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 count down the best single issues of 2011.
10. Jimmy Olsen (DC)
by Nick Spencer (writer) and R.B. Silva (artist)
Were you happy to see indie darling Nick Spencer strike gold with a Marvel exclusive contract earlier this year? Well, then you probably didn’t read the Jimmy Olsen one-shot he wrote for DC. Originally published as a series of backup features in the pages of Paul Cornell’s Action Comics, Spencer’s off-the-chain Jimmy story was completed and fully collected this March, giving readers a single issue package over which to ponder what might have been.
Heavily inspired by the acid trip Comics Code-friendly Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen series of the mid twentieth century, 2011’s Jimmy book sees Metropolis’s most eligible ginger embark on a whole new set of absurd sci-fi adventures. In no particular order, Jimmy becomes a genie, dates a Mxyzptlk, becomes Co-Superman, takes an alien princess clubbing and saves the world by sitting around playing video games in his underwear. Oh, and the whole thing may very well be the most romantic story you’ll read in a mainstream comic this side of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane.
With Spencer’s razor wit orchestrating the show, you can bet that Jimmy Olsen is not only hilarious but irresistibly compelling from a dramatic standpoint as well. Yeah, yeah, I’m glad the guy no longer has to live in fear of a freelancer’s ulcer consuming his insides day and night, but that doesn’t mean I’m not eagerly awaiting the day his Marvel agreement expires. Here’s hoping we’ll see Jimmy Olsen #2 top this list in 2016.
9. Uncanny X-Force #18 (Marvel)
by Rick Remender (writer) and Jerome Opeña (artist)
Debuting in 2010 under Rick Remender and a bevy of artists including Jerome Opeña and Esad Ribic, Uncanny X-Force hit the ground running with “The Apocalypse Solution,” a story arc that ended with a child being shot in the head. Immediately it was clear that Remender wasn’t going to make it easy for the X-Men’s secret black ops team.
This has especially been true of “The Dark Angel Saga,” the story arc that we’ve been reading for most of the year, as Archangel loses his humanity, our heroes venture into the Age of Apocalypse universe and the bodies start piling up. It’d been going on for a while, making it easy to take for granted month-to-month, so the ending really had to stick the landing to make it more than just wasted space in readers’ longboxes.
What some of us (myself included) forgot was that this is Rick Fucking Goddamn Remender writing the thing, and under Remender nothing is easy — just ask Heath Huston. Not only do Remender, Opeña and Ribic deliver a satisfying finale full of punching and kicking, but they create an ending to an almost year-long story that also hurts, where characters age and die in psychic worlds and the basic tropes of superhero comics don’t come without a price.
Uncanny X-Force always felt like a harsh alternative to superhero comics and mission-based strike teams, and issue #18 made it clearer than ever.
8. Optic Nerve #12 (Drawn & Quarterly)
by Adrian Tomine
As has been commented elsewhere frequently and far more eloquently than I can manage, comics have never been better, qualitatively, than they are now. There’s literally something superb available for every type of reader all the time, with more coming down the pike each month. Virtually everybody working on a professional level in comics with any degree of autonomy seems to be intent on digging deep, bringing their best effort to the table and battling the economic/market stagnation with the only weapon that matters: irresistible, great-looking material. Nobody is phoning it in these days. The stakes are simply too high.
Even with that qualifier, Optic Nerve #12 stands apart. Creator Adrian Tomine has been relevant since the mid-nineties and had a particularly strong 2011 with his smile-inducing early-in-the-year mini-book “Scenes From an Impending Marriage.” But the latest issue of his long-running series is where the real action is. This was the best six bucks I spent in 2011 — PERIOD — and felt a lot more like reading a trio of satisfying, full-bodied and unexpected original graphic novels than a single issue of a “one-man anthology showcase” comic. Each of the stories inside feels so complete, so definitive, so alive, that for the first time in a decade and a half of following this creator’s work, I am salivating to see what he comes up with next.
7. Batman Incorporated #7 (DC)
by Grant Morrison (writer) and Chris Burnham (artist)
With its quirky Chris Burnham cover depicting the Dark Knight riding his bat-bike alongside some sort of masked chieftain who sits astride a charging buffalo, Batman Incorporated #7 was bound to be one of those really screwy Grant Morrison comics that you’d need either hallucinogenic mushrooms or a blogger’s obscure annotations to fully appreciate, right?
Wrong. Not that that kind of thing wouldn’t have been okay.
Instead, the issue featured the absolute best iteration of Morrison’s series-driving Batmen-around-the-world concept, not to mention one of the most stirring portrayals of true heroism of any comic published this year. Man-of-Bats is the self-styled “Batman on a budget” of the Lakota Nation, whose quest for justice on the reservation involves everything from picking up groceries for the elderly to shaking down drug dealing gangbangers who like to go around kicking dogs. Within the span of just 20 pages, Morrison and Burnham push your heart to the breaking point, dragging Man-of-Bats through the turmoils of persecution, abandonment and near death, only to ultimately elicit cries of joy as the character’s indomitable spirit perseveres through them all
And if that’s not enough of a hook for ya, read it just to see the guy who kicked the dog get what’s coming to him.
6. The Walking Dead #83 (Image)
by Robert Kirkman (writer) and Charlie Adlard (artist)
It’s WonderCon 2011, and my son and I are attending the Robert Kirkman panel. Someone in the audience asks Kirkman what he was thinking when he wrote The Walking Dead #83. Before he answers the question, he asks how many in the audience have already read the issue. About half the audience raises their hands. I am not one of them. Kirkman then says he does not want to spoil the issue for those who have yet to read it and begins to answer the question by referring obliquely to “the Carl thing.”
A few days later, I finally discovered what “the Carl thing” was.
I am not a religious man, and I don’t usually loudly yell “Oh my God!” when I read quietly in my den. “The Carl thing” in issue #83 made me yell “Oh my God” so loudly that my son asked me if I was OK (and he was on the other side of the house at the time).
Reading The Walking Dead is a constant brutal experience. Kirkman’s character development is such that I, as a reader, get emotionally involved with the characters, and Kirkman seems to have very few qualms about having truly horrible things happen to any of them. “The Carl thing,” though, was one of the most gut-wrenching things Kirkman has thrown at his readers in a long time.
The last half of issue #83 is ungodly, the emotional impact is visceral, and the pacing is fierce. When it comes to “the Carl thing,” Charlie Adlard draws what is probably his most affecting double page spread ever. Even Rus Wooton’s lettering on that page tears my heart in half.
Oh my God!
I couldn’t shake the impact of The Walking Dead #83 for days after reading it. I still get flashes of the look in Carl’s eye in Adlard’s spread from time to time, and the horror on Rick’s face on the next page still pulls me into myself. Everything about the issue hits and hits and hits unrelentingly. It is a true testament to the emotional power inherent in the medium of comics and was certainly one of the best single issues of 2011.
5. Nonplayer #1 (Image)
by Nate Simpson
How many first issues of a comic by a new creator can you say genuinely made the entire industry stop and take notice? With Nonplayer, video game concept artist Nate Simpson entered the comics field with a vision so tantalizing and excitingly new that it seemed like some kind of mythical reissue of a lost classic rather than the debut of a rookie creator. Simpson’s influences may have been easy to spot– Seth Fischer, Moebius and Geof Darrow all spring to mind, with the latter two even publicly complimenting the work — but the way he used those pioneers like tools rather than crutches enabled the world of Nonplayer to be entirely Simpson’s own.
Telling the story of Dana Stevens, a young woman who spends an inordinate amount of time in a real world MMORPG called Darvath, much of the success of the comic lies in how appealing Simpson makes that world. Who wouldn’t want to spend all their time within Darvath? And comic fans and critics aren’t the only ones who have fallen hard for Nonplayer, as even Warner Brothers has gotten in on the action, purchasing the rights to the film version of the story based exclusively on the strength of this first issue. The intricate details of Simpson’s artwork and the massive extent to which he has fleshed out the world of the story make it addicting itself, which has made the massive delay between issues one and two all the more fitting and frustrating.
Simpson has been surprisingly frank about his own disappointment in the lack of follow-up on Nonplayer’s first issue, but it’s easy to see why it would be difficult to stick to schedule with a work like this. Given how well Simpson executed the debut, it would take superhuman confidence to not become concerned about following it up without disappointing everyone. But as long as Nonplayer #1 doesn’t become Simpson’s own Loveless, it will assuredly be worth the wait.
4. Daredevil #1 (Marvel)
by Mark Waid (writer), Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin (artists)
Was it time to reboot Daredevil again? After only 100 or so issues? Was there anywhere new to go with the character in the wake of Kevin Smith and then Bendis reviving the dark images of Frank Miller for a whole new generation? How do you recover from the bleak betrayals of Shadowland?
Well, how about contacting the king of the soft reboot — Mark Waid? Daredevil #1 acted, if not like that long run of suffering, strife, angst and existential dilemmas had never happened, then at least as if they were over and done. A new day had dawned with a fresh jumping-on point. From the awe-inspiring cover of a smiling (?!) Daredevil swinging through a world of urban noise to the ending “bonus tale” establishing the Matt/Foggy dynamic at this new point in its history, Waid’s writing was as nimble and masterful as his title character was always meant to be.
The complimentary art team of Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin brought back an almost retro level of cartoonishness to a title that had been mired in gritty realism for too long. Not that their storytelling was in anyway compromised or that they weren’t as convincing in courtroom scenarios as they were on urban rooftops, but there was a bright clarity that suited Waid’s vision of Matt’s Manhattan — one which moved from mobsters at the Cloisters to lawyers in their offices, all while making room for fresh visions of super-powers that could be as amusing or spooky as needed. No fancy painterly effects needed with artists who can draw and ink with such graphic clarity.
Waid didn’t stop to ask the question of whether we would accept a kinder, saner Matt Murdock. While paying lip service to the holdover event of the exposure of his secret identity, Waid had Matt glide glibly over that potential obstacle to his new poise and balance with clever quips and amusing self-awareness. There was a wonderful feeling in this issue (and consistently in every one since) that professionals had everything well in hand again. Sometimes, there’s that magic confluence of creators, concept and timing on a long-running character, and with Daredevil #1, that time returned as an unexpected, delightful surprise.
3. Secret Avengers #16 (Marvel)
by Warren Ellis (writer) and Jamie McKelvie (artist)
This issue came out of nowhere for me at the end of the summer. I’d purchased the first half-year or so of Secret Avengers, believing the hype that positioned this covert team alongside the scrappy and cosmic variations in the two main books. But Super Soldier was always an odd fit for sneakiness, and Mike Deodato’s wonderful art did great action but didn’t leave much room for character. I missed the Nick Spencer issues altogether, but my ears perked up at the idea of Warren Ellis on the Avengers, thankfully.
His limited run has featured a different artist in each issue, but none have topped the work of Jamie McKelvie on this issue’s stunning weird science adventure. “Subland Empire” (great Lynchian reference!) finds four mismatched operatives (Black Widow, Beast, Moon Knight and Steve Rogers) descending into an underground wonderland with little more than their guns, their wits and a fancy old car, in order to take down a hidden terrorist threat.
That the threat is based on one iconic panel from Fantastic Four clues us in that Ellis isn’t only doing a surgical deconstruction of the Avengers, he’s also riffing on Marvel’s most iconic family with the players at his disposal. Lee/Kirby synergy seems to provide endless inspiration for Ellis, but this intense done-in-one tale synthesizes aspects of Arthur C. Clarke, James Bond and The Wild Wild West too. Comics don’t get better than the sense of wonder here in the double-page spread of the Knight gliding in silently above an immense and old-fashioned futuristic city.
The whole project reads like a lost issue of Planetary (the last time Ellis took on the iconic Four), and you get the sense from the expertise on display that Steve’s quirky crew just might have given Jakita, Drummer, Ambrose and Snow a run for their money (despite the latter’s greater power set). The full potential of this “secret” was suddenly realized in one perfect installment.
2. Fantastic Four #600 (Marvel)
by Jonathan Hickman and various artists
If you haven’t heard about Jonathan Hickman’s recent work under Marvel’s Fantastic Four brand, then I can safely assume to change your permanent address to 123 Under A Rock Avenue. With over two years at the helm, Hickman has become known for his long-form approach and Fantastic Four #600 is a culmination of rewards for readers of the recent revival of the First Family.
Commemorative numerical issues have lost their significance over the years, so we at Comics Bulletin were surprised at how meaningful and forward-thinking this one was. In separate stories, Hickman delivered the payoff to his run with a massive team-up story between the FF and well, everyone, and one of the best superhero stories of the year in “Whatever Happened to Johnny Storm.” With a hundred pages of beautiful art provided by talents ranging from Steve Epting to Carmine Di Giandomenico and Farel Dalrymple, the milestone issue stayed step-in-step visually with the high level set by Hickman’s storytelling ability.
For pure content, this issue bursting with four times the standard page count is truly one of the best of 2011. Fantastic Four #600 features a sexy blend of two of the most vital elements we comic readers look for in an ongoing title: a brief, respectful nod to the past and a tantalizing hint to what’s to come.
1. Detective Comics #881 (DC)
by Scott Snyder (writer), Jock and Francesco Francavilla (artists)
Scott Snyder, Jock and Francesco Francavilla constructed one of the most satisfying Batman stories I’ve read in 35 years of comics collecting. There’s a lot of baggage in the Gordon family, and Snyder makes that increasingly clear to us over an ominous, tension-building story arc, ultimately culminating in the final issue of Detective Comics Volume 1, issue #881.
If there’s at least one bad apple in every family, James Gordon, Jr. represents enough evil to kill an entire colony of fruit trees, infecting the soil and threatening the ecosystem of every living thing within a five-mile radius.
The threat to Gotham is significant enough to require more than just Batman’s assistance. In order for the Gordon family to survive, the Commissioner and his daughter will need to enter the fray and confront a lifetime of family secrets.
Snyder’s plotting and characterization are full of nuanced drama. Jock’s cover art in particular showcases some of the best Batman covers ever created, while Francavilla’s retro, cinematic interior art provides the perfect delivery method for some insanely dark storytelling. This run of Detective Comics will go down in history as one of the series’ best, and #881 helps the series go out on top. Thankfully, Snyder has been allowed to continue his dance with the Batman mythos in the New 52 title, Batman.
Agree with our picks? Or do they make you want to ask Atrocitus for a red power ring? Either way, let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to check out the rest of our Best of 2011 selections!