Highlights of 2008

Dec-17-08

The last few days have been fun, as Jason and I peered into our crystal balls to look at what 2009 might hold. However, it’s possible that those thoughts may have seemed a tad cynical to some; I’ll go so far as to say that some may have called them snarky. It may seem to some readers that Jason and I look on the comics industry with disdain, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Well, ok, many things could be farther from the truth, but we’re not totally jaded. Along those lines, I wanted to look at some of the highlights of the previous year.

This is not a best of list. I simply don’t read the breadth of comics that I would need to read to compile a list like that. No, this is a list of what happened in 2008 that gives me hope for the future. I’ll also touch on those things that make me think that 2009 may not be such a bad year for comics after all.

A new Scott Pilgrim book announced for 2009. Jason and I have touted Scott Pilgrim quite a few times, but there’s a reason that this gives me hope. It has long been established that the only financially successful model for comics to follow is to publish monthly pamphlets (or floppies or whatever you want to call the comics that we all know so well) and then to collect those previously published floppies into trade paperbacks some months after their initial printing. There have been some original graphic novels, but generally those are only created by big name creators, those who already have a built in following.

Scott Pilgrim refuses to follow this model. Like the titular hero of the book, this creation comes to us in small graphic novels, each completely original. The writer/artist, Bryan Lee O’Malley, is not a well known creator with a built in following. Yet he’s publishing Scott Pilgrim in a way which I feel shows that there are other options beyond what Marvel and DC believe comics can be published. He’s not the only one who’s exploring alternate ways of publishing comics, but he’s one of the most successful and he gives me hope for the medium.

Jeff Smith’s career. Jeff Smith is the writer and artist who created the absolutely charming and exciting Bone comic, which he self-published. That comic ended in 2004, at which time Smith began working on the equally amazing and endearing Shazam: Monster Society of Evil, a four issue limited series which made the best use of DC’s Captain Marvel that I’d read in decades. Once that miniseries was over, Smith went back to creator owned work, publishing RASL, a series about a dimension-jumping art thief. So why does his career fill me with such hope?

I believe that corporate comics have a place, and can be quite enjoyable, but I also believe that they can drain the creative fire from a creator. I’ve seen creators who I greatly admire go to work for DC and Marvel, only to find the originality, humanity and that special unique voice they had disappear within that culture (<cough> Winick <cough>). Jeff Smith proved that you can do those corporate comics and not lose your voice. He’s also shown that he can succeed in multiple genres, as RASL has proven to be just as intriguing as Bone, albeit not as dependent on adorable animals and stars. I’d love to see more creators take those lessons to heart.

Captain America. She-Hulk. X-Factor. Manhunter. I’m not a big fan of where the Marvel or DC Universes are going these days. I find that both companies seem to favor brainless, unending crossovers, where perhaps a few good ideas lay buried, instead of simply publishing good books. That being said, the titles I mention above are all excellent comics, and they prove that even when you’re writing a comic set in a universe that has taken a turn for the worse, you can still write an entertaining story. Sadly, two of these four comics have been cancelled, but I have no doubt that they will be replaced by other entertaining books that shall dance on the periphery of the major superhero universes, reminding us that some people truly can make lemonade from even the tartest of lemons. They give me hope that, even if I don’t like the direction of Marvel and DC, they will always publish some comics I enjoy without reservation.

Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison: These men have written some of the most mainstream comics on the stands today, and can be considered some of the movers and shakers of their respective universes. Not all of their comics are ones that I love, but more often than not, they have written books that continue to push at the edges of the comic’s medium, taking old, overused cliches of the business and making them work. Along the way, they’ve managed to create some comics which truly show that superheroes can be fun to read, they can be interesting, and they can be used to explore some important themes. I look forward to seeing what these gentlemen create in 2009.

DC Starts its Final Crisis: I’m not a big fan of this Final Crisis. That said, I love the word Final, and while I’m probably being naive, I’m hoping that it truly is final. I’m hoping that, in 2009, we’ll see DC move away from these huge events, and just start telling stories again. Stories that begin in a hero’s book and end (yes, they must end to be a story; Marvel and DC both need to recognize that) in that same book. Stories that don’t require a massive knowledge of the DCU, and stories that, simply put, are good. That’s my hope for 2009, and I have it because DC tells me that this is the last of their crises. Fingers crossed.

James Robinson returns to comics. Of course, he may have left again, if rumors are true, but his return gave me hope. I believe that Robinson is at his best when he’s writing books where he doesn’t have to worry about massive editorial interference, or worrying about umpty-bazillion crossovers, but just the fact that he’s writing comics again means we could possibly see the brilliance he displayed in Starman and The Golden Age. One of my favorite comics writers ever has returned, and that makes me happy.

There’s some of the things that give me hope for 2009. Jason, anything to add?

Yes, in fact, I do have a few things to add. Some build off of what you’ve already stated and others reflect my own twisted favorites in the comic industry.

First off, I heartily agree with your Scott Pilgrim recognition. I also like how you couched your point in the position that a new book was “announced” in 2008. While O’Malley has been rather methodical in putting out a volume a year, 2008 went by without any Scott Pilgrim. #4 came out towards the end of 2007 and #5 comes out early next year. I’m just glad to know we don’t have to wait much longer!

Your praise of a few good series interests me. I’ve been saying for a year or more that I wanted to start reading the She-Hulk trades. I guess it’ll be easier to catch up now that the series has been cancelled! I gave up on X-Factor a few issues ago. With the tie-ins to both Messiah Complex and Secret Invasion, it felt like the book lost its entertaining focus. The stories turned more towards plot devices than character interaction. And the artwork became quite horrible, in my opinion. Sad, really. I liked the early run that built off the Madrox miniseries from a couple years back. I’m on the second of Brubaker’s Captain America trades and it’s…interesting so far. Not sure I like it yet as much as his Daredevil run. All in all, Brubaker has probably impressed me the most this past year…from the mentioned titles to Criminal to Immortal Iron Fist…and, in the theme of this post, I’m looking forward to his Incognito book with Sean Phillips in 2009.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Brubaker’s partner in crime on Iron Fist (and Uncanny X-Men), Matt Fraction. You know how much I’ve enjoyed his writing the past few years. While his Marvel work has lost some of the attitude and sparkle of his more independent stuff, I still think Matt is one of the top up-and-comers in comics today. The first arc of his Invincible Iron Man felt like something I wanted to write, which is probably the best praise I can offer in my own conceited world. Curious to see what he has up his sleeve for 2009.

Andy Diggle on Thunderbolts has me curious. Loved his run on Losers, and the Green Arrow: Year One book was a solid take on the character. I’m also looking forward to Dan Slott’s run on Mighty Avengers. Partially because he’s not Bendis and partially because Slott is a huge Avengers fan, but mostly because he writes fun books with the right mix of action, comedy and crucial moments. I first became a fan of his work with the Arkham Asylum: Living Hell miniseries he did at DC in 2003. The early issues of his Avengers: Initiative drew my interest for a while, but I ended up cutting it from my pull list when it got too mired in “big event” plotting. Another book I liked was Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI:13 series. Unfortunately, I only got the first four issues and then couldn’t track down the rest. I guess I’m looking forward to the trades in 2009!

I’ll echo your approval of James Robinson’s return. I picked up the first hardcover collection of Starman this summer and loved it. His Golden Age is one of my all-time favorite stories too. It’s true that he seems to work best when not being saddled by continuity and editorial interference. That said, volume two of Starman comes out in a few short months! DC has also started releasing larger hardcover collections of Y: The Last Man and just announced the same treatment for Fables. I give two thumbs up to those decisions. I want to get my wife interested in both titles (I already got her hooked on Preacher and Blue Monday) and these hardcovers seem like the best way to do it. On that note, Chynna Clugston started a new Blue Monday miniseries in 2008 and I look forward to grabbing that trade next year.

A lot of the other stuff I’m interested in may show up in my stocking from Santa next week. My wish list includes things like: Chip Kidd’s Bat-Manga book, the Skyscrapers of the Midwest collection from Josh Cotter, the first trade of Warren Ellis’ Freakangels, Mesmo Delivery by Rafael Grampa, a few of the Golden Age ACG archives (Green Lama, Magicman, Nemesis) put out by Dark Horse, the Scud collection from Image, Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem & Farel Dalrymple and Blake Bell’s book about Steve Ditko. Most, if not all, of these books were released in 2008. Kudos to the comic industry for that output!

See? Not everything I read has superheroes in it!

On a final note, I’d also like to expand on your note that Final Crisis was introduced in 2008. Unfortunately, it wasn’t finished in 2008. I’m going to go on the record right now and announce that I just don’t care for event comics. Sure, I buy them every freakin’ time they put them out, but I think that’s more a collector’s reflex than any sort of focused interest. I’m almost always disappointed by the results. And DC’s overall universe has taken a gigantic hit in stability, from my point of view, as a result of all this constant “OH NO!” foreshadowing and angsty, heavy-handed plotting. There is not a single title on DC’s current slate, aside form some Vertigo titles, that interests me in the least. Two years ago, I was reading almost everything they put out. If that’s not a glaring problem, I don’t know what is. Sadly, Marvel is starting to deliver the same results for me. The only titles I consistently read anymore are the peripheral books that don’t seem to be as rooted in the general nonsense going on. I’d like to see a moratorium on Events (with a capital “E”). At the least, corral them into a family of titles instead of the entire breadth of your output. The dreaded Spider-Man: Clone Saga was an odious piece of garbage, but it was segregated enough to keep its stench off the rest of the world. Same goes for most X-Men soap opera plots that I have less and less interest in as I get older. Is it too much to ask that we just get an excellent run of Justice League stories or Avengers stories or Batman stories or (god forbid) Wolverine stories without all the restless claptrap constantly revolving around them? And don’t tell me that the “market has changed” and the “customers’ expectations have evolved.” That’s complete and utter bull. These changes and evolutions are self-made. Writers write “for the trades” because they’re lazy or because the publishers are greedy. It has nothing to do with the readers. I’m pretty sure I never signed a petition asking for gloomy, redundant, violent comics without a glimmer of hope or excitement. I don’t remember picketing outside DC’s offices with a sign that said “More Rape Please!” I’m not saying Spider-Man shouldn’t be punching bad guys in the face. On the contrary, I think he should do more of it…with less of the “sky is falling” consequences, sideways glances, overwhelming politics and downward-spiral finality of it all. Lighten the f*** up.

I know that rant isn’t really a “highlight” of 2008. But perhaps 2009 could be the year we get back to good, fun comics? I’d like to be able to praise that accomplishment at this time next year.

John?

Jason, Jason, take your tablets.  Go to your happy place for a few minutes.  We’ll wait.

Of course, I can’t disagree with your rant at all.  Your points are all valid, I agree with them, and I would also love to see 2009 be a return to more fun comics.  Not every comic has to be Giffen/DeMatteis’ Justice League, but not every comic has to be a blood drenched gritty buzzkiller either.  Good grief.  Alan Moore (not one of Jason’s favorites, but I like his work) seems to be able to do serious stories that don’t seem to drown in pathos and unnecessary violence.  Perhaps it’s because, for every From Hell he’s written, he’s also produced a more lighthearted book, like Tomorrow Stories or Tom Strong

Still, I believe we may have gotten off point a tad.  I will echo your words about Dan Slott, a writer who does an excellent job of writing good stories, yet recognizing that they can be fun.  His Great Lakes Avengers limited series is still one of my favorites.  And for those, like you, who were turned off by Larry Stroman’s art on X-Factor, he has left the book, so you may want to give it another try.

We’ve both shared some of what we thought was important in 2008, as well as what gives us hope in 2009.  There’s good stuff out now to read, and more on the way, but the percentage of good reads compared to what’s being published isn’t nearly as high as it should be.

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Jason’s Things to be Thankful for in 2008

Nov-25-08

Okay, now it’s my turn. This took a bit of research for me and the results are still kind of nebulous. My problem is that I have so many trades and books and magazines and single issues lying around that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet. That makes it hard for me to figure out what actually came out in 2008 and what came out two years ago but only has a thin layer of dust on it because my wife likes to clean.

It’s actually quite sad how big my “to read’ list pile is.

Anyway, here are 10 things that stood out for me in 2008. No real rhyme or reason to the numbering. Hell, there’s no real rhyme or reason to the reasoning either! (I’ll copy Jason’s format and just insert my comments right after his.)  Just sit back and pretend that I know what I’m talking about. I’m thankful for:

1. Kirby: King of Comics – The basic truth behind this pick is that you’re either a Kirby fan or you’re not (or, in my case, you weren’t a fan but learned to be one). However, regardless of your feelings about the man’s style, the book is an excellent biography of a person who was never fully appreciated even though his comic output was tremendous and his influence is primarily responsible for the books you read today. There are some great pieces inside that show a truly different style to the square-jawed faces everyone is familiar with too. As an honorable mention in the biography/art book category, I’d also mention Paul Pope’s Pulphope (which came out in 2007 but I haven’t gotten around to reading yet) and Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (which I haven’t bought yet but hear many good things about).

Three artists who I can appreciate in the abstract, but can’t love in the reality.  However, as I’ve probably stated before on the blog, I’m more of a follower of writers than artists anyway (yes, I know, all three also write comics, but these books focus more, I believe, on their artistic talent).

2. Northlanders – A couple years ago, when I still had my store and ran a blog about it, I posed the question, “What would be the next big thing?” At the time, both zombies and pirates (and probably pirate zombies) were at the height of their respective popularities, robots were still going strong and ninjas were making a resurgence. I threw out the notion that vikings would make their mark next. Turns out I was right! Brian Wood has managed to craft a gritty world relatively free from the stereotypical horn-headed, mead-swilling, “thee” and “yon” spouting heathens and replete with anti-heroes who value honor over conquest, payback over duty. He uses modern language (earmuff the kids if you’re reading out loud) to paint what can only be described as “the ‘hood” of medieval Scandinavia. Couple this series with the also excellent DMZ trades and you get a pretty grim, yet entertaining, picture of the “real” world both past and present. Almost makes you want to go outside and hug someone. Almost.

I have heard good things, but this hasn’t made my list of books to read yet.  Actually, despite the buzz about Brian Wood, I’ve not yet read anything he’s written.  My bad.  I’ll put that on my to do list for 2009.

3. Criminal – Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue their magical partnership. The third volume of this creator-owned series came out in 2008. No one writes better double-crossing, in it for themselves characters than Brubaker. He has the Midas touch when it comes to crime comics. Whether the storylines deal with good people caught in bad situations or dastardly types struggling to redeem themselves in a world that continues to beat them down, his work is aces. And Phillips’ line work gives it all the requisite rough-and-tumble look it needs. These people are dirty, they’re raw and they’re either in trouble or looking for it.

My scintillating commentary continues, as I can again say I’ve never read this.  However, this is on my Christmas list, and I’m hoping the big red guy comes through for me (don’t let me down Hellboy)!

4. Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil – While we’re on the topic of Ed Brubaker, we may as well talk about Daredevil too. I’ve followed Daredevil on and off through the years…yes for Miller, no for Nocenti…but no one has been able to truly capture the underlying angst and tension that Matt Murdock seems to find himself in the center of. Brubaker is able to show that Daredevil is merely the lens that we witness all of these horrible people through. For the past few years, things have been happening to Daredevil that seem like payback for the years of heroic work he did. Nothing is going right and nothing is getting better, and that’s what makes it so much fun to read.

5. The end of the Brubaker/Fraction Immortal Iron Fist run – Can you tell that I enjoyed Brubaker’s work this year? I know it’s kind of strange to praise the end of a run that you’ve enjoyed so much, but I have my reasons. In less than two years, Ed and Matt managed to create a whole new world for the Iron Fist character…they added a lineage with vibrant back stories, a stable of allies and adversaries that gives a much needed depth, and managed to inject a light humor into the serious business of karate chops and glowing chi dragons. I praise the end of their run because it ended on a high note. I didn’t start to get bored. I wasn’t second guessing any of their decisions. Basically, they left me wanting more, which is always a good thing.

6. Scott Pilgrim – Technically, Volume 4 came out in November 2007 and Volume 5 isn’t due until February 2009, but that’s reason enough to mention these little bundles of excellence. Bryan O’Malley combines the perfect amount of videogaming and pop culture references to this romantic comedy wrapped up in a loose manga influence. You really can’t go wrong with a book that caters to everyone at once and yet no one in particular. There’s something for every boy and girl to enjoy!

While I love me some Ed Brubaker (as I mentioned on my own list of things to be thankful for, when I singled out his commitment to Captain America), I didn’t have much to say about the last two entries.  Partly because I haven’t read them, but also because….ok, it’s entirely because I haven’t read them.  However, I have to give a shout out to Scott Pilgrim!  I am absolutely in love with this series, which helped to restore my faith in comics when I read the first book.  I had read some really awful books, and hadn’t stumbled upon anything new in sometime that had really spoken to me, and this book knocked my right on my tuchus (in a good way).  I breathlessly await the new volume in 2009!

7. I Luv Halloween, Ultimate Twisted Edition – Here’s another quasi-mangaesque gem that combines three separate black-and-white volumes into a full-color hardcover edition with bunches of extras and artwork. Ben Roman’s cartoony style adds a touch of whimsy to Keith Giffen’s otherwise gruesome tale of trick-or-treating kids awash in a sea of zombies and suffering. Goofy things happen by circumstance. A kid who may or may not actually be the Devil shows up. And there are entrails and screaming galore. Fun read. And can be used as a formidable weapon too.

I have never even heard of this.  I feel so uncool.  I tend to think of myself as quite up to date on the world of four color (and one color) funnybooks, and this is completely off my radar.  I’ll have to do some research myself.

8. Comic Foundry – As a gross generalization, useful comics journalism sucks. The Comics Journal tries too hard and Wizard doesn’t try at all. I’m happy that there’s finally a happy medium that relies on neither fart jokes nor lengthy snobbery to get its point across effectively. Tim Leong puts together a solid magazine. My only complaint is that it doesn’t come out often enough!

9. City Cyclops – There are a few webcomics that I delve into on a semi-regular basis. I’m a pretty avid reader of Penny Arcade. I used to follow PvP for a few years. And I’m catching up on Order of the Stick. But when I want a solid dose of awkward and surreal superheroes, I make a beeline to the home of Jon Adams’ Truth Serum series. He slyly incorporates current events into the three-panel examinations of these sad sack “heroes” and “villains” who spend more time griping about their living conditions than they do actually fixing anything. Always good for a pondering chuckle. And his Lonely Parade collection is the sharpest political satire set against the world of superheroes that I have ever read.

I echo the sentiments on Truth Serum, a truly amusing series.  However, I want to single out Order of the Stick, which you mentioned, and recommend it to everyone.  It’s a great comic.  The first 10-20 installments may lead you to believe that it’s just a vehicle to do jokes about D&D, and that’s an understandable impression.  Give the strip some time though, and you’ll find that the characters have actual personalities, that a huge, sprawling world is unfolding before your eyes, and that the strip doesn’t just go for the punchline; it’s telling a story, and some of the strips aren’t funny, but are actually touching.  This strip is much more than it might appear at first, and I encourage everyone to give it a try.

10. Other stuff – Yeah, that’s not very specific, is it? What is this “stuff” I’m talking about? Well, it’s a nebulous collection of odds and ends that I’m proud of…from my conversational connections to certain creators and comic professionals, to the confusing attention our blog received because of a similarly named award nominee, to the way John and I interact with each other online, to the fact that my Amazon wishlist is filled with more and more independent comic collections and experimental artwork than ever before. There’s a lot out there to appreciate in comics. I like to toss the snark probably more often than necessary, because a good chunk of what we’ve cherished over the years has been turned into much buffoonery and heavy-handedness. However, I’m always willing to try new and different offerings in the hopes that I can recapture the feeling I had when I first opened a comic book and was sucked in by something wonderful. Every time it happens, I feel like a kid again.

That’s what I’m truly thankful for.