Hasslein Blog: Matthew Sunrich Presents... The Best Comics of 2013


Hasslein Blog

Friday, December 6, 2013

Matthew Sunrich Presents... The Best Comics of 2013

By Matthew Sunrich

2013 was a good year for comics.

After several years of missteps, I feel like the industry has finally found solid footing again.

I must admit that I don't read a lot of new superhero books anymore. In general, I prefer the way they were handled during the Bronze Age (1970-1983). I certainly do appreciate many of the techniques used by modern writers, but for most of the "aughts" it seemed as though there was too much effort put toward "undoing" the myriad indiscretions of the '90s, and writers wound up overcompensating, making their attempts at relevancy (do comics really need to be relevant?) seem forced and ham-fisted.

While DC was initially lauded for its decision to reboot its entire line two years ago, many pundits and fans have ultimately decided that, for the most part, the new books just aren't up to snuff. The only titles from the New 52 line that I was reading were Sword of Sorcery and Demon Knights (both decidedly more fantasy than superhero), and they were both canceled as of issue 8 and 23, respectively. These editorial decisions do not detract much from my appraisal of the year as a whole, however, as the series in question were enjoyable but hardly indispensable. Had Red Sonja been canceled, on the other hand, it would've ruined everything (it was rebooted, but I'm okay with that because the new series is excellent).

I have been enjoying Wolverine and Indestuctible Hulk, two new titles featuring old characters (inextricably linked, perhaps, by the fact that the former debuted in the latter's book almost forty years ago) that comprise part of Marvel Now, the initiative started in late 2012 as an answer to DC's ballyhooed reboot. Mark Waid's decision to make Bruce Banner/the Hulk an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (the former for his vast intellect, the latter for his penchant for destruction) has proven to be a good one, and the new book has, thus far, featured some of the best Hulk stories in years. I have to confess that I'm primarily only reading Wolverine because Alan Davis is drawing it, as my fandom for Wolverine has waned in the last twenty years, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a worthwhile book.

Okay, so here are my picks for 2013's best comics:

Jirni (Aspen)

Not to speak ill of the dead or anything, but I was never a fan of Michael "Fathom" Turner's work. Nevertheless, he founded his own comic company in 2003, and for this I thank him because this is the company that ultimately gave us Jirni.

Writer J.T. Krul describes the book as a "love letter to all things fantasy—Lord of the Rings, Conan, Flash Gordon, Dungeons and Dragons, the Dark Tower series, and basically anything Frank Frazetta ever created." When I saw the first issue in Previews, I knew instantly that it was going to be something I'd like.

Ara is a mysterious warrior woman who is searching for her kidnapped mother, and she's not afraid to hack off a few limbs on her way. At times, she appears human, but with a thought she can transform into a larger, fiercer version of herself with purple skin. It doesn't become clear until a couple of issues in what this is all about (though there are hints), so I won't spoil it for you.

The best way I can describe it is Red Sonja meets She-Hulk with a healthy dose of Middle-Eastern mythology mixed in.

The artwork, by Paolo Pantalena, is absolutely stunning. I've never encountered anything quite like it. Highly stylized and ornate, it brings Ara's world to full realization. I frequently paused in my reading just to admire the images.

The only thing that disappointed me is that it was only five issues. Thankfully, a second series with the same creative team is planned for 2014.

Helheim (Oni Press)

Writer Cullen Bunn and artist Joelle Jones gave us perhaps the most unusual series of the year with Helheim.

Imagine an engrossing tale mixing Norse mythology with Frankenstein and you'll get the general idea of what's going on here. Demons and the undead abound as two witches build horrific armies to battle each other, and no one is safe.

A fallen warrior reborn as a stitched-together revenant hell-bent on stopping the war at all costs? Yes, indeed.

It's intense and heartbreaking and full of all the trappings that make fantasy great. It vaguely reminded me of Game of Thrones (the "Beyond the Wall" part anyway) but with less sex and more supernatural stuff.

The artwork fits the story well, and the storytelling is very effective. It's a short series, only six issues, but it's not unlikely that there will be a sequel.

If you don't feel like tracking down the individual issues, a trade is forthcoming.

Savage Wolverine #s 6-8 (Marvel)

Joe Madureira is the McRib of comics. He shows up unexpectedly, makes people really happy, and then disappears again for no apparent reason. The primary difference between the two is that Madureira is actually good. Really good, in fact. As far as I'm concerned, he's one of the most skilled artists in comics today. In an ocean of work by American illustrators who have been influenced by manga, his superior draftsmanship stands out like a giant squid. (Sorry about that.) He's also—by his own admission—undisciplined. He never finished Battle Chasers, the groundbreaking and extremely popular "arcanepunk" series he introduced in the late '90s, deciding to design video games instead, but we've managed to forgive him somehow. Probably because he's just so good.

He reentered the world of comics via the first three issues of Avenging Spider-Man in late 2011 with a story featuring the Red Hulk (a personal favorite of mine). Everyone assumed that he'd be the regular artist, but, true to form, he vanished after that initial arc. We were told that he was working on a story featuring Wolverine and Elektra, but when that story was going to see the light of day was anyone's guess. (I thought it would be released as a graphic novel.) Almost two years later, we finally got it in three issues of Savage Wolverine.

What do these issues give us? Amongst other things, the Kingpin, ninjas, a resurrected corpse, and a creepy little girl in a kimono and kabuki mask. It's dark, weird, violent, and just plain awesome. Zeb Wells spins a yarn that effectively blends the feel of classic Marvel with modern sensibilities. It's so satisfying to find someone in the industry who understands what superhero comics are supposed to be like.

And Madureira's art looks better than ever.

Incidentally, a hardcover collecting both the Avenging Spider-Man issues and this run should be out by the time you read this.

King Conan: Hour of the Dragon (Dark Horse)

Robert E. Howard, master of the pulp short story, only wrote one full-length Conan novel during his all-too-brief lifetime, but it's one of the best stories in the Cimmerian's canon of adventures. It's so good, in fact, that it's known by two titles: The Hour of the Dragon and Conan the Conqueror.

Dark Horse has been doing great things with Conan since acquiring the license, and this series may be the best yet. Rather than trying to adapt the entire novel in one go, the creative team of Timothy Truman (script) and Tomas Giorello (art) decided to split it into two six-issue miniseries, each bearing one of the two titles.

The story operates within the framework of an aged Conan, now king of Aquilonia, relating the tale of how he met his wife, Zenobia.

To summarize, a three-thousand-year-old Stygian wizard has been resurrected by three power-hungry villains using an ancient magical object, and Conan, deposed from his recently-won throne thanks to the wizard's sorcery, must destroy the selfsame object, the so-called Heart of Ahriman, in order to defeat him.

One of only two women that he ever truly loved (the other being Belit), Zenobia, a harem girl, frees him from the dungeons of his usurper's co-conspirator, leads him out of the fortress, and provides him with a weapon and mount, giving him a means to win his kingdom back. Before leaving, he swears to return for her when victory is his.

This series has everything fans have come to expect from Conan: swordplay, wizardry, monsters, treacherous blackguards, and gorgeous wenches. The main thing I really like is that we get to see the "softer side" of the typically roguish Conan here. Becoming king has awakened in him a sense of purpose greater than chopping off heads and carousing. He genuinely cares about his people and has inspired true loyalty in his officers. His love for Zenobia is also a refreshing change, as he is usually only interested in women for their talents in the sack.

I absolutely love the artwork on this series. It has become fairly common in recent years for pencils to not even be inked; the colorist just works from the pencils. Such is the case here. I like this technique because it gives the art a softer look and provides the illustrators with an opportunity to really display their talents.

The second series begins in February.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home