December 29, 2014

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James' 2014 Favorites Part 1: I've Got (Single) Issues

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 comic and yada yada yada.

First up, individual issues.  It's not easy to write individual issues that are both satisfying as stories in and of themselves, and are also part of a larger story.  Many of my favorite writers are long-form storytellers who are better read in bigger story chunks, which is no knock against them, it just means that there isn't a single issue necessarily to point to and say that one was the "best."  That may also just be an indication that they're doing storytelling at a consistently high level.

In some cases, the series I'm talking about is one of my favorites. In a few cases, I didn't necessarily love the entire series but there was an issue that was noteworthy for whatever reason, in a few cases these are more standalone stories. There are other series I loved (and I'll get to those), but these issues are some highlights from the year. Here they are (in alphabetical order):

Afterlife with Archie #4 (Archie Comics) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla- Even if you're not particularly a fan of horror stories or Archie comics, you'll likely love this book. The series doesn't require you to have a detailed knowledge of Archie, though it helps to have a passing knowledge of the characters generally (which, thankfully, many people have). The premise may sound like a joke ("Archie meets Zombies!!!") but the series is not, and the reason it works so well is that the creators take it completely seriously. In this issue, a number of people have fled the zombie outbreak by going to Veronica's house. Archie goes back to his home to try to rescue his family and -- well, I don't want to say too much about what happens. But this issue has two of the most gut-wrenching, unflinchingly emotional scenes you’ll read in a comic book this year.


Avengers 100th anniversary Special (Marvel Comics) James Stokoe - The premise of the "Marvel 100th Anniversary" stories was to imagine the sorts of stories Marvel might be telling in 25 years when it celebrates its 100th anniversary. As a whole, the premise didn't interest me, but James Stokoe is a real draw as an artist.  This issue was weird and interesting and fun and staggeringly good, intricately detailed art (as an aside, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Stokoe's Godzilla: The Half Century War). The issue takes place in the aftermath of a war between Earth and the Badoon (an alien race in the Marvel universe). Most of the Avengers are missing as America was sent to the Negative Zone. The remaining Avengers (Beta Ray Bill, Rogue, and a new incarnation of Dr. Strange) are battling Mole Man, his Moloids, and then other weird, ridiculous things happen. The issue is a joy to look at, and, kind of crazy. 

Avengers #34 (Marvel Comics) Jonathan Hickman, Leinil Yu, Gerry Alanguilan, Sunny Gho and Matt Milla - Jonathan Hickman is probably my favorite comics writer, but he's not necessarily my favorite writer of individual comics issues. The stories he tells (whether at Marvel or Image) are big, intricate, long-form stories. If you've been reading his Avengers and New Avengers, then you know that both series have been telling one enormous story since 2012 (and even going back further to his work on SHIELD, Fantastic Four and Secret Warriors). But if you're looking for an example of how he builds huge story threads and skillfully brings them together, this is the issue. He doesn’t talk down to his audience, he doesn’t always explain everything, but his style of writing rewards patience and an understanding that he’s telling a big story, THE big story. This is a story where Captain America is jumping further and further into the future, and Leinil Yu’s style works perfectly for the action sequences here and for the clinical, science-fiction fiction future that’s shown in these issues. Captain America also gives a speech here who he is and what he stands for that's so damn inspiring, it makes me want to join the Avengers. Great work.

Daredevil #36 (Marvel Comics) Mark Waid, Chris Samnee and Javier Rodriguez - This is the finale to the previous volume of Waid and Samnee's terrific volume of Daredevil (though a number of other artists were involved in that run as well) and they really stick the landing here. Waid is one of the few storytellers who excels at both long-form storytelling and making each issue a satisfying experience and story unto itself. This issue is the culmination of threads that had been building for a number of issues in Matt Murdock's battle with the Serpent Society. The story concludes with some real consequences for Matt and his friends. The current series (which has Matt in San Francisco) continues to be excellent (Issue 5 of the current series was another favorite of mine this year). 

Dead Body Road #4 (Image Comics) Justin Jordan, Matteo Scalera and Moreno Dinisio - Dead Body Road was an enjoyable read. If you like action movies, revenge stories, this had the feel of a B-movie action revenge-fest (written with a knowing sense of fun by Justin Jordan). What brings this particular issue to the list, though, is primarily the art of Matteo Scalera, who you might know better from his one-shot on Batman or as the line artist on Black Science. Issue 4 had what may be the best car chase sequence I've ever seen in a comic. The entire issue is basically a chase sequence/fight on the highway, and I'm not sure that I've ever seen the speed, weight and motion of cars and vans chasing each other on the highway conveyed better than here (though Tradd Moore does some excellent work in this regard).


 Deadly Class #1 (Image Comics) Rick Remender, Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge - One of the best debut issues of the year. Rick Remender is some sort of evil genius at coming up with great concepts. The idea of a school for assassins/villains is not new (Five Weapons, Gladstone's School for World Conquerors) but as with anything else, it’s all in the execution (ha, an assassin joke). This book is set in 1987, and I loved the Reagan-era worldview, the 80’s styles, and honestly, pretty much everything about this book. The narration is strong, the character voices are distinctive, and the visuals are absolutely amazing. I was not familiar with Wes Craig’s work but it’s very impressive. He knows how to draw a stunning action sequence, along with conveying quieter, more introspective moments. A very strong debut issue. I struggled between this and issue 8 of the series, that could have easily been the choice here as well, where we learn the horrific details of Marcus' (the lead character) background.


The Fade Out #1 (Image Comics) Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser - Few writer/artist teams inspire as much confidence as Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Fatale, Sleeper, Incognito), and in The Fade Out, that confidence is completely justified. Unlike Fatale, there’s no supernatural concepts here. Instead, it's a compelling murder mystery, and broader look at late 1940’s Hollywood. The lead character (a screenwriter) clearly has some secrets of his own, and there’s a great supporting cast of characters in this story. Brubaker and Phillips bring a lot of credibility to the world they've created; the atmosphere feels very authentic to the time period.  It's clear from this first issue that they've put a lot of time and effort into constructing a pure noir tale. If you liked L.A. Confidential, you'd enjoy this comic. If you didn't like L.A. Confidential, wow, I really don't know what to say.


FF #16 (Marvel Comics) Lee Allred, Matt Fraction, Michael Allred and Laura Allred - FF was one of my favorite series of last year, which concluded in early 2014. It concerned a team of replacement superheroes who were left to deal with threats while the "real" Fantastic Four were traveling time and space. It ended up being so much more though. It had so much humor, warmth, humanity, absurdity and heart. It dealt wisely and honestly with family, loss, acceptance, and all sorts of other weightier issues, while being a great place to read a terrific, entertaining story full of absurd, outlandish, fantastic moments. And the art was just terrific. The Allreds and Joe Quinones really outdid themselves on this book artistically. The finale was remarkable. I was left teary-eyed at the end of this book. So many emotionally honest, true, wonderful moments. And Doom gets an epic beat down. Plus, an  explanation of how Pym Particles work. It makes a lot of things make more sense (and I love infographics in comics).


Gødland Finale (Image Comics) Joe Casey and Tom Scioli - Joe Casey and Tom Scioli are big fans of Jack Kirby, and Gødland has been a weird, interesting exploration of all sorts of Kirby-esque science fiction ideas.  I hadn't read the series in a while, but I'm glad I picked up the finale. To be perfectly honest I can’t exactly tell you what was going on, but I don't think that’s a problem. Humanity is progressing, there's some sort of  cosmic evolution. The main thing to note here is the Tom Scioli artwork. I would best describe the art as Kirby on steroids and acid, if such a thing was possible. Seriously, it might give you a headache if you’re not into trippy, colorful, complex imagery. But it’s a lot of fun, and it makes me want to go back and read the rest of the series.



Hawkeye #19 (Marvel Comics) Matt Fraction, David Aja, Matt Hollingsworth and Chris Eliopoulos - My feelings are a little up and down on this book. The shipping schedule is irregular, to say the least, not to mention that the shifts back and forth from one story and one artist to another have not exactly helped as far as momentum. However, at its high points this is absolutely one of the best, most interesting books out there. This issue (illustrated by David Aja, colors by Matt Hollingsworth) picks up right after Clint and Barney Barton have been injured by an assassin who's partial to clown makeup, and Clint is temporarily deaf, so much of the issue is in American Sign Language (ASL). I don’t know ASL but I really enjoyed this issue. As there's not much dialogue, the art team must carry the storytelling load and thankfully they are more than up to the challenge. This issue makes fantastic use of ASL and conveys the sense of isolation and frustration that Clint feels while he can't hear. Do you, as the reader, feel a little frustration that you don't understand every single thing that's going on? Good, then you have a small glimpse into what it's like to be hearing impaired.

Madman In Your Face 3D Special! (Image Comics) Michael Allred,Laura Allred, Christian LeBlanc, Jamie S. Rich and Nate Piekos - I talked recently about this issue here, but speaking generally, this issue is an injection of pure joy in your brain. You don't need to know anything about the Madman character, just have an appreciation for great visual storytelling, humor and fun. The Madman In Your Face 3D Special! is a great visual achievement, and the second (and not final) appearance of Mike and Laura Allred on this list.


Moon Knight #5 (Marvel Comics) Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire - This series is fantastic as a general matter (first from Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey, and now from Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood, with consistent colors from Jordie Bellaire).  Each issue has been (for the most part) its own self-contained action-adventure story. Issue 5 is pure adrenaline, with a basic plot sort of like The Raid: Redemption or Dredd (confined building, protagonist has to fight his way up). It's an amazing issue. The pacing is perfect, and Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire do some truly stunning work here. Moon Knight is brutal, intelligent and effective. The sight of him with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up is among the most badass things ever. It'll make you feel a little more badass as you roll your sleeves up before doing battle with a spreadsheet at your computer.

Ms. Marvel #1 (Marvel Comics) G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona, Ian Herring and Joe Caramagna - There are certain comics that get a lot of hype. Sometimes it's justified, and sometimes it's not. In this case, the praise was worthy (even if this was only a first issue and didn't single-handedly solve 50 years worth of representation issues in comics).  It's thoughtful, funny, insightful, and unique. It didn't feel like a big-2 superhero book (don’t get me wrong, those books are my bread and butter), it had a heartfelt-indie feel to it. It’s fun and lighthearted but with a authentic, serious undertone of alienation. It's a teen superhero book, but it's also a book about being a teen generally, and about being an outsider and the child of immigrants. This book feels like it comes an authentic place. The art is great. It’s more “cartoony” and stylized than a typical superhero book, but still feels very much grounded and like the world it is conveying is a real one. It has a sense of lightness and playfulness, without being distracting. You'll be happy to know the series continues to be excellent.

Multiversity: Pax Americana (DC Comics) Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Nathan Fairbairn - A number of weeks later and I’m still digesting Multiversity: Pax Americana. I’ve already read it four times, probably, and I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of it. Its a single issue but it has as much information, depth and meaning as full-length graphic novels. It's a story set in the old Charlton universe, which may sound familiar since these characters were the basis for Alan Moore's characters in Watchmen. There's a lot going on in this story. It's a tale of a person's life from childhood to death, it's a commentary on the cyclical nature of time, it's a something of a deconstruction of comics generally (which is true throughout the Multiversity series), but it's more than just a formal and technical exercise.  That being said, it's an incredible technical achievement. I'm not sure I've ever seen better artwork from Frank Quitely, and that's saying a lot.  There's so much intricacy in the visual storytelling, it's clear this was years in the making. It's a compelling story of people trying to make the world a better more peaceful place, trying and failing. I know I'm not doing it justice, I'll just say it's an issue worth reading, even if you're not reading the Multiversity series.  


Saga #18 (Image Comics) Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples - This is the final issue of the third arc of the series, and all the shit goes down this issue. It’s a dramatic culmination of the tense moments we had been building to for 6 months or more (like the end scene in The Godfather during the baptism). There’s tragedy, escape, and some awesome, intense moments between Alana and Gwendolyn. It was a great conclusion to the third arc of the book.  That being said, I didn't love the fourth arc of the story quite as much, but that takes nothing away from what a dramatic, intense, gorgeous (as always, Fiona Staples is a beast on art) issue this was.

Sandman Overture #2 (Vertigo Comics) Neil Gaiman, JH Williams III, Dave Stewart and Todd Klein - I can’t exactly tell you what happened in issue 2 of Sandman Overture, but I can tell you that Neil Gaiman continues to be a master storyteller, and that rarely have I seen a better match of writer and artist than Neil Gaiman and J.H. Williams.  Williams is himself (see Batwoman) a skilled storyteller (in both scripting and art) and every page of this comic is full of wit and thoughtfulness and care. Really, you’ll want to look for a while at each of the pages in this book. The lettering alone (on the pages where Dream talks to other versions of himself - yes, that happens) is utterly spectacular. I might suggest trade-waiting this one since it is taking a pretty long time between issues. However, once it's done I think it'll be well worth it.

She-Hulk #1 (Marvel Comics) Charles Soule, Javier Pulido and Muntsa Vicente and Clayton Cowles - This is one of those great, lovely, charming, interesting Marvel books, like Daredevil, Hawkeye, Superior Foes of Spider Man, and Ms. Marvel, with great art telling an interesting story slightly different than what you’re used to in the Marvel universe. I loved this book. Sadly, it's ending with issue 12, but it's worth going back and reading the series. Charles Soule captures the reality of being a lawyer at a law firm, along with bureaucracy and legalese. It’s great, knowing work. There’s great visual storytelling in this book from Javier Pulido. You actually don’t need a lot of dialogue to understand what’s going on (even though the dialogue is great). It’s definitely not traditional superhero art, but it’s effective at conveying emotion and story.

Shutter #1 (Image Comics) Joe Keatinge, Leila Del Duca, Owen Gieni and Ed Brisson - Shutter #1 was one of the most fun, inviting, engaging first issues of a comic I've read in a long time. There's art here that just pops off the page, and a great deal of attention has been paid to all of the design elements in this book. There's also a remarkable amount of world building that takes place in a single issue, and that's handled skillfully, without feeling like a lot of exposition is dumped on the reader.  It's a complex, weird, interesting world. This issue was a real joy to read. Only one issue in, and Kate Kristopher is already an interesting, complex, protagonist about whom a reader would want to learn more. Leila Del Luca and Owen Gieni (on colors) do some masterful work here, as different scenes from the past and present have a completely different feel to them.


Silver Surfer #3 (Marvel Comics) Dan Slott, Michael Allred, Laura Allred and Clayton Cowles - The Slott/Allred Silver Surfer book, this issue in particular, is everything I want in a superhero comic. There’s a spirit of adventure, and there’s real emotional drama, but also so much joy and possibility in this story. Team Allred's art is as always, a pop art delight - becautiful and bright and emotive and expressive. Silver Surfer is terrific as a complex, compassionate hero, and Dawn (his traveling companion) is a fun new character, a “regular person” who shows tremendous courage in a weird situation.  I don't watch Doctor Who but I understand that this story reads like a great Doctor Who comic. [Editor's Note: Yup!]


Southern Bastards #4 (Image Comics) Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, Jared Fletcher and Rico Renzi - This was a powerful issue, and the riveting, raw conclusion to the first arc. The series started with a Walking Tall vibe but by the conclusion of the first arc, this is clearly a story about a man struggling to come to terms with his past and his history and his relationship with his father. Plus there’s some pretty visceral, brutal violence. And BBQ. Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have done something really special on this book. It feels like a book that has a real sense of place. I feel the authenticity of it - I’ve never spent much time in the South, but both of them are from the South and this book feels like it comes from a very emotionally honest place.

Starlight #1 (Image Comics) Mark Millar, Goran Parlov, Ive Svorcina, Marko Sunjic - I loved this issue. It’s about age, legacy, recapturing lost youth, and this series is probably the most thoughtful and contemplative Mark Millar comic I’ve ever read. This issue also has a clear homage to “The Incredibles.”  Our main protagonist is a space adventurer and saved the galaxy, but now he’s a widower and kind of a joke and he longs for his youth.  The art here is stunning, just stunning. I wasn’t particularly familiar with Goran Parlov’s work, but he renders these amazingly detailed, gorgeous scenes on alien worlds, and is equally effective at conveying the mundane, sad, lonely existence of a man whose life has seemingly passed him by. But, as you learn at the end of the first issue, he's got one more great adventure ahead of him. I also easily could have included the final issue on this list of favorites. It's an inspiring, action-packed and heartwarming finale.

Supreme: Blue Rose #1 (Image Comics) Waren Ellis, Tula Lotay, Richard Starkings and John RoshellThere are comics that ease you into a new world, comics that drop you right into that world, and then there's Supreme: Blue Rose (review here). This is Warren Ellis at his most “Ellis-y.” It’s a stunningly gorgeous, complex mystery involving superheroes, mathematics, time travel, alternate realities, the future and maybe the entire universe.  Tula Lotay (the artist) gives the first issue a highly intriguing, dream-like, stream-of-consciousness quality. She is a serious talent. Her work here is like some combination of Fiona Staples, Sean Murphy, Mike Allred and some sort of psychedelic fever dream. The series continues to be complex, weird, interesting and beautiful.


Transformers vs. GI Joe #1 (IDW Publishing) Tom Scioli and John Barber - This is the book that I didn’t know that I needed in my life, but now that it’s here I really do (a more detailed discussion here). If (like me) you were a fan of Transformers and G.I. Joe growing up, then you absolutely need to pick this up. This book takes place outside regular continuity for both of the series, so you don’t have to worry about not knowing what’s going on (and the design of the book has this great, surprisingly underground comics feel). Tom Scioli’s art is great in this book (and is one of the main draws here, given my love for Gødland); it has an amazing indie-Kirbyesque-fever dream feel to it.  This issue has everything you would want, it’s got G.I. Joe fighting Cobra, it’s got evil Decepticons, it’s got space lasers; like I said all the good stuff. 

Trillium #6 (Vertigo Comics) Jeff Lemire, Jose Villarubia and Carlos Mangual - This is a beautiful, heartbreaking issue, and Jeff Lemire is in great form in this series. He makes the reader work a little to understand what’s going on in the story, by using innovative and unusual layouts. It's got two star-crossed lovers, adrift in confusing worlds where they don’t belong. Each of them feels that sense of being out of place, and that feeling that they’ll do anything to get to where they’re supposed to be. Lemire’s artwork isn't the easiest, most accessible read, but it’s well worth the effort. Great series.