We’ve already listed our favorite TV shows and movies of last year, and we’ve got a couple more lists just before the new season begins. Here are our favorite comic books of 2012; check back tomorrow for our favorite albums (though, considering our extensively detailed history of not knowing how to talk about music, with YouTube clips instead of commentary).
PAUL: 10. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER (Marvel)
There was a period of time when Thor was my favorite character in comics. The golden Walt Simonson era was for me the height of otherworldly sword and sorcery super heroics. And while its been quite some time since the character has achieved anything close to that level of wonder, in recent years he’s enjoyed something of a renaissance. From his “death,” to his literal return to Earth under the guidance of J. Michael Straczynski, to his big screen debut, the petulant son of Asgard is kind of back in a big way.
Thor: God of Thunder is the newest incarnation of the title, with the unlikely writer Jason Aaron giving us a triptych of thunder gods, a tale of an alien butcher seeking to torture and destroy all deities told across three different periods of Thor’s life. We see young, arrogant Thor (pre-Mjolnir) and his first meeting with Gorr the God Butcher; modern-day Avenger Thor going full CSI trying to solve the mystery of who or what Gorr is; and far-future Thor, old and broken, sitting on the throne of an empty Asgard, the last surviving god, waiting for Gorr to finish him. It’s a brutal, bloody, and fascinating premise, though I do wish Gorr was slightly more imposing-looking rather than just being a Voldemort rip-off. Aaron creates a genuine mystery and sense of danger with real stakes for our hero, and the painterly art of Esad Ribic suits the romantic epic nature of the story. It’s not quite Simonson-level Mighty Thor (there’s thus far no Beta Ray Bill here), but Thor: God of Thunder is the best the character has been in a long time.
AJ: 10. ANGEL & FAITH (Dark Horse)
I know Whedon fandom is crazy, but I might just be the biggest Buffy fan on the planet. That’s a huge claim, and while I haven’t tattooed James Marsters’ face on my ass or anything (yet), it really is difficult to describe how much Joss Whedon’s world means to me. Without Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I wouldn’t be here today. You wouldn’t be reading these words and I would have even less of an idea of what I want to do with my life. So it pains me greatly to say that the canonical Season 8 and Season 9 comics, though they have certainly had their moments, are largely disposable and occasionally worse. But then there’s Angel & Faith, which has done the impossible, making a monthly comic book series feel like the weekly television shows we fell in love with all those years ago. Christos Gage knows these characters inside and out, both their voices and their motivations. It’s never a question of if the comic will tie back into the shows’ stated mythology, but when and how spine-tingling those connections will be. These are the characters I have loved for a good deal of my life in a story that’s being brilliantly told by Gage and brought to life with wonderful clarity by artist Rebekah Isaacs. If you’re skeptical about Buffyverse comics, you have every right to be, but this one should be a priority.
PAUL: 9. MIND MGMT (Dark Horse)
Writer/artist Matt Kindt chose as his first ongoing monthly comic series a story of memory, identity, perception, and conspiracy worthy of Serling’s Twilight Zone. Not too much I can say about this series without spoiling it, and the joy of it truly is discovering how everything fits together and connects. I’ll say that the storytelling and dialogue are brilliant enough to distract from Kindt’s very rough, stylized art, of which I’m not particularly a fan. It’s not bad, so much as…well, maybe it’s a little bad. It’s most definitely an acquired taste. But as I say, the writing more than makes up for any issues I may have with the art. The first six issues appear to tell one complete story (a great one), so I’m curious to see how it will move forward from here.
AJ: 9. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY (Marvel)
To use a frequent point of comparison, Kieron Gillen’s run on Journey Into Mystery was the closest we’ll likely ever get to Sandman in the Marvel Universe. It was about many things–the willingness to change and the desire for self-acceptance foremost among them–but it was ultimately about storytelling. The Loki of the Marvel U is a villain and always has been; that’s how the story goes. With Kid Loki, though, Gillen makes us believe that this story can be changed, that if Loki tries hard enough, he can dodge fate and escape his older self. Then comes the devastating ending. Superhero comics are by definition opposed to any kind of permanent change, and there was always the chance that somewhere down the line, Kid Loki’s tale of redemption could be discarded in favor of a return to pure villainy. As Gillen explains, “I destroyed Kid Loki because it was the only way for him to win.” Gillen’s Journey Into Mystery barely lasted a year-and-a-half, but it was one of the most thoughtful, poetic, and beautifully illustrated books on the stands; and though nothing I’ve said would lead you to believe it, it was also by far one of the funniest. Though the Kid Loki we came to love is no more, this isn’t the end of Loki’s journey. Gillen will again write the character in the forthcoming Young Avengers, reunited with Phonogram collaborator Jamie McKelvie.
PAUL: 8. CONAN THE BARBARIAN (Dark Horse)
What is best in life? In my far-flung youth (before I fell in love with Thor), I would have said the answer to that question was Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian. Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, and John Buscema spun savage yarns that hacked and slashed their way directly into the brainstem of this fantasy-obsessed D&D nerd. Sadly, I eventually wandered away from Conan to follow crazy characters in brightly colored tights and capes. I didn’t return to him until the 1982 film (still my favorite iteration of the barbarian).
Dark Horse has been publishing various titles with the character for nearly a decade now, but the newest series, once again using the iconic title Conan the Barbarian, is my first foray into the comics since the ’80s. I’m very happy to report that it is a pleasant homecoming. Writer Brian Wood is adapting (and expanding upon) the original Robert E. Howard short story “Queen of the Black Coast.” I had never read that story before, so this is a slightly different look at Conan than I, and perhaps many readers, have seen before. This is a younger, more playful Conan who finds his way onto a pirate ship and into the bed of a supernatural (?) pirate queen, Bêlit. The stable of artists to this point in the series, from the exquisite Becky Cloonan to the darker, rougher Declan Shalvey, have all created a beautiful, breathing world, with characters all distinct and recognizable. I’d like to offer particular praise to artist James Harren for three of the most gorgeous, energetic, exaggeratedly realistic issues of the series so far. That is what is best in life.
AJ: 8. BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN (DC)
I can’t ignore the moral quandary at the heart of DC’s decision to create more Watchmen. I also don’t think that any of the Before Watchmen books–even the couple that are really, really good, like this one and Ozymandias–add anything to the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that needed to be added. These are pointless cash-ins. But I also can’t deny when something is as good as Darwyn Cooke’s Minutemen which, as already stated, is really, really good. Minutemen is the only Before Watchmen book I suspect most people want; it’s also the one project Moore discussed in the wake of Watchmen‘s success, back when he was still on good terms with DC. It tells the story of the original Minutemen, their initial success, and everything that led to their disbanding, as seen through the eyes of Hollis Mason as he writes his autobiography Under the Hood. With DC: The New Frontier, Cooke offered the ultimate tribute to comics’ Golden Age; with Before Watchmen: Minutemen, he continues in the footsteps of Moore and Gibbons by imagining a world in which the superhero is very far from the ideal. A sprawling, deeply moving epic.
PAUL: 7. ANGEL & FAITH (Dark Horse)
I want to be done with this book. I want to be done with all the Buffyverse books. More and more every day I just wish to remember the shows, and Angel particularly, as they were, where they ended. So I wish that I could just bite the bullet, cancel this book, and move on with my life.
Unfortunately, Christos Gage does too damn fine a job of capturing the voices of these characters. Both title characters have distinctive, recognizable voices from their years of screen time on the various television series. Gage has somehow tapped into something here that manages to recreate the magic originally cast by David Boreanaz and Eliza Dushku. And Rebekah Isaacs strikes just the right balance between actor likenesses and functional, attractive sequential art.
Sadly, I’m still bored and/or irritated by much of the post-TV Buffyverse material (the Twilight nonsense will just never be okay, a recurring joke this comic plays with). For the most part I roll my eyes and pretend that the entire affair ended with “Not Fade Away.” But month to month I find myself drawn back in by Gage and Isaacs, living just a little while longer with some of my favorite characters. And that speaks volumes to the work they do here.
AJ: 7. UNCANNY X-FORCE (Marvel)
To put it simply, Uncanny X-Force was the best X-Men book in years, as well as one of the best ever. Rick Remender’s 35-issue run on the title is about as epic as superhero comics get. This year, that run came to its conclusion in thrilling fashion as X-Force and Daken’s newly formed Brotherhood of Mutants fought over the fate of Genesis. Was Fantomex right? Could this clone of the child Apocalypse become a good person? Or was he destined for evil no matter what? Finding out took a heavy emotional toll on X-Force, with some members dying and all of them going through hell. The opportunity to tell one massive, overarching story is a rare thing in comics, but Remender found his and ran with it, along the way writing definitive takes on characters like Deadpool and Psylocke. Even his Wolverine comes close to character-defining, which is beyond impressive. There were a number of fine artists on the series, but Phil Noto is the one who brought it home; his clear, expressive artwork is some of the best in the industry.
PAUL: 6. THE SIXTH GUN (Oni)
In the wild, very weird west, there are six weapons of supernatural destructive power. Men (and other beings) have fought with and for these weapons for centuries, some to save the world, most to destroy it. In the shadow of the Civil War, the most powerful of the six has come into the hands of an innocent young girl, who now must run, hide, or fight for her life as evil forces hunt her down.
This is far and away my favorite entry into the Weird West genre in living memory. Writer Cullen Bunn weaves an intricate plot of shifting loyalties, mystical agencies, ancient powers, and modern conspiracies. The cast is fantastic, with Becky Montcrief managing the impossible by being the main character while also not being annoying or pointless. And Drake Sinclair is the most compelling example of the “dark man of mystery” cliché in years. The art by co-creator Brian Hurtt is both simple and complex; no one is doing a better job right now of capturing eerie and horrifying supernatural spirits and demons. If this truly does make it to the small screen, as has been rumored, it will have a lot to live up to. But it has the potential to be Deadwood meets Supernatural. I’d watch the Hell out of that, literally.
AJ: 6. DAREDEVIL (Marvel)
You know those comics that remind you of just how joyous and inventive the medium can be? Yeah, Mark Waid’s Daredevil is one of those. His first year on the book, which saw him restore Matt Murdock to his old swashbuckling ways, was magical; his second year tested the character to see how far he could go without suffering a mental breakdown. Matt’s father’s bones were dug up, he was framed for murder, Dr. Doom deprived him of all his senses, etc. But throughout, Waid’s love of the medium and Matt’s newfound love of life shone through. Waid’s writing is impeccable, but a great deal of the series’ success is owed to the artwork; this is one of the few superhero books that pushes and explores the boundaries of the medium on a consistent basis. Though the book lost Paolo Rivera at the beginning of the year, artists like Khoi Pham, Marco Checchetto (on the great Spider-Man/Punisher crossover “The Omega Effect”), Mike Allred, and Chris Samnee continue to show Matt’s derring-do and “radar sense” in new and inventive ways. Superhero comics should always be this good.
PAUL: 5. PROPHET (Image)
I have absolutely no damn idea what is happening in this trippy, psychedelic sci-fi epic…and I like it!
AJ: 5. SAGA (Image)
Brian K. Vaughan is probably the best comics writer to hit the scene during my lifetime. Y: The Last Man is the only proof you really need, but there’s also Runaways, Pride of Baghdad, his run during the earlier, better days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, etc. (I’ve yet to read Ex Machina, much to my chagrin.) His latest series is a sci-fi epic that…well, actually it takes place on the fringes of a sci-fi epic. There’s an intergalactic war going on, but our focus is on Alana and Marko, a pair of star-cross’d lovers who just want to survive with their newborn daughter. Vaughan throws around a lot of weird, wild ideas and has the great fortune of working with the insanely talented Fiona Staples to bring them to life. I know that, for example, I’ll never forget the image of two TV-headed royals going at it doggy style. This is such a bizarre book, but also one rich in warmth, heart, and wit.
PAUL: 4. HAWKEYE (Marvel)
“Okay, this looks bad.”
Clint Barton is a more-or-less normal guy who has spent a long time hanging out with superpowered people, gods, robots, and all manner of heroes, villains, and morally ambiguous characters. Matt Fraction decided to show us what he does on his days off, when he’s not being an Avenger. And it’s not pretty. But it is fun. Removed from the larger-than-life superheroic world, Clint is just a guy, a street-level guy…who has “inherited” an apartment building from some Eurotrash crime lords and pretty much gets the stuffing kicked out of him every single issue. Fortunately he’s also got a dog sidekick and a partner/love interest (???) in Kate Bishop, the Young Avengers version of Hawkeye, to pull his fat out of the fire (also pretty much every issue). Witty dialogue, unique characterizations, and the oh-so-cool, occasionally experimental artwork of David Aja make this book one of the big surprises of the year and keeps it at the top of my to-read pile.
AJ: 4. MIND MGMT (Dark Horse)
Matt Kindt’s art is rough and stylized, but I’m going to have to disagree with my compatriot that it is in any way bad. I like clear, clean, “realistic” art as much as the next guy, but I also think there’s virtue in telling a story with simple, stylized cartooning. Though this twisty head game seems perfectly suited to cleaner, crisper art, Kindt’s style makes it feel very much like a transmission from his mind to ours, which is fitting. With allusions to Lost and The Third Man, Kindt brings us into a world we never imagined existing inside our own: that of Mind MGMT, a secret government agency consisting of psychics with the power to shape major events. Each page is presented as a report to Mind MGMT; make sure to read the “Field Guide” excerpts in the left margins, as they seem fairly standard at first but grow increasingly weirder. The print version also gets you a short story which begins on the inside front cover and ends on the inside back cover, along with fake ads on the back that offer keys to the puzzle. In all, it’s a beautifully presented package and science fiction of the highest order.
PAUL: 3. ULTIMATE COMICS SPIDER-MAN (Marvel)
Miles Morales continues to be among the greatest new characters to be introduced to comics in a very, very long time. The idea of killing off Peter Parker and replacing him with someone else in the costume seemed preposterous (still kind of does). But damned if Brian Michael Bendis didn’t pull it off. Original artist Sara Pichelli took a break from the series to work on the spin-off mini Spider-Men (which was also amazing), and fill-in artist David Marquez did such a stunning job during his run that I was seriously torn when it came time for Pichelli to step back in. She’s awesome, but he blew me away. (Fortunately he’s about to fill in on another of my favorite ongoings…see my #2 pick below).
USM would have taken second place on my list, but it’s fallen just the tiniest bit by virtue of the series’ focus broadening to bring in more of the larger Ultimate Universe, which you couldn’t pay me to care about. I understand it’s inevitable, that USM is part of a larger tapestry, and naturally everything will cross over to one extent or another. But unrealistically, I’d rather read my Miles Morales as a standalone series. So I’m pouting and bumping this title from second to third place.
AJ: 3. FANTASTIC FOUR/FF (Marvel)
Hey, look at that, I cheated. But you can’t list just Fantastic Four, following the team’s main adventures, or just FF, centered around the young members of the Future Foundation; the two books are essential companions. If I had been reading Jonathan Hickman’s run of Marvel’s First Family from the beginning, they might have placed even higher, but alas, his saga got its start during that dark period when I had pretty much stopped reading comics. Just from the last year-and-change, though, I have to say that his work is some of the most complex, intelligent, and awe-inspiring superhero stuff I’ve ever read. The best part is that it’s all rooted in the familial bond shared by Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben. As Hickman says in his farewell letter, describing what drove the team, “It was Love. Boundless, unconditional, to the end of time and back, lift you up from death itself, LOVE. And what’s not fantastic about that?” Indeed.
PAUL: 2. ALL-NEW X-MEN (Marvel)
One of the most pivotal, iconic stories in the long and convoluted X-Men canon is “Days of Future Past.” That classic tale had an adult Kate Pryde sending her consciousness back in time to warn the X-Men about the horrors to come in their future if things didn’t change. Writer supreme Brian Michael Bendis has taken that premise and twisted it into his debut in the now even more convoluted X-verse with All-New X-Men. This series sees Hank “Beast” McCoy, dying and horrified at the dark world they all live in, bringing the original five X-Men–including the younger, furless him–from the past into what is their future in the hopes of changing the present.
It’s a brilliant setup, one that lets Bendis play with the contrasts between the original idealism of the team and the dark and cynical world of compromise that the present-day characters have created. Primarily, it’s interesting to see the two Scotts face off, seeing as old Scott has recently become a revolutionary and works hand-in-hand with Magneto. But this series also brings Jean Grey back into the Marvel Universe, cleverly avoiding the cliché of resurrecting her for the umpteenth time. And Bendis truly has a feel for the language of these characters (except possibly Emma Frost, who comes off a bit too “common”). Combine the great premise and slick writing with some of the most amazing artwork veteran Stuart Immonen has ever given us, and this book makes me excited to dive back into the X-verse again for the first time in decades.
AJ: 2. HAWKEYE (Marvel)
If Daredevil is the artistically adventurous superhero book that strengthens the classic mold, then Hawkeye is the artistically adventurous superhero book that smashes it the fuck apart. Matt Fraction and David Aja (along with Javier Pulido, subbing for Aja on a memorable two-parter) don’t adhere to any kind of conventions, story-wise or art-wise. When Clint Barton’s not an Avenger, he does his best to be a decent guy and…well, he gets kidnapped a lot. This is the kind of book where a Daily Bugle headline reads “EVERYTHING AWFUL” (beneath that: “Oh God Somebody Do Something”) and Tony Stark helps Clint hook up his cable. If you didn’t know these characters belonged to major corporate entities, you would have no idea that this wasn’t some crazy cool, crazy weird indie book. Perhaps my favorite example of Fraction and Aja’s style is in the second issue, when Clint is simultaneously having a conversation with Kate Bishop and shooting arrows. As Clint pulls back his bow, focusing intently on the target, Kate’s words are broken up into small, black-and-white panels showing her changing facial expressions, each one devoted to a single letter. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a better representation of time slowing down in comics. If your friend ever doubts that superhero comics can be art, show them Hawkeye.
PAUL: 1. SAGA (Image)
After a brief but excruciating hiatus, Brian K. Vaughan’s space opera love story finally returned with…balls. Huge, gigantic, pendulous, scabby, crusty alien balls. An image most of us will never be able to scrub from our brains. Particularly because they showed up twice…which I suppose is appropriate. But despite the testicular terror, what matters about this series is everything else! The introduction of the in-laws has only served to highlight the true, unconditional love between the two main characters. Vaughan continues to masterfully set up reader expectations and then spin our heads around by going in completely unexpected directions.
It’s impossible to talk about how magical this series is. Vaughan is at the height of his game, cementing his place in the firmament of comics masters for years to come. And his copilot, artist Fiona Staples, likewise shames lesser illustrators with her beautiful, clean, accessible art. Every issue she’s called upon to draw some of the most distasteful, explicit images, and she never fails to make even the sickest shit (giant pustular scrotums; dinosaurs with dildos) somehow riveting. To quote protagonist Alana, “Holy. Fucking. Shit. That is the best book I’ve ever read.”
Perhaps not quite, but damned close.
AJ: 1. ULTIMATE COMICS SPIDER-MAN/SPIDER-MEN (Marvel)
What’s the deal with Spider-Man? Why has Marvel’s most beloved character, the guy that goes toe-to-toe with Batman in terms of popularity, been written so shoddily for so long? There have been good stretches here and there, but since the ’90s, Spidey’s world has been consumed by a lot of pointless fuckery. Though well-liked by many, I found Dan Slott’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man unbearable, and I’m not going to get into that Superior Spider-Man nonsense here. Basically, here is a character that has been around for 50 years, one who stars in blockbuster movies and adorns the walls of kids who don’t even read comics, and any new approaches are either quickly walked back or seriously stupid. What does it take to get a fresh take on Spider-Man?
With Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, Brian Michael Bendis suggests you might have to kill him. Now, that’s not entirely true; Bendis wrote a whole decade’s worth of Ultimate Spider-Man starring Peter Parker, and I’m tempted to call them my favorite Spider-Man comics ever. But despite the high-profile silliness going on in other corners of the Marvel Universe, Bendis has proven that you can kill Peter in devastating fashion and replace him with a character just as strong and interesting. Miles Morales is no gimmick; he’s the real deal, a multi-cultural Spider-Man (he’s half-black, half-Latino) for the 21st century, and his adventures are just as thrilling as Peter’s ever were.
Bendis is an extremely talented writer, but the sheer workload he takes on means that a lot of the time you get what I like to call “workman Bendis” (see: good portions of his various Avengers runs). Ultimate Comics Spider-Man and this year’s Spider-Men mini-series, wherein the 616 and Ultimate Spideys meet and not a single shark is jumped, are different. These two books are everything I want from a mainstream comic: well-developed characters, witty dialogue, real emotion, original ideas, and of course, big crazy insane superhero action. Also, my letter was totally published in Spider-Men #5, so they probably would have wound up at #1 anyway.
Of course, there were more than ten comics in 2012 worth reading. So, in the interest of spreading the love, here are some more comics we felt merited a mention…
Actually, this is all AJ because Paul’s a cranky old man who refuses to share his love. In any case, AJ would like to request a round of applause for Animal Man, Batwoman, The Defenders, Fatale, The Manhattan Projects, Mind the Gap, The Punisher/Punisher War Zone, Revival, Swamp Thing, and Winter Soldier