It was another great year for comics, not just because Hollywood has seen the light of how good the stories can be, but because sales are up and comic companies are taking more chances with some great independent stuff. Crowdfunding also raised the ante on what's hitting shelves, like Inhumans--picked up by Image Comics after a Kickstarter campaign--and Bee and Puppycat--picked up by Boom! Studios.
It was also a big year for change. Marvel retired Captain America and killed off Wolverine (and Superior Spider-Man, if you want to throw him in), and moved both Daredevil and Punisher to the West Coast. DC ended some major creative team arcs, such as Wonder Woman and Swamp Thing, gave us a bevy of new Gotham titles from Grayson to Gotham Academy to Gotham by Midnight, and began its mind bending Multiversity run by the daddy of all headtrip writers, Grant Morrison. There was so much going on it was exhausting, but in a good way.
Marvel and DC continued to dominate sales, but there were plenty of creator-owned titles that just blew away all expectations this year. I love me some some of both, and so I was hardpressed to limit this post to just ten "best of" titles, which I felt were fresh, exciting, visually astounding, and all around fun. So let's get to it:
Most Pleasant Surprise: COPPERHEAD
by Jay Faerber & Scott Godlewski
I picked this up, I admit, because I saw Brian K Vaughn's endorsement. I usually don't think twice about endorsements, but perhaps because I don't see Vaughn's endorsement much, I was intrigued. I fell in love after the first issue. Everything about this comic, from the story to the characters to the art is just fantastic. The idea seems simple--a police space western--but it's got some great nuance. You've got a very strong female lead in the form of Sheriff Clara Bronson, a single mom who's transferred to a back world planet to take over the police department (staff of 2) only to find herself involved in a triple murder on her first day. Her co-worker Boo doesn't like her much, but he's smart enough to show respect, and that keeps him from just being some lame "bad cop" trope. The town is very much Tombstone, with both humans and aliens. And then there are the Arties living in the badlands, a race of AI that was exiled after a war who now roam the desert keeping to themselves. It's only 4 issues in but I can't wait to see where it goes.
Best Digital Comic: PRIVATE EYE
by Brian K. Vaughn & Marcos Martin
This one made my list again this year. It continues to amaze with both plot and art, and it's sad to see it wrapping up. It takes place in the future after the Internet has been hacked wide open, allowing everyone to see everyone else's life. All the kink and lies have been exposed, forcing the world's population to go around wearing masks and hiding their true identities out of sheer shame or legal necessity. Which makes solving a murder incredibly hard. It's got everything from laugh-out-loud comedy to teeth-gritting violence, and it feels all too close to what's happening in the world today, with Sony's employees having their dirty laundry aired to all. I imagine it's just a matter of time before we all start keeping our money under our mattresses and selecting every word we speak out loud--let alone in an email--very carefully.
Best Horror Comic: NAILBITER
by Joshua Williamson & Mike Henderson
This comic about a serial killer who chews his victims' nails before he kills them is a well-written, gory and mysterious tale that goes above and beyond your typical cop-chases-killer trope. In Nailbiter, the eponymous serial killer was already caught but got off on a technicality and now lives a quiet life in the same town he terrorized. When a new series of murders shock the town, he is of course the suspect, but that would be too easy, and the sheriff knows this. To make matters worse, this latest bout of serial murders marks the 16th time in the town's history that a new serial killer has emerged. Say what?! So the real mystery is...why does this town keep breeding psychopaths? This one begs to become a TV series.
Best Independent Comic: SAGA
by Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples
Is there anything I can say about Saga that hasn't already been said on other comic sites? It's Romeo & Juliet in space, with aliens, and Robots with TV heads, and cute little babies, and cats that can tell when you're lying, and bounty hunters having sex with giant spiders, and trees that fly, and eviscerated ghosts that you hire to watch your children.... it's out there in ways that you have to experience. It's also equal parts funny, disgusting, and heart warming. At the center of it all is a relationship story about two people, Marco and Alana, who love each other even though their races are mortal enemies and are literally engaged in war. They're being hunted by mercenaries from both sides, and must constantly stay on the move lest they be arrested or killed. It's all told from the point of view of the couple's baby, Hazel, which makes it that much more endearing. Vaughn's writing is amazing, and Staples' art is absolutely perfect for this type of comic. Saga is easily the most popular independent title right now, which rounded out the year on a down note--seeing our couple split up (distance-wise anyway), so readers are eager to see how they find each other again.
Best Adventure Comic: MERCENARY SEA
by Kel Symons & Mathew Reynolds
There is no comic on the shelves like Mercenary Sea, a tale about an international group of submarine treasure hunters during 1938 looking for the lost island of Koji Ra. It's as if someone took Indiana Jones, the A-Team, The Expendables, bits of the Hunt For Red October and the Thin Red Line and threw it all in a blender. It's pre-WWII, but Japan has invaded China and tensions are high in Europe. War is imminent, and skulking around in a retrofitted German U-Boat with a crew comprised of Germans, Frenchmen, Chinese, and even a dog, certainly draws the attention of the Japanese military. There is so much to like about this comic it's hard to know where to begin. But I guess to start--the art. It's awesome. It pops, it's got depth, and I never have to question what I'm seeing. Sure, it's digital, but it works better than just about every other digital comic on the market. At times there is such a sense of scope to it I feel like I'm reading it in IMAX. Second--the characters. From our badboy American leader Jack, to the German navigator, French chef, British doctor, Chinese gunner, and American female mechanic (echoes of Firefly, anyone?). But perhaps the best part about this comic is that it's played straight. It could very easily have become just another Johnny Quest knock off, but it's got plausibility written all over it. It's a slow burn, but it's so worth it.
Best Sci fi Comic: LETTER 44
by Charles Soule & Alberto Alburquerque
Letter 44 follows mankind's first interaction with something potentially alien, focusing on both the crew in space attempting to make contact, and the government back on Earth trying to figure out how to deal with the situation. The letter itself is the letter that the former 44th President of the United States leaves to newly elected 45th President Stephen Blades, who takes office as the comic begins. It informs him that a strange object was discovered hovering silently out past Mars, and it looks menacing. The letter goes on to explain that a team of Americans have been sent up on a possible suicide mission to find out what it is and report back to Earth. Now President Blades has a choice to make--keep it all secret and claim any new "space tech" for America like his substandard, questionable predecessor had planned, or be the stand-up, transparent leader he based his candidacy on and inform the people. And just how do you do that without creating panic and pandemonium? It's easier said than done. Another slow burn, Letter 44 ended the year with our crew of space scientists in some serious trouble...but without confirming whether the "aliens" are good or bad at this point. This one was picked up for TV, and hopefully makes it to series, because it's a great take on how we, as both a nation and a species, would actually deal with an intelligent threat in our galaxy.
Funniest Comic: SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN
by Nick Spencer & Steve Lieber
This comic, right? Take a group of D-list villains, put 'em in a room together, have them plan a heist, then let the backstabbing begin. And at no point let them interact with Spider-Man. In fact, don't even put Spider-Man in the comic...at all! (But how else would they have gotten people to buy it?) I laughed during every single issue, and it almost makes me cry that the comic published its final issue last month. Apparently sales were too low to continue it, which is probably just as well, because this was the type of gem that works best being short and sweet. As it was, the 18-issue run was just perfect, allowing for a well told story, heaps of laughs, and just the right amount of running gags. It was hands down brilliant. Be sure to grab it in trade and follow Boomerang as he creates a new Secret Six (even though there's only five of them, a point which does not go unmentioned) comprised of Shocker, Speed Demon, Overdrive, and Beetle. Their mission...steal a priceless painting which reveals Dr. Doom's real face. Their method...shenanigans shenanigans shenanigans.
Best Licensed Comic: X-FILES SEASON 10
by Chris Carter/Joe Harris & Michael Walsh
The Topps run of X-Files comics were pretty good, but these...these ARE the X-Files stories the way they were meant to be done. Produced and storied by X-Files creator himself, Chris Carter, Season 10 picks up after the last film and sees Mulder and Scully rejoining the FBI to take on some cases that need solving. It's how we all wished that last film had gone, and wastes no time getting right back into the vibe of the show when it was in its prime, around seasons 3 and 4. Much like Mulder's sister was in the TV show, the duo's love child is now a running subplot, but it's stuffed far enough in the background that it allows for a larger focus on aliens and monsters-of-the-week. Alongside Spooky and Dana are old favorites including Skinner, Cigarette Smoking Man, The Lone Gunmen, Doggit, and even Krychek. Walsh nails the art, getting Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny's expressions down perfect, and the dialogue is spot on with the show. Considering we probably won't get any more live action reunions, this is an apt alternative that will make you feel at home again with creepy conspiracies, evil forces, and things that go bump in the night.
Best Mini Series: STARLIGHT
by Mark Millar & Goran Parlov
Mark Millar proved he's not just about Kicking Ass and bending bullets in this rather heartwarming 6-issue run about an aging American hero who once saved an entire distant planet from genocide. Problem is no one believes him, not his children, not his children's children. They all think Grandpa is a little nutty, and would just as soon not swing by for dinner and listen to his whackadoo stories. It's made all the more sad by the fact he is widowed and pines for his ex wife, the one person who may have ever believed him. It's a lonely existence, and this is how we're introduced to Duke McQueen, as he sits alone on Thanksgiving, a full table set for his family that has abandoned him. But the populace of that distant planet never abandoned him, and they need his help again. There's a new threat, and it's worse than before. So what if he's in his 60s now, he's got nothing else to live for. And so once again he's off to save the day, a la Flash Gordon, only with arthritis. I think the whole comic industry was stunned with how good this one was, and it's making a lot of "best of" lists. It's quick, it's action-packed, and it tugs at the heartstrings. Go Duke!
Best Comic of the Year: BATMAN
by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo
Once again Batman dominated this year. While much of it centered on the conclusion of the Zero Year arc, the final issues of 2014 reintroduced the Joker like we've never seen him. In Zero Year, The Riddler took over Gotham and put Batman to the ultimate test of wits and strength. If you ever thought Riddler was a throwaway villain, this will change your mind. He's merciless and angry in Zero Year, and most importantly, he's smart. Synder writes his villains as if they're real, which is why this comic has been so consistently good. The Riddler is not idly throwing around puzzles because he loves bad schtick. No, if he's giving you a puzzle to solve, it's because he wants to see hope in your eyes before he kills you. He knows you won't solve his puzzle, but the fact that you know he genuinely would set you free if you could is what makes it all so dark. After Zero Year concluded Snyder began work on Endgame, which brings back the Joker for the 3rd part of his Joker-themed trilogy. And hey, look, he has a face again! Synder already proved that the Joker is the boogey man hiding under your bed in the Death of the Family arc, and he is driving that point home with Endgame. The Joker has never been scarier, and he's made it clear to Batman that all those years of toying with him are over. This time, people are going to die. What makes Snyder's Batman so great is that there is some genuine detective work going on in between the fight scenes, coupled with nice character development--it's not often we see Bruce genuinely afraid of not being able to save the day. In that sense, we also see how Batman keeps a step ahead of, well, everyone. If you've ever wondered why Batman heads up the Justice League, a team made up of demigods and super-powered magicians, Synder's Batman leaves no doubts as to his capabilities. And Capullo was just born to draw Batman. Hands down Capullo's versions of Bats, Riddler, Joker and Gordon et al, are the best in the last 50 years. Every panel is so lush with eye candy you can stare at this book for hours. It really doesn't matter what crazy scene Synder asks Capullo to draw--Batman riding a flaming horse up castle steps for example--it turns out looking AMAZING! I could read Snyder and Capullo's Batman forever. It's stunningly beautiful, well thought out, heavily focused on character, and pulls no punches. And that's why it is 2014's Best Comic of the Year!