The Year in Comics: Biggest Winners of 2012

2012 was an incredible year for comics. There's a wave of creative energy that hasn't been felt like this since the mid-1980s, and while "regular" bookstores have been on the decline, comic shops are seeing levels of foot traffic that they haven't seen in years. 

I couldn't, in good conscience, do a "Best of" list for 2012, because I know that I miss out on a ton of great books, and I'd be inclined to fill all those slots with IDW's Popeye Classic Comics anyway. What I have here are a list of indisputable winners of 2012 - books, companies, and people who came out of this past year looking like a million bucks (or in the case of Robert Kirkman, rolling around naked in a million bucks). Welcome to Gutters and Panel's first annual "Biggest Winners" list.

 Cover detail from  X-O Manowar  #6, art by Doug Braithwaite. Valiant Comics.

Cover detail from X-O Manowar #6, art by Doug Braithwaite. Valiant Comics.

Valiant Comics

Everybody loves an underdog story, and it's been especially satisfying to see Valiant return from the dead with such a strong, yet modest, commitment to quality books. I say modest because instead of exploding with a dozen titles at once in a pop-and-fizzle cash grab, they've slowly been building their line, adding titles when the time is right, which allows new readers more opportunity to try their books (X-O Manowar, Bloodshot, Shadowman, Archer & Armstrong, and Harbinger). As far as re-launches go, Valiant's has been damn near perfectly executed.

The new books are conceived with the same spirit as the original Valiant books - superheroes for people that might be a little tired of superheroes. The creative teams on the books are high-quality, and I'd also like to point some praise at the company's art director/graphic design team, who have redone Valiant's branding in a way that doesn't throw out what has come before, yet makes a very distinct impression on the racks.

 Panel detail from  Hawkeye  #3, art by David Aja. Marvel Comics.

Panel detail from Hawkeye #3, art by David Aja. Marvel Comics.

Hawkeye

Fabian Niceza tried a similar approach to a Hawkeye monthly about ten years ago, but he didn't have David Aja as his ace-in-the-hole. Aja, along with writer Matt Fraction, are producing the best new series at Marvel, full of action, wit, and a distinct approach to both characterization and the actual art of sequential storytelling. It's astounding, really, that they've managed to do a mainstream superhero comic that doesn't look or feel like any other superhero comic on the racks.

Interest in the character was certainly at an all-time high, post-Avengers. Unlike Fraction's recent dead-end fizzle with Defenders, with Hawkeye he was taking on a red-hot character at his red-hottest. And though the book is completely stripped of the big-panel science-fiction of the Avengers film, 2012 has certainly been a year where the intelligent readers have made their voices heard. They like Hawkeye. For a self-proclaimed Hawkeye nerd, this book (along with the inclusion of Jeremy Renner in the movie) is a validation of the character's potential, and a sigh of relief that I no longer have to defend myself for loving an arrow-slinging C-lister. He's a cult-fave B-lister now!

 Cover detail from  The Walking Dead  #100, art by Bryan Hitch. Robert Kirkman/Image Comics.

Cover detail from The Walking Dead #100, art by Bryan Hitch. Robert Kirkman/Image Comics.

The Walking Dead

2012 marked the year that a hit comic with a hit show became a full-fledged mania. It was excellent timing for the monthly Walking Dead book to hit its 100th issue amidst all the rage; the synergy resulted in over 380,000 copies sold. That's the most single issues sold of a single comic since 1997.

I "trade wait" the series, and I'm a book or two behind at the moment, but I'd have to be living in a cave to avoid how much The Walking Dead has permeated pop culture this year. Books like this come along once in a blue moon, and the attention it gives to comics, especially creator-owned books, is highly valuable. I have an inkling that Walking Dead might be the gateway series for many smart new readers, which is why books like the aforementioned Hawkeye and Saga can thrive despite being nothing that anyone in their right mind would peg as commercial.

 Cover detail from  Thor: God of Thunder  #2, art by Esad Ribic. Marvel Comics.

Cover detail from Thor: God of Thunder #2, art by Esad Ribic. Marvel Comics.

Marvel NOW

It's just a few months in, but the creative gambles have paid off. If the whole thing was inspired by the New 52, then Marvel also seemed to learn from DC's mistakes, by trusting the all of their creatives to bring their A-game. The concern is not whether every property is exploited; it's whether every book on the shelf is compelling (case-in-point, the upcoming Superior Spider-Man, a book that's sidelined Peter Parker to tell a lengthy story about a villain trying to become a hero against their darker, more selfish nature).

There's a sense of healthy competition within Marvel, the likes of which haven't been felt since the old classic Bullpen days. When you start talking about your favorite Marvel NOW books, it devolves into a "which is better" conversation about Thor: God of Thunder or All-New X-Men. But, for real, which is better? Fantastic Four or FF? I kid. The clear answer is FF. At least for now.

The crazy thing? Marvel NOW isn't even done launching new stuff. We haven't seen Cho's Savage Wolverine, Cornell/Davis on Wolverine, Bendis/McNiven on Guardians of the Galaxy, or Bendis/Bachalo on Uncanny X-Men. Marvel's already making 2013 look pretty sweet.

 Cover detail from  Deathstroke  #11, art by Rob Liefeld. DC Comics.

Cover detail from Deathstroke #11, art by Rob Liefeld. DC Comics.

Rob Liefeld

He may not be able to draw feet, bur he can certainly draw attention. Liefeld's Twitter account has been one of the most fascinating to follow this year. Besides his very public falling-out with his editors at DC, Liefeld has revealed himself to be an enthusiastic supporter of others in his field and is remarkably cheery about working in a medium where he's routinely and savagely criticized by fans and press.

While I wasn't a fan of his output for DC's New 52, I loved what he did with his Extreme line at Image. One of my favorite books this year has been Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell's Glory - Liefeld's Wonder Woman surrogate transformed into an off-the-wall sci-fi yarn starring one of the most unique heroines in comics and punctuated with some of the most graphic violence I've seen in a comic. It's a blast. All of the books - Supreme, Prophet, Bloodstrike, and Glory - have been a welcome alternative to typical superhero fare. I wrote a bit earlier in the year about how his true calling may not be as a writer or an artist but as an editor-in-chief, encouraging creativity in others.

 Panel detail from  Batman  #15, art by Greg Capullo. DC Comics.

Panel detail from Batman #15, art by Greg Capullo. DC Comics.

The Bat-Family

Scott Snyder entered the new year as the break-out star of the New 52, with his work on the flagship Batman book (with career-best art from Greg Capullo), but the other books in the Batman family have finally found their grooves as well. John Layman has infused Detective Comics with the same tone and action as the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, while Gregg Hurwitz has given Batman: The Dark Knight a reason to live as the more horror-tinged of the Batman books. I can't say enough good things about Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's work on Batman and Robin - it's the underdog of the Batman line, due to fans' distaste for Bruce Wayne's prickly son Damien - but, damn, if Tomasi and Gleason don't show up Snyder's book on a regular basis with a focus on sharp characterization and high stakes.

Batgirl ends the new year on an odd note, with fan favorite writer Gail Simone getting the boot, then getting invited back. She'll miss two issues thanks to someone at DC making a snap judgment on a title that's been solid from the New 52's start. My opinion on Batgirl (one of the books I bought regularly at first and continue to dip into when I want something else to read when my monthly books are done) is that Gail Simone hasn't met her match on the book in the art department. While Ardian Syaf and Ed Benes have done serviceable work on the art, they've felt like somewhat of a stylistic mismatch with Simone's optimistic, action-heavy heroine. Simone has a tendency to over-write, and I think it's because she hasn't been partnered with someone she can trust to get the job done without excessive word balloons and captions. She needs an Aja to her Fraction. She's one perfect artist away from Batgirl being a must-read.

Each Bat-book has its place, from Grant Morrison's wacky Batman Inc. to Kyle Higgins' consistent work on Nightwing. Are there too many Batman books? I say no, not as long as there's a little something for everyone.

 Cover detail from  Saga  #8, art by Fiona Staples. Brian K. Vaughn & FIona Staples/Image Comics.

Cover detail from Saga #8, art by Fiona Staples. Brian K. Vaughn & FIona Staples/Image Comics.

Saga

No new comic dominated the conversation like Saga did. What's even more remarkable is how such a non-mainstream book has conquered the sales charts all over the world. This is the book that proves that something has happened within comic fandom. Comics don't have to cater to the guys in the too-small Lady Death shirts anymore. There's a new breed of reader, and if you don't believe that, consider the fate of a book like Saga had it come out ten years ago. It would've had all of the acclaim and none of the sales.

This is the best new series of 2012. Parents in comics are not usually portrayed as vital, sexy people, and they're also hardly seen as relatable, but Saga's Alana and Marko are all of those things. Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples have given us a pair of characters who just shouldn't be connecting with mass audiences in the way that they do, but they are. And I am so happy that they are. Probably not as happy as Vaughn and Staples, but it gives me warm fuzzies to see a quality book get all of the recognition it deserves.

 Panel detail from  Daredevil  #12. Art by Chris Samnee. Marvel Comics.

Panel detail from Daredevil #12. Art by Chris Samnee. Marvel Comics.

Mark Waid

I need to go back and re-read The Flash to determine whether or not Mark Waid's Daredevil run is the best work of his career, but I know this - it's really, really great (Chris Samnee has the chops to become a definitive Daredevil artist as well). Of course, what does my tiny voice mean when Waid has already won a pile of awards for the book?

Looking past the Harveys and the Eisners that Daredevil deservedly racked up in 2012, Waid also launched his own line of digital comics at Thrillbent.com, offering regular free doses of the superhero sidekick story Insufferable and zombie yarn Luther, and forcing a conversation about comics that advocates the co-existence of print and digital. Mark Waid is a relentlessly talented comic book vet, and if he can shape Indestructible Hulk into a book as compelling as Daredevil, then we're in for a very good 2013.

 Cover detail from  Fatale  #1, art by Sean Phillips. Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips/Image Comics.

Cover detail from Fatale #1, art by Sean Phillips. Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips/Image Comics.

Image Comics

Happy anniversary, Image! It's incredible to consider what Image looked like in 1992 compared to what it looks like in 2012. They became the destination publisher for creator-owned projects, and I'm not sure there was a publisher in 2012 who released a greater breadth of genres. Sure, the old stalwarts like Savage Dragon, Cyberforce, Spawn, and Youngblood are still around, but so are most of the new books your friends are pushing on you to read.

I'm hoping it wasn't just an anniversary thing; I'm hoping this is the new status quo. They're expanding the audience of comics beyond the capes and tights more than any other company, and there doesn't seem to be any letting up. Their deals are simple - creators retain the rights to the books that Image publishes - making them very attractive to veterans whose names alone can move a title and newcomers looking to stake their own claim. It may have taken 20 years for the Image experiment to work like it always should've, but it's paid off in some of the most electric books on the stand.