Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Comics' Future "A-Listers"

For the past several days, some buddies and me have been having an interesting ongoing discussion about what comics writers we think could and would like to see inherit spots on the "A-List" from the current guard. Now we're using "A-List" (and I'm putting it in quotes) not just to mean successful, acclaimed writers managing one or two major titles, but the dudes who put out four to five top sellers a month (that also have to be top notch reads) and sit in rooms with the other big wigs at their company and plot the future of their comics universe.

However, comics being in a pretty good place right now creatively also means that it's harder than ever to break into that elite group, simply because there are plenty of qualified bodies already filling those spots and this current crop doesn't look to be going anywhere anytime soon (which is a good thing). But that doesn't mean new talent isn't emerging all the time and finding success, even if it may not quite be on that lofty "A-List" level. There are plenty of guys on my personal "A-List" who may not be not be defining the larger landscape right now, but I'd certainly like to see them doing so in the future (if that's what they want, of course).

Here are just five writers that are on the cusp of something really special (or already there in some cases) and deserve your attention, respect and hard-earned dollars...

Jason Aaron
When I was first introduced to Jason Aaron via Scalped from Vertigo, I admit that I was not a fan. I found his characters too unlikable, his moral landscape too murky and everything to be just too dark. However, I gave him a second look when he came aboard Ghost Rider and was honestly amazed by how much a book about a character I was never interested in written by a writer I thought I didn't care for suddenly became one of my must-reads (it sits near the top of my pile whenever it comes out). Jason's GR is this crazy, surreal mix of horror, action and over-the-top nuttiness that feels more like a grindhouse flick then a comic sometimes. That previous sentence doesn't necessarily sound like it's a describing a formula for a quality comic I would love, but Jason makes it work! It's honestly like nothing else on the market today, and with each arc he's working in more and more actual continuity and comic book-y flourishes that only make it better. However, I'll once again come to the confessional and say I thought it highly possible that Jason's work on Ghost Rider was a glitch and I only liked it because it was unique. Wrong. He absolutely killed it on the "Get Mystique" arc of Wolverine, combining a period piece with balls out action and super hero stuff, then did great work recently on Black Panther, encapsulating nicely the coolness of T'Challa and creating possibly my favorite Super Skrull of the Secret Invasion. Heck, I even gave that first issue of Scalped another read, and I think my initial judgment may have been hasty. Jason Aaron is great at going in directions you don't expect, working outside the box and infusing traditional characters with genres they're not known for playing it, but where they fit nicely; I'd love to see him get a long run on a top flight book very soon.

Paul Cornell
Captain Britain and MI13 has unquestionably been the pleasant surprise breakout hit of Marvel over the past few months, and to say the writing of Paul Cornell hasn't been a huge factor in that is lunacy. Now I don't mean to shortchange Leonard Kirk, who is a brilliantly talented artist and doing beautiful work, but Secret Invasion tie-ins or no, a book starring the likes of Spitfire and the Black Knight doesn't catch the kind of critical fire MI13 has unless it's got a helluva writer steering the ship. What I love about Paul's approach is that he was a British writer handed a book full of British super heroes but was smart enough to know it would never sell as "the British book" (in the same way Alpha Flight will never sell as just "the Canadian book"...but that's another blog entry) and instead found a way to give it a niche beyond that rather limited premise in making it the book that deals with magic in the Marvel Universe. It's a very specified but intriguing mission statement that gives the book direction and then lets Paul's knack for character work do the rest. He does infuse his cast with a certain vaguely alien quality that reminds you they're not from the same country as seemingly 95% of the Marvel Universe, but he doesn't beat you over the head with it. More than that, Paul makes the principals of MI13 likable not so much in the way Captain America seems like a guy you'd love to get an autograph from, but in a way where you'd like to share a beer with them and maybe have Pete Wisdom as a weird neighbor. And of course in addition to the rock solid characterization, Paul also isn't above throwing in twists like having Blade ram a wooden stake through the heart of a core team member on the last page of an issue. Paul's work on MI13 as well as the trippy and fun Fantastic Four: True Story demonstrates an intelligence and willingness to take risks that we need more of in comics.

Jeff Katz
Of the guys on this list, Jeff Katz has done arguably the least to warrant being on it, but yet I didn't hesitate to write his name. To date, Jeff really only has to his credit in the world of big ticket comics 12 issues of Booster Gold, and those he co-wrote with unquestionable A-lister Geoff Johns. Thanks to having spoken to Geoff as he was launching the book and having seen some of the early scripts, I have an idea of what role Jeff played at least in those first issues, but nonetheless, with him being the junior partner in that creative dynamic, you have to wonder how much hand-holding was really done and how well he'd do flying solo. Well, I'd like to learn the answer to that second question sooner rather than later, because despite his reasonably slim bibliography to date, there's something about Jeff Katz that just makes me feel like he's a star waiting to be fully born. Maybe it's the way he carries himself in interviews, as he's affable as well as unquetionably enthuiastic and knowledgable about just about every comic out there. He projects an understanding for why and how properties work (or should work) that inspires confidence. There's also the fact that Booster Gold read different from just about any other Geoff Johns book (in a good way), and while I credit Geoff for being versatile, I also figure at least some of that has to be Jeff's doing. It's a bit of a leap of faith, but I really do think if Jeff Katz committed more time and focus to comics (which he may or may not ever do), he could be a major player. And I'd like to see that.

John Rogers
For a substantial period during the last few years, Blue Beetle wasn't just a book I was raving about month in and month out, more often than not it was indeed probably my very favorite ongoing super hero title from DC or Marvel. When Keith Giffen left the book only a few issues in, people assumed meltdown and cancellatio would be iminent, but his co-writer John Rogers proved to not only be competent, he absolutely blasted Blue Beetle into the stratosphere of quality. Here was a book that took the concept of the awkward teenage super hero originated with Spider-Man over 40 years ago and reinvented it not just for a new generation, but for a whole new cross section of readers. John made Jaime Reyes and his friends seem cool, smart, funny and just impossibly appealing month in and month out, but never like they couldn't also be the kids you went to high school with. John ran with the idea of Jaime not having the cliche of parents he had to keep his secret from, but rather embraced him having an extended family (including his friends) that not only knew about his double life, but offered him the support and guidance he could not do his job without. Jaime struggled and screwed up, but he was always growing, and John made sure you were along for every step of the ride. John also adeptly handled guest stars from Superman and Batman to Guy Gardner and Booster Gold and often cut to their core better and gave thema shinier polish than they received in their own books. But perhaps most impressively from a writing standpoint, John was able to tell engaging and satisfying one or two-part stories that gave you maximum bang for your buck while also never shortchanging those of us in it for the long haul because he never lost sight of his larger 25-issue super story and guided it to an eminently delicious conclusion. John has since departed Blue Beetle for yet-to-be-named other projects and I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for them to be announced, because I think this guy could take just about anything and make it shine.

Fred Van Lente
It wasn't that long ago that Fred Van Lente seemed to be merely the sidekick to Greg Pak's superstar on the Incredible Hercules writing team, but of late, FVL finally seems to be receiving the attention and acclaim he deserves. Before he landed on Herc, in addition to his indy work (which I really need to track down) and work in the Marvel All Ages playground, Fred penned the chuckle-a-minute Super-Villain Team-Up: M.O.D.O.K.'s 11, which had as much heart as it did humor. He and Pak have scored big with Herc, which, as I've mentioned here before, may be my favorite book currently being published (y'know, because John Rogers left Blue Beetle, remember?). No other book out there so deftly utilizes classic mythological structure and tropes as well as buddy cop movie dynamics and plenty of good ol' fashioner super hero punching. Heck, I'm actually not sure if any other comic has featured that particular delectable formula...ever. But then also from solo FVL, you've got Wolverine: First Class, a book that is supposedly for all ages, but I feel was designed specifically for 26-year old males who love dry wit and touching life lessons all wrapped in one (or really anybody who just like good, fun comics). W: FC actually encapsulates what I think makes Fred rock quite well: he excels at humor and a sense of fun, but he doesn't use it as his fallback or his one trick, he uses it as a tool in his storytelling arsenal that compliments the serious stuff instead of overwhelming it. Just last week, FVL launched his latest (and perhaps most high profile) endeavor with Marvel Zombies 3, and showed that he can do horror and gore just as well as Greek god goofiness or classic mutant mayhem. And again: he made it fun, but he also made it smart. Fred's a man with a solid plan who (like everybody on this list) brings something different from the norm to the table and given the opportunity could do some universe building on a grand scale I think any fan of quality would stand to benefit from.

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