It's an arms race out there in superhero-movie-land. Seems like everybody wants to adapts comics into something else. That's cool. But let's not forget the ancestral medium whence all that excitement originates. Because comics had a damn good year this year.
Announcements for movies that are years away from release excite fans. The vision for those films will be compromised for reasons of budget and artistic vision. That's not happening in the original source material, which is why we love the comics themselves so much. What follows are staff picks for the best comics we read in 2014.
Luke Plunkett says: Skipping between dimensions is normally a blast for comic book heroes! That's not the case in Black Science. A dark and turbulent tale, it follows a team of scientists who are forced to keep jumping between alien worlds, each trip bringing new sets of challenges and things trying to kill them. It doesn't help that the team is also tearing itself apart, courtesy of some good old-fashioned human politics.
Great for how it juggles and complicates the various tonalities that have been part of the DC Universe at various times of its 75-year-plus history. Pulpy, two-fisted adventure fiction, pop-star-obsessed teenage superheroes and wide-eyed wish fulfillment have all danced through the five (and counting) issues of the high-concept miniseries. It's also boasted a cast of characters as diverse as the fans that have loved superheroes through the decades. As so much of DC's mainline New 52 seems to feel directionless and flat, Multiversity reminds us why the characters in the House That Superman Built captured readers' hearts in the first place.
Superhero universes are big, complicated clockwork mechanisms. The inevitable crossover events move big pieces of real estate around in dramatic ways, yet it's always been the steady accrual of smaller quirks and coincidences that makes their soil fertile. She-Hulk is one of those series whose plots happened far away from Marvel's big publishing events but managed to remind of the stakes that the Avengers, X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy are fighting. The book took a down-to-earth approach to its super-strong lead character, using her legal profession to humanize heroes, villains and reluctant heirs to Latveria. It's exactly the kind of book that Marvel needs more of and it's a damn shame it was cancelled.
Superior Foes of Spider-Man
To read this series about a bunch of C-list Spider-Man villains was to love it. And to love it was to know that it wasn't ever going to be a blockbuster hit and that its time out in the world — like that of its bumbling lead characters — was going to be limited. But even when fill-in teams told the stories of also-rans, this series made the Marvel Universe feel populated with a plethora of interesting-once-you-get-to-know-them characters. Best of all, it pulled off an incredibly satisfying ending, riffing off the final sequences of other well-loved creations in a final bit of well-earned snark.
The Wicked & The Divine
The brilliance of The Wicked & The Divine is in how it simultaneously speaks to the moment it's happening in and to a much longer history of celebrity obsession and mythology. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's pantheon is made up of those elevated by chance and fate to stardom. They remember being less than what they are now and know that it will all end in two years when they die. The relationships that they have with each other and their adoring fans are super-charged as a result. Imagine if the beef between, say, Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks played out in metahuman battles powerful enough to shatter buildings. There'd be hand-wringing and condemnation, for sure, but some people would dying to be part of the action. And everyone would know about it, whether they wanted to or not.
The long-awaited graphic novel from the creator of Scott Pilgrim hit earlier this year and served as a great showcase for a beloved creator daring to enough to mature his craft in public. Gone were the garage band/video game/kung-fu movie symbols of teen/twentysomething-ism, replaced by a folklore-inspired mythology capable of eliciting laughs and squirms. Seconds feels like a fable for grown-ups, one that reminds us that tramples the feast in front of us to get to something
Mike Fahey says: Ever know someone who could take a fridge full of random leftovers and through some dark sorcery create a feast fit for a king? That's what Peter David's done with the All-New X-Factor. Pulling together the leftovers of the Marvel Universe — Polaris, Gambit, Quicksilver, Danger, Cipher and Warlock — X-Factor was reborn as the in-house super team of the enigmatic Serval Industries, complete with corporate logos on their uniforms.
Framed by the odd action sequence frenetically rendered by Carmine Di Giandomenico, the real meat of the All-New X-Factor, as with most David works, is the character dynamics. From every day interactions to milestone moments — Polaris and her sister, The Scarlet Witch attempting to bond; Quicksilver reconnecting with his estranged daughter, Luna- these characters come together in truly captivating ways. And in case that's not good enough, the robotic Danger hitting on Technorganic alien Warlock is just priceless.
Of course it's all moot now. Due to low sales, the All-New X-Factor is ending early next year at issue 20. If only we'd written it up faster.
Part of the reason I used to love Daredevil was because he was a superhero who was extremely unhealthy, emotionally speaking. All of the great writers who left their mark on him — whether it was Frank Miller, Denny O'Neil or Brian Bendis — helped build a Matthew Murdock with poor impulse control, weak anger management and terrible inability to find closure. Sure, all of that stuff helped make him made him a Man Without Fear and relatable to teenage and young adult readers. But it also made him a guy who'd be hard to root for if he were a real person. Good qualities like charisma, loyalty and a passion for justice aside, he's always been a ticking time bomb in terms of psychological make-up.
So, it's been great to see how Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's modern-day classic run on Daredevil has sculpted a hero who's more emotionally healthy than ever. He hasn't lost his "edginess", either. This is still a character who walks the shadowy outskirts of Marvel Comics' fictional universe. But to find him less consumed by his own interior demons makes Daredevil like a character that's growing along with his audience.
The Private Eye
This noir series looks at the idea that all the stuff modern-day netizens don't care about — those private bits of personal data being scraped away into remote servers — comes back to bite humanity in the arse in a globally disastrous way. So, in the brightly-coloured future where The Private Eye happens, the only thing worse than the world wide web going away forever is the possibility that it might come back. Internet access or no, people still have secrets, kinks and family to worry about. Sometimes, no mask is good enough to hide it all.
If the first two years of Saga was thematically all about a young family staying together despite all sorts of external threats and nay-saying, then the last 12 months have been all about the internal tensions that can rip a nuclear unit apart. A kid old enough to start exerting their will on you, doubts about how happy you'll ever be in the weird amalgamation of circumstance, the feeling that your life is no longer your own. The hardest part of parenting is tamping down the part of yourself that can be your own worst enemy. Old science-fiction comics and old romance comics had babies that had babies and we were all lucky enough to get Saga.
The best crime comics ever written. Seductive, cautionary, manic and calculated. Thirty some-odd pages of fever dream in every issue. The rawest soap opera you'll ever watch. These are the only words that I could cobble together to try and express how good Stray Bullets is. You should read it and get hooked. I'm sorry.
Patricia Hernandez writes: Kelly Sue DeConnick presents us with an unsettling world where any woman that is not compliant with prevailing social norms gets sent to another planet. Thing is, anything from pride to infidelity can land you on the eponymous "Bitch Planet" — and the things that go down in bitch planet are gruesome and disturbing. The comic is a little bit of Orange is the New Black mixed with the sensibilities of grindhouse films, making it one of the most subversive comics of the year.
Patricia Hernandez writes: The Ms. Marvel of 2014 feels important. In the past, you could have mistaken Ms. Marvel for a cheerleader or a pin-up girl, at least in terms of looks: Carol Danvers is white, and she has long, blonde locks. But in February of this year, Marvel introduced the world to a new Ms. Marvel: Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim girl that has to deal with school, boys, and overprotective parents that love tradition. Not only is the comic a potent examination of race and what it means to be American, it's also a charming look at a teen that is just as worried about saving the world as she is about writing fanfiction. Heartening and funny, Ms. Marvel is one of the stand-out comics of the year.
Sex Criminals' first few issues reveled the goofy, sweaty and forbidden allure of romantic relationships. Namely: it's the sex that locks you in, right? When the chemistry is good, nothing else outside of the other person seems to matter. But the latest issues have been all about when the chemistry sours. And the world that you've made with someone seems all too bland and fragile. With all that's been invested in it, abandoning that relationship world feels foolish. Somehow, Sex Criminals' ongoing arc manages to find humour — and, at times, weird titllation — in the heavy lifting of making a romance work. Even if it maybe shouldn't be working at all.
Stephen Totilo says: The X-Force team written by Si Spurrier is damaged bunch — broken people, each with bundles of secrets that are slowly revealed through the series' soon-to-be-concluded, densely written 15-or-so-issue run. These are messed up people. One of them dies and comes back to life daily. One of them might be someone more famous. Is one of them, uh, faking their accent? Even at its most bleak, the comic is somehow refreshingly whimsical. What's it about? The X-Force are a covert ops team, and the adventures they go on in Spurrier's ever-surprising series cover modern issues of terrorism, torture and surveillance but seldom in ways you'd expect.
Spurrier's comics, like Grant Morrison's, require closer reading than you'd normally give a DC or Marvel comic and each issue, as with many of Morrison's, hold up on their own. For best results, start with the first issue. But if you're feeling bolder, jump to the most issue 10, a memorable issue about, ironically, a character just about no one can remember.
Stephen Totilo says: Tom Scioli and John Barber's intentionally corny comic looks and reads like a war between toys. You'll either get this comic at a glance or think it's childish and walk away. Sample the one panel above and you'll know if it's for you. Like that? Download the series' zero issue for free and enjoy some of comics' most artfully-primitive work of the year.
What were your favourite comics of 2014? Tell us below.