Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best Comics of 2013

The Comic Pusher Best Comics of 2013
by Jeffrey O. Gustafson

2013 was a year without a single marquis work that represents both the critical and commercial consensus in the way that certain monumental works seemed to overshadow previous years. This year had no Building Stories or Asterios Polyp, but that does not mean it wasn't a good year for comics. It was actually pretty great. 

Obviously this was the year of Gilbert Hernandez, but other creators had pretty prolific high-quality outputs as well. Matt Fraction - Comic Pusher's 2008 Creator of the Year - was working in a different stratosphere in 2013, and his Sex Criminals with Chip Zdarsky and Satellite Sam with equally prolific Howard Chaykin would have been enough for him to net the top spot if not for Hernandez. Mainstream superhero comics are always a mess, but Hickman's big-picture Avengers/Infinity work was especially entertaining, and his creator-owned work continued to be cutting edge. Despite no new material from the likes of Chris Ware we did get killer new indie anthologies from Los Bros Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Michael Deforge, and Seth, and new graphic novels from Darwyn Cooke, Jason, and Fred Chao. The proliferation of high-quality archival reprint material continues to astound, and in yet another year that sees increasing in-roads into the mainstream with digital releases, 2013 saw an unexpected sea-change in how comics can be made and digitally distributed with Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's Private Eye.

My choices for Best Comics of 2013 reflects the growing importance of web and digital comics (three entries), the Creator Owned Renaissance (over ten), and the availability of quality translated European works (including my still-surprising-to-me choice of Best Graphic Novel).  Without further ado (and about damned time, too) here are the 13 Best Comics of 2013.

Best Graphic Novel of 2013
The Initiates by Etienne Davodeau (NBM)

In 2010, French cartoonist Etienne Davodeau proposed a unique venture to his friend, the notable vintner Richard Leroy - he would spend the year assisting the winemaker in every aspect of production, from trimming in the winter to shipping in the fall, and the cartoonist would open up and introduce him to his world of comics. What transpires is told in the surprisingly wonderful non-fiction docu-comic and the Best Overall Graphic Novel of 2013, The Initiates from Futuropolis and NBM Comics Lit.

Davodeau chronicles Leroy, a dedicated artist of extraordinary commitment, his art wine. Leroy's obsessive devotion to his particular style of production - he has a relationship to the plants and the soil that borders on mystical - and the proven quality of his output year after year has won him a legion of fans across the globe. Embedded in Leroy's production, Davodeau does a remarkable job of translating, both visually, and descriptively, the entire universe of wine making and consuming that Leroy inhabits. Interwoven is the fascinating window into the world of French comic making. Davodeau introduces Leroy to Gibrat & Mathieu & Guibert and many more who appear in-person. When Leroy questions Lewis Trondheim's style, Trondheim shows up in the form of a brilliant one-page cartoon. Davodeau takes Leroy to comic conventions, Leroy sits in at editorial meetings, he reviews submissions, takes in art shows, and more.

In The Initiates, Davodeau has crafted a captivating, comprehensive, absorbing, delightful and incredibly entertaining documentary that certainly deserves to take its place in the growing nonfiction graphic canon. When you finish The Initiates, you get the sense of having spent the day with good friends, good food, good wine, and good conversation, falling under the spell of camaraderie capped off by the euphoria you can only get from a few drinks at the end of a day well spent.

Read my full review of The Intitiates Here. 

Best Comic of 2014 
Time, from xkcd 1190 by Randall Monroe

In March, Randall Munroe, the cartoonist behind the webcomic xkcd, published xkcd #1190, Time. The comic started as a single image that began to change, incrementally every hour. Some panels would feature a small change, others contained dialog and events and changes in scenery indicative of minutes or hours passing. Munroe published a new panel every hour for four months, a comic in 3099 panels, with each panel published every hour for 123 days in what is, all told, the Best Overall Comic of 2013.

The story is as unique and engaging as the format. Munroe, in his signature poetic stick figure style, weaves an elaborate, suspenseful sci-fi mystery, with two unnamed figures exploring an abandoned and troubling landscape. What transpires is akin to First Contact and a race against time to save a people from annihilation. The extreme and varied details of the comic's setting reveal Munroe to be a creator of extraordinary multidisciplinary intelligence, an innovative storyteller whose works show humanity and thirst for discovery. His art, so deceptively simple, continues to be detailed and above all else shockingly expressive for featureless stick figures, the format ambitious. The end result is breathtaking and dramatic.

The title of the piece refers to the unknowable future the characters inhabit, a future where recognizable human society has collapsed. It refers to the experience the travelers share, the time they spend together discovering things about the world and themselves they never could before guess. It refers to the unexpected deadline the travelers fall under to save their people. And it refers to the experience of reading the comic - separate from the unique temporal experience of its initial publication - the way the reader can manipulate the time of experiencing the work, one of modern comics truly monumental achievements.

Experience Time at the Munroe-approved resource geekwagon.net/projects/xkcd1190. Read my full commentary and analysis of xkcd: Time here.

Best Ongoing Series of 2013 - Creative Team
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image)

The Comic Pusher Best Ongoing Series of the Year for the second year running, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga continues to be an exhilarating, utterly absorbing, completely original sci-fi/fantasy drama. The story of two moon-crossed lovers from different worlds on the run with a price on their head, the narrative slowed down to build the world and expand the cast of key players.

Vaughan's masterful pacing keeps the cliffhangers and shocks coming. Staples' fine illustration a perfect visual voice for the story. Saga uses its unique setting and extraordinary characters to explore fundamental questions about family and love while telling an absolutely riveting, unpredictable, richly layered, often funny, and always humanistic story. There are a lot of good comics leading the creator-owned renaissance at Image, but nothing that creates and fills the niches that Saga does, let along with its continued level of success.

Best Ongoing Series of 2013 - Single Creator
MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt (Dark Horse)

Matt Kindt has been making graphic novels for a while, but his ongoing MIND MGMT has announced Kindt as one of the best overall creators and most distinct voices in mainstream comics. MIND MGMT - a bracingly original work that is also the Best Single-Creator Series of the year - is an enthralling journey into a world of superspies and secret histories, unique powers and the unknown forces of global manipulation. As a storyteller in his creator-owned works, Kindt is deeply invested in the effect spying has on societies and the individuals who wage the never-ending shadow wars that steer the course of history. The unique metaphysical powers and technologies used in spying in MIND MGMT and the winding pathways of interpersonal and intergovernmental treachery share equal focus with stories of human beings giving everything of themselves for an ideal or profit, often caught up in waves of human events beyond their control, sometimes controlling those waves themselves. Kindt masterfully utilizes espionage and everything it entails to explore unique facets of human interaction and global history. The issues released this year saw Kindt take his art and storytelling to completely new levels. The story constantly one-ups itself, in ingenuity, in twists, in character, in sheer style, and weaves a deeply labyrinthine mystery whose secrets unravel like seeds blossoming into massive trees, roots like an iceberg, branches dovetailing into everything you think you know. MIND MGMT is represents some of Kindt's finest work to date.

(See also my review of Kindt's original graphic novel released in 2013 Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes here)

Best New Series of 2013
East of West by Jonathan Hickman & Nick Dragotta (Image)

Throughout the expansive, high-concept ongoing East of West, writer/designer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta redefine the science fiction western (if it was ever defined at all). Hickman and Dragotta's high-concept series is, at its core, a treatise on our increasingly fractured society. But more than that it is an astounding work of arresting science fiction and high-tech fantasy, Hickman's inside-out epic love story in an unrecognizable America, Dragotta creating stunning artwork deeply influenced by European and Japanese sensibilities as much as whatever the hell comes from his head to his pen to the page. Hickman and Dragotta create and then hit the mark like few others in comics, East of West the best trippy, sweeping wonder you didn't know you craved.

Best Comic Strip of 2013
A Softer World by Emily Horne & Joey Comeau

The web photocomic A Softer World by Emily Horne & Joey Comeau is a unique and beautiful exploitation of the comics form that manages to transcend what is possible with photo comics. In each three-panel strip we get a perfect melding of Comeau's verbal poetry and Horne's visual poetry, executing works of narrative art that are concise, moving and powerful, often very funny, thought provoking, beautiful, or sad, and always an astonishing combination of images and words. Horne's photography and design is intimate, her panelization and editing emotive and dynamic. Comeau's narratives always translate pure accessible emotion in expansive narratives packed in a short space with a stunning economy of words. Both are poets of extraordinary skill who have forged a visual and narrative partnership of uncanny felicity. Strips in A Softer World often poetically explore themes of loss, sex, love, and depression in short narratives that can involve zombies and relationships and science fiction and divine absurdity, all the while elegantly commenting on the human condition. Even the slightest strips execute a timeless, efficient humor and depth. Throughout this year's best strips from the duo, Horne manages imagery both straightforward and elegiac, Comeau's prose the perfect counterpoint or illustration. Their strips continue to be vibrant and original masterpieces that transcend the comic form, narrative art in its truest sense.

For my essay celebrating A Softer World at Ten Years and 1000 Strips, click here.

Best Webcomic of 2013 
The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin (Panel Syndicate)

A discussion of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's periodical webcomic and publishing experiment The Private Eye must begin with the creators' innovative pricing, distribution and promotion of the project. A 10-issue series published by Martin on his and Vaughan's Panel Syndicate website, The Private Eye can be downloaded DRM-free, pay-what-you-want, in five languages. The series - a bold step away from every usual delivery method available in mainstream comics from two of the medium's premier talents - came out of nowhere and has proven to be a game-changer. All that, and a damn fine comic, too.

Vaughan excels at high-concept ideas, and The Private Eye is no different. In 2076, decades after The Cloud burst revealing the hidden secrets of everyone on Earth, the internet is gone, the press is law, and privacy is guarded by physical disguise. Against this backdrop is a hard-boiled murder mystery, told with humor and suspense. (The timeliness of the issues presented and the unique counterpoints with its release format are just icing.) But then there's the brilliance of the art by Martin with colorist Muntsa Vicente. Martin & Vicente present a slender, densely packed futurescape in widescreen retrofutureshock hypercolor. Martin's first creator-owned work, his art in The Private Eye is also some of his best. Now at the halfway point, Vaughan & Martin have packed a wallop in every chapter, and the series may prove to be a turning point for the medium and the creators involved.

For my essay on the importance of Panel Syndicates internationalization in The Private Eye, click here.

Best Limited Series of 2013
Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake by Natasha Allegri (Boom!)

This year's Best Limited Series and all-ages book was the fabulous Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake written and illustrated by Fionna creator Natasha Allegri. Much like Meredith Gran's superb Marceline and the Scream Queens - 2012's Best Limited Series - the auteur-driven side stories continue to be better than the ongoing Adventure Time book. Which isn't to say that Adventure Time proper is bad, indeed it is quite good. It's clever and fun and zany but it just doesn't click the same way Fionna and Marceline do. Part of the appeal of Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake is that this isn't just some all-ages perfunctory hackwork thing for Allegri: she created these characters for the Adventure Time television show, and they are clearly near and dear to her heart. The gender-swapped universe of Fionna and Cake is far more than just a Rule 63 version of the Adventure Time universe, these are fully fleshed out characters with their own unique perspective on the world of Ooo. Allegri's Fionna is a fierce, independent teenage girl who likes to punch stuff and she's pretty awesome. But wrapped in this gleeful energy and silly misadventure is a series of simple beauty, Allegri's cartooning inspired and full of love and life. Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake is a wonderful comic in every aspect, delightful, whimsical, funny, and elegant.

For more Adventure Time reviews, click here.

Best Non-Fiction Graphic Novel of 2013
March Book 1 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

Congressman John Lewis has had a unique perspective on American history. He was on the front lines of the non-violent Civil Rights movement in the deep south. He was there at the sit-ins and the student demonstrations, even directly working with Martin Luther King. He and his compatriots received verbal and physical abuse, facing down the very weight of history and the ingrained racist culture of oppression. March is John Lewis's autobiography of his time and experience on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. Far from rote hagiography, Aydin and Powell mold Lewis's revelatory narrative into a compelling and uplifting warts-and-all chronicle, a celebration of the indomitably of the human spirit, an exploration at once deeply personal and broadly sociohistorical. The arc of Lewis's life story extends all the way through Barack Obama's historic inauguration, which acts as the framing device of the book. Wonderfully structured, engaging, and beautifully produced, March is a vital documentary of the Civil Rights era, told by one of the most important figures of that time.

Best One-Shot of 2013
Godland Finale by Joe Casey & Tom Scioli (Image)

I know it's a bit of a cheat to call the Godland Finale a one-shot, but Godland is a series that simply defies, and as much as the Finale was the 37th issue of Joe Casey and Tom Scioli's unparalleled work, it is also a kind of a self-contained graphic novella that masterfully condenses all the epic sci-fi weirdness Casey & Scioli had been producing for nearly a decade. At this point, trying to describe the plot of Godland is like trying to collect a cup of dark matter. Imagine Kirby-Jadorowsky-Moebius cosmology siphoned through a massive temporal LSD trip and you might scratch the surface. Or not. In any event, Godland is one of those singular creative accomplishments from a creative team working at the height of their collaborative powers, a cosmic comic-comic that shatters whatever reductive labels you try to apply and becomes simply The Casey-Scioli Experience. Godland is an explosion of art and uninhibited creativity, the kind you can only get from comics, a grand visual narrative experience and experiment so unlike anything else you've ever read.

Best Single Issue of 2013
Hawkeye 11 by Matt Fraction & David Aja (Marvel)
Hawkeye from the team of Matt Fraction, David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth (with stunning assists from a murderer's row of  Javier Pulido, Fransesco Francavilla, and comics' most promising new talent Annie Wu) was once again the best superhero comic of the year. Superhero in air quotes, if you will, because Hawkeye is floating along in its own post-non-post-superhero genre landscape. No costumes, no epic superhero battles, "just" the complicated civilian lives of both Hawkeyes, Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, both lost in their own individual ways, trying to find direction, to find themselves against a backdrop of the far-from-easy Life Superheroic. Clint, always beat up and never quite healing, has an open wound he is filling with violence and alcohol and isolation. Kate, just barely an adult, trying to forge her own identity despite the increasing pressures of adulthood and quasi-superherodom. And all set against the backdrop of the pressures of Life in the Big City, be it Brooklyn or Los Angeles. But especially Brooklyn.

By the time issue 11 came out, Barton's life has come crashing violently down around his civilian identity. An innocent man is dead, and issue 11 deals with that revelation. What follows is a hard-boiled private detective story, complete with a detailed investigation and a femme fatale - except that it is told from the perspective of a side character, the mutt known affectionately as Pizza Dog. Fraction and Aja explore Pizza Dog's world through his senses, brilliantly using the natural pictographic language of comics in wholly inventive ways. Imagine of Chris Ware made a mainstream comic tangentially featuring superheroes, and that is Hawkeye 11. Not just a bold storytelling experiment, the creators utilize the issue to expand their established story and plumb the universal depth of the heart, a reflection on loss, a quest for truth. Aja and colorist Hollingsworth's work here is nothing short of revolutionary and a perfect encapsulation of the formula that makes Hawkeye the remarkable ongoing work that it is.

Best Short Story of 2013
"Translated from the Japanese" by Adrian Tomine, from Optic Nerve 13 (Drawn & Quarterly)

The second story from the latest issue of Adrian Tomine's anthology Optic Nerve is the beautiful, evocative, mysterious, heartbreaking and frankly flawless visual tone poem "Translated from the Japanese." The first page is a letter written in Japanese, and what follows over the next eight story pages is that letter from a mother to her infant son, translated and illustrated by Tomine. Tomine doesn't literally illustrate the letter's contents but shows still-lifes from the visual perspective of the letter's author: a sign at a terminal, baggage on a conveyor, a run-down apartment complex; a cityscape, towers lost in the haze. The letter opens, describing vague details of family discord, an iceberg tip of a mountain of pain hidden beneath the waves. Tomine's descriptions (through the letter's author) are straight forward, yet vivid, powerfully accompanied by his consistently remarkable illustrations. Tomine's ability to build an expansive, detailed life and give us just hints at the depths involved in such a short space showcases a remarkable gift as a storyteller. This is not a translation of a real letter, but Tomine's translation of the terror of parenthood and the indescribably difficult paths family life can take. Tomine inhabits the mother's character, and we, as readers, inhabit her, too. Here, in just a few pages, Tomine gives us a snapshot of a whole human life, one we are intimately connected to. In "Translated," Tomine takes his place with the masters of contemporary literary cartooning.

Read my full review of Optic Nerve 13 here.

Creator of the Year: Gilbert Hernandez

The Creator of the Year is without exception, and indeed without peer, Gilbert Hernandez. Beto released two new OGNs this year: the latest entry in the Palomar/Movie line in Maria M, and his wonderful roman a clef and celebration of childhood, Marble Season. These two works alone would be sufficient to cement his place at the top, but Hernandez is one of the planet's most prolific cartoonists, and 2013 saw a treasure trove of material from the Love and Rockets cartoonist, including hardcovers of his previously serialized Julio's Day and Children of Palomar, a new issue of Love and Rockets with brother Jaime, and two great Fantagraphics books about Love and Rockets including the indispensable Companion. 2013 marks yet a new high-water mark for one of the planet's finest cartoonists and literary voices. Gilbert filled the void of singular marquis comics with no less than five stunning works, collectively casting its own literary shadow for subsequent generations to wonder at. Someday you can tell your grandchildren that you were alive when the Hernandez Brothers were creating comics, and when Gilbert owned 2013.

Read my full reviews of Marble Season here, Julio's Day here, and Love and Rockets New Stories 6 here, as well as my comprehensive Love and Rockets guide here.

Twenty Honorable Mentions for 2013

Adventure Time by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline & Braden Lamb (Boom!), Best of EC Artist Edition (IDW), Chew by John Layman & Rob Guillory (Image), The End of the Fucking World by Charles Forsman (Oily/Fantagraphics), FF by Matt Fraction and Allred, Allred & Allred (Marvel), Fury by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov (Marvel MAX), Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse), Infinity by Jonathan Hickman et al (Marvel), Johnny Hiro: Skills to Pay the Bills by Fred Chao (St. Martin's Press), Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham (Image), Nemo: Heart of Ice (League of Extraordinary Gentleman) by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill (Knockabout/Top Shelf), The Complete RASL by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books), Resident Alien: Suicide Blonde by Peter Hogan & Steve Parkhouse (Dark Horse), Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground by Darwyn Cooke (IDW), Satellite Sam by Matt Fraction & Howard Chaykin, Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky, Trillium by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo), Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis, Sarah Pichelli & David Marquez (Marvel), Wake Up, Percy Gloom! by Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics), and Young Avengers by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie (Marvel).

For the Full Index of All Reviews, Click Here.

Previous Best Of Lists: 2008, 2009, 2012

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