Friday, January 2, 2015

2014 Flashback: My Favorite Comics

Welcome to 2015!

As a precursor to what I'm hoping will be a really productive year around Phegley HQ, I wanted to dig back into life at the CKT with some posts looking back at 2014 -- a year that rode the fine line between uneventful and massively stressful to the chagrin of my odds at making it to 100.

As in previous years, I assembled a "Top 10 Comics of the Year" list for Comic Book Resources to contribute to their massive cage match of a Top 100 (see the full list here). But unlike past years, I wasn't remotely responsible for compiling and editing that list. That meant I could no longer sharpen my list to push books I like into the eyeballs of CBR's wide audience and subsequently that most of my picks didn't make the final round up. Ever in need of a spotlight, I thought I'd share with y'all not only the ten books I submitted to CBR but also a bunch of other comics I enjoyed this year.

Like the last time I did this (in 2008?!? Guh), I have to say that there were a ton of surely great comics I didn't read this year, and there are a bunch of comics I read and enjoyed where I could think of nothing to say about them. For example, there's a raft of stuff from Image, Dark Horse, IDW and others that I read on a regular basis, and I usually trade wait most Marvel books (a process I'm way behind on as it is). To top it off, I realized that a lot of what I liked the most this year was made by friends, and I'm not sure I can always divorce what I like about those people from what I like about their work as a real critic should. So if you ever had a thought of taking anything I write as "objective" or "definitive," please stop doing that.

On with the show...

Written by Jeff Parker
Drawn by Paul Pelletier
Published by DC Comics

My comics comfort food of the year. I already have a predilection towards Aquaman, but Jeff Parker has also delivered a rare mainstream superhero book that isn't infected by what Grant Morrison recently called an "Ebola-like 'crisis' epidemic." This is a book about the King of the Sea and how it was awkward for him to go to his high school reunion. And then he fought Hercules. Because. Even in the current "Maelstrom" arc which is nominally about long hidden secrets rocking the world of its hero, Parker seems more interested in making this "like no other Aquaman comic you've read before" by using Gorilla Grodd as a one-off villain than he is doing it was some transparent status quo change. Pelletier's art is a huge draw too. I think he's the kind of guy some would call a throwback, but there's nothing about his style that pushes against our current time or towards a past one. He's got a very classic sensibility, which fits a comic like this that's stacked full of simple pleasures.

Written & Drawn by Dash Shaw
Published by Fantagraphics

This was my #1 pick of the year on my CBR list, for which I wrote:

"With only two issues, Dash Shaw delivered the most honest take on modern comics culture published all year. 2014 was a year rife with debates over fake geek girls and cosplayers detracting from artist alley profits. All those overblown recriminations pointed out how many longtime comics fans fail to understand the younger generation breathing new life, new diversity and new methods of expression into our shared world. But while there are a million Tumblr blogs out there extolling the idealized world of cosplayers, Shaw's perceptive stories of young women looking for a connection amid masquerade glory and aging Osamu Tezuka scholars contemplating their irrelevance provided an honest and endearing look at the people who make up modern fandom. For a culture obsessed with fantasy, the cartoonist's work took care to present an effecting – and necessary – version of reality. If every troll on the internet read these comics, we'd all be in a much better place."

Does anyone know if he's doing a third issue? I'll admit, I kind of love how underwhelming the promotion on this title was, so maybe I don't want to know when I'll stumble upon a #3.

Dead Letters
Written by Christopher Sebela
Drawn by Chris Visions
Published by BOOM! Studios

Bizarre crime comics have become a well-worn genre in the past decade, and you could easily describe Sebela and Vision's take in terms of the DNA it shares with past stories of lowlifes. It has the "one man against the world" feel of Raymond Chandler, the existential mysteriousness of Philip K. Dick and the gun action of Martin Scorsese. Sure, you could say that. But what keeps the comic a draw after those surface comparisons have worn off is what its creators do with their 'mob saga in purgatory' premise over multiple issues. Dead Letters has a style and a voice that's really its own and completely comics. And that's what matters most.

I'll add that I've finally figured out what I like and don't like about the BOOM! Studios publishing plan. For all their non-licensed, non-marquee talent books (which is a HUGE part of their line, really), the company gives its creators leeway to play with their story and then end it. This is great creatively as BOOM! has become a place for some fun, stylish genre comics over the past several years (I've been enjoying the stray BOOM! book in this mold as far back as Talent, easily). The frustrating thing is that their continual banking of these books with the hope of a Hollywood pickup wreaks havoc with their backlist. Do you ever here someone talking about "that BOOM! series I liked from a few years back"? So much of the coolest stuff there seems very ephemeral in the marketplace, which is a shame.

Written & Drawn by Jason Shiga

After making a name for himself as one of the more formally inventive cartoonists working today, I'm super pumped that Jason Shiga has selected to release his latest story in the somewhat maligned format of the alt comix pamphlet. DEMON wasn't just an intriguing story of life after death told in the rhythmic panels of Shiga's signature style. It was also the only comic I read this year where I smiled at the way the paper held its simple color pallet or spun the square-formatted floppy in my hands over and over to enjoy the object the artist had made for me. These are the little things that print comics should be proud of playing with.

Written by Tom King and Tim Seeley
Drawn by Mikel Janin
Published by DC Comics

Grayson is the superhero comic this year that I just kept getting pulled back to, which I'd have never guessed at the outset. So many of the books in this market that earn praise are the ones that work hard to break the mold aesthetically from the Big Two standard bearers. But this title accomplished a somewhat rarer feet of proving that there can still be some life within the confines of a house style (especially a house style as restrictive as DC's over the past 5, 10...fuck it, 30 years). Grayson should be accompanied by a wave of caveats-cum-dealbreakers. From concepts created by Grant Morrison that he isn't using! A high concept twist on a character you've read in a billion other comics! Photorealistic art with semi-frequent fill-ins! Instead, promising newcomer Tom King and Tim Seeley (who should get an MVP award for reinventing his creative image in the last three years) push hard on the single issue format and its assorted special tie-ins to build a comic whose rewards are varied and strange.

Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis
Drawn by Brooke Allen
Published by BOOM! Studios

To quote myself on CBR again:

"I'm not sure where Lumberjanes will land on CBR's Top Comics list, but if you try to argue with me that it's not the #1 entry on the most buzz-worthy book of 2014, you're crazy. The runaway hit about a team of summer camp scouts traversing the weirds of the wild is so much more than its admirable girl power mission statement. Lumberjanes is a funny, surprising and fantastic piece of comics whose power only increases with each issue. And with its world brimming full of madcap merit badges and monster mountain mythology, the series has the kind of unique language and feel that provides a great entry point to the medium for young readers of any background. Editor Shannon Watters and her team deserve all the praise possible for producing comics that don't just appeal to new fans but will likely become their all-time favorites."

And I'll reiterate that last idea here. I've been thinking a lot this year about modern kids comics and how they do or don't serve their target audience in a basic "asses in seats" manner. The growth in serial comics for young readers has been super heartening from Tiny Titans debut on through to Adventure Time, but this book is one of the few all-original titles in that flavor of comics expression that has gained a commercial foothold. So I really, REALLY hope a chunk of those copies sold are landing in the hands of young people.

Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Ivan Reis, Chris Sprouse, Ben Oliver, Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, et al.
Published by DC Comics

With a years in the making production cycle and the promise of its writer being unbridled by DC Universe continuity standards, Grant Morrison and company's Multiversity had a lot riding on its debut. Luckily, the interconnected, universe-hopping un-event paid off after a long wait.

From it's monstrously weird opening chapter featuring a wildly diverse DCU to its increasingly idiosyncratic series of one-shots, Multiversity has consistently delivered inventive twists on superhero sub genres and a spiraling series of existential cliffhangers. None of these worked better than the finale of Multiversity: Pax Americana. Morrison and Frank Quitely's Watchmen homage-cum-modern day commentary was as formally inventive as any comic either creator has delivered in years. But the real action here was the human story underneath the eight-panel grids of conspiracy theory which ended with the latest in a series of emotional father-son stories spun by Morrison. His return to the idea that patriarchs pass down violence and awe to their offspring in equal measure has become one of his most potent themes, and combined with the formal experimentation of Multiversity, it makes for some stunning superhero comics.

On a shamelessly personal note, we're all just bonkers for the work our pal Rickey Purdin has done making this series a reality. For years, Rickey has been one of the most observant readers of Morrison's comics I know -- always connecting the big idea continuity blather of the writer's work and his jittery aesthetic heart in a way few people have gotten at. To see Rickey put those skills to use making each issue of this series so finely tuned in detail has been a joy, and I'm glad he's getting the credit amongst comic critics for elevating this past the smothered-by-deadlines feel of Morrison's other recent DC work.

Nemo: The Roses of Berlin
Written by Alan Moore
Drawn by Kevin O'Neill
Published by Top Shelf & Knockabout

Shameful admission: I totally forgot this latest chapter in Moore and O'Neill's thankfully continuing public domain-twisting saga arrived in 2014 while making my CBR list. I'm not sure why Nemo didn't come to mind while thinking of comics I read this year, because even though it hasn't lingered on my mind the way some others on this list have, it's impact on me as a reader was immediate and praiseworthy.

For one, it's astonishing how this book slithered around our collective expectations for what a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book will be. After the previous two volumes reveled in a densely plotted mash-up of footnote-necessary characters and seething criticisms of modern culture, I never thought the creators would zag back towards a narrative that so acutely connects to the big-paneled plotting of modern adventure comics -- and in such an unironic way to boot! This was a no bullshit "ripping adventure tale" of the kind I didn't think we'd see from Moore ever again.

And in that vein, this distance his use of Chaplin's Great Dictator creates from the "superheroes fight Nazis" tropes that have hung on to pulp is equally welcome. A few years back, I swore off all appropriation of Third Reich iconography in capes books because I've found it increasingly fucking gross how writers will say, "These Nazis are the most bad ass things you'll see all year!" But despite not naming the name, this story turns Nazism as an idea into a living grotesquery in a way that doesn't denigrate our real history but amplifies the truth of its horror. And O'Neill's art is what really makes that fine point come together. There are pages in here every bit as unnerving as the League's infamous "Hyde eats the Invisible Man" sequence without carrying the fanboy drooling "kewlness" that made part of the franchise's legacy problematic.

Most of all, we should all recognize the little ways in which Moore and O'Neill have worked to keep this material "difficult" for readers even as it plows forward with its swashbuckling facade. Apart from whole pages being written in German to keep us outside the plot in the same way as our leads, the climax of Nemo engages with the modern growth of women as action heroes in a way that's messy and vital. In its own way, this is as cutting edge a book as these two have ever made, and in Moore's case in particular, I hope he continues to make comics with this kind of verve regardless of his treatment by the industry at large or maybe even to spite it.

Over Easy
Written & Drawn by Mimi Pond
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

It seems like every year, comics reaches into its overlooked past and offers up a personal work from a creator who's been holding on to a story only they can tell. In 2014, the honor went to Mimi Pond, and boy did she deserve the spotlight. Joining the ranks of Allison Bechdel, Lynda Barry, David Mazzucchelli and other cartooning veterans ready to tackle an ambitious graphic novel, Pond turns a lifetime of storytelling into a project both personal and historically significant. Over Easy hums with strange characters too true to be fictional and tackles the cultural malaise of the 1970s with a keen eye. We're lucky to have her in our ranks and should be eagerly awaiting book two.

I'll also say that in a year when my art comics graphic novel buying was significantly down due to both cost and access, I was very happy to read this thanks to my job, and the interview I did with Pond was one of my favorites of the year.

Written & Drawn by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Published by Ballantine Books

Here's the longer, goofier version of my CBR write-up of a book I was already destined to enjoy but was still surprised by: "To be blunt, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series is one of the few modern comics that can carry the phrase 'generation defining epic' without looking silly. So his follow up to almost a decade of cartooning work and its Hollywood drama capper was sure to be watched with extra scrutiny. Luckily, Seconds is a graphic novel that delivers in spades both by being a total spiritual follow up to Scott Pilgrim and a completely different beast. The story of dedicated but distracted Toronto restauranteur Katie digs to the heart of life after your 20s and to the challenge of building on your earlier successes in a meaningful way. And as he mapped out this new emotional territory, O'Malley easily traded on the humor and inventive plotting that made his last books such a big hit without making readers feel that the tank was dry (we forgive you the 'Bread makes you fat' joke, Mal). Best of all, Seconds leaves fans with pallet's cleansed and completely unaware of what direction the artist might take yet. Sometimes the future is brightest when you can't see where you're going next."

Written by Chris Roberson
Drawn by Paul Maybury
Published by Image Comics

Sovereign was the most complicated mainstream comic I read this year in the very best way. As new issues of the ultra-dense fantasy epic arrived across the summer, I found myself revisiting previous installments again and again – hungry for the rosetta stone that would bring the pieces of Roberson and Maybury's world together. With its mix of Arabian Nights imagery and Roman conquest action, the series was able to layer in ideas, identity and some stunning imagery for one of the most forward-thining fantasy comics to come along in forever.

Spooky Sleepover
Wrtiten by Dave Scheidt
Drawn by Jess Smart Smiley

This Kickstarter-backed, Halloween-fueled kids comic is the kind of project I'm a total mark for. But aside from my personal connection to the subject matter and its creators (Dave is a "matching tattoo" worthy comics bro of mine), Spooky Sleepover delivered gruesome and gorgeous story turns with its anthology of pre-teen terror tales. Scheidt's stories marry poop jokes and real middle school fears with ease like a haunted toilet tale about bathroom anxiety or a ghost bike representing young friends gone too soon. Meanwhile, Smart cleverly mixes up hist style to suit each story, and the results evoke everyone from Quentin Blake to Kazimir Strzepek. Seek this book out, and read it with a flashlight.

Study Group Magazine #3D
Written & Drawn by Various
Published by Study Group Comics

If you couldn't tell already by some of the other books on my list, I'm really enamored by folks who are pushing the "comics as an object" ideal out further past hand-made minis. And while I've been following various serials on Study Group's website for the past few years (hat tip to Ben Sears' Double + for 2014!), getting a pack of their print books via Kickstarter was a fucking blast.

The centerpiece of that crowdfunding campaign, Study Group Magazine #3D was a winner on all sorts of levels. I got to watch my friend Sean T. Collins roll his personal interest as a critic into his creative life in a memorable manner. I got the kind of focused look at the late Ray Zone's work and the kinds of comics-making he empowered I'd been hoping for a good long while. I connected to a number of cartoonists whose work I'd known but never really followed (Connor Willumsen, FTW). And most of all, I got to carry around an honest-to-goodness comics magazine – one of my favorite formats – for days and just lazily absorb whatever pages I felt like whenever I rolled back the cover.

I know that a lot of the artists publishing here are trying out creative muscles as a side gig before doing their own more involved work alone, but the cumulative effect of an anthology like this should be celebrated. Nice job, Zack Soto and company.

Superboy: Futures End
Written by Frank Barbiere
Drawn by Ben Caldwell
Published by DC Comics

As many superhero comics as I read in a year, I feel like the kind that rarely ever gets made anymore is the straight one-shot built on capital-F FUN. This comic had the Kindergarten F-word in spades.

Part of this was that despite receiving many of these "throw our line five years in the future" gimmick books from DC to review, Superboy was the only one I read that used the promotional hook to do something that didn't read like desperate marketing copy. Driven by the fact that this was the last issue of the low-selling title, Frank Barbiere (#1 on my personal list of overlooked mainstream writers right now) wrote a blockbuster finale for a Superboy comic that never existed. His story had a weird internal logic you could only get by looking at the book from an angle, and his use of "Reign of the Supermen" costuming felt far less like stale back issue nostalgia than a celebration of the raw concepts that made that '90s event juggernaut enjoyable. Plus, Ben Caldwell drew this thing with the kind of energy that makes us feel twice as frustrated every time we ask, "Why doesn't Caldwell draw more comics?" This time next year, this'll be the hottest dollar bin book in America.

Teen Titans
Written by Will Pfeifer
Drawn by Kenneth Rockafort
Published by DC Comics

Damn, how good is it to have Will Pfeifer back?

That could honestly be my entire review of this comic, and I'd be fine with that. But just in case you read all the way down here and wanted more, I'll say that Will took a franchise that I couldn't be less interested in after the New 52 relaunch and imbued it with a sense of direction without changing the freaking cast. His scripts took the proverbial bowling pins of the teen team, threw them in the air and started juggling with one hook laden scene after another keeping up the perpetual motion sense of the endeavor. And despite my ambivalence to Rockafort's art up to this point, he's managed to keep his overuse of white space on the page to a minimum and let his pretty slick design sense match the younger tone of this book. I hope it goes for 50 issues.

Bonus fact that surprises no one: with an assist from Rickey, this book is edited by my buddy and former officemate Mike Cotton, who also put together the Superboy issue. He's had a good year.

Written & Drawn by Liz Prince
Published by Zest

Since her slice-of-life debut Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed? I've been waiting for Liz Prince to deliver a longer-form comic. After almost a decade, Tomboy delivers on the promise of her talent in more ways than one. With a finer line that still fits with her recognizable sketchbook style and a moments that are at turns funny and bittersweet, this memoir has the hallmarks of her indie roots. But what really makes the comic work is the way it approaches gender pressure (still one of the most misunderstood and overlooked social issues for young people) with a light hand. Tomboy never makes demands of its reader but instead tells a difficult story with empathy and heart – the surest way to connect its message with readers.