Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Best of 2011 Comics Gift-Getting Guide pt. 2

Part one...

When I was reading Mystic, I thought of it as a story that would appeal to fans of both Harry Potter and Hunger Games (had just seen one and read the other), but without being a rip-off of either; G. Willow Wilson accomplishes the task of tapping into multiple current sources of pop culture zeitgeist but only as building blocks to a new, vast world. I enjoyed all the CrossGen launches from Marvel, from the clever Ruse to the whimsical Sigil, but this is the one I think will hit the sweet spot of the broadest reader base, genre fans and civilians alike. It’s also another stop on artist David Lopez’s unrelenting tour of inspiring professional self-improvement.

As Mark Waid did with Daredevil, Greg Rucka made a strong choice with his take on The Punisher—both books edited out of the Steve Wacker “Spider Office”—by making Frank Castle almost a secondary character or even backdrop against which the stories take place; he’s a grim presence who rarely speaks while the stories revolve around the people he affects, only roping him in for the big action scenes or major climaxes. It’s a bold, cinematic type of storytelling that has paid off in a comic experience that stands out in today’s climate. Marco Checchetto’s haunted art with a heavy Eastern influence is another completely new direction for The Punisher, really casting him as some sort of spectral angel of death and giving weight to his status as more than merely a man.

The one and done format is hardly common in modern mainstream super hero comics outside of all ages material and certainly not in a flagship franchise like the Avengers, but Warren Ellis did it to near perfection in his Secret Avengers run over the latter part of the year aided and abetted by some of the best artists in the business. Whether it was tech-based espionage with Jamie McKelvie, crazy kung fu action illustrated by David Aja or one of the trippiest time travel yarns I’ve followed in some time by Alex Maleev, Ellis delivered across the board with intelligent and entertaining standalone stories you need to give a look.

Over the course of just six issues in the early months of this year, Dan Slott demonstrated the versatility of himself as a writer and Spider-Man as a character in tales that ran the gamut of emotions as his awesome Big Time era of Amazing Spider-Man heated up and took off. Revenge of the Spider-Slayer was action-packed mayhem showcasing Spidey and an enjoyable New Avengers guest spot while No One Dies and Torch Song swung to the emotional side of the spectrum, tracking Peter Parker and his friends as they dealt with serious loss. The talented artists of ASM contributed with varied showmanship fitting each story, as Stefano Caselli brought his raw energy to the first while Marcos Martin delivered the stark pathos needed for the second (and a dream sequence in #655 that still has me applauding). Wedged in the middle: The debut of Flash Thompson as the new Venom in a story written by Slott with art by the great Humberto Ramos.

Continuing the Dan Slott love fest, Spider-Island was the textbook case of how to do a fun comic book event that also has major impact and pack metric tons of plot, character and action into every installment. It’s a great love letter to what makes Spider-Man a great hero and Peter Parker uniquely suited to his role with nice meaty parts as well for Venom, Anti-Venom, Kaine, Mary Jane, J. Jonah Jameson, Carlie Cooper and more, not to mention the villainous exploits of The Queen and The Jackal plus a boatload of great guest stars including the Avengers, X-Men, Future Foundation and tons others. Humberto Ramos turns in inspired art on the Amazing Spider-Man installments while Rick Remender and Tom Fowler tear it up on the Venom chapters also included in this main collection.

Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch is to me a great guide to and exploration of the burgeoning DC Universe provided by the New 52. It takes characters that lived on the fringe of mainstream comics as part of the WildStorm line and drops them into an environment skewing closer to the traditional DCU and we see how both affect one another. Cornell is create at brewing a strange but satisfying cocktail with strange moon eating monsters and angry towns come to life as excavated by a recast Authority, relocated Martian Manhunter, and an eclectic cast of newcomers. Cornell excels at building worlds, and here he gets to take that mandate a step further, rising to the challenge with aplomb.

The other new DC horror staple that’s giving me good chills and more great work from Scott Snyder, who pays homage to the classic Alan Moore run on Swamp Thing and what came after but gets the opportunity to explore it from a whole new spin with Alec Holland as active protagonist rather than buried subconscious influence, an advantage he takes full advantage of. The ideas Snyder has come up with as far as gross new threats add to a vast tapestry begun in those seminal stories, and Yanick Paquette’s harsh, heavy lines provide the perfect style to convey the beauty of nature as well as its destructive force, plus the sick torture inflicted on these poor characters.

Speaking of writers making everything old new again, witness Jonathan Hickman capturing the widescreen majesty of Mark Millar’s original Ultimates but swiveling the camera at just the right moments to provide a new spin and open up the universe. Hickman’s first issue started out with swaggering Nick Fury, cool as ever, ready to take on gods, and ended with a note of doubt in the Ultimates’ leader’s eye that told you the rules have changed. In the new Ultimate Comics Universe, Fury, Iron Man and even Thor have to work that much harder and are paying harsher prices for their hubris while the likes of Hawkeye and others need to step up. Hickman has made the threats bigger and brought the heroes down to Earth in a way that breathes new life. It doesn’t hurt that nobody draws epic like Esad Ribic, whose work alongside colorist Dean White is breathtaking, from a city full of gods to the aforementioned moment where Nick Fury realizes he’s only human.

After over a decade of writing Peter Parker in the Ultimate Universe, Brian Michael Bendis gave his “baby” a wrenching, emotional and utterly heroic sendoff. Ultimate Spider-Man as it was had in my mind certainly not run out of steam, and indeed the “Ultimate Aunt May Boarding House for Super Heroes” made for some of my favorite stories over the last couple years; thus, the pressure was on if Bendis wanted to take out a character still in his prime, and I believe he delivered. This story has all the action, humor and life lessons that were the hallmark of Ultimate Spider-Man, but more than anything it’s about the relationships among the extraordinary supporting cast Bendis has built, the ties that bind them as close as family, and how much they’re willing to fight for one another, Peter most of all. Mark Bagley back on art, sharp as ever, was icing on the cake. I’m enjoying Miles Morales’ early adventures as the new Spider-Man under Bendis’ pen, but he’s got a tough act to follow to be sure.

There is no story I followed with more rapt anticipation this year than the Dark Angel Saga, salivating over each installment as it was the pinnacle of serial super hero storytelling for me in 2011. Rick Remender is a genius and I do believe Uncanny X-Force to be among his finest work, telling the story of a team doing the dirty work other good guys don’t want to touch; what shatters the cliché and also makes them perhaps truer heroes than any others in comics is that they don’t shrug off the awful acts they commit, they’re genuinely haunted, but they keep doing what needs to be done. In the Dark Angel Saga, hard choices come home to roost as Archangel loses control and his teammates must journey to no less than the Age of Apocalypse itself, facing down an evil alternate reality Wolverine and more, in a story remarkably ambitious for being told simply in one monthly series. Remender balances nostalgia and modern sensibilities like a mad chemist, creating an essential X-Men classic in the process. Mark Brooks’ art evokes exactly the feelings of familiarity shattered by change needed and Dean White provides rock solid continuity in the book’s visual appearance with his covers. And this is just the first half of the story!

I consider myself a man of fairly refined taste (not at all), but sometimes it’s nice to kick back with pure graphic violence and ridiculous excess, both of which Charlie Huston and Juan Jose Ryp execute with aplomb in Wolverine: Best There Is. It’s an unapologetic string of brutal fights, gross-out moments and crude humor, framed by Wolverine fighting against a bunch of opponents who have healing factors similar to or slightly varied from his own that allow them to do horrible things to one another without repercussions like they were Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote with claws and swords. The first six issues feature a truly vile villain named Contagion who I think could be a fixture given how simultaneously impressive and repulse Huston makes him. Ryp is uniquely qualified to provide the visual window for this grind house flick of a comic, taking a horror background and channeling it perfectly to super heroes.

In the shadow of larger events, Victor Gischler put together this fun, action-packed little four-issue yarn about the X-Men and Future Foundation going through a portal in the Bermuda Triangle to another dimensions where they team up with Skull the Slayer and fight a bunch of aliens. It’s Comics 101 as Gischler puts together an enjoyable adventure that has the right amount of character moments—great stuff between “reformed” Magneto and Doctor Doom—and humor between fights and twists to create a story with heart that stands nicely on its own. Jorge Molina steps up his game huge on art, drawing some beautiful heroes, male and female alike, and exotic landscapes galore.

Jason Aaron has spent a few years now writing Wolverine and the X-Men have shown up now and again, but he had a pretty big assignment for his first regular go with the team, and I’d say he proved his chops quite nicely. What I like about Schism is that Aaron writes Cyclops and Wolverine as two guys with opposite but legitimate points and he’s smart about giving each a valid argument; your guts tells you Wolvie is right to want to keep mutant children off the front lines, but if you’re being pragmatic, it’s hard to argue Cyke’s stance that an endangered species needs every soldier it can get. It’s a solid battle both philosophically and eventually physically that could carry the entire story if need be, but Aaron overachieves with a deviously cool new Hellfire Club of spoiled brats that I’m happy to see have carried over into Wolverine & The X-Men with other elements of this story such as Kid Omega. As for the art—it’s Carlos Pacheco, Frank Cho, Daniel Acuna, Alan Davis and Adam Kubert jamming, so it’s pretty tough to complain.

There’s an old school feel to this over-sized three-parter written by James Asmus dropping the X-Men in the Negative Zone and pitting them against Blastaar hearkening back to the days when team-ups and Annuals were a big deal in and of themselves, not just because they lead into the next big event. Steve Rogers coming to save the day comes off like a feel good moment and the story itself is a nice bit of standalone cinematic storyline. Asmus also does nice work furthering the dynamic between Cyclops and Hope, exploring Rogers’ relationship with the X-Men, and having fun with the offbeat pairing of Namor and Doctor Nemesis. The art is top notch across the board, particularly Ibraim Roberson’s turn, which looks as if he sculpted the figures out of wood and placed them on the page.

John Rozum and Frazer Irving’s Xombi is just wonderful and weird; it’s wonderfully weird. It’s intelligent and there were times I had to go back over what I had just read to fully understand it, but I never felt completely left in the dark. It’s a musing on humanity, religion, friendship and love couched in a quest adventure with super powered nuns and spooky golem creatures; I could keep going on about the story, but frankly writing a sentence like the one I just wrote usually suffices for my money to unpack the appeal. As always, Irving’s work is like nobody else in comics; he has a unique approach that brings sensibilities of fine art to the page and instill Xombi with a pedigree that makes it stand out even more than it already did—which was a lot.


Anonymous said...

Where are all the interesting hardcovers / trades like the 1st Batgirl collection or the Birds of Prey & Catwoman collections?

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