HEY, KIDS! COMICS! THE BEST (AND THE WORST) OF 2014
By Molly Jane Kremer and Jarrod Jones. So the year has come to an end, and holy hell did we read a lot of comic books. From Batgirl to Ms. Marvel to Southern Bastards, we have done our damndest to cover all the books you’ve come to love and appreciate over the last 365 days. With this list, we collate the absolute best we’ve encountered this year, while acknowledging a couple of the real stinkers that came and went to little fuss. And so it was. Enjoy.
THE BEST SINGLE ISSUES OF THE YEAR
JJ: Annihilator #1.“How do I describe Nomax to the common man?” That’s a damned fine question. The opening salvo to Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving’s insanely gorgeous (and gorgeously insane) six issue mini-series is as blistering as it is hungry. Featuring a hedonistic shit-heel screenwriter by the name of Ray Spass (as in “outer”), Morrison’s first 32 pages of Annihilator slowly peel back the fabric that separates reality from cocaine-fueled fiction, and then proceeds to yank it away to reveal the raw vulnerability of a man doomed to die. There were few comics released this year that dared to push the reader as far into the abyss as Annihilator. There were even fewer that would even bother to try. That’s what makes Annihilator required reading: every awful thought that nags at the back of the mind concerning futility and infinity was flung on issue #1’s pages by Morrison’s manic sorcery and Frazer Irving’s sinful imagery. There wasn’t a book in 2014 that scorched earth as effectively and thoroughly as Annihilator.
MJ: Cyclops #1. As a character, Cyclops more often tends to be disliked among comics fans. Imagine my delight upon the realization that his solo comic – starring the Cyclops of Brian Bendis’ time-traveling X-Men saga and his space-faring, pilot-pirate father, Corsair – is an immensely enjoyable father-and-son romp through the Marvel cosmos. This is Greg Rucka’s at his most energetic: his more dramatic books (like Lazarus and Stumptown), while fabulous, don’t share Cyclops‘ joie de vivre. It’s full of spacefaring exploits, derring-do, and the sweetest father/son relationship ever explored in modern superhero comics. Russell Dauterman’s art is truly excellent, and Chris Sotomayor’s celestial colors are rich and vibrant. The art is lively and dynamic, and Dauterman’s eye for detail (and for both cheesecake and beefcake, all exceedingly tasteful, of course) is astounding. Cyclops feels like a particularly exciting roadtrip with your dad, and while, like Corsair says, “everyone stinks at being sixteen”, a comic this enthralling makes those teenage years seem not so terrible after all.
JJ: Grayson #5. Everything you need to know about Dick Grayson can be found in Tim Seeley and Tom King’s ridiculously entertaining (and surprisingly touching) Grayson, and Grayson #5 is definitely the choicest entry in the still-very young series. The escalating drama is set aside for an issue to wisely allow its characters some vital narrative breathing room, giving Tom King the opportunity to elaborate on a Dick Grayson that feels both familiar and excitingly fresh. Lost in an expansive desert (gorgeously rendered by Mikel Janin’s art and Jeromy Cox’s lush colors) with quickly dwindling resources – and a newborn infant cradled in his arms – Dick walks towards an uncertain future with time working against him. Does he make it? That’s not the point; in Grayson #5, the journey is vastly more intriguing than the destination. With all of DC’s event tie-ins and disparate Convergences, it’s a wonder if the series will ever get to where it needs to go. But when installments roll along in as strong as issue #5 undoubtedly did, the long and winding road becomes that much easier to navigate.
MJ: The Multiversity: Thunderworld Adventures #1. As the fourth entry in Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, Thunderworld Adventures is the first “kid-friendly” comic written by Morrison since 2006’s All-Star Superman. Taking place on Earth-5, “The Big Red Cheese” himself, Captain Marvel (no, not that Captain Marvel), along with his entire cast, hadn’t been written this enjoyably or endearingly anywhere in recent memory, with Morrison’s love of the source material shining through at all points. Cameron Stewart’s cartoony aesthetic was exceptionally suited to a comic that is, ostensibly, a children’s tale, but his talent for expression and nuance helped to make it truly “all-ages”. Through this fable, Morrison was able to direct pointed commentary upon the comics industry itself, possibly lamenting certain companies’ penchant for “digging out the magic”, causing the universe to “lose its secret heart”. Thankfully, secret or otherwise, this book had more heart than any other comic released this year.
JJ: The Wicked + The Divine #1. Every sinful thing packed within the vivid thirty-two pages of The Wicked + The Divine #1 was a gift of sweet promise: while Jamie McKelvie’s visuals were making love to your corneas, Kieron Gillen was tossing out so many golden barbs into the ether that you accidentally repeated a couple of them in mixed company. (To my co-worker who will remain nameless: I really didn’t mean to call you “the Empress of Stupid.” It just came out from under me.) The Wicked + The Divine #1 cast a wide net of mystery and intrigue, ensnaring every single person who dared read it (and subsequently sent thousands to Tumblr to just go ape-shit – all day, every day – over what might be the closest thing comics has to a phenomenon). The ancient adage holds: if you can’t have tremendous sex 100% of the time, read good comics. (I might have just made that up.) If that’s true, The Wicked + The Divine #1 left every reader blithely smoking a cigarette, aggressively clutching the headboard that protected them from the cruel world waiting outside.
MJ: Southern Bastards #4. Southern Bastards is many things, but it is not a pretty comic. Nor should it be. Native Southerners Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have created a love letter (of sorts) to the American South, featuring the good, the bad, and everything in-between, and their first storyline, “Here Was A Man”, concluded with this exceptional fourth issue. As another angle to “you can’t go home again”, the harsh tale of Earl Tubb’s return to Craw County, Alabama (a fictional setting that seems to run on barbecue, football, and blood) is a heartbreaking one, with one helluva ending. (It will, in all honesty, rock your socks.) It’s not a showy comic – it doesn’t need to be – and yet it boasts a double-page spread consisting of 24 panels, featuring an intense fight scene as savage as it is affecting. Latour colors the fight and the flashbacks that come with it in contrasting colors, giving the sequence a proverbial “life flashing before your eyes” moment: tiny, bittersweet glimpses into the past are paired with scenes of fierce brutality. This is a comic book that will break your heart.
JJ: Earth 2 #25. If you missed out on Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott’s initial run on Earth 2, simply put: you fucked up. Taylor’s “any crazy idea will do” approach to a fresh and unfamiliar world was the right amount of chutzpah for a book that had every reason to fail. With Nicola Scott’s gorgeous pencils – her Jerry Ordway-esque linework easily elicited fond memories of a comic age long since past – Earth 2 became a quiet success story. And every last perfect bit of it converged with issue #25 (the second to last issue in their fantastic run): “The Kryptonian, Part Five” elaborated upon a story where Kal-El – Superman himself – had become an agent of Darkseid, a fear-mongering hate machine that needed put down, and pronto. (Showing shades of Superman: The Animated Series, which is never a bad thing.) That looked very much like a job for the newest (and possibly the coolest) Superman of the New52, Val-Zod of Krypton. (It’s a long story.) Though their run has ended, know that Taylor & Scott gave DC one of its finest runs, one that culminated in the birth of a new Superman. Now go buy their book.
MJ: Rocket Raccoon #5. The new Rocket Raccoon series, along with Legendary Star-Lord, is one of two ongoing comic series that were released in anticipation of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie released in August. Lo and behold, that film did, um, moderately well, and its tie-in comics have been similarly successful – and thankfully, similarly entertaining. This fifth issue is a standalone, and while the book is helmed by artist extraordinaire Skottie Young, the art duties are ably covered by Jake Parker (of Antler Boy fame). The story is told by Rocket and Groot to a group of campers, and is fully narrated by the vocabulistically-challenged Groot. (Thus every character only utters the trademark “I am Groot”.) It takes a talented artist (and writer) to make a story like this function properly with only visuals as the real guide. This book does as much, and it’s also terribly funny besides. Rocket Raccoon #5 is a fun read for all ages, and a more-than-satisfactory introduction to comics for anyone who may have enjoyed this summer’s Marvel madness.
JJ: The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1. If there was a single issue printed this year that held the possibility of igniting in your hands, Pax Americana #1 was it. Simmering like a Michael Mann film while affirming an Oliver Stone-level of paranoia, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s latest collaboration ventured into DC Comics’ Earth-4, where familiar heroes (all former Charlton Comics characters, all based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen) walked the precarious line that separated reality from “the truth”. Providing considerable nuance to several characters – some of whom hadn’t been seen or heard from in years – while subtly broadening the scope of The Multiversity itself, Morrison crafted the most dizzying and viscerally damning comic book of the year. Guided by Frank Quitely’s singular artwork – easily some of the best of this or any year – Pax Americana showed us a world we’ve seen before, and made goddamned sure that we’d never want to inhabit it. Ideas like that just don’t belong in a DC comic. That’s why it’s one of the greatest single issues of the year.
MJ: The Wicked + The Divine #5. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine has been a glossy and glittery ode to pop-stardom and the effervescence of youth, with a bit of mythology sprinkled in for good measure. Twelve gods are reincarnated every ninety years, becoming pop-stars – with great likenesses to actual celebrities without being outright caricatures – only to be guaranteed an untimely death in two years. The fifth and final entry to Gillen and McKelvie’s first storyline sees the consequences of Lucifer’s defiance, and the death of a character we’ve grown to adore since the first issue. It’s a heartrending moment, and the spectacular fade-out ending made the two-month wait for issue #6 nigh-intolerable. McKelvie’s art is stunning, expressive, artful, and heavy with suspense. (He also draws the absolute best sneers in the business, hands down.) Matthew Wilson’s colors are clean, bright, and pair perfectly with McKelvie’s gorgeously minimalist aesthetic. This is a series that muses on death, divinity, and pop-music in equal measure, and the result is never less than pure enjoyment.
THE WORST SINGLE ISSUE OF THE YEAR
JJ: Grayson: Futures End #1. For all of the praise that has been heaped upon Grayson on this site (see above), the whole damned production – and subsequently, our interest – came dangerously close to being derailed. By indulging the mandate DC Comics set before its entire line earlier this year, the rather insistent tie-in to Futures End predicted a future five years from now, where Dick Grayson somehow devolved into a murdering coward. Whatever steps led our hero to such a dark fate made many fear for Grayson‘s future. (I recall at least one bourbon-fueled rant late one evening at DoomRocket HQ.) Some claimed a lyrical romanticism saved the book for the more acute reader, while others maintained it was a wrong-headed move for a potentially canonical one-shot that projected characters who had – at that point – very little time to grow. No matter what side of the fence you may have found yourself on, one thing’s for certain: under zero circumstance is Dick Grayson a killer. This book betrayed that truth.
MJ: Wonder Woman #36. My review of Wonder Woman #36 was the most negative thing I’ve ever written, and it makes me immensely sad that it should concern my favorite superhero. Aside from being the worst – and most offensive – representation I’ve ever seen of this iconic and world-renowned character, it’s just a bad comic. Meredith Finch’s writing is at the level you’d expect from someone with only three published comics to their name: the dialogue is wooden, long-winded, and completely out-of-character, and the plot itself is onerous and hard to follow. (Most of the issue is spent on JLA business – because why would a Wonder Woman comic focus on Wonder Woman? – and in one double-page spread, Diana is seen but not heard, depicted as a sullen teenager surrounded by bodybuilders.) David Finch’s cheesecake-focused art is the worst possible choice for a comic featuring a feminist icon, and through it we’re treated to twenty-two pages of Diana drawn like a wide-eyed Barbie doll in a Wonder Woman costume. This is a book that shoves the industry back twenty years with its art, its writing, and its ideology.
THE BEST MINI-SERIES OF THE YEAR
MJ: Memetic. James Tynion’s and Eryk Donovan’s Memetic was an unexpected and under-the-radar gem, and was one of the most unsettlingly creepy releases of 2014. Only three issues long (but with each issue logging in at 40 pages, chock-full of extras) and taking place over three days, it packs in the maximum amount of shocks as it can, but is at no point mindless entertainment. Memetic revolves around a meme that quite literally could end the world, and is especially riveting if the reader is active on social media (and who isn’t nowadays?). By the end, it delves further into nihilism than most any other post-apocalyptic fiction dares to go, and will linger in your head – like a certain photo of a compellingly cute sloth – for days after.
Runner-up: Bodies. Si Spencer’s murder mystery about a corpse that shows up simultaneously in four different time periods in London, with each era flawlessly illustrated by one of four different top-notch artists (Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Tula Lotay and Meghan Hetrick, with Lee Loughridge on colors).
JJ: The Multiversity. Giving a reader incentive to return to a series – be it an ongoing, maxi, or mini – requires motivation. And of all the reasons to return every week, month, or year, eclecticism is a damn fine motivator to pique anybody’s interest. Grant Morrison embraces this, weaving through DC Comics’ multiverse with a diverse crew of illustrators ranging from Cameron Stewart to Frank Quitely: from the exuberant, four-colored energy of Thunderworld Adventures to the sobering bite of Pax Americana, The Multiversity isn’t just the most vibrant series DC Comics has published since Morrison’s own All-Star Superman, it’s well on its way to becoming one of the defining comic works in recent memory.
Runner-up: The Death of Wolverine. For a story with the ending in its title, Charles Soule and Steve McNiven’s last Logan lark was easily one of the most riveting books that graced comic stands this year. The creative team didn’t merely give Wolverine a classy sendoff – they crafted a definitive end so majestic it should border on the absurd.
BEST COVER OF THE YEAR
MJ: She-Hulk #1. While any one of Kevin Wada’s gorgeous She-Hulk covers merit inclusion on “best of the year” lists, the cover for the series’ first issue was the definition of starting on a high point.
Runner-up: Any of Jamie McKelvie’s covers to The Wicked + The Divine. (They’re all perfect.)
JJ: Batman/Superman #12. The ubiquitous Jae Lee created absolutely gorgeous covers all year long, ranging from Catwoman to Wolf Moon, but it was his downright Freudian cover to Greg Pak’s Big Two crossover book that netted the most attention this year. Just look at that thing.
Runner-up: Greg Capullo’s ode to a man who laughs, with the cover to Batman #37.
BEST WRITER OF THE YEAR
MJ: Jason Aaron. He has long been a favorite of mine – see his Scalped, Wolverine, Wolverine and the X-Men for reasons as to why – but 2014 has been a particularly stellar year for him. He’s one of the many professionals who have launched creator-owned series’ at Image Comics, and his much-lauded drama Southern Bastards has been selling into multiple printings, and has been earning well-deserved rave reviews. His work on Thor – both before and after the relaunch, with a new female lead wielding Mjolnir – has been consistently entertaining, a fun action-adventure romp. Aaron, a master of any and every genre at which he tries his hand, is a versatile master at the peak of his craft.
Runner up: Grant Morrison. Though a comics mainstay for decades, this year has seen the writer putting out some of the best work of his already outstanding career. Hopefully his Multiversity will be put to good use, as this already-revolutionary survey of the DCU could have profound effects on superhero comics in general.
JJ: Grant Morrison. Sorry, MJ: Mr. Aaron is a fine writer, but I do believe that 2014 belonged to Mr. Grant Morrison. The Mad Scotsman has transcended the trappings of superhero comics – and effectively pissed in the faces of superhero editors – effectively making him something more than a comic book writer; Grant Morrison has in effect become a comic book folk hero. Even though it’s nearly 2015 and Morrison has absolutely zero reason to prove himself to anyone ever, the man continuously seeks to challenge and improve upon himself. And from Annihilator to The Multiversity, he has accomplished this beautifully. There simply isn’t another person more qualified to shepherd the beleaguered comic book industry.
Runner-up: Ed Brubaker. Read Velvet or The Fade Out, and – even though they couldn’t be further apart in their genre trappings – you’ll not only discover two completely engaging comic books, you’ll find that they were written by the same man. Brubaker deserves to be on any ‘Best Of’ list, regardless of what year it is.
BEST ARTIST OF THE YEAR
MJ: Babs Tarr. It’s strange that my pick for best artist of the year has only completed three issues thus far, and they’re the only three comics she’s ever done interiors for. But the book she’s working on, Batgirl, has probably gotten more attention than nearly any other comic this year – and deservedly so. The book’s co-writer, Cameron Stewart, redesigned Batgirl’s costume this past summer, and lit Tumblr afire in so doing. Their run on the comic began with issue #35, and it’s been a breath of fresh air in DC’s dank halls ever since. Tarr’s art is a major part of that: her femme-friendly art, aptitude for expression, and sharp eye for fashion has turned Batgirl into a book to pay attention to, and to savor for the treat that it is.
Runner up: Russell Dauterman. He is also a relative newcomer (previously he’d worked on Superbia and two issues of Nightwing), but 2014 has been his year: his gorgeous work has bolstered the excellent Cyclops, and the critically-acclaimed Thor with Jason Aaron.
JJ: Frazer Irving. I’m having a difficult time thinking of another artist that brought me to the abyss this year quite like Frazer Irving. Considering his formidable beginnings with 2000 AD and the implausibly theatrical work he did with Grant Morrison during his Batman and Robin run, there was more than enough reason to believe that anything he’d do afterwards would be a goddamned masterpiece. But with Annihilator, Irving has forged the greatest work of his career thus far, crafting gorgeous visuals that would make Stanley Kubrick weep in open public. He may not have saturated the market like others, but who gives a proper shit? Frazer Irving is the best artist of the year, or I’m beef stroganoff.
Runner-up: Greg Capullo. If you can think of an artist more suited to the wide-screen format to which comic books aspire, if their name is anything other than Greg Capullo, I’m likely to call you a liar.
BEST ONGOING SERIES
MJ: Ms. Marvel. A teenager suddenly acquires great powers and greater responsibility, only this time it’s a nerdy Pakistani-American girl under the mask. The response was massive, and Ms. Marvel #1 sold into a nearly unheard-of seventh printing. Beyond just being a new source of buzz, she’s possibly Marvel’s most exciting protagonist in years: G. Willow Wilson’s writing is snappy, charming and heartfelt, while Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring’s art is fantastic, emotive, and just cute enough to appeal to a younger, female audience typically ignored by superhero comics. Ms. Marvel is a bright example of how great comics can be if publishers would only open their minds.
JJ: Batman. It could be 2014, 2011, or even 2016, and it still wouldn’t matter – Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman has become the definitive take on the Dark Knight in the New52. 2014 might have seen their most ambitious year yet: it saw the end to history being made (quite literally, with its wrap-up of the Batman’s genesis in Zero Year), and the beginnings of the creative team’s most audacious work yet (with the other ultimate Batman vs. Joker story, Endgame). Many comic books claim to be innovative. Batman has taken the 75 year-old Caped Crusader and spawned a formidable Dark Knight for the century that lies before him. There simply isn’t another ongoing book that compares to it.
Agree? Disagree? What did YOU love in 2014? Let us know in the comments below.