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 that exists in an alternate-history 2064, a brutal world that’s one part Cormac McCarthy and one part Judge Dredd’s Mega-City One. East of West is mythic in scope, bristling with potent archetypes given unique techno-tinged Weird West spins.
Dark Horse Comics also had a strong showing this year, kicking things off with my favourite superhero (well, sort of) title of the year — Mike Mignola’s Hellboy in Hell. A bravura exercise in world-building and a thoroughly immersive reading experience, it follows our now-deceased hero as he wanders the cursed dimension that spawned him. Dark Horse also published Matt Kindt’s cryptic Mind MGMT, a superpower-infused spy thriller that makes full use of the serialised format by packing multiple layers of conspiracy into a slow-blooming but utterly absorbing narrative.
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The big two didn’t strike out entirely. There’s Matt Fraction’s take on Marvel’s Hawkeye. Fraction and artist David Aja took a chance on the character by writing him as, basically, an ordinary human being stumbling into various noirish situations. Between its meta-fictional flourishes, envelope-pushing approach to the medium’s visual language and the entire issue told from the point of view of a dog, it stands out amidst the lineup of undistinguished mainstream superhero titles. DC’s long-flagging boutique label Vertigo staged a mini-comeback with Jeff Lemire’s Trillium — a time-travel romance that draws equally from anthropology papers and old-school boys’ adventure stories — and Scott Snyder’s The Wake, a horror/ sci-fi corker about underwater entities and doomed scientists that builds on the hallowed legacies of James Cameron and John Carpenter, acquitting itself rather well in the process. The year also brought the long-awaited return of Neil Gaiman’s game-changing creation Morpheus, resurrected in the first installment of the six-issue Vertigo miniseries The Sandman: Overture. It’s a little early to pass judgement on the series but the first issue is a welcome return to the off-kilter world of the Endless, enhanced immeasurably by J.H. Williams’ sumptuous visuals.
The indie scene had numerous treasures — pretty much all of Fantagraphics’s phenomenal 2013 catalogue, Gilbert Hernandez’s gorgeously evocative and semi-autobiographical Marble Season, John Lewis’s civil rights memoir March. I also left out Prophet, Brandon Graham’s usurping of Alejando Jodorowsky’s sci-fi-as-hallucinogen mantle. Webcomics are flourishing like never before — see Brian Vaughan’s retro-futurist cautionary tale The Private Eye or Emily Carroll’s potent horror comic Out of Skin. It’s impossible to even touch on all of 2013’s sequential art highlights in one article. That’s how it should be.
Das is a New York-based writer