My Top Twenty Comics of 2013

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

 

20. SWAMP THING

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

 

19. CHEW

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

18. STRANGE ATTRACTORS

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

 

17. SHELTERED

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

 

16. GHOSTED

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

 

15. INFINITY

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

 

14. THE WALKING DEAD

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

 

13. FATALE

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

 

12. ZERO

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

 

11. DUNGEON FUN

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

 

10. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

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

 

9. FIVE GHOSTS

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

 

8. THE PRIVATE EYE

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

 

7. NOWHERE MEN

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

 

6. SEX CRIMINALS

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

 

5. BATMAN

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

 

4. SAGA

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

 

3. THE WAKE

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

 

2. EAST OF WEST

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

 

1.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

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

 

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

 

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

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

2010: Scalped

2011: Scalped

2012: The Underwater Welder

2013: The Manhattan Projects

 

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

REVIEW: The Walking Dead #78

It’s nice that, on the month that the eagerly-anticipated TV adaptation makes its American debut, the comic is still firing on all cylinders, with The Walking Dead #78 proving to be another great instalment. While I’ve found plenty to enjoy throughout this arc, those left wanting more action and zombies will be very happy with the direction taken in this particular issue, which offered quite a few exciting moments.

First, a few words about the cover. Throughout its run, it has been common for The Walking Dead to have misleading covers. But it’s a lot rarer for the cover to feature an outright lie, as was the case here. On the cover we see Andrea and Tobin locking lips, but no such event takes place within the comic itself, and though Andrea does play a significant role in the issue, it’s as a largely off-panel presence. I can’t help but think Andrea starting a relationship with Tobin was a plot thread that was nixed at the 11th hour, at a point where it was too late to change the cover.

But enough about what wasn’t in the issue – let’s take a look at what was. If Kirkman gave his issues titles, surely the title for this issue could have been “How Rick Grimes Got His Groove Back.” Rick was front-and-centre here pretty much throughout, and while merely a couple of issues ago I was talking about Rick losing his grip on everything around him – including his leadership status – here we see Rick taking control of situation after situation. It’s telling that, even as the herd of zombies close in on the community, the issue’s closing sequence instead focused on the equally climactic plot thread of Douglas handing over leadership of Alexandria to Rick. For months now we’ve been speculating on the direction the Douglas/Rick relationship could take, made guesses of the various ways Rick could become the new leader of the community, but I think few of us guessed that Douglas would simply give the role up. But while the way it happened may have surprised, I think most of us saw Rick’s ascension to this position of authority as inevitable. In every status quo the group enter into, Rick always ends up the leader eventually, one way or another. And despite his protestations and claims that he has no desire to be a leader, the look of grim satisfaction on his face in the issue’s closing panel shows that Rick too knows deep down that he is destined for leadership in this apocalyptic world.

As mentioned above, the issue is filled with moments of Rick taking control, setting the stage for this final taking of control at the issue’s close. The first test comes at the beginning of the comic, in the immediate aftermath of his execution of Pete last issue. Here, we see him reclaiming his official role as sheriff of the community, taking on the duties of sealing off a crime scene and calming the public that might be expected of a police officer in the regular world. In doing this, he is demonstrating to the community that he isn’t just some psycho who’s going to bring the law of the jungle into their home, but is in fact qualified to handle the job he’s been given. An important step to undoing the pariah status he had been granted by issue #76.

Appropriately, then, in his next scene on the very next page, the bandages covering his face – which in my review of #76 I highlighted as clear visual markers of him as a dangerous outsider, like the scarlet letter or the mark of the leper – are all gone. This test proves to be a more challenging one: comforting the widow of the man he executed. While his actions in the previous scene were likely for the benefit of the community, I got the sense Rick was doing this for himself. When he says, “I’m sorry, Jessie. I’m so sorry,” the double meaning is clear. Witnessing Jessie’s grief prompts Rick to go to bat for her against Douglas and arrange for Pete to be included in the funeral, and Douglas giving in to Rick’s argument foreshadows his later relinquishing of authority.

Next up was the funeral for the trio of characters who shuffled off their mortal coils in the previous issue, which served to show Rick transition from becoming part of the community once more to standing out as a leader of it, as he addresses the congregation at the church with one of his “state of humanity” monologues that he gets to roll out at various stages of the series. Here – ostensibly talking about Pete but alluding to his own experiences – he questions whether it is the good man of the normal world that is the real person, or the bad one that the adversity of this new world has brought out. In trying to excuse Pete’s breakdown, it seems Rick is attempting to justify his own actions. Also, I loved the little look of disgust on Gabriel’s face as he has to hand over his pulpit to Rick – who not too long ago he tried to get thrown out of the community.

But the centrepiece of the issue was undoubtedly the confrontation between the community and the outsiders. And while most of the actual combat took place off-panel, the showdown we did get to see was between their leader and Rick. And man – how awesome was this? Seeing Rick totally no-sell the leader’s crude attempts at being menacing demonstrates just how far the group has come and how much they’ve already experienced. It used to be said about this series that the zombies weren’t even really the threat anymore, that it was other humans our protagonists had to be worried about. But recently, Kirkman has been turning that theory on its head. He started playing with it in the Fear the Hunters arc, where the much-hyped hunters turned out to be hopelessly outmatched and (pardon the pun) bit off more than they could chew by going up against our survivors. But with this issue Kirkman hammers home the idea, with the group of outsiders introduced and summarily dispatched, seemingly without our heroes breaking a sweat. Adlard helps here too: the body disposal that was in Fear the Hunters presented as a series of dramatic, powerful full-page splashes is here presented in truncated form as a couple of throwaway panels, reiterating how routine this is becoming for Rick and co. The message is now clear: other humans are no longer the threat because there is no human group out there that can match our survivors in sheer savagery – they’re the group other people need to be afraid of now – and if you fuck with Team Grimes, you’re going to end up as human firewood.

But as the issue draws to a close, and we gear up to begin the next big arc – No Way Out – we see the shift taking place. As the two factions of the living shoot holes into each other over their petty squabbles, the dead are drawn by the sounds of the gunfire. The herd is coming, and after all these months of wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, it seems that now Kirkman is ready to show us that yes, the true threat in this world most certainly remains the zombies. The danger lies in forgetting about them, a lesson our survivors are about to learn, likely at some cost.

REVIEW: The Walking Dead #77

Once again, the rug is pulled out from under our feet. With the ending of the last issue, I think we all had an idea in our heads about how The Walking Dead #77 was likely to start. We probably expected Carl to be furious, to call his dad crazy, and to further lose faith in him. And yes, to an extent that does happen. But our road to that point was a little different than expected. How heartbreaking was it to see a tearful Carl hear that his father likes to think he can hear his dead mother talk to him over the phone, and ask in response, “Can I listen?”

And really, perhaps this was the response we should have seen coming. We might like to think of Carl as a badass, crazy killer, but he’s ultimately still just a child, and his dad is still his world to him. When he hears his father talking like this, of course his first response is to want it to be true. He wants to talk to his mother too, of course he does. When Carl does lash out at Rick, it isn’t so much about the fact that “this is weird”, as he says, but out of disappointment and hurt that it’s not true, that he can’t hear Lori on the other end of the phone. On a final little note about this scene, did anyone else notice that both Rick and Carl are wearing the same multi-pocketed flak jacket that The Governor had a fondness for wearing?

Elsewhere, we had Andrea’s awkward flirtation with the inexplicably creepy Spencer. Andrea is an interesting place right now, as we see how life in the community is affecting her. Placed in a situation with some degree of normalcy (however fragile it may be, as Douglas points out later) restored, Andrea finds herself in a struggle. She is torn between the mature, battle-forged woman she has grown into over the course of this saga, and the breezy, free-spirited girl she was when this whole thing started. Andrea is only in her mid twenties, but already she has experienced, in a sense, the pain of her (surrogate) children being killed, and the bereavement of her (surrogate) husband dying. She’s already a “widow”, and has already seen and even committed terrible horrors. But here she is, safe (for now), with a nice young boy wanting to cook her dinner and kiss her. We see over the course of Andrea’s scenes an earnest attempt to recapture that person she was before her world was destroyed (tellingly, she has discarded Dale’s hat, which she has been wearing since his death) but ultimately she can’t follow through with it. She has been changed too much to pretend, even for a night, that none of it happened.

This idea of how experiences change people also plays into the “cover story” of the issue, the scene with Glenn and Maggie. I’ve been thinking a little about the character of Glenn, what he brings to the table. He’s one of the few remaining members of the cast who have been around since the very beginning, after all. It has occurred to me that, amidst the ever shifting and evolving ensemble of The Walking Dead, Glenn could be the one true constant. He’s had traumatic experiences and lost people he cared about, just like the other survivors, but unlike them he hasn’t really let it change him. Different haircuts aside, Glenn is pretty much the same guy now as he was when he first showed up in issue #2. His situation may have changed – now he’s a husband and adopted father – but he hasn’t. He’s still a much-needed source of levity amongst the grim proceedings, is still brave enough to go out foraging for the group, and still loves Maggie. In a sense, he’s a significant counterpoint to the likes of Rick, demonstrating that people can live in this nightmarish world and not let it change them, and in turn suggesting that maybe that darkness was already in Rick, and wasn’t in Glenn.

The conflict with Maggie here stems from the fact that Maggie has changed. Understandable, as she has lost a lot more than Glenn – she’s lost her whole family, watching most of them die before her very eyes. She even attempted suicide. Glenn is busy arguing over the kind of things he’d likely be arguing about if the world hadn’t been overrun by zombies – “I don’t even remember the last time we had sex.” But the rift between them has come from the fact that Maggie is in a place, mentally, where she can’t approach this as just a normal relationship, she can’t look at Glenn without being reminded of all the agony they’ve endured together, all the terrible things he’s seen her through. Glenn tells Maggie, “I feel like I’m on the outside of this relationship looking in.” And of course, when we look at this issue’s cover, that’s exactly what it is depicting. But Glenn makes it clear that though she may have changed, his love for her hasn’t, again demonstrating his consistent nature. Glenn better watch out though. As last demonstrated by Dale’s demise, those still immersed in the old world, those who haven’t changed to adapt to the new world, are often the ones most at risk of being killed off in the world of The Walking Dead.

But the real meat of the issue came with the conclusion, as this arc with abusive husband Pete came to a head. We got a sense of where things were going pretty early on in the issue, as we witness Pete going nutso (“NOT MY HOUSE!”) and casting his gaze over to a set of knives on the table. But I was shocked by just how far things went, and how quickly. As this was essentially Rick VS Pete: Round 2, it’s fair to look at this confrontation as a parallel to their previous one. Seeing things escalate – one threatens to kill the other, Douglas attempts to intervene, the one making the threat pulls out a weapon – it’s unnerving to think just how easy Rick could have ended up like Pete does here, how thin the line between the two really is. A fact further emphasised by Pete’s face being covered in bandages – just like Rick’s.

And let’s talk about the way this scene ends up: with Rick shooting Pete. Here’s what I find fascinating about this. Many of us were guessing that Scott would die and come back as a zombie, that it would be Heath’s inability to put a bullet in his friend’s head that would be that first chink in the community’s armour through which everything would fall apart. But no, this whole subplot turned out to be a red herring. Heath did what he was supposed to do, hard for him as it was. The mistake, the action that will ultimately doom the community, came not from one of the newbies, but from Rick himself. His gunshot has alerted the zombies in the surrounding area, and attracted the attention of this violent gang. After a couple of issues of debating over whether executing someone would destroy the community – in a moral sense – it turns out that it may end up destroying the community in an actual, physical, “zombies are going to tear this place apart” sense.

Not that Rick alone is at fault. Douglas too must shoulder some of the blame. After all, it is him that gives the order for Rick to shoot. He spends the issue trying to keep death away from Alexandria – he wants Scott’s body to be taken away from the houses before they put a hole through his head to stop him coming back, and he doesn’t want to hold a funeral service because of how upsetting it would be to the people living there. But ultimately, when his own wife is killed, he falls short of these lofty ideals and gives into human frailty, wanting that death avenged with blood.

We’re now seeing another shift in the series. Over the past several months, we’ve had slow-boil tension, the sense of something awful approaching, without us knowing exactly what, when or how. But The Walking Dead #77 is the first issue to be released since these “No Way Out” teasers began. Now we know the what – a herd of zombies are going to lay siege to Alexandria. We know the when – December, The Walking Dead #80. And now the how is starting to take shape. Now we get a palpable sense of the noose tightening around the necks of our characters, around the new life they’ve salvaged for themselves. This is going to be hard to read, but it’s undoubtedly going to be compelling.

REVIEW: The Walking Dead #76

I’ve seen a few people unhappy with The Walking Dead #76, saying it’s a cop-out. Their stance seems to be that, after months of tension bubbling up, it was all coming to a head at the end of #75, with Rick in apparent dire straits. But here, with this issue, everything resolved itself too neatly. Rick was not punished in any way by Douglas, and was allowed to keep his job as sheriff. And beyond Rick’s dilemma, you had Glenn and Heath both arriving back in town safely. The complaint I’ve read is that everything has been resolved nice and neatly, with no one having to suffer from the consequences of their actions.

I think this is an understandable stance to take, and I can see where the people that say this are coming from. But I don’t agree. I think by taking a closer read, you’ll see it only appears on the surface as if everyone has got off scot-free. But look deeper, and there are consequences alright.

Yes, Glenn and Heath made it back safely. But the potentially dangerous gang are aware of them, and could have followed them right to the gates of the community. And we don’t know if Heath will be too late in getting the medication to his friend. So I’d say this particular story strand is far from tied up in a neat bow.

And then there are the consequences that Rick must face. Yes, he has retained his place within the community – he hasn’t been cast out, or locked up as a prisoner, or executed for his crimes. And if anything this incident has improved his relationship with Douglas – more on that later. It might appear like Rick got away with his grave misconduct at the conclusion of the last issue. But page 19 sums up for me exactly why this is not the case.

Every panel of this page says something about Rick’s character, and the impact his rash actions have had on him and his standing within the ensemble. So let’s look through the page panel by panel, shall we?

At first, it might not seem like the first panel is doing anything other than establishing setting. But Charlie Adlard makes sure to throw in the small detail of Rick clutching his shoulder. Why is this significant? It shows Rick is still in pain. He is not a superhero, he is not Jack Bauer. He is an ordinary small town cop and, let’s face it, a cripple. When he gets into a fistfight with somebody and ends up flying through a glass window, it’s going to take a toll on his body. Briefly acknowledging the physical repercussions of Rick’s actions sets the stage to then explore the deeper repercussions in the panels that follow.

With panel 2, we are introduced to the ladies that are watching him. Here we see them in the background, but the focus of the image is Rick himself in the foreground. Look at him, cast into shadow, his face covered in banadages. He looks quite menacing, doesn’t he? This gives us a glimpse of Rick as much of the community must see him. Think of it from their perspective: they don’t know Rick, or the various heroic deeds he’s done to protect the other survivors in his group. All they know is that a new arrival has come into the town, and before long was assaulting the local doctor and pointing a gun at their leader, Douglas. And now he’s walking around town looking like Marv from Sin City. It’s understandable that they must think he’s a thug, or a psycho. The way he’s drawn here presents him as a stranger, someone who does not belong.

Panel 3 confirms these judgements by showing us clearly what these two women think of Rick when looking at him, their views serving as an embodiment of the community as a whole. The woman in front looks afraid, while the woman behind looks angry and suspicious. And this is where I don’t buy the conclusion that Rick got away clean with his breakdown last issue and that he doesn’t have to face any consequences. It doesn’t matter if Douglas gives him the full pardon. It wouldn’t matter if Douglas himself made a public announcement to the whole community that Rick is a great guy and is to be trusted implicitly. You can’t undo a thought once it’s been planted there. And so even if Rick were to go by for months and months without setting a single foot wrong, it’s his one moment of public madness that will now be how he is defined, how these people will view him. And as the plot develops, the loss of the community’s trust could prove to be a pretty hefty consequence.

Panel 4 appears to just be a transitional panel, but in fact subtly sets out a number of important dynamics. First, you have the small but crucial detail that Rick is looking over his shoulder, presumably at the women. Why is this crucial? Because it shows that not only are people afraid and suspicious of Rick, but he’s aware that they are afraid and suspicious of him. The ladies being off-panel here, and Michonne being a distant outline, also serves to emphasize that Rick has found himself in a place where he now belongs to neither group, not to the community he’s joined or the survivors he came here with. Also, more obviously, the placement of Michonne in his path foreshadows the brewing adversarial relationship between them.

Panel 5 is the big moment of the page, and represents something of a turning point. It is the final score underlining the demise of the relationship between Rick and Michonne as it has stood up until this point. Michonne was, perhaps more than anyone else amongst the remaining survivors, Rick’s confidant. He could share with her details that he couldn’t share with anyone else, such as the fact that he talks to Lori through his phone. Michonne talks to her dead boyfriend too, they had that in common. More than just that, though, Michonne was Rick’s level head, the person he could turn to in moments of weakness for guidance or just a second opinion. And in a conflict, she was someone who could always be counted on to back Rick up. She really was his deputy. But here, Rick allows himself to relax in front of Michonne, talks about how he can’t sleep, but Michonne isn’t interested in sharing anymore. She just cuts him off and tells him to fix whatever’s wrong with himself. Some people gave Michonne a hard time for her “betrayal” at the end of the last issue, but I think the subsequent explanation in this issue showed she was acting in Rick’s interests, to save him from himself. But now, it seems, she’s done. She’s not going to help him anymore. She’s ditched her sword, she’s made an effort to change. And Rick’s inability to do so is obviously making her furious.

Rick’s reaction to this on panel 6 is just as important. It isn’t anger, disappointment or guilt, it’s pure shock and horror. Why does Michonne cutting him off have such an impact on him? Think about how they confided in each other. They both shared stories of talking to dead loved ones. With that bond with Michonne, Rick could tell himself that no, he’s not going crazy. Michonne is in the same boat! If they’re both experiencing it, surely it’s just a natural human expression of grief, right? But if Michonne is now keeping her distance, if she is going to the others and telling them that she thinks “Rick might have lost it”, then that has serious implications for Rick and his sense of self. Could he be slipping past that territory of understandable grief into dangerous regions of mental instability?

The final consequence of Rick’s actions at the end of #75 are laid out in panel 7, the last panel of the page. Michonne’s placement in the panel features her far more prominently than Rick. And she’s giving him an order. Combined, I think this is reflective of Rick’s subjugation in the group pecking order, his leadership status now at risk. Rick has repeatedly said throughout the series (and says it again in this issue) that he never wanted to be leader, but I don’t think that’s true. Whether it’s conscious or not, I think being leader is very important to Rick. Not out of being hungry for power or anything, but because having people defer to him, depend on him, is part of what keeps Rick sane, part of what keeps him moving forward. It gives him a place in this grim new world he’s woken up into. Even at times when he had stood back out of that authority role and let others make the decisions, people were still looking to him for answers, they still trusted him. But now, by pulling a gun on Douglas he has done something absolutely wrong, something that put him and potentially the whole group at risk for no really good reason. All of a sudden he’s in a position where his judgement can’t be trusted, where people can’t depend on him. Perhaps Michonne will now be required to step up and fill that void (note how she promptly goes and does what Rick spectacularly failed to do – resolves the situation with Pete and Jessie, a firm hand on Pete’s shoulder being all she needs to convince him to keep his distance). Perhaps Rick is not leadership material anymore.

Sorry, that was going into a whole lot of detail for a single page. But I just wanted to demonstrate that, far from being meandering like some might suggest, The Walking Dead in fact remains one of the most densely-plotted comics out there. Very rarely is there a wasted panel, just about every panel has something to say about someone.

But the worse consequence of all for Rick comes outside of page 19, with the conclusion of the issue. Carl walks in on Rick, and sees him talking on the phone to Lori. Even if Carl isn’t aware of exactly who Rick is imagining he’s talking to, it’s still pretty bad seeing your dad talking to an imaginary person through an unplugged telephone. I have commented in recent reviews that we haven’t really seen much of Carl in a while, and now I think that was deliberate. As Rick got caught up in his various other agendas, he was beginning to lose sight of what has defined him more than anything else over the course of the series: his status as a father, his relationship with his son Carl. He may have claimed he was acting in Carl’s interests, but his actions often seemed to go against that. The confrontation between Rick and Carl earlier in the issue alluded to the pair possibly growing apart, but this ending brings this dynamic right to the forefront going forward. Rick losing the trust of the community, or of the other survivors, would both be big losses for him. But no loss of trust would be more devastating to him than losing the trust of Carl. I think next issue is going to be a big issue for laying out their relationship going forward.

I think the key line that sums up Rick’s development in this issue comes in that last page – “I think I’m losing control.” He means it in terms of his grip on sanity, which is certainly valid. But it can also relate to him losing control of his relationship with the community, with the survivors, with Carl, the foundations that have come to define him crumbling beneath his feet and sending him into a spiralling freefall. What becomes of a man who loses everything that defines his sense of self? One answer could be that they grow to define themselves in another way, and that could be where the evolving relationship between Rick and Douglas comes into play.

The real meat of the issue was the conversations between Rick and Douglas. Douglas is fast becoming one of my favourite characters in the book. We all naturally distrusted him at first, and I’m sure plenty still do distrust him, but I’m growing to think he’s a solid guy – from the way he shut down Gabriel to his levelling with Rick here in this issue. Rick clearly underestimated him – the man is no pushover, and much like Rick, he is willing to fight and even kill to protect this community. But still, it might seem strange, giving more power to someone who has just openly challenged and threatened you. What could Douglas’ reasoning for this be? Now, this is total speculation, but in spite of his command for Rick to never question his leadership again (and his threat to murder him if he does) I think Douglas is grooming Rick as a possible replacement. We’ve seen glimpses of Douglas making advances at the young women in the camp, at him giving potential threats risky jobs. The very things he accuses Davidson of doing. It could be that Douglas is gradually transforming into Davidson, and is aware of this fact. And in Rick, I think Douglas sees someone who is a lot like the old him, a kindred spirit – look at how his face lights up with hope when he asks Rick if he killed his best friend too. He desperately wants someone he can relate to. And more than this, he wants someone who can keep him in line, someone who can stop him from turning into Davidson and… maybe… someone who can do what needs to be done for the good of the community if he does indeed turn into another Davidson. This is why I think Douglas was in fact aware of Rick going after the guns, and that he in fact expected a big blow-up like in the last issue to take place. I think he’s been testing Rick all along.

At first, we expected Douglas to become the next Governor for Rick to contend with, and that could still happen. But even if Douglas ends up an antagonist, he’ll still be a refreshingly different one from The Governor, which we really should have known, as Kirkman hasn’t repeated himself yet over the course of the series. As it stands, though, Douglas is growing into a nuanced, fascinating character who I look forward to learning more about in future issues.

So to round up this essay-length ramble, The Walking Dead #76 might not have been as explosive as the previous issue, but there was lots of interesting stuff going on here. And rather than everything being wrapped up like some have said, I think there has been groundwork laid for plenty of intriguing plot threads moving forward. Far from the fireworks being abruptly cut off last issue, I’d say the real fireworks have yet to come…

And as a final note, it’s great seeing “Eisner 2010 Award Winner for Best Continuing Series” along the top of the cover. Well deserved! Congrats to Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard and the rest of the creative team!

REVIEW: The Walking Dead #75

The Walking Dead #75 is a landmark issue for the series, and its very impressive for a creator-owned book to build this level of history as an ongoing entity.  But did the content of the issue live up to the impressive number?

Much has been said about the color back-up feature. I personally loved it, thought it was a great easter egg for the fans, and was glad it was included. But the real highlight continues to be the fascinating main story. After months of agonising slow-boil, thing finally start to come to a head in this instalment. If Kirkman were to give his issues titles, this one could surely be called “The Other Shoe”, as it certainly dropped here, hard.

I’ve seen a few people here and there talk about how Rick could or even should die, but I think this issue was the perfect showcase for how The Walking Dead very much remains the story of Rick Grimes, and that there is a lot more story left to tell. We’ve seen Rick make some morally questionable decisions before, but generally I think most of us have been able to justify his actions – increasingly ruthless and violent as they may have been – as for the greater good. But this was not the case here. In this issue, we see Rick cross the line, in convincing, unnerving fashion.

The clever thing about how Kirkman does it is that it isn’t just all of a sudden, Rick is doing the wrong thing. He starts out the issue quite justified, I feel. He sees an abusive man who is hurting his wife and kids, and as law enforcer tries to stop him. He doesn’t get approval from Douglas, and feels Douglas is making an unacceptable compromise allowing this abuse to go unpunished, solely because Pete is a doctor. So Rick takes matters into his own hands. This is borderline, but generally we can still see Rick’s side of things. But in one page turn, Kirkman turns that on its head…

Did anyone else actually gasp at that page turn, revealing a deranged-looking Rick (the slabber is literally dribbling from his mouth) pointing the gun at Douglas? It demonstrates what stellar work Kirkman has done developing his cast, that we start treating them like real people. We actually feel disappointed in Rick for what he’s doing. At the time, his plan to get the guns had a foreshadowing of menace, but he explained it all away as a “just in case” failsafe and eased our concerns. But by pulling a gun on Douglas at the slightest provocation, he’s not only revealed the worst in his own nature, but endangered the other members of the group who helped him get those guns. And look at what he screams as he wields his gun at the group:

“I’m the one who does what needs to be done – no matter what. You need me. I make the hard decisions. I do whatever it takes to keep the people around me alive. If you think you can survive without me, you’re wrong.”

It’s the same justifications we’ve all been using all along to excuse Rick’s behaviour. And now here is Rick, using it himself. And when he says it out loud, it feels hollow, like the ramblings of a mad man. Perhaps such justifications have always been hollow, and it took putting that mindset in context like this to see it. Rick remains my favorite character, as he has been throughout the life of the series. But this arc is intriguingly not only showing him slip off the moral high ground, but is making us question whether he was ever really on it.

On the flipside, Douglas continues to grow in my estimations. His dismissal of Gabriel was very satisfying, and while we might be dubious about his decision to keep a wife-beating doctor around, he was unquestionably in the right come the final confrontation. I think having Douglas be another Governor would be too easy. By making him more morally complex, with a valid stance and decent motivations of his own, it makes for a more nuanced rivalry with Rick. With the alpha male struggle between Rick and The Governor, it was simple good VS evil. This struggle is shaping up to be more about shades of gray. Which makes the question of who is going to fall on what side all the more compelling.

Some people might be complaining that the book has gotten boring with less zombies to worry about, but I think The Walking Dead is as fascinating as ever. The slower paced issues leading up to this explosion were all about delicately laying the groundwork, arranging all the pieces into place for this perfect storm. And now we have this power struggle going on, this clash of big personalities trying to assert themselves. It’s fantastic human drama.

Not that there aren’t zombies. Behind the power plays and the community politics, in the background, delicately weaved into this narrative tapestry, is the subplot with Glenn out on his scouting trip. They’ve encountered both a herd and a potentially hostile rival group, either one of which could bring disaster to the gates of Alexandria. Things are going to get nasty, soon…

Some have complained about The Walking Dead #75 not being “big” enough in that it didn’t arbitrarily kill off some major characters. Why would you want that, I ask? These characters are so great, it’s hard enough losing any of them even when it’s at the culmination of a major arc, never mind just because the issue has a certain number. I for one am glad the cast has remained intact, for now at least. Rather than some huge status quo shift, Kirkman and Adlard instead used The Walking Dead #75 to demonstrate what this comic has been doing so well for about 7 years now – nicely timed for potential new fans enticed by footage of the TV show at Comic-Con.

REVIEW: The Walking Dead #72

I have a little backlog of reviews for the past several issues of The Walking Dead stacked up, so I figured I’d post them up here.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this community arc when it first got going, but as it’s developed, and we’ve come to learn what it’s really all about, I’m starting to think it could turn out to be one of the most ingenious storylines in the history of the series.

It’s funny how an issue without any zombies, heck without any real violence or even immediate threat, can have you coiled up with agonising tension throughout. On one hand, it’s quite shocking to see the shoe on the other foot, reaffirming something that Fear the Hunters set up – that now it’s our survivors that are the humans to truly be afraid of. We’ve been on the side of Rick and co. for so long, that it’s difficult seeing them start to do something which seems wrong, going against what seem like basically good, harmless people. And after last issue’s last page bombshell, I love how an entire issue is basically spent working on making us forget it, so Kirkman can shock us all over again with this issue’s last page.

But on the flipside, Kirkman and Adlard cleverly still put us in the shoes of our protagonists. We feel their paranoia, get a sense that something is wrong even when the people in the community aren’t necessarily doing anything overtly bad. Take the ambiguous way Adlard draws Douglas’ face at the bottom of page 3. Is that an “I’m sad and lonely and now my feelings are hurt” face or an “I’m gonna make you pay for that bitch” face?

I also loved how this was a real ensemble piece, with all the major characters (save for Carl, who got plenty of spotlight last issue) getting their moment to shine. To single out a couple, I particularly liked the transformation of Abraham – he’s gone from hardened tough guy to meek civilian, and we share his sense of dread about having to leave this fragile “normal life” to go back out into the real world. But best of all was the work done with Michonne. After being the el primo badass zombie slayer for so long, of course it was going to be hardest for her to put on a dress and mingle with the housewives. It’s like a soldier without a war. And I really enjoyed the two page montage showing her memories of the katana as she puts it into “retirement”. As well as showing how scared she was in her first time using it (something until we’ve only heard her talk about, rather than actually seeing it) we got to see a lot of familiar scenes – ones where we just thought “what a badass” when they first happened – from her perspective, how she saw them. And we realise what a toll Michonne’s experiences have taken on her.

So all in all, the gorehounds wanting constant zombie carnage might be left cold by this issue, and this arc as a whole. But those of us who just devour rich characterisation and slow-boil tension will find a whole lot to love here.

Comics Storytelling 101: Robert Kirkman

Hey folks!

In the first step of what will hopefully be a blitz of updates, I’m going to repost some meandering rants on comic storytelling I’ve written in response to Steven Forbes’ excellent “Bolts & Nuts” columns over on ComixTribe.  Those columns can be found here:

http://www.comixtribe.com/category/bolts-nuts/

This first piece of commentary deals with how comic writers should grasp the concept of comic books as serialised storytelling, available in a variety of formats, and how as such a comic book story needs to be structured in a way that appeals to several kinds of readers.

one writer who I feel has mastered the craft of serialised storytelling is Robert Kirkman. Anyone wanting to take notes on how to structure an ongoing comic series would do well to take notes from his approach to The Walking Dead. Let’s take a look at the various levels of “beginning, middle, end” that he works in.

First, each single issue manages to be a satisfying package in its own right. Each issue has a 22 page story that continues the monthly narrative, but at the same time is a self-contained episode in its own right. For example, the most recent issue, #79. While it serves as a prelude to the next multi-issue arc, “No Way Out”, and follows on from the developments of the previous issue, it is a satisfying read in of itself, built as it is around a narrative framing device of juxtaposing a conversation between two characters with an action scene where another group of characters are fighting to kill off a gathering of zombies. And we see how, as the issue goes on, the two seemingly disparate threads come together, with the conversation in one reflecting the action in the other, until we have a closing moment that casts both threads in a whole new light. And, with every issue, Kirkman ends with a bang – a cliffhanger or a shock reveal – to entice readers to pick up the next issue. Also included is a lengthy letters section at the back, to ensure that those who buy the comic monthly rather than trade-waiting are rewarded with exclusive content not found in any other edition of The Walking Dead.

Next up are the paperback graphic novels. These each cover 6 issues, and when you read them it becomes apparent that, as well as crafting a shock ending at the end of each single issue, Kirkman ensures that he places a particularly major cliffhanger at the end of every sixth issue. He’s writing in a way to keep in mind not only the single issue readers, but those who follow the series in graphic novel format. On a similar vein, while the single issues advance the larger story while being an enjoyable self-contained read in their own right, the same can be said for the paperback graphic novels, with each 6-issue chunk coming together to form a larger story with its own beginning, middle and end. Kirkman enhances the sense of this being a seamless individual story by not dividing up issues within the graphic novel, instead providing each graphic novel as a single 132 page story. Take, for example, Volume 11: Fear the Hunters. Yes, it works as an installment of the larger longform Walking Dead saga, but in its own right, it works as a Tales from the Crypt style sting-in-the-tail story about a group of nasty cannibals who get a lot more than they bargained for when messing with our survivors.

Kirkman pulls this off on a larger scale with the hardback graphic novels, which cover 12 issues. And his sense of structure becomes even more impressive, when we realise that while he saves the big cliffhangers for every 6th issue, the ones that come on every 12th issue are typically the more climactic and resounding. And while read as paperback graphic novels, Volume 9: Here We Remain can be read as a self-contained story about Rick and Carl’s struggle to cope with the death of Lori, and Volume 10: What We Become can be read as a self-contained story about how our survivors are gradually turning into monsters in this harsh world, when put together in the hardcover The Walking Dead, Book 5, they become a larger self-contained narrative with its own beginning, middle and end about the toll survival has taken on Rick, Carl and the rest of the remaining ensemble, all while simultaneously building on what came before and setting the stage for what comes after.

Look now at the oversized hardback Omnibus editions that cover 24 issues. And then look at how the big, defining moments of the series that have marked a dramatic change in the status quo of the book (“We are the walking dead!”, the tragic climax of the prison arc) have fallen on every 24th issue. The first 24 issues tell a complete, epic narrative with a beginning, middle and end about the survivors’ struggles to find a home and a sense of normalcy in this harsh new world, the next 24 issues cover the entirety of the Woodbury saga.

As powerful a moment as issue #24′s ending was, the biggest, most climactic moment of the entire series so far was the ending of issue #48. That felt like the end of an era, as if every one of the 47 issues that came before had been leading up it. And as such, the mammoth Walking Dead Compendium, covering 48 issues, feels like a massive, sweeping epic tale with a definite beginning, middle and end.

Here we see that Kirkman has structured The Walking Dead with total precision, in a way that the series can be read in 5 different formats – in 1 issue, 6 issue, 12 issue, 24 issue or 48 issue chunks – and no matter how you read it, you’re getting a complete, rewarding reading ecperience with a beginning, middle and end.

My Top Ten Comics of 2010

Hey all!

Been a while since I blogged, so I figured I’d post this up.  I’ve also posted this as part of my Comic Book Club column over on Project Fanboy, but I figured I’d post it here too.  Hope you all had a Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year!

2010 was an interesting year in the world of comics. As the new decade began, both Marvel and DC seemed set to be making a move towards more optimistic storytelling and more heroic heroes, with Dark Reign giving way to The Heroic Age and Blackest Night giving way to Brightest Day. There was also a stated intention to move away from company-spanning crossover events, focusing more on smaller events within individual franchises. Neither promise seems to have held on long, with Brightest Day being as gore-addled and grim as any DCU story of the past few years and Daredevil turning evil for a while in Shadowland, and with Marvel recently announcing their latest big crossover event: Fear Itself.

It was a year where the comic book movie craze seemed to falter, with Iron Man 2 proving a disappointment, and both Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim VS the World (undeservedly) underperforming at the box office. But on the other side, it was a year where a new frontier for comic book adaptation – television – began to be exploited more fully. The Walking Dead was one of the year’s biggest TV success stories, breaking viewing records for AMC by a substantial margin and already finding itself nominated for a Golden Globe. This has in turn paved the way for a glut of comic book TV projects, ranging from remakes of classic TV superhero shows of the past (Wonder Woman, The Hulk) to adaptations of thus-far untouched comic book properties (Locke & Key, Powers, Alias).

As ever, it’s difficult to provide a concise summary for the year in comics as a whole. There were a few great comics, some awful comics, and a whole bunch that fell somewhere in between. This list of mine is by no means all-encompassing. Instead, it is a deeply subjective reflection of my own limited, largely mainstream-leaning reading throughout the year. Graphic novels, mini-series’ and ongoing monthly comics were all eligible for inclusion as I put my list together. Here’s what I came up with:

HONORABLE MENTION: THOR

It’s been a turbulent year for Marvel’s god of thunder. After J. Michael Straczynski’s great run came to an abrupt, disappointing close, we entered 2010 with a sense of “Right, let’s hurry up and get on with Matt Fraction’s run, get Kieron Gillen in to tidy up Straczynski’s mess.” But then Mr. Gillen surprised people by coming onboard with a run that was very good in its own right, far exceeding the expectations of the transitional writer between two A-listers and in fact surpassing much of the latter part of the JMS run. Of course, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to those familiar with Phonogram or SWORD that Gillen would not disappoint. His first arc, “Latverian Prometheus” – in which hostilities between Asgard and Dr. Doom came to a head and Straczynski’s incomplete saga was wrapped up – was great fun, and delivered on both the action and characterization fronts. Arguably the high point of Gillen’s run came with the event tie-in Siege: Loki, which simultaneously explained some of Loki’s actions before and during the events of Siege and set up the next storyline for Thor once the event wrapped up, all while giving us a masterful insight into Loki’s motivations and treating us to some lovely art from Jamie McKelvie. It’s a shame then that the Siege tie-in issues of Thor itself were so poor they almost cost the title its place in the top ten. I don’t blame Gillen: the job of writing an arc set in Asgard where he couldn’t actually progress anything because the main activity was happening in the main Siege book, unable to even use any of the title’s main characters as they were also being used in Siege, was a particularly thankless one, which is probably why Straczynksi left the book in the first place. Thankfully then, Gillen got to end his run on a high note with an additional closing arc after finishing the grunt work that saw Thor and friends take a romp through hell. And now that Fraction is onboard (aided by some high-quality art by Pasqual Ferry), we’re getting the beginnings of what seems set to be an intriguing new era for Thor.

10. CHEW

After a stellar beginning that saw me rank the series at #8 in my top ten of the decade at this time last year, Chew seemed to falter slightly this year. Particularly at points during this most recent arc, “Just Desserts”, the series appeared to be lacking direction. But even in its weaker moments, Chew never fails to entertain, typically guaranteeing at least one out-loud belly laugh per issue. Rob Guillory’s art remains fantastic, giving the book its own unique identity, and with the last couple of issues it’s become apparent that John Layman has been carefully crafting a larger mythology, even when it appeared like the book was lacking direction. The stage has been set for Chew to reach new heights in 2011.

9. INVINCIBLE IRON MAN

Here we have another case of a title that reached heady heights in 2009 but couldn’t quite keep it up going into 2010. After the epic “World’s Most Wanted”, it appeared that Matt Fraction’s Iron Man saga had lost steam with both “Stark: Disassembled” and the current “Resilient” arc. With its almost-funereal pacing, Invincible Iron Man at times feels like one of the most decompressed comics on the market. But even when it’s at its most plodding, Fraction keeps things interesting, his mastery of Tony Stark, Pepper Potts and co so refined that he can make an issue of them sitting in a café drinking coffee compelling reading: and there were a couple of issues that weren’t too far off that. But when the action does come, its kinetic, in-your-face, thrilling; Salvatore Larroca’s art (long a weak point in the series) greatly improving over the course of the year. Compliments also go to the fantastic Invincible Iron Man Annual, which gave us a Mandarin who was delightfully vile and free of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. And even when the narrative is moving along slowly, you get the sense that Fraction knows what he’s doing, that he’s carefully setting the pieces in place for something explosive down the line. So Invincible Iron Man still has my attention, and my praise, going into 2011.

8. MORNING GLORIES

I almost didn’t include this in my list. This is in fact a belated edit, after finally getting caught up on the series. I blame the oversight on the frustrating lack of availability the series suffered in its early issues, what with all the quick sell-outs. I managed to get issue #1 on its third printing, but had given up all hope on getting issue #2, and as such had given up on the series altogether. But I finally managed to get a hold of that missing second issue, and now I’m fully onboard. Of course, the plus-side of all those sell-outs is that Morning Glories is positioned as the breakout indy comics smash of 2010, much like Chew was in 2010. But while it was the original high concept that initially sold Chew, with this tale of a group of 16 year olds trapped in a prestigious prep school with dark secrets, it seems like Nick Spencer is crafting the comic book equivalent of a water-cooler mystery more typically associated with television. I’ve seen many comparisons to Lost, but with its off-kilter weirdness, comically monstrous characters and constant sense of lurking dread, I’d say it bears closer parallels to Twin Peaks. In the first issue, Spencer introduces us to six new characters and within mere pages makes them all feel rounded and nuanced. Artist Joe Eisna, meanwhile, provides visuals that deftly shift back and forth from cartoonish to horrifying. Each issue deepens the mystery, offering more questions in place of answers. It remains to be seen whether – much like Lost – this approach stops being tantalizing and starts being infuriating, but for now this series is off to a highly promising start.

7. ACTION COMICS

Caught up in the tepid “New Krypton” saga for much of the year, it would have taken something incredible to hit Action Comics over the latter half of 2010 for the series to rank in this list at all. Thankfully, then, Paul Cornell jumped on as writer of the book, and made Lex Luthor the star. Each month, we see Superman’s arch-nemesis pit against another popular DC supervillain in his ongoing quest to unlock the secrets of the black rings last seen in Blackest Night. Witty, charismatic, even likeable, but also unquestionably evil, Cornell has made Lex Luthor into my new favorite superhero. And the Gorilla Grodd issue was surely one of the best single comics of the year. If the comic hadn’t been subpar for the rest of the year, Cornell’s run could have earned Action Comics a higher placing on this list. We’ll see what next year brings!

6. SWEET TOOTH

Once again, I find myself saying that a comic that was amazing in 2009 wasn’t quite as good in 2010: is that the theme of this year? Sweet Tooth had a brilliant opening arc, but the second storyline, “In Captivity”, didn’t pack quite the same emotional punch. There was one grim period where I briefly thought I had accidentally bought the same issue twice, as I read my new purchase and thought it was so incredibly similar to what I had read a month earlier, offering as little as it did in the way of plot advancement. “In Captivity” did, however, expand the mythology of the series, and introduce new characters to the mix. And despite not being quite to the level of “Out of the Deep Woods”, there was still plenty of emotional, heartbreaking story beats to be found. The current arc, “Animal Armies” has been a big improvement, and over the last couple of months Sweet Tooth has once again become essential reading. It’s just a shame the boost didn’t come earlier in the year, or Sweet Tooth could have cracked the top five.

5. KNIGHT & SQUIRE

I love this series so much. Three issues in, and I already feel totally immersed in this quirky, idiosyncratic and very, very British world that Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have created. A spin-off using characters originally revived by Grant Morrison, Cornell has nevertheless made Knight & Squire feel totally his own. Each issue so far has been so dense with in-jokes and subtle humor that they benefit greatly from multiple readings, and I’ve reread these comics perhaps more than anything else on this top ten list. If I were to use any word to describe Knight & Squire, it would be nice. This is a nice comic. Whenever I’m done reading an issue, I’m cheered up, I feel that little bit happier for reading it. And with the dark, emotionally-draining stuff that’s coming up as our countdown continues, something bright and joyful that captures all the weird, silly stuff that makes comics so much fun is certainly refreshing.

4. AMERICAN VAMPIRE

This actually started out a bit lower on my top ten. But as I wrote this summary of its merits, I kept on nudging it up and up until it finally settled here at #4, making it the highest-ranked new series of the year on my list. American Vampire debuted with much fanfare, billed as the first original comic written by Stephen King – that’s what first attracted my attention. And yes, King’s back-up story over the first five issues proved that the man’s creativity and knack for characterization and the building of dread is not limited to the prose medium. But the true revelation came with the core creative team. Immediately noticeable is the work of artist Rafael Albuquerque, producing some of the most gorgeous interiors of any comic on the stands right now. But more and more I’m coming to appreciate the input of writer Scott Snyder. It seems like every month, he moves the narrative forward in some way, be it through shedding new light on a character or expanding the mythology. He really shows an affinity for serial storytelling, with each installment both serving as a satisfying read in its own right, while having a cumulative effect as it builds on what came before and sets the stage for what is to come. And in the vicious Skinner Sweet, Snyder has created arguably the year’s best new character: one of the comic’s great pleasures is the way we are continually lured into thinking the eponymous American vampire could grow into an anti-hero, only for Skinner Sweet to turn around and do something utterly horrible and monstrous and remind us of what a villain he unquestionably is. 10 issues in, American Vampire keeps on getting better and better.

3. BATMAN AND ROBIN

A list of 2010’s best comics could very easily have been dominated by Grant Morrison’s Batman output. But in the interest of fairness, I limited myself to only including a single Bat-title on the list, and the winner by a narrow margin was Batman and Robin. The book was consistently strong throughout the year, but what really put it above Batman Inc and even the ingenious Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne for me was the concluding arc of Morrison’s run on the title: “Batman and Robin Must Die!” Serving as a kind of sequel to Batman R.I.P., we got to see Dr. Hurt and Professor Pyg make their welcome returns, and Frazer Irving floored us all with some spectacular art. But best of all was the long-awaited return of The Joker, and in particular Grant Morrison’s Joker, given that the Scottish scribe writes the character better than just about anyone. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman saga has made for one of the definitive superhero sagas of the decade and one of the finest runs in the character’s history, and I’m excited to see its next phase with Batman Inc.

2. THE WALKING DEAD

Aw, you gotta feel bad for The Walking Dead. Two years in a row now, it has ranked at #2 in my top ten. Looking at the series as a whole, I’d probably rate it as my personal #1 favorite comic. But based on the 2010 output alone, there is one comic I’d rate even higher. However, having said that, 2010 has still been a stellar year for everyone’s favorite zombie comic. We saw a shift in the dynamic this year as our survivors settled into Alexandria, the long sought-after safe haven they desired, populated by a community of largely good people striving to rebuild a sense of normal life. But the tragedy explored through the plights of various characters this year was that many of our survivors are so damaged by what they’ve had to go through to survive that they no longer have a place in a “normal” world. The result of this conflicted dynamic has been the steady escalation of tensions between the established cast and the new characters resident to Alexandria, all the while distracting us from the inexorable arrival of the zombie horde that now surrounds this “safe haven” as we head into 2011. “No Way Out” seems set to be a major storyline for the months ahead. When also taking into consideration the huge success of the TV adaptation, then I’d say it’s a great time to be a fan of The Walking Dead.

1. SCALPED

I heard alarming news lately, that – in the wake of the recent wave of house-clearing cancellations – Scalped is now currently one of Vertigo’s lowest-selling titles each month. That’s a real shame. Because it means people are missing out on one of the best books Vertigo has ever produced, and what was in my opinion the best comic of the year. 2010 gave us lots of quality developments within the pages of Scalped. The first few months of the year brought the heart-rending conclusion of “The Gnawing”, the storyline that has marked arguably the high-point of the comic’s history thus far. From there, the book adopted a change of pace (brave considering the amount of momentum build up off the back of “The Gnawing”) and gave us a collection of stand-alone stories that helped create a more rounded picture of The Rez and some of its inhabitants.

First came “Listening to the Earth Turn”, a single-issue tale of an elderly couple struggling to make an honest living on the outskirts of the reservation. This was a wonderful little story that challenged some of the negative assumptions that have been tossed in the direction of the series: that it suggests reservations are nothing but cesspits of crime and violence (the protagonists here are decent, law-abiding citizens) and that it is relentlessly bleak and miserable (this story had a happy ending). After that was a two-parter with the tongue-twisting title, “A Fine Action of an Honorable and Catholic Spaniard”, in which we got a little into the mind of Red Crow’s right-hand man Shunka, long one of the most mysterious members of the comic’s ensemble. The full page reveal of his man-on-man kiss was one of the more genuinely surprising page-turn twists of the year. Finally, and perhaps best of all, was “Family Tradition”, a single-issue tale notable on two counts. First, because it marked Jason Aaron’s return to the Vietnam War, the setting of The Other Side – the astounding comic that first made his name. And second, because we saw R.M. Guera (whose work started strong and has been steadily improving over the course of Scalped) reach a whole new level of excellence, with him delivering career-best work.

And after that interlude, it was back at last to the ongoing saga of Bad Horse and co. with “Unwanted”. Here, Carol Ellroy and the significant females of the saga, past and present, took centre stage, with Carol – having discovered she was pregnant at the conclusion of “The Gnawing” – agonizing over whether to have an abortion or to tell Bad Horse he could be a father, and in the process embarking on one of the few genuinely redemptive arcs we’ve seen in Scalped thus far. These issues of parenthood were further explored with the return of Wade Bad Horse, Dashiell’s deadbeat father, and a look at his difficult relationships with both his son and Red Crow. After that, we wrapped up the year with “A Come-To-Jesus”, another one-and-done, this time putting a spotlight on bit-part player Sheriff Wooster Karnow.

The unifying element throughout the year of Scalped was the raw, powerful, exhilarating writing skill of Jason Aaron, possibly the best writer working in the industry today. He’s done quality work over in Marvel in 2010 too, but his crowning achievement remains Scalped. I just hope that 2011 doesn’t mark the title’s cancellation, and that we get to see this epic narrative carry on until its intended conclusion.

So there we have it. My top ten comics of 2010. But I’m sure there are plenty of great comics I’ve overlooked. So let me know – what were your top ten comics of 2010?

REVIEW: “The Walking Dead” Episode 6 – “TS-19”

Well, that’s it done and dusted. After all the anticipation and all the hype, Season 1 of The Walking Dead seems to have zoomed by in a blur, and now we’re back into the anticipation stages all over again, looking forward to next year’s Season 2. But before I wrap up with my thoughts on the season as a whole, let’s get down to talking to this week’s finale, “TS-19”.

I talked in my last review about how it seemed I’ve been repeatedly saying how the latest episode was even better than the previous week’s. Well, I don’t think this finale quite managed to top last week’s excellent “Wildfire”, but it was still a very strong outing, and one I’d probably rank in the top half of the season’s episodes, quality-wise. It’s given a boost once more by looking to veterans from The Shield – both co-writer Adam Fierro and director Guy Ferland were heavily involved in that series, with Fierro writing one of the best scenes of television of the past decade (one that also involved Laurie Holden, coincidentally) in that show’s penultimate episode, “Possible Kill Screen”.

“TS-19” was an interesting set-up for what has long been billed as “the zombie movie that never ends”, in that here, condensed into a single episode of television, was the plot of your classic Romero zombie film: a band of survivors find a safe haven, personal divisions sour the paradise, and at the end the remaining survivors are forced to leave and go back on the road, headed for destinations unknown. There were some twists on that formula, of course – rather than the standard siege scenario where the zombies breach the haven, this episode hardly had any zombies at all in it and was more based on the survivors trying (or not trying) to get out of this death-trap. But still, the basic scenario made this episode fall into the trap the rest of the series (and The Walking Dead comic) has largely avoided, even when treading familiar ground: giving us a sense we’ve seen this story before and playing by the rules of the genre.

But that criticism aside, there was plenty of joy to be found in the execution of this story. After so much complaining and proclaimations of doom last week about how the introduction of the CDC was going to give us all the answers about the cause of the zombie apocalypse and thus forever ruin the concept of the series, we see that – much as many of the more level-headed observers predicted – the function of this episode was to do exactly the opposite of that. By going to the CDC (established as the one place there would surely be answers if there were any to find) and learning that there is no explanation, no origin, no cure – that despite the computerised look at the transformation process it could still just as easily be “the wrath of God” as a viral outbreak – Dabaront and co. have effectively closed the door on that avenue of storytelling.

This is why, on further consideration, this was actually the perfect choice for a finale episode on this debut season. Remember, the vast majority of the TV audience haven’t read the comic, and many of them may have been approaching this as a Lost-style “we need to solve the mystery of what happened” story. As such, this was perhaps a necessary pit-stop, addressing that approach head-on before nipping it in the bud, and leaving us with the closing message that, no, finding out the how and why of what happened BEFORE is not important, what this story is really about now is survival, how our characters will live on AFTER the world as we know it has effectively ended.

The restricted setting here made the episode almost feel like a one-act play, with us really getting into the characters and their motivations as comfort quickly turned into claustrophobia, and then dread started setting steadily in with realisation of the situation they were in. Noah Emmerich’s Dr. Jenner was key in making this work. Note how in the early scenes we see how his uncertainty and despair is balanced with a kind of cautious joy at being with other human beings again. But as the episode goes on and his true plans become more apparent we look at those early conflicting emotions in a whole new light. Much of the work Emmerich does here is non-verbal, and works very well in its subtlety. And though by episode’s end Jenner has been killed off as quickly as he was introduced, he has managed to leave an impact. He could easily have just been a straight up psychotic Big Bad our heroes had to stop, but he ended up being more sympathetic than that, and as a result perhaps more frightening. We learn he is a family man reduced to suicidal despair after the loss of his loved ones, and as such in him we can see a foreshadowing to what Rick might become. Even in Jenner’s decision to wear his lab attire on the day of his death, we see Rick’s devotion to maintaining the integrity of his uniform, clinging on to that symbol of his past life. And that final look on Rick’s face before the group drives off and the season closes suggests Rick might see the similarity too.

If I had to pick a weak link in the ensemble this week, it would once again be Jacqui. She has always been a bit of an infuriating non-entity to me this season – always present, regularly doing stuff, but with no real coherent pattern in those actions or any substantial justification for her presence. As such, her death had little impact on me, not just because she wasn’t the most compelling character, but because we had seen very little of her behaviour beforehand that might have set the stage for her to make this suicidal decision.

I was more pleased with the increased focus given to the pairing of Dale and Andrea. One of my favourite relationships from the comics, the TV show is really putting the work into establishing the connection between them. After the deserved praise given to Laurie Holden over these past couple of episodes, it was Jeffrey Demunn who really stepped up and impressed me here. In his angry refusal to let Andrea just give up on like and “check out”, we see Dale reliving the heartbreak of his wife deciding “she was ready” and succumbing to cancer, as he described on last week’s episode. I really look forward to seeing this relationship continue to develop next season.

But for me, the true standout performance of this episode was Jon Bernthal as Shane. His arc was really at the foreground this week, with the brilliant pre-credits sequence establishing just how much he truly cared about Rick, and just how much he has changed since that time. We’d already gotten an unnerving look at the darkness within Shane in the last episode, but here we really see him crumble, and thanks to that opening sequence we get to understand it all from Shane’s perspective. At the otherwise happy dinner scene, he sits gloomily within the shadows like a ghost at the table, ready to undermine everyone else’s happiness – Glenn (who provides several welcome moments of levity throughout the hour) rightly calls him a “buzzkill”. Over the course of the hour, Shane repeatedly challenges Rick and goes against him, culminating with Rick having to take him down and decisively take that leadership role within the group of survivors away from Shane. Also decisively taken away from him in this episode is any chance of his love for Lori being requited again, in a very uncomfortable scene where his heartfelt confession of love quickly descends into attempted rape.

Indeed, this steady decline of Shane, this taking apart of every anchor of decency he maintained, led me to believe that the episode and the season would be ending in the same way that the first graphic novel ended. I was sure that’s where we were going, right up to the ending music kicking in, to the point where I was literally shouting “Don’t end!” at my screen until it did just that. Initially, this event not happening (yet) was a major, episode-souring disappointment for me, as I was so looking forward to its realisation on-screen. But upon further consideration, perhaps I’m being selfish. Shane is emerging as one of the most fascinating characters in the ensemble, and to bring his arc to an abrupt end for the sake of adhering to the comics when there is still a lot of dramatic mileage to get out of this scenario would have perhaps been a wasted opportunity. We had one Shane story in the comics. A big advantage of a different version of The Walking Dead in a different medium could be the chance to tell that story differently.

And that’s a point I feel is important, the major potential in this adaptation that I feel deserves to be addressed. No, this is not the comic series. It is a TV show, its own seperate entity. But as I’ve established in my reviews, in my opinion at least, the actors are doing such a stellar job inhabiting their roles that they have effectively become the characters from the comics. And for me, one of the biggest pleasures of this TV show is the chance to see those characters we know and love placed in different situations we haven’t seen them in before, and seeing how they react. And that’s something “TS-19” did brilliantly.

So, in closing, I think I’d call Season 1 of The Walking Dead a massive success. Not everything worked out, and some episodes were better than others, but the season established a compelling scenario, with a great ensemble of masterfully-performed characters. With its all-too-brief 6 episode run, I find myself reminded a lot of the first season of another excellent AMC show, Breaking Bad, which only ran for 7 episodes. Like that show, The Walking Dead Season 1 is a streamlined machine of a season, plunging us into the plight of its protagonists and giving us drama by the bucketload, but at the same time giving us a sense that this is only an extended preview – dipping a toe into the murky waters of the world it has established – and suggesting that it’ll be season 2 before we get to the really good stuff.

REVIEW: “The Walking Dead” Episode 5 – “Wildfire”

The Walking Dead keeps on getting better and better. For what feels like the third episode in a row, I’m on here proclaiming the latest episode – “Wildfire” – as The Best Since The Pilot! Last episode was a cracker, but while I feel it was in the closing few minutes that it ratcheted up to true brilliance, this episode pretty much starts at that level and maintains it throughout, if not taking it even higher.

It should be said that this is a very different animal from last week. While that was all about shock and violence and a rush of activity with lots going on, here we slowed things down, and really got into the heads of the characters. I love how the show has done that, how every episode so far has had its own distinct tone and felt like its own kind of story: something that will surely work wonders for the rewatch value come the release of the DVD. Here, we have a masterful character drama – penned by regular writer on The Shield, Glen Mazzara -with the kind of depth and nuance you’d expect from the network that brings you Mad Men and Breaking Bad. It felt like just about every character had at least one moment where you had to sit back and think, “Wow, that was powerful – great acting.”

Let’s start with Rick – after all, he is our main character. In this episode, we really see the cracks emerging in that knight’s shining armor of his. I said in an earlier review that his trembling hand after his confrontation with Merle Dixon reminded us he’s not Jack Bauer, he’s not a rock-hard action man. And we see it here, how despite finding himself in a position of leadership he’s uncertain of himself, he wants his wife and his best friend to tell him he’s doing the right thing (they both do, but neither really means it, and Rick knows it). We see him making two dawn radio calls to Morgan, and we know he’s been doing this every day since they went their separate ways in the first episode. We also get the sense that this is as much about Rick having time alone to talk to himself and voice his own private thoughts and insecurities as it is about contacting Morgan. It’s when we see Rick at his most vulnerable. That is, of course, until his very public breakdown at the end of this episode, when he thinks he’s led the whole group and his family to their doom on a dead-end errand. It was unnerving to see our hero get so panicked, so desperate. I actually felt relieved for him when the door opened – though we’ll see if that relief carries over into next week.

Cracks are starting to show on Shane, too. While his turn to the dark side was necessarily sudden in the comics, the TV show has done a masterful job of slowing down Shane’s mental collapse, really giving us insight into his desire to be the good guy, and the cumulative slights and perceived wrongs against him that are all building up to turn him against Rick. Though we’ve had hints of violence before, it was really with this episode that we overly see Shane emerging as the season’s probable Big Bad. I’m of course referring specifically to the moment where Shane is training his rifle on Rick, a glint of madness in his eye. What an intense moment when Dale caught him in the act! One recurring motif in this series thus far has been misdirection: such as misdirecting us into thinking the Vatos and Merle were a threat to the group, when the real danger was a group of zombies that arrived out of nowhere. On that vein, I get a creeping feeling that we’re being set up to view Dr. Jenner as a villain-in-waiting for the group, when the true climactic bad guy of the season will turn out to be Shane.

I’ve been less impressed with Lori than other members of the cast – though to be fair, I always liked Lori less than other characters in the comics – but in this episode Sarah Wayne Callies brought the goods, delivering a subtle performance that hit the right notes, giving Lori shades of ambiguity that make her story more complex than just “Rick returns and so Lori ditches Shane for Rick without a second thought.”

After being a standout in the last episode, Laurie Holden continues to bring the goods in the role of her life as Andrea. I know people will have been screaming at their televisions, “JUST LET THEM SHOOT YOUR SISTER IN THE HEAD ALREADY!”, but I think that whole scene was handled beautifully. Was anyone else like me, sitting on tenderhooks waiting for the big jump scare where Amy suddenly reanimates and sits bolt upright, screaming? It’s what just about any zombie film would have done. But what we got here was an awakening, a rebirth, and – brilliantly played by Holden – Laurie looks momentarily overjoyed at this “miracle” of her sister coming back to life before her eyes. “It’s her birthday” – Dale prophetically stated. But just when we might have thought Andrea was being weak, we see that she knew all along what she was doing, and in fact proves her great inner strength by finishing off Amy herself.

Since I touched on Dale, I’ll yet again say that Jeffrey Demunn is doing stellar work – every week I like his Dale more and more, and am reminded why he was always one of my favourite characters in the comic. I noticed they changed things so his wife died of cancer rather than by zombie attack, though – without getting spoilery – I think I can understand the reasoning behind the change. His relationship with Andrea was realised very well, and believably set the stage for what is to come between them.

Alas, poor Jim, we barely knew thee. After being a standout in the previous episode, Andrew Rothenberg hit another home-run in what we now know is to likely be his last appearance as Jim (unless he shows up as a walker in future). The way Jim’s exit was handled in the comics was one of my favourite moments from the first graphic novel, so I really anticipated how they’d handle it for TV. I was a little bit disappointed in the removal of one of my favourite lines from the history of the series: when Jim says that he wants to become a zombie, because then maybe he’ll be able to find his family as zombies and they can all be together again. The TV show settled for the more subtle approach of, “I want to be with my family.” Rothenberg brought a real dignity to Jim’s finest hours, and did justice to this big emotional moment from the comic’s early chapters.

Even the characters with smaller roles in this episode impressed. Glenn has largely acted as comic relief in the series thus far (and has done well in the role), but Steven Yeun brought some dramatic heft to “We don’t burn them!”, when demanding they give their friends a burial rather than dump them in the fire with the other zombies. Melissa Suzanna McBride had her best moment so far too as Carol, with her cathartic caving in of her dead husband’s head with the pick-axe. And I like how, under all the angst and the swagger of Daryl Dixon, Norman Reedus lets us see the doubt, the humanity, even the decency flickering around just under the surface, trying hard to keep itself hidden.  And we got a surprisingly cruel moment from Jacqui, responding to Jim’s pleas for her not to tell the others of his wound by screaming and pointing at the proverbial leper, inciting a level of hysteria that almost got the guy killed on the spot. Her subsequent hand-wringing and clinging all over him therefore felt a little disingenuous to me, but I’d say that says more about the contradictory nature of the character (who I think could be a kind of analogue to Donna from the comics) than any shortcomings in the performance of Jeryl Prescott.

But if there is any character whose development in this episode I wasn’t impressed with, it was Carl. The show has done a great job of capturing the husband/wife relationship between Rick and Lori and how much that means to them both, but in the comics the father/son dynamic between Rick and Carl is even more crucial, but thus far the television show has done a lot to tell us about the relationship, without really showing us much since their emotional reunion in “Tell It To The Frogs”. Chandler Riggs seems like a fine young actor, and has been able to handle emotionally-charged scenes, but soon Carl is going to need to do more than cry on demand. And I actually fear they’ve shown Carl crying too much. In the comics, the first moment I can really remember Carl shedding tears was in the climactic moment that ended issue #6, and when that moment is adapted for the television screen, I think we risk losing some of its emotional heft since we’ve already seen Carl crying over and over.

So there was me thinking that this whole episode would just be about slowing down and studying the characters, really getting into the emotion that the comic does so well. Fine by me. Then we have the group driving off in their convoy, that excellent, spine-tingling “Kaneda’s Death” theme playing in the soundtrack, and I think that’s the end.

Then we find out why the episode is called “Wildfire”.

And in the closing minutes, the dynamic of the episode, if not the season, is turned on its head, and we realise this isn’t a character-driven episode where not much happens, but in fact we’re moving forward A LOT. Do I think the group are going to discover the answer to what caused the zombie outbreak, or get a cure? Of course not. Because after the shocking shift, it goes back to being all about character. Noah Emmerich does a brilliant job depicting Dr. Jenner’s despair – you had to love the delivery of “Tomorrow, I think I’ll blow my brains out” – and what we had at the episode’s close is a wonderful piece of dramatic irony. Before we even get to see the relief of Rick and the group as they reach their apparent salvation, we already know there is no salvation waiting for them. Just large, empty rooms, and a lone madman looking for fresh meat…

I can’t believe that, already, we’ve reached the point where we only have one episode left. Next week is the finale, and here’s the exciting thing about all the deviations from the comic: this finale could go anywhere. There is so much to cover, so many directions it could go, I’m as enthralled and as eager to see how it all wraps up as someone who has never picked up an issue of the comic and only discovered The Walking Dead on TV.