Farewell, 2013. In place of our monthly Top 40 Countdown, we decided to spotlight the 40 best comics we read this past year.
Here are our favorites, in no particular order:
EAST OF WEST
Josh: Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta are perfectly matched on this genre-defying retro-futurist opus. Equal parts western, sci-fi, romance, alternate history, religious deconstruction and social parable, it feels nothing like a mashed-up melange — it feels like a pure, high howl, equal parts fear and longing, that echoes off the motherboarded cities and across the wide, lonesome plain.
IT WILL ALL HURT
Chris: Begun as a means of unwinding from the grind & pressures of producing what would become the 304-page THE WRENCHIES, this magical, surreally lyrical adventure packs as much feeling and pure cartooning chops into one issue as most cartoonists are lucky enough to get out of a whole career.
Andrew: Few comics this year had me jumping out of my chair to cheer the main character on. Equally few inspired an immediate re-read — not to understand it better or anything, but to simply relive and extend the joy of reading it for as long as possible. Sam Bosma’s Zelda-meets-NBA Jam dungeon romp did both those things. It is simply a perfect comic, the kind I never knew I needed till I had it.
Josh: 2013 has been a hell of a year for Charles Forsman. During his breaks from almost single-handedly resurrecting the subscription model with OILY COMICS, his mini-comics publishing dynamo, he’s managed to release two of the best graphic novels of the year. CELEBRATED SUMMER stars Wolf, a lonesome, chubby teenager who goes with his buddy Mike on a very boring and dissolute acid trip. Forsman is a master of silences — few cartoonists are as articulate with words left unsaid — and this utterly recognizable and deceptively simple story speaks volumes without saying much at all.
HIP HOP FAMILY TREE
Chris: Ed Piskor throws down an encyclopedic account of the early days of an American art form. The telling of the tale is as fresh as the old-school treasury format, which Ed recreates in loving, meticulous detail. Bring on volume #2!
Andrew: A beautiful magazine that can basically be summed up as, “Jim Rugg showing us he can do whatever he wants and do it better than just about anyone else.”
Josh: Dash Shaw’s strange new graphic novel is unlike any other book on the shelves. It looks like it was drawn with a Sharpie in his fist, and the big, open illustrations of this gorgeously produced oversized book have a weirdly clunky fluidity and grace. He colors with big splotches and single-hue smears that venture way outside the lines — he’s not coloring the image so much as introducing another layer behind it. And the tone of the book is bafflingly compelling — golly-gee wide-eyed comic classicism mixed with an antiquated, old-testament use of language and heavy moral seriousness, all in service of a surprisingly traditional and very relatably human story of a young kid’s worship, envy and disillusionment with his older brother. Like so many of Shaw’s comics, it’s a wild experiment that works.
SANDMAN: OVERTURE #1
Chris: Few comics carry the weight of expectations that a Neil Gaiman SANDMAN comic carries. This is the first new Gaiman Sandman book since the worldly anthology masterpiece ENDLESS NIGHTS in 2003, and it lifts that heavy weight fairly effortlessly thanks to the virtuoso work of artist JH Williams III and Gaiman’s own ability to sink back into the work that made him famous with an ease and assurance that sets the table for one of the best tales of 2014 to be told.
Chris: Speaking of weight of expectations, this book, 5 years in the making from the once-wunderkind, now modern master Paul Pope, was bound to disappoint. Instead it spun the seeds of an effortless new saga of heroes and monsters, hewn from pure myth yet fresh as the feeling of discovery we all go through at a certain age. Pope’s most accessible, focused work.
DONALD DUCK: CHRISTMAS ON BEAR MOUNTAIN (THE CARL BARKS LIBRARY)
Andrew: Each book in this series makes me fall in love all over again. How could you not read a story like this volume’s “Ghost of the Grotto” and not be in awe of Barks’ impeccable grasp of humor, action, plot, cartooning, emotion, economy of storytelling, and imagination, all at once. And what about the wonderful lead story in this book, a rare kind of Christmas tale that eschews both cheap sentimentality AND pessimism in a way that few but Barks could pull off? “Bear Mountain” also happens to be a landmark piece of cartooning history, for introducing the world to someone who would go on become one of our greatest fictional characters: Scrooge McDuck.
THE UNWRITTEN: TOMMY TAYLOR AND THE SHIP THAT SANK TWICE
Josh: Diving ever deeper into the brilliantly layered and unfolding mythology of their alchemical-literary multiverse, Mike Carey and Peter Gross now venture into the book-within-the-book. The standalone OGN TOMMY TAYLOR AND THE SHIP THAT SANK TWICE takes place largely within the first Tommy Taylor novel (as opposed to the UNWRITTEN comic), and it darts back and forth effortlessly from the meta-narrative of Wilson Taylor’s creation of the anchor-text for his master plan, and the story he’s writing itself. If that makes no sense to you, then you still have to read THE UNWRITTEN. For all the clever post-modern gamesmanship and reality-shifting mind-fuckery, this is a thoughtful exploration of our relationships with stories, the beautiful mystery of their power, and the transcendence, selfishness and sacrifice inherent in the creative act. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s all wrapped up in a pot-boiling page-turner.
Andrew: Fraction & Aja (with pals like Matt Hollingsworth, Annie Wu, & Francesco Francavilla) have continued to cast their IMMORTAL IRON FIST-honed magic on the purple Avenger. The book’s design favors an old-fashioned flatness paired with a sleek modern sensibility, and the writing is utterly human and hilariously funny. 2013 was the year of the Pizza Dog.
Josh: While the format of this piece requires me to choose a specific work, I would have rather listed Sam Alden himslf. It’s been a big year for Sam, as 2013 has seen him release a diverse cavalcade of wonderful comics and rise to the status of indie It Boy. He works very quickly, in a variety of beautifully loose, minimal styles. You get the sense of a young creator so full of ideas and burning with desire that he doesn’t have the time or inclination to do detailed work — but there is nothing dashed-off about his cartooning. It feels effortless and boasts a clean readability that few artists ever achieve. And so I choose HAUNTER, his quietly lush and enigmatically propulsive wordless pen & watercolor tale of a hunter who becomes the hunted, to stand on this list for maybe the most exciting new storyteller to emerge this year.
Chris: A lot has been said about Michel Fiffe’s monthly exercise in one-man-band comics bad-assery. What we love is the singular feel, the thrown-to-the-wind, doing-what-I-want-to-do vibe COPRA exudes on every page. The rocking layouts, interior monologue angst, and trippy lo-fi effects aside, this book boils down to Fiffe doing what he wants to do, and doing it on time. There’s a power in that, and, thanks to Fiffe’s commitment, lots of folks were able to tap into that this year.
Josh: Nick Spencer’s story is terrific — funny and suspenseful, high-minded and character-driven, filled with big ideas and yet always tethered to the simplicity of its driving narrative. But the real star of this show is Christian Ward’s incredible artwork — gorgeously designed digital paintings that bend reality and panel-structure to their whims without ever losing the tight narrative thread. Blending collage, photo-comics (I promise, it works) and formal gimmickry, Ward’s wildly ambitious work gives INFINITE VACATION’s reality-hopping technicolor noir a physical expression and a singular visual appeal.
Andrew: Created by mysterious writer ONE and brought to jaw-droppingly dynamic life by artist Yusuke Murata (of the fantastic EYESHIELD 21), ONE-PUNCH MAN expertly fuses and satirizes superhero comics and shonen manga, stripping all their tropes to the bare essentials and then dropping into the middle of them a wholly new kind of protagonist, whose personality and abilities throw all traditional forms of comic book conflict and heroic drama out the window. This as hilarious, bad-ass, deceptively smart, and awesomely drawn — at points, almost outright animated — as any manga has a right to be.
Josh: All that’s missing is Rod Serling’s narration — this is the greatest Twilight Zone they never filmed. A tender, brilliantly simple tale of a father’s failures reflected in his son’s fears, lit by a smokey, heart-sick hope for redemption, THE UNDERWATER WELDER wears its metaphors on its sleeve. But in the end this beautiful and moving story was barely a warm-up for…
Josh: Jeff Lemire is turning out to be one of the great cartooning voices of his generation. Bending the comics page to his every whim, with TRILLIUM he and José Villarrubia reject the middlebrow cinematic standard of Vertigo storytelling for a format-fucking, remarkably physical approach to the comic book narrative. But the many formal gimmicks never feel gimmicky — they are all in service of the story’s deeply romantic heart, which sings with soulful longing. Animated by a restless spirit and speaking a language all its own, TRILLIUM is a true exploration of a medium still just discovering its possibilities.
Andrew: If Darwyn Cooke does not end up adapting each and every Parker novel into comic form, I will lose all hope for this world. More than once I have found myself lying in bed and, apropos of nothing, obsessing over what color Cooke will use for the next Parker book. Please don’t stop.
Josh: Vaughn & Staples’ masterful sci-fi epic was the most exciting new book of last year, and it’s only gotten stronger. It’s a comic that feels like it comes from a wilder, shinier, better future. But for all its mind-blowing ideas, eye-popping artwork and fashionably futurist design, for all the graphic eroticism and frightening violence, it is, at its heart, that most old-fashioned of stories: the family romance. Sincerity has never looked so sleek or sexy.
Chris: Brandon Graham’s back pages. Graham lives and breathes comics, and this art book/journal is a breezy look into his hiccups, burps, and breaths in-between.
SOCIETY IS NIX
Josh: The newest book from the remarkable Sunday Press imprint is a gloriously anarchic explosion of wild comic-strip invention. To see this mostly-forgotten gaggle of turn-of-the-century cartoonists devising a brand new language and testing the boundaries of the newspaper page is to be stunned by the savage ambition and creative freedom of the practitioners of this uniquely American art form. Why are the French surrealists canonized, I wonder, when our boys were scribbling mad-man hieroglyphs on the margins of imagination a quarter-century sooner? The dissipation of the newspaper strip is one of the saddest stories of 20th century art, and this book will show you why.
Andrew: This year’s ADVENTURE TIME comics weren’t just great…they were extensive. As rare as good licensed comics may be, it’s even rarer to find them created by such a wide variety of distinct and fantastic talents, all of whose individuality shone across a number of formats and focuses, while still maintaining an impressive consistency and loyalty to their source material. The fact that so many recent ADVENTURE TIME comics focused on female protagonists (Marceline, Flame Princess, Fionna & Cake) is impressive, especially for a franchise about two “brothers”, and their success says a lot about what ADVENTURE TIME does right and so many comics publishers do wrong.
Josh: When listing year-end bests, it may seem strange to include a web-comic that’s only just begun. But Daryl Seitchik’s cartoon version of the diary she’s kept since childhood is so uproariously funny, so poetic and sweet and human, that it’s quickly assumed a place among my favorites. Jumping through her life with an effortlessly random fluidity (some entries are from last year, some are from when she was a toddler), MISSY invites you to puzzle together the pieces of its creator’s life. The simple idea seems almost bottomless, Seitchik is very young, and MISSY seems poised on the verge of something great.
Chris: A spaghetti western drenched in myth and blood, it took all of three issues for Kelly Sue DeConnick’s haunting, lyrical narrative and Emma Rios’ star-making art to put this book at the top of the can’t-wait-to-read list.
Andrew: Far past the point where any Daredevil of the last 30 years would have sunk into depression and draped himself resignedly upon a Hell’s Kitchen church steeple, Mark Waid’s Daredevil takes just a moment to consider his predicament…”Then I get over it.” (DD #34) Waid and a standout roster of distinctive artists continue to prove that a a “fun” book — not silly, not light, but always fun — was exactly the cure needed to bring back a character who seemed doomed to dour repetition and unrelenting sorrow. And the artists, Samnee, Rodriguez, Copland et al, have managed to maintain a fantastic, totally consistent stylistic tone (a sort of mini “house style” for Daredevil alone) without any of them sacrificing their own voices or quirks.
OPTIC NERVE 13
Josh: After spending a couple of decades carving his style down to the bone, whittling away every extraneous element, Adrian Tomine emerged with one of the most admirably spare & elegant styles in all of comics. Having achieved what’s looked like a total command of his voice, he’s spent the last couple of years loosening up, bending his minimal cartooning into rounder, cuter shapes reminiscent of Dik Browne and Frank King. You can find some of the humane, conversational voice of a Jaime Hernandez comic in GO OWLS, the first story in OPTIC NERVE 13, which manages to be a warm and empathetic portrait of a total piece of shit and his frighteningly toxic relationship. Tomine is getting better and better, which is pretty remarkable considering he’s been one of the best for a very long time.
GODZILLA: HALF CENTURY WAR
Chris: James Stokoe dazzles the reader with his alternative Arthur Adams attention to details and in the process perfectly captures the vibe of Godzilla done right. Any book Stokoe draws is cause for celebration, but marrying his unique visuals to the classic kaiju was a match made in monster heaven.
Josh: This goofball, hyper-imaginative ADD freakout of an adventure story showcases the most exciting new illustrator of the year. Aaron Conley draws with a Geoff Darrow level of obsessive detail, but the style is uniquely his — a mind-meltingly visionary stew of hideous beauty and formal daring, the pages so alive with ink and energy that they seem to quiver before your eyes. Damon Gentry’s story whips along at breakneck pace, mixing in silly puns, video game homages, and a couple of surprising moments of pathos. One of the most unexpected delights of 2013.
Andrew: Scott Snyder lays out the roadmap for a top-notch, nail-biting horror piece, a sort of underwater take on films like The Thing or Prince of Darkness, filled with a constant stream of shocks, characters breaking down to their barest beings, and tantalizing hints at a larger mythology spanning from prehistory to post-apocalypse. And Sean Gordon Murphy proves again why he’s one of the bright lights in current comic art by simply killing it, bringing to terrifying life the creepy creatures, the claustrophobic fear, and the feeling that behind every corner or pipe, death could be waiting, hungry.
3 NEW STORIES
Josh: Dash Shaw slid a Fantagraphics mini-comic under the radar just before he released NEW SCHOOL, exercising his newly crude drawing style to several different ends. His tales of a beaten-down American moment are surreally recognizable and laugh-out-loud funny, including a Kafka-esque tale of a generation forced to repeat elementary school and a ripped-straight-from-Pornhub, somewhat chilling depiction of a Girl Going Wild.
Tie: SPONGEBOB COMICS and GAMMA
Chris: SpongeBob on a best of list? Yep. One of the most consistently entertaining books is also a near-perfect intro comic for kids, with its interactive puzzles and fill-in-the-blanks and the pleasing, wacky storytelling that echoes the joyful verve of the cartoon.
Meanwhile, Ulises Farinas’ GAMMA one-shot was just as fun, and ended up among our favorite single issues of the year. GAMMA was a dark funhouse mirror held up to childhood cartoons, forfeiting none of their wacky energy but adding a little something seedy underneath. What Ulises draws, we buy.
Josh: Set in an alternate present in which scientists have become the prime movers in pop culture and the celebrity zeitgeist, Eric Stephenson, Nate Bellegarde, and Jordie Bellaire’s Image series is notable less for its story, which moves at a snail’s pace, than for its delicately laborious world-building and thoroughly original design sensibility. Composed not just of comics but of interviews, magazine articles, photo portfolios, memos, open letters, and puff-piece profiles, it reads like a legitimate artifact from another version of culture — one that is just as trivial and image-obsessed as ours, but one that shallowly fixates on serious matters instead of stupid ones. Filled with detail, layering wrinkle upon wrinkle, it reads as a rebuke to the decompressed standard of modern comics, and its found-document presentation suggests an approach that may be useful to other creators. And best of all, it feels like it’s barely getting started.
Andrew: There is something magical and magnetically idiosyncratic in every line Farel puts on paper, and I can’t imagine a better showcase for his talent and imagination than DELUSIONAL — a beautiful (thanks, Pitzer!), hardbound collection of short comics, sketches, watercolor illustrations, flights of dark fancy and invitations into worlds of peculiar whimsy from the mind of one of our favorite people to ever work in the medium. Can’t ask for much more than that. Well, other than a Volume 2.
Josh: If Garth Ennis and Walt Disney met in a bar, both drunk & doleful on some dingy, loveless Christmas Eve, this is the book that would result. The story of a drug-addled, self-destructive hit-man and his animated, Spongebobbily enthusiastic, possibly-fictive friend, what starts as a satirical riff is in face a bittersweet love-letter to the human imagination.
THE PRIVATE EYE
Andrew: Much has been said about Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s game-changing approach to digital comics. But it’s the comic itself that truly deserves attention. Here BKV weaves an engaging noir mystery while simultaneously teasing out a colorful world rooted in speculative science fiction, in a way that’s just fantastical enough to be fun, but also perfectly tuned to our current anxieties and oddly possible trajectory. Without Marcos Martin bringing it all to stunning life, though, this story might fade into the crowd. Martin uses all the style and tricks and world-class cartooning that we love him for, and also manages to perfectly embrace the digital format in a way that few others have ever managed. Any comic with Martin’s name on it is bound to be among the very best-looking of the year, and this is as good as he’s ever been.
Josh: Zander Cannon’s Dante-meets-Indiana-Jones adventure tale has a wide-eyed, rip-roaring tone, a deceptively thorough & intriguing mythology, and a generous, wearily human heart. It draws you in with square-jawed heroics and perilous escapades, then delivers an unexpectedly deep story of failure, loss, age, and our endless debts to one another. A literary novel in dime-store clothes.
36 LESSONS IN SELF-DESTRUCTION
Chris: The world as Rob Woods saw it for the last few years. Hilarious, morbid, and rubbed raw by Woods’ masterful use of black and white.
Andrew: Garth Ennis was at the tip-top of his game here, delivering a powerful and engaging character study of an aging warrior stuck in the wrong wars. Ennis’s harsh, morally sticky historical fiction came to life and reached new heights through Goran Parlov’s clean, effortlessly stylish and deeply emotive artwork, the two creators in tandem aging and scarring (both physically and mentally) the core cast with each new chapter.
THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD
Josh: Interestingly, both of Forsman’s books are about disaffected teens on ill-advised roadtrips. But THE END OF THE FUCKING WORLD couldn’t be farther in tone from the empathic, observational gentility of CELEBRATED SUMMER. This is a chilly, frightening book about sick people making each other sicker. Taking cues from the Terence Malick film BADLANDS, the Bruce Springsteen song NEBRASKA, and the true story of Bonnie and Clyde, this vile inverted romance has an enigmatic, discomfiting appeal. You wonder if Forsman is in the midst of some kind of lost-kid road-trip trilogy — and if so, you’re a little afraid to see where he might drive us next.
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Happy 2014, world. Let’s all make even better comics than we did last year.
– Josh O’Neill, Chris Stevens, Andrew Carl, and the whole Locust Moon crew.