12.30.2008

My 13 Favorite Things of 2008

Wasteland (Oni Press): Like Herman Melville’s Ishmael, Antony Johnston so generously gives us an omniscient narrator’s look into the motivations, secret dealings, desires, and hopes of the people involved in a grand adventure. As the mystery of The Big Wet unfolds, it’s as if he’s recounting a classic tale fraught with the type of cautionary wisdom and observation about society that causes us to introspect and consider our own existence that much more carefully. Wasteland is a bundle of complex themes, a slowly unraveling enigma that when fully digested becomes epic in proportion and gravitas. His artistic collaborator Christopher Mitten stops at nothing to depict this fully realized universe and its many inhabitants, he’ll crumple his own paper to give it the feel of ancient parchment, pass the baton to other artists for brief interludes when appropriate, master emotive lines and clean panel transitions, and capture in glorious black and white what lesser artists would struggle to do even when aided by full color.

Scalped (DC/Vertigo): Jason Aaron & R.M. Guera’s seedy crime series belongs on HBO. It deserves that widespread an audience. It’s could easily compete with the likes of Deadwood, The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under as a story that transcends its basic genre trappings, while commenting on an overlooked corner of American culture, to illustrate universal experiences inherent to man’s fleeting existence. Aided by a stable of talented cover artists (issue #3 and #19 remain favorites), Guera’s dark and broken style is perfectly matched for the task at hand. Aaron is emerging as one of the best writers of his generation, producing a full range of crisp characters that fully embody their Cormac McCarthy inspired world, capable of beautiful, haunting, and lyrical prose. In a world where No Country for Old Men can achieve Oscar status, Scalped is so obviously deserving of an Eisner. Jason Aaron consistently delivered some of the most quotable lines and memorable moments of the year, lingering on the mental palate long after the books are nestled back onto the bookshelf for safekeeping.

Local Hardcover (Oni Press): It’s a given at this point to describe what a wonderful series Local is; it is a series of artistic high points punctuated by even higher moments that have become personal favorites. Issue #3 and issue #11 remain two of my favorite single issue of all time. Moreover, it was a treat to see Oni Press really get behind Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly’s work with the product treatment the series so richly deserves. This edition, complete with color covers and all of the satisfying back matter, was well executed in every aspect. Simply put, the Local HC is a fantastic package for a fantastic book. It became one of my go-to books used to initiate non-comic-reading friends and coworkers into the scene, giving many of them the joyful and memorable experience of being their first indie comics crush.

Heavy Liquid Hardcover (DC/Vertigo): Paul Pope is not terribly prolific, yet he remains an all time favorite creator. He’s one artist of whose work I can say that I’m an absolute completist. We find ourselves in a time that feels like the quiet before the storm; it’d be easy to get lulled into thinking that Pope is more concerned with high fashion and his burgeoning DKNY clothing line than comics. But… DC/Vertigo’s publishing of this Blade Runner infused, noir sci-fi blender, their announcement of the 100% Hardcover, and assumably an eventual Batman: Year 100 Hardcover offers much hope. That coupled with the impending Battling Boy from First Second and a THB collected edition from AdHouse Books hopefully signals a commitment to renewed energy and focus around his work, which is by all means that of an industry icon and instantly classic.

Pete Wisdom (to Spitfire): “…and don’t call me sir, it’s weirdly horny.” This line of dialogue from Captain Britain & MI-13 embodied such a sheer understanding and unique sense of character. Rarely do writers capture the perfect voice of a creation, this line drips with that level of comprehension. Contextually, it’s a shame that the title isn’t really living up to its full potential, as hinted at in the lamented precursor that was the Wisdom mini-series from Marvel’s MAX line. I know lines have truly settled into my gray matter when I use them in ordinary day-to-day speech, and I’ve pulled out this little gem on a couple occasions, much to the surprise of innocent bystanders.

The Blogosphere! It just seemed… bloggier than usual. It was more opinionated than traditional media, as it should be, and I loved that. Whether it was the “50 Things I Love About Comics” lists making the rounds, a whole panel at the con devoted to blogging, columns from Laura Hudson, Valerie D’Orazio, Tim Callahan, CBR, or the Savage Critics, an examination of Barack Obama’s biracial roots over at The 4th Letter, creators stopping by to say thanks for my reviews, or even pushing back on some of them, rapping with Ryan Claytor, Matt from Paradox Comics, Tom from .newseedcomics, or Jog and Dick Hyacinth railing against the tendency to praise mediocre work, I truly enjoyed being a part of it. It was lines like (I’m paraphrasing here…) “you can’t say anything smart about middle of the road work, it lacks the energy of the trashier stuff and the ambition of the more sophisticated stuff” that made all the difference. Most online debate typically degenerates into a right/wrong contest, partially due to our society’s fetishized view of technology and binary, mutually exclusive positions in debate. I believe it’s also partially because our society values lawyers, corporate doublespeak, and politicians – professions that teach you how to win arguments, but not solve problems. But comic blogging had an energy, a sense of purpose to it this year, that strayed from that downward spiral, and articulately defended variegated positions. I recall lines like “you’re entitled to your opinion, but not your own set of facts.” It was Johanna Draper Carlson succinctly defending her critiques, telling Scott Kurtz “blogging is not my craft, any more than using Photoshop is yours, a blog is just a tool, I’m a critic and proud of it.” Someone said something to the effect of “I want to read good comics. I want to be an advocate for them and nothing else. I want comics that aspire to something grand, especially in an environment where anti-intellectualism is normative.” Yeah, more of that please. That’s the type of blogginess that I fell in love with this year.

Fraction & Wood’s Ascendancy: As for Brian Wood, there are precious few creators who I can truthfully say that I enjoy all of their work. It doesn’t really matter if it’s his early Channel Zero work, the overlooked Supermarket from IDW, the flagship Vertigo book DMZ, the genre-defying Local, or Northlanders (issue #5 remains one of the best single issues of the year for my money), Brian Wood is the voice of a generation. He is the guy I can point to and say, yes, his work is representative of my feelings, my generation, our aspirations, our bouts of disillusionment, seek his work out to gain an understanding of us, our fears, our hopes, our intelligence. He’s the guy. Regarding Matt Fraction, he rose from humble beginnings at the underground movement that was Savant Magazine, to sleeper hits like Five Fists of Science (his own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), to critical darling Casanova, to reviving a beloved version of Iron Fist, to being a true mover and shaker in the Marvel Universe and helming the humongous properties that are the Uncanny X-Men and Invincible Iron Man. Fraction’s ascendancy into the zeitgeist is something to see. Not only is his career arc impressive and fascinating to watch, but let me remind you this is the best that either of those Marvel books have been in years. There’s a clarity of purpose there. The books are finally good; let’s not overlook that little fact.

Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics): Dash Shaw ostensibly provides a simple examination of a failed marriage and its impact on the surrounding family. Look closer and you’ll see him illuminating the wonder found in the collection of really less than wonderful individual moments. This is grand commentary on what it means to be human, an imperfect cog in a dysfunctional, yet somehow still surviving, whole – and the beauty inherent to that design. In early November, I said “Bottomless Belly Button is ambitious in its sheer scope, and I predict it will be on many Top 10 lists. Yes, I think it will be remembered as one of the best books of the year.” One need only peruse Amazon, New York Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, or the Washington Post for a few of the many sources verifying this prediction.

Queen & Country Definitive Editions (Oni Press): Queen & Country is like that one sexpot girlfriend you had, that one ex that you can’t ever get out of your mind. The one you still secretly think about and wonder how things would have turned out if you’d stayed with her. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, one that the superfluous, tepid espionage imitations will never touch, so it’s nice to finally have it in a complete, compact, err… definitive edition. I sometimes sit and ponder nostalgically what could have been, what would have been, if Rucka had continued his tale, and I, my delightfully memorable fling with it.

Jonathan Hickman: Admittedly, I’ve given Hickman a lot of shit about never meeting a typo he didn’t like and playing drunken roulette with his release dates, but there’s no denying his inventiveness and originality. If you need proof, hell, just look at the high concept for Pax Romana (in the near future, the Catholic Church develops a time machine and sends a papal military force back in time to shape history!). No, Jonathan Hickman didn’t make perfect comics this year, but more importantly, he made interesting ones. I always wanted to see what he was up to, even if I didn’t always warm to the series, or found a bundle of technical glitches. Thanks to Image Comics for ushering him unabashedly into the collective conscience as one of the paradigm-shifting new voices in the medium. It reminds me of the first time I picked up an issue of Kabuki from David Mack and thought to myself, this is like no comic I’ve seen, watch this guy, this creator will be important, his time will come, he will be recognized someday as an innovator.

Echo (Abstract Studio): It’s hard to believe that Terry Moore could top the buzz around his seminal Stangers in Paradise, but he’s done it for me with Echo. It reverberates in a way that is very controlled and unfettered by superfluous distractions. It’s as if Moore sat back and decided to do just three or four things exceptionally well; he’s not trying to please everyone and do hundreds of things half-assed and mediocre, he’s doing just a wise handful exceptionally well. He’s modernized the 1960’s atomic paranoia that fueled the Marvel heyday, has fresh new characters, which speak and act like real people, and he’s an expert storyteller whose panel and page transitions are seamless. It makes for one of the most engaging reads out there; he makes what is surely a tremendous amount of work look so easy and effortless.

Omega: The Unknown (Marvel): Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple’s reimaging of a 1970’s cult classic turned out to be one of the most thoughtful deconstructions of the collapsing superhero paradigm since Warren Ellis’s Black Summer, B. Clay Moore’s Battle Hymn, the early arcs of Supreme Power in the MAX line, and yes, even Watchmen.

Skyscrapers of the Midwest (AdHouse Books): Of Joshua Cotter’s inaugural work, I wrote “a personalized tale of life in the American Heartland, which is an insightful look into the bleak trappings of a once fabled existence.” SotM is full of thematic rigor around a piece of Western civilization that is in collapse, evidenced by the real life failure of Detroit automakers, a culture where everyone somehow mistakenly assumed they were entitled to own a home, where a retarded Illinois Governor with Bizarro Jetson’s snap-on hair thinks he’s got the juice of Michael Corleone and can sell a vacant Senate seat, where a Wal-Mart employee can be trampled to death ‘cuz a frickin’ VCR is on sale, and as I wrote back in June “the lifestyle and culture of the Red States is waning during a time where in the real world, the US President has the highest disapproval rating in history, and charismatic Illinois Senator Barack Obama appears to be the presumptive Democratic Nominee, destined to take the Oval Office.” This book could easily serve future historians as primer for what happened to the United States in the earliest part of the century.

OTHER CONTENDERS

All Star Superman (DC): The conclusion to this Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely book was pretty satisfying and though-provoking. It’s nice to see a creative team truly grasp what a character means, and then explore that. I called issue #10 the “most intelligent Superman comic of all time,” and as someone not terribly fond of the character, I firmly believe that this is the best Superman series ever. It took a conversation with Geoff Johns for me to be able to finally articulate this, but the most compelling bit of Superman, in my opinion, is that Kal-El really is the Last Son of Krypton – there’s gravitas behind that idea. What does it mean when he dies? When Superman dies, so dies the House of El. So dies an entire race of beings. What will his enduring legacy be? This book seeks to address that quandary in a multi-faceted way.

Jessica Farm (Fantagraphics): Josh Simmons’ project could easily be dismissed as an ambitious marketing gimmick (96 pages every 8 years for 50 years!), but those detractors surely haven’t absorbed the work. It’s almost as if David Lynch were to create a comic; there’s something there that hints at disturbing just on the edge of your periphery, just out of reach of full understanding. Jessica Farm was full of sex, mystery, subversion, and ethereal wonder; I want to see more immediately. It’s surreal and oddly problematic existentially to think that I myself may not even live to see the book's conclusion. I’ll be 84 in 50 years, so I could or could not still be kicking around on whatever the future version of the interwebs is. Damn this mortal coil!

Rafael Grampa: Like Paul Pope, Ryan Kelly, and Nathan Fox before him, Grampa’s visceral and dirty artistic quality is incomprehensibly what makes it shine so beautifully. After the collaboration with Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon in 5, then the manic grindhouse-flic-on-paper that was Mesmo Delivery, he’s essentially become a buy on sight creator, just for experiencing the sheer joy of his artistic ability.

Sparkplug Comic Books: In the spirit of full disclosure, this may be a bit biased since I know some of the lads at Sparkplug, but fuck, this publisher is on a roll with consistently solid projects. I’m talking about Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter (nominated for an Eisner), Reich by Elijah Brubaker, Reporter by Dylan Williams, Dash Shaw’s Goddess Head, Trevor Alixopulos’ Mine Tonight… Sparkplug continues to deliver a powerful stable of creators that might not otherwise see airtime. Sarah Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less was recently picked up by Vertigo, as was announced at SPX. This is truly a publisher to watch.

REX (Optimum Wound): Danijel Zezelj’s work from this boutique publisher boasts an aesthetic that melds West Coast attitude with the slow decay of an East Coast urban jungle, and a man who seeks to be king in his quest for redemption. When you take this imagery in, it’s hard not to hear the old Bush lyrics from the song Everything Zen as front man Gavin Rossdale confers with you, “should I fly to Los Angeles, find my asshole brother, Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow, we’re so bored, you’re to blame, raindogs howl for the century, as you search for your demi-god.” Then that stringy, aching guitar riff comes crashing down on your senses and… I don’t know where I was going with this. Anyway, Zezelj’s bleak images are able to so completely capture a sense of feeling and place. This was an overlooked gem.

Fishtown (IDW): While it does indeed seem a ridiculous cardinal sin to include a lone work that I have not in fact read, this book has gotten unanimous positive buzz from all of the online sources that I respect and value. I regret not being able to purchase it before the clock ran out on 2008 and suspect that it could have potentially been a contender. Let’s just say that it’s toward the top of my list of books to buy and was one of the only unsettling elements to this list that gnawed at my brain, making it feel personally incomplete, or at least not fully considered.

3 Comments:

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Matt C said...

A great round up of the year there, Justin (and I'm not just saying that 'cause you mentioned me!)

Can't say I'm familiar with everything you've chosen but I'm always open to something new so I'll be bearing you recommendations in mind.

Great piece on Scalped though - the HBO angle sprang instantly to my mind when I first picked it up, but I'm glad it's found a home in the comic book format.

 
At 8:55 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Thanks Matt! Will you guys be doing any sort of year in review posts over at Paradox?

 
At 1:57 PM, Blogger Matt C said...

We just reprinted reviews of our top ten comics of the year... didn't get the time to really look back on 2008 the way I might have liked. Maybe for 2009....

 

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