BEST (and WORST) of 2013 – HAPPY NEW YEAR (Unless you’re Mark Millar or Brian Wood)!

Written By Charles Meier

Welp, another year has come and gone.  I look back and I think of the good times.  I think of the shit times.  Mostly they were shit times.  But hey, at least I got some cool comics/games/etc. out of the deal!  Here’s my thoughts on the best and worst of the year.  Please note that I can’t review things I didn’t see/read/play/hear, so this list is, as always, necessarily incomplete.

Best Single Issue:

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Hawkeye #11, written by Matt Fraction, illustrated by David Aja

It’s not like there haven’t been comics from the viewpoint of animals before.  Plenty of them, in fact.  It’s just that, like most other elements of this frankly astonishing series, Fraction and Aja do it better.  This look at a day in the life of Pizza Dog captures, with surprising accuracy and sensitivity, what it’s like to be a domesticated canine in the midst of a fairly pivotal moment in its owner’s life.  In addition to Fraction’s insight, Aja’s clean, sparse style proves alarmingly well-suited to portraying a dog’s mindset.  You get a sense of the goings-on the way a dog would, the focus remaining squarely on the things a dog would understand and value.  Even more amazing, it’s all perfectly legible.  The result is magic on paper.  Hawkeye has spent its entire run breaking rules; this issue, however, sees Fraction and Aja storm back into the room with the shattered fragments of the rules still scattered across the floor and proceed to stomp the rule-chunks into smaller, even less recognizable slivers, muttering dark oaths all the while.  “Innovative” doesn’t automatically mean “great”, but this issue snags both those adjectives and more.

 

Best New Ongoing Series:

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Lazarus, written by Greg Rucka, art by Michael Lark

2013 saw the debut of the definitive Greg Rucka work, one which saw him reach the culmination of his potential.  That it happened to re-team him with one of his Gotham Central collaborators is just a nice bonus.  This book is political without being shrill, speculative without being outlandish, peopled with well-realized characters and intriguingly plotted–and helmed by a Rucka Woman (a possibly unique case of a positive female stereotype), to boot.  The back pages are must-reads, as well–Rucka makes a pretty convincing case that the events that lead to a world like the one in Lazarus not only could happen, they kinda already are.  Which is great from a technology standpoint, but not so much for those of you into socio-economic justice.

I Also Liked: Sex Criminals, East Of West, Batman ‘66

 

Best Limited Series:

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The Black Beetle: No Way Out, by Francesco Francavilla

Retro-pulp stories are fairly popular in comics nowadays, to the point that I’m getting kinda sick of them.  Luckily, Francavilla came along this year to give the subgenre some mouth-to-mouth.  This was pretty much Francavilla’s year, really, when he became an artist whose work I’ll actively seek out.  If you can make a book called Afterlife With Archie awesome, you deserve all the praise I can throw your way.  Check out my review  for more details.

I Also Liked: Trillium, The Wake, The Sandman: Overture

 

Best Graphic Novel:

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Heck, by Zander Cannon

This book is surprising in all the good ways.  You go into it thinking it’s going to be the garden-variety comedy/action/adventure so favored within the medium these days, only for it to wind up going far, far, faaaaar in a different direction.  What you get instead is the best horror comic of the year.  The crappy description is that it’s a modern-day retelling of Dante’s Inferno, which just puts the exact wrong images in your head all over again.  Rather than what you’re probably thinking, Heck instead seeks to update that work’s context, showing the reader why people in medieval Italy would have found this vision of Hell so frightening.  The genius, I think, is that it’s not simply a matter of what Hell is, it’s how Hell is about it–every trip he makes, Heck is getting himself and his sidekick in way over their heads all over again.  They can’t get wise to it, nor even remember what it was like all the other times through.  You can’t even say only an idiot would do this.  Both in what it does and how it does it, Heck is my pick this year.

I Also Liked: Julio’s Day, The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, New School, Bad Houses, Sacrifice

 

Best Comic Adaptation:

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Richard Stark’s Parker: Slayground, adapted by Darwyn Cooke

This one might be obvious, but not everything needs to be a twist after all.  Had the Parker series not existed, it would have been necessary for Darwyn Cooke to create it.  I simply cannot think of a series and a design aesthetic more perfectly suited to one another.  These adaptations got me reading the original books–something I can’t say in any other similar example (except maybe Marvel’s Dunk and Egg adaptations, and those only got me reading ASOIaF itself, not the actual novellas).  Hell, I even hunted down the original Parker film adaptation, Point Blank, starring Lee Marvin.  I am doing legwork because of Darwyn Cooke.  So yeah, this book is kind of a big deal to me, even more so because it’s probably the best book in the series on display here–it’s basically Home Alone for the sophisticated man.  This book deserved Cooke’s best, and got it–this is a fast-paced, at times almost wordless read, which accurately captures the original’s flair for drama and desperation where it easily could have been gimmicky.  Plus, there’s a fold-out pamphlet for Fun Island, which is awesome–this being Darwyn Cooke, it looks exactly like what you’d expect from a mid-Sixties amusement park.  New this volume is a short backup feature, giving a four-page rundown of The Seventh, one of those Parker novels not interesting enough for a full adaptation, a practice I hope Cooke continues (much as I like the series, it does have its share of duds).  This book is everything I’ve come to expect from this project, and more than worthy for this list.

 

Best Returning Series:

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Astro City, written by Kurt Busiek, art by Brent Anderson

This is my favorite superhero comic of all time, so I’ve been awaiting its return with some trepidation.  I was sad to see it kind of peter out some years back, though there was quite a good reason for it (as schedule-slip excuses go, you can do a lot worse than mercury poisoning).  I’ll admit to preparing myself for disappointment–that’s been the outcome of most such cases, after all.

Happily, I was proven wrong.  Not only does the Astro City revival live up to its legacy, it’s probably the best the series has ever been.  While I’ve never been particularly bothered by Busiek’s writing style, it’s improved significantly over the years–his characters no longer sound like they’re reading off cue cards.  His sense of plot and character, of course, remain unparalleled, and have if anything grown more refined over the years.  While the new series places somewhat more focus on the superpowered characters, the overall emphasis remains on the everyday people who share the world with them, and the effect the presence of superhumans has had on everyday culture.  Much of this stuff is so obvious it’s a miracle nobody’s thought of it before now (or if they have, none have handled it with Busiek’s sincerity and humanism).  Of course this world’s Justice League/Avengers equivalent would have a dedicated hotline for handling distress calls, whose staff would be pretty decent–though not infallible!–at weeding out real emergencies from prank/low-priority calls.  And that’s just citing the most obvious example.

The art’s pretty great too, and not just because they’re confining Alex Ross to covers so far.  Anderson (who co-created the series with Busiek) resembles nothing so much as an early-period Neal Adams, back before he went crazy and knew to stick to what he was good at, without branching out into what he wasn’t (namely, writing and geology).  This series continues to do what it does best–showcase a creative team at the peak of its prowess while endeavoring to rescue its genre from the grim-and-gritty doldrums (while being published by DC, of all people).  I look forward to reading Astro City for however long it winds up sticking around this time.

I Also Liked: Sergio Aragones Funnies, Love and Rockets: New Stories

 

Best Comic Nonfiction:

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Madison Square Tragedy–The Murder of Stanford White: 25 June, 1906, by Rick Geary

This long-running series had another edition see print this year, and this one’s a doozy.  Geary seems to be focusing on lesser-known cases in recent years, and while I was already familiar with this particularly weird incident, it’s kinda fallen off the radar in recent decades.  No reason it shouldn’t, as it fits the traditional true-crime narrative not at all, the victim being a highly unpleasant fellow who can truly be said to have deserved his fate.  It’s pretty bad when you have me rooting for the hypocritical, misogynistic sadist, is all I’m saying.  It’s a story that bears retelling, and Geary’s brand of belligerent folksiness is more than up to the task.

 

Best Anthology:

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Haunted Horror, edited by Craig Yoe

I think this series actually started last year, but it continues to be amazing so what the heck.  This bimonthly series showcases the cream of the obscure pre-Code horror crop.  What particularly strikes me is that EC’s horror titles turn out to have been relatively tame for their time, seldom getting as surreal or disturbing as the stories routinely showcased in this book.  Bill Gaines simply had the rotten luck to paint a great big target across his chest, get high on diet pills and jump in front of a Senate subcommittee.  Dearly as I love Dark Horse and Fantagraphics’ new lines of EC compilations, I still prefer Haunted Horror–those EC books don’t have near so much Bob Powell in them, after all.

I Also Liked: Dark Horse Presents, DC One Million Omnibus, Solo: The Complete Collection, The Best American Comics 2013

 

Most Pleasant Discovery:

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Copra, by Michel Fiffe

As I may have hinted at, I love this comic.  To the extent that I may have invented this category just so I could include it in this list.  Among the many other impossible things it accomplishes, Copra renews my faith in the indie/self-published scene.  I read plenty of stuff I liked this year, but Copra beats them all.  Long may it reign.

 

 

 

 

 

Worst Comic:

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Avengers Arena

You may have noticed I didn’t include any creator credits for this one.  This is because I don’t wish to give those losers any publicity, not even of the negative sort.  Marvel NOW! has made a pretty strong showing thus far, cementing its status as “the New 52 if it didn’t suck”.  However, any such initiative is bound to have a few duds, and hoo boy is this one.  Maybe even two or three, it’s that bad.

My god, what were these people thinking?  This series pretty blatantly panders to fans of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, as one look at the TPB cover will confirm.  Also, Arcade mentions he got the idea from some YA novels he read.  Smooth, Marvel.  But you know what?  This isn’t even the real problem.  The real problem is the utter contempt oozing from every page, both for the reader and its own product.  The chosen combatants consist mainly of a bunch of obscure characters (about half the cast of Runaways, in fact) Marvel seems to think have outlived their usefulness and can be safely disposed of.  Even if one or two characters you like didn’t happen to get roped into this mess (any other Darkhawk fans out there, prepare to get pissed off), this is a problem, because why should you even care?  What’s more, virtually none of the characters are likeable, whether because they’re assholes or twits or X-23.  Hey, you know why Battle Royale and The Hunger Games succeeded?  Because they gave you well-rounded characters you could actually, y’know, root for.  In Avengers Arena, however, it’s all just grist for the mill.  (On a lesser note, how is this an Avengers book, exactly?  Other than every new non-X-Men team book having the word “Avengers” in its title nowadays, that is?)

The sad thing is, this could have been a cool book–lord knows I’m all for making Arcade not incompetent anymore.  Sadly, they couldn’t even do that right, their only idea for going about it being to give him Beyonder-level powers for no reason.  The art is serviceable, and Dave Johnson’s covers are great as always, but wrapping a lump of dogshit in pretty paper doesn’t change the fact that you’re about to give someone a lump of dogshit as a gift.  For fuck’s sake, Marvel, I know DC releases crap like this on a weekly basis, but come on!  I know you can do better than this–you made Superior Spider-man not terrible, for crying out loud!  Keep your head in the game!

 

Worst-Run Company:

Guess. 

Continued editorial incompetence, the alienation of their best and brightest talent, confrontational public attitude, hiring Orson Scott Card, deliberately shorting retail orders and bragging about it, continuing to give Scott Lobdell work…yeah, DC shows no signs of cleaning up its act anytime soon.  Honestly, at this point I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be possible to stage some kind of intervention.  We could get Bob Harras, Dan Didio and Jim Lee into a room and the heads of Marvel/Dark Horse/Image/etc. are already there, ready and waiting to talk some sense into them.  Man, I started out typing this as a joke and now I’m legitimately hot on the idea.  I even volunteer to moderate.

 

Biggest Douchebag:

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Mark Millar

Yeah, this guy again.  I’ll admit he’s done stuff I like, but by and large he’s built a surprisingly lucrative career out of microcephalic garbage.  Millar’s work panders to the worst aspects of both American culture as a whole and American comics culture in particular.  It’s the same sort of thinking that gave us those two minstrel-show Autobots in the Michael Bay Transformers films.  I’d say Millar’s better than that, except I’m not at all certain that would be true.  There’s a reason I didn’t bother to read/review Jupiter’s Legacy, though I am tempted to award it the category “Biggest Waste of Frank Quitely”.

This year, however, Millar managed to top himself.  In the lead-up to the release of Kick-Ass 2, Millar was asked during an interview about the frequent depictions of rape in his comics, most notably a horrifying gang-rape sequence in the Kick-Ass 2 comic (which the film mercifully leaves out).  In response, he said this:

“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”

If that quote elicits any response within you more positive than “Jesus Christ, what a tool”, please leave a comment describing what it’s like to be part of the problem.

Actually, you know what image that quote puts in my head?  That of Mark Millar trying to comfort his daughter, saying “what’s the big deal?  It’s not like he cut your head off!”

Just think–barely a hundred years ago, there was a very strong chance somebody this dumb wouldn’t have made it into his forties like Millar has.  Then comic books got invented and all bets were off, I suppose.

 

Honorable Mention!

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Brian Wood

I’ll admit, Wood mainly got off on a technicality here.  Heinous though his misdeeds may be, I’ve yet to find evidence any of them took place in 2013, the most famous incident occurring back in 2007.  Still, as a now-former Wood fan, I didn’t wish to let it pass without comment.  I’ve spoken highly of Wood’s work in the past, most notably in my review of The Massive way back in 2012.  Do I stand by that review?  Sure.  Still feel like a schmuck for championing the guy.

I almost feel as though we should be grateful, though.  The whole mess, and its ensuing comment-thread shitstorm, has cast a light on a very ugly element of comics fandom/industry.  I must say, Fowler herself has handled this whole matter with rather more grace and equanimity than I would have, not that Wood deserves it–she identified Wood only after the entire internet guessed it, and argued against a boycott of his work.  On that latter note, I do have to take slight issue with her reasoning–my boycotting of Wood’s work is not “taking money away from comics”.  It’s simply me choosing to give it to someone in comics who isn’t a shithead.

 

Best Video Game:

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Saint’s Row IV, developed by Volition, published by Deep Silver

Sorry, GTA V!  Outclassed by the underdog once again, it seems.  These two series have diverged to the extent there’s basically no point comparing them anymore, but the Saint’s Row games continue to be far better at remembering they’re just that–games.  Volition seems to actually realize that people want something that’s actually fun to play, once you get tired of admiring the scenery.  Doesn’t hurt that the protagonists are both funny and likeable, as well as refreshingly devoid of hypocrisy.

This game is even more balls-out crazy than its predecessor–without giving too much away, it’s a Mass Effect/The Matrix parody and you now have superpowers.  It’s pretty much Mark Millar’s The Authority, which believe it or not I liked.  That said, I worry the series has painted itself into a corner somewhat–I have literally no idea what it’ll do to top itself, or if it’ll even try.  Not like it even matters–when a game’s Christmas-special DLC is completely crazy-fun, you know you’ve struck gold.  Glad to see Volition made it out of THQ’s self-immolation okay.

I Also Liked: Papers Please, GTA V, Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Gone Home, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Metro: Last Light


Best Movie:

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The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga

Possibly a controversial selection, but I don’t care.  This is the best horror film I’ve seen in years, and Hollywood deserves some praise/recognition for at least showing signs of getting its shit together in this area.  Maybe.  Stranger things have happened–that this is an actual, honest-to-god R-rated horror movie may count as such.

But who cares about ratings, at the end of the day?  All that matters is if the film is executed well, and this one surely is.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a horror movie like this, one that emphasizes mood and atmosphere over imbeciles getting messily killed, which comes about those raised hairs on the back of your neck honestly.  This movie spent much of its runtime casually flicking my fight/flight switch; several times I had to resist the urge to leap up and run out of the theater.  In a good way.  And the other people in the theater with me were even worse off.  Ordinarily a rowdy audience is the easiest way to spoil a movie, but not this time–if anything, the periodic shrieks of fear enhanced the experience.

I’ll admit, there are the seeds of a bad movie in here–that nonsense about it being based on a true story, for example, and the creepy-doll subplot that goes nowhere (and is, for some reason, getting a spinoff movie).  However, The Conjuring succeeds in so many other areas, and in ways its genre seldom does nowadays, that I’m inclined to be forgiving.

I Also Liked: Pacific Rim, The World’s End, Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Fruitvale Station, Our Nixon, V/H/S 2, Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, Room 237

 

Worst Movie:

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Only God Forgives, directed by Nicholas Winding Refn, starring Ryan Gosling and Kristin Scott Thomas

What the fuck happened?

I had the displeasure of watching this film a couple months back, and have spent most of my time since trying to wrap my mind around the enormity of its failure.  Was this a thought experiment?  Did Refn and Gosling decide to show the world what Drive would have been like were it done badly?  Or did that film push them into that stage of their careers where they figured they could plop any old shit on the screen and people would go see it regardless?  Whatever it was, this film came out and it proceeded to suck in the most disappointing way.

This is one of the most boring, pointless movies I’ve ever seen.  This might come as a surprise to those of you who saw the trailer.  Believe it or not, that minute-or-so-long trailer contains every interesting thing that happens in the movie, and none of those things make sense in context.  Mostly, it’s just Ryan Gosling puttering around Bangkok, wearing an expression on his face like he’s nervous for an upcoming job interview.  This made sense in Drive, where the whole point of Gosling’s character is that he’s necessarily reserved, but here it just looks like he’s being given nothing to work with, which he is.

Pretty much the only thing I liked about this movie was Kristin Scott Thomas, who at least seems to be trying, has the closest thing to a developed character and winds up saddled with around two-thirds of the spoken dialogue.  Her scenes are the closest Only God Forgives ever gets to becoming a coherent film, as opposed to pointless gibberish.  You should watch this film only if you don’t mind throwing away an hour and a half of your life.

I Also Hated: Star Trek: Into Darkness

 

Best Podcast:

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Welcome To Night Vale, created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, performed by Cecil Baldwin

If Welcome To Night Vale had simply been a bimonthly list of weird occurrences told in the style of small-town community radio, I probably still would have liked it, but it would have been nowhere near so special.  Luckily, that’s not what happened–what we got instead was one of the most organic, well-realized world-settings I’ve seen in a while.  Disturbing and scary a place as Night Vale can be, it also makes a sick sort of sense that the locals would be used to all the odd goings-on by now.  You can get used to anything, right?  The characters are pretty strong too, and that they remain so even when seen exclusively from the viewpoint of a single person speaks to the strength of this show.  (Speaking of that single person, Cecil might be the single most likeable, at times downright adorable protagonist to debut this year.  No wonder people have been cosplaying as him, despite having no actual idea what he looks like.)  I felt genuinely bad for these people once shit started officially getting real in the past couple months–damn Strexcorp!  Also, The Weather offers consistently good tunes.

I Also Liked: Sawbones, Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction, The Cracked Podcast, Machine Court, The Adventures Of Danny And Mike

 

Best Album:

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Ghost BC, Infestissumam

Ghost BC made their major-label debut with a lawsuit-proof name, a new singer (not really) and more of their gimmick of being a metal band in all but sound.  The overt Satanism and utter devotion to shtick (how many bands would be so devoted to maintaining anonymity that they’d fake replacing their singer?  All Drudkh does is not perform live or give interviews, and that’s boring) is nice as always, but the real draw for me has always been the sheer musicianship on display.  I can genuinely see these songs getting played on whatever’s left of terrestrial radio, so long as Standards and Practices doesn’t pay too much attention to the lyrics.  How many other bands could cover an ABBA song and make it one of the most awesome tracks on the album?

All this said, I get the feeling Ghost BC is getting close to a hinge-point of sorts.  I get the feeling their next album will be the deciding factor on whether this band has staying power or not, where we’ll see if they go on to a long career or become a forgotten novelty band.  Right now, I can see them going either way–much as I like this album, it does have some stinkers, such as the dreadful “Ghuleh”.  Still, they remain one of my favorite current bands, for now at least.

I Also Liked: Carcass–Surgical Steel, Watain–The Wild Hunt, Intronaut–Habitual Levitations, Motorhead–Aftershock

That should just about do it for this year, I think.  While it’s tempting to go on about some of the sadder moments of 2013–the loss of Lou Reed, Carmine Infantino and the Stumptown Comics Fest, for example–and this year wasn’t quite so revelatory comics-wise as 2012, I prefer to see New Year’s as a time for optimism, a time when–for the moment at least–you adopt the mindset that things can only get better.  Here’s to hoping whichever facet of pop culture you care about has only good things in store for you.  Also, I intend to post articles more consistently in 2014, so you have one thing to look forward to at the very least!  Happy New Year, one and all!  Unless you’re Mark Millar or Brian Wood!

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