If humanity survives the 21st century, then the years 2001-2010 will be remembered as a watershed period for comics. I don't have exact figures, but if we were drunk together in a bar, I would totally bet you that the past decade saw more comics produced than any other in history. Hell, even I made one in 2003 (no, you will never see it. Because it's terrible, that's why). But it wasn't just quantity; a whole lot of those comics were good. Damn good, in fact. Some of them were brand new, nothing we'd ever seen before and created by fresh and exciting new talents. Others were renaissance periods for venerable franchises, or favorite creators rising to greater heights than ever before. A few of them were even sprawling, grandiose events where Nothing Would Ever Be The Same. All of them, however, were good enough to make us forget about all the crappy comics that were released alongside them. And there were so many of them, it was a real chore whittling them down to just ten. But it's a psychologically satisfying number, and the fact is, writing 500-1000 words about all the comics I loved over the past ten years would probably take another ten years. And I kind of have this life thing I want to get through. So, here we go: ten comics from the last ten years that filled me with the biggest levels of squee. Honorable mentions number in the jillions, so if a comic you loved isn't on this list, then just imagine it was at number eleven.
As for why I'm doing this for the years 2001-2010, as opposed to 2000-2009? Because I'm right and everyone else is wrong, that's why.
It borders on a creative crime that DC Comics seems unable to figure out what to do with Superman. These past couple of years especially, the company seems to have gone out of its way to make the character as un-super as possible. New Krypton was all about Superman not saving anyone, and now Grounded seems to be more of the same. It smacks of incompetence, but maybe they're just trying to make Grant Morrison's work look that much better in comparison. He's done the big blue lug off and on over the years, but All-Star Superman represents the mad, bald Scotsman's defining statement on the character. Together with Frank “I can draw anything” Quitely, Morrison spins twelve practically perfect issues that cover the length and breadth of the Superman mythos, distilling the hero, his supporting cast, and his villains to their essences, and reminding us why we (as in, humanity) fell in love with the character in the first place. That alone would be enough, but the individual stories themselves develop into a grand epic of Superman's Last Days, the great challenges he faces and overcomes, his final sacrifice, and his triumph over death itself. (Why yes, there is some Christ analogy going on here, although Morrison draws on the numerous other death-and-rebirth stories from pre-Christian religion as well). And yet, the amazing, superhuman moments are also incredibly human. Superman answers the Chronosphinx's riddle with a simple, heartfelt admission of his love for Lois, defies time itself to share one last moment with his father, saves a suicidal teenager with the simple declaration, “You're much stronger than you think you are.” Morrison gets it in a fundamental way that much of modern DC seems to miss, but that only makes his work shine brighter, as a beacon of hope to an audience trapped in a cynical, post-modern world not of their making, and starved for a simple reassurance that good can triumph over evil, and that everything really will be all right.
Amazing Spider-Man – The J. Michael Stracynski/John Romita, Jr. Run
You have no idea how much I needed this comic ten years ago. Part of it was that I was younger, and a lot more of my emotional well-being was tied up in whether or not Spider-Man was a good comic. And then there was the material that immediately preceded this run, which would depress anybody. But more, I was a different kind of reader, one who worried too much about the status quo, who was too enamored of comfort, unwilling to follow a writer into whatever blind alley he wanted to take me down. I knew what I wanted, and I was convinced I didn't need anything else. One issue into J. Michael Stracynski's run on Amazing Spider-Man, that reader started to die. JMS wasn't afraid to challenge my conceptions, or Spider-Man's, if it led to a better understanding of the character. People piss and moan about the mysticism inherent in JMS's overplot, but they miss the point. They ignore the forest for the trees. The point of the story was not to change Spider-Man's origin; if you're paying attention, you'll see that Ezekiel's interpretation of events is never treated as anything other than that: an interpretation. And it's one Peter never fully buys into himself, either. Which one of them is right isn't even the point; as it turns out, the important part of Peter's character, of Spider-Man, has nothing to do with where his powers came from, but what he does with them. Over and over again in the run, the story turns on what Peter will choose to do. Hide from Morlun and let him kill others, or confront him and risk death himself? Remain safe and comfortable in Limbo, or re-live all the triumph and tragedy of his lifetime in order to return to the present and stop Dormammu? Continue living under the fallacy that either his responsibility as Spider-Man or his happiness as Peter must go unfulfilled, or break that cycle and refuse to accept any solution other than the preservation of both? In short, do what is easy, or what is right? It's an old theme, but a good one: The choices we make define who we are, not the trappings of our circumstances. It's the center of Peter Parker's character, and that JMS was able to recognize it, and to highlight it in such a novel and enlightening way, that makes his run so special. And John Romita, Jr's art didn't hurt, either. Nor did a host of entertaining new villains and smart subplots, including the Spider-Man story I never knew I was missing, “The Conversation,” which redefined Aunt May and Peter's relationship in ways that opened up all-new avenues for May's character. This run ruined me for other Spider-Man comics; after having my horizons so broadened, I couldn't go back to the Spidey I knew before, and when I was given the opportunity, I didn't want to. It was a tough break, but I don't regret it. Spidey and I are both still going about our lives; maybe they'll intersect one day, maybe they won't. I'm OK with it either way. But I'm glad I had this run to enjoy. JMS's stories continued after Romita left, with mixed success, but the high point, the keystone, is this story. It contains all you will ever need to know about Peter Parker, and why he is a hero. It is a landmark accomplishment in the now-going-on-50-year history of a timeless character. Yes, even the 9/11 issue.
To think there was a time when I wasn't sure we'd ever see this series again. Thankfully, that was not the case. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson's seminal, humanist superhero series may have taken its time in returning to shelves (and in coming out), but it takes time to age a fine spirit, and this is one of comics' finest. The big story this decade was, of course, The Dark Age, and it deserves the spot. Sprawling but never overstretched, running the gamut from cosmic, earth-threatening action to small, human fragments of time, the decade-spanning saga of the Williams brothers contained all it promised (including the long-awaited final fate of the Silver Agent), but also surprised us by being, at its heart, a personal tale of revenge and redemption, and of two estranged brothers re-cementing their relationship and deciding what kind of people they want to be. But The Dark Age is only one part of the splendid Astro City mosaic we were treated to. There was Local Heroes, the down-to-earth miniseries featuring the book's trademark “little people” stories, including one memorable re-examination of the beloved Weisinger-era Superman stories. And, in between the releases of the four Dark Age volumes, we got a series of wonderful character specials, spotlighting Samaritan, Beautie, Astra Furst, and the Silver Agent himself (along with iGod, the Sensational Character Find of 2010). The Samaritan special, in particular, is a wonderful piece of legend, and Beautie's tale is a heartwrenching story of friendship, identity and soul-searching. That's always been the strength of Astro City, Busiek and Anderson's ability to make even the most fantastical characters into real people with a line of dialogue and a subtle expression. Their work this past ten years has continued to refine itself, re-defining perfection with each new issue. The new decade promises another crack at an ongoing series, which I hope we'll see soon, and a possible movie. Whatever's next, though, Astro City as we've known it the past ten years is a comic for the ages, and a jewel in the splendiferous crown of creator-owned work that's made the past decade such a joy.
Or Avengers/JLA, if you prefer. It was a crossover 20 years in the offing, every fanboy's dream since he could form the words “wouldn't it be cool if...”, the crowning achievement in the legendary career of George Perez, and 192 pages of distilled awesome, mostly in the form of punching. Everyhing I could possibly have wanted in a JLA/Avengers crossover happened in this series: Thor hitting Superman in the face with Mjolnir, Hawkeye and Green Arrow challenging each other to an archery contest, Captain Marvel teaming up with Captain Marvel, a gratuitous Squadron Supreme reference... it's like Kurt Busiek strip-mined my brain (which would explain a lot of things). It was the standard superhero team-up (meet, fight, kick the bad guy's ass), but on the grandest scale possible, with everything on the line and everyone answering the call. And it didn't need any “shocking” rapes or deaths to accomplish a feeling of grandeur and import, either, just heroes standing firm against an implacable threat and triumphing against all odds by virtue of their virtue. I return to this comic again and again, always delighted, always enthralled, always grateful for the experience. I don't even care if they do a sequel, now or in a distant, hazy future where Marvel & DC's top execs aren't taking childish potshots at one another over the Internet. It's the greatest possible JLA/Avengers story, in and of itself. What more could we nerds have asked for?
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Ignore the movie. Hell, burn the movie. It's got nothing to do with Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's wonderful mega-mashup of human fiction. Like most of Moore's work, League functions on many levels. On the simplest level, it's a gleeful little Wold Newton exercise, a love letter to thousands of afternoons whiled away in the magical lands of popular entertainment, with delightfully oddball (but still eminently logical) takes on some of the most beloved characters in existence (as well as some you may never have heard of, but will soon think of as old friends). On another, it's an argument on behalf of the human imagination, and the limitless potential it possesses, while also castigating those who would try to usurp its power for nefarious ends (this is a major theme in the Black Casebook). On yet another, it's a peculiar, kind of shamanic ritual, drawing on the spirits of the 19th and 20th centuries in an attempt to give birth to the 21st. However you look at it, though, it's also nothing less than the best its creators can throw at us, full of energy and craft, cleverness and style, big thoughts and little jokes, hours upon hours of material to laugh, cry, gasp, and scream at on a rainy afternoon, or late at night under the covers, when more sensible people are asleep. And the story's not over yet; there's at least two more League adventures coming, and I for one can't wait to see where it all ends up.
Demented. I wanted to start this write-up with a list of adjectives, but that one said it all; others would be redundant. I could go on, explain about the terrorist corporation posing as an anti-terrorist task force testing Unusal Weapons of Mass Destruction on an unsuspecting (but kinda deserving) American populace, the group of duped C-list superheroes who join this Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort and then defect when they discover the truth, the Kirby-created android superhero who's rewired his robot brain to run on beer, the implication that every lame “Captain [Something]” hero in Marvel history were all one belligerent drunk, the omniscient and omnipotent Celestials making the “loser” sign on their foreheads, Mindless Ones doing the dance routine from “West Side Story,” the MODOK baby, the gleeful deconstructive exploitation of everything you ever loved about the Marvel Universe, the constant and depraved violence, the absolute refusal to take itself seriously for even a picosecond... “Demented” says it all. Well, it and “Warren Ellis's idea for the greatest Saturday morning cartoon ever, illustrated by Stuart Immonen, and apologized for by no one.” Seriously, you just read that sentence. What are you still doing here? Why are you not reading Nextwave right now? After all, they are in your room, touching your stuff.
Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth
You wouldn't think that the perfect Batman comic would be a crossover with a genre-bending deconstructionist series written by a filthy-minded Brit, but you'd be wrong. The premise is pretty simple; since the Planetary crew exist on an alternate earth, the story sends them careening through several different realities, Hypertime-style, encountering different versions of Batman as they chase down a perp. Using Elijah and company as our point of view, Warren Ellis shows us Batman from the perspective of an outsider, and sums up the heart of the character while paying tribute to his many incarnations. (Bat-Female Villain Repellent, anyone?) There's something here for every dyed-in-the-wool Batman fan, but also for the reader who's never encountered Batman before (but progressed far enough in his rehabilitation from being raised by wolves to read and understand English). I know I sang this song with Superman already, but a lot of people get Batman wrong in a fundamental way these days. He's not about revenge; he's about justice. It's not the same friendly, primary-colored justice as Superman, but it is justice. Batman, more than anything else, wants to stop what happened to him from happening to anyone else. There's an important element of compassion there, as well as an acknowledgment that his trauma has left him an incomplete person, that gets lost. It's not lost here, is all I can say. I'm kissing the story's ass pretty hard, so I should add that it definitely wouldn't have as much impact without John Cassaday's art. He had to have so much fun doing this, whether it was in homaging the styles of so many different artists, designing so many cityscapes, or drawing the fight scene between Batman and Jakita Wagner. (So awesome.) “Widescreen” is far too reductionist and movie-ish a word to properly describe his unique and incredible style, but until we invent something better, it'll have to do. (Get on that, OED.) The closing pages of this comic are what seals the deal, though; it's the perfect turn, the perfect climax, that makes this what may be the perfect Batman story. It's certainly the best one I've read this decade.
The little comic that could. For six years, anyway, which is (sadly) a darn good accomplishment in the modern comics market. Comics starring teen heroes are always a crapshoot when it comes to authenticity, probably because most comics writers are thirty-something and up. Brian K. Vaughan managed it, though, creating (eventually) eight teen characters who act and feel like teens, even the one from another planet. Being not too far away from that period myself when the book debuted, I was thrilled to see what looked like my voice, or a reasonable approximation of it, in print. Of course, my parents aren't secretly supervillains who control all crime within the city of Los Angeles and practice human sacrifice, but that's little picture stuff. (By the way, if I'm wrong about that, then great cover, Mom and Dad.) All the kids (especially Molly Hayes, the sensational character find of 2003) are real enough to be authentic, but also exaggerated enough to belong in the wild-and-wacky Marvel Universe. And since that means tons of angst, then these kids fit right in. The series isn't afraid to be young, or to let its protagonists be young; while their attitudes and actions may at times seem uncomplicated to the older, wiser reader, they're honestly so, and enhance that authenticity I talked about. It's got energy, too, especially when co-creator Adrian Alphona is on the art duties. Watching his style evolve over the years was one of the finest pleasures I've had as a comics reader. Possibly one of the finest additions to Marveldom since Stan Lee hung up his typewriter, Runaways is an incredible comic, bursting with ideas and strong characterization. Plus, it's got a freaking telepathic dinosaur from the future. Beat that with a stick. I miss this comic so much.
Seven Soldiers of Victory
It's exceedingly rare anymore that “event” comic books actually have the sense of grandeur that such a thing ought. Happily, that's not the case here. Grant Morrison, aided and abetted by several of the industry's then-up-and-comingest up-and-comers, conceived and executed a tale that's truly epic in scope while also being about the very human people (and re-animated corpses) it stars. There's everything a Big Comic Story ought to have, from a dastardly alien invasion, to seven heroes chosen by destiny to stop it, to flying horses and giant spiders and lots and lots of punching. Lots of punching. But it's also got clever twists, such as the seven heroes never actually uniting, instead combating the threat from their own diverse perspectives (kinda like the blind men and the elephant), and some heavy existentialist, meta-fictional window dressing that elevates the story to a commentary on superheroic epics even as it becomes a quintessential example of one. It is, in a way, everything for everyone; if Douglas Wolk is to be believed, it's even a blueprint for self-actualization, along the lines of Eastern mysticism and chakras and stuff like that. I don't know about that, but each character does end up in a very different place, physically and emotionally, from where they started out, and each journey is genuinely entertaining to watch. And they commit acts of genuine heroism, even the supposedly selfish or a-humanist ones, like Klarion and Frankenstein. There are wheels turning within wheels as well, as elements from each character's mini-series weave in and out to form the overall tapestry. It's a work that rewards re-reading, both because new information and associations are revealed each time, and because it has so many moments of gosh-darn-wow awesomeness. And the art is superb; each artist is perfectly fitted to each series (with some unfortunate hiccups in Mr. Miracle, but it all works out in the end), and J.H. Williams wraps things up perfectly in the final issue by unifying all of the disparate styles into a bright, shining collage of hyper-heroism, and throws in a big fat Kirby homage to boot. Seven Soldiers is a bigger-than-life smorgasbord of all the things you like about superhero comics, wrapped in transcendentalist philosophy and flavored with 21st century post-ironic awesome. It's also the only event comic you ever need to read for the rest of your life. In fact, that's your homework. When “Age of X” and “Fear Itself” and “Flashpoint” and “Power Girl Takes Off Her Costume Really Slowly” start up, each time a new issue is released, pull out your Seven Soldiers trades and read one installment of this story instead. Don't have Seven Soldiers trades? Get them. You have your orders.
Superman: Secret Identity
I want to be mad at Brian Cronin for sniping me by doing a write-up of this the other day, but how can I fault the man for good taste? I'll be honest, I didn't expect much from this series when I heard about it; the premise, of a “real-world” kid named Clark Kent who suddenly develops superpowers, seemed too cutesy to me. (No, I didn't know about the old “Superboy Prime” stuff at that point.) Shows what I know, because after everybody and his brother told me what an amazing comic it was, I picked up the whole series at a con, and whaddayaknow, this is indeed an amazing comic. More soft science fiction than straight superheroics, the story follows Clark from adolescence to adulthood to middle and old age, as he copes with his powers, with the world's reaction to them, and with the thousands of little triumphs and defeats that make up an ordinary life (including his inevitable love affair with a woman named Lois). That Stuart Immonen could draw both this and Nextwave in the same decade just goes to show how versatile an artist he is. The story is a very human one (as we ought to expect from Kurt Busiek), and Immonen makes the characters very human in response. (This has the side effect of making one particular scene in issue 2 incredibly horrific, but it's supposed to be, so good on him.) I don't know if I can properly call it a Superman story, when all is done, but it is a very good story, and one that ends up being properly superheroic, as Clark, in the end, strives to do the best he can with what he's been given. Word on the street is that Busiek is working on a thematic sequel called Batman: Creature of the Night, with art by John Paul Leon, so I suspect I'll be writing about that ten years from now.
The first new comic day of the next decade is tomorrow. I can't wait.