The last decade hasn’t been kind to the American comics industry. Even as comic-book characters flourished onscreen, little of their financial and cultural cachet translated to the paper-and-ink side of the equation. Comics, superhero and otherwise, limped through flat-lining sales figures while the Big Two — DC and Marvel — saw creative standards drop across the board, their iconic title rosters gradually reduced to grist for the movie studios’ intellectual property mills, focus-grouped into oblivion by studio executives and marketing consultants. Ironically, the reign of superhero film franchises has forced mainstream comics into such a state of stagnation that subsequent attempts to rebrand or reinvent have only served to highlight the torpor, instead of concealing it. Naturally, the late 2000s and early 2010s saw the trimming of many a monthly subscription list, this writer’s included. Thankfully, 2013 witnessed a gratifying creative resurgence, spurred not just by the indie publishers but by a renaissance in the world of creator-owned titles. It turns out both talented veterans and promising newcomers are still around, now taking their voices to fresh platforms online or to publishers still willing to take chances and let creators retain control of their work.
Image Comics has been at the forefront of this creator-owned movement. They gave us Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Lazarus, a disconcertingly relevant dystopian series in which the world’s wealth is controlled by a handful of families, constantly vying to co-opt each other, whether by pen or by sword. The latter is wielded by each clan’s genetically engineered envoys so when one such warrior develops a conscience, it can only mean trouble for all concerned. It’s the best kind of politically resonant, violence-riddled genre allegory. Image also bestowed upon us Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ magnificent space opera Saga, a delirious cross-mutation of Star-Wars-style epic sci-fi and a sexually explicit version of Whedonesque interpersonal dynamics. Actually, to make these reductive comparisons is to do Saga a disservice — it’s the most distinctive and outré monthly comic in print right now, the profound and the absurd combined in a sublime package that contains everything from interstellar genocide to phantom babysitters and talking gorillas. Another outstanding Image title is Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, a book about a couple that can stop time whenever they have sex. It’s both oddly sweet and a little bit sleazy without being exploitative, always honest and unsentimental about human sexuality and its attendant baggage. Finally, there’s Jonathan Hickman’s apocalyptic East of West, a doom-laden book about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse descending upon an America …continued »