by Jeffrey O. Gustafson
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)
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)
Best Comic Strip of 2013
A Softer World by Emily Horne & Joey Comeau
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)
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!)
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)
Best One-Shot of 2013
Godland Finale by Joe Casey & Tom Scioli (Image)
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
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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