Tuesday, December 30, 2014

THE BEST OF 2014 - The Best COMICS Of The Year


- It's amazing how much the world of comics has changed in a short time. Digital comics have opened up the medium to a whole new readership - and the ease of availability of new and classic books - along with the continued proliferation of comics-based movies and TV shows - made this a banner year.

What's amazing now is the sheer diversity of content that's out there. If you look at, say, the 90's, the major publishers all sort of leaned in the same direction. Most of the books from DC, Marvel, Image, and others were all, stylistically, pretty similar. Now, it's a whole new ballgame. I look at Image alone - the way they've become a breeding ground for creator-owned, creator-driven series - and it's amazing. They've come a long, long way from the early days. Many others are now following their lead - IDW, Boom!, Dynamite, etc. Even Marvel and DC have more books now that feel less bound to some giant connected universe, and more accessible to people who are simply fans of those characters. Marvel in particular drew tons of buzz in 2014 by putting out books that felt like they were made less for the fans who'd read every Marvel book since 1973, and more for the influx of new fans who hoped for the sorts of stories and characters that spoke to them, a more modern audience. Case in point is Ms. Marvel - one of the year's most interesting and applause-worthy success stories. The book stars a new character, Kamala Khan, a young Muslim-American teen who gets superhuman powers and becomes an unlikely hero. It's written by G. Willow Wilson, a woman who converted to Islam and who, I might add, is a fellow BU grad. Wilson has been an up-and-coming writer for a while now, and it's great to see her enjoy this sort of success - Ms. Marvel, as it turns out, became an unlikely top seller - something that, I'm guessing, was in large part thanks to the way that digital comics have broadened the traditional audience. But there's something that's just plain cool about this new Ms. Marvel becoming a fan favorite. Comics have always been about celebrating those that are different, but diversity has sadly not always been something that mainstream comics have done well. But Kamala Khan is, in her own unassuming way, breaking down barriers left and right. Here's a character that diverges from the idea that Islam's teachings can only lead to evil. Here's a strong female character who *isn't* the stereotype of what a strong female character should be (i.e., she's not just a guy with boobs). And here is a character that can be a hero to girls, women, Muslims, and everyone else. Hell, I'm a white Jewish male and I think she's pretty damn awesome.

Kamala Khan, to me, represents what's great about comics. Unlike the high-stakes, big-money world of movies, comics are not focus-tested and franchised-out to the nth degree - at least not all of the time. Comics are a place where barriers can be broken, where new, original, and oftentimes crazy ideas can be tried out. Comics are where anything goes and the sky's the limit. I think that's why Guardians of the Galaxy was such an exciting movie in many ways. To date, most superhero films have played it safe, to an extent - giving us more grounded, real-world versions of our favorite characters. But Guardians is one of the first modern superhero movies to fully embrace the sort of cosmic craziness that made me love comics in the first place.

Putting superheroes aside though, I'll take a step back and talk again about the diversity in storytelling in 2014's best comics. One of the year's best books was Sex Criminals, about a couple that can stop time whenever they get busy. Sounds insane, I know. But writer Matt Fraction made it into a book that's at once completely out-there, yet at the same time has some of the most authentic-feeling characters in anything I've read this year. It's a similar story with my favorite new comic of 2014, Alex + Ada. It's a type of story we've seen before: man meets robot, man falls in love with robot, man and robot have to go into hiding because human-like robots that can think and feel are outlawed in this world. But what makes it work so well here are characters that seem authentic, and storytelling that keeps you guessing. That's not to say that I don't also love stuff that's just flat-out out-there. In other words, thank the comic gods for Grant Morrison's continued output. One of my favorite books in 2014 has been Morrison's Multiversity for DC, which is a tripped-out celebration of all the wonderful weirdness of DC's past, present, and future, with a meta twist that only a guy like Morrison could dream up.

Despite everything I've said, I still miss old-fashioned paper-and-ink comics. I miss going to the comic store and coming home with a stack of crisp comics begging to be read. I miss the tactile nature of holding the pages in your hand. When I do buy a new comic or trade paperback and read it in the traditional manner, I can't deny that that, to me, is the superior experience. I think the benefits of digital outweigh the negatives. What's been so cool about the digital experience is how easy it is to discover more material based on an existing favorite. This year, I got hooked on Alex + Ada, and quickly decided I needed to read more from the Luna Bros., whose work I'd somehow not familarized myself with far. Soon enough, I was knee-deep in the series that put them on the map, a Stephen King-like horror/thriller called Girls. Now I'm on to another work of theirs, The Sword - pretty cool. Still, I hope that we don't have to wait long for someone to come out with a better reading alternative than an iPad. Amazon, I'm looking at you. Amazon this year purchased the primary digital comics retailer, Comixology, so I suspect there may be some interesting developments still to come as a result.

But here's to the great year for comics that was 2014. And here's to an even better one in the year ahead.


1.) Locke & Key

- This one is fudging things a little, because technically Locke & Key wrapped up in 2013. However, the collection of the series' final chapters - Alpha & Omega - wasn't released until 2014, and I suspect that many were, as I did, reading this one via the hardcovers and trade paperback collections. In any case, Locke & Key has been one of the seminal works - comics or otherwise - of the last decade, in my view. It's something that, I suspect, will always be a defining work for author Joe Hill, and for artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Hill has the uncanny ability, like his father Stephen King, to write incredibly-realized characters that feel tangible and wholly authentic, and to then place them in absolutely insane situations tinged with horror, fantasy, and the supernatural. As I said in an earlier post praising the series:  in many ways, it feels like vintage King: a rustic New England setting, a distinctly slice-of-Americana vibe, and an existential horror that creeps its way into these characters lives and starts profoundly changing their worlds. I felt a profound sadness as I read the book's concluding chapters, both for the characters and what they'd endured, and also because this was the end of one of the great comic stories. I can't wait to see what Joe Hill does next.

2.) Alex + Ada

- Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, with art by Luna, Alex + Ada is my current must-read monthly comic. The work of Jonathan Luna (as well as earlier work done with his brother) reminds me a lot of that of Brian K. Vaughan. The characters are so well-realized that all the craziness that happens around them feels plausible. The Lunas, like Vaughan, tend not to write about traditional hero characters. Their protagonists are regular dudes, relatable and not all that extraordinary. Often, these types of sci-fi stories are about a guy who's the best at what he does, etc. Not here. Alex is just a regular, slightly disaffected young adult who's trying to figure out what he's doing with his life. That said, this is riveting storytelling - each issue ends in a cliffhanger that leaves you clamoring for more. Sci-fi stories about robots are a dime a dozen, sure. But this one has the potential to be one for the cannon.

3.) Sex Criminals

- Sex Criminals has such a great voice, and that's thanks to writer Matt Fraction, who has become a real favorite over the last few years. He blends real human drama and pathos with a wicked sense of humor. Sex Criminals shouldn't work, but it does, because it's as much about people trying to figure themselves out as it is anything else. And by the way, best letters page going by a long-shot.

4.) Hawkeye

- More Matt Fraction. I fully caught up on Hawkeye this year, and am now suffering because of the long gap between new installments. But Fraction's Hawkeye is just plain awesome - it's like Coen Bros' doing superheroes - funny, irreverent, moody, and yet oddly insightful about the human condition. In 2014, the book took an extended detour to LA, to follow Kate Bishop, the female Hawkeye, as she delves into a neo-noir mystery. Such great stuff, can't recommend it enough.

5.) Lazarus

- Lazarus continued to wow me in 2014, with some serious world-building going on that continued to fill in the puzzle pieces of the book's post-apocalyptic dystopia. Writer Greg Rucka has been taking his time in putting all of the building blocks in place, but there's a great sense that this is all leading to big things, world-shaking things. As I've said before, imagine a Game of Thrones-esque society where, instead of houses, warring corporations vie for control of a collapsed world.

6.) Multiversity

- As I said above, Multiversity is just a treat for fans of DC, fans of Grant Morrison, and fans of the weirder, sillier, more out-there side of superhero comics. This is Morrison's roadmap to DC's multiverse, with each issue taking place on a different earth. So far, one issue has told a Watchmen-like conspiracy-thriller with the Charlton characters on which that story was based. One issue has told a whimsical Captain Marvel story in the spirit of the original comics. Another imagined the sons and daughters of iconic superheroes in a crime-free world where heroes prefer starring on reality TV to battling evil. Great stuff from the ever-fertile mind of Morrison.

7.) Saga

- Saga's release schedule has been intermittent in 2014, but when it's come out, it remains one of the true must-read ongoing series out today. Brian K. Vaughan is taking us on an adventure here, and I honestly have no idea where things are going month-to-month. As Y: The Last Man was to surviving your 20's, Saga is to the later part of adulthood - a star-spanning tale of two parents drawn together and now, drawn apart. But what's cool about Saga is that this story seems destined to expand well beyond its current scope. Who knows where it's all headed? But in BKV we trust. And man, that Fiona Staples art is as amazing as ever.

8.) Fatale

- Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' Fatale came to a close in 2014, and it will go down as a recent favorite. The book was a unique mix of noir and Lovecraftian horror, and the scope of the narrative just kept expanding and going in interesting directions. The femme-fatale protagonist, Josephine, finally confronted her otherdimensional tormentors in the big finale, and the result was a satisfying conclusion to one of Brubaker's best books to date.

9.) The Walking Dead

- The Walking Dead as a franchise is so ... everywhere ... that praising the comic seems almost unneeded. But I want to give props to Robert Kirkman, because while the Walking Dead TV series' quality fluctuates wildly, the comic is consistently excellent. Following the ultra-intense conclusion to the "All Out War" storyline, the book did a bit of a re-set, time-jumping ahead and introducing a new status quo. It was just what the book needed, and a reminder that what's great is that this is a story that truly keeps evolving. Kirkman is writing the zombie story that never ends, but that's a good thing - especially if it remains this compelling.

10.) Injustice

- How is Injustice possibly as good as it is? The best-selling weekly digital comic is a spin-off of a videogame. That should mean it's crap. But Injustice is actually the best ongoing superhero book that DC is putting out - it's a book that seems downright giddy at getting to play with the toys in the sandbox, pitting the DC characters against each other in ways that are surprising and downright fun. This is the superhero book that most gives me the feeling of being a kid again and discovering the joy of comics. And in bite-sized digital form, it's the perfect quick-read.


11.) Batman

- Scott Snyder continues to do great things with the core Batman book. His "Zero Year" storyline was an unexpected epic, and his current "Endgame" arc is page-turning, blockbuster storytelling at its finest.

12.) Invincible

- Robert Kirkman's other big book is still one of my favorite reads. This is a book in which anything can and will happen, and Kirkman seems to love changing up the tone of the book on a whim, just to throw readers off. If Walking Dead is the zombie story that never ends, Invincible is the superhero story that never ends. And again, that's a good thing.

13.) The Silver Surfer

- Dan Slott's whimsical take on the Surfer has been a treat - especially with the added bonus of stunning Mike Allred art. The book is a trippy, funny, cosmic riff on sci-fi in the vein of Dr. Who, but Slott has made this its own thing - a book that feels wholly unique in the Marvel pantheon.

14.) The Wake

- The Wake was my 2013 book of the year, and it remained strong in 2014 - though the conclusion did not have quite the punch of the first half of the book. Flashing to a future where the world is overrun with water, the book became less horror and more apocalyptic fantasy-adventure. Still fun and intriguing, but not quite as awesome and badass as what preceded.

15.) Ms. Marvel

- See above. But just to add, Ms. Marvel feels like the book we needed in 2014, the book that felt like it was a long time coming, and the book that made us wonder how we did without Kamala Khan and characters like her for so long.

16.) Swamp Thing

- Charles Soule's run on Swamp Thing has been stellar. The book is a strange mix of horror, adventure, and trippiness - very much in the spirit of the classic Alan Moore run. Soule has introduced some intriguing new supporting characters, and expanded the mythology of the Green to include new enemies and allies.

17.) Batman '66

- Batman '66 was a weekly pleasure in 2014, building on the success of the previous year. Writer Jeff Parker so skillfully and so hilariously captures the wry humor of the Adam West TV show, cranking the absurdity up just a notch to make sure we get that he's in on the joke. Visiting with the classic TV Batman - both in the '66 series and in the great Green Hornet crossover - was some of the most fun I had reading comics this year.

18.) Red Lanterns

- Charles Soule again. Even as the Green Lantern franchise struggled to maintain consistent quality in 2014, Red Lanterns was the one book of the bunch that consistently brought its A-game. In 2014, the book told a pretty epic story - showing us the transformation of the formerly-villainous Red Lanterns into a group that was a force for good, albeit in their own unique, rage-filled, blood-spewing way.

19.) The Manhattan Projects

- Jonathan Hickman's monthly dose of insanity is almost always at the top of my must-read list, and this year, the book closed its current run, with the promise of further stories down the line. But man, the stuff that happened in The Manhattan Projects in 2014 ... this story about America's secret cabal of scientists went to even more far-out places than normal. Where else can you see twin Alfred Einsteins hunting aliens, or a gun-toting LBJ kicking ass and taking names? Nowhere, that's where.

20.) The Twilight Zone

- J. Michael Straczynski's update on the classic TV show was a real surprise this year. Over multiple story-arcs, the book told Twilight Zone-style stories that felt true to the issues and concerns of 2014. I enjoyed that the book didn't try to 100% ape the format or the stories of the show, but instead went for something different. All the while, it stayed true to the spirit of the show.


Batman & Robin
Fables / Fairest
All-Star Western
Action Comics
The X-Files: Season 10
Batman: Eternal


- I'd like to give a special shout-out to ALL-STAR WESTERN. Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti wrote the character of Jonah Hex for years and years - since 2005 - both before and after DC's New 52 reboot. Over the years, I always looked forward to the writing duo's gritty, weird, engrossing tales of the Old West, and I loved their take on Hex and DC's other Western heroes (in particular, I really dug their introduction of new character Tallulah Black, a badass female gunslinger who could match Hex's attitude and guts). The series finale of All-Star Western was a fitting closer to this storied run, although I also hope that the pair have a couple more Jonah Hex stories left in the tank.

- I'd also like to mention another long run that came to a close in 2014, that being Gail Simone's tenure writing BATGIRL. Simone, a longtime fan-favorite, was intimately linked to Batgirl and Barbara Gordon, having written her for years - pre-New 52 - as the star of Birds of Prey. When the New 52 reboot began, Simone was in the tough position of having to undue one of the defining traits of the modern Babs Gordon - the fact that she was confined to a wheelchair after having been shot by the Joker. But Simone endeared fans to the re-tooled Barbara Gordon Batgirl, and wrote some fantastic issues of the book. A 2014 highlight was the "Future's End" tie-in that imagined a five-years-later version of the character - it was an epic and emotion-packed issue that felt like the end of an era.


1.) Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals)
2.) Ed Brubaker (Fatale, Velvet)
3.) Brian K. Vaughan (Saga)
4.) Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Invincible)
5.) Greg Rucka (Lazarus)
6.) Tom Taylor (Injustice, Earth 2)
7.) Scott Snyder (Batman, The Wake)
8.) Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn(Alex + Ada)
9.) Joe Hill (Locke & Key)
10.) Charles Soule (Red Lanterns, Swamp Thing)


1.) Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals)
2.) Fiona Staples (Saga)
3.) Mike Allred (Silver Surfer)
4.) Michael Lark (Lazarus)
5.) Greg Capullo (Batman)
6.) Jonathan Luna (Alex + Ada)
7.) Sean Phillips (Fatale)
8.) Ryan Ottley (Invincible)
9.) Adrian Alphona (Ms. Marvel)
10.) Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke & Key)

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