By Rich Johnston, Hannah Means-Shannon, and Christine Marie
Why 11? Building on our inaugural Bleeding Cool "best of" lists last year, we encourage you, dear readers, to dial it up to 11. It's no exaggeration to say that this has been an extreme year for the number of new and innovative comic series reaching readers from a wide range of publishers and platforms, with plenty of rookie creators making a splash and an equal number of comics greats managing to surprise us and generate further acclaim. After a great deal of deliberation, but plenty of celebration in looking back to recognize the many landmark successes in comics in 2014, Rich Johnston, Hannah Means-Shannon, and Christine Marie bring you Bleeding Cool's 11 Best Comics of 2014.
11. Ms. Marvel from Marvel Comics, written by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Adrian Alphona and colors by Ian Herring
When announced, it was seen by many commenters as a token comic. There to bump the numbers. A female creative team, a Muslim writer, starring a Pakistani American teenage girl, it ticked all the boxes and seemed to be there to provide a handy get out clause for Marvel, who could say, when criticised for their all male and white writer retreats, "Look at Ms. Marvel". But nothing could be further from the truth. Because it just so happened to be a really good comic book, in the model of Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man, full of whimsy, silliness and attitude, with a family that felt as real as any good autobiographcal comic, but with a guest appearance by Wolverine. The art was out of this world, and of a style that you may not have once expected of Marvel, before they started to loosen their britches. Ms. Marvel embraced social media as Batgirl did – but without being showy. It took a geek's world and made the wish fulfillment of any superhero comic literal, and about an adolescent girl with conservative loving parents – she'd hate to let them down but there is so much she wants to do. Ms. Marvel is the power fantasy that allows her to do that – instead of, say, going to Comic Con. No wonder it found such a fanbase, especially digitally. And it also did the trick of making, almost accidentally, an Inhumans book that people actually liked. This should be one of Alan Feige's favourite comic too.
10. Meanwhile from Soaring Penguin Press, written and drawn by Various
Two issues is enough. Meanwhile is an outstanding serialised anthology comic book. Its two stars are both location-based comics, creating their own geography. It begins with the long awaited return of Strangehaven by Gary Spencer Millidge, an intense multilayered village now dealing with the possibility that one amongst them is actually the alien he has always claimed to be, against all the evidence. Then David Hine and Mark Stafford deliver The Bad Bad Place, which could be describes as David Lynch's Addams Family, but is also more about the town that the house exists in rather than the inhabitants themselves. We head up to the sky for a (literally) lighter take on a world relying on the imprisonment of a girl to preserve its gravity in 10 minutes and then one shot stories taken from the great and the good, encouraging newcomers and discovering unseen talent – such as Krent Able's Inc. in the latest issue, is a horrifically sexual peon to office life that brings to mind Dan Clowes and S. Clay Wilson, together. This is the new Taboo. If it had three issues out in 2014, it might have risen even higher. A new Golden age of comics? Why not.
9. Oddly Normal from Image Comics, written, illustrated, and colored by Otis Frampton
Oddly Normal is a new series that is an absolute must read! Take a trip to Fignation, Otis Frampton's whimsical setting where this creative story takes place. Conflicted about who she really is, main character Oddly does the unthinkable when she makes her parents disappear, and is left to solve the mystery of what happened to them. My first experience with Oddly left me immediately connected to the underdog nature of her inner dialogue. As a reader, you are instantly motivated to root for her. The addition of her Auntie's character to assist her in the discovery of what happened to her parents, allows the focus of the story to remain on Oddly and her new opportunity in a place where she finally feels like she belongs. As the series progresses, it is becoming a story about growth, belief, and bravery. Frampton writes a unique entertaining plot, while illustrating a dazzling vivid world that expands your imagination with every turn of the page. While this is a kid-friendly read, my inner child comes alive every time I read a new issue. If you're looking for a refreshing fun read, this is the book for you. I look forward to what adventures await Oddly in the new year!
8. Annihilator from Legendary Entertainment, written by Grant Morrison, with art by Frazer Irving and letters by Jared K. Fletcher
A trend this year seems to lie in the surprising results that spring from new combinations of accomplished comics creators in collaboration, often delving into genres or genre-splicing where we haven't seen them working before, and one such book is Annihilator. Conceived of as a short 6-issue miniseries that interrogates the nature of the role of the anti-hero in Western literary tradition but is wrapped in a sci-fi package that verges on symbol-language for the significance of science fiction, the comic has a deceptively light and basic feel in its narrative trajectory while packing quite a punch conceptually. While readers might find concerns familiar from Grant Morrison's other speculative works, the angles he takes here are more pointed and direct, suggesting a move toward greater transparency with the reader and a more main-lined form of communication. Tracing the downward trajectory of washed up screenwriter Ray Spass in an increasingly sinister LA, former prisoner and possible rebel-god Max Nomax descends from his black-hole orbiting space station to solve the mysteries of his own crimes. Frazer Irving's artwork is consistently, panel by panel, worthy of gallery presentation for its atmosphere, use of light, and focus on the human form, which contributes to this alarming sense of engagement for the reader in the world of Annihilator. An added flourish is the use of humor by both Morrison and Irving in a collaborative consistency that borders on the uncanny.
7. Gotham Academy from DC Comics, written by Becky Cloonan and Brenden Fletcher, with art by Karl Kerschl, colors by Geyser, and letters by Steve Wands
Gotham Academy was a breath of fresh air to the city of Gotham this year. Much different from most of the stories that are told amid the dark and gloomy streets, Gotham Academy gave readers a look into a Hogwarts-esque atmosphere with a new cast of characters to love. Much like J.K. Rowling's magical world that Harry Potter takes place in, this new series is filled with curious things lurking behind closed doors, and a team of students eager to uncover all of the secrets. Personally, the similarities between the two series are what sold me on the concept. The contained setting of a school gave me a familiar heart warming feeling. Fletcher and Cloonan's engaging writing is the perfect combination of intrigue and imagination, complemented by Kerschl's colorful cartoon-like interpretation. We are introduced to main characters Olive and Maps, two adventurous young girls with a knack for solving mysteries. The suspense of slowly uncovering Olive's complicated past continues to keep me on my toes. The story becomes more addicting with every issue, whether it be because of a new character addition or the discovery of a missing piece to the plot. I look forward to what lies ahead for this series, and hope that I somehow manage to figure out a way to visit Gotham Academy one day myself.
6. Saga from Image Comics, written by Brian K. Vaughan, with art by Fiona Staples, letters and design by Fonografiks
Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are comic book rock stars. A thrilling combination of science fiction and fantasy, Saga continues to be one of the greatest series I've ever read. Over the past year, there have been major changes in the feel of the story, but one thing remains the same: this series is brilliant. In the beginning, the urgency of the story was based around main characters Alana and Marko facing the world head on with their child Hazel by their side. After countless amounts of obstacles and plot twits, what was once a tight knit family, has now unraveled. We had to suffer through a few issues without The Will, Gwendolyn, Sofia, and Lying cat this year, but as always Vaughan has a method to his madness. The addition of the new character, the Robot Janitor, has thrown a wrench into the gears of this series creating an alarming amount of trouble. Vaughan has built an incredibly well thought out world, and knows exactly how to hook readers. If that's not enough, Fiona Staples' ability to illustrate such fantastical characters constantly leaves me in a happy daze. Suspense, action, heart-wrenching moments, Saga is the comic to read.
5. Trees from Image Comics, written by Warren Ellis, with art by Jason Howard
So many titles to choose from, but this one sung to me, steeped as it was in John Wyndham, Edge of Darkness and perfectly timed for modern day concerns of individuals finding a place to be, all at a time when the world is looking at its people as a mass, as ants, and sticks have just been pushed into the anthills to see what happens. The portrayal of the ordinary as the extraordinary plus ten years, points to the ants we are and the paths we take around the obstacles we have placed there, eventually making those obstacles a part of our life, is countered by Jason Howard; portrayal of those individual humans, anything but ants, trying to make sense of their world, in a world that doesn't make sense. And in those moments, make sense of themselves. In a year of exciting new Image comic book titles that earned it out Publisher of The Year, this is the one that stands out most for me.
4. Sandman: Overture from Vertigo/DC Comics, written by Neil Gaiman, with art by J.H. Williams III, colors by Dave Stewart, letters by Todd Klein, and variant covers by Dave McKean
It was certainly likely that Sandman: Overture would make many of the best-of lists of 2014, given the sheer professional virtuosity of the comics creators on the creative team, however, it was far from a foregone conclusion that the comic would succeed in so impressing itself upon the hearts and minds of its readers. But in an arc that sets out to take us further into the personality of Dream of the Endless than readers have ever gone before, and show us more of his permutations and essential nature than has ever stepped forth beyond the realm of speculation, emotional engagement is precisely what is most necessary. Pursuing a mystery embedded in Dream's past that may threaten the universe itself, Gaiman and Williams III manage to create a narrative that is as decidedly character-driven as it is full of mind-bending wonders. Williams and Stewart open windows onto the purely unexpected on a cosmological scale while Klein brings us voices that transcend the audible and come very close to creating ideas of sound that are even more resonant. Some of the massive lifting in this intense framework falls on Williams III, who gracefully concocts panel and page that consistently guide the reader into new ways of following visual narrative, seeming to overflow traditional narrative constraints without even drawing attention to the drastic innovations he undertakes. Hailed by many as a "dream team" on a "dream book" (puns unavoidable), the outcome so far for Sandman: Overture manages to outstrip the hype that heralded its arrival and leave readers rapt in a universe they feel they are encountering for the first time.
3. Avengers/New Avengers from Marvel Comics, written by Jonathan Hickman, with art by Leinil Francis Yu, Kev Walker, Simone Bianchi, Valerio Schiti, Jim Cheung, Mike Deodato, Rags Orales, Salvador Larroca and more
Despite its pretense, this is really just one comic book, with each title taking a diametric opposite viewpoint but running one story for a few years now. The past year saw it all begin to come together. One one side, a S.H.I.E.L.D.-aligned supergroup authority that has been expanding to address the task awaiting it. Government backed, it is an official authority making tough but right decisions and holding the line against the madness. And the other has the Illuminati, the secret self-appointed rulers who have to make terrible but necessary decisions and live with the consequences. Both morally defined, both at complete odds, and occasionally containing the same members. It makes a shape as well-designed as any of Hickman's geometric shapes that fill these books. This year saw a trip to the far future and then a jump to the near future, as the rest of the Marvel Universe then began to catch up. And so multiple worlds, invasions, the bad guys doing what the good guys won't, dealing with gods and monsters, a Justice League of their very own, and all events driven by extreme personalities in contradiction with each other. It's as if Civil War had been written by someone with a degree in psychology and created what should one day be seen as one of the finest example of the superhero form today. Even the violence is transformed into a game of four dimensional chess, closer to war fought by soldiers and directed by generals. And it brings Marvel's finest draughtsmen to deliver both the emotional and physical punches, each emphasizing the separate chapters of this encompassing sci-fi romp. Utterly entertaining and engrossing.
2. Wytches from Image Comics, written by Scott Snyder, with art by Jock, colors by Matt Hollingsworth and letters by Clem Robins
Wytches was one of the most anticipated books of 2014, and one of the most startling. Whatever readers might have expected from the collaboration of Scott Snyder, Jock, and Matt Hollingsworth on the visual and thematic content of the book, no one could have accurately foretold the peculiar alchemy that took root in one of the most expansive horror comics the 21st century has yet seen. The expansiveness derives from a thoughtful, considered exploration of traditional horror tropes from comics and films, picking carefully from among ingredients to select the roads less traveled, as well as the close and detailed focus on a group of authentically human characters and their interrelationships. Jock's artwork equally conveys the alien landscape of a forest realm we no longer recognize and denizens we can't really conceive of in the Wytches who demand their "pledges", trying the hearts and minds of humans and invariably finding their weaknesses. He also etches out the foibles and pressure points of human expression, fear, and hope. Another surprising development has been the platform the comic has provided for showcasing the work of comics colorists via Matt Hollingsworth's experimental methods in presenting an emotionally rattling, disjointed POV both for characters and readers. On the whole, Wytches has seemingly opened the door on a new landscape for horror comics and left it open for upcoming comics creators to explore in their own ways.
1. Multiversity from DC Comics, written by Grant Morrison with art by Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Nei Ruffino, Ben Oliver, Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, Ivan Reis and Joe Prado
Everything I adored about Avengers and New Avengers this year is here, and more besides. Again, it needs a map. Each comic is not just a story, but each comic is an artefact in another story with another artist. The different stories use the comics to communicate with each other, and the reader is not just an observer but a participant, invited to join in with the narrative and be a character in and of themselves. That such a ridiculous and compelling conceit managed to make it to print from Warner Bros, rather than Nobrow or Top Shelf is remarkable. Then throw in the ludicrously feel-good Thunderworld of Captain Marvel, at odds with the incredibly negativity of The Society Of Super Heroes, and the attempt to play with billion dollars IPs as if they were silly putty and every single frame pointing towards a future singularity – and even the possibility that the comic is trying to crossover with the Marvel Universe and the Annihilator comic simultaneously is just another example of the ridiculous flights of fancy the comic book engenders in the reader. We're not just observers, we're no longer just characters, we are invited to be writers of our own experience reading this comic. And that is truly transcendent.
Honorable mentions go to:
Seth & Ghost from Borderline Press, by Jamie Lewis.
Rasputin, from Image Comics, written by Alex Grecian, with art by Riley Rossmo
The Valiant, from Valiant Entertainment, written by Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire, with art by Paolo Rivera
The Goon: Occasion of Revenge, from Dark Horse Comics, written and illustrated by Eric Powell
Verity Fair from IDCM by Terry Wiley
Wayward from Image Comics, written by Jim Zub, with art by Steve Cummings and John Rauch
Five Ghosts, from Image Comics, written by Frank Barbiere, with art by Christopher Mooneyham, and colors by Lauren Affe
Crossed: Wish You Were Here from Avatar Press, written by Si Spurrier, with art by Javier Barreno and Gary Erskine, and colours by Juanmar
Ghost Fleet, from Dark Horse comics, written by Donny Cates, with art by Daniel Warren Johnson and colors by Lauren Affe
The Wicked + The Divine from Image Comics, written by Kieron Gillen, with art by Jamie McKelvie and colours by Daniel Wilson
Nailbiter, from Image Comics, written by Joshua Williamson, with art by Mike Henderson
Spread, from Image Comics, written by Justin Jordan, with art by Kyle Strahm
Sex Criminals from Image Comics, written by Matt Fraction, with art by Chip Zdarsky
Nightworld, from Image Comics, written by Adam McGovern, with art by Paolo Leandri
Southern Bastards, from Image Comics, written by Jason Aaron, with art by Jason Latour