In the waning days of a year which saw mainstream relaunches aplenty and an indie comics scene that’s seemingly stronger than ever, the staff of Comics Bulletin convened to select the finest the industry had to offer. Today, in a special edition of our Top Ten feature, we take a look at the best miniseries to grace the stands in 2011.
10. Ruse (Marvel)
by Mark Waid (writer) and Mirco Pierfederici (artist)
Simon Archard and Emma Bishop channel the same energy I expect to find in the current release of Guy Ritchie’s second Sherlock Holmes vehicle. They’re a Victorian duo much smarter than everyone else, taking on foes like Malcolm Lightbourne who mean to use their own special gifts to the disadvantage of the residents of their bustling, divided, polluted 19th century city. It’s just that the city is Partington rather than London, and some of those abilities are truly supernatural rather than just elaborate hoaxes. They might even be sigils.
The too-brief return of select Crossgen titles over the summer was a welcome homage and callback to the short-lived era of comic book innovation from a decade ago. I admit I read Ruse mostly as a nostalgia trip for the original series. Mark Waid was back to recapture the articulate, Wilde-ian tone he created, and though original artist Butch Guice only did covers this go-round, the interior artists did their best to capture the right period appeal. They succeeded at least in returning Simon and Emma to us, so we could watch him impugn her abilities as he simultaneously relies on her to save him when he goes too far, time and again. Whether I’m just being nostalgic or not, I fully expect to read the further elucidating adventures of this bickering duo someday soon.
9. The Red Wing (Image)
by Jonathan Hickman (writer) and Nick Pitarra (artist)
All mediums are driven by the past in some way, but the medium of comics happens to be especially consumed by its history. The most profitable of its franchises star characters decades old, rewritten every so often in order to suit the times, while many of the greatest works within the medium reference the past in their structures and styles. For some time, this has been accepted as just part of the medium, but in 2011, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra threw down the gauntlet with The Red Wing, a four-issue miniseries built around a literal fight between the past, present and future, pitting generations against each other for control over the timeline itself.
As a writer, Hickman has never exactly shied away from brave new ideas or shots across the bow of comics’ status quo, but with The Red Wing he made his most aggressive assault yet. Aided by the Moebius-like art of Nick Pitarra, who truly came into his own with this mini, Hickman crafted a world that was just similar enough to the likes of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who to make readers feel at ease before a twist at the halfway point made it clear that this was more than your standard sci-fi epic.
Instead, The Red Wing was revealed to be less about the science of the story and more about the tensions between generations. Here, that takes the form of familial struggle, as a father realizes his own generation’s mistakes have led his son to patricide on a genocidal level. But it just as easily functions as a rebuke by Hickman and Pitarra of their predecessors’ grim and gritty “realism,” something they aim to kill with bold futurist ideals and proudly illogical art and style. Whether they will succeed is beyond the point. What matters is that with The Red Wing, Hickman and Pitarra have opened the door for the kind of generational warfare that just might change that problematic status quo.
8. The Infinite Vacation (Image)
by Nick Spencer (writer) and Christian Ward (artist)
For comics fans who get a kick out of mind-bending sci-fi concepts and clever reinventions of classic genre tropes, the present era is somewhat of a Golden Age. The over-the-top stylings of boundary-pushing ideasmiths like Grant Morrison and Matt Fraction have become mainstream, and, with The Infinite Vacation, rising (at the time) superstar Nick Spencer proudly solidified his membership in their fraternity. The series, which is set to conclude in 2012, saw the writer envision a world in which the theoretical existence of parallel universes merely represents a menu of options from which a person can choose to customize his or her life. It combined Spencer’s trademark wit with relevant commentary on society, technology and even religion.
But as great as all that was, it was actually the incomparable art of Christian Ward that bumped The Infinite Vacation into the realm of the year’s finest. Shirking typical schemes in favor of unconventional panel layouts and trippy repeating images, Ward crafted the perfect visuals to convey the story Spencer was writing. Though, in this reality, the wait time for Ward to finish his work can sometimes be a bit lengthy, the finished product is never a disappointment when it finally arrives. Any universe that boasts The Infinite Vacation as one of its available reading options could very well be the best of all possible worlds.
7. Vengeance (Marvel)
by Joe Casey (writer) and Nick Dragotta (artist)
Writer Joe Casey is a veritable idea factory. His best work is infused with rampant creativity and tempered by witty, observational comedic overtones. This year’s six-issue Marvel Comics limited series Vengeance is one of Casey’s finest efforts. Artist Nick Dragotta’s pencils push this series over the top, firmly entrenching Vengeance as one of 2011’s best miniseries.
Casey takes historical bits from Marvel history (particularly from the X-Men Universe) and builds a tiered, complex narrative that goes where few comics are willing to go. He introduces three distinct teams of superpowered entities, all with separate agendas that don’t always differ from one another as much as they probably should. Major villains each have a part to play in the story, including the likes of the Red Skull, Doctor Octopus, Magneto and Loki, and next issue the teams converge upon Latveria.
The art and irreverence sometimes remind me of Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen’s
Nextwave. What’s truly remarkable is how much story Casey was able to inject into these first five issues. New characters are introduced, and they’re not simply one-dimensional cogs in the wheel of mediocre storytelling. These are robust, interesting heroes and villains.
Perhaps the biggest testimonial I can offer is that Vengeance is so damn good that I elected to buy it despite my abhorrence of Marvel’s $3.99 pricing strategy. Vengeance is a rare flower amongst the weeds of an over-priced and over-hyped marketplace. Pick it and breathe in the fragrant nectar of awesome comics.
6. Rocketeer Adventures (IDW)
by various writers and artists
What would you do if I told you that Mike Allred, John Arcudi, Kurt Busiek, John Cassady, Darwyn Cooke, Lowell Francis, Dave Gibbons, Joe R. Lansdale, Joe Pruett, Jonathan Ross, Ryan Sook, Mark Waid, Tommy Lee Edwards, Gene Ha, Scott Hampton, Tony Harris, Michael Kaluta, Brendan McCarthy, Ryan Sook, Bruce Timm and Chris Weston were working on a miniseries together?
What would you do if I told you that this mini-series would be celebrating the further adventures of the late, great Dave Stevens character The Rocketeer, one of the all-time great comic book heroes?
You’d wet yourself, right?
Well, in 2011, I wet myself.
This year, IDW published a four-issue miniseries called Rocketeer Adventures which gave some of comicdom’s best talents the opportunity to play in the retro world of Cliff Secord and his pin-up girlfriend, Betty. The series was obviously an homage to the talent and influence of Dave Stevens as well as a love letter to the genre. Each issue was comprised of several vignettes, allowing each creator to put his particular stamp on these characters and to let his love shine.
Nothing really heavy or earth-shattering goes on in the series. Rather, Rocketeer Adventures was all about fun, celebrating the work of Dave Stevens and reminding us that comics can be some of the best entertainment around.
P.S. I promise I have showered and changed clothes since the aforementioned wetting.
5. Witch Doctor (Image)
by Brandon Seifert (writer) and Lukas Ketner (artist)
Witch Doctor was a four-issue miniseries written by Brandon Seifert and drawn by Lukas Ketner, published through Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint at Image Comics. Easily one of the best books of 2011, the creators have promised more to come in 2012. The series was thoroughly and completely awesome for the following reasons:
1. You got your medical drama.
2. You got your supernatural/horror action sequences.
3. You got your dark humor (it’s dark AND it’s funny).
4. You got your fantastically detailed artwork.
5. You got your fully realized characters. The main character, Dr. Vincent Morrow, is a clever, intriguing and ultimately lovable douche bag, while Penny Dreadful is one of the best new horror characters created in recent years.
6. You got your endless possibilities for all sorts of new stories, limited only by the imagination of the creators.
7. You got two comic creators so excited about and in love with what they are doing that their enthusiasm flies off the pages. It’s infectious.
4. Flashpoint: Batman – Knight of Vengeance (DC)
by Brian Azzarello (writer) and Eduardo Risso (artist)
Finding a decent Flashpoint tie-in this summer was a bit like trying to find a tasteful love scene in a Judd Winick comic. And, trust me, I would know because — in one of the more questionable decisions of my adult life — I actually read them all. But during the bleak 13 weeks throughout which I bore that cross(over), the discovery of one single bright spot went a long way towards making the entire exercise worthwhile. Months after I put its final issue down, the stirring conclusion of Batman – Knight of Vengeance continued to burrow its way into my brain and stab at my emotional core.
As only they could, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso took the most creative plot twist from the main Flashpoint series — the revelation of Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas as an alternate reality Batman — and made it even twistier. In a timeline where the elder Waynes survived that fateful Crime Alley mugging only to see their son shot dead instead, the couple’s life took a turn for the horrific. As Thomas’s thirst for revenge molded him into a grimmer version of our world’s Dark Knight, his wife Martha succumbed to her worst impulses of guilt and sorrow to become the Flashpoint U’s Joker.
On the heels of the rage-driven murder spree in which she seeks to spread her personal anguish to all of Gotham, Azz and Rizz saved Martha’s darkest moment for last. Here, in a moment of sheer despair for both the characters and the reader, the grieving Waynes make the chilling discovery that there are worse fates for one’s own child than death.
3. Batman: Gates of Gotham (DC)
by Scott Snyder, Kyle Higgins (writers) and Trevor McCarthy (artist)
What may be known as the last Dick Grayson Batman story, Batman: Gates of Gotham, a five-issue limited series plotted by Scott Snyder and scripted by Kyle Higgins, supplied some of the best Caped Crusader moments of the entire year. After an armored terrorist starts blowing up historic landmarks named after the founding bluebloods of Gotham, Dick and the rest of the Bat-Family race to track down the perpetrator, whose roots date back to the rise of Gotham in the 1880’s.
The city itself is the true star of this series, primarily drawn by Trevor McCarthy along with a few fill in artists. Gotham is portrayed as a living, breathing entity — a place that is more powerful than any of its occupants. Gates of Gotham set a foundation for the ongoing events in Snyder’s New 52 Batman as well as the adventures of Jonah Hex in All-Star Western, and it stands as one on the best Batman series of all time that doesn’t feature Bruce Wayne in the title role.
2. The Strange Talent of Luther Strode (Image)
Jordan (writer) and Tradd Moore (artist)
When Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Nemesis debuted, the first issue came bearing the characteristically bombastic cover blurb “Makes Kick-Ass look like shit!” It didn’t — like, at all — but it gave us a good springboard for Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore’s The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, which actually succeeds in making Kick-Ass look like shit at its own game — and after only three published issues so far.
Justin Jordan’s script also works within the framework of a self-fashioned superhero story but does it with a sense of intense creative freedom rather than lurid sadism — an insanity underscored by Tradd Moore’s manic-yet-controlled pencils that promise a superstar in the making. In writing the story of a scrawny nerd who gets superpowers through a Flex Mentallo/”Hero of the Beach” style pamphlet, Jordan taps into a Peter Parker milieu but promises to delve deeper into the concept, exploring the implications of giving power to the previously powerless.
What’s more is that Luther Strode doesn’t wear its nerdiness on its sleeve with forced conversations about superhero movies or trips to comic book shops. Instead, Jordan and Moore put Grant Morrison comics in characters’ hands and emblazon the walls of Luther’s room with posters of 100 Bullets and Akira, proving their cred but not drawing attention to it, presenting these elements as (literal) window dressing instead of premeditated pandering.
Also, it’s really, really violent.
1. Criminal: The Last of the Innocent (Marvel)
by Ed Brubaker (writer) and Sean Phillips (artist)
I loved Criminal: The Last of the Innocent for many reasons but primarily because it was so damn original. Imagine the Archie cast of characters — Riverdale and all — then age them 15 years and set them in a gritty pulp novel. The “Archie” character, here named Riley Richards, is grappling with nostalgia and some dangerous addictions. When he’s called back to his idyllic hometown, he can’t reconcile his past with his present. He decides to set things right, but, as such things are wont to do, it all goes terribly wrong.
This four-issue series was fantastic, and the glowing consensus is that it was the best of the Criminal stories so far. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have crafted a perfectly dark, fascinating world. The art style works beautifully here in both the gritty present day scenes and the cartoonish flashbacks, which are unsettling in their realistic depiction of teenage behavior. I’m champing at the bit to see Brubaker and Philips’ next collaboration, Fatale, which begins in January.
Kate’s take on the best miniseries of the year — in comic form!
Agree with our picks? Or did they cause your rage to burn with the power of a thousand suns? Either way, let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our Best of 2011 selections!