This is the time of year when everyone who writes about popular culture is supposed to sit down and do their annual "Best of the Year" thing, whatever that might be. And I swear that's the column I sat down here to write.
But here is the ugly truth.
I don't have a "Best of 2010." I feel shamed. I'm a bad columnist.
I did try. I was asked to kick in my top ten comics picks for this last year for the big CBR Top 100 thing Kiel has going on the front page, and I stalled around on it until the last possible minute and then finally managed to come up with a half-assed list last weekend that didn't even have ten entries on it. I think I stuttered to a halt at nine.
The problem is that I just don't BUY a lot of 'new' comics any more. The vast majority of my comics spending is on trade collections, especially of stuff that I loved when I was younger. To take a recent example, neither one of these is going to show up on anyone's "Best of the Year" but I was a hell of a lot more excited about Marvel's If Asgard Should Perish Thor collection, or Dark Horse's John Carter trades, than any of the new books I saw in 2010.
[caption id="attachment_68386" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="The THOR collection is even in hardcover, for God's sake. "]
The If Asgard Should Perish collection, in particular, hit me right between the eyes. I know there's a big Thor movie coming, but even so, I'm staggered that this book even exists at all; it's like someone in Marvel editorial said, "Hey, let's do a THOR collection just for Hatcher."
There's nothing that earth-shaking about it -- it's just a good run of Len Wein stories with nice art from John Buscema -- but the four-part Tomorrow Man story that leads it off will always have a special place in my heart.
[caption id="attachment_68418" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="You probably could get these back issues for a buck each somewhere.... but I love that I get to have them in hardcover. I swear, my demographic is apparently every comics publisher's target market now. "]
The reason is kind of silly, but I'm sentimental. That Thor four-parter was the first time I'd ever managed to purchase and read all the installments of a Marvel superhero's multi-part saga, in order. To a modern reader, that is probably going to sound like a ridiculous thing to have as some sort of personal landmark -- in today's world of comics retailers, trade collections, and pull lists, it is about on a level with saying, "It reminds me of the time I ate a sandwich"-- but once upon a time, in the long-ago world of spinner-rack comics in drugstores, it was really damn hard to put together any kind of a run of anything. Up until that point I'd had the nagging fear that any comic I bought that was 'continued' was a bad investment, something that I'd end up never getting to finish. So being able to read and enjoy all of this Thor four-parter back in 1976 was a watershed moment for me, it literally changed the way I approached comics.
What's more, they even put together a companion Warriors Three volume that includes the Marvel Spotlight that came out around the same time, one of my favorite stand-alone issues of anything ever.
[caption id="attachment_68430" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="At this point I'm almost ready to believe that every comic I've ever liked ever is available in trade. Almost. When Stalker and Woodgod get their collections, it'll be true."]
Seeing those Thor comics collected, and looking around at my office that's buried in comics trades I have yet to shelve properly (because, well, we have to sort of buy more shelves now) I had another watershed moment.
I'd thought I was having one of those I'm sick of comics, why do I buy this crap anyway? episodes when I was trying (and failing) to come up with a Top Ten list for Kiel's CBR countdown thing. But the truth is-- I'm really having a great time with comics. In some ways I'm reading more than I have in years.
Just not monthlies.
For years, I've been thumping the drum for the comics industry to make the change all the way to a book-publishing model rather than a magazine-publishing one, and somehow, without even really noticing, I've largely made that change myself. I keep a minimal pull list at my local retailer but to be honest that's something I do mostly out of habit and moral obligation, because that comics shop has been hugely supportive of my cartooning students.
But the vast, vast majority of my comics buying these days is done by picking up remaindered comics trades off Amazon or some other online mail-order dealer. Doing it that way has restored something to my funnybook-reading habits that I thought was gone forever -- the impulse buy.
Monthly-- I use the term loosely, because God knows they're hardly ever actually monthly any more, but you know what I mean-- comics have reached a place now where shipping schedules are so erratic, and the price of an individual issue of a comic is so high, that I'd quit sampling. There's no way, for example, that I'd ever pick up a series like Beyond! or Captain America: Theater of War or anything like that. That's, like, a commitment.
[caption id="attachment_68445" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="In the old days I'd have been all over books like this. "]
I didn't see any point in committing to something that might take years to come out -- whether it was something brilliant like Planetary or something, uh, less than brilliant like, say, Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do -- and especially since in recent years we've added the new wrinkle of maybe just not finishing a series at all.
[caption id="attachment_68447" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Yeah, I know, Kevin Smith is tired of hearing about these. Well, the hell with him. I bought those books new off the stands in good faith and yeah, I have a right to be annoyed over it. "]
The retail marketplace for monthly books had broken my heart so many times that without even realizing it, I'd reverted to that same comics commitment-phobe I'd been when I was eleven, anxiously flipping to the last page for a quick check to see if the dreaded "continued next issue" was there.
In fact, it was actually worse than it was when I was eleven. At least then I'd pick up the book and flip through it. With new monthly comics titles, I wouldn't even go that far... a book might look intriguing when I saw it on the rack at the comics shop, but then I'd think, "Do I really want to set aside the money for this?" and multiply the cover price (plus tax) by the five to eight months it would be before the story likely concluded... and the answer almost invariably came out, That much? Hell with that. So I'd shrug and move on.
But surfing on Amazon or somewhere like that, and seeing a trade collection of that same series discounted down to pennies on the dollar? Sure, why not?
[caption id="attachment_68452" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="These were all books I'd skipped as monthlies and ended up getting instead as discounted trades for $3 to $5 each, including shipping. I'm telling you, once you start that, you never look back."]
It's like falling in love all over again. Add to that the fact that it seems like everything I ever liked, EVER, is getting a trade collection -- I mean, I adored Vampire Tales and the 1970s Black Widow, but no one was more shocked than me to see them given the high-end collection treatment-- and it really does feel like I'm living in a new Golden Age.
[caption id="attachment_68458" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="I'm delighted to see these books out there... but I never EXPECTED to see them."]
What's more, the ability to sample series as trades has actually worked for me as sampling. They're not on a pull list, but there are certain series I developed such a liking for after reading a trade collection that not only did I seek out all the others, but I don't mind shelling out for the newest one at the full retail price when it appears.
So I'm still doing my traditional New Year's column that is the long look at the pull list and deciding what stays and what goes. But this year's assessment of the 'pull list' is much more about the trade collections I've been reading and which ones got me hooked to where I feel like I need to keep up with new ones.
Okay? Here we go.
Jonah Hex. I love that it's just quietly chugging away in its own little corner of the DC world, without ever getting Blackest-Nighted or anything like that. Just good comics, month after month. That's all I need.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Dependably good comics, and never mind the movie. "]
Pity about the movie, but let's not forget that was probably the reason for DC to give us the incredible No Way Back Hex hardcover, along with that nice little greatest-hits trade collection Welcome to Paradise. Definitely keeping this up.
Spider-Man. I've had an on-and-off thing with the Spider-books for decades. When Spider-Man is cooking, it's the best thing at Marvel, it's the series that perfectly encapsulates everything the Marvel approach to superheroics is about. But when it's bad.... it's a train wreck. I had given up on Peter Parker and his adventures some years ago, right around the Civil War, Sins Past, Iron Spider mess... and the whole One More Day thing cemented my opinion that I'd been right in jumping ship. Oh well.
Then I started to hear things.... like how Mark Waid and Dan Slott and company were turning in some of the best Spider-Man stories anyone had seen in years. And I was hearing it from people that didn't even much like Spider-Man. So when I saw New Ways to Die marked down to three dollars in hardcover, I went for it and liked it quite a bit. Then I picked up a few more, like 24/7 and American Son and Crime and Punisher, all for four or five dollars each.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Suddenly I was a Spider-fan again, thanks to these collections."]
Not long after, and without giving it a lot of conscious thought, I was actively hunting down everything that had been collected of the Brand New Day era.
No getting around it -- I was enjoying the Spider-Man series again, by golly. As much as I loathed the very idea of One More Day -- and I did genuinely hate it both in concept and execution -- a fresh start apparently really had been what the series needed. Pretty soon I was caught up through Gauntlet and so I have kept current with the rest of those and the follow-up, Grim Hunt.
But I think I'm probably done. See, I really approved of the system they had of rotating writers doing discrete arcs. With a good editor I think that approach gave you the best work of each, and as much as I enjoy Dan Slott's work, I'm sorry to see that system go. Moreover, One Moment in Time and the upcoming Death of Spider-Man both sound like the same kind of silly event-driven nonsense that chased me off the Spider-books when Civil War was current.
So I'm probably out. (But the beauty of buying the series in trade means I have lots of time to make up my mind.)
Invincible Iron Man. This one I got suckered into because I got the Omnibus so cheap. I figured, how could that not be a done-in-one experience? But the damn thing ended on a cliffhanger... so I shelled out for the next collection.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Goddammit.... I really just wanted the one... but I have to see what happens!"]
And the next one. Damn it. I hate myself for falling for this. But it's good stuff, and I want to see how it all turns out.Captain America. What can I say that hasn't already been said?
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Okay, I'm not sure it's Eisner-winning GENIUS, but it's really good."]
Bottom line? It really is as good as everyone says. I sampled the Winter Soldier books on a whim, and it was the Spider-Man thing all over again. This definitely stays. I'm on board as long as Brubaker is.
Dark Horse Robert E. Howard books. These are just good comics, always entertaining, and I like the series-of-mini-series approach because those make for nice little trade collections.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Dark Horse has really done right by this license."]
Plus they keep reprinting all my old favorites from the Marvel Robert E. Howard books, as well. Win-win for me.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Just like being twelve again... except now I don't have to hide them from the parents."]
Not only am I digging the new stuff but I finally get to see everything I missed from the catch-as-catch-can spinner-rack days. So these definitely stay.
What else? Well, I'm still getting the Superman and Batman regular monthly books from DC... but in the Hatcher household, these are about to get cut back severely. The Batman titles, in particular, are expanding to a point where it feels like Bat-fans are being held upside down by the ankle and shaken until the last few quarters drop out of their pockets.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Sure, some of these new titles are great... and there's no more ardent Bat-fan than myself. But even I am looking at the glut of Batbooks out there and muttering, Oh, COME ON now. What's more, these are only about HALF the Batman books on the stands right now, as I write this. Maybe less than half."]
At the same time the stands are glutted with Bat-product, the storylines themselves are structured in such a way that reading them as book collections just makes more sense.
The Superman books, now that the New Krypton arc has finally staggered to its conclusion, are even more so. I think it's time to go to trade-waiting on these, too.
[caption id="attachment_68496" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="The fun of the Superman comics for me was in the weekly serialization, the triangle-number thing. If that's going away, why spend the money on individual issues when reading them as trades is so much more sensible?"]
Cornell's Luthor series in Action, particularly, feels to me like it's one story that is building to the big blowout in #900, very much built for a trade collection. Which is fine, I like it okay, but not as a regular thing. If Luthor stays the star of the book past the conclusion of the arc, I think I'm done.
As for J. Michael Straczynski's "Grounded" arc in Superman, it got off to a terrible start as far as I'm concerned. I mean, really, if there's any DC character that ought to be more indifferent to a "Chief Brody slap" than Hal Jordan, it's Superman.
Well, okay, Superman wouldn't really be indifferent, he's too compassionate for that-- but I don't think his self-esteem would be so fragile that he'd have to cross the entire United States walking off a Brody slap. I'm not as annoyed about it as some people have been, because once you get past the stupidity of the instigating event, the story itself has been moderately entertaining. Moreover, I think Chris Roberson is a fine writer and probably has a better sense of how superhero stories work than Mr. Straczynski does anyway, so I'm not terribly upset at having him finish it out now that JMS is leaving. But again, this is probably a piece that will read better as a whole.
Really the only monthly books I've been getting that I still enjoy as monthly books, that feel like I'm getting an actual comic-book-sized read out of, are Supergirl, Batgirl, and Superman/Batman. Those titles still seem to me like regular comics and not abbreviated chapters from a long book.
[caption id="attachment_68460" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Yeah, kinda old-school. But so am I."]
Anyway, DC's been good about keeping up with the Superman/Batman paperbacks, but I don't think they're that interested in keeping the other two titles up with trade collections. That's a pretty weak justification, but I feel like I have to keep something on the list. My retailer's been too nice to both me and my students.
And there you have it. I don't really have any profound conclusion to draw -- other than this. Last January when I did the annual look at the pull list, I was thinking that 2010 would be the year I made the switch to trades-only. And it almost was. I strongly suspect that 2011 absolutely will be... because even if I don't make the switch, well, the industry itself will probably do it for me. That's my guess, anyway; it's coming whether we're ready for it or not. It's nice to see that I'm actually readier than I thought I was.
Have a safe and happy New Year, all... and I'll see you next week.