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The best superhero and mainstream comics of 2012

This past year, DC and Marvel underwent significant line-wide changes; Image Comics rose as the primary publisher for diverse, creator-owned content; superhero films continued to dominate the box office; and the industry saw a huge push for digital comics. The result was an incredibly eventful 2012, featuring new works by some of the most inspiring creators in the medium. Here are The A.V. Club’s picks for the top superhero and mainstream comic books of an extraordinary year.

10. All-Star Western (DC)
Relocating Jonah Hex to Gotham City gave All-Star Western a considerable sales boost, but two inspired partnerships have made this book one of DC’s best. Teaming artist Moritat with the Jonah Hex writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray was a genius move, as Moritat creates a dirty urban environment that is somehow even nastier than present-day Gotham. The second pairing is that of Jonah Hex and Dr. Amadeus Arkham, which adds a delightful Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson dynamic that allows for comic relief in the midst of the grisly bloodshed. Moritat’s breathtaking action-sequence layouts amplify the impact of each fist, bullet, and knife, while his keen eye for architectural design makes each new environment immersive. In backup stories illustrated by the likes of Phil Winslade, José Luis García-López, and Dan Green, Palmiotti and Gray get the opportunity to flesh out DC’s other Western characters, exploring the far reaches of this past world while Jonah makes Gotham his home. 

9. Punk Rock Jesus (Vertigo)
This year will be Karen Berger’s last as executive editor of DC’s Vertigo titles, leaving the future of the mature-reader imprint in question as more of its characters are folded into the New 52. Vertigo was once the place where old DC properties could be revived with new adult sensibilities, but now its major value comes from projects like Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus, a creator-owned miniseries that’s not afraid to push boundaries and buttons. A scathing commentary on contemporary politics, religion, and pop culture, Murphy’s sci-fi story centers on Chris, a clone of Jesus Christ raised on a Truman Show-like television program. As the title suggests, Chris strays from his path, falling from televised grace to ascend as a punk-rock star in a swiftly paced, action-packed narrative. Murphy’s stark black-and-white artwork shows off his remarkable inking skills, giving the book a gritty aesthetic that highlights the dark side of its futuristic world. 

8. Adventure Time (Kaboom)
Coinciding with two incredible seasons of the Adventure Time cartoon, Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, and Braden Lamb’s Adventure Time comic book is an essential read for fans of the TV show and humor comics in general. Writer North takes advantage of the comic-book medium to tell stories that can’t be replicated on screen, and each page is a self-contained gag that’s part of a larger narrative (with plenty of smaller jokes within). Paroline and Lamb perfectly replicate the style of the cartoon, filling each page with details that readers don’t have to push pause to fully take in. Each issue also includes backup stories by some of the industry’s top alternative-comics talent, exploring the different corners of the Adventure Time universe through the inimitable creative vision of artists like Paul Pope, Lucy Knisley, and Aaron Renier. 

7. Conan The Barbarian (Dark Horse)
Who would have thought that Conan The Barbarian would become a spotlight for some of the most stunning art in comic books? Taking the multiple-artist format of his Vertigo series Northlanders, Brian Wood matches each of his stories to the strengths of his individual collaborators, whether it’s the smooth sexuality of Becky Cloonan, the awe-inspiring vistas of James Harren, or the coarse but kinetic action of Vasilis Lolos. The different art styles are unified by Wood’s confident narrative voice, which evokes Robert E. Howard’s prose without drawing too much attention away from the visuals. By focusing the story on Conan’s relationship with the pirate queen Belît, Wood has created one of the most personal Conan books in recent memory, but the romance is balanced by unflinching violence to make sure that no one forgets the “barbarian” in the title. 

6. Daredevil (Marvel)
Mark Waid’s Daredevil dominated this year’s Eisner awards, and for good reason. The series has been Marvel’s most consistent title since being relaunched last summer, and this past year saw Waid push the book into darker territory while maintaining the cheerier superhero tone that defined his initial issues. It creates a fascinating dynamic within the story, and the fluctuations in tone reflect Matt Murdock’s mental and emotional highs and lows. With its all-star lineup of artists including Paolo Rivera, Chris Samnee, and Michael Allred, Daredevil is Marvel’s most visually spectacular book of the year, and Waid’s scripts bring out the best in each of his collaborators. Waid and Samnee are a particularly strong team, also working together on the high-flying Rocketeer: Cargo Of Doom mini-series, a refreshingly idealistic alternative to the psychological thriller currently unfolding in Daredevil

5. The Manhattan Projects (Image)
Jonathan Hickman has become the industry’s most reliable creator for big sci-fi ideas, and his alternate-universe history with artist Nick Pitarra has sent his imagination into orbit. What if the group of scientists responsible for the creation of the atom bomb became the shadow government of the entire United States? What if that group included Robert Oppenheimer’s insane cannibal twin, an evil Einstein from another dimension, Enrico Fermi the alien, and FDR in a computer? The Manhattan Projects is a series of “what ifs” that takes America in a turbulent new direction after World War II, using fact as a jumping-off point for increasingly shocking fiction. Pitarra’s artwork has shades of Frank Quitely and Geof Darrow’s hyper-detailed work, exquisitely capturing the cast’s real-world likenesses. And when things go crazy in Hickman’s script, Pitarra is able to showcase his superb sci-fi design work, creating visuals that are as innovative as the story.

4. Wonder Woman (DC)
Of DC’s top-tier superhero titles, the only book that has really taken advantage of the New 52 to push its lead character in a dramatically different direction is Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, and Tony Akins’ Wonder Woman. By turning Diana into the daughter of Zeus, Azzarello brought a renewed sense of focus to the character, throwing her in the middle of a Greek-god family drama when she pledges to protect the mother of Zeus’ most recent bastard offspring. Wonder Woman has benefitted by separating itself from the happenings of the main DCU, like Diana’s random romance with Superman, allowing Azzarello to develop the exact vision of Wonder Woman he wants. It’s a vision beautifully realized by Chiang and Akins, who bring a Silver Age energy to the story without detracting from the horror elements of the script. That Silver Age influence will be welcome when Azzarello introduces Jack Kirby’s New Gods to the title, teased in this year’s best monosyllabic cliffhanger: “BOOM.”

3. Saga (Image) 
Brian K. Vaughan’s return to comics after a brief Hollywood hiatus is a mash-up of genres: a romantic epic set during a war between sci-fi and fantasy-inspired worlds, grounded in real-world problems faced by new parents. Marko and Alana are lovers from two dueling worlds whose new daughter Hazel threatens the future of a centuries-old conflict, and they’re on the run from half-spider bounty hunters and robotic royalty—all while trying to find a babysitter and meeting the in-laws for the first time. Saga is a deeply relatable yet fascinatingly alien story, full of captivating characters, exotic locales, and surprising twists. Vaughan has found the perfect artist for his ambitious script in Fiona Staples, whose inspired design sense and fluid digital renderings give the book a cinematic flair. Staples pencils, inks, colors, and hand-letters the narration of every issue, and her work has only become tighter with each new challenge presented by the expansive world Vaughan is building. 

2. Hawkeye (Marvel)
Like last year’s Daredevil, it was clear from the very first issue that Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye was going to be something special. The reunited Immortal Iron Fist creative team gives Marvel’s premier archer a new sense of purpose by turning him into the ultimate superhero everyman, one as likely to fight evil landlords as world-threatening supervillains. The addition of the Marvel universe’s other Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, has turned Hawkeye into comics’ most entertaining action buddy comedy, elevated by the bold, graphic artwork of David Aja and Javier Pulido. The single-issue story has become a rare breed in the age of graphic novels, but Fraction shows a mastery of the standalone tale with Hawkeye’s first three issues. The Avengers film didn’t do much to justify an archer’s place on a team of superheroes, but after reading #3’s “Cherry,” readers will never again doubt the efficiency of a quiver full of arrows on the battlefield.

1. Prophet (Image)
Brandon Graham saw a year of accomplishments, including the release of his brilliant graphic novel King City and return of his sci-fi sex comedy Multiple Warheads, but none of Graham’s feats are as impressive as his revival of an old Rob Liefeld character in the pages of Prophet. With the help of collaborators Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis, Graham transforms an almost-20-year-old Captain America rip-off into the year’s best comic, a sprawling sci-fi epic that drops readers into an exhilarating new adventure every month. Despite the dystopian, futuristic landscape, Graham’s unique creative sensibility ensures that there’s no shortage of sex and humor, resulting in a comic that reads unlike any other book on the stands. Each of the artists (including Graham himself) has his own distinct style, but the synergy between the creators keeps the narrative cohesive yet unpredictable. It’s never clear what direction Prophet will go in next, and that’s a big part of the appeal. 

Individual awards:
Best retcon: Batman (DC)
Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman has contained a number of startling twists, but none were as shocking as the reveal that Bruce Wayne had a younger brother raised by the evil Court Of Owls to become their answer to Gotham’s Dark Knight: Owlman. While there has been doubt cast on the truth of the allegations detailed by Thomas Wayne, Jr., the possibility that Batman’s latest rogue is his brother poses a great new conflict for Bruce Wayne and challenges everything he thought he knew about his past. 

Best crossover: Spider-Men (Marvel)
The death of Peter Parker was one of the most gut-wrenching moments of Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, but it gave Bendis the opportunity to tell an intensely emotional story when Marvel’s 616 and Ultimate universes had their first proper crossover. The meeting of adult Peter Parker and new Spider-Man Miles Morales leads to delightful action-comedy hijinx, but the high point is Aunt May and Gwen Stacy’s emotional reunion with their loved one, who may hail from an alternate universe but is still the hero they remember. 

Best revival: X-O Manowar (Valiant)
For the first title of the new Valiant Entertainment, The Surrogates writer Robert Venditti teams with former Conan artist Cary Nord to tell the tale of a Visigoth-soldier-turned-slave trapped in the present day wearing a suit of devastatingly powerful alien armor. Venditti crafts a cinematic sci-fi thriller that paints the title character as a primal warrior rather than a contemporary superhero, a decision that is highlighted by Nord’s naturalistic artwork.

Best new character: Bandette (Monkeybrain)
Chris Roberson’s digital initiative Monkeybrian Comics features a number of exciting new titles and characters, but none are as charming as the adorable Bandette. If Catwoman and Tintin had a child, she would probably be a lot like Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s heroine, a part-time dancer, part-time thief who traverses the streets of a bright European city with a smile on her face and a puppy by her side. There have only been three issues of Bandette, but her playful point of view and snappy retro design make her a character to look out for in the future. 

Best single issue: FF #23 (Marvel)
Jonathan Hickman ends a landmark run on Marvel’s first family with a beautiful issue celebrating the power of imagination and family, two themes that have defined the best Fantastic Four stories. The team’s most powerful member, Franklin Richards, takes the spotlight as his future self teaches him about the wonders that exist inside his mind, with Hickman using Franklin’s reality-altering abilities as a metaphor for the possibilities of comic-book storytelling. Nick Dragotta’s Kirby-inspired artwork pays tribute to the creativity of the Fantastic Four co-creator, resulting in an issue that honors the past while bravely moving into the future.

Best fix: Captain Marvel (Marvel)
Carol Danvers is one of Marvel’s premier superheroines, and she’s finally getting the attention she deserves with a new name, costume, and ongoing series written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. By losing the “Ms.” from her superhero name and fully embracing her role in the Captain Marvel legacy, Carol has become a more proactive hero. Jamie McKelvie uses a military flight suit as the starting point for his Captain Marvel costume redesign, giving Carol one of the most functional female superhero uniforms in comics and proving that a female character can still be beautiful without showing skin. 

Best concept: Dial H (DC)
An elderly woman and an overweight schlub team up to discover the mysteries of a mystical dial that grants superpowers to whoever pushes the right buttons in China Miéville’s daring reimaging of the classic DC property Dial H For Hero, easily the most off-kilter of DC’s New 52 titles. To further complicate matters, those dial-given powers are stolen from superheroes in alternate dimensions, and they’re not happy about having their abilities taken away. With the aid of artists Mateus Santolouco, David Lapham, and Riccardo Burchielli, novelist Miéville has created a superhero title that challenges the conventions of the medium while introducing a steady stream of ridiculous heroes like Captain Lachrymose, Control+Alt+Delete, and Cock-A-Hoop.

Best miniseries turned ongoing: Courtney Crumrin (Oni)
Ted Naifeh’s delightful tween heroine Courtney Crumrin has been the star of multiple black-and-white miniseries, and this year she makes the leap to her first full-color ongoing. This industry can always use more books geared toward young, female readers, especially ones that are as clever, nuanced, and atmospheric as Courtney Crumrin. Naifeh’s artwork falls somewhere between Charles Schultz and Mike Mignola, equal parts playful and creepy, and now given extra dimension by Warren Wucinich’s finely tuned coloring. 

Best book that no one asked for: Silk Spectre (DC)
DC’s Before Watchmen was the most controversial publishing event of the past year, and while the titles have varied in quality, Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner’s Silk Spectre is a sophisticated character study presented as a tribute to classic romance comics. Presented via Watchmen’s nine-panel page structure, Cooke and Connor’s story follows Laurie Juspeczyk’s coming-of-age, as she flees from her overbearing mother into a world of drugs, sex, and heartbreak in San Francisco. The two creators have electric creative chemistry, and Conner’s artwork brings a youthful energy that is perfect for Cooke’s story of teenage love and adult regrets.