The Best and Worst 5 Graphic Novels of 2014

Man, it’s getting hard to stay a player in this game.

The level of investment requested – nay, required – by the comics industry in order to sell their product is getting insane. Not just on a monetary level, mind, although that’s certainly part of it. Marvel can expect more of my custom back if they decide to lower their frankly absurd price points next year.

No, I’m talking more about the insane slew of titles that are now readily available to everyone with a PayPal account, credit card and an internet connection. Marvel have more titles out than they know what to do with. DC continue their output of either mediocritous or outright awful material to pad their wallets in the lead-up to that big move to Burbank next year. Dark Horse are doing whatever the hell Dark Horse do, and since that involves publishing MIND MGMT that means they get a pass from me.

And Image? Well, remember how not too long ago I was singing their praises about the variety of content available in contrast to all the superhero sludge clogging up the readership worse than a night of camembert and water crackers? Turns out they kinda took that as a little too much praise, because now they’re practically releasing a new series every other Wednesday. Big-name creator-owned opuses like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet and Scott Snyder’s Wytches risk getting subsumed by the wave of onslaught titles like Manifest Destiny, Shutter, Red City and Sheltered (the latter of which, on reflection, I’ve decided I don’t especially like). Yes, it’s a good thing that more auteur stories are being given a creative outlet, and it’s still a nice affirmation of Image’s implied mission statement to spearhead creativity when something as out there and fantastic as The Wicked + Divine can find publication and a good following. Just remember there is such a thing as too much chocolate, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, now my annual gripe at the industry is concluded, let’s get to what you came here for.


 

BOTTOM FIVE:

DISHONOURABLE MENTION – UNCANNY AVENGERS: RAGNAROK NOW

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

uncanny ragnarok coverIt’s a good thing hindsight provides 20/20 vision, because at times when there’s a deluge of material it’s easy for me to mistake bad books for good ones when I read the two simultaneously. Whilst it escaped a scathing riposte by being part of a triplet of Avengers-themed titles when I read it back in July, the more I think about Ragnarok Now the more I think about how far Rick Remender has fallen from grace. Where once stood the excellent scribe of Uncanny X-Force, which is still the gold standard for Deadpool representations in recent years, now stands a man keen on alienating his audience with his own thoughtless little tales containing more Chris Claremont-inspired overintrospective dialogue than the thoughts probably going through the man’s head. I was keen for more sweet Uncanny Avengers shenanigans back when The Red Shadow first landed but now it’s all dried up like an arrow made of Wizz Fizz; sour and aimless. The only thing worse than a time-travel plot hinging on emotional catharsis that you know will be retracted is having that plot presented by little narration boxes ripped straight from the over-explanatory Dark Phoenix Saga blueprint.

In fact, on the subject of Remender…


5 – CAPTAIN AMERICA: LOOSE NUKE

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

No, it’s not because Cap cried. No, it’s not because of the later allegations of statutory rape when Falcon tried to get jiggy with Jet Black. No, it’s not because the villain known as Iron Nail is equal parts ridiculously named and a loose nuke coverMandarin rip-off.

It’s because the story was flimsy. The characters weren’t well-defined. The antagonists – aforementioned Iron Nail and his henchman, the eponymous Nuke – were respectively ineffectual and impossible to take seriously (and with the latter, Ed Brubaker did a much better job of the “former Cap wannabe supersoldier turns psychotic” plotline). The stakes were non-existent. The aftermath introduced a villain even more whacked out than is normal for capebooks. The art was plain. The dialogue was laughable.

In short, a better name might be “Loose Screw”. As in, from inside Rick Remender’s head.

Yeah, I know, that was terrible.

It’s a shame, coz Dimension Z wasn’t all that bad. Maybe a return to the Jack Kirby-inspired sci-fi take is the way to go, Mr Remender?


4 – GREEN LANTERN: DARK DAYS

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

saga gl justice cover 2As above, I have to stress that my dislike doesn’t stem from a new writer not doing justice to the older writer’s success. Robert Venditti was never going to fill the void left by Geoff Johns’ magnum opus of a run, and I acknowledge that constant comparisons between the two would always be unfairly grounded.

That said, Dark Days was absolutely terrible from start to finish. The concepts Johns set down weren’t so much altered as they were ripped up like old carpet, the dialogue took a sharp left turn into mediocre when it wasn’t outright boring or two-dimensional, and the characters seemed to lose a lot of the verve that distinguished them from each other. Hal Jordan became less smarm and more vanilla jerk, Kyle Rayner seemed slightly stoned, Carol Ferris became majorly bitchy at Hal for no good reason…oh, and don’t even get me started on the ridiculousity (I’m making that a word) that is the whole “emotional reservoir” concept. There’s taking things in new and innovative directions, and then there’s defecating on those things from miles up in the hope the impact ends their existence.

As one point of goodness, Billy Tan’s artwork is magnificent. If I have to sit through this crapitude for two hours, at least it’s very pretty crapitude.


3 – THE OTHER DEAD

PUBLISHER: IDW

If, like most, you’re a bit sick of zombie narratives, you might find The Other Dead merely boring when it isn’t offensive. If, like me, you don’t mind the occasional, well-told zombie story that isn’t to do with a guy named Rickother dead cover and his idiot son, you’ll find The Other Dead to be one of the worst rags of colour masquerading as a comic book since Cry for Justice. I’m not even being hyperbolic when I talk about how excruciatingly awful this book was; imagine being asked to watch Sharknado through a grimy, old-style movie filter within a sauna whilst an old man slaps you across the face every five seconds with the butt of a shotgun. If your mental faculties can conjure that image, you’re getting close to the experience that is The Other Dead.

It might’ve been merely ok if the characters were well-defined, the story coherent and the dialogue not so lurchingly terrible that it launches me from the narrative experience with each alternate line like an Aston Martin’s ejector seat. Hell, I don’t even mind that President Obama showed up to take on the mighty hordes of undead kittens, and if the book had shot for a campy, colourful and exaggerated take things might’ve been different. As it stands, trying to make itself be taken seriously kinda evokes the same relationship most movie critics have with Tommy Wiseau films. Unfortunately there’s nothing equivalent to “You’re tearing me apart, Lee-sah!”


2 – TRINITY WAR/FOREVER EVIL

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

saga gl justice cover 3I’m lumping these two together because, regardless of actual publication, they’re one and the same story. The former is an overly-long and twisted prologue to the latter, with both books failing to deliver on the high-stakes plots they expect us to swallow. It also means I can take shots at the two of them without stretching this to a Bottom Six.

In all honesty, I was onboard for the initial idea of it all. Geoff Johns is (or maybe was) a solid writer, Jim Lee’s still got a knack for artistry, and it at least appeared on the surface to be a better rendition of themes that were ham-fistedly explored back in Marvel’s Civil War and subsequent Dark Reign. I think if nothing else these books have solidified the idea for me that all marketing material for capebooks, no matter how bombastic and colourful, is about as trustworthy as a journalist who uses the word ‘totes’ in an article.

The story meandered when it wasn’t stupid, the art fluctuated between a team of disparate styles that managed to make it boring the same way Michael Bay makes explosions dull, the conclusion to Forever evil coverForever Evil was daft (putting it charitably), and I’m left with little to no hope of direction as DC moves into its post-New York future next year. Sure, we’ve still got Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo on Batman to keep me invested, but it’s alarming how blatantly wasteful such a crossover as this turned out to be when it could’ve been a defining, energising moment for the publisher.

Take this move to Burbank as an opportunity to detox and regenerate, DC. You’re dangerously addicted to foolishness.


 1X-MEN: NO MORE HUMANS

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

no more humans coverImagine a man who’s been given the money, time and free reign to explore the paradigms – causes, arguments for and against, rationales and possible curatives – regarding homophobia. Or racism. Or extreme economic greed. Imagine this man can explore this issue to any extent he wants, take on any facet he wants and insert any viewpoint he wants. Think of the marvelous, confronting and provocative stories he might tell.

Or, y’know, he could tell this one.

I’m probably being a little harsh here, but I’m not kidding when I say No More Humans is as breathtakingly disappointing as it is heart-stoppingly dull into the bargain. Writer Mike Carey and artist Salvador Larroca had one of the biggest allegorical sets of characters any comic company possesses, confronting an issue that saw most of their number reduced to a bare thread during House of M nearly a decade ago, with the opportunity to really dig deep and unpack some of the underlying themes regarding exclusion and superiority that have sadly been lacking in X-books of late. This could have been a really great, really interesting narrative that could justify Marvel’s new preference of the OGN format (and make us forget about the other one they did at the time).

Instead, what we got was a bland, derivative and ultimately highly unsatisfying yarn that’s mostly relegated to X-men punching things, X-men whinging about things and X-men having the entire scenario reset at the end (with things). It’s so bad I can barely remember specifics of the book all these months later, though I do recall the villain was a blue guy named something ridiculous (Raze, I think?) and was completely ineffectual. So it’s pretty much the first Wolverine film, but with more colour and screaming.

Maybe the Forever Evil duo should’ve gone here instead, because their story is undeniably worse in almost every aspect, but No More Humans takes the bottom spot for the sheer potential it had to be a really fascinating, memorable story. Any tale with that much wasted is as bad as any outright awful story.


TOP FIVE:

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: INFINITY & AVENGERS ASSEMBLE: THE FORGERIES OF JEALOUSY

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS (both)

infinity cover 2It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t the best event Marvel’s ever done, but dammit if Infinity didn’t show the rest of us exactly what an event title should be. Jonathan Hickman managed to weave a fairly accessible and appropriately epic story with raised stakes and an intriguing plot without simply resorting to hero-vs-hero beatups or pointless inclusions of characters from other companies. It was also very, very pretty.

I put it here to communicate the way events should be managed; I’ve heard tell that Original Sin dropped the ball somewhat, and I’ve already railed against Forever Evil‘s mediocritous stforgeries coverupidity. Just follow the easy steps in the review above for next time, guys.

On the other hand, Forgeries was a much smaller-scale book with some really funny writing from Kelly Sue DeConnick and Warren Ellis (though the latter is hard to detect here). If we must have a plethora of Avengers titles out there now, at least let’s have some of them written well. Cute little character stories with heart and humour are the way to go every now and then – and really, who doesn’t love seeing three Marvel heroines team up to kick villainous ass?


 5 – BATMAN: ZERO YEAR BOOKS 1 & 2 – SECRET CITY/DARK CITY

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

batman vol 5This should come as no surprise to all of you if you’ve followed me long enough. Scott Snyder’s Batman has entered my top five again. Stun. Shock. Horror.

But it really is that good. Granted, it’s not quite on the same level as Death of the Family was last year, but it’s pretty darn close. While at times a little bloated with its pagecount across two volumes, Zero Year is the kind of excellently-handled origin story reboot that DC needs more of right now. If we had more clear-cut, “This happened in continuity and this did not” kind of stuff, I’d look on the New 52 more favourably. Also, in future can we please have more dark quips from Batman about grammar lessons in regards to bone breaking? Coz I’d be ok with that.


4SUPERMAN/WONDER WOMAN: POWER COUPLE

PUBLISHER: DC COMICS

power couple coverBelieve me, no-one is more surprised than I that this book ended up here. I considered slapping it with an Honourable Mention instead, but on reflection Power Couple was one of the few books this year that really spoke to me as a book about people rather than spandex-clad gymnasts. Granted, it’s still a bit of a stunt book and the writing at times veers into either too sugary or too bland, but overall it did a much better job of portraying realistic superhero relationships than almost any book I’ve read recently. Our eponymous protagonists have clear, understandable reasons for being together, rather than just being a giant cash-grab for Tumblr ‘shippers, and the problems they face – well, except for that Doomsday guy showing up and eviscerating a tanker – are realistic and relatable to many couples reading about them. Speaking as one in a relationship, I find I’m constantly plagued by self-doubt and rabid Kryptonians, too.


 

3THE SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN: GETTING THE BAND BACK TOGETHER

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

Whether you love or hate the swerve Marvel took with their favourite webslinger last year, this spin-off is worth reading. It’s the kind of fun, bouncy story a lot of villain protagonist narratives have spider foes covereschewed of late, with a cast that’s fairly well-rounded and quite hostile to each other (which is never not funny). It was certainly surprising for me, as I’d expected anything with the Superior title to be as bland an uninteresting as its mothership series.

But Superior Foes is anything but bland. While it’s sad the series was recently announced as ending next year, it means the humour won’t outstay its welcome and author Nick Spencer can go off to write more criminal shenanigans. I’m secretly hoping he can revivify DC’s rogues gallery a little and give us the Joker Justice League we’ve all secretly not known we wanted.


 

2SAGA, VOLUME 3

PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS

saga gl justice cover 1As with Snyder-Bats above, this really shouldn’t surprise you. It’s Saga. It’s one of the few books that’s consistently delivering high quality writing, artwork and dialogue. It’s quite possibly the best book out there, unless there’s an Ellis-penned sequel to Transmetropolitan floating around that I haven’t read yet.

Anything I say about Volume 3 would just be repeating myself from the last two years, so just take all those praises and stick a 3 on the end. It really is still that good – which, admittedly, is something of a minor miracle where longer-running comics start to lose the verve as their issue count rises – and if you’re not onboard yet, there’s a lovely big hardcover edition that you should really be asking Santa for.


 

1SEX CRIMINALS: ONE WEIRD TRICK

PUBLISHER: IMAGE COMICS

Ok, before you ask, no, this isn’t better than Saga. I stand by what I said above. I just wanted to try and give someone else the top spot this year.sex criminals cover

In all seriousness, Sex Criminals is probably the most creative new series I read this year. The title might be off-putting (and garnered raised eyebrows from some I recommended it to) and the narrative might sound crass, but dammit if it isn’t fun. Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky have delivered a superb comedy with a lot of heart that, while definitely fanciful, still touches on relevant issues in relation to adolescent sexuality without becoming motherly. Also there’s naked times and ejaculation jokes and a team of supervillains who were sex-toy-themed nightware, so that’s always good.

And come on, y’know you wanna be a brimper. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.


IN CLOSING…

The conclusion of my top and bottom lists for 2014 also brings with it a semi-conclusion to my regular(ish) gig here. The reasons aren’t interesting enough to write an essay-length explanation about, but essentially it boils down to two big things:

I’m getting married; I proposed to my lovely partner on December 3rd and she said yes, so rather than my plan of going off to live in a cave as a tortured auteur due to her denial, I have to actually, y’know, marry her. As such, both time and (more importantly) money will be spent getting this thing off the ground within the next 24 months. That means I won’t have the time or (especially importantly) money to grab slews of new books and review them each week(ish).

I’m also nearing thesis submission time; January marks the beginning of my last year doing my PhD, and as such the majority of my writing time will be spent either on that or on drafting the obituary that’ll be printed in the event the former ends up killing me (can a thesis draft be held contemptibly for murder?).

This does not mean the website is shutting down, or that I’m leaving it altogether. It just means my posts will be a little more sporadic (not that they weren’t already for the past four weeks). I’d never want to give this up entirely, so I’ll still try my best to put content out as often as I can for the few of you who read it. I really can’t thank enough those of you who sit and skim my ramblings each week; the site, and my writing itself, wouldn’t have gotten to this point without you all. Big hugs, and all that.

Trust me, there will be new TWM content during 2015. I want to try getting back into more op-ed pieces on Mind’s Eye as well as getting some fiction out there (remember that story I said I was gonna write each fortnight based on a different song? Yeah, that totally didn’t happen).

So with those in mind, enjoy the post you’ve just read; savour it like the last drops of a fine Beaujolais you’ve just concluded imbibing, or the crumbs of a donut you quite like from the 7/11 down the road. It’s the last one for this year, and it might be the last for a little while…

Just wait and see.

On behalf of the chattering voices that still live inside my brain (I should really see a doctor about that), Chris Kills Comics wishes all readers a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Stuff will come to those who wait in 2015. Stay safe!

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