The Best Comic Books of 2013, Part Four
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 four of ComicsAlliance’s Best Comic Books of 2013.
About the Thor’s Mom Memorial Awards
Spoiler warning: If you haven’t seen Thor: The Dark World yet; you’ve had weeks. Get on with it.
Frigga, great queen of Asgard, wise counsel to Odin and mother of gods, leader of men, seeker into mystery, and badass with a sword, tragically died this year in Thor: The Dark World so that others might have a plot.
Like so many women before her, Frigga found that her ultimate place in life was not as the lead character in her own story, but as a motivating factor in the story of some dudes. As the one person in all of creation who could bring together her two warring sons — Thor, God of Thunder, and Loki, God of Tumblr — Frigga’s death was inevitable. Through her sacrifice we honor all of superhero fiction’s many Women in Re-Frigga-rators.
Yet when we remember Frigga, let us not remember her only as a plot contrivance. Let us remember her also as a smart, fierce, proud and defiant warrior. Frigga showed us that the best fight scene in the whole movie is sometimes the one with a woman wielding a sword. We hope that many more female heroes will follow Frigga onto the screen, and in her name, we hope they get to star in their own damn stories.
In this fourth of a multi-part feature, we honor Thor’s mom’s completely fictional memory with recognition of the work we at ComicsAlliance enjoyed most in the year that was.
MOST BOUNTIFUL SOURCE OF WEIRDNESS
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.
BEST 'EVENT' COMIC
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 Faction, Day 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.
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.
MOST HIGHLY DUBIOUS MARVEL CONCEPT THAT ACTUALLY TURNED OUT REALLY, REALLY GOOD (X-MEN GROUP)
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.
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.
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.
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.
BEST MOVIE COMIC
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
BEST ACTUALLY RELEVANT DYSTOPIAN FUTURE COMIC
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.
BEST ORIGIN STORY
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.
BEST ANTHOLOGY RETAILERS WERE REFUSING TO SELL
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.
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.
MOST PROMISING INDICATION OF EVEN GREATER THINGS TO COME
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.
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.
BEST AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MINICOMICS
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.