by Brian Truitt)
When toasting the end of 2013, clink your glasses a few times for the excellent year in comic books.
The medium continued its momentum, especially in terms of creator-owned material, where Image Comics is still the standard bearer with Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, Ed Brubaker's Fatale and Velvet, Kurtis J. Wiebe's Rat Queens, John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew and Ales Kot's Zero among a very deep roster of talent.
Superheroes are as big as ever, too, and Marvel and DC continue to rule the roost with good guys and bad guys aplenty — and everyone in between. Marvel rolled out a slew of high-profile fare such as Age of Ultron, Infinity and Inhumanity, while DC finally unleashed Forever Evil, an event that the publisher's been building toward since its 2011 relaunch.
There's an ocean of "cape comics," though, and the Big Two aren't the only fish in that sea anymore. In addition to being the home of Hellboy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dark Horse made a big push toward the superpowered with X, Captain Midnight, Brain Boy and others, while Valiant continued to expand its roster beyond stalwart series such as X-O Manowar and Harbinger in its second year post-revamp.
The smaller companies were no slouches either, thanks to the continuing growth of digital comics and a surge in do-it-yourself quality. MonkeyBrain Comics claimed its first Eisner Award for Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's Bandette this past summer just after the fledgling company turned 1 year old, and Titan Comics launched in 2013 on the other side of the pond with Numbercruncher and Death Sentence.
Some creators had a big 2013, too, especially Matt Kindt and Charles Soule. In addition to his own Mind MGMT, Kindt became DC's go-to guy on Justice League of America and Suicide Squad as well as the scribe on Valiant's Unity series, and Soule had a busy breakout year with the sci-fi series Letter 44 plus Superman/Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, Red Lanterns and Thunderbolts. Old standbys also had memorable years — this one saw Geoff Johns put his final touches on epic runs of Green Lantern and Aquaman. (If he's looking for something extra to pass the time in 2014, Johns could write a killer Doom Patrol. Just sayin'.)
Things weren't always peachy, though. Batwoman creative team J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman left abruptly over creative differences, leaving fans atwitter on Twitter, and Apple rejected Sex Criminals and has kept it off its iOS platforms such as Comixology due to content guidelines, thereby creating a new nemesis for comic fans. (Though you can find issues at your local comic shop or digitally at the Image Comics website.) News tidbits like those were balanced with the better aspects of the industry, for example when a comic such as The Liberator comes around and pledges to donate proceeds toward animal-rescue organizations.
We're not Apple, though, and Sex Criminals gets two thumbs up from me. So with 2014 just hours away, it's time to fete that and the best of the rest that comics had to offer in the past year.
Best writer: Jonathan Hickman. Honestly, he belongs in this spot for just pulling off Marvel Comics' Infinity event, plus the Avengers and New Avengers tie-in issues, and making the whole thing grand as one could ever hope. Add in the wondrous Western apocalypse tale East of West, the zany and brainy The Manhattan Projects and the beginning of God is Dead (putting mankind at Ground Zero for the return of the gods) to further cement his comic-book superstardom. Honorable mention: Scott Snyder. He continued his hot streak as the man in charge of all things Gotham City with Batman and the "Zero Year" story line — including one notable issue that was more than likely the origin of his Joker — and also launched Superman Unchained with Jim Lee. The year also saw the debut of Snyder's immersive The Wake with Sean Murphy, together putting out the smartest horror comic of the year.
Jenny Frison creates beautifully creepy covers monthly for "Revival."(Photo: Jenny Frison/Image Comics)
Best cover artist: Jenny Frison. I am far removed from college, but were I still matriculating, one could imagine I'd have all of her beautiful and usually creepy Revival covers on a dorm-room wall. In addition, she did some great stuff for Red Sonja, Mind the Gap, Pretty Deadly and many others you should have in your collection. Honorable mention: Mark Brooks. Fearless Defenders shouldn't have been cancelled for many reasons, but near the top of those would be Brooks' covers. In making them look like faux romance-novel jackets and action-figure cards, he made them distinctive from everything else on comic-store shelves.
Best artist: Fiona Staples. Saga wouldn't be such a sci-fi saga if not for the universe of strange-yet-familiar characters she draws magnificently monthly — from cosmic tabloid journalists to an old, weird one-eyed author. Honorable mention: Nicola Scott. There are a lot of superhero comics out there, but the Australian illustrator stands out among the in-crowd on Earth 2, putting a stunning alternate-universe spin on iconic characters like Batman and Hawkgirl and currently making Superman the most angry guy around.
Best ongoing series: Saga. Just when you think it couldn't get any better, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples outdo themselves the very next issue. This year has featured bounty hunters easier to love than hate, sentimental adventures in space between a girl and the coolest kitty in the universe, and more drama and humor with Marko, Alana, Hazel and their motley clan on the lam. Honorable mention: Locke & Key. Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez wrapped up their masterpiece about the Locke children and the legendary Keyhouse this year with final issues filled with shadow demons, tragedy, love and heaps of redemption. It's truly one of the best comics ever, and now is the time to give the whole darn thing to potential readers and show them what kind of brilliance can be created in this medium.
Best new series: Sex Criminals. What's criminal is how utterly outstanding Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's randy and heartfelt outing is in a year full of tremendous debuts. Susie and Jon can both freeze time during sexual climax, and that leads to great coming-of-age moments and a current story arc where they're in the middle of a bank heist — robbus interruptus, indeed. Where the series really excels, though, is in the witty sequences when you're not expecting them, including the hilarious bathroom-wall walk-through of sex moves and Fraction's Post-It-notes explanation of getting Queen to sign off on using their lyrics while Susie belts out Fat Bottomed Girls. Honorable mention: Pretty Deadly. One doesn't normally find comic creators using the artistic stylings of blind Spanish balladeers of yesteryear. Yet, it's fitting because Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios' Western supernatural fantasy excellently departs from all sorts of conventions in telling of Death's reaper daughter and the richly realized characters around her.
Best miniseries: Polarity. Max Bemis proved he could rock it on stage (he fronts the band Say Anything) and on the page. With his comics debut, Bemis penned a memorable tale of a bipolar man who gets superpowers from his disorder that's as endlessly funny as it is dramatic. Here's hoping Bemis keeps moonlighting as a comics scribe. Honorable mention: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys. This is just a rockin' category, because 2013 also brought us the return of Gerard Way to comics with this miniseries continuing the plot from a My Chemical Romance record. Becky Cloonan's art is also killer in this futuristic ode to originality and never letting "the Man" — in this case, an evil organization with henchmen in vampire masks — get you down.
Best digital series: The Bunker. Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari's DIY digital comic garnered a print home with Oni Press and a TV deal, too. As it should, since its concept — a bunch of kids are faced with what their future selves will unleash — is one of the best seen in any entertainment medium this year. Honorable mention: The Private Eye. Only Brian K. Vaughan doing a surprise comic could crash a website with people wanting to peep it. He and Marcos Martin let fans pay whatever they want to for installments of their sci-fi mystery about a society where people wear masks for privacy's sake, yet it's so good, one might consider it priceless.
Best all-around: Jeff Lemire. After saying a heartfelt goodbye to his deer boy and the cast of Sweet Tooth, Lemire continued his work as one of DC's prime-time superhero writers on Justice League Dark, Green Arrow and Animal Man, but also penned and drew his own Trillium series, a neat mix of romance, sci-fi drama and time-travel intrigue. Honorable mention: Riley Rossmo. He continued to branch out this year, writing and drawing the weirdly wonderful Drumhellar, adding to the outstanding artwork he did on Bedlam and a series of variant covers for G.I. Joe: Cobra.
Rookie of the year (creator): Caitlin Kittredge. Coffin Hill, the novelist's debut horror comic about a Boston cop who returns to the Massachusetts hometown where something wicked and witchy happened in her youth, is the one book that could lead Vertigo Comics back to being on comics' cutting edge — even in a year that saw the return of Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Honorable mention: Chris Dingess. The Being Human writer crossed over into comics with Manifest Destiny, a supernatural story of a different kind where Lewis and Clark are Thomas Jefferson's chief monster hunters under the guise of Western explorers.
Rookie of the year (character): Forever from Lazarus. While she's engineered to be the perfectly trained protector of her family in a dystopian future in Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's action series, there's a lot more to the warrior underneath that adds to the Game of Thrones-meets-Mad Max atmosphere. Honorable mention: Ruben from Buzzkill. Donny Cates and Toadies drummer Mark Reznicek hatched one of 2013's more original superheroes, a guy who's torn between being sober and embracing the addictions that give him extraordinary abilities.
Most insane read: Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight. Quentin Tarantino would be proud of the B-movie craziness Alex De Campi hath wrought in her noteworthy paean to exploitation cinema, from Bee Vixens taking over a Texas town to a women-in-prison movie on a spaceship. Honorable mention: Ballistic. Where do you start, really, with a book that contains an air-conditioning guy as its chief protagonist, a living monster gun named Bang-Bang, a '57 Chevy with wings and rabbit porn? Quite simply the weirdest comic out there that's as enjoyable as it is certifiable.
Best horror comic: Ghosted. Josh Williamson's tale of a criminal mastermind tasked to put together a group of disparate individuals to kidnap a ghost from a haunted house melds together all sorts of horror-movie and heist-film tropes yet still manages to be original and exciting in its execution. Honorable mention: Afterlife with Archie. Archie ain't just for kids anymore with this horrific masterpiece that turns Jughead into a zombie and puts an adult spin on Riverdale. The all-ages stuff has done well for the publisher for decades, but man, they might have a future with a mature-readers line, too.
Han Solo and Princess Leia returned in the pages of Dark Horse Comics' "Star Wars."(Photo: Dark Horse Comics)
Best throwback: Star Wars. Dark Horse Comics also began an adaptation of George Lucas' original screenplay with The Star Wars, but Brian Wood's terrific return to the classic trilogy with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader and a squadron of X-Wings almost makes up for Jar-Jar Binks and midichlorians. Almost. Honorable mention: A whole heap of The Shadow. Dynamite Entertainment offers the old-school pulp hero in as many flavors as possible. Like the classic? There's The Shadow. Dig team-ups? There's Masks and The Shadow/Green Hornet: Dark Nights. Modern day more your thing? There's The Shadow Noir. The Shadow knows ... and also fills up your pullbox.
Best team-up: Quantum & Woody. Valiant's new series that brought back "the world's worst superteam" balanced the oddball and the dramatic with two estranged adopted brothers brought back together when their father is killed. The publisher is doing a lot of good things with its superheroes, with Woody right up there with Shadowman and Archer & Armstrong as the line's finest. Honorable mention: Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber have created a lovable group of hapless supervillains that almost rival Flash's Rogues. Led by Boomerang, these guys just wanna get by and not get punched by Spidey, and we just wanna watch.
Best villain: The Crime Syndicate. It's hard to really pick out which one of these Earth 3 baddies is the worst in the current Forever Evil event. The Superman analogue Ultraman is ultra-vicious, Atomica and Johnny Quick are a straight-up brutal Bonnie and Clyde, and the alternate-universe Lois Lane, aka Superwoman, is probably the most homicidal of them all. When you make Lex Luthor look like a good guy, you're pretty bad. Honorable mention: Capitan Haken. "The Hook," as he's known in Peter Panzerfaust, is the Nazi version of Captain Hook in this World War II take on Peter Pan. Nazis always make for good villains, and this dude is right up there.
Best use of history: Uber/Three (tie). Kieron Gillen has a two-fer going: With Uber, he reimagines the waning days of World War II and changes the landscape with Nazis and their superhuman army, and the writer takes on Spartan legend with Three, centered on a trio of slaves trying to escape the vaunted army of 300. Honorable mention: Satellite Sam. Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin dig into the real-life golden age of TV — specifically 1950s kids' shows — and the early days of networks to create a seedy episodic journey of sex, murder and mystery, all in fittingly glorious black and white.
Best indie book you should be reading: Edison Rex. MonkeyBrain's head man Chris Roberson channels Alan Moore in his superhero deconstruction efforts here with Edison, an ex-villain who wants to be a hero so bad he decides to take out the do-gooding Valiant and replace him. Honorable mention: Sheltered. Ed Brisson made a splash first with Comeback and most of all with this pre-apocalyptic comic with artist Johnnie Christmas where the kids of a survival colony revolt against their parents.
MVP: Jordie Bellaire. Unless you're a hardcore comic nerd, you might not recognize her name, but if it's a good-looking book, she probably colored it. The titles she works on — and has added a spectrum of awesomeness to — could be a best-of-the-year list on their own: Pretty Deadly, Zero, Three, Young Avengers, Mara, Deadpool, The Massive, Quantum & Woody and many, many others. So when you want to find your next favorite comic, just look for her name on the cover. Honorable mention: Tom Brevoort. The Marvel Comics executive editor is a treasure trove of knowledge about superhero comics, and, as one of comics' nicest guys, there are not many folks better to have as a public face — and voice — for the top publisher in the business.
Best comic-book movie: Thor: The Dark World. Together, the Avengers are magnetic on screen, yet it could be argued that Chris Hemsworth's Thor thrives more in his own films, which balance huge fantasy with a healthy dose of humorous whimsy. The sequel surpassed the surprisingly good original film, and with a mid-credits tease, set up Marvel Studios' journey to the stars for Guardians of the Galaxy. Maybe we'll see Hemsworth in space for Thor 3 — is it too early to line up for the midnight show? Honorable mention: The Wolverine. After the disaster of the first Wolverine solo film, Hugh Jackman's second solo vehicle went the best and most un-superheroic direction possible: Director James Mangold's movie pulls from revenge dramas, the samurai oeuvre and old-school Westerns to set the bar higher for everybody else in the comic-movie game.
Best comic-book TV series: Arrow. The aim is true for the CW series' second season with Stephen Amell in the emerald togs and bow that Green Arrow made famous. And among the small-screen superhero fare, it's the best at reimagining the comic mythology, with Easter eggs for in-the-know fans and cool takes on everybody from Brother Blood to Black Canary to Slade Wilson to Barry Allen, a guy who might not be — ahem — a flash in the pan since he's getting his own spinoff pilot. Honorable mention: The Walking Dead. Admittedly, the AMC show's been a love/hate thing for me since the beginning — seriously, one whole season at the farm? — but the two Governor-centric episodes this year, showing many layers to David Morrissey's villain, were highlights of the series so far.
Jonathan Hickman had an impressive 2013, from his creator-owned books "East of West" and "The Manhattan Projects" to "Avengers," "New Avengers" and "Infinity."(Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Hickman)
Best event: Infinity. The Avengers and pretty much the universe vs. the most powerful force imaginable. Thanos and his crew vs. Earth and a cadre of Inhumans. Jonathan Hickman sticking the landing. 'Nuff said. Honorable mention: Unity. Valiant's biggest comic doesn't have a gazillion crossovers. Instead, it just has a small cast and makes up for a quantity of tie-ins with a quality conceit, where a super team has to be formed when Aric of Dacia (in his X-O Manowar outfit) annexes Romania to be his new Visigoth nation.
Best single issue: Hawkeye No. 11. Lucky, aka Pizza Dog, gets the spotlight in Matt Fraction and David Aja's genius and mostly wordless issue from the point of view of the charismatic canine, who springs into action when a corpse is found on the roof. Honorable mention: Black Science No. 1. A spectacular splash page of giant turtles walking around with temples on their backs in the middle of a purple-tinged lightning storm wins me over every time. That scene was one of many cool aspects that caused readers to dive into Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera's dimension-hopping sci-fi drama.
Best collection: The Sixth Gun: Gunslinger Edition. Oni Press puts a faux leather cover on the first hardcover volume of Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt's supernatural Western, and places it in a box made to look like General Hume's coffin along with art prints and other exclusive accoutrement. Honorable mention: The Sandman Omnibus Edition. If you've never read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, and have an extra 500 bucks from your holiday money, here's the whole shebang in two hardcover volumes signed by Gaiman.
Best gutsy decision: Dan Slott's Superior Spider-Man. One year ago, Slott ended the long-running Amazing Spider-Man, and with it the life of Peter Parker, and launched Superior Spider-Man with the mind of nemesis Doctor Octopus guiding the body of Marvel's signature wall-crawler. What could easily have been a disaster ended up being a well-done story line that made Spidey fresh again, gave him a different kind of girlfriend and personality, and a horde of new obstacles to tackle. With "Goblin Nation" coming, change could be again on the horizon, but at this point, more fans probably have the mind-set "In Slott we trust." Honorable mention: DC's "Villains Month" 3-D covers. I wasn't a comic reader for most of the 1990s, and after seeing a decade full of foil covers and other odd gimmicks, maybe I didn't miss a whole lot. DC rolled out a whole month of bad guys in three dimensions, yet the stunt worked — the art was cool, the stories were pretty cool and the 3-D was pretty slick. Then again, I didn't have any of them melt in my vehicle.
Best series set in Oz: The Emerald City of Oz. Skottie Young's distinctive art style has fit with L. Frank Baum's Technicolor landscape for quite a few miniseries, and it's fun for all ages — literally, crazy kid-friendly — with the Nome Army and the Phantasms of Mount Phantastico when Dorothy takes Aunt Em and Uncle Henry to Oz. Honorable mention: Grimm Fairy Tales: Oz. If you like your Wizard of Oz a little more on the adult side — say, with Dorothy in a cleavage-baring crop top — then this is your Ozian jam, retelling the heroine's journey to a fantasy world in search of a mystical scepter.
Best comic to save for my daughter: Captain Marvel. No, I'm not just copying myself from last year. As long as Kelly Sue DeConnick's penning the further adventures of Carol Danvers — who's getting a relaunch in the new year — I'll keep setting them for the 1-year-old future CarolCorps member. (I might even bag and board them!) Honorable mention: Fearless Defenders. Cullen Bunn and Will Sliney's female team book was unfortunately cancelled, so thank goodness for trade collections and the like that keep the series around for future generations. It was fun, fabulous and, dare I say, fearless in its action adventure and will be sorely missed.
Pet of the year: Lying Cat. The Will's feline sidekick in Saga communicates so much with one word: "Lying." She's a walking, purring lie detector who was thought dead for a time but came back to feature in the comic's most tender moment. Honorable mention: Lockjaw. The large Inhuman dog pretty much saved Earth from blowing up in Infinity No. 6 with a well-timed bit of teleportation. Black Bolt must have thrown him a Pupperoni for that one.