12.12.2011

My 13 Favorite Things of 2011

DMZ (DC/Vertigo) by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli: Was there every any doubt? DMZ is the most relevant political allegory in early 21st century fiction. It captures a defining moment in the history of our generation, by the writer of our generation. It’s an unflinching “what if?” exercise that illuminates and provokes as often as it entertains.

UNCANNY X-FORCE (Marvel) by Rick Remender & Jerome Opena: Despite some fill-in artists, this specific creative team’s output remains the perfect X-Men book for my money. There’s a balance between an appreciation of history, and the avoidance of getting lost in its own convoluted continuity. It’s self-aware, with plots of consequence set in a visceral aesthetic tone that serves the story. There’s action, humor, and quintessential “cool” briskly paced with strong characterization. It’s everything I want from a modern superhero comic.

SWEETS (Image) by Kody Chamberlain: The collected edition of Sweets is a perfectly packaged singular creative vision that breathes new life into the well tread crime noir genre. At this point, my eyes are fixed on Chamberlain, sitting down in Louisiana hidden away from the incessant chatter of New York and Los Angeles like Prospero on his little island, to see what the one-man-band will conjure next.

20th CENTURY BOYS (VizMedia) by Naoki Urasawa: I discovered the works of Urasawa this year. I thought Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka was a great reimaging, and even though the serial killer thriller Monster never quite hooked me, this one is truly his masterpiece. In the wake of post-WWII reconstructionism in Japan, a band of kids must determine the fate of their own generation. The kids were promised their science-fiction future, and when it doesn’t come to pass, they simply invent their own. It’s full of pop political commentary and a sense of epic grandeur seldom seen in American comics. It has more to say about the culture it resides in than many modern works do, while offering a master class in hooking and looping story threads. There’s no wonder it’s known as “The Watchmen of Japan.” Psst – I think it’s actually better.

ECHO (Abstract Studio) by Terry Moore: When you read the massive omnibus in one sitting, you realize that Moore essentially crafted a heartfelt action film on paper. It hums along with creative control, perfect pacing, effortless but highly effective pencils, natural dialogue, and small character moments balanced with unpredictable action. It’s a perfect self-contained package, and deep down we all really know what was in Julie’s box. Wink!

SCALPED (DC/Vertigo) by Jason Aaron & R.M. Guera: With just a handful of issues left, you suddenly realize what an essential part of the Vertigo line-up this was. Like the sun, like the air, it’s so good you don’t even realize the gaping hole that will be created when it’s gone. With no more DMZ, Northlanders, or Scalped, Vertigo needs to ramp up their next wave of flagship titles stat. In the wake of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and [insert your example here], if a network like HBO isn’t trying to adapt this brutal tapestry of American society in decay, masquerading as Native-American crime opus, then something is seriously wrong with the PTB in the Hollywood machine.

CASANOVA: AVARITIA (Marvel/Icon) by Matt Fraction & Gabriel Ba: With clever narrative tools like the lost art of superimposition, fourth wall breaking, calculated repetition, and Rashomon style re-examination of what’s come before, there’s probably no other comic today so aggressively displaying what comics can be and can do with absolute creative freedom. Casanova continually pushes the envelope of imagination, and wickedly entertains those-in-the-know in the process. In one of those aborted inverse timelines that Cass exterminated, all the Marvel Zombies only buying Fraction’s more mainstream work are buying this title instead – and the industry looks so much brighter.

BATWOMAN (DC) by JH Williams III, W. Haden Blackman & Amy Reeder: With formal constructionist tendencies and a strong supporting cast of (mostly female) characters, Jim continues his evolving artistry and skills at a compelling narrative thrust. Batwoman breaks the mold of full immersion in a world of substance and style. If all mainstream comics were this good, the medium would be a force to be reckoned with, instantly dispelling any backward-ass, lingering, embarrassing, nostalgic perception of the “BIFF! BOOM! POW!” era. Mediocre superhero comics are a poison, and Batwoman is the antidote.

ANY EMPIRE (Top Shelf) by Nate Powell: I think this book is going to mark a turning point in Powell’s career, as he seeks to reconcile the tension existing in his generation between their G.I. JOE childhood and the adult culture of war and violence they’ve been forced to inhabit. Any Empire operates in a perfect nexus of minimalist dialogue, a sense of adventure, and symbolic imagery full of emotionally charged ideas. It’s one of the most important works this year, reminiscent of Stephen King’s Stand By Me, in the way it chronicles the changing value system from one generation to the next.

LEWIS & CLARK (First Second) by Nick Bertozzi: It’s important to note that this biographical interpretation of the famed 1804 expedition dutifully captures their plagued misfortune, the minds of the explorers, overcoming all types of adversity, and the emotional toll it all took through robust characterization, but don’t ever think it’s just regurgitation of dry historical facts. It’s visually stunning, yet thoroughly accessible. Educators should take note of the evolving paradigm regarding rote facts being taught in a more compelling package, one that engages both the left and right sides of the brain with equal gusto.

CHESTER 5000 (Top Shelf) by Jess Fink: It’s a perfectly delicious blend of steampunk and erotica that isn’t apologetic or ashamed, but fiercely proud, about women’s sexuality and their sexual rights. Fink cleverly juxtaposes the societal progress of the industrial revolution, with the societal sexual repression of the same period. She delivers inventive and rightfully mischievous experimentation with the medium, most memorable for the way the panel borders and gutters come alive and directly participate in the storytelling activity. And the sex is really hot.

HABIBI (Pantheon) by Craig Thompson: Regardless of what you make of the contents (there’s some minor controversy online about Thompson’s story being accused of “Orientalism”), “My Beloved” is one of the most beautiful looking books to emerge in a very long time. It’s a lyrical story full of culture, action, and sexual awakening. To some degree, it’s about belief, but not belief in a deity per se, or the dogma of any particular religion. I think it’s about belief in love, in connectedness, in other people, and how that can profoundly alter your outlook on life. It’s hard not to gush about the symmetry in motion, the artistic depiction of orgasm, the soothing letters, the decorative ornamentation, the detail in the design flourishes, or how this will stand for a long time as an artifact of pure artistic expression. You can lose yourself in the visual wonderland. It has the sweeping scope of a modernized parable. This might sound like a contrarian backhanded compliment, but despite what could be perceived as some clichéd characters who lack development and the project potentially valuing form over function, this seems like an inevitable Eisner Award Winner.

THE NEW TEEN TITANS: GAMES (DC) by Marv Wolfman & George Perez: We’ve long forgotten how rapidly The New Teen Titans rose to prominence and gave the Uncanny X-Men a run for their teen angst money. Games is an interesting piece of ephemera that presents the classic period aesthetic of the 1980’s, but is modernized to address NYC terrorism in a Manhattan skyline that still possesses the WTC. Wolfman makes an effort to root this in DC lore with the inclusion of characters like King Faraday, but throws in terms like “darpanet” or “Langley” or “Quantico” from a time when the mere mention of these would have been the height of relevant government intrigue. This OGN starts on slow and builds to a frenetic pace, as the kids deal with an asymmetrical foe, paranoia, and government knowledge of conspiracies eerily similar to 9/11. It’s just smart. Perez is always lauded for his usually tight and detailed style, but here his versatile Azerath sequences with Raven come off more ethereal, like Jim Starlin’s work on the early Dreadstar serialization in Epic Illustrated. It’s all a memorable blend that feels like a paradoxically dated intellectual response to events now happening to us in real time.

Runner Up: BATMAN (DC) by Scott Snyder & Greg Capullo: I almost filed this in the “too soon to say for sure” category along with Wonder Woman and Wolverine & The X-Men (see below), but it was just too strong to be relegated to that fate. Batman was so close to knocking another title off the list and officially making the jump up, that for the first time ever, I caved and created a “Runner Up” category. I think it would’ve made it if there were just a few more issues out to demonstrate longer term consistency. If the current trend continues, I fully expect it to sit proudly on the list this time next year, without caveat or asterisk. This iteration of Batman marries Capullo’s slick but purposeful “best of the 90’s Image Comics” art to Snyder’s masterful distillation of all the essential elements of the property, seamlessly working together to create strong characterization and intelligent action. It’s a pitch-perfect union. If you’re one of those people who don’t consider Snyder “broken out” yet as a star writer from projects like American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest with Sean Murphy’s lavish illustrations, then this is the title that you won’t be able to ignore. Wake up, there’s a new player on the board.

There are a few additional books that I wanted to mention. These are books that I enjoyed, but just couldn’t seem to fight their way onto the list for one reason or another. SECRET AVENGERS (Marvel) by Warren Ellis & Various Artists was an abrupt run of perfect little done-in-one treats, like a box of See’s Candies. Sometimes you get a nut, some times a chew, some are favorites, and some are not. By definition, the artistic contributions were uneven, but I always looked forward to cracking it open. Speaking of inconsistent runs, there’s BATMAN INCORPORATED (DC) by Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham. The issues with Burnham on art feel magical, while the rest simply do not. If you want to keep talking about how artistic contributions affect your overall enjoyment of a title, well, then, I’ll say that I loved looking at WOLVERINE: THE BEST THERE IS (Marvel) by Charlie Huston & Juan Jose Ryp for the art alone, but nothing else was terribly compelling about it. It’ll come as no secret around these parts that I’m partial to the authenticity of Brian Wood’s writing in this project, but my mention of THE NEW YORK FIVE (DC/Vertigo) by Brian Wood & Ryan Kelly has just as much to do with Kelly and how much he’s grown as an artist. I really enjoyed the new Jason Shiga joint EMPIRE STATE: A LOVE STORY (OR NOT) (Abrams/ComicArts), a quality package showcasing his immense talent, full of pop culture drops and missed opportunities in life. In the “too soon to say for sure” category, I’d place WONDER WOMAN (DC) by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang, along with WOLVERINE & THE X-MEN (Marvel) by Jason Aaron & Chris Bachalo. These are both solid books that have my interest piqued at the moment. If they can sustain their creative teams and the energy they’re currently putting on the table, it’s possible they could make a run at next year’s list.

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