Comics collecting has been my primary geek interest since age 6, but I have a tough time writing about it with any regularity. My comics-judging criteria can seem weird and unfair to other fans who don’t share them. I like discussing them if asked, which is rare, but I loathe debating them. It doesn’t help that I skip most crossovers and tend to gravitate toward titles with smaller audiences. Whenever a larger company axes titles for the sake of their bottom line or internal politics, my favorites are usually first on the chopping block. I doubt many comics readers follow MCC anyway, so it’s really the best possible place for me to talk about comics unharmed, albeit all to myself. So far I haven’t had to ban myself for flaming or trolling myself, which is nice.
It’s no secret the pandemic complicated the comics biz for publishers, comic shops, and fans in varying measures. The entire field screeched to a halt for much of spring 2020 as distributors stopped shipping books, creating gaps in cash flow and serialized storytelling. Though shops in a number of states couldn’t open their doors due to COVID-19 lockdowns, but encouraged fans to peruse their existing backlog online or keep ordering products through them rather than fleeing straight into the open arms of the Amazon monolith. As far as I know, all our shops here in Indianapolis are still clinging to this mortal coil, but it couldn’t have been easy.
Companies tried to sort the mess and make a comeback. The biz ended up aligning into a new distribution paradigm. A season-long beta-test followed as shipping schedules were more hit-or-miss than ever and new-release lists were incomplete. Habitual Wednesday shoppers like myself scrambled to obtain all the new stuff they wanted, sometimes with mixed results. For 2020-related logistical reasons I had to switch shops, albeit within the same chain in a tidy confluence of longtime customer loyalty and convenient geography, and made sure the bulk of my comics budget still landed in their hands. And yet, quite a few issues fell through the cracks. Sometimes my shop could reorder for me. A few times, I had to cheat on them and order online from other retailers. I hadn’t had this many new holes in my collection since I was buying comics off the drugstore spinner racks as a kid.
When the shipments did run on time without hiatuses or skipped products, 2020 was a good year to try new titles and companies, of which there was no shortage even in this of all years. With Marvel and DC continuing to fade from my personal “must” list, slow new-comics weeks happened a lot more often and freed up funds to indulge in more graphic novels. Additional funding was also provided from our annual convention budget, which in turn was freed up by 2020’s sorrowful yet understandable dearth of comic-cons. I missed handing cash directly to comics creators sitting at tables in front of me, but at least I was in a position to buy more of their squarebound works than usual. (Some of those new books showed up in my intermittent reading round-ups. A few more 2020 graphic novels are on deck for the first few installments when I resume writing those.)
In conclusion, comics collecting in 2020 was a land of contrasts. For reference and psychological self-assessment of my own tastes, here’s a rundown of what I’ve been buying on Wednesdays in ye olde-schoole floppy “singles” format at my local comic shop, all the series and miniseries alike, the good and the less-good, that survived managerial and personal cuts and either proceeded to their intended endings or remain in progress and on my pull list through December 31, 2020. I used to sort these capsules by publisher, but who cares anymore. Keep an eye out for the five whole titles I followed that persevered through thick-and-thin and somehow published nine or more issues through this fiasco of a year.
Adler (Titan Comics, five-issue miniseries) – Irene Adler, Jane Eyre, Little Orphan Annie, Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, and others form their very own League of Extraordinary Women, blessedly minus Alan Moore’s X-rated proclivities. The pandemic created an intermission between two issues of setup and three issues of easy-reader action that felt almost too breezy. I might’ve skipped the final issue if my shop hadn’t ordered it specifically for me out of habit. The trade paperback coming in March should be a much better format for the YA fans out there who might need to go Wikipedia a character or two, or maybe go ask Mom and Dad who they were.
Adventureman (Image Comics, ongoing, four issues so far) – As I recall, the new joint from Matt Fraction and Terry ‘n’ Rachel Dodson was among the first #1s to hit stands after the pandemic gap. A rollicking reinvention of pulp-serial heroes with a near-future sheen and a vivid multi-culti family legacy at its heart.
American Ronin (AWA/Upshot, miniseries, three issues so far) – A thematic successor to Peter Milligan’s Human Target, one of my favorite old DC/Vertigo books. Whereas that one was a government operative with existentialist identity issues, this one’s about an assassin who gets into the heads of his targets through a bizarre process of genetic sampling and seemingly paranormal empathy, because knowing how they feel when he’s after them takes the experience to a weird new level. The head-turning art by the pseudonymous ACO made this the year’s most stylish thriller.
Archie Meets the B-52s (Archie Comics, one-shot) – Nothing but respect for my Archie, who delivers exactly what this promises. If you’re of a certain age and musical sensibility and loved Archie Meets the Ramones, which I did, you’ll dig this, which I also did.
Ascender (Image, ongoing, seven issues in 2020) – Still loving how the sci-fi epic took a hard left turn into a new world of witches’ magic, but I opened #14 to see a dead character staring back at me and to my chagrin realized I missed #13. So #14 is sitting on my unread pile until I can order #13 online, which I keep forgetting to do. And #15 is out this Wednesday, so I’ll be even more behind soon. Grrrrrrr.
Basketful of Heads (DC Comics/Hill House, miniseries, final four of seven issues) – Joe Hill’s pop-up horror imprint shepherded its entire slate to their intended destinations, though the first of his two projects paused with just one issue to go before we could at long last see how Our Heroine managed to drag her magic axe and her bag of talking evildoers’ heads across the finish line.
Batman: Black and White (DC miniseries, one issue so far) – I treasured this concept the first time DC tried it back in the ’90s and am totally on board to see which of today’s artists have the line-work to rock without relying on digital coloring to save them. I predictably loved J.H. Williams III’s take on a COVID-era Caped Crusader strung together by an evolving motif, as well as G. Willow Wilson and Greg Smallwood taking on Killer Croc, but I had to spend a while goggling at Tradd Moore’s hallucinogens on paper. Add in Emma Rios and Andy Kubert, realize this is just one issue, and eagerly anticipate the hits yet to come.
The Batman’s Grave (DC miniseries, final nine [!!!] of twelve issues) – A grave was dug for the talented but flawed writer’s career back in June, but at the very least I wanted to see the rest of the blood, sweat and more blood that Bryan Hitch channeled into the art. Hitch is one of the best artists to keep drawing superhero books that I otherwise have zero interest in catching, and for once I wanted to enjoy one of them. Just one delicious Hitch run. That’s all I asked.
Batman: The Adventures Continue (DC, ongoing,, seven issues in 2020) – Animated series writers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett team up with Ty Templeton, one of my favorite contributors to DC’s original Batman: The Animated Series tie-in comics, to create even more Batman: TAS tie-ins. The gang takes on a handful of Bat-characters who got short shrift or flat-out excluded from that party — chiefly instigators such as Deathstroke, Azrael, and Jason Todd, who dominates the back half with a retelling of his life extending from “A Death in the Family” to his grim evolution into the Red Hood. It’s at least as dark as some of the stories that did make it to screens, but is an essential coda for anyone who’s been a fan of this particular Batverse all these decades. [CORRECTED 1/27/2021: I originally labeled this a miniseries, but #8 came out this week and told me to shut up.]
Big Girls (Image, ongoing, five issues in 2020 and #6 just came out last week) – Bounding from the pages of Cemetery Beach and Trees, Jason Howard dons a writer/artist cap to create this inspired cross between Pacific Rim and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. The premise seems simple: humanity’s defenders against an onslaught of kaiju are a trio of super-sized female soldiers. But much like the series itself, the monsters aren’t what they seem and belie a wealth of mysteries about their true nature and the world that spawned them. Hard moral questions are asked and skyscrapers fall down go boom. Howard is taking a break before the second arc begins in a few months, with the first trade coming in March for newcomers to jump aboard and enjoy.
Bill & Ted Are Doomed (Dark Horse Comics, four-issue miniseries) – Any reading matter with Evan Dorkin’s name on it is a must-buy for me, including but not limited to the grade-A Bill & Ted’s Excellent Comic Book he wrote and drew for Marvel long ago. Roger Langridge’s name also receives serious consideration when it’s in my line of sight. The two of them united for this midquel that neatly segues from the first two films to their endearingly earnest 2020 trilogy-capper. Old fans who caught Bill & Ted Face the Music during the pandemic and noted the absence of Good Robots Bill and Ted as well as the alien duo Station should be happy to see whatever happened to them here, along with the raucous sight of Our Heroes convincing themselves to go on a world tour, only to find themselves at odds with Scandinavian death-metalheads. You’d think they of all people would be more impressed to see dudes hanging out with the Grim Reaper, and yet they’re not. Their loss.
Billionaire Island (Ahoy Comics, six-issue miniseries) – Imagine Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, but instead of ostensibly conscientious scientists abandoning humanity to form their own disaster-proof enclave, it’s selfish evil billionaires, which is much less of a stretch and for all we know might have actually happened by now, because who among us has the power to surveil and tattle on them for taking our money and running? Lovers of topical satire will note that Mark Russell has an enviable knack for mining scathing new jokes about subjects that Twitter routinely complains about seven million times daily. Same lovers will doubtlessly be satisfied with the happy-ending comeuppances, more so if you remember Russell and artist Steve Pugh from previous unabashedly progressive works such as The Flintstones and that one time they outed Snagglepuss.
Blackwood: The Mourning After (Dark Horse, four issues) – Another Evan Dorkin gig, an encore arc about the titular school demonstrating that if Hogwarts taught the sort of black magic that extra-Christian parents think it teaches, Hogwarts would be too busy dealing with constant cursed items and demonic deals and related murders to actually hold any classes.
Detective Comics #1,027 (DC, just the one issue for me) – I haven’t bought this many Bat-comics in a single year since the New 52’s Year One. These super-sized anniversary anthologies sometimes invite entertaining guests to the celebration. As usual a couple of multi-page ads for future comics cleverly disguised as short stories can be safely ignored, but a few teams turn in some keepers — Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez; Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso; Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham; Tom King and Walt Simonson (bringing back Doctor Phosphorus from Simonson’s own ’70s Detective run), and my favorite by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, in which we learn of how the Joker celebrates Batman’s birthday every year.
Devil’s Highway (AWA/Upshot, five-issue miniseries) – An ex-military punk detective hunts down the serial-killing truck-driver cult that murdered her father. Grimness ensues, much of it on or around semis, which is practically an undiscovered setting for comics. A very different take on the subgenre ends To Be Continued because AWA’s business model favors series-of-miniseries arcs rather than ongoing titles, but this debut arc sets a suitably hard-boiled tone.
Dial H for Hero (DC, the final three issues) – Canceled with #12, this was one of the last two “Wonder Comics” titles to end way back in the Before Times. Quick recap of last year’s recap: the homages to other comics were nifty, but the baseline story repeated the same sins as past revivals and rarely reminded me of what I liked best about this concept when I was a kid.
Die (Image, ongoing, five issues in 2020) – The third arc, “Split the Party”, does exactly that, juggling both halves of Our Heroes with equal aplomb while everything gets bleaker as their dissenting opinions on how or when to return to Earth aren’t getting things done any more quickly. An unexpected family member and H.G. Wells are just two of the surprises in store for the series which once struck such a chord with me that I devoted an entire entry to my reaction, which I nearly never do with my comics anymore.
Dollhouse Family (DC/Hill House, the final four of six issues) – Mike Carey and Peter Gross, creators of DC/Vertigo’s underappreciated The Unwritten, re-teamed for this creepy tale of an abused child, the large old-fashioned dollhouse gifted to her, and its lively, old-timey doll-ish inhabitants who take a shine to her and decide they’re her unofficial guardians. Casualties ensue. Yes, that’s copied-and-pasted from last year’s entry, but little has changed except now we have closure, and a faint suspicion that perhaps this could’ve used a few extra issues to unwind at a less clipped pace and perhaps explore the house’s long-term residents a bit more deeply.
Farmhand (Image, ongoing, three issues in 2020) – Rob Guillory’s agri-horror tale of a farm whose cash crop is replacement body parts finished its third arc before he decided to take the rest of the year off — partly for family, partly to rev up the series’ second half, and partly to continue work on the proposed AMC adaptation, as optioned back in mid-1999. Hopefully its hiatus is shorter than we’ve seen happen to other creator-owned Image books.
Fantastic Four: Antithesis (Marvel, four-issue miniseries) – Mark Waid returns to the First Family one more time, bringing both Galactus and Neal Adams along for the ride. The duo finds some new wrinkles I hadn’t seen performed with the world-devourer’s skill sets before, but I absolutely positively am not a fan of Adams’ pronounced super-simian take on the Thing’s appearance. On the bright side, the script seems to be more Waid’s doing than Adams’.
Far Sector (DC/Young Animal, ongoing, seven issues in 2020) – It’s N.K. Jemisin’s stellar comics debut. It’s the last survivor of Gerard Way’s once-promising pop-up imprint. It’s the kind of social-commentary SF we never see in monthly comics that have no Mark Russell in them. It remains one of the best things on DC’s schedule today, not just its best Green Lantern book.
Firefly (BOOM! Studios, ongoing, twelve [!!!] issues in 2020) – I was cooling a bit in Greg Pak’s run, but eventually the new characters and planets coalesced into a crackling arc about the time Captain Reynolds took on a new gig as a space sheriff ostensibly working for the Alliance. Between his cantankerous mom, his ex-enemy Boss Moon, and the requisite new Asian characters guaranteed to make things better whenever Greg Pak writes a series, everything came together in “Blue Sun Rising”, which also appears to be a finale of sorts before the series heads into 2021 and time-jumps to a new era years beyond Serenity, proving that beloved sci-fi properties are in fact legally permitted to tell new stories that take place after their last theatrical film, unlike some franchises we could mention that rhyme with “Bar Bores”. Triple bonus points awarded here for the title that produced more new issues than any other in 2020 – twelve of its own and three specials on the side, with assists from a roster of artists pitching in on Pak’s scripts. I grew up in an age where guests artists were also legally permitted, so I rolled with it.
Fire Power (Image, ongoing, six issues in 2020) – The best new series of 2020, hands down, no contest. An accomplished martial artist walks away from his years-long “chosen one” gig in Asia and tries to make a new life for himself in America, but of course some old rivals try to pull him back in. No, I don’t mean Netflix’s Marvel’s Iron Fist, thank the Lord. This time Our Hero himself is Asian, and he’s got a wife and two kids, but the pulling-back-in bit is no less emphatic and endangering. His wife is a cop and his kids are slowly learning more about their dad and the tricks he’s passed on to them. I’d forgotten how fun a Robert Kirkman book could be at times (it’s been a while for me), but this time he’s paired with Chris Samnee, one of the most dynamic artists currently in the field. It’s sprightly, funny, warm, dashing, shocking, action-packed, and all-out spectacular. Even more fun, each issue includes a two-page confab between the two of them about their collaborative process. Love it.
The Flash #750 (DC, just the one issue for me) – These super-sized anniversary anthologies sometimes invite entertaining guests to the celebration. This time the best parts are from recently departed writer Joshua Williamson, whose initial “Rebirth” arcs likewise captured that quintessential Flash vibe and made me wish someone had told me about his stuff sooner.
The Green Lantern Season Two (DC, miniseries, the first ten [!!!] of twelve) – Meanwhile over on the second-best GL book, Grant Morrison and Liam Sharp continue chugging away in their own little multiverse, throwing in mad Silver Age bits and detonating them with mushroom-fueled nitroglycerin while weaving their lingering energies and resonances into something resembling yet another mega-series tapestry to add to Morrison’s repertoire alongside his Batman and The Invisibles. Each issue takes a few tries to sort, but at their core they’re arguably as straightforward as any other GL tale if you can remember everything that’s ever happened in Morrison’s entire run so far. Or you can just smile and nod and play along and wait for more details to be doled out over the next however many dozens of issues he plans to natter on. This includes the bridge miniseries between the first two seasons, Green Lantern: Blackstars, whose third and final issue came out in January 2020, which was eight years ago.
Green Lantern 80th Anniversary (DC, one-shot) – It bears repeating: these super-sized anniversary anthologies sometimes invite entertaining guests to the celebration. Older fans will get a kick out of the late Denny O’Neil’s final Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up with the assistance of fellow old-schooler Mike Grell. Children of the ’90s can high-five each other for the reunion of Ron Marz, Darryl Banks, and GL Kyle Rayner. And in honor of the late, great Dwayne McDuffie and his Justice League Unlimited legacy, his widow Charlotte Fullerton collaborates with ChrisCross (a Milestone Media alum like McDuffie) for one last take on the John Stewart/Hawkgirl coupling that was among the show’s numerous inspired subtleties.
Hawkeye: Freefall (Marvel, miniseries, final five of six issues) – I should be grateful Marvel relented on their plans to finish the story as a digital-only release. I should also be grateful for some bonus Clint Barton since I thought this was just a five-issue mini. I’m annoyed anyway because every single issue suffered from the same marketing initiative that plagues ever Marvel book I touch: that every issue of every Marvel comic shall henceforth contain at least one very special and superfluous guest star from the Marvel Cinematic Universe so as to somehow lure strangers into comic stores by, I dunno, guest-star sorcery. Matthew Rosenberg enlivened all the interactions and repartee as is his appreciated specialty, but the too-many-cooks approach to a solo hero book still bugged me. I’m also tiring of Clint’s moral slide that’s been in a steep downward spiral for years and was more ex-hero depression than I could stand in a year like 2020.
I Walk with Monsters (Vault/Nightfall, ongoing, one issue in 2020 plus #2 out last week) – There’s the Paul Cornell who wrote Captain Britain & MI:13 and my favorite Doctor Who episode, “Father’s Day”. Then there’s the Paul Cornell whose stint on Wolverine structured every issue as a 90-second flipbook written for the trade. So far this feels closer to the latter. Manga-paced twenty-page issues are a tough sell at four bucks apiece, but for now I’m sticking with this supernatural horror series about a young lady and her powered partner tracking a particular force of evil, mostly because the characters are talking about traveling to our very own Indiana State Fair and I want to see if they use any reference material. I’m right here with tons of firsthand examples if they need some. Just sayin’.
Juggernaut (Marvel, five-issue miniseries) – While the X-Men and some of their former foes are off enjoying their exclusionary mutant paradise of Krakoa, old non-mutant cast members like Cain Marko are shut out and forced to find their own way through other corners of the Marvel universe. Our unstoppable force recovers the power of Cyttorak, pairs up with a super-powered social media influencer named D-Cel, and sets out to find a more fulfilling purpose in life beyond hiring himself out as an evil battering ram. I’m a sucker for good super-villain rehabilitation stories, and Fabian Nicieza and Ron Garney polished up a fine one here, complete with open ending that sets up a new status quo with some potential. Next time another writer uses Juggernaut as generic villain fodder, I’m gonna get upset.
King in Black: Namor (Marvel, miniseries, first two of five) – I skip crossovers on principle, but this is actually a fun retcon someone slid past the editors in a trenchcoat with “CROSSOVER” written on it. After literally one page of Namor in the present worried about evil symbiotes and whatnot, page 2 kicks off a five-issue flashback to young-adult Namor living good times with his Silver Age supporting cast (like, say, his old pal Attuma), but in slightly younger prequel terms, before Roy Thomas began fleshing them out in Namor’s first solo series. The Autumnlands team of Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey reunite for what’s basically Untold Tales of the Sub-Mariner. Busiek once again adds new textures to Marvel history; Dewey gets to draw otherworldly underwater creatures. Win-win.
Lazarus Risen (Image, ongoing, two issues in 2020) – In the back pages of #5 Greg Rucka confesses there was supposed to be much more this year, but, well, 2020 and then some. As you can imagine, the SF drama about a future Earth carved up among a cadre of ultra-rich families feels less unreal than ever, even as it focuses increasingly on the smaller character moments to set up presumably larger, more sweeping events in later issues, and is no less engrossing than ever…and yet, Rucka’s frustration and rage in that essay about what he’s seeing and enduring in our own world — as a Portland resident, mind you — makes it a little harder to immerse in a predictive unreality that seems a little less harsh in comparison.
Locke and Key: In Pale Battalions Go (IDW, three-issue miniseries) – Now a Netflix series! Which isn’t bad so far, for a teen fantasy drama or a comics adaptation. Creators Joe Hill and Gabe Rodriguez return for a glimpse at Keyhouse’s residents during World War I, including a patriotic teen who wants to do his part for the war effort, uses the right keys at the wrong time, and tragedy ensues. Fans of the show who haven’t read any of the previous, present-day arcs can jump into this without fear of spoilers and get a fair sense of the series at its best.
Maestro (Marvel, five-issue miniseries) – Peter David returns to one of the most iconic characters from his record-breaking run on Incredible Hulk and reveals the secret origin of the alt-timeline Bruce Banner who grew old and turned into a bitter tyrant. Special guest Dale Keown, who drew some of David’s run but not Maestro’s first appearance, comes back for several pages plus all five covers. A bit of nostalgia and my dim memories of Future Imperfect found some value here, but I just learned a follow-up is in the works that’ll bring back the Pantheon, whom I barely remember except to note they were also around back then. I prefer my nostalgia in smaller, contained doses, especially when it’s for a concept that didn’t necessarily cry out for unlimited expansion.
Manifest Destiny (Image, ongoing, three issues in 2020) – “Lewis & Clark & Monsters” reached #42 before the pandemic gap, and then, mid-arc…poof. Gone. No sign of it since, no info on #43 anywhere that I can see. Writer and artist have shown brief signs of life within the past thirty days on Twitter, but nary a mention of the book from either of them within the past year. I fear the worst. Well, next-worst besides death-related scenarios, I mean.
Marvel Snapshots (Marvel, one-shots) – In honor of the thirtieth anniversary of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ landmark Marvels miniseries, each of them spearheaded their own parties. On Busiek’s side, he oversaw a series of one-shots telling new tales from “little people” perspectives set in past eras. I bought five of at least six ((I skipped a Cyclops issue, because Cyclops) and…well, I’m not going to rank them, but the stars among these keepers include:
- One of the Human Torch’s old girlfriends, by Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, and Ben Dewey
- A post-WWII Namor suffering PTSD, by Alan Brennert and Jerry Ordway, two names I haven’t heard in ages
- Maria Hill and a hopefully helpful super-teen reliving the traumatic aggravation of Civil War, by Saladin Ahmed and Ryan Kelly
- Two civilians taking shelter from a disastrous Avengers fight, by Barbara Kesel and Staz Johnson (more old names!)
- Innocents trying to make sense after the ’70s Captain America “Madbomb” story, by Mark Russell and Pere Perez
All worth it. Hope there’s more to come?
Miles to Go (Aftershock Comics, miniseries?, three issues in 2020) – Amara Bishop’s dad was a government contract killer, a Vietnam vet who had nowhere else to take his skill sets after the war and raised his daughter as a junior partner in the family business. When present-day Feds decide it’s time to clean house, no matter how old or forgotten the dust is, a now-adult Amara has to take her own daughter on the run through a world she’s been shielded from till now, with some assistance from one of Dad’s elderly old colleagues with his own ghosts to reckon. B. Clay Moore and Stephen Molnar ground the chase through an ugly world in character-driven suspense and never let the reader relax lest the next turn of a page knock them flat.
Once and Future (BOOM!, ongoing, nine [!!!] issues in 2020) – Hapless curator hero Duncan McGuire and his ruthless grandma continue their battle against the forces of evil undead King Arthur. The chaos has now dragged in Merlin, Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s even larger mom, the Green Knight, and (gasp!) Boris Johnson with increasingly bloodier results. Every issue ends on such a jaw-dropping cliffhanger than I’m worried about TMJ setting in, but I couldn’t possibly stop reading for my own health now.
Plunge (DC/Hill House, six-issue miniseries) – An expedition sails far north and stumbles across another crew that disappeared in the depths long ago. They’re still up and moving around after all, with the assistance of some unsightly creatures with evil math on their toolbox who’d like to negotiate terms. Well, “negotiate” implies two-sidedness so maybe that isn’t the word. Joe Hill delivers the scariest of all the Hill House books I read with a colossal boost of monstrous underwater atmospherics from Stuart Immonen and Dave Stewart, two of those longtime artists whose lightest touches improve every story by at least two letter grades.
Power Pack (Marvel, miniseries, first two of five) – Unbeatable Squirrel Girl‘s Ryan North has consistently been one of my favorite writers as an aging adult. Louise Simonson and June Brigman’s (and then Jon Bogdanove’s) Power Pack was one of my favorite Marvel series as a teen, a love I passed on to my son when they starred in some kiddie minis back in the early 2000s. Now I’m taking them back because North and the Powers together are like mixing chocolate with some other kind of even richer chocolate. Major problem, though: thanks to some event book (UGH) called Outlawed, Marvel minors aren’t allowed to do superhero stuff anymore unless accompanied by an adult superhero. Someone threw a turnip in my double chocolate. So the gang finds themselves an old-fashioned new hero to mentor them, but of course he isn’t what he seems and he harbors a darker motive. That was also the exact plot of an entire arc that Rainbow Rowell’s Runaways just did. Well, “just did” is relative. That was in 2019, which was twelve years ago. But it’s still Ryan North, and he’s nailed their voices. Here’s hoping the law is overturned soon and we can never speak of it or its event book again.
Previously in Marvel Comics (Marvel, one-shot) – This was a freebie, but a smart one. After the pandemic gap, Marvel released a collection of one-page recaps of nearly all their titles to comic shop customers who were missing their ongoings and starving for new singles. All things considered, it was one of their most considerate gestures of 2020.
The Resistance (AWA/Upshot, six-issue miniseries) – J. Michael Straczyinski’s return to comics released one (1) issue before the pandemic gap. It also happened to be about dark times in which a pandemic ravages Earth and America’s response suffers from unsavory responses by ungodly figureheads. But at least in this take, some of the victims came away with cool superpowers and our Big Bad is Evil President Ed Harris. Advantage: them. Though designed within the framework of a larger arc, it’s also a vehicle for JMS to share an array of done-in-one Twilight Zone-esque power-themed shorts — sort of a one-man anthology, as it were. The artistic lineup Mike Deodato Jr., Frank Martin, and Lee Loughridge make it look shiny and new, as they do.
Robin 80th Anniversary (DC, one-shot) – Did I mention the super-sized anniversary anthologies and their sometimes entertaining guests? Winners here include Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel reuniting for Nightwing; Amy Wolfram and Damion Scott sneaking Stephanie Brown in through a side door; and Judd Winick and Dustin Nguyen with an utterly heartbreaking flashback to a young, idealistic Jason Todd who used to love his guardian very much.
Runaways (Marvel, ongoing, four issues in 2020) – The uneven Hulu series was canceled, and for many months after the pandemic gap it began to look as though the comic had been, too, possibly among the dozens of casualties when Marvel rearranged their entire schedule from the top down. Then #32 came out of nowhere in October, and that’s all we’ve seen from Our Heroes since. Hopefully Rainbow Rowell is okay out there? At least the Doc Justice arc wrapped and the team is back on their own recognizance. And so far Gertie and Molly are unaffected by Outlawed, thankfully. For now.
Shang-Chi (Marvel, miniseries, first four of five) – An accomplished martial artist walks away from his years-long “chosen one” gig in Asia and tries to make a new life for himself in America, but of course some old rivals try to pull him back in. No, I don’t mean Netflix’s Marvel’s Iron Fist, thank the Lord. Yes, I copied and pasted the first two sentences from the Fire Power capsule. But in Marvel’s corner the erstwhile Master of Kung-Fu has powerhouse writer Gene Luen Yang guiding his way. A reflective Shang-Chi who’s been around the block a few times is a different and welcome take, but it’s stuck in that modern mode of ostensibly “action” comics in which each fight scene is a one-page pinup that symbolizes ten pages of wholly offscreen exchanges of blows and blocks and flips and stabs and authentic moves and so on. I’ve protested fight-scene montages consistently in recent years, and it’s a major letdown to see this same sorry shortcut applied to what should be among the best martial-arts comics ever. Right now Fire Power‘s Owen Johnson is wearing the champion’s belt that once belonged to Shang-Chi.
Spy Island (Dark Horse, four-issue miniseries) – Previously in 2019, comics fans canceled novelist Chelsea Cain for being insufficiently 21st-century feminist. Cain returns anyway with a bizarre espionage tale about spies from multiple nations — including a few rarely represented in comics — converging on an island resort while a mystery involving real mermaids has cost a few innocent lives but the heroine is concerned more with her family issues and boinking another spy on the side. It’s at least as off-the-wall as Man-Eaters was if not more so, but I will might offer to pay extra for future projects if Cain will please, pretty please forgo the fake ads that were funny for the first few tiny doses but are wearing out their welcome, and weren’t exactly a bold new concept in comics in the first place.
Star Wars (Marvel, ongoing, nine issues in 2020) – Used to be, I was keeping up with so many of Marvel’s Star Wars comics that I had enough for a separate photo of those stacks alone. Then came The Rise of Skywalker, which preceded a noticeable scaling-down in the comics tie-ins even before the pandemic gap. Marvel held Star Wars back for a few extra months — with noticeably more hesitation than its super-team books — before returning to the fore. I’m hanging on to the flagship series because I trust Charles Soule to keep taking us on a wild ride, but my continued readership here is neither unconditional nor guaranteed. For now I remain in.
Strange Adventures (DC, miniseries, first seven of twelve) – The amazing colossal superteam of Tom King and Mitch Gerads (Sheriff of Babylon, Mister Miracle) invite Doc Shaner to their latest head trip, in which Silver Age space hero Adam Strange remains as always a man of two worlds. On Rann he’s the leader against an alien invasion. Meanwhile on Earth, the release of his new memoir is complicated by a murder charge. Life isn’t easy, nothing is straightforward, of course there are meta elements, and both artists try their best to keep King from straying too far into left field with imposed structures and seemingly illusive implications. I know the title is reclaimed from one of DC’s many, many anthologies of yesteryear, but it’s still such a generic name that I’ve overlooked it on new-release lists three times so far and have to keep playing catch-up. Fortunately my local shop keeps plenty of copies on hand.
Superman Smashes the Klan (DC, miniseries, final two of three) – The best Gene Luen Yang serialized story of 2020 was this retelling of a classic Superman radio drama, updated for a 21st-century world that still has the same lessons to learn 75 years later. #1 came out last year but I omitted it from my lists becauee it was too small and thick to count as a normal comic and yet too short per chapter to count as separate books in my reading stacks. But something this great deserves a better fate than the limbo where I keep all the stuff I don’t write about, so here it is, in case you haven’t read enough praise about it on dedicated comics sites.
Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (DC, miniseries, final six of twelve) – When DC severed ties with Diamond Distribution during the pandemic gap and turned all their business over to two wobbly upstarts, keeping tabs on their new releases was a far messier task than it should’ve been. But one title above all others motivated me to make that effort and take every possible step to see the best DC title of 2019 and 2020 through to its satisfyingly goofy conclusion in which our man Jimmy incredibly and incredulously delivers a decisive defeat to Lex Luthor himself. Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber, you have my gratitude and my endless chuckles.
Undiscovered Country (Image, ongoing, nine [!!!] issues in 2020) – Another entry from the Department of Prescient Pandemic Tales in which America fell apart on paper and then followed suit in real life. Scott Snyder, Charles Soule, Giuseppe Camuncoli and the gang never stopped working through the pandemic gap, returned in full force with the extra-length #6, and never let up off the accelerator. The cast continues their journey through an America that’s fractured into separate holds for each of its purported best qualities, crossing the border from Destiny into Unity and learning that even a scientists’ cutting-edge paradise can come at tremendous moral cost. This is why the ideal to strive for is made of qualities. Plural.
U.S. Agent (Marvel, miniseries, first two of five) – Christopher Priest is back with a project I can conscientiously buy! (Prudery dictated I bypass his Vampirella. Sorry, Priest.) In his ongoing refusal to be the Black Writer Who Writes the Black Characters, Priest is instead running with the Deep South’s very own John Walker, former Captain America temp and disgraced ’90s relic. Everything starts with explosive shenanigans at a West Virginia factory, and naturally it’s more complicated from there as Our Main Character who I am not referring to as Our Hero tries to strut his way through a typically knotty Priest labyrinth of conspiracy and betrayals and so forth, half of which won’t be clear until the final chapter, which, again, is standard Priest, so trying to describe more than that will simply blow up in my face when half of it is proven untrue later on.
Wonder Twins (DC, ongoing, final two issues) – Mark Russell helps turn out the lights on the Wonder Comics imprint with, uncharacteristically for him, rays of hope beaming from the next generation of heroes and thinkers who can, one prays, sort some of the messes that their predecessors have left for them. It was an inspiring tale at the beginning of a year that emotionally trended the opposite direction ever after.
Wonder Woman #750 (DC, just the one issue for me) – One last super-sized anniversary anthology with entertaining guests to cap the write-up. After a muddled waste of an opening story that’s just the end of some arc I’ll never read, Princess Diana is better served by the likes of Gail Simone and Colleen Doran (my first encounter with Star-Blossom, whom I need to know more about now now now), Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott (with Circe and Cheetah and complicated feels for Diana), and, of course, more, more, more. Revisiting this shortly before I’m about to watch Wonder Woman 1984 at long last was a nice bit of unplanned timing.
And now we switch from “hits” to “misses” for that other MCC annual comics tradition:
COMICS I BAILED OUT ON IN 2020:
Bitter Root (Image) – Nothing to do with quality or mydispleasure here. Due to pandemic communication issues, after #7 this stopped showing up on my shop’s weekly pull lists. A full three issues flew under my radar before I realized I’d been missing out. I really need to pick up the second trade at some point and get caught up.
The Dreaming: Waking Hours (DC) – After Neil Gaiman’s Sandman ended, the company tried prolonging the magic with other creators with The Dreaming, Lucifer, and other spinoffs that ultimately weren’t the same for me. At their worst, they were the Fantastic Beasts cash-in attempts of their era. I was inclined to stop snubbing them when they announced G. Willow Wilson was taking a turn. The first issue implied a continuation of lingering strands from some previous spinoffs I hadn’t read, but was just intriguing enough to merit some follow-up. Then a month passed, I totally forgot I was buying a Dreaming project, and I missed every issue after. My bad. But also, not a compliment that it had failed to stick with me forcefully enough not to require the extra mnemonic effort.
Inkblot (Image) – Emma Kubert, of the celebrated Kubert dynasty, steps away from the Big Two — a move I don’t recall her dad or her uncle ever making — for her first foray into the creator-owned world. This fantasy yarn about a magical cat and a gateway to another dimension felt too familiar in some respects, and not necessarily aimed at me. Which is fine! Not all comics need to be for me. Hopefully it’s doing okay.
Legion of Super-Heroes (DC) – I had high hopes for the Bendis relaunch, but a super-team with two dozen members worked far better in the ’80s when you had six to nine panels per page, captions and exposition were allowed, and storytelling was denser in general. In today’s comics averaging twenty pages per issue, two to four panels per page, up to ten words per panel…each hero gets one turn as a single-panel action pinup, explosions each merit a splash page, and oops, sorry, looks like we’re out of time this month, come back next issue for more pinups. Giving each hero an in-story holographic GI Joe file card floating behind their heads with name and powers was a canny idea, but six issues into this, most of the cast had no traits and no life outside those holocards, and a few had yet to receive even a dignified intro to call their own. I knew most of them, but not all of them, and I’m impatient with books that assume you already know everyone so it’s okay to skimp on writing basics.
Ludocrats (Image) – I like absurdity as much as the next fellow who stares at the world for a few minutes too long each day (as should be obvious whenever I slip into stream-of-consciousness on a whim), but the idea of a world in which everything is absurd on principle — every person, every rule, every encounter, every worldview — it doesn’t work for me. Absurdity is one valid response among the many choices we humans have out there in this infinitely diverse existence, but when everyone responds to every situation more or less identically, without contrasts it’s simply tedious. “What if everyone talked in punchline setups like sitcom characters?” “What if everyone were grimdark like the Punisher?” Same limitation applies here. Your Mileage May Vary.
Marvel (Marvel) – No, I didn’t stutter. In honor of the thirtieth anniversary of Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross’ landmark Marvels miniseries, each of them spearheaded their own parties. On Ross’ side…to be honest, I’ve never cared for the writers he’s teamed up with since Busiek, but for the first issue Busiek himself dropped by and brought Steve Rude along for a Jack Kirby homage to the Avengers’ earliest days. I honestly thought this was a one-shot despite the “Next Issue” page and overlooked the subsequent issues. I might have to check the shelves at the shop on Wednesday. It’ll be a slow week anyway.
M.O.D.O.K.: Head Games (Marvel) – I presume the upcoming Hulu animated series is a comedy, like all the hilarious M.O.D.O.K. gag strips in Toyfare Magazine. Though a few whimsical bits pop in here and there, this is above all else a straightforward M.O.D.O.K. story…which is fine, I guess? I just wasn’t feeling it. When a character is the butt of jokes for far too long, especially when you loved those jokes, sometimes it’s tough to pull back and take them seriously again.
Quantum & Woody (Valiant Comics) – Two issues came out before the pandemic gap and were just-okay, still failing to recapture the exceedingly high hilarity of the Priest/Bright glory days. Daniel Kibblesmith’s 2019 run came closest of all attempts, but all others just haven’t been the same.
Star Wars: Darth Vader (Marvel) – Even before the pandemic gap, the repetition was wearing on me. Vader meets disposable characters. Vader mows down disposable characters. Vader keeps Vadering. Such is among the inherent flaws of a prequel book burdened with preordained character fates. But what broke me at last was one issue that built to a seemingly dramatically awesome reveal that turned out to be…some dude from The Star Wars Visual Dictionary. But I think, like, his arm had a cameo in Episode IX. Then the following issue built to another seemingly dramatically awesome reveal that turned out to be…some other dude from the Episode IX novelization whose scene was cut from the movie. Apparently fans of the New Canon are expected to buy all the Star Wars products across all media to truly appreciate the universe as a whole, at the expense of us increasingly more casual dabblers who aren’t interested in that completeness achievement anymore. It’s the same reason I’ve also opted out of the new “High Republic” transmedia pre-prequels for now.
Excalibur, X-Force, X-Men (Marvel) – I knew from the get-go my time dallying in Jonathan Hickman’s massive revamp would likely end when (not if) the first line-wide crossover arrived. The timing of its early P.R. coincided with the pandemic gap, which I decided was the perfect jumping-off point. No ill will, no regrets, but not my thing.
…and that’s the 2020 that was. For related reading, you can check out my 2020 in graphic novels (and non-illustrated reading) starting with the final installment and then working your way backward through the links provided.
See you next year, I think! If publishers, comic shops and I all survive! Cheers!