Pipeline #290


Last year, I ran off a list of the Top 10 titles that I read in 2001. To narrow it down a bit, I limited it only to on-going series which were at least 6 months old and had an "appreciable" number of issues out in that time span. In a comics landscape that includes more and more mini-series, original graphic novels, and small press books with variable schedules, the pool has shrunk considerably.

Of course, I can't lay claim that these are the absolute best comics in the marketplace today. This is purely subjective, based not just on personal tastes, but the books I've read over the past 12 months and the narrow set of parameters I've used to narrow the list down some. I can't claim to have read every comic published in the past year. I'm not Randy Lander or Don MacPherson. ;-)

As I did last year, I'm starting off the list with some of the near misses. These are titles that made the first cut this year, but didn't make it to the final ten.

Slave Labor's HALO AND SPROCKET could have made the list, but with only three issues out, I can't shoehorn it into my narrow parameters. Kerry Callen's series is a warped look at the human condition from the point of view of an angel and a robot. It's hilarious and well-drawn. If Callen can put out at least 4 issues next year, he's got a chance.

BATMAN: GOTHAM ADVENTURES did not make the list this year. While the art and coloring standards remain as gorgeous as they did in 2001, I didn't feel that Scott Peterson's stories in 2002 were as daring or memorable. I don't know if that's because I got used to the formula, or if he had used up all his good stories far too early. In any case, what once was a series with a unique viewpoint became an excuse to look at some nice art with a story attached.

PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN didn't make the cut this year for nearly the same reasons. Paul Jenkins' stories didn't feel quite as fresh this year, and the number of fill-ins on the title skyrocketed. Without a strong issue like 2001's baseball story, the title became merely a good one.

OUT THERE was the 11th title on my Top Ten list list year. It's off the list this year because it didn't maintain that excitement for me. It became just another horror/fantasy type series of me and issues quickly piled up, unread. The release of the first trade paperback to collect the first storyline was a good thing. I think it's safe to assume that a follow-up volume will hit shelves in 2003.

CATWOMAN came close to making the list. Ed Brubaker's stories are exciting and captivating, while the series of artists the book has had make the book look unique in the marketplace, and tell the stories in traditional ways but with a twist. The animated feel of the book works well with the story, and this is a great example of a book where the individual members of the creative team really work to each other's strengths. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

GOTHAM CENTRAL is one to watch for in 2003. The first two issues (written by Brubaker and Greg Rucka) have been strong, but I can't justify putting the series on this list with so little output so far. Talk to me again in a year. If Michael Lark's art remains strong and the stories continue to give us a new look at Batman's world, then it'll have no problem making it to this list next year.

THE POWER COMPANY has a good chance in 2003. I can't put it on this year's list because the turnaround for the book is only a couple of issues old. The series started at the beginning of the year with a series of one shots and quickly became a solid, but unspectacular team superhero book. Its new focus on the politics of a superhero corporation have made the book stand out more. If the book keeps that focus for another year, it will have a good chance at being here next year.

POWERS doesn't make the list this year because it's the kind of book that should only be read in trade paperback form. It's a nearly impossible series to completely understand from month to month. I find myself rereading previous issues every month before reading the current one, to ensure I can follow the story. Besides, I think Bendis is already well represented on the Top 10 list with at least two different titles.

NIGHTWING deserves some special award for maintaining itself in the face of a changing creative team. When Chuck Dixon left DC for an exclusive contract with CrossGen, he left three Batman family books: BIRDS OF PREY, ROBIN, and NIGHTWING. It's only Dick Grayson's book that has maintained much the same feel in the wake of Dixon's departure. New writer Devin Grayson deserves credit for that. She's honoring the series' traditions, keeping it interesting for the series' regular readers, and crafting strong stories all at the same time. Rick Leonardi is a great artist, and does a fantastic job on all the action-packed hijinks of the title. As much as I enjoy the book, though, it falls short of the Top Ten list. I'm going to keep it in mind for next year, though.

I wanted to put TRUE STORY SWEAR TO GOD on this list, but it only falls short on the technicality that it doesn't come out more often. (Of course, since each issue is twice the size it should be for the cover price, I could probably find a loophole in that rule.) Tom Beland's autobiographical series is both funny and heart warming. It's an honest look at an interesting romance, with a lot of nice touched of humor added into the mix. AiT/PlanetLar was smart enough to snatch up a good thing when it saw it, so you can expect the trade paperback collecting the first four issues to hit shelves next month.

AND NOW, THE TOP TEN OF 2002 (Part One)

This list is in no particular order. It's done in the order I felt like writing about them.

1. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is, simply put, the best superhero comic book today. Brian Bendis came up through comics as the writer and artist of serious crime fiction, complete with four-letter words, photoreferenced art, and some bad computer lettering. When he took on Ultimate Spider-Man, there was a bit of hesitation on my part. I looked forward to the project, but I wasn't at all sure that Bendis would turn out to be the right man for the title. (He was also slated to be the author on Ultimate X-Men, but realized he wasn't the man for that series and bowed out early on.) In the end, I can't imagine anyone better at this book.

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN takes the best bits of nearly 40 years of Spider-Man continuity and pours them into a modern mold. Bendis has the perspective needed to put in only the things that will make the fans happy, or to tease them mercilessly like a puppetmaster pulling the strings. But it's not just a matter of putting Peter Parker and Aunt May in the title, then throwing in some of the more popular villains from all that continuity. No, Bendis' strength lies in the characterization in the title, most notably with Peter and Mary Jane. Their relationship has been the cornerstone of the book since its inception and the issues that arrived in the year 2002 contained some of the strongest moments of that relationship, including Mary Jane's near-death dive off a bridge in New York City. Bendis isn't afraid to change the things that make his characters happy, and the after-effects of that storyline prove that.

Mark Bagley hasn't missed an issue as artist of the series yet. Even with the recent bi-weekly run on the series, he's been there with a clear and consistent storytellers mind, making everyone easy on the eyes and the storytelling simplified so that anyone could understand what's going on, even those new to comics. There aren't any hyper panel layouts or sequential narrative tricks. It's just classic straight-on storytelling.

ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is one of the books I look forward to each and every month. I don't count the days until the next issue comes out, but I can certainly tell when it's time for another issue and look forward to getting home with the week's new stack of books so I can launch into it first.

I said in last year's list that LONE WOLF AND CUB would probably be my #1 title if I had placed the list in any sort of order. This year, that honor would go to ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.

2. THE PATH transformed Bart Sears' art in the eyes of many. For those who remember him as the artist of JUSTICE LEAGUE EUROPE and those BRUTES AND BABES columns in WIZARD, his original CrossGen assignment, THE FIRST, did little to change their opinion of him. It was all overly muscular men and well-endowed women posing and strutting their stuff. With THE PATH, though, he threw all of that out the window. Sears showed how versatile he is by working on THE PATH in terms in shadow and lights, etching images out of the dark corners of the page and creating a kinetic art style combined with storytelling influenced by manga. It isn't the big-eyed manga here, either. It's closer to the LONE WOLF AND CUB influence, with two page spreads and epic battles seen in closeup and blood splatters before pulling back to reveal the fallen foes surrounding the fortified hero.

Ron Marz's story is easy to follow and gives Sears' art plenty of time to shine. I would suggest reading this series starting with the first trade paperback. Reading all the stories together like that is a big help towards understanding everything. There are a few names and relationships to get through. Establishing those in your mind is best done with a large dose of the series. Thankfully, the expository Prelude issue and the first six issues have been packed together into one trade paperback already.

Staying on this list in 2003 will be a tough task for THE PATH. CrossGen recently announced that Sears will be leaving the title to concentrate on his Art Director duties. The art is the big draw of the book. New penciller Matt Smith has some pretty big shoes to fill here.

CrossGen has other titles that are working their way onto this list.

SCION is an amazing book that's maintained its momentum and its look over the course of its three years. If Jimmy Cheung hadn't taken a few months off, I might have included it on the list here. (Jim Fern's art doesn't carry nearly the same amount of power as Cheung's.)

NEGATION is another great book, but a near miss. Tony Bedard is doing a great job crafting an action-packed science fiction adventure, while Paul Pelletier has done a great job in creating a diverse supporting cast.

CRUX has Chuck Dixon on writing duties now, and Steve Epting is still on board with his amazing art that gets ignored far too often. With a good 2003, it might just make the list next year.

There is one other CrossGen title that DID make the list, though. I'll get to it next week.

3. SUICIDE SQUAD: It seems like a blip on the radar already. Keith Giffen's reinterpretation of the Suicide Squad was derided for everything from its "cartoony" art to its heavy dialogue. It committed the cardinal sin in too many fans' eyes of not being John Ostrander's Squad. It never had a chance.

Giffen veered away from Ostrander's grounded political drama of the late 80s/early 90s and put the book more squarely in the DC Universe, along with more of the trappings. He made the Squad a mobile effort with a core cast of "administrative" characters and kept the Squad much more fluid. In the end, when the book was cancelled, he cleared the decks completely and pretty much made the entire series irrelevant.

What Giffen did right, though, was in delivering an entertaining comic grounded firmly in the DC Universe that used dialogue like nobody else in comics does today. As he stated in interviews prior to the Squad's relaunch, the book was the kind of thing that isn't meant to be read through in five minutes and forgotten. You have to work your way through the book, and a second reading might come in handy. With today's preferred writing style being somewhat antithetical to that approach, it shouldn't be a surprise that not everyone enjoyed it.

I did, though. I liked the scattershot dialogue approach. Giffen's skill is in his pacing, humor, and dialogue. He combined all three deftly, and gave us all a comic completely different from all the other team comics on the stands to this day.

There were even characters that I looked forward to seeing every month, including Modem to Havana. Carrying on with an old Squad tradition, Giffen included spotlight issues to give us a better understanding of certain characters. Havana got hers in the ninth issue, and it explained her link to the Squad and to Amanda Waller.

Paco Medina's art worked in the context of Giffen's stories. Since they weren't in the same tone as Ostrander's -- more serious, political, reality-based -- a more open and cartoony art style fit in. Medina's ability to draw expressive faces also helped with Giffen's scripts.

SUICIDE SQUAD is gone, but not forgotten. Let's hope this failure (sales-wise, not creatively) doesn't poison the well for one of the most creative super teams in comics. With any luck, DC will give Ostrander the second chance on the title that he deserves, and that the fans seem to want.

VariousAndSundry.com has been updated with thoughts on BLADE 2, stupid drivers, the week's DVD releases, and more.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 400 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML that's eventually going away.

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