Lists are inherently reductive, and so the following are simply listed in alphabetical order.
1. Adventure Time
Launched in February of 2012, Adventure Time is based on the popular Cartoon Network show of the same name. For those who aren’t familiar: Adventure Time takes place in a post-nuclear war world in which magic and wonder have returned. It stars Finn, the last human, and his best friend and adopted brother Jake, a magic dog with powers to stretch and change shape. The comic is, for the most part, canonical and is written by Ryan North. The art, by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb, is aesthetically in line with the look of the show, and Paroline and Lamb are very good at telling the story effectively and clearly, and manage to pack Adventure Time with dozens of visual gags and hilarious facial expressions. The book won’t appeal to people who don’t really “get” the show, but for those who do it will be an exciting treat that will have you on the floor laughing. My favorite part of the book, though, is the fact that every issue features the main story by North/Paroline/Lamb and a short back-up story by indie and webcomic cartoonists. I haven’t seen one yet that I haven’t enjoyed, and in fact Michael DeForge’s back-up about bacon and egg people was one of my favorite things of last year.
2. Brain Rot: The Hip-Hop Family Tree
Serialized on Boing Boing, Ed Piskor’s Brain Rot is a historical look at the “viral propagation of a culture.” Specifically, hip-hop. Methodically researched, Brain Rot tells the story of hip-hops humble beginnings and how it came to encompass every facet of popular culture. The work is free-to-read online (though Fantagraphics has begun to collect it) and is updated nearly every week, though the lengths of the strips varies. It will appeal to anyone interested in hip-hop or history, or anyone who just likes comics that are both fun and smart. Ed Piskor’s art may not be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if you like your comics superhero-heavy, but if you’re a fan of idiosyncratic cartooning then this work will be perfect. Personally, I love it because I’m a big fan of rap and Piskor manages to tell a simple story very well with an aesthetic that appeals to me. For me, though, I was completely won over when Piskor started using rap lyrics as dialogue and accurately capturing the rappers flow and cadence.
3. Private Eye
Launched a few months ago on Panel Syndicate, Private Eye is the new webcomic from superstars Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin. Issue 3 (of a projected 10) just came out the other day, and like all the others is pay what you want. Private Eye is the story of P.I., a freelance journalist in a future where privacy is sacred, where everyone has a secret identity, and everyone has a secret. The work blends elements of classic sci-fi, hardboiled noir, and light superheroics. The art by Martin is phenomenal, and looks exquisite on an iPad. It’s got to be the best first issue I’ve read—maybe ever. It’s digital-only, which may turn a lot of people off, but it’s pay what you want and it’s DRM-free, so it’s cheap and convenient to buy and it is toooootally worth it. I cannot recommend this series highly enough to every single person who will listen. DO NOT miss this.
4. Rachel Rising
Rachel Rising tells the story of Rachel Beck who wakes up to find that she’s dead. Launched last year, Rachel is the newest ongoing series from self-publishing icon Terry Moore (or Strangers in Paradise). The writing on this book is very strong, with Moore sharpening his already piercing skill of writing believable, complex, and fully-formed female protagonists. It manages to be a horror comic that uses gore sparingly, while remaining thoroughly creep always. A lot of horror comics tend to be completely inaccessible to people who aren’t super into the genre, but Rachel Rising is the book that people will give to their friends to get them into horror. It’s everything a good horror comic should be, but also transcends the genre in ways that will make it appealing to neophytes. The art is the typical Terry Moore gorgeous, with his black-and-white causing the work to pop off the page and adding a mood and visual depth that’ll make you fall in love with it. Rachel Rising is one of the most consistently interesting, aesthetically-pleasing, and just plain good comics on the shelves. Long live Terry Moore, I say.
The oldest comic on the list, The Unwritten dropped in late 2009. Written by Mike Carey and drawn (mostly) by Peter Gross, The Unwritten tells the story of Tom Taylor, the son of a famous author and the inspiration for that author’s most famous work (a series of Boy Wizard novels that are parodies of Harry Potter). 50 issues in, the narrative of The Unwritten is…complicated, but to put it as simply as I can: it’s about stories, religion, fathers, love, faith, magic. There are mistaken identities, characters coming out of books, prisons, explosions, vampires, magic wands, Australia, giant whales that aren’t really whales after all. The Unwritten is the single comic book I look forward to the most every month, the one book that not only consistently delivers every single month but actually gets better and better. The current arc has Tom fixing wounds in the very nature of stories, and crossing over with perennial Vertigo favorite Fables. The Unwritten is a remnant of Vertigo’s Golden Age, and that is the highest praise I can give to something. Start at the beginning and you will not be disappointed.