After a hiatus last year because, quite frankly, I couldn't be arsed to put it together, my supposedly-annual recognition of the comics that gave me the most warm fuzzies over the past year returns!
As always, this isn't even an attempt at a “10 Best” list. I'm nowhere near qualified to make that judgment. I am, however, fully qualified to judge comics on the basis of whether I read and liked them, which is what I'm doing. So let's get on with that.
I can offer no higher praise to Karl Kerschl than to say that he makes me want to step up my own game. When I first encountered his work in the delightful Flash strip he did for 2009's Wednesday Comics, I was immediately impressed by how he raised the creative stakes for the entire project, his energy bursting from the page. So when I heard he had a webcomic (Thanks, CSBG's Kelly Thompson!), I knew I had to check it out. And I'm glad I did, as it's quickly become a highlight of my week. The strip is an ensemble number, following the adventures and misadventures of the eponymous Charles (a Yeti-like creature) and the various critters who live in the forest he protects. Kerschl manages tone very well, transitioning effortlessly from the eco-parable A-plot to the tragic backstory of Vivol and Moon Bear to the very silly, and very human, activities of the woodland animals. These little stories (there are at least a dozen) add up to a rich and well-defined world, populated with recognizable personalities and illustrated gorgeously by Kerschl's well-practiced pen. With so many webcomics all but interchangeable, it's a true joy to experience one that could only have come from the fertile and idiosyncratic mind of its creator. Now, if only it updated more than once a week...
Speaking of comics that come out all too infrequently, Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's super-humanist comic had a banner year in 2010, didn't it? The epic saga “The Dark Age” finally concluded, and, as we suspected all along, it was as much about the personal journeys of the brothers, Charles and Royal Williams, as it was about the greater transformations that superhero comics, and even America itself, underwent in the 1970s and '80s. The story comes to a logical, but still exciting and action-packed, conclusion, all the while maintaining the richness and depth of the world Busiek and Anderson have been building since 1995. Each character is truly living his or her own story, even if we only get to see part of it, and that only makes me want to see those stories all the more. As if this achievement weren't enough, the two-part Silver Agent series served as an elegant coda, counting backward in time on the Agent's last mission, even as the Agent himself reflected on his life and choices. A great many comics spend a lot of time and effort telling us that everything in their fictional universes is connected, but few (all right, none) of them show it to us in a way that makes us feel that our world, too, is a rich tapestry that we can only dimly comprehend, a story that we'll never know the beginning or the ending to, but are a part of nonetheless. The end of the Wildstorm imprint has put Astro City in a holding pattern yet again, but we're assured that more is coming, and I for one can't wait to see what streets we go walking down next.
Atlas, we hardly knew ye. Well, we knew ye relatively well, I guess; ye've been running in some form or other since 2006, but we haven't half-plumbed the depths of awesome within ye. It's sad that a series so simple and good can't catch the attention of the modern Marvel audience, even with the all-but-compulsory tie-ins to the latest excuse-to-drape-a-banner-on-our-covers “event” storyline, but you know what? It's the modern Marvel audience's loss. Always energetic, always moving forward, and never ashamed to be itself, Atlas drove white-hot needles of awesome into the nerd centers of my brain. Jeff Parker's writing only gets better with age, and the book finally found the artist it had always been looking for in Gabriel Hardman, whose off-kilter style matched the book's tone perfectly. Seeing the characters (including new addition 3-D Man, formerly the Avenger Triathlon) take the next step in their story was a treasure, even if it also turned out to be, for now, their final bow.
The Brave & the Bold
I may stand alone on this, but screw it; I've been the only right person in the room before. It's not surprising that this comic flew under most people's radars this year, since I think there are maybe eight of us picking it up regularly. Scheduling problems didn't help, either, but when it did come out, it was a real treat. The book's greatest strength, especially under J. Michael Straczynski (sp?), has been its ability to be more than one thing from month to month, and that was certainly the case this year. Many of the team-ups might have looked strange on paper, but Straczynski (sp?) always managed to delve into the characters, find unexpected connections, and exploit them in unexpected ways. Who knew that all you needed to make Aquaman awesome was a liberal amount of H.P. Lovecraft? Of course, not all of the team-ups were head-scratchers; surely the Inferior Five and the Legion of Substitute Heroes were made for each other. The art was almost better than this title deserves, featuring such standouts of the current generation as Jesus Saiz and Bernard Chang. There's something wrong about not-ready-for-prime-time players doing the work on Batman and Superman while these guys get assigned to the C-list books, but if it means they're drawing stories I'm actually interested in reading, then I guess I can't complain. With JMS's withdrawal from monthly comics, the book's future in 2011 is uncertain, and probably non-existent. That's a shame; I really do think the world both deserved and needed those Adam Strange/Lois Lane and Lex Luthor/Swamp Thing stories. And sorry, people who think Barbara Gordon is real and your friend, but the Batgirl/Wonder Woman/Zatanna issue was one of the best comics published this year. Period.
The Incredible Hercules/Prince of Power/Chaos War
It's not a cheat, folks; I'm quite confident that, if Marvel hadn't thought it could make much more money by saddling the climax of Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente's dual bildungsroman, starring the world's smartest teenager and oldest frat boy, with marketing banners and gratuitous ancillary minis, this all would have been issues 140-151 of Incredible Hercules. Lord knows I'm treating it as all one series in my longboxes, and since this is my list, my opinion is the only one that matters. So, why is this comic on the list? For maintaining the level of quality it's shown since the first issue (which was 112; compulsive indexers must hate everyone involved). iHerc has always been about the collision of ancient myth and modern sensibilities, enough so that it became this year's actual plot, as Amadeus Cho rose to become the Prince of Power for the modern, techno-cerebral age. Not that Herc was left with nothing to do; he, too, gained a new appreciation of himself and his role in the world as he rose to true godhood, gaining the one heroic trait he always lacked (wisdom) without sacrificing any of the others (strength, courage, the rest of the SHAZAM package). Bit players like Delphine Gorgon, Hebe, Ares, and Athena all found room to grow and surprise us as well, and the lesser-known Marvel pantheons (like, for instance, the Pantheon) came down out of the attic to share the spotlight. All of it's come to a head in the Chaos War storyline (which, to be blunt, doesn't seem to need or want to be a tentpole “event”; everything essential is in the main book), where, as in all good mega-melodrama, the characters are at each others' throats, the sound effects are bombastic, no one and nothing is what we thought it was, and the stakes are nothing less than the universe itself. And while the story has never stopped being a balls-to-the-wall superhero action piece, it's also found room to be, quite unexpectedly, a quiet but firm affirmation of the best of the human condition. You know: a superhero comic.
It was, appropriately enough, the post-Siege Avengers title we knew the least about. But, as Brian Cronin's guesses about the team lineup were proven more and more correct (and what the hell is that about?), I grew more and more interested in this superhero/covert ops piece. Ed Brubaker is, of course, right at home in this milieu, having turned Captain America into a cool, high-octane super-spy piece. As you might expect, Steve Rogers has taken the spotlight so far here as well, but Brubaker is also doing strong character work with Ant-Man, Beast, and Valkyrie, among others. And you can't complain about it not being “Avengers-y” enough, with the team fighting elder things on Mars in the first arc and the kung fu furies of [name redacted for copyright reasons] in the second, and a rogue Nick Fury LMD set up as an ongoing antagonist (not an original idea, but I'm of the opinion that you can never have too many rogue Nick Fury LMDs). Brubaker is solidly adding to the Marvel Universe instead of just reshuffling the already-existing players; the Shadow Council definitely has me intrigued, and I'm looking forward to learning more of what they're about. Meanwhile, Mike Deodato is hitting it out of the park on the art, his crisp style thankfully avoiding some of the celebrity likeness-itis that troubled his runs on Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers, while still delivering the goods on the book's numerous action pieces. If Marvel's goal was to produce an Avengers title for every taste, they've definitely succeeded as far as I'm concerned.
People complain, and often rightly, about how violent and depraved certain DC comics have gotten. It's a matter of tone and subject matter, and the clashing of the two. A book like Secret Six, though, that's about some of the more broken personalities in DC's pantheon of super-criminals, can pull violent depravity off in a way that, say, the Justice League can't. Some of that has to do with its adherence to the old storytelling belief that horrible things are most horrible in the imagination of the audience. The worst things the characters do often take place off-panel, and the really worst ones take place inside their minds, where they make the bad choices that somehow endear them to us. But enough philosophy; the strength of Secret Six has always lain in the broken personalities of its protagonists, and that's what was on showcase this year. Catman took the center stage in the book's most engaging storyline, crossing lines that don't necessarily mean a lot to us, the readers (his teammates have perpetrated worse, in terms of numbers and of viciousness), but mean a lot to him, as they broke through a lot of the illusions he'd built up about himself. Oddly enough, it's Black Alice who has found herself cast as the team's conscience, particularly when the team split in two, and (of course) each version went gunning for the other. And it's nice to see Amanda Waller back in action and carving herself a powerful position in the series; it can't last, but it promises a lot of exciting stories in the new year. We miss Nicola Scott, naturally, but Jim Calafiore has stepped up from the fill-in position admirably, and I've always liked him, anyway. Really, the only problem I have with this book is that too many other DC comics are too like it. It ought to be a stark contrast to the tone and direction to the rest of the line, like its stars ought to be for the heroes. But it fits well against the DC Universe I picture in my mind, where Superman and Green Arrow don't act like this, but their enemies do, and are damned interesting for it.
Speaking of dark, I was never very fond of the “evil people being evil and loving it” turn this book took in the post-Civil War period, so you can imagine my happiness when Marvel announced that the book would be getting back to its rehabilitative roots. Of course, the interim period hasn't been ignored, nor should it be; Jeff Parker's new “supercriminal work-release program” direction works like a “good parts version” of the past two years, blended with some of the cautious optimism of the book's early period. Kev Walker's art also toes the line, keeping a gritty feel while still evoking a larger-than-life sense from the incredible events taking place. The cast is a combination of old favorites (Songbird, Moonstone, Fixer, and MACH-V), newcomers who make sense (Luke Cage, Ghost, Juggernaut), and a few out-there ideas (Man-Thing, Crossbones). I'll admit I was wary about Crossbones, but his path ended up exactly what it should have been, so I can't really complain. The book's history of surprises is maintained as well, and while one of them was a cheap fake-out and beneath the talents involved, the others have had promising ramifications. The new year promises more of the same, and that's fine with me. But could we have the old logo back now, please?
People who know me well shouldn't be surprised that my favorite X-Book is the one that's least like an X-Book. The insidious tentacles of the greatest granfalloon in comics are all but absent here. Oh, the book's packed full of mutants, but it manages to treat them like characters in their own right, instead of cogs in a franchise. That's largely due to the always character-focused writing of Peter David, but also to the lack of mutant “mythology” running rampant over the plotting. That element was re-emphasized this year, as the mutant-staffed detective agency (“team” has never really applied to this group) moved back to New York City and became the Marvel Universe's go-to troubleshooters for figuring out weird happenings. The Invisible Woman vanished, Hela needed someone to hunt down Pip the Troll, and so on. Even the tangential tie-in to this year's obligatory X-crossover, Second Coming, focused more on the group reuniting after being cast around to three different parts of the globe. (The three running plots, by the way, were juggled with both skill and style.) The art has also taken a bit of a return to the book's semi-noir roots, courtesy of Bing Cansino, Valentine de Landro and Emanuela Lupacchino. One thing that hasn't changed is the aforementioned character-focused writing, which has managed to make even a '90s nincompoop like Shatterstar compelling and human. X-Factor is a simple book, but it's never claimed to be anything else, and when simplicity is done with this much skill and style, well, that's a darn good thing.
No, really. I wouldn't have expected it either, but Jason Yungbluth's irreverent, Mad Max-style poke at the funny pages is a hoot and a half, and one of the highlights of my comics-reading week. For those of you who came in late, it's about a cyberneticly-enhanced warrior named “Chuck” traveling through a post-apocalyptic wasteland with his faithful dog “Snoop” and fighting off attacks from the totalitarian “Syndicate” that hunts him relentlessly. If all of this sounds silly, that's because it is, but Yungbluth, tongue planted in cheek, barrels straight through the silliness to come out the other side of awesome. Strip aficionados like me will find a smorgasbord of references in every installment, especially once Chuck hooks up with an underground resistance movement headed up by the afro-ed anarchist “Hughey” and red-headed orphan “Anne.” Action scenes are plentiful and exciting, and there's actually a plot running through the strip as well, as Snoop undergoes emergency surgery, Chuck's cynicism clashes with Anne's idealism and Hughey's radicalism, and the Syndicate prepares an all-out assault on the resistance's compound, led by their newest weapon, Cal-V1N. The pastiche characters are oddly faithful to their originals (even that leather-clad dominatrix, Mary Worth), and the dialogue sings in the same artfully cheesy manner of the best B-movies. If you like explosions and kill shots, if you want to actually laugh at the funny pages again, or if you've always wondered where Shmoo *really* comes from, then you owe it to yourself to give Weapon Brown a read. Just don't call up the December 1st strip at work.
Top 10 of the decade coming soon.