Special Feature

 

Final Criticism: Part Two

By Adam McGovern
Published: 2010-04-07

 


Continued from “Final Criticism” Part 1

Graphic Novel of the Year:

“Graphic Novel” is an elusive term even within its agreed-on boundaries; there’s still discord over whether any word-and-image work is a GN or just a comic, but when erring on the side of serious, how long, heavy and unflamboyant does a visual narrative have to be to be called a novel? In the list below, Joel Priddy’s Magi was the size and length of a minicomic but packed more substance than some all-text page-turners; Warren Ellis billed his entry as a “graphic novella” but that seems to be a modest assessment of length that does no justice to the book’s depth. Standalone graphic fiction, of any size but with a self-contained purpose, seems the best measure — and the cross-creative form of comics should be there to break definitions, not freeze then in place.

5. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry adapted by Joel Priddy [It/HarperCollins]

The haze of historical memory and the clarity in a timeless moment of sacrifice and mutual sustenance — Priddy’s delicately expressed, energetically charming treatment of this modern myth stripped away decades of secondhand reference and holiday homily to open a window right to the urban tragedy and primal filial comforts of this character-defining fable. Across time, two masterstrokes face each other on canvasses that don’t need to be grand.

4. Frankenstein’s Womb by Warren Ellis (writer) and Marek Oleksicki (artist) [Apparat/Avatar]

We’ve been scaring ourselves with fantasies of physical danger for as long as there have been stories to tell and material worries to fend off, but what we really fear most is emotional exposure and social abandonment — two contradictory terrors that lock us into a wish to be invulnerable while not to be left alone. Mary Shelley revealed little of her own life though its multiple deprivations and tragedies are well known; in this devastating work Ellis and Oleksicki gave her a brief, incisive version of the autobiography she was too stoic to write herself. That memoir is told mostly in flash-forward from a mysterious figure she meets in the castle speculated by many to have been what inspired Frankenstein. Her most famous book was not so much the cautionary tale of a nature-offending future we often take it to be, as it was a horror-story about depression, with Victor and his creation being locked in the kind of struggle with your anti-self that the mentally ill can’t escape, especially in Shelley’s time. The many untimely-lost loved ones, strained emotional ties and tenuous social acceptance Shelly experienced left her work as her least mortal attachment even during her life, and this glimpse into that life’s trials, with a merciful yet acutely honest revelation of its meaning mystically delivered to the author herself, make for a miraculously unsentimental allegory of contentment with fate and reconciliation with life’s entwined cruelty and abundance. Oleksicki’s engraved style, loving in detail and teeming with perilous shadows and divine incandescence, is the ideal medium for a tale of creative vision reassuring us there’s more than reality — and reminding us that reality can be enough.

3. A Mess of Everything by Miss Lasko-Gross [Fantagraphics]

Lasko-Gross creates the least wholesome and most healthy youth memoirs you’re likely to read. Tales of adolescent insight, creativity, trauma and folly for those who like to learn their lessons with minds of their own.

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2. Scarlett Takes Manhattan by Molly Crabapple (art) and John Leavitt (story) [Fugu Press]

Comics’ native genre, superheroes, is all about sexuality, the idealized body in collision and in transcendence of earthly limitation. Cerebral and neurotic indie comics are all about sex too, its irritation and absence. It’s the elephant in the corner of American comics, but the elephants charge right into the opening pages of Crabapple & Leavitt’s astounding debut GN — copulating out of control in a circus parade through Victorian New York, the ensuing human stampede orphaning the title character, a diva of vice who rises to the top of burlesque, prostitution and politics. In the frontier mentality of the pre-modern metropolis these are overlapping enterprises, and this book crosses horizons still unacknowledged in an often adolescent but seldom really “adult” medium. Laying bare what people were truly thinking about beneath the layers of what drab history books decide we need to know, the GN is inundated with ornate Victorian-porn locutions which ridicule, legitimate, heighten and defuse the comic-sutra that takes up half the book. Leavitt’s ear for the revealing though unknowing irony is keen, and Crabapple’s eye for the absurd contortions that imagination and necessity take us through is forgiving and fearless (Scarlett makes ends meet with trapeze artistry and fire-eating as well as whatever the kids were calling those things then). Failure isn’t an option nor is survival a given for the tenement-dwellers, undercover sexual outcasts and contending immigrant strivers in this comic, and the story ends on a note of true love not just springing from squalor, but at peace with what people have to do and who they’re gonna be.

1. Some New Kind of Slaughter by mpMann and A. David Lewis [Archaia]

The original disaster epic was on paper and in our minds — the flood that flows through many cultures’ founding mythology. Whether it’s some primal fear of the oceans we evolved out of, a premonition of the glacial melting we’ll end up inundated by, or a number of real events recalled through the veil of legend, this image looms vastly in our collective conception. That profusion of possible readings was matched by the masterfully entwined narratives of this GN, in which the flood myths of many traditions were retold along with a modern-day drama of a climate scientist looking for her family in an evacuated and inundated post-Katrina-like town. Not the impersonal catastrophe-porn of a 2012 but an intimate study of people under pressure and struggling to make sense of tragedy in every age and with a shared striving spirit, Some New Kind of Slaughter introduced us to characters we think we know, or recognize but have never met – including the obsessed and remote yet devoted and charitable Noah; and Ziusudra, the oldest recorded captain of a refugee ship in a god-sent deluge (from Sumerian lore), the first of his type and thus the anchor character who seems to sense his counterpart at the other end of human history, scientist Sharon Boatwright, and to perceive the stream of story he’s one traveler on. Any story implies at least one survivor to tell it, and this staggeringly complex but seemingly effortless tale is told with psychological insight and surprising humor by Mann & Lewis and drawn in a pop-hieroglyphic style by Mann that’s the essence of how comics are communicated and culture is kept alive. A testament of our inevitable mortality and, as this sensitive and stunning narrative hopefully helps show, our indestructible humanity.

One-Shot of the Year:

5. Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos one-shot by Jesse Alexander (writer) and John Paul Leon (artist) [Marvel]

The austere poetry of Leon’s art was just the language in which to record the grinding realities and flights or derring-do in writer Alexander’s tale of the super things done by ordinary people when the need is great and the time is there to rise to.

4. Abe Sapien: The Haunted Boy one-shot by Mike Mignola & John Arcudi (writers) and Patric Reynolds (artist) [Dark Horse]

A pithy, humane parable of grief, regret and acceptance, striking to the soul of why we’re really afraid of ghosts — and why we want to see them.

3. Astro City: Astra Special #1 and

2. Astro City: Astra Special #2 (both by Kurt Busiek [writer] and Brent E. Anderson [artist]) [Wildstorm]

Okay, I fudged a little ’cuz it’s really a two-shot, but one was distinctly in the world of everyday reality for a clan of metahumans and the next solidly in the quantum cosmos that constitute their day at the office. Concerning the career-search of a just-graduated super-scion and supposed badgirl, this was one of the most truly grown-up spandex stories seen in forever, equally surefooted on frontiers of mindbending theoretical-reality wonder and on the uncharted horizons of themes and characters that don’t have to be “ambiguous” to be shaded.

1. Doctor Who: The Whispering Gallery one-shot by Leah Moore & John Reppion (writers) and Ben Templesmith (artist) [IDW]

With the ingenuity of prizewinning sci-fi authors, the innocence of the best children’s books, the deceptive simplicity of the most avant-garde indie comics and a deep, unforced insight into alienness both biological and emotional, one of the most skilled writing teams in comics and one of the field’s most sensitive, individual artists created an elegant and wistful fable of quiet desperation amid the wonder of the unknown cosmos, and a reminder that the purpose and value of all exploration, between people or across galaxies, is to confront an understanding of ourselves.

Gesamtkunstwerk Award
for worthiness in workaholism:
Ryan Dunlavey

What better way to portray a would-be master of the universe than by doing everything yourself? After tracing the development of civilized thought and wild imagination in the fave indie docu-comics Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics with writer Fred Van Lente, artist Ryan Dunlavey turned his writing, drawing, inking, coloring and lettering talents to one of the medium’s most prominent evolutionary mishaps — the floating, super-intelligent and under-tactful mutant head, MODOK. The Dark Reign: MODOK serial on Marvel Digital (later printed as “Reign Delay”) was a comedy masterwork about mediocre tyrants, from playground to secret lair, who can only look upon their own works and weep. By decade’s end MODOK had almost become the indie Mickie Mouse, the subject of a hipster fanzine, the star of Van Lente’s first standalone miniseries for Marvel, and the choice of a notable number of the creators Marvel lured from the DIY side of the tracks in 2009 for Strange Tales; amidst a horde of imposing talent, Dunlavey established himself as the king of that world.

Designer Genius Award:

It took ’til the 2000s for innovations in presentation, packaging and layout to catch up with the revolutions in format and production that started in the 1980s. In that decade we saw a spike in the printing quality and high-end specs of comics, with more sophisticated color, archival paper and durable, handsome booklike substance. Material substance, that is; the vision to break out of aesthetic ways of doing business — moving beyond standard panel-gutter grids; adopting the looks of other media and lessons of both sophisticated pulp and successful highbrow art; varying styles and techniques within stories for atmospheric effect and expressive variety — was much slower to develop. With comics now expanding in visual reference (from the ultra-naturalism of a Bryn Hitch to the fashion-design/’50s- animation approach of a Darwyn Cooke) and thematic method (mashing up and reinventing vintage paperback looks, corporate-ad-campaign principles, and any number of other mass-culture vocabularies in cover-designs for fringe oddities and mainstream event-series alike), it was time to acknowledge accomplishment in the type of movie-poster/opening-title-graphic work that’s being done to make comics stand out from the shelf and from the industry history that preceded them.

5. Captain America Reborn [Marvel]

Variant covers have a way of trampling on the best visual ideas, but the principal cover-banner design for this mini, wrapped like a sealed dossier and scuffed along its bottom edge like the scorch and scrape of passing artillery, was a pure visual signal of the historical drama and standalone story-arc within. Colored in ominous submarine infra-reds and signal-flare blues and overstenciled in white with a military-issue title-design and modern-heraldry logo insignia, the tone was set for a drama of embattled American ideals in the primarily pictorial terms that define the medium’s reason for being.

This package-treatment was uncredited, though inside artist Bryan Hitch (last year’s winner in this category) beautifully applied the magazine-photo-essay layout look of his standard-setting FF run (no panel-borders, lots of landscape-format double-page scenes) in combination with the bravura full-page panels of The Ultimates for dramatic punctuation. Complementing Hitch’s dynamic realism and Ed Brubaker’s classy exposition of a commercial inevitability, Paul Mounts’ gathering-storm color scheme told the final layer of a good visual story about the shadows of history and the dread of both what we don’t know will happen and what we do.

4. Astro City [Wildstorm]

It’s not such an unfamiliar sight these days for comics to have consumer-magazine-style covers, with the interior content teased in headlines and photo-shoot-like images. It’s less common to see the technique used as an extension of the story’s internal reality, and last year the public-media look for a paparazzi-hounded superheroine’s narrative in the successive lifestyle-slick and news-mag format issues of the two-part Astra Special placed you in the story before you’re even inside the book. With “lettering & design” credited to J.G. Roshell & Comicraft’s Jimmy Bettancourt and exhilarating imagery by Alex Ross, the collective-daydream surface was set up compellingly for the more troubling undercurrents inside.

Ross also literally sent his compositions flying apart for the covers of the Astro City: The Dark Age Book Three mini, expertly holding chaotic jumbles of characters together in the contours of that series’ shattered standard logo overlay like the world’s most precise graffiti artist, a broken window into the book’s story of the dissolution of heroic certainties in the post-Greatest Generation era. Two fine displays of cover-painter Ross, interior artist Brent Anderson & their fellow designers’ images telling much while writer Kurt Busiek keeps faith with the vivid pictures in his head.

3. The Umbrella Academy: Dallas [Dark Horse]

Approaching each issue like the fruitful canvass of a different old-school album cover to design, Tony Ong’s title-pages and back covers took on the look of diffuse everyday ephemera — worn newsmagazines; junkfood wrappers; movie, propaganda and psychedelic-gig posters; government dossiers; dada collage art; opening titles; and ads — not as mere thematic gimmickry or routine-varying decoration but a great series of artifacts collaging a sense of the characters’ traces in a believable if impossible world.

2. Phonogram: The Singles Club [Image]

A great cut-up bin of pop-image referents, scrambled colorfields and piecemeal geometries of human mood, Jamie McKelvie’s widely disparate and thus harmoniously individual covers for the second Phonogram mini were a classic catalogue of pop-art signatures (in more ways than one, for this music-themed supernatural series). Varying typefaces like we were coming in on seven different books, gridding and checkerboarding likenesses and morphing features for prisms of personality, and placing blocks of text like liner notes or the mysterious ingredients-list of each focus character, these covers were a declaration against commercial consistency and an incarnation of the stubborn uniqueness of the series’ cast and the enfolding, humane scrutiny of its creators.

1. “Sentinel of Liberty” by Marcos Martin, Captain America #50

In the type of story that depends on design to make its content intriguing — or doesn’t, since it’s often treated as a standard inventory-paste-up exercise — Marcos Martin invested fresh thrills in very familiar material. In 14 pages Martin condensed the entire, winding history of Captain America for one of the character’s many finale issues (the last one of the most recent run before it resumed numbering with a milestone 600). Rather than hit the files for clips to reprint or iconic set-pieces to swipe, Marcos went to the saga’s core as if he were creating it for the first time, making a two-stapled multimedia museum out of the material in this all-caption-and-image overview. Leaping from highpoint to highpoint of the origin in tense tinted panels and then starkly dropping out all background but the figures of Rogers and Erskine with the limbo around them sliced by a trail of the doctor’s blood; covering the WWII glory years with a single definitive portrait overlapping cropped news-clippings; using insets of significant symbols and figures (presidents, A-bombs) as modernist illuminated-manuscript-style ornament and imagistic narrative around solitary statuary figures imbued with entire epics (the sacrificial submerged postwar Steve Rogers; the rage of Namor releasing him back into a perilous now); fitting capsule action into tricky, shaped panel configurations (the Avengers’ A; a long Sterankoish character-shadow); juxtaposing and layering images in an elegant monument of passed time and fresh idea — franchise cash-cow characters come and go, and come back and go again, but it’s gifts like Martin’s that make me believe in rebirth.

Miniseries of the Year:

5. Top 10 Season Two by Zander Cannon with Kevin Cannon (script and layouts) and Gene Ha (pencils and inks) [America’s Best]

The original series’ artists (one of them handling writing too) accomplished the near-impossible feat of picking up where Alan Moore left off and going, if not where he would have, at least in directions as unexpected and inspired. A million new ideas, witty twists, and meaningful character insights per page. Like many of Wildstorm’s best, gamechanging books, it seemed to end in the middle with no continuation in sight, but for a closely-observed, slice-of-life book like this there is emotional satisfaction and dramatic weight at the end of each hard-won, worth-it day.

4. Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire by Jason Aaron (writer) and Roland Boschi (artist) [Marvel]

Jason Aaron is the undisputed master of unsparing realism in Scalped, his tragic saga (with artist R.M. Guera) of self-destruction, perseverance and subtle genocide at a mobbed-up, Fed-riddled Native American reservation. In Heaven’s on Fire he gunned the engine on a whole other side of that brain, plunging himself into a B-move trance of smartass antichrists, commando nuns, nosediving angels and our favorite flaming bikers. The outcast wit and jags of stoned-oracle meta-logic and mind-exploding extradimensional vision in this tale of pissed off lost souls storming the pearly gates to take vengeance on a worse-than-Satan angel who’s overthrown God rather than rule in hell, as various relatives, servants and rivals of Mr. Scratch himself bicker while several universes burn, put Aaron on another plane and yanked stunned and awed readers along for the ride — with demon hordes and end times so often just another day at the multiplex, this razor-paced, deliriously clever mini gave lovers of bombastic big-idea and ain’t-it-cool cataclysm comics every reason to enter and not abandon hope.

3. The Umbrella Academy: Dallas by Gerard way (writer) and Gabriel Bá (artist) [Dark Horse]

The first Umbrellas mini stopped just short of the end of the world and left me a bit unsatisfied (for all its brilliance to that point); the second one ended on a poem and tore my heart out. Bravely soldiering on from shreddings of the status quo that would send most series screaming into safe “year one” territory, this story spanned time in much more interesting ways, with a tricky plot of historical regret and personal might-have-beens. From the afterlife to the jungles of Vietnam to the outlands of soured heroism, the deranged imagination of this misfit epic exists at a whole other dimensional magnitude from most comics. It’s an alternate industry and a genre of one.

2. Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance by Joe Casey (writer) and ChrisCross (artist) [DC]

Homemade celebrity is an unavoidably defining subject of the moment, which spawned a whole subgenre of comics this year more than most. Its potential for canned snark and faux finger-on-the-pulse youth drama proved the waterloo of some of my favorite writers (Paul Cornell on Dark Reign: Young Avengers and Kathy Immonen on Runaways), but Casey was equal to the kaleidoscopic challenge of made-for-video reality and obsessively self-regarding public psyches in this post-narrative kaleidoscope of staged heroism and unfakeable character. The manufactured Japanese meta-cavalry Super Young Team are spokesmodels for themselves, but it turns out their selves have an intellect, awareness and optimism that their handlers can’t conceive of or stop. A layered, fabulous hyperfable of life after imitation.

1. Phonogram: The Singles Club by Kieron Gillen (writer) and Jamie McKelvie (artist) [Image]

Phonogram is the comic you can’t stop singing. After its triumphant first series a few years back, which more or less played from start-to-finish a bittersweet saga of youth trying to outlive itself in an undead apparition of a faded pop craze (the ultimate authoritarian music-criticism for this series about sound-based sorcerers), The Singles Club played round and round, spinning between separate characters, one per issue, on the same night at an enchanted dive. Going easy on the actual sorcery and spells but infused with magic, the character portraits and strains of longing and lightness in this emotional symphony put comics in several more dimensions and bought them to at least their sixth sense.

Inker of the year: Cory Hamscher and Bob Wiacek

The inks that most made a mark on my memory last year were the frenetic, flexible lines of Corey Hamscher on books like Incredible Hercules and Skaar, and the sturdy, sensitive emphasis of Bob Wiacek on classic storytelling like Jerry Ordway’s JSA work. Hamsher breathed consistent life into ensemble-art-roster books and Wiacek brought a master penciler into high relief; together this honor’s shared winners struck that balance of fidelity and personality that makes an underappreciated artform the indispensable presence in comics’ collaboration that it is.

Letterer of the Year: Joe Caramagna, Amazing Spider-Man

Lettering-as-character is a little-remarked element and capability of comics, but most European and many indie cartoonists think that showing an artist’s hand in the pop calligraphy of lettering is important for showing the personality of a comic’s creators and cast. With the explosion of capability but not necessarily evolution in aesthetic instinct in the ’90s, we got a lot of gimmickry like shaped and colored word-balloons (effective as a sparing device to convey post-humanity with, say, the android Vision’s squared-off balloons in the 1960s but a little ridiculous by the time the Human Torch’s dialogue had to be on fire). VC’s Joe Caramagna was in the lead last year in using sheer typeface to convey the material of a character’s mythos (Spidey’s pop-art big-block narration), and the emotional and material changes a character might be going through (fluctuating sizes and strange textures of type for the morphing Sandman). With the unique vocabulary of comics, Caramagna played the soundtrack to the substance we don’t see.

Colorist of the Year:

10. Dave Stewart

The greatest comic colorist of all time can’t not be on the list, though he’s at its solid base so a few others can bask in the diverse accomplishments and perspectives he’s helped point the way to. Stewart picks books on which he can follow artists over the edge of expressive frontiers; his primal use of clammy cool-colored shadow and eye-flooding nuclear-blast/heaven-fire light in Hellboy: The Wild Hunt and his surprisingly watercolory firmaments and impressionist, soft-edged village textures on B.P.R.D.: 1947 took him to still more places even he hasn’t explored.

9. Guy Major

Lending volume and atmosphere to the delicate and defined rendering of Amy Reeder Hadley’s Madame Xanadu work without overpowering or distracting from it is no small magic trick, but it’s part of the psychic sympathy of a supernatural creative team that makes this one of the comics most worth reading — and seeing.

8. Paul Mounts

With otherworldly illuminations on Fantastic Four, and silvery filters of the war-hero past and sickly glows of the secret-agent present in Captain America Reborn, Mounts showed himself one of the most unpredictable imaginations on some of the most dependable flagship books.

7. Dean White

One of the finest practitioners of texture that completes rather than competes with an artist’s work, White was the one to miraculously match Gene Colan’s painterly pencil strokes and finish his thoughts in the delicate yet muscular job the master did for Captain America #601.

6. Nikos Koutsis & Mike Toris

Marvel’s been rethinking how to preserve the strengths of classic silver-age stuff with the capabilities of contemporary coloring; they got it really wrong with a murky, overpowered special issue of remastered Gil Kane Iron Fists a while back, but really hit on ways of reconciling strong Jack Kirby design with modern effects in an ’08 Ant-Man reprint in Avengers: Initiative and the Tales of Asgard reprints in ’09. But no team except Koutsis & Toris on Image’s Savage Dragon has gone from the ground up to evolve a solid silver-age lineart sensibility along with a spectrum of hues and textures that enhance the design structure without overwhelming it or being its crutch. In Erik Larsen’s universe of powerful impacts Koutsis & Toris showed that two very different comic-history worlds can collide in ways you want to keep looking at.


John Vermilyea’s bleeding cool
Click to view full size

5. Jon Vermilyea

Bleeding, feverish color fields to complement Frank Santoro’s lean, hallucinatory linework on strips like Cold Heat for PictureBox found the golden fault line of that comic’s head-heart balance of high mind and raw instinct.

4. Matthew Wilson

On two ends of a fantasy/everyday spectrum — each of which also have one foot in familiar reality and one in cosmic possibility — Wilson took us to brand new worlds. Adding rich trippy gels and psychologically-keyed color-clashes to Jamie McKelvie’s laconic minimal art on Phonogram: The Singles Club — with the odd detour into nebulae and sorcerous realms — he also painted unreal, eerie glows and elemental hues of unknown soil, as well as light-drenched definition on familiar urban arenas for pop monster fights, into Brian Churilla’s rough-hewn vision in The Anchor. Wilson’s work promises a Dave Stewart-ish range of inventive techniques and imagined terrains.

3. Mike Cavallaro

People talk a lot about writer-artists, and Cavallaro is one of the best, but there isn’t as much recognition of creator-colorists; in strips like his webcomic masterwork Loviathan, Cavallaro adds washes of atmosphere and vivid imaginary-culture spectrums that immerse readers in both his made-up kingdoms and his dream definition of an everyday urban existence that’s better than real.

2. Lovern Kindzierski

Taking over a third of the way in from the already-dreamlike essences of Jose Villarrubia, Kindzieski’s offworld acid-pastel atmospheres and bleeding, blazing geographies helped make Paul Pope’s funky, Edgar Rice Burroughs-by-way-of Spain Rodriguez re-vision of the silver-age space-opera Strange Adventures in Wednesday Comics completely overtake your reality.

1. Val Staples

Closing a circle with the fanciful, paintbox color-schemes of the earliest golden-age comics, Staples’ expressionistic contrasts and subjective cinematography on Incognito made color a whole other character and brought that century- and genre-spanning comic to multiple canons and layered realities. Staples’ vivid but never lurid juxtapositions and stunning graphic instinct made Incognito look like nothing else out there — even Criminal, which he also colors, in an equally unique way, giving timeless though inescapably modern morality tales of doomed dirtbags and social outcasts the look of high-art silkscreen color-veils or scary crime-film/vintage-paperback gels. Staples is painting over existence as we know it and filling in the visceral truth we really know.

Cover Artist of the Year:

5. Alex Ross

The king of comics painting — in both the act of timeless technique and the sense of monumental, standalone words of art — will always have a place on this list, in 2009 most of all for his Thulsa Doom images at Dynamite, which were pure classic pulp and added to the too-small visual canon of idealized blackness.

4. Jae Lee

The precision horror, in icy-night or faroff-furnace hues and unreally sharp surfaces and shadows, an airless anxiousness so much scarier than gore, perfected on covers like those for the Mr. Negative and Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire minis in addition to Lee’s signature work on the Stephen King books, opened a sleek new outlook on ancient fear.

3. Dennis Calero

Calero is an artist of rich rendering talents with the confidence to do painterly things with silhouette — his minimal, iconic images for books like those in the Marvel Noir and Marvel Illustrated lines marked a new vocabulary of sophistication in what we need to see to be impressed.

2. John Cassaday

Cassaday crossed an astonishing range of worlds last year, from the glowing retro-future fever-dreams of Buck Rogers to the gothic guignol of The Complete Dracula and Solomon Kane. A million faces and an unmistakable personality.

1. Mike Mignola

Fanboys are so busy whining about Mignola not drawing full stories anymore (even while he writes or co-writes many of the most memorable comics of any given year) they may miss that he’s become the medium’s master of single-image art. Doing the covers for almost all the books in his extensive line (last year including B.P.R.D.: 1947, Hellboy: The Wild Hunt, related one-shots and Sir Edward Grey: Witchfinder), his works are like medieval crests or cathedral windows in both stylistic economy and dramatic shorthand, telling every essential of a story with an amazing kineticism and completeness for their stately stillness and summary narrative. Mignola is building up the one-man museum of comic art.

Comic Media Countdown

After the Oscar-worthy year of Iron Man and Dark Knight but with Star Trek and Avatar hurtling toward our screens, it seemed clear early on that the center of the geek multimediaverse was going to shift from superheroes to sci-fi in 2009. That the most anticipated comicbook movie of all time ranks so low on this list says something about that shift. Watchmen the film was to controversy over the artistic value and box-office potential of comic-movies what Watchmen the GN had been to confirmation about the comic medium’s legitimacy and appeal. However, the movie stood at the crossroads of another shift in comics’ impact on culture — more fanboys looked forward to the expanded DVD version than the theatrical release, and the viral online mockumentaries that promo’d the movie before it came out all worked better to convey the pulp-vérité feeling of the GN than most anything in the too-rote adaptation itself. Last year there was a lot bigger news about comics in the artform’s cross-seepage into surreal TV miniseries, webisodes, online GNs, meta-cartoons and live-action original thrillers written by comic creators than in anything that made a direct leap from the longbox to the multiplex.

13. Coraline

A reminder that FX can’t save bad material — and can ruin good stuff when the impressive visual feats drain off so much of the filmmakers’ attention that their storytelling goes shapeless, letting dumb misogynist clichés and videogame boilerplate sleepwalk to the surface. Not from a comic but based on a prose bestseller by one of comics’ best authors; it’s not every year that a bad Alan Moore movie’s fall to the bottom of the list is broken only by a worse Neil Gaiman one, but as everyone seems to agree, thankfully the 2000s were not every decade.

12. Watchmen

The technically perfect, interpretively tone-deaf literal translation that knew it couldn’t fully please everyone and succeeded.

11. Wolverine

Wolverine was this year’s contestant in a deathmatch against its own bad advance publicity. Last year’s was Incredible Hulk, which proved itself well undeserving of the before-the-fact buzzkill. Despite a more straightforward set of ingredients — Wolverine was strictly a seat-edge samurai survival drama, without Incredible Hulk’s weird revolutionary and masculinity-critiquing subtext — Wolvie’s solo theatrical debut was a surefooted, satisfying seat-filler; it may have scaled no new heights to speak of, but conserved its creativity for bringing not just its own reputation but its whole franchise back from the edge.


BlueTube: Dr. Manhattan online

10. Viral Watchmen

Okay, now this is all right. The one part of the film everyone agreed they liked was that great choreographed-souvenir-statuette opening title sequence, the only point at which Snyder condensed and interpreted the material and came up with something that could only be a film. All the other best parts were not in the film — fake footage of Dr. Manhattan’s TV appearances that purposely leaked online; made-up ads for Veidt products on secret sites; etc. Given the simulated scholarship format of the original GN, with all those parallel-word press clips in the back of each issue that couldn’t ever translate directly to the screen, maybe the best way to have done a flick that preserved the comic’s flavor would have been to collage it entirely from media-shuffle image-bite equivalents of this scrapbook structure, for a kaleidoscopic, unreal-yet-absorbing feel. (This also would’ve fit well with and maybe given a more logical-feeling framework to all the main story’s voiceover narration, which I must say Snyder did usually pull off surprisingly unobtrusively even as it was). That might have pissed off even more people, but since this was marketed as the arthouse answer to superhero franchises, it might have felt a lot righter to a lot more people — and been a longform complement to the risky spirit of ’86 rather than a bloated literal translation with some DVD-extra monuments to what might have been.

9. Kings

An alternate-reality’s alternate-reality, NBC’s Kings followed the fascinating conclusions of a premise shared with Virgin Comics’ The Megas not long before: a monarchic, rather than democratic, United States. Where that book proceeded from a what-if crossroads (America founded not by outcasts and refugees but by a slightly sinister and mystical Medici-like aristocracy), Kings was more of a perceptive parallel present, in which the medieval rhetoric about our God-granted power is played out more literally with its heraldic trappings intact. A gripping novel-for-broadcast (or graphic-novel-for-broadcast, since it was created by former Heroes and upcoming Green Lantern screenwriter Michael Green), Kings had the episodic excitement and long-view grandeur that comics do best and too little serial TV makes you care about. And if the wholesome, steely, troubled, baby-faced leading man Chris Egan is not cast in the Captain America flick, someone behind the Hollywood scenes is paying as little attention as the audience did to this exceptional show.

8. The Prisoner

This fan-favorite allegorical thriller had been entwined with the kindred cult form of comics since the series’ late-’60s inception, with homages, adaptations and extensions from a respected Vertigo continuation to an old issue of Jack Kirby’s FF. The AMC-TV update acknowledged this alliance from the start with an elegant online companion motion comic, and the show itself’s McMansion-resort vision of a postmodern-day dystopia based in seduction rather than restriction would seem to owe a lot to the consumer gulag of Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart’s Sea Guy. Riffed from a ’60s Orwellian spy story about what the government doesn’t tell us to a 21st century psychodrama about the lies we tell ourselves, this courageously surreal, intensely haunting show did its predecessor proud and was well worth the attention of all fans of comic culture, exploring the potentials of a dream and the scary cliff’s-edge frontier of too much fantasy.

7. Hobo Darkseid

Matt Fraction’s best work this year was advancing Twitter as an artform, providing real-life captions and ambient DVD commentary to hipster snark, gearhead attention-deficit and fanboy obsession with this series of edicts and threats from a destitute despot alter-ego locked into his role-play, addicted to saying the wrong thing and committed to all the nuance and consideration that 140-character commands can hold. If real-life autocrats were this funny and more comic-enthusiasts had this much sense of humor about themselves, we’d be in New Genesis by now.

6. Bored to Death

Indie powerhouse Dean Haspiel was a looming presence in this HBO hipster sitcom, providing title design for the show overall and ghost-cartoons for one of its major characters, based loosely on himself. With fresh imagination and inspired psychological shorthand from writer/creator Jonathan Ames, the outsider-comics ethic was the fitting complement and clear companion for this set of humane comedies from one of our most fearless and lifesaving fabulists.

5. Kirby Krackle

There was a multi-continuum crisis of comic-related music last year — from one dude reinventing rap while wearing Dr. Doom’s mask onstage to Madman’s creator reinventing psychedelic rock with his sons — but the most comics-reference-heavy canon of the year came from Kirby Krackle’s debut disk. A catalogue of superhero, sci-fi and computergame namechecks delivered with the callow outsider persona of indie-autobio comics, this collection of quirky and touching reflections on emotional and world politics portrayed through knowingly tortured pop-culture metaphors in an irresistible college-rock coating was the best personal background music that geeks, misfits or just plain individuals could want.

4. Monsters vs. Aliens

Not sure why non-franchise Hollywood is so much better at putting superheroines on the screen than the Big Two are; stuff like Catwoman and Elektra is remembered only to be lamented, but Charlize Theron kicked multi-layered ass in Hancock last year and the 50-Foot Woman archetype Ginormica was a pillar of personality and unclichéd power in this flick. Maybe the so-far flawless Iron Man franchise will build the Marvel & DC movies a better battle of the sexes with Black Widow in 2010, but meanwhile there was Ginormica in this irreverently witty, endearingly awesome update of the kitsch canon’s hall-of-fame.

3. Angel of Death

Fanboys spend so much time debating how the storylines and visual specifics of a given comic are transferred to the screen that it’s easy to overlook which movies best bring to life the medium’s flavor. Angel of Death, a Darwinian shooter scripted by ace crime-comic author Ed Brubaker, is an original-for-DVD (and before that, for-webisode) story that has a lot to teach comics, let alone comic movies, about iconic, atmospheric set-design, scene composition, choreography and graphic/kinetic camera tricks. Impeccable to look at with just enough B-movie grime, this flick took grindhouse into a new millennium.

2. Push

The idea of a mythically powered race of people hunted by society and haunted from within, split into a scrupulous angel class and a vengeful devil faction, was blueprinted by comics’ X-Men and duplicated many times in the medium to varying success and mostly-diminishing substance; Push’s variation of special-powered people stolen at birth and trained by the government as a spy & assassination expendable elite uncommonly refreshed the concept. The original X-Men comic contemplated the value of difference in an era of class turmoil and civil-rights struggle; Push examined the right use of power and the possibility of self-determination at the end of a long imperial eight years. The smart, tense prequel comic by one of the artform’s own most refreshing writing teams, Marc Bernardin & Adam Freeman, gave the film a quick literal comics pedigree in the weeks leading up to the release. A-list acting, well-conceived action and a thoughtful human core to the breakneck blockbuster pace made this the lost hit of a year starved for superheroes, and for ones with stories smarter and stronger than most.

1. Batman: The Brave and the Bold

DC may have crashed and burned at the multiplex this year but it completely reset the standard from the small screen with this retro-awesome, canon-mashing funhouse of bizarre brilliance. A pop-art crossover-of-thousands, the show conveyed the essence of the most familiar and fringe DC characters and concepts with access points for morality-play nostalgists and kitsch hipsters alike, dazzling with stylish design, witty plots and patter, well-thought-out voice characterization and both the most solid storytelling and giddy risk-taking on TV (An all-musical episode! An adventure completely structured on the surreal classic cartoons of the shared [though not seen] Warner Bros. stable!). Exploiting the whole DC catalog of characters and eras, colliding them in ways you’d never expect and reinterpreting them with outrageously clever concepts that make the core of them as clear or more so than any other incarnation, this show shines a mystic signal right from what you watch on TV to what every fanboy, fangirl and creator are seeing in their heads.

Best Anthology (group):

3. Awesomer [Top Shelf]

The multiverse of indie-comics possibility was well mapped in this wide-open but thoughtfully curated survey of what’s beyond the Big Two dimensions.

[http://www.comiccritique.com/cgi-bin/greview.pl?id=638]

2. Touching Children’s Stories [House of Twelve]

The House of Twelve collective can be counted on to ignore the “don’t go there” signs placed by cultural norm and comics convention, with results as revolutionary as their boundaryless attitude. This was their first all-ages collection but thankfully as befits the young target audience the immaturity was fully intact, from the cover-tableau of Peter Pan kidnapping children to the concluding epic about an alternate-history little boy wining the space race by power-farting his way to the moon. They don’t call ’em “seriousbooks,” kids…

1. The ACT-I-VATE Primer

A new illuminated manuscript testifying to the best of the glowing screen, this exclusive sampler of print-only chapters from the best webcomics collective’s work shows what you, and the comics artform, have been missing.

[http://www.comiccritique.com/cgi-bin/greview.pl?id=643]

 

Best Anthology (solo): Nine Ways to Disappear by Lilli Carré [Little Otsu]

Carré’s a one-woman collective so she gets the category to herself. The many personalities speaking through these stories are bound by a bemused wit and a charity as unquenchable as their eccentricity is incurable. Vignettes of forgotten lives and fantasies of those who never quite existed, the book is told in a series of one-panel freeze-frames like a stack of postcards from and to the abyss: contorted cartoon people; would-be mermaids; all-seeing, no-acting sentient stormdrains; swallowed-up lovers and domestic refuges overrun with psychic weeds — landscapes and personalities on their way to vanishing, but inscribed on the spectral, unbreakable slate of memory to stay.

Best Anthology (compilation): Potter’s Field by Mark Waid (writer) and Paul Azaceta (artist) with Nick Filardi (colorist) [Boom! Studios]

I’ve swept away the competition for this one since every other collected series was more easily available in its original installments; Potter’s Field was at risk of becoming an instant cult so this handsome hardback was worth it. The best non-costume, issue-oriented, timeless-tragedy shooter since Peter Milligan’s Human Target, this book is like no other and its story of a mystery man who sacrifices his own identity in pursuit of the truth about unquiet dead in unmarked graves has endless cleverness in its white-knuckle setups, and thoughtfulness in its philosophical subtext of our fragile connections to each other and the world. Wise, witty writing slashed across the page; moody, vivid shadowy squalor and merciful silences in the art; and alternately suffocating and searing atmospheres and explosions of color make this noir that shines a light in the rough genre-comics landscape.

All Is Forgiven Award

It’s a critic’s job to point out when a creator isn’t living up to his or her talents or the medium’s potential, but every now and then I have to metaphorically invite some writers or artists out so I can eat my words and pick up the check. This year I’m eating for three.

A blessed convergence of fallow copyrights and increasingly popular metrosexual culture unleashed three revivals of Marvel’s pre-FF teen-romance and glam-sitcom books in two years, from Patsy Walker: Hellcat to Models Inc. and Marvel Divas. With sarcastic sass and sensitive camaraderie in that last one, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa trained a lens on the private lives of beauty-queens-turned-superheroines and superheroines-turned-fashion-icons. I’d considered Aguirre-Sacasa’s previous superhero comics to be lugubrious, continuity-burdened soap operas, but on this book he was a bitch on wings.

Writer Paul Tobin’s been getting a lot of work, and I’m glad I’ve lived to see the day when Marvel would groom someone for the Slott/Wells/Parker/Van Lente school of oddball oracles rather than just cultivate the next blockbuster house-style scribe, but so far I hadn’t seen the individual voice from Tobin that I did from all those guys. I figured that if any book was on the fringe enough to let him find it, Models Inc. would be the one, and he came through with gripping plot-twists and deadpan hilarity, well translating the tranquilized cool of old Millie the Model comics with a modern Sex and the City/Project Runway makeover. Tobin led into the new year at the same high level with his fun, frenzied Black Widow and the Marvel Girls, which juggles serious suspense and inventive misadventure with strong insight into a character so complex she could be several. It also shouldn’t go unnoticed that in both cases Tobin was programmed against very similar-sounding books by much more marquee-name writers coming out simultaneously (Aguirre-Sarcasa’s immensely entertaining Divas and Paul Cornell’s must-read Black Widow: Deadly Origin, respectively) and stood up to their work each time.

I always knew Aguirre-Sarcasa and Tobin had it in them somewhere; the guy who really needs to take my statuette and swat me over the head with it is artist Patrick Berkenkotter. I pilloried his rushed and clumsy fill-in work on Avengers/Invaders here last year, but he just must’ve been under a lot of pressure, since with the time and top billing he’s gotten on The Torch he’s turning in a job of illustrative subtlety and solid action-serial staging & set-design that really stands out. A careful Prince Valiant approach that works well with the early-20th-century legacy of the series’ dawn-of-comics characters and fulfills the promise of straight-from-pencils artistry. A new beginning for Berkenkotter and a fruitful path for the medium.

Maximum Force Award: War Machine, Greg Pak (writer) with various artists [Marvel]

Brisk, rich miniseries of two, three and four issues (Astra, Zodiac, Marvel Zombies 4) are great for that recessionary ethic of doing more with less, but eight- and 12-issue runs of what used to be called the “maxiseries” seem to be the sweet spot for novelistic scope and closure. Eight worked well for one of the best superhero strips of the last decade, Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, and 12 worked perfectly for War Machine.

It may be no coincidence that both books are political, benefiting from a space that matches the depth of their analysis of current issues and their imaginative processing of them into gripping fantasy. Few comics directly confront contemporary politics — Green Lantern/Green Arrow is still famous for Neal Adams’ groundbreaking art and was celebrated in its time for its hard-hitting relevance but is now mostly (and justly) laughed at for the heavy hand with which it tried to grip complex issues in a then-censored and simplistic medium. Though many 2000s series have dealt quite well metaphorically with the state of America’s soul and the urgency of global human misery, it’s hard for mainstream comics, produced months in advance (and often planned years ahead) and thus easily overtaken by events, to reflect on them freshly, and for superhero comics, with their promise of omnipotent paragons, to grapple with intractable real-life evils which are committed by the designated “goodguys” as often as by the forthrightly bad.

Marc Guggenheim and Paul Gulacy’s Hyperion vs. Nighthawk, which dealt with Darfur a few years ago, is an astonishing exception, which faced head-on the difficulty of making a difference even when you’re one all-powerful figure like Hyperion (or one all-knowing one like Nighthawk) against a whole human race unable or unwilling to do the right thing. In other words, it confronted the contradiction between superhero fantasy and stubborn reality. Similarly, War Machine posed the question of what it would look like if the populist left got a Rambo, and how compromised would the ideals become.

James Rhodes was here a character more machine than man after horrendous injuries and rebuildings, with a tortured conscience for the helpless of the world which might tip him over the edge from the human side in the response to it he’s capable of. This series pulled none of the punches that even the average actioner always stops short of — when people got captured and shot they got raped and dead, no shapeshifting alien stand-ins to make it all okay or convenient robot doubles to take the hit. And when sci-fi elements were introduced, it was in the service of showing what the ruthless rulers of this world would do with such stuff in their hands, not any displacement of real-world issues into safe space-opera role-play. The triple-twists of plot and cat-and-mouse motivations of the characters ranked with the best suspense/spy stuff ever done, and the way that humanity and the heroes, if not winning, get a way to live and even make the most of another day was immensely satisfying and utterly unsentimental. A milestone of story that gets to make its point and toughness that works to show its substance.

Continue to Part 3 of “Final Criticism”

—CCdC—

 

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