Comic books are a treat. They cost about the same as a bakery cupcake, take about the same amount of time to consume, and should be tasty. More often than not, comic books are also violent. Storytelling violence goes back to rehashing the hunt around the campfire, and violence just works well in comics. There’s the aesthetic pleasure of limbs in motion and slashes of red blood flying across the panels. There’s the story energy that builds toward skirmishes and then builds again to a climactic battle. And there’s just the release of watching people slug each other, since we can’t go around punching each other’s teeth out. The best comic books can sometimes show us more. Instead of just using violence, they look at violence itself—what it does to people, why it matters, and how we live with it. In 2014, it felt like there was enough real violence without adding in the fictional kind. This year some of the best comic books were more than just the brief escape of entertainment. As art, they held up a mirror for us to see ourselves in. Here are some favorites of 2014.
Best Graphic Novel about Violent Children: The Wrenchies
By Farel Dalrymple, published by First Second Books
The Wrenchies is watercolored with a lot of heavy, detailed linework left underneath. This technique, plus the darkness of the setting, gives The Wrenchies an atmospheric smudginess. When the story opens, only packs of feral children remain. Shadowy figures take the kids over as they age into their teens. It’s a dangerous world where your companions are peeled off into death and madness. The book is more cheerful and funny than that sounds, though. Farel Dalrymple has mastery of all the tools he works with, but conveys the feeling of a kid scratching out drawings on that cheap, soft paper they make coloring books out of. The lettering is also unassumingly like a kid’s crimped writing. The words themselves show the kids’ casual, adaptable wryness in the face of danger. The Wrenchies walks the line between horrifying and sweet, and never takes itself too seriously. It’s like an arrow, right to the heart. Dalrymple knows something about the terrible weirdness of childhood and he gets it across—you remember it too when you read The Wrenchies.
Best Guest-Artist Issue: Ron Wimberly and Rico Renzi’s She-Hulk #5
Written by Charles Soule, published by Marvel Comics
In She-Hulk #5, Ron Wimberly’s art comes screaming at you like punk rock. From below, his fisheye angles make you feel like you’re staring straight up at the band when you’re jammed up against the stage. From above, it’s like snatches of security camera footage. Rico Renzi uses the same flaming hues as regular colorist Muntsa Vicente did, but Renzi has to account for the shadows that Wimberly’s strange angles throw across busted-up facial planes. Regular artist Javier Pulido (who I think is also wonderful) drew the characters with such controlled, rounded, unblemished surfaces that we couldn’t gain purchase. They were perfect in their own way, but trapped in the storefront display, on the big screen, in the stained glass window. Wimberly makes these same women jagged and immediate, with lots of places to grab on. He makes us notice elbows and eye sockets in a way we didn’t before. He drains the quirky-cute out of She-Hulk, Tigra, and Hellcat and tempers their prettiness with don’t-give-a-damn rock ugliness. It suits She-Hulk’s disaffection, Hellcat’s dissolution, and Tigra’s volatility. It makes Charles Soule’s writing funnier. It lets She-Hulk slouch on Shocker’s couch drinking a beer with him, her knees just as far apart as his are. Pulido’s She-Hulk would have crossed her legs. They just aren’t the same woman.
Best New Villain: Bloody Lips in Elektra #1-4
Written by W. Haden Blackman, art by Michael del Mundo, published by Marvel Comics
The cannibal Bloody Lips is so alluring as he hunts Elektra, that at first it feels like the chilly main character doesn’t get to be the center of her own series. Michael Del Mundo gives Bloody Lips a warm, easy glow and surrounds him with loose gold and turquoise lines. W. Haden Blackman gives him a sandy, colloquial voice that works with his lazy athleticism and perversely grand sense of self. In the second issue, we see him wading waist-deep, with sun glinting off the gold and green water all around him. He wears the head of a lion, and back in the shadows of the lion’s roaring mouth you can see a jack-o-lantern face. Del Mundo paints globs of light across the scene, making us feel like we’re in the water too, seeing everything through wet eyelashes. We know we’re looking at a killer, but the scene feels like youth and summer and first love. We know he’s a cannibal, but just looking at him makes us think of how seals must love swimming and birds must love flying. Soon, Elektra and Bloody Lips begin to circle each other and by the fourth issue they are in each other’s heads. It turns out to be a clever way to deal with the psyche of a damaged, closed-off heroine who is a killer too. Through him, we see her.
Best Use of a Naked Body: Penny Rolle in Bitch Planet #1
Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, art by Valentine De Landro, published by Image Comics
We’re used to seeing female bodies in comics, and a lot of the time they are still just eye candy. Even when bodies are celebrated for the most earnest girl-power reasons, they are usually still displayed to advantage as if the women in them were ever mindful of their best angles and lighting. In an early scene of Bitch Planet, a row of naked women stand with slumped shoulders, hands hanging at their sides, legs stolid. These women have just arrived at a prison planet for the crime of being non-compliant. They have what look like actual, ordinary breasts. That in itself feels radical and makes you think about all the breasts on all the pages of all the comics, and what they’re doing there and why. On the next page we see one prisoner’s giant naked body in motion. Penny Rolle’s crime of non-compliance was being unapologetically, aggressively loud, fat, and female. Penny’s nakedness—the undisguised fact of her body and how much space it dares to occupy—is a visual protest that grounds this ambitious comic. Penny’s breasts and belly remind me of middle-aged female environmental protesters in Nairobi in 1991, baring their breasts to police. The late Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai wrote in her autobiography that these protesters used their breasts to remind the young policemen that to strike the protesting women would be to strike their own mothers.
Best Parent-Child Portrayal: Wytches
Written by Scott Snyder, art by Jock and Matt Hollingsworth, published by Image Comics
The creative team on Wytches has nailed horror, and not just by being excellent at creepiness and suspense. These guys show us the ordinary good things that a troubled family still has to lose, and that makes everything that happens to the family more terrifying. Some books focus on teenagers or children, and some focus on adults—but it’s rare for a story to toggle so well between generations and show a parent-child relationship so believably. Charlie and his daughter Sailor hide the nature and extent of their fears from one another, and don’t always see eye to eye. Besides living through different threads of the same small-town supernatural nightmare, Charlie and Sailor have more commonplace worries. Sailor has to adjust to a new school and deal with the traumatic memories of past bullying. Charlie aches for his daughter’s vulnerability and fears she is mentally ill. Still, they connect with one another and the love between them shines off the page.
Best One-Shot about a Lethal Athletic Event: Final Derby
Written by Danny Djeljosevic, art by Diana Naneva, published by Loser City Comics
This beautiful little story begins and ends with one roller-derby bout. It’s a simple, underdog folktale illustrated by Bulgarian artist Diana Naneva and written with few words by Danny Djeljosevic. This comic is steely and whimsical at the same time. It is full of oddball characters and has the bandy-limbed lightness of a musical number in the Triplets of Belleville. A message unfolds with the fight. In a future where elite roller derby is male dominated and hyper-violent, one small young woman has fought her way into the position of jammer. The other team’s jammer flirts with her before the bout but later becomes enraged at the thought that she might be better than him. He doesn’t just want to win—he wants her dead. The raucous audience gets more and more bloodthirsty as the players fly around the track, all wheels and elbows. This parable fits in a year that included Gamergate, online death threats against women, and a backlash against feminism. Final Derby’s message rests easily inside the story’s speed, silliness, and wry sadness. Djeljosevic’s spare, carefully chosen words are heavily lettered inside thick-bordered word balloons. The words look still and clean against the smear of motion behind them, like frozen moments of eye contact. The white and black of the word balloons contrast with the warm browns and reds of Naneva’s illustration. As the men in the stands call for the woman jammer’s head on a pike, a small girl sits watching everything with giant eyes.
Best New Super-Hero: Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel
Written by G. Willow Wilson, art by Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring, published by Marvel Comics
Ms. Marvel is lighter, sweeter fare than some of the other books on this list, but it also has a realness to it. The muted colors and ribbony, swirly lines of the art make Ms. Marvel look more like a children’s picture book sometimes. Kamala Khan, the teenaged hero, looks like a child herself. It’s good to see a teenaged girl shown as a bare-faced kid who is not trying to be coy or beguiling. She can look very beautiful in some moments, but she is just as often endearingly awkward and plain. A lot was made of Kamala being Pakistani-American, a child of immigrants, and Muslim. But the story’s success rides less on how Kamala represents a “different” group of people, and more on how easily we can all relate to her. We see her learn in stumbling fits and starts how to be a superhero and it is hilarious. Her confidence grows slowly alongside her skills. Not only does she have to learn to fight with her newly enhanced body, she has to learn how to fight period. For Kamala, fighting goes along with being brave and protecting her community. She shows that we can begin by being nervous and inexperienced, and we don’t need personality transplants in order to be heroic.
Best Story about the Cycle of Violence: Southern Bastards
Written by Jason Aaron, art by Jason Latour, published by Image Comics
Southern Bastards is an ugly, dusky, red-smeared story about men in a small town. This story beats you around the head with a tree branch, makes you laugh now and then, and sweet talks you over pie. This is a masculine story, and creators Jason Aaron and Jason Latour have doubled and tripled down on masculinity. They show how violence is passed down from father to son, and how men try and fail to break the cycles they’re caught in. It’s allegorical, like a tall tale, but it’s not simplistic. It has small, nuanced moments like a Raymond Carver short story, where something ordinary is made poetic just by how perfectly it’s captured. Both Southern Bastards creators are from the South, and this story is steeped with a sense of place. They poured themselves into this story without being self-indulgent or navel-gazing, and that is how you turn shit into gold.