Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Best Comics of 2009

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in December 2009.
When all is said and done, when this era of comics history is being looked at by the cultural historians of the future, 2009 will be seen as one of the most significant in our history. There have been many seemingly sudden seismic shifts throughout comic history, and the period around 2009 will be remembered for the corporatization and full financial exploitation of the comics medium and the transition from the paper comic book to the digital one. Disney bought Marvel, Warner's shook up DC, the con wars began, prices went up while the global economy took a nosedive, all as a generation of new readers come to think of comics as pixels on a screen rather than bound pieces of cultural ephemera that also happen to tell stories. What a weird, scary, exhilarating time to be a comic fan!

But what about the stories, the whole rhyme and reason for all of this? I think it is too early to categorize the entire year under any particular umbrella, but many folks are quick to point out the rather dark creative direction of the Big Two. The DCU has fallen under the Blackest Night of emotion-manipulating pseudo-zombies while at Marvel the 616 has fallen under the Dark Reign of the Green Goblin and the Ultimate universe went through a rather senseless armageddon. Dark Reign and Blackest Night have both been entertaining in places, with a payoff in sight for Marvel fans with a guarantee of a new, lighter, more self-contained Heroic Age. But there are no larger parallels, no grander meanings to be derived from the direction of mainstream superhero comics, which are frankly not representative of anything - not the current cultural or financial landscape, not the state of the industry; the darkness put forth by Marvel and DC has nothing to do with reality in which we live, sadly. It is just another storytelling mechanism, a plot device to move whatever larger universe-wide agenda forward. If anything, the continuing rise of the crime comic may hold more fascinating, deeper, long-term parallels with the state of the world than anything the cape and tight set has put forth this year. The worlds of DC and Marvel are not the totality of comics, of course... Right now, what can be said for sure when the ink dries on this chapter on the important works of this point in time in comics history, is that this is the year Asterios Polyp was published. Everything else will sit in its formidable shadow.

And the American comic industry really hasn't all been creative doom and gloom, despite what Alan Moore wants to tell you. For my best-of list, in the same year that we had dark, challenging works as Scalped, Incognito, and Final Crisis, we also had fun, light, and above all pretty damn good comics in the all-ages wonder of the Marvel Oz books, to the sheer goofy fun in Incredible Hercules and Johnny Hiro.

All that said, we'll start with the best ongoing and best graphic novel of the year, then my full list of the fifteen or so best comics of 2009.

The Best Ongoing Series of 2009 - Scalped by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guerra

There are few things that I look forward to as much as writer Jason Aaron's Scalped. Everything I said last year about this ongoing character driven masterpiece from Vertigo holds true. By a mile, this is consistently the best ongoing comic being published by anyone. This is more than just the tragedy of a man who has completely lost himself in a maze of drugs and of the sins of the past bubbling up and overwhelming him, it is the tragedy of an entire people trying to survive in one piece while mired in third world conditions, an inescapable gang war, an ocean of drugs, alcohol, and corruption. The near-universal desperation never overwhelms, the art is gritty yet not stylistically so (in essence, it is not dark for darkness sake). This is the rare comic that exposes a state-of-being for a group of people without being preachy, and disappointingly rare for so many stories of any media, it is a work that begins and ends with the characters and their actions... this is no plot inhabited by paper cutouts. If you like crime comics, spy books, westerns, quality realistic fiction that is just off the beaten path, or just plain good comics, then this is a comic you should be reading.

The Best Graphic Novel of 2009 - Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Is it cliche to call this the best graphic novel of 2009? A decade in the making, David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp from Pantheon is the one of the singular achievements of the comics medium, a symphony of design, a story that says more in its astonishing use of color and inventive lettering than some novels are capable of saying in 600 pages. A light character study about an artist and a relationship in decline as much as it is about the very nature of art itself, there has never been a more perfect melding of art and words and design, a comic that cannot exist as anything but a comic. I find myself at a loss for words at trying to describe the wogboggling perfection of this novel, its depth and level of formal reinvention, the dozens of levels that it works on. Chris Ware's Acme Novelty #19 is still the finest single comic ever produced, but I'd be hard pressed not to call this a close second, at least aesthetically.

As momentous a work as this is, so much has been written about it, and deservedly so. Go ahead, look online, read the reviews, there is no praise high enough for this work. Or you could take the advice of Scott McCloud and stop reading the reviews, and read the comic... that if you buy one graphic novel this year, this should be it.

The best comics of 2009...

1 - tie) Asterios Polyp and Scalped (see above).

2) The Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca from Marvel is the best ongoing superhero comic of 2009. The year opened with "World's Most Wanted," Tony Stark on the run, not just from Norman Osborn's forces, but from his own past, both the people he has effected and his past sins. To keep Osborn form accessing his secrets and technology, Stark incrementally destroyed his own greatest weapon, his true superpower, his own mind. How unique is it that the methodical destruction of a superhero is at that hero's own hands? Certainly Osborn's intentions act as the catalyst, but it is Stark and Stark alone who is responsible for his own destruction. True heroism lies in sacrifice and not fancy powers or advanced technology, and here Tony Stark's colors really shine. Also shining is the supporting cast, reluctantly yet dutifully aiding Stark in his quest for self-destruction. As we close out the year, Marvel's trinity has reunited to do what they can to save what is left of the former Iron Man, Tony Stark trapped in a prison of his own mind. "World's Most Wanted," despite its length, was a tightly plotted, emotional and thrilling work, and the current ark, "Stark Disassembled" is shaping up to be just as good (with, incidentally, the best covers of the year). And how can I not comment on the superb art of Salvador Larroca (with Frank D'Armata), which is not just consistently better than most superhero comics, but just as notable in an age of accepted delays, on time as well.

3) The vanguard of the crime comic revolution is being led by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips - there simply isn't a better creative combination working in comics today, and the one-two punch of Criminal and Incognito from Icon definitely represents a high-water mark for noir comics in 2009 (sorry 100 Bullets - while superb, it became more about the conspiracy than the crime aspect, though its everyone-looses ending lived up to its wonderfully noir core). When Brubaker and Phillips work together, there is some kind of voodoo at work, Brubaker writing some of his best, down and dirty stuff, and Phillips doing the best work of his career. An expectedly superb Criminal chapter closes out '09, with the pulpy, vile, exhilarating super-villain comic noir Incognito filling out the rest. In Incognito, Zack Overkill is a super-powered villain of the highest order stuck in the crushingly mundane existence of a file clerk while in witness protection. His powers suppressed by government drugs, he is seemingly still a villain at heart, and living in his head-space as he is forced to live a normal mundane life is a thrill. Outside forces bear down to try to control him, and all hell breaks loose in this subtle, deliciously absurd pulp super-villain comic populated by a wonderful supporting cast. Also seeing release in 2009 were Brubaker and Phillips' complex and twisting first super-spy noir masterwork, Sleeper from Wildstorm (which I had the sheer pleasure of reading for the first time this year), and the absolutely gorgeous Criminal hardcover (soon to be back in print) collecting the first three volumes. If you see a comic with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' names on it, buy it, you won't be disappointed.

4) There is nobody better at writing war comics than Garth Ennis, and his ongoing Battlefields anthologies from Dynamite certainly add to his growing legacy as the best there is. In addition to his usual striving for the utmost historical and technical accuracy, Battlefields has the additional appeal of spotlighting the forgotten aspects of World War II, the Night Witches and Dear Billy minis focusing on the role of Women in the war. Ennis' war comics tend to do any of a handful of things: showing individuals simply trying to do their jobs in the face of great adversity, the effect of war on a person, and/or, usually most fascinating, the people who need war, waging their own private one-person crusades. Battlefields: Dear Billy, by Ennis and Peter Snejbjerg, starts out as a tale of romance between a shot-down pilot, Billy, and a nurse, Carrie, and is told as a letter from Carrie to Billy. But there is more going on: war effects everyone it touches, and Carrie is no exception, carrying far deeper wounds than the men she is trying to heal. Ennis has a penchant for zigging where you think the story would zag while still respecting character and logic above all else (his amazing take on Dan Dare, for instance), and Dear Billy takes some surprising, heart-breaking turns. This isn't a Hollywood romance, and what romance forged in the shadow of the horrors of war could be? This isn't about good vs. evil, nor is it a preachy exploration of the muddled shades of gray that so often cloud the battlefield. Dear Billy, is a multi-layered exploration of revenge and the way the quest for vengeance can poison life as much as War itself, set against the backdrop of one victim's experiences in the China-Burma-India theatre of World War II. In 66 pages or so, this is one of Garth Ennis's finest works and this, with an ouvre as impressive and consistently good as his, is no small feat.

5) L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young from Marvel: what an uplifting delight are Marvel's Oz books! As an all-ages comic, the storytelling is uncomplicated, the paragon of simplicity, distilled to the core elements yet told with a respect, knowledge and love for the source material that only someone like Eric Shanower could pull off. The art by Skottie Young is some of the best in mainstream comics this year, stylish and beautiful, with superb colors by Jean-Francois Beaulieu, every panel is a new wonder to behold. I have no affection for the original Oz books or their myriad of adaptations and have not been exposed to them all that much, so maybe that lack of knowledge benefits my reading experience. Nevertheless, it still seams to me that Shanower and Young pull off the feat of making an adaptation that stands alone by sheer force of artistic quality, truly transcending the original. These books are an utter joy to read! This is the rare comic that can be shared and appreciated by adults and children alike, and if Marvel does their jobs properly, these books will hold their own as the definitive retelling of the Oz cycle for decades to come.

6) A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi from Drawn & Quarterly. Last spring, I had the unexpected thrill of reading Tatsumi's fascinating, revelatory 800+ page opus on the rise of manga in post-war Japan one day followed by meeting the master the next. This graphic memoir is a must read for anyone wanting to learn about the history of comics in Japan, post-war Japanese culture, or a look at the creative process from one of the masters.

7 - tie) The Incredible Hercules by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, et al, from Marvel. This book is one of the most intricately plotted, most fun superhero books on the stands. Folding in intricacies of greek myth, quantum mechanics, asides that do everything from brilliantly extrapolating the mechanisms of the afterlife to the best sound effects in comics (SUKKA-PUNCH!), rip-roaring action set pieces and complex yet accessible stories, this is the smartest comic on the stands while never loosing its goofiness. All those who rail against the grim and gritty clearly haven't read this little gem nor the equally inspired Agents of Atlas (good guys pretending to be bad guys, there's a gorilla man, a 50's killer robot, a time displaced g-man, a siren, and an alien in a flying saucer!) now running as a back-up in Herc. If you want some extremely well produced yet light-hearted superhero fare, look no further than The Incredible Herecules.

And speaking of good old fashioned fun, how can I not include one of my personal favorites, The Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, et al, from Marvel? I'm a sucker for space operas, and both Guardians and Nova delivered the goods in the Kree-Inhumans War of Kings. But it was The Guardians that had the best run, suffering the most death as a result of the interstellar war while never losing the book's near-trademark sense of humor. This was a space-action-adventure book with great art and repeated, shocking twists. No character was safe from death as the war waged on, and, like Nova, all the plot threads that had been dangling for years around the edges came together beautifully within the larger cosmic picture of the Marvel Universe. Good, clean, cosmic fun. (And I guess I'll give a shout out here to Green Lantern. Though I don't read many (any?) DCU books, I do enjoy the Green Lantern stuff, which has been a lot of fun throughout the Blackest Night event. But I find event fatigue starting to set in, and the main Blackest Night mini becomes more and more irrelevant to me as it the focus increasingly falls on various DCU characters outside of the Lantern books that I just don't know, nor care about. Nevertheless, Geoff Johns has hooked me as a Green Lantern fan for years to come, and this year he produced, with Doug Mahnke in Green Lantern #43, one of the creepiest origin stories produced by anyone in a long while.)

8) Johnny Hiro by Fred Chao, from AdHouse. A love letter to love, New York City, wacky celebrity cameos, kung-fu, monster attacks and cover-ups, and misadventures in restaurant work, amongst so much more, Johnny Hiro is a wonderful little book about the things a city will throw at you and what it takes to hold it together.

9) Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke from IDW. Further evidence of the noir renaissance lies in this taut little adaptation of one of the all-time greats by one of the all-time greats, Darwyn Cooke. Cooke's art, much like Guy Davis, Jean Paul Leon and Jimmy Cheung, really hits a spot for me that I can never quite identify, and find myself attracted to. It is not damning to say Cooke has a "cartoony" style, yet it is a style that gets in your face and dares you to call it cartoony. He may have launched his career with the bright 50s pop of the New Frontier, but it's his Parker work that has truly launched him into a new frontier of dark, restrained, emotional work. This and his recent Jonah Hex work have really upped his game, and I am looking forward to the next installment of this great little slice of gritty noir.

10) Mike Mignola's BPRD by John Arcudi and Guy Davis, with Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, et al, from Dark Horse. Mike Mignola's Hellboy-verse is one of the best cohesive fictional universes in comics today, with a deep history, fascinating cast of characters, and a large yet not unwieldy epic story. As noted above, I really have a thing for Guy Davis' art and BPRD is the perfect platform for his work. While he took most of 2009 off, Moon and Ba (where fore art thou Casanova?) stepped in with inspired work in the surprising 1947. The BPRD and Hellboy books are deliciously moody and beautifully weird, and I am really looking forward to the conclusion of the Frog War coming in 2010.

11 - tie) George Sprott by Seth from Drawn & Quarterly and 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man by Matt Kindt from Dark Horse. George Sprott is easily Seth's best whole work. Like many of his graphic novels, it meanders, strolls through the past, in this case in the forgotten corners of a quirky local Canadian TV show that has been off the air for decades and looking at the titular character. Part of the book is sifting through the remains of a man's life, trying to piece together a larger picture from scattered, forgotten fragments, and part of the book is a fever dream of a man's last moments in life, all packaged in a wonderfully oversized hardcover from D&Q. 3-Story is Matt Kindt's most emotional work to date, and certainly his best artistic effort in full color. The story of a man who did not stop growing, the lives he effected, and the mystery behind his loss, 3 Story, similar to George Sprott, is trying to piece together the reality of a man's past life, and the story of how he grew away from his family and humanity, all packaged in a wonderfully compact hardcover from Dark Horse.

12) Echo by Terry Moore. Echo is a beautiful, subtle science fiction story of a woman on the run from corporate forces, and the cosmic forces infecting her body, the way business can use Science for ill, and so much more. This is a story featuring powerful female characters, a great deal of trippy science, and one of the most accurate and sympathetic portrayals of mental illness seen anywhere in comics. Great stuff.

13) Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, from Wildstorm. Surprises abound! As Ex Machina draws to a close, (in addition to the always great NYC political stuff) the true nature of the story and revelations about Mitchell Hundred's past and his powers have cemented this book as one of the great sci-fi/superhero books of the decade, with the final issues all but guaranteeing the book's placement high on next year's list. I wish I could tell you specifics about what has changed, but that would spoil a great deal. Rest assured, this is a completely different book than we thought it was, and that is a very good thing.

14) Final Crisis by Grant Morrison, et al, from DC. Ah, Final Crisis. I guess I had the advantage of reading the whole thing at once in the gorgeously packaged hardcover edition rather than spread out over four-too-many months. I still have no idea who half the characters were, but once the stakes became clear, it really gelled into one hell of a superhero comic. Final Crisis is part acid trip, part multi-dimensional super-hero epic, part dark, part eternally hopeful, I've never read anything quite like it. The book is decidedly not perfect, but in the end it was better than Secret Invasion from Marvel that, while fun, was too long and only served to set up further stories where Final Crisis had a beginning, middle, and end. I think I'll give the eventual Multiversity a try even though I'm pretty darn sure I won't have a bloody clue what's happening.

15) The Brave & The Bold by J. Michael Straczynski and Jesus Diaz from DC. This was a late addition to the list, fueled in part by my lack of familiarity with the characters being used and extreme familiarity with the works of J. Michael Straczynski, as I've seen some of the themes brought forth in the comic by JMS elsewhere. But the sheer quality of the characterizations coupled with themes usually unexplored in superhero comics won The Brave & The Bold a spot on the extended list. Also important to note is JMS's use of the done-in-one... What he elevated to a high art form in his Thor run he uses to great effect here, telling volumes in 22 pages through emotion and characterization, and Jesus Diaz lives up to the daunting task at hand. Great stuff that has fallen under a lot of readers' radar, and worth trying out.

Honorable mentions, in no order: The Wintermen, Thor, Godland, The Unwritten, The Amazing Spider-Man in places, 100 Bullets, X-Factor, Ganges, and The Boys.

Finally, a caveat about my personal biases: I'm a Marvel guy (clearly), I appreciate formal reinvention though I read far too few mini-comics, and I don't read nearly enough manga either. I read a lot of books each week, both new stuff and old stuff I'm discovering for the first time, but I don't read everything I reckon I should. And I can't really speak from the retailing perspective - I'm just a grunt in the trenches - nor do I have any more authority than any other lone voice in the wilderness crying out for you to please read this book or that book. What I can speak to is my own personal taste, so feel free to take a look at my best-of list from last year to get an idea of what I like. I LOVE COMICS, and had to leave off quite a bit that I thoroughly enjoyed. Like all best-of lists, don't look at this as the definitive be-all end-all of good comics for 2009, but as a starting-off point for anyone looking to read some good books they may have overlooked.

c) 2009, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

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