Episodic storytelling is the name of the game in monthly comics. Month- or even multi-year-long arcs are fine, but a series lives and dies by its individual chapters. From self-contained one-offs to issues that recontextualize their respective series, this year had a ton of great issues. Whittling down those issues to a list was no easy task (and we look forward to hearing how your lists differ in the comments), but we would gladly recommend any (and all) of these issues without hesitation. These are our top 14 issues of 2014.
14. Sex Criminals 4
(Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky)
Sex Criminals exploded onto the scene in 2013 with a charming earnestness behind its giggle-inducing premise, but issue 4 revealed that this series could do “mature” as well as it did “immature.” Rape is a treacherous subject for any series — especially one as irreverent as this one — but Fraction and Zdarsky had the courage to approach the subject with the utmost respect. That more serious — but still charmingly earnest — tone set the pace for the series subsequent issues, which tackled depression, birth control, and the porn industry. Anyone familiar with the series knows just how smart it is, but this was the first hint of that depth.
13. Daredevil 1
(Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, and Javier Rodriguez)
When Chris Samnee and Mark Waid closed their award-winning volume of Daredevil, they set themselves the herculean task of uncovering new ground for a new volume, living up to fan expectations, and ingratiating themselves to the newcomers that every #1 brings. More than up to the task, Waid and Samnee delivered a first issue that managed to tell us everything a new reader would need to know about the character within the context of a thrilling adventure. It’s a tight little one-off that introduces the character, all while doubling as a showcase of the innovative art and snappy writing that makes this creative team so good.
(Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, Bobby Curnow, Mateus Santolouco, and Ronda Pattison)
We spend a lot of time on this site discussing the finer points of character and narrative and themes, but that’s so little of what’s unique about comics as a medium. Comics uniquely express space as time and shape as weight — these are concepts we often overlook because they’re not executed in any meaningful ways. Leave it to Mateus Santolouco to turn our own expectations on their heads and make that translation from stillness to motion the whole meaning of the issue. It’s a battle royale with over a dozen active combatants, and — magically — every punch, every kick, every street-clearing uppercut matters. It’s an action masterpiece, and some of the best graphic storytelling we’ve read all year.
11. Zero 13
(Ales Kot, Alberto Ponticelli, and Jordie Bellaire)
In a world that increasingly builds cults around creative teams, Zero has been an invaluable slave, reminding us that the best artist for a given story might not necessarily be the same artist. That spirit has emphasized the episodic nature of the series above all else — that is, until issue 13 revealed a longer game that we didn’t see coming. That twist ending would be enough for this issue to stick in our memories, but it just so happens that Alberto Ponticelli and Jordie Bellaire turn in some of their best work to date, giving the issue’s central fight scene all of the weight the script calls for. Both shockingly violent and hauntingly beautiful, this issue sticks with you long after you put it down.
(Kevin Eastman, Tom Waltz, Bobby Curnow, Sophie Campbell, and Ronda Pattison)
In contrast to the bombastic issue 40, this installment finds the turtles taking the time to recoup in Northampton. Licking their wounds doesn’t make for a lot of action, but it does give us a revealing glimpse at how the all of the characters process stress. Everyone gets a memorable moment here, from Raph’s distrust to Mikey’s optimism — all rendered in loving detail by Sophie Campbell, whose softer, younger character designs helped define this year for the turtles. It’s a quiet issue, but it uses that time to remind us how much we love these characters, and of the beating heart that makes this series so fantastic.
(Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Nathan Fairbairn)
The concept alone is enough to make one’s head spin: Grant Morrison explores Watchmen via the Charlton Comics characters that inspired them. The result ends up being the most Morrison-y comic imaginable: a non-chronological presentation of recursive themes and plot points ripped from histories both real and alternate. It’s heady, heady stuff, and even without its connection to Watchmen, readers can divine uncountably diverse meanings from its twisting narrative. The action is also beautifully rendered by Frank Quitely, who keeps pace with Morrison, repurposing and re-digesting some of Watchmen‘s most iconic motifs without ever feeling derivative.
(Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire)
In our discussion of Moon Knight 1, we were struck by the creative team’s bold use of white space. Issue 2 upped the ante considerably, opening with a sequence that incrementally added white space to the page. That may sound less exciting than the fact that that sequence happens to follow eight separate characters in and around a single building as a sniper picks each one off — and we won’t deny that it’s an amazing sequence — but it’s this series’ evolving relationship to the gutter that made this issue so memorable for us. No other series used white space in the same way, leaving Moon Knight — and especially this issue — in a league of its own.
(Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire)
That uniqueness made each issue of Moon Knight a decidedly singular experience, so it’s no surprise that so many many of them ended up on this list. Issue 6 offered a dark reflection of Moon Knight, highlighting what makes the character both so fantastic and so horrifying. It also reached back to the first issue — and touched on several others — making for an intriguing retrospective that crystalized this too-short run as something totally singular and self-contained. That it serves as such an assured farewell feels unlikely for a series only six issues old, which only codifies just how rarified this series truly is.
6. Zero 8
(Ales Kot, Jorge Coelho, and Jordie Bellaire)
With a new writer every month, it’s clear that Ales Kot is the continuity of Zero, which makes his often spare use of words shocking, trusting in his collaborators to tell his story with minimal mediation from dialogue or narration. In that way, issue 8 is almost the platonic ideal of this series, chiseling away its copy to just a few meaningful flourishes, otherwise embracing the narrative potential of images. We throw around the phrase “a celebration of the medium” fairly often, but few take as much care to acknowledge the simple magic of putting one image after the other.
5. Saga 21
(Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
Hazel’s reveal in Saga 19 that “this is the story of how my parents split up” set the bar for ripping our hearts out pretty high, but it turns out nothing is quite as sad as seeing the inevitable approach in slow motion. The wedges driving Marko and Alana apart were already apparent, but this issue finds those problems getting the better of them as they seek solace in each other for totally different (and secret) reasons. Meanwhile, Prince Robot IV is shocked out of his own escape from his problems, as he first hears of his family’s fate. It’s a key turning point for this arc, putting all of the characters on the trajectory that leads almost directly to where they land by the end of issue 23.
(Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire)
The episodic nature of this series put Moon Knight in some decidedly unusual situations, but none were stranger than the “sporulated brain” of issue 4. A murder mystery we don’t know is a murder mystery, this issue crops the story as tightly as possible, opening with Moon Knight being approached to investigate some bizarre dreams, and closing with his accusation of the murderer. The centerpiece of this issue, though, is Moon Knight’s dream sequence, a hallucinatory candy-color masterpiece that was shockingly different from the rest of the issue — or heck, the rest of the series. Shalvey and Bellaire play that contrast for all its worth, reminding us of their range beyond the beautifully stylized aesthetic of this series.
3. Trillium 8
(Jeff Lemire and Jose Villarrubia)
Trillium‘s tagline, “the last love story” set the stakes for this final issue impossibly high — how could it possibly be the last love story — but Jeff Lemire somehow managed to stick the landing, delivering a hauntingly beautiful essay on the power of love. Actually, the issue starts as a taught sci-fi thriller, but it’s when William and Nika opt to sacrifice themselves in order to save humanity that the bottom drops out on this series, revealing a scope that is so much bigger than saving mankind, yet somehow focused solely on our dual protagonists. Combining black holes, love, and time-travel long before it was cool, this issue stands up as one of the most satisfying conclusions of 2014.
2. Hawkeye 19
(Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Matt Hollingsworth)
Fraction and Aja rightly received a lot of praise for their respectful representation of disability in this, the famous “deaf” issue, but what’s truly impressive is how none of those stylistic changes distract from the intensely personal drama playing out between the brothers Barton. It would be far too much to ask of most artists to carry that kind of interpersonal conflict with minimal dialogue, but Aja has never shied from a problem, pulling in sign language schematics to help convey some of the motion essential to understanding those gestures. It’s a beautiful issue about family, overcoming obstacles, and learning when to lean on your friends that just happens to double as a glimpse of what it feels like to live with a disability.
(Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang, and Matthew Wilson)
Azzarello and Chiang’s Wonder Woman epic drew to a beautiful close in issue 35, but this issue is their “Ozymandias”, the turning point that puts the hero on their heels before the inevitable rally in the final chapter. By issue end, First Born’s forces have begun their assault on Themyscira, and Wonder Woman has been stabbed and left for dead. More importantly, this issue clearly articulated the ideological differences between Diana and the First Born, with her appealing to his basic humanity, and him denying hers. It’s a thrilling issue, upping the tension at virtually every turn, setting the pace — and tone — for the story’s final chapters.