2014 was a banner year for science fiction fans on every front. In theaters, hard science fiction fans were treated to the twin visual marvels of Snowpiercer and Interstellar, dystopian fans got to geek out over Maze Runner, Hunger Games, and Divergent, and even mainstream America couldn’t help but get swept up in the genre excitement of such cinematic tentpoles as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Edge of Tomorrow.
As good as Hollywood was to the genre, the publishing world was even better. Authors Michel Faber, William Gibson, David Mitchell, John Scalzi, and Jeff Vandermeer all returned stronger than ever even as we were introduced to such new favorites as M.R. Carey and Andy Weir
Meanwhile, the release of games like Alien Isolation, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Destiny, and Titanfall seriously cut into gamers’ availability for real world activity.
For those of you who have been otherwise distracted, here’s a run down of the best on-going science fiction comics you missed out on in 2014. It’s far from exhaustive, because there were a LOT of great series this year, but these titles are a great starting point.
In its third year in print, Saga is the best-selling creator owned comic in the U.S. after The Walking Dead, and for good reason… at least ten good reasons, in fact. The series is the most fresh, inventive story to come along in ages – in or out of comics. One moment it’ll have you in stitches, the next, on the verge of tears, and each issue is visually stunning, if occasionally blush-inducing. The series tells the story of two alien soldiers from opposite sides of an unending war between two space-faring species, one of which wields magic. The pair fall in love and are forced to flee for their lives when both of their governments decide that the forbidden romance could disrupt the status quo. Things get hilariously complicated when a baby comes into the picture, however, and what began as a Romeo and Juliet tale spins off into a sprawling space-opera that runs wild, ignoring every cliché of the genre in the best possible way.
Imagine if The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling had been resurrected for the sole purpose of writing a hybrid of Lost in Space and Sliders only to have the series sold out from under him to HBO who decides to give it the Tales from the Crypt treatment. If that sounds a bit weird, then you’re beginning to get the idea.
Black Science tells the story of an anarchist scientist who breaks the barriers between realities, sending himself and his family careening through alternate dimensions. Remender proceeds to drop his characters into a series of increasingly surprising situations that will challenge readers’ expectations at every turn. What makes the stories so amazing is that everything is up in the air every issue. As one GoodReads review puts it, “the characters don’t have any plot armor.” One week the protagonists are facing Lovecraftian frog-monsters, the next futuristic Native Americans. The resulting storylines are the stuff great sci-fi pulps are made of.
In just over a year, Greg Rucka has crafted one of the most complex and fully realized science fiction worlds in comics, and in keeping with the best traditions of the genre, he fills his world with stories rich in allegorical significance.
Lazarus is set in a dystopian future without nations or governments. The world is controlled by the world’s wealthiest families who maintain elaborate serfdoms. Each family is protected by a Lazarus, a guardian capable of surviving almost any amount of damage, genetically engineered for the express purpose of protecting the family by any means necessary. The story follows Forever, the Carlyle family’s Lazarus, as she slowly awakens from her chemically induced servitude and begins to experience guilt over her role in killing the family’s enemies.
Rucka’s world feel startlingly real. No one world builds like Rucka, and his protagonist Forever, is rapidly ascending to the mantel of the most kick-ass heroine in comics. There isn’t much of the Lazarus series yet, but it’s the kind of series that makes fans proud to get in on the ground floor. Highly recommended.
Like Saga, Chew is a story that could only work as a comic. It’s a brilliantly wacky roller-coaster that follows the adventures of a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agent who uses psychic impressions gathered by eating bits of people to solve crimes in a post-avian flu ravaged world where chicken is outlawed and vampires prey on the weak. Saying that it’s a weird story would be an understatement, but it works.
Layman’s witty characters and hilarious pop culture references suck readers in and his zany plots will keep the pages turning. Rob Guillory fits Layman’s style like glove, and the Easter eggs and references he litter through out his art make each issue of Chew like a pop culture edition of Where’s Waldo. This year’s release, Volume 8, includes some of the funniest story yet. In it, Chew‘s protagonist, Tony, is on the trail of his twin sister Toni’s murderer, and Toni is determined to help.
This punchy mini-series is classic Mark Millar. The series tells the story of an old man relives his glory days saving an alien civilization. Millar calls it “Buzz Lightyear meets Unforgiven,” but it reminds me of a grittier version of A Princess of Mars as a Flash Gordon-style protagonist returns to Earth, gets married, has kids, only to be called upon 25 years later to once more save the universe.
Like many of Millarworld titles, Starlight is Millar’s take on a mainstream title. Where Jupiter’s Legacy read like an alternate-dimension Superman tale and Nemesis drew close parallels with Batman and his arch-nemesis The Joker, Starlight clearly pays homage to Buck Rogers, Flash Gordan, and John Carter in turn. This isn’t any simple reboot, though. The series sets the tone for Millar’s entire Millarworld Universe, mixing adventure and heartache in equal measures to breathe fresh life into tried and true tropes. Goran Parlov’s artwork brings the story to life and lends it the air of a great epic.
Come for the phenomenal art of Christian Ward, stay for the devilishly clever genderbent re-telling of Greek Mythology set in space! Though the first issue might be confusing for people unfamiliar with Homer’s Oddysey, this is a series worth sticking with.
Two words: superpowered Nazis. Not in a silly DC villain way, either. These are gruesomely ultraviolent Nazis, and if the concept doesn’t make you at least a little queasy, then White’s unflinching depiction of Allied soldiers being torn limb from limb will certainly carry you the rest of the way.
Uber is set at the end of World War II. Berlin is under siege and Hitler is determined to snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat. Superhuman soldiers called Battleships are created through horrific scientific trials in a last-ditch attempt to obliterate the enemy, but the Allies don’t take the new development lying down. Soon, the war is pitting supermen against supermen, and the destruction and tragedy increases a thousandfold.
What makes the series work is the authentic feel of the backdrop against which the story is told. Gillen has clearly done his research. Churchill and the Nazi command feel like authentic historical characters, and while Gillen’s story would never be mistaken for the overt morality tale typical of war comics, it does pose questions about the ethics of war that are very relevant to the modern world.
Set in World War II-era United States, The Manhattan Projects depicts an alternate history in which Joseph Oppenheimer (Robert Oppenheimer’s evil twin brother), Richard Feynman, Wernher Von Braun, and Albert Einstein’s evil doppelganger worked on the Manhattan Project as “a front for a series of other, more unusual programs” such as intergalactic teleportation, inter-dimensional travel, and moon bases. The series is the madcap adventure we wish that SyFy’s Eureka had been featuring twisted historical figures in the vein of a Seth Grahame-Smith novel. There’s an alcoholic Einstein who isn’t a genius but is handy with a chainsaw, Oppenheimer’s homicidal brother Robert who stole his brother’s identity by eating his brain, and Laika the talking space dog. And yes, talking space dogs is fairly representative of what you can expect from the series.
If you’re a fan of mad scientists as a story trope this should be your next stop.
While I was never a fan of the original comics, the reboot is surprisingly good. Parker has done an excellent job of revitalized Flash Gordon by anchoring his fifties era adventures in modern day sensibilities. The characters have evolved from their bad B-movie origins without loosing touch with their nostalgia-inspiring roots, and the science underlying the plots (i.e. the “techno-babble”) has been seriously upgraded. The gorgeous visuals clearly pay homage to earlier Flash Gordon artists Alex Raymond and Al Williamson, and the pulp adventure stories are unlike anything else in currently being written in comics.
10. FEDERAL BUREAU OF PHYSICS by Simon Oliver (Author), Robbi Rodriguez (Illustrator)
FBP is set in a world where disturbances in the laws of physics are as common as shifts in the weather, and wormholes, momentary gravity losses, entropy reversals, and bubble universes have become commonplace. In response, the government has created a new bureau to deal with quantum disturbances, the Federal Bureau of Physics. Now, 911 prompts callers “fire, ambulance, police, or physics?”
Agent Hardy is part of a team of underpaid, unappreciated public servants who handle physics emergency as they arise. He’s the guy holding the welder that closes the torn gravity field. He’s the guy who gets shot into the bubble universe on rescue missions. The story doesn’t dwell on the “why” of things. Instead, the series focuses on the daily rigors and degradations of Hardy’s job as a noir-style detective story unfolds.
FBP is a fun, light-hearted series with an interesting core concept and relatable characters. Had Fringe been re-written as a zany cartoon, this would have been the result.
If you’re a fan of series like “Men in Black,” “The Middleman,” or Simon R. Green’s Nightside series, you’ll love this series.
Trillium is a fast-paced time-travel romance that centers around two characters from different time periods. The first is a British World War I veteran searching for the Lost Temple of the Incas in Peru. The other is a botanist from the last human colony in the year 3797 on a mission to save the human race from an intelligent interstellar plague. The initial meet-cute goes poorly, as the two aren’t able to communicate, but together they set out on a journey to discover what force has brought them together across time. It’s being marketed as “The Last Love Story,” and Lemire keeps the story fittingly epic, even as he preserves the intimacy that’s a prerequisite to a well-written romance.
The Wake, which debuted in 2013, has repeated and persistently been described as Alien retold underwater. It would be more accurate to describe it as Abyss meets Predator, though. Either way, the first half of the series is a well-told horror story with all the tension and claustrophobia of a classic eighties sci-fi monster movie, but in 2014, the second half of the series introduced a fresh twist – this second act is set in the flooded remains of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. While the series’ story heavily teased the shift in genres, readers still came away surprised by just how well the story worked as a whole and even more surprised by just how moving the story would ultimately be.
The story is tense and fascinating, combining ancient mythology, modern science, and slasher film suspense to knock it out of the park with each and every issue.
Lepp is a gifted storyteller who spins well-worn themes into character-driven stories with an aesthetic that can only be described as Rocketeer meets the Iron Giant. Volume 3, published in 2014, is the penultimate collection is the four-part series. In it, the protagonist, Jet, tries to prove himself to his adoptive family in the hope of finally making a home for himself, but everything he’s worked for is put in danger when his secret identity is discovered.
RUST is both an emotionally moving and visually compelling series. This volume in particular contains some particularly dark scenes as Jet’s story nears its close, but for fans of steampunk, it’s certain to be love at first sight.
Prophet is a difficult comic to describe. I’ve heard more than one fan profess their love for the series only to turn around and admit they have no idea what the be-Jesus is going on in the series half the time. However, while Prophet may be a difficult series to break into, it’s also true that it is a series that breeds fanatical loyalty. Readers who don’t instantly hate Prophet invariably name it as their favorite series of all time. Personally, I read the series because it reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s earlier, more psychedelic work.
The series follows the story of a series of cloned space nomads attempting to rebuild the manufactured remains of humanity into an empire amid a gloriously pulp post-human universe. The artwork is a throwback to the seventies featuring surreal sci-fi landscapes in unusual color palettes. Each nomad, each of which is called a Prophet, traverses space battling hostile species and typically coming away with a terrible injury for his trouble. It might be likened to the work of Robert E. Howard, had Cronenberg turned his Conan series into a horror film. Only Graham has imbued Prophet with a much more subversive undertone.
Terms that might be used to describe the series include biopunk, epic, space opera, and sprawling. I once even read a review that likened reading the series to being punched in the brain with the Infinity Gauntlet. It is, quite simply, the sort of story that defies crisp classification, and its cult status tends to breed hyperbole. However, if you tire of well defined, run-of-the-mill science fiction, this may very well be the respite you’re seeking.
As a long-time Whedon fanboy, I may be biased, but I remember Serenity: Leaves on the Wind (by Zack Whedon and Georges Jeanty) as being among my best comic experiences of 2014. This follow up to the Serenity movie is set in the aftermath of the movie’s events, specifically dealing with the crew loss and increasing notoriety. This mini-series is the first to consistently capture the same quality of storytelling as the television series, with all of its wit and poignancy. If you were a Firefly fan, it’s a must-read. The artwork is beautiful and the dialogue is completely authentic.
On the darker side of things, the dystopian classic Snowpiercer was finally translated into English this year. Alan Moore’s seminal Miracleman was re-printed. Dark Horse has relaunched its Alien, Predator and Alien Vs. Predator comics with the writers working towards a coherent canon. The Woods by James Tynion IV is a particularly good new series with a vibe very similar to that of a Stephen King novel. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it climbing its way into top ten lists in 2015.
On the lighter side, Monkey Brain’s digital comic D4VE turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The series is set in a world where robots have succeeded mankind as the dominant life form, explored the galaxy, and settled into lives of suburban domesticity. D4VE is a robot whose life isn’t all that different from yours, until he decides to shake off his existential ennui and return to a life kick alien ass.