In any given year, most of the buzz tends to be with ongoing superhero titles from the Big Two publishers, or at least books like The Walking Dead and Batman which have years of history to fall back on. And it's for this reason, combined with the fact that last year the Eisner Awards snubbed new titles, that we wanted to take some time out to laud our favorite launches of the year. There are, ironically enough, some mainstream superhero titles on here but we made some rules that kept most Marvel NOW! off the list. That isn't because All-New X-Men, FF and Deadpool aren't off to great starts, but it's because they've been around for two months. To recognize all the great work going on in comics this year, we've decided that the Marvel NOW! titles will be eligible for discussion next year, while this year we're sticking to a standard that any given comic has to have at least finished its first story arc to make the list. These are also all ongoing series; we'll have a separate discussion later for limited series and storylines, but the point here is to say, "What's a terrific book I can put on my pull list, with a minimum of background needed to get me into it?" And here are our answers; if we forgot yours, let us know in the comments.
The Massive Brian Wood's environmental disaster story brings a real-world feel to post-apocalyptic drama and does so through compelling characters and great visual storytelling by artists Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown and company. This book has the potential to be Wood's Y: The Last Man; it's a work of indisputable brilliance that takes a creator everyone should already have been reading and vaults him onto the radar of anyone who might have missed him by embracing popular storytelling devices for just long enough to show you he's not going to do what you thought. It's also an interesting approach to a creator-run title, taking the Sandman model of one writer handing off the book to different artists for different arcs in order to keep the overall story moving...but the list of names who would like to work with Wood is nothing to scoff at, and so far there hasn't been an issue that didn't look amazing.
Fatale When Ed Brubaker announced that he was essentially done with mainstream superhero work, Fatale had already just broken big. By the time his final issues of Winter Soldier were on the shelves, the writer's Image Comics miniseries had been upgraded to ongoing and he and artist Sean Phillips had one of the biggest hits in Image's recent history. Mind you, there have been a number of those this year; Image has had just an unbelievable run in 2012. Going into five printings and becoming one of the 20 free digital comics Image offered to fans to celebrate their 20th anniversary, Fatale is a crime/noir story with roots in Lovecraftian supernatural strangeness. Not that they gave that to you right away in the text; it's a wonderfully nuanced and incredibly thoughtful book that relied on the quality of its prose and art, and the reputation of its creators, to sell the first couple of issues rather than giving away the whole game in #1, as is often so tempting when working with new concepts in comics (an art form where much of the audience thrives on the familiar and comfortable).
Captain Marvel Last year, DC Comics dominated our list of the best new titles. Why? Well, mostly because the New 52 had been impressive for the first few months and we didn't anticipate the drop-off that a lot of them would have. This year, our few mainstream superhero books are Marvel titles which, bolstered by some terrific creative talent and what at least appears to be less editorial meddling than their crosstown rivals, have the feel of their author, rather than their brand. Such is the case with Captain Marvel, a title on which Kelly Sue DeConnick has been doing great since the launch, telling stories that feel at once clever and personal while still fitting in nicely with the Marvel Universe they inhabit. DeConnick's voice is strong and clear on this title, and the art serves it perfectly, making Captain Marvel, if not the best superhero title any week it comes out, certainly the one I look the most forward to.
Dial H DC's sole representation on this list tells you one important thing: The publisher has not done an effective job following up on the success of their New 52 launch. The second and third waves of titles have been lackluster so far, with Dial H being the sole standout--it's a comic that would have been at home in mid-'90s Vertigo, back when the publisher was populated by a number of bizarre and brilliant concoctions. Writer China Mieville has crafted a surreal and wonderful title here that doesn't necessarily fit into the tapestry of the New 52, and doesn't seem to be quite as constrained by the editors as some of the others. It's almost too good to be true, and one has to wonder whether Mieville is on a limited-time contract and the book may fold when he's gone.
Hawkeye The best mainstream superhero comic on the market bar none, this comic is way better than it has any right to be. I've always been a fan of Clint Barton's character, and enjoyed the previous iteration of the series, in which he starred with Mockingbird...but that comic was fast food. It was enjoyable and easily digested, but quickly forgotten. The Matt Fraction/David Aja iteration of the story looked interesting and different from the word go and still managed to explode readers' brains. Hawkeye also has done something that not enough Big Two superhero comics do anymore--it gave us a fresh take on the lead character, their personal life and their relationship with the costumed identity. In a world where fewer and fewer writers even bother to address the characters' personal lives, it's refreshing to see those aspects of our favorite heroes mined for their story potential as well. It's something that made Marc Andreyko's Manhunter a fan favorite, and a series still remembered and beloved by many. Come to think of it, Captain Marvel does quite a few of the same things right. I bet DeConnick and Fraction would get along; someone should introduce them.
Archer & Armstrong The only guy on this list who may be a better shot than Hawkeye is Archer, one of the stars of what's arguably the only superhero comic more strange than Dial H. Fred Van Lente took on one of the most challenging gigs this year--reinventing a comic from the ground up where the original was not only a fan-favorite, but had a distinctive voice and pushed the boundaries of what fans expected from their superhero comics. It was a tall order, but he lived up to it, delivering a fun, funny comic that still manages to kick enough ass and break enough things that readers don't notice how clever it is. The artists on the series so far, Clayton Henry and Emanuela Lupacchino, have been pitch-perfect; they've served the needs of Van Lente's story, providing outrageous and bizarre visuals that both manage to fit the relatively straightforward look of Archer and Armstrong and stand on their own without having to look back and be compared to the old Barry Windsor-Smith work. That's been one of the strongest points of the Valiant relaunch--just enough, but not too much, reverence for the source material. And Archer & Armstrong stands as the best example of that mentality. Archer & Armstrong is a breath of fresh air, a hugely entertaining comic and belongs on every pull list in America.
Masks & Mobsters Monkeybrain Comics has a number of titles that could contend for this list, many of which haven't made it deep enough into the story to really be considered...but Masks & Mobsters is an absolutely brilliant book by any standard--smart, beautifully drawn, with a great high concept. As we said earlier this week, Masks & Mobsters is one of the finest comic books being published in the industry today, full stop. It's also some of the smartest superhero stuff you'll read this year. It evokes the feeling of James Robinson's The Golden Age, which is never a bad thing, but flips the tables a bit and approaches that same era and some of the same concepts in a thematically different way--darker, more like what Robinson tried and failed to do during his Batman and Justice League of America runs.
Bandette Another Monkeybrain title, and arguably the best-received of the lot, Bandette is the only comic I can think of that you can show to almost any living human and they'd be able to enjoy it. It's got interesting characters and involving plots wrapped around simple, iconic artwork with little enough graphic violence that you'd be able to show it to almost any reader without fear. Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover have created something truly special. A beautifully-conceived comic, Bandette is a series that draws more on European and animation influences than on traditional American comics (or at least appears to) and which puts those influences to great use in crafting a work that's broadly appealing. Monkeybrain's low price point should really help this comic catch on with a big audience, considering that I've never heard of anybody reading this series and failing to fall in love with it.
Saga With both Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina in his rear view mirror, few fans would have blames Brian K. Vaughan if his next work didn't live up to the massive expectations he'd built for himself. But after a short hiatus from comics, the writer returned to the medium with Saga, featuring the pitch-perfect art of Fiona Staples and seemingly destined to be the kind of book people are still talking about ten and twenty years from now. With bizarre imagery alternately culled from traditional mythology or something like Grant Morrison's Invisibles (or an LSD trip--take your pick, they're more or less the same thing), the book blends science fiction and fantasy by taking characters who look like they'd be at home in Tolkien and setting them on alien world, running up against a host of interstellar threats including a nemesis with a tube television for a head. Saga has been selling out every issue since it launched, leading to a recent conflict between Image Comics and retailers, who they said weren't ordering enough copies and were forcing the publisher to go into reprints that should have been unnecessary. Meanwhile, the second arc just kicked off, sold out and was met with rave reviews from critics and readers alike.
Prophet If someone had told you two years ago that Rob Liefeld would relaunch his Extreme Studios label at Image Comics and that just about every book in the line would be fantastic, would you have believed it? Prophet, a forgettable book from the '90s, came back by way of King City creator Brandon Graham, who came into it with little patience for the trappings of mainstream comics and a decidedly individualistic take on John Prophet. While he's come ever so slightly back into the fold in recent issues, even acknowledging the title's more traidtionally superheroic past, the strange and brilliant masterpiece of Graham's Prophet is a stand-out even among Image's many high-profile successes this year.