Saturday, December 31, 2005

YEAR IN REVIEW: Great comics of 2005

OK, one more post in this "year in review" business. I have to admit, 2005 wasn't a great year in comics from my perspective. Some very good stuff, but as a meat-and-potatoes superhero fan, I became increasingly disillusioned by the grab-my-money crossovers the "big two" Marvel and DC indulged in to excess. Some of these weren't bad – "Infinite Crisis" I am enjoying so far – but it does all seem a bit narcissistic, and in their incestuous self-absorbed detail these events certainly don't do much to bring new fans to the medium.

I just likes me a good self-contained superhero story that doesn't try to be the BIGGEST!! EVENT!!! EVER!!!!, but those are hard to find. Fortunately, some great indie comics also came my way this year and provided a bit more filling sustenance. Here's my tops of the year that was:

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBEST GRAPHIC NOVEL: Coming in at the last minute – I just bought a copy over Christmas — is the astounding, groundbreaking French graphic novel "Epileptic" by David B. This hefty 300-plus page black and white tome collects years of work by the French cartoonist, now in a handsome edition translated into English for the first time. It's as far from "Bam! Zap! Pow!" as you can get, a sprawling, mythic family history by David of his life and his older brother's struggles with epilepsy. His brother's illness defines an entire family, as David's parents struggle to find a cure — through science, mysticism, religion, cults and more.

Image hosted by"Epileptic" defies easy description. It's a coming-of-age tale, an artist's awakening, a family memoir and a meditation on storytelling itself. David's art is deceptive. On first glance, it's primitive and simple. But then you realize the sheer craft that's gone into it. David shifts styles, from thin, sketchy intricate linework, to thick, impressionistic landscapes, each panel with the crisp clarity and strangeness of a woodcut. Reality and imagination flow and shift within each other, as David gives literal form to the illnesses and fears dominating his family's thoughts. It's full of symbolism, yet not in an overly intrusive way. David is open and honest about his own flaws and failures in dealing with his brother. The art is far more than a tool for telling the story – in a lot of ways, it IS the story, shifting and mutating as David's own perspectives change. This may make "Epileptic" sound like a cold exercise, but it's hard to convey the warmth and passion of it, and it has a conclusion that will gently break your heart. Not to get all hyperbolic, but like "Watchmen," like "Maus," like "Jimmy Corrigan," "Epileptic" advances the very medium, changing the way I think about comics and their potential. It's a book that contains endless layers, and it's utterly remarkable. I'm already planning to read it again.

Runner-up: I really liked Alan Moore and Gene Ha's "Top Ten: The 49'ers," but I have to admit I wasn't quite as knocked off my feet by it like I was by the original miniseries. I'll have to read it again and give it another chance; regardless of my opinion, it's top-quality work, though. As was Alex Robinson's "Tricked," an epic tale of six separate lives coming together in one violent moment.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBEST MINISERIES: "Spider-Man/Human Torch" by Dan Slott and Ty Templeton. I never would have imagined this would be my favorite miniseries of the year – another Spider-Man spinoff? — but damn if Dan Slott didn't craft a loving, hilarious ode to all the things that made Spider-Man my favorite comic character growing up. Over five issues, he traces the rivalry and budding friendship between Spidey and the Fantastic Four's Human Torch, using old stories as building blocks for great "untold tales." Top it all off with an ending that is just perfect and warmed the cockles of this old fanboy's heart, and you've got a classic valentine to the superhero comics of the '60s, '70s and '80s.
Runner-up: "Villains United," the tale of a band of villains working to overthrow an even worse band of villains. Funny, surprising and action-packed, and even if it was part of a big company-wide crossover it actually stood pretty well on its own.

FAVORITE SINGLE ISSUE: "Concrete: The Human Dilemma" #2 by Paul Chadwick. As a follower of Paul Chadwick's saga since it started in 1987, I've grown to really enjoy the characters of Concrete, philosopher-trapped-in-a-stone-body, and his friends as he ambles through a strange life. But this issue blew me away in its surprising change to the status quo, and genuine changes to the character's relationships. By equal turns sad, sexy and thoughtful, it's a remarkable turning point for Concrete. Chadwick's writing is eloquent without being pretentious, and his art continues to be dreamlike and crisp. The rest of this miniseries was nearly as high quality; the only down side for me is the long wait before Chadwick does another one.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBEST ONGOING SERIES: A tie between Brian K. Vaughn's two great ongoing titles, "Ex Machina" and "Y: The Last Man." Both have "wow, that's a hook" topics – a superhero mayor of New York who intervened on 9-11, saving one of the twin towers; the last man on earth after a plague kills all males – and are handled with a breezy, surprise-filled hand by writer Vaughn. Some argue that "Y," approaching its 50th issue, has gotten stale, but read as a whole it's still a great blockbuster epic about a man in a world of women struggling to survive. "Ex Machina" is less sure-footed sometimes – I find the stories tend to end on flat notes — but boasts great characters and remains hip, topical reading as Vaughn juggles politics, heroics and menace.

BEST NEW SERIES: Sure, "Young Avengers" just sounded godawful, but it's been a pleasant surprise, fizzy teen superheroics with wit, originality and suspense. A throwback to Wolfman and Perez' "Teen Titans" or when "X-Men" comics were actually good, it's solid escapism, not groundbreaking, but rewarding fun.
Runners-up: Dan Slott's "She-Hulk" and "Thing" are a lot of fun too, and "All-Star Superman" by Grant Morrison is wonderful — but none of these books have made it past #2 yet, so I don't want to judge them entirely yet. Also heavily enjoying Brian Wood's "Local" #1-2.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBEST SUPERHERO BOOK: "Ultimates 2" might be amoral and gleefully cynical, but the gorgeous art by Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar's building sense of apocalypse in the writing give it the weight and kick of a top-notch Hollywood blockbuster. What began as a kind of "realistic" take on the Avengers has turned into a tangled, mean superhero conspiracy, and all the pieces began coming together this year in a series of betrayals and bloodshed. I've always admired "The Ultimates" more than I've loved it, but this year I began to regard this gorgeous, twisted series with some real affection. Looking forward to seeing how it all wraps up in 2006.

BEST REPRINTS: Marvel's Essential line of thick, black-and-white phone books collecting hundreds of pages of classic comics for less than $20 still rocked my world in 2005, with new acquisitions like "Essential Defenders," "Essential Luke Cage" (Sweet Christmas!) and "Essential Marvel Two-In-One." Even better, DC Comics jumped in the game with their own phone books, and the "DC Showcase Superman" and "DC Showcase Jonah Hex" books are great reading (and even better reproduction than the Marvel volumes). Pound-for-pound, these books are the best value in comics today.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: "Black Panther" by Reginald Hudlin. Wow, this was bad. The Black Panther, Marvel's first black superhero, is one of those characters I've always liked, and the idea of a revival with a modern edge appealed to me. But Hollywood writer (he did "House Party," which surely means something to someone) Hudlin honestly can barely write a coherent comic book, ignoring any continuity, giving out-of-character portrayals, nonsensical plots and nowhere near a consistent authorial voice or tone. It doesn't feel like the man's written a comic in his life. Attempts at being "hip" and topical were awkward as watching your dad rap. Despite gorgeous art by John Romita Jr., this relaunch was a dismal misfire, not half as good as the previous "Black Panther" series by Priest. I bailed out with #6 and won't return to the Panther until Hudlin's off the book.
Runner-up: The current crossover "The Other" running through the "Spider-Man" titles boasted some intriguing promise, but more than halfway through, it's a stretttttched out, morbid and depressive slog, with only a few glimmers of invention. The plot: Spider-Man gets sick, is beaten up and, well, then he dies. Gee, you think he'll come back, with some radical new changes that'll be undone within a year? If I weren't addicted to Spider-Man like a crack whore, I'd avoid this crossover for sure. Yeah, I'm that sad a fanboy.

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBEST BOOK I DISCOVERED AFTER EVERYONE ELSE DID: The rest of the comics world had been raving about "Street Angel," but it took the collected edition coming out for me to discover it. One of a kind, skateboarding, ninja-kicking, space-pirating, afro-wearing fun. Jesse Sanchez is "Street Angel," a homeless orphan eighth grader and avid skater living in the squalor of the inner city. She's also a butt-kicking superheroine who battles the forces of evil wherever they occur, even if it means she might have to ditch class. With equal amounts wacky humor, high action, pathos and occasionally startling violence, creators Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca tell freewheeling tales of Jesse's adventures. The collection is well worth seeking out, and I hope for more tales soon. (Original review here).

BEST COMIC MOVIE: A tie between "Batman Begins" and "Sin City," each of which were far better and more faithful to their origins than I would've imagined possible.

WORST COMIC MOVIE: I wasted 90 minutes of my life on the bomb "Elektra," which took everything interesting about Frank Miller's character and turned it into Generic Troubled Violent Girl Movie starring a comatose Jennifer Garner. (Full review.)

Image hosted by Photobucket.comBEST CROSSOVER: Yeah, you have mega-crossovers like "House of M" and "Infinite Crisis," but the one this year that's been most fascinating to watch is Grant Morrison's revolutionary "Seven Soldiers," a series of seven (!) four-part miniseries bookended by two specials, loosely interlocking heroic tales all tied together by a vast threatening invasion of Earth. Reviving or reimagining dormant characters like the Manhattan Guardian, Zatanna, The Bulleteer and even the Frankenstein Monster, this stuff has been a blast, packed with Morrison's quantum-sized imagination and scope, full of wondrous little details. The last few parts of the saga finish up in early 2006. It's hard to take it all in, but despite a few missteps here and there, this 30-issue epic is a lolapalooza that puts all other "event comics" to shame.

Happy New Year, all!

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