Another year, another influx of books. While most seemed either mediocre or not-bad enough to escape my hawklike gaze unnoticed, a few stood out in particular. Some may not be glad they did.
It was a pretty turbulent year, all things considered, for all areas of the comic book world. DC handled the second year of their New 52 reboot about as well as you’d expect, spawning the birth of a website dedicated to keeping track of their myriad missteps throughout the year. Marvel’s NOW “relaunch” ended up firing on all cylinders, at least at the start, but their continued momentum forward will depend on keeping their stories fresh and engaging and not solely reliant on the success of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers from last year. It’d also help if they could fix up Agents of SHIELD a little, but that’s not my department.
While Marvel may be kicking DC’s ass right now, in critical response if not in sales-per-month, Image takes the crown as best comics company this year. I could probably count on one hand the number of Image books I’ve read this year that left me as dissatisfied as the plethora of DC and Marvel titles that did the same, and it seems they’re the publishers most concerned with actual innovation, creativity and originality. That’s not to say no superhero efforts broke the mould and stepped out in the dark and uncertain territories of something new this year – which quite a few actually did – but Image are quickly grabbing my attention as the company to watch closely as they move into the future. Even some of the books that didn’t end up on the Best 5 list from them are still definitely worthy of your reading time.
What’s that about Dark Horse? I haven’t mentioned them, you say? Well, there’s a reason for that. There’s only so many Buffy, Angel, Buffy/Angel, Angel/Faith, Spike, Buffy/Angel/Firefly or Buffy/Angel/Firefly/Dollhouse comics I can stand to read in one go. It seems between that and their faithful Hellboy and BPRD books there’s only so much bread-and-butter you can force down people’s throats. Ok, yes, they also branched out into books like post-world green aesop The Massive and that reimagining of the original Star Wars script, but the former was a complete and utter dried-up prune of a book, and the latter…was actually kinda cool. So, alright, maybe I’ll check out the trade for that next year.
And alright, yes, they also gave us MIND MGMT, which was pretty awesome (despite the fact Damon Lindelof’s a fan).
It was actually really tricky working out this year’s lists, and if I was confident I could keep my readers’ attention held for more than two minutes I might’ve extended to a Best and Worst 10 instead (and congratulations to all readers who’ve made it this far without switching to the BBC’s Doctor Who iPlayer). Actually the Worst 10 would probably be boring since it’d consist mostly of the mid-range DC books I left out of the Worst 5. Remember, only books I reviewed that were released this year are eligible for an award – those of you hoping that I’ll bequeath honours to Claremont and Miller’s Wolverine are about three decades too late. With that in mind, let’s get rolling:
DISHONOURABLE MENTION – JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE VILLAIN’S JOURNEY
PUBLISHER: DC COMICS
The follow-up to last year’s Best Graphic Novel of 2012 gets stuck here, rather than on the Bottom 5 list proper, because it was disappointing. I don’t mean in the sense that you’re disappointed when a toddler poops on your kitchen floor, knowing you’ll have to waste time ferreting out the Kleenex and disinfectant spray. It’s the kind of disappointed where the toddler spends a whole year using the potty, then manages to poop right in the middle of your Christmas turkey as friends and family you’ve not seen for months watch on in horror. Also your toddler can levitate high enough to poop on that turkey, because it’s a wizard.
Origin kicked ass, and The Villain’s Journey did not. It was ploddy, misguided, at times incoherent and rather poorly illustrated during the first half. I know Geoff Johns is better than this, and I know not all his work is as terrible as Aquaman. True, the book following this one – Throne of Atlantis – seems to be making strides towards being good again, but it doesn’t change the fact that The Villain’s Journey was a lacklustre and unworthy successor to what came before it. That said, it was only slightly less disappointing than…
5 – SEVERED
PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS
“OH MY GOD!” scream my long-time readers. “A Scott Snyder book in the BOTTOM FIVE??!! WHAT THE HELL’S HAPPENED???!!” Ok, you’re probably not sounding that dramatic, and it’s probably only one reader rather than plural, but it’s still quite unusual that I’m putting Snyder in the corner considering the praise I heap upon him on a regular basis. No amount of excellent Batman stories or provocative American Vampire tales can erase the fact that I found Severed to be lacking in the things Snyder’s works usually produce; coherent pacing, involving characters and a story that, y’know, goes somewhere. It’s not a bad book, just not a great one, and it sits here at Number 5 for the same reason Justice League sits above; it was disappointing as a follow-up to an otherwise sterling author’s body of work. Hardcore horror fans and the vampire crowd who aren’t stuck riding the Twilight train might get more out of it than I did, but for a book given by one of my favourite writers it didn’t hit the mark. And no, I’m not marking it down just because it isn’t part of his Batman run.
4 – ALL-NEW X-MEN: HERE TO STAY
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
Ah, Brian Bendis, you fickle fiend, you. Over the past few years I’ve seen good stories, great stories, excellent stories and truly crap stories from you; All-New X-Men currently falls into the latter. The smooshing together of various X-characters, dialogue almost as bad as a Tommy Wiseau film and plot points taken almost wholesale from Doctor Who and Looper ends up giving an experience akin to soaking in a tub of honey and child vomit – way too much of something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s particularly frustrating because Bendis can be a great writer when he wants to – his Dark Avengers run is still the benchmark for me in terms of Villain Protagonist stories, and one of his books even managed to sneak into my accolades for this year below. Yet, it’s really apparent that he’s not cut out for team books like this, or the grand, sweeping epics he attempts to fashion out of things like Age of Ultron. If he could just stick to street-level books like Daredevil, or maybe lower-key things involving only one or two major characters with a good supporting cast, then I could stop kicking him in the teeth. Hell, imagine what he could do with someone like the Punisher or Iron Fist in their own ongoing series? Ahem, excuse me, let’s move on before I start salivating at the thought. I need to give Bendis one more kick with…
3 – AVENGERS ASSEMBLE
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
Yeah, I can’t. I can’t even. I had enough of a vent about Avengers Assemble in its review – go read that if you want the full bile-filled experience. Suffice it to say that a book touted as having close links to Joss Whedon’s excellent movie was probably never going to live up to expectation, and after reading it I can say it most certainly didn’t. Flimsy characterisation, incredibly poor and two-dimensional dialogue, heroes put on a team together for absolutely no reason other than to sate those casual readers who saw the movie, a villain who gets replaced halfway through without actually doing that much villainous stuff, and a completely shoehorned appearance by the Guardians of the Galaxy. Just, no.
2 – SUPERBOY: EXTRACTION
PUBLISHER: DC COMICS
This only narrowly escaped being Number 1 by the thinnest of thin, thin margins. As with some of the others in this list, it’s here because of disappointment; last year’s Incubation was a surprise favourite of mine, and completely exceeded the standards I had for books focussed on angsty teen superheroes. Where Extraction avoids a lower place for its induced disappointment is that it eclipsed being merely annoyed that it hadn’t lived up to the book that came before it, but that it was absolutely, horrifically stupid. It didn’t help that chunks of the story were taken out of the Superboy/Teen Titans crossover book The Culling, of which I have absolutely no interest, so after those solitary puzzle pieces the parts of the book that are exclusively Superboy are just bad. A plot involving a drunk socialite who gets freaked out by superpowers? Moving in with the most blatantly-gay (in the sense that he keeps drawing attention to the fact) superhero ever scribbled onto paper? Art that would’ve done well for Aryan propaganda posters? Yeah. No thanks.
1 – THUNDERBOLTS: NO QUARTER
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
Let me state that this book doesn’t take my Worst of 2013 spot because it lacks the quality of previous runs. I know Andy Diggle and Warren Ellis wrote sterling stories for the Thunderbolts way back when, but I haven’t read any of them. I expect if I had I would’ve been a harsher marker than I already am, probably condemning this feckless piece of substandard trash to whatever list is below the Bottom Five for the year. Maybe there’s a category for books only suitable as toilet paper. Even if there was, No Quarter wouldn’t even qualify for that. Absolutely no plot (seriously, there’s no driving narrative force at all here), characters written far outside their normal modes of behaviour, scriptwork that’s drier and more boring than a rhinoceros sticking its horn in your gut, and artwork that could charitably be described as having been torn from a preschooler’s scribble book. Brian Bendis may oscillate between great and crap works, but Daniel Way proves here that he’s through-and-through just a terribly awful writer no matter what day of the week it is. I don’t care that Deadpool wants to jump Elektra’s bones but gets c**k-blocked by the Punisher, I don’t care that Venom got’s a new suit that wouldn’t look out of place at the Hellfire Club, and I do not care one tiny bit about anything that happens in this book. At all. Period. Seriously, watching paint dry would be more fulfilling than this bollocks.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS – CAPTAIN MARVEL: DOWN & DAREDEVIL: END OF DAYS
PUBLISHER (both): MARVEL COMICS
Now that the bile’s been expelled, here are the good ‘uns for the thirteenth year of this brand new millennium. I get that “brand new” is kind of subjective since thirteen years is a long time, and we all got over Y2K already, but now I’m just tangenting.
Two books that only narrowly missed an accolade on the Top Five this year deserve kind words anyway. As the second volume of an emerging runaway series, Captain Marvel: Down takes the orientating elements we get from In Pursuit of Flight and sends us in new directions where superhero comics are concerned, with scribe Kelly Sue DeConnick at once both revitalising Carol Danvers’ presence within the Marvel Universe and writing a narrative possessing a distinct flavour compared to other cape-and-cowl fare. What stops it from hitting the big list is artwork that is far too distracting from the tale DeConnick is trying to tell; Dexter Soy, Filipe Andrade and Emma Rios give us an abstract, off-kilter art style that would be more at home in something surreal like The Sandman that doesn’t work for a superhero story, and even less for a grounded title like Captain Marvel. Otherwise, it’d be right near the top of my list.
Similarly, Daredevil: End of Days ticks most of the right boxes but stops just short of being a whole story in and of itself. Don’t get me wrong, Brian Bendis’ swan song for the character is well worth your time and a definitive treat for long-time DD fans, but it’s the end of an era rather than a contained part of a bigger story. That is, it’s the kind of graphic novel you’ll have a hard time with if you’re lacking knowledge of the instalments before it. It’s true that most of my choices in the Top 5 could fall under that umbrella too, but End of Days is rather specific in its finality reliant on prior knowledge.
Both books are still absolutely worth checking out, but as always for every quintet of vile and abhorrent trash there must be a shining, gleaming five-piece set of gloriously golden graphic novels. In order:
5 – PUNK ROCK JESUS
You should love it if you’re open-minded about religion. You should love it if you’re close-minded about religion. You should absolutely read it if you hate reality television as I do.
Sean Murphy’s labour of love, while at times suffering from blurring together of objects using the limited monochrome pallet, gives us a story that’s subversive, funny, heartwarming, brutal and introspective all at once. The questions it poses are hard-hitting and have no easy answer, but also don’t get in the way of telling an entertaining and highly engaging story. Is cloning immoral? Is shackling the reborn messiah to any particular reality television pigeon hole a good idea, or does it just make us worse off? Is it possible for Jesus Christ’s doppelganger to make mohawks look cool again? All important, all relevant, and all(most) entirely answered by story’s end. Also, there’s a polar bear.
4 – BATMAN: DEATH OF THE FAMILY
PUBLISHER: DC COMICS
You have no idea how glad I am that this was able to redeem Scott Snyder from his position at the near-bottom of my reading choices this year. After the disappointment of Severed, I can gladly state that Snyder’s third Bat-flavoured outing ticks more than enough of the boxes to deservedly snag a place in the Top 5. It’s always difficult to revitalise a well-worn villain in the superhero world, and none more so than the Joker, but Snyder and artist Greg Capullo manage the impossible feat of giving us a Joker story that feels both fresh and familiar simultaneously, whilst having a pathos that’s relatable and terrifying.
I was surprised to learn there’s actually been a lot of fan backlash to the story (but isn’t there always with superhero comics?) because of its divergence from the usual formula of previous Joker stories. Also, apparently no-one’s happy that the Bat-family all appear to hate each other now, and quite a few people are pissed off that the Joker’s face got cut off in the first place (for which I, personally, would blame Tony Daniel instead if you’re so inclined).
Guys, it’s ok for a character to be reinvented a little, or even a lot. It’s ok to diverge from formula. And seriously, if you’re going to have someone push a character’s envelope, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Scott Snyder.
3 – HAWKEYE: MY LIFE AS A WEAPON
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
Y’know, the more I think about Matt Fraction’s sterling Hawkeye books, the more I keep thinking it’s not a superhero book. Not really. It’s an indie book that happens to star a superhero in it, eschewing most of the garden variety plotting and characters that’d be inherent in a bog-standard superheroic sojourn. I’m pretty sure Fraction himself said something similar in an interview somewhere, so maybe I’m just channeling that unconsciously. Or I’m just a lazy writer.
Point is, Hawkeye is a great book. More than great, it’s fantastic. It’s just a whole lot of different; the hero is flawed to the nines, his sidekicks are begrudging, the art by David Aja is simple yet subtly layered, and the villains-of-the-week are less galaxy-ending titans and more disgruntled Russian gangsters in tracksuits. I’m making it sound less exciting than it actually is, but it’s a damn good read. If you liked the grounded feel of Captain Marvel you’ll get off on this, which makes sense since the writers of both are married to each other. Ah, what a snarky house that’d be to live in…
2 – AVENGERS: AVENGERS WORLD
PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS
It seems both my lists this year are kinda mirroring each other in particular ways (through things like Bendis and Snyder having books in both categories), but also providing reflections on my choices last year; 2012 was the year of the Justice League with an epic, soaring story that reintroduced them to the broader DC canon, and this year the Avengers take centre stage with a book that, like Origin last year, brings a premier super-team into the spotlight in a way that rejuvenates a tired, long-running and, some would say, convoluted line-up.
Avengers World, penned by the always weird and wonderful Jonathan Hickman, puts the eponymous team on a new path towards saving the world while keeping things accessible to veteran fans and newbie casual readers. The art by Opena and Kubert pops with every page, the scriptwork and pacing are incredibly tight, and the inclusion of the team-selecting Avengers Machine at the start of each issue feels kind of like a revitalised call-back to the older days of comics when the roster for the issue was proudly displayed on the front page. Hickman manages a great balancing act between the old and the new while paying just enough lip service to Joss Whedon’s 2012 masterpiece, and gives us the start of a series that’s not afraid to try different things as super-team books go.
Also, I’ll put money now on Infinity – the crossover that both this series and Hickman’s New Avengers title are building towards – will kick the crap out of anything DC and, indeed, Marvel have been able to put out as crossovers recently. It’ll certainly make Age of Ultron look like bathroom graffiti in comparison.
1 – SAGA, VOLUME 2
PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS
Unsurprising choice? Probably. Little unfair considering it’s the second part of a narrative, and not technically a story in and of itself like I said End of Days also wasn’t? Maybe.
The fact is, no other comic I read this year gave me as much joy, excitement, suspense, horror or capacity for tapping into the emotional spectrum the way Saga did. The series’ main strength lies in how effortlessly it evokes these feelings in us, not only through the story and scripting that are masterfully executed by writer Brian K. Vaughan but through his tandem effort with artist Fiona Staples (whose work, which I did subtract a mark for last year, has really grown on me). Volume 2 also does manage to feel like a story on its own, as well as part of the expanding Saga storyline. What came before it is deftly and easily explained without feeling like laborious exposition, and there’s a clear beginning, middle and end to the book while leaving enough of a hook at the end to link to the next volume beautifully.
The myth arc of the series overall is also sustained, and the ending is awesome. Just to put it in perspective, any story (comic or otherwise) that can make me gasp at a legitimately well-executed and surprising plot twist instantly goes up a few levels in my books.
Finally, it really seems like Vaughan and Staples haven’t let Saga‘s overwhelming success go to their heads, nor have they allowed the fans to backseat-drive the story. This is being measured out how the writer and artist want it to be, and it’s clear they’re writing for themselves as much as for the fans. That’s rare these days, even for indie comics, so I applaud that immensely. I’m sure that as you read this, the two of them are probably busy concocting a final boss fight where Prince Robot IV turns into a giant mecha so the protagonists can go all Pacific Rim on his ass. Now that’s a book I could give first place to next year.
So that’s it for this year. Like I said, it wasn’t easy picking and choosing which books go where for 2013 as it was last year, but we got there in the end. While the indies were the real winners this year – and if I could, my list would probably be nothing but indies – it was still nice to see some superhero books poking their heads above the mediocrity and pandering-attitude that seems to have covered parts of DC and Marvel like a deflated Hindenburg.
As I said for Marvel’s relaunch – and this could also apply to sections of DC’s reboot too – the way forward will be determined by how innovative these titles decide to get. There’s enough newness in certain titles to keep me interested in the genre as a whole, but I find I’m less enthusiastic this year than I was in 2012 to crack open staples like X-Men, Batman and Iron Man. Part of that’s because, having lived out of home for the past year, money’s become an issue, but also because the gap is narrowing between books I’m indifferent to buying and books that I clamour for on the day of release. I’m sure there are at least one or two salesmen at the local comic store who were gratified this year to not see me lurking as much around their shelves every Wednesday evening waiting for them to put New Releases out, like some kind of comic-addicted Slender Man.
At the end of the day, I’m just happy there are books out there that keep me invested in the medium. God knows what’d happen if I go back to exclusively reading wordy novels. I’d probably whip out a pad and some Faber-Castells to provide my own illustrations.