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
I 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
East 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
I’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
What 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
Last 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
For 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
As 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.
Daredevil, 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
While 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
There 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….
2012: The Underwater Welder
2013: The Manhattan Projects
2014: Southern Bastards
Thanks for reading, everyone. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!