history of gay mainstream comics, but not without caveat. His characterization at the hands of writers like Mark Millar and Garth Ennis rarely rose above “Murderous Gay Batman,” and Midnighter’s previous solo outings almost wholly ignored his sexuality and personal life. Writer Steve Orlando and artist ACO have taken a much more nuanced approach to the character in his recently concluded ongoing, separating him from his longtime team, Stormwatch, to help Midnighter discover who he is when he’s not murdering legions of violent criminals. With equal attention paid to the character’s crusade against unchecked mad science and his newly single exploits, Midnighter was one of the most progressive series to emerge from the “DC You” soft relaunch, and of equal appeal to fans of hyperviolence and same-sex bedroom romps. Steve Foxe
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23. Injection

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Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Declan Shalvey
Publisher: Image Comics

Warren Ellis’ comics favor big ideas, whether they’re alternate versions of space travel, inspired riffs on 20th century pulp fiction or an alien arrival that defies exploration. Reunited here with artist Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire, who Ellis collaborated with on a gloriously surreal Moon Knight run, Injection feels like a summation of the writer’s thematic concerns—and the whole thing is thrilling, unsettling stuff. The book focuses on a group of five people who altered reality, and their ongoing attempts to rectify the consequences of those actions. Ellis’ plotting and dialogue are memorably executed, and Shalvey and Bellaire’s art excels in both action sequences and quieter character moments. It’s a work by three talented creators perfectly in sync. Tobias Carroll
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22. I Am A Hero Omnibus 1

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Writer/Artist: Kengo Hanazawa
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Horror fans know the struggle: once you’ve exhausted the canon offerings in each medium—the classic films, novels and comics of the genre—worthwhile new releases become rarer than sexually active teens who survive slasher films. For every It Follows or Harrow County, there’s a slew of forgettable also-stabs, and countless fear-free action outings that incorporate supernatural window dressing to attract hard-up horror junkies. Of all horror media, English-language manga stands out as a particularly malnourished field. Body-horror maestro Junji Ito (Uzumaki, Gyo) dominates, with gonzo punk icon Kazuo Umezu (The Drifting Classroom) serving as a distant-second deep cut. Now, thanks to Dark Horse’s translations of Kengo Hanazawa’s I Am a Hero, a gruesomely worthy third option has finally hit American shores. Steve Foxe
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21. Cry Havoc

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Writer: Si Spurrier
Artist: Ryan Kelly
Publisher: Image Comics

Comic shelves have seldom wanted for supernatural action stories with “fresh” twists on established mythos, but Cry Havoc is the rare book that delivers on its claim. Cerebral writer Si Spurrier, workhorse draftsman Ryan Kelly, the coloring trifecta of Lee Loughridge, Nick Filardi and Matt Wilson and designer Emma Price have produced a head-trip of a war story that speaks to notions of collective belief and self-fulfilling prophecies, with a messy mostly-lesbian, kinda-werewolf at its center. Told in three timelines differentiated by its three different colorists, Cry Havoc purposefully disorients the reader before weaving its storytelling threads together. Spurrier and Kelly have a blast digging up obscure monsters from around the globe, deftly fitting them into the modern day’s unceasing Middle Eastern conflict. With shades of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Cry Havoc’s first “season” is one of the best—and best-looking, thanks to Price’s forward-thinking design sensibilities—books in the Image roster, and will hopefully be back for more. Steve Foxe

20. Disquiet

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Writer/Artist: Noah Van Sciver
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Whoever picked the title of this collection of Noah Van Sciver’s shorter work (probably Van Sciver) did a fine job: disquiet is the abiding feeling it produces. Not that the description is new to the cartoonist’s work. Van Sciver tends to work in a vein of anxiety, pumping up the tension like he’s inflating a bicycle tire beyond its recommended PSI. Disquiet contains 14 stories, more or less, with single-page non-narrative drawings woven between them, done in a more painterly style, in color, and often taken from album covers, movies or found images. Not all of the bits embrace first-person narration, but a fair number do. Like the songs of Liz Phair, the autobiographical feel doesn’t necessarily mean the stories Van Sciver relates happened to him, but he has a way of making you feel like they did through telling details. In “It’s Too Much Reality,” there’s a kind of sweet, melancholic nothingness that fits with the holiday season during which it takes place. Even the wilder narratives, if they don’t feel like nonfiction, recall the sensation of lying in bed while someone spins you a story, true or not. They may be disquieting, but they’re weirdly comforting, too. Hillary Brown
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19. Monstress

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Writer: Marjorie Liu
Artist: Sana Takeda
Publisher: Image Comics

Monstress may flaunt an exterior filled with unicorns, multi-tailed cats and angelic warriors, but much like its titular heroine, it hides something far more savage inside. Really: shit gets real dark real quick. Writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda fearlessly address human trafficking, experimentation and the horrors of war through the travails of Maika Halfwolf, a survivor hiding a blood-thirsty behemoth in her soul—both metaphorically and literally. Takeda contrasts an escapist world and adorable character designs against unflinching horror, illuminating warfare’s brutality no matter the context. Liu has also constructed an ornate background mythology, where ruthless humans, body-harvesting witches and magical hybrids don’t even attempt to co-exist. Though the denseness of the plot and the streams of exposition don’t make Monstress the most accessible of comics, there’s nothing else like it in the medium. Sean Edgar
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18. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

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Writer: Ryan North
Artist: Erica Henderson
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Plenty of individuals more perceptive than I had already lauded Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by the time I showed up to the party in October, just in time for its Secret Wars-mandated relaunch. The subsequent zaney adventures of Doreen Green and her fellow ESU computer science (CS) majors happened to coincide with the promotional rollout of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and as lucky happenstances go, this was a humdinger. While BvS’s advertising reminded us all that the cinematic meeting of the 20th century’s most beloved, underoos-clad magical fighter men would be a depressing, self-important, joyless affair, Squirrel Girl wasn’t the hero we deserved; she was the hero we needed.

Having served as the monkey wrench in Dr. Doom’s botched scheme to rule the Earth through a timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly nature, Green embarked on a team-up alongside Howard the Duck, as well as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure issue that solidified her cred with nostalgia-junkie ‘90s kids. North and Henderson’s ongoing love letter to the Marvel Universe abides with tongues firmly in cheeks, but as demonstrated by Green’s “I don’t believe in monsters…” speech to Von Doom in issue #4, Squirrel Girl gets serious when circumstances require it. Don’t believe us? Go ask Thanos. Barry Thompson
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17. The Wicked + The Divine

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Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Jamie McKelvie
Publisher: Image Comics

Few books capture the zeitgeist like The Wicked + The Divine. The gods of old are back as pissy, prissy teen pop stars, adored by countless fans for two years and then snuffed out… Only someone is extinguishing the current pantheon before its time. Creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie bring every skill they’ve honed together over the last decade of collaboration to their work on WicDiv, from McKelvie’s expert facial “acting” to Gillen’s knack for perfect “wish-I-had-thought-to-say-that-during-my-last-breakup” dialogue. WicDiv, much like Saga, knows exactly how to leave its audience gasping and grasping for the next issue, and its ability to reach readers beyond comic-shop regulars make it one of the medium’s best cultural ambassadors. What could have been a cynical row on Rihanna, Kanye, Gaga and other overexposed pop stars has become a meditation of mortality, morality and the seeming invincibility of youth, with ample style and pure coolness to spare. Steve Foxe
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16. Space: An Eschew Collection

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Writer/Artist: Robert Sergel
Publisher: Secret Acres

This nice, pocket-sized collection of Robert Sergel’s Ignatz-nominated Eschew offers the equivalent of certain breed of short story, especially the midcentury type associated with The New Yorker. They don’t use many words or obvious emotions. Little happens by most storytelling standards, and the plots’ meanings and themes are often left to interpretation. But they suggest just enough to allow for some fun analysis in an English class. Often, the narrative revolves around a single character, so this focus on details shows where Segel’s attention is going, a method of communicating the subjectivity of experience without spelling it out. Form serves function beautifully. Space: An Eschew Collection is a quiet book, but it deserves your eyes. Hillary Brown
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15. How to Talk to Girls at Parties

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Writers: Neil Gaiman, Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá
Artists: Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

With this degree finesses and craftsmanship, Neil Gaiman’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties is more than a successful adaptation, remaining faithful to the precedent of its source material while giving it renewed life through the reinterpretation of Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. It’s an all-too-rare and wonderful marriage of three creative talents working in tandem to make something beautiful and innovative out of an established work, already gorgeous and fully formed—a story of longing, loneliness and the sparks of connection that spur us through youth into the precarious uncertainty of adulthood. Toussaint Egan
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14. Paper Girls

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Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Cliff Chiang
Publisher: Image Comics

Set in the 1980s, four 12-year-old newspaper delivery girls are menaced by something even weirder and more malevolent than teenage boys. In this sci-fi mystery, writer Brian K. Vaughan brings the heart and charm of Saga to a story about kids that’s not just for them. This title is also a strong contender for the most Kirby-esque current comic. The lead characters are a gender update of Kirby’s many boy gangs, and Cliff Chiang’s art is bold and innovative. Whether illustrating a sci-fi gizmo or drunken stepmom, Chiang’s clear lines (and Matt Wilson’s evocative, day-glo colors) convey the wonder, fear, and excitement of near-teenhood. This is one of the best recent comics to share with your friend who doesn’t read comics—especially if they have a hankering for the ‘80s. Mark Peters
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13. Harrow County

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Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Tyler Crook
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse’s creepy, atmospheric flagship spook title continues to dive deep into a southern-fried nexus of horror, folklore and nostalgia. The bulk of the series has focused on Hester Beck, a witchy woman who wasn’t afraid to make Faustian deals with the townsfolk. But that plot has branched into myriad directions equally chilling and visually arresting. Most importantly, writer Cullen Bunn and artist Tyler Crook keep a dark and magical heart thumping throughout Harrow County, even while expanding its borders. Their haunted storybook remains dangerous and inviting, disturbing and wistful. It’s a fitting look at the past; though it may appear kinder and simpler, it obscures a history of violence and discord waiting to erupt again. Sean Edgar
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12. Southern Bastards

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Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Jason Latour
Publisher: Image Comics

A lesser creative team would have no problem churning out Mason-Dixon exploitation set in the grimy, sweaty, crime-ridden underbelly of the former Confederacy, but only Jason Aaron and Jason Latour could create Southern Bastards. Much like Aaron’s “reservation noir” Scalped, Southern Bastards points an unflinching eye at its subjects without devolving into mocking spectacle. Aaron and Latour both know firsthand the conflicting sides of southern living, allowing for a level of nuance that makes the book’s must gut-wrenching moments hit all the harder. Latour’s confidently simplified linework and heightened color palette elevate the proceedings to a level of fine art any inevitable live-action adaptation will only hope to emulate. Southern Bastards is also notable for pulling one of the biggest first-arc bait-and-switches in recent memory—a shocker that is just now beginning to unfold in more detail. As reliable as your grandma’s cornbread and as rotten as roadkill on a steaming Alabama afternoon, Southern Bastards is confident down-home storytelling from two of the best in the business. Steve Foxe
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11. Nod Away

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Writer/Artist: Joshua Cotter
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Nod Away, a complex and beautiful sci-fi epic, alternates between a narrative of scientists working on a space station to tweak a biologically wired “Innernet” and back to nearly wordless scenes of a man traveling by himself through the desert, toward an unclear goal. Dreamy, packed with interesting ideas and suffused with the same quiet-but-felt emotions as cartoonist Joshua Cotter’s his debut, Nod Away fills a void that makes the author’s eight-year absence all the more evident. Hillary Brown

10. The Mighty Thor

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Writer: Jason Aaron
Artist: Russell Dauterman
Publisher: Marvel Comics

For all the misogyny a female thunder-wielder ignited in 2014, few could have predicted her complete dominance as the coolest Marvel superperson a few years later. Shifting from the heavy-metal opus of his opening “God Butcher”/“Godbomb” arcs, Jason Aaron now weaves a meticulous tapestry of shifting allegiances and gender dynamics in a story that deserves every connotation of “epic.” All of Asgard has accepted that a mysterious lady now tosses mjolnir save one man: Odin, the one-eyed king of the realm. Add in exploitive corporations, dark elves and branching fantasy worlds, and Mighty Thor remains a story built on sweat and blood with huge relevance outside of its fantasy trappings. Sean Edgar
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9. Dark Night: A True Batman Story

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Writer: Paul Dini
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo

More than two decades ago, Batman: The Animated Series writer, producer and editor Paul Dini was attacked by two men with such ferocity that parts of his skull were “powderized.” The event ignited a crisis of faith in the writer, who grappled with his day job of telling stories of good perpetually triumphing over evil when…sometimes it doesn’t. Is it irresponsible? Do men and women dressed in costumes offer facile escapism that deters its fans from realizing the severity of life?

What starts as a harrowing autobiography spirals into something far more daunting and analytical, placing the very concept of fiction on trial. Risso renders Dini’s narrative in striking violence and moody, sensual palettes, balancing the impact of the event around a whirlwind of failed romances and supportive friends. Dark Night isn’t just gorgeous, it’s one of the bravest, most intelligent expressions of the medium in recent memory. Sean Edgar
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8. Someone Please Have Sex With Me

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Writer/Artist: Gina Wynbrandt
Publisher: 2dcloud

Chicago-based artist Gina Wynbrandt’s Someone Please Have Sex With Me is an intense, weird, vulnerable dive into the underbelly of young adulthood. As the title suggests, the 5-comic collection follows Gina, a horny woman making increasingly desperate, futile attempts to get laid. She smokes weed, stalks Justin Bieber and gets sexually bullied by anthropomorphic feral cats—all illustrated in lurid candy pinks, yellows and greens. In the proud tradition of gross-out alt-comics doyennes like Julie Doucet and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Wynbrandt revels in smashing the beauty myth. Julia Wright
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7. Vision

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Writer: Tom King
Artists: Gabriel Hernandez Walta, Michael Walsh
Publisher: Marvel

Fact: The Vision is currently Marvel’s most interesting character, thanks to this witty, startling, gorgeous series by writer Tom King, artists Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Michael Walsh and colorist Jordie Bellaire. The premise is simple: the synthezoid Avenger literally makes himself a family and moves to the ‘burbs. Needless to say, shenanigans ensue, but not the type of winky, not-quite-funny antics of most of Marvel’s “quirky” titles: in this comic, the sci-fi horror plays out unflinchingly and tragically, like a lost Shakespeare play (The Visions of Verona?). This is a violent, over-the-top nightmare and a revealing look at domesticity. Mark Peters
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6. Hot Dog Taste Test

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Writer/Artist: Lisa Hanawalt
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Lisa Hanawalt’s second collection of work isn’t only about food, but it does have blurbs from Momofuku’s David Chang and Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold on the back, so food is certainly a large part of it. One of my other hats is that of a food writer, so I find most writing about food insufferable: too full of adjectives, too gross, too focused on morality at the expense of deliciousness, too boring, too self-important and/or too much about the writer. Hanawalt somehow manages to avoid any of these traps. She is appreciative of weird foods without coming off like a dilettante, and she expresses a love of junk without seeming like a glutton. She can even be directly autobiographical without being annoying, as in her comic about how she prefers her egg yolks thoroughly cooked. One explanation is that she keeps things brief instead of rhapsodizing for 6,000 words on breakfast. A better reason is that her comics on food are no different from her comics on anything: the product of a mind with a marvelously weird perspective. Hillary Brown
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5. Patience

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Writer/Artist: Dan Clowes
Publisher: Fantagraphics

Colored in the flat, desaturated hues that Clowes’ readers will recognize instantly, Patience is the Ghost World author’s longest work to date. The story of a man traveling back in time to rewrite history and save his wife, the book stumbles and falters in a number of key spots. The politics are unclear, and, at times, it falls prey to the same objectifying gaze that it seems to be criticizing. But it’s ambitious and complex, and it grapples with a set of emotions—honestly, forcefully, and at length. Clowes’ familiar linework is intact, and the book feels timeless. Or rather, Clowes nostalgically conjures a mish-mash of past aesthetics, imbuing Patience with a lust for a time that never even existed.

Clowes’ book has found both incredible praise and worthwhile excoriation, but regardless of how you end up feeling about it, it really is something you should read for yourself. Shea Hennum

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4. Saga

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Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Fiona Staples
Publisher: Image Comics

Paste anointed Saga a gamechanger for the comics medium when it debuted in 2012. In the intervening years, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples have never stopped challenging audiences with a heady mix of interpersonal friction, gallivanting space adventure and sucker-punch humor. While the comic initially thrived on an ‘us-vs-the-universe’ candor, the creative team hasn’t hesitated to subvert expectations, revealing these heroes as their own worst enemies at times. Fugitive parents Alana and Marko fell into extreme drug addiction, disrupting the romance and optimism that ignited their journey. But you know what? That’s a real frailty found in real families, and those risky decisions elevate Saga beyond escapist fiction to something infinitely more relevant and relatable, even as adorable seal children battle TV-head men with axes. Sean Edgar
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3. Panther

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Writer/Artist: Brecht Evens
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

Let’s cut to the chase: Panther is fucking terrifying. Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens covers similar terrain as his previous graphic novel, Night Animals, showing the perils of little girls cavorting with storybook monsters. In this lush, watercolored fever dream, adolescent Christine bonds with the talking, titular cat who emerges from the lowest drawer of her dresser. Panther regales Christine with fanciful tales of Pantherland before parading a medley of red flags, including emotional co-dependency, inappropriate touching and sketchy, sketchy, sketchy friends. As their time together grows, Panther stretches comic-book tension to its most affecting extremes, and attempting to reveal a metaphor or resolution is equally unnerving. Like some unholy love child between Winnie the Pooh and Harmony Korine, Panther is a harrowing comic event for 2016. Sean Edgar
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2. Big Kids

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Writer/Artist: Michael Deforge
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

The experience of reading Big Kids is almost synesthetic; it puts almost inarticulable emotional states into seemingly unrelated visuals that evoke those feelings with pinpoint precision. How can a six-panel page of two squiggly lines intertwining suggest a late-adolescent sexual encounter? Do guilt and shame translate as a body slowly absorbing raindrops that feel like tiny, heavy metal balls? How does one draw the concept of becoming aware of a new dimension of thought and feeling? Big Kids posits crazy and ambitious goals, and DeForge doesn’t always achieves them, but his work here is reliably intellectual and emotionally intelligent as well as garishly beautiful. Hillary Brown
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1. The Sheriff of Babylon

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Writer: Tom King
Artist: Mitch Gerads
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo

The Sheriff of Babylon is a murder mystery set during the fallout of Sadam Hussein’s rule, though the audience is fully aware of who murdered whom and why they did so. Writer Tom King takes full advantage of Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to let the watcher feel empathy through the characters instead of themselves. Watching police trainer Christopher, diplomat Sofia and disgruntled ex-cop Nassir collide and repel is far tenser than any clue-finding exercise could be—and more addictive. But it’s the small details and delicious slivers of characterization that make this dissection of unilateral politics so impressive. In a subject that’s often morally simplified, King calls upon his years as a CIA agent to explore a world with onion layers of morality. When Sofia states, “There is something about dirty Arab children that makes senators say yes,” there’s a dark realization that countless variations of this conversation fuel every warfare and reconstruction scenario. The Sheriff of Babylon is a thinking man’s comic grounded in realpolitik horror, where the corpses of patriotism litter yesterday’s battlefields. Sean Edgar