We begin our Top 10 lists for 2013 with the Top 10 Mini-Series of the year. Since it’s hard to play favorites with choices this great, we’re listing them in alphabetical order.
Battle of the Atom
(Brian Michael Bendis, Frank Cho, et al; Marvel)
Okay, I don’t know if you can have a mini with just two issues. So I’m counting the crossovers, too. Which makes ten. I bought all of them. Which I very rarely do. Because I don’t like buying comics outside of my pull lists. But luckily my LCS lets old issues hang around awhile, and I eventually tracked down every issue. I didn’t mind the titles they included. I’m as into all twenty Wolverine books as anyone. But actually following the story, pretty seamlessly written by Bendis, Wood and Aaron, resulted in a few good things for me: I realized the All-New X-men did have a reason for existing (which I had long doubted), and that teen angst is really what Bendis was born to write, even without Spider-man. I enjoyed the never-ending ethics discussions from the most morally gray area heroes of any continuity. I cracked up at the unending Iceman jokes (not to mention the endlessly variant Icemen!). The demonic Magik was pretty badass, and also instrumental in figuring out what was going on with two competing versions of the X-men of Future Past. It was cool to see Jubilee all growed up, shocking to see Dazzler die, fun as it always is when Wolverine’s possible children try to kill him.
But the real star of this show was an Evil Jean Grey dressed like Xorneto. Which is not something you ever want to meet in any reality. As everyone on 616 well knows. And she was just one of this conflagration’s numerous psychics, which leads (despite many excellent normal battle scenes from the giant cast by the likes of Bachalo, Immonen, Lopez and Cho) to the best stock-still warfare scene in ages, Psychic War between some of the Jeans, all of the Cuckoos, and Emma. Never has six girls standing in a row been played for higher stakes, abetted by Scott explaining to Scott just what is going on. Wood wrote this issue, having us watch the lesser minds fall, one by one, while the real war wages on the psychic plane. Yes, it’s Charles vs. Farouk all over again, or as Emma says “Black Queen vs. White Queen, the message boards would love this.” It lasts throughout Chapter 5, and it could only have come from the minds of a writing team who knows their X-men as thoroughly as this little summit.
– Shawn Hill
Breath of Bones
(Steve Niles & Dave Wachter; Dark Horse)
Oh man, do I love Breath of Bones. If it were up to me, we would just hand Steve Niles and Dave Wachter a sack full of Eisner Awards, some bags of money, and then thank them for the simple, beautiful, perfect, storytelling experience that is Breath of Bones.
Breath of Bones is one of those magical works of art that gives me a sense of nostalgia for a world I have never known, a life I have never lived. Nostalgia by its very nature should be for something you have experienced, so to make me nostalgic for something so far and away from my life — a small European Jewish village — is quite the skill. It’s an odd, quiet sensation that only some of the most accomplished storytellers can manage to pull off, like Will Eisner and Hayao Miyazaki.
And David Watcher’s art. Wow. He MAKES the comic. Because the story is so subtle, and relies on facial expressions, you need an artist who can breathe life into the paper with the same magic the characters breathe life into a giant pile of clay. Wachter has that. His lines, his ink washes, are just so fricken gorgeous. And I love his panel pacing. Read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics then see Wachter’s panel pacing, and be astounded at his versatility and style. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s like European art with Japanese pacing.
There is so much going on in this 3-issue series. It’s about strength—and the duality of the ability to both destroy and protect residing in the same being, and how we all have that capacity within us. It’s about the tension of small places, of xenophobia, of tribes and a greater world. It’s one of those rare stories that transcends mediums. The kind of comic I could give to my mother or co-workers or any other non-comic readers and feel confident that they would find something magical in it.
Everything in Breath of Bones is just fantastic. Easily one of the best of 2013.
– Zack Davisson
(Donny Cates, Mark Reznicek, Geoff Shaw & Lauren Affe; Dark Horse)
Don’t you just love it when a no-name creative team announce a catchy high-concept property… and it works! Credit to Dark Horse, who had a banner year at just the right time what with the Star Wars licence going to Disney, for spotting the potential in this team and this concept. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Buzzkill was its protagonist, a flawed man, but neither slacker nor dooshbag, just a guy with some obvious issues trying to wrestle control from Fate, in the face of a seemingly supercool powerset’s ever-present temptation. “Ruben” was the anti-Popeye, fighting to the finish by smoking, drinking, or popping pills, his clarity diminished.
Even more impressive, this book sketched in all the details of capes’n tights comics, from ludicrous supervillains meeting in an evil lair, to the obligatory Batman proxy, and the mind-expanded sorcerer-cum-sponsor who attempted to guide Ruben through to sobriety; and yet it never succumbed to the weight of these tropes, always retaining tight focus on Ruben and his troubled quest to be a good guy. Some people criticized the Oedipal reveal in #3 as too obvious or simple, but this book wasn’t about being complex or shunning the classic, it was about setting up superpowers as a flaw, an addiction, and running with that inversion. Who the bad guy was didn’t really matter in the end, though I loved that reveal, because it was Ruben’s own demons that needed vanquishing.
Geoff Shaw managed to cram moments of sublime humanity into this mini, like the above image of Ruben in a post-carnage moment of clarity, and the interplay of his pained expression and the ravaged background speaks for itself. With evocative, but never intru
sive, colouring by Lauren Effe, the art made this book stand out without seeming over-designed or desperate to be noticed. In a year where the shelves were particularly crammed with phenomenally designed books, like Zero, or Sex Criminals, and a huge number of gimmicky covers (yes, DC, that’s you!) and variant distractions. Buzzkill stood out for all the right reasons.
– Taylor Lilley
(Geoff Johns; David Finch; Richard Friend; DC)
The death of the miniseries has been greatly exaggerated.
In the current age of comics, where even ongoings are failing as a viable format, the limited series has been an oft-utilized tool for smaller publishers. There are a huge amount of miniseries that rocked the house this year.
So I’ll admit, it feels a little inappropriate to dub a miniseries “best of the year” when most people haven’t even read the fourth issue yet (which drops today). It’s just that Forever Evil is likely one of the best comics published by DC Comics since the New 52 relaunch.
There’s not enough space here to examine the truths of that last sentence so let’s just say that this event-style crossover has been cohesive, surprising and pleasurable in the guiltiest way possible. It’s all about letting the bad guys have their moment in the sun, that is until the Crime Syndicate blocks it with the moon.
The evil doppelganger Justice League from another world are tasty fodder for stories and it’s extremely smart for DC to revolve an entire mainline comic about them. An even smarter move? Throwing the heroes to the sidelines and calling in the very best comic villains to save the day. The focus on the baddies is refreshing considering all the world-building over the last two years.
Helmsmen Geoff Johns and David Finch are established creators so you know this series holds a certain undeniable quality. What’s interesting is Johns’ approach to the book, which has been similar to his tenure on the Justice League titles. As DC’s most prolific writer he knows the mythology very well and can’t help himself in aiming numerous nods to it. It might seem like a fool’s errand because they just wiped all the continuity clean so recently but Johns rehashes for the purpose of fixing and codifying.
Finch’s tight and appropriately sinister style sets the tone, and makes Forever Evil one of those comics that you can hand a friend not in the loop and you’ll know he/she will enjoy it. At the same time it’s impactful and filled with treats for the more attentive fans.
So far, so good, DC. Finish the job, and don’t kill Nightwing.
– Jamil Scalese
Hellboy in Hell
(Mike Mignola, Dave Stewart; Dark Horse)
There’s no two ways around it: Mike Mignola’s just on a different plane from any mere mortals.
Nobody’s produces comic art are like Mignola. Nobody creates incredible worlds as the master of darkness does, not this all-encompassing, beautifully realized, deeply terrifying vision of a reality that lives on in the back of our minds as a vague place of incredible horror. His vision of Hell is a Mephistophelean abyss, full of unknowable creatures and unutterable fearsomeness. Drawn in strange angular strokes, filled with blacks that seem to seize the souls of readers and refuse to let them go, Hellboy in Hell is the darkest, most chilling and most accomplished work of this magisterial maestro.
Mignola has come to the point in his career where his stories almost seem reflexive, easy, casually thrown-off in a way that makes his presentation seem simple. Like a Kurt Vonnegut of the horror realm, Mignola’s lines are simple, calm, poetic in the way that one small gesture means so much. This is the comic that Mike Mignola has always wanted to do, and you can see the craft that he brings to his material on every page that he generously shares with his readers.
Hellboy in Hell the product of a lifetime of study. As Picasso said, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Mignola has delivered exactly what he needs to make his story work, and adds nothing to take away from it. I know we didn’t rank these minis in order of greatness, but long after this year’s big event books wash from memory, and long after many of the first-rank creators on this list move on to other fine comics, Mike Mignola’s graphic novels will be studied and praised and appreciated.
– Jason Sacks
(Jonathan Hickman, Jerome Opena, Leinil Yu, Jim Cheung, et al; Marvel)
I’m at a rather bitter stage in my comic-reading life. I’m sure every reader gets there. They’re sick and tired of event after event, shake-up after shake-up, “all new” after “all new”. Eventually, first issues go from exciting to aggravating. Nothing seems exciting, because let’s face it, when every hero had to band together to defeat the most powerful threat in existence two months ago, this month’s threat seems a lot less…threatening. Leave it to Jonathan Hickman to up the ante.
First, we got the viable threats building in their respective Avengers titles. New Avengers (aka the Illuminati) had multiple universes crashing and tough moral decisions to make. These were powerful guys with powerful problems. The Avengers proper finally got some new foes to fight and some new mythos tastefully added to the Marvel U. It was all very exciting (and expensive). When Infinity hit and Thanos was added to the mix it was simply Hickman ordering a milkshake with his burger and fries. It didn’t matter if all that food was going to make us sick; it was going to be a meal for the ages! Threat upon threat, Hickman was stuffing us blind.
Though not every tie-in issue was a winner (Hickman’s Avengers titles suffered some major pacing issues), the Infinity mini alone was breathtaking. I finally felt thrilled again. The threats seemed overwhelming; the heroes helpless against unstoppable odds. Infinity took the tone of equal parts Annihilation, the Thanos Imperative and Hickman’s Fantastic Four. Those are some fantastic ingredients and with an epic scale, immense struggles and stakes as high as they go Hickman made it all feel legitimate. Add some of the finest art Marvel has to offer from the likes of Jim Cheung, Jerome Opena and Dustin Weaver and you’ve got one of the most beautiful event books in recent memory.
I can’t call Infinity perfect, but even with the minor story flaws, pacing issues and gouging price tag this was an event book I couldn’t put down. Marvel got at least one grumpy, bitter, worn out comic fan excited month after month. That right there is an accomplishment.
– Chris Wunderlich
King Conan: Hour of the Dragon
(Tim Truman, Tomas Giorello & Jose Villarrubia; Dark Horse)
King Conan: Hour of the Dragon is about experience. And the weight of age. Tim Truman, Tomas Giorello, and Jose Villarrubia’s Gotterdammerung Conan gazes out over his wife’s sarcophagus, seeing across the mists of time. He recounts to the scribe tales of his younger days, but every triumphed is tinged with melancholy. Because it is the past. And in the present, Conan sits alone in a cold, dead tomb.
A comic about experience requires experience. King Conan:Hour of the Dragon is the kind of comic that could only be created by a team that has worked together for years—working with the character and his world. There’s a refinement and craftsmanship here that you never find in an art team jumping on a title together for the first time. If you ever need proof of the value of long-term experience in a creative team, look no further.
And they are doing exactly what adaptors should do—maintaining that vital core while not being afraid to add in new scenes or alterations to suit the media, and turning something familiar into something fresh and vital. Even though I have read the book numerous times, Truman, Giorello, and Villarrubia show me new parts to Robert E. Howard’s only Conan novel. They reveal nuances and interpretations. Things that were there all along.
In fact, I had an epiphany while reading this comic; I never realized how much this story is about the women in Conan’s life. And no, not his lovers; contrary to misinformed beliefs not every female Howard character is a “hot babe in distress.” Gail Simone once said that Robert E. Howard was a bit of a proto-feminist, and that is exactly what I see here.
Everyone’s contributions work in perfect harmony to create one of the best modern comics I have seen. Timothy Truman. Tomas Giorello. Jose Villarrubia. Richard Starkings. Gerald Parel. Philip Simon. Hat’s off to all of you, and thank you. It’s been a privilege to read King Conan: Hour of the Dragon. Can’t wait for the next installment.
– Zack Davisson
The Legend of Luther Strode
(Justin Jordan, Tradd Moore; Image Comics)
Do you need more than that page? Okaaaay…
Writer Justin Jordan jokingly mentioned that it was hard to avoid Luther Strode becoming “Dragonball every issue”, and although I love Dragonball like an alien moon-god werewolf step-brother, I can see his point. That was part of the beauty of both Luther Strode minis, that they were stripped down to their bones to enable rad Tradd to do his thing. And as you can see from the above page, his thing got done.
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, the first mini, was about a lanky teen living with his single Mom after having both escaped an abusive Father, who sent off for a Charles Atlas-style body and mind conditioning money-back course. It worked, enabling a crazy muscle sense, super strength, speed, and resilience, but also engendering in the previously sensitive teen something of a killer instinct. Cue overtures from the Dark Side organization that sends out the courses, the deaths of innocents, and Luther in action. Legend picked up a while later, with Luther living a Spartan existence as an urban myth, taking down criminals, before his ex-girlfriend and he are thrown into a fight for survival.
This is a fight book. Sure, there’s an empowered female supporting lead, Luther retains a sensitivity throughout that makes the death toll and flesh-ripping all the more painful, and the plotting is tight, but there’s a reason Marvel snapped Tradd Moore up for every variant cover they could, not to mention the new Ghost Rider series launching in March 2014. He’s mesmerizing. Motion lines run parallel with perspective lines to create a neo-Manga effect of total situational movement, while his anatomy is exaggeratedly expressive, as opposed to purely steroidal. But he’s also funny. Check the pigeon carnage in this Deadpool cover.
It may seem like Justin Jordan isn’t getting a fair shake here, and perhaps he isn’t, but that may well be a result of doing his job too well. In Luther Strode, Jordan created a relatable protagonist living a fanboy dream of mail-order muscularity, and was smart enough to turn it over to Tradd Moore to go wild. The only other comic I had this much fun with in 2013 was Powerpuff Girls, and that’s a very different, far less bloody, kind of fun!
– Taylor Lilley
(Brian Wood, Ming Doyle; Image Comics)
Mara is a unique comic. It’s a comic of heady ideas and intriguing concepts; of a future that’s both somewhat dystopic and somewhat utopian; it’s a future of celebrity and fame in which the truth behind the fame seems slightly elusive; it’s a world in which our main character, the protagonist of the piece, remains doggedly and essentially cryptic, a cipher, an girl whose perceptions and experiences are so dramatically changed from our perception when she gains incredible powers, that we can only really relate to her out of the corner of our eyes.
The latest joint by Brian “Big Ideas” Wood, this time collaborating with an on-point Ming Doyle, Mara is quite firmly about a specific place and time, about how people are shaped by the environment in which they live and make the choices that they need to make in order to live in and get by. In a world in which free expression is stifled and the ritualized power of sports is a metaphor for commercialized state oppression, any freedom at all is a powerful escape.
Wood’s comics are often characterized by a strong sense of place and time, by the way that an environment shapes and changes the people who live in it. From Supermarket to DMZ to Mara, we’ve seen complex men and women engaged in their surroundings: living complex lives in settings that are different from ours in ways that – like the best science fiction – illuminate our own world. But with Mara Wood has added one element that he hasn’t fully explored before: transcendence. What makes this book worth remembering isn’t the fascinating place that Wood and Doyle create, or the complex lead character. What makes it memorable is that this comic ends with a final, majestic, moment of transcendence that shows that even in the most oppressive place, freedom is possible.
– Jason Sacks
(Joe Hill, Jason Ciaramella, Vic Malhotra; IDW)
Joe Hill had a big year, what with the Locke & Key finale, his novel NOS4R2 launching, and its spin-off Wraith miniseries coming out, but somehow he found room to work up this deliciously mean little three-parter. Vic Malhotra previously lent his considerable talents to the noir homage B-sides of Ryan Ferrier’s Tiger Lawyer, and his use of heavy inks and harsh-edged character designs suited this Abu Ghraib nightmare tale to a T.
I’m not a die-hard Joe Hill fan, especially since he Spielberged Locke & Key’s ending, but perhaps Ciaramella is his better half, reigning in Hill’s commercial sensibilities for something a little more grounded and atmospheric. Mallory, our lead, a discharged Army Private who did terrible things as a warden in Abu Ghraib, has had to return to the town that military service had delivered her from. Not much has changed except her soul, which is even grubbier than before she left, but just as she’s trying to straighten up and fly right, mysterious notes start appearing marked with only a thumbprint.
It’s a simple horror premise, the stalker in the shadows mirroring the dark places in a protagonist’s conscience, but it allowed a number of socially relevant themes to be lightly touched on, and stood out as one of the few “front of previews” miniseries of 2013 to engage with reality. Malhotra brought darkness and a decidedly unromanticised blue-collar feel to Thumbprint’s small world, making Mal’s struggles both workaday and somehow more terrifying, as if her Father’s military legacy, her dishonor, and the boss groping her weren’t enough to have to deal with. Instead, by depicting Mal’s persecution, internal and external, Hill, Ciaramella and Malhotra built a world just as flawed as its power-abusing lead, one which was both recognizable, and hard to have faith in. As a comment on the enduring legacy of Western foreign policy, it invited conversation, and as a horror mini, it brought the chills. Which is what great horror always did, isn’t it?
– Taylor Lilley