Our countdown of the best funnybooks of 2013 continues, starting… now!
12. Rachel Rising, by Terry Moore
The best horror comic on the market is one that too many people don’t know about. I can’t say I’ve done my part to fix that problem, either; I’ve been meaning to write about it for over a year, and somehow just never got to it. But let’s see if I can fix that now. Rachel Rising is a bloody banquet for horror fans, a twisting, turning serial about witchcraft, demons, and the everyday practicalities of being undead. Embiggen this relatively unspoilery three-page sequence to see what I mean:
Heh. This book is full of stuff like that. But if cold viscera leaking from an open wound doesn’t do it for you, Rachel Rising also offers up little girls slaughtering their families, women burning themselves alive, and demonic possession through facial orifices.
It’s not just mindless gore, though; there’s an uncanny quality to everything that makes the series genuinely unsettling rather than merely gross. The actual mechanism of the occult incidents is wisely left mysterious. Moore seldom falls back on standard depictions of horror, either, instead preferring to shock via creeping unfamiliarity. When a demon decides to switch host bodies, for instance, there’s no straining battle of wills or satanic pyrotechnics. He simply strangles the new host, calmly electrocutes the old one with a lamp, and moves between bodies as a black mist that seeps in via the afore-mentioned facial orifices. I didn’t know what the hell was going on til it was over, but the casual violence of it all still gave me that feeling of WRONGNESS I look for in horror fiction.
It’s a matter-of-fact approach, and Moore uses it to great effect. I’m sometimes put in mind of the movie Fargo, in which a man gets shoved into a wood chipper without breaking the film’s icy stillness. Moore’s art has that same stillness to it, a coldness that adds a certain indefinable something to the terrible, terrible things that happen in his story. This is not to say that Moore is stiff; far from it. He’s one of the better cartoonists out there, a great draftsman capable of conveying a full range of emotion in his characters. But action isn’t really his thing, per se, and that stillness works to his great advantage when taking this sort of documentary approach to visual horror.
And yet despite all the black deeds and horrible incidents, it’s not a book with a bleak perspective. It’s often quite funny, and is just as concerned with defining its cast of oddball characters as it is with the horror. There’s even, dare I say it, a small ray of hope in the gloom, a belief in love and friendship that works as a counterpoint to all the awfulness. It’s a minor theme, but it’s there, and it keeps the book from descending into unremitting darkness.
So, yes. Rachel Rising. Best horror comic on the market, and much deserving of its place among the best comics of the year.
11. Manhattan Projects, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra
If you’d told me that there would one day be room in the comics market for a gonzo alternate history sci-fi comedy starring the greatest scientific minds of the 20th Century, I’d have laughed in your face. But now, phrases like Alternate Einstein and Infinite Oppenheimer bring a smile to my face, and Hickman and Pitarra’s Manhattan Projects has spent the better part of the last two years proving my theoretical past self wrong. And I couldn’t be more happy about that.
If you haven’t read the book… Well, you totally should. But if you haven’t… What really makes it work is its goopy, transgressive, pitch-black sense of humor. It’s often quite horrifying, to be honest. Blood and viscera, fear and loathing… snot… tears… It’s ugly, really. Not fit for decent folk. But it’s goofy in its over-the-top unpleasantness, and that takes the curse off.
10. Slayground, by Darwyn Cooke
The fourth of Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker novels is, like the rest, a triumph of style and storytelling. The premise for this one lends itself to style, in particular: after a job gone bad, Parker finds himself trapped in an amusement park, under siege from an army of gangsters and crooked cops who want his take and, eventually, his head. As he turns the various rides and fun houses into death traps, Cooke dials the visuals up to eleven, making this maybe the most visually-stunning volume in a series that was already pretty damned impressive on that front. There are fewer of the Parker series’ trademark storytelling tricks, but the one we get is a hum-dinger: a brochure for the amusement park that appears just after Parker arrives there, complete with fold-out map.
So chalk up another triumph to Darwyn Cooke. Slayground is stylish, brutal, and fun, the best crime comic of the year. Well, except for one. But that one’s less a crime comic than… Well… We’ll get to that in a bit…
9. East of West, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta
My opinion of this apocalyptic sci-fi western has gone up and down over the course of the year. At times, it feels too derivative. And yet it also surprises me on a regular basis. That’s a weird mix, and it took me all year to figure out what’s going on: Hickman and Dragotta are drawing on archetypes and visuals from all over the genre fiction landscape, mixing and matching them, adding their own twists, and taking them places they don’t usually go. So the East of West Four Horsemen feel like they’re straight out of Katsuhiro Otomo, but they swiftly deviate from anything you’d see in Akira or Domu. Judge Dredd is remade as a Texas Ranger. And while Death may be Clint Eastwood, he’s also surprisingly vulnerable in the one place Eastwood’s spaghetti western heroes never were: his heart.
It’s not just a book about thwarting genre expectations, though. Hickman is establishing a fascinating world in this book, one with a robust political and mythological history of its own. He’s in no great hurry to reveal it all, though, parsing out the details of the world’s past and its social order a little at a time. That makes reading the series a continual voyage of discovery. There’s always something new, and that, as much as anything else, lands it among the best.
8. Nemo: Heart of Ice, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
Last year’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen entry was a one-shot that puts the spotlight on Janni, the 20th Century Captain Nemo, and her Antarctic expedition. Moore occupies the frozen south with figures from Antarctic fiction (a sub-genre that’s much larger than I ever knew), primarily Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket and HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. He also takes a few potshots at American Industrialism, in the person of Charles Foster Kane and his mad inventor hirelings.
The highlight of the book is a distorted, time-out-of-joint sequence in which Janni and her crew encounter other-worldly entities and finally have to run for their lives from a Shoggoth. It’s a tense, uncertain, and at times terrifying part of the book, but it sits a bit uncertainly next to the frankly one-dimensional villainy of the American bad guys. They’re an odd mix, and not an entirely successful one. That makes Heart of Ice one of Moore and O’Neill’s lesser outings. Of course, their worst is still better than most people’s best, so… Their spot on the list is still well-deserved.
7. Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction and David Aja
This book’s been pretty widely praised, both here and elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on the specifics of it too much. Its basic premise is that it’s the adventures of Hawkeye when he’s not being an Avenger. That’s a clever approach for Fraction to take, of course, because it exempts him from having to deal with massive corporate crossover bullshit by definition. That existence outside the never-ending saga of the Marvel Universe (but still very much a part of it) allows Fraction and Aja the freedom to not only tell their own stories, but to do so with a sense of style, a voice that’s all their own.
In other words, it has creative vision. And that’s why it beats Alan Moore in 2013. Hawkeye‘s still not as good as Fraction’s real creative triumph for the year, however. That honor goes to…
6. Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
When is a crime comic not a crime comic? Why, when it’s a sex comic, of course!
The premise of this book is so ridiculously great that I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before: when Our Heroes have an orgasm, time literally stops. Now, in the funnybook industry, that premise would normally lead to some kind of pneumatically exploitative piece of crap (#DCComicstheNew52). But thanks to Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky being a class act…
…it’s not. Instead, it’s a frank and funny look at two people’s sexual awakenings. The sort of thing you can, you know, show your girlfriend and not have her think you’re a disgusting perv. But don’t mistake this for the world’s first Date Comic, either. Sex Criminals is a little too… earthy… for that label. I mean, the meet cute doesn’t usually involve a detailed depiction of the couple’s first masturbation experiences, and how confusing and great they were.
It’s also a book that, by all my usual standards for such things, I shouldn’t like at all. It’s got an “adorkable” narrator named Suzie who breaks the fourth wall to tell you her story, and has lots of quirky little jokes that resonate well with college-educated middle-class nerds. In other words, it’s cute. And holy crap… (here it comes again) …I can’t abide cute.
What makes it work here, though, is that it’s not phony. Because “Cute” usually does equate to “Fake” for me. Or at least “Disingenuous.” But there’s none of that in Sex Criminals. Instead, we get… well… honesty. Honesty (but no angst) about Suzie going through puberty with her depressed alcoholic mom. Honesty about her boyfriend Jon’s youthful fixation on a porn star. Honesty about how hard it is to figure out sex when, as Fraction puts it, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. That’s what sells the comic, and that’s what lands it its lofty spot amongst the top funnybooks of the year.
Well, that and all the sex. ‘Cause that’s pretty great, too. But you’ll have to hit the jump-link to see any of that…
(Note: if you’re a consenting sexy adult, and you wanna try this Sex Criminals thing you’ve heard so much about, the first issue is available for free through Comixology: http://www.comixology.com/Sex-Criminals-1/digital-comic/46453)
5. Ant Comic, by Michael DeForge
This surreal and disturbing strip was one of the more deeply weird reading experiences I had in 2013. Set in a colony of black ants, it’s a comic of pitch-black humor that explores issues of social norms and personal freedoms. Attracted initially by Michael DeForge’s bizarre and colorful character designs, I became fascinated by the strip’s bleak strangeness. It’s dark stuff, but there’s an inventiveness and a whimsical element to it that keeps it from being completely devastating, even when I think it probably should be. It’s like Tales of the Beanworld for sociopaths and perverts.
At once abhorrent and compulsively readable, Ant Comic drew me in so completely that I wound up reading the whole thing in one go. Granted, that was probably aided and abetted by how it’s published on-line: one long, continuous scroll that definitely encouraged binge reading (and which can still be found for free here: http://kingtrash.com/ants/index.html).
But I would have walked away if the material itself weren’t so compelling. I’m not even going to try explaining the story beyond what I’ve already said. But this strip left its mark. That one fevered evening of reading has stayed with me, to the point that it’s vaulted itself above books I spent far more time thinking and writing about in the past year. I won’t say that everybody’s going to like it, but hot damn I did.
4. Fran, by Jim Woodring
Last week, I think I may have called Brendan McCarthy the master of funnybook surrealism, but if I did, I was wrong. That title really belongs to Jim Woodring. McCarthy’s good, don’t get me wrong. His work is always fun. But Woodring’s weirdness cuts much deeper. So deep, in fact, that he almost makes McCarthy look like Mark Waid. McCarthy’s stuff is usually built around a recognizable plot, after all (even if it’s most often a parody of such things). Whereas Woodring…
Woodring’s stuff is almost entirely symbolic. There’s a story being told in Fran, and the throughline of it isn’t that hard to follow (boy loses girl, boy tries to find girl). But the details are often obscure, presented in visuals so alien, iconography so intensely personal, that they require careful reading, and are still open to the reader’s interpretation. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll love Fran. If you don’t… Well, there are lots of other comics out there for you to read.
No, seriously… No. Seriously. You might wanna read something else. But if you still venture in, you’ll be confronted with a phantasmagoria of bizarre creatures, beautiful artwork, and the marvel of a master cartoonist telling a story entirely without words. For that, if nothing else, Fran is one of the best comics of the year.
3. Prophet, by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Giannis Milogiannis
Prophet shifted gears in 2013, moving from its series of weird shared world sci-fi short stories into a grand sci-fi epic. If it’s become moderately less weird in the process, it’s made up for it with its ever-increasing scope. To use the Jack Kirby analogies we’re so fond of here on the nerd farm, it went from the personal apocalypses of OMAC to the grand, sweeping cosmic grandeur of New Gods. But it continued to offer plenty of WTF moments, and managed to maintain its outrageously somber prog rock tone, so it’s all good. Plus, it made me excited to see freaking Badrock! No greater proof of Prophet‘s strange alchemy is possible.
2. Mind MGMT, by Matt Kindt
I came late to this twisting tale of psychic spies, but once I found it… BOOM. It grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It’s an exciting adventure story about the malleable nature of human consciousness, told with an overwhelming sense of mystery and the twin sense that something’s just… wrong, very wrong. You can’t trust anyone in this book. Not just because they might be lying about anything at any given moment, but also because even if they’re not lying, they might be living a lie and not even know it. Such is the power of the mind…
This makes it a delightfully queasy reading experience, a slippery narrative that feels as if it may escape your brain’s grasp of it without warning, at any time. That could be a cheap excuse for nonsense in the hands of a less disciplined writer, but Matt Kindt holds this thing together beautifully, each new revelation of truth making sense in relation to the things we’ve learned since the initial lies were told.
Kindt is also a really interesting funnybook artist. His loose style takes a little getting used to, but it fits the story well. And I’ve become a big fan of the hand-hewn feel of the pages. Kindt paints his own color, and does so quite well. I don’t know if it’s actually watercolors, but that’s what it feels like, and the flowing, impermanent nature of that medium only furthers the story’s slippery feel. They’re nice to look at, too.
I also like the way he shows you the scaffolding, leaving the blue production guidelines of his art boards visible, revealing instructions for Mind MGMT field agents along the top, and providing a running narrative along the left side that serves as both important background information and a sort of counterpoint to the main story. It’s all a bit much to take in on a single reading; the counterpoint often breaks the narrative flow. So I’ve taken to reading each issue twice. A first run just to get the feel of the story, and then a second pass with the marginal comments, to see how Kindt decided to enhance or undercut whatever it is we think we’re seeing. Sometimes the whole meaning of the story is changed, which… now that I think of it… really only adds to that queasy sense of wrongness.
Damn you, Kindt! You got me again!
And now for the number one funnybook of 2013, which (as regular visitors to the nerd farm have probably guessed by now) is…
1. Batman Incorporated, by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham
I’m a day late posting this second half of our Best Comics rundown, and this book is the reason why. When I was compiling the list, my immediate instinct was to put it at the top, and there it stayed. But as I wrote about all the other books on the list, I started second-guessing myself. Was Batman Inc really better than Fran, after all? Was it better than Ant Comic? Mind MGMT?
Hmm. Probably not, in all honesty. Grant Morrison certainly stuck the landing, pulling together threads of theme and plot he’d been stringing along for seven years. But it’s messy, as Morrison’s work usually is, and in the end it’s really just another grand super hero epic, complete with a major hero death to spike sales. It’s over-calculated, I thought, not the pure creation some of my other top picks are, not as weird, not as interesting, not as personal. It needed a lower ranking. I was sure of it. Except that my gut was telling me it was the only possible choice. So I let it sit for a day, and tried to decide why that was. Here’s what I came up with:
Batman Incorporated is the best funnybook of 2013 because Grant Morrison was able to make this a personal story of great creative power in spite of all the corporate spandex bullshit. He picked at the cracks in the Batman fantasy, pointing out that, stripped of the romanticism, the Caped Crusader is essentially a rich guy who beats up poor people when he could be using his money for the betterment of society. He showed (but never told) that ten-year-olds, no matter how well trained, have no business out on the street fighting crime. And, in what may have been a metaphor for his own career, he suggested that Bruce Wayne’s Batman fixation is the self-limiting delusion of a man who could do so much better.
In short, he exploded the myth of the Batman. By the time he’s done, Bruce Wayne has finally given up the Bat, the death of his only begotten son giving him the moment of clarity he needed to turn his life around. But then there’s some ridiculous crime the cops can’t figure out, and at the slightest whiff of mystery, every lesson he learned vanishes into the ether. The faithful butler is forgiven his reckless endangerment of a child, the still-healing body is dragged back into the spandex, and the madness starts all over again.
There’s something great in that, of course, because it’s Batman, and Batman is great. But after everything the character’s been through in the preceding pages, there’s something lunatic and sad about it, too. Morrison, it seems, has seen the light and is moving on. But Bruce Wayne isn’t, because Bruce Wayne can’t. No matter how much he should.
Now, that’s how you leave a big-time spandex gig!
And so ends the countdown. As I said last week, though, there are some books that are conspicuous in their absence. So next week, we’ll take a look at those, and why they’re not here. See you then!