February saw the arrival of the first London Super Comic Convention. An enormous hall at the ExCel in Docklands was filled by fans, cosplayers, stalls, comic creators and something like a god. Amongst the mortals, the mighty Stan Lee walked, smiled, posed for photos, bringing joy and goodwill to all. His appearance was indeed a good omen for the year, for it seems we are living in a golden age of comics, with the full breadth of the medium opened up for creators and readers.
Obviously I can't mention everything from the past year, and there is so much still to read. For now, I offer a brief and personal sketch of my own highlights of the year. I will also omit all of the collections and reprints published this year, but will quickly cram in a few honourable mentions here to some of our great contemporary institutions dedicated to supporting comics: Comica Festival, Kapow, Paul Gravett, Comic Heroes Magazine and all the comic shops across the land.
2012 was the year that comics were finally accepted onto the shortlist for a mainstream literary award. Joff Winterhart's Days of Bagnold Summer is worthy of the prize, but I am rooting for Mary and Bryan Talbot to win the Costa Book Award. They were nominated for their sublime work Dotter of Her Father's Eyes. Connecting narratives of biography and autobiography, Dotter entwines Mary's own childhood recollections as the daughter of a Joyce scholar with an account of Joyce's daughter. The nomination of these comics did not go unnoticed by mainstream press and media, resulting in many column inches and in John Humphrys on the Today Programme spewing out idiotic statements such as 'surely these are just comics?' His attempt at an attack on the validity of the form was relentless despite the obvious fact that comics ceased to be a medium read predominantly by children sometime late in the last century.
Bryan Talbot also allowed us to return to the beautiful anthropomorphic steam punk world he created for his Grandville series with a welcome third instalment. Meanwhile, Hunt Emerson reminded us of his inventiveness and skills as satirist with his version of Dante's Inferno. In France, Emerson is included among the 75 European Masters of Cartooning of the 20th Century by the Centre Nationale de la Bande Dessinee et de l'Image. He is a significant creative force who deserves far more recognition in the UK. Another splendid adaptation was Hope Larson's graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle. Brian K Vaughn began a new ongoing saga, appropriately titled Saga, with Fiona Staples, exploring the possibilities of the space opera genre in the twenty first century. Charles Burns released The Hive, his long awaited follow up to X'ed Out, and Chris Ware gave us his box full of Building Stories.
Ellen Forney's Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir continues to explore the recent and vibrant tradition of autobiographical comics, and adds to the growing list of works that use the medium for the exploration and communication of issues relating to mental illness. The terrain of mental illness was also at the core of a fictional work that was perhaps the most anticipated and well received work of the year: The Nao of Brown, by Glyn Dillon. A book of understated beauty and power, Glyn Dillon has crafted a realist narrative rich in both everyday detail and occasional bravura visions of the fantastic. His protagonist Nao Brown is quirky, cool, and suffers from OCD, manifested in a particular form of a terror that she will cause harm to others, particularly to children. Her morbid fantasies of extreme violence run alongside the detailed studies of London domestic life, rendered in exquisite watercolours. The writing is absurdly good, but is overshadowed by the astonishing demonstration of visual storytelling, pulling readers into the lives of Dillon's characters.
British science fiction comic 2000AD continues to put out exciting material, in weekly form, the monthly Megazine, and through reprints. Boosted by the exhilarating film adaptation Dredd, this old favourite is looking healthy. However, if the publishers of 2000AD continue in failing to take seriously the digital form, such health may be short lived. The move into the Apple Newsstand format is not a substitute for producing a digital comic, with guided flow reading, and safe storage on devices and accounts. At present, subscription is unreliable, and whole collections seem to disappear without explanation and no hope of recovery. The comic itself does not flow in a guided reading mode, but rather appears as just a straightforward document one page at a time. 2000AD continues as a vital and energetic force, but must get to grips with digital comics. This is not a new horizon, or a future direction, it is right now. The current approach feels as if the publishers are shouting 'The internet will never catch on, it's just a fad,' which is ironic for a science fiction comic.
The big two, Marvel and DC, are leading the way in developing a standard form for digital comics and their distribution. Yet many independents have been keeping up. Digital comics have come into their own now, and are a great way to stay up to date with current storylines in monthly issues, which you probably then read again as a paper collection. American superhero comics have embraced the form, opening up the monthly comic to new readers and re-igniting the joy of the new release in a old reader like myself. They are not going to replace paper, but they have already enhanced what is out there for readers.
This year, DC have continued to roll out their well-received reboot of their universe, New 52, where everything started from scratch in 2011, while somehow also keeping other kinds of continuity going around their key characters. Batman continues to be popular, benefitting from the recent Nolan film, and interest in Superman has been built up through teasers for next year's Man of Steel movie. However, my heart belongs to Marvel. While in cinemas fans were delighted by Joss Whedon's Avengers Assemble, and underwhelmed by Andrew Garfield's teen angst in The Amazing Spider-Man, the Marvel comic event of the year was the full on slugfest Avengers vs X-Men, which ended up as Cyclops vs everyone else in the Marvel Universe. The aftermath of the dramatic events of A vs X conveniently led to a semi-reboot, a rearranging in the form of Marvel Now.
So far, the highlight of Marvel Now has been the transition of Brian Michael Bendis from writing duties on Avengers, to the all new X-Men title, called, appropriately enough, All New X-Men. However, the real gems in this year's Marvel output have been two new solo titles for members of the Avengers. Captain Marvel, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, sees the former Ms Marvel, Carol Danvers, take on the full title of the alien warrior from whom she absorbed her powers.
This is a rich, evocative, exciting, original and fun take on the character, and Dexter Soy's art has been stylish and impressive. Hawkeye, written by Matt Fraction, and for the most part, drawn by David Aja, has been a consistent joy, both funny and thrilling. Aja's work is amongst the best ever published by Marvel, and that is some competition. The drawings are reminiscent of David Mazzucchelli's work on Batman: Year One. However, Aja takes the work further with an experimental yet measure approach to layout, pacing and framing, which is unique and quite brilliant. Hawkeye focuses on the character of Clint Barton, but is made far more interesting through the supporting role of the other Hawkeye, Young Avenger Kate Bishop.
Marvel have also managed to scoop the final moment of the year, with the death of Peter Parker in Amazing Spider-Man issue 700. Not to be confused with the death of Ultimate Peter Parker, who was killed of in 2011, this is not a parallel continuity, but the real thing. Spider-Man's old enemy Doctor Octopus manages to achieve a mind/body swap, an old idea, but here the villain wins. He survives in Spider-Man's body as the body of Doc Ock dies, but retains the memories, experiences and responsibility of Peter Parker. In short, Doctor Octopus is now Spider-Man.
This has led to online abuse and death threats directed at writer Dan Slott, but is a brilliant, unexpected and slightly twisted take on the world's most popular superhero. The storyline has an emotional power, but also a science fiction element that leaves us with an unsettling post-Descartian uncertainty as to the nature of self. Not bad for a comic.