Hey, I can compile a list of the best comics of the year, too!
I should point out that there is one caveat on this list: I don't have any manga. There are a few reasons for this: I don't read too much manga (I'm getting into more, though, because I always need to spend more money!). I don't quite know how to classify it. Are the series "ongoing"? They're not standalone graphic novels, certainly. And most important, the manga I read wasn't released in 2009, at least originally. I liked A Distant Neighborhood, but that sucker was published a decade ago, so can it count as a "2009" work? Pluto and 20th Century Boys, two very good manga, are also old, even though the translations are new. I suppose English translations count as "new" works, but that gets me into a whole new can of worms that, for the slim amount of manga I read, isn't worth it. So there!
As always, I don't quite understand how people can do a top ten list and mix ongoing series with graphic novels, because they seem like such different animals to me. I even look at ongoing series differently from mini-series, and the writing on these three standard comics presentation is so different that I simply can't put them on the same list. That's just me, I guess. I'd also like to point out that these are my personal favorites. I know that seems self-evident, but people seem to write these as if they've read every single comic book released in 2009 and therefore can make a blanket statement like "This is the absolute best." (Of course, our Dread Lord and Master, pursuant to his agreement with the Prince of Darkness, CAN make this claim, and therefore his list is perfect, but I value my soul too much to make that kind of deal!) So if your favorite comic isn't on here, all I can say is I either thought it sucked or I simply didn't read it. After writing for this blog for almost five years, I think the readers have a fairly good idea of what kind of stuff I like. So keep that in mind, please!
All right, let's fire away. I will desperately try to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but be warned: THERE MAY BE SPOILERS!!!!! Just so you know. And because it was 2009, these are Top Nine lists. Yes, they're dressed to the nines (sorry, I couldn't resist)!
BEST ONGOING SERIES.
1. Elephantmen (Image) by Richard Starkings, Ian Churchill, Boo Cook, Chris Burnham, Moritat, Rob Steen, Marian Churchland, Andre Szymanowicz, Tatto Caballero, and Gregory Wright (issues #15-23, plus the War Toys: Yvette one-shot).
There's a fundamental reason why this book shouldn't work, and that's the fact that it rotates artists so haphazardly. Churchland's three-issue "arc" (issues #18-20, and it was an "arc" very vaguely, hence the quotes) is the closest the book has come to a "regular" artist since Moritat stopped the regular gig, and her style is very different from the others (all men, interestingly enough) who worked on the book this year. But it doesn't seem to matter who's drawing the book, because Starkings finds talent in the art department everywhere. And then he tailors his stories to fit their strengths (he did this with Churchland, as her stories were much less "sci-fi" than the others). I've been raving about Elephantmen since it began, and this year it just kept getting better and better. Starkings began rather slowly on the series, building up the characters at the expense of rip-roaring plots, but this year, when we have a much better sense of the characters and how they fit together, he ratcheted up the action, and it was really marvelous. We began the year with the end of the plague story, which was full of action but foreshadowed many things, some of which have played out and some of which haven't. Starkings decided to flex his noir muscles in issue #16 with a tale of a bad guy and a bad girl. We got the tragic fate of Tusk in issue #17. Churchland's issues focused on the three women of the comic - Miki, Sahara, and Vanity. And recently, the sinister machinations of the people trying to "re-activate" the elephantmen have come to the fore. Starkings it not only telling a ripping good science fiction yarn about these animal/human hybrids and the scary overarching plot, he's doing what all good science fiction does - illuminate our own society. The hybrids have to deal with discrimination from a society that hates them, while they also hold an allure for the three main women. It's sexual, but it's also more than that - Sahara truly loves Obadiah, and Miki truly cares for Hip. They are kind to hybrids not only because they are fascinated by them, but because the hybrids care about them. Obadiah is a perfect example - he loves only Sahara, and it's only with her that he can let his guard down. This year, Starkings moved things forward a bit faster than he's done in the past, but he never forgets that this is a comic about society itself, and what moves men to kill and to love and to dominate and to create. It's a brilliant book. Who knew a letterer had it in him?
Jason Aaron and his collaborators continue to kick ass on Scalped, which twists the screws on the characters every issue and never lets up, making it a ridiculously intense read. This year began with the conclusion to "The Gravel in Your Guts," an excellent story arc that humanized Red Crow just enough to make us hate him more when he does horrible things. "High Lonesome," the next arc, was a twisty story about a man planning to rob Red Crow's casino and blackmailing Dashiell into helping him, which led directly into "The Gnawing," where so many of Aaron's plot threads seem to be converging, and none of it looks good for Dash. Aaron has done a masterful job with his long-term plan, and it's impressive to read how everything comes together. More than that, however, he's done an excellent job with these characters. Red Crow continues to dominate the book, and Aaron has shown us all the tragedy in his past that has led him to become such a villain. He's not unlike Wilson Fisk, except Aaron makes his arc more believable than the Kingpin's, both in the horrors that shaped him and the actions he takes to protect what's his. Dash also remains fascinating, not only because of his addiction to Carol but also because of his conflicted loyalties. He wants to take down Red Crow, but he's disgusted by Agent Nitz's racism and bloodthirtiness (and, not surprisingly, Nitz has a reason for this, too). It's such a tense comic that it's easy to forget what a great job Aaron is doing with the characters. Guéra remains a stunning artist on the book, with a wonderful eye for the grittiness of the rez and the opulence of Red Crow's casino. Guéra is excellent with the blood and action, too, which is nice. Scalped is just excellent noir, and Aaron is doing a great job with a lot of different characters. If you haven't been reading it, check out the trades!
This is partly a "lifetime achievement" award, as only four issues of Rex Mundi came out this year, but they were the final four, so I wanted to once again proclaim its virtues. For ten years this has been one of my favorite comics, not only because of the alternate history setting and the whole "conspiracy of the Grail" thing that got me interested in the Merovingians twenty years ago (and yes, I know it's a hoax, but the Merovingians are still damned cool) but because Nelson built up the alternate world so impressively and told simply a great adventure comic, far better than the one that got made into a movie starring Tom Hanks. Rex Mundi encompassed politics, religion, mysticism, and racism, gave us a fine lead character in Julien Saunière, an equally competent love interest in Dr. Genevieve Tournon, and a fantastic villain in the Duke of Lorraine. This year saw the huge climax, and while the ultimate ending of the book (as in, the final two pages) were a tad disappointing, the actual big battle to the finish was excellent and far more exciting than almost anything you find in a regular superhero comic. Nelson was helped early on in the book's existence by artist EricJ, who established a good noir mood, but in the latter years, Juan Ferreyra came on board and took the book to new heights with his detailed line work. Every year Ferreyra gets better, and this year was no exception. He was simply brilliant on this book, with wonderful designs and excellent coloring. I can just look at this comic for a long time, enjoying each panel. I can't wait to see what Ferreyra is up to next, as I haven't seen anything by him since this ended in August. The final trade should be out soon, and I encourage you to pick them all up (there will be six of them). And I hope the movie is still on track, even though I doubt anyone could bring this to such brilliant life as these creators did.
4. Captain Britain and MI 13 (Marvel) by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, Michael Collins, Ardian Syaf, Adrian Alphona, Jay Leisten, Cam Smith, Robin Riggs, Craig Yeung, Livesay, Brian Reber, Rain Beredo, Jay David Ramos, Christina Strain, and Joe Caramagna (issues #9-15 plus Annual #1, which comes after issue #13).
The first of two cancelled series on this list, which makes me sad. Oh well. Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk continue to get work, so I guess this series brought them enough attention that Marvel thinks they deserve more. This series, which started well, kept getting better even as it ended. The major arc this year was, of course, "Vampire State," which began with Dracula firing vampire missiles at Earth ... from his moon base. Cornell did a marvelous job mixing action in the Mighty Marvel Manner with clever character moments and a brilliant plot, which involved killing almost the entire team and then showing how he didn't really kill the entire team. It was a tremendously exciting story with an astounding ass-kicking final issue. And let's not forget that the first issue of the year was the finale to "Hell Comes to Birmingham," which gave us a heart-wrenching moment with Brian Braddock and Meggan. I really miss this comic. Cornell and Kirk on Dark X-Men just doesn't thrill me like this title did.
The second cancelled book on this list, and it probably would have been tops if Lapham had been allowed to continue what he was doing. It slid down a bit because of the cancellation, which seemed to make Lapham speed things up a bit more than he probably wanted. Even so, this is the kind of comic every creator ought to do - utterly fearless storytelling, innovative use of the comics medium (our Canadian Secret Weapon, Chad Nevett, broke down the way Lapham structures issue #16, for instance, and check out his reviews of each issue during last August), and a powerful vision. Lapham may have been cut off, but that doesn't change the fact that Young Liars approaches a masterpiece of comics. He shocks the hell out of us, of course, but is always consistent with the shocks, not doing it only for the shock value, but because it fits into the story. The amazing ending of issue #11 (which came out in January) hits you in the gut, but when you reflect on it, it works beautifully. Almost every page is like that. The fact that you forget the title of this comic while you're reading it, only for Lapham to remind us of it at crucial times, is another brilliant part of the story. And the final issue contains a chilling page (well, a few, but this one is more chilling than the rest) that once again upends our beliefs about the series. Young Liars keeps you on the edge of your seat, because you're never sure when Lapham will pull the chair away. It's the kind of series that demands several re-readings, and I have a feeling I'll only appreciate it more the more I do re-read it. Man, it sucks that this is no longer with us. Dang.
Brian Wood's Viking epic continues to kick much ass this year, as we got the punch-in-the-gut finale of "The Cross + the Hammer" with absolutely stunning art by Ryan Kelly; followed by the single issue story, "The Viking Art of Single Combat," beautifully illustrated by Vasilis Lolos; followed by "The Shield Maidens," which features Viking women holding out against a siege by Saxon warriors, drawn wonderfully by Danijel Zezelj; a single-issue story that returns us to Sven from the first storyline, with excellent art by Davide Gianfelice; and the current arc, "The Plague Widow," which features terrific art by Leandro Fernandez. Wood keeps telling these magnificent stories about people caught in horrible situations, and he finds the truth in those moments. He's doing two interesting things in this series: bringing a world that is almost totally alien to us to life, but showing us that people are often very similar, no matter during what time period they live. It's a wonderful series. I just hope Wood writes it as long as he wants!
John Layman and Rob Guillory's brilliant comic keeps getting better, and it began pretty danged well, if you ask me. Tony Chu, a cop who can "read" the history of any food he eats, is recruited by a very powerful Food and Drug Administration to solve crimes that deal with, well, food. It's the near future, and chicken is banned in the States, so the FDA is much more crime-solvey than they are today. In the first arc, Chu has to solve a freaky murder and figure out what's what in the FDA. In the second arc, he has to figure out what the deal is with a strange tropical fruit. A fruit that tastes like chicken, which makes it somewhat popular. Layman's plotting so far is great, and his scripting continues to get stronger. He's introduced many fascinating characters, including the woman who can write about food so vividly that people who read her stuff get the sensation of eating. Chu falls for her hard. The comic never takes its foot off the accelerator, and Guillory is up to the task, as this book, of all the books on this list, looks the most comicky - it's loads of fun to gaze at it, because Guillory packs each page with his stylized art. We get wonderful, exaggerated character designs, wild action scenes, gross-out humor that doesn't cross the line into crass or disgusting, and the occasional Easter egg. Layman veers between humor and horror so easily that we're often still chuckling about a joke when something terrible happens, but it keeps us on our toes and helps propel the book along. Layman says he's planned about fifty issues, and I look forward to following Tony Chu on his weird, wild way.
8. Secret Six (DC) by Gail Simone, John Ostrander, Nicola Scott, Javi Pina, Carlos Rodriguez, Jim Calafiore, Peter Nguyen, Doug Hazlewood, Mark McKenna, Rodney Ramos, Bit, Mike Sellers, Jason Wright, Travis Lanham, Sal Cipriano, Rob Clark Jr., Steve Wands, and Pat Brosseau (issues #5-16).
Gail Simone began the year with an unbelievably awesome issue, #5, which revealed a great deal about Junior, the villain from the first arc, and hasn't let up since. This is a series about unpleasant people doing horrible things, and while that might sound depressing, Simone makes sure it's not. Rag Doll, of course, remains her comedy outlet, and he's a wonderful character, but Bane's growth during this year was excellent, and his paternal attitude toward Scandal is both touching and awkward. Catman and Deadshot continue to be one of the best gay couples in comics either though neither is, you know, gay, and Simone takes these villains who have become people to us and puts them through the wringer. The second arc, "Depths," while not as rip-snorting as the first, showed how much people can be driven to do to, and featured some heart-breaking moments. In between, we got a "date night" issue, an excellent issue about replacing Batman in Gotham City, and Ostrander writing a Deadshot solo issue that made it seem like Suicide Squad had never been cancelled. After a misstep in the last issue of 2009, #16, Simone is back on course so far this year. Yes, this book is violent and occasionally depraved. But Simone makes it work beautifully. And I suppose Nicola Scott is too big for the book now, because she's off doing Wonder Woman. We'll see if Calafiore is the new regular guy or if he's just a fill-in. Who knows?
9. The Incredible Hercules (Marvel) by Greg Pak, Fred van Lente, Clayton Henry, Salva Espin, Rodney Buchemi, Dietrich Smith, Ryan Stegman, Reilly Brown, Greg Adams, Cory Hamscher, Terry Pallot, Nelson DeCastro, Raúl Treviño, Lee Loughridge, Val Staples, Chris Sotomayor, Guillem Mari, Emily Warren, Ulises Areola, A. Street, Chris Eliopoulos, Joe Caramagna, Simon Bowland (issues #124-139 plus Assault on New Olympus one-shot, which comes after issue #137).
Incredible Hercules wasn't quite as good as last year, but it was still a blast to read. Pak and van Lente have been exploring the mythology of Hercules while keeping the action going, and this year saw more problems with the Greek gods and goddesses who were mostly in the background last year. We also got the collision of Greek and Nordic myths when Hercules was drafted because he was mistaken for Thor, leading to the fantastic fight in issue #136, one of the best superhero fights in the past several years. Van Lente and Pak also broke up the team of Hercules and Amadeus, mainly so Amadeus could discover his place in the grand scheme of the plot. It continues to entertain wildly, but it wasn't quite as laugh-out-loud funny as last year (although there are moments) and overall, it just seemed more consistently good last year. It probably has something to do with the slightly lesser level of talent on the art chores, as the book continues to cycle through them. Only Reilly Brown this year is really very good, while the other pencillers are decent but nothing spectacular. Still, it remains a dandy comic to read. Marvel isn't hiding the fact that Hercules is going to die in the latest story arc, but I hope it's misdirection or that Pak and van Lente have something up their sleeve. I'm sure they do.
Other titles I considered: Agents of Atlas, Criminal: The Sinners, Dynamo 5, Fables, Gødland, Moon Knight/Vengeance of the Moon Knight, Wasteland.
I should point out that I try not to list mini-series if they're not finished. Yes, even if there's only one issue left. It's often very difficult to judge mini-series until they are completed, so that's my general rule. However, it's my rule, so I can break it if I want to! Consider the first series on this list!
1. Phonogram: The Singles Club (Image) by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Julia Scheele, Emma Vieceli, Daniel Heard, Leigh Gallagher, Lee O'Connor, David LaFuente, Charity Larrison, Dan Boultwood, PJ Holden, Adam Caldwell, Matthew Wilson, Christina Strain, and Steven Denton.
Yeah, I know. But it's just that good. It's beautiful, touching, funny, honest, devastating, and true. It's better than any regular "pamphlet" you're going to find out there right now. Hell, it's better than most of the graphic novels that don't need to fit into a cramped page count. And, because the world sucks, there's not going to be another series, because it makes no money for the creators. Damn. Still, a great, great comic book.
2. Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye (DC/Vertigo) by Grant "I'm not weird; you're just square, man!" Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Dave Stewart, and Todd Klein.
Morrison's best work has always been the stuff that actually has some humanity, and with the second Seaguy mini-series, we get that with our usual assortment of weirdness. This section of the Seaguy trilogy is, I suppose, the adolescent phase, and we get rebellion and awkwardness and, well, sex. The bullfighting issue (#2), is a wonderful little tale about shedding your past to move toward the future, and the series ends as many great things end - with a kiss. Morrison is aided by Stewart, who does perhaps the best work of his career on this book, and I hope very much that they get to the third part of the trilogy soon. Nothing Morrison wrote this year that involved a man who dresses like a bat comes close to this. But I guess it pays the bills!
3. Batman: Unseen (DC) by Doug Moench, Kelley Jones, Michelle Madsen, and Pat Brosseau.
The best comic starring Batman this year was not, in fact, written by the God of All Comics, it was written by a dinosaur from the Batman Dark Ages (pre-Frank Miller) and drawn by someone who inspires loathing in everyone's favorite commenter, T., but should inspire awe for the way he makes comics look like something completely unique. Moench, I would argue, is one of the few writers in the past 25 years (post-Frank Miller) to write a Batman who hearkens back to Denny O'Neil's "redefinition" of the character in the early 1970s - you know, the one we all love? Moench's Batman lives in a world of weirdness, where invisible men stalk the shadows working for strange masked men. His recent collaborator, Jones, makes Moench's world even weirder, with Gothic cathedrals and ornate contraptions and terrifying Batmobiles and, yes, really long Bat-ears. But Moench writes and Jones draws with insane abandon, and it's breathtaking to read their work. Moench and Jones' mid-1990s run on Batman is wildly underrated, and this mini-series proves that they still got it.
Joe Casey's examination of villainy might only be three issues long, but it contains more interesting ideas about bad guys than you'll find in the entire "Dark Reign" mess that has been running through Marvel's books for a while now. Casey brings us Zodiac, a villain who thinks Norman Osborn's rule is ridiculous and goes about showing us (and Norman) how it's done, from the first few pages, where he massacres a cadre of H.A.M.M.E.R. agents (making fun of the fact that nobody knows what H.A.M.M.E.R. stands for) to the beatdown he gives to Johnny Storm (just because he can!) to the faked alien invasion to the appearance of Red Ronin. It's all part of a clever plan, and Casey and Fox have a blast packing as much excitement and villainy into 66 pages. It all sets up a future story, but even if Casey and Fox don't return to this character and his crew (I'm betting they don't), this is still a wonderfully twisted story from the dark corners of the Marvel Universe. Man, when Casey's on, he's really on!
The second installment of The Umbrella Academy is more ambitious than the first, with time-travel thrown in to make my head hurt, but Way pulls it off quite nicely, telling a brutal tale that twists around upon itself and once again shatters the "family" of the Academy in ways we don't quite expect. No one is safe in these comics, which is fairly refreshing. Way's helped a great deal by Bá, who is absolutely wonderful on this book, taking what could be far-too-outrageous ideas and translating them onto the page in a way that makes them feel real, even though they look fantastical. He's not too realistic, and that allows the ridiculous to exist on the page alongside the horrible, and the dichotomy between them gives the book some added tension. Way always remembers that the family dynamic is what makes this book good, and that's why we can deal with the wackiness. I have no idea if the creators are planning another go-around, but it would be nice. These are really cool comics.
All of Ennis' Battlefields stories are pretty good, but "Dear Billy," the second of the three from last year (Ennis has since started another series), is terrific storytelling. His story of Carrie Sutton and her lover, Billy, is a complicated and heart-breaking tale that takes turns you really don't expect. Carrie is raped and left for dead by the Japanese, and this changes her outlook on life in ways that Billy simply can't understand. This story is about what war does to people, but it's also about the difference between real people and their feelings and the necessities of realpolitik. Ennis can be remarkably subtle when he wants to be, and while he's not extremely so here, this story is much more restrained then we would expect from him. Snejbjerg is tremendous on art, with very good war scenes and beautiful quiet scenes as Carrie slowly learns that her world has irrevocably changed, and she doesn't want to change with it. All three Battlefields stories are in a big nine-issue trade, and they're all worthwhile, but this particular story is really good.
Atomic Robo continues to be just one the most fun comics out there, as Clevinger and Wegener take a fine concept - a robot built by Nikola Tesla who fights evil - and just run with it. In this installment, they bring us Robo across the decades, as he fights an evil that isn't bound by the constraints of time and space, which just allows Clevinger to show us Robo at different times during his life (and allows Carl Sagan to guest star in issue #4) as he fights the thing. It's very funny and very exciting, and Wegener is excellent as always. He has a solid style that makes the weirdness feel more grounded and Robo more real. Clevinger is very good at single issues, but he always has the coherent whole in mind, too. It makes Atomic Robo a fun read each and every time an issue comes out, but also makes it a wonderful story to read as a whole. I'm looking forward to the new series, which should be out soon!
Jill Thompson's gorgeous painted art makes this series stunning to look at, while Dorkin's scripts are far darker than you might expect from a book about pets. These pets fight dark evil, and they do it right in suburbia, which makes the evil even creepier, if you ask me. Thompson makes sure that these animals are, well, animals, which makes their tragedies somehow more tragic. This is a tremendously tense series, with each issue pretty much standing on its own, although Dorkin makes it clear that something bigger is happening in this town. If you've been waiting for the trade, it will include the stories that Dorkin and Thompson did before this mini-series, so there's even less reason for you to skip it!
I had no clue about this mini-series before it came out, but I looked at the first issue and thought it looked pretty good. Boy howdy, was it. It's an extremely disturbing horror comic with a star - Chris Luna - who sees ghosts due to an accident she was involved in years earlier. She uses this power to work as a private investigator (it helps when you can ask ghosts what happened to them) and she has to return to her home town in Maine in issue #1, where she discovers some very creepy things are going on. Torres does a wonderful job building the tension until everything hits the fan, and Hernandez' terrific art helps make the setting even scarier. I always appreciate when a writer takes a tale to its logical conclusion, and Torres does that, not giving anyone an easy out in this series. It's always nice to find a surprise in entertainment, and The Veil surprised the heck out of me. The trade is coming out soon, so check it out if you missed the single issues!
Other titles I considered: Atomika (which isn't finished yet), GrimJack: The Manx Cat, The Last Resort, Underground (which also isn't finished yet).
BEST ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVEL.
It's Asterios Polyp-free!
1. Some New Kind of Slaughter (Archaia) by A. David Lewis and mpMann. I'm a bit flummoxed that this book hasn't gotten more press, because it's amazing. I can understand why people are drooling over Mazzucchelli's masterpiece (which I did enjoy), because it looks very good, but it remains just okay in terms of story. And comics are about art AND story, or at least I thought they were. Take this book, for instance. Mann is a very good artist, with beautiful bleak land- and seascapes and great character designs. He also easily switches from ancient times to modern, from the fantastic to the mundane. While his art might not be revolutionary, it's still excellent. And Lewis gives us a brilliant mix of myth and prophecy, from Noah and Ziusudra (the Mesopotamian Noah) to a modern-day deluge that serves both as a metaphor and a warning for the future. It's a book about how we make sense of the world and attempt to fit it into our view when it doesn't always want to. It's also a story about how people respond to times of crisis and try to find comfort. Lewis has written good stuff before, but this is really excellent. He and Mann have collaborated on two fine graphic novels, and I hope they do again. I went into greater detail about this here. This book deserves much more attention.
2. 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man (Dark Horse) by Matt Kindt. Boy, Matt Kindt continues to kick much ass in the comics department, doesn't he? His follow-up to the brilliant Super Spy with this, a more mature story about a man who grows to giant size. It's a metaphor, of course, but it works well when Kindt does it, as he shows how people become alienated from each other and can't figure out how to make things work. 3 Story is also a teriffic spy story (to a certain degree). Kindt is a genius at structure, as he tells the story of Craig Pressgang from the point of view of three different women in his life, which allows him to mess around with chronology a bit, much like he did in Super Spy. Kindt is a great creator, and he's just getting started. And, as Strange Tales proved, he would excel on a Black Widow series. My original review of 3 Story is here, by the way.
3. Beast (Image) by Marian Churchland. As this is Churchland's first graphic novel, it's rather stunning it's so good, but it is! She tells the story of a sculptor who is hired by a mysterious "man" to carve a statue for him. I put it in quotes because the man calls himself "Beast" and is a bit on the supernatural side. It's a twist on "Beauty and the Beast," of course, and Churchland does a marvelous job exposing the dark side of desire. She does a fine job letting the art speak for itself, and when she does give the characters something to say, it's all the more potent. It's a brilliant comic that makes you ponder how much love is too much. My review is here.
4. Footnotes in Gaza (Henry Holt and Company, LLC) by Joe Sacco. I just read this a few weeks ago, and the comments became a reason why I like writing for this blog - the discussion was terribly fascinating without being acrimonious. I still say that Sacco does a good job presenting a story that, while biased toward the Palestinians, doesn't make the Israelis the villains of the piece. Sacco isn't really concerned with being too balanced, because this becomes less a historical document and more of a meditation on the way we construct history. Yes, the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza in 1956 is important, but Sacco turns it into a consideration of how history is made, who makes it, and how biases affect it. I mentioned in the comments that no historical document is unbiased, which is why I can forgive Sacco's biases, and I stick by that. What is far more interesting to me about this book is the way Sacco collects the information and how current events keep intruding on his quest for "truth." Sacco doesn't attempt to get the Israeli side of the story, and some might see that as a failing of the book, but as I see it less of an explanation of "what happened" and more of an exploration of how we discover what happened, it doesn't bother me. At the very least, it's a beautiful looking comic that gets people talking. There's nothing wrong with that! My original review is here, if you're interested.
5. The Big Kahn (NBM) by Neil Kleid and Nicolas Cinquegrani. In The Big Kahn, a Jewish family discovers that the family patriarch, who's recently died, wasn't actually Jewish. And he was a rabbi, so that's fairly serious. Kleid examines the repercussions of David Kahn's death on his entire family, and this becomes a story about faith, religion, tolerance, what it means to be Jewish, and whether a liar could have been a good man. It's a quiet book that takes its time as each family member tries to come to grips with what David Kahn meant to them, and Kleid does a nice job allowing the characters to reveal themselves simply through everyday conversations. Cinquegrani's understated art helps immensely, as he creates vivid characters and then lets them do their stuff. It's always nice to see comics writers tackle religion, and Kleid does it very well in The Big Kahn. My longer review can be found here.
6. Frankenstein's Womb (Avatar) by Warren Ellis and Marek Oleksicki. This isn't quite as good as Aetheric Mechanics, the graphic novel for Avatar that Ellis brought us in 2008, but it's still a very good comic. Ellis forsakes plot to give us a meditation on the future and what it means for humanity, the nature of God, and other fun Ellis stuff. Yes, he likes the themes he plays with in Frankenstein's Womb and returns to them often, but he's also very good at exploring them, and using a forward-thinker like Mary Godwin and a creation like Frankenstein's monster, a clear foreshadowing of genetic experimentation, is very clever. Oleksicki keeps up with Ellis beautifully, either in the past or a slightly terrifying present. Ellis mines this vein quite a bit, but he always makes it entertaining, and he does so here. Here is my original review.
7. The Storm in the Barn (Candlewick Press) by Matt Phelan. I've read some people who think Phelan doesn't do a good job with this book because it doesn't really reflect the reality of the Dust Bowl but it's also not a fable. Well, I don't know. All I know is that Phelan gives us a gripping story that works for kids and adults. It's a coming-of-age story as much as anything, as Jack Clark must face both inner and outer demons to save people he cares about. Phelan makes it geniunely spooky in places, but it's mostly a tale of desperation and what drives people to make difficult choices. Phelan's stark art helps create a feeling of bleakness, but it also focuses us on the characters and how they overcome the bleakness. I re-read this after my original review, and I think it rewards multiple readings - it's a complex work, and it's nice to see Phelan writing "adult" books for kids. They can handle it! I reviewed this here.
8. Britten and Brülightly (Henry Holt and Company, LLC) by Hannah Berry. Berry's first graphic novel isn't perfect, but it's still a very good comic, and I look forward to see what she does next. Her art is excellent, bringing a drab world to glorious life, challenging the way we view a scene, and giving us a good sense of setting and atmosphere. Her slightly cartoonish art helps create a strange dissonance with the dour story, in which private investigator Fernández Britten and his unusual partner, Stewart Brülightly, delve into a suicide that may or may not have been a suicide. As Britten uncovers more and more about the case, he must decide how much truth the principals can handle, which clashes with his own honest nature. It's a tragic book because of the way Britten has lived his life and how he wants to change, but he's not sure if he can. It's an interesting noir comic, because it doesn't feel like one. Berry, however, uses some of the noir tropes to examine a man who is being pushed too far and doesn't know how to respond. I'm very keen to read more of her work. And you can find a longer review in this post, if you're so inclined.
9. The Eternal Smile (First Second Books) by Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim. Yang and Kim's "new" graphic novel contains some older work, but it's new enough for me, so why not include it? It's a fine comic, full of kid-friendly fantasy but also hinting at some darker themes. Kim and Yang tell three separate stories about people longing for truth, but when they discover the truth, they do many different things with it. It's a marvelously illustrated book, with different styles in all three stories, a very funny pastiche of Scrooge McDuck, and a heartbreaking/heartwarming love story. It's a fine collaboration, and an excellent read. Back in June, I gave it a longer review, if you're interested.
Other graphic novels I considered (with links to the reviews I originally gave them): Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (which, yes, is very good, but a bit lacking in the writing department), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, Never As Bad As You Think by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen, Miss Don't Touch Me by Hubert and Kerascoët, and In the Flesh by Koren Shadmi.
BEST SINGLE ISSUE.
As usual, this is a difficult category. So many titles are "written for the trade" these days that single issues often form chapters of a whole and don't stand on their own too well. That being said, it seems some writers are getting back to writing very solid single issues that, while they tie into a longer story, also tell a good tale within the confines of the "pamphlet" format. So let's check out what's what!
1. Phonogram: The Singles Club #4 ("Konichiwa Bitches") by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Julia Scheele, Matthew Wilson, David LaFuente, Christina Strain, and Charity Larrison. I originally reviewed this here, and I'll reiterate a bit: In this comic, Gillen and McKelvie give us a six-panel grid of the exact same spot for 12 straight pages, yet it work brilliantly. When they finally break that configuration, it's magical, in the way that the creators want this series to be magical. Seth and the Silent Girl discuss music and what its impact is on the people in the club. When Seth finally gets that, we get the crux of the entire series in one glorious double-page spread. It's not often you can get a 16-page story, 13 pages of which show the exact same scene, and get a feeling of beautiful motion, but that's just how good McKelvie is. And this issue shows why Gillen was the best comic writer of 2009. So there.
2. Young Liars #11 ("Exploding Heads") by David Lapham, Lee Loughridge, and Jared K. Fletcher. Last year, Young Liars #7 was the best single issue of the year, and this comes close to that masterpiece. Frankly, picking the best Young Liars issue is like picking the best ABBA song (it's almost impossible, because they're all so good!), but this issue, which came out in January, once again upended this series' status quo, and Lapham, as usual, showed why he's so damned good. The "Exploding Heads" of the title could refer to the readers', because we begin with what we think is Danny and Sadie squaring off against the evil spiders, but Lapham keeps dropping new revelations into our brains and making us rethink, once again, the entire series. We get a tremendous bloodbath and then, just when we think Lapham has screwed with us enough, we get to the final page. Holy shit. What a great series. What a great issue.
3. Fin Fang 4 Return! (Marvel) by Scott Gray, Roger Langridge, J. Brown, Dave Lanphear. The best single issue from Marvel this year was this gem, in which Gray and Langridge tell humorous tales about Googam, Gorgilla, Elektro, and, of course, Fin Fang Foom. The jokes fly fast and furious, there's a funny Curious George parody, there's a jab at celebrity adoption, there's a case of mistaken identity, there's a funny Christmas HYDRA story, and there's the Hypno-Hustler. THE HYPNO-HUSTLER!!!!!! Langridge's wonderful comedic art only helps, and while it's always fun to see creators poke a little fun at Marvel icons, it's hard to do it so very well. That Langridge and Gray can keep this hilarious without being mean-spirited is great, and, if you're interested, it's $3.99 but is quite packed with content. Plus, it's a one-shot! There's really no reason to not have this in your collection. I enjoyed this back in May, too.
4. The Incredible Hercules #136 ("Thorcules versus Hercuthor!") by Greg Pak, Fred van Lente, Reilly Brown, Nelson DeCastro, Guillem Mari, Ulises Areola, A. Street, and Simon Bowland. Back when I reviewed this, I scanned several pages. I did this because of the phenomenal and hilarious sound effects, which makes this issue a delight. But it's also one of the better superhero fights we've seen in the past few years, and when we get a lot of superhero fights, that's saying something. Pak and van Lente are in top form, from the funny-as-usual recap page ("I only wish Hercules himself had worn e'en a thong," narrates Thor. "'Twas not a view I relished") to the switcheroo that we get in this story arc (Hercules is posing as Thor, so Thor poses as Hercules) to the fight itself to the banter between the two heroes (Hercules - as Thor - praises Thor - as Hercules - because then people will talk about how great Hercules is) to the sexy talk between Hercules and Queen Alflyse, this is a wonderful issue. Oh, and Reilly Brown is great, too. If you're not sure whether you should buy this title (you're still on the fence? really?), pick this one up and see what a great job van Lente and Pak are doing on it.
5. The Warlord of Io and Other Stories (SLG) by James Turner. The annoyance of Previews dropping this book from their catalogue is well documented, and I, for one, have not been downloading the issues that Turner produces (I'm hoping for a printed trade, because that's how I like reading my comics), but that doesn't change the fact that this "teaser" book for Turner's new series is dynamite. It's beautifully drawn, of course, as Turner takes us to the moons of Jupiter and the depths of Hell, funny as all get out (I just re-read the two-page story about the chair, which features 32 identical panels but is still really humorous), and just an impressive work of comicbookness. No, the stories contained within are not finished, because this book is supposed to set up the regular series (the one Previews refused to carry). But that doesn't matter, because part of the joy of reading James Turner's comics is the stuff he packs onto each page. They're a pleasure to pore over because the detail is so exquisite. I really do hope that the on-line series gets collected and published. If not, I may have to suck it up and download the issues! Yes, Turner is so good I might change my mind about reading comics off a computer screen!
6. Wasteland #25 ("Planet Caravan") (Oni Press) by Antony Johnston, Christopher Mitten, and Douglas E. Sherwood. Issue #25 of Johnston and Mitten's wonderful series is a good one to check out, because while it ties into the main story, it also focuses on an event ten years before the series is set, and you don't need to know too much about the main characters to understand what's going on. Johnston tells a story that illuminates some things from the main tale, but it's also a tale of two rivals and the woman who comes between them. We also get a very good introduction to the world of Wasteland and its cultures. Mitten is excellent as usual, bringing Johnston's world to life wonderfully and, for the first time in the series, in color. The desert world of Wasteland is starkly shown in beautiful watercolors, and Mitten does a great job contrasting the heat of the day with the cool of the night. It's a wonderful achievement, and unfortunately, it seems to have thrown the book way off track. This came out about the time of the San Diego con (I got it late, for some reason), and only two issues have come out since then (one of them a few weeks ago). I do hope they can get back on schedule, because this is a fantastic comic. And issue #25 is a tremendous story.
7. Scalped #25 ("High Lonesome Part One of Five: This Then is the Rez") by Jason Aaron, R. M. Guéra, Giulia Brusco, and Steve Wands. The first issue of "High Lonesome" serves as a nifty little standalone story about a con man who arrives on the Prairie Rose reservation and begins figuring out a big score. It's fascinating watching Aaron move this guy through the story, because we find out early on that he's lying about everything (including his name, which changes almost every page), and he even realizes that he's lying to himself, which is a nice character moment. We think he's just a con man, but then Aaron changes the game and we realize the stakes are much higher. Yes, the final page has much more of an impact if we know who Dashiell Bad Horse is, but it's still a kick-ass ending. The story ties into the bigger plot that Aaron has been building since the beginning of the series, but as a showcase for his skills with creating interesting and devious characters, it's also very good. A cool issue of a cool series. I reviewed it back in February, too.
8. Zodiac #1 ("For the Sake of Mischief") by Joe Casey, Nathan Fox, José Villarrubia, and Alber Deschesne. I was busy ranting about the fact that this mini-series was three issues for 4 bucks a pop back in June, but that doesn't change the fact that Casey does a great job with this series and this initial issue. Zodiac is a great villain, and the idea that he'd be offended by Norman Osborn's switch to "hero" is a good one. He gathers some D-list Marvel villains, slaughters a bunch of H.A.M.M.E.R. agents, and beats the crap out of Johnny Storm. Casey tells the tale with his usual wry humor, and Fox is terrific. This is the kind of first issue that really makes you want to read the rest of the series right when you finish it, so I guess Casey and Fox did their jobs! Of course, now that it's out in trade (albeit with two other "Dark Reign" mini-series), you CAN read the next issue right away!
9. Secret Six #9 ("A Debt of Significant Blood") by Gail Simone, Nicola Scott, Doug Hazlewood, Jason Wright, and Travis Lanham. I pretty much wrote everything I could about this issue back in May, but let's review just briefly: This is sort-of a "Battle of the Cowl" tie-in, mainly because Catman, Bane, and Rag Doll happen to be pulling a job in Gotham during the time that "Battle of the Cowl" was going on. So they have some interesting discussions about what Batman means and how none of them could replace him, and it's rather good. This is also a terrific action issue, so there's that. Simone makes it very funny, too, with a panel that hearkens back to Adam West and Burt Ward climbing the sides of buildings, jokes about what a terror Bane is, and, of course, Rag Doll. Dressed as Robin. Awesome. This is also the issue where we learn that everything Rag Doll says sounds unsavory, which is brilliant. This is really a great issue, because it shows that our "heroes" really are villains, but they're not completely evil. It's a fine line Simone walks with this series, and in this issue it's on display very nicely.
Other issues I considered: M.O.D.O.K.: Reign Delay (the second funniest Marvel issue this year!), Super Friends #11 (read more about it here), The Unwritten #5 (the one about Kipling; Gross' high point on art so far on this title), Hellblazer #259 (the one where John tries to contact Phoebe and finds some nasty things), Gødland #28 (Lucky! The Almighty Decimator! R@d-Ur Rezz! A tremendous double-page spread!), Fables #86 (the Boxer issue), Dynamo 5 #21 (Date Night!), and Planetary #27 (the final one!).
I was going to do lists like I usually do, and then I realized that it's very hard to judge writers and artists, mainly because creators (writers in particular, probably because it doesn't take as long) work on several different books during the course of a year, and some are much better than others. Most of the writers I like are represented in the lists above, after all. The best writer this year is Kieron Gillen, mainly because Phonogram: The Singles Club is so, so brilliant, but also because S.W.O.R.D. is really good, too. He also wrote some other Marvel stuff which I didn't read; if I had, would I be confirmed in my contention that he's the best writer, or would I knock him down a bit? I don't know. All I can say is that Gillen started pretty well on the original Phonogram series and he's gotten a lot better with this one. I'm sure Joey Q will soon call him into his office (Quesada has a working teleporter, so Gillen can just pop over the pond), crack open Gillen's skull, suck out all the goodness, and replace it with Marvel Zombieness, and we'll all be sad. Resist, KG, resist!!!!! I've been enjoying his Marvel stuff so far, but I really hope he saves the Queen's life in the near future so she can give him a bundle of cash and he can write Phonogram (or other non-superhero stuff) for the rest of his life. Get on that life-saving, sir! There are a bunch of writers I would put on a Top Nine list after Gillen, many of whom were listed above, some of whom weren't (Jeff Parker, Ed Brubaker, and Jay Faerber, for instance). For the most part, however, my favorite writers are the ones who write my favorite comics.
This is a little trickier, because if the art is brilliant, the comic still might be lacking in the writing department, but you can still credit the artist. I'm thinking, of course, of Detective Comics, which features the best artist of the year, J. H. Williams III. It's not that Detective is bad, but for me, Williams' art is the reason I'm buying it, and I usually like Greg Rucka. His first story was fairly standard superhero stuff, and while his second one is better, it still doesn't rise above "good." Williams, however, makes it special. I love when artists do different things with the medium, and Williams has been doing that for a while, and in 'Tec, he really raises his game, from the fantastic panel designs to the shift in styles from the past to the present. The fact that he's doing this on a superhero comic makes it, weirdly, even cooler. If only all superhero artists would take such chances! There are a ton of artists I love working today, which makes ranking them even harder. Most of the artists from the series I like would be on a list, with Juan Ferreyra doing his usual stunning work and Jamie McKelvie killing on Phonogram, for instance. David Mazzucchelli's brilliant work on Asterios Polyp would rank highly on a list, too. A few I haven't mentioned yet are Sal Abbinanti, whose astonishing work on Atomika gives that book a great deal of grandeur; Alex Sheikman of Robotika, which is absolutely gorgeous; and too many others to mention. It's one of the reasons comics are so awesome right now - we have so many talented artists working in so many different styles, and it's a lot of fun to see them. Williams outshines them all right now, however.
I've been doing panels of awesome for a little while, so this might be easier next year. There might be better panels this past year, but I could not stop loving this one from Chew #3:
Ah, Layman and Guillory. You make me like vomit!
BEST COLLECTED EDITION OF OLDER STUFF.
I don't really take this too seriously, as I just want to point out some really cool stuff that I may or may not have reviewed here. I reviewed both Supermen! and Blazing Combat, both of which are fantastic, but I didn't review the Captain Britain Monster Omnibus (with all the Alan Moore stuff, plus the Dave Thorpe stuff plus the Jamie Delano stuff plus the stuff Alan Davis wrote and drew) and The More Than Complete Action Philosophers!, which I didn't review because I had already reviewed all the single issues. However, this collection has a few new philosophers (I probably ought to go back through my back issues and find out which ones are new), and it remains in the competition for "Funniest Comic Book of the Decade." So there. Get all of those, and soak in the olde-tyme comics goodness!
BEST COVER. Click on any of these to embiggen.
1. Planetary #27 by John Cassaday. Really, nothing comes close.
2. Hellblazer #261 by Simon Bisley. Bisley's covers for Hellblazer have been pretty keen, but this one rises above the others.
3. The Unwritten #1 by Yuko Shimizu. The covers for The Unwritten have all been good, but the first remains the best.
4. Detective Comics #857 by J. H. Williams III. I think this Williams cover works best because of the link between our heroine and "Alice." Williams, in his own way, makes this cover about the interior, which is nice.
5. Gødland #30 by Tom Scioli. It's a nipple. And it's blue. And it's in space. 'Nuff said.
6. Uncanny X-Men #512 by Yanick Paquette. This is the last Uncanny X-Men issue I bought this year, but it wasn't because of the cover (or, to be honest, the issue itself, which was good). Paquette's nifty "olde-tyme" cover looked great, and that's a cool clanky Sentinel in the background.
7. Batman: Unseen #5 by Kelley Jones. From the header to Alfred shouting to half of Batman already semi-visible, this is a great 1950s horror comic cover that happened to be published in 2009.
8. Four Eyes #3 by Max Fiumara. Fiumara does a great job with the atmosphere of this cover, implying the dragon connection with the smoke and even making the man look like a reptile.
9. Super Friends #12 by J. Bone. Starro the Pirate. 'Nuff said.
And it's not one of the best of the year, but come on - who doesn't love Adam Hughes' cover for Power Girl #1, featuring Doris Day ripping open her blouse?
SENSATIONAL CHARACTER FIND OF 2009.
Despite the fact that he's not quite as cool as Elephant Steve, Chris Giarusso's Archeology Jackson is the Sensational Character Find of 2009 (Elephant Steve first appeared in 2008, if you must know). He's only in one story, and he's not even in it that much, but he makes an indelible impression:
Now that's a catch phrase!
A close second is War Chest from Dynamo 5 #20, just because Jay Faerber is so blatant about her being a Power Girl rip-off and then having everyone comment on her, well, giant breasts. It's such a nice joke, and Faerber doesn't overdo it. (Click each side to read the fun dialogue.)
Finally, Unit from S.W.O.R.D. is in third place. He's awesome. Here's the very first panel in which he appears:
He's so friendly! He couldn't be evil, could he?
THE "NUKE LALOOSH" AWARD.
This is my choice for the creator who really needs a larger profile and deserves "to be called up to the major leagues," much like Tim Robbins in Bull Durham (hence the name). This isn't to say that the creator should move to the Big Two, because they might not want that, but it's a creator who deserves more recognition for stellar work. For some reason, I always gravitate toward artists in this category. I don't know why.
We have a few candidates: Adam Archer of The Devil's Handshake (which I reviewed here). Archer, as I mention in the review, has a bit of a Daniel Acuña vibe going on, with a bit less of the sterile feel I often get from Acuña's work (and I tend to like Acuña's work, to be honest). Allen Gladfelter, who drew Strongman (review here), does really nice work that would fit well on a Vertigo book, for instance. Back in April, I reviewed City of Walls, which featured gorgeous art by Abede Lovelace. But, like I did a few years ago, I'm giving this one to Alex Sheikman, the creator of Robotika. Sheikman is a marvelous artist, and his work on Robotika is stunning. He creates wonderful worlds with weird characters, full of Asian and wild West influences. He fills up his pages with details, does brilliant action scenes, and experiments with layouts and storytelling very well. His plotting is quite good, and although his scripting still needs work, Robotika is a fantastic read because Sheikman does such a nice job immersing you in the world. I've said it before and I'll say it again - put this guy on a Doctor Strange book and watch the copies fly off the shelves! Check out his blog for more examples of his work, but here's a really nice sequence from Robotika: For a Few Rubles More #3:
So good! Get this man a bigger comic, please!
THE "FELL" AWARD.
The Fell Award goes to the book that's been sadly missing for a while. There's one major rule: An issue must have come out in 2009. Therefore, Fell, which has won this award an unprecedented three years running, is actually not eligible, as no issue of Fell showed up in 2009! Man, I miss it. Let's check out some of the comics that were in the running last year:
Astro City. This got back on a regular schedule in 2009 after a dearth in 2008. Good to see!Gutsville. Like Fell, this is also not eligible, as no issues came out in 2009. Where the heck is it?Comic Book Comics. Issues #3 and 4 came out this year. It's still very slow, but it's still very worth the wait.The Victorian Horrors of Old Mauch Chunk. This is also ineligible, as no issue came out this year. So sad!Gødland. Five issues came out in 2009. I'll take it.
Let's check in on the contenders for this year, now that Fell is not eligible. Who will win this (probably not) coveted award?
Gemini. Jay Faerber and Jon Sommariva's endless five-issue mini-series continued this year, with one (1) issue showing up, in July. Faerber promises it will finish some day!Channel Evil. This fairly interesting mini-series began in June, but since then, nada. Alan Grant, I think, has written a second issue, because artist Shane Oakley claims he's working on it. We'll see!Four Eyes. This made the list last year, and here it is again! We got two issues of Joe Kelly and Max Fiumara's dragon epic this year, but none since May. I love this comic. I wish we had more of it.The Great Unknown. I guess those Men of Action guys are really busy with their cartoons, because Duncan Rouleau's weird mini-series has also been MIA since May. It's also quite good. Please, sir, may we have some more?The Infinite Horizon. Another holdover from last year, we got issue #4 in April, then it went dark. It's a six-issue mini-series - imagine when it will ever finish!
The winner of the award, though, goes to Golly! Phil Hester's odd comic about a carnie who fights devilish evil in the world is quite a hoot, funny and gross and often horrific. Hester has mentioned that artist Brook Turner is kind of slow, but this is a bit ridiculous. Issue #4 came out in February, and ended on a nifty little cliffhanger. Where's issue #5? Don't ask. And definitely don't ask where the next issue of The Atheist is, either! For 2009, however, Golly! wins the "Fell" Award. Let's hope it doesn't win it next year!
THE "SHARK-MAN" AWARD FOR AWESOMEST COMIC OF THE YEAR AND PROBABLY EVER.
Now that Steve Pugh is no longer working on Shark-Man and the world is a sadder place, this award goes to Pugh's latest project, the absolutely insane Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead (Radical Comics). It's not quite as awesome as Shark-Man (really, what could be?), but it's pretty nuts. I haven't even read issue #4 yet, but I'm sure it will continue the awesomeness of the first three issues!
BEST COMIC NOBODY READ.
I never know about sales figures, but I assume the sales totals on these books are anemic. Phonogram doesn't sell enough to allow its artist to buy, you know, food, but I still think it sells more than other books. Plus, it gets a lot of press! I probably would have said Harker, except I've only read the first issue. I ordered the other issues on their web site, so I'll see what I think pretty soon, but I can't say that it's the best comic nobody read. So, much like when the first mini-series came out, I'll name Robotika: For a Few Rubles More as the Best Comic Nobody Read. I talked about it above, so I'll just say it again: It's really good. You'd like it if you read it!
DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR.
You know, I really can't think of something that was really, really disappointing this past year. I mean, I could be disappointed by DC and Marvel for continuing to churn out crap, but that's what they do, innit? They do give us some stuff, don't they? So I guess I'll have to skip this one this year.
Well, that's my "best-of" post. Sorry for going on a bit. I hope you enjoyed it!