Greetings, 'Rama readers! 2013 has been a banner year for comics, with tons of new series hitting the stands. From the rise of the bad guys over in DC's Forever Evil to the star-spanning warfare of Marvel's Infinity to the continued success of Image's Saga and Archie Comics' undead rampage of Afterlife with Archie, we at Best Shots have had our hands full. But some comics, creators and publishers stand above the rest, which is why your favorite team of crackshot comics reviewers are bringing to you the Best of Best Shots 2013!
Justin Partridge, III:
Bronze - Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Marvel Comics): Call it the little book that could. I took a random chance on the first issue of this hilarious ongoing from Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber just based on the fact that the cover reminded me of a Flash Rogues book and behind that cover, I got the surprise of the year. Spencer and Lieber not only kept me laughing, but made me care about this goons and root for them in all of their nefarious endeavors. With each issue, I fall in love with the book and characters more and more and I find myself marveling at the inventive storytelling techniques on display. Its my favorite Spider-Man book on shelves right now, which isn't at all dependent on Spidey actually being in the book.
Silver - The X-Men Group (Marvel Comics): As much as it pains me to admit, I only became a real X-Men fan this year. I had enjoyed both Matt Fraction and Kieron Gillen’s work with Uncanny, but that was as far as I went. Cut to this year and the irresistible hook of the original X-Men being transported to the modern-day Marvel universe and I decided to take a chance, and instantly I was hooked. I was drawn into the world of the mutants by Brian Michael Bendis’ banter and dramatics heavy work, but I didn’t stop there. I also found myself blown away by the gleefully bizarre and heartfelt X-Men: Legacy reboot from Si Spurrier and grinning like an idiot while I ate up Jason Aaron’s Amazing X-Men. Despite a misstep with Battle of the Atom, 2013 has been the Year of X, and they can count me as a die-hard fan now.
Gold - Kelly Sue DeConnick (Marvel Comics/Image Comics/Dark Horse Comics): Kelly Sue DeConnick became a star this year, and not a moment too soon. The woman who gave us the brilliant Osborn broke out in a huge way with the monthly adventures of Captain Marvel, a book that month after month proved itself deserving of the fiercely loyal fan base that it garnered. Building on that momentum, she then took over writing duties of Avengers Assemble, which has become the most fun Avengers comic I have read since Bendis era New Avengers. Then came the beautiful and lyrical Pretty Deadly not to mention her stellar work in Ghost, melding smoky noir with gothic horror. It became very apparent this year that Kelly Sue DeConnick could do absolutely anything within comics. She isn’t going anywhere and comics are all the better for it. Long live the Carol Corps.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Image Comics: If you would have told me a year ago that 75% of my pull list would be made up of Image Comics, I would have called you a liar. But with nearly the entire current lineup of titles being creative and critical hits, it’s easy to see why now. From Saga to Satellite Sam, from Black Science to Fatale, Eric Stephenson’s Image Comics had provided a haven for some of comic’s high profile creators to let loose completely and tell the stories that they want to tell with the full support of a company and editorial staff. As a comic book fan, its nirvana. I don’t see Image stopping any time soon, I see them only thriving in 2014, giving us more and more amazing content in the future.
Bronze - Blobby Boys (Koyama Press): In his introduction to Blobby Boys, Vice's in-house comics moustachio introduces the connection between Alex Schubert's crude green dudes and the work of alt-comics standard Daniel Clowes. This is an amplified slice of life, but one far more surreal, stubborn and specific than Clowes' blasé sideshow. The Blobby Boy's weapons of choice are shank knives, open threats and middle fingers. There have been a lot of underground comic heroes repackaging the mean words of back alley stoners, but Schubert's brood is fueled by their addictive abode, a universe that excuses bad jokes and mean things. They live in a world of reality's lowest qualities, distilled obscenity, but sharply designed into surgical figure. The Blobby world could pass off as a sterile, sun-bleached magnet set, but hiding around each sharp corner is something purely rude and wholly entertaining.
Silver - Battling Boy (First Second Books): After delays, deals, hype and movie talk, movie talk, movie talk, Paul Pope's kettled epic finally began this year. To fans on the brink of hopelessness that they wouldn't see the kinetic maestro's contemporary superhero in their lifetime, they were delighted to see that not only had the book actually managed to come out, but it also happened to be awesome. In a world of good and evil, monsters and saviors, a tweenage astro-god begins a coming-of-age ritual quest, as Pope taps into something ethereal. Battling Boy has darted forward into something potentially nuanced; the best of super hero books, inspiring and engaging without dictating. It's upfront, blunt, but not about its politics, motivations. Pope knows what to hide behind the veil, and what powers, techno guns and behemoths will blitz through it.
Gold - PictureBox: 2013 saw alt-comics' highbar, PictureBox, in their finest form. A steady stream of inspiring and uncovered works that feel like the world shouldn't exist without them. Which is what makes it so bittersweet to see that the micropublisher's greatest year is, sadly, it's last. This year, be it Yuichi Yokoyama's pop-strange manga, World Map Room, the anthology of Frank Santoro's stunning, new works from CF and uncovered work from Tezuka, PictureBox had so many new essentials this last year it gives whiplash. So if this is how they're going out, then it's one hell of a closer. Given the vague nature of the announcement of their closing, let's hope there's an encore yet to come.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Megahex (Fantagraphics): Like Blobby Boys, Simon Hanselmann's adventures of cult slackers Megg and Mogg show how original drugged-up mundanity can feel with the right talent. This year's Life Zone, from Space Face Books was a small taste of what Hanselmann's work will feel like in long form, drawn-out dumb quests of the perpetually aimless, distraught but way, wayyyy-too-familiar lifestyles of the roster of Halloweeny beings. The huge anthology being could be a promise of a more complex spell from the dysfunctional residents of Hanselmann's world, or just more snippets, either way, I'm game.
Bronze - Esad Ribi? (Marvel Comics): Ribi? has been around for years, but his Thor: God of Thunder run signals a seismic shift in his art. Equal parts Frank Frazetta and Charles Vess, Ribi? turned Jason Aaron’s “The God Butcher” story into a mythical epic. It was truly divine art as Ribi? created pages that almost literally sung of the mighty feats of the Norse god of thunder. Too often, Thor is drawn as just another superhero comic but Ribi? drew him as a god of myths and legends. Along with colorist Ive Svorcina (who deserves an honorable mention, if not equal billing,) Ribi? reminded us of what comics about gods and monsters should look like.
Silver - Matt Kindt (DC Comics/Marvel Comics/Dark Horse Comics): Looking over DC and Marvel solicitations for 2013, Kindt's name was everywhere. From Infinity crossovers to Justice League of America, Kindt made his mark on comics as a writer but the best comics from Kindt were the ones that he drew as well as wrote; Mind MGMT and Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes. In these books, Kindt twisted and molded reality to his will, leading us down these dark, dangerous and intriguing rabbit holes of his imagination. His idiosyncratic storytelling uses everything on the page from the actual panels to little bits of information stuffed into the borders to deepen the scope of his tales.
Gold - Gilbert Hernandez(Fantagraphics/Drawn and Quarterly): All you need is to see the list if comic books from this year that bear Gilbert's name; Julio's Day, Marble Season, The Children of Palomar, Love and Rockets New Stories, Vol. 6 and Maria M. All of these books were done by the same cartoonist but the breadth and depth of his work truly signify this as "The Year of Gilbert." Some of these works have been in progress for years and seen in various comics here and there but viewed here as a year's production, Gilbert attacks so many different kinds of story that no two of his 2014 comics are the same. He is truly one of the most fearless cartoonists working today.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Image Comics: 2013 will be remembered as the year that Image revolutionized comics, but 2014 will be the year where we see if they can change comics. They’ve been in this position a handful of times (the original Image revolution, the Valentino-as-publisher years) where it looks like they’ve been set to really redefine mainstream comics but then they’ve always shifted back towards their core of being the largest of the non-Big Two publishers and yet still not mattering in any significant way. Between all of the creators who develop at Image and then go on to write for DC and Marvel and all of the established creators returning to Image to produce their own projects, Image is showing us that there’s more to the mainstream than just capes and cowls.
Bronze - The X-Men Group (Marvel Comics): It was a madcap year for our favorite mutants. While Battle of the Atom was only an average crossover event, fairly strong runs of Brian Michael Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men brought a much-needed consistency to the line. Coupled with excellent art across the board from Nick Bradshaw, Stuart Immonen, Chris Bachalo and more, these are some of the best X-books we’ve had in a while, and certainly since the schism that started it all.
Silver - Matt Fraction (Marvel Comics/Image Comics): Some might have counted Matt Fraction out after he failed to live up to the A-list level of attention he was getting. But he righted the ship in 2013, proving that Fear Itself and The Mighty Thor were mere missteps not indicative of his true talent. Hawkeye and FF brought the best out in Fraction by allowing him to put characters before anything else. Readers were rewarded with two of the best comics of the year and a foundation for other creators to do similar work (i.e. Nick Spencer’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man).
Gold - Rick Remender (Marvel Comics/Image Comics): Rick Remender has been climbing through the ranks at Marvel for a few years now, and 2013 was one of his best years yet. Remender’s success proves that high concept storytelling doesn’t need to be bogged down by issues of talky set-up for the sake of a larger payoff somewhere down the road. By balancing plot and characterization, he’s kept the stakes as high as they’ve ever been and the comics (both Uncanny Avengers and Captain America) fun. On top of that, his return to creator-owned work with Black Science is a reminder that Remender can just about do it all.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Nonplayer #2 (Image Comics): Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer #1 quickly established him as an exciting new voice in comics. His lush illustrations demonstrated an impressive amount of imagination and allowed readers to become immediately immersed in his brand new world. Unfortunately, Issue #1 came out in 2011, and Simpson suffered an injury that would derail work on Issue #2. But as recently as November 2013, Simpson wrote on his blog that linework and first pass color were complete for Issue #2. Here’s hoping we’ll get to see the finished product some time in 2014.
Bronze - Doctor Who: Prisoner of Time (IDW Publishing): With their license about to expire and the show’s 50th anniversary approaching, IDW pulled out all the stops with an epic maxi-series celebrating the show’s long history. Writers Scott and David Tipton, working with artists ranging from Roger Langridge to Matthew Dow Smith, mixed together a piece of the Doctor’s new history and one of his oldest enemies to create a threat so massive only all eleven Doctors (and their dozens of companions) combined can stop. Each issue featured one of the Doctors, highlighting what made his run different from the others. Filled with appearances from familiar foes and obscure ones alike and topped with eye-popping Francesco Francovilla and Dave Sim covers, IDW told a Doctor Who story in a way that only comics could.
Silver - MonkeyBrain Comics: Fans of digital rejoiced when MonkeyBrain was founded in July of 2012, but could they keep it up over a full year? The answer was overwhelmingly yes. Flagship titles such as Edison Rex and Amelia Cole saw print releases from IDW and cult hit Bandette won an Eisner for the company. Though not all of their releases have moved forward smoothly, stalling after a few issues, overall the publisher keeps putting out books (mostly at the 99 cent price point) on a regular basis, adding names like Greg Pak. A high watermark are the Panels for Primates charity books, which included art from John Byrne and a one-page story by Stan Lee. MonkeyBrain proves that being a digital-first publisher works, if done correctly.
Gold - Image Comics: Once upon a time, DC’s Vertigo Imprint was where popular superhero creators took their independent ideas. Now the clear winner in this department is Image Comics, which, while always known as a creator-owned company, exploded in 2013. In addition to Saga, Fatale, and Manhattan Projects continuing with strong runs, titles such as Satellite Sam and Sex Criminals from Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios’s Pretty Deadly, Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, and even books from lesser-known creators like Five Ghosts have met with critical and commercial success. Fostering an image (so to speak) where creators are given freedom and control, the company is leading a steady march of readers into a comics world where the writers and artists are the reason to buy the book.
Item to Watch for 2014 - Valiant Entertainment: Since its relaunch in 2012, Valiant Entertainment has done nearly everything right, from its slow build-up of titles to intensive and sincere fan interaction. Now their stories are moving into a third year, the universe is starting to link up, and they are really bringing their character database to the fore. Who knew there was such an untapped market for this previously defunct comics company? Valiant’s been extremely smart, hiring strong creators like up-and-coming Matt Kindt and Ming Doyle alongside those with loyal followings, such as Fred Van Lente and Tom Fowler. Their first few years have been a blueprint for others to follow, and seeing how - or if - they keep it going in 2014 makes Valiant my publisher to watch.
Forrest C. Helvie:
Bronze - House DeConnick-Fraction (Marvel Comics/Image Comics/Dark Horse Comics): Arguably the powerhouse couple in comics, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction covered a lot of ground from independent to mainstream comic publishing. Both enjoyed creator-owned success (Kelly Sue with Pretty Deadly and Matt with Satellite Sam and Sex Criminals) along with a massive amount of hits in the superhero realm with Captain Marvel and Hawkeye as arguably their best work in the genre to date. Not only is their work entertaining, it's also incredibly smart. In a period when comics are in need of representative, thoughtfully-rendered stories, it's no wonder publishers quickly tout these two writers' work.
Silver - Mice Templar (Image Comics): Few creative teams have produced the kind of work in 2013 that Bryan J.L. Glass and Victor Santos did on the vastly underrated Mice Templar Vol. 4. The art takes readers to heavenly highs as seen in the flashbacks to the hellish lows most notably in Issue #7 – "Tosk's Story." Glass's story continues to captivate readers as he tells a story that draws upon legends and yet breathes new life into these tropes. The result is that the final act of this anthropomorphic fantasy epic is one of the finest examples of the synthesis between traditional myth and contemporary demands for psychologically nuanced heroes. We always hear about comic fans wanting something different to read from the standard superhero genre – here's your chance to jump on before the end.
Gold - Scott Snyder (DC Comics/Vertigo): From DC's Batman and Superman Unchained to Vertigo's creator-owned American Vampire and The Wake, there isn't a writer today who is consistently delivering as rich and intricately woven narrative as Scott Snyder. Fans and critics alike already consider his work on 2012's Batman: Court of Owls to be one of the definitive Batman runs, and 2013's "Zero Year" story line aims to deliver the same innovative punch. Moreover, his work on Superman demonstrates his ability to work in both the dark andlight side of comics. Certainly, much of Vertigo's recent success has much to do with Snyder's creator-owned comics. Without a doubt, he is becoming one of this generation's "gold standard" writers.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Jim Zub (Image Comics/Dynamite Entertainment/IDW Publishing): Jim Zub is no stranger to the field of making comics as his past publication – not to mention his highly informative and educational blog on making comics - aptly demonstrate. However, it seems 2013 was the year in which Zub's star began to rise, and I expect he will pull a "Charles Soule" and really come into his own during 2014. His work in the independent scene has expanded significantly ranging from the fantasy genres in Image Comics’ Skullkickers and Dynamite's Pathfinders to tackling more mainstream franchises in IDW's Samurai Jack and some one-shots at Valiant and even DC Comics. And with more projects in the works, Jim Zub is definitely an item to watch for 2014.
Bronze - Home Brew Vampire Bullets (HBVB): Australian comics creators have been making a bigger splash in the last few year, with Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott just some of the people showing the others how to make castles from within their sandboxes. Brand new anthology Home Brew Vampire Bullets pulls together some of the best talent from the big, brown country in the southern hemisphere, including Christian Read, Ryan K. Lindsay, Louie Joyce, Douglas Holgate, Garth Jones and many more. Where else but this quarterly collection would you find Australia’s long-thought-dead 17th Prime Minister as an Atlantean king, 1970s-style exploitation and post-apocalyptic beauty all in one volume? Mixing short and continuing stories with political essays, commentary and short stories, it’s funny, and irreverent and pretty much guaranteed to offend somebody. That’s just one of the many charms of this rapidly growing collection. At 150 pages a pop, it’s like a super-sized Dark Horse Presents for the southern hemisphere, and a great roadmap for the future direction of one of the most talented group of artists on the planet.
Silver - Amala’s Blade (Dark Horse): Steve Horton and Michael Dialynas’ tale may have begun in the pages of Dark Horse Presents the previous year, but the continuing mini-series that dropped this year was a breath of fresh air. Scoffing the super-serious approach that modern comic book storytelling has fallen into, Horton delivers a tale that is entirely old-school piratey fun. Mashing up the unlikely bedmates of steampunk and cyberpunk, it instantly appealed to fans of both genres. In a handful of issues, Horton gave these characters a rounded narrative, and never paused for breath for a moment. With this series, Dialynas shot out of the gate as an artist to watch, subsequently securing gigs on the Superior Spider-man Team Up Special, along with variant covers for Adventure Time and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This ship is now being sailed by two leading lights, so here’s hoping for more adventures of Amala in 2014!
Gold - Brian K. Vaughan (Image Comics/The Panel Syndicate): In a year when even a single issue of Saga is released, Vaughan would still scoop the best writer categories at all awards ceremonies. 2013 has been a particularly impressive year for the writer, who has carefully curated two titles at exactly the pace they need to be presented at. Despite taking a break for several months this year, the anticipation around Saga (beautifully illustrated by Fiona Staples) never let up for a second, even as Vaughan teased us by following up a cliffhanger with several issues of back-story. Using the same elements that made Y: The Last Man a success, Vaughan has let us know that he has a plan, and we just have to be patient and watch it all unfold. Of course, he then turns around and drops the digital-exclusive masterpiece The Private Eye out of the ether, creating an equally fascinating world that is a scarily realistic depiction of a not-too-distant tomorrow. Using crowd-funding to keep each issue coming at a regular pace, the five issues we’ve seen this year would be one of the best books on the shelf if they were printed. It’s a Vaughan world: and we’re just reading in it.
Item to Watch in 2014 - All-New Marvel NOW!: It’s almost not worth saying that we should watch Marvel in 2014, because our eyes are already transfixed by one half of the two major publishers on the scene. Yet with the All-New Marvel NOW! announcements that started coming out of NYCC this year, the publisher owned the mainstream landscape by putting writers and artists at the forefront of their strategy. While just as guilty of over-hyped event marketing as their Distinguished Competition, the 2014 lineup is still indicative of a solid core set of books that concentrate on putting the right creators with the best title. Indeed, books like Daredevil and Avengers World take the “if it ain’t broke” attitude by continuing to pair their creative teams with the characters they helped define in 2013. Exciting prospects of a Phil Noto Black Widow or the return of Punisher under the guidance of Nathan Edmondson is enough to make us giddy with delight. Throw in a brand-new Silver Surfer series with Dan Slott and Mike Allred at the cosmic artistic helm, and we’ve only just scraped the tip of the iceberg. Over 20 titles, and that’s just the first quarter of 2014!
Bronze - Michael DeForge (Koyama Press): An undeniably prolific creator, Michael DeForge is always working on seemingly innumerable projects while also attending cons and signings. Sweeping the Ignatz in September, he took home awards for outstanding series (Lose), outstanding anthology (Very Casual) and outstanding artist. Currently working on a slew of titles like Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero, Kid Mafia, and World of the Leather Space Man (among others), he also finds time to do tour posters, spot illustrations, work for Adventure Time, and contribute to anthologies like the wonderful Thickness. The sheer volume of work is worth the bronze alone, but the fact that his comics are always fresh, engaging, and beautifully illustrated are what really makes DeForge worthy of a top spot.
Silver - Young Avengers (Marvel Comics): From the Wednesday when Young Avengers debuted in January to the recent conclusion of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's run on the series, this comic has been a pleasure to read. The ragtag team praised for their diversity wasted no time in casting a spell on readers, led by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie. A long way off from their Phonogram days, the duo cranked out issue after issue of stellar material, making it seem both easy and natural. The introduction and subsequent characterization of Miss America stands firmly (to me) as one of the best things to happen to comics in 2013. She just kicks so much ass, and when paired with the rest of the wonderfully imperfect characters on the team, they form a beautiful anomaly within mainstream comics.
Gold - Image Comics: This publisher might be a popular choice for the gold this year, but is there any doubt that they deserve it? The chances they've taken with creator-owned titles is staggering. Perhaps bolstered by the continued success of Saga, great titles like Rat Queens, East of West, and Sex Criminals were added to their ever-expanding roster. The hesitancy of publishers to accept both pitches from female creators and stories featuring female leads is well-documented, though not widely accepted as true. Picking up female-driven Pretty Deadly for their 2013 new titles was a huge step for mainstream comics and really highlighted Image as a company where diversity is celebrated rather than obfuscated. Bravo.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Marvel's Female Heroes: At New York Comic Con in October of this year, Marvel announced that their Now! imprint was going to be releasing solo titles for high-profile female characters Black Widow and She-Hulk. Rather than handing the reins over to creators unknown, they enlisted the artistic talents of Phil Noto and Javier Pulido, pairing them with writers Nathan Edmondson and Charles Soule. While this boys' club is not the perfect scenario, there is a good deal of talent and marketing effort being put into the titles, which I appreciate. The beautiful preview panels for Black Widow and amazing character design for She-Hulk make these two comics something to look forward to in 2014.
Bronze – Brian Michael Bendis and the X-Men (Marvel Comics): Applause all around for Mr. Bendis’ take on the two main X-Men books (All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men) and expert steerage of both. Bendis has long been the go-to guy for Marvel and finally left the Avengers to guide the other half of the Marvel Universe. Although not ever single issue has been a crowd-pleaser, it is great to see such a top talent swoop in and create two great titles that became the backbone of Marvel’s merry mutants. Not only did he breath a much-needed breath of youth into the franchise with the addition of the first class of X-Men showing up from the past, but Bendis has a knack for feisty dialogue that fits perfectly with the characters.
Silver - Batman and… (DC Comics): This should be the Bat-book that everyone is reading - we started the year of with the death of Damian Wayne and then followed it up with the title cycling through the fan-favorite sidekicks. Post-New 52, Bruce hasn’t spent as much time with his troops, and Tomasi and Gleason’s take on the hero is more getting the band after Scott Snyder Yoko’ed the deal in Death of the Family. Gleason is in rare form breaking away from the DC house style and offering up his own style that is dynamic, solid and all his own. The creators have been able to mix the beloved aspects of the character with a modern and updated experience. Sure, the cross-overs happening in Batman may be getting all the attention but the real gem is Tomasi and Gleason’s Batman and....
Gold - Green Arrow (DC Comics): Green Arrow Call Oliver Queen the Comeback Kid. Both of the Emerald Archer’s mediums, the Green Arrow comic series and the CW’s Arrow, got off to a rocky start with a thick sheen of 90’s era "Xtreme" and outsider influence on how to make the cantankerous arrow-slinger hip and young. Enter Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino on the comic and a slew of comic-influenced characters appearing on the TV show. Team Lemire/Sorrentino stripped the character down (literally removing that awful Jim Lee-inspired body armor) and set Ollie on a path that included less Gen X’ers and a more tribal storyline that fit the character like a glove. CW’s Arrow saw the superfluous supporting characters getting slowly replaced by recognizables like Roy Harper, Black Canary and Barry Allen- along with a ratings boom. For old and new fans alike, it’s been a good year for Ollie Queen.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Tradd Moore (Image Comics/DC Comics/Marvel Comics): Tradd Moore had one of those years where he couldn’t stop popping up on titles; so much so that you could feel that the artist was going to explode into the mainstream. First it was The Legend of Luther Strode (Image) where his talents as artist (teamed with writer Justin Jordan) jumped right off the page; dynamic character structure, uniquely stylized action and linework that draws that is unparalleled to anyone else. Then the artist appeared on Big Two titles like Deadpool, Legends of the Dark Knight and Harley Quinn. This vibrant artist is one of the best working and is head and shoulders above artists with steady gigs at Marvel and DC - 2014 belongs to Tradd Moore.
Bronze - The Unwritten: The Ship that Sank Twice (Vertigo): Mike Carey and Peter Gross' modern day fantasy epic, The Unwritten, has been a staple at the Vertigo imprint, but with the release of the OGN The Ship That Sank Twice filled in a lot of the Tommy Taylor (the boy wizard) mythos, as well as Tom Taylor's (the man) origin. Carey and Gross didn't accomplish this alone, though. Along with the creators were about ten other artists on board turning out some exemplary art that resembled watercolors and oil paintings; definitely giving the book a magic touch and one of the most unique-looking books of the year.
Silver - Image Comics: I know it's sort of a cop-out to give it to an entire publisher, but it's hard to deny that they've put out some of the most talked-about and critically received books of the year. From Chew to Saga, to the newest hits Sex Criminals and Black Science, to sleeper hits Five Weapons and Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Grey, Image continues to push the bar of what creators are capable of given the level of free range here.
Gold - Batman '66 (DC Comics): When DC was granted the license to produce merchandise based on the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman series from 1966, a comic adaptation was inevitable. And what a comic! Collecting a hodge-podge of great indie talent along with some serious A-listers, Batman' 66 is the most fun I've had with a comic all year long.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Marvel Comics' B-Listers: Superior Foes of Spider-Man was one of the best books that the House of Ideas put out, and completely came out of nowhere with how good it really was. Without relying on cameos from A-list heroes and such, Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber delivered solid humor, action and supervillainy at its, well, not really finest, but good enough. The fact it was made of Spider-Man's C-list villain roster was the best part, and shows that any character given proper guidance can reach their full potential. But what about next year? Both Moon Knight and Ghost Rider are getting overhauls by up-and-coming artistic talent that will surely make names out of those involved. Marvel has been on a roll bringing in top indy talent and giving them a place to shine. Hopefully the trend continues here.
Bronze - Helheim (Oni Press): It's Frankenstein by way of Vikings! From that very first hint at the 2013 Emerald City Comic Con, I had hopes for great things. Writer Cullen Bunn and artist Joëlle Jones delivered on that promise like mad fiends. If there was ever a comic that made you see the world as one giant painted panel van, it is Helheim. The book is big and bold, in no small part due to Joëlle Jones best work to date. Her pencils are vibrant and packed with more violent energy than most films out today, let alone a two-dimensional comic. Better still are the quiet moments in the book. The moments that let you take in the haunting vistas of a land scarred by war. Ugly and nasty Viking war.
Silver – High Crimes (Monkeybrain Comics): Telling straight-up suspense isn't easy in comics. It takes a team that's working in near-perfect harmony. Christopher Sebela on the words and Ibrahim Moustafa on the art are that team. What started as a simple thriller about a less-than-ethical body reclamation on Mt. Everest has evolved into one of the best comics of 2013. Sebela is crafting a tight thriller than genuinely pulls in the reader. Mixing traditional character design with some extremely intelligent layout and symbolism, Moustafa shows why he's one of comics most exciting new artists. High Crimes is a marquee book for Monkeybrain Comics and one no fan of intelligent storytelling should miss.
Gold – Image Comics: Where to begin with Image Comics in 2013? While there might have been one or two missteps with the publisher, it's without question been an amazing year. While DC and Marvel continue to fight for an ever-shrinking share of the pie, Image Comics is actively seeking out (and earning) new readers. It doesn't matter what genre you're looking for, chances are good Image has the title you want. Better still, Image in 2013 put out titles that not only brought lapsed fans back into their local shop on a weekly basis, but encouraged all new ones. Images Comics Combined strong titles with equitable creator contracts, to say nothing of their intelligent marketing partnership within the direct market. When you look at all those factors, you have a publisher that is poised to lead the comics industry in creativity and business.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Kurtis J. Wiebe: Making a big critical splash with Green Wake in 2011, it would have been easy for Kurtis J. Wiebe to stay in the horror genre. Thankfully, Wiebe is clearly comfortable playing in every genre within comics. For Wiebe it's been a fast and steady climb as one of the most interesting writers to watch. A title like Peter Panzerfaust could have easily fallen into a simple and quirky mash-up of history and myth. And instead, Wiebe crafted a story that's compelling and actually brings something fresh to both Peter Pan and World War II narratives. Finally, there is Rat Queens, a title that almost made the top three with a bullet, were there more issues on the shelves. Still, this new comic is the very definition of what to watch in 2014, and I simply can't wait for what Kurtis J. Wiebe has in store next.
Bronze - Batman '66 (DC Comics): Breaking away from the self-serious nature of their mainstream Batman titles, in 2013, DC Comics began publishing an online comic based on the continuing adventures of the campy '60's Batman TV show. While it's slightly more action oriented and a little less goofy than the original show, Batman '66 captures the same "all in fun" energy of the cult classic series. Written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by bigger names like Mike Allred and Ty Templeton as well as lesser-known - but still talented - cartoonists, Batman '66 may be DC's best kept secret.
Silver - Matt Fraction (Marvel Comics/Image Comics): 2013 was a big year for Matt Fraction. After regrouping from helming a series of taxing event books, Fraction began quietly building himself a unique corner of the Marvel Universe, going deeper into the Moonlighting meets the Wire feel of Hawkeye, and taking on the madcap dysfunctional family of FF. And that's saying nothing of his non-Marvel output such as Sex Criminals and Satellite Sam from Image. Fraction's current spate of books may be smaller in profile, but they are a larger presence for his unique voice.
Gold - Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Marvel Comics): It may seem a little forward to call an ongoing series that's only on its sixth issue the best book of 2013, but Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber's crime sitcom focusing on a cadre of Spider-Man's most overlooked foes trying to make it big has delivered more value in those six issues than many books achieve in their entire runs. Packed with the biting pathos of the criminal condition and balanced by more laugh-out-loud moments per page than any other book on the stands, Spencer and Lieber are delivering something special that honors the mighty Marvel tradition while still managing to break the mold in colorful and captivating new ways month in and month out.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Black Science (Image Comics): Only two issues in, it's a little early to call Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera's Black Science one of the best books of 2013, but all signs point to it winding up on a lot of lists for 2014. Cutting a swath through the tropes of science fiction family drama and chewing up high concepts like they're going to spoil, Black Science's two issues are already making huge waves outside of the Big Two, and showcasing the best work two already well-regarded creators have done in some time. Black Science may already be big, but it's only going to get bigger.
David Pepose, Best Shots Captain:
Bronze - Ales Kot (Image Comics/DC Comics/Marvel Comics): It's been a big year for newcomer Ales Kot, and his work in 2013 has been as ambitious as it has been diverse. Starting off the year with his avant-garde apocalyptic epic Change, Kot suddenly got the comic sphere's attention when he single-handedly reinvigorated DC Comics' Suicide Squad. (Killer Shark introduces himself by saying, "My name is Trixie. I like to party." Based on that alone, even with Kot's abruptly truncated stay on the book, it's well worth reading.) Kot has since delved into the murky underbelly of spy comics, taking on Marvel's Secret Avengers and assembling a murderer's row of artistic talent for Image's Zero. Of all the up-and-coming talents in the comics industry, Ales Kot may have the strongest portfolio of 2013.
Silver - John Layman (DC Comics/Image Comics): John Layman has been the definition of consistency throughout 2013, keeping his creator-owned series Chew running strong and adding a big feather in his cap by taking over DC's Detective Comics. Detective, once a title struggling to stand out among the flood of other Bat-titles, flourished under Layman's tenure, providing smart, self-contained storylines featuring a smorgasbord of Batman's greatest villains, including the Joker, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, Clayface and Man-Bat. Chew, meanwhile, has continued to impress, as Layman has taken a more somber, human angle to Tony Chu's adventures, as he's redoubled his efforts to bring down the Vampire after waking up from a coma and learning of the death of his sister, Toni. There's some serious world-building going on here, and combined with the reinvention of a struggling DC book, Layman continues to impress in 2013.
Gold - Rick Remender (Marvel Comics/Image Comics): Uncanny Avengers. Captain America. Black Science. If any one writer dominated the field this year, it would undoubtedly be Rick Remender, who has written some of the most character-driven, action-packed comics of 2013. Uncanny Avengers has felt like a major comics event every month, as the divided Avengers Unity Squad fights a losing battle against the Apocalypse Twins and the resurrected Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, while Captain America took a brutal, psychedelic journey as Steve Rogers survived a decade in Dimension Z. Remender closed out the year with a bang, as well, knocking readers' socks off with Matteo Scalera and Dean White in Black Science, an ultra-cynical spin on Quantum Leap and Lost in Space. As a writer who has long excelled in characterization and plotting, 2013 marks the year where Rick Remender has finally gotten his due as the A-lister readers deserve.
Item to Watch in 2014 - Charles Soule (DC Comics/Marvel Comics/Oni Press): Charles Soule has been a busy man in 2013, and his workload only looks to be getting bigger in 2014. He's filled Scott Snyder's big shoes over on Swamp Thing, taken over Marvel's struggling Thunderbolts and DC's ancillary Red Lanterns title (even pushing the latter title to have a flipbook issue with sister title Green Lantern), and, perhaps even more impressively, sold readers with the best take on the Man of Steel, the Amazing Amazon (and much of the rest of the rebooted DC Universe) over on Superman/Wonder Woman. (All while releasing his creator-owned sci-fi/political comic Letter 44 from Oni Press.) While Soule has had a few non-starters this year, his hits have been compelling, and it's clear his ambitions are being rewarded, as he takes on She-Hulk with Javier Pulido and Inhuman with Joe Madureira. Will Soule be able to keep up this blistering pace in the new year? And will he continue to rise up the ranks at DC with higher-profile titles, or will he get snagged by the big guns at Marvel's House of Ideas? (Or continue with both?) Either way, this high-wire act is one to watch in 2014.