Pipeline: The Best Comics of 2014

Tue, December 23rd, 2014 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
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NOT QUITE MY TOP TEN FOR 2014

Every year, CBR does a round-up of all its contributors to declare the best series of the year. Every year, I start a list and never have quite enough to fill it. Or, at least, I haven't read as broad an array of comics to make my opinion in such a survey make a whole lot of sense. As you might have also noticed, some of the books in 2014 that excited me so much were books of the past, whether last year or 20 years ago.

If I had to make a list, though, it would look something like this. Just as a reminder, this is not my bottom line "Best of 2014" list. It's the best of what I happened to read of what was published this year.

blackscience 08

1. Black Science: I've said it before, but I'll say it again: It's about the most perfect comic series going right now. It's well thought out and executed on every level from every member of the creative team, right down to the lettering and coloring, two departments that other comics are content to plug a house style into. This book feels handcrafted at every stage, and should be appreciated for that. I started making my Top Ten list specifically so I could include this book at the number one position.

The rest of this list is not in any order:

2. Everything Skybound Publishes: I have to catch up on "Birthright" and "Tech Jacket," but I can vouch for the rest of the line-up. It's super strong. As far as imprints go at any publisher, I can't think of any off the top of my head whose books are so consistently entertaining. "The Walking Dead" leads the pack, even as most people these days just think of it as a TV series. "Invincible" had a very strong year, particularly in the way the latest storyline concluded. "Thief of Thieves" will one day become a TV series, but for now is a quiet success. This is the year that Andy Diggle took over the book from Robert Kirkman's "writer's room," and it's been seamless.

"Clone" is a fun thriller. It doesn't redefine what comics are meant to be, but it does make for a new, tense roller coaster road. Juan Jose Ryp's art is a big part of that, too. There's not a person in comics today who draws like him.

"Ghosted" might be the quietest of the success stories. They just finished their third arc, and it's just as good as the first two, with nice art from Davide Gianfelice.

"Outcast" has me a little on the fence right now, but I'll reserve final judgment until I catch up on those last couple of issues. The story is still so new that we're working our way up to things. For all I know, all hell broke loose in one of those issues I haven't read, so I can't judge it yet.

The first arc of "Manifest Destiny" was a beautiful book, but I haven't read the issues since then, which would make up most of this year's output. For that reason, I couldn't put it on the list by itself, but it fits nicely in this umbrella.

I'm not sure how they're doing it in that office, but I'm glad they are. They've provided a lot of entertaining comics in the last couple of years.

Flash05 Cov Laming

3. Flash Gordon: In a line of same-looking pulp fiction heroes, "Flash Gordon" stands out on its own. Jeff Parker's story is classic sci-fi with a light touch, and Evan Shaner's art is wonderfully light and airy, the perfect example of the modern school of art that favors clarity over structural novelty or forced excitement. Don't skip over the Annual, either, which has beautifully drawn stories from Chris Eliopoulos, Jeremy Treece, Craig Rousseau, Faith Erin Hicks and Lee Ferguson.

The series also had one of my favorite cover gimmicks of the year. The fifth issue was the start of a new storyline, so Dynamite put a big splashy "1" in the corner of the cover with smaller text that read "1st chapter of a new story arc!" It's a clever way of giving readers a new #1 issue without renumbering things. It's a trick I don't mind working, because the book is that good.

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4. Chew: It's the series that sparked m vow to catch up on more comics back in October. I thought I was a couple issues behind on it, and was surprised to discover I was really almost a year behind. Catching up on everything reminded me of why the series was so good, and then showed me how it got even better. Anybody who doesn't put this book in their Top Ten list for 2014 is reading the wrong books. Or needs to catch up on the series themselves. Or is waiting for the trade.

5. Starlight: It's classic Mark Millar, all right. A short punchy miniseries with just enough characters and plot to fill two hours at the local movie theater in a couple of years. It has a nice hook -- old man reliving his glory days saving an alien civilization that nobody on earth believes -- and brings characters just deep enough to give you rooting interests. Then, the whole thing is overshadowed by Goran Parlov's beautiful art. I'd call it European-looking, but that's obvious. Both Millar and Parlov are European. If you like Moebius-style science fiction universes, you'll like the design of this book. Thankfully, the story is a winner, too.

SexCriminals 09

6. Sex Criminals: Yes, it's good. It's lost a little bit of its random crazy wackiness with the second story arc, but it's still good.

7. Garth Ennis' Red Team: I believe only the final issue came out this year, so it wouldn't be eligible for the official CBR list, but I loved that series so much, I'll take any excuse to mention it again.

8. Savage Dragon: This might be me getting misty and nostalgic after the 200th issue a couple of weeks ago, but it's still a book that I read first when it appears on a stack of new releases. I long ago lost the ability to keep track of which characters are from which alternate dimensions and where all the Freak Force members even are, but I continue to enjoy the book, issue after issue. Erik Larsen has a way to make both an interesting story and an interesting comic book. His continued plays with formatting in the book, shooting new life into the book every month. This year's handover of the title to Dragon's son, Malcolm, brings up new directions while still keeping Dragon an active part of the book.

9. Rat Queens: I love this book. Love it, love it, love it. No other comic series made me laugh as hard or as loud as this one. I did a bigger review in April. And I've been drawing some of the characters over on Tumblr: Here's Betty, but I've got more coming.

If I had to pick a tenth, I'd be stuck between "Shutter" and "Alex + Ada." The former got off to a bit of a slow start for me, while the latter has been enjoyable consistently but not something I've been moved to make a big deal over. I like "Saga" a whole lot, also, but I feel like I need to go back and re-read the series to date as a refresher. "Manhattan Projects" would have been a shoo-in for this list if I had kept up with it. I'm about a trade paperback behind on it right now, so I can't justify putting it on the list. Shame.

Come back next week for a complete rundown of what I did read and review this year.

"THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN" #324: "Twos Day"

asm324 cover

Spider-Man and Solo go after Ultimatum's leader in the United States, while Silver Sable and Captain America pursue Sabretooth in the jungles of Mexico. And then things get very very bad.

So far in The McSpidey Chronicles, I've covered 26 comics drawn by Todd McFarlane, occasionally with some inking help. This week, I'm covering an issue McFarlane didn't draw. Erik Larsen filled in on issue #324 to give McFarlane some much needed time to wrap up the "Assassin Nation Plot" in the next issue.

You never want to have a fill-in in a six-issue storyline, let alone in the second-to-last one, but we'll see in the next issue that it was time well bought. McFarlane came back with a superb wrap-up issue.

I couldn't let this opportunity pass, though, to look at Larsen's Spider-Man art from before his run on the title began a few months later.

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It's amazing to look at an issue of "Savage Dragon" today and compare it to "Amazing Spider-Man" then. It's barely recognizable as the same artist. The Larsen of 1989 drew action figures on the page. Captain America is a particularly barrel-chested figure, but everyone else looks cut from the same mold, partway between Rob Liefeld and Ron Lim. It's a slightly more stylized and dynamic Mark Bagley.

It's not bad, but I can see the faults better today than I could back then, in my first summer of comics reading. Back in 1989, this is what a comic book looked like to me. The tall panels, the borders of thick ink or boxes-within-boxes, the white space surrounding the panels that didn't extend the width or height of the page, and characters who would explode past the borders of their panels once a page.

The stories were villain-based, not grounded in the headlines of the day, and featured a rotating cast of colorful characters who came and went as plots were needed. In some of those ways, Larsen was perfect for this book. He is a comic book artist, not a fine artist/Hollywood storyboard/pitch-maker who wants his art to be photorealistic. He wants to draw like Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson. That's a different league all together, one based on dramatics and style as much as storytelling.

Larsen's art has come a long way since this book. Today, it's far looser. His characters have a much broader array of "looks" to them. His action moments -- which were the highlights of this issue -- are even stronger. The Kirby and Simonson influences are even more obvious today than in 1989, but in a good way. Larsen's growth over the last 25 years is plain to see. I've seen the smaller evolutions happen over the years, but looking so far back today, the bigger picture is impressive.

People gave McFarlane some crap about his Spider-Man's anatomy and the impossible leg angles he used. They must not have seen Larsen's work at the time. It looks cool, but don't look at it too long or you'll wonder just how wide Spider-Man's pelvis must be to space his legs that far apart.

asm324 legs spread

It doesn't matter. It's cool. Exaggeration is at the very heart of "cartooning," whether that means super-bendable legs or mushy clay faces or zip-and-pose stylings. To many of us, there's life in that imperfection that makes things interesting. There's a wide variety of anatomical imperfections I'm willing to ignore if something looks good.

Compare these Spider-Man drawings to the kind of sketches Larsen does at conventions today. Spider-Man is still wildly posed, but the anatomy seems closer to real life. You can visualize better where the legs would meet, though that's traditionally always been the "issue" with Spider-Man poses where his upper body hides his hips. The webbing on his costume is drawn with more detail to the contours of Spider-Man's body, and the musculature feels more believable.

Larsen was adopting McFarlane's storytelling to his own style, and appeared to be fighting it at times. It would settle down a bunch during his own run on the title. By Larsen's own admission, though, he's not the right artist for Spider-Man. He's in the mold of a more muscular superhero artist. A Thor or Hulk would fit better with his style. Captain America is the most interesting looking character in this issue in large part, I think, because Larsen distorted his anatomy so much to make him look original. That wide jaw, the muscular shoulders, and the broad chest give him a unique silhouette. Working with the shield, he's more prone to strong movements than lithe ones. It suits Larsen's style better.

asm324 capam

Honestly, Cap is exaggerated so much he most reminds me of the types of characters John Byrne was drawing at the time in the "What The -- ?!?" comics. That jaw in particular, sparks memories.

byrne capam whatthe
OK, so maybe Byrne exaggerated a bit more, but both artists' Cap was very top heavy. See more from this page of original art in the Comic Art Fans gallery.

The storytelling is great, though. It fits in McFarlane's mold, often going steps further without distorting the story in any way. Larsen uses even more of the thin vertical panels, but to a much better degree, I think. Whereas McFarlane would often use it in a tight close-up, Larsen used it to show all the characters on panel together in an interesting way. Take the last page of the issue, for example:

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asm324 finalpage

With two characters standing up across the room from each other and Spider-Man descending from a web on the ceiling, going vertical works if they line up closely enough. Larsen shoots down from a higher angle to show the distance between the three. He works it to an even better degree a couple panels later, where space is tighter, but everyone fits in together.

It doesn't at all stick to film's 180 degree rule, but it doesn't have to. This is comics, after all. The single shot on Captain American in the panel in-between helps break up the rhythm enough to make that break in the action acceptable. It's a mid-shot of Captain America looking back at us over his shoulder as he puts the phone down. Those are three things, and they're the only things in the panel. The blank background works in the panels' favor. It looks carefully composed, which is great.

Larsen's storytelling works during those quieter scenes, even on the page that is just Mary Jane and Peter watching TV. But he excels when it comes to the action scenes. This issue has a few of those, and it's where Larsen's art comes alive. In particular, the final scene in which Solo is holding Spider-Man and an Ultimatum soldier over the roof at gunpoint features a great angle on the action, some particularly smart close-ups, and lots of great running and jumping (and explosions!) leading up to it.

Basically, if Larsen could have done layouts for Todd McFarlane to draw, we could have had an even better comic, I think. Todd McFarlane's greatest strengths are in drawing action and costumed superheroes, but the more complicated the story needing to be told or more simple the scene, the more his work suffers. Larsen could lay all of that out in a clear and more interesting way, without sacrificing the big images that we all craved from McFarlane's art.

David Michelinie's story moves fast in this issue. Captain America and Silver Sable track down Sabretooth in Mexico, where Sable gets hurt and kills Sabretooth in the process. (He probably came back to life in an X-book a month later...) Those scenes feature some Mexican outlaws speaking with an accent that likely wouldn't fly today.

"Maybe you are beeg deal north of the border, Capitan, but thees ees our country."

asm324 mexican

No, I don't see that going over too well.

Spider-Man and Solo work together in New York City to track down Ultimatum's leader. Solo kills a bunch of the terrorist group that Spider-Man had webbed up (Spider-Man forgets to feel pain and anguish over the loss of life that he's indirectly responsible for), but later lets Spider-Man take their leader in alive. A couple of hints are dropped as to Solo's powers and limits, but that doesn't get too far.

You can see from the structure of the issue why the title was "Twos Day."

In the end, though, Symkaria isn't convinced that Sabretooth was behind it and breaks off its relationship with America and sends soldiers after American officials to retaliate for their own prime minister's death. They don't fool around in Symkaria, do they?

To Be Concluded...

Felix Watch: That's McFarlane's thing.

asm324 jonday

Jon Day Watch: I think that's him being held hostage by Sabretooth. Yup, the Savage Dragon Wiki confirms it. He's the man with the mustache and glasses in the front who appears in most every comic Larsen has drawn since.

asm324 newspaper

Fun With In-Jokes: Todd McFarlane liked to hand-letter stories in newspapers seen in stories. They'd often contain inside jokes. Let me see if I can write this one out for you:

"Jim Salicrup in a surprise move decided to proceed with his plan for world conquest. "I think I can do it. I can be a pretty bad..."

"Rob Liefeld said today in a closed ... that Todd McFarlane didn't stand a chance." He said, "I can draw bigger eyes on ol' Spidey any day of the week."

"Todd fumed. "That young upstart. Just who does he think he is anyway... it isn't the on (?) only area the two disagree. Todd says that Bud Light is less filling while Rob insists that it tastes great."

"Both insist that the other guy is a mere "style-monger". Rob asserts "That fink (?) is nothing but a clone, with out me he'd be nothing."

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"He went on to say that "although Todd has been in the business a lot longer, he's been reading my mind and ... my brain."

"Todd McFarlane sees thing somewhat differently. "That bum is apeing my style and I'm pissed..." ""

McFarlane and Liefeld were friends. Remember, McFarlane inked Liefeld's early "New Mutants" covers. They'd go on to form Image together. These were all in-jokes, not pot shots.

Good times. It's a shame you can't get away with stuff like that anymore.

Recommended Reading: Greg Burgas did a nice write-up of Larsen's art on the series last month, focusing on issue #329. His analysis of Larsen's action style at the time falls right in line with my own observations above, but slightly better focused.

There's also some funny stuff in there, particular dealing with the fashion choices of the day. And under-boob. And Flash's capri megging. Felicia Hardy's outfit in the same panel might as well have been from this past summer. Fashion is a cyclical and funny thing, but meggings are not. Not ever.

Next issue: The conclusion of "The Assassin Nation Plot" story with a special surprise guest villain who's right on the front cover. It would be McFarlane's next-to-last issue, but it's a doozy.

PIPELINKS AND QUICK THOUGHTS

  • I've talked before about how we all have specific pictures in our mind when we hear a character's name. There's one artist who defines each character for us. For me, when it comes to Batman, that artist will always be Norm Breyfogle. Breyfogle had a stroke recently, and his family is asking for help. I think this might also be a good time for DC to collect some of Breyfogle's astounding Batman work. He could certainly use the royalties.

  • All issues of Starlog Magazine are available free on-line now. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that "Comics Scene" gets a similar treatment. There's lots of material there to be mined...

  • Greg Ruth writes up an excellent piece on how to break into comics and how to get better at making them, complete with exercises.

  • My Tumblr follower count is now up over 4000. That's ridiculous. I'm not sure whether to be awed or scared.

  • I've been making some progress with Manga Studio 5 this week. You can see some of the tricks I picked up in the drawings I've posted on Tumblr lately. I'll be talking about some of them in Pipeline in the weeks ahead.

  • I'm having fun with CoverBrowser.com, looking up reference material for those drawings.

  • Congratulations and happy 15th anniversary to Johanna Draper-Carlson and her blog, Comics Worth Reading!

  • Credit to Jim Zubkavich for finding this gem: animation of Nightwing based on comics panels. You'll see what I mean when you click the link. It's a good idea that's well animated.

  • One of my favorite Christmas comics of all time is "Freak Force" #1. Here's the last page, celebrating the true Christmas spirit of inflicting emotional harm upon your friends and family:

    ff1 lastpage

  • Next week: The 2014 Recap. Did Pipeline accomplish its goals? In an unexpected way, it did. I also hope to fit in "Amazing Spider-Man" #325. I'm so close to the end of the McSpidey Chronicles, I can taste it. Then, we can get back to the Frank Miller/Jim Lee "All-Star Batman" fun!
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P.S. Merry Christmas!

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TAGS:  pipeline, the mcspidey chronicles, erik larsen

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