Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE BEST OF 2013 - The Best COMICS Of The Year


- What began in 2012 continued into 2013. Yes, last year I dove knee-deep into the digital comics revolution, and as I predicted, the way that I've enjoyed the medium has continued to evolve. More and more, it's easy to sample less mainstream comics, and more and more, publishers like Image are monopolizing a lot of the best talent and stories in the business. In 2013, creators who once split their time between established superhero books and creator-owned comics went full-blown indie. The best writers in the biz - Rucka, Brubaker, Vaughan, Lemire, Snyder, Hickman, Fraction, and more - were all doing amazing work this year on 100% original books. Sure, guys like Snyder and Lemire and Hickman were still doing some excellent books for DC or Marvel, but it feels to me like the beating heart of the comics industry has officially shifted from the established superheroes to original characters whose stories comprise a variety of genres - sci-fi, romance, noir, horror, Western, and more. These types of books always seem to bring out the best in their creators, and it was a thrill to see new books like The Wake, Lazarus, and Trillium quickly rise to the top of my must-read list this year.

Interestingly enough though, it was the Big Two that produced some of the most interesting experiments in digital-only comics this year. In 2013, some of the best superhero stories I read were weekly, digital-only, out-of-continuity comics. If you haven't sampled Batman '66, you've got to give it a look. Written and drawn in the style of the old Adam West TV show, the comic is absolutely hilarious - reintroducing classic villains from the old show, and also intermixing some ideas from more modern Batman interpretations. Even cooler, many issues of Batman '66 take advantage of the digital format with semi-animated panels and more digital-friendly storytelling devices. The experience of reading on an iPad is just plain fun. DC scored another weekly digital hit this year with Injustice, based on the videogame of the same name. On paper, I never would have thought that a digital comic based on a game would be anything special. But I was proven wrong - writer Tom Taylor produced the best DC Comics big-event story of the year - an exciting, twist-filled yarn about a world in which a grieving Superman snaps, and decides to rule the earth with an iron fist - crushing any remaining heroes who would dare oppose him. Taylor came out of nowhere to quickly become a writer to watch. More and more, it felt like some of the best superhero stories being told were in the digital format. In addition to Injustice and Batman '66, digital-only comics like Adventures of Superman and Legends of the Dark Knight gave an assortment of top creators the chance to tell one-off Superman or Batman stories free from the constraints of DC's regular continuity. The result was some fantastic stories. Increasingly, I can see these sorts of digital-only comics becoming the norm, and becoming the best place to find great stories.

Of course, a big discussion point this year among fans was gender politics. With more and more female readers getting into comics, it stands to reason that there is now a lot more scrutiny on the industry as a whole. This isn't a new phenomena, but fans were more vocal than ever in their desire to see strong female characters, as well as to see high-profile books written and drawn by women. The major publishers are getting better at this than before. Many of this year's best books - Lazarus, Trillium, Saga, The Wake, Sex Criminals, and more - featured great, compelling, well-written female protagonists or co-leads. There is still a lot of work to be done - especially with the superhero books - but it does feel like there is starting to be much more diversity in the stories being told, and much more diversity in terms of the top-selling and most buzzed-about books, that reflects a new and more-diverse-than-ever audience. Hopefully things continue to improve to an even larger extent. But, going back to the ongoing theme of how digital comics are changing the industry, the ease by which comics can now be bought and read is going to be, I think, a huge factor in that continued diversification of material and readership. A quick glance at Comixology's current best-seller list shows books like Locke & Key and Saga selling neck-and-neck with Batman and Justice League, so as you can see, the times, they are a-changing.


1.) The Wake

- The Wake has been an awesome read month-in, month out since it kicked off earlier this year. And that's no surprise, as it comes from a comics dream team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Sean Murphy. Snyder has become one of the best and most prolific writers in the biz over the last couple of years, but The Wake might actually be my favorite thing he's done to date. It started out as an ultra-intense, ultra-mysterious sci-fi/horror adventure - a page-turning mix of The Abyss, Alien, The X-Files, and HP Lovecraft. The book, thus far, has been about a team of scientists brought down to a top-secret underwater military base, to study a new species of human-like creatures discovered in the deep. Of course, things begin to go very wrong, as the creatures are not happy about being held captive and studied. What gives the book an extra layer of intrigue though is the brief flashes we've seen to the far future - a post-apocalyptic earth submerged in water. Presumably, the events in the present will result in this strange future, but how we get from Point A to Point B is going to be a hell of a ride. Meanwhile, the art by Sean Murphy is amazing - the guy does gritty, atmospheric drawing like no one else. Act One of The Wake just wrapped up this past month, setting the stage for a new chapter that promises to take the story in a whole new direction. I can't wait.

2.) Trillium

- I was really sad to see writer/artist Jeff Lemire's last book for DC's Vertigo imprint, Sweet Tooth, end at the beginning of the year. Sweet Tooth was one of my favorite comics of the last several years, and its spectacular final issue made it ending all the more bittersweet. But hey, that loss was more than made up for by the launch, a few months later, of Lemire's latest Vertigo book, Trillium. As with Sweet Tooth, it mixes high-concept ideas with a hefty dose of humanity. Trillium is a sci-fi romance, in which two explorers - one from the early 1900's, another from the distant future, meet thanks to a strange portal that traverses time and space. With innovative storytelling and imaginative art, Trillium has already wowed me, but I feel like it's only just revving up. The next year's worth of issues should be something special.

3.) Saga

- Now in its second year, Saga continues to be the gold standard for ongoing comics. Brian K. Vaughan is the master at writing real-world characters in extraordinary settings. Even though Saga is an oftentimes mind-bending story involving intergalactic warfare, sinister robots, feuding bounty hunters, and giant monsters, the dialogue and characters are 100% of this world. Vaughan worked a similar sort of magic with his seminal Y: The Last Man, and as it goes on, Saga keeps inching closer to that high watermark of quality. It doesn't hurt that Fiona Staple's art is amazing and utterly unique in the comics world. Her streamlined, iconic images make Saga consistently one of the most eye-popping comics you'll find.

4.) Lazarus

- This new book from writer Greg Rucka and artist Michael Lark is like Game of Thrones but in a near-future apocalyptic setting. Rucka deftly imagines a world not too far removed from our own, in which the 1% has evolved into a ruling class of five families. All others serve the families, and all others live in poverty and oppression. There's some great, intriguing world-building going on here, and it's all very-much based off of current politics. The hero of the book, however, is a young female soldier known as a Lazarus - a genetically engineered super-soldier designed to protect her "family's" interests. But what happens when this soldier begins to rebel against not just her family, but the whole system? Watching this world get uprooted is going to be a lot of fun in the coming year. Rucka is doing top-notch work on this one, and the gritty pencils of Lark are always appreciated.

5.) Fatale

- Here's another favorite from last year that kept on impressing me in 2013. Ed Brubaker's Fatale reached new film-noir heights this year, as it delved more into the backstory of its cursed protagonist Josephine - an immortal woman caught up in a dangerous conspiracy. A flashback issue taking place in the Old West was a highlight, as has been the current storyline that inserts Jo as a sort of Yoko Ono-like figure in a 90's-era grunge band. Each new chapter of Fatale reveals more about the strange circumstances of Josephine's life, while at the same time furthering the book's mysterious, Lovecraftian mythology. And no other comic is more densely atmospheric - you can practically smell the gin and cigarettes as you read each issue.

6.) Animal Man

- Jeff Lemire's take on the classic DC Comics B-lister has been one of the true highlights of the New 52 DC reboot. The book has been incredibly consistent, and had a great year in 2013. From the epic "Rotworld" saga, to a major death-in-the-family, to the gripping current story-arc involving villain Brother Blood, Lemire has delivered a great mix of Alan Moore-esque heroes and horror that keeps me eagerly awaiting each new issue. Recently, it was announced that Animal Man will be ending in 2014. It's a shame - this has been DC's best ongoing book for the last two years. But when all is said and done, Lemire will have given us one of the all-time classic superhero book runs.

7.) Injustice

- This is, easily, the most unlikely pick on this list. Like I said above, I never imagined that a weekly digital-only comic that also happened to be a videogame tie-in would be among my favorite reads of the year. But I, and a lot of others, jumped on the Injustice bandwagon when it became apparent that this was, believe it or not, the best big, epic, superhero book that DC was putting out. How did that happen? For one thing, writer Tom Taylor took what could have been a throwaway assignment and made it his own. He imbued Injustice with smart dialogue, well-drawn characters, and most of all, epic twists and cliffhangers that often paid tribute to fondly-remembered moments in DC Comics lore. While the main-line New 52 books were trying their hardest not to call back to the pre-reboot storylines, Taylor was clearly having a blast playing in the DC sandbox. I gave the book a try on a whim after enjoying the game, but quickly found myself chomping at the bit to read each new weekly installment.

8.) Batman

- Scott Snyder continues to nail it with his work on Batman. Earlier this year, he wrapped up the dark, ultra-intense Joker story "Death of the Family" in fantastic fashion. Since then, he's done a great job of making "Zero Year" - a reimagined look at Bruce Wayne's first year as Batman - into a must-read storyline. As much as it frustrates me to see origins endlessly retold, I'll give Zero Year a pass simply because it's so darn good. Snyder and artist Greg Capullo simply know how to do the big, cinematic moments to perfection. At the same time, the book has a darkness and a grittiness and intensity that calls to mind the Christopher Nolan movies. With Snyder at the helm, Batman continues to be one of the must-read books in DC's stable.

9.) The Walking Dead

- The Walking Dead hit a bit of a slump for a while, but it's been roaring back thanks to the ongoing "All Out War" story-arc - a multifaceted, unpredictable saga that sees Rick's makeshift community join with other neighboring villages to take down the tyrannical psychopath Negan. Negan is sort of a controversial villain among Walking Dead fans - in some respects, he does feel a bit like a retread of The Governor. But I give Robert Kirkman credit - Negan is his own wholly unique brand of crazy, and he's been built up to be so evil, so horrible, that man, rarely have I ever been so desperate for a villain to get his comeuppance. I'm slightly behind here, as I continue to read The Walking Dead via collected editions, but I can't wait to see how "All Out War" wraps up. Kirkman is the master of the jaw-dropping, holy-$#%& moment, so I have faith he'll deliver yet again.

10.) Batman '66

- Holy comebacks, Batman - in 2013, the 1966 Batman was back with a vengeance! Here's another one that turned out improbably good. New stories set in the universe of the old Adam West Batman TV show? I was skeptical, but curious. As it turned out, this digital weekly is one of the craziest, funniest comics I've read - it takes the old show's psychedelic campiness and cranks it up to eleven. The unlimited budget of the comics format means that the dynamic duo can have more out-there, far bigger adventures than they ever did on the small screen. And writer Jeff Parker masterfully captures the mannerisms and humor of Adam West, Burt Ward, and the rest of the old cast, amping up the ridiculousness to even greater and more hilarious heights.


11.) The Manhattan Projects

- Jonathan Hickman's insane alternate history mind-bender - in which real-life scientists like Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi work in secret on all manner of space-age government projects - continued to entertain this year.

12.) Sex Criminals

- Still only a few issues in, but Matt Fraction's oddball book - about a couple who can freeze time whenever they get busy - is one of the best new comic debuts of the year. It sounds strange, sure, but the writing is spot-on and the characters are well-drawn.

13.) All-Star Western

- The ongoing adventures of scarred Old West bounty hunter Jonah Hex took a strange turn this year, when Hex was time-warped into the present day. What could have been cheesy has actually turned out sort of awesome, as writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have used the device to satirize and explore modern society vs. that of Hex's native wild west.

14.) Time Warp

- For the last couple of years, Vertigo has been releasing a series of oversized anthology specials, packed with thematically-linked short stories from all manner of top talent. My favorite yet was this year's Time Warp special, a collection of time-travel themed stories from a bevvy of talented writers and artists. My favorite? A fun, twisty time-loop story from Lost showrunner Damon Lindeloff, in which time-travelling hero Rip Hunter must continually save his younger self from certain death, creating a never-ending paradox. Keep these anthologies coming, Vertigo.

15.) The Adventures of Superman

- Yet another digital weekly comic that makes the list. Whereas the main-line Superman titles have been a very mixed bag this year, the short story arcs in this weekly series have been by and large fantastic. These are simple, continuity-free tales that give us classic, iconic Superman stories without the baggage of whatever's going on in the main storylines. So far, that includes a wonderful riff on "Flowers For Algernon" starring Bizarro, a harrowing tale about a busy day in the life of Superman, and a fascinating "what-if" about a Superman who decides to get tough on crime by moonlighting as a Punisher-esque vigilante.


FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics
Detective Comics
Judge Dredd
The Phantom Stranger
Fables / Fairest
Swamp Thing
Justice League Dark
Green Arrow
Batman & Robin
Earth 2
Kick-Ass 3
Jupiter's Legacy


- Geoff Johns' final issue of GREEN LANTERN in May capped off a several-year run on the title that marked a modern-day renaissance for the character. While the title had had its ups and downs over the last few years, Johns delivered a memorable finale - tying up years worth of plot threads and character development into an action and emotion-packed send-off. Johns' work on GL, in its prime, was absolute must-read stuff, with story after story that was an instant classic - from the epic Sinestro Corps War to Blackest Night. Johns expanded the GL universe, introducing an entire spectrum of ring-wielders and coalescing decades of continuity into one giant, sprawling mythology. Under Johns, GL was grand space opera - the Star Wars of superhero comics.

- Similarly, I've also got to note the end of Grant Morrison's several-year long Batman saga in the pages of BATMAN, INC. Morrison first began writing ongoing Batman stories years ago, later making waves by introducing Damian Wayne, the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghul, and having him become the latest to assume the name of Robin. While other Bat-books rebooted as part of the New 52, Morrison's increasingly self-contained saga continued, with things coming full-circle. Batman and his allies had to fight a global terrorist network - Leviathan - fronted by Talia, and Damian was caught in the crosshairs. And so, Morrison's story again wove back into the greater DCU, as he penned the tragic death of Damian. Robin, once again, was dead. It's hard to know how to rate this final run on Batman, Inc., because it was so weird, so insular, and so uniquely Morrison. But the legendary writer deserves props for writing a globe-trotting, psychedelic Batman saga in an age where grim n' gritty Batman was par for the course.

- I continue to follow INVINCIBLE in trade-paperback format, and still count myself as a huge fan of Robert Kirkman's modern spin on classic superhero fiction. I'm behind enough on the current storylines that I didn't feel I should include this one in my Best-of-the-Year list. Suffice it to say, it remains one of my favorite reads.

- Speaking of which, LOCKE & KEY will undoubtedly go down as one of the best comic book series of this decade. Earlier this year, I read through Volume 5 of the series, and was completely blown away by the story that author Joe Hill had built towards. I've yet to read the series' final issues that came out recently, but I've read the glowing reviews and have seen them atop many year-end lists. I'll be picking up the sixth and final collected volume when it's released in February, but I had to give this book a shout-out now. It really has been the best comic book going for the last few years, and I hope that Hill has something new up his sleeve in the not-too-distant future, because I and many others will surely be going through Locke & Key withdrawal.


1.) Scott Snyder (Batman, The Wake)
2.) Jeff Lemire (Trillium, Animal Man, Green Arrow)
3.) Brian K. Vaughan (Saga)
4.) Ed Bruabaker (Fatale)
5.) Greg Rucka (Lazarus)
6.) Tom Taylor (Injustice, Earth 2)
7.) Robert Kirkman (Walking Dead, Invincible)
8.) Jeff Parker (Batman '66)
9.) Jonathan Hickman (The Manhattan Projects, Infinity)
10.) Matt Fraction (Sex Criminals)


1.) Sean Murphy (The Wake)
2.) Fiona Staples (Saga)
3.) Jeff Lemire (Trillium)
4.) Jason Fabok (Detective Comics)
5.) Greg Capullo (Batman)
6.) Patrick Gleason (Batman & Robin)
7.) Sean Phillips (Fatale)
8.) Nick Pitarra (Manhattan Projects)
9.) Ivan Reiss (Aquaman, Justice League)
10.) Michael Lark (Lazarus)

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