Friday, January 7, 2011

Considering 2010: Comics

During 2010 the flow of comic books into my home took on a crazed life of its own. Marvel themselves provided me with a hefty supply of titles, but I also bought into plenty of graphic novels and continued to branch out into other publishers' work.

So, I think it makes the most sense to divvy up 2010 into what I most enjoyed from Marvel...and everything else.


Many years ago (before I was a freelancer) I toyed with the idea of telling the story behind Jeff Mace, the man who (via retcons) served as Captain America circa 1946-1950. I was fascinated at the idea that he was a normal man filling in for a believed-dead hero at a time when no one (including readers) cared about super heroes. Fortunately, Karl Kesel has finally told this story in Captain America: Patriot and he hit on every point I wanted to see covered. This book hits the notes of continuity perfectly (which as a handbook writer I'm still impressed by), but I felt it also did a fine job of characterizing Mace and his personal struggles filling a role he didn't really want for people who don't really want him. Also, Kesel's Sub-Mariner is an absolute delight.

I'm constantly impressed at the work editor Stephen Wacker does on Amazing Spider-Man, employing some of my personal favourite writers (Mark Waid, Fred Van Lente, Roger Stern, Dan Slott) and teams of excellent artists, most notably Marcos Martin. In recent issues, I was stunned to find how much I enjoyed Humberto Ramos' art, having been disappointed with his work almost a decade ago. However I felt about the Ramos of 2001, the Ramos of 2010 is worth following!

As part of a research assignment, I went over Peter David's X-Factor, which I don't normally follow. I already knew some of the details of his most recent storylines, but it was eye-opening to read them for myself. In particular the X-Factor Special: Layla Miller which detailed the young mutant Layla surviving in a totalitarian future, X-Factor#39 with the birth of Jaime Madrox's son and X-Factor#40 featuring Madrox's grapple with life were some of the best stories of David's on this title.

Like so many on the internet, I loved Roger Langridge & Chris Samnee's Thor: the Mighty Avenger, sadly cancelled after a mere 8 issues. Written in a stand-alone continuity intended to bring in fans of the upcoming movie (who will, I guess, get to buy the trade paperback anyway), this is the best Thor comic I've read in about 15 years. The gentle humour and fun characterizations are part of what makes it so engaging, but more than anything it's that Langridge takes nothing for granted - nothing. He doesn't waste the reader's time and he doesn't invest in characters or scenes that aren't worth investing in. Every page and every panel matter to the story, so they matter to me.

Avengers Academy is Christos N. Gage's new series to replace Avengers: the Initiative. The concept - superhuman teenagers considered potential super villains being taught to be heroes by the Avengers - has endless potential. Although the series spun out of the Initiative it's actually the spritual successor to Brian K. Vaughn's Runaways as a series about teenagers grappling with their morality.

Even though Greg Pak returned to Incredible Hulk last year, I felt it wasn't up to the standards of Pak's earlier Planet Hulk or World War Hulk. Well, with an exception: Incredible Hulk#611 in which the Hulk battles his son Skaar led to an exceptional pay-off not only for readers of Pak's work, but for anyone who followed Bill Mantlo or Peter David's Hulk.

Fred Van Lente is always good (and needs to get his Comic Book Comics to ship regularly), but I felt his best work in 2010 was on the mini-series Shadowland: Power Man, featuring a teenager who adopts Luke Cage's old "Power Man" handle, along with Cage's old "Hero for Hire" job. Van Lente crafts a believable picture of life in Harlem...or, at least, the Marvel Universe version of Harlem where you're as likely to meet a ninja as anything.


Sticking with super heroes, I've been giving Grant Morrison a sober second look lately by trying out some of his most esteemed work. So far that's included All-Star Superman, WE3 and the beginning of his Animal Man. I'm definitely learning to appreciate his writing, although I prefer him on stand-alone projects rather than his shared universe work at Marvel and DC. All-Star Superman has at least three panels which struck me with their visual, emotional power; I want to see more of his work. I blogged some more about WE3 here.

2010 was also the year I discovered Joe Sacco via Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde and Footnotes in Gaza. With all the flat-out fiction I read, it's nice to experience something of the real world in my comics. Sacco's work has done a lot to educate me on Israel and Bosnia and inspired me to learn more; it also helped inspire me to commit myself to a mission in Angola for 2011. After all the suffering I witnessed in Sacco's books, I felt the need to get overseas and help people. I blogged some more about Palestine here.

From Sacco I took an interest in How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden. This is an autobiographical story where the author goes on a birthright trip to Israel and confronts her prejudices about the Israelis. She never really confronts the issues about Palestine which formed her beliefs so her story's finish is a letdown...but that's real life, eh?

After promising myself for years that I would delve into Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, I finally took the plunge in 2010 and it's been providing me with some of the most consistently enjoyable stories on my bookshelf. With more than 20 volumes of trade paperbacks in print Usagi seems daunting to outsiders, but as fans in the know promised me, you can start almost anywhere in the series and find the story easy to flow into; I'm currently devouring the snake at both ends, working my way through the trades in order while buying the new issues as they ship.

The concept of a cat-man who solves crimes sounds simplistic, right? It is. What isn't is the art of Juanjo Guarnido, whose ability to render a lush, verisimilitudinous "funny animal" version of 50s noir made Blacksad an instant favourite. The fact that John Blacksad has whiskers is a tool to catch your attention, and it certainly worked on me. I'm eager to see more of Blacksad as it's translated. I blogged some more about Blacksad (and Usagi Yojimbo) here.

James Turner's Warlord of Io seems to have run its (troubled) course, drifting from serialized print format to electronic-only to trade paperback. It's much more plot driven than Turner's earlier Rex Libris, but the plot - video game crazy Zing being named emperor but facing an immediate coup - serves to introduce all sorts of fun characters, situations and opportunities for Turner to flex his artistic muscles. I blogged some more about Warlord of Io here.

Two of my favourite humourous writers came out with projects in 2010: Jim Rugg with his blaxploitation satire Afrodisiac and Bryan Lee O'Malley with Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour. Actually, while Afrodisiac is straight-up satire on every page (to the point where you can predict the outcomes - Afrodisiac gets every woman because every woman wants him; lather, wash, repeat), O'Malley's final Scott Pilgrim took itself with a smidge of seriousness when it came to Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers' relationship (as in the previous volume).

I took a gamble on American Born Chinese, but considering it had already won a few awards, it seemed like a safe bet. This book collects seemingly-unconnected tales about people who want to be something other than what they are (notably the titular Chinese-American protagonist). I can't know how growing up Asian in a mostly-white society feels, but I empathized with the feelings of otherness and ultimately, it's why I read fiction - to gain insight into other people's experiences.

For decades now, Batton Lash has been producing Supernatural Law - currently on the web - yet it's seldom brought up in comic book circles and the collections are difficult to locate. Happily, I found the volume Sonovawitch! in which Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre, represent a man accused of bewitching a woman to love him. In reality, he's a victim of his witch mother, who just wants her son to get married. Sonovawitch! is just one of the stories collected in that trade but it's typical of Wolff & Byrd's misadventures; I look forward to finding the rest of the series.

Finally, I delved into two well-described titles by John Ostrander: Grimjack and the Spectre. The Grimjack Omnibus was a nice little tome with interesting mash-ups of detective, horror, science fiction and comedy; my favourite was a story where Grimjack was hired by a vampire to catch his killer. Ostrander's Spectre may be the best of his work I've read; over 60 issues he delves into Jim Corrigan, a murdered police man bound to the spirit of vengeance, cursed to combat evil until he understands it. Corrigan's journey through the series, particularly his grief at losing his closest mortal friend, a fight with Superman that's unlike any I'd seen before, the character's philosophical and theological discussions with the level-headed Father Craemer and that final issue, with Corrigan's out the Spectre; back issues can be difficult to locate, but it's well worth the effort.

Tomorrow: books!


Batton Lash said...

Thanks much, Michael! I appreciate the kind words. You and all interested readers can read about and order "Supernatural Law" books here:

Batton Lash

Michael Hoskin said...

No, thank YOU Mr. Lash! After I've completed reading all of the Supernatural Law on the web I'm planning to order the other trades!