Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Existential Ennui Review of the Year: the 10 Best Comics I Read in 2013

I've three top ten posts planned for this, the Existential Ennui Review of the Year (which if all goes according to plan will ultimately span a ludicrous five posts in total). Over the course of the next week or two I'll be blogging about the ten best books I read in 2013 (very few of which, true to form, were actually published in 2013) and the ten best albums I heard in 2013 (all of which were actually released in 2013). But ahead of those, I'm counting down the ten best comics I read in 2013. First, however, an unnecessarily prolix history lesson.

I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember – initially British humour weeklies like The Beano and Whizzer and Chips, then when I was a bit older things like 2000 AD and Action and especially Spider-Man Weekly. That one, I think, was the comic above all others which shaped my future comics consumption – that and the chance discovery of an actual American Amazing Spider-Man comic book in a box of comics at my junior school (said box dragged out to entertain the kids during breaks when the weather was too rank to play outside). I realised that Spider-Man Weekly simply reprinted the American colour comics in black-and-white, and soon I was hunting down US comics – Marvel and DC – in newsagents in my local area – Beckenham and Penge in south London – then further afield in the Camberwell and Lewisham branches of back issue merchant Popular Books (which had dirty magazine sections at the back of each shop), and finally the comic shops up in central London (Forbidden Planet – then based on Denmark Street – Comic Showcase and the like). Here I encountered indie and small press comics for the first time, which in turn led me to the Fast Fiction scene based around the Westminster Comic Mart.

Shortly after that I fell out of comics altogether, forsaking them for rock 'n' roll and drugs (and very little sex); it wasn't until around 1997 or '98 that I rediscovered them when, whilst in Camden one day, on a whim I popped into Mega City Comics and emerged with a bunch of Marvel titles (some Heroes Reborn: The Return number ones, I believe they were). It wasn't long before I was hooked again, alternating between Marvel and DC depending on which seemed the more interesting (i.e, which writers were working where) and plunging back into the indie and alt. comix scene too (and filling in gaps in my collection from the non-comics years at comic marts). A few years after that I started working in comics myself, first at Titan Magazines on reprint titles like Tomb Raider Magazine and short-lived collectors' magazine Memorabilia, then at Titan Books, launching the Modesty Blaise, Dan Dare and James Bond strip collections and editing Wallace & Gromit graphic novels. (Even now, working at The Ilex Press, I'm still tangentially involved in comics, having edited the likes of Alan Moore: Storyteller and The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga.)

I offer all this partly by way of a long-winded explanation as to why I'm posting my top ten comics of 2013 on what is, to all intents and purposes, a musty old books blog – and one on which there's been nary a mention of comics all year (I'll deal with why I'm even more incongruously posting my top ten albums of 2013 separately) – but also to note that my interest in comics is rather more catholic than that top ten might suggest. I do read – or rather, have read – comics and graphic novels other than those more superhero- and adventure-oriented ones published by Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse; it's just this year, what with the arrival of Edie, and work, and passing my driving test, and of course the secondhand books I blog about as a matter of course on Existential Ennui, I haven't had time to read more than a scant few of them. I don't doubt that there were many fine alt. comix and small press titles published in 2013; unfortunately I missed most of them, so by and large they won't feature in this top ten.

That caveat in mind, then, the ten best comics I read in 2013 were:

10. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (Image, 2012–2013)

Image-published comics account for half the titles in my top ten for the simple reason that, right now, Image is home to more intriguing, entertaining and adventurous mainstream adventure comics than Marvel and DC combined. Brian K. Vaughan published his two prior long-form creator-owned series, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, through DC (Vertigo and WildStorm, to be precise), and while Saga isn't, to my mind, the equal of those, it's still fun to witness a writer free to do whatever he darn well pleases, even if the results do sometimes feel a bit stapled (groan...) together from too disparate a selection of sources.

9. Sex by Joe Casey and Piotr Kowalski (Image, 2013)

While we're on the subject of Image, here's another Image-published title which makes the output of the 'big two' seems positively pallid by comparison. Though Sex is, loosely speaking, a superhero comic, I can't imagine Marvel or DC publishing anything as weird as this, in which a repressed former superhero returns to the city he once protected – and the business which once funded his superhero activities – and engages in an extended bout of soul-searching and libido-servicing. Kowalski's elegant artwork lends the whole enterprise a winning bande dessinée feel: kind of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as imagined by Moebius. Also worth a look is Casey and David Messina's similarly Image-published The Bounce – in essence, Lee/Ditko Amazing Spider-Man viewed red-eyed through a haze of dope smoke.

8. Fury MAX: My War Gone By by Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov (Marvel, 2012–2013)

Then again, in Marvel's defence, they did publish Garth Ennis and Goran Parlov's brutal, foul-mouthed, blackly comic reimagining of World War II hero/secret agent Nick Fury as a combat-addicted pawn of the CIA – until the series was cancelled with issue #13 midyear, anyway. In plucking Fury from comic book continuity and depositing him in more plausible stories, Ennis was performing the same trick he did with the brilliantly bleak Punisher: MAX – so it was entirely fitting that My War Gone By featured cameos both from Frank Castle and his occasional nemesis Barracuda. And though Fury: MAX is done and dusted, there's still the entirely welcome news that Ennis is returning to the Punisher in 2014.

7. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse, 2012–2013)

I lost track of Hellboy (and its spin-off B.P.R.D. series) five-and-a-half years ago when I left Titan (the company, not the moon orbiting Saturn), but at the tail end of 2012 creator Mike Mignola resumed art duties as well as writing ones and sent Hellboy to Hell, thus re-piquing my curiosity. Until Mike Carey and Peter Gross' Lucifer makes a return (I can dream, can't I...?), this metaphysical exploration of the stygian underworld, with the occasional bout of fisticuffs, will do nicely.

6. New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman, Steve Epting and Mike Deodato (Marvel, 2013)

Possibly the gloomiest comic I read in 2013 – which is saying something in this company – New Avengers saw the Illuminati – the superhero think tank composed of Iron Man, Mister Fantastic, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Namor, Black Bolt and the Beast – confronted with the stark choice of either destroying a succession of alternate Earths or seeing their own Earth destroyed. Kill or be killed, essentially. Who says superhero comics aren't fun any more? The only Marvel comics I'm still buying these days are those written by Jonathan Hickman, and this one is the best of that select bunch. Even so, it's still not as good as some of his Image titles – see below.

5. JLA by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter (DC, 1997)

I originally read Morrison and Porter's late-1990s run on JLA at the time, but on a recent trip up to the loft to have a sort out I came across the back issues in a comic box and decided to give them another go. What's remarkable is how fresh and thrilling they remain over fifteen years on (even Porter's art, which was always a slightly uncomfortable thing to behold), especially in comparison to DC's current overwrought output, with deft characterisation (Morrison's curmudgeonly, perennially preoccupied Batman is particularly fine) and a palpable sense of awe and wonder. And I haven't even got to Rock of Ages yet.

4. Optic Nerve #13 by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013)

Three sublime stories in one beautifully designed comic: the autobiographical one-page Winter 2012, in which Adrian Tomine manfully struggles with the modern world; Go Owls, a forensic examination of a doomed affair between two addicts (with a proper kick-in-the-teeth ending); and the drifting, meditative Translated, from the Japanese. Well worth the two year wait.

3. East of West by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta (Image, 2013)

It took me a few issues to work out what the hell was going on in this series, but I reckon I've got a handle on it now: the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are trying to shepherd a shattered world to its timely end (with certain world leaders complicit in this), but Death has fallen in love and defected. Um, I think. It's the end of the world reworked as a revisionist western, basically, with lots of backstabbing, double-crossing and gunplay, all depicted in delightful Alex Toth-meets-Katsuhiro Otomo fashion by artist Nick Dragotta. Splendid.

2. The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra (Image, 2012–2013)

Bugger me, it's that man Hickman again. For my money, among the post-Bendis/Brubaker/Rucka crop of mainstream comics writers Jonathan Hickman is the only one offering anything other than sub-Bendis/Brubaker/Rucka reheats. As evidence, may I present this barking comic book, in which an assortment of supergenius scientists – among them Wernher von Braun, Richard Feynman and Enrico Fermi (plus a couple of doppelgangers) – fend off an alien invasion and then fall to fighting amongst themselves, and where a current storyline details the psychological struggle for supremacy between Robert Oppenheimer and his cannibalistic brother Joseph who has, er, eaten him.

Lazarus by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Image, 2013)

When I read the prelude to Lazarus in The Walking Dead #109 back in April I suspected Rucka and Lark's new series might be right up my alley, but I wasn't prepared for quite how far up it it's, ah, ventured. Set in a dystopian future where capitalism has triumphed, the world is ruled by the top one percent (headed by cartel families) and everyone else is considered "waste" – not dissimilar to our own dystopian present, then – it's evident from the commentary and timeline in the back of each issue that Greg Rucka researched and planned the bejeezus out of his concept before committing it to the page – still is, if his Tumblr is anything to go by. On that solid bedrock he and his old Gotham Central chum Michael Lark have constructed a credible science fiction spy thriller that for me stands head and shoulders above every other mainstream adventure comic being published at the moment – and that's a judgement based on merely the first four issues. I for one am jolly excited to see where the series goes from here.

Next: the ten best albums I heard in 2013.


  1. Mike C's next novel, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, is an absolute must-read (based on his short story IPHEGENIA IN AULIS, if you've read that).

    And you should be reading THE UNWRITTEN, if you ain't already...

  2. Yep, I'm reading The Unwritten; I'm just not as keen on it as I was on Lucifer. And I suppose one glaring oversight in this particular company is Prophet, which I still haven't tried.

  3. Great post, Nick! You read some fine comics this year. I've never stopped reading, or buying comics, since childhood. My interest in comics is only up to the nineties, the A4-size paper thin comics that many of us grew up with. Occasionally, I buy digital comics or graphic novels for Kindle if they're not too expensive (they usually are). I downloaded comics that are legally available and in public domain such as Dan Dare's Eagle Magazine, Blazing Combat Magazine, Avon's City of the Living Dead and Undersea Fighting Commandos, westerns including comics based on western heroes of Hollywood, and a whole lot of others that I'll rarely find in my part of the world.

  4. Am I right in thinking you're in Mumbai, Prashant? I know that historically comics have been pretty big in India, but what's the comics industry like over there these days?

  5. Nick, you're right, I'm in Mumbai. Historically, Indian scriptures and temples have drawings, carvings, and illustrations that tell mythological stories. In modern times, we have comics in several Indian languages including the most famous comic-book series in English called Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Pictures Stories) that retold stories from Indian epics, historical events, fables and folklore, and culture and religion. However, our comics industry is a dot compared to the American one. In the past Indian enterprises have tied up with US comic-book publishers and brought many western heroes and superheroes to comics buffs here. The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Rip Kirby, Flash Gordon, Buz Sawyer, Darth, and Kerry Drake were some of the most famous examples. Hardly anybody reads comics these days. Graphic novels are quite expensive. People are surprised when they see me reading comics on my tab during my office commute.

  6. I'd guess seeing people reading graphic novels or comics on the tube or train here is still pretty unusual too. Not that I'd know for sure: these days I walk to work! Thank you for the info about Indian comics, very interesting. I've come across Amar Chitra Katha comics before, when I edited a book called Comic Art Propaganda by Fredrik Stromberg – there's a section on ACK in there.

  7. Comics were my life at one point; I even got a Batman tattoo when I was 19. But like so many passions of mine, it's one I fell out of love with nearly overnight. Only in the past couple of years have I been slowly getting back into them, and none of it is superhero-related. I think the current superhero movie craze has soured me to them. The good news is that stepping away from them has gotten me into stuff like Judge Dredd, The Tomb of Dracula, and Turok: Son of Stone. Hooray for classic reprint collections.