Welcome to the 27th Annual Edition of the Top Ten Comics of the Year! What began as two educators blogging in obscurity about their love affair with comics, has grown to become the most highly-anticipated event of the year amongst trend-setters, industry-watchers and that most idolized of velvet rope celebrities, the comic book creator. Why it seems like just yesterday that a little book called Sandman made the list (No. 7, 1991) giving birth to a worldwide phenomenon (we just received our yearly gift of one dozen black roses and homemade crumpets from Neil in eternal gratitude).
A note to the naysayers who complain about end-of-year lists: comics and numbers go hand-in-hand like old movies and cigarettes. If you say the number 27, what serious comics fan wouldn’t think Detective? Or 252, Spidey’s black costume? Why do round-numbered “anniversary” issues always sell higher? From what dark recesses of the mind doth spring the obsession for a new Number 1 (as this past year surely demonstrates)? Fighting it is like the Kingpin fighting his urge for a donut: counter-intuitive and pointless. So to the list-cynics I say: go make a Top Ten List of your Least Favorite Top Ten Lists and be done with it. You’ll feel better.
The rules: As always, 80% (or 8) of our choices are books that Scott and Derek both read. We each get one alternate to round out the list (see if you can guess which ones these are! Correct answers will get a prize!). For limited series, the lion’s share of the story had to have seen print this year to be eligible (for instance, although Severed finished in 2012, most of the story was published in 2011. Similarly, Garth Ennis’ latest run on Battlefields, which tend to run in nine-issue installments, is only two issues in – and is already a strong contender for next year’s list). There are also no graphic novels on the list. There is no shortage of exciting work being done in a longer format, but this list, like the website itself, is dedicated to those wonderful monthly, folded-and-stapled periodicals which compel us to make our weekly Wednesday trek to the local comic book store for fear of missing something. (Having said that, congrats to Chris Ware on the inclusion of Building Stories on the NY Times own list of Top Ten Books of the Year. Check it out. It is a piece of work.)
What unites most of the books on the list I think, is an expansive approach to storytelling; a willful cherry-picking of literary devices from various genres, gleefully mashing them up against each other and seeing what happens. The playfulness in the examples below is infectious but not inchoate; they are produced by masters of their craft. Each creator involved has hit some kind of stride in the past year. Each comic is a breath of fresh air in our four-colored medium. We are the lucky recipients.
We here at Images and Nerds, of course, welcome debate (as long as you realize the futility of it, as all results are final, having been engraved in a cave wall for posterity.)
Without further eloquence, here’s our Top Ten:
10. Animal Man/Swamp Thing (DC) – OK, so this is our sneaky way of cramming eleven titles into our top ten list, but these two books really need to be considered as one. The amount of planning and coordination done by respective writers Jeff Lemire and Scott Snyder could serve as a template for the proper way to do that most fraught of endeavors: the crossover. These two clearly share a vision and it’s been thrilling to watch two creators at the top of their game working in such organic concert. Though the story has bogged down somewhat now that we’re in the middle of the epic proper, it’s been one of the surprising delights of the past year to watch their little corner of the DCU grow into its most compelling destination. (DM)
9. Fury: My War Gone By (Marvel) – I hope you didn’t let your year go by without your grabbing Garth Ennis’s take on Marvel’s eternal warrior, Nick Fury, the only cyclops worth a good Goddamn in the Marvel Universe, anymore, be it NOW! or MAX or whatever. Fury’s certainly the star here as he boozily–and honestly–reflects upon some of the secret missions he undertook after WW II to ostensibly make a difference in a dangerous world. But this title is more so everything we love about Ennis: perfectly composed conversations amongst expertly crafted characters (like the deliciously deep Shirley Defabio and the larger-than-life–and classic Ennis creation–Sergent Chef Steinhoff), all before a backdrop of war, with stops in Indochina, Cuba, and Vietnam, where the book will continue–at a punishing pace–in 2013. But if Fury’s too hero for you, check out Ennis’s latest Battlefields saga, Battlefields: The Green Fields Beyond; it’s through two–a Top Ten worthy two–of six. Either way, you can’t go wrong; in this guy’s hands, war is heaven. (SC)
8. The Shade (DC) – Once upon a time their was a writer of enormous range and nuance; one who easily blended genres and had an uncanny ability to capture the untidy, individual voices of each of his many characters in service of stories both grand and intimate. His name was James Robinson and the exemplar of his craft was a series called Starman. Now in the years since the end of that remarkable book, there has been a writer named James Robinson working on various super-hero books, but the quality of them has been so wildly inconsistent and lacking in authorial voice that it can scarcely seem possible that it is the same writer. Interesting then, that it took a return to the Starman universe to bring about a return to form. In The Shade, Robinson returns to his most compelling creation; a character both physically and morally in the shadows, one whose dandyish affectations and droll, Oscar Wilde-inflected narration serve as perfect counterpoint to the pulpy theatrics of a host of skillfully handled genres and subgenres. Welcome back Mr. Robinson. Stay awhile, please do. (DM)
7. Daredevil (Marvel) – Even a blind person who hasn’t had his other senses enhanced by exposure to radioactive material could see that this title has been Marvel’s best for over a year now. Aside from the seemingly endless Omega Drive arc, which was a series of wrong turns–including a pointless crossover with Spider-Man and The Punisher–with a few delectable diversions dribbled in, specifically issue #12, Daredevil has been the model book in terms of how to marry mirth and mystery. Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, and Javier Rodriguez had Daredevil dance with Doom for a couple of sensational issues and then created something strange and beautiful with the Coyote storyline, one that had me, at times, wondering if it were headed anywhere–and, in the end, boy, was it! Damn my dubiousness! There are a few creators worth our blind trust and our limitless patience, and Waid is without a doubt one of them. (Speaking of, have you noticed the tone Waid’s establishing over on Indestructible Hulk?) Similarly, there are many heroes whom we hold dear, but none as dearly as The Man Without Fear. (SC)
6. Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (DC) – What could easily have been a Hellboy rip-off instead turns out to be an exuberant melange of Universal Monsters from the 1930s and James Bond tropes turned on their head. Jeff Lemire (see #10) got the ball rolling (along with Alberto Ponticelli, whose pitch-perfect art will be missed when he leaves shortly – see #1) with a commitment to unrelenting, over-the-top action. The extraordinary Matt Kindt (see #3) continued the run by focusing on Frankenstein’s tragic history, without sacrificing a whit absurdity or epic carnage. If anything the hint of pathos serves to ground the general giant-monster frenzy, making the book even stronger. Another oddball (and alas, soon to be late and lamented) winner from DC. (DM)
5. Fatale (Image) – Sure, Ed Brubaker seemed to give up on Captain America in an uninspired final run; and he ran a minimalist route as he turned Winter Soldier into a must-read–and, unexpectedly, a top Marvel book for 2012. It’s clear, however, where he was focusing his energies: Fatale is Mr. Brubaker at his brutal best. If you have enjoyed his iconic work with the spectacular Sean Phillips on such titles as Criminal and Incognito, then you’ve most assuredly found Fatale to die for. A dangerous dame, herself in danger; a fistful of dupes, their freewill twisted as if by magic; some crooked cops and crazy cultists; buckets of blood and nightmarish monsters: all of it comes together to set a terrifying tone and to mold and unfold a complex and compelling mystery–one that insists upon your complete attention. And how about Phillips’ covers? Stunning. Yes, indeed, this is a book that stands out from the rest–in more ways than one. (SC)
4. The Zaucer of Zilk (IDW) – Brendan McCarthy and Al Ewing’s mini-masterpiece is also perhaps the hardest book on the list to define. Carrollian fantasy, 1960’s psychedelia, and high-flying adventure crash together in a two-issue candy-colored phantasmagoria of a tale. The all-too-brief narrative packs in a lot of story but never feels weighed down by its creators everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. Indeed the sheer scope of imagination on display – conceptually, thematically, incidentally even – breathes such voluminous life into the thing that it threatens to take flight right out of your hands and soar into the ether. It would take most comics years to build a universe as enthralling as this. I, for one, am hoping for a return trip. (DM)
3. Mind MGMT (Dark Horse) – This is one sexy book. Matt Kindt–a creator on the cusp of greatness–is doing what he’s so very good at here: telling a taut tale at a brisk pace, one supported by humble yet gorgeous artwork, with colors you just want to drown in. Go ahead: open any issue to any page; I guarantee you’ll gasp for air–and it’ll feel exhilarating. I love the concept: Mind MGMT is like the Bush-era Office of Strategic Influence on steroids. The execution is flawless: the story starts with a startling scene of murderous rage, which, teasingly lacks motive and context, and then segues into a cloudy memory of Amnesia Flight 815, which, in turn, sets the stage for Meru, who sees her next bestseller in the mid-air mystery. But it’s all just foreplay, friends. Once Meru meets Henry Lyme, the narrative explodes with the latter’s back story, which is awe-inspiring in its inventiveness and hellishly heart-wrenching, especially as we learn how the rogue operative had a hand–or, more accurately, a mind–in the opening sequence of ultraviolence. Simply masterful. The extras are fun, too, especially the bonus stories, which help to build this brilliantly intricate new mythology of men and women who are dangerously and desperately more than their fellow man. Through seven issues of Mind MGMT and with his fantastic work on Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Kindt’s proving that he’s more, too–that he’s undoubtedly fit to comfortably sit in the pantheon of present day comic book gods. (SC)
2. Saga (Image) – Combine Star Wars with Romeo and Juliet. Douglas Adams with Meet the Parents. Heavy Metal with The Wonder Years. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are pushing against all kinds of boundaries here in a comic that truly has the air of limitless possibility about it. They are also unafraid of testing the preconceptions of their own readership (not to mention their intestinal fortitude – I personally can’t wait for Fard the Ogre’s 2012 Pin-Up Calendar, in all its scrotal glory). But for all this, in the end their story is about one family’s struggle to survive. In this day and age, what could be more resonant? (DM)
1. Dial H (DC) – Who knew that it’d take a “Second Wave” to shore up our faith in The New 52? Well, it did: and said wave, which rolled in during low tide–with even lower expectations–deposited this unexpected treasure from novelist China Mieville and artist extraordinaire Mateus Santolouco at our feet; but once in hand, it was clear: this weird and wonderful story of a regular schmoe who dials up heroes from different worlds is a tsunami of creative vision. Sure, the first few issues are tough to follow, but it’s in a manner reminiscent of the best of Grant Morrison, where perplexity percolates into something akin to pleasure. And there’s plenty of pleasure to be had here, especially in the surprises born of Nelson’s turning the dial: there’s the unforgettable first, Boy Chimney, conjured in a stunning sequence of soot and smoke by Santolouco; and there’s the brilliantly satirical Chief Mighty Arrow, depicted bravely by guest artist David Lapham in an issue that just missed being named our Best Single Issue of the Year. No hero, however, was as inspirational as Rescue Jack: with the dial down, Nelson finds the hero within and saves the day–if only for a moment. Looking forward, 2013 promises an exciting turn: former Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. artist Alberto Ponticelli has been tapped to take on the challenge of bringing the magic of Mieville’s mind to the page. We know he’s up for it. Let’s hope that the readership is, too. While Dial H has survived the Fourth Wave–sadly, the same can’t be said of Frankenstein–who knows which books the inevitable Fifth and Sixth Waves will wrest from our hands. So, we say, with the volume dial cranked to 11: buy this book! (SC)
Derek’s Honorable Mentions:
5. Wonder Woman (DC) 4. Snarked! (kaboom!) 3. Stumptown: The Case of the Baby in the Velvet Case (Oni) 2. Popeye (IDW) 1. Tales Designed to Thrizzle (Fantagraphics)
Scott’s Honorable Mentions:
5. Winter Soldier (Marvel) 4. Wonder Woman (DC) 3. Harbinger (Valiant) 2. Archer & Armstrong (Valiant) 1. Rachel Rising (Abstract Studio)
Best Single Issue of the Year: Adventure Time #10 (kaboom!) – “Choose Your Own Adventure Time!” by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. This 15 page story is: An entertaining juggling act of any number playful narratives. A nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek callback for Gen Xer’s and one of their quaint, decidedly analog forms of interactive experience. A meditation on the control we have over our lives (or lack thereof) invoking the Free-Will vs. Determinism debate. A formalistic tour de force where story and design combine seamlessly in an innovative fashion that seems to expand the very possibilities of the comic book medium. A children’s book with fart jokes. You choose.
Publisher of the Year: This is easy. With four out of the top ten spots (including No.1) it’s gotta be DC right? Wrong. If the first full year of the New 52 relaunch was able to till some fertile ground where the above books were allowed to grow, we are grateful. But each of these books are outliers in the DCU (or in the case of Animal Man/Swamp Thing, at least started as such). Much of their appeal lies in how they’re straining against and redefining the very super-hero mold that they are a part of. Because that of course was the focus of the New 52: superheroes. Retrenching, dusting off the icons and giving them a makeover for the 21st century. In 2012 however, that seems a backward-looking editorial mandate. Artistically, comics as a medium have long since proved capable of encompassing any genre or subject under the sun (or behind it. or beyond it.) But what our medium still suffers from (and this is why the general public remains unconvinced about the viability of comics as a legitimate entertainment source) is a lack of the sheer amount and variety of product that you see in other formats (TV, movies, books, etc). Like it or not, when most people think comic books, they still think superheroes. Well the company doing the most change that, to fill the void on a week-by-week basis is: Image Comics (knew I’d get there eventually, right?) Go ahead, check out their catalog on any given week: crime, sci-fi, espionage, historical fiction, horror, comedy (and yes, some capes too). And all creator-owned. Are they all hits? Of course not. But Image is doing more than any publisher to create a culture that cultivates young talent while also attracting established creators, united by this one overarching philosophy: create any damn comic you can think of. Smells like the future–or at least 2013.
Derek & Scott