Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Comics Gone By

This year, with less time than I've ever had before, I read fewer books and more comics. Which means this is quite a long list. Its mainly mainstream - I don't read as many indie comics as I used to or as I would like. Lots of good mainstream comics these days, you see...

(Peter Bagge)
Bagge does sci-fi, only he does it Bagge style, meaning it's about a bitter man confronting his regrets and failures, and it's full of black humour and dark truth. A project uses technology to allow a subject to relive his past experiences. But they choose a stand-up comedian turned actor whose life hasn't turned out how he planned it, and his attempts to set right his own past begin to effect the people in charge of the project too. Bagge's art and writing is as perfect here as it ever is, and he finds a way of making such high-concept material feel personal and intimate.

(Darwyn Cooke)
Cooke's sublime series of adaptations of Richard Stark's brilliant Parker novels reaches a third chapter, varies its tone somewhat with the introduction of Parker's friend Grofield, but stays just as high-quality as the other books. The Score is more of a caper, with a huge cast and a nifty plot, and Stark does justice to all of it.

(Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples)
Vaughan gives us a great big rollicking sci-fi tale full of alien races, big concepts and nicely turned genre beats, yes. But he also gives us a moving romance across the barriers. And as always, his characters are strong and instantly likeable - everybody has their reasons - and his dialogue is frequently brilliant. Staples has the versatility to handle all of the moods thrown up by the material, and the whole things looks great.

(Jonathan Hickman & Nick Pitarra)
Hickman does high-concept better than anybody this side of Grant Morrison, and this might just be his best attempt at combining that ability with a sort-of-superhero book. The heroes here are fictionalised versions of real-life historical scientists like Oppenheimer and Einstein, working for the US Government. Here, they don't just stop at the atomic bomb, no. Here they encounter alien races, create new energy sources, open inter-dimensional portals, and generally act like genius bad-asses. Oppenheimer is a psychopath who likes to eat people and absorb their essences, Einstein may be his own doppelganger from an alternate reality, and then theres Harry Daghlian, a floating irradiated skull encased inside a radiation suit. Hickman always has a long term plan, and his long game is only just becoming visible, but each issue is so stuffed with great ideas and neat character moments that it doesn't matter. Then theres Pitarra's detailed, dynamic, clean-lined art and fine design sense, which brilliantly suits the material.

(Brandon Graham & various)
Perhaps the very worst of Rob Liefeld's many terrible Image creations reimagined as a Heavy Metal/Mobius 70s -style sci-fi Epic with a massive Conan influence by Graham and a series of different artists, each of whom brings a different style and sensibility to bear on the material. Big concepts, great action, fine - if at times slightly challenging - storytelling and some fascinating tones and textures make this comic feel like just about nothing else, ever. Don't believe me? Heroes have love affairs with bug-aliens. Races make living creatures into cities. Melancholy robots fulfil endless missions. Our hero is one of an endless army of clones. And that is just the tip of the iceberg...

(Sammy Harkham)
Harkham is perhaps best known as the editor of the Kramers Ergot anthologies, but he is a gifted cartoonist in his own right, and this collects most of his work into one essential volume. That includes the seminal Poor Sailor, his fable-like story, plus some autobiographical cartoons, sketches and gags. Its a great package from a cartoonist whose only weakness is that he doesn't work more.

(Matt Fraction & David Aja & Matt Hollingsworth)
Hawkeye is the most acclaimed title from either of the Big Two (Marvel and DC) this year, and theres a good reason for that; its absolutely brilliant. It takes the slightly second-rate archer who is uncommonly visible after his appearance in The Avengers movie and does something unusual and even - imagine! - original with him. It depicts his days off, the moments we never see in the pages of the Avengers comics, him having barbecues with his neighbours, getting involved in street level crime and utterly fudging relationships. Fraction is a great writer at his best - his run on Iron Man is easily the best in the history of that character and two of his other titles, Casanova and the sadly-cancelled Defenders also belong firmly on this list - and here he takes a quirkier approach to his storytelling, cutting up chronology and messing with perspective throughout. But his characters are great and he never stints on the action, either, even indulging in the pure geek fodder of showcasing every trick arrow in Hawkeye's quiver in one story. Then there is the art. Series regular Aja has matured at an amazing rate on this title, with work that recalls David Mazzuchelli's genius on Daredevil (and that is high praise) and a line of beautiful covers too. When the schedule has overwhelmed him, Hollingsworth has stepped in ably.
Brilliant stuff, and the single comic I most look forward to every month.

(Hermann Huppen)
This post-apocalyptic buddy adventure - which may be familiar to some as the source material for the late Luke Perry tv show of the same name - is massive in Europe and Dark Horse's handsome hardback reprint series looks to be doing it justice in English. Huppen's art is stunning: brilliant storytelling, insane detail and energy, and if the meandering storyline is more to European taste than we are used to, well it has an Epic quality combined with vivid characterisation which goes a long way to explaining that success.

(Darwyn Cooke)
I was dreading the Before Watchmen books DC brought out this year. They seemed a needless cash-in on what is a near-perfect original series. But some of the creative teams excited me. As it turned out, none of them produced work of any real value. Except for Darwyn Cooke, that is, who ambitiously took on a Minutemen series and made it a stylish, fun, brilliantly crafted superhero series. It may not be in the same league as Watchmen, but on its own terms, this is a fantastic mainstream comicbook; gripping, funny and beautiful. It even gets in a few digs at Alan Moore and his reading of the genre, while remaining faithful to the story he wrote.

(Rick Remender & John Romita JR)
Remender follows Ed Brubaker's near-definitive run on Captain America with a completely different approach inspired by Jack Kirby's solo run on the title in the 1970s, meaning he plunges the character headfirst into a deliriously pulpy sci-fi adventure and runs the whole thing at 500 miles an hour with a very Frank Miller narration over the top. What really sells it though is JRJRs art, as energetic and muscular as ever, depicting Cap in combat with mutants and villains and making all of it look just beautiful. Theres a slight suspicion that this could be any character, but who cares when its this entertaining?

(Brandon Graham)
Graham's more personal work - as opposed to the work-for-hire of Prophet - is determinedly quirky and individual, richly detailed and ecletic, with traces of manga, erotica and mainstream US comic art obvious in a wonderful blend throughout. Like the amazing King City - also rereleased this year - Multiple Warheads is uncategorisable and indescribable; a sic-fi road comedy thriller distinguished by Graham's loopily inventive imagination and his beautifully stylish artwork.

(Mark Waid & Chris Samnee)
Waid and Samnee capture the appeal of Dave Stevens' character and world as well as anyone has since the man's death, and more than that, they tell a fun little adventure story while doing it, with comedy, action, romance and intrigue all balanced nicely. Waid is a very consistent writer - his Daredevil remains one of Marvel's best titles, even if it has slipped slightly in quality since last year - and he and Samnee are a tremendous team. For me, Samnee is currently second only to David Aja in terms of artists on regular mainstream comics; a great storyteller with a lovely line and sense of design (look at the cover above!) whose work on Daredevil is just as strong as his work here.

(Garth Ennis & Goran Parlov)
Ennis basically is the MAX line, and here he is allowed to indulge himself with a book showcasing lots of his interests. He looks at Nick Fury in the years after his WW2 adventures when he served in Vietnam, beginning when it was still controlled by the French, and in Cuba during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Its a hyper-masculine fantasia; part spy comic, part noir, part War, with an awful lot of James Ellroy in the mix, loads of tough-talking macho dialogue, hot women in tight 1950s dresses, and some incredibly brutal violence. Parlov collaborated with Ennis on Punisher MAX and his work is evocative and rich with fine storytelling and strong characterisation. They make a great team. Not only that: Dave Johnson is the cover artist on this series, which should be enough reason for anybody to buy it...

(Chris Wright)
A vivid, often frightening pirate story published by Fantagraphics, Black Lung somehow feels just as literary as it does visual. Wright, obviously just as influenced by the likes of Sam Peckinpah, Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy as he is by anyone working in his own medium, here crafts a sweeping story, fills it with some horrific violence and illustrates it in his uniquely scratchy, detailed style. The result is often breathtaking and even haunting.

(Brian Wood & Becky Cloonan)
Wood's Conan is the best treatment the character has had in a long, long time. It helps that he's adapting a great chapter of Robert E Howard's original Conan writing - these stories all concern Conan's time at the side of BĂȘlit, the Pirate Queen of the Black Coast, and that gives them a slightly diferent dimension to the hundreds of tales of Conan wandering Hyboria alone. That doesn't give the writer enough credit. Wood's work here elevates the material, respecting its mythic qualities but emphasising the strength of the characterisation, too, making Conan a living, breathing person in a way few writers can manage. Cloonan is perfectly suited to the character too. Her art is elegant, beautifully attuned to mood and tone, and she does action with a clean dynamism that is enviable.

(Grant Morrison & Chris Burnham)
It feels like Morrison is nearing the end of his long, brilliant run on the Batman titles, and as such its worth comparing the work he's doing with that currently appearing in the other books in the Bat-family. Scott Snyder's run has been greatly acclaimed, and much as I love Greg Capullo's art, Snyder seems to rewrite the same story time and again, retro-engineering continuity to introduce a villain from Gotham's past, then stretching out his plotting to a ridiculous extent. Meanwhile Peter Tomasi's Batman & Robin is never better than average. The current Joker story stretching across different titles seems a pale shadow of better Joker stories of yore. Thankfully Morrison is basically left alone to do his own thing, mostly ignoring continuity to finish his epic yarn of Bruce Wayne's establishing Batman as a sort of international franchise. Burnham might have initally seemed like a sort of Quitely-lite, but his work is lovely; energetic, with a beautiful line and some great storytelling choices. When Morrison is done with Batman, the character will miss him. So will comics in general, if his middling Happy with Darrick Robinson is any indication...

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