comics, comics criticism, writing

The 2023 Urbane Turtle Year in Review

Well here we are. Another year in the books. Time for another best-of list. In year 1, the Pandemic Year, I looked back on the various media and stories that impacted me and got me through the global disaster. In Year 2, I counted down my favorite comics of the year. We are focusing again on the best comics of the year. Partially because it’s most of what I’ve consumed this year (my Goodreads has recorded 80+ comics, which doesn’t even account for ongoing monthly reading) but also because that’s where the focus of this site and my writing has really narrowed in on.

With some of the SEO bait out of the way (I do not know how SEO works) I wanted to reflect on this year, personally, a bit before we get into the list. It’s been an exciting year for your old pal Urbane Turtle. I can’t say it’s been a profitable endeavor, but it has been a prolific year with a mostly-regular weekly column, contributions on new sites, surreal interview opportunities, and even regular scripting for a YouTube channel.

I don’t know if writing will ever be a real career–but it has certainly become a vocation. And the thing keeping me from completely melting down about my general “professional life.” If you’ve been with me on this journey–whether you read everything (who are you??), read one thing, or shared something on social media (Especially the comics creators who have said nice things!!)–I thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

Personally, the most rewarding thing that started this year is the NO CONTEXT COMICS column. That’s an idea I had for a little while and wanted to see out in the world, so I just started doing it myself. It’s been a blast and introduced me to a lot of new creators and books I might have missed otherwise. I look forward to working on it every week. When reality gets in the way and I can’t get to it? It’s a gut punch every time! Especially when I’ve done the reading. I’ve not seen anyone comment on any of these and analytics don’t show much engagement, but I like it darn it! 

Too much preamble? Yeah, okay. Some final words before we get to the list.

In 2023, I have a few goals. I’d like to engage in a bit more fiction and prose, like this story. I’d like to take more photos. I’d like to see a more regular update schedule. UrbaneTurtle.com has seen some steady and small growth in audience, and I think I can make things even better in this next trip around the sun.

And, finally, I resolve to become a Ghost Rider Guy.

THE LIST

As I said before, I’ve consumed a lot of comics this year. And I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. However, I feel pretty confident in my picks this year. There are so many wonderful stories and creators out there in the industry–and even more outside the industry making webcomics and underground zines–that it seems impossible to do justice to the hard work and creativity on display every single week. I enjoyed so many books this year that will go unmentioned here. The business side of the comics industry may be questionable–with late payments and bankruptcies and corporate consolidation–but the creative energy is off the charts. Comics, more than ever, really are for everyone.

Honorable Mentions

The Nice House on the Lake, We Live: Age of the Palladians, Iron Man, We Ride Titans, and Rogues’ Gallery

10. Radiant Black

Kyle Higgins, Marcelo Costa, Meghan Camarena, Joe Clark, Laurence Holmes,Alec Siegel, French Carlomango, Eduardo Ferigato, Stefano Simeone, Jonas Trindade, Becca Carey, Diego Sanches

Radiant Black by Kyle Higgins, Marcelo Costa, and team continues to provide a template for how to make compelling and original superhero stories. Higgins’ focus on the inner-life of his dual protagonists, and the unique circumstances of being in your 30s in the 2020s, offers something that no other superhero book on the stands does. Marvel and DC characters will always be beholden to certain core concepts that date back to a different era. Radiant Black has no such baggage. The sleek design work on the villains and cast is ultra-futuristic and unlike anything else on the shelves. Even compared to its Toku visual influences, Costa’s design work feels fresh. 

But what continues to make Radiant Black stand out is how it continually takes risks and buck convention. The first year of the book set up a fairly straightforward origin story before shockingly switching focus onto another character. Year 2 saw another shift in status quo. The series now follows two protagonists who share powers. At the same time, it shifted back from big cosmic plots to primarily follow Marshall dealing with a new rogues’ gallery full of YouTube stars, Crypto Bros, and adjunct professors, each uniquely representing a fresh aspect of life in 2022.

Higgins and editor Michael Busuttil continue to bring in new voices and expand the “Massive-Verse” with supporting titles. Issue’s 18 interlude with Wilson, Radiant Yellow, was an excellent example of this book’s commitment to artistic experimentation and giving new comic creators space to play.

Radiant Black remains joyfully unpredictable and untethered by convention. It makes for an exciting superhero series

9. The Thing/Ant-Man – THE TOM REILLY SHOW

These two series are vastly different but united by artist Tom Reilly, whose classic clean-lined cartooning imbues both stories with a timeless style. Reilly’s work makes for stupendously gorgeous books, particularly with the addition of Jordie Bellaire’s rich colors. Reilly and Bellaire boost both of these titles far beyond their stories. Bellaire never overdoes things, or over-renders Reilly’s simplified shapes. The effect is a modern take on the pop art aesthetic of the 60s. Both Ant-Man and The Thing seem to exist to tap into those classic books while also breathing new life into the characters at their center.

For Ewing, Ant-Man is a chance to examine a complex character and explore his legacy and the complicated idea of his heroism. I wrote at length about Ant-Man’s first issue when it came out, here. As the book went on, Ewing continued to confront that main question about the founding Avenger and his place in the Marvel Universe. There is no concrete answer, just an acceptance that being Ant-Man is a legacy of complication and often tragedy. The resolution is a moment of peace and victory among the men who have shared the mantle. It is an extraordinarily fun time-hopping adventure that lets Ewing homage various creators’ writing styles and showcases Reilly’s flexibility. It does not seem to set up any major future stories or events, except perhaps Pym’s return to the Marvel Universe proper (apparently he’s been dead). Instead, it is a thesis on Ant-Man’s place in the Marvel Universe. An underdog story about a hero who often fails to be truly heroic. Ewing and Reilly make the case that this size-shifting character has as much rich potential as any hero in the Marvel Universe.

The Thing, on the other hand, is a self-contained romp for novelist Walter Mosley to step into the Marvel U and have fun playing with the toys. Reilly and Bellaire’s art is a perfect match for Mosley’s Marvel Universe, which is set firmly in the past when The Fantastic Four was still the premiere superhero team. The Thing is thrown on a cosmic solo adventure, forced to look inward at his own heroism and self-image as the world goes mad around him. Despite his rocky epidermus, The Thing is one of the most human characters in superhero comics. As the story dives more and more into the surreal, Ben Grimm is constantly out of his element. An everyman who is just trying to do the right thing, even if he isn’t totally sure what is going on or what the right thing is.

Mosley paints Grimm as the brokenhearted lover, a tough-talking bruiser with more brains than people expect, and a resolve that never quits. With Reilly’s expressive and dynamic art, The Thing is a shining reminder that Ben Grimm is the best and most quintessentially Marvel character there is, which has been too often forgotten over the last two decades. Mosley revitalizes The Thing for a modern audience, tapping into the core of what makes him so appealing.

8. Detective Comics by Ram V and Rafael Albuquerque

Ram V, Rafael Albuquerque, Dave Stewart, Ariana Maher

I love Ram V. He could write anything, I think, and I’d be engaged. My number 2 pick from last year was Ram V, and his run on Catwoman was one of the honorable mentions. I think he makes great comics and has a lot to say. So I was thrilled to see him announced as the new writer for Detective Comics. Boy was I not disappointed. Along with with Rafael Albuquerque’s gothic art, Ram V has created a haunting and operatic epic that centers an aging Bruce Wayne struggling to keep his body together and doubting his physical ability to continue living this bloody life.

I don’t know what exactly Albuquerque is doing differently but his already stellar art has made a seismic leap. This book is dark and gorgeous. The heavy inks, with visible twisting brushstrokes, make for a moody Gotham where Batman melds in with the shadows, shaping them to his will. 

While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the new villains, their visuals are striking, full of clockwork mazes, and a palpable sense of history that threatens to ensnare Batman in their labyrinth. Ram V’s script is portentous and melodramatic. This is not gritty realist Batman, this is a gothic opera, an elevated hyperworld where the demon Barbatos claws at Bruce’s mind in his sleep, threatening and mocking him. Ivan Reis has stepped in for the latest arc and while I don’t think it is his strongest work, particularly with the muddled inks from Danny Miki, this is still a stunning book with grand plans. 

It’s also given us some of the most compelling Two Face/Harvey Dent in years, particularly with the addition of the backup story in the latest few issue. Those back ups, by Si Spurrier and Hayden Sherman give us a view into Harvey’s mind and the monstrous mental personification of Two Face that dwells within. Sherman’s experimental layouts of Harvey’s broken mind are jaw-dropping.

Ram V can do no wrong as far as I am concerned, and we are still early enough in this run that the story could go anywhere, and I can’t wait to see it unravel.

7. AXE Judgment Day

Keiron Gillen, Valerio Schiti, Marte Gracia, Clayton Cowles

Crossover events are tough. It’s easy for them to start strong and fall apart from the weight of their own pretensions or corporate mandates. But AXE unquestionably succeeds. Part of that success is in the structure of the story. The initial setup (a war between the Eternals and X-Men) is dealt with by the end of its first act before it rockets off to something far more interesting. In an attempt to stop the war, a group of rogue Eternals, along with the Avengers, revive the Celestial corpse that had become the Avengers headquarters. They seek to construct a new god who can command an end to Eternals aggression. Instead, this god seeks to judge all life on Earth. The rest of the series becomes less about how to save the world and more about whether the world deserves saving. Gillen’s X-Men and Eternals have been surprise favorites of mine the last 2 years (Eternals just missing the 2021 round-up) and the continuing unfolding of those political machinations and the moral quandaries over resurrection come to a head here.

There is no shortage of memorable moments from this series. The death of just about every hero in the Marvel Universe, Nightcrawler fighting to save a world that hates, fears, and judges him, Mr. Sinister bickering with Tony Stark, heartless Magneto, Jesus rejecting Daredevil, I could go on. 

Even the tie-in and ancillary titles feel weighty as opposed to obligatory. Al Ewing’s X-Men Red chapters instantly became an all-time great story for both Storm and Magneto. 

But what makes this story stand out is how Gillen and Schiti (along with Ewing) focus less on the world-ending plots and machinations and more on the personal stakes–and not just of the heroes but the people on the streets. Gillen returns to a group of 12 regular folks throughout the entire series, checking in on them and their reactions to the Celestial Judgment. We learn about their hates and loves, their regrets and their hopes. 

Judgment Day uses superheroes to ask heavy philosophical questions of life and death, of who deserves resurrection and at what cost, and if humanity and individuals can be more than the sum of their actions. People weep for their small failures to live up to their potential, resent that they are to be punished for others’ failures.  Yet our heroes persevere against the seeming inevitable judgment and end of life on Earth. 

Valerio Schiti’s art is incredible. His dynamic staging and layouts make our heroes larger than life. Throughout the first issue, they are framed from below, seeming to tower above the rest of the world. As the story goes on, the heroes are laid low and presented on the level of the rest of the world. Captain America sits and has coffee with a woman who is skeptical of heroes. Marte Gracia’s colors are moody and beautiful as usual, elevating the emotion and drama.

By the end of the series, most of the damage is undone but there are new wrinkles in the ongoing storylines for both the X-Men and Eternals. It’ll be interesting to see how Gillen continues those ideas throughout the remainder of his X-Men work.

6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin

Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, Tom Waltz, Isaac and Esau Escorza, Ben Bishop, Luis Antonio Delgado, Shawn Lee

There have been a lot of Dark Knight Returns imitators over the years. The old, grizzled hero comes out of retirement for one last job. The world is dark, and only the last hero, a remaining flicker of light, can save it and remind people of what the world used to be. They are rarely worth mentioning. A few have broken through to become classic or memorable in their own right but there is always the shadow of that original Frank Miller story.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin manages to elevate itself above other imitators in part because the Frank Miller of it all has been baked into the Turtles from their first issue. TMNT would not exist without Miller’s Ronin or Daredevil. That a dark and gritty future version of the Turtles exists is not surprising. It felt inevitable. There have been other “alternate future” turtle stories in various media, but The Last Ronin aims higher than a simple “what-if.” This is a book that is driven by the vision of the original series creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, who first outlined the story more than 30 years ago.

Last Ronin is propelled by the loss at the center of the story. TMNT has always centered family even in its silliest iterations. These are a group of characters who share life together, fight together, play together, party together, whatever. For the first time, we see one of the heroes alone, devoid of that family. Occasionally we’ll see one of the three missing, or Splinter pass. But the Ronin is on his own and stripped of everything that gave his life meaning, left only with the blood feud against the Foot and the heir to the Shredder’s throne. 

We see this lone turtle struggle to find meaning beyond vengeance, to touch a piece of his old life and happier younger days. The final resolution is heartbreaking and uplifting, a glimmer of hope in the morass of despair. The varying artistic contributions lack the singular creative vision of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, but the work from the Escorza Brothers, Ben Bishop, and Kevin Eastman (whose layouts tie the various contributors together into some visual consistency) help to differentiate different time periods and give each of those differing eras their own tone. 

Though some of the trappings may be different, this is pure Ninja Turtles to its core, a direct evolution of those original hardboiled Eastman and Laird days. It is an ending that feels true to everything that has made the Turtles beloved while examining it all from a new angle. And while only one issue was released this year, that was its moving conclusion. With the release of the gorgeously produced hardcover collection, it feels like the right time to give this series the accolades it deserves.

5. The Human Target

Tom King, Greg Smallwood, Clayton Cowles

I like Tom King more than a lot of people, though I will admit to rolling my eyes at some of his quirks. While he seems to have intentionally avoided many of his own cliches in this story, Human Target ranks in my top 5 from this year primarily on the strength of Greg Smallwood’s art– a riff on mid-century modern and pop stylings. King’s scripting is fine, and his uniquely grounded vision of the often outlandish Justice League International grants these occasionally one-dimensional or caricatured heroes new shades of complexity. It is fun to watch someone as human as our lead be swept into the world of the Justice League and observe the many ways they defy or live up to their reputation.

The mystery itself at the center of the book is compelling–who, in trying to murder Lex Luthor, poisoned Christopher Chance? But that mystery is a vehicle to explore Chance’s character, his own foibles, and to reframe the JLI as complicated humans with inner lives. I want to know how the mystery unravels, but what keeps me coming back is the characters at the center. 

This is a pop-colored noir, a boozy murder mystery complete with femme fatale and morally dubious protagonist, set in not a black and white world but a brightly colored comic book universe of gods and heroes. These characters cross Chance’s path, beautiful and ethereal as Chance himself clutches his highball glass and coughs himself to death. Chance’s heated fling with Ice gives Ice more agency and depth than a simple love interest or eye candy. And his near addictive need to be with her is as much a coping mechanism for his mortality as all the whisky and puzzle-solving.

 Smallwood’s art, with a style cobbled together from silver-age comics, 101 Dalmations, and 60s advertisements and pulp covers is simultaneously throwback and wholly postmodern. It looks like nothing else on the stands and really, nothing else ever published. Smallwood’s attention to even the most minute details grants a chaotic structuralism. That is to say, the work looks haphazard at first glance, but holds a carefully thought out plan for the placement of every color and every line. Like Chance himself, he may seem to be falling apart but there is a method to everything he does. To get pretentious, the postmodern element of pastiche is evidenced in abundance through Smallwood’s art, as he synthesizes various past influences into something new.

King’s rigorous formalism is hard to separate from Smallwood’s own, but their dual commitment to fine detail is undeniable. Every glance, every panel, every line of dialogue, feels weighty. 

It also has one of the best Batman stories published in the last few years, that doesn’t feature Batman at all. 

4. Action Comics: War World Saga

Philip Kennedy Johnson, Miguel Mendonca, Riccardo Federici, Dale Eaglesham, Will Conrad, Brent Peeples, Fico Ossio, Lee Loughridge, Adriano Lucas, Dave Sharpe

One of only 2 titles from last year’s list to return this year, and for good reason. Philip Kennedy Johnson’s Action Comics will go down in history as some of the greatest Superman ever written. I am toying with writing something more in depth about the War World Saga, so I don’t want to get too overwrought here. It’s easy for Superman to be a chareacter painted in extremes. Either the dark, twisted version, or the milquetoast perfect moral beacon. Kennedy refuses to play into any of these extremes, instead giving us a Clark Kent who struggles with how to do the right thing in a world that refuses to play by any traditional ideas of good or evil.

Johnson’s War World is a society built on violence–not might makes right becasue morality doesn’t even exist. Might means power, with victories in battle represented by links in a chain. To lose the chain is to be forsaken. When Superman comes to liberate the enslaved inhabitants, he knows he will face resistance from the people themselves. And yet he cannot let them live under the boot of Mongul. 


With his power waning, Superman is summarily defeated in the initial assault on the planet, and forced to battle in the gladiator pits. But he becomes a legendary figure, the man with Unbloody Sword. By example, he shows the people of War World an alternative to violence and his compassion and message of freedom go on to inspire others.

Johnson avoids making Clark overly maudlin or perfect. He is occasionally quick to (righteous) anger and overly confident in his own point of view. After their failed assault on Mongul, Superman has to live with the guilt of his ragteam team, the Authority, being held captive, tortured, and left alone. When confronted by Midnighter on whether the people of War World are worth more to him than the other heroes are, Superman responds no–not more, but not less, either. It’s a strong statement on Clark’s character and motivations. But it also showcases the limits of that moral fortitude in a world without clear moral answers. 

The small army of artists contributing to this year-long storyline mesh well together, particularly as distributed across different chapters. Riccardo Federici’s issues, meticulously rendered in graphite and lushly colored with a painterly aesthetic grant the early chapters of Superman’s life in captivity a mythic quality that is as striking as Esad Ribic’s work on Thor or Secret Wars.

This is the kind of bold storytelling that we should expect out of the original superhero comic. 

3. Do A Power Bomb

Daniel Warren Johnson, Mike Spicer, Rus Wooton

Like I noted in my No Context Comics entry on this series, I initially overlooked it because I have no interest in pro wrestling. After reading that issue I realized that pro-wrestling was just the vehicle writer/artist Daniel Warren Johnson was using to tell his story about family and self-discovery. Johnson’s electric artwork is among the very best in the industry at giving static images a sense of dynamic motion. His characters dance across the page, fists and legs stretching and blurring as bodies contort in the pain of impact. Johnson knows when to let an image breathe, stretching back to allow for characters to float resplendently through the air, suspended in time across almost the full length of a page before crashing down. 

The over-the-top interdimensional wrestling tournament is a goofy high concept that gives Johnson an excuse to lovingly render complex wrestling moves and forefront the personal drama at the highest stakes. Just as his art pulls no punches in the ring, his storytelling pulls no emotional punches. There are twists and turns aplenty here, as our characters’ relationship goes through unexpected highs and lows. By the end of the series, they are literally wrestling with God for the chance to bring back a loved one. It is patently ridiculous and rife with theological depth.

The bittersweet ending offers an emotional statement on grief and moving forward with loss. All of the screwball action, the high-concept drama, is in service to the emotional center. It’s a thrilling ride that never takes its foot off the gas. That it manages to be so immensely fun AND such a fully realized character piece is no small feat. Johnson continues to be one of the most exciting visual talents in the medium right now, but Do A Power Bomb makes clear he has the full storytelling package.

2. Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands

Kate Beaton

Like most nerdy millennials raised on the internet, I loved Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant when it popped up on tumblr in the aughts. The incisively smart and funny historical comedy was a gem of that freewheeling era, perhaps the final moments of the “anything is possible” creators era. Those strips, with the rough energy of scribbles in the margins of a notebook had an anarchic, free-wheeling sensibility. It would be easy to draw a specific image of Kate Beaton from those strips and their silliness–and to underestimate her talents as a cartoonist.

Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands is a much different undertaking for Beaton. It is not a humor publication–though it is often funny and told with the same thoughtful intelligence she displayed in her comic strips. Ducks is a memoir of two years Beaton spent working in the oil fields of Canada, a destructive environment that tears apart the earth and the people who work within. Beaton tells the stories of the people she met there with empathy and sadness, not shying away from the abuse and trauma she experienced in their midsts, but also trying to understand what about this toxic culture has done to make them that way. 

Before you even open the book you are drawn in, with its wistful cover. I love how Beaton’s minimalist cartooning renders the harsh and barren landscape with simplified beauty. I love the full page image of the northern lights–somehow beautifully captured in gray tones. The heartbreaking image of the three legged fox. The full black pages of incommunicable trauma.

Ttis is a story that could only be told in comics. It’s power is in its panels and pages. Beaton utilizes the page turn to isolate moments. Her sense of pacing in a series of 4-6 panels, a product of her long years making strips, creates tension and awkwardness, humor and humanity in ways only a comic book page can do. The rawness of Beaton’s stripped down cartooning results in an immediacy of emotion in the images. There’s no need to read the subtleties of fully rendered realism.

This is an extraordinary work.

1. It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth 

Zoe Thorogood

I’ve never been particularly drawn to the black-and-white cartoon memoir genre of comics. So I am shocked that two of them top my list for best of the year. The cartoon autobioraphy has a rich heritage. Thorogood’s raw honesty, her abandonment of comics “formalism,” is right at home alongside Harvey Pekar, despite the wildly different worlds the two inhabited. One, a disgruntled middle aged man, the other a 23 year old woman struggling with mental illness. But this is a book that seeks to illuminate the mundane complexity of human life and experience, just as American Splendor did, in its own way.

Lonely at the Centre of the Earth sees Thorogood, hot off the critical success of her first book, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott, trapped by the pressures of industry expectation and her own insecurities. She decides to document a six month period in her life following a suicidal episode, her first forays back into the world after pandemic quarantine. 

What follows is an emotionally resonant and wildly creative book that literally invites readers to join Zoe in creating the book’s meaning and purpose. Thorogood’s supporting cast consists of various versions of herself, a chibi anime version that encourages her to live her artistic dream, the harsh realist, her childhood self, and even the embodiment of her own depression–the Void Creature. The depression avatar looms over Zoe throughout the book, a towering amorphous blob with a haunting grin that is sometimes adorable, sometimes comfort, and sometimes horrific.

Throughout the book, Thorogood plays with the unique nature of comics storytelling, the structure of the page itself, the artifice of narrative the control over time and image. She engages in thrilling mixed media to represent how her own struggles with mental illness feel disocciative. She falls through the air, her body broken into a dozen different styles and media. A grid of nine panels where she asserts her own confidence is interspersed with harsh black panels with LIAR written in large white paint.

Every page is a profound celebration of the power of art, of the potential of comics to tell unique stories in unpredictable ways. Zoe Thorogood has made a profoundly beautiful work of art.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s