December 30, 2014

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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.)