Soule Finds a Weakness in the Afterlife, Discusses Surprise "Inhuman" Return
1. March Book One (John Lewis /Andrew Aydin/Nate Powell): As a Georgia native, born in 1968, I know about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement by my study of history only. I know about the lingering vestiges of racism in the South (as well as other parts of the United States) by things I have witnessed firsthand. In the late 1980s, I found myself in a fast food restaurant just outside of Atlanta. I was standing in line to place a food order when I noticed the guy next to me. He was wearing a shirt that said: “My dream came true” and it was a graphic of MLK in a gun scope. That moment still haunts and disturbs me. My teenage son’s world fortunately sees far less discrimination and hate firsthand. But it is still out there. So it is apt to me that the first part of John Lewis’ recollection of his own civil rights history is dedicated to the past and future children of the movement.
2. Bad Houses (Sara Ryan/Carla Speed McNeil): Ryan and McNeil are both incredibly strong writers — so to see them collaborate on a story such is this proved to the equivalent of when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to make a story together — in other words you get a damn good story. The narrative reminds me of something that a young Robert Altman might have told — several people’s lives converging around one small town and the intricacies of estate sales. Much of the book’s appeal is neatly summarized in one sentence by Ryan in the book’s afterword: “And you can’t go to estate sales without thinking about mortality, family, and inheritance.”
3. SUPERMAG (Jim Rugg): Rugg is a storyteller that many would consider at the top of his game. Yet given the fellow’s inherent intellectual curiosity — and the stated goal of this project (to explore comics [which he regards as a “rapidly evolving art form”] and document his examination) I think the writer/artist has only scratched the surface of his storytelling skillset. It may be only 60 pages, but it is a jam-packed diverse collection of comics — complete with an index.
4. East of West (Jonathan Hickman/Nick Dragotta): Many folks may praise this series for Hickman’s writing. For me, the main appeal of the series is the visual world-building that Dragotta is pursuing.
5. The Black Beetle (Francesco Francavilla): Every issue is a lesson is a romp through Francavilla’s unabashed love of the noir genre. As an added bonus, each page proved to be an education in boundary pushing comic layouts. When a project is a labor of love like Black Beetle is, you get far more rewards than the stories defined corporate editorial edict.
6. Kinski (Gabriel Hardman): 2013 was a year that many creators stepped outside of the comfort zone — and Hardman is a prime example of that. As he noted in May 2013: “I always intended to draw this story in a somewhat simpler style than my other work. That’s reflected in both the line work and the six panel grid I’m working with, not to mention sticking with black and white instead of color. It’s the cartooning equivalent of shooting a film guerrilla style.” I admire Hardman for attempting a story of a guy and a dog not his own — and the complications that ensue.
7. Lazarus (Greg Rucka/Michael Lark): Rucka and Lark’s consideration of technology mixed with family political battles hooked me from the outset. Rucka’s use of Tumblr adds another layer of entertainment/information to the series.
8. Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Nick Spencer/Steve Lieber): I am still pinching myself that Marvel convinced artist Lieber to take on this monthly series. His gift for comedy has totally blindsided me. Writing comedy evenly paired with an engaging storyline is no easy task, but writer Spencer has proved himself worthy of the challenge.
9. Batman ’66 (Jeff Parker/various artists): A DC digital first title possesses a level of fun and adventure sorely lacking in too many comics these days. I wish more comics were as refreshingly unique and as strongly written as this Parker ongoing.
10. Journey Into Mystery (Kathryn Immonen/Valerio Schiti): I know the series is canceled, but Immonen’s characterization of Lady Sif (and her use of Beta Ray Bill in the latter part of the series) was a perfect balance of quirky and refreshing. Visually artist Schiti possessed a style and approach on the series that I think will make him a high in demand artist in the near to long term. I still vividly remember an issue where Sif ordered and carried a huge stack of pizzas. Images that stick with you months after reading it are rare in my comics-consuming experience. I still wish readership numbers had been stronger in this series.
Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross (DC Comics/Vertigo)
1990s comics are often vilified; sometimes it’s easy to forget that the decade that brought variant covers and the speculator boom also brought some of the greatest comics ever — stuff like Hellboy, Bone and Astro City. With its 20th anniversary coming up in a couple of years, it’s fitting we got a new Astro City ongoing this year so that the team an start building toward a huge, monumental story — or they can just keep doing what they’ve been doing for the past 20 years, and that’s tell great stories about the superhumans and non-super humans that inhabit their world. I’m definitely cool with that.
Avengers Arena by Dennis Hopeless, Kev Walker and more (Marvel)
Like Carla said above, this is a book that’s far better than it has any right to be, but boy do I love it. It was also interesting to read Hopeless’ statement in the final issue about the book he initially pitched to Marvel and how different it would have been from what we got. What we did get ended up being a lot of fun, as we were introduced to a bunch of new teenage characters, said goodbye to many of them and got a supped-up Arcade who finally manged to put the “murder” into Murderworld. There was a time I would have called this a guilty pleasure, but after a few issues it just became a pleasure to read.
The Bunker by Joshua Fialkov and Joe Infurnari (Oni Press)
Fialkov and Infurnari are two creators who I expect a lot from, based on their past work, and they did not let me down with The Bunker — which started out as a self-published digital series and was picked up by Oni Press. The comic starts with a group of friends discovering a bunker that has four of the five’s names on the door, which they go on to open and discover … yeah, it’s probably best to stop there. This is one of those comics you don’t want to spoil because they’ve done such a masterful job of not only coming up with a great plot with lots of twists along the way, but also because it’s so well-presented that I couldn’t really do it justice anyway. Both creators are playing to their strengths here, as the individual designs and dialogue of each character set them apart rather quickly before each subsequent issue goes into deeper detail on the cast. One of Fialkov’s strengths is finding voices for his characters that sound like real people, and he does that well here; the bickering between them feels authentic and familiar. The story takes place in two different time periods, and Infurnari has done a nice job of setting the two periods apart with his artistic choices. He also knows when to go in deep with very detailed backgrounds, then in the next panel let the dialogue take center stage with minimal art. The duo make a lot of smart choices in The Bunker, the smartest probably being to work on it together, as their styles really complement each other.
Burning Building Comix by Jeff Zwirek (Top Shelf)
Occasionally a comic comes along that makes you say, “Yeah, that could have only been done in comics.” And by that I’m not talking about a crazy plot twist or a story development, but about format. The story told in Burning Building Comix, I’m pretty sure, wouldn’t have worked in any other medium. Open the book and you see the outside of a building with flames in each of the windows, which each subsequent page showing what’s happening in various apartments on 10 different floors. They’re 10 different stories, for the most part, with the quickly spreading fire that started on the first floor eventually finding its way into each story. What’s great is that you can read it from left to right, one floor at a time, to get the story of the people living on that floor, or you can read up and down to see how the fire spreads … which is kind of an 11th story of its own. It would be easy for each apartment’s story to get lost or seem inconsequential in the bigger tale of the fire, but each wordless story by Zwirek holds together on its own. It’s a pretty amazing book.
Edison Rex by Chris Roberson, Dennis Culver and more
Roberson and Culver mix equal parts superhero nostalgia and creative innovation to bring us Edison Rex, the story of a villain-turned-hero who has to deal with his former colleagues and past transgressions as he tries to save the world. I look forward to reading this every time I see a new download available on comiXology.
Gamma by Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas (Dark Horse Comics)
What if Ash from Pokemon grew up and led an army of Pokemon, Power Rangers and Shogun Warriors, but he sucked so bad at it that years later he ended up in a dive bar where he let people punch him for $50? That’s Gamma in a nutshell, but it goes so much further than that.
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja and many more (Marvel)
Two words here: Pizza Dog. Every issue of Hawkeye is well worth your time and money, but issue #11 was something special. Like Burning Building Comix, it was one of those “only could be done in comics” moments, with bold designs, its clever use of icons and the attention to detail in what words Lucky, a.k.a. Pizza Dog, does and doesn’t understand. It was a pretty wonderful, well-executed issue, but the thing that really pushed it over the edge for me was the use of color … or the lack of color in certain parts. Colorist Matt Hollingsworth already uses a fairly limited, well-chosen color palette on the book that helps give it its distinctive style, even when the artist changes. In this issue, he went a bit further, as anytime it switched over to Lucky’s POV, the color went away (because dogs are color blind) and switched to fairly simple line art. It’s a brilliant choice in a comic that makes a lot of brilliant choices.
Heck by Zander Cannon (Top Shelf)
When Hector Hammarskjöl inherits a house with a portal to Hell in it, he does what any rational person would do — he opens a business where he helps settle inheritance and other issues by venturing into Hell on his clients’ behalf. Hell isn’t a fun place, and things really go awry when an old girlfriend asks him to deliver a message to her dead husband. As I said in my write-up for CBR’s top comics of the year list, it’s a cool twist on Dante’s Inferno — Zander Cannon’s storytelling is smart, at times funny, often quietly disturbing and ultimately heart-wrenching. But it’s probably Cannon’s afterword — about the relationship between Heck and his sidekick Elliot, and how it came from his own feelings about fatherhood — that really brought this home for me. I read this first as a part of Double Barrel, the digital release from Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, and was eager to buy it once the book came out … it isn’t often I look forward to buying something twice.
I thought about listing this as awards — best graphic novel, best comeback, etc. — and my entry for this one was going to be “Best zombie survival book that doesn’t feature zombies.” No, this one features superheroes, but I wouldn’t bill it as such … it’s actually more inspired by something like 28 Days Later and the survival horror genre than anything involving capes and tights. Something happened in Megalopolis to drive all the superheroes insane, and now a ragtag group of survivors are trying to figure out how to get the hell out of town before they get captured, tortured or squished by the former heroes. It’s a very tense, dark book that keeps you turning the pages and asking for more when it’s done.
Mermin Vol. 1 & 2 by Joey Weiser
I was pretty excited when I found out that Oni Press would collect Joey Weiser’s excellent Mermin minicomics into a hardcover, as it’s a fun series that deserves the attention. Even better — the second volume features brand-new Mermin tales, with new friends, new bad guys and the same charm.
Over the Wall by Peter Wartman (Uncivilized Books)
This is the first graphic novel by Wartman but hopefully not the last. In it he tells the tale of a young girl searching for her lost brother in a forbidden city that’s been overrun with demons. While you could spend hours just exploring the architecture of the city Wartman builds (which is breathtakingly defined), the real treat is the friendship that develops between the girl and one of the demons, which leads to one of the best endings I read this year.
Rocket Girl by Brandon Montclare and Amy Reeder (Image Comics)
I supported a lot of projects on Kickstarter this year, to the point that I considered making a whole “Kickstarter” section to my list here, but the one comic that stands out to me is Rocket Girl. Not only was it a well-run campaign, but it also led to the creation of a well-done book by one of my current fav creator teams in comics. When we talk about wanting more female-led superhero comics, this one could easily serve as the blueprint.
Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber and more
I don’t know if it’s right to say that a book featuring “liars, cheaters and thieves” can be charming, but that’s the word that comes to mind. What I do know is right to say is that SFoSM delivers a very solid character piece on, of all characters, Boomerang, the C-list villain who regularly gets finds himself behind bars after spending some time hanging upside-down in one of Spider-Man’s web nets. Boomerang and his “pals” in the Sinister Six hate Spider-Man and want to get rich, so they tolerate each other despite the headaches and betrayals that’s intrinsic with a group of villains. This book has a great, yet dark, sense of humor, not only in the script but in the artwork, as Steve Lieber brings to life situations like Speed Demon and Shocker stealing a puppy from a little girl, Beetle robbing a comic book store and a plot that revolves around the disembodied head of Maggia boss Silvermaine. I’m enjoying this trip through Boomerang’s life, and I kind of hope we don’t ever see any kind of breakthrough … he’s an unloyal bastard, and it suits him just fine.
Although I’m still a little depressed about Jason Aaron’s run on Wolverine and the X-Men coming to an end, I am thrilled that he’ll continue to tell the adventures of the merry mutants, along with artist Ed McGuinness, in the pages of Amazing X-Men. The thing I’ve loved about Wolverine and the X-Men is that it never takes itself too seriously and throws all sorts of crazy shit at the reader without really worrying about whether or it always make complete sense — like an evil version of the Jean Grey school that’s training teenagers to be evil, but it’s run by a bunch of pre-teens. Aaron ratchets up the insanity each issue but manages to somehow keep the whole thing grounded in the character moments that have come to define Wolverine, his relationship with his students and their relationships with each other.
But once school is out, even more fun begins. The first arc of Amazing, meanwhile, combines the afterlife, demon pirates, surprise guest stars, the return of Nightcrawler and, of course, the X-Men. Aaron keeps the same irreverent, fun approach he’s had to the X-Men in its sister title, but the smaller cast and different setting really let him cut loose with a fast-paced adventure story. McGuinness, meanwhile, takes the ball and runs with it, bringing a lot of energy to the battle scenes and a lot of style to everything else. This is superhero comfort food for me, with a twist — these are the X-Men I remember from years past, made fresh by Aaron and his artistic partners.
I also liked: Five Ghosts, Saga, Bandette, Lost Cat, Marble Season, Angel & Faith, Deathmatch, Kinski, Demeter, The Walking Dead, FF, The Sixth Gun, Deathless, East of West, Strange Nation, Johnny Hiro: The Skills to Pay the Bills, Private Eye, Head Lopper, Theremin, Ghosted and Revival.