Comic books have been a big part of my life as far back as eight-years-old. Throughout my tweens into my early thirties, I read comics religiously until I began my path as a news, hockey and music journalist and focused all of my energies in those media. I used to work in a comic book shop in the early nineties as one of two jobs I held part-time while going to college. Then in my mid-twenties, I used to write for Cyber Age Adventures, an online superhero fiction hub where I created my own characters and serialized storylines. Five of those stories appear in the trade paperback Playing Solitaire.
A couple years back, I took my son to Free Comic Book Day and he flipped his lid. His enthusiasm was infectious as I grabbed a whole bunch of catch-up issues out of the dollar box so by the time Free Comic Book Day came around again in 2013, I was ripe to dive headfirst back into the genre. In early 2013, I spotted Gail Simone's Batgirl reboot and knew I would be hooked. I was thrilled to see Babs out of her wheelchair and in the leathers, no longer the pitifully limited ally of Batman, Oracle.
Yeah, DC wiped the slate clean with their New 52 line, just as some of the other imprints hit the reset button on their books recently. Nonetheless, I've always been a supporter of the Batgirl character and was fine with the mute Cassandra Cain version in 2000. Cain kicked some ass in her time under the cowl, I have to admit. The Stephanie Brown Batgirl era I missed out on and not to be a total dweeb, but a blonde Batgirl? Nah. Red's where it's at, and I was ecstatic to see the one and only ginger Barbara Gordon in the suit, red-hot, intelligent and tough as hell. Moreover, with Simone's humanistic writing approach, I actually felt invested in Babs' new exploits and that old comic book magic wove its spell over me once again.
Soon enough, I began trolling my old boxes of comics that I was saving for my son when he gets older and then hoarding all I could find in today's scene. I devoured comics and graphic novels in 2013 with the explicit purpose of writing in the medium. I studied everything I could and penned a 64-page graphic novel script last year that I envision turning into a full series, "Drowning Man." Then recently I discovered Top Cow Comics is running their Talent Hunt again this year and I spent much of November and December consuming Ron Marz's brilliant works for them. The man has all but singlehandedly created his own universe under that imprint and now that I've finished my 22-page rough draft for the Talent Hunt, I'm ready to tweak and polish it and pray to the universe I have a winner.
Thus with much renewed excitement for comic books this past year, I thought I'd touch on what I felt was the crème de la crème of the medium.
1. Batgirl - Of all the books DC Comics rebooted under the often impressive New 52 line (especially the spectacular "Night of the Owls" and "Death of the Family" crossover epics), Batgirl made the most sense. One of the most underrated characters of the genre, it's been criminal watching Babs being relegated to her previous role as the disabled tech wunderkind, Oracle. Gail Simone's writing is the best treatment of Barbara Gordon I've ever seen. Each issue, we feel like we're deep inside Babs' head and she's fierce on top of confused. Keeping the core plot of Joker temporarily crippling Gordon, her recovery and ascent to the cowl was inspirational. Her recent blood feud against her sociopathic brother was truly gut-wrenching, particularly with her father, Commissioner Gordon, holding a vendetta against Batgirl in the aftermath of that conflict. The artwork is almost always stunning each issue. Absolutely, the best book on the market.
2. Artifacts - What Ron Marz has accomplished for Top Cow is extraordinary. His work on Witchblade and Artifacts has fostered a core universe of characters that he has methodically nurtured and expanded with such attentiveness to characterization and realistic events that undermine the supernatural aura of his otherworldly microcosm. Defrocked priest Tom Judge, who is the lead character of this series, can rip some ass with his powers, yet the core premise (and drama) of the series is the potential defragmentation of the world as we know it if the scattered thirteen artifacts that need human hosts to be effective are brought together in unison. Marz's writing is edgy, witty and often poignant. If my own creative juices have been sparked by today's writers, Marz is one who has inspired me greatly. Some of the most exhilarating artwork in the business graces this series and Witchblade courtesy of Stjepan Sejic. Unfortunately, it was announced that Issue # 32 would be Ron Marz's last for Artifacts.
3. Fatale - Ed Brubaker was always a favorite of mine in the nineties. I was addicted to his work on The Spectre, so I automatically flocked to Fatale just by his reputation. My instincts served me well. This was originally built as a 12-issue maxi series, but I'm glad to see it continue on. It's a beautifully ugly noir series centered around Josephine (or "Jo"), who, as the series title implies, is a seemingly ageless femme fatale starlet from the 1930s. Her misadventures cover different eras of time, which has given Brubaker the opportunity to open the door to almost infinite possibilities for Jo. Thus far, most of the men who've been smitten by Jo have paid a dear and bloody price, but it's been intriguing to watch the sexually-charged Jo work her way into various scenarios with a seeming obtuseness to time and place as things go to hell around her.
4. Red Sonja - Gail Simone strikes gold twice in the same year. I spent my teen years reading Conan the Barbarian pulp novels, yet I fancy Red Sonja over him in many ways. One reason is purely hormonal. No matter how older I get or what family obligations I have, Red Sonja is the ultimate male fantasy figure. Sexy, street-smart, the fastest blade in any kingdom and forever unattainable, Red Sonja has been in great hands over the years with the Dynamite imprint. I've enjoyed what they've done with this character along with Miss Fury and Warlord of Mars. Hiring Gail Simone and restarting the series (minus the "She-Devil With a Sword" tag) was a huge move and Simone's debut six-parter "Queen of Plagues" is the best story arc under Dynamite since the Red Sonja vs. Thulsa Doom miniseries. This was one of the most passionate and emotional stories I read in 2013 and I constantly sat on the edge waiting for each issue to come out.
5. Thor: God of Thunder - Finally, Thor with balls! Thank God Marvel gave Jason Aaron license to amp up the Asgardian liege with occasional risqué humor, hilarious debauchery and a lot of heavy-handed butt-kicking you don't normally get in regular Thor series from the past. The "Godbomb" storyline and "The Accursed" (current arc) are some of the finest and most intense narratives of Thor yet produced. Issue # 12, "Once Upon a Time in Midgard," was a standalone masterpiece, showing a very sensitive approach to what a god truly means to people on Earth. Thor's humane responses to prayers in this story was just beautiful and worthy of his majestic stature. Thus far, Marvel's given Jason Aaron some exceptional art teams including Esad Ribic, Nic Klein, Ron Garney and Emanuela Lupacchino.
6. Batman, Incorporated - Grant Morrison is, to me, royalty in the comics world. Like Neil Gaiman, Morrison ruled DC's Vertigo line with everything he touched, jacking up Batman earlier with his "Gothic" story arc for Legends of the Dark Knight. Morrison opened up the New 52 redux of Action Comics with intriguing results, but Batman, Incorporated has to be one of the most left-of-center yet dramatic series featuring the Dark Knight we've ever seen. With all the characters Morrison brought into Bruce Wayne's Bat army, it seems anticlimactic the whole thing is pretty much done. Still, through two different runs of Batman, Incorporated, Grant Morrison escalated the shaky romance between Bruce and Talia al Ghul, pushing their dicey association to the brink that saw the death of Batman's son, the new Robin, and one hell of a showdown against Talia. The series has been quirky at times, but Morrison's writing has always kept this one pushed to the edge at all times. Curtain call, please...
7. Aphrodite IX - If you've followed the Top Cow universe between the aforementioned Witchblade and Artifacts, plus Cyber Force, you're no stranger to the Aphrodite cyborg assassins that might be considered the Riot Grrrl answer to The Terminator. Aphrodite too has been upgraded into sequential models over the years, culminating in Matt Hawkins' new series, which pits an advanced model as a hired gun in the midst of squabbling families set in a futuristic world with clones and dragons. The key here is that Aphrodite IX is programmed to kill, yet her protocol triggers an instant memory wipe with each hit. As she gets close to the prince whose family is targeted, this sets up for a great drama. The artwork through the first five issues was eye-popping, once again mastered by Stjepan Sejic. As of the sixth issue, a new story arc and art team is sending the series in a different direction where yet another advanced Aphrodite model checks in against our anti-heroine.
8. Ferals - You take The Howling and go a single X rating and you have this boundary-pushing series. Gratuitous sex and gore galore from David Lapham, but his strategic plotting is why Ferals matters. The methodic mating and subsequent loosening of lycanthropes upon the world seems simplistic on the front, yet Lapham smartly tricks his readers at times and Ferals hustles with almost zero let-up. With werewolves tearing the crap out of Salt Lake City, Avatar Press is shifting this series under a new title, Ferals: Unleashed. Avatar's Crossed series is far more over-the-top (easily within the shock factor grasp of Faust), and that's saying something.
9. Captain America: Living Legend - This four issue miniseries by Andy Diggle was everything I've been looking for out of Cap for some time now. I didn't know at first it was only a miniseries, but despite this story coming off, to some degrees, as The Thing From Another World against Captain American in Siberia, I was glued to it and not just because of Augustin Alessio's spectacular art work.
This had an old school Cap feel to it with a contemporary luster and the final two pages of the story made me snap off a well-deserved salute.
10. Death Sentence - This miniseries from UK publisher Titan Comics is still in-progress, but there was no one I was more jealous of his writing than Montynero's. Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll never goes out of fashion, but pile it on with a life-robbing disease that grants the afflicted supernatural powers in their final days? It's so gonzo it's a mandatory read. I don't think I've laughed so much and felt awkward for doing so since Tank Girl and early Lobo. Then again, there was Harley Quinn # 0 this year as well...
Justice League and Justice League of America - While I'm just about over the ongoing "Forever Evil" crossover event at DC, the issues of these two series leading up to the imprint's Villains Month and "Forever Evil" arc were gorgeously illustrated and frequently entertaining. I especially liked the new JLA acting as a covert team, in effect assembled to stop the main Justice League in the event the former ever went rogue. Having Steve Trevor lead the JLA after getting jilted by Wonder Woman was good stuff.
The Star Wars - What's probably considered the most epic event of Dark Horse's Star Wars titles, this miniseries presenting George Lucas' original script for "A New Hope" has been a wild ride and in some ways, it explains certain views the other films would take, in particular the prequels. It's also deeply insightful as to how much work Lucas had to do in order to get the original film into the mainstream pop culture thrill ride it became. This is a totally different beast than what we know and love.
Harley Quinn # 0 - As I mentioned before, I roared with this brilliant satire that's worthy of John Byrne's hilarious romps with She-Hulk. While the Harley issue during Villains Month at DC (an event that was hit and miss but full of awesome hologram covers) was snarky, # 0 resembled the Looney Tunes classic "Duck Amuck" where Daffy Duck gets dicked with mercilessly by an unseen painter who turns out to be Bugs Bunny. In this case, Harley's hip to what's happening page-by-page, but the scores of artists who put her into some ridiculous situations sets up for one of the funniest single-shot stories this side of Howard the Duck. The first issue of Harley's new ongoing series doesn't have the same heat, but I'll give it some time before passing judgment.
Warlord of Mars - Not officially sanctioned by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, I still applaud Dynamite's ingenuity by presenting John Carter close to the original source and even more, like an installment of Den from Heavy Metal magazine without going full monty. I know why most fans ripped on Disney's John Carter since there was no skin trade to ogle at nor much grue. I actually dig the recent John Carter film, but I love Warlord of Mars. It's sleazy, but it's also well-written and always full of action and backstabbing politics. They say comics are reflective of actual society, right?
Superman/Wonder Woman - This series is still young, but oh, the possibilities already brewing... Supes and W.W. have had modifications to their outfits courtesy of the New 52 overhaul, but pitting them in a romance? Yowza, that's juicy. Yeah, they've swapped spit here and there over the years, but Superman's undying love for Lois Lane has gotten, well, trite at this point. I'm a purist and was pissed off that Marvel split up Peter Parker and Mary Jane after I grew up praying they'd get married, but in this case, having two of the most powerful beings in the comic world hook up just makes sense. At least for now, until Clark leaves the toilet seat up in the Fortress of Solitude one too many times when Diana's checking in for a booty call.
Witchblade - I was there when this series started, so it felt good coming back as part of an intensive research session for my Top Cow Talent Hunt script entry. I've hit the trade paperbacks and read up on Sara Pezzini's recent doings since the Top Cow Rebirth and I see so much potential for her future. I've gotten so close to this character while studying her I have a strange love for Pez, you know, like the Depeche Mode song, only for comic nerds. Marc Silvestri paid homage to the Uncanny X-Men with his killer cover for Witchblade #170 and that got my horns up, even if I sighed for a moment as well. I used to have the Uncanny X-Men issue in question and it was autographed by Jim Lee. Alas, it was sold to pay a bill. So it goes, as Vonnegut and Nick Lowe would wag...
Listenin' to: Screaming Trees - Uncle Anesthesia
Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.
He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.
Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.