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Playboy’s Best of 2014: Comic Books

There were more amazing comics this year than anyone could possibly read–pamphlets, graphic novels, webcomics, app-based work, and more. We narrowed them down to a dozen of the coolest and most eye-popping.

through the woods

SCARIEST GRAPHIC NOVEL: Through the Woods.
Emily Carroll made her name with a series of short horror comics she published online, lushly illustrated nightmares constructed from the red-raw staples of folktales: fratricide, betrayed brides, holes in the earth, hunters lost in forests. The best-known of those, “His Face All Red,” is the centerpiece of Through the Woods. Carroll’s specialty is the terror of understatement and ambiguity–her stories end abruptly just as something disastrous is about to happen. At the moments when she might be showing us an awful thing, she’ll instead lead the reader’s eye to a fragment of a face, or to a broad landscape devoid of help, letting the catastrophe lurk just off the edge of the page. “The worst kind of monster was the burrowing kind,” the narrator of “The Nesting Place” recalls of the horror stories her mother told her, “the sort that crawled into you and made a home there.” Behind Carroll’s handwritten text on that page, growing and shrinking like a firelit storyteller’s voice, there’s only a char-gray blur, with desperate handlike shapes and a pair of wormy blobs slithering into it from the sides.


wicked and divine

BEST NEW SERIES: The Wicked + The Divine.
Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s series about “gods as pop stars and pop stars as gods” had its look and feel totally in place from its opening page (its initial storyline has just been collected as The Faust Act). Its surface is as giddy and assured as a #1 single, but if you let it sweep you inside itself, it becomes a very dark story about art and mortality. Gillen and McKelvie’s characters are so ingeniously conceived and designed that they can establish themselves with a line or a glance; within microseconds of the first issue’s release, cosplayers started dressing as Luci, the teenage girl who is also Lucifer and also, effectively, “Thin White Duke”-era David Bowie.


oglaf glamazon way

BEST X-RATED WEBCOMIC (FICTION): Oglaf.
The weekly online strip Oglaf, by Trudy Cooper and Doug Bayne, has been running long enough that it’s just published its second collection. Miraculously, it just keeps getting deeper and funnier. A hybrid of sword-and-sorcery tropes and polymorphously perverse smut, it’s got a handful of occasionally recurring characters, but mostly what holds it together is its distinctive aesthetic and sense of comedic pacing. Nearly every panel is hilarious even out of context, and some of its jokes aren’t just funny but genuinely resonant — there’s a pair of strips about a muse that’s especially on point. And then there are the lesbian pirates, sexy dungeons (“I can’t let you in with regular armour”), cosmetic-sorcery salespeople, and pornographic morality plays (“She represents the idea of chasteness, which isn’t, metaphorically, chaste”).


oh joy sex toy

BEST X-RATED WEBCOMIC (NON-FICTION): Oh Joy Sex Toy.
Erika Moen’s Oh Joy Sex Toy is an idea so good it’s hard to believe nobody’s done it before: a weekly sex-toy review column in comics form, with occasional digressions to discuss other sexuality-related topics (a Q&A with porn star Stoya, for instance, or a piece on “how to rock a threeway”), and guest strips by other webcomics artists that broaden its scope further. It’s got a friendly, irreverent tone, and it’s very sensitive to tricky gender and body-type issues. Moen has just self-published a collection of the first year’s worth of strips, funded by a very successful Kickstarter campaign.


bitch-planet-splash

MOST VITAL SERIAL-COMICS PUBLISHER: Image Comics
A few years ago, Image was home to one solid success, The Walking Dead, but otherwise a little island of odd little creator-owned projects and ‘90s holdovers like Spawn. Now it’s become an unstoppable hit machine, the place where big-name creators go to do their best stuff — The Wicked + The Divine (see above), Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals, Kurt Busiek and Ben Dewey’s The Autumnlands, Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ The Fade Out, and more. And even its revivals of dubious several-decade-old franchises like Prophet and Supreme have been impressively elegant and clever.


avengers time runs out

BEST MASSIVE SUPERHERO EVENT: Avengers/New Avengers.
Launched at the end of 2012, the current incarnations of Marvel’s linked super-team series are written and designed by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by a cast of dozens. Avengers is the big spandex spectacle; New Avengers is the behind-the-scenes drama of well-intentioned champions leading themselves to moral catastrophe and the world to disaster. Both series got even sharper and darker this year, and it became clear that they’re telling one gigantic story from different angles — especially when their narrative jumped eight months ahead of the rest of Marvel’s line for the nightmarish “Time Runs Out” storyline that’s running right now and leads up to next year’s Secret Wars.


brass sun

MOST AWESOME VISUAL SPECTACLE: Brass Sun: The Wheel of Worlds.
Originally serialized in the perpetually excellent weekly British sci-fi anthology 2000 A.D. (and now collected as an oversized hardcover), the first volume of Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard’s Brass Sun is a berserk clockpunk fantasy, set in a mechanical solar system — an orrery, of the sort you might find in an 18th-century astronomical laboratory. There’s a plot, of course, involving a young girl named Wren from the backwater world of Hind Leg, and her quest to assemble a key that will restart the slowly chilling brass sun. But The Wheel of Worlds is also an excuse for Culbard to draw incredible things: gear-and-lever clockwork skylines, Art Deco airships, neo-Victorian fashions, and a god who looks a lot like Kurt Vonnegut.


multiversity-pax-americana

BEST SINGLE ISSUE: The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1
This one-shot by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (part of Morrison’s Multiversity project about DC’s alternate universes) was first announced about five years ago. It’s not surprising that it’s taken them this long, but they nailed it. Pax Americana is effectively a radical reworking of Watchmen, condensed to forty hyper-densely packed pages — a vision of contemporary American politics, using the narrative devices of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ thirty-year-old graphic novel, and starring the old Charlton Comics characters (Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, and so on) on whom the Watchmen characters were based. It makes very little sense until you get all the way through it, but every successive reading opens up its chronologies, allusions and magnificently convoluted internal logic.


demon

COOLEST SELF-PUBLISHED SERIAL: Demon.
Jason Shiga has been creating wild, experimental puzzle comics for many years (seek out his choose-your-own-adventure-style graphic novel Meanwhile), but Demon — which Shiga’s serializing daily at his own site, and also publishing as a series of minicomics — is a linear, if incredibly eccentric, thriller in the vein of Death Note. To describe it in more than the vaguest terms would be to give away its head-spinning early plot twist; I’ll just note that it begins with a man in a motel room writing a suicide note and hanging himself… and then waking up, alive and unharmed, in his motel bed.


she-hulk

BEST RELAUNCH: She-Hulk.
This one’s got some stiff competition: G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel (starring a teenage Muslim girl in Jersey City who discovers that she has shape-changing powers) and Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr’s reworking of Batgirl (as a fun-loving selfie-taker in the Portlandia-ish Gotham City suburb of Burnside) are both pretty delightful. But Charles Soule and Javier Pulido’s She-Hulk is undiluted fun, an action-comedy about a gigantic green lawyer trying to get her new practice off the ground in a world full of killer robots and billionaire superheroes. Soule is a lawyer himself (you can tell), and Pulido’s playful, design-centered artwork is strikingly fresh. Too bad this incarnation of the series will be ending next month.


the private eye

MOST MONTHS-AHEAD-OF-ITS-TIME COMIC: The Private Eye.
When it debuted last year, the premise of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s terrific online-only sci-fi series seemed fanciful: at some point in the future, its backstory establishes, “the cloud burst,” and after every secret that had been stored online abruptly went public, the Internet was banned and everyone got into the habit of only going out in public while wearing masks. The Private Eye hasn’t quite been overtaken by events yet, but in the wake of everything from Edward Snowden to the Fappening, it’s starting to look prescient. And the series’ economic model (pay-what-you-wish digital files at Vaughan and Martin’s site) is forward-thinking, too.


here richard mcguire

LONGEST-ANTICIPATED GRAPHIC NOVEL: Here.
When Richard McGuire’s six-page experimental strip “Here” first appeared in RAW magazine in 1989, it was mindblowing: flashes of a single living room and its inhabitants over the course of decades. He started working on a book-length version of it in 1998, and this month the 300-page Here was finally published. The space remains the same in every image, but our view of it shifts back and forth across years, centuries, eons — often with insets of part of the space in a completely different time frame. There’s no plot, as such, but you can piece together bits of a narrative about who lived there and what they did. Images are clustered together associatively: on one page, a young girl is playing a piano in 1964, while other girls dance to it in 1932 and 2014 and 1993. If the idea isn’t quite as bold as it was 25 years ago, its execution is arguably richer: this is a book to get lost in, and to return to.


Douglas Wolk is a freelance journalist and critic who writes about music, comic books and other things for TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other places. He’s also the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (Da Capo, 2007) and Live at the Apollo (Continuum, 2004). He also wrote the Judge Dredd: Mega City Two comic series, recently collected as a graphic novel.


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