Have you heard the phrase "an embarrassment of riches"? Well, that's what 2013 was in terms of great comics — even with all the time in the world, we couldn't tell you about all the wonderful stories that came out of mainstream and indie publishers alike over the last 12 months. Here's what we consider the very best, but feel free to include your favorites in the comments — and let's hope 2014 is just as good.
East of West (Image)
You're going to see a lot of Image comics in this list, and every single one of them deserves to be here — the company just killed it with a multitude of brilliant, creator-owned stories that are topping everyone's "Best of 2013" lists. And near the top is Jonathan Hickman's East of West, a beyond-epic tale where Death, as in the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, is the last hope of a future U.S., divided into seven nations. Oh, and the other three Horsemen are trying to kill the President … who is a bad guy. It's too early to say where East of West is going, but Hickman is at the top of his world-building game, and you'll definitely want to find out.
The Wake (DC/Vertigo)
Scott Snyder's work on Batman has been a marvel (no pun intended), but his work there doesn't hold a candle to his Vertigo series The Wake. Trying to summarize it is nearly impossible, because while it's kind of sea creature horror movie à la Creature from the Black Lagoon, it's one told over millions of years, ranging from the distant past to 200 years in the future. It's mystifying but not hard to follow, and the effortlessness which with Snyder can establish fully realized characters with just a few lines of dialogue matches perfectly with Sean Murphy's art style.
Marvel's made a lot of good comics in 2013, so it's saying something that Matt Fraction's Hawkeye is sill the best superhero book on the market. Hawkeye has no superpowers, he isn't very smart, and his weapon is actually pretty ancient — and somehow Fraction manages to make these reasonably low stakes (at least compared to the rest of the Marvel U.) adventures as epic as any Avengers mission. Hell, even if he'd done nothing else this year, the brilliant Hawkeye #11 — a mostly dialogue-free issue in which Hawkeye's pizza-loving dog solves a murder — would earn Hawkeye a "Best of 2013" spot. Thankfully, Fraction wrote several other issues, too.
Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller (Disney/Hyperion)
You've heard of Helen Keller, of course, and you may have heard of Annie Sullivan, the visually impaired woman who taught the deaf and blind girl how to interact with the world. But writer/artist Joseph Lambert doesn't just tell this story through Annie's eyes, but through what young Helen perceives — it begins with virtually everything being an unknown mass to her, and as Annie teaches her and gives her language, she begins to "see" the world around her, which Lambert slowly fills in as well. This is literally something only a comic could do, and it brings a depth of understanding to Helen's life that nothing else comes close to matching. It is brilliant, moving, and not just one of the year's best comics, but perhaps of all time.
Simon Cooke devoted his life to fighting crime as a superhero and had time for nothing else — especially not hanky-panky. But now he's retired and returned to his home of Saturn City, and he has a lot of making up to do. Sex is both a superhero story and pornography, but it doesn't feel gimmicky or sleazy, partially because as dirty and as explicit as it gets (and boy, does it), Sex never feels like it's ashamed of what it's doing. It also helps that it's got a genuinely interesting, complex plot and great characters, courtesy of writer Joe Casey, so even the fuck scenes are telling the story. Comics Alliance called Sex "like the mythical HBO-series-as-comic that everybody seems to be chasing," and that nails it, as far I've considered (no pun intended).
Adventure Time (Boom! Studios)
The Adventure Time cartoon is great; this is a well-known and established fact. But did you know that the Adventure Time comics were just as good as the cartoon? Writer Ryan North, best known for Dinosaur comics, knows exactly — and I mean exactly — what makes Adventure Time so great, and replicates it perfectly on the page: the stories, the dialogue, the quirkiness, the insanity. But he's not aping the show, he's creating his own stories that use comics' strengths just as the show uses animation. And if you hadn't seen the show for some reason, these are just great, fun comics. Spring for the hardcover Mathematical Editions — you're going to want these to stick around a while.
The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice (DC/Vertigo)
Anyone who's been reading Mike Carey and Peter Gross' wonderful The Unwritten, which re-imagines a Harry Potter-like character as an instrument in a war to control the world using the stories people believe, probably already has this original graphic novel. If you haven't, you should, because it reveals the secret of Tommy Taylor's creation — both as the character in the books and the real-life person — that had previously been unanswered in the comics. But even non-Unwritten fans can read Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice and find an imaginative, gripping story about the relationship between fiction and reality — and what's more, there's a really good kid's fantasy story in there too. Somehow Gross and Carey make all these stories come together seamlessly, which is why this isn't just a great Unwritten graphic novel, but a great graphic novel, period.
Hyperbole and a Half (Simon & Schuster)
Surely many of you already know of Allie Brosh's webcomic, and I assume you all bought it paperback because 1) you (correctly) believe Allie Brosh deserves money for her amazing work, and 2) you know Gross' tales of childhood craziness, adult depression, and her intensely stupid dogs is a thing that needs to be owned. If you don't know this, and don't own this book, perhaps because you're put off by Gross' deceptively simple art-style, knock it off. You're missing with one of the best comic books of the year, which is why its on this list. Hyperbole and a Half is profound, moving (seriously, her description of depression is literally the best way anyone has ever managed to describe it) and blisteringly funny. You will never look at a kernel of corn the same way again.
Greg Rucka and Michael Lark return for this chillingly prescient dystopian scifi comic about a world where only a few families control all the world's wealth and power, and battle each other for more. Forever Carlyle is the Lazarus of her family, meaning she's been genetically engineered to protect them from threats inside and out. Even without the obvious relevance to today, Lazarus is a scifi political thriller with enough action to satisfy any fan, and Michael Lark's artwork complements story perfectly. Read it now before it gets optioned to be a movie, because it definitely will.
March (Top Shelf)
John Lewis was born in rural Alabama, but a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to protest segregation in Tennessee and take part in 1963's historic March on Washington. Now Lewis is a congressman, and he tells his story and the story of the civil rights movement in the March, in the first of a three-part series. Since Lewis is recounting events he saw first-hand, the book is personal, but no less powerful for it, and co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell help transform his narrative from mere autobiography into the epic, enthralling story it deserves to be told as.
Battling Boy (First Second)
Writer/artist Paul Pope is no stranger to action-packed scifi weirdness, like his Batman: Year 100 or his Adam Strange series in Wednesday Comics. But in Battling Boy, Pope may have perfected it. Sent from another planet to defend a city besieged by monsters and demons, the 12-year-old Battling Boy has 12 magical t-shirts that give him different superpowers — not all of which he can control. While light on dialogue, Battling Boy more than makes up for it by featuring some of the finest action sequences ever seen in comics — but it's also still a tale about a young boy finding himself and growing up. And most impressive of all, it's as great a read for adults as it is for kids.
Mind MGMT (Dark Horse)
Calling Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT a spy conspiracy with superpowers is correct, but does it a disservice. Sure, it has a shadowy government agency, a secret conspiracy, psychic abilities, and an ally-turned-enemy bent on revenge. But the genius of Mind MGMT is in Kindt's storytelling and characterization, which has built a fully-realized world with completely fleshed-out characters almost effortlessly — it seems like any of them could star in their own spin-off series (and they'd be good, too). In its second year, Mind MGMT's story has grown more complex, but the rewards have grown too, as Kindt slowly unpacks the mystery of Meru and the Mind MGMT agency. With only 36 issues planned, you could wait to read it until the comic ends in a couple of years, but then you wouldn't have the pleasure of anticipating each new monthly issue.
Nothing has changed about Saga since last year. Well, nothing in the sense that it's still a sexy scifi-fantasy space opera about love, family, ex-girlfriends, bounty hunters, shitty romance novels, robot royalty, ghost babysitters, mothers-in-law, cats who know when you're lying, sentient spaceship trees, and everything else writer Bryan K. Vaughan has packed into it. Fiona Staples' art is still beautiful, rendering expressions so perfect that you could read the book without any dialogue and you'd still know exactly what the characters were feeling. And it's still one of the best comics available today. If you know someone who likes Star Wars and can handle the occasional drawing of people having sex, they are almost guaranteed to love Saga.
Boxers & Saints (First Second)
Gene Luen Yang examines the Chinese Boxer Rebellion from two sides in these two complementary stories — one about a young boy named Little Bao, who become a leader in the revolution against the Western missionaries who have abused his homeland, and the other about a young girl who is taken in by Christian missionaries after her village abandons her and must decide where her allegiances are after she grows up — with her country or with her faith. Although separate, Boxers and Saints are really one story, revealing both sides of a war, and how easy it is for one to lose sight of the other — which is why Boxers & Saints resonates so powerfully for readers of all ages.
Avengers: Endless Wartime (Marvel)
Whether you're a lifelong Marvel maniac or just wished the movie had been longer, few comics come as close to capturing what makes the Avengers so special as Warren Elis' Endless Wartime — and since it's a stand-alone graphic novel, it's not burdened by mountains of continuity either. Sure, the movie fans may wonder why Wolverine is hanging around with Captain America, but he's an organic part of the team, as is the always appreciated Captain Marvel. The tale brings together Cap, Thor and Iron Man's pasts, particularly parts that haunt them, but it has all the action and great dialogue that make Ellis one of the best. He knows exactly what makes each character different, as well as what makes them great — but also what makes them great together. Any Avengers fan, old or new, needs to pick this up.
Sex Criminals (Image)
The second of Image's "Really Great Comics with Sex in the Title" series, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals imagines aa man and a woman with superpowers: They can stop time for everyone but themselves… but only when they're having sex. And then they try to rob a bank. While hilarious, Sex Criminals is weirdly sweet about the pleasures and troubles and dangers of sex, and like Image's other Sex-titled comic, it isn't afraid to portray all aspects of sex, but it never feels judgmental. Imagine if the 1974 sex ed filmstrip about Joe and Susie your teachers made you watch in high school was both genuinely helpful and massively entertaining — that's Sex Criminals.
Batman '66 (DC)
We've already discussed how great Scott Snyder's New 52 run on Batman is, it should be telling that the best Batman book isn't that, but this: Batman '66, based on the almost 50-year-old campy TV series. This comic practically screams fun, but it's not some "look how stupid Batman used to be" hit job; it's a celebration of a time when Batman wasn't always tortured and dour, and Joker robbed banks instead of mass-murdering countless innocents. It's a breath of fresh air from most modern DC comics, and its greatest strength is how it uses the TV series' characters and tone, but then adds the action that comic books can provide, but that the show never could. Imagine, if each episode of the 1960s Batman TV show had a $50 million budget and access to today's special effects, what they would do with that — that's what Jeff Parker is bringing to Batman '66, and it's fantastic.
The Fifth Beatle (Dark Horse)
People have told plenty of stories about the Beatles and their compatriots before, but there's one thing no TV show or movie can do — make us really feel like we're actually seeing the Beatles, as opposed to people trying to do an impression. The Fifth Beatle sidesteps this, and Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker's art captures the Beatles in a way no live actor ever could. Beyond that, this biography of Brian Epstein — the man who guided the Beatles from small-town Liverpool band to a worldwide sensation — is both uplifting and haunting, and he faced anti-Semitism, homophobia (indeed, homosexuality was actually illegal in England at the time), addiction and his own ambition before dying at the age of 32. Epstein's rise and fall, set next to the continual rise of the band he led, is compelling, as well as a extraordinary look inside the Beatles themselves.