Monday, January 5, 2009

Impressions on comics of 2008

There has been some interesting discussions of late in the comic book blogosphere around the many "best of" lists which emerge near the end of the year. Charges were made that some of these lists are overly pretentious. Others called for some standards to be invented then applied to the process of comic book reviews. Some chose to skip over "best of" in lieu of "what I liked." Some have a resigned weariness over the content which appears in such lists. Overall, the blogosphere is not asking for more "best of" lists.

So, this would be the year I would choose to fashion such a write-up, eh? Rather than add my small voice to the din, I'm simply going to briefly list & discuss comic books I read in 2008 which made a lasting impression upon me. I do not necessarily consider them to be the best; some were originally published years earlier.

2008 was an unusual year for me; although the bulk of my purchases were for Marvel Comics (as has been the case since about 1990), I made a determined effort to broaden my reading habits. I solicited opinions from friends, scoured shelves at shops for odd material and tracked down many of the books I had seen for years in "all-time best" lists yet never read. Out of all that I purchased, here are 14 of the most impressionable, in alphabetical order: Action Philosophers

I've enjoyed the Marvel Comics work of Fred Van Lente so much that Action Philosophers seemed a natural for me. Part of what drew me to the series was my own ignorance of the philosophers being discussed and a desire to learn. It turns out that, much like my beloved television show History Bites, humour is an effective means of teaching because I retained a great deal of the lessons. All-New Iron Manual

It's a good thing that this is not a "best of" list or it would be arrogant of me to breathe a word about the All-New Iron Manual. Although this was not a perfect project it was one of the most exciting books I have written because of the amount of new artwork involved. I'm always pleased to give Eliot R. Brown's work a home, but to have a gallery of Iron Man armors by Carlo Pagulayan and a set of characters drawn by my teenage favorite Ron Lim made this particularly special for me. BPRD: The Ectoplasmic Man

I have tried repeatedly to get into the comic book incarnations of Hellboy & the BPRD, but to be honest, it takes a lot of effort; I don't think I'm the proper audience because I lack Mike Mignola's passion for reworking myths, fables and Lovecraft. Consequently, BPRD: The Ectoplasmic Man was a very pleasant surprise and is easily my favorite comic of the Hellboy mythos I have read. This done-in-one story relates the origin of the BPRD's Johann Krauss and it's the final panel which made me love it. The newly-deceased Krauss confronts a creature who feasts upon the dead; although Krauss' spirit is strong enough to avoid destruction, he can't actually stop the monster. Finally, Krauss receives a containment suit for his ectoplasmic remains and the final panel depicts him returning to the monster's lair. We don't get to see how the rematch plays out, it's left entirely to the imagination. I love a comic that lets me fill in a few of the blanks. Comic Book Comics

Enjoying Action Philosophers as I did, Comic Book Comics was a must-buy. What fascinates me about this series is that I considered myself rather well-educated in comic book history and yet Van Lente keeps drawing out anecdotes I had never heard while tying the fractured pieces of comics history into an easy-to-follow whole. Dr. 13: Architecture and Mortality

Dr. 13: Architecture & Mortality played around with a number of funky DC characters like Anthro the caveboy, the Haunted Tank and Captain Fear the ghost pirate. Irreverant takes on old properties are rather commonplace at Marvel & DC, but this one goes so far as to mock the creative direction of DC Comics, which tickled me. It turns out to be something of a celebration of the weird and the less-than-perfect while it condemns comics that exist to "fix" other comics. Immortal Iron Fist

The Immortal Iron Fist sent off its premiere creative team in 2008, bringing to an end a great run of action stories. The series' use of flashback tales and the way it built upon old stories while expanding Iron Fist's universe has done so much to make Iron Fist stand out at the head of his own mythos, rather than stapling him in with the rest of Marvel's heroes. This should be a textbook case for anyone trying to revive a dormant and neglected property. Invincible

Although I have heard good things online about Invincible for years now, I had never felt compelled to try the series out, even when free samples were offered. It took the recommendation of my friend Olav to lead me into a purchase and it turned out that Invincible is to my tastes (at least, my tastes at present). Writer Robert Kirkman seems to have been raised on many of the same comics I was and I enjoy how the series constantly finds a neat angle on old ideas. Invincible really got me thinking that this is the sort of super-hero comic the aging fanbase should be reading, rather than encouraging today's writers to alter the age-old Marvel/DC titles in the name of nostalgia or sophistication. In a way, I agree with Kirkman's diatribe, insofar as I'm beginning to think that Marvel/DC have led their super-heroes too far from their roots as kid-friendly creations. I would rather see the market send adult readers who want super-heroes to books such as Invincible and preserve the old heroes for future generations of kids; but that ship sailed a long time ago... JLA Presents: Aztek the Ultimate Man

If only I had consulted Olav prior to purchasing JLA Presents: Aztek the Ultimate Man, I would be a happier man (and $15 richer). I was interested in this series because of the many complimentary things I had heard online so I bought the collection without even cracking the cover. It turns out that Aztek was not to my tastes. I appreciated it's quirky take on super-heroes but it was impossible to place any emotional investment in the characters. All told, it was simply too odd. Its presence on my bookshelf will be a reminder: "never again." Maus

The big comic which I had heard of for years yet never read was Maus. It would have done me some good to find it years earlier, but I'm glad to finally have it done. By sheer coincidence, I was reading this at about the same time as the Diary of Anne Frank; that's a lot of Holocaust. Maus was the perfect compliment because of the contemporary material detailing the latter days of Spiegelman's father. It really informed me of the lasting impact of the Holocaust upon its survivors as I divined that Vladek Spiegelman's mindset was entrenched in the survivalist mentality of the camps and never returned to normal. Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus

I had enjoyed Fred Hembeck's work when it ran in locales such as Marvel Age magazine, but I knew little about his earlier material (much less where to find it). The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus solved that for me rather nicely. Although this phonebook-sized tome appeared to be a heavy read, I was confident that I could get through it in a couple of days - didn't I do the same with the various Marvel Essentials of similar size? Well, the Hembeck Archives took weeks. Many pages are crowded with text (which Hembeck apologizes for) as he goes on about comics he loved in his childhood, teenhood and at the time of original publication. I knew it would be funny, but it was also informative. Where else was I going to hear about that great Superman April Fool's story? North World

I had been following the webcomic version of North World since meeting Lars Brown in '06 and I was pleased to be there for the arrival of the print version. North World was the first webcomic I've followed which tells a story (as opposed to say, telling gags) and it opened up my eyes to the possibilities webcomics offer in a way 200 pages worth of Scott McCloud didn't. The "infinite" length and importance of page breaks really come through in the day-to-day process of webcomics.

Rex Libris

It seems that this will be the last year to talk about Rex Libris, which ended its run with issue #13. This was one of the first independent comics that I really enjoyed, in no small part because of the librarian hero concept. Rex had a fine send-off for his last year, even if I still don't care about Lovecraft pastiche (see BPRD). I'll really miss the Barry's editorials with their send-ups of comic book publishing; Barry's catastrophic business decisions which supposedly caused the comic to go out of publication seemed prescient in light of the collapse of Virgin Comics around the same time. Shockrockets

When I placed a copy of Shockrockets down at the cash register, the clerk broke out into a grin. He had a lot of fondness for this book and I can see why. Although it was brought to a quick finish, it tells a fairly complete story about a young man who is recruited into a band of pilots who operate extraterrestrial aircrafts. Kurt Busiek was on his a-game here and Stuart Immonen turned out some fine art; Shockrockets is the best combination I've seen of Busiek's character-driven material alongside all-out-action. Best action hero comic I've read since Global Frequency. Skaar: Son of Hulk

Skaar: Son of Hulk has not been everything I wanted so far. As a sequel to the storyline "Planet Hulk" I've found it a bit disappointing, but there is one aspect which has impressed me - the art. I have never been a fan of Ron Garney's work but somehow his material in Skaar is really clicking for me. Perhaps it's the absence of his inker, perhaps it's the barbarian-style environs, but I've been seeing a Joe Kubert-esque quality to his work that I really, really enjoy. Likewise, Butch Guice has been turning in astounding work in the back-up stories. He has a real John Buscema flair that I hadn't noticed before (again, perhaps because of the subject matter) and there aren't many contemporary artists following in the footsteps of the Foster/Buscema types. Guice would be an amazing Conan artist.

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