Friday, January 13, 2012

Comic books of 2011: the good

In the 1990s, I was an avid fan of Siskel & Ebert's television program, watching every broadcast. I'd hoped to open this post with a particular clip, but sadly, I can't locate it on Youtube.

This moment has always stuck with me: the duo were reviewing the film Gamera: Guardian of the Universe; Ebert liked it, Siskel did not. Siskel covered the film first and closed off his review by saying he couldn't recommend the movie and instead suggested viewers seek out the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters from 1956. Ebert was almost livid in his reaction, asking Siskel (words to this effect) "If we're just going to recommend old movies, why don't you and I stay home all year rewatching Citizen Kane?"

In several of my discussions about the current state of comic books over at Colin Smith's blog, he and I have bandied words to the effect of "Kirby knew how to do this," "Toth would have done it right," "Wood forgot more than most artists have ever known," etc. I think all we mean to do is point to ready examples of clean, inventive comic book storytelling. The danger of such statements is you begin to imply comic books of the past are inherantly superior to what's being produced today.

It would be very easy to stop reading new comic books. If I spent the rest of my life just reading old stories by Kirby, Toth, Wood, Colan, Williamson, Krigstein, Maneely, Kurtzmann, Cole, Eisner, Barks, Kelly, Frazetta and Everett, I think I would be reasonably happy (and would have plenty to enjoy, even at the pace I take in comics). However, I'd be allowing my tastes to stagnate, denying myself the pleasures found in contemporary works which communicate how people living today feel about the world around them.

Thus, I've remained with contemporary comic books. I've taken some risks on new material and untested talent which haven't paid off, but I've also happened across new works which are really meaningful to me, entertaining me, bolstering my imagination, encouraging me to open my mind.

Therefore, here are the contemporary comic books of 2011 which I'm pleased to recommend:

Given how I complained about storytelling in comics yesterday, I feel I should begin with a series which wears brilliant storytelling like a glove: Usagi Yojimbo. The advantage Usagi has, of course, is that Stan Sakai is responsible for everything on the page - plot, script, art and letters. I'm very nearly completely caught up with Usagi now and it's a rewarding book, telling stories today which are as solid as those 20 years ago. It's particularly great to see how the cast of characters develop over time, revealing new layers and altering their connections to each other.

On a very similar wavelength is Sergio Aragones Funnies, which is likewise the brainchild of one man, Sergio Aragones. As I've said before, while I enjoy Sergio's gag cartoons and humorous stories (even the occasional dramatic tale), what I most enjoy are his biographical pieces. The most recent issue (#6) recalled an episode from his childhood and even though it's not life-altering or momentous (he and a friend once accidentally boarded a moving freight train), it's easy to see why it's remained etched in his memory; now it's etched on paper. I suppose what I really enjoy in Sergio is his openess and honesty.

Comic Book Comics completed its 6-issue run in 2011, but it could have easily kept going another 6 issues. Or 12. Or 18. It amazes me whenever I find a piece of information on comic book history I was previously unaware of. I wish Comic Book Comics had found the space to cover other turning points like the foundation of Image Comics, the Marvel bankruptcy or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles saga, but I'll treasure all of what they did deliver. Learning about comics history with Comic Book Comics is like having the stories told to you by a close friend.

Although I'm an all-around Marvel Comics guru, I don't care much for Daredevil. It's a serious blindspot in my mastery of Marvel - there are huge chunks of Daredevil I've never read (not even all of Miller), even though there are five Daredevil comics I'd place on my all-time favourite list. I've never really warmed up to protagonist Matt Murdock and the deeply depressing life he leads, but Mark Waid may yet change my way of thinking. Thanks to his collaborators, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, he's turned in one of the most beautiful super hero comics I've seen in years; the amount of love and craft on every page is invigorating, especially in how Murdock's radar senses are brought to life by sound effects. In most super hero comics, sound effects seem to be workmanlike at best; Daredevil uses sound effects in ways I normally only find in indie comics, such as Matt Murdock dodging bullets represented by sound effects (above). Daredevil is the super hero book I most anticipate - quite a reversal!

Speaking of Daredevil, someone had the bright idea to have the Black Panther take over Daredevil's job as defender of Hell's Kitchen in Black Panther: the Man Without Fear/Most Dangerous Man Alive. I haven't put any real stock into Black Panther since Christopher Priest left the franchise and this series was saddled with depriving the hero of his supporting cast, setting and special weapons while putting him into Daredevil's setting. To top it off, writer David Liss is a newcomer to comic books, being an import from the world of prose. You wouldn't expect Black Panther to work, and yet... it's both true and liberating to the character. Removing the Black Panther's special weapons, army of loyal allies and political power scales him back down to a point where he can actually lose; what's great then is that he gets to display new strengths, relying on his initiative and reflexes to get past problems. To top it off, it's hopeful.

In Black Panther's Fear Itself tie-in, the Hate-Monger uses his emotion-altering powers to inflame locals, fanning racism to turn them against the Black Panther. However, the Hate-Monger's most ardently racist supporter - Chambliss - isn't even under the man's power. When the crisis is averted, Chambliss goes to the Panther asking to make amends; he's then made a janitor in the Panther's diner. So yes, we all get a good laugh at the racist, but at the same time, the Panther is extending a second chance to him; very cool and all too rare. Finally, most of the series has boasted the art of Francesco Francavilla, who's just been exploding on the scene at various titles (Detective Comics, Captain America & Bucky); he's one to watch, for sure.

It probably also helps David Liss that his mini-series Mystery Men was illustrated by Patrick Zircher. It flew under most people's radar, but as a 1930s super hero tale it was well-crafted and told at a breakneck pace. Virtually every character in Mystery Men was created by Liss for the series, but in just five issues he makes his characters come to life, including some of the background characters met along the way. Somehow Liss and Zircher managed to tell an alternate history epic where Ayn Rand helped conspire in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; that's chutzpah, there.

Xombi lasted a mere six issues; six issues of glorious insanity. Big, bold imaginative ideas by John Rozum with art to match by Frazer Irving. Everyone reading Xombi realized it couldn't last, but I for one was glad they made the effort. Even with no experience of the original 1990s version of the comic and despite the dense text, I accepted Xombi on its terms and its bizarre ideas were as much charming as usettling. More about Xombi here.

Finally, who would have thought Journey into Mystery would work its way into our hearts? It became a darling of comic book fans almost immediately, with its adventures of a child-sized Loki trying to save Asgard and his brother Thor by playing tricks on everyone. Every issue has held so much deft plotting and characterization by Kieron Gillen, it's a joy to behold. Young Loki's desire to good by committing little evils creates an interesting balance in the book, where we readers don't want Loki to fail, but fear his solutions will only increase the misery of others.


Ed Allen said...

Cracking list you've made there.

I'm with you on Mystery Men. Liss and Zircher absolutely killed it.

I'm amazed that's his first comic. It was so perfectly paced. Perhaps it isn't so amazing when you consider the fact that it was jam-packed with appealing, sympathetic and well conceived characters, and managed not to display a level of sexism that would shame a Neanderthal.

That almost makes me sound like a's only because I love comics that I say such things.

Michael Hoskin said...

Mystery Men isn't his first comic book - I think it's his third story? - but for a young talent whose experience lies mostly in another medium, he has some serious chops. If all prose-to-comics authors made the transition as well as he has, we wouldn't gripe about the "outsiders" coming into comics.