January 8, 2015

The 14 best comic books of 2014

To my mind 2014 was a pretty good year for comic books. Both DC and Marvel started taking more creative risks with their superhero books, and while there was still plenty of disposal rubbish published by both companies, there were also a growing number of inventive new takes. In this regard Marvel definitely led the way, but it was great to see DC picking up the trend with its Batman spin-offs including Batgirl, Gotham Academy and Gotham by Midnight.

The really interesting stuff getting put out this year was over at the independents: Dark Horse, Boom Studios, Legendary Studios and particularly Image. It's a great time to be a science fiction fan and a comics reader, with numerous great SF books getting published now with a variety of settings and tones.

Today sees the release of 2015's first round of new comic books, so this seems the most appropriate time to take one last look at comic books from 2014. There were a lot of great books last year, so many in fact that a lot of worthy titles simply didn't make the final cut. These 'honourable mentions' include Batman and Robin, Dead Body Road, The Last Broadcast, Batgirl, Eye of Newt, Black Widow, Dark Ages, Multiversity, Umbral, Three and Usagi Yojimbo.

Here are my favourites from last year: all come with my strongest possible recommendation.

14: The Massive
(Dark Horse)
Brian Wood's 30-issue post-apocalyptic drama set on the high seas has had a slightly uneven three years, but he managed to wrap it up in exceptional fashion. To my mind the book's last 12 months have been its best, with rising tension, great action, smart science fiction and engaging characters. Here's what I wrote about one issue back in August: 'I honestly don't remember the last comic that had me so desperate to read another issue.' Garry Brown and Danijel Zezelj's artwork has been stunning all year, giving this book a nice gritty, realistic edge to it.

13: Lumberjanes
(Boom Studios)
Congratulations are due to Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Brooke Allen: Lumberjanes has become pretty much the best all-ages comic book in America today. In a genre that's over-crowded with cartoon tie-ins, Lumberjanes showcases original characters, hilarious comedy, a really distinctive art style and a warm-hearted glow that makes it impossible not to love this book. From my review of issue #3: 'This is pretty much the best all-ages book of the year, and if you've got a child wanting to get into comic books this is one of the best ones they could possibly get.'

12: Black Science
Rick Remender is doing an outstanding job of writing this parallel universe-jumping science fiction thriller. The pace is incredible, with a small group of wanderers desperately fleeing from one universe to the next - and these haven't been silly 'what if the Nazis won World War II' universes either, but rather the 'what if there was a planet ruled by evil sentient praying mantises' variety. Good as Remender is, the real star has been artist Matteo Scalera. His work on Dead Body Road (an Image crime mini-series that almost made it onto this list) was sensational, and his work here pretty much cements him as one of my favourite artists working in comics today. As I said back in June: 'If you read sci-fi comics but don't read Black Science, you've probably made a mistake at some point.'

11: Silver Surfer
The Silver Surfer has always been a character with an iconic look and a lot of casual fans, but since the late 1980s has really struggled to maintain any kind of success when it comes to actually being the star of a monthly comic book. Dan Slott has nailed it, giving the Surfer an angle and a new direction that's so simple it's amazing no one thought of it before: make him the Marvel Universe's version of Doctor Who. So this year we've watched as Norrin Radd has taken on a twentysomething human companion and started travelling the universe fighting evil and having a great time together. The joy of this book is infectious, the humour is pitch-perfect, and Michael Allred's 1960s-inflected art style matches it all to a tee.

10: She-Hulk
And here's another Marvel character given a pitch-perfect new book, with Jennifer Walters spending more time in this book trying to be a lawyer than working as a superhero. It's been a brilliant blend of two genres, nowhere more so than it a recent three-issue arc where she finds herself defending Steve "Captain America" Rogers in a civil suit, with Matt "Daredevil" Murdock representing the plaintiffs. Javier Pulido's artwork is as effective here as Allred's is over on Silver Surfer: simple, almost naive, but wonderfully suited to the store Charles Soule has been telling.

9: Wild's End
(Boom Studios)
The pitch is simple; so simple, in fact, that it's bizarre no one thought of combining The Wind in the Willows and The War of the Worlds before. While the concept is great, and I.N.J Culbard's artwork wonderfully appropriate, it's the various characterisations and dialogue that really sets this book apart. Dan Abnett has written it with such a wonderfully English 1920s flavour, and that just makes it all pop off the page. The best word for this book? Delightful. On reflection that might be an odd word to use, depending upon your tastes. As I wrote in November: 'It's distressing enough seeing a likeable character have their face melted off by an alien death ray, but if the character's also a cute and fluffy anthropomorphic animal? It's intolerable!'

8: Daredevil
Mark Waid is some kind of comic book wizard, with an ability to tell the most broadly entertaining and slickly plotted superhero adventures you can imagine. He's never overtly flashy, and as a result his books don't seem to sell as much as they should: if there was any justice, his run on Daredevil would be selling Batman numbers. He's simply that effective. Part of the appeal of this book also comes from Chris Samnee's wonderful artwork, which has a wonderful sense of whimsy tied in with a great eye for atmosphere. There's a real balancing act going on here, making this run much more light-hearted than previous versions, but still maintaining that dark guilty core that's come to define Daredevil as a character. This is the third-best superhero comic of the year - read below for the only two books that topped it in this genre.

7: Rat Queens
They're foul-mouthed, overly aggressive, poorly behaved... and also the funniest thing in comic books in 2014. Rat Queens takes a group of violent, misbehaving twentysomething women and makes them the stars of a brilliant kind of Dungeons & Dragons pastiche. Kurtis J. Weibe has been on my radar for a while, through excellent miniseries like Debris, but this is his first knocked-out-of-the-park brilliant hit. Artist Roc Upchurch has departed from the book now following domestic abuse allegations, which could potentially affect the book's chances in 2015. I hope it doesn't, because I'd be happy to read these adventures for a long, long time. Here's what I said in July, as the book's second arc kicked off: 'Whereas they started back in issue #1 as cyphers for jokes, they're now becoming fully-developed and three-dimensional people. That's taking the book up a notch from hilarious pastiche to something altogether better.'

6: The Wicked + the Divine
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have made for a pretty sensational creative team over the years via the likes of Phonogram and Young Avengers. 2014 saw them launch a new creator-owned series at Image, in which ancient gods are reincarnated on Earth every 90 years or so, and get worshipped by the youthful masses like rock stars. It's a great concept, and perfectly critiques our celebrity-obsessed contemporary culture while still telling an intriguing mystery story. Jamie McKelvie's artwork continues to show great subtlety in expressing characters' emotions. Back in July, I wrote: 'this is a perfect collision of old world mythology and modern pop culture, with crisp, faultless artwork.'

5: Annihilator
(Legendary Studios)
My first impression of this book was that Grant Morrison was returning to the same creative well that he'd been pulling from since the late 1990s: fictional and real universes colliding and interacting, weird inter-dimensional things happening to creative writers, combinations of alternative culture, drugs and sex, and so on. To a large extent Annihilator is exactly those things, but it's possibly the most effective take on the material that Morrison has ever written. Frazer Irving's painterly artwork is extraordinary, and when collected together this is going to make one hell of a graphic novel. Four out of six issues were published in 2014; I can't wait to read the final two.

4: Ms Marvel
The best Marvel book of the year wasn't a stunning reimagining of a beloved favourite, but rather an entirely fresh protagonist with an all-new story. G. Willow Wilson has created a fantastic new character in Kamala Khan, aka Ms Marvel, who developed strange body-transforming powers and applied her hardcore fandom of superheroes to becoming one herself. Adrian Alphona's artwork has had a beautiful gentle, curving aesthetic that really made Ms Marvel stand out among Marvel's other books. It's been an enormous success for Marvel for many reasons: an openly Muslim superhero, another strong female protagonist, and a book that is reportedly selling better digitally than any other Marvel title - basically it's so distinctive it's found its own audience outside of the traditional Marvel crowd. Everyone involved - Wilson, Alphona, the guest artists, the editors, and Marvel - should take a bow for this one.

3: Batman
(DC Comics)
In future decades comic book enthusiasts are going to look back and talk about the Snyder/Capullo run on Batman as one of the best eras of the Batman saga. Capullo, who first gained attention illustrating Spawn for Todd McFarlane (remember Spawn?), has illustrated the best work of his career to date, supported by Danny Miki's excellent inking. Meanwhile Scott Snyder has continued to write some of the best scripts for the character in years. They're inventive, creative, wildly imaginative, and he's been one of the few New 52 writers to really take the opportunity brought about by the line-wide reboot and tell a properly remixed and refined version of the character.

Much of 2014 was taken up by their year-long origin arc "Zero Year", that managed the seemingly impossible task of telling an alternative origin tale to Miller and Mazzucchelli. Recent months have seen them jump back to the present with the return of the Joker in "Endgame". It's all been top-notch stuff. Regarding their current take on the Joker, I recently wrote: 'It's a much darker, creepier version of the character than we usually get. In one scene he pays Jim Gordon a visit, and it's pretty much the most unsettling I think the character has ever been.'

2: Revival
Tim Seeley and Mike Norton have just entered their third year writing and illustrating this outstanding horror comic, easily the best such comic on the market today. While the mass audience continues to follow The Walking Dead, I think smarter readers are over here reading this wonderfully unsettling, original, self-proclaimed 'rural noir'. In many respect it's the story of how a small town slowly self-destructs when it is hit by a still-unexplained supernatural event that brings the dead back to life.

As with the best horror fiction, however, it's often not the supernatural elements that are the most terrifying, but rather the behaviour of the people it affects. Last month I wrote: 'It's the best horror comic on the market, and each issues seems just as good as the last, and if you have any interest in quality mature comic books with strong, believable protagonists you should already be reading this.'

1: The Fuse
And my favourite comic of the year? It's The Fuse, by writer Antony Johnstone and artist Justin Greenwood. 22,000 miles above the Earth there's a satellite-city populated by half a million engineers, factory workers, hustlers, drug addicts and criminals. The book follows two police detectives as they investigate crimes on their orbital beat. Johnstone has basically blended two genres - science fiction and police procedurals - into one comic book. The storylines are clever and gripping. The characterisation is top-notch, particularly its two leads. Justin Greenwood's artwork has been fantastic as well, following the recent trend for simpler, more idiosyncratic art rather than the more super-hero-centric look of recent years. While I love this book for its genre, its setting and its characters, the bottom line is that this book tells great stories. To my mind there weren't any I read in 2014 that were better.

It's been a banner year for Johnstone, launching not just this but also his dark fantasy Umbral - which almost made the list - while still writing his post-apocalyptic epic Wasteland. Two months ago I pretty much called this in advance, writing: 'This is a faultless comic book. The characters are cleanly drawn. Information is provided in a contextual manner, so the story is never slowed down for unnecessary info-dumps. Greenwood's artwork is distinctive and likeably angular. On top of all of that, there's a genuinely good police mystery to be solved. Trust me: give this book a chance. I honestly think it's the comic of the year.'

1 comment:

  1. I have a meta-question (since I don't actually read comics, despite my best intentions): is there much cross-over between the web comic and print mainstream comic world? Do artists & writers publish in both media or typically stick to one? I have friends in the indie / zine end of the comic world that definitely publish their material in both media but I was wondering if that continues in the more professional end of the industry.


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