Sometimes when I’m writing about comics, I wonder if I cover Image’s work too much. Not that there’s a committee of people out there that decide what is or isn’t the proper amount of articles covering a single creator, comic or publisher, but I write about Image a lot, you know? There’s a good reason why, though.
In terms of publishers of monthly comics, there is no one doing it better right now than Image Comics. And it’s not particularly close.
A big part of the reason why is their nature as a creator-owned house. Because Image features creators telling the stories they want to tell – rather than the ones they’ve been hired to tell – we’re getting the books these writers, artists and more are personally connected to. That ownership and passion comes across in the work. It also means that we get a whole mess of diversity of story, which leads to Image’s line having a wider breadth of potential favorite comics for people. At Marvel or DC, there are some books that every can agree to being the best. At Image? So much is built on personal preference, as one person may adore Bitch Planet while another is a passionate fan of The Walking Dead. Their books are mostly very good, and when you’re deciding between a litany of similarly well made things, the best tends to be more of your favorite rather than the one that is technically the greatest.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a subjective medium, and that leads to every Image fan having a wildly different list than another. That’s a very exciting thing, and that diversity of content is likely why Image as a publisher has been on the forefront for attracting women readers and those new to the medium.
But still, you have to wonder: is there an Image title we can label the best? Subjectively, no. That’d still be a favorite. But like before with our ranking of the Nextwave cast, we can find a way using science*.
Here’s the method behind this madness. I created a shortlist of Image titles – apologies to Drifter, Southern Cross, The Walking Dead, Bitch Planet, Outcast, Trees and Velvet for being the last cuts – and then ranked them in five categories, with each having a designated point total. Those points – called SKTCHD Points – defined the rankings of SKTCHD.com’s list of the ten best Image titles right now.
The five categories are:
1. Writing (3 points): this category grades the book for the quality of its writing, and not just plot, but character work, dialogue, mechanics of story, how it builds, etc. A purely technical category.
2. Art (3 points): naturally, this looks at art, but it isn’t just the penciller, but the colorist, letterer, cover artists, designer, and more. I looked how effectively they tell the story, how the character acting is, and much more. Another technical category.
3. Personal Affinity (2 points): because this is all about my rankings, this category is my personal feelings towards the book, its writing and art, its genre, and most importantly, when I read it the week it is released. The higher on my pile, the better.
4. Production Value (1 point): this entails the design of the book, how unified that design is, bonus features like back matter, letters columns and other assorted features.
5. Consistency (1 point): does it come out on the regular or use its own, easy-to-follow release structure? Is it of a consistent quality? Does the creative team stay the same issue to issue, arc to arc?
As you can tell, it’s weighted heavier towards the creative side of things. That’s the most important part of a comic, but I – and any other reader – would be lying if they didn’t say things like personal preference, production and a consistency didn’t factor into how much we appreciate a comic. Naturally, the higher the better, with 10 being a historically great comic, 9 being one of the best in comics right now, 8 being a highlight the week it comes out, and on downwards to 1, in which that would be the comic apocalypse. Thankfully, we didn’t have to go that far.
Without further ado, though, here is the list.
10. The Fade Out – 8.1 SP
Creators: Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Elizabeth Breitweiser
Tweetable Synopsis: A mystery/noir set in 1940’s Hollywood finds a screenwriter scrambling to uncover the truth after a young starlet was murdered.
Why It’s One of the Best: In typical Brubaker and Phillips fashion, The Fade Out is incredible. Their partnerships always result in exceptional work, but The Fade Out so far has felt like another peak work in the making from the duo, especially with Breitweiser fitting in with them and the story as well as she does. This synopsis was the toughest of the ten to write, though, as the plot is both bigger and smaller than what I described. It’s both a thriller and a book that thrives on small character moments, and it works both as a mystery and as a straight Hollywood story. The undercurrent of McCarthy era paranoia gives it even more bite, and it’s a dense, multi-faceted read that is ever so intriguing.
And I think we’re just getting to the tip of the iceberg, really. I’m excited to see where it goes from here.
Favorite Aspect: The character work. While I’m tempted to talk about Phillips’ work on covers and interiors or Breitweiser’s moody colors, Brubaker feels so on point here with his character work that it has to take the lead. The characters are so rich and complicated that they feel well done even for Brubaker, a guy who has excelled at taking archetypes and filling them with life for years. It’s the straw that stirs this book’s drink, but really, this is a hard book to separate one aspect from another on.
9. Injection – 8.15 SP
Creators: Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Fonografiks
Tweetable Synopsis: Five very odd but gifted people may have broken the world, but now it’s their job to save it from the titular Injection.
Why It’s One of the Best: It’s only three issues in, but so far, so good. Ellis has long been one of my two or three favorite writers in comics, and this book is peak Ellis. It’s weird as all hell. It plays most stories close to its vest, only feeding us what we need to keep digging in. And like usual, it’s really, oddly, darkly funny. There is no book that makes me laugh in a more surprising manner than this one, from Maria Kilbride’s literally three issue quest to get a sandwich to the final page of issue #1.
Oh, and it pairs him up with Shalvey, Bellaire and Fonografiks, aka one of the best art teams in comics. Let’s jump into that now, shall we?
Favorite Aspect: The art. My god the art. I’m a huge fan of the three people contributing to the visuals on this book, but each is bringing some exemplary work to the table even for them. Shalvey’s interiors and covers have been spellbinding in moments both big and small. Bellaire’s thrived with dense images and hard-to-imagine landscapes (her work on the covers have really pushed them up a notch as well). And Fonografiks’ design and lettering on the book fits perfectly to the feel and tone of the story. This book is a visual tour de force, and it’s a big part of why this book is such an enjoyable read.
8. Chew – 8.25 SP
Creators: John Layman, Rob Guillory
Tweetable Synopsis: FDA agent Tony Chu has food powers, and he uses them to save his family and maybe the world after a catastrophic bird flu. But at what cost?
Why It’s One of the Best: This book is 50 issues in, and somehow, it’s one of the highest numbered books in comics these days. If anything explains where comics are today better than that, I don’t know it, but I’m happy it’s still around. There are only ten issues left in Layman and Guillory’s magnum opus, but it continues to deliver the laughs, tears and surprises as well as ever.
That’s one thing I always stress to people. Sure, Chew is a funny book. That has never not been true. But there are few comics that hit the emotional high points and the character beats as well as this one does. It’s a human story told in often big, bold and broad strokes, but when it gets small, it can pack a wallop. I have a feeling we’ll be getting that a lot as we head towards the finale of the series, and that I’ll be writing many an angry letter to Layman and Guillory about how they mistreat my favorites along the way. But the only reason I do that is because I care, and dammit, they made me do that. It’s a gift and a curse, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Favorite Aspect: Just how unique it is. Even with some of the books higher on this list, I can say that they remind me of something else on the market or something the creators had done before. Chew? It reminds me only of itself. It is its own beast, and what a glorious beast it is. In a medium filled with a lot of overlap in genre and subject matter, I’m thankful to have a book every month or so that is weird as all get out yet still tells a mean story. Few books show off the potential of creator-owned better than this one, as this title just couldn’t exist anywhere else and has since won Eisner and Harvey Awards.
7. East of West – 8.3 SP
Creators: Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, Frank Martin, Rus Wooton
Tweetable Synopsis: The apocalypse is here, and maybe our only hope is that Death can save his son who might be the Antichrist. Good luck with that.
Why It’s One of the Best: This book is maximum Hickman. That’s not to say he’s the only reason this book is great, as Dragotta, Martin and Wooton do phenomenal work here. But everything we know and love about Hickman is here in the book, from the Hickman designed transition pages to the wildly decompressed storylines, and by god, it is glorious. It really is his destiny to tell a story of the apocalypse that reads like in progress mythology as much as it does a comic book.
And that Dragotta guy. Man. He’s such a perfect fit for the story, pairing his as per usual pitch perfect storytelling with brilliant character and world design to maximum effect. I’ve been a fan of the guy for some time now, but no book has been as perfect for him as this one has. I marvel each and every issue at the work he is putting in, and for someone so generally revered, it’s interesting to me he doesn’t get that much talk. Maybe it’s because this book is what I call a metronome book: it’s always great, month in and month out. For some, that can lead to boredom or apathy. Me? I’m just happy each issue is as good as it is. There are worse things in the world than consistently good comics like this one.
Favorite Aspect: Its fully realized identity. While a lot of books are their own thing or clearly do their own thing, few do it in as omnipresent of a way as East of West. Everything from Hickman designed transition pages with quotes on them to the character designs for each part of the world are developed in full to the point where the world it takes place in feels saturated and complete. In some ways, it feels like the world’s most messed up documentary, and in others, it feels like a story book of a lost society. It’s an incredibly well developed book, and its identity makes it a much richer read.
6. Shutter – 8.55 SP
Creators: Joe Keatinge, Leila del Duca, Owen Gieni, John Workman
Tweetable Synopsis: Life isn’t so bad for former child adventurer Kate Kristopher until she finds out her family is THE WORST. But hey, the adventures are back!
Why It’s One of the Best: This is one of my favorite books to visit, and I say that word very specifically. While comics often introduce us to unexpected places and stories, very few comics deliver a version of our world that has as much raw imagination as the one Shutter has. It’s thanks to a team that puts the emphasis on creative that it is as great as it is, and the story is a tragic yet strange and fun adventure filled with brilliant art by del Duca. She’s the breakout star of the book (unless you include Cassius), and the one who genuinely blows me away with each passing issue.
But it’s a book that is greater than the sum of its parts, and in many ways shows how valuable it is to have a creative team that acts like a true team. It’s an exceptional book, and I’d be a failure as a fan of letters columns if I didn’t mention how much I enjoy Shutter’s one. Not only do you get a great comic out of the book, you can pick up some great recommendations on books, TV, movies, comics and music in the process. Win win, I say!
Favorite Aspect: The world. That’s on all parts of the creative team, but the world of Shutter is so rich and imaginative that every time I read an issue, it’s not like any other reading experience. It’s like visiting somewhere I never knew I always wanted to go. It’s such an odd and vibrant place for a comic to take place in, but god, I love it. Keatinge and del Duca have mad ideas, but they sure come across a beauties.
5. Southern Bastards – 9.0 SP
Creators: Jason Aaron, Jason Latour, Jared K. Fletcher
Tweetable Synopsis: A story of blood and family told in the Deep South through the prism of crime, football and carrying a really big stick.
Why It’s One of the Best: Not to focus on one Jason above the other to start with, but Jason Aaron always has the rare ability to make me love a story I never expected anything from. Scalped is one of my all-time favorite comics, and it’s a crime story told on an Indian reservation. His upcoming book with Scalped collaborator R.M. Guera, The Goddamned, is the duo doing the Bible. Southern Bastards? It isn’t about the South as much as it is the South, through and through. Yet I love it.
But the Jasons do their thing, and they do it well. The second arc in particular blew me away, as they took a reprehensible character and, well, they didn’t make me love him, but they made him sympathetic in a way I didn’t think was possible. Their story is told with so much care and understanding despite raw violence that shocks and awes us as readers, and it’s the type of thing that really only could have started as a comic. We’re lucky to have books that surprise us like this one does, and I get the feeling they’re just getting warmed up, really.
Favorite Aspect: Its balls. That’s another combination answer, but (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT) how many books have you read lately that kill off its apparent lead in the very first arc? And then make the ostensible villain the lead in the second arc? And then make you care for the dirty sonofabitch? Pair that with the Confederate flag variant they’re doing and the general badassery the team completely owns in a public space, and you have a book that has swagger for days in a very good way.
4. Saga – 9.25 SP
Creators: Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Fonografiks
Tweetable Synopsis: It’s like The Family Circus, but if there was a lot more sex, violence, space battles, civil war, and anthropomorphic seals named Ghüs.
Why It’s One of the Best: The fact that Saga is on my list isn’t a surprise, but that it isn’t number one may be. After all, it wins Eisner Awards as frequently as some comics are released, and its debut is in my opinion one of the great firebrand moments in modern comic history. Everything changed when Saga arrived, especially for creators.
But the reason it isn’t at number one has little to do with waning quality or anything of the sort. No. Simply put, Image is releasing some very, very good comics these days, and it’s hard for even vaunted award winners like Saga to hang. It’s still every bit the beautiful and easy to love space opera it was, filled with fascinating characters and some of the best art in recent comics history. It finds two creators at the absolute peak of their powers doing phenomenal work, and it deservedly is the most beloved comic around these days. Really, it’s Saga, and that’s all one really needs to know as to why it’s one of the best.
Favorite Aspect: The creatives. This was the only book I gave threes on both writing and art on, and it’s easy to understand why. Both Vaughan and Staples are giving virtuoso performances in this book, and they perpetually impress and surprise. You could even argue that this book has gotten better as we’ve moved along, with Staples’ upping her game in subtle ways and Vaughan expanding the world while getting more comfortable within it. This is, in my book at least, the best writer/artist combination in comics.
3. The Wicked + The Divine – 9.35 SP
Creators: Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson, Clayton Cowles
Tweetable Synopsis: What if the gods of pop were literal gods? And what if you were somehow pulled into their world much to your frustration and delight?
Why It’s One of the Best: Fairly recently, I went all in on explaining why this book is so great and how the team has managed to make us care so much about the story, so I won’t dig too deep to explain it this time. What I will say is that this book has just gotten better and better with the passage of time, and that this is the best comic its vaunted creative team has produced so far in their career together. It’s beautiful, it’s horrific, it’s grandiose, it’s subtle and it is all kinds of other things that are opposites, all at the same time.
To quote famed Band Aid Penny Lane, it’s all happening. Who wants to miss the show when that’s the case? I know I don’t when it comes to The Wicked + The Divine.
Favorite Aspect: The visuals. No comic that is being produced today has a more specific and owned visual identity than this one, from McKelvie’s finished art and Wilson’s colors to Cowles’s lettering and Hannah Donovan’s designs. This book might be – from a fit/technical standpoint – the best looking monthly title around.
2. Deadly Class – 9.4 SP
Creators: Rick Remender, Wes Craig, Lee Loughridge, Rus Wooton
Tweetable Synopsis: Being young is hard, but it’s especially hard in the 1980’s when you’re a formerly homeless fuck up in a school for assassins like Marcus.
Why It’s One of the Best: This is a book I didn’t expect to like as much as I did, and a big reason why is something I’ll elaborate on more here in a minute: the art. But one thing I really want to emphasize is how oddly relatable Marcus and his plight is. Sure, I’ve never been in a school of assassins or had my parents killed in front of my very eyes or been an orphan or anything like that. But there are few things we as people understand better than what it feels like to be young. The frustration. The sexual awakening. The awkwardness. The uncontrollable emotions. The disappointment we feel when the people, places and situations we exist around don’t live up to what we want from them.
Deadly Class may be about a school of assassins, but ultimately, it’s about something even more savage: finding your place in this world. Not everyone survives it. But more often than not, we’re all the better for it, come hell or high water. Just like those young people, we as comic readers are better off having the experience of reading this comic.
Favorite Aspect: Wes Craig. While I would argue that WicDiv is the best looking book overall – that’s cover to cover – no artist impresses me more on an issue-to-issue basis than Craig. I love everyone who was nominated in the Eisner Awards and Fiona Staples is amazing, but there should have been one nominee and one winner, and both of them should have been Craig. It’s a virtuoso performance, and one that highlights the storytelling, diversity, power and emotionality that can live within comic art. If the dialogue was simply excerpts taken from Vogon poetry, I’d still buy this comic. That’s how good it is.
1. Lazarus – 9.7 SP
Creators: Greg Rucka, Michael Lark, Santi Arcas, Jodi Wynne, Eric Trautmann
Tweetable Synopsis: In a future where select families run the world, Forever Carlyle balances her role as her family’s protector with pursuing her true origins.
Why It’s the Best: While there’s a pretty elaborate review of the book here on SKTCHD that can tell you all of the ins and outs of why, the short answer is it’s some of the finest creators in comics doing their best work ever. Lazarus hasn’t just been good since issue one, it has improved with each passing issue and arc. A big reason why is while it may be a story set in a dystopian future with cool concepts and political intrigue, it never fails to impress with its character work.
That character work forms the foundation of the entire series even more than the concept, and it’s why everything works so well. People like Forever and her love interest/occasional teammate Joacquim Morray have immediately become unforgettable creations in fiction for me, and it’s because of the nuanced emotionality Lark and Rucka build into them. This isn’t just my favorite Image title. It’s my favorite comic, period. When it comes out, it is the first comic I read no matter what. As a comic reader, there’s no finer compliment I can give a title than that.
Favorite Aspect: Its all-encompassing nature. The story never stops with Lazarus. You don’t read the book as much as you get lost in it, from the complicated plot mechanics and relationships Rucka delivers, to Lark’s subtle, nuanced art, to Arcas’s perfectly accentuating colors and Trautmann’s madcap and hard to define contributions to the back matter. The back matter is almost the main event for me, as every issue doesn’t stop on the last page, it keeps going in the letters column as we learn about the world that Lazarus takes place in through timelines, family histories, and more. Hell, even the back cover gives color to the world, as they’re always advertisements of the varying families living in this twisted Earth. Each issue is less a comic and more an artifact studying a broken system and world, and the players who thrive and struggle within it. Of course, it is still a comic, but it is so much more robust and fulfilling than we typically expect from such a package.
* I cannot emphasize how little science was used in this article. While I did actually rate each book in each category, calling that science might be a bit overboard.