Sunday, December 28, 2008

Ben's First Minute Holiday Comics Spending Guide

Last Sunday, Kiel posted his Last Minute Christmas Comics Shopping Guide and gave a great selection of four color options to put under the Christmas tree come Thursday morning. I highly recommend you give it a look if you haven't already (which I'm kinda assuming you have, given that you clearly read our blog) as Kiel presented a great variety of comics for everybody, from indies to kids books and everything in between.

Now of course, the holidays have come and gone, but I'm sure you've found yourselves with a variety of gift cards to Amazon, Borders and the like and need some swag to buy. Never fear, CKT-ites, enter Ben Morse!

My list isn't as varied, but I make up for it by being non-denominational, what with my half-Jewish heritage and all. So here are some of my favorite comics of 2008...

John Rogers' two-or-so year solo run as the writer of Blue Beetle (ably artistically assisted most of the time by Rafael Albequerque), if there is justice in this world, will at the very least go down in comics' history as a cult favorite that was underappreciated in its time and gets fondly recalled down the line. It was such a shining example of the all-too-rare art of stringing together a highly enjoyable series of short stories that stand alone just fine, but read as a larger work kick all different kinds of ass. "Endgame" was where all the strands came together in a fantastic explosion of action and fun, with Rogers writing a Justice League International reunion that would make his buddy BB co-creator Keith Giffen proud, giving every member of the sprawling supporting cast a moment to shine, and showing why Jaime Reyes is the most endearing teenage character of this generation.

My buddy Geoff Johns is actually quite the funny fellow, but he doesn't always get a chance to put his sense of humor on display in his comic writing. For that reason, I got a real kick out of his 12 issues on Booster Gold, where, alongside co-writer Jeff Katz and rejuvenated artist of the year Dan Jurgens, he got to show off his comedic chops monthly while not sacrificing any of his other talents along the way. This collection of the back half of said run packs the bwa-ha-ha into a cool multiversal adventure with major stakes that highlights one of comics' greatest duos (Booster and Ted Kord, aka Blue Beetle) while also showcasing some of DC's underutilized greats (including Wild Dog!).

At its best, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson's "let's poke some fun at super heroes in the most vulgar ways" joyride, The Boys, is actually a book with a lot of heart, and "Good for the Soul" was a story where that showed through. Wee Hughie, the genuine nice guy stuck in this seedy, over the top world of walking atom bombs without morals, is one of my favorite characters in comics, and his romance with Annie January, this story's primary focus, is so genuine you wonder why Ennis isn't writing romantic comedies (probably all the anal rape and sex with hampsters stuff). Oh, and there's punching and dirty jokes too.

Sometimes it seems like Ed Brubaker has been playing his own personal game of "Can You Top This" with extreme parameters on Captain America, and this year was no exception. After bringing back Bucky (gasp!) then killing off Steve Rogers (what?!) then somehow keeping the book going (and going strong) anyhow (huh?!), 2008 was the year Ed brewed those ingredients together and made Bucky a new Cap for a new more dangerous than ever America. "The Man Who Bought America" doubled as BuckyCap's trial by fire and the culmination to the Red Skull uber-plot Brubaker has been building since issue one. It's the transition of Captain America from the ensemble book it has been since Rogers' death back to a solo title, and as usual, Brubaker excels, with Steve Epting matching him on art. If you're looking for a top notch thriller that kicks the crap out of any Tom Clancy novel and also want to see some true comic book masters at work, you could do a lot worse than this bad boy.

I don't think I'm alone in feeling that Captain Britain and MI13 was one of 2008's most pleasant surprises. This initial arc was the most "Braveheart" of the Secret Invasion tie-ins, the type of story that really made you feel good and cheer the good guys regardless of the seemingly insurmountable odds. Paul Cornell was masterful in making career bit players like Pete Wisdom and Spitfire "our" characters, folks who seemed real, likable and the type of folks you'd want to follow into battle and/or get a beer with. This arc runs the gamut from epic big screen battle stuff to nice little character work, particularly with the Black Knight and Cornell and artist Leonard Kirk's new creation, Faiza.

Speaking of great culminations and huge blockbuster war stories, over in Fables this year, Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham had the daunting task of paying off their first 70 issues of build and did so with a story that played like "Apocalypse Now" starring Prince Charming and the Big Bad Wolf, and yes, that is as awesome as it sounds. Willingham times the beats perfectly and comes up with all the clever flourishes you'd expect from this series (the use of Sleeping Beauty as a WMD is particularly brilliant), but I also think Mr. Buckingham gets too often overlooked for managing a cast of thousands and making the little touches like panel borders fun month in and out. If you've ever been a fan of Fables, you owe it to yourself to check back in with this collection.

If you've got a group of friends you talk comics with regularly, there's a good chance you heard the following at some point this year: "I've never been a fan of Ghost Rider, but man, Jason Aaron's run is pretty rad!" (Ok, if you're not one of my friends sub out "rad" for a more sensible adjective) This first Aaron arc demonstrates why his take works so well: he doesn't try to write around the fact that Ghost Rider is basically a 70's grindhouse horror flick come to life (he's a guy with a flaming skull on a motorcycle, gang), he embraces it and invites you to hang on for the ride with cannibalistic cops, chainsaw-wielding zombies and ninja nurses as well as all the high octane chase scenes you can handle. It's campy, it's over-the-top, but most of all it's fun. Pick up this book, check the part of your brain that is whiny and critical at the door, and just enjoy.

I kinda see Guardians of the Galaxy as being the spiritual cousin to Captain Britain and MI13: another great team book launched in 2008 focused on a niche (sci fi here to MI13's magic concentration) that succeeded on the writers being smart and playing an eclectic cast and quirky mission statement to full potential. Too many team books launch with such nebulous purposes that something like "this is the sci fi team and they're policing the areas of the Marvel Universe beyond Earth" is gold in the right hands, and the hands of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning are definitely those. DnA from the word go took full advantage of the fact that they've got a massive canvas on which to paint (Marvel Universe is big, y'all) and built wonderfully complex and entertaining relationships among their band of misfits (Star-Lord's neurotic micomanagement of everybody, Adam Warlock and Gamora's frostiness towards one another, Drax's weird faux-fatherly treatment of Quasar, etc.). It certainly doesn't hurt that Paul Pelletier is perfectly built to draw space opera. Add all that together, stir in some intriguing mysteries, and you've got a decent soup analogy to describe a great book that you'll want to jump on from the start.

Matt Sturges and his conspirators semi-quietly launched the (for my money) best new ongoing series out of Vertigo in years with House of Mystery. Aside from the central and continuing main horror/mystery/romantic plot of a strange quintet trapped inside an even stranger haunted house, House of Mystery also has a (again, for my money) brilliant set-up for its anthology portion: the fee at the House's bar (which the main characters run) is stories, so the guests provide tales of every genre, illustrated by an impressive stable of guest artists. Whether you dig the main course, the trimmings or both, you're getting a lot of bang for you buck with this series.

At some point this year, I'm pretty sure Incredible Hercules became my favorite ongoing comic book series. Not sure quite when, not sure quite how, but the answers could likely be found in this collection. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have blended humor, action and drama about as seamlessly as I've seen any writers do in quite some time. They've elevated not one but two characters in Hercules and Amadeus Cho from also-rans to legitimate main eventers and created a buddy duo that can hang with the Luke Cage/Iron Fist and Booster Gold/Blue Beetle pairings of the world, no problem. The high point of many over the past twelve months came when Herc and Cho launched into space alongside a grouping so random it's both comical and awesome (a team with Snowbird, Ajak and a dude who eats gods? Sign me up!) to fight the Skrull gods and prevent them from sealing the deal on Secret Invasion. You get the chuckles inherent to any Herc story, the pathos of the Lion of Olympus angsting over possibly not being able to protect another young charge, the glorious slugfests of the God Squad against Nightmare and the Skrulls, and SI's "Who Can You Trust?" mantra being as well-utilized as anywhere. Did I mention that artist Rafa Sanodval is a diamond in the rough? Love love love this comic!

Mark Millar's ode to the 80's wasn't universally-beloved in all quarters, but I really dug it and think those willing to give it a chance will have a lot of fun. The premise of super villains and super heroes showing up in the real world isn't a new one, but Millar knows how to manage the sense of wonder and play 1985 for the "Goonies"-like ride it should be, not needing to make any sort of big statement other than "I really love this shit and I'm having a good time with it!" Tommy Lee Edwards also brings it on art duties, offering truly unique takes on classic Marvel characters (his Lizard is dope) and giving the story an appropriately otherworldly feel. 1985 isn't a filet mignon, it's a juicy cheeseburger, and if you go in expecting that, your belly will be filled nicely.

It's an absolute pleasure to see my all-time favorite character not only continuing to star in his own ongoing series, but for said series to maintain the high quality that Nova has under Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning as well as artist Wellinton Alves. "Knowhere" is DnA's chance to expand Nova's world after taking him back to Earth and then miring him in Annihilation: Conquest, and they swing straight for the fences, bringing him to the hollowed-out head of a Celestial where he encounters a new interstellar super team and a telepathic Russian canine named Cosmo. Sound weird? It can be, but DnA make it magic. However, every other included issue aside, I have to recommend this collection if for no other reason than Nova Annual #1, which I have spoken on previously, as it gives the best capsule explanation of why Nova rocks so hard and why he is not just a Green Lantern knockoff ever.

Kiel gave some great recommendations on comics for kids in his last entry, but I'd add Teen Titans: Year One as a product not just great for kids, but for fans of all ages. TV veteran/comics rookie Amy Wolfram comes on like a pro and updates the original Titans' origin story with charm and energy. She does a great job at distilling down each Titan to their most engaging and outstanding characteristics and bringing them to life with a vigor that sets them miles apart from their Silver Age incarnations. And, of course, I'd be remiss in not mentioning the gorgeous work of Karl Kerschl, who delivers the best performance of an already-impressive career with his heroic Robin, cute-as-a-button Wonder Girl, inhuman Aqualad, etc.

I don't think any of us "in the know" really knew what to expect when Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance announced he'd be making inroads into comics, but I've encountered very few who read the initial volume of Umbrella Academy and were disappointed with what they got. It's out there, it's surreal, and its timeline is all over the place, but I had no problem following the story of "Apocalypse Suite" and dug the kooky voices Way gave his characters, the wild scenes of destruction, and Gabriel Ba's unique way of portraying it all. This is a case where it's tougher to describe why I liked it than to just say give it a shot and you won't be let down.

We close with the second part of my Jason Aaron two-fer, as he teams with artist Ron Garney to craft the type of Wolverine story I love to read. Following "Messiah CompleX," Cyclops sends Wolverine to track down Mystique by any means necessary, leading him on a wild chase through the middle east where Logan gets shot up, blown up and torn up as he pursues the type of femme fatale you can tell both creators relish working with. But while that's all well and good, the real meat of "Get Mystique!" is the ongoing flashback to Wolverine and Mystique's partnership from decades earlier when both ran on the wrong side of the law and teamed up for a good ol' fashioned bank caper that goes more than awry. As I believe I've said here before, I think many of Wolverine's best stories take place when he's away from the X-Men and dropped into a gritty genre tale like a western, a crime noir yarn or the martial arts brouhaha Mr. Aaron is currently weaving over in Wolverine: Manifest Destiny. "Get Mystique!" is that type of story, one that Aaron excels at, and with characters he clearly has a knack for playing with. Garney also turned in the best work he's done in years on this one and blew my mind in the process. I'd love a sequel to this sucker and am looking forward to the creative team reuniting with Wolvie in 2009 on Wolverine: Weapon X.

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