I love reading comic books, but I don’t have a lot of space in my apartment, so I generally just wait to buy the trade paperback collections when they’re released. Yes, I’m one of those. I do keep up with upcoming series through the Comixology app, but I usually limit myself to around 3 issues before I decide to wait for the trade. This way I know whether I’m interested in a series but I still have something new to read when I get the trade. As such, the list will be mainly trades I’ve read this year.
I also limited myself to books or series that were new to me this year and I’ve listed ongoing series that I continue to follow in the “Still Going Strong” section. I also briefly mention series that I’ve started but have decided to wait for the trade at the end in the “Keeping an Eye Out For” section at the end. My reading proclivities are mainly in the second tier mainstream, which means pretty mainstream publishers but not much Marvel and DC. Also, similar to my other lists, I’ve included older books that I’ve only gotten around to reading in 2013. Without further ado, my favourite comic book collections of 2013:
- Archer & Armstrong – One of the more fun comics I’ve started following. A relaunch of an old series, it features a familiar odd-couple formula with uptight ex-religious cult devotee Obadiah Archer and easy-going immortal carouser Aram Ani-Padda aka Armstrong. Archer’s uptight naivete is contrasted with his unnatural combat ability and Armstrong’s boisterous cynicism. It’s a fun adventure romp with cults, conspiracies, and historical reference, which reminds you that sometimes it’s fine to just provide some entertainment in panel and speech dialogue form. Would be a guilty pleasure if I felt any guilt about liking fun things, but I just enjoy the ride.
- Boxers & Saints– Changing pace for a bit, Boxers & Saints is technically two books but probably shouldn’t be read separately. It tells a tale of two individuals who have a tenuous connection early on, but you realise how their actions impact each other in the end. The books are set during the Boxer Rebellion in China and it isn’t so much a straightforward tale, than a reflection on the culture and beliefs that surrounded the turmoil of that era. It incorporates some fantasy elements, but they serve to represent the traditions and history of a culture under siege by foreign influences more than a literal magical happenstance. On the other side of the coin, it also shows the clumsy assimilation of that foreign culture and the motivations behind it. It’s a reflection on family, tradition, duty, loss, and identity. This book really hit me close to home. I’m ethnically Chinese but don’t have a strong cultural or historical tie to China since I was brought up in Malaysia, and as a somewhat lapsed Christian and living in a “Western” culture I have a connection to both perspectives presented in this book. However, even if you don’t have that particular perspective on the story, I’d still recommend it as the themes of duty and identity are universal.
- Hawkeye – Inventive, witty, self aware and unshackled. Matt Fraction’s take on Marvel’s most notorious archery fanatic is a comic book about a superhero, without being a superhero comic. It’s a comic about Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, both claimants to the mantle of Hawkeye, but it’s not burdened by the many classic tropes of a superhero book. It’s stylish as all heck but it doesn’t play up Clint Barton as a larger than life hero. He’s just this guy with a dog and a knack for archery who’s somehow embroiled with all the theatrics of minor deities in superpowered pissing contests. The dog even gets a kinda self indulgent but pretty cool spotlight issue. It’s a nice take on the classic character, and one of the few Marvel books I’m actively following.
- Locke and Key – After hearing people rave about the quality of this book (mainly the guys over at Major Spoilers), I finally started reading this series last year. I picked up the first trade from All Star just to check it out, and went back the very next day to buy the rest of the trades. I even bought the hardcover of Volume 5, thereby messing up my nice shelf presentation, because I couldn’t wait to read it. If you want to be boring about it, it’s a mystery thriller with fantasy elements. The basic gist of it is that a crazed echo of a person reaches out to members of the Locke family and manipulates them to use a set of special keys to set him free to wreak havoc. However, the strongest point of Locke and Key lies in the character development of its main and supporting cast. Throughout the series you come to know and care about these messed up kids just trying to make it through a crazy situation. The art is also very clean and does a great job in capturing all the emotional nuances of the characters. The series wrapped up at the end of 2013 and I am very much looking forward to reading the conclusion.
- MIND MGMT – A stylish take on the shadowy secret organization training superpowered extragovernmental agents. What sets MIND MGMT apart is how it takes the mental powers of its characters to their absurdly logical conclusions and showcases the strains they cause on the characters. We are introduced slowly to each of the important agents of the now defunct MIND MGMT agency and come to know their foibles and flaws. There’s also a little meta-game with the margins of the book being used to give us some insight into the operations of MIND MGMT. The surreal, dreamlike nature of the watercolour artstyle really enhances the subtle nature of the characters’ powers and mental states. Stylish, bold, and imaginative but never loses sight of the hearts of the characters.
- One Soul – The book adheres closely to its main conceit: Every page has the same number of panels, and every panel in each two page vista follows the life of a different individual. The book presents a voyeuristic peek at these different lives through different genders, sexuality, cultures, social strata, occupations, time periods, and identities. Some are happy and carefree; others suffer and either triumph through their hardship or succumb to their burdens; one life even ends abruptly and pointlessly fairly early one. It may seem a bit pretentious, but I can’t help admiring the author’s guts in attempting this endeavour. The underlying theme appears to be our common and shared humanity. We each live and hunger and shit and sleep and love and die, no matter who, where or when we live – separate yet the same. It’s a thoughtful meditation on what it is to be human. Maybe not what it means to be human, but merely the being. It’s an older book that I just got to read this year and clumsily describe on the podcast, and it’s stuck with me throughout the year and possibly will continue to.
- Prophet – My favourite space sci-fi series I read last year. It’s strange how Image decided to relaunch the character of Prophet under a radically different premise and outlook from the character’s ’90s roots, but still continuing its issue numbering. The relaunch of Prophet by Brandon Graham was ballsy and weird and wonderful. I’ve been getting my hands on some of the Humanoids reprints of European style classic sci-fi (mostly the Jodorowsky stuff) and this reinterpretation reminds me a lot of those series. It takes the original character and world and goes thousands of years into the future where the Earth Empire has expanded to the stars and numerous clones of John Prophet abound. There are also star-wombs, cyborgs, poop jokes, biotech symbiotes, and another Image superhero’s body acting as the power source for a powerful spaceship. Trippy.
- The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice – You kinda have to have followed the whole saga of the Unwritten series to fully appreciate this book, but it is also a pretty entertaining tale by itself. If you haven’t read the Unwritten, you probably should. It’s a really fun read. The background is that some crazy old coot has succeeded in blurring the lines between reality and fiction, resulting in his child manifesting the magical powers of his most famous literary creation, young wizard-in-magical-boarding-school-hey-does-this-seem-familiar-to-you Tommy Taylor. This graphic novel is intended to be a companion piece to the series by illustrating the origins of both Tommy Taylor, the writer’s son, and Tommy Taylor, the writer’s fictional protagonist. It also represents the first installment of the fictional book series referenced in the comic series and it’s quite cool to see where it all began. It’s also pretty entertaining as a pastiche of young adult fantasy series, which I think it pulled off very well.
Adventure Time Comics (ongoing series, Marceline and the Scream Queens, Fionna and Cake, Playing with Fire, Pixel Princesses, Sugary Shorts) – 2013 saw the continued expansion of the Adventure Time comic book line (unfortunately still unavailable on Comixology in Australia as of this writing), with the addition of the Marceline and Fionna limited series and the graphic novels. I really liked the exploration of the relationship between Marceline and Princess Bubblegum in their own mini-series and the relationship between Flame Princess and Finn in theirs. I also liked that the series as a whole has really cool, interesting female characters that really stand out. The series also seems to have become a great avenue for great webcomics creators to showcase their talent to a wider audience, and I’m really glad for that.
Blue – Pat Grant’s elegantly illustrated examination of childhood memory, exclusion, prejudice and surfer culture was a delight to read and learn from. The main story was already great, but the included essay on surf comics was also something that really broadened my appreciation for the history of the comics medium in genres that I was completely unfamiliar with.
Bravest Warriors – I kinda lump Bravest Warriors with the Adventure Time comics under the “also originally created by Pendleton Ward” label, but it is no less funny, charming, entertaining or mildly disturbing.
Cow Boy – At first glance, it’s kind of amusing and charming that a kid is riding around with his toy-horse-gun rounding up his no good family members. He’s also a total bad-ass. Then you read his conversation with the African American man in the barn, and finally his heartbreaking confrontation with his grandfather, and you realise that this isn’t just some cutesy adventure. A surprisingly affecting read for me.
East of West – Jonathan Hickman’s other super stylish series about bad people doing bad things to worse people, this time with a mechanical horse with a gun for a face and a killer Mao. A great setting, some cool shit going down, and possibly the end of the world again. You’ll want to see this.
Finding Gossamyr – A beautifully illustrated all ages book that uses some very familiar tropes (kids stumble into parallel fantasy world with great powers). However, the thing that I really liked was the presentation of the relationship between the two siblings and how they cope with Denny’s at times frustrating behaviour. (While trying to remember Denny’s name, I stumbled onto this review, which summarizes their relationship so well I’m just going to point you to it).
God Hates Astronauts – Off-the-wall crazy and just fun. There’s a disembodied cow’s half-head stuck onto a man’s body out for combined vengeance on an ugly cowboy, bear boxers/ninjas/wizards/whatever, and lots of owl puns. Lots of them.
King City – Less owl-specific puns, but way more saturated with both lingual and visual puns of all kinds. A cat master deals with his ex and ghosts while his best friend tries to rescue an aquatic slave in the pun-filled streets of King City. A joy.
Nowhere Men – The Beatles + action science + Doom Patrol + a funny visual gag involving characters from a short lived sitcom gem. Sold.
Orc Stain – The vibrant art really sold me on this one, but it’s also a cool adventure with an orc who can always find the weak point in any object, a bad ass poison thrower scary swamp witch person, and sliced off orc penises used as currency. Niiiiiiiiice.
Planetary Volume 4 – I realised I never finished reading Planetary and finally did it last year. Incredibly satisfying, and re-reading the early volumes after learning some more about the characters/genres they were referencing was a treat. In a similar vein to Astro City, where it pays loving tribute to various parts of comics legacy.
The New Deadwardians – Stoic British peerage took on the vampire curse to combat the zombie plague. Pretty cool concept.
Young Liars – The whole 3 volume series ended in 2009 but I only discovered it on 2013 when I realised it was done by one David Lapham, author of Stray Bullets. The first volume is an unflinching look at twentysomething scrappers in the big city getting embroiled in a high-stakes chase when they realise that one of their own is worth a whole lot of money to certain interested parties and has also become joyously uninhibited after getting a bullet in her brain. Then it goes craaaaaaaaaaazy. Weird, mindfuck-y, and so damn cool.
Still Going Strong
While the new books have been impressive, the ongoing stalwarts like Atomic Robo, Chew, Empowered, Mouse Guard, The Manhattan Projects, Skullkickers, The Sixth Gun, The Unwritten and Saga are still going strong and had some great moments this past year. I loved the Sky-Fi setting of Atomic Robo and the Flying She-Devils of the Pacific. Empowered got another chance to show off her capabilities and Tony Chu took a whole new level in bad-ass. We saw how Marko and Alana first met and deal with tragedy in the family. The participants in the Manhattan Projects come to grips with betrayal and the Oppenheimer Civil War begins.
Keeping an Eye Out For
Not content with all the quality comics collections and graphic novels released last year, I also looked into some issues for great new and returning series. Astro City made a long-awaited return to the comic pages and I can’t wait to add another book to the collection. I also started reading Jupiter’s Legacy, Lookouts, Pretty Deadly, Sex Criminals and Six Gun Gorilla, which have all got me watching the schedules for when the collections finally get released. There’s also a heap of Issue #1s still awaiting my perusal on Comixology. Overall, 2013 continued the growth of really great comics in the mainstream arena and I am really excited for even more to come.