My 13 Favorite Comics of 2013
I could start with my usual explanation of qualifiers, byzantine personal criteria, and commentary about the highly subjective nature of “best of” lists, but that seems tired. These are simply the books that I most looked forward to reading, for sheer love of the game. Last year, I cited 2012 as the year that creator-owned comics “won,” and that movement seems undeniably overwhelming now in 2013. I don’t think it was prescience as much as it was merely selective amplification of the observed present. Creator-owned comics certainly occupy the majority of the mind share as far as I’m concerned, and are making significant advances in market share too. I hope that continues. These were my favorite titles of the year…
The Massive (Dark Horse): For the number one slot, my good friend Ryan Claytor and I decided to do something a little different in order to satisfy our tradition of annual collaboration. While I’ve been evangelizing The Massive since long before the first issue came out, and Brian Wood as a creator much longer than that, the bulk of the credit here should go to Ryan. It’s relatively easy for me to crank out a one-page script. But, in addition to teaching at the university level full time, and running his small press concern Elephant Eater Comics, Ryan also tabled at SDCC this year, ran a successful IndieGoGo Campaign, became a father, and somehow still managed to find the time to illustrate this beauty. Comics analysis rarely takes the form of comics itself. Click to enlarge. Enjoy.
Deathmatch (Boom! Studios): Paul Jenkins and Carlos Magno pulled off a magnificent self-contained world-building stunt which transcended the basic hook of the NCAA-style bracketing system that killed off characters in every issue. With the somber resigned tone from Jenkins, and rich art that combined the detail fetish of George Perez with the raw unhinged energy of Juan Jose Ryp, they dismantled all of the familiar archetypes to deconstruct the stale old superhero genre. It was utterly fascinating and thoroughly entertaining.
Strange Attractors (Archaia): I consider myself an armchair New Yorker, if such a thing exists, so I’m on board for any comic book treatise on the inherent nature of NYC. Writer Charles Soule burst onto the scene with artist Greg Scott and made an active concern of turning New York City into a living engine of clockwork beauty at the hands of a couple of obsessed geniuses. This book had me scrambling to find all of the writer’s other work. Consider this your latest successful entry into the “comics as love letters to NYC” category.
The True Lives of The Fabulous Killjoys (Dark Horse): Gerard Way proved his writing wasn’t a gimmick with The Umbrella Academy, so it was up to the rest of the creative team to sell this world and really dazzle with their abilities. Boy, did they. Shaun Simon, Becky Cloonan, and Dan Jackson brought to life a vivid world of post-pop revolutionaries set against a quirky future dystopia. Their rebellious struggle is quintessentially American, and the environment is firmly post-apocalyptic, so I was hard-wired to respond favorably to the marriage of two of my favorite literary devices around. This book was so pretty, it was just stupid.
Star Wars (Dark Horse): It was honestly the most purely enjoyable read of the year, with slick confectionary visuals that never failed to delight. Brian Wood, Carlos D’Anda, Ryan Kelly, and Gabe Eltaeb basically spent the year running Beggar’s Canyon, creatively bullseyeing womp rats like they were in their T-16’s back home. They found the absolute perfect balance between tapping nostalgia buttons, world-building in the Extended Universe, making logical narrative extensions, and crafting well-balanced gender dynamics. With intelligence, action, and heart, it should go down as one of the greatest contributions to the property ever. It is truly shiny.
The Legend of Luther Strode (Image): Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore flaunt undeniably that they understand what comics were made for. They’re for stories like this. The Luther Strode Trilogy is a horror-superhero genre mash-up that fully utilizes the medium, doing things that you can’t possibly do in prose, film, or other media. Everyone will enjoy the hyper-kinetic lines and the bursts of memorable slash-fic action featuring the titular character, but here’s the real secret: Petra is the icon of a generation.
Todd The Ugliest Kid On Earth (Image): Ken Kristensen and MK Perker slap us upside the head with irreverent humor and visuals that blur the line between surreal caricature and raw realism. Todd is a crisp social satire that parodies the ills plaguing our culture. The story is ostensibly about an awkward kid with a bag on his head who’s framed for murder, goes to prison, and is currently tackling Charlie Rose & The PBS Cult, while the superscript takes on racism, homophobia, religion, poor parenting, and so much more. There’s deep commentative wisdom hidden somewhere in these pages, but I’ll be damned if I can find it, I’m too busy laughing and shaking my head in disbelief. “That was a weird game.” #TickleParty
Manifest Destiny (Image): Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, and Owen Gieni create seamless speculative historical fiction which blends the real and the imagined, as the Corps of Discovery led by Merriwether Lewis & William Clark set out to chart the frontier. While their Congressional Mandate is officially about laying claim to the Louisiana Purchase and charting waterways, their classified off-book mission as assigned by President Thomas Jefferson concerns investigating supernatural creatures that may be lurking along the passage to the Pacific Coast. Roberts’ lush awe-inspiring depictions of the frontier and startling incursions by mythic forces tickle all the right parts of the brain. It satisfies our craving for the history contained by non-fiction, and the truths that can only be delivered by fiction.
East of West (Image): Jonathan Hickman’s expansive creator-owned opus may be the pinnacle of his career and the most outright imaginative book of the year. In cold open style, it never insulted readers’ intelligence in the way it crafted its internal mythology, fully engaging the audience to work for clues without a hint of exposition. It’s a rich and satisfying experience easily labeled “post-apocalyptic sci-fi western mystery,” if you dig. Nick Dragotta’s wide-eyed art was an example of the full-potential magic that’s unleashed with hands-off publishing and a creator-first approach to making comics. Most critics would probably cite Saga, but I’d willingly hold up East of West as the emblematic flagship for what the “new” Image Comics is capable of.
Sheltered (Image): Ed Brisson, Johnnie Christmas, Shari Chankhamma, and Ryan K. Lindsay offer a full service creative package with emotionally charged art and a killer premise that spins the go-to post-apocalyptic genre on its head, mostly by hitting rewind. It’s billed as a pre-apocalyptic tale centering on a community of obsessively-focused doomsday preppers. Sheltered is an unflinching mix of high concept and intense interpersonal drama which reminds us that the real story is rarely the grand external threat, but usually the internal breakdown of humanity bubbling just below the surface. It’s the next The Walking Dead. Mixed with Lord of The Flies, that is. #TeamVictoria
Letter 44 (Oni Press): Letter 44 is the best premise I’ve read in ages, pairing the presidential custom of the outgoing POTUS leaving a letter to the incoming POTUS, with Obama and W analogues for maximum social relevance. There was a palpable frenzy at SDCC to snap up advance copies of this book and I pushed them onto several readers at the LCS who went on to do the same. There’s something to be said for building connoisseurship in an audience. With artist Alberto Alburquerque co-piloting the deep space mission, Letter 44 challenges our political preconceptions as an act of good art instilling real-world reflection. Soule mines the best political procedural dramas, the best sci-fi summer blockbusters, and fuses them into an irresistible package.
Lazarus (Image): Like Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money, Greg Rucka is back, y’all. Queen & Country is one of my favorite works, ever, so it was nice to see him return to creator-owned comics and just swing for the fences. With Michael Lark’s gorgeous dark precision, he crafts a nightmarish social fiction future about resource scarcity, class division, and raw family dynamics. With unapologetic fits of action and violence, and strings of backmatter factoidal DNA propping up the world, Lazarus taps into our sense of belonging and socially-relevant fears regarding the world our children will inherit. It’s required reading.
Umbral (Image): It’s rare that you catch two creators intersecting at the meteoric rise of their craft, but that’s what it feels like when writer Antony Johnston and artist Chris Mitten catch dark matter energy in an enchanted bottle and whisk us off to the Kingdom of Fendin. Johnston world-builds with effortless beauty and intrigue, while Mitten clangs his hard-edge line weights against his graceful emotive figures for a tale of paradigm-shifting upheaval and the dark forces that lurk just on the periphery of our consciousness. The Royal Family is dead. Rascal knows the secret. The Umbral have returned.
Since I started Thirteen Minutes, I’ve never had more difficulty down-selecting from so many great contenders as I did in 2013. At one point during the year, I had 32 titles vying for these 13 slots, and candidly, several of the books could just as easily have placed had the year not been so crammed with excellence. At the end, it absolutely came down to personal preference and didn’t have anything to do with inherent quality. There’s probably a dozen titles I could rattle off, but these 5 came the closest to appearing, so you can consider any of them the unofficial #14.
There was the inventive and irreverent dysfunction of God Hates Astronauts: The Completely Complete Edition (Image) by Ryan Browne (“Blagojevich!” “Fenestrate!” “Horchata!”), the R&D backmatter-driven glee of Think Tank (Image/Top Cow) by Matt Hawkins & Rahsan Ekedal, the razor sharp premise and smart rendering of Death Sentence (Titan Comics) by Monty Nero & Mike Dowling, the obtuse intrigue of Pretty Deadly (Image) by Kelly Sue DeConnick & Emma Rios, and the trifecta of smarts, adventure, and emotion in Brian Wood & Olivier Coipel’s X-Men (Marvel).
As for some brief analytics, it’s worth noting that 7 of the 13 entries (56%) were published by Image Comics, which makes the House of Creator-Owned Comics the clear winner by force majority. Dark Horse Comics came in a respectable second place with 3 entries (23%), while Boom!, Archaia, and Oni Press all clocked in with 1 entry apiece (8%). Brian Wood occupied 2 spaces, as did Charles Soule, which is 15% for each writer. Mostly importantly, 12 of the 13 entries were creator-owned comics (92%), with Star Wars holding fast as the lone exception.