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!

SouthernBastards2

My Top Twenty Comics of 2013

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

 

20. SWAMP THING

SwampThing23

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

 

19. CHEW

Chew37 

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

18. STRANGE ATTRACTORS

StrangeAttractors2

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

 

17. SHELTERED

Sheltered1a

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

 

16. GHOSTED

Ghosted1a

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

 

15. INFINITY

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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!

My Top Ten Comics of 2012

We’re back a bit earlier this year, so apologies to any groundbreaking comic that comes out of nowhere in the last two weeks of December and blows me away.  This marks the third time I’ve run this feature on my blog, which I guess makes it a tradition of sorts.  There’s been an interesting shift in the tides as far as my comic reading goes.  Last year I spoke of DC’s dominance in my reading list, but one year on and the new car smell has faded from much of DC’s New 52.  The very best of the bunch are still going strong, but my DC reading list has thinned considerably in 2012, with yet more titles still hovering on the precipice of being dropped.  Marvel, meanwhile, has enjoyed a slight resurgence, with me sampling and enjoying a few of the Marvel NOW! launches and jump-on points.  But the big story of this year for me has been Image, who have been on a real roll, launching intriguing new titles left and right throughout the year and enjoying perhaps their best year ever.  Taking everything into account, the field of contention for the year’s best comics is so strong that, as of the writing of this intro, there are several comics still in the running to claim the #10 spot.  One honourable mention that was incredibly close to inclusion on the list was Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic, one of the best debuts of the year.  The only thing holding it back from a top 10 inclusion was that, with only two issues released, I thought I needed to see more of the series before I could fairly judge its merits in the context of a whole year.  Maybe in the 2013 list! Will the New 52 debuts that leapt into the top 10 last year retain their placement on the list?  Will the mighty Scalped emerge as the winner for the third year in a row?  Read on and find out!

10.  FATALE

Fatale3aThe first Image comic to make the list, but not the last.  Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito.  After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next.  What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre.  Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc.  The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere.  The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her.  The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along.  It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell.  The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins.  Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.

9.  CHEW

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After dropping out of the list last year, Chew makes a return to the top ten.  There was never really any substantial drop in quality; this offbeat series about a near-future world populated by various strange and delightful characters with food-based powers has always remained a consistently fun read, but perhaps that made it easy to take for granted as shiny new titles vied for my attentions.  But with the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market.  Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying.  But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman.  With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare.  But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology.  We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half.  But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.

8.  WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN

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I’ll confess, I’m shamefully late to the Wolverine and the X-Men bandwagon.  I almost picked it up at the beginning.  But that was when my interest in Marvel was at its lowest ebb, and when DC’s New 52 was making big demands on my pull list, and one of my favourite writers, Jason Aaron, was launching two new Marvel titles – Wolverine and the X-Men and The Incredible Hulk – in the same week.  I didn’t want to add more than one new Marvel comic to my monthly reading list.  So I chose The Incredible Hulk.  Now, I quite enjoyed Aaron’s run with the Green Goliath, it had some engaging ideas behind it.  But based on the tidal wave of positive feedback I’d been hearing for Wolverine and the X-Men, I began to suspect I may have made the wrong choice.  My decision to sample issue #19, billed as the Marvel NOW! “jumping-on point” for new readers, confirmed it.  Fun and accessible – two words I haven’t typically associated with X-Men comics – the strength of the issue encouraged me to pick up the previous few issues at my LCS, which included Wolverine and the X-Men #17, the Doop issue drawn by Mike Allred, perhaps one of my favourite single comics of the year.  That sealed the deal.  I went back to the start, and have been gorging myself on collected editions and back issues to get caught up.  What I love about this series is that every character earns their place.  No one is here because they were popular during Claremont’s run or whatever.  This is an ensemble piece, and every character – be they student or teacher – has something to contribute.  Which brings me to perhaps my favourite aspect of the series: the return to the school dynamic, previously crucial to the appeal of the X-Men franchise, but all too often overlooked amidst the more general superheroics.  I might have been late to the party, but better late than never!

7.  SWEET TOOTH

SweetTooth4

Much like Chew, Sweet Tooth is a series that has been consistently great each month since its beginning, but which slipped from my top ten last year, only to return to the rankings in 2012.  In the case of Sweet Tooth, the fresh burst of momentum has come from the title’s impending conclusion.  Over the course of this year, all the plot threads have been getting drawn together and paid off, with – as of the writing of this list – only one issue remaining before the whole series is wrapped up.  Jeff Lemire has been doing very well with his work in the DCU, but this post-apocalyptic drama about a young animal/human hybrid boy, a battle-hardened old man, and their travels through a wasteland ravaged by a global pandemic – both written and drawn by the Canadian cartoonist – remains his best ongoing series.  And it’s a title that I feel has long been unfairly overlooked.  It is so well-crafted, filled with heart and characters you care about, and Lemire does some really interesting, ambitious things with his art, his layouts, and at times even the very structure of the comic itself.  I’ve talked a lot about what a void in my comics-reading life the end of Scalped will be, but I might be almost as sad to see Sweet Tooth go.  On the plus side, I’ll be first in line to check out Trillium, Jeff Lemire’s follow-up Vertigo project in 2013.

6.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic.  I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan.  I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold.  But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try.  I’m glad I did.  Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!”  And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal.  This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done.  I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive.  A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.

5.  SCALPED

Scalped60a

What’s this!?  Scalped at last toppled from the number one spot!?  I assure you, its lower placing on the list year is down to the insane quality of the comics above it, rather than any decline in the series itself, which came to an end this year.  The year in Scalped began with the dramatic conclusion to the “Knuckle Up” story, before segueing into “Trail’s End”, the final storyline that brought the saga’s major storylines to a head while still managing to leave a few tantalising loose ends dangling at the end.  This final victory lap made for some highly rewarding reading for loyal Scalped readers, as some of the catastrophic events we’ve been waiting to inevitably happen for years finally took place.  But even as the end drew near, Scalped never felt like it had checked out early.  “Trail’s End” immediately threw us off-kilter by picking up after a leap forward in time, with the status quo of several characters suddenly shifted and us left playing catch-up.  And from there, Jason Aaron steadily turned the screw and built up a sense of dread and uncertainty where, even right up to the last issue, we weren’t sure how it was all going to end, who would live and who would die.  There ended up being quite a few surprises with the way all that worked out.  And one of the biggest joys of Scalped this year is that, if I can recall, all the issues released in 2012 were drawn by the mighty R.M. Guera, who added so much to the rough, rugged aesthetic of the book.  It will be greatly missed, and my 2013 Top Ten Comics list will feel emptier for its absence, but Scalped has, for my money at least, cemented its status as one of the greatest comic books of all time.

4.  IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN

HorrorMountain1

There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain.  Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012.  Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn.  The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell.  By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year.  Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013.  I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns.  The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it.  If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list.  BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)

3.  BATMAN

Batman5b

Last year I predicted that Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s fantastic work on Batman would earn the comic a high placement on this year’s list, despite the book not placing in the 2011 top ten: I opted to go for Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics instead, since the Batman run had at that point just begun.  Sure enough, here it is.  In the intervening 12 months, Batman has emerged as unquestionably the crown jewel of the New 52, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of quality.  The Bat-titles are strong in general right now – I currently read and enjoy Batman & Robin, Detective Comics and Batman Inc – but Batman reigns supreme.  The year got off to a blistering start for the title, with Batman #5 soaring out of the gates as an early contender for the best single comic book of 2012, not to mention one of the best single issues of an ongoing Batman comic I’ve ever read.  Featuring Batman trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls and gradually losing his mind, with trippy, boundary-pushing artwork by Greg Capullo, this saw Batman pushed to the brink of defeat and despair in a way that shocked many readers.  This was the high watermark for the “Court of Owls” saga, and though it might have faltered slightly in the last chapter or two, for the most part “The Court of Owls” was a textbook example of how to tell a gripping, high-stakes Batman epic.  And now it looks like the all-star creative team is set to top it with “Death of the Family”, the currently-unfolding storyline featuring the hotly-anticipated return of The Joker.  Scott Snyder has done a stellar job of injecting a sense of genuine danger and peril into the “illusion of change” world of superhero comics, crafting nightmare scenarios where even jaded comics readers are left on the edge of their seats wondering how the hell Batman can possibly prevail.  And Greg Capullo is giving us perhaps the finest work of his celebrated career.  If Batman can maintain this dizzyingly high standard, I fully expect it to rank highly on next year’s list as well.

2.  SAGA

Saga4aIt has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is.  I’ve read the first issue several times now.  I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1.  Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad.  Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come.  The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics.  Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest.  But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before.  No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels.  But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest.  And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!?  Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012.  As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium.  So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm.  This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others.  When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void.  I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.

1.  THE UNDERWATER WELDER

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After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list.  Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it.  It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed.  Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites.  So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year.  And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book.  It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart.  While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images.  Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting.  I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment.  And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia.  Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story.  But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart.  Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale.  I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics.  But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.

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REVIEW: Scalped #60

A couple of years back, I recall reading a column by Jason Aaron where he spoke of a meeting in a New York steakhouse with R.M. Guera, during which the final page of Scalped was decided upon.  Ever since then, I’ve been waiting with anticipation – and perhaps a bit of dread, too – to see what that last page would be, the final word on one of the greatest comic books of all time.  Now, that revelation has finally arrived, and the last page presented to us is simple, but also absolutely fitting.  It features a sign, on which reads the message, “NOW LEAVING THE PRAIRIE ROSE RESERVATION.”  Of course, the very first panel on the very first page of the very first issue featured the flipside of the same sign, reading, “NOW ENTERING THE PRAIRIE ROSE RESERVATION.”  And that says it all, really.  Through the run of Scalped, we were able to visit Prairie Rose and glimpse into the lives of its residents, but now our stay is over, and it’s time to leave.

I’ll warn you that I’m going to go into spoilers in this review.  I held off on posting this up immediately to give everyone plenty of time to check it out.  But if you haven’t read issue #60 yet, go and do that now, then come back to read this.  And if you haven’t read any of Scalped…. what the hell are you waiting for!?

Scalped #60 is very much a comic of two parts: climax and epilogue.  Before reading this issue, I suspected that the climax would be missed out altogether, and that we would jump from last issue’s violent cliffhanger straight to the “Three Months Later” epilogue, with us left to piece together what happened in the intervening time.  And I still think there’s a compelling argument for Aaron to have gone that direction, as the climactic showdown that opens the issue feels a bit rushed.  I think this conclusion would have benefitted from the “double-sized finale” treatment to really let everything breathe a bit more.  However, ultimately I’m glad the climax was included, as it gave us some powerful moments.

R.M. Guera and colorist Guilia Brusco shine here, giving us some truly haunting vistas, none more striking than the demise of Catcher and Nitz.  Arguably the two most despicable, irredeemable figures in the series, it’s so fitting that the two died together, choking each other as both are engulfed in flames, with that well-established omen of death, the owl, hovering over them.  I’ve talked to a couple of people unhappy that Bad Horse was robbed of that cathartic moment of vengeance for the murder of both his parents, save for in that brutal “fantasy sequence” that unfolds in his fevered mind.  But instead, Bad Horse chooses redemption of a sort, saving Red Crow rather than seeking vengeance.  When in a position to make this choice before back in You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, you’ll recall, he chose selfishly, so making the more noble decision here suggests there could be some hope for him after all.  Not for Nitz and Catcher, though.  These are lost souls with nothing to live for but past grievances and old hatreds, and their fiery end is an appropriate illustration of their mutual damnation.

Just as powerful, though, is the quieter final moment shared by Red Crow and Bad Horse.  These two titans of the series, the central protagonist and antagonist (one could argue the two seemed to shift back and forth between these two roles over the duration of the story), end their rivalry on a surprising note: something of a reconciliation, with Bad Horse saving Red Crow’s life, and Red Crow offering forgiveness and a shared future on the Rez.  But it’s an offer that Bad Horse cannot accept, for reasons that will continue to niggle at us long after this concluding chapter.  More on that later.

But for me, the epilogue serves as the true highlight of this final chapter, a victory lap of vignettes giving us our last glimpse of various key characters we have come to know so well over the past several years.  My favourite of these scenes had to be our farewell to Red Crow.  I’ve made it clear in my various writings on Scalped that Red Crow is not only my favourite character in the series, but in my opinion quite possibly the best-written characters in comics in general from the past decade.  But I was also fairly sure that the character’s trajectory over the course of the series all but guaranteed a tragic end, almost certainly his death.  So, imagine my shock, and even my relief, when instead Red Crow was given a hard-earned happy ending.

Now, some might disagree.  When we last see Red Crow, wandering through the wilderness, he’s in apparent exile, having lost everything, all the money and power he fought and killed to accumulate.  But in spite of that, or more likely because of it, he seems happy!  I’ll need to go back and reassess my back issues, but in the very last shot of Red Crow’s face we’re ever going to see, he’s smiling.  Not a mean smirk, but a genuine, grinning, happy smile.  It could be the first time we’ve ever seen this from Red Crow, at the very least the first time we’ve seen it from him as an old man.  Or maybe I’m only seeing things, and it’s a grimace.  But my speculation is that “losing everything” is the best thing that could have happened to Red Crow.  We’ve seen him make repeated attempts to change his ways and lead a better life, but his status within the reservation prevented him from doing so, with him always being forced to revert to his old, murderous methods.  He tried to change Prairie Rose for the better, but in the end it changed him, and remaining part of the cycle was devouring his soul.  The only option left was to remove himself from that cycle altogether.  So, he may have “lost everything”, but in exchange he seems to have gained plenty, such as peace of mind, and the ability to get back in touch with the man he used to be and has wanted to be again ever since he set out on his bloody and ultimately futile quest to make things better for his people.  He also gained another Shunka, in a nice touch.  Seeing Red Crow make it out of this saga somewhat intact was one of the great joys of this issue for me.

This elation of Red Crow escaping from his downward spiral of spiritual ruin was contrasted with the emotional gutpunch of Dino Poor Bear taking his place.  Of course, Dino’s fate was pretty much sealed from the moment we discovered he had killed Sheriff Karnow, but it was still gutwrenching seeing that inevitability play out to its natural conclusion.  And it was all the more saddening seeing him sat there, overseeing the burying of bodies, in the very car he had hoped to use to escape from the reservation in the title’s earlier days.

The theme of old roles being filled with new people is continued with Carol, who replaces the deceased Granny Poor Bear as the new trusted advisor to the community, adopting the moniker of Mamma Poor Bear.  Of all the characters, it must be said that Carol’s transformation has been perhaps the most drastic.  Seeing Carol here, and looking at her in issue #1, you would think they were two totally different characters.  This idea of life moving in cycles, history repeating itself, and the broken society continuing to roll on as we and some of the characters we’ve been following depart from it puts me in mind of the finale of The Wire.  Like with that seminal TV series, with Scalped there’s that oxymoron of leaving this world behind with no real resolution in a lot of ways, but with a perfect, rewarding resolution in other ways.  In the case of both narratives – which I’d suggest are of comparable quality – we end with an open, ongoing world that is going to keep on rolling on without us watching, and there’s a kind of comfort in that.

But the biggest question mark of all most likely lies with our final encounter with Bad Horse, the closing scene of the book and the series.  Throughout the epilogue portion of this issue, Bad Horse’s presence is heavily felt, but it’s not until here that we finally see him.  The final message is somewhat conflicted, as Bad Horse comes to the realisation that, after so long trying to escape Prairie Rose, all along it was the place he was meant to be, “the only home I’ll ever have.”  Then he leaves, presumably forever.  Ostensibly, it’s to avoid the authorities catching him, but earlier in the issue Red Crow offered him a chance to make those charges disappear, an offer he presumably declined.  Why then does he leave Prairie Rose behind upon realising it’s where he belongs?  Perhaps his reasoning is, in the end, similar to Red Crow’s.  Being on the reservation changes you, and inevitably you will be drawn into the everlasting cycle and be pushed into the role that fate has determined for you.  By leaving, Bad Horse is going into an open world of infinite possibility.  Or vast, empty nothingness.  What lies behind on that shadowy stretch of road stretching out onto the horizon of that last page is up to us, I suppose.

And now, we’re leaving the Prairie Rose Reservation.  These 60 issues have been an incredible journey, one of the best comics-reading experiences I’ve had or am ever likely to have.  Every month I knew I was in for a treat when I saw a new edition of Scalped on the shelves, and throughout its run it managed to consistently be one of the best titles in circulation.  Now, there’s a massive void in my reading pile that will not be easily filled.  It’s a shame that it wasn’t read more widely, and I can only hope its audience and acclaim continue to grow in the years to come.  A big congratulations, and a massive thank you, to Jason Aaron, R.M. Guera, Guilia Brusco, letterer Sal Cipriano, cover artist Jock, editorial team Will Dennis and Mark Doyle, and all the other creators who have made this comic so special over its magnificent run.  Scalped is comics at its very best.

REVIEW: Scalped #56

There’s a storytelling device that’s quite common in the noir genre, though perhaps more common in the original novels than the films they inspired.  The climax, the catastrophic event the whole narrative has been building towards, doesn’t happen at the end.  Instead, the story continues on after this pivotal moment, and we get an extended epilogue in which we see our protagonist’s world in the wake of whatever devastating choice he has made.  Such seems to be the case with Scalped as it begins “Trail’s End”, its final arc.  The big story throughout the series has been Bad Horse’s status as an undercover FBI agent, and when/how Red Crow was going to find out.  That was resolved in shocking fashion last issue.  And now, we almost immediately jump forward in time by 8 months, and Bad Horse and the Prairie Rose Reservation have moved on.  But the thing about those noir epilogues always was, much as it seemed like the story was done with, in the end it was these parts where you’d find the real meat of the story.  And sure enough, it seems like this story isn’t quite done with yet…

By this point I’ve pretty much run out of hyperbole I can lavish on Scalped.  It’s Jason Aaron’s masterpiece, it’s the best comic on the shelves, it deserves to be recognised in the canon of all-time greats, yada yada yada.  It’s all still true, but when I say it so often, even I sometimes forget just how consistently great this comic is.  Even now, as this journey enters its home-stretch, Aaron continues to take his characters in surprising directions.  Given the bitter, self-destructive path Bad Horse has seemingly been on since the series began, perhaps the one thing I didn’t expect was that 8 months later, he would be… happy!?  He seems to have matured.  He’s settled down, grown his hair out, is in a healthy relationship.  He seems ready to put the demons of his past behind him.  But since this is Scalped, it seems people can’t be happy for too long, and one aspect of that troublesome past I’d almost forgotten about seems ready to come back to haunt Bad Horse…

Aaron also gives us some intriguing material to work with when it comes to Red Crow.  If they’re like me, plenty of readers will have been dying to see Red Crow’s furious, violent reaction to Bad Horse’s betrayal.  Instead, his immediate response is disappointment, even hurt.  When we flash-forward in time, Red Crow is stewing in a jail cell, the casino that was to be his legacy shuttered down.  It’s actually possible to view him as a wronged party here, as the only concrete crime that Red Crow is caught bang-to-rights for, that he has no hope of fighting against, is based on a lie.  Red Crow killed Shunka to save Bad Horse’s life.  Bad Horse testified that it was a murder in cold blood.  But in spite of this, Red Crow has made no move to damage Bad Horse’s credibility by casting up the multitude of dirt he has gathered on him.  Perhaps it is because, with his donations to local charities and his new, prominent role in the community, Red Crow sees that, ironically, Bad Horse has become the leader that Red Crow always envisioned he could be, perhaps a better leader than Red Crow (with his checkered past and corruption) could never truly be.  I could talk about the character dynamics of Scalped for hours.

R.M. Guera’s art continues to be absolutely stunning, raw with emotion.  And the colors of Giulia Brusco are the perfect complement.  The colors are unusually bright and bold for much of this issue, perhaps reflective of the happier state some of the characters are in.  But by the end, when darkness creeps once more into the narrative, that is reflected in the murkier palette.

Tbroughout this issue, more than anything, you get a palpable sense that the end is nigh.  Scalped #56 feels like it could be the final issue in itself, but thankfully there’s four more to go.  Still, I can’t help but feel really sad: in a few months, I won’t have a new issue of Scalped to look forward to!  This is the same feeling I got as I neared the end of the final seasons of The Shield and The Wire.  It’ll truly be the end of an era.

My Week in New York: Thursday

It had been fun seeing New York City, but with the arrival of Thursday it was time to get down to business: New York Comic Con was upon us.  After another 6:30am rise and a hearty breakfast to set me up for the day, I headed down on the brief walk to the Javits Convention Center.  I had scoped the place out on my first day in NYC, and it had seemed pretty barren, an empty vessel waiting for a sense of purpose.  But what a difference a few days make.  Now, the Javits Center was getting ready for New York Comic Con!

The Javits Center

Once I arrived, I discovered that Tyler James and Joe Mulvey – my booth partners, who would be bringing the tables, chairs and our supply of comics – had been held up in that notorious New York traffic.  And since we needed Tyler, who’d booked the booth, to get our exhibitor passes, I had to just sit around in the foyer for a while.  But eventually, the rest of the gang arrived, and while Joe seeked out a parking place outside, I got to meet the mighty Tyler James, glorious leader of ComixTribe, for the first time.  I always get a kick meeting people I’ve talked to online in person, and so far I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not had an experience of someone I thought was alright over MSN or Skype turning out to be a weirdo in person (probably because I’M the one who’s the weirdo in person), and Tyler was no exception, turning out to be as smart and cool in the real world as the virtual one.

There was a brief scare where it seemed like our passes had been lost, or accidentally given to someone else, but thankfully it was resolved before too long, and we were kitted out with the Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket that is a Comic-Con exhibitor pass.  Meeting up with Joe and his friend outside, we went through the arduous task of dragging our heavy bundles of stock and equipment from the car park to our booth on the show floor.  An interesting aside: over the course of the week, I only noticed that the escalator from the foyer up to the show floor had stopped working on two occasions.  The first was on this day, meaning we had to haul all our stuff up it like it was a regular flight of stairs.  The second was on Sunday, when we had to haul all our stuff back down it again.  Typical.

Another problem emerged once we located our corner booth just near Artist’s Alley.  Namely, that it wasn’t a corner booth.  We were located quite inconveniently next to what I can only call a massive China exhibit.  If that sounds vague, it’s because that’s the impression they gave.  It was this collection of 8 connected booths that ran in a big line next to where our booth was, all with the words CHINA written on top of them, but each with its own hazey subtitle, like “Skyworks Technologies” or “Guangzhou Daley Media Co” or something similarly uninformative.  And these booths were typically partitioned off, and often empty.  And I don’t just mean no con-goers stopped by – though people rarely did – I mean that even the exhibitors themselves were barely there.  It must have been an expensive bit of real estate, but obviously these guys must have had a lot of money to throw around to book all that space then not really use it.  And the problem with these massive booths was that they jutted right out onto the floor, far beyond the reach of our table, meaning anyone walking past them was automatically cast at a distance away from our table, breaking that essential passing trade connection.  On the plus side, I pointed out, we were at a good place to catch people headed to the nearby bathroom.

The ComixTribe gang set up the booth while I... take pictures.

I have to say, it was really exciting setting up the ComixTribe booth.  Sure, I got a little thrill laying out my comics at my table for the Glasgow Comic Fair, but this was on a whole other level.  Organising not just The Standard, but the rest of ComixTribe’s diverse lineup, reminded me of the stellar company I keep being a part of ComixTribe.  The absolute best thing about The Standard being published through ComixTribe is that I get to be a part of such a fantastic roster of talent, and an incredible lineup of titles.  I had already read and loved Runners, Tears of the Dragon and Epic, but once the booth was set up, I was able to sit down and read Joe Mulvey’s Scam, and The Red Ten by Tyler James and Cesar Feliciano.  Both are just great comics, which I highly recommend checking out if you possibly can.  Here’s the thing that helped me a lot while pitching all the ComixTribe titles over the weekend: I didn’t have to be dishonest in my shilling.  My enthusiasm and passion for each of these comics and their quality was absolutely genuine.

With the booth ready, we all headed out to a local deli for lunch.  And, like the sophisticated artistic souls we are, we spent the entire meal sharing puke, shit and fart stories.  Classy, my kinda people.  Afterwards, we headed back to the convention center, and I took the time to have a look around the show floor.  The layout was actually quite a lot like San Diego, only with less TV and movie booths, and more of a central focus on comics.  I also noted that Marvel had situated itself far away from the rest of the comics booth, instead settling down right in the middle of the video game section.  This struck me as a bit isolationist, and because it was so far off my beaten track, I actually never visited the Marvel booth save for passing by it on my way into the show floor in the mornings.  I’d say the trifecta of the DC Comics booth, the Image booth and the Midtown Comics booth felt more like the central hub of the show floor, with the well-furnished Archaia booth situated well in amongst them.

After a while, the doors opened to the public (at least, those with 4-day VIP passes), and the first day of selling began.  In all honesty, business was a little slow on this first day.  We did have a steady flow of eyes on our table, but we had our quiet periods.  My problem was that I couldn’t get my salesmanship down.  My pitch for The Standard was overlong and clunky, and I could practically see eyes glazing over as I launched into it.  I just didn’t seem to have a good knack for it, and was grateful that the affable Joe and the super-efficient selling machine that was Tyler were there to take my slack.

Shifting from my exhibitor hat to my fan hat, I took a wander around Artist’s Alley.  The first familiar face I got to meet was Mikel Janin, the talented rising star artist of Justice League Dark.  He very kindly agreed to sign my copy of Justice League Dark #1, and we parted on what I thought was a good note.  But then I realised, to my horror, that I had given Mikel my sharpie pen, and forgotten to take it back.  Now, those who know me from work will know that I am paranoid about ensuring nobody takes it from me, and I will stand and watch people use the pens they borrow fro me to make sure they give them back when they’re done.  So I launched into this awkward moment where I had to go back to this gifted artist I admire, and politely ask him to give me my pen back.  Thankfully, my subsequent friendly Twitter chat with Mikel would suggest this faux pas was not too disastrous.

The next folks on my list were Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, the esteemed writer/artist team on cracking Western series The Sixth Gun.  Long-time followers of this blog will know I’ve devoted a lot of time to promoting this comic, reviewing the first graphic novel collection and several other subsequent issues and bestowing superlative but well-deserved praise.  I tried my best to convey this praise to the team in person, telling them that The Sixth Gun had so much content packed into each issue that every individual comic was a rewarding read in itself, and that this most definitely wasn’t a comic for trade-waiters.  I then gave them a trade to sign.

But perhaps most exciting of all for me on this day was the chance to meet Jason Aaron.  Regular readers may know that I have gushed about The Sixth Gun, but they’ll also know that I’ve lavished numerous dissertation-length odes of devotion to the seminal Verigo crime series Scalped, a title I’ve not been in shy in saying I’d rank as definitely the best comic on shelves today, and well on its way into entering the canon of the all-time greats.  Considering all this, getting to meet Scalped writer Jason Aaron was one of the things I was most excited about going into the New York Comic Con.  And I’m pleased to say he didn’t disappoint.  This is something that has struck me about all the folks in comics I’ve been fortunate enough to meet over the past couple of years: they’re all nice guys.  It must be really deflating to meet one of your heroes, and they’re a jerk.  But the comics creators I’ve had the chance to talk to have all been friendly, and keen to chat with their fans, and Jason Aaron was no exception.

At first, Jason bamboozled me a bit: when I produced Scalped #25 and told him that, after much painful deliberation, I had decided this was my favorite single issue of the series, he asked me the dreaded question, “Why is this one your favorite?”  I garbled at him in incomprehensible Glaswegian for a while as I struggled to come up with a good answer (I failed), and then I introduced myself as the writer of the Studying Scalped columns he had kindly linked to on his blog.  It was great that Jason knew who I was enough to thank me for the columns I’d written.  I also told him I was the guy who’d asked him to bring along Scalped #3, #15 and #16 to the con, and he responded by producing them from his backpack.  Getting these elusive comics given to me by the writer himself!  I was ready to pay double the cover price or more, but Jason amazingly said I could just take them for free!  What a classy guy.  With these issues in my collection, I was now the proud owner of every Scalped single issue save for issue #1.  I tried to fire a couple of quickfire Scalped questions at Jason before leaving.  Will there be any Scalped deluxe hardcovers in future?  Probably not.  Will there be any Scalped retrospective panels at San Diego 2012 or next year’s NYCC?  Again, probably not, but Jason did mention I could take part in some kind of series of closing interviews at the end of the series, which would be amazing.  I gave Jason copies of The Standard #1 and #2, then gushed some more about how Scalped was one of the greatest comics of all time, before finally making my exit.

In terms of stuff I bought, I was able to grab almost all the issues of Zot! my friend Jamie Fairlie was missing from his collection, and I picked up two T-shirts from DC’s Graphitti Designs booth: a Swamp Thing T-shirt, and something I’ve wanted for a long time: a grey Batman with a black Batman logo.  That’s right, none of that “black T-shirt with the black bat logo inside a yellow circle” movie bullshit for me, I’m a comics purist, baby!  And a nerd.

Back at the ComixTribe booth, Steve – the friendly fan from Jim Hanley’s – stopped by to say hello.  He had read and enjoyed The Standard #1 after buying it at the signing, so was here to get his hands on The Standard #2.  I have to say, this happened a few times over the course of the con, and it was the biggest compliment.  When someone buys and reads the first issue one day, and takes the time to come back the next day, tell you they loved it, and buy issue #2?  That’s quite possibly the most rewarding thing about writing these comics.  It’s a great feeling.  Steve also ended up buying the rest of ComixTribe’s lineup too, which was great.  Perhaps our first convert of NYCC.  Thanks, Steve!

Tyler and I at the ComixTribe booth.

Once the NYCC preview night wrapped up, I stopped back at my hotel to make a quick change and drop off my heavy satchel bag (this bag, filled with books I wanted signed, was the bane of much of my travels during the con), before heading down to Tempest Bar for ComixTribe’s Drink & Draw event.  Food was provided in the form of giant pizzas brought in from a nearby pizzeria.  Yes, that’s right, pizza again.  And these ones were MASSIVE, dwarving even the oversized slices from Pronto Pizza.  Quite possibly the biggest pizza I’ve seen in my life.

Drink & Draw started off quiet, but once it got going we ended up with a good crowd of comic creators at the event.  Now, I say “quiet”, but what I actually mean is that deafeningly loud music was banging away at all times, and it seemed like the louder I tried to speak, the louder the music got.  See, I just don’t get this.  I see a bar as a place meant for socialising, so while ambient music is fine, what’s the point of cranking up the volume so loud you can barely communicate?  And remember, I was trying to make myself understood to a bunch of New Yorkers with a thick Scottish accent as it was, so I was already fighting an uphill battle.

I did get to have a few good conversations, though.  In particular, I got to have some lengthy chats with Rich Douek, regular ComixTribe commenter, and writer of an intriguing title called Gutter Magic that I was able to get my hands on at NYCC.  And I also got one of Tyler’s friends to draw up an image for one of the artist edition covers of The Standard, which was greatly appreciated.

After hanging out for a few hours, I took my leave, feeling a little sick from the watered-down Coke and oversized pizza.  But it was a good kind of sick.  The New York Comic Con was off to a great start.  And it was only going to get better.

NEXT: I go to far too many panels.

Red Crow: The True Hero of Scalped? (Part Five)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

The most recent Scalped graphic novel, Rez Blues, sees Red Crow largely relegated to the sidelines.  But seeing how the more featured characters of this volume relate to him manages to shed more light on his character.  Rez Blues is a collection of shorter stories, told mostly from the perspective of supporting characters, or in a couple of cases characters we’ve never seen before.  Such is the case with the first chapter, “Listening to the Earth Turn”.  In this story about an elderly couple living on the fringes of the reservation, Red Crow makes a one-page cameo in the form of his likeness appearing on a billboard for the Crazy Horse Casino.  It’s a small beat, with the old man forced through his poverty to sign up for food aid, then driving past the sign for Red Crow’s casino.  But it is a potent way of illustrating how little the casino Red Crow fought so long and so hard for has done to actually make the lives of many of the regular residents of Prairie Rose any better, which is supposedly what all the moral compromises it took to get the place built were intended to do.

This standalone tale is followed by “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, a two-part story where Shunka takes centre stage.  Red Crow only appears fleetingly in this story, sharing a couple of terse exchanges with his right hand man.  But now that I’ve mentioned Shunka, I’ll take a brief aside to talk about his relationship to Red Crow through the series as a whole, which I’ve found to be a really compelling slow-boil.  Up until this story in Rez Blues, I must admit I never much noticed Shunka.  So, upon rereading the series, I was quite surprised by how often he showed up, and the subtle dynamic built up between him, Red Crow and Bad Horse.  Take a look at this page 19 of chapter 5 of The Gnawing:

The first time I read this, the beat I took from it was Bad Horse winning Red Crow’s trust, and in terms of moving the narrative forward, that is surely the primary purpose here.  But why have that reaction shot from Shunka at the end of the page?  The way I see it, Shunka does everything he can to be a good son to Red Crow.  He’s a model employee, he always has Red Crow’s interests at heart – even when his boss is on a self-destructive bent and he has to stand against him to steer him off that road – and, as seen in part four of “The Gravel in Your Guts”, he’s even willing to pack his bags and leave if that’s what Red Crow wants.  But despite all his efforts, despite how qualified and willing he is to be Red Crow’s successor, he’s always going to be the mongrel, the bastard child.  One line on page 14 of the recent Scalped #45, “Running to Stand Still” sums up Red Crow’s view of Shunka:

You’ve been with me a long time now, Shunka.  You’ve saved my life many times, no doubt.  And in return, I’ve made you a very rich man.  But that doesn’t make us partners or friends or any other goddamn thing of the sort.  When I tell you I don’t want Dash involved in anything that has to do with his mother’s murder, I’m not asking for your fucking opinion on the matter.  I’m giving you an order I expect to be fucking followed.  If following orders is something you no longer have the capacity to do, please, by all means, tell me now.

Regardless of how he may feel about Red Crow, or how committed he is to his job, in Red Crow’s eyes, Shunka is just an employee, he’s not family.  Bad Horse, meanwhile, shows little such interest in Red Crow or his operation in public, is violent, unpredictable and was, at one point, a junkie, and privately he’s an FBI traitor planning to bring down Red Crow.  But, despite doing none of the work Shunka has, Bad Horse is almost instantly in a position of being groomed as Red Crow’s right hand man, and as his wording in the above picture demonstrates, even being viewed by Red Crow as a surrogate son.  I think this is the source of the longstanding enmity between Bad Horse and Shunka, and it should be interesting seeing that reach boiling point.

Red Crow is featured more prominently in “Unwanted” – the four-part story that makes up the bulk of Rez Blues – albeit in more of a supporting role, as Bad Horse and particularly Carol Ellroy take centre stage.  But given how much this story is about the ways Dashiell and Carol have been shaped by their respective fathers, Red Crow still casts a heavy shadow over the unfolding narrative, and “Unwanted” contains a few great beats that serve to further illuminate his character.

One especially poignant aspect of “Unwanted” is that over the course of the arc, we get to see both the scene where his tumultuous relationship with his daughter Carol begins and where it effectively ends.  In the opening pages of “Unwanted Part One”, the fifth chapter of Rez Blues, we get a flashback to a young Red Crow’s confrontation with Carol’s mother, Claudine, upon first discovering she is pregnant.  She had been attempting to get an abortion before Red Crow found out and stopped her.  She explains to him that she was afraid Red Crow would not be there for her and she would have to raise the child on her own, and on page 3 we see Red Crow try to assure her that this is not the case, simultaneously observing him come to the terms with the impending reality of fatherhood:

Listen to me, Claudine.  I do love you, you know that.  If you wanna get married, the fine, let’s go get married.  Right now.  I know I’ve been busy.  But I’m done with the Dog Soldiers.  I’m done with all that, I swear to you.  You’re all that matters to me now.  You and that baby.

But before he can finish, their car is pulled over and the local sheriff arrests him, presumably for his revolutionary activities.  In past and present, his commitment to Prairie Rose always seems to get in the way of things for Red Crow.  The relationship between Red Crow and Claudine is an elusive one that will likely never be elaborated on in any more depth than we see here.  But we can imagine the inherent strain that would be there, given how Gina Bad Horse is the woman Red Crow always truly loved.  Our knowledge of this, combined with our awareness of how Carol turned out, make Red Crow’s claims here ring hollow.  But he seems to believe it as he’s saying it.  And in this way, we can view his aspirations for Carol as a microcosm of his larger arc regarding his aspirations for the Rez:  he has absolute belief he can make everything work out for the best, even if he is inevitably doomed to failure.

I may be wrong in my interpretation of the scene, but based on my reading of pages 13 and 14 of “Unwanted Part Three”, I take this as the moment where, after all his struggles and abortive attempts to find a way back into Carol’s life, he finally accepts his utter failure as a father and lets her go completely.  With Shunka having discovered that Carol has been living with Granny Poor Bear, Red Crow makes it as far as the door of the house, before telling Shunka that, rather than going in to get her, they are just going to leave her where she is.  On page 14, we see Red Crow walking away from us (and out of Carol’s life), becoming increasingly obscured by the snowy night with each passing panel until he has disappeared completely.  This page is almost totally silent save for one single line, spoken by Red Crow to Shunka:

Don’t ever have kids.

In this question over whether or not we can view Red Crow as the hero of Scalped, perhaps more than even his various killings and criminal deeds, it’s through his treatment of Carol that he falls short of the title.  As tempting as it is to view the criminal empire Red Crow runs in an abstract sense, the flashback in “The Boudoir Stomp” back in The Gravel in Your Guts, when Red Crow’s men kill Carol’s lover and accidentally shoot her in the gut, killing her baby, makes it explicitly clear what kind of people Red Crow has in his employ.  On the numerous occasions which Red Crow runs down Carol as the worst kind of trash (including the very first time we see her in issue #1), we see Red Crow at his most callous, particularly with how little acknowledgement of his responsibility in the way Carol’s life turned out.  And in his half-hearted attempts at trying to salvage their broken relationship – such as the phone call at the end of Dead Mothers, where he can’t even talk to her, just listening to her silently on the other end of the line – we see him at his most cowardly.  In the numerous ways he has let Carol down over the years, we see the personal failings in Red Crow that prevent him from being the hero he could be.  And when we learn here, in the aftermath of this final line, that a tearful Carol was hiding nearby and heard everything, we see that even in letting her go, Red Crow has found a way to hurt his daughter.

The other great Red Crow moment in “Unwanted” comes in its second part, the sixth chapter of Rez Blues.  Here, we get what a small scene that is nevertheless one of my favourite to appear in Scalped thus far, as Red Crow has a brief but tense reunion with Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s father.  This four-page exchange is the first time, past or present, that we’ve seen Red Crow and Wade together, but Aaron packs so much history and animosity into those four pages that their antagonistic relationship instantly becomes palpable and compelling.  With these two trading venomous barbs, Guera’s masterful facial expressions depicting how each one struggles not to give any ground to the other, their confrontation is more exciting than many physical fights you’ll read in other comics.  But the most revealing moment of all comes on page 12, as Wade and Red Crow deliver their respective parting shots:

Though it is Red Crow that gets the benefit of the last word, in doing so he is also the one that gives the most away.  As discussed above, the conclusion Red Crow comes to about Carol is that he should never have had children.  But this page here hints that his regret isn’t that he had a child at all, but rather that his child wasn’t Dashiell Bad Horse, that he didn’t have Dashiell with Gina, that he wasn’t in Wade’s place.

That brings us to the end of the Scalped stories currently collected into graphic novel format, and so almost to the end of this discussion.  But “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, the arc that has just wrapped up in the monthly comics, has thrown some engaging developments for Red Crow into the mix that surely merit some exploration before we bring this to a close.  The first part of this story, “Running to Stand Still”, puts the spotlight on Red Crow for almost the entire issue, as he falls into perhaps his greatest crisis of conscience yet.

This is an issue densely packed with insight into Red Crow.  Picking up on the Wade/Red Crow confrontation from Rez Blues, pages 9 and 10 of “Running to Stand Still” see Red Crow struggle to verbalise his paternal feelings towards Bad Horse.  He might not even realise that this is what he’s doing, but it’s there.  Though ostensibly talking about how Hassell Rock Medicine – the onetime mentor who is now standing against him for leadership of the tribal council – helped to raise him as a young boy, when Red Crow remarks, “Sometimes your father is just a guy who fucked your mother,” we can’t help but feel he is also alluding to Wade Bad Horse, and suggesting that he could be a candidate to fill that father-shaped void for Dash.  The silent panel with just the two men that follows allows this point to further sink in.

It is this return of Hassell Rock Medicine into his life that brings about the aforementioned crisis of conscience for Red Crow.  It is Rock Medicine who reminds him of the idealism and spirituality he once had, while Shunka later reminds him of all he has done to lose them: stunningly illustrated by Guera with a violent montage on page 15.  When Red Crow visits Rock Medicine at his home on page 3 (Red Crow sitting alone in his car before heading in reminds us of Red Crow’s moment of quite reflection before going into battle against Brass in The Gravel in Your Guts, Aaron cleverly setting up expectations of how this meeting might end up), Rock Medicine makes a comment that succinctly sums up the tragic flaw of Red Crow I have spent so much time analysing in this article:

I know what you’ve been doing, Lincoln.  And it’s not God’s work.  It’s your own.  Your problem is you don’t see the difference anymore.

These words seem to have a profound effect on Red Crow, as he sees a vision of himself in the mirror, chained to the rotting carcass of a deer.  It is an image heavy with symbolism.  No matter what he does, he can’t escape death, destruction and bloodshed.  He’s chained to it, quite literally in the case of his vision.  Jock’s cover for this issue depicts this vision even more powerfully, with Red Crow symbolically consumed by the deer’s corpse.  After seeing this nightmarish version of himself in the mirror, he turns to his old mentor, desperate for salvation, and asks if they can pray together.  But even as he struggles to find redemption, Catcher’s narration is superimposed over the two men at prayer:

Some folks spend their whole lives runnin’.  And never get nowhere.

It is a line repeated from the first page of the issue.  It’s also what gives this chapter its title.  And it serves as another summary of Red Crow’s journey through Scalped.  No matter how hard Red Crow strives to be better, he always ends up back in his old ways.  He can’t run away from himself.

“Are You Honest Enough to Live Outside the Law?”, the fourth chapter of “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, marks a major turning point for both Red Crow and Bad Horse.  Catcher’s narration on the opening page forewarns us, “Sometimes a man’s fate is decided… in a single moment.”  And this issue finds Bad Horse at a crossroads.  This is the issue where Red Crow finally comes clean about everything, lets Bad Horse fully into his trust, and potentially seals his own fate.  On page 14, Red Crow goes into detail about the various grubby criminal activities he’s involved in.  But as he confesses his numerous crimes to Bad Horse, vulnerable, literally naked, more than ever we sympathise with him.  When he says, “The door’s open, if you’re ready to walk through,” it almost seems as much an invitation for us as for Bad Horse.  We know that Red Crow has done some bad things, but we can understand why he has done them, and have seen the good he is capable of too.  We are ready to make an informed decision about whose side we are on.  And when I see the types of people Red Crow has had to deal with, to defend the Rez from, and the motives and tactics of Nitz – who represents law and order, the traditional “good guys”, while remaining the most utterly reprehensible character in the series – I think I would choose to side with Red Crow.

In my perspective at least, here I found myself willing Bad Horse to side with Red Crow too.  This arc has further brought to the foreground the idea that staying on within the Rez, eventually taking Red Crow’s place, could be his true calling, the one thing that might give him purpose in an aimless, angry life.  He seems to have nothing but contempt for his FBI assignment, and in turn Nitz seems to have nothing but contempt for him.  Furthermore, the misery of his father foreshadows what fate lies ahead for choosing that path.  For a long time, the narrative has toyed with the idea that Bad Horse may be better off actually being the prodigal son returned home rather than simply pretending to be, and in this issue, Dash has to make a decision.  To form a crude analogy, this is the part in Avatar where Jake Sully chooses to side with the Na’vi against his human superiors.  But thankfully, Scalped is not Avatar.  As a result, things don’t go as we might expect, or even want, as we see on page 18:

Here, we see Bad Horse blow the chance to fulfil the role of hero he has been presumably primed for on three fronts.  First, in his betrayal of Red Crow, we see him calculatingly use the words that are most likely to seal the deal in winning his trust, with the irony being he is likely unaware of the truth in them.  Second, in going to Nitz with the assurance that “Red Crow’s finished”, we see him make the deal with the devil, cementing his alliance with this least sympathetic of characters instead of breaking it.  Finally, we see him choose vengeance over heroism, opting to be taken to his mother’s killer rather than saving the wounded Falls Down.  In the case of this last sequence, Bad Horse isn’t just failing our abstract test of emerging as the hero of the narrative, but failing an actual test set by Catcher to see if he’s worthy of becoming the hero of his people within the world of the story.

Of course, Scalped is not over yet, and there could still be a chance for Bad Horse to change his mind, but continuing on this path he’s on, he seems set to prime himself as a polar opposite of Red Crow.  We talked before about Red Crow doing the right thing, even when that involves breaking the law.  Bad Horse is upholding the law, doing his duty as an FBI agent, but it still feels like he’s doing the wrong thing.  Who, then, is truly the villain?  And who is the hero?

“Ain’t No God”, the 49th issue of Scalped and the final chapter of “You Gotta Sin to Get Saved”, finds Red Crow faced with a crossroads of his own.  Hassell Rock Medicine has a heart attack while alone with Red Crow, and on page 12 we see Red Crow grabbing his phone to call an ambulance… then hesitating.  At this moment, we see the opportunity arising before Red Crow’s eyes.  Rock Medicine is challenging him for the leadership of the tribal council, and has a good chance of beating him.  By letting him die, without even needing to kill him, Red Crow would be getting rid of a major threat to his status within the reservation.

But later in the same issue, we discover that Red Crow did indeed call an ambulance and save his old mentor’s life.  Unlike Bad Horse, when faced with a choice, Red Crow takes the more heroic route.

On page 8 of Scalped #49, Red Crow offers one more answer to the question of whether or not he can be considered the hero of this story:

I’m not looking for nobody’s blessing.  Not even God’s.  That ain’t ever coming, and I know it.  I just want him to see… I want you to see… that a man is better than the worst of his deeds.  Sometimes sacrifices have to be made, for the betterment of us all.  I know that in my heart, if my soul is that sacrifice… so be it.

Now, as we move forward into unknown territory as Scalped approaches his endgame, this most recent of his appearances sees Red Crow make potentially his most drastic attempt at walking a more righteous path yet, as he tells Shunka to shut down his entire criminal operation.  Over the course of the series, we’ve come to view Red Crow as a good man forced by circumstance to do terrible things for “the betterment of us all.”  But with Red Crow now hoping to remove this qualifying factor from the equation, becoming a good man who walks the harder path to do good things, could we see Red Crow on the cusp of becoming the hero of Scalped?

My guess would be that Red Crow will not succeed.  Even as he states this admirable intent, we see the enemy forces circling.  Nitz is more powerful and dangerous than ever.  Sheriff Wooster Karnow has renewed determination to bring him down.  Even loyal Shunka seems on the verge of losing patience with his boss.  And he has welcomed a traitor into his trust in the form of Bad Horse.  Some people just aren’t meant to be the hero of the story, no matter how well they might be able to fill the role if given the chance.

But I could be wrong.  As I said way back at the start of this discussion, Scalped is a series that subverts archetypes and upsets expectations.  And on this note, on page 2 of the second chapter of The Gnawing, Granny Poor Bear offers a most appropriate final thought on Lincoln Red Crow, who – hero or not – is arguably the most compelling character in comics today:

I don’t know what to make of that man no more, I surely don’t.  Just when I’m ready to give up on him for good, he up and surprises me.  Maybe I’m crazy but something tells me… he may yet surprise us all.

 

Red Crow: The True Hero of Scalped? (Part Four)

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

After The Gravel in Your Guts serving as arguably the best showcase for Red Crow as a character – potentially even a protagonist – we’ve seen in the series thus far, he’s all but absent in the fifth volume, High Lonesome.  Perhaps this lack of development in Red Crow’s arc is why this has always been my least favourite graphic novel in the Scalped collection, and the one I’ve revisited the least.  It could be worth revisiting and possibly reassessing this arc in the future, but for the purposes of this particular course of discussion, it’s probably best to skip ahead to the sixth volume.  I’m certainly aware of how long this study is trailing on as it is.  However, page 11 of the first chapter of High Lonesome provides us with an interesting perspective on Red Crow:

Here, with the enigmatic, nameless con man that serves as this arc’s antagonist, we get a total outsider’s view on Red Crow, and some context on how he is viewed by the wider world.  Needless to say, it’s not a flattering portrait.  Regardless of where his true moral standing, the public image he has built for himself is that of a villain, a “mad dog” to be feared.

It is with the sixth volume, The Gnawing, that we get to see the consequences of Red Crow’s actions in The Gravel in Your Guts.  With the opening chapter, we see Red Crow stuck in a kind of no man’s land between wanting to do the right thing and needing to do what’s necessary.  So Mr. Brass sits in a jail cell, and Red Crow talks about how Brass is going to need a lawyer, but the sombre expressions Guera draws him with while saying lines such as “I don’t want nobody else getting killed around here” seem to betray the fact that even Red Crow knows how this has to end.  But he still goes through the motions of actually fulfilling his role as sheriff of the tribal police, rather than simply using it as cover for his criminal activities.  Ultimately, it takes the threats and racial slurs of Hmong gangster Johnny Tongue to finally push Red Crow into action by killing Brass.

For much of the rest of The Gnawing, Red Crow talks about how stupid he was to do this.  Some might interpret that as him regretting killing Brass.  I don’t quite agree with that, though.  Eventually, Red Crow was always going to realise and accept that anything short of killing Brass would be an unsustainable half-measure.  I believe the mistake in Red Crow’s eyes is that he let Johnny Tongue force his hand and kill Brass in a police holding cell, in front of a department full of witnesses, rather than on his own terms.  He’s not only endangered the whole reservation through setting the Hmongs on a path of destruction, but by implicating all those witnesses in the murder he is dragging the institution he had been struggling to uphold down with him.

But whatever wrath his actions could have brought upon Prairie Rose, at the end of the fourth chapter, Red Crow offsets that by taking that wrath upon his own head.  He confronts the Hmong outside the police station alone and unarmed, and takes a vicious beating.  By ordering that no one interfere, that no one fight back, he is ensuring there is not a war on the Rez, that mass bloodshed of his people is averted.  It is another act of heroic sacrifice, in this case even more literal, as he could very well have been giving up his life to protect the reservation.  But rather than being simply noble, there could be an element of Red Crow punishing himself too, given how soon the confrontation comes after having to take Carol to the hospital, then having her refuse to see him.

Throughout this arc, there are questions over Red Crow perhaps going soft, losing his edge and his ruthlessness.  Shunka seems to take charge, answering the difficult moral questions Red Crow leaves hanging in the air, and making the unpleasant decisions Red Crow seems hesitant to confront.  But any sense that Gina’s death had made Red Crow soft and sentimental are commandingly put to rest in the final chapter when he and Shunka ambush Johnny Tongue in his own home, and massacre him, his men, and anyone else who happened to be in the room.  And then Red Crow’s comments throughout The Gnawing can be read in a different context.  “No war.  We can’t allow that.  Not here.”  “This is our home.  This is not a fucking battlefield.”  The problem was never with the war and the killing.  It was with sullying Prairie Rose any further by doing it there.  And suddenly his whole arc throughout the graphic novel can be read in a different light.  Did Johnny Tongue really make him lose control, or was everything calculated by Red Crow to let Johnny Tongue think he had Red Crow where he wanted him?  At what point in the story does Red Crow decide he’s going to kill Johnny Tongue: on page 9 of chapter 5, or page 18 of chapter 1?

But for someone so analytical and strategic, does it really make sense for Red Crow to be tasking Bad Horse with the job of finding the FBI undercover agent he learned was working within his organisation back in The Gravel in Your Guts?  The scene across pages 10 and 11 of chapter 1 of The Gnawing, where Red Crow indeed gives Bad Horse this assignment against what should be his better judgement, is an intriguing exchange between the two characters.  Looking at the back-and-forth expressions, what each man gives away, it can be read in various ways.  It’s certainly fodder for the idea that, on some level, deep down, Red Crow knows Bad Horse is the agent of his destruction, just like deep down he knew he’d have to kill Brass.

Scalped is a series that largely revolves around the still moments, focusing on character.  But The Gnawing is a very plot-driven volume, with characters driven into action.  Red Crow takes action, making dramatic moves that considerably shift the power dynamics of the casino and the reservation firmly in his favour.  The fate of Prairie Rose rests on Red Crow’s actions, and as such there is a compelling case to be made that he stands here as primary protagonist.  But this is the chapter where, finally, Bad Horse also acts.  His actions are on a smaller scale, more personal, but deeply pivotal in shaping both his own character and the direction of the series.  However, while Red Crow giving himself to the Hmongs to protect the Rez is another heroic act from the ostensive antagonist of the series, Bad Horse’s actions throughout the arc are driven almost entirely by self-interest, and as we see him engage in the cold blooded murder of Diesel (presumably his first), our protagonist crosses a line into dark, arguably villainous territory.  The protracted nature of the murder recalls Red Crow’s own first murder as recounted in The Gravel in Your Guts, implying that the two may be more alike than Bad Horse would like to admit.  The concluding act of The Gnawing further blurs the lines between protagonist and antagonist, leaving us questioning where our loyalties and sympathies should truly lie.

Part Five

Red Crow: The True Hero of Scalped? (Part Three)

Part One

Part Two

Up until now, much of what I’ve talked about has taken the form of hints and glimpses of how Red Crow could emerge as the main protagonist of the series.  But The Gravel in Your Guts actually sees him rise and fulfil that potential, at least temporarily.  This is a process that unfolds in two stages.  The first step comes with “The Boudoir Stomp”, the two part story that opens the graphic novel.  Here, we see the (again, temporary) subjugation of Dashiell Bad Horse.

Through Carol Ellroy is the principal player of this two-part storyline, throughout we get glimpses of how ineffective Bad Horse is becoming in achieving his aims, his inability to act.  His guilt over both his mother and the death of Shelton seems to have rendered him inert, and we see him drift through interactions with Red Crow, Nitz, Diesel and, repeatedly, Carol, unable to draw anything satisfactory from any of them.  “You useless son of a bitch,” screams Nitz ten pages into the first chapter of the book, “When are you actually going to start doing your fucking job!?”  This line works on a meta level too, as, stuck as he is in this quagmire of self-hatred, Bad Horse is failing to do his job as the protagonist of Scalped.  He’s not moving the story forward: he’s not hunting for his mother’s killer, and he’s not progressing in his work for the FBI.  And as he turns to drugs in the final pages of “The Boudoir Stomp”, he digs himself further into this hole, taking himself off the map as a viable player in the narrative.

The second step of Red Crow’s ascension comes with “The Gravel in Your Guts”, the four-part storyline that forms the bulk of the graphic novel.  Bad Horse is almost entirely absent from this arc, only making the briefest cameo in a single scene of its third part.  In his place, the burden of carrying the narrative is passed onto the shoulders of Dino Poor Bear and, in particular, Lincoln Red Crow.

The unlikely relationship between Red Crow and Dino has proved to be a fascinating one.  Their first interaction came in “My Ambitionz az a Ridah”, the fifth chapter of Casino Boogie.  In this encounter, Red Crow mentions that Dino’s father used to work for him, and asks Dino if he would like to do the same.  When Dino turns him down, and speaks of his desire to leave the Rez, at first it seems like the scene might turn into a confrontation, but when Dino tells Red Crow that he wants his infant daughter to have the opportunities he never had, it seems to strike a chord with Red Crow:

I think Red Crow sees something of himself in Dino Poor Bear.  Dino is at a crossroads in his life: he is a grown man with a child, but he’s still young enough to start over.  When Red Crow was at that crossroads, he stayed on the Rez (above he says he “never could” leave), and amongst the many things he’s lost perhaps the loss he feels most sorely is the love of his daughter, Carol.  I think Red Crow knows deep down that it’s too late for him to find redemption, but it might not be too late for Dino.  Of course, Dino doesn’t take the opportunity to leave Prairie Rose, lacking the courage to make such a leap from the familiarity of this life he hates.  This hubris once more comes into play in “The Gravel in Your Guts”, as he finds himself drawn deeper into the murky criminal underbelly of the reservation.

But while Dino Poor Bear does get plenty of face-time in “The Gravel in Your Guts”, I’d argue that the storyline’s main protagonist is definitely Red Crow.  He is the featured player in the scenes that bookend the four-part storyline at its opening and its conclusion, and he best embodies the central theme of the arc: the choices we make, and their consequences.  The opening scene takes place chronologically near the end of “Gravel in Your Guts”, but it’s placement at the beginning of the arc instantly gives the story a hook:

Right away, Aaron uses an interesting framing device.  Normally, this scene would be presented, and the following scene would begin with “Three Weeks Earlier.”  But instead, Aaron opens this sequence with the caption “Three Weeks from Now,” and the following scene with “Now.”  Often, as an audience we are less attached to a flashback in a story, as it feels less like the “real” narrative than what’s going on in the present.  But with something as small as this, an effect is generated where the flashback is the present, not the past.  We’re living in that moment, invested in it.  As a result, this scene with Red Crow finds itself placed in the future, standing ominously on the road ahead waiting to come to fruition.

But at first this is just a vague sense of menace, an awareness that unspecified bloodshed lies ahead.  The true implications of the scene are not made clear until near the end of the first chapter, with which we learn that the satchel bag in Red Crow’s car was Gina’s soul bundle, that Granny Poor Bear has made Red Crow keeper of Gina’s soul, and that he believes that – if he’s unable to live “a harmonious life” without conflict, violence or sin, Gina’s soul will be doomed to “wander the Earth forever, lost and alone.”  This scene would be powerful in its own right, but with the added dramatic irony of this scene unfolding when, thanks to the opening sequence, we already know Red Crow fails in this task appointed to him, it has an even greater impact.  In his introduction to The Gravel in Your Guts, Ed Brubaker’s comments shed light on why this approach works so well:

What some people, at least some comics, readers, sometimes forget about noir is that it’s not about plot.  I mean, yes, good noir often has amazingly intricate twisty plots, but that’s just icing on a dark, dark cake.  Noir is about the characters moving through those plots, ricocheting like a banged-up pinball that only bounces down, down, down…And as you watch them move, you know their final destination, you recognize it… because it feels inevitable… The best noir stories make you forget plot entirely by giving you characters that feel so well-realized you can’t look away as they fall.

 So, taking this into consideration as we return to Red Crow’s journey through this storyline, we can conclude that the narrative is structured the way it is because the point of the story is not plot-driven questions like, “Will Red Crow renounce violence in Gina’s name or return to his old ways?”  By giving us that answer before the question is even raised, Aaron instead encourages us to focus on character, to take a closer look at Red Crow and the kind of man he is.

One final point of interest to note about the opening chapter of “The Gravel in Your Guts” is what Granny Poor Bear says to Red Crow on the final page, when he suggests that Dashiell Bad Horse should be the one to take the burden of carrying Gina’s soul bundle:

Her son ain’t up to it, you know that.  This is Gina’s last chance, Lincoln.  And yours as well.  Don’t squander it.

There’s an intriguing relationship between Red Crow and Granny Poor Bear that’s really only been hinted at over the course of Scalped.  She is one of the few people that even he won’t dare cross, and he seems to have a genuine respect, even affection for her.  In Casino Boogie, he mentions to Dino that he used to spend a lot of time at the Poor Bear house.  I imagine this is one of those story threads that are just going to be left implied, without ever really being explored in detail, but it is something I’d like to learn more about.

But the point of quoting the above line is that – according to Granny Poor Bear, at least – Red Crow is still capable of great things that Bad Horse isn’t.  He is someone who can operate, and potentially do good, on a far greater level than Bad Horse, but when he “squanders” this heroic potential, it results in him doing evil on a far greater level instead.  This is something we have see throughout the series, and something I will talk about more later.

Part 2 of “The Gravel in Your Guts” provides us with one of the most fascinating insights into Red Crow’s character seen thus far in the series.  It contains a dual narrative, cutting back and forth between the past and present.  Thirty-five years ago, we see the chain of events that led to Red Crow turning from idealistic activist to killer (and in turn breaking away from Gina Bad Horse forever), while in the present, we see Red Crow struggle to escape from the dark, murky path his life took from that day onwards.  Red Crow’s narration in the closing pages of this chapter tells us a lot about the conflict that drives him:

There are two kinds of people in this world… those simple-minded fools who believe all life is precious, be it unborn fetus or death row murderer.  And then there are ones like me.  Ones who accept the cold hard fact that sometimes people have to die for the greater good.  That’s the world I see around me.  That’s the only way I’ve ever known how to be.  But I’m trying, Gina.  I promise you I am.  I’m trying to be something different.

The interesting thing is that, for Red Crow, it’s not as simple a divide as living a moral, non-violent life being the right choice, and engaging in crime and murder as being the wrong choice.  In most stories, the figure of Shunka – with the role he plays in this arc of trying to pressure Red Crow into taking a stand against Mr. Brass – would be the metaphorical devil on the shoulder, tempting Red Crow back to his old, wicked ways.  But in this particular story, Shunka is totally justified, and arguably even taking the moral high ground.  Mr. Brass is a truly vile, evil, monstrous character, possibly the worst to appear in Scalped (which is saying something), and from his arrival he steadily cuts a swathe through Prairie Rose, torturing and killing with no opposition (perhaps because he’s faced with no opposition) from Red Crow.  Shunka likely has selfish reasons for wanting Red Crow back as the take-no-shit crime boss he’s used to working for, but he doesn’t make Red Crow break his promise to Gina by showing him the cost to his business.  He shows them the dead bodies of some innocent teenagers Brass has raped and murdered, shows him the human cost of his inaction.  Red Crow is forced to choose between the spiritual salvation of his lost love (not to mention his own personal salvation) and the well-being of the reservation.  And he chooses the reservation.  In a way, it’s a classic heroic sacrifice.

The fourth and final chapter of “The Gravel in Your Guts” sees the conflict come to a head, and the disparate plot threads of Dino Poor Bear and Lincoln Red Crow collide in dramatic fashion.  The “Three Weeks from Now” has become “Now”, and Red Crow, Dino, Mr. Brass and his men are all converged at the Badlands Cafe.  Jock’s cover for this issue, with the giant gun hovering over the building, is a brilliant visualisation of how all roads seem to have been leading here, of an impending bloodshed that seems like it was always inevitable.  Mr. Brass is mutilating Dino, in the process of pulling out his eyeball, when Red Crow interrupts.  What follows is one of the most badass gunfights you’ll see in any comic.  And in the end, Red Crow saves the day.  He places Mr. Brass under arrest, and saves Dino’s life.  In many an action story, this would be the hero’s big feel-good moment.  But for Red Crow, it is the knowing condemnation of his soul, of Gina’s soul.  It’s not a victory, but a defeat.  And as “badass” as Red Crow might be here, any glamour is undercut by how the fight is portrayed.  Scenes like this are not pretty or choreographed in the real world: they’re messy, body parts fly around, and people scramble on the floor, biting, gouging and fighting dirty to survive.  Still, no matter the cost to himself, or how ugly it all seems, this is Red Crow at his most heroic.  With Bad Horse temporarily taken off the board due to being overcome by his own demons, it falls upon Red Crow to do what is conventionally the protagonist’s job: save innocent lives, and stop the bad guy.

However, things are never straightforward with Scalped.  So, just in case we might have been getting comfortable with Red Crow at his most noble, this scene is immediately followed by Red Crow at his most loathsome.  In a flashback, we see how – to make sure Gina wouldn’t stand against his impending election to the tribal council – he held a gun to the head of the sleeping Bad Horse (at this point just a young boy) and threatened Gina until she agreed to keep her silence.  He turns into a monster before Gina’s eyes, forever obliterating any chance they might have had of repairing their destroyed relationship.  Ironically, in both these situations – Red Crow at his best and at his worst – he is ostensibly being driven by the same motivation: acting in what he sees as the best interests of the reservation, no matter who he has to hurt and what bridges he has to burn.

After these two starkly contrasting scenes, we end The Gravel in Your Guts with another one of Red Crow’s most iconic moments:

Here, we see that Red Crow is a mass of contradictions.  All the good things about him, measured against all the bad things he’s done.  And as the story ends, we see him giving in to his vices of drink and girls that he had briefly tried to turn away from, and Gina’s soul bundle is returned back to Granny Poor Bear.  This is Red Crow’s way of telling her that he can’t be the hero she wants him to be, and in turn the hero Scalped might need.  But, in what is perhaps the greatest contradiction of all, his conscious decision to be the villain of the piece, “because someone has to”, is, in its own twisted way, the act of a hero.

Part Four

Part Five

 

Red Crow: The True Hero of Scalped? (Part Two)

Part One

I’ve said before that the second volume of Scalped, Casino Boogie, marked something of a turning point in the series for me.  Indian Country was a great read, but in my opinion it reads like a conventional crime thriller, well executed.  With Casino Boogie, the series begins to truly find its voice.  Some of the hallmarks of the series – the sprawling ensemble cast taking turns in the spotlight, dwelling on and revisiting a single pivotal moment, and, with the refusal to immediately follow up on the shocking murder of Gina Bad Horse that concluded Indian Country, that knack for upsetting conventional expectation – first come to light in this second volume.  There is plenty to talk about in Casino Boogie as a whole, enough to probably fill a whole essay in itself, but for the purposes of this particular discussion I’m going to narrow my focus to the book’s second chapter, “Down on the Killin’ Floor”, where Red Crow takes centre stage for the first time.

With “Down on the Killin’ Floor”, Red Crow is given the distinction of being the first Scalped character (the first of many, as it would turn out), to narrate an issue.  Bad Horse may have been our access character for the preceding 6 issues, but even so he remained a somewhat inscrutable protagonist.  We follow him through his experiences, see his outward emotions, and even get a glimpse of his memories, but we don’t hear that voice in his head, and so are still, to a degree, kept at arm’s length.  It would be issue 12 before Bad Horse finally took a turn at narration.  As a result, the sudden appearance of narration in issue 7 is a bit jarring, but in a good way.  Red Crow is demanding our attention, grabbing us by the throat and dragging us into his world.  By not simply showing us Red Crow’s life and experiences, but having him tell us about them, Aaron is making it much harder to simply view Red Crow as the dragon that Bad Horse must slay.  He is the hero of his own story.

One of the most striking aspects of this chapter is just how self-aware Red Crow is, and how little that helps him.  He can think of how alcohol has blighted the lives of his family going back three generations, yet still obtains a liquor license for his casino, and downs whiskey himself.  He thinks back on all the people who begged their lives before he killed them, and how futile that was, but that doesn’t stop him begging for his own life when he believes Catcher is going to kill him.  Most tellingly, he is fully aware of how terrible some of the things he’s done over the years are, but never views them as anything other than completely necessary, as he pragmatically states on page 4:

His wasn’t the first life I ever took.  Not the last, neither.  It ain’t that I’m proud of that.  I never took no joy in none of it.  But I won’t apologize none either.  I always just did what I had to do.  If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be where I am right now.  We as a people wouldn’t.

Red Crow’s sentiments here demonstrate one of the character’s key recurring motifs: this struggle between his desire to do great things for his people, and the terrible things required of him to achieve them.  We get a potent sense of the toll this balancing act has taken on Red Crow’s soul with the chapter’s powerful closing image:

Here, we see Red Crow, sat amidst the ruins of his ransacked office with his head in his hands, clinging onto a symbol of his tribal heritage, bloodstains and wreckage all around him, alone.  As such, we get a compelling visualisation of the hell Red Crow has made for himself: the harder he fights to protect his heritage, the more damage he seems to do to it.  The closing words of narration that hang over this stark image – “my dreams might again outnumber my regrets” – summarise the dichotomy discussed above.  Red Crow was once an optimist fighting for a noble cause, but amidst all the murk, the Faustian pacts and the murders, he is left questioning if the means truly do justify the end.

But “Down on the Killin’ Floor” leaves us with some degree of ambiguity over just how altruistic Red Crow’s intentions are.  Has he spent his life striving to make things better for the Oglala Lakota in Prairie Rose, or for himself?  In a conversation with Todd Jigger, the sleazy, corrupt Indian Agent who Red Crow bribed to assist him in the development of his casino, Jigger makes a telling remark:

You know your problem, Chief?  You done spent too long playin’ the part a’ the poor, old pissed-off ‘skin who wouldn’t be caught dead workin’ for the man.  ‘Cause now you are the man, and you don’t know what the hell to do with yourself… You won.  This here’s what you was fightin’ for all that time.  Welcome to the white man’s world.

These words are spoken amidst a scene of excess and decadence, the rich white clientele being plied with drinks and women.  Red Crow has become the very thing he was fighting against: a rich man exploiting Indians for profit.  In the various shots of the Crazy Horse Casino (even the name is offensive, trivialising the memory of the famed Oglala Lakota war leader), the place seems overblown, tacky even.  And in the second page of the chapter, we see that, once away from the cameras and the eyes of the public, he’s aware of how shallow it all is.  Various indicators throughout the chapter suggest that, after all his years of work, the casino is destined to be a flop, and that all the money invested in it could be in danger of going down the drain.  And through it all, we see the locals of the Rez, none the richer, sealed off from the ostensive show of prosperity by wire fencing.  In the end, he might have left them worse off than before.

In spite of all this, however, I do believe that, in his own mind at least, Red Crow genuinely believes he is acting for the greater good, and in the service of the Oglala Lakota.  His development in Casino Boogie confirms to us that he’s more than just a villain.  But at this stage he’s not quite ready to be called a hero.  He’s aware of his failings, where he is going wrong, but is unable or unwilling to do anything about it.  It would take something drastic to stir Red Crow to action.

Dead Mothers seems to mark Red Crow’s moral awakening, the death of Gina Bad Horse proving to be a catalyst that has propelled Red Crow forwards ever since.  Now, I’ve already gushed about this third volume of Scalped at length, so I’ll try to keep this fairly brief.  The primary arc of the “Dead Mothers” storyline is Bad Horse losing himself in the case of the murdered prostitute, in turn delaying having to fully confront the death of his mother.  While Bad Horse is making a great effort to not get involved in Gina’s murder, all around it seems that nobody else is interested in getting to the bottom of the case, as Red Crow states to Falls Down on page 10 of “Dead Mothers, Part 5”:

Nobody else seems to care much about seeing this case get solved.  My advisers tell me to bury it.  Tribal council tell me to find a patsy.  FBI don’t give a shit either way.  Everybody else just figures I killed her myself.

The appraisal is an accurate one.  Throughout the entire storyline, it seems that just about every scene with Red Crow involves some new obstacle thrown up in his way, some other character telling him why he shouldn’t care about seeing Gina’s killer brought to justice.  But despite all this, despite the fact that he might be acting against his own best interests, Red Crow perseveres, and continues to do all he can to find justice for Gina, from reaching out to old enemies the FBI for assistance in the case to giving Falls Down carte blanche to follow all avenues of inquiry to find the killer, no matter “who gets pissed or who gets hurt.”  While every other character – even the sympathetic ones like Bad Horse – is more concerned with their own agendas and obsessions, it is left to the “villain” Red Crow to crusade for what is right.

So, what is it about Gina Bad Horse’s death that triggered this change in Red Crow?  Obviously, the deep personal connection comes into play.  Red Crow loved Gina, and so he wants to do right by her, as well as making whoever killed her pay the price.  But I think there’s also something more than that at work, tying into the history of the Rez and the overarching struggle of the series.  In the flashbacks to 30 years ago, we see that Lincoln Red Crow, Gina Bad Horse, Catcher and Lawrence Belcourt were the central founding members of the Dog Soldier Society.  They tirelessly fought for the rights of the Oglala Lakota of Prairie Rose and indigenous tribes across America.  But with Lawrence in prison, Catcher lost to drink and madness and now Gina dead, Red Crow could see himself as the last one left.  He tells himself he has always been fighting for his people, but at least part of him doubts how in touch with them he has truly remained.  Gina, however, never lost touch.  To the end of her life she was fighting the establishment and campaigning for the rights of her people at a grassroots level.  With her gone, perhaps Red Crow sees the responsibility falling on him to be that leader his people can rally round and look up to.  But he looks at himself, and finds himself wanting in the requirements to fill such a role.  Hence his ongoing struggle to try and be a better person.  That struggle takes centre stage in The Gravel in Your Guts, the fourth volume of Scalped.

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five