THE BEST COMICS OF 2013, PART ONE: NUMBERS 11 TO 25
Okay! Time for my annual round-up of the BEST COMICS EVER (THIS YEAR) and, as always, when it comes time to put these kinds of lists together, I always find that there were more good comics over the past 12 months than I had realized and this is actually blah blah blah, yeah, you get the picture. Good comics. Great comics. They came out. I read them, and you should too.
A caveat: I have included zero digital comics in my Top 25. Why? Because I am a jerk. Also, because if this year has taught me anything, it’s that I hate reading comics digitally and I am not going to pretend that I like to do so.
I’d also like to take a minute to recognize some comics that I completely enjoyed and would recommend to strangers on the street but did not quite make my elite Top 25 list of greatness. Would the following comics please step forward?
“Prison Pit Book 5,” I admire your style, even though you don’t technically come out until 2014. You are handsome and dangerous, as always.
“Hellboy: The Midnight Circus,” I think you look wonderful. Thanks for showing up.
“Catalyst Comix,” I really like what you’re trying to do here, but I’m not sure I understand everything that’s going on just yet. I’ll definitely keep my eye on you.
“Boxers & Saints,” I’m glad you’re around, and the mega-historico-mythical-battle-action is always welcome, but sometimes you make me feel like I am in a middle school classroom. Sorry, but you can actually just sit down and think about that for a minute.
“New School,” you’ve really presented yourself well, and you’re a welcome addition to my library of comics that don’t have embarrassing cover designs. I like where you’re headed inside, too, almost as a companion piece to “Strange Tale of Panorama Island,” which I see is also standing up to be recognized right now. Yes, bravo to both of you for being weird in a good way.
Ah, “GÃ¸dland Finale,” we’ve spent some time together, haven’t we? Yes, you have wrapped yourself up with dignity and elegance and a respectable amount of sheer insane bombast. In other words: GÃ¸dland.
“FF,” you’re a bit more verbose these days, but your energy remains, and I’ve had a good time with your hijinx all year.
And “Tom Strong and the Planet of Peril,” don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you. I haven’t read your final issue yet, but so far you’ve done a fine job exploring other worlds and reminding us all how preposterously enjoyable it can be to read a superhero comic drawn by Mr. Chris Sprouse.
THE COUNDOWN BEGINS: THE BEST COMICS OF THE YEAR
25. “The Mysterious Strangers,” by Chris Roberson, Scott Kowalchuk, and Dan Jackson
I’m sure Chris Roberson has a high-concept description for this series that will make you swoon, but for me, what’s so great about this occult action and adventure book is that it feels like a homage to a parallel 1960s that never existed. And it’s an incredibly cool parallel 1960s that I want to visit, via this comic, where I’m safe and everything looks spectacular.
24. “Dream Thief,” by Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood
I’ve written about this series before as the kind of thing that Eclipse Comics might have published at the height of its powers, and while that’s true, it’s also true that Greg Smallwood’s artistry catapults this supernatural crime series into a level all its own. He’s good. Jai Nitz is very good at propelling the story forward and giving us a lot of narrative meat in just a handful of issues.
23. “Cartoonshow,” by Derek M. Ballard
I don’t even really know what this project is, but I have two Ballad-written-and-drawn issues in front of me. One is called “You Will All Die In Pain,” and the other is titled “Your Daughters Will Bear Our Children.” When I first read these issues a few months ago, I thought I’d write a whole column devoted to them, because they are so odd and engaging, but I could never figure out an angle of entry into their fragmented worlds. I know this: there’s nudity, domestric strife, anthropomorphism, sci-fi backdrops, Rob Liefeld pastiches, and a robot dog that looks like one of those cassette Transformers that popped out of Soundwave’s chest. So, yeah, it’s pretty great stuff.
22. “Habit,” by Josh Simmons, Wendy Chin, Karn Piana, and the Partridge in the Pear Tree
It’s overly reductive to say something like, “you have to read Josh Simmons to understand what I’m talking about when I talk about Josh Simmons,” but I kind of feel like that needs to be said, so pretend I said it. Anyway, this is the first oversized comic released by Oily (well, oversized compared to their usual minicomics) and it’s a densely-packed piece of work, as Simmons and friends explore horrors large and small and cute and terrifying. It has the newest installment of Simmons ongoing “Jessica Farm” opus, by the way, and that story has gotten ca-RAZY! It’s some Johnny Ryan madness, with the Josh Simmons flair.
21. “Young Avengers,” by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, and Matt Wilson
Hey, look, it’s a Marvel superhero comic among this list of unorthodox comics by iconoclastic weirdos! But I suspect Gillen and McKelvie are iconoclastic weirdos at heart, and that only helps to make “Young Avengers” one of the best superhero comics around. Unlike almost all of its direct market shelf peers, this comic feels like something of today, or maybe even tomorrow, and not at all like a rehash of a bunch of stories from previous generations. Even though it’s a story about costumed guys and gals punching stuff and blasting stuff and yelling about stuff, it feels fresh and alive and diverse and unexpectedly complex.
20. “3 Stories,” by Dash Shaw
Though “New School” is a bigger and proportionally “more important” project, the slim “3 Stories” is more successful as storytelling, perhaps because it’s distilled and condensed down to something less sprawling. In these three tales, Shaw seems to be trying out some techniques he would use in “New School,” but it could be the other way around, with these as the perfections of things he was trying to do in the larger book. What matters is this: these three short stories, particularly the first and third, not only play with color and backgrounds in interesting ways, but they also subvert power structures and cultural expectations. That’s what Dash Shaw tends to do, and here it works the best.
19. “Fury MAX: My War Gone By,” by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov
This series ended so long ago that it might be long forgotten in this short-attention-span industry. Actually, that short-attention-span thing is probably not even true — comics seem to constantly live in the past, so maybe it’s just the effect of short-attention plus nostalgia, where everything from 20 years ago or more seems SUPER-IMPORTANT and better and stuff from RIGHT NOW is also super-important, but not as good as the old stuff, and the comics from nine months ago are like, “let it go, that was sooooo long ago, dude.” None of this is particularly relevant to this Ennis/Parlov series except in this way: it’s the story of a damaged man recalling the events of his life that mattered, and in doing so he’s also reflecting the history of America. And maybe comics, too.
18. “World Map Room,” by Yuichi Yokoyama
I’ve read all the Yokoyama books released in English over the past few years, and if I had to characterize those works, I’d say that Yokoyama explores the architecture of narrative space. He seems less interested in characters than in shapes and forms, and the people in his stories are more like props that sometimes (but not very often) speak. “World Map Room” is still a Yokoyama book, so that sensibility is still present, and, as always, it provides an alluring alien quality to the story, but this is his version of, I guess, a superhero action comic, or a shonen manga, so the characters are decked out in costumes and helmets and masks and they explore mysteries and face conflicts. But not in any way you’ve ever read before.
17. “Batman, Incorporated,” by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn
Another entry from the “didn’t this end a long time ago?” corner, this climax and conclusion to Grant Morrison’s ten-thousand year run on Batman actually raised a bit of fuss when it came out, what with the killing of a beloved character. Just kidding! No one who had been paying attention was surprised when Damian Wayne bit the bat-dust except maybe those who thought that DC would somehow want to keep that “property” alive for merchandising reasons. Yeah, because our kids all have Damian Wayne bedsheets and backpacks, right? Okay, ignoring all that nonsense, my point is this: “Batman, Incorporated” ended well, with Grant Morrison showing that he could still do straightforward superhero comics with an off-kilter sensibility and Chris Burnham can draw action and violence and pathos alongside the best of them.
16. “Hip Hop Family Tree,” by Ed Piskor
I am as much in love with the presentation of this comic as I am in love with the amount of lessons learned inside its pages. This Fantagraphics volume presents itself as a thick-covered “Treasury Edition” straight out of the oversized, overblown 1970s, and it’s filled with Ed Piskor’s retelling of the origins of hip hop, infotainment-style, heavy on the narrative captions and stuffed with real-life characters and the situations. This volume ends with 1981, so there’s more Piskoresque rap history to come, and after reading this strong first book, sign me up for the rest of the show.
15. “Celebrated Summer,” by Charles Forsman
Forsman’s “Wolf,” from Snake Oil #5, returns for another adventure with his pal Mike in this stand-alone graphic novel about the end of adolescence and the uncertainty of the now. In a comic book field crowded with hyper-violence and spectacle and irony and the surreal, Forsman gives us a sincere story about a relationship between two friends. Ultimately, it ends with Wolf, and his relationship with his own past, present, and future, but it’s mostly a road trip comic, and the fact that the characters are lost isn’t just a conflict they have to overcome, it’s the heart of the tale. It’s not an overstatement to say it’s a seemingly-simple but deeply-profound slice of comics.
14. “Blades & Lazers,” by Ben Marra
Here’s something of the maybe-not-deeply-profound-but-instead-totally-rad-variety: Ben Marra coming at us with a set of brothers slaying space demons in the Forbidden Quadrant of Zallethra. One’s a Reaper, 24th degree. The other won the Galactic Surefirer Contest at the Obsidian Area. They are not to be messed with. This comic, from Sacred Prism, is printed with dark blue ink and a neon pink color scheme. And when I say neon pink, you need to think about the most vibrant, blinding pink you can imagine, and then try not to close your eyes as it gets brighter. That’s the color of the highlights in this comic, and it perfectly captures the splendor of both blades and lazers. These days, this is the kind of comic I want to read the most, and I wish there were more issues of this available tomorrow.
13. “Prophet,” by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, and Others
I disengaged from the story in this series a year ago, but I keep reading it as a sci-fi, superhero, post-Liefeldian tone poem, and it’s still excellent just on that level. Could I recap anything that has happened in the past handful of issues? Probably not. I know there are a wide range of John Prophet clones and some former Youngblood members and they are exploring space and probably seeking something. But I don’t really care at all. I love the look and feel of every issue, and I find myself continually enchanted by the extraterrestrial landscapes and Brandon Graham’s terse but elusive captions. Truth is, I don’t care what happens in most of the comics I read. In “Prophet,” caring about what happens doesn’t even seem to be the point.
12. “Battling Boy,” by Paul Pope and Hilary Sycamore
This likely would have ranked higher if it were presented in an appropriate format (as in, not cramped and tiny), but it still offers plenty of charms, like Paul Pope’s stunning character and monster designs — which look unearthly but tactile — and the straightforward narrative about slaying monsters and making daddy proud. Plus, there’s that league of oddball villains shepherded by Sadisto. When I wrote about it earlier this year, I talked about how this book was superheroes done right, capturing the sense of wonder of the most mythic heroes without resorting to stiff idolatry. Or maybe I never said exactly that, but that’s what I think about when I look back at “Battling Boy” and wonder if maybe there’s even more inside it than I can see at its annoyingly small size.
11. “Gamma,” by Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas
Ulises Farinas, also the best thing about the darn-good “Catalyst Comix,” gives us a one-shot story about the “Coward” and his attempt at redemption. It’s a western. But not so fast! It’s also a story imbued with kaiju iconography. And the Power Rangers. Oh, and did I mention that the entire thing is a parable about a failed Pokemon trainer? The book is “Unforgiven” starring Ash Ketchum. Except, not really, because it’s better than you might imagine that to be. And what makes it better is Farinas’s affection for this subject matter coupled with his clean line and attention to detail and his unwillingness to turn the whole thing into a joke. Farinas imbues this story with tragedy, and it works. It’s a pastiche that’s far better than its inspirations.
NEXT WEEK: THE TOP 10 COMICS OF 2013!
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.