EDITOR’S NOTE: SBC’s Reviewers continue to provide their lists of the best of comic books in 2005…
Editor Keith asked all of us SBC reviewers to do a top 5 list in whatever comic book category we liked. I’m sure my fellow reviewers are giving terrific and insightful lists of five items in whatever categories they choose: best graphic novel, maybe, or best artist, or in the case of my pal Kelvin, the top five reasons he hates Not Avengers. Me being a prima donna who always has to do things his own way, I thought I’d offer five different categories where I listed my own, extremely subjective, opinions on the best in each one. You can disagree with me – I’m positive you will – but we prima donnas are used to facing opposition. It doesn’t matter what you think, anyway, since I’m positive that I’m right.
Best debut by a new creator: There are a lot of comics around that tell autobiographical stories, no doubt, but few do so with the virtuosity that Shane White shows in his terrific debut graphic novel from NBM/ComicsLit, North Country. The book is a haunting look at the tough upbringing Shane had while living in his parents’ rural home, which is interesting. But what makes the story special is the absolute command of the comics medium that White shows in his comic. He masterfully uses variations on a traditional nine-panel grid, as well as different color schemes and art styles, to amplify and deepen a reader’s appreciation of the work. If this is his first comic, it’s frightening to imagine what he might come up with next.
Most underrated creator: Paul Grist does several outstanding comics that you probably ignore. Whether it ’s the superhero pyrotechnics of Jack Staff, the police action in Kane or the funky weirdness in Burglar Bill (all available from Image), Grist creates intelligent and compelling comics with spectacular artwork and clever stories. Kane, now up to volume five in TPB form, is especially wonderful, telling the story of life in a big city police department where morality is complex and people are doing their best to just make their way. His stark black-and-white art, which is saturated in gorgeous blacks, conveys the world with a real majesty. Try Grist’s comics and you’ll become a fan, too.
Best reinvention of a classic character: Stepping outside of comics (though this character has a long and proud comics tradition) the reinvention of Doctor Who was by far and away the best media event of 2005 for me. The new Doctor wasn’t a reboot, like the also excellent Battlestar Galactica. Instead, the character was updated and refreshed while also being loyal to his history. The Christopher Eccleston version of the Doctor made it clear that he had literally been through the wars, and was both happy and conflicted about having survived. Each episode had its moments of tribute and its moments of cleverness, and produced a completely exciting fan experience. Based on his debut episode, “The Christmas Invasion,” David Tennant as the Doctor will follow in his footsteps. I know this show hasn’t been shown in the US (though those of his in the northern US can often catch it on the CBC), but the show will be out on DVD in the US and Canada in February.
Best ongoing comic: There are a hell of a lot of good comics out there, but my favorite is one that very few people talk about: Steve Gerber, Mary Skrenes and Brian Hurtt’s Hard Time. This series tells the story of Ethan Harrow, a boy who is part of a Columbine-like school shooting. Ethan gets tried and convicted in short order, and then is sent to prison for life, all before he turns 18. Oh yeah, and Ethan has some sort of mysterious demon that lives inside him, some odd Eastern mystical creature whose presence hasn’t been explained so far. Unlike most comics, this one is about ideas and raises interesting, provocative questions. This is challenging writing from the team of Gerber, Skrenes and Hurtt, and it’s great that DC is supporting its relaunch so strongly.
Best mini-series: In a year in which Grant Morrison dominated the mini-series world, it seems criminal not to choose one of his series in this category. He delivered the first four Seven Solders minis in 2005, along with early issues from the next phase. He also created a series of compelling minis for Vertigo. All were wonderful in their own way, but my favorite is Vimanarama, Morrison’s collaboration with artist Philip Bond. Young Ali, our protagonist, is bound to be wed to Sofia, but when they meet each other, the earth literally shakes, and new worlds literally confront them. This was a wonderful adventure yarn, but below the surface it was a fascinating look at the dreams and conflicts that Indian émigrés to England often feel. The events that happen are a subtext to the marriage, and below that is a meditation on the role of religion among the characters. And it’s tremendous fun, to boot.
So the New Year is once again upon us. This is traditionally a time for reflection; to look back on the last three hundred and sixty five days and take stock of where we’ve come from so we can better move forward. You know, a time to access our faults and strengths and strive to become a better human being.
Except me. I’m going to talk about comics. Screw that growth crap; I want to discuss the comics I’ve read over the past year and make pithy comments about them.
2005 was actually a really good year for me as a reader and collector of comics. It has been nearly a decade since I have been this excited and entertained by the comics I buy on a regular basis, which is kind of sad when you think about it because that means the last time I enjoyed the hobby this much was 1994 or 1995. What does it say about the comics I read or me as a collector when Zero Hour was the last good time I had?
Anyway, as much fun as I had over the last year the point here was to think of all the things that I liked about comic year 2005 and narrow it down to five that stood out and deserved recognition. So, in no particular order, here we go. The five events and books that made 2005 worthwhile to me are:
5. Peter David Back on the Hulk: Homecomings are rather atypical in comics and they rarely go well. When that right creator or creators come on to a title and lightning is captured in that bottle for a time, it is hard once to bring them back and have it be the same. A one-shot or mini-series usually goes over well, but anything beyond that tends to go south in a hurry.
Peter David wrote my favorite run on the Incredible Hulk ever. It was because of Peter that my first knee-jerk reaction to the Hulk wasn’t the television series with Bill and Lou. It was a roller coaster ride of action, humor and character that made for a great reading experience, and once it was over, I knew that it could never be duplicated. The great thing about his return as a writer is that he didn’t try and re-do what had come before and this shouldn’t be a surprise because the only constant of Peter’s original run on the book was to change the direction of the series every six months to a year or so.
My only problem with Peter’s return was that it was too short. “Tempus Fugit” was a magnificent story arc that had a number of twists and turns and not only an unexpected ending but an excellent use of Nightmare. Then there was the H
ouse of M crossover that gave enough of the overall story to let a reader who wasn’t following it. (I try to only participate in one huge, company wide event a year.) By far, my favorite story run was the once-and-done ghost story that happened between “Fugit” and the crossover. As loathe as I have become to put things in such terms, it was a great Peter David story that had character, atmosphere and an ending that will punch you in the stomach.
David’s run on the book ended way too soon, but for a while I was buying a Marvel book and I realized that in some cases you can go home again.
4. Jason Todd Back from the Dead: In all honesty when I first read that Judd Winick had brought back Jason Todd from the “Land of Dead Sidekicks,” I was skeptical. Jason Todd’s death, media circus that it was, had a lot of resonance in the Batman books for years and led to the creation of Tim Drake, one of the best characters to come out of the nineties. The knee-jerk fanboy in me thought that bringing him back may be the worst idea since Hal Jordan becoming the Spectre.
Leave it to Judd Winick to prove me wrong.
In both set-up and execution my hat is off to Judd Winick. He managed to craft a story that not only did the concept of bringing Jason back justice but had me in that wonderful position of not being able to wait for the next issue to come out. From his introduction as the Red Hood to his first confrontation with Batman to that freaking awesome scene where he beat the living snot out of the Joker with a crow bar, Jason Todd as presented by Judd had me hooked, and while some of my fellow comic fans were going out of their freaking minds about Jason’s return, I was all about some happy.
What is truly making this story a wonder is that Judd is not letting up at all. Bringing a character back from the dead is easy. Heck, Wonder Man has done it at least three times now, but having the return make sense and exploring what it means for the characters involved is something else entirely. It was important to explore how such a return would affect those who had cared about Jason. If any event shaped Batman in the past seventeen or so years, it was Jason’s death.
So if you are going to bring him back, you had better make it a good story. Judd did this and did it so well that even though my budget was severely limited during the past year, I still made sure that I picked up Batman every single month to keep up with the story line. It has been an amazing story, and Judd is exploring all of the angles that such a return would create. The fact that it is going to be resolved in an annual is also wonderful because it takes the story to a higher level. By putting the finale in an annual, Judd Winick and DC are telling readers, “This thing is too big for the regular title.” It also harkens back to the time when storylines leading into annuals was common place and made them more of an event, though I don’t know how you could make Jason’s return more of an event than it already is.
3. Batman Begins: I loved Sin City. I enjoyed Fantastic Four. I even liked Constantine, but for me the best comic book film from the past year was Batman Begins. I saw it the Saturday after it opened with a huge group of friends, and there was kind of a lull after the film ended, and my buddy Brian, a huge fan of Batman in his own right, asked me what I thought of it.
“Holy crap!” I said. “They made a Batman film. An honest-to-God Batman film. With ninjas and s@#$!”
I could go on to write about how Christopher Nolan and David Goyer wrote one of the most faithful adaptations of Batman ever committed to film, but that would be a tad misleading. Over the last couple of years, I have come to realize that any comic book film based on a huge character that has become part of the iconic landscape (such as Superman, Batman or Spider-Man) is going to be based on the version of the character (or characters in the case of the X-Men) that the writer and director has in their head. You can absolutely hate what Tim Burton did with Batman in Batman Returns or what Joel Schumacher did in both Batman Forever and Batman and Robin (and I did, believe me I did), but in the end it was their vision of the character and was just as valid as any other. I have to admit that after watching all of the special features on the Batman Anthology box set, Michael Uslan had me sold that those films were based somewhat loosely on different eras of the comics and while I didn’t care for aspects of them, I can’t sit here and write, “Those aren’t Batman.”
Christopher Nolan and David Goyer presented a Batman that was more in line with my vision of who the character is. It was darker but not too dark to let the characters have a little fun with the material. The film seemed to be influenced by some of my favorite Batman comics like “Year One” and “The Long Halloween,” and I know in my heart that I enjoyed it because of that fact, but it was also a really good film and did a fantastic job of translating a comic book character to the screen and not losing the better aspects of either medium.
Looking back, it’s kind of funny to realize that this movie had a lot going against it. Batman and Robin pretty much buried Batman as a movie franchise and even though I had faith from what I was seeing as the hype machine rolled along for Batman Begins, there was doubt about whether or not this thing was going to come off. Over the past four years Warner Brothers really lost ground as far as comic book movies goes to the films based on Marvel characters, and their first major offering, Catwoman, was one of the worst films ever made. Luckily, everything came together, and the result was a true vision of Batman that wasn’t afraid to reference the source material.
I really should have bet some money on how good Christian Bale was going to be. Back in 1993, I was sitting with some friends watching Newsies (yeah, I like Newsies, sue me) and told them that I thought that based on his performance and the intensity he brought to his role that Christian Bale would make a phenomenal Batman. They told me I was wrong, but I never shook the feeling and after seeing both American Psycho and Equilibrium, I knew he was the best actor for the role.
Sometimes it’s nice to be right.
2. Superman Returns: No, I’m not referring to the upcoming movie, though I do believe that it is going be freaking sweet. What I am referring to is the fact that for the first time in a really long time, I have been happy with all three of the Superman titles (four if you count Superman/Batman).
It was getting a little serious there for awhile. There was a big push in 2004 to get the Superman book revitalized, but the results were horribly mixed. Chuck Austen’s run on Action Comics was sixteen different types of awful, and as much hype as there was surrounding Jim Lee and Scott Williams’ drawing the character in Superman, Brian Azzarello’s story dragged on for twelve issues and went nowhere. The only ray of hope was Greg Rucka on Adventures of Superman and Eddie Berganza was smart to keep him on for a second year.
I was pleased as punch with the direction the Superman books took this year. Greg Rucka, Gail Simone and Mark Verheiden each have a distinctive vision of the character, but there were common themes running through the books that tied them together. The art has been just phenomenal, which is another nice change because around 2002 and 2003 the art for the Superman titles, with few exceptions, blew chunks. John Byrne came back to the character with the excellent inking of Nelson, Ed Benes was great with the iconic version of Superman and Karl Kershl turned in some moody, character driven art.
I haven’t been this happy with the Superman books in years.
1. DC Comics: I’m a big believer in
the concept that you are what you come from. Fans and collectors tend to become deeply affected by their first experiences with the thing that becomes their obsession. I don’t care if you like Star Wars, Star Trek, baseball cards, Babylon 5 or any other of the bits of pop culture that people get preoccupied with that “first time” resonates with you for the rest of your experiences with it.
I’m a DC fan. I’m a comic book fan in general and have read many, many comics from Marvel, Image, Dark Horse and a host of other publishers, but DC Comics is where my heart is. I like the characters, and I like the sense of history and legacy they have. I began reading comics by finding reprints of Superman and Batman comics in the school library, and while the first comics I bought were mostly Marvel, the first comics I seriously collected were DC.
It’s not always easy being a DC fan, though I know this is a feeling that Marvel and maybe Image fans have as well. Since it is one of the big two (with all due respect to Image and Dark Horse), DC has had its ups and downs, and from about 1998 to late 2003, the books and company seemed to lose focus and direction. I realize that comics are a creative medium, and that creators need to be free to express themselves as they see fit but when you have a connected universe you need some level of organization. All the books don’t have to go together in lock step but at the same time a sense of continuity (now there’s a loaded word) needs to be maintained.
2005 was a great year for DC fans, or at least the type of DC fan that I am. With few exceptions there was a sense of unity among the books they published, and I think that it was Dan Didio and writers like Geoff Johns, Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, Jeph Loeb, Bill Willingham and Judd Winick who made it work. While all of the writers have their own distinctive styles and storytelling sensibilities they worked together to make the world that the DC characters inhabit seem connected.
Things really got rolling when they published Countdown to Infinite Crisis, which was one of the top ten books DC published last year. With one single act, the death of Blue Beetle, events were set in motion to bring the heroes and villains of the DC Universe to a certain place and use them to explore what it means to be a hero or villain in their world. The four main mini-series that were to lead to a true crisis, Day of Vengeance, Villains United, The O.M.A.C. Project and The Rann-Thanagar War, re-established the four corners of the DCU and reminded readers that the DC had a long history with rich characters and locations.
What these series also did was build to something big. In reading the books over the past year, you got the sense through the stories (not just the hype, which helped) that these events were leading somewhere. There were twists and turns, and for the first time in years I had the sense that I needed to get to the comic store every week to see what happened. The masterstroke in this storyline had to be the four-part “Sacrifice” story arc that ran through the three main Superman titles and Wonder Woman. With this story Greg Rucka (and DC) let the readers know that anything could happen at this point. The ending to that arc, the killing of Maxwell Lord, was shocking but also true to the characters involved.
It also set up events that are still playing out, which is yet another feeling DC has brought back to its books; actions have consequences. There have too many times in the past that major events have occurred, and within months either everything has been forgotten or glossed over. The writers and editors of DC have decided to have events unfold and then deal with the effects those events have on the characters. Wonder Woman kills Maxwell Lord and Brother Eye releases that information to the press. There is a backlash with the public and international community leading to Wonder Woman turning herself in to the international court. These actions also spill out into other books and have an impact on characters not only associated with Wonder Woman but the hero community as a whole.
All of this led, of course, to Infinite Crisis, which started off with a punch to the fan gut. With the return of the Earth-2 Superman and the others who went off to their paradise at the end of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC acknowledged their past while producing a book that is looking towards the future. They are doing what a comic book publisher should be doing; producing books that will entertain and enthrall their fan base and hopefully entice new readers to come over and check out their product while at the same time trying to sell as many books as humanly possible. These has been, for me, the best mix of the comics as entertainment and as a business and proved that the two can cohabitate and live together in relative peace and harmony.
Wrapping Things Up: There were more than five events and books that had me very excited this year, but frankly there isn’t enough space to list them all. Of all the events and movies and action figures that had me excited over the past year, the main thing that made 2005 special is suddenly being a comic fan was fun again. For years it was more about going through the motions and buying the books more out of habit than anything else because, let’s face it, I am first and foremost an addict with a weekly habit and I get my fix through a dealer. It is times like this and years like 2005 that make it all worthwhile.
2006 has a lot to live up to, but from the looks of things I think it has the potential to exceed what has come before. Between One Year Later, DeciMation and films like X3 and especially Superman Returns along with a host of other events and projects, there is a lot to look forward to.
With the end of the year comes the traditional list of what was good and bad about it. The subjective opinions of arrogant fans who think a lifetime of reading comics qualifies them to judge art flood the internet like the smells off a garbage barge. Harsh, but often accurate.
So I add my own farts to the stink and present my wholly subjective picks for the best and worst comics and comics-related works in 5 categories.
Best Comics-Based Movie: A History of Violence: Viggo Mortensen leads an Oscar-worthy cast in this film that examines the consequences of violence. The quality of this film gives hope that other non-superhero comics can also be turned into movies. Conversely, it helped inform the public just a little bit more that comics can deal with mature themes in the real world.
Worst Comics-Based Movie: Fantastic Four: Granted, this was a good year for comics movies. Sin City stands as the best adaptation of a comic ever made. Constantine was a decent film, despite taking great liberties with the original series. And Batman Begins presented Batman as a man and not a mask. But the mediocre quality of the film based on Marvel’s first family of comics was a great disappointment. From the frequent “homages” to other super hero movies, to completely botching the character of Dr. Doom, I’m surprised Fox agreed to make a sequel. Here’s hoping it’s written by someone who’s read the book.
Best Mini-Series: Seven Soldiers of Victory: The Guardian: Grant Morison’s Seven Soldiers project is shaping up to be one of the best crossover stories ever told. The Guardian is Morrison at his uniquely best. Silver Age fun is dressed up in the modern style, and wrapped in a meta-story about the secrets of the universe. Along with The Shin
ing Knight, Klarion, and Zatanna, (and the incomplete Mister Miracle, Frankenstein, and Bulleteer), Morrison is creating a very weird corner of the DC universe.
Worst Mini-Series: Wanted: Once again, Mark Millar has the opportunity to write a story about personal change and self-examination, then scraps it for the hip dialogue and violence. Wanted tells the story of an office drone who joins the secret society of super-villains that rule the world. The book’s ultimate point is how we’re all cowards for not killing people who piss us off and living like crooks too. The final line, “This is my face as I fuck you in the ass,” is the most unforgivable insult since Frank Miller wrote DK2 .
Actually, Wanted came in second behind The Unfunnies, but that’s disqualified for being incomplete. In fact, being unfinished is a big point in its favor.
Best Monthly Series: Y: The Last Man/Ex Machina: A tie between two books by Brian K. Vaughn. Y continues to deliver edge-of-your seat cliffhangers, clever social insight, and natural character development. Ex Machina does for politics what Y does for gender studies. Mayor Michael Hundred struggles with the daily problems of city government as well as the challenges brought about by his superpower. These are two of the smartest comics on shelves now. There’s no reason not to be reading them.
Worst Monthly Series: The New Avengers: If I don’t like a series, but everyone talks about it, I’ll just read it in the store. And while this isn’t the worst series being sold, New Avengers is the worst series I’ve read this past year. Bendis’s style of long monologues and glacier-speed pacing weigh down this traditionally action-driven team book. Bendis has shown he can write great solo characters, but he is ill-suited to team books.
The series is helped by the art of David Finch and Danny Miki. Great work there, even if they tend to repeat panels.
Best Story Twist: “No more mutants” in House of M #8: The Scarlet Witch doesn’t just return the Marvel to normal. She reduces the number of mutants to less that 1% of Earth’s population. Millions of mutant characters have lost their powers. The X-Men face new challenges as their race is almost extinct. It’s an unexpected sweeping change in the Marvel U that should last 3-5 years.
Worst Story Twist: Infinite Crisis is a sequel to Crisis on Infinite Earths in Infinite Crisis #1: Infinite Crisis #1 ends with the reappearances of the Earth-2 Superman and Lois Lane, the Earth-3 Alex Luthor, and Earth-Prime Superboy. They were last seen entering a “paradise” at the end of Crisis on Infinite Earths #12. Their return, combined with JSA Classified #4, signal a possible return of the multiverse or an attempt to once again fix the continuity mistakes created by the first Crisis. That’s never a good thing. Look for Infinite Crisis to become even more of a sprawling, incomprehensible mess than it already is.
Best Reprint Project/Book: Absolute Watchmen: DC gives the high-class treatment to one of the few books that actually deserve it. Watchmen is presented in a large format that makes the stories more subtle visual themes easier to find. Bonus material includes Alan Moore’ s original character treatments for the Charlton heroes, and promotional sketches by Dave Gibbons.
This was a tough category. This year saw The Best of the Spirit, DC’s Showcase Presents series, DC Comics Rarities Archives Vol. 1, and Marvel collecting more comics from the 1970s. Great new works and lesser-known classics are being preserved and presented to new audiences.
Worst Reprint Book/Project: Tenjho Tenge: DC’s CMX line of manga has been mediocre at best. But otaku were outraged to learn the cult hit Tenjho Tenge would be edited for its US release under CMX. Graphic violence, nudity, and rape was either cropped out of panels or covered by awkwardly placed sound effects and dialogue balloons. Since DC boasted CMX would present manga in its original form, this censorship reveals the company’s hypocrisy. If they found so much of Tenjho offensive, why bother publishing it?
Well, that’s all I cared to remember about 2005. I also want to declare Godland by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli as the best new comic of 2005. I’d pick a worst, but I didn’t read any other new series. If you disagree with me on anything, or think I’ve forgotten something, let me know so I can promptly ignore you.
Happy New Year.
Tomorrow: John Hays’s DC Comics 2005 Review