EDITOR’S NOTE: For this end-of-the-year column, SBC’s reviewers were asked to comment on any five comic book “items” of their choosing, appropriate to the year 2005: five favorite titles, five noteworthy industry events, five needed industry changes, et al. Most reviewers followed my instructions and wrote as concisely as they could; Some, however, felt obligated to expound on the reasoning for their choices. Therefore, this column will be presented in three parts over the next three days.
Feel free to critique our choices and/or provide your own entries in the Silver Soapbox forum of SBC’s messageboard.
What is truly the “Top 5 of 2005”?
I could list my 5 favorite comic stories of the year. But that wouldn’t quite do it.
I could list my 5 favorite creators. Nope, still not it.
I could list my 5 favorite internet arguments. Um, definitely not.
My favorite nitpicks?
Ok, this harder than it looks….
But here it goes anyway.
My Top 5 of 2005:
Batman Begins: Well, they did it. They made a Batman movie that kicked ass. A Batman movie in which you care about Bruce Wayne first and foremost! Best of all, they made a Batman movie that the non-comics fan can enjoy. Even my wife, who is a non-comics fan, enjoyed it as much, if not more, than me.
Marvel vs. DC (a.k.a. House of M vs. Infinite Crisis): This might get higher on some “top lists,” but not on mine. Yes, huge, huge events from both companies, but the jury is still out on the result. Will there be long lasting effects? Doubtful, but the ride so far has been great for the fans. Both companies trying to one up the other. The only losers here are our pocketbooks. They ended up a heck of a lot lighter.
Hurricane Katrina: How does this relate to comics? Easy. Like all others in the US of A, the comics community jumped in as well to assist in whatever what they could. Inkwell raised over $71,000.00 via an auction. Mike Mignola raised over $2,000.00 at a signing. Drawing Strength raised $4,000.00 at the Baltimore Comic-Con. DC Comics offered whatever aid they could give in getting affected retailers up and running again. And that’s just a few select stories spinning out of a tragic event few will ever forget.
The Bill Finger Award: Spearheaded by Jerry Robinson, this award goes to an individual for their lifetime contributions to the art of comic book writing. I can think of no other writer who deserves such an award named after him. Hell, he deserves the award himself! As it was, Jerry Siegel and Arnold Drake were the first recipients of the award.
The death of Will Eisner: The very beginning of 2005 gave us all a kick in the gut. On January 3, Will Eisner passed away at the age of 87. Mr. Eisner was a true pioneer. I could easily go on and on forever about everything he accomplished in his life; about all the lives he touched; about the people who worked in his studio from Jack Kirby to Bob Kane to Jack Cole. However, anything I say has been said already, and by people who know him far better than me. I will say this though: Will Eisner is missed. He’ll always be missed. This world is a lesser place without him producing new work. No one will ever compare to him. Period.
This has been a good year for comic buffs, but for those who enjoy alternatives to mainstream DC and Marvel fare, there was plenty to choose from including my favorite new series from Top Cow/Image Comics Hunter Killer by Mark Waid and Marc Silvestri. Waid’s series about “Ultra-Sapiens” as walking weapons of mass destruction policed by the Hunter Killers is a perfect giant “what if?” story with a paranoid twist which is superbly brought to life by the artistic prowess of Silvestri, whose unique style I have enjoyed since his days on Uncanny X-Men.
Other standouts include the recent events in DC continuity. Like it or not, the mass marketing hype behind Infinite Crisis has lived up to the billing by reintegrating a sense of fun into all the DC books and bringing back rarely seen characters. Though the 80 page Countdown to the Crisis was not well received by all, I could not help but enjoy a book which ultimately launched four mini series: some good, some not as good. Hey, you can’t beat 80 pages for a dollar. Other noteworthy series include: Image’s Kirbyesque Godfall and Marvel’s New X-Men which is capitalizing on M-Day to tell stories of new mutants following the events of House of M. My favorite book this year was DC’s Manhunter which combines Marc Andreyko’s well honed writing skills and clever scripts with compelling visuals by the likes of Javier Pina while following the life of comic Dom’s best new female character: Kate Spencer, an honor she wrestled away from Peter David’s enigmatic “Lee” who starred in Fallen Angel before DC cancelled the book after 19 issues mid-year.
In 2005, I learned to stop worrying and love independent comic books. Publishers like Image, Dark Horse and Viper (among others), and self-published talents like Sean Wang and David Lapham (again, among many others) are producing titles that are superior to every title currently published by Marvel and DC (excluding Wildstorm and Vertigo). Books like Ferro City, Fell, Daisy Kutter: The Last Train, and The Surrogates are well conceived, well executed, and thoroughly engaging. Here are five 2005 books that deserve special mention (in no particular order):
Stray Bullets: Because of David Lapham’s recent DC and Marvel work (Detective Comics, Daredevil vs. Punisher) one expects his on-going title (now starting its 11th year) to be reduced from a Quarterly to an Annual, but just as I get fed up with the infrequent release schedule, Lapham delivers an issue like #39, an ingenious homage to Akira Kurosawa Samurai films. Starring Virginia Applejack’s fictional persona, Amy Racecar, Stray Bullets #39 invokes Seven Samurai, Red Beard, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood and Rashomon. It’s brilliantly hysterical! A must read for any Kurosawa fan, and the issue fits perfectly within the Stray Bullets story arc, as Amy Racecar interlude issues are surreal distortions of the goings on of the current arc. Now I only have to wait two more months to learn how the escaped Virginia will turn the tables on her high school classmate nemeses. The payoffs Lapham delivers always redeem the publication delays.
Samurai: Heaven and Earth: this Ron Marz penned Dark Horse five issue mini-series begins in Japan, moves on to China, and ends up in early 18th century Three Muskateers France. And despite this global stage and the convoluted machinations of the various characters surrounding the protagonist, Samurai is a simple love story, presenting one man’s determination to reunite with the woman he loves. Luke Ross (current artist of DC Comics’ Jonah Hex) provides some of the most stunning artwork of 2005. 18th century objects, costumes and architecture are beautifully reproduced here, effectively transporting the reader back 300 years. And Asukai Shiro, the story’s hero, is a burnished pillar of nobility, skill and resolve.
Runners: every issue of the “Bad Goods” story arc put a wide smile on my face, not just because of the organic witty banter between the characters, not just because of the genuinely exhilarating perilous situations, not just because of the endearing alien characters (Roka Nostaco is my favorite), but also because of the enthrallingly complex “universe” writer/artist Sean Wang creates here. In Runners a group of smugglers are hired to transport cargo which may include a beautiful blue-skinned girl found unconscious on the docking bay floor of the rendevouz ship. After firearms melee, mysterious encounters with old comrades, starfighter combat, and one hairy escape, we’re left understanding that something far more nefarious might be going on here. Runners will satisfy anyone who enjoys sci-fi adventure.
Children of the Grave: very soon, everyone is going to be familiar with the names Tom Waltz and Casey Maloney. These are two talented hard-working rising stars. COTG compellingly fuses the war and horror genres with a story about a squad of American G.I.s sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue genocidal Middle-Eastern Colonel. Along the way, the ghosts of the Colonel’s victims confront the G.I.s. Waltz, an ex-Marine who served in combat during Desert Storm, is one of the few comc book writers who brings authenticity to military maneuvers and dialogue. It’s obvious that he knows the military matters about which he writes (I’ll assume the ghost matters are products of his imagination). Artist Maloney has no weakness. His clean style presents facial expressions and action sequences equally vividly (and he’s disturbingly effective at showing someone’s brains getting blown out of his head). I can’t wait to see what this pair of creators produces next; it’s sure to be entertaining and unique.
Thor: Blood Oath: Yes, yes, yes, I realize this is a mini-series by Marvel Comics, hardly an “independent” publisher. However, Blood Oath deserves special mention because of the tightly executed, thrilling adventure conceived by the Michael Avon Oeming as presented with majestic artwork by Scott Kolins. Thor and the Warriors Three (Hogun, Fandral and Volstagg) have to retrieve five magical items from various mythologies (Norse, Greek, Celtic, Japanese, Egyptian) to order to absolve themselves of a transgression against the Giants. This has been a wonderful book from start to finish, particularly the battle between Hercules and Thor.
2005, for me, was a year of both disappointment and discovery, as a US mainstream mainly characterised by a decline in quality and innovation and an increase in greed forced me to do what I should have done long ago: look elsewhere for some quality comics entertainment. If these picks seem half-hearted, or aren’t new to 2005 or whatever, then that’s why. So, in no particular order…
Peng! by Corey Lewis (Oni Press): Neither Peng! nor Sharknife are as good as the ridiculous level of hype around them might suggest, although they are undeniably impressive works from such a young creator. The reason why Peng! (the better of the two, in my opinion) makes it onto my list is because I think that, while these works aren’t quite as good as they could be, Lewis is a major discovery, and one to watch in 2006 and beyond. I look forward to next year’s Rival Schools comic, and I hope that Lewis develops more depth to his writing in the future, while retaining his wonderful visual storytelling style.
Sillage/Wake by Jean David Morvan and Philippe Buchet (NBM in the US): This isn’t new to 2005 (although a new volume came out in September), but I discovered this fun series of French graphic novels (known as Sillage in France) this year while randomly wandering the intersuperwebway. There’s a slightly odd feel to the books due to an imperfect translation, but they’re filled with interesting characters and relationships, superb art, and a fun space opera type setting. The titular Wake is a vast collection of spaceships that form a sort of travelling government, on a never ending circular trip visiting its various colony worlds. The series mainly concerns Navee, a young girl who is one of the special operatives Wake sends to investigate worlds and solve problems, and who may also be the last human alive. Great stuff, of which my favourite is the fourth/fifth (NBM are packing two of the French books together for each English release) volume, Sign of the Demons. In a move which shows exactly what kind of Ideas they’re a House of, Marvel have hired Morvan and Bucher to produce a title featuring… Wolverine.
Young Avengers & Marvel Team-Up by various talented individuals (Marvel): One of these is an Avengers spin-off and the other looks and reads like an Avengers comic, only without the “A” word on the cover. Both are infinitely superior to the limp revamp of the core Avengers title. While the Bendisites masturbate themselves into a frenzy at a year’s worth of non-stories in which sod all happened apart from the Avengers being replaced by the cast of Friends, these two comics featured the fun character dynamics and good old-fashioned superhero action that at one time defined Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. When the Avengers have trouble with the Wrecker and get intimidated by the Silver Samurai, but their teen sidekicks can see off Kang and the Super-Skrull, you know something is awry.
Klarion The Witchboy by Grant Morrison and Frazer Irving (DC): I Don’t Do DC, so it’s a great surprise to me that one of my favourite comics of the year came from a company I normally equate with the kind of stuffy superheroes your Gran would like. Klarion was a delicious inversion of the fairy tale, as a creature of darkness and magic goes on a voyage of discovery into our world (or at least the DC version), and finding it full of danger and horror, heads back home. This chapter of Morrison’s grand Seven Soldiers event stood out due to its quirky magical feel and simply stunning art from Frazer Irving, who should be a much bigger star than he is. Oh, and the final issue featured an army of Solomon Grundies, which is pure comics gold.
“Don‘t Mess With Me, Lady. I’ve Been Drinking With Skeletons: My final pick is not a comic or graphic novel, but a single line of dialogue that still makes me laugh like a deranged badger. Hellboy: the Island was a bit of a mess narratively, and wasn’t really the kind of thing many fans were looking for after the character’s fairly long absence, but it did feature my favourite bit of comics dialogue of 2005.
What I enjoy about comics (the reason I’m not a trade paperback guy) is getting that perfect hit that comes from a satisfying self-contained reading experience. Even in a serial format, there’s a way to serve up everything you read that comic for in one issue. There’s a high that comes from 15 or 20 minutes spent with a complete story, where the theme told by consistently stylized pictures matched to well-chosen words shows a driving feeling of connection and intent on the page. Rather than a novel or even a short story, a singular comic can be like a poem, an elegant distillation of effects. By the time you fold the last page over, you know the artists have delivered fully on their brilliant idea.
With that in mind, here are five comics that gave me that high in 2005:
Ultimates 2 #5: This is the epic issue where (a possibly delusional, due to Millar’s deft writing we STILL don’t know for sure) Thor is defeated by his teammates, after being seen as a radical (read: liberal) threat by Fury and Captain America. Bryan Hitch stages a moody, lightning-flashed storm setting for what amounts to the murder of a god.
Seven Soldiers #0: The one multi-part crossover that didn’t seem contrived in 2005, Grant Morrison has come up with an ingenuous way to rifle through DC’s continuity and build rather than destroy while he goes. Not every issue and not every Soldier in the project has been equal, but this inaugural story had gorgeous art by J.H. Williams II, and a message about heroism and sacrifice that was tragic and continues to unfold in the other books.
Pulse #8: Brian Bendis disappointed me repeatedly in 2005, living down to his post-Alias mistakes from 2004 in every way. Every way but one, when he finally in his incoherent “Secret War” arc found time to show what makes his fresh look at Marvel special. Hydra here is articulate and persuasive and biting and seemingly rational in its scathing critique of its enemies, and all it gets for its efforts is a huge “up yours” from Jessica Jones where it counts the most.
Ultimate X-Men #59: This was the first part of the “Shock and Awe” arc, where Ultimate Storm needs Wolverine to help her cope with Ultimate Lady Deathstrike. Immonen’s re-visioning of Ororo as T-Boz from TLC is a brilliant update (a vibe that the new Daughters of the Dragon series seems to be picking up on as well), and this was just the best example of Brian Vaughan’s consistently entertaining work on this title.
JLA: Classified #7: “Hell Freezes Over.” This is the Brokeback Mountain of comic books, ironic since it’s in a Giffen and DeMatteis humor comic. Green Lantern and Fire, having found themselves in Hell through Beetle’s bumbling, unite in trying to rescue their beloved Ice from unjust fate. Their anguish over her Eurydice-like status is palpable. It’s the most human moment Guy Gardner’s ever had.
Honorable mention: My favorite mini-series of the year was the Englehart and Rogers Batman: Dark Detective story, where they recaptured lightning in a bottle as if two decades hadn’t gone by.
Freshmen: From the minds of Hugh Sterbakov and Seth Green, a very funny and unexpectedly honest portrayal of the first year of college, as experienced by a group of freshmen who unexpectedly gain superpowers.
Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle: All of the Seven Soldiers series have been fantastic, but Mister Miracle best embodies what I look for in a Grant Morrison comic. Escape artist Shilo Norman emerges from a performance within a black hole, and his entire world shifts. Now sorting through a complex and shifting reality, Shilo must learn how to fight inhuman forces that are either plotting to destroy him at every turn… Or else it’s all in his mind.
Ronin Studios: I went to the Ronin booth at Wizard World: Chicago looking for their benefit comic Hope, which raised money for tsunami victims in Asia. I ended up buying a grip of other stuff, including the excellent dream anthology, Somnia. Watch for Hope: New Orleans in the early part of 2006, which includes my first published comic book work and, more importantly, benefits victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Ex Machina: Yes, this series started over a year ago. But everyone needs to be reading it. Everyone.
Francine and Katchoo’s reunion: Fans of Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise have been waiting for this— waiting!—for what seems like ages. Whatever else was going on, Strangers just seemed a bit sad with Francine and Katchoo separated by a bitter falling-out. In December’s issue #78, though, David and Casey (now a couple, or at least coupling) lock the estranged friends in a recording studio, refusing to release the girls until they make up. After hours of silence, they do, and turn the tables on their captors. Terry Moore has promised the final year and a half of SiP will be something to watch.
Look for Part 2 Tomorrow!