It’s that time of year again: where we suck up all of our grumblings about art being unquantifiable and compile our best-of lists. Today, we’re looking at our favorite single issues. Love or hate the subjectivity of this list, at the very least, it serves as a great reminder of all of the fantastic comics we’ve read over the past year. We’re sure your list will be different (and welcome your thoughts in the comments), but here are our top 13 issues of 2013.
13. Sex Criminals 1
Comic books don’t have the best track record when it comes to expressing sexual maturity. Hell, we’re in the habit of praising a comic book for simply not embarrassing itself when exploring sex. Matt Fraction’s invitingly honest story about sexual self-discovery blows the competition away by embracing the embarrassment and reveling in each awkward moment. Sex Criminals 1 confidently wears the brazen tone of the series on its sleeve, featuring Chip Zdarski’s sexy-without-ever-being-exploitative character designs, and introducing a supernatural time-stopping orgasm. By issue’s end, the discovery of a second time-stopper convinces both the characters and the readers that we’re witnessing something special.
12. Wonder Woman 23
2013 featured plenty of big showdowns, but few were as brutal — or emotionally devastating — as the battle in Wonder Woman 23. Writer Brian Azzarello had been building the threat of the First Born for over a year, finally bringing him (and his army) to bear on the protectors of little baby Zeke. Artist Cliff Chiang manages clarity throughout his chaotic war scenes, masterfully pacing the action through Diana’s climactic sacrifice — where the issue slows down for one of the most beautiful goodbyes a character could hope for. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride the series is still reeling from.
11. Batman 17
Scott Snyder had the most unfortunate realization about Batman — it wasn’t flashy and it wasn’t spectacular, and it wasn’t even all that original: Batman loves Joker. The arc that celebrated their relationship was capped with a climax that saw every single member of the family unscarred… physically… The emotional repercussions are still rippling through the Bat Family books as everyone comes to terms with the fact that they’ll always be second in Batman’s heart to Joker. Snyder and artist Greg Capullo do a marvelous job of expressing this twisted love sincerely without ever making it wholly relatable or wholly unrelatable. Joker shares in Snyder’s victory by attacking everyone with the truth, and our view of Batman is forever changed because of it.
10. Saga 12
Between its gorgeous art, nuanced characters, and crackerjack plotting, Saga tends to hit all of the high notes, but few comics feel as after-our-own-hearts as issue 12. Indeed, with most of the issue devoted to a conversation about the power the audience has over a work of art, we couldn’t help but fall in love with this one. The fact that it also happened to introduce everyone’s favorite adorable seal boy and the formerly enigmatic D. Oswalt Hiest was just icing on the cake. This issue’s final page twist reveals that this is actually a flash-forward, adding urgency to the otherwise pastoral arc that followed.
At the time, we weren’t quite sure what to make of Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s weird little epilogue to Death in the Family. The issue sees the Wayne Household going to bed, and then being savaged by bad dreams. It’s a simple conceit, but it meditates on the enduring darkness in the relationship between father and son. We didn’t know it then, but this was the last issue we were going to see with both of the titular characters still alive. The issue serves as an elegy for the father-son relationship at the series’ core without ever letting on to his audience what was going to happen.
A true sense of closure is all but impossible in the month-to-month grind of comics — especially with a character that will likely be published in perpetuity — but Grant Morrison comes shockingly close, largely by acknowledging that Batman Incorporated 13 isn’t really an ending at all. Capping a run that spent much of its time looking back, Morrison turned to the future of Batman (both in-universe and in reality), gracefully letting go of the character he helmed on and off for the better part of the last decade. It’s a beautiful love-letter to Batman, fans, and creators past, present, and future.
7. Daredevil 26
Mark Waid pulls a similar love-letter to comics in the backup for Daredevil 26, where Foggy learns the power of the medium first-hand from the pediatric oncology ward. It’s a heart-warming moment, but it follows a feature that is all about heart-pounding. Matt spends much of the issue as fearful as we’ve seen him, on the run from Ikari, and still trying to figure out who’s pulling his strings, but by issue end, he’s re-found his confidence, utterly turning the tables on his pursuer. It’s a brilliant issue, brought to vivid life by the killer art team of Chris Samnee and Javier Rodriguez, who manage not one, but two chase scenes more thrilling than most movies can muster.
6. Dial H 13
China Mieville’s series about interdimensional magic rotary phone dials was never going to be easy to grasp. Given the pedigree of the creative crew, there was always reasons to suggest that a more substantive story rested just below that nearly incomprehensible surface. Issue 13 showcased one of the series’ best joke characters — Open-Window Man — and gave him an origin identical to Batman. Open-Window Man is still ridiculous, but suddenly, the reader is forced to realize that he’s no more ridiculous than what we already accept for our most respected characters. When Open-Window Man meets a little boy (made of chalk, because why not?) with that same Bruce Wayne origin, the cycle begins new. It’s a thrilling moment: we’re about to see a new Batman! But Mieville artfully has the chalk man politely reject that narrative, challenging us to do the same.
5. Batman 24
One of the most impressive things about Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s retelling of the Batman origin is just how many surprises there are. Scenes where Batman pulls a gun, or seemingly rescues Bruce Wayne are so unexpected, they manage to liven what could have been a dead-in-the-water rehash of one of the best-known stories in comicdom. This issue stands out not only for the sheer volume of those surprises, but also for the cleverness with which they’re deployed. Is this a Joker origin, or isn’t it? Snyder and Capullo are just coy enough to keep that question lingering long after we’ve put the issue down.
Rotworld was a swirling epic that brought our heroes to the end of life in the DC Universe, but it naturally had to introduce some severe do-oversies by story’s end. Without consequences, what would have been the point of any of it? Scott Snyder rights his own ship by forcing Alec Holland and Abby Arcane to give up their human forms — and with them, any hope of a life together — to restore the balance between the Red, the Green and the Rot. Their sacrifice stings a little extra because issue 18 was also the last by Snyder and artist Yanick Paquette, both of whom had proven that Swampy was no less magical when introduced into the New 52 and the DCU proper. Paquette uses this final opportunity to draw plants and decay on an epic scale, celebrating the series spectacular mix of gore and ennui.
3. Hawkeye 11
Hawkeye spent much of this year in a discursive retracing of the days and hours immediately surrounding the death of Clint’s beloved neighbor, Gil. Writer Matt Fraction retraced the chronology from the perspective of just about every character involved, but no thread was more out-there than the infamous Pizza Dog issue. With minimal dialogue, Artist David Aja embraces the full capabilities of the medium, delivering a cohesive work of visual storytelling, without losing any of the wit that has so defined the series.
Of course, it would be impossible to talk about compelling, dialogue-free visual storytelling this year without thinking of Batman and Robin 18, Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s silent, moving meditation on loss. Following in the wake of Damian’s death, the issue plumbs the depth of Bruce’s famously intense grief, carrying him through the nightly routine he used to share with his son, and finally back to the stretch of crime alley where he experienced his first loss. It’s a brilliant story, which Gleason imbues with an emotional immediacy rarely seen even with the aid of dialogue.
Brian Azzarello and J.G. Jones’ Comedian started off with a denial: not only did Eddie Blake not assassinate JFK (as suggested by Watchmen), but he was emotionally incapable of doing so. In fact, Eddie loved the Kennedys, both personally and in the way that all Americans loved them in the 1960s. After 5 issues of being dogged by a war he was just too good at fighting, the Comedian finally reaches that unimaginable tipping point and kills Bobby Kennedy. It’s a haunting story that trades more in actual history than Watchmen-history, depicting the night RFK was assassinated with an alarmingly easy mix of history, conspiracy theory and comic book magic. It shows a depth of character that is true to the source material, but even truer to the psychological potential of the character.