Chris's Top Ten Comics of 2013
Best of 2013: Comics

2013 was a banner year for comics. Marvel Comics continued the rollout of their Marvel Now books, Brian Michael Bendis reinvigorated the X-Men franchise with his decision to bring the original five teenage X-Men to the present, and Jonathan Hickman delivered a big summer event that exceeded the hype in Infinity. Over at DC Comics, the villains defeated the Justice League and inherited the earth, Scott Snyder & Jim Lee teamed up to launch the highly anticipated Superman Unchained, and Charles Soule began his bid to challenge Geoff Johns and Brian Bendis for the title of hardest working writer in comics. At Image, Ed Brubaker, Kelly Sue Deconnick, Joe Casey and many more A-list writers and artists launched exciting new creator owned series, successfully firing a shot across the bow of the big two. And while there were many comics in contention for this list, these 10 stand a cut above the rest. Without further ado, the best comic series of 2013:

#10.) Locke & Key
Publisher: IDW
Creators: Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

While only releasing five issues in 2013, Hill and Rodriguez’s creator owned horror masterpiece still managed to blow away most of the competition. Locke & Key: Omega #3-5 set the Locke Family, their many friends and allies, and Dodge on an inevitable collision course that could only end at the Drowning Cave. Piece moving chapters of any ongoing narrative are rarely that strong, however Hill and Rodriguez’s characters are so fully realized, relatable, and compelling that any time spent with them is welcome. The longer their march towards doom is prolonged, the greater the tension mounts and the more unthinkable the horror that awaits them becomes. And the final battle between the Lockes and Dodge detailed in Locke and Key: Alpha #1 did not disappoint. True to form for this series, there is a price to pay for using the magic of the keys, and none of the survivors emerged completely unscathed. Locke and Key: Alpha #2 delivered a quiet coda, as melancholy as it was cathartic. While there were a few happy endings, the ghost of the price paid for the mistakes of the past and the hard won victory hangs heavily over the proceedings. Hill emphasizes just how much all of these characters have grown, especially Tyler Locke, who readers have watched grow into a man over the course of this series. Our stay as guests in Keyhouse may have ended, but the memories of our time in Lovecraft Massachusetts will stay with us for years to come. Hill and Rodriguez crafted a tragic, touching, and powerful ending to their narrative, one that cements this series as a modern comics masterpiece.

#9.) The Sixth Gun
Publisher: Oni Press
Creators: Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt

Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s epic horror western continued to build in scope and ambition in 2013. Bunn used the Ghost Dance story arc to reveal new details of the history of the demonic weapons and the nature of their power. And as dark forces continued to align against Drake and Becky, they drew new allies to their side, forming a makeshift fellowship willing to stand for one another just so long as their interests coincide. The way this book so effortlessly marries different genres even within a medium known for its versatility is a testament to Bunn’s imagination and vision. And Brian Hurtt continues to defy conventions by crafting tense, unique gun battles every issue, a feat made nearly impossible on the static page. Whether he is rendering a massive battle between men and demons, or a tense confrontation between two Beckys, one distinctly older and taxed by her usage of the sixth gun, there is a stunning level of detail and emotion in Hurtt’s pencils. The Sixth Gun is one of those uniquely satisfying books where the reader can watch as two creators reach a new level of mastery in their craft month by month.

#8.) Batman
Publisher: DC Comics
Creators: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

I have to admit that I was not terribly excited to hear that Scott Snyder intended to explore the beginnings of Batman in an almost year long story entitled Zero Year. The origin of the Dark Knight Detective is well trod territory, a legend often retold, and composed of so many iconic moments that have taken on a ritualistic significance, it’s hard to imagine that any modern writer could spin a compelling new take on the tale. I should never have doubted Scott Snyder. Continuing to infuse the title with elements of noir and horror, revisiting Bruce Wayne’s formative yeas have given an exciting new direction to a title that was hardly resting on its laurels to begin with. Snyder’s work continues to examine the hubris of Batman albeit from a different angle. While his first year on the title was all about finding and confronting the cracks in the idea of the infallible “Morrisonian Batgod,” year two has been more focused on the folly of youth, and the fresh anger that tempered the weapon that would become Batman. Including new origins for the Joker and Riddler, Snyder evokes Nolan and Miller while casting this formative period in a light all his own. Snyder shows us a Batman that can fail, that can make mistakes, but one that is driven to rise through sheer determination and a love for his city that Snyder explores in great detail. Artist Greg Capullo continues to impress with a style that is evocative of arguably the most iconic interpretation ever of Batman, Batman: The Animated Series. However Capullo’s work can turn on a dime, from sleek, lithe, and shadowy images of the Batman, to the nightmarish horrors of Gotham’s dark side. Just look at new villain Dr. Death, and his victims for a prime example of the haunting visuals Capullo has brought to this title. Batman may have spent the majority of 2013 reflecting on the past, but the continued pairing of Snyder and Capullo makes me very excited for the future of this storyline and this title.

#7.) FF
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Creators: Matt Fraction, Mike Allred, Lee Allred, et al

Jonathan Hickman had done the unthinkable. Not only had he made Fantastic Four a best seller, he created a franchise by launching the second monthly title FF, a book that many readers thought would disappear with his departure and the Marvel Now relaunch. But incoming writer Matt Fraction saw an opportunity to use FF to return the mythos of Marvel’s first family to its roots while adding a distinctly modern spin on the legend. While Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch, and the Thing left for an time/space hopping road trip, second stringers Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa, and pop star Darla Deering (aka Ms. Thing) were left to guard the Earth and the gifted children of the Future Foundation in their stead. Under Fraction’s watch, the title has been a celebration of the franchise’s storied history, featuring classic villains, classic allies, and an emphasis on the dysfunctional family dynamic, albeit a more modern, non-traditional makeshift family. FF is a title that embraces the fun side of comics. Whether the team is facing off against Doom the Annihilating Conqueror, or a group of “Internet Jerks,” Fraction deftly balances real stakes and human failings with the same sense of grandeur, fun, and weirdness that defined Lee and Kirby’s legendary run. And while Fraction definitely made his mark on this title, the true architect of FF’s success is regular series artist Mike Allred. Even after Fraction’s premature departure, FF barely skipped a beat in terms of tone and quality. Allred’s retro pop style gives the title a timeless quality making it feel as much a product of the swinging sixties as it is of the here and now. Allred infuses heart and humor into every panel and page with small details, body language, and background action. Fraction and Allred’s FF has paid homage to the team’s storied history while exploring what the super hero family of tomorrow will look like. Utterly bizarre, unique, and heart warming, FF stood out as a big two book with indy sensibilities and a tribute from its creators to the classic stories that inspired their love of the medium.

#6.) Fatale
Publisher: Image Comics
Creators: Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Dark, unsettling, and irresistibly intriguing, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ horror noir series kept readers on the edge their seats throughout 2013, constantly begging the question what’s worse: the things pursing Josephine, or the unspeakable acts she compels men to commit to stay one step ahead of them? Fatale began the year with a series of one shots designed to tease out more information about the femme fatale curse as well as Josephine’s mysterious past. One of the greatest strengths of Brubaker’s writing on this series has been his ability to sell the reader on new characters, when the entire supporting cast changes with each new arc. This was especially true of the one-shots that were each set in a different time period. Brubaker has a real talent for creating instantly intriguing characters (it’s important that they are interesting, as none of them are very likable even before Jo gets her hooks in them). Sean Phillips is a highly skilled story teller, and his visuals set the mood just as much as Brubaker’s stylized narration, casting scenes in heavy shadow, relying on small tight panels to create a sense of claustrophobia and dread. Brubaker and Phillips ended the year mid-way through their most strange arc to date. Set in Seattle during the 90s grunge era, an amnesiac Josephine has fallen in with a one hit wonder band, unaware of her power, the effect she’s having on the band, or the danger that greater exposure to the world at large may cause once the band becomes intent on using her in their new music video. Accessible and appealing to die hard comics fans and new readers alike, Fatale remains the poster book for what Image is doing so well as a publisher right now: giving creators the space to tell the stories they are most passionate about.

#5.) Saga
Publisher: Image Comics
Creators: Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

It sounds very simplistic and dismissive to sum up Saga by saying it is a book about anything and everything, but that really is the most accurate description I can offer of this title. From the randomness and futility of war, to the every day triumphs, tragedies, and mundanity of family life, to Vaughn’s own musings about writing and the creative process, Saga is a title that can do anything and go anywhere. It is a title that can instantly inspire and intimidate all aspiring creators by making the narrative look so effortlessly cohesive. Artist Fiona Staples imbues her figures with an incredible range of emotion. She possess a vivid and boundless imagination, designing unforgettable characters and locales, littering the pages of Saga with images that will stick in your mind long after you set the book down. Marco, Alaina, and the rest of their new family spent most of 2013 hiding out in the home of their personal hero, Oswald D. Heist, the author whose work inspired their decision to create a life away from the endless war between Landfall and Wreath. All the while, the forces pursuing the family began to converge on their targets. It is to Vaughn’s credit that he is able to create adversaries so sympathetic and likable that at times you almost forget they are intent on viciously murdering the book’s protagonists. Funny, tragic, immensely complex, and devastatingly simple, Saga is a joy to read, as much a celebration of life as it is of the comics medium.

#4.) East of West
Publisher: Image Comics
Creators: Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta

Almost every month of 2013 was marked by the release of an exciting slate of new books from Image Comics. And while many of these series will be in contention for this list next year, East of West was worthy of consideration right from the very first issue. Densely plotted, full of symbols, weaving a narrative that only its creators truly know the full pattern of, East of West is a Jonathan Hickman book for Jonathan Hickman super fans. East of West is a sci fi western that follows Death, Horseman of the Apocalypse, as he searches a dystopian North America divided into 7 nations at odds with each other, for his missing wife and son. And as the drums of war begin to beat, the other three Horsemen, murdered by Death, have risen to take vengeance and restore order in the name of a dark and mysterious gospel known only as The Message. Hauntingly beautiful, viscerally violent, and cinematically expansive, I would never have believed that the artwork of East of West was penciled by the same Nick Dragotta who drew the final chapters of Hickman’s FF, an extraordinary but vastly different series. Watching Dragotta’s style change and grow over the course of this past year has been a jaw dropping joy to behold. And no discussion of this title’s artwork would be complete without mentioning the work of colorist Frank Martin whose core palette of vivid blacks, whites, oranges, and blues have given this book a distinct and gorgeous visual flair. One of the most unique and captivating titles of 2013, the only thing more impressive than East of West’s auspicious debut is the fact that Hickman and Dragotta are just getting started.

#3.) Hawkeye
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Creators: Matt Fraction, David Aja, et al

What does Hawkeye, the Avenger with no powers, do on his day off? With that question, Matt Fraction and David Aja gave readers one of the most heartbreaking, hilarious, charming, and poignant titles on the stands today. Deeply flawed, wracked by guilt and self-loathing, possessed of incredibly accuracy whether he is aiming his bow, or disappointing those who try to love him, Clint Barton is an unconventional leading man for a big two comic. 2013 saw his protégé Kate Bishop (a Young Avenger who also calls herself Hawkeye) become utterly fed up with Clint’s knack for self-destruction, and set out on the road for California, realizing she had a better chance of growing as a person and super hero free of the fallout zone of her mentor. Fraction writes Clint as an ordinary guy who is more at ease fighting off an alien invasion with a medieval weapon than he is at navigating his every day responsibilities and personal relationships. Kate is a young woman on the verge of finding herself, full of potential, but held back by the inexperience and idealism of youth, and that fact that her new father figure acts more like her kid brother. David Aja is an exceptionally talented visual storyteller known for his nuanced body language, innovative panel layouts, scene choreography, and well, just about everything! Aja’s talents are on full display in Hawkeye #11 where Hawkeye’s dog Lucky (aka Pizza Dog, follow him on Twitter) tries to solve a murder. Aja uses a web of symbols to illustrate how Lucky interprets the world and makes associations. Fraction cleverly includes only minimal dialogue, just the words Lucky understands (“Come”, “good boy”, “Kate”, “Pizza”), and leaves the rest of the story to Aja’s stunning pencils. And although he was not able to pencil every issue, Aja’s absences from the title are hard to lament when superstars like Fracesco Fracavilla, Steve Lieber, and Annie Wu round out the rest of this title’s intimidatingly impressive art team. Featuring protagonists that fail more often than they succeed but who always manage to keep on trying Hawkeye celebrates a uniquely human perspective in a universe of gods, monsters, and super science. Matt Fraction and David Aja have accomplished something truly unique and special with Hawkeye, continuously reinventing the book and challenging themselves as creators to set a more difficult target in order to achieve a more spectacular shot.

#2.) Wonder Woman
Publisher: DC Comics
Creators: Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, et al

A long standing argument surrounding comics has questioned whether or not Wonder Woman deserves her spot as part of the DC Trinity alongside Superman and Batman. While I’ve always found this argument to be rather silly, I think that 2013 might be the year where the final nail is driven into the coffin of that debate. Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s career and character defining work on the title has carved out a new niche for Diana, that is deeply rooted in the character’s greek mythological roots, and makes a definitive case not just for her membership in the trinity, but for why she is the group’s most complex and nuanced member. There is a fearless swagger to Azzarello’s scripts as almost every issue upends the status quo in some way. The shifting alliances, shady deals, and double crosses packed into each issue gives the book a sense of intrigue on par with Game of Thrones. And Azzerallo deftly maintains the precarious balance between Diana’s conflicting nature, through moments of tender compassion for the makeshift family she has drawn around herself, and visceral displays of violence and power that remind readers that Wonder Woman is the biggest bad ass of the DC Universe. If 2012 was all about building up Wonder Woman’s support system, 2013 was all about ripping it apart and her with it. Having already lost her half-brother and rock Lennox, Wonder Woman’s year was accented with further tragedy when in order to prevent the First Born of Zeus from killing her charge, the last born, she was forced to sacrifice and murder her ally, friend, and mentor War. This act had far reaching ramifications because by taking War’s life, Diana herself assumes the mantle of the god of war, further entangling her cruel and duplicitous birth family, the deities of Olympus. Illustrated by Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins, and Goran Sudzuka, Wonder Woman maintains an impressive visual symmetry despite the rotating art team. Cliff Chiang in particular is unmatched when it comes to rendering a perfectly paced, pulse pounding action sequence. Over two years after Azerallo and Chiang relaunched the book, Wonder Woman remains one of the most exciting, impressive, and consistently high quality titles on the stands today.

#1.) Young Avengers
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Creators: Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, et al

A celebration of the potential of youth, the power of love, and the idea that maybe comics can be simultaneously fun and meaningful, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers very narrowly beat out some intimidating competition to claim the title: best comic of 2013. There is a powerful synergy that comes from certain pairings in comics and Gillen & McKelvie might be one of the best examples of the magic that can occur when a writer/artist team are so perfectly in synch. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie bring out the best in each other’s work, imbuing their collaborations with a real spark and the sense that the reader is privy to something very special. Featuring a mix of classic YA characters and a few fan favorite misfits, Young Avengers eschewed the legacy focus that had been so integral to the past incarnations of this title (as well as many comics that feature teen heroes) in favor of embracing the new, both within the story, and on a meta-level. When young sorcerer Wiccan tries to give the ultimate gift to his longtime boyfriend Hulkling, he accidentally exposes his world to an inter-dimensional parasite intent on feeding on our reality. Calling itself "Mother" the parasite was invisible to adults leaving only Billy and his friends in a position to stop it. To make matters worse, only Kid Loki seems to have the insight needed to guide them against Mother, the teammate that the Young Avengers have the least reason to trust. The team's year long battle against mother and its allies was a journey of sacrifice and self discovery as these heroes came to rely on each other and realize their own strength out of the shadow of heroes like Captain America and Iron Man. Kieron Gillen is a maestro of emotional manipulation on par with Joss Whedon, knowing exactly how to build the reader with one fanservice moment after another right before ripping the rug out from under them and kicking them in the teeth while they're down. There are few writers as adept at Gillen at weaving a number of complex seemingly disparate plot threads through a lengthy narrative before tying them all together for an exclamation point on his central thesis. His characters act and sound like real young people in a way that is both timeless and utterly indicative of youth in 2013. His scripts credit the reader with a welcome assumption of intellect, never plainly spelling out who he thinks these characters are or what motivates them but allowing the reader to glean this information through rapid witty dialogue and the complex decisions his characters make. Jamie McKelvie might be the most talented artist in the business when it comes to conveying emotion through expressions and body language. So much of the subtext of Gillen's writing would be lost if not for the subtle looks, telling postures, and thoughtful positioning of McKelvie's figure work. McKelvie also continuously challenged and outdid himself issue after issue with uniquely stylized fight scenes, each sequence employing new experimental techniques and designs that defied the constraints of the printed page. For continually delivering thoughtful, witty, charming character driven stories, for gorgeous and innovative artwork, for boldly wearing its heart on its sleeve, Young Avengers is the best series of 2013, and a shining example of why superhero comics still matter.
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