We’ve been hearing about what comics various industry folks enjoyed in 2013 in our Looking Forward, Looking Back series, and now it’s our turn: ROBOT 6 contributors share their favorites from 2013, which include Hawkeye, Marble Season, East of West and Batman.
1. The Property, by Rutu Modan: The Property is a graphic novel that reads like a novel, with strong characters, a plot that pulls you along and several subplots to add complexity. Modan’s art is superb, and the cemetery scene in particular is a thing of beauty all on its own. Overall, this book is a perfect blend of art and story.
2. Paul Joins the Scouts, by Michel Rabagliati: Set in Montreal in the 1960s, this is the story of a teenager who finds an escape from everyday life in the Boy Scouts. Rabagliati creates a complex and believable world for Paul, including his mildly dysfunctional family, the gently idealistic Boy Scout leaders, and, in the background, the violence of the Quebec separatist movement, then throws the reader a hard curve toward the end.
3. Slayground, by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) and Darwyn Cooke: Cooke’s adaptations of Westlake’s Parker novels bristle with cool-headed action, and the retro style makes them go down smooth. This slim volume finds Parker playing cat-and-mouse with gangsters and crooked cops in a shuttered amusement park; Cooke also shows off his storytelling chops with a short piece at the end. Great stuff.
4. Donner Dinner Party, by Nathan Hale: This is a kids’ book about the Donner Party, which is daring to begin with, but Nathan Hale handles it very well and uses sophisticated storytelling techniques to not only narrate the story but also show aspects that are hard to convey in words, such as the distances the pioneers traveled and the makeup of the party at different times. At the same time, he tells the story with warmth and even humor, so these long-ago pioneers don’t seem so distant.
5. Tropic of the Sea, by Satoshi Kon: At its heart, this standalone manga by the late Satoshi Kon, who’s much better known as the director of Paprika and other groundbreaking anime, is a simple environmental fable, but Kon brings in the human element in many ways, creating characters that are complex and interesting rather than simply pitting good against evil. His clear-lined drawing style makes this a great read even for non-manga readers.
6. Red Handed, by Matt Kindt: A clever collection of stories about seemingly preposterous crimes and the twisted logic behind them.
7. Helter Skelter, by Kyoko Okazaki: It’s The Devil Wears Prada with real devils! Not quite, but Okazaki’s tale of a fashion model who will go to any lengths to keep her edge, and all the people who enable her, goes places that most pop-culture stories won’t go. She manages to make her lead character, Liliko, come off as both horrifying and sympathetic, and a police procedural subplot actually lightens up the story.
8. Bad Houses, by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil: A quirky love story about the son of a woman who runs estate sales, clearing out the past from “bad houses,” and the daughter of a hoarder, this book is also an extended meditation on things and the importance they take on in our lives.
9. Hilda and the Bird Parade, by Luke Pearson: Pearson’s tale of a little girl who gets lost in a big city and finds her mother with the help of a magic bird is geared for kids, but his sophisticated artwork and subtle storyline make it a winner for adults as well.
10. How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial, by Darryl Cunningham: In eight short pieces, Darryl Cunnigham not only explodes a host of science myths, from the efficacy of homeopathy to the vaccine-autism connection, but shows how the ambitions of humans got tangled up with the science to create misinformation that persists long after the bad science has been debunked. In other words, it’s stories about science, but not the kind you learn in school.
10. Superior Spider-Man by Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, et al. (Marvel)
Moving at double-time through 2013, Otto Octavius’ hijacking of Peter Parker’s life changed from an old man’s escape from death into an uneasy acceptance of Peter’s responsibilities — and then into Otto just chucking everything which got in the way of his vision for New York City. A well-known approach to Spider-Man holds that he can never be truly happy, because the character’s adventures depend on various degrees of big victories and little failures, and vice versa. Slott and company didn’t quite do that in 2013, unless you believe (as I do) that they’re wrecking Spidey’s life in preparation for Peter’s inevitable return. However, what they did do is arguably more impressive. The Superior crew didn’t turn Doctor Octopus into a hero, they made Spider-Man a megalomaniacal figure, and kept the book compelling by making readers care about everyone around him. The result was one of 2013’s best superhero serials.
9. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image Comics)
There’s so much to like about Saga, from the fleshed-out, war-torn world to Staples’ expressive, almost ethereal art — but a fight in Issue 16 summed it up nicely for me. A pair of journalists is attacked for a story they’ve written, and in the course of combat, one exclaims that they shouldn’t be targeted, because they did stories benefiting both sides. That’s the point, says the enforcer: the most recent story didn’t take a side. In an environment where opinions are everywhere, plain irrefutable data becomes the most dangerous. Saga’s main story is a romance that produced a child, and of course that’s another example of “irrefutable truth.” That child will become yet another example of true love crossing all cultural lines. Even in its digressions, Saga never loses sight of its main message. Still, those digressions are pretty darn fun on their own.
8. How To Fake A Moon Landing by Darryl Cunningham (Abrams Comicarts)
You might look at the six-panel grid Darryl Cunningham uses, or the minimalist style of his images, and think that How To Fake A Moon Landing is a series of shrill screeds against contemporary science denialism. Nevertheless, Cunningham’s technique allows for a sharper focus on the facts he’s presenting. A four-page bibliography lists sources, but it also explains that Cunningham vetted each installment on his blog, thereby enabling further fine-tuning. The result is a book packed with incisive rebuttals which may not change the minds of the die-hards, but which should at least give their opponents a good bit of ammunition.
7. Batman ‘66 by Jeff Parker and various artists (DC Comics)
It would have been easy for Batman ‘66 to be deliberately bad. After all, the classic TV series was built around outlandish dialogue delivered perfectly straight. Over the years, that contributed to the perception that the show was all about tearing down the air of seriousness that superhero comics sought to cultivate. However, writer Jeff Parker and artists like Jonathan Case, Ty Templeton, Craig Rousseau and Colleen Coover have done something special. Not only have they produced pitch-perfect homages to the show — and in many cases gone beyond the limitations of 1960s TV — they’ve managed to make these versions of Batman and Robin stand on their own. These aren’t live-action parodies in print form, or a Dynamic Duo that could just as easily have appeared in the main Bat-books. Instead, they’re a couple of masked crimefighters who inhabit the world the show described. They wear cloth costumes, they talk like public-service announcements, and they carry sprays to ward off the appropriate carnivores — and it all works. The dedication from the 1966 Adam West movie sums it up nicely: Batman ‘66 is for “lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, [and] lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre,” and long may it run.
6. Daredevil by Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, et al. (Marvel)
For a writer long associated with DC, Mark Waid has done some great work at Marvel, including seminal series like Captain America and Fantastic Four. His Daredevil may end up topping them both. Month in and month out, Waid, Samnee and the occasional guest artist like Javier Rodriguez present nothing but solid, entertaining stories about a blind attorney gifted with extraordinary super-senses who chooses to fight crime in all its many forms. A quick-witted series that knows how to hit an emotional gut-punch, an excellently-drawn series that depicts both the “real” New York City and the one Matt Murdock navigates, and an accessible series which still dips deep into Marvel lore, Daredevil is a winner on every count.
5. FF by Matt Fraction, Mike Allred and Laura Allred (Marvel)
Perhaps the most nimble use of Marvel lore and new creations, FF made its eponymous quartet out of three former Fantastic Four backup members (Medusa from the ‘70s, She-Hulk from the ‘80s, and Ant-Man from the ‘90s) and Johnny Storm’s newest girlfriend in a Thing battle suit (the latter also dating back to the ‘70s). It then put them in charge of the Future Foundation’s students, carrying over from Jonathan Hickman’s tenure. What followed was a series of wacky, touching, and thrilling exploits, most only an issue or two long, which just had fun with these characters. There was romance, scheming, and adventure, coming to a head with (of course) an attempt to stop Doctor Doom from becoming all-powerful. It was consistently the best Marvel title I read — which, admittedly, isn’t saying much — but I’d nominate it for Marvel’s best book, period.
4. Bad Machinery by John Allison
In 2013, Bad Machinery finished“The Case of the Unwelcome Visitor” and spent most of the year on the just-concluded “Case of the Forked Road.” The first was the usual amount of well-executed, good-natured adventure one expects from Allison, but “Road” used its time-travel underpinnings very effectively, creating a nice air of suspense that added weight to our heroes’ efforts and facilitated an unexpectedly heartfelt epilogue. “Road” brought out the best in Allison, which is saying a lot.
3. Astro City by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson (Vertigo)
At long last, Astro City returned in 2013, picking up where it left off with well-crafted, discrete stories about life in a superhero world. The current arc involves the public questioning the motives of Winged Victory, a sort of Wonder Woman pastiche who until now hasn’t gotten much of an in-depth look. Indeed, the story begins on just such a fearmongering “what do we really know?” note, and it may well include meta-commentary about Wonder Woman being “hard to understand.” However, AC has already hit the ground running, particularly in a two-parter (in issues 2 and 3) about a call-center operator who finds herself at the center of a super-emergency which is both wide-ranging and very personal. That’s AC’s strength, and it’s good to have it back.
2. Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo (DC Comics)
2013 started a little rocky for Batman, as Snyder and Capullo offered a downbeat ending to “Death of the Family.” However, things picked up steam afterwards, with a one-issue tribute to Damian Wayne and a two-issue Clayface story, and finally with June’s kickoff of “Zero Year.” Embracing fully the freedom that the relaunch offered, Snyder and Capullo have crafted an intricate, but sweeping, saga of how Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman. Skillfully blending new elements and fresh storytelling techniques with details and Easter eggs from all across the character’s history, this creative team made sure that “Zero Year’s” installments were consistently satisfying. If this keeps up through the end of the arc, Batman may be a shoo-in for best of 2014 as well.
1. Dial H by China Miéville, Alberto Ponticelli and Daniel Green (DC Comics)
Dial H ended just a few months ago, with its final issue actually appearing under the Justice League masthead as part of “Villains Month.” Even if it had sold better, it would never have felt fully integrated into the superhero line. However, this year it played more directly with more familiar characters, tying into The Flash and giving one of its characters a riff on Batman’s origin. In so doing, it pointed out the rigidity and conservatism inherent in corporately-run superhero comics. However, Miéville and Ponticelli also infused Dial H with engaging protagonists and an involving plot. All these factors gave the series just the right mix of resonance and goofiness, and made it a truly bright spot in DC’s superhero lineup.
Since I’m such a company gal, here are the comics I am most grateful for in 2013, in no particular order:
What can I say that everyone else hasn’t? Maybe that it’s the easiest book in the store for me to sell; a simple little tale of Arrow Guy from the Avengers, drawn in a lively and unique style and cutting right to the chase in one to two issue installments. You can try an issue and jump right in; if you don’t like it, there’s little to no investment made. Just the perfect title for the new Marvel fan.
On the other hand, this book wasn’t as easy to get into, but was so rewarding if you did! As a long time reader of the X-Men, I come with a lot of baggage about what mutants and Xavier’s Dream means to me. It was fascinating to see a mostly discarded and broken characters get rebuilt to explore those classic theme of fear and hate and tolerance, not just of mutantkind, but of yourself and your role in the universe. Si Spurrier kept things clever and deep; the artwork was jarring and I think that really sold the prickliness of what it was like to live in David Haller’s mind. Plus those covers by Mike Del Mundo told you right off the bat that we were in for a wild ride. I’ll be sorry to see this leave the stands but look forward to see if the story continues elsewhere …
Thor: God of Thunder
This whole book needs to be painted on the side of a van. A van that blares The Immigrant Song as loud and as long as the hair of the Thunder God himself. It’s nice to have Thor in the Marvel universe mixed in with the rest of our heroes, but some days yo need to be reminded of who thor is and why he is fantastic. You need skull-crushing, bone-rending lightning across the cosmos that you simply cannot control to one planet or one age! Thor is a god and will fight not only monsters, but ideas and passions beyond mortal ken. Jason Aaron brought back the Age of Thunder, Esad Ribic has illuminated it like one of the classic masters of paint and canvas.
The most controversial act of Spider-Man’s career since handing over his marriage to the devil, Superior Spider-Man has been an absolute delight each and every issue. The freedom that Dan Slott has used with wild abandon on these pages has led to some incredible choice that will impact Spider-Man for years to come. Whether you read this book to learn more about Spidey-Ock’s adventures or just to see how far he’s going to fall when the real Peter Parker returns, you have to admit there’s something for everyone here.
Charles Soule made this the book I wanted it to be. Not to knock Daniel Way, but the name “Thunderbolts” requires a bit of dishonesty as well as humor. It’s ridiculous to put Venom, Deadpool, Punisher, Elektra and Red Hulk in a van and expect them to work together as a team, and under Soule’s direction we’re seeing the absurdity of their cause. Carlo Barberi’s work is fluid and rough at the same time, making for dynamic pacing and brilliant beats of levity. The fact that Ghost Rider is joining the team puts it over Superior Foes of Spider-Man as my favorite rag-tag bunch of anti-heroes for 2013.
This was one of the best books I read all year. It’s hard to admit that, considering how much I really wanted to hate this book, based on little more than its Battle Royale cover. Despite the calm, honest words of Avengers Academy writer Christos Gage when he asked readers to give the new book a chance, the whole premise turned me off. When the first issue of Avengers Arena came out and we lost our first teen hero, that death proved how right I was. But then the story continued, we got to know these characters and the deaths suffered seemed to feel more tragic than ire-inducing. This idea was not played lightly and everyone, for the most part, was given their due. Some characters tried to quit, others gave in to the game to survive; it became a drama about the heroic spirit and eventually, our heroes started to win. Maybe not the game, but a part of themselves hat we get to learn about with them. This book is far better than it has any right to be.
Deadpool is not an easy character to get across. You’d think we could subsist on wacky gags and a full face mask, but there has to be some weight to the Merc with a Mouth or he’s just as two dimensional as a cartoon. If you can’t be funny, be dramatic and Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan can do both at the same time. What started out as the wacky adventures of fighting dead presidents has rolled up into a fairly dark story of a man built to be a weapon who lost his mind along the way. The parody is great, which makes the dramatic punch all the harder when followed through. The most recent “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” storyline is outright cruel in parts and darkly funny the rest of the way through. I’d say this book is better than it’s been since the Joe Kelly days and mean every word.
Journey Into Mystery
This year, Sif took the reins on the illustrious title, and it was far too brilliant to live. In it’s simplicity Sif went on adventures, and she learned a lot about herself and the lengths that she would go to. We were treated to worlds both urban and fantastic. She had a journey of self-discovery and of myth. The cast was all there, and we got to see something super rare in Marvel comics right now: a family. There was something so inviting about those first pages as we got to know what Asgard was like on a day-to-day basis, when the heroes weren’t home and the hearth was just as important as the sword. It was so lovingly detailed, from the kids at the table reading old Marvel comics to Sif sitting down to chat with Hildegund about her family and what was to come next for them, I could easily see why the warrior woman Sif would go to extremes to protect her people and all of Asgard. I’m such an easy mark for moments where we show what our heroes are fighting for, whether it’s the streets of New York City or the high halls of Asgard; context is a beautiful thing and this book was gorgeous.
We needed this book. I needed this book. Over the past few years, the Hulk has been a lot of things to a lot of people and strayed away from his emotional core. He wasn’t human, he was a plot device, a wrecking ball, a threat to humanity and a sad sack. Mark Waid has taken Bruce Banner and moved him back into the Marvel Universe with authority and a mission. This book just busts out with sharp science-fiction and deep emotional depth that only a master like Mark Waid can provide. The artwork has been big and bold, just the way a Hulk book should come across, with larger than life depictions of our Indestructible protagonist; even Banner has a bit of a sharpness to him, an edge to his features that remind you that his puny side is just as dangerous as his alter ego. Hulk’s back in the Marvel Universe proper again, with a job and resources, assistants and allies; no longer forced into the fringes of the MU, Mark Waid put Banner back on top and I hope he stays there.
Rick Remender has suffered some by just not being Ed Brubaker and taking a huge leap away from the political thriller tone that made Captain America pop for a new generation. The thing is, he’s gone toward what I feel is more Kirby-esque — big ideas, big pictures, grand statements and heroic adventure so rich you can hear the swelling John Williams soundtrack with every turn of the page. God I love this book and I deeply apologize to anyone who feels it’s “too weird” or “not Captain America anymore,” but I simply can’t contain this feeling anymore. John Romita Jr. (missing his Jr. title on the cover) draws in big bold lines of action, heroes just lunging off the pages to punch evil right in the face and the simplicity of it all makes the comic live in your mind. The pile of mutated cloned bodies that Captain America climbs seems weighty the orations on science ring in the mind, the simple idea of kindness versus ruthlessness linger in every panel. It’s a bold, brave horror, and I am on the edge of my seat.
1. Gold Pollen and Other Stories by Seiichi Hayashi. Oh, man, this book. Elliptical, elusive, haunting stories about painful mother/son relationships, occasionally drawing upon Japanese folklore when not thinking about how to apply the tactics of the French New Wave to comics. Hayashi’s minimalist style, especially on stories like “Red Dragonfly” carry a near-indescribable power that is unlike any other comic I read this year, Japanese or otherwise. For me at least, this was the best book of 2013, no question.
2. Fran by Jim Woodring. What if it isn’t the other person at fault in your relationship? What if you’re actually the asshole? What if that special person just isn’t as into you as you though they were? That’s the central thrust of Woodring’s magnificent graphic novel, as our cartoon hero Frank emotionally wounds his lady love, attempts to win her back but discovers that not only is she happy to be free of him, she isn’t anything at all like he imagined. All this is set within Woodring’s surreal Unifactor world, adding a layer of unease and genuine horror at various key moments, just to drive the point home — you aren’t as great a boyfriend as you think pal.
3. Incidents in the Night, Vol. 1 by David B. Conspiracies. Messianic figures. The power of the written world. The quest for immortality. The inevitability of death. These are the central elements to David B’s excellent, surreal tale, tinged with enough of a pulp sensibility to keep things from getting too profound. Here archeologists literally comb through mountains of books, while a centuries-old madman seeks to cheat the grim reaper by literally inserting himself into a text. Deftly blending horror, humor, melodrama and philosophy, Incidents is a book I’ve been anxious to see translated into English and I’m so grateful to Uncivilized Books for taking on the task this year.
4. Sunny, Vol. 1 by Taiyo Matsumoto. Abandoning most of the supernatural and fantastic elements that has dominated much of his work in books like GoGoMonster and Tekkon Kinkreet, Matsumoto narrows his gaze on a small group of orphaned and abandoned children living in a group home of sorts, and details their attempt to cope with alcoholic parents, feeling lonely, disinterested parents or just the everyday issues of preadolescence in amazing understated fashion. This one’s a heartbreaker, folks.
5. Copra by Michel Fiffe. You know what’s impressive? When an artist can absorb the lessons of other great cartoonists — Frank Miller, Steve Ditko – and you can clearly see that influence on the page, and yet it doesn’t feel like a pastiche, it doesn’t feel like another lifeless copy. It feels like someone internalizing the methods and styles of their heroes and using that to create something wholly different and personal. God, if only all superhero comics were a tenth as intelligent, stylish and exciting as Copra. I’d certainly be reading a lot more superhero comics, I’ll tell you that.
6. Marble Season by Gilbert Hernandez. What do you do if you’re one of the most talented and prolific cartoonists working today and you’ve tried your hand at virtually every style and genre — drama, melodrama, noir, avant-garde, horror, porn? You make a warm, affectionate all-ages story about childhood, that’s what. Marble Season deals with universal emotions and experiences — the way we interact with our friends and family, our early obsessions, the way through playing we discover ourselves — but it’s so sharply observed that it feels both recognizable and specific — no mean feat. Chalk another one up for Beto.
7. Lose #5 by Michael DeForge. What can you say about DeForge that hasn’t been said already? (If you’re Ng Suat Tong, the answer’s “plenty.”) Just that he seems to improve and strengthen his chops with each successive issue of this yearly one-man anthology.
8. Rebel Woman by Peter Bagge. Leave it to the old guard to show all those whippersnappers how to make one of them there newfangled graphic novels. Bagge’s actually been transitioning from the satirical comedy of Hate to nonfiction (or fictionalized biographies if you prefer) for a while now, but if you weren’t paying close attention you could have easily missed it. What’s fascinating is how easy a transition it was. Bagge sacrifices none of his humor, his humanity or his general smart-assery in detailing Sanger’s fascinating life story. I hope he has more true stories to relate in the near future.
9. Optic Nerve #13 by Adrian Tomine. Few cartoonists are as good at creating flawed, ugly but somehow sympathetic characters as well as Adrian Tomine does. “Go Owls,” a fabulous cringe-comedy involving two down-on-their-luck characters, one of whom is an abusive boyfriend and really bad drug dealer, underscores that ability with observant dialogue, subtle expressions and deft plotting. Then there’s “Translated, From the Japanese,” which attempts to avoid showing any people — at least up close — at all and yet remains as stark an emotional tale of a family nearing a break-up as you are likely to find in comics any time soon.
10. The Mysterious, Underground Men by Osamu Tezuka. Starting literally with a bang, as a plane explodes and crash-lands, this early, seminal work by Tezuka hits the ground running and doesn’t let up a moment as it literally plunges through a slam-bang melodrama tinged with pathos for the poor supporting character who just can’t seem to cut a break. While later Tezuka manga added more psychological depth, grappled with weightier themes and was more expressive and experimental it its page layout, Underground Men has a charm and fearless of youth that can only come with a young creator desperate to push not just his own art but the entire medium forward. The end notes by editor Ryan Holmberg don’t hurt neither.
The best of the rest:
11. Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki.
12. Sammy the Mouse Vol. 2 by Zak Sally
13. Epoxy #4 by John Pham
14. Life Zone by Simon Hanselmann
15. The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman
16. So Long Silver Screen by Blutch
17. Infomaniacs by Matthew Thurber
18. School Spirits by Anya Davidson
19. The Strange Tale of Panorama Island by Suehiro Maruo
20. Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 1 by Ed Piskor.
Also worth your time: My Dirty, Dumb Eyes by Lisa Hanawalt, Triton of the Sea, Vol. 1 by Osamu Tezuka, Barnaby, Vol. 1 by Crockett Johnson, We Will Remain by Andrew White, Iron Bound by Brendan Leach, Blamo #8 by Noah Van Sciver, Lost Cat by Jason, Over the Wall by Peter Wartman.
10. FF – For Marvel fans tired of enormous crossovers and just wanting to read some fun, zany superheroics, Matt Fraction and Mike Allred’s FF was a blessing. It combined a great, unique team of characters with humor, anything-can-happen plots, and exciting visuals to become one of the best superhero comics around.
9. King’s Watch – If Defenders of the Earth taught us anything, it’s that it takes more than simply slapping Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician together to make a good story. Jeff Parker and Marc Laming know this and play to each character’s strength while also creating important stakes for them. It’s unbelievable that three, such different characters from radically different genres can not only successfully inhabit the same comic, but each get equal attention and create equal interest in the process. Parker and Laming have done just that though.
8. Six Gun Gorilla – By all rights, this should have just been a goofy, high-concept comic about a pistol-packing primate, but Simon Spurrier’s wild, socially conscious, science fiction plot and Jeff Stokely’s unusual, artistic, visual style made it so much more.
7. Wild Blue Yonder – 2013 was a banner year for high quality genre comics and Wild Blue Yonder is a great example of why. It could have been nothing more than a light, flighty adventure in a cool-looking world (Zach Howard’s detailed style and imaginative world-building meant that it would always look great), but ironically, Howard, Mike Raicht, and Austin Harrison’s story provides the emotional gravity that Wild Blue Yonder needs to soar above similar concepts.
6. The Wake – Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy explore the depths of earth’s last frontier in a way that’s as exciting and mysterious as it is horrifying. We need more genre comics set beneath the ocean’s surface, and The Wake sets a high standard for any that follow it.
5. Half Past Danger – Like so many other great comics this year, Half Past Danger starts with a killer concept and then executes it perfectly. In this case, it’s mixing Indiana Jones with Jurassic Park and Captain America, while throwing in a ninja and a lady spy for extra fun. What made it so remarkable though was the strong characterization and the flawless action that writer/artist Stephen Mooney was able to give it. Hoping he has a lot more like that in him.
4. Breath of Bones – A monster story with a ton of heart, Steve Niles and Dave Wachter instill Breath of Bones with the isolation and dread of 30 Days of Night as well as the emotional punch of Freaks of the Heartland. Wachter’s art is wisely left uncolored, giving the comic the look of a ’70s horror comics magazine.
3. Native American Classics – One of the most important comics published this year. These stories are painful to read, because they reveal a deeper wound than simply taking someone’s land. They’re about stealing religion and culture as well. They’re about the theft of souls. Which means that it’s especially important for non-indigenous people to hear them and take in their point of view as a counter-balance to the version of history we most often hear.
2. Boxers & Saints – Gene Luen Yang’s two-volume set is about more than just the Boxer Rebellion. It’s about all war, all the things that cause people to make it, and how there’s never just one point-of-view in any conflict. That’s something that humans desperately need to learn about themselves and Yang’s work does a wonderful job of teaching it.
1. Templar – Writer Jordan Mechner and artists LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland were obviously influenced by great literature like The Three Musketeers and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. What’s so remarkable about Templar – the fictionalized, but extremely well-researched account of the fall of the Templar Order – is that it can also stand proudly next to those influences in terms of quality. If Dumas and Hugo had been writing comics, those would have looked like Templar.
10. FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics, by Simon Oliver and Robbi Rodriguez (Vertigo): The comic for those who miss Fringe, FBP is reminiscent of the beloved television series – the laws of physics turned upside down, “bubbleverses,” conspiracies, mysteries both human and science-based – without ever feeling derivative. And in Special Agent Adam Hardy, Oliver and Rodriguez have created a flawed and compelling protagonist to help ground the otherwise preternatural drama.
9. Nowhere Men, by Eric Stephenson, Nate Bellegarde and Jordie Bellaire (Image Comics): My only complaint about this saga of science, celebrity and super powers is that we didn’t get more of it this year. It’s a terrific look at what happens when egos, and experimentation, go awry.
8. Moth City, by Tim Gibson: Gibson embraces comics’ pulp roots as fully as he does the digital medium, creating a unique and engrossing story with a foot planted in two vastly different eras. Set in the 1930s on an island off the coast of China ruled by the ruthless American Governor McCaw, Moth City blends action, intrigue and science fiction for a tantalizing tale that manages to surprise at almost every turn.
7. The Private Eye, by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin (Panel Syndicate): Much has been written about Vaughan and Martin’s foray into digital, primarily because of its name-your-own-price business model. However, it’s also a really good sci-fi mystery set in a not-so-distant future where privacy is at a premium, and people have resorted to wearing masks in public to preserve their identities. OK, maybe the future is closer than we think.
6. Black Science, by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera and Dean White (Image Comics): While some might wonder whether two issues is enough to earn a series a spot on a best-of-the-year list, Black Science came out of the gate swinging, with the reader left breathless, and somewhat disoriented, by the dimension-hopping predicament faced by Grant McKay and his team – and, unfortunately, his family. For all of its classic “sci-fi adventure” trappings, however, Black Science quickly establishes a real sense of peril; this isn’t a fun romp from one alien world to the next, a la Lost in Space, it’s a struggle for survival.
5. Bad Machinery, by John Allison: I can only second what Tom Bondurant wrote above about Bad Machinery, in that Allison brought what was already a thoroughly enjoyable mystery series to another level with “The Case of the Forked Road.” And now the cartoonist is taking a well-deserved break from the students of Griswalds Grammar School (although I can’t wait until he gets back to them).
4. East of West, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image Comics): Hickman and Dragotta’s grim pre-apocalyptic epic is a marvel of world-building that envelopes centuries’ worth of history, politics, religion and legend, and does so seamlessly. All of that doesn’t merely serve as a backdrop to the action; it’s integral to this futuristic Western in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – three of whom have manifested as children — ride across a dystopian America, signaling the End of Days.
3. The Bunker, by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari: Part Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, part Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, The Bunker may be one of the overlooked gems of 2013. Five college friends decide to bury a time capsule before starting out on their career paths, only to discover a bunker containing information from their future selves warning of the roles they’ll play in causing the apocalypse. And so begins a tense drama with implications both global and extremely personal.
2. Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al (Marvel): Hawkeye is such an odd little comic, so unlike any of the other superhero series in Marvel’s stable – or, heck, in any publisher’s stable. Where else do you find the title character(s) rarely, if ever, in costume, and seldom performing anything resembling “superheroics”? Instead, Fraction, Aja & Co. deliver issues devoted to Clint Barton’s complicated relationships with the women in his life – Black Widow, Spider-Woman, Mockingbird, Kate Bishop, the mysterious Darlene Penelope Wright – his building tenants/friends and even his dog, all told in a Rashomon style. Not too many creators could pull that off, and not too many editors would let them try.
1. Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image Comics): Seldom has a comic been more aptly named than Saga, which is at turns a sweeping space opera, a love story, and a meandering treatise on war, sex, parenthood, hope, authorial intent, journalism and a half-dozen other topics. It’s about star-crossed lovers, trashy novels, likeable bounty hunters, endlessly warring factions, robot nobility, lie-detecting cats and – well, everything you didn’t realize you were looking for in a comic until you found this one.
1. March Book One (John Lewis /Andrew Aydin/Nate Powell): As a Georgia native, born in 1968, I know about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement by my study of history only. I know about the lingering vestiges of racism in the South (as well as other parts of the United States) by things I have witnessed firsthand. In the late 1980s, I found myself in a fast food restaurant just outside of Atlanta. I was standing in line to place a food order when I noticed the guy next to me. He was wearing a shirt that said: “My dream came true” and it was a graphic of MLK in a gun scope. That moment still haunts and disturbs me. My teenage son’s world fortunately sees far less discrimination and hate firsthand. But it is still out there. So it is apt to me that the first part of John Lewis’ recollection of his own civil rights history is dedicated to the past and future children of the movement.
2. Bad Houses (Sara Ryan/Carla Speed McNeil): Ryan and McNeil are both incredibly strong writers — so to see them collaborate on a story such is this proved to the equivalent of when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to make a story together — in other words you get a damn good story. The narrative reminds me of something that a young Robert Altman might have told — several people’s lives converging around one small town and the intricacies of estate sales. Much of the book’s appeal is neatly summarized in one sentence by Ryan in the book’s afterword: “And you can’t go to estate sales without thinking about mortality, family, and inheritance.”
3. SUPERMAG (Jim Rugg): Rugg is a storyteller that many would consider at the top of his game. Yet given the fellow’s inherent intellectual curiosity — and the stated goal of this project (to explore comics [which he regards as a “rapidly evolving art form”] and document his examination) I think the writer/artist has only scratched the surface of his storytelling skillset. It may be only 60 pages, but it is a jam-packed diverse collection of comics — complete with an index.
4. East of West (Jonathan Hickman/Nick Dragotta): Many folks may praise this series for Hickman’s writing. For me, the main appeal of the series is the visual world-building that Dragotta is pursuing.
5. The Black Beetle (Francesco Francavilla): Every issue is a lesson is a romp through Francavilla’s unabashed love of the noir genre. As an added bonus, each page proved to be an education in boundary pushing comic layouts. When a project is a labor of love like Black Beetle is, you get far more rewards than the stories defined corporate editorial edict.
6. Kinski (Gabriel Hardman): 2013 was a year that many creators stepped outside of the comfort zone — and Hardman is a prime example of that. As he noted in May 2013: “I always intended to draw this story in a somewhat simpler style than my other work. That’s reflected in both the line work and the six panel grid I’m working with, not to mention sticking with black and white instead of color. It’s the cartooning equivalent of shooting a film guerrilla style.” I admire Hardman for attempting a story of a guy and a dog not his own — and the complications that ensue.
7. Lazarus (Greg Rucka/Michael Lark): Rucka and Lark’s consideration of technology mixed with family political battles hooked me from the outset. Rucka’s use of Tumblr adds another layer of entertainment/information to the series.
8. Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Nick Spencer/Steve Lieber): I am still pinching myself that Marvel convinced artist Lieber to take on this monthly series. His gift for comedy has totally blindsided me. Writing comedy evenly paired with an engaging storyline is no easy task, but writer Spencer has proved himself worthy of the challenge.
9. Batman ’66 (Jeff Parker/various artists): A DC digital first title possesses a level of fun and adventure sorely lacking in too many comics these days. I wish more comics were as refreshingly unique and as strongly written as this Parker ongoing.
10. Journey Into Mystery (Kathryn Immonen/Valerio Schiti): I know the series is canceled, but Immonen’s characterization of Lady Sif (and her use of Beta Ray Bill in the latter part of the series) was a perfect balance of quirky and refreshing. Visually artist Schiti possessed a style and approach on the series that I think will make him a high in demand artist in the near to long term. I still vividly remember an issue where Sif ordered and carried a huge stack of pizzas. Images that stick with you months after reading it are rare in my comics-consuming experience. I still wish readership numbers had been stronger in this series.
Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (DC Comics/Vertigo)
1990s comics are often vilified; sometimes it’s easy to forget that the decade that brought variant covers and the speculator boom also brought some of the greatest comics ever — stuff like Hellboy, Bone and Astro City. With its 20th anniversary coming up in a couple of years, it’s fitting we got a new Astro City ongoing this year so that the team an start building toward a huge, monumental story — or they can just keep doing what they’ve been doing for the past 20 years, and that’s tell great stories about the superhumans and non-super humans that inhabit their world. I’m definitely cool with that.
Avengers Arena by Dennis Hopeless, Kev Walker and more (Marvel)
Like Carla said above, this is a book that’s far better than it has any right to be, but boy do I love it. It was also interesting to read Hopeless’ statement in the final issue about the book he initially pitched to Marvel and how different it would have been from what we got. What we did get ended up being a lot of fun, as we were introduced to a bunch of new teenage characters, said goodbye to many of them and got a supped-up Arcade who finally manged to put the “murder” into Murderworld. There was a time I would have called this a guilty pleasure, but after a few issues it just became a pleasure to read.
The Bunker by Joshua Fialkov and Joe Infurnari (Oni Press)
Fialkov and Infurnari are two creators who I expect a lot from, based on their past work, and they did not let me down with The Bunker — which started out as a self-published digital series and was picked up by Oni Press. The comic starts with a group of friends discovering a bunker that has four of the five’s names on the door, which they go on to open and discover … yeah, it’s probably best to stop there. This is one of those comics you don’t want to spoil because they’ve done such a masterful job of not only coming up with a great plot with lots of twists along the way, but also because it’s so well-presented that I couldn’t really do it justice anyway. Both creators are playing to their strengths here, as the individual designs and dialogue of each character set them apart rather quickly before each subsequent issue goes into deeper detail on the cast. One of Fialkov’s strengths is finding voices for his characters that sound like real people, and he does that well here; the bickering between them feels authentic and familiar. The story takes place in two different time periods, and Infurnari has done a nice job of setting the two periods apart with his artistic choices. He also knows when to go in deep with very detailed backgrounds, then in the next panel let the dialogue take center stage with minimal art. The duo make a lot of smart choices in The Bunker, the smartest probably being to work on it together, as their styles really complement each other.
Burning Building Comix by Jeff Zwirek (Top Shelf)
Occasionally a comic comes along that makes you say, “Yeah, that could have only been done in comics.” And by that I’m not talking about a crazy plot twist or a story development, but about format. The story told in Burning Building Comix, I’m pretty sure, wouldn’t have worked in any other medium. Open the book and you see the outside of a building with flames in each of the windows, which each subsequent page showing what’s happening in various apartments on 10 different floors. They’re 10 different stories, for the most part, with the quickly spreading fire that started on the first floor eventually finding its way into each story. What’s great is that you can read it from left to right, one floor at a time, to get the story of the people living on that floor, or you can read up and down to see how the fire spreads … which is kind of an 11th story of its own. It would be easy for each apartment’s story to get lost or seem inconsequential in the bigger tale of the fire, but each wordless story by Zwirek holds together on its own. It’s a pretty amazing book.
Edison Rex by Chris Roberson, Dennis Culver and more
Roberson and Culver mix equal parts superhero nostalgia and creative innovation to bring us Edison Rex, the story of a villain-turned-hero who has to deal with his former colleagues and past transgressions as he tries to save the world. I look forward to reading this every time I see a new download available on comiXology.
Gamma by Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas (Dark Horse Comics)
What if Ash from Pokemon grew up and led an army of Pokemon, Power Rangers and Shogun Warriors, but he sucked so bad at it that years later he ended up in a dive bar where he let people punch him for $50? That’s Gamma in a nutshell, but it goes so much further than that.
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja and many more (Marvel)
Two words here: Pizza Dog. Every issue of Hawkeye is well worth your time and money, but issue #11 was something special. Like Burning Building Comix, it was one of those “only could be done in comics” moments, with bold designs, its clever use of icons and the attention to detail in what words Lucky, a.k.a. Pizza Dog, does and doesn’t understand. It was a pretty wonderful, well-executed issue, but the thing that really pushed it over the edge for me was the use of color … or the lack of color in certain parts. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth already uses a fairly limited, well-chosen color palette on the book that helps give it its distinctive style, even when the artist changes. In this issue, he went a bit further, as anytime it switched over to Lucky’s POV, the color went away (because dogs are color blind) and switched to fairly simple line art. It’s a brilliant choice in a comic that makes a lot of brilliant choices.
Heck by Zander Cannon (Top Shelf)
When Hector Hammarskjöl inherits a house with a portal to Hell in it, he does what any rational person would do — he opens a business where he helps settle inheritance and other issues by venturing into Hell on his clients’ behalf. Hell isn’t a fun place, and things really go awry when an old girlfriend asks him to deliver a message to her dead husband. As I said in my write-up for CBR’s top comics of the year list, it’s a cool twist on Dante’s Inferno — Zander Cannon’s storytelling is smart, at times funny, often quietly disturbing and ultimately heart-wrenching. But it’s probably Cannon’s afterword — about the relationship between Heck and his sidekick Elliot, and how it came from his own feelings about fatherhood — that really brought this home for me. I read this first as a part of Double Barrel, the digital release from Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, and was eager to buy it once the book came out … it isn’t often I look forward to buying something twice.
Leaving Megalopolis by Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore
I thought about listing this as awards — best graphic novel, best comeback, etc. — and my entry for this one was going to be “Best zombie survival book that doesn’t feature zombies.” No, this one features superheroes, but I wouldn’t bill it as such … it’s actually more inspired by something like 28 Days Later and the survival horror genre than anything involving capes and tights. Something happened in Megalopolis to drive all the superheroes insane, and now a ragtag group of survivors are trying to figure out how to get the hell out of town before they get captured, tortured or squished by the former heroes. It’s a very tense, dark book that keeps you turning the pages and asking for more when it’s done.
Mermin Vol. 1 & 2 by Joey Weiser
I was pretty excited when I found out that Oni Press would collect Joey Weiser’s excellent Mermin minicomics into a hardcover, as it’s a fun series that deserves the attention. Even better — the second volume features brand-new Mermin tales, with new friends, new bad guys and the same charm.
Over the Wall by Peter Wartman (Uncivilized Books)
This is the first graphic novel by Wartman but hopefully not the last. In it he tells the tale of a young girl searching for her lost brother in a forbidden city that’s been overrun with demons. While you could spend hours just exploring the architecture of the city Wartman builds (which is breathtakingly defined), the real treat is the friendship that develops between the girl and one of the demons, which leads to one of the best endings I read this year.
Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder (Image Comics)
I supported a lot of projects on Kickstarter this year, to the point that I considered making a whole “Kickstarter” section to my list here, but the one comic that stands out to me is Rocket Girl. Not only was it a well-run campaign, but it also led to the creation of a well-done book by one of my current fav creator teams in comics. When we talk about wanting more female-led superhero comics, this one could easily serve as the blueprint.
Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber and more
I don’t know if it’s right to say that a book featuring “liars, cheaters and thieves” can be charming, but that’s the word that comes to mind. What I do know is right to say is that SFoSM delivers a very solid character piece on, of all characters, Boomerang, the C-list villain who regularly gets finds himself behind bars after spending some time hanging upside-down in one of Spider-Man’s web nets. Boomerang and his “pals” in the Sinister Six hate Spider-Man and want to get rich, so they tolerate each other despite the headaches and betrayals that’s intrinsic with a group of villains. This book has a great, yet dark, sense of humor, not only in the script but in the artwork, as Steve Lieber brings to life situations like Speed Demon and Shocker stealing a puppy from a little girl, Beetle robbing a comic book store and a plot that revolves around the disembodied head of Maggia boss Silvermaine. I’m enjoying this trip through Boomerang’s life, and I kind of hope we don’t ever see any kind of breakthrough … he’s an unloyal bastard, and it suits him just fine.
Wolverine and the X-Men/Amazing X-Men by Jason Aaron, Nick Bradshaw, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Ed McGuinness and more
Although I’m still a little depressed about Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine and the X-Men coming to an end, I am thrilled that he’ll continue to tell the adventures of the merry mutants, along with artist Ed McGuinness, in the pages of Amazing X-Men. The thing I’ve loved about Wolverine and the X-Men is that it never takes itself too seriously and throws all sorts of crazy shit at the reader without really worrying about whether or it always make complete sense — like an evil version of the Jean Grey school that’s training teenagers to be evil, but it’s run by a bunch of pre-teens. Aaron ratchets up the insanity each issue but manages to somehow keep the whole thing grounded in the character moments that have come to define Wolverine, his relationship with his students and their relationships with each other.
But once school is out, even more fun begins. The first arc of Amazing, meanwhile, combines the afterlife, demon pirates, surprise guest stars, the return of Nightcrawler and, of course, the X-Men. Aaron keeps the same irreverent, fun approach he’s had to the X-Men in its sister title, but the smaller cast and different setting really let him cut loose with a fast-paced adventure story. McGuinness, meanwhile, takes the ball and runs with it, bringing a lot of energy to the battle scenes and a lot of style to everything else. This is superhero comfort food for me, with a twist — these are the X-Men I remember from years past, made fresh by Aaron and his artistic partners.
I also liked: Five Ghosts, Saga, Bandette, Lost Cat, Marble Season, Angel & Faith, Deathmatch, Kinski, Demeter, The Walking Dead, FF, The Sixth Gun, Deathless, East of West, Strange Nation, Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills, Private Eye, Head Lopper, Theremin, Ghosted and Revival.