It's time for an always subjective Best of the Year article, but I thought I'd do things slightly differently this year - mostly because there were so many great comics out in 2013!
There are no doubt some real gems that I've missed, and reading the various Best Of lists presents a great opportunity to stretch my reading muscles. Perhaps I can provide an equal service for some. And so instead of a numbered list, which doesn't really work within an entire medium that spans so many forms and genres, I present my very own awards. Tongue firmly in cheek, but nonetheless, these Comic Book Grrrl Awards are highly prized indeed - and redeemable for one Sailor Jerry's and Coke if you can find me.
It's no exaggeration to say that 2013 has been rather spectacular for comics, from the monthly output of the large US comics publishers and the always increasing number of graphic novels from book publishers, to the prolific world of underground and indie comics - not to mention the limitless space for webcomics and digital media. It's an embarrassment of riches really, and remembering as far back as January leaves me with one very hefty book pile.
And perhaps most importantly, this year has also been rather generously gifted with negative news stories and unwelcome controversies, both close to home and further afield. Focusing on the positives is my normal schtick, and something I'll be keeping to in the future. Starting with this!
Sean Murphy (Punk Rock Jesus, The Wake)
Punk Rock Jesus was one of my favourite books of last year, and the collected edition that came out in April (complete with ten new pages of story) has sent it shooting up my various "best 'graphic novel' of the year" lists this month. As I wrote for another place:
Sticking the rampant capitalism of our society, the ever encroaching celebrity obsessed lack of privacy, and the terrifying march of religious fundamentalism into a blender and juicing the result, this book features a reality show based around the concept of reincarnating Jesus Christ and raising him in front of the cameras. An ex-IRA bodyguard and a brainwashed teen mom complete the picture, alongside the evil television network people, the baying public, and the religious right.
It's a punchy premise, and could have gone very wrong but Murphy pulls it off with panache. With utterly beautiful artwork and an appropriately punk feel to the black and white dynamic page spreads, this book is far more than just a catchy title.
The visual impact of this book is hard to describe beyond placing it in someones hand and instructing them to read - the sheer kinetic energy of the black and white scratchy pages creates a relentless pace but also provides great joy in a slower re-read. And the punk feel, as mentioned above, fits the storyline and characters wonderfully. At a time when many comics seem strangely wary of approaching politics and religion, this is a screaming note of defiance.
Then The Wake came along, in a year that has been creatively, and surprisingly, rich for Vertigo. While many jumped on the title in appreciation of writer Scott Snyder's Batman work, it was Murphy that hooked me in. And it is a bloody good book, uniquely futuristic with refreshing retro undertones - there aren't many other underwater horror adventure comics out there today, though the claustrophobic setting and threat of underwater monsters is a sci-fi theme we're all familiar with.
Murphy is coloured here by Matt Hollingsworth, who does a fantastic job of rendering a believable drowned world, and bringing murky depths to the underwater sequences. Murphy's art is far cleaner here than in Punk Rock Jesus, still highly detailed but less crowded, and seems almost reminiscent of ukiyo-e prints above water - look at those waves! - albeit in a more Western linear style.
The story and the world created within The Wake are undeniably great, but Murphy's lines and that same ability to harness real movement in his work that so energised Punk Rock Jesus, really bring the comic to a whole new level.
Anthology of the Year
Boo! - Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Paul Harrison-Davies, Jonathan Edwards, James Howard, Gary Northfield, Jamie Smart, Andrew Waugh
Any comics critic or creator will tell you that the anthology is a dying art form, and certainly there were sadly far fewer of them in my reading pile this year. Still, Thought Bubble provided me with Blackout II and Team Girl Comic #9, and while I missed catching the wonderful Boo!, Paul Harrison-Davies was kind enough to sort me out with a copy post haste.
And thank goodness he did! This spooky collection for kids is a real breath of fresh air, and a wonderful example of how you can do genuine horror while maintaining that all ages appeal. Contributing to the book are Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Andrew Waugh, Jamie Smart, Jonathan Edwards, Gary Northfield, Harrison-Davies, and James Howard, with a real stand out horror moment from Waugh's deceptively simple and perfectly paced The Visitor.
Smart delights as ever with a new sci-fi spin on an old fairytale in The Nth Little Pig, proving that when you want ridiculously cute combined with some action packed surreal funny business, he is the king. Particularly impressive in this anthology is the variety of styles brought together under one loose theme, from Cadwell's loose and rough lines and Harrison Davies' dreamlike paints, to Howard's red drenched lines and Edwards' retro almost childish style.
Stealing the spotlight for me though is Northfield's utterly charming - and terrifying - The Devil and Billy Beetle which is wonderfully rendered in picture boxes with text underneath, à la Rupert the Bear. This devlisih tale is hauntingly familiar, echoing stories of old, and the retro stylings fit it oh so well. Horrifying!
Expertly edited by Harrison-Davies and Waugh, this is a must read for all ages.
Best Alt/Indie Comic
Raygun Roads - Owen Michael Johnson, Indio
I picked up a huge number of indie and alternative titles this year, primarily at Thought Bubble and the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, but also through many online purchases. And there were many that really stood out with regards to both quality and creativity, spurring me on to try different titles and seek out new creators.
But none excited me quite as much as Raygun Roads, a shot of pure adrenalin to the heart in comics form. This is the book I was telling everyone to pick up, this was the comic that proved the spirit of punk was far from dead, and this was the art that would claw out your eyeballs while your brain wept with joy.
Raygun Roads, or to give it its full title, Raygun Roads and & The Kittlebach Pirates, The Infinity Loop Death-Trap of Ulysses Pomp, is more than your ordinary comic. Literally. It’s sensory overload for dispirited hearts everywhere, with an integrated (and free) soundtrack that soothes your soul while your brain fights to race through the 48 page flip-album like a writer on Red Bull.
Raygun Roads and her Kittlebach Pirates are a band of punk-ass anarchists who hurtle into the grime of our world to boot it in the crotch and save Vincent Paradise from his mundane gloom at the hands of a Mr Shankley type job centre worker and/or the D-Void infected and Ullyses Pomp, shaman of shame and ruler of the Porpoise of Purpose.
With Vincent’s artistic soul being corroded by the capitalist desolation of our society, it’s up to him to save the world.
But that isn’t where the book begins. Instead, we open on the mourning of our dead heroine, Raygun Roads.
Actually, I'd advise reading that whole review and then heading over to the website where you can read Side A for free!
Close runners up: Axolotl #1 by Jack Fallows; Soppy by Philippa Rice; Fever Dreams by Adam Murphy; Porcelain by Benjamin Read, Chris Wildgoose, Andre May; Close #5 by Michael DeForge
Best in Translation
Blue is the Warmest Color - Julie Maroh
It was difficult to approach this book without some preconceived opinions and notions; the film adaptation had won the Palme d'Or in a blaze of glory, shortly followed by numerous headlines and debates about the incredibly male gaze focused explicit sex scenes. Still, in my usual determination not to watch an adaptation until I've read the original work I at least didn't have any of those images in my mind when I began reading - and funnily enough, once finished I realised that I had no intention of watching the film at all. Why? Because it couldn't possibly live up to the very genuine story that I had just read.
Not that this book doesn't have sex scenes in it - it does, and plenty of them - but those scenes are realistic, a million miles away from the pornified version that reached our screens and so disappointed Maroh while humiliating the actresses. On the pages, the love and affection, and impeccable use of silence is a wonder to behold, and only one slice of a much larger picture. Clementine's coming of age story is relatable not only to queer women but to anyone growing up in a heteronormative society and societal confines on what is 'normal'. When Clem first lays eyes on Emma the excitement is electric, infecting the reader as Maroh's broken up panels drive home the blue haired girls startling presence.
Much of the comic is in black and white, shades of grey with occasional splashes of blue as Emma comes to be the centre of Clem's universe; the later world bathed in pure colour for reasons unexpected. Panels crowd the page, effortlessly changing the pace for the reader in time with events, heavy with dialogue yet brilliant in its silence at the moments of pure emotion, drawing the reader in and leaving them emotionally exhausted in the aftermath. If the ending is a tad tidy, a little overdone, it is easily forgiven.
With a publication date brought forward in the aftermath of the film adaptation winning the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes, this book could hardly have arrived with less hype. And yet it more than lives up to the high praises and accolades, a genuinely touching and emotional drama about the difficulties of growing up, navigating relationships, and realizing that there is more to life and love than you could ever have imagined. Beautiful and poignant, the story of Clementine and Emma will stay with you long after the final page.
Close runner up: Peter Pan by Régis Loisel
X-Men Legacy - Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat, José Villarrubia (et al)
The arrival of the Marvel Now! initiative at the end of 2012 excited me in the same way that DC's New 52 had done previously - finally here was a chance to get into the Marvel universe and pick up some new titles. Except with the sheer number of X-Men and Avengers titles coming out an alarming rate I was as confused as ever. Still, I got into some of the more isolated series that were spared the crossovers that so frustrate me, and Young Avengers, FF, and Fearless Defenders, joined Hawkeye and Captain Marvel on my pull list, while Superior Spider-Man and Wolverine I picked up in trade.
But one comic that kept catching my eye in various comic shops was X-Men Legacy, a comic that had incredibly beautiful and stylish covers courtesy of Mike Del Mundo. But modern X-Men comics have always confused me by having so many different titles and silly crossovers... it was only when I stumbled across a few reviews of X-Men Legacy which noted that it was a great standalone read that I picked up the first trade in April and was immediately hooked.
Because I love the world of the X-Men. Of course I do - they're one of the most popular comics franchises around, with blockbuster films that are great (okay, three of them anyway) and a fab animated series that I grew up with. X-Men should be one of the most accessible series, and yet none of the casual comics readers I know pick up X-Men comics apart from classic series. They're impenetrable. Until now.
Quirky, fun and inventive, X-Men Legacy focuses on the damaged but wicked sharp David Haller, aka Legion. He's Professor Xavier's son, suffers from dissociative identity disorder with each identity manifesting individual mutant powers, has done bad things in the past, and distrusts the gung-ho X-Men, and is probably the most powerful guy in the whole world - but you don't need to know any of that, or any of the current X-Men continuity, to get stuck right in.
The storylines are gloriously twisted, the art incredibly rich and chaotic, with Huat and co achieving an almost alien rendering of the weird and wonderful. The world inside Haller's head provides a wonderful canvas for the artists to really cut loose, with that madness also leaking into the real world scenes. Colourists José Villarrubia and Rachelle Rosenberg provide equally fun colours in a complimentary fashion, making this book a real joy to read.
X-Men Legacy - probably the most underrated comic of 2013.
Lighter Than My Shadow - Katie Green
I always feel that graphic biographies and memoirs are done rather a disservice by being included as 'graphic novels' as although that's a term fraught with enough baggage already, the 'novel' part almost certainly should not be applied to non-fictional works. There are very few book awards that would judge a memoir alongside a work of fantasy, though of course many creators have certainly blurred the lines. Anyway, the differences between the art of communicating memory and the art of communicating imagination seem sufficient to acknowledge this powerful genre in this most powerful of mediums its own space.
Comics lend themselves particularly well here, whether telling the true stories of other lives, or examining the brutal honesty of the creators own past. Most top lists of the ~greatest comics ever~ will feature works like Maus and Persepolis heavily. The power of truth is immense, leaving the reader exhausted and, often, transformed.
So it is with Lighter Than My Shadow, an enormous work of art and memory that explores the awful truths behind Green's own struggles and ongoing recovery from an eating disorder, as well as her recovery as a survivor. From the very first pages which encapsulate so perfectly just how and why this book came to be to the terrifying tangibility of Green's demons, this is one of those rare comics that absolutely everyone - young and old - should read. Because while this is very much the life of the author on the page, the story is so much bigger than that - a real beacon of light for many others who have experienced, or witnessed, similar events.
I don't have an eating disorder although, like many, I do have issues with food and many of the actions within the book I have seen (and worried about) in friends and family. I also have severe depression, and both the depictions of control and fear of failure, alongside the realisation that recovery is forever, rang very close to home. That personal connection is something that I'm sure many readers will feel on one or more levels throughout this comic, and it's what really drove home to me how incredibly brave putting this work out there is. While putting the truth of your childhood and adult life out there to strangers is hard enough, knowing that it's being put out there for your family to see is an even greater barrier for many. I absolutely applaud Katie Green for putting her experiences on the page and - hopefully - exercising some of the monsters at the same time.
It seems almost disrespectful to praise the art in light of the subject matter, but the level of professionalism throughout is stunning. The characters are very much alive on the page, with elements of fantasy creeping around the edges to better explain feelings that cannot be adequately explained with mere words. Without dialogue the reader can immediately see exactly what the younger Katie Green is feeling at any given time, and the timeline is spared oversimplification for the sake of narrative structure, yet the story rhythm remains tight throughout. The occasional insert of plain pages of black or white serve to pinpoint moments of huge trauma and change. Moment to moment transitions are used freely to illustrate the immense mental battles that Green often faces.
It's a heavy book, both literally and figuratively. It's a hopeful book too, and one that is reaching and helping a lot of people. The mainstream newspapers in the UK sat up and noticed. I can't recommend it highly enough.
(You've probably picked up some issues of Green's The Green Bean zine before now too. But if not, get those too!)
Close runners up: Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life by Ulli Lust; The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J Tiwary, Andrew C Robinson, Kyle Baker; Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story by Peter Bagge
Allie Brosh (Hyperbole and a Half)
Half blog, half comic, Hyperbole and a Half is all funny. Brosh had a huge internet following, not only for her wacky childhood tales and the trials and tribulations of putting up with a simple dog, but also for the honest and genuine depiction of her struggles with depression. This book, brought out in plenty of time to fill xmas stockings, was a runaway success with reviews and interviews appearing across the mainstream press in both North America and the UK. Around 50% best of, and 50% brand new content, fans both old and new were thrilled to bits and eager to share with their less internet savvy friends and family.
While Brosh has plenty of detractors amongst the stuffy crowd for her threadbare and childish style, it's this same simplicity that so endears her to the masses. Brosh is a shining example that the best way to express yourself is simply to do it, and that you don't need to be a photo-realistic artist to communicate and entertain. The comic timing in Hyperbole and a Half is superb, and Brosh's ability to cut down complex scenarios into easily understandable words and pictures is the absolute essence of a great comics artist.
As I wrote for elsewhere:
Allie Brosh’s work may not be typical of most comics and graphic novels on the market, but the huge fanbase amassed through her website simply doesn’t care. The brutal honesty with which Brosh creates her autobiographical strips is breathtaking, and the humour is genuine and great. Her chapter on her own depression is one that has helped many a reader around the world, as she pinpoints down the true terrors of the mind that sufferers face.
Close runners up: Isabella Greenberg (The Encyclopedia of Early Earth); Katie Green (Lighter Than My Shadow); Howard Hardiman (The Lengths); Ales Kot (Change, Zero)
Characters of the Year
Saga - Brian K Vaughan, Fiona Staples
Because anything else would be LYING. Saga continues to go from strength to strength, the sci-fi fantasy epic more than living up to its ambitious title as the numerous forces close in on our fleeing family, and another subplot is kicked into action. But as great as the storytelling here is, as wonderful as Staples' gorgeous art and colouring that fills the pages, it is the characters that make this book the masterpiece that it is.
There is hardly a character here that the reader doesn't care about in some fashion, regardless of what area of the morality spectrum they reside in. From young Sophie and Hazel, to the cut up ghost torso of Izabel, from assassin The Will to hapless journalists Upsher and Doff, from the cold Prince Robot IV to the wonderful Lying Cat, and so forth, it's the supporting cast that really claw their way into the readers hearts, their failings and challenges somehow less grating than in Alana, Marko and Klara.
It almost goes without saying that Saga remains one of the best comic series on the market, yet in its second volume it’s almost easily overlooked – we’ve started to take this groundbreaking work for granted. Brilliantly this volume is accessible for new readers, as well as continuing the ongoing storyline for existing fans. A modern classic.
In simple terms, Saga is a star-crossed romance on an epic sci-fi scale, with warring factions and political intrigue. But it really is so much more, with wonderful characters on all sides, touches of pure fantasy, and its dastardly trick of quickly getting you far too emotionally invested in proceedings. Brian K Vaughan specialises in writing incredibly addictive series, but this is his masterpiece. Staples' unsurpassable art makes this book sing.
Close runner up: Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson
Collected Edition of the Year
The Abominable Charles Christopher Vol 2 - Karl Kerschl
The second luxurious volume of this beautiful webcomic was around for pre-orders at the tail end of 2012, but published at the beginning of this year. Having triumphantly - and unexpectedly - finding a rare copy of volume 1 at the back of a Forbidden Planet, I pounced on the new edition immediately and waited patiently for its arrival.
And blimey was it worth the wait! This is such a serene, emotional, reassuring and challenging read, and I honestly don't think there could be a single soul out there who wouldn't love it.
The Abominable Charles Christopher is one of those rare comics that I recommend to absolutely everyone regardless of their age, genre preferences or comic reading habits. It’s also one of the hardest comics to describe in a way that fully conveys the beauty and genius inside, as it is essentially the tale of a Yeti or Abominable Snowman and his woodland friends.
Which sounds ridiculously twee, but the rich cast, realistic art, and huge emotional depth will have you hooked from whatever strip you first glance at.
Charles is on a journey, and without a clear destination in sight it is very much the tale of journeys – not just Charles’ journey, but the life journey of every animal (and god) that crosses the page. We can break away from our hero for days at a time, watching the birds deal with their marital problems, the rabbit who yearns to be an actor, the D&D troupe, the cat who would be king, mathematical otters, gossiping bees, and many more.
[NB - collected edition in this case means a comic not previously available through Diamond in serialised form, ie webcomics, newspaper comics, etc]
Matt Hollingsworth (The Wake, Hawkeye, Daredevil: End of Days, Punisher: War Zone, Wolverine)
I mean this was a seriously close call. Colourists are rather routinely overlooked in both comics criticism and reviews, but their work can make the difference between a good comic and a great comic (or y'know, a rubbish comic and a pretty comic).
There are undoubtedly many more fantastic colourists than I've come across this year, but the three who really stood out to me were Fiona Staples and her fabulous Saga colour palettes, Jordie Bellaire and her gorgeously muted work on Captain Marvel (and the pretty Pretty Deadly, bold Zero, etc etc), and the incredible Matt Hollingsworth.
The latter just swings it for me with his absolutely stunning work on The Wake in particular, which compliments Sean Murphy's dynamic style so very well.
The combination of scratchy Murphy inks and muted, almost washed out Hollingsworth colours, imbue the pages with a fantastic creepiness in the claustrophobic underwater scenes, while filling the future above water world with a desolate hopelessness that is achingly pretty. Flat colours and almost fantastical landscapes that stay within the realm of reality while tiptoeing along that ukiyo-e line... this really is a partnership that is hard to beat.
Hawkeye is of course the darling of design, with the colours rather taken for granted in building up the overall smooth and stylish visual storytelling - Hollingsworth works particularly well with the Aja issues, keeping to that crisp and clear approach yet softening the colours to stop things getting too style over substance.
In Daredevil: End of Days, Hollingsworth effortlessly bridges the gaps between David Mack's stunning painted pages and Klaus Janson's linework, giving the book a consistency that could otherwise have been jarring, and strengthening the overall comic. It's this adaptability that is perhaps key in Hollingsworth's incredibly varied output, and the guaranteed quality of his work saw me picking up Punisher: War Zone and Wolverine for his name on the cover - with no insult meant to the writers and other artists of course, but the name of this colourist is a real stamp of artistry.
Punisher: War Zone was a revelation, with the use of different colour palettes to really underscore the tonal difference between the movements of the Avengers and the movements of Punisher, not to mention the ordeal of Rachel. I picked it up for Hollingsworth and it certainly proved itself worthy.
Comic of the Year
Ballistic - Adam Egypt Mortimer, Darick Robertson, Diego Rodriguez
Normally this is a really difficult one to call, and 2013 was full of brilliant comics, both limited series and ongoings, and yet the choice for me was made easy. Saga was (and is) still thrilling me, Grant Morrison's Action Comics run is one that I firmly believe will be regarded as a classic in the future, and The Wake absolutely blew me away and yet...
There was Ballistic. I read the advance copy of the first issue and was dumbstruck with joy. I sat there grinning before thrusting it into the hands of my partner and commanding him to read. I've told everyone to read it. Everyone. I can't wait for the first trade collection so I can give it to everyone I know. I was left after just one issue absolutely bursting with excitement and enthusiasm at such a level I had not felt since I first read Transmetropolitan many years ago - the comic that set me on the path to being a writer myself.
Don't be too fooled by that comparison. Yes Darick Robertson is here, and yes we're in a future punk-ass world with a rather fucked up anti-hero, but no, this is not Transmetropolitan take two. Where Transmet was cyber, Ballistic is organic; where Transmet was political, Ballistic is noir; where Transmet was sci-fi, Ballistic is horror. Both are magnificent.
There are strains of China Mieville and David Cronenberg here, but a much bigger flavour of something that is purely Adam Egypt Mortimer. The amount of world building that has been done for this comic is truly extraordinary, with notes filling the back of every issue further explaining and expanding the unique bio-tech world. Three issues in and the comic continues to get even better with every issue, the characters solidifying and the plots diverging - please, please, please let this be the beginning of a long and healthy series!
The comic begins with a fist halfway through someones face, blood flecks spraying across the page and drowning the gutter in red. Torture, crime bosses; Red City State, a place where everyone is an asshole, even the air conditioners. The aforementioned car, complete with eyes for headlights, belongs to Butch, the air conditioner repairman. By his side is his constant companion, the horribly ugly, and bizarrely constructed Gun. Who is, well, a gun. A sentient one. A gun who is alive, with a real thirst for life. Ending lives (sorry, I’m channeling Schwarzenegger now). He’s also a rude little bastard.
Each new location provides a myriad of background details that make re-reads highly enjoyable, as strange vehicles flit through the air, people dine on cloned human meat with full skinned heads on tables, women talk about giving birth to puppies for a better bond with their pet, and everywhere the technology is alive as bio and mech come together in quite unexpected ways. In fact with so much going on and such rich potential, I’m reminded less of past comics and more of today’s Saga.
There’s clearly satire here, as well as immense world-building and various socio-political angles worked out, but most of all this reads like just the tiniest nibble into a universe that is incredibly fascinating and utterly captivating. Finish the comic and and Mortimer has provided four pages of annotations giving more background to the little things you’ll pick up on and want to know more about, and there’s even a map of Repo City State.
Close runners up: Action Comics #1-18 by Grant Morrison, Rags Morales, Brad Anderson; Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples; The Wake by Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth; Zero by Ales Kot, Jordie Bellaire (et al); The Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber, Rachelle Rosenberg
Emily and The Strangers (Variants) - R Black, Winston Smith, Cynthia Von Buhler
Comic covers really stepped up their game this year, perhaps shamed into action by the likes of Saga and Hawkeye that were very deservedly earning praise in 2012 for standing out so well against the crowd. But my favourite covers came from a very unexpected direction, a series that I had not heard anything about previously - Emily and The Strangers by Mariah Huehner, Rob Reger, and Emily Ivie. And yes, we're talking variant covers here (the regular covers are smashing too though).
No stranger to jumping across different media, Emily the Strange and friends launched their own band in 2013 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. This three issue miniseries set up the story for Emily forming her band, with a great all ages story from Mariah Huehner and Rob Reger that requires no prior knowledge of Emily the Strange, and really engaging (and cute!) art from Emily Ivie.
But the real masterstroke here was getting acclaimed music poster artists to contribute to the variant covers which resulted in seriously eye-catching comics that I now have framed together on my wall. The covers were what got me to order these issues as it was such a pleasant shock to see something so different and experimental, from artists who have done their own thing without trying to conform to any comic preconceptions. And the result is wicked.
R Black's cover to #1 is a must have for any design or poster fan, channeling an energy and purpose that would suit other comic works incredibly well. Winston Smith's smash and collage approach on #2 will have typography lovers in raptures while he subverts various comic illustration styles under Emily's watchful eyes. And Cynthia Von Buhler riffs on Steinlen's famous Tournée du Chat Noir poster in her #3 cover, with added blood and fangs. It's classy, instantly recognisable, yet wonderfully subversive.
Hawkeye - Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth, Chris Eliopoulos (et al)
What do I mean by design? Pretty art falls under best artist surely? Well, it's not always that simple. In collaborative comics at least, it can be hard to ascribe praise to the correct people, and when you have one writer contributing story, an artist (or few) contributing linework, a colourist contributing colours, and a letterer adding their touch, it all starts to get a little hazy. Add to that that some writers will be entirely responsible for the visual structure down to panel placement, view angles and character design, while others (famously) say only "character shoots man, gets on bike, rides off", it's fair to say that the overall look and style of a comic can be very much a team effort.
The winner - of course - is Hawkeye.
After a really strong start it's unfortunate that a sporadic publishing schedule has pushed this book off of a lot of radars, and there didn't seem to be much of a centralised push behind the trade paperbacks that would have so appealed to a more mainstream audience. Still, what did come out in 2013 was incredibly impressive, not least the much talked about Pizza Dog issue, #11, with the entire story told in tiny panels and pictograms from a dog's point of view. Seeing something more expected in a Chris Ware book pop up in a mainstream Marvel book is pretty damn exciting, and the ease in which Fraction and Aja pull this off while keeping their own stamp firmly upon the pages is remarkable.
The tiny regular - and occasionally interestingly irregular - panels and headshots are also particularly well used in #6, when Aja returned to the book after a break of two issues. To be clear, the non-Aja issues are often still leaps and bounds ahead of many other comics when it comes to design (particularly when Steve Lieber and Jesse Hamm take the reins) with clever layouts, breakaway panels and interesting placements, but Aja's work is especially breathtaking.
His dynamic and intricate style meshes brilliantly with Fraction's high energy and fun approach and combined with his almost unbeatable covers he has ensured that Hawkeye is a book that everyone is continually astounded by.
And one that appeals to a much more varied audience than one might expect from a Hawkeye book.
As I wrote for elsewhere:
A Marvel book that can be read with no pre-existing knowledge of the larger Marvel universe, and one that is also appealing to those readers who have never read a superhero comic before.
In fact it doesn't read much like a superhero book at all, particularly when you take into account that Hawkeye himself is non-powered. David Aja is quite simply an artistic genius, with the sharp, energetic art within conveying a real sense of fun and also emotion. His layouts are design gold, and more than match Matt Fraction’s challenging and creative scripting.
That Hawkeye is constantly called Hawkguy really underscores the more lighthearted whimsy of the book, but don't be fooled by all the fun into thinking this is just fluff; Aja's mastery of graphic storytelling really does set this book apart, with unique panel transitions, page breakdowns, and an ability to really energise proceedings for the reader.
Close runner up: Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles (et al)
Digital Comic of the Year
The Private Eye - Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, Muntsa Vicente
One of the big trends in 2013 was the strengthening of the digital comics medium, and in any other year either of the two close runners up would have on easily. The competition was fierce, and readers were delighted.
The Private Eye announcement caused great excitement - Vaughan is a favourite of many, and Saga has brought a whole new influx of fans to his work - not least because of the striking teaser images, emblazoned with "Follow", "Like", and "Share". The ten issue series is DRM free, available in multiple formats on a pay-what-you-want model,and is instantly available in English, Spanish and Catalan. As of now, five issues have been released with all profits going directly to the creators and allowing for each new issue to be created and published on Vaughan and Martin's website, Panel Syndicate.
Set in a future world where everyone has a secret identity and nothing is private, this is not the detective story many were expecting. Instead it's a creative look at how our current world of social media and sharing might turn out after the Internet effectively explodes, showering the world with now un-private information. And who will become the real holders of power in that post-Internet world? Not who you think... It's hard to explain without giving away plot details that are really worth experiencing first hand. And with the ability to pay what you want for the issues, you may as well go and try it out if you haven't already!
Vaughan's writing is as clever as ever, casually carrying out an immense amount of world building in both broad strokes and subtle details, while Martin's clean lines and playful panel-work creates a fun and energetic read. His stylised characters really do pop against the gorgeously rendered cityscapes. The person who really steals the show though is colourist Muntsa Vicente, injecting the pages with gorgeous bold colours that underline or set the tone time and time again. Martin's line-work and Vicente's daring colours combine to give this world a fitting futuristic sheen, almost reminiscent of Transmetropolitan's glossier moments.
Our characters are built up gradually, from the Private Eye himself to those who are pulled into his world. It's a typically Vaughan-esque touch - light on the exposition, preferring to show rather than tell and have characters gradually open up both within the pages and to the readers. A reveal in #5 is particularly well done; another character's reaction made me gigglesnort as I imagined the fuss any mainstream comic would have made over this issue.
With this being a series that will apparently never be collected in print, available so cheaply and practically guaranteeing great quality... well, what more can a reader ask for?
Liberator - Matt Miner, Javier Aranda, Joaquin Pereyra
It's a comic that I pegged pretty early as my debut of the year, having followed it through the Kickstarter process and seen the praise lavished upon it by Scott Snyder, Steve Niles, Chris Burnham, and Jimmy Palmiotti amongst others. The upcoming Occupy Comics from Black Mask Studios had rightly pinged the publisher on many comic news radars, as we saw a much needed return of politics to mainstream comics in 2013. The ability of the medium to communicate complex political ideas in a deceptively simple style is one that has been ingrained since the very beginning of comics, and indeed even superhero comics often carry these messages in subtle layers. But it had been a while since those opinions had been quite so overt.
Miner is a well known animal rescuer and rights activist, putting his money where his mouth is by donating his entire share of the profits on Liberator to dogs in need. The story of the comic then follows the exploits of two vigilantes, two people who employ direct action techniques to save animals and intimidate those who profit from their suffering. Damon is ostensibly the lead character, a firebrand punk who follows his heart and sometimes fails to listen to his brain, but it is his friend Jeanette who soon becomes the hero of the story.
It's an exciting premise, and thankfully one that more than holds up - Miner's writing debut is smooth and fast paced, free of the wordiness that often plagues first time writers. Having received coaching from Scott Snyder it's perhaps no surprise that the story plays out as cleverly as it does, but the passion and understanding of the intricate politics that lay both behind and in front of animal rights is all on Miner. It's the spiritual successor of Grant Morrison's Animal Run, pushing things further by taking place in the real world rather than within superheroic limitations.
I'm really looking forward to the trade paperback coming out in March, especially as it includes 11 new short stories from creators including Adam Egypt Mortimer, Tim Seeley, Ales Kot and Alex de Campi. Pretty impressive for a debut!
Reading this comic is very much a call to action, whether that be donating money to your nearest rescue or lending your copy of Liberator to another. It has an infectious energy, a bold purpose, and will speak to many.
There will be those who were expecting different things from an animal rights focused comic as those in the AR community are a hugely diverse bunch. Nevertheless, I think Liberator strikes for the core of the movement and will resonate with a far wider audience than anything more explicit or shocking. This ain’t PETA, it’s far too considered and powerful for that.
If you’re an animal lover then you’ve already been won over – almost anyone can get behind the idea of a hero who saves defenceless dogs after all. But for comics fans too, I’d say this is pretty unmissable. And as a debut from a writer who may well go on to even bigger things… well, I’ll be hanging on to my copy is all.
For anyone who laments the loss of politically relevant comics that challenge the status quo and give a hearty fuck you to the system that mistreats so many, Liberator is the comic for you. And if you like cute fuzzy dogs, and punked up vigilantes, so much the better!
Close runners up: Adam Vian (Long Lost Lempi)
My Dog: The Paradox - Matthew Inman
The little books that drive booksellers mad by floating across both the humour and graphic novel sections of book shops. But I adore these little books which are often wonderfully funny, and a fantastic way to tempt family members and friends into the world of comics. Previously confined to the xmas release schedule, recent years have seen these books spread across the calendar year with some real gems coming out.
Jeffrey Brown has probably done more to raise nostalgic excitement for Star Wars than any movie announcement, while the rest of the year belongs firmly to pets - whether the cute cats of Claire Belton, the lovable pugs of Gemma Correll, or a bumper repackaging of Simon Tofield's troublesome kitty.
But best of all was this glossy little hardback edition of Matthew 'The Oatmeal' Inman's hilarious and emotional webstrip. Fully coloured for the print edition and at 32 pages long, this is a perfect gift not only for dog owners, but for anybody with pets - little animals with their peculiar habits that snuggle their way right into our hearts.
The comic is simply told, illustrating in mostly one panel per page cartoons the various paradoxes within a dogs life (noisy lorry yay! noisy hairdyer omghalp!), with the age-old hilarious truth that these magnificent beasts are capable of being very daft, and very cowardly. And through it all it builds up our amusement and love towards our furry companion before ending where it inevitably must.
It's a little slice of perfect, especially for all those relatives who can't quite get the hang of not double clicking every link on the internet.
The Lengths - Howard Hardiman
It was an incredibly strong year for graphic novels, a medium that is still absolutely booming in the UK and no doubt in the US as well. More and more books publishers are starting to turn their attention to graphic output, and while Jonathan Cape and SelfMadeHero are leaps and bounds ahead of most, it was the tiny little Soaring Penguin Press that really attracted my attention this year. Publishing both a lavish English translation of Peter Pan by Régis Loisel and a gorgeous collection of The Lengths by Howard Hardiman, the small publisher introduced many new readers to two extraordinary comics.
The Lengths is a comic that I'd been meaning to read for a while, knowing that it was available in self-published chapters. But being able to pick it up in a book shop was a complete luxury - and seeing such a book on the shelves a real delight. Why? Because it's about gay male escorts as portrayed by canine characters, not exactly a topic that many publishers would surely warm to. Indeed when I interviewed Howard he mentioned that excessive caution, that far more people were worried about causing offence than there were actually offended.
There aren’t many comics out there that feature escorts. Fewer still that star male escorts. Probably none at all that are also a love story. And told with dogs? We’d be in negative numbers if not for The Lengths, Howard Hardiman’s newly collected labour of love that is perhaps one of the most important works to hit the shelves this year.
Previously self-published in instalments, to great critical acclaim, The Lengths tells the story of Eddie, a young guy who is struggling to maintain his double life. To his friends he’s a loveable graduate, who isn’t great with relationships but desperately needs to be in one. But his other mobile phone holds his secret life as the escort Ford, tempted into that world by a man he’s half in love with, and terrified that his two worlds are doomed to collide.
Except of course, replace ‘guy’ and ‘man’ with ‘dog’. Comics have a long history of using anthropomorphic animals, from the early funnies to more serious works like Maus, and the use of different breeds of dogs here certainly makes it easy to tell each character apart and to see subtle inferences about their personalities.
But more importantly, this book also examines the lives of queer sex workers without being patronizing, dehumanizing, or bigoted.
Actually, I highly recommend reading that entire interview, as the amount of research and passion that went into The Lengths is better heard from him than me! One thing I did do near the end of this year was seek out and read a book mentioned in that interview - Paying for It by Chester Brown. The contrast between that book and this could not be more stark: The Lengths features fully rounded characters, real people (in dog form of course) with real lives; Paying For It made me feel physically ill, the casual and determined denial and dismissal of the author's own sexism and objectification.
With a deceptively simple pen style throughout, and personal feeling handwritten text and dialogue with no pretence of speech bubbles or other comic mechanics, The Lengths is perhaps a tad jarring to those used to glossier books. But the raw passionate feel of this comic is absorbing, the characters imbued with real personality and emotions dragging the reader into their world. A different dog breed is used for each character, emphasising their traits and faults - the cast presented in full as sex advert profiles is a direct illustration of both how easily recognisable each character immediately is, and the overall tone of the book.
Now and then a dark and inky splash page breaks up the story, brining the action to a standpoint at a choice moment in Eddie's journey.
It's a beautiful book, and a story well told, but the rawness and genuine experience behind this also pinpoint it as one of the most important graphic novels in recent years.
Close runners up: The Property by Rutu Modan; The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg; Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
[NB - graphic novel in this case means a work not previously serialised in any form other than small press or self published, and available in book stores]
Now of course I am slightly biased in this category, being an academic focusing on the history of women in comics myself, but even putting that favouritism to one side, this is clearly one of the most interesting and well researched books on the medium published this year.
A new and updated tome of Robbins' research into the women who worked in comics between 1895 and the present day, it remains shocking to me how well airbrushed out of history these creators were (and still are) given their enormous popularity, fame, and influence during their day. A must read for any comics fan.
As I wrote for elsewhere:
Feminist hero, underground comix star, and self-styled “herstorian”, Trina Robbins has completely updated her lifetime work of chronicling North American women cartoonists (1896-2013) in this tremendous new publication.
Robbins begins with the hugely influential and criminally forgotten Rose O’Neill, whose first comic, The Old Subscriber Calls, was published in 1896 just one year after the first appearance of The Yellow Kid so noted in Gravett’s Comics Art.
This then is the other side of history, as Robbins goes on to document the many women who worked in comics, earning tremendous success and influencing their male contemporaries throughout the early decades of the 20th century. Despite what many comics history books would have us believe, these women were creating all kinds of comics – from fun flapper strips in the 20s to rousing adventure tales in the 40s.
It’s frustrating to read about the sexism that these women faced, yet unsurprising. Particularly when you consider just how forgotten many are today. Thankfully this is no mere roll call of women, but a deep and fascinating look at each and every one – or at least as much as Robbins can squeeze into this hefty volume. The reader is spoiled with hundreds of gorgeous images, and Robbins’ research is deep indeed.
As we move into the underground 60s and 70s period of alternative comix, through the time of Misty and Angel Love, and into the present heyday of graphic novels and webcomics, the chapters become shorter; a reflection on these times having been covered more widely than the earlier decades, but also a sign of the changing nature of comics themselves.
Given how influential the US comics culture is on our own British books, there is much to thrill comic fans in this expansive history. The only downside is the lack of a referenced bibliography and sources section, ack!
Innovation of the Year
Improper Books have made quite the splash in 2013 with comics including Porcelain, Briar, Knight & Dragon, and Butterfly Gate. I've read all but the latter, and been completely charmed, but the innovation of Knight & Dragon took me completely by surprise.
As a child I had a battered Choose Your Own Adventure book (I think it was Space and Beyond), probably inherited from my uncle, that I thought was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen a book do. But I guess they fell out of fashion, despite many of my bookseller days being filled with children and teenagers looking for the more complex Fighting Fantasy books, and the recent return of choose your own adventure dynamics to Beast Quest.
Imagine my surprise then when I open up Knight & Dragon to find that it is indeed a choose your own adventure style book - but with an important twist that makes it much easier for younger readers to enjoy. At the beginning of the comic the reader is invited to choose the character they want to follow. Each character has a different coloured circle, and at the bottom of each subsequent page are the coloured circles with different numbers inside. Your choice of character dictates your story path.
It's fun and greatly enjoyable, not least of course because you then want to go back and try out every character! Different endings await depending on who you follow, and although there aren't quite as many options for paths and endings as I'd have liked, I loved the concept. And I also loved the fact that the damsel in distress gets a chance to kick ass! There's a great diversity in the characters here that will appeal to fans of Brave and How to Train Your Dragon, and the re-readability makes it a fantastic choice for very young readers - as does the complete lack of words.
Yup, Knight & Dragon is dialogue free with no narration which means it crosses all language barriers and invites younger readers to tell the story themselves from examining the pictures and occasional symbols.
It's a brilliant piece of work, and one that I heartily recommend. I do hope to see more comic works in this vein, of different complexities and themes too.
Close runners up: The Firelight Isle by Paul Duffield; 18 Days by Grant Morrison and Graphic India
Dungeon Fun - Neil Slorrance, Colin Bell
The rise and rise of children’s comics continued to be a major theme this year as Adventure Time and My Little Pony took the world by storm. Children know what they like, and what they like is adventure and fun. And strangely enough, adults happen to like that too! Adventure Time is well on its way to being a cult success, while bronies have no doubt kept the Pony sales high.
In July, the half year figures for the UK bookselling market revealed that the second biggest growing genre was "Children's Comic Strip Fiction", pulling in a handsome £1.3 million, a growth of 86% (£0.6m) from the same period in 2012. It's no surprise then that indie comics are also seeing a surge in this area, with the DFC Library, Nobrow, and Improper Books amongst others bringing out new kids titles and making their backlist more accessible.
But what was even more excellent to see was a brand new indie publisher, Do Gooder Comics, stomping on to the scene with a smashing new title for all ages: Dungeon Fun. The talented pair of Scots behind the excellent webcomic Jonbot Vs Martha made a triumphant return, and Slorrance in particular, always a favourite of mine, has really brought everything to the table. It's a must have!
Given how much genuine laughter Jonbot Vs Martha managed to squeeze out of me on a regular basis, I knew going on that this was likely to be at least mildly funny. What I didn’t expect was the sheer outrageousness of the humour, from Monty Python-esque surrealism to cleverly sending up the dafter aspects of the dungeon and dragons adventuring genre.
Bell’s writing is a balanced mix of the silly and the intelligent, with numerous meta-touches that provide extra giggles on each read through. Kids will love the slapstick humour, and bigger kids like me love the little reveals throughout that make you “hah!” out loud.
Slorrance’s cute style has a wonderful innocence about it, and he has a great eye for facial expression even on such simply drawn characters. They are endearing, even when they are huge and scary with multiple heads – Cecil! – and the artist uses panel transitions with the confidence of someone who has worked his comic timing down to a tee.
Clayton Cowles (Young Avengers, Fearless Defenders, Pretty Deadly, FF, Zero, Three)
It's almost easy to take Cowles for granted - he works on such a great number of books, predominantly Marvel but others as well, at such a high standard that the lettering often becomes nearly invisible. The reader barely registers it as the information is so easily absorbed and consumed. It's only on the re-reads that the skill involved in those letters really sinks in - from the outstanding content pages of Young Avengers and the personalised touch of characters in Fearless Defenders, to the very different but completely tone fitting work in Pretty Deadly and Zero.
It's pretty rare for anyone to spend time talking about the wonders of a comics content pages, but in Young Avengers those creative turns were as much a part of the wonder of the series as the story pages themselves. Combine that with the multitude of tricks played with text throughout that series - from varied colours and styles to text boxes grabbed by characters and balancing the voices of six chatty characters with zero confusion - and it's easy to see why Cowles is in such huge demand.
In contrast, the blocky work of FF is a seamless match for the poptastic art of Michael and Laura Allred, the exaggerated yells often making me grin. And then there's his consistency in Zero, along with Jordie Bellaire, that pulls that series together.
Essentially it's the dependable high quality, creativity and energy that Cowles always brings to the table that makes him really stand out.
Publisher of the Year
Because of course. But don't get me wrong, 2013 saw several other publishers seriously up their game: Marvel's new rolling #1 campaign saw me among hopefully many new readers jump on board their titles; Vertigo made an astonishing comeback with The Wake and Trillium, not to mention Coffin Hill and the heralded return of Sandman; and Black Mask Studios blew people away with the terrific Ballistic, Liberator and Occupy Comics proving that they are definitely the publisher to watch.
Dark Horse are my closest runner up as they had me utterly hooked with Colder, Mind MGMT, Itty Bitty Hellboy, Ex Sanguine, Grindhouse, Buffy, Dream Thief, and The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys.
The competition for Image is indeed more fierce than ever before. And yet how can you beat Saga, Ten Grand, The Manhattan Projects, East of West, Happy, Fatale, Chew, Revival, Bedlam, Sex, Five Weapons, Lazarus, Prophet, A Distant Soil, Sex Criminals, Zero, Velvet... I mean jesus, you get the idea right? The sheer number of good and great books coming out of this publisher is as exciting as ever, and with Dark Horse coming up close behind and Black Mask Studios coming to play, things are looking pretty bright for 2014.
But one of the real genius strokes of Image is the £7.50 ($9.99) price tag on the first tpb volumes in each series. Swithering over that pretty looking comic? Not quite sure if it's your cup of tea? Oh wait, it's pretty much the price of only 2 or 3 single issues anyway, or for book buying people, about the same as a paperback! Well then, thinks the reader, I really can't lose. And so another series fan is born. And this year Image have broadened their deluxe HC output for dedicated fans as well - Revival and Happy in HC? Yes please thanks Image!
Close runners up: Dark Horse, Black Mask Studios
Action Comics - Grant Morrison, Travel Foreman, Brad Anderson (et al)
Of course Batman Incorporated is the biggest contender for this, with the heartbreaking death of Damian as a hero, so sure that he is the only one who can reach his mother, a last minute team up with him and partner Dick Grayson foreshadowing the tragedy... And yes, it's a close runner up.
But the real tearjerker took me completely by surprise.
You'll see me mention elsewhere in these awards that Morrison's run on Action Comics is both one of the best comics of the year, and one that I consider a classic, but one of the things I really enjoyed about it were the little episodes away from the main arc. Some of these were needed to fill in artist gaps, and ended up looking like they had been a deliberate choice all along to further flesh out the history of Kal-El and drop hints of what was to come in the epic finishing arc.
In Action Comics #3 we got our first glimpse of Krypto back on Krypton before the planet was lost, and later in the present day, Clark Kent is told by a passing stranger that he has a ghost watching over him, a white dog. In #5 we discover what happened to Krypto - in protecting Kal and his family, he was lost to the Phantom Zone, forever locked in that realm. Of course this set up the possibility of a return for the faithful hound, but the way in which things unfolded in #13 was spectacular. Stumbling across the doorway to the Phantom Zone, complete with a sinister crack and faint pawprints across the surface.
As Kal is dragged within and events transpire, it is Krypto who once more comes to his friends rescue, Superman promising to return and free him.
"And so the ghost dog waited and waited -- long after even the Stranger had gone.
"Krypto waited and waited for what felt like a thousand years -- for Kal-El, his Kal-El, had promised he would return."
Tears! Tears everywhere. And as if one crying fest wasn't enough, Kal only goes and bloody does it - saving his dog, his poor, weak, dying dog, and flying to the sun with him in the hope it will heal him.
"Come on, boy. Stay with me. You feel that?"
"That's the sun. Big. Yellow. Sun. You like that?"
"That's my good boy. You're home where you belong."
"Who's the best dog in the whole universe?"
As Krypto wags his tail. OMG.
This entire Action Comics run also finishes with one boy and his dog. Morrison is a master of capturing the small moments that really catch our breath and stop our hearts, but give him animals and he will make you weep time and time again.
Close runners up: Batman Incorporated by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, Nathan Fairbairn; Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Young Avengers - Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson (et al)
This is another comic that I immediately fell in love with. I read the first issue while my mind danced across the pages, meeting characters I instantly wanted to know more about and adventure with. They were young adults, they were unsure about their place in the world, they were real dammit. And soon it will be over and I don't quite know what to do with myself.
Young Avengers has made me gasp out loud, made me giggle, made me sob, and made me so frustrated at having to wait between issues that I just couldn't take the tension. And I was far from the only one as the comic swept across Tumblr like a Superwholock meme, gathering a whole new comics audience in its wake and demonstrating that even the big giants like DC and Marvel can reach a bright new audience if they just actually, y'know, target them. And by them, I mean everyone who isn't a middle aged white straight dude, with the Young Avengers did in spades.
That the main complaint against Young Avengers consisted of old guys complaining that teenagers were boring, in a medium based around kids like Spider-Man, the Robins, and young X-Men, really illustrated just how resistant to change the old comics niche audience really is. The number of kids cosplaying as the actually diverse Young Avengers at various conventions across the world illustrated that change is possible - and welcome.
Young Avengers made people feel because Gillen and McKelvie gave us characters that actually resonated with us, whether we're gay, straight or bi, and regardless of whether we're white or not, or - gasp! - even female.
Because the last issue made me pinball through my feelings so fast my eyes were spinning. Roughly translated, the events of issue #8 went like this: nooo, not a beard, ick; Oubiliete omg!; this is the cutest thing I have ever seen ಠ_ಠ; DEMIURGE! I definitely want plushies of these; uh-oh, this can’t be good; panel playing, yay!; oh no no no; America Chavez, who are you?!; OH MY GOD. OHMYGODOHMYGOD; more panel play, I love this; OH HOLY SHIT.
If you’re not reading Young Avengers you are missing out on the biggest adventure in comics right now. The cast is amazing, the writing is ace, and McKelvie’s storytelling is off the charts. This comic is really about the characters and how much we have come to care about them, but it is also about just plain fun.
There is Kid Loki, there is angst, there is humour, and there is real heart. And there is America Fucking Chavez. Read it folks, read it now.
Close runner up: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Alex de Campi (Smoke/Ashes, Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight)
Like my inclusion of Design of the Year, this is probably a category that stands out as being a tad unusual. But with comics being both a medium of entertainment and communication, the latter part is something that I think is a little overlooked. Comics can be a great vehicle for expression and ideas, which is not always the same as writing a thumping good story but does require that aspect too in order to be successful in reaching the audience, and to do so in a subtle and non-preachy manner.
Of course, just about every comic has a message of some kind, a sharing of ideas at different levels and layers, but there was one voice that really stood out to me in 2013: Alex de Campi.
As Kieron Gillen writes in the foreword to the Smoke/Ashes tpb, "At first, you'll think Ales de Campi is too good to be true. I understand. I've been there. But don't worry. You'll believe soon enough." Dark Horse's decision to print the kickstarted Ashes alongside its out of print predecessor is a masterstroke, bringing the original work to a brand new audience. It's interesting that it's easy to forget that de Campi is American, so easily does the book slip into British and London comics territory, sharing echoes of 80s output from Morrison and Delano.
The story of assassins and national conspiracies in a dystopian world comes with that wonderful twist of British absurdism that always seems to work so well with political thrillers. In fact, Smoke reads better today than it did when first published in 2005 as our world has slid significantly more to the fat cat driven right in the interim - and a healthy suspicion of the government is badly needed. Ashes picks up where Smoke ended, but remains fairly standalone all the same. We jump forward a little, our main characters having been separated and then brought back together by a common enemy.
It's a little less hopeful than the first book, a little more fatalistic, and a bit more meandering, but it suits the ace gang of artists on this book all the better: Milton & Felipe Sobreiro, Carla Speed McNeil, Bill Sienkiewicz, Richard Pace, Colleen Doran, Dan McDaid, Mack Chater, Alice Duke, Alem Curin, Jesse Ham, James Smith, R. M. Guera.
It's a big change from the more consistent work of Igor Kordey on Smoke, but the matching of artist to chapter is very creative, and really does keep the reader on their toes. It's a very different kind of comic and stands in good contrast to the original Smoke, and makes for an interesting whole, particularly when Ashes takes some unique turns into children's picture book storytelling, painted pages and some Arthurian illustrations. In fact, it made Ashes a huge contender for Innovation of the Year in terms of the risks taken, and how well they pay off.
There's also an interesting little arc on the ethics of in-vitro meat which is pretty horrific, and quite timely given the lab-burger news story of last year.
But most of all, I feel mention must be given to the brilliant panel showing reporter Katie Shah emerging from her hasty hiding place of a fridge while flicking V's at fellow protagonist Cain. A woman telling us exactly what she thinks of the idea of being stuffed in a refrigerator.
Next up was a series I was looking forward to immensely, also from Dark Horse - Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight. I'm a self-confessed horror and action geek though I tend to prefer either monster movies or outrageously over the top gore and action, so as you can imagine, this comic was right up my street. But what really interested me was that it was written by a) Alex de Campi, and b) a woman. Sexploitation films, despite having some brilliant female protagonists and roles, is almost always guilty of falling under the very male gaze of cinema - with notable exceptions of course for the work of Doris Wishman and Stephanie Rothman, the former denying the audience their choice of gaze while the latter layered her work with feminist messages.
But from following Alex on twitter, and reading various interviews, I figured if anyone would make this work it would be her. And huzzah, I was right! The first story arc, Bee Vixens from Mars, featured tits and ass in abundance and yet, almost all the characters were women, the sex and nudity was delightfully overblown and ridiculous, the horrifically mutilated bodies were male rather than female, while the subtle shift of protagonist from bumbling male to kickass female went wonderfully with the old cinema trope of strong sexual women equalling dire threat to mankind.
The second arc, Prison Ship Antares, went for more nudity and gore and again with all useful characters being women. Now of course it's not a matter of quantity of women meaning a story can never be sexist, but with de Campi in charge here we get to enjoy shameless sexploitation fun, sexy women (of all fucking shapes and sizes mind) battle it out without ever feeling that this is aimed at an enjoyment of seeing violence towards women. The shift of gaze strikes again.
"There was a very fine line to walk, though. To create a book that Comic Book Guy could enjoy because wa-hey, boobies, and gore… but that also as a female writer (and a feminist) I could be OK with. Most people won’t notice that the gaze in the book towards the female characters is not predatory — the women are complicit, and in fact usually in charge. It’s a gossamer thing, this manipulation of gaze, this slight change, this look awry — but it makes a huge difference to how the book feels when you read it. The book makes people really happy. And, you know, for the horror crowd, the little changes in having a woman write it so some of the invasive, penetrative horror happens to men — well, it makes for more effective and unexpected horror."
Actually, that diversity so evident in Prison Ship Antares is important to note - de Campi puts this in everywhere. Having characters of all races, sexualities, abilities, genders, etc, etc is not something that just spontaneously happens. A look at superhero comics in general proves that. But all de Campi books are stuffed full of real characters, a population makeup that actually reflects the real world. It's reality as much as it is diversity, and it feels so much more real than books full of only white male characters and a token woman or two.
In the third arc, the thorny subject of rape will be tackled. Regular readers will know that this is something I've tackled in reviews before when the rape has been badly handled or used for shock value (and subsequently have been threatened with such myself, yay for misogynist comic readers). So I held my breath and went searching for interviews to confirm what I already suspected - yes, de Campi is shifting the gaze again.
The actual scene will be shown solely from the woman's point of view, completely robbing the viewer of the chance to ogle or enjoy the visuals of the vile act. Instead the reader will see it from her point of view, robbing the act of any kind of sexualisation and placing it firmly and only in the realm of horror. Because as I've said before, it isn't that rape should never be in comics, it's just that it's in it far too bloody much and almost always written in a way of "omg shock!" when such things are no shock at all to any woman in the real world.
In addition, de Campi has also explained just why it is Federica Manfredi on art duties:
"I needed a woman to draw Bride of Blood, because I didn’t want to have the male gaze imposed on the rape scenes, and part of the twist in the story is how gorgeous and decorative the opening pages are… and Federica is doing some JH Williams-level stuff with the art."
It's an interesting move bringing grindhouse to the world of comics, because superhero comics in particular have stolen so much from that genre and normalised the hyper-sexualisation and violence but within the realm of being "gritty" and "realistic". Grindhouse is by nature overblown and ridiculous, a guilty pleasure to enjoy daft nudity, overt sexuality, and hyper violence. By putting that back in comics under those terms, rather than by being "realistic" it actually shows up how awful the other comics are for putting this stuff out there under non-schlocky pretences.
And what do you know, the result is a book that is both sexy for everyone and appealing to everyone. It's almost like women like sexy cheesecake too when it doesn't belittle them... Shock!
Of course what I find most interesting of all is the number of (male) reviewers writing this off as misogynistic rubbish, while praising the superhero books... and the number of reviews that refer to Alex as "he". (Not so in the world of horror where this has gone down a treat.)
De Campi's consistent subversion of gaze and diverse character picks, along with her track record of walking her talk and not letting anyone away with shitty behaviour in a world where "mouthy" women are often harassed, makes her both my hero and Voice of the Year.
Nimona - Noelle Stevenson
I read so many webcomics. Really. So many. And the last year has showered me with both fantastic new projects like My So-Called Secret Identity and The Bunker, while making old favourites like JL8 and Gunnerkrigg Court even better.
But this was also the year when one particular webcomic stole my heart. A comic that made me e-mail the link to everyone I know, talk non-stop about how brilliant it was on Twitter and Facebook, and basically, fangirl. Yes, I fangirl hard over Nimona.
It started in June 2012 and won a heap of awards, with a published edition due in 2015 from Harper Collins, and yet somehow this totally passed me by. Which in a way was rather fabulous as I had a huge chunk to tear through when I finally found it! A humorous fantasy adventure comic with a difference, this is the tale of a fierce young girl who also happens to be a shape shifter making chums with the supervillain Lord Ballister Blackheart. Both are pursued by good guy Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin on behalf of the law, aka the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics. Except Blackheart seems like a pretty decent guy, Goldenloin a snivelling backstabber, and the Institute kind of... well, evil.
But mostly it is incredibly funny, fantastically written, and with far too many emotions (the feels!). Looking at the art it's fair to say that you can really see the progression as you move through the chapters - not only in the character designs themselves, but in panel experimentation, transitions and actual visual storytelling - a quality that almost seems to follow the progression of the story itself, solidifying Nimona as a character as the reader falls into her world until fully engrossed and invested in not only her fate, but in the backstories of her cast too.
To put it simply, you absolutely have to read it.
Writer of the Year
Grant Morrison (Batman Incorporated, Action Comics, Happy)
Because of course. An epic ending to an epic run on Batman - an ending as full of meaning and symbolism as the preceding seven years that took the entirety of Batman's history and treated it all as canon. A look at the kind of character such an impossible life would result in, and a stretching of what that character could be - as far as he could be taken - until everything had to be once again dismantled, the toys put back in the box. But what a seven years it was - arcs within arcs of complex storytelling for readers to strain their brains around, with injections of pure fun and joy.
Batman and Robin, Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne. My favourite of all Batman runs with one glorious inverse of characters. The two of them sharing a poignant moment in their last pages together this year before Batman's world came crumbling down once more. Because he is Batman, and he cannot have a son - only another grave to mourn.
Damian was a character nobody should have been able to relate to – a poor little rich kid begging the attention of his parents. And yet, Batman himself is equally unrelatable – a playboy millionaire with a disturbing obsession with crime-fighting, a detective with near superhuman psychological barriers, and often just a big brooding emo kid. But we love him, of course, and not just for his gadgets. He’s human and so his achievements seem that much greater than the big Boy Scout. He is ancient and iconic, a creature of the night that battles for good, a modern day Sherlock Holmes.
What Morrison did, stitching together that vast history into one epic lifespan, broke him away from the lone warrior teetering on the edge of madness and made him human once more. Of course that Batman would have a son, and even come to learn to forgive the transgressions of all his family. He even, dare I say, began to see shades of grey and inspired his son to choose heroism over villainy.
Those that cried "publicity stunt" missed the point of course. Damian was always fated to die for that exact reason. Good things don't happen to Batman, only terrible things that keep him moving forward, forever set in his cyclical path of death and rebirth. And even though the New 52 cut a path right down the middle of Morrison's grand plans, tearing away characters that could be used and reinforcing concrete limitations, everything came together in those final moments.
Also, I should state that Morrison's Action Comics run is one of my favourite comic reads of all time. It begins with Golden Age earnest before quickly stepping up through the gears and flying towards one hell of a trippy climax. It's also a pretty contentious choice on any Best Of list, but I do think it is a run that will come to be regarded as a classic in the future.
You can read my full Action Comics review here, and as I said for somewhere else:
Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics has been met with both high praise and no small measure of bewilderment. But this is a legendary run – you just need to think five dimensionally.
Now that the entire story can be read across three volumes, we have the whole new history of Superman to digest: his journey from farmboy to international hero, and an introduction to all the puzzle pieces that build one of our most complex pop culture heroes.
As the reader moves through key events in young Kal’s life, the fragmented approach can be jarring, until you read further and more gaps are filled. This Superman is born from the pages of the Golden Age, each chapter showing another edge of the same character while introducing the instruments of his incredibly complex life. Rags Morales’ dynamic art is more than up to the task, and the result is a future essential read for any superhero fan.
So add that fifth dimensional brain-twister then to the culmination of seven years worth of intricate storytelling in the final pages of Batman Incorporated, and we have our winner. Indeed it seems that the level of complexity in Morrison's work is sometimes taken for granted now, the way in which all ends come together, multiple interpretations being allowed to flourish, and symbolism that digs deep into the very psyche of the medium, all somehow either receiving scant praise or - worse! - calls of being too confusing or taxing.
It's perhaps no surprise then that my close runners up are also both masters of characterisation, world building, and twisting storylines...
Close runners up: Adam Egypt Mortimer (Ballistic); Joshua Hale Fialkov (I, Vampire, The Bunker); Alex de Campi (Smoke/Ashes, Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight); Ales Kot (Change, Zero); Simon Spurrier (X-Men Legacy, Numbercruncher); Brian K Vaughan (Saga, The Private Eye)
I, Vampire - Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andrea Sorrenntino, Marcelo Maiolo
2013 was very much a year of cancellations, with my favourite titles dropping like flies. DC alone cancelled Demon Knights, Sword of Sorcery, Superman Family Adventures, and the terrific Dial H, not to mention Vertigo titles Hellblazer and Saucer Country. (Marvel cancelled The Fearless Defenders and Journey into Mystery, with most other seeming cancellations leading to relaunches.)
Frustrated by many of my favourite DC titles being cancelled, and yet more suffering endless creator changes that meant what I ordered was often not what I received, I went from reading mostly DC titles at the beginning of 2013, to reading zero by the end of the year. Thankfully Vertigo brought some back on to my list, but for a staunch DC fan, it's been a pretty bad year for DC books in my neck of the woods. I've picked up various trades, but mostly of the books that were cancelled. Ack.
China Mieville's Dial H in particular should never have been cancelled. And neither should the superb I, Vampire. Let down by a poor cover choice for the first issue and trade that really didn't convey what was in the book, I, Vampire nonetheless had very strong trade sales. With brilliant writing by Fialkov and truly incredibly art by Sorrentino, this book was badly let down by poor publicity in the right places (ditto for Dial H). It was a clear example that DC could produce greatness, and an even clearer example that they wouldn't allow it.
The first issue of I, Vampire had me hooked and immediately moved to the top of my comics pile. In the year and a half since, only Saga has topped it, and it has remained a consistently refreshing and fantastic read. While on first glance I was blown away by Andrea Sorrentino’s stark and dramatic style, and his incredible use of panels to reinforce key moments, Joshua Hale Fialkov’s skill with jumping from character to character in order to add greater depth to the ongoing story was apparent after three issues: each directly narrated by someone with a very different perspective on events, yet maintaining the overall dynamic with ease. Two issues can fly past with characters desperately trying to grasp the complexities of the situation, and our lead confirms or subverts our suspicions when the dust settles.
To describe the plot of I, Vampire to the non-reader is difficult, in much the same way as any art that is a true partnership of images, writing and tone. While I adore many comics for their writing and art, there are few that blend so completely as this. Just as 30 Days of Night is not merely about vampires attacking an Alaskan town but an original and terrifying image of the creeping darkness upon humanity and the chilling hopelessness of terror, or the Let the Right One film is not simply about an ancient young vampire and a lonely boy making friends but where love and blood combine in a beautiful creation of restrained cinematography and quiet darkness, so I, Vampire is not content to be described as simply a vampire love tale with stylish gore.
Instead I can only say that it is a book that is both innovative and extraordinary, and would passionately encourage any comic or book reader to give it a try.
Close runners up: Dial H by China Mieville, Alberto Ponticelli, Tanya Horie (et al); Sword of Sorcery by Christy Marx, Aaron Lopresti, Hi-Fi Colour Design (et al); Journey into Mystery
Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) - Hajime Isayama
Absolutely everyone had been recommending this one to me for a while, and since I occasionally dabble in manga when I can, I figured why not? And I'm very glad that I did. A futuristic action-packed story with surprisingly tight characterisation for such a large cast, and real spine tingling moments of horror, the award-winning Attack on Titan busted through the bestseller charts to put many big comic titles in their place.
Regularly outselling Batman, The Walking Dead, and the latest graphic novels in book stores in both the US and the UK, this is definitely a series to catch up on if you haven't already looked at the first volume. The anime too is hugely popular, and a live-action film begins filming this summer.
As I wrote for elsewhere:
2013 may not have been the year when the English translations of this manga series began, but it has indeed been the year of Attack on Titan. Outselling many popular comics and reaching an incredibly diverse audience, the simple premise of a future where mysterious giant Titans rule the world and the remaining humans huddle in walled cities has captured our imaginations on a grand scale.
Hajime Isayama’s work is both stylish and accessible, but the sheer speed of the pacing is absolutely phenomenal. With every book ending on a cliffhanger or with more mysteries revealed, it’s no wonder the series continues to become more and more popular. A large cast is skillfully handled, with real character development packing a real emotional punch. Combining elements of action, sci-fi, fantasy and horror, this dystopian tale is unmissable.
Close runners up: Adventure Time, The Walking Dead
And that's a wrap! Feel free to tell me all the books I missed, because of course I couldn't read them all and I love getting new recommendations. Bring on 2014!