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. And, well, even though it’s now 2012, we aren’t quite finished letting go of the amazing year that just passed us by. Today, in the final installment of our Best of 2011 series, we count down the top ongoing series.
10. Batgirl, vol. 3 (DC)
by Bryan Q. Miller (writer), Pere Pérez, Ramon Bachs and Dustin Nguyen (artists)
The saddest casualty of DC’s relaunch was the deeply lamented loss of Bryan Q Miller’s Batgirl. While Simone’s run is no slouch, it pales in comparison to the joyous adventures of Stephanie Brown. Batgirl quickly worked its way to the top of my reading pile, earning a position as my very favorite DC-published title. Miller took a flawed hero with a troubled past and made her work through her baggage and rightfully earn her position as Batgirl.
Miller never forgot the ‘girl’ in Batgirl, entrenching her foundation as a college student facing many of the same challenges a person her age would encounter. Perhaps the strongest asset of Miller’s Batgirl was the amazing cast of characters that formed the foundation for Steph’s corner of the Batman Universe. Batgirl had fun while facing significant threats. She flirted, joked and emotionally grew during the course of the title’s lifecycle.
How some writers in DC’s stables have earned a shot at writing multiple relaunched books while Miller remains on the sidelines, officially unattached to a property several months later is a true tragedy in justice.
9. Batman Incorporated (DC)
by Grant Morrison (writer), Chris Burnham and Cameron Stewart (artists)
If there’s any character that Grant Morrison could write forever, it’s probably Batman. From the psychological art-horror of Arkham Asylum to the Batgod of JLA all the way to the three acts of his current run — the deconstructionist Batman, the utopian Batman & Robin (which I contend is a comic sent to us from the future) and now Batman Incorporated — Moz has shown that the character of Batman is one of the most flexible in fiction. You can put him in any situation, genre or story and he’ll function more or less as one would expect — as Batman.
In Batman Incorporated, Morrison plays with the more ridiculous, “cartoonish” aspects of the character — the legion of sidekicks, international imitators and hangers-on — and unites them against a massive organization of evil called Leviathan. It’s Saturday Morning material, somewhat influenced by the concept of the Brave and the Bold cartoon, but even James Bond had a SMERSH/SPECTRE/QUANTUM to take on, and that dude has a lot of sex. A lot. Anyway, superhero comics are stupid things to take seriously, and Batman Incorporated finds its writer having fun with the various elements of the genre that less ambitious writers would shy away from, fearing the mockery of fat men in small T-shirts.
Looking back on the series, Batman Incorporated was surprisingly freewheeling. No story was quite like the one that came before, running the gamut of being pure superhero adventure, crazy Morrison psychedelia or meta-experiment in Batman continuity a la Moz’s Batman run, among others. One time it was an issue of Scalped with costumes. The experiments didn’t always work out — does anyone like the Cyberspace Batman issue? — but Morrison managed to do more in a handful of issues of Batman Incorporated than most writers do in their entire careers. And, aided by artists like Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham (easily one of the breakout talents of 2011), Batman Incorporated looked good while doing it.
8. Morning Glories (Image)
by Nick Spencer (writer) and Joe Eisma (artist)
When Morning Glories debuted last summer, it was a breath of fresh air, a spiritual successor to the likes of Runaways when it came to the accurate depiction of teenagers in pop comics. With its effortlessly cool hook — a group of kids with immense potential are tested at a deadly private academy — Morning Glories was a breakout hit for Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma, thanks in part to how well the team merged the ensemble sci-fi drama of Lost with Kevin Williamson’s irreverent teen horror scripting.
In 2011, Spencer and Eisma focused on the first half of that equation, expanding the world of Morning Glory Academy with excursions to various points of its long history and an interim arc that explored each of the main characters’ own histories. While some have criticized Spencer’s pacing, the writer has stated that the series is intended to run for at least a hundred issues, and it’s clear that he’s not interested in rushing the plot. Instead, Spencer and Eisma have allowed the plot to unfold more deliberately, with methodical pacing that allows for a focus on the emotional beats and more introspective moments of the story.
This year also saw Eisma truly coming into his own as an artist, honing his craft throughout the series and mastering the acting of his characters. Eisma’s directing skills have enabled the dramatic nuances of Spencer’s scripts to ring true and the characters to reveal even more depth. As a duo, Spencer and Eisma are incredible to watch, their strengths evolving with the series and making for one of the most addictive and ambitious creator owned series since Y: The Last Man. It’s no wonder the series has brought them accolades from the likes of Damon Lindelof, one of the key figures behind Lost itself.
As the series is currently in the middle of what Spencer has promised will be one of the most physically demanding arcs for the characters, it stands to reason that 2012 will be an even more explosive year for Morning Glories, and we’ll certainly be along for the ride.
7. Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker (Image)
by Joe Casey (writer) and Mike Huddleston (artist)
It is the rare individual who’s fortunate enough to earn a modest living as a comics creator. Even for the professionals who keep themselves immersed in successful, mainstream properties, the paychecks are generally less than you might think. Creator-owned properties that spiral into financially lucrative properties are even more rare of an occurrence.
Then you have Joe Casey. His financial bottom line is funded primarily through his broadcast television work produced through Man of Action Studios. Maybe you’ve heard of a little animated property called Ben 10? Yup, that’s his brainchild.
With a pocket full of ‘fuck you’ money, Casey showcases his love for the comics medium in the rollicking craziness of Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, released through Image Comics. Casey has an unabashed love for comic books (his preferred wording of the medium), and he’s doing them exclusively because of that love. He doesn’t need the paycheck, so, ultimately, Butcher Baker can almost be called a vanity project. Thank god, because it’s one of the most transgressive works of art on comic stands.
Fueled by the frenetic and extraordinary pencils of Mike Huddleston, Butcher Baker reads like a fever dream fueled by some familiar tropes. Hints of Watchmen, Cassanova and Burt Reynolds movies permeate throughout the series. An added benefit of buying the monthly book comes from Casey’s back matter. Here, he spins feverish soliloquies on any number of topics.
If you love comics, read Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker from Image Comics. Chances are, Casey loves the medium even more than you do.
6. Detective Comics, vol. 1 (DC)
by Scott Snyder (writer), Jock and Francesco Francavilla (artists)
To those not knowing any better, the final stretch of Detective Comics issues adhering to the series’ original numbering might have seemed significant for what it didn’t have. It didn’t have Bruce Wayne — the leading man in just about every other renowned Bat-story — under the cowl, potentially walling itself off from fans acquainted with Gotham City solely through the movies. Neither did it (aside from a brief usage of the Joker as a red herring) feature any of the notable members of the franchise’s famous rogues’ gallery. And it wasn’t written by Grant Morrison, who, for a stretch of about three years or so, was the guy when it came to scripting the flagship Bat-titles.
But it could boast the talents of Scott Snyder, Francesco Francavilla and Jock, a killer trio who closed up shop on Detective Comics vol. 1 by churning out some of the finest of its 881 total issues. By the end, James Gordon, Jr. had been established as just as fearsome a foe as any member of the Bat-family had ever faced, and — largely thanks to the wonderful way he was portrayed here — fans would ultimately lament Dick Grayson’s surrender of the utility belt back to his mentor.
If you missed it the first time around, these comics are a must-buy in their collected format, the Batman: The Black Mirror hardcover. It’s a run worth reading again and again, one destined to be referenced and remembered for years to come.
5. Uncanny X-Force (Marvel)
by Rick Remender (writer), Jerome Opeña and others (artists)
I’ll make a crazy assumption here and guess that the phrase “X-Force” has graced the cover of more defunct titles over the last twenty years than any other. Since the glory days of Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefield’s transformation of the New Mutants into the Cable-led strike team, Marvel has tried to capture the unique magic of that title in numerous, mostly unsuccessful forms.
Recently, we’ve seen the cycle of the “dark” X-title(s) cropping up every few years and then dwindling off from lack of popularity. So when Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña teamed-up for Uncanny X-Force in late 2010, I’m not sure a lot of people took notice. With a hardcore cast and brilliantly layered art, Archangel and Wolverine’s ultraviolent task force soared above the clouds with successive homerun issues. The year kicked off with the debated assassination of an adolescent Apocalypse and then flowed into the frantic “Deathlok Nation,” an arc that introduced the murderous cyborg to the team and flowed gracefully into Remender’s masterstroke: the eight-part “Dark Angel Saga”.
There are so many things to like about Uncanny X-Force that it’s hard not to gush. From the satisfying R-rated tone to the construction of a grandiose plot that involves Celestials, the nature of artificial intelligence and the soft shifts between monster and man, the book is bursting with ideas. Most of all, though, what thrusts this title into the hearts and minds of fans worldwide is everyone’s favorite faux Frenchman — Fantomex. As one of the few holdovers from Grant Morrison’s renowned run a decade ago, Jean-Phillip (or Weapon XIII), is the unrivaled breakout star of X-Force, even with heavy-hitters and fan favorites like Wolverine, Psylocke and Deadpool hanging around Cavern-X. With fourteen issues released within twelve months, Rick Remender and a stable of immense art talent dominated the attention of readers more consistently than most other ongoings, and it is certainly the best thing available in the recently restructured X-Men line.
4. Animal Man (DC)
by Jeff Lemire (writer) and Travel Foreman (artist)
Say what you will about the success of the New 52 overall — lord knows we have ad nauseum — but going by individual titles, there are some serious contenders once you ignore most of the high-profile chaff. One of the best of the bunch, to the surprise of few, turned out to be Animal Man under the reigns of Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman.
The last (and, um, first) Animal Man series went on for a long time, evolving from a weird-but-accessible superhero comic to a bizarro Vertigo series where hero Buddy Baker became more shamanic and less superhero before quietly appearing as a background character in his classic form once that series was cancelled. Rather than reboot Animal Man or take the basic concept and paste it onto a brand-new character, Lemire plays off of what came before, but in an accessible way, eschewing the urge to wallow in the animal-rights-cum-metatextual-awakening that came to define the character in Grant Morrison’s run while still reta
ining the superhero family man element. To put his own stamp on the property, Lemire infuses the comic with supernatural horror, effectively making Animal Man a scary Vertigo book masquerading as a DC Universe title.
Key to the success of this new series is the art of Travel Foreman, previously best known for drawing Immortal Iron Fist. On Animal Man, he brings an extremely unconventional style to the New 52 — by which I mean it isn’t horrendous or a rushed attempt to emulate Jim Lee. Readers who found Foreman’s figures strange (I loved them) soon found out just why Foreman was tapped to bring the comic book to life: he’s really good at drawing weird, scary shit, and Animal Man was going to have that in spades.
3. Batman, vol. 2 (DC)
by Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (artist)
As the best offering of the Dark Knight in a bat-heavy year (just look at the rest of our list!), Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman relaunch deserves a high ranking because, well , it has yet to not be good. Currently only four issues in, Snyder focuses his vision of Bruce Wayne as equal parts detective, philanthropist and super beastly ninja. In the crackling Batman #1 (my vote as best issue of the year), a comic that managed to cram every aspect of the hero into twenty-some pages, we were presented the seedlings of a deeply nested secret society with roots back to the dawn of Gotham. There are a lot of long-form Batman epics to chose from these days, but something about this one feels energizing.
Capullo’s contribution to the series is just as tremendous as Snyder’s, with smart paneling and a beautiful depiction of Batman. The stories feature Gotham and Bruce Wayne just as prominently as the iconic vigilante, and Capullo captures the nuances of the city and its occupants wonderfully. I fell in love with his stout and sleek Batman in the first issue, and it has only gotten stronger with every installment.
The eleven part “Court of Owls” storyline is just underway, but the implications are set for this newest chapter in the Bat-mythos to affect other books up and down the New 52 line. Scott Snyder is on fire right now, and Batman is a damn awesome book, but, honestly, it pales in comparison to the work he’s doing in our number two entry…
2. Swamp Thing (DC)
by Scott Snyder (writer) and Yanick Paquette (artist)
Swampy has been a make or break vehicle for a lot of great talent over the years. The Wein/Wrightson work was pretty classic already before Alan Moore revamped the character forever more, and since then we’ve had fascinating work (if most of it in Moore’s shadow) from Rick Veitch to Nancy A. Collins and Mark Millar, down to Brian K. Vaughan, Andy Diggle and Richard Corben in more recent revivals. But nobody’s really caught the full flavor as well as Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette in the version that debuted in the New 52 in October. Their fresh concept was one of the clearest initial successes of the relaunches right off the bat.
Paquette has become an artist who can work in as many styles as the story requires, though at his core there are usually heroic figures engaged in dramatic action. Snyder found a new twist on Swampy’s long legend, going not just to the Earth Elemental but to the man who may have started it all, Alec Holland, scientist and construction worker. A man who wakes to find himself alive, human again, years out of touch with his life, and in love with a mysterious white-haired woman he’s never met. This choice allows Alec, at last, to be our everyman window into his always strange destiny.
Not that Snyder is avoiding any of the mystical potential that is part of the Swamp Thing legacy. Tying into what’s going on in the nearly-as-good revival of Animal Man, we now have the Red (flesh), the Green (flora) and the Black (rot, decay, death) as primal forces of the DC universe. The horrors instigated by the Rot are what connect this title to its Vertigo legacy, and the creatures and deformities called for by the war between these emergent forces of life and death have inspired Paquette to new heights of experimentation, not just in realistic and detailed depiction of humans and animals but also in panel arrangement and page layout. Reading Swamp Thing is an immersive experience for the senses now, one that is equal parts awe and terror. The new kick-ass Abigail Arcane (who may or may not be as twisted as her family always was) is just one of Snyder’s inventive ways of delving back into this fertile world that clearly has so much ground left to explore.
1. Daredevil (Marvel)
by Mark Waid (writer), Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin (artists)
Let me get this straight. You’re expecting me to elaborate on why Daredevil, the brilliant relaunched Marvel book from Mark Waid, Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin was 2011’s best ongoing series?
Then you must have missed our Top Ten list a couple days ago, when we dubbed Waid one of the best writers of the year, highlighting the way in which DD cemented his legacy as a legendary creator.
And you must have also skipped our piece on the year’s best single issues, one in which we also bowed down to hail Daredevil as comics’ next king.
And could it be that you were also oblivious to CB’s rundown of 2011’s top artists, where Daredevil pencillers claimed not one but two of the ten available slots?
Furthermore, while we thank you for your loyalty as a reader, are we really supposed to believe that you totally passed by all the other comics websites that also sang the praises of Matt Murdock 2.0? (Trust us. We waited until the year was actually over and can confirm that those other guys were on point.)
If you made it through all that and still require convincing, then I give up. You’re a lost cause. Go read Catwoman or something.
Agree with our picks? Or are you already tweeting horrible things about us to all your friends? Either way, let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our Best of 2011 selections! >