REVIEW: Headspace #1

I’ve talked before about the good work MonkeyBrain Comics have been doing, publishing quality projects from some exciting up-and-comic indie comic creators, people who I’ve watched develop and grow as storytellers and seem well placed to benefit from the larger profile MonkeyBrain gives them.  It seems like the next generation of breakout Image comics creators are already doing exciting work at the ComiXology-exclusive publisher.  Headspace is written by another indie creator I was already familiar with: Ryan K Lindsay, perhaps best known for the backmatter he provides for Sheltered and Strange Nation and his academic writing on Daredevil, but also an accomplished writer in his own right with the likes of Fatherhood and Ghost Town, not to mention a short in ComixTribe’s own The Oxymoron.  Here, teaming up with the art duo of Eric Zawadski and Chris Peterson, as well as colorist Marissa Louise, he is getting perhaps his most substantial platform yet.  Does he deliver the goods?

At first, I wasn’t really sure what to make of Headspace #1.  The initial setup, with moody protagonist Shane having an existential crisis as the sheriff of dead-end town Carpenter Cove, didn’t really grab me, and some seemingly non-sequitor scene transitions and shifts in tone left me feeling more alienated from proceedings.  But over the course of the issue, the different strands come together in a way that, while it’s still not entirely clear, feels less confusing than it feels like a mystery waiting to unfold.  With a clever central conceit aided by some nicely hard-boiled narration by Lindsay, Headspace awards reader patience with a strange, unsettling narrative that promises to take us down a rabbit-hole.

Visually, artists Zawadski and Peterson gel together pretty seamlessly.  The sequences in Carpenter Cove offer the best opportunities for memorable imagery, which results in some memorable visuals and character designs.  The thick lines and soft, simple color palette give the book a bit of an Amelia Cole vibe, which can feel a bit strange given how much darker a tale this is than that other, well-regarded MonkeyBrain title.  But for the most part, it works.

This first issue is rounded out by an extended editorial from Lindsay, going into detail on everything from how the project came to be to what the ideal soundtrack to listen to while reading would be.  Throughout it all, his passion for the story is clear, and it’s quite infectious.

MonkeyBrain have been spoiling us with a dense array of quality titles recently.  And while Headspace may not quite place itself on the top tier of that library yet, all the component parts are in place for a story that could grow into something special.  An intriguing opener, and well worth checking out.

Headspace1Headspace #1 is available to buy now from ComiXology.

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REVIEWS – Land of the Rats: Gastrolithicus, Trip, Leftovers #4, Dober-Man, Poop Office #2

Another review round-up!  Let’s get right to business…

LAND OF THE RATS: GASTROLITHICUS

Cartoonist: Mark Nasso

Publisher: The Underground Forest

Price: $4.00

Land of the Rats is something of a visual delight.  Writer/artist Mark Nasso crafts this graphic novel around a series of impressively-structured pages, mostly splashes.  His heavy lines and surreal imagery captures a real Charles Burn quality.  The story isn’t particularly compelling, too often falling into the realm of the inscrutably vague.  But even if Nasso doesn’t yet stand out as a writer, with his work here he manages to mark himself out as an artist of note.

landoftheratsgastrolithicusLand of the Rats: Gastrolithicus is available from the Underground Forest online store.

TRIP

Cartoonists: Walker Farrell and Kelly Matten

Publisher: Ape Entertainment

Price: $15

Trip is a comic that’s pretty light on plot – the whole story boils down to two girls trying drugs at a a party – but in that loose framework it manages to find quite a few nice moments.  In the character of Lou in particular, we get a credible depiction of the anxieties many teenage girls face.  Both Kelly Matten and Walker Farrell’s art is light and accessible, while showing enough flexibility to get suitably weird once the drugs kick in, with some nice layouts that experiment with how the comics medium can be employed to depict the sensory impact of psychadelics.  It’s been done in other comics before, but Farrell and Matten bring it together into a warm, personable tale about youthful experience.

TripTrip is available to buy from Amazon.

LEFTOVERS #4

Cartoonist: Jason Pittman

Publisher: Self-published

Price: $3.99 print/$0.99 digital

Leftovers #4 was actually a pretty brilliant comic.  I was a bit wary that this would be another case of a mid-series issue of a comic being submitted where I’d be left feeling lost as to what came before.  But this was completely accessible, feeling like it had everything I needed to appreciate the story contained within and that I hadn’t missed anything.  Upon further reading, it seems this is because Leftovers follows a done-in-one anthology format.  For this particular story, cartoonist Jason Pittman triumphs on every level.  The story was heartfelt and really drew me in, as Kaleb’s battle with an anxiety disorder manifests itself in the form of superhero/supervillain doppelgangers doing battle in his subconscious.  This is visualised in the story by having the real characters and events depicted in black-and-white, while Kaleb’s costumed surrogates are presented in full colour.  Pittman also has a really nice, textured visual style too, understated, but with a real mastery of the small gestures of expression and body language that make a character feel real.  A real attention-grabbing book that has put Jason Pittman on my radar as a creator to watch.  And though I didn’t feel lost at the start, by the end I was left really wanting to read what happens next.

Leftovers4Leftovers #4 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

DOBER-MAN

Writer: Travis M. Holyfield

Artist: Edward Whatley

Editor: Erica J. Heflin

Publisher: GrayHaven Comics

Price: $3.99

Another fantastic read!  This was right up my alley, being a loving pastiche of the old Batman TV series and playfully poking fun at some of its superheroic tropes.  Travis Holyfield’s clever story involves a disgruntled henchman getting wise to the fact that he can make much more money by ripping off the deluded supervillains who hire him than in trying to fight Batman and Robin analogues Dober-Man and Beagle, with many comic setpieces ensuing.  It’s all brought wonderfully to life by the expressive artwork of Edward Whatley, who produces some hilarious character and costume designs.  In particular, the humiliating uniforms the henchmen are made to wear makes for a great recurring gag.  This was a joy to read, and I hope we get more Dober-Man adventures in the future!

DoberManDober-Man is available to buy from the GrayHaven online store.

POOP OFFICE #2

Cartoonist: Ben

Publisher: Naked Grape Comics

Price: $1.99

I didn’t get Poop Office at all.  Everything you need to know about it is in the title.  It’s an office, but everyone in it is talking poop.  So, basically, the whole comic is just repeat vignettes of people having basically straight-faced office-based conversations, only everyone talking is a jobby, and all their names are turd-related puns.  If that description has you splitting your sides, then this is the comic for you, but I was just left scratching my head.  After reading about half a dozen of the skits I started to suspect the whole thing was actually an avant-garde deconstruction of the way we as a society seem to find poop jokes inherently funny, but I fear that’d be be giving it too much credit.  Sorry, this one just wasn’t to my taste.  Or should I say… wasn’t poo my taste?  Oh ho ho!

PoopOffice2Poop Office #2 is available now from ComiXology.

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REVIEWS – Lightweightz: The Anthology, Part Two, New-Gen: New Dawn #4, Diskordia #1, Deathridge #1, Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers #4, Noctua #2

Sorry for the long absence of these reviews.  Real-world stuff has got in the way of me being able to keep on top of stuff like this.  I can’t promise a return to regularly-scheduled programming going forward either, but I shall try my best to make up for lost time by cramming in as many reviews as possible here:

LIGHTWEIGHTZ: THE ANTHOLOGY, PART TWO

Writer: Justin Martin

Artist: Przemyslaw B. Dedelis

Colorist: Lya

Letterer: Przemyslaw B. Dedelis

Publisher: R-Squared Comicz

Price: Pay what you want

This Christian-themed comic about teens with developing superpowers has some novel concepts, though the execution is ultimately lacking.  Justin Martin is clearly a strong idea man, coming up with quite original approaches to superpowers rather than the generic “super strength” or “super speed”, crafting gifts that have some symbolic resonance with the experience of being a teenager, and the experiences of the various characters represented in each vignette.  However, the stories, while solid ideas for tales on paper, fall a little short in the actual writing, with some flat dialogue or – a nitpicky bug-bear of mine – sentences that don’t properly use commas!  The art of Przemyslaw B Dedelis and the colors of Lya are fine, if a bit simplistic and at times staid.  A fine idea and a worthwhile read, even if the final package feels a bit insubstantial.

Lightweightz1Lightweightz: The Anthology, Part Two is available from the R-Squared Comicz’ official website.

NEW-GEN: NEW DAWN #4

Writers: J.O. Matonti, Abdul H. Rashid

Penciller: Jomar Bulda

Inker: Analiza Chris Agot

Colorist: Sean Forney

Letterer: Matias Timarchi

Editors: J.O. Matonti, Julia Coppola

Cover: Abdul H. Rashid, Edgar Arce

Publisher: A.P.N.G. Enterprises

The New-Gen series from A.P.N.G. Enterprises must be something of a masterclass in marketing.  While seemingly having little visibility in traditional comic news circles, they have built up quite a presence, with a reportedly successful Free Comic Book Day release, nearly 40,000 followers on Facebook, a distribution deal set up with Marvel and a feature film adaptation starring Mark Hamill reportedly in development.  So it’s a bit of a shame that the core comic product doesn’t quite live up to the fanfare.  Reading this comic, the writing felt a bit stilted and inscrutable at points, and if this had been an issue #1 I’d have felt like it wasn’t until the issue’s end that things started to get going.  But this is issue #4 of a 5-issue series!  Given the uneventful nature of proceedings at this stage, I can’t imagine what the writers filled three issues with up until this point, and while it’s understandable that a reader might be confused about what’s going on when coming into a book on issue #4, my confusion was more problematic in that I had no real idea of what the larger story was supposed to be.  Thankfully, New Dawn #4 is redeemed by the stellar art team of Jomar Bulda and Analiza Chris Agot, with colors from Sean Forney.  The art team manage to craft a visual aesthetic that feels reminiscent of John Cassaday’s work on Planetary, giving the book a slick, professional sheen.

NGNDNext-Gen: New Dawn #4 is available from select comic shops.

DISKORDIA #1

Cartoonist: Andrew “Rivenis Black” Blackman

Price: $1.99

I enjoyed this book.  Cartoonist Andrew Blackman, also operating under the pen name “Rivenis Black”, has crafted a suitably fun, surreal world packed with loopy invention.  The main character, Jackal, has a touch of Mary-Sue about them, but the enigmatic Squid Girl has a marvelous character design, albeit one that’s unlikely to become a popular cosplay choice.  But while Blackman presents himself well as a writer, it’s as an artist that his true strengths emerge.  His layouts are dynamic and offbeat, his characters expressive, his colours vibrant, and his imagery suitably mind-bending.  Rivenis is truly a Jack-of-all-trades, with only his lettering falling short at this stage.  I was intrigued enough by the goings-on here to consider checking out the other issues available from the creator’s blog.

Diskordia1Diskordia #1 is available to buy from ComiXology. The series is also available to read for free from Rivenis Black’s blog.

DEATHRIDGE #1

Cartoonist: Ashley Hewerdine

Publisher: FunkyDoodyCool Comics

I wasn’t so keen on this one.  The story Ashley Hewerdine sets up is potentially interesting, with shades of League of Gentlemen, but the comic is let down with its visual presentation.  The artwork is really rough, with a bit of an MS Paint vibe in the linework, though there is the occasional nice image: an amusing silhouette sex scene springs to mind.  The lettering is similarly shoddy, with bubbles at times looking clunky on the page, and the words within sometimes missing full stops amid other technical issues.

Deathridge1Deathridge #1 is available to buy from select comic shops. More information here.

Z-GIRL AND THE 4 TIGERS #4

Writer: Jeff Marsick

Artist: Kirk Manley

Color Flatter: Miguel Marques

Publisher: Studio Z

Price: $5.00

Here we have another issue #4 of a 5-issue mini, but this manages to work much more successfully as a standalone read.  Yes, there was a good deal of “What the hell is going on?”, but the plot still managed to be a whole lot of fun in its own right, with enough of the mythology and the wider stakes at play presented to get my teeth into and make me want to go and get caught up.  The martial arts movie/sci-fi mashup (with zombies!) plays out a bit like a grindhouse-infused mix of Doom and Thundercats, with writer Jeff Marsick keeping the plot chugging along like a freight train, packed with incident, while still finding room for character moments that flesh out his sprawling cast.  Meanwhile, the art of “Manly” Kirk Manley is a delight, with heavy lines and enlarged figures that call to mind the work of Stephen Bissette, or the creature feature comics of the 1970s and 80s. This is one of those occasions where you read a comic and enjoy it so much that you feel it deserves to be playing to a bigger market.   A retro treat!

ZGirl4Tigers4Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers #4 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.  The previous issues are available from DriveThruComics, priced at $0.99.

NOCTUA #2

Writer: Andrew M. Henderson

Artist: J.C. Grande

Colorist: Eagle Gosselin

Letterer: David Paul

Publisher: Alterna Comics

Price: $1.99

This turned out to be another compelling read.  A crime story about the murky world of human trafficking, with a vampire twist, Noctua builds on the momentum of its first issue with this second chapter.  Here, writer Andrew Henderson displays a real talent for writing truly vile villains, with numerous characters displaying their heinous ways in a darkly inventive manner.  J.C. Grande, something of a regular of these reviews, also crops up with some of his most refined artwork to date, wonderfully complimented by the understated colors of Eagle Gosselin.  I wasn’t too keen on the HIV angle the vampire aspect of the story took in a shoehorned-in flashback, but aside from that niggle, the story being built up here is highly promising.

noctua_2

Noctua #2 is available to buy from ComiXology.

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REVIEW: Strange Nation #4

For anyone out there who has followed my creator-owned comics reviews from the beginning, Strange Nation must seem like something of a dream team.  It’s written by Paul Allor, a writer I’ve spent quite some time over the past couple of years acclaiming, with my gushing reviews for Clockwork and Orc Girl making it abundantly clear I saw him as a rising creator destined for big things.  It’s drawn by Juan Romera, an artist who I’ve expressed similar admiration of.  He caught my attention with anthology shorts in the likes of Tall Tales from the Badlands and the aforementioned Clockwork, and floored me with the visuals he brought to Fall with writer Fabian Rangel Jr.  It’s published by MonkeyBrain, the breakout comic company of 2013 for me, a publisher whose output I’ve been uniformly singing the praises of for months now.  All these enticing elements weaved together to tell a story of conspiracy theories and the weirdness lurking under the surface of American culture, with the first issue making a statement that all involved were raising their game and giving us something special.

So I think it’s something of a shame that Strange Nation hasn’t received more acclaim.  Those who’ve read it have loved it, but it doesn’t seem to be up there with MonkeyBrain’s most publicized titles.  It could be because, for the first three issues at least, Allor was keeping his narrative cards held quite closely to his chest.  Interesting things were going on and engaging characters were being introduced, but we weren’t quite getting a peek at how it all connected together, with Allor seemingly content to go slow-and-steady with how the strange goings-on started to unfold.  But then we had that highly memorable shocker of a closing page in issue #3, and here with issue #4 we jump into high-gear.  Almost immediately, it’s madness: rioting Sasquatches, UFOS, Elvis mounting a daring rescue mission.  And we get a fuller picture of the larger narrative at work here, with the exposure of a big secret lying at the heart of America’s corridors of power, the ultimate conspiracy story for our journalist hero Norma to pursue.

I worried a bit that, with the first issue, the most compelling character was human/primate hybrid Joe, who…. SPOILER ALERT…. died at the end.  That first chapter worked as a poignant standalone portrait of a life not lived, the kind of thing we know Allor can excel at.  But in subsequent issues, Allor has skillfully fleshed out the recurring ensemble, to the point where we have a rich cast of characters with their own distinct personalities and nuances.  There isn’t as much deft characterization here as the previous issue, which believably depicted Norma’s strained relationship with her parents, her mother in particular.  This issue by necessity is much more plot driven.  But the kindly recluse/alien Dr. Milo was still a refreshingly complex standout.

Romera, as always, excels.  He’s someone who with simple lines can portray a deceptive depth of emotion, a skill that has served him well in the past, and which makes him an ideal partner for Allor’s economic storytelling.  Here, he gets the chance to play more broadly comedic, absurdist notes than he might often get to do, and seems to relish the chance to go wacky.  Some of the reaction shots to a herd of Sasquatches kicking in postboxes are just cracking!  And the bright, flat color scheme gives everything a vibrant, fun feel, so even when things are ominous there’s a breezy, romp-like aesthetic at work.

As is to be expected with MonkeyBrain, the backmatter is a delight.  There’s an enthusiastic letters page, followed by Ryan Lindsay’s recurring column on the cultural impact of the strange phenomena explored in the series, always an engaging read packed with fun trivia.  Then we have a gallery of pinups from artists new and established.  An extra treat for this 4th issue is the original script for issue #1, presented in its entirety.  MonkeyBrain really know how to put the boat out with these ComiXology packages, perhaps better than any other publisher when it comes to value for money.

Strange Nation is a comic most worthy of your attention.  It boasts a quality pedigree of talent involved, and an intriguing story that unveils new layers with each passing chapter.  Most definitely a series you should be catching up on!

StrangeNation4Strange Nation #4 (as well as the rest of the series) is available to buy from ComiXology.

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My Top Twenty Comics of 2013

Welcome back once again to my annual countdown of my favourite comics from the year that was.  You might have noticed that while on the previous three occasions I’ve ran this countdown on my blog the list has been a Top 10, this time round it’s been expanded to a Top 20.  And that is testament to how much of a truly spectacular year 2013 has been for comics.  There has been a wealth of fantastic new titles launched over the past 12 months, while established books have gone from strength to strength, and we’ve even seen a few comics that had been on the decline finding a new lease of life to blast them back onto the radar.  There were so many quality comics that it didn’t feel fair to just put a spotlight on the best 10 this year.  Indeed, it proved to be a struggle narrowing the list down to a top 20, even!  2013 has been a banner year for comics.  At this point I tend to talk a little about how my own reading habits have shifted in the intervening year.  Last year I talked about Image being on the rise, and that trend has continued in 2013, with Marvel and DC all but dropping off the map in my weekly comics haul while more and more Image titles get added to the point where they now utterly dominate my monthly reading.  A reminder of my rules for eligibility: the comic has to either be a graphic novel/oneshot released in 2013, or an ongoing/miniseries that has had 3 or more issues released in 2013 at the time of writing.  This means that while the likes of Velvet, Pretty Deadly, Drumhellar and The Sandman: Overture had stellar first issues, none of them have had enough issues for them to qualify.  Perhaps they’ll show up on next year’s list!  Finally, I should point out this is the first year I’ve done the list that Scalped wasn’t in contention, having finished last year, so that top spot is WIDE OPEN!  Who’ll be #1 of 2013?  Read on and see…

 

20. SWAMP THING

SwampThing23

Swamp Thing is a title that suffered from something of a steep fall from grace.  I remember way back when issue #1 hit as part of DC’s New 52 launch, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Yanick Paquette, I declared it the best of all DC’s new #1s.  But going into the “Rotworld” storyline I felt the quality slip a little, and so I had resigned myself to likely dropping the title after Snyder’s departure, only deciding to give incoming writer Charles Soule a go for an issue to confirm my decision.  Boy was I wrong!  Charles Soule, working mostly with artists Kano and Jesus Saiz on rotation, has knocked this title out of the park since coming onboard, utterly reinvigorating the series and giving it a bold new direction and sense of forward momentum.  Rather than trying to ape Snyder’s style, Soule is doing his own thing here, returning Swamp Thing to more of a pulpy superhero aesthetic, and letting Swamp Thing make some cool, inventive uses of his plant powers.  Every month, Soule does something new to impress me.  First, he’s gifting Alec Holland with a natural, relatable voice through his narration.  Then, he’s finding fresh wrinkles in the history of The Green to expand and enrichen Swamp Thing’s mythology.  Then he utterly leaves the rest of the Villain’s Month oneshots in the dust with a tale that succeeds in making Anton Arcane skin-crawlingly scary again.  Now, with this current story featuring Swamp Thing battling Jason Woodrue over The Green’s avatar mantle, he’s hitting us with some of the most nail-biting cliffhangers and shock reversals of Big Two comics.  Meanwhile, Kano and Saiz carry on the tradition of Wrightson, Bissette, Veitch and Paquette with their flair for visual innovation, crafting awe-inspiring page compositions.  I’ve said it before, and I’m not the only one to make the comparison, but for me, Swamp Thing has become DC’s answer to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, in the way it can feel both like an homage to all that’s come before and a fresh new start unburdened by the darkness of past storylines, and is just pure, exhilarating fun.  Those who did drop the comic after Scott Snyder left are missing out!

 

19. CHEW

Chew37 

Chew continues to see-saw in and out of my top 10.  As I said last year, it’s not really a reflection on the quality of the title, which has remained consistently entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny, but more on the emergence of hot new titles vying for attention.  It’s interesting, because I can remember when Chew was the new kid on the block, arguably the first in that new wave of white-hot Image issue #1 buzz-books, and now it has reached the point where it is a most venerable stalwart of the Image lineup, several years and nearly 40 issues into its run.  I think one factor in its slip down the rankings this year is that it feels like there have been a lot of occasions where the wait between issues has been a good bit longer than a month.  I seem to be going through this pattern lately of getting the new issue of Chew when it comes out, and not being able to really recall what happened in the previous issue, and taking a while to getting round to read this latest one.  But then when I finally do sit down to read the new issue, I immensely enjoy it and feel keen to get to the next chapter.  And then the cycle repeats itself.  So, Chew might be in need of a little extra spark to reassert itself up amongst the best of the best in Image’s ever-growing lineup, but it’s definitely not in any danger of being dropped, as John Layman and Rob Guillory continue to deliver a comic packed with delicious goodness. 

18. STRANGE ATTRACTORS

StrangeAttractors2

Charles Soule again, this time paired up with Greg Scott in this delightfully smart and inventive comic from Archaia.  This was one of my best purchases from New York Comic Con, with Archaia’s typically superb production values making it a beautiful hardcover graphic novel package.  Strange Attractors tells the story of bright academic Heller Wilson becoming the protégé of aging genius/eccentric Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who may or may not have spent the past 30 years secretly keeping New York City running through the power of super-maths.  It’s a masterfully-structured tale, the various narrative threads weaving together like strands of a complex equation.  There’s an ominous air of impending doom hanging over much of the story as it steadily moves forward, quietly immersing you, but the end result is surprisingly inspirational and upbeat.  A highly potent love letter to New York City, and one that certainly made me miss it, having read this shortly after returning home to Scotland.  This year has really seen Charles Soule mark himself out as a real writer of note, and I for one am keen to see what he has lined up for 2014. 

 

17. SHELTERED

Sheltered1a

If you’d told me that Lazarus wouldn’t make my top 20 list back when I read issue #1, I’d have laughed you out of the room.  I remember being hugely impressed back when I read the first issue of that new series, thinking this was sure to be one of the standout debuts of the year… then a week later Sheltered came along and trumped it.  Sheltered #1 was just a textbook example of how to grab readers by the proverbial baw-hairs and DEMAND their attention and continued reading, with Ed Brisson evocatively building up a well-realised status quo and ruthlessly tearing it down all in the space of a single comic book.  Out of the ashes of that devastation has risen a tense, haunting tale about children forced to become adults and largely failing at the task, and a harsh study of survival and evil.  And the art of Johnnie Christmas and colours of Shari Chankhamma give the whole thing an ethereal, dreamlike aesthetic, a work of strange, glacial beauty that creates an interesting contrast with some of the horrific things that happen within these pages.  There are many ways Sheltered could go from here, but at this point it has all the makings of a 21st Century Lord of the Flies. 

 

16. GHOSTED

Ghosted1a

I’m sure I’ll be writing similar notes throughout this list, but it says something about the incredibly high standard of comics output in 2013 that Ghosted places where it does.  Earlier drafts of this list had both this and Sheltered secure in the top 10.  But rest assured, this is more a reflection on the superlative quality of the year’s books than any slight on Ghosted, a delightfully inventive genre mash-up.  Joshua Williamson’s irresistible “I wish I’d done it first” concept is to mix the classic heist story with the haunted house genre, with our protagonist Jackson T. Winters assembling a crack team of criminal experts for a daring robbery, not to steal money or diamonds, but to steal a ghost from a notorious murder house.  It seemed like a delicious hook for a miniseries, so pure and self-contained.  But the latest issue wonderfully opened up the idea into a bigger world and set the stage for how Williamson’s high-concept could sustain an ongoing.  Though I worry for how the next arc will fare without the indelible contribution of artist Goran Sudzuka, who in 5 issues has excelled in crafting a slick, cool signature style for the book.  Still, the series is off to a strong start, and I’m keen to see what happens next.

 

15. INFINITY

infinity1e

I had largely sworn off the big Marvel/DC event crossovers.  I gave up on Fear Itself, disregarded Brightest Day, skipped Flashpoint, passed on Avengers VS X-Men, ignored Age of Ultron, dismissed Trinity War.  Not since 2010’s Siege had I read an event in its entirety.  But this year has proven to be something of a vintage year for events.  DC’s offering, Forever Evil, has thus far proved pretty enjoyable, though it didn’t quite make the cut for this list.  Marvel, meanwhile, gave us Infinity, a comic I almost never read due to all the talk about how it was impossible to read without a detailed knowledge of Jonathan Hickman’s entire Avengers and New Avengers runs or without buying the tie-ins in those respective books: as a rule of thumb I never buy tie-ins outwith the core event title that I supposedly “have” to read.  But on a whim one day I bought and read the first 5 issues of Infinity and was utterly engrossed, and more recently the 6th and final chapter brought it all home nicely.  You can absolutely enjoy this story without the tie-ins, though I’m sure they make it richer.  This is an event story that actually feels like an event, with Hickman generating an epic, sweeping tone and a grandiose scale.  The combined threat of the Builders to the galaxy as a whole and Thanos to Earth in particular creates a sense of seemingly insurmountable adversity, making it all the more awesome when The Avengers triumph in the face of it.  Thor gets one of his most badass moments ever.  An ultimate underdog fight between Black Bolt and Thanos is set up so powerfully that I was made into a fan of the Inhumans.  Various characters I’d never heard of before were presented as major players who I’m now invested in learning more about.  And the finale managed to both provide a satisfying resolution and set the seeds for numerous storylines that will likely be picked up on down the line in Hickman’s various Avengers titles, as opposed to just being an advertisement for the next event.  Easily the best crossover event from either company in years, and a shining example of how it should be done. 

 

14. THE WALKING DEAD

WalkingDeadNeganWhat a decline The Walking Dead has suffered in my estimations over the years!  After ranking near the top of my list in 2010, it dropped off the top ten in 2011, and by early 2012 I was beginning to question if I was just buying the book out of habit and whether or not I should just drop it.  But issue #100 marked a major turning point for the series, reinvigorating Image’s most famous series and giving it a compelling new direction that saw the title on an upward curve throughout the rest of 2012.  That trend has continued into 2013, with Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s zombie opus now the best it’s been in years.  And a big part of that is down to the new Big Bad, Negan.  A lot of people argue the series was at its absolute best during the Governor/Woodbury saga (I disagree, personally identifying the period immediately after the departure from the prison, up to and including the “Fear the Hunters” arc as the best, though the Governor stuff comes close), and that the loss of momentum has been due to the lack of a similarly formidable villain.  Well, now Negan has truly filled that void.  He’s a suitably different beast to The Governor too, with a twisted code of ethics and dark sense of humour that has at times even made him weirdly likeable: who thought I’d go from instantly wanting him dead in issue #100 to ranking him as one of my favourite characters?  I still want him to get his comeuppance, though.  The series is going from strength to strength with the way it has built up this new, wider world for Rick, Carl, Michonne and co to exist in, and with the 10th Anniversary “All Out War” storyline already proving explosive, it seems things are set to get even better!

 

13. FATALE

Fatale4Another comic to go from strength to strength this year, Fatale was always an interesting series, but one that very much went for the slow-boil approach.  But with its past couple of arcs, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ blend of noir and Lovecraftian horror has really started to turn up the heat.  First, a collection of standalone issues from various periods in history served to expand the mythos of the series in fascinating ways.  And now, Fatale has soared to new heights with this current storyline, with the timeline jumping forward to the indie music scene of the early 90s, and a disquieting moral fable that has served to crystallize the haunted tragedy, the irresistible allure and the poisonous influence of our mysterious protagonist Josephine more compellingly than any other storyline in the title up until now.  Up until now we’ve been told how all men fall for her and find themselves obsessing over her, but this story has truly immersed us in this happening and made us believe it.  With the way Brubaker and Phillips has introduced this poignantly human cast of characters and systematically destroyed them reminds me of the classic “24 Hour Diner” issue of The Sandman with Dr. Destiny.  Fatale as a series continues to evolve and improve, while this arc in particular stands as the best single thing Brubaker and Phillips have done since Criminal: Last of the Innocent. 

 

12. ZERO

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Zero is an interesting comic, in that it seemed to be under the radar for quite a while, then all of a sudden it picked up a lot of buzz as the release of the first issue drew near.  Much was made of the innovative approach to the series, which would see writer Ales Kot tell ostensibly done-in-one standalone tales with the eponymous hero, super-spy Edward Zero, with a different artist illustrating each story.  It’s a great concept, one that made me give the series a try, but I was thrilled to discover that the execution was even better.  In the three issues released thus far, artists Michael Walsh, Tradd Moore and Mateus Santalouco have all delivered some stunning imagery, their disparate styles unified by the majestic colours of Jordie Bellaire.  Ales Kot, who has shown creative promise with the likes of Wild Children and Change, here delivers his most accomplished work to date, taking that supposedly episodic framework and in fact crafting an intricately connected narrative tapestry, which we’re uncovering out of chronological order, but which I feel is going to take shape into an immensely compelling whole, once the series has been given more time to unfold.  If Zero continues to build momentum the way it has this early in its run, look at it as a serious contender to leap into the top 10 on next year’s list.

 

11. DUNGEON FUN

DungeonFun2Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat.  As I mentioned in my intro at the top, the usual perimeters for eligibility on this list include either being a graphic novel/oneshot, or in the cases of ongoings/miniseries’, that 3 or more issues were released in the contended year.  Dungeon Fun only had one issue released.  And given that I usually enforce this rule so rigorously, even cutting out MonkeyBrain’s Bandette from inclusion of an earlier draft of my list once I realised only two issues had been released this year, a book has to be pretty special to supersede it.  With Dungeon Fun, there are a couple of mitigating factors.  For one, small press titles work on a very different schedule than something released monthly or bi-monthly through Diamond, and in many cases it’s unreasonable for such books to have more than three issues within a year.  But more pressingly, it’s just too damn good to ignore.  A delightful fantasy romp that has rode a veritable tidal wave of critical adulation here in the UK, drawing comparisons to such diverse inspirations as Monty Python, Adventure Time, The Princess Bride and the Legend of Zelda games, Dungeon Fun is truly “all ages” not in the patronising, ghettoised “Y’know, for kids!” way some interpret it, but in the sense that it can capture the imaginations of audiences of all ages.  The wonderful artwork of Neil Slorance is brimming with energy and imagination, projecting this sense of fun and accessibility, and I was able to see first-hand on the convention floor how kids gravitated towards this book and eagerly grabbed a copy.  And the grown-ups can appreciate the razor-sharp wit of Colin Bell’s script, packing laugh-out-loud gags with a density approaching Airplane levels.  This is a book that lives up to its title, as in terms of pure FUN there’s not a single comic released this year that was able to leave a smile on my face as big as Dungeon Fun #1 did.  I know that last year, quite a few people picked up Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain on the basis of my recommendation in my year-end list, so I can only say that this book comes just as heartily recommended.  Get your copy here: https://sellfy.com/p/3EZi/.

 

10. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

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And while we’re talking about “books that would have ranked if only 3 issues had been released in the year” scenarios, in last year’s 2012 top ten, Thor: God of Thunder #3 came out about a week after I posted up my list.  And that’s a shame, as if that issue had come out sooner (or the list had gone up later), based on the immense quality of those first three issues, Thor: God of Thunder would very likely have broken my top 5.  Fast forward a year, and again I find myself talking about the intense competition and insanely high quality of 2013’s output having some great titles ranking lower than I expected.  But this shouldn’t be read as any decline in quality from Scalped writer (and perennial favourite of this annual year-end countdown) Jason Aaron’s take on Thor: this remains, in my opinion, Marvel’s best title.  The epic 11-chapter “God Butcher” saga that dominated the first year of the series was Thor’s answer to Batman’s “Court of Owls” epic, in how it used the introduction of a deadly new enemy to dig into its iconic hero’s history, push them to the brink of defeat and despair, and ultimately have them kick mega ass.  And Esad Ribic further demonstrated why he’s one of my absolute favourite artists with breathtaking visuals and a magnificent design for villain Gorr.  We then got a pensive, poignant oneshot exploring Thor’s place as a hero, a god and a man in the modern world, before Ron Garney stepped in on art duties for the currently-ongoing storyline, “Accursed”, which has presented a Malekith far more formidable than his cinematic counterpart, and presented a tale by turns funny, dramatic, and strangely relevant as a parable of the nature of war and military intervention in the real world.  With next year promising the return of Esad Ribic, Thor: God of Thunder should continue to be Marvel’s MVP well into 2014.

 

9. FIVE GHOSTS

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Over the past year or so, I’ve seen talk about how Image is too big now, how it’s become a playground for famous, established names in the comics field to bring their creator-owned properties to, and thus it’s lost its status as the publisher that gives a platform to exciting new creators.  But then something like Five Ghosts comes along and reaffirms Image’s status as a launching pad for the next generation of comics stars.  Though both do have credits to their name, writer Frank J Barbiere and artist Chris Mooneyham could still be considered newcomers to the wider comics stage, and yet they delivered one of the best Image series launches of a year filled with them.  An ode to pulp adventure spliced with a hearty dose of Gothic horror, Five Ghosts introduces us to Fabian Gray, an explorer whose encounter with an artefact known as the Dreamstone has left him with the ability to channel the abilities of five literary spirits.  Cue some relentlessly paced adventure courtesy of Barbiere’s brisk, action-packed scripts, while Chris Mooneyham has emerged as one of the breakout artists of 2013 with his luscious, evocative visuals that hark back to classic comics of the 70s and 80s.  Five Ghosts began life as a miniseries, but it’s no surprise it got promoted to ongoing status.  No one could have read those stellar first 5 issues and not wanted more of this character and this world.  After an enjoyable fill-in issue skilfully illustrated by Garry Brown, Barbiere and Mooneyham are back in the saddle for a second arc that seems set to draw in the swashbuckling pirate adventure into its melting pot of pulp homage.  And if all that wasn’t enough to cement its place in my top 10, each issue of Five Ghosts now comes with added Doc Unknown: the similarly pulp-infused comic from Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody almost made the top 20 in its own right, and is now a regular backup feature in Five Ghosts.  This title is a joy to read, and from pointing it out to people at my local comic shop to giving copies of the Haunting of Fabian Gray graphic novel out as Christmas gifts, I have and will continue to spread the word to those I know that Five Ghosts is worth your attention.

 

8. THE PRIVATE EYE

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The Private Eye caught a lot of people on the back-foot.  One day, sites began running teaser images of a mysterious new comic from writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin.  What could it be?  Who would be publishing it?  Many of us were preparing ourselves for months of tantalising teasers leading to a big release from someone like Image, but the very next day, The Private Eye launched online, self-published by Vaughan and Martin under their Panel Syndicate imprint, going under a “pay what you want” system, with downloading a digital copy of the comic for free an option.  I’ve bought each issue for $2.99, as it’s easily worth that.  There are few people in comics that do an issue #1 better than Vaughan, and The Private Eye continued that tradition, giving us a dystopian/utopian vision of a future where there is no internet, where in place of online identities people walk around with literal masks to craft their own personas, and the media has become the most powerful law enforcement entity on the planet.  Enter paparazzi/private investigator P.I., and we’re thrown into a futuristic take on a classic, pulpy gumshoe noir.  We’ve had 4 issues thus far, and equally recommended is the special “making of” comic released that delved into the process of creating this comic from the ground up.  Reading this gives you a strong idea of just how centrally involved artist Marcos Martin was in the building of this world and the telling of this story, his vision for the world so integral to the success of the story that his absence is unimaginable.  I’ve read quite a few quality digital comics this year, with MonkeyBrain’s output in particular proving consistently entertaining.  But The Private Eye stands as the cream of the crop. 

 

7. NOWHERE MEN

NowhereMen1Here’s an entry that threw a spanner in the works.  Before heading down to Thought Bubble last month, I thought I had my top 20 pretty much figured out.  I still needed to shuffle around the ordering here and there, but the actual content of the list seemed to be finalised.  But then I bought the first graphic novel collection of Nowhere Men at the show, and decided to read it on the train home to Glasgow… I ended up devouring the whole book in a single frenzied sitting during the journey.  I immediately wanted it in the top 20, popping it in at the bottom spot: this is what finally chopped Lazarus off the list, I’m afraid!  But upon going back to the book and rereading parts, I just fell in love with the craft of the thing more and more, and it steadily climbed up and up in my rankings until it reached the slot it’s at now, and even then I flirted with the notion of putting it higher.  The best comics don’t just tell a story, they create a world for the reader, and that’s what writer Eric Stephenson does with Nowhere Men.  The audacious level of ambition on display here is thrilling, as over the course of the first 6 issues he crafts a tale juggling multiple narrative threads, spanning across multiple generations, and a cast of over a dozen principal players.  It could easily have ended up a train wreck, but Stephenson orchestrates it all with panache, crafting a rich, nuanced alternate history of the world where science had the same kind of pop culture boom that rock-and-roll did in the 1960s, complete with its own answer to The Beatles in the form of the founding members of science dream team World Corp.  It’s a mythology made all the more immersive by the comic’s innovative use of posters and archival newspaper and magazine articles peppered within the comic narrative to flesh out the shape of the world between that pivotal era in the ‘60s and our vastly altered present.  The series as a whole really is a triumph of design, with the team of artist Nate Bellegarde and colorist Jordie Bellaire bringing superheroic flair to the world of cutting-edge science.  Read Nowhere Men, and you really will buy into its central notion that “science is the new rock ‘n’ roll.” 

 

6. SEX CRIMINALS

SexCriminals1aThere are certain times when you know you’ll love a comic as soon as you hear its name.  Such was the case with Sex Criminals.  And I was won over even more when I heard of the high concept behind the series: two people with the power to stop time with their orgasms go on a crime spree.  So, I went into this comic pretty giddy with anticipation, and still managed to be disarmed by how great it was.  I think what took me by surprise is that, though a book like this could have easily just coasted on that central concept and been a whole barrel of fun, it’s instead done something much more.  Over the course of the first three issues, it has managed to craft a genuinely sweet account first of the experience of growing up and discovering your sexuality as a girl, through the heightened prism of our narrator Suzie discovering her powers, then of a boy’s experience of sexual awakening through the story of Jon, then the joy and thrill of beginning a new relationship.  And save for the odd flash-forward, we haven’t even got to the “criminals” part of the title yet!  Reading the phenomenal letters page just confirms the chord these issues have struck with real life experiences of the readers.  And on top of all that, it’s genuinely hilarious, with artist Chip Zdarsky utterly cramming the comic full of brilliant sight gags.  Matt Fraction has been on a real roll lately, but Sex Criminals could very well be the best thing he’s ever written.  Perhaps the only thing preventing it from breaking the top 5 is that, three issues in, I need to read some more to see if the dizzyingly high pace can be sustained over the long term.  Next year’s list will tell the tale!

 

5. BATMAN

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With the ascension of Image Comics, and how (as can be seen by the quantity of their titles to make my list) the vast majority of my monthly reading now seems to be their output, I have considered the possibility of me at some point dropping Marvel and DC entirely.  Could I reach a point where all my favourite creators are doing by far their best work in Image or for other independents, to the point where I feel like I no longer need my superhero fix?  I may have mulled over this hypothetical future briefly, but in truth, so long as there are comics as excellent as Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman out there, I will always remain a fan of superhero comics.  For me, saying “I refuse to read superhero comics” is as limiting as saying “I will only read superhero comics.”  I will read what entertain me the most, and what I feel are the best comics, period, and Batman is serialised comics storytelling at its finest, by any standard.  It had a slight wobble at the start of the year.  As much as I loved “Death of the Family”, the very last chapter didn’t quite stick the landing for me as much as I’d hoped.  Then we had a few more low-key issues that, while entertaining in their own right, didn’t live up to the title at its exhilterating best.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, I hated the concept of “Zero Year” when I first heard it.  But execution is everything, and with one of the finest creative pairings in comics today at the helm, I feel like a fool for ever doubting.  “Zero Year” has been utterly remarkable, with Greg Capullo crafting some of his best artwork yet; really pushing the boundaries and getting increasingly experimental with his layouts and innovations.  And Scott Snyder has skilfully found new wrinkles in the Batman mythos, and ways of making Batman’s well-worn early years feel fresh and dangerous.  One of the big secrets of this title’s continued to success is that, at its core, Snyder has made it a Bruce Wayne character study, with each major arc picking apart a different weakness, bringing out the vulnerability in a character all too often presented as invincible.  In this character-driven approach to its iconic hero, I think people are perhaps misguided in comparing “Zero Year” to Year One.  If anything, it’s Batman’s answer to Birthright.  For the third year running, Batman closes the year out as not only the biggest, but also the best superhero comic currently on the shelves.

 

4. SAGA

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Woe betide poor Saga!  Last year was the closest-fought battle for the #1 spot I’ve ever had in trying to decide between the top two entries in my year-end list.  In the end, Jeff Lemire’s instant classic The Underwater Welder only just squeezed past Saga to top my list of the best comics of 2012.  But I took heart in thinking that Saga was in for the long haul, and was all but guaranteed to top this year’s list.  I had it pencilled in for the #1 spot from January.  But over the course of this year, sadly, I feel like the mighty Saga lost a step.  Only a step, mind, but even that slight faltering, combined with the massive impression made on me by the three remaining entries on the list, were enough to have that prized #1 slot slip from Saga’s fingers once more.  I think its downfall was that a lack of forward motion or a sense of urgency in the plot, particularly in this current third arc.  I do feel like the ending of this most recent issue signals that the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan and things are really going to start moving, but up until now it feels like much of the narrative progression has ground to a halt in favour of just hanging out with the characters and getting inside their heads a bit more.  This would be a bigger problem for most books, but thankfully Saga happens to have some of the best characters in comics, and so hanging out with them is a joy in of itself.  Because while I may bring up the concerns about pacing, I’m almost not bothered about the wider story of the intergalactic war going on, as I’m so engrossed with what Marco, Alana, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat et al are up to, the interesting conversations about life and love they’re having.  I’ve actually got a sneaking suspicion that Brian K Vaughan is in fact trying to stealthily get us into an intimate family drama about what it means to be a parent and to be a child, about the families we’re both born into and that we make for ourselves,  and he just cleverly disguised it as a sweeping sci-fi/fantasy epic.  His cast are so fully realised that I already feel like I know them, and so it’s extra devastating when any of them die, or even placed in mortal danger.  And what can be said about Fiona Staples that hasn’t already been said?  In her tenure on this title, she has evolved into one of the premier artists in comics, and each issue is packed with more beautiful imagery and masterful characterisation.  This is true superstar work, and her work here has secured her spot on the comic artist A-list for years to come.  It’ll be interesting to see how Saga fares next year.  Will it go down the list if the pace continues to frustrate?  Or will it go up the rankings if the plot kicks into motion, or if I more fully embrace the narrative working on a whole other level than what I’d perhaps originally anticipated?  Perhaps next year it might even claim that elusive #1 spot?

 

3. THE WAKE

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Surprisingly, Batman is not the highest-ranked Scott Snyder comic on my list.  No, that accolade goes to The Wake, his collaboration with artist Sean Murphy.  With American Vampire spending most of this year in hiatus, The Wake was left to fill the void in Snyder Vertigo output, and it instantly became the imprint’s standout title for the bulk of 2013.  Channelling the likes of Alien and The Thing, The Wake tells the story of marine biologist Lee Archer, taken down to a secret base at the bottom of the ocean with various other aquatic experts, where they quickly end up stranded and pitted against monstrous creatures from the black depths below.  I think there is something inherently alien and frightening about the deep, deep sea, and Sean Murphy’s visuals here prove utterly masterful at capturing that sense of isolation and claustrophobia.  I first became a fan of his on American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest, and what I’ve seen of Punk Rock Jesus is very impressive, but this is Murphy’s most accomplished work yet, true auteur stuff.  Snyder, meanwhile, managed to craft a narrative packed with tension, shock reversals and genuine frights, but his most audacious move has come at the halfway point, which we’ve now reached as the year comes to a close.  If The Wake had just been a 5-part miniseries about this horrific ordeal experienced by this ensemble of characters we come to care about in their deep sea base, it would have been considered a home run success as an intimate, tightly-contained thriller.  But Snyder is instead doing something much more ambitious, weaving vignettes of the distant past and the impending apocalyptic future through the narrative, and setting the stage for the second phase of the series, which promises to explode open the scope of the story into a tale of global dystopia in a catastrophic future where the siege of phase one has escalated into all-out war for the future of mankind.  It’s risky, as if it doesn’t work the whole thing could collapse.  But if he pulls it off, it’s going to be spectacular.  When it’s all said and done, I can see The Wake standing as a trademark comic for both Snyder and Murphy: when it’s all collected in a lovely hardback, that’s always going to be a hot seller.  And I can already see The Wake being a hit movie in a few years.  But that might be getting ahead of ourselves.  First, let’s see if issues #6-#10 can be executed as note-perfect as issues #1-#5 were.  With the talent involved, I’m confident!

 

2. EAST OF WEST

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It’s strange seeing East of West ranked above Saga, considering back when East of West #1 came out I wrote I talked about the parallels between the two titles, and how I felt that Saga #1 did a better job of introducing its world.  In fact, I didn’t warm to East of West right away, originally dropping it after issue #2, so I remained vocal in my affirmation that Saga was the superior series.  But I continued to hear good things about East of West, so I ended up getting the first graphic novel around the time issue #6 came out to give it another try.  As it turns out, I was a fool.  A blind fool!  Something just clicked for me on repeat reading, and I fell in love.  Really, the comparisons with Saga only work on the barest of surface levels, as this is ultimately a different beast.  Saga is using the backdrop of a massive, epic intergalactic war to tell a very small, intimate, personal story about a family’s struggle for survival.  East of West is telling a massive, epic story that’s staggering in scale, so much so I feel like even now we’ve yet to taken in the full scope of its multi-pronged narrative.  It’s a story so big I don’t think I can do it justice in this paragraph, but basically it’s about an alternate history of America, one where the Civil War went a different way and ended up with America divided into 7 nations, and our story begins with the time drawing near where the Four Horsemen are destined to bring about the end of the world.  Only one of them, Death, has his own agenda, one that involves getting revenge on those who wronged him and reclaiming a lost love.  Each issue is an exercise in giving us a piece of the puzzle, unlocking another part of this sprawling world and hinting at how it might connect into the bigger picture.  You get a firm sense in reading that writer Jonathan Hickman has this whole universe intricately mapped out, and each chapter is just him methodically shining a spotlight on it one small chunk at a time.  And that first issue I originally found to be less accessible than Saga #1 has opened itself up as a rich exercise in world-building, and an immensely enjoyable comics package in itself, one I’ve revisited just about as much as Saga #1 by now.  The series as a whole has offered up great reread value for me, with my Volume 1 graphic novel having already got a good battering from how well-thumbed it’s become.  A good deal of that is because artist Nick Dragotta makes the comic an absolute pleasure to look at, each page a breathtaking work of art I want to hang on my wall.  It is Dragotta’s flair for design that has brought Hickman’s vast ensemble cast to life.  As last month’s 30 Characters Showcase feature on my blog demonstrated, East of West has just been a machine for pumping out memorable new characters this year, emerging from the ether fully-formed and instantly iconic.  A friend of mine described East of West to me as Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” as a comic.  I can see where he got that from, but I disagree.  For me, it’s Ennio Morricone’s “Man with a Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West as a comic.  With East of West, Hickman and Dragotta have crafted a work of desolate beauty that stands as the best new comic of 2013, a year packed full of excellent new comics.  

 

1.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

ManhattanProjects11bIt’s a Jonathan Hickman double-header!  For me, when it comes to comics, 2013 was the year of The Manhattan Projects.  It was always a good comic: it placed very respectably at #6 last year, and almost as early as I’d decided on Saga as my likely #1 comic of 2013, I’d pencilled in The Manhattan Projects at #2.  But in 2013, it’s like a switch flipped and the series catapulted from “very good” to “mind-blowingly fantastic.”  Literally, right from the start of the year: it was January’s issue #8 specifically that I identify as the series truly hitting its stride and launching into a chain of A+ issues that hasn’t been broken since.  The issues released in 2012 were all about setting the stage, introducing us to an alternate vision of 1940s America where the gathering of famed scientists for the construction of the atomic bomb was in fact a cover for numerous other, more dangerous and outlandish experiments, and none of those beloved scientific minds of history were what they seemed.  By the end of last year, representatives of America, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (not to mention the odd alien planet and alternate dimension) had gathered under The Manhattan Projects and declared themselves beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation.  And so, with 2013, we launched into the consequences of this action, with Oppenheimer, Einstein, Feynman, Von Braun and co pitted against an Illuminati-type organisation of figureheads representing entrenched power and the old way of thinking, led by none other than an orgy-loving mason President Truman, and a reanimated A.I. President Roosevelt.  Yes, this happened.  January’s issue #8 did the unthinkable by making us root for and even grudgingly respect Von Braun, who up until this point (and after it, really) has been portrayed as an unrepentant Nazi bastard, as he battled against the odds against A.I. Roosevelt.  Then issue #9 turned the tables with a massacre montage of Godfather proportions, cementing the scientists’ of The Manhattan Projects’ status as rulers of the world.  It was also the issue that confirmed for me that, more than any book starring The Avengers, the Justice League or the X-Men, The Manhattan Projects is the best team book in comics.  After that, issue #10 saw guest artist Ryan Browne tell an absolutely bonkers story from within the fractured mind of Joseph Oppenheimer, where the absorbed consciousness of Robert Oppenheimer punched horses and witnessed Being John Malkovich type scenes of legions of Oppenheimers engaged in acts of depravity.  Issue #11 switched gears again with a poignant character study of Harry Daghlian, the most human of the entire ensemble cast despite being a flaming radioactive skull in a containment suit.  Issue #12 then flipped that around into an emotional gut punch that cast scenes from earlier in the series in a disturbing new light.  From there, it became clear that, if the first arc of the series was about the team being assembled, and the second arc was about it reaching the height of its power, the third arc was about the team becoming fragmented by threats from within. 

 

I can happily rattle off issue-by-issue accounts of what went on without needing to go back to my comics for reference, because I’ve read each issue so often as to know the chronology of what’s happened pretty much by heart.  Even without anything else, that alone would probably be enough to justify its #1 spot here.  More than any other comic I read this year, The Manhattan Projects held the most reread value for me, where I could repeatedly read the whole thing from the beginning, or jump into issues out of order, and continue to enjoy it and get more from it.  That to me says I got more enjoyment from these comics than any other on the list, and to put anything else at #1 would be patently dishonest on my part.  But thankfully, there’s so much more evidence to support the title’s claim at the top spot.  Every member of the creative team triumphs in their role.  Writer Jonathan Hickman’s profile is arguably larger than ever right now, coming off Infinity and with his acclaimed role as master architect of the Avengers line for Marvel, but The Manhattan Projects remains his most fun, accessible book.  And it’s so character-driven, too.  Each member of the cast is so well-realised that I find myself thinking about where their story will take them or absently doodling them the way I might do about Batman or Spider-Man, and it’s even made me more interested in reading up on their real world counterparts.  If East of West is a vast puzzle that is gradually pieced together, The Manhattan Projects is much more about instant gratification, throwing jaw-dropping concepts at us and packing crazy revelations into each issue, only to then detonate that status quo and launch us into something new and even more exciting, like Hickman’s daring himself to somehow manage to maintain this crazy pace.  We’ve seen new world orders be formed and dissolved, and central characters have been maimed or killed in the process.  It’s a thrill-ride, but doesn’t sacrifice the smarts in the process.  Artist Nick Pitarra has grown leaps and bounds over the course of the series, going from an intriguing emerging artist who drew influence from some of my favourites in the field to becoming a master storyteller in his own right.  Each issue of The Manhattan Projects is a dense read that I take my time on, and a large part of that is that Pitarra crams into each page visual detail that enriches the narrative and the characterisation, in keeping with the spirit of the script but quite independent of it.  I savour and dwell on each page of a given issue, marvelling at the construction and becoming immersed in this twisted world Pitarra presents to us.  I mentioned that I like doodling characters from the comic, and I end up doodling them in a crude approximation of Pitarra’s style, because that’s how those characters look to me… they seem more real in his style than they do as real physical humans in old photographs.  And his perfect partner is colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire, who textures Pitarra’s figures just right to give them a cartoonish, spritely weight on the page.  Her influence on the aesthetic of the book has become so indelible that she ended up recoloring the early issues she didn’t draw for the trades, because now those early issues just don’t look right without her.  Even letterer Rus Wooton was given opportunity to showcase his deft work this year, with one extended sequence in issue #12 really requiring him to take centre stage and shoulder the weight of the narrative.  These guys really have come together to form what is for me a comics dream team. 

 

I find it galling that The Manhattan Projects doesn’t get more recognition.  Of course, those who read it love it, and sing its praises.  But I sometimes see major comics news sites not bother to review new issues on the week of its release, and it’s been annoyingly absent on some of the year-end lists I’ve seen.  This seemed to be the case with previous list-topper Scalped as well, though its status seems to have grown some since its conclusion.  But it’s there loss, as month in month out, I get more enjoyment from The Manhattan Projects than anything on the shelves.  On an issue-by-issue basis, it’s a joy.  As an extended serialised narrative, it’s a triumph.  And there’s so much I’m itching to see from the series in 2014.  First on the wishlist: what is the secret origin of Ustinov, and how did he end up as a floating brain in a jar?  Will the series maintain its momentum and hold onto the top spot next year?  Who knows?  If this list has shown anything, it’s that there are no sure things, and that there are always new titles clamouring to grab readers’ attention.  But for now, what I can say for certain is that no comic made me love comics in 2013 more than The Manhattan Projects.

ManhattanProjects11c So, to wrap things up, here’s an overview of the annual standings, and what comics have made the #1 spot each year I’ve ran this feature on my blog….

2010: Scalped

2011: Scalped

2012: The Underwater Welder

2013: The Manhattan Projects

 

Thanks for reading, everyone.  Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

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REVIEWS: A Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey, Theodicy, Sticky, Zombolette’s Floppy, Life Through the Lens

It’s another review medley this week, as I try to plough through my backlog.  Let’s get right down to business!

A VISITOR’S GUIDE TO DEMPSEY #1

Writer: Thom Compton

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: Free

I should qualify this review by saying that, in general, I hate photo comics.  Just the whole concept of them irks me, and so I find a hard time enjoying them, with rare exceptons.  So any photo comic is going to be faced with an uphill battle to win me over.  But I feel that, even when attempting to set aside my prejudices and judge photo-comic A Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey on its own merits, the execution falls very short.  The photography is inconsistent, with creator Thom Compton at points managing some evocative imagery, but too often the actors seem to just be posed in positions that vaguely match the narrative without really doing any acting or emoting to sell it.  Speaking of the narrative, it feels really muddled and unclear, and not in an opaque, mysterious way, but more in a “important information isn’t being conveyed very well” way.  But perhaps the biggest setback of all is the presentation, which is woeful.  In the version I read, at least, many images were squeezed onto the page in a manner that made them blurred or misshapen.  And the lettering was not really lettering at all, looking more like typed-in words put in a text box with a bubble crudely drawn around it… and even then there were instances of misspellings and words being shoddily erased and replacement words crammed into their space.  I was going to skip reviewing this, as I hate writing negative reviews, but I do feel like there’s a good concept here, a kind of anthology series documenting the weird goings on in a small, close-knit community.  But some serious righting of the ship is needed in subsequent issue if the concept is to be redeemed.

VisitorsGuideDempseyA Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey #1 is available to read for free on Scribd.

THEODICY #1

Writer: Chad Handley

Penciller: Fernando Brazuna

Inker: Ryan Boltz

Colorist: Milan Ghibliest

Letterers: John Burton, Jeruvia

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $4.99

I was a bit wary of this going in, as I felt like it was going to be a Dawkins-type “Oh ho ho isn’t religion dumb?” polemic.  But in fact, writer Chad Handley gives us an even-handed, measured depiction of the role religion plays in the world.  His atheist protagonists compellingly lay out their case against God, but they are presented as flawed figures whose conclusions are cast into doubt.  And while for many it has become easy to present religious believers as gullible idiots, in this near-future world plagued with suffering and tyranny, both believers and members of the Church are portrayed sympathetically, with the need for faith presented as understandable, whether or not it ends up being misguided.  Fernando Brazuna and Ryan Boltz’ artwork varies in quality, with some instances of ropey anatomy or dodgy expressions, and the coloring of Minan Ghibliest is a little flat.  But there are some striking images here, and the comic is held together by a compelling, well-realised story by Handley.

Theodicy1Theodicy #1 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

STICKY #1

Writer: Dale Lazarov

Artist: Steve MacIsaac

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $3.50

I have to confess that this is my first time reviewing a gay erotica comic.  In fact, to my knowledge it’s the first time I’ve reviewed any type of erotica.  I’ve talked about comics that featured sex in them, sure, but those were still primarily about plot and character, with any sexual element used to enhance those.  The “gay comics” of Dale Lazarov, however, are marketed as erotica, with the presumed primary goal being to titilate and arouse.  Nothing wrong with that in theory, though going in I had my doubts about whether the comic medium was best suited to such an endeavour in the internet age.  Of course, the other handicap I had is that, as a heterosexual male, gay porn was inevitably going to leave me cold.  The front cover, featuring a young man licking the nipple of a very hairy older gentleman, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, and reading the ensuing comic with cold, forensic detachment just had me asking awkward questions that would probably ruin the erotic mood, “Would an old man really lower his ass onto a dick like that, wouldn’t it hurt his knees?”  “That’s an impressive amount of spunk those two lads just sprayed everywhere, how did they manage to get it on the wall clock?”  I found myself in the reverse of most porn viewers, in that I was keen to fast-forward through the sex and get to the story!  So given that I’m not the intended audience for it as a piece of erotica, and it’s not really fair to judge it through standard perimeters of plot and character, all that remains is to judge it on the quality of the creative team.  And Dale Lazarov and Steve MacIsaac clearly know their stuff.  Lazarov’s script is utterly silent, free of dialogue, but he still manages to convey the differing personalities of both the older and younger lover, and crafts a simple but accesible narrative.  He shows a good deal of trust in MacIsaac’s visuals to carry the bulk of the storytelling, given how much of the interaction and dynamics between the pair is conveyed in the art, and MacIsaac excels here.  It’s actually a very well drawn book, with convincing human anatomy that is not hyper-muscular beefcake physiques as are often seen in comics, but rather lifelike depictions of the male form.  And his heavy inks give the visuals a McKelvie style softness that mean this is a comic with quality production values, where I can recognise the craft behind it even if it’s not for me.

Sticky1Sticky #1 and other comics from Dale Lazarov can be found at his website.

ZOMBOLETTE’S FLOPPY #1

Cartoonist: Scarlette Baccini

Publisher: Bathwater Books

Price: $7.00 AU

Zombolette originally began life as a series of short strips, collected into an anthology released as a graphic novel last year.  This is the first instalment of the character making the leap into the serialised comics format, though rather than the switch in form bringing with it a shift in narrative approach, this issue reads very much like a collection of strips.  This first issue has an episodic structure, made up of three mostly self-contained short adventures for our zombified title character and her giant talking guinea pig sidekick.  Of these, the first is the definite standout, with Baccini displaying a sharp, acerbic wit that puts Zombolette on just the right side of nasty.  The second story is too brief to really go anywhere, but is centred around one admittedly great gag.  By the third part I was feeling a bit tired of the diminishing returns, but by the end Baccini had taken the blackly comic core joke and pushed it to such ridiculously macabre extremes that I was just about won over again by the end.  One thing that remains consistent in quality throughout is Baccini’s lively artwork, her bold, heavy lines and generous ink washes giving her highly-stylised characters a rich, textured feel on the page.  It has its hits and misses, but fans of dark humor and/or intriguingly quirky visuals might want to give Zombolette’s Floppy a look.

Zombolette1Zombolette’s Floppy #1 is available to buy from Bathwater Books’ webstore.

LIFE THROUGH THE LENS #1

Writer: Kent Olsen

Artist: Sabine Ten Lohuis

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $5.50

The climactic scene of Life Through The Lens involves a heated debate between two film critics over the film they’re reviewing, in an exchange that becomes quite evocative of the comic as a whole.  “The film meanders from scene to scene with no real purpose,” says Richard.  His fellow critic, Jerald, disagrees, defining that the film has an “experimental narrative” and “breaks conventions in all the right places.”  Sadly, it seems this comic is an attempt to do something like how Jerald envisions the film in question, but my assessment ended up being more in line with Richard.  The book claims to be a first issue, but the story doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go beyond a oneshot, with an aloof tone that keeps the reader at arm’s length.  But the major positive for me that kept my interest held throughout the comic was the artwork of Sabine Ten Lohuis.  The delicate, wispy lines and light washes give the comic an energetic, fluid feel, reminiscent of a more stylised Dustin Nyugen.  The characters are highly distinctive, and have a particular vivacity about them.  I shall definitely be keeping an eye open for Sabine’s distinctive visuals in future projects.  I do think it’s a shame that only writer Kent Olsen is credited on the cover, though.

LifeThroughTheLensLife Through the Lens #1 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

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30 Character Showcase #30: Forever Carlyle

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

30. FOREVER CARLYLE

Lazarus2Created by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

Here it is, the final entry on our month-long spotlight of the best new comics creations of 2013.  And of all the characters on this list, few had a first appearance more memorable than Forever Carlyle, star of writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark’s ace new Image series, Lazarus.  We begin with her dead, a bullet in her head, her apparent killers circled around her.  Then Forever gets up and kills them all.  In a dystopian future where the world is run by a handful of obscenely rich families, Forever is the “Lazarus” of the Carlyle family: a genetically-engineered enforcer and protector of the family’s interests.  And, as we quickly discover, she’s very hard to kill.

Much of how she’s brought to life is done by Michael Lark, delivering some of the finest artwork of his career.  The fight scenes are framed in a way to show how clinical and precise every strike Forever makes is, using combat as an extension of her personality.  And even how she’s drawn at rest – imposingly tall, wearing deep black that stands out amidst the muddy orange/brown aesthetic – marks her out from the world around her and gives her presence on the page.

Greg Rucka has also managed to invest her with a compelling personality.  Created to blindly follow the orders of her family, we see her showing flickers of doubt and even turmoil over the violent deeds she must carry out, this emerging conscience standing at odds with her sense of duty to her family.  When it’s called for, however, she is suitably ruthless!

Lazarus2a

And that brings to an end my month-long spotlight on the newly-created comic characters of 2013.  If any of you have had the endurance to read from beginning to end, thanks for sticking with it!

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