JAI NITZ (Dream Thief)
First and foremost, I want to say that I think that comics today are technically better than any time in history. I think if you weighed the sophistication of production in all phases (writing, penciling, inking, lettering, coloring, printing, and formatting) you'd find more better-done comics today than ever before. So with that said, I'm buying the least amount of monthly comics, OGNs, and TPBs in my life. Why? Two reasons: 1. I have too much stuff. I used to have the collector mentality. I couldn't just have the comics, I had to have variant covers and prints and signature plates. I gave that up. Now I just care about the stories. 2. There's too much good stuff. I can't afford to buy everything my heroes create, much less my friends and the up-and-comers. So I use the incredible Lawrence Public Library for most of my graphic novel needs (and, hey, my tax dollars are at work). Here's the best comics I read in 2013.
1. Avengers Arena (Dennis Hopeless, Kev Walker, and various). This is a book I actually buy monthly because I can't wait for TPBs. It's got everything: drama, love, death, pressure, twists, turns, and characters pushed beyond their limits. It made Arcade into an awesome villain and the teens of the Marvel Universe into three-dimensional people (maybe the highest degree of difficulty on this list). Dennis is a good friend of mine and I specifically asked him NOT to spoil the story for me because I was enjoying it so much as a fan. But now I get to have really cool "inside baseball" talks with Dennis about the book in retrospect. I have to remind him NOT to spoil any details from Avengers Undercover due out in 2014.
2. Saga (Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples). What can I say about this book that hasn't been said already? It's the comic I'd give to anyone. It makes you laugh, makes you think, challenges the issues it made you think about, and breaks your heart in every issue. It's the perfect blend of master writer and go-getter artist who make it look easy every month. I also love how they take a hiatus between arcs. They eschew the monthly schedule to bring out a timely-and-still-highest-quality book. I wish everyone doing creator-owned books did this.
3. Chew (John Layman, Rob Guillory). I'm a bit of an entertainment snob. I don't simply judge something by entertainment value alone. I judge by degree of difficulty. I judge by saying "could I have written that any better?" Boy, that sounds REALLY full of myself, but it's true. I give most writers at the Big Two the benefit of the doubt because there's a lot you can't control as a lowly writer, but on creator-owned books? You don't get a pass. Ideas are only as good as their execution, and Chew knocks my socks off every issue. It's like the other books I've listed: funny, dramatic, tragic, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching.
4. Heck (Zander Cannon). You've made it this far through my list. Do yourself a favor. Stop what you're doing (the list isn't going anywhere) and find yourself a copy of Heck. With apologies to other writer/artists who produced full-length OGNs in 2013... you are not fit to hold Zander Cannon's jock. I found myself talking to this book, out loud. I have never read a book that so perfectly encapsulated the feelings of redemption, damnation, friendship, and betrayal. Jaw dropping, stunning work.
Thanks for reading the list. Please check out my book, Dream Thief, from Dark Horse comics. I'm very proud of it (it's the best thing I've ever written). Artist Greg Smallwood is worth the price of admission alone, but I didn't crap the bed, so there's that.
ROB WILLIAMS (The Royals: Masters of War)
Top 5 of the Year, in no particular order:
Fury Max: My War Gone By: When Garth is telling stories of soldiers and delving into real history there's few better writers in the comics medium, and Fury Max felt like it had that full emotional connect. Pathos, characters you genuinely cared about, brutal and with a profundity about its conclusions. And Goran Parlov's art was just sensational.
The Private Eye: Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin together. Two masters. Eye-pop colours and inventive layouts. The Private Eye felt genuinely esoteric, despite its gumshoe PI roots. And BKV writes the best dialogue in comics.
Hellboy: The Midnight Circus: Mignola's script was fun and the pacing was, as always with him, pretty sublime. But Duncan Fegredo's art made this standalone GN something heightened and extraordinary, especially the grey wash supernatural sequence. Comics rarely look better than this.
Punk Rock Jesus: It had its flaws, but the energy, gusto and anger of Sean Gordon Murphy's story made it stand out. Murphy's art is vital, brutal and can slap you across the face in unusual ways (he draws the best, most detailed laboratories) but, despite its sensationalist story core, Punk Rock Jesus was coming from a good place, you felt.
Saga: BKV again. Annoying, isn't it? But true. Saga is must read comics each issue. Some lovely askew-almost-but-not-quite mainstream art from Fiona Staples. But, as with all the comics on this list, it's about creating characters you care about. There's too many comics out there where the writer seems intent on showing the world how clever they are. Saga has heart, and that's why it succeeds.
DAVID PETERSEN (Mouse Guard)
1. Locke & Key Omega/Alpha
This is a bit of a cheat since the first two issues of this were released at the very end of 2012...but the majority of Joe Hill & Gabe Rodriguez's Omega/Alpha was published in 2013 and is the ending to the Locke & Key series. This ending is earned, it's not a simple 'the end' tacked onto a story, but a resolved fulfillment that came after every step of the narrative led you here...for better or worse emotionally.
2. Hellboy in Hell #5
Mike Mignola killed off his title character and sent him to hell, which is the perfect place for Mignola to play in a sandbox of stories/characters/and settings more fitting to dreams than when the big red guy was tethered to the mortal coil. Issue 5 is a stand-alone story much like Hellboy: The Corpse and is a wonderfully odd folk tale that happens to have Hellboy as an observer and voice of reason.
3. Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White (Treasury of XXth Century Murder)
I really enjoy Rick Geary's non-fiction comics about true crimes. His 2013 effort is the story of how architect Stanford White was shot in the face. Geary illustrates his books with maps, house cutaways, evidence shots, and explores every lead...even if such leads prove to be false, Geary explains their reason for not being possible/credible. Geary's books are a great gateway for non-comic readers who think comics are all capes & cowl *BAM* *POW* to see that there truly are other genres of stories waiting out them in the pages of comics
4. The Fifth Beatle
Though I was 25 years too late to be a teen for Beatle-mania, they were the soundtrack of my junior high and high school years (and beyond really), So this beautifully rendered book about the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, is right up my alley. Andrew Robinson has such a knack for drawing character likeness without being at all photo realist and straying well away from being a caricaturist, and the writer, Vivek Tiwary, does a wonderful job of summing up a decade of events to show one man's history. A tribute so well done, Sir Paul McCartney helped the producer of the upcoming film-adaption to obtain rights to the Beatles music.
5. Out of Skin
I warn you all, this self-published webcomic is a pretty creepy horror story... and I don't generally go for that sort of thing... but this was so well done, I kept thinking about it days and months after I'd read it. I don't want to say much more for fear of spoiling Emily Carroll's tale for you.
BRIAN JOINES (Imagine Agents)
5. Star Wars from Dark Horse – I never cared about the pre- or post-original trilogy stories that Dark Horse have been putting out for years now. But Brian Wood put the light back on the period that matters the most: the era between A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Tackling subjects like Leia’s survivor’s guilt and Vader’s falling out with the Emperor with modern sensibilities, this book gives more depth to the characters in a single issue than Marvel’s previous series did during its entire run. Could still use a talking green rabbit, though.
4. Private Eye from Panel Syndicate – A lot of acclaim will be spread (rightfully so) on Brian K Vaughan’s Saga, which I also adore, but this “pay-what-you-will” web comic by he and Marcos Martin resonated more with me. The sad thing is I almost forgot about it, until I read reports of the Very Edward Snowden Christmas broadcast. A very timely story with feet in sci-fi and mystery, written by one of the best in the biz (and PS, Hollywood: greenlight Vaughan’s Roundtable already!! Time is running out, if you’re familiar with the script!).
3. Mysterious Strangers from Oni – My love of retro shows up repeatedly on this list and here’s a prime example of it: take the Arnold Drake Doom Patrol book, add a pinch of Johnny Quest, and spread over a number of cultural touchstones from the 1960s. What you’ll get is this series, a fun, colorful look at a team of operatives battling invaders from other dimensions and ancient gods summoned by stand-ins for the Beatles. Probably the most underrated book on my list.
2. Nemo: Heart of Ice from Top Shelf – Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books have long been favorites of mine. While I’ve enjoyed everything they’ve produced, this is the first book that filled me with the same excitement as the first mini-series. Throwing the daughter of Captain Nemo into an adventure touching on sources from Lovecraft to Citizen Kane, this demonstrates why so many creators have used Moore’s concept as a springboard for their own stories, myself included.
1. Batman ’66 from DC – Remember what I said about my love of retro? Yeah, it’s pretty much in full bloom here. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about various actions DC took this past year, but one that most can get behind is finally embracing the Adam West version of the character, complete with this amazing series by Jeff Parker and a rotating artistic cast. Embracing the joy of the era without mocking it, Parker has given us the Bat-book many have spent years clamoring for. Oh, and Jeff…Bob Denver as the Scarecrow. I’m just sayin’…