Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chuck's Top 10 Comics for 2013

   Happy New Year!

   It’s Dec. 31, so it’s time for my “Best of 2013” review, with the usual warning that: 1) I don’t read everything, so this is actually the “Best of what Chuck read in 2013” list; and 2) Your Top 10 list is probably very different. This is just my opinion at work.

   My list is based directly on the grades I award to comics over the course of the year - but before we get to the best, let’s get the “Worst of 2013” out of the way. This year I gave no “F” grades at all (happily), but there were two “D+” comics – so it’s between Superior Spider-Man #1 and Captain America #11 - a tough choice, as they’re both truly bad examples of character assassination. I'll give it to Spidey just because it's a terrible storyline - a nightmare that just won't go away.

   If I were giving out awards for "Disappointing Comics of 2013," I'd hand out five trophies to:

Age of Ultron
Earth 2
Justice League

   All five started out strongly, or at least hold great potential, but they either fizzled, took missteps or ended in a disappointing way (I'm looking at you, Ultron).

   Now, back to the good stuff! These are comics that either earned an “A” and could very easily have been  one of the Top 10. (No modern comic earned an “A+” this year.)

   Among the “Honorable Mentions” are:

Action Comics
All-New X-Men 
Black Beetle 
Guardians of the Galaxy
Hellboy in Hell 
The High Ways 
Joe Kubert Presents 
Nemo: Heart of Ice 
Sandman Overture 
Uncanny X-Men 

   Now for our Top 10 for 2013 countdown:

#10 - Road to Oz / Emerald City of Oz

  I freely admit that this is not the typical comic a grizzled, grey-haired reviewer like yours truly might be expect to enjoy.

   But I have, unequivocally, loved this series of adaptations of L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

   There's a reason why these stories are beloved and continue to be popular today: they're loaded with imagination, heart, friendship, magic and some delightfully nasty villains.

   And The Emerald City of Oz has more than its share. While Dorothy and her friends and having fun exploring some mystifying corners of Oz, the forces of evil are plotting the destruction of the Emerald City.

   A huge army of monsters, gnomes and assorted creatures are tunneling their way into the heart of the city, but most shocking of all is that the city's ruler, Ozma, intends to do nothing to defend the city.

   It's a terrific tale, and if the ending is a bit too pat, well, we can overlook the occasional stumble.

   This adaptation is the sixth by writer Eric Shanower and artist Skottie Young, and I can't recommend them highly enough. Loaded with amazing, spirited art, and written as true as humanly possible to the original tales, these have been absolute gems.

   But the last page reveals a heartbreaking secret - apparently this is the last in the series, which means Marvel won't be adapting any of the other Baum Oz books (not to mention the Ruth Plumley Thompson ones).

   What a shame! This has been an exceptional series, and I had hoped it would continue forth for years (and adaptations) to come.

   I suppose all good things must come to an end. But it's a sad note at the end of a glorious song!

#9 - Daredevil

Daredevil has proven to be a difficult comic to review over the last two years - because it's always great!

You'd think Mark Waid and Chris Smanee would slip up occasionally, but there hasn't been a clunker yet.

The tension runs especially high in this issue as Daredevil finds himself fighting Ikari, an opponent he can't defeat - a killer with the same powers as our hero.

But in addition to DD's fight for his life, we also discover the mastermind who's been behind the attacks and tragedies that have propelled the story forward since the first issue by Waid!

Perfectly complementing the excellent story is the outstanding artwork of Samnee. His dramatic layouts, stunning use of blacks and amazing sense of storytelling makes this issue something special. He really is one of the best in the business right now.

Do I need to say more? This series boasts a top-notch creative team doing outstanding work.

You really should be reading this comic!

#8 - King Conan 
I've been a fan of the barbarian Conan since I first discovered the paperback books as a teenager, more than 40 years ago.

That character has been a comic book staple almost as long, and he's had some terrific creators handling his adventures, including Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Kurt Busiek, Frank Brunner and many, many more.

Ranked among that list of the best should be the creative team on King Conan: writer Tim Truman and artist Tomas Giorello.

They've created a true version of Howard's rough-hewn hero, and this issue focuses on a key moment in Conan's career - his first encounter with Zenobia, the second true love of his life.

They share a fight for their life, a daring escape, and one of the hottest kisses ever depicted in a comic book.

Giorello's art is tremendous - a classic style loaded with detail, great character designs, sexy women, heroic ideals and amazing environments.

It's an outstanding comic - truly the best version of Conan in a long, long time. 

Highly recommended!

#7 - Batman 

Batman is such a compelling character, it's no surprise that writers want to look back at his early years.

When he first appeared, his origin was very straightforward - a boy sees his parents killed and vows to dedicate his life to fighting crime. He uses his vast family fortune to study and train himself to physical perfection, dons a costume to confuse criminals, and becomes The Batman.

It allows a lot of room to explore, as Frank Miller famously did in his classic "Year One" story. 

Now it's Scott Snyder's turn in this "Zero Year" story, and he's focusing on several moments in Bruce Wayne's career, including his childhood encounters with his father, his initial return to Gotham (pre-Batman) and (perhaps) some of Batman's earliest adventures.

Continuity fans can rest assured that (as near as I can tell), this story doesn't contradict any of the existing lore about Batman's origins.

It's a sharp, fast-moving story, and features terrific art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki - a great start to a tale that manages to be bold, even when walking gingerly on hallowed ground.

#6 - New Avengers

Heroes can face many kinds of challenges, but typically that takes the form of some kind of antagonist - a bad guy.

But the new version of theNew Avengers is facing something very different - an (apparently) natural event that threatens to destroy more than one Earth.

For mysterious (and cosmic) reasons, Earths from alternate dimensions have been threatening the existence of "our" Earth. These alternate Earths encroach on our dimension, and the result is the destruction of both planets - unless something happens to destroy one of the Earths.

That's the dilemma facing the members of the Illuminati - Black Panther, Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Namor, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange and the Beast. Will they be forced to destroy the inhabitants of an alternate Earth to save their own?

The story by Jonathan Hickman is thoughtful and intense and loaded with smart characters and loads of mysteries.

The art by Steve Epting and Rick Magyar is terrific - dark and personal, but right at home with big, cosmic events - great characters, great expressions, very cinematic.

This really isn't for young readers, but not because of "adult" material - it's just working with concepts that might be too challenging for young readers. 

But for those willing to put their intelligence to work - oh, the rewards!

Even if there isn't a bad guy to punch in the face.

#5 - Saga

This one definitely isn't for the kiddies.

But the grownups will love it.

Saga is telling the story of a hero, and with this issue, we go back to the very beginning of that hero's story. And when I say beginning, I mean the moment of conception. 

Which is to say, the opening page features her parents doin' the deed.

And that's the delight of this series - you really have no idea what's going to happen next.

That can be good, as we find our odd family unit flying in a rocket ship that's made out of a tree trying to escape from a "giant evil space fetus" while bounty hunters are terribly close by. I know, it sounds crazy, but it's actually pretty awesome.

Writer Brian K. Vaughn knows his craft, and he's weaving an adult, involved science fiction epic loaded with great characters, unexpected twists and turns (including several in this issue), action sequences, some delightful dialogue and lots of humor.

And the art by Fiona Staples is a constant delight, with creative layouts, original designs, expressive characters and clean storytelling.

Buy the collections, pick up the back issues - if you liked Y the Last Man or just enjoy science fantasy / science fiction, this is a wonderful, rewarding series.

Just not for kids.

#4 - Hawkeye

   There are a few comics out there where the creative team is playing on a different level from the rest of the industry.

   You see it sometimes from smaller publishers, but rarely from the big boys.

   Hawkeye is one of the exceptions to the rule.

   Writer Matt Fraction is creating a different story here, focusing more on the very human (and very fallible) Clint Barton. We rarely (if ever) see examples of super-heroics, though we often see the painful aftermath.

   This issue, for example, takes us into the heartbreaking story of a death in the loose-knit family that lives in the apartment building that Clint manages and protects (sorta kinda).

   It also features the return of someone near and dear to Clint (when he's not busy hating him, of course).

   But you have to pay attention, and it helps if you've read the other issues in the series. This one weaves around and through events in recent issues and the annual, for example.

   The art by David Aja is wonderful stuff - moody, gritty, humorous - the perfect use of the nine-panel grid.

   If you're passing up Hawkeye, you're missing out on something rare - a truly original comic. Highly recommended!

#3 - Astro City

I'm so happy to see a new issue of Astro City!

For those who came in late, the series (created by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Brent Eric Anderson, with covers by Alex Ross) is set in a super-hero-filled city where you can encounter the usual shenanigans (super-fights, alien invasions, etc.) - but the stories generally focus on the perspective of regular people and how events affect them.

The series has featured some incredibly original stories - some are heartbreaking, some with amazing twists, but every one compelling (in other words, I recommend buying up those collections early and often).

After a long hiatus, the title is back with a new issue #1, and the good news is, if you haven't read those previous issues, you can still pick right up with this issue and not worry about being lost - Busiek quickly brings you up to speed, and then we rush headlong into this story, which features (if briefly) a vast number of the heroes from past issues - and one brand new character.

They're faced with a giant mystery, as a gigantic door appears near the city - and when the door opens, no one is ready for what happens next.

It's a clever bit of business and a lot of fun. 

As always, the art is terrific. Anderson has a powerful style that takes some of the best elements of Gene Colan and Neal Adams, gives it a unique spin and creates incredible stories.

Look, I can't say enough great things about this series. Wonderful stories, great art, original characters - superhero comics at its best!

Highly recommended!

#2 - Infinity

   This issue of Infinity wraps up Marvel's biggest, most cosmic event in recent memory (and probably ever) - and manages to avoid the usual letdown we've seen in recent years.

   Far too many events have wrapped up with reboots or resets or big events that are immediately overturned - but not this one.

   Instead, this series embraces its cosmic nature and wraps with a huge battle in space, the survival of the Earth at stake, and a final, no-holds-barred showdown between Thanos and the Avengers.

   It really works on every level, as we see character arcs wrap up, surprise plot twists, loads of action and plenty of future story lines put in place.

   Jonathan Hickman has done impressive work here, telling a 16-issue story in the space of six months, with every issue on time and telling a cohesive, intelligent science fiction / adventure story, loaded with great characters.

   It doesn't hurt that the issue includes terrific, dynamic, expressive art by Jim Cheung and Dustin Weaver, with six inkers (including both pencilers) credited.

   I'll admit this series isn't for everyone. It's a challenging story that crosses the universe and back, with a huge cast, several key events and lots of twists and turns along the way. But if you're up for a cosmic story that will challenge and entertain you, I recommend this one highly.

   I loved it!

#1 - Avengers

   Yep, it's been a great year for the Avengers!

     Those who've been following this blog since Jonathan Hickman took over the Avengers are no doubt tired of hearing me rave about his work (though to be fair, you may have tired of my raves when he was writing Fantastic Four or Secret Warriors, too).

   But the simple fact is, his writing has amazing complexity and depth to it, as he crafts stories that build over the course of years, without forgetting the human emotion at the heart of it all.

   He's doing it again in this series, weaving a story that runs over 16 issues in about six months. And that doesn't count all the groundwork laid in issues before that.

   Here we have a cosmic sage worthy of E.E. "Doc" Smith, as several galactic empires join forces with the Avengers to fight back against the Builders, an ancient race that has turned into a world-destroying force. (Though we're not sure why yet.)

   So there's a lot going on, but one of the things I like best is the role of Captain America, who shows his skill in wartime strategy.

   This series is more science fiction than superhero (well, sorta), and that's ok with me, because it's good science fiction.

   This issue marks the halfway point in the series - I can't wait to see where it goes from here. This is shaping up to be a classic along the lines of the Kree-Skrull War and Steve Englehart's origin of the universe (and the Vision).

   Great company to be in! 

    So that's 2013 - Happy New Year, everyone!

1 comment:

El Vox said...

Good list Chuck. I always enjoy reading these top ten lists whether it be about comics, movies, or TV shows. And I've enjoyed reading your blog throughout the past year. Happy New Year.

I tend to lump all type of comics together. However, I ran across this 2013 Top Ten Mini-Series list. Some might be interested in reading it: http://www.comicsbulletin.com/columns/6396/top-10-top-mini-series-of-2013/