Special Feature

 

Final Criticism: The Twenty-Ohs' Last Year in Review

By Adam McGovern
Published: 2010-04-07

 


Since it seems people can never have too many awards shows and Oscar itself has expanded to 10 picks, it felt right this year to spread the credit and draw out the suspense — this year we’ll have winners and worthy alternate-universe runners up, in various denominations of the arbitrary base-10 or trinity-themed number system: fives, threes, that kinda thing. In some cases I’ll eliminate the competition or just mold a category for stuff that stands alone. When circumstances have overfilled a category — like cartoons, thematic CDs, relevant twitter personae, etc., for what was once the comic-movie list and is now the comic-media list — I’ll settle on another arbitrary model (in that case, 13 — less unlucky the farther up the list something placed). Some slots are suggested by the self-imposed categories of the industry itself: “writer” and “artist” alone for corporate and genre comics, “writer-artist” for indie-lit ones. And in some cases I went all J.D. Power on yo’ @$$ to tweak and subdivide single categories for equally deserving honorees (anthology of new material by a group; anthology of new material by a single artist; anthology of existing material; etc.).

Where some entries seem to get short shrift I’ve included links to fuller reviews those got in the day; I’ve stuck in publisher-names as part of the headings when it’s not obvious in the writeup; that way you can have all you need to look it up and dwell in the past. This list itself wins the award for latest-ever lookback posted on ComicCritique — but though 2009 already feels long-gone, the dust of a decade is still in mid-settle, and you’ll see me slipping into sweeping-survey mood in several places to justify the time it took this urgent signal to reach the earth. And now, from the luxurious auditorium of my broken dining-room chair, with results that have been sealed under the toppling pillars of my disorganized notes and reference copies, the third annual Geek’s Choice Awards — please turn on all PS3s and talk as much as you want…



 

One to Watch” Award
for distinction in comics literature:
Incognito [
Icon] and X Men Noir [Marvel]


An immorality play from X Men Noir

Click to view full image

When Brian K. Vaughn called The Pro “the Watchmen of unprotected sex with whores,” one could have hoped that he single-handedly retired the genre of exaggerating claims for your own comic through comparison with the best genre GN ever made. But boasts of equality with that landmark, explicit or just obvious, spiked in the year of knockoff self-contained (and self-serious) superhero epics spurred by the movie version. But the two comics that most conjured the feeling of unprecedented insights with echoes of essential comics elements were Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ Incognito and Fred Van Lente and Dennis Calero’s X Men Noir. Incognito dispensed with black-and-white morality for a tale of the conflicting motivations and chance circumstances that can turn anyone into a hero or villain — or just make them seem that way. X Men Noir dispensed with superpowers altogether, converting the saga of mutants and humans into one of clashing recent-immigrant groups and social types defined by shadowy public authorities more sinister than traditional comicbook masterminds. Both books drew on the primal pulp elements (and in X Noir’s case, time-period) of comics’ DNA to reflect on and replenish what has grown and all that hasn’t really changed.

Postscript: The spectre of Watchman loomed long across 2009 because of the movie event; its actual corpse may shamble through 2010 with the online rumblings that a post-Levitz DC wants to glut the market with new Watchman sequel and prequel comics to capitalize on the spike in sales of the original GN that the movie ironically touched off as it tanked. People have been trying to clone Watchmen for more than 20 years, and I pushed this category to the top to keep in mind the way true creators trust to uncertainty and make something with its own soul.

Comic of the Year:

3. Madame Xanadu [Vertigo]

There’s a still sparsely populated and thus precious frontier of pop fantasy that wields its magic devices in a way that feels knitted into a grand weave of cosmic cause-and-effect and not just a hatful of handy contrivances. The mystic lineage and cross-currents of supernatural realms, rules and personages in Madame Xanadu is much at home with the majesty of existence’s mysteries and also completely comfortable with the conflicting personalities that form the true random element in grand design. The multi-century tale of an itinerant nature spirit turned sorceress turned bohemian medium and spectral counselor/troubleshooter, this book enriches your brainpower while blowing your mind.

The mastery of historical periods, the shades of integrity and impetuousness in the thoroughly bizarre yet fully relatable heroine, the tight plotting and expansive concepts, and the thoughtful intersections with mature versions of some of DC’s most iconic scare-characters make this book compelling in every panel. Matt Wagner’s writing is strange poetry and pitch-perfect vernacular; Amy Reeder Hadley’s art is an act of magic, conjuring worlds previously impossible to convey on static pages and communicating a range of emotions that feels like another dimension in comics’ often one-note vocabulary of gritted teeth and damsel-in-distress dismay.

A five-issue detour drawn by Michael Wm. Kaluta showcased some of the best work that legend has ever done, though the Inquisition-era subplot slipped slightly into superficial exploitation toward the end; Hadley was back at the board and Wagner fully back on track with the next arc, in which a 1950s housewife suffers an arcane attack that seems to symbolize the infection of the counterculture in her even scarier servant-like homelife. Female psyche and sexuality, central to pre-Abrahamic belief and based in the nature we stray too far from, is a major anchor of this book, portrayed with neither stereotype nor sensationalism, and the vast unknown that makes us all need someone is the book’s canvas. Its limits haven’t nearly been reached, and hopefully the book and its fans have a long time to keep looking.

2. The Incredible Hercules [Marvel]

At the outer orbit of quantum concept and the solid core of mythic substance, this book defines our character and pursues the limits of our potential while delivering some of the most brilliantly plotted adventures and hilarious hoots ever seen in comics. Reconnecting the medium’s idealized bodies to its unusually minds, Incredible Hercules pairs the primal strongman with the information-age icon of 16-year-old supergenius Amadeus Cho, in stories that owe much more to fables and sketch-comedy than to standard superheroics. Stewarded by Herc’s sister Athena, personification of strategy and patron of champions, Herc and Cho face down threats to the fabric of reality, rescue Zeus from Hades (accessed by way of a casino, where else) at the price of getting him back as an all-powerful, all-sarcastic little boy, and stumble through solid metaphors of the nature of fiction and human perfectibility.

In a great summer of twice-monthly issues, the story wove between separate Herc and Cho trials, as Amadeus thinks his way out of a theoretical-reality trap that unexpectedly converted quantum physics to the stuff of riveting thriller, while Herc, in one of the most-loved arcs of recent years, has to impersonate Thor to avert a celestial catastrophe which might coincidentally prevent his real motive of bedding an elf (you hadda be there). This comic remembers when funnybooks were fun, and sees no contradiction between riotous farce and resourcefully interwoven Jungian/Campble-esque theses on the manifestation of heroic archetypes in varying ages. The self-awareness by the book’s stars and various guesting gods and superheroes of their volatile nature as both people and concepts is one of the book’s trickier and most satisfying slips in spacetime — for all the breached universes in big-promo crossover events, the edge of it being “only a story” is one the bean-counters are afraid to cross; writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente let you in on the joke and make you take it more seriously than ever by suggesting that we’re only a story too. With a great ear for contemporary nerd culture in Cho and an open eye for the pure-impulse inappropriateness of the Greek (and other) myths that we like to think found our civilized makeup, this book is “educational” in an indelible way that many a more earnest (and less honest) comic about gods and science has not been. Resetting the terms of what works at Marvel by becoming a megahit on its smarts and sense of humor, Incredible Hercules signals a new canon of pop and a comedy golden age.

1. Secret Six [DC]

How to be moral without moralizing? Take the most unaccountable, solitary characters and follow their battles for self-interest and survival. Make them the heroes and the reader the accomplice, and see what logical conclusions are drawn. Writer Gail Simone’s saga, half horrifyingly unflinching psychodrama to half irresistibly morbid psycho-comedy, of supermercenaries bound together by their respective unfitness for civilization and often doing the relatively right thing not through any pang of conscience but through their pathological distaste for authority even among their own employers, is an abyss-eye-view of our broken ethical barometer.

This comic and its characters exist in the outlands beyond anything that’s ever been acceptable in cape-and-costume fiction, and gives one of the clearest views imaginable of what’s being missed. You have to laugh at the outrageous roguery Simone comes up with, while the cast itself never seems to be having much real fun. The logic of sheer survival and a strange alternate-society code contend in ways that are illuminating and never predictable; there are lines the Six won’t cross either, but the way back to the moral center is pretty murky at this point. Blurred lines of character are contrasted well by artist Nicola Scott’s precise rendering, a refreshing shot of personality in the slick, hyperphysical house look she’s both mastering and somehow subverting.

The year was dominated by a multipart Gitmo allegory in which the Six storm an island prison/slave camp whose proprietor they’d initially been hired by; other stories included a one-shot high-body-count night on the town that shows some of the essence of this book — Simone walks us through the unrestrained id we wish for and slams down the other shoe of consequence we’re too scared to contemplate but too selfish not to wait for. The weapons-master daughter of an immortal villain; a manically self-righteous animal-lover with big-cat-fetish powers; a schizophrenic transgender contortionist harlequin; a cartoonish-until-he’s-not manhunter/lady’s man; an immortal banshee in goth Versailles couture; and a steroid behemoth turned straightedge obsessive are some of the rejected archetypes that form the core of a cast which experiences periodic permanent retirements (the rules of comforting comicbook resurrection don’t apply here, either).

That last behemoth, the Batman-killer Bane, reimagined as a drug-free noble warrior in his own mind, is a landmark of Simone’s moral shadings — the Six trust no one, but we who fancy ourselves fully paid-up members of society could do with a little more assuming-nothing. That banshee, Jeanette, has her reasons — her backstory is a terrifying composite of women’s untold history, from just missing being one of the hundreds of girls killed by medieval serial-killer Elizabeth Bathory to not missing being the beheaded wife of a king. That last defeat causes her to embrace the death-spirit she’s still sustained by centuries later, and she releases it to overcome an enemy in one unforgettable scene where she recalls every minute of her messy, public murder aloud — a Simone soliloquy of unspeakable sickness and astonishing compassion. At other points, like the one-issue Batman R.I.P. tie-in where the Six get it in their head to drive to Gotham and replace Batman in a town desperate for any kind of protection, a speech by the aforesaid animal- (and pointed-cowl-) fetishist, Catman, about choosing crime as a response to guys like Dick Grayson’s velvet rope of smug righteousness, is a masterful tracing of the spider-webs of self-justification we build up and jump into rather than doing the harder work of sticking to a principle that doesn’t always serve just us. Hilarious, horrifying, ingenious and irresistible, Secret Six is single-handedly shocking mainstream comics to life.

Writer of the Year:

5. Phil Hester

At both ends of the barbarian-to-spacegod spectrum, Hester was doing things you’ve never seen in comics, and doing them in comics which deserve to be much more widely seen. His opening and closing issues of the first, five-part Days Missing miniseries (both with artist Frazer Irving), about a guardian-alien who watches humanity from outside of time and deletes certain crucial days that hold disasters we never know we avoided, created a sense of cosmic grandeur rooted in everyday mortal fragility that few writers in any medium of science fiction achieve without contrivance or bombast. Hester’s own ongoing The Anchor (with artist Brian Churilla), about a medieval holy enforcer in a metaphysical struggle with giant monsters and psychic demons, brought the bareknuckled immediacy of silver-age comics into a new century of scholarly, spiritual vision. Writing Days Missing at Archaia and The Anchor at Boom, the next Dark Horse and Image respectively, Hester showed that he’s one of the minds the future of comics is coming from.

4. Kieron Gillen

With frenzy and feeling Gillen hit the top ten in heaven time and again in Image’s Phonogram: The Singles Club (with artist Jamie McKelvie), the followup mini to the original series about sorcerers who commune with (and sometimes consume and squander) the power of music. Gillen’s magic was just as powerful materializing into the near-impossible task of seamlessly and surpassingly following J. Michael Straczynski on Thor (joined by artist Billy Tan), with an ear for mythic speech and a sense of grand tragedy that uncannily improved upon one of the most unique and folklorically genuine comics in years. At the other end of the spectrum of wonders, Gillen’s sassy and cerebral sci-fi series S.W.O.R.D. (also for Marvel, with various artists) was a fast-paced and ingeniously conceived allegorical thriller of diplomacy and difference. I had found Gillen’s initial superhero and space work rich in ideas but somewhat pinched and legalistic in execution, but now, from the club to Asgard and the outer atmosphere, he’s dancing on the air of distant, divine worlds.

3. Mark Waid

The giant of classic-comic legacies is just as good at reinventing himself. Among too many triumphs to mention, he was both Editor in Chief of the groundbreaking Boom imprint and a major player in the stable of Marvel’s most iconic franchise. In classic arcs like “24/7” and especially “Power to the People” in Amazing Spider-Man, Waid showed a breakneck wit perfectly suited to the desperately wisecracking character, a PG-13 sense of mischief that marks this as a fresh era in a pop institution, and an understanding of the essentials of a concept that keep it rooted to the sources that can make it always feel renewed: The almost-weekly schedule of the book allows a topicality and response to headlines that matches the hip funhouse-mirror journalism that made Stan & Steve & Jack-era Marvel required college-rebel reading, and no one in the stable gets this better than Waid and the next guy on the list, Fred Van Lente.

In “Power to the People,” about an opportunistic Electro seizing on populist anger to divert blame from his individual supercrime to Wall Street’s systemic heists, Waid also tapped the essential working-class sensibility that distinguished the most canonical Spidey stories; Peter Parker is a postwar American Dream recipient holding on by his sticky fingertips while fighting enraged guys trying to blast a shortcut to their crumbs of the pie. In other shades of have, have-not and don’t-want, Waid reexamined the entire superhero paradigm in Irredeemable and Incorruptible at Boom, two stories of a fed-up superhero messiah turning on humanity and an unfeeling supervillain turned zealous doogooder in response. The year saw many a literal attempt to re-create Watchmen on its own costumed terms, and in that climate these two were the only ones worth reading and the most likely to make such a name for themselves. Waid also continued (with artist Paul Azaceta) the one-of-a-kind noir drama Potter’s Field (also at Boom), the existential cliffhanger of a mysterious urban redeemer who seeks to restore anonymous crime victims’ names and hold humanity to account by unearthing their unspoken stories. The tales yet untold by this historic talent are one of the main things making the medium’s future worth looking forward to.

2. Fred Van Lente

A phenomenal year for a writer who in many ways embodies the shifts of the last decade. A self-made indie star from his co-creation with artist Ryan Dunlavey, Action Philosophers, Van Lente went steadily up the ranks of Marveldom not by conforming his aesthetic to a company style but taking his eccentricity to the core of the mainstream. Incredible Hercules (with co-writer Greg Pak and various artists) is everyone’s favorite Marvel book, drawing strongly on the sound scholarship and gourmet snark Van Lente showed in Action Philosophers’ edutainment hybrid, while Van Lente keeps one foot solidly in the fringe (again with Dunlavey) on the creator co-owned Comic Book Comics, an irreverent history of the medium they’re advancing.

Van Lente got snared in the web of Amazing Spider-Man’s writing team, delivering some of the most memorable stories in the title’s long history — a masterful Ditko-esque one-shot on the surreal Spot; a Chameleon arc of the creepiest psychological insight; a Sandman two-parter of exhilarating Jack Cole-ish fancy (with artist Javier Pulido) and piercing class-war realism; and a special Mary Jane-centric story of unfussy empowerment. Van Lente took two of the worst-on-paper concepts, Marvel Zombies 4 and The All-New Savage She-Hulk, and made them two of the most compelling miniseries of the year — MZ4 with the true foreboding of horror classics and a tragic self-awareness by its monster-antihero and disposable-heroine characters of their nature as fictional tropes and social constructs; She-Hulk with a deliriously envisioned future world of ascendant campus feminism at war with frat-man de-evolution in an absurd, insightful scenario of clashing ideologies and the stubborn instincts they try to mask.

With artist Dennis Calero, Van Lente produced X Men Noir (debuted late in 2008 but mostly published in ’09), a leap forward for both his writing and the medium’s attention to mature themes and historical currents, as a non-powered version of the mega-franchise’s profuse cast enacts social upheaval and classic pulp conflict in a shadowy 1930s netherverse. Van Lente took on some of the trickiest assignments of the year, among them a knowingly unflattering Eminem CD tie-in co-starring the Punisher, and three Deadpool stories, including one for Christmas and one with almost no words (titanic challenges for both writer and loudmouthed character, pulled off like the lethal pros they are).

Van Lente was seemingly everywhere in ’09, from one of Marvel’s Free Comic Book Day offerings (a clever all-ages Wolverine story that shaped up as a literal psychological thriller) to the most worthwhile entry in DC’s winter holiday special (a thoughtful, eerie Martian Manhunter short); his first of two framing issues for the all-star Marvel Zombies Return was as hilarious a sendup of Marvel canon’s sacred cows as the howls of protest were resounding, and he ended the year with the opening issue of a hairtrigger-paced, intensely humane Halo tie-in series. There were a handful of false moves — the Mr. Negative mini was packed with good ideas which never seemed to hang together gracefully — but so far Van Lente’s track record is outrunning the law of averages at hyperspeed.

1. Joe Casey

Some scripters are making comics say things they never have before; Joe Casey’s mind is a millennial worm reverse-creating the very language of comics and reinscribing it on the black-matter tablets of spacetime. His weird techno-testament for the post-Kubrick cosmic cult-hit Gødland continued virally through 2009, colliding with artist Tom Scioli’s high-frontier hallucinations to graze the polar dimensions of religious revelation and scientific awareness in a new Big Bang of comics possibility both ancient and unprecedented. Casey’s standup incantations for the cross-reality wizard farce Charlatan Ball (with artist Andy Suriano and, like Gødland, from Image) also stretched into 2009, charting new latitudes for undergroundish writing-in-tongues seldom seen in the last 30 years and never known like this. Going from Gødland’s alien thought transmissions to Charlatan Ball’s spirit-channeling to tapping the twisted brainwaves of a mass-murdering anti-messiah, Casey’s Dark Reign: Zodiac mini mapped a psychic wasteland of populist rage and badboy license in a dada disaster-porn sidebar to Marvel’s company-wide epic about national misrule and fragmented reaction; frenetic artist Nathan Fox’s visual static perfectly synched with the cacophony of Casey’s appalled yet adrenalized narrative. Tainting the koolaid of the most conventional superhero scenario, Casey also gave a brainboost to Dynamite’s Project: Superpowers mini, Meet the Bad Guys; he retains all the best structural instincts of the consummate-professional storyteller, which in this kind of context allows all kinds of crazy to seep in between the panels; you can tell how much Casey revels in the oracle-speak of assassination-cultists and vengeful ghosts, and his issue with the Bible-based Mighty Samson against legendary sea-serpent Dagon was a triple-lutz of thematic synesthesia in its water/land, stability/inundation imagery, delivered with majestic beast-of-the-apocalypse production values by artist Carlos Paul.

Then came Casey’s whole new bandwidth of the remodeled mind, Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance for DC. With artist ChrisCross he went to the frontiers of the artform, the outlands of real-life global entertainment and social force and the perimeters others have gotten themselves machine-gunned, barb-wired or electro-cooked against to pick up Grant Morrison’s J-pop heroes the Super Young Team for another season. On-camera action-figures convened to face consequential but manufactured crises, the SYT commented on the sorry state of comics and reality (small and big “R”) with a running commentary on their own fabulousness and revealing remarks on their unsuppressable appetites and good intentions alike. Casey superprocessed his pop and culture free-associations to bring plot and reference points together in a cutting-edge science of coincidence, ultimately analyzing what the event-genre has accomplished and hasn’t considered for a game-changing anticlimax on multiple worlds/infinite levels. Proceeding from ambient tweets to spontaneous neural narration from the series’ PoV character Most Excellent Superbat, by the end Casey had even reinvented the caption. In 140 characters or less, Joe Casey is seeing things — clearer than anyone and shown for the first time.

Artist of the Year:

5. Olivier Coipel and

4. Amy Reeder Hadley

Shorthand and sensitivity don’t always go together in a comics mainstream that calls for quick production and an indie fringe that values scribbled anti-slickness. But these Big Two artists showed that proficiency and personality don’t have to be contradictions, achieving a rare balance of grandeur and precision. On Thor (especially the milestone 600th issue) Coipel showed delicate sense of detail amid resounding force; on Madame Xanadu the multiply-Eisner-nominated Hadley created cosmic-scale layouts with intimate expression (she’s approaching a Jamie Hernandez/Amanda Connor level of distinct likeness and fluid emotion). It’s not your father’s idea of comics, but it’s the way they must have felt; dazzling and personal, these artists look nothing like Kirby, but this is how Kirby meant comics to look.

3. Guy Davis

No one brings indie idiosyncrasy to blockbuster pulp like Davis; his Bosch-like visions of eldritch CGI on the moody, spectacular B.P.R.D. books take you to the center of the cataclysms and its characters to your heart with the directness of the most primal hieroglyphics. Briskly sketched and brilliantly designed, it has the instant deliberation of demonic inspiration, in both towering tableaux of our human mortality, and singularly observed moments of our unerasable humanity — Davis exorcises the most troubling imagination for grotesquery onto the page, and harbors the most affectionate attention to the imperfections that make us separate people (especially in his unapologetically real-life women). He produces so much it’s easy to get complacent and forget he’s there, but in fact it’s hard to know how comics ever got on without him.

2. Duncan Fegredo

The living-woodcut, animated-tomb-carving look pioneered by Mike Mignola was infused with uncanny extra vitality of Fegredo’s own and a rich rebirth of Mignola’s aesthetic in the Hellboy: Wild Hunt miniseries. The classic craft and high-end paranormal spectacle had an emotional intensity and earthshaking impact that made this the truest “event” in genre comics this year.

1. Gabriel Hardman

The storybook-illustration roots of the medium were drawn on like no one else by Hardman, whose drafting had a spooky, moody texture and timeless, otherworldly charm well-suited to the sci-fi fairytale characters and cities-under-the-sea and -earth that he explored in the Agents of Atlas strip (in several venues). Hardman’s collaboration preserved just the right murky glow in Jefte Palo’s transporting pencils on some issues of the frontier-pushing Doctor Voodoo comic too. Alien atmospheres and strangely familiar cores of myth were where Hardman’s art took us, winning the top spot by being what I’d least expect to see in a modern comic while pointing the way to a richly founded future.

Best Performance by an Artist:

In the shuffle-mode of contemporary comics’ creative teams, some of the best work can come from artists who only had an issue or three to do it in; in the image-dependant medium of comics overall, a good art job can give life to an otherwise forgettable story, and is all the more admirable for the extra weight it carried, and the ideas is sent aloft.

5. Marcos Martin, Captain America Comics #1:

Acting as director, cinematographer, designer and full cast of a listless one-note script about Steve Rogers’ intrinsic, non-super-serum heroism by James Robinson, Martin put flat line in joyous motion and brought the 1930s period neverland to luminous life. Martin’s pop-art personality and elegance rank among the biggest news in late-Aughts/early-Teens comics, and this story showed him a man for two centuries.

4. Paul Azaceta, Amazing Spider-Man #612-614 and

3. Javier Pulido, Amazing Spider-Man #615-616

You’d think ASM’s writing pool and rotating artists would make for assembly-line house style, but the book has instead become a haven for individuality. The writing — especially from the irreverent Mark Waid and the inspired Fred Van Lente – is pure personality, and artistic styles are tried out the way Marvel Pop Art Productions intended and the way fans of most of the last three decades couldn’t have conceived of. This year, out of many to choose from, the biggest surprises were Paul Azaceta’s rough-hewn artistry on Waid’s “Power to the People” run and Javier Pulido’s weirdly whimsical storybook menace on Van Lente’s “Keemia’s Castle” two-parter. To see Azaceta cut loose in full color (Dave Stewart’s, no less) while losing none of his atmospherics was exhilarating, and the high-relief aesthetic of the book and Azaceta’s earnest gritty gloom did wonders for each other, hitting that street-smart, soaring highwire balance of the Ditko/Romita Sr. glory days. Pulido pulled off Van Lente’s eyepopping absurdist ideas for an all-powerful, all-fanciful fairytale shapeshifting conception of the Sandman (for the first time I know of drawing in the dream associations of this villain’s name for a poignant story of a little girl the misguided outlaw tries to make fantasies come true for); at the same time Pulido brought a shorthand fluency to the everyday characters and ongoing subplots that showed his abilities stretching to human interest and superhuman insight in any form.

2. Tony Moore, Ghost Rider #34

With his unblinking grunge and insolent gore Tony Moore was born to illustrate the oilslicked, sandblasted dirtbag poetry of Jason Aaron’s incomparable hellsploitation Ghost Rider run, though Moore only rotated onto it for a hot-skulled minute; this bath in blood, adrenaline and gasoline with forgotten demon-trucker anti-hero The Highwayman was a literally eye-popping 120-mph thrillride in the passenger seat of the definitive unstoppable force before it finally meets the immovable roadblock. We love both to see bastards get theirs, and first get their way, and every nervous pen-scratch of Moore’s and every charred recent corpse and barreling doom-on-eighteen-wheels was a merry optic outrage to match Aaron’s idea of a morality play. Moore is a leading heir to EC Comics’ gallows humor, and the Global-Northern answer to the festive mortality images of Mexican Day of the Dead visions and other non-Anglo death-décor that immunizes us from fear of the end and instructs us with a strengthened smirk on the value of living. And ain’t it cool? Good buddy, it surely am.

1. Al Williamson, “Vergeltungswaffe!” (writer, Mark Schultz), Sub-Mariner Comics #1

To see a whole new story, pencils and inks, surrounding us in the lost civilizations, secret caverns, imaginary technology and phantasmal pasts created by an artist who’s just as legendary himself was a highpoint of the year — and seemed to signal better times ahead, having been drawn but inventoried 10 years before and finally emerging now — showing the premier EC sci-fi artist rising from the currents of comics history and ending the decade on a replenishing wave.

Writer/Artist of the Year: Miss Lasko-Gross

Singular achievement, single nominee. No one is colliding the medium’s introspective potential and slapstick legacy like Lasko-Gross. Between well-shaped but bravely unedited confessional memoir and surreal, sour fairytales, Lasko-Gross remembers when comics were for kids and remembers how sucky and cynical childhood can really be. The coming-of-age GN A Mess of Everything and short stories of modern-day Hansels & Gretels being scared by a grandparent and fantasizing giant monsters (“Follow That Frenchie!”, the Awesomer anthology) and ignoring a stranded, dying mermaid’s warning on global climate-change (“A Day at the Beached,” in Touching Children’s Stories) covered a spectrum of modern kids’ precarious public profile (attached to their tiny comm devices, celebrities of their own worlds at an age way before Lasko-Gross’ own youthful book deal) and always-spooky inner lives (bloody pop-fueled fantasies, confusion at the adult world’s scrambled signals). Vividly imaginative in tricky layouts, intricate patterns and hallucinatory neverlands yet starkly perceptive of everyday details and personality, immune to art-star mythology while stockpiling stuff of legend, Lasko-Gross is capable of anything — but can’t help doing right.

[www.misslaskogross.com]

Webcomic of the Year:

1. Iron Man 2020: Endless Stolen Sky by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey (writer) and Lou Kang (artist)

A great Gibsonian makeover of the principled present-day robotic knight, starring one of the original parallel-universe hero variants, Tony Stark’s dicky future cousin Arno. Arno first appeared long before Tony became the machiavellian super-security-state dude of Civil War, but the moral shadings that phase brought out made it possible for this new Arno to be at once admirable, awful and very distinct from his better-known relation. 2020 is getting close to being a parallel present, and the creative team only had to push our cyborgically-connected, corporate-governed reality a bit forward to make this adventure of super-intrigue and industrial warfare seem queasily plausible. A sleek, slashing art style, fanciful yet tense design sense, clever dialogue, tricky plotting and character-motivation, and exhilarating yet ominous mise en scène made this a good reason to stay in Wednesdays and stare at a computer.

[http://marvel.com/digitalcomics/]

2. Supernatural Law by Batton Lash

A pioneer of putting the web to use with an already-thriving publishing career, writer/cartoonist Batton Lash has been best at using the highest tech to revitalize what made no-tech daily newspaper comic-strips worth reading in their heyday; each one-page installment of his long-running Supernatural Law’s online edition is a satisfying gag or crisis which is self-sufficient while maintaining the story’s coherence and moving its momentum along. Lash’s generous temperament, sly wit and eloquent cartoon shorthand are constants, and he can shape-shift into other masters as needed; he’s always swiped a mean Eisner, and was scaling the austere summit of Chris Ware in a strip still in progress as the decade clicked over. The coloring ranks with the most effective and inviting classic animations (let alone static panels); Lash’s cartooning versatility for everything from expressive caricature to spooky poker-faced suspense grows like an unattended Blob or nanite swarm; and his wellspring of one-liners riffed on the strip’s theme of lawyers for real-life folkloric and B-movie monsters (or make that real-death) seems infinite. The dry humor and solid human-interest storytelling that lets you relax and get walloped by these gags like a rampaging giant lizard is also the strength that makes this satirical institution worth sticking with.

[http://www.webcomicsnation.com/supernaturallaw/slaw/toc.php]

1. Loviathan by Mike Cavallaro

The Eisner-nominated writer-artist Cavallaro, equally at home with arthouse fiction (the atmospheric, deeply-felt family memoir of fascist Italy, Parade With Fireworks) and elevated superhero pulp (J.M. DeMatteis’ Savior 28, whose story I didn’t like but whose laconic, Sentinels-of-Liberty-ad visuals were rich in history and pop-art wit), is recarving the tablets of romance and action with Loviathan, an immortal-love drama that flashes from ancient Atlantis to a storybook New York. The textured atmospheres of the settings and serrated precision of the animated figurework run an IMAX in your head, and the waves of Stan Lee hyperbole and free-associative poetry crash from opposite ends of the timestream. Part Two at times seems to be replicating its sources rather than perfecting them, but that’s just a knowing slippage into meta-storytelling as the main character King Llyr starts spouting Stan-ish thees and thous while a circle of comrades and soulmates tell his tale, including a little boy with a telepathic link whose crayoned conception of Llyr’s epic showcases Cavallaro’s command of diverse yet harmonious idioms. Loviathan is at the headwaters of new comics classicism.

[http://activatecomix.com/20.comic]

Strip of the Year:

Get a hold of yourself — I’m using “strip” to denote comics that follow a consistent narrative course but don’t necessarily have a regular top-billed venue, continuing as backups, anthology content, series of differently-titled minis, or sometimes combinations of the above.

5. Ethrian by Gary Carlson (writer) and Frank Fosco (artist)

The Kirbyesque grammar of mystic tech and frighteningly palpable divinity is spoken fluently and advanced with inspiration in this Savage Dragon backup, a tense thriller about spacegods and human monsters at the border of mortal understanding and the frontline of possible armageddon. Thematically cybernetic mergers of science out of control and fearsome mythic wonders don’t get better than this under-the-radar gem.

4. Spectacular Spider-Girl by Tom DeFalco (writer/co-plotter), Ron Frenz (penciler/co-plotter) and Sal Buscema (finisher/inker)

Moved from its 130-plus-issue run in print to a prominent place on Marvel Digital and then back into the high-profile new Web of Spider-Man monthly, the comic that can’t be killed is showing a suitable fearlessness, pushing frontiers of top-flight storytelling and carrying forth Marvel’s classic sensibility. Issue #5 alone was one of the best single chapters of any comic in ’09, with exhilarating life-and-death dangers and an intriguing new anti-hero in the Dan Brown-esque Jersey Devil, who also seems to be a priest — or is he? DeFalco, Frenz and Buscema mix dependable professionalism with perpetual surprise.

3. Agents of Atlas by Jeff Parker (writer) with various artists

Pressing on last year through 11 issues of their own book, backups in Incredible Hercules, a two-part mini with the X-Men and a co-billed arc in Thunderbolts, Marvel’s freshest (yet retro-est) superteam were central to the company’s universe and served as its conscience, with can-do commitment befitting their time-displaced personalities. The “1950s Avengers” are not entirely updated — their moral certainty sometimes backs up lethal force — but they embody an America wiling to risk as much as it receives. Operating on both sides of the line of the law as unexpectant recipients of a strange secret empire, they strive to do the right thing through circumstances that split the difference between necessity and ideal — and meet the challenge better than our current leaders, making this strip as compelling thematically as it is riveting in sheer fabulism, with sunken cities, underground kingdoms, sea-monsters, space menaces and any number of cross-century adventures told by a talented array of artists to put you in the middle of different time periods and states of mind. This is the comic that can go anywhere, and happily seems to be staying put.

2. Ignition City by Warren Ellis (writer) and Gianluca Pagliarani [Avatar]


The low frontier: Ignition City

Click to view full image

Introduced in a stunning mini in 2009 and set to return this fall, Ignition City filled in and built on another of the many canons under Ellis’ command. Ellis’ omniscient view leaves none of life’s wonder or squalor out of the picture, and this frontier thriller about movie-serialish space pioneers now grounded and living out a long, unnoticed epilogue on an island outpost as far to the ends of this earth as they can get had sky-high ambitions and harsh muddy realities aplenty. 2008 had held some powerful allegories of unfit rulers ripe for overthrow; this lyrical, ghastly story of family honor and fallen ideals spoke to a new era of leaders bound to let you down who finally leave no one to take power but the people.

1. Not Quite Dead by Gilbert Shelton and Pic

The latest chapters of underground comix legend Shelton and French cartoonist Pic’s mis-epic about a washed-up rock band whose ship never sailed to begin with appeared in Fantagraphics’ MOME anthology issues #13-15. We all know geopolitics remains as silly as an old Marx Bros. movie in a made-up warring country; if it were as funny as one, it would be this tale of the post-date bar band touring a remote nation they don’t realize they’re there to destabilize for the U.S. gov’t. with their awful music and clueless attitude. With a style that seems strung from spider-webs, popping veins, worried brow-wrinkles and tangled vines and an eye for absurd posturing, both undiminished by five decades and whatever art-supplies he’s been sniffing, Shelton’s dystopian vaudeville is a vision you can never predict of species-wide misbehavior which remains, alas, just like you remembered it.

Famous Funny Award
for humor beyond reason:

5. Untitled zombie backup story, Models Inc. #3, by Paul Tobin (writer) and Colleen Coover (artist)

A zombie makeover for Legally Blond — call it “Clinically Dead,” as the Marvel Models convince some braineating hordes that giving up the ghost is no reason to let yourself go. One day comics like Millie the Model and Patsy Walker were out and the next books like Marvel Zombies and Blackest Night were in, but that’s no reason why they can’t make it work together…

4. Dethklok vs. the Goon one-shot, by Eric Powell with Brendon Small [Dark Horse]

Banana peels won’t cut it anymore — but maybe a homicidal ax will. The wrongest, funniest irreverence for life in a callous world that needs to rub up against some cathartic cartooniness.

3. “Marvex the Super Robot” by Michael Kupperman, All Select Comics 70thAnniversary Special

The Thrizzler wit’ da Shizzler took the too-corny-to-not-be-true tropes of Timely Comics’ forgotten robot enforcer and updated them in a sleepwalking burlesque of pathetically artificial life and exceptionally genuine intelligence.


Bringing Looney back: Reynoso
Click to view full image

2. Frank Reynoso (everything he touched)

Writer-artist Reynoso redesigned the human body and rewrote the rules of comedy and the lines it can cross with rubber-boned social farce like that found in his self-published Saucy anthology and the Looney-er Tunes epic sand-kicking battle “Beach Bum Bash” in House of Twelve’s Touching Children’s Stories. The most considered choreography of the most spontaneous and anarchic shenanigans make this stuff leap off the page while staying tethered to the foundations of the most classic funnypages.

1. Mysterius the Unfathomable by Jeff Parker (writer) and Tom Fowler (artist) [Wildstorm]

The absurdity of the supernatural we’re supposed to be so scared and awed by, and the friction between spectral powers and everyday appetites to fill and bills to pay, was the focus of this clear-eyed satire about a bleary-eyed immortal mage and his hapless yet all-too-perceptive young sidekick. The seedy patrician mystic’s antiquarian tastes, politically-incorrigible behavior and all-around crankiness playing off his savvy but masochistic young blackgirl net-journalist protégé was the source of much cross-generational (not to mention cross-millennial) mirth, as were the dueling pettinesses, raised to the level of apocalyptic peril, pursued by Mysterius and his various clients, rivals, and collateral-damage bystanders. Issue #4 alone, portraying Mysterius and his young foil Ella falling into a Dr. Seuss-like book to do battle with its camouflaged demons (so that’s why his stuff looks so weird and sounds so much like spell-rhymes), was the hardest I’ve laughed out loud at a comic since Promethea’a trip to Misty Magic Land 10 years ago. Post-MAD art by Fowler completed a picture of vast wonder seen through squinted and rolled eyes that deserves another look in many more volumes.

Most Likely to Succeed: Eric C. Hayes

The average indie contender builds a body of work over time; writer Eric Hayes backed a comparative library’s work onto the doorstep of the Big 4 with the 150-page debut GN of The Outer Space Men, an epic based on the cult toys of the late 1960s/early ’70s. Brought to life by artist Rudolf Montemayor, this ambitious project handled cosmic scope and a spectrum of weird and witty character shadings, showing Hayes ready to go anywhere in the galaxy next.

Short Story of the Year:

5. Black Terror Origin by Jim Krueger (script) and Doug Klauba (art), Project Superpowers Chapter 2 #0 [Dynamite]

If you say short, mean short; in the last year especially the Big Two have backed off, aesthetically and economically, from the craze of decompressed storytelling (lotta satisfying, recessionary two- and three-parters), but master storytellers like Krueger, art-director Alex Ross and some of their colleagues can tell the nano-narrative of a character’s secret history, inner conflicts and public face in seven panels and a single two-page spread. A textbook lesson on character, motivation and action in the form of the comicbook meant to be hidden inside of it.

4. “Emma Frost: How I Survived Apocalyptic Fire” by Matt Fraction (writer) and Daniel Acuña (artist), Dark Reign: The Cabal one-shot

Fraction is paid to be bitchy and absurd, but on the marquee franchises he’s usually given we don’t get to see a lot of the confusion and bad breaks that give that attitude context and dimension in real life; this manifestly wrong, monumentally on-target capsule memoir left no wound unopened and no business closed.

3. “Look out, Sub-Mariner! …Here Comes the King Crab” by Becky Cloonan (writer/artist), Strange Tales #3

A mix of affection and amusement seems best for entertaining and illuminating stories of guys in skintight outfits or none at all beating up monsters with a folkloric undercurrent, and the best selections in Marvel’s indie-centric Strange Tales anthology found this balance. Best of all was Cloonan’s Sub-Mariner story, which had a clear enjoyment of immersion in the character’s primordial sea of sheltered fantasy and was intruded on by a great fourth-wall-melting slippage into scenes of a meta-Reed Richards as real-life cartoonist converting his homelife into these Freudian fancies. Cloonan’s wry style, on the razor-blade’s edge of ideal and grotesque, comic and grand, and her richly toned yet eerily glowing palette projected the strip’s jacked-up fairytale traditions, and her subtext served a smart and endearing comment on what’s at work when we’re playing in these other worlds.

2. “The Pearl” by Lilli Carré, Nine Ways to Disappear [Little Otsu]

Carré dreams on paper and brings back the nickelodeon in this tall, deep tale — told one small full-page panel at a time — of a precious undersea gem and the jealous, unknowing turbulence of tainted emotions that ripple out among the imperfect, possessive humans around it. Slapstick, sour riches from the far shores of cartoon potential and the subconscious’ frozen sea.

1. “The Carnival” by Lilli Carré, MOME #14 [Fantagraphics]

Two worn-out, saddened people whose basic decency doesn’t seem to be enough meet and don’t really connect at a Midwestern fair, catching glimpses of a more charming and fanciful existence that exists in Carré’s mind and maybe only in their heads. A bittersweet, tragicfunny story of the luminous, enchanting worlds just beyond the outskirts of nowhere.

Continue to Part 2 of “Final Criticism”

—CCdC—

 

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