Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Best Comics of 2008

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in December 2008.

1. (tie) Scalped

Marvel writer Jason Aaron has had a good 2008 – he was voted “Writer of the Year” by Wizard, and to me, only Matt Fraction has had a better year. In "Get Mystique," Aaron and Ron Garney took Wolverine to the limit (and have been given their own new Wolverine ongoing starting in May), his Secret Invasion/Black Panther tie-in was one of the true highlights of Marvel's tent-pole event, and he has breathed remarkable new life into Ghost Rider. But the highlight of Aaron's recent creative output is also the best comic book series being released today, his and artist R. M. Guera's creator-owned series Scalped from Vertigo. This year saw the book go from spy/cop intrigue & mystery, and the gloriously manic observation of one crazy day, to the loss of not just family, but of self, to bad choices, redemption for some, and loss for others. This is a story about badly broken people trying to forge a life in a badly broken world, of a society shattered by drugs and alcohol, of pain and scars that will not heal. Scalped is a spy book without cliche, a crime book on par with 100 Bullets and Criminal, a lyrical, funny, heartbreaking, brutal, neo-western comic-noir about family, race, drugs, money, history and power told from a perspective almost not seen anywhere else in fiction - and it is the best ongoing series on the stands right now.

1. (tie) Acme Novelty Library

Chris Ware is, hands down, the best cartoonist working today. His nigh-annual Acme Novelty Library is consistently the highlight of any calendar year, and November’s #19, essentially a character study in domestic madness told in the depths of space and in the blacker depths of Earth-bound reality, did not disappoint. The only criticism of Ware’s work is that his decades-spanning character epics take a very long time to tell – but with results like this, with works as frankly astonishing, sincerely breath taking as this, it is well worth the wait. This year, Ware returned to Rusty Brown, presenting a chapter focusing on Rusty’s father, Woody, as he looks back on where it all went wrong, where his life derailed and trapped him in a prison of familial misery. The book actually opens with a graphic interpretation of an old science fiction story written by Woody in his youth. The story within the story, a horror-science fiction pastiche both perfectly evocative of the pulps of the time while simultaneously transcending them, is one of madness told by an unreliable narrator. Alone, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars” is one of the best science fiction stories released this year, Ware’s words poetry, his pictures high art. But there are layers within layers at work – the story we just read was read through Woody’s eyes, his own perspective as unreliable and colored as the narrator, and coupled with the emotional second half of the book focusing on Woody’s own relationships and his own fractured reality, both halves are put into a startling new light of pain and loss. Alone, either half of this book would put the book at the top of my list… considered as part of the extraordinary larger whole that we have seen so far in the Rusty Brown epic, and there is no competition: Acme Novelty Library #19 is the best single book released this year, and one of the most remarkable works ever released in the comics medium.

2. All-Star Superman

I don’t like Superman, never have, but Grant Morrison, with Frank Quietly on art, certainly have crafted a masterpiece. So much has been written about this run in so many places, that there is almost no need to justify its placement on this list. In totality, DC’s All Star Superman is a timeless story with great art and perfect writing, everything a superhero comic should be, indeed, could be. And for my money, the true highlight of the series outside of the ending was issue number 10, the single finest superhero comic ever made. Superman is dying, dead really, and he rushes to save the day, again and again, no matter the sacrifice. He cures the sick, gives hope to the lost, gives purpose to those affected by his greatest failure, accepts defeat to his greatest foe, confronts his mortality, decodes his DNA, and creates the universe. Of all the criticisms that are levied against superhero comics in general, it is transcendent works like this that redeem the genre in every way.

3. Thor

Thor by J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel is the best book Marvel has put out this year. We don’t see Thor hopping around and doing a lot of super-heroing, but what we do see is a consistently enthralling, pitch perfect tale of intrigue and betrayal and of gods and mortals. Thor has managed to recreate Asgard on Earth, he’s confronted Tony Stark for his sins, and worked out issues with his father. But just as strong as the Odinson is the best supporting cast in comics, the Asgardians in their floating fortress and the nearby townsfolk on Earth. The machinations of Loki are stunning in her deceitfulness and logic, the interactions between the gods and the men and women of Braxton, Oklahoma are both hilarious and filled with drama and wonder. This is a book built in quiet moments, of whispers in the dark, and of awe in the eyes of men as gods walk amongst them. Coipel, doing his finest work here, aided by Mark Morales on inks and the incomparable Laura Martin on colors, are crafting some of the best work in superhero comics today, translating these quiet moments perfectly. And increasingly rare in comics, this series is less about defined story arcs than about presenting individual, nearly self-contained stories that play a part of a larger whole, and these individual stories are remarkable on their own. For example, in Thor #11, as Balder deals with conflicts at home, Thor says goodbye to an old friend and sends the world a message. A simple story vitally important to the larger whole, yet completely stand-alone, and also one of the best single comics released this year.

But JMS’s Thor is not the only place the character has shined. Appropriately, he is less superhero than god, but when he does act, it changes the world, playing a pivotal role in Brian Michael Bendis’s Secret Invasion. But the other real highlight of the year for the character is, of course, the work that Matt Fraction has done with the character, not just the great Secret Invasion crossover and this month’s love letter to Walt Simonson’s run, but his trilogy of books focusing on Thor’s journey from God to Man and back again. His “Ages of Thunder”/”Reign of Blood”/”Man of War” trilogy, telling epic tales from millennia ago in Asgard’s storied past, alone is really one of the best main-stream fantasy/adventure stories told this year, and provides a perfect counterpart to Straczynski’s work on the character.

4. Matt Fraction

OK, Marvel writer Matt Fraction isn’t a book, clearly, but bear with me while I cheat a bit here… See, either a quarter of the list will be Matt Fraction books or I’d be forced to drop some obvious picks for sake of balance. Matt Fraction has had one hell of a year, and I’m grouping his works here. 2008 started with the end of The Order, his fun Initiative-based book with Barry Kitson, and the end of his and the great Ed Brubaker’s character redefining run on Iron Fist, a great mix of mystic transdimensional martial arts action. Casanova, with Fabio Moon from Image, wrapped up its second arc, a sleek, sexy time-hopping gender-smashing delirious head-trip of a science fiction spy thriller that alone is one of the best books of the year. Fraction (again with Brubaker) shook up the Uncanny X-Men and relocated them to San Fransisco in the wake of Messiah CompleX, telling some fun, energetic X-stories while setting the foundation for that corner of the Marvel Universe for years to come. And with Salvador Larocca, he took hold of the most controversial character in the Marvel Universe, Iron Man, crafting a smart and fun thriller that is both the basis of Marvel’s future movie strategy and the foundation of the resistance in the post-Secret Invasion Marvel Universe landscape. And of course, we cannot forget Thor (see above).

5. Y: The Last Man

Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s post apocalyptic masterpiece from Vertigo came to an end this year with the best ending of any self-contained comic book series ever released. January’s Y: The Last Man # 60 was not about action and answers but about character and tone, a work of stunning beauty, the final chapter of the end of the world and the first chapter of the beginning of the new world. There’s never been anything else quite like Y, and the ending could not have been better. Re-reading the issue for this piece, I still find myself at a loss for words… if you haven’t read Y: The Last Man, than read it for the journey, read it for the ending, read it for everything that it is, the road of a boy as he becomes a man, and the women in his life. There are the rare books that fulfill the promise of the medium and this is one of them.

6. Criminal
Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s creator-owned comic-noir from Marvel in recent issues stepped back from the central story that played out in one form or another throughout the series’ run, focusing on a former criminal who gets sucked back in against his will. There are secrets buried in the past, bad cops and good criminals, sex, lies, and cartoons. In a renaissance for crime stories in the comic medium that has given us 100 Bullets, Scalped, and more, Criminal is so much more than a throwback to film-noir and dime-novels, it is a graphically inventive, edgy, dark work about bad, bad men, and bad, bad women living in a world of sin.

7. Omega: The Unknown
A few years ago, Marvel published the utterly remarkable Unstable Molecules, by indy cartoonist James Sturm. I like it when the big two take these kind of risks, and it payed off for Marvel again with Omega: The Unknown, written by author Jonathan Lethem and Karl Rusnak with art by Faryl Dalrymple and Paul Hornschemeir. An indy book for the superhero crowd and a superhero book for the indy crowd, this strange (in a good way), quiet little series about alienation and discovering one’s humanity is not your standard superhero comic, of course, though there are supervillains, alien robot nanoviruses, and battles with unknown forces. This is a moody, wonderful little delight.

8. The Walking Dead
If there is one guarantee about Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s consistently superb The Walking Dead from Image is that there are no guarantees… characters you love may die at any moment, the status quo of whatever existence these characters may try to eke out may be changed without warning. This is not a cheap trick by Kirkman, but a reflection of the reality these characters live in. Zombies surround them, and the remnants of humanity can rarely be trusted. This book is about trying to survive against increasingly overwhelming odds, trying to maintain humanity in a world of necessary barbarism, struggling with sanity in unceasing madness, and this year the pain and loss and suffering was dialed to eleven. I guess another guarantee about this book is how consistently riveting and surprising it is, month in and month out.

9. Mythos: Captain America
Paul Jenkins and Paolo Rivera’s retelling of various characters’ origins in the Mythos series of one-shots have been concise, true to the originals with a unique perspective and beautiful fully painted art. In Mythos: Captain America, the final and finest piece in the series, Jenkins and Rivera crafted an elegant, heartbreaking tale of sacrifice for country and brother. What makes a hero? Who do they fight for? Why do the fight? A reflection on sacrifice and part unintended elegy, it is a reminder of how important Captain America is in this fictional universe, and more importantly a reminder of how vital and treasured our fighting men and women are in this one.

10. Cosmic Marvel
When making a list like this, I find myself torn between focusing on items that represent the finest comics has to offer and stuff I like that are definitely great, but not necessarily greatest. Well, to hell with it, this is a guilty pleasure through and through and I don’t care – there is nothing wrong with having some cake with your steak and potatoes.

I am a sucker for space-bound sci-fi stuff, and at Marvel, writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have been making wonderfully fun superhero/space opera tales. Starting with the great conclusion of Annihilation: Conquest in January, and book-ended with the beginning of War of Kings, the cosmic side Marvel Universe has never been more exciting. Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy are some of the most fun and exciting titles out now, featuring some of the most interesting characters and places in comics. Throw in the growing aftermath to Brubaker’s Shi’ar Empire epic, the ever intriguing Inhumans going into space, and of course Secret Invasion, and you have a perfect storm of exhilarating and entertaining sci-fi.

Honorable Mentions
In no order, Incredible Hercules, Fables, 100 Bullets, Punisher (by Ennis), Astonishing X-Men (by Whedon and Cassaday), Godland, New Avengers / Mighty Avengers, Ex Machina, The Twelve, Echo, Patsy Walker: Hellcat, Magneto: Testament, Ganges, Captain America, RASL, DMZ, Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, and Tiny Titans. There are also a score of great graphic novels and trade paperbacks (that shall remain nameless for space concerns) that I read for the first time this year but were published in prior years.

c) 2008, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

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