Superheroes keep muscling their way into more TV and movies. “Arrow” and “Agents of SHIELD” will soon be joined by “The Flash” and “Gotham,” plus Netflix shows for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Not a day goes by without breathless news from the set of “Superman vs. Batman,” like the casting of Wonder Woman or the state of Ben Affleck’s growl. If you saw “Thor: The Dark World,” you may have seen previews for “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which are both based on classic comic book stories of the same names.
Yes, once upon a time, in the days of yore, before international corporate synergy, superheroes were mainly creatures of comic books. Believe it or not, superhero comics continue to be made. Sure, many of these comics are retreads of the past or BIG IMPORTANT CROSSOVER EVENTS with 50 tie-ins: the comic book equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. However, there are also plenty of spandex-centric comics that are fresh, moving, original and fun. In fact, after too much of what fans call “grimdark” — pseudo-serious downer stories that mimic one crayon in Frank Miller’s box — fun seems to be making a comeback in the funny pages. For a good time, please read all of the following.
The adventures of Hawkeye on his days off from the Avengers have been like a beautiful love child of traditional superhero comics and independent comics like Chris Ware’s. Writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja also produced what is probably the best single issue of the year: Hawkeye #11, the Pizza Dog issue, which is told entirely through the point of view of Hawkeye’s dog. That comic — analyzed by Rachel Edidin here — should be read by every lover of dogs or art. It’s a total validation of comics as art form.
Bonus comic with an askew look at the superhero world: Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross started a new volume of “Astro City” in 2013, and it continues to produce surprising, humane stories set in a superhero-saturated city that, at times, feels more real than this so-called world of ours.
Back in July, Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s “Batman Incorporated” ended, but it wasn’t just the end of an excellent series that featured Batman’s international Bat-squad vs. Talia al Ghul’s terrorist group Leviathan: it ended Morrison’s sprawling, immortal, 7-year run on various Batman titles. In his run, Morrison took the opposite approach of DC’s current brain trust, who tossed their history in the trash with the New 52: by contrast, Morrison treated the entire seven-decade history of Batman as canon, imagining what kind of guy such a life would produce. Along the way, Morrison pulled the neat trick of paying respect to Batman’s entire history while adding more new elements to Batman (like his son Damian) than anyone I can recall. While DC’s current flagship Batman title has its charms — like Greg Capullo’s wild art — it’s usually overwritten and under-original. It’s basically Batman for Dummies, while Morrison was writing Batman for Smart People, yet somehow managing to do it in a non-pretentious way. Do yourself a major solid by going back to the beginning of Morrison’s run and following the whole thing through.
Bonus Bat-comic: Check out “Batman ’66,” a deliriously goofy comic inspired by the Adam West Batman. Shark Repellent Bat Spray anyone?
"The Superior Spider-Man"
This ongoing story of Dr. Octopus’ attempt to be the “Superior” Spider-Man after taking over Peter Parker’s body is fresh and compelling. In fact, it’s damn addictive. Writer Dan Slott and a rotating group of artists have created a new kind of anti-hero: a villain who accomplished his greatest victory, then decided to become a hero, yet couldn’t help doing so through villainous means (blackmail, murder, minions, Spider-Bots, etc.) Conventional wisdom would suggest that Peter Parker will be back by the time of “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” but man, I hope not. I could go for five years or more of Spider-Ock.
Bonus Spider-comic: Over in the Ultimate Universe, Miles Morales continues to be a one of the best characters in comics and a fine replacement for Spider-Man, who died in that universe in 2011. Sorry, traditionalists: There are two awesome Spider-Men, and neither is Peter Parker.
"The Superior Foes of Spider-Man"
This series should not have succeeded. Its title is a blatant attempt to cash in on the success of the Doc Ock Spider-Man, who isn’t present in this comic at all. It’s trying pretty hard to be the new “Hawkeye.” It’s about Boomerang and other fifth-tier supervillains. That’s a lot to overcome, but somehow, it is the new "Hawkeye," as well as being a great crime comic and humor comic too. “The Superior Foes of Spider-Man” is what would happen if the losers from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” or “The League” decided to put on costumes and pull heists. Writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve Lieber have shown us that we’ve been wrong to focus on glory boys like Superman and Lex Luthor. The little guys in the superhero game are a lot more interesting. Let’s hope this series does well enough that Marvel adds a series for the ultimate minor league villain: Stilt-Man.
Bonus comic about losers: “Quantum and Woody” features two estranged brothers who begrudgingly reunite to investigate their father’s mysterious death. They gain superpowers, and hijinks ensue. This series does a nice job of balancing relatable, painful family dynamics with absurd, bombastic superhero shenanigans.
I might be cheating by counting this as a superhero comic, but maybe not. This book is about Tony Chu, who lives in a bizarre world where the bird flu wiped out millions of people, leading to the criminalization of chicken. Tony, an FDA agent, is cibopathic, which means he has a superpower that is equally handy and horrifying: when Tony eats something, he gains knowledge of the entire history of that particular food item. If you’re wondering how that might help in investigating murders, use your imagination, and then use your barf bag. Now you know why Tony prefers to eat beets, the only food that escapes his powers. This series has gone from high point to higher point since it debuted in 2009. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory have built a humorous, disgusting, engrossing world with elements of superhero, sci-fi and cop stories — plus the world’s first cyborg chicken super soldier.
Bonus non-superhero comic: "Saga," written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples, is an ongoing sci-fi comic that should appeal equally to the nerd crowd and the we-just-had-a-baby-and-now-feel-overwhelmed crowd. Like Vaughan’s immortal "Y: The Last Man," this is a beautiful story that gives you faith in not only comics, but life.
"The Black Beetle"
Set in the 40s, this pulpy tale of a vigilante is written and illustrated by Francesco Francavilla, who manages to make his Shadow-like hero’s adventures feel both classic and newfangled. How can you pass up the Black Beetle matching wits with Labyrinto while chasing an amulet known as the Hollow Lizard? Pulp and noir fans will eat this up. The story is enjoyable, but it’s the art that will boggle your eyeballs and brain. Francavilla’s ability to convey mood and action is astounding and unique. One flip through this comic and you’ll be hooked.
Bonus Francavilla comic: You need to get “Afterlife with Archie,” an insane look at what would happen if the zombie apocalypse struck in Riverdale. As with everything he does, Francavilla creates mood and tone with his expressive characters and muted colors. Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa somehow strikes the right tone between horror and humor. If this were a list of the best comics of the year rather than the best superhero comics, I’d probably put “Afterlife with Archie” at the top.
"Daredevil: End of Days"
This eight-issue limited series, set in a possible future, features the death of Matt Murdoch, aka Daredevil, Marvel’s blind superhero in the devil suit. But this is no funeral: it’s a celebration of one of Marvel’s strongest characters and some of his greatest writers and artists. Brian Michael Bendis, David Mack, Klaus Janson and Bill Sienkiewicz tell a mystery story with hardly any Daredevil that is somehow one of the best Daredevil stories ever. That’s a testament to the creators and DD’s supporting cast, especially journalist Ben Urich, whose investigation of Matt Murdoch’s death leads him on a tour of DD friends and enemies, including Elektra, the Punisher, Nick Fury, the Purple Man and an astounding number of sandy-haired children who look like little Matt Murdochs. The story will capture you, and the art will knock you on your bippy. I can’t stop re-reading this one.
Bonus Dare-comic: The current run of "Daredevil" by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee has brought fun and swashbuckling back to the character after years of doom and gloom. In fact, you’d do well to read everything since Waid started on the book in 2011: it’s one of the best runs on the character since Frank Miller singlehandedly made DD awesome back in the eighties.
The scenario is simple: the Fantastic Four are going on a trip to space, which should only take seconds on Earth. Since plans tend to go like plans, Reed Richards and co. recruit a substitute Fantastic Four to take their place: Ant-Man, She-Hulk, Medusa (queen of the Inhumans) and Darla Deering, a pink-haired pop singer with no powers. Of course, things go wrong (over in the far less inventive “Fantastic Four” title) and this substitute FF has to hold down the fort at the Baxter Building, which is also home to the Future Foundation. The Future Foundation is a think tank and school for some remarkable children, including little mole people, the Impossible Man’s reality-bending (and adorable) green tyke and a supervillain’s young clone. There’s so much to like here. Mike Allred’s poppish art (colored by his wife Laura) is downright joyous, and the dialogue (by Matt Fraction and Lee Allred) is quick, funny and often touching. There’s humor everywhere, but Ant-Man’s attempts to atone for the death of his daughter (in a previous series) are anything but a joke. Jump on this series soon, because there’s a confrontation brewing with Dr. Doom (isn’t there always?) and then this unique story will be finished.
Bonus female-centric comic: DC’s “Wonder Woman” has been a rare bright spot in their mostly painful New 52 lineup. Oliver Sava nails the appeal of the current run, which is reason #4,981 why it’s malarkey that there hasn’t been a Wonder Woman movie yet.
The first three issues of this series — written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Frank Quitely — introduce a group of older heroes and their children. Let’s just say there’s a generation gap between the old coots and the young punks that takes an extremely violent turn in the third issue. I have no idea where this series is going, but I’m pumped to find out. In addition to the intriguing plot, which touches on economic issues and celebrity culture, the art is out-and-out gorgeous, thanks to Quitely, whose best-known work might be the wonderful "All-Star Superman," which gets my vote for best Superman story ever.
Bonus Image comic: Don’t forget about “Invincible.” Robert Kirkman’s story of young superhero Mark Grayson continues to entertain, and it’s one of many reasons Image Comics is probably, comic for comic, the best company out there.
This ongoing series is not that interesting to me, but it’s worth going out of your way to pick up a three-issue story (issues 6-8) that featured Thor. Why? Because these issues were drawn by Walt Simonson, whose work on Thor in the eighties is universally considered the best Thor run ever because of the gorgeous art, epic scope, humorous tone and generous borrowing from Norse mythology. Simonson’s work also partly inspired the plot of "Thor: The Dark World." Anyhoo, this three-issue story (written by Mark Waid) is a blast, and it includes a candidate for cover of the year: the Hulk trying to pick up Thor’s hammer. I recommend picking up the story in book form so you also get a nifty Daredevil story.
Bonus comic with art that’ll boggle your eyes: “Batman Black and White.” This series features out-of-continuity stories by legendary creators in — you guessed it — black and white. Those are mighty good colors for our friend with the cowl.