Saturday, December 25, 2010

Danny's BEST OF 2010: The Year In COMICS


- It's an interesting and exciting time to be a comics fan. Last year at this time, I named The Walking Dead to be not only the best comic book of 2009, but the home of the best serialized storytelling in all of pop culture ... period. Now, as 2010 comes to an end, The Walking Dead is STILL the best thing going in comics and pop culture, but it's also become a mainstream phenomenon thanks to AMC's hit new series. As surreal as it seems to have a zombie-horror comic book adapted for TV, it makes sense in a roundabout sort of way. For several years now, Hollywood was rushing to make comic book characters and series into the next big multimedia franchises. At first, the scope was mostly limited to the big, iconic superheroes. But once Spiderman, Batman, and The X-Men were accounted for ... what then? It was at that point that Hollywood began to dig a little deeper - suddenly, the great works of comic book fiction were being tapped for adaptation, as the darker, more adult books of the 80's and 90's were mined for an audience that was, perhaps, now ready for them. Even Watchmen - Alan Moore's classic story, long thought unfilmable, was filmed. But what then? Thankfully, we are now at a point where the coolest, freshest new comic book concepts can gain acceptance from the public. And thankfully, there have been some great comics out there to represent the medium and what it's capable of. Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim, and yes, The Walking Dead -- some of the best, most interesting series of the last few years are being looked at by filmmakers, and they're being adapted for movies and TV as is - in adaptations that are actively trying to capture the spirit of the original material. What I like about this - and I guess this is my main point here - is that it shows that comic books are still a thriving medium full of new ideas and great stories. Yes, there will always be a place for beloved characters created in the the 1930's, 40's, 50's, and 60's ... but the real lifeblood of the comics medium is the new stuff. The stories that have the freedom to go anywhere, to shock and surprise you, the stories not beholden to five decades of convoluted continuity. Look, there are certain writers - Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison - who have that uncanny ability to brilliantly craft new stories that make use of decades-old continuity. What Johns has done with Green Lantern and The Flash over the last several years is amazing. What Grant Morrison's done with Batman recently deserves credit for being so unlike anything that's come before. But I also wish that more of the big-name creators would follow the leads of people like Brian K. Vaughan, Robert Kirkman, Jeff Lemire, and even Mark Millar. Do a Batman or Superman or Spiderman story, sure. But also do new stuff, new characters, new stories. Show people that there's much more to comics than the same old superheroes we've seen over and over again.

To that end, some of by favorite reads of 2010 included original works like Ex Machina, The Walking Dead, Invincible, Irredeemable, Sweet Tooth, Fables, and Joe the Barbarian. I'd urge anyone to check these books out in their collected editions - something like Fables or The Walking Dead makes for an awesome gateway into the world of comics. At this point, however, those books are very much established. And sadly, Ex Machina came to a close this year. But, that's why it's such a great surprise when something like Sweet Tooth seemingly comes out of nowhere and fills the void. Writer / artist Jeff Lemire has really created something special here - a post-apocalyptic adventure that is quite unlike anything I've ever read before.

On the other hand, I can admit that I am a big fanboy / geek and still get a child-like thrill from seeing a great, mainstream superhero story done well. Maybe that's why Grant Morrison's run on the Batman books throughout 2010 has been so riveting. It's strange, trippy, mind-bending, and decidedly different, all the while playing very much within the established world of Batman and DC Comics. Paul Cornell is a another guy who's really given some new life to some of DC's oldest books. His run on Action Comics, in which Lex Luthor serves as the protagonist, has been gold so far. It's also been a good year for the at-times-controversial Judd Winnick. He's delivered an extremely solid bi-weekly adventure in Justice League: Generation Lost that's helped to ressurect the beloved, 1980's-era version of the team. Still, I suppose you might consider 2010 to have been a down year for superhero comics overall. Without a huge, earth-shattering "event" like last year's Blackest Night, there weren't a ton of books that had that absolute, must-read feel, with Morrison's Batman stuff being the lone possible exception. There were definitely some high-profile bombs this year, from the poorly-received redesign of Wonder Woman's classic duds to a plodding Superman story that saw him wandering the country on foot - big on heavy-handed lessons, short on excitement. Still, there was plenty of good to outweigh the bad.
In any case, whether we're talking old characters or new, established books or rookies, I think that comics fans can take pride in knowing that this is the medium where so many great ideas are coming from. Hollywood gets to cherry-pick the best of the bunch to adapt for film and TV, but there's still a great pleasure to be had in picking up a comic book or graphic novel and seeing a writer and artist's vision transmitted directly from them to you. In fact, 2010 saw the digital-comics revolution take a giant leap forward, as the iPad's release promised an exciting new avenue for comic book publishing. The scarcity of comic shops has long been an issue in terms of getting books mainstream exposure, but now, the biggest titles from Marvel and DC are instantly-downloadable with the wave of a finger. As more comics see digital releases day-and-date with print, it's going to be an exciting time for the medium. Sure, nothing will ever beat the simple pleasure of curling up with a paper-and-ink comic, but with so much great stuff out there, this is perhaps the best way to get new readers to sample comics and get exposure beyond the comic shop regulars. Of course, even digital comics still need great stories and characters. Luckily, there are any number of outstanding comics from the last year that fit the bill.

So without further ado, here they are ... (With one disclaimer: as I say in my TV wrap-up, I am only one man, and can only read so much. To that end, there are of course going to be gaps. So feel free to chime in with your picks for the best books on the stands!)



1.) EX MACHINA #50

- The final issue of Brian K. Vaughan's Ex Machina turned out to be one of the best final issues of a comic series I've ever read, and the best single-issue read of 2010. For several years now, Vaughan has crafted an incredible series in Ex Machina - a blend of politics and sci-fi that read like the best HBO drama not on the air, except with the added benefit of the stellar art of Tony Harris, who pencilled every issue of the series. Ex Machina told the story of Mitchell Hundred, a man granted a strange power by which he could communicate with machines. In the world of Ex Machina, Hundred fashioned himself into a blue-collar hero known as The Great Machine, but he became a true hero to the world on September 11th, 2001, when he used his abilities to prevent the second tower of the World Trade Center from collapsing. From that point on, Hundred decided to ditch the superheroics and get into politics, becoming the new mayor of New York City. And that was Ex Machina's focus - on Hundred, on his politics, and on the moral and personal dillemnas he had to wade through as mayor. Sure, there was also the ongoing mystery of his powers and the strange beings who granted them, but Ex Machina was about much, much more than that. And with issue #50, all of that came to a head. Vaughan threw us a major, major curveball with this one, and it was shocking and poignant. What if the Mitchell Hundred that we thought we knew for all these years was not the real Mitchell Hundred at all? How well did we really even "know" him all this time, anyways? Ex Machina's final issue turned the entire series on its head, and delivered a truly mind-blowing ending to one of the best comics of the last decade. Rarely if ever have I read a comic like this and just had my jaw hanging on the floor. This issue was a stunner, but it was also bittersweet. After delivering a similarly great ending to Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina #50 marked the end of the line for Brian K. Vaughan's *other* great ongoing book, and also marked the fan-favorite writer's last comic book work for the immediate future. Vaughan has made waves in movies and TV (writing some of the best episodes of LOST, for example), but man, here's hoping he's got more comics stuff up his sleeve.



- Last year's pick for best comic book series is once again at the top of the heap. The Walking Dead is simply that good, to the point where, literally, with each new trade paperback edition I start reading and do not stop until I've reached the end. You can't stop. The story is too unpredictable, the characters too well-written, the stakes too high. Even when writer Robert Kirkman slows down the pace, that element of ominous dread still looms large. In 2010, Rick Grimes and the surviving members of his group found themselves in a walled town that almost seemed too good to be true. Kirkman could have gone the easy route and had the town hold some dark secret, but instead, he focused on the slowly-evolving cast of characters, and used the relative tranquility of the new community to show that Rick and co. are not the same people they once were. In a way, Rick himself was the villain in recent months, acting irrationally and violently in the name of protecting his friends and family. And by going in that direction, by not providing easy answers or resorting to cliches, Kirkman showed that The Walking Dead is still the best and most vital book on the stands. Viewers of the TV show: check out the comics. Seriously, if you think that the show's been intense so far, well, read the books, because man, you ain't seen nothing yet.


- Sweet Tooth is a classic sort of adventure story, but it's also, in its own way, weird as hell. In this post-apocalyptic saga from writer/artist Jeff Lemire, a mysterious plague has wiped out most of humanity. What's left of the population lives in fear - of the plague and from the violent tribes that roam the country. Meanwhile, what's left of the government stays locked away in fortified bunkers and labs, desperately seeking a cure to the plague. The key may lie in a group of children that have been born since the outbreak - mutants who are part human, part animal. They seem to have immunity, and so they are valuable commodities. The story follows Sweet Tooth, a young boy - with antlers - who had been living in isolation in the woods with his father. When his father dies, Sweet Tooth wanders off into the wilderness, where he's hunted by the government and the gangs. His unlikely companion is Jeppard - a grizzled badass who wants revenge on the government for kidnapping and ultimately killing his pregnant wife in their quest for a cure. I know, it sound insane. And it is, in the best way possible. Sweet Tooth combines a gripping story with great characters, Lost-like mystery, and kickass action to deliver one of my favorite reads month in and month out. Published by Vertigo, the home of Preacher, Y: The Last Man, and Fables, Sweet Tooth is shaping up to be the next great comic in the tradition of those series.

3.) BATMAN by GRANT MORRISON (Batman, Batman & Robin, The Return of Bruce Wayne, Batman Inc.)

- In 2010, Morrison continued to work his magic on Batman & Robin, teaming up with a couple of astounding artists, from Frank Quietly to Frazier Irving, to deliver the offbeat adventures of the new dynamic duo. For those who haven't been keeping up, Bruce Wayne was dead for much of 2010. In his place, the original Robin - Dick Grayson - assumed the mantle of the bat, and fought crime alongside a new Robin, Damian Wayne. Damian was a character who has defied the odds and become a fan-favorite. The son of Bruce and Talia Al-Ghul, Damian's existence was kept a secret from his father until recently. But just as Damian was liberated from his mother and taken under his father's wing, Bruce was killed in action, leaving Dick Grayson to train him to become the new Boy Wonder. Of course, Bruce could only stay dead for so long (this is comics, afterall), but Morrison brought him back in spectacular fashion in the Return of Bruce Wayne limited series. That eventually spun out into Batman, Inc. - in which a resurrected and rejuvinated Bruce Wayne travels the world, creating a new army of international Batmen in his employ. Even for me, a guy who prefers his Batman grim n' gritty, this was some really fun stuff. Fun, though sometimes frustrating, I'll admit. But even so, Morrison's Batman books were and are one of the best reasons to frequent a comic book store, and Batman, Inc. is definitely one of the most promising new books on the stands going into 2011.


- To be honest, it's been pretty frustrating to have gone for a couple of years now without a mainstream Superman book that features Superman in the kind of big, epic adventures that make him, well Superman. It seems like these days, Superman is either off brooding and learning lessons about humanity, or else wholly absent from his own titles. And yet, as much skepticism as I had about an Action Comics that starred Lex Luthor, writer Paul Cornell has made this into one of DC's must-read monthly titles. The book mixes action, humor, and character to make for a great read, and Lex has rarely been more entertaining. We even saw Lex have a near-death experience during which he met up with Death - the goth-girl Neil Gaiman version - in what was a memorable story indeed. As much as I am tired of the overall state of the Superman books these days, Action Comics has been a huge bright spot. Bonus: it's featured a great Jimmy Olsen back-up feature to boot, with some of the best / wackiest Olsen stories we've seen in a long while.


- There's no question, Fables was slumping early on in 2010. After the "Witches" storyline, which was really well done, things just seemed to drag on and on, with a neverending buildup for the impending battle with new villain Mr. Dark. The Rose Red storyline, while it had its moments, also felt very overlong and drawn-0ut. But luckily, Fables rebounded in a big way. The book finally began to gain some momentum, and that momentum paid off in the giant-sized issue #100, a massive epic (seriously - it was a monster!) that was a pleasure to read and look at. I am continually amazed at the art of Mark Buckingham, who fills each page of Fables with expressive characters, fluid action, and detailed borders that give the book that little something extra. Meanwhile, the spin-off book, Jack of Fables, had a great year, often eclipsing the mothership. And it did it without its title character -- well, sort of. For the last year, Jack's been focused on the son of Jack (also named Jack), as he sets out in search of adventure across distant lands. Jack explored many genres, but my favorite was a sci-fi tale that riffed on old serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Plus, Jack had its usual incredible covers from the legendary Brian Bolland, which are usually worth the price of admission alone.


- The big "event" series of this year was supposed to have been Brightest Day, but while that book has struggled to find its rhythm, JLA Gen Lost has been hitting it out of the park. Writer Judd Winnick has crafted a great serialized adventure story, bringing back key members from the 1980's version of the League to take on the revived and more-evil-than-ever Max Lord - their former leader. This bi-weekly book has had great action matched with fun characterization. Stalwarts like Booster Gold and Captain Atom have rarely been handled this well, and even the new Rocket Red has been a welcome addition to the team. This has been the superhero book with the biggest action, the most widescreen feel, the best cast of characters, and the most killer cliffhangers of 2010.


- Mark Waid is one of the greats when it comes to superhero comics, but given how much he's played in the DC and Marvel sandboxes, it's always fun to see him dabble with new worlds and new characters. And that's what we've got with Irredeemable - a dark and entertaining take on the DC Comics universe that's at once familiar and original. The basic premise of Irredeemable is simple: what if Superman (or in this case, a Superman-like hero named The Plutonian) goes to the dark side? In this world, he has, and he has earth's entire populace at his bootheel. The other remaining heroes have gone underground, the world's governments have handed over their authority. This is some crazy, epic stuff. Interestingly, Mark Waid has also crafted a companion piece - Incorruptible - in which one of earth's worst supervillains decides to become a hero in order to stand up against the Plutonian. A great, fascinating concept, and Waid is a master of making sure that character always takes precedent even in the middle of the universe-shattering plot.


- A monthly Zatanna comic written by Paul Dini? Yes, please. Dini, the man behind Batman: The Animated Series, has made no secret of his longtime love for DC's resident mistress of magic, and his affection for the character shines through in this long-time-coming comic. Dini just has that knack for telling simple yet involving stories, and he definitely knows his magic. He gives the book a fun yet foreboding quality, and isn't afraid to throw in some cheesecake sex appeal to boot. Zatanna can be a tricky character to write, but Dini has so far put her into a number of entertaining plotlines. So much so that I can say without question that, since the inception of this series, my backwards-reading abilities have improved significantly.


- Gail Simone continues to make Secret Six one of the wildest rides in comics. Following the misadventures of six work-for-hire criminals, the book never shies away from exploring the darkness within its central characters. In 2010, the book benefitted from the fluid, dynamic art of Jim Calafiore, as well as guest-writer stints from the likes of John Ostrander, who made The Secret Six's masked marksman, Deadshot, such a great character back in the day on Suicide Squad. With a great lineup of vile villains at its core, and a string of boundary-pushing, genre-bending stories throughout the year, this was another year in which Secret Six proved that it can be good to be bad.


- With all the chaos in the Bat-books in 2010, one constant was Red Robin, which was consistently well-written and expertly-drawn throughout the year. It also once again highlighted the fact that Tim Drake is one of the most interesting, well-rounded characters in mainstream comics, and writer Fabian Nicieza does a great job of building on the foundation established by others like Chuck Dixon and Geoff Johns. In 2010, Batman's former sidekick waged a one-man war on crime, butting heads with Ra's Al Ghul, The League of Assassins, and the teenage gang leader known as Lynx. He struck up a romance with the daughter of Wayne Enterprises' Lucius Fox, and had a heartfelt reunion with Bruce Wayne upon his return. Meanwhile, the art from Marcus To has been clean and ultra-solid. It's a flashback of sorts to the heyday of the 90's Robin comic when Chuck Dixon and Tom Grummet worked their magic, and I've really been enjoying what Nicieza and To have been doing.


- Booster Gold (by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Chris Batista)

- Streets of Gotham (by Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen)

- The Flash (by Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul)

- Green Lantern (by Geoff Johns and Doug Mahnke)

- Batgirl (by Brian Q. Miller and Lee Garbett)

SPECIAL MENTION: I'm not fully caught up on INVINCIBLE yet, but I've been getting more and more into this series over the last year, slowly but surely making my way through the trade paperback collections. Robert Kirkman's (The Walking Dead) *other* ongoing series is an awesome, modern spin on classic superhero storytelling. Since it's all new characters, Kirkman is free to do whatever he wants with them. People can live, die, hook-up, or turn evil as he sees fit, so you never know what's in store. Meanwhile, there's a great mix of humor and satire with moments of genuine chock and awe. When Kirkman cranks up the action, the usually-light Invincible can become a brutal and violent book. As with The Walking Dead, however, Kirkman always puts characterization first. In this case, that mix of great characters and epic superhero action makes for one of the true must-read books out there.



- I said earlier that the overall direction of the Superman books has been a little frustrating of late, but in a larger sense, I think a lot of people have been waiting for the next great Superman story that can compare with Grant Morrison's already-classic All-Star Superman from a few years back. Well, this year did see a truly great Superman story, but it wasn't in the monthly titles and it wasn't as hyped up as All-Star ... but it does get my highest reccomendation. That story was Superman: Last Family of Krypton, an "Elseworlds" story (basically a "What-If?"), that tells the tale of a young Kal-El who is not rocketed to earth from the doomed planet Krypton alone, but with his mother, father, and siblings in tow. Skillfully penned by Cary Bates and expertly illustrated by Renato Arlem, the story imagines a world in which Jor-El and Lara of Krypton quickly become earth's biggest celebrities - its top scientist and most-respected spiritual guru respectively. This new dynamic puts an interesting spin on a young Kal El's eventual decision to become Superman, and also sets up a new role for Lex Lethor as a trusted advisor to the House of El. It's a fantastic story, a decades-spanning epic that is full of big action, emotion, and bursting with intriguing ideas. This was the best Superman story of the year, and one of the best in a long time.


- At first, I was definitely skeptical of yet another Fables spin-off, but writer Chris Roberson proved me wrong by crafting a great rollercoaster ride of a series, fashioning fairy-tale icon Cinderella into Fable's own version of James Bond. While Fables has diverged a lot from the kind of book it started off as, From Fabletown With Love reminded me of why I loved Fables in the first place, putting a modern, often subversive spin on the classic characters we all know so well, and deftly mixing fantasy and reality to create a unique sort of story. There are some great twists and turns in this story, and the eventual reveal of the villain was one of the year's most fun surprises. A new Cinderella ongoing is now in the cards, and given how fun this miniseries was, I for one am psyched.


- As fascinating as it can be to see Grant Morrison's take on mainstream superheroes, I also really enjoy when he can just go balls-to-the-wall with his own characters and concepts, indulging his propensity for mind-expanding weirdness without he or us worrying that he is screwing up continuity or stepping on other writers' toes. Joe the Barbarian has been vintage Morrison weirdness, but there is a very real and poignant story at its core. In the real world, we meet Joe, an eleven-year-old kid spending the day alone in his house. Joe has Type-1 diabetes, and it's acting up. As Joe struggles to make his way from his bedroom to the kitchen to get his medicine, his mind enters a vivid fantasy world where he is Joe the Barbarian - the chosen hero on a great adventure to save a dying kingdom. The book is a total mind-trip, and it's beautifully rendered by Sean Murphy, who's scratchy art conveys both the mundane nature of the real world and the strange, surreal quality of Joe's fantasy kingdom. With the eighth and final issue on its way in early 2011, I'm eagerly awaiting the series' sure-to-be-memorable conclusion.


- One of the big breakout writers of 2010 was definitely Paul Cornell, who has brought his uniquely British humor and wit to Action Comics, Batman & Robin, and to one of the most fun miniseries we've seen in a while, Knight & Squire. A few years ago, Grant Morrison reintroduced the concept of a league of international Batmen - Bruce Wayne-approved costumed adventurers who kept their respective countries safe from evil. Britain's protectors, the Knight & Squire, quickly became fan favorites. In this miniseries, still in progress, we've seen England's dynamic duo get into all sorts of trouble, but the highlight so far was surely issue #3, in which a deranged science experiment brings Britain's most notorious monarchs back to life, with the reanimated kings quickly conspiring to take back England for their own. A hilarious story, I'll admit that I even learned a thing or two about British history. See kids, comics can be fun AND educational!


- I suppose I'll start by saying that the Detective Comics storyline, "Batwoman: Elegy" that started in mid-2009 and ran through February 2010, was one of the truly great superhero storylines of the last couple of years, and part of an amazing run on Detective by writer Greg Rucka and artist JH Williams III. Now, the incredible JH Williams is back, with a prelude to his upcoming Batwoman series, and once again, his astounding artwork alone is worth the price of admission. And it turns out that the guy can write, too. In fact, all indications are that Williams will continue to make Kate Kane one of the most interesting and unique characters in comics. And now that Bruce Wayne is finally back to mix it up with her a bit, things should get interesting - as was evidenced in this #0 one-shot. In any case, Williams upcoming work on Batwoman is surely one of the big things to look forward to in 2011.


1.) Robert Kirkman (Invincible, The Walking Dead)

2.) Grant Morrison (Batman Inc., The Return of Bruce Wayne, Joe the Barbarian)

3.) Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Superboy)

4.) Geoff Johns (The Flash, Green Lantern, Brightest Day)

5.) Judd Winnick (Justice League Generation Lost, Power Girl)

6.) Paul Cornell (Action Comics, Knight & Squire)

7.) Bill Willingham & Matthew Sturges (Fables, Jack of Fables)

8.) Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina)

9.) Cary Bates (Superman: Last Family of Krypton)

10.) Paul Dini (Streets of Gotham, Zatanna)


1.) Frank Quietly, Cameron Stewart, and Frazier Irving (Batman & Robin)

2.) Mark Buckingham (Fables)

3.) Sean Murphy (Joe the Barbarian)

4.) Fernando Pasarin (Green Lantern: Emerald Warriors)

5.) Charlie Adlard (The Walking Dead)

6.) Renato Arlem (Superman: Last Family of Krypton)

7.) Marcus To (Red Robin)

8.) Lee Garbett (Batgirl)

9.) Tony Akins (Jack of Fables)

10.) Tony Harris (Ex Machina)

SPECIAL MENTION: Brian Bolland, for his always-incredible cover art on Jack of Fables.

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