Review

Best Comics of 2014

31st December 2014 | by | No Comments

As is our annual custom, we’re using the last ten days of the year to count down our ten favourite (or otherwise most significant) comics of 2014, one per day. The first seven are in no particular order, followed by one runner-up from each of us, and then our unanimous Pick of the Year on December 31st. But we start in a slightly controversial place…

Batgirl

So, as we began to discuss what would be on our “Best of the Year” list, I offhandedly mentioned Batgirl. After two issues so far (including the stonkingly good #36), I felt confident in saying to James something along the lines of “Well, unless #37 is absolute bobbins, this is going to be a shoo-in for the list”.

And then issue #37 came out.

And no, it wasn’t absolute bobbins. But it was certainly something that gave us pause for thought when considering Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr’s take on Barbara Gordon to be one of our top comics of the year. Hand on heart, I honestly can’t say that I had initially considered the problematic elements of what was otherwise yet another effervescent and enjoyable issue when first reading it – but others did, and it was clear upon reading their remarks that a major misstep had been made. The unequivocal apology that followed was as welcome as it was unusual (no mealy-mouthed “sorry if you were offended” rubbish here, but an actual apology for causing offence).

But in a way, the fact that so many people were so disappointed at it being Batgirl – of all books – that had made this transphobic misstep speaks volumes for just how highly-considered the book had already become. If this had happened in any number of modern superhero comics, it might have been met with eye-rolls as much as annoyance – but the point about Batgirl is that it’s already established itself as a progressive, well-thought-out series with a far more diverse appeal than the majority of the books that DC currently publishes.

Indeed, there seems to be a bit of a recurring trend in comics at the moment that if you want your comics to be lively and intelligent, you should look to the ones that are actively seeking to bring in younger, female readers. And Batgirl hit the ground running on that score, with two issues that were absolutely jam-packed with story (feeling far longer than their actual page count), character, action, personality and humour (more than a hint of the Scott Pilgrims about some of the storytelling moments, incidentally), with some of the freshest and most energetic art anywhere at either DC or Marvel right now.

And this is why, despite the things that are wrong with #37, we’re prepared to see it as an anomaly, rather than a sign that things are going to spiral wrongly out of control. For two issues at least, Batgirl has offered one of the most purely enjoyable comics-reading experiences of the year – and while the controversy has been an unfortunate bump in the road, the very fact that the conversation in its wake has played out in the way that it has actually gives us a little bit of faith in where the comics community is in the year 2014. Obviously it’s better not to make the mistakes at all, but in making the mistakes and learning from them, it feels for a moment like comics might have grown up just a little bit. Seb

Trees

Although Warren Ellis has significantly slowed his creator-owned output over the last few years, he’s still producing interesting work. After 2011’s SVK and the conclusion of the Freakangels webcomic in 2012, Ellis’ most interesting work in 2013 was Scatterlands, a 50-instalment webcomic drawn by Jason Howard. That last one is, in many ways, the precursor to 2014’s big thing: a new ongoing series from Image called Trees.

Trees is a near-future sci-fi series set in a world ten years after tall, apparently inert alien structures known as “trees” landed around the globe. No-one knows what they’re for, but most people know they don’t want to be anywhere near one whenever they do what it is they’ve come here to do. In the shadow of the trees you’ll find only two kinds of people: the scientists trying to figure them out and the people who already felt like outcasts, given the chance to build a society of their own.

The series takes in locations and characters from all around the planet, with a wide and diverse cast. The result is that the action unfolds slowly and deliberately, thus far with little interconnectedness. But it’s the slow, building tension that makes it so gripping. Even after the best part of a year we barely understand the trees, and yet each new sliver of information makes them feel like a fresh, alien horror.

While it’s largely Ellis’ ideas that push the book forwards, it’s hard to imagine the execution working as well without Howard’s artwork, which realises every location in different and subtles ways. Howard even pencils, inks and colours, giving the book visuals that are unified in ways most comics can’t hope to be. Despite this (and somewhat astonishingly for a Warren Ellis coimc) the book has remained on a monthly schedule, and Howard deserves credit for his sheer speed: when your plot is slow, your release date can’t afford to be.

Clearly, there’s a lot about Trees that we have yet to learn, and in many ways the book’s first act is only just getting started. But at the same time, it’s smart, modern and packed with ideas, and in seven issues it’s proven that it has ambitions of a scope far beyond most comics. It is, if nothing else, proof that becoming part of the comics establishment hasn’t stopped Ellis from tackling new ideas. James

Rocket Raccoon

The Guardians of the Galaxy movie instilled in me a deep and fervent affection for the character of Rocket Raccoon, and I suspect I’m not the only one. So it therefore came as little surprise when Marvel almost immediately began publishing a thinly-veiled excuse to cash in on his popularity with a new solo series. What was perhaps a little more surprising, however, was that it was just as immediately one of the best things they’d published all year.

Since I came to the character (like most people) through the movie, it’s pleasing to see that Rocket’s solo series reads like it could be the continuing adventures of the MCU version. It’s still set in the regular Marvel Universe, of course – but far more than, say, the main GOTG title (and even the similarly quick-cash-in Legendary Star-Lord) this takes its character and stylistic cues from the movie first and foremost – even down to the fact that, by stealth, it’s actually as much a “Rocket and Groot” series as it is a “Rocket” one (indeed, I’m baffled that Groot doesn’t get cover billing – maybe Marvel just didn’t realise quite how well he’d do out of the movie).

Skottie Young proved to be an absolutely inspired choice to both write and draw the series: his ability as an action-humour cartoonist was never in question, so it was always going to look fantastic (and it does). There’s almost as much humour in the visuals – from character expression, to background jokes, to sound effects as part of the art – as there is in the writing. It’s also worth noting that the fill-in/guest artist on #5 and #6, Jake Parker, maintains the tone perfectly.

But that’s not to say there isn’t a heck of a lot of humour in the writing as well – the story zips along, and alternates a high gag rate with a surprising amount of actual Rocket-based pathos, too. It’s also pleasing that the book doesn’t just limit its appeal to fans of the movie: several story and character elements are drawn from Bill Mantlo’s original Rocket comics, in particular the 1985 miniseries.

Rocket Raccoon would already have been one of the most enjoyable comics of the year after its first four issues, but it was #5 that elevated it to something even more brilliant. An entire story narrated by Groot – and I’m just going to repeat those words again, to make sure you get them: an entire story narrated by Groot – it’s a tour-de-force of comics storytelling, and breaks out of its obvious limitation to still be just as funny as the other issues.

Before the series launched, I would have been hard-pressed to tell you what I thought a new Rocket Raccoon series would, or even should, be like. Fortunately, Skottie Young had exactly the right answer: a relentlessly funny, tongue-in-cheek action adventure with sparky and characterful art and breakneck pacing. In the process, he contributes almost as much to Rocket being The Sensational Character Find Of 2014 as James Gunn and Bradley Cooper did. Seb

The Fade-Out

In a world where Ed Brubaker makes writing noir-tinged period pieces look effortless, what can we say about The Fade Out – a murder mystery set in Hollywood’s golden age – except that “it’s more of what you’d expect from this team, and that’s why we love it”?

Well, let’s back up a little. If you enjoyed the deep, dark, nuanced world of Criminal. If you liked the period setting of Fatale. If you enjoy the intrigue of Velvet. If, basically, you’ve ever enjoyed an Ed Brubaker comic, The Fade Out is like the ultimate expression of one. Rich in plot and character, fully-researched and well-realised, with flawless technical execution from Brubaker and his frequent collaborators. With the obvious caveat that the subject matter might not interest you, it’s hard to find fault with.

But more than that, it’s an important project. For one, it’s the first project of an unprecedented five year exclusivity deal Brubaker and Phillips have with Image. Second, it’s trying new things with format – the first issue was released in oversized magazine dimensions to evoke the era the book is set in. Third, it’s got backmatter essays that’d be worth paying for in their own right. On every level, it’s designed to make you think about what can be done within the boundaries of a comic, and as an opening salvo for a deal, that’s impressive stuff.

If anything’s wrong with The Fade Out, it’s that despite all this, it’s not really being talked about. We’re as guilty as anyone of this, of course, but at least we’re making up for it now. Perhaps the problem is that Brubaker, Phillips and Co. are so dependable that it’s simply taken for granted that they’ll produce high-quality work that’ll leave you gripped. Unfair on the part of the audience, perhaps, but as problems go, it’s not exactly a bad one to have. If you can find a better crime comic from 2014, then bring it to us. James

Saga

We didn’t include Saga in our end-of-year list for 2013. It wasn’t that the comic hadn’t been any good, more that it didn’t quite jump out as staggeringly new and brilliant in the way that it had done in 2012 (plus, we were busy being wowed by another Brian K. Vaughan book – The Private Eye – and in the interests of variety, didn’t want to include two by him in the list). But that’s a hard policy to keep going for 2014, a year in which the series once again reminded us of just why it’s one of the most consistently excellent things being published anywhere in comics.

For starters, its year began with that jump forwards at the end of the third arc. The “time jump” is a sometimes-cliched tradition in storytelling, but it’s hard to deny that there are occasions upon which it’s hugely effective – and this was certainly one. Despite being followed by the customary several-months break between issues, it seemed to revitalise the series somewhat – there’d been enjoyable material in the “hiding with Warren EllisHeist” storyline, but it did feel like it maybe went on for a little too long in one place.

When the series resumed in May, it was in an entirely different place, both literally and figuratively. The first part of arc four threw yet another patented BKV last-page mic drop (“This is the story of how my parents split up”); and from then on the drama for Hazel, Marko and Alana became much more personal, even as the backdrop for the wider story ramped up the intrigue (and the violence). Where the series really shone at this point was in portraying the messy, never-straightforward dynamics of a family flung together and just trying to get by. Hazel’s family aren’t screwy and messed up because they’re caught in the middle of an interplanetary war – they’re screwy and messed up because they’re people.

(This particular storyline also seemed to suit Fiona Staples best – for whatever reason, whenever the series is actively striving to break your heart seems to be when she really brings out her top game when it comes to character expression. And the trippy Fadeaway sequences expanded the scope of her storytelling, too. Of course, it almost feels like the astonishing visuals of Saga are something to be taken for granted, but they really shouldn’t be – it’s remarkable that the series always looks so perfect, every single issue, and that needs to be spotlighted even when there’s not really anything new to say.)

And this is when Saga‘s at its best – the (for want of a better word) human drama. Indeed, while it’s often difficult to keep track of just exactly what’s going on with the Prince Robot storyline (at least on a month-to-month basis – this all reads a lot better at trade pace), there’s always a clear heart and through-line in the main story. This is what keeps us invested: the “saga” of the title (as if it needed saying) has nothing to do with the epic conflict going on elsewhere, but is in fact the entirely smaller (but not less important) story of this family. And this year, that story got right inside us and wrenched our hearts out.

Plus, Lying Cat came back. Seb

The Wicked + The Divine

So, then, to The Wicked + The Divine. Unquestionably one of the major success stories of comics in 2014… and something that, if we’re honest, it’s difficult for us to talk about in any kind of objective or rational way, because it’s by our mates.

And yeah, that’s a bit of a namedrop. But, come on – we’ve been waiting since around 2006 to be able to say “We were there first” when it comes to appreciating the work of Gillen and McKelvie, so now that everybody’s appreciating the heck out of them everywhere you look we’re entitled to feel a little bit smug.

Perhaps the thing that surprises me the most about WicDiv‘s success is the new audience it’s attracted. I mean, in one sense, that’s not really a surprise at all: it’s the most unashamed reach for something more populist that this team have yet done (even more than the modern-urban-teen-fantasy that was McKelvie’s solo Suburban Glamour, a series that now feels sadly like it’s been consigned to one-and-done history given the amount of time this rather more successful effort is likely to demand from him). It’s not really much of a shock that it would resonate with more people than a black-and-white allusive paean to Kenickie b-sides, or even than the continuing adventures of a mid-level teen superhero team.

But place it in the wider context of everything they’ve done so far (by which I really mean “set it after the two volumes of Phonogram“), and it feels like by merely starting with WicDiv, you’re joining the movie late. All three volumes are (from at least one angle, I’m aware it’s not the only one) about the relationships we have with artists and art. Rue Britannia cast our heroes as the devoted hardcore, the fanzine creators. In The Singles Club, they were beginning to step aside for younger devotees, realising that their own position as fan-creatives had started to bring them a little closer to stardom themselves. And with WicDiv, they are the stars. Because as much as they might be feeding their own experiences into Laura… it’s hard to imagine they’re not also doing the same with Luci, and Baal, and Inanna.

And yet, as tempting as it is to say that I’d still rather they be doing the “This is completely on my level” kind of stuff they were doing with Phonogram, you can’t really argue with the results when the results are The Wicked + The Divine. This book is a hit because it’s a startling, compelling examination of the star/fan dichotomy – but also because it’s filled with strong characterisation (although I already like Inanna more than I like anyone who appeared in the preceding five issues), shocking plot twists, and by far the most accomplished comics storytelling yet by a writer, artist and colourist team who were already pretty bloody good beforehand.

WicDiv exudes confidence in a way that Phonogram, even at its best, never really could. It’s got a sublime, moment-to-moment pacing and rhythm that just about every other comic could learn from. Each issue is a breathtakingly produced, physical package (it’s one of only five comics that I still buy in print every issue, and the only one of the five that’s for aesthetic reasons rather than because I started collecting before switching to digital) that showcases a full design and production team working in harmony to produce an object that demands your attention every time it appears. Hell, it produces monthly notes from its writer that are more entertaining than most comics.

And if it still doesn’t quite make me feel the way Phonogram did, about the highest compliment I can pay it is that it’s exactly the sort of thing that someone, somewhere will one day be inspired enough to make their own Phonogram about. Seb

She-Hulk

She-Hulk is one of those characters who really shouldn’t work. From the poorly-conceived, borderline sexist origin to the poorly-conceived, borderline sexist name, nothing about the character makes a lot of sense outside of the context she was created in: a hasty attempt to stop the Incredible Hulk TV series from creating (and potentially owning) a female version of the Hulk. And yet here we are with yet another stand-out run – at least the character’s third – that brings out the best in its creative team.

In the past She-Hulk has succeeded by transcending (or, perhaps, embracing) its core ridiculousness. Once you suspend enough disbelief to accept the character as a protagonist at all, pretty much anything can go, whether that’s John Byrne’s fourth-wall breaking metahumour or Dan Slott’s Cosmic Ally McBeal. In this most recent incarnation of the title, Charles Soule has used his own experience to craft the kind of narrative that only a professional lawyer could: ones that are rich in mystery and technicality, with the occasional superhero punch-up.

Soule is, of course, best known as the Busiest Man in Comics. While he’s provided a dependable hand on high-end corporate comics like Superman/Wonder Woman and Death of Wolverine, She-Hulk shows a far more distinct voice than any of his other superhero work. Nothing he’s turned in has been bad, but She-Hulk is the only book he’s done that feels like it couldn’t have been written by anyone else.

But above the plotting, tone and voice, Soule is lucky to be paired with the experimental artistry of Javier Pulido and Ron Wemberly, neither of whom are what you’d call standard Marvel fare. That Pulido moved off Hawkeye to do this book says all you need to know about its pedigree: visually speaking, it’s original, inventive and generally operating at the end of the comic book market that delights critics and connoisseurs.

Little wonder, then, that it’s also coming to an end soon, its low sales hardly justifying Soule’s newly Marvel-exclusive time. It could go on with another writer, but without the alchemy Soule has with his collaborators, it’s so unlikely to work. It’s a shame that one of the year’s best books – indeed, one which narrowly missed out on the top
spot – should be cancelled so soon after it launched, but in the end that only makes what it had more valuable, and so definitively one of 2014’s stand-outs. James

The Multiversity

Around five years or so ago, the prospect of Grant Morrison writing a multiverse-spanning, self-referential exploration of DC’s superhero lineage would have been pretty much the most exciting thing in comics. But as the time between The Multiversity‘s conception and its actual execution grew ever longer, the doubts began to creep in. The resetting of DC’s entire continuity was the biggest elephant in the room: if The Multiversity was originally conceived pre-New 52, would it be compromised by eventually coming out after it?

But even aside from that, with what seemed to be Morrison’s final definitive statement on the superhero comic, in his epoch-defining Batman run, finally at an end, and following the apparent inability of his Action Comics to stake out a claim for greatness in this new era, this supposed final hurrah began to feel like little more than an afterthought. Sure, it would be nice to see a bit of new Frank Quitely art, especially if he was drawing the Blue Beetle. But would The Multiversity really have anything new to say?

It turns out that yes, it did. And what it had to say was The Man Don’t Give A Fuck.

Different people have reacted to different bits of The Multiversity in different ways, and that’s been one of the most edifying things about the series. Someone else could sit here and write a look back that concentrated mainly on the first two issues of the series – and in particular, the Society of Super-Heroes chapter – and talk about how the Chris Sprouse-drawn, note-perfect take on pulp heroism (and bizarre yet somehow perfect confluence of otherwise largely unconnected DC characters) worked for them. The same is true, I’m sure, of the most recent chapter – a delightful Captain Marvel/Shazam riff with, again, supremely judged Cameron Stewart art.

For my part, the one that hit for me – as I’ve already discussed in detail – was The Just. It was a comic that I bought in print after having bought and read it digitally, just because I wanted to make damned sure I owned a permanent, tangible copy of the thing. It was a comic that confirmed for me that Grant Morrison is still capable of being the Grant Morrison who first blew my immediately-post-adolescent comics-reading mind when I read the last issue of his Animal Man a shade over a decade ago.

But then there was Pax Americana. Which was a comic that I bought two copies of in print after having bought and read it digitally, because not only did I want to make damned sure that I owned a permanent, tangible copy of the thing, but because I also wanted to make sure that my father – the man who got me into comics in the first place – read it too.

(I mean, I would have always bought the print copy anyway, Because Quitely. But even so.)

I can’t even really begin to talk about Pax Americana in any detail. I don’t really feel equipped to do so. The only way I can really frame it is in terms of that dramatic phrase I stuck just before the page jump to draw attention. This is what happens when Grant Morrison really doesn’t give a fuck. And I don’t mean that in the sense of not caring about his work: I mean in the sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about it.

So yeah, he’s going to put Lady Shiva and Dr Fate in the same comic, and to hell with those who think that’s the sort of thing that should never cross over. So yeah, he’s going to act like all those legacy heroes you hated in the ’90s were actually kind of great. So yeah, he’s going to call Captain Marvel “Captain Marvel” in the pages of a 2014-published DC comic.

And yeah, he’s going to take the nuclear option in his long-running war with Alan Moore, by crafting an elaborate Watchmen pastiche that both reveres, and thumbs its nose at, the original work simultaneously. And he’s going to do it in tandem with the best comics artist of the last twenty years working at the height of his own storytelling powers.

Because Grant Morrison has moved past giving a fuck what you think about his comics any more. He’s already made his grand statements about the superhero comics that are, were and will be. Now, he’s decided to just go ahead and write a bunch of individual comics that are how he wants them to be. And it’s brilliant, and it’s terrifying. Seb

Silver Surfer

In the seven years Seb and I have been picking the best comic of the year*, finding a consensus has always involved strict criteria. It has to be something we’ve both read, and loved, and we both have to think it’s sufficiently prominent in that year to justify taking the banner over anything else. Perhaps the most difficult criteria is that it has to be an ongoing series which has released enough issues that if the sheen was going to wear off, it would’ve done so. How appropriate, then, that this year we’re picking out a character who literally has a sheen that has yet to wear off.

Yes, Silver Surfer by Dan Slott, Mike Allred and Laura Allred is our pick for the best comic of 2014. Its mixture of upbeat-yet-emotional┬ástorytelling, radical visual design and short, punchy, single-issue stories has made it an instant favourite. We like other books, we esteem other books, but when Silver Surfer comes out, we’ll drop everything to
read it.

Like all the best comics, it’s being made by a team of creators who are working in complete synchronicity with one another. It knows what it’s trying to do, and it does it. That doesn’t make it unique in the comics sphere, but what does are its sensibilities. It’s enormous, escapist, feel-good fun. Whatever journey Silver Surfer might take you on, you know it’s not going to leave you depressed, and you’ll come out of it feeling better about yourself, the world, and humanity in general.

If that sounds like shallow praise, it’s not. It’s comparatively easy to tell a story about how grim things are and how they’re probably not getting better for anyone in a general sense. Just look at the runaway success of The Walking Dead, which has become one of the most famous “everyone will definitely die probably soon” narratives across
all media, let alone comics. Telling a story that makes you think everything might be alright? THAT takes effort.

The reason it works so well is that it’s perfect for the character. The Silver Surfer is a pacifist in love with the universe and fascinated by humanity, and every issue tries its best to make you feel that way too. If you tried this book with almost any other character, it wouldn’t work. If you tried it with any other writer or artist, it wouldn’t work. But they found the right alchemy. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s cute and it’s ridiculous, and if you changed a single thing, it’d all
fall apart. We love it and we want you to love it, and that’s why it’s our pick of the year. James

* Previous winners, for reference/interest:

2007 – All Star Superman

2008 – Amazing Spider-Man

2009 – Nothing! (“Awards” given instead)

2010 – Batman & Robin

2011 – Ultimate Comics Spider-Man

2012 – Hawkeye

2013 – Superior Spider-Man