Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best comics of 2016

Another rare update that proves that I have not given up on the blog and comics themselves, despite the lack of activity here. I have changed some of the categories to better express the things in comics that I actually enjoyed reading this year. The entries are provided with general commentary regarding the makeup of the specific parts of the industry they are born of.

Best Writer - Nick Spencer

The year started by my getting better acquainted with Nick Spencer's work, which I rediscovered spurred by Marvel's promotion around his stint on "Captain America". The lackluster "Standoff" event notwithstanding, his stylish and meticulous work has finally managed to marry the potential shown in "The Superior Foes of Spider-Man" with some of the company's longest running characters resulting in controversial stories read by the largest audience he has enjoyed to date.

Despite his "Ant Man" run fizzling out before reaching its full potential, the maniacal glee of his early work can still be encountered unfiltered in "The Fix", an even more organic follow up to his and Steve Lieber's celebrated collaboration.
Best Artist - John Romita Jr.

With the bulk of the promotion of DC's newest makeover going to other titles, the "All Star Batman" book has still managed to carve a large place for itself. Primarily designed to feature the former hit "Batman" scribe Scott Snyder's exploration of the Dark Knight's villains, the comic has debuted as a fun high octane book that balances the gritty themes with colorful action.

The primary reason for the title's warm welcome has had to do with the strong storytelling brought on by penciler John Romita jr. The veteran artist approached the title with a highly accomplished sense of craftsmanship, honed by decades working on Marvel's top superheroes. In doing so, he has managed to temper some of the writer's overpowering literary tendencies into a very visual story that keeps the reader on the lookout for the next well realized action set piece.

Best Ongoing Title - Injection

When it comes to highly publicized Image titles, Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey's "Injection" is the first one that comes to mind that hasn't been hurt either by delays or the general lack of direction that has plagued much of their line. The writer's other ongoing series "Trees" has been the victim of many of the problems suffered by the publisher's hit titles after their initial wave of excitement had worn off.

Having completed its second storyline, "Injection" remains every bit as sharp and enigmatic. Wisely choosing to focus on a single member of the scientific team that introduced the titular Injection to the larger world, the writer brandishes his modern day Sherlock Holmes with his typical kinky flourishes. Shalvey on the other hand continues to live up to his reputation as a powerhouse new creator, with a sharp line that is both expressive and wonderfully conductive to partner Jordan Bellaire's wonderful coloring.

Hopefully, the series will continue with a strong sense of its own identity, providing both creators the chance to play in their world while finding interesting ways to bring the innovative science fictional concepts to their eager audience.

Best Mini-Series - Vision

Initially designed as an ongoing series, "Vision" was forced to confirm to the maxi-series model once it's star writer had signed an exclusive agreement with DC comics. Still, it can be said that this approach forced the story Tom King was telling with Gabriel Hernandez Walta into a more compact yet still powerful parable.

The genre of robot science fiction still remains popular thanks to "Westworld" tv-series and the upcoming "Blade Runner" sequel, but where this series differed was in the way it managed to blend the idiosyncrasies of "American Beauty" with a story of a Marvel mainstay that has long since lost his appeal as an edgy new superhero character.

Introduced as a tragedy with a wide scope of destruction in Washington DC, the eventual series has notably endured a somewhat paired down conclusion, that has still managed to bring its plot to a memorable close. Marvel would do well not to shy away from commissioning critically acclaimed work along these lines, titles that will stand the test of time and live on past the continual renumberings and shifts in the house style.

Best Collected Edition - Last Look

Having encountered only the first part of Charles Burns' latest trilogy when it was released, I have delayed returning to it well past the the series conclusion. With the publicized debut of the long awaited collected edition, I have finally returned to the accomplished storyteller's latest opus and given it another try.

Read as a three-part story, "Last Look" functions on multiple levels along the lines of a David Lynch movie, with a surreal parallel running next to the relatively mundane plot involving a teenage romance gone wrong. Some of the phantasmagorical images fuel the the nightmarish feeling of love lost, but most of the time the book works just as well when it deals directly with the wasted potential of it's protagonist.

Burns' full color work in "Last Look", styled in homage to an Herge album works in an experimental way that shows the complex makeup of his character's tortured psyche. By utilizing all of his talent to bend the form to suit his story, the veteran writer/artist proves still capable of producing work of the highest caliber.

Best Reprint - Blue Monday

When Image decided to reissue Chynna Clugston Flores's signature series, an interview with the writer/artist lead me to try some of her most famous work produced at various times during the last 10-15 years. Debuting as an Oni series predating "Scott Pilgrim", "Blue Monday" has unfortunately since been largely overshadowed by Bryan Lee O'Malley's popular series covering some of the similar thematic ground.

Yet, despite Flores' series starting out as a largely manga-inspired work, it slowly morphs into a look that shares almost as much with the "Archie" titles. Covering a similar high school themed territory, her stories start as very dense with a manic fanzine-like energy, which gradually becoming better paced.

Gone is the all too familiar angst typical of the self-published autobiographical titles. In the writer/artist's telling, these are young people who despite their dramatic bursts still like one another and interact as a true group of peers.

With the long teased follow-up to these initial stories officially scheduled to debut the next year, the readers will finally be able to see what these characters have been up to as well as how their creator sees them from a viewpoint a decade removed from her initial start in the industry.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Huck 1-6

Announced as another in a row of Mark ("Kick-Ass") Millar's movie ready mini-series, "Huck" was marketed as a humane, lighthearted reintepretation of the Superman archetype. Teamed up with Rafael ("American vampire") Albuquerque, the writer was poised to recast the character's origin in a modern day story taking equal inspiration from Jerry Siegel and "Forrest Gump".

The result is a nicely paced, assured work of slight ambition, working in broad strokes that ultimately ends up updating even some of the jingoistic detritus carried over from the Silver Age.

In Albuquerque's angular style, Huck himself is presented more as an overgrown child than a mildly retarded young man with a heart of gold. His desire to do good forges close ties between the giant and his small and accepting community, draped in homely blues and browns. The story starts when the nostalgic town gets threatened by the outside forces and the secret of it's superhuman benefactor's existence becomes known worldwide.

The higher profile brings Huck into direct contact with the rest of the planet, as well as the people that know a lot more about his origins. The character's innate goodness and naivety are never brought into question or challenged, as the story refocuses on people trying to manipulate him for their own ends.

The drama ultimately boilds down to a pulp plot involving inhumane experiments in a secret Russian military base. As presented, the science city is an inverse of Huck's hometown, drawing directly from the Cold War paranoia, complete with the one-dimensional scientist who could not look more evil if he tried.

The creators' heavy handed approach is foreshadowed in an early sequence where Huck quickly deals away with a terrorist threat. Yet in this day and age, such portrayals can only be seen as offending.

"Forrest Gump" showed a much more nuanced and humane vision of the Vietnam conflict, and what Millar and Albuqerque present here can only be seen as reductive. Devolving serious political issues to a black and white presentation was a staple of Silver Age comicbooks, but even these were eventually called into question and largely dismissed as cheap propaganda.

Contrasting the altruistic strongman with the morally bankrupt evil genius ultimately resolves into a feel good ending that reinforces traditional American values and brings the story full circle. As told by two veteran comicmakers, the story is well told, if unmemorable. In many ways, it brings to mind "Red Son", the writer's official Superman story. The acclaimed mini-series was both more ambitious and presented a much more balanced view of the Soviet Union.

Where his early work cemented his reputation as a creator to watch, his newest effort will hardly do much to challenge his current role as the ideas man that Hollywood listens to. "Huck" succeeds in what little it tries to accomplish, but while attempting to create emotional resonance it drags the reader into a retro fantasy that can only be considered as problematic in the complex world we love in today.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Best comics in 2015

The last year I spent largely away from the blog and the wider blogosphere, mostly concentrated on reading the actual comics and news sites. In an effort to maintain the blog, I've returned with a review and this yearly survey. Hopefully, the site will continue with more regular updates.

Best Event Series

In a feat that surprised all but the biggest fans of Marvel and Jonathan Hickman, the company's 2015 line wide event has managed to live up to the hype. "Secret Wars" supplanted most of the company's titles for the duration of the summer and has in turn managed to produce some fairly interesting books. More importantly, the main series has provided a very strong spine to the entire event. Serving as a coda to the writer's runs on both "Fantastic Four" and "the Avengers", the event series has maintained a strong level of craft throughout. With the exception of the first issue that should have been relegated to a prologue special, both Hickman and Ribić have provided what may well be the best superhero work of their careers. "Secret Wars" will likely remain an event to be remembered far longer than Marvel's typical summer offering and certainly longer than the company wide relaunch that succeeded it.

Best Storyline

It's hard to set aside a single storyline in an industry that is slowly orienting toward complete runs as definite artistic statements on company owned characters. In terms of storylines definitely marketed as something new and largely separate from the preceding issues, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's latest Batman arc comes to mind. "Superheavy" features a complete overhaul of the Batman mythos in an as of yet unprecedented move that has seen commissioner Gordon become a mecha Batman following Bruce Wayne's apparent death in the previous arc.

The ludicrous premise strayed far from the typical Batman storyline, being on the surface more akin to "Robocop" than the Bob Kane/Bill Finger co-creation. Inheriting more than just the Powers corporation from the cyberpunk "Batman Beyond" animated series, "Superheavy" has seen Gordon trying to rise up to the pressure of being a police sanctioned Batman in the city that faces new and terrible threats. That the new crime boss specifically targets Gordon and starts becoming a uniquely weird new creation only adds to the uniqueness of the setup. Also of note is the subplot involving a version of Bruce Wayne which has been increasingly relevant as the story inches towards the inevitable ending.

The end of "Superheavy" is also billed as the finale of Snyder and Cappulo's run on "Batman". Whether the two reunite on "Detective comics" following Capullo's collaboration with Mark Millar, "Superheavy" will likely remain a definite highpoint of their run of the title, following the "Court of owls" arc which stands as their best realized traditional Batman story.

Best Ongoing Title

In a market dominated by a large number of solid ongoing series, 2015 was a year preceding the full scope of the relaunches at both Marvel and DC, with the competing companies likewise more concentrated on branching out with new titles than maintaining the solid pace of existing books. Yet, there are still titles like "the Humans" which has started out with a very clear idea that has logically progressed in the most interesting direction.

Written by Keenan Marshall Keller and drawn by Tom Neely, best known for "Henry and Glenn Forever", "the Humans" is a comic that finds its creators eager to enjoy the atmosphere of true freedom filled with a dangerous mix of sex and death.

Presenting the reader with a motorcycle gang of anthropomorphized apes in a full on late 60-ies period piece certainly seems fresh and entertaining. The counter culture bent is never as realized as in "Easy rider", the controversy is never as pointed as authentic undergrounds, yet this Image entry really believes in its version of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll ape gangs warring with each other.

In a field riddled with high concepts trying their best to capture the attention of readers jaded by a deluge of all kinds of genre fiction, a book with a simple premise and believable characters who manage to be both silly and dangerous feels like a breath of fresh air and certainly ranks with the most solid titles every time it comes out. Hopefully, the creators will find it in their interest to continue working on a series that has yet to find its audience.

Best Mini-Series

When Ed Brubaker and his longtime creative partner Sean Philips were winding down their post-modern noir "Fatale" series, Image issued an announcement heralding their next project. The writer and artist were to be reunited in "the Fade out", a more traditional noir story set in the seedy post-war Hollywood scene.

Featuring a hard drinking writer harboring a secret involving a blacklisted colleague, the series started with the murder of an actress and grew to become a cynical look at the studio system. "The Fade out" draws most of its energy from its protagonist's status as an amateur detective driven to find redemption by solving the mystery.

Foregoing the over the top genre tropes associated with this kind of a detective story, the book maintains an air of style and intelligence, while never letting up the pace. A stellar effort in the duo's distinguished latter day collaborations, "the Fade out" is a triumph of first person narration and well realized modernist comic book storytelling.

Best Single Issue

It's safe to say that "Airboy" was certainly not a book that many fans expected to read once they heard of James Robinson's involvement. A longtime comic scribe best remembered for his "Starman" run, he has since been associated with a string of books that failed to equal the acclaim garnered by his most famous series.

Image marketed "Airboy" as a surreal comedy in the vein of "Fear and loathing in Las Vegas". Once "Airboy"#1 finally debuted, it immediately put a stop to any claim about false advertising.

In many ways, the series was a spiritual successor to "Auteur", in that it involved a frantic look into the creative process. Robinson and Hinkle's story went one step further, by presenting their work as autobiography, as it in some way featured a warped look at the writer's "lost weekend". Greg Hinkle, a relative newcomer to the field had provided a tour de force artistic presentation aimed at maximizing the comedic impact in a way that was both fresh and stylish.

And while the subsequent issues drew ire from the controversy surrounding transsexual representation, their one major flaw was the failure to continue the superb form witnessed in the debut. Seeing the fictionalized versions of Robinson and Hinkle trying to revive the Golden Age hero but getting sidetracked in a self-loathing drug bender ending with a delightful cliffhanger remains a as good a #1 as James Robinson has had in many years. With "Airboy", the venerable writer has earned a new set of eyes regarding his next creative endeavor, while providing the newcomer Hinkle with a high profile debut for his impressive artistic skill.

Best Graphic Novel

Working on the heels of "An age of license", Lucy Knisley has returned with an even more focused travelogue. This time, her efforts go to depict an ocean cruise she took with her elderly grandparents. Dispensing with the diary aesthetic that characterized her previous effort, "Displacement" is divided in chapters summarizing each day on the cruise ship, filled with equal times drama and comedy.

The graphic novel is a challenging read as its real world inspiration leads to a neurotic dash across the details that make for a very memorable vacation. Eventually, the well cartooned pages of "Displacement" build up to a very strong ending that stays with the reader.

The book's greatest quality is that it goes beyond the particulars of the writer/artist's relationship with her grandparents and becomes an artistic look at the process of aging, and the love tying the generations together.

Best Writer

Working in the capacity of a co-writer on "Grayson", Tom King has enjoyed high acclaim which he has aspired to build upon by lending his talents on books at both DC and Marvel. And while "Omega Men" has met with lukewarm sales despite the creative acclaim it accumulated, "the Vision" has grown to symbolize the company's current benchmark for quality storytelling.

The key to King's success lies in his ability to execute ambitious and fresh takes on some of the companies' most well worn characters. Recasting the original Robin as the superspy with conscience has finally enabled the character to grow from his role of the well adjusted junior Batman. The character's stealth takeover of the Batman line as symbolized by his central role in the "Batman and Robin Eternal" weekly series cements the popularity of King's makeover.

On the other hand, "Vision" serves as a finite story with a narration that is both grim and playful. Coupled with Gabriel Hernandez Walta, the writer has set out to tell a morbidly curious tale about the drastic fallout of the robot superhero's decision to start a family. As stylish as it's pretentious, the title has set out to complete its story without the crossover interruptions that have took so much away from the artist's previous run on "Magneto".

It remains to be seen how the industry's focus on King will impact on his work, but judging by the acclaim his first entries in the market have garnered him, the former CIA operative can look forward to a very successful second career as comic book writer.

Best Artist

Oliver Schrauwen was brought forward from relative obscurity thanks to his late 2014 graphic novel debut. Ostensibly adapting his grandfather's colonial adventures, the writer/artist uses the canvas of a lengthy biography as a showcase for his command of comics as a visual language. Working in faux-travelogue mode, "Arsene Schrauwen" allows the author complete control of the narrative, revealing him as a master of the form.

A formalist masterpiece posing as a narrative, Schrauwen's graphic novel delights in challenging and infuriating the readers. Ostensibly a love story and a jungle survival pulp, "Arsene Schrauwen" is delightfully sincere in staying true to itself and its author.

The fact that the writer/artist has decided to stay in comics despite the meager financial rewards associated with experimental books, and has gone on to publish a new comic in 2015 speaks to the fact that he truly enjoys working in the medium.

Project Superpowers: Blackcross #1-6

Long hailed as a genre innovator, Warren Ellis has recently been chosen to spearhead another superhero universe relaunch, this time concerning Dynamite's "Project Superpowers". The Golden Age characters, long since in public domain, have already enjoyed a revival, having been chosen by Diamond for a more conventional return in the previous decade. "Blackcross" comes on the heels of the writer's rejiggering of the "Supreme" mythos and in many ways acts as a companion piece to this earlier effort.

Finding a way to recast an odd assortment of characters in a setting that is decidedly not a major metropolitan city once again leads to a small-town mystery concerning ordinary citizens coming into contact with existing superhero lore. Their subsequent transformation is threatened by a serial killer trying to dispose of the group before they form a rag tag superhero unit.

Tasked with bringing Ellis' scripts to life is Colton Worley, a Dynamite mainstay that has yet to make a name for himself in the broader superhero industry. The relative novice has been fitted with the unenviable task of redesigning the characters placed in a gloomy forest setting, as well as animating a decompressed script that asks a lot of its artist.

Foregoing the captions, Ellis has crafted a fast paced story with frequent wordless action scenes followed by long conversations featuring the bedazzled characters trying to come to grips with a mystery involving a parallel universe and a hidden superhero community. Coupled with colorist Morgan Hickman's earthy crayon colors, the artist mostly succeeds in arriving at a view of Blackcross as a dark and hostile place, brimming with secrets and deep seated aggression. His work is raw and powerful, presenting an atmospheric tone that sometimes comes at the cost of clarity. 

The art certainly fits the story, whose ever expanding cast could have threatened to overwhelm the plot. Ellis wisely presupposes that the reader is unaware about much of anything regarding these old superheroes, past maybe the nicknames and assorted visuals. Instead, he focuses on bringing their weird characteristics to the fore, crafting a horror story more in the vein of Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" than "The Avengers". 

The mystery regarding the transference of superhero personas past the boundaries of space and time is quickly subsumed within the conflict involving the superhero serial killer. In this way, the startled characters are dragged, snarking and bickering, into the fight with the antagonist before really getting to known each other. Their impromptu team-up presents a desperate skirmish where the cast gets to demonstrate the powers hinted at throughout the story.

The focus stays stays firm throughout, with Black Terror and Lady Satana providing a strong core for the series. It's hard to say that the other characters leave much of an impression, having largely been represented by their special abilities. Even then, they are designed realistically with only the barest hint of their original costumes.

If the company chooses to use the mini-series as a new start of their Project Superpowers universe, the hypothetical individual titles will still be tasked with having to provide character development and major world-building. Taken on its own, "Blackcross" is a professional work that tries to provide a compelling origin story for the disparate Golden Age superheroes that have yet to endure a complete overhaul which would enable them to be presentable for a potential TV series adaptation.