Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Danny's BEST OF 2008: Games and Comics

Hey everyone! Hold the phone, it's practically 2009 already! And here I am just getting started on my 2008 Year-End lists. Yikes - time flies, that's for sure. But what's also certain is that 2008 has has been a year for the record books, both personally and in a larger, more global sense. And you can be sure, I'll talk about all of that soon enough, but to start with, as is tradition here on the ol' blog, it's time to run down the best and worst of the year in the world of entertainment.

So here's the plan:

On the agenda for this post are the year's best in Games and Comics. Coming up soon afterwards will be the best in television. After that, movies. And finally, the traditional year-end wrap-up in which I wax nostlagic about the year that was, and look ahead to what will be. So keep checking back often over the next several hours, because there's a lot more year-end blogtastic goodness still to come!

Alright, enough with the intros ... in case you didn't get the memo, I'm kicking things off with an extra dose of geeky fanboy flavor, so let's get to it!


- Well, for me, 2008 was a year of technological upgrades here in the Danny Baram household. I admit it, I get sentimental and defensive when it comes to clinging to all my old stuff. I still have a VCR hooked up to my TV, and I was still trying to get the most out of my aging Playstation 2 even as a number of my friends moved on to bigger and better consoles. Plus, being relatively poor is not exactly conducive to being on the technological cutting edge. But hey, we are the Nintendo generation, right? We're *supposed* to throw savings accounts to the wind and blow our measly salaries on techno-junk ... right? Hmm, well, suffice it to say, after cashing in several years' worth of accumulated spare change and receiving my "so-sorry" present from our President (aka my government stimulus check), it was finally time to enter 2008 and make a couple of much-needed upgrades to the Burbank pad. And so I took the plunge, purchased an LCD HDTV, and also, the glory of glories known as the PS3. And it was gooood.

It's funny, then, to think that '08 saw Sony lose tons of ground in retail to both the XBOX 360 and the juggernaut that is the Nintendo Wii. For those of us who have been gamers since the NES days, it's mind-boggling to think that in 2008, Nintendo did not release a single legitimate first-party action/adventure game for the Wii, and yet sales-wise, the system remains unstoppable.

With this came the buzzwords that now define this console generation - "casual" vs. "hardcore" gaming. Personally, I hate this stupid distinction. Apparently anyone who picked up a joystick between 1979 and 2007 is now lumped into the hardcore category, and a whole new legion of teenaged girls, yuppie parents, etc. now comprise the casual market. Well, if that's the case than it's a scary scenario indeed. Because the gaming industry has long been unique in that it catered to a dedicated and knowledgable fanbase. In gaming, players could take pride in the fact that, most times, the best games would also rise to the top of the sales charts. Sure, there are a lot of notable examples of great games that at some point fell under the radar, but by and large, the great games have always found an audience, and the crappy games, even those that flaunted licensed IP's, have usually been retail failures.

But now look at where we are. The Wii barely had a single great, exclusive game this year, especially in the latter half of '08, and yet it sells like hotcakes. Go to the Wii section of a Best Buy though, and it's a sad sight indeed. Rows and rows of me-too shovelware, half-assed ports of old PS2 games, etc. At this year's E3, Nintendo had what has to be considered one of the all-time embarassing showings, with not a single promising game shown for the system - no Mario, Zelda, or Metroid. No sweet-looking original IP's. Nada, except Wii Music and Animal Crossing.

So, um, WHO is buying this thing? Everyone, I guess. Nintendo has created the ultimate "safe" system - innocent, non-threatening, a great, gotta-have-it gift for wives, kids, and grandparents. But how many Wiis are used for a couple of months and then tossed out like yesterday's news? Is it a system that will truly grow the medium, that will turn people not just into "casual" gamers, but get them hooked on the great entertainment medium of the modern era?

Personally, I've been having tons of fun on my PS3, playing the kinds of games I love - imaginative, character-driven adventures. This year I found myself immersed in UNCHARTED: DRAKE'S FORTUNE, and am chomping at the bit to play the sequel in '09. I played RATCHET & CLANK: FUTURE, and essentially played a living, breathing Pixar movie. I was reacquainted with an old friend in Solid Snake, and guided him through one more epic adventure in METAL GEAR SOLID 4. I customized my own personal Sackboy in LITTLE BIG PLANET, unleashed hell as Darth Vader and Yoda in SOUL CALIBUR IV, and staged Batman vs. Superman in MORTAL KOMBAT VS. DC UNIVERSE. I went old-school with the likes of MEGA MAN 9, BIONIC COMMANDO REARMED, and STREET FIGHTER II HD REMIX. And I traversed an underwater city in BIOSHOCK, and jammed out along with Joe Perry on GUITAR HERO: AEROSMITH. And that's just to name a few of the kickass games I played in '08. What can I say - I'm not an XBOX guy, because I'm just not a big first-person shooter fan. Games where I can't see my character turn me off. I don't like floaty-tank bodies. I like a sense of scope and scale, of traversing huge environments and exploring fantastic worlds. I don't like games that are brown and grey. Give me thecolorful techno-cartoon worlds of Ratchet and Clank, the sweeping vistas of Heavenly Sword, or the lush jungles of Uncharted. That said, I've long been averse to delving too much into online play, but that changed a bit this year with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. Going online and facing off against fellow street fighters in a simulated arcade showdown is something I've always wanted to do. Sure, my skills may not be quite up to par quite yet, but I can throw down a shoryuken or two with the best of 'em. For us non-shooter fans, online play has never been all that compelling, but yeah, in 2008, I'm starting to see the appeal.

So I know that Sony is struggling a bit with marketshare, but with several killer exclusives and many more on the way in '09 (God of War, anyone?) and the added bonus of blu-ray disc movie playback abilities, I'm happy with my PS3 purchase. Sure, HOME is still in beta and kind of useless / creepy, and once-Sony-only franchises like GTA and Final Fantasy are now multiplatform, but as I've said before on the blog, I feel like the PS3 is the system that's still carrying the torch for everything I love about games. Still, it saddens me that a brilliant game like Little Big Planet isn't a top-seller. Part of it is the less-than-stellar marketing on Sony's part, but part of it, unfortunately, is the state of the industry right now. Gaming used to be about embracing all things quirky and odd and imagination-driven - be they mushroom-gobbling Italian plumbers or fantasies that were never quite final. Now it seems like there's one extreme of ultra-violent shooters over in XBOX land, and another extreme of Wii Fit and Wii Music in Nintendo's new casual kingdom. Personally, I am a guy that was raised on the Mario's, the Zelda's, the Metal Gears and Castlevanias. On the Resident Evils, the Tomb Raiders, the Final Fantasies and the Street Fighters. Those are the kind of landmark games I still want to play - games that combine imagination with great control, memorable characters, eye-bleeding graphics, and groundbreaking innovation. And the great thing is that, you might not know it from looking at the sales charts, but there were plenty of games like that in 2008.

And hey, even if it wasn't quite the spectacle it might have been in previous years, in 2008 I got to go to my first-ever E3! Livin' the dream, baby!

- Now, there are tons of games out there that were released in '08, and I being only one man, played just a tiny handful of 'em. So here is my very personal list of favorites from the year that was:



- With another insane storyline, ridiculously immersive gameplay, and the most badass videogame hero of all time in Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 4 is everything a MGS fan could want, and the defining exclusive for the PS3 in '08. Snake? Snake?! SNAAAAAAAKE!!!


- Talk about innovative, LBP is like Super Mario meets YouTube, and is a giant step forward for user-generated content in games. But the art style, aesthetics, and level design are all amazing as well. All hail Sackboy!


- It could be argued that Street Fighter II is the greatest videogame of all time, and here we have SFII perfected. With stunningly redrawn HD graphics and easy-to-use online play, this is essentially the ultimate Street Fighter game, downloadable right to your console for $15. In other words, epic win.


- Gorgeous graphics, a huge roster of fighters, and an incredible musical score make this the best "Soul" game yet. Now bring on Tekken.


- An awesome sleeper hit from Level 5 and Nintendo, Professor Layton makes brain-teaser puzzles more fun than they've ever been. Addictive, fun, and with great music and graphics, this is the ultimate DS timewaster.

Honorable Mentions:


- MEGA MAN 9 - PS3



Best Game From '07 Played By Me in '08:


Most Anticipated Games of 2009: Infamous, Street Fighter 4, Resident Evil 5, God of War III, Final Fantasy XIII, Brutal Legend, Little Big Planet PSP, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2.


- I still loved comics in 2008, but man, sometimes it was very much tough-love. There were plenty of bright spots over the course of the year, but overall you can't help but look back and see a number of high-profile disappointments that stand out as some of the year's defining stories.

2008's high point was actually a bittersweet one, in that perhaps the best ongoing comic of the last 10 years, Y: THE LAST MAN, had its final issue see print. The series finale was one hell of an issue, standing out as easily the best single-issue comic book of the year, closing the book on Yorrick and company with style, emotion, humor, and a number of unexpected twists - aka all the great things that Y was always known for. Sadly though, no other ongoing comic in '08 quite picked up Y's torch, although a few did try. For example, Brian K. Vaughan's remaining book, EX MACHINA, has always been a great read, although it only came out sporadically this year as Vaughan focused in on his new gig as a writer for Lost. That's not to say there weren't some other awesome reads this year - FABLES continues to be an incredible, epic narrative month in and month out, and it continues to entertain with one great story-arc after another. Bill Willingham always surprises with his willingness to shake things up, and Mark Buckingham has an awesome, distinct art style that fits the book to a T. Not to mention the stunning covers by James Jean, so remarkable that they were recently collected into their own hardcover volume. Its spinoff book, JACK OF FABLES, is now nearly as anticipated by me as the original. Also, no book has gripped me over the last couple of years like THE WALKING DEAD. I've been reading it in trades, but each time I get ahold of a new volume I become completely immersed in the latest chapter of Robert Kirkman's sometimes disturbing and always shocking zombie odyssey.

As far as superhero comics go, as a longtime DC fanboy, I couldn't help but feel disappointment in some of the big, hyped-up events of '08. Following on the coattails of 2007's superb weekly series, 52, COUNTDOWN limped into '08 seemingly sucking more and more each week. A giant mess of a series, Countdown mercifully ended after a disasterous run that contradicted concurrent books like DEATH OF THE NEW GODS and was all but ignored later on, in FINAL CRISIS, the very series it was counting down to. Countdown gave way to another weekly series, TRINITY. While it has occasionally shown signs of life over the last several months, all in all Trinity has been pretty underwhelming - a convoluted, poorly-written throwback to the cheesy adventures of yesteryear. Trinity has had moments of real fun and imagination, but it's never come close to capturing that "must-read" feel that 52 had during its acclaimed run.

As for FINAL CRISIS ... hoo boy, where to begin? Grant Morrison's big DC event has turned into one giant cluster. It's not working as a cohesive part of the DC Universe, and its story is so far a random, jumpy mess that has had a few cool moments, but has so far read like Grant Morrison at his self-indulgent worst. As a cornerstone event, it can't compare in scope or intensity to Geoff Johns' Infinite Crisis from a few years' back, and adding insult to injury, the book has been plagued by delays, artist changes, and tie-in books that are tie-ins in name only. The sad part is, the tie-ins have often been better and more entertaining that Final Crisis itself, with Geoff Johns in particular contributing a couple of great reads in LEGION OF THREE WORLDS, RAGE OF THE RED LANTERNS, and most especially the stellar Flash-related miniseries, ROGUES' REVENGE. One last note about Final Crisis: it's Morrison-penned tie-in, SUPERMAN: BEYOND, was easily one of the most WTF comics I've ever read. This 3-D mind-trip likely only makes a lick of sense if you read it under the influence of extremely strong mind-altering substances.

Yep, once again it's been Geoff Johns who has singlehandedly carried DC Comics on his back. Johns had another great year as DC's go-to guy, continuing to write great, epic stories in consistently must-read books like GREEN LANTERN, JUSTICE SOCIETY, and BOOSTER GOLD. However, if anything, 2008 might be remembered as the year that Geoff Johns reinvigorated the Superman franchise. After a somewhat slow start, Johns' ACTION COMICS cranked things up a notch as 2008 progressed, delivering an epic and memorable Braniac storyline leading into the current New Krypton arc. Along with Superman writer James Robinson, Johns' work on Action made the Superman titles must-reads once again, and generated more excitement for the Man of Steel than we've seen in years. While Green Lantern continued to build up to 2009's most-anticipated sotryline, "Blackest Night," it managed to churn out consistently solid storylines and tantalizing teases for upcoming arcs. Meanwhile, JSA, one of the best overall superhero comics of the last decade, continued to be a great read each month, with the "One World Under Gog" storyline dragged out a bit long but remaining intriguing nonetheless. Meanwhile, Johns closed out his run on Booster Gold in style, bringing back the Ted Kord version of Blue Beetle via some time-travel shenanigans, and reteaming Blue and Gold for one last great adventure - an awesome story for any longtime DC fan.

Indeed, Superman comics kicked serious ass in 2008. Not only because of Johns' run on ACTION, but also thanks to the latter part of Grant Morrison's landmark run on ALL-STAR SUPERMAN. While I give Morrison a lot of flack for some of the crazy, nonsensical $#%* he subjected us to this year, there's no denying that each and every ish of his All-Star run was an instant classic, full of wonder, awe, hope and tragedy (not to mention amazing art from Frank Quietly). When looked at as a whole, there's no question that All-Star Superman will go down as one of the all-time great works in the Superman canon.

But while Superman enjoyed a great '08, the same can't be said for Batman. I know, at the movies, Batman had one hell of a year. But box-office success did not always translate into comic book greatness. Okay, that may be a bit harsh. The great Paul Dini, of Batman: The Animated Series fame, did continue an awesome run on DETECTIVE COMICS, which produced a classic storyline in '08 in the form of "Heart of Hush." And there was some really solid stuff in books like BATMAN: CONFIDENTIAL, which published a memorable Joker story by Michael Green ("Lovers and Madmen") and a couple of other excellent arcs. Peripheral titles like ROBIN, NIGHTWING, and BIRDS OF PREY were all pretty decent with solid creative teams at the helm. But the fact remains - the most-hyped Batman story of the year, Grant Morrison's "Batman: RIP," turned out, much like Final Crisis, to be a total mess. Sure, it was temporarily fun to get lost in Morrison's psychedelic storyline, but after a few issues, when nothing seemed to add up and the story went nowhere ... it was clear that this was one ugly misfire of an "event." Morrison implemented his usual everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, but showed little of the restraint or tight plotting he used in books like JLA or Animal Man. Instead we got a villain whose origins were never revealed, Batman in a yellow and purple suit, and Bat-Mite. Like I said, sort of a cluster. It's crazy to me that DC didn't go all out to make the Bat-titles appealing to fans of THE DARK KNIGHT, with storylines and themes that echoed those of the wildly popular film. Instead, we got a few flimsy tie-in books and a Morrison-penned Batman event in Batman: RIP that was one of the strangest, most incomprehensible, and incoherant Batman stories ever told. Way to attract new readers, DC. If anything, this was a year that proved that while he can be one of comics' greatest storytellers, Grant Morrison is best suited to play in his own little corner of the comics world - he is not a go-to guy when it comes to penning continuity-heavy, company-wide events.

Speaking of huge events, 2008 was another year in which characters died, returned, or mysteriously disappeared seemingly at random, without strong storylines to back up the hype. Barry Allen returned and no one really cared - over the last 20 years, Wally West became the stronger character, so why should we? J'onn J'onnz was killed off panel in a very "meh" moment - luckily Peter Tomasi wrote an awesome eulogy in his REQUIEM one-shot. And Batman ... um ... went missing? Retired? Went insane? I don't have a clue, thanks to the mess that was "RIP."

As usual though, a lot of the best stuff this year wasn't found in the books with all the hype. DC's underappreciated MANHUNTER, for instance, quietly returned from a hiatus with more of its girtty, adult superhero stories. It's a real shame that that one wil lsoon be coming to an end due to low sales. And JONAH HEX continued as one badass Western book, with everyone's favorite horribly-scarred Old West bounty hunter providing reliably entertaining monthly adventures.

Meanwhile, Mark Millar followed up on the success of the WANTED movie adaptation with a new series, KICKASS, that is already being made as a big-budget film despite only 4 issues of the series coming out in comic book form this year, with the first story arc of the series yet to even see completion after numerous delays. It's emblematic of the rather obnoxious trend of some comics being created as springboards for Hollywood movies first and great comics second.

That being said, here's hoping for a 2009 filled with events that live up to the hype as well as solid storylines that remind us how great comics can be. With hugely promising stories on tap like "Blackest Night" and "Flash: Rebirth," we may see just that. And maybe we'll even get a new book that picks up the torch from Y: The Last Man, maybe we'll be treated to the next true classic. Well, one can dream ...


1. Fables

2. The Walking Dead

3. All-Star Superman

4. Y: The Last Man

5. Action Comics

6. Booster Gold

7. Detective Comics

8. Manhunter

9. Green Lantern

10. Ex Machina

Honorable Mentions: Jonah Hex, Jack of Fables, Secret Six, Superman/Batman


1. Y: The Last Man #60 - The best comic book series of the decade wraps up its run by flashing forward in a shocking, heartbreaking, amazing finale.

2. All-Star Superman #11 - One of the best issues of Grant Morrison's landmark run, a memorable look at Lex Luthor.

3. Fables #75 - The culmination of the epic war of the Fables versus the armies of the Adversary, this was a huge issue that changed Fables forever.

4. Ex Machina #40 - a great bit of meta-commentary from Brian K. Vaughan, one of the best issues of Ex Machina to date.

5. The Walking Dead #48 - Everybody dies! One of the most shockingly violent, intense, and game-changing issues of a comic I've ever read.

6. Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge #1 - Geoff Johns kicked off this miniseries in style with a brutal, gritty look at the Flash's blue-collar enemies.

7. Booster Gold #1,000,000 - Johns wraps up his Booster run with a funny and heartfelt farewell to Ted Kord that is also a great time-travel epic.

8. Jonah Hex #36 - a kickass tale of rascism in the Old West, this one gives the backstory of why Jonah Hex wears his confederate uniform long after the end of the Civil War.

9. Final Crisis: Requiem #1 - an awesome farewell to J'onn J'onnz, even the most hardened fanboy will get misty-eyed when they read Batman's final tribute to his Martian friend.

10. Action Comics #869 - With all his power, Superman triumphs over Braniac, but can't act in time to save Jonathan Kent! Ouch ...


1. Superman/Batman - For some reason, this book still seems to get a bad rap among fans, when the reality is that for the last several months it's been an awesome rollercoaster ride, thanks to epic writing by Michael Green and strong art from the likes of Shane Davis, Rags Morales, and other great artists. I've really enjoyed the last couple story arcs, which saw Lana Lang and Lexcorp vs. Superman, Superman and Batman confronting pint-sized doppledangers, and Batman going off the wall after gaining all of Superman's powers. A consistently fun read.

Runners Up: The Flash, Manhunter


1. Secret Six - Gail Simone has done a great job continuing her darkly humorous look at some of DC's most badass villains in her new series, Secret Six. With great art by Nicola Scott, Secret Six came out of the gate on fire, and has yet to let up.

Runner Up: Kickass


1. Gary Frank - Working with Geoff Johns on Action Comics, Gary Frank made Superman look cooler and more alive than he has in years. I loved Frank's previous work on Supreme Power, but this year saw him produce his best work yet.

Runner's Up: Tony Harris (Ex Machina), Pia Guerra (Y: The Last Man), Frank Quietly (All-Star Superman)


1. Geoff Johns - Like I said, Johns once again carried DC on his back this year. He produced great runs on ongoing series like JSA, Green Lantern, Action Comics, and Booster Gold, and also penned some of the year's best miniseries, like Rogues' Revenge and Legion of Three Worlds. The guy simply knows how to write great superhero stories, period.

Runners Up: Bill Willingham (Fables), Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), Brian K. Vaughan (Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man)


1. The Dark Knight

- Plain and simply the best superhero movie ever made, this one raised the bar for the genre and finally, finally brought the dark and serious tone of the great Batman comics to the movies, giving us a Joker for the ages and one hell of a Batman story.

Runner's Up: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy 2

- Alright, hope you enjoyed reading - stay tuned for THE BEST TV SHOWS of 2008!

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