Best Comics Of 2011: Best Mini-Series of the Year

The rules here are a little arbitrary but its probably the simplest way to categorize this. Basically a title is eligible if it’s between 2-10 issues long, and ENDED in 2011. Which means great minis like Matt Fraction’s Casanova: Avaritia, or Brian Azzarello’s Spaceman will have to wait until next year to be considered. Unfortunately this also means that titles that started years ago but aren’t finished yet aren’t eligible either, which leaves out things like Ben McCool’s Memoir. No worries, as there are still plenty of eligible mini-series well worth your time.

20. The Witch Doctor by Brandon Seifert & Lukas Ketner (Skybound/Image)

It was tempting to dismiss this as yet another of the dozens of shoddy supernatural adventurer comics that seem to clog up the stands these days. But Seifert and Ketner are definitely onto something here, with their whimsical Quincy meets Doc Frankenstein pastiche. They’re in monster-of-the-week territory for sure, but the basic premise is so sound that forgiveness is forthcoming. The addition of real medical explanations for supernatural happenstance is a welcome one, and Ketner is turning out some of the best monsters in comics.

19. Billy The Kid’s Old Timey Oddities & The Ghastly Fiend Of London by Eric Powell & Kyle Hotz (Dark Horse)

Billy The Kid Vs. Jack The Ripper, and in not in a slash fiction-y sort of way, which was nice. Yee-Haw! Powell kept busy during his hiatus from his seminal Goon series, and this odd little monster-hunting mini is one of the more pleasant results. Better than most of the LOEXG copycats currently clogging up the stands.

18. Xombi by John Rozum and Frazer Irving (DC)

Xombi was a series that run as part of the Milestone/DC universe back in the 90′s, starring a human/nanite cyborg that couldn’t die. Critics loved it. No one bought it. Fast forward 20 years later, and after decades of absolutely no one asking for it to be brought back, it was. I’m not really sure how this got greenlit at DC in the first place, but I’m glad it did, if only to highlight how devoid of originality and big ideas the two big publishers are right now. Xombi picked up right where it’s predecessor left off, highlighting the adventures of David Kim as he deals with the craziness that come with his new life as a techno-infested immortal. This really was like nothing else published by the big two this year, which is probably why it barely lasted 6 issues. But the convoluted yet entertaining scripts of John Rozum, and the effortlessly creepy pencils of Frazer Irving are well worth the time of fans of the weirder side of comics.

17. Atomic Robo: The Deadly Art Of Science by Brian Clevinger & Scott Wegener (Red5)

With his admittedly pulpy roots, it was just a matter of time before Atomic Robo got placed into a proper 1930′s pulp-hero adventure. The Deadly Art Of Science sees the mechanical adventurer team up with crime fighter Jack Tarot and his daughter/partner Nightingale, as they battle the evil science of Thomas Edison. Muuah-ha-and-a-double-ha.  I like pretty much everything that Wegener and Clevinger have done to date with their Robo character, but to me they haven’t quite recaptured the heights they reached during their epic Shadows From Beyond Time mini-series. Still, the fun inherent in the characters and concepts more than make up for it. Got kids? Get this.

16. Locke and Key: Keys To The Kingdom by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)

It’s one of the most original books on the stands, but with such ambition comes the danger of overreaching. Locke And Key hasn’t done that yet, but this epic ghost story is becoming so weird, and so strange, that getting new readers at this late date might be almost impossible. With Vertigo taking a break from being Vertigo this year, Locke & Key remains your best bet for bizarre, unconventional horror.

15. Axe-Cop: Bad Guy Earth by Ethan Nicolle and Malachi Nicolle (Dark Horse)

After the runaway success of the Axe-Cop webcomic as a viral sensation, Ethan Nicolle was approached by Dark Horse to create a print version of his brilliant tribute to stream-of-consciousness narrative. One month of intense playtime with his 6-year-old brother (and series writer) Malachi later, and we have Bad Guy Earth, a more than worthy addition to the Axe-Cop mythos. Yes, the writer of this comic is 6 years old, and it shows. Gloriously. As I wrote when doing my best webcomics list, there are no rules here, no shades of grey. Only good guys, versus the unyielding menace of..BAD GUY EARTH. 

14. B.P.R.D. Hell On Earth – Gods/Monsters by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, Guy Davis, and Tyler Crook (Dark Horse)

Forget Marvel or DC. My favourite shared universe in comics is and has been for a long time, the Mignola-verse. Or if you’d like, the world where Hellboy lives. And while Hellboy hasn’t been associated with the BPRD in a decade or so, the BPRD is still going strong. Well, not really strong, as the Hell On Earth tagline that now accompanies all BPRD books isn’t so much a slogan as it is an accurate description of the world they now live in. In short, they’re screwed.  Gods and Monsters gave the characters a chance to catch their breath after the horrific events of The King Of Fear, and focus on what the Bureau’s role will be in this new, post-apocalyptic world. Monsters also saw the addition of Tyler Crook to the creative team, and in a very short period of time it appears as if Crook will make a more than worthy successor to the talents of Guy Davis.

13. Incognito: Bad Influences by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Icon)

 The original Incognito mini introduced us to Zack Overkill, a former super-villain trying to stay on the straight and narrow. In Bad Influences, Zack is in full hero mode, and is working for the forces of good. But for Zack, staying on the right side of the law is harder than it looks. My only critique of Brubaker and Philip’s follow-up to their critically acclaimed super-noir Incognito mini is that I’m not sure it was necessary. I loved the first mini, but the concept wasn’t one that screamed “SEQUEL NEEDED” to me. I’m happy to report that I was wrong. It’s obvious that Brubaker and Phillips are trying to duplicate the slowly building pressure of their much-missed Sleeper series here, putting their hero through horrific events that are bound to just get worse with every arc. I’m happy to say that I can’t wait for the sequel.

12. Mystery Men by David Liss & Patrick Zircher (Marvel)

This was Marvel’s attempt at fleshing out their pre-WW2 era mythos, and while I don’t know if they succeeded at that, they did succeed at staging an entertaining 1930′s pulp comic with exciting new characters that was better than almost anything else they put on the stands this year. It’s the story of five masked heroes in 1930′s New York, who team up to overcome a giant conspiracy. This was better than it had any right to be, and one hopes that Marvel doesn’t dilute its critical success here by giving us unnecessary sequels. Hope to see more of this team in the future.

11. Baltimore: The Curse Bells by Mike Mignola, Chris Golden, and Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)

The second of four Mignola-related books on my list, but it’s the result of real quality rather than any bias on my part. The work Mignola is producing these days with his collaborative partners is just that good. The character of Lord Henry Baltimore was conceived both by Mignola and by novelist Chris Golden to be the ultimate tortured vampire hunter. He’s on the hunt for Haigus, the vampire that a) is trying to take over Europe, and b) killed his family. Although Baltimore doesn’t have nearly the likability or charisma of other Mignola heroes like Hellboy or Sir Edward Grey, what the story lacks in fun it makes up for in terror, and there’s an edge here that’s often missing in other Mignola books.

10. Witchfinder: Lost & Gone Forever by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi, and John Severin (Dark Horse)

Victorian supernatural detective meets weird western ghost story, as written by two of today’s strongest creators, and drawn by one of the industry’s great pencillers? You had me at hello. Witchfinder is peripherally connected to Mignola’s larger Hellboy mythology, but these chilling adventures of Mignola’s Sir Edward Grey character stand up on their own quite nicely. In Lost & Gone Forever, Grey is in the American mid-west trying to track down a member of a mystical secret society. What he finds instead is…wait for it….HORROR! Ha. Like pretty much everything connected with Mignola these days, the quality of the work here is high. What makes this one so  special though, is the beautiful art of EC comics legend John Severin. I’m ashamed to admit that I was barely familiar with his work before this, and I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. If I was ranking just on quality of art work, this 89-year-old legend would have taken the top spot.

9. The Last Mortal by John Mahoney and Flip Sabilik (Image)

This got overlooked this year in lieu of flashier, yet lesser Image minis, but I’m hoping that an upcoming collected version will give this well-crafted thriller a second lease on life. It’s the story of Alex King, a petty criminal that finds out one day that he has a superpower: he can’t die. In the hands of lesser talent, that would be the end of it, and the entire story would coast on that conceit. But Mahoney and Sabilik understand that it’s characters that bring people back, and so they’ve created a tragic, and charismatic lead that we as readers can’t help but want to see succeed. The superpower stuff is just icing on the cake, and that restraint is the sign of real talent.

8. Comic Book Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey (Evil Twin Comics)

This was Van Lente and Dunlavey’s attempt at creating a somewhat comprehensive overview of the history of comics, in comic book form. This was an ambitious project by the creators of Action Philosophers, and as such took a few years to finish. In terms of tone, the closest comparison I could make it to are Larry Gonick’s fun and fantastic Cartoon History Of The World books. As far as essential books needed to full understand how comics became what they are today, I’d say that it’s pretty much indispensible.

7. Who Is Jake Ellis? By Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic (Image)

Edmondson has been on my talent to watch list ever since last year’s creepy The Light mini-series, and I’m pleased to say that his follow-up is as good, if not better. It’s the story of Jon Moore, a mercenary that’s on the run from various enemies. He’s completely alone, with one exception: Jake Ellis, a man who offers Moore logistical and technical support wherever possible. Only snag? Only Moore can see him.  This was one of the more overly cinematic books on the stands this year, with Tonci Zonjic’s moody but precise pencils providing a well-crafted canvas for Edmonson’s tight story.

6. Batman: Knight Of Vengeance by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (DC)

I won’t bore you with the details of what DC’s mega-event Flashpoint was all about other than to say that it’s a) over, and b) was terrible, but I will say that n this year of superhero mediocrity, it would take a hell of a lot to get me to rank a Flashpoint mini series  in my top 10 of the year. This, my friends, is a hell of a lot of comic. First of all, it’s by the team that brought you 100 Bullets, which pretty much guarantees a first look. Second of all, it’s one of the best superhero books I’ve read all year. The skinny: This is an alternate-universe tale, and one in which it was Bruce Wayne that was killed by a mugger’s bullet in that alley so long ago, not his parents. In this world, it’s Dr. Thomas Wayne that picks up the cowl of Batman in an effort to avenge the family he lost decades before. This sounds a little gimmicky, but Azzarello and Risso took this series very seriously, and put together a great three-part tragedy that will tear the heart out of pretty much anybody who reads it. P.S. Wait till you find out who the Joker is….

5. Hellboy: The Fury by Mike Mignola and Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)

Hellboy is dead. As a doornail. And this is the series that killed him. Mike Mignola has been building towards this monumental mini for a few years now. Like any major character death, the true measure of whether or not it was the right thing to do is if it caused a legitimate emotional response in its readers, and thankfully Mignola has evolved so much as a writer in recent years that he was able to pull that off without a hitch. Fegredo has become such a formidable partner for Mignola that his depiction of the decades-in-the-making battle of between Hellboy and the Ogdru Jahad is going to be talked about for years to come.

4. Echoes by Joshua Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal (Minotaur/Image)

Brian Cohn is a sick man, but he’s doing better. He’s been struggling with a serious case of schizophrenia, but with the help of drugs and his supportive wife, he’s learning to cope. Until he learns that his father may have been a serial killer.  Bazaam. If I was doing a pure horror comics list, this would have easily crushed the top spot. Lots of horror comics being produced right now are either monster of the week books (BPRD) or apocalyptic gross-out sagas (Crossed), but few of them are actually scary. Echoes isn’t just scary, it’s terrifying. Fialkov isn’t just an up-and-coming talent anymore, he’s arrived, and if you want to learn how to build tension in a comic book, look no further than Echoes.

3. Ozma Of Oz by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young (Marvel)

In Ozma Of Oz, little Dorothy Gale encounters robots, talking chickens, and bulimic tigers. Just another day in Oz, then. Ozma is Shanower and Young’s third adaptation of Frank Baum’s original Oz books, and they’re pretty much guaranteed to be on my best of lists as long as they keep doing them.  Ozma sees Dorothy Gale return to Oz, and is more of a pure sequel to the Wizard Of Oz than the Marvelous Land Of Oz was.  These minis are fairly faithful to the originals, and as such are both enhanced and hindered by the wonder and weirdness of the original series. Thankfully Shanhower’s love of the source material, and Young’s original sense of visual storytelling make them the perfect collaborators for these projects.Want your kids to get into comics? This is a great start.

2. Sweets by Kody Chamberlain (Image)

I wanted to include this in last year’s list, but it didn’t actually wrap up until 2011, so I waited. And I’m glad I did. Chamberlain’s story of a New Orleans Detective on the hunt for a serial killer days before Hurricane Katrina hits is an emotional powerhouse, and one that’s best served all in one bite. Chamberlain sets up tropes familiar to those us who love modern crime stories: An at-the-end-of-his-rope protagonist. Political intrigue. A moody, evocative setting. But it’s the way he blends them all together that’s the real joy here. Can’t wait to see what Chamberlain comes up with next.

1. Criminal: Last Of The Innocent by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Icon)

What do you give the comic that has everything?  More praise, I guess? I can’t imagine anybody reading this blog that isn’t at least peripherally aware of the brilliant work that Brubaker and Phillips have been doing on their Criminal mini-series for the past five years or, but if you’re not, here goes: Each mini series is self-contained, and stars…wait for it….a criminal. Yep. Doing crime. And while it’s getting a bit redundant to say so, Last Of The Innocent might be the finest Criminal story to date. It’s the story of Riley Richards, a small town boy done well. He got the girl, he got the job, got the money…but he’s not happy. Yet. And he’s ready to do pretty much anything to get  there. This isn’t just a compelling story, it’s a masterclass on modern comic storytelling. Brubaker and Phillips use flashbacks in such a unique and exciting way that they’re not just telling you the history of their characters, they’re telling you the history of comics.

Honourable mention: Ruse by Mark Waid, Mirco Pierfederici, & Minck Oosterveer, (Marvel),  Undying Love by Tomm Coker & Daniel Freedman (Image), Chronicles Of Wormwood: Last Battle by Garth Ennis & Oscar Jimenez (Avatar), The Mission by Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, and Werther Dell’Edera (Image)

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 – DC Comics: Hitman, Joker, and Jonah Hex

The more observant readers among you will notice that I reviewed my Huntress conics in the last post, even though alphabetically they come AFTER Hitman, and therefore should in fact be in this post. That’s true. But only if you live in this dimension. But if you’ve been to Earth 7 (somewhere I travel to often for business), you’ll know that due to baby Kal-El’s being sent to a small farm outside of Windsor, Ontario as a baby, the alphabet has evolved in different ways, and in no way did I make a mistake that makes me look like I can’t spell.

HitmanHitman, Ten Thousand Bullets, Ace Of Killers, Who Dares Wins

This is a mid ’90′s series by Garth Ennis and John McRea that doesn’t get discussed much today, though it was a critical success, and for good reason. It’s about Tommy Monaghan, a Gotham-based assassin who has the power of telepathy, and X-Ray vision. Simplistic as superpowers ago, but pretty much perfect if your chosen field is sneaking up behind people and killing them.

Hitman still stands up today as a well-written, character driven, action-comedy comic. Now, critics of Ennis’ writing will say that it’s got all of the Ennis tropes: Good ol’ boys hanging around a bar acting tough? Check. Lack of a three-dimensional female lead? Check. Lots of violence and gore for the sake of violence and gore? Check.

But I don’t mind. At least for this series. In later years Ennis would take all of these characteristics of his writing style and turn them into full-blown clichés (Cough…The Boys…Cough…) but in this context, they come across as genuine and charming.

Pretty much the only negative thing I can say about this series is that it’s not served well by being part of the regular DCU. Better known DC characters like Batman or Green Lantern rarely appeared, but when they did, they were portrayed as goofy parodies of themselves, and rarely served the story. Currently only a small part of this series is available in trade, but hopefully DC reprints the rest soon.

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JokerGreatest Joker Stories Ever Told

How is it possible that the Greatest Joker Stories trade is better than the Greatest Batman Stories trade? I think it’s probably history’s fault. With the Batman volume, the editors tried very hard to include stories from every decade, and also limited their option to single issue stories. Great, except that meant leaving out so many truly great Batman stories, and including quite a few that really aren’t that great when you consider them from a big picture standpoint.

All in all, this stands up as a pretty great collection for Batman fans, though I’m still hoping that they eventually reprint all of the stories from the great Joker ’70′s series in one trade.

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JokerJoker

This is a stand alone graphic novel that Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo did last year to capitalize on Heath Ledger’s performance in the Dark Knight film. Azzarello pulls off a nifty trick here, writing a story that could easily fall into either the Dark Knight continuity, or into mainstream Batman continuity. Great for new readers, but I would also say that it’s one of the better recent Joker stories, though not on the level of Paul Dini’s amazing Detective Comics run from a few years ago. There’s some beautiful painting from Lee Bermejo as well.

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Jonah HexLead Poisoning, Only The Good Die Young, Face Full Of Violence, Bullets Don’t Lie, Guns Of Vengeance, Origins, Luck Runs Out, The Six Gun War

I’m not really sure how Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have convinced DC to let them continue with this gem of a series for so long, but I’m not complaining. For those of you who were lucky enough NOT to watch the sink-hole of a Hex film that Warners put out early this year let me tell you the concept: Tough, bad-ass gunfighter in the old west, beats up other tough, bad-ass gunfighters in the old west. That’s it. Now, you’d think that would be enough, but no. Gray and Palmiotti constantly outdo themselves on this series, and I really think it’s gotten better as time has gone on. And since most Hex stories are contained to just one or two issues, it allows the writers to have a wide array of excellent artists working on the book with them.

Probably the only time where the series falters is when Hex stumbles into supernatural adventures. Although magic is something that the character has often had to deal with, dating back to the original 1970′s series, I don’t think it worked then, and it works even less now.

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Coming up next: More Justice League stories than you can shake a stick at! Many of them are terrible.

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 9: DC Comics – Doctor 13 to Gotham Central

Doctor 13 - Architecture & Mortality

Doctor 13 is an old DC character from the 60′s that doesn’t make a lot of sense in a world full of superhumans, magicians, and god-like entities: He’s a skeptic. Now, I consider myself to be an amateur skeptic of sorts; in that the only way I would believe in people with super-powers, is if one of them flew down to my house and crapped on my new carpet. So you can see why I would identify with him. But how can you be a skeptic in a world full of magic? When the evidence of the existence of the paranormal slaps you in the face every single day? That’s what Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang try to answer here. This is honestly one of the weirdest things DC has published in recent memory, and I love it.

Brian Azzarello is usually known for his hardboiled crime fiction, but he turns in a fun, completely absurdist piece here that isn’t like anything he’s ever done. Cliff Chiang is one of the very few modern day pencillers whose work is strong enough to get me to buy a book just for the art, and he outdoes himself here. I will definitely say that this isn’t for everybody (a good friend of mine looked at a few pages of this book and said that it was the most ridiculous piece of comic book art he’s ever seen. And he likes Frank Miller), but if the idea of talking Nazi Gorillas teaming up with gay vampires and 30th Century plague carriers to convince Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison not to write them out of continuity sounds like your bag, give this a shot. It’s pure, absurdist comic book fun. Also should mention that this has one of the best last pages to a comic story that I can remember.

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Flash And Green Lantern - Brave And Bold.

Whew! Finally some characters you’ve heard of. These two are familiar to pretty much everybody, and for good reason. They’re 2 of DC’s ‘Big 5″ characters, although you wouldn’t know it by the way DC treats them sometimes. This is a flashback story, delving into the early friendship between Barry (the original Silver Age Flash, then was killed by the Anti-Monitor. Then Wally West who used to be Kid-Flash became Flash, and at first everyone hated him but then Mark Waid wrote him and people started to like him, but then for some reason they made Impulse  the new Flash. He’s actually Barry Allen’s grandson from the far future, but then he died, and now for some reason Barry Allen is back even though Wally West is a more interesting character but for some reason DC seems to think that the best way to deal with poor sales is just by rebooting everything back to 1975) Allen and Hal (was the original Silver Age Green Lantern, but then went evil and killed a lot of people and then he died, but then came back to life, and then died again. And then he became God’s Spirit Of Vengeance, which is an ok gig if you’re retired I guess, but then he came back to life yet again, and now he’s back to being Green Lantern again) Jordan. Yes.

This was nicely written. Mark Waid goes back into the Silver Age era he knows so well, but adds nuance and breadth to these characters that never really existed before now. In fact, a lot of what Waid did here set the groundwork for the inevitable resurrections of each character, and some of the characterization here can be found in both the current Flash & Green Lantern titles. Tom Peyer’s pencils work well with the story, and it’s overall a good read, though not essential. Please also note that despite my sizable DC collection, this is the ONLY trade I own with the Flash’s name in the title. I’ve never been a big fan of the character, though I will most likely give the rumoured omnibus of Geoff Johns run on the book a try when it comes out next year.

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Gotham Central  5 Trades (Half A Life, In The Line Of Duty, Dead Robin, Unresolved Targets, Quick and the Dead)

The commercial reaction to Gotham Central when it was on the stands sums up everything that I think is wrong with modern comic book fans: It’s extremely well-written, with complex characters and exciting action-packed scenarios. When it was being produced, it was regularly one of the most critically acclaimed series on the stands, and I can say without exaggeration that this is one of my favourite DC titles of the past decade. And nobody read it.

It’s an idea so simple you can’t believe it hasn’t been done before: What would it like to be a police officer in a world full of superheroes? I should also mention that it HAS been done before, notably with Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming’s brilliant Powers series. But this was the first time it had been done with heroes we know. What would it be like to work 6 months on a case and then have a 14-year-old in tight shorts come in and beat all of your suspects up in one night? Or to have a sociopath in a bat costume have more credibility with the citizens you’ve sworn to protect than you do? 

That’s what Gotham Central is about. It’s the story of Gotham City’s Major Crime Unit: A group of detectives hand-picked by Commissioner Gordon to take on the city’s worst problems. It was originally co-written by two of my favourite contemporary writers: Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker. There were different artists, though Michael Lark was the initial and primary penciller on the book.

I consider this book to be a gateway drug. If you only read superhero comics, but want to get an accessible look at what else is out there, try this book. If you’ve never read superhero comics, but want to see what it’s all about without having your intelligence insulted, try this book. It’s like Law And Order, if L&O had occasional cameos by Batman, but was also not boring.. I’ll also say that I would consider Half A Life (the second major arc of the comic) to be one of the finest story arcs to ever be found in a DC comic book.  

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 Next up: Some characters YOU ACTUALLY HAVE HEARD OF!!!! GREEN ARROW! GREEN LANTERN! HAWKMAN! Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad. Oh, and the culling starts in earnest….