Saturday, March 7, 2015

Best of comics in 2014

Due to some other commitments, I have been unable to properly focus on the blog for the past two years. Hence the lack of posting, which also lead to me skipping this feature last year. I have tried to keep up with the reading which shapes the following, using the categories for my previous list.

Best Event Series

With both Secret Wars and Converge looming over their respective superhero universes, their 2014 event series already feel distant and fading into insignificance. This is particularly true when it comes to Marvel, who have managed to produce back to back two large event stories, the latter of which has by all means under-performed. Yet, despite its many faults, "Original Sin" felt like the better structured of the two.

Billed as a murder mystery pairing unlikely groups of heroes investigating the death of the Watcher, the series quickly dissolved into a prolonged treatise meant to excise Nick Fury from the Marvel universe in spite of his movie-like namesake. Jason Aaron has nevertheless found a way to make it reasonably entertaining, along with setting up a series of interesting tie-in stories in the company's superhero titles, based around a theme of secrets uncovered.

Mike Deodato Jr., on the other hand, used the series as a platform to experiment with interesting layouts, all while providing a solid foundation for the events taking place. Whether it was dealing with a large cast of Marvel's heroes or obscure Grant Morrison creations, the penciller never wavered and has produced a body of work that has brought him back to favor with readers who have since dismissed him as a solid house style professional. The company has seen its share of better executed events, but there have also been so many lackluster ones that a solid, if not unspectacular series certainly deserves to be praised.

Best Weekly Series

DC's increased focus on weekly series has made it logical to spotlight one of the company's efforts in that vein. Compared to "New 52: Future's End" and "Earth 2: World's End", "Batman Eternal" seemed the most logical choice. Spotlighting a rich corner of DC's line and exploiting it to the fullest makes the weekly stand out from its continuity heavy contenders.

Choosing just the right mysteries to spotlight and utilizing the Bat-Family to its fullest, the creative team has managed to maintain suspension for the entirety of the series. And while utilizing dozens of pencillers was always going to make for some jarring issues, the editorial has maintained a strong grip on the story department, effectively transforming the weekly to a main Batman title.

While the core "Batman" series has spent much of the year detailing the hero's new origin, "Batman Eternal" has used the central mystery of a multipronged attack on Gotham and Batman himself to introduce new characters into this corner of the DC universe, setting up the remainder of the line for the future. It remains to be seen if the editorial will be able to make the follow-up as exciting as this major entry in their line.

Best Storyline

Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples' "Saga" has spent most of 2014 trying to live up to the challenge set up by bringing the series into its second larger chapter. Following the conclusion of the introductory storyline contained in the first 18 issues (since collected in the hardcover), the creators have advanced the timeline to start again with a much slower paced affair.

The fourth volume of Saga mainly concerned itself with the growing strife between Marko and Alana as the relative calm has threatened to bring the new parents apart by introducing large challenges to their marriage. The added focus on the protagonists has meant the lack of space for many of the book's interesting supporting characters, at least until Dengo of the Robot Kingdom arrives to spin the series in a new orbit.

Fiona Staples' art remains the center that holds the colorful elements together, as her character designs and strong characterization continue to define "Saga". The creative team's decision to interrupt the publication between storylines to give the artist time to complete the digital artwork on her own schedule has prevented the title from digressions and one-offs and has since become a model that many of Images' series have tried to emulate.

Best Ongoing Title

Matt ("Hawkeye") Fraction and Chip ("Howard the Duck") Zdarsky's "Sex Criminals" has debuted in late 2013 and has since produced two storylines worth of character based comics, concerned with the topics of relationships and sexuality. Both Suzie and John are made into compelling multifaceted characters by the creative team that has managed to find a way to keep a test heavy comic well paced and informative.

Keeping the focus on indie flavored storytelling and away from the high concept premise of sexual superpowers, Fraction and Zdarsky have built an online community around the series, which speaks to the honesty of their work. Despite Zdarsky using models for his characters, the series seems vibrant and playful and open to explore such difficult questions as depression and anxiety, all the while portraying the couple as adults in a real relationship.

It remains to be seen if the genre trappings and the growing mythology will take the series away from its strengths, but as of now, it presents a completely accessible comic book title ready to be embraced by a wide audience.

Best Mini-Series

"Auteuer" was a high energy postmodern romp that presented a surreal look into a Holywood producer's nervous breakdown. Rick ("Black Metal") Spears writes a delightfully offensive series of events designed to keep the reader interested in the protagonist as he tries his best to restore his reputation and produce a horror movie in line with his aspirations. James Callahan produces highly original psychedelic artwork filled to the brim with homages and excellent cartooning.

What starts out as a gonzo comedy ends up turning into an over the top love story, with the promise of more to come. Judging by the quality of this debut mini-series, Spears and Callahan are welcome to continue to work with Oni press on any and all follow ups.

Best Webcomic

2014 was a year that Simon Hanselmann's "Megg, Mogg and the Owl" strip has found a home on the Vice website. The stoner comedy has been brought to a wider attention with last year's Fantagraphics edition of "Megahex" and for most of the fans, the weekly installments have been a way to continue following the characters.

The webstrip started with sketches and one offs before embarking on a longer narrative, involving the witch Megg and her cat Mogg flying off to Amsterdam. Following an encounter with the insatiable Werewolf Jones, their roommate the Owl follows suite and joins them in Netherlands. So far, this is not Hanselmann's best work, but the strips are uniformly well paced and diverting, allowing the reader to stay with the writer/artist as he prepares to work on "Megg's coven", the long form follow up to "Megahex".

Best Single Issue

2014 was also the year that finally debuted Grant Morrison's long awaited "Multiversity" project, consisting of a series of specials illustrated by different artists and bookended by oneshots featuring the current threat to the multiverse. And while a strange sense of nostalgia has found its way through most of the project, the "Pax Americana" special has remained a definite highlight.

Announced almost as soon as the end of "Final Crisis", the project has promised a Morrison/Quitely collaboration. The creative team bring the best out of each other, as evidenced repeatably through projects like "New X-Men" and "All-Star Superman" and their decision to produce a tribute to landmark "Watchmen" seemed like an interesting goal to aspire to.

Grant Morrison has maintained a controversial relationship with Alan Moore, the writer who has inspired his earlier works. It's interesting then to note that his take on Moore and Gibbons' classic is a success by all merits. In "Pax Americana", the creators produce a very ambitious work that boils down "Watchmen" and updates them to comment upon the new political realities and superhero stylings. Quitely patiently brings to life complicated layouts and character designs echoing both "Watchmen" and the Charlton superheroes that inspire them, making for what is without doubt the genre highpoint in 2014, a dense story that merits rereading and serious consideration.

Best Graphic Novel

For the five years, Farel ("Omega the Unknown") Dalrymple has been working on a strange story involving gangs of kid superheroes facing an apocalyptic dystopia. With a highly personal style, the writer/artist turns his first mainstream success into a teenage version of "Invisibles".

The story is told in several different time zones, featuring a large cast of characters and utilizing both science and magic to make sense of the many twists and turns. Yet, where Grant Morrison stepped away from giving concrete answers, Dalrymple is adamant to provide the readers with everything they need to understand the strange journey his characters take.

It would be easy to dismiss the book as well designed and masterfully rendered genre exercise, but the writer/artist injects so much of his own hopes and fears, that "The Wrenchies" becomes a truly singular experience. It's easy to spot a number of flaws inside such a sprawling story, but none of them keep it from being less than a sum of its parts. The graphic novel deserves all the accolades it is getting and hopefully it will find a way to a large audience prepared to fall under its spell.

Best Writer

2014 was also a year where Charles Soule begun working in earnest for Marvel. The prolific scribe has written the "Death of Wolverine" event for the company and has continued to be involved with its followup weekly series, but it was his work on "She-Hulk" that did the most to endear him to fans.

As a practicing lawyer, Soule 's job was to marry his own legal experience with a take on She-Hulk most recently seen in Dan Slott's run. Debuting as one of the books inspired by the success of "Hawkeye", "She-Hulk" paired Soule with Javier Pullido who has even worked as a replacement artist on the Fraction and Aja's quirky hit.

And while the creative team never managed to secure similar attention, they nevertheless produced a strong book. Compared to Soule's work on "Inhuman", She-Hulk never had the same editorial attention but it also provided for a much more authentic reading experience.

For those who have kept up with the book, it was apparent that the creative team had a high command of the form and approached it as a true labor of love. Pullido was adept in bringing the most out of the wordy dialogues and brought a definite retro flavor to the proceedings. The readers can only hope that Marvel will be able to re-team the two, or at least to try to pair him with another artists with such fluid layouts and a strong sense of character design, which bring out the best in his scripts.

Best Artist

A longtime webcomic author, Emily Carrol has collected some of her previous work, which was paired with new stories and published last year as "Through the woods". Working in Edgar Allan Poe, the writer/artist presents her dark fairy tales with minimal dialogue, perfectly integrating the prose captions into artwork that is fully realized in blacks, blues, browns and reds.

And while all of the stories present capable examples of strong storytelling, "A Lady's hands are cold" stands out as particularly effective. The reworking of the tale of Bluebeard is a very strong piece of comics, working assuredly to its grisly end by utilizing a series of techniques that could easily have confounded a lesser artist.

The inventive compositions, coupled with repetitive poetic narration are by no means relegated just to this story. The book opens with "Our neighbor's house", a chilling gothic fairy tale, while "His face all red" works with same potency even when reformatted from its original webcomics format. The two longer pieces that make up the latter part of the book feel slightly less accomplished, with "The nesting place" particularly seeming overlong and unnecessarily cruel. Yet, it's hard to complain about a short story collection that is concludes with an epilogue as strong as Carroll's.

Seeing the writer/artist's take on Red riding hood work so splendidly in such a short space alloted for it, serves as one final reminder of Carroll's superior command of the comics form and bodes well for her career in her chosen field, as well as the readers who can expect much from her in the years ahead.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Men of wrath #1-5

2014 saw the debut of long-time Marvel exclusive creator Jason ("Scalped", "Wolverine and the X-Men") Aaron's first creator owned project. Released by the publisher's Icon imprint, reserved for the rare few talents that have previously produced a large body of work for the company, "Men of Wrath" reunites the writer with his frequent collaborator, artist Ron ("Captain America") Garney. The mini-series is the veteran artist's first creator owned project, while Aaron is concurrently publishing "Southern bastards" for Image.

"Men of wrath" is reportedly the first project the writer has begun following his long run on Vertigo's "Scalped", drawing somewhat on his own family history. A murder at the dawn of the 20th century introduces a bloody and pessimistic generational saga of a family of killers. The readers are introduced to Ira Rath as he dispatches his latest targets in a way that makes it challenging to sympathize with him. Yet, by beginning each issue with a flashback to a member of the family, the writer nevertheless tries to inform the reader of the events that have lead to the creation of the seemingly unrepentant murderer. The plot involves the terminally ill man deciding to take one last job - a hit on his own estranged son.

In many ways, this is not the book the readers could have expected from Jason Aaron. The writer has presented a much more nuanced way in his neo-noir offerings and even his escapades into mainstream superheroes have been over the top in their grindhouse influences. "Men of wrath" hues much closer to the excess of Frank Miller's "Sin City", cutting a large swathe of blood all over its five short issues.

Most interestingly, the reader is denied the filter that usually accompanies stories starring anti heroes. In Aaron and Garney's hands, the violence is not in the least sanitized, nor is it restrained to the typical dramatic moments. Both the protagonist and the antagonists are quick to eliminate anyone who inconveniences them, even when it comes to police officers and the clergy. Human lives are very cheap on these pages, but the book still retains something of a moral center in the form of Ira's son.

At first, Ruben seems like a small time criminal, but his care for his pregnant wife quickly provides the impetus for the central conflict. Contrasting with his father's towering physique, the young Rath is depicted in regular clothes, sweaty and always on the run. Unfortunately, their final confrontation is one of the book's weaker scenes, even as it covers the necessary narrative beats.

Despite this, the book maintains a frantic pacing and succeeds in most of the longer set pieces, providing several interesting twists and turns and ultimately manages to wring a modicum of sympathy for its lead character. Garney's layouts are always clear and staged well, yet the second part of a story adds to the rushed feeling of the proceedings. The pages gain a more kinetic tone, but when read together, they provide a noticeable shift, no doubt due to the scheduling limitations.

The final issue calls back to Frank Miller once again in featuring several black pages punctuated only by narrative captions. In many ways, "Men of wrath" seems an outlier in the current comic book landscape, harkening back to a style that has never left action cinema.

Taken as a whole, the book is a thematically sound, yet very aggressive work that sternly pushes the reader through a hideously bleak moral landscape before making its point. While not wholly successful, it is still an interesting mini-series that provides a different sort of story contrasted to its creators usual offerings. It may lack the style of "Sin city", yet it is likely that the readers would enjoy what it has to say about family and the manner in which it is told more than some of Miller's latter works in the series.