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Welcome to the 46th Annual I&N’s Top Ten Comics of the Year (aka “The Innies”)! Why it seems like just yesterday that a struggling little mag named “The Amazing Spider-Man” edged out “The Adventures of Jerry Lewis” for the top spot on our hallowed list, signaling the spectacular rise of one and the slow descent into obscurity of the other.

Each title below is testament to the fact that, even as conventional wisdom holds that print is dying, comics are in the midst of some kind of Renaissance. The persistent stereotype that this vibrant, global medium is followed by sad, middle-aged men who like to see men in tights beat each other up simply doesn’t hold water anymore, nor has it for quite some time. The fact is, the problem is no longer a lack of diversity in incredible material for any and all possible demographics; it’s that there’s too much of it to keep track of! No less than seven publishers are represented in our Top Ten, each producing catalogues of more great work than we could ever hope to encompass in our tiny alloted piece of the internet. (You’ll note we even had to expand our “Honorable Mentions” section to ten books apiece – and we could’ve used ten more!) Simply put: everyone should be reading comics.

As always, we here at I&N welcome debate – hell, that’s the whole point. Just be aware that results below have already been encrypted onto floppy discs and blasted into space for the benefit of our future alien overlords. (DM)

The List!

10. Archer & Armstrong (Valiant): When Valiant, earlier this year, began hyping up their new title Quantum and Woody as their foray into buddy-action slapstick comedy, I wanted to yell “Wait! They’ve already GOT one of those!” But Archer & Armstrong is much more than that. Fred Van Lente and Co. have taken the best of Lethal Weapon, The X-Files, ancient Sumerian mythology, Dan Brown-type conspiracy novels, Dr. Strangelove, and god knows what else, and concocted a world-spanning epic that despite its breakneck pace and impeccable comic timing, manages an intellectual underpinning that questions the very nature and origins of faith. Even at its most gleefully satirical, however, the sheer exuberance of the writing embraces an expansive view of humanity, in all its wonders and frailties. Fun in a bottle, folks. (DM)

Archer & Armstrong

9. Fury: My War Gone By (Marvel): Garth Ennis proves he’s one of the most incisive writers around (not just in comics) on the subject of war. His deconstruction of the Marvel soldier/spy icon (lately supercool due to Samuel Jackson’s sleek big screen portrayal) is the least of this title’s attributes (which is on our Top Ten for the second year running). Ennis’ story (rendered with appropriate, unblinking grit by Goran Parlov) also serves as an insider’s account through the anguished  litany of armed conflict of the second half of the 20th century. Most devastatingly, it portrays the effects of war, not on the nameless many whose lives are needlessly cut short, but on the wretched perpetrators who survive. Merciless and shattering. (DM)

Fury: My War Gone By

8. Zero (Image): Ales Kot, the enigmatic engineer behind the challenging Change (Image), a mostly on-time bullet train of thought fueled by a combustible blend of poetry and pictures, has heroically hit the brakes on the overplayed and over-parodied secret agent genre, expertly taking it from 007 to Zero in no time flat. He’s applied the same amount of poetic pressure here, but to a more successful–and coherent–end storytelling-wise: the danger is palpable, the emotion undeniable–thanks, in part, to the rather complex collaborative effort that has called for four different artists on the first four issues of the series–a move that has transcended gimmick and, instead, has proven invaluable, if only because the first four artists have been Michael Walsh (Comeback), Tradd Moore (The Strange Talent of Luther Strode), Mateus Santolouco (Dial H, TMNT), and Morgan Jeske (Change). My experience thus far: #1 hooked me with its perfect timing and left me lying in the gutter; #2 knocked me upside-down; #3 disarmed me; and #4 made me love it–made me punch-drunk love it, damn it! What makes the book even more exciting? It defies expectations. I expect that it’ll continue defying expectations as we move into 2014. And, in that, I expect Zero to be just as good as it’s been–if not infinitely better because we’re getting the best of Kot, who’s clearly giving us everything he’s got. (SC)

Zero #4

Zero

7. Lazarus (Image): Greg Rucka’s vision of a near-future oligarchic dystopia gets under your skin because, in the tradition of Huxley and Orwell, it seems an all-too-plausible extrapolation of our current reality. The story is made even more unsettlingly concrete by Michael Lark’s stark, photorealistic visuals. Contrast the plight of the teeming masses with the power-hungry family dynamic of the ultra-privileged few, and you have a potent, volatile mix. A comic for our times. (DM)

Lazarus #2

Lazarus

6. Wild Blue Yonder (IDW): Sure, it’s only three issues in, but what a three-issue ride it’s been!  We’ve celebrated this action-packed series from its radar-arousing takeoff, with each high-speed pass earning enviable I&N accolades along the way.  (Check out the love here, here, and here.)  Top Gunners Mike Raicht, Zach Howard, Nelson Daniel, and Austin Harrison have come together in classic diamond formation to deliver one superior salvo after another, each on its own–and as a whole–a blockbuster that would humble Hollywood’s own best of 2013. (SC)

Wild Blue Yonder

Wild Blue Yonder

5. Rachel Rising (Abstract Studio): Terry Moore presents a truly American horror story: witches, serial killers, and a resurrected figure of biblical origins seeking vengeance for the sins of our nation’s past. Oh yeah, and the Devil. Moore draws you in with the quiet beauty of his artwork; his snow-covered renditions of the sleepy town of Manson enveloping you like a down blanket in front of a fireplace, before the sharp spasms of bloodletting shock you right back into his nightmare. However terrible the events depicted though, Moore seems to suggest they pale against the cruelties of history. Speaking of cruelties, let’s hope a purported television adaptation staves off recent talk of this book’s imminent demise. Because the real horror story would be a world without Rachel Rising. (DM)

Rachel Rising

4. Saga (Image): Saga is a lot of things: a superlative satire, a side-splitting sci-fi romp, a heart-wrenching romance, a critique of fiction, a controversy magnet; but most of all, it’s extraordinarily consistent; and it’s that consistency that fosters a critical expectation: to expect the unexpected.  On a monthly basis, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples serve up sublime slices of a greater story–slices that showcase razor sharp dialogue, that pitch perfect pathos, that sell sure shocks; they wisely fool with the elements of fiction and, like confident alchemists, have come up with issue after issue of 22-page gold–and we’re all the richer for it. (SC)

Saga

Saga

3. Six-Gun Gorilla (BOOM!): In the biggest surprise of the year, Si Spurrier conducts a multi-layered masterclass in metaficiton and at the same time delivers a eulogy on the dying art of escapism.  From the existential exposition of this weird, weird western to its necessarily hopeful final act, Spurrier’s imaginative muse–the Six-Gun Gorilla, himself–becomes Blue’s, and then naturally becomes ours as we consent to the writer’s every insistence; as we gladly lose ourselves in this genre-bending–and never-ending–battle between reality and fiction, good and evil, and fate and freewill, which is brought to life by rising star Jeff Stokely, whose artwork crucially complements the conflicts at the core of the story.  At the same time a celebration of a culture’s vital literary legacy and a criticism of the current collective unconscious, Six-Gun Gorilla has earned its spot in the Western Canon of Comics–and our Top Ten–with a simple but oft-neglected gesture: by making and keeping a primal promise. (SC)

Six-Gun Gorilla #2

Six-Gun Gorilla

2. Mind MGMT (Dark Horse): Matt Kindt’s magical mystery tour de force Mind MGMTour #3 book of 2012–continues to astound, especially as its crafty creator meticulously molds the medium to suit his carefully constructed conspiratorial agenda.  As the story of the eponymous enigmatic entity has evolved, so too has Kindt’s strategy for telling it: his precise, patient prose; his layouts, enlivened by some otherworldly calculus; and his innovative brushstrokes of genius merge miraculously and challenge us to think and to feel, to be active participants in the world in which we’ve been immersed: to put beautifully painted pieces together in order to experience–along with the impressive cast of characters–confusion and loss, the conflation of time, and a higher power drawing us somewhere unprecedented in breadth and scope–drawing us in to the mind of the medium’s finest manager. (SC)

Mind MGMT #13

Mind MGMT

1. Mister X (Dark Horse): There are many approaches to creating great comics. One of them is largely collaborative, in which the creative duties are are separated and clearly defined (writer, artist, colorist, letterer, etc). Through an amalgam of traditional, action-based American comics and the more leisurely paced, lushly visual influence of manga, this approach has evolved over the last twenty years or so into what could be called a “cinematic” style; a treatment of the comic book form that seems based in the ethos of filmmaking (Lazarus, above, is an excellent example of this). Then there is another approach (let us call it the “auteur’s” approach) in which the cartoonist (let us rescue this title from the cultural dung-heap) assumes all of the above creative responsibilities to produce narratives that are singular and personal in a way that no other visual medium, not even movies, can replicate. Since they control all aspects of the work – not just writing and drawing, but page design, panel lay-out, font style and placement and all sorts of graphic elements; in short the whole package – they can, at their best, perfectly marry content and form in a manner that is unique to the comics medium. It is an approach with a history that extends at least back to Will Eisner and The Spirit. Perhaps because it takes such a concerted effort by a single individual, this type of formal, experimental approach is most often seen in the realm of the “graphic novel”. Rarely is it employed in our beloved, stapled floppies (though glimmers of hope have begun to appear on the comic racks: see Matt Kindt, above and below). And then there is Mister X. Created by Dean Motter in the early 1980’s, (when “graphic novels” barely existed as an idea) the title has long been a touchstone among independent-minded cartoonists (early contributors include the Hernandez Bros and Seth). In its latest iterations, Hard Candy and Eviction, Motter continues to seamlessly wed both approaches: there is the clear stylistic influence of German Expressionism and film noir for which the comic is known, but there are also the aforementioned design choices that reflect the themes of the narrative itself. The story involves the mysterious architect of a city in which the very buildings (in all their art deco glory) seem to respond to, and adversely influence, the psyches of its very inhabitants. This theme, played out in yarns that are at once hard-boiled, surreal and whimsical, acts as a fitting metaphor for the experience of the reader, as they interact with the “architecture” of Motter’s intricate design. Further, Motter includes delightful homages to the likes of Harold Gray (“Little Urchin Andy”), Winsor McCay (“Dream of the Robot Friend”) and the aforementioned Eisner (see cover below) which pay tribute to the comics history of which Mister X is a part, while, again, also making sense within the story itself. The overall effect is immersive and beguiling. Some comics tell great stories. Some comics celebrate their history. Some comics continue to push at the boundaries of the medium. And then there is Mister X. Book Of the Year. (DM)

Mister X:Eviction

Derek’s Honorable Mentions: 20. Dial H (DC) 19.  Afterlife with Archie (Archie) 18. Manifest Destiny (Image) 17. Thumbprint (IDW) 16. The Massive (Dark Horse) 15. Battlefields (Dynamite) 14. Adventure Time (kaboom!) 13. Numbercruncher (Titan) 12. Trillium (DC/Vertigo) 11. Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake (kaboom!)

Scott’s Honorable Mentions:

20. Battlefields (Dynamite) 19. Daredevil (Marvel) 18. The Sixth Gun (Oni) 17. Deathmatch (BOOM!) 16. Satellite Sam (Image) 15. Clone (Image) 14. Numbercruncher (Titan) 13. Mind the Gap (Image) 12. The Massive (Dark Horse) 11. Trillium (DC/Vertigo)

Best Single Issue of the Year: Mind MGMT #17 (Dark Horse)

With #17, Kindt reaches new heights, goes to greater lengths–particularly in page-busting panels of crisply-crafted and concurrent continuous narratives–to exploit the power of the medium.   As promised by the clever cover–one awash in paranoia and paronomasia–the story moves at a breakneck pace: from a locked and loaded unhappy Home Maker to a veritable orgy of violent rivers running toward a simultaneous orgasm of double-page splashes–there goes the neighborhood, indeed!–to a crack shot Meru, who, with a twist of Lyme, is ready to take the reins and restore reason to the world one agent at a time.  The whole damn thing’s a miracle, really.  Hell, at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kindt could turn his watercolors to wine; his work is that divine. (SC)

Mind MGMT #17

Mind MGMT #17

Publisher of the Year: Most comics-related outfits have finally caught onto Image Comics‘ trend-setting ways and already bestowed this honor upon them (no doubt, in no small part, due to our ahead-of-the-curve naming them Publisher of the Year in 2012 😉 And with stellar debuts like Lazarus and Zero (not to mention books like Manifest Destiny and Rat Queens) the accolades are hard to dispute. But let us do just that (contrary bastards that we are). Because 2013 was the year that a bevy of other publishers took a page from Image’s playbook and produced work, much of it creator-owned, that was just as innovative, idiosyncratic, and invigorating as Image’s output. BOOM!, IDW, Oni, Dyanmite – all produced titles of creativity, breadth and distinction. But there was one publisher that rose unexpectedly, like its namesake, above the rest: Dark Horse. While never taking their eye off their bread-and-butter licensed properties (like Star Wars and Terminator) Dark Horse branched out into new territory with exciting minis from largely unknown creators (Buzzkill), original graphic novels (Bad Houses), and printed versions of high quality digital comics (Bandette, Sabretooth Swordsman). And let’s face it, Dark Horse has been doing the creator-owned, independent thing for over twenty years, as evidenced by the revival of the premiere comics anthology, Dark Horse Presents. So while Image is the current industry darling (and deservedly so), we can’t ignore the evidence of our comic-lovin’ eyes: the best overall books of 2013 (including our Top Two titles) were published by Dark Horse Comics. (DM)

Looking forward to 2014,

Scott & Derek

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