Our Dark Overlord suggested that this year, instead of the usual Comics Should Be Good group post about the Best Of The Year, that we should each do our own individual Top Ten Best Of 2008 entry.
Fine idea, in theory. Brian likes to change it up every year. And I'm always in favor of something that gives me a column subject. But I soon discovered a basic problem with this premise.
I didn't have ten.
Well, I should amend that. I have ten books I bought this last year that I adored, easy. Hell, I have dozens. Many that I have mentioned in this space, even.
But most of them are older stuff, reprints. Honestly, I never get to a lot of the indie books I'm interested in when they're hot off the presses; I usually catch up to them a year or two down the road, in a trade collection or at a show or something.
As for Marvel and DC...? Well, I finally cut the last three Marvel books I was getting monthly from my pull list, simply for economic reasons. I read a lot more Marvel last year than I did in 2007, but it was all in discount trade paperback; I'm about a year and a half behind on everything.
DC I've been keeping up with a little more, but that list got slashed too. Honest to God, the gut reaction I've been having to the majority of new monthly comics coming from DC and Marvel can be summed up as a snort that translates roughly as, "Oh, for Christ's sake, are they kidding me?" (With some rare exceptions, that I'll get to when I do the New Year's column in a couple of weeks.)
But I didn't want to do a snarling negative column about 2008, because honestly I thought this was a good year for comics,
No, really, I did. (Which is why I get so impatient with Marvel, and even more so with DC, about the boneheaded publishing strategies they keep pursuing.... the mainstream-audience train's leaving the station and they're not on it.)
There were lots of great indie books and graphic novels out this last year, too, but my colleagues have that end of things all wrapped up. And truthfully, that's not my beat. I'm afraid my tastes run more towards the junk-food end of the comics banquet table.
So I'm going to do a more general Top Ten, a list of things that just plain made me happy about comics over the last year. Those moments in 2008 when I remembered that yeah, damn, I still love this stuff, no matter how many asinine superhero crossovers are choking the racks.
10. The Marvel movies.
Unless you were watching the old Marvel made-for-TV movies in the 1970's like I was, I don't think you have any idea how glorious it felt for this aging fan to see these characters realized on the big screen with such care and affection.
And especially with such verve. If someone had tried to tell me three years ago that eventually Marvel would put out an Iron Man movie that was more swashbuckling and fun than what Sam Raimi was doing with Spider-Man, I'd have said they were high.
I know that fans rage about stuff that gets left out and nitpick every last one of these to bits, from the first X-Men on up through to Punisher: War Zone, but I have to say that I've enjoyed pretty much all of Marvel's recent film efforts on some level. (Yes, even Elektra and Ghost Rider.) And this year Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk shot up to take my personal #1 and #2 slots on the list of Marvel movie adaptations. My own measure of a superhero movie adapted from a comic is always, "Does it evoke the same fun and sense of wonder I had, reading the comic that first time?" and both of these did it in a walk. Well done.
9. The Middleman.
Speaking of brilliant adaptations of comics to film, here's a small-screen entry that has been criminally under-valued.
The Middleman comics by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine are a joy and I recommend you seek them out with all possible haste, but even more heartily recommended is the television series. No DVD yet, but I believe the episodes are available online via iTunes.
If this show doesn't cause you to laugh out loud with delight, then you are dead inside. You know how so many of us are grumpy about the depressing state of superhero comics, that Dan Didio knack of sucking all the fun out of the genre? Well, here is all that fun, present not just on the original Middleman comics pages but even-- to my continuing astonishment!-- done for television.
I would not have thought it was possible to get that crazed Bob Haney adrenaline-fueled superhero feel captured on a TV show until I saw this. Gorillas with machine guns, aliens masquerading as Botox junkies, fashionista succubi.... and Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales inhabiting the characters from the comic so beautifully I have a hard time picturing them any other way now.
It helps that the guy who created the original comic is the show's producer. Some of you may have missed this magnificent television series on ABC Family that aired earlier this year. Fortunately, there are some clips on YouTube that should enlighten you, at least a little. Here. And here. And one more for the hell of it.
Please, please, get this show another season, or failing that, get the first twelve out on DVD. And in the meantime, you all should treat yourselves to the trade paperback The Middleman: The Collected Series Indispensability, which I believe collects everything done in the comics to date.
8. Boom! Studios kicking ass.
In a year when Marvel and DC seemed determined to embrace a publishing strategy that makes it look like they actually want their readership to dwindle, it did my heart good to see a new comics company out there that mostly seems to have their shit together.
Full disclosure: I'm on the mailing list for their online comics previews, so I see a lot more of what Boom! is doing than I do of books from other comics publishers, but nevertheless, I am honestly just pleased with the stuff I see coming from them.
I could talk about their intelligent marketing or their embrace of bookstore distribution or their licensing coups with the Muppets and Pixar, but I have to be honest-- what always gets my heart going pitter-patter about Boom! comics are their stellar entries in the crime-comics genre.
Potter's Field, Cover Girl, Left on Mission.... and this year we had both 2 Guns and Hunter's Moon, books so good I went out and bought my own copies even though the tireless Chip Mosher sent us review PDFs, because I didn't want them to lose the sale. (Vote with your wallet, folks, that's the one that counts.) If all comics publishers were putting out smart, cool books like this, with tightly-constructed, engaging stories accessible to a wide audience, comics bloggers would have nothing to bitch about. I've said for years that there's a huge middle ground between indie art-snob comics and superhero fan-service comics that it's insane to ignore, because that middle ground is where the bulk of the audience lives. Well, finally, we have a publisher that's not ignoring that audience but, in fact, actively going after it. Good stuff, guys. Keep it up.
7. Direct-to-DVD animation projects.
I suppose it shows my age, but I feel ridiculously vindicated every time I see one of these dominating an end-cap display in Wal-Mart or Target. My first thought is always, Ha! I gotcher Action For Children's Television right here, Peggy Charren! We won after all! Take that, bitch!
I know, I'm petty. If not for Peggy and her ilk we could have had these cartoons decades earlier, but I just take a deep breath and try to remember: Isn't it nice that we get them at all?
And most of these animated movies are pretty good, too. I often will show one in my cartooning classes when we have a party, and it really takes me back to see the kids staring at the screen with the same awe and wonder that I used to stare at Birdman or The Herculoids with when I was a kid. I've seen all of these, from Superman: Doomsday and Ultimate Avengers on up through Batman: Gotham Knight, and though none of them are perfect I think most of them are a lot of fun. My favorites are New Frontier and Doctor Strange, but I've enjoyed all of the ones I've seen. (Even the animated Iron Man, which is the only one I'd call an out-and-out clunker, had its moments.) Very much looking forward to the new Wonder Woman from DC and the Hulk Versus set from Marvel that are both coming in '09.
6. The B-listers' paperback reprint renaissance.
I'm so overjoyed that these books exist it's hard to put it into words.
I mean, of course books like Watchmen and Kingdom Come and Marvels get collected in trade paperback. And the early Marvel stuff like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were getting the paperback-collection treatment before it was trendy. Those are books you expect to see.
But I know damn well that NO ONE was pestering Marvel for Essential Godzilla or Champions Classic. Likewise, I'm sure that DC wasn't being badgered about reprinting Saga of The Super-Sons or Showcase Presents The War That Time Forgot. And yet we have them. Even the New Universe books from Marvel, an imprint that was roundly jeered when it appeared in the 80's, have their best moments preserved for posterity in a nice collection of trades. It's a world of wonder.
Yeah, it's a nostalgia buy for me. I admit it. But I can't help it. I was happy enough to see Marvel and DC reprinting their acknowledged classics, but none of them prompted the lunge-and-grab urge I felt when I saw Showcase Presents the Unknown Soldier or Essential Marvel Horror featuring the Son of Satan. I'm thrilled to see those. I suppose I should be embarrassed that I'm a lot more excited about seeing Brother Voodoo and groovy Diana Prince collected in trade paperback than anything else I saw reprinted this year, but I'm too busy enjoying it.
(I know I'm not alone, either -- my shop can't keep those Diana Prince trades on the shelves.)
Most happy-making of all, now other publishers are adopting the Essential/Showcase format.
I enjoy scrounging for back issues and I daresay I'll always have a touch of the antiquarian bookscout in me that loves the hunt, but I'm not a purist about it. For me a black-and-white paperback is just as good. As lovely as the Masterworks and Archives collections are, I'll never be able to afford them, not even discounted or used on Amazon. And I don't need my comics to be in coffee-table hardcovers, anyway. Mostly I just wanted to have these stories available to read again and now I have them.
I don't know if I'd say these books are the future of comics or anything, but it's a trend I'm embracing. They're damn sure the future of my comics.
5. Rootin' tootin' Westerns!
Another trend I'm hesitant to attribute any real meaning to, but I'm delighted to see Western comics are alive and well in 2008. (For a few years there it looked like poor Tim Truman was going to have to carry the whole load himself.) But I think it's safe to say that Westerns have established a healthy presence in the current comics landscape.
Both Jonah Hex and The Lone Ranger seem to be doing well, and this year saw the addition of The Man With No Name-- and it's a bit of a stretch but I'll throw Matt Wagner's Zorro in there too.
I've always loved Westerns and I have great affection for Western comics. While I'm at it, I'll plug a couple of Marvel hardcovers I picked up cheap as well-- Marvel Westerns and Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears.
Technically those two books aren't from 2008, but they were remaindered this year and hell, they were new to me. (I especially enjoyed Trail of Tears-- it probably helped, coming off the Ghost Rider movie, that I found myself picturing Sam Elliott in the lead. I think I would have enjoyed a period piece starring Sam Elliott's Ghost Rider character a lot more than the present-day Nicolas Cage one, and Trail of Tears comes pretty close to being that.)
None of this stuff is groundbreaking, or really of that much literary merit, I suppose. But it's fun. Solid adventure comics, especially Western adventure, always have me at hello. I'm just glad that these books are doing well enough that it appears we'll get more of them.
4. Youth librarians.
Bless all of you for doing your best to bring in a new generation of comics readers.
Whether it's big events like Hayden and Jennifer arranging for Ellen Forney to headline Comixtravaganza at the Seattle Public Library or just stuff like Bonnie making a big deal out of Free Comic Book Day at the Puyallup Library, these unsung heroes are doing God's work. And I'm told similar efforts are happening at public libraries all around the country.
I think that's worth a moment of appreciation. And I'd say that even if I weren't invited to participate in these things. Good job, and I look forward to seeing more of these celebrations in 2009. (Right now e-mails are flying between me, my bosses at school, and Jennifer and Hayden down at the Seattle Public Library about putting together some kind of workshop event with Castle Waiting's Linda Medley. More on this in the coming weeks, I hope.)
3. The Dark Knight.
For all that I think moviemakers probably took away the wrong message from its success, and for all the crappy "dark" superhero stories that will use The Dark Knight to justify themselves (yes, Mr. Didio, I'm talking to you)....yes, in spite of all that, I still have to own up-- at the end of the day, this movie absolutely blew me away. This was what I pictured in my head reading those O'Neil/Adams Bat stories all those years ago... only more so. It's hard to remember sometimes, but it's not the fault of the original when a lot of shitty knockoffs and imitations spring up like diseased mushrooms. Let's not lose sight of how good this movie is.
Even if the inevitable Batman movies that follow are teh suck, I'm happy this one got made... and that I got to see it spoiler-free in a theater on opening night, with an audience that was up for it (and that I had no access to the internet for two days before and after. That was a night where it just felt great to be a Batman fan and I was able to enjoy it without a lot of online sniping about "what they got wrong." I recommend this to all of you as THE way to experience movies that you're excited about.)
2. Comics scholarship.
Even more wonderful than the accessible comics reprints is the boom in comics histories. I'm old enough to remember when there were basically two-- Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes and Les Daniels' Comix. Now, my God, it's a smorgasbord and it shows no sign of letting up.
My middlebrow tastes being what they are, I'm especially pleased with what I saw from TwoMorrows in 2008-- a splendid year's worth of Back Issue and Alter Ego, not to mention their terrific "Companion" series of books. Likewise, Fantagraphics, always a leader in this area, treated us to the wonderful new Kubert biography by Bill Schelly. But I assure you there's something for everyone, no matter what your particular favorite comics might happen to be. Books about artists, about comic strips, about undergrounds, and even about the sociological impact of comic books. It's been extraordinary to see this entire area of scholarship suddenly blossom over the last few years.
This is just a great, great thing. Our artform is young enough that primary sources-- the people who were there, who saw it all unfold!-- are still around to be interviewed and their contributions noted. Thank God historians are figuring that out.
Not to mention all the online resources, like the Grand Comic Book Database and Lambiek, without which it would be almost impossible for me to do this job. My heartfelt gratitude goes out to all of you out there doing this work and I wish you all continued success in 2009.
Which brings me to...
1. The digital revolution.
I have no picture for this because no one quite knows what it looks like yet. But I know we're in the middle of it and I think it's largely a good thing. As irritating as it can be to see the internet comics community catch fire over something idiotic (see: organic webshooters, black Kingpin, Spider-marriage, etc.) and as depressing as it has been to see the recent cutbacks at Newsarama and ComicMix... nevertheless, we still have a plethora of new webcomics and comics press sites and interesting bloggers and specialty web sites and fan sites and DeviantArt and all sorts of things that simply would not exist if they only had the option of actual print publication for an outlet.
Including CBR right here, I imagine. I'm pretty sure that if Jonah's only option had been to publish a magazine, none of this would be here. But because of the possibilities of digital publication, there's a whole community of artists, writers and fans that sprung up here that I'm proud to be part of. My involvement with this place has changed my life for the better in all kinds of wonderful ways, and as I enter my fourth year of writing this weekly thing here for you all, I should point out that remembering that always makes me feel a little better about comics. No matter what stupid-ass reboot or retcon DC might be doing these days.
See you next week.