My Top Ten Comics of 2016

Hello!  It’s that time of year again… already!  It’s time for my 7th annual countdown of my favourite comics of the year.  And what a year it’s been.  If we look past the flaming trash fire much of 2016 has been in general, we have got some great comics out of it.  DC has found much success this year with its Rebirth relaunch, and I found myself jumping on a whole bunch of titles.  Though none of those biweekly books made this year’s Top 10, there are some standouts which I’ve been enjoying a great deal: Batman, Detective Comics, Aquaman, Wonder Woman.  On the flipside, I feel like my Marvel reading has almost entirely tapered off.  Most of the Marvel books I was reading, I either dropped or they ended.  I tested out a few of the new launches and relaunches but generally didn’t stick with them… but I’m hopeful about some of the promising creative teams lined up for upcoming books!  Several indie books continued to make a strong impression, though I seem to have jumped on less new Image titles this year than I have in past years, for the most part falling back on titles I was already reading.  However, I’ve heard great things about The Black Monday Murders and intend on catching up on that when the trade hits early next year.  The indie publisher that really jumped out for me this year was Dark Horse.  Negative Space and Harrow County continued to excel, and new creator-owned projects that launched this year also managed to grab my attention.  Between all the books I read from various publishers, I could probably make a top 20 list quite easily if I had the time.  Doom Patrol, Wonder Woman: Earth One, Civil War: Kingpin, Rumble, Chum, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, Black Hammer, A.D.: After Death, as well as the titles mentioned above, all jump into my head as books that came close to making the list.  But I had to narrow it down to 10, and here’s my final list…

  1. KENNEL BLOCK BLUES

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Kennel Block Blues was a book that really took me by surprise this year.  Not with how good it was.  When you put a creative team like Ryan Ferrier and Daniel Bayliss on a comic of course you’re going to get quality.  But I was expecting a fun, quirky “musical” about talking animals in prison.  What I actually got was a harrowing exploration of loneliness and casual cruelty, and a deeply moving ode to unlikely friendships and triumph over adversity.  Few comics this year did such an effective job of making me care about the characters within than I came to care for those singing talking animals featured here.  I was genuinely devastated by the grim ends some characters meet, and this also served to create an oppressive atmosphere of no character being truly safe, which ramped up the tension and made your heart soar for those who were able to emerge in triumph.  I think many might forget to include Kennel Block Blues in their year-end rankings because it landed so early in the year, or perhaps because Ryan Ferrier’s other creator-owned book, D4VE (also fab), seems to be more widely acclaimed.  But if you want an emotional roller-coaster of a read, both funny and moving, Kennel Block Blues is certainly worth your consideration.

  1. CHEW

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Chew is a comic which has appeared on my top 10 lists in previous years, though not for a while.  But I had to include it this year, as the series reached the end of its 60-issue run.  While Chew has had its share of acclaim, part of me feels like it doesn’t get enough love as a crucial book in the ascension of Image.  Maybe I’m letting my own subjective perspective inform things a bit, as it was one of the first non Marvel/DC titles that I jumped onboard and bought monthly, but even beyond that Chew seemed like an early example of the “new Image” ongoing: not a superhero remix or a 90s revival, or a product of the Top Cow imprint, but an unusual, original concept from an exciting upstart creative team, the kind of series you might have expected from Vertigo in years past.  And while Chew is most famous as a comedy series, it had its share of heart-rending emotional gut punches.  And here, in its final year, those gut-punches came thick and fast as the world inched ever closer to its chicken-related apocalypse.  While even I was guilty of letting the book fly under my radar – always reading, but maybe not rushing to grab it first on my read pile – it was once Chew was approaching its end and I had to start saying goodbye to this rich cast of oddball characters that I realised just how fond I had grown of them over the years, and how nuanced and lived-in John Layman and Rob Guillory had made them.  Farewell, Chew, you will be missed!

  1. DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH

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As I mentioned above, DC have been on a real upward swing this year with their Rebirth initiative.  All their titles relaunching, most with fresh creative teams, many of them as biweekly books, it’s been an ambitious undertaking which has proven largely successful.  And DC Universe Rebirth, by Geoff Johns and an array of talented artists, was the oversized oneshot that started it all.  But in reading the comic, which I’ve done several times now, in a lot of ways it reads less like a beginning than an ending.  It’s Geoff Johns’ goodbye to comics.  At the very least, goodbye to actively writing monthly comics, for the time being at least, as he moves up the ladder to focus on overseeing DC’s adaptations in the world of film and television as their Chief Creative Officer.  And in that context, DC Universe Rebirth takes on an added poignant quality of Johns checking in on various characters he’s had a hand in shaping over the years, giving us one last look at where he’s leaving them before giving them a fond farewell.  And the character viewed most fondly of all is Wally West, the protagonist of the run on The Flash where Johns first made his reputation.  Viewed for years as one of the great casualties of the New 52, not just as a popular character in himself but in the DC legacy tradition he  personified, seeing him roam this new world, struggling to find a tether in it feels metatextual.  And when Barry reaches through the fabric of reality and embraces him, sobbing, “How could I ever forget you?”, it’s like they’re grabbing a hold of us, the readers.  It’s a moment that brought me close to tears when I first read.  But beyond nostalgia and resolution, so much for the future is set up here.  Setting up Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen as the DC Universe’s biggest Big Bad was a controversial move, to be sure, and yet the Watchmen are surely the perfect antithesis of the light and hope and classic heroism this issue establishes the DCU as being all about.  A bold mission statement on the DC Universe going forward, and a hugely rewarding, cathartic read in itself.

  1. ALL STAR BATMAN

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I have mentioned already that it has been a stellar year for Batman comics.  Both Batman and Detective Comics are on fire right now, and with each running on an alternate bi-weekly schedule that means we have a quality new Batman comic just about every week.  We even got Dark Night: A True Batman Story, an autobiographical comic from Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso that is set in the real world of Dini’s life story but still manages to totally be about Batman.  But still, Scott Snyder has once again shown himself to be the current king of Batman comics with his new series.  While his long-running art partner Greg Capullo is off working with Mark Millar, Snyder has taken to working with a rotating cast of different artists for this series, with the stated intention of showcasing Batman’s iconic rogues gallery.  In 2016, we got the first of these villain spotlights in the form of a 5-part saga focused on Two-Face, one of my absolute all-time favourite villains.  And it really is a hell of a Two-Face story, Snyder revealing whole new dimensions to the character both in his personal connection to Bruce Wayne and in just how formidable a threat he can be.  That is paired with art from John Romita Jr which is some of the legendary artist’s best in many years, perhaps his best since Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.  The pacing and staging of action here is just breathtaking.  And as bonus content we’ve also been treated to backup stories illustrated by Declan Shalvey.  Each issue is a densely-packed, immensely enjoyable read, top of the pile even at a time when we’re spoiled with top-tier Batman tales.

  1. EAST OF WEST

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I’m sure I’ve said similar things about East of West before that I’m going to say now.  Because the book has been running a few years now, it doesn’t always get its due.  People are always looking ahead to the next Image #1 to start buzzing about.  But though it might not get the acknowledgement it deserves, and it even flies under my radar from time to time, whenever I read the latest issue of East of West, its masterpiece status is reaffirmed in my mind.  While the sprawling ensemble and dizzying scope continue to grow and grow, this apocalyptic sci-fi pseudo-Western has been patiently moving forward, aligning the players on the board for some epic conflicts and bringing long-separated characters together.  As Year Two drew to a close it felt like all the extensive groundwork and world-building is starting to pay off.  Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin do astounding, superstar work on art and colours every issue, and it might just be Jonathan Hickman’s finest work, too.  There might be other comics I rush to read quicker on new comics day, but of all the comics titles currently running, East of West may be the one that, when it’s all said and done, is best primed to join the canon of the all-time comics classics.

  1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

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What!?!?!  After a couple of successive years at the top of the list, Southern Bastards slips off the #1 spot in 2016!  That’s not to say there’s been any decline in quality.  If anything, the issues we’ve had this year have been among the best the series has ever put out, as now Roberta Tubb has finally arrived in Craw County and a reckoning seems set to be underway.  Southern Bastards remains the best comic on the shelves, whenever it comes out.  The problem is more that whenever it comes out isn’t as often as I’d like.  Don’t get me wrong, I know you can’t rush greatness, and I’m willing to wait for issues when what we get when they do arrive is such quality.  But it’s just a simple fact that the more sporadic release schedule allowed for other, more regularly-released titles to slip in and take more prominent standing in my consciousness this particular year.  Still, Southern Bastards remains as gripping as ever, with Jason Aaron and Jason Latour bringing us a masterfully realised, believably wretched world with a bruised, twisted heart pumping under all the ugliness.  It has every chance of climbing back up to #1 in future years.  I can only hope that in 2017 I get a larger dose of Southern Bastards to enjoy.

  1. HOUSE OF PENANCE

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In a year that boasted a fair share of quality horror, House of Penance stood out as a horror not quite like any other.  Eschewing the usual creature feature or body horror fare, or (for the most part) any real exterior menace, this was almost entirely a horror of the interior, its dread built up from am unbearably oppressive sense of “ill feeling.”  While credit must also be given to the astute characterisation of Pete Tomasi in portraying the loneliness, grief and mania of Sarah Winchester as she obsesses over endlessly building her ghost-trap house, it is through the feverish artwork of Ian Bertram that this sense of grinding dread is hammered home.  This is achieved through the blood-soaked tendrils depicted weaving through the house, growing in density as scenes reach emotional high-points.  But beyond that, it is portrayed in near every frame, with the uneasy close-ups on gaunt, wild-eyed faces, pitching everything at just a degree or two shy of hysteria, ready to bubble over at any moment.  It was a superstar showcase for Bertram, elevating him from an artist I was already aware of and a fan of into making him one of my favourite artists working today.  But everyone on the creative team excels, this whole comic is a triumph, and a shining example of how much untapped potential for horror still lies within the comics medium.

  1. THE VISION

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Easily Marvel’s best comic over the past year, and a solid contender for the best ongoing title anyone put out in 2016, The Vision was actually a comic I wasn’t initially interested in, reading the concept.  “The Vision makes a family for himself and goes to live in suburbia?”  Seemed to me like a poor way to capitalise on renewed interest in the android superhero following his Avengers: Age of Ultron appearance.  How wrong I was.  Right from the opening pages of the first issue, a foreboding sense of impending doom is built up to such a fever pitch it’s almost like reading a psychological horror.  Tom King and Gabriel Walta managed to give us a take on  The Vision that felt utterly true to the core spirit of the character while at the same time taking us on shocking, unpredictable new directions.  In an era of short-run volumes and relaunches where story arcs can feel expendable, that format here is used to the book’s advantage, giving us a story which, while set in the wider Marvel Universe and its history for sure, nonetheless feels like an almost self-contained parable of what it is to be human as told from the perspective of those who aren’t, one which will have an enduring life in collected form many years from now, long after the next few crossover events have run their course.  A modern masterpiece.

  1. CLEAN ROOM

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Speaking of masterpieces, it’s a rare joy to get to experience an all-time benchmark work unfolding in real time.  But that’s just the sense I get from Clean Room, a title which in future years and generations I’m sure will be held up as part of the all-time canon of essential comics horror.  It started promisingly enough last year, with a Going Clear style premise of an investigation into a sinister, Scientology-style cult and the spate of deaths surrounding it.  But from there the series took a sharp left turn into blood-curdling cosmic/demonic flesh-mangling horror, a Lovecraft meets Cronenberg assault of wickedness.  It’s Gail Simone at the nastiest she’s ever been, and in the process probably the best she’s been since at least her epic Secret Six run.  Kudos also to Jon Davis-Hunt for crafting some truly nightmarish, viscerally disgusting imagery which left me wary of turning each page in public.  And beyond the scares, over its run of slightly over a year, Clean Room has been building up a rich, enigmatic mythology which it feels we’ve only thus far scratched the surface of, and populated it with both likeable and despicable characters.  I’m sad to see Davis-Hunt depart as artist, but this is a series which could be poised to just get better and better as the plot thickens.

  1. THE SHERIFF OF BABYLON

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At this time last year, while writing my 2015 Top 10 list, I’m sure that I remarked on the astounding first issue of The Sheriff of Babylon.  At the time, I remember thinking that if the series kept up anywhere near that standard, it would surely be in serious contention for the top spot in 2016.  And here we are.  The Sheriff of Babylon is a searing, angry comic.  Mitch Gerads may bring a subtle, understated quality in his visualisation of the US occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s, but this plain, detached approach veils tumultuous emotions bubbling under the surface, and makes the outrages and tragedies contained within the story all the more harrowing in contrast.  As a narrative on its own merits, The Sheriff of Babylon works extremely well.  In the first issue, immediately, we are introduced to three immediately compelling characters, each with their secrets and demons, and watch as their paths are set on a course that will bring them all together, looking into the appearance of a dead Iraqi soldier.  Any one of these figures would make for a readable protagonist, but watching all three play off one another against such an evocative backdrop makes for compulsive reading.  But on a level beyond the core narrative, The Sheriff of Babylon is a condemnation of the Iraq War.  A recurring theme throughout is the denial of responsibility, how decisions are made by disinterested people, and they get fed down the chain through winding degrees of separation until they cause devastation to lives on the ground.  It’s a damning indictment on the ways we can have our humanity taken from us, or (knowingly or otherwise) take that humanity from ourselves.  And the big payoffs of the series come when that winding chain is severed and characters are forced to make decisions which will have immediate, violent consequences.  Not just the definitive Iraq War story of any piece of fiction I’ve seen, in any medium, but one of the best war stories in recent years too.  An absolutely essential read.

And that’s the 2016 list!  Here’s the annual standings as they now read:

  • 2010: Scalped
  • 2011: Scalped
  • 2012: The Underwater Welder
  • 2013: The Manhattan Projects
  • 2014: Southern Bastards
  • 2015: Southern Bastards                                                                                               
  • 2016: The Sheriff of Babylon

Sorry it was late this year, but I hope you still enjoyed reading it.  I already have stuff I’m looking forward to in 2017, from seeing the DC Rebirth titles continue their progress, to seeing perennial favourites that had quiet years hopefully make big comebacks, to comics which have just started at year’s end (this year’s top 2 – both Vertigo comics, funnily enough – were both books which were brand new with not enough issues to allow for inclusion when I was compiling last year’s list), to enticing new creator-owned titles on the way.  Come back next December to see what makes the cut as best of the best!

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Two-Face & I

Two-Face & I

Okay, let me talk a wee bit about Two-Face.

Those who know me will know that The Joker has long been my favourite comics villain, one of my favourite characters in fiction. They might not know that for many years before The Joker took that top spot it was occupied by Two-Face. There’s a pivotal memory from my childhood where my experience of the Batman mythos expanded beyond the Burton films and the four villains who appeared in the 1966 Adam West movie… okay, 5, I saw the Mr Freeze episode of the old TV series too. But Two-Face was a key figure in me becoming fascinated in a wider Batman world, and getting into the comics… a gateway drug for getting into comics in general.

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Back when BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES first aired on UK TV, around 1992 so I’d have been 5 or 6, one of the earliest episodes I still have memories of experiencing for the first time was the two part Two-Face origin story. The cliffhanger ending of the first episode – where Batman’s friend, District Attorney Harvey Dent, is horribly disfigured, the reveal of his face shown in gruesome high-rendered detail as he runs screaming out of the hospital ward into the thundery night – horrified and transfixed young me. One of my earliest memories of breathlessly anticipating the next episode of a TV series, with the only earlier memories being the “same Bat time, same Bat channel!” cliffhangers of the Adam West show reruns. In fact, my mum was due to take me out with her to go see her friend the following Saturday, and the only way she got me to go was by making her friend record the episode so I could watch it once I got there. And that episode sealed the deal on Two-Face being my new favourite baddie, that raspy, cut-glass voice entrenched forever in my memory. From there on I would fill endless sheets of paper drawing him, and I quickly nabbed up his BTAS action figure and carried it around with me everywhere!

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was giddy to learn Two-Face would be the villain of BATMAN FOREVER, played by Tommy Lee Jones. I remember being so hyped for that film, and being overjoyed seeing Two-Face on the big screen – don’t be hard on me, I was 8. I have a weirdly specific memory of being on holiday in Majorca and endlessly re-enacting a Two-Face’s death scene from that film, throwing a handful of coins in the air and grasping wildly for them with a death scream as I tumbled backwards into the pool.

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It was around that time I made my first foray into reading single issue American comic books. I went to Candleriggs Market with my cousin, where they had a big comic stall set up, and I was specifically looking for Two-Face comics. I ended up leaving with a couple of chapters of Matt Wagner’s FACES.

Fast forward a decade or so to 2005, and I’d drifted from comics a bit after a foray into Marvel back when I was moving into my teens. But now at age 18, one of the two graphic novels which got my back into comics with a vengeance – the other being THE KILLING JOKE – was THE LONG HALLOWEEN. Which is of course one of the all-time great Two-Face stories. If, from this point on, The Joker was firmly established as my #1 Batman villain, Two-Face was #2 (appropriately enough), and has never really slipped from there.

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Of course, The Joker alone was enough to make THE DARK KNIGHT my most anticipated movie ever, but when I found out that Harvey Dent and then Two-Face would also be in the film, that pushed my hype to astronomical levels. I was just as excited to see Aaron Eckhart’s performance as I was Heath Ledger’s. And while I know some didn’t like Two-Face’s inclusion, I loved it: a Batman movie with both The Joker AND Two-Face! It’s like if you tried to create my ultimate film experience in a test tube. No wonder it is still my all-time favourite film.

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Also, I probably shouldn’t admit this, but one of my proudest writing achievements remains my two-year long stint writing Harvey Dent in the online RPGs I used to play in. When I wasn’t doing half-assed rips of scenes from THE SHIELD and THE WIRE, I relished digging into that character’s psyche in obsessive detail.

It’s funny how there are certain fictional characters who, when you look back through your life, you see were always there in some form, marking out the big moments like members of the family. Two-Face is one of those for me. He’s one of a very select few characters whose appearance will always interest me, and tempt me to pick up even a series I wasn’t previously reading.

Two-Face has been relatively quiet in the New 52 era. Apart from a brief storyline in the underrated Pete Tomasi run on BATMAN & ROBIN (I’d say Tomasi/Gleason but I believe Doug Mahnke drew that particular arc), he hasn’t been given much to do. Which is why I’m VERY excited about his big return in ALL STAR BATMAN, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by John Romita Jr, out this Wednesday.

Snyder did amazing things with The Joker during his BATMAN run in “Death of the Family” and “Endgame”, making the character the most frightening he’s been in ages. I can’t wait to see what he does with Two-Face. As the release draws near I realise my anticipation is off the charts!

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My Top Ten Comics of 2014

Hello and welcome once more to my annual countdown of the Top 10 comics of the year. You’ll notice that, after last year’s inflated Top 20 list, I’m back down to 10 for 2014. That’s not to suggest that the quality of titles being released is in decline, but rather that I’ve probably been buying a little less comics this year, having to make some ruthless cuts to my pull list as having less and less free time to read through my comics has left a larger and larger pile of unread books to try to get to. That, and the fact that it took me ages to write that Top 20 list last year! 2014 has been another year of change for me, as while last year I talked a bit about how the number of Image titles I was reading had skyrocketed, this year I’ve had to drop a few of those. And while last year I said that I’d all but stopped reading Marvel and DC’s output, Marvel at least has made a big comeback for me, with an array of quality launches this year. Also noteworthy is the ascendancy of BOOM! Studios, with such quality output as The Woods, Memetic, Curse, Black Market and The Empty Man, and I’ve really been enjoying Oni Press output like The Life After and The Bunker. As ever, there are plenty of great comics I couldn’t fit into my top 10. Aforementioned indie offerings The Life After and The Woods, and other cracking indie titles like MonkeyBrain breakouts D4VE and Headspace, not to mention Image debuts like Spread, Wytches, Roche Limit and Deadly Class. Even some previous Top 10 mainstays like Batman, Saga and Sex Criminals, while maintaining a consistent quality, didn’t make the cut. Charles Soule wrote stellar comics for both Marvel and DC that came close to qualifying in She-Hulk and Swamp Thing respectively. Coming agonisingly close and actually being present in the list in an earlier draft was the delightful, charming, funny, surprisingly tender and emotional Dungeon Fun, by breakout genius Scottish creators Colin Bell and Neil Slorance. But what we’re left with is a collection of truly superb comics, some you may already be reading, others you should seek out. Let’s get right into it…
10. LEGENDARY STAR-LORD

LegendaryStarLordI figured out numbers 1-9 on this list pretty quickly, but there was a real fight for this final spot on the list. Just take a look at that vast “Honourable Mentions” list above to show how many quality comics were in contention. But I think the main two that got closest were this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy expansions, Legendary Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon. Both were fun, action-packed titles, and I have a hard time deciding which one I loved more. Rocket Raccoon is just fantastic, Skottie Young is doing stellar work on that title, and it was perhaps the title that had the bigger immediate “WOW!” reaction of the two. But it’s Legendary Star-Lord that has grown on me even more over the course of their respective runs. Star-Lord is my favourite Guardian, and Sam Humphries has, in this series, crafted a version of Peter Quill that does justice to all iterations of his character. The surface level that immediately grabs you as the series begins is how spot-on a pastiche of Chris Pratt’s excellent cinematic portrayal it is, right down to the dude-speak and man-child party lifestyle. But as the series has progressed, Humphries has skilfully weaved what might have seemed like a soft character retcon to make it feel like an appropriate character evolution that stays faithful to the haunted, guilt-ridden moral pragmatist that starred in the definitive Abnett & Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy run. There’s even the inclusion of an updated version of transport/confidante Ship from the very earliest Star-Lord appearances from the 1970s. The bombastic artwork of Paco Medina is a revelation, and it’s his bright, energetic visuals that really hammer home the glorious comedy beats: from Kitty Pryde dancing in a giant banana suit to Quill on an awkward date dressed in a bad ’80s prom tux. Straddling a line between rewarding single-issue stories and steadily building up an intriguing overarching narrative, Legendary Star-Lord is a gem of a comic that makes a great case for why Star-Lord is a hero deserving of his own solo title.
9. EAST OF WEST

EastOfWest10East of West has slipped a little from its #2 ranking last year. Don’t get me wrong, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s sci-fi/Western opus still ranks up there with Image’s best titles and is always a book that gets read very soon after I get home from buying it at the local comic shop. If anything, the lower placement is reflective of not poorer storytelling, but more subtle storytelling, with Hickman and Dragotta carefully expanding the world and often replacing the more sweeping scope of the initial arc with a series of one-shots exploring the various nations of this alternate America. All were interesting to varying degrees, though at times this approach left me missing some of my favourite characters and wondering when certain plot beats would be followed up on. But when the various threads start to weave together and the individually-defined forces start to clash, you really feel a sense of culmination, and the sheer scale feels even more epic and breathtaking for the build-up that set it up. With what has been set up as of the latest issue I read, Hickman seems primed to take this world into even darker places as the narrative enters its next phase. But it’s the team of Nick Dragotta and colourist Frank Martin that continue to steal the show with each passing chapter. There’s not an issue that goes by where I don’t have to stop at least once and just marvel over the construction of a page. Still arguably the most visually stunning art team in comics.
8. ANDRE THE GIANT: LIFE AND LEGEND

AndreTheGiantI’ll get this out of the way: you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. All you have to be is a fan of fascinating life stories, realised with wonderful comics storytelling by Box Brown. But I’ve been a wrestling fan going back to when I was a little kid, albeit not so much lately. And the first person I can remember being a favourite wrestler of mine was Andre the Giant. The 7-foot-plus tall athlete was, pun intended, a larger-than-life presence, and this graphic biography does a great job of conveying that, with various interviewees sharing accounts of the sheer size of the man and the unique life he led as a result of it that range from the charming to the breathtaking. But his size, which gave him incredible fame and a livelihood, was also an incredible burden. Most obviously, it was a medical condition, one that was slowly killing him. But, as Brown astutely depicts, it also negatively impacted his life in a whole series of constant little inconveniences and humiliations that wore him down, the cold fact that in one context, he was “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” but in another he was just a freak. The biography is more a highlight reel than an exhaustive analysis, but we do get some excellent snapshots of his life. We see how he used to get lifts to school from Samuel Beckett as a boy in France, and we get a look at his time on the set of The Princess Bride. But most effectively of all, Box Brown paints a portrait of an era of American history that holds endless fascination for me: the 1980s wrestling circuit and all the eccentricities contained within. Informative, poignant, and often laugh-out-loud funny, when I read Andre the Giant: Life and Legend back near the start of the year, it became probably the first definite fixture on this list and its place has stayed secure ever since.
7. STRAY BULLETS: KILLERS

StrayBulletsKillersWhat a fantastic year 2014 has been for fans of David Lapham’s seminal crime epic, Stray Bullets. With no new chapters published in some time, and the series arguably never getting the widespread acclaim and recognition it deserved, it seemed in danger of being consigned to history as an unfairly forgotten comics classic. But then Image Comics signed a new deal to revive Stray Bullets last year, prompting the series to be posted up on ComiXology. Then, this year, the original run was finally brought to a conclusion with Stray Bullets #41, followed by the whole series being released in a deluxe omnibus called “The Uber Alles Edition,” allowing a whole new generation of readers to get absorbed into this dark, ruthlessly bleak saga. And then we got Stray Bullets: Killers. David Lapham has slipped effortlessly back into this seedy world and its inhabitants, like slipping into an old pair of comfy slippers, not missing a beat. As always with Stray Bullets, Killers seems to operate on the fringes of the crime genre, looking at how regular people on the fringes are impacted, or how their moral decisions can have a ripple effect. The backbone of Killers has been the blossoming and ultimately wilting romance between recurring protagonist Virginia and Eli, two flawed characters who make mistakes, but who we come to deeply care about, and whose happiness we become highly emotionally invested in. A happiness which, if Stray Bullets has taught us anything, shouldn’t be expected to last. Killers is often a low-key series, and as such even now is still to some degree being overlooked, not always getting mentioned amongst the other great Image titles of the past year. But Stray Bullets: Killers is actually better than most of them, and has produced some of the best single issues of any comic in 2014.
6. THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

MP19AlbertReturnsLast year’s #1 didn’t quite reach the same heights on this year’s list, in fact slipping to the ranking it held back in the 2012 list. But that’s hardly to suggest that writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra’s bonkers revisionist history tale of mad science gone wild is in decline. This is a series that continues to fire on all cylinders with big, crazed ideas. Talking dog Laika got her own standalone adventure in space. The original Albert Einstein from our Earth came back to our reality to confront his evil parallel Earth doppleganger, and we got to see the mad journey across countless realms he had to brave to return home. William Westmoreland joined the cast as a hardcase with an ear necklace who took on an elite alien killing machine and won. We discovered that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro had their brains replaced by evil Communist aliens. And it all built up to a take on the assassination of JFK (magic bullet and all) that was about as bonkers as we’ve come to expect. The visuals of this book from Pitarra and colorist Jordie Bellaire continue to be an absolute delight, packed with detail and character quirks that had so much to the fabric of the story and make it what it is. The cast and the scope of this series continues to get bigger and bigger, and so the year ended with The Manhattan Projects going on hiatus, with a promise to come back in 2015 with more character-driven arcs focusing on the various narrative strands one at a time. Whatever format The Manhattan Projects takes going forward, you can be certain that I’ll be onboard!
5. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

ThorGodOfThunderFor the sake of clarity, it’s Thor: God of Thunder – the 25-issue series drawn largely by Esad Ribic, which ended a few months back – which is my included entry on this list, rather than the newly relaunched Thor, also written by Jason Aaron. Not that the new series, isn’t really great – honestly, save for the new issue #1, it’s pretty much a continuance of the narrative from God of Thunder and part of the same overarching saga – but it’s just getting started, really, so if I must pick one title for inclusion on this list I’ll go for Thor: God of Thunder. This title was excellent right from its beginning, and during the “God Butcher” storyline quickly established itself as one of the crown jewels in Marvel’s lineup. But it was with Esad Ribic’s return to the series in “Last Days of Midgard” that the title reached its greatest heights, and Jason Aaron cemented his status as best Thor writer since Simonson. This storyline told two tales. One narrative was of an Earth in the future that had been left as little more than a ravaged husk, old King Thor left to defend it against Galactus come finally to claim the remains of the planet that had thwarted him for so long. Here we saw Ribic at his finest, depicting a Galactus that truly inspired awe and terror, underlining the impossible odds Thor faced in fighting him. The other tale was in a present that eerily foreshadowed the desolation of the future, with evil corporation Roxxon embarking on dangerous, morally repellent initiatives that bring them into conflict with Thor. Now, Jason Aaron has already made major contributions to the villains in Thor’s mythos without even using arch foe Loki: from introducing the terrifying Gor to giving real teeth and wickedness to Malekith in a portrayal that put his cinematic appearance to shame. So it’s not a statement I make likely when I say that Roxxon figurehead Dario Agger was the most vile, repellent villain Thor faced in the whole series. He was a great opponent for Thor, because he was not someone Thor could just hit with his hammer. He was a very Earthly evil, hiding behind lawyers and dirty corporate tricks and playing on a level even a heavy-hitter superhero like Thor struggled to keep up with. From beginning to end, Thor: God of Thunder was a delight: dramatic, scary, and often surprisingly funny. It seems like we should expect more of the same from the new Thor.
4. THE MULTIVERSITY

PaxAmericanaAs a huge Grant Morrison fan, The Multiversity has long seemed like one of those dream projects, long discussed, that I’d forever been looking forward to, but felt was never going to actually come to pass. It’s literally been years that Morrison has been talking about this, so even when it appeared in solicitations, I still don’t think I quite believed it was finally happening. I don’t think I believed it until I held that first issue in my hands. But now that it’s launched and the first few issues have been released, I can gladly confirm that it has met and even exceeded expectations. This is Morrison’s trip through the Multiverse, at once a medley of returning characters and recurring motifs from his past work, and trailblazing into new terrain. The first issue was dizzying in scope, giving us a sense of a vast, mad DCU filled with depth and intricacies to a degree we haven’t really seen since the New 52 began back in 2011, and also giving us the return of CAPTAIN CARROT! After that we got a glorious, pulp-inspired rendition of the JSA, with great portrayals of the likes of Doctor Fate. Next up was a universe populated with the various legacy heroes following on from their iconic predecessors, like Morrison doing Jupiter’s Legacy better than Millar. But best of all was “Pax Americana,” drawn by art legend and frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely, which saw the pair tackle the original Charlton heroes like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and The Question that served as the basis for Watchmen. And, never one to shirk from ambition, and being quite bold as brass in the face of Moore’s criticisms about Morrison copying his work, Morrison and Quitely tackle head-on the very ideas of comics structure that Moore and Gibbons were exploring with Watchmen, and arguably pushes the envelope even further. Frank Quitely is possibly my favourite comic artist ever, so it’s not lightly that I say this could be some of his finest work to date, with the assured colour palette of Nathan Fairbairn acting as the perfect compliment to his style.  What I’ve loved about every issue so far, though I can also see it being a bit infuriating, is that rather than just creating a bunch of one-and-dones, Morrison has written a collection of fantastic issue #1s, all of which end having introduced us to an immersive world and leaving us desperate for an issue #2 that will never come. Such amazing craft and world-building throughout. This is a barmy celebration of DC’s Multiverse, and of superhero comics in general, done in a way only Grant Morrison can. Fantastic.
3. DAREDEVIL

DaredevilDepressionDaredevil, as written by Mark Waid and over the past couple of years mostly drawn by Chris Samnee, is a comic that has existed on the periphery of my perception for quite some time. I’ve always been aware of the popularity and critical acclaim behind the title, and I’d read an issue here or there, but 2014 was finally the year I dove in, thanks to the Marvel NOW relaunch that relocated Matt Murdock to San Francisco, but largely kept the tone, cast and overarching storylines consistent from the previous volume. I used this opportunity to give Daredevil a try, and at last I was hooked. I went back and bought the whole of Volume 3 in the three deluxe hardcover editions, stormed through it, and was left kicking myself for taking so long to jump on the bandwagon. When looking at how influential this title has been – you could argue it has inspired a whole line of creative thought in Marvel’s publishing output, from a shift to shorter story arcs, to an increased spotlight on more stylised, cartoony artwork over more glossy, cookie-cutter fare – it’s easy to overlook just how brilliant Daredevil remains, and how it’s still setting the bar. So, let’s take a closer look at this year in Daredevil, in particular the title since it was relaunched as Volume 4. As stated above, while the locations are fresh, much of the themes are carrying on from what came before. And, in particular, this underlying notion that Daredevil’s bright, upbeat “new beginning” where he’d make a conscious decision to be happier was perhaps less secure than it first seemed that has been niggling away since Waid’s tenure began has really been scrutinised and drawn into the open. We got the first allusions to it in the two-part Original Sin tie-in (surely one of the best tie-ins that event produced) where we explored Matt’s mother, and discovered she suffered from post-partum depression when Matt was an infant. This exploration of mental illness built up to the high-point of the volume: the recently-completed “Purple Children” storyline, where longtime Daredevil foe The Purple Man sets loose a group of his illegitimate children whose more primal version of his mind-controlling powers may be even more potent than his own. On one level, this worked as a thrilling superhero story, with The Purple Man as scary and nasty as ever. But it also served as an excellent study of depression, and the continued stigmas surrounding mental illness that prevent people seeking help. Daredevil has long been one of the best developed superheroes in comics, and Waid manages to add a new dimension to his personality in an utterly believable, relatable way. And Chris Samnee’s artwork! Every page is a joy to behold, with clean lines packed with vibrant, kinetic energy, bolstered by the crisp colours of Javier Rodriguez and, more recently, Matthew Wilson. Even as a character who has had some rather definitive, iconic artists draw him, Samnee may have emerged as my ultimate Daredevil artist. Believe the hype. Daredevil by Waid and Samnee is simply the most perfectly-realised superhero comic on the shelves today.
2. THROUGH THE WOODS

ThroughTheWoods1While the marketing may have been focused on Original Sin and Future’s End, for me, right from when I first heard about it late last year, I knew that Through the Woods by Emily Carroll would be my “event comic” of 2014. The immensely talented Emily Carroll first came to my attention with “His Face All Red,” a chilling webcomic that to this day is one of the creepiest, most perfectly-structured horror comics ever. And so I was highly excited by the prospect of this graphic novel anthology, collecting “His Face All Red” in print for the first time alongside a collection of original short horror tales. After spending half the year breathlessly anticipating Through the Woods, I was very pleased when the final product lived up to expectations. Emily Carroll has a distinctive approach to horror, a lyrical quality that makes them feel like old fables, or forgotten children’s tales with a sinister underbelly. And like those children’s tales, her stories play with primal, universal fears: the loss of loved ones, or that those you care about are not all that they appear to be. Her artwork complements this vibe by being quite simple and childlike, but deceptively detailed and still capable of repellent, horrific imagery. Every story in the collection is strong, there’s not one dud here, but if I had to pick my favourites, in addition to the previously mentioned “His Face All Red,” I’d pick out “The Nesting Place” – a bloodcurdling mix of Cronenbergian body horror and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – and “In Conclusion,” the epilogue which deftly plays with the imagery of Little Red Riding Hood to bring the book to a simple but unsettling close that will linger in the memory and induce shudders long after reading. This year, we’ve been spoiled with a treasure trove of quality horror comics, so much so that I even wrote about it on my blog. But standing above them all is Through the Woods, and with this collection, Emily Carroll has cemented her status as the Queen of Comics Horror, second only to the legendary Junji Ito when it comes to using the comics medium to craft fear. And speaking of Junji Ito, I’ve learned that he has a new collection getting translated into English, due for a 2015 release. Now I know what my “event comic” of 2015 will be, then…
1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

SouthernBastards1There are certain books that you know right away you’re going to love. Southern Bastards was one of those books, where as soon as it got announced at Image Expo, I knew it was going to be a must-read. Anyone familiar with my previous annual top 10 comics lists or with my blog in general will know that I absolutely adore Scalped, Jason Aaron’s masterpiece. It attained the #1 spot on this list on multiple previous years during its run, and I wrote some very detailed, lengthy blogs dissecting some of the stuff I love about the gritty crime saga. It’s the series that established Jason Aaron as one of my favourite writers, and has led to be following him onto his work with Marvel, which I’ve enjoyed. But with Southern Bastards, drawn by his recurring collaborator Jason Latour, Aaron seemed to be setting up a book primed to fill the void left in my comics-reading life by Scalped when it ended. And in 6 issues, the book has done just that. Hell, you could argue it had done that by issue #1. Given that you could suggest Scalped took a story arc or so before it really got going, you might even argue that Southern Bastards has launched itself out of the starting block even faster than that classic. Immediately, you could tell this was two masters at work, with a sweaty, sun-scorched atmosphere that immersed you in the Deep South. Craw County is simultaneously depicted as a tangibly awful place that no one would want to go near, but also so well-realised in its scenery and its diners selling fried pie that I kinda want to go there. Latour’s red-hewn colour palette helps a great deal with this distinctive atmosphere, as does his hard-bitten character design. This is a tough world, and one laced with pain and tragedy. At first, we think we’re getting one kind of story, and we imagine we’re seeing the well-worn story tracks laid out before us. But then that train is derailed in the most gut-punching, upsetting of fashions. “Upsetting” is something this book does well. I think I’ve had my heart broken reading this comic half a dozen times in as many issues. It feels like we’re still in the opening salvos of a much larger narrative, so the bigger picture of the plot may not yet be clear, but what truly elevates this comic are the characters. They feel nuanced, like real people (though maybe people you’d never want to actually meet), with Aaron once again displaying real skill for finding the bruised humanity in even the most seemingly awful of people. Six issues in, and already Southern Bastards feels like appointment reading, the book I know I’ll rush to read immediately as soon as I get it home, its cast of characters already nestling their way into my brain and into my heart. One thing that somewhat sets it apart from Scalped is acclaim. Scalped was one of the best comics ever, but it always felt a bit like an underrated gem, beloved by those who discovered it but overlooked by wider audiences. I would put it at #1 on my lists while beseeching people to give it a try. On the other hand, I write this knowing that Southern Bastards is almost a boring choice to top my list with, as everyone seems to be putting it in their lists. But sometimes a choice is obvious because it is absolutely deserved. And I for one am glad that the rise of Image Comics and creator-owned comics means that a comic as excellent as Southern Bastards can get the recognition and respect it deserves. Roll on year two!
And that’s that! What will next year’s list bring? Will Southern Bastards be the first comic since Scalped to take the #1 spot more than once? Or will one of the books currently slated for a 2015 release that I’m eagerly looking forward to, like Junji Ito’s Fragments of Horror or Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, nab the top spot? We’ll have to wait until next December to know for sure. In the meantime, as ever, I’ll end with 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
2014: Southern Bastards

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

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On Comics Custodianism and the Illusion of Change

avengers-nowThe comic book news cycle has been ablaze over the past few days with news of some big changes coming to Marvel comics in the months ahead.  As part of what the publisher is calling their “Avengers NOW!” initiative, some of their flagship characters are having their titles relaunched with new issue #1 and jarring new status quos.  The biggest of these changes have merited announcements on mainstream media outlets.  The View revealed that Thor will now be a woman.  Then The Colbert Report revealed that the new Captain America will be black.

As one with any familiarity with the internet may have anticipated, this has already been met with much howling and gnashing of teeth from large segments of the comic fan community.  And of course, we all breathlessly anticipate the ultra-Conservative tin-foil hat brigade wading in to declare that this is some politically correct conspiracy by The Liberals to destroy comics and, by extension, America… somehow.  Plenty of people have already astutely pointed out that people seemed to have little problem with Thor being replaced by a frog, or a horse-faced alien, or another white dude in the wake of the recent Fear Itself event, but a woman taking the mantle is seemingly a bridge too far!  I’ve seen people spitting out with venom the idea that this is all a cynical ploy to pander to black people and women.  First, it seems there’s a certain breed of white straight male reader who defines “pandering” as anything that doesn’t pander directly and exclusively to them.  Second, I think such a status quo shift is going to appeal to more than just female and black readers, respectively, for reasons I’ll go into later.  And third, if this does pique the interest of women or black people who previously didn’t feel engaged by Marvel’s output, how is that a bad thing?

However, I don’t think that anyone who hates these relaunches is inherently racist or sexist.  Though some of them certainly are, it would be unfair to paint all with the same brush.  The comic fans I want to focus on more in this particular bit of commentary are the advocates of comics custodianism.  Allow me to clarify.  There’s a bit of a problem with a large chunk of Marvel and DC’s fanbase, something that prevents them from ever truly being happy with the product.  They’ll complain that the comics are stale, that some life and energy and good high-stakes storytelling needs to be injected back into their favourite superheroes.  But the dilemma is that, if you get a great writer and put them on a superhero comic, the tools they’d be most inclined to employ in order to tell the best story – new threats, shocking changes to the protagonist’s life, a genuine sense of peril and uncertainty over how the hero will be able to restore status quo – stand in direct contrast to what this segment of the fanbase actually wants.  They claim they want great storytellers in their comics, but what they actually want is a custodian.  They want their favourite heroes, static and forever unchanging, wearing the old clothes they always used to wear, fighting the old villains they always used to fight, hanging around with the same supporting cast they always used to hang around with, with nothing about their comfortable status quo changing in any notable way.  These readers don’t want the best story… they want comics comfort food.

And when someone does come in and make seemingly drastic changes… they get angry.  It doesn’t need to be a matter of the hero changing race or gender, any change seems to be enough to get them up in arms.  Peter Parker remained, physically at least, the white, male Peter Parker in Superior Spider-Man, yet writer Dan Slott received so many death threats on social media over the storyline that it made national news.  But these people never seem to learn, do they?  Because anyone with an ounce of rationality was able to say, “Of course Otto Octavius isn’t going to be Spider-Man forever, of course Peter Parker is going to be Spider-Man again in time for the movie.  It’s not a permanent change, it’s a storyline.”  These people were angry because the writer has succeeded in making then genuinely stumped about how the good guy was going to possibly triumph over evil, which is what he’s supposed to do!  These people must find watching a season of 24 unbearable: do they have to skip to the last episode where Jack Bauer wins?  I don’t know how long these people have been reading comics for, but they should know by now that a dead hero doesn’t stay dead for long.  Superior Spider-Man was about taking Peter Parker out of the role of Spider-Man for a while to illustrate how integral Peter is to the Spider-Man mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Spider-Man stories in years.  Just like how “The Death of Captain America” in Captain America a few years ago, where Captain America died for a while and was replaced by Bucky Barnes (who’s white, so people didn’t seem to mind as much), it became a story used to illustrate how integral Steve Rogers is to the Captain America mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Captain America stories in years.  Or “Black Mirror” in Batman, where Dick Grayson took over as Batman in Gotham City while a recently-resurrected Bruce Wayne established a global crime-fighting franchise, where the story was used to illustrate how integral Bruce Wayne is to the Batman mythos through the void left by his absence, and by its end it was recognised as one of the best Batman stories in years.  Are we beginning to notice a trend here?

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s that Marvel are going back to the well of what has proven to be a tried-and-true formula for success too often, and risk blunting its impact.  But if you’re out there and you’re outraged because you genuinely believe that female Thor or black Captain America are a permanent or even a long-term replacement?  Sorry, I don’t know a polite way of saying that you’re a fucking idiot, so I’ll just come out and say it: you’re a fucking idiot.

Amidst all the cries of fury about black people ruining Captain America and women ruining Thor, it’s amazing how few people seem to have actually read the small print of what’s actually happening in these various comics, story-wise.  Indeed, it seems a large number of the fans outraged by this haven’t even been reading the books, and just seek comfort in traditional, unchanging versions of these heroes as an abstract concept.  This was wonderfully exemplified by one outspoken user on Twitter demanding that Jason Latour be fired for writing Thor so terribly as to make him a women… when of course it’s Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor: God of Thunder (which is brilliant, by the way) and who will be carrying on through the Thor relaunch.  But if all these people bemoaning the loss of their favourite heroes actually took the time to look into the story and the context, they’d see that they actually aren’t losing their favourite heroes at all!  The original Thor and Captain America aren’t dying, which in itself makes this status quo shift less drastic than many.  Let’s take a closer look at each one.

First, female Thor.  Yes, Thor is relaunching, and yes, the new God of Thunder and holder of Mjolnir is a woman.  But while the designs of the new masked female Thor have been widely distributed, this image has been shared less frequently:

thor-unworthyYep, it’s the same male Thor we all know and love.  And if you read Jason Aaron’s interview over on Comic Book Resources, he makes it abundantly clear that Thor remains a main protagonist in the series going forward.  Indeed, the central thrust of the plot is that plot machinations have caused Asgard to turn on Thor and deem him “unworthy”, stripping him of his hammer Mjolnir and removing him from their pantheon.  So now a humbled Thor must fight to regain his mantle and unlock the mystery of the mysterious woman who has replaced him.  Surely any level-headed person could read that and think, “That sounds like an interesting Thor story.”

Now let’s look at All-New Captain America.  After seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a lot of people talked about Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon, deserving his own series.  But it seems some of them didn’t want that coming at the expense of Steve Rogers.  The story seems to go that the Super-Soldier Serum is wearing off on Steve Rogers, and he’s no longer able to continue being Captain America.  And so his close friend Sam Wilson steps into the role in his stead.  But again, let’s look at some Marvel promotional material:

Avengers-Now2Black Captain America is in there, but to the right of the shot we have an elderly blonde man.  Surely this is Steve Rogers, and that suggests that Steve Rogers will remain an active character in this All-New Captain America comic.  I would imagine that a major element of the book will be, after decades of being a man out of time, suddenly he’s placed in a position where time is catching up with him, and how does he deal with that?  Again, as a fan of Captain America, I think that’s an intriguing story to tell.

Meanwhile, Marvel have also announced Superior Iron Man, where Tony Stark moves to San Francisco and starts engaging in some morally dubious activity.  If the “Superior” tag is anything to go by, I imagine the twist in this tale will be that Tony is being controlled by a villain.  And if we’re talking movie synchronicity here, my money is on Ultron.

All this is coming together to paint a bigger picture of what “Avengers NOW!” is shaping up to be.  It’s a time leap narrative of some sort, it seems, where after a gap our main characters find themselves in drastically altered circumstances, and part of the fun is figuring out both how they got into these situations and how they’ll eventually get out of them.  And it all seems to be tying into Jonathan Hickman’s big climactic Avengers storyline “Time Runs Out”, which brings all these status quo shifts together and adds another big one.  It seems like Thanos is now the leader of The Avengers:

ThanosTimeRunsOutAnd this is where we get down to there being two different types of reader.  There are those who want comics custodianism, and they’ll be fuming at all this upheaval, all this shattering of status quo.  And then there are readers who like high stakes and surprises in their storytelling, who are viewing these as stories and are intrigued.  I know I’m interested, and that I’ll be picking all these up.  I already read Thor: God of Thunder, but after grabbing the early issues I’ve fallen behind on the Iron Man, Captain America and Avengers titles.  This will make me jump back on.  And I’m not black, I’m not a woman, I’m just a fan of good stories and good characters.  When you look at these characters as being more than just their specific costumes and power sets, you should be able to recognise that these storylines are actually potentially great fodder for Thor Odinson, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark as characters.  And it’s a real shame people can’t see past the “THOR IS A WOMAN!” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA IS BLACK!” buzzwords.

Glasgow Comic Con 2014: THIS WEEKEND!

It’s that time of year again!  There’s a little less than a week to go until Scotland’s comic community comes together for Glasgow Comic Con.  The show will be at the CCA on Sauchiehall Street, on Saturday 5th July and Sunday 6th July. I’ll be at the con, promoting my various comic projects. You can find my table up on the Level 2 Club Room.

Like And Then Emily Was Gone? I’ll have the last remaining stock of the black-and-white small press editions of issues #1 and #2 before the colour edition debuts worldwide at the end of July (this may be your last chance to get those, as once this stock is sold out I won’t be getting any more!), and I’ll also have an exclusive black-and-white preview edition of And Then Emily Was Gone #3 – Glasgow readers will get to see it months before the rest of the world! I’ll also be selling a range of limited edition prints, which look stunning. Only available while stocks last.

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Like The Standard? Well, at last, the series is complete. The final two issues, issues #5 and #6, will be available to buy from my table, months before their general release, with convention exclusive covers. We also have limited stock of all the other issues to let readers get caught up on the whole series.

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Like Chris Connelly? Well, he drew the convention exclusive covers for The Standard #5 and #6! He’ll be sharing the table with me at the con to sign any copies of the books you buy. We’ll also be selling the first issue of our Glasgow sci-fi series, Bad Sun, and Chris will be selling some lovely original art, and – I believe – doing commissions.

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You’ll also be able to find me at a panel on the Saturday, at 12pm.  In the CCA cinema, I’ll be part of the “SICBA Best Comic or Graphic Novel: Meet The Shortlist” panel, hosted by Craig Nielson, where I’ll be joined by Colin Bell, Craig Collins, Gil Hatcher and Morag Kewell.  Come along to see us all chat up our various comics, and discuss the process of creating them and getting them out into the world.

All that, and my books are also nominated for a bunch of SICBA awards! The Standard is nominated for Best Comic, I’m nominated for Best Writer, and Iain Laurie is nominated for Best Artist for And Then Emily Was Gone. voting is open throughout Saturday 5th July at the SICBA voting booth in the CCA’s first floor bar. If you’re attending, make sure to vote!

Tickets for the show are still available from www.glasgowcomiccon.com. It’s always a great show, and this year we have top notch comic guests like Gail Simone, Howard Chaykin and Erik Larsen, as well as familiar faces from the Scottish comics scene. Come along, have a great time, and support one of Scotland’s fastest-growing creative industries!

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Is 2014 Comics’ Summer of Horror?

EmilyInterviewTeaserOver the past couple of months, it feels like I have been immersed in horror. Over the course of this month in particular, it’s starting to seem like my every spare moment has been dedicated to talking up my horror comic series, And Then Emily Was Gone. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid my social media PR onslaught, here’s the series synopsis:

Greg Hellinger is a man who sees monsters. Driven to the brink of madness by monstrous apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening…

Equal parts Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Wicker Man, with an atmospheric rural Scottish setting, And Then Emily Was Gone is a comic I’m really proud to have written, and artist Iain Laurie, colorist Megan Wilson and letterer Colin Bell have all done stellar work. The five-issue miniseries will be released monthly by ComixTribe, with the first issue hitting comic shops in July. That means this is the month it’s in the Diamond Previews catalogue available for order, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the marketability for this weird little book. From the early stages, there was concern that there might not be an audience in the comic market for this kind of morbid, gruesome story, that this might sit as something of an oddity among the more bombastic, action-orientated fare available in Previews. But recently, it’s started to occur to me that something dark is afoot in the comics world. Horror comics are on the rise, and now And Then Emily Was Gone is feeling less like a strange curio and more like a small part of a big movement.

EMILY 0108Just look at the new releases on the shelf of your local comic shop this week. Wednesday 7th May marked the launch of two new horror titles: Nailbiter and The Woods. Nailbiter is an Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, about a small town in the American heartland that has been the birthplace of 16 prolific serial killers, and the disquieting secrets that town may hold. It was first announced at Image Expo in January, and did not seem like the most high-profile unveiling of that weekend. But over the past couple of months, I’ve watched buzz steadily built, first as people were floored by the blood-drenched preview art coming from Mike Henderson, then as the word-of-mouth started slipping out from those who’d read advance copies and were blown away. There was something palpable in the air that Nailbiter was going to be very special indeed, possibly the latest Image #1 to make a big splash. It says a lot that in the week that both Marvel and DC’s big crossover events of the year debuted – Original Sin and Future’s End respectively – the coverage and “book of the week” accolades going to Nailbiter threatened to upstage both of them. And having read the first issue myself, I can assure you it’s worthy of the hype. Mike Henderson’s moody artwork is a revelation, and while Joshua Williamson already turned heads last year with his impressive work on Ghosted, but Nailbiter sees him up his writing game once more. A single issue efficiently presents us with a well-realised world with intriguing/disturbing characters, and a steady accumulation of dread literally visualised on the page with a recurring THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP heartbeat growing ever more prevalent.

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But as impressive as Nailbiter was, in my humble opinion The Woods just about matched it step-for-step. From Boom! Studios – the latest addition to their slate of quality original content as they become ever more serious in emerging as a match for Image’s dominance of the creator-owned market – from writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas, The Woods tells the story of a high school filled with pupils and staff which is suddenly and without explanation teleported to an alien world, at which point the people in the dramatically relocated building very quickly find themselves having to fight for their lives against monstrous alien beasts out to hunt them. The plot very quickly becomes gripping, and drew me in as a reader both in terms of the immediate tension presented in the high-stakes nature of the characters’ plight, and in a more overarching sense of thinking of the larger mystery behind how and why the school was brought to this world. But what really made The Woods stand out was the characters. Amongst the 513 people caught in this extra-terrestrial event, a small core ensemble of characters quickly emerge as figures to care about and get emotionally invested, already been drawn as real, likeable kids whose safety we are going to fear for. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Manga horror classic Drifting Classroom, pushing the same buttons of intense claustrophobia, child endangerment and what sides of human nature will emerge out in the wilderness, but with enough of an American twist to give it its own identity.

TheWoods1So, two horror comics debut in the same week, both are quality books with buzz and critical acclaim behind them. What is it indicative of, if anything? It’s not like the comic medium is any stranger to horror. There’s in fact a rich history of horror comics. The biggest creator-owned comic in the industry today is The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror comic, though I’d argue it’s evolved into more of a sweeping post-apocalyptic epic. And in recent years we’ve had our share of modern classics in the genre: Locke & Key, Severed, Echoes. But what stands out as different this year is the density with which these horror titles are hitting, and the splash they’re making. Nailbiter and The Woods both seem poised to go from strength to strength, but there are more debuts on the horizon. Spread, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Kyle Strahm, is built around the delicious high-concept of “The Thing meets Lone Wolf and Cub,” and boasts some truly blood-curdling imagery. It caused a sensation at last year’s New York Comic Con, and now Image Comics have picked it up and have it slated for a July release. It got a major spotlight in this month’s Previews, and is already starting to build something of a social media steamroller behind it as that advance buzz brews. Watch this become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

Spread1As the summer continues to roll on into August and beyond, some of the biggest names in comics will be getting in on the action. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock – the creative team behind one of the most celebrated Batman stories of the past decade, The Black Mirror – are reteaming for Image Comics to bring us Wytches. Now, Snyder is no stranger to the horror genre. One could argue he cut his teeth in the genre, with both his breakthrough Vertigo hit American Vampire (which since its Second Cycle relaunch has really seemed to bring the horror to the fore) and the aforementioned Severed. Even his mainstream DC work on the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing has had a fair share of horror elements injected into it, and The Wake was rich in horror trappings before morphing into an equally compelling but tonally distinct entity in its second half. So it makes a statement when Snyder talks about Wytches being the darkest and scariest he’s ever gone. This is something that’s quite fascinating for me, as horror is still something of a frontier in comics, and creators are still experimenting with how best to use the medium to scare the reader. Snyder has already been amongst the most successful, with Severed in particular making for harrowing reading, so when some of the best in the field are pushing at the forefront and striving to go further than they ever have, it suggests it’s an exciting time to be a fan of horror comics.

Wytches1Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a horror comic is also on the agenda for Nameless, another Image Comics offering. This also sees the reunion of the creative team of an acclaimed Batman run, this time Batman Inc, as artist Chris Burnham pairs up once more with writer and comics legend Grant Morrison. Details of this series have been sparse, and we don’t even have a concrete release date yet, but Burnham has talked about this being “the ultimate horror comic,” while Morrison has suggested that his ambition is to capture the zeitgeist and use Nameless to project a definitive statement about what frightens us on a primal level in modern society – “doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation,” as Morrison puts it – and considering that when Morrison set out to make the definitive statement on the superhero he gave us All Star Superman, we should all be very afraid at what he has in store for us with Nameless.

Nameless1But even with these big name talents with debuts lined up, there is one horror comic that I’m looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first heard about it last year, there has been a graphic novel pencilled in as one of my premiere comic events of the year. The graphic novel I’m talking about is Through the Woods, by writer/artist Emily Carroll. When last I heard, it was set for a July release, but the marketing has been quite low-profile. But those who know about it are very excited about it indeed, as Emily Carroll is arguably the current master of the horror comic. His Face All Red is one of the single greatest horror stories to emerge from any medium in recent years. Like all the best horror, it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, makes you think, makes you ask questions then leaves you troubled in the late hours by the implied answers. Her work has been a big inspiration to me in terms of opening my eyes to what kind of horror was possible in comic form. And up until now, her output has all been in the form of free webcomics. Through the Woods marks Emily Carroll’s first foray into the realm of print, with His Face All Red being collected with some new stories. Any horror fan should be marking this down as an essential purchase. In the grand picture of “the summer of horror” and the rise of horror in comics, Through the Woods could end up being the most important book of all.

ThroughTheWoods1There’s a quote from actor/writer Mark Gatiss I particularly like, spoken at the beginning of the BBC documentary series, A History of Horror:

The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.

Just as horror films at their best have a unique power with the way they utilise the tools of that medium in the most visceral and potent of ways, I think that the comic medium has the same potential for engaging the senses. It’s a visual medium, and a well-crafted image can be seared on a reader’s psyche, yet despite the notable works in the field I feel like much of that potential remains untapped. Recently, I feel like horror cinema has lost much of its edge, and there haven’t been that many genuinely great horror films over the past several years. So, I talked about the frontier before, and I believe that more and more comics could become the proving ground where we go to scare ourselves in the most inventive and rewarding manner. For years I’ve felt like the horror market for comics could be huge, and this year it feels like we could be taking major steps in that direction. I don’t claim to be anywhere on the level of all these exciting works making their way to comic shops in the coming weeks and months, but if all the “summer of horror” does indeed prove to be a significant movement in the comics industry, I’m proud that And Then Emily Was Gone can be part of it.

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And Then Emily Was Gone #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY141251.  For more info, follow the Facebook page or check out the official blog.

Through the Woods is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code APR141272

Spread #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY140579

Wytches is released in August.  Nameless does not yet have a release date. 

Nailbiter #1 and The Woods #1 are available to buy now from all quality comic shops.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!