It was a good year to be a funnybook fan.
I mean, they all are. There’s always SOMEthing good coming out, even in bad years. But 2013 offered up an embarrassment of riches, with exciting new talent, continuing excellence from old masters, and a blitz of original projects from the cream of the big-time comics crop. There was so much good stuff, in fact, that it was tough paring it all down for our annual list of the year’s best funnybooks. We persevered, though, and settled on 25 titles that we thought deserved special notice.
With such a big list this year, we’ll be splitting it in two. The first half of this thing is already longer than the average interweb attention span, so we figured it was just basic survival tactics. And as always, remember: our list is just one dork’s opinion. I like what I like, and make no excuses for it. Some books will be conspicuous by their absence, and others will undoubtedly send someone into a snit over their very inclusion. But if you’re into left-of-center mainstream funnybooks, we think you’ll like our choices. And if you don’t… good! Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.
So, without further ado, here are the Dork Forty picks for the 25 best comics of 2013, starting with an…
Thor: God of Thunder, by Jason Aaron and Esad Ribic
This book’s initial storyline, involving GORR, BUTCHER OF GODS!!!, was beautifully illustrated and so metal my mouth felt coppery after reading every issue.
It offered up a fascinating look at Thor’s personal development over the centuries by giving us not just the Thor we know, but also the loutish Young Thor and the grumpy Old Thor. It also felt particularly Norse, with both the bleak fatalism and broad humor of the Eddas. The arc went on a little too long, but the ride was good enough that it didn’t matter so much. It was everything I could want out of a Thor comic.
Then the second arc started, and it was obvious that Marvel wanted a story to tie in with this year’s Thor movie. The focus narrowed to just present-day Thor, Malekith the Accursed was trotted out as the villain, and things generally became stupider. The artwork suffered as Esad Ribic was traded out for Ron Garney (who’s fine, but not as good as Ribic), and Jason Aaron’s scripts started to feel like something he was just tossing together for the paycheck. It was quite a disappointment, and by the end of the year, I wasn’t reading the book any longer. I’ll go back when the Malekith arc is over, but as long as the story feels hijacked by corporate, it’s not worth my funnybook dollar. Nor does it earn a place in the Top 25.
But now, without further delay, let’s get to the countdown…
25. Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios
One of several strong new series to emerge in the Fall, Pretty Deadly is the Western framed as myth. It’s about murder, revenge, and redemption. It’s about the daughter of Death, a blind man who can see, and a skeletal rabbit telling stories to a butterfly. It’s beautiful and violent and mysterious, and I couldn’t begin to explain all its secrets to you. But that’s the good thing about secrets: they keep you coming back for more.
Jeff Lemire is maybe the most extreme example of the current breed of funnybook creators whose personal work I love, but whose corporate super hero writing I don’t waste my money on. Much as I found Lemire’s Green Arrow to be uninspired and derivative, for instance, I find Trillium to be fresh and unique. Ostensibly a time travel story about the future extinction of the human race, it’s also an alternate history comic about gender. And it’s as psychedelic as anything in all those old Jim Starlin comics I spent most of December going on about:
23. Shaolin Cowboy, by Geoff Darrow
Heh. A-heh-heh-heh. This book has always been more about letting Geoff Darrow draw whatever crazy-ass thing he feels like than it has about story. But that’s never been more clear than in the insanity on display here. Two full issues were spent on two page spreads of the title character slicing apart an army of zombies with two chainsaws lashed to the ends of an impossibly-long stick! That’s right! Two entire comics, filled with nothing but super widescreen panels of zombie-killing. And in all those panels with all those hundreds of zombies…
…NO TWO OF THEM LOOKED THE SAME. That’s a beautiful thing, and well-worth a spot among the best.
22. Action Comics, by Grant Morrison and Various Artists
I will always look upon Grant Morrison’s Superman relaunch as a missed opportunity. He’s working with grand ideas and good material, crafting a First Chapter for the character to go alongside the classic Final Chapter that is his All-Star Superman. And as far as that goes, I think he succeeds.
Morrison’s Action Comics is a great set up. He firmly grounds Superman in the brown Kansas dirt, planting the seeds of the legend he will later become. He gives us an introduction to the ethics and enthusiasm that will make Superman into the greatest hero of all time. He shows us the beginnings of the friendships and conflicts that will define Our Hero’s fictional life, and promises a colorful flowering of mad adventure to come.
But he stops with the promise. We never get to see the mad adventure. I suppose the point is that we’ve already gotten it. That there are more than enough crazy-ass stories in the character’s 70-plus years of publication to fill in the gap.
But, man. MAN. Just as this Action Comics run was an attempt to re-tell Superman’s earliest adventures for a modern audience, now I want the same thing for all those stories in-between. I want a new Superman mythos defined by high imagination and craziness, and with Morrison gone from the series I’m not gonna get it. I’m not even gonna get decent follow-up on all the stuff he set up in this story whose entire purpose was to set things up for other writers to build upon.
Thus, the missed opportunity, and thus, the series’ relatively low ranking in the list.
21. Young Avengers, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
This book is like the best kind of hook-crazy pop single, the kind you can’t get out of your head, and don’t want to. It’s not deep, but it’s fun. And fun goes a long way. It’s a corporate spandex comic with a taste for narrative experimentation, but the storytelling is always crystal-clear and never less than utterly modern. It’s a teen hero comic with a penchant for representing its angst not as X-Men style pidgen-noir oppressiveness, but by turning Our Heroes’ parents and mentors into cheerfully creepy pawns of the series’ primary villain. It gave us one of the better romances of the year, and didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that it was between two gay characters. It’s glib and self-referential without being cute about it, and as effortlessly cool as a Beatles record. Or at least one from the Kinks.
20. Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams III
I hesitated including this one on the list, because only one issue appeared in 2013. And it’s so relatively low on the list because there was only that one issue. But it’s such a good comic, such an amazing art job from JH Williams, and such a great return for the Sandman series… That I would feel remiss not including it.
19. The Bunker, by Joshua Fialkov and Joe Infurnari
Near-future science fiction with an irresistible premise: five college friends find a bunker in the woods, filled with information from their future selves telling them that they will be responsible for the extinction of the human race. The series jumps between flashes of that future time, and Our Heroes’ reaction to revelations that break their friendship apart. The writing is sharp, and artist Joe Infurnari is turning in some very nice work that puts me in mind of Gene Colan:
In addition to being sharp comics in general, The Bunker is also indicative of a trend I think we’ll be seeing more of in the future: it debuted as a digital-only series, planned for eventual print collections. That’s a great way for lesser-known creators to get their work in front of an audience, and to make some money at it without the overhead involved in print publication. And in this case, it’s a plan that worked: Oni Press will be collecting the digital-only issues in February, with regular print editions planned thereafter. Check it out then, or hit Comixology for it now. Whatever your medium of choice… give it a shot. It’s not God’s gift to comics or anything, but it IS good enough to make the list.
The countdown continues… after the jump.
18. Velvet, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
Top-notch spy fiction from two of the modern masters of adventure comics. The series follows Velvet Templeton, a retired secret agent who goes back into the field when her mentor is killed, and winds up the primary suspect. It’s a story we’ve seen before, of course, but with a twist: Velvet’s past is a secret to all but a few, and since retirement she’s served as secretary to the agency’s head. So it’s essentially the adventures of Miss Moneypenny.
Which is a neat idea, but it’s the exectuion that’s landed Velvet on the list in spite of only having released two issues thus far. Because those two issues are some of the finest work of Brubaker and Epting’s careers, stunningly well-crafted funnybooks that meld the traditions of the classic adventure strips with John LeCarre and Ian Fleming. If you like adventure comics, you need to be reading it. Nuff said.
17. Battling Boy, by Paul Pope
One of the greatest cartoonists of the current generation bounds back on the scene with an all-ages graphic novel that combines the frenetic action and grandeur of Jack Kirby with the whimsy of Osamu Tezuka. It’s the story of a young god sent to Earth to prove himself by battling monsters with a suitcase full of magical t-shirts that grant him the advice and power of a series of totem animals. The monsters are weird and cool, the hero has a lot to learn, and Pope’s invented a collection of broad characters that allow him to work in some gentle social satire, to boot. It’s a fun read with nice art, for (as they say) kids from 8 to 80. Good funnybooks, all the way around.
16. Zaucer of Zilk, by Brendan McCarthy
The pre-eminent funnybook surrealist returned to the field this year with a comedy adventure featuring a thoughtlessly arrogant hero in battle with the forces of mundanity. That’s sort of the same story Grant Morrison was telling in Action Comics, but there it was about Mr. Mxyzptlk, and it didn’t work as well. I bring this up both as a point of comparison, and because Morrison’s been accused of stealing rather liberally from McCarthy in the past. And who’s to say? All I know is that Zaucer of Zilk was great fun to read, and that I hope McCarthy does more comics work again soon.
15. Lazarus, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
This is a smart book. Smart, well-researched, and terrifyingly plausible. It’s dystopian sci-fi about a near future in which corporations have replaced government, leading to a new feudalism. A handful of families rule all, royalty in all but name, while the majority either works for them as virtual slaves or lives in anarchic squalor, designated by the families as “Waste.” It’s a fascinating society in many ways, but one that I’m also itching to see torn down.
But Rucka’s not having any of that. He’s taking his own sweet time, establishing his world fully before the inevitable pyrotechnics begin. He’s planting the seeds, though, and eventually his title character is going to start tearing shit up. In the meantime, I’m just impressed with how smart it is, and waiting to see where it goes next.
14. Satellite Sam, by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin
While I wasn’t looking, this book went and got complex. Actually, that’s not right. I was looking at it the whole time. But while my attention was on Matt Fraction’s no-time-for-fools scripts and the beautiful Howard Chaykin artwork… It went and got complex. Characters who seemed like buffoonish caricatures suddenly turned up cunning. Relationships that seemed clear-cut got twisted around til I’m no longer entirely sure who’s using who, or to what end. Assholes have been revealed as overly-dedicated professionals, and attempts at redemption that seemed false have actually wound up being sincere… if imperfect.
The cast became three-dimensional, in other words, and I somehow wasn’t expecting it. Maybe it’s the sensationalism of the thing:
Chaykin’s cheesecake covers may be doing the book a disservice in the long run, hiding the excellent writing behind a veneer of cheap sleaze. Of course, there’s still plenty of sleaze to go around: amateur lingerie photos are a major plot device, and issue five could have been titled “Everybody Gets a Blow Job.”
But more and more, Satellite Sam is becoming the funnybook answer to Mad Men in quality as well as setting, and I kind of wish they’d market it as such. It’s damn fine reading, regardless, in a genre that simply doesn’t get done in funnybooks, and that lands it a place among the best.
13. Fatale, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips
People have been calling this book “Lovecraftian” from the get-go, because the promo materials for it prominently featured a squid-faced gangster.
But I resisted that label for a long time, because tentacles alone do not make something Lovecraftian. They’re fun shorthand, certainly. But to truly earn that label, a piece of fiction needs inexplicable horror from beyond human ken. And more importantly, it has to embrace the idea that somehow, on a deep cosmic level, we are all basically screwed.
So I’m pleased to say that, in the past year, Fatale has passed those tests and become truly, madly, deeply Lovecraftian. We’ve gotten impossible horrors from beyond, decrepit necromancers, unspeakable sex acts, and a creeping certainty that nothing is going to work out right after all. It’s Lovecraftian Noir, and that’s something I can get behind.
Aaaanndd… I think that’s all for tonight. Next week, we’ll finish this up, and maybe spend a little time discussing the books that are conspicuous by their absence…