The Best Comics of 2013

These lists are always a pile of anguish for me. Discounting the fact I don't know that it's actually possible for me to decide whether The Giant Beard that Was Evil is better than The Property or vice versa. Discounting the fact it's actually impossible to keep in mind a book I read in January as well as a book I read in December. Discounting the fact that series behave in entirely different ways from stand alone books. Discounting all that, let's focus for a moment on the fact that it is actually impossible that I would read all worthwhile books released in a single year. And that's discluding bad and mediocre books. I read a ton of books from 2013 that I would happily give 3 stars. Some of them I read in February of 2014. And there're still piles of books that are worth my time that I haven't touched. And some that might be worth my time.

The nature of these lists always feel pretty artificial. I do them because who doesn't like a good Best of the Year list? They make fantastic Wish Lists. I mean, that's how I find good books to add to my own collection. But man, the best book I read in 2011 was a book from 2010, so I couldn't put it on my list. In 2012, one of my favourite books was from 2003—and NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW! Because nobody reads a best-of-2012 list to see Barefoot Serpent come in at fourth.

Oh whatever, I complain about the same things every year. I know what you want. You want comics. So here's the thing that's new this year. I'm dividing the list by two: a) 20 books that are either stand-alones or series that wrapped in 2013, and b) 15 books that are ongoing series. If you'd like to skip to the ongoings, click here. Otherwise, read on!

Top 20 Stand Alones and Completed Series

Igarashi completely blew me away with this series. I had been anticipating the conclusion for a few years and was nervous it wouldn't meet my expectations. The story so far was so crazy, so wild, so ambitious that I couldn't imagine where Igarashi would take it. That volume 5 spent so much of its page count wordlessly is incredible. I don't know how the work was received in Japan (and it seems to have been too far off the radar for most anyone who isn't a critic), but Children of the Sea is absolutely one of the most creative, interesting, and awe-striking comic works I've ever encountered. I am enthusiastic for this series.

Children of the Sea is a gradual and complicated work whose strengths probably most deeply lie in its mysteries. One needn’t understand the link the book proposes between the cosmic and the marine to find spectacular value in Igarashi’s vision. It may even be for the best if one doesn’t. A better approach might be to simply enjoy the wonder of the seas as they unfold page after page through these five incredible volumes, and maybe use the discussions of metaphysics as springboard for personal reflection on the things that are just plain beyond us. Igarashi may actually have given us a perfect vessel for the consideration of the enigma of a world-cartography that cannot ever be entirely dependable. And I love him for that.

When I first reviewed Red Handed last February, I remember thinking, I'm reading one of the Books of the Year right now. My wife described the book as genius. As time passed, a measure of that excitement diminished. I read a lot of books and distance and forgetfulness lessened my ardor. In preparing this list, I decided to reread some of the books from earlier in the year to give them a more honourable chance against recent excitements. Red Handed was earned a spot in the reread category simply because I had gone on record thinking it was great. In my memory, it was simply a very smart criminal thriller. I'm glad I reread Kindt's book because it's so very much more than that. Kindt weaves a collage of story styles and story lines together and embroiders them with thoughtful discussions of art and crime and theft and ownership and causality. Brilliant work.

20th/21st Century Boys is a sprawling, complicated work. It’s all over the place. Its plot spans from the Apollo moon landing of 1969 to the near-future of 2018. Its narrative bounces back and forth between a robust and ever-expanding cast of characters—even while skipping all over its own historical scope, sometimes through flashback and sometimes through a particular sci-fi conceit. Yet through it all, Urasawa never abandons his exploration of Today having been built on the bones of Yesterday.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

 

Stephen Collins' graphic novel was a surprise for me. I knew it would be good because everybody everywhere was saying it was good. But I tend not to trust many people. It's why I don't think democracy can ever work. But, because I'm weak and hype is hype, I gave it a shot anyway. Even though it's not even yet available in the US (what gives Jonathan Cape? don't forsake the Colonies!).

I haven't reviewed this yet because the world is unjust and unfair. But I will. Because The Beard deserves to be talked about and at length. It's very good. Immaculately conceived and tremendously built. It even has a bit of a moral, if you go in for that sort of thing.

Beguiling in its simplicity, Yang's circa-1900 exploration of how history exists only in the eyes of the individual is intricate in the interplay of its oppositional narratives. Using careful choice in colour and narrative voice, Boxers & Saints presents a lovely opportunity for reader to immerse themselves in others' shoes. From my review:

Yang has intentionally created a work designed to interact with our sense of self by pushing us to understand the human story from multiple vantage points. We are ourselves. Simultaneously, we become Vibiana, who struggles to find balance between her heritage in a nation that despises her and a new heritage that proposes she sacrifice everything for the good of a new and heavenly nation. Simultaneously, we become Little Bao, who sees Christians and their foreignness as a very real threat to the goodness and sanctity of Chinese life. Simultaneously, we become Father Bey, a hardened priest whose frustration with the besetting sins of all who surround him drive him to feel betrayal at every turn. Simultaneously, we become Mei-wen, a woman who straddles the line between warrior-maiden and goddess of mercy and compassion. We are made victims and victors and victims again. Yang offers us a wealth of opportunities to see through eyes unclouded by hate. In a vision, the crucified Christ admonishes Vibiana to be mindful of others as he is of her. By proposing so many windows into so many souls, Yang fulfills his own Lord’s will somewhat, giving the reader the chance to inhabit the souls of others and learn to be mindful of them—a practice run for carrying the conviction into real life.

The Property weaves its several stories together beautifully, with each meandering freely into another. The project might be ambitious but it’s accomplished so gracefully that one might easily forget that Modan has fabricated her tale. The Property bears none of the contrived earmarks of the common complicatedly plotted narrative and instead reads as a series of events that actually happened—in that meandering sort of molasses that moves and spins the real world.

Loisel, in a feat of imagination, prepares a vicious, voluptuous, and volatile prequel to J.M. Barrie's famous story. This is Peter before the Darlings—and sometimes, Peter before even Neverland. It's brutal and lovely and well-drawn.

Peter Pan is a book of fervent imaginations and the darkest of doings. It won through my skepticism with astonishing ease. The book is wonderful and horrible and I cannot imagine a more perfect prequel to Barrie’s mythology.

Okazaki's evisceration of fashion- and body-marketing is as relevant today as it was in the '90s when she first penned this work. We are fortunate that Vertical decided to publish two of the author's works this last year. Funny, insightful, cruel.

Helter Skelter is a hard book, one that confronts the various cowardices that consumers in our cultures nurture and enjoy. It’s about the life and death of souls and how these two things co-mingle within us as we play heroes and villains by the things we buy, the people we laud, the shows we watch, and the clothes we wear. Helter Skelter is an older work, but smart enough that it will likely feel contemporary even forty years from now.

Sandcastle is one more opportunity to prompt our thoughts toward consideration of our mortality and if there can be any meaning in it. These parables surround us, whether in Shelley in junior high or in the kingdoms we build as children in the sand, but we are—as a species or as a culture—so prone to forgetfulness and distraction that reminders, even obvious ones, can be welcome. Even for those who believe they know about life and death and afterlife and afterdeath, the privilege to reconsider the limits we’re born with is a gift that should not be squandered or abdicated. We are already, as a people, so very arrogant. Why not take the opportunity to take on the humiliation of mystery?

It’s the details that spark Mr. Wuffles! into the stellarsphere of life beyond mere children’s book or mere graphic novel. This story, for all its brevity, is one of the best efforts in the form I’ve seen this year. Wiesner’s depictions of the cat are superb, rendering the feline with a ravenous fluidity and dangerous agitation. Under his pen, Mr. Wuffles becomes every bit the wild animal that George Clooney’s Mr. Fox longed to be but ultimately found himself unequipped to embrace. Wiesner’s panel-by-panel storytelling is accomplished as well. He dances between splash pages and smaller, more intimate investigations. In my memory, the whole book resembled Walt Simonson’s cataclysmic chapter of The Mighty Thor in which Thor battles the Midgard Serpent. In my recollection, Mr. Wuffles! was a bombastic collection of full-page spreads fraught with a dynamism unseen in children’s picture literature. But returning to the book in preparation for this review, I found that Wiesner balances those more dramatic pages with sections of panelwork in which much of the story unfolds. These are filled with detail and will be delicious to the careful reader. Wiesner is a stunning creator.

Brubaker’s path in this book, while inherently religious, is more thoughtful and more considerate and more enjoyable and hits less like the eighteen-wheeler of belligerent proselytizing than TenNapel’s. ReMIND's characters have no direct encounter with the divine. No vision. No dream. No voice in the midst of fire or storm. Their Invisible remains invisible and if they continue to believe, they do so out of faith, out of a hope in things not seen. And because of this, I found that I could enjoy Brubaker’s story for what it was rather than have to stop and think about what I thought about how much I agreed or disagreed with his characters’ personal ideologies.

Nakamura juggles back and forth between events at will—so much so that neophyte readers might be wholly left in the dark. There is a complexity to her non-linearity that you might not notice ‘til you’re knee-deep in its morass. Nakamura will bounce between two or three or four events happening roughly simultaneously and then throw in a couple pockets from two weeks or two months or two years ago. It’s a ton of fun if you’re up to it. Mind-bogglingly challenging if you’re not.

What surprised me about the book is that its story is really pretty mundane. Outside of all the narrative tricks, nothing is quite as diabolical as it seems. In fact, it may even be that Nakamura was so interested in creating a meditation on the existential part of any novel’s author that she masked it in genre tropes so people would ingest something probably outside their usual range of reading. Utsubora feels sexy and dangerous, but it’s really just a discussion of the nature of authorship.

[note: I don't know why but I for some reason I thought A Taste of Chlorine was a 2013 release. It's not and this ruins EVERYTHING. I might as well slip Barefoot Serpent in at #9 and Cross Game in at #6. I am a failure.]

Vivès has created a story that feels as if it's told from underwater. It's a slowed, obscured, refractory exploration of a protagonist who is drawn into the kind of minor obsession that so many of us fall in and out of. Chlorine is ingeniously drawn and coloured. Vivès is a major talent.

Knisley's work is bright, colourful, humourous, and (best of all) exuberant. The joy she evidently takes in the act of tasting is translated almost perfectly11I only say almost to leave her room for improvement—even though I can’t imagine in which direction she could improve. through both her narrative choices and the manner of her execution. Her characters are lively and their expressions telling. She narrates her story with a confident voice and as much as she talks about food, good food, and even gourmet food, Knisley never approaches that smug condescension that has become the signature delight of the foodie crowd.

I’m not sure that Stewart or his characters would be entirely comfortable with my reading of Sin Titulo, but it’s the story within his story that affected me—the story of several characters trying to build realities in which they won’t be sickened by themselves and their weaknesses. A story that somewhat exists as pedagogy, a nudge to the reader toward an existence in which the stories we create for our lives eliminate our weakest selves and one in which our histories are not our fault.

It’s a neat trick Stewart devises and it’s well told. I’m not sure how ultimately convincing it is, but I’m also not sure it’s intended to be that kind of a tract. Rather, Stewart leaves breadcrumbs to discussions that will be had outside his work—discussions in critical forums, bookclubs, classrooms, and in the space that exists between spouses and their conversation while driving to dinner on a Sunday evening. Sin Titulo, actually, is almost the perfect bookclub novel. Under two hundred pages, sitting squarely in the John-Warner-coined genre of the white, male fuck-up novel, and fraught and teeming with those kinds of interpretive hooks that lead to high anxiety frenzy and argument in the better bookclubs that dot the national landscape. It’s a book about social anxiety, severed relationships, love and its absence, second chances, and the means to constructing a life that will be, at last, worthwhile and whole. Stewart’s built something rather beautiful (for all its ugly bits) and even if I’m reading it entirely wrongly, I’m happy to be a part of the mythos that it develops.

Hisae's series about a window-washer in near-Earth orbit finally wrapped in 2013, clocking in at seven volumes. It's a wonderful series that absents itself of all pretensions, simply presenting a warm-hearted, optimistic tale of how a boy made charming wholly on the strength of his determination to do a job well could interact with his severely broken society for its ultimate good. Saturn Apartments is rather a call-to-arms for sincerity, diligence, and dreams—yet it never felt (to me at least) naive or didactic. One of my favourite small books over the past several years.

As exciting as Crater XV is as an adventure story and as warming as it is as a source of humour, my favourite part of Cannon’s sequel is its human aspect. Ultimately, this is what sold me so strongly on Far Arden as well. Readers more interested in a comedic adventure won’t be required to think so hard at all and will simply be able to bask in the unadulterated mallemaroking. But for those of sterner stuff, those who crave the adventure of the human spirit and all the woes that adventure requires, Crater XV will provide ample fodder for meditation.

Genius is a trim book and an easy read, but it tussles with concepts that lend their own formidable weight to the whole enterprise. The questions of ethics, will, determinism, responsibility, and sacrifice form the bedrock of (if not all then many) introductory philosophy courses—because, after all, these are the questions that plague our human existence. Their answers (and even more: the demurring to answer) have ranging effects in the personal, familial, and community spheres. Seagle and Kristiansen avoid specifics for the most part but do suggest an angle of descent for approaching broadly the ethics of circumstance. It’s likely that the creative team’s purpose was more to provoke the question in their readers than it was to propose a solution—and so far as this is their goal, I believe most will find their book a success. They leave plenty of room for discussion, neither making Ted a paragon nor a villain for his final solution. I imagine that every book club to discuss Genius will ask in some form or another the question, “What would you have done in Ted’s place?” A kind of Sophie’s choice gimme of a question that is nonetheless appropriate for all its cliched guise of introspection.

Hawaii 1997 by Sam Alden

Sam Alden put forth a number of pretty fantastic and creative works in 2013. Notable, to me at least, were Backyard and The Worm Troll—both tremendous early works. While Backyard might be the most visually stunning and The Worm Troll the most ingenious, it was Hawaii 1997 that most interacted with my heart, with my nostalgia for the struggles and adventures that a much younger me experienced.

Honestly, the book took me a bit by surprise. It took a couple pages for me to adjust to the looseness of Alden's art here. After a few moments though, I fell into the piece. Then, in the book’s climax, there was a line spoken and it made me sit back and think: Daaaaaaaaaamn. It was one of those surrealistic moments that actually rings more true than most actual experiences we have. It was something I could get behind, something I could relate to, something I could taste. It was perfect.

As a primer on the work of Goodall, Fossey, and Galidikas, Primates is perhaps a wild success. The reader is given a fair assessment of both the content of their work and a glimpse into its importance. The act of reading is almost wholly without challenge and is even invigourating; through the different narrative voices Ottaviani uses for each of the women (and briefly for Leaky as well) I found myself happily drawn into their own recollections of their work. For the neophyte in whom this book sparks interest, an initial list of resources for further studies is provided. A beautiful work, Wicks' art sings.

Top 15 Ongoing Series

There are not many books that I will recommend as strenuously as I will Summit of the Gods. No really. You need to read this. You need to read this so badly that I will shake you like you’re not supposed to shake a baby if you don’t read this. I don’t care that that probably doesn’t make any sense because it still makes more sense than you not reading Summit of the Gods. I’m serious: read Summit of the Gods. Things will be shaken otherwise.

Kindt builds figures with extranormal gifts that lurch from the page with their mystery and motives. He probably thinks very hard about what these characters’ powers would mean to the lives of those who wield them, but none of that effort comes through as effort. It just reads as seamless, off-handed, perfect world-building. I am incredibly impressed.

And I’m incredibly heartbroken that I jumped onto this series as early as I did. The idea that I will have to wait eight months or more between volumes destroys me. Because this is a series that I will want to own every piece of. And it’s one that I will undoubtedly read from start to finish again every time a new volume releases.

Really, and I mean it, this book is gorgeous and contains a story that is both a kind of lived-in-comfortable as well as sparkling with an intelligence and verve we don’t often see in books of this ilk. I don’t have a whole lot of respect for fantasy (because it doesn’t generally respect its readers) and so when I speak highly here of Ruth’s work, you can be certain that I really do think highly of it. In Ruth's art, we find a masterful, confident creator whose ink-and-wash combination (whether digitally or traditionally achieved) is a visual wonder. In some ways, the work resembles the real-world segments of The Nao of Brown. While dynamic, Ruth’s illustrations are firmly grounded in a realism that lends the book a gravity for which a more cartoony artist would have to compensate by using other techniques (probably relying too heavily on the writing and dialogue). By proposing realistic crickets and owls and trees and humans, Ruth raises the stakes of his story, allowing us to more easily imagine its events occurring in some suburban neighbourhood within twenty miles of where we sit while reading his book. An envigourating work.

Stan Sakai's work has continued as a standard of excellence in comics production for years now. The series definitely has high points (e.g. "Grasscutter"), but it is never bad and never okay. His latest collection, vol. 27 ("") is another high point, offering new readers the most perfect jumping on point imaginable. The volume contains no recurring side characters (save for a one-page cameo by Jei) but focuses on what makes Usagi a compelling character. Sakai revisits the Fistful of Dollars/Yojimbo concept, which might have felt tired (as he's done it before), but he does it with enough invention that it feels fresh and exciting the whole way through. I highly recommend this volume of the rabbit ronin's continued journey along the Way of the Samurai.

While I by a small amount prefer Nate Powell's other investigation of the American Civil Rights era, The Silence of Our Friends, this book focusing on Rep John Lewis holds its own focuses and fascinations. At it may turn out that March the series becomes in the greater work. In either case, both books are completely worthwhile.

For all their beautiful visual moments and nostalgic pastoral landscapes, both the first two Hilda books can be a little heavy on text. In The Bird Parade, Hilda still has plenty to say, but it somehow gets less in the way of her explorations and doesn’t hinder her ability to witness all kinds of fascinations. Salt-lions, rat kings, raven gods, mountain trolls from afar. Pearson keeps this book solidly within the Hilda mythos.

In a year of some fantastic books, Wandering Son continues to shine and is easily recommendable. It can be a handy introduction to a different kind of experience for those who come from generations with more ossified social beliefs (such as my own generation); and it can function as a great segue for parents to begin discussing social/sexual issues with their children. Complex moral structures treated with humanity and care is one of my favourite hallmarks of good literature—and in case you hadn’t guessed, I’d happily deposit Wandering Son in the category of Good Comics Literature. Because it's more and better than mere moral education—it's straight-up good storytelling. And if someone should learn something along the way? Well, then, what of it?

Knights of Sidonia is consistently one of the books I most look forward to. Fortunately it's on a pretty hot release schedule, coming out (I think) every other month. The science fiction is intelligent, the characters winning, and the development of plot fascinating. I can't wait to see where this one is going.

While Prophet's art is fun and kind of wonderful and the book’s narration is a terse punctuation on its interesting plot development, Graham’s greatest asset is imagination. In terms of sheer creative dynamism, Prophet is revelatory to me. In a sense, it sends me back to the freshness of my childhood. When Tim Boo Ba’s fate was mind-bendingly fresh. When I opened UFO Flying Saucers #8 to have my paradigm shift. Graham’s Prophet unveils a world that I couldn’t imagine on my own. Maybe I could have conjured one or two or three of the wild things that make up his John Prophet’s universe, but this is hundreds of things. Hundreds of things that make me feel young again.

I have no idea where this book is going. Right at the start of vol 7, Oshimi completely changes the book and where it finds its focus. It was a welcome, abrupt shift in sensibilities. One wonders if he has lost the chain of his narrative purpose, but Flowers continues to fascinate and may actually be better than ever.

Bad Machinery surprised me. A friend referenced a page on Twitter and I happened to follow the link and said, “Hey, that looks fun.” She said something along the lines of “Holy smokes, yes!” (I’m making things up at this point.) And then she said what I love to hear about anything I’m about to consume: “I envy you.” She was right to say so and I will envy anyone else their virgin experience with the series. That frantic, flustered thirst to plow through the available material as quickly as possible. The laughs, the introduction to Allison’s amusing blend of the wit and wordplay of the best comments from Imgur or Reddit or Twitter or whichever shortform social platform you may prefer. I can’t wait for you to read this. Not so that we can talk about it, you and me—simply because I’m pretty sure you’ll have a grand old time even as I did.

Yoshinaga continues to make 18th century Japan one of the most interesting time periods in history with her Y: The Last Man-style plague that turns Japan into a nation rules by women. Volume 8 started off rather less impressive than some earlier episodes (featuring a weak shogun will do that), but then she slips in several chapters on food preparation (which you can tell she loves) and introduces several new characters associated with Nagasaki and the Dutch traders. Things are picking up!

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe by David Petersen

 

David Petersen keeps on trucking with his mice warriors. The Black Axe bumps back significantly in time and I was concerned that a new cast would steal steam from the stories of Saxon, Kenzie, and Lieam but this was solid with some splendid moments. Learning the mythos of the Black Axe makes Lieam's choices much more pregnant with significance.

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Matt Hollingswort

 

Hawkeye is a bit of a struggle for me. It's a book that wants to be higher than #14. It wants to be a lot higher. And if the writing was anywhere near the ballpark in which David Aja's art plays, this would be one of the best books of all time. Unfortunately, Fraction's writing is rarely commensurate. There are moments, especially several written between Kate and Clint that are solid and might even approach good, but these are too often swamped by entire chapters of verbal cliche and tedium. Aja's phenomenal illustration and design elevates Hawkeye to a level at which it is worthy of consideration—but it can only lift the book so high. And that makes me sad.

Several years ago, Kaoru Mori established her series about young brides in the 19th century Caspian region as one of the best, most interesting series available. The book is still very good, but the last couple years of story focus have just not been quite so arresting as what we might consider the principal storyline. Amir and Karluk's 20/12 old-bride-young-groom narrative is so strongly conceived that every time Mori tears away to focus on another couple, another custom, the reader feels the loss. 2013's vol. 5 completes the two-volume focus on the young twin brides and signals a hopeful return to Amir and reminds us why the character is interesting. Looking forward to next year's release.


Now that you're done and angry that I didn't include such-and-so work, let's look at what I did read that didn't make the list. Maybe your favourite book isn't even on that list? Like Saga! I haven't touched the book, so don't be so upset. Yet.

[note: I actually probably read more than these. These are just the ones that I can bring to mind right now.]

Alison and Her Rainy Day Robot
BPRD
The Backyard
Bandette
Battling Boy
The Black Well
Blue Is the Warmest Color
A Boy and a Girl
Curses Foiled Again
Delilah Dirk
Domovoi
Doom Carousel
Fairy Tale Comics
Great Moments in Western Civilization
Heck
The Index
In the Kitchen with Alain Passard
In the Sounds of the Sea
Jeremiah
Leeroy and Popo
Limit
A Matter of Life
Negima
Nemo: Heart of Ice
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong
Panorama Island Pony Tale
Snapdragon Queen
Spera
Summer Wars
Super Hero Girl
Templar
Thermae Romae
UQ Holder
Unknown Origins and Untimely Ends
Very Casual
The Worm Troll
Yotsuba&!

Some of these I loved. Like loved, loved. Some were very hard to keep off the list. Like Bandette and Delilah Dirk and Superhero Girl and Great Moments of Western Civilization. Others were very popular in some quarters but just didn't scratch my graphic lit itch. Battling Boy might grow into a fine series, but it felt a bumpy, unfulfilling start. Lots of potential, but a bit slight. Very Casual didn't resonate with me almost at all. I liked "Spotting Deer" but was otherwise nonplussed. I couldn't finish This Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life. I found the teen protagonist repugnant, pretentious, and dumb. I was too aggravated by her reckless selfishness to become involved in her story. Which could have been amazing. I just couldn't get there.

So I guess that's it for this year. There's plenty on these two lists to fill up a wish list if you're looking for your next book or series to pick up. And 2014 is already showing a lot of promise, so get out there and read something amazing!

 

Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:

3 Stars = Good
2 Stars = Ok
1 Star = Bad

I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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