TOP 10 SERIES OF 2001 - PART TWO
Welcome to the second of three parts discussing the Top 10 comics series of the year. The world of comics is hard to categorize, let alone compare. How does one compare a one shot to a mini-series to an on-going series? For simplicity's sake, then, this list is about the ten comics series that have held my interest the most over the course of the past year. It doesn't make them the "best" of the year or even my "favorites." These are the books, rather, that I get excited to read when I see them on the new release list each week. Quite often, they're the first books of the stack that I read.
Last week I wrote about some of the series that just missed the list. Between this week and next, I plan on running down my list of the Pipeline Top 10 Series of 2001. Depending on scheduling and timing, I also would like to present a list of favorite single issues of the year. But, first, the Top 10 Series.
The list is in no specific order. It's completely random. The first title listed is no better or any worse than the second, and so on.
1. Lone Wolf and Cub: I don't even know where to begin with this amazing title. Dark Horse took a chance in 2000 when it announced this title as a series of 300 page trade paperbacks with page dimensions no larger than an index card. In the 15 months since it first appeared on the shelves, though, it's become the best selling trade paperback series in comics today. That's for good reason. The format fits the story, and the story is a knockout. Ogami Itto is a ronin traveling the countryside with his toddler son, performing assassinations for the fee of 500 ryo. That's the extremely simplified version of the story. Along the way are looks at Japanese mythology and heritage, Buddhist practices, and historic lessons.
It's all combined with a fast-paced action-packed story of sword fights and scheming the likes of which I've never seen in comics. It's an excellent primer in pacing techniques. Watch how artist Goseki Kojima makes just the entrance of Lone Wolf and Cub into a stroke of artistry. By now I've seen the duo stroll into dozens of towns, but each time the entrance is presented in a way that gets your excitement up for what is to follow. Kojima stages the sword fights carefully, and then executes them with flair and style. It's the anticipation and air of danger that will pay off the inevitable Itto win so handsomely. Kojima introduces flashbacks in ways that will remind you of the blackout effect used in movies or television shows.
Writer Kazuo Koike, in the meantime, doesn't repeat himself. He gets you comfortable with the characters and then twists them this way and that. He has a good habit of pulling rabbits out of his hat and having it all make sense. The stories rely on not just sword skills, but also in clever thinking. Your emotions will race without the feeling that they're being artificially dragged around.
For only $9.95, it's the one comic book you're guaranteed to get your money's worth out of every month. I said I wasn't going to order these comics from first to tenth and I won't. If I did, however, this title would sit atop the list.
If you like this series, I'd be remiss in not recommending BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL. It came 20 years after LONE WOLF AND CUB, but you'll recognize some of the themes and elements of the story. The bonus there is the fine line work of creator Hiroaki Samura. He mixes his artwork between pen and ink and straight pencil work with amazing deftness. Dark Horse has a whole series of trades collecting the story thus far and they're all amazing.
2. Peter Parker Spider-Man: It's been a long time since the Spider-Man titles were this enjoyable. With Joe Michael Straczynski on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and a rotating cast of creators telling nifty off-center tales in TANGLED WEB, editor Axel Alonso has all his ducks in a row. The highlight of the post-Clone Saga post-Chapter One Spider-Man era, though, is Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham's title, PETER PARKER, SPIDER-MAN. It's the most cerebral of the lot, focusing on the title character and his two distinct identities. The fight scenes are not the point of each issue. It's the complex nature of the character that Jenkins explores, often with Vertigo-level depth. Buckingham's art is restrained in the face of the stories, with a quaint throwback appeal that might remind you of the golden age of Spider-Man.
If you had to give one superhero book to an adult non-comics reading friend of yours, this is the one I'd suggest.
3. Batman: Gotham Adventures: Even with the revamped lineup of creators on the core Batman titles in the past couple of years, the best of the Batman titles remains the one based on the animated series. The stories are short and sweet. They're always finished in the same issue they're started. They always work on more than one level, both as a straight-up mystery story and a morality play of some sort. Give writer Scott Peterson credit for not taking the easy way out of what's intended to be a kid's book. He's more than comfortable in leaving a question at the end of a tale for a reader to consider long after the book is put down and hidden back in the long boxes.
As great as the stories are, the regular art team of Tim Levins, Terry Beatty, and Lee Loughridge threaten to steal the show every month. The last redesign of the characters for the animated series by Bruce Timm never worked for me. The series went from being adult animation to being styled more as a kiddy cartoon. The ironic thing is that the style works so well when translated onto the page. While the simplified angles look awkward in animation, they make for the perfect tools to tell a story on a comic book page. It's just a matter of using the right design for the right medium. Levins does this well. His characters are expressive and act well. Nobody is stiff or staid. The art (inked by Beatty) is dimensional, but still leaves room for the colorist to do his thing. Colorist Lee Loughridge is one of the most underrated artists in the business today. His sense of style and design are second to none, as showcased in this book. If the secret of quality animation is "lotsa shadows", then Loughridge is the keystone of the art team. His colors add the depth and style to the comic that few others could.
It remains one of the great mysteries of our time why DC hasn't yet produced a compilation of their best stories for trade paperback form yet.
4. The Flash: Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins, Doug Hazlewood, Gaspar, and James Sinclair prove that for a great comic book, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. With THE FLASH, it truly is.
In the post-Mark Waid era of the character, something drastic had to be done so as not to invite the inevitable comparisons. It wouldn't have been enough to carry on Waid's legacy on the title. The creative team, under the editorial guidance of Joey Cavalieri, instead took a fresh new look at the book. The most striking change is the visuals. Kolins' art style is devoid of thick blacks and spotted blacks. Everything is shown in sharp detail, including some dramatic cityscapes. As with BATMAN: GOTHAM ADVENTURES, lots of room is left to the colorist, Sinclair, to show off his stuff. It's done much in the same way as you see Rob Haynes and David Self do their work on books such as DAREDEVIL: NINJA. It's a manga design without looking like artwork from Japan. It's good super-hero artwork with an extra design sense.
Geoff Johns' stories are mature in the truest sense of the word. This book doesn't rely on sex or graphic violence or swearing to be more appetizing to those with more mature tastes. The stories themselves are more mature. The way they're told is more grown up, with a heavy graphic influence and less of a superhero influence. Double page splashes aren't used to show blow by blow of the fights. They're used to show the results of cataclysmic conflicts, or the key moments. That's a big difference. The latter shows a certain maturity and respect for sequential storytelling. And that's what this team has.
There is also a more somber tone to Geoff Johns' stories. They're more serious. This isn't a Silver Age throwback. This is a modern tale, heavily steeped in its location. Keystone City has been rethought as a slightly grimy blue collar town, complete with trade union uprisings.
Johns, Kolins, et. al. have rethought this title to spectacular effect. It's super-hero adventure for thinking adults now. If you haven't read it yet, check out the trade paperback coming out in March that will reprint the first seven issues of this team's work.
Top it off with Brian Bolland covers and the fact that the creative team hasn't missed an issue since its inception and you've got a winning package with respect for its readers.
5. Batgirl: This is the story of Cassandra Cain, trained killer-turned-apprentice super hero. Now under the care of Oracle, it's her duty to train harder and work her way up to such a level that Batman trusts her at fighting super-powered villains.
It's one of those books that tell its stories in a completely different manner than all the other super hero comics out there. Kelley Puckett delivers quick kicks to the head with moral uncertainty, strong characters, and dynamic art from Damion Scott and Robert Campanella. It reminds me of a more mature version of BATMAN: GOTHAM ADVENTURES. I enjoy both books in much the same way. In the end, you'll enjoy a different way of telling a story each month in this title. Nothing is ever completely straightforward. Getting there is half the fun of this title.
Damion Scott's art is an odd mix between the dramatic and the cartoony. His characters bend and break, but always seem to be in motion. It's at the action scenes that he excels, giving the reader a dizzying sense of movement and choreography inside of street level fighting. He's not just an action artist, though. His characters emote. They think. They have a physical presence that mirrors their inner feelings. It may take an issue or two to absorb, but it's really something interesting to look at that helps further the story.
The good news is that it should be relatively easy to catch up to speed with the book. The first year's worth of stories are available now in two trade paperbacks.
Come back here next week for the last 5 series that made the Pipeline Top 10 for 2001. In the meantime, Tuesday's column will be the second half of my look through the most recent PREVIEWS.
More than 350 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.