And here we are, back for the final installment of the 2014 Dork Awards. I have to admit, much as I wanted to avoid this thing getting repetitious, it still got away from me. Between the previous categories, and all the reviews of these books I’ve written over the course of the year, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’ve said all this stuff before. Ah, well. Such is the way of the year-in-review column, I suppose. So, that little warning out of the way, let’s get this show on the road…
Okay, so technically this is really an award for the “Best On-Going Series.” But “Best Funnybook” is just more fun to say. Soooo… That’s what we’re calling it. Really, though, it’s an award for the best long-form storytelling, serials that operate under different pressures than you’d see in a mini-series or OGN. The creative team can take their time, develop things in more depth, and riff more around their central themes. But they also run the risk of getting stale, and if they riff too much (thus avoiding staleness), they can lose sight of the things that made them great in the first place. It’s a long, slow tightrope walk for the on-going series, but (as a life-long funnybook fan) it’s also the kind of storytelling I like the best.
And the nominees are…
Hawkeye, by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Marjorie Wu
The best mainstream super hero comic on the stands continued its impressive run in 2014, albeit somewhat slowly. The story of Clint Barton and his on-going conflict with the mob slowed especially last year, with more forward motion happening in the Kate Bishop Los Angeles stories. Unfortunately, the Kate stuff suffers in comparison to the Clint stories. In part, that’s because Marjorie Wu’s artwork, nice as it is, simply isn’t as inventive as the stuff David Aja’s been doing on the Clint stories. But it also felt like writer Matt Fraction’s heart wasn’t in Kate’s issues quite as much. He did some interesting things, told some entertaining stories, but they still felt tacked-on, like something that should have run as a companion mini-series rather than issues of the regular book. But, publishing realities being what they are… That’s not what happened. Still. An entertaining book, and one well-deserving of a place on my Best Comics list.
Velvet, by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting
Another series that suffered quite a few delays in 2014, Brubaker & Epting’s Velvet did so while maintaining its high standards of quality. It remained an exciting, hard-edged amalgam of James Bond spy fantasy and John Le Carre style spy reality, a “spy noir” made up of equal parts ugly personal realities and thrilling action. It continued to avoid the “bad girl” clichés in its second year, presenting a super-competent female lead without constantly putting her in T&A fantasy poses. Toss in the stunning illustrative work of Artist of the Year winner Steve Epting and the gorgeous colors of Elizabeth Breitweiser, and you’ve got the state-of-the-art in adventure comics. If you like that sort of thing, and you’re not reading Velvet… You’re missing out.
Lazarus, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark
Another book with a strong female lead that avoids the bad girl clichés. I discussed why I love Lazarus so much in last week’s Writer of the Year entry for Greg Rucka, so I’ll only outline it here: it’s a very well-realized future society. But the other half of the equation is artist Michael Lark. He works in the same sort of very realistic illustrative style as Steve Epting, and may be second only to Epting in that category. I’ll even go a step further and say that Lark is probably superior in facial expression. His characters are better actors than Epting’s, a skill that serves him well on a book that’s so much about the differences between what people say, do, and think. And that’s the other thing that lands Lazarus a place among 2014’s best: a complexity of character as well as plot. It’s just a great read, a multi-layered, deliberately-paced exploration of culture and power. Chillingly plausible sci-fi, with pretty pretty pictures. What’s not to like?
The Wicked + The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
Gillen & McKelvie are the Lennon & McCartney of pop funnybooks. Their work together is catchy and fun, and in its willingness to wrestle with serious issues, it captures the spirit of the age. They’re also far better together than they are apart. Wicked + Divine is their latest, dealing in indie cool and emotional sincerity while simultaneously developing an interesting fantasy scenario. This time out, they’re giving us a world in which the gods incarnate in human form once a century, briefly inspiring society to greatness (and awfulness, I suppose) before burning out completely. It’s a comic about belief, faith, celebrity, and murder, ruthlessly modern but dealing in ancient themes. Plus, there’s a chick who looks like David Bowie.
She’s the devil. Or was. Because she’s dead now, sacrificed in a bit of thematic role reversal that cemented this book’s place among the year’s best.
Fatale, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
If Gillen & McKelvie are comics’ Lennon & McCartney, then Brubaker & Phillips would have to be the funnybook Townsend & Daltrey. Which is to say, their stuff is darker and more perverse, and they may be an even more perfect team. They’ve spent the last several years exploring the depths of various pulp fiction forms, and Fatale (which ended last year) is their pulp horror entry, a sort of noir-tinged tribute to HP Lovecraft. It stars Josephine, an ageless beauty possessed of a terrible magnetism and power over men. I’ve always considered that ironic for a Lovecraft pastiche; women figured in his work hardly at all. But in retrospect, I’ve come to think that it’s actually quite fitting. Lovecraft always left the greatest horrors unseen, so by that logic, the horror of female sexuality must be the ultimate terror.
Or maybe Brubaker just wanted to tweak Lovecraft’s nose a bit. Either way, the series finale dug deep into the Lovecraftian well, trading in cosmic horror as Josephine’s powers were unleashed, and making Fatale my favorite Brubaker/Phillips work to date. Though I don’t think it was their best work of 2014, as we’ll see below…
Prophet, by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Others
Prophet also saw delays this year, as its story hit ever more epic heights, but also introduced more familiar (some might say clichéd) genre fiction concepts into the grand weirdness that’s been its stock-in-trade. Don’t get me wrong. The book’s still plenty weird, as stuff like this from the Prophet: Strikefile guidebook shows:
Still, that sense of bizarre inventiveness has faded a bit, and kept this series from taking the prize this year.
East of West, by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta
Hickman and Dragotta’s sci-fi manga western continued to impress in 2014, maybe as fine an example of world-building as Greg Rucka’s work on Lazarus, if one that’s not quite as believable. Believable’s not the point, though. There’s room for fantasy and reality in our sci-fi funnybooks, after all, and the alternate history being created in East of West is pure fantasy, as much mythology as anything else. That’s its greatest strength, I think, that grand sweep of big ideas, and the sense of great events unfolding.
In 2014, those great events were, essentially, the apocalypse being loosed upon the land. If the first arc was all set-up, an establishment of the various nations and factions of this alternate America, the second arc was primarily concerned with watching those forces move (or be moved) toward war. It’s still early days yet. The pieces are still moving into place. But the first battles have been fought, and more seem inevitable. It’s fascinating (dreadfully so) watching the world tear itself apart. Not so fascinating that East of West wins, unfortunately. But it’s still one of the funnybooks I most look forward to reading.
The Fade Out, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The new Brubaker/Phillips joint is only a few issues old, but it’s already their finest work. A murder mystery set in 1940s Hollywood, the series sets the same noir tone typical to this team, but the writing seems elevated here somehow, the cast bigger and more real. Sean Phillips’ art is hitting some real highs, as well, particularly in scenes dealing with memory and the lack thereof. Series lead Charlie Parish is a heavy drinker, prone to blackouts, and he’s having real trouble remembering one night in particular. The night he was passed out in a bathtub while a movie star was being killing in the next room. Phillips renders his attempts to remember that night in deep blacks, vivid flashes of color, and graphite:
He’s also hitting new highs in the way he draws faces. There’s a richness in them sometimes that I’m not accustomed to seeing in his work. There’s a richness to The Fade Out as a whole, actually, and that’s the real secret to its appeal. Reading it, I feel like this team has reached a new plateau in their work. And that’s a great thing to see from guys who’ve been at the job this long.
Satellite Sam, by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin
A great book that doesn’t get enough attention. I’ve said this before, and I’ll no doubt say it again before the series is done: Satellite Sam is Mad Men for funnybooks. Set at a TV station in the early 1950s, it charts the development of that industry, as well as the lives of the producers, technicians, actors, and egomaniacs who shaped it. The book deals with issues of sex, addiction, race, and lust in all its many forms. It released the five issues of its second arc (“Satellite Sam and the Kinescope Snuff”) spread out bi-monthly across 2014, a schedule that made me think it was running constantly late. But in retrospect, that’s obviously not the case.
I’m assuming that Fraction & Chaykin are treating this thing like one of these high-quality TV dramas I’m comparing it to, doing a limited number of issues per year, but making sure each one has “movie-quality” production values. Because that’s the feel here, really. Each issue of Satellite Sam is densely-packed, its pages crammed with information. It puts me in mind of Chaykin’s American Flagg! work from the 80s, a comic that Fraction’s cited as a major influence more than once. Their collaboration seems to be bringing some of that storytelling diligence back into Chaykin’s pages, as they’re more complex (and more enjoyable) than just about anything I’ve seen him draw in the last 20 years.
Satellite Sam is one of those books that I wish came out more often, but that I’m willing to wait for, just because it’s so very good. Not good enough to win, obviously, but that’s no embarrassment, considering the competition…
Stray Bullets: Killers, by David Lapham
STRAY BULLETS, MUTHA– Ahem.
I’ve made my enthusiasm for the return of David Lapham’s suburban crime series clear more than once in the past year, and he hasn’t let me down. The new Stray Bullets has been every bit as consistently smart, funny, thrilling, and downright heartbreaking as the original. Nice to see that Lapham’s years in the work-for-hire trenches haven’t dulled his abilities. It’s been a fine return to form, and one that made 2014 a very good year for the writer/artist. Not sure why I didn’t include him in my “Writer of the Year” category, in fact, now that I think about it. A terrible oversight.
Trees, by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard
And speaking of writers having a good year… Writer of the Year winner Warren Ellis turned in career-best work on this series, a stark science fiction book about a near-future Earth living under an invasion of silent, towering, incomprehensible alien… Trees. Not literally trees, of course, but some kind of impenetrable towers that have rooted themselves in the ground in various spots across the globe, and stretch high into the clouds. Ellis has followed a variety of characters across the globe in very grounded, very human stories, examining the cultural, political, and scientific pressures of life under the Trees. It’s very good stuff, the first “season” of which has just come to a rather ugly, if not unexpected, end. I have no idea where Ellis and Howard will be taking things in the second season (literally, since so very many members of the cast are now dead), but I’ll be looking forward to it with bated breath.
Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
What can I say about this book that I (and so very many other critics) haven’t already said? It’s a funny, honest, just slightly (okay, maybe more than just slightly) profane funnybook about sex. It grapples entertainingly with love and relationships (and the difference between the two), psychological problems, friendship, and all manner of other stuff. That’s it’s about people who can stop time with their orgasms is really kind of secondary. Tertiary, even. That it’s about people, period, full stop… That’s its real strength.
A popular favorite with wide appeal, Sex Criminals is a good comic, an important comic, one truly capable of bringing new readers to the medium. But it wasn’t my favorite of the year. There are still two that beat it…
Mind MGMT, by Matt Kindt
I’ve praised this series again and again over the past year, and praised it even more in my discussion of Matt Kindt’s story and art in the Writer of the Year category. So I won’t go into great detail on it now. Suffice it to say that it’s great comics, a sci-fi mindfuck of a spy story that constantly innovates in storytelling, and always to the betterment of the story being told. And Kindt’s art is wonderfully effective beyond the experimentation, sketchy and softer than the usual funnybook art, even ugly at times. But that ugliness works to its advantage, especially when he’s dealing with the sort of grotesqueries his story calls for. And even at its ugliest, it’s still softened somewhat by the delicate watercolor effects Kindt layers over it all. It’s great funnybooks. In any other year, it would have taken the Dork Award easily. But in 2014, one book impressed me even more.
And the winner is…
Supreme: Blue Rose, by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay
It feels a little weird giving the Best Funnybook award to a work-for-hire comic, but this book’s been one of the year’s best surprises, meta-fictional and effortlessly artsy. A worthy follow-up, I’d say, to the work Alan Moore did with the Supreme strip in the 90s. Even better, it answers Moore’s challenge to the comics industry to move on beyond him. Much like what Moore himself did with books like Swamp Thing, here Ellis has honored Moore’s work while simultaneously erasing it and making it his own.
Moore’s Supreme was a joyous celebration of everything great in Silver Age Superman. He even (as per usual) did funnybook memes one better by coming up with a mechanism to explain the constant reboot and reinvention long-running comics undergo. It’s that mechanism Ellis has latched onto, dealing with the confusion constant reinvention might cause those undergoing it with a “continuity reboot” that didn’t go as planned. It’s a sci-fi take, set in a world that’s not as wonder-filled as it should have been, and hurtling headlong toward oblivion and ever-increasing horrowshow strangeness because of it.
The narrative is as broken and disjointed as the world, and that feel is aided and abetted by the artwork of Tula Lotay. I’ve already spoken at length about her contributions in the Artist of the Year category, so I won’t get back into it here. But she’s the perfect artist for this book, and adds tremendously to the artistry that landed it the Dork Award.
Aaaannndd… That’s it. Dork Awards 2014, done and done. Except…
There’s always a few things I forget, leave out, or just plain get wrong. And those things will be the subject of what’s come to be my favorite part of the Dork Awards: the After-Party. Which is what we’ll get next time. Hope to see you then.