A year ago, as 2013 was starting, DC was still riding on the successes of the New 52, although the steam was starting to sputter, and the creativity that had been evident during its launch was starting to get scarce. On the other hand, Marvel, who had spent years heading in a direction I just wasn’t at all interested in, was starting to show some promise with their Marvel Now campaign, their answer to DC’s New 52. Who would know that in just one year, as 2014 is kicking off, I would have made such a radical shift, jettisoning many of my DC titles, and feeling lackluster about the ones I’m keeping, and embracing so many new Marvel titles… or at least enjoying the new directions that they are headed in. I’m somewhat unique when it comes to comic readers, I think. I’m largely interested in super-heroines, and as a gay man, I’ve been enjoying the growing number of gay characters that have been popping up in comics. Overall, I would give DC higher marks when it comes to their treatment of women and gays in comics. That all seemed to change during 2013, when Marvel really started putting their money where their mouth is, and showcasing female characters in a really big way, putting marketing muscle behind them, and really starting to address some of the criticisms that have been dogging them: namely that they were a old, white boys club. 2013 showed them really trying new things, and 2014 looks to be continuing the trend.
High Point of 2013
2013 saw the bulk of the short run that I have to mark as one of the best comic arcs I have ever enjoyed. That was Marvel’s Journey Into Mystery, featuring Sif, written by Kathryn Immonen with art by Valerio Schiti. Wow. I remember reading an interview with Immonen before the series launched, and she talked about giving Sif some fun, sprawling adventures, filled with brawls, revelry, bad behavior, and just plain old fun. She succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. From Asgardian berserkers, to fighting back to back with Spider-Man in Manhattan, to cosmic, space adventure, Immonen wrote Sif as the consummate warrior who fit in everywhere. It was truly the most fully realized the character has ever been. Completely defined on her own, and not as Thor’s boyfriend, or Beta Ray Bill’s boyfriend, but as a warrior, as a goddess, ad a friend, and as a super-heroine. Valerio Schiti brought Sif to life with his pencils that combined a goddess’ beauty, with the true strength of a warrior. I never doubted that Sif couldn’t do all the mighty thinks she did, and she was beautiful while she did it. And did I mention the gorgeous cover art by Jeff Dekal? Blew me away every month. But it was too good to be true, and I knew it wouldn’t last. Still we had 10 fantastic issues to enjoy – and it was a real longshot to begin with. I am so happy to have had such a joy to read for ten months running.
Other Shining Moments
The only thing better than Neil Gaiman returning to his most well-known work, The Sandman, would be having return with someone like J. H. Williams III handling the artwork. Well, that is just what Vertigo did, and the result is spectacular. Only a single issue has been published thus far and already the results are out of this world… literally. Neil is crafting the story that serves as a prequel of sorts to his groundbreaking series. What were the events that led to Morpheus’ decades-long captivity in issue #1 of The Sandman comic? Overture will reveal this story over the course of several bi-monthly issues. Neil’s return is fresh and welcoming. It feels both comfortable, a soft, enveloping afghan to curl up in on a snowy night, and revitalized and energized. And other than Dave McKean, was there ever an artist more suited to visualizing the tales of the Dream-King than J.H. Williams III? He gave us hints of this type of work in Promethea, matured to the superstar comic artist he is today with Batwoman and now turns his formidable talents to such a classic character whose visuals have been chronicled by a series of great artists. In 2013, this is the one thing DC really did right.
The third comics high point in 2013 has a connection with the first. Prior to Sif taking over the spotlight in Journey Into Mystery, Kieron Gillen had a very successful run on the title featuring Sif’s fellow Asgardian, Kid Loki. In 2013, Gillen brought Kid Loki along for the ride when he launched Young Avengers, surpassing even the heights the groups’ creator, Allan Heinberg took them. With innovative artwork and stories that truly felt like they were populated by super-powered teenagers (albeit fantastically powerful and incredibly beautiful teenagers) Young Avengers was fresh and exciting every month. Kid Loki wasn’t the only new member in the Young Avengers, a mysterious powerhouse named Miss America, Kree superhero Marvel Boy, and former X-Man Prodigy joined original members Wiccan, Hulkling and Hawkeye for some truly dimension-hopping adventures. It is notable to mention that the Kate Bishop Hawkeye has starred to not just one, but two of the year’s spotlight series. Read more about her activities in the Hawkeye entry below. It is also notable that the gay relationship between Wiccan and Hulkling is central to the series. Again, this series could have run much longer, but after a single year, Gillen decided to call it a day rather than lose the innovative energy that infused his first season. It will be greatly missed.
My next entry has been a consistent high point for 2013 and is yet another title that will be ending after just over one year. Matt Fraction was everywhere in Marvel in 2013, including taking over the Fantastic Four franchise. In addition to the flagship title, Fantastic Four, Fraction took over FF (formerly the Future Foundation) keeping the large cast of young students at the Foundation, and replacing the Fantastic Four with the quirky combo of Ant-man (Scott Lang), She-Hulk, Medusa, and She-Thing (Johnny’s pop-star girlfriend, Darla, in a Thing suit). Sound weird? Well it was, but it had originality, fun, and most importantly, heart. It didn’t hurt that Michael Allred handled the artwork, and his gorgeous, cartoony style fit the title to perfection.
Alas, the tale of Batwoman should probably be a blog post all on its own, but it has been examined and talked over by many better writers/bloggers than me, so I will try to keep it down to a paragraph or two. Nothing DC has put out in the last decade can compare to the excitement generated and quality served that Batwoman, first under the masterful team of Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III. When Greg left the title due to editorial interference from DC, Batwoman fans collectively held their breath. Would their beloved title survive? When the announcement came that the writing duties would be taken over by artist Williams III, and that he would continue to draw every other story arc, you could feel the internet sigh in relief. Personally, although I would miss Rucka, who really was an act that couldn’t be topped for this title, I was thrilled because the artist who would be alternating with Williams III was Amy Reeder, who I also loved. Her work on Madame Xanadu was clean and fresh, but also broke convention and would be a perfect counterpoint for Williams III. Alas, after a couple of issues, ‘creative differences’ forced Reeder off the title. Somehow Batwoman survived yet another creative shake-up, but the third, and most recent will be the make or break moment, I fear. In a glorious moment, Williams III had Kate Kane aka Batwoman, propose to her beloved, Maggie Sawyer. Before any follow-up could be seen in the book itself, the news broke that DC was not allowing any characters to get married (because all their characters had to be angst-ridden and miserable, which marriage prevents) and due to larger creative differences, J.H. Williams III was leaving the title. Now that was a blow that I doubted Batwoman could survive. Yet somehow, some way, DC got one of the very few writers that might be able to take the reins successfully to do just that. Marc Andreyko, whose amazing work on Manhunter could have been a precursor to Batwoman, has taken over the writing duties of Batwoman. The real question is, as 2014 kicks off, can Marc rise above the editorial interference that seems to be the true enemy Batwoman must face to rise triumphant back to her former glory. Only time will tell. 2014 will either be one more sigh of relief, or the year that Batwoman comes crashing down from the heights she has existed in since her launch.
Cullen Bunn did something promising at the end of his Fear Itself: The Fearless miniseries a couple of years ago. He ended the story with Valkyrie realizing that she needed to gather together a new group of Valkyries to be ready to combat evil, etc. What followed in 2013 was a series to surprising when you think about Marvel’s track record, that the fact that it lasted 12 issues was an astounding feat that I will always treasure. It may not have been the most innovative writing, or the most polished art, but it spoke directly to my particular fan-boy heart. Fearless Defenders was basically a forum for writer Cullen Bunn to spotlight the heroines (and villainesses) of Marvel. It starts as an odd copule scenario, Brunnhilde the Valkyrie and Misty Knight, bionic detective coming together to combat evil. Along the twelve-issue run we are treated to an assortment of well-known (She-Hulk, Storm, Black Cat, Elektra), fan-favorite (Tigra, Dani Moonstar, Hellcat, Colleen Wing, Thundra, Elsa Bloodston) and downright obscure (Hippolyta, Clea, Tarantula) heroines coming together for some kick-ass adventure. Add to that a terrific new ‘human’ character, Annabelle, who gets caught up in the team’s adventures and falls for Valkyrie, who, being an Asgardian goddess, is not necessarily opposed to a relationship with another woman. Sadly, that gets slightly derailed when Annabelle is killed and with a little help for Clea, Valkyrie rescues her soul but ends up having to share her body with her. And that’s just the start. When I read what Mr. Bunn had planned for the longer run of this title, my soul just weeps. Why wasn’t this title flying off the shelves! Then, I step back and wonder, how did he sell more than a dozen copies? I’m so thankful this title existed, and I’m so thankful that this Marvel Now initiative gave Marvel the balls to get behind it for a year. Who knows? Perhaps the Fearless Defenders will return?
Matt Fraction has an offbeat sensibility. And I really, really welcome it in comics. Just take a look at FF and Hawkeye? I’ve always enjoyed Hawkeye (Clint Barton) as a character, but since the Bendis-i-zation of all things Avengers, I was pretty much over most of them as characters. When this new Hawkeye series was announced, honestly, what caught my attention were the fantastic covers created by David Aja. I also read an interview with Fraction somewhere where he mentioned that both Clint and Kate Bishop – the other Hawkeye – would be appearing in this title. My interest was suitably piqued. The rest is history. Hawkeye is one of the most original mainstream superhero comic today. It’s firmly rooted in the superhero world, with references to Hawkeye’s Avengers membership, and villains like Madame Masque popping in from time to time, but the stories’ focus is much more personal. From Clint trying to protect his building’s fellow tenants from a shady landlord, Kate trying to find a job, or Clint’s dog having an issue-long adventure on his own, Hawkeye never ceases to please. And it’s truly showing in the non-comic book store world. Collected editions of the Hawkeye comic are showing up next to Fables on the top selling graphic novel lists on Amazon. This is the way you grab an audience, people. Not by playing it safe, but by taking chances. Thanks, Matt.
Have I said this too many times already? Surely this was the biggest surprise of the year for me. That whole Red Hulk think was totally lost on me over the last few years, and when they started in on the Red She-Hulk? I just couldn’t be bothered. There was a perfectly good She-Hulk running around: Jennifer Walters, and the spotlight on any She-Hulk should be on her. Sure, Betty Ross Banner is a character with a lot of history, and the fact that she’s got some Hulk issues of her own is vaguely interesting, I just didn’t see the need. So why did I pick up the first issues of the new Red She-Hulk comic? I really have no idea. Jeff Parker was the creative force behind Agents of Atlas, which I actually didn’t read, but heard good things about it. I’m wracking my brain, but honestly, I can’t remember why I picked it up, but something about that very first issue, with the Avengers trying to hunt Red She-Hulk down, and with Machine Man of all people being the readers’ point of entry, that really clicked, and like Journey Into Mystery featuring Sif, there was something just old school and fun, while still being original, about Red She-Hulk. Too bad it only last 8 issues.
Despite being saddled with a mutant-line crossover a couple issues after it debuted, X-Men has managed to find a nice identity and let the central characters shine. What could have easily been a gimmick — let’s feature a team of X-Men that’s all women — very quickly became something much more organic and fun under Brian Wood’s steady hand. It has helped that he’s had a couple of terrific artists helping him out, first Olivier Copiel, then Terry and Rachel Dodson, but the dynamic between the characters, the action sequences, the rhythm of the stories… by gosh, you might not even notice that there aren’t any guys featured! It’s just kind of business as usual! The roster has changed slightly since the start. Kitty Pryde has left the building (sadly). Kitty is such a mature and stabilizing presence, I would have liked to seen her play off some of the more volatile characters a bit more. That said, the introduction of X-Factor’s Monet (M) into the mix in the last couple of issues is inspired, and should make for a nice team dynamic. Wood has set up a little tension between Storm and Rachel, which is nice. It’s nice to see Rachel do much of anything, actually. And having Jubilee as the catalyst of sorts for this team was kind of nice as well. Especially since the fact that she’s a vampire now is barely mentioned. Maybe they’ll just forget about it. It’s nice that the students are all running around in the background as well, interacting where appropriate. I’m also loving the natural growth of the Sisterhood, a team of super villainesses to oppose the X-Men. And the fact that Brian is reaching beyond the mutantverse to populate this Sisterhood with the likes of the Enchantress and Typhoid Mary is inspired. If the writing and art stays at this level, X-Men could be around for a long time.
Before I get into the two major families that Marvel focuses on, let me say a brief word about Guardians of the Galaxy. A few years ago, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning revitalized Marvel’s cosmic line of comics through a couple of major events called Annhiliation and Annihilation: Conquest. Among the titles they launched was a whacky band of cosmic misfits, The Guardians of the Galaxy. Led by Starlord, their roster was a loose collection of space-faring warriors such as Drax, Gamora, Captain Marvel (Phyla-Vell), Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Moondragon, Mantis, Cosmo, Bug, and a few more. It was fresh, it was funny, the characters were distinct and unique. One of the best comics in the last ten years. With the announcement last year that Marvel’s next new movie in their stable would be a Guardians of the Galaxy film, a new series was launched written by Marvel powerhouse Brian Michael Bendis. It was a stripped down roster, Starlord, Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot, with the addition of Neil Gaiman’s creation, Angela. And amazingly (not) Mr. Bendis took every ounce of character and intelligence out of the book. The characters are the blandest batch of heroes to be found. They took away Gamora’s inappropriately revealing costume and replaced it with ugly, clunky armor that makes her pretty generic looking. They added in Iron Man just because. It’s really pretty abysmal. Not even a very brief appearance by my favorite ex-Guardian, Mantis, could perk up this blah title. Well, I waited out Bendis over in the Avengers. Maybe in ten years, Guardians of the Galaxy will have a new writer and I will enjoy it once again.
Not counting Young Avengers, which is so far removed from the Avengers family, I just pretend it’s not even related. Marvel leaned heavily on the Avengers family of titles this year with not one, but two major events wrapped around them. The first, Age of Ultron came and went without a whole lot of impact. For me, the main positive moment in this event came from the prominent role played by Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman. A thank you to Bendis for including her in that role. I barely remember the rest of the story.
The main event of 2013 was called Infinity, and it was helmed by Jonathan Hickman. This one crossed over throughout pretty much all the Avengers titles to varying degrees of success. There was a whole lot of repetition, i.e. here’s the same exact story from Captain America’s point of view in The Avengers; here it is from Captain Marvel’s point of view in Captain Marvel; here it is from Spider-woman’s point of view in Avengers Assemble… you get the idea? One thing Infinity did for me was help me come to the realization that Hickman’s Avengers is not my cup of tea. It’s all big ideas, zero characterization. He’s swollen the Avengers roster to about 35 members, and honestly, they are pretty interchangeable. There are literally no defining characteristics that make one character any different from another. Sure, Captain America spouts orders – but so does Captain Marvel. Thor just wants to hit things — well so does Smasher. And on… and on. Some of the sister Avenger titles fare a little better. Avengers Assemble written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Warren Ellis, focused more on the lady Avengers, and brought some interesting insight to their tale. Hickman’s New Avengers featuring the Illuminati, was slightly more interesting because it was focused more tightly on a small group of characters. The one new title that I have been enjoying a great deal is Mighty Avengers. While it’s too soon to tell how long it will last, or how long I will like it, it features an interesting mix of characters, including Spectrum (Monica Rambeau), She-Hulk, White Tiger, and Luke Cage, among others, and is the most diverse gathering of heroes that Marvel has put together. Similarly, reaching back to Âge of Ultron, the one new title to emerge from that event is Avengers A.I. starring Hank Pym, the Vision, and some other artificial intelligences. It’s intriguing and fun, and this latest issues reveal that Jocasta would be involved has me even more interested. The one major Avengers title that somehow managed to avoid the Infinity onslaught was also the best of the bunch. Uncanny Avengers was born out of last year’s Avengers vs. X-men event. Helmed by Rick Remender, Uncanny Avengers has taken a bold premise, humans and mutants working together quite visibly, and created a major epic storyline that doesn’t sacrifice some powerful character work. Remender had the challenging job of integrating the Scarlet Witch back onto a team after Bendis dragged her character through the mud every way you could conceive of, and he has done so effectively and without sacrificing what came before. He has also written the Wasp back in character, flirtatious, yet tough and capable. He has integrated former X-Men, Havok, Rogue and Sunfire into the mix nicely… and of course, Wolverine, who was already an Avenger. Honestly, this one took me by surprise. I hadn’t really been expecting much.
I’ve already shown the winner in the X-Men family above… and that would be Brian Wood’s X-Men, featuring a team of female X-Men. Speaking of Peter David’s X-Factor, my #1 mutant book came to a close last year, and while it’s coming back in a different incarnation in 2014, these last few years, the title, spawned from a mini-series starring Madrox, was something really special. Not only did it give us another fantastic gay couple, Rictor and Shatterstar, but it deftly wove together intricate stories featuring Pip the Troll and Hela, not an easy feat for mutant title. I’m sure David’s new X-Factor will be a fun read… most of his work is… but there was something about that last X-Factor that was special. I certainly never thought I’d like Layla Miller, and a couple issues under David’s pen, and she was a favorite. The real surprise for me has been Bendis’ All-New X-Men. The concept, bring the original X-Men forward in time so they can see what a mess their Cylcops has made of the present, so they can go back and make sure this stuff doesn’t happen in their future, is just the kind of ridiculous claptrap that makes many people roll their eyes at comics. Lets be clear, this was a way to bring Jean Grey back to life without bringing her back to life. Since Alias, I haven’t really thought much of Bendis playing in the Marvel world. In fact, his whole Avengers run is what nearly drove me away from Marvel. So you can imagine how surprised I was when I was really enjoying his All New X-Men!
Other than Neil Gaiman’s return to Sandman, the most positive thing I can say about DC is that some of their title maintained a certain level of quality. I am in the midst of a major purge of DC titles, and their recent line-wide push, namely Villains United, hasleft me decidedly cold. The editorial interference that drove J. H. Williams III from Batwoman was enough to put me off all on its own. It’s a slim hope that the talented Marc Andreyko will be able to do something positive with the formerly amazing title under the current editorial regime.
The biggest surprise about Wonder Woman is that DC is letting Brian Azzarello continue to write it. I am enjoying his fresh take on the series, but it’s truly baffling when there is another Wonder Woman starring in Justice League and Superman & Wonder Woman that doesn’t resemble Azzarello’s lead character much at all. In fact, the Wonder Woman in those other two titles is one of the worst iterations of the character since the 70’s. I can only imagine that at some point, Mr. Azzarello will move on to another title, and the Wonder Woman starring in her own comic will slowly (or quickly) morph into the one that more people are seeing over in Justice League. That will truly be a sad day.
Of course, the bright spot over at DC remains Gail Simone. She is such a talented writer that she consistently keeps me interested in Batgirl despite the fact that DC keeps dragging her into the Batman family and the stories going on over in that part of the world. It seems that every few issues, Gail has to work in some Batman-related storyline that disrupts the flow of her own storytelling. Gail has a second title over at DC called The Movement. This oddball group of young super-heroes fight for the homeless, the poor, and the otherwise disenfranchised against a corrupt law enforcement agency. It’s fresh and fun, and Gail injects it with her usual share of LGBT issues and other diversity. That said, I don’t expect it to last much longer. Gail will be writing her first story over at Marvel in over ten years, and it is my hope that they lure her over there to take part in the seeming renaissance that’s happening there.
Other than that, the titles that I am still enjoying over at DC include World’s Finest: Huntress & Power Girl, Earth 2 (largely thanks to Nicola Scott’s amazing artwork), Swamp Thing and Animal Man. Trinity of Sin: Pandora intrigues me, and I always like to support female characters, but it has been so tied up in the whole Villains United story that I’m rapidly losing interest. Same with Justice League Dark, which I find interesting because of the characters, but I wish it was off on its own and not tied up in all the goings on of the main Justice Leagues.
Vertigo’s mainstays, Fables and Fairest remain top quality books. The big problem over at DC is, as I mentioned, their Villains United initiative, where the focus for the past several months has been on villains. I don’t read these comics for the villains, I read them for the heroes. It’s all pretty boring, actually, and it caused me to drop a bunch of titles that I wasn’t really enjoying anyway. And the rash of cancellations at DC of books that I was enjoying is disheartening: Legion of Superheroes, Katana, Demon Knights, Sword & Sorcery: Amethyst, and I, Vampire. Honestly, this is the first time I can remember that there wasn’t a Legion of Superheroes title being published, or at least in the works.
But there’s good work being down outside of the big two as well. I don’t seek out a whole lot of indies, but Gail Simone got me to check out Red Sonja which she is writing for Dynamite. Terry Moore continues his creative work on Rachel Rising. Amy Reeder has started her own book along with writer Brandon Montclare called Rocket Girl for Image which has started off promisingly. Colleen Doran has gotten Image to resume publication of her epic A Distant Soil, and I’m really enjoying seeing all my favorite kaiju come to life in the Godzilla titles for IDW.
So that’s it! My year in comics. Still reading, still enjoying them over all, although DC really is hitting a low point. If nothing else, the comics industry is pretty quixotic, so who knows what will happen in 2014.