Comics of the Year: Marvels from the big hitters and small wonders

Wonder Woman, Star Wars and The Flintstones head up a banner year for the form

Perhaps no field of entertainment has undergone as much change in the last decade as comics. While it’s true that the combined wealth and name recognition of DC and Marvel far outstrips that of their competitors, the huge increase in interest, variety and good, old-fashioned quality in “smaller” publishers has come to the fore in 2016, making it a banner year for the form.

Having said that, there's no denying that Marvel and DC still have some great fare on offer. Chief among this year's hits at DC are Legend of Wonder Woman, a resurgent series for the first lady of comics by Renae De Liz and Ray Dillon, which sees the Amazonian überfrau – and short-lived UN ambassador – return to a second World War setting of empowerment in every sense. A mooted second run has recently been knocked on the head in slightly confusing circumstances, but for all our sakes, let's hope DC see sense and we see more.

Perhaps the most unexpected joy from DC this year has been The Flintstones by Mark Russel, Steve Pugh and Chris Chuckry. This Hanna-Barbera reboot may seem an unlikely vehicle for heady satirical themes, but the series' gags – some broad and goofy, others more nuanced and affecting – are impressively consistent. Come for a look at the unwieldy stone-age mechanisms required to take a selfie, stay for the hilarious riffs on modern American culture.

Crossover events

One thing the Big Two™ know how to do is mobilise multiple titles within their canon into huge crossover events requiring steadfast attention – not to mention a groaning shelf and fairly thick wallet – to keep up with. While these can often be more trouble than they’re worth,

Jonathan Hickman

,

Esad Ribic

and Ive Scorcina’s devilishly intricate

Secret Wars

has been among the more successful efforts of the genre. In a sprawling story set directly after a multiverse cataclysm (don’t ask),

Secret Wars

brings dozens of worlds together in one

Game Of Thrones

-esque tale of intrigue where the refugees from innumerable titles have found themselves. If you ever wanted to see all your favourite characters sparring off against dozens of different versions of themselves, and the thrill of seeing an entire police force made up entirely of Thors, this mind-bending medley is one to check out.

Meanwhile, Marvel's series of Star Wars books has all the wit and panache you could hope for in a sci-fi swashbuckler. The titles (Star Wars, Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra) embody all of the thrill and charm of 1970s space opera, great for diehards and complete novices alike, and feature a galactic roster of creative talent, chief among them writers Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen, and artists John Cassady and Salvador Larroca.

True blockbuster

Outside the realm of the twin titans, creator-owned stable Image has had an astounding year of quality releases. Titles such as the western-tinged sci-fi of

Drifter

, beast-of-the-week frontiersman horror

Manifest Destiny

or the spellbindingly Spielbergian

Paper Girls

are all worth a look. But the true blockbuster remains the inimitable

Saga

by

Brian K Vaughan

and

Fiona Staples

, which continues the story of a husband and wife from different, warring races struggling to escape a galaxy that seeks to hunt them down, along with their scandalous lovechild. The genius of Saga is not just in its artful scripts or wondrous art, but in the sheer bravado of its robot aristocracy, spider-bodied assassins, and a particularly endearing lie-detecting cat. Saga’s explosion of ideas somehow coalesces into the most essential ongoing title in modern comics.

Another deep and satisfying world is to be found in Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta's East of West, which depicts an alternate North America long divided into seven distinct nation states, now approaching Armageddon via a visit from the four beasts of the apocalypse. Part blood-soaked horror, part philosophical counter-history, the grit and gristle of the series' savagely fleshed-out mythos make it a thing entirely of its own.

Elsewhere, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows have cooked up a feast of chilling horror in Avatar Press's dense and disturbing Providence, which depicts a journalist investigating the weird fiction of the early 20th century, interacting with real-world authors like HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and getting drawn into the creepy, uncanny worlds that may not be entirely of their imagining.

Throwaway depth

Also of special note is

The Spire

(Boom! Studios) by

Simon Spurrier

and

Jeff Stokely

, a wonderfully inventive and gripping murder mystery set in the vertical city-state of the title. Few recent fictional settings have been rendered with as much throwaway depth as that inhabited by the residents of the Spire, where one’s class is determined by altitude, and a mysterious threat to the established order appears to be killing off high-born citizens one by one. Taut, smart, funny and engrossing, this self-contained miniseries is a gem that deserves all the recognition it can get.

Finally, for standalone fare, few works of dramatic art in any form have impressed as much as Adrian Tomine's touching, stirring and heartbreaking collection of graphic vignettes, Killing & Dying (SelfMadeHero). Although released at the end of 2015, the fact that it was first reviewed by The Irish Times in January of this year is the flimsy justification for including it here. In truth, the real justification is the sheer beauty of Tomine's exquisitely drawn characters and achingly perfect writing. This has a good claim to being the best book of the year, no matter what year you read it.