THE TOP TEN COMICS OF 2002
Last week, I started the list off with a bunch of titles that were near misses, and then three titles that made the top ten list this year. The first three were ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, THE PATH, and SUICIDE SQUAD. This week, I present the rest of the Top Ten Titles of 2002.
4. THE INCREDIBLE HULK is a bit of an oddity for this list. One of the rules I like to keep in making this list is that the titles included in it are ones that I read as they went along. They're books I was so excited about that I never let an issue back up. I read each series as it arrived, usually within a day or two of picking up my weekly purchases.
HULK doesn't fit that. It's one of the first comic books I decided to wait for the trades on. I sampled a couple of issues through Marvel's First Look books, and liked what I saw. It was just a matter of patience for the collection.
When the hardcover was released recently collecting primarily the first ten issues of the new direction for the series, I jumped right into it. I was anxious to see which bits I had missed, and excited to get to read it all in a fairly short time span in nice packaging. Sure enough, it was a book worthy to be added to this list.
This is in no small part due to the fact that Bruce Jones and John Romita Jr. were able to get me truly excited about the Hulk again for the first time since Gary Frank left art duties near the last quarter of Peter David's tenure. To me, the Hulk is a character I will always associate with Peter David. That's because he was on the title so long, was the first author whose Hulk stories I read, and most of all, because they were strong and memorable stories. I have no attachment to the big dumb Hulk. I don't feel that only the "Hulk Smash" stories are the good ones. I brought myself up through the title in the exact opposite way, but not opposed in general to the monster Hulk.
Bruce Jones has done a couple of smart things in his run on the Hulk. For starters, he kept the beast hidden for the first half of his tenure. The mind always fills in the blanks better than an artist can show them. Jones uses that well. When you have John Romita Jr. drawing the book, it's an incredible leap of faith to make. Romita can draw the debris and the ruins and the musclebound cretin in the middle of it so well. It couldn't have been easy restraining him like this. In the end, it's what was best for the book.
Jones has also created a smart book that doesn't try to show itself off. HULK now reminds me of the 1970s TV show. You have the smart Bruce Banner wandering the countryside and having small adventures while trying to stay one step ahead of the law. In the second major storyline, Lee Weeks jumps aboard for the art duties and draws up the excellent four-part story in which Hulk is at the center of a hostage drama. Jones' story is sharply paced, rife with tension, and smartly written. The inclusion of lines from "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" might easily have come off as trite or condescending. Jones keeps it simple and makes it into a strong character point.
Credit also goes to Studio F, one of the best little coloring houses in comics today. I mentioned them last year in connection with OUT THERE, the book they colored so well then. This year, it's THE INCREDIBLE HULK for which they should be remembered. The pages are bright and easy to read, without being drenched in color and gaudy. Take a look at the texture on Hulk's skin and the dusk sky in the mountains at the conclusion of the second storyline.
Kaare Andrews' covers for the series have been so well received and are so inventive that each one gets a two page spread in the hardcover, to show off some of the concept sketches and the process that goes into creating each piece.
The book seems to be picking up steam in the issues after the hardcover, as well. Mike Deodato's upcoming return to the title he once drew an artistic lifetime ago is generating some interest, and the art samples have been nothing less than awesome.
Not only is THE INCREDIBLE HULK one of the Top Ten Titles of 2002, but it's also one to keep an eye on in 2003.
5. DAREDEVIL had a mixed bag of a year in 2001. While I loved Bob Gale's storyline, the initial Brian Bendis storyline (with art from David Mack) didn't do anything for me. I said last year, though, that with Bendis on board as the regular writer for the series, it was one to look out for in 2002. If you were looking for it, you were treated to one of the best crime/mafia stories in superhero comics from the past decade.
If Bendis writes the best classical superhero title in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, he writes the best modern superhero crime fiction in DAREDEVIL. This is a book that is riveting month in and month out. The initial storyline with its skewed timelines and overlapping stories was an achievement. The point of view constantly shifted, but never got confusing. The tale of Kingpin's demise and the subsequent mob war it starts was well researched and well reasoned. Daredevil stood in the middle, working to sort it out. Things took a left turn, though, when Daredevil's secret identity leaked out. While it's a storyline that's been done before, this was anything but a repetition of what had come before. Bendis put Murdock in a most uncomfortable spot and then left the question just a little bit up in the air. Murdock can work in both worlds (lawyer and vigilante), but is slightly compromised in both.
Make no mistake about it - this is a talking heads book now. It's a much more mature book, and in a good way. Like THE FLASH, it's mature not for its use of language and sex, but for its intelligence and detail. It doesn't talk down to its readers. It doesn't titillate with obligatory fight scenes to break up the so-called "monotony" of talking heads scenes. It wears its pedigree on its sleeve.
Alex Maleev draws normal people and remarkable backgrounds that are a mix of photography and linework. None of it stands out so much as to distract you. It all blends together nicely, combined with the expert coloring of Matt Hollingsworth to keep things well grounded. The city looks dirty but never boring. Check out the different ways Hollingsworth can distinguish the background from the foreground in his coloring schemes. It adds a whole new dimension to the artwork, and no discussion of the book would be complete without a mention of it.
Marvel recently released DAREDEVIL VOLUME 2, a hardcover collecting the first year of DAREDEVIL stories from the team of Bendis and Maleev. For only $30, it's an excellent package that also includes a two-page blow-by-blow description by Hollingsworth on how he colored the cover to one of the issues in the book.
6. RUSE. I admit it; I'm on the CrossGen comp list. Once a month, a thick envelope arrives on my doorstep with all of CrossGen's releases of the past month. I enjoy RUSE so much, however, that I still buy it the day it comes out at the comics shop. I don't want to wait up to three weeks for the next freebie. I don't want to run the risk that a weird packing error means I miss an issue. It's worth the $3 to me.
And RUSE still makes this list despite a small speed bump halfway through the year, when Mark Waid made his exit and gave way to Scott Beatty on scripting duties. Beatty tried too hard in his first couple of issues to sound as erudite as Waid did. He missed the point; Waid sprinkled the dialogue with witticisms and large vocabulary words. He didn't include one in every word balloon. Beatty has since backed off from that enough that the book has picked up steam again.
At its heart, the book is a mystery series starring Simon Archard, the world's greatest detective. This is a world that bears a strong resemblance to late-18th century England, but with more flying gargoyles, wandering gypsies, and potentially supernatural villains. The sparks fly, though, when the unemotional and totally logical Simon clashes with his associate/partner/assistant, Emma Bishop. It's their relationship that keeps things moving, even through scenes where Simon is standing around observing clues. He relies on her in a way that he doesn't even realize, and may never.
In the meantime, a series of small events lead up to the exciting conclusion and revelations at the end of the title's first year, as we learn about Simon's previous partner, what a small jewel has to do with saving the world, and what happened to the big baddie of the first storyline.
Butch Guice is the main artist on the series and does a remarkable job. The characters throughout the book are photo referenced, but maintain their own look. It's not a simple trace job. Guice's style always shows through, and his storytelling and design sense work for the book. CrossGen was also smart enough to tap Paul Ryan to be Guice's fill-in penciller. Once every six months or so, Ryan steps in to illustrate an issue. His style fits the book perfectly. While it may not be quite as realistic, his attention to detail and storytelling is top notch. He's a vastly under appreciated artist today, whose only fault may lie in his inability to over dramatize climactic moments. In a book like RUSE, though, that's not a necessity. There are occasional fights and action scenes, but they're the kinds of thing you'd want played down and played more realistically. Ryan is perfect for that.
The book also prospers under the golden eye of Laura Depuy, another artist whose medium happens to be color. If you ever get the chance to see her at work at a convention, take it. I had the pleasure of taking in her coloring class at the Wizard World convention in Philadelphia this year and it was eye opening. Not only was it fascinating to see how coloring is done in comics today, but it was interesting to see how her mind, in particular, worked. There's a lot more work on every panel of every page than you may normally realize.
RUSE makes the list this year because it's a smart series with a great look. I'd put the final art on this book up against any other glossy and shiny color art you may want to cite from the past ten years. Alan Davis on EXCALIBUR? Bryan Hitch on AUTHORITY? Joe Madureira on X-MEN? J. Scott Campbell on DANGER GIRL? As far as I'm concerned, this book is right up there.
7. LONE WOLF AND CUB makes its return to the list in 2002 after a groundbreaking 2000/2001. LW&C is a triumph of both storytelling and packaging. There were those that thought Dark Horse nuts when they announced their intention to publish nearly 30 volumes of classic manga in a digest-sized format in 300 page increments with the price held at $9.95 a pop. Here we are now at the end of the series, and it's been an unmitigated success.
The book hasn't lost a thing since its inclusion on this list a year ago. If anything, it's gotten better. The march to the final battle between Itto and Yagyu is the stuff of legend, complete with epic swordfights, raging floods, a delusional poisoner, and cut throat politics.
All volumes of the legendary series are available through your retailer today. If they're not on the shelves already, ask for them. Check out your local bookstore. I see copies on the shelves there all the time. Yes, start at the first one. I bet you'll be hooked in no time. I'm looking forward to rereading the entire series from the start just as soon as I get to the final volume, published this past week.
If you're looking for a better reason to give the book a try, click on that earlier link for the reasons I chose the book last year. They all fit to this day.
8. THE ULTIMATES. When it comes right down to it, comics are a graphic medium. The worst story can't ruin great art, but the worst art can ruin a great story. Thankfully, THE ULTIMATES doesn't have to worry about either of those two scenarios. Mark Millar's take on an Ultimate Universe version of The Avengers is as cynical and negative as they come, but it is a well reasoned and captivating look at What Might Have Been. Ant Man is an abusive husband. The Hulk is horny. Iron Man has a birth certificate with a new expiration date. And Thor is a hippie guru. That's just the start of it all.
Bryan Hitch and Adam Currie blow the reader away with their art in each issue. Whether it's the World War II setting of a Normandy-like invasion, or the mass carnage of the Hulk let loose in New York City, their art transcends storytelling and becomes a thing of beauty unto itself. When a hardcover compilation eventually finds its way to store shelves, the oversized pages will have never been put to better use than in blowing this art up to a larger size.
Paul Mounts only adds to that with a crisp color scheme that wastes not a single pigment, while adding depth and mood to every panel. And while not much can save Marvel's across-the-board lowercase lettering mandate, Chris Eliopoulos does as good a job as you can do with the format.
Timeliness is the only stumbling block for the title. Though the first monthly issue of the series appeared in shops in January of last year, only seven issues shipped for the year. If they could crank it up a couple more issues per year, it would make the book's inclusion on this list next year a near-guarantee.
9. NOBLE CAUSES is the mutant offspring of superhero comics and daytime television. "Kennedys with superpowers" is all its creator, Jay Faerber, had to tell Jim Valentino at Image Comics to sell him on the book. Faerber delivers that concept with glee, giving us a family of super powered beings that are idolized and revered around the world, but mostly just caught up in their own petty squabbles, romantic liaisons, and feuds.
The series is a family drama, where the family just happens to have powers and some outrageous adventures in its past that keep coming back to bite them in the collective butt. The focus of the book is not on the kick/fight/explode side of things, but in everything that happens in between, and the results of that. It's a soap opera, complete with all the trappings and storylines.
Faerber structures the book in two ways that make it interesting. First, each storyline is a four-issue mini-series. You get a complete storyline over the course of four months to keep you satisfied, but with groundwork laid to set up the next series. Secondly, each issue has a backup story to plug in the gaps left during the main story. It's a great way to structure the book, because it fills in those gaps in the storylines that the characters know of but that would needlessly complicate the narrative. Instead, we get a new story in the second half of the book that answers those nagging questions while providing an interesting story and introducing new creators.
Faerber put the book together across the internet, putting out a call for artists on the web, and locking in Golden Goat Studios (again, from the web) to do the lettering. And while the results do occasionally look less polished and professional than your standard superhero comics, it's still a nice introduction to new talent and a pleasant-looking book. The backup stories mean that the main creative team of the front of the book has fewer pages to do under deadline, and other artists get the chance to shine on the backup stories.
NOBLE CAUSES may be produced in an interesting and thoroughly modern way, but it's Jay Faerber's stories that bring the reader back for a new helping as often as possible. It's an addictive series that has nicely adapted much of the format of the daily afternoon serial to its own purposes.
10. MY MONKEY'S NAME IS JENNIFER is a book that barely fits the narrow scope of this list (only five issues this year), but begged to be included, anyway.
What can I say about Ken Knudsten's series that won't involve funky adjectives and mind-bending turns of phrase? MY MONKEY'S NAME IS JENNIFER is one of the most creative, bizarre, and surreal comics I've ever read. It's the hilarious story of a boy monkey who is kept as a pet by a young girl who doesn't even realize he's a he. Named Jennifer, the monkey wishes only to inflict bodily harm on everything around him, while being dragged through adventures on pirate ships, in the bathtub, and against a scary skeleton man. If this seems the slightest bit nonsensical, then welcome to the fun.
Five issues of the series have been released so far from Slave Labor Graphics. I wrote a full review of them a few months ago. It holds up as further explanation as to why this book is so much fun.
For sheer inventiveness, audacity, and hilarity, MY MONKEY'S NAME IS JENNIFER clinches a spot on Pipeline's list of the Top Ten series in 2002.
THE OTHER NEAR MISSES
There are some other titles that were near misses that I didn't include in last week's column. That's because I wasn't sure that they wouldn't make the list this week. These are some of the titles that were vying for that one last spot on the list, but were beaten out in the end.
TRANSMETROPOLITAN finished its five-year run this year on a high note with riots, destruction, and a quiet return to how the series began. Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson survived the marathon with the quality of the series still intact. Spider Jerusalem will now live quietly on the bookshelves of trade paperback readers everywhere, right where he belongs in a series of thin volumes.
THE FLASH barely missed the cut this year, and very nearly made it with its final issue of the year, which I'll talk about some more in Friday's column. Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins haven't lost a thing on the series, but the 6-part serial in the middle of the year briefly lost my attention, and for that I had to cut it from the list.
HOWARD THE DUCK returned under the word processor of Steve Gerber, where he belongs. It was a great six-issue mini-series with some wonderful art by the criminally underrated Phil Winslade. A couple of flat gags and parodies in the Witchblade-like issue combined with fill-in art conspired to keep it off the list, but it's still a series I'd wholeheartedly recommend for its satire and hilarity.
STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES doesn't get the attention it deserves. I think some of the early Whilce Portacio art threw people off more than it should have. Micah Wright's book earns plenty of points for its dialogue and attitude. I'd read the book every month if Wright just put three of the team members in a room to have an argument over their favorite flavor of ice cream. His witty banter would take over the issue and make it exciting.
I also think Portacio got a bad rep for the first issue's coloring. With Jeromy Cox now heading the coloring department for the book, the color palette makes more sense, but still includes a lot of the PhotoShop effects that give the book its unique look. It's a great combination.
Y THE LAST MAN and FABLES are both great reads. They are the rebirth of the Vertigo line. Keep an eye on both. They're contenders for next year's list.
On Friday, I'll finish up this 2002 review with a look at some trade paperback releases and single-issue stories that were highlights for the year.
VariousAndSundry.com has been updated with thoughts on the dangers of TiVo at marathon broadcasting times, the new Quentin Tarantino movie trailer, Star Wars origami, arcade emulators, and more.
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.