If last year brought me back into the fold of regular comics reading again, 2013 was a year where I actively broadened my horizons and sampled new things. And for the first time, I truly felt I had so many more options for how to buy and read comics — single monthly issues, digital issues on iPad, trade collections — that I actually had to choose my method for which comics.
Comics like Hawkeye or Young Avengers, with colors and storytelling devices that totally pop on the screen, seemed perfect for digital-only experience. Manhattan Projects, on the other hand, is practically tailored for reading in collected form because it almost takes a few issues to wrap my brain around the knotty plot mechanics and figure out where the hell it’s all going. And in between, much of the Marvel superhero stuff like Superior Spider-man or Avengers moves better when read issue-to-issue — especially in the new bi-weekly shipping reality — like a quickly unfolding soap opera. And now that many comics come coupled with a digital issue as well, you sorta get the best of both worlds.
I will also say upfront — this is a list of things I’ve read and formed an opinion of, rather than say a comprehensive “Best of” list — I mean, let’s face it, I do have my blindspots with things like the DC Universe (little interest) and arty long-form memoir graphic novels and such that I just have not gotten around to delving into. Still, there was so much to like in 2013, and much more to eventually catch up on when I have the time. So, here goes, in no real order…
SAGA | Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Fiona Staples (artist) | (Image)
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ brilliant series Saga made some Internet controversy this year when Apple’s iTunes blocked the sale an issue from the Comixology’s app for graphic sexual content. But what got lost in the stories that followed was that this comic, while certainly for mature, is not at all attention grabbing about it. (Okay, there was that disgusting cyclops giant with the enormous ballsack.) In fact, for all its staggeringly rendered imaginative worlds, wackadoo characters and epic scope, Saga’s strength is in its humane characterizations. As the series continued into its second year, it has rolled out countless fascinating and oddball characters with complicated motivations, and an emotional depth you can identify with — even if they’re technically the “bad guy.” Simply put, Saga is a masterclass in hilarious and unpredictable storytelling, grounded, heartfelt moments and subtly-shaded character moments.
HAWKEYE | Matt Fraction (writer), David Aja, Annie Wu, Javier Pulido, Francesco Francavilla, Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm, Matt Hollingsworth (artists) | (Marvel)
Last year Hawkeye was a refreshingly new scrappy superhero comic with an indie sensibility, telling concise and whipsmart stories about a regular guy (who happens to be an Avenger for his day job) doing good with intimate street-level stakes. Now, 12 months later, the story has unfolded to be so much more as Matt Fraction has taken Clint Barton and Kate Bishop to some darker places, and a building a formidable threat of an ongoing villain. The series also took time to address New York during Hurricane Sandy, it shockingly killed off a beloved secondary character, and, in its signature issue, told a caper from the perspective of Pizza Dog — implementing inventive design and iconography that showcases the skillful storytelling sensibility of David Aja.
As the series moves forward, both Aja and newcomer Annie Wu are set to alternate issues to differentiate the focus of each main character. It’ll be an exciting new direction for Hawkeye, which remains the gold standard — both for fun and strangely emotional comics and for Marvel’s model for building new series around creator chemistry.
MIND MGMT | Matt Kindt (writer, artist) | (Dark Horse)
I first came to Matt Kindt’s phenomenal Mind MGMT with its first hardbound volume thinking it was a complete story like one of his older collected works, Revolver. But as I got to the last issue in that first book, I realized a) it was an ongoing series and b) there was way too much that Kindt is building to to be done anytime soon. Kindt is on to something special here, with an unfolding mystery of a down-on-her-luck reporter investigating a flight where all the passengers lost memories and a shady organization made of people with special abilities. And it’s expertly illustrated in a unique sketchy mix of pencil and water colors. Mind MGMT is a comic that relishes in the details — from the multiple narration viewpoints that aren’t always reliable to the little details told in the pages’ margins that add extra important information to the twisty plotlines. In a crowded field of amazing creator-owned works, this may be the most distinctive out there.
YOUNG AVENGERS | Kieron Gillen (writer), Jamie McKelvie, Mike Norton, Kate Brown (artists) | (Marvel)
One of the most exciting teams in the whole Marvel Now launch of books was the decidedly hip Phonogram creators Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie taking on Young Avengers — and it was obvious from the very first page that this was a teen superhero book like no other. There’s a youthful swagger, a hip-hop vibrancy, and a dynamic pop song energy to this book; and under Gillen and McKelvie’s direction, these characters completely feel their age. Books about teenage heroes are a dime a dozen, in part because the soap opera drama and learning to hone powers is an apt metaphor for learning about responsibility, decision making, and growing up. Still, few comics like Young Avengers truly capture the angst of being in transition and rootless, feeling romantically messed-up, and the joy trying new things on the way to evolving who you will eventually become.
But more, this is a book where the internal creator chemistry has allowed for groundbreaking art and storytelling like few can: the way McKelvie deconstructs a page layout, renders explosive action sequences, and mixes in graphic design elements and social media flourishes is awe-inspiring; the recap page as Tumblr feed is particularly clever, as was the Instagram montage in a later issue. But his crisp modernist romance comics illustrative approach and stylish fashion design (check out Miss America Chavez’s ever-changing clothes) is perfect for showing the intimate conversations — often while eating — that make this book sing. Together with Gillen’s mixtape annotations, this Young Avengers run established a very specific mood that feels stylistically forward-thinking and completely of the moment. Put simply: It’s an absolute delight just hanging out with these characters.
FATALE | Ed Brubaker (writer), Sean Phillips (artist) | (Image)
The creative relationship between Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is so long-lasting and so consistent, it’s gotten easy to take what they’re doing in Fatale for granted. The series just keeps humming along with a unique mix of pulpy mystery, shadowy noir and gruesome horror that’s all so spot on that that voice carries through no matter what era it takes place in. This was never more evident than in the arc of compact single-issue stories that jumped from one time period to the next, which added even more eerie backstory to the unfolding Josephine plot. But with Fatale’s current arc, Brubaker tapped into something more personal: a doomed Seattle grunge band in the 1990’s — a place and time Brubaker lived. As the ultimate mythology is teased out and begins reveal itself, one thing is clear, Fatale is one of those comics where anything can happen — from two creators still at the top of their game.
SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN | Dan Slott, Ryan Stegman, Humberto Ramos, Giuseppe Camuncoli | (Marvel)
This time last year, Spider-man (a.k.a. Peter Parker) found himself mind-switched with foe Doctor Octopus in a twisty and shocking story that ultimately left Otto Octavius in Peter’s body, and Peter, well, dead. Holy crap. That was the end of The Amazing Spider-man book — but only the beginning of this story. Enter Superior Spider-man, a meaner, power-hungry Doc Ock posing as Spidey who’s attempting to do a more effective job fighting crime while building Spider Island, a stronghold full of Spider-clad soldiers. And, really, burning every bridge and generally pissing off everyone else — who don’t realize it’s not Peter — in the process.
There’s been hints of a way out of this storyline — it can’t go on forever right? — with traces of Peter’s ghost-like psyche trapped and buried in the far reaches of the brain, and an ex-girlfriend investigating some suspicions that something’s not right. To many, this was a controversial, infuriating a concept that initially seemed both dumb and a short-lived gimmick. And yet, Slott and his amazing rotation of artists are not taking a redo anytime soon, let alone the easy route back to normal. Instead, they’re pushing this idea further with multiple “holy crap” moments and changes to the status quo — all while slowly building tension, romantic drama, and new and old enemies (Hey, Green Goblin is plotting again, but who’s under the mask?). In a long-term run already brimming with fun and cool ideas, this ongoing plot has been a rejuvenating must read every other week.
TRILLIUM | Jeff Lemire (writer, artist) | (Vertigo)
It was through his visceral (literally, there was a lot of actual viscera) horror take on DC’s Animal Man that brought me to the work of Jeff Lemire. But where most know Lemire from his Vertigo series Sweet Tooth (I’ve since tried the first volume), his millenia-spanning science fiction series, Trillium, is the first creator-owned thing I’ve sought out from him. And once I finished that first issue, I realized my mind was blown: See, I first read Trillium on an iPad, but this is a story meant to be read in a tangible periodical form.
In one of the most innovative only-in-comics storytelling devices I’ve seen, Lemire sets up that first issue as a flipbook — read frontwards it’s a futuristic tale of a woman interacting with an equally primitive and advanced alien race; backwards, it’s a shell-shocked WWI veteran on an artifact-seeking trip — with the characters’ lives literally meeting in the middle. But the masterful part is that every panel in the layout perfectly mirrors an identical one in the same spot in the other character’s story. This parallel structure allows us to immediately get to know each person individually, while instantly seeing how their time-displaced lives intersect before they even meet. This mini-series is only a few issues in, but it’s already apparent how brilliant it will be once completed.
DAREDEVIL | Mark Waid (writer), Marcos Martin, Chris Samnee, et al (artists) | (Marvel)
What Mark Waid has done the last few years with Daredevil has been impressive. Compared to the brinksmanship gloom and tragedy of previous runs (which, I’ll admit I loved, of course), Waid’s take has felt like a tonal overhaul without ignoring what’s come before. Matt Murdock as Daredevil remains funny and smart, and often in over his head, as he battles familiar foes, new enemies and even delves into the real-life ramifications of law partner Foggy Nelson’s cancer — something the book is wise to point out that even superheroes cannot solve.
There’s a Silver Age wonder and a modernist approach to this run, and coupled with Chris Samnee’s clean, cartoon-like art and layouts, the book looks as good as ever. Three years in, Waid’s slowly developing drama builds over multiple arcs, but is still completely approachable to new readers. Simply put: Like Hawkeye, Daredevil among the best Marvel has to offer and a delight to read each month.
FF | Matt Fraction, Lee Allred (writers), Mike Allred, Laura Allred (artists), Joe Quinones | (Marvel)
Matt Fraction and his wild imagination is what initially drew me to this iteration of the FF — starring a cast of lesser-used characters like She Hulk, Scott Lang’s Ant Man, Medusa and a new creation Miss Thing, a Katy Perry-like pop star hilariously wearing some bulky Thing armor. Oh yeah, plus a bunch of the Fantastic Four adjacent kids that are under their care while the normal Fantastic Four is off adventuring in space (over in Fraction’s other book). But with Mike Allred’s Kirby-infused pop art illustrations, and the bold, bright colors from his wife Laura Allred, this book just screams fun and joy. And once Fraction left the book to to Allred’s brother Lee (leaving his plots as reference to complete the arc), the all-Allred collaboration seemed perfect to capture the familial tone of this makeshift superhero family.
MANHATTAN PROJECTS | Jonathan Hickman (writer), Nick Pitarra (artists) | (Image)
When it comes to world-building, Jonathan Hickman thinks on a level few writers are audacious enough to reach for. And where his work on Avengers is massive cosmic superheroics, Manhattan Projects‘ mind-bending blend of bizarro science and history is truly out of this world, and a ton of fun. As the story continues to spin out, the evil historic figures — like alternate-universe Einstein doppelganger, FDR as an artificial intelligence, Oppenheimer’s diabolical psychic twin, Enrico Fermi and Egyptian god\cult-worshiping Harry Truman (to name a few) — are taking over the world, and universe by collaborating with not only the Soviets but an alien race. And as one might expect with power-hungry bleeding edge scientists, these sorts of team-ups don’t last and things get hyper-violent, disturbing and seriously fucked up in a hurry. And thanks to Nick Pitarra’s cartoonish but detailed linework and red\blue color schemes, this is a book that still looks like no other in science fiction comics.
AVENGERS / NEW AVENGERS / INFINITY | Jonathan Hickman (writer), Jerome Opena, Mike Deodato, Lenil Yu, Dustin Weaver, Steve Epting, Jim Cheung, et al (artists) | (Marvel)
Jonathan Hickman is no stranger to big ideas — his work on Fantastic Four took those characters to new epic heights. But with the twice-a-month Avengers book, the Illuminati-starring New Avengers, and the just-completed cosmic crossover event Infinity, Hickman has the largest playground yet. And he’s not just world-building, he’s universe-building (and even world destroying).
The Avengers are in galaxy-expansion mode: With a sprawling cast of some 20+ characters (including many new ones from the old New Universe), each hero serves a specific piece in a methodical structure — not only on the team, but the story itself. And with that many things on the board, it can all be a bit difficult to parse — Infinity in particular was such a massive story, it was easy to get a little lost. And as you might expect, some faces go underserved in the service of plot mechanics.
Furthermore, for all his grandiose ideas, Hickman still cannot rock the boat that much; he’s still tethered to countless characters appearing in numerous other titles, and a corporate structure with a billion-dollar movie franchise after all. But this first year’s worth of Avengers — culminating with Infinity — hinted it was only the tip of the iceberg for what’s planned — New Avengers seems to be teasing out an end of the world scenario that’s only gonna get worse before it gets better. And that’ll be incredibly exciting to see where this all ends up in a few years.
THE PRIVATE EYE | Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Marcos Martin, Munsta Vicente (artists) | (Panel Syndicate)
Long before Beyonce unleashed an entire album onto iTunes, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin sorta did it first in the comics world, dropping The Private Eye with little advanced notice. Only instead of heading to your typical comic shop to find a tangible copy, The Private Eye was released as a DRM-free digital file on their new Web site in that “pay what you want” model — still pretty new territory for comics in the digital age. And considering the subject matter in the story, that approach tonally makes sense.
Essentially, this is a murder mystery in another not-so-distant future where no one can be identified: Out in public, people wear these elaborate colorful masks and disguises to shield their faces and their privacy. Set after some sort of technological disaster compromised the world’s Internet security and made everyone’s web search histories, personal data and e-mails embarrassingly public, Vaughan is clearly commenting on the social media era in which we live. But as depicted by Martin’s clean, 1960’s-inspired line work and bold fluorescent colors, this futurist world is rendered in splashy surreal flourishes that make it a joy to look at — especially in the wild variety of masks of every shape and size that everyone wears. Considering the recent privacy issues surrounding government agencies, The Private Eyes is a series that seems to be right on time.
UNCANNY X-MEN / ALL-NEW X-MEN / WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN / X-MEN | Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Brian Wood (writers), Stuart Immonen, Chris Bachalo, Nick Bradshaw, Oliver Coipel, et al. | (Marvel)
Over the years, the sprawling and complicated X-Men franchise hasn’t always rewarded its fans, nor made it easy on new readers; it felt briefly reinvigorated under Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon, before spinning in circles in its aftermath. But under Mike Carey, Brubaker, Fraction, Gillen, we started to get some real stakes and reinvention. Now, the X-Men pillar is as enormous as ever — just how many titles are there now? — but never before has each book been so individually strong and distinctive, while also feeling interconnected with a larger story.
Credit Jason Aaron, who jump-started this new era with the current Cyclops versus Wolverine schism, and his delightful book focusing on the Wolverine-led school of weirdo young mutants. Credit longtime Avengers writer Brian Michael Bendis for jumping to the X-Men for two books — one focused around Cyclops and Magneto’s
FIVE MORE THINGS I READ IN 2013:
Many of these stories have only just begun, but have a ton of promise for what’s to come.
LAZARUS | Greg Rucka (writer), Michael Lark (artist) | (Image)
An incredible creative team depicts a genetically-created one-woman killing machine in a not-so-distant future where mob-like family corporations rule everything.
SEX CRIMINALS | Matt Fraction (writer), Chip Zdarsky (artist) | (Image)
One of the bluntest and most hilarious depictions of sex and the complicated emotions it can create — as told by two characters who can stop time with every orgasm. So they decide to rob banks. Cuz, sure.
VELVET | Ed Brubaker (writer), Steve Epting, Bettie Breitweiser (artists) | (Image)
The Captain America dream team regroups to tell a Cold War espionage thriller with a surprisingly highly trained Ms. Moneypenny-stand-in on the run from internal conspiracy.
BLACK SCIENCE | Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera, Dean White (artists) | (Image)
Imaginative and utterly bizarre sci-fi where messing about with time-streams, the laws of physics, and dark sciences can have terrible consequences. Also, primitive frog people.
EAST OF WEST | Jonathan Hickman (writer), Nick Dragotta (artist) | (Image)
A sci-fi western in which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, including Death himself as a Clint Eastwood-esque gunslinger, returns to Earth to instigate the end times and kill the President of the United States who once betrayed him.
SIX OLD THINGS NEW TO ME:
Books that I’ve come to read well after they came out.
1) CASSANOVA | Matt Fraction, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba
2) REVOLVER | Matt Kindt
3) X-STATIX | Peter Milligan, Mike Allred, et al
4) DEMO | Brian Wood, Becky Cloonan
5) SWEET TOOTH | Jeff Lemire
6) 100 BULLETS | Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso
SEVEN NEW OR UPCOMING COMICS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO IN 2014:
There’s a bunch of new stuff already to look forward to in 2014 — though Pretty Deadly has already had a few issues out that I haven’t gotten around to trying…Here’s a few.
1) PRETTY DEADLY | Kelly Sue DeConnick, Emma Rios | (Image)
2) SILVER SURFER | Dan Slott, Mike Allred | (Marvel)
3) DEADLY CLASS | Rick Remender, Wes Craig | (Image)
4) MS MARVEL, CAPTAIN MARVEL, BLACK WIDOW, SHE HULK | (Marvel)
5) MOON KNIGHT | Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey | (Marvel)
6) ODY-C | Matt Fraction, Christian Ward | (Image)
7) SOUTHERN BASTARDS | Jason Aaron, Jason Latour | (Image)