2016 has been a fabulous year for comic books, with readership spiking and all manners of incredible new titles making their debuts. Additionally, comics continue to be a growing medium for representation and diversity. Free from the budgetary limitations of Hollywood and limited only by creativity, there are more diverse titles appearing in the world of graphic novels than almost anywhere else. We’ve rounded up a collection of twenty titles (in no particular order) that we think represent the best of diversity in comics in 2016. Check out some of my top choices to find a place to get started reading.
Raina Telgemeier is best known for her memoir work, so the fictional “Ghosts” is a large departure from her standard work, but all the more exciting for it. Here she masterfully crafts a poignant and illuminating story about the power of family, friendship, perseverance and courage in the face of painful and challenging odds. At the center of the story is Catrina and her sick little sister Maya, who has cystic fibrosis. When the sisters move, Maya’s pain is slightly alleviated by the salty air of their new seaside home. However, they aren’t quite prepared to meet the ghosts that live in their new town. Few books tackle the bond of sisterhood and the pain of a chronic disorder quite like the story in “Ghosts.”
The Eisner-winning civil rights series by Representative John Lewis concluded this year with the release of “March: Book Three”. This chapter, in one of the most powerful graphic memoirs ever created, dives deep into the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-60s culminating in the historic showdown of forces in Selma. Lewis’ firsthand account is epic and intimate, important and engaging, and a must-read for fans of the comic medium and all American citizens.
Directly after concluding their Eisner-winning run on “Daredevil”, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee launched their new “Black Widow” series. The series offers an in-depth exploration of Natasha Romanov’s complicated history and introduces a present-day mystery which threatens to swallow her whole. There are few books within the Marvel universe with as much bombastic action as this title, and fans of the character who long for a “Black Widow” film should look no further than this title.
“Spider-Woman” took a big risk last year, relaunching its character as a street-level, kick-ass super heroine. This year, it risked touching the third rail by yet again rebooting the series but this time with the character eight months pregnant. Instead of invoking intense electro-shock via Subway-rail, the series soared to new heights. Now “Spider-Woman” delivers an intimate and powerful depiction of motherhood in a superhero comic without sacrificing any of the thrills and dramatics fans of the genre desire.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has quickly become one of America’s most cherished voices after his second book, “Between the World and Me”, won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Who would have thought that he would follow the book up by working with Marvel to reboot their iconic character the Black Panther? The anticipation and expectations behind the series could have swallowed the book whole, but Coates’ story launched full of compelling characters, bold superheroic adventures, intriguing politics, and the gripping, challenging societal discussions and parallels readers tuned in for.
Even in the midst of writing his most celebrated work yet, with “Saga”, Brian K. Vaughan launched another title with Image that is just as brilliant and all the more relatable in “Paper Girls.” It’s the book all fans of “Stranger Things” should be reading and a smart coming-of-age story about an incredibly diverse group of girls who find themselves caught up in a sci-fi mystery that has yet to fully reveal its full, crazy machinations. If you’ve ever had a paper route or suspected you’re caught up in a time-traveling science fiction caper, this is the story for you.
So many titles featuring women as the leads try to push back against the standard depictions of femininity. Whether its avoiding the color pink like the plague or avoiding prescriptive and cliché discussions of makeup or clothing, these titles push back against how women are so often depicted in media in the harshest of ways. So, it is even more unique that “Faith” both embraces those stereotypes while simultaneously shattering them. Faith is a plus-sized, feminine superhero who cares about her looks, goes gaga over cute things, but also kicks butt and looks nothing like any other female superhero. She’s proof that embracing a textbook definition of femininity isn’t something to run away from, if that’s who you are, but also that comics are for everyone, no matter how one might look.
There are few series quite a beautiful as “Monstress” and its grand, elegant, frightening dark fantasy aesthetic. This manga-inspired story is even more unique in that it features a teenage heroine who navigates her way through a steampunk fantasy world, dealing with forces of both magic and fantasy, but mainly a complicated political web that proves dangerous for her at every turn. But that artwork, though…
It has been a great year for women in the pages of Marvel comics, but what about younger female readers? Don’t worry, “Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur” stomps in to fill the space, featuring the nine-year-old, brilliant, black Lunella Lafayette and her blast-from-the-past dinosaur pal Devil Dinosaur. Even more daring for Marvel, is the shocking announcement that no longer are Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic the smartest minds in the Marvel Universe, good ol’ Lunella has them all in her small shadow as the new top brain of the superhero world.
I’m not sure anyone expected Marvel’s alternate-universe Gwen Stacy to become such a pop-culture hit and one of the publisher’s most beloved new creations of recent memories. However, I know that no one expected the book to be as relevant to our cultural climate and current events as it has become. Tackling topics like police brutality, toxic masculinity, the responsibility of privilege, and the corrosive power of influence, Marvel’s “Spider-Gwen” continues to operate as if it were an independent title that’s quietly doing its own thing hiding under the umbrella of the world’s largest comic publisher.
The latest volume of Kaoru Mori’s celebrated tale of life on the Silk Road saw its American debut this year, but also saw the addition of a character that stood out as extra special in the world of graphic novels. This time, Mr. Smith’s journey sees him in the home of a rich tradesman and his wife Anis. The exploration of Anis’ highly restricted life (her culture enforces that she’s not to meet any visitors face-to-face) is beautiful and heart-wrenching. Anis’ exploration of a public bath house and communion with women in her similar predicament is sure to pull your heart strings, especially with Mori’s incredibly detailed-oriented pen work pumping in the awe.
“Mockingbird” found itself caught up in a great deal of internet controversy when it was prematurely cancelled a few months ago, but despite all that ugliness it remains a superb, if short-lived, title from Marvel. What made it stand apart was its deep-dive into the unreliable mind of Bobbi Morse, whose antics were never quite what they appeared to be, as told by her. It’s a book that will be missed greatly, and the rare kind of experiment that takes a character many people wrote-off as just any old woman in a suit and gave her the kind of vibrant life and character few of Marvel’s longest-lived creations have ever shown.
You’d be hard-pressed to find and read a comic as gut-bustingly funny as “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl” (Note: We don’t think a funnier comic exists). From its Twitter-inspired recap pages to the hard-to-read notes at the bottom of each page, Ryan North has a blast making fun of the very comic he’s writing, as if he can’t believe that every new page is actually being published. But at the same time, the world of Squirrel Girl is as vibrant and consequential of any of Marvel’s other heroes, except that our hero Doreen’s optimism continues to soar above any conflicts or squabbles even the worst Civil Wars can conjure.
Everyone has experienced the “What next?” feeling at some point in time. Whether that be a post-collegiate experience or not, facing down the daunting transition from one stage of life to the next can be a trying time for anyone. “Finding Molly: An Adventure in Catsitting” beautifully captures this feeling, focusing on the “life” element of slice-of-life. It is artist Jenn St-Onge’s warm, rounded inks and adorable cats that provide the charm and challenge to Molly’s life that inevitably push her forward as she attempts to conquer this difficult period of her life.
Here’s another title that launched into a lightning storm of misogyny in 2014, but now stands as one of Marvel’s coolest and most epic titles. Jason Aaron’s decision to make Jane Foster the new Thor continues to make ripples throughout the Marvel universe, but most interesting at this stage of the game is how she’s been generally accepted as the hammer-wielding god except by one man: Odin, the one-eyed king who sees his power as directly challenged by the female presence of Thor and his rebellious wife. If you’ll pardon the pun, this depiction of a woman fighting against the patriarchy hits with the power of a great hammer.
While the DC “Rebirth” was a largely celebrated return to form for DC Comics, it wasn’t a celebrated change for everyone. Their “New 52” campaign signaled (at least for a little while) that DC would be open to new art and writing styles outside of their typical look, and no book embraced this idea more than “Batgirl.” The title came to a close this year, but for a short time this younger, hipper interpretation of Batgirl was one of the best books DC was publishing and one of the most fun superhero comics around.
2016 was the year that young Kamala Kham (Ms. Marvel) become an Avenger. Marvel’s first Muslim superhero continues to break records, sales and otherwise, as one of the most beloved new characters to appear in the pages of a superhero comic. What’s remains so special about her adventures is just how matter-of-factly it presents Muslim life in modern-day Jersey City, welcoming in readers unfamiliar with the religious customs and social anxieties inherent to that community. Now all we need is a Ms. Marvel film!
This underseen title reimagines the story of Macbeth from the perspective of the three fates – Riata, Cait, and Smertae – whose magical control over Scotland is challenged when a disagreement erupts between the three. The story is short and powerful, with the dreamlike art highlighting the bloodshed of the original Macbeth tale. This story completely changed how we thought about the classic Macbeth story and found a way to humanize characters that we always thought were beyond human categorization.
This year saw the cast of “Giant Days” heading off to college and the book remains deeply relatable and packed full of human experiences shared between young women. There’s a specificity to the sometimes all-too-common actions of the stories’ protagonists that make them universally human. These are women who remain friends through tough times, often watching as their lives fall apart around them. We’ve all been there.
One of the biggest disappointments in the world of comics to come out of the end of 2016 is the sudden announcement that we would not be getting the ending of “The Legend of Wonder Woman” as previously advertised. The reasoning behind the cancellation is complicated, but made all the sadder for just how wonderful the story has been so far. The book was an excellent look back at Diana’s origins that focused not only on her time as Wonder Woman but on the woman she was before taking up that mantle. The story nails everything readers have loved about the character, but the added time spent on her character, before she entered man’s world, made the moments behind the shield, bracelets, and whip all the more satisfying.