MID-YEAR CHECK-IN: WHAT'S THE BEST SO FAR?
I've been thinking that 2010 isn't a banner year for comics. Much of that opinion probably comes from my own more-than-busy schedule and my apathy towards most of the comics news that I've read about in the past few months. I mean, I'm glad to see Jeff Lemire getting more work at DC, and hearing about Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang working on something together makes me think that all will be right with the world, but do all the "Shadowland" promos get me excited to rush to the comics shop each Wednesday? Do I care that Superman will walk the Earth and Lex Luthor will have to face down Larfleeze? Not so much.
I don't know what percentage of my apathy is that I've become desensitized to anything but the most interesting slivers of news (Brendan McCarthy's doing a piece in "House of Mystery"?), what percentage is me being too busy to read all the news and interviews and gossip (Pat Lee is doing what to who again?) and what percentage is just that the mainstream comic book output is full of the usual blandness and when you read enough of it, it's overwhelming. Whatever the ratio, whatever the reason, I know that I have a vague feeling that we're in another of the periodic lulls in the medium, and certainly in the superhero genre.
But then when I sit down to actually look at what I'm buying and what I'm liking. When I take stock in what's good and what's great and what I'd cite as my Ten Best Comics of 2010 So Far...well, it reminds me that I like a heck of a lot of comics. And, yeah, the stands are full of mediocre work by publishers who should know better and writers and artists who should be able to do better, but there's also a pile of comics that are pretty great every month. I was prompted to these kinds of thoughts when Chad Nevett and I decided to rank our Top 10 So Far for one of our Splash Page podcasts this month. I don't remember my exact phrasing, but during our discussion, I mentioned than I thought this was a pretty weak year for comics, overall. But on further reflection, I'm not so sure. And I'd like to get a better handle on the quality of this comics in 2010 so far. So that's why we're here this week. That's what this column is all about.
What Comics I Really Like this Year and Why. Will it be instructive for you? I hope so. I'd like to think that maybe you get some reading list ideas from my Top 10 So Far. Or maybe you reconsider a few comics that you gave up on or overlooked. Or maybe you tell me why I'm wrong and come up with a better list. Will it be instructive for me? Yeah, sometimes I just like working through my thoughts on these kinds of things. And I'm curious to see what your lists of the Best So Far would look like in comparison.
So here we go, counting down, the Top 10 of 2010 (So Far):
10. "Demo," by Brain Wood and Becky CloonanThis is certainly a more mature incarnation of "Demo," than the one we saw a few years back. And by "mature," I'm not talking that it's a Vertigo "Mature Readers" book. I mean that the level of craft is higher, but more conservative. It doesn't have the adolescent spirit of radical exploration and drastic personality shifts between issues. These are well-constructed little gems of stories from Wood and Cloonan. Fully-realized works that suggest more than they state. And Becky Cloonan turns it into visual poetry.
9. "Scalped," by Jason Aaron, Davide Furno, and R. M. GueraAnother Vertigo book, and a lower-than-usual ranking than normal for "Scalped," which has always been in my Top 5 every year since it began. But its lower ranking here doesn't attest to a drop in quality, though the shift of attention away from Bad Horse and Red Crow has made some of the recent issues seem more marginal than usual. But "Scalped" is about those margins. It's about the edges of its own world, and its always been more about the setting than the plot, even though the plot has been viciously churning along, like a rototiller in a meat-packing plant. And the most recent issue, the one about Bad Horse's dad in Vietnam? Brilliant. "Scalped" is number nine because I expect it to be so great each month that I take it for granted. I know that. And it's still great.
8. "Viking," by Ivan Brandon and Nik KleinThis one may not officially qualify, as I'm not sure when issue #5 hit the stands, but I didn't really learn to love this comic until I read the hardcover collection and that was definitely released this year. So put an asterisk next to this pick if you have to, but "Viking" is a gut-punch of a story wrapped in the astounding visuals of Nik Klein. Klein, a mad scientist of multi-media artistry, gives each page such texture, and such variety of form, that the book's worth reading just as an artistic showcase. But it's also a powerful tale of family and fear. Of crime and violence. And the struggle to carve a sense of justice in a savage world. When I sampled this as a serialized comic, I gave up after a couple of issues, even though it looked beautiful. But as a package, as a full arc of a story, man is it good.
7. "Punishermax," by Jason Aaron and Steve DillonI was in the comic shop last week and one of the regulars pointed to "Franken-Castle" (which I like a lot, and would easily qualify in the Top 15 list) and said, "I can't wait until he's back to being the normal Punisher." That made me sad because (a) he will apparently be back to normal, or something like it, by the time "Shadowland" rolls around, and (b) why doesn't this guy just read "Punishermax" to see the "normal" Punisher? Because this is where you get the kind of Frank Castle that's brutal and direct and living in a world full of maniacs and murderers. This is where you get a Kingpin of crime who is actually scary and a Bullseye who makes the mainstream Marvel Universe version seem like a Marvel Adventures action figure. "Punishermax" is chilling. Chilling goodness.
6. "Spider-Man: Fever," by Brendan McCarthyThe final issue wasn't quite as good as the previous two, but as a whole -- and just looking at the first two issues in isolation -- this is hard to top as far as offbeat artistry is concerned. The story has a kind of bebop rhythm to it, and the chanting of the extra-dimensional beings adds to the comic-as-song motif, and McCarthy's version of both Spider-Man and Dr. Strange are nearly unparalleled. If you argued that McCarthy's versions are the best since Steve Ditko, I would not argue with you. You would not be wrong. And McCarthy's hallucinogenic worlds are so purely comic book creations and so delightfully deranged that they help to remind us of what comics can do when they're handled by someone with personal vision. Sure, it's just a comic about Spider-Man and Dr. Strange fighting some weird spider beings from Dimension X, but it's a really good version of that. A version you could only get from Brendan McCarthy.
5. "Batman and Robin," by Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart and Andy ClarkeBatwoman and Knight and Squire team up with Batman and Robin to fight a mad zombie Batman? Deathstroke as puppet master behind Damian's betrayal of Dick? Oberon Sexton's reveal? These are all cool and interesting sequences, but it's the overall flavor of this year's "Batman and Robin" stories that have made them so good. The series has rebounded after the Philip Tan arc, and between this connecting-the-dots kind of detective work and the "Return of Bruce Wayne," 2010 may end up being the best single year of Morrison's Batman uber-arc yet. I've certainly loved everything I've seen so far this year from this series.
4. "American Vampire," by Scott Snyder and Stephen King and Rafael AlbuquerqueI like the structure of this series, how the King back-ups provide depth to the Jazz Age vampirism of the main Snyder serial. And I like how smart the series is, without being Neil Gaiman-y and bookish. It's a knowing series, and it knows how you probably feel about vampires (and if you're like me, you could do without any more vampire stories, ever), and it still makes them into something worth basing a story around. It's pulpy, it's sometimes razor sharp, and it's about America, not in a history-lesson kind of way, but in a way that gets to the core of the American identity. It's old-world corruption vs. new-world sass. And Rafael Albuquerque is a superstar artist who uses two styles in each issue, and both are amazing. This is a sneaky-good series.
3. "Joe the Barbarian," by Grant Morrison and Sean MurphySometime around issue three, this series clicked into place for me, and now it has become one of my favorite comics of the year. The high adventure, world-in-a-wardrobe approach is handled with such flair, and such an unusual -- yet specific -- frame of reference, that it feels like something new even though it's one of the oldest stories of all. It's a heroic quest and a boy's adventure, but it's layered with symbolism and invention, and, best of all, its drawn by Sean Murphy, a guy who has turned this series into something that seems fully under his control. It's rare for a Grant Morrison comic that isn't drawn by Frank Quitely to turn into an art-first kind of masterpiece, but Murphy has managed to do it so far. This is his showcase, and he's producing the work of his career.
2. "S.H.I.E.L.D.," by Jonathan Hickman and Dustin WeaverCan I honestly take a series that is only two issues old and rank it as the second-best comic of the year? Sure. Because not only does this series have unbelievable promise, but it has already established itself as something fresh and different. I value fresh and different. It would have been so easy to make this series about the secret history of Nick Fury and the gang, and that's maybe what this will become, but it has begun with history-hopping and strange beings. Clockwork conspiracies and men with moustaches and tight leather. Moebius-inspired cabal designs, and da Vinci in a temporal flight suit. Weird, wonderful, and drawn with precision by surprise-of-the-year Dustin Weaver. Jonathan Hickman has written some excellent comics in the past, but I love what he's done with this series in only two issues, and I love that I don't know what's going to happen next. At all.
1. "Daytripper," by Gabriel Ba and Fabio MoonWhen Chad Nevett and I discussed our lists on the podcast, this was, without any prior planning on our part, our consensus number one pick. And, in my case, it wasn't even close. I love all the comics on this Top 10 list, but "Daytripper" -- which I didn't even particularly like after issue #1 -- has become the masterpiece of the year. Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon are fantastic artists. Everyone knows this. But what they've done with this series is create a machine for telling deeply human stories, and even though we know each issue will end in the death of the main character -- whatever that ultimately means -- the quality of this comic is in their perceptive depiction of the moments, both great and small, that make up a life worth living. The old "finding the universal in the particular" trick. It's easier said than done, and it's the measure of so much great literature. It's what Ba and Moon do, seemingly effortlessly.
So, in retrospect, how would I stack 2010 against other years of comic book goodness? It holds up well. There's no "Casanova" or "All-Star Superman" this year, but there is "Daytripper" and "Joe the Barbarian." "Scalped" is still great. So many comics show promise, even in their early issues. And I didn't even mention how much I've enjoyed "Amazing Spider-Man" this year, or how strong the Bendis "Heroic Age" Avengers comics seem to be after an issue or two each. And though "Flash: Rebirth" may have been a bit of a dud, Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul are doing very nice work on the "Flash" ongoing. I could easily come up with a Top 20 list, and it's only June.
2010 may have plenty of weak spots in comics, but it's a respectable year so far. Things are perhaps not as bleak as I suspected. All I had to do was ignore the static.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan