December 31, 2013 12:13pm PT by Borys Kit, Graeme McMillan
Heat Vision's Top Comics of 2013
2013 has been a strange 12 months for comics, all told. It's been a very good year for Image Comics, which has become the new House of Ideas, based on the breadth of its original content, and as non-corporate comics in general have become more mainstream. Other indie publishers like Oni Press, Top Shelf Productions and Boom! Studios have also enjoyed significant releases throughout the year, including The Mysterious Strangers, Bad Machinery, March, Crater XV and 3 Guns.
The Big Two, as Marvel and DC are called, have meanwhile continued to put out their event mini-series to varying degrees of success (A hero will die! Everything you know will change forever! Blah, blah and more blah!), all in an effort to stay relevant and keep up their market share.
There are so many comics published that it’s impossible to stay on top of everything, so Heat Vision isn't trying for a comprehensive list. But we hope it’s a relevant one, filled with books that have touched us.
(And one caveat: One notable exception from the list is Locke & Key, one the best of comics of the 21st century. The book just wrapped its final issue earlier this month and since we’ve been reading it in hardcover collections, we don’t get to this final story arc until it's published early in the new year.)
Now, on to the comics we liked in 2013:
Edgy indie artist Paul Pope goes all-ages with this graphic novel from First Second about a boy who, in a rite of passage, is sent by his father from atop his god-like world to a monster-besotted town called Acropolis to become a hero. His problems start when the town believes him to be a monster-killer and places him quickly on a pedestal, while the daughter of the town’s previous hero has her own designs. The book gets bonus points for the rad idea of having our wannabe hero wear T-shirts that give him the power of the animal that’s imprinted on them.
Boy crackles with energy like few comics this year and Pope’s art manages to exude a Jack Kirby-vibe in its gods and monsters yet marries a lithe and sinewy New York underground look. (And it already has already been optioned by Brad Pitt and his Plan B production company.)
Hawkeye continues to be one of Marvel’s best books and the one that carries the flag for comics as true art. In fact, we can’t believe Marvel even publishes a book this cool.
Written by Matt Fraction with art by David Aja and a few others, Hawkeye looks at what Avengers hero Clint Barton does in his off hours when he’s living in a New York neighborhood. This year, the book has played up his relationship with Kate Bishop, a young female Hawkeye he is supposed to be mentoring, did a Hurricane Sandy benefit issue and, in one of the most creative comics of the year, tackled a murder mystery from the point of view of Barton’s dog.
While Fraction is never better than when he’s on a solo book, the real hero here is Aja, whose layouts, storytelling and designs elevate the book far beyond its street level settings.
Zombo: You Smell of Crime and I'm the Deodorant!
There aren't many comics that can convincingly juggle jokes about Donald Trump, Voltron and Situationist leader Guy Debord with a story about an undead killing machine who really just wants to be loved, but Zombo -- a strip in British anthology series 2000 AD from creators Al Ewing and Henry Flint -- has always been a rare gem.
You Smell of Crime is the second collection of the strip, and it's where everything falls into place seemingly effortlessly as the story manages to take on superhero mythology, monster movies and Saturday morning programming while simultaneously working to deconstruct its lead character.
Imagine David Lynch and John Carpenter in their prime teaming up to make a superhero movie, and you're still not even close to how good Zombo is.
The Collected Brian K. Vaughan Comics Output of 2013
Saga, the science-fiction epic from Image Comics that former Lost writer (and now Under The Dome showrunner) Brian K. Vaughan creates each month with artist Fiona Staples, has gone from strength to strength in its second year, telling a space opera told on a human scale and offering up a reading experience unlike anything else in comics right now.
That alone would be an impressive enough achievement to land him on any Best Of list for the year, but he's also been busy with artist Marcos Martin, creating The Private Eye, a futuristic noir detective story that's only available online as part of an ongoing pay-what-you-want experiment. The two series share a compelling quality, a mastery of the medium and love of a good cliffhanger, but little else -- a sign of just how strong Vaughan is as a writer.
Afterlife with Archie
At first, it sounded like a jokey high concept that would run out of steam quickly -- mashing up the famously "all-American" Archie characters with the zombie genre? Surely that couldn't end well -- but Afterlife has turned out to be a surprisingly effective series so far, with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla managing to not only make the idea of an undead apocalypse fit into the Archie world as we knew it, but also bring some emotional heft to the whole thing (The first issue, which sees the origin of the zombie outbreak as being the result of good intentions gone horribly wrong, is surprisingly affecting).
Even for those unfamiliar with the Archie characters, there's a lot to love about the series' masterful pacing, playful attitude towards genre tropes and Francavilla's beautiful, evocative artwork. It was a series that, really, shouldn't have worked -- and it ended up being one of the best comics of the year.
Jeff Lemire’s End and Beginning
The year began with Jeff Lemire, an indie writer-artist who’s found a home at DC, ending his 40-issue run of Sweet Tooth (Vertigo), a post-apocalyptic story of a human-animal hybrid boy. The series itself shouldn’t have worked (how many post-apocalyptic stories can comics and books keep telling?) but Gus, the boy central to the story, won us over just as he did his hard-nosed companion, Jepperd. Lemire’s artwork, scratchy and, let’s face it, on the ugly side, was perfect for the series. And most amazingly, when most books, like TV shows, never know how to end on that right note, Lemire ended his story in an emotionally powerful and very sweet way.
And then he came back half a year later with Trillium (Vertigo), a sci-fi love story that combines a past, 1920s Amazon jungle setting with the far future in which mankind is imperiled. Lemire has been experimenting with form here, and the first issue could be read from both sides of the comic to the center, where our two protagonists, a World War One vet-turned-explorer and rebel scientist meet for the first time.
(Lemire also gets a bonus for his very solid Green Arrow writing, which paired with artist Andrea Sorrentino, have given fans the Green Arrow book they’ve been waiting for.)
The Fifth Beatle
It's a book that had been in the works for some time, but The Fifth Beatle (Dark Horse) -- a biography of sorts of Brian Epstein from writer Vivek J. Tiwary and artist Andrew C. Robinson, with additional art from Kyle Baker -- proved to be well worth the wait for fans of the Fab Four and good comics alike.
Tiwary injects new life into a familiar story by telling it from Epstein's point of view and treating the character as a particularly unreliable narrator, prone to memories overlapping with contemporary events and misreadings of situations impacting how the story plays out, while Robinson's art is practically worth the price of admission by itself, appearing both photo-realistic and cartoony and colorful in a way that perfectly encapsulates the changing world that Epstein inhabited -- and in some ways, created -- during his time managing the Beatles.
Heartbreaking, exhilarating and unexpected no matter your love of Beatles lore, Fifth Beatle is a complete triumph.
Reasons for Dragons
Sometimes the simplest stories are some of the best stories. Dragons, an Archaia graphic novel from writer Chris Northrop and artist Jeff Stokely, tells of a teen struggling to cope with his new stepfather who, after being dared by some bullies, enters an abandoned and supposedly haunted Renaissance Fair playground. There he meets an old man who believes himself to be a knight on a quest to slay a dragon. Think Super 8 meets The Fisher King.
The book is an easy read and the art is cartoony but detailed, and it’s a perfectly appropriate coming-of-age story with surprising depth.