Hey everybody! Hope you all had a Merry Christmas! Now, as we look forward to New Year celebrations, we also look back on the year that was. And, for those of us of the geeky persuasion, that often involves obsessively compiling top ten lists of our favourite stuff from the past 12 months. I put together a list of my top ten comics of the year over on my own blog, and it struck me how heavily focused on creator-owned comics my 2012 rankings were. That gave me an idea for a special year-end edition of this column. Rather than a review, this week I’ll be using my allotted column slot to do a countdown of the top 10 best comics to be reviewed on the Creator-Owned Zone this past year. There was no shortage of quality titles. In fact, the difficulty came from trying to limit my list down to ten. But the lineup we have is packed with quality, and runs the gamut from acclaimed Image titles to self-published small press books. But what these comics have in common is that they all carry my strongest possible endorsement. Enjoy the rest of your year, folks, and see you in 2013!
10. ORC GIRL
Paul Allor strikes gold again with a poignant, heartfelt story about the loss of innocence and how the world can crush your idealism simply by letting life get in the way, all dressed up as a fairytale about friendly orcs. Thomas Boatwright’s cute visuals pack a surprising amount of emotional wallop, and Allor continues to mark himself out as a breakout-writer in waiting. This ranks so low on the list because it is ultimately just a short story, with the rest of the book made up of reprints of previously-published material.
9. TALL TALES OF THE BADLANDS
2012 saw the release of the second volume of the ace Western anthology from brothers Sean Fahey and Seamus Kevin Fahey, working with a variety of talented artists to give us a collection of gritty, soulful short stories. Standout stories include “A Nation of Laws”, about a by-the-book sheriff let down by the beurocracy of a fledgling legal system, and “Paw”, about the heart-wrenching aftermath of a child’s killing.
8. NINE LINES OF METRO / SEVEN DAYS IN BERLIN
Ostensibly a pair of comic book travelogues, with these two comics Scottish cartoonist Neil Slorance actually provided us with one of the year’s great love stories. Slorance’s adorable, cartoonish art gives everything a whimsical, offbeat flavour, but these stories – one about a trip to Barcelona, the other about a visit to Berlin – conceal hidden depths, and the exploration of some big ideas. At the core of it all is Neil Slorance himself – or at least, this fictionalised cartoon version of him – who is an immensely likeable protagonist whose happiness we quickly become invested in. With each instalment, I found myself surprised by how moved I was over what he was experiencing. Perhaps because the stories are made up of the little human experiences not often covered in travel writing, certainly not in comics, yet nonetheless familiar to us all.
One of the best superhero comics to come from any publisher this year, cartoonist Martin Eden gained some headlines here in the UK with his “gay superheroes” story. But it says a lot that you might think of this as “the gay superhero comic” for maybe one issue, if that, before the sexuality of the characters becomes secondary to how well-realised and multi-faceted each of them are, with Eden crafting the kind of masterfully-paced narrative and establishing the kind of truly dire, personal threats that many of the mega-hyped Marvel/DC crossover events could only dream of capturing. The first 3 issues, great in their own right, are currently collected in a more widely-distributed hardcover book. But its the subsequent issues, the ones released this year, where the series has truly hit the next level of brilliance.
The first Image comic to make the list, but not the last. Fatale was the first in a wave of high-profile new series launches for the publisher, with the powerhouse pairing of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launching a new creator-owned slice of pulpy noir to accompany an impressive portfolio that already includes Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito. After arguably the high-point of both their careers thus far with last year’s Criminal: Last of the Innocent, I was highly eager to see what the pair had in store next. What sets Fatale apart from its stablemates is that the noir aesthetic is filtered through the lens of the horror genre. Drawing in equal parts from Lovecraftian pulp and Satanic horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, a good dose of Hammer Horror) the result has been a narrative that substitutes overt shocks for a gradual, creeping dread that steadily built over the course of the first arc. The second arc, while not quite as focused, still retained some degree of this finely cultivated atmosphere. The story revolves around Josephine, an apparently-immortal woman who is gifted/cursed with the ability to make any man fall madly in love with her if they so much as look at her. The narrative has strands spreading along both the present and various eras of the past, becoming increasingly intricate as it goes along. It’s a limited series, but Brubaker says it keeps on getting bigger as he realises there’s more and more story to tell. The comics themselves are fine packages, published on nice quality paper, and complete with various fascinating essays about pulp and horror fiction by Jess Nevins. Not as immediately gripping as some of the comics higher on the list, but a quietly commanding comic that certainly merits recognition.
With the excellent Special Agent Poyo one-shot spinoff and the recent “Space Cakes” story arc, Chew has really upped its game and re-established itself as one of the most inventive comics on the market. Everybody loves Rob Guillory’s gleefully demented artwork, such an integral component of the book’s identity that the very thought of a fill-in artist is horrifying. But perhaps not enough credit is given to the deceptively intricate writing of John Layman. With the way each issue works so well as a standalone caper, it would be easy to assume Chew is lightweight comedic fare. But while there’s no doubt the book is funny – I laugh out loud at least once every issue – when you actually look at the ambitious narrative that has been crafted over the course of the series, it’s a surprisingly dense mythology. We’ve now reached the halfway point of the series, and with the heartbreaking shock of issue #30, we could be heading for a change in dynamic for the second half. But whatever lies in store, I’m certainly onboard for the long haul.
4. THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS
And to think, I almost didn’t buy this comic. I’m afraid I must confess that, before The Manhattan Projects began, I wasn’t the biggest Jonathan Hickman fan. I’d tried a few of his Marvel titles, but they’d ultimately left me cold. But the buzz around the first issue, along with the enticingly high-concept proposal for the series – an Expendables-like team of famed scientists from history teaming up to engage in bonkers super-science – was enough to whet my appetite and make me give it a try. I’m glad I did. Each issue has at least one moment where I have to stop and say to myself, “That’s utterly demented!” And, unlike lesser comics that I feel have been cynically engineered around an “Oh shock, WHAT A TWIST!” beat as a cliffhanger each issue, The Manhattan Projects manages to introduce a genuine shock revelation with each chapter in a manner that feels organic, because it tends to come from the characters and inform their portrayal. This series has really made me a fan of Jonathan Hickman and his approach to storytelling, and since enjoying this I’ve picked up the first couple of issues of Secret, dipped my toes into his epic Fantastic Four run, and devoured The Nightly News, a wonderful comic that’s probably my favourite thing he’s done. I’ve also become a fan of the offbeat artistic stylings of Nick Pitarra, whose visualisation of this crazy world have very quickly become definitive. A gem of a book, that keeps going from strength to strength and getting better with each issue.
3. IAIN LAURIE’S HORROR MOUNTAIN
There is perhaps no comic I’ve enjoyed continually rereading more this year than Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain. Given its lack of distribution it may be unlikely to appear on many other top ten comics lists this year, and that’s a great shame, as this is one of the most original, darkly inventive comics of 2012. Horror Mountain is a standalone collection of shorts introducing various warped and depraved characters from the shadowy recesses of cartoonist Iain Laurie’s mind, with such unforgettable monstrosities as Captain Tits and Nazelbahhn. The resulting end product plays a bit like a sketch comedy show broadcast in Hell. By turns surreal, horrifying and strangely hilarious, Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain is perhaps the purest, rawest expression of a singular creative voice in comics you’ll read all year. Iain Laurie is one of the most exciting creators in comics right now, and I can’t think of anyone more deserving of having a breakout year in 2013. I imagine his work best presented in the oversized hardcover format of X’Ed Out and The Hive, the recent output from Charles Burns. The only thing preventing Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain from getting higher on this list is that there isn’t more of it. If you’re at all the kind of person who reads through these year-end “best of” lists to figure out what comics to buy next, then this should go to the top of your list. BUY IT NOW. (Also available digitally for just $1!)
It has become very fashionable for everyone to gush about how amazing Saga is, and under that sea of hyperbole it might be easy to overlook how good this series actually is. I’ve read the first issue several times now. I read it two times in a row on the week I first bought it, before reading any of my other comics from that week, and I remember doing this because I was more excited about rereading this mind-blowing book than reading of my other purchases, none of which could hope to live up to Saga #1. Since then I’ve periodically returned to that first issue, and recently downloaded it free on Comixology so I can reread it even more on my iPad. Though I should clarify that the other 6 issues to follow have been great too, establishing a unique, vibrant sci-fi/fantasy world that feels like the basis of a fresh and exciting mythology I’m incredibly excited to explore and learn more about in the years to come. The best of the crop of new Image comics to launch this year, Saga marks the return of Brian K. Vaughan to comics. Given how much I adore Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, that alone was enough to guarantee my interest. But Vaughan doesn’t rest on his laurels, and isn’t content with just coming back to do what he did before. No, he’s pushing himself with what could be his most ambitious narrative yet, a huge, sweeping space opera that incorporates various planets, species and cultures, a tale of star-crossed lovers on the run with their baby, and a long-running intergalactic war with unsettling real-world parallels. But at its core Saga is a book about characters, and it’s amazing how quickly readers have come to care about Marko, Alana, Izabel, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat and the rest. And the art, oh God, how can I not mention the art!? Fiona Staples has very quickly emerged as one of my favourite artists in comics, and of the breakout comic stars of 2012. As artist and colorist (and occasional letterer when it comes to Hazel’s narration), Staples is crucial in giving the book its visual identity, crafting an aesthetic that often abandons hackneyed genre tropes where you’d expect to find them and instead crafts something new and often a bit crazy in its place, making Saga feel like no sci-fi or fantasy story you’ve ever encountered before, in any medium. So integral is Fiona Staples to the book that, when the announcement came that the book was taking a hiatus of a couple of months in between arcs to let her get caught up on her art, the usual grumbling was pretty much absent, with a “Yeah, that’s fair enough, because a fill-in artist would be unthinkable” response proving to be the norm. This is the comic I look forward to each month above all others. When Scalped finished this year, I did not expect any comic to fill that “monthly comics crack” void. I certainly didn’t expect it to happen so soon. But Saga could very well be the spiritual successor to Scalped, and I can’t think of a better compliment to give a comic than that.
1. THE UNDERWATER WELDER
After all that fawning over Saga, it might be hard to believe it only made it to #2 on my year-end list. Believe me, pretty much right from its stellar first issue, I thought it had the “Best Comic of 2012” spot in the bag, and it would take a very special comic indeed to top it. It’s a good thing, then, that The Underwater Welder is a very special comic indeed. Essex County is Jeff Lemire’s masterpiece, and stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade, not to mention one of my all-time favourites. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed Lemire’s work in the DCU, I had been eagerly anticipating The Underwater Welder – his next graphic novel for Top Shelf– since I first heard about it last year. And while it doesn’t quite surpass the mighty Essex County, it could very well be Lemire’s most accomplished work since that breakthrough book. It is very much a thematic cousin to Essex County, given its exploration of fathers and sons and life in a small community, but this tale – of an underwater welder still haunted by memories of a father he lost in childhood as his wife is expecting with a child of his own – takes an unexpected, Twilight Zone style twist into supernatural territory that sets it apart. While many may know Lemire primarily as a writer, The Underwater Welder shows his outstanding ability as a cartoonist, with a nigh-unparalleled gift for wringing a surprising amount of emotional heft out of seemingly simple images. Lemire’s artwork feels a lot more precise and polished than it did with Essex County, but still retains that rough, sketchy quality that some might find initially off-putting. I, however, love it, with Lemire simplifying much of the extraneous detail and honing in on the emotional truth of a moment. And it’s surprising how immersive the worlds he draws can become, as we build up an emotional investment in the characters and gain a strong sense of place from their surroundings: this book left me seriously wanting to visit Nova Scotia. Lemire also does some impressive visual experimentation, composing some of the year’s most breathtaking page layouts for this story. But more than anything else, what I adore about The Underwater Welder is its heart. Lemire has a gift for telling stories that can feel nakedly emotional without ever coming across as sappy or maudlin, and he does it again with this moving, unconventionally heartwarming tale. I wish Lemire all the best in his work on ongoing comics. But I hope that no matter what heights his career as a mainstream comic writer takes him to, he will always find the time to come back to writing and drawing graphic novels like The Underwater Welder, because when he does projects like this, Jeff Lemire is better than just about anyone in the comics medium today.