In Case You Missed It, or, Six Superhero Books I Loved in 2013

2013 was the first full calendar year I spent actively pursuing comic books on a weekly basis. Prior to this year I had a pretty decent stack of paperbacks and collected volumes, but it wasn’t until the end of 2012 that Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern finally got me to go into a comic book store on new comic book day and grab an individual comic book.

In the year since I’ve read a lot of comics. Some of them left me wondering how I’d been tricked into wasting three dollars on the pages of drivel in my hands, while others made me wonder why more people weren’t talking about what I’d just read.

Below are my thoughts on some of the latter. Books that I couldn’t stop thinking about with moments and characters that stuck with me long after I’d read them. There were some amazing books that came out this year that got every bit of praise and admiration they deserved. But there were also some brilliant stories, even ones by some pretty prominent writers, that seemed to fly right under the radar. I may only be a pedestrian comic book reader and my picks may not be deep cuts, but I want to talk about them.

These (six) be they.

Green Arrow #23.1: Count Vertigo #1
by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino
September 4, 2013

DIZZY ATTACK

Remember Villains’ Month? Back in September instead of running their regularly scheduled programming DC Comics released 52 #1 issues staring 52 different villains to tie into their new event, Forever Evil. In retrospect it turns out that the real villain of Villains’ Month was DC Comics, who tricked readers into picking up a boatload of comic books with 3D covers that were pretty much all drivel.

But not every Villains’ Month issue was a waste. Greg Pak and Charles Soule in particular did excellent work in their respective Zod and Arcane issues and a hand full of other books didn’t induce eye rolls, most notably Count Vertigo.

Not only did this issue manage to keep the momentum of its parent series, Green Arrow, going while so many other Villains’ Month issues obnoxiously hit the pause button on their far-superior parent books, Count Vertigo also delivered great art and a creepy exploration of a lesser known DC Villain, Warren Zytle, who understandably decides to go by Count Vertigo instead.

There’s nothing in Count Vertigo’s origins that you haven’t seen before; an heir to the throne of a country you’ve never heard of reduced to poverty in the wake of rebellion, a poor parent selling their child into research, a man turned into a weapon only to rebel against his creators, you know this story already.

But the character at the center of it all is so off-putting that it elevates the book above Count Vertigo’s by the numbers origins. Count Vertigo is angry, very, very angry, and Count Vertigo #1 is the story of what an angry person does when they have the means to do anything.

Not only did this issue elevate the lackluster Villains’ Month initiative it was a part of, it significantly upped the ante when Green Arrow finally confronted Count Vertigo in the issues after it. It’s a nice little self-contained, dark and creep story about a C-List villain who simultaneously looks like a dork and a badass. And Andrea Sorrentino’s art alone makes it well worth the read.

Fantastic Four #5AU
by Matt Fraction, André Araujo   and Jose Villarubia
March 27

fantasticfour5au

I didn’t read Age of Ultron. I don’t know, it had a cool cover I guess, but I didn’t hear great things about it. I didn’t read Marvel’s next event, Infinity, either. I mean, I checked out the first issue but it didn’t hook me. Some heroes are on Earth and some other heroes are in space and then something else happens? I don’t know. It’s got Black Bolt in it, so maybe I’ll check it out in paperback. I was going to read Inhumanity, or Inhumans, or whatever Marvel’s newest event is supposed to be, but with the recent announcement that Matt Fraction has been pulled from the title, I’m not as inclined to read it as I was.

Long story short I’m not really an event guy. But the Fantastic Four tie-in to Age of Ultron was easily one of the most memorable books I read all year.

Fantastic Four #5AU loosely ties into the group’s journey through time and space in that when it begins they’re traveling through time and space, but its repercussions on Fraction’s Fantastic Four series are minimal and, considering I enjoyed the story without having read a page of Age of Ultron, the issue is something of a stand-alone.

The title of the issue says it all: The Death of the Family Richards During the Bloody Age of Ultron, or, “Everything’s Going to be Okay.” (Hey, what do you know? Matt Fraction writes titles like that too.)

There are two threads through #5AU, the Fantastic Four returning to an Ultron-ravaged Earth and meeting their demise at the hands of a million, billion Ultron drones and Reed Richard and Sue Storm’s children waking up on the Four’s space ship and being confronted by the group’s holographic will.

Reed Richard’s saying goodbye to his children is a moment that transcends the Age of Ultron event, the Fantastic Four series and the comic book medium as a whole. They’re words that have stuck with me long after first reading them, words I can recite and images I can imagine as clear as day.

You may have read Matt Fractions straight up phenomenal Hawkeye, but if you haven’t read Fantastic Four #5AU you’re missing out on one of the writer’s greatest works. This issue hit my where I live. It’s a great story and you should read it.

Wonder Woman #22
by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang
July 17

wonderwoman22

Wonder Woman #23 was amazing. I was an exciting culmination of the issues before it that packed a ton of big character moments and plot development. It got a slew of perfect scores from across the internet and it had a really, really badass cover.

But damned if I’m not a sucker for setup.

Wonder Woman #22 finds Diana and her rag tag family band transported to New Genesis, home of the New Gods, by Orion in an attempt to save them from the wrath of the First Born back in London.

The issues before #22 had done a brilliant job of melding superheroism in the modern world with Olympian Gods and Greek mythology, but #22 kicked if up another notch by throwing an already intriguing mix into the backdrop of Jack Kirby science fiction.

And yet, despite how much of a mouthful worth of exposition setting the scene for #22 is, the issue essentially boils down to a study in family, be it Wonder Woman and the newly inherited kin she’s loosely cobbled together into a family unit under her protection, Orion and his dick dad who maybe, just maybe, isn’t totally a dick, or the First Born and his army of hyena people.

Seriously, this issue is all over the place. But under the guidance of Azzarello and Chiang, who has become the valiant steed amongst DC’s stable of artists, even a story that swerves through robot-scooters and hyena monsters within the course of 22 pages never falls apart.

Azzarello keeps Wonder Woman grounded despite the book’s far reach into fantasy. There may be hyena people, but there’s also an intimate exchange between Diana and Orion where she tells him not to try to be perfect, but to try to be better. And there may be a robot scooter, but I remember it best in regards to Orion’s triumphant return to the family band.

Wonder Woman #23 gave readers the inevitable all-out brawl that had been building up for nearly a year, and it did not disappoint. But the immediate set up to that epic confrontation in Wonder Woman #22 was anything but inevitable and equally unforgettable.

Green Lantern: New Guardians #23
by Justin Jordan, Brad Walker and Andrew Hennessy
August 21

newguardians23

Green Lantern #20 was the undeniable Green Lantern highlight of 2013. How could it not be? It was the last issue of Geoff Johns’ ten year run with the character he completely redefined. And it was great. But I already wrote about that.

What I haven’t written about, and what you might have missed this year, is Green Lantern: New Guardians #23. Unlike some of the aforementioned issues #23 isn’t self-contained. It relies on at least a casual knowledge of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern for its emotional impact and it serves as something of a preface for the Lights Out storyline it leads into.

But everything before it and after it aside, New Guardians #23 is a story about hope shining brightest in the face of utter hopelessness. New Guardians #23 sees new villain Relic assault the home planet of the Blue Lanterns, wielders of the blue light of hope. Without getting into specifics, it’s a pretty huge downer at face value.

The Blue Lanterns have never been badasses. They don’t wield fear or rage, they don’t use light to create constructs of race cars and sharks and cannons, they’re just really, really optimistic. New Guardians #23 showcases just how badass optimism can be and its final pages are simultaneously the bleakest of bleak affairs and a swirling spiritual triumph.

New Guardians #23 is a testament to the strength of the entire Green Lantern franchise.

Daredevil #30
by Mark Waid, Chris Samnee and Javier Rodriguez
August 21

daredevil30Waid and Samnee’s Daredevil is near-universally hailed as one of the best superhero comics on stands today. I was a little bit late to the party. Month after month I’d read the book’s praises, but it wasn’t until Daredevil #30, a team up with the Silver Surfer that I rightfully surmised might be a standalone outing, that I finally got on board. And man am I glad I did.

Daredevil #30 sees Matt Murdock teaming up with the Silver Surfer to take down an alien named Ru’ach, a being who, as the Surfer explains, is a “sentient lie” that exists “on the edge of perception.” It’s an out there premise that reads more like a comic from your parents’ day than something that came out amongst the gritty, apocalyptic books on shelves in 2013. And that’s because it isn’t gritty or apocalyptic.

Daredevil #30 is just fun. Daredevil and the Silver Surfer are both cool characters. One looks like the devil and the other one was a cosmic surf board. What’s not to love? Waid and Samnee understand this and exploit it. Rather than wasting time delving deep into the Silver Surfer’s secret pain, Daredevil #30 instead offers vibrant two-page spreads of Daredevil hitching a ride on the Surfer’s board, weaving through buildings in New York City.

Daredevil is a book that fully utilizes the complete emotional spectrum. Not too long before Daredevil #30 things got dark. Really dark. And not too long after Matt Murdock found himself teaming up with Halloween monsters to face a group of white supremacists.

This Daredevil run is nowhere near monotonous and can wield heartbreak and pure joy with equal amounts of competence. But where there are plenty of well-written books that came out in 2013 that can leave you down in the dumps, few if any can reach the level of plain old fun Daredevil #30 soars at.

Batman Incorporated #13
by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham
July 31

batmaninc13

Batman Incorporated #13 might be the greatest single issue of a Batman book I’ve ever read.

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have been consistently turning out top notch material in the primary Batman series since the New 52 launched in 2011 and they sure as yell didn’t stop in 2013. Death of the Family concluded in February with Batman #17, an understated and phenomenal conclusion to a grand Bat-family event, and Snyder and Capullo set about the herculean task of redefining Batman’s origins with the start of Zero Year in Batman #21. But somehow it seems like the conclusion to Grant Morrison’s Batman story, one that started in 2006 and brought together elements from the hero’s entire 70 plus year history into one vast, epic, operatic Batman opus, got lost in the shuffle this year.

The Batman canon is aged and cumbersome, so much so that it makes more sense for each individual fan to construct their own rudimentary history of the character. These histories are often bookended by Frank Miller, whose seminal works Year One and The Dark Knight Returns have come to define the beginning and the end of Batman. Somewhere in between Batman meets a young boy and takes him under his week. Sometime later a Robin dies. Maybe somewhere in your own history of Batman he has his back broken, or fights a werewolf, or travels through time.

When Grant Morrison ended his time with the Dark Knight in Batman Incorporated #13 he had made such a unique and thoughtful interpretation of the character that the events of his run have been etched permanently into my own history of Batman.

And yet you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy Batman Incorporated #13. You don’t need to have read any of the rest of Morrison’s years-long story. You probably don’t even need to have read a comic book. But if you have any appreciation for Batman then Grant Morrison’s passion for the character and the icon alike will shine through.

Batman Incorporated #13 is a 22-page master class in a character that has been around for nearly 75 years.

2014 looks like it’s going to be a pretty cool year for comics. DC is still in the midst of both Forever Evil, an event comic that is actually worth reading, and Zero Year, the aforementioned retelling of Batman’s Origins and Marvel is set to publish some exciting new books like Silver Surfer and She-Hulk.

The nature of a medium like comics isn’t very conducive to memory. There are dozens of new books every week and so spending any amount of time with just one can be hard. But in the weeks and months and years to follow I know that I’ll still find time to revisit the books on this list because even thrown in amongst various events and variant covers and tie-ins they managed to shine bright on their own merits and ingrain themselves in my memory.

 

Now that you’ve read about my favorite books of the year, why not spend the year listening to me babble about my favorite books of the week. Every week. Check out the Pony Tricks Comic Cast for a weekly literary deconstruction of last week’s comic books.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Do superhero books still represent the best comics have to offer? Do they  represent the worst comics have to offer?

2. Did I miss a great issue you think was overlooked this year?

3. Did you no that if you like comic books you’re a huge nerd?

For more on my favorite entertainment in 2013:

Television

Video Games

The 2013 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson Initiative

Villains Month, or, Owlman, Owlman, Owlman!

Spoilers ahead for Trinity War, Villains Months and Forever Evil #1

Look at all the evil.

Look at all the evil.

Well that was a rip-roaring good time. But now it’s over. And I am A-Okay with that.

For DC Comics, who two years ago rebooted their entire catalogue with The New 52, September has become a big month. Last year, to celebrate the anniversary of The New 52, DC went into Zero Month, wherein each of their titles, rather than continuing onward in their current story arcs, paused to release an issue #0, exploring their characters before the events of The New 52.

Batman readers got their first taste of Zero Year, Superman had his cape stolen by a little boy with an abusive father and a young Wonder Woman fought the Minotaur.

It was good stuff.

This year, to celebrate the second anniversary of The New 52, DC dubbed September Villains Month, wherein the heroic stars of their books were pushed aside in favor of their rogues. Only, where last year each title translated to one issue #0, this year each title spun off into between one and four Villains Month issues for a total of (a coincidence I’m sure) 52 issues.

Full disclosure: of the 52 Villains Month issues I only actually read 37. I have no interest in reading the 15 I missed and quite frankly I regret reading a handful of the 37 issues I did read.

Creatively it would be hard to argue that Villains Month was as much a success as Zero Month last year. But commercially I suspect DC is laughing all the way to the bank. Not only were their 52 comic books turned out in a single month, a limited quantity of each issue of Villains Month had a 3D cover. And wouldn’t you know it, just about every villain out there somehow looks cooler with a 3D cover. Couple this with the fact that shortly before the launch of Villains Month DC Comics informed vendors they would only be able to provide a fraction of the 3D covers they’d promised and you have the birth of an awesome, month-long black market of comic book fans battling to the death to snag a 3D Harley Quinn cover (for an issue that is by all accounts terrible) on sale for triple the price.

It was good stuff.

But you shouldn’t judge a book by its 3D cover or its perverse manipulation of supply and demand, and with that in mind – on to the content!

Despite all the commercial hoopla surrounding Villains Month it manage to hit a handful of genuine homeruns. Some writers got to flex their muscles to great effect, some second and third-tier characters starred in terrific standalone stories and for the first time in two years the DC Universe honestly felt like a singular, interoperating organism.

This world is ours, Willis.

This world is ours, Willis.

The aspect of Villains Month that will actually have lasting repercussions beyond readers’ wallets is the event surrounding it, Forever Evil. In the wake of Trinity War the various Justice Leagues are missing and the Crime Syndicate, villainous variations on Earth’s greatest heroes, have taken over. Forever Evil #1 established the Crime Syndicate’s spiffy catchphrase, “The Justice League is dead, this world is ours,” and set wheels in motion. Forever Evil #1 is a great comic book, but it’s a handful of books spread throughout Villains Month that really add weight and nuance to the unprotected new world order.

Issues like Ra’s al Ghul, The Rogues, Black Manta and Ocean Master fleshed out a burgeoning opposition to the Crime Syndicate, showing different villains’ takes on the new world order and giving them legitimate reasons to oppose it.

Meanwhile, Killer Croc, Bane, Scarecrow and The Court of Owls showed a Gotham sans-Batman divided up amongst the most infamous Arkham inmates as Bane prepares to take Gotham for himself using the prisoners of Blackgate penitentiary. All the while the Court of Owls have taken refuge in their own secret bunker weaving plots and machinations and Killer Croc has silently grown a cult following in the sewers beneath the city.

There’s also addition insight into the Justice League’s villainous counterparts. The Secret Society issue, which despite having a picture of the Secret Society on it and being called Secret Society, is an awesome Owlman story that delves into Earth 3, the world the Crime Syndicate left behind, and provides even more backstory and momentum to the events ahead.

HOOT HOOT

HOOT HOOT

Seriously though. It should have been called Owlman and it should have had Owlman on the 3D cover. Owlman is great. I love Owlman.

It’s through interweaving narratives like these that Villains Month truly brought the DCU together in an organic and believable way. Whether the execution of Forever Evil will remain as entertaining as it continues to unfold is anyone’s guess, but the first act has proven exciting.

And Forever Evil isn’t the only event given nuance and resonance by Villains Month. Krypton was also masterfully revisited. Fans of the first 30 minutes of Man of Steel could do far worse than to look into the Braniac, Zod, Cyborg Superman and Doomsday issues. The four loosely connected narratives manage to cover substantial ground regarding Krypton’s last days. The sibling rivalry between Superman’s father Jor-El and his uncle Zor-El is explored to great effect as are the motivations of an up and coming lieutenant named Zod and the affection of Braniac for Jor-El.

Greg Pak, who penned Darkseid, Doomsday and Zod, was certainly a star of Villains Month, with Zod being arguably the best issue of the month. Pak’s take on Superman’s rogues is particularly exciting considering Pak is set to take over Action Comics in November, stealing the reigns back from the limbo Action Comics has been in since Grant Morrison’s departure.

Joining Pak in the spotlight was Charles Soule, who I had previously only been familiar with from Red Lanterns. Soule managed to leave his mark all over the DC Universe last month writing for characters ranging from Arcane to Lex Luthor to Black Hand. Soule’s issue of Arcane in particular shines bright as he manages to evoke the poetic prose of Alan Moore in a fascinating portrayal of a terrifying villain’s personal hell. Soule also handles the brilliance of Lex Luthor with aplomb, making the genius equal parts intellect and charm. While Soule’s portray of Black Hand is admirable, however, he essentially manages to bring a dead character back to life with no explanation while simultaneously completely resetting the events of Blackest Night.

Which brings me to Villains Month’s blunders. While there were a lot of great stories told last month there were undeniably too many. Black Hand is dead. He should have been covered in a flashback, if at all. The character raises the dead and when you bring him back you’re going to have to have him raise the dead, which are now raised and have to be dealt with despite having nothing to do with the events in the current Green Lantern books. But whatever, he’s a villain right? And villains + 3D = $.

This is the same equation that brought about Justice League issues focusing on Dial-E and Lobo that have nothing to do with anything and it’s the same equation that brought about the low point of not only Villains Month, but probably the entire New 52 run: Joker’s Daughter.

Who’s Joker’s Daughter? Literally a crazy lady that finds Joker’s severed face in a swimming pool. What does she have to do with anything? (Everybody now) Nothing. How many issues of Joker’s Daughter were on the shelf by the time I made it to my local comic book store? None. You’re killing me people.

IGN gave the series premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a score of 8.5. They gave Joker’s Daughter a 2. And why wouldn’t they? In what incarnation would such a character be anything but a shameless cash grab? I can’t think of one and I don’t think Joss Whedon could either.

Reign in Brother Blood.

Reign in Brother Blood.

Of further annoyance is that while “characters” like Joker’s Daughter were given an issue in Villains Month, some legitimately awesome villains were left on the sidelines. Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man run is fantastic and the new villain he has introduced in recent months, Brother Blood, is a Slayer song made flesh. Where was he last month? Where was Atrocitus? Where was Black Mask? Where was Superboy Prime? Where was Larfleeze? Professor Pyg? Starro? Where was more Owlman? Where was anyone but Joker’s Daughter?

Today is the first Wednesday in a month that my comic book covers will be 2D and have heroes on them and I’m pretty pumped. Villains Month was fun enough but I’m ready to get back to my regularly scheduled programming. DC Comics can tell me the Riddler issue is a Zero Year tie-in all they want, but just saying the phrase “Zero Year” doesn’t make it so.

Diamond in the rough.

Diamond in the rough.

Villains Month had some impressive peaks. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal favorite issue, Jeff Lemire’s Count Vertigo, but even dizzying Canadian creepers with mommy issues can’t overshadow a month of depth-defying valleys. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how lackluster my personal favorite villain, Sinestro, fared.

Looking back on Villains Month it feels less like a celebration of two years of loyal readership and more like chum for wallets. In 3D.