Wednesday, December 21, 2011

So You Got Yourself a Kindle Fire: aka, The Must-Read New and Classic Comics for Your Brand-New Tablet! Plus: The 10 Best Books In DC Comics' New 52!

- Well, first off, I'd like to take a second to say "Happy Hanukkah!" to all of my fellow members of The Tribe. After a long couple of weeks at work, post-Thanksgiving, it's nice to be able to celebrate Hanukkah and look forward to a couple of days of R&R. Over Thanksgiving, I flew back home to Connecticut to see friends and family. It was a fun trip - I had a lot of great food (east coast pizza and bagels!), caught up with old friends, and even got to spend a couple of days in NYC. With that behind me though, I'm now looking forward to staying put in LA for the rest of the year, laying low, maybe even catching up with my much-neglected PS3 (I've got Uncharted 3, Arkham City, and Skyrim all begging to be played). And of course, I plan to continue blogging with more movie reviews, and yes, my annual Best-Of-The-Year year-end columns.

Now, speaking of the holidays, I'm sure that many of you have or will be unwrapping (or possibly purchasing) new tablet devices for Hanukkah or Christmas. I know that I myself have been seriously considering the iPad and Kindle Fire. Both appeal to me for for a variety of reasons, but I would be lying if I didn't admit that one of the key reasons I want a tablet is so that I can dive into the world of digital comics. The fact is, as much as I am a traditionalist and love reading comic books the old-fashioned way, comics can be a pain to store and organize. Some people may have the means to devote large spaces to a comic book collection, but for many of us with limited storage space, it just gets to be too much. I'm not saying that I'd ever 100% abandon traditional comics - nothing will ever beat the tactile feel of holding and paging through a comic book. But I could see myself transitioning a sizable chunk of my comic reading to digital within the next year or two.

Two key factors make now the time to make the jump. One is the devices themselves. Reading comics on a laptop or desktop PC was never ideal, and never felt right. But tablets like the iPad have a near-perfect form factor for comics. The art looks fantastic, and the reading experience is intuitive. Sure, there are still some things you can't quite replicate on a tablet (double-paged spreads, for instance), but the experience is really starting to get good. And I'm sure that, going forward, comics will become increasingly tailored for digital reading, and more and more devices will be optimized for comics. Secondly, 2011 was the year that many if not most comics are finally starting to go day-and-date digital. This means that the same day that new issues are released in comic shops, they're also available for digital download, via apps from DC, Marvel, and Comixology - which aggregates comics from a variety of major publishers into one digital comics mega-store. Not only are individual issues finally available in a timely manner, but digital versions of trade-paperbacks - the volumes that collect storyarcs into one handy book (you've probably seen 'em at Barnes & Noble, etc.) are also starting to become widely available for digital consumption. This means that, through digital distribution, you can not only keep up on the latest monthly comic books, but also get caught up on classic stories, from Watchmen to Y: The Last Man.

Finally, there's a third reason that now might be the time to jump into digital comics - or comics in general. You may have heard that, this past September, DC Comics rebooted their entire line of books, restarting legendary franchises like Action Comics, Detective Comics, and Green Lantern with new issue #1's. So if movies or TV shows have got you interested in the ongoing adventures of Batman or The Flash, you've now got a perfect jumping-on point, with minimal catch-up to do. Now, some of the comics were rebooted more cleanly than others. Meaning: while you can pick up the new adventures of Superman in Action Comics with absolutely no past knowledge under your belt, you may want to brush up on some pre-reboot stories of Batman or Green Lantern before sampling the new stuff.

All in all though, the new DC reboot has yielded some awesome new comics that are very much worth checking out. In some cases, the cream of the crop includes mainstream superhero stuff like Batman, but there are also some slightly less-mainstream books that are also must-reads. There are already a whopping 52 DC Universe comics and counting, so you may be wondering: "hey, I've got my new Fire or iPad, which of the New 52 should I check out?" Well, I am here to help. So here is my guide to ...


1.) Animal Man

- Written by one of comics' rising superstars in Jeff Lemire, Animal Man is a strange, atmospheric tale of a man who's trying to raise a family and live a normal life, but who keeps finding himself at the center of some major weirdness. This comic is a gripping read, mixing horror with adventure. And Lemire is absolutely knocking it out of the park, telling the story of Buddy Baker - a man who can tap into something called the Morphonogenic Field, channelling the power of earth's animal kingdom. But what Lemire is revealing is that there's a lot more to Buddy's strange powers than meets the eye. In fact, Buddy and his family may very well be at the center of a war that determines the fate of earth itself.

Recommended Reading: Not necessary to enjoy this new series, but to get more of the backstory on Animal Man, you may want to check out Grant Morrison's 80's/90's-era run on the previous iteration of this series - it's a modern classic that establishes the weird, surreal tone that Lemire picks up on here.

2.) Swamp Thing

- Like Animal Man, Swamp Thing is another character who had a legendary run in the 80's, and who's now being revitalized by one of today's best writers (in this case, Scott Snyder). Snyder is crafting a gothic-horror adventure in which Alec Holland - the man who once was Swamp Thing - has reverted back to human form, even as he discovers new insight into the origins of the creature he once was. Another creepy, atmospheric, and ultra-compelling read - this latest version of Swamp Thing continues the older title's tradition of looking at the dark underbelly of American through horror and sci-fi storytelling. Think Stephen King, only greener.

Recommended Reading: Again, similar to Animal Man in that there's nothing you *have* to read to understand the new Swamp Thing, but it can't hurt to check out the acclaimed run that writer Alan Moore had on Swamp Thing in the mid-80's. All off those issues are collected in a series of several volumes, and they're awesome. Also, it's worth noting that Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire are planning, at some point, to weave together threads from Animal Man and Swamp Thing, and it looks like they may be setting up something pretty epic. Read both of 'em, I say!

3.) Batman

- That Scott Snyder, he can do no wrong. Even as he kicks ass on Swamp Thing, he's also doing a bang-up job on Batman. Snyder's been setting up a fascinating mystery, in which a secret society that's long had an association with Gotham City has come out of the shadows to wage war on Bruce Wayne and his makeshift family. Snyder brings his knack for great characterization, fantastic mystery-writing, and atmospheric prose to this rebooted Batman title, and the art from Greg Capullo is super-dynamic. There are several Bat-titles that are part of the New 52, but this one is, so far, far and away the best.

Recommended Reading: The Bat-books actually maintained a lot of their pre-reboot continuity, so it doesn't hurt to check out recent Bat stories from the last few years while checking out the new books. Most relevant though is Scott Snyder's run on Detective Comics from just prior to the reboot, in which Dick Grayson temporarily takes over for Bruce Wayne as Batman. Snyder wrote some amazing stories as part of that run, and there is some thematic and story carryover into his new run on Batman. As far as the other New 52 Bat-books go, Batman & Robin is very solid stuff (Bruce Wayne teaming with his son Damien, who's now Robin), and the new Nightwing book is also very good so far (for those who don't know, Nightwing is the first Robin, Dick Grayson, all grown up). Batgirl, starring a recently-healed-from-crippling-injury Barbara Gordon, is also showing some signs. But other than Batman, the best new Bat-title is ...

4.) Batwoman

- If you want to see the most stunningly gorgeous art in comics, all you need to do is take a look at the new Batwoman comic. Written and illustrated by JH Williams, Batwoman is jaw-dropping in terms of the sheer awesomeness of Williams' artwork. If you have preconceptions about what comic book art looks like, please, look at this. But, Williams is also crafting a great story that is unfolding with the pacing of a great HBO drama. And Kate Kane, the new Batwoman, is a fascinating character - a crimson-haired Jewish lesbian who kicks ass with style.

Recommended Reading: While the new Batwoman is fairly accessible on its own, I highly, highly recommend that you check out the Batwoman: Elegy trade paperback which collects the first Kate Kane storyarc that ran a few years back in Detective Comics. It's an amazing story that tells Kate's origins - her family history, her stuggles in the military, and her first adventures as a costumed hero. It's well worth tracking down.

5.) Justice League

- I'll admit, with all the hype around the dream-team pairing of writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee, the new Justice League hasn't quite been the must-read blockbuster I was hoping for. But, as an introduction to the new DC Universe, this is essentially ground zero. This one takes place five years in the past, showing the first meetings of DC's biggest heroes, like Superman, Batman, and The Flash. So this is definitely one that will make you feel like you got in the ground floor of the new DC. Also, if you're not familiar with Jim Lee, you're in for a treat. This book is a perfect showcase for the legendary artist's bleeding-cool style, and he is at the top of his game here, drawing the heck out of DC's biggest superhero icons.

Recommended Reading: None necessary. But if you want to see more of Jim Lee drawing DC's heroes, you may want to check out Batman: Hush, which saw Lee tackling Batman and his rogues gallery in a rollercoaster ride of a story that first saw print several years back.

6.) Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.

- Here's another left-of-center comic that may go under some people's radars, but trust me, it's badass. I mean, who doesn't want to read about Frankenstein's Monster leading an army of creature-feature soldiers in a secret war against supernatural threats? Plus, this one is written by Jeff Lemire (same writer as Animal Man), so you know it's from a guy who knows how to write awesomely weird adventure stories.

Recommended Reading: This particular version of Frankenstein - a sword-swinging, poetry-reciting badass who works for the top-secret government group called S.H.A.D.E. - was first introduced several years ago by writer Grant Morrison in an epic story called 7 Soldiers. It's well worth tracking down if you want a good read.

7.) Green Lantern

- For several years now, writer Geoff Johns has taken Green Lantern and recast him as an epic, cosmic hero engaged in Star Wars-esque space opera. The recent movie adopted certain elements of John's run, but trust me, the comics are much more awesome. With the DC reboot, Johns kept most of his past GL stories intact, but added a new wrinkle to coincide with the comic's new #1 - a new storyline in which Hal Jordan has been stripped of his GL ring, and his most evil of enemies, Sinestro, has iexplicably been chosen as Hal's replacement in the Corps. Johns continues to make Green Lantern one of DC's most riveting, epic titles, and the new focus on a morally-conflicted Sinestro is the perfect way to breathe some new life into the franchise.

Recommended Reading: Okay, you *could* dive into the new GL series sight unseen, but because the title's pree-rebbot continuity is mostly still intact, you may also want to catch up on the major story-arcs since Geoff Johns began writing Green Lantern in the mid-00's. Key collections include Rebirth, The Sinestro Corps War, Secret Origins, Blackest Night, and War of the Green Lanterns. I'd also say that, overall, the entire line of New 52 GL titles has been pretty solid. GL Corps - focusing on the intergalactic adventures of Lanterns John Stewart and Guy Gardner - has been enjoyable so far. As has GL: New Guardians, focusing on Kyle Rayner, who replaced Hal Jordan during the 90's. Red Lanterns, focusing on the rage-filledRed Lantern Corps, has also been interesting thus far.

8.) All-Star Western

- If you only know Jonah Hex from the movie of the same name, well, you might think that Jonah Hex sort of sucks. Not so, says I, or any fans of the character from his long history in comics. In recent years, for example, writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray have penned many awesome stories featuring the badass bounty hunter of the Old West. Now, they continue that run with All-Star Western, which kicked off with a multipart arc in which Hex finds himself in Gotham City circa the late 1800's. As it turns out, even then, Gotham was a scary place. All-Star Western is just great, gritty, pulpy Western adventure.

Recommended Reading: The dynamic-duo writing team of Palmiotti and Gray had a long, pre-reboot run on a comic called Jonah Hex, featuring kickass Old West adventures of the title-hero. Not necessary to read All-Star Western, but if you want to read some amazing Jonah Hex stories, then look no further than these recent comics.

9.) Action Comics

- Comic's longest-running title (dating back to the 1930's) got a reboot just like every other DC book this past September. And the new Action, which re-introduces Superman to the DC Universe, had a lot of hype going in. Afterall, writer Grant Morrison had previously written one of the best Superman stories ever - All-Star Superman. Now, Morrison was reinterpreting Superman as the superhero equivalent of Bruce Springsteen - a crusader who fights for the working class and takes on society's bullies (and, you know, alien invasions and stuff). Like Justice League, this title takes place in the new DC Universe's past, so this is a Superman who's just starting out - he doesn't even have a proper superhero outfit yet. To date, I feel like this one's been a little shaky, but I remain curious as to what Morrison has planned. If nothing else, this is a must-read just to see this semi-radical new take on the Man of Steel play out.

Recommended Reading: None necessary, though if you want to see Grant Morrison, at the top of his game, writing Superman, then by all means, read the collected editions of All-Star Superman.

10.) Birds of Prey

- There's been some criticism already that DC's New 52 hasn't had enough strong female characters feaured in prominent titles. There may be some truth in such criticism, but one title that stands as a shining display of girl-power done right is the new Birds of Prey. I was definitely weary of this one going in, as pre-reboot, BoP was one of my all-time favorite titles. I was nervous about the new lineup of characters and new take on a modern-classic concept. But fear not, crime writer Duane Swierczynski is crafting a rollicking espionage-adventure story, teaming fan favorite femme-fatales like Black Canary and Kitana with a super-cool new character named Starling, who's quickly become a breakout Bird.

Recommended Reading: If you want to know more about the history of the Birds, check out the classic runs on the previous incarnation of the title by writers Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone. Otherwise, no prior reading necessary.

So that's my round-up of, in my opinion, the best of the New 52 from DC. Thoughts? Comments? Any titles you're eager to try? Any additional recommendations? Let's hear 'em.

Now, say you're not just interested in what's new and current, but also in catching up on the classics. Well, the Recommended Reading bullets above should point you towards some legendary comics like Grant Morrison's Animal Man or Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, but, you may be wondering, what are some of the other all-time classic, must-read comics. Well, ask and I shall answer. Below, here is a quick sampler of what I consider to the major works in the modern comic book cannon. Many of these you can download, some you may have to (gasp!) visit a store or hit up Amazon in order to purchase. But here they are ...


1.) Y: The Last Man

- A funny, harrowing, thought-provoking journey into a world where all men - save one - have been killed by a mysterious plague, Brian K. Vaughan's modern-classic series, about a world where women rule, is a must-read piece of comic book literature.

2.) The Walking Dead

- Even if you've seen the TV show, you may not be prepared for the sheer intensity of The Walking Dead comic. Completely gripping and unpredictable, this zombie-apocalypse series from Robert Kirkman gets maximum shock value by placing characters-first. This is comic-book crack, and one hell of a horror adventure.

3.) Watchmen

- Again, you may have seen the movie, but you have to read this groundbreaking comic that forever changed the face of the medium. With Watchmen, writer Alan Moore deconstructed the superhero myth to craft a world where it was hard to tell the heroes from the villains. Moore's uber-detailed writing paired with Dave Gibbons' meticulously drafted artwork combines to form a comic book for the ages.

4.) The Dark Knight Returns

- Perhaps Frank Miller's defining work, this dystopian vision of a future Gotham City from the writer/artist is also one of the best Batman stories ever told. In fact, Miller's vision of an aging, grizzled Bruce Wayne changed how the character was written forever after. Along with Watchmen, DKR helped to usher in the modern age of comics in the 80's.

5.) Fables

- This long running comic has been oft-imitated in pop-culture in recent years, but it remains singlularly unique. In Fables, Bill Willingham imagined a world in which fairy-tale characters have fled their homelands after an all-consuming war, and, in exile, secretly taken up residence in New York City. As it progressed, Fables veered away from that premise, getting bigger and more fantastical and larger-scaled each year. But the thing that made Fables so great remains intact - Willingham's ability to find fresh, funny, subversive takes on these classic characters.

6.) The Sandman

- Speaking of modern takes on classic stories, that's exactly what Neil Gaiman's seminal Sandman series was all about. Crafting a new mythology of dreams and nightmares, the story of Dream and the Endless became Gaiman's forum for tellng all kinds of modern-day myths. There are whimsical fairy-tales, dark horror stories, and epic adventures. It's hard not to get caught up in Gaiman's gothic vision.

7.) Preacher

- Talk about subversive and balls-to-the-wall. Garth Ennis' all-American adventure of a pissed-off preacher named Jesse Custer and his quest to kill God, well, it's about as ballsy as comics get. Ennis shocks, enlightens, and entertains in this landmark series, which adopted brought the storytelling conventions and maturity of great serialized TV to comics in the 90's, and was hugely influential.

8.) Kingdom Come

- Want to read what is basically the ultimate superhero epic? Look no further than Kingdom Come, which imagines a near-future in which Superman, Batman, and the rest of DC's legendary heroes have been replaced by violent, attitude-infused antiheroes. When Magog, the leader of the new breed, goes too far, Superman and the rest must come out of retirement to wage war on the young guns. This is epic, biblical stuff - made even more so by the realistic, painted art from Alex Ross, and the gravitas-laden prose by Mark Waid.

9.) All-Star Superman

- A few years ago, Grant Morrison wrote a standalone Superman story that blew readers away with its visionairy, ultra-imaginative take on the Man of Tomorrow. In this far-out tale, Superman finds out that he is dying. But before he goes, he must complete a series of challenges that will test his mettle like nothing has before. This is like the 2001 of Superman comics - a trippy, mind-bending epic that takes you through time, space, and reality itself.

10.) Ex Machina

- I wanted to limit this list to one entry per writer, but I just couldn't leave off this amazing book from Brian K. Vaughan, who also did Y: The Last Man. If you're at all a political junkie, Ex Machina is a must-read, as it blends sci-fi, superheroes, and politics in a completely compelling and intellgent manner. This one tells the story of Mitchell Hundred, who was elected mayor of New York City when, after using his strange powers to prevent the attacks of September 11th, 2001, he became a national hero. Ex Machina tackles major social and political issues, all while weaving an intriguing sci-fi mythology around Mayor Hundred and his unique origins.

And there it is - now get to reading. And Happy Holidays!

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