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Cross-Hatchings - Year In Review Edition

It's that magical time of year when, all across the internet, every columnist and blogger and editor of every stripe starts thinking about the "year-in-review" piece. A look back at 2014. The best and worst of the year. And so on. I usually try to do my bit to take part in this tradition because... well, because it's tradition.

But this year I ran into a snag. More like a brick wall, really.

Here's the problem-- for us, 2014 was pretty awful. There was a lot of Real Life stuff going on in our household that got in the way of the usual goofing off and pop-culture consumption that provides me with column material. I won't bore you with the litany of medical issues and car troubles and work cutbacks and so on that sucked away both our discretionary income and our free time, because it would probably depress you (and certainly it would depress me.) Suffice it to say that there was a lot of it.

I hadn't really thought about how that had affected my reading habits this year, though, until Albert Ching from the CBR Mothership asked me to contribute ten picks for best comics of the year to the Top 100 list, and I absolutely couldn't do it. Usually I've seen enough new stuff to pick out at least ten good ones but this year... I'd get to three or four and just stall out. The truth is that I think I have fewer than ten titles on my pull list AT ALL any more. The vast majority of my comics reading these days is made up of discounted collected editions I scoop up on the cheap, usually remaindered out-of-print hardcovers of titles about to get a new omnibus edition or something.

Between that and our frantic dog-paddling to keep from drowning in Real Life crap, I honestly have no clue about 'the current state of comics.' There's no way for me to intelligently look back on the last twelve months and assess trends in the industry, or make sweeping recommendations, or tut-tut about new incidents of disturbing behavior from publishers or fans.

So I decided that instead of the traditional year-end thing I'd do a bunch of random highlights and low points of my comics-nerd experience in 2014. Here you go.

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Nicest surprise of 2014: Actually, I have two.

The first is the return of Spider-Man 2099.

It was my favorite among the original 2099 slate of titles, back in the day (pretty sure it was everyone's favorite, really, considering how much longer it outlasted all the other ones launched at the time.) I wasn't expecting Marvel to revive the title at all, let alone with Peter David writing it again. So that was a delightful thing to have suddenly just show up out of nowhere. And I'm just enjoying the hell out of it. Despite moving the character from the future to the present, the book feels like David essentially picking up right where he left off.

I like having Miguel in this era for the time being, though I'm kind of annoyed about the fact that it means the book has to tie into the mega-crossover of the moment. On the other hand, the intrigues with Liz and Tiberius and everyone else at the newly-formed Alchemax are so interesting that I'm willing to put up with the occasional irksome interruption in the ongoing narrative so that Spidey 2099 can do his walk-on for "Spider-Verse," or whatever, just so I can keep up with them.

The book is just hugely entertaining and it has exactly the right mix of humor and adventure that I'm looking for in a superhero title.

Tied with that for nicest comics-related surprise of 2014 is the television version of John Constantine.

The reason it's a surprise is because I, like most of the comics internet, had been pretty sure that a watered-down network TV version of Hellblazer would almost certainly suck. I'd seen the pilot and though it was better than I'd originally expected (after all, from Keanu Reeves you've got nowhere to go but up) I still dismissed it with the thought, well, hell, this is just John plopped into the setup for Friday the 13th- The Series with a few DC Comics Easter Eggs scattered around for the fan faithful. Plus it was another David Goyer thing. Not really worth keeping up with.

But I gave it a second try because first of all, I saw that Rockne O'Bannon was on staff-- the creator of Farscape, Alien Nation, and a bunch of other stuff I like -- and also that Mark Verheiden, another writer I've always admired, had signed on as well. On top of that, my friend Rick told me they were doing the Invunche.

I loved that arc from the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, and the idea that someone was really going there on TV piqued my curiosity. The Brujeria on NBC? What the hell?

So we tuned in again. Julie got interested too and we ended up binge-watching the entire season (eight episodes so far) last weekend.

I'm totally on board now. Mostly because this is the Constantine I remember from the early days of Hellblazer -- not just the Brujeria, but also Papa Midnite, Newcastle, the First of the Fallen... all of the stuff I loved from that run, remixed to work on television. This Matt Ryan guy is fun to watch and he's clearly done some homework, and the rest of the cast is good too. The scripts are smart, scary, and funny-- in particular, "The Devil's Vinyl," about a cursed demo record, was just terrific.

So we're in. If you are interested and have yet to see it, this is a good time to catch up because the show's on hiatus. New episodes start again in mid-January. Fingers crossed they can pay it all off, but... so far so good.

*Biggest disappointment of 2014: To be honest, I tend to not shell out for things I sense I'm probably not going to enjoy. I try very hard today not to get caught up in the fannish NEED TO KNOW obsession that kept me buying books I didn't like well past the time I'd stopped enjoying them.... sometimes for years. (I still have an entire run of the 1990s Deathstroke the Terminator here that I really don't know what to do with. It serves as an embarrassing reminder to me that, as snotty as I get about fan behavior, I am not immune.)

Nevertheless, I still occasionally find myself wondering why I hung in there all the way to the end. This year, that honor belongs to the steampunk crossover Bill Willingham did for Dynamite, Legenderry.

I couldn't really tell you why it was a disappointment. There wasn't anything specifically WRONG with it. Maybe it was just because I was so sure I was going to love it and I didn't. After all, a team-up with Red Sonja, the Green Hornet, Vampirella, the Six Million Dollar Man and Zorro, not to mention walk-ons from dozens of others ranging from Kirby's Captain Victory to Dr. Moreau, all set in a steampunk alternate universe, should have had me at hello.

Plus, Bill Willingham, who's always reliably good. I was sure I would be swept away on a wave of awesome.

But I wasn't. It started really strong and I dug the first couple of issues a lot, but it just kind of fell apart. By the time it was over I judged it was just on the low side of okay, and I was expecting better. Perfectly willing to admit that it may just be me. Nevertheless, if I had it to do over, I'd have skipped it.

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Best New Title of 2014: I couldn't come up with a Top Ten for Albert, but I did have a Top One for 2014. Princess Ugg just gets better and better. It's one of those comics I can recommend to ANYONE-- kids, adults, fans, non-fans. It really has something for everyone.

There's a trade collection of the first four issues out now, but this is too cool to wait for, so I get mine monthly. The latest issue is the best yet.

If you aren't reading it yet, well, get thee to a retailer and commence doing so.

*

2014's Why Am I Doing This To Myself Again? Project: Agh. Gotham, I can't quit you. Every time I watched it there would be a plot point so dumb, or a character doing something so ridiculous, that I snarled and said "Seriously? Are you kidding me? That's it, I'm out." Every. TIME.

And then... I'd hear a friend say something nice about it, or I'd see an interesting news item on the internet, or some other stupid thing. Sometimes I was just bored and curious. So I'd watch one more.

Anyway, for whatever reason, I've seen every episode of the damn thing so far and I haven't really LIKED any of them.

I will admit that the only reason this entry isn't going to Aquaman and the Others is because of Gotham.

And that comic's getting canceled anyway, so I don't have to deal with my ongoing denial about its lack of improvement any more. But Gotham, inexplicably, is apparently a hit. It's going to stay on the periphery of my vision with ads and merchandise and other stuff, taunting me, daring me to come back and check it out again because maybe it will have gotten good.

See, I wasn't kidding when I said I'm not immune to fan-stupid. I'm getting better, but I'm not cured.

*

Favorite new supporting character of 2014: She's not really NEW, but hologram Lyla from Spider-Man 2099 always makes me laugh.

*

Best back issue/bookscouting score of 2014: Because of the various woes I alluded to earlier, we really didn't get to DO a lot of the customary back-roads travel and thrift-shop book hunting we usually do over the course of a year. Nevertheless, there were a few fun finds.

The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy: 1931-1951 is a wonderful hardcover collection of the most famous episodes from the first twenty years of the strip.

Mine is the 1990 reprint edition pictured on the left and not the original 1970 edition you can see on the right, but on the other hand I got mine for fifty cents at a rummage sale and it's in almost-new shape. You should try for the original seventies edition, though, with the color pages. Either way, though, it's classic Chester Gould crime comics when he was at his best and it doesn't get any better than that.

I was also very pleased to find two hardcover first edition mystery novels that have an odd common theme. Both of them profess to be the "first new Sherlock Holmes novel in decades!!" which is just a giant stupid lie but nevertheless it's the publicity hook both books tried to go with.

1974's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is one I'd had for years here in paperback, of course, but I had Meyer's other two Holmes books-- The West End Horror and The Canary Trainer-- in the first edition hardcover already. Bought them new when they came out, in fact.

So I'd always wanted to trade up to a hardcover first on The Seven Per Cent Solution as well and have the set. My inability to locate a nice copy of that first one was an itch that was beginning to irritate me... not enough to pay dealer prices, but still. Anyway, found one for a buck. Achievement unlocked.

The House of Silk is rather more interesting. I came to it absolutely cold, it was strictly an impulse buy because it was a brand-new hardcover first edition for a couple of bucks, and it was Sherlock Holmes. All I knew about Horowitz was that he was the ALEX RIDER guy, which suggested he at least understood action and suspense. So why not? That's worth a two-dollar gamble.

The only thing that irked me a little was the trade dress blaring that it's the 'first new Holmes novel in a century,' which is so patently untrue that I wonder who the marketing genius was that thought of it and why that person wasn't laughed out of the room. It's not even the first authorized by the Conan Doyle estate, which is what I think they were going for.

But none of that's the author's doing. The story itself is purportedly the last one Watson wrote up, something so awful and scandalous that it had to go in the box for a century... Holmesians will recognize the usual Cox & Co boilerplate on this sort of thing. But this time, by the end of the book, I believed it. It is a bit of a slow start and meanders a little but that's because Watson tells you right up front that it began as two cases that merged and there's no other way to write it, and the payoff is magnificent, I adored it.

Constructing mysteries that play fair, especially with Sherlock Holmes, is damn hard. Actually constructing any fair-play mystery is damn hard but the goal is to do an actual story along with the puzzle, which is why I've always been so awed by guys like Hammett and Chandler and MacDonald who can do both. Even Doyle skimped sometimes in the original Sherlock Holmes tales. This one feels like Holmes but it's almost more so, it reads like what I'd call A-list Holmes like SIGN OF THE FOUR with lots of character things and deductive work... but it's also a terrific whodunit that fooled me. That's rare.

Really the only bone I can pick with it is that you can tell it was not written by a person from the Victorian era. The things that Conan Doyle would have skipped right over are examined in some detail, and things he would have been bluntly racist or sexist about are treated as radioactive. But I've run into that myself doing my own for Airship 27, even. You kind of have to shoulder that burden if you are going to publish a Holmes story in 2014. And the idea that Dr. Watson is writing this one as his final word on the subject in 1918 or so is a distancing device that helps sell it, it covers the voice being a little 'off.'

Anyway, both were great books in the first edition that I got for ridiculously cheap. Can't beat that.

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Coolest thing to arrive in the mail in 2014: Easily, that was the Chuck Dixon BAD TIMES books. I loved the first one so much I decided to go for the deal Mr. Dixon was offering on signed editions of all three, and find a home for the duplicate unsigned first novel I already had.

Well, not only does Chuck Dixon sign and personalize the books, he DRAWS in them.

Granted, several authors do that-- hell, I do it on the books I sign-- but Mr. Dixon actually draws on the BOX. Check out the Bane there on the label. Now that's classy. Coolest package I got all year.

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Favorite reprint project of 2014: That would be DC's mega-sized reprint paperbacks. Long-overdue projects like the Lansdale-Truman Jonah Hex, the various Commissioner Gordon mini-series all bundled together in Gordon of Gotham, and *happy sigh* the Ostrander-Mandrake Spectre.

All in full color and for a very reasonable price. I just can't get upset about DC's New 52 books being not to my taste when they keep putting the great old stuff back in print. Good on you, DC. Keep it up.

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And that's our look back on 2014. There were quite a few nice things about it, but overall, I won't lie to you-- we'll be glad to see the backside of this particular year. In our home, anyway. Here's hoping the next one's better.

See you next week.

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