The Best Comic Books of 2013, Part Five
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 five of ComicsAlliance’s Best Comic Books of 2013.
About the Wanda Maximoff Memorial Awards
Wanda Maximoff, evil mutant and Scarlet Witch, will perhaps best be remembered for her hard work in attempted genocide when she used her reality-warping powers to destroy the mutant race. However, she achieved a great many other things before recently being taken from us by fellow Uncanny Avenger Rogue; she was an Avenger for much of her career, and a Defender at times, and even the leader of Force Works, which doesn’t suggest particularly high standards. Yet she never really spent time in any team with an X in the name. Peculiar, that. Everyone else in her family has done it. At times it seems like everyone else in the mutant race has done it. But not Wanda. Less interested in hanging out with mutants, more interested in wiping them from existence.
Despite this, Wanda will be fondly remembered as a loving wife by her husband… no, wait, Vision has his emotions rebooted. She will be remembered as a doting mother by her two… no, hang on, Wiccan and Speed were raised by different parents. She will be remembered as a devoted daughter by… huh, I guess Magneto didn’t actually know he had any kids until years later.
So, Wanda will be remembered for her fickle desire to wipe out an entire race of people, and that’s basically that. Rest in peace, Wanda Maximoff.
Seriously, stay dead. You were a monster.
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.
HOLY S*** BATMAN!
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.
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.
BEST REVIVAL OF A SERIES THAT WAS ALREADY PRETTY MUCH PERFECT
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.
TEEN CHOICE AWARD
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.)
THE 2013 KYOKO OKAZAKI AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN KYOKO OKAZAKI
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.
DANKEST DUNGEONEERING COMIC
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.
MOST INSANE COMIC IN WHICH A GUY'S HEAD IS REPLACED WITH THAT OF A GHOST COW
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.
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.
MOST PROLIFIC CARTOONIST OF LEGEND
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.
SPECIAL COMMENDATION FOR EUROPEAN MASTERS EXCLUDED BY CIRCUMSTANCE FROM PRIOR CRITICS' LISTS
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?
MOST ASTONISHINGLY COOL REVAMP OF '90S SUPERHEROES YOU'VE PROBABLY NEVER HEARD OF
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.
MOST TRAGIC LSD COMIC
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.
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.
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.
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
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.