When Words Collide: The Ten Best Comics of 2013

Mon, December 23rd, 2013 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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Last week, I counted down numbers 25 to 11. Now, it's the moment you've all been waiting for: the TEN BEST COMICS OF THE YEAR, as determined by a secret mathematical formula including elements such as beauty, awesomeness, reader engagement, percentage of lines to non-lines, cultural impact, and stuff I liked the most. It's a precise science.

Here we go…

10. "Wonder Woman," by Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, Goran Sudzuka and Matt Wilson

Not "Hawkeye" or "Daredevil" or "Batman," nope. Those are all fine, but "Wonder Woman" is the best Marvel or DC superhero comic of the year.

Not only is it remarkable that "Wonder Woman" has emerged from the New 52 better than ever -- and it's the only comic that can confidently make such a claim -- but Brian Azzarello and friends have managed to avoid the editorially-driven nonsense that has seemingly sabotaged other comics in the line. Even while Wonder Woman prances around with the Justice League or romances Superman in other comics, here she is part of a larger story about gods and goddesses and spacemen from other dimensions and it's like the rest of the DCU isn't even happening at all, as she goes about her business.

Now that Goran Sudzuka has come on board (I don't know for how long) to alternate with Cliff Chiang, the art looks consistently great, and surely the look of the comics is one of its major appeals, with its thick linework and clear visual storytelling. But the story Azzarello has been building since issue #1 continue to unfold its layers, with new complications woven in. This is a serialized comic book that actually feels like the story progresses from issue to issue, and that there's an overall structure at work to unify the entire thing. It's not just the best "big two" superhero comic because many of the others are so bland, it's the best of the bunch because it tells its story boldly, vividly, and with intelligence.

9. "Fatale," by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Elizabeth Breitweiser

I had barely dipped into this series when I abandoned it, within the first few months of its debut, largely because it was all mood and setting and not much in the way of plot or forward momentum, and I figured I would dive back in sometime later, maybe after it was finished. Well, since then, the series has turned into an ongoing, and though I haven't heard anyone really rave about it, I thought it was only fair to give it another shot. It's Brubaker and Phillips, and they have done many things I've liked a whole lot in the past ten years.

Clearly, I liked "Fatale" a whole lot as well.

This series is dripping with the flavor of the pulp authors I've been reading lately, most notably H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. I don't know if Brubaker has expressed this notion anywhere, but the conceit seems to be: let's take those "Weird Tales" pulp writer sensibilities and weave together a longer story out of some of their obsessions, jumping around in time to let us play with different genre backdrops. So Brubaker and Phillips get to do his nourish crime weird horror story, and his war story version, and a little strange western, and, in the most recent arc, a slacker crime tale of terror. The Lovecraftian weirdness provides the frame and the larger continuity, but each story arc treats its subject through a different lens. This is the kind of thing I love about comics: when the genre playfulness gives us fresh perspectives even within the same overall story. "Fatale" is really good at pulling that off, and don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

8. "Adventure Time," by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb

This has been a Top 10 comic since it first began, and now I have an even better sense of what makes it work so well, particularly because more "Adventure Time" comic book spin-offs have emerged over the past year, and they aren't nearly as good as this series.

While other "Adventure Time" comics -- many of which are written and drawn by folks who seem extremely talented -- are either too whimsical, too slight, too jokey, or too bland, this core "Adventure Time" comic is constantly filled with epic adventure and a densely-packed dose of wit. Ryan North throws in one-liners or footnote gags that are funnier than almost anything else being published right now, and Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb provide crisp page layouts and a distinctive sense of movement as the stories often grow more ridiculously immense in scope. North and his artistic colleague play with the form of comics -- last year gave us a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story, and this year he's done parallel narratives, and surprise flash-forwards -- and it's as if the whole creative team is incredibly restless and yet able to focus that energy into something laser sharp. And beautiful. And hilarious. And emotionally powerful, too. Yup, this comic is for real.

7. "Jupiter's Legacy," by Mark Millar, Frank Quitely and Peter Doherty

Half of the enjoyment in reading this comic is watching Mark Millar tear apart the typical superhero tropes with a crass attitude and a jaunty the-new-is-better-than-the-old step. The other half of the enjoyment comes from looking at Frank Quitely's storytelling, his unforgettable character work, and his use of negative space. When Quitely is doing that in service of a vicious Mark Millar story, it's magnificent, and even though we've only seen three issues of this series so far, each installment is better than the previous.

But here's the thing, for all the attitude and swagger and the let's-kill-Superman posturing in this series, Millar has proven to be a traditionalist at heart, and so even when things look bleak, there's an underlying optimism at work here. If this series ever reaches its conclusion, we'll likely see the old guard returning as saviors, or the new guard recognizing the importance of what their fathers had to teach them, or something along those lines. But that doesn't really matter right now. It's just a lingering feeling, and what matters is that "Jupiter's Legacy" looks far better than any other superhero comic and has something to say about the genre. That's what I like to see and I see a lot of it in these pages.

6. "TEOTFW," by Charles Forsman

Of all the comics in my Top 25 list, this is the one I pondered the most, wondering if I should even include it since I read the serialized version of "The End of the Fucking World" in 2012, and "TEOTFW" is the collected and barely reformatted version of that, in nice new Fantagraphics packaging.

But I suppose it's clear that I did decide to include it and I do so for two reasons: "TEOTFW" is now the real version of the comic, and if I'm going to included other books originally serialized online or whatever, then why not include this? And the second reason is that this is a superb book, and it's one that I haven't stopped thinking about since I originally read it, and I enjoyed even more when I read this new Fantagraphics version.

This time, my interpretation of "TEOTFW" is that it's less a kids-on-the-run story and more of a story about family. About domestic life. It's more Lynchian and less Malick-esque than I realized on my first reading. From the mutilation-by-garbage-disposal to the breaking-into-a-strange-house-and-finding-secrets to the betrayal-by-the-absent-father, this is a story about suburban malaise and mystery and suffering. It's a small book, but it's an excellent one.

5. "Final Frontier," by Tom Scioli

Scioli originally ran this comic on his "American Barbarian" site, but he has since collected it as a small, thick, saddle-stitched digest of mind-blowing adventure. "Final Frontier" isn't quite "What if the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four was a superhero rock band?" but it bows in that direction before exploding every preconception you might have about doing a Silver Age pastiche.

I hate to keep comparing this work to other comics, but I feel like I can't describe it without its antecedents, and I don't imagine that Tom Scioli was the least bit unaware of the tradition in which he's working. So let me say this: you know that Image Comics "1963" project from Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, and others? Well, "Final Frontier" is a bit like that, in its homages to early Marvel Comics, but it goes farther than "1963" by being more sincere about the whole thing and I think that comes from the way it adds in elements of Kirby's Bronze Age work as well. So the whole thing is like a remixed time capsule that seems less interested in a story that has a beginning, middle, and end than it is interested in capturing the essence of a certain type of comic book that Scioli personally enjoys.

It's the same kind of comic that I enjoy, filled with rock n' roll superhero weddings, Robot Dracula, flying star chambers, the extra-dimensional mega-menace known as Golemnenon, and a cross-over with the Silver Spider.

It's all one story, but it's not even a complete story, and instead simulates what it would be like to pick up a sampling of a few months worth of comics that exist inside Tom Scioli's head. I can't think of an imaginary comic shop I'd rather visit.

4. "Lose," by Michael DeForge

One issue of this series comes out each year, and I don't know if #5 is the best one yet, because I think they are all pretty great, but I know that even after expecting only amazing things from Michael DeForge, he continues to surprise me. This year's issue of "Lose" is a series of small stories and then one big one, about, basically, a summer vacation tale. And there's no way I could have predicted how DeForge would layer images and ideas through that story, and yet it feels like yet another perfect example of what he does, with its sense of unease and danger and deformity and body horror. Is it sweet and innocent, too? It is, and that's part of the DeForge sensibility. The unease and the horror comes because of the vulnerability on display.

These are fragile characters in weird, horrible worlds -- even when it's as seemingly mundane as a campsite or a walk through a zoo -- and DeForge alternates between banal dialogue juxtaposed with strangeness around it and profound moments that seem like they belong inside an introvert's diary. I feel like there's plenty more inside "Lose" #5 that I haven't yet fully explored, but I know I'll be going back. It's too alluring to resist.

3. "Nemo: Heart of Ice," by Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill and Ben Dimagmaliw

I wonder if, out of all the Best Comics of 2013, this is the one I will reread the most. I think it might be, and that doesn't automatically make it the best, obviously, but as part of the larger "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" saga, this is a piece of something that is definitively one of the best comics of the 21st century. When I looked back at the best comics of the first ten years of the century, I placed "League" at #8, and after rereading all the Alan Moore comics over the past two years, I would place it even higher. I think only "Eightball" and "Acme Novelty Library" are distinctly better, and "League" is looking pretty good, in retrospect, as the final masterpiece in Alan Moore's career.

But what about this slim volume? We're here to talk about "Nemo," right?

Sure, and "Nemo: Heart of Ice" is a worthy companion piece to all that has come before, with adventures to the frozen north and hidden worlds and great beasts who evoke sanity checks from those who meet their gaze. Some say this book is more straightforward than previous volumes, but though "Century" was dense with allusions, everything in the "League" series has been straightforward except "Black Dossier". These are Victorian-influenced pulp fiction tales, and that's kind of enough, but they are also monuments to world-building as Moore and O'Neill construct enormous fictional amalgamations from the literature of the past. No one else has ever done it nearly as well as these two.

2. "Very Casual," by Michael DeForge

Wait, what's this? Another Michael DeForge comic in the Top 10? It's almost as if he's the best cartoonist working today!

And this one's even better than "Lose," if only because it has a more eclectic group of offerings in a thicker package. Sure, this is a collection of comics printed elsewhere, but did you really read all those minicomics that you could only find if you bumped into DeForge's table in the first ten minutes of that small press convention? Do you really own "Bound & Gagged?"

I wonder about the name of this collection, actually. Who came up with "Very Casual?" Because these comics are not "very" anything, and they certainly aren't "casual". Each one is distinctive, not so much so that you'd think, "hey, who drew all these weirdly different comics?" but enough that it provides a sense of scope to DeForge's recent career. The guy is more than just a dabbler. He's a mad scientist of comics.

The best of the stories in this volume include "Spotting Deer" which is part cultural anthropology, part biology text, and part sadness, "Queen," which is a showcase for DeForge's use of color, "Aesthetics" which is DeForge's satire of Frank Santoro's comics instruction by way of an oddball basketball crew, and "Incincerator" which is about a deformed guy with the torso of a beloved comic strip icon.

Eh, I lied a bit there, those aren't the best. Those are just some of the best in the collection, and I could have named three or four others in their place.

Michael DeForge makes comics. We get to read them. It's an ideal relationship, really.

1. "Copra," by Michel Fiffe

Listen: this is twelve issues in twelve months, written, drawn, colored, published, packaged, and shipped by one guy. So that deserves some attention right there. But that's not why it's my pick for THE BEST COMIC OF 2013.

Nope, it takes the #1 slot because it is the best comic book series of the year. It's as simple as that.

"Copra" is a superhero action comic that looks like a small-press comic (well, it is!) and it out-superheroes and out-actions all of the assembly-line comics that are much more likely to show up at your local shop. You probably can't even buy "Copra" from your local shop, unless you are really lucky and/or live near Bergen Street. You have to pick it up from Fiffe himself, at one of his convention appearances or order issues from his Etsy store. Each issue does have a hand-made artifact kind of feel -- that cardstock cover, that thick paper, those lush colors -- and the aesthetics of the production do contrast nicely with the gritty Suicide Squad nature of the stories.

And all 12 issues of "Copra" are one big story, but in classic superhero fashion, we have smaller story arcs, and a breather issue where everyone is recovering back at the HQ, and an overarching mystery about the supreme villain and even an epilogue that pays off exceedingly well if you've been paying attention in previous issues.

"Copra" may have started off as Fiffe's experiment to break "the Kirby barrier" and crank out some comics without hesitation, and he may have used the template of John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell and John Romita, Jr. and Michael Fleisher and Vince Giarrano and Steve Ditko and others to model his characters and storylines, but this series doesn't feel like Fiffe doing an impression of any of those guys. And it's not even that his artwork radically changes from the first issue to the last. Fiffe is Fiffe. His style is fully-formed, and so the effect is an alternate reality where he actually gets an opportunity to do his version of something like the Suicide Squad and bring his sensibility to the property in such a way where we would look back, years later, and say, "remember that Fiffe run on 'Suicide Squad'? Wasn't that an amazing 12 issues???"

All of that context is bundled up in these twelve "Copra" comics. And they are sad and tragic and exciting and mind-altering and comforting and surprising. They are the best superhero comics of the year. The best comics, of any kind, this year.

NEXT WEEK: The year comes to a close with the last-ever "When Words Collide" column! My exit interview. It'll be a long one.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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