Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
It’s always tough, for me at least, to narrow down my favorite comics of the year to just a few stand-outs. But it’s also kind of fun to revisit what came out over the past year, maybe re-read some of them, and figure out what it was about the story or art or whatever that resonated with me when I first read it.
I also thought it might also be a good way to introduce ourselves to any new readers stopping by the new blog, or to re-introduce ourselves to those of you we already know. So without further ado, here are some of our favorites …
Naturally, my list betrays the bias of someone who reads at least 80 percent DC superhero books….
In Teen Titans Year One, writer Amy Wolfram and artists Karl Kerschl (penciller), Serge LaPointe (inker), and Stephane Peru and John Rauch (colorists) produced a playful, entertaining miniseries about the original group of teenage sidekicks. Wolfram, a writer for the Teen Titans cartoon, brought a similar sensibility to her scripts, while paying homage to storylines and elements from the comics of the ’60s and ’70s. Thanks to Kerschl, LaPointe, Peru, and Rauch, the book looked fabulous as well; with issue #5’s Speedy/Wonder Girl date a particular highlight.
After a couple of years, it seems almost obligatory to mention Ed Brubaker’s work on Captain America, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less enjoyable. In 2008, along with artists Steve Epting and Luke Ross, and colorist Frank D’Armata, Brubaker wrapped up the epic “Death of Captain America” storyline, establishing formerly-dead sidekick James B. Barnes as the new Cap and having him head off the Red Skull’s “Manchurian Candidate”-esque takeover of the United States. Although the book continues to have the requisite amount of superhero/super-spy action, its real strength is its characters: Cap, the Falcon, Sharon Carter, the Skull and his villainous crew; and, still hovering over the proceedings, the shadow of their mutual friend Steve Rogers. Fans might still expect Steve to be resurrected one of these days, but Brubaker et al. have shown that the book can succeed without him.
DC’s own espionage-oriented title, Checkmate, was canceled in 2008, some months after the departure of original writer Greg Rucka. However, Rucka, with co-writer Eric Trautmann and artists Joe Bennett and Jack Jadson, went out in style. “Castling” showcased Checkmate’s ultimate battle with the super-terrorists of Kobra, and brought in just about every other DC superhero along the way. Despite the high-profile guests, though, the story belonged squarely to our heroes: spies, diplomats, and the C- and D-list super-characters who had found a home in this title. (“Castling” ran from February through April, with the conclusion of a Mlle. Marie two-parter kicking off the year.) At its best, Checkmate was a blend of Rucka’s street-level work on Gotham Central and his “West Wing”-esque approach to Wonder Woman. The Checkmate-oriented Final Crisis tie-in, Submit (also written by Rucka and Trautmann) was likewise good enough to remind readers what they had been missing.
There’s no elegant segue from superheroes into Bottomless Belly Button, so I won’t try. However, I will say that Dash Shaw’s densely-packed story of one family’s last (?) beach vacation together still manages to work in its own Official Handbook. Maps, charts, and codes inform the world of the Loonys as if they were a group of Avengers. Shaw uses these artifacts, and other sequential-art devices, to great effect. Generally, the Loonys’ adventures are not entirely unpredictable, but Shaw fills his pages with all the information the reader needs. He doesn’t rely on hyper-detailed or over-rendered work, and he manipulates page layouts skillfully. All of these elements come together in a book which looks intimidating and ends up ingratiating.
Finally … yes, we’re back to the super-people; but oh what a fine little title this is. Writer Gail Simone, penciller Nicola Scott, and inker Doug Hazlewood have built upon their successful Birds Of Prey collaboration with Secret Six, a team of misfit super villains who represent the grimy underbelly of DC’s shared universe. Scandal Savage and Rag Doll have parental issues, Deadshot is separated from his wife and child, and Catman (the closest thing the book has to a star) might actually be in love with a superhero. (Bane is the fifth Sixer, for now; and the sixth slot doesn’t seem to stay filled for long.) Currently they’re in the middle of a road trip across the United States, keeping a highly-prized MacGuffin from every other bad guy within striking distance. This is nothing new. Secret Six isn’t about heroism or cool super-powers as much as it is about survival itself; which allows it a certain freedom in how it deals with its characters and their exploits. Although the book has sex, violence and “adult situations,” it all works without being prurient or gratuitous. It doesn’t hurt that Scott, Hazlewood and colorist Jason Wright are all in top form, so the book is very easy on the eyes. This is not necessarily to say that the Sixers make villainy look good — but they sure make reading about it fun.
Two new monthly series caught my attention in 2008. Deadpool came back with a new, fun new solo series. The first story arc was tied into the Secret Invasion crossover, however, reading Secret Invasion was not required. Deadpool single-handedly deals with the Skrull threat in a way that should put the rest of the Marvel Universe to shame. The most refreshing new series that debut in 2008 was Tiny Titans. Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani puts an adorable spin on the teen heroes. It’s kid-friendly but so well done; I’ve shown this series to more friends than any other this year.
Saddest news of 2008 was the demise of DC’s Minx line. Targeted to teen/young adult readers, these books were some of the best comics no one read. Not easily found in most comics shops or chain retail outlets, critics suggest the short-lived imprint died before it had a chance to find its audience. My favourite was Emiko Superstar, by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Rolston. It’s a great coming-of-age story about a self-described geek trapped in babysitting hell, until she breaks out as an underground art star. I sincerely hope the creators from Minx find new homes to continue telling these stories.
Strangeways: Murder Moon
There’s a lot to love about Matt Maxwell’s Strangeways. There’s the easy flow of the story, which takes its time in introducing and developing characters and setting up the werewolf-Western scenario so naturally and believably. There’s the effortless dialogue that sounds so authentic without ever resorting to cliché Western slang. And there’s Luis Guaragña’s impressive use of shadow and remarkable restraint in depicting horror. Guaragña can do detailed work – there are plenty of examples of it in the book – but when it comes time for a werewolf attack or some other violent act, Guaragña goes subtle and lets the imagination do the work. But not before showing you a scary-ass werewolf lurking in the darkness.
Tiki Joe Mysteries
A gripping, atmospheric book. Though Joe figures out his mysteries quickly and learns who his bad guys are, there’s a lot of fast thinking, faster driving, punching, and shooting that goes into defeating them. And the thrills are only half of what makes the book so cool. Murphy also knows how to draw a tiki lounge you’d want to hang out in and the sheer style of his art makes you wistful for swankier times.
Halo and Sprocket, Vol. 2
To borrow adjectives from Phil Hester, Halo and Sprocket is funny, sweet, smart, and – without a single kiss or even so much as a longing glance – romantic. It does all this primarily by being perceptive about humanity. A real joy to read.
Minima! Vol. 1
This was the big surprise for me this year. I haven’t found many manga series that have grabbed me and I certainly never would’ve predicted that the one that did would be about a little girl and her talking teddy meerkat. But Minima! rejects the typical middle-school hijinks in favor of serious themes like celebrity, obsession, and the objectification of people. All while still being really sweet and entertaining.
And I don’t even like Hercules. I’m not surprised that this has been wonderful though. Greg Pak kept me interested in Hulk in Space and Fred Van Lente is awesome enough to be an Alpha Flight and a Shang Chi fan, so it’s really like they’re making this book for me.
Guardians of the Galaxy
I came for Steampunk Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon. I stayed for Gamora, Mantis and Drax; three characters I never cared about before. Hell, even Adam Warlock is cool in this comic. Oh yeah, and there’s a talking dog with a space suit and a Russian accent.
I already listed my favorite books of 2008 over at my other, other blog, but as you’d expect with lists of this nature, stuff always slips through the cracks. No sooner have you pressed the “post” button than you remember five or ten other great books you loved and how could you be so goddamn stupid as to leave that off your list. With that in mind, here is my restitution: five books that, either for reasons of senility or space, didn’t make it onto my best of list but should have.
1) Popeye Vol. 3: Let’s You and Him Fight by E.C. Segar.
I read a lot of great books this past year, but if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t think I enjoyed myself more than while reading (and rereading) this collection of thrilling, warm and downright hilarious strips by one of the all-time masters, E.C. Segar. You don’t just laugh at Popeye because it’s funny (and it is uproariously so, in the tradition of the Marx Brothers and other great 20th century comedians), you laugh at its effortlessness, its inspired wit, the sheer genius of it all. This is a book that within seconds you find yourself passing to the person next to you saying “You have to read this one right here.”
2) Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware
Who knew Ware was so good at horror? Other than Chris Ware himself I mean. I suppose it shouldn’t have been too surprising given Ware’s talent for evoking dread and anxiety. Still, this latest volume of Acme tells one of the most unsettling, creepy and downright frightening tales of 2008, zombies be damned. And if, yes, the second half of the book doesn’t quite match the fevered ecstasy of the “fictional” tale, it nevertheless provides an eloquent counterpoint to the story and underscores just how important and unmatched a talent Ware is.
3) Kramer’s Ergot 7, edited by Sammy Harkham
Let the doubters be silenced. This mammoth slab of an anthology not only justifies its exorbitant price tag and size, it surpasses expectations entirely, creating a wondrous objet d’art that makes you reassess the way you read comics entirely. Kudos to Mssrs. Harkham and Buenaventura for pulling off a stunning achievement that was worthy of every ounce of hype it received.
4) Zot the Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud
See this? This is how you do superhero comics, my friend. You don’t necessarily get rid of the fantastic or the outlandish scenarios and plot devices. You simply populate your magical world with real, down-to-earth characters that, even if they don’t seem like people we actually know, seem like they could be. Is it surprising that McCloud would follow this up with Understanding Comics? No, not really.
5) Ordinary Victories: What Is Precious by Manu Larcenet
Even if we known on some abstract level what direction we’d like our lives to head towards, even if somewhere down the road we can imagine us say, married with children, we very often will find ourselves kicking and screaming on our way there, only to discover that perhaps that wasn’t worth such a fuss after all.
Manu Larcenet understands that feeling completely, and captures it perfectly in the second half of this graphic novel concerning anxiety-stricken photographer Marco. This isn’t some wan, winsome chronicle of a childish adult learning to grow up, however, (though there are elements of that in here). Larcenet is all too well aware of how life and the lives of those around us can drag us down or remove the color from our perceptions. That knowledge makes Victories a richer, smarter book that fully earns the good feelings it engenders by the end.
Fairy Tail, by Hiro Mashima
This is our favorite comics of 2008, not necessarily the best, right? Because I’m under no illusions that Hiro Mashima’s fantasy-adventure-comedy is among the most finely crafted works of the year. However, I can think of no other book I enjoyed as much for its exuberance, break-neck pace and downright silliness as Fairy Tail. I like a haunting horror yarn, a complex thriller, or an engaging slice-of-life story. But sometimes the mood calls for an antic tale about adventure-seeking sorcerers-for-hire, y’know?
Captain America, by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Luke Ross, et al.
This series is epic in the truest sense of the word: Ed Brubaker & Co. have been crafting one long story from the very beginning, some four years ago. (Has it really been that long?) It’s an extended narrative that ignores some of the conventions of the modern monthly comic — the three-act “Death of Captain America” only recently wrapped up after 18 issues — to tell a tense, complex and utterly absorbing story about redemption, ghosts of the past, relationships (both personal and political), duty, the importance of symbols, and the burden of legacy.
High Moon, by David Gallaher and Steve Ellis
One of the standouts of DC Comics’ Zuda online initiative, High Moon has a bit of an advantage with me: I’m a big fan of the Western genre and the werewolf subgenre. So, if someone can combine the two … well, they get my attention. Make no mistake, though; it’s no magic formula. I’m a fickle reader who’ll drop a comic as soon as it stops entertaining. Luckily, David Gallaher and Steve Ellis never falter in that regard: They deliver a story that’s consistently suspenseful, atmospheric and action-packed. And they’re bold, or confident, enough to change protagonists without missing a beat.
One of the advantages of being the one to put together this post is that I get to see what everyone else picked before I finalize my own list. Considering my original list had about 30 or so comics on it, I felt less guilty about cutting titles like Secret Six, Acme Novelty Library #19, Bottomless Belly Button, Captain America and Incredible Hercules because they’ve already been mentioned by the rest of the crew. And since I always have trouble narrowing these sorts of things down, it was nice to have that kind of assistance.
So in no particular order, here are five of my favorite comics of 2008, plus a few honorable mentions that could have easily been on my list as well …
Skyscrapers of the Midwest by Joshua W. Cotter
I didn’t rank my selections, but if I did, I’d probably have this at the top. This hardcover collects the AdHouse mini-series, which itself collected Cotter’s award-winning mini-comics about anthropomorphic cats living in America’s heartland. It’s a dense, somewhat depressing and always captivating look at the terror of adolescence and the power of imagination. I almost feel guilty for liking it as much as I do.
The Sad + Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant-Ears: A Tale from Essex County by Jeff Lemire
The name is almost as long as the book itself, as this is a mini-comic by the creator of the Essex County trilogy and Vertigo’s upcoming The Nobody graphic novel. In 11 pages, Lemire tells the life story of Eddie, a kid who suffers an accident and is only left with four memories. It hits you in the gut, then extends a hand of hope and possibility at the end.
Lemire sold it on his website last summer, along with a second mini-comic, both of which are now sold out. So if you don’t already own it, I guess your only hope of seeing it is if Lemire decides to do another print run or if it’s included in the upcoming collected edition of his Essex County stories (the third volume of which came out this year and was almost included on my list as well).
Update: Thanks to Top Shelf’s Leigh Walton, who points out that Eddie Elephant-Ears and its sister mini-comic, The Essex County Boxing Club, can be found on the Top Shelf 2.0 webcomic site. Both will be included in the Complete Essex County collection as well!
Fables by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, et al.
As far as monthly series go, this was the one I most anticipated reading every month. Probably because they’ve been building to this year since the first issue — the year when we finally saw the big confrontation between the Empire and Fabletown. Both the journey and the destination have been well worth my time and money month in and month out.
New Avengers #47 by Brian Michael Bendis, Billy Tan, Michael Gaydos, et al.
Back before he was creating sprawling superhero event comics, Brian Michael Bendis, along with Michael Gaydos, created what was probably the best comic to come out from Marvel at the time, Alias. This issue reads like a “lost issue” of that series, as in flashback it shares a story about Jessica Jones investigating the whereabouts of Luke Cage’s father, before the two of them were an “item,” got married or had a kid. Quite simply, it’s Bendis doing what he does best – putting the humanity back into superheroes.
Necessary Monsters by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Sean Azzopardi
Goodbrey and Azzopardi’s webcomic features a cast of psychotic anti-heroes working behind the scenes to protect the human race … so they’ll have victims of their own. It’s a mash-up of horror films, super spies and conspiracy theories, and it’s sick, twisted fun. If I felt guilty for enjoying Skyscrapers so much, I’m probably going to need therapy over this one.
I also really liked: Kevin Huizenga ‘s Ganges #2 and Fight or Run #1, The War at Ellsmere, Chumble Spuzz V.2, North World, All Star Superman (#10 especially), Northlanders, Usagi Yojimbo, Proof, Ex Machina, House of Mystery, Daredevil, Umbrella Academy, FreakAngels, Aqua Leung, The Goon, Thor, Salt Water Taffy and the last issue of Y: The Last Man.
Enough folks are tackling the DC and Marvel universe in this list that I’m not going to bother adding to the chorus on this for the most part. Instead I will focus on independent publishers .. for the most part.
This may be considered cheating, but I reserve the right to add to my list in the comments section. I know I have forgotten some great talent in 2008 and I hope my fellow Robot Sixers fill the myriad gaps that I have in my list–in fact I know they will. The great thing about these kind of topics is, no writer can consider every work and I’m willing to bet our fine readers will point out anything we may have missed.