TOP 10 SERIES OF 2001 – PART THREE
Last week, I talked about five of my top ten series that I enjoyed in 2001. That list included Batgirl, Lone Wolf and Cub, Batman: Gotham Adventures, Peter Parker: Spider-Man, and The Flash. This week I’ll discuss the other five series that round out my Top 10, along with an honorary mention that I couldn’t leave out completely.
Just a reminder: Obviously, this list is culled from the comics that I read over the course of the year 2001. They don’t necessarily represent the totality of my reading habits. These are, after all, picked solely from on-going series. Not mini-series. Not one-shots. Not original graphic novels or classic reprints.
These are the books that I could count on for an enjoyable read and held my attention from month to month without fail. I didn’t wait out storylines to finish before reading a stack of them. I couldn’t last that long without them.
With that said, here are the last 5 of my Top 10 titles for the year 2001, presented in no particular order.
6. Transmetropolitan: Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson started down the home stretch of the series this year. It hit the fiftieth issue a couple of months ago in full stride. Those who’ve been lucky enough to be reading since the first issue (or those who’ve caught up through the trade program) have begun to see everything from the past four years of storylines pay off. The “Dirge” storyline set everything off with a blast, wreaking havoc with the city and setting Spider into a dangerous spiral. Things just got slightly more grim from there, but I won’t get into it for those waiting for the trades.
It’s a series that, more often than not, was the first thing I read when I got home from the comic shop the week each issue came out. It’s just light enough to be a breeze to read, but the details in the backgrounds of Robertson’s art and the rewards that can be gleaned from those who’ve paid careful attention to the characters through the years is enough to make it worth the price of admission.
Cover artists in 2001 included John Cassaday, Matt Wagner, Moebius, and J.G. Jones. The one shot “Filth of the City” was a worthy addition to the storyline with loads of talented artists appearing in it, from Steve Lieber to Jill Thompson to J. Scott Campbell.
In eight months, the series will be finished. My, how time flies. It’s been a heck of a run, though.
7. Detective Comics: The book caught a lot of flack for its coloring style. When Greg Rucka and Shawn Martinsbrough came on the title, the colorists began working with only two colors. And one was always gray. It’s called “color keying,” and was patterned after the way certain Hollywood movies were done. Fan outcry was swift. “Why should we pay for full color,” they whined, “when you only give us two colors?”
They miss the point. It’s not a matter of how many colors you get. It’s a matter of how well you use them. Presenting the colorists with only two colors to choose from – and different colors each month – just makes the challenge all the greater. Each month, WildStorm FX (the credited colorists) make magic happen. Whether it’s purple and gray or green and gray, for two examples, it’s one of the most exciting and visually interesting things to look at every month. The Batman editorial team said as recently as the San Diego convention this past summer that the system is here to stay. Good for them.
Martinsbrough’s art style is open enough to let the colorists do their work. It doesn’t come across at all like the animated style, but it does remain clean and vibrant. Characters are easy to differentiate, which is particularly important in a title such as this that relies so heavily on its supporting cast of police characters.
This week’s issue features art from Scott McDaniel and, ironically, doesn’t use the two-tone coloring. I don’t think McDaniel’s style naturally would work with the color keying, though. Steve Lieber will soon be taking over as regular artist. It’ll be interesting to see what changes he makes to his style to adapt to the coloring and how the two will blend together.
Greg Rucka remains on board as writer and shouldn’t be overshadowed by the art teams of the title. He’s done some great work in the past year. He’s introduced a new character, Sasha, as Bruce Wayne’s bodyguard and sneakily added her into the Bat family as a supporting heroine. While it’s still a transition I’m having some troubles accepting, it’s one he’s earned the leeway for. So far it’s been done with flair, giving us a civilian’s peek into the Bat Cave, while keeping Sasha a character I want to root for. Rucka has also shown in the past year some experiments in storytelling of his own on this title. He’s growing ever more comfortable with the comic book format and is working to add some new tools to his toolbox.
The title is only aided by the lettering of Todd Klein and cover work of Dave Johnson, whose covers are now (sadly) completed on the title. (The one big drop in quality of the title this year is the change to John McCrea as colorist. His December cover was spectacular, but that’s been the only highlight of the covers I’ve seen so far.)
There’s one trade out so far, collecting the first set of issues done by the creative team. If you’re interesting in checking out this title and are anal enough to want to start from the beginning, there’s your chance.
8. Supergirl: I enjoy SUPERGIRL every month. Leonard Kirk and Robin Riggs do a beautiful job in drawing the title, while Peter David maintains my interest from month to month in a book now devoted to an oddball buddy team-up. Buzz, the demon, and Linda Danvers, earth angel, are off to find Supergirl’s soul and have some merry adventures along the way. The book can be moving. It can be disturbing. It can be funny. You never know what you’re going to get from month to month. Keeping the reader on his toes is what keeps Peter David’s work fresh from issue to issue.
After the cataclysmic 50th issue, many complained that the series had lost its sense of direction and was just marking time. To me, though, that’s looking at it completely backwards. For the first time in a long while, the series doesn’t have years of continuity weighing it down. Having Linda and Buzz go off on a road trip of monumental proportions lets Peter David tell clean stories. He doesn’t have to worry about catching new readers up to speed with every new development. He can tell self-contained issues that occur in a new environment every month and make it entertaining.
Finally, it seems that Leonard Kirk is finally getting his day in the sun. He’s recently done a fill-in issue for David’s CAPTAIN MARVEL series, and will shortly take over as new regular artist of JSA, in addition to his SUPERGIRL chores. So long as he can maintain the quality of SUPERGIRL while doing the new series, I wish him luck. He’s too good to be hidden on a series that isn’t seen by a maximum number of readers. At the same time, I’d hate to lose him off of one of my favorite series. Double-edged sword, really.
As great a job as DC has done with its trade programs, this title is woefully absent from it. There’s one trade currently available and that only collects the early Gary Frank issues from the first year. With sales slowly sliding on the book, it seems less likely that DC will be willing to put out a second trade of any sort. That’s a shame.
9. X-Force: Finally, YOUNGBLOOD has fulfilled its premise from ten years ago. Surprisingly, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred have done that with their run on Marvel’s X-Force, another title originally created by Rob Liefeld. While they’ve only been on the title for a half-year or so, their overhaul has been the most dramatic of all the mutant title rethinks.
The old team is gone now, replaced with a squad of egotistical and self-centered characters out to further a career in show business through their super powers and the doors they open. X-Force is a media darling, complete with press conferences and talk show appearances. The interesting part of this title is the way one uses the other to their own means. The characters on the team are the sorts you wouldn’t normally root for. They bicker worse than Keith Giffen’s Justice League ever did. They backstab just as often as a soap opera character cliché. They promote themselves ahead of the causes they serve. You’d think that a cast of characters that completely unsympathetic would be tough to like. There is some sympathy to be had for some of the gang, and the rest are just flat out interesting to read stories about. Maybe you’ll love to hate them.
Mike Allred is an artist whose work, in general, I don’t enjoy. It’s a clear testament to the power of this title and the idea behind it that his art works for me here. His cartoony pop art keeps the book from being overly melodramatic, while allowing the characters to be as expressive and down-to-earth as you’d like.
This is the mutant title whose revamp was the most explosive. It’s more than just respinning a theme or injecting fresh ideas into an old book. It’s a completely new book and one that nobody would have blinked an eye at if Marvel had restarted it at #1. For the sheer audaciousness it took to pull off such a move, Marvel deserves credit. For getting the right people on board with the right ideas, editor Axel Alonso deserves a ton of praise.
The first set of issues from Milligan and Allred are available in trade paperback today.
10. Wildcats, Volume 2: “Was it ever so simple?” Jeremy Stone asks in issue #28. He’s looking at a picture of the cover from WILDC.A.T.s Volume 1 Number 1. The characters in that picture look like harsh comic book clichés. In a way, they are. Neither Jim Lee nor Brandon Choi did much with them. They resorted to running them through X-Men cliché stories, including the love triangle straight out of the Jean Grey-Scott Summers-Logan handbook. Chris Claremont brought his Huntsman character to the book (along with Tom Orzechowski for one issue) in an attempt to help bring some story focus to it. But it wasn’t until James Robinson jump-started the book and left early that any sign of the power of the book could be felt. Alan Moore stepped in with a run that redefined the book and became the gold standard for WildStorm. Joe Casey’s work is, in very many ways, a logical next step from Moore’s storyline. But it’s one with a completely new direction. It didn’t attempt to merely mimic the favored styles of past glories. It blazed a new trail, and one for which it will be fondly remembered.
The second volume of the Wildcats series started off with a bumpy run by Scott Lobdell and Travis Charest. The creators never truly gelled and the horror stories from it are legendary. (One favorite story is of the issue Charest decided to ignore the script and draw his own version of the story because he wanted to draw tanks that month.) Charest then became late on a bi-monthly pace and Lobdell stepped aside to give his friend, Joe Casey, a shot at taking the book monthly and giving it a chance to recapture its former glory. The sales numbers may not have indicated it, but the book regained a creative strength I didn’t think it would ever see again.
The team of Casey and Sean Philips spent the first six issues re-establishing the core characters. It had a decidedly fantastic bent to it, focusing strongly on such things as the origin of Void and the ascension of Lord Emp. After that came the critically acclaimed six part SERIAL BOXES storyline. It is there that the book found its place on the map. The sixth part was the first issue printed in 2001. From there, it went on for an additional nine issues, including a memorable pair drawn by Steve Dillon. Those issues told the tales of possibly the strangest comic book romances in recent memory, from the clashing alien forces of Jeremy Stone and Priscilla Kitaen to the single-minded long-thought-lost Zealot and her equally violent Grifter. It also focused on the intersection of higher economic models and fantastical premises.
The book, in short, became a novel made for comic books. The story isn’t all super-powered set-ups and knockdowns. In fact, the super-powered part of it is mostly downplayed and done off-screen. The book looked at this characters as people first, and people with powers second. You had interaction, confrontation, and petty human emotions playing out left and right. Not melodrama. The use of powers was secondary to all of this. When it happened, it was always in consideration to the human drama going on around it. The human drama was also more deep and down to earth than most comics today would ever give you. It was subtle when you weren’t looking, and harsh and emotional when it wanted to blind-side you.
Sean Phillips was a huge part of the success of the book. Philips didn’t even use Kirby-esque exaggerations in his art to make the characters look like musclebound morons. Heck, they don’t ever even wear a costume. They’re all in plain clothes, with the sole exception being Grifter donning his red face mask once in a while.
His sense of design and storytelling are second to none. His art style in this book was distinctive. It relied on an odd grid format. It was freeform. Everything was a square or a rectangle, and the layouts often had their own sense of design to them, as well as being a tool used in the telling of the story. The amazing trick is that it was never difficult to read. Panels would be pushed one on top of the other, staggered, and standing side by side all at the same time and your eye easily flowed through all the directions it needed to go in.
His design skills showed through in the covers and the title splash pages especially. They look simple at first. The splash pages had a large image and a splash of lettering across the top that did more than just title the story – it titled the page and stood out as a well-designed interior cover of sorts. The covers, though, pushed the limits. Lettering ran wild and amok. Images were distorted, or unfinished, or just closely cropped. I can’t even describe it. I’ll have to stick with some cover scans and let you make the adjectives happen.
There are two trades for this series collecting the work of Casey and Phillips. The first is “Vicious Circles.” The second is “Serial Boxes.” The last eight issues aren’t available in trade form yet, but with a version 3.0 of the title coming later this year, it’s an easy prediction that you’ll see the third trade before too long.
There is one honorable mention to add to the list of Pipeline’s Top 10 Series of 2001. I’m sure it’ll get me in trouble with some quarters, but I don’t care. This is a list of books that truly entertained me. They didn’t lose my interest and were favored entries in each week’s reading pile. Thus, my list couldn’t be complete without this one last book:
11. Out There: Humberto Ramos and Bryan Augustyn’s new series for Homage Comics features a ragtag group of four teenagers in a fight again some extradimensional demons who want to use the town of El Dorado as their staging ground for global conquest. Yeah, it sounds hokey. Ramos and Augustyn, though, make it an interesting read. It’s one of the books that floats to the top of my reading stack every month. It’s easy to pick up an issue and remember where the story is. The first page or two usually bring you up to speed quickly. And the overall look of the book is very inviting.
It only doesn’t make the Top 10 list because the stories are too often told to us instead of shown to us. There’s a great amount of suspense and tension in the early issues that just doesn’t pay off perfectly in the latter ones. It reaches a point where the rest has to be explained to the reader, and that’s a bit disappointment. The most recent issue, the seventh, suffers from a lot of the same problem. It’s mostly expository. Granted, it’s meant to catch new readers up to speed. Even the new portion of story, though, is laid thick with exposition. Hopefully, that will pay off in the next few issues.
Ramos’ art is as dynamic as ever, even playing around with new styles, such as the direct-from-pencils look of the invading demons. His characters are cartoony and manga-like at times, but they’re easy to follow and act out well.
Studio F, in the meantime, does a fantastic job in coloring the series. They deserve high billing for the look of the series.
Is this book destined to be the next WATCHMEN? Of course not. But you know what? I don’t read every comic hoping for the next WATCHMEN. There are some I read purely for the fun of it. OUT THERE is one of those. It’s a good looking book that reads easily. I enjoy the time I spend with it, and that’s fine for me.
Tuesday I’ll be back with lots of comics reviews. They’ve been piling up over the past couple of weeks.
Next Friday I’ll be taking a break from ranking comics to look over the successes and failures of Marvel’s Nuff Said month.
There is one last ranking I need to do, however. I have a few single issues of 2001 that I want to spotlight. Look for that in the next couple of weeks.
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.
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