Top 10 Single Issues of 2013

A column article, Top Ten by: Taylor Lilley and the Comics Bulletin All-Stars

We continue our Top 10 lists for 2013 with take on the top 10 floppies of the year. Again, we're listing them in alphabetical order because 2013 was a great year for comics.

Batman Inc #8

(Grant Morrison / Chris Burnham; DC Comics)

I guess I’d really call this the most memorable issue of the year. There were other comics I enjoyed more, others that were better looking or more fun to read. But nothing stuck with me like the last moments of Damian Wayne’s short life. He went out a hero, but that he went out at all was the true crime. Morrison came up with a way to have Batman lose yet another Robin, complicated in a couple of ways. Damian was his actual flesh and blood, and Damian had always been kind of a little prick.

Well, he came off that way at first, for sure. But what happened in this issue, when Leviathan finally rose to take Gotham, as an army of drug-addled children, was the culmination of all of Morrison’s Batman tales that had begun years before, on a seemingly chance meeting when Talia introduced Batman to his secret son, and thought maybe the child could do with some Daddy-time after being raised under too much Mommy influence so far. That he was an over-privileged and precocious near-genius were not initially endearing qualities. That he saw all other Robins (and whatever they’d matured into) as second-rate imitation sons for the Bat didn’t help.

But it turned out he could back up that seeming over-confidence. That he was nearly as clever as he thought. And that, Talia was right, he did need a male influence, or more accurately the influence of heroes (like Nightwing, who ended up being Batman for months while Bruce languished; but also Red Robin, and Batgirl, and a whole Bat-Family he never knew he had). Damian, surprising himself as much as his audience, wanted to do what was right, too. And that inherent instinct for good was what Talia could never tolerate. Instead of infecting Bruce, Damian was infected by Bruce, and his better way of living in the corrupt world they all saw around them.

That strain of heroism was what got Damian killed. He just couldn’t believe his mother (to whom he had always felt quite close) would sacrifice him like a pawn in a larger war. He couldn’t believe the Batman robot cyborg monster she’d made, the Heretic, was really meant to kill him. He had no idea he was in fact another clone made from stolen genetic cells. He could never, ever view himself as replaceable. And for those of us who’d watched all of this growth occur, by the time of his last precocious and brave act in the service of his father, his friends, and Gotham; well, neither could we.

- Shawn Hill

Black Science #1

(Rick Remender / Mateo Scalera / Dean White; Image Comics)

Black Science #1 is a breathtaking thrill-ride that channels equal parts Robert E. Howard, Philip K. Dick and whatever issues Remender is trying to work out, combined with astonishing artwork by the incomparable Matteo Scalera that reminds me of some sort of mutant mixture of Frank Frazetta and Kevin O'Neill, filled with incredibly bizarre, totally strange worlds that nonetheless feel real and classical.

Everything in this book is ramped up to 11, from the opening scene onward. It's a space opera in the truest sense of the term, with glowing spacesuits and peculiar evil reptilian monsters setting the backdrop for a story filled with anger, regret and recrimination, along with a huge amount of violence, anger, the US Marine Corps motto to leave no man behind and this ineffable, irrepressible Remender trademark of infinite regrets mixed with infinite science.

It's a tremendously hyperkinetic start for what promises to be an awesome series.

- Jason Sacks

FF #9

(Matt Fraction / Joe Quinones / Laura Allred; Marvel)

It seems off, somehow, to pick one of the few issues of FF that Mike Allred didn’t pencil. After tantalising readers with one-shots of Wolverine & the X-Men and Daredevil in 2012, Marvel NOW! ushered in an Allred-flavoured 2013 with his announcement as main artist on the ongoing FF title. And yet, it was this “Pool Party” issue that really grabbed me.

Joe Quinones had a great year, moving from featured covers to interiors for both DC and Marvel, and lending his expressive, curvy style to Batman: Black and WhiteBatman 66, and FF along the way, but it was his depictions of FF’s huge cast that really stood out, perhaps giving him the most room for play. His Medusa’s sensual figure was as majestic as her fiery, prehensile mane; his She-Hulk muscular and powerful, yet feminine as Deodato and Land Barbie-traces cannot be; while his ability to animate the Moloids, the Uhari, Bentley-23 et al’s diversity was a stand-out achievement, undoubtedly assisted by Fraction’s smart characterisations.

And there’s the rest of the puzzle, Fraction’s handling of this book. Never less than solid, and occasionally sensational, this felt like the Fantastic Four book where Fraction could cavort, while in chronicling the Richards’s exploits he was hamstrung by their “First Family” status. This issue was typically smart, using the home-movie device to reveal Bentley-23’s relations with the rest of the Foundation, while also sketching in some valuable character beats (especially for the, of late, consistently underdeveloped Inhumans), laughs, and foreshadowing.

It’s typical Fraction, turning over a movie trope to a stand-out artist who can realise its visual potential, both in terms of singular focus (home movies rarely involve ensemble shots) and candid footage (nothing reveals character like a pool party), all the while keeping the grown-ups occupied with advancing the larger arc. Fraction kept the dialogue popping, just as Laura Allred did with her stand-out colours, making the panels fizz even when all she had to colour was pool water and characters in monochrome outfits. FF #9 showed that Marvel could still be formally interesting, fun, and even progressive, all for $2.99. That’s gotta be worth a Top 10 nod, right?

- Taylor Lilley

The Goon #44

(Eric Powell; Dark Horse)

Every time Eric Powell delivers a single issue, it makes me grin like a silly bastard for a couple days at least. Powell is the ultimate flair comic-maker, the cocky son of a gun who roars out of town with your cash and your favourite jacket, never calls, then shows up after-hours one night saying “Boy, have I got a story for you!”. Every issue dares you to complain about the interstice, dares you to piss and moan about that Kickstarter for the Goon movie, dares you to wipe that dirty great smile off your face and stop laughing at, say, the Spanish-language antics of El Hombre Lagarto and his special guest stars.

This time round, Powell’s reached a new peak of disdain for ongoing comics Rules. The plot involves a lusty lizard man and the disgruntled locals whose women he desires, which is to say, it’s threadbare. Most of the dialogue is song, all of it is in Spanish. The Goon (y’know, the title character) appears only as delivery system, and plot closer. And in the middle are Tom Waits and Li’l John, as bemused by the goings on as you are. There is no recap page. There is no larger arc being progressed. There is no meaning, message, or sense. There is, instead, this:

I speak no Spanish, but the moonlight, the operatically splayed claws placed over his chest (comically contrasted with his blank and goggly eyes), and the word “amor” tell me everything I need to know. For those of you interested, Google Translate renders that first balloon’s contents as “is hard for lizard man lizard loved the man just wants love and breasts”. Don’t we all? I do, but I also wish every comic was imbued with half the craft, madness, or joy Powell lavishes on every single issue of The Goon. I’ll gladly wait a year for the next one. That should be just long enough to get through the previous 43 issues, and catch my breath.

- Taylor Lilley

Hawkeye Annual #1

(Matt Fraction / Julio Pulido / Matt Hollingsworth; Marvel)

This series has established its own perfect world from the start. It has a precedent, in Fraction’s definitive take on Iron Fist, similarly teamed with the visionary David Aja. Those two know how to make street level characters cool. So Clint Barton solo was everything they were meant to do, like Danny Rand all over again, but with no money. And no magic, at least not the expected kind. The minimal covers, the cartoonish but oh so meticulous art, the wonderful choreography; it’s been as much as the Waid Daredevil a 2013 lesson in how to make comics fun without making fun of comics.

In that same spirit, Fraction and Javier Pulido had no worries that there was a second Hawkeye in Marvel, too, the wealthy female archer from Young Avengers. What better sidekick and partner in heroism for Clint than Kate Bishop? When his inconsistencies get too much for her, she takes a break to the West Coast, taking his dog with her.

Unfortunately, LA is alien territory to Kate, and she’s also made a formidable enemy already. Whitney Frost, aka Madame Masque (frequent Avengers foe), aka a mob mistress from a crime family, not someone you want to rub the wrong way. Their battle is one to the death, but it’s also a battle of wits, and Pulido makes sure it’s carried out with style. Fraction makes sure clever wordplay keeps things interesting. The whole adventure is told with a very light touch, just this side of campy, and Pulido’s charming art is just this side of cartoony. The retro style has always been great for noir, as Catwoman and her ilk have long known. It’s also great at capturing that corrupt, seedy Hollywood glamor. Best of all, it’s just the right tone for a comic where two rich bitches really get on each other’s nerves. Even if one is in way over her head. The fun is in not really knowing which one is in the most trouble.

-Shawn Hill

Infinity #4

(Jonathan Hickman, Jerome Opena, Dustin Weaver, Justin Ponsor; Marvel)

The “rebel diplomat” whom the Builders prepare to receive? Thor, Cap’s “best negotiator”. In what is arguably the 616 Thor’s best year ever (with stellar runs of Thor: God of Thunder and Journey into Mystery, a movie sequel, and the classic Simonson run reissued in softcover), it seemed fitting that he should be the envoy at this crucial moment. After all, in only the previous issue, no less an authority than the Kree Supremor had declared “We cannot win”. Even as someone who did not particularly enjoy Infinity, I admired the way that in only three issues (okay, plus a couple of Avengers books, but you get the point) Hickman managed to capture the multiple fronts on which a war is fought, and the ever changing tally of wins and losses. He built the tension to a breaking point of seemingly crushing hopelessness, setting up #4 as the issue of reversal. And what a reversal.

Events can always be counted upon to have at least one stand-out issue, such as Forever Evil #3’s Earth 2 Owlman origin and fleshing out of sub-plot, and #4 was Infinity’s outlier. Black Bolt fought Thanos, the future king (according to advance solicits foregrounding the Inhumans) versus the unstoppable marauder (Thanos having been ever-present since that post-credits scene). Cap made what looked like his last-ditch Hail Mary play. The Builders sought to land their crushing blow on the Kree homeworld, by omnicast. And into this arena strode a sombre, patient Thor, casting aside Mjolnir to kneel before a monologuing villain, seemingly accepting the defeat we could not… only for Mjolnir to return from trans-solar slingshot via the Builder’s guts, causing the Accusers to go so batshit crazy that they smashed the Kree Worldmind’s vessel open! BLAM!

If the rest of Infinity proceeded largely according to plan, with the Terrigen Bomb detonating, Thanos foiled by the son he sought to kill, and the Avengers beating back the Builders, then there was at least this issue. Classic drama, with stacked odds, cowed allies, and one God who could bring the Thunder when he had to.

- Taylor Lilley

Manhattan Projects #11

(Jonathan Hickman, Nick Pitarra, Jordie Bellaire; Image)

A lot can be said about Manhattan Projects issue 11. It was a game-changer. It gave an almost pathetically optimistic, sci-fi twist to an otherwise tragic true story. It was the tale of two friends—oddball freak geniuses that managed to inject the series with real heart. It gave us humour, humility and world-building on a grand scale. It was an issue that would become the guidebook for the future of the series. Beautifully drawn, perfectly paced and punctuated by plot twists and endless possibilities, it left me frothing at the mouth for more. It was the best book written by Jonathan Hickman this year (a year full of many, many Jonathan Hickman books). It was my favourite single issue of the year.

Here, the prolific cast of the Manhattan Projects finds itself with all of the power and none of the direction. They are the greatest minds of their era—Americans, ex-Nazis and communists alike—where do you go when you’re on top of the world? It’s the insane Oppenheimer that concocts the future plans for the group and when he announces the various projects he has in mind it leaves the reader simply in awe of what’s to come. Running alongside this story is the tale of Harry Daghlian, the irradiated skeleton and his friend Enrico Fermi. When we learn Harry’s backstory, it’s heart-breaking. When we learn Fermi’s secret, it’s my favourite cliff-hanger of the year. In a story almost completely devoid of action, Hickman proves he can create perfect character moments and build a story to grab readers for easily another year. Hickman layers secrets on top of betrayal, fits human moments with the absurd and makes us care about a skeleton in a jumpsuit, a dog in a rocket and a lonely Russian cosmonaut.  

Remember when Claremont would give the X-Men downtime and they’d all hang around and play base-ball? Hickman is having none of that. Not only is this my favourite single issue of 2013, it’s my favourite downtime, set-up issue of all time. With issue 11, Manhattan Projects became more than a series intent on turning the greatest minds of the post-WW2 era into complex monstrosities. It became a series with endless possibilities.

-Chris Wunderlich

The Massive #11

(Brian Wood, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire; Dark Horse)

In and amongst the fragmenting relationships, conflicted loyalties, and earnest wilfulness of The Massive, Brian Wood actually did some cool stuff in 2013. By which I mean, he didn’t just do decompressed socio-enviro-political intrigue with moody art by great mood artists (though there was plenty of that). He also busted out this issue, “Megalodon”, playing off the multi-dimensional space Sharks occupy in our thinkspace, as predators, pre-historic relics, black-eyed soulless nightmares, or simply mysteries yet to be fathomed. Back in The Massive’s initial DHP shorts, Wood focused on a global convergence of cataclysmic natural disasters that had galvanised the Ninth Wave’s diverse constituents into action. The series itself, however, largely dealt with the post-cataclysm world, the systems and societies it had given rise to, and the power games mankind played across Earth’s ravaged face. With #11, however, Wood turned away from the havoc that Nature had wrought, back to Nature herself.

Declan Shalvey was an interesting choice to pencil this issue, a less predictable one than Jordie Bellaire on colours, for while Bellaire spent 2013 demonstrating range and seemingly limitless capacity for work, Shalvey’s 2013 will likely be best remembered for his work on two full-mask anti-heroes, Deadpool and Venom (a third is due in March, when he’ll draw Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight). Hardly obvious preparation for a shark-centric comic. Yet Shalvey changed lanes and delivered better-than-Discovery-Channel submarine majesty (assisted by Bellaire’s delicious palette), on pages like this:

Some of the most priceless moments in comics occur when artists remind their audience that they are artists first, comic book artists second. Message received, Declan, loud and clear.

Everyone involved in this comic stepped out of their 2013 groove to deliver something offbeat and beautiful, something that should be celebrated as an example of how comics can work with reality, creating imaginary worlds between the factual precipices on which we live.

-Taylor Lilley

Secret Avengers #2

(Nick Spencer, Luke Ross, Matthew Wilson; Marvel)

Here's the challenge of Big Two comics: take very familiar characters, ideas buttressed by years of history, and create new stories without damaging the appeal and sanctity of these fan-adored figures. To me, that's the main strength of Secret Avengers, it uses some of the oldest concepts in Marvel history and repackages them in an extremely dynamic and exciting way.

We comic fans are skeptics and just like many of you I scoffed at a title that seemed stocked with Avenger movie pastiches. I assumed the existence of the title simply served to cash-in on the franchise's explosion, but then I actually read the first two issues and came to an informed decision.

Secret Avengers #2 blew me away for a lot of reasons. Nick Spencer's super tight script doesn't fritter or meander much, and even though there are lots of moments that serve a grander plot it also impresses and delights in the immediate. 

The tech noir look developed by artist Luke Ross and colorist Matthew Wilson adds volumes to the ominous espionage feel that Spencer looks to capture. Secret Avengers is a book where the good guys participate in brainwashing and bureaucratic manipulation. In efforts to build their own Avengers team, but unwilling to trust outsourced help like Hawkeye and Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D has employed a tactic that renders their agents amnesic. This sets up a constant narrative device that can flip the tables on the reader at any time, and this tool leads to a shocker ending that does just that.

Still though, when it comes down it, behind the facade of a critic and intellectual, I'm still just reading comics for the cool bad guys, and this issue was brimming with juicy antagonists on every page. First there's Bagalia, a nation of criminals run by criminals, and of course one of the best characters in Marvel's roster, Taskmaster, but the real joy of Secret Avengers #2? The new look A.I.M and their High Council of science-based super villains.

Yes, those bubbling beekeeper-suited scientists, a group that devolved into target practice and punch lines, have become a formidable force in the MU once again. The creative team approached the organization pragmatically, making A.I.M into a savvy mass of kamikaze researchers and ruthless diplomats.

It took one issue for A.I.M to go from joke to menace, and when I think back on 2013 I couldn't get this floppy out of my head, it was just that good.

- Jamil Scalese


Velvet #1

(Ed Brubaker / Steve Epting / Elizabeth Breitwiser / Chris Eliopoulos; Image Comics

A good comics first issue has a few things on its agenda: introduce the main characters, make us care about them, get readers to care about the character's life, maybe do some misdirection along the way, provide us with some action and leave us anxious for the next issue. Velvet does all that in spades. Velvet is a thrilling and fun mix of Bond pastiche, retro '70s nostalgia, globe-trotting adventures, and more secrets than you can shake (not stir) a martini at.

When a comic like this begins with the murder of a James Bond lookalike in bloody, gory detail and then quickly flashes to a beautiful middle-aged woman woken from bed with news of the murder, you know that something interesting is afoot, that Brubaker and Epting are making a specific point about the real themes of this book. "Watch out, you lovers of iconic sterotypes," they seem to say, "we're about to turn them on their head and make you love it."

As the story develops, all told in a gorgeously understated air of mystery and a delicious eye for detail by Epting, we begin to learn the secrets of ARC-7, the secretive spy agency to end all secretive spy agencies, an organization that seems to come out of movie cliché central only to be undercut by small, smart touches that complement and add to the agency in wonderfully clever ways. Who couldn't want to come back for more of the suspense and intrigue of such a wondeful comic book?
- Jason Sacks

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