Truth to tell, I think that the "best" (or at least the funniest) thing I read all year was the Archie Giant Series. I tracked down almost all of the first 100 issues, give or take the five or six that I either haven't found yet or I can't afford. These were 80- or 64-page Archie comics published starting in the late 1950s and wrapping up in the early 70s. (The series actually extends well into the 80s, but I decided to read another Archie 1960s series after these first 100 issues.) This series of Archie books runs the gamut of most of the Archie line of comics and creators in both new and reprinted stories. But it's not like you can run down to the corner store and pick up these vintage books in one shopping trip. (At least, not yet, but check out this link for information about a new series of vintage Archie Comics on DVD-ROM.)
So, back to the best ... for now, I thought I'd stick to some relatively current stuff, more or less published in the last year or so.
One last note before we get going: I've been remiss in mentioning here that I also do reviews (like the one linked above) for Comics Worth Reading, a news and reviews comic site run by the incredibly driven Johanna Draper Carlson (who is also frequently my wife). I've sort of evolved into a DVD/animation reviewer of late at CWR, but I hope to do more comics-related stuff there next year. Rather than repeat myself (something I do anyway) in describing some of my favorites this year, I'll link to the pertinent reviews that I did where relevant, while adding a few additional comments right here at the Westfield site. Have fun, but don't get lost!
(While you're over at Comics Worth Reading, you might want to check out some of Johanna's reviews, as she covers a lot of different ground from me. She reviews everything from current Archies and manga to the best indy comics and collections and even how-to books and textbooks. Graphic novels, minicomics - she covers 'em all! She also loves to talk about movies, old and new, as well as just about anything else that strikes her pop culture fancy!)
And now, finally, I'm pleased to present, in glorious random order, the Second Annual:
KC's MILDLY INTERESTING, YEAR-END, SORT-OF "BEST OF" (BUT NOT REALLY), NOT-QUITE TOP 10 LIST OF STUFF HE READ AND THOUGHT WOULD BE FUN TO WRITE ABOUT LIST-THINGY!
But before I start recommending comic series, one special overall acknowledgment:
Character of the Year: Superman - How long has it been since we could even come close to saying that?! Whether it's Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's lyrical All Star Superman or James Robinson and Geoff Johns' roller coaster of big action, big concepts, and attention to the quiet, small moments in Superman and Action or Kurt Busiek's always deft handing of the Man of Steel as part of Trinity, this was definitely the year of Superman. And nobody deserved it more! Plus, it looks like there's even bigger and better things planned for 2009. How about a big round of applause to all the talented creators who contributed to the Man of Steel this year!
Young Avengers Presents - The Young Avengers are currently my favorite new-ish Marvel characters, so I'm always excited to see them get a showcase like this for themselves, instead of their usual role as fodder for the latest mega-event. This was an unusual six-issue mini-series - now in trade paperback - as each issue was produced by a different creative team, and there were some unusual pairings. I think my favorite issues were the bookends: The Patriot story by Ed Brubaker and Paco Medina was quite effective in showing how Captain America's death had a big effect on those who follow his path, as young Eli got some quality time with Bucky Barnes, the new Cap. The final issue featured Hawkeye by Matt Fraction, Alan Davis, and Mark Farmer. I was quite excited by it, as I will buy anything that Davis and Farmer do, and I am beginning to feel the same way about the writing of Matt Fraction. This issue didn't disappoint, as we got a great little story of romance and growth. I don't know if this was Davis' or Fraction's idea, but basing Kate's date dress on one of the worst Hawkeye costumes ever (although it works well with the female form!) was a stroke of small brilliance. Young Avengers Presents #6 gets my vote for the best individual issue from Marvel last year.
Teen Titans: Year One - This six-issue mini-series (also now a TPB) featured a somewhat radical rethinking of the original Teen Titans by writer Amy Wolfram (who wrote most of the more interesting episodes of the animated Teen Titans series) and art by Karl Kerschl (Majestic), Serge Lapointe, and Steph Peru. Initially, the combination of the great animation-influenced artwork and marvelous coloring by Peru attracted me to the series, and I was horrified to learn while researching this piece that Peru passed away at age 27 of a heart attack, while the series was in production. (John Rauch did a fine job of coloring the final issues of the series.)
Oddly, there's a strange sense of sadness that pervades the series itself, as Wolfram has focused on many of the darker traits of the characters, which is quite jarring when you consider that the 1960s source material for the series featured probably the most happy-go-lucky characterization in comics at that time. Here we see a Robin full of doubt, an Aqualad who is alienated and frightened of everything (but true to his actual origins), and a Kid Flash who is bored, fidgety, and ultimately angry and jealous. Only Wonder Girl, who is introduced to the boys in a story we never saw in the original Titans run, seems to be normal, if a bit too boy-crazy and a little bit too full of love (aka, a lot naive about the ways of "Man's World"). And of course it all comes crashing down for her in issue #5 on a disastrous first date with Speedy, in one of the saddest stories you'll ever read. Ah, young love. (This, by the way, is my pick for best single issue from DC this year.)
But Teen Titans: Year One isn't all sadness and dark. It's actually quite fun seeing how some of the quirkier elements from the original series - the Antithesis, the Ant, the Flips, Ding Dong Daddy, evil brainwashed mentors - get reworked here. I'd love to see some more "lost" Titans stories from this era, especially by this creative team!
Green Lantern: Secret Origins - I wrote about this hardcover collection briefly in last July's KC Column.
Grant Morrison is getting the lion's share of attention for "universe-building" in the DCU right now (and point-of-fact, Grant pitched a couple of big GL concepts that have been incorporated into the GL mythos), but Geoff Johns has been digging deep as well and showing us interesting connections and concepts in all his current DC work for GL, Superman, the JSA, his revival of the original Legion of Super-Heroes continuity, and his upcoming Flash series. Geoff is walking that very fine line in remaking some of the classic elements of the DCU (Krypton, the GL Corps, Barry Allen, the original LSH) in a very dynamic way without destroying the original intent or the magic of what made them work in the first place. Johns is the DC guy to watch in 2009.
Secret Invasion vs. Final Crisis - I reviewed both of these over at CWR early in their runs:
As we stand in late December, Secret Invasion has mostly been all wrapped up, but story threads continue into Dark Reign and ooze into some new Dark titles like Dark Avengers, which will in turn set up next summer's Darker Avengers, the bridging series Darker-Than-Dark Avengers, and finally wrap up in 2011's Darkest Avengers, where the characters will have become so depressed that all they can do is sit around Avengers Mansion (rebuilt in the Slightly-Less-Dark Avengers mini-series in 2010) and mope.
At least Secret Invasion is history. Final Crisis is still staggering towards its finish line. I won't bore you with the details. I've stopped reading the main book for now. I hope to tackle it again when it's complete, presumably some time in the next month or two. I'm still holding out hope that somehow writer Grant Morrison can defy the current odds and pull everything together in some kind of satisfying conclusion to this all-over-the-place narrative.
As you might expect from the previous comments, neither one of these titles is in my "Best Of" list for 2009. So why bring them up? Because I consider certain aspects of both some of the best superheroic comics work done this year.
As I mention in my previous review, the current continuity in both New Avengers and Mighty Avengers was given over to a series of one-shot stories - 18 issues total and all written by Brian Bendis - either explaining or spotlighting a specific aspect of the overall Secret Invasion storyline. This was a brilliant, and I believe unprecedented, concept in expanding the universe-building of not only the mega-story but the Marvel Universe itself. These stories ran the gamut of explaining stuff that was there, but unrevealed, from stories as far back as three or four years ago, regarding events from Bendis' Secret Wars, and the creation of the New Avengers, to telling the secrets of what was really happening right now in the current storyline. It's a testament to planning ahead, planting concepts and allowing them to simmer, and keeping your mouth shut about them. That's what you can creatively accomplish by staying on a title for more than 6 or 12 issues, and all of this is exceedingly rare in current comics. Plus, Secret Invasion has introduced or refined concepts (the Illumaniti, the Cabal) and characters (the new Secret Warriors, Special Agent Abigail Brand) which will propel Marvel storylines for years to come.
Over at DC, the "spoke" books spinning off of Final Crisis have been much better than the flagship itself. Virtually all of these were created with the goal of planting the seeds for some new upcoming concept at DC, or to keep some of the newer and stronger concepts created within the last couple of years in the spotlight. For the latter, Final Crisis: Revelations #1-5 feature the former partners Renee Montoya/The Question and Crispus Allen/The Spectre struggling with the eternal concepts of good and evil and life and death in a story that has major impact on the overall Final Crisis story. This has been an excellent series so far, by Greg Rucca and Phillip Tan.
I reviewed both Final Crisis: Requiem and Final Crisis: Rogues' Revenge #1 over at CWR earlier this year.
Those of you looking forward to DC's revival of the Barry Allen Flash need to pick up the latter series, as it offers up big clues as to what the Rogues will be up to and where their heads are (not in a good place). Final Crisis: Rage of the Red Lanterns was a very good but brutal one-shot preview of the current Red Lantern storyline in the GL book that will eventually lead-into the Blackest Night storyline later in 2009. But my favorite Final Crisis spin-off is Legion of Three Worlds - hands down one of the best Legion stories in many, many years. But more about that below...
Geoff Johns' Legion of Super-Heroes - It all started last year with the appearance of a much-addled Star Boy in the pages of the new Justice Society of America book. Then, several other members became the catalyst for last year's JLA/JSA crossover The Lightning Saga (Justice League of America #8-10, Justice Society of America #5-6). Finally, the team co-starred with Superman in Action Comics #858-863 in a story arc that could only be called Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes. And all this was going on while the regular Legion of Super-Heroes book chugged along telling the stories of the "threeboot" characters, leading to some very confusing moments for Legion fans trying to make sense of it all. (Plus, there was some minor Legion activity going on in Countdown - the least said about that, the better.)
As it played out however, it eventually became clear that Geoff Johns and his various collaborators were telling new stories of the original LSH characters (aka the original timeline of the Legion as told in such series as Adventure Comics, Action Comics, Superboy, and ultimately their own title). Although there are still a few continuity anomalies to be reckoned with - the biggest is whether the "Five-Year-Gap" continuity still exists (or will exist) in this new continuity, as well as some Legion/Superboy business which may or may not have been changed (or changed back) during either Infinite Crisis or 52 - it appears that Johns' Legion stories take place at some point shortly following the Magic Wars storyline that closed out the original era of Legion continuity, prior to the "V4/Five-Year Gap" era. This is the best thing to have happened to the Legion in decades, as everything that came after Magic Wars - and as good as it was in many, many cases - was ultimately confusingly frustrating and ended up chasing away as many old Legion fans as gaining new ones. It will be very interesting to see what happens next.
Most of the groundwork for change is being laid out in Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds by Geoff Johns and George Perez. It will be the last of the Final Crisis tie-ins to be wrapped up, and for once I am glad that DC is allowing the creators to take the time to get it right. The Legion is the one long-time series that can't afford to have another misstep in its history, having already had so many confusing ones in the last several attempts. Concept-wise, Legion of Three Worlds is mind-boggling, dealing with the entirety of LSH continuity and starring three different versions of the team. For the first time in a long time, there's a sense of urgency and grandeur propelling a Legion story along. And if that wasn't enough, Johns is throwing a little bit of GL Corps lore in the mix as well. Yikes! And if there weren't enough characters in the book already, Johns has decided not to just use one LSH villain - but ALL of them! Double Yikes! Most artists would be crazy to want to do a book with over 75 characters in it - many of which are the same characters with different designs - but George Perez is pulling out the stops in yet another career-defining project - one he demanded to be a part of.
I'm hoping that DC is smart enough to realize that Legion of Three Worlds is going to need the Absolute format (or some equivalent oversized format) to completely realize its impact on one of DC's very best long-running series, because only extra-large pages can justify this beautiful Perez artwork, and the annotation of the series will be the most extensive since the original Crisis or JLA/Avengers. It's a book that a lot of Legion fans (as well as Perez fans and DC fans in general) will want on their bookshelves, hopefully for next year's holiday season. And man, if there isn't a Geoff Johns-scripted LSH series on tap following this run, there'll be a lot of Legion fans who'll want to know why not!
And another thing! The Legion is one of the biggest -- *
Hey, KC... are you okay? Hmmm, he still has a pulse...
Hello, everybody! This is Westfield Editor Roger Ash here. KC has apparently just hyperventilated and passed out. Gosh, he sure likes the Legion!
Well, it's going to be a few minutes before the paramedics can revive him... I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I mentioned a couple of my favorite books from 2009.
Usagi Yojimbo - I recently sat down and read the last three years or so worth of Usagi Yojimbo, because I was just that far behind. This made me appreciate once again the storytelling abilities of creator Stan Sakai and reaffirmed my belief that this is, hands down, the best comic being published today. If you don't know the series, here's the setup in a nut shell. It takes place in Japan around the Edo era. It is a time of wandering Samurai, ronin, and great changes. But this isn't quite the Japan you know. It's populated by anthropomorphized animals. Usagi is a rabbit (Usagi Yojimo translates literally to rabbit bodyguard). This fantastical setting allows Sakai to play with Japanese legend, making all sorts of creatures and demons real. At the same time, he sticks to history in such elements as sword making, seaweed harvesting, and the tea ceremony. This mix of fact and fantasy works to create a work that is unique. And Usagi and his friends may be animals, but they are just as real as any characters you'll encounter in other books.
If you were to put all the Usagi stories together, Sakai's approaching the 200 issue mark of writing and drawing the ronin's adventures - a very impressive achievement. He's not one to rest on his laurels as his writing, drawing, and storytelling abilities continue to improve. He also makes it easy for new readers to join in. Yes, he does do longer stories (five, six, or seven parts), but those are followed by a number of two-part or done-in-one stories that are perfect for new readers. And while these stories do stand on their own, they often enhance Usagi's world and will come into play at a later date. For example, the recent Sparrows story, which featured Usagi's latest encounter with the demon swordsman Jei, was preceded by a series of one- and two-part stories. These stories, taken on their own, were cool, but they also laid some important groundwork for the Sparrows story.
I've talked about craft a lot here, but what about the story? Usagi features many characters whose adventures I look forward to reading and run the gamut from action to horror to humor. The supporting characters, from bounty hunter Gen to Usagi's maybe love interest Tomoe Ame, are so strong that they sometimes take the spotlight and bump Usagi from his own book. Whether it's a story of a ghost in a well or a bounty hunter trying to rescue a young girl from a gambler, I know I'll enjoy reading it. Usagi's just that damn good.
Halo & Sprocket: Natural Creatures - When Kerry Callen's Halo and Sprocket debuted from Amaze Ink a few years ago, I thought it was one of the best new comics I had read in a long time. I still do. A human woman, Katie, shares an apartment with Halo, an angel, and Sprocket, a robot. Together they explore the many oddities of everyday life and what it means to be human. That description of the book makes it seem more acedemic than it really is. Callen's art is crisp and clear and the stories are laugh out loud funny. Four issues came out, which were collected into a trade paperback, then nothing. I had given up on ever reading more of the friend's adventures, but was glad for what there was. Then, suddenly, there comes Natural Creatures, a collection of mostly new stories and the "old" stories are reprints from source that I'd never seen (and I'd guess many other people didn't either). This book was just as much fun I had hoped for, with stories of bathroom etiquette, Halo turning Sprocket into a human, a discussion of what makes something cute, and more. This one put a big smile on my face.
Camelot 3000 and Longshot collections - These two collections may not seem to have much in common, but for me they do. Early in 2008, I interviewed Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland about Camelot 3000 and Ann Nocenti and Arthur Adams about Longshot, both for Back Issue magazine. In both interviews, the creators commented that they wished that there were nice, new collections of the books. Now I'm not saying there was any cause and effect here (in fact I doubt it), but by the end of 2008, there were cool new hardcover collections of both books! For those who might be unfamiliar with these books, let me tell you a bit about them. Camelot 3000 was a groundbreaking book back in the 80s. It was DC's first maxi-series, it was one of the first books sold exclusively through the direct market, and was printed on Baxter paper, which was a step above the usual newsprint. It's an adventure story featuring the return of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, to defend Earth against an alien invasion and the machinations of Morgan Le Fey and Modred. It also features the longest story ever drawn by artist Brian Bolland. If you're familiar with his art, you know how gorgeous this book is.
Longshot introduced comic fans to a new character who would soon become a part of the X-Men Universe, and artist Arthur Adams. Longshot, an other dimensional being who is incredibly lucky, arrives on Earth and with various newfound friends, including Ricochet Rita, works to defeat the evil Pup and the insane Mojo. This is a fun, and sometimes very odd, story and features the first sequential work by Adams, who is now one the most respected artists around.
Both of these books look wonderful and have a bunch of behind-the-scenes material, making these books perfect for longtime fans and new readers alike.
Well, it looks like KC is just about conscious again. Thanks for listening, and now back to KC!
Amazing Spider-Man - Okay, this is more like it!
I was not impressed with the first six months or so of Brand New Day in Amazing Spider-Man, probably because I was fairly irritated (not the actual word I wanted to use) over the ham-fisted "story" of One More Day. Further, I felt that the brand-new Spidey Braintrust made the rookie mistake of either rejecting or ignoring anything that was great about the old series and instead going out of their way to overwhelm us with NEW and BETTER and DIFFERENT characters and situations. It reminded me of the very worst days of '80s second and third-string Spidey titles and their useless and long-forgotten supporting characters and villains. And isn't this something like the third (fourth? I've lost count) time Marvel has created all-new! Spidey supporting characters only to go back to the time-tested ones?
Then Kraven's First Hunt happened. Granted, it wasn't an A+ story, but considering everything that coulda gone wrong ("What, another Kraven?") but didn't, the brilliant use of multiple identity swaps, and the return of Daredevil as one of Spidey's great allies, this story gave off great Spidey vibes.
And then came New Ways to Die and the return of John Romita Jr. A new Spidey classic. I know I'm in the minority here, but I hate Venom, and even he didn't bother me in this great storyline that really showed off what writer Dan Slott is capable of. Masterful use of the supporting characters, great guest stars (the Norman Osborn-led Thunderbolts), excellent sub-plotting and the gathering together of many ongoing storylines, some intriguing romantic complications, and the introduction of Ven-orpion, the Turducken of super-villains. Oh yeah, and a classic Spidey/Goblin battle! And Slott does great Spidey-banter (the Turducken line was his). What's next?
Well, a shocking single issue story (Wait! Aren't they illegal or something?) about the heroism of Flash Thompson in Iraq. And then a one-two punch (check out the covers!) that brilliantly re-imagines Hammerhead, one of the least-likely-to-succeed Spidey villains of all time, with gritty art by Chris Bachalo. I scoffed at the very idea of a Spider-Man Extra one-shot that teases stories months down the line, but now I can't wait for the next one - and the stories that'll be coming right at'cha in 2009. If you gave up on ASM (and who could blame you after the gut-check of OMD), now's the time to step back in and check out what's coming up. 2009 could be Spidey's year!
(Although, I do have to point out the one really sore spot for me - the "resolution" of the Jackpot storyline in this year's Annual. Sorry guys, if you're gonna tease big - no matter how unrealistic that tease may be - and not only not deliver on any of it, but instead provide a totally inconsequential resolution in relation to the implied importance of the tease - well, that's just not good heroic fiction. Do we really need another character with the same motivation - and epic guilt - as the lead character? Methinks that's way too much angst for any one book. And look, you made me say "methinks." Eww.)
Thor - Of all the classic Marvel characters, Thor was always my least favorite. I'm not sure why, but Stan's faux Shakespearian Asgardian speech patterns may have had something to do with it, or maybe it was all the "father issues" storylines (I had enough of those in my own head, thank you). I've only ever liked two runs of the series: the classic Walt Simonson run - because everything Walter did in those days was golden - and the Dan Jurgens/John Romita Jr. run following the off-putting Heroes Reborn stunt. I think that I liked the latter run because Jurgens put much time and effort into re-establishing the Don Blake alter-personna that had been missing from the series for years (decades?). Jack Kirby was so great at doing those Asgardian landscapes that the Earth-bound aspects of the character were largely discarded. I liked that Thor was tied to Earth somehow - it made him more humble, and he hung out with the Avengers a lot more.
So, flash-forward several years and Thor and all his Asgardian pals are dead, and even though I read those books, I don't remember how and why Rangarok finally happened, and obviously I didn't care. But the decks were swept clean for a revival... that never seemed to happen. Finally, in 2007, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Olivier Coipel have resurrected the God of Thunder - literally - and have managed to once again instill the title with humanity.
Y'see, Don Blake, acting as Thor's earth-bound agent of sorts, decides to plop down the brand-new Asgard several miles from a small town in Oklahoma. And the locals' reaction to their new godlike neighbors is a big part of the story this time around. There's lots of great "quiet" moments, such as a "townie" setting up a mailbox for Asgard and painting their new street address (1 Asgard Rd.) just so he could invite his new neighbors to the next town meeting. ("Coffee cakes and ice cream will be served at five.") #6 shows us part of the town meeting, as well as a remarkably strange encounter with two townies and Hogun the Grim, walking down the highway after a very long walk and "hunt" in Texas, carrying two dead boars on his shoulders. ("It is my hope to be the first Asgardian with a tan.") And then there is the very touching story of Bill Jr. and his infatuation and courting of a young goddess.
Thor himself is quite busy restoring all the residents of Asgard to life with the exception of Odin, who is locked in eternal battle, and the Lady Sif, whom Thor cannot locate (but the readers are privy to where she is). There is a very strange twist with this series' version of Loki, which will most likely double the stakes for deceit in upcoming stories. And a longtime supporting character, long missing from the series, Jane Foster, is once again a possible romantic interest for Don Blake in a welcome return.
The story moves at a snail's pace, perhaps deliberately because of the laid-back small town Oklahoma setting, but more because Coipel is a very deliberate artist. Granted, there was a lot of Thor this year, with five Thor specials and a three-issue Thor: Secret Invasion crossover. But only 6 issues of the JMS Thor were published in 2008, and only 4 of those were drawn by Coipel. They're all excellent, but it's a long wait for quality as the regular Thor title is only effectively published bi-monthly.
Captain America & Daredevil - Raved about these a lot last year! Don't have much to add, except that Ed Brubaker is still great! Steve Epting (on Cap) is still great! Michael Lark (on DD) is still great! Lady Bullseye is um... interesting... and Cap is still dead. Amazing! More!
New Frontier DVD - Last year I said that this was the project that I was most looking forward to in 2008, and despite some initial misgivings (mostly in my own head), it did not disappoint. More about it over at CWR, written the week it came out.
Marvel Chronicles - It's a great 300-page year-by-year (and month-by-month) publishing history of 70 years of Marvel Comics, with tons of behind-the-scenes facts that even hardcore Marvelites may not have heard. I wrote about this one a couple of weeks back over at CWR. Check it out.
Zot! Special Edition: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 - Haven't actually had a chance to crack this open yet, but I read the originals back in the day and if you haven't read these comics before, you are in for a massive treat. Comic's greatest coming-of-age saga, completely annotated by creator Scott McCloud, who's much better known for something called Understanding Comics. (Zot! has a much better plot!) In glorious black and white! Zillions of pages! And even artcomix reader "Snooty McSnoot" says it's Okay!
The Wrap Up - Just want to say a few words about a few projects that are great favorites in KC Land that, for whatever reason, got a little bit delayed this past year, but are still great regardless and are definitely not to be forgotten. First up is Patsy Walker: Hellcat which went a bit AWOL towards the end of the year while artist David LaFuente got roped into doing this year's Ultimate Spider-Man Annual. It's back on track as LaFuente's gorgeous artwork propels Katherine Immonen's big bouncy basket of quirk into new dimensions of "What Ho?!" Plus, there's lots of snow. Meanwhile, over at Perhapanauts World, Todd 'n' Craig took a short break to deal with the real world a bit, but their magnum whatziz of a comic storyline will be wrapping up shortly in 2009, just in time for their long-awaited trade paperback. Yay! And there was much rejoicing in the land! Finally, Marvel's been playing fast and loose with the regular scheduling of X-Men: First Class but Jeff Parker, Roger Cruz, Colleen Coover, and the rest of the gang will be back any minute now with X-Men: First Class Finals - just in time for graduation! (And don't miss Mr. Parker's new book, Agents of Atlas, which will be out right around the same time!)
Them's my (and Roger's) picks! What did you like last year? What did I forget? What should I read next? Drop me a note! It's about time for another KC Column letter column - maybe this time we'll run real letters!
KC Carlson is saving up this year to buy an extra month - just to get caught up on all his reading.
Got comments or questions about this column? You can contact KC at AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com
To link to this column, use this link (right click and copy)