So 2014 is finally over, and that means it’s time to look back. Back, at the best funnybooks of the year. That’s right, it’s time once again for… THE DORK AWARDS!
It was a great year for comics. The American industry is the best it’s been since the 1980s, with a raft of talented creators producing a wide variety of books in multiple genres. There was so much good stuff, in fact, that I’m sure I missed some of it. I’m looking at those unread copies of Farel Dalrymple’s Wrenchies and Charles Burns’ Sugar Skull on my shelf, for instance, and regretting that I didn’t spend more time reading this year. But, ah well. I do what I can. As it says on the masthead, this is just one dork’s opinion. No more, no less.
But enough preliminaries! Them funnybooks ain’t gonna talk about themselves! So let’s get this show on the road with the first award…
Best Limited Series / OGN / One-Shot
The periodical nature of comics publishing means that, often, we don’t get traditional novelistic storytelling. Which is to say, stories with a planned beginning, middle, and end. That’s where the mini-series and graphic novel forms come in. These stories work under different pressures than on-going serialized fiction, and so deserve their own separate category. So… Without further ado… The nominees are:
Annihilator, by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving
Though not Morrison’s best work, Annihilator is weird and fun. One part sci-fi horrorshow, one part Morrisonian meta-fiction, and one part Kirbyesque grandeur, all of it tinged with a tongue-in-cheek satirical edge that keeps the whole thing from rattling off the tracks into nonsensical pretension. Also helping with its appeal is some really gorgeous artwork from Frazer Irving. Whether he’s drawing crazy metaphysical alien god-space or the sickly, decaying light of Los Angeles at dusk, Irving lends everything here just the right air of unreality.
Moon Knight, by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey
Yeah, yeah… I know this is an on-going series. But… ahem… I don’t really count the issues that followed this run, so… As far as I’m concerned…
And what a six issues they were! A vital, artsy spandex relaunch that offered an intriguing new status quo and a tradition of interestingly-told done-in-one stories, with subject matter ranging from rogue mercenaries to the supernatural. Whatever it lacked in depth it more than made up for in coolness and entertainment value. I wouldn’t call it a triumph of style over substance, mind you. More style-AS-substance, storytelling so interesting in its own right that it carried the book all on its own. A prime example of creatively-driven (as opposed to event-driven) corporate spandex books, and the sort of thing I’d like to see a lot more of.
Nemo: The Roses of Berlin, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
The second of three League of Extraordinary Gentlemen OGNs starring Janni Nemo, this year’s entry finds Our Heroine invading a WWII-era Berlin controlled by villains out of German Expressionist film. Roses of Berlin is a rip-snorting adventure story, at turns terrifying, decadent, and exciting. If it has a flaw, it’s that Moore and O’Neill make their pop cultural gestalt look too easy, when in point of fact, finding the thematic link between Rotwang, Caligari, and the Nazis is nothing less than a stroke of genius. Pulp adventure fiction really doesn’t come much finer.
Andre the Giant, by Box Brown
Box Brown’s funnybook biography of wrestling legend Andre the Giant struck a nice tone. Its matter-of-fact portrayal of Andre’s life painted a fair portrait of the man without ignoring his flaws. That’s a hard line to walk when dealing with such a beloved figure, and Brown makes it look easy, presenting a bio that can be read and enjoyed both by Andre’s fans (among whom I count myself) and by pro rasslin laymen who may only know him by reputation. It’s good work for general audiences, in other words, and that’s something we need more of in comics.
Seconds, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
O’Malley’s follow-up to Scott Pilgrim finds him delving into restaurant life, Chinese mythology, and second chances. The result is stylish and more mature than his previous work, but still unmistakeably his, obsessed as always with lovably dysfunctional heroes who sometimes make things worse by trying to make them better. Good comics from one of the best cartoonists of the current generation.
Ant Colony, by Michael DeForge
Though Michael DeForge’s Ant Colony was technically created in 2013, it saw print in physical form last January, and I loved it so much that I had to include it here. Weird and wrong and funny in all the best (worst) possible ways, it’s a book that defies expectations and explanations. I read it on-line, where it was available as a continuous scrolling web comic, and just got pulled into its psychedelic undertow. While it’s probably not for everyone, I have to give it my highest recommendation.
Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman and JH Williams III
We didn’t get much of this book this year, but what did get released was damn fine. It’s not slam-bang exciting stuff, or searing character study, or blood-curdling terror. But it is filled to the brim with awe and wonder, and maybe the prettiest art on the stands. This is Gaiman in “big idea” mode, like some kind of very lyrical, art-faggy Jack Kirby, and JH Williams is matching him stride for stride. Surpassing him, actually. I wonder at times if this story would have even half the impact in the hands of a lesser artist. Happily, though, that’s not a question I can answer. We’re getting this thing in its full glory, as its creators intend it, no matter how long it takes them. And for that, I’m very grateful indeed. It’s still not enough to land this book the top spot, though.
Because the Dork Award goes to…
Pax Americana, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Yes, I realize that Pax Americana is just one issue of the larger Multiversity series. But Multiversity is really a series of one-shots, each issue telling a different story done in a different style. I’ve enjoyed the whole thing, certainly, and appreciate the point Grant Morrison’s making about super hero fiction in general. It’s one of the few corporate spandex books I really liked this year. But this issue stands head and shoulders above the rest of the series, and so deserves to be discussed as its own thing.
Pax Americana is Watchmen condensed and inverted, collapsed down into a fictional singularity. I mean, it’s got everything Watchmen has: obsessive structuralism, a preoccupation with the nature of time, fascinating characters shaped and warped by their super hero status, statements on vigilantism, and of course a massive, impossibly complicated conspiracy to save the world through sacrifice and redemption. But it’s done in a single issue, and it’s all backwards. The super hero is a positive social force here, an heroic ideal being positioned by a mad genius to inspire society to a new golden era of peace. But it’s an all-too-sane genius, inspired by the same sort of doubts in the super heroic ideal expressed in Watchmen itself, who throws a monkey wrench in the works.
It goes pretty far beyond my goals here to delve into exactly how all that plays out. I could write a book unpacking everything Morrison and Quitely have put into these 40 pages. But it’s a pretty brilliant response. Watchmen is the medium’s great formalist classic, a triumph of structure as much as it is a triumph of story, art, and character. Its pieces snap together like some kind of great and terrible Lego blocks, moving inexorably toward a construction that pleases, in part, due to its shape. Pax Americana is just as structurally sound, but it’s more like a jigsaw puzzle, its pieces jagged and uneven, coming together a little bit here and a little bit there, but fitting each other, in the end, with an undeniable brutal efficiency.
It lacks Watchmen‘s depth, ultimately, but for a single issue you really couldn’t ask for more. I’m especially impressed, on revisiting it today, at how much Morrison has managed to invest in these characters in such a small space. He’s become the master, in recent years, of the telling phrase, the single line of dialogue that defines a character more completely than most funnybook writers can manage in a year’s worth of soap opera drama. Here, it’s the Peacemaker who gets that treatment. Realizing that he’s lost allies in an attempt to save the president from terrorists, he’s completely defined in just seven words: “Casualties? Dammit. Must try harder next time.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t also take some time to praise artist Frank Quitely here. Morrison’s best collaborator, Quitely brings his scripts to life in a way no other artist has ever matched, fitting in whatever insane details he’s asked to, but also interpreting and embellishing them, finding new and better and different ways to tell the story. I don’t think Morrison could have pulled this off with any other artist, and that unique collaboration is a major part of what makes Pax Americana so very good.
And it really is that good. I don’t think anything better was published this year. And that’s really saying something, considering the competition.
Speaking of which… We’ll talk about some of that competition next time, and probably for the next couple of weeks. I haven’t firmed up all the categories just yet, but I’m thinking we’ll at least be considering Best Writer, Best Artist, and Best On-Going Series. But that’s for the future. Hope to see you then.