Thursday, February 28, 2013

Resident Alien, The Best Undercover Extra-Terrestrial Murder Mystery Comic, Reviewed

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth
by Peter Hogan & Steve Parkhouse
Dark Horse, 2013
Dr. Harry Vanderspiegle came to the small town of Patience, U.S.A., lost a bit far from home. He lives in a quiet cabin on a lake, generally sticking to himself. One day the police arrive at his door - there's been a murder, and could Dr. Harry help out by looking at the body? "But... Why ask me? Sure your own doctor..." "Well, that's our problem in a nutshell, doc. See, we only had one doctor in town, and he's the victim."

Dr. Harry - that's not his real name, of course - reluctantly agrees to aid the police in their investigation. But Harry is hiding a secret, a secret that could be blown by dealing so closely with the authorities in this middle-of-nowhere town, Harry is an alien from another planet.

Resident Alien, Volume 1: Welcome to Earth by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse is a fascinating and unique murder mystery. Harry, who is nothing more than your average normal guy who wants nothing more than to be left alone, gets roped not only into the investigation, but into being the towns new practicing doctor. He is decidedly alien in appearance, but with some telepathic effort he is able to disguise himself - but any interaction puts him at risk. The residents of Patience obviously don't know there is a alien in their midst, but the U.S. government knows something crash landed three years ago and they are looking for him.

Harry agrees to help out with the investigation, in part because to refuse would arouse suspicion, and in part because the idea of solving a murder is an interesting one - who wouldn't be curious about helping to solve a crime? But as he digs deeper into a web of drugs, death and deceit, he puts his identity and his very life at risk. Resident Alien is an utterly fascinating play between murder mystery and an alien far from home looking to protect himself and the people of his temporary life. How much of himself is he willing to give to these people who would hunt him down if they knew his secret? And how far is he willing to go to stop a murderer?

Presented with easy and accessible art from Parkhouse and simple yet engaging storytelling from Hogan, Resident Alien is a superb read now in trade paperback from Dark Horse.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Marbles, Ellen Forney's Remarkable Chronicle of Dealing with Mental Illness

Marbles by Ellen Forney
Gotham/Penguin, 2012
Bi-polar disorder is especially insidious, a personality disorder that sends the sufferer toppling through waves of euphoria and despair, uninhibited mania and soul-crushing depression. And it is notoriously difficult to treat - one can spend years looking for the right combination of medications to effectively deal with the opposite forces at play, medications that often carry profoundly negative side-effects. Ellen Forney is a Seattle-based cartoonist, who, at the age of thirty was diagnosed as bi-polar. Marbles from Gotham Books is her frank and entertaining memoir of her journey of self-rediscovery and her long, arduous path to treatment and recovery.

At this point in her life she saw her manic episodes as nothing more than periods of hyper-creativity. As an artist, this worked to her advantage. But there were other things going on than just increased production of her art. In her manic episodes she was impulsive personally, professionally and sexually. She multitasked to the point of non-production. And, upon reflection, she was prone to sudden dark periods that would last months.

Once the diagnosis was made, the path to recovery was clear: medication and therapy. Forney had no problem pursuing the latter, though to her determent she was often less-than-honest with her therapist. It was the medication that scared her. Her concern, one shared by many with personality disorders, was simply that the medications would kill her personality, her creativity. She looked at her manic episodes, despite the exhausting physical tole it took on her, as fuel for her art and indeed her very life. What would happen to her if she was medicated? What would happen to her if she was not?

She was immediately put on regimen of medications to deal common for people with her condition, and immediately began to suffer the side-effects. Many of the medications approved for bi-polar disorder have just as many side-effects as benefits, physical and mental, making it harder for the patient to stick with the meds. While Forney and her doctor experiment with the right combination of meds, she researches the effects of mental illness on notable artists of the past and chronicles her progress through her art.

Forney's memoir is fresh and entertaining, comprehensive on the subjects of bi-polar disorder and the medications involved without coming across like a self-help book. She doesn't shy away from the negative things she had to go through, and her exploration of her therapy was engaging (in a way that Alison Bechdel's frustrating and insipid Are You My Mother simply failed at). Forney's art is also very accessible, and overall you are left with a remarkable, brave and simply fantastic memoir and study of mental illness.

Marvel's Irrational and Schizophrenic Graphic Novel Policies

I read a fairly broad spectrum of comics and graphic novels, but when it comes to mainstream super-hero slash shared universe sci-fi, I make mine Marvel, always have. I sell comics for a living, and from experience I can say that Marvel makes it as hard as possible to own their product in trade or hardcover, and even harder to sell from a retailing perspective.

When I sell a hardcover or trade or OGN (let's just call them graphic novels from here on out), I tend to push product first on quality of story, then on the value of the package the customer is getting. For me it is fairly simple to figure out the bang for the customer's buck: put plainly, after story quality, how many issues do you get for the money you, the customer, are spending?

When assigning prices and print availability of their graphic novels, Marvel and DC are operating in completely different universes, and I'm not talking the fictional kind. It seems evident that DC sees in the graphic novel format the future of the industry, a format they more or less invented in the mainstream, and they are completely right in thinking so. Comic sales in 2012 were as high as sales during the speculator boom in 1994, with Graphic Novel sales making up an astonishing $385 Million of $715 in total sales. So much of the mainstream market for comics see the format as books rather than single issues, both inside the comic shop and at the book store. And with the rise of digital comics, the piece of physical ephemera that will ultimately survive is the graphic novel on the shelf.

Two collections, both $24.99. Top is New Avengers
with 4 issues, bottom is Action Comics with 8 issues.
DC recognizes this and they have always been reliable in producing graphic novels that are an excellent value for your already stretched comic dollar. Marvel seems to be bleeding its audience of as much money as possible for the lowest common denominator of product. Like with everything I'm talking about here, there are far too many examples to count, so I'll just use two very recent examples:

Two hardcovers, both are $24.99. One is Action Comics Volume 1 (New 52), by Grant Morrison. The other is New Avengers Volume 5 by Brian Michael Bendis. Ignoring the quality criteria (one book is by one of the preeminent creators of his generation, the other is a capstone to a tired and overlong run), and just looking at quantity, Action Comics gives you eight full issues of story, where New Avengers gives you just four. Four issues of standard superhero fare for $24.99 is frankly ridiculous (DC charges just $12.99 for the first six issues of the widely acknowledged masterpiece All-Star Superman). Why on earth would you spend the equivalent of $6.25 per issue when most of the issues were less than four dollars each on original publication?

Two  more collections, this time $29.99.
On top is Secret Avengers with 7 issues,
on bottom is Night of the Owls with 16 issues.
Two more hardcovers, both $29.99 in this case. The first, one of the best reviewed superhero comics of 2012, is Batman: Night of the Owls, featuring sixteen issues of content. The other is Secret Avengers Volume 2 by Rick Remender, just seven issues of completely unremarkable fluff in shockingly cheap packaging. Atrocious pricing for the material presented.

These are just two quick recent examples, but believe me when I say that in the last three or four years, Marvel has consistently shocked me with the cheapness in value and quality of so much of the product at needlessly high prices. The majority of Marvel graphic novels are terrible values by this metric, but (in turns frustrating and relievingly) it is not universal; they do surprise me by (rarely) putting out quality material in a nice package at a decent price. An example I love to use (to great effect as I have hand-sold dozens of these) are the Invincible Iron Man deluxe hardcovers by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca, what was, for me, consistently the best superhero book on the stands. In the first deluxe hardcover you get 19 issues of content, the first three collected volumes of their extraordinary run, for less than $40. In contrast, the 19 issues of J. Michael Straczynski's Thor run are in a $65 omnibus, the 14 issues of the Brubabker/Fraction/Aja Immortal Iron Fist are in a $75 omnibus. But positive examples like this are far too few and far between.

This all says nothing of the poor production value of Marvel's collections (and DC is not much better for most of their catalog). Too often the collected editions are just the individual issues slapped between two covers, sometimes (but not often) with ad-hoc extras of little value. And increasingly, Marvel has been printing their graphic novels on cheaper paper, in cheaper packaging, with no sense of design. There is no regard for the permanence of the collected edition, the obvious fact that seems to escape Marvel and DC that it will be the graphic novel on the shelf and not the floppy in the long box that will stand the test of time. (I would be completely remiss not to note the beautiful production design by Jonathan Hickman on his Marvel books - but this is the exception, a rare example of a creator taking control of the design and presentation of his collected material for one of the big publishers to make the finished product a beautiful addition to ones library.)

And that doesn't even scratch an even more important factor of this equation and that is availability of product. DC has always been aggressive in keeping items in print and available to retailers, be it for their super-hero fare or their extensive and highly in-demand Vertigo catalog. DC approaches their graphic novel line like a legitimate book publisher (which, especially comparatively, they are). Marvel seems to approach their graphic novel line as nothing more than an extension of their individual issue line, something to be pumped out as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible, and with little regard to availability after the initial printing, especially for hardcovers. I can easily drum up dozens of examples of so many great Marvel books that are impossible to find because they are unavailable at Diamond Comics Distributors, but here is one quick example chosen randomly: Daredevil by Frank Miller. The first two volumes of the Miller/Janson material are in-print, the third, for some reason, is not. In contrast, Miller's groundbreaking Batman work of the same period, The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, are not only perpetually in-print, but half the price of Marvel's Miller Daredevil material. Unfortunately, it is very common to find random volumes of a creator's run unavailable when it comes to Marvel - I'm continually infuriated at Garth Ennis's Punisher Max volume 7 and J. Michael Straczynski's Spider-Man ultimate collection 2 randomly out of print. Not a single volume of Peter Milligan and Michael Allred's critically acclaimed X-Force/X-Statix is available in softcover.

But most glaring, with a new Guardians of the Galaxy series premiering this week and a major movie in the works (to much positive excitement amongst Marvel fandom), the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning books of recent years on which both are based are completely out of print. For some reason there have been new printings of the irrelevant 1970s and 1980s Guardians material. This is simply irrational and schizophrenic.

These comparisons don't take into account the quality of material being put out by many other publishers (or even Marvel's Icon imprint), and doesn't even scratch the surface on the problems in the individual issue market, be it the reduced page count, DCs notoriously messy editorial or Marvel's senseless variant thresholds. 

Being a Marvel fan and working in retail trying to sell Marvel graphic novels in this environment has left me fairly exasperated. I speak for myself here, and not for my employers, though I really believe these frustrations are shared by most retailers and Marvel fans. And I'd imagine these frustrations are shared by Marvel employees, who, by and large, are fans who want to put out better material at a better value but are hamstrung by the Isaac Perlmutter-dominated, as-cheap-as-possible executive culture long dominant at the company. The fixes that Marvel would need to apply are small: better value, better design, better quality, more quantity, deeper catalog. Unfortunately, based on current management, these necessary changes are unlikely to happen, to the detriment of both Marvel and the industry at large.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review: 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente
By Wilfred Santiago
Fantagraphics, 2011
Roberto Clemente is one of the most respected figures in the long history of baseball, as much for his extraordinary playing prowess as for his charitable works.  To those in his native Puerto Rico, he is nothing short of a national Hero.

Clemente was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico and spent much of his youth helping his father on sugar crops and playing stickball with friends. He was quickly drafted by scouts into the minor leagues, but the language barrier (he spoke little English), his dark skin - Major League Baseball was just a few years into integration - and inconsistency in play kept him on the bench until he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1954.

It would be a few years before he would fully develop his skills at the bat, but his energy and defensive abilities (ultimately earning 12 gold gloves) kept him from riding the bench to the extent he did in development. Splitting his off-season between his enlistment in the Marine Corps Reserve and charitable work, at the beginning of the 1960s he developed the offensive excellence that would take him to 3000 hits, multiple batting titles, MVPs, and two world series for the historically struggling Pirates. He would win over the blue collar fan base of Pittsburgh and cement himself as a superstar in his home of Puerto Rico, but it was his charitable works that of which he was most proud - and tragically, which would spell his end.

It is against the backdrop of a burgeoning Puerto Rico and revolution in Baseball that Wilfred Santiago tells Clemente's remarkable story - or at least attempts to, in 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente (Fantagraphics, 2011). Visual historical dramas that aim to be biographies, be it film or comics, are always difficult to pull off. Without the advantage of prose or straight documentaries - and outside of autobiography - by necessity a potential chronicler must limit themselves to a specific period of time (take Spielberg's Lincoln) or cover as much ground as possible in broad strokes, which is what Santiago does in 21.

Trying to capture the essence of a man's life, let alone someone as outright deified in the history of a sport and of a people, is an unenviable task, and one that Santiago doesn't quite stick. Santiago starts in Clemente's formative years as a youth in Puerto Rico, but in a short biography with a premium on focus, he spends too much time painting a picture of war-time Puerto Rico and Clemente's early years. It is entirely feasible to weave a comprehensive cultural history into biography, just look at Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Indeed, if Santiago had chosen to limit the work to just Clemente's early years and a cultural history of Puerto Rico in the 40s and 50s, the graphic novel would be decidedly more successful in execution. But as it stands, the portraits of Clemente and Puerto Rico are both fuzzy, indistinct. We're shown brief bursts of social upheaval, and how it may have effected Clemente and his family, but the picture painted isn't very clear and come across as just a series of unconnected events. Do the things that happen to his homeland and his family in his youth play a definitive formative role in his development as a man and as a ballplayer in later chapters? The answer is unclear, the events portrayed just kind of happen. In later chapters he seems to be effected by the early loss of a sibling (who wouldn't be), but like everything with Clemente in this book it just hangs there providing no connection or impetus to any future events. As it stands, the lack of focus, the pointless digressions into Puerto Rican history and a useless narrative-stopping telling of a religious parable all contribute to the mess of the book.

After bogging down in the first third, the book flies through Clemente's career as a gifted ball player. We see his frustrations with his treatment by his coaches, the language barrier, and his anger and confusion at Jim Crow America. Again the difficulties inherent in the style of biography Santiago attempts come into play. Trying to be all-encompassing as it is, there are short bursts of Clemente's life, both professionally and personally. We see some scattered career highlights, some personal events, but again it is too unfocused. How could any of it be focused when you are covering so much ground? The professional achievements scattershot throughout are difficult to follow, never really put into context, focusing on random accomplishments over others. The portrayed events that happen to him personally over 20 years are equally muddled, with great frocus on the late loss of a relative, and almost none on the birth of his children.

Beyond baseball, beyond his superstar status in Puerto Rico, Clemente will forever be known for his charitable work. Not content with a life of comfortable fame, he leveraged his celebrity into helping thousands of underprivileged people throughout Latin America, often doing the hard work himself. In 1972, an earthquake devastated Nicaragua and he organized relief efforts from abroad. The corrupt Nicaraguan government was redirecting aid into its own coffers, so to ensure delivery Clemente set out to accompany a supply flight himself. The plane was overloaded. It crashed into the Caribbean, killing all aboard. In death Clemente was lauded as an international hero. But you don't get a very clear sense of his charitable work here. It is simply presented as a means to get to his death and the end of the story.

For a biography we simply never get a clear picture of Clemente as a man. The story is clearly told with due reverence and love, but everything that happens to him, indeed Clemente himself, are all just cardboard cutouts moved around at the service of the plot. 

That isn't to say that there is nothing to enjoy about the book. As a biography it fails, but as a comic it absolutely crackles. The art is stunning. Santiago clearly captures baseball's (and Clemente's) unique energy and the Americas of the '50s and '60s and most distinctly the Puerto Rico of the 30s and 40s. Santiago is a skilled artist and he portrays baseball, quirky and ancient and superstitious and unique and perfect and flawed as the sport is in all it's glory. There is so much to enjoy about the multifaceted, angular, energetic, lively art that the narrative frustrations take a back seat.

Is it enough to recommend the book? It certainly warrants a place high on the short list of comics about baseball. But its frustrations are above its strengths, its potential far above what it achieves.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Analysis: Adventure Time: Goliad

Adventure Time, Season 4, Episode 10: Goliad
Original airdate, June 4, 2012
This is a reprint of an article written in Summer, 2012.

"I Was Afraid This Might Happen" ~or~ "It's My Way Or The Highway, Gob-Globbit" - An analysis of the Adventure Time episode, "Goliad"

Adventure Time is the remarkable television series from Pendleton Ward and Cartoon Network. It is that rare show that easily appeals to kids and adults alike, possessing a complex and nuanced continuity and quality of character-based storytelling unlike any other animated series on the air. Here I analyze one notable recent episode, "Goliad."

"Goliad" starts with Finn and Jake being summoned to the Candy Kingdom: Princess Bubblegum, spurred on by her prior near-fatal encounter with The Lich, and after more than 80 hours with no sleep, has created an heir to the Throne to rule over her Kingdom when she someday dies. Creating living things is old hat for the superscientist-monarch, and she has outdone herself with Goliad, a large, immortal sphinx-like creature forged from Bubblegum's own DNA. Goliad introduces herself to Finn and Jake with the voice and casual innocence of a small child. Despite the exertion and sleeplessness, Bubblegum wants to start teaching the being about leadership - Goliad was designed to be smart, literally scary-smart. Fearing for Bubblegum's health, Finn and Jake intervene, offering to teach Goliad all they know. Bubblegum agrees, and sleeps. Finn and Jake go out into the world with a genetic nuclear bomb.

While Finn builds an obstacle course to physically develop Goliad, Jake takes her to a nearby pre-school to learn some basics. Instead she is witness to a school of really, truly terrible, misbehaved youths. After the kids try to eat Jake's brain, Jake looses his cool. Goliad sees this as a valuable lesson in leadership: To get the kids through the obstacle course, she immediately reverts to bully tactics, yelling and intimidation. Finn implores her to not be heavy handed and authoritarian, but to use her brain. At this point, a third eye emerges from Goliad's head. She telekenetically freezes Finn and forces him through the obstacle course, an act that is clearly physically and mentally traumatic to a young hero who has been shown accustomed to physical and mental trauma. To this point Goliad has been seen as wide-eyed to the world and a bit over-eager, not intentionally dangerous. She took control of Finn's body and mind, forced him through against his will because this was the quickest, most efficient way - she has no concept of the pain she caused, or of the ramifications of bypassing Free Will in such a manner.

Finn, gasping: "You can't just control people or whatever, it's messed up." And here, the turn. Without hesitation, without a shred of doubt, Goliad answers simply, serenely, "No, Finn, this way is good. Everyone did what I wanted. Really fast, no mistakes, calm, like you said. This, definitely, is the way to lead." Goliad is no mere overgrown child fumbling her way through a strange, new world: she is a being of immense mental and physical power with no regard for choice or the well-being of those under her, where there is no concept of the end not justifying the means because there are no means, only the end. She is completely certain of the righteousness of her actions because she is achieving the ultimate goal of peaceful leadership, not just the imperative of the potential ruler but her genetic imperative, the very thing Bubblegum created her for.

Upon hearing Goliad's counter-argument of peace through control, no matter how morally repugnant, Finn does not immediately reject it as evil. He stumbles, and questions "No, no, wait, is that true?" Finn has a very well-defined moral code and an utterly unshakable sense of right and wrong. When confronted with this new reality of peace through absolute power, absolute control, Finn sees a shade of grey and for the first time in the series he is stopped in his moral tracks. We, the audience, are not given an answer and must work through the myriad issues of the use of power and free will ourselves (few television shows have the fortitude, intelligence, and faith in the audience to pull this off, just some of Adventure Time's many qualities).

We cut to the heroes who track down Bubblegum and inform her of what has happened. Bubblegum responds to news of Goliad's sudden embrace of authoritarianism through mind-control with an astonishing and revelatory resignation, "I was afraid this might happen." She confronts Goliad, who is now far beyond her ability to control, and attempts to reason with the creature, to introduce a more sympathetic, empathetic philosophy of rule. Bubblegum shows Goliad a bee and it's symbiotic relationship with the flower: the bee gets what it wants, the flower gets what it wants.

But Goliad cannot be persuaded, she has found the Answer to the Question of Rule and it is Control, and the right to rule is hers by virtue of her Power. There is nothing else to consider, not safety or happiness or choice. Goliad, with the same sense of serenity that comes from knowledge of pure righteousness, pure power, takes the bee: "Bee cares not for flower. If getting pollen hurt or kill flower, bee would not care. Bee is stronger than flower." She crushes the bee. "Goliad is stronger than bee." She resurrects the bee. "Goliad is stronger than all." This is a frightening display of the universal corruption of Power. This is Might Makes Right, the true story of Power in every System.

Bubblegum, thinking to herself, sees that Goliad is simply too powerful, "too far gone, too corrupted... I'll have to disassemble her and try again." But Goliad reads her mind and casually takes the castle and the Kingdom. This is all Goliad's, now, and Goliad rather likes that. Bubblegum rushes back to her lab to create another Candy Sphinx, one that can counter Goliad's immense power. After force-feeding Jake the nearby inhabitants of the Candy Kingdom, Goliad tries to rip Bubblegum's plan from Finn's mind (unsuccessfully - this is the greatest hero in all of Ooo, after all). And when all seems lost, Bubblegum arrives with a new being, a new nearly omnipotent Übermensch (Übersüßigkeitmensch, perhaps?). A being of blond hair and with a single-minded purpose, Storm-o.

Storm-o quickly takes out Goliad, freeing Finn. Goliad sees right away what has transpired. "Wait, brother! Why must we fight? Rule with me!" Storm-o is implacable, refusing to yield. Now Goliad sees her fate, a fate Storm-o has already embraced. They lunge at each other and end up locked in psychic battle, two perfectly matched beings of incomprehensible power, trapped inside the other for the rest of time, the total stalemate. Finn asks "If Goliad and Storm-o are the same, how come Storm-o's a good guy?" Bubblegum: "I used some of your heroic DNA in the recipe, and [tellingly here:] not Goliad's." Storm-o, the creation of Princess Bubblegum and the genetic scion of Finn the human, and also the final puzzle piece in the picture of Bubblegum as villainess-potential.

Let's look at the root of the conflict: Princess Bubblegum, after nearly meeting her mortal end, and only after discovering that the science/magic of Ooo cannot extend her own life into the infinite, creates a creature of extraordinary power to extend her rule past the bounds of death. She intentionally designed an immortal creature capable of mind control to subjugate her Kingdom for Eternity. An act she knew could backfire! ("I was afraid this might happen.") And backfire not for the first time, either: The Earl of Lemongrab, who briefly usurped power in season 3, was also created to be heir-apparent. Lemongrab, Bubblegum's creation, responded to power by trying to imprison everyone.

These schemes have long since stopped being a benevolent back-up plan to ensure continuity of power. It is simply reckless tyranny.

And here is where a startling character revelation seems to emerge: Princess Bubblegum may be the Story's great antagonist.

One of Adventure Time's remarkable traits is the consistency of the subtle and nuanced character portrayals. The creators have a very clear vision of who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the roles they will play in the larger story woven in the background. In repeat viewings you see that there is not a wasted character or line of dialog. Seemingly one-off or background characters (or even sight-gags, hello Waving Snail) come back later, often in important roles. Bits of seemingly throw-away character dialog are revealed to expose massive elements of who these characters are. Some episodes hinge on plot twists that rely on the viewer's knowledge of the characters and their histories and relationships. But as with anything, not everything is as it seems: The Ice King is at once the show's cheapest plot tool (he wants princesses, Finn and Jake intervene, repeat) and the show's most tragic character (a thousand years ago he unearthed an artifact that took over his mind, destroyed his relationships, cursed him to be an immortal ninja ice-wizard-monarch plagued by constant visual hallucinations).

Bubblegum is good-natured and she cares deeply for her people and for science as a tool for progress. But she is also consistently portrayed making terrible scientific mistakes (usually in the aim of achieving something pretty disturbing) resulting in everything from the all-powerful ruler-sphinxes to multiple instance of mass zombie-ism. When confronted with a massive error in judgment in the creation of a god-like sphinx, she creates another one. There is no check or balance on the science she wields, no second opinion or oversight on the ethics or consequences of her actions. Is she a mad scientist using her royal subjects as test subjects, a pink, pretty Doctor Doom? Or is she simply a driven scientist who seeks progress at nearly all costs. Both can achieve amazing results and the line between the two, as exhibited in Bubblegum's actions and even personality, can be very blurry.

Now take the creations of Goliad and Storm-o. Storm-o is inherently, unshakably good because of Finn's DNA. Bubblegum makes this clear, but she's also obfuscating a deeper truth with tricky wordplay. She contrasts the two being's dual-nature by noting that Storm-o doesn't have Goliad's DNA. What she means (and what we can see right away) is that Storm-o doesn't have *her* DNA.

Storm-o is good because of Finn. Goliad is evil because of Bubblegum.

Goliad decides she knows what is best for her people, and will do whatever it takes to ensure and enforce peace and order. Just like Bubblegum. Goliad used mind-control, Bubblegum uses science. And there is the unavoidable grander metaphor in the deadlocked sphinxes, pure opposites of equal power, fated to an eternity of even-matched battle. Finn is still coming to terms with the inescapable reality that, despite everything they have been through, Finn and Bubblegum will never be together (a great pain in the heart and soul of our hero). And maybe the message in the image of the deadlocked sphinxes is that Finn and Bubblegum cannot be together, not because of mere incompatibility but because they are opposites, destined to be at odds in the future. Finn can never be with Bubblegum because to be with her is to put himself and his home in the crosshairs.

Is Bubblegum a young woman teetering on the razor's edge of good and evil? Is she a developing villain? Or is she like most people, a good person capable of ungood things? Bubblegum is not a true villain in this story by any means (that would be the Lich, of course), but it is hard not to see the potential for villainy in her or to entertain the idea that some act of hers may put Ooo in some grave jeopardy? I may be reading too much into this of course, but this is a series that hides things in plain sight and thrills in seeding stories that do not pay off for months or years. The stories of Storm-o and Goliad are not over and the fate of Ooo may be intertwined with theirs.

Whatever the potentialities, there is salvation for Bubblegum and Ooo in Finn the Human. Finn's inherent goodness, his willingness to fight Fate, and his belief in the goodness of others may prove to be the x-factor that tips the scales in favor of Bubblegum's redemption. And he has shown in dozens of instances that he will fight for what is right until he cannot fight anymore - he is nigh-unstoppable. Mere destiny has not stopped Finn before and I don't see that happening now, especially if it involves someone he loves. In the episode "The New Frontier," Jake dreams of his death, a prophesy to be embraced - Finn successfully fights off the weight of destiny and disrupts the very path of the future itself to save his brother. Even the presence of the Cosmic Owl, one of the series' two acknowledged deities, could not dissuade Finn from saving Jake. Bubblegum can drift towards villainy all she wants (or doesn't want), it matters little because Finn will be there to stop it, or die trying.

Finn may also be the salvation of Bubblegum because Finn will always believe in Bubblegum, always, no matter her actions. But even Finn's unassailable belief in others may prove to be his undoing: In the episode "In Your Footsteps" an impressionable bear shows up mimicking Finn, looking to be a hero like him. Jake does not trust the bear, but Finn sees nothing wrong and accepts and encourages the bear in his path. Finn's belief and acceptance backfire on him - unknown to him, the bear was an agent of The Lich, and the bear-spy succeeded in delivering to The Lich the Enchiridion, the manual of heroism on Ooo and the device that nearly succeeds in turning the entire Multiverse over to the Lich. Finn's pure heart was nearly the key to his ruin. If he was wrong about the bear, could he be wrong about Bubblegum? Could Bubblegum be used against Finn unknowingly, only to turn on him knowingly?

And perhaps this all means everything to the future of our characters and the show, and perhaps it is all meaningless.

"Goliad" is one of Adventure Time's most complex and layered episodes in a series full of them. Time will tell the importance and impact of these events, or at the very least reveal that I think about shit like this way to much.

c) 2012, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

Welcome to The Comic Pusher.

I guess this is the point where I state what I will be doing with this blog.

Obviously, first and foremost, comic reviews. I sell comics for a living for JHU Comic Books in New York City. I love my job, and I'm damn good at it. I read more comics every month than most folks read in their life, so it's about time I started writing about them.

(I've dabbled in the past with writing for the JHU blog. Here I hope to be a bit more consistent with my output, and I won't be limited to positive reviews, or indeed just comics.)

What else will I cover? Hell if I know. Comics, TV, books, sports, current events, whatever. But mostly comics. You can see the most recent reviews as well as a link to jump to a random post on the left sidebar. Also on the left are links to our RSS feed and email subscription options.

Check out my twitter, @B5Jeff.
Like The Comic Pusher on Facebook at
Follow The Comic Pusher on Tumblr at  
And feel free to email me at

Click here for the full index of all reviews.

Thanks for reading!

The Comic Pusher is Trademark and Copyright 2008, 2009 and 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reading Love and Rockets - The Definitive Guide to Comics' Supreme Masterpiece

Updated for Spring 2015.

The Definitive Love & Rockets Reading Guide and Full Bibliography

In 1981, brothers Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, spurred on by their brother Mario, self-published an independent comic anthology called Love and Rockets. Within a year, Fantagraphics began publishing their work, bringing to the world a seismic change in what comics as a storytelling medium were capable of. Featuring mature, character based stories, the quality in art and story of the work of Los Bros Hernandez continue to represent the high-water mark of independent, creator-owned comics. The importance of Love and Rockets and the stories contained therein can never be understated. Los Bros' work is required reading.

Each author's stories are independent of the other's, and should be approached separately. Jaime ("Xaime") has almost exclusively told one continuing story over the last 34 years, Locas, while the far more prolific Gilbert ("Beto") has serialized several different ongoing stories and many more short stories over the decades in Love & Rockets (the most prominent being the Palomar/Luba Cycle), plus numerous other works for other publishers.

The comics of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez contained under the Love & Rockets umbrella of titles have been published across 124 issues over 34 years, in four distinct phases across four anthologies and seven mini-series; collected in 29 sequential hardcover & softcover albums, collections, and graphic novels; and eleven softcover omnibus (Love and Rockets Library) collections.

The easiest way to read Love & Rockets is in Fantagraphics' fantastic softcover omnibus editions - The Love and Rockets Library - which collect all of Jaime's work through 2007, and most of the Gilbert Palomar/Luba cycle. Below is the definitive reading order of all of both authors' Love & Rockets work to date, plus Gilbert's extensive non-Love & Rockets catalog of creator-owned material. At the bottom of the page I also list the full Love & Rockets bibliography, covering every issue and collection under the Love & Rockets umbrella of titles and graphic novels from 1981-present.

LOCAS, by Jaime Hernandez

The story of Perla Luisa Chascarillo ("Maggie") and her friends, Las Locas, the epic starts out as throwback sci-fi adventure stories and quickly segue into an extraordinary chronicle of the Los Angeles Barrio Punk-Rock scene of the 1980s (in a universe with superspy professional wrestlers and superhero women). Following Maggie and her paramours Ray and Hopie as they grow and age in real-time over more than 30 years of story and featuring Jaime's clean, clear art-style and astonishingly frank characterizations, Locas is simply the finest ongoing character drama being produced by anyone in any medium, the great American graphic novel, comics towering literary achievement.  

Most of the Locas material is collected in the softcover omnibus Love and Rockets Library editions from Fantagraphics:
1: Maggie the Mechanic
2: The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S.
3: Perla la Loca
4: Penny Century
5: Esperanza

Locas continues:
6: La Maggie La Loca (serialized in The New York Times Magazine and collected in The Secrets of Life and Death, see below)
7: God and Science, The Return of the Ti-Girls (hardcover)
8: The Love Bunglers (hardcover)
9: Untitled, Love & Rockets New Stories 5 and 6 (not yet collected)
10: Untitled, Love & Rockets New Stories 7 and 8 (ongoing, not yet collected)

There are also two oversized hardcover omnibus collections, LOCAS I and LOCAS II, but only LOCAS II is in-print. In 1988, Fantagraphics released The Lost Heart and Other Stories, reprinting various short stories for the bookstore market.

There is also an excellent Jaime Hernandez art book, The Secrets of Life and Death: The Art of Jaime Hernandez (Abrams Comic Arts, 2009), which also collects La Maggie La Loca and some of Las Locas' first fanzine appearances from 1978 and 1979.

The Palomar/Luba cycle, by Gilbert Hernandez

Initially the extraordinary character drama following the inhabitants of Palomar, a financially poor yet socially rich central American town, over time the story follows several of the inhabitants and their decedents as their lives take them to America and through the world of organized crime, B-movies and beyond. Featuring Gilbert's dense and fearless art, complex in story and structure, fiercely political and unblinkingly sexual, a unique and original vision that stands as the medium's second finest ongoing work behind only Jaime's Locas.

There are five of the Fantagraphics omnibus The Love and Rockets Library volumes:
1: Heartbreak Soup
2: Human Diastrophism
3: Beyond Palomar
4. Luba and Her Family  
5. Ofelia

There are two hardcover omnibus collections covering the above material: Palomar, out of print; and LUBA, in-print. In 1988, Fantagraphics released The Reticent Heart and Other Stories, reprinting various short stories for the bookstore market.

Palomar/Luba continues:
6: High, Soft Lisp
7: Children of Palomar (New Tales of Old Palomar)
8: The Adventures of Venus
9: Untitled, Love & Rockets New Stories 5-8 (ongoing, not yet collected)

There are four spin-off original graphic novels from Fantagraphics, essentially in-universe presentations of movies mentioned throughout the post-Palomar/Luba cycle, in Graphic Novel form:
A: Chance In Hell (2007)
B: The Troublemakers (2009)
C: Love From the Shadows (2011)
D. Maria M. Book 1 (2013)
E. Maria M. Book 2 (2015)

Julio's Day (2013) collects his non-Palomar/Luba story serialized throughout Love & Rockets Volume II.

Significant Non-Love & Rockets material by Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez is one of the most prolific cartoonists on the planet, and has produced a significant amount of other material outside of the Love & Rockets auspice (most of which are in-print), including:

Birdland (Eros, 1992; out of print)
Girl Crazy (Dark Horse, 1996)
Yeah!, with Peter Bagge (DC, 2000)
Grip: The Strange World of Men (Vertigo, 2002; Dark Horse, 2014)
Sloth (Vertigo, 2006)
Speak of the Devil (Dark Horse, 2008)
Citizen Rex, with Mario Hernandez (Dark Horse, 2009)
Fatima: The Blood Spinners (Dark Horse, 2012; 2014)
Marble Season (Drawn & Quarterly, 2013)
Loverboys (Dark Horse, 2014)
Bumperhead (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015)

Gilbert also worked with Jaime and Mario on Dean Motter's The Return of Mister X (Vortex 1984-1985); the series has been collected numerous times (Vortex, 1986; Warner Books, 1987; iBooks, 2004; Dark Horse, 2006 - all out of print).

From Los Bros Hernandez:

There is one softcover Fantagraphics omnibus focusing on both the brothers' work, also containing contributions from Love and Rockets founder, Mario Hernandez:
-Amor y Cohetes

For the series' 30th anniversary, Fantagraphics released several books about Love & Rockets:
-The Love and Rockets Companion: 30 Years of Love and Rockets 
-Love and Rockets: The Covers
-The Love and Rockets Reader: From Hoppers to Palomar

There are two Love & Rockets Sketchbooks focusing on both brothers' works (only Volume Two is in-print). A retrospective, Ten Years of Love and Rockets was released in 1992.

The Full Love and Rockets Bibliography (1981-Present)
Below is the comprehensive list of anthologies, mini-series, collections and graphic novels that make up the entirety of the Love & Rockets oeuvre from Los Bros Hernandez.

Love and Rockets, phase one (51 issues between 1981-1996)
By Los Bros:
Love & Rockets (self-published one-shot, 1981; reprinted as the first Fantagraphics issue)
Love & Rockets (Volume 1: Numbers 1-50, 1982-1996)
Love & Rockets Bonanza (One-shot, 1989)

Love and Rockets, phase two (30 issues between 1996-2000)
By Jaime:
Whoa, Nellie! (1-3, 1996)
Maggie & Hopie Color Special (One-shot, 1997)
Penny Century (1-7, 1997-2000)
By Gilbert:
New Love (1-6, 1996-1997)
Luba (1-5, 1998-2000)
By Los Bros:
Measles (all-ages anthology prominently featuring work from Los Bros, 1-8, 1998-2000)

Love & Rockets, phase three (36 issues between 2000-2007)
By Los Bros:
Love & Rockets Volume II (1-20, 2000-2007)
By Gilbert:
Luba (6-10, 2002-2004)
Luba's Comics and Stories (1-8, 2000-2006)
New Tales of Old Palomar (1-3, 2006-2007) 

Love & Rockets, phase four (7 issues, 2008-present)
By Los Bros:
Love & Rockets New Stories (1-7, 2008-Present)

Sequential Collections and Graphic Novels:
In 1985, Fantagraphics began publishing sequential albums in hardcover and softcover of the all Love & Rockets material, containing stories from both brothers in each volume. Beginning with Volume 7, Fantagraphics alternated between brothers for each volume. Volumes 1 through 15 are numbered. Starting with Volume sixteen, Fantagraphics presented the stories as unnumbered graphic novels in varying formats.

1: Music for Mechanics (Los Bros, 1985)
2: Chelo’s Burden (Los Bros, 1986)
3: Las Mujeres Perdidas (Los Bros, 1987)
4: Tears from Heaven (Los Bros, 1988)
5: House of Raging Women (Los Bros, 1988)
6: Duck Feet (Los Bros, 1988)
7: The Death of Speedy (Jaime, 1989)
8: Blood of Palomar (Gilbert, 1989)
9: Flies on the Ceiling (Jaime, 1991)
10: Love & Rockets X (Gilbert, 1993)
11: Wigwam Bam (Jaime, 1994)
12: Poison River (Gilbert, 1994)
13: Chester Square (Jaime, 1996)
14: Luba Conquers the World (Gilbert, 1996)
15: The Hernandez Satyricon (Los Bros, 1997)
16: Whoa Nellie! (Jaime, 2000)
17: Fear of Comics (Gilbert, 2000)
18: Locas in Love (Jaime, 2000)
19: Luba in America (Gilbert, 2001)
20: Dicks and Deedees (Jaime, 2003)
21: The Book of Ofelia (Gilbert, 2005)
22: Ghost of Hoppers (Jaime, 2005)
23: Three Daughters (Gilbert, 2006)
24: The Education of Hopey Glass (Jaime, 2008)
25: High Soft Lisp (Gilbert, 2010)
26: God and Science: Return of the Ti-Girls (Jaime, 2012)
27: Julio's Day (Gilbert, 2013)
28: Children of Palomar (Gilbert, 2013)
29: The Love Bunglers (Jaime, 2014)

The Love and Rockets omnibus softcovers already noted above were released sequentially as The Love and Rockets Library.

1: Maggie The Mechanic (Jaime, 2007)
2: Heartbreak Soup (Gilbert, 2007)
3: The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S. (Jaime, 2007)
4: Human Diastrophism (Gilbert, 2007)
5: Perla La Loca (Jaime, 2007)
6: Beyond Palomar (Gilbert, 2007)
7: Amor y Cohetes (Los Bros, 2008)
8: Penny Century (Jaime, 2010)
9: Esperanza (Jaime, 2011)
10. Luba and Her Family (Gilbert, 2014)
11: Ofelia (Gilbert, 2015)

Outside of Love & Rockets and Gilbert's major non-L&R creator-owned material noted above, both brothers have also had short stories and contributions as writers, artists, and cover artists featured in many work-for-hire and anthology projects since 1980, as well as a handful of scarce mini-comics published at various conventions over the years. For a comprehensive index of every single work by Los Bros through 2013, as well as timelines, character guides, interviews, and more, see the utterly indispensable resource The Love and Rockets Companion: 30 Years of Love and Rockets by Mark Sobel & Kristy Valenti.

Version 3.0, 03/15. A version of this article originally appeared on JHU Online in February 2013.  

More Love and Rockets from The Comic Pusher:
Gilbert's Year: Julio's Day Reviewed
The Poetry of Childhood: Gilbert Hernandez's Marble Season
Sibling Rivalry in Los Bros Hernandez's Love and Rockets New Stories 6
The Best Comics of 2013

Further reading, from Fantagraphics: 
How to Read Love and Rockets

The Best Comics of 2012

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in December 2012.

2012 has been a fantastic year for comics across the board, from independent to mainstream to online and beyond. In quality over quantity, this year finally saw the publication of Chris Ware's latest magnum opus, Brian K. Vaughan reminded the world that he's still one of the best scribes alive, and Alan Moore shook his fist and yelled for us to get off his lawn. Not enough can be said about the quality and quantity of the new creator-owned renaissance spear-headed by a dozen fantastic Image comics. IDW shined with their extraordinary production values on all kinds of unique projects, we saw the conclusion of Vertigo's last truly great series, and fiercely original creators like Jason Aaron, Matt Fraction, Jonathan Hickman and Brandon Graham had banner years. The works of folks like Garth Ennis, Meredith Gran, Jeff Smith, Matt Kindt, Gilbert Hernandez, Harvey Pekar, Carla Speed McNeil, Mike Mignola and so many more all reminded me why I love comics and why I've got the best job in the world.

So without further ado, here are the 12-ish best comics of 2012. 

Best Graphic Novel
Building Stories by Chris Ware (Pantheon)
Chris Ware's decade-plus in the making (second) masterwork is an experience and graphic novel unlike any other. A sprawling, fragmented box set of fourteen graphic novels, comic pamphlets, broadsheets and related ephemera from our greatest living cartoonist, Building Stories is a character piece entrenched in the way we remember and the language of comics-as-memory, how we build stories, and how stories build us. Non-linear, the plot, such as it is, has no beginning, middle, or end. The reader is given vignettes from the life of an unnamed central character, and a handful of supporting characters (including a building and a bee). This is something that cannot really be described so much as experienced, and Ware's extraordinary writing, illustrating, coloring, lettering and design make this undoubtedly a must-own for any library.

Best Ongoing Series
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples (Image)
The year's best-reviewed and certainly most eagerly anticipated new series, there seemed to be no doubt that Brian K. Vaughan's new open-ended ongoing sci-fi parable would be on pretty much every best-of list under the sun. And for good reason, too: Featuring eye-popping art from the year's breakout new superstar, Fiona Staples, Saga is easily accessible to new readers with its story about moon-crossed lovers set against a fiercely unique magical space opera backdrop. Vaughan is very well regarded for believing that comics are "the destination, not the blueprint," and this is certainly a work that revels in comics' budgetless visual and storytelling possibilities. Every issue is a giddy brainfeast: royal robots with television heads, interstellar bounty hunters, and enough family drama to put any tense Thanksgiving dinner to shame... it even has a snail-mail only letter column. There is simply nothing like this and I can't wait for the next however-many years of story to come. For quantity and quality, it's also the best value in the store - the first trade paperback collecting 150+ pages of story in the first six issues is just ten bucks. You've been hearing about this from everyone, now is the time to dive in, your future self will thank you.

Best Concluded Series (tie) 
Scalped by Jason Aaron & RM Guera (DC/Vertigo)
Punisher by Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon (Marvel MAX)
The best character drama being produced by anyone in any medium, in it's untidy heartbreaking conclusion Scalped has cemented itself in the pantheon of truly the finest comics ever produced. Comics' functional equivalent of television's The Wire, Jason Aaron and RM Guera's unparallelled undercover crime-noir masterpiece never ceased to thrill with astonishing plot-twists and beautiful, gritty art. Far from being sad about the series' conclusion, I'm thrilled by the prospect both of reading the complete story from scratch yet again and the opportunity to put this amazing work in new readers' hands. Start this now and you will get absorbed into a dark, breath-taking ride unlike any you have ever taken.

Also of special note is the conclusion of Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon's completely stunning Punisher MAX. The Punisher MAX run by Garth Ennis (now returning to form in Fury MAX) is simply the best Marvel comic of the previous decade - and the work of Aaron & Dillon lives up to it. Shocking, gripping, game-changing, Aaron & Dillon's Punisher MAX is a frankly brilliant chronicle of the end of Frank Castle's life while seamlessly interweaving realistic versions of standard Marvel Universe villains. This is Jason Aaron's best Marvel work in a career (and year) chock full of fantastic mainstream superhero writing, and simply the best work of Steve Dillon's storied career.

Best Limited Series
Adventure Time Presents Marceline and the Scream Queens by Meredith Gran (Boom!)
Starring the tragic/immortal Marceline The Vampire Queen as the frontwoman behind the rock outfit the Scream Queens, and Princess Bubblegum as their tour manager, the reader is easily disarmed by these characters from Pendleton Ward's extraordinary Cartoon Network television series Adventure Time. Expecting a paint-by-numbers story of a band on tour and the conflicts that inevitably arise, we get nothing short of a flawless character-based story exploring the pressures of stardom and the universality of the internal and external turmoil of self-doubt. From the start, amid the nuanced character work and the straightforward and uncomplicated analogies, Meredith Gran turns in a virtuosic artistic performance that treats the reader to astonishingly rendered set-pieces of unbridled rock inspiration, both the experience of performing and listening to rock music. A quadruple threat that is also the year's Best Surprise, Best Licensed Comic, and Best All-Ages Book, this mini-series is fun, funny, thoughtful, and simply, absolutely flawless.

Best New Ongoing Series that's not Saga
The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra  (Image)
Jonathan Hickman has had one hell of a year over at Marvel between the conclusion of his epic Fantastic Four run and the beginning of his Avengers saga. But the best stuff from one of the best writers and designers in comics is still in the creator-owned realm, and of his three creator-owned series this year, The Manhattan Project takes the cake and explodes it. Utterly nuts in every positive possible way imaginable, The Manhattan Projects is an alternate history telling of the United States' secret black ops science program. It's wall-to-wall mad science with an evil multi-Oppenheimer, drunk Einstein, A.I. FDR, Russians, Nazis and aliens. I was initially cool on Pitarra's cartoony-Quitely style art, but as the series found its footing I couldn't imagine a better suited artist for the series nearly indescribable insanity. Volume One is out so give this a try if you haven't yet. And as with Saga, Image has put out a swell one-dollar reprint of the first issue.

Best Superhero Series
Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja with Javier Pulido (Marvel)
Only incidentally a superhero book, Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye is a hurricane of fresh air in a sometimes moribund genre. Hawkeye is about a guy, a costumeless, powerless Clint Barton, and what he does on his day off in Brooklyn, and the folks who live in his apartment building, and a girl who stole is name, and a bunch of gangsters, and his dog, and arrows, and, like, stuff. David Aja's art is stylish and just plain perfect, also inspiring the best stuff of his career from Javier Pulido on the alternating arcs. Every issue makes me want to jump up and down and thank comics and Marvel and New York City for all existing. The first trade comes out in March, but you can easily dive in with any issue - Hawkeye features largely self-contained one-ish-shot stories, a rare treat (and lost art) in mainstream comics.

Best Anthology
Dark Horse Presents 
It is the conceit of every anthology that it will contain material that can be hit-or-miss. That just comes down to variety and the vagaries of personal taste, and sometimes you get mostly miss (like this year's dreadful Kramer's Ergot). But Dark Horse's venerable anthology managed to hit more than it missed, with definite standouts that on their own would belong on this best-of list: David Chelsea intreagued me with The Girl With The Keyhole Eyes and Carla Speed McNeil blew me away with Finder: The Third World - indeed, everyone should get McNeil's astounding Finder Library tomes from Dark Horse, massive collections of her extraordinary science fiction work. Dark Horse Presents had so many great short-stories, serials and introductory salvos for longer series from so many great creators - Kelly Sue DeConnick, Phil Noto, Geoff Darrow, Richard Corben, Michael Avon Oeming, Steve Rude, Francesco Francavilla, Dean Motter, Harlan Ellison and so many more. At eight bucks a month for 80-100 pages of creator-owned goodness with some licensed goodness thrown in is one hell of a bang for your comic buying buck.

Best Non-Fiction Work
Cleveland by Harvey Pekar with Joseph Remnant (Top Shelf)
For non-fiction works in 2012 there were major disappointments: Guy Delisle's dull Jerusalem and Alison Bechdel's frankly insufferable Are You My Mother failed to meet expectations of their previous works. Who else but the inimitable Harvey Pekar to save the day. One of his final works is also one of his best. A bittersweet love letter to a town falling on hard times and a capstone to the autobiographies of one of comics most important creators, Harvey Pekar's Cleveland is a short but important work about the history, soul, and character of one of America's struggling former metropolises, and one man's unique journey through the history and the city he loves. Featuring fine art by Joseph Remnant, it is a vital social document and a masterful piece of graphic history.

Best Occasionally Published Series (tie)
Pope Hats by Ethan Rilly (AdHouse)
Casanova by Matt Fraction & Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba (Marvel/Icon)
Sometimes comics take a bloody long time to come out, or feature long delays between arcs, but when you get to them the quality far outweighs whatever delay you have to put up with. First, seeing one issue maybe once a year or so, is Ethan Rilly's utterly wonderful Pope Hats, a straightforward story of a law clerk in a not-so-straightforward law firm and her freewheeling actress roommate. Rilly's art is clean and fresh, his story oddly riveting. I look forward to each new chapter as much as the similar but far more complex Ganges from Kevin Huizenga.

Second, 2011 finally saw the triumphant return of Fraction, Moon & Ba's interdimensional superspy epic Casanova, first in full color reprints, then an astonishing, dark new mini Avaritia. Casanova is still consistently Matt Fraction's best work, deeply personal, dense, sexy, trippy. We should be seeing the fourth volume in 2013... or not, who knows. Just get the first three and reread those a few times, you'll find something new each time.

Creator of the Year
Brandon Graham
For Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity, King City, and Prophet (Image)
Brandon Graham is working at Kirby-levels of sheer creativity, perfectly encapsulated in his new Multiple Warheads. A truly unique art style and hypercreative sci-fi storytelling, a perfect synthesis of clever art and language, it often feels like the page can barely contain what his brain is giving the universe. It's comics like this for which comics exist. And this is just a drop in the creative ocean that is Brandon Graham. 2012 saw the release of his stupendous Tokyopop to Image mega-series King City in a gorgeous twenty dollar package. In twelve issues of black and white awesome, in a narrative slightly more cohesive than Multiple Warheads, Graham shows how much fun you can have reading - and I imagine, for him, writing and illustrating - COMICS. And then there's Prophet, created by Graham with Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple & Giannis Milogiannis, based on, of all things, a Rob Liefeld property. Thankfully having nothing to do with Liefeld in style or story, Prophet is innovative, stylish (in its own sense) science fiction that is a lesson (along with books like Hawkeye) to publishers that simply allowing creators to take the reins and run unrestricted is the formula for quality and originality missing in so many properties. Less editorial, more creatorial. 2012 is the year of Brandon Graham and creators like him, who, thankfully for comics, are starting to come out of the woodwork.

20 Honorable Mentions for 2012, in alphabetical order: Batman by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo, Chew by John Layman & Rob Guillory, Fantastic Four/FF written by Jonathan Hickman, Fatale by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips, Fury MAX by Garth Ennis & Goran Parlov, G0dland by Joe Casey & Tom Scioli, Goliath by Tom Gauld, Hellboy by Mike Mignola, The Hive by Charles Burns, The Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca, Journey Into Mystery written by Kieron Gillen, Love & Rockets New Stories by Los Bros Hernandez, MIND MGMT by Matt Kindt, RASL by Jeff Smith, Richard Stark's Parker: The Score by Darwyn Cooke, The Twelve by J. Michael Straczynski & Chris Weston, the Ultimate Spider-Man comics of Brian Michael Bendis and Sarah Pichelli and David Marquez, Unwritten by Mike Carey & Peter Gross, X-Factor written by Peter David, xkcd by Randall Monroe.

c) 2012, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

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