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The Best Comic Books of 2013 [Master List]

The last twelve months offered comic book readers a wide variety of work ranging from the most crowd-pleasing superhero epics to the most idiosyncratic of indies, and the return of old favorites to the emergence of exciting new talent. It was a busy and productive year for the industry, and one we’re pleased to celebrate with what we’re certain will be an uncontroversial, unenumerated list of awards that will prompt only resounding agreement and unbroken fellowship amongst our readers in the comments below.


BEST RETRO-FUTURIST DETECTIVE STORY ABOUT THE DEATH OF PRIVACY

 
 
 

the private eye marcos martin brian k vaughanThe Private Eye
Artwork by Marcos Martin and Munsta Vicente
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Published by The Panel Syndicate
Available: Pay-what-you-want webcomic

Only Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin would think to make a digital-only comic about a future with no Internet. In a culture where we want everybody to know where we are and what we're doing, and the widespread outrage over the PRISM scandal settled into a disgruntled murmur after only a few weeks, The Private Eye tests our attitudes toward privacy and transparency and asks us "what if?"

Set in 2076 Los Angeles, The Private Eye takes place years after an event called “The Flood” mysteriously released all the private information on the Internet to the world at large. Bank accounts, medical records, private messages -- everything in the Cloud was dumped where everyone could see it. As a result of the fallout, the Internet has been shut down, everything is on paper again, the press are the police, and citizens walk the streets in elaborate masks and costumes that hide their true identities. Vaughan and Martin’s private eye, a paparazzo who goes by the moniker P.I., takes the case of a woman looking for the man who murdered her sister, and gets close to something much, much bigger.

The Private Eye is insightful sci-fi of the highest order, built on a conceit that challenges all of our presumptions of identity and inverts our collective vision of the future into something completely unexpected. But it’s also a detective story, a repurposing of the tropes defined by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in a unique new setting. As usual, Vaughan creates a layered protagonist who constantly surprises with unexpected choices and hidden depths. “P.I.” is the lowest of the low, an opportunist who makes a living by breaking his contract with society while doing everything he can to maintain his own secret identity. He’s hypocritical, unfeeling, cocky, and self-serving, but he’s also loyal, clever, and has an innate morality in spite of himself. Calling in favors, making every mistake he can, and in way over his head, he’s the classic loser detective, upgraded to a mixed-race pot-smoker with an invisibility cloak.

Martin’s art is -- as always -- immaculate. He’s always had cool touches of retro-futurism in his superhero books, but in The Private Eye he goes absolutely nuts. The L.A. of 2076 manages to look like a plausible future, with sleek maglev trains and modular buildings, but even a cursory glance gives you the impression that the whole world has gone retro. Since nearly everybody is wearing a mask or costume of some sort, he flexes his considerable muscles for fashion and character design, and each issue is a smorgasbord of outlandish costumes worn by people trying to hide their identity while communicating who they are deep inside. Brilliantly colored by Muntsa Vicente, Martin’s fluid, vivacious art reaches new highs.

- John Parker

BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL BY A LIVING HISTORICAL FIGURE

 
 
 

March, Book One
By U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Designed by Chris Ross and Nate Powell
Edited by Chris Staros with Leigh Walton
Published by Top Shelf Productions
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Most prominently, March is a fantastic document of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, by one of the only living people who can hold claim to really being there at the heart of it, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. I spent some time covering the state legislature in Atlanta for a newspaper a few years ago, and Lewis came to speak to both houses one day. That was the only day of the whole session I saw members from both parties unified over something. There were plenty that didn't agree with Lewis' current politics, but everyone agreed, and went out of their way to say, that Lewis's work with Martin Luther King Jr. during that era was monumental.

It would have been safe, then, for Lewis and his collaborators, co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, to stick to the history, to simply deliver the details of the movement that the overwhelming majority of Americans agree was on the right side of history. What's great about March, though, is that Lewis, Adyin and Powell opt to show readers a side of the congressman that I didn't even get to see that day he spoke to the state Senate, a side that's very human.

My favorite story in the book is one very early on about how Lewis came to be very attached to the chickens under his care on the farm where he grew up. There's a clear message to the scene, about how Lewis learned something about the value of life, but what I really love about it is that it shows us how even a great historic icon was once a kid with very naive notions. Likewise, there's a frame sequence about the logistics of getting Rep. Lewis to Barack Obama's first presidential inauguration while he chats with a family. Again, it's a wonderfully humanizing moment.

March is a recollection of history, but more than that, it's a memoir. At its heart, it's about a person who found himself in the midst of something much bigger than him. But the story, like the person at its center, never loses focus. That's what makes it special.

- Matt Wilson

MOST BOUNTIFUL SOURCE OF WEIRDNESS

 
 
 

Prophet
Artwork by Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, Matt Sheean, Malachi Ward, Joseph Bergin III, Jerry Lando, Ron Wimberly, James Stokoe, Aaron Conley, Bayard Baudoin, Jessica Pollard and Farel Dalrymple
Written by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis,
Lettering by Ed Brisson and Fil Barlow
Edited by Eric Stephenson
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Image (DRM-free digital) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

In their second year on the title, Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milonogiannis seemed to be on a mission to out-crazy themselves. Like Dune or The Metabarons, Prophet revels in stretching your mind with increasingly far out sci-fi concepts, magnificent vistas and really important fake words you need to sound out just to understand. But even though Prophet is sci-fi through and through, it's still telling what is essentially a superhero story, just blown out to infinite scale. To that end, 2013 saw the book avail itself some of the characters original Prophet creator Rob Liefeld had lying around in his 1990s Extreme Studios portfolio.

Each excavated hero has been skewed into something weirder and farther-out of that wheelhouse than some of us could have imagined when they first hit the scene so long ago. Of course Prophet himself is now the former all-father of a race of his own clones, betrayer to a horrific Earth empire out to enslave the universe. Diehard is now an immortal cyborg rediscovering his humanity through his emerging love for a lizard woman. Glory, Troll, Supreme, Suprema, and even Radar the Hound Supreme have all made appearances in this book, warped by Prophet into gods and eternals, sentient collections of light and jelly creatures that go “woof.” When Prophet tells you Badrock achieved cosmic awareness and became one with the universe -- the same Badrock who used to wear enormous shoulder pads and once picked a fight with Savage Dragon because he thought it would be rad -- you don’t blink an eye. You can’t. They’re wide open.

It’s the insane chemistry of the contributors that forms Prophet’s fulcrum. Between Graham, Roy, and Milonogiannis -- and cameos from Farel Dalrymple, Malachi Ward, and others -- a wide range of styles and influences converge on the pages, and no matter the contrast from one approach to another, it all fits. Flipping from Roy’s squishy, muscular lines to Milogiannis’s hyper-speed manga to whoever else is contributing is never messy, never even bumpy. It’s seamless and consistently interesting, like a great anthology made up of one story.

Sadly, there’s not much Prophet left for us to get weird with. The series is due to end with issue #45 next year, with the Prophet: Earth War miniseries coming six months after to finish the epic in style. Prophet has been one of the most rewarding comics of the last few years, a series that just kept getting weirder, kept building on its moving emotional core, and just plain kept getting better. Mind-expanding and complex, Prophet is an experience that will be impossible to replace.

- John Parker

BEST RON SWANSON-ESQUE CANADIAN PIRATE ADVENTURE COMIC

 
 
 

Crater XV
By Kevin Cannon
Published by Top Shelf
Available: Comics stores (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Army Shanks is not a good guy. His previous adventures in Far Arden ended disastrously. When asked in Crater XV what makes him happy and gives him a reason to live, the Canadian pirate responds simply, “scotch.” In that way and in many others, Shanks is the Ron Swanson of pirate adventurers. He doesn’t really like people, yet he’s always looking out for them. He drinks hard and works hard and he hates bureaucracy. He pretends to feel nothing yet is actually completely vulnerable underneath the rough façade. He’s a charming and occasionally heroic yet hard to like protagonist, as everyone he meets in his adventures experiences. And, just like Ron Swanson, Shanks is just one of a cast of many zany characters that can both entertain and enrage.

If you’ve read Far Arden, you’ll find Crater XV to be more of the same delightfulness hiding an ultimately pretty bleak story. If you haven’t read Far Arden, you can read Crater XV as its own adventure without feeling at all lost, although the previous story will add some depth. Unlike Far Arden, however, Crater XV steps beyond the world of pirates and Canadians and into the space race. It’s a weird shift that not every story or storyteller could pull off,  but it totally works for Kevin Cannon and the world he’s built. And don’t worry, the pirates and Canadians are still there.

The reason that Crater XV is one of the best comics of 2013 is that it’s a work of art from beginning to end. It’s entirely possible to walk away from reading it and remember only the feeling of joy that page after page of swashbuckling ridiculousness has given you. It’s also entirely possible to walk away from it and feel like you’ve been punched in the gut, it’s so unexpectedly emotional. Each page features exceptionally well done storytelling that seems to effortlessly evoke emotions, humor, and action, sometimes all at once.

- Janelle Aselin

MOST TRIUMPHANT RETURN

 
 
 

Hellboy In Hell
By Mike Mignola
Coloring by Dave Stewart
Lettering by Clem Robbins
Designed by Mike Mignola and Cary Grazzini
Edited by Scott Allie
Available: Comics shops (print) / Dark Horse (iOS + Android + Web)

Back to the drawing board after several years away, Mignola returns with not only a new status quo for his signature creation but also a new and carefully considered phase of his professional career. The story of Hellboy In Hell finds the infernal hero at the end of a corporeal existence that’s included achievements as the world’s best paranormal investigator, an introspective wanderer and a champion of destiny, and take the first steps into a world that Mignola’s meticulously designed to serve as Hellboy’s home for the foreseeable future. That world is Hell itself, and it’s a place where Mignola, now a practiced a master with his megaplot wrapped up tidily behind him, can use to tell any manner of story he wants.

The five issues released in 2013 have featured infernal puppet shows, ghostly visitations, a tour of Pandemonium, Hellboy’s vision of his own terrible birth, a very violent family reunion, death riding an elephant, a scavenger hunt in a graveyard… anything that Mignola is creatively fascinated with can now be explored as the artist sees fit. And because of his utterly unique abilities, anything Mignola finds interesting becomes a reading experience like no other, but even more so in Hellboy in Hell. With colorist Dave Stewart, Mignola’s created a bottomless pit of a world; a world without skies and locales divided by black voids; a world with terrifying cities of fire and crumbling villages of brick and bone; and a world without time. Mignola and Stewart’s Hell is enormous and beautiful, dark and immersive, and the kind of place where you can imagine becoming lost and wandering hopelessly for so long that the only person who even remembers you existed is an old witch in a house in Hell, who happened to see you walk past her window one time on your way to oblivion.

Yeah, Hell’s a scary place, so it’s a good thing we have Hellboy to walk us through. The blue-collar demon-spawn has lost some of his humanity as a consequence of recent events, but he’s still the chillest bro around when we run up against infernal aristocracy, lost souls, ferocious monsters and Satan himself. It was always through Hellboy’s ingenious lens of “WTF is that” that Mignola made folklore, myth and the occult so palatable to readers, and the cartoonist obviously delighted most in throwing his hero down (usually through several levels of stone floors) into the dark basements of the world to discover the evil things that wait for their chance to rise, and to defy them with heroism, wit and grit. Now Mignola’s created a platform with which to do just that constantly, and the results have been magnificent.

Hellboy In Hell is the comic you read last from the pile; the one that seems a little daunting compared to the comfort and familiarity of the latest issues from whatever other comics you’ve got waiting; the one that seems like it’s only proper to read in the middle of the night, where you can get lost in a master storyteller's dark dreams.

- Andy Khouri

CHILLEST SUPERHERO BRO COMIC

 
 
 

Hawkeye volume 2Hawkeye
Artwork by David Aja, Francesco Francavilla, Jesse Hamm, Steve Lieber, and Matt Hollingsworth
Written by Matt Fraction
Production by Chris Eliopoulos
Edited by Stephen Wacker and Tom Brennan
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Marvel (iOS + Android)

It still blows my mind that Marvel's attempt to capitalize on the success of the Avengers movie by launching their fourth attempt at a Hawkeye title meant handing it to Matt Fraction and David Aja and letting them pretty much redefine how compelling street-level superheroics worked. Their Hawkeye is the Avenger who's just a dude, and this book is what he does when he's not saving the world. He drinks coffee straight from the pot, wears a t-shirt and Chuck Taylors, and has a string of monumentally bad luck that even Peter Parker would feel sympathy for. And everybody loves it.

Hawkeye is a book that takes risks. When everyone was suddenly interested in this guy that used a bow and arrow to help Thunder Gods, super soldiers and a walking tank fight off an alien invasion, Fraction and Aja gave them a comic book that was basically The Rockford Files with an off-duty superhero. When everyone got used to that, they switched it up to being The Rockford Files with an off-duty superhero who was also a teenage girl, and the way they pulled off the switch was by a story told by a dog. That's pretty astonishing.

What's even more astonishing is that it all works -- and not only that, but it works amazingly well. Hawkeye #11 -- "Pizza Is My Business" -- is constructed with such a perfect union of script and art that it ought to be taught in classes. Using the unique visual language of comics to show Lucky's thought process, the way scents combine to form visual maps of how he understands the characters, the way panels are constructed to highlight what he's seeing while leaving out areas he's not aware of, even the way it's laid out on the page -- it's master class level stuff, just from a technical standpoint. That it's building off a year of comics that have gotten readers emotionally invested in the characters makes it indisputably the high point of superhero comics.

It would be one thing if that was the only truly great issue that Fraction and Aja had managed to pull off in 2013, but Hawkeye #11 is a high point among high points. Every single issue has been one of the best books on the stands.

And that was before Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe started showing up to hand out life lessons to the superheroes.

- Chris Sims

BEST ALTERNATE HISTORY COMIC ABOUT A WORLD WITHOUT SO MANY GROSS DUDES

 
 
 

Ôoku: The Inner Chambers
By Fumi Yoshinaga
Published by Viz Media
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print)

Ôoku imagines a feudal Japan where, 80 years after the vicious "Redface Pox," men make up a scant 25 percent of the population. Traditionally male seats of power are now occupied by women, including the position of Shogun, who maintains the ôoku -- a collection of beautiful men -- for her own private indulgence.

Ôoku had me from the beginning. I love alternate histories, I love in-house power struggles, and I love Yoshinaga's clean, powerful artwork. What I didn't expect was such a fascinating look at the sausage-making of public memory. Less than a century of story time after the ravages of the Pox, Ôoku's Japan is beginning to forget there was ever a time when men were as a commonplace as women. This seemed an outlandish point to make at first, but the more Yoshinaga explored it, the more I was convinced. Ôoku showcases the slow mythologization of history in a way that made me think long and hard about bias and my own knowledge of the world 80 years prior (it is lacking). Yoshinaga goes on to tackle gender roles, bureaucratic excess, and the good intentions that pave the way to rank decadence in fine detail. It's engrossing, emotional, and intelligent, and worth anyone's time -- even if you're not a “manga person.”

- Juliet Kahn

BEST 'EVENT' COMIC

 
 
 

Judge Dredd
Edited by Matt Smith
Published by 2000 AD
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (see links below) / 2000 AD (iOS + Android + Web)

One of the common complaints you get from superhero readers is that we're all suffering from "event fatigue." The constant cycle of moving from one big crossover to the next with every one promising to up the ante and deliver a new world where Nothing Will Ever Be The Same can wear a reader out, especially when they start the next event before the last one is even over. The thing is, there's not actually anything wrong with that. Comics should be big events, they should tell big stories, and they should build on each other and use what's previously established to move things forward. When it's done right, a series of big events and crossovers can lead to some amazing comics.

And we know that, because for the past few years, the 2000 AD anthology and its star attraction, Judge Dread, have been showing everyone else how it should be done.

I haven't been following the 2000 AD anthology weekly, but this year's Dredd collections releases -- Day of Chaos: The Fourth FactionDay of Chaos: Endgame and Trifecta -- have been an incredible series of stories. Actually, that's only half true: Everything from Origins on to the present has been amazing, and probably the stuff that came before it, too, but it's Day of Chaos where things really ramp up the stakes.

Mega City One has been destroyed before. That's kind of its entire deal, actually, from classic Dredd tales like The Apocalypse War to Necropolis and on to the present, but there's always been the sense that it was going to survive. With Day of Chaos, John Wagner, Colin MacNeil, Henry Flint, Leigh Gallagher, Ben Willsher and Edmund Bagwell have pulled off the trick of making it seem like this time, there's no going back -- a feeling that's almost impossible to convey when you're dealing with a headline series that's been running for 36 years. And yet, they've done it, taking the usual event comic tropes of a massive body count and a promise of change and actually using them to deliver an entirely new feel to the comic.

Wagner himself deserves special recognition for writing, as Douglas Wolk put it in a recent interview, 70 percent of all Judge Dredd stories and building on his own continuity in a way that doesn't deter new readers. As someone recently new to the franchise, I can confirm that it just makes you want to go back to read those earlier stories, but it's Trifecta, serialized at the end of 2012 and released in hardcover this year, that's really mind-blowing.

Reviewing it in January, David Brothers called "Trifecta" the single best crossover of 2012, and he's not wrong. There's not much to add to what he wrote about it, but consider that when it was being published in the weekly magazine, 2000 AD didn't tell anyone that they were doing a crossover. They just had three seemingly unrelated stories, and only revealed that they were part of the same overarching plot when one week's installment of Dredd ended with Dredd kicking down a door, and then the same issue's chapter of The Simping Detective opened with the same shot. In other words Judge Dredd kicked his way into someone else's story, and from then on it all came together.

It's a great gimmick, and it's a shame that putting it all together in one volume blows the surprise, but it's worth noting that the story holds up without it. Even beyond the big storytelling trickery, Al Ewing, Simon Spurrier, Rob Williams, Simon Coleby, Henry Flint, Carl Critchlow and D'Israeli deliver an incredible series of twists and turns, uniting three plots with three completely different tones. It's funny, compelling, sharply done in every single way, and tells a darn near perfect story of mystery and intrigue in a dystopia on the brink of collapse. In other words, it's a master class on how things should be done.

- Chris Sims

HOLY S*** BATMAN!

 
 
 

Batman '66
Artwork by Jonathan Case, Ty Templeton, Joe Quinones, Sandy Jarrell, Ruben Procopio, Colleen Coover, Ted Naifeh, Christopher Jones, Wes Hartman, Maris Wicks, Lee Loughridge, Rico Renzi, Tony Aviña and Derec Donovan with Michael Allred and Laura Allred
Written by Jeff Parker and Tom Peyer
Lettering by Wes Abbott
Edited by Jim Chadwick and Aniz Ansari
Published by DC Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) /  Amazon (hardcover pre-order) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

It’s been a good year to be a fan of the classic Batman TV series, the camp sensation that ran from 1966-1968 with a feature film thrown in there for good measure. With a rights dispute finally settled between Fox and Warner Bros., 2013 saw the release of a huge amount of merchandising, with everything from Heroclix figures to Batman and Catwoman Barbie dolls. Thankfully, this list of franchise exploitation has also included a weekly digital comic from writer Jeff Parker (with the occasional fill-in by Tom Peyer) and, basically, every great artist working in comics right now. Seriously, look at that list.

The TV series was a Pop Art masterpiece, with over-saturated soundstages and colorfully costumed villains spouting dastardly dialogue about their perfidious plots while Batman and Robin delivered intentionally stilted dialogue behind barely-contained smirks. It’s a vibrant, groovy affair, with a visual style that bridged the gap between Modernism and the dawning Psychedelic era that lurks in every wink toward the audience.

The comic picks up this tradition and runs with it, with the Dynamic Duo facing off against the Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, (*shudder*) False Face, the Sandman, Egghead, the Siren, Bookwork and the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker, in adventures that pop off the page in dayglo colors and Benday dots. Freed from the constraints of a late-'60s TV show budget, Parker and company are able to push these stories into the realm of the fantastic, like with an incredible dream sequence in issue #6 that finds Batman and Robin under the Siren’s spell, tripping balls in a watercolored wonderland. It’s a gorgeous sequence that would only work in a comic and artist Jonathan Case just kills it.

It would be enough to have a beautiful, goofy Batman comic every single week, but it’s also, at times, an incredible use of ComiXology’s Guided View technology. The format’s been experimented with on products from Marvel’s Infinite Comics, but Batman ‘66 is maybe the best example of what can be done with existing digital comics tech, with everything from simple animation between panels to sound effects bursting onto the page.

It’s tremendously refreshing to see a cape comic this unafraid to “go for it,” with “it” in this scenario being the Batusi.

- Dylan Todd

BEST COMIC ABOUT ACTUAL HUMAN BEINGS WITH ACTUAL HUMAN FEELINGS GOD DAMMIT

 
 
 

Sunny mangaSunny
By Taiyo Matsumoto
Translated by Michael Arias
Published by Viz Media
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Viz (iOS + Android)

Sunny is an emotionally dense look at an underexplored part of Japanese youth culture, the sort of book that lingers after you close each volume. The first chapter features micro-slices of strangers living their lives, perfectly capturing the confusion and disorientation of new kid Sei's first few days in a new environment. Much like Matsumoto's most famous work, Tekkonkinkreet, a clear picture of the characters and their relationships forms fairly quickly, along with a surprising amount of emotional heft.

Matsumoto's work has always reminded me of jazz, using its own rhythms and flourishes to tell familiar-seeming stories -- a young child goes wandering, a dead cat is found -- in an all-new way. As the narrative moves between the residents of the Star Kids Home, the titular Sunny (a run-down 1970s Datsun parked in the front yard) provides a touchstone in all of their lives, part escapist fantasy, part confessional booth. Matsumoto's writing (thanks in part to translation by Michael Arias) takes a minimalist approach that pulls down the barriers between the reader and the work and his art is, as always, unique and occasionally startling, using textures and techniques rarely seen in the comics medium.

In interviews, Matsumoto has said that his work always has difficulty finding an audience, not fitting in with the traditional manga readership and being a bit too foreign for European or American art comix fans. Sunny, with its quasi-autobiographical nature and simple (but never simplistic) storytelling, will hopefully give lie to that, especially as the first volume made the New York Times manga bestseller list, alongside volumes 287 and 288 of Naruto.

- Kevin Church

DANTE ALIGHIERI MEMORIAL SUB-AWARD

 
 
 

Heck
By Zander Cannon
Published by Top Shelf Productions
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / ComiXology (iOS + Android)

If Hell is real, and it's as Dante described it in The Divine Comedy, then Zander Cannon is gong to the area reserved for deceivers.

Heck suckers readers into thinking it's going to be an adventure story, one that maybe would involve a few hijinks when the lead character, Hector "Heck" Hammarskjöld, and his assistant Elliot head through the door to Hell which Heck found in his father's old house and has parlayed into a business delivering messages to people's dead loved ones. Cannon, who has previously contributed artwork to Top 10 and some Tick comics, simplified his style considerably for this graphic novel, giving it what you might call the look of a gag strip. It couldn't be further from that, though.

This is a horror comic, in a very grown-up sense. It's all about the mistakes we carry around with us throughout our lives, and if we believe in eternal punishments, how they'll stay with us for eternity. It does an amazing job of investing the reader in Heck immediately. For characters who are rendered in such a stylized way, Heck and his sidekick Elliot are beautifully human. There's a scene where both of them are judged for their sins -- something that Heck forgets always happens to him when he visits Hell. It's extraordinarily powerful and sets up one of the big payoffs of the book. It also makes you marvel at how much you care about this cartoon adventurer and his little mummy friend.

Heck's enough to make a reader wonder about what they've done themselves. It's also about forgetting and how we often can only force ourselves to do challenging things by forgetting what they're really like. I'm still thinking about it, months after reading it. It spurred me to self-reflection. That's what great art does.

Matt Wilson

BEST COMICS ABOUT SQUADS ON SUICIDE MISSIONS

 
 
 

COPRA
By Michael Fiffe
Self-published
Available: Etsy (24-page print periodicals) / Bergen Street Comics (72-page compendiums)

In some ways, reading COPRA makes me mad. Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely love the series -- I’d argue it’s been the best monthly title in comics since its debut last year. But, if you’ve ever attempted to create your own comics, or worked in the industry in any fashion, COPRA is the kind of book that can leave you a little jealous. Written, illustrated, lettered and distributed by Michel Fiffe, COPRA is exactly what people are talking about when they use phrases like “pure comics.”

Ostensibly inspired by the work of John Ostrander, Kim Yale, Luke McDonnell and others on DC Comics' Suicide Squad in the 1980s, at this point Fiffe has outdone them, largely due to his diverse skill set as a storyteller. It feels like Fiffe can do whatever he wants with this comic, and with each issue you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes you get a beautiful double-page spread, the type of art that almost makes you feel like you’re falling into the world he’s created. Other times  you get a panel structure reminiscent of The Dark Knight Returns, using brilliant page layouts to convey action at a breakneck pace that’s also completely clear and fluid. On top of all that, Fiffe is writing a story that makes you care about these seemingly morally bankrupt villains you have absolutely no business rooting for. And as you read it, the whole time you’re sitting there thinking “How the f*** is he doing this?”

Because comics aren’t easy. We all know this. And yet, somehow, Fiffe makes you feel like they are, even if you’re fully aware how much time, effort, and sacrifice he’s put into this series, doing nearly everything on his own. The effort is all there on the page. It’s amazing to witness, and if you work in comics, it inspires you to be better, even while maybe sending you into a jealous rage for not being able to do what Fiffe’s doing each and every month. But mostly, you’re just really happy to have it -- each and every month.

COPRA is unquestionably a labor of love, and quite possibly the best monthly title currently being published. And it’s pure comics.

- Joseph Hughes

BEST SWEARING

 
 
 

Fury Max: My War Gone By
Artwork by Goran Parlov and Lee Loughridge with Dave Johnson
Written by Garth Ennis
Lettering by Rob Steen
Edited by Sebastian Girner
Published by MAX Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

"My name is Nick Fury. I've had a bullet in my head since 1944. I can't seem to die. Don't even age much. I fight and f*** like a goddamn demon. I lick up war like it was sugar. These are the things I've done for my country..."

For a character created in the midst of the Cold War, Nick Fury has spent a great deal of his five decades removed from the staredown that defined the latter half of the twentieth century. Garth Ennis sought to correct this oversight in this series, which quietly wrapped up this year after a startling 13-issue run that showed that when he cares about a character, very few creators can match him for casually insightful, witty writing. While Ennis's previous series featuring Fury showed him at the beginning and end of his career, Fury Max defines the character in the years before the formation of S.H.I.E.L.D, using America's imperial phase of foreign intervention as the setting, starting in a bar in Indochina and ending with a string of broken lives at the turn of the 21st century.

It's easy to focus on the writing, especially when it's such a big name telling a sprawling story, but a lot of credit must be given to Goran Parlov, Ennis's frequent Punisher Max collaborator. He's one of the most efficient storytellers in the business, with cartooning that balances the grotesque and humane perfectly. On any given Parlov page, a raise eyebrow or half-smile can have as great an impact on the reader as one of his bombastic combat sequences or gleeful moments of black comedy.

In a lot of ways, Fury Max serves as Garth Ennis's victory lap with his particular corner of the Marvel Universe, revisiting characters from previous series and shining a new light on events referred to only in passing before. I'd jokingly called this his American Tabloid in passing with someone and it was only later that I realized how true that was. Much like Ellroy's magnum opus, this series would feel masturbatory if it wasn't for the fact that it's so damn good.

- Kevin Church

BEST GOD COMIC

 
 
 

Thor: God Of Thunder
Artwork by Esad Ribic, Ron Garney, Dean White, Ive Svorcina, Nic Klein, Butch Guice, and Tom Palmer
Written by Jason Aaron
Lettering by Joe Sabino
Edited by Lauren Sankovitch, Jake Thomas and Jon Moisan
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Marvel (iOS + Android + Web + etc.)

The great thing about Thor is that he travels anywhere. A Viking god adapted into a superhero, he fits easily into so many different types of stories: traditional superhero yarns, cosmic adventures and space epics, sword and sorcery-style fantasy, mythsploitation, whatever. He’s the Swiss Army knife of the Marvel universe, and throughout the years there have been a lot of stories that focused on various aspects of the character.

Thor: God of Thunder is hitting them all at once. With berserker Jason Aaron at the helm, all the different Thors have become one. In the time-travelling “Godbomb” storyline, Aaron and artist Esad Ribic showed Thor not only at different ages, but in different modes: the young Thor is a sword-and-sorcery adventurer, middle-aged Thor the Avenger is a superhero, and the elderly Thor is like more like something out of cosmic sci-fi. It’s practically a mission statement, a declaration that Thor would be all these things at once, that God of Thunder would go everywhere allowed. In just fifteen issues, it’s already been all over the map.

“Godbomb” combined the cosmic and mythic into a sci-fi epic about belief, an opening salvo of such intense action and massive ideas that it redefined the meaning of gnar. Aaron and Nic Klein then followed up with “Once Upon a Time in Midgard,” a single-issue story about Thor’s relationship with Midgard (Earth) and his role as an object of belief. Take out the parts about hammers and drinking, and it’s the best Superman story in years.

Now, in “The Accursed,” Thor and his band of brave companions -- which includes elves, a dwarf, a giant and a troll -- smite foes and build experience points as they trek through the Nine Realms after the resurrected-in-time-for-the-movie Malekith. Aaron and Ron Garney are in full Dungeons & Dragons mode, adhering to the traditions of the fantasy genre while upending them in an adventure equal parts parody and reverence that has you reaching for Sabbath before you know it.

Aaron and company have hinted at something big, a dark epic foreshadowed on the last page of “Once Upon a Time in Midgard,” and there’s no telling how they will get there. Superhero stories, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever they’re in the mood for. Genre is wide open, and Thor is whatever kind of god they want him to be.

- John Parker

BEST MEMOIR CONFINED TO THE GENERAL KITCHEN AREA

 
 
 

Relish my life in the kitchenRelish: My Life in the Kitchen
By Lucy Knisley
Published by First Second
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle)

I've been borrowing a friend's copy of Relish for going on two months now. Ostensibly, I still have it to better pen this recommendation, and that's not a complete lie -- I totally just glanced through it to remember the points I wanted to make here. But I've also re-read it, re-skimmed it, tried out some of its recipes, and read passages of it to my boyfriend. After a month, I probably could have given it back and written this without problem. I don't want to give it back, though. I want to keep it on my coffee table, where I can open to a new recipe, or skim a sunny page or two about Mexican candy, or fine cheese, or the particular pleasure of a fast food french fry. I don't want to let go of it until I can guarantee a copy of my own.

Relish is about Lucy Knisley's relationship to food, and relatedly, her relationship to her family and herself. It's a loose story, a collection of memories, really, knitted together by food. It did what all good memoirs do in that it told a life story and made even the seemingly mundane interesting and emotional. But it became a great memoir when it brought forth my own memories, enriching the book itself and my own relationship to food. Our lives are vastly different, but in Knisley's time at college, her relationship to her mother, and her teenage petulance, I saw my own.

Beyond this, the book is a sensual delight. Knisley gets right to the heart of what makes things delicious, delineating carefully between delicate chocolate tea cookies and dense cocoa bourbon balls, a pungent blue cheese and an aged cheddar. Read it, enjoy it, try out some of the included recipes, lend it to your friends. Though I speak from experience when I say that you might not get it back.

- Juliet Kahn

MOST DELIGHTSOME AGONY

 
 
 

St. Owl's Bay (Wet Swords) & Life Zone
By Simon Hanselmann
Published, respectively, by Floating World Comics and Space Face Books
Available: Floating World (print) / Space Face (print)

It is, of course, an old and loathsome cliché for the stuck-up critic -- so ideologically bound by their blinkered self-regard that they couldn't spot an honest joke if it farted into their mouth -- to praise comedy exclusively for its "serious" character, so let me state up front that these are two very funny comics, full of trash-talking and loud, nasty slapstick and public intoxication and all the general bad behavior that promotes fine mirth, even if, subtly, in the back of your mind, you understand that these people are often completely horrible to one another. And that, naturally, is the key.

I would call Simon Hanselmann a moralist, but the connotation behind that term suggests a pedagogical character: the moralist, as typically understood, provides instruction for the life of virtue. Hanselmann, instead, is fascinated with interpersonal morality, particularly in the spaces where it breaks apart. There are four primary characters in his comics: Meg, a melancholic cartoon witch whose eagerness to escape her anxieties often overrides her better judgment; Mogg, her cat familiar/lover who gets what he wants and hopes everything thereafter will stay the same; Owl, a nervous wreck whose nerdy sense of superiority masks boiling rage and resentment; and Werewolf Jones, a drug-addled party monster who's funny and decisive in the ways assholes often are. Together, they reinforce a uniquely abusive sense of society; one begins to suspect they're frantically justifying the better qualities of one another to avoid admitting that without such crappy friends, they'd be utterly alone, which would be even worse.

To repeat, though: Hanselmann is very good at mean comedy, and these two recent books have sweetened the deal by celebrating the artist's maturation into a very slick and pleasing stylist -- the facial expressions in particular are excellent, as is Hanselmann's aggressive usage of 12- or 20-panel grids, any deviations therefrom thus imbued with special meaning, a la Watchmen. I'd recommend starting with the more recent Life Zone, a 64-page package of four stories that casually inform one another; while Owl may seem like a victim when his irresponsible crew ruins his job and his life, elsewhere we see him emotionally manipulate a girlfriend into sex. “One more year,” a teen Meg whispers toward the end of high school, only to repeat the line in another story, as an adult, now seized with a perpetual adolescence she doesn't entirely want to escape.

St. Owl's Bay, then, is a punctuation mark: a huge 15” x 22” newsprint comic documenting an ill-fated camping trip across eight full pages. Someone inserts his penis into someone else's ear and a small dog is (maybe) killed, but the friends still stick together, both out of a sense of resistance to an also-vulgar wider society, and maybe just for the soothing effect of proper self-pity. “We all deserve a treat,” Meg intones at the very end, having done absolutely nothing to earn any reward, but it's Hanselmann's talent that the humor of the panel betrays a certain vulnerability. Rudeness is the pleasure, yes, and also the pain.

- Joe McCulloch

BEST DEPICTION OF AN UNDEAD THUMB-WAR

 
 
 

Planet Zombo
Artwork by Henry Flint
Written by Al Ewing
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Edited by Matt Smith
Published by 2000 AD
Available:  Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print)

The latest Zombo installment from Al Ewing and Henry flint starts off with the caption, “Meanwhile, on Panther Skull Mountain” and then just gets crazier from there. Sorry, other comics, you lose this round to the strip about a cadaverous, crime-fighting hero with aspirations in musical theatre.

Originally serialized in the 2000 A.D. anthology Zombo is a comic that has always crackled with an intensity that keeps you turning pages, but the “Planet Zombo” story ratchets up the bonkers until you’re left wondering just how much crazier this whole thing can get -- and then there’s a Kirby-esque cosmic thumb-war and you know that this is something special. Collected in this year’s You Smell of Crime & I’m the Deodorant and 2010’s Can I Eat You, Please?, the story finds the titular character shambling through encounters with reality TV show contestants, Donald Trump, YouTube suicide gangs, bombastic Kirby-speak, swarms of zombie bees (you know, “zom-bees”), space rednecks, and the still-living disembodied heads of theme park magnates who are not at all Walt Disney no sireee, all with a sort of childlike politeness and curiosity that belies his deadly nature.

“Planet Zombo” takes all of that and builds on it in a way that is undoubtedly hilarious, but also manages to take all of the crazy bits that preceded it and molds them into a workable, continuing concept. This comic's not dissimilar from Venture Bros. in that regard. Both started off as gag concepts that slowly evolved their characters and sophistication as they’ve progressed. Reading all of the stories at once, you see how both Ewing and Flint have progressed as well, with “Planet Zombo” showcasing Ewing’s ability to create crazy characters that are still relatable, melding perfectly with Flint’s Brendan McCarthy-meets-Ronin-era-Frank Miller artwork.

This is not to say it’s subtle; because hoo-boy, it is most assuredly not. There’s Fantastic Four analogues and laser swords and Beatles jokes and surprise falcons and a pacifist padre who renounces renouncing war and a death world piloted by not-Walt-Disney and his henchman, not-Simon-Cowell. Flint’s talent can’t be oversold, with You Smell of Crime being the most beautifully ugly comic out this year that wasn’t authored by Michael Deforge. And Ewing’s writing is whip-smart, bending the story momentum into impossible shapes that somehow never seem to break as it rolls along. If you’ve recently picked up his excellent A.U. (maybe the best part of) Age of Ultron issues, or if you’ve been wowed by his debut arc of Mighty Avengers, this, along with 2000 AD’s fantastic Trifecta (also containing work from Ewing and Flint) is a great place to start digging into his work. You won’t be disappointed.

- Dylan Todd

LICENSED CARTOON BOOK SO AS-GOOD-AS-THE-SOURCE THAT YOU ACTUALLY FORGET IF A STORY YOU DUG WAS FROM THE COMIC OR FROM THE SHOW

 
 
 

Adventure Time
Artwork by Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline
Written by Ryan North
Edited by Shannon Watters and Whitney Leopard
Published by kaboom!
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Every time a licensed comic book gets announced the first thing fans want to know is "What's the deal with the continuity? Is this canonical or what?" Licensors usually wring their hands as a single bead of sweat rolls down their foreheads and respond in generalities, careful not to paint their potentially profitable endeavor into a corner from which there is no escape from the ebola-laced daggers of fan scrutiny.

Things have gone quite differently with Adventure Time.

Over the past two years BOOM! Studios' all-ages kaboom! imprint has gone bananas with Pendleton Ward's Cartoon Network hit show by hiring respected talent from webcomics and beyond to tell reverent stories that can truly be read independently of their source material, while simultaneously acting as a monthly supplement of AT goodness.

Over the course of 22 and counting issues, Ryan North and the art team of Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb alternate between snappy multi-issue arcs and standalone tales that come coupled with anthology style shorts. The comic's been strong out of the gate, earning a spot on our "Best Of" list in 2012, and it continued to grow in 2013 with dynamic stories and art styles that earned the book and its creative team multiple Eisner Awards.

The purest compliment I can give the book is that I -- for the first time in a lifetime reading licensed comics -- remembered its two-part storyline spanning issues #13 and #14 as an episode of the cartoon. At one point I wanted to "rewatch" it and I scanned my episodes for a solid half hour in an attempt to see Finn, Jake and Marceline escape a virtual world ruled by the digital consciousness of a lost soul from the pre-apocalypse, only to remember that it happened in the pages of the comic. This year North, Paroline and Lamb -- along with the rest of the creators working on the series' multiple miniseries and short stories -- cemented Adventure Time's place in the medium, and they made it look like it was always meant to be.

- Caleb Goellner

MOST HIGHLY DUBIOUS MARVEL CONCEPT THAT ACTUALLY TURNED OUT REALLY, REALLY GOOD (X-MEN GROUP)

 
 
 

All-New X-Men
Artwork by Stuart Immonen, David Marquez, David Lafuente, Brandon Peterson, Wade von Grawbadger, Craig S. Yeung, Marte Gracia, Jason Keith, Rain Beredo, Jim Campbell and Izrael Silva
Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Lettering by Cory Petit
Edited by Nick Lowe, Jordan D. White and Xander Jarowey
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) /  Marvel (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

A story about the original X-Men plucked out of time and dropped into the present alongside the current versions of the characters sounds like a confusing and self-indulgent idea, even in the hands of a talented writer like Brian Michael Bendis. Considering Bendis had never shown much interest in Marvel's mutants, and had just come off a thin and anticlimactic run with the Avengers franchise, All-New X-Men didn't seem like a book I'd want to follow.

It turns out I was wrong. All-New X-Men is a hugely enjoyable series that plays to Bendis's strengths. He's a character writer, and the X-Men have long been a soap opera serial. The time travel conceit is an irritating wrinkle in the X-Men's already overcomplicated history, but it's created a new set of dynamics that Bendis delights in exploring. There's not a lot of action in All-New X-Men, but Bendis keeps finding fascinating ways to stir the pot.

The art of Stuart Immonen helps enormously, of course. This is a talking heads comic, a daunting challenge for most superhero artists. Immonen's gifts for composition and character place him comfortably ahead of most superhero artists, and breathes life into the page. Immonen was always the reason to pick up this book; the surprise that it's an entertaining story was a good reason to stay.

- Andrew Wheeler

BEST REVIVAL OF A SERIES THAT WAS ALREADY PRETTY MUCH PERFECT

 
 
 

Astro City
Artwork by Brent Anderson, Alex Sinclair and Wendy Broome with Alex Ross
Written by Kurt Busiek
Lettering and design by James Betancourt and JG Roshell
Edited by Kristy Quinn and Jessica Chen
Published by Vertigo
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (hardcover pre-order) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

I really didn't realize how much I missed Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City until we got it back this year, and I wondered how I ever lived without it. After a couple of miniseries about the rocky times of the 1970s, the long-running Astro City was effectively dormant for almost six years. What's amazing is the how the 2013 Vertigo revival of the series has been so clearly a love letter to superheroes. After taking readers through a literal dark age with its last arc, the creative team re-emerged at a publisher known for its darker, moodier storytelling with some of the brightest, most optimistic stories you could imagine.

Take the second arc of the new volume, for example. In a very real way, it's a story about a mistake -- one that could incur some heavy costs, both for the protagonist, government employee Marella, and for the citizens of a small town in Ecuador. But rather than wallow in her error (she certainly worries, but it falls short of full-on angst), Marella works tirelessly to make amends before discovering that she's not alone in her endeavors to help people. It's a story about what it is to be human, in that we all do things we regret, what it means to be a superhero, and how sometimes humans can be superheroic themselves. It's beautiful and uplifting in a way that doesn't descend into sappiness.

It's hard to describe the feeling I feel when I hit the last page of an Astro City comic. The only way I can really describe it, is that I remember why I love comic books. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's love letter may be one directly from them to the creators who forged comics' Silver Age, but I'll certainly sign the card.

- Matt D. Wilson

MOST UNPREDICTABLE AND UNCANNY AND UNCATEGORIZABLE COMIC

 
 
 

the wake snyder murphy vertigoThe Wake
Artwork by Sean Gordon Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth
Written by Scott Snyder
Lettered by Jared K. Fletcher
Edited by Mark Doyle and Sara Miller
Published by Vertigo
Available: Comics shops (print) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android)

Each time I picked up an issue of The Wake -- five came out this year -- I reached a point where I said to myself, "Oh, I see where this is going now." Then it didn't do that at all. Or it did what I expected way, way ahead of when I expected it to happen. I thought it was underwater Alien (that reduces it down considerably, but I'll use it for the sake of description). Then it was underwater Aliens. Then it was... underwater something I can't even describe.

But I have to! The Wake is a comic about a hidden horror under the ocean. But it's like a living creature that grows and evolves into something much more complex. It's a comic about a scientist named Lee Archer; it's also kind of like a science project. There's so much discovery for the reader.

It's a book that is shockingly propulsive. When issue #5 ended, my jaw dropped open with how much of a left turn it took. The Wake is going to look markedly different in 2014 than it did in 2013. It's like it's got its own sequel built in. And yet, it all fits together. Scott Snyder's been experimenting with disjointed storytelling all year, but I think he's pulled it off most successfully with this Vertigo series.

I can't think of a more perfect artist to bring Snyder's scripts to life than Sean Murphy. Much like the series itself, Murphy melds intense detail and beautiful abstraction all at once. The Wake is such personal story, and yet it's as broad of a story as you could imagine. It's a riddle. And it keeps changing the rules. I love it.

- Matt D. Wilson

BEST IN-YOUR-FACE TO OPPONENTS OF ALL-AGES COMICS

 
 
 

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Artwork by Andy Price, Amy Mebberson, Stephanie Buscema, Tony Fleecs, Brenda Hickey, Sabrina Alberghetti, Sara Richard and Heather Breckel
Written by Katie Cook and Heather Nuhfer
Lettering by Neil Uyetake
Edited by Bobby Curnow
Published by IDW Publishing
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / IDW (iOS + Android)

The core My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic series is endlessly delightful. Every creator who touches the book does so with a clear understanding of the style and spirit of the popular and acclaimed animated series. The stories manage to hold up well enough for adults (that oft-discussed "Brony" market being, of course, important to the franchise) but more importantly are also accessible and fun for kids. As such, MLP: FIM manages to do what many comics publishers wish they could do with all of their books: it hits both a market that is already reading comics and interested in things like variant covers and a market that is interested in the characters but isn’t regularly reading comics.

To really understand why My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is one of the strongest franchises of 2013, you need only look at the IDW Kids Comics panel at San Diego Comic-Con this past summer. The panel's audience was full of enthusiastic kids who cheered and jumped up and down when their favorite ponies were mentioned, or the creators of the book talked about their work.

The cartoon has not just launched one successful comic book series, it’s launched a booming business for publisher IDW that includes multiple series and one-shots as well as the innovative Micro Fun Packs (mini comics + stickers + posters packed together in a blind pack). The sale of the Micro Fun Packs at retailers like Target and Walmart will bring the comics to a whole new audience beyond the people already reading, and those who already shop at comic book specialty shops.

The franchise is strong and is around to stay, providing its comics publisher with solid sales and a fan base that's a mix of new and returning readers.  Basically, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is what DC’s New 52 should have been.

- Janelle Asselin 

MOST EXHILARATINGLY BLEAK EXPRESSION OF HOPELESS DESPAIR, ENDLESS SUFFERING AND INEVITABLE DOOM

 
 
 

East Of West
Artwork by Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin
Written and designed by Jonathan Hickman
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Image (DRM-free digital) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

In East of West, a celestial event brings the American Civil War to a close that’s markedly different from what occurred in our history. What's left of the United States becomes a new entity known as the Seven Nations of America. Cut to 2064. World culture and technology has progressed in such a way that allows artist Nick Dragotta and colorist Frank Martin to create lots of cool looking stuff like four-legged robotic steeds and scary, violent dudes wearing badass dystopian fashions.

Superficially the book delivers what Hickman fans have come to expect from the prolific writer/designer -- there’s ancient prophecies, there’s warring kingdoms, there’s mysterious future-tech, and there’s the characteristically slick iconography -- but what’s truly remarkable about this addictive page-turner is the sense of dread that pervades every panel. It’s one thing to throw in a reference to Famine, War, Conquest and Death and call your comic dark, but it’s another to see the horsemen of the apocalypse claw their way out of the ground in a mess of bones, guts and metal, take off across techno-tinged plains with a course set for the for the White House (or White Tower), murder their way through the Presidential line of succession, all because of some assuredly nasty thing that traces all the way back to the bloodiest days in American history.

East of West embraces the apocalyptic tone that most end-of-the-world comics use as window dressing, immersing the reader so fully that you might think the comic itself were actually literature from a seductive doom cult. Along those lines, the narrative of the book comes with frequent interludes dedicated to all-white pages featuring minimalist yet decidedly menacing design elements and soul-crushing text like "The things that divide us are stronger than the things that unite us" and "We would tell you to pray but it wouldn't do you any good" and "You have earned what is coming to you." The grim propaganda compliments the expansive and variously lavish and bleak vistas created by Dragotta and Martin, connecting you to the dark world of this book and its increasingly peculiar characters -- antiheroes and villains every one, each on their own desperate race into or away from oblivion. Primary among them is Death personified in a man wearing a white suit and carrying a couple of guns, a heartbroken and relentless force of nature seeking furious vengeance on life itself.

These are the kinds of big, mythical concepts that Hickman likes to play with in a lot of his work, and he’s known to plot his epic adventure stories with the precision of a scientist. But the inherent wildness of the western, the danger and dread that is built into this genre, have given him and Dragotta a dramatic filter that both loosens up East of West and provides us with the writer’s most visceral work to date.

- Andy Khouri

BEST COMIC TO READ ALONE IN THE DARK

 
 
 

Out Of Skin
By Emily Carroll
Self-published free webcomic 

I imagine Emily Carroll lugging her cauldron to some dim moor, simmering a pungent brew of virgin's blood and snake scales, then pulling a new comic from the shimmering slop, fully formed. Probably I am wrong. Probably she is just a tremendously gifted creator, one who gets horror in a rare and potent way. Her previous work -- His Face All Red and Margot's Room especially -- is testament to this. But Out of Skin makes me wonder all over again if there's not just a little magic in her.

Out of Skin is sublime. It's an encapsulation of everything Carroll excels at, everything that makes her comics slither into my bones and stay there. The setting is rustic, yet menacing. The gore is terrifying, yet subversive. Her use of color evokes violence, passion, and solitude, sometimes simultaneously. I've read way too many comics that purport to be modern fairy tales, each one SHOCKING and DARK and CREEPY. Out of Skin actually is, in large part because it understands the power of simplicity. It understands why we fear isolation and vengeance and the deep dark woods and presents them to us in their most basic, powerful forms. Carroll uses a mere handful of pages telling a story about a woman, some corpses, and a man -- yet it is truly dark.

Read it, shiver, then dive into the rest of her work, and join me in longing for a black-leather-bound Complete Emily Carroll Horror Stories collection.

- Juliet Kahn

TEEN CHOICE AWARD

 
 
 

Young Avengers
Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Matt Wilson, Kate Brown, Kris Anka and Stephen Thompson
Written by Kieron Gillen
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Edited by Lauren Sankovitch, Jake Thomas and Jon Moisan
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Marvel (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

When I wrote recently in defense of the first issue relaunch and the season-based approach to superhero comics, Young Avengers was very much at the forefront of my thoughts. With their one-year, fifteen-issue run, creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have shown us how it's done. This is work-for-hire comic as authorial vision. This is an idea realized and a story delivered. It's confident comics.

That confidence is there in the construction of the story -- a gloriously indulgent on-the-nose exploration of teen self-realization through heroism -- and in the arc of the characters' lives. It's there in the art, created almost studio-style in close collaboration with Mike Norton, Matthew Wilson and others, which led to some of the most inventive page layouts seen in a Marvel comic -- and fifteen issues in a single year. (A share of the credit for that also goes to guest artist Kate Brown and the multiple guest artists on the forthcoming final two issues.)

And it's there in the casting of the book, which sometimes gets a little overlooked, but it's something that matters a great deal to me. Young Avengers has always been a queer-inclusive title, with gay hero Billy Kaplan/Wiccan at its heart. He only ever got one kiss before this volume. Gillen and McKelvie, supported by editor Lauren Sankovitch, did more than any previous mainstream superhero comic I can think of to normalize that which is normal, the love and affection between two gay teens. The book also established America Chavez as one of the coolest (and best-dressed) new heroes around, and Prodigy as that rarest of things in fiction, a bisexual male.

I should disclose that I've known Gillen and McKelvie for a long time. I don't write to praise them here because they're my friends, but because after the work they've done in Young Avengers, I can boast that they're my friends.

(Prior to this, it was always a little embarrassing.)

- Andrew Wheeler

BEST BASKETBALL WIZARDRY MASHUP COMIC

 
 
 

fantasy basketball sam bosmaFantasy Basketball
By Sam Bosma
Self-published
Available: Big Cartel (print) / Gumroad (PDF)

There’s something to be said for a comic that does exactly what it says on the cover, and Sam Bosma’s Fantasy Basketball definitely contains both of the things in that title. With art that looks like a cross between Miyazaki and Hugo Pratt and a plot that combines the zaniness of an episode (or issue) of Adventure Time with the excitement of a volume of Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk manga, Bosma tells the story of a pair of dungeon-crawling treasure-hunters who awaken an ancient wizard who, it turns out, will give them his treasure... if they can defeat him in a one-on basketball game. Let me repeat that in case you missed it: this is a comic where Dungeons & Dragons characters play magic basketball against a wizard who is also a mummy.

It’s a light story, but it’s masterfully told, with fun, perfectly-designed characters, great dialog, and flat-out fantastic cartooning. If you don’t find yourself cheering (or at the very least, grinning) by the end of this thing, then you should probably go get one of those Blade Runner tests done on you because you are probably a Replicant.

- Dylan Todd

BEST “CLASSY” PROJECT BY A DEDICATED HELL-RAISER THAT ACTUALLY PUTS THE REST OF THEIR BODY OF WORK INTO EXCELLENT PERSPECTIVE

 
 
 

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island
By Suehiro Maruo
Published by Last Gasp
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Last Gasp (print)

Now, I'm not saying this is a PG-13 book or anything -- there's still penetrative sex depicted on-panel-- but for those of us reared on the forbidden fruits of Ultra-Gash Inferno, our first impression might be that Japan's undisputed ero-guro impresario has gone a little soft in vaulting the peak of middle-age. I mean, nobody hides in a toilet in this comic! Not a single child is bludgeoned to death and then fed to his unwitting mother! I scanned every panel twice, and nobody even licks somebody's eyeball, which is like seeing a Howard Chaykin comic devoid of fishnet stockings -- what, pray tell, is the point?

Of course, we ask this question of Suehiro Maruo because, unlike some practitioners of the manga dark arts, he does, generally, have a motive in mind. Like an evil Chris Ware, the design-capable Maruo adores the aesthetics of a bygone era, but insists the objects of his affection draw unmistakable attention to the cultural context surrounding them: Japan's heightened militarization in the early Shōwa period, which lead to tremendous crimes of violence and untold suffering in the aftermath of WWII. Often, Mauro's comics toast the most wicked characters conceivable, because they are the least hypocritical avatars for an abusive age. It's punk, insofar as it spits in the face of valuing tradition, though the peril remains that readers might miss such deeper implications and merely embrace such work as neo-fascist delights.

But all is asked and answered in Panorama Island, adapted from a story by revered mystery author Edogawa Rampo, who lived and worked smack in the era of Maruo's interest. The story concerns an author who decides to live his deranged fantasies by stealing the identity of a recently-departed, super-rich doppelgänger, seducing the man's doomed, passive wife (as: the Soul of Japan), and directing all economic guns toward the erection of a mighty island of fake luxury, a walled garden that only seems to extend forever, where everyone's life is great and the fun and indulgence never end -- until, inevitably, they do, and blood verily rains from the skies.

All the while, Maruo's storytelling becomes more and more obsessive, segueing from the whistle-clean storytelling of the book's first 3/5s into an extended, narrated tour of the island itself, nearly 100 pages that ultimately fragment into disassociated images of pleasure, as if the very mission of society has become lost with the plot. Do you think your nation will prosper forever? Do you think you'll have it better than your parents? This is a book that slams into a brick wall at the end, as if its author had run out of space -- but for once, it's the characters' own bloody fault.

- Joe McCulloch

BEST X-RATED SCI-FI DRAMEDY

 
 
 

Saga
Artwork by Fiona Staples
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Lettering and design by Fonografiks
Coordination by Eric Stephenson
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Image (DRM-free digital) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Look, everybody knows how good Saga is. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve seen it on every best-of list in the world for the last two years, and you know it won a bunch of awards. You might even be getting sick of hearing about it.

Too bad.

The reason Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples get so many accolades is because, for a sci-fi/fantasy, Saga is super-f***ing real. The story of deserters from opposite sides of an interplanetary war who fall in love and have a child, Saga is at its core about the complex nature of family, and it gets it exactly right. Character interaction is what drives the book, and it’s as messy, unpredictable, and emotionally charged as this year's Thanksgiving.

Vaughan has written some very strong characters over the last decade, but in Saga he surpasses himself. These characters are contradictory and surprising, possessing relatable hopes and fears and dealing with common problems. Marko and Alanna have to worry about the Robot Monarchy and spacefaring freelancers coming to kill them for the crime of leaving their warring cultures and having a half-breed baby together, but they also have to change little Hazel’s diaper, find jobs, deal with a crazy ex and get past a death in the family. Even the robot coming to kill them has a pregnant wife and PTSD, and the freelancer has a dead girlfriend giving him trouble. Indeed, despite their enormous wings or horns or cyclops eyes, these characters are convincingly human, with flaws and perspectives that make even the bad guys sympathetic.

Fiona Staples captures the contrast between the fantastic and mundane with increasingly perfect balance. Her style is reminiscent of animation, with clear pen-and-ink figures over beautifully-colored backgrounds that are occasionally ornate but never cluttered. She excels at xenoanthropology, and her characters can be weird and otherworldly, but given facial expressions and body language that convey the common emotions beneath the fantastic exteriors. You could say her specialty is mixing in the commonplace with the extraordinary -- there are space ships made out of trees and fields of living bones, sure, but  Saga's also got washing machines, coffee pots, and capri pants, none of which ever seem out-of-place or anachronistic.

Saga is about war, peace, love, and rebellion, filled with dramatic action and heart-wrenching twists. But it’s also about people just trying to live their lives. In a book full with magic rings, laser pistols, spider creatures, talking cats, and enormous ball sacks, the most surprising thing about every issue remains just how real all of these characters are, and how badly you want to revisit them when you put the book down.

- John Parker

BEST GORGEOUSLY ILLUSTRATED COMIC THAT YOU COULD STILL CONCEIVABLY MISTAKE FOR AN OLD TIMEY RADIO DRAMA

 
 
 

Black Beetle: No Way Out
By Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Nate Piekos
Designed by Justin Cough and Francesco Francavilla
Edited by Jim Gibbons
Published by Dark Horse
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Dark Horse (iOS + Android + Web)

To call a comic by Francesco Francavillia "atmospheric" is an exercise in redundancy. Francavilla is an artist who exudes atmosphere like he can't even help it. But the masked crime fighter mystery comic Black Beetle: No Way Out does such a particularly astonishing job of establishing an atmosphere and a mood that it deserves some sort of special recognition. It is without a doubt a pulp story, but even more, it's a comics adaptation of a radio serial that never existed. It's what one would imagine kids in the 1930s would see in their heads if they were listening to this audio drama that Francavilla has thought up and drawn for us.

That idea is bolstered by Francavilla not being afraid to replace "realistic" storytelling --whatever that is -- with abstractions, like a limited color palette and crazy puzzle backgrounds. It's the product of an imagination truly run wild, and that makes it infinitely exciting. Rather than simply waiting for the next story turn (though those are quite good, too, especially the mystery Francavilla builds up around the big bad of the series, Labyrinto), readers also have the pleasure of trying to figure out how Francavilla will visualize that next twist. Everything about the series kept me guessing. I imagine that's what kids who gathered around the radio to hear about the Shadow or Speed Gibson felt, too.

- Matt D. Wilson

THE 2013 KYOKO OKAZAKI AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN KYOKO OKAZAKI

 
 
 

pink
By Kyoko Okazaki
Published by Vertical
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print)

Seemingly every year, a heretofore obscure artist from outside of English-dominant environs suddenly lunges into perspective; for a while, they're all a certain breed of reader can talk about, and then, sometimes, they vanish. The peril of this setup is that the works selected for translation are often either the most famous of the artist's books or those deemed most digestible for provincial bellies. It's rare to get any sense of artistic evolution, by which you can witness the development of the author's skill and obsessions.

This year, however, the specialists at Vertical have presented a uniquely broad view of Kyoko Okazaki, one of the pioneers of Japanese comics for adult women. Having debuted in erotic magazines in the early '80s, Okazaki's reputation was sealed by the end of the decade with pink, a gleefully ambivalent romance comic serving up bubble economy-period ultra-materialism as chased by Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The heroine is both an office lady and a prostitute, all in the service of an eyeglasses-wearing crocodile she keeps in her apartment -- but while you might mistake the beast for Capitalism, it is better understood as Autonomy. Money can't buy you happiness, but buying things can earn a woman quite a bit of independence in a stifling, patriarchal society, and Okazaki is not so doctrinal that she can deny the aspirational quality of massive consumption. Shots are fired left and right at pretension, decorum, art, intellect and family values; it's all rather punk, yet also obsessed with giddy, poppy cuteness -- up to and including Disney Princesses, let it be known -- until smashing headlong into a riotously melodramatic finale that flashes a good hard sneer at wishes and dreams and happy endings and all that silly junk.

Seven years later, Okazaki was struck by a vehicle, gravely injuring her body and effectively ending her career. Her final longform work, Helter Skelter, nonetheless reprises several of the motifs glimpsed in pink: again, we have a beauty-minded protagonist performing sex work and "acceptable" labor, and, again, we have a wicked stepmother mirror-mirroring over the ephemeral nature of attraction. But this is an altogether more furious work, pitching allegorical magic and screaming fits alike at a volume worthy of filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski. Having replaced everything in her body save for the bones with advanced super-science, model Liliko's flesh and sanity begin to rot as she faces the impossible blankness of irrelevance. There's a caddish lover, a fickle media, and all the other basics of your generic fall-from-grace narrative, but vivified so damn much that the obligatory naïve assistant is put into Liliko's sexual service by chapter two, only to find herself and her doofus boyfriend splashing acid into the face of rivals on darkened streets. Also: numerous gory suicides, a Greek chorus of loopy schoolgirls, and an Agent Dale Cooper type who escorts the climax into a veritable Black Lodge of mythical allusions, in which the heroine may or may not transcend the physical realm, but certainly shucks off the chains of societal expectations.

It's almost too much, but not nearly enough! What a strange, fully-formed point of view we can now enjoy; let's hope there's more detail to be added in the future.

- Joe McCulloch

BEST UNWIELDY KICKSTARTER ANTHOLOGY COMIC

 
 
 

Bad Karma
Artwork by Jeremy Haun, John Rauch, Mike Tisserand, Zac Atkinson, Phil Hester, Nick Filardi, Christopher Mitten, Tight Walker, Jonathan Hickman and others
Written by Jeremy Haun, Alex Grecian, B. Clay Moore, Seth Peck and others
Published by Bad Karma Creative
Available: Shopify (print)

A group of creators getting together to create a large-scale project that allows them to do their own things individually as well as collaborate on world-building. That could be the first part of a sad story about how a group of creators all turned on each other or, worse, created a bunch of crap. In the case of Bad Karma, the comic book collection and writing collective made up of Alex Grecian, Jeremy Haun, B. Clay Moore, and Seth Peck, the final product is gorgeous and the experience was apparently so enjoyable for all that they’re already working on a second volume of this 200-page graphic novel anthology of comics, prose and illustration.

Featuring stories about detectives with time machines, battles between agents of chaos and order, prohibition era crime, and cops chasing monsters and past-life regression, mysteries abound in Bad Karma. Answers are few and far between, but almost all of the stories are enjoyable either despite or because of that fact. The dark sci-fi tone of the entire book works really well, with each story taking its own approach to this strange world and playing with genre conventions in its own way. The writing throughout is particularly strong, which is no surprise given that it was produced by a writing collective, and in general the art is very good as well. Interestingly, the lettering stands out as particularly well done despite most of the stories having their own font, caption, and balloon style. Most impressively, Haun’s art on “The 9th Life of Solomon Gunn" stands out as some of the best of his entire career; Tigh Walker’s art for Peck’s “Hellbent” has the perfect amount of swagger that’s needed for the story of a brawling cop; and Moore’s “Old Dog” is a beautifully crafted tale of noir. And all of these great comics are printed on high-quality paper and packaged in a lovely slip-cased hardcover.

Bad Karma is a beautiful representation of collaboration at its best. It would not at all be surprising to see more and more creators getting together for similar collaborations. It will take a lot of skill and hard work to top what the Bad Karma team has put together, though.

- Janelle Aselin

MOST EFFECTIVELY ASKEW PHYSICAL SIZE: EMOTIONAL IMPACT RATIO

 
 
 

The End of the F***ing World
By Charles Forsman
Published by Fantagraphics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Fantagraphics (print)

TEOTFW is the story of James and Alyssa, two disenfranchised and disturbed teenagers, in love and on the run. At first, they’re simply running from their seemingly mundane suburban existence and the abusive, disinterested adults in their lives. But as the violent, emotionally detached James’ actions become more extreme, they’re running from much more than that. And through it all, Alyssa stays with him.  “I think I love him. The boy needs someone,” she says. She isn’t wrong.

Anything you’ve read about TEOTFW being a marriage of Terrence Malick's Badlands and Charles Schulz's Peanuts is true, but it’s more than that. If anything, Forsman’s brilliant minicomic -- measuring just 6.5" x 5" and published earlier this year by Fantagraphics -- may be an exploration, albeit on the extreme end, of what can happen to odd, isolated, and depressed kids like Charlie Brown when they grow up. With a clear, minimalist, but nonetheless arresting storytelling style, TEOTFW isn’t just the best minicomic of 2013. It might just be the best crime story and, with its fast paced action scenes and powerful cliffhangers, one of the better action stories the medium had to offer all year. An unflinchingly dark and brutally honest work, TEOTFW represents the very best of what comics can be.

- Joseph Hughes

BEST ZOMBIE EXPLOITATION COMIC THAT'S ALSO THE LOGICAL NEXT STEP IN ITS PUBLISHER'S IMPRESSIVE CREATIVE EVOLUTION

 
 
 

Afterlife With Archie
Artwork by Francesco Francavilla
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa
Lettering by John Morelli
Published by Archie Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

"Archie... but with zombies" is an idea so simple that I'm surprised it took this long to happen. It was all but inevitable, and looking back, it's one of those eyebrow-raising premises that, when you really think about it, makes perfect sense. I've written before about how it works so well because Riverdale's favorite teens fit into those same archetypes that you'll find in the cast of characters that shows up in basically every horror movie, from the noble (yet hapless) lead to the nice girl to the mean girl and all the way down to the best friend that has to go first. Even the beats are the same. Comedy and horror are, after all, two genres that go hand-in-hand with how they're structured, with each being built around trying to shock and surprise the audience with the unexpected, even while it's laying the payoff for the next gag. That's probably why so many of the scary moments of Afterlife With Archie feel like jokes, and why so many of the jokes get laughs by being played as absolutely serious drama.

Because it all seems so obvious and so natural, it's easy to think that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla have had an easy job making it, but actually reading through this thing will dispel that assumption toute de suite. As natural as it might feel, that balance doesn't happen by accident. It could easily have slipped into something that's grotesque simply for the sake of grotesquerie, something that happens a lot in comics, but Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla both make it work in a way that seems effortless. Maybe the best thing they do in the series is that they do an incredible job of keeping it funny -- as intense as it is and as much as they draw you into the story they're telling, actually stopping to think about it for a second shows how funny it is. The eternally hungry Jughead feasting on human flesh, Sabrina the Teenage Witch busting out the Necronomicon, the Lodge mansion being the only safe place in a zombie apocalypse because it's been built to keep Archie out at all costs, these are bits that hit the perfect balance between horrific and hilarious, and they all flow naturally from what those comics have been building for the past 70 years. The underrated Aguirre-Sacasa's script is constructed so that staying serious is the joke, and the always excellent Francavilla's moody, shadowy, blood-soaked art is the same way, full of dramatic violence happening to a goofy cast of cartoons. They compliment each other perfectly.

Afterlife With Archie may have been inevitable, but it didn't have to be as good as it is. As a publisher, Archie has done an amazing job of revitalizing their line over the past few years, hopping on trends it was long ago famous for ignoring and trying lots of new things as well, and all of it has been built around taking the formula they've been using for decades and twisting it just enough that everything feels fresh. What we've seen this year is the latest version of that, and for a company that's truly going after an adult audience alongside their standard kids' fare for the first time, they're doing an incredible job of it. Afterlife With Archie is just the latest and perhaps greatest example.

- Chris Sims

MOST REWARDING REDEMPTION OF Z-LIST CAPE CHARACTERS

 
 
 

Superior Foes of Spider-Man
Artwork by Steve Lieber and Rachelle Rosenberg
Written by Nick Spencer
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Stephen Wacker and Tom Brennan
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (paperback pre-order) / Marvel (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

If I were to ask you to rattle off a list of Spider-Man’s foes, you’d probably start with the big ones: Doc Ock. Goblins Green and Hob-. Electro. Kraven the Hunter. Venom. Rhino. Sandman. The Lizard. Maybe you’d dig deep and come back with Scorpion, Mysterio, the Vulture, maybe even (yuck) Hydro-Man. Maybe Silvermane or Morbius or the Spider-Slayers or the Chameleon. But by that time, nobody’s listening and anyone around has begun to physically move themselves away from you before you can get to... the other guys. You know, the real Z-Listers. Boomerang. Shocker. Speed Demon. Overdrive. The Beetle. The also-rans. The screw-ups. The small-timers. The guys on the fringe of the Marvel Universe who've got a little power but zero responsibility when it comes to using it

This is a comic about those guys.

See, Boomerang, fresh from a stint with the Thunderbolts, has lined up a huge score so he’s reformed the Sinister Six with, well, five of the best criminals he can find (or at least who'll return his phone calls). What follows is basically a sitcom starring the Sinister Six, with back-stabbing, lies, power struggles, deathtraps, treachery and a corgi. It’s very similar in tone to Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, where characters are allowed to breathe a little in-between high stakes super-stuff, and where you can get away with a panel where everybody speaks in icons instead of dialogue.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man is a really fun book, and I say that knowing that the surest way to get somebody to dismiss a comic book is to describe it as fun, but dang it, this book is a lot of fun and you should really read it. Even if, like me, you aren’t really reading any other Spider-books at the moment and have no plans to change that any time soon.

Creatively, the big star on the book is Steve Lieber, who, coincidentally, drew that Hurricane Sandy issue of the affectionately nicknamed "Hawkguy," and whose deft cartooning and figure “acting” sells every one-liner, every action sequence, every argument, and every idle thought. A comics veteran, Lieber's at the top of his game here, with a mixture of traditional cape comics styling and a more humane point-of-view that reminds you that these are really just people in suits doing dumb, dangerous things and that they can get hurt at any moment. It really helps set the stakes on a book like this, that could feel a lot more by-the-numbers with a lesser artist.

Nick Spencer is a writer that I’ve never really been able to connect with before, but his work on this series is smart and inventive, with well-rounded characters, funny banter and increasingly clever situations. Together with Lieber, he's really hit on something special with Superior Foes of Spider-Man -- or as we like to call it around here, 'SUP, FOES.

- Dylan Todd

DANKEST DUNGEONEERING COMIC

 
 
 

Clandestinauts
By Tim Sievert
Self-published online
Serialized in Double Barrel #9-12 from Top Shelf Productions

If you’ve ever played a fantasy roleplaying game, there’s a moment in any campaign where you realize that the heroic characters you and your friends built with a few rolls of polyhedral dice and a hefty bit of cribbing from Tolkien are… kind of buttholes. You go from a noble, gallant adventurer to some guy who’s looting corpses because they just might have a potion that you can use against the next poor sucker you happen to encounter as you trawl dungeons and storm castles. I mean, a noble fellowship of ruggedly attractive halflings and dwarves, wizards and rangers is great in books, but the reality is a lot grimier. And, at least in my experience, a lot more fun.

Tim Sievert’s Clandestinauts is exactly this kind of fantasy comic. It’s gross, funny, brutal and rugged. There’s no Aragorns here, just a bunch of bickering Boromirs trying to stay alive in a world that has been conceived entirely to kill them.

Clandestinauts is as intriguing as it is inventive, told in a style that wouldn’t look out of place in the notebook of that guy with the long hair who would sit in the corner of your class and carve heavy metal band names into his desk when he wasn't cracking jokes or correcting your pronunciation of “Cthulhu.” It’s all similar line-weighted, with monochromatic coloring that shifts depending on which part of the party the story’s following, a fun trick that keeps you mindful of who’s where and what’s what.

The most interesting part of Clandestinauts is how well-thought-out it all is while still feeling slightly dashed off. It’s not fussed over, but every character has a great, simple design and a fully-formed personality. It’s as overflowing with imagination and cleverness as it is with oozy, drippy monsters and hacked-off limbs. Keep your fellowships and rings, bro; I’ll be down here in the moldy dungeons with the real adventurers.

- Dylan Todd

BEST NEXUS-OF-30-YEARS-OF-NOSTALGIA COMIC

 
 
 

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: City Fall
Artwork by Kevin Eastman, Ben Bates, Ronda Pattison and Mateus Santolouco
Written by Kevin Eastman and Tom Waltz
Lettering by Shawn Lee
Edited by Bobby Curnow
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / IDW (iOS + Android)

Do you like Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird's original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics? Did you enjoy the 1987-1996 cartoon? Archie's TMNT stories? The first live action movie? The 2003 animated series? Nickelodeon's new CG animated show? All of the above? Congratulations! You're going to love how IDW spent most of 2013 with the sweeping "City Fall" storyline and its tie-ins.

As a reader who's spent a decade or two… or three following the TMNT, IDW's new Eastman, Tom Waltz and editor Bobby Curnow-steered comics continuity seemed to start off with a bit of a slower burn. The pieces were on the table, but with each passing issue I felt impatient, like I was waiting for the creators to put the puzzle together according to a picture I had already painted in my head. They had something else in mind, though. Something better. That idea was "City Fall."

"City Fall" is essentially the tale of the TMNT growing up to meet the fully emerged threat of the Shredder and his ninja armies. The storyline -- not an event, an good ol' fashioned storyline -- truly served as a culmination of the series to date. Dangling plot lines were tied up. Classic characters from all corners of TMNT lore came together in a single universe that made sense. A family was tested. Allegiances shifted. An adversary demonstrated danger far beyond physical power. Some people smooched. Things moved forward and the conclusion not only caught the comic up with my expectations, it surpassed them and left me wanting more.

And I'm not just saying all of that because Rocksteady and Bebop finally showed up… although the tie-in issue by Dustin Weaver and Ben "Dude Totally Killed It" Bates is easily one of my favorite single issue TMNT stories in recent memory.

As a concept, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always been its best when it honors the central vision of Eastman and Laird. As a franchise, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has always benefitted from multiple series, concurrent yet-unconnected continuities and new creators bringing fresh ideas to the table. IDW is in the unique position of being able to harness it all at once and it paid off big time in "City Fall."

- Caleb Goellner

BEST SEX-BASED SUPERHERO SEX COMIC ABOUT SEX AND ALSO CALLED 'SEX'

 
 
 

Sex: The Summer Of Hard
Artwork by Piotr Kowalski and Brad Simpson
Written by Joe Casey
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Graphic design by Sonia Harris
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Image (DRM-free digital) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Joe Casey has never shied away from confrontation with the readers and their expectations, and by naming one of his two creator-owned superhero comics of 2013 Sex, he was basically daring them to pick it up and be judged by their betters behind the counter at the Android's Dungeon. Thankfully, there's more to Sex than just a gimmicky name and bold graphic design: it's a heady, high-concept mix of The Wire's political (and personal) intrigue and Frank Miller's skewering of the genre in works like The Dark Knight Returns.

Like most Casey books, it feels very much like a celebration as much as it does a piece of metafiction, and, after a slightly-offputting and too-familiar opening chapter featuring an ex-superhero returning to the city that he operated within, the book settles into a rhythm that really works. There are character relationships that are fully-fleshed (no pun intended) and plot machinations that do more than make sense -- they twist and contort in interesting ways. In that sense, Sex delivers what's hinted at in covers by people like Ed Benes: it's shockingly competent superhero pornography that proves there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It feels like the mythical HBO-series-as-comic that everybody seems to be chasing, even as it inverts tropes and uses desert-dry humor to push its storytelling agenda.

A lot of credit for Sex's success goes to Piotr Kowalski's art and Brad Simpson's colors. It looks like no other book on the American comics market right now, with a very bande dessinée style that's enlivened greatly by Russ Wooton's lettering. Much like his Catalyst Comix from Dark Horse, Casey's love of collaboration is obvious in this title.

(It should be noted that Sex #1 came out six months before Sex Criminals debuted and has proven to be the more explicit of the two, but I think we're all okay with the idea of two really good comic books with "Sex" in the title, right? Right.)

- Kevin Church

BEST MOVIE COMIC

 
 
 

So Long, Silver Screen
By Blutch
Published by PictureBox
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / PictureBox (print)

What does it mean when somebody says “this comic is like a movie”? Sometimes, they mean there's a lot of widescreen panels, with a tremendous depth of field, capturing epic vistas. Sometimes they refer to a sophisticated use of mise en scène, by which elements are positioned in succeeding panels in a manner reminiscent of cinema. In less charitable situations, they might also mean the creator(s) have retrofitted an unsold screenplay to comics form, or worse: they're slinging some half-formed movie pitch at comics audiences, hoping a Hollywood type will whisk them away into the world of “real” popular art.

What people generally do *not* mean, is that the comic is essayistic in the manner of Jean-Luc Godard, whose magisterial Histoire(s) du cinéma sought to discern the very identity of the 20th century through suggestive arrangements of hundreds of manipulated film clips set to allusive commentary -- but is that really so far from cartoonist Dave Sim's glamourpuss, which began with its artist seizing control of a mid-century photorealist comic strip style by inking over classic originals, then exploding that style into a historical narrative about the very pioneers behind it? To my mind, comics is even better than cinema at such essay-making appropriation, because looking at a movie is too close to observing real life; too many deviations from the commonplace, and the viewer becomes distanced. With comics, lines on paper can be immediate absorbed as a fully-functioning reality, all the better for smoothly transitioning between citation, homage, and narration.

Too windy? Theory becomes practice in So Long, Silver Screen, a rare English translation for one of France's most accomplished image-makers: Christian “Blutch” Hincker, whose influence is readily discernible on the mega-popular likes of Craig Thompson. Yet Blutch is less interested in directing his readers through an emotional story than urging them to become immersed in his stream of consciousness. Divided into short, color-coded chapters, So Long, Silver Screen swirls around movie stars and film images from the artist's youth, while aged narrating men lament the seductive and romantic qualities of such lost demarcations of 20th century ideals. Gorgeous women loll aloofly – Blutch has identified "sex appeal” as the American cinema's cultural victory over the more technically innovative Soviets, and this idea evokes both the desire of a predominantly male, heterosexual creative corps to capture women on celluloid, and the similar viewer's longing to become like super-cool male role models promulgated therefrom.

It is all a fantasy, of course, but as I've said, comics have a way of transforming fantasies into the very fabric of reality: perfect for exploring such mental terrain! And what a country we're in with Blutch, as terrifically expressive a draftsman as might be living today! His reference points are pretty old, and very French, but you'll want to follow him wherever he goes before rushing away to research all these perfect faces. Godard hoped to distend the elements of cinema to interrogate it, to arrive at new realizations; now that so much film-going is done at home, streaming -- "pausable" on the internet -- we are all potential inquisitors, and here we have a comic that seems uniquely of cinema, and that of the
present.

- Joe McCulloch

MOST INSANE COMIC IN WHICH A GUY'S HEAD IS REPLACED WITH THAT OF A GHOST COW

 
 
 

God Hates Astronauts
By Ryan Browne
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Ryan Browne is a talented guy and a brilliant artist. He's also severely f***ed up. In the three issues collected in the God Hates Astronauts hardcover: a superhero's head explodes, a version of Family Matters' Carl Winslow with gorilla arms rips off a costumed bear's limbs, a hippo in a crown rides into a courtroom in a chariot pulled by two astronaut centaurs, there's a nude gunfight in a hotel, a giant unicorn man with bat wings attacks a diner, and here's the really weird part: Out of context, that's actually less crazy than it really is.

For pure, per-page insanity, there was no topping God Hates Astronauts this year. Nobody even came close.

- Matt D. Wilson

MOST POSSIBLY LITERALLY INSANE COMIC

 
 
 

mox noxMox Nox
By Joan Cornell
Published by Bang édiciones
Available: Comics shops (print) / Bang édiciones (print + digital)

Joan Cornellà might just be insane. Mox Nox, his collection of irreverent one-page comic strips, is a challenge to discuss because I almost don't know how to describe them or what to compare them to. They're like some combination of Michael Kupperman and your favorite MAD cartoonist, except they're all silent and mostly based on the same premise: something bad happens and an individual decides to fix things by doing something even worse, often with horrifying results that everyone seems to be perfectly satisfied with.

It's nuts. It's madness. But it's also brilliant, and every time I pick up the book, I can't put it down until I've gone through the entire thing again and laughed for a solid hour. And the brilliance of the humor aside, Cornellà is also a pretty great cartoonist. He does so much with just six panels and simple line work, reusing a panel but focusing in on a horrified facial expression, or using an emotionless anthropomorphic animal to drive home a joke. Until a few weeks ago I was completely unfamiliar with Cornellà's work, and now I realize I need to own everything he's ever produced.

I see Mox Nox as a kind of social litmus test. Have someone in your life who you’re getting to know, and whose company you so far enjoy, but you want to see if they’re sense of humor is as messed up as yours? Hand them a copy of Mox Nox, and one of two things will happen: Either they’ll love it and you’ll have a friend for life, or you’ll find out that you’ve completely misread them, and she or he will be horrified to discover the kind of sick individual you really are. On the plus side, when they throw the book back at you in disgust, you get to sit down and read it all over again. Either way, you win.

- Joseph Hughes

RADDEST SUPERHERO ARTWORK

 
 
 

Captain Marvel
Artwork by Felipe Andrade and Jordie Bellaire with Joe Quinones and Jamie McKelvie
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Christopher Sebela
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Sana Amanat, Devin Lewis and Stephen Wacker
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Marvel (iOS + Android)

One of ComicsAlliance’s picks for the Best Comics of 2012Captain Marvel began the new year with a striking visual overhaul courtesy of artist Filipe Andrade and colorist Jordie Bellaire, whose work can be described in any number of ways, but “Marvel house style” is not one of them. Present in issues #9-12 (collected in the Captain Marvel: Down graphic novel) and series finale #17, these artists’ attractive collaboration made the already distinctive solo-woman superhero series stand out even further from the rest of the Marvel line with a look that's at once fresh, exciting and frequently tender, complimenting the humorous and heartfelt stories devised by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (and from issue #10, co-writer Christopher Sebela). Whether it’s a sequence of unmasked Carol Danvers getting a cup of coffee or suited-up Captain Marvel fighting a giant dinosaur in the streets of New York City, Andrade and Bellaire bring the book to bold life in a way that’s not seen in many superhero or other adventure-style comics these days.

Without ever sacrificing clarity or character, Andrade's daring, even audacious approach to figures and storytelling confounds the reader’s expectations for a modern cape comic. You can get impeccably drafted, photorealistic and cinematically rendered superhero action in any number of Marvel or DC comics, but on virtually every level Captain Marvel offers the capes fan something he or she rarely gets to see: a properly kick-ass, takes-her-cat-to-the-vet super-heroine drawn not just respectfully, but truly awesomely. No, these pictures aren't staged like photographic images and interpreted in ink and Photoshop -- these are comics, these are images that can only exist on the page, and they are exhilarating.

- Andy Khouri

MOST HIGHLY DUBIOUS MARVEL CONCEPT THAT ACTUALLY TURNED OUT REALLY, REALLY GREAT (SPIDER-MAN GROUP)

 
 
 

Superior Spider-Man
Artwork by Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Edgar "Pato" Delgado,  and others
Written by Dan Slott
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Edited by Stephen Wacker and Ellie Pyle
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Marvel (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

"Superior." That was the word that raised the red flag. In his previous work on Spider-Man, writer Dan Slott had demonstrated a keen understanding of the character's enduring appeal. Then news came that Marvel was relaunching Amazing Spider-Man as Superior Spider-Man and it seemed like Slott had gone off the rails. "Superior" was not a Spider-Man word. Only the worst kind of smug ass would wear a label like that, and that was not Peter Parker.

And it was not Peter Parker. And it was the worst kind of smug ass. It turns out Slott knew what he was doing all along. Peter Parker is dead; Otto Octavius -- Doctor Octopus -- is Spider-Man; and for once the promise that nothing will be the same actually seems to hold true. For now.

Slott has injected new life into Spider-Man -- his relationships, his role, his villains, his tropes -- by injecting a new Spider-Man into his life. The result has been one of the most thrilling superhero stories in years, told at rapidfire pace across two dozen issues in a single year with electric storytelling from Stegman, Ramos and Camuncoli. If we weren't afraid of sounding like smug asses, we'd call it a superior Spider-Man. But we are, so we won't.

Sorry, Peter Parker, but we're glad you're dead. (For now.)

- Andrew Wheeler

BEST ACTUALLY RELEVANT DYSTOPIAN FUTURE COMIC

 
 
 

Lazarus
Artwork by Michael Lark, Santi Arcas, Stefano Gaudino and Brian Level
Written by Greg Rucka
Lettering by Michael Lark
Designed by Michael Lark and Eric Trautmann
Edited by David Brothers
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Image (DRM-free download) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc)

The problem with doing a dystopian future story right now is that everyone is doing it. It’s not difficult to see why. The American economy is terrible, the wage gap between the wealthy and the poor has grown at a staggering rate over the last 30 years, and New York, the “capital of the world,” currently has the highest number of homeless children since the Great Depression. There’s a lot of motivation to tell a story about a bleak future, because far too often it feels like that’s where we’re headed.

So if you’re going to do it, you’d best come correct. Fortunately, in the pages of Lazarus, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark have done just that. Through Forever, their protagonist genetically engineered to protect her wealthy and powerful family, Rucka and Lark examine a future in which just a few powerful families control the entire world. It’s a scenario that really doesn’t seem all that far fetched. Rucka is writing about something that obviously concerns him deeply, and it shows in the work. The series sometimes reads like a call from a writer who’s asking us all to pay attention to what’s happening around us, and to be better.

As for Lark, it’s not a stretch to say that this might be the best work of his already impressive career. The opening sequence to the first issue is one of the best scenes I saw in a comic all year. And colorist Santi Arcas, whose work I was completely unfamiliar with until this series, complements Lark’s style perfectly. Many of the scenes in this book so far have featured desert and barren land, a struggle for any colorist to render effectively, but Sarcas makes it feel real and beautiful. The sky in the background of issue #4 features a hue of purple I don’t know that I’ve ever seen in a comic.

And unlike many dystopian future tales, you can already see that race and gender -- two things that would undoubtedly play an enormous role in any similar society, imagined or real -- are going to be a part of Lazarus. It’s the sort of detail that so many creators willfully ignore, but fans of Rucka’s previous work know they have no reason to fear that will happen here. It will be dealt with, and I’m confident it will be handled well.

Rucka and Lark are looking at the world, and applying the potential future they see to the page. Pay attention.

- Joseph Hughes

BEST SPACE-MURDERS

 
 
 

Storm Dogs
Artwork by Doug Braithwaite and Ulises Arreola
Written by David Hine
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) /  Image (DRM-free download) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

One part Western, one part crime procedural, one part hardboiled sci-fi and one part horror story, David Hine, Doug Braithwaite and Ulises Arreola’s Storm Dogs is a nasty piece of work. The story of a team of investigators sent out to a hostile frontier world to investigate a string of deaths and instead find a plot that could spell doom for the universe, it’s an intricately-plotted story that covers sexuality, identity, racism, greed and imperialism while also offering up a tight action story.

The biggest selling point with Storm Dogs comes from how thought-through it is, with a fully-realized universe that feels possible and lived-in. I can only imagine the hours spent designing the vehicles, clothing, characters, creatures... it’s a staggering amount of work, but none of it is wasted when you see it on the page. Everything from the physiology of the characters to their storm suits is deliberate, and it all services the story. It’s also worth nothing that the cast is truly diverse, with all hues, genders and sexual preferences represented with little fanfare.

If you’ve read the Bulletproof Coffin books he’s done with Shaky Kane, or his Strange Embrace, you know that Hine is a master of setting a mood of creeping dread, and it permeates every page in Storm Dogs. There’s a darkness that hangs over the book, an ugliness that is all the more unseemly by being wrapped up in Braithwaite and Arreola’s stunningly beautiful artwork. As I mentioned earlier, the book is a tricky mixture of genres, and the art team delivers wonderfully on all fronts, with Braithwaite’s character’s expressions, posture and movement selling the story every step of the way.

Storm Dogs is the kind of sci-fi I would love to see more of in comics: high concept married to a suspenseful story, believable, diverse characters and a well-constructed world. The first season has wrapped, the clouds have rolled in. I’m ready for more.

- Dylan Todd

PORNOGRAPHY COMIC OF THE YEAR

 
 
 

The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame
By Gengoroh Tagame
Edited by Anne Ishii, Chip Kidd and Graham Kolbein
Published by Picturebox
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Picturebox (print)

Comics excel at pornography. A visual storytelling medium, paced by the reader's imagination, which can depict absolutely anything, no matter how fantastical? The most shocking thing about comics porn is that it doesn't dominate the entire industry.

As with all branches of comics, porn has its great masters. Perhaps the greatest erotic artist working in comics today is Gengoroh Tagame, whose work was translated into English for the first time this year by the sadly soon-to-be-defunct publisher Picturebox. The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame is a beautifully packaged presentation of some of the Japanese artist's most intensely risque short stories.

If you want to pick up a copy as porn, you should know that it serves a particular interest. It's all gay erotica, with an emphasis on muscular, hairy, bearish men, often with impressive moustaches. It's also extremely graphic, with images of bondage, mutilation and rape that will not sit well with every sensibility. Tagame is unflinching in embracing and representing his personal peccadillos.

Yet set the subject aside, and The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame deserves to be recognized as a superb work of comics. Tagame is an exemplary draftsman with an exquisite and attentive line. His art deserves recognition. Just maybe take the book of your coffee table when your mother visits.

- Andrew Wheeler

BEST NEW VERSION OF AN OLD ORIGIN

 
 
 

Batman: Zero Year
Artwork by Greg Capullo, Danny Mik and Fco Plascencia
Written by Scott Snyder
Lettering by Nick J. Napolitano
Edited by Mike Marts and Katie Kubert
Published by DC Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (hardcover pre-order) / DC (iOS + Android + Web + etc.)

Rebooting an origin story is always a risky proposition. There are stacks of pre-existing history to somehow live up to while ignoring, mountains of bad feelings and expectations to traverse. New fans need to be hooked and the old readers need to be convinced that everything is still the same even as their idols are broken down into compost. The risk doubles when the character is a particularly iconic one, someone on the level of Superman, Wonder Woman, or the Flash. But Superman was in flux for years, and underwent a major rewrite in the 1980s. Wonder Woman has already undergone more revisions than a term paper, and there are so many versions of the Flash that a new one was never going to seriously annoy even the most-devoted fans. It’s still a big task to hit the reset button on those characters, but it’s also almost a tradition. In Wonder Woman’s case, it was practically a rite of passage.

Batman is different. His origin didn’t undergo any real changes after DC Comics rebooted its narrative continuity in the 1980s, it was just updated and expanded by Frank Miller and David Mazzuccheli to become one of the finest stories the superhero genre has to offer. In addition to that noise, at the time DC's New 52 rolled back the continuity odometer once again in 2011, Grant Morrison and co. were almost finished with their epic reconstruction of Batman, and the franchise was in a better state than it had been in a while. Of all the iconic characters set for a new start, Batman was the biggest challenge by a country mile.

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and the rest of the team on Batman have responded with hands-down the best new origin of the New 52. “Secret City,” the first arc of the year-long “Zero Year,” revamps the Dark Knight while reaffirming him, adding new layers to the existing origin and remixing the fundamentals into something bigger, wilder, and more mythic.

It feels almost incorrect to call Zero Year a reboot. It’s more like a modernization, an update that draws from the best previous versions -- including Christopher Nolan’s movies and the Warner Bros. animated series -- without trying to recreate them. It re-examines everything we know, applying  new twists to old plot points. The Red Hood gang is transformed into a snarling mouth of terror organization; the Joker’s possible beginning is reshaped into something more savage, but cleverly left ambiguous; the moment of Bruce Wayne’s inspiration is given odd sci-fi poetry; it’s been hinted that there’s a new twist to the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne; the Riddler is finally interesting.

By placing Batman in the context of our modern fears, Snyder and Capullo have redefined his role, made him more relevant because he challenges the things that make us feelirrelevant. Not just random, senseless crime or urban decay, but terrorism and catastrophe. In addition to being an avenger of the night and the world’s greatest detective, Batman is now the first line of defense against societal collapse, our best hope against the forces that strive to make us feel meaningless. A pitch-perfect reinvention for the hyper-accelerated, paranoid times we live in, “Zero Year” is a classic in the making.

- John Parker

BEST NOT-ACTUALLY-A-COMIC-BOOK

 
 
 

Super Graphic: A Visual Guide to the Comic Book Universe
By Tim Leong
Published by Chronicle Books
Available: Amazon (print + Kindle) / iBooks

Super Graphic contains: "The Definitive R. Crumb Butt Matrix," a graph of oppressive vs. rebellious moments in Persepolis, a "History of Concentric Circles," a map of the relationships of the New Gods, the "Periodic Table of the Metal Men," and "The Chris Ware Sadness Scale."

I read it a little less than an hour and tossed it aside as a charming curiosity, but found myself returning to it many times afterward, to really pore over "The Many Affiliations of the Marvel Universe," "An Explanation of Crossover Issues and Their Tie-Ins" and the "Tintin Publication History." That's what makes Super Graphic a worthy addition to any comic fan's bookshelf -- the silliness is free and unabashed, but gosh darn it, you might actually learn something (the "Marvel and DC Price History" chart has stayed with me in particular.)

Most of all, I love Super Graphic's versatility. I found it useful and entertaining as a veteran comics fan, but would gladly hand it to a newbie in need of a road map, or someone well-versed in manga but just now getting into Marvel. It's succinct, visual, and irreverent -- three things that tend to be rare on their own in the comics world, let alone together. It's a great coffee table book, a great piece of art, and a great gift. And it might help you finally get into Death Note or Cerebus the Aardvark like you've been meaning to for years.

- Juliet Kahn

BEST ORIGIN STORY

 
 
 

Hip Hop Family Tree
By Ed Piskor
Serialized online by Boing Boing
Published in book form by Fantagraphics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print)

Most of what America understands about the beginning of hip hop has been communicated to us in two ways: through the music itself and through the magic of talking heads in documentaries. Both are valuable, to be sure, but In Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree, readers get to experience the origins of rap music in a way like never before; they get to live it. They get to walk the streets of New York City, where in rented performance rooms with cobbled-together gear pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash birthed a new art form.

Piskor, a fount of knowledge, traces the spread of rap music and Hip Hop culture with an approach that borders on the obsessive-compulsive: every progenitor, significant event, legendary battle and leap forward is given a moment in center stage in this encyclopedic history. But Hip Hop Family Tree is not just an exercise, an essay, or a haphazard collection of anecdotes. There’s a story here, with strong characters and a connective thread. What seem at first like diversions or tangents branch off into even more stories before looping back to reconnect with the main narrative. It’s not just about telling all these little tales -- which are undeniably fascinating in their own rights -- it’s about forming what is essentially the cartoon biography of a cultural movement.

Constructed to look like Marvel comics of the 1970s -- even the color palette and paper stock are reminiscent of retro Marvel -- and drawn in a manner that matches Piskor’s Crumb influence with the style of the Jackson Five and Fat Albert cartoons, Hip Hop Family Tree transports you to another era. In Piskor’s depiction of New York, you can see a proper setting for so many important cultural turning points, where high art met street art, uptown came downtown, and b-boys clashed on broken-down cardboard boxes laid flat on the corner.

There’s no telling how far Hip Hop Family Tree can go. Piskor has been serializing this story on Boing Boing on a mostly-weekly basis for the last two years, and he’s not even into the mid-'80s. There’s still a lot of territory left uncovered: Erik B. & Rakim’s “Lyrics of Fury,” the Native Tongues movement, the birth of gangsta rap and the resulting national backlash, East Coast vs. West Coast, and beyond. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to look forward to Piskor’s renditions of Hip Hop history for years to come.

- John Parker

MOST PROLIFIC CARTOONIST OF LEGEND

 
 
 

Gilbert Hernandez
Published by everybody
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon  (print + Kindle) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

How often, in any medium, do you see a creator producing exceptional work in their field for more than 30 years? Sure, it happens -- Howard Hawks and Salvador Dalí immediately come to mind, among others -- but the list is fairly short. That’s part of what made this year so special for Gilbert Hernandez. We're now past the 30th anniversary of Love and Rockets, arguably the greatest longform story comics has ever known. If he, along with his brother Jaime, had simply walked off into the sunset years ago, you couldn’t blame them in the slightest. But that’s not what happened. Far from it, in fact. Rather than take a well earned rest, Hernandez had perhaps the most prolific year of his career, putting out several books that rank among his finest works to date.

The stand out is perhaps Julio’s Day. Released by Fantagraphics, the book is a 100-page graphic novel that explores the life of its 100-year-old protagonist from beginning to end. Along the way, Hernandez brilliantly examines the changing landscape of a community and a country through Julio’s life in a way so seemingly effortless as to make the most respected novelist jealous. Next came Marble Season from Drawn and Quarterly, the first semi-autobiographical work of Hernandez’s storied career. Set against the backdrop of a suburban town in California in the 1960s, Marble Season is a tale of how children contemplate and explore storytelling, using the their surroundings and interests -- in this case, silver age comics -- to build their own worlds. Hernandez also expanded the Love and Rockets universe in a remarkable way in the Maria M. graphic novel, which serves as the B-movie film adaptation of the life story of Maria, a character previously seen in Hernandez's Poison River, but played here by her own daughter, Fritz. Amazingly, you don't even need to know that to enjoy this gorgeous work. As if that wasn't enough, 2013 saw Hernandez release Children of Palomar, a collection of short stories featuring some of the cartoonist's most enduringly popular characters and concepts.

To be this prolific and to put out this level of quality 30 years in is nothing short of incredible, but at this point we shouldn’t be surprised. Instead, we should just be grateful to be reading comics during the era of one of the greatest cartoonists America has ever produced, who is somehow, unimaginably, still at the height of his powers. He could have walked away years ago, but he didn’t. And we’re all better for it.

- Joseph Hughes

MOST UNEXPECTEDLY HUMANE SCI-FI EPIC

 
 
 

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z
Artwork by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White
Written by Rick Remender
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Tom Brevoort, Lauren Sankovitch and Jake Thomas
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Marvel (iOS + Android)

Of all the all the superhero comics restaffed and relaunched as part of the Marvel NOW initiative over the last year or so, Captain America is perhaps the one that most lived up to the bold promise of an all-new, all-different direction. Written by Rick Remender and illustrated by John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson and Dean White, the inaugural 10-part story flew far afield of the super-espionage aesthetic of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting’s now-classic run, marooning Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s “Sentinel of Liberty” in a grim alternate dimension where he fought more than a decade to survive against warring tribes of monsters while defending — and raising as his own son — the child of his insane, grotesque enemy, Arnim Zola.

Titled "Castaway in Dimension Z," the audacious and occasionally heartbreaking book has more in common with the expansive, otherworldly adventure of European-style sci-fi like Brandon Graham and co.’s Prophet than any Marvel comics of recent memory, and is a good indicator of where Remender would go with subsequent works.

Captain America: Castaway In Dimension Z is also notable for its somewhat controversially grim vision of Cap's childhood, depicting young Steve Rogers as a child of poverty with a physically abusive parent. Most shockingly, Remender and Romita show Steve committing  criminal acts to survive. However, a scene in which the future Captain America confronts those immoral actions stands out as one of the most emotionally rewarding and uplifting scenes in a proper saga -- a beginning, middle and end, all created by the same writer and artists -- that truly does show us a classic character in a very new and enjoyable light.

- Andy Khouri

BEST SCI-FI COMIC WHERE TEENAGE GIRLS REFER TO EACH OTHER AS "DUDE"

 
 
 

Galaga
Artwork by Christopher Hastings and Anthony Clark
Written by Ryan North
Published by Shiftylook
Available: Free webcomic 

I'm honestly surprised that the weekly Galaga webcomic hasn't gotten more coverage over the past year, considering that the creative team behind it is basically a webcomic dream team: Writer Ryan North, of Dinosaur Comics (and, you know, that amazing Eisner award-winning Adventure Time comic), with art by Christopher Hastings of Dr. McNinja (and Marvel's current Longshot miniseries) and Nedroid and McNinja's Anthony Clark. That's as amazing a lineup as any comic could ask for, and true to form, they're knocking it out of the park with every single strip.

If you're not familiar with Shiftylook, it's Namco's (relatively) new initiative for turning older video games into comics, and they've recruited a ton of great webcomics talent to get the job done. They're all pretty fun to see, but the older games like Galaga, in which the original plot was a pretty simple "aliens descend and you shoot them, scroll up and continue," it's fascinating to see how they build that into a full series. With Galaga, North, Hastings and Clark have come up with a story that's consistently engaging and enjoyable, hilarious and action packed.

Their story follows Betty, Penelope and the mustachioed President of the United States, who take to the skies to defend the Earth from an invading army of two-dimensional alien bees. Betty and Penelope are two best friends who love video games, so when one of the aliens explodes and showers their back yard with giant cubes they do the sensible thing and build a spaceship out of them so they can go blow up the bad guys with lasers. The President, of course, wants to blow up aliens himself, and -- spoiler warning! -- he does. That's pretty much the entire plot, punctuated with clever gags about points, extra lives, continues, and two-dimensional space combat. It's fantastic

Spinning a plot out of "shoot and scroll up" is impressive, but doing it this well, with this kind of excitement, is rare and appreciated. I'm on record as being pretty solidly in favor of teen girls having space adventures, and North, Hastings and Clark have done it better than anybody else this year.

- Chris Sims

BEST TIME-TRAVELING ROMANCE

 
 
 

Trillium
Artwork by Jeff Lemire and José Villarubia
Written by Jeff Lemire
Lettered by Charlie Mangual
Edited by Mark Doyle and Sara Miller
Published by Vertigo
Available: Comics shops ( print) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

It would be easy to write off the format of the first issue of Trillium -- it was a flipbook-- as gimmickry. And it might be accurate to say that the premise of the second issue, the idea that its two lead characters, Nika and William, can't understand each other's speech because they're from centuries apart as a sort of beat-the-reader-over-the-head way of making the often-made observation that men and women often have a hard time communicating with each other.

That wouldn't be a wholly inaccurate characterization of Jeff Lemire's time-spanning, world-hopping series, but Trillium goes well beyond gimmickry or relationship symbolism to do something that's really tough to do: Tell a love story in a new way. It's not that Nika and William only have trouble understanding each other; they have trouble understanding anything about the worlds around them. The book's other characters have similar experiences. Things happen, and they're nearly impossible for them to understand, because they don't have the information we readers do, and they do crazy things. Foolish things that have disastrous consequences. By the end of issue four, the halfway mark of the limited series and the last chapter to come out this year, those actions have effects no one could have anticipated.

Through this, William and Nika only have each other to hold on to. They don't have a lot of opportunity to really sit down and get to know each other, what with all the world-ending going on around them, but there's a magnetism that draws them together, and a need to have someone or something to cling to as the universe falls apart. I think that's a pretty good description of love. The assurance that someone will be there while everything goes to hell. Communication issues are a problem, sure, but they fall by the wayside when the s*** really hits the fan. It's just a matter of someone being there. That's how Lemire transcends the cliches. He does it beautifully.

- Matt D. Wilson

BEST ANTHOLOGY RETAILERS WERE REFUSING TO SELL

 
 
 

Adventures Of Superman
Edited by Alex Antone
Published by DC Comics
Available: DC Entertainment  (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.) / Comics shops (print periodical) / Amazon (paperback pre-order)

For a lot of people who follow news on this here comics Internet, the first they heard of DC's digital-first Adventures of Superman book was that a good many retailers weren't going to sell the first issue when it was released in print. Bestselling science fiction author Orson Scott Card, who has written and spoken out extensively against gay marriage, was slated to write one of the first stories in the series, to be drawn by popular comics artist Chris Sprouse. But then artist Sprouse dropped out and Card's story was delayed indefinitely.

That turn of events couldn't have been better, because it enabled readers, retailers and anyone else who was interested to see Adventures of Superman for what it really was when it debuted in April with a story from writer Jeff Parker and artist Chris Samnee: the one DC book that was and remains committed to stories about the classic Superman. You know, the guy that helps people in ways that go beyond fighting whatever steps in front of him.

The first story was about how Superman dealt with a dangerous addict hooked on an insane super-drug, without trying to hurt him. A later story by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton featured a fight with Darkseid and Superman visiting an orphan to give her his cape. Those are just two examples out of 30-plus chapters of this weekly anthology. This is a Superman who is everything the mainline DC (or "New 52") version isn't: considerate, measured, mature, and, yes, trunks-wearing.

A lot of Adventures contributors knocked out their stories in one digital go. Others stretched theirs out into three chapters (or one print issue, when released to comics shops). Almost all of these creators told wonderful, enjoyable Superman stories. That's what I want from a Superman book.

- Matt D. Wilson

SPECIAL COMMENDATION FOR EUROPEAN MASTERS EXCLUDED BY CIRCUMSTANCE FROM PRIOR CRITICS' LISTS

 
 
 

Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights
By Sergio Toppi
Published by Archaia
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

MAJOR CONFESSION: This little treasure actually landed in comic book stores on December 19, 2012 -- and I don't care! The last score days of the year are rough on book releases, which arrive too late to benefit from Best Of list-making of the sort you're presently enjoying from this august congress of dweebs: the very dweebs who ought to be raising awareness. Otherwise, who would think to calculate such late arrivals into their gift-buying efforts? Who even remembers anything that happened so close to the holidays? I tend to be blackout drunk well before the winter solstice -- which, now that I think of it, is perhaps why deadlines are set so early on articles such as this.

No matter; if Sergio Toppi was too late for last year's feature, he's damn well getting in this one. The English-reading world isn't exactly smothered in this great Italian illustrator's contributions to comics, and Sharaz-De is among his most respected works: a transformation of the classic One Thousand and One Nights into a forum for profligate experiments in depiction. Sometimes the eleven short comics included in here rely on "typical" panel progression -- the draftsmanship seemingly intent on cataloging every conceivable style of black and white shading, a la The Airtight Garage -- though Toppi also employs an almost collage-like approach, whereby characters don't inhabit so much a literal space as suggest shifts in time and emotion from their proximity to one another. Meek characters are small, authoritarians giant; should death be threatened, a blade curls around the boundaries of the page. Cities seem to grow from faces, and the cloaks and ribbons of mystics unfurl past the horizon.

You can see reflections of everyone from Bill Sienkiewicz to Sam Kieth to Walter Simonson (who pens a foreword) in these images, but you also may catch a whisper of history. The earliest of these stories date from '79, and the pages of Alter Alter -- an Italian comics magazine which translated many of the French Métal Hurlant artists (Moebius, Philippe Druillet, etc.) for local consumption. Yet Toppi's sense of ink-slinging maximalism better recalls the Spanish progeny of Argentinean comics master Alberto Breccia, who were busy populating the pages of U.S. horror magazines like Creepy and Eerie at the same time; Sharaz-De's occasional blasts of soft color even recall the color inserts of the old Warren magazines, though Toppi is generally much better, just as the moral fables he supplies (which are anything but difficult to understand, even in the midst of the most experimental art) can be seen as a mystic global variant to the old E.C. shockers.

In this way, we have not only a beguiling set of tales, but a book that seems possessed of a shared comics history, a truly worldwide scope. So why allow details like time to inhibit our attentions?

- Joe McCulloch

MOST EXOTIC MURDER DESTINATION

 
 
 

High Crimes
Artwork by Ibrahim Moustafa
Written by Christopher Sebela
Published by Monkeybrain Comics
Available: ComiXology (iOS + Android)

Zan Jensen is running from her life. A former Olympic athlete with a bad drug habit living in Kathmandu, she makes a living as a mountain guide for the smaller summits around Mount Everest. On the side, though, she and her partner Haskell Pierce make a cool lump of cash in grave-robbing. Mountains are littered with bodies, especially Everest, and when Zan and Haskell come across a fresh body while shepherding tourists up the peaks, they cut off the corpse’s right hand, take their personal effects, and pump the families for money to bring the bodies down. When Haskell finds the body of a former spy, a cadre of hardcore government spooks come down on them like an avalanche, and soon Jensen is running for her life, all the way up Everest.

High Crimes could get away with just having a great concept and not have to do much else to be good. The hook and the setting, harshly evoked by Moustafa’s stylish images, are enough to make it an interesting read. But the book is about the characters, their bad wiring, worse choices, and the type of mania that forces someone into the Olympics or spying, or up the tallest mountain in the world. To say that Zan is imperfect would be a massive understatement: she’s a complete disaster, a junkie and a cheater always looking for the next place to hide. She's an engaging failure forced to discover she still has some fight in her. Seeing parallels in the journal of Sullivan Mars -- the spy found on Everest -- she responds when the stakes are at their highest, and her journey from trainwreck to action hero propels the story.

Sebela and Moustafa don’t have a lot of space to work with. The first issue of the digital-only series was only thirteen pages, but they wring everything they can out of what they’ve got. Mixing up the pace between high-tempo action and considered character work, they keep the intrigue at full volume and convey all the danger and mystery of the setting with an appropriate combination of fear and awe. A smart, twisting thriller with great characters and an unassailable premise, High Crimes is a gripping new Baedeker of suspense.

- John Parker

MOST MYSTERIOUS MYSTERY

 
 
 

Mind MGMT
By Matt Kindt
Edited by Ian Tucker and Brendan Wright
Published by Dark Horse
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Dark Horse (iOS + Android + Web)

As it moved through its second year, Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT solidified its reputation as one of the most unique serialized ventures in the industry. Our hero, Meru, peels back more of the conspiracy that's defined and derailed her life and the readers get actual rewards for their patience, a rarity in many comics with similar themes. Mind MGMT ranks alongside Michael Fiffe's superlative Copra as far using the serial format goes, but 2013 saw the release of a pair of deluxe hardcovers that collect the first year of the book and make it a no-brainer for inclusion on any kind of "Best Of."

Like in his original graphic novels, Kindt creates an evocative world with minimal muss or fuss. Dialogue is never too pitched and the art, with its singular pen-and-watercolor technique, is casually masterful. If nothing else, Mind MGMT should hopefully embolden more publishers by showing that supporting writer/artists in the serial format can have incredible rewards.

- Kevin Church

BEST OUT-OF-NOWHERE MASTERPIECE

 
 
 

Masters of the Universe: The Origin of Hordak
Artwork by Keith Giffen, Scott Koblish and Hi-Fi Colour Design
Written by Keith Giffen and Brian L. Keene
Lettering by Deron Bennett
Edited by Michael McCalister
Published by DC Entertainment
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (paperback pre-order) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Heck yes we're including a He-Man comic in the Best of 2013 list because this is Giffen going full-on Jack Kirby and it is pretty much perfect.

The Masters of the Universe franchise (whose mythos is way more bananas/badass than you think it is) and Jack Kirby’s New Gods have long been intertwined, with a persistent (and not-exactly-true) rumor that 1987’s Masters of the Universe movie began as a New Gods script. It’s a fun nerd trivia, and like I said, not exactly based in fact, but apparently nobody told Giffen, because he pulls the two even closer together with an homage that could not be more explicitly influenced by New Gods #1, another issue dealing with the end of a race of gods and the birth of a new pantheon.

The Origin of Hordak deals with Zodak and his brother, the evil space-vampire-wizard Hordak, the lone survivors of an epic battle that has seen the obliteration of millions in an effort to feed Hordak’s own hunger. The whole thing -- purple prose and all -- is wrapped up in Kirby dots and purples and pinks and burning oranges and sickly greens, all coming together to create a feeling of epic dread as Zodak traverses the battlefield and faces down his brother, who is now, well, the terrible master of the universe. It’s maybe more gravitas than the action figure-based subject matter deserves, but for 20 pages, it’s consistently excellent comic bookery that must be recognized.

- Dylan Todd 

MOST SECRETLY EXCELLENT SUPERHERO COMIC

 
 
 

Wolverine: Hunting Season
Artwork by Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and Matt Hollingsworth
Written by Paul Cornell
Lettering by Cory Petit
Edited by Jeanine Schaefer, Jennifer M. Smith and Nick Lowe
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Marvel (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Sometimes you just want to read a fun superhero comic where people’s heads get busted and the hero occasionally makes questionable choices while also dealing with some major personal issues. And for those moments, there’s Paul Cornell and Alan Davis' Wolverine, one of the least talked about relaunches of the Marvel NOW initiative, but truly one of the best.

Wolverine is a character that most people have an opinion about, but for all of that, he can be hard to relate to. His strength -- his healing factor -- makes him that much extra "super" and immortal compared with the average cape character. It’s this uniqueness that Cornell focuses on in his run, slowly stripping it away to try to expose the man that’s beneath the strength. If Wolverine is only Wolverine because of his healing factor then who is he without it? 2013's Wolverine goes right to the heart of the matter, and in a manner that's as entertaining to longtime Logan readers as it is to those picking up his adventures for the very first time.

Naturally, you don’t buy a Wolverine comic just because you want to read about an existential crisis (usually). Cornell walks a fine line between exploring those internal issues and making sure there is still plenty of action and plenty of Wolverine being kind-of-a-jerk while also saving the world. Industry legend Alan Davis’s Wolverine is tough, burly, and a prowler, to be sure, but his pages remain full of exciting, kinetic action.

Is Hunting Season the greatest Wolverine story of all time? Maybe not. But this series, one of seemingly countless takes on Marvel's most popular mutant, very quietly became one of the strongest superhero stories of 2013.

- Janelle Asselin

MOST ASTONISHINGLY COOL REVAMP OF '90S SUPERHEROES YOU'VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF

 
 
 

Catalyst Comix
Artwork by Dan McDaid, Paul Maybury, Ulises Farinas and Brad Simpson with Brendan McCarthy, Paul Pope and Rafael Grampá
Written by Joe Casey
Lettering by Rus Wooton
Edited by Ian Tucker and Brendan Wright
Published by Dark Horse
Available: Comics shops (print) / Dark Horse (iOS + Android + Web)

Let’s check off what this nine-issue miniseries has going for it:

[X] A revamp of Dark Horse’s "Comics’ Greatest World" superhero line, one of those early 90s “What if superheroes were real?!” concepts that never quite took off.
[X] Joe Casey in full-on Gødland (ILU/RIP) mode, dropping overblown captions all over the dang place.
[X] Dan McDaid drawing "The Ballad of Frank Wells," about an everyman turned superman.
[X] Frank Wells, within the first dozen or so pages, facing off against the end of the world.
[X] Super-soldiers on cool flying motorcycles sent to hunt down the aforementioned everyman turned superman.
[X] Also, there is a bed-in.
[X] Paul Maybury drawing the exploits of Amazing Grace, a superheroine who’s being seduced by an evil entity from outer space.
[X] Amazing Grace's totally awesome gauntlets.
[X] Casey and Maybury smashing the romance comic and superhero comic genres together at ridiculous speeds, possibly in hopes of finding the God Particle of sequential art or at least for some sort of explosion.
[X] Some straight-up psychedelic coloring from Simpson, who manages to bathe every page in the most apocalyptically poppy colors imaginable.
[X] Ulises Farinas drawing Agents of Change, a group of totally aggro miscreants and misfits who may or may not be dreaming up their entire story.
[X] The Agents of Change all up in the club.
[X] Thought bubbles! Who even uses thought bubbles any more? I LOVE THOUGHT BUBBLES.
[X] A crazy dose of beautifully bombastic soul-bending superheroics with the faintest whiff of postmodern reflection tossed in for good measure.
[  ] This guy.

- Dylan Todd

DARINGEST DEVIL COMIC (FIRST RUNNER UP: SATAN)

 
 
 

Daredevil
By Chris Samnee and Mark Waid
Color by Javier Rodriguez
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Ellie Pyle and Stephen Wacker
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Marvel (iOS + Android)

"Try the red one" is probably the single best line of dialogue in comics this year.

I talked to Mark Waid about it not long after Daredevil #25 hit stands, and he told me that he'd had that line in his head since he started working on the book, before he even knew what "the red one" was. He figured it out, though, and in the story he and Chris Samnee told about Matt Murdock once again facing off with his arch-enemy (well, okay, one of his many arch-enemies -- dude has had a pretty confrontational life), it ended up being one of the most exciting twists in all of superhero comics.

What sticks out about it is that it was as simple a reveal as it could possibly be, but that's what Waid, Samnee, Javier Pulido, Marcos Martin and Javier Rodriguez have been doing since the book launched. Everything they've done, from pitting a blind superhero against a villain made of sound to the big reveal of just who it was screwing with Daredevil's life has been, in retrospect, so obvious. Of course that fight should happen. Of course someone doens't need to be blind to have Daredevil's powers. Of course Daredevil's going to fight Bullseye. The trick is that none of it feels simple. None of it feels obvious, because every twist and turn is based on uprooting simple assumptions you have about the characters involved, assumptions that you have because the characters themselves have them.

That's one of Waid's greatest strengths as a writer, and one of the reasons that he's been able to drop hit after hit after hit across three decades: He puts the reader directly into the minds of the characters. Daredevil (and Bruce Banner, and the Flash, and the Fantastic Four, and Impulse, and... well, you get the idea) is so easy for the reader to identify with that his thoughts become our thoughts, and when he's surprised, we're surprised, and when he triumphs, we feel like we've won something. That's an important feel to strive for in a comic like this, where you're taking a character that's been defined by one style of storytelling for so long and moving him in a direction that feels new, even though all those elements of danger and paranoia and self-destruction are still there as a vital part of what's going on.

What makes it really interesting, though, is how all that's balanced out with stuff that we've never seen before. Has Daredevil ever fought Dr. Doom? Has he teamed up with the Silver Surfer and rode through Hell's Kitchen on a cosmic surfboard? I missed some of those West Coast stories from the '60s, but I don't think he has. That stuff's all folded in there, making this incredible blend of old and new, fresh takes on classic ideas, beautiful storytelling that brings Daredevil out of his isolated urban existence into the bigger Marvel universe in a way that works and doesn't detract from those brutal, gritty stories.

It's difficult to pull off, but the storytelling on this book has been universally incredible on all sides, and it's no wonder that the Ikari storyline credits Waid and Samnee as "storytellers" rather than listing them individually as writer and artist. They compliment each other so well that it's hard to imagine the book looking any different. The visuals are the storytelling, resulting in one of those books that takes advantage of everything the medium has to offer in the service of high adventure. It's not just them, either -- everyone working on the book is bringing their A-game. Letterer Joe Caramagna, for instance, deserves all the praise in the world for that panel where the elevator doors are closing over a quiet threat, obscuring the word balloon as Daredevil is shut out at the last minute.

It's a phenomenal title, and a great example of just how good comics can be when they're hitting on every level. If you're looking for the best superhero comic on the stands today, take Ikari's advice. Try the red one.

- Chris Sims

MOST ENJOYABLE STUDY OF FEMINIST COMICS HISTORY

 
 
 

Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines of  Golden Age Comics
By Mike Madrid
Published by Exterminating Angel Press
Available: Amazon (print + Kindle)

Mike Madrid is doing God's work. Before I read his previous book The Supergirls, I was — dare I say it? — kind of smug about my knowledge of women in comics. I knew about Brenda Starr, the Phantom Lady, Miss Fury, all those hellions of yore. I had not, however, heard of the Spider Widow, the Black Angel, or Pat Patriot. Googling led to little that wasn't already in the book, and that was little enough. Luckily, Madrid came out  this year with Divas, Dames & Daredevils, a collection of golden age superheroines ranging from Fantomah to the Veiled Avenger to Maureen Marine, each of them swaying on the abyss of total obscurity.

Divas, Dames & Daredevils presents more than a few interesting challenges to our idea of comics, superheroines, and American mores in general. So many of these stories are outright wild: violence, sexy costumes, and the sleazier pulp tropes flow freely here. But these divas and dames often command an autonomy and importance rarely afforded our modern heroines. It isn't just that they slay fascists, pilot airplanes and wield everything from chlorine guns to Olympian powers — it's that these stories are theirs. They're not the supporting characters, they're not the love interests, and they're not given one or two moments of Girl Power before they're shuffled off to make room for the real (and male-dominated) plot. Divas, Dames & Daredevils makes accessible a lost, heady land of female adventure — one drowned out by the nicer, more traditionally feminine ladies of the silver age and postwar American culture at large. This is an essential book for the comics historian, the feminist fan, even the curious outsider.

- Juliet Kahn

BEST AUSPICIOUS ANTHOLOGY THAT'S GOING TO GET NOMINATED FOR A BUNCH OF INDUSTRY AWARDS NEXT YEAR

 
 
 

Batman Black & White
Edited by Mark Chiarello
Published by DC Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)  / Amazon (hardcover pre-order)

DC Comics' most auspicious art project finally returned in 2013 with a new roster of storytellers that, while perhaps not as uniformly "legendary" as many artists of the 1990s incarnation, rose to the occasion with black and white, out-of-continuity tales that immerse the reader in their variously dark and peculiar visions of the enduringly popular and graphically compelling Dark Knight. Even the stories you don't like -- and there will be some here, as this is an anthology -- can come with rewarding insights and inspire thoughtful discussions about the artistic fascinations expressed by their creators.

Stories and other contributions come from Phil Noto, Michael Allred, Kenneth Rocafort, Chris Samnee, Marc Silvestri, Neal Adams, JG Jones, Lee Bermejo, Jim Steranko, Alex Nino, Jeff Lemire, Rafael Albuquerque, Amanda Conner and many more to come in the two remaining issues of the limited series. Standouts so far include:

- Cartoonist and graphic designer Rian Hughes' impossibly intricate "Babel Comes to Gotham" (text which in the book is set upside down and backwards), featuring Batman and Robin battling an alien who threatens to bring about the "semiotic decay of reality's linguistic and cultural substrate," the result of which would cause civilization as we know it to stop making sense. Illustrated in Hughes' trademark synthesis of mid century style and computer-aided precision, the story is replete with bold typographical choices, daring layouts and endlessly clever metatextual and graphic symbolism, all wrapped up in a fast-paced and properly riveting Batman adventure. Where else could a cartoonist and graphic designer marry so closely his primary concerns of text and image into so happy a narrative than in Batman Black & White?

- Damian Scott's gorgeous, form-defying journey into the Joker's hall of mirrors, whose innovations in visual storytelling  earned him a place in Janelle Asselin's Best Sequential Art Ever (This Week).

- A splendiferous but no less visually sophisticated team-up between Robin and Superman by artist Michael Cho and writer Chip Kidd (another graphic designer/comics creator), where the unlikely partners collaborate to find the missing Batman in a tale that invokes the uncynical heroism of Golden Age superhero comics.

- Joe Quinones and Maris Wicks' utterly charming and exquisitely drawn sitcom-style story of Harley Quinn compelling Poison Ivy to find a cure for the amusingly horrifying allergic reaction that's befallen Harley's beloved hyenas after they ate some gross burgers at a fast food restaurant (which Harley robbed, naturally).

-Possibly the best depicted car chase in years, featuring Batman and Roxy Rockett in an exhilerating action-packed and indeed funny sequence devised by The Wake's Sean Murphy and BPRD's John Arcudi that demonstrates in equal measure each creator's special talents for creating rich visual worlds and characters who, well, if not laugh then at least smirk in the face of danger.

- A next-level work by Rafael Grampá that finds the cartoonist fully indulging his unmatched gift for hyper-detailed figures and blistering action, topped off with a twist that makes his story feel like an epic and unforgettable song that you're stunned to discover lasted for just under three minutes.

- "The Bat-Man In ‘Silent Knight… Unholy Knight!’", a short "directed" by animator and cartoonist Dave Bullock from a story by Michael Uslan, is the artist's most effective demonstration of his mastery of period style and dramatic storytelling. The short takes inspiration from the fashions, lighting and staging of silent film, going so far as to dedicate entire panels to the handsomely designed captions seen in movies of the era. It's really a stroke of genius to present the Batman in such a way, highlighting the similarities between comic books and silent film's usage of images and text and the character's roots in the dark cinema of the era. Bullock understands this intimately, with each line and brush stroke working to communicate something very specific about Batman as a character and Gotham as an arena of suffering as well as justice.

- Dustin Nguyen's break from the delightfully cute, all-ages world of Li'l Gotham provides us with the artist's most sophisticated work yet, a day in the life of Batman that makes Gotham City itself seem as real as the world outside your window. Always a master of style and layout, Nguyen outdoes himself with intensely focused page designs that express a true control over the story he wants to tell, which is not to say the cartoonist doesn't fill each panel to the brim with the pretty pictures we've come to expect from him. On the contrary, every image in Nguyen's "Long Day" comes with precisely the right measure of grit, bombast, emotion or indeed tenderness that's called for.

- Animation designer and cartoonist Sean "Cheeks" Galloway provides an answer to Michael Cho's Golden Age-inspired Superman-Robin adventure to rescue Batman with a Robin-Batman adventure to rescue Superman, this time with visual inspiration taken from modern animation styles. It's as entertaining and funny as Cho's story is classically heroic and dramatic, and another great example of the kinds of aesthetic wells the reader can fall into when reading this most ambitious anthology.

- Andy Khouri

MOST PROMISING INDICATION OF EVEN GREATER THINGS TO COME

 
 
 

Haunter
By Sam Alden
Published online by Study Group

Oh man. This comic. The wordless story of a weary hunter who discovers an ancient temple and decides to explore, only to find himself pursued by a strange creature who won’t give up until one of them dies. It’s so well-paced, so beautiful, with watercolored panels that lead you through the exploration and the chase masterfully and wordlessly.

There’s more than a little bit of fantasy exploration games like Ico or Ocarina of Time in this story, with creator Sam Alden recapturing that feeling of silently exploring a strange structure, only to be interrupted by some sort of impossibly old guardian who doesn’t take kindly to an explorer rifling through their stuff. Alden handles both of those feelings with ease, as well, switching from wonder to panic to violence to regret. And that ending. That ending sneaks up on you and whispers in your ear and, well, haunts you.

Alden’s definitely a talent to watch, with a backlog of comics that run the gamut from slice-of-life to dreamlike stream-of-consciousness and points in-between. (You’ve maybe seen this comic, the heartbreaking Homecoming, that made the rounds on Tumblr a few months back.) If Haunter is anything to go by, expect great things from his future work.

- Dylan Todd

MOST COSMOS-RENDING FUNNY ANIMAL BREAKUP COMIC

 
 
 

Fran Jim WoodringFran
By Jim Woodring
Published by Fantagraphics
Available:  Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android)

As risk of sounding reductive, Jim Woodring's famous, wordless “Frank” strips have always struck me as comics employing the language of Looney Tunes to easily communicate slightly more... esoteric messages about human nature; even if you don't understand THE MEANING behind every last one of Woodring's curious images, you nonetheless feel like something has been learned -- as if something fundamental and (eek!) Jungian has been triggered just from hanging around with fuzzy, capricious Frank, who's like a Bugs Bunny you've observed for long enough, after the cameras have stopped rolling, to understand what an absolute goddamned terror he must be to try and live with. Like, how would such a “person” react to a serious, for-real, no-takebacks cataclysmic end to a romantic relationship?

If it's Frank, it's vision quest time, but unlike the vision quests Woodring has doled out at not-infrequent intervals in the past few years -- Fran is a direct sequel to a 2011 book, Congress of the Animals, and sort of a thematic sibling to a 2010 book, Weathercraft, though I hasten to add that you don't need to have read any prior works to understand this piece -- here the mission is fraught with criticism of Frank's forever-childish nature, and perhaps even the whole notion of "winning back the girl," which after all is a narrative that flatters the usually-male point of view as a theory of conquest, of winning. The fact of the matter is, Frank really doesn't understand Fran, and through his always-adept command of funny animal body language and stretch-and-squash capabilities, Woodring mercilessly communicates the fact that other people -- lovers in particular -- are autonomous beings starring in the sagas of their own lives, and that the idea of realizing “happiness” as a state of cohabitation is potentially just an imposition on someone else's narrative.

In other words, it's Jim Woodring's (500) Days of Summer, which I hadn't realized I'd needed in my life until the artist's signature creation falls to his knees, stretches his jaw back to eclipse his face and screams until the sky splits and falls. Romance comics: still the best.

- Joe McCulloch

MOST TRAGIC LSD COMIC

 
 
 

Lose #5
By Michael DeForge
Published by Koyama Press
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print)

Has any cartoonist to hit the scene in the last few years been met with the kind of near-universal acclaim Michael DeForge has? It’s well deserved, of course. You can see DeForge’s artistic influences in his work -- a little Chris Ware, maybe a little Gary Panter -- yet his style still feels unique, and is always striking. With every new project, the Canadian cartoonist is creating art that somehow manages to be approachable but challenging. His work, especially if you’re not one who frequents alternative comics circles, could certainly be described as weird -- actually, you’d probably call it weird even if you do read a lot of alt comics -- but it has a kind of pop art aesthetic to it that leaves me feeling comfortable handing it to someone who is otherwise not well versed in comics, but curious about the medium.

DeForge's work covers a few different topics, but for reasons I can’t quite explain, the stories I enjoy the most are ones that feature seemingly doomed kids. So Lose #5, the latest issue of DeForge’s one-man anthology series for Koyama Press, was right up my alley. The issue includes three self-contained stories, but the main feature focuses on two high school students experimenting with hallucinogens, including some octopus ink they steal from a zoo. The premise gives DeForge an opportunity to draw the truly bizarre, something he excels at, while chronicling the relationship of two odd and bored high school students in a suburban town, which includes following one to a tragic end. Along the way, there’s bizarre foliage, horses painted like zebras, and a bookworm that matter-of-factly offers fellatio to a kid in a desperate situation. It’s all even more bizarre than that.

And yet it works, because with DeForge it always does. With each new project from him, you never quite know what to expect. But you know it’ll be arresting, weird, expertly crafted, and unlike anything else being published today. And each time, it’ll be one of the best comics you read all year.

- Joseph Hughes

BEST REPACKAGING OF A COMIC THAT CAME OUT WAY BEFORE 2013

 
 
 

Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition
Artwork by Kevin O'Neil
Written by Pat Mills
Published by DC Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / DC Comics (iOS + Android)

If you think Alan Moore hates superheroes because he's grumbled a bit about the current state of publishing, then I'd like to introduce you to Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill, two men who've created a cottage industry of superhero mockery with the brutal satire Marshal Law.

In the years before this collection, readers of a certain stripe treated the goverment-sanction superhero hunter as a shibboleth, the sort of thing you bring up in conversation to know if the person you're sitting across from has sipped from the chosen chalice. With Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition, DC has done its best to provide a definitive look at a series with an irregular (to say the least) publishing history. Starting at Marvel's creator-owned Epic imprint in 1987 with a six-issue miniseries Marshal Law hopped from publisher to publisher and was, frankly, bungled pretty much everywhere it went, appearing in short-lived anthologies and crossovers without ever quite finding a home. (In fact, Top Shelf Productions was going to be the original home for this complete collection but for whatever reason, it ended up coming out through DC Comics. Over a decade after these stories came out and it's still having problems finding a home.)

So, what about the comic itself? I rarely use words like "amazing" to describe comics that aren't my own, but Marshal Law certainly earns that word handily. Utterly deadpan plotting and delivery is combined with O'Neill's trademark itchy lines and bombast to mock, shame and otherwise abuse the genre. I can easily see someone having an allergic reaction to this book, honestly, but I've read through the deluxe edition thrice now and find new things to laugh at. Is it repellant in places? Yes, especially when it comes to its treatment of women, but at the same time that's rather the point. Mills and O'Neill are skewering tropes that were established two decades ago and are still relevant today.

The next time someone complains about Alan Moore, remember: he wrote Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?. Pat Mills wrote a story in which a billionaire's son guns down his parents to get access to their fortune so he can become the Private Eye, a vigilante detective. With the deluxe edition of Marshall Law, Mills proves that he's not the hero that superhero comics readers need, but he's the one that they certainly deserve.

- Kevin Church

MOST LIFE-AFFIRMING ENDING TO A MULTI-YEAR STORY THAT STILL INCLUDED HEROIN AND DEVIL-WORSHIP

 
 
 

Batman Incorporated (Vol 2) #13
Artwork by Chris Burnham and Nathan Fairbairn
Written by Grant Morrison
Lettering by Travis Lanham and Steve Wands
Edited by Mike Marts and Darren Shan
Published by DC Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / DC Entertainment (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

If you were to describe the basic premise of Batman Incorporated #13, the issue that capped off Grant Morrison's breathtakingly cohesive seven-year run of Batman stories across multiple titles, a lot of people, myself included, would probably scoff at you. Make no bones about it: This is a comic about the women in Batman's life telling him that being Batman is childish and silly, with plenty of supporting evidence to back them up. It's an argument so compelling that Batman himself has to wrestle with it with great intensity before deciding that being Batman is too awesome to stop. (Plus, there are always going to be Batman-sized challenges, whether he exists or not.)

I'm simplifying it, but that is the premise in a nutshell. It sounds like it should be all wrong. The on-the-nose premise of Batman being told he's a comic-book character and his subsequent rejection. But somehow, it all works, and a big part of it is the seven years' worth of comics that came before. There are lots of callbacks to the great moments from those issues (Chris Burnham's art nails every note), but it also ties together Morrison's themes in a lot of really compelling ways.

I keep finding myself comparing Morrison's Batman to his similarly acclaimed All-Star Superman, and trying to figure out why Morrison's grand Superman statement was 12 issues while his Batman statement was 73. I've come up with a lot of explanations. You could say it's because being Superman is easier. Supes saves Ragan from dying in a few panels; Batman has to help Ellie turn her life around incrementally for years. It's godhood vs. manhood. One is clean and simple, the other is messy and complicated. But what's really interesting is how much All-Star Superman is a story about finality while Morrison's Batman, over and over, hammers away at eternity. "You're wrong! Batman and Robin will never die!" is the line that starts the Batman R.I.P. arc, and the rest of the run finds ways to tell us just how true that is, even as people's bodies get lost in time or their spirits break or they literally die.

Gods die (or, more specifically, in Superman's case, go off to be beautiful and perfect living inside the sun), but imperfect humanity goes on and on. We're all childish and silly on some level. That's being human. It's no excuse to give up.

- Matt D. Wilson

BEST D3S1GN

 
 
 

Nowhere Men
Artwork by Nate Bellegarde and Jordie Bellaire
Written by Eric Stephenson
Lettering and design by Fonografiks
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print) / Image (DRM-free download) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

Written by Image big boss Eric Stephenson and featuring art by Nate Bellegarde (Hector Plasm, Invincible Presents: Atom Eve & Rex Splode), color by Jordie Bellaire (basically everything) and lettering and design from Fonografiks aka Stephen Finch, Nowhere Men is the latest in a string of “bad science” books from Image and an infuriatingly ambitious book, tying together science fiction, superheroics, corporate branding and the ever-present specter of the Beatles into a satisfying whole.

The premise is, basically, “What if the Beatles had been scientists?” with the four founders of World Corp creating a technology company that, over time, becomes the biggest corporation in the world. Years later, a group of scientists working on a World Corp satellite get, well, changed and come back to Earth with powers beyond those of normal humans. Broken down like that, it’s not unfamiliar, though Stephenson couches his superheroics in a slightly more realistic vernacular. I’ve wondered more than once if this started off as a “How would I do the Fantastic Four if anything was on the table?” idea that sort of snowballed as Stephenson rolled it around in his head while he worked his “day job.”

Which is not to say that this is one of those creator-owned books that are essentially failed Big Two pitches with the serial numbers filed off. Nowhere Men is decidedly its own thing. The creative team produces a fully-realized world that’s familiar but also alien, where scientists appear on chat shows and grace the covers of magazines (designed by Finch) instead of pop stars. Where there are ads for robots and mechanical eyes and where Stanley Kubrick made a movie about one of the World Corp founders.

Taken as a whole, it’s immaculate, with words, art, color and design combining to make an experience that, while not perfect, is pretty dang close. Stephenson occasionally over-explains when he should play it cool, and sometimes obfuscates when he should clarify, but you have to applaud him for surrounding himself with a top-notch team. Bellegarde’s art is the strongest I’ve seen it; dynamic and fluid, with strong character designs and fantastic “acting,” that sells the situations the characters find themselves in. There’s something like 15 “main” characters in the book and, a few hiccups aside (there’s two jerky dark-haired dudes I kept confusing), he gives them all their own look and posture, their own personalities and tics that help keep them separate. Bellaire’s coloring sets the tone as the story travels around the world and space and time. And Fonografiks/Finch’s design work is, as usual, incredible. It’s a book that asks him to design not only the dress of the book itself, but in-universe, period-specific ads, imaginary books, magazine covers and articles, posters, user interfaces, schematics, and more; all of which he handles wonderfully.

For me, the biggest strength of Nowhere Men comes from the fact that it’s a comic book that is perfectly content being a comic book while also pushing to redefine what a comic book is. It’s a bold, beautiful comic packed to the gills with big ideas and interesting characters, a comic that takes every chance to give the reader an immersive experience instead of a quick narrative fix until the next issue. I’m not sure what else you could ask for from a comic.

- Dylan Todd

BEST FILTH OF THE YEAR

 
 
 

Sex Criminals
Artwork by Chip Zdarsky and Becka Kinzie
Written by Matt Fraction
Production by Drew Gill
Edited by Thomas K
Published by Image Comics
Available: Comics shops (print) / Image (DRM-free digital) / ComiXology (iOS + Android)

The title sets a certain tone. Sex Criminals. It's going to be a nasty book. A book about shame, depravity and exploitation. It's going to be the sort of book that depraves and corrupts. Frankly, if we let people read it at all it may tear at the very fabric of society.Yet anyone who has opened up an issue of Sex Criminals has quickly discovered that it's a very sweet book. It's a book about adolescent fear; a book about doubt and need; a book about profound connections. Most of all it's a book about falling in love. And it's lovely. The story of two young people who can stop time with their orgasms -- and find each other in the quiet space that creates -- is as heart-warming, soul-affirming, and blessedly intelligent a story as you'll read this year.It's also full of dildos, "money shots," porn jokes and genitals. Fraction and Zdarsky are not afraid to delight in the absurdity of sex. They also take the subject seriously when they need to. They're respectful of what sex means, from unhappy first fumblings to paid professionals at work. There is nothing nasty or shameful about Sex Criminals. To ignore that, you'd have to be an awful hidebound knee-jerk nannyish craven Comics Code Authority-wannabe.Hi Apple. Thanks for protecting us from art, you epic dicks.

- Andrew Wheeler

BEST AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MINICOMICS

 
 
 

RL
By Tom Hart
Self-published
Available: Tom Hart (free digital) / Spit and a Half (print) /  Wow Cool (print)

Laying on the ground, a few days subsequent to the death of Rosalie Lightning, his two-year old daughter, the artist considers the limitations of representational art. Because the human eye cannot discern everything in its field of vision with perfect clarity at the same time, Tom Hart presents three panels highlighting the background, middleground and foreground of the same perspective, with everything upon which his eyes are not focused depicted as gobs of layered screentone. These visions are then analogized to the past, the present, and the future - the past a distanced image of the little girl playing, the present a close-up of Hart prone in a field, and the future a black barrage of ripped tones and scratches, like blades of grass indistinctly pressed to the face.

Issue #1 of RL was released in late 2012, but the work is more powerful as a continuing series, which will eventually run to nine chapters. Across this space, Hart frequently digresses from the "A" plot -- an account of his family's troubled move from New York to Florida, made bitterly sad by the knowledge that these finance concerns, while real and pressing, could not compare with what was to come -- to scattered reminisces of the girl's personality, and images of present-tense grief. Portents and omens are evaluated, to little comfort. Dreams are illustrated, and favorite books and cartoons are re-drawn straight into the narrative: the films of Hayao Miyazaki; the seething autobio of Chester Brown; the symbolic fancies of Metaphrog; a 1950s Vault of Horror page, upon which Johnny Craig scrapes a blade to form slashes of rain.

This is what comics can do: incorporate a multitude of visual media into its corpus, and charge individual visual elements with special meaning. Hart is not the kind of cartoonist that is particularly concerned with an objective visual perspective; he does not maintain a photographic consistency of depiction from panel to panel. Instead, at risk of repetition, there is mainly the past, where characters are rendered as soft, globular cartoons, and the present, where faces are craggy and ink-beaten: there was a life before this loss, and life immediately after. Images recur. “What do you do when your child dies?” an otherwise black splash page asks? Johnny Craig again; cuts of rain; a woman gazing, without context, into a Vault of Horror pit. “You fall into a hole.”

There are some in this world who insist that the autobiographical minicomic is as tapped and broken a thing as can be named: an exclusionary, barren aesthetic, sick with arrogance and heavy from solipsism, whining alone, forever, in a sub-adolescent tantrum of inarticulate, boring irrelevance, lacking in anything meaningful to offer the hungry, serious, discerning, engaged reader. Ignore them.

- Joe McCulloch

BEST GORGEOUSLY ILLUSTRATED GRAPHIC NOVEL ABOUT LOVE THAT WILL DEPRESS THE HELL OUT OF YOU

 
 
 

The Fifth Beatle
Artwork by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker
Written by Vivek J. Tiwary
Lettering by Steve Dutro
Designed by Justin A. Couch
Production by Christianne Goudreau
Edited by Philip R. Simon
Published by M Press
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon  (print + Kindle) / Dark Horse (iOS + Android + Web)

Billed as the heretofore untold story of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, The Fifth Beatle is a work that embodies the concept of defying expectations. That it exists at all is the first surprise. Given how well researched and ubiquitous Beatles history is in our society, the casual reader (or listener) might expect everything that could be known about the Beatles had been thoroughly excavated over the last fifty years. But as first-time comics writer Vivek J. Tiwary explains in his afterward, shockingly little is to be found in the way of Epstein biographies, considering his unchallenged position as, in the words of Warren Ellis on the book's back cover, one of the unsung architects of 20th century culture.

The second surprise is Epstein himself, depicted here as complex and contradictory a character as you can find in any comic book, or indeed anywhere. A businessman with the soul of a poet, Epstein straddles the strong cultural lines drawn between the squares and the cool kids of the era, which makes him an outsider to both. We're told that the fairly well-off young man tried his hand in the military, drama and fashion design before managing his family's successful music retail business, a series of important experiences that made Epstein uniquely suited to recognize immediately the aesthetic and cultural potential of the Beatles when he's led to a gig in a dark underground club. Depicted with grace as well as bombast by the astonishing Andrew Robinson, you can see that spark of inspiration when Epstein watches the Beatles perform, and you can see that he knows exactly what he must do with the rest of his life. He sees it in every detail. It is a glorious moment.

Another surprise is how honestly The Fifth Beatle deals with money. As presented in the book, convincing the fab four to sign up with Epstein was a simple matter of honesty and ambition. For all their more altruistic and creative concerns, the Beatles and Epstein wanted to be big. Commercially big. Bigger than Elvis was Epstein's mantra, and that was all the Beatles needed to hear. Epstein pursued the goal relentlessly while protecting the lads from the uglier side of success -- the ugliest of which is Epstein's encounter with infamous Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker. Robinson imagines their luncheon as something very similar to Ned Beatty's classic dark messiah moment in Network, with Parker appearing at the end of a huge table as some kind of demon who consumes the souls of the world. The romantic Epstein contemplated his artists as matadors in a bullfight -- "The matador becomes death -- he kills the killing machine. But not before he gives the bull its glory, shows the world its beauty, its power, its majesty. He gives the aficionados something to believe in, something to admire, and ultimately something to hate. So in the end, he gives people hope." Parker, on the other hand, admonishes Epstein for his creative ideals and confesses to not even seeing the King's movies. He spits, "Elvis takes fifty percent of everything I earn."

The Fifth Beatle is frequently jubilant, with Robinson's gorgeous artwork (and a memorable sequence by master cartoonist Kyle Baker) giving us uncommon access to his protagonist's soul. We experience the euphoric highs of Epstein's success; we delight in how his vision is vindicated again and again; and we feel cool hanging out with him and the Beatles and the beautiful women who surround them constantly. But getting so close to Epstein means we experience his lows with just as much potency. And things get very, very low.

For all his achievements, Epstein was denied that which he wanted most, and that which his beloved Beatles said so famously was all anyone really needed: love. The Fifth Beatle opens with Epstein getting brutally beaten in a homosexual encounter gone awry. Epstein was gay in a time and place where being gay was a serious criminal offense, which drove gay men like him into the underground, sometimes into the company of unscrupulous men who would take advantage of others' desperation and panic. Epstein was haunted by the beating and other traumas sustained in service to his longing for love, and became a drug addict.

What will stay with readers of The Fifth Beatle is the heartbreaking final section of the book, in which we experience the confusion, fear and pain that Epstein surely felt in his final days, not just because of how emotionally gripping it is, but also because of how well Robinson avails himself of the power of comics. Robinson's command of the page, of line and of color elevates this tragic story of a very lonely man who wanted so much so badly to positively mythic proportions.

- Andy Khouri

MOST CONSISTENTLY COOL SHARED UNIVERSE LINE

 
 
 

The Star Wars line
Edited by Randy Stradley
Published by Dark Horse
Available: Comics shops (print) / Amazon (print + Kindle) / Dark Horse (iOS + Android + Web )

It’s been It’s been a banner year for comics set in the galaxy far, far away. 2013 has seen the launch of Brian Wood and Carlos D’Anda’s adjectiveless Star Wars series, the comics adaptation of George Lucas’ first draft screenplay of The Star Wars -- which is the weirdest thing ever -- and Zack Giallongo’s all-ages graphic novel, Ewoks: Shadows of Endorgreat comics, all.

For me, though, there have been two titles that stand out from the rest, namely Gabriel Hardman, Corrina Bechko and Brian Thies’ Star Wars: Legacy and Star Wars: Dark Times, from Mick Harrison, Douglas Wheatley and Gabriel Guzman. Both of these titles manage to take lesser-explored eras of the Star Wars timeline and tell stories that are exciting, fresh and thought-provoking.

Hardman and Bechko’s Legacy focuses on Ania Solo, a distant-descendant of Han Solo and Leia Organa, who finds herself in the middle of a galactic struggle that might break apart a newly-formed Empire. In-between space battles, lightsaber fights and awesome action set-pieces, Hardman and Bechko introduce us to a cast of characters that include our heroine, Ania, a spunky mechanic who don’t take no mess from nobody; an Imperial Knight whose loyalty will be tested; and a mysterious Sith lord who wants to bring back the Bad Old Days. It all zips along like a space adventure story should, with Hardman and Bechko bringing the same respect for an established universe that they brought for Boom! Studios' Planet of the Apes comics, while infusing the book with a sense of adventure and spirit that most modern Star Wars endeavors only pretend at. Hardman and Thies’ gritty, kinetic art style gives everything that lived-in, dusty sheen that is essential in the Star Wars universe.

Legacy is kind of an easy sell: young Outer Rim nobody gets caught up in galactic intrigue and danger, has adventures. Dark Times is a little tougher. It’s an ambitious book, with Harrison, Wheatley and Guzman telling stories of separate and yet intertwined groups who have to figure out how to live after surviving a galactic civil war. It’s a book full of moral quandaries, bold risks, and significant losses. And while it lacks a lot of the visceral adventure of books like Wood & D'Anda's Star Wars and Legacy, it packs an emotional punch that’s hard to ignore.

The most recently-collected Dark Times arc, titled "Fire Carrier," from Harrison and Guzman, tells the tale of Jedi Master K’Kruhk, who, along with a small group of padawans, managed to escape the “Order 66” Purge seen in the Revenge of the Sith film. "Fire Carrier" finds them in an Imperial refugee camp where they come face-to-face with the horror that war brings. Like the rest of Dark Times’ stories, it asks you how far you’re willing to go to protect those closest to you, how much you can compromise before you’ve turned away from your core beliefs, and how you determine light from darkness in a universe where the distinction between those two ideas grows thinner by the second. It’s powerful stuff.

- Dylan Todd

BEST COMIC THAT'S NOT COMING OUT UNTIL NEXT YEAR

 
 
 

The Auteur #1 (Premature Release)
Illustrated by James Callahan
Written and lettered by Rick Spears
Colored by Luigi Anderson
Edited by Charlie Chu
Published by Oni Press

Available: Comics shops (print) / ComiXology (iOS + Android + Web + Etc.)

A few weeks before Oni Press filled me in on the "Premature Release" of its off-the-rails exploration of the movie biz, I was shopping for a new skateboard. You know, one of those trendy vinyl ones that fit into a backpack like the kids like. Along the way I stumbled upon the artwork of James "Barf Comics" Callahan, who is known in part for psychedelic skate decks -- think Geof Darrow if Geof Darrow had worked on Point Break instead of The Matrix -- and I bookmarked his website for later looking-at-ings. Imagine my surprise when a preview PDF arrives in my e-mail not long after that and it's a comic by this skate deck artist and the guy who wrote Oni's Black Metal. A book by creators who know metal and skateboarding. Real hard sell, Oni.

Then I read the thing. Man alive. Abraham Lincoln hacks into the protagonist's face with an axe across a double page spread after page one. PAGE ONE!

If you need me to elaborate past that detail, that the book's about "an unhinged movie producer desperate to bounce back from the biggest box office flop of all time," that's cool. I mean, I'm not going to do it here, but that's cool. I'm too busy looking at the fluorescent finesse of Luigi Anderson's colors on the gnarliest angler fish I've ever seen in an illustrated strip club.

Provided you were lucky enough to pick up the premature release of The Auteur #1 during New York Comic Con this past fall, you know what I'm talking about. If not, join me and my glow-in-the-dark vinyl skateboard and check out the first issue on ComiXology while you wait for The Auteur ongoing to officially kick off in 2014. You'll be glad you spent the final days of 2013 doing so.

- Caleb Goellner

SPECIAL AWARD FOR HOLDING IT DOWN AND KEEPING IT TIGHT

 
 
 

Image Comics
Eric Stephenson, Publisher

Image's very good year really began in October 2012 at New York Comic Con when the publisher announced titles including Sex Criminals, East of West, Three, and The End Times of Bram and Ben. The buzz on the con floor was enough to steal thunder from Marvel as it readied its first wave of NOW titles.

The excitement wasn't just about these specific titles. It was about Image rediscovering its mojo as an ideas factory. Thanks to the success of Saga, and with The Walking Dead underwriting every move, Image was in a position to give voice to new ideas from established talents and emerging creators alike; Matt Fraction, Riley Rossmo, Amy Reeder, Jonathan Hickman, Jimmie Robinson. Kelly Sue DeConnick, Rick Remender, Chris Mooneyham, Howard Chaykin, Sina Grace, Joe Casey, Roc Upchurch and many, many more.

Image today has arguably the strongest slate of books it's ever offered, and it's a diverse slate powered by invention, impossible to narrow down to a single niche. The result has been growing market share for Image, and a growing comics market over all. Image may have made itself the first comic book publisher to succeed as both a comic publisher and as a book publisher.

Lazarus, Five Weapons, Sex, Five Ghosts, Drumhellar, Pretty Deadly, Burn The Orphanage, Rat Queens, Umbral, Jupiter's Legacy, The Bounce, Secret, Chin Music, Ghosted, Sheltered, Manifest Destiny, Rocket Girl, Velvet, Black Science. Image had a very good year, and they don't show any signs of slowing down.

- Andrew Wheeler

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