Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Favorite Comics of 2011

I'm eschewing the list, now and for always, because I realized, lying awake one cold and lonely night, that I don't really want to spend time compiling a list, writing, scratching and rewriting names, second-guessing myself and wondering how the selections and omissions reflect on me as a person. God, I'm getting tedium-hives just contemplating it. Want I really want to do is gush about the comics that awesomed me this year.

And comics certainly had plenty of opportunities to do so. I know I said this last year, but it's still true: No matter who you are or what you like, there was a comic this year for you. Marvel and DC both put out some stellar work (although you wouldn't know it if you only followed the big event crossovers, but when has that ever not been true?), in their regular lines and their more niche-focused material. (Although their regular lines are also pretty niche-focused, if you step outside the direct market. But again, we already knew that.) And, obviously, they weren't alone; a full list of companies and creators putting out comics of varying levels of awesome would break the post character limit, assuming blogspot has one. So let's just go ahead and say that anyone who's not Mark Millar or Rob Liefeld did a great job this year on something, even the people who also turned in terrible work on something else that may have gotten more press.

As always, there are great books from the year that I won't be mentioning simply because I haven't read them (yet). I'm only one guy, and I didn't really have what you could call a disposable income until July. That being said, I think the stuff I do have to talk to you about is pretty darn special.

One can't discuss the year in comics without mentioning DC. It would be a great disservice, though, to ignore what they were doing before December while doing so. Secret Six, a perennial favorite, ended just about the only way it could, taking the characters to Hell (with a brief stop-over in Skartaris) before wrapping things up with a balls-out last stand that had me rooting against the heroes for maybe the first time in my life. I'm going to miss Gail Simone's rendition of these characters an awful lot, and while I knew they couldn't stay this way forever (I'm looking at you, Bane), I'd always hoped. I'll also miss James Robinson's Justice League of America, I book I felt continued to get stronger as it went along. A particular highlight of this year was the Superman/Batman Annual, which despite the title was pretty much an extra-sized issue of JLA starring Batman and Supergirl. It's a story about two best friends with their backs against the wall, helping each other (and themselves) out of a tight fix. My god, it even managed to do something good with "Dark Supergirl" (namely, expose it for the adolescent silliness it is and put it out to pasture, hopefully for good). And that final issue was three of the coolest Justice League stories I've ever read, in about six pages.

And yeah, there's the new DC stuff, too. Demon Knights, a book I was originally iffy about, has turned out to be the highlight of the launchboot for me. It's the fantasy-superhero mashup I never knew I wanted. A lot of the book's charm, of course, comes from writer Paul Cornell's blend of action and character. Yeah, it's the opening to every D&D campaign ever, but I'm having so much fun watching Madame Xanadu two-time Jason blood with Etrigan and Vandal Savage hit dinosaurs in the face with other dinosaurs that I don't care. Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE pulls a similar trick with the horror-adventure milieu, although the first arc is lighter on the character and heavier on the action. Jeff Lemire has promised a change-up there, though, to keep the book from getting too formula, and that's good enough to keep me going. Plus, I like what they're doing with Ray Palmer so far. I'm also liking the bizarre Hollywood-Existentialism of Resurrection Man. I wouldn't have picked this up if I hadn't read the One Million issue years ago, but I did, I did, and I'm glad.

And since I discussed DC, I guess I have to go to Marvel. There's no question that my favorite Marvel book this year has been Secret Avengers, specifically Warren Ellis's run. I liked the stuff before that, too (Nick Spencer's issues in particular turned out to be interesting meditations on war, politics, and death), but Ellis's stuff is like Miles Davis walking into the jazz club and showing everybody else how it's done. It's a crash course in the done-in-one adventure story from a master of the form, to the point where you wonder why nobody else is doing it, if it's this damn easy. The construction of each story,  is a beautiful exercise in craft, each one unique and separate from the others, but all following the same basic theme ("Run the mission. Don't get seen. Save the world.") and philosophy of writing.Wild sci-fi ideas and whip-smart characterization through action and dialogue are the order of the day, which is SOP for Ellis, really.  And the fact that Marvel has paired him up with some of the best artists working today hasn't hurt either.

Meanwhile, X-Factor and Thunderbolts continued to be the other best team books on the shelves, both on the strength of their strong casts and character-driven storytelling. Thunderbolts even managed to use the otherwise-pointless Fear Itself to drive its own plots, once again sending the series off in an unexpected, but most welcome, direction. X-Factor got weirdly mystic, but in a way that works for the book, and the trademark twists just kept on coming, to the point where I have no idea where things are going in 2012, but can't wait to find out. The addition of Leonard Kirk to the art team was also most welcome.

And the hits just keep on coming. Invincible, a book that's often fallen just short of making the top 10 list through no fault of its own, ramped things up with the epic "Viltrumite War" storyline before returning to Earth and turning basically everything on its head. A special thumbs-up goes to the general handling of the hero's better half, Atom Eve, who's proven to be one of the best-written, most three-dimensional female characters in superhero comics. Take note, everyone else: This is how you do it. You can also, if you prefer, do it like Peter David's Fallen Angel: Return of the Son, which also took a great concept and cast of characters and sent them shooting off in another direction entirely (one which, thankfully, David has promised will continue in the new year). RASL, my other favorite creator-owned title, continued to delight with its strange blend of sci-fi and mysticism and frustrate with its sporadic shipping schedule. And hey, didn't Mike Mignola do something awesome with Hellboy? That's what I've heard, but I'll have to wait for spring (and the trade) to confirm.

In the wonderful world of webcomics, everyone and their dog has been praising Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant collection to the ends of the earth. I haven't picked it up yet, but you know what? The strip itself this year has been one of the best things on Earth. Beaton has the most idiosyncratic sense of humor I've seen since Gary Larson (and brother, is that idiosyncratic), but it's always delightful to see her share her strange interests with the world in an illuminating, entertaining, and never-serious manner. Kate Beaton is one of the voices of my generation, God help us all, and we're fortunate beyond words to have her.

And let's not leave out The Amazing Charles Christopher, Order of the Stick, and Weapon Brown, either. I can't think of three more different strips, but I can't think of any three I more look forward to reading, either. Their directions this year have been cases in point of staying the course with style and aplomb. Everything I said about them last year, double it. And I've also got to give a shout-out to Captain SNES for finally returning to a regular publishing schedule, and reminding me why I missed it so much in the first place. With the long-awaited debut of the Final Fantasy III cast, all is forgiven.

I read a lot more comics this year. I liked the vast majority of them to some degree or another, but these are the ones that sustained the flame that's been burning in me ever since my mom brought me a pair of four-color wonderments to make that stay in the hospital less scary damn near twenty-five years ago.

So. What's next?

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