2014 was a fantastic year for comic books of all stripes. In fact, it was too good—quality books from publishers large and small flooded shops every week, making it nigh impossible to catch everything. With such an embarrassment of riches available, it’s nearly impossible to be comprehensive. Bearing that in mind: Of the comics we did read this year, these were tops.
Disclaimer: This list doesn’t include webcomics or manga, both of which fell outside of our comics coverage this year. If you’re looking for some of the best webcomics of 2014, i09 has compiled a great list. And, of course, feel free to drop in on the comments and shout out whatever comic/webcomic/manga you were highest on this year. Happy New Year!
BEST ALL-AGES COMIC
Lumberjanes (Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, Brooke Allen — BOOM! Studios)
“All-ages,” like “G-rated,” can get a bad rap. Although it’s intended to mean “for everyone,” we often interpret it as “for kids,” or, even worse, “boring.” Lumberjanes, however, really is for everyone. Completely unpredictable, ridiculously charming, and laugh-out-loud funny, there isn’t a single issue of Lumberjanes that wasn’t a complete joy to read. Ellis, Stevenson, and Allen’s series about five best friends at Lumberjanes scout camp and the yetis, ancient tombs, and supernatural powers they encounter has made for one of the best new comics of 2014.
The Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Nick Spencer, Steve Lieber — Marvel)
You’d be surprised at how rarely mainstream comics attempt to do comedy. There are funny moments in comics, but full-on funny? Not so much. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man is one of the funniest books on stands this year, especially among those released by the Big Two. A caper about five of Spider-Man’s C-list rogues banding together to form a new Sinister Six and pull off the Crime of the Century, Superior Foes is full of double-crossing ne’er-do-wells trying to make it to the big time while not being all that good at the whole crime thing. With fantastic art from Steve Lieber that often feels like a master class in visual comedy, Superior Foes delights with its poorly planned capers and carefully planned jokes.
X-Men: Legacy (Simon Spurrier, Tan Eng Huat — Marvel)
X-Men: Legacy is something special. A superhero story that rejects the basic principles behind most superhero stories, Legacy fights against the reactionary behaviors and pugilistic spirit of traditional cape comics while painting a compelling portrait of a broken, mentally ill demigod struggling to assert control over his life. The sheer ambition on display is staggering—in 24 issues, Spurrier and his collaborators were able to carve out something achingly personal and thematically rich in one of the most mainstream arenas in comics. While most of the series played out over 2012 and 2013, the book’s final few issues were released in early 2014, and its finale, “For We Are Many,” is one of the finest endings to be told in a medium that rarely ever gets them. After all, as Legacy’s omnipotent and infinitely broken protagonist David Haller says: “The things that stay with you forever are the things that come to an end.”
BEST SUPERHERO EPIC
Avengers/New Avengers (Jonathan Hickman et al. — Marvel)
More than any other writer working in mainstream cape comics right now, Jonathan Hickman is an architect. He writes grand, sweeping epics that are intricately plotted, with jaw-dropping twists and fascinating shifts that occur regularly enough to keep readers coming back. There is a drawback to this, of course: With stories built like machines, when one thing goes wrong it seriously gums up the works. (Last year’s Infinity crossover demonstrated that well.) But when they’re firing on all cylinders, watching a Hickman plot come together is a thrilling thing, one that leaves you itching to read on. Accompanied by a slew of talented artists like Jim Cheung and Mike Deodato Jr., the story Hickman is telling in Avengers and New Avengers (read both) kicked into high gear in 2014, counting down to a grand finale in Marvel’s mysterious Secret Wars event. While that event could prove to be either a total disaster or a resounding success, the ride there is totally worth it.
BEST FILM NOIR THAT ISN’T ON FILM
The Fade Out (Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser — Image Comics)
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been collaborating for over 15 years, and almost every one of those collaborations—from Incognito to Criminal to Fatale—have made for some of the finest sequential art available. Even with such a strong track record, The Fade Out feels like the story they were made to tell, an old Hollywood noir set against the paranoid oppression of the HUAC witch hunt. Brubaker and Phillips are two creators who don’t know how to make a bad book. If The Fade Out‘s historical fiction wasn’t a part of your 2014, consider making it part of your 2015.
BEST CRIME COMIC
Southern Bastards (Jason Aaron, Jason Latour — Image Comics)
As a genre, crime stories have plenty of tropes. Southern Bastards bucks all of them. Trading seedy urban underbellies for the football fields and diners of the fictional Craw County, Alabama, its hero isn’t a weary detective up against well-dressed gangsters—it’s Earl Tubb, a big man with a stick against a tyrannical high school football coach. Deep-fried and atmospheric, Bastards is a different type of crime story set against an underused backdrop that’s every bit as compelling as a sprawling city. Give it a shot, and you’ll be treated to one of the year’s best plot twists.
BEST SPY COMIC THAT’S ACTUALLY ABOUT A WHOLE MESS OF THINGS
Zero (Ales Kot et al — Image Comics)
Much of modern entertainment involves the stripping away of any ugliness inherent in its subject matter. We’re told stories about all manner of interesting things, but only if they feature beautiful, charming people, with the rough ends either filed down or sharpened in aesthetically pleasing ways. Zero isn’t about that. A nonlinear collection of stories about the life of Edward Zero, a spy who discovers he’s working for the wrong side, Zero takes everything about sci-fi tinged espionage thrillers and turns them on their head. The fight scenes are desperate and ugly. The emotional trauma is real and lasting. Its depiction of sex is frank, not titillating. Illustrated by a roster of exciting and gifted artists, Zero may be the boldest comic of 2014.
BEST FAIRY TALE THAT WILL DEFINITELY MESS YOU UP
Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann, Kerascoët, Marie Pommepuy — Drawn and Quarterly)
With arguably the best opening sequence in all of comics this year, Beautiful Darkness asserts itself in a concise and unsettling fashion: It’s about tiny sprites that live in a dead girl’s decaying remains, trying to eke out a civilized existence. But the innocence of these tiny people is undercut by their lack of a moral compass—they go about trying to take care of themselves without the slightest regard for those around them, witnessing and committing horrors without batting an eye. Scathing and subversive, it’s one of the most uncomfortable reads of the year, a Lord of the Flies-esque fable about our capacity for evil.
BEST STORY ABOUT POP STARS WITH A DEATH SENTENCE
The Wicked and the Divine (Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Hollingsworth — Image Comics)
Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen are one of the most satisfyingly complementary creative teams in comics. Recklessly contemporary in their sensibilities and continually daring in form, Gillen and McKelvie’s story about a pantheon of gods-as-pop stars isn’t the smoothest of elevator pitches: every 90 years, a pantheon of 12 gods inhabit the bodies of young people to become wildly popular, vehemently hated pop stars … who die two years later. But there’s a heaviness to that high concept: The Wicked and the Divine is haunted by the creeping nearness of mortality and the continual burden of creativity, wrapped in the ephemera of superstardom. Yet it remains accessible, choosing to root itself in the story of Laura, a 17-year-old girl who is, first and foremost, something that we all are at one point or another when we connect with art: a fan.
BEST UNDERWATER SCI-FI STORY ABOUT HOPE AND FAMILY
Low (Rick Remender, Greg Tocchini — Image Comics)
Low snuck its way to the top of my to-read pile. I don’t know when it happened, it just did. It’s not that I didn’t love the first issue—it was an absolutely gorgeous comic book, a heartbreaking story that began with a family violently ripped apart. There was so much to like about it, but it didn’t seem to get the buzz some of its peers would—because of this, it was easy to feel like there was only a small minority of readers following the book. Which is a shame: Low is now one of my favorite Image books.
It’s Rick Remeder’s most humane story to date, and I would encourage readers who don’t normally gravitate to his work to give it a shot. In a year full of crushing disappointment and heartbreaking headlines, Low feels like a timely, necessary story, one that takes its readers down to the depths of despair before ending with a promise: we will rise again.
BEST COLLECTIONS OF 2013 COMICS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
2014’s best comics include the first collected editions of some phenomenal 2013 work that flew a bit under the radar. First is Simon Spurrier and Jeff Stokely’s Six-Gun Gorilla (BOOM! Studios), a sci-fi Western that’s actually much more than that, a wonderful exploration of our relationship with fiction and memory. It’s an underrated masterpiece, and well-worth tracking down.
Also released this year was the first volume of Michael Fiffe’s entirely self-produced Copra (Bergen Street Press), a loving homage to John Ostrander’s classic run on Suicide Squad. Just one look at Copra and it couldn’t be more obvious: there are clear analogues to Deadshot, Deathstroke, and even Amanda Waller practically leaping right at you. That’s part of the charm. The other part is how much fun Fiffe is having making this book—Copra is a full-on fightbook, told with imaginative and idiosyncratic art and remarkable economy. Since it’s self-published, it’s pretty hard to track down and read month to month, but this year saw the release of Copra’s first trade paperback, appropriately titled “Round One.”
BEST SINGLE ISSUE
The Multiversity: Pax Americana (Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely with Nathan Fairbairn — DC Comics)
There’s this jaw-dropper of a moment in The Multiversity: Pax Americana. It’s not a plot twist or a really smart line of dialogue. It’s a two-page spread of a single room, broken into 32 panels. Some of those panels take place at one point in time. Some of them take place in another. It’s a marvel, a brilliant, mind-bending bit of storytelling that’s only possible in comics. When you piece together what’s happening in those pages, you can’t help but applaud Morrison, Quitely and Fairbairn’s work on Pax Americana—brilliant in form and function, it’s a story that uses the characters that inspired the seminal Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen to sharply critique its legacy. But even if you leave all the metacommentary behind, Pax Americana still stands as a fantastic one-and-done story about the slow-motion tragedy behind one man’s life, and how it went to change the world forever.
Honorable Mentions: Hawkeye #19 “The Stuff What Don’t Get Spoke” (Fraction/Aja/Hollingsworth), Moon Knight #4 “Sleep” (Ellis/Shalvey/Belliare)
BEST RETURNING COMICS
A number of comics that have been good since their debuts continued to be excellent throughout 2014—Sex Criminals (Fraction/Zdarsky) moved on to explore the difficulties that come after the initial bliss of a relationship. Saga (Vaughn/Staples) moved on to Hazel’s toddling years and the slow splintering of the family it had brought together in its first eighteen issues. Daredevil (Waid/Samnee) closed out a fourth year of its acclaimed run as one of the most consistently good superhero comics on stands by making the most of its soft reboot and new status quo. Batman (Snyder/Capullo) tore into 2014 at the peak of its powers, bringing the improbably great origin story Zero Year to a close and launching into the chilling “Endgame” with equal fervor. Finally, Wonder Woman (Chiang/Azzarello) closed out a critically acclaimed and character-defining run that ended much like it began: as one of the best books in DC’s New 52.
The Wake (Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth — Vertigo)
The first half of The Wake played out over the back half of 2013. It was a deep-sea horror story, Alien set in a secret underwater base. But when The Wake returned for it’s second and final act, it was something else entirely—a post-apocalyptic adventure story, like Waterworld but with sea monsters and weird pirates (and, you know, it was good). While the creators teased this shift pretty heavily in the first half of the book, the big surprise was how well it all fit together, and how earnest and moving it would ultimately be.
Bitch Planet (Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Cris Peters — Image Comics)
A lot of great comics debuted this year, but if we had to chose one, we’d have to go with Bitch Planet. Here’s Community Editor Andrea Towers on why:
Seldom do comics burst onto the scene and shatter our worldview by being entirely poignant, raw, and captivating – but then, most comics aren’t Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s spectacular riff on exploitation films of the 70’s.
When DeConnick was preparing to put Bitch Planet out into the world, she admitted to us that she was scared. This wasn’t a “play-it-safe” comic that tiptoed around social commentary, hoping to slip quietly under the radar. This was a very real, very unapologetic look at feminism, at themes and conflicts that the general public is often afraid to express or think. At the same time, it offers a very real message of empowerment, a sensation you feel firsthand thanks to the sharpness and honesty of DeConnick’s storytelling. Simply put, this is a comic that tells a story and wants you to listen – and boy, do you listen.
Along with DeConnick’s writing, the creative team — De Landro’s evocative, beautifully raw art, Clayton Crowle’s sharp lettering, Cris Peters’ blend of futuristic, intense colors — help to make Bitch Planet one of the most captivating first issues of the year. The book isn’t just a vocal piece. It’s a movement. And if you’re one of the few people not reading it, I suggest you start now.
BEST NEW SUPERHERO
Ms. Marvel (G. Willow Wilson, Adrian Alphona — Marvel)
Ms. Marvel is superhero comics 2014. In Khamala Khan’s story, we can see how far comics have come as an industry: one of the most celebrated and well-received characters of the year is a Pakistani teenager from Jersey City! She’s also a signpost, and we need more heroes like her. Heroes that don’t just embody our ideals of how a person should be, but serve as reflections of our plurality and windows into the lives of those who are different from us. It’s for this reason that representation isn’t just important, but necessary—and pretty high in demand, too.
It was a phenomenal year for comics, one with much more to recommend than what’s here—and there’s no reason these books we love can’t continue to improve. Ms. Marvel showed us one of the ways they can do that.