Monday, January 2, 2012

The Best of 2011 Comics Gift-Getting Guide pt. 1

We don’t really do traditional “Best Of” lists at the end of the year here at the Cool Kids Table, though if you read most of our posts dealing with today’s content, particularly my Comics Worth Reading series, you can get a good sense for what we dig; we are after all very positive people who genuinely love the business we work in.

I do have a tradition, however, of kicking off each new year with a hopefully helpful guide to some of the good stuff that came out in the 12 months prior either already or soon to be available in collected form that you can use to divest yourselves of those newly acquired gift cards or wads of cash.

You’re welcome.

Though I’m sure there are plenty of people whom I avoid saying the sky is falling—this is the Internet after all—this was a great year for the craft of comics, as evidenced by the list of 30 books I’ve compiled. I’m trying to keep things a bit more brief this year, both as an exercise in restraint for me and a general favor for those of you who bother to read my work (thank you).

Also, before I begin, let me point you toward good buddy of the blog of Sean T. Collins for a list that covers more of the wide world of comics a super hero snob like me is too dull to dig into and Kiel’s team at CBR for the most comprehensive guide to this year’s best.

It’s the ingenuity of writer Peter Milligan (and editor Sebastian Girner) that impressed me most about this series, integrating Wolverine, The Hulk, The Punisher, Psylocke and Deadpool with their powers and characters into five interlocking tableaus set in feudal Japan without anything ever feeling hackneyed or forced. The end result is a work that should prove timeless for Marvel devotees and fans of brilliant storytelling alike with uniformly beautiful art by Tomm Coker, Talibor Dalajic, Laurence Campbell, Goran Parlov and Leo Fernandez.

Perhaps my favorite element of DC’s New 52 has been the expansion of its universe to cover other genres outside of traditional tights, from westerns to vampire love stories, but I don’t think any niche has been as successfully executed as horror, typified by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman’s Animal Man relaunch. If you like, say, American Horror Story, here’s another work that blends family dynamics with creepiness but adds in impressive mythology and grotesquely memorable visuals; Lemire is honoring Grant Morrison’s classic work while forging his out identity.

Scott Snyder’s Batman has been a big hit for me, with the time and detail he devotes to crafting mystery and building a world paying off in some of the most enjoyably dense comics I’m currently reading. This is a nice primer to his work with the characters, including a handful of cases that typify his approach, the fleshing out of the Gordon family and (re?)introduction of a bad guy with major potential in the process, plus heavy art from Jock and Francesco Francavilla.

Speaking of getting into Snyder’s Batman, here he and Kyle Higgins team for an ambitious ode to Gotham City and its history, expanding a world that has been around more than five decades now with new characters and relationships ripe for future storytelling. I’m a big fan of super hero comics that exist beyond the place and time where events are happening just in the current issues, and these guys do a great job with creating just such an expanse.

J.H. Williams III—along with co-writer W. Haden Blackman—does a great job picking up right where he and Greg Rucka left off in crafting the continuing adventures of Kathy Kane as Batwoman. In the hands of Williams and Blackman, Kathy is a uniquely motivated and intriguing character in and out of costume, and I enjoyed seeing her cast both expand and contract as the art—also by Williams—is seriously second to none whether she’s battling a bad guy underwater or just having a conversation with her niece; impressive stuff.

There may have been no comic that hit me as hard emotionally this year as this one. Billy Butcher has always been the somewhat loathsome cipher of The Boys who I could never really generate an interest in, but in this simultaneous touching story of love and heartbreaking story of loss, Garth Ennis made me care. Darick Robertson’s art has become more and more of a unique treat of late, so his work here was a pleasure. If you think The Boys is simply about violence and sex, you need to read this book.

No doubt one of the highlights of Ed Brubaker’s lengthy run on Captain America has been his work on the character of Bucky Barnes, not only in the present, but fleshing him out beyond innocent boy sidekick in flashback. This arc co-written by Marc Andreyko is a tremendous point of view tale that gives you Bucky’s entire experience and tremendous insight into the unique factors that shaped him. The writing is great, but I doubt either scribe would begrudge the sentiment that Chris Samnee’s art may be the true star, as he makes the journey from U.S. military bases to Soviet covert ops convincingly gritty with a tragic touch of innocence and tantalizing frame of beauty.

Mark Waid rolled the dice somewhat in coming onto Daredevil this year and opting to deviate from the grim approach favored by most creators since Frank Miller made history in the 80’s, instead harkening back to the grinning Man Without Fear of his original incarnation. The gamble paid off big, as Daredevil is again one of the best comics available, and Waid had a major trump card in his deck by writing Matt Murdock not as a smiling innocent with his past wiped clean, but a guy doing his best to run from a tortured history he can never fully escape. The supporting cast is great, the villains are quirky and the art by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin is simply extraordinary; both men have re-imagined DD’s ability to see through senses other than sight into an incredible new visual shorthand that has produced some of the most memorable graphic sequences and images comics has seen in ages. A wonderful book all around.

His cast in place and the introductions out of the way, Kieron Gillen got to really branch out and play with what he’d established in the back half of his Generation Hope run. This gave us an eerie horror story, a unique trial scenario with a particularly memorable character turn, and appropriately writ large tie-ins to the blockbuster Schism before a final farewell. Through it all, Gillen’s primary focus is on creating a different kind of teen super hero group where the cast is anything but innocent and both loyalties and rivalries have deliciously sinister undertones.

I’m sad to see Matt Sturges’s House of Mystery go, as it was a book outside my particular norm I really enjoyed these past few years, but it went out on top, as seen in this penultimate collection that wraps up many of the series’ long-running plots and mysteries. Beyond the main saga, we get some particularly great stories-within-stories, the book’s trademark, from Sturges along with the likes of Enrique Breccia, David Lloyd, Ulises Farinas, Gene Ha and others. This collection also has the awesome Halloween Annual #2, which starts right on the cover and features an anthology of tales from various Vertigo creators starring an assortment of the characters they work on.

One of my favorite pure super hero vs. super villain battles of this past year was Iron Man against Doctor Octopus in the story that serves as the center of this collection. It’s both a nice example of taking a classic bad guys outside of his comfort zone and also finding two foils that complement each other perfectly as both rivals and opposites. Matt Fraction did nice work crafting a historical feud between smug overachiever Tony Stark and frustrated outcast Otto Octavius that segued into a great clash between the larger than life Iron Man and Doc Ock with the added twists brought about by the villain’s life-threatening condition and the stakes he presents the hero with. I love how Fraction isn’t shy about making Ock the guy with the advantage and Salvador Larroca perfectly translates John Romita Jr.’s creepy and desperate redesign.

Roger Landridge and Filipe Andrade’s series was my first exposure to the John Carter mythos, and I think they did a terrific job making a nearly century old character and story accessible and fun for a modern audience. Langridge does a great job marrying high adventure and swashbuckling romance with a touch of his gift for humor while Andrade makes Barsoom and its people truly exotic with his liquid style. Classic stuff in a package that feels brand new.

Kid Loki is the sensational new character find of 2011. The spirit of the mischievous old Trickster God reborn in the little body of a young boy looking for redemption but ostracized by all the people he pissed off in his previous life is an idea that both screams and demands the genius of Kieron Gillen. It was a joy to watch Loki Machiavelli his way through Fear Itself, making deals and double crosses with Hela, Mephisto, Surtur and all the other places in Gillen’s chessboard as he alternately sweated how in over his head he was and smirked at getting away with it. Journey Into Mystery is one of my very favorite comics right now, and I know if you sample this introduction to it, you too will be hooked.

Ah, what could have been. I was really into Judd Winick’s take on the old Justice League International and how he found a great niche for them in the DC Universe somewhere between being headliners and comedy figures. The latter part of the year-long bi-weekly saga had big action, emotional twists and nice character relationships plotted like a television show or movie in terms of hitting all the right beats. I was really looking forward to the promised follow-up series from Winick, but alas, it was not to be; oh well, it’s still a great story well worth exploring for yourself.

Set on the fringes of the Marvel Universe in the pulp era unexplored previous, Mystery Men is a great collaboration between David Liss and Patrick Zircher, both brilliant creators who bring their particular skill sets to bear in crafting a noir tale populated by perfect archetypes of the form each with their own twists. This one has gruesome horror, angsty romance and plenty of punching, drawn beautifully and written with wit; a solid addition to the Marvel canon in an age where folks think everything has already been done.

To be continued…