Best Comic Books Of 2011: Best Ongoing Comics Of The Year

The very idea of what an ongoing series is evolving all the time, but here are the rules I used for this category: If it’s over 10 issues, and at least 2 of those issues took place in 2010, it’s an ongoing. Now, quantity does count here. The more issues a “good” title releases in the year, the better it’ll fare against a title of similar quality that only put out a few issues. And so titles that are still relatively new like Animal Man, I Vampire, Pigs, or Near Death didn’t make it on the list this year. And titles that I normally love, but that put out less than 3 issues in 2011 like Scarlet, Orc Stain, or Powers don’t make the cut either.

20) Lil Depressed Boy by S. Stephen Struble and Sina Grace (Image)

Lonely Emo hipster finds love. Love goes bad. Smiths are listened to. That’s the basic premise of this fine, emotionally engaging comic. In a year age when only action and superhero comics  seem to make it to the stands, this was a refreshing change of pace. The cautiously optimistic tone, as well as the likeable lead created by Struble, are the two main reasons to keep coming back, despite the pessimistic nature of the title. Hope to see more books like this in 2012.

19) Secret Avengers by Warren Ellis and various artists (Marvel)

No offense to Ed Brubaker or Nick Spencer, but this book didn’t really take off until Warren Ellis took over the writing reigns, and turned it from just another team book into a 25 page action-packed explosion of pages, panels, and colour. Each issue stands completely alone, and doesn’t require you to be able to tell an Avenger from an X-Man.These are superheroes kicking ass, in the simplest possible way. Ellis is telling some pretty generic, yet throughly compelling superhero stories here, and Secret Avengers contains some of the best plotting I’ve seen from him in a while. Extra shout-outs go to the extremely varied group of talented artists that helped Ellis make this work as well as it did.

18) Detective Comics by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla (DC)

Snyder has been getting a lot of praise for his work on American Vampire, but it’s his arc here, on this old bloated beast of superhero comics, that made me pay attention to his work. The story stars Dick Grayson, the young protegé who has had to step up to the plate and taken over the mantle of the Batman. This arc is probably the most convincing argument I’ve seen for why Grayson should have been allowed to stay in the cowl, as it manages to be both a pure Batman tale and a pure Dick Grayson tale at the same time. I’m aware that part of the reason I enjoyed this so much may have something to do with the fact that Grant Morrison has been systematically destroying my beloved Batman over the past few years, but I digress. If you miss the Detective in Detective Comics, I’d give this a shot. P.S. Jock and Francesco Francavilla have fairly disparate art styles, but I never felt as if they clashed, and thought that they made great tag-team partners throughout this entire run.

 17)  Jonah Hex/All-Star Western by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, various artists (DC)

I’ll lump these together as a) they’re by the same writers, and b) they’re both vehicles for Jonah Hex, DC’s notorious wild west bounty hunter. Jonah Hex was one of the best comics DC produced before their much vaunted September reboot, and it’s follow-up All-Star Western manages to keep the quality fairly high, though perhaps it’s a little toothless in comparison. Part of the appeal of the original series was the stand-alone adventure nature of the book, and so the switch to a more serial, continuity driven approach wasn’t exactly welcome news. Still, the book remains a solid western adventure read to this day.

16)  Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai (Dark Horse)

200 issues. You heard me. Usagi Yojimbo hit 200 issues this year. You know what other independent creator-owned book hit a milestone like that this year? Can’t think of one? That’s because there are no other currently running creator-owned books that have even come close to the commercial or creative longevity that Usagi has had. Usagi Yojimbo is about the continuing adventures of a masterless samurai (or ronin) in feudal Japan. He’s also a talking rabbit, but that’s never really explained, and kind of besides the point. He rambles through the Japanese countryside, looking for ways to earn a meal or a warm fire. It’s a simple concept, and that simplicity is part of the reason why Sakai has kept the quality so very high for so very long. The impressionist sensibility of Sakai’s pencils help to keep the tone light, yet fairly vibrant.

15)  The Spirit by David Hine and Moritat (DC)

Will Eisner’s Spirit. In comic book circles, those three words are enough to make even the most fervent of fanboys blush. The Spirit was a Sunday strip that was created by Will Eisner in the very late 30’s, and managed to run until 1950 or so. Although the strip’s quality was inconsistent, when it was good it was VERY good, and remains some of the best adventure comic storytelling of all time. The character has had a resurgence since Eisner’s death, with various creators trying their hand at the seminal crime fighter. Darwyn Cooke’s version remains the very best of these,  but I was happy to see just how good David Hines and Moritat’s adaptation had become, at least before DC cancelled it. Hines realized that The Spirit himself is actually the least interesting part of Eisner’s creation, and that the character should always be just a gateway to telling small, entertaining crime stories. Unfortunately very few of the new DC reboot titles have matched this level of quality.

14)  Echo/Rachel Rising by Terry Moore (Abstract Studios)

It’s probably unfair to label these together as the genres involved are quite different. But given that they’re a) both by Terry Moore, b) both have solving a mystery as their main premise, and c) both are character vehicles first, I thought lumping them together would be ok. Echo ended after 30 issues this year, with Rachel starting only a few months later. While Echo was pure sci-fi, and Rachel seems to be plumbing the horror genre, they both should be read by anyone wanting to learn how to set up a convincing, intriguing mystery comic. I wish more people would give Moore’s comics a shot, as he’s doing some really enjoyable genre work these days.

13)  Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man  Vol. 1/Vol. 2 by Brian Bendis & various artists (Marvel)

Spider-Man died this year. Yes, Peter Parker. Deader than a dictator. Big deal, yes? Then why haven’t you heard about this? Because it’s the not the regular Spider-Man that died, it’s the one in the Ultimate Universe. God you’re dumb. And they wonder why no one reads comics anymore. Despite the confusing continuity, the reality is that THE Spider-Man title to buy over the last decade has been Brian Bendis’ work on Ultimate Spider-Man. It’s a simpler, modernized version of the origin of our beloved webcrawler, and Bendis decided to take it up a notch by putting him six feet in the ground. And the best part of it was that it was actually a great story. Actually, I’m going to go as far as to say that it was a capital G GREAT story. And while Parker has remained dead (for now), Bendis has created a more-than-suitable replacement in Miles Morales. This new addition to the Spidey mythos gave the franchise a kick in the pants that it maybe didn’t need, but was definitely welcome.

12)  The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (Image)

This sacred cow of modern horror comics is still going, and thankfully it’s still going relatively strong. It’s a testament to Kirkman’s skills as a storyteller (and for creating such an open-ended concept in the first place) that this independent comic book has thrived in such a difficult time for the market, and has even spawned a successful TV show. The premise is simple: Zombies have taken over the world. A group of people are trying to survive. Simple it may be, but Kirkman understands that emotional responses in survival situations are anything BUT simple, and constantly invents creative new ways to put his characters under the emotional gun.

11)  The Unwritten by Mike Carey (Vertigo)

Unwritten is the story of Tommy Taylor, the son of a famous fantasy novelist, and the model for his most famous creation. He’s struggling to find his own way in the world, until he finds out that the line between fantasy and reality isn’t as clear as he once thought. In short, this is a story about stories. About how stories affect our lives, our culture, and our history. And as such, it’s about as ambitious as comics can get, and this year saw Carey exploring genres ranging from noir to fantasy, and from superhero to horror. In some ways, I don’t love this series quite as much as I once did now that many of the mysteries are solved and now that it’s morphing into a pure fantasy book, but the imaginative way that Carey and Gross utilize fiction tropes to tell their ambitious epic keeps me coming back for more.

10)  Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory  (Image)

Tony Chu is the star here. He’s a FDA agent in a world where chicken has been outlawed due to a catastrophic epidemic of Bird Flu. He has the unique ability to  get a psychic impression through anything that he’s eaten, which as you would expect means that we get to see Chu eat a variety of disgusting things. My appreciation of this book was strong at first, but then soured as the comic started to get whackier, and more farcical. I’m happy to report that I’m back on the side of praise now, and I think I finally have the measure of what Layman and Guillory are all about. It’s a very thin line between serious cop drama, bizarre sci-fi, and hilarious farce that these guys are trying to draw, but they’re really pulling it off. This year saw them leap a year forward in the narrative for one issue, only to go back to the original timeline  in the next. It was a bold move, and one that could tie the hands of lesser creators. But in the wacky, capable hands of these talents it just seems par for the course.

9) DMZ by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, and Others (Vertigo)

In the near future, America is at war. Not with North Korea, or Iran, or Syria, but with itself. It’s the near future, and America is years into a brutal civil war, with the island of Manhattan serving as a “neutral” demilitarized zone. That’s the premise of DMZ, and it’s one that’s almost disturbingly familiar. As I’m writing this, one last issue of DMZ  is about to hit the stands, and it’s a bittersweet end. Creatively, it’s always great when books end on a high note. But in this era of pre-packaged superhero mediocrity, it’s a shame any time a book of this quality leaves the marketplace. DMZ wasn’t just a good comic, it was an important comic, one that served as a warning to what we might become if we’re not careful. Watching Brian Wood evolve into one of the mediums great writers over the past decade has been a real joy, and I’m going to go as far as to say that DMZ might be one of the finest war comics the medium has ever seen.

8)  Punisher Max by Jason Aaron & Steve Dillon (Marvel)

Probably the second most intense comic on the stands right now, which isn’t surprising since it’s written by the same guy who writes the first. It mystifies me that this sells as little as it does, as it’s easily among the most consistently well-made comics that Marvel has produced over the past few years. Forget what you think this series is about, as it requires absolutely no previous knowledge of The Punisher, or superheroes at all, to really enjoy it. What it is, is the story of an old man. His family was killed 30 years ago, and he’s spent every second of the decades since trying to kill criminals in a futile attempt at avenging that family’s deaths. And his time is almost up. This series has taught me a lot this year about what  it means to strip a story down to its bare essentials, as I can’t think of a single wasted beat that Aaron’s made since it started. Every single panel, is about setting up what looks to be a blaze of glory for the tragic lead character, and this might be the most emotionally charged comic on my list this year. Steve Dillon is firing on all cylinders here, and is turning in some of the best work of his career.

7) The Goon by Eric Powell (Dark Horse)

After a two-year sabbatical, Eric Powell took the reigns back in 2011 on the book that made him famous. Not only that, but he went back to his roots. By the time Powell had finished his last run on the book, The Goon had evolved into a long, dramatic horror series full of convoluted plots and strategically built tension. Powell has stepped back from that ledge however, and this year in The Goon was all about what the book was first famous for: Short, yet terrifyingly funny action-packed horror stories, full of scary monsters, dialogue that would make a dead drunken sailor blush, and some of the most beautifully disturbing artwork to be found in comics.  Although I’m looking forward to Powell getting back into the epic business, it’s been great to see him having fun again.

6) Rasl by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

That this brilliant science fiction masterpiece hasn’t gotten more attention from the comic community is a real shame. I would probably rate this higher if it came out a little more often, but I’m definitely not complaining. Like recent issues of Sixth Gun and Sweet Tooth, it seemed as if there was quite a bit of exposition to get through this year in the pages of Rasl. One feels as if Smith had been waiting a long time to bring the true story of Nikola Tesla into the science fiction of RASL, and he did it pretty seamlessly. This is a large, alternate-universe epic Smith is creating here, and the only problem I have with it is that I don’t see how he could possibly wrap it up in the handful of issues left that he has planned.

5)  Sweet Tooth by Jeff Lemire (Vertigo)

It’s been nice to see Lemire get some mainstream success this year with his superhero writing, but he’s still most effective when he handles the art chores on his own work. So I was a little surprised when Lemire had Matt Kindt partner up with him on a few issues of Sweet Tooth this year. I shouldn’t have been. Kindt is a brilliant storyteller in his own right, and his art is a perfect complement to Lemire’s quirky sensibilities.  Sweet Tooth is a post-apocalyptic road story about a mutant and his shadowy father figure, but recent issues have seen Lemire attempt to fill in some of the holes regarding the world they live in, and how it go to be that way. In that light, Lemire’s decision to use a different artist makes sense, though part of me can’t wait for the main narrative to be revisited. Lemire’s work on Sweet Tooth is some of the best dramatic storytelling on the stands right now.

4) Northlanders by Brian Wood and various artists (Vertigo)

After a rare, and brief dip in quality with the near-terrible Metal, storyline, Brian Wood brought his Viking adventure anthology back on track this year with some pretty incredible writing, namely as seen in his brilliant Icelandic Trilogy. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to save the book, and Northlanders is scheduled for cancellation in a few months, along with Wood’s other book DMZ. This was one of the jewels of the Vertigo line, and one that I recommend often to people who love great storytelling, but haven’t really appreciated the medium of comics before. Wood understands intrinsically what most writers take years to figure out:  Genre is meaningless if you don’t have a great lead whose actions you care about passionately. And so although Wood’s chosen setting of circa 900AD Scandinavia is important, it always takes a back seat to his compelling lead characters, and the action-packed scenarios he throws them in. It’s sad that this book is ending, but at least it’s going out on a high note.

3) Here Comes….Daredevil! by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin, and Paolo Rivera (Marvel)

This book represents everything that is good and great about the medium of comics. It’s a return to the fun, swashbuckling version of Daredevil that usually comes in second place to the more popular, brooding one, but this book is so much more than that. More than any other superhero comic book being published today, this book uses the medium of comics to tell you it’s stories. Now, that just sounds like common sense right? It should be, but the sad truth is that so much of comic book storytelling today is stagnant. It’s become far more about genre than it is about medium. People like zombies? Here’s a screenplay about zombies in Vietnam, with some pictures!  Want to add some edge? Here’s Super-Zombie! Waid’s DD transcends all of that nonsense. It’s a comic about a superhero, but most importantly it’s a comic. It’s bold, It’s bright, and it uses every square inch of every single page to tell you it’s secrets. The art by Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera are going to be dissected by comic book historians for years to come.

2) The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt (Oni)

I wish more comics were like this one. Not exactly like this one obviously. But it’s the ambition I admire here. Sixth Gun is a western/horror pastiche about.a woman who inherits a magical gun from her father, and finds out pretty quickly that the gun holds some very dark secrets. This is a bold comic book, in that it’s combining several less-than-trendy genres in a time where getting people to buy anything that doesn’t have the word Bat in front of its title is almost impossible. At first I thought there would be a years worth of stories in this concept, tops, but as more issues come and go, it’s obvious that Bunn and Hurt are weaving a complex, epic story here, and it’s one that is bordering on genius.

1) Scalped by Jason Aaron & RM Guera (Vertigo)

If this comic doesn’t constantly give you goosebumps in the tuckus, than I think you’re in the wrong blog. This is “just” a populist crime story about a modern day indian reserve in South Dakota, but it’s one that’s so visceral, so stirring, and so  character-driven that I’m always surprised that it’s never gotten the mainstream attention that lesser Vertigo series seem to garner. This series still kicks me in the pants every time I read an issue. This is powerful crime storytelling at it’s very best, and the fact that it’s ending soon is a little depressing. I’m comforted however by the fact that it seems destined to go out on a high note. I’m hoping that years from now people will be talking about this title in the same way people talk about Criminal, or 100 Bullet, although I think that it’s already proven that it’s their equal. Unfortunately, 2012 is going to be the last for this fantastic neo-noir.

Honourable Mention:

Incorruptible by Mark Waid and Marcio Takara (BOOM), I, Vampire by Joshua Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino (DC), Animal Man by Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman (DC), Pigs by Ben McCool, Nate Cosby, and Breno Temura (Image), Near Death by Jay Faerber and Simone Guglielmini (Image), Captain America and Bucky by Ed Brubaker and Francesco Francavilla, (Marvel), Secret Six by Gail Simone and Jim Caliofore (DC), Batgirl by Bryan Miller and Dustin Nguyen (DC), Batgirl by Gail Simone and Ardian Syaf (DC), Batwoman by JH Williams and W. Haden Blackman (DC), Butcher Baker by Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston (Image)

Would have gotten on the list if more issues had comes out: Wasteland by Antony Johnston and various artists (IDW), Scarlet by Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev (ICON), Godland by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli (Image), Orc Stain by James Stokoe (Image), Powers by Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming (Icon)

The Great Comic Book Cull Part 58: Marvel Comics – Spider-Woman!

A quick house-keeping thing to announce first: I’m changing the name of my culling project, as it’s fairly obvious by now that I’m not going to finish the project in 2011, or even in 2012 at this rate. Maybe I should change it to the Great Comic Book Cull of the First Half Of The Twenty-First Century.

Spider-Woman

Yep, hard to see why they keep her around.

Yes, there’s a Spider-Woman. Why? Take a seat, and I’ll tell you her story.

Turns out that Peter Parker had a cousin that was born on his home-planet but was sent to Earth on a dffe…no, wait, that’s somebody else.

Ok. I’ve got it now. So the police commissioner that works hand in hand with Spider-Man has a plucky young daughter who decides to emulat…Nope, that’s still not it.

Ok, I think I’ve got this in the bag. Peter Parker’s cousin was shot and near death when Parker decided to give her a transfus….Still not it?

You mean that she’s not connected to Peter Parker at all? There’s a character with the same name as this guy running around and there’s no connection whatsoever? Oh Marvel. Is there anything that your particular brand of crass opportunism can’t do?

This character has always been a weird one for Marvel, in that she is relatively unused compared to other Marvel characters from the same era. She was created in the late 1970’s essentially to maintain a copyright, and her first original series was a weird little horror/spy/superhero title that didn’t last long. And so she essentially disappeared for the next few decades. She would pop up once in a while, usually in the sack with Wolverine, but she was basically MIA for 20 years.

Until Brian Michael Bendis came along. After becoming Marvel’s top writer, it didn’t take for him to start digging up all of his old favourite characters from when he was a kid, and so voila, we now have Spider-Woman back! Since Bendis took an interest, we’ve seen numerous major stories and series with Jessica Drew as the lead. Unfortunately, it turns out that she may have been better served by letting her stay under the rock she was living under, as other than having one of the hottest costume in superhero history, there doesn’t seem to be too much depth to the character.

Spider-Woman – Origin

This was Bendis’ first attempt at rebuilding the origin of Jessica Drew, and it’s actually a pretty good one. Bendis uses the secret spy-underbelly of the Marvel U as his backdrop here, and weaves a competent tale of weird science, espionage, and super-heroics. It’s basically Bendis’ take on the Island of Dr. Moreau, but instead of a bear/dog/ox hybrid, we get a hot chick in spandex. Plus, it’s got the only mainstream superhero work done to date by the Luna Brothers, and they show here why they’ve become two of the preeminent adventure storytellers in comics right now. Solid read.

KEEP

Spider-Woman – Agent Of S.W.O.R.D.

So Marvel does the first mini. It’s well-received, and so they announce that they’re going to do a follow-up right afterwards. Only one problem: The Spider-Woman that we knew and loved, wasn’t actually Spider-Woman. It was an alien shape-shifter who was secretly leading an alien invasion of earth! DUN DUN DUUUUNNNNN!

And so this long-awaited series by the creative team behind one of the greatest Daredevil runs of all time was put on hiatus for a few years. And by the time it finally came out, no one cared, least of all the creative team. The problem with achieving greatness is that you’re expected to be able to repeat it, and the much-lauded team of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev just couldn’t duplicate either the commercial or the critical acclaim they had achieved before.

And so the series ended after only a handful of issues. It gets unjustly criticized in my book though. This isn’t a bad comic, it’s just that it’s “just” a well-executed  little spy/crime tale, and we had been told to expect epic brilliance from this particular team, on this particular concept. Maleev’s artwork is truly stunning here. Despite his lack of interest in the project, I don’t believe his pencils have ever looked better, before or since.

KEEP

Next up: Squadron Supreme!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 50: Marvel Comics – Nova, Power Man & Iron Fist, and The Pulse

It’s hard to believe that I’ve done 50 posts about my culling project. It’s been about 9 months so far, and I’m not even half way though. In fact, I really doubt that I’ll be finishing this this year. Although I’m enjoying the reading, I’m having a hard time keeping motivated regarding the writing, especially as I still have several months to go before I can even start writing about my true passions: Independent comics. I’m still muddling through however, and so I present to you yet more writing about gaudily dressed super-clowns:

Nova: Annihilation – Conquest, Knowhere, Secret Invasion, Nova Corps, War Of Kings, Realm Of Kings

Nova was Marvel’s mid-1970s attempt at recreating the ‘average kid gets superpowers’ magic that essentially catapulted the company into superhero success 14 years earlier with Spider-Man. To it’s credit, Marvel didn’t take the easy way out and copy Spider-Man’s origin verbatim. Instead, they took the even easier way out and copied Green Lantern’s origin verbatim: Dying member of an intergalactic police force transfers his power to a hapless earthling. But instead of being a cocky, brash pilot like Hal Jordan, the new Nova is an insecure poindexter like Peter Parker. Original, yes? Umm…no.

Although the character’s first series fizzled after 25 issues, attempts have been made over the years to utilize the character in various comics and plotlines, most notably in the early 90’s teen book The New Warriors. However, no matter how hard the character was pushed, he never really amounted to much. In fact, the character is very similar to Moon Knight, in that his costume is really the only thing he has going for him. When you take that away, all you have is a very poor man’s version of not just one, but two other characters.

Until now. About 4 years ago, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning decided to use the Nova character as a major player in their Annhilation Wave epic, and the character hasn’t been the same since. Abnett & Lanning essentially put this character into the forge, stripped away everything that we knew about him, and rebuilt the character from the ground up. And now what’s left is a confident, extremely powerful hero that can hold his own with pretty much any of Marvel’s A-list villains: Nova. Which brings us to one of the better Marvel titles in recent years, but one that unfortunately requires you to read pretty much everything else Abnett & Lanning have been writing so as to fully understand what’s going on. Not that that’s a bad thing, as they’ve been turning out some great Marvel sci-fi epic storytelling. But  those who are just looking for a simple, straight-forward superhero book that can stand on it’s own two feet might want to look elsewhere.

KEEP

Power Man & Iron Fist: Essential Vol. 1

When I was a kid, Power Man & Iron Fist might have been my favourite comic book. I waited for every issue like a dog waiting for a porkchop. And since the World Wide Web wasn’t available at the time, the cancellation of this book was a real surprise to me. So why am I getting rid of this? It’s not because of the quality of the book. The title focused on two characters that had been in their own low-selling books: Power Man (better known today as Luke Cage), and Iron Fist, and  as such was essentially a mash-up between Shaw Brothers-style Kung-Fu & Pam Grier-style Blaxploitation. And it was glorious. It had a little bit of everything I love about superhero comic, and because it was one of Marvel’s lowest selling books, seemed to deal with subject matter that other comics weren’t touching at the time. Unfortunately, the only way you can get this series in collected form is in the oversize black & white Essential trade paperbacks, and as I’ve previously noted, they just don’t give colour comics their fair shake. Although I still love this series, I’ll have to do without it until Marvel reissues it in a format that does it’s original source material justice.

CULL

The Pulse: Thin Air, Secret War, Fear

The Pulse was Marvel’s attempt at a follow-up to their high-on-acclaim, low-on-sales title Alias, and their hopes were that this would get the high numbers the previous series lacked, as well as continuing to get great reviews. It received neither, though it definitely deserves more credit that it gets.

It’s essentially the story of Jessica Jones, a former superhero-turned-private eye, who has been hired by J. Jonah Jameson to help Ben Urich uncover super-related stories for the Daily Bugle. It’s a sound premise, and one that should have been a good companion piece to Bendis other series about normal people who get pulled into the bizarre realm of super-heroics, Powers. However, Powers only has to stay relevant to itself, and the Pulse quickly got pulled into the bazillion-and-one subplots are running through the Marvel Universe at any one point. And so what should have been a small, character piece about journalism in a super-powered world became exactly what we didn’t need: Just another superhero book. While it’s still very readable, especially for fans of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, the comic quickly becomes so watered down from it’s original intent that one wonders why they even bothered doing this series in the first place.

KEEP

Next up: The Punisher!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 44: Marvel Comics – Ghost Rider, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Great Lakes Avengers, Hercules, Heroes For Hire, and The Hood!

Ghost Rider, Wolverine, & Punisher – Hearts Of Darkness

Sounds like a formula for 1991 success: Put 3 of your most popular characters in a self-contained graphic novel, with Howard Mackie on scripts, and have John Romita, Jr do the art. I can’t say that this would go on my list of favourite stories from any of these characters, but it’s still a more than passable team-up, with art from a John Romita Jr. that’s at the top of his game. I also realized that this is the only Ghost Rider comic. I’ve never found the character particularly interesting. Any suggestions for arcs/runs that are worth my time?

KEEP

Great Lakes Avengers – Misassembled, X-Mas Special, Summer Fun Spectacular

The Great Lakes Avengers is a little known Marvel concept that’s more of an in-joke than an actual viable super-team. They were originally created by John Byrne in the 90’s, and turn up periodically, mostly as comic relief. The only writer who was actually able to do anything viable with the characters was Dan Slott. Although this batch of mini-series and one-shots aren’t going to crack top 10 lists any time soon, they’re a nice mix of funny, and well, more funny. If you think the idea of a teenager whose power is the ability to talk to squirrels being the most powerful hero in the Marvel Universe is as hilarious as I do, these books are for you.

KEEP

Guardians Of The Galaxy – Legacy, War Of Kings Vol. 1 & 2, Realm Of Kings

The original Guardians were a 70’s/80’s Marvel team set in the future, that showed up from time to time in Avengers-related time mishaps. Despite a long running series in the early ’90’s, the concept never really took off, and so Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning borrowed the team name for their recent “Marvel Cosmic” comic events, and spun this new team out of those stories. This version is straight forward: A group of Marvel’s B and C level “space” misfit characters (Adam Warlock, space lesbians, a talking Racoon, and a talking Soviet-era Cosmodog) team up to save the universe from intergalactic threats. As they’re known to do.

Although I like (I should say liked, since this was recently cancelled, which is par for the course with superhero books that I actually enjoy) this book, it’s hard for me to recommend it, unless you’ve read the other Marvel Space comics that Abnett & Lanning have been writing. The great thing about the space stories that these two have been writing is that you don’t need to be following most of what’s happening in the Marvel Universe to enjoy them. But you do need to be reading all of THEIR books in order to fully grasp what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s not that their stories are overly complicated, it’s that’s they think they’re overly complicated. Abnett & Lanning spend a lot of time needlessly explaining simple stories. It’s a relatively minor complaint though, and there’s more than enough to recommend this series. It’s character driven, as the best stories are. It’s a diverse cast, and because the writers have gone fishing through the Marvel backwaters for these characters, there isn’t the feeling of “Been There, Done That”, that is often felt in team books these days.

Phyla and Moondragon, in one of the rare moments where one of them isn't dead.

There’s a few subplots that became tiring quite quickly; namely the “will they, won’t they” nature of the relationship between Moondragon and Phyla Vell. Except in their case it was more of a “Will they actually manage to end an issue without one of them being horriblly killed” relationship. In the time that DnA wrote the characters, Moondragon was turned into an actual talking dragon, and then back to a human, then died, and then was brought back to life as a result of Phyla agreeing to become the avatar of death and killing Adam Warlock. But then Phyla was killed herself, except that she wasn’t really dead because one of her colleagues travelled back in time and stopped her before she could actually go through with it. But then she died again 5 minutes later. And then Moondragon became pregnant with a Lovecraftian space-god (Don’t judge, Republicans), and then found out that Phyla wasn’t really dead. But then Phyla brought Thanos back to life, and of course the first thing he did when he woke up was to kill her for real. Which is how she’s managed to stay for about a year, which means she’ll be coming back to life around the time I press “publish” on this post. It’s hard to take major character moments seriously if we’re not given time to digest them properly, and this book often moves a little too quickly for us to really fall in love with the cast.

Still, it’s a fun, space adventure series with a big emphasis on humour that’s better than most of the stuff that Marvel’s putting out these days. I’m also not sure how Paul Pelletier isn’t one of the biggest artists in comics, as his work on this title is some of the finest I’ve seen on a superhero title in the last couple of years.

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The Incredible Hercules – WWH: Incredible Herc, Against The World, Secret Invasion, Love and War, Assault On New Olympus, The Mighty Thorcules, Dark Reign, The New Prince Of Power

This has been one of Marvel’s weirder success stories over the past couple of years. Hercules (yes, the god. No, not the one with the hammer. No, not the one on the cross. The super-strong one that gets laid all the time. No, not Charlie Sheen), has been part of the Marvel Universe since the late 1960’s, but has never risen above the role of second stringer. In a universe full of complicated characters, Hercules is painfully two-dimensional, and Marvel has long been content with portraying him as the drunken, fun-seeking lout. Until now.

Both of the two big companies have been quite consistent in their attempts to use their bigger cross-over events to push lesser-known characters as of late, and that’s what Marvel did a couple of years ago with Hercules. They made him a major part of  the major World War Hulk storyline, and went as far as renaming the Hulk’s ongoing series after him, and getting two of Marvel’s hottest up and coming writers to take it over.

This was a delightful change of pace for those of us weary of Marvel’s recent doom and gloom. Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente took an uninteresting yet charismatic character, paired him with Amadeus Cho, a multi-faceted but slightly cold character, and let magic take it’s course. This is a 1980’s buddy movie, Marvel style. The two new friends bumble their way through the Marvel Universe comically, but the writers also make sure they give the two enough emotional complexity that by the series conclusion, we feel as we’ve been a journey with two old friends, not two former D-listers that we had forgotten about. This is the way you rebuild lesser known characters.

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Heroes For Hire – Civil War, Ahead Of The Curve, World War Hulk

To capitalize on the moderately successful Daughters Of The Dragon series, Marvel decided to dust off their old Heroes For Hire concept a few years ago. This one’s been kicking around the mid-70’s, and it’s one that is most often associated with Luke Cage and Iron Fist. In this version, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing (The aforementioned Daughters), take the lead of this awkwardly grouped band of Marvel D-listers. Although I’ve always liked the concept, I had to force myself to finish rereading this. It’s poorly written, the plotting is all over the place, and the characters are barely likable. Thankfully the new version as written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, more than make up for it, and I’m very much looking forward to collecting this new series in trade.

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The Hood – Blood From Stones

It’s difficult to come up with new super characters that people will respond to. Although dozens of characters are added to the Marvel and DC universes every single year, almost none of them ever catch on with the general populace, and most are forgotten by the time the next writer takes over which ever book they were featured in.

And so was the case with the Hood, at least for a while. 9 years ago, Brian Vaughan (of Y The Last Man, Ex Machina, and Runaways fame) wrote this unassuming little mini series about the origin of a super villain. I loved it at the time, and although I had hopes that this would launch a new Marvel icon, the book went woefully unread, and the character was largely forgotten for the next 5 years.

It wasn’t until Brian Michael Bendis dusted off the character and decided to turn him into the new Kingpin of Crime, that anyone really remembered the first series at all. The character endures today, and has become a major player in Marvel’s current continuity. But the new stories haven’t quite matched the original promise shown in this fantastic mini series.

Parker Robbins is a low-level part-time criminal who is juggling a relationship with someone he’s losing interest in, the care of his invalid mother, and figuring out ways to pay for both. On a routine burglary, he accidentally kills a creepy alien/demon, and steals the cape and boots from its body. Voila, superpowers! And so Parker, with the help of his cousin Dave, decides to become a bona fide supervillain. There is success, but it comes at a steep price. Enjoying this will require almost no previous knowledge of Marvel Comics, as  it’s a fairly realistic take on the superhero story, and one that actually humanizes the villains that we so love to hate.

I’m not usually one to convince writers to go back to superhero comics. In fact, I’m usually the one trying to convince superhero writers to try something different. And while I’m more than happy to read anything Brian Vaughan does in the future, I’ll admit that a part of me would love nothing more than to read a monthly Hood series as written by Vaughan. Recommended.

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Next up: The Hulk!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 41: Marvel Comics – Daredevil: The Ed Brubaker/Andy Diggle years

Regarding Daredevil:

“But although I would check in on the book periodically over the years, it never really seemed to grab me, or to be telling stories worth my time.”

Probably the sentence that got me more e-mails and notes than any other I’ve written on this blog. It seems that I didn’t give enough attention to some of the Daredevil writers that contributed to the book between Frank Miller’s run and Brian Bendis’ run. A few people specifically mentioned J.G. Chichester’s run as one worth reading. I do own a few issues from it, but I’ve never given it much attention before, and based on your comments, I’ve started to reread it. I’m about 8 issues in, and quite frankly, I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve neglected it recently. His Last Rites story about the fall of the Kingpin is emotionally powerful, to the extent that I’m not sure the character ever fully recovered from it. I’m going to make it a top priority to collect the rest of his run soon, and I’ll report back when I do.

Daredevil – The Ed Brubaker Years (The Devil, Inside & Out Vol. 1 &2, Hell To Pay Vol. 1 & 2. Cruel & Unusual, Lady Bullseye, Return Of The King)

Any comic fan with a love of superhero comics has been there: You love a comic. The character kicks ass, the writer and the artist are firing on all cylinders, and things are awesome. And then it ends. And you have a choice: You follow the writer or artist to wherever they go next, or you continue to read the book blindly, hoping beyond hope that things will get better, even though you know they never will. In the comic book world, creative teams get pulled off of books all the time. It’s the big publisher’s hope that you won’t really care about that; that you’ll follow the adventures of the Amazing/Incredible/Spectacular Super/Spider/Bat Man/Woman/Mite/Person no matter which hapless half-wit they hire to write the scripts. I’ve long since resigned myself to such publishing silliness, and it’s one of the reason why I rarely dabble in superhero comics anymore.

And so when it was announced that Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev were leaving  Daredevil, I immediately cancelled the title from my pull list. I’ve long lost any attachment to any of these silly costumed buffoons, and only follow the books whose creative teams I respect and enjoy. Great comics are great comics, regardless of the character, and continuing to read a character’s exploits long after they stopped being interesting in a futile hope that you’ll be able to recapture your youth makes no sense to me. And although I was very familiar with both Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark’s work, I didn’t expect anybody to come close to matching what Bendis and Maleev had done on the book.

I was right. But not by much.

First of all, the pass over between Bendis and Brubaker might be the best I’ve ever seen. While Bendis ended his run in the most devastating, logical way possible, Brubaker picks up the reigns seamlessly, and for a few issues it’s hard to figure out where Bendis’ run ends and Brubaker’s run starts. That’s not to say it’s derivative at all, and it’s not long before Brubaker starts to add his own take to the Daredevil mythos.

His first arc is packed full of tension. It starts with Matt Murdock at Ryker’s Island, and it seems as if things can’t get worse. And then the Kingpin shows up. And then the Punisher. Not to mention that although Murdock is in prison, there’s another Daredevil running around Hell’s Kitchen. And then things start to get worse. And worse. And worse. In fact, The Devil, Inside & Out is not only a worthy successor to the neo-noir work of Bendis, it’s pretty much a companion to it.

Unfortunately, it’s the best arc of Brubaker’s run. That’s not to say that the rest of his run was bad. It wasn’t, by a long shot. But he never recaptured the pure visceral intensity of that first story. He still added a lot of interesting concepts to the mythos: Lady Bullseye, the reintroduction of Mr. Fear, and one of the better Kingpin stories in recent memory. But the sum is never as good as it’s parts, and while Brubaker’s run touches greatness, it never fully embraces it like Bendis’ did. It’s completely worth your time and money, and if it hadn’t come right after what most people consider to be one of the best Daredevil runs of all time, I’d probably rate it higher.

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Daredevil – The Devil’s Hand

Marvel had been extremely lucky with their Daredevil creative teams, and the question was whether or not lightning could strike thrice. The answer was absolutely not. I’ve been hearing for several years that Andy Diggle is a great writer, and I hope that one day I find that to be true. But so far, the only thing he’s managed to accomplish is to get me to do something I never thought I would do again: Stop reading Daredevil.

He essentially flushed down 8 years of stories by Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker, and traded them for a half-assed ninja story full of cliches that would have been out of place in the early ’80’s. Is it awful? Nope. But when you’re accustomed to greatness, mediocrity just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s just been announced that Mark Waid will be taking over the adventures of Daredevil next, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Mark Waid can do with this book.

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Next up: Alternate reality mutant mayhem!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 40: Marvel Comics – Daredevil: The David Mack/Brian Michael Bendis years

I don’t want to belittle the work of the Daredevil creative teams that came after Frank Miller. A lot of talented people worked on the book, and came up with some very creative stories. But although I would check in on the book periodically over the years, it never really seemed to grab me, or to be telling stories worth my time. Anne Nocenti’s run was quite good, but other than that, the book never seemed to do anything but rework the formula that Miller had set up: Kingpin schemes, Daredevil intervenes, the two of them have a tense standoff, and once in a while Elektra or Bullseye would show up.

This continued for a few decades, and the sales kept deteriorating to the point that the book needed a total overhaul. It was cancelled in 1998, and then relaunched a month later under the then new “Marvel Knights” imprint. Joe Quesada ran that line at the time, and he brought in Kevin Smith (Yes, the Kevin Smith of “how does somebody so funny make such terrible movies” fame) to write and revive the character. Quesada handled the art himself. This was successful, and the book has been relatively strong both commercially and creatively ever since.

Daredevil – Guardian Devil

This is the aforementioned Kevin Smith arc. His goal here was to relaunch the character, and to get people interested in Daredevil again. He succeeds for the most part, though I’m sorry to say the series hasn’t aged well. All of Smith’s standbys are here: lots of pseudo-spiritual Christian whining, potty humour, awkward dialogue, gentle misogyny, and an unhealthy attempt to shoehorn as many panels onto a page as possible. The result is a stilted, clumsy, but still somewhat entertaining superhero jaunt, it’s best legacy was that it set the stage for more talented creators to come in and write some of the best Daredevil stories of all time. While much of the story is quite silly in retrospect, Smith did take a giant creative risk in killing Karen Page, who had been a proverbial plot point/albatross around Matt Murdock’s neck for decades. Risky, but the stories that came afterwards wouldn’t have been possible without this gamble, and I think many people would agree that the character has been the better for it.

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Daredevil – The David Mack Years (Parts Of A Whole, Echo – Vision Quest)

Imagine you’re Marvel EIC Joe Quesada. You’ve just wrapped up the most successful Daredevil storyline in decades. What do you do next? Do you A) try to get your celebrity writer to stay and do more? Do you B ) get a writer of equal popularity to attempt to keep the sales up? , or do you C) Get a writer that almost no one is mainstream comics had heard of, and have him introduce new characters that no one initially cared about? Joe went with C, and I’m grateful. After Matt Murdock’s life fell apart in Guardian Devil, David Mack and Joe Quesada try to rebuild the character in Parts Of A Whole, and attempted to breathe new life into his supporting cast by introducing Maya Lopez, also known as Echo. Echo is a character that I still think has a lot of money in the bank, and is just waiting for the right creative team to come along and turn her into a star. This is a much subtler story after the bombast and hyperbole of Kevin Smith’s run, but it’s a welcome change, and it’s one that stands up very well.

Parts of A Whole should be mandatory reading for comic writers that want to learn how to introduce an interesting character into an existing franchise. Echo doesn’t contradict anything in the Daredevil mythos, she enhances it, especially in the case of the Kingpin character. Her story fits so well with his character and history that we’re surprised she hasn’t been there since the beginning. I also need to mention the art of Joe Quesada. He’s never been one of my favourite artists, but I think he reached his career high with this arc. In fact, this is one of those arcs where the script and art go together so seamlessly that it’s difficult to believe that the same person didn’t do both. A few years later, Mack would come back to the character he created and handle both the writing and art on the Vision Quest arc. This is a stunningly beautiful piece, but one that emphasizes style and character development over plot and action, and as such might not be for everyone, especially those that need their comics to have lots of punching and grunting. But it’s one that shows quite aptly how much can achieved in this medium from a creative standpoint. Mack uses an inventive multi-media mix of collage, pencils, and painting to tell his tale of Maya Lopez’ quest to find herself in a truly original, and captivating way. It’s one of the mysteries of modern comics that David Mack isn’t more widely known than he is.

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Daredevil – The Brian Michael Bendis Years (Wake Up, Underboss, Out, Lowlife, Hardcore, The Widow, Golden Age, Decalogue, The Murdock Papers)

David Mack’s initial run on Daredevil was successful, but he brought in his buddy Brian Michael Bendis to write his next arc, Wake Up. It’s hard to remember at time when Bendis wasn’t a mega-superstar that seems to write every single Marvel comic on the stands that he is today, but at this moment in time he was just a talented up-and-comer more known for his independent work. Although he was starting to get some traction on Ultimate Spider-Man, it was this run on Daredevil that solidified his reputation. So much so, that I would say that this run one of the best continuous runs on a superhero comic of all time, not to mention the fact that it’s arguably one of the best Daredevil runs ever. Am I overselling this? Not even a little bit.

His run gets off to a slow star, with Wake Up, a small quiet story about a boy whose father is a super-villain. It’s an inconsequential arc from a continuity perspective, but it’s a devastating one in regards to its emotional impact. This story just sticks with you. And although Daredevil barely even shows up in the pages of this story, the critical reaction to it was so positive that Joe Quesada decided to eventually make Bendis the permanent writer on the book.

His first story as regular writer on Daredevil is also his last story, as it’s a continuous epic  that would last over 50 issues, and that deals with one central question: What would happen if the world found out that Matt Murdock was Daredevil? The idea had been skirted around before, with Daredevil, as well as other characters, but the idea of an A-list heroe’s secret identity being so incontrovertibly compromised had never really been explored, at least not to any real depth. And any time it had been done, the story would usually end with everything going back to normal, with the general populace believing that the whole thing had been a hoax.

Not so with Bendis’ story. DD’s identity being discovered is just the TIP of Bendis’ storytelling iceberg, and Bendis (along with the extraordinary art of Alex Maleev), uses that one simple plot point to launch one of the most ambitious stories Marvel had ever published.

While Frank Miller’s run was groundbreaking, and truly influential, I have to invoke heresy and say that Bendis’ is the superior story from a cohesive standpoint. There’s a beginning (Matt’s identity being discovered), a middle (Murdock beating Kingpin decisively and making himself the Kingpin of New York), and end (Matt finally brought to justice for his “crimes”, and ending up in prison), which are so perfectly paced that I almost believe that Bendis wrote the entire 55 issue run in one drug-induced bender. It’s one of the very few comic stories of this length where I believe that the writer knew every single plot point right from the beginning, and stuck to that framework, no matter what. From a writing perspective, this thing is flawlessly executed. Bendis knows when to apply pressure, when to apply the brakes, and when to go full steam ahead and kick his characters in the ass. And while he used many of the same tropes that Frank Miller did (Kingpin, Black Widow, Elektra, Ben Urich, Bullseye, REALLY bad things happen to Daredevil on an almost hourly basis etc.), he uses them in ways that hadn’t been explored before (A perfect example is Bendis’ Kingpin. Bendis writes him as weaker, less influential, and arguably much more interesting than previously written).

As the story winded down, I remember wondering exactly how Brian Bendis was going to get Matt Murdock out of the emotional quagmire he had thrown him into, and I worried that the writer would pull the same type of trick that comic writers had been using for decades to get characters out of potentially sticky situations (usually involving time travel, alternate realties, or a combination of the two). But Bendis never takes the easy way out, and takes the character to his logical, soul crushing fate. The ending, while difficult to read for those of us emotionally invested in Bendis’ re-imagining of the character, is the perfect one for this story.

I should have mentioned Alex Maleev before this, but I’ll try to make up for it. At the beginning of this run, Maleev was the quirky artist who was best known for his work on Batman. By the end of it, he was arguably one of the most important (though that view wouldn’t be shared by everyone) stylists in American comics. He literally got better with every arc, a habit which still continued to this day, as shown by his recent work on Spider-Woman and Scarlet.

If you love real and true character development, try this book. If you love bad-ass martial arts action, try this book. If you love crime stories, with a healthy dose of noir, try this book. If you love beautiful, evocative art, try this book. If you love to be challenged by the comics that you read, try this book.

KEEP, with my highest recommendation.

Next up: Daredevil – The Ed Brubaker and Andy Diggle years!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 34: Still. More. Avengers. Sigh…

I’m about as sick of talking about the Avengers as Charlie Sheen is of being sane. But an unanticipated result of Brian Bendis’ commercial success on Avengers was the spin-off book. Or I should say spin-off books. Lots and lots of books. I should say that although this period had a lot of spin-offs, for the most part they felt like natural, organic parts to the larger story that Marvel was telling at the time. I happen to like this period (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign) of Marvel’s history, as I felt that it flowed together quite well, and that everything served a larger purpose.

Breasts. Evil, evil breasts.

Mighty Avengers – The Ultron Initiative, Venom Bomb, Secret Invasion Book 1 and 2

This was also written by Bendis, and was a direct result of the events that took place in Marvel’s Civil War cross over. At this point in the storyline, this team was the “official” Avengers team, and basically filled the more “traditional” Avengers role: They only took care of planetary threats, were sanctioned by the government, etc. This book was a little bigger, a little more epic than the New Avengers book. It also attempted to break some new stars, specifically Ms. Marvel and Ares. I think it succeeded with the latter, but maybe not as much with the former. This book started with a bang. The Ultron arc is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a big-time, world is about to end, Avengers story, and with incredible art by Frank “I can create better breasts than God” Cho, and it stands up well as one of the better self-contained Avengers stories of the past few years. The Venom story is also good, but gets a little bogged down with some of the subplots of what’s happening with the other Avengers team. After that, the book becomes just another Brian Bendis Avengers book, and it loses a lot of the scope and wide-screen adventure that the first two arcs had. All in all it’s a good superhero book, and the first arc in particular is a barn burner.

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Eeeevil. So very evil.

Dark Avengers – Assemble, Molecule Man, Siege

If Mighty Avengers was a response to Civil War, then Dark Avengers was a response to the Secret Invasion storyline. Quickly then: The supervillain formerly known as the Green Goblin has somehow become in charge of America’s security. As such, he leads a new team that he calls “Avengers”. In actuality, the new team is composed of criminals, posing as popular heroes (Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, Bullseye as Hawkeye, Venom as Spider-Man), as well as Ares and the Sentry, and of course Norman himself. I would have thought that the fans would have been up in arms over this, but for the most part people embraced this, and so did I. I don’t think this would have worked so well without the years of set up that Bendis had prepared us with beforehand, but by the time this storyline came out it felt as a very organic part to the epic that Bendis was crafting. Even though the team is composed of nothing but villains, Bendis still makes you care about them, if by care you mean ” I REALLY can’t wait until someone comes along and kicks their ass”. By this point Mike Deodato had evolved into one of the better superhero artists on the market, and his work here is exemplary.

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Because training child soldiers is always a good idea.

Avengers: The Initiative – Basic Training, Killed In Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

Yep, another spinoff, this one coming out of Civil War. So now every hero has to “register” with the government, and The Initiative the government’s way of training all these new heroes. This was writer Dan Slott’s first big book, and he did a nice job with it. He put familiar faces like Tigra, Hank Pym, and Justice in as the trainers, and then threw a combination of new and old (but still not well-known) characters in as the students. When I started rereading this, I think I thought I would be getting rid of these. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoy this book, mostly for its engaging character development. Slott is pulling out all the stops in trying to get us to love these new characters, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, the book is not without its problems. Like his previous work on She-Hulk, the book did start to get bogged down with sub-plots. Because so much was happening in the Marvel Universe at the time, it feels as if this book was being pulled in too many directions at times. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable read, if not entirely essential.

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Young Avengers – Sidekicks, Family Matters

This book started not long after the original New Avengers title started, and shares the bleak “Our heroes are gone, what will we do” vibe that Bendis’ book did for a time. The premise is that a group of young heroes with costumes and code names reminiscent to Avengers of the past is patrolling the city, and Jessica Jones (formerly of Alias fame) is trying to get to the bottom of it. And so are Captain America and Iron Man.

This is a very good teen superhero book. It’s more superhero than teen, but it’s still quite good, and easily the equal (if not better) than DC’s recent Teen Titans books. The question is this: Why would trained, experienced combat fighters like Iron Man and Captain America let untrained children dress up and fight crime. The answer: They wouldn’t. Which of course leads to conflict, which is something that teen superhero books often lack. What is forgotten is that no matter how powerful these people are, they’re still kids, and should act like them. I don’t mean have scenes with them making out with each other, or playing X-Box all the time. YA avoids these clichés (thankfully), but it does show them acting the way teens do: erratically, but trying to do the right thing. Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung did a beautiful job with this series, and it’s nice to see that they’re currently in the middle of another one with the same characters.

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Next up: NOT AVENGERS! YAY!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 33: More Avengers

Avengers West Coat – Vision Quest

I’m really not sure how it’s possible that I only have one West Coast Avengers trade, as I loved this book in the late ’80s when it originally came out.This trade focuses on John Byrne’s run on the book. There are lots of interesting stuff here: The first appearance of the Great Lakes Avengers, the foreshadowing of Scarlet Witch’s eventual meltdown, and a complete retcon of the origin of the Vision. Plus John Byrne’s pencils were great on this run. I’m definitely looking for more trades from this era ASAP.

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Avengers – Red Zone

It didn’t take Marvel long to try to scoop DC’s Geoff Johns up for one of their books, but for some reason the pairing never seemed to click. His run got a LOT of online heat from fans, and proved to be controversial. Nothing like what was to come when Brian Michael Bendis took over the book, but at this point, Marvel still hadn’t quite cottoned to the fact that if they wanted the Avengers to become a top-tier book, they were going to need to do some serious changing. So while Johns run is edgier than previous writer’s attempts to reboot the Avengers, it still comes across as slightly forced. That being said, I did enjoy this far more than I thought I would. The “big reveal” of the arc’s villain still comes across as quite hackneyed, and not well-thought out at all, but it’s still quite a good read. Some good character moments between Black Panther and Iron Man as well. There are a few other trades from Johns’ run that I may track down now.

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New Avengers – Breakout, The Sentry, Secrets & Lies, The Collective, Civil War, Revolution, The Trust, Secret Invasion Books 1 & 2, Power, Search For The Sorcerer supreme, Powerloss, Siege, New Avengers

So it’s 2004, and Marvel finally realizes that the Avengers are done. Not the concept, but the team as it currently stood. The book had been running on fumes for quite a while, and even bringing in superstar writer Geoff Johns to revive the teams fortunes hadn’t grown any traction with fans. The book was is in the doldrums. Enter Brian Michael Bendis. By this point, Bendis had garnered some serious goodwill among Marvel fans for his runs on Daredevil, Alias, and Ultimate Spider-Man. But he had never really tackled anything with quite as big a potential scope as the Avengers. Could he pull it off? Could he make the Avengers relevant again?

From a commercial standpoint, the answer was unequivocably yes. Not only did he make the Avengers relevant again, Marvel essentially rebuilt the entire framework of the Marvel Universe around the work Bendis did on New Avengers. It became Marvel’s flagship book, usurping Spider-Man and X-Men as the top draws at the company. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the title’s success had a large part to do with Marvel realizing that an Avengers movie could work.

From a quality standpoint, the answer is a little more complicated. It’s Brian Bendis. Which means the book went from becoming a light-hearted adventure-of-the-week book to a dark, conspiracy-laden, dialogue-heavy, noir thriller. Whether you liked it had a lot to do with how much you liked Brian Bendis’ writing. I for one loved it, and still do. In fact, my appreciation of what he’s done for the book has only increased upon revisiting the work.

The first thing Bendis realized is that if he was to make this work, if he was to completely revitalize the very concept of the Avengers, he was going to have to make some tough choices. And so he threw out the baby with the bath water. In fact, he didn’t just throw out the baby, he drowned it at the bottom of the tub. He damaged Avengers Mansion, killed fan-favourite character Hawkeye (and didn’t just kill him, but gave him one of the most ignoble deaths a well-known character has ever gotten, and dismantled the team.

Enter New Avengers. The premise here was to organically grow a “street-level” team of some of Marvel’s top characters, as well as some of Bendis’ favourites. And so perennial C listers Luke Cage and Spider-Woman joined team stalwarts Iron Man and Captain America. In addition, he also brought triple A listers Wolverine and Spider-Man into the fold to garner the favour of casual fans. He also threw the Sentry into the mix, just to provide some tension. This doesn’t sound so crazy now, but at the time all of these changes were considered blasphemy, and the changes Bendis brought to the Avengers were probably the most radical since the mid-’60’s. He also provided an opportunity for more casual fans to experience the adventures of their favourites  without having to actually follow what was happening in their own books. Even though I love the team, I’m the first one to admit that not only was this not your daddy’s Avengers, it really wasn’t the Avengers at all. The team didn’t have any type of government mandate, almost never went on patrol, and really just stumbled from adventure to adventure. And for me, that was ok. And still is.

Those looking for holes to poke won’t have to look far however. While there is some long-term plotting here (the buildup to Secret Invasion, the slow recreation of Luke Cage becoming one of Marvel’s top-tier heroes), and some ideas took almost 4 years to pay off, it does seem as if Bendis viewed what was happening in the rest of the Marvel Universe as somewhat of an inconvenience. The Civil War storyline in particular seemed to take Bendis by surprise, though he deftly brought it into his master plan relatively painlessly. I’ll also never fully believe Bendis’ claims that he had the entire arc of Spider-Woman’s character planned out in advance, as the events of Secret Invasion seemed to fly in the face of reason. And while I happen to enjoy Bendis’ Mametian maelstroms of dialogue, they’re not for everyone, and one of the major criticisms of the book was (and still is) that it’s heavy on exposition, low on action. I think that was a legitimate comment at one point, but Bendis seems to have captured a solid middle ground now, blending character development with action much better than he did at the start of his run. Another critique that is often made of the book is the art. Although David Finch garnered few complaints when he started the book, he handed the reigns over to darker, more stylized artists like Lenil Yu and Alex Maleev, whose work seems to have antagonized long-time fans. Again, this happens to be a matter of taste. I happen to think Alex Maleev is one of comics unheralded geniuses, but those looking for a more traditional, detailed look weren’t happy.

For the most part, Bendis’ New Avengers has been a wholly entertaining thrill ride of a superhero comic book. Though not for everybody, I think it’s really set the bar a little higher for what is possible  (and also necessary in order to capture a modern audience) with team superhero books in the 21st century.

KEEP

Next up: Wow. More Avengers. Whee.

 

 

 

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 31: Marvel Comics – Agents of ATLAS, Alias, Alpha Flight, and Ares

Many Marvel characters that are all getting their own movies next year.

And we’re back. Since I started this, I’ve had numerous people tell me that although they like the blog, what they’re really waiting for is for me to start talking about Marvel comics, since that’s what they grew up with. Well, that moment has arrived. Kind of. For those of you unfamiliar with the superhero comic scene, here’s a brief primer. For the past 4 decades or so, most (but not all) superhero comics have been published by one of two companies: DC, and Marvel. And while superhero books isn’t what they do exclusively, it remains their bread and butter. For most of the past few decades, Marvel has been the number one comic company in terns of market share, and I would say that currently their characters are more recognizable to mainstream North American audiences than DC characters. The recent slate of Marvel movies are a big part of that success, though Marvel’s dominance was solidified before that. Some of Marvel’s top characters that you may recognize, and that I will be writing about here include: Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Captain America, Thor, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Daredevil, Wolverine, the Hulk, the Punisher, and many more characters that Stan Lee seems to have turned out in one drunken weekend back in 1961. One of the generalities that is usually used to describe the difference between DC and Marvel is that Marvel stories tend to be slightly more “realistic”, though that’s a silly term to describe a character that can walk on walls.

A few things to note:

1) I’m actually way ahead in my reading. So although I’m just starting writing about my Marvel collection (and for those of you who care about such things, I started this with as many Marvel trades and I did DC trades), I’m almost finished reading them. And while I actually ended up culling more Marvel than I did DC, most of the culls don’t happen until I get to the second half of the alphabet. So a lot of the next dozen or so posts will be kept, rather than culled.

 

Two characters that I won't be writing about anytime soon.

 

2) For those of who can’t wait to see what I think of your favourite characters like Wolverine, Punisher, Deadpool, and the X-Men, I have some bad news for you. I have some trades for all of those characters, but not really that many in the grand scheme of things. That side of Marvel hasn’t interested me in a long time. Also, because I’m doing this alphabetically, I have a LOT of Avengers, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four to get through before I get to your favourites. As with DC, I tend to like the more obscure characters, so you’ll just have to put up with 4 blogs of how much I like people like The Incredible Hercules, and The Hood, and Squirrel Girl, before you see what I think of Wolverine.
3) Most of the Marvel trades I have consist of stories from the last couple of decades. One thing I realized when I did this, is that my trade collection is really lacking in terms of representing 1960’s Marvel comics, and that’s going to be a top priority of mine this year.  So don’t get mad at me when you see how little 1960’s Spider-Man stuff I have.

4) The quality of late ’90’s, early 2000’s Marvel trades is awful. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve had to handle gingerly in fear of them falling apart, and more than a few of them HAVE fallen apart. For shame.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Agents Of AtlasAgents Of Atlas, Dark Reign, Turf Wars, Return Of The 3D Man

This isn’t an ideal way to start this blog, as most of my rookie readers won’t know who these folks are. Long story short, they’re a collection of little known Marvel characters that writer Jeff Parker decided to throw together as a super-spy type team a few years ago. There’s way more to it than that, but it’s a start. When the first maxi-series came out, I LOVED this series, and the hardcover that collects this series still stands up quite well.  It’s fresh, has lots of action, and the dialogue is sharp. The reality is that although this is one of the most critically acclaimed concepts that Marvel has had in some time, the sales have been poor. And while Marvel should be commended for repeatedly giving Parker a chance at making this concept a hit, the quality of the book has diminished over the past few years, and it’s really only the first hardcover that still works as a self-contained story. The second series (Dark Reign, Turf Wars) starts quite well, and adds some interesting twists to the ATLAS mythos. But I think that they got the cancellation call with very little notice, and so the second half of the series feels very rushed, with some pretty major events being introduced with not enough buildup. By the time the third series (Return of the 3D Man) came out, the concept had run out of steam. Kudos to Marvel (and Parker of course) for trying something new, and at the very least we got some great new characters (Gorilla-Man in particular) that I think will be around for a very long time.

Agents Of Atlas, Dark Reign, Turf Wars: KEEP; Return Of The 3D Man: CULL

AliasAlias, Come Home, The Underneath, The Secret Origins Of Jessica Jones

Full disclosure – Alias is one of my very favourite superhero comics of all time. Of all time. And rereading it did nothing but solidify that opinion for me. As I said above, I’m almost done my Marvel reading, and so I’ve recently read a LOT of Brian Michael Bendis’ Marvel work. And I think that although he’s done some amazing work for the company, this might be my very favourite of the work he’s done (Daredevil is a very close second). It’s the story of Jessica Jones, a down on her luck private detective that used to be a superhero. She still has some power, but doesn’t like to use it very much. And so we follow her as she explores the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Universe. On the surface she’s not that likeable: She swears, she smokes, and she’s the only mainstream superhero that takes it up the a&&. Except for possibly Superman.

This is a story about redemption. Jones is a character so fully developed, that we’re happy to wait for the resolution and redemption that Bendis promises throughout. Even when she’s making horrible life choices, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are happy to follow Bendis as he gets us there. One of the things about this book that isn’t mentioned much, is that it’s the perfect length. It’s not too short, it’s not too long. When the big reveals about what caused Jessica’s retirement from superheroics finally come, one feels as if every page, and every word was crafted meticulously ahead of time, and that Bendis knew exactly how many issues this book should be before he even started writing. He’s essentially teaching a class in how to pace a comic book. This is a must read for anybody that wants something a little different, but can’t quite break the superhero habit. Special mention must be given to how Bendis takes a 3rd string villain called the Purple Man (because he’s purple), and turns him into a truly terrifying depiction of pure evil.

KEEP

Alpha FlightClassic Vol. 1

If you needed proof of how big John Byrne was in his day, look no further than this vanity project that he created to showcase his group of little known Canadian superheroes. The fact that Marvel let him get away with this for as long as they did is a testament to how big a name he was at the time, and how creative and commercial his work was as well.  The book stands up pretty well, though obviously a little dated. It’s a character driven story, which I always like, and Byrne does a credible job in giving you quick, succinct motivations and backgrounds for all his characters. From an art standpoint, it goes down as among the highlights of his career.

KEEP

Ares - God Of War

Until recently, the Marvel version of the mythological figure of Ares has never played the major role in that companies stories that his DC counterpart did in theirs. He’s been used as a B level villain a few times, and that was the status quo until 5 years ago, when Michael Avon Oeming and Travis Foreman did a underated mini-series featuring the character that would launch him into the upper echelon of Marvel heroes.  Although not a well-read mini at the time, Marvel has used several of the concepts it posits as cornerstones of their universe ever since, including the villain in the recent Chaos War cross-over. It’s a great, action-packed story, with some fantastic, dynamic art. If ass-kicking mythological action stories are your thing, look no further.

KEEP

Next up: Avengers. Lots and lots of Avengers.