December 31, 2014

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Scott's Favorite Comics of 2014

My favorite books of 2014 weren't ones that took me into new worlds. They were the books that changed the way that I look at the everyday world. Looking over this list, I think there are many ways to group these comics together into thematic chunks (the world as it is and the world as it could be, a macro and a micro view of existence, reality versus surrealism.) Instead of doing that, I’m just doing a simple list and I’ll let you all psychoanalyze my choices for me. But even looking at how they’re grouped here, you can start to see my list pair off into groups that I’m finding fascinating. The everyday existence of This One Summer and The Hospital Suite contrast nicely with the earthiness micro subrealities of Beautiful Darkness and Ant Colony. The skewed views of childhood in Nijagaraha Holograph and Bumperhead are very different from the fairytale-like worlds of Basewood and Sock Monkey. And maybe that’s why I have my top 10 and then another group of 10 honorable mentions. I don’t know if those honorable mentions can be grouped together like my top 10 (although I’m disappointed that I never got to do a piece on how Age of Licence and Truth is Fragmentary dialogue with each other.)

And just to let you know, I’m not so much writing reviews of these comics but I’m writing about the impression they’ve left on me,most of these months after I first read the comic. Some of these books I can’t remember much more than the thrill that I had in reading them. But that’s what’s stuck with me among the thousands of pages of comics that I’ve read in the last year.

And now, onto the list.

  1. This One Summer-- I read this book at the perfect time this year, while I was on my own summer vacation, far from home. Reading about two young girls on their summer vacation have colored the way I look at my vacation this summer. And it was a great vacation. Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki’s wonderful book shows us that no matter how old you are, there’s always a bit more growing up you can do. It's probably easy to categorize this as a "girl's" book but I got caught up in a story of these people who are older than children but not quite teenages yet. We've all experienced that thrilling and/or scary transition in life.

  1. Hospital Suite-- John Porcellino’s book is one that stays with you long after you’ve read it. One of the harder books of the year to get through, Porcellino pulls you into his illnesses, until you’re reading them and seeing how things in your own life are reflected in his sicknesses. Porcellino's simple artwork makes reader identification too easy until you're recounting your own forms of OCD while reading about his.

  1. Beautiful Darkness-- The title may be the best critique of this story-- beautiful darkness. It looks like it should be a children’s story of gnomes in the wood but as soon as you realize these gnomes are creating their society around the body of a dead girl, the story by Fabien Vehlmann and the art team of Kerascoet becomes one of the most sinisterly subversive books of the year. One of the loveliest looking books of the year and one of the most disturbing books too.

  1. Ant Colony-- Michael Deforge’s geometrically shaped ants were some of the most captivating creatures in comics this year. It would be easy to add A Body Beneath or Lose #6 to this list but Ant Colony as a whole was some of the most intricate cartooning in print this year. It’s the book that opened up the world of Deforge to me as his artwork is both grotesque and beautiful. How he constructs his images still don’t make complete sense to me but the way they coalesce into complete ideas just rocked my world this year.

  1. Basewood-- A lovely collection of Alec Longstreth’s minicomic, Basewood features the loveliest presentation of snow in a comic book this year. I got to pick this up from Longstreth at CAKE this year but only read it a month or two ago. This story about a lost and amnesiac man trapped in a fantasy world was full of wonderful cartooning. And that snow... That's really the thing I remember about the book because Longstreth drew the snowflakes as these distinct blobs that just filled the panels and you had to look beyond the snow to see what has happening with the characters. It was such a lovely way to slow down time in his story.

  1. Sock Monkey Treasury-- I feel like I discovered Tony Millionaire about 15 years later than I should have. His wonderful drawings evoke such great emotion out of these toys. The drawings are so joyful and simultaneously so sad. That's what I remember most when I really first looked at his stuff, projected up on a screen during his panel at CAKE. The simpleness of his characters, old and unsophisticated stuffed toys, tell stories in these lusciously illustrated worlds. There's just so much emotion that's conveyed through his mark making, making his artwork a true experience.

  1. Nijigaharo Holograph-- It feels like we’ve been waiting a long time for new Inio Asano and while Nijagaraho Holograph is so different from his past work, it was a revelation to see him work in the suspense/horror genre. His past work fell into the Bryan Lee O'Malley camp but this book is so much darker, as the world seems like a truly terrifying place for children. Even children themselves become mysterious and terrifying.

  1. Bumperhead-- I just feel that everyone overlooks Gilbert Hernandez nowadays. He may not be telling the same kind of universal stories that Jaime is but Gilbert is still the more fascinating cartoonist of the two. Like Tony Millionaire, there's something thrilling about the way that Gilbert lays lines down on the page. Gilbert lulls you into his stories with exquisitely smooth storytelling and the. He picks his moments to dazzle you with electric images and events.

  1. Wicked Chicken Queen-- I still don’t know quite what to make of Sam Alden’s story but his surreal pencil drawings in this fable continue to haunt me. It’s such a strange and odd story but his artwork here, so different than in his book It Never Happened Again, is so malleable and plump. I loved that it was mostly reproduced from his pencil because it gave the work an incomplete-yet-as-complete-as-it-needed-to-be feel.

  1. The Wrenchies-- I love Farel Dalrymple artwork, the sketchy and scratchy way that he creates his drawings. The Wrenchies was a story that moved forward and then bent back on itself, multiple times, as it just peeled away the labors. It’s the most Morrisonian book this year written by someone not born on the other side of the Atlantic as Dalrymple dives into fiction and metafiction with one of his characters quite literally where a fiction suit. And then there’s the kid with Cyclop’s visor. I love that kid. I want to be that kid.

And to cheat a bit, here are my honorable mentions,complete with two word reactions to them:

  • Andre The Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown-- Disarmingly revealing.
  • Hip Hop Family Tree V2 by Ed Piskor-- Kirby/Liefeldian beats.
  • Satellite Sam Volume 2 by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin-- Grown up.
  • The Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez-- Master class.
  • Hellboy In Hell V1 by Mike Mignola-- Surreal shadows.
  • Ms Marvel V1 by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona-- Subversively inclusive.
  • Pretty Deadly V1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios-- High-plains poetry.
  • Age of License by Lucy Knisely-- Continentally delightful.
  • Truth Is Fragmentary by Gabrielle Bell-- Self involved (but in a good way.)
  • Celebrated Summer by Charles Forsman- Nostalgically trippy.

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Rob's Favorites of All the Rest from 2014

This is the point where I wake up on the panel of page 120, and realize that I have a chance to improve my life and not be at the end of 2014 already, right? No? Okay, then.

Welcome to my final favorites list for 2014, where I talk about the comics I read that weren't speculative or superheroes. There's a ton of material that falls into this category, of course, and it's also the one that has the strongest ties to my SPX roots, as this is where the bulk of the mini comics and micro-presses are to be found, because my taste there runs to autobiographical stories, non-fiction, and other slice of life style works.

Remember, of course, that favorite does not mean best. Best implies objectivity, and putting together these end of year lists is the height of subjectivity. Heck, even after I write them, there's wondering if maybe I should have added or subtracted to them! It's also a lot of hard choices--leaving off Cat Person by Seo Kim was extremely difficult, for example, as was deciding that The Fade Out was going to be faded out of the final selections.

I read a lot of great comics every year, and I thank all of you, writers, artists, and publishers for what you do each and every day, often for little to no pay whatsoever, or at rates that break down to very small numbers when you look at them from an hourly perspective. Without you, I wouldn't be able to enjoy so much great material every year!

Before this gets too sentimental, let's look at what I named as my favorites for this category. One final note: Unlike some of the others, most of these got a review from me, so I'm not quite as wordy this time around. Maybe that's better, actually, LOL! Enjoy!

The Anthropologists (Sparkplug) by Whit Taylor
Taking a serious, introspective look at a part of her life through a semi-autobiographical lens, our own Whit Taylor shows that her skills as a creator keep leveling up every year. This story about visiting indigenous people in Australia and feeling uncomfortable, especially with regards to how others think of them, may be set in another country but has implications for those of us in the United States. Wren's thoughts about her own identity after looking at that of someone else is really something to watch, and the way in which she clashes with her classmate, not openly, but in contrasting reactions and actions, shows how great the disconnects can be between people who are alike on the surface. Focused squarely on the people--Whit's not quite to the point where she can make Australia come alive, but that isn't the point here, anyway--this is a very deep mini about wondering what you're doing with your life, a theme that I can certainly relate to--and I bet you, can, too.

Down to the Sea Again (Self-Published) by Lucy Bellwood
Lucy's spent a lot of time on boats, and she even has an educational mini-comic series about all things nautical. When she had the chance to be part of a new voyage for an old whaling ship, she hired a boat to take her around Cape Horn  flew to Boston, experienced some of the cultural differences between the East and West Coasts, and got to live out a dream assignment that might just be a once in a lifetime experience. This mini-comic chronicles Lucy's journey, in extremely detailed illustrations that feature some of her strongest work as an artist. Even if you aren't much for boats (hell, I can't even swim), you'll be drawn in (so to speak) by Bellwood's enthusiasm, her accounting of not just the time on the boat, but the overall experience as well, and some really high-quality mini-comic work.

Dragon's Breath and Other Stories (2D Cloud) by Mari Naomi
For several years now, Mari has been sharing parts of her life online at various places, and periodically in anthologies as well. This graphic memoir collects a bunch of them together for the first time, working roughly chronologically through her life, from childhood memories mixed with adult knowledge (in the title story, about her kindly but horribly racist grandfather) to watching some of her friends meet tragic ends to meeting an marrying her husband. Mari is absolutely unflinching, which is why she's such a good memoirist, so we get to see her good and bad sides, favors and flaws. She's lived a really exciting life where taking the safe route often wasn't even considered. The style varies from more traditional cartoon work to more experimental, free-flowing moments, and because these are from different years, some of the work changes in ability from page to page. It's interesting to watch Mari's versions of herself on the page, too, as she captures different looks and styles as her life walks across the 80s, 90s, and beyond. This was one of two outstanding memoirs I read in 2014, the other appearing on the list a few more entries down.

Little Nemo Dream Another Dream (Locust Moon) by Just About Everyone
This tribute book by comic book store/publisher Locust Moon was part of a successful Kickstarter, and it's no wonder, when you look at the talent exploding from its oversize pages. Besides featuring some of my favorite creators, like Box Brown, Rafter Roberts, and Nate Powell, it's got superstars like J.H. Williams III, P. Craig Russell, and even folks who don't use initials in their name! Carla Speed McNeil, Peter Bagge, Jamie Tanner--I could go on and on, but you get the idea. While sticking closely to the theme, there are amazing and wide ranging takes, some of which include the creators' own characters. Innovative page work abounds, and while the price is prohibitive, it was simply too good to not put in on my favorites lists. (Did I mention Mike Allred and Farel Dalrymple yet?)

Magic Whistle 14 (Alternative Comics) by Sam Henderson
Sam is one of two criminally underrated creators on this list, and at least in Sam's case, I think some of that has to do with his style, namely taking those inane cartoons you tend to skip in literary magazines and turning them on their ear. With a deceptively simple style and a willingness to go as lowbrow as necessary to hit the joke, Henderson can be witty, crude, and silly--often all at the same time. While often at his best when doing something short (I own a one-panel gag where Sam draws Mr. Miracle to explain he has 4th World Problems), his long-form comics show that he's at home with running gags as well. There are dick jokes, a recurring theme of biting pieces off people's asses, and there's quite a bit of social commentary lurking about in Sam's brain that he puts on the page on a regular basis. This is a different end of the raw comics spectrum, kind of a bridge between, say, Mad Magazine and Johnny Ryan. It's easily to look past it, but that would be a mistake. Especially since sometimes, it's just fun to kick back and laugh at things that are woefully wrong and yet so very right.

The Nib (via Medium, at edited by Matt Bors and featuring Bors, Erika Moen, Rich Stevens, Jen Sorensen, Tom Tomorrow, and Many Others
When Google killed its best feature (Reader), my RSS use went into a tailspin, and I missed out on a lot of great webcomics that I liked to read, particularly ones with a political bent. Enter Matt Bors, who began editing a feature of the Twitter spin-off Medium called The Nib, which features a regular rotation of creators, such as Bors himself and one of the all-time best political cartoonists, Tom Tomorrow and This Modern World. There were plenty of other great creators in the initial wave, like Jen Sorensen on the political side and Erika Moen giving us the skinny on sex stuff with Oh Joy Sex Toy. Rich Stevens's Diesel Sweeties gave it a long-time heavy hitter, too. Best of all, Matt set it up so that we got daily e-mails so I didn't have to run around trying to find the content I was looking for. Amazing! The feature quickly gained steam and popularity (so many people I know read The Nib on a regular basis) and started adding guest features, which have included a murder's row of indie creators. I don't like all of his choices, of course--there's one that's completely offensive and bigoted that really annoys me--but that's to be expected. Political cartooning in corporate newspapers is pretty much down the shitter, but the web keeps it alive, and The Nib is the best place to find it, along with quirky tales, personal accounts, and even a live-drawing of a sailing race. If by some chance you aren't reading The Nib, make sure you check it, and get on the mailing list.

Noah Van Sciver's Minis (2D Cloud, Oily, and Self-Published) by Noah Van Sciver
What's better than a year with a Noah Van Sciver mini? A year with three Noah Van Sciver minis! Opening with The Lizard Laughed, a story of a deadbeat dad and the son who's come to kill him, a month-long look at Noah's personal life in the middle, and a set of stories based off daily sketchbook drawings to top it all off was a perfect way to whet my appetite for 2015, when we get a new long-form work from Noah. I've written extensively (and Erica even once chipped in a rare review) about Noah over the life of Panel Patter, and everything I like about him holds true here. He's one of the best at doing one-man anthology work, and if you think of these as a version of Blammo (which was collected by Ad House this year, too!), it makes up for not getting one this year. Noah is amazing at making unpleasant people compelling, with his distinctive, line-heavy work giving them a slight sense of unease that's heightened at just the right moments, such as the end of Lizard Laughed. The sketchbook includes a fun werewolf tale that'a a mini-within-a-mini, and seeing how Noah structures his days--and forms a relationship--was a welcome and rare look into his personal life in comics form. One of my favorite creators working right now, any of these would be a great way for you to introduce yourself to an extremely underrated talent.

Old-Timey Hockey Tales 2 (Self-Published) by Rob Ullman
While Rob might be best known for his great drawings of attractive women, he's also a total sports nut with a fondness for the teams from my old home town (and thus also close to my heart), Pittsburgh. Rob's knowledge of hockey is particularly strong, and he shows it in this long-awaited mini that features stories from hockey's wide history. Ullman varies his style, working in black and white as well as color, being rougher or looser depending on the story and making a one-man anthology have a nice variety while still being of amazing quality and full of the slick, thick inks that is Rob's hallmark. This isn't going to be a favorite for everyone, but if you like hockey at all, man, this is one you need to pick up yesterday.

Subcultures Anthology (Ninth Art Press) edited by Whit Taylor and featuring Taylor, Box Brown, Bonesteel, Noah Van Sciver, Liz Prince, Cara Bean, Rob Kirby, and Many Others
Panel Patter contributor Whit Taylor edits a high-quality set of stories that look at groups of people who are marginalized by their interests (though sometimes that's justified). I was very impressed with the quality of this anthology, which features a heavy focus on mini-comics creators, as I found myself wanting to read every entry carefully, not just skimming, as can happen in similar level works. There's a really nice sense of pacing, too, with longer stories mixing with the short, one-page pieces, and serious, more personal takes not being all jammed together. Rob Kirby mentioned anthologies having "batting averages" which is similar to my ratio comments, and we both agreed this one scores highly on our scales of quality for anthologies. Whether it's discussing how friends can move into their own subcultures or dissing Juggaloes (you really haven't lived until you see Noah's take on those idiots), this extensive look at the ways in which we classify ourselves is fascinating, compelling, and highly recommended.

Three (Image) Kieron Gillen, Ryan Kelly, and Jordie Bellaire
This stick in the eye to Frank Miller really struck me, because honestly, how often do you see a mini-series form Image that's historical fiction, not fictionalized history? A look at the dark side of the often lionized Spartans (who were a model for Hitler for God's sake, why do people idolize them?), this series has three Helot slaves end up taking on the wrath of all of Spartan by a series after they push things a bit too far for their masters' liking. Now they're on the run while their actions, which punch a hole in the pride and invincibility of the Spartans, spark a ripple of reactions throughout the land with deadly consequences. It's a story where the ending is inevitable but the getting there is amazing. Ryan Kelly turns in some of his best-ever art for this one, using his hyper-detailed facial work to really drive home the sneers and cutting remarks, while his overall lines bring bloody accuracy and sheer violence, along with just how petty these guys really were. In some ways, the art, too, is anti-Miller, in its ability to show truth instead of abstracting lines. With Jordie Bellaire coloring it--including dripping red blood randomly across multiple pages--this was a great read for any one who loves classical civs--or just a damned good story.

Tomboy (Zest) by Liz Prince
The other outstanding graphic memoir from this year was this one, as another unflinching creator, Liz Prince spoke frankly about growing up decidedly heterosexual and yet also rejecting the tropes and stereotypes that many girls of our generation were forced to endure. I admit it was a bit hard to read about her mom being supportive of her rejection of gender roles while I was screamed at for preferring Strawberry Shortcake to socket wrenches and told how wrong anything non-masculine was for me. But that didn't stop me from appreciating her struggle, the reactions of those around her (particularly at school), and how discovering zines really helped change her perspective of what it might mean to be a young woman. Prince uses some great recurring themes to prove her point, along with iconic clothing to help dictate time period. Her linework gets things across without going into lavish detail, and while nothing can be remembered perfectly, Liz recreates this part of her life and how it's impacted on her adulthood with honesty and care, even for those who might not deserve it. I wish I'd had a book like this to read when I was a young person, it might have saved me from a decade plus of trying to find out who I really am, and knowing I wasn't alone in this meant a lot to me personally, even now. A loving mix of seriousness and sarcasm, like all of Liz's work, this was an amazing book I was so very happy to read.

Velvet (Image) by Ed Bubaker and Steve Epting
I am an unrepentant fan of James Bond and similar stories (I even used to read Tom Clancy books), so it's no surprise that this story, in which the unnoticed department secretary turns out to be a badass former agent (which makes so much sense I can't believe we haven't seen this before) who smells a rat and ends up getting framed and has to go into the wind to try and clear her name--and stop the real criminal at the same time. This is set as a period piece, too, which makes it even better, as Cold War paranoia is always the best setting for spy flicks--it's part of why Bond has lost a step in these new movies. There's some great plotting, of course, from Ed, and I like that he makes Velvet a very human character, who makes mistakes but is still way ahead of her compatriots. She's not invincible, which gives a nice sense of danger, but at the same time, as male spies die around her, we don't feel like it's just because she'a a woman. There's even a nice twist on the "falling for the girl" trope, too. Meanwhile Epting just draws the hell out of this one, with very realistic, slick art. It doesn't feel photo-references, but we also could picture this happening outside our door, if we wanted to die in an accidental hail of bullets, that is. A great package, and I can't wait for more in 2015.

Honorable Mentions to: Eat that Toast (Czap Books) by Matt Czap, a series of short, funny pieces that are absurd and often really funny, It'll Never Happen Again (Uncivilized Books) by Sam Alden, two stories that show off Alden's artistic abilities and the craft of pencil-only comics, and Tally Marks (Monkeybrain) by Natalie Nourigat, the artist's sketchbooks while on an extended trip to Europe.

December 30, 2014

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Rob's Favorite Speculative Stories for 2014

Good Grief! It's December 30th! Maybe I could move to Mars, where I'd have over 600 days to fret over whether I'd gotten to all the amazing comics that featured themes of speculative fiction.

Or I could just accept that there's only so many comics I can read in a year, and at some point, you have to accept that you won't be one of the cool kids putting Wrenchies on your 2014 list. (In my defense, I have to prioritize my reading for Panel Patter, and when Scott covered the book for us, it meant it was no longer at the top of the pile. I am looking forward to catching up to it in 2015, however, as I love Farel's work!)

So this is one of the revamped lists. In the past, I had a single list for horror and then a second list for general indie books that weren't about superheroes. This year, I've moved away from the form of comic and concentrated on the genre of comic. Now I could easily have made 3 lists--one for horror, one for sci-fi, and one for fantasy, but as Erica kindly pointed out to me, listing 30 favorites hardly makes it seem like there's anything special about them. So I spent entirely too much time agonizing, and put this list of 15 together instead. 

Understand this year was an embarrassment of riches when it comes to comics with speculative themes. Horror anthologies abounded, with Dark Horse's Creepy and Eerie, Rachel Deering's epic In the Dark, and even a Boston comics collective putting together great, short horror that I want to recognize here but didn't quite make the final cuts. We had not just one but two Godzilla series from IDW coming out at the same time. Pretty Deadly intrigued us with gorgeous art and a complex story. I could practically have made a list just of speculative webcomics, and in the end, two made the final cut. Thunderbird and All Night were also very, very good, but as I said above, I had to make hard decisions. The competition was so tight, John Bynre's surprisingly good Star Trek photo comics couldn't crack a spot, nor was the intrigue of Letter 44 or the all-ages fun of Joey Weiser's Mermin (both from Oni). All of those are titles I'd easily recommend, but when the dust cleared, the 15 below are those that just stuck with me all year and wouldn't let go.

These were my 15 favorite speculative fiction comics in 2014, with a few words on each as they appear in alphabetical order:

Adventure Time and Its Spin-Off Books (BOOM!) Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb, Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover, Wook Jin Clark, Jim Rugg, and Others
While Finn and Jake might have preferred hanging out in the Superhero category, I placed the gang from the land of Ooo here, because at heart it's a world filled with speculative elements, especially fantasy. I'm a big fan of the cartoon and I've followed the comics since they started. This past year marked an all-time high for the BOOM! adaptations, including the zine issue and the 25th issue, both of which featured some great mini-comics creators like Liz Prince, Carey Pietsch, and Jeffrey Brown. It culminated in a "final" issue for the North/Paroline/Lamb team, which brought back all of the main characters and an insane, digressive plot that was a hallmark of North's scripting. Limited series in 2014 included the batshit insane Flip Side from Tobin/Coover/Clark, where everything became mixed up thanks to a questing mistake from Finn and Jake, and a showcase for side characters in the Banana Guard Academy. 

All of these series recognized the fun, gag-filled essence of the show, with a touch of heartfelt meaning thrown in, and they played the characters perfectly, especially the Ice King, who is my favorite character. Visually, Paroline and Lamb set the tone and everyone else followed. Their Ooo looked very much like the show, but also gave the characters freedom to be themselves, while always ensuring the visuals set up (or finished) North's gags. The same was true for Clark, who really had fun with Jake, and the other creators, whether they did just a few pages or longer arcs.

I can't imagine anyone with a sense of fun not liking Adventure Time. You don't even have to really know the show to love the comics. You just have to like keeping a sense of wonder and a love of the absurd. Check out BOOM's adaptations if you haven't yet!

Bodies (Vertigo) Si Spencer, Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Tula Lotay, Meghan Hetrick, and Lee Loughridge
What's more fun than just science fiction or just a mystery? A science fiction mystery! That's especially true when the murder victims appear to be slipping across the time stream from present-day Britain to its Jack the Ripper moments to the Blitz and into the future. With each era's police force baffled and looking for clues (while being blocked by varying obstacles depending on the conventions of the time), the result is something that several creators can try, but very few are able to pull of. Spencer nails this, creating interesting characters for each time period and allowing various artists to play to their strengths, rather than look for one who can do it all. I rarely read Vertigo books these days but this one is a book I kept track of month to month, and is going to be amazing to re-read in trade and watch all the pieces get put together. It's no mystery that this one is great science fiction!

Bold Riley (Northwest Press) Leia Weathington, Jonathan Dalton, and Zack Giallongo
The adventures of Bold Riley continue, as she works to overcome her sorrow at the loss of her lover in the events of the first trade, encountering talking bones that drink almost as much booze as she does and a magical weaver who has some thoughts on Riley's future as this sword and sorcery tale that features a female character going about, Conan-style across a world full of magic, adventure, death--and really pretty women for the heroine (although there's less of that so far this year). Weathington is great at taking what's amazing about the old pulp stories of Robert E. Howard and others and making them something that's far more inclusive. I've written a lot about how good this series is, and I look forward to the rest of the second arc in 2015.

Copperhead (Image) Jay Faerber, Scott Godlewski, and Ron Riley
Space Western! Yay! A new sheriff is in town, and she's not playing nice with the status quo, pushing a passed-over deputy to work harder, going right into places of power, and trying to track down a killer who just might also be the same being that saved her son when she was otherwise occupied. It's easy to see the Western influences Faerber works into the mix, but there's a feeling of modernity, not the least of which is that the Sheriff is a woman and there's no old-fashioned dialogue or lengthy set-up. Things happen fast and furious, and Godlewski's easily able to make the world feel alien and yet have a touch of the Wild West, in the way he portrays a criminal family or a drunken doctor. The creatures are nice, varied, and yet humanoid, as this ongoing caught fire for me right away--and is well worth catching up on now, while it's still early yet.

Doctors (Fantagraphics) Dash Shaw
A complicated process can go into the mind of a dead person and bring them back--for a price, of course, which goes past just money in this short science fiction piece by Dash Shaw that works in the longstanding tradition of cautionary tales about the unthinking push of technology. We follow a dual path as the machine's creator and one of its rescues slowly start to have their lives fall apart, culminating in tragedy. The story is very strong, and Shaw's pacing has the spiral start slowly, then build to its inevitable conclusion. It's a very creepy concept, to be sure as well. And that would have made it a good comic, but what puts it on this list is the innovative use of shifting color to dominate each page of the book, something our own A.J. McGuire will be discussing in an upcoming post in early 2015. I under-read from Fantagraphics this year, but this is one you shouldn't miss.

Eth's Skin (Self-Published at Sfe Monster and Kory Bing
The first of two webcomics on the list, this series features a gender ambiguous main character who fishes, is good friends with a mermaid who doesn't care about modesty (this may be the most times you'll ever see the term "mer-tits" without it being creepy or oversexualized), has friends who make bad deals with fairies, and as of the most recent pages, a skin of a selkie they'd rather not own. Written with extremely playful (and sometimes snarky dialogue), Sfe draws us piece by piece into Eth's world, its relation to magic, and the fact that life is about to become increasingly complicated for the main character. The pages are laid out giving a strong sense of setting without overdoing the details, and the figure work is top-notch, creating Eth and their companions as distinctive figures that are instantly recognizable on the page. Sfe's style is similar to CCS, but has a stronger emphasis on grey tones. I also love Sfe's framing work on the panels and larger pages. These characters move, live, and breathe across the screen, click by click. Bing inks this softly, giving the whole thing a sense of whimsy because it's not filled with sharp lines or over-dramatic blacks. Highly recommended for fantasy fans who need a new webcomic or are looking to expand in that genre of comics.

Fatale (Image) Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
The Brubaker and Phillips team has been working together for so many years right now, that it's actually a bit odd when I don't see both names together, like re-reading Marvel Zombies (the first, good one) or enjoying Velvet when it comes out. Fatale was a lovely blending of horror and gore with bullets and blood, as the main character brought woe to any man who fell under her literal spell. With Brubaker's spot-on plotting and ability to make you want to read about really shitty people and Philips' linework knowing just what to reveal--and when to conceal--when the horror hit the fan, this was a joy to read issue by issue and as a whole. It was a great series, and stacks up as one of my favorite collaborations between the pair.

Grindhouse (Dark Horse) Alex de Campi, Simon Fraser, R.M. Guera, 
Gary Erskine, and Others
The drive-in is translated to the printed page, as Alex de Campi draws on her impressive knowledge of the grindhouse genre (which she points out was ironically far more progressive than current movie-makers and is unfairly maligned in this regard) to create a mini-anthology series where each story is two issues long. That allows her to vary the story to match the artist involved and gives her no room to play, so each issue is filled to the brim with action and characters who make up in broad strokes for what they may lack in depth. The highlight here is the two-part prison ship story (which came in out singles in 2013, but was collected in trade in 2014) where a series of bodily (and racially) diverse woman who are locked up at the hands of a sadistic warden finally decide they've had enough and take over. The art, like the stories, is gleefully over-the-top but never falls into exploitation, even when drawing naked folks, and when men act like pigs, they tend to get theirs in the end. It's a lot of fun for horror fans and anyone excited about Bitch Planet should make sure they go back and look for the two-trade set and the new ongoing mini-series.

Lumberjanes (BOOM!) Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Maarta Laiho
This breakout hit from BOOM!'s BOOM BOX line opens with five young girl campers in the woods fighting 3-eyed foxes and making Little Red Riding Hood jokes while beating the creatures back and trying to sneak back into camp, where their house leader isn't pleased but the camp head finds promise in the plucky kids. So did everyone who read this comic, taking a mini-series and turning it into an ongoing that founds girl comic readers all over donning Lumberjanes badges and finding inspiration in badly-needed positive character who look just like them. The art is outstanding, too, looking a bit like animation, with the backgrounds muted and the main characters taking center stage. Each girl has visual clues that make them easy to spot in any scene, ranging from size to hats to hairstyle, and the adventures they get in aren't just limited to the great outdoors, either, as caves and other secrets await.

While I love that this one has a great premise for young, female readers, I also appreciate that it's got a story line that anyone can follow as long as they have a sense of fun. The girls each get their own personality and quirks, which often are just the right thing for them in a jam, and the references to stuff like Indiana Jones are great for the parents (and older non-parents) reading along. The one character's "What the Junk?" catch phrase kinda drives me nuts, but watching poor Jen, their guardian, try to keep up gives them a solid straight "man" in the girl-power comic that's highly recommended.

Madame Frankenstein (Image) Jamie S. Rich and Megan Levens
My classic monster itch was scratched nicely by this story from a favorite creator (Jamie) and a new favorite creator (Megan), as they combined for what I think is best called F. Scott Fitzgerald's Frankenstein. An inventor from a poor family, Vincent, decides to prove his superiority by bringing the dead to life in the form of a young woman he loved. His desperation to be proved right and get one up on all those who looked down on him drive his madness, which leads to tragedy, as this story heads towards an explosive climax. An amazing example of a period piece, Levens depicts the Jazz Age in all its glory (not sure that's the right word, guess it depends on how well you like the 1920s), using techniques from manga, great control of black and white swaths of "color." and panel construction that heightens the drama and periodically echoes the Karloff-headed movies. Meanwhile, Jamie writes his usual solid dialogue for a horror story that's both terrifying and tragic.

Meteor Men (Oni) Jeff Parker, Sandy Jarrell, and Kevin Volo
Man, 2014 was a kick-ass year for Jeff Parker. In addition to keeping the Batman 66 ship steady, he also took Aquaman off the brink of drowning in its own angst, flashed his pulp muscles for Dynamite on Flash Gordon, and all of that wasn't even his best achievement of 2014, which is Meteor Men. James really did an amazing job reviewing this one for us, and I already covered it as part of the 2014 Gift Guide, but I can't stress enough how well-constructed this graphic novel is. Working with 
line artist Sandy Jarrell and color artist Kevin Volo, Jeff brings us a young man who gets caught up in something far larger than he--or really, anyone else on Earth--can handle. Aliens have arrived, and they may be more forceful and aggressive than anything we've ever encountered before. Mixing in themes from all the first encounter stories that have come before, Jeff takes parts from them like he's mining Marvel Comics for old continuity to spark his X-Men: First Class or Agents of Atlas series. It a trick you kinda have to have written for the Big Two to fully manage, I think. 

In the end, while Jarrell and Volo create a world that feels so much like ours and yet aliens that are totally apart from it, Jeff slams the reader face-first with a dramatic decision that closes the book and makes you think long, long after reading. I'm still debating it, even now, months later. This is everything that creator-owned comics can be, and was one of my favorite comics of 2014. I can't recommend it enough.

Oh Human Star (Self-Published at Blue Delliquanti
A genius robotics tech has a complicated relationship with his gay lover, and when they're on the cusp of a breakthrough, he's dead. Flash forward 16 years, and he's resurrected in a robot body, only to find that his former lover and partner has re-created him--in the form of a young, female robot. What does it all mean? Why is the inventor back now, and how do they work out the complicated nature of the new dynamics? It's a great, original premise that uses queer characters but doesn't make them feel shoe-horned. Their lives (and new lives) feel very organic (pardon the pun), the history between them comes out between scenes set in the current day, and the coloring--going from blue to burnt orange. Blue's linework is really slick, with Alastir (the robot) looking a bit angular even when he's human and his lover more rounded, giving them a nice contrast. Her world is detailed when it needs to be, but fades out if the focus needs to go on the characters. Nice, thick ink work creates bold lines for a very clean feel that's distinctive. It's a great series and well worth catching up on, either by buying a print copy or reading page by page online.

Umbral (Image) Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten
If someone asked me to name a work that was my textbook definition of the term "Dark Fantasy" I would hand them a copy of Umbral. This series from Wasteland collaborators Johnston and Mitten opens with horrendous, purple-black creatures that are taking over the medieval-level fantasy world of Rascal, and only her secret friendship with a royal clues her into the deadly danger all around her. Gathering a ragtag band of untrustworthy companions, she's not out to save the say so much as just keep alive. This one does so much right, from making sure that the reader can't trust their own eyes (while not feeling like they're playing false) to having a girl as the lead character to some of the most amazing and creepy monster designs I saw in a comic in 2014. The second volumes keeps up the pressure and pace, and this remains one of my favorite series--and a good bet to return to this list in 2015.

Wayward (Image) Jim Zub, Steve Cummings, Tamra Bonvillan, and Others
A child of Irish and Japanese parents moves to Japan to live with her mother and discovers she has powers that link her to mythological forces, some of which are out to kill her in this new and surprisingly gritty urban fantasy that really captured my attention from the first issue. Zub is of course an excellent plotter, and this is no exception, as he moves things along a break-neck past that's more analogous to Jack Kirby than Jonathan Hickman. Keeping pace is Steve Cummings, who uses the fact that he lives in Japan to give this series a very realistic feel, if the real world included girls who channel the power of cats, a teen boy who eats spirits, and toad men that look like extra from Super Mario Brothers. Despite the young age of the cast, it's very much an adult book, and while set in Japan, it's not OEL manga work, either. This is a fun, fast-paced fantasy whose first volume just wrapped up, making this a perfect time to jump on.

Wicked + Divine (Image) Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, and Matt Wilson
This is the story of why I try to give most comics at least an arc if I can before making my decision on them. Issue one of this series featuring millennials turning into gods for two brief years before they flame out again came out with a bang, and a lot of hype. I never really read the books that others did to have a history with the creative team, and after the first issue, which was clearly centered around and written for people who are nearly a generation behind me, I thought it was okay, but not amazing. But I'm a sucker for mythology, and so I kept going, because it wasn't like I thought it was shit or anything. Just not something I'd have given a 10/10 in my old Newsarama days. A lot of this had to do with Lucifer, a Bowie-like character who didn't give a damn about what others thought and lured a girl of similar age into the world of temporary gods. 

Then issue five happened, and all hell broke loose, as Gillen and McKelvie broke the heart of cosplayers everywhere and showed they weren't messing around. That fifth issue hit me like a punch to the comics-loving center of my brain, and when issue six hit, I read it immediately, as the story moved on and Lucifer's legacy continued. Not unlike Ms. Marvel, this is a book targeted to a younger generation of comics fans, but doesn't try to pander. It's very organic, and works so amazingly well.  Gillen's created a mystery around these figures and how they'll change life in an era where things are no longer dictated from the top down--if the younger generation steps in to take the power they hold. Meanwhile McKelvie's lines are so very slick, it's a really beautiful book to look at, even when there's nothing dramatic happening. My biggest surprise of 2014, and I can't wait to see what 2015 holds for this one. 

Wicked Chicken Queen (Retrofit) Sam Alden 
Man, Sam Alden quickly became someone I really dig as a creator, so it's no surprise to find him here on the Retrofit roster, with a story about a fantasy world where a group of creatures decided that a giant chicken should be their queen. This does not go very well, let me tell you. The pages often tell multiple parts of the ongoing story without the benefit of a panel break, everything is completely surreal, and the coloring, which you can see from the cover above, is just off-putting enough to give the entire thing the final touch of surreal weirdness that's right up my alley. This is the only mini-comic on the speculative fiction list, because managing to create a sci-fi or fantasy world isn't easy within the constraints of a mini, and the others I read that did so well were from other years and I didn't get to the Study Group stuff in time, sadly. This one shows exactly why mini-comics will always be a part of my reading routine and should be a part of yours.

Honorable Mention to: Amelia Cole (Monkeybrain/IDW) an amazing all-ages magical romp that has really shown the depth and potential its early issues promised, Black Science (Image) which features gorgeous work from Matteo Scalero, Starlight (Image), in which a man who was a Flash Gordon-like hero is called upon in his dotage to save a distant planet and proves Mark Millar can write well when he tries, and The Fuse (Image), which is a really cool police procedural set in space from Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood, 
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James' 2014 Favorites Part 2: A Series of Excellent Comics

Time for my year-end favorites! Let's get the usual caveat out of the way: these are some of my favorites, this is not a "best of" list because this is art and it's subjective and I haven't read every book and yada yada yada.

Yesterday was for considering what I felt were excellent self-contained issues. Here I'm taking a look at my favorite series/mini-series/graphic novels, etc.  I haven't included every series I love; in particular, there are some books I love and have previously discussed standout issues of those books.  One trend I've noticed among several favorite series is that I couldn't point to a single issue as being the standout. Many of these series I enjoy because they're great slow-burn stories that are building a complex, compelling story over time. Anyway, without further ado, here they are (in alphabetical order):

Afterlife with Archie (Archie Comics) Roberto Aguire-Sacassa and Francesco Francavilla- While I have no connection to Archie Comics nor was I particularly a horror fan, it's difficult not to love this series. Francesco Francavilla is in masterful form here, as his dark, beautifully colored art evokes a world gone terrible. The great writing from Roberto Aguire-Sacassa is in perfect sync with Francavilla's art. The premise of Archie meets Zombies sounds ridiculous at first (Archie Comics has a history of silly "Archie meets" type stories), but the creative team takes the story here completely seriously. The comic is haunting, visceral, and a great read. (Panel Patter's earlier review here by Guy Thomas.)

Alex + Ada (Image Comics) Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn - Ada is my favorite android.  After reading this book she'll be yours as well.  Alex + Ada is a science fiction story set in a near future where artificial intelligence is a reality, but a controversial one.  As written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn (and illustrated by Jonathan Luna), this is a recognizable world, where Luna's clean style of artwork suits the story perfectly.  It's something of a "slow-burn" of a book (to use an overused phrase), but while the plot of the story is very engaging, it's the characters that really stay with you. Everyone in the story is drawn with such compassion, and such humanity, you can't help but care for them. (My earlier review here.)

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend (First Second) Box Brown - Andre the Giant: Life and Legend is a terrific look at a larger-than-life figure.  Working from interviews and public records, creator Box Brown sketches a sympathetic but honest, fun, compassionate look at this amazing entertainer and personality. From his youth to his climactic battle with Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III to the set of The Princess Bride, it's all illustrated vividly and with wit and empathy. (My earlier review here.)

Avengers/New Avengers (Marvel Comics) Jonathan Hickman and Numerous Contributors (including Salvador Larocca, Leinil Yu, Jim Cheung and Frank Martin) - Jonathan Hickman (in collaboration with many talented artists) doesn't do things halfway. Since he took over the Avengers and New Avengers titles in 2012, he's been building an enormous story, encompassing nothing less than the end of everything everywhere, in all universes. You know, no big deal. How epic is this story? Well, it includes the miniseries Infinity (which came out in 2013 and which I loved), and in that story, the Avengers team up with the Kree, Skrulls, Spartax, Shi'ar and others to face the incredibly ancient, incredibly powerful Builders, oh, and Thanos takes over Earth - and that ENTIRE story is a sideshow from the real threat. That's how big of a story it is. So, this is an amazing, long-form story about the battle to prevent the end of everything. You need to be reading it. The art varies from arc to arc and issue to issue, but some of the standout contributors include Leinil Yu depicting a trip into the cold, distant future, and Salvador Larocca showing the Avengers battling evil Avengers from another universe.

Black Science (Image Comics) Rick Remender, Matteo Scalera, Dean White and Michael SpicerIf the idea of "Sliders" meets "Lost in Space" meets "Fantastic Four" appeals to you, you're in luck (and if it doesn't, seek medical attention). If Black Science was only an exploration of amazing, fantastical worlds with stunning, pulpy art from Matteo Scalera it would still be a great book. However, there's more to it, as it's a moving exploration of people coming to grips with themselves and their own limitations, mistakes, and regrets, all done with an engaging, rebellious vibe. Plus there are technologically advanced Native Americans conquering Europe, and giant insect-people. (My review here.)

Copra (Self Published) Michael Fiffe - Copra is a visceral, stunningly illustrated, action-packed comic series about a band of misfit antiheroes which functions as an homage to classic Suicide Squad stories, but is much more than that.  It's got great, gritty action and knowing tough-guy dialogue. It's also got fantastic visual storytelling and unique, out-there design and lettering, all from Michel Fiffe.  The first six issues are collected in a terrific looking trade.  (My review here.)

Daredevil (Marvel Comics) Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, Peter Krause, Javier Rodriguez,  Matthew Wilson and Joe Caramagna - Daredevil continues to be one of the most consistently excellent comic book series published.  As written by Mark Waid, illustrated by Chris Samnee and colored by Matthew Wilson (colors previously provided by Javier Rodriguez), it features one of the most well-drawn, sympathetic protagonists, and some of the best sequential storytelling you'll see anywhere. This year saw the end of the creative team's previous run on the book, and the end (for now) of Matt Murdock's legal career in New York. Matt and his significant other (and new law partner) Kirsten McDuffie relocate to San Francisco, and encounter new adventures (including learning how to navigate a very different set of streets), face new and old threats, and put Matt's sunny disposition to a grueling test.

Deadly Class (Image Comics) Rick Remender, Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge - Rick Remender is having a hell of a year in creator-owned comics. Along with Black Science (discussed above) he started his ambitious undersea epic Low, but possibly my favorite series of his is Deadly ClassDeadly Class is so many things, all of them great. It's a period piece set in late 1980s San Francisco, about teenage punks, rebels, criminals and misfits (all the most awesome people). It's a story about a teenager without hope getting a second chance (at a tremendous cost), as he's taken into a secret high school for training assassins (like Breakfast Club meets Fight Club). It's also one of the most honest, brutal explorations of depression, loneliness, and the anxieties and fears of being a teenager that I've read in a long time. Plus the art from Wes Craig (with colors by Lee Loughridge) is staggeringly good. The layout, design, sequential storytelling, all of what Craig and Loughridge do in this book will blow your mind (and not just the issues where the main character is high on acid). This is a punk rock book, done at a virtuoso level. (My review here.)

East of West (Image Comics) Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta and Frank Martin - The scope of East of West is almost too big to explain. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (with colors by Frank Martin), do some very ambitious storytelling here. This is (like many Jonathan Hickman stories) a story about systems (in this case, an alternate history of a divided America, and the complex status quo that holds it in place), and the breakdown of those systems. It's a story about the inevitability of death, and destruction. It's a story about conflicts, with multiple moving pieces, shifting alliances, and plans within plans. It's also an alternate history telling of America with a Civil War that ended very differently, and it's at once a futuristic science fiction, Western, religious apocalyptic, magical fantasy story.  It's also a love story, and a story about family and loss. Each one of these elements is blended together into something hard to describe, but which is not to be missed.  Dragotta and Martin (with design by Hickman) give the book a sense of dynamic action, high tension and emotion, and skillful world-building (along with some creepy, nightmarish imagery). There's fantastic attention to detail in all aspects of the storytelling here, as each character, each nation and every aspect of the book (from world building to character design) has been given the utmost care and thoughtfulness. (My review here.)

Five Ghosts (Image Comics) Frank Barbiere, Chris Mooneyham and Lauren Affe - I described Five Ghosts earlier in the year as being something like a cross between Indiana Jones and The Unwritten, but even that doesn't really do it justice. I'll just say it's doing multiple things, and it does all of those things well. It's a gorgeous, pulpy adventure story set in the 1930s with an appealing "reluctant hero" of a main character (he's a thief and a scoundrel, but he loves his sister and his friends, and has something of a moral compass). The book has supernatural elements that draw on a number of different familiar literary characters (the detective, the archer, the samurai, the wizard and the vampire), and it pulls from multiple sources (the second arc of the series felt like Casablanca meets The Tempest) to combine into a highly appealing, fun adventure series. (My review here.)

Flash Gordon (Dynamite Comics) Jeff Parker, Evan "Doc" Shaner and Jordie Bellaire - The creative team of Jeff Parker, Doc Shaner, and Jordie Bellaire (you'll see her name a bunch on this list) have combined together to make Flash Gordon one of my favorite books of the year. This book has a contemporary setting but the story and art feel simultaneously modern and classic. Flash Gordon has a palpable sense of joy and adventure (not easy to capture). The book is engaging and fast paced, but it's one you don't want to read too quickly, as you'll want to take in the fantastic work from Shaner and Belaire. They do transitions, layouts, action, facial acting, and design with more verve and personality than almost any book I've read this year.  This team's run on this book is going to be ending soon, and once it's collected I highly suggest you go out and get it. (My review here.)

Lazarus (Image Comics) Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and Santi Arcas - Lazarus could (like many of my other favorite series) be fairly described as a slow-burn, but once you start this book you're not going to want to stop. The scope of this book can go from the very personal, to the big-picture global view, all in one issue. This is less a book about high-flying or intense action (those the team of Rucka and Lark are highly skilled at capturing those moments), but more a book about simmering tensions, subtle alliances, small gestures, wheels within wheels, and some of the best, most meticulous world building you'll read (in a comic book or otherwise).  It's also a depressingly realistic dystopian vision of the future that's an astute commentary on right now.  All of this is accomplished with tremendous skill by the art team of Michael Lark and Santi Arcas. Lark's noir-tinged style isn't the obvious choice for futuristic science fiction, but it suits the somewhat dystopian nature of the book perfectly. Lark is a master at human emotion, complex interactions and subtle gestures. At the same time, he depicts brutal and intense violence more effectively than just about anyone. This is a book with a clear trust between writer and artist. This book looks at a future where the rich got richer, and the rest of us are "waste".  It also has a fantastic female lead protagonist in Forever Carlyle (this should not be a surprise to anyone, given it's Greg Rucka).  She's smart, capable, impulsive, imperfect, loyal, inquisitive, and still very much a teenager. It's a book you need to be reading. (My review here.) 

Lumberjanes (Boom! Studios) Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, Maarta Laiho and Aubrey Aiese - Thanks to Lumberjanes there has been a lot of laughter and joy in my family's home this year.  Part of my love of this book comes from how much I've enjoyed reading this with my daughters, but anyone at any age can pick this book up and have a great time.  This is a hilarious, clever, terrifically illustrated book about friends at a summer camp solving supernatural mysteries and saving the day, with a lot of visual wit and humor from Brooke Allen that makes it a true all-ages book.  It's a proudly feminist book, and I've loved its examples of female friendship (with occasional hints at romance), and strong female role models of strength, intelligence and resourcefulness.  None of this is done in a cheesy "girl power" after-school special way; it all flows organically from the storytelling in a way that feels meaningful, fun, and true. (My review here.)

The Manhattan Projects (Image Comics) Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, Ryan Browne, Joride Bellaire and Rus Wooton - I'll be taking a more detailed look at The Manhattan Projects sometime in the new year, but let me say generally that the reason I love it is that it's a vast, crazy, fascinating series where pretty much anything can happen and usually most things do. Cannibal Oppenheimer?  Check. Einstein wielding an axe or a chainsaw, killing aliens? Check. Interstellar species? Check. Harry Truman at the center of a gigantic, murderous orgy ritual?  CHECK.  It's all here, and it's all fantastically illustrated by Nick Pitarra (who is heavily involved in the storytelling), with stunning colors by Jordie Bellaire. This book continues Jonathan Hickman's exploration of the idea of a powerful secret elite, and the ways in which they can try and fail to advance the scientific goals (and to subtly shape the world). In this book, you have the powerful, genius elite acting completely on their own, without (in some cases) any recognizable moral compass. The creative team here is not afraid to push boundaries in the series, as far as violence and good taste are concerned.  An amazing, frequently hilarious, sometimes shocking and disgusting book.

Manifest Destiny (Image Comics) Chris Dingess, Matthew Roberts, Owen Gieni and Pat Brosseau - Manifest Destiny, like The Manhattan Projects, looks at the secret history of America. In this case, we learn that the real motivation for the excursion by Lewis and Clark to the west was to hunt and destroy monsters. This is a beautifully illustrated, very entertaining book with a high degree of verisimilitude (which is a funny thing to say about a book featuring giant killer frogs and monsters, but it's true). The book succeeds on the level of the political allegory, in addition to being a well told, beautifully illustrated (courtesy of art by Matthew Roberts and colors by Owen Gieni) book. If you're a fan of history, zombies, monsters and fun generally, this is a comic you should absolutely be reading. (My review here.)

Mind MGMT (Dark Horse) Matt Kindt - Mind MGMT is book about mind control, vast conspiracies, people with extraordinary abilities, and a secret group of people attempting (and failing) to manage society and the hubris of trying to do so. It's also (thanks to writer-artist Matt Kindt), a strikingly illustrated book that looks utterly unlike anything else in mainstream comics. Kindt uses his dreamlike watercolor style in a way that suits the strange and intricate story perfectly. Kindt has built a vast, complex, intriguing story. There's real complexity in the plot and the visual storytelling (with intricate layouts and a lot of great visual information), and this is a satisfying book that rewards careful reading. (My review here.)

Moon Knight (Marvel Comics) Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire and Chris Eliopoulos  - Moon Knight quickly became one of my favorite books this year thanks to the one-two-three punch of the cool, dry wit and assured storytelling of Warren Ellis, gorgeous visuals and spectacular sequential art from Declan Shalvey, and terrific colors (including striking use of blacks and whites) from Jordie Bellaire (there's that name again). This combined to produce some of the most inventive, cool, interesting visual sequential storytelling in comics. Each issue is a self-contained story but also hints at a larger overarching tale. If you're looking for entertaining and visually striking superhero adventures with a weird, psychedelic twist, this is the book for you. If you're looking for a great pickup, I suggest getting the "From the Dead" volume which is available now (though the series continues to be excellent even after a creative team change).

The Private Eye (Panel Syndicate) Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente - The Private Eye is one of these wonderful surprises whenever it shows up. It's only published digitally, and the creators simply announce whenever there's a new issue available. This is a fantastic sci-fi/detective story with beautiful, detailed illustration and an insightful, engaging, clever story. The Private Eye takes place in the late 21st-century, where privacy is incredibly important because at some point the "cloud" burst sharing everyone's most personal information (sites visited, communications, internet searches). The creative team does some wonderful, detailed world building here, and the art from Marcos Martin (with vivid colors from Muntsa Vicente) is full of great detail on every page (character design, architecture, action, page layout).  There's also a lot of great humor in this book (one example is an older character talking about the good old days of WiFi and sharing everything about yourself on social media). (My review here.)

Royals: Masters of War (Vertigo Comics) Rob Williams, Simon Coleby, Gary Erskine and J.D. Mettler - Royals: Masters of War is a big, epic, wartime superhero story with dynamic style and a lot of dark humor and wit (written by Rob Williams and illustrated by Simon Coleby). In this world, there are super powers but the only people in the world who have them are royalty. The Prince of England ends up using his super powers against the wishes of his family, and involves all of the major world royal families in World War II. It's a highly entertaining story, with nuanced political and familial dynamics, but it's also a big action war story, with dynamic visuals that may remind you of vintage work from Bryan Hitch such as The Authority or The Ultimates. Great, highly entertaining story, with an English twist on superheroes. (My review here.)

Saga (Image Comics) Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - It's hard to say too much about Saga that hasn't already been written. Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples continue to be pretty much peerless in their ability to craft stories full of exciting and weird science fiction concepts, moving, complex and real characters, engaging, dramatic, intense and heartbreaking plot, all presented visually by one of the best in the business. This year saw the conclusion of a dramatic arc (with our heroes being cornered at the home of a reclusive author) and a more recent arc that was somewhat more divisive and polarizing. The more recent arc took a different approach, as much of it took place while our main characters were trying to live a regular life hidden away (almost like the witness protection program). But when you look back at this fourth arc, the message is that you can't escape your past, it will always catch up with you. Notwithstanding the different direction taken in the most recent arc, this book continues to set the standard for fun, exciting, mature comics storytelling.

Southern Bastards (Image Comics) Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, Jared Fletcher and Rico Renzi - I enjoyed the first issue of Southern Bastards but it wasn't something that blew me away right off the bat (but I love when a book starts good and turns great). It felt like a retelling of "Walking Tall" or other stories where one man cleans up a corrupt town. But this isn't that story, as issue 4 makes clear. It is a story about a town, and the South, and a story about how you can't escape your past. It's also a story that doesn't let you off the hook easily, as the current arc of the series is taking the most despicable character and showing you that he's a person too, and that there are no cheap villains or easy answers in this town. This story is complemented perfectly by the art from Jason Latour, whose grimy, gritty style and earth tones suit the tone of the story just right (it's almost impossible to imagine it looking any other way). It's a story that feels authentic, and it's complex, layered, and you don't know where it's going to go next. 

Starlight (Image Comics) Mark Millar, Goran Parlov, Ive Svorcina, Marko Sunjic - Starlight was a delightful surprise this year. Mark Millar generally brings a fairly hard, cynical edge to his work (and is a polarizing figure for some comics fans). Starlight goes in a completely different direction, as it's a moving, earnest, funny, heartfelt adventure story which embodies themes of regret and getting older, but never giving up on your ideals.  It's the story of Duke McQueen, a Flash Gordon type figure who fought evil on another world decades before and returned to his regular life, and his chance to have one last great adventure. Millar has a fantastic partner in Goran Parlov, who provides the stunningly beautiful, detailed, joy-inducing artwork. The visual storytelling is engaging and clear, and the details on geography and cityscapes, remarkable. This'll bring a tear to your eye, and a smile to your face. I recommend reading this as a companion piece to Flash Gordon, which makes for a fantastic combination of old-fashioned science-fiction adventure heroism. (Rob McMonigals' review here.)

Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Marvel Comics) Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber, Rachelle Rosenberg and Joe Caramagna - Superior Foes of Spider-Man is likely to be one of the funniest comic books that you read all year.  Superior Foes of Spider-Man is a story of a ragtag team of loser C-list villains (though that's certainly not how they see themselves), who get together to decide to pull one big score. This is a story told over the course of 17 issues, with a few digressions (so I suggest starting at the very beginning, a very good place to start). If it's possible for a book to be completely cynical, but also extremely warm hearted, this is that book. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber combine together here in a fantastic synthesis of writer and artist - the story mocks these villains but also has a lot of empathy for them. The humor here is witty and and ridiculous and clever; really, there's so much visual humor in this book that you're going to want to go back and read and reread all of the jokes just to make sure you're getting everything. It's that funny. Each of the characters has their own distinct personalities, and when they come together as a team, it's magic, in the best and worst way.

Vandroid (Dark Horse) Tommy Lee Edwards, Noah Smith, Dan McDaid and Meissa Edwards -Vandroid is one of my favorite projects from 2014. It's a loving homage to 1980s B-movie science-fiction movies (it's presented as a comic book version of a "lost" movie from 1984). It certainly works on the nostalgia factor, but there's more to it than that. The art is fantastic in a grimy, analog style, and the story is fun, action-packed, knowing and extremely entertaining. The level of love that the creative team had for this project is obvious, not just in the comics but in the "recently rediscovered" trailer for the movie, and soundtrack. (which is great, 1980's style sinister synth-pop). A great, fun story and project. (My review here.)

Velvet (Image Comics) Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Elzabeth Breitweiser and Chris Eliopoulos - Velvet feels like the story the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting were born to tell. It's a spy thriller set in the 1970s, and most stated basically, proposes the question, "what if Miss Moneypenny was actually secretly an incredible badass spy?" Velvet Templeton is one of the best, most interesting, capable, mature, intelligent characters I've read in the past year, in any book. Thankfully for Brubaker he has an artist as skilled as Steve Epting to tell the story visually. Epting's work has never been better than it is here. The book has a highly realistic style, but it doesn't look stiff or posed. The action is dynamic, the facial acting first rate.  Every page, every detail, everything is thoughtfully designed. It's a wonderful, complex, interesting mystery and it continues to get better and better.  (Rob McMonigal's review here.)

Zero (Image Comics) Ales Kot, Jordie Bellaire and various artists including Ricardo Lopez Ortiz, Adam Gorham, Vanesa Del Rey and Alberto Ponticelli - To quote from my review earlier this year: "Zero is an espionage story. Zero is a commentary on war, terror, the surveillance state and the military industrial complex. Zero is a continuing demonstration of some of the most interesting artists you'll see in comics. Zero is a mystery about a man who is a cipher, and a story where you can trust no one.  Zero is a book you should be reading." In addition to that, I want to reiterate what a visual treat the book is. Kot is a great curator of talent, as each issue is a surprise and a chance to get familiar with the visual style of another talented artist, all in keeping with the general parameters of the story. Jordie Bellaire provides some amount of consistency in coloring each issue, but she's also incredibly adaptable, changing the color schemes entirely based on what best suits the story. The book is intelligent, brutal, fascinating, complex and utterly entertaining. (My review here.)