Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best of 2010 Comics Gift-Getting Guide

While plenty of places will provide you with lists of what gifts to get for comics-loving friends and family prior to the holidays, it’s my tradition here on the Cool Kids Table to wait until after y’all have gotten all those nice gift certificates and store credits and then let you know what to spend them on.

There were a bunch of great comics this year, and while I’ve singled out 22 collections here I think deserving of your dime, I also encourage you to check out my Comics Worth Reading archives for some I may have overlooked.

Using a very specific story structure over the first almost year of Avengers Academy—the first person narration shifting from one cast member to the next each issue—I think Christos Gage has pulled off the ever-challenging task of introducing half a dozen really intriguing new characters who I’m already invested in. The series has yet to have one true overarching multi-issue story, which I kind of dig, as it gives the book a different feel and sets it apart with the emphasis really being on character and relationships over big action (though the fights are still well-done, don’t worry). This first volume provides a wonderful introduction to a unique and entertaining series with superb art by Mike McKone and others plus some fun guest stars to boot.

As I so often do with Grant Morrison’s work, I couldn’t fully appreciate it until all the pieces were on the table. Am I too impatient or just not smart enough to get it earlier in the game? Quite possibly both, but I still credit Morrison with being able to ratchet up the satisfaction level when it comes to that crucial “A-ha!” moment. Speaking of satisfaction, there’s a great deal involved when a story really feels like it has been building up for some time as this one has—it’s what makes good long-form television a success—not to mention when a truly great bad guy finally gets what’s coming to him, and we have both here. I also like that everybody from Dick Grayson to Damien to Commissioner Gordon to the freaking Joker—Frazer Irving’s Joker is so creepy!—and of course Bruce Wayne gets a nice spotlight without it feeling overloaded. Honestly, I feel like if you haven’t been reading Batman the past couple years, you’ll get a nice filling adventure here and if you want to sample the rest, it’s there for you, plus the set-up to the next intriguing age.

Of all the comics I was expecting to dig in 2010, I can certainly say Batman Beyond was not high on that list, but here we are. I never watched the cartoon regularly, but the Return of the Joker movie and the characters being featured on Justice League Unlimited a couple times was enough to endear them to me. Adam Beechen did a nice job with this series of immersing you immediately in the odd but familiar world of future Gotham and mining the Bruce Wayne-Terry McGinnis dynamic for its inherent strengths. I found myself caught up in the Hush mystery—though a bit let down by the “big reveal”—and enjoying the new additions to the Beyond canon like aged Dick Grayson and Catwoman Beyond; good primer for what I hope will be a nice ongoing.

Tough choice between this one and The Self-Preservation Society in terms of my Boys pick for 2010, as the latter had some rad standalone origin stories, but the actual action arc didn’t do so much for me, whereas both arcs contained in The Innocents are just wrenching. The story the book is named for sees Hughie going undercover in a Legion of Substitute Heroes pastiche and the way Garth Ennis handles bonafide good guys who want to be super heroes in the horribly corrupt world of The Boys is both a little heartwarming and massively heartbreaking, plus Butcher gets a kick ass moment in the midst of being a prick. The second story, Believe, is a heartbreaker, as Hughie finally learns the truth about Annie and amidst the jokes and violence is the moment we’ve been anticipating/dreading played with almost depressingly real emotion and heart. Definitely missing Darick Robertson’s art, but Russ Braun has stepped up admirably. If you think The Boys is just about shock storytelling, I’ll say as I do every year that you’re missing out.

I’ve said so much about how incredible I think Daytripper is this past year and I stand by all of it, so I’ll save me and you some time by linking to those thoughts and just reiterating that this is one of the most gorgeous, moving and poignant stories I’ve read in some time that I’d recommend to anybody, comics fan or no.

Jonathan Maberry and Scot Eaton’s Black Panther(s and friends) versus Doctor Doom mini-epic hit a sweet spot in my fan nerve that craves unfettered, old-fashioned “good guys fighting bad guys” stories with a dash of social relevance, but more importantly a heaping helping of outlandish action and the kinds of crazy chess moves you don’t see anywhere else but comics. Maberry wrote one of my favorite takes on Doom in years, doing justice to one of Marvel’s most complex and powerful villains while not cheaping out on the megalomaniacal speeches and insane plans. On the flipside, the T’Challa of this story is great in his role as the good guy who’s not so much a hero but rather a politician and master strategist, willing to engage Doom in a way few others have and go way outside the box. Eaton’s art is a perfect fit for the type of fun you get when you pit the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Deadpool, War Machine, etc. against an army of Vibranium-enhanced Doombots.

It may have taken a little while to get there, but the conclusion of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ multi-years mash-up of politics and super-heroics was worth the wait—not too surprising since BKV is one of the strongest finishers in comics. The final multi-part story was smart, harsh and unrelenting, with a great mix of intelligent social commentary and science fiction action with an added element of unworldly unease; in short, it was a good snapshot of everything that made Ex Machina what it was. The final issue, however, was really something, from the pay-offs to the shocking moments to the lengths BKV didn’t mind going to with Mitchell Hundred’s character right down to the ending I did not see coming but smiled and nodded “of course” to as soon as I turned that last page.

I love when Fables flashes back to tales of the Homelands, breaking away from the ongoing narrative and allowing Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham to switch up storytelling styles, and this year’s “secret origin” of Rose Red was a fun, impactful story that made nice use of the concept’s central conceit—fairy tales twisted and refined with modern conventions and humor—to catapult a great character towards her next phase. That aside, this collection also contains the momentous 100-page 100th issue of the book, a true triumph for the creators with an awesome flat-out fight with Mister Dark—one of the creepiest villains in all of comics right now for my money—and the culmination of several simmering plots even as new ones begin. I’ll be interested to see how many of #100’s extras make the trade, but even just the main stuff alone is gold.

Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul’s first arc on the “reborn” Flash accomplished something I thought nigh-impossible: It made this diehard Wally West fanatic at least warm up to the idea of stories starring Barry Allen as the Fastest Man Alive. Don’t get me wrong, I still have my hang-ups as far as Barry being a bit bland and believe Wally has way more of an upside, but Johns the exaggerated Silver Age nobility of his lead and makes it work with a tale that takes the best characteristics of that era of storytelling—the boundless enthusiasm, that no concept is too over-the-top—and marries them to his modern bag of characterization and pacing tricks for a satisfying ride. The metaphors about speed or timeliness would usually make me groan—and they still do sometimes—but they work here as they would nowhere else. Johns also still writes the Rogues as among the best villains/supporting cast around and Manapul’s energy is palpable.

Just as The Muppet Show did last year, Archaia’s anthology of stories inspired by Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock took hold of a beloved memory from my childhood and pulled it into the present in a way I fully enjoyed as an adult. No question Fraggle Rock is perhaps the weirdest of Henson’s weird concepts—Dark Crystal aside—but the creators who worked on this book were able to grasp this quirkiness and use the mythology to build neat tableaus to entertain readers of all ages that showcased all the unique characters and settings available; great fun, hoping for more.

The DC Universe’s true outsiders finally found a place I think they’ll be comfortable for some time to come, and I think Judd Winick is doing some of his best writing in years in the process. I’ve said this before, but it’s always seemed a shame that while the Justice League International characters are likable and well-realized, they haven’t worked beyond humor and nostalgia guest shots in awhile; by putting a chip on their shoulder without hardening them too much and giving them a legitimate threat only they can stop in Maxwell Lord, Winick has done wonders and created an intriguing little mystery that’s funny and really explores the characters. Add in solid artwork from pros like Aaron Lopresti and Joe Bennett and this was my pleasant surprise of the year.

Certainly Bryan Lee O’Malley had a self-imposed series of hard acts to follow in crafting the finale to his Scott Pilgrim opus not to mention a high exposure movie to run up against, but I was really satisfied with Finest Hour and think the man deserves a hearty “job well done” both for this volume and the larger work he created. Perhaps better than any other chapter of the Scott Pilgrim story, Finest Hour gives equal service to the underpinning emotional coming of age story and the crazy video game action world, with the first portions of the book feeling about as real as it gets in terms of Scott coming to grips with his own past actions and then the finale being the most balls crazy final fight you could ask for. I don’t want to get too far into analyzing the nitty gritty as finer minds than mine have already done so, but I closed this book feeling satisfied and look forward to cracking it back open in the future.

I’m certainly not the first person to say Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo realized a horrifying potential never before reached in perennial Spider-Man nemesis The Lizard with their story “Shed,” but I won’t disagree with it. The Lizard has always been an interesting character as far as the tried and true but evergreen trope of his alter ego Curt Conners being the unwitting vessel for a monster not to mention one of Peter Parker’s few loyal allies, but Wells didn’t fall back on that as a crutch, instead really tossing the human to the wind and embracing what a primal tale of terror you can tell with an antagonist who is nothing but animal savagery unleashed. “Shed” is frankly uncomfortable to read, but that’s what sets it apart and gives Lizard new life as a bad guy whose appearance is cause for genuine unease. Bachalo—aided by Emma Rios—is the perfect choice to lose himself in depicting a world completely off balance with the evolutionary scale tipped way out of whack.

For the better part of a year, the creators and editors responsible for Amazing Spider-Man have been setting up the dominoes of juicing up Spidey’s villains while simultaneously weaving a larger story in the background involving the Kraven family. Joe Kelly had the tough task of knocking those dominoes down while also crafting a story that would overturn part of Kraven’s Last Hunt, one of the best Spider-Man stories ever—so no small task, but as he generally does, this writer rose to the occasion in my opinion. The tone of Grim Hunt shifts organically from Spider-Man going about his business in that usual cavalier manner to our hero experiencing anxiety and rage the likes of which he perhaps hadn’t since his last encounter with Kraven, and in that mood shift, Kelly really does something neat while also placing this arc right in line with Last Hunt and earning the connection. It’s a full-on saga that features a full range of heroes and villains as well as seemingly multiple incarnations of Spider-Man, a tricky return for a great character that works, a heavy emotional payload and perfectly gritty art by Michael Lark that just looks pretty.

I love Paul Tobin’s Marvel Adventures Super Heroes for the fun, funny, well-crafted stories featured month in and out in wonderfully bite-size portions, but also because it has honestly one of the coolest Avengers line-ups you’ll find anywhere: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Invisible Woman, The Black Widow, The Vision, and, of course, Nova. Tobin is a master at meshing these disparate personalities for maximum entertainment as he cues up action and adventure for his artists to bring to life. This volume features the birth of the new team plus battles against such oddball foes as Diablo, Plant Man and The Silver Surfer; it’s extremely different from just about anything else out there today and if you’re looking for a consistent monthly smile, you can’t do much better, beginning here.

No favoritism necessary for me to proclaim my buddy Jim McCann’s amazing original graphic novel from Archaia to be one of the best things I’ve read this year, because the work quite frankly backs it up. Jim imagines one of the kookiest and most intriguing new worlds I’ve had the pleasure to explore in years with his land of children and robots lacking in adults and the conventions they bring until the descent of the Dapper Men from the title. But as good as Jim’s story is—and it’s really good—I know he’d agree this would not have been the same without the sensational artwork of Janet Lee, whose eye-catching work blew my mind not to mention impressed the heck out of my mother, a full-time watercolor artist, showing how transcendent it is. I don’t feel it’s any exaggeration to say Jim and Janet have created a fairy tale for the modern age destined to be a classic.

I often overlook when a new issue of Secret Warriors is coming out as it’s a real under the radar book for me, though I do tend to enjoy it; I think part of that is that Jonathan Hickman has made no bones that he’s laying out a finite tapestry here, so it’s designed more to be read as a complete work down the line rather than having standout single stories. That said, Last Ride of the Howling Commandos was a real neat little arc dropped into the middle of this year, with a bit of a break from the byzantine big picture to focus in on Nick Fury’s war-time buddies in a split story between a sentimental little guest spot from Steve Rogers and a blistering climactic campaign from the old warhorses. With character depth and considerable scope, this was Secret Warriors at its best.

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning brought their chronicles of the Marvel cosmic universe to a major head this year, paying off the Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy ongoings with a suitably epic event that returned one of the best villains around in Thanos to prominence, provided memorable geek out moments like the rise of the “Cosmic Avengers,” and featured major sacrifices to really hammer home what a big deal this all was. Nobody does this stuff quite like DnA, and it will come as no surprise to anybody who knows me and my proclivities that I enjoyed the heck out of this and saw it as a worthy bookend to Keith Giffen’s Annihilation, which it referenced more than once. Up against a neat and imaginative threat like the “Cancerverse” and its corrupt champions, the cosmic heroes shined as DnA along with Miguel Sepulveda showed why the best good guys in the galaxy don’t necessarily live on Earth.

I think me and the rest of the Internet have said about all we can say at this point about how great Thor: The Mighty Avenger is, but if by some chance you still haven’t given it a shot, well, you’re nuts. Whether you know Thor or don’t, whether you even like comics or not, this is a book that can show you why both are great and why we have a really neat way of telling stories over here, Roger Langridge’s tale of a man struggling to rediscover his home and finding a new one along the way is one that can resonate to anybody and Chris Samnee’s heartfelt and playful art only sweetens the pot. Grab this first volume and you will for sure be back for more.

Probably my favorite ongoing super hero comic of them all right now, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man had another strong year as Brian Michael Bendis continued to mine the brilliant idea of Aunt May having a “super hero halfway house” where Spider-Man, The Human Torch, Iceman and Gwen Stacy live while Kitty Pryde and Mary Jane show up to hang out for all its worth and then some. No book does soap opera better, and devotee of teen drama that I am, I eat this up like it’s ice cream laced with crack. There was also actual action aplenty, be it the boys trying to train the wildly out of control Rick Jones—who may or may not be Ultimate Nova—to use his powers of the Chameleon siblings taking over Peter Parker’s life, but the real meat is the quiet emotional stuff, be it the fears of a teenager who now has the power of a god or how a nasty shapeshifter can really ruin your life if they don’t care. This series seemingly doesn’t know how to lose momentum and I applaud Bendis and his talented artists for constantly reinventing it to ensure it never will.


Zach said...

Flash is worthless: Barry Allen and the lame-ass Rogues, constant delays from Johns and Francis, who gives a shit.

And Ex Machina volumes 9 and 10 are awful. Between BKV's masturbatory inclusion of himself and Harris in volume 9, Harris' awful new art style, and the stupid ending (oh man, BKV ripped himself off, stealing the "Jump ahead a few years and reveal exactly what happens to each character" idea), who gives a damn?

Anonymous said...