12.29.2010

My 13 Favorite Things of 2010


This is my 5th year at offering a “best of” list, and although the format has changed slightly from year to year, the core essence has always remained the same. These are the books that somehow survived their way through my highly subjective personal criteria, the books that I found to be the best executed, the books I most looked forward to reading, the books I was loyal to, the books I didn’t have to qualify or make excuses for, the books I was proud to evangelize to those around me, the books it was a pleasure writing about, and the books that made important contributions to the medium. I would be remiss in not also giving some honorable mentions to those that just missed the mark, those projects that I just couldn’t quite seem to fit into a finite group of 13 in good conscience no matter how many times I attempted to reconfigure the list.

There was the raw potential of Stumptown (Oni Press) from Greg Rucka and a total gentleman named Matthew Southworth. There was the book that nearly every critic enjoyed, but didn’t seem to have a fair chance right out of the gate, S.W.O.R.D. (Marvel) by Kieron Gillen & Steven Sanders. There was the incomplete and seemingly stalled Captain Swing & The Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island (Avatar Press) from Warren Ellis & Raulo Caceres. There was the uneven and severely delayed Joe The Barbarian (DC) from Grant Morrison and the amazing Sean Murphy. There was the old reliable reimaging of The Lone Ranger (Dynamite Entertainment) from Brett Matthews & Sergio Cariello. There was the explosive re-launch of Uncanny X-Force (Marvel) from Rick Remender & Jerome Opena; we’ll see if they can sustain the momentum. I’ll always love those first three issues of Batman & Robin (DC) from Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, but the series never quite seemed to recover from the rotating art stable that followed. It was a treat to see Nathan Fox’s art on full display with Fluorescent Black (Heavy Metal). I also enjoyed Afrodisiac (AdHouse) from Brian Maruca & Jim Rugg, Billy Hazelnuts & The Crazy Bird (Fantagraphics) by Tony Millionaire, and Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld (Pantheon).

Without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are My 13 Favorite Things of 2010...

DV8: Gods & Monsters (DC/WildStorm): The act of picking a single Brian Wood book to appear on this list is like some bizarre Sophie’s Choice style proposition. Overall, I’d say that DMZ, Local, and DV8 are now my “Holy Trinity” of favorite Brian Wood projects, a statement which alone shows his crazy range. Observing this year specifically, there were plenty of options to select from, with various issues of Northlanders in play, DMZ having some amazing moments (the street art issue featuring Decade Later by Danijel Zezelj or the Wilson issue featuring art by Nathan Fox are instant classics), but his collaboration with Rebekah Isaacs on DV8 was something special. Now, before I go off on a rant here, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of the failed utopian ideal that is the superhero paradigm. On three separate occasions, I compared it to Watchmen. Yeah. Anyway, I’ll long ponder the fate of “what could have been” in the WildStorm Universe.

Echo (Abstract Studio): You can literally see the formula that acted as the catalyst for one-man-band Terry Moore to construct the premise of this severely under-appreciated work. He took something he already knew how to manipulate very well, the slice of life relationship grandeur of his Strangers in Paradise opus, and fused it seamlessly with the type of classic 1960’s atomic paranoia that subconsciously fueled Stan Lee and the Marvel stable in the Silver Age heyday. The result is a deep human drama at heart, but with the rack appeal of superheroic visual delight. The combination is utterly unique, with impeccable execution, therefore the best of its kind.

Invincible Iron Man (Marvel): It’s predictable that Marvel keeps trying to capitalize on box office success and belch out additional Iron Man titles and mini-series, but none can match the purity and dogged determination of the core title. It’s because the main title is written by Matt Fraction. Yeah, I too thought Casanova was amazingly fun and clever, and there are certainly select elements of Uncanny X-Men that I enjoy, but Iron Man is the high water mark in Fraction’s library. With Salvador Larroca riding shotgun for every single issue (a feat of consistency nearly unheard of these days), there is simply no better modern example of this particular craft. It’s thoughtful long form superhero storytelling with a contemporary social charge at its finest.

Wasteland (Oni Press): To be completely objective, Wasteland experienced a few stutters and stumbles this year, and if I was ranking this list in any sort of hierarchical order (which I’m not), it would have gotten knocked down a few notches. But, the important point is that it would have still been on the list. The team lost some serious momentum by only putting out a meager 3 issues in 2010, and then suffered the loss of regular series artist Christopher Mitten. But, as Antony Johnston and new artist Remington Veteto recharge their creative batteries and gear up for a run in 2011, the work itself remains a clever cautionary tale, a rousing adventure epic, and a unique vision that infuses a vibrant variety of genre much needed into the medium. We also got a second Apocalyptic Edition, which is worth its weight in gold and could have made it onto the list all on its own. If you haven’t heard the message by now, go read Wasteland.

Scalped (DC/Vertigo): The numbers don’t lie. When I go back and scour the archives, I find that the series I have given the most “Grade A+” marks to in single issue format is none other than Jason Aaron and RM Guera’s Scalped. While that is a powerful argument all by itself, it completely misses the gut-wrenching visceral response induced by the work. Scalped crackles with energy, sexuality, danger, surprise, complexity, and authenticity. I’ve been saying this shit for years now, but with its inherent social commentary, a network like HBO is insane for not courting Jason Aaron and the PTB at DC. In the wake of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and rival network phenoms like The Wire, Mad Men, True Blood, and The Walking Dead, Scalped is like a sweaty quivering virgin waiting to be plucked from relative obscurity to hit the prime time exposure of the masses. Network executives, you’re falling down on the job every single day that you’re not making this a reality.

Batwoman: Elegy HC (DC): JH Williams III is the ultimate collaborator. Let’s do a little game called proof by counter-example. If you imagine anyone else on this character, we would have gotten a fairly well written take on a new character from Greg Rucka, which might have not been extremely memorable, save for the mainstream media’s fixation on lesbians in pop culture. With Jim on board instead, the book was declared an instant classic, the run was promptly collected in this hardcover format, and a new ongoing was finally announced. Not only is Kate Kane cemented into DCU history with ties to Flamebird and a few other b-characters, but the art is gorgeous! Williams seems to formally deconstruct the page, and then reconstruct the narrative using new figures and shapes, patterns of recognition and conveyance of information never seen before. Whether he’s aping other creators and periods of continuity, or embarking on his solo experimentation, it’s as if he’s created a new method for processing images, one that embeds and synthesizes themes intended by the writer into the very fabric of the page design, layouts of the panels, and figures contained within. It’s not subtle process improvement of an existing practice, but a completely new method of doing business that’s discontinuous. It’s the very definition of innovation.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (DC/Vertigo): HtUIi60DoL (whew!) never crosses the line into preachy territory, but has the potential to be used as an educational tool. I consider myself pretty well-read, well-travelled, and well cultured for an American, but I learned some things that I didn’t know about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Writer/Artist Sarah Glidden combines alternating points of view and a concise historical timeline with her own experiences in the Birthright Israel Program. The discussion runs from events affecting the region pre-World Wars, all the way through The Six Day War, to the present. It addresses the enigmatic disputes between Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Glidden brings an open-minded and mature tone, with no easy summary or answer. There are no “good” or “bad” characterizations here; it’s just a tale of two groups locked in struggle over what is surprisingly not a Holy War, but inherently a land dispute. How To Understand Israel makes no pretense at offering a solution, but does illuminate the concerns on all sides, and the reality of living there today. Most of us know that comics don’t have to be just escapist entertainment, but that the extraordinary ones can also function at a higher level of influence. In the same way I’ve wanted to prescribe DMZ as a text in college classrooms, this book too offers insight into a current political climate. Glidden’s art is not flashy, but still effective for the tone she wishes to strike. She cleanly presents events in a neutral fashion with sort of a European style “ligne claire” that allows the audience to attempt the formulation of their own opinions without being swayed overtly by authorial voice.

Punisher MAX: Butterfly (Marvel): Much to the chagrin of The Jersey Troll, I gave this one-shot by Valerie D’Orazio and Laurence Campbell a “Grade A+” and declared it an instant winner. It was an insightful examination of crime, the crime genre’s function in society, and criminal protagonists vis-à-vis their psychological drivers, only enhanced further by allusions to D’Orazio’s poignant real world experiences in the industry. The book was fantastic, leaving me craving more from the creator. In some odd corollary, catalyzed by my real world experience with him, I learned two really valuable lessons about the reviewing business. 1) Even with my experience and credentials, I would never profess to be an expert at anything (“expert” is a mighty big word and I hate when I see it on candidates’ resumes), but there is actually one thing I am an expert at. I’m an expert and knowing what I like. 2) When the content is free, audience complaints are heard on kindness alone.

Daytripper (DC/Vertigo): Daytripper is at times whimsical and ethereal, but it never falters to argue the central philosophical tenet of relishing the journey and not waiting around for one’s invariable final destination in life. I had a few minor quibbles with the tone in which the writers chose to relay their message at times. Occasionally, I felt that the delivery extended beyond sentimental and dipped its toe into saccharine waters, but that concern is largely overshadowed by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s fresh voice, vibrant pencils, and emotionally lush colors thanks to the contributions of Dave Stewart. It also sparked a lot of conversation and speculation about meaning, which is something I can’t say for most of the repetitive genre garbage littering the stands these days. I think it’s also remarkable because it’s a testament to the evolving tone that the Vertigo line is capable of assuming, with critical darlings possessing an Alternative Comics spin, such as the work of Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, or Sarah Glidden. With DC Entertainment “sunsetting” (excuse the corporate speak) WildStorm, Vertigo could very well be the “new” imprint to watch.

Sweets (Image Comics): I don’t really mean this with any disrespect; I just couldn’t resist the sound byte. Sweets is what Stumptown should have been. Sweets was barely on my radar screen, but a chance encounter with Kody Chamberlain at SDCC led me to it and it hit me hard. I kind of overdosed on crime comics in the last few years and never paid them much attention. Noir seemed de rigueur, but Sweets came out of nowhere and seemed to eclipse all of its kin. It’s just better. There’s the rich texture and authenticity of the crime noir aspects, but an entirely different strata of meaning that contains commentary about the fragmentation and disenfranchisement of the post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Bush, faux post-racial Obama era of politics in the US, serving as a cultural cautionary tale. The fact that Chamberlain writes, pencils, inks, colors, letters, and designs the book also ups the appreciation meter dramatically. You can’t fake this level of craftsmanship.

Strange Tales: Volume Two (Marvel): Not the whole series mind you, and not even the entire first issue, it’s really just based on the inherent strength of two pieces! It’s Rafael Grampa on Wolverine and Frank Santoro on Silver Surfer. Santoro’s Surfer was sparse but highly effective. It relied on iconic imagery, capturing the detachment and tortured essence of the character. Grampa’s Wolverine is, like, quite possibly the best Wolverine story ever(?). It’s more Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler than some hollow Chris Claremont melodrama. It’s the only Wolverine story that really makes any semblance of sense. It’s instantly the quintessential definitive take on the character. It might as well be the last Wolverine story, because nobody will ever say anything more crisp or more unique, nobody will ever be able to get inside the head of the character and reconstruct it for an audience more completely. Yeah, just those two strips garner this appearance on the list, though I will say that I also enjoyed the heck out of Jeffrey Brown’s Scott/Jean/Logan neurotic triangle in the second issue.

Absolute Planetary: Volume Two (DC/WildStorm): Fantastic Four was ushered in to kill the pulps. Planetary is Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s living embodiment of that publishing dynamic. It’s that and so much more, rousing action series, Ellis’ sci-fi extrapolation that exercises dusty corners of your brain, and gushing love letter to the industry. Planetary honors the past, and cherishes the future. It’s my favorite modern comic. It sits proudly on my shelf as just two absolute editions, though it took more than 10 years to complete. It’s the profound intersection of a writer functioning at his prime with a superstar artist in lockstep with the intent and flair necessary to function on multiple levels. It can be digested as pure entertainment, crafty construction where individual parts appear beautiful but taken together form a breathtaking mosaic of storytelling, and it’s also an agile and virile piece of industry meta-commentary. In the world of comics, it’s the rare coupling of written word and aesthetic desire, forming one of those cultural high points that will likely never be out-performed. It contains the type of intelligence, consistency, and attitude I love, all mired in one beautifully compelling package.

Absolute All-Star Superman (DC): Shit, I don’t even like Superman! There’s really only one other Superman story I can say I truly like, and that’s Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s A Bird. However, that book was more about the act of creating, about the inspiration to write coming out of real world experiences, for both Seagle in this incarnation and Schuster and Siegel in the original. Superman himself makes scant referential appearances, so to some extent, as much as I like it, I disqualify it as a “true” Superman story. But again, this book features a writer functioning at their peak of clarity, with a stellar artist they were simply destined to collaborate with. It’s the best take ever, on the world’s most iconic comic book character ever, in the definitive format. So, of course it’s on the list! I don’t have much else to say about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s achievement; I enjoyed the extras included in the Absolute Edition. There’s plenty of sketches and more detail about the twelve Herculean trials, and absolutely no ambiguity as to what the story itself means or what the denouement is intended to convey. It was meant to read this grand. All-Star Superman is an artistic height for this property and I think it’s impossible to top.

While there was certainly a continued shift toward quality over quantity, 2010 felt like a pretty good year for me and comics. I reviewed massive quantities of books over at Poopsheet Foundation, which allowed me to cover more ground on mini-comics and the small press side of industry. I was even promoted to the Senior Reviewer position, often times feeling like I had more to say about the indie small press than the genre repetition and 7-day news cycle of the mainstream press. Back at 13 Minutes, I had reviews and thought pieces link-blogged by The Comics Journal, The Comics Reporter, and Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources. I witnessed my best month (and year) ever in terms of web hits thanks in part to creator Twitter and Facebook accounts being, well, all a-twitter. 13 Minutes was even nominated for a Paradox Comics “Oscar” in the hotly contended “Best Web-Site” category. I managed to grab a couple more print pull quotes and finally completed something I’d been threatening for a while, a sprawling 10 part analysis of “the voice of our generation” with The Brian Wood Project. I met so many creators online and at SDCC this year, and enjoyed the tangible synergy between critic and creator than can still organically exist.

At the end of the day, my entire mainstream comic book world is represented pretty well by this list. I read one Marvel book regularly thanks to Savant Magazine alum Matt Fraction, a bunch of Vertigo books thanks mostly to Brian Wood and a dash of Jason Aaron. In terms of genre breakdown, a little less than half of the books were superhero-y by my loose calculation, with a diverse and eclectic mix comprising the balance, from autobiographical, to the crime genre, all the way out to post-apocalyptic craziness. With books like Planetary and DV8 wrapped, the WildStorm imprint will fade quietly into the night. Perennial favorites like Wasteland and Echo remain stalwart selections. Occasionally I might follow a creator I’m loyal to, like JH Williams III or Valerie D’Orazio. If I like a book enough, I’ll upgrade to an elite format, like All-Star Superman. I read a bunch of mini-comics on the side. The End. To some extent, comic books (not the people or the industry) is a shrinking world for me. To use a painful analogy, it’s as if I’m continually panning for gold, editing out more and more silt in order to discover the few remaining nuggets to be found, which keep the entire endeavor afloat a little while longer.

5 Comments:

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Matt C said...

A good selection there Justin, and there's no surprise to see some of my favourites represented too (hello Scalped!). That last sentence almost sounds like your not to far off quitting the mainstream for good. I hope that's not the case - I'd miss your comments on a lot of books!

 
At 10:26 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Honestly, the thought pops into my head from time to time, but I don't see myself quitting any time soon. I've sort of loosely committed to at least 10 years, which would be at least 5 more. And I doubt I'd ever throw in the towl completely, maybe just pull the plug on 13 Minutes, but get something else going. We'll start "Paradox West" out here in California! Haha!

 
At 3:05 PM, Blogger Ryan Claytor said...

Seriously, man. With the melancholy of that last paragraph, I'm surprised you didn't feature some Dan Clowes or Chris Ware in your faves. ;)

I echo Matt's sentiments, though. Your opinion would be sorely missed. On the brighter side, this was a great selection o' goodies. As a frequent visitor to 13 Minutes, there weren't a lot of surprises (not a bad thing), but I hope this list will inspire some folks to try out another title or two.

Great write-up, Justin!

Ryan Claytor
Elephant Eater Comics
www.ElephantEater.com

 
At 2:38 PM, Blogger Tom P said...

Nice round up, Justin. I also upgraded to the Absolute All Star Superman and Plantary! The HC of Batwoman was also swiftly purchased this year after every issue astounded me! Great minds huh? I would like to thank you and my buddy Matt C for pointing me at DV8. (Love it) So thanks for a solid year of blogging and I wish you a happy new year! Come check out a Brit Comic-con one day and maybe I will buy you a beer!

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Hey Tom, thanks for the shout and the feedback!

 

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