The best comics of 2014: Ongoing and special series

The best comics of 2014: Ongoing and special series

Action Comics, Ms. Marvel, and many Image titles are 2014 highlights

In 2014, it became clear Image Comics is the publisher to beat when it comes to monthly comic-book series. This year saw more and more of Marvel and DC’s top creators head to Image to deliver captivating creator-owned works, but the publisher has also continued to devote attention to promising up-and-coming creators looking for a place to put out stories without any restrictions. The growth of Image has forced other companies to step up their game, with Marvel and DC taking more chances on idiosyncratic titles with bold creative teams. And then there’s the ever-expanding world of digital comics and webcomics, offering even more choices for readers, and usually at a much cheaper price than print (sometimes even free). Here are The A.V. Club’s picks for the top comic-book series of the year.

Action Comics (DC)

Superman may be the character gracing the covers of this series, but writer Greg Pak and artist Aaron Kuder’s run owes its success to a different character: Lana Lang. The creative team has turned Clark Kent’s childhood friend into an intelligent, independent action heroine, and her presence has brought an invaluable human perspective to the superhero action. And what beautiful action it is. Kuder’s art has an incredible sense of scope, bringing wide-screen spectacle to fight sequences pitting Superman against huge opponents who compel him to use his full strength and speed. That combination of grounded storytelling and bombastic action is what helps this title survive the extended “Superman: Doomed” crossover. A Superman/Doomsday hybrid named Superdoom is ridiculous, but Pak and Kuder end up having a lot of fun with their Hulked-out hero, using the plot development to explore the more personal themes of their story. [Oliver Sava]

Adventure Time (Boom)

The genius of Ryan North’s Adventure Time is that North has figured out a way to tell excellent Adventure Time stories in a way that is completely different from the show. The one thing, after all, that the show doesn’t do—or doesn’t do often, not yet—is long-form serial adventures. Boom gives North a lot of rope to play around with every corner of the show’s mythos, including a few sly nods to the more fevered precincts of the show’s older fandom. (See the, ahem, Vampire Candy Kingdom.) Using the Land Of Ooo and its magical inhabitants as raw materials, North has carved out his own distinctive corner of the franchise, weaving surprisingly complex multi-part epics that still feel indelibly like the same beloved TV series—but longer and more intense, which is total maths. [Tim O’Neil]

Alex + Ada (Image)

The Luna Brothers (Jonathan and Joshua) have quietly built a devoted fan base over the last decade thanks to a staggeringly consistent work ethic that has already produced a number of well-regarded projects (Girls, The Sword). Alex + Ada is a Jonathan solo joint with co-writer Sarah Vaughn, but slots nicely into the Brothers’ ongoing thematic concerns. The story begins in the not-too-distant future, where Alex, an unexceptional guy still struggling to get over a recent breakup, receives a female robot companion as a surprise gift from his grandmother. He breaks warranty and unlocks Ada’s artificial intelligence, which is very dangerous in a world where AIs have just been outlawed. Ten issues in, Ada—newborn, robotic, and heartbroken—is already far more interesting than Alex. Even if the month-to-month is slow, the patient world-building and careful character exposition—backed by Luna’s confident track record—promise an enjoyable slow burn for however long the series lasts. [Tim O’Neil]

Astro City (Vertigo)

When Kurt Busiek returned from a long health-related absence in 2013, he recommitted to his creator-owned work in a big way. First out of the chute was a relaunch for Astro City, one of the longest-running independent superhero books and certainly one of the best series to survive the late-Chromium era that spawned it. Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross haven’t missed a step: Not only is the book every bit as good as it was the last time it was a monthly concern, it may very well be better. Busiek returned from his sabbatical with a head of steam and something to prove—to himself, if no one else—and the results speak for themselves. In just the last calendar year, Busiek has given us robots, sorcerers, microversal conquerors, what is probably Astro City’s first transgender superhero, and one of the best statements on feminism in superhero comics, ever, in the four-part Winged Victory spotlight. Here’s to another 19 years. [Tim O’Neil]

Bad Machinery (Online/collected by Oni Press)

Late 2014 saw the end of John Allison’s Bad Machinery after five years and eight successful cases. This is not the end of Allison’s extended Tackleford universe, however, with a reinvigorated Bobbins running in its place at least until the new year. (After that, who knows?) Bad Machinery ends for the best of all possible reasons: It ran its course, outgrowing its premise and leaving its characters significantly different from when they began. What began in 2009 as a series of supernatural mysteries ended as a low-key relationship dramedy set among junior-high school students in suburban Britain. With Allison’s track record, it’s a sure bet that this isn’t the last of Shauna, Charlotte, and Jack—though what form their future adventures take remains a mystery. They began the series as children and leave as young adults, coming into their own despite all the hair appearing in weird places. They grew up, but where they go next is anyone’s guess. [Tim O’Neil]

Copra (Bergen Street)

Even those who don’t read Copra may know it’s a love letter to John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad. That’s a good place to start, but it does little to explain how the series managed to last past six issues. Sure, pick up an issue and the characters may seem sort of familiar (Oh look, there’s “Deadshot,” kinda), but this isn’t just fan fiction. Michel Fiffe took the raw materials from his favorite comic, sanded off the edges, and turned everything on its head. Eighteen issues in, each new issue is more inventive than the last, just as Fiffe’s art grows more expressive and confident with every page. It may have started out as a loving tribute, but it’s fast on its way to becoming something more, something a lot sturdier and a lot more interesting. If Fiffe sticks with it, Copra could eventually outgrow its Suicide Squad comparisons just as Cerebus eventually transcended Conan The Barbarian. [Tim O’Neil]

D4VE (Monkeybrain)

Stuck in a soul-crushing day job where he dreams of his past glory days, D4VE is a robot with a life that should look very familiar to many working adults. Writer Ryan Ferrier and artist Valentin Ramon’s digital miniseries takes place in a world where robots have replaced humans, and after a period of exploring the galaxy, the machines eventually settled into the same depressing patterns as their organic predecessors. D4VE begins as a hilarious allegory for suburban domesticity and existential ennui, but turns into one of the year’s most exhilarating action series as D4VE reclaims his former role as an alien-killing hero. Ferrier’s deliciously clever dialogue delivers a constant stream of laughs, and Ramon’s elegantly designed visuals do remarkable work bringing human expression to the robot cast. It’s a spectacular sci-fi comedy, and for those averse to digital comics, D4VE will see print next year thanks to IDW. [Oliver Sava]

Flash Gordon (Dynamite)

It’s been a landmark year for Dynamite in terms of the quality of their licensed titles, but one book soars above the rest. Writer Jeff Parker, artist Evan “Doc” Shaner, and colorist Jordie Bellaire have revitalized Flash Gordon by looking to the character’s past, delivering thrilling stories of sci-fi action adventure paired with gorgeous visuals in the vein of Flash Gordon masters like Alex Raymond and Al Williamson. But this isn’t a throwback series, particularly with its treatment of Dale Arden, who is given much more agency as a science journalist who can fend for herself when the going gets tough. Parker’s scripts have a refreshing sense of humor, which primarily shines through in the interactions between Flash, Dale, and Dr. Hans Zarkov, while Shaner and Bellaire deliver breathtaking fantasy landscapes, making the reader feel the awe experienced by the characters on their cosmic odyssey. [Oliver Sava]

Hip Hop Family Tree (Online/collected by Fantagraphics)

Serialized weekly on Boing Boing and reprinted in exquisite retro-styled collections by Fantagraphics, Ed Piskor’s graphic history of hip-hop is a sprawling ensemble drama that gets more expansive with each chapter. Piskor has hit a point in his narrative where hip-hop music is entering the mainstream and reaching more listeners, spawning new artists for the cartoonist to fold into his story and introducing new personalities to his comic-book universe. While these events are based on reality, Piskor presents them in the style of an ’80s Marvel comic, creating a heightened environment that evokes the cartoonist’s personal relationship with the genre. For Piskor, hip-hop music is a gritty, flamboyant world filled with heroes and villains who fight with words and music and dance, so he paints their struggles and triumphs with the dramatic intensity of a Bronze Age superhero comic. [Oliver Sava]

Manifest Destiny (Image)

The Walking Dead may be the industry’s top horror comic, but readers looking for a less conventional horror story with more visual splendor should seek out this ongoing series by writer Chris Dingess, artist Matthew Roberts, and colorist Owen Gieni. It offers all the ensemble drama of Robert Kirkman’s title with a less claustrophobic atmosphere, exploring the sweeping landscape of the American frontier by detailing Lewis and Clark’s Western expedition. Dingess’ story uses the surroundings to create deadly threats for the explorers, but as is usually the case, the real terror comes from human nature. Roberts brings a legitimate sense of wonder to the title with his rolling landscapes, and the organic beauty is accentuated by Gieni’s rich palette. The art team is equally skilled with smaller-scale moments, helping to heighten the tension during the book’s most frightful moments. [Oliver Sava]

Megg, Mogg, & Owl (Online/Fantagraphics)

This reviewer has spent more time than he likes to admit trying to figure out how to explain the appeal of Simon Hanselmann’s Megg, Mogg, & Owl series. It’s not that they’re not good comics. But trying to describe why can be difficult. It’s about an unemployed witch and her cat familiar/lover, who share a house with an uptight owl who hates his 9-to-5 job, and they do drugs and sex and depression, and not a whole lot else, really. The best way to describe these comics to anyone who hasn’t read them is simply to say they feel complete, with everything precisely in its right place, as if Hanselmann’s tiny panels really were just little windows into a strange universe of post-college weirdos, slackers, and psychotics who just happen to be talking animals. Fantagraphics just released the first collection, Megahex. Buy this because it deserves to sell a million copies. [Tim O’Neil]

Mind MGMT (Dark Horse)

The stakes are constantly growing as Matt Kindt’s ongoing series approaches its endpoint, with two camps of former Mind MGMT agents going to war to gain new psychic recruits for their causes. Leading one side is Meru, the enigmatic central protagonist who is finally learning to grasp her full power, and on the other is the Eraser, the woman trying to rebuild Mind MGMT and doing a damn good job of it. With many of the book’s secrets revealed (but not all of them), this past year has accelerated the present-day conflict, pushing the story into white-knuckle action territory that has taken a major toll on the core group of heroes. Kindt’s art continues to experiment with structure and rendering techniques as the plot intensifies, and his refined design sensibility makes each issue of Mind MGMT a captivating package. [Oliver Sava]

Moon Knight (Marvel)

Moon Knight has had a rough few years. He’s one of those characters seemingly everyone thinks should be bigger than he is, but the trail of canceled series in his wake tells a different story. There was no reason to think the Marvel NOW incarnation would be any different, except, magically, it was. After a few years laying back in the cut, Warren Ellis returned with artist Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire to revive the Lunar Avenger’s sagging fortunes with a six-issue run that could serve as a new template for how to revive a lapsed character. It’s so simple it’s brilliant: Moon Knight was never broken to begin with, so attempts to fix him were fundamentally misguided. All that was needed was a return to the character’s roots, the same spooky, stylish, and slightly crazy hero that Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz made famous all those years ago (albeit with a new set of dapper threads). Six done-in-one, plot-light but mood-heavy virtuoso set pieces later, Ellis and Shalvey were gone. But man, those six issues were worth it. [Tim O’Neil]

Ms. Marvel (Marvel)

A Pakistani American teenage girl caught between her strict Muslim upbringing and the pressures of adolescence, Kamala Khan is at the forefront of the movement for more diverse heroes, and it’s easy to see why. Writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona have made Ms. Marvel one of the most delightful ongoing series by creating a multi-dimensional, extremely likable lead character carved from the traditional Marvel mold, but whose background gives her stories a decidedly different flavor. It’s a rare superhero comic that makes religion a major part of the narrative, and Wilson’s nuanced handling of Kamala’s relationship with Islam enlightens readers to a culture that is often misrepresented in media. Whether Kamala is fighting junkyard robots or getting counseling at her mosque, Alphona’s artwork brings loads of energy and style to the proceedings, and his huge range of character expressions makes him a perfect fit for Wilson’s emotional story. [Oliver Sava]

The Multiversity (DC)

Grant Morrison’s writing can get heavy-handed with the metatextual elements, but he’s still one of the sharpest conceptual thinkers in superhero comics, as evidenced by this limited series of one-shots set on different Earths in DC’s Multiverse. Teaming with an eclectic group of artists that includes Ivan Reis, Chris Sprouse, Ben Oliver, and Frank Quitely, Morrison has introduced a plethora of ideas across the first four issues, exploring a different aspect of superhero comics with each new story. The first chapter looks at the current state of the genre, the second delves into the pulp influence on superhero comics, the third explores themes of celebrity and legacy in a superhero world, and the fourth, the much-anticipated Pax Americana, dissects modern superheroes with a structurally complex riff on Watchmen. Unpredictable, dense, and visually striking, The Multiversity’s captivating one-shots showcase the massive potential of DC’s characters and concepts in Morrison’s hands. [Oliver Sava]

Saga (Image)

It’s amazing what a time jump can do. Just when it starts to look like writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples are settling into a groove with their sci-fi domestic drama, the story jumps forward in time with its fourth arc for a new status quo that makes the situation grimmer than ever before for parents Marko and Alana. Drug abuse, domestic violence, and adultery all come into play for Saga’s saddest story yet, and doing major damage to Marko and Alana’s relationship has energized the book’s forward momentum. The relationship drama forces Staples to push herself with character expression, and the introduction of a hallucinogenic drug takes her art into dazzlingly psychedelic territory. Saga is truly a title where anything and everything is possible, which does great things for the story, but makes for an emotionally taxing read when things go wrong. [Oliver Sava]

Savage Dragon (Image)

Nothing is less sexy than consistency, but that’s not Erik Larsen’s fault. Savage Dragon has been in more-or-less continual publication since 1992, and every issue of the series has been written, drawn, and inked by Larsen himself. This December marks the release of issue #200, which puts him in rarified company with, um, basically just Dave Sim. (True, Sim self-published, but he also had Gerhard to help out along the way.) From the beginning, Larsen committed to following real time with his narrative, and for that reason Savage Dragon is perhaps the most unpredictable book on the stands. Characters are only revealed for a few panels each month, so over the years Larsen has developed a concise shorthand for communicating character development, in subtle contrast to the bombastic, breathtaking action that comprises the book’s meat-and-potatoes. Years pass, stories come and go, and even the main characters change, but Larsen’s 22-year epic keeps on rolling. [Tim O’Neil]

Sex Criminals (Image)

The first arc of writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky’s crime series skillfully balances comedy and drama as it tells the story of two lovers who decide to rob a bank after discovering they can both stop time with their orgasms, but shifting that balance toward drama has brought more complexity to the title moving forward. From the start, Fraction’s scripts have proven immensely insightful when it comes to sexual expression, but they’ve become more psychologically dense as the narrative reveals more about the characters and their individual mental issues. This has led to a darkening of the plot that is reflected in Zdarsky’s artwork, creating a more ominous, dreary atmosphere that contrasts with the brightness of the book’s early issues. It’s still a very colorful, funny book, but this creative team has brought more depth to their high concept by exploring the dark side of this sexy situation. [Oliver Sava]

She-Hulk (Marvel)

2014 was officially The Year Of Charles Soule, with the newly minted superstar writer pulling quadruple duty at both Marvel and DC. But anyone thinking Soule’s virtue lay solely in his superhuman ability to hit deadlines needed look no further than Marvel’s She-Hulk to put that theory to rest. She-Hulk is never a big seller, but she has a proud history of off-kilter solo stories, and Soule’s run—enabled (mostly) by artist Javier Pulido and colorist Muntsa Vicente—is an excellent addition to that canon. Jen Walters is a funny and confident professional holding down two difficult-to-impossible jobs as both lawyer and superhero, and it is to Soule’s credit that her legal adventures are far more engaging than her slugfests (it helps that Soule himself is also a practicing attorney). Easily the cleverest book on the stands by a wide mile, She-Hulk has sadly been canceled, but with Soule now exclusive to Marvel, odds are good that a high-profile relaunch may be in the wings. [Tim O’Neil]

Shutter (Image)

Kate Kristopher was a world-famous child explorer until her father died 10 years ago, but she’s involuntarily thrust into the greatest adventure of her life when she learns about the siblings she never knew she had. Like Saga, this series delivers grounded, personal storytelling in a fantastic setting, but rather than taking to the skies, Shutter is set on an Earth that is a melting pot of different genre elements. Writer Joe Keatinge builds an engaging narrative as he explores Kate’s secret family history and the way it upends her life, but the main attraction of this series is the superb artwork by Leila Del Duca and colorist Owen Gieni, who realize this extraordinary setting in impeccable detail. Del Duca’s design work creates characters and environments that are immediately arresting, and the visual impact is amplified by the texture and dimension of Gieni’s colors. [Oliver Sava]

Southern Bastards (Image)

Writer Jason Aaron and Jason Latour craft a chilling introduction to the depraved world of Craw County, Alabama, in the first four issues of their ongoing series, but at the end of that opening arc, they deliver a cliffhanger that changes everything for the book moving forward. It’s one of the most shocking moments in comics this year (which certainly won’t be spoiled here), making a bold statement on the cycle of violence that has defined much of American history as it delivers a major blow to the status quo. Like Aaron’s previous series Scalped, Southern Bastards is a riveting crime yarn set in a tight-knit community, which Latour captures in evocative detail. The team does exceptional work creating an atmosphere that combines down-home Southern charm with a pervasive sense of menace, and the juxtaposition of these two elements is what gives Southern Bastards its inimitable attitude. [Oliver Sava]

Swamp Thing (DC)

This is Charles Soule’s other best book. Just as with She-Hulk at Marvel, Swamp Thing was Soule’s signature series at DC. While much of his effort at the company was spent heroically keeping massive events like Doomed from running into the ditch, Soule kept Swamp Thing intimate and focused. Scaling back from the cosmic scale of Scott Snyder’s run, Soule kept the spotlight focused on his green hero, the erstwhile Alec Holland, along with a small crew of well-defined supporting characters and antagonists. The joy of this run has been seeing Soule open up a range of vast potential simply by sifting around in the character’s basic premise, opening up dozens of potential directions by exploring the eons-long history of Swamp Thing as an office, as well as the existence of other avatars besides the familiar Green, Red, and Rot. Sadly, Soule’s tenure comes to an end with his Marvel exclusive, but future writers will surely be exploring the reverberations of Soule’s brief run for years to come. [Tim O’Neil]

Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe (IDW)

After concluding the epic Gødland with Joe Casey, and suffering a muted reaction to some criminally underrated solo work (American Barbarian, Satan’s Soldier), Tom Scioli was exhausted physically and mentally, and ready to retire from comics altogether. Who could have guessed that his creative rebirth would come in the form of Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe? Even if it seems odd at first, it makes sense, really: Both long-lived Hasbro toy lines began life as Marvel comics, and even though the company never owned the trademarks, the core mythology and imagery of both properties is and has always been late-Bronze Age Marvel. But this is more than just peeling off the crusty corporate skin to find the sturdy Kirby-by-way-of-Trimpe skeleton underneath: Scioli’s work is always weirder than that. Kirby is still there, but so is Moebius and Gary Panter. Purists may bristle at Scioli’s liberties, but should remember these are toys. Scioli gets that it should be fun, and it is. [Tim O’Neil]

The Wicked + The Divine (Image)

Before the onset of the Trojan War, Achilles was given a prophetic choice: Either remain in Aegina and live a long and obscure life, or sail to Troy, die young, and be forever remembered. It’s a trade-off only a young man could make. This is the conflict at the heart of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine: A pantheon of 12 gods take human form every 90 years, hijacking the bodies of young men and women eager to give themselves over to the temptations of fame and fortune for a mere two years before, inevitably, dying. In the year 2014 there is nothing more interesting for the gods and goddesses of ancient myth than to be pop stars, so that’s what they do. The gods themselves are terrible, selfish creatures, unconcerned with the children who are immolated (figuratively and literally) in their wakes. It isn’t clear yet just where the series is headed—Lucifer has a plan, you see—but just whatever plan is and whether it involves cheating the reaper at the end of the allotted two years remains to be seen. [Tim O’Neil]

Zero (Image)

What happens to the mind of a secret agent after years of violent traumatic experiences? That question is what sets Ales Kot’s ongoing series apart from the typical action comic. There’s plenty of dynamic, forceful combat courtesy of Kot and his artistic collaborators, but violence is never glorified and the choices made during these encounters reverberate through the characters’ lives and become more painful with time. With a different artist for every issue, each chapter of Zero functions as a standalone story, a decision that is reflected in Jordie Bellaire’s highly specific coloring and Tom Muller’s fluid design aesthetic, which change to suit the content of each plot. The book is constantly evolving, and Kot’s decision to work with a new artist every month has brought astounding depth and personality to the series’ visuals as the story ventures deeper into Edward Zero’s psyche. [Oliver Sava]