Thursday, December 27, 2012
THE BEST OF 2012 - The Best COMICS Of The Year
THE BEST COMICS OF 2012:
- There are certain things I'm going to miss as we enter the new digital age of comics. Trying to hold on to the way things were, I still make regular trips to the local comic shop, purchasing traditional physical copies of favorite books as well as the occasional trade paperback collection. But 2012 was the year that I fairly definitively went digital. It was a tough transition, but also freeing. There's still a lot I don't love about reading comics on my iPad, but there are also a ton of benefits. An obvious one is the lack of clutter that comes with no longer buying a weekly stack of new books. But a less obvious upside is the evolving way in which I'm finding and discovering new material to read. In the past, comics were limited in terms of discoverability. The choices were either keep up with a book month-to-month, or else catch up months - or years - later by reading trade paperback collections. But in that crucial in-between window, when a book was a couple issues in and starting to gain steam, finding back-issues and catching up was a hunt and a chore. But now, suddenly, you've got a whole library of new and recent issues at your fingertips. Diving into a highly-recommended comic series is now as easy as a few points and clicks. The same applies for many older issues and series as well. Digital comics store Comixology keeps expanding and adding to its library of classic series, and it's nirvana for fanboys and fangirls who want to seek out more old-school material. In particular, I'm loving the additions of content that are not available in trade paperback in full or at all. It's almost overwhelming - the complete run of Mark Waid on The Flash, the complete Suicide Squad, The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, American Flagg - all these classics, with more added every week, all available with the touch of a button. But what's more, Comixology is sort of comics' version of Hulu and DVR combined. Miss an issue? It's there. Want the latest issue on day-of-release? It's there? Heard good things about Saga, and want to quickly spead-read through the first 9 issues? A snap. What this has led to, I think, is a potential new golden age for out-of-the-box comics and new franchises. Before, a lot of comics purchasing was driven by habit. Trying out a new series was a risk, so why bother? Now, there's more opportunity than ever to grab new readers and get people caught up. I think it's only a matter of time, too, before we start seeing first issues available as free for a limited time, and other incentives to encourage sampling. Already, Comixology is doing a lot of 99 cent sales that encourage bulk purchases. Although digital sadly closes some doors, it opens, I think, many new ones.
This goes hand in hand with my overall feeling this year that, while I still loved comics, I was really ready for something new. DC's New 52 initiative was a good break-away point for me. I'm still reading quite a few DC titles, but I just don't have the same investment in the universe I once did. Maybe that will change, but for now, too few of the rebooted titles sustained the level of quality to keep me interested. And the titles I used to read because I had an attachment to the characters I'd grown up with - well, they no longer felt the same. With that said, 2012 was the perfect time to branch out and dive into new material that was standalone and not part of a shared narrative universe. More and more, Image Comics was the place I turned to. Image is now officially the best publisher in the biz, the place where the smartest creators are going to tell their own original stories. Stalwarts like Robert Kirkman's THE WALKING DEAD and INVINCIBLE have now been joined by exciting new titles like Brian K. Vaughan's SAGA, Ed Brubaker's FATALE, and Jonathan Hickman's THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS. Image is just killing it these days. They are doing innovative, edgy stories in all different genres - noir, sci-fi, humor, horror. It's the perfect antidote for Marvel and DC's everything-old-is-new-again approach to many of their stories.
Of course, Image's success has come, a bit, at the expense of DC's fabled (pun sort of intended) Vertigo imprint. Books like Saga that might once have lived there are now at image, and titles like the fantastic SWEET TOOTH, and the long-running Hellblazer, are coming to an end. Many of Vertigo's characters - Constantine, Swamp Thing, etc. - have been brought back into the fold of DC Comics proper. And Karen Berger, the longtime leader of the imprint, is now set to depart for other opportunities. Many of my all-time favorite comics have come from Vertigo, so it's a little sad to see the line diminished. But again, Vertigo's loss is other's gain, and now you've got Image, IDW (publisher of the seminal LOCKE & KEY), and others all competing for similar types of titles. All that said, Vertigo still published a couple of my favorite comics of 2012. THE NEW DEADWARDIANS was one, the other, my pick for comic of the year - the instant-classic, insanely great miniseries PUNK ROCK JESUS.
I also don't mean to imply that there aren't some great superhero books at the moment. DC has done two very smart things, and that's putting its current MVP writers Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire on multiple titles. Snyder's BATMAN run has been phenomenal - his last major arc, which introduced the criminal conspiracy known as The Court of Owls, was a modern classic. And he's topping it right now, unbelievably, with his ultra-creepy Joker story, "Death of the Family." Snyder has also done great work on SWAMP THING, working with Lemire and his ANIMAL MAN title on the excellent crossover story, "Rotworld." Lemire has also done great work since taking over JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK, providing a great home for DC's stable of supernatural characters. DC also put out the controversial BEFORE WATCHMEN this year. Lo and behold, it's actually been quite good, for the most part. Creators like Darwyn Cooke have done great things with the prequel series, and while its mere existence might make Alan Moore grumpy (or grumpier), it turns out that Before Watchmen has been one of the most consistently good reads week in and week out in the comics world.
Sadly, some true icons and legends of the medium were lost this year. Chief among them, the great JOE KUBERT - one of the great artists of all time. Kubert had a naturalistic, expressive style that made him the definitive artist of characters like Hawkman. He also created the legendary wartime hero Sgt. Rock, and drew him and his comrades-in-arms in Easy Company with unmatched emotion and fluidity. Kubert also founded the Kubert School, an art academy that produced hundreds of great comics artists over the years (not to mention his sons, Andy and Adam, great artists in their own right). One of the bittersweet things about 2012 was losing Kubert, but also getting some last, great work from him in various stories, including the JOE KUBERT PRESENTS miniseries. In it, his art is as sharp as ever.
I'll also take a moment to mention the passing of a legend whose work influenced comics, films, TV, books, and countless imaginations. RAY BRADBURY, one of my biggest heroes, passed away this year, and the world is an emptier and duller place without Bradbury's unparalleled presence in it. The author of Farenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man - among many others - Bradbury was a founding father of modern sci-fi. But more than that, he was an incredible storyteller, commenting on what was and speculating about what might be. A few years ago, at Comic-Con in San Diego, I saw a then-elderly Bradbury speak, and it was an experience that will always stick with me. The sense of wonder and the passion for stories that Bradbury, at 90, still had - I'll never forget it. I bring this up here because comics are, ultimately, for me, about infinite possibilities and mind-expanding ideas. And that too, was what Ray Bradbury's work embodied.
Overall, this was a really interesting, really transitional year for comics. There was some really great work being done, but a lot of it outside the ultra-mainstream. But then again - thanks to digital, thanks to the internet, thanks to a changing comics culture - the comics mainstream is becoming an increasingly malleable and ever-expanding thing.
DANNY'S BEST COMICS OF 2012:
THE BEST MINISERIES AND SPECIALS:
1.) Punk Rock Jesus
- My pick for overall best comic of the year, Punk Rock Jesus reminded me instantly of 80's-era, auteur-driven comics like Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Sean Murphy, Punk Rock Jesus takes place in a near-future America where Jesus Christ has been cloned for the purpose of a reality TV show. Gradually, the clone rebels against his corporate creators and religious-zealot supporters and forges his own identity. It's a story that might sound hokey on paper, but Sean Murphy brilliantly uses the premise as a means to explore religion, politics, business, and the American dream. This feels like the kind of risky, rebellious stuff that they just don't make anymore - it's got the same gritty, relevant, nihilistic feel of something like Watchmen. And the art - wow. I was a fan of Sean Murphy before this for his work on books like Joe the Barbarian, but this is a whole new level. Punk Rock Jesus is THE must-read comic of 2012.
2.) The New Deadwardians
- Written by fan-favorite Dan Abnett, this engrossing eight-parter told the story of an Edwardian England overrun by zombies. The added twist is that, in order to survive the zombie apocalypse, large swaths of Brits have given themselves "the cure," aka, turned themselves into vampires! It's a totally over-the-top premise, but The New Deadwardians is actually a very smart mystery dealing with a murder in this land now filled with the undead. Lots of twists, turns, and great character moments made this book a fantastic read.
3.) Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre
- A number of the Before Watchmen books have been good - Minutemen, Rorschach, Dr. Manhattan, The Comedian, and Moloch were all really well done. But Silk Spectre - the book I had the least excitement for, actually turned out to be the ambitious project's crown jewel. Written by Darwyn Cooke and drawn with cartoonish abandon by Amanda Connor, Silk Spectre was a a trippy meditation on legacy, adulthood, and finding one's own path - all set amidst a psychedelic 60's backdrop.
4.) The Secret Service
- Written by Mark Millar (Kickass) and drawn by Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), The Secret Service has been a really fun miniseries thus far. It involves a British street thug whose life takes a sharp right turn, when he finds out that his enigmatic uncle is actually a certified super-spy - who's come to take his nephew under his wing and train him to be an elite agent. It's one of the best stories Millar has crafted in some time, and I'm curious to see where it goes as it continues into the new year.
5.) Joe Kubert Presents
- A showpiece for the legendary artist, only two of six issues of this anthology have yet been released, but I'm giving it a spot on the list because it's been so enjoyable thus far. Each issue is a mix of original stories written and drawn by Kubert, as well as others from writer/artists he hand-picked for inclusion. There's some great stories in these, but also an added layer of weight and bittersweetness knowing that Kubert died just prior to the first issue's release. This, however, is a fitting departing gift from a true master.
THE BEST ONGOING SERIES:
- One of the great joys of 2012 was seeing one of my favorite writers, Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) return to comics after a long absence. Man, did I miss the guy. No one else has BKV's knack for dialogue, for crafting all-too-human characters (even in a story like this one, where they're not actually human), or for telling an epic story filled with twists, turns, and jaw-dropping cliffhangers. Simply put, BKV is the best in the biz, and he's showing why, again, with Saga - a universe spanning space-opera that's like Star Wars meets Y meets Romeo and Juliet. Fiona Staples' digital art is similarly jaw-dropping, giving Saga a look and feel like nothing else out there. Get on board now, people - this is a future classic in the making, and the Best New Comic Book of 2012, by a landslide.
- Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo have made DC's relaunched Batman title THE must-read superhero book of 2012 and beyond. While I've been largely sour on DC's rebooted franchise titles, Batman has been a roller-coaster ride, with top-notch storytelling and one modern-classic tale after another. The Court of Owls storyline was great, the current Joker-centric storyline, "Death of the Family," is even better - creepy, disturbing, and intense as all hell. If you ever wanted to dive in to some good Batman comics, now is the time. Start with last year's Batman #1 and work your way through - each and every issue of Snyder's run has been a keeper.
3.) Sweet Tooth
- Jeff Lemire's post-apocalyptic saga has been racing towards its impending conclusion, and even though I'll be sad that the story is over ... man, I can't wait to see how it ends. Sweet Tooth has been probably my favorite comic of the last couple of years. It's a great story with great characters and a sense of mystery and adventure unlike anything else. Lemire's writing is full of humanity and emotion, but his weird, stylized art creates an unsettling, atmospheric mood. In 2012, we finally learned the origins of the plague that wiped out much of humanity and birthed Sweet Tooth, and we also saw the story build to a climactic showdown in Alaska, where badass antihero Jeppard is prepping for his final stand - trying to protect the boy he's come to love as a son from those who would harm him. Lemire is to be commended for his amazing run on this book.
4.) The Walking Dead
- Everyone now knows The Walking Dead from the TV series, but the comic where it all started continues to be a great read - going to dark and disturbing places that even the TV show wouldn't dare tread. I've been catching up via trade paperback, so I'm still a little behind the monthly books. But after a bit of a lull, I felt Kirkman got back on track with the buildup to and aftermath of the landmark issue #100. The events of that issue, thanks to new villain Negan, are horrifying, shocking, and exactly the sort of balls-to-the-wall stuff that made The Walking Dead a phenomenon in the first place. Read it if you dare.
5.) Animal Man
- Here's that Jeff Lemire guy again (and it won't be the last time he's on this list, either). Lemire continues to hit it out of the park on Animal Man, telling the kinds of nightmarish stories that made the title pop back in the day under Grant Morrison's pen, but adding a new, humanistic twist. Buddy Baker's relationship with his wife and children has never felt so real or relatable, for example. And that makes all the crazy, messed-up horror that Baker gets mixed up in that much more disturbing and engrossing.
6.) The Manhattan Projects
- Jonathan Hickman has quite the wild imagination. His new book The Manhattan Projects is, easily, one of the most wonderfully weird things I've ever read. It explores the concept of The Manhattan Project in the 30's as being much more than just a group trying to build an atomic bomb, but a top-secret super-science lab that creates portals to other worlds, artificial life, clones, androids, and anything else that you, I, or Hickman can think of. Hickman has populated the book with real-life figures like Einstein and Oppenheimer, but his versions are like nothing you've seen before. A twisted, insane, and trippy look at the fringes of modern science.
- Ed Brubaker knows how to do hard-boiled crime-fiction well, but he's outdoing himself with Fatale. The book follows an immortal femme fatale across the decades as she tries to escape her past, all the while luring any number of helpless paramours into her bed and into her service. This is pitch-black noir with a supernatural twist, and the moody art from Sean Phillips plunges you into a world of shadows and hidden dangers.
8.) Swamp Thing
- Scott Snyder's other DC book that I'm digging is Swamp Thing, a worthy heir to the character's storied legacy. Swamp Thing has been telling a pretty epic story, as Alec Holland wages all out war with the demonic Arcane. Snyder brings a real knack for psychological horror to the book, but he's also able to make it into a grand adventure. As Swamp Thing's been enmeshed in the "Rotworld" storyline, it's taken on a big-event, anything-can-happen feel.
- Everyone knows Robert Kirkman from The Walking Dead, but I'm also a huge fan of his other major ongoing book, Invincible. This is another one I've been reading in trade format - so I'm a little behind - but that I can't get enough of when I get my hands on each new volume. Invincible is the most fun superhero book published today - it's got its own epic mythology that at times satirizes classic comic book conventions to great effect. But it also is epic, dark, and intense when it wants to be. Kirkman knows how to crank up the volume and tell a big, shocking storyline. Invincible is superhero comics crack.
10.) Justice League Dark
- One more from Jeff Lemire. Since taking over this book several months back, Lemire has made it an instant standout. In fact, his first big storyline, pitting a group of magical heroes, led by John Constantine, against an occult enemy in a war for the Books of Magic (a story which also saw the return of Tim Hunter, aka the original Harry Potter), was downright epic. Lemire brought his knack for tight plotting, great twists, and fun characterization to the table, and the results are striking. Also striking: the painted art of Mikel Janin, which is absolutely amazing to look at.
- One of the best comics I read this year was LOCKE & KEY. I'm still catching up, so I haven't read the latest volumes yet. But man, it's been an incredible, harrowing, engrossing, mind-blowing journey so far. Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), clearly shares his dad's knack for epic horror - Locke & Key is a book that mixes humor and heart and whimsy with moments that are downright scary and disturbing. The plotting is second to none - as I plowed through each volume, I couldn't stop reading. The art by Gabriel Rodriguez is awesome as well - stylized and unique, but ultra-fluid, expressive, and evocative. I can't wait to read the rest of the story as Joe Hill's saga unfolds into 2013.
WRITERS OF THE YEAR:
1.) Scott Snyder (Batman, Swamp Thing)
2.) Jeff Lemire (Sweet Tooth, Animal Man, Justice League Dark)
3.) Brian K. Vaughan (Saga)
4.) Robert Kirkman (Walking Dead, Invincible)
5.) Darwyn Cooke (Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre, Before Watchmen: Minutemen)
6.) Sean Murphy (Punk Rock Jesus)
7.) Dan Abnett (The New Deadwardians)
8.) Jonathan Hickman (The Manhattan Projects, Fantastic Four)
9.) Mark Millar (Hit-Girl, The Secret Service)
10.) Ed Brubaker (Fatale)
ARTISTS OF THE YEAR:
1.) Fiona Staples (Saga)
2.) Sean Murphy (Punk Rock Jesus)
3.) Greg Capullo (Batman)
4.) Mikel Janin (Justice League Dark)
5.) J.H. Williams III (Batwoman)
6.) Amanda Connor (Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre)
7.) Jason Fabook (Detective Comics)
8.) Ivan Reiss (Aquaman, Justice League)
9.) Fernando Pasarin (Green Lantern Corps)
10.) Darwyn Cooke (Before Watchmen: Minutemen)