The Wolverine Memorial Awards: The Best Comic Books Of 2014, Part One
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 one of ComicsAlliance’s Best Comic Books of 2014.
About The Wolverine Memorial Awards
Created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein and John Romita Sr. in the pages of The Incredible Hulk in 1974, Wolvie first appeared as a Canadian government agent dispatched to deal with Hulk’s intrusion into Canada. His first reinvention occurred in his second full appearance, where he ditched the lofty offices of Ottawa for a gig at the newly international Xavier School for Angsty Randoms. In the early days, Wolverine was thought to be about sixty years old, making him old enough to have served in the Second World War. That made sense in the ’70s. Marvel’s sliding timeline managed to add another ten, twenty, thirty, forty years to his age, but somehow Wolverine’s timeline slid in both directions. When he died quietly in the wilderness he loved so dearly, Wolverine was so old that the country he was born in almost wasn’t Canada yet.
Bye Wolverine. Bye. So long and thanks for all the snikts.
Oh, and welcome to the ex-men. We know you’ll survive the experience.
If there's one thing that can absolutely be said about Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy's Vertigo mini-series The Wake, it's that it was never predictable. From seeming genre shifts between issues to a massive time jump halfway through, the series never settled into any sort of pattern. That was true right up until the final issue, which hit in July. The series finale answered some questions (What happened to Lee? Will the Governess get hers?) but it also raised a whole bunch (Are the sea creatures benevolent, malevolent, or both? What's their evolutionary connection to humanity?). That's the essence of good fiction, especially anything as philosophical as The Wake ended up being. This is a 10-issue comic that starts with some scientists trapped in a underwater fortress and ends with a full-on creation myth. It's beyond ambitious. But Snyder and Murphy pull it off with some abstract storytelling, some stunningly beautiful art, and with characters who really matter to the reader by the end. The Wake is a story that ends in something of an ink blot test, daring the reader to see what he or she wants to see in the eyes of a monster (or a savior) as Leeward stares toward him in the water. Then it tells the reader: It's all an adventure. Make your own way. Explore. It's a challenge in the most literal sense of the word, and I for one, don't mind being pushed a little.
TRANSFORMERS VS. G.I. JOE
The modern iteration of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe toy line has been around since 1982, while their Transformers line has been around since 1984. In the last 30+ years, the armies of characters from each line have starred in dozens of cartoon shows, hundreds of comic books and even a few live-action movies. At this point, it might seem something of a challenge to find new takes on characters that have been rebooted and tinkered with so much over the decades. Even mashing the two franchises into one another is played out at this point. Marvel Comics first tried that in 1986, and every publisher to hold the licenses since has done the same. Repeatedly.
Is there really anything left to say about warring races of giant alien robots that can disguise themselves as vehicles and cartoonishly colorful soldiers battling a fictional terrorist group composed of supervillains?
Scioli, an artist best known for his Kirby-influenced works like Gødland and American Barbarian, hardly seems the ideal artist for a licensed comic, but his rough-hewn, volcanically-energetic style brings an auteur version of G.I. Joe and the Transformers. He and Barber plunge into the toybox and cartoons and comics with enthusiasm, unearthing obscure characters, places and devices with which to fill every square millimeter of every page, while simultaneously reinventing the characters as they do so. They also reverse the most standard plot devices of past encounters of these characters, in a way that almost seems contrarian.
Where the book transcends its licensed comics origins is in its construction. The creators don’t simply reinvent and redesign the characters, and flip various concepts, but they lay-out the comic so that every scene reads like a story of its own, often complete with a title, a unique style and mini-climax of its own.
Only five issues of the series have been published so far (starting with a #0 issue), but already it reads like one of the biggestTransformers and/or G.I. Joe stories ever told in any medium, with so many big, new, crazy ideas per issue it’s easy to imagine Grant Morrison or Jonathan Hickman reading the book at home, shaking their heads and muttering “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The latest issue alone, for example, featured a Duke vs. Snake-Eyes battle for the ages, a Tales From The Crypt homage involving “The Decepticonecronomicon” and Transformer necromancy, a team consisting of all the G.I. Joe pets outfitted with high-tech harnesses bristling with weaponry flying in a rocket shaped like Snoopy’s head, a reimagining of the Oktober Guard as an army of horror movie antagonists, a G.I. Joe/Transformers dance party, the history of Cybertron told as Kamandi-inpsired cave painting and dim-witted Joe Bazooka eating a techno-organic plant and tripping balls.
Scioli and Barber aren’t just offering up a relentlessly entertaining, astoundingly imaginative take on these two done-to-death franchises, they’re, well, transforming them into something bigger and better.
THE PRIVATE EYE
Artwork by Marcos Martin and Munsta Vicente
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Published by The Panel Syndicate
Available: The Panel Syndicate
With one issue remaining in Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's neo-noir tour de force, it's safe to start printing up the t-shirts: De Guerre Was Right. With a little picture of De Guerre murdering somebody and apologizing. As the villain of The Private Eye, De Guerre has threatened, tortured, and killed to resurrect the Internet, and he is undeniably a murderous sociopath.
But when a guy's got a point, a guy's got a point. Vaughan really at excels at molding complete characters who repeatedly defy your expectations, and in Private Eye he makes you sympathize with a slick, ego-maniacal television executive who kills his friends. Because it turns out that a future without an internet actually sucks.
Sure, it looks amazing, with everybody strolling around in bright, funky costumes designed by Marcos Martin and colored by Muntsa Vicente, but if you think the current generation is a waste of protein, wait until you try to have a conversation with one these future f*cks wearing a f*cking amoeba suit. It's a world full of super-hipsters. Does that sound fun to you?
Vaughan has often said that he doesn't put messages in his books, but that doesn't mean you can't reach in and grab them anyway. And when you really think about the America that The Private Eye portrays, it's an unnerving one. It's insular, literally walled-off from the rest of the world, and paranoia is endemic to everyday life. Despite the current lack of privacy that comes with the internet, it exposes us to the world at large and empowers us to affect real and immediate change. It connects us, and a world without connection is a sad one.
At least I think that's the message. There's still an issue left of the most thrilling, stylish, and thought-provoking sci-fi detective story since Heavy Liquid, so the conclusion might reveal that De Guerre Was Wrong and I'm a fraud. In which case...you'll be able to freely ridicule me...through the internet.
Chills, right? Me too.
THROUGH THE WOODS
Emily Carroll has been terrifying readers for years with her fairy tale-inspired brand of horror on her website and elsewhere, but with her first print collection, Through the Woods, we can now invite the evils that lurk in the black forest (and inside the brain of Ms. Carroll) into our homes in a more tangible fashion. This collection features perhaps Carroll's best known story (“His Face All Red”) as well as four wholly new tales, a prologue, and an epilogue. Carroll's storytelling takes its cues from folklorists such as Grimm and Perrault—one story is a direct reinterpretation of the story of Bluebeard, another echoes (intentionally or not) thestory of the Slavic varcolac--filling each page with signs and symbols that may be a mystery to our heads, but which we understand on a primal level in our guts and in our bones. While the print medium may not allow for the storytelling tricks Carroll pulls off on the web, such as mouseover panels and branched narrative, this collection doesn't suffer for it: each page is a wonder of composition, draftsmanship, color, design and lettering. Just, maybe, enjoy those pages in the daylight.
Art by Marie Pommepuy & Sébastien Cosset (as: “Kerascoët”)
Story by Marie Pommepuy & Fabien Vehlmann
Translated by Helge Dascher
Published by Drawn & Quarterly
Available: Drawn & Quarterly / Amazon / Comics Shops
It's been a splendid year for horror comics, but two works towered above the rest in terms of high-profile discussion: Emily Carroll's Through the Woods and this English translation of a 2009 album from cartoonist/animators Kerascoët and veteran scenarist Fabien Vehlmann, who's carved himself a comfortable niche in the French-language industry scripting one of the venerable children's bande dessinée series, Spirou et Fantasio. There's quite a few youth comics licks in Beautiful Darkness too – characters are drawn so as to caricature their personalities, archetypes run rampant, and the story proceeds with a sense of inevitability, as if the reader is meant less to be absorbed than to jump on the couch and shout along with the action.
But the inevitability here is not that of commercial devices clicking into place, or even a folkloric moral calculus; instead, the book's unforgettable six opening pages flatly state that all social comforts and humane graces will be undermined in favor of decay. Fleeing their home inside the liquefying corpse of a young girl left dead and forgotten in the forest, a community of tiny people struggle to maintain decorum and pursue their desires out in the wild – each of them seems to represent an aspect of the dead girl's personality or subconscious, or maybe the stories she has heard and taken to heart. Perhaps they are her soul, fragmented at the moment of death like a cut diamond and made horribly autonomous. These little elves do not get along, and poor Aurora -- a quintessential Disney princess, preoccupied with prettiness and romance and the ineffable promise of a prince becoming her forever love -- suffers a rash of Sadian affronts at the hands of her more controlling (or easily led) peers, the woods standing high above as a biological machine for the stripping of naiveté.
All is rendered by Kerascoët as ravishing cartoon illustration, like production art from a Studio Ghibli movie playing exclusively in Hell. It's all quite arch, even reductive, yet totally compelling - especially once the reader understands that removing the blind trust from an idealist like Aurora doesn't destroy the idealism, it makes it dangerous. There WILL be a happy ending... at least for her!
LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM
This year's "impractically immense" award goes to this volume from Locust Moon Press, which brings together over 100 of today's top creators' takes on Winsor McCay's best-known creation, in dimensions that approximate the full-page broadsheet format of the original Little Nemo strips. It's a simple concept brought to life by an all-star cast, carefully curated, and assembled with ridiculously high production values – and though the contents vary wildly in style and tone, each and every page functions as a breathtaking and vital work of art unto itself. From Ronald Wimberly's zig-zagging meditation on art and identity to Bill Sienkiewicz's atmospheric surrealism to Roger Langridge's laugh-out-loud silliness, it's that rarest of rare beasts: a tribute collection that manages to not just celebrate, but actually transcend and expand upon the source material.
Artwork by Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Lettering by Joe Caramagna
Edited by Sana Amanat and Devin Lewis
Published by Marvel Comics
Available: Amazon / ComiXology / Comics Stores
Kamala Khan is the future, and you can rock out to her or hide behind a copy of The Pedantic Monthly. Whatever—she’s happening regardless. Kamala is charming, but never twee; heroic, but never foolish; complicated, but never morose. She made her costume out of a Burkini and puffy paint. She declares herself and Wolverine healing factor twinsies as they race after sewer monsters. Her Avengers/My Little Pony crossover fanfic got 1,000 upvotes on FreakingCool.com. Together, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona have created a comic that is truly all-ages, truly entertaining, and truly heartfelt. The question isn’t whether or not Kamala can keep up with the rest of the superhero genre—it’s whether or not the genre can keep pace with her.
THE MULTIVERSITY: THE SOCIETY OF SUPER-HEROES - CONQUERORS OF THE COUNTER-WORLD
Artwork by Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Walden Wong and Dave McCaig
Written by Grant Morrison
Lettering by Charlie Mangual
Edited by Rickey Purdin
Published by DC Comics
Available: ComiXology / Comics Stores
With t’SOSH, Grant Morrison indulged his love of classical heroism, and it led to some of his most engaging characters in years. For one thing this story made Doctor Fate readable, which has never been done before to my knowledge. Somehow Morrison managed to grab a collection of off-hand DC reference points and half-used characters - and clip them all together in effortless, incredibly entertaining style.
When this was first announced, could anyone have expected a comic where Lady Shiva surfs on the wing of a Blackhawks plane before Vandal Savage starts threatening the Immortal Man with a rock? That this random mix of characters and genre actually became tense and engaging is all down to the impressive partnership between Morrison, Chris Sprouse - and colorist Dave McCaig, who give the whole issue an uneasy glimmer of post-apocalyptic gloom.
With Chris Sprouse on art, the book proved to be a surprisingly heady mix of pulp action and zombie apocalypse. His sturdy character designs felt immediately engaging and likeable, and matched Morrison’s madcap script panel-for-panel. Who needs passive-aggressive subtextual attacks on Alan Moore when you can have straight-up textual Doc Fate kicking Felix Faust in the balls?
THE WICKED + THE DIVINE
Whenever Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie work together, they seem to be able to capture something mercurial about youth; the energy and magnitude and doom of it. That's not to say that the pair are constantly covering the same thematic territory: Phonogram is about music and passion and being honest with yourself; Young Avengers is about how nobody gets along with their parents, and what it's like to be accountable. The Wicked + The Divine is teenage pop opera about art, celebrity, and death, and it is a goddamn masterpiece.
Every ninety years, a pantheon of gods are incarnated in twelve ordinary young people. They become pop stars and artists, this generation's Pantheon represented by analogues of Rihanna, Kanye West, Daft Punk, David Bowie, Prince, and others. All with the powers of gods, they are iconoclasts and pariahs, worshiped and vilified, and in two years, they drop dead. It's a perfect pop metaphor for the suddenness of death and the yearning to feel significant before it comes, and it is clever, jarring, and unique.
Gillen and McKelvie have a unique chemistry when they collaborate -- they're much more experimental together than they are apart -- and colorist Matthew Wilson has added even more to their collaboration. The Wicked + The Divine is stylish and vivacious and formally curious, a glamorous collision of layout and line and explosive color, and it's one of the most striking books being published today.
The Wicked + The Divine is about things we can all understand. No matter how old you are, you know what it's like to be young; you know what it's like to have idols and want to be special; and if you don't already know that death is coming for you and everyone you love, you'll learn soon enough. Gutsy, urgent, and gorgeous, The Wicked + The Divine is purely magnificent.
This was the year that brought us the story of Dirtibike Batman saving Gotham City with his riddle powers, and nonetheless nothing Batman-related came even close to Jiro Kuwata's Batmanga in terms of craziness. Batmanga is flat-out bananas. This is a comic where Batman gets the idea of how to defeat the villain Lord Death Man by watching a magic show in his back yard. The mayor turns into a mutant that looks like a Dragonball Z villain and kidnaps his own daughter. Batman tries to shoot him with a mutant gun. A man bounces around like a giant bouncy ball. A gorilla wears a cape. It's unabashedly bonkers and unbelievably fun. It was a must-read, if for no reason other than to see what madness Kuwata would invent next. DC brought these lost comics to the digital realm this year (and later in a print collection), and I couldn't be happier they did.
In what has to be classed as inevitable, the winner of this year’s Jordie Bellaire Award for Coloring is Jordie Bellaire. Having cut down her workload this year from “all of comics” to simply “the majority of comics”, Bellaire’s spent the year playing around with genres and really working on her explosions. From the stark, gloomy streets of Moon Knight through to the bright anthropomorphic warfare of Tooth & Claw, she’s been hugely important in so many of the best comics put out this year.
It’s impossible to overstate just how diverse her comics have been this year. Whether putting a sense of screwball Hollywood into Quantum & Woody or swirling Emma Rios’ free-flowing battle sequences into a grand western classic tradition, she’s demonstrated a range that complements and boosts every page she works on. Her workload is impressive – but more impressive still is just how consistently strong her work remains, despite the sheer number of pages she works on every year.
This year, as well, she’s been an advocate for comics coloring. Along with the Comics Are For Everybody outreach she helped found at the start of the year, she’s also been hugely important in pushing the work of fellow colorists like Ruth Redmond. In interviews and online, she’s repeatedly talked about the feeling that colorists get easily overlooked, and has pushed for fans and critics to focus in more on the importance of colors to a comic.
She’s also written a few comics this year, too, putting the fear of God into freelance writers for what may be to come in 2015.