The Gwen Stacy Memorial Awards: The Best Comic Books of 2014, 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 2014.
Click here for PART ONE.
Click here for PART TWO.
About the Gwen Stacy Memorial Awards
It's been a year of highs and lows for Gwen Stacy, which is unfortunate, as she doesn't do well with sudden changes in altitude. As one of comics' best known refrigerated women she was always fated to die in the big screen sequel Amazing Spider-Man 2 so that her fella could learn an important lesson about responsibility or reality or his dead parents or something -- and all this despite a performance by Emma Stone that brought the character to life like never before. The death of Gwen Stacy is one of those immutable touchstones of the grand superhero narrative; every hero who comes after her is vulnerable because of the night Gwen Stacy died. Sorry, Gwen, but it's written in the stars; whether in the comics or on the screen, you gotta die.
But a funny thing happened in the latter half of 2014. Gwen Stacy came back, as an amazing Spider-Woman in a spectacular Spider-suit. Despite the predestined inevitability of her on-screen death, Gwen is the star of her own ongoing title coming next year. So we come not to bury Gwen, but to praise her. In 2014, it turned out women don't have to die to give men a story; women can have stories too. Who knew?
I've already written about how well Jason Aaron and Jason Latour absolutely nail the modern South in the details of their Image series about football, barbecue, and intense, brutal violence. With those two talented creators, it was something readers could expect. What they couldn't have expected is how much of a gut-punch the end of the first, four-issue would be. Without giving it away, I'll just say that Aaron and Latour seemingly knock down the house of cards they've been building meticulously for four issues. What's even more of a shock is that the next two issues take the merciless, mean, heartless villain of that first arc and make him into a sympathetic character who hired his magical, old, blind football sensei to his coaching staff and was one of the only non-racist members of the Runnin' Rebs football team in his youth. Give Aaron and Latour an expectation, and they'll sidestep it, turn it on its side, or completely upend it. I have no idea what's coming in this series. It's exactly what I want.
Okay, so let me try and make this make sense: The Wrenchies are a group of teenagers in a dystopian future where adults are literal soul-sucking vampire nightmares called Shadowsmen who will infect you with their touch. The Wrenchies are also a comic book team created by Sherwood Breadcoat as a reaction to a damaging event in his younger years involving a man in a cave. The Wrenchies is also a story about a sweet, innocent, probably-too-religious kid named Hollis who is transported from “the real world” to the Wrenchies world, a violent world of magic and terror and cool headquarters, complete with cut-aways lovingly rendered and expanded upon by Farel Dalrymple in lush watercolors.
Thematically, it’s similar to the ground Dalrymple’s covered in his previous books, Pop Gun War and his Study Group-hosted webcomic, It Will All Hurt, though both of those feel a lot more like dreams than The Wrenchies does. Which is not to say The Wrenchies is an easy read, but, like Dalrymple’s other work, it deals with growing up, confronting adulthood, and turning art into a way to cope with trauma and change. Think Catcher In the Rye for kids who grew up way too into The Phantom Tollbooth, Frank Frazetta, Mad Max and X-Men comics.
The Wrenchies, while pitched as a young adult graphic novel, isn’t going to hold your hand. Like any good piece of art, it invites you in, but it doesn’t let you get too comfortable. It’s full of growing pains and uncomfortable feelings and friendship and changes and things coming together and things falling apart. So… just like growing up. The Wrenchies is beautiful. The Wrenchies is sad. The Wrenchies is frustrating. The Wrenchies is glorious.
Artwork by Brent Anderson and Alex Sinclair with Alex Ross
Written by Kurt Busiek
Lettered and designed by JG Roshell and Comicraft
Edited by Kristy Quinn and Jessica Chen
Published by Vertigo
Available: Amazon / ComiXology / Comics Stores
Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's Astro City will quietly enter its 20th year of publication next year. In that time, it has bounced between publishers and changed up its tone here and there (the story that goes a little grim is called "The Dark Age" in case you were curious), but in spite of those changes, or perhaps in part because of them, the series has maintained a level of consistency that is beyond compare. The creative team did take a break for a few years before the series relaunched in 2013 under the Vertigo banner, but the book didn't have any of the rustiness one might expect; the creators jumped right back into examining the lives of regular people for whom superheroes are a regular part of life. Busiek and Anderson have taken that concept and mined it extensively for new concepts and ideas to explore. And they're still tapping the vein for gold. The nine issues that came out this year explored some fascinating avenues, from superhero personal assistants to what happens to evil robots after they're destroyed to superheroes having to cope with the notion that they may just have aged out of the job. The concepts in Astro City make single issues out of ideas that otherwise sustain entire series, and its creators do so with an enduring grace and poetry that makes every issue a thing of beauty.
Success can be a dangerous thing, both in the ways it flatters our vanity and make us blind to the failings that drove us, and in the way that it raises expectations and sets us up for whole new levels of failure. The follow-up to your first big success is almost inevitably doomed to disappoint. After all, you can't break out twice.
You can probably see where I'm going with this. The challenge of the second success is the motivation behind Katie's every action -- and re-action -- in Seconds as she prepares to move on from the restaurant that built her reputation as a chef to open a restaurant of her own. It's also the challenge that author Bryan Lee O'Malley faced in following up his smash hit series Scott Pilgrim, which is one of the defining comic works of the last ten years. Seconds is not in fact O'Malley's second work but it fulfills that role in his career; it's the book that grew in the shadow of his breakout success. Like a fungus!
But unlike the dangerous mushrooms that allow Katiie to rewrite her own history and replace old mistakes with exciting and devastating new ones, Seconds is actually as good as it looks. Allowing for the fact that it could never be the breakthrough jolt of fresh energy that Scott Pilgrim was, it manages to offer a mature follow-up, as much in sync with the preoccupations of adults in their thirties as Pilgrim was with the lives of twentysomethings -- and with some of the same video game realism that Pilgrim offered, even without the video game motifs. O'Malley has mastered his difficult 'second' novel. Now on to the impossible third one!
AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE
It's rare that there's a comic that's both completely surprising and completely inevitable, and yet, here we are in a world where Archie and his gang are contending with a full-on zombie apocalypse after Jughead became a victim of necromancy, and where Cheryl Blossom murdered her brother with a machete to avoid his incestuous advances. And it's great.
It's the ultimate example of a great idea that started as a joke -- Francesco Francavilla drew a zombie-themed variant cover for Life With Archie, a book that's completely free of the undead, and almost immediately it became a thing that had to happen. And the amazing thing is, despite Archie's 70-year reign as the safe, friendly face of small-town America, it works. Part of it is because the Riverdale gang is made up of archetypes that fit neatly into the horror movie structure and part of it's because those 70 years have provided an awful lot of subtext to expand on in a book geared towards horror, but it all works.
And it works beautifully. Francavilla's moody artwork still has a touch of the dark comedy that makes the premise so fun, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's self-aware scripts have that same mix of presenting this ridiculous mashup with as much sincerity as it can, and even when the creators and readers are fully aware of just how ridiculous it is, that sincerity bridges the gap to make it something that works on every level, from the ironic to the sincere and all the way back again.
A decade ago, I would've thought you were out of your mind if you told me that Archie would be publishing a comic where Jughead was bitten by a shambling Hot Dog that Sabrina the Teenage Witch brought back to life and then led a horde of zombies to destroy all civilization, let alone that it was the best horror comic of 2014. And yet, here we are, with the best possible version of a book that almost had to happen.
THE LEANING GIRL
Drawings and color by François Schuiten
Photography by Marie-Françoise Plissart
Live-action performance by Martin Vaughn-James
Written by Benoît Peeters
Translated by Stephen D. Smith
Published by Alaxis Press
Available: Alaxis Press / Comics Shops
François Schuiten & Benoît Peeters have been collaborating on expansive, fanciful comics since the early '80s, many of them under the banner of “The Obscure Cities” - a shared universe of impossible and metaphorical urban environments existing in a world parallel to our own. One story might concern an expanding cube's threat to the political and intellectual order. Another might lampoon real-world redevelopment efforts in Brussels. Yet another may position the secrets of a nation's true borders as a birthmark upon a woman's backside,which suggests a more traditional element at play: the frequent pairing of weird, worried, lumpen male protagonists with gorgeous, feisty, not-always-entirely-clothed supporting women.
As a result, it is especially interesting to read this Kickstarted translation of The Leaning Girl, a 1996 installment premised on a female protagonist's troubled coming of age. Ever since the great eclipse of Year 749, young Mary von Rathen has leaned to one side – it's the only way she can keep herself balanced. Out of concern for her health (and to get her out of her mother's hair), Mary is sent away to a boarding school from which she promptly escapes, leading to a journey across the land that eventually dovetails with two additional, interspersed plots: (1) the travails of bickering scientists studying a foreign celestial body; and (2) the extravagant angst of a painter who's abandoned his loved ones to work in self-pitying isolation. In fact, the painter is isolated not just physically, but formally – his story takes place at the dawn of the 20th century, in a world much like ours, depicted not through Schuiten's drawings but high-contrast black and white photography by Marie-Françoise Plissart, shooting the pioneering comics artist Martin Vaughn-James (as: The Painter) in a variety of airy, barren scenes, eerily suggestive of minimally-inked Bristol board.
That the art of Schuiten & Plissart should seem so cohesive will come as no surprise to Obscure City explorers, as these comics are renowned for the technical mastery of their visuals. The 'dawn of the 20th century' motif is especially potent for Schuiten, segueing from a woozy color dream sequence prelude into images reminiscent of Georges Méliès and Winsor McCay - overwhelmingly rich, almost woodcut-styled pages that never sacrifice clarity despite the enormity of their visible labor. There is no more handsome a comic out there right now, yet writer Peeters undercuts the awesomeness of these feats of draftsmanship by presenting his story's creative characters -- artists, inventors -- as controlling egos, eager to explain to Mary the path of her life while pawing at her alarmingly young body. There is absolutely a strong element of sexual and paternalistic fantasy here, of an especially banal sort, but auto-critical in a way that casts these dreamers and painters as men of limited utility; relegated, in spite of their self-importance, to signposts on a girl's growth to adulthood – two male creators not so much inhabiting a female character's headspace as begging the forgiveness of their own creation. A whimsical fancy about how you should grow the hell up.
MOON KNIGHT: FROM THE DEAD
Artwork by Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire
Written by Warren Ellis
Lettered by Chris Eliopoulos
Edited by Ellie Pyle and Stephen Wacker
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Amazon / ComiXology / Comics Stores
The last time Warren Ellis dropped into mainstream Marvel for the first six issues of a new superhero series, it was with Adi Granov on Iron Man, and within a couple years, Tony Stark became the most popular and significant character in the Marvel Universe. That's probably not going to happen with Moon Knight, a clinically insane ex-mercenary who avenges night travelers while wearing the aspect of an Egyptian moon god he also talks to sometimes. That stuff don't play in the flyover states.
While it's doubtful Moon Knight will be the next Marvel film franchise, Ellis and Declan Shalvey have certainly redefined the character for this millennium, and any creator who comes near Marc Spector for the next decade will have this watershed series to aspire to. In six issues, each a self-contained story, Ellis, Shalvey, and the remarkable Jordie Bellaire embraced the insanity and honed Moon Knight into a perfect new articulation of his character that is vicious, haunting, and sly.
Moon Knight: From The Dead is lean and clever and constantly surprising, with Moon Knight facing the strangest threats of an already abnormal career: a super-soldier rebuilding his body with others' parts; an ectoplasmic gang of ghost punks; the dream-fungus of a dead man. Every story is a race through violence and oddity, with Shalvey's nefarious lines and Bellaire's heroin-green motifs combining into vortex reeling you in to this uncomfortable world of casual lunacy.
And just like that, it was over. Though others have picked up the truncheon admirably, it's going to be a long time before anybody tops this brief, brilliant, unusual run. Moon Knight is dead; long live Moon Knight.
Joe Keatinge and Leila del Duca's Shutter is a nonstop whirlwind of action and insanity, following photographer/adventurer Kate Kristopher as she attempts to unravel some long-buried family secrets, fighting her way through a near-future funhouse universe filled with ghosts, robots, animal people, flying cars, ninjas, and danger lurking around every corner. Keatinge seems to be packing an entire lifetime of inspirations into the writing of these pages, and del Duca's art not only matches pace with her collaborator, but adds a grace and zest to the proceedings that takes the story from merely inventive to positively explosive. Together, they've made Shutter into my new favorite series, a book that explores the medium's potential while reveling in the inherent absurdities of the form, a poptastic tidal wave of unchecked, unhinged imagination.
Artwork by Aaron Kuder and Wil Quintana
Written by Greg Pak
Lettering by DC Lettering
Edited by Eddie Berganza, Anthony Marques and Jeremy Bent
Published by DC Comics
Available: Amazon / ComiXology / Comics Stores
Let's be honest: they ought to call it Satisfaction Comics. Ever since Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder took over as the regular creative team on this title with issue #25, each new story has been a delight to read. Perhaps the most prominent change brought about by this title has been the reinvention of Lana Lang as a fearless electrical engineer and Clark's tightest ladybro from childhood times, but between his work on this title and that in Batman/Superman, Pak has been developing and contributing to the inner lives of the Superman family at large, including not only Lana, but also John Henry Irons, Lois Lane, and Krypto (okay, maybe not a lot on the inner life of Krypto, but you know what I mean).
Additionally, the artwork by regular team of Kuder and Wil Quintana is bold and dynamic enough to live up to the name of Action as Superman fights giant monsters, liberates a city at the center of the earth, or turns into a monster himself. This title is so good it couldn't even be derailed by a multiple month crossover title in which Superman turns into Doomsday and the Red Lanterns have to punch him to Earth from space, resulting in an actually pretty cool story (with help from other collaborators such as Charles Soule and Tony Daniel, et al.). While "Doomed" turned out way better than the premise deserved, hopefully Pak and Kuder will get to tell the kind of energetic but still personal stories they told the rest of the year for some time to come.
Artwork by Mike Deodato, Szymon Kudranski, Kev Walker, Valerio Schiti, Salvador Larroca, Rags Morales, Simone Bianchi, Frank Martin, Jr. and others
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Lettered by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Tom Brevoort, Lauren Sankovitch, Jake Thomas and Wil Moss
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Amazon / ComiXology / Comics Stores
Here we are, in an overall period of reconstruction, and Jonathan Hickman is dissecting your heroes like the petty little dead men they really are. New Avengers has been building up in pressure since it began, and in 2014 it finally exploded, blowing a hole in the center of the Marvel Universe. And even though you knew it was coming, it did nothing to lessen the shock or the impact. The roiling tensions are overflowing, the monstrous secrets are out, and now we get to see what heroes are really made of.
Hickman is justifiably praised for his meticulous world-building, but world-building doesn't make great stories; characters do, and Hickman has burrowed into the very core of each icon he tortures. In a fictional universe where the protagonists are constantly tested to their limits by crises of ever-increasing severity, the multiversal threat that Hickman has created tops them all, and the sheer immensity of it is revealing more about these heroes than you might have even wanted to know.
There have been plenty of stories that pitted hero against hero and deconstructed them over the last few years, but none in a manner this thorough and authentic. Each character has a very strong point-of-view, and no choice they make is done for the sake of the big shock, e.g. half of the beats in Avengers Vs. X-Men, Civil War, and Five Or Six More Marvel Events. Every momentous decision made by Iron Man or Black Panther or Namor -- no matter how dubious or self-serving or appalling -- makes sense given what we already know of them, like truths you didn't want to acknowledge. Despite the inconsistent art this year, the strength of the character work and the constantly-elevating stakes made New Avengers a must-read every month.
We all know where it's headed again. "In 5 Months...Time Runs Out!" and somehow that leads to Secret Wars and... every other Marvel event ever. With his in-depth understanding of these characters, though, I'm sure Hickman will be able to pull off something unique and unexpected. What these characters will do on the way there, and who they'll be after it's all said and done? No idea. Isn't it great?
EDGE OF SPIDER-VERSE #2
By all indications, the alternate-universe Gwen Stacy version of Spider-Womanl (she got bitten instead of Peter Parker) that debuted in Edge of Spider-Verse #2, a tie-in issue building up to the Spider-Verse event, wasn't supposed to be much more than a small element of a much larger story. She debuted in (and so far, has only appeared in) the second issue of an offshoot miniseries, for example. That one issue by Jason Latour and Robbi Rodriguez proved so vibrant, exciting and, perhaps above all else, current, that fans began demanding that the "Spider-Gwen" get her own series, and Marvel had to oblige.
It's rare that one-off, alternate universe characters get such a swell of support from fans, but Latour and Rodriguez did such a great job of building a world for the character (the "previously in..." page is a delight) and making her compelling that, in hindsight, it seems almost inevitable. Still, who could have guessed that this comic about a girl in a band who wears a hoodie at night to go fight crime would outshine the massive event comic it was supposed to be a prologue for? It's a great example of the little guy (uh, girl) winning one this year.
Artwork by Skottie Young and Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Written by Skottie Young
Lettered by Jeff Eckleberry
Edited by Sana Amanat, Devin Lewis and Nick Lowe
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: ComiXology / Comics Stores / Amazon Pre-Order
It may seem like calling Skottie Young's Rocket Raccoon series, which debuted after the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, a TV cartoon in comic book form is some sort of backhanded insult, but trust me, it isn't. This book is kinetic. It moves. The pages crackle with energy and background detail and above all else, a cracking sense of humor, in a way that reminds me of few comics but of many, many cartoons I have loved throughout my life, from the work of Chuck Jones to stuff like Regular Show. The character designs and expressions are bold and bigger than reality. And hey, look: There are plenty of actual cartoons that have been adapted into comics over the past few years, many of them really good (Adventure Time, for example). And yet Rocket Raccoon stood above during the last six months of 2014. What's really surprising about it is that Marvel could have put out just about anything in the weeks after Guardians became the smash hit movie of the year and expected it to do pretty well, but they handed the reins to an artist brimming with creativity in Young, and let him cut loose. It was an excellent, excellent decision.