In-Depth on Marvel's "Divided We Stand" and The Latest Hydra Cap Twists
I think only two people will get the joke in the title, and I hope one of them has a sense of humor about it, but I’ve been waiting a long time to use something like this, so you’ll just have to indulge me!
I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to do a “best-of” this year (I know, I can hear everyone saying “You should have gone with that instinct, man!”), because at the end of the year, I always feel a bit burned out on comics. January is a good time to recharge, though – it’s after the holidays, and everything seems to be in a lull – and whenever I get my comics together for the year to sort them into my long boxes, I think, “You know, there were a lot of cool comics this year.” And so I get inspired!
As always, I must point out that these are the comics I think are the best, which, of course, may differ from yours. I don’t buy every comic, so I can’t speak to those I didn’t buy, and obviously, tastes are different. I offer my bona fides: I read almost 700 single issues in 2011 (I bought most of those, but not all) and over 150 collected editions and graphic novels. I have no idea if that’s more or less than you did, but judge it how you like. And, if you read my weekly posts and other reviews, you tend to know my tastes. So that’s that. Obviously, a lot of bloggers do this sort of thing, so you can read them, too! That’s the beauty of the Internet – it’s all democratic and shit!
So let’s go. As always, I’m breaking these into four main categories: Best Ongoing, Best Mini-Series, Best Original Graphic Novel, and Best Single Issue/Short Story. I think those are four separate kinds of comics, so why judge them against each other? Of course, as I move to more and more trades, I might have to change the way I think next year. Some series don’t get trades in the same year that the single issues come out, so that would screw up my attempts to stay within the calendar year. I’ll have to think about it next year. But that’s in the future, of course. Let’s see what’s what! And guess what? I was surprised by some of the titles that made these lists, which is part of the fun of putting these together!
BEST ONGOING SERIES.
Words tend to fail me when it comes to Casanova. I thought this might be cheating, as four of the six issues that came out this year were published years ago, but Cris Peter’s wonderful colors made them almost seem new, and the two new issues that did come out were so good that it might have qualified just on the strength of those. I was very worried about this comic now that Fraction has moved to Marvel, where his output has been a mixed bag, but Casanova continues to blow your mind even as he manages to keep the characters human and flawed and tragic. It doesn’t hurt that Moon and Bá are absolutely superb and Peter is a marvelous colorist. The latest chapter, “Avaritia,” seems to have hit a snag (the latest issue came out in October), and I really hope the next issue will be out soon. It was a great series years ago when it was at Image, and it appears that it’s still going to be a great series as it continues at Marvel.
Here are the posts tagged “Casanova.” See how handy tags are? Yet they stubbornly refuse to appear on our posts!
2. Batman, Incorporated (DC) by Grant “Every comic I write should be in the Top Ten!” Morrison, Yanick Paquette, Pere Pérez, Chris Burnham, Scott Clark, Cameron Stewart, Michel Lacombe, Dave Beatty, Nathan Fairbairn, Patrick Brosseau, Dave Sharpe, and Sal Cipriano (issues #3-10, although 9 and 10 were released in one book, “Leviathan Strikes!”). Last year: DNP.
Despite the presence of one of the worst issues of the year right in the middle of this run (issue #8), Batman, Incorporated was phenomenal this year, with Morrison getting all the doom and gloom that characterized much of his work with Batman prior to this title out of his system and giving us all kinds of crazy shit. Horrible things still happened, but they didn’t seem as depressing, perhaps because people like Paquette, Burnham, Pérez, and Stewart were drawing them rather than some of the other artists who were drawing his comics before (you know who they are!). Batman, Incorporated got off to a slow start (literally; issue #3 shipped in March), but it took right off, with the Tango of Death, the Secret History of Kathy Kane, the weirdness of Doctor Dedalus, the Girls’ Boarding School of Death!, and, with issue #10, some of the most inventive artwork from Burnham in mainstream comics in years. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the big reveal at the end of the final issue that sets up the final arc coming later this year, but I’m willing to go along with it. Morrison’s boring Action Comics might be selling more (I don’t know if it is, but I wouldn’t doubt it), but Batman, Incorporated blows it right out of the water.
Last year, Chew was easily the best series of the year, and while it’s not this year, its quality really hasn’t slipped all that much. Layman continues to write hilarious, action-filled, and more-complex-than-they-might-seem scripts, with individual stories all weaving together into a greater tapestry, and Guillory continues to dazzle with his wonderful artwork and coloring and dropping of Easter eggs throughout the pages. Layman isn’t afraid to take chances, from throwing issue #27 at us to show what’s to come to firing Tony Chu. His use of clever writing devices works very well, too. As always, I have to disclose that I occasionally get a beer with Layman (I like Guillory, too, but he doesn’t live near me), but even if I didn’t, Chew would be a fantastic comic. Plus, my non-comic-reading cousin likes it, too. Its appeal is universal!
4. Blue Estate (Image) by Viktor Kalvachev, Kosta Yanev, Andrew Osborne, Toby Cypress, Nathan Fox, Robert Valley, Paul Maybury, Marley Zarcone, Tomm Coker, Andrew Robinson, and Peter Nguyen (issues #1-8). Last year: N/A.
Blue Estate doesn’t seem like it should work, what with each issue featuring at least two and often four artists, but it does work, and work wonderfully. Kalvachev and Osborne are having a blast telling a twisty noir tale that features plenty of oddball characters, lots of double-crossing, lots of violence, a dash of sex, and more humor than you might expect. Meanwhile, Kalvachev’s art direction and coloring keeps the art from veering too far off on tangents, even though the artists have different styles. All the artists are delivering top-notch work – Fox and Cypress tend to be the main artists (with Kalvachev himself), but even drop-in artists like Zarcone and Coker have been bringing their A-game. Kalvachev sculpted models of the characters so that the artists would keep the look consistent, and that helps a great deal. Blue Estate has been gaining momentum with each issue, and I’m very intrigued to see what’s coming next.
I’m not sure if Butcher Baker has hit a snag in shipping, because it’s been a while since issue #7 came out, and that makes me sad. Casey and Huddleston’s tale of a retired superhero who comes out of retirement probably can’t sustain its excellence, but for these seven issues, it’s been one gloriously insane moment after another. The villains, from Jihad Jones to the Absolutely to Arnie B. Willard (if he counts), are superb, and Butcher himself is pure machismo, which makes his moments of introspection both fascinating and hilarious. Even Casey turning Dick Cheney and Jay Leno into the big bad villains of the piece doesn’t feel forced. Huddleston, who has been doing good work for years, turns it up to eleven with his designs, his layouts, and his coloring. One reason Casey is so good is that he’s utterly fearless, and this comic is a perfect example of that. Plus, some bird named Sonia Harris designed the logo. That chick’s all right.
More Butcher Baker, please! Someone kick the creators in the butt! (I’d do it, but I’m a bit scared of Casey. Maybe Chad Nevett fears him not!)
6. Hellblazer (DC/Vertigo) by Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Stefano Landini, Shawn Martinbrough, Simon Bisley, Gael Bertrand, Carli Idhe, Trish Mulvihill, Lee Loughridge, Brian Buccellato, and Sal Cipriano (issues #275-286, with the Annual coming out after #285). Last year: #3.
Milligan continues to do a very good job with the adventures of John Constantine, and I’m hoping he just keeps on going (although with issue #300 coming up, I wonder if he’ll step aside). This year John married Epiphany, which set the tone for the entire year, as his evil twin raped/molested/groped/leered at his niece Gemma, who plotted revenge against John, causing him to lose his trenchcoat, which began haunting people. Yes, an evil trenchcoat sounds silly, but as usual, it’s all in the execution, and Milligan wrote some interesting stories around it. He also continues to do a really nice job with John and Epiphany, a weird love story if there ever was one, and I do hope this is a relationship that lasts, because it works very nicely. This isn’t quite as good as it was last year, but the dip in quality was so small that it remains a superb comic.
Back in January, I used some store credit to get every single DC comic, not knowing what to expect. I ended up buying the rest of two series (this and Red Robin), and while Tim Drake’s adventures were pretty good, Bryan Q. Miller’s Stephanie Brown book was really, really good. Miller gave us some excellent single-issue stories – #17 was a team-up between Stephanie and Damian in which Damian had to act like a regular kid; #18 was the great issue with Klarion; #22 paired her with Beryl Hutchinson in a London adventure. The final issue, #24, was excellent as well, with Pérez giving us several visions of Batgirl adventures that would never be due to DC rebooting everything. Miller’s scripts crackled with energy, action, and humor, while Pérez and Nguyen (and even Bachs, to a degree) did a marvelous job with the artwork, Nguyen’s painted work on issue #18 being a highlight. I came late to Batgirl, but I’m glad I got there in time to read these excellent comics.
8. Scalped (DC/Vertigo) by Jason Aaron, R. M. Guéra, Giulia Brusco, Igor Kordey, Timothy Truman, Jill Thompson, Jordi Bernet, Denys Cowan, Dean Haspiel, Brendan McCarthy, Steve Dillon, Steve Wands, and Sal Cipriano (issues #45-54). Last year: #5.
Scalped is, of course, a perennial Top Ten pick, because it’s so consistently excellent. As Aaron brings it to a close, he’s upping the ante almost every issue, and putting his characters through the wringer even more. This year we got the resolution (sort of) of Dash’s quest for his mother’s murderer, and the beginning of a story arc, “Knuckle Up,” that changes everything (the excellent issue #55 isn’t included on this list because it did, after all, come out in January). Everything is crashing toward a phenomenal finish, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Scalped on this list once again next year.
9. Shinku (Image) by Ron Marz, Lee Moder, Matthew Waite, Michael Atiyeh, and Troy Peteri (issue #1-3). Last year: N/A.
Although I’m not the biggest fan of vampire fiction, Marz has done a very nice job with this, as Shinku grabs you by the throat early on and doesn’t let go. Marz has a few things going for him – he sets his story in Japan, so the vampires are exotic enough that they don’t seem stale, and Marz has a superb art team on board with him. Moder’s art is better than it’s ever been, Waite’s solid inking makes Moder’s art seem grittier (not too gritty, though, which is good), and Atiyeh’s wonderful colors make the pages pop. Marz has done a good job establishing the characters of Shinku and Davis very quickly, and while the villains aren’t as developed yet, it seems like he’s getting there. Shinku might be new, but right out of the gate, it’s kicking much ass. Let’s hope it keeps it up!
Last year, I liked Morning Glories, but felt it hadn’t really hit its stride yet. Spencer seemed to be trying to hard to make everything mysterious, and while it was intriguing, it was also frustrating. He kept that up with issue #6, which came out this year, but it wrapped up the first “arc” fairly well, and since then, the book has gotten better and better as Spencer doles out information at a pace that’s enough to keep everything intriguing but answers some of the questions we have. He spent the second “arc” (the book isn’t really divided into solid arcs, but it’s close enough) focusing on each character, which gave us some much-needed background on the kids, and now he’s moving on to the return of someone who seems to be a sympathetic adult who is trying to help Casey escape from the academy. Of course, there’s time travel and weird shit and callbacks to early American history and Bell’s Theorem, too, so it’s still confusing, but unlike early in the series, it’s a better kind of confusing. If that makes sense. Joe Eisma is a solid artist who does a nice job with Spencer’s scripts, but this is very much a writer-driven book, so if you like what Spencer is doing, you’ll probably like the book. This year, Spencer is doing a lot of cool stuff, and that’s why Morning Glories is on this list!
If I had 15 titles, these would be the next five: Batwoman, Northlanders, Detective Comics, Xombi, and Thunderbolts. In case you were interested!
As I mention every year, I do not list mini-series that have not finished yet. As I get older, plot means less because so many plots are similar, but I still think a mini-series should be finished before it is eligible. So some books that got a lot of press last year made it onto my list this year, and some comics that showed up this year aren’t here. One that leaps to mind is Loose Ends, which is quite good but which hasn’t shipped its final issue yet. Boy, I’d like to read that. Anyway, onward we go! I also have a couple on here that I bought in trade and didn’t review on the blog. I’ll get more into that when I reach the Original Graphic Novel section.
Every year, whatever iteration of Criminal comes out is one of the best mini-series of the year, but this year, Brubaker and Phillips’s weird and wonderful amalgam of noir and Archie Andrews analogues was truly excellent. Phillips got to flex his cartooning muscles a bit with the flashbacks to Riley’s teenaged years with the gang, while the story of his disintegrating marriage to Felicity (Veronica) and his renewed crush on Lizzie (Betty) leads to desperate crimes and desperate cover-ups and a sad look at the loss of innocence and the betrayal of friendships. It’s not the most original idea – taking a children’s story and making it dark – but Brubaker and Phillips are so good that it works. I don’t know whether the two have more Criminal series planned, but this is going to be hard to top.
Witch Doctor kind of came out of nowhere, and I’m glad it did. The story of Dr. Morrow, his assistant (the straight man of the operation), and the possessed girl who serves as their heavy might seem like a bit of a Hellboy rip-off (dude investigates weird goings-on and fights them with a mixture of mysticism and SCIENCE!), but that’s okay, because as I noted above, it’s all in the execution. Seifert gives us a very funny and wildly disturbing comic full of bizarre creatures and creepy situations, while Ketner’s amazing art makes it all look wonderful and horrifying. I mentioned that I’m not a huge fan of tying it into Lovecraft’s vision of the universe, but I can live with that as long as the stories remain so good. I included the one-shot, “Resuscitation,” even though it’s not part of the initial mini-series. Seifert and Ketner are planning a series of mini-series and the occasional one-shot to make sure they don’t fall behind, and I, for one, am eager for more.
Yawn. Another year, another superb Atomic Robo mini-series (and if the timing had been a bit more fortuitous, Clevinger and Wegener might have finished another mini-series this year, but “The Ghost of Station X” will presumably be on this list next year). “The Deadly Art of Science” told a story of Robo’s past, as he teamed up with a pulp hero, fell in love, had a fight with his creator, and battled Thomas Edison. Clevinger ties this into another, earlier mini-series and adds some pathos to Edison’s back story, which is crucial if you want your villain to be memorable. Wegener, as usual, is excellent. I know some people who read this blog have a dark, dark, coal-stained heart and don’t like Atomic Robo, but let’s pretend they don’t exist, all right? Atomic Robo is one reason why we can’t despair in a world of gloomy comics!
4. Batman: Knight of Vengeance (DC) by Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso, Patricia Mulvihill, and Clem Robins.
Speaking of gloomy comics, that doesn’t mean they can’t be awesome, and this mini-series is a perfect example. Azzarello and Risso, who wrote a very forgettable Batman comic some years ago, take the freedom offered by doing this in the “Flashpoint” world to give us a harrowing tale of revenge, insanity, and … murder!!!!! You’ll note that I still have the redacted cover posted up there, because the shocker! in this series is so very cool and if you haven’t read it yet I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice it to say that Thomas Wayne – the Flashpoint Universe Batman – and Commissioner Gordon go into some dark places when the Joker kidnaps two children. Risso is superb, of course, which isn’t surprising. Azzarello isn’t always great, but this quick mini-series was an example of why he has the reputation he has today.
This mini-series is the very epitome of “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Aaron sends his two heroes on a cross-time caper that is eventually wiped out, even though the two protagonists, at least, remember what happened (which leads to a poignant moment toward the end). Most of all, this is a ridiculously wacky series, with Doom the Living Planet, Devil Dinosaur, the Orb, Wolverine-as-Phoenix, Mojo, and more action than you can shake a stick at, all gorgeously illustrated by Kubert at his detail-oriented best. It’s about as COMICS! as you’re going to get in recent history, and it’s glorious. Marvel’s “Astonishing” line never really got off the ground (the X-Men one is still going, but it’s limping along), but at least we got this book and two creators who were willing to chuck absolutely everything at the wall and make sure it all stuck.
McCreery and Del Col’s Shakespearean story, in which Hamlet is tasked to find the creator, i. e. Shakespeare himself, is a strange brew of straight-forward action/adventure and existential drama, as the characters wonder where their god has gone and why they need him. It’s far deeper than you might think, and while some turns fall flat (Iago’s part, for instance, because Iago plays the role in Shakespeare that Loki plays in Marvel comics – that is, you should bash his head in the moment you see him because you know he’s a villain), for the most part, it’s high adventure in the best way with some nice subtext. Belanger is brilliant in this comic, with rich detail, wild page layouts, and exciting action. I’m not sure if IDW has released a giant 12-issue trade of this, but I imagine the two trades of six issues are out, and it’s definitely worth a look.
As I’ve often said, time travel stories make my head hurt, but when they’re done well, I do enjoy them. Hickman doesn’t drown us in science in this time travel story, instead just forcing us to assume it works and then building a groovy sci-fi adventure about, of all things, the generation gap. Sure, it’s a war story, but it’s also about the sins of people living on through the decades. Pitarra is wonderful on the book – the final image of issue #3 is staggering, but throughout the series, we get very cool designs and inventive ways to tell a time travel story. Hickman and Pitarra are working on a new ongoing, The Manhattan Projects, and based on this mini-series, I’m very much looking forward to it.
Layman writes a noir-ish tale of a cop framed by a gangster and left for dead and throws in Godzilla. I mean, why not, right? Detective Sato thinks he can use Mothra to take revenge on the gangster, but things get out of control very quickly. Meanwhile, this turns out to be an interesting story about fathers and sons, the abuse of power, and megalomania. It’s not quite as insane as Chew, but it’s quite a cool story. Ponticelli goes nuts with it, doing well on the gritty stuff (no surprise there) and really having a blast with giant monsters wreaking havoc. This is a wacky ride, but it works. Plus, I should point out that all five issues came out this year and IDW still managed to get a trade out, in contrast to, let’s say Marvel, where only one trade of Uncanny X-Force has come out yet even though the book is up to, what, issue #20? Sheesh, Big Two!
A few years ago, this creative team brought us The Veil, which was pretty darned good, and this year we got The Suicide Forest, about the woods near Tokyo where people go to commit suicide. Torres and Hernandez don’t go as full-on horror with this series as they did with The Veil, but this is still a creepy story about an American whose Japanese girlfriend kills herself and then comes back to haunt him and the forest ranger who might be able to help him. It’s a bit more of a psychological drama than their earlier work, and it’s also more tragic. Both creators have done other work separately this year, and I’m not sure if they have any other things planned, but I hope they do, because I’m sure it will be pretty keen.
10. Meta 4 (Image) by Ted McKeever.
Only one issue of McKeever’s weird mini-series came out in 2011, but that’s good enough for me! I still haven’t re-read this, and I should, because I’m sure I missed some things, but what I do know is that McKeever gave us a very strange philosophical journey through a nightmare landscape and made sure the book never lost its sense of humor and flair. McKeever’s art has rarely been better, as he smoothed some of his rough edges enough to blend the harshness of the world with eerily beautiful people who populate it. This is one of those books that I’m not sure if I’ll like more or less from subsequent readings, but it’s still a marvelous-looking comic that doesn’t follow a simple narrative, and that’s too rare in the comics world.
My 11-15 choices, which is where I get into trouble waiting for the trade, as a few of these finished in 2010 but I didn’t read them until 2011: The Bulletproof Coffin, DV8: Gods and Monsters, Osborn: Evil Incorporated, All Nighter, and Taskmaster: Unthinkable.
BEST ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL.
These are always fun, right? I screwed up a bit here, as you’ll see – I got a few late in the year and just didn’t feel like reviewing them on the blog. When I put my list together, they ended up in my Top Ten. Usually I try to review everything that might have a chance of ending up here, because I don’t like giving things short shrift and these aren’t long reviews, but you’ll just have to trust me that two of the books below are quite good without a longer review. You can trust me, right? (I know I already did something like this with the mini-series, but I don’t feel as guilty about those, mainly because they’re more mainstream and I imagine you can find some good reviews of them. I don’t know about these graphic novels.) Also: this is almost Habibi-free, in case you’re wondering. Much like Asterios Polyp a few years ago, I like Habibi and know why so many people love it, but I don’t have it in my top ten. Why is this “almost” Habibi-free, then? You’ll see.
One of the biggest shocks to me about the CBR Best 100 Comics of 2011 list (here, here, here, here, and here) was that GB Tran’s brilliant book didn’t even get a mention, not even in the bottom ten. I really don’t know why, except to wonder if people just didn’t read it, because this is by far the best comic I read this year, better than any ongoing or mini-series and better than any graphic novel. That’s not to say all the other comics on this list aren’t good, but Vietnamerica is so frickin’ good that I can’t imagine people not liking it. Tran’s story of his family and their history leading up to April 1975, when they fled Vietnam for a life in the States, is complex, deep, moving, funny, exciting, dazzlingly constructed, and beautifully drawn. Tran has been an interesting creator for a few years, and with Vietnamerica, he moves into rarefied air. Of course, it would be nice if more people read his stuff! My original review is here.
Gelatt and Crook’s story is, we think, about the attempts to kill Rasputin, but it’s about far more than that, as a British agent gets caught up in both the murder plot and the revolution that follows. It’s a tense thriller, sure, but it Gelatt also gives us an interesting look at a society that has stagnated and what the members of that society do to get out of that stagnation, from brutal murder to tearing down the entire societal structure. Gelatt does a nice job showing the warts of all the participants – everyone makes good points about why they do what they do, but everyone also has flaws in their logic – and Crook’s art evokes both the past (the book is sepia-toned) and the frightening, dark future that lies ahead for Russia and the world. It’s a very impressive comic that has more going on than you might think at first glance. I reviewed it here.
I’m counting this as an OGN, even though it began life as a mini-series. When Archaia imploded a few years back, this got shuffled off for a time, only to be reborn as a collection of issues, only one of which ever saw print before. It might have read just fine as a mini-series, but as a whole, it’s excellent. Thomas and Ferguson give us Miranda Mercury, the galaxy’s most awesome adventurer, as she zips around rescuing folk and solving mysteries even as she’s afflicted with some strange disease that is killing her. Her companion, Jack, is desperately trying to cure her, but she seems unconcerned. Thomas gives us some wonderful science-fiction action, and as the book goes along, he adds beautiful layers of nuance to Miranda that explains why she doesn’t actively seek a cure. Ferguson’s pop-art sensibilities fit the tone of action! and adventure! that Thomas is going for, but he does a nice job when the book slows down, too. “Time Runs Out” is a marvelous, uplifting comic about the triumph of the human spirit, and we can all use books like that every once in a while. I go into much more detail here.
Cherrywell’s spoof of teen detective fiction works so well for many reasons. First of all, the book is flat-out hilarious. Pepper herself is very British, so we get a lot of jabs at proper Britishness. The ancillary characters are all well developed and very funny, as well. Second, the satire is spot-on: Pepper is wildly precocious but tends to stick her foot in it quite often, even as she doesn’t let anyone stop her from solving the crime in front of her. Third, it’s not only a satire, it’s a pretty good mystery in its own right, and Cherrywell even moves the book is some slightly dark places, which balances out the silliness very well. The art is superb – influenced by manga, very cartoonish but very detailed and wacky. There may be better comics from this year, but I doubt if you’ll have more fun reading them than you will with this book. Here’s more about it!
I recently had an e-mail exchange with someone whose taste I respect very much who just didn’t like Any Empire (I don’t know if this person cares if I reveal who it was, but I won’t). It should serve as a reminder that this list is completely subjective, and while people like to go on and on about the “best comics of the year,” it’s basically one person spouting off, so you can always ignore them. I dug Any Empire, but the person with whom I communicated made some very good points. For me, it’s a fascinating look at getting older without, perhaps, growing up and Americans’ interest (some would say obsession) with violence, something that stems from childhood. Powell does an excellent job blending realism and fantasy, and his art is superb. I love that he lets us sort things out instead of making everything so literal, and while that makes his books challenging, I think it also makes them better. Of course, you may disagree. That’s why we have our own brains! My original review is right here.
Ken Krekeler was nice enough to send me a copy of his graphic novel, and while I liked his earlier work, The Colodin Project, I was surprised by how good Dry Spell was. It seems to be a standard story about a retired supervillain who decides to come out of retirement, but Krekeler is a keen delineator of how power affects people differently and the tragedy that stems from that. Dry Spell is a parody in some degrees, but it’s also a very mature take on superpeople and the way they live in the world. Krekeler’s art, which is a bit like Alex Maleev’s in that he uses models, works for what he wants to do, and he also shows that he’s more versatile than you might think. Dry Spell is a pleasant surprise – give it a look! Or read my review here.
7. Nelson (Blank Slate Books) by Rob Davis, Woodrow Phoenix, and a shit-ton of artists.
Davis and Phoenix tell the story of Nelson, a young lady born in 1968 in London, in a unique way: They got a bunch of artists to tell the story of her life one day at a time, one day per year. She lives through the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, and she has a fairly normal life, but the way it’s told is what makes it fascinating. Because we’re only getting a day, some days are very important and some aren’t, and when something happens on a day, we don’t get to go on to the next day and find out what happened. So when Nelson’s parents split up, it’s years before we find out what actually occurred, because in the intervening years, she’s moved on. Friends show up and drop out of her life and we never find out why. It’s a very neat book with a lot (A LOT) of very good artists, and Davis and Phoenix wisely don’t try too hard to make her life meaningful in the grand context of history – if important things happen, it’s usually not because of Nelson herself but because of things happening around her. Her life is meaningful to her, so it becomes meaningful to us. There are times when it seems that Nelson is cycling through all the clichés of a life, but usually, Davis and Phoenix and their collaborators (the editors didn’t write the entire book, but they did steer the ship) manage to get past those. Part of the appeal of this book is the experiment and the look of it, but it’s still a fascinating comic.
8. One Soul (Oni Press) by Ray Fawkes.
One Soul is a comic I think I’ll be wrestling with for a long time. I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to, but it did make me think, and Fawkes’s epic stream-of-consciousness work is the kind of thing that gets better with age. He tells the story of 18 separate people across history who, presumably, share a reincarnated soul, and so we get a breadth of history as the soul moves forward into the future. It tells the stories of people who don’t survive long, who survive too long, who are kind, who are cruel, who work hard, who treat others poorly, who love and hate. It’s really a fascinating reading experience, and I’m looking forward to reading this more times, because it’s still gnawing at my mind occasionally even after a few months. That’s not a bad thing at all. I go into more detail here.
When I was making this list, I kept expecting something to supplant this (or, as the case may be, two somethings), but nothing did. I enjoyed Mr. Murder Is Dead, but when I read it, I didn’t expect it to be on the top ten list. But when it came right down to it, not even something that garnered a boatload of critical acclaim (yes, I’m talking about that book) was a better read. Sure, that book was deeper and more thoughtful, but that doesn’t always mean better. Mr. Murder Is Dead is a nifty noir mystery, drawn in the style of newspaper strips from various decades, shifting even in tone as we pass through the decades, and Quinaz keeps us on our toes, not with the mystery (which isn’t the greatest), but with the way the characters have changed and how their lives haven’t turned out the way they thought they would. It’s more complex than you would think, but it remains a ripping good yarn. More here!
This is another comic I didn’t review, mainly because it came out late in the year and it’s the first part of a trilogy, so I figured I’d wait several years (it’s really thick and I can’t imagine the creators can work too fast on it) and review the entire thing, but except for the somewhat sudden ending, this is a very good comic. Song Lu (or Lu Song) is a young boy living in Hong Kong in the 1920s, and he goes to work for the post office and gets stuck in the dead letter office. He decides to deliver the letters, but one leads him to a bizarre town north of Kowloon, where he meets several unusual characters. Meanwhile, his father is in prison, his brother and a friend are mixed up with an odd foreign businessman (drugs are, naturally, involved), and his mother is trying to make ends meet. It’s a compelling story, but despite being almost 300 pages, it does feel like Opotowsky is setting a lot up. Morton’s art is wonderful – she uses perspective to cram a lot into panels without disorienting us, and while the panels themselves are standard, she switches “camera angles” well so that we’re not just used to the same boring viewpoint. She has a lot to get into the book, and she does it very nicely. Her colors are superb, too – mostly based on blues and greens, but when she moves into the more opulent sections of town, she suffuses everything with gold, and it’s a nice touch. His Dream of the Skyland isn’t perfect, but it’s a fascinating story with a lot of layers, and I do hope the rest of it comes out in a timely manner.
BEST SINGLE ISSUE/SHORT STORY.
For these, I always try to pick issues that tell a single story in one issue, and I try not to pick more than one issue from a single title. So when two issues of a title exist that are really, really good, I’ll mention them, but just in passing. Some titles just have really good single issues, even if if overall, they aren’t as good as the ongoing titles I wrote about above!
1. Batman, Incorporated #4 (“The Kane Affair”) (DC) by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham, Nathan Fairbairn, and Pat Brosseau. (Original review here.)
Morrison and Burnham’s “secret origin of Kathy Kane” is a superb issue, full of Morrison’s trademark creepiness but also brimming with hilarity, mostly because of the fact that Batman and Robin think girls fighting crime is, well, icky. Morrison digs into the rivalry Robin feels with, well, anyone who steals Batman away, and there’s even the homoerotic undertones of the Batman-Robin relationship. Some people cried foul because of the retcon of Kathy Kane, but as someone with no emotional attachment whatsoever to the character, I just found it fascinating. Plus, Morrison wrote a pretty good Kate Kane, too. This issue ties into the whole “Leviathan” thing, but it also stood on its own wonderfully, and it reminds us that the God of All Comics knows a thing or two about writing comics, even if he doesn’t always show it.
As much as I liked the issue prior to this one, with Jim and James Gordon talking the diner, this issue, which tells of the Gordons’ trip to the lake when James was young and Commissioner Gordon’s growing dread at what his son has become, was superb from start to finish. It was horrifying, it was tense, and it was tragic. Francavilla flexed his artistic muscles a bit more in this issue, as well, with some superb double-page layouts that put a lot of other artists to shame. Snyder’s Detective run wasn’t as good as its early promise, unfortunately, but for most of it, he was killing it, and this issue is the high point of his work on the title.
Honestly, you could put all six issues of Ellis’s Secret Avengers run (including the one that came out in January, which isn’t eligible for this list) on a wall and throw a dart at them, and whichever one it hit could be listed here. The six issues are phenomenal, both in the writing and the art, but the Black Widow’s time travel story stands out (The second best, I think, is #18, with Shang-Chi doing his thing and David Aja blowing our mind on art). Ellis does a lot of nifty stuff with Natasha jumping back and forth through time in order to save her teammates, and there’s even a nice romance thrown in (not with Natasha and anyone, but still). Natasha shows exactly how bad-ass she is, and Maleev does a wonderful job with the art, as he has quite a bit to do in 20 short pages. You should get the trade of this run, but if you’re looking for a sampler, this is the place to start!
4. Hitsville UK #1 (self-published) by Dan Cox and John Riordan. (Original review here.)
Well, you could go read the review, but basically, this is a story about a record company owner trying to sign bands, but with a whole crapload of weirdness thrown in. The bands are bizarre, the owner is wacky, Satan is his accountant, the dialogue is hilarious, and Riordan’s art is really good. Cox and Riordan have a ton of fun with the bands, but their writing is also razor-sharp while Riordan gives us all kinds of characters wonderfully realized and gorgeous colors that really make the book dazzle. Cox and Riordan have almost posted the entire issue on their web site, so you can certainly go read it there, if you choose. I think you owe it to yourself to do so!
5. Batman: The Brave and the Bold #13 (“Batman Dies at Dawn!”) (DC) by Sholly Fisch, Rick Burchett, Dan Davis, Guy Major, and Carlos M. Mangual. (Original review here.)
Batman is shot stopping a crime, so the Phantom Stranger calls together every Robin from various time periods to find out what happened. As I wrote originally, the resolution comes too quickly, but Fisch does such a wonderful job with the various Robins that it doesn’t matter – he has all their dialogue (including Carrie Kelly’s) spot on, and that’s where the joy of the issue comes from. As always with this series (and the one that preceded it), the fact that they’re single issues stories means they’re fast-paced and fun and usually wildly entertaining. This one is an excellent example of that. I considered issues #4 (Batman “marries” Wonder Woman) and #10 (Batman uses a career henchman to find bad guys, but also helps the henchman out), but the collection of Robins was the best one this year.
Many people might tell you that issue #9, in which a kid unexpectedly manifests mutant powers with tragic results, is a better story, and really, it’s almost too close to call. I like #10 better because I felt Gillen was being a trifle too manipulative with issue #9, and #10 flowed more naturally. It’s surprising, as it’s a story from Schism (which I didn’t read) told from a different perspective, but Gillen manages to make it stand on its own. Idie’s trip to the mutant museum is fascinating even before the horrific event that serves as the climax of the issue, and the aftermath is just as brutal as issue #9’s is. Gillen’s year-long run on Generation Hope featured some really good stories, but this issue rose just slightly above the rest.
7. Hellblazer #282 (DC/Vertigo) by Peter Milligan, Simon Bisley, Brian Buccellato, and Sal Cipriano. (Original review here.)
John’s voyage into a dark heart of a prison in which a demon resides is horrifying, sure, but what makes it so good is that John is in way over his head, and Milligan manages to convey that even as he shows how capable John can be. Epiphany plays a very big role in this story, too, and as she’s a superb character, it’s nice that Milligan is writing her as John’s equal, even if her magical focus is slightly different than his. Bisley was a good choice over Camuncoli to draw this, too, as he’s very good at creeping horror. Hellblazer, as usual, was a stellar title in 2011, and this is an excellent showcase as to why that is.
8. Rocketeer Adventures #2: “Betty Saves the Day” (IDW) by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart. (Original review here, although I don’t have a ton to say about it.)
Almost all of the short stories in Rocketeer Adventures were good, but Darwyn Cooke’s clever story about Betty donning the mask was excellent, from the art we’ve come to expect from Cooke to the way he tells the story, as a movie serial with a cliffhanger. It’s not a long story, but it doesn’t have to be. Cooke tells it with a wonderful sense of adventure and humor, and it shows how much you can pack into a few pages. Who knew?
Similarly, the final issue of The Spirit features black-and-white stories by Howard Chaykin writing for Brian Bolland on art and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez drawing a Paul Levitz story, so it’s not like the rest of the book is chopped liver, but Pfeifer and Russell’s hilarious story shows the Spirit fighting bad guys in various poses taken from famous works of art through history, all while two night watchmen at a museum narrate the entire thing (in a way, as they remain oblivious to the Spirit’s battle). Russell is excellent as usual, and Pfeifer’s script crackles with wit and excitement. Denny Colt hardly says a word in the story (he does say a few things) and he’s probably not even the main character, but like a lot of the best old-school Spirit stories, that doesn’t matter. DC really doesn’t know what to do with the character, but he does show up in some cool stories, and this is certainly one of them.
My first exposure to Tomine was Shortcomings, which I liked but thought was way too caustic to really love. But this issue of Optic Nerve was very good, with two fascinating stories, one about the struggle to create art when no one understands it and the other when a girl is mistaken for a porn actress (or is she actually the porn actress but doesn’t want to admit it?). They’re both funny stories (the first more than the second) and show how well Tomine observes the human condition. There is some caustic humor in the book, but it’s in a brief short at the end of the book, so it doesn’t overwhelm you and gives you a good chuckle. I had heard good things about Optic Nerve but never got around to picking one up. After Atomic Comics went under this year, my retailer started stocking more eclectic stuff, and this just happened to be on the shelf, and I decided to get it. I’m glad I did.
If 11-15 existed, they would be this: S.H.I.E.L.D. #3, Batgirl #18 (and #22, I suppose), Captain America/Thor FCBD issue, Rocketeer Adventures #3: “A Rocketeer Story,” and Birds of Prey #11.
As always, this is really hard. Covers have gotten so much more interesting over the years, so while I miss the covers that tell you everything that happens in an issue, I also dig the wide diversity of the covers every year. I should point out that every year, I try to pick one cover per artist. Jock, for instance, had four unbelievably cool covers this year. I picked the best one. That’s the way it is, man!
1. Detective Comics #880 by Jock.
Jock’s vision of the Joker is pretty terrifying, frankly. I’m not a huge fan of the lips looking like Heath Ledger’s, but because the cover is so abstract, I don’t mind it here. The bats around the eyes and forming the hair are amazing, and the limited use of color makes the red pop. Jock is a superb cover artist, and this one is brilliant. His other great covers? Pigs #1, Scalped #45, and Scalped #48.
2. Green Wake #7 by Riley Rossmo.
The use of negative space in this cover is what helps it, I think, because it makes the children, with their bloody mouths, all the more creepy. Plus, hanging children are freaky. The guy standing behind the gallows (his name is Micah), with his long scarf and empty glasses, is also pretty freaky. Rossmo did some very good covers for Green Wake this year, but this one is the best one.
3. The Unexpected #1 by Rafael Grampá.
I have no idea what’s going on in this cover, but I don’t care, because it’s awesome. Seriously, I don’t even know where to start. Just gaze at its excellence!
4. Feeding Ground #4 by Michael Lapinski.
Feeding Ground is an interesting werewolf story set in the American Southwest, and one nice feature of it is the covers, which are all pretty good. Issue #4’s is the best, though. The piñata rabbit head has the one eye right in the center of the cover, staring blankly at the reader, while the streamers underneath it look like viscera, which adds a weird, unreal vibe to the cover. The flies buzzing around make it look horrifying, and that, combined with the relative innocence (it is, after all, not a real rabbit), makes this a bizarrely wonderful cover.
5. Animal Man #1 by Travel Foreman.
The DCnU #1 covers were, as a whole, fairly dull, but a few stood out, and none were better than Travel Foreman’s weird cover for Animal Man. The freaky arteries leading into Buddy are weird enough, and then you get the blood coming from his eyes, which is not as noticeable but still freaky. The animals at his feet are a nice touch. This signals nicely that Animal Man is back to being an oddball horror comic, which is not exactly a return to its roots but to, I dunno, Jamie Delano’s run?
6. The Suicide Forest #3 by Gabriel Hernandez.
More good use of negative space, as we get the sickly tree bisecting the whiteness of the cover. The fact that you need to look a bit more closely to see that the tree is actually growing out of the girl’s mouth is nice, too, because it adds to the dawning horror that you feel. Her one eye is keen, too, as it looks out accusingly at the audience.
7. Batgirl #21 by Dustin Nguyen.
Nguyen had a lot of good Batgirl covers this year, but his cover for issue #21 is very nice. Stephanie crouches in front of a glorious stained glass window with the Grey Ghost etched in it, and it’s simply beautiful. The fact that Nguyen paints this makes it even more amazing – his interior painted work is astounding, as well, and it’s always nice to see it on covers.
8. Generation Hope #12 by Rodin Esquejo.
Generation Hope had some wonderful covers this year, but the one for Kieron Gillen’s final issue is the highlight. We get more wonderful negative space, which along with the figure of Hope implies a padded cell, and Hope herself is truly scary. Esquejo doesn’t contort her impossibly, but the way she’s sitting is still disturbing. Like The Suicide Forest above, the fact that one eye is obscured makes the one we can see even more upsetting. My biggest problem with Esquejo’s covers is that they’re often sterile, but this one uses that quality to make it weirder, and that’s a good thing.
9. Shinku #2 by Lee Moder.
Moder uses negative space brilliantly here, coloring it red to suggest the gallons of blood that Shinku has spilled as she slices open the vampires. The perspective is marvelous, too – looking down on the bodies adds the horror, and Shinku looking up triumphantly shows us both her ability and her rather perverse thrill she gets from her work. After the initial shock, we realize that the blood is actually up to her knees, which is even more freaky. Shinku does a lot of killing, man!
10. X-Factor #224 by David Yardin.
Once more, eyes help make this work. The eyes of Rahne’s baby are scary, but they also draw us in so that we quickly see the furry head, which makes it all the more creepy. Rahne’s look of motherly concern is tinged with just the slightest hint of stress around her eyes, implying the difficulty she faces as she brings her child to term (so to speak – the birth scene is something to see). Like many good horrific covers, the mix of creepiness and quietude makes this work really well.
Yeah, I didn’t do the next five. Deal with it!
BEST PUBLISHER/DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR.
Weirdly enough, this goes to the same company, and of course it’s DC. Whatever the reasoning, it took some stones to do what they did, and it seems to have paid off in the short run (we’ll see what’s what in a couple of years). The disappointment comes from the fact that they didn’t go far enough – if some of their books weren’t selling, perhaps they shouldn’t have given jobs in the DCnU to the same people who were writing and drawing them prior to the “reboot.” From what I’ve read, a lot of the titles are busy dragging out things for six issues, which is also rather annoying. I, of course, haven’t read much of the reboot, so I’m not going to say that creatively, it’s a failure, but just from the reviews and the people working on them, I can’t say that it’s all that different from before the reboot – some very good books because the people working on them are good, and a bunch of mediocre titles. The fact that they’re cancelling Hawk & Dove yet letting Rob Liefeld write and/or plot three other books makes me scratch my head. I honestly don’t know the reasoning behind it. I applaud DC for daring to think so big, but I’m disappointed that they didn’t think a bit bigger and tear everything down. As usual in the comics publishing business, half-assed is the way to go!
THE “NUKE LALOOSH” AWARD.
As always, this award goes to the comic creator who ought to be in the big leagues and maybe will at this time next year. I’m really bad at this – I don’t think any of my choices have become the superstars they deserve to be. Oh well! It’s getting harder to choose one of these, because the democratization of the Internet means that a lot more creators than usual get publicity. But I’ll point out that Chris Brunner, the artist of Loose Ends, is someone who needs to be a bigger star. His work is superb, combining a solid understanding of laying out a page and using interesting points of view with a slightly cartoony line that keeps his work from dragging too much. He has a good colorist on the book – Rico Renzi – but his line work is excellent, and I look forward to seeing more of his work. I just wish the final issue of Loose Ends would ship, because it’s been a while. Confound it! Check out this sequence from Loose Ends #1. It doesn’t show everything Brunner does in the series, but it’s still excellent:
THE “FELL” AWARD.
Once again, it’s time to honor the ridiculously late comics that, every year, fill us with anticipation and then … vanish. For whatever reason (in the case of Fell, a four-year-old hard drive crash). Last year, I honored two comics – Atomika and Gemini. The final issue of Atomika actually managed to ship, but we’re still waiting on Gemini. As it’s been over two years since one of those issues came out, it’s no longer eligible, because the point of this award is that one issue must have shipped in the calendar year of 2011, and THEN been very late. Last year I extended it to the previous 18 months, but I don’t want to do that this year. It’s my award, damn it, and I can change the rules any time I want to! Gemini, for instance, has entered the rarefied air that Planetary, The Infinite Horizon, and even Atomika once occupied – comics that went several years without an issue shipping but were still, theoretically, going to come out. Each of those eventually saw the light of day – the latter two this year! – and maybe Jay Faerber’s nifty little superhero story will too. This year, unfortunately, I’m a bit worried, because I already know my retailer has missed some of my books (see: Gødland #35). He’s pretty good about it, but some books fall through the cracks (I didn’t know that Spontaneous #5 had come out, for instance, so I have to go get it).
Anyway, Orc Stain #7 is a strong candidate, but the clear winner this year is Choker #6. Issue #5 of the Ben McCool/Ben Templesmith splatterfest arrived in stores on the first Wednesday of 2011, and over a year later, we’re still waiting on the final issue. I mean, really. McCool keeps working, Templesmith keeps working, yet issue #6 continues to elude them and us. Sigh. I don’t love Choker but I do enjoy it, and I’m kind of curious to see how it ends. Maybe in 2012 I will!
THE “SHARK-MAN” AWARD FOR AWESOMEST COMIC OF THE YEAR AND PROBABLY EVER.
The aforementioned Atomika #12 by Andrew Dabb and Sal Abbinanti. As only one issue came out this year and it had been over a year since issue #11 shipped, I didn’t feel like I could include it in my “Best Mini-Series” section, even though it’s a fantastic comic. So I put it here, just to give it some publicity. I mean, Russian gods fighting each other over the course of the twentieth century, beautifully illustrated with giant spreads that occasionally resemble Communist propaganda posters? Yeah, I can dig that. Seek out the trades, people!
So that’s my best comics of the year. Yes, there are a lot of them. Yes, I apologize for wasting your time. But when there are so many excellent comics, why should we dwell on the shitty ones? Embrace the greatness, people!
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