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!

30 Character Showcase #8: The Ranger

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

8. THE RANGER

EastofWestRanger1Created by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

It says something about the impression this character left on me that he’s only appeared once, in a single issue of East of West, and that alone was enough to merit his spot on this list.  East of West #6 is a strange issue, in that after we’ve wrapped up the first arc (or at least the first graphic novel’s worth of content) of the series, we get a largely one-in-done issue that doesn’t feature our main character at all, instead beginning with a look at some of the supporting players, before transitioning into the story of a completely new character.

Issue #6 gives us the story of The Ranger.  In what appears to be a recurring theme in the world of East of West, his story is one of heartbreak and loss.  After his wife is murdered by a blatantly guilty culprit in the most open-and-shut case known to man, a corrupt judge finds the defendant not guilty due to a hefty bribe.  And this is one push too far for our Ranger, who snaps, kills the judge and the courtroom attendants, and executes his wife’s killer himself.  This kickstarts an uprising, and a new, relentless form of justice that rises through The Republic of Texas, brutal in its extremes but highly effective.  In a relatively small amount of pages, Hickman crafts a character that plays like a cross between Judge Dredd and The Punisher, and Dragotta gifts him with one of the most distinctive designs of anyone in the East of West universe.  He even has an adorable little robot dog I never noticed on my first reading!  The way The Ranger is realised not only brings him to life, but helps to flesh out the whole mythos of The Republic of Texas as a whole.

Right now, The Ranger exists in isolation from most of the characters in the larger narrative.  But as issue #6 came to end he’d found a thread that could draw him into the fray, and I can’t wait to see how this exciting new presence collides with more established figures in the story.

Now, I could probably go on for another week just gushing about East of West characters, but we need to show some love to other comics creations of 2013.  So, this marks the end of East of West week.  Starting tomorrow, we move onto different comics, and more amazing new characters!

EastofWestRanger3

30 Character Showcase #7: Chamberlain

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

7. CHAMBERLAIN

EastofWestChamberlain1

Created by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Thus far in my extended examination of East of West and its thrilling new character creations, I feel like I’ve largely been engaging in an extended celebration of Nick Dragotta.  Death, the Three Horsemen, Xiaolian, I feel these characters are triumphs of design.  Dragotta has crafted them in a way that they feel instantly iconic, and placed them in the kind of dynamic, dramatic tableaus that linger in the memory and make their respective presences reverberate off the page.  For all his excellent dialogue Hickman has gifted him, when I think of Death in East of West, I think in images: walking away from the headless corpse of the President, his back to us, calmly replacing his hat, at the end of issue #1, or riding on his mechanical horse cannon, a pack of wolves walking beside him and a murder of crows flying over him, at the conclusion of issue #5.  But Chamberlain is a creation who is almost entirely a triumph of Hickman’s writing.  Save for some truly spectacular facial plumage in the form of the pointiest beard known to man, Dragotta doesn’t have much to work with in terms of his visuals: he’s a regular old man in a suit who spends most of his time sitting down, smoking cigars.  But what he does do is talk, and Hickman has him talk beautifully.

In the 7 nations that America is divided into, Andrew Archibald Chamberlain is the Chief of Staff of the Black Tower, opposite number to the White Tower, marking him out as head of the Confederacy.  We’re first introduced to him amidst all the other leaders making their respective greetings to the incoming President in issue #2, and he initially seems like one of the least interesting.  But it’s him we linger with as he departs the meeting and heads back to the Black Tower, and it’s there he meets with Death.  Given how Death’s visit to the White Tower in the previous issue went, I think we could be forgiven in assuming that this scene will result in Chamberlain meeting a similar fate to his opposite number.  But instead, Chamberlain talks his way out of it.

In this verbal duel with Death, Chamberlain reveals a greater complexity than what was initially apparent.  He may not the ardent believer in The Message – the prophecy each leader is charged to help bring to pass – that he publicly claims to be, enjoying the fleeting pleasures of the power afforded to him to desire the end of the world anytime soon.  He’s a snake, utterly self-serving, but in that selfishness his goals may align more closely with Death than with his fellow advocates of The Message.  I say “may” a lot here, as Chamberlain has already revealed himself to be such an effortless liar that we don’t know exactly what kind of con he’s pulling and who he’s lying to.  The one thing that’s clear is that his only true ally is himself, as indicated by him throwing apparent kindred spirit Bel Solomon under the bus the moment their partnership threatens to inconvenience him in issue #6.

It’s hard to determine whether we can really call the magnificent bastard likeable or not, but it’s undeniable he has a sense of charisma to him.  His extended monologues have a certain philosophical, pragmatic charm to them, which at times seems to almost win over even those intent on killing him.  So, what is Chamberlain destined to be in the grand scheme of things: deeply flawed good guy or oddly endearing bad guy?  A bit of both?  Like so many things in East of West, that is, for now, a mystery.

EastofWestChamberlain2

30 Character Showcase #6: Xiaolian

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

6. XIAOLIAN

EastofWestXiaolian1Created by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Here’s a case of a character that took me by surprise.  With the previous entries of this special week-long look at East of West – Death and the other Three Horsemen – they made an immediate impact as striking, powerful characters.  With the way Xiaolian was first introduced in issue #2 of the series – in shackles, as seen above, with a surprise reveal that Death had a wife and though he thought her dead she was in fact alive – there might have been concern that she would not be a character of agency.  The “damsel in distress” is of course a common trope in fiction, and so when a female character is first introduced like this, I feared that she would just be a princess in a castle, a largely abstract object whose rescue would become Death’s long-term goal fuelling him throughout the series.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Far from being a long-term goal, her freedom is secured within another 2 issues.  And rather than waiting passively to be saved, she plays an active role in securing that freedom: it is her, not Death, who slays her father and sister that rule the House of Mao and have kept her prisoner for 10 years.  Xiaolian is revealed to be a strong, nuanced character with a compelling backstory in her own right.  She is revealed to be a formidable warrior, someone convincingly capable of taming the heart of Death.  And while the narrative of Death’s betrayal is almost entirely a mystery at this stage, we’ve had a more substantial look at the agonising cost inflicted on Xiaolian in this time, witnessing her being betrayed by her sister, fighting but inevitably falling to the combined might of the Three Horsemen, losing her hands, and having to watch on helplessly as her infant son is seemingly killed.  But this is no “woman in refrigerator” scenario where a female character suffers solely to motivate a male character.  It motivates Xiaolian, and we can see how it has changed her, and we witness her begin to enact a revenge of her own.

Xiaolian benefits from a cracking design by Nick Dragotta, too.  In the divided alternate America of East of West, thus far I’d argue it’s the Chinese-populated People’s Republic that Dragotta has brought to life most evocatively, with reimagined American landmarks and the mecha-styled outfits of the armies.  Xiaolian benefits from this aesthetic, while also emerging as distinctive in her own right, thanks largely to her cybernetic prosthetic hands.

In our most recent sighting of Xiaolian, her circumstances have changed substantially, with her repositioned as Premiere of the House of Mao and of the PRA, leader of a vast army, and primed to go to war with the other 6 nations of America.  She’s arguably the most powerful mortal player in the grand East of West tapestry, and seen as a formidable threat by many other characters in the ensemble.  Any worries about her being a background player were utterly unfounded, as she is now one of the prime movers-and-shakers of the whole narrative.  But what really earns her place on this list is that she is, in my opinion, the most fully-realised character in East of West, arguably the heart of the whole story.

EastofWestXiaolian2

30 Characters Showcase #5: The Three Horsemen

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

5. THE THREE HORSEMEN

EastofWestHorsemen2

Created by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Okay, I don’t know if this entry is kinda cheating, since it’s three characters for the price of one.  But really, these three come as a set – War is arguably the most prominent of the trio, but I can’t recall any scene with one where the other two don’t also show up – so I’m including them all as a single entry.  In this week’s extended showcase of the excellent new characters introduced to the world in East of West, I began yesterday with Death, and so it feels natural to now pass on the spotlight to the remainder of the Four Horsemen: War, Conquest and Famine.

East of West #1 begins with them being reborn in the form of children, and we quickly learn that their return has dire implications for the world.  It’s funny, after introducing us to an utterly adorable cast of kiddies in FF, Jonathan Hickman can turn around and give us the most utterly vile, horrific children seen since King Joffrey.  In a world filled with moral murk and dangerous people, these little terrors – not even yet matured into their adult form and their full power – are already undoubtedly the Big Bads, casually massacring enough people to leave literal hills of corpses in their wake in issue #1, wiping out half the US Government in issue #2.  Where they go, bad things happen, and their presence brings with it an involuntary sphincter-tightening of the reader bracing themselves for the worst.  And their badness is hardly new, with flashbacks hinting at betrayal and maiming of our protagonists in times gone by while not yet going into the specifics: cryptic snippets of a terrible past reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in the West, with Hickman and Dragotta very much casting War, Conquest and Famine in the Henry Fonda role.

I also like how, despite how despicable and intimidating the Three Horsemen are, Hickman finds a way to make them blackly funny.  I’ve probably laughed at least once in just about every appearance they’ve made.  Or maybe that’s just because I’m a sick puppy.

Going forward, I’m keen to learn more about these villains individually.  So far, we know that War is the apparent ringleader, that he relished being a woman for centuries until this recent rebirth has left him unwillingly gender-switched into a boy.  We know that Famine is very visually striking, a skeletally gaunt woman with weapons that resemble a pair of whips.  Conquest is the least distinct thus far, though I noted that he seems more visually striking in his briefly-glimpsed adult form from the flashbacks.  But I see that there’s a spotlight issue on the Horsemen coming up, so hopefully that will give us a fuller portrait.

EastofWestHorsemen1

30 Character Showcase #4: Death

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

4. DEATH

EastofWestDeath1a

Created by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

From Monday-Friday this week the 30 Character Showcase will take an extended look at some of the many excellent new characters introduced in East of West, the epic new Image sci-fi/Western mashup from writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta.  It is arguably the best comic series to launch this year, and has quickly established itself as one of the very best titles on shelves today.  In my opinion, a big part of that is down to the characters, with Hickman and Dragotta populating their alternate-history America with a wealth of wonderfully-realised characters, with engaging personalities and distinctive designs.

And at the centre of it all, perhaps the most engaging and distinctive of all the figures within the ever-growing East of West ensemble: Death.  6 issues in, and there’s still a great deal we don’t know about how this incarnation of the Four Horsemen fits into the world around them, how exactly Death came to be divided from his brethren, and why they portrayed him.  Or why he seems to have changed colour from black-skinned to a solid white – a veritable “pale rider” – since that betrayal.  But though a lot of mystery surrounds death, he is nonetheless a commanding presence cutting a bloody path through the world of East of West in his quest for vengeance on those who wronged him.

Right from his first appearance, he makes his impression, entering the saloon with an instantly-iconic first line of “And so I have arrived,” and from there quickly introducing his now-familiar Highly Intimidating Monologue.  Hickman gives Death a way with words that utterly hammers home his gravitas and the idea that he’s the scariest man in any room he walks into.  And while his followers Crow and Wolf aren’t featured individually in this 30 Character Showcase, they work incredibly well as an extension of Death’s presence on their page, their sparse, iconic designs suitably complimenting Death’s.

In the issue where he first appears, Death murders the President of the United States, which is a hell of a way to make a first impression.  But from there, he just keeps revealing more and more and becoming all the more compelling.  Take, for example, his means of transportation, as seen above.  In its first appearance, it appears to be a futuristic space-pod, something which presumably runs like a high-tech floating motorcycle.  But once he sits on it, it grows legs and turns into a kind of robo-horse.  That alone would make it incredibly badass.  But then in issue #4 it is also revealed that it has a massive cannon capable of wiping out whole batallions of opponents with each blast.  Issue #4 in general is a simply epic showcase for Death’s power and badass credentials.  But in issue #5 we get a glimpse of a different, more vulnerable side to our stone-cold protagonist, as his tragic love story with Xiaolian is further explored.  It’s an added dimension that gives him more nuance than just being an implacable force of nature.

There’s so much more to discover about Death and his shady history.  Chief on the list is how someone so seemingly unstoppable was laid so low.  And you can be damn sure I’ll be avidly reading each upcoming issue of East of West to find out more, and to see just what he’s going to do next!

EastofWestDeath2

REVIEW: The Manhattan Projects #12

People will often talk about The Walking Dead – or, more recently, Saga – as the harshest, most ruthless comic on the shelves, refusing to pull punches with how they put their characters through the wringer.  But surely, surely, The Manhattan Projects must also be ranked right up there in any discussion of such qualities.  This book is fucking brutal!  Especially when you consider that here, the unrelenting cruelty certain characters are subjected to is at least partially played for laughs.  But in my review of The Manhattan Projects #11 last month, I praised Jonathan Hickman for shifting from the gleeful heartlessness that had populated much of the book’s run to give us a disarmingly poignant, moving little story of a most unlikely of friendships, two outsiders finding kindred spirits in each other.  Perhaps Hickman wasn’t such a callous monster after all?

Oh, how wrong I was.

After a mere page, the warm and fuzzy rug we were given in the previous chapter is pulled out from under us.  While last issue focused on the lonely life of Harry Daghlian, this chapter is a character study of Enrico Fermi.  Fermi has long remained one of the more mysterious members of the cast, with the most we’ve gleaned from him previously being that he’s “not human.”  We were first told that in the delightful little character profiles in the monthly backmatter – unforgivably absent this issue, boo! – and saw it for ourselves when Fermi turned into his true alien form and ripped some bad guys to shreds several issues back.  But here, we learn Fermi’s true nature, and the way this sheds startling new light not only on his character, but on the larger narrative of the series up until this point makes for exhilarating reading, and testament to Hickman’s skill in crafting labyrinthine, multi-layered plots that really pay off in the long run and reward continued investment from patient readers.

Fermi as characterised here alternates between monstrous and oddly sympathetic, with a few moments that skillfully navigate that horrifying/darkly hilarious balance mentioned above.  But though the ostensive spotlight is on Fermi (the awesome alien-themed cover and the title of “The Fermi Paradox” would suggest as much), for me it is Harry Daghlian who continues to shine here.  Indeed, this issue very much works as a pair with the previous one.  In an ensemble cast full of characters who are horrible or at least amoral, Daghlian serves as the beating heart of the ensemble.  Ironic, considering he’s the one guy on the team who has no physical heart.  But he wears his hypothetical heart on his sleeve, and that emotional quality makes him a relatable figure in contrast to the cold, clinical personalities that surround him, in spite of his ghoulish appearance.  A great little line Hickman throws in for Daghlian is, “You know you can’t physically hurt me.”  The word “physically” is key, here, as of course emotionally, Daghlian is deeply wounded as he says this.

Visually, this issue is just a delight.  Nick Pitarra has the chance to draw some of the craziest, most out-there stuff of the series thus far, here, and he knocks each sequence out of the park.  There’s a massive fight scene involving most of the team, which Pitarra excels at depicting.  For a book often credited for its big ideas, it should be acknowledged that Pitarra really knows how to cleverly frame some action-packed sequences when called upon to do so.  Daghlian and Fermi in his alien form are two of the most visually interesting figures in the comic, and here they get to interact quite a bit.  We also have cute baby birdsnakes, the ethereal image of Daghlian floating through space, and chainsaw-wielding Einstein.  Chainsaw.  Wielding.  Einstein!

And despite what I talked about regarding the mile-wide mean streak of The Manhattan Projects, Pitarra shows commendable skill in really drawing out human emotion, especially from non-human faces.  In spite of the brutality and the “Ha!  Gotcha!” reversal of the touching previous chapter, there is still a sense of tragedy and battered humanity to be gleaned from happenings in this issue amidst the grim hilarity of it all, and those moments hit home so well largely due to the contribution of Pitarra.

I mention the impact of the coloring on The Manhattan Projects perhaps more frequently than any other comic I review, and with good reason, as Jordie Bellaire continues to strike.  Mentioning the brilliance of the blue/red sequences is pretty old hat by now, so I want to touch on all the lovely green hues that spring up here: Fermi, Daghlian, the cold expanse of the moon.  Top notch work.

And since I’ve mentioned everyone else on the creative team, I must also give credit to letterer Rus Wooton here.  There is one incredibly tricky sequence here where one conversation has an entirely different conversation superimposed over it, but it has to be done in a way to let certain exchanges from the base conversation have connotations that impact on the additional dialogue operating on a higher level.  Even describing it to a letterer must have made it sound like a nightmare, but Wooton pulls it off with pinache, navigating these difficult waters and never making the pages feel cluttered in spite of the onslaught of information being thrown at the reader.

The Manhattan Projects has always been good, boasting big ideas and a fascinating cast of oddball characters from the very beginning, but since issue #8 I’d argue the series has upped its game to a whole new level, with an unbroken chain of 5-star masterpieces.  With this insanely high standard, The Manhattan Projects is beginning to challenge even the mighty Saga as the most consistently awesome comic currently in the market.

ManhattanProjects12The Manhattan Projects #12 is on-sale now in all good comic shops.

REVIEW: The Manhattan Projects #11

It’s a strange thing to say, but The Manhattan Projects could very well be the best team book in the comic market today.  Better than Justice League, better than The Avengers, better even than Wolverine and the X-Men, this oddball group of 1940s-era scientists has pulled off that dynamic of balancing a large ensemble cast and making them all cool and compelling with more pinache than anything in the superhero genre to which the “team book” moniker is normally associated.  The whole concept of scientific figures from history reimagined with a liberal helping of “artistic license” and put together in an Expendables style dream team is a high concept that always draws a smile, but as the series’ third major arc kicks in, the team network is now well established, and the seeds are sown to demonstrate this is a world with the legs to sustain a lengthy run.

The focus of this particular issue is Harry Daghlian, also known as “skull face in a hazmat suit.”  Funnily enough, not too long ago, a Facebook fan page opened up for The Manhattan Projects, I noticed that the majority of the fanart was for ol’ Harry, and remarked that it really was time we learned more about his character.  Of course, I know that in real life Harry Daghlian was the first person to be killed by radiation poisoning during his work for the actual Manhattan Projects.  But I – and judging by the fanart, many others –  was intrigued to learn how that would be reintrepreted by Jonathan Hickman for this alternate super-science universe.  What we get is a tragic tale of isolation, a powerful examination of “love” and “fear” as the two constants in life, and a heartwarming depiction of a most unorthodox of friendships.

Even as a big fan of The Manhattan Projects, I would have to acknowledge that, though it is a series brimming with intelligence and big ideas, it did little to engage emotion, outside of the rather frequent tickling of the funny bone.  Appropriately enough for a book about scientists, it encouraged more of a detached admiration of its technical mastery than really making you care deeply about its protagonists on a human level.  But here, oddly enough, the most externally monstrous of the core group is revealed as the most poignantly human.  There’s a real sadness to the character and his grim fate, from the obvious flourishes of “I just wanted some ice cream” to the subtler touches such as his numerous paintings of flowers – items which would now wither and die before he could get close to them in person.  This issue also works as a great showcase for Enrico Fermi, a character who up until now hasn’t done much of note outside of turning into an alien badass killing machine a few issues back, but who here shows admirable compassion in his relationship with Daghlian.

Not that this issue is all character study.  The plot takes great strides forward too, as the series settles into its fresh status quo following the climactic happenings of the spectacular issue #9.  The Manhattan Projects is a much bigger operation now, burdened with the enviable problem of having accomplished all its goals, and needing to come up with new ones.  Joseph Oppenheimer presents some hugely ambitious proposals that give us something of a framework of what to expect from the series moving forward.  It should be highly exciting!

Hickman is doing some highly impressive work here, but let’s not forget the incredible contribution made by artist Nick Pitarra.  Last issue saw him replaced by fill-in artist Ryan Browne, who did a commendable job of capturing the spirit of Pitarra’s work on the book.  But here, the regular artist makes a welcome return, and the issue is stuffed with visual delights that demonstrate the unique quality Pitarra brings to the series.  A big part of the success in rendering Daghlian so sympathetic in this issue comes from Pitarra’s ability to imbue this ostensibly inhuman presence with so much relatably human body language, managing to somehow channel expression and emotion into a jawless skull.  The splash page of Daghlian’s irradiation is a stunner, the kind of instantly iconic tableau you want to tear out of your comic and hang up on your wall.  The realisation of the team’s new base of operations is also a delight: I won’t give it away, but I will say it has “quite a view.”  Also worthy of note is the visual symmetry in the past and present sequences that close the book, though I’m sure Pitarra and Hickman must share the credit for the realisation of that particular story beat.  The visuals are rounded out by the colors of Jordie Bellaire, who continues to make striking use of that stark red/blue pallette at key moments.

In my gushing praise of Saga, it feels shamefully dismissive to talk about The Manhattan Projects as “the OTHER breakout Image comic of 2012” or “the second best comic on shelves right now.”  But I feel like I really ought to give it more recognition, as it has remained a consistently excellent comic since its debut, and one that seems to get more refined with each passing issue.  I’ve gotten used to saying “It’s Jonathan Hickman’s best work since The Nightly News,” but the longer the series maintains this level of quality, the less certain I become about even that caveat at the end.  In a storied career that has seen Hickman do some acclaimed work on some iconic franchises, comics history may yet remember his work on The Manhattan Projects most fondly of all.  And in Nick Pitarra, he has the perfect collaborator.  Pitarra is doing star-making work here, and has quickly been elevated to one of my favourite artists.  The Manhattan Projects #11 suggests that there’s enough steam in this narrative to sustain this comic for a long time yet.  Let’s hope that is indeed the case.

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The Manhattan Projects #11 is in all good comic shops now.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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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