My Thirteen Favorite Comics of 2014

The Massive (Dark Horse) by Brian Wood, Garry Brown, and Jordie Bellaire: This year witnessed the planned conclusion of Brian Wood’s socially aware post-DC Comics odyssey, a title marking the start of a distinct third phase of his career. With Garry Brown’s rugged but emotive aesthetic, they merged the post-apocalyptic, high adventure, and ultimately sci-fi genres into one catastrophic exodus event. The Massive was never a book relying on high noon heroism in the third act, instead provoking challenging questions around global stewardship, a personal sense of purpose, and, by the end, a New Earth alt creation mythology. Despite some tragic notes during the denouement, it left readers with one hopeful message about our existential dilemma: It’s time to make the world a better place; if not for us, for our children.

Manifest Destiny (Image) by Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, and Owen Gieni: Manifest Destiny is an absolute visual feast, an example of the craft on the page mirroring the wonderment of the fabled expedition the series is purportedly about. The slick high concept hook blends speculative historical fiction and inventive monster mayhem. As it turns out, ol’ Tom Jefferson’s off-book special ops mission for Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark was to investigate supernatural forces inhabiting the territory of the Louisiana Purchase (the real reason POTUS got such a deal on all that land from the French!) as The Corps of Discovery faces both internal and external threats while charting a waterway to the Pacific Ocean.

Lazarus (Image) by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, and Owen Freeman: In a year that Image Comics was responsible for shepherding tons of great material into thankful consumer hands, Lazarus was hands-down the best that the creator owned haven had to offer. With the dystopian world controlled by a handful of wealthy families functioning as consolidated Organized Crime Corporations, Lazarus is remarkable for something called “selective amplification of the observed present.” The series takes our collective social paranoia surrounding rapidly advancing biotechnology, an utterly dysfunctional political system, and severely disproportionate resource allocation in this country, and then pointedly extrapolates it all out to a terrifying set of conclusions.

Black Science (Image) by Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, and Dean White: Full of unadulterated sci-fi and familial bonds, Black Science plays like a rejected FF pitch too intense for the suits at Marvel. Reading through the writer’s oeuvre of Fear Agent, Low, and Deadly Class, you’ll find a guilt stricken father attempting to repair family damage at any cost, a mother’s intense love framed in sci-fi survivalism, and kids navigating the absence of healthy parental figures. There’s a sense of consequence to Black Science, and when you discover the connective tissue in Remender’s body of work examining the parent-child dynamic from various angles, it adds tremendous heart to the pulse-pounding adventure. Forget DC event miasma, if you want a real look at time being a non-linear stack of flat circles and the true dangers of multiversal theory, then Black Science awaits you.

Moon Knight (Marvel) by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Brian Wood, Greg Smallwood, and Jordie Bellaire:  It’s rare that a book with two creative teams makes the list, but whether it was Ellis and Shalvey’s urban psychonaut “reactivating the IP for Marvel,” or Wood and Smallwood continuing the structural approach, moody deconstructive aesthetic, and script tone while focusing on “The Ghost Protector of NYC” (my terms) as a grounded manifestation of the city’s back alleys, it was grand. Moon Knight is proof that great talent can still make great off-beat cape comics. Here’s to hoping that Moon Knight #8 gets an Eisner Award nod in the Best Single Issue category, recognizing Wood and Smallwood’s treatment of the ubiquitous iPhone in the Social Media Age, and how the digital narrative shapes the personas and perceptions of pop culture figures.

Transformers vs. G.I. Joe (IDW) by John Barber and Tom Scioli: It might best be described as an indie comix invasion of our nostalgic Gen X childhood, one which alternates effortlessly between campy self-aware send-up, faithful adaptation of beloved properties rendered in complete unironic earnest, and adventuresome 3.75-inch action figure playsets come to life under Scioli’s detail-obsessed lines. This triple threat outsider attack on a licensed property occurs all while subtly subverting tropes, whether it’s Scarlett functioning no-questions-asked as team leader, a preemptive G.I. Joe invasion of Cybertron that flips the typical script, or maniacal Megatron wearing a necklace with Bumblebee’s severed head like he’s half anachronistic 80’s gangsta rapper and half cybernetic Colonel Kurtz strayed too far up the river.

A Voice In The Dark (Image/Top Cow) by Larime Taylor: Featuring serial killers and college radio, it plays like Dexter meets Pump Up The Volume, so if you’re not listening to “Everybody Knows” by Concrete Blonde, you’re doing it wrong. Taylor nails the criminal profiling elements, showcasing the kick that soldiers who do multiple tours describe. When you risk your life every second, any state which is less than that becomes meaningless, and you start to crave it. It’s the only high that makes sense. This is the compulsion. We sympathetically root for Zoey to succeed with her killer skills, yet she’s clearly aware her actions are wrong. She doesn’t disassociate, and we should not be rooting for that. With this clever protagonist paradox, Taylor creates a great modern anti-hero. A Voice In The Dark plays with taboos, from consensual bondage kink, to juxtaposing violence and sexuality, to the depiction of female leads in fiction, to heteronormative stereotypes about beauty, to just what the hell might be going on in the minds of our disaffected Gen Y Millennials. It’s an incredibly smart examination of a dark part of American Culture.

Umbral (Image) by Antony Johnston, Chris Mitten, and Jordan Boyd: It’s tempting to give Johnston & Mitten’s Wasteland a deserving nod (ending soon at #60, but don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened!), but somehow Umbral snuck up on me. I don’t even really like this genre, but it’s hard not to be wooed by Johnston’s exhaustive world-building paying homage to his influences, and Mitten producing those flowing wisps of Rascal’s hair, with the 100mph visual flicker of, like, 2D Ralph Bakshi. Umbral disrupts genre conventions around female leads, dares to outlaw magic (in a fantasy book!), and totally upends the belief paradigm. In Wasteland, the accepted belief system is largely based on misinformation, but in Umbral the rejected myths turn out to be quite real. Umbral also doesn’t forget to be playful, with charming sing-song-y lines like “a wizard of yore, and an Azqari whore” now stuck on repeat in my brain.

Detective Comics #35-#36 (DC Comics) by Benjamin Percy, John Paul Leon, and Dave Stewart: [Christopher Walken Voice] “I’ll be DAMNED if I’m gonna let some… mainstream New 52… BOOK on this list… but… this BOOK. THIS book was great.” I showed up for the rare treat of inky John Paul Leon interior art, but ended up admiring the writing just as much. For me, Benjamin Percy came out of nowhere and composed a story steeped in post-9/11 paranoia, ethnocentrism run amok, topical threads around epidemiology and frantic media spin, and relevancy in the wake of several incidents highlighting the frailty of airline infrastructure, all while telling a modern noir Batman tale with an investigative slant that truly lived up to the “Detective” name. Ultimately, it was a lesson in proof by counterexample, by NOT hiring the typical creative team, and NOT producing the typical cape comic, it transcends the genre. Yeah, it’s still possible.

Club Queen Rat King (Ray Ray Books) by Emma Louthan: Hailing from Cody Pickrodt’s small press publishing endeavor, Club Queen Rat King positions the titular queen and king as social oddities coveted in a bizarre nightclub. The surreal setting forces us to acquiesce to the strange conglomeration of social mores around sexuality, fetishization, and exclusivity being a key to ego, while questioning our existence in a culture that perpetuates it all. Louthan’s diminutive figure scale is composed of fine-lined characters dancing around the page like complex underground sketches ensconced in rich blues and burnt mustards on porous paper. It is all things. It is weird, and different, and poignant. It is revolting, and irresistible, and important.

Andre The Giant: Life & Legend (First Second) by Box Brown: In a passion project dripping with detail and insight, it’s the story of an outcast who found a place he belonged, but then grew disenchanted with who he became. With Brown’s stoic and assured lines, he shows the side of Andre Roussimoff that had difficulty separating the public persona from his true sense of self. This is accomplished partially by filling the work with research that connected the relevant dots, including the sociological dynamic around something called “kayfabe” (the art of the audience believing the staged wrestling spectacle is real), mirroring Roussimoff’s own inability to adequately reconcile his public and private personas.

The Amateurs (Fantagraphics) by Conor Stechshulte: The Amateurs walks the uncomfortable edge between horror and humor, like an ink-stained parable about having lost our way in modern times. It follows two amnesiac butchers bloodily fumbling through life in a fog of the forgotten, documenting the collapse of society at the intersection of diminishing returns that is effort vs. results. The Amateurs relies on memory being messy and unreliable, which reveals the dichotomy between the nostalgia of how we think things used to be, and the reality of how things actually are without all of the whitewashed revisionism.

The Motherless Oven (Self Made Hero) by Rob Davis: The Motherless Oven is an exemplary work that showcases the vitality of modern indie comics in today’s creative landscape. Davis’ dark shadows and lean figures inhabit a wonderfully inverse world, a place where up is down, black is white, old is new, and the kids are the ones making their own parents. Scarper Lee’s backwards journey toward his inevitable “deathday” plays like a broken future odyssey, a weird devolving bildungsroman full of memorable moments, intriguing characters, and these wonderfully memetic mantras that you can build an elaborate and engaging world upon. All The Gods Are Analog. Who The Hell Is Vera Pike?


SO. MANY. GOOD. COMICS. Every year I qualify these lists with how hard the selection process was. I keep a running list, and there’s typically 20-something titles jockeying for position during the year. This year also merged mini-comics/small press with mainstream into a single list, making things even more difficult, yet I felt it was important to better reflect not only my own reading habits, but the way the creative line is ever-blurring between indie and mainstream. Every year I feel guilty for not being able to work more onto the list, so here are some honorable mentions, books that came closest to making an appearance as official selections.

Through The Woods (Margaret K. McElderry Books) by Emily Carroll: Through The Woods is a book whose main focus was death, but was unexpectedly life affirming. Carroll’s confident visuals are lovingly saturated in ink, best demonstrated by my favorite pieces “Our Neighbors” and “In Conclusion.” They’re really about the certainty of death coming, and in order to avoid the inescapable (like contending with the predatory wolf in one story), you have to get lucky over and over and over again, but the wolf only has to get lucky once.

Lucky (Kus! Komiks) by Oskars Pavlovskis:  This stalwart Latvian publisher always surprises and delights with their bursts of A4-size minis, and Pavlovskis delivers a story that succeeds largely because of its willingness to pervert the notion of the free market economy. With bulbous near-grotesque lines that reverberate on the page like some sort of Eastern European R. Crumb in all its downtrodden glory, Lucky efficiently chronicles the rise and fall of a scam artist who manufactures both supply and demand on a small scale.

Tooth & Claw (Image) by Kurt Busiek and Benjamin Dewey (a fantasy hybrid in the vein of Game of Thrones x Kamandi) and the Sci-Fi Western that was Coppherhead (Image), by Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski, both had very strong debuts that immediately grabbed my attention and rocked the tropes associated with each of the genres. With a few more issues under their belt, they could make a good run at the list next year, a sentiment that also applies to the next book.

Joshua Hale Fialkov and Kody Chamberlain’s Punks (Image) was a very fun debut that absolutely defied conventional expectations, a true piece of contemporary art relying heavily on the recontextualization of found objects and imagery. With wry social observations and a quirky stop-motion analog collage motif, it didn’t just zig when others zagged, it rejected the entire binary premise suggesting that’s all you’re allowed to do in comics.

As for some brief analytics, 5 of the 13 entries were published by Image Comics, comprising 38% of the list. It surprises me a bit, in that I thought Image would actually occupy a couple more slots (I’d have guessed half), but it also means there’s nice diversity for the remainder. No other publisher got more than 1 entry, with a total of 8 additional publishers represented on the list, including just one entry apiece for Marvel and DC Comics, each with 8% of the total.

4 of the 13 entries (Lazarus, Umbral, Manifest Destiny, and The Massive) were returning titles from last year, which means 30% of the list was repeat offenders. One metric which I think is terrific is that 10 of the 13 entries, or 77%, are Creator Owned Comics. The 3 that weren’t (Brian Wood on Moon Knight, Tom Scioli on Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, and John Paul Leon on that run of ‘Tec) were creators I’m fiercely loyal to and will follow anywhere. 


At 6:22 PM, Blogger Ryan Claytor said...

Wow, "Andre The Giant: Life & Legend" sounds amazing. Is this list in any particular order (best at the top and...least best at the bottom), or is it just your unordered group of 13 best comics? Thanks for the post, Justin!

At 7:45 AM, Blogger Justin Giampaoli said...

Hey Ryan! It's not ranked in any particular order, that would really be hard to do, and would make me crazy!


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