The Best Comic Books of 2013, Part Three
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. Welcome to part three of ComicsAlliance’s Best Comic Books of 2013.
About the Earth-3 Aquaman Memorial Awards
Aquaman of Earth-3 lived as he died.
Like a chump.
In this third of a multi-part feature, we honor Earth-3 Aqauman’s completely fictional memory with recognition of the work we at ComicsAlliance enjoyed most in the year that was.
BEST RON SWANSON-ESQUE CANADIAN PIRATE ADVENTURE COMIC
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.
MOST DELIGHTSOME AGONY
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.
BEST COMICS ABOUT SQUADS ON SUICIDE MISSIONS
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.
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
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.
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.
BEST X-RATED SCI-FI DRAMEDY
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.
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.
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.
MOST 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.)
MOST HIGHLY DUBIOUS MARVEL CONCEPT THAT ACTUALLY TURNED OUT REALLY, REALLY GREAT - SPIDER-MAN GROUP
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.)
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.
BEST TIME-TRAVELING ROMANCE
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.
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.
BEST AUSPICIOUS ANTHOLOGY THAT'S GOING TO GET NOMINATED FOR A BUNCH OF INDUSTRY AWARDS NEXT YEAR
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.