Wednesday, January 3, 2007

2006: Comics Are Cool

And thus begins the great roundup of the year 2006! I always enjoy these types of "year in review" articles, so now is my chance to do some of my own. I'll follow up with movies, and maybe some other categories later, but for now I'll focus on:

The Best Comics of the Year!

(In my opinion, anyway. Out of what I've read. And that I remember correctly. I'm always welcome to input, if anybody wants to add their own two cents in the comments.)

It seems the proper etiquette is to rank these things, and I like the "top ten" format, but I don't think I have ten items in each category, so I'll go with a top five, including any honorable mentions that I feel like adding. On with the show!

Best Miniseries:

This is an odd category, since other than the top two, all the series are currently unfinished. I want to give honorable mention to The Nightly News, which is only two issues into a six-issue series and could turn out to be great; Mouse Guard, which is a very enjoyable (and cute) series about some badass rodents; and The Other Side, which still has two issues to go and I like very much, but might end up unsatisfying. Oh yeah, The Next was also a lot of fun, with some great sci-fi concepts by writer Tad Williams. And Polly and the Pirates was a lot of fun, and really cute! UPDATE: I was reminded of Paul Pope's excellent Batman: Year 100. That one was awesome.

5. Agents of Atlas

I find myself reading fewer and fewer superhero comics these days, but if more of them were fun action romps like this, with aliens, gorillas, and robots, I could see myself changing.

4. Local

This series has a ways to go, and seems to be experiencing some delays, but it has been really good so far. Brian Wood and Ryan Kelley are really drawing me into the life of their protagonist, and the sense of location that they bring to each issue is great. I'm eagerly awaiting the Austin, TX issue, since that's where I used to live.

3. Dr. Strange: The Oath

Brian K. Vaughan is writing a great series here, with some excellent art by Marcos Martin. Vaughan is one of my favorite writers, and he's doing great stuff with Dr. Strange, a character that I find myself liking a lot lately, even though I haven't read many of his stories.

2. X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl

And speaking of Dr. Strange, he's the real star of this miniseries by the creators of the much-missed X-Statix, Peter Milligan and Mike Allred (with some help by Nick Dragotta). It was a really fun story about the nature of death and resurrection in the Marvel universe, and we got to catch up with the team as they suffer through the agony (and/or boredom) of hell. I'm glad to see Allred returning to his character Madman later this year; I hope Milligan can get out of the Marvel ghetto he's been in lately and start a new Vertigo series or something.

1. Seven Soldiers

I wondered how I should categorize this, but I think I'll have to include the whole megillah in one big, 30-issue (or so) miniseries. It's probably my favorite comics thing in the last few years, and it's been as much fun to discuss it on the Web with people as it has been to read it. Grant Morrison just seems to keep on rolling with the amazing writing. I hope he continues to write comics this good indefinitely. He sure seems to be on pace for it!

Best Ongoing Series:

Honorable Mentions:

I read Fables in trade paperback format, but each collection that I read seems to get better, so I have to recognize it as an ongoing series. Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith's Fell seems to be coming out sporadically, but it had some very good issues this year. So did Ellis's Desolation Jones, which ended it's first brutal arc (illustrated by the great J.H. Williams III) and continued into a second (with art by Daniel Zezelj) after a hiatus. Godland, by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli, is a wonderful dose of Kirby-esque craziness, and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, by Sean McKeever and Takeshi Miyazawa, is a fun throwback to the "teen drama" era of Spider-Man, with a focus on teen life, with only occasional supervillain battles. Huh. I guess I could have managed a top ten for this category. Oh, well.

5. Runaways

Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona are about to wrap up their run on this series, and it has been a great one. This year had some incredibly good stories, including what might be my favorite comics moment of the year, when the Leapfrog consoles Molly about Gert. I hope the book maintains its quality once Joss Whedon starts writing it, because Vaughan has these characters down to a T.

4. Astonishing X-Men

Speaking of Joss Whedon, this series give me hope for the future of Runaways. He has really grasped the characters in this book very well, and he's writing some kick-ass stories about them! After the disappointing "Danger" storyline, the book took a hiatus, and then returned revitalized, giving us a feral Beast, a childish Wolverine, a gun-happy, goggle-less Cyclops, and a heartbroken Kitty Pryde. And that's not even mentioning the incredible art by John Cassaday. I would call this the comeback of the year.

3. DMZ

Brian Wood gives us another winner, illustrating the exploits of a reporter living in a war-torn New York City. It's an arresting comment on our country's current situation (and any war, anywhere, really), with really well-thought-out situations and characters. It's easy to ignore the problems of people living under the constant threat of death when they're half a world away, but what if they're in our own back yard, in a neighborhood we recognize?

2. All-Star Superman

Here's Grant Morrison again, actually making Superman interesting to me. Whether it's a superpowered Lois Lane making Superman fight off suitors, Jimmy Olsen becoming Doomsday to fight a crazed Superman, or Clark Kent interviewing Lex Luthor during a prison riot, Morrison is writing some wonderful stories. And Frank Quitely is ably illustrating them, doing things I didn't think were possible (see below).

1. Ex Machina

This has been my favorite series for the past couple years, and it didn't do anything to change that this year. Brian K. Vaughan is writing some really good stories about politics, and Tony Harris is doing wonders bringing them to life. This year saw the "March to War" and "Smoke Smoke" storylines (and a two-issue flashback miniseries), which continued to demonstrate this series's amazing mix of politics, superpowers, and personalities. I love Mitchell Hundred as a character, and Vaughan has built a great supporting cast to interact with him. I can't get enough of it.

Best New Series:

I actually could only come up with four items for this category, all of which could have contended for Best Ongoing Series.

4. Testament

I love reading Douglas Rushkoff's theories, and this series is a great examination of the Bible, it's history, and it's place in the world today. Plus, it's really fucking weird. Rushkoff is really experimenting what comics can do here, which is great to see in a series published by a mainstream company. We'll see how long it can last.

3. Jack of Fables

I thought about picking this up in trade format, like I do with Fables, but I guess I couldn't wait. Which is good, because this has been a really fun series so far. Jack is a fun character, and it's very enjoyable to see him interact with other characters on the periphery of the main series. I hope it just gets better as it continues.

2. Casanova

Matt Fraction seemed to come out of nowhere and start writing awesome comics this year, with Casanova leading the pack in all it's Morrison-esque craziness. It's been tons of fun, evoking wacky spy films and throwing so many crazy ideas out that the reader is nearly overwhelmed. Gabriel Ba has done a great job on the art, really bringing Fractions scripts to life with style. Definitely one of the best books out there right now.

1. Nextwave

I might not have considered this so highly if I didn't know it was about to be cancelled, but it probably deserves the spot anyway. I don't know if I've enjoyed any other series this year more. Warren Ellis has been turning his usual ideas and attitude up to eleven, and Stuart Immonen has capably risen to the near-impossible task of realizing them. And somehow it's not selling. Say it isn't so!

Best Graphic Novel:

Honorable Mention: Sloth (by Gilbert Hernandez), in all it's crazy, David Lynch-ian glory.

5. Can't Get No

Rick Veitch's surreal tale of 9/11 was very affecting, with some great imagery and thought-provoking symbolism. It's good to see Vertigo publishing this kind of thing (and Sloth, for that matter.

4. Five Fists of Science

Mark Twain teams up with Nikola Tesla to combat the Lovecraftian horrors summoned by J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison! Matt Fraction strikes again, writing a highly enjoyable tale with lots of action, great dialogue, and a love story to boot!

3. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness

I don't know if a new Scott Pilgrim book is going to come out annually now or what, but it will be treasured whenever it does. Bryan Lee O'Malley tells a great story of young love, peppered with kung fu fights, video game references, and rock and roll.

2. Fables: 1,001 Nights of Snowfall

This was an amazing collection of short stories that reveal the origins of several Fables characters, featuring beautiful art by the likes of John Bolton, Charles Vess, Brian Bolland, James Jean, and Jill Thompson, among others. It's probably best for readers of the regular series, but since that includes me, I really dug it.

1. Pride of Baghdad

Another one from the prolific and talented Brian K. Vaughan, with absolutely incredible art by Niko Henrichon. It's the true story of a group of lions that escaped the Baghdad zoo and wandered through the city during the American invasion in 2003. The story is symbolic of the real Iraqi situation, but also makes some good points about freedom, opression, and control, without being preachy or partisan. Really good stuff.

Best Artist:

Honorable Mention: James Jean is the best cover artist today, bar none.

5. Tony Harris

He brings a lot to Ex Machina, my favorite ongoing series, with his great renditions of facial expressions, not to mention the occasional superheroic violence.

4. John Cassaday

There are some REALLY good comics artists working right now, for Cassaday to be ranked this low. His work on Astonishing X-Men has been blowing me away, both with his quiet character moments and his balls-to-the-wall action scenes. I haven't been reading Planetary (I guess I'm waiting for the final collection), but I'm sure it's pretty good as well.

3. Stuart Immonen

As I mentioned above, his work on Nextwave is some of the best superhero art currently being published. I don't know if anybody else could pull off the over-the-top action scenes and character designs that he does. After Nextwave ends, he's taking over art duties on Ultimate Spider-Man, which I think is a big step down. Hopefully, he'll move on to something else soon.

2. J.H. Williams III

I think the last couple issues of Desolation Jones came out this year, and he contributed to one issue of Detective Comics, but even if the only comic Williams had done this year was Seven Soldiers #1, he'd still be a serious contender for the title. His art on that issue was beyond amazing, evoking the styles of all the artists on the various Seven Soldiers series while still retaining enough of his own style to be a feast for the eyes. I hope he continues to blow all our minds with his talent in 2007.

1. Frank Quitely

Quitely did something this year that I thought was impossible: he made me believe the Clark Kent disguise. In All-Star Superman #5, Superman spends the entire issue as Kent, and for the first time ever, in any medium, I believed that it would fool people. That's always been a joke about Superman, that people would have to be stupid to not recognize him just because he was wearing glasses. It's been something that people just have to ignore or accept, until now. The way Quitely draws it, everything about Clark Kent looks different from Superman, from the way he combs his hair, to his facial expressions, to his posture, even to how heavy he looks. Somehow, it becomes totally believable. That's how good an artist Quitely is. And that's not even mentioning his beautiful land(and space)scapes, his amazing action scenes, or the little details that he hides in his panels. He was truly the best comics artist this year.

Best Writer:

5. Joe Casey

Godland! Casey evokes the plots and dialogue of Kirby like no one else, but still retains a modern feel.

4. Brian Wood

I already raved about DMZ and Local above, so I'll just say Wood is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. Here's hoping he continues to shine.

3. Warren Ellis

Ellis was incredibly prolific this year, with Desolation Jones, Fell, Nextwave, Newuniversal, Blackgas, Planetary, and at least one issue of Wolfskin. Oh, and Ultimate Extinction. Did I miss anything? Did Ocean come out in 2006? What about Iron Man? Whatever he did, he shined, with his signature combination of hardassed tough guys, futuristic idealism, and technological fetishism, not to mention a skill for writing wild and crazy action. He's got a great run of quality going, and I hope it continues for some time to come.

2. Brian K. Vaughan

Vaughan seems to be the most-mentioned writer on the above lists of comics, and I didn't even include Y: The Last Man! I'm really digging pretty much everything he does right now, and I hope he keeps doing it for a long time to come. There's really only one man who could end up above him...

1. Grant Morrison

Morrison is the current genius-laureate of comics. It seems like he can't stop coming up with insane ideas. Like J.H. Williams, Seven Soldiers alone would probably have propelled him to the top of the list, but he wasn't content to rest on his laurels; instead he moved on to other things, like the amazing All-Star Superman, the Wildstorm relaunch (we'll have to see how that turns out), and a fun run on Batman. I'm sure he has more crazy ideas coming next year (here's hoping for Seaguy 2!).

Special Award for Excellence in Everything:

Chris Ware

Acme Novelty Library #17 was beautiful. I hope he starts cranking these out faster!
And that wraps up the year in comics. I'm sure I could come up with more, if I kept thinking about it. There are a lot of indy comics and graphic novels that I either didn't get to or didn't include here. And I didn't even touch on the world of manga (mostly because I didn't read a whole lot of it this year). All said, this is a great time to be a comics fan, and it looks like it's only going to get better!