Rather than pick out my favorite comics of 2011, I present my top ten favorite comic books for any year (more about why this is non-specific to 2011 below the list.) Realistically, I’ll probably change my mind at some point, since inevitably I’m probably going to change myself at some point too. But for now, these are the books which made my this year, and every year so far, pretty great.
1. Elektra Assassin:
2011 is the year that Miller really came out the closet as a raging old nutter. But anyone who read his best works in the 1980’s and has witnessed his descent into public alcohol abuse over the last few years cannot have been surprised. His comic books are still right up there for me; Ronin and The Dark Knight Returns both completely reinvented the genre. We can’t blame him for the fact that while we were reading his books as tongue-in-cheek extremism, he was truly pushing an agenda of extreme political views. While the radical intolerance of his other books was right there on the proverbial sleeve, the magical collaboration of Bill Sienkiewicz pushed Elektra Assassin into a far more elegant, beautiful record of heroic endeavor and triumph.
2. Love & Rockets
That’s right, all of it! I could be nice and tell you that starting with the new, annual volumes will work fine for new readers (and that would be true.) Or I could be current and say that while the whole run has been incredible, volume 4 is the crowning pinnacle of the Hernandez brother’s achievements (and that would also be true.) But here’s the thing, like any really amazing experience, you need to work up to it nice and slowly. You need to get a rhythm going together and take your time, really build something together, which is what happens when you read a book for over 20 years and then cap it off with the glorious work that is volume 4 of Love & Rockets. Read Love & Rockets, all of them, both brothers, everything you can find. Your life will be richer.
Everyone asks me where to start. I say start where ever you bloody like. It’s a mess, just like Constantine is a mess, I don’t think you’ll make it worse by reading his life in the wrong order. When people ask if this is good, I flippantly say that my relationship with Constantine is still going, after all the other relationships have somehow fallen away. Constantine had a big influence on me, from the time I first read about him in Swamp Thing, he made sense to me. As a kid I smoked Silk-Cut like he did, and then when he got lung cancer I got freaked out (and some say comic books don’t influence people, hah!) Sometimes he looked like crap and stopped making sense so we broke up for a little while, but I couldn’t stay away for long and I always came back because he always got good again. As I age, he makes more and more sense, which is a little worrying, admittedly, but that’s just how it is when you love someone. Maybe our’s isn’t the healthiest relationship, but despite being fictional, he’s a lot more realistic than some people I know.
4. Swamp Thing
Everything Alan Moore wrote on Swamp Thing, not just because it is a great story, but because contained in his Swamp Thing stories are the seeds of everything else he’s done, which I have loved. The magic, the horror, the love and trust. His wildly inventive adventure stories are on a par with the disturbing examinations of the psyche. He transformed my concept of reality with these books and I still enjoy them.
One year, Grant Morrison put out two oddly experimental comic books. One of them was We3 with Frank Quitely, which is a gorgeous exercise in storytelling. Insanely energetic and emotionally wrenching, it uses imagery and pacing in ways that stretch the medium and allow the story to go that much deeper. Around the same time, Morrison collaborated on this far less lauded book with Philip Bond which was so completely different that at the time I didn’t even register them as being by the same author. Unlike other Vertigo books, this was a riot of color, influenced by the Indian gods awoken in the book, and dominated by the vaguely Bollywood aesthetic, Bond and Morrison created a delightful, enchanting love story. Classic adventure mixed in with a ton of very human interaction. It is the basic fun of it that I love the most, and taking this very simple idea of warring good and bad gods, which puny humans caught in the crossfire was done with such affection that I still love to reread this book or heroism in unlikely places.
6. Uncanny X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga
By all rights, this ought to be higher on my list, but I have to admit that for me right now, this isn’t as much fun to read as it was when I was a little kid the first time around. Either I’ve changed to much, or the world has, I don’t know. Back when I was running to the sweet shop, trying to find the British, oversize, black and white reprints of the Uncanny X-Men, clutching my money tightly in my sweaty little hands, it was magic. I was totally and completely absorbed by the X-Men and by Jean Grey’s strange awakening. There is very little that imprinted on me so deeply, in terms of comic books or any other sort of fiction I was absorbing at the time.
7. Kingdom Come
At the time, reading this, I thought it was all about the art. It took me years to gradually realize that it was actually all about the story. Obviously both Waid and Ross are working together to create the alchemy that is great collaborative comic books, so that somehow, over the years, these are the heroes I believe in. This depiction of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc is the one I have come to associate most strongly with the characters. I love the story, at the heart it is about a man learning to step up and be the adult the world needs him to be. Everyone manages to put aside their own self-flagelation and grow up enough to make the hard decisions. It is a deeply inspiring story, we all have those moments where we need to become the parents we always wish we’d had and the story is a beautiful metaphor for this transformative, seminal moment.
8. Detective Comics (#569-#574)
It’s another dorky one from my childhood. I don’t want this to be the Batman I love, but it is, I can’t help it. Mood-wise, I feel like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One definitely set him in stone, but at his heart and soul, Mike Barr and Alan Davis made me love him. He’s alive, he’s got people around him he cares about, there’s a life and a liveliness to this that is so delightful. I can’t say that these stand up in the same way that Arkham Asylum (which – as a clichéd, teenage, black-wearing, art student – made me extremely happy) or Killing Joke does. I can read and reread them. But still, it is this Batman who forms the structure for those terribly serious iterations of our dark knight. With Barr’s affectionate, gentle humor and Davis’ style and warmth, this changed my thoughts about Batman forever.
The best Wonder Woman story ever written was Promethea. I’m sorry that Wonder Woman is so great as an icon, but so disappointing in stories, but at least Alan Moore gave us Promethea. When J.H. Williams was working with Moore on this, he really began to stretch his storytelling muscles and for my money, this is both of them really throwing a ton of rich comic book love at the reader. With all the sex, magic and general themes of transformation, it is easy to forget that at heart this is a science superhero story, but it is, in spades. When we look to the future, we have to look to the visionaries of science fiction to give us something to dream about. In Promethea we get it and then some.
Osamu Tezuka’s books chronicling the life of Buddha. He isn’t a Buddhist. That makes it better, honest. How can I get you to read this? It sounds like a terrible idea really; well-known creator of Astro Boy writes 8 volumes about the life and times of Buddha. But he does it so well! Fantastical and outrageous, he gives us his version of the tale, with his emphasis and interest always firmly in the arenas of transformation and adventure. It is so beautiful and affectionately done that one cannot help but enjoy it. People forget that religions are started by other people, that we have much in common with those we deify. Tezuka does a wonderful job of simultaneously celebrating and also humanizing Siddhartha Guatama for us. With cover designs by Chip Kidd at his best, these are books that I enjoy rereading or simply sitting on the shelf.
Last year at this time I ran a short questions and answer column based on your comments and emails, but this year I’m going to simply address one big question that has come up repeatedly this year. People have asked why I’ve been writing about “old” comic books with increasing frequency. Understandably, people wondered if it was because I was unable to get to my comic shop when I was off my feet with a sprained ankle, and while it is true that I didn’t manage to get as many of the monthly comic books for a few weeks, that isn’t why I enjoy write about past comic books.
There are four main reasons why I like to read old(er) comic books;
1. This is the time of year when many people are writing their “Top Ten of 2011” lists (or top 30 or top 50 or top 100, etc.) At times I’ve enjoyed it too, but lately I feel like the more people push the new stuff and talk about how important new comic books are, the more I feel an uncomfortable pressure to read them. Like most of us, I don’t want to be pushed into something just because it is new, or judge it by some different standard because it is a reprint and so I have been trying to represent the other options.
2. Then there is context, which is really interesting. It is can often be much easier to examine and identify the trends of an era in retrospect, and so reading comic books from just a few years ago can act as a sort of a time capsule, unwittingly telling us a lot about the wider political and economic moods that were prevalent when they were created. It isn’t as if I am some sort of history buff (I wish I were), but it adds to the enjoyment of a book if we can acknowledge what else was happening in society for the author as they were writing and drawing a book. An obvious example is something like the piece I wrote a little while ago on the influence of Margaret Thatcher on British comic book writer’s attitude towards authority figures and superheroes (Nov 2nd, 2011.) It is easier to look back 20 or 30 years and see how the politics of that era affected them. It is much divisive and complicated to look at a current prevalent trend in comic books now and try to correlate it to a national mood, which is one reason there was so much more aggressive commentary on the column I wrote about the new breed of solo female superhero titles from DC (Nov 30th, 2011.) While this might speak volumes about our current climate of changing attitudes towards sexual identity, it is much more difficult to dissect at it with out the benefit of time acting to emotionally disentangle us from the ongoing trends and changes.
3. This leads to my third reason to gravitate towards previous comic books and avoiding writing about current ones; The comments. I have noticed that when I write about current books, the comment section can become rather heated, and while I love to stimulate discussion, I like to try to avoid people insulting me (who wouldn’t?) Unlike Bart Simpson and Guy Gardner (who are two of my favorite negative-attention-seekers), I prefer to either slip in under the radar or have strangers talk about the work, rather than me. It makes me very nervous when the comment section fills up with irate comments, because then I have to monitor them carefully for personal threats. Naturally this takes the fun out of it for me, so although I do want to encourage a stimulated dialogue between people, I’m always aware that things could turn nasty. With all of that in mind, I try very hard to avoid subjects which might incite personal attacks. Over the last 4 or 5 years of writing this column on various websites, I have found that the more current and mainstream the book I write about, the more incendiary the comment section.
4. Finally, and most importantly, I try to write predominantly about the kind of comic books I love, which means that I’m going to pick ones from all over. If it is good, and I want to share it with you, I will, and I won’t hold back because it is old or even out of print. The overarching subject of my column has always been about the ways in which comic books intersect with my daily life, so when I read something particularly good, or it comes up in conversation with a friend, then I’ll share it with you. Lately, partly in reaction to trying out so many of the new DC 52, I started looking at back issues again as a sort of mental palate cleanser. It wasn’t that the new 52 were so traumatizing, but in order to give all of the female titles a chance, I felt that I had to read at least three months of each before I could really assess them. For someone who regularly reads only four or five ongoing comic book titles each week, adding an extra ten or so to them was quite a change. It sort of burned me out on new books, so much so that for a while, I just wanted to shelter in the refuge of some great old books. Last week I gave you a short, sharp splash of some of the new books that I do like, and I hope that balanced things out for you.
With the new year almost upon us, I want to thank you for reading my Wednesday missives, and particularly everyone who talk to me about comic books, online and in-person. It is remarkably fun to continue these online conversations and I’m tremendously grateful for the opportunity to meet and talk to new people about comic books. Comic books are such a potent combination of imagery and language and it is so exciting to share them, thank you.