Dec 19 2012 5:00pm

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won’t See in 2013

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

It’s the special sorcery of serial fiction that it can make you look forward desperately to the very point at which there will nothing left of it. Having enjoyed successive cliffhangers, you’re happy to be taken just short of the last ledge, while the story leaps into history and you’re left with a lifetime memory.

In periodical fiction, there’s a lot a lot to be said for succeeding in finishing your story—we all have our fave TV dramas that were cancelled before their natural conclusion and comics suspended with years of tales left to tell.

So it was that 2012 offered more than its share of comic series with finales well worth there being literally nothing more to look forward to.

It helps to have material that never dies out because its substance circumnavigates the eternal. Writer Kieron Gillen (with rotating artists, most memorably Carmine di Giandomenico, Alan Davis and Stephanie Hans) knit the folkloric foundations of popular adventure with the contemporary storybook strains of comics in an unsurpassed way with the “Young Loki” series in Marvel’s Journey Into Mystery—a corny old title probably exhumed for copyright-protection purposes, but which marqueed one of the most clever and inventive series in the company’s history.

Concerning a God of Mischief reincarnated as a child (a witty, moralistic twist on the endless and consequence-free reboots of many pop properties), the series followed this subversive but good-hearted young god’s quest to do the right thing for the universe, as he sees it. He sees it, of course, through the warped lens of a calculating mind, and just as, in less multidimensional fiction (figuratively and literally), we’d worry about the triumph of the hero’s mission, in this one we watched for the survival of the protagonist’s heroism at all. Loki schemes several steps ahead of any healthier mind, factoring an eventual good with lots of asterisks, and in an era of agonizing global decisions this was an affecting parable of a personality willing to carry the consequences—like Judas as conceived by Borges, Loki doesn’t die for our sins, we live thanks to his; an edgy value to form a funnybook around.

The charm, humor, wonder and ingenuity of the book’s fairy tale voice and hallucinatory scenarios was like nothing in mainstream comics, and just like the Norse gods themselves it was destined to come to an end. But it reached a closure that’s as philosophically satisfying as any we can hope for; Young Loki plays cards with fate and can’t win forever, but his well-intentioned attempts and eventful, indelible run let us glimpse a short glorious season of who we might be.

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

As an apprentice in metaphysical arts, Loki is a kind of hard-boiled researcher, and it’s fitting that in an era of pop narrative that’s increasingly conscious of its own devices, some of the best stories would, on certain levels, be about story itself—and the heroes would be those for whom the word is mightier, and not just by one letter, than the sword.

The seeker-of-truth has always been a staple of popular fable; the wizard is the expert-witness of antiquity, and pop’s leading modern-day action-scholars are the Fantastic Four, a family of scientists and live-in support staff. It’s often said that superhero comics are “power fantasies,” and it’s long been said that “knowledge is power,” which is what makes the Fantastic Four franchise rather unique: it’s a knowledge fantasy.

In the hands of writer Jonathan Hickman for several miraculous years (the best with artists Steve Epting, Juan Bobillo, Nick Dragotta and di Giandomenico again), the series was illuminatingly self-referential, a saga in which future versions of the group’s resident children, Franklin and Valeria, as well as patriarch Reed Richard’s own time-traveling absentee father, return to try and rewrite a history they know will not turn out well. What might sound like a stock time-space thriller was exponentially more in Hickman’s hands—literally, for he had an imagination to grasp the infinite directions that time and narrative can go in, and an eye for the most fruitful and eventful paths. We all navigate possibilities, and changing our ongoing actions is a way of modifying the outcome of past events, which shift into something else depending on what our next moves make them have meant, if ya follow me. The Fantastic Four inhabit a workaday wonderverse in which such existential engineering is commonplace; quantum guardian angels who also epitomize the fractious and loving modern-day family.

That family was extended with a companion book, FF, standing for “Future Foundation,” a think-tank of exceptional children set up by Reed to map out viable futures with those who have the greatest stake in living them out. Most action franchises are designed to return readers to the point they started at so as to perpetuate what “worked” (that is, sold) before. The more adventurous ones turn the wheel in a way that draws in new elements which become essential to the canon. Hickman’s run brought you “back” to more of the same world than you ever imagined was there the first time, his mission and the time-travelling siblings’ a success. A parable of how the human family can survive anything it puts its mind to, the cycle showed that, like the expanding, redefining family unit itself, there are circles that can go on forever, but never have to close.

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

In an era of marriage equality, international adoptions and affinities of all occupational and social-media shapes, those family definitions are proliferating, and, in comics’ martial habitat, some are more nourishing than others. The Boys, created by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, almost met its end far short of the 72nd issue (or 90th counting related miniseries) that came out this year. Trapdoored by DC/WildStorm after a handful of issues, it found a home and acquired ever more followers at Dynamite Entertainment. Which was to comic history’s and pop erudition’s everlasting advantage, The Boys being one of the four most important and satisfying superhuman narratives of the century so far.

I use the term to distinguish from “superhero stories,” of which there are many that do their job and achieve artistic value. The superhuman narrative expands past costume conventions and reaches back to mythic precedents, with characters who are more in the realm of our recognition taking on problems magnified in scale but not scope from the ones we’re facing in fraying social orders and a transforming environment—the basic-black champions of The Matrix, the evolved strategic mind and physical modifications of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The superhuman narrative also travels an axis clear of the moral conventions of “hero” and “villain,” giving us the dysfunctional social engineers of Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy, the conflicted mercenaries of Gail Simone’s Secret Six, and the exiled and embittered divinities of Peter David’s Fallen Angel, the other three important comics I mentioned.

And The Boys—eerily anonymous trenchcoated enforcers for a secret government division that polices superbeings who are caricatures of the heroes we know from standard comics. In the world of this series, such superbeings are a commercial diversion, accidental heirs of a body-enhancing compound leaked in WWII by a corporation that wanted to corner the market in supersoldiers and privatize war. In the present day, the corporation manages the “supes” like real-world celebs, maintaining their identities for comicbook and merchandise tie-ins, neutralizing just enough of their public misbehavior, and grooming them for the occasional staged good deed. Also like entitled celebs and elites in our world, though, their deeds are very bad and the company has bigger things in mind for them, like reviving their original private-army purpose, and “The Boys” step in to covertly keep the fear of humankind in these false gods. The troupe is composed of men (and one woman) all damaged or bereaved in some way by the super-system, holding their grudge so that everyday people don’t have to find out what it’s like.

An incalculably violent, irresistibly hilarious and unflinchingly philosophical book, The Boys was Tarantino with more of a soul and even less of a filter; like Frank Miller’s Give Me Liberty, it was immensely ugly and entirely indispensable. And, at the last, shockingly beautiful—this was the kind of fantasy in which the series ends for many characters long before it does for us, and the sense of consequence was rare in a medium of perpetual franchises. Also by the traditional rules of comics, The Boys would be cast as the “supervillains,” but this book explored all that’s not at it seems, and its themes of corporatized warfare and cynical government were timed to an era of unidentifiable good guys (the time-period is about 2006-8, in a world where the 9/11 terrorists took out the Brooklyn Bridge but not the other buildings after a slightly smarter President had two planes shot down and the last one was let go by bungling stunt-fighting superheroes on a trial run, and we’re endlessly at war not with Afghanistan but Pakistan—a bad, sad dream of “what we’d do differently”).

But there was nothing ambiguous about the contrast in which Ennis (with Robertson and later artist Russ Braun) cast the morally logical path by showing the extremes of appetite and animosity; and at the end a vision, imperfect but appreciative, relieved but vigilant, emerged of what human monuments inevitably fall down and which human spirits unceasingly push up.

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

Just as The Boys took superhuman conventions into a world only as unbelievable as our own, one comic injected more of the feelings and concerns we recognize from real life into the superhero template than ever before. Avengers Academy concerned a kind of finishing school for young superheroes, an intriguing extension of the predecessor Avengers: Initiative book, which portrayed state-by-state government-approved teams of apprentice heroes, a kind of warning-labeled version of caped crusading. Both of these were a novel reflection on the rule of law in a genre often rooted in fantasias of vigilante justice.

Christos Gage wrote much of the Initiative run (taking it on from overworked and enough-brilliant Spider-Man head-scribe Dan Slott), and all of Academy, with a succession of artists (most notably co-founder Mike McKone, Sean Chen and Tom Grummett).  Lots of comics get collected into “graphic novels” every few issues, but this one was that rare ongoing franchise that had true novelistic sweep and depth. From its start it was a kind of culmination, of the naturalism Stan Lee sought to bring to costumed characters and the sensitivity he wished to carry over from the romance comics that ruled the market before superheroes surged again in the early 1960s.

Melodrama is common in comics, in-costume or out, but no book has ever given these improbable characters credible and relatable emotional lives like Avengers Academy. The way the students wrestle with uncertain sexuality, abusive upbringings, autism variations, or just being well-adjusted in a world that’s not adjusted to them, while fighting off the most entertainingly crafted of cartoon menaces, was second to none. In a series clearly conceived as a one-line franchise-extruding concept, Gage and his collaborators achieved a comic book of ideas.

“Community” is a word taken in vain by many a marketer, but the extended family of the Avengers Academy went farther, into the dialogues in the backpage letter column, where more kids, and parents, and female readers of all ages than one is used to seeing take an interest in comics these days, had heated, and always respectful and considered, debates on the issues the comic touched on and the uncommonly attentive conception it had of growing up. Pulp tends toward utter escapism or cardboard issue-recitals; under Gage’s guidance Avengers Academy was an adventure reaching into everything we daydream while leaving out none of what we wonder about.

All great ensemble entertainments set their characters in a high-rise office, or a police precinct, or hospital, or barracks, and take us places that spark our imagination, while it scarcely matters where they’re set, because they place people we can recognize amidst dilemmas and decisions we’re all to used to facing. Avengers Academy’s everyday personalities just happened to go to work in other dimensions and cosmic wars. Like Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema’s also improbably long-running, youth-oriented thinking-fan’s franchise Spider-Girl, this book wasn’t just a superhuman achievement, it was superhumane.

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

Grand designs can be beautiful ones too, and not every superstory needs to scale down to the level we’ve experienced to be profoundly about what makes us exist. Mark Waid’s Irredeemable and Incorruptible (done best with artists Diego Barretto and Marcio Takara, respectively) were meta-pulp meditations on the action pantheons raging through the multiplex firmament of the 2010s. The books concerned a Superman-like figure who goes rogue and starts laying waste to an Earth that depended on him but was perhaps incapable of appreciating him, while one of his archfoes steps up to fill the void. The superman, “Plutonian,” is unharnessed animus, the magnified embodiment of what a human does when he can (and this is a being who can do anything); the ex-villain, Max Damage, is calculating virtue, as fanatically straight-edge as he once was single-mindedly evil.

Echoes of local gangs being the only ones keeping order and feeding people after the government’s abdication during Katrina were clear in Max’s mission, as were the consequences of singular “superpowers” on our own world stage in the Plutonian’s rampage. Ever since Watchmen (or at least until Before Watchmen…if ya follow me), the superhero-comic-about-superhero-comics model has had a timer on it; people expect relatively brief runs and contained-novel closure. Irredeemable/Incorruptible lasted a total of 67 issues, and no one before Waid had attempted to take a tightly conceived statement like this and execute it in the long-form periodical nature of the pop it comments on.

In this way it added to that archive—these were the most unpredictably plotted, originally conceived comics in 70-plus years of superheroes, taking stock while taking the form’s building blocks in utterly new directions. The secret of what Plutonian really was, and how/if his misdeeds could be undone, and all the appalling, amazing innovations in sci-fi, time-travel, and psychodrama along the way, are best left to be discovered if you haven’t read the books; suffice it to say it took a writer of Waid’s classic command and titanic daring to see a way forward, and, in the face of monumental challenges for his characters and his chops, to see a way out.

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

Somewhere between divine tragedy and earthbound farce was writer Chris Roberson and artist Michael Allred’s iZombie, a two-year diary of undead, vampiric and changeling twenty-somethings in the Pacific Northwest. An antidote to high-fashion teen-monster blockbusters and a metaphor for how misshapen we feel as we sort out our lives, iZombie had hipster charm to burn and endless good ideas combusting. Culminating in a Cthulhu-like attack epicentered in Oregon, the book drew together encyclopedias of mass occultism and bohemian chic in a concluding a-pop-calypse that cracked the cosmos while highlighting everyday feelings of community between our misfit true selves—like all the best monster fiction, swelling our humanity under pressures put on our mortal shells. I’m not sure the book came to a close when its creators wanted, but they fashioned a finale that was touchingly personal, and portrayed a passage from monstrous metamorphosis to saintly transformation that was religious in scope—a Holy-land ending, so to speak.

Ending Well: The Best Comics You Won't See in 2013

Also on a cosmic scale, Matt Fraction’s Defenders, the latest perennial reinvention of Marvel’s most eccentric franchise (with more of the company’s carousel of artists, most impressively Jamie McKelvie and Mitch & Bettie Breitweiser), was a type of summation of the entire Marvel cosmology. The run was limited (as Defenders reboots tend to be) to a single full year, but encompassed the very reasons for the “Marvel Universe”’s existence—not to mention the reasons why artists create and fans read comics.

First launched in the 1970s as a “non-team,” a kind of anti-Avengers composed of fractious misfits who could only come together on an ad-hoc world-crisis premise, Defenders was known as a haven for the more offbeat writers subverting the commonplaces of heroic fiction—definitively, the late Steve Gerber, who amped the book’s surreal satire to a legendary standard.

Fraction is one of Gerber’s natural heirs, though equally without precedent; the new book’s 12-issue ultimate trip hinged on worldwide unearthings of strange abstract key-like antennae, the “Concordance Engines,” which exert some mysterious influence on the plotlines of the universe. These devices serve as a kind of celestial stylus, around which Fraction wove astonishingly absurd and inventive dimensional setpieces on a quest to decode the source of the fictional world’s wonders themselves. If I’m describing it circularly that’s because I don’t want to give away too much, and because Fraction’s narrative formed a perfect loop (with plenty spirals on the way), tuning the clarity of how comics do what they do, and why we keep coming back.

Like many intelligent genre comics, its days were numbered, but its possibilities vast. The best endings are those which show the vital urgency of what’s next. So Happy Next-Year.

Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comicbooks for Image (The Next issue Project), Trip, the acclaimed indie broadsheet POOD, and GG Studios, and blogs regularly at, ComicCritique and his own recently-launched emotional outlet Fanchild. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold at the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second, has official dabblings in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements. His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
So...I really only read comics in trades, but I've been really wanting to read the Kid Loki arc. What should I pick up?
Alan Brown
2. AlanBrown
Can't tell you what trades to pick up, mordicai, since I only read my comics in comic form, but that Kid Loki arc is definitely one of the best things I have read in years. Worth searching out!
On the other hand, Hickman's efforts generally leave me cold. Lots of backstory and exposition, as he builds these grand backdrops, but then it doesn't feel like he quite knows what to do with them, and the stories come to unsatisfying and often rushed endings.
Allana Schneidmuller
3. blutnocheinmal
Start with Journey into Mystery, Vol. 1: Fear Itself.
It looks like, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, that series is collected in this order:

Journey Into Mystery: Fear Itself
Journey Into Mystery: Fear Itself Fallout
Journey Into Mystery: Terrorism Myth
Journey Into Mystery/New Mutants: Exiled
Journey Into Mystery: The Manchester Gods
The Mighty Thor/Journey Into Mystery: Everything Burns

...aaaand adding this to my wishlist, because Loki is fascinating.
4. JoeNotCharles
Beat me to it.

I'll note that this is very much a single, serial narrative, so start at the beginning and keep reading until the end (or until you don't want to read anymore...) Don't try to skip around.
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
Frankly, I'm shocked that I might read ANYTHING from Fear Itself, but didn't like...Fraction helm that? He's usually pretty good, but "dudes get all Tronned out" is a terrible pitch & I am generally opposed to "event comics."
6. AdamMcGovern
@mordicai, I find it fruitful to stick to the alleys of event comics while the major onslaught rushes past -- the rich irony of many of my fav comics is that they were created to provide ballast for big events -- Paul Cornell's "Captain Britain and MI13," "Incredible Hercules," this one -- and then hang on, but they usually exist to draw in the miswired geeks like me who will *only* read the eccentric, original threads that are almost an antidote to the main story. So I guarantee you'll enjoy all of Kid Loki; I'm partial to the Exiled and Manchester Gods arcs but @JoeNotCharles is right; while you don't "have" to read any particular part, once you jumped around you'd regret missing one movement of this entrancing modern fable. And thanks to those who un-stuffed me by accurately calling it "Kid Loki" -- that's what I get for not googling my own favorite comic (and for reading comics that don't technically have a title :-)).
7. AdamMcGovern
Oh yeah, @AlanBrown, I forgot to get on and defend Jonathan Hickman's honor :-) -- I can see where his stories would be unsatisfying, but with differently set expectations the Fantastics ones have become some of the most important and memorable to me -- it's a spherical narrative, in which we know what's going to happen so the payoffs are not so much rushed as secondary; definitely his storytelling is more about texture than incident, which can feel like "nothing's happening," but to me it's more like *everything's* happening, and somehow he makes his way through it skillfully and sensitively.
Alan Brown
8. AlanBrown
Adam, Did you just make up the term 'spherical narrative'? A google search came up dry. In this case, it would seem that 'spherical' is being used as a synonym for 'meandering.' Maybe I am old fashioned, but any story whose conclusion is referred to as 'unnecessary' is one that doesn't interest me. And no amount of 'texture' makes up for lack of compelling storytelling. To quote the Bard, it feels to me like " ...a tale...full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing."
I am not questioning Mr. Hickman's honor, merely the quality of his tales.
David Lomax
9. dlomax
This seems to have become a discussion on Hickman's narrative. Cool. I've been wanting one of those. I keep reading Hickman (in spurts as Marvel lowers the price on a few on Comixology) then keep telling myself to stop reading him. Like Alan, I find it a delicious-smelling meal that ends up being unfilling and unsatisfying. Then a couple of months later I'm drawn in again. So he draws me in. There's something so intriguing about his premises and his Morrison-esque collisions of hard sf terms with a clear and poetic gift for language. But it all ends up feeling like four months of exposition followed by thirty seconds of climax and nothing in-between.
10. AdamMcGovern
Conventional narrative is thought of as a line, so I have to come up with other models that contain the shape of stories I dig but didn’t have a name for. Hickman to me is a fourth-dimensional writer, and @dlomax the way you describe returning to his stuff reminds me about what Alan Moore wrote in the final Tom Strong issue about our lives being the same book that we read over and over again -- we circle back and new depths reveal themselves. I came up with "radial narrative" to describe Morrison's Batman run, since everything circles the central event of Batman's trance-like purification ritual and the way his mind and world later went to pieces around it. So @AlanBrown, I came up with "spherical narrative" for the way that Hickman's Fantastics stories go out in multiple directions from the kernel of the few simple events he uses as anchors -- and which he does tend to treat as almost irrelevant to the feelings of family bonds and individual perseverance he’s most interested in. In that he’s not far from the core theme of stoic persistence and individual integrity -- and shortage of plot -- in an acknowledged classic like Frank Miller’s “Born Again.” Though still, having established these tones, the FF books would have been ready for more to indeed, y’know, happen, I agree with you both. It seemed to be opening back out into incident with the fascinating though truncated Black Panther arc toward the end, and a few other eventful one-offs. I think Hickman earned the right to stick with that franchise for at least another two years, and had the power to pull off more of what all three of us like…but editorially and commercially I guess there were higher powers that be’d…
Liz J
11. Ellisande
Thanks for the Journey into Mystery/Kid Loki rec. I hadn't realized it was more-or-less self contained. I picked up the first two and I'm enjoying the story a lot.
Alan Brown
12. AlanBrown
Yes, there is a definite ending to the Kid Loki arc, with the character moving on to a new phase of his life. The Journey to Mystery book now features Sif, which could be very interesting and enjoyable if it is done right. Loki looks like he will be joining a newly formed Young Avenger group, and I hope the writers of that new series do him justice.
13. AdamMcGovern
@AlanBrown, the new Young Avengers book will also be written by Gillen (reunited with his Phonogram bandmate McKelvie!) so I have high hopes for it -- and on a book I might not otherwise pick up, 'cuz I tend to follow creators, not characters. Though I'll immediately contradict myself and note that I'm also interested to see what that new YA book does with the Ms. America character from Joe Casey & Nick Dragotta's deranged "Vengeance" mini -- since the iPod shuffle of creative teams is almost mandatory in the Big Two's corporate structure I *do* like to see how unusual characters and uncommon premises can get handed between a small circle of creators that seem they can be trusted with their peculiarity and potential, which Marvel did by cycling Patsy Walker/Hellcat et al. between the off-grid imaginations of Paul Tobin, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Kathryn Immonen on Models Inc., Marvel Divas and Heralds, and has done again by transferring the misfit student body of FF to Fraction (which his mischievous sensibility is made for and I can’t get enough of each month, though I'm unintrigued by his Fantastic Four and dropped it after one issue). Speaking of Kathryn Immonen and the Sif series, AlanBrown, she writes it and I highly recommend it to anyone who loved Kid Loki; she's kept that same meta-storybook feel and oh-no-you-didn't imagination and unpredictability.
Alan Brown
14. AlanBrown
Adam, I didn't care for the first Sif comic, but now in the second episode, I have more of an idea of where the author is going, and it looks like an interesting premise. And I have seen good work from Ms. Immonen in the past.
I hadn't realized Gillen would be writing Young Avengers, and look forward to seeing what he does with the group.

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