December 29, 2014

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Rob's Favorite Superheroes and Their Amazing Friends for 2014

I can't believe it's the end of 2014 already! Man, can't Superman turn the clock back a bit for me, so I can read a few extra books and write those reviews that backed up on me? No? Okay, then!

This is my first favorites list for 2014, and it's a familiar one to long-time readers. I'll note here that I prefer the term "favorite" to "best" because there is no way in the world I'm reading enough comics to say definitively that something is the best, a nebulous term when talking subjective opinion anyway. These may not very well be the best capes-style comics that came out in 2014. In fact, I'll tell you for a fact they are not, because I read all of my Marvel books 6 months behind, making most of them ineligible for the list, because they're from 2013. I love superhero comics--but I prefer to read them as arcs, and Marvel Unlimited, which I highly recommend, is perfect for this.

But I'm moving off point. Let's talk about this list. In the past, I was pretty strict about what went into it as far as the term "superhero." This year, I've combined it with any books that have the same vibe, like, say, Tom Scioli's Transformers vs G.I. Joe. It's a list that could have just said "Jeff Parker" over and over again, too, but in the end, I opted to pick just one of his books to be on the list. (Aquaman is the best it's been, possibly ever, however, and if you like Arthur, you should try it.) A second change is that the list is now alphabetical, which I totally swiped from James.

Let's look at my favorites, shall we? Keep in mind, I liked a lot of comics I read in this genre, as I've pared down to just what I want to read. I mentioned Aquaman above, and of course Jeff's work on Batman 66 remains strong as well. Unity just barely missed the cut, as did Superior Spider-Man, one of the few Marvel books I kept current on as they came out. But these are the nine I'd point out at a store and tell a random person they should buy:

2000 AD (Rebellion) Various Writers and Artists
Every week for over 37 years, this anthology has been putting out stories for a loyal following, and the quality control is outstanding. It's best know as the home for Judge Dredd, but in addition to spin-offs in that world, it also features a wide variety of science fiction, from military-style epics like "ABC Warriors" to delightful Victorian-set pieces such as "Stickleback" and insane romps like the Ulises Sweet stories. The art ranges from painted work to digital, the highly detailed to more abstract work, black and white as well as color. I sometimes fall behind, but I always catch up because pound for pound, this is the best anthology in comics--and it's not really even close.

Judge Dredd Mega-City 2 (IDW) DouglasWolk, Ulises Farinas, and Ryan Hill
Most of IDW's American adaptations of Judge Dredd and his world have been...lacking something. You can't say that of this one, which is set early in Dredd's career as he's asked to be part of an exchange program with Mega-City 2, aka an exaggerated California. As straight-laced Dredd faces insanely-colored, status-obsessed Mega-City 2, he discovers there's a plot to re-cast villains from his world in new roles out west. There's a ton of dead-pan humor and the line art from Farinas is eye-popping. From the opening pages, he's out to create an entire universe basically from scratch, with more references and Easter Eggs than you can shake a law-giver at. He'll draw every last head on a splash page and come back for more. With Hill's neon-coloring, this is the brightest Dredd comic you'll ever read--and one of the best.

King's Watch/Flash Gordon (Dynamite) Jeff Parker, Marc Laming, Jordan Boyd, 
Evan Shaner, and Jordie Bellaire
I put these two together because they're linked. In the first, Parker,Laming, and Boyd pit Flash Gordon, the Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician up against the invading forces of a re-made Ming the Merciless. The later series finds Flash and his allies Dale and Zarkov trying to find a way back to Earth after being trapped in Ming's dimension. Parker's characterizations are amazing, not the least of which is making Ming the heavy without letting the racist stereotypes of the past slow him down. His Phantom is acid-tongued, his Flash brash and bold, like the world's biggest kid. Zarkov's druken arrogance mixes with Dale's determination and fantastic worlds to be some of my favorite comics all year. And I didn't even get to the art yet! Laming and Shaner are very complimentary for each other, providing a great cohesion between the two series. They both work equally well at everything from splash pages to tight, detailed shots. Facial acting is essential when working with Jeff, and they both give all of the characters exactly the right body language or sarcastic look as the moment calls for it. Shaner gets to do more fantastical settings, which are outstanding, but Laming's Earth-based battles are no less epic in scope or danger. Both Boyd and Bellaire color things brightly and sometimes just a bit off what you'd expect. Great, great comics to be found here.

Knuckleheads (Monkeybrain/IDW) Brian Winkeler, Robert Wilson IV, and Jordan Boyd
A loser gets a gauntlet of great power and promptly gets right into trouble, as he and his roommate (along with a pizza delivery guy and a tough-girl Brit who gets stuck with a Tardis shirt) are dragged into trouble both cosmic and mundane in this comedic romp that never takes itself too seriously, a common theme among my favorite books with capes in them, it seems. There's a great sense of timing, as the power cuts out at just the wrong moments and none of the characters are ever short for a joke, usually at the expense of someone else. Robert Wilson IV's visuals match the verbal banter step for step, making sure that every panel is milked to the max for humor, based on character positions, looks, or other little tricks. Definitively lowbrow (and proud of it), this is a book not afraid to show a superhero taking a dump, and how much you like that concept will drive your enjoyment. Me? I can't wait for them to create more!

Ms. Marvel (Marvel) G Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
There's been a rise in trying to create superhero comics for non-white men, and that's a good thing. Unfortunately, not all of them have been good, as it's often a layer of paint over the same old issues. Not so with Ms. Marvel, which feels organic and genuine, if a bit too earnest at times. G. Willow Wilson creates a young woman who is everything that old grumpy men hate about new comics fans, right down to the fact that she writs fan fic about the Marvel U heroes. She's also Muslim, and her struggles to match her new-found powers with her faith drives a lot of the first arc. But there's fun, too, as she experiences having powers like those she's always idolized, and learns, echoing (but not cloning) Peter Parker, about power and responsibility. Periodically, Wilson lays it on a bit thick (her white school mates are really tone-deaf about other cultures), and I found the art a bit less structured than I like from my superhero books, but overall, this is a winner and my favorite of the next generation of books, one that young girls--and older folks with good taste--can equally enjoy.

Quantum and Woody (Valiant) James Asmus, Ming Doyle, and Others
I never thought I'd find a Valiant book I liked better than Archer and Armstrong, but lo and behold, here it is. Working across their own series, then in a mini (with, coincidentally, Archer and Armstrong), and soon in a new mini with Steve Lieber taking the linework duties, this irreverent and often transgressive series captures the spirit of series co-creator Priest's writing style (like block text making a pun about upcoming events on the following pages) but makes it something where Asmus's voice shines through clearly. This is a series that doesn't try to avoid being anything but as impossible as it can, whether it's having an earnest brother paired with his loser, grifting, step-brother, their father the talking goat, or a hot female clone who's absolutely killer. Money gags, self-importance, and pointing out how racist America really is covers only the tip of the iceberg of Asmus's work on the series. When you combine it with talented artists like Ming Doyle, who can match him step for step with brilliantly-designed (and yet still over-the-top) pages, where the comedy (as in Superior Foes) comes from both the script and the art, you get a series that I have to read at home because I literally laugh out loud.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Marvel) Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber, Rich Ellis, 
and Rachelle Rosenberg
I praised this one several times in my old gig with Newsarama, and I couldn't let this list go without a few parting words. In a world where so many superhero comics are so serious they make Sam the Eagle look like Fozzie Bear, this comic showed that you can still tell superhero stories with comedic elements while still working within a larger, more serious world. It's what Spider-Man used to be all about, until Frank Miller ruined everything with Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, aided and abetted by Steve's studio mate Rich Ellis with additional linework and Rachelle Rosenberg on colors, plotted a story about some of Marvel's biggest losers, making them human--and humorous while putting together some of the best one-off gags, running jokes, and set pieces in any comic book, let alone one with capes. Nick and Steve are going to be working again together on a new project in 2015, and I can't wait. While you look for that one, make sure you grab the trades of this series.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Spinoffs (IDW) Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, Paul Allor, 
Sophie Campbell, Mateus Santolouco, Ronda Pattison, and Many, Many Others
I've written both here and at Newsarama about how good I think the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle books are, and instead of picking between the various series that came out in 2014, I decided to put them together in one entry. With Kevin Eastman guiding things, main series writer Tom Waltz and spin-off master Paul Allor have created a world for the Heroes in a Halfshell that echoes but doesn't slavishly copy the iconic work from Eastman and Laird that started as an homage to Frank Miller's Daredevil and exploded into television, movies, and of course toys. Sophie Campbell gets special note here for drawing the Turtles in a way that is distinctive from any other artist but manages to capture their personalities in their movements across the page and to Ronda Pattison for coloring them in such a way that they aren't all running around looking alike, Tie-in comics can be a tricky thing, but this series shows you can do it right, if you have the right creators on the job. (Also, props to IDW and Eastman for not destroying this to make it echo the movies. Are you listening, Marvel? Movies and comics don't have to be exactly alike.) 

Transformers VS G.I. Joe (IDW) Tom Scioli and John Barber
Here's the thing you need to understand on this one: While I liked them as a kid, the adult Rob has no nostalgia ties to either Transformers or G.I. Joe, and I frankly found their monthly books to be tedious. But when Jack Kirby's spiritual heir was placed in charge, we get an insane romp that finds the Joes in a bad way and the Autobots acting like whiny losers! Jackpot! Visually, the series is like if Kirby had gotten a deal with Hasbro and allowed to go nuts, as Scioli goes full-on Krackle, close-ups, and odd perspectives. If you held off on this because of the characters involved and usually dig Scioli's work, don't shy away. Vol 1 is now in trade, and you should pick it up. 

Honorable Mention to: Batmanga (DC) which is a great alternative take on the 1960s-era Batman with some innovative villains, Double Life of Miranda Turner (Monkeybrain) which is building an amazing mystery, but also needs to build a longer string of issues, and Prime-8s (Monkeybrain), a book that evoked Kirby in a different way from Scioli but stopped dead mid-story after 2 amazing issues.