LEVEL Chops It Up About the Best Comics of 2020
Photo illustration; sources: Rouzes/Getty Images, DC Comics, Marvel Comics

LEVEL Chops It Up About the Best Comics of 2020

The industry may have had a rough year, but there was…

As with most things in 2020, comics got weird this year. The industry nearly became another casualty of the pandemic, with most series beset by months-long shipping delays. The world of sequential art faced its own #MeToo reckoning this summer as multiple prominent men were accused of sexual misconduct. All the while, creatives and publishers alike tried to more accurately reflect the diverse consumers the big companies have always said they’re trying to reach. Yet, despite the many obstacles, there have been some truly remarkable achievements worth celebrating. As the resident comics heads at LEVEL, we convened over Zoom to discuss N.K. Jemisin’s brilliant Far Sector, how Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men grapples with race, Marvel’s Miles Morales, and the rest of this wild, unforgettable year in comics.

Tirhakah Love and David Dennis, Jr.

Tirhakah Love, staff writer: This year in comics was kind of weird, man.

David Dennis Jr., senior staff writer: Yeah. It was a weird one. I was reading a wide swath of stuff, and in the last couple years I trimmed down for a lot of reasons. One, my wife made me stop collecting physical comics around the house, so I’m on, like, ComiXology; reading on the screen has been a little bit more difficult. Some of it has gotten stale. And I’m just more cognizant of where the Black voices are in these things. Like who’s actually talking to me and why am I reading this? Then, they had their #MeToo moments, you know? Warren Ellis, who was my favorite, is now persona non grata.

TL: Bro. That broke my heart. Maybe the comic world is a little different in publicity around this type of stuff, but I did not know that at all until you told me recently. I was just like, the coldest one alive? The coldest comic book writer alive right now turns out to be a complete asshole?

DD: A lot of the comic book places are tied into the media companies. So it was mostly a Twitter thing and a lot of people coming forward on social media. There were a lot of names; he was probably the most prominent one.

TL: You mentioned having to search for other stuff. You got more privy to like, okay, who’s writing to me? Why am I taking this in?

DD: Comic books, like any art, some things aren’t for us but they can still be great. Like The Queen’s Gambit ain’t for us, for instance, but it could still be good. I can take that in pieces, but at some point I’ve got to fill my plate with something that’s catered to me. It’s getting better in comics, especially, but it’s still missing from the big guys.

TL: One of the coldest comics of this year was Far Sector. N.K. Jemisin is just masterful. We had a whole bunch of products this year that tried to reach that impulse of Black science fiction, Black fantasy. For me, Far Sector hit all those notes. The expansiveness of the world. Gorgeous. How did you fall in love with it?

DD: It was recommended to me. I haven’t been reading a lot of DC as of late because the continuity has just been all over the place.

TL: It’s been horrible.

DD: They’ve joined Marvel in having a major event every three months or so, you know? I just don’t have that much to invest in it. And I’ve never read any sort of Green Lantern comic books. Obviously, Jemisin is an icon in this space, but the art is amazing too. Like Jamal Campbell’s art, it was like how has Campbell not been everywhere yet? This is some of the best art in comics right now.

What struck me about Jemisin was that she had an understanding of pace and structure immediately. A lot of times when you see people come from the traditional book realm into comics, there’s a learning curve. Coates took a while to get the pacing of Black Panther. I can totally understand how that happens. But this felt like a comic book veteran. Like when Grant Morrison does a comic book, it’s like, he knows exactly what he’s doing. Every panel, he has you in the palm of his hand and you understand what’s going on. And this felt like that immediately, which is unreal for a first time comic book writer. That doesn’t happen.

TL: There’s no wasted space. The dialogue is so snappy and Black as fuck. It’s so clear. And then the world that’s around it? How she’s crafted this world and how the world is conveyed in these sidebar conversations. You don’t get that with first-time comic writers because comics are so different. We need energy, the pages need verve to them.

I thoroughly enjoy Far Sector’s protagonist Jo as a character. It ties into what you were saying earlier about like, okay, what is for us? Because something else that’s been happening this year is this real critical look at what superheroes are and what role they serve. Jo is a Green Lantern, which means she’s a cop. [Laughter.] But she is one cop in a world that isn’t hers. And so it’s hard for her to wrap her mind around policing it. So when she thinks about policing it, we’re getting this super intimate look into how she’s thinking about it. It’s all of these breakdowns like, “okay, I’m the only person, not only am I the only cop, I’m the only person who has emotions.”

DD: Right, it looks at policing outside of the context of police. She is not bound to the pressures of the shield. She is her own political wing within this universe. And so she is interrogating what it means to control riots or why people are rioting. A cop outside of the realm of police work is a fascinating idea. What happens when somebody has the autonomy to be their own rule of law in a land?

TL: It’s sort of weird to think that Jemisin has gotten us into the mind of police in this way, but she helps us to think about Jo in a way that’s beyond her role as a cop.

It really reminds me of what Watchmen did last year. We’re getting a whole bunch of television and movies that are trying to break down what superheroes are for real. You mentioned Jo is pretty much like her own political wing. She has to make these huge decisions. And she’s going to be the one that’s held accountable for them. She’s the only one. There are certain connections between Far Sector and X-Men in the sense that you’re starting from this very new place. You have to craft your own moral code and ethic of how you’re going to act within this new place. And the new X-Men run, Jesus Christ.

DD: There are no words for what Jonathan Hickman does.

TL: Talk about a master, man. It’s the depth of the world. I think you actually wrote about it a little bit last year, how X-Men deals with race in the comics and the fact that they really don’t. And I think Krakoa — Hickman’s new mutant-only island — sort of opens up an opportunity to talk about mutantship as a race, but it never really got there for me. But it did make me think about, in our post-Wakandian world, a separatist political regime. How Black people build our own society, our own currency, our own weapons, our own whatever.

DD: X-Men has been my favorite since I was a baby. I’ve loved it, but ever since Grant Morrison left 15 years ago, it has been just bad. And to the credit of the creators, a lot of that has had to do with the machinations of Disney and Marvel and Fox defunding the X-Men [laughs], which was a big travesty.

TL: Snappy slogan.

DD: Hickman’s Secret Wars series was brilliant. Giving him the chance to envision X-Men from the ground up was fascinating and I do enjoy it in a vacuum. But the X-Men have always lacked intersectionality, which has always frustrated me. Sometimes it’s a metaphor for race, or it can be sometimes a metaphor for gender, but it’s rarely both. It rarely is like: let’s talk about all of these things, all these separate identities. And it has always confounded me that there’s never been, like, the story of the racist mutant. Where is the Black mutant who’s dealt with racism? And that’s always been frustrating. I do wish that you could give a Black creator an X-Men run — a real vision for X-Men, you know? It’s just crazy that we haven’t had it.

TL: All the comparisons that are made between Magneto and Professor X and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — Stan Lee and the whole Marvel machine have felt really great about themselves for making that connection.They pat themselves on the back when it comes to that. But it’s an indictment of Marvel for not having a Black person ever on X-Men given the leeway that Hickman has to explore the ideas. Because let’s be honest, there’s not a lot happening in Hickman’s run. There’s a lot of, “let’s just dig into some abstract ideas about world building and statecraft.”

DD: [Laughs] And that’s always like the first 30 issues of his runs — creating the world very slowly. But yeah. I just think, you know, like what’s the definitive Storm as a Black woman story, you know? Where’s Bishop’s story?

TL: My God, where’s Bishop’s story, bruh?

DD: Coates had a conversation between T’Challa and Storm about race and mutantdom. It’s time for X-Men to do that.

TL: They have all the fucking space to do it. Like their whole shit is literally about race and humanity. To me this isn’t an issue of oversight, this feels like intentional. Like, y’all just not gon’ do it? [Laughs.]

DD: Like, Marauders is such a like fantastic feminist book.

TL: With Kitty Pryde, right?

DD: Right. The last issue that came out this week, they just beat up Sebastian Shaw for like the whole issue. Just women beating him up. For all of the physical and mental abuse he’s done. They was just beating his ass.

TL: It’s about damn time, he was clowning them for a minute. [Laughs.]

DD: I hate to ever be like, well, one group gets this, what do we get? But like, why can’t these things intersect? Why can’t the Marauder ship go someplace in Africa, and we have a conversation about imperialism? Where is that in the mutant space?

TL: It doesn’t exist, man. It’s one of those things with Marvel that we sometimes see, I think more so in the MCU now than in the comic books with these allusions and gestures towards what these people believe and like what these people are struggling with. Like, oh, this character might be queer or they might not be. We’re not going to write that in, but there’s going to draw little winks or whatever. And it’s like, just go for it. You’re not gonna lose. I don’t believe that people who have a vested interest in these characters are just going to be like, “they’re talking about Black people now.”

Shifting to a comic that I think has taken a huge leap in terms of mainstream awareness: Miles Morales. I’m a really big fan of the writer, Saladin Ahmed, but I can’t lie, the first couple issues didn’t hit me like I wanted.

DD: I’m still early in the run. When the Miles Morales game came out, I scooped them up. I’m a big fan of Ahmed’s writing also. He wrote Black Bolt.

TL: That shit was fire.

DD: It was another interrogation of prisons: What are prisons? Who and what are they for? So I’m really excited to dig in all the way to his Miles Morales stuff. I don’t know what they’re gonna do with Peter Parker, though, ’cause every time Miles pops up, I’m like, I’m more interested in that guy.

TL: [Laughs] Yeah!

DD: The story that they have in the Miles Morales game is far more compelling than anything that happened in Spider-Man, even though that game was one of the best.

It has so much culture that we don’t see on the written page. In one scene, he’s just walking around Harlem and he’s doing ASL with a new friend. There’s Black Lives Matter murals in the game, which I took a million pictures of. And then there’s an actual police brutality thing going on in there, too.

Miles Morales’ co-creator, Brian Michael Bendis was fine, but the problem is again, there are Black characters where there’s nothing Black about them but the art. You need people to have these runs. I think of what Eve Ewing’s doing with Ironheart. Even though it skews younger, it still deals with the pressures of being a Black woman and anxiety and all that’s tied into it. I’m hoping that Miles gets that sort of treatment. Like we need the definitive Miles Morales coming-of-age story the same way that Peter got when Gwen Stacy died. I’ve avoided spoilers for this, but I’ve seen that we’re getting there with Miles in the book.

TL: With Miles, what I worry about is that he’s a symbol that Marvel is investing a lot of resources in, and for me that’s a beautiful thing. But I guess I worry that he then embodies his whole “anybody can be behind the mask” thing. And it’s like, no, but it’s you. I struggle with how Marvel can make these gestures, but then the meat of it feels stale. I’m not saying that Ahmed is not gonna hit this because I haven’t read it all the way. I’m not going to make that judgment on it. But I do worry that Miles is gonna be this symbolic thing for Disney. It makes my stomach turn a little bit.

DD: Well, the good thing is that there are so many different Miles Morales avenues, right? There’s Into the Spider-Verse, we’ve got video games, we got whatever Marvel decides to do. Like there’s a lot that we can pick one and go with it. The beauty of Miles is that it’s so rare now to have a purehearted superhero character. I guess the closest has been Captain America, but he’ll snap if he has to.

TL: Yeah he has a lot of baggage for sure. Let’s put a pin in Miles for the time being, because I have another question. What the hell happened to Batman this year?

DD: I’ve been saying I’m gonna write about this for like six months.

TL: [Laughs.] Let’s talk about it.

DD: Like, the idea of vigilante superheroes has to go.

TL: Uh oh!

DD: There’s no use for a vigilante superhero. Vigilantism in itself is based on an inflated idea of crime, which is based on racism. The idea that Batman needs to patrol Gotham City at night and stop multiple murders every night is like… that doesn’t even jibe with any sort of crime statistics in any American city. There’s no need. Alan Moore mentioned that the first superhero movie was Birth of a Nation.

TL: Yep, I definitely remember that. [Laughs.]

DD: Superheroes fight manufactured crime. So Batman in the era of Kyle Rittenhouse is just not something I want to read, you know? When you have an understanding of what can actually stop crime, Batman doesn’t make sense. And then Batman: Three Jokers is just one of the worst Batman stories I’ve ever read.

TL: Geoff Johns, man. What the fuck happened?

DD: I didn’t read the Green Lantern that made him famous. So maybe that’s really great. Maybe that’s really brilliant. But his Watchmen was not good — and then only looked worse when you saw what actual creative people could do. And then Three Jokers was like: let’s remix one of the most famous sexual assaults in comic book history. Why would you want to go back to that?

TL: They are obsessed. They are obsessed with Barbara Gordon’s sexual assault and shooting in The Killing Joke. It was hot in the ’80s when it happened. Even then, there’s context built around it, but I don’t think it works there either.

DD: Alan Moore himself said that he regrets ever writing that comic book. I know he says he regrets comic books existing but, you know. [Laughs.] I thought the idea of Three Jokers was interesting. It was executed poorly. And it again made me realize: I don’t know if Batman works as a character.

TL: He really might not, unless he’s a foil.

DD: The future of vigilantes is taking up causes, you know? Like why won’t like Batman, just fund Gotham? I guarantee if you try to reduce crime, you will find villains.

TL: [Laughs.] Absolutely!

DD: What if Superman spent a year listening to see if women are being abused, like, “I’m going to travel the country and if I hear that you’re hitting a woman, I’m going to break your arm.” If there were dudes out there, who, there was a chance there was like a one in 20 chance that Superman would show up inside my private home and break my arm if I hit this woman, like, what would happen? There are always gonna be villains, but I just think that superheroes being proactive… like X-Men is proactive. X-Men saw a problem. And they’ve been like, we’re going to try to get some legislation going, we’re gonna try to open a school. And if that doesn’t work, we’re going to have our own island, you know what I’m saying? They have a cause that’s bigger than “we’re going to go fight bad guys.” And that’s why they are the most compelling thing out there, you know? But there are causes that these superheroes can take up that moves them from vigilantism in an impactful way.

TL: You mentioned just what kind of villains would show up. It would be villains that actually feel a lot more real, ones that we can really recognize. Like I’ve never seen The Riddler in my life. Never. And we have guys like Moore, who are thinking about comics and how heroes might exist in the real world. You have The Boys where that is also a consideration. The villains are the heroes, they’re the government, they’re the corporations. If Batman or Superman showed up every time domestic violence happened and they had to work it out, and that thought is in the back of every dude’s head, what kind of force would then wake up? It would actually, it would be the mob. Like it would be a mob.

DD: Or the GOP. [Laughs.]