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)

New Comics Reviews: Daredevil, Infinite Kung-Fu, The Last Mortal, and others

So I’ve been doing a lot of bitching about comics lately. Most of this has come from DC’s recent “reboot”, in which they did everything except for actually try to make there comics better. In fact, I tried to view the reboot optimistically, and even had plans of reviewing the entire line. But in large the books are so terrible, so watered down, and so uninteresting, that I gave up after the first week, and the whole thing has made me despair a little for the comics industry. If books this bad are selling so well, is there any room in today’s market for anything other than dumb, generic superhero comics?

I hope so, and so I give you some recommendations of some recent reads:

Daredevil #1-4 by Mark Waid, Paulo Rivera, and Marcos Martin

Yes, my first pick is a superhero comic. And not only that, it’s a mainstream superhero comic, with a famous, recognizable character. And it’s one of the best things I’ve read this year. Why? Because it’s one of the few superhero books on the stands right now that actually remembers that IT”S A COMIC BOOK! Every issue of this is like a masterclass in the comics medium. Waid and his partners aren’t just telling us a story, they are showing us a story, in vivid, Technicolor terms.  Waid’s Daredevil does more to showcase what comics can do than almost any other book on the stands right now, and if you’re not reading this, I’m pretty sure you’re a communist.

Rating: A+

Infinite Kung-Fu by Kagan McLeod

A 400 page kung-fu epic? Sign me up. This is a love letter to Shaw Brothers style kung fu movies, with the emotional drama, bad-ass fight scenes, and goofy nonsense that implies. McLeod has been working on this in some shape or form for over a decade, and it’s great to see such a unique, personal take on the kung-fu mythos in comic book form.

Rating: A-

Lil Depressed Boy by S. Stephen Struble and Sina Grace

Are you a sardonic hipster that loves music, comics, and died a little when Scott Pilgrim wrapped up? Good news folks, Lil Depressed Boy is here. LDB has quickly become one of my favourite character studies on the stands, and is a welcome breath of fresh air to all of the high-concept, adventure comics that are currently on the market. It’s the story of a sad little guy who meets the love of his life.

Rating: A-

The Last Mortal by John Mahoney and Filip Sablik, and Thomas Nachlik

 

Image has put out a lot of high-profile books this year, but this doesn’t seem to be one of them. The fact that its been pretty much ignored is sad, as I think it’s one of the most well-crafted high concept stories I’ve read this year. The pitch is absurdly simple: One day, a guy finds that he can’t die. That’s it. That’s the whole thing, and in a lesser talents hands we would have 25 pages of a poor man’s Wolverine knock-off. But the creators realize that it is strong characters that make high concept work, and have put together a smart and sad crime story that simply utilizes, and not relies on, it’s superpowered origins.

Rating: A-

The Hidden by Richard Sala

Holy crap. If you can find a creepier, more spine-tingling comic book story this year I’ll come over and mow your lawn*. I’ve never read a Sala story before, and I can’t believe what I’ve been missing. Sala’s expressive art perfectly accentuates the terrible sadness of the post-apocalyptic Frankenstein update he’s telling here. If you’re in the mind for great, beautifully drawn horror, this is your book.

*Offer only good  to people who live in my condo.

Green River Killer – A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case

I opened this book, by the guy that used to write the long rambling love letters to Lost on EntertainmentWeekly.com every week, with some reluctance and trepidation. In my experience, just because you’re a good prose or non-fiction writer doesn’t mean you can write good comic books, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find that Green River Killer isn’t just a good comic book, it’s a GREAT one.

It’s the story of Jensen’s father, a Washington State police detective assigned to help track down one of the most infamous serial killers in American history. There are a lot of mis-steps that one could take putting together a story so personal, yet so part of the public record, but  Jensen takes none of them. This isn’t the killer’s story, it’s his fathers, but Jensen’s resistance to over-sensationalizing his dad’s story is admirable. This isn’t an episode of Mannix. There’s no big shoot out and the end, no “ah-ah!” moment where everything comes together in the parlor with all of the family sitting around. And still Jensen and Case manage to craft a smart, entertaining read about one man’s life work. It’s a small story, but a great one.

Rating: A

 

 

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.

KEEP

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.

CULL

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.

KEEP

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 39: Marvel Comics – Daredevil: The Frank Miller Years

 

The greatest blind superhero ever. Well, other than Ray Charles.

Daredevil is either Marvel’s most popular B list character, or he’s their least popular A list character. I’m not exactly sure which, but I’m leaning towards the latter. But while his popularity waxes and wanes, he’s been extremely fortunate from a creative standpoint, and we’ve been the beneficary of some pretty tremendous DD stories as a result.

So why does this character seem to inspire so many great stories?

I have no idea. I know why Batman works. I know why Spider-Man works. But Matt Murdock? Not really sure. On the surface, his origin is a retread of what we had already seen with Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker: Traumatic family loss, dedication to fighting crime, blah blah blah. But he never seemed to be as defined by his origin as

A younger, happier Daredevil, painfully unaware of the lifetime of misery that awaits him.

Spidey and Bats are by theirs. Maybe the key is that he’s more malleable than those two? He’s been written as the brooding vigilante, the righteous superhero, and the carefree wandering adventurer. And while all three have worked to some extent, it’s the version of him as fate’s eternal punching bag that has endured.

Here is what you need to know about Daredevil:

  • He’s a blind lawyer named Matt Murdock.
  • Yes, he’s really blind. He was struck by a container of radioactive waste as a child, which both blinded him and gave him super radar. Super radar? Yes. Sorry.
  • He’s a whore. Seriously. He’s the Bill Clinton of the Marvel Universe. He’s fucked everybody except for maybe Sue Storm. And possibly Howard The Duck. Though I’m not sure about that one.
  • The character was essentially a cheap knock-off of Spider-Man for the first 20 years of his existence, until Frank Miller took over the character in 1982. In fact, his book was on the verge of cancellation. Miller’s version is usually the one people think of, and it’s the version that the movie was based on. DD before Miller wasn’t exactly awful, but it was pretty average.
  • Although firmly entrenched in the Marvel Universe, the character is often written as being slightly apart from it, and isn’t often part of the company’s huge semi-regular cross-overs. He’s Marvel’s premier “Street” hero, but he gets a little diminished when you put him beside Asgardian Thunder Gods.
  • Bad things happen to him. All the time. He has the month that Japan is having EVERY SINGLE MONTH. It’s kind of his gimmick.

Is that enough? I say it’s enough. Let’s begin.

Daredevil – The Frank Miller Years (Marked For Death, Daredevil: Visionaries Vol. 2, 3, Daredevil: Legends Vol. 2)

Like the X-Men, DD stands apart from his Marvel brethren by being one of the few characters that didn’t have great stories in the 1960′s. Or even the 1970′s. In fact, a strong case could be made that there were no great DD stories for the first 20 years of his existence. Harsh, but true. It wasn’t until a fresh-faced kid named Frank Miller first took over the art chores in 1982, and then the writing a few issues later, that the book actually took off. In fact, Miller’s run on Daredevil is now considered to be one of the very best superhero runs of the 1980′s.

But does it deserve the hype? Absolutely. Miller transformed Daredevil like very few characters before or since, to the extent that his take on the character is now considered the definitive one. So many of the constants that are now considered part of the Daredevil canon came from his era (Elektra, Kingpin, Ben Urich), that it’s hard to imagine a Daredevil before Miller got his hands on him.

Rereading this was an absolute pleasure. Seeing a young creator expand his horizons by leaps and bounds issue by issue is something that is seen so infrequently these days. From the minute Miller starts to write this book, you know that this is something special. It’s easy to mock Miller these days (Cough…The Spirit…cough), but there is a reason why he’s considered one of the preeminent storytellers in the comic business, and a big part of that reason is Daredevil.

Miller’s run technically starts with him just as artist, and while those issues are strong (Roger McKenzie did the writing), it’s not until issue 168 that Miller fully takes over the title. And he gives us Elektra. And then he gives us the Kingpin as DD’s arch nemesis; Bullseye as truly terrifying psychopath; Ben Ulrich as tortured confidant; The Hand; Ulrich getting stabbed; One of the greatest death scenes in comic history. And so on. And it’s all done in a noir style that pays earnest tribute to Will Eisner’s Spirit, but never copies. In short, there’s brilliance here. The second half of the run isn’t quite as strong as the first, and there is some filler here and there. But all in all it’s a tour de force in visual storytelling.

A panel from issue 227 of Daredevil. This is the beginning of the worst day of Matt Murdock's life. Until the next worst day of Matt Murdock's life. He's had a lot of worst days.

Although his original run is what gets most of the attention, it’s often forgotten that Miller came back to Daredevil a few years later, this time to handle the scripts, while David Mazzuchelli worked his magic with pencils. In my opinion, this arc is almost the equal of Miller’s original “Elektra” saga, though some would say that the ending isn’t as finite, or satisfying. All I know is that issue 227 of this series should be studied at comic book schools for decades to come when it comes to the “How to build enough tension to make a rat chew off his own tail” part of the course. It’s the story of a man being destroyed, piece by piece. And unlike most superhero stories, this one really did change the character forever. I can’t recommend these stories highly enough, and I was happy to see that they’ve only improved with age.

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Daredevil – Yellow

This was a mini-series by the esteemed pairing of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. While they’ve received more attention for their DC work (Superman – For All Seasons, Batman – Long Halloween), they’ve done 3 Marvel mini series together, and this one’s my favourite  of the bunch. This is a throwback to the original swashbuckling era that Stan Lee originally envisioned for the character. It’s a fun look at the early years of the character, and Tim Sale’s work here is stunning, as always. Although this rarely comes up as one of the great DD stories, it’s quite good, and worth keeping.

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Next up: The Brian Michael Bendis years!