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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Best Comics of 2009

After a long post of grousing, I felt it was needed to mention the stand-outs of 2009's comic books-- and there were plenty of them. There were a lot of books that genuinely excited me last year. The rise of the Norman Empire made Marvel's line all in all more interesting, and even DC had a few standouts amidst its usual mix of Silver Age nostalgia and relentless sadism. Meanwhile, the smaller publishers gave us a salvo of great new material-- from continually entertaining series like Dynamo 5 and Umbrella Academy, to new phenomenons like Chew and Beasts of Burden. Granted, there was still the influence of Sturgeon's Law upon the industry, but this year it seemed that the quality AND quantity of 2009's portion of good comics was an increase over last year.

So, the awards:

BEST SUPERHERO STORY ARC: World's Most Wanted, Invincible Iron Man, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca, Marvel. Not since Daredevil: Born Again has a mainstream superhero been torn apart so effectively. I could discuss how the story destroyed the entire empire of Tony Stark, down to the last soldering iron and broom closet. I could discuss how his supporting cast was forced to pick up his slack, and prove their worth against impossible odds. And I could even discuss the meticulousness of Tony's plans, which were so elaborate he could even pull them off with a barely working brain at hand.

But therein lies the greatest part of the story; Tony having to sacrifice his very intellect to fulfill his plans and atone for his sins. Many stories have been told with heroes on the run, and heroes like Tony Stark typically maintain a MacGyver-like aptitude for making solutions out of thin air. In this case, the deconstruction even went for his mind. An uncharacteristic level of sophistication was used for the treatment of Tony's degenerating brain, having the loss of knowledge occur in multiple areas in a randomized arrangement, and showing that he could still accomplish things without certain sections of ability ( as opposed to the linear model of IQ that is tragically common in pop culture ). Eventually, Tony would lose all of his function-- but the last thing to go was his heroism. Even at the end of the story, so addled he couldn't form a complete sentence, Tony tried to fight back against a superior and completely depraved enemy. His victory was phyrric in the practical sense, but in the moral sense, flawless-- would a lesser superhero subject themselves to a fate worse than death to fight off such an enemy? Or would such a story even occur to a lesser writer than Fraction?

The revelation that Tony had a back-up of his mind intended to be used by the other superheroes may somewhat mitigate the redemption of this story, but it was still a huge risk for the hero. And for the creative team, to take a whole year with a story that had the protagonist mentally deteriorating. But Fraction's brilliant scripting and Larroca's always excellent visual storytelling ( especially in regards to his renditions of technology ) pulled it off.

MOST IMPROVED SERIES: The Boys, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, Dynamite. At its launch, one might have dismissed the Boys as being a puerile spoof of superhero comics, much in the same vein of Mark Millars' Wanted. Superhero comic fans still do, but if they actually read the comic, they'd have less and less justification for their critiques beyond prudishness. What began as a continuation of Ennis' " The Pro " has actually been living up to the author's claim that it would exceed his magnum opus Preacher.

For all the gaudy spandex trappings, the Boys isn't really a superhero comic-- it's a scathing critique of the military-industrial complex, with the capes as the garnish. From the start we knew that the stereotypical superhero universe was just smoke and mirrors for a world of Caligula-like excess, but Ennis and Robertson drove the point home further and further. That the origin of all superhuman power is a compound developed decades ago through the Nazis' vivisection? That the United States' leadership is divided in a coup between the President, the Vice-President, and the military contractors responsible for the power of both? Or that the X-Men analogue " G-Men " is composed of children abducted at a young age and sexually abused to give them the right disposition? Even Norman Osborn in his flag-colored robot suit is nowhere near so cutting an instrument of satire.

Not that it's just unpleasant to read; it has all the great dialogue and dark humor characteristic of a Garth Ennis comic, and Darick Robertson's excellent character design is in full force here. There's even a love story at the heart that serves as an anchor amidst the relentless cruelty of the universe. What Preacher did as a satire of religion, the Boys appears to be doing as a satire of military culture; don't let the abuse of capes detract from that.

BEST SINGLE ISSUE: Captain America: Who Will Wield the Shield. Ed Brubaker, Butch Guice, Luke Ross. Marvel. This wasn't a good year for Cap, after an exceptional 2008; the big event of the year, the resurrection of Steve Rogers, was just an extended action scene with a pointlessly convoluted plot, harmed by the art of Bryan Hitch ( who has moved too far from energetic storytelling into hyper-rendered set pieces, with the story suffering for it. Fortunately, the one-shot epilogue to the series delivered in a very substantial way.

The question raised by the title is answered, but not conclusively-- the prediction was that with Steve Rogers back, his replacement Bucky would either meet a quick end or simply fade into the background. Steve metatextually agrees, hence how he responds to ominous visions by asking Bucky to stay as Cap. But Steve's not simply retiring; he's keeping active in the hero community, especially given how far it's gone to hell in his absence. The characterization is as sharp as ever under Ed Brubaker, but what really sold me on the issue was Steve's dialogue with Barack Obama.

Marvel writers tend to lean towards the left, hence why Marvel-Dubya has been stripped naked tortured by Magneto AND cuckolded by Iron Man. Given Obama's reputation, one would think he'd escape this scrutiny-- at least, last year, that's what one would think. But Barack's inability to make real change has not been unnoticed, and his talk with Captain America makes him almost a pathetic figure-- he's talking about how he doesn't agree with things like Superhuman Registration or HAMMER Director Norman Osborn, but how he can't do anything about it. One might even think that he actually voted for the Registration Act while he was a Senator, and is retrospectively downplaying this given the company he's with. Obama isn't the savior others made him out to be, and his office forces him to support the status quo that he knows should be changed-- so thus, he turns to Captain America.

It's really interesting since the Dark Reign was conceived during Dubya's reign of error, and the Marvel Universe finally appears to be catching up to current politics. If Tony and later Norman represented the Bush administration, Steve is now Obama-- the figurehead for change and hope. I'll enjoy seeing how well he holds up under this level of pressure.

BEST NEW SERIES: Chew, John Layman and Trevor Guillory, Image. The moment this appeared in the solicitations, it looked like a huge conceptual gamble-- something that would be wonderful or terrible. Certainly the ideas represented were way out of the audience's experience. A detective with a psychometric sense of taste, who can read the past of what he eats? A job that forces him to eat all manner of awful things? A food-themed alternate America where the FDA rules with an iron fist and poultry is banned?

And then you get to the series itself, beyond the first issue. The character designs are extremely bizarre and exaggerated; the character of Mason is described by the artist as " the love child of Orson Welles and a grizzly bear ". The stories involve all sorts of food-themed bizarreness, such as a woman who can empathically influence people with her writing about food. And there's a meticulous constructed plot here about the Bird Flu scare, and the truth about it. Yes, this is an ongoing series with very dark undercurrents about a detective who psychically reads what he eats ( except beets, which somehow block his power ). It would either succeed spectacularly or perish pathetically.

And guess what? It succeeded. So suck it.

BEST MINI-SERIES: Beasts of Burden, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson, Dark Horse. It's no secret that I love animals, especially dogs and cats. I love seeing comics about animals being animals; anthropomorphized enough to talk, but not enough to stand, wear clothes, or have human-type anatomy ( I'm NOT going any further with that ). Unfortunately, it's hard to find that balance in a way that's convincing. We3 was a triumph in this arena, but beyond that, good treatments of animal characters are few and far between.

Beasts of Burden delivered this. It's a great comic about household pets solving neighborhood supernatural crimes. The series is still relatively new-- it has some backstory as an online strip and only four issues on the stands-- and admittedly many of the characters seem identical. But the dogs and cats are wonderful creatures, who show depth beyond the story structure requirements when given a chance. Here, they aren't animals acting like their human masters; they're animals who have far more going on than their masters assume, but in a uniquely non-human way; the dialogue is in English, but the perspectives feel like they're from a different species with their own religious traditions. There are many stories about evil in suburban backyards, but few where the animals hold the line.

What's more, it's not a simple funny story. It has a strong element of horror, and sadly, that horror isn't always from the monsters-- the worse scenes involve human treatment of the pets. Issue 2, which had a ghostly dog trying to find justice for the deaths of her puppies ( coldly thrown in a lake ), was just brutal. And issue 4 was just as gripping.

They've only begun to scratch the surface of the Beasts of Burden's world, but Dorkin and Thompson gave us so much, that I demand more in 2010.

And the Person Of The Year: Brian Michael Bendis, for New Avengers and Dark Avengers. The series of essays I did for New Avengers' five-year-anniversary illustrate better how I feel about Bendis' work on the Avengers as a whole, but the Avengers books were the comics I followed closest this year. Intellectually pretentious fans may bitch about crossovers, and lord knows I've done it too; however, I can't deny how much I've enjoyed Dark Reign, especially in the aforementioned Iron Man comic and the Avengers books.

Bendis' Avengers have steadily been improving since the rough start of Avengers Disassembled, and really hit their stride when he started writing the second book Mighty Avengers as well. The idea of two duelling Avengers teams was a welcome one, but then the two teams were holding back against each other due to their former friendships. Now, we have the dynamic consolidated, with one book for the heroes, and one book for the newly-marketable villains. The way both of Bendis' books tie into each other is a unique dynamic, and I have to admit, one that could only work in a super-consolidated shared universe.

In New Avengers, we've seen many improvements. The Secret Invasion conspiracy stories are over, so the dangling plot threads have been reduced. The character dynamics have been developed further, with Luke Cage and Jessica Jones really starting to see how impossible it is to raise a child as vigilante metahumans, Clint Barton's nervous breakdown getting more and more extreme, and Captain Bucky joining with the disposition of a kid trying to fit in with his older brother's friends. Also, Stuart Immonen's art has turbo-charged the enjoyment of the book, and the stories have become more focused without the rotations and flash.

Meanwhile, Dark Avengers is just great. Norman Osborn, a complete monster in other comics, actually receives some sympathy in the comic series that is basically his. He's joined by the rest of his EllisBolts buddies, also dressed as heroes and trying/failing to restrain their psychopathic tendencies. The team isn't all evil, as Ares ( more of a Chaotic Neutral figure in the D&D alignment schema ) and the impressionable Sentry are on the staff, but it's still very much a villain book. The entertainment is in watching how long they can keep it up, and from all indications, it's falling apart. Also, Mike Deodato Jr. is on the art duties, and he's the artist who's given us the definitive version of Norman since he drew the guy's sex-face.

I hope that once Dark Reign ends early next year, the two-book dynamic will be kept up, because I've enjoyed it so much this year that reverting to a single Avengers faction with a unified heroic mission would be a let down. Kudos, BMB.

Here's to 2010 being even better.


  1. >Not since Daredevil: Born Again has a mainstream superhero been torn apart so effectively.

    Of course, Born Again did it all - broke the lead down and built him up again - in the space of seven issues. I would say the slow burn is the one egregious sin of World's Most Wanted.

    >it has some backstory as an online strip

    No, it originated as four separate tales that appeared in Dark Horse's anthologies; the first three are available online and all four (plus the mini) will be collected later this year.

    >and admittedly many of the characters seem identical.

    Not really, they have certain differences beyond their visuals - Ace is a brave leader, Orphan is a heroic outsider, Rex is physically powerful yet cowardly in the face of the supernatural, Pugs is a born cynic, Jack is a little naive but devout and Whitey is scatter-brained. It's not that the characters are identical, it's that there are so many of them and they don't have equal billing(and that's without getting into the supporting cast: Red, Dymphna, Miranda, the Wise Dog); Ace and Orphan figure prominently in virtually every adventure and Pugs is always notable because he runs against the grain, but the other three fall into the background. Whitey is the least-developed.

  2. "Dennis O'Neil" & "Luke McDonell" made the life of "Anthony Edward Stark" a large mess back in the 80s before "Secret War", slightly smaller than the one by "Matt Fraction" & "Salvador Larroca", back then "Obidiah Stane" drove Tony drunk, made him homeless, bought "Stark International", the majority of stocks were held by Stane & plenty was held by S.H.I.E.L.D., "Jim Rhodes" had to don the armor in the stead of Tony. So the mess is nothing new in the world of "Iron Man"

    I thought "Who Will Wield the Shield" is a six issue mini-series, I was wrong?

  3. Sol--welcome to my blog. I love that 80's story with Obadiah Stane, and agree that catastrophic challenges are nothing new for Iron Man. However, this was even worse for Tony, because when Tony was drinking, the biggest challenge he faced was to summon the willpower to sober up and take control of his life. That's an extremely difficult thing to do for an alcoholic as addicted as Tony, but possible ( and what he eventually would start to do )--in World's Most Wanted, Tony was losing his mind on a literal ability, and no amount of force of will would give him back the intelligence that was simply erased ( as opposed to obscured by inebriation ). Even keeping in mind the backup mind in the Stark Drive, Tony faced a supremely hopeless situation.

    And " Who Will Wield the Shield " was the epilogue to the six-issue Reborn.