Best Comics Of 2011: Best Collections/Translations/Reprints

Opinions are like armpits, assholes,  and addictions in that everybody has one, and we all think everyone else’s stinks. And so once a year those of us who are a little more outspoken than others (in their opinions, not our assholes) drag ourselves out of our gutters so that we can vomit out our takes on everything that happened over the past 365 days.

My goal here is to be as comprehensive as possible. My tastes are quite varied, and so there should be something for everyone. Obviously I can’t read everything, so if you think there is something you think I’ve missed, let me know. There are six comic categories I’m covering this year: Best Collections, Best Anthology, Best Webcomic, Best Ongoing, Best Mini, and Best Original Graphic Novel or Single Issue. I’ll be posting them sporadically throughout the month of December.

The first category is for comics that have already been printed at some point, either on-line, in single issue format, or in a language different from English. I’m judging both for quality of the work itself, but also for the quality of the reprint packaging itself. I’m usually picking stuff that either has never been reprinted before, or was hard to find before this particular printing.

10. Welcome To Oddville by Jay Stephens (AdHouse)

I wasn’t familiar with Welcome To Oddville at all, but I’ve learned in recent years to at least give a gander to pretty much everything AdHouse puts out. No other independent publishing house puts out the varied breadth of material these guys do, and Welcome To Oddville is a worthy addition to their weird little corner of the comics world. It’s a collection of comic strips that originally ran online and in the Toronto Star. It’s an absurdist take on a little girl’s quest to be a superhero, but it’s the execution of the strip that really impressed me, rather than the subject matter. Stephens is creating half-page masterpieces here, completely subverting what we think of as comic strip tropes. Although the subject matter and tone is vastly different, fans of design-cartoonists like Chris Ware will find much to like here.

9. Torpedo Vol. 3 by Enrique Sanchez & Jordi Bernet (IDW)

One of the better translation attempts in recent years has been IDWs beautiful hardcover collections of these striking Italian crime comics by Enrique Sanchez and Jordi Bernet. On the surface, these are short black and white pieces about a tough hood trying to claw his way up the criminal ladder in 1930’s New York, but in actuality these are really slice of life stories, and they cover everything from crime, to the immigrant experience, to sex, and everything in between. In some ways this is a companion piece to Will Eisner’s Spirit character, just told from the viewpoint of the villain. The best translation job I’ve read this year.

8. Hark, A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (Drawn & Quarterly)

Probably the best “Gift Idea” of the whole bunch, as what’s required to really appreciate this isn’t so much a love of comics as a love of history.  There are a lot of web comics that focus on humour as opposed to a serial narrative, but most of them eschew actual comedy  for the sake of pop-culture arrogance. This is a beautiful little collection of some of Kate Beaton’s funniest, and most effective works, and one that’s perfect for anybody in your family that appreciates true humour. This one will pop up again on the best web-comics list.

7. WE3 Deluxe Edition by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely (Vertigo)

The greatest comic Grant Morrison ever wrote gets a beautiful, deluxe hardcover, complete with brand new pages as conceived by the brilliant Frank Quitely. As much praise as this book got when it first came out 10 years ago, it’s just not enough. It’s one of the great comic book adventure stories of the past decade, and it hasn’t aged a bit. Frank Quitely’s work here is staggering, and he seems to be the only artist that makes Grant Morrison’s scripts as great as he thinks they are in his head. One of the best “household pets get turned into cybernetic war machines and then go and the road and share adventures together” stories you’ll ever read.

6. Hellboy Library Vol. 4 by Mike Mignola, and others (Dark Horse)

I will never get tired of these. This is the fourth volume in Dark Horse’s efforts to give Mike Mignola’s premier character the deluxe oversized treatment he deserves, and it’s the first to contain art by someone other than Mignola. When Mignola first started using other artists like Richard Corben and Craig Russell to help supplement his work on Hellboy, the effect was jarring, to say the least. Mignola’s command of colours, dark lines, and shade is such an important part of the complete Hellboy package that it was (and still is) extremely difficult to really appreciate anybody else’s work on the character, no matter how venerable that artist may be. Years later, we can now see the positives of letting other people play in Mignola’s sandbox, and as a result we’ve gotten some of the quirkier and stranger stories in the Hellboy canon. My personal favourite here is Mignola and Corben’s The Crooked Man, a seriously creepy jaunt into Appalachian demon-lore.

5. Finder Complete Collection Vol. 1 & 2 by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse)

I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to be introduced to the sprawling sci-fi world of Carla McNeil’s Finder. I think the reason why it’s escaped me for this long is that it’s almost impossible to explain what the thing is actually about in less than the almost 1300 pages or so that these two books contain. This is world building, in the tradition of Herbert and Asimov, and that’s pretty rare in comics these days. What Finder shares with those author’s works, is that although the settings and scope may be huge, what they’re really about is people. The world that Finder’s characters live in is different from ours, but it’s not THAT different, and weirdly enough reminds me of 2000AD‘s Mega-City One, in terms of just how flexible and open the concept is. McNeil can (and does) tell pretty much any type of story she wants in her world: Sci-fi, magic, drama, romance, you name it. And once you’ve read these, then you get to read them again, this time with the amazingly detailed concordance that McNeil included in the back of each volume, so that you can see just how much you missed the first time.

4. Infinite Kung-Fu by Kagan McLeod (Top Shelf)

There have been several comics in recent years that have attempted to emulate the look and feel of 1970’s kung-fu films as envisioned by the Shaw Brothers (Immortal Iron Fist, Pang The Wandering Monk) and others, but I’m here to tell you that Infinite Kung-Fu might be the very best of the bunch. It’s also another book that could probably make a strong case for being put in my upcoming Best Graphic Novels of 2011 post , as much of this material has never been seen before. Infinite Kung-Fu was originally a comic series published by Canadian Kagan McLeod over a decade ago but it remained mostly unfinished , until now. Top Shelf took all of the original comics, got McLeod to finish his martial arts epic, and collected the whole thing in a beautiful 464 page ass-kicking extravaganza. The love that this book demonstrates towards a genre that spans two separate mediums is a pretty rare thing to be found in comics these days, and McLeod needs to be heralded for the sheer ballsiness of what he’s accomplished here. McLeod has a kinetic art style that pretty much pulls you from page to page so fast that you feel as if your neck might snap.

3. Parker: The Martini Edition by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

It might be a little earlier to be adopting the “Absolute” format for Darwyn Cooke’s masterful Parker adaptations, but I don’t really care. Not only does this blow-up two of the best graphic novels of the past decade into a full oversized (actually more than twice the size of the original pages) mastodon, it also includes a new Parker adaptation by Cooke, and plenty of other concept art. As great as this is, I would say that this, like the new version of Bone, is for hardcore fans of the original works only, as the originals are still more than enough for casual readers. But if you love these retro crime classics as much as I do, then this is a must own.

2. Bone 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

The greatest comic book of all time gets a massive deluxe hardcover treatment. There isn’t much that’s “new” about this version of Jeff Smith’s masterpiece, other than that it’s the first time that the full-colour Scholastic version of Bone has been collected in one volume, but it’s impressive just the same.  One might argue that colouring one of the greatest black and white works in comic history is a sacrilege, but I was surprised by just how much depth the colour actually added here. As for the actual comic? It’s still one of the greatest complete serial works the medium has ever produced. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, and you pretty much have to go outside the medium and look at the prose or film worlds (LOTR being the most obvious comparison) before you can find something to really compare it to.  Unfortunately, the high cost of this is going to prove prohibitive to most, and so the black and white softcover edition of this will probably remain your best bet.

1. Mister Wonderful / Death Ray by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon)

I know a lot of lists are going to have Mister Wonderful on their “Best Original Graphic Novel” lists, but since most of it was previously published by New York Magazine, I thought that my  reprints/collections column was the best home for this. That being said, it’s got the impact of a new work, mostly because no one reads New York Magazine. It’s interesting to read these two vastly different books side by side, as you really get to see the changes to a more confident, yet subtler tone in Clowes’ style over the past decade. He’s matured from “just” being a quirky, underground cartoonist, to becoming one of the medium’s strongest voices. Mr. Wonderful is quite simply one of the best things Clowes has ever done. It’s a command performance, by a master. I dare say that very few people in the business are capable of the kind of narrative innovations that Clowes is displaying here. If you love romance and drama in your comics, this is a must buy.

Honourable Mentions: The Mighty Thor: Artist’s Edition by Walt Simonson (IDW),  Mazeworld by Alan Grant & Arthur Ranson (2000AD), 20TH Century Boys by Naoki Ursawa (VIZ)

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 47: Marvel Comics – Iron Man, Luke Cage, Longshot, Marvel Boy

Iron Man – The Five Nightmares, World’s Most Wanted Books 1 & 2, Stark Disassembled, Stark Resilient Book 1 and 2

Iron Man is the next contestant in what’s become my regular “Marvel Characters I Actually Don’t Give A Crap About” column. For those of who haven’t seen the movie, here’s Iron Man: He’s smart. He’s rich. He got shot/stabbed/punched in the heart, and invented armour to help him survive. So since the wealth and the supermodels weren’t enough, he now used that armour to turn himself into more of a pretentious douche than he already was.

My problem with Iron Man is simple. He has no motivation. He’s rich beyond belief, is one of the smartest people on earth, and could invent his way out of pretty much any problem that comes his way? So why dress up like a drunken Tinman and fight crime? It’s not something Marvel has ever answered properly, but the beauty of Matt Fractio’sn recent run on the character is that he doesn’t even try. Fraction’s Iron Man isn’t recently motivated by altruism so much as self-interest. He wants to save the world, but he doesn’t really care about the citizens of those world. He’d never admit it though. For him, it’s being able to solve problems that is his motivation. This is a refreshing take on the character, but it’s one that I doubt has much left in the bank. Fraction’s run is a decent, well-crafted thrill-ride, and Salvador Larocca has convinced me that he’s one of the preeminent pencillers in the superhero genre today. Good, modern-day take on the character.

KEEP

Iron Man – Extremis

Before Fraction’s recent run on Iron Man, Marvel hired noted comic book legend and all-around mad god Warren Ellis to attempt to spruce the character up a bit. He succeeded from a superficial standpoint with the Extremis storyline. In order to combat a new type of villain, Tony Stark injects himself with an enhancement organism called Extremis. It gives him new powers, a new lease on life, blah blah blah. Blah. This IS an entertaining story. It really is. And every panel by Adi Granov is pin-up worthy. But like most of Ellis’ mainstream superhero work, it comes across as written by someone who really hates superhero comics, as well as by someone who hasn’t read a Marvel comic in decades. Although I enjoyed the story for what it is, there isn’t a single action taken by Tony Stark here that fits into what we know of his history and character. This is a man who has literally fought gods with his bare hands, and we’re to believe that he would inject himself with a virus that could possibly kill him just because he had a tough time in a fight? And not call the rest of the Avengers?  As a stand-alone, this works. As a regular part of Marvel continuity, not so much.

KEEP

Luke Cage – Noir

I usually HATE this kind of story.  HATE it. This was Marvel’s recent attempt to capitalize on the recent interest in noir and crime comics. And so instead of creating new and interesting characters to play with, they took their old standbys, and dropped them into a James M. Cain novel. It shouldn’t have worked. Actually, it didn’t. For the most part, these were silly, forced contrivances that weren’t any better than the usual Marvel fare. Except for one. Except for Luke Cage.

I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Luke Cage was created as a response to 1970’s blaxploitation movies, which share more than a passing similarity to some of the lighter noir fare. And so Cage not only works as a 1940’s muscle-for-hire, the character thrives on it. This won’t be competing with Brubaker’s Criminal or Azzarello’s 100 Bullets any time soon, but it’s much subtler approach to this type of story than I would have given Marvel credit for in this day and age.

KEEP

Longshot – Longshot

This was a bizarre little mini-series by Anne Nocenti and Arthur Adams that snuck under Marvel’s radar in the mid 1980s. It had enough goof and charm that the character has been used intermittently ever since, most often in some X-Capacity or another. I’ve been a big fan of Nocenti’s writing in the past, so I was a little surprised to find that I found this almost unreadable. Longshot is your typical “stranger in a strange land” scenario, with the lead character being an escapee from a hell-dimension that is trying to make a go of it on Earth, and runs into a few of Marvel’s more colourful characters while doing so. While the premise seems sound, the execution is so poorly paced, with such goofy characterization, that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Everything moves at a breakneck pace, with Longshot getting into scrape after scrape with almost no effort to portray him as anything more than a fun-loving, kind-hearted chaos agent. That’s fine, but it also doesn’t stand up to repeated reading. And although Arthur Adams is one of the finest superhero artists of his generation, his art alone isn’t compelling enough to get me to keep this book.

CULL

Marvel Boy – Marvel Boy

About 10 years ago, Grant Morrison had a brief tenure at Marvel which he spent trying to whole heartedly destroy the X-Men. In the middle of that, he took the time to write Marvel Boy, an interesting little mini-series about an alien soldier who has been stranded on earth. I’ve been very tough on Morrison on this blog (and will continue to be so), but I remember this series fondly. So I was a little surprised to see that it’s as guilty of the usual shoddy storytelling his comics usually offer. If you read a lot of reviews about Morrison’s work, the following observation often comes up: Great concept guy, poor storyteller. And while it’s redundant to go back to that well, it’s really the best way to describe him. I would take it a step further. He’s a brilliant concept guy. Just freakin’ brilliant. The sheer depth of characters, concepts, and realities the man comes up with on a daily basis is astounding. And Marvel Boy is no exception. Morrison throws out so many expansions on the Kree (Aforementioned alien race) Mythology, that it would take Marvel a year to fully capitalize on them. Not to mention Dr. Midas, a truly great Marvel villain in search of a truly great story. But then you get to the other side of Morrison. The side who can’t seem to tell a simple story without adding more exposition than a U. N. Resolution about the evils of exposition.  That side is in full force here. And so what starts as a taut thriller, ends up as an incomprehensible mess. I know I’m spending a lot of time talking about a series that I’m culling, but I’ve taken a lot of shots at Morrison without really explaining why.

The man seems to be incapable of telling a coherent multi-issue story. The man loses track of characters and plot lines like I lose my glasses. It’s not that bad in something like Marvel Boy, but extremely noticeable in something like Final Crisis, a story so bad it makes Marvel Boy look like Middlemarch. There are comics he’s written I enjoy (All-Star Superman, and…well…I guess just All-Star Superman then), but they are too few and too far between considering his status as the most popular comic writer alive today. And he is. People love him. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why.

CULL

Next up: Moon Knight!

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 14 – DC Comics: The Justice League!

This one almost killed me. Seriously. It turns out that no other book demonstrates how good DC comics can be, but also the horrible depths that they can fall to the way that Justice League does.

So before I start I need to give you some Justice League context.

1960-1984 – The “Let’s All Be Superfriends” Years:

Putting all of their popular characters into one team along with a few fresh faces worked 

The JLA's first enemy: Telepathic Space Seafood

well for DC in the 1940’s with the Justice Society, and so DC decided to do it again in the early 1960’s to coincide with the resurgence of the superhero genre. The book originally starred Superman, Batman, Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and the Martian Manhunter. This is important to remember. The line up changed over the years, with some members going away for extended periods of time, and some new blood joining. But the core premise was always that this was earth’s premier super team, and so it always had a core roster of earth’s A-List heroes. They did bring lesser known heroes onboard occasionally (Green Arrow, Red Tornado, Firestorm, Zatanna), but for the most part, this book focuses on big epic adventures, and didn’t spend a lot of time dealing with its heroes personal lives. Although this era is fondly remembered, I find that when I reread these stories very little sticks with me, and it comes across as a faceless blur of spandex.

 

1984-1986 – The “Why are there homeless people on the team?” Years.

The greatest Justice League tribute band in the mid-westAt the time, Teen Titans and X-Men were selling like crazy, and so DC attempted  to add some teen angst drama to its flagship book. The old JLA disbanded, and a new team was formed, composed of the 3 LEAST popular members of the old team, a spoiled trust-fund baby, an offensive Latino stereotype, and a homeless person. To no ones’s suprise, everyone hated it, and it didn’t last long.

1987 – 1996 –  The “Never met a cheap laugh we didn’t grind into the ground” Years:

And now the strangeness begins. There’s some context to note here. DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earths megacrisis happened in 1985-1986, and it really did a number on JLA continuity (If Wonder Woman is just becoming a hero now, how was she a founding member of the JLA? If Superman is a fairly recent hero, how was HE a founding member of the JLA?  If Hawkman is just arriving from Thanagar, who was the guy wearing wings in the JLA in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Questions, questions. ) For now, DC decided to ignore a lot of those issues, and rebooted the team again, this time calling it the JLI (Justice League International).

For this version of the team, they went for a combination of veterans (Batman, Martian Manhunter, Black Canary), recent A-listers who had never actually been part of the JLA before (Guy Gardner, Captain Marvel, Dr. Fate), and new faces who were a prominent part of the new universe that DC was creating at the time (Dr. Light, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold), etc. They also decided to make this book funny. Yes, funny.

Although the line up changed a lot, this was the direction of the book for much of the next decade, as well as of its sister books, Justice League Europe, and Justice League Task Force. Although there are some good stories from this decade, I found that the increasing focus on comedy, as well as the ever decreasing focus on having A-listers on the team, made the JLA pretty much irrelevant.

1996 – 2006 – The “Magnificent 7″ Years:

DC apparently agreed with me, and in 1996 decided to bring the band back together. So

The band reunites to play at Aquaman's wedding reception

now the JLA was Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, the new (at the time) Green Lantern, and the Flash (Not the original silver age Flash who was a founding member of the original JLA but his young partner who was originally Kid Flash but took over when his uncle died in the Crisis On Infinite Earths. Except for the fact that we just found out recently that he didn’t die and he’s now back.) After an initial mini-series by Mark Waid, DC brought Grant Morrison on board to write this new JLA. And it was epic. Huge battles, huge concepts, huge EVERYTHING. The only personal issues that the JLA faced in this book were the ones that had to do with the team. This remains a high benchmark for the concept, and remains my favourite incarnation of the league.

2006 – 2010. The “I’m sure we’ll figure it out eventually” years.

It’s no secret that the League has struggled creatively in recent years. Revolving creative teams, and revolving team rosters, have devalued the League’s effectiveness. James Robinson seems to be trying a lot of interesting things in today’s League, but I can’t say it’s doing much for me. That being said, the concept is still a sound one, and eventually the League will be on top again.

Which brings us to the books. Although there are MANY JLA trades out there, most of the ones I own have to do with the Magnificent Seven incarnation of the League. I’ve got a LOT of them, so I’m splitting this into several posts.

JLA - The Magnificent Seven Years as written by Grant Morrison (New World Order, American Dreams, Rock Of Ages, Strength In Numbers, Justice For All, Rock Of Ages, World War 3)

So as I mentioned earlier, this a League full of A-List heroes, tacking A-List threats. I have never been quiet regarding my criticisms of Grant Morrison’s writing, and so it was a great pleasure to discover just how much I still loved his run on the JLA when I reread it recently. I have never felt that Morrison was a character writer. I don’t mean concept, he’s great at those. I mean character. But character is a BIG part of why this book works so well, and I think that a part of it was that Morrison didn’t have to focus on it much. Because this wasn’t a book about how Superman gets through the day with Lois, and the Daily Planet, and all of that nonsense, Morrison was free to focus on loftier concerns (How does Superman deal with having every single hero on earth look up to him?) There are character moments here, but they all are related to how these characters deal with each other, not how they deal with their own private lives.

As I mentioned before, Morrison’s League dealt with universe-destroying threats on a daily basis, and this book remains a highlight in the history of the League.

KEEP

JLAThe Magnificent Seven Years as written by Mark Waid (Tower Of Babel, Terror Incognita, Divided We Fall)

Arguably the greatest JLA run of all time is done, and the question is, who do you get to take over? Mark Waid of course, and he knocks it out of the park.

His League is of a slightly smaller scope than Morrison’s is. He’s using continuity more than Morrison did, and character interaction is slightly more front of mind in his run. Which brings us to “Tower of Babel“, the highlight of his run. Not only is this one of the great JLA stories, it’s also one of the best Batman stories of the modern era. Although Waid’s run wasn’t very long, it’s still holds up extremely well as a worthy successor to Morrison’s arc.

KEEP

JLAThe Magnificent Seven Years as written by Joe Kelly (Future Imperfect, The Golden Circle, Obsidian Age Vol. 1 & 2, Rules Of Engagement, Trial By Fire)

At the time, Joe Kelly had a well-regarded run on Superman, and so I guess it made sense to throw him the League. But he had some pretty big shoes to fill. Although I remember thoroughly disliking his run when it first came out, upon rereading it’s obvious that was just a reaction to some of the small changes Kelly made, as opposed to his run overall. It turns out that this was a solid run, with a bigger focus on character development than either Waid’s or Morrison’s. Of course, the highlight here was the incredibly ambitious Obsidian Age arc, a sprawling epic of time travel, death, and betrayal, with some beautiful art by Doug Mahnke. Probably the biggest misses here are the new characters that Kelly brings into the team. They never really gel with the existing cast, and didn’t seem to serve any real storytelling purpose other than for Kelly’s own ego.

KEEP

JLAThe Magnificent Seven Years – The Rest. (World Without A Justice League, Tenth Circle, Pain Of The Gods, Syndicate Rules, Crisis Of Conscience)

Crucifer is upset because he's in the worst Justice League story ever written

Joe Kelly was the last regular writer on this version of the JLA, and the rest of the run was a rotating cast of different creative teams. Most of this was absolute crap, with the worst of the bunch being a truly awful excuse for a vampire story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, who seemed bound and determined to make you forget how much you loved their X-Men run when you were a kid.

Crisis Of Conscience, Syndicate Rules: KEEP. World Without A Justice League, Pain Of The Gods, Tenth Circle: CULL

 

 

JLA – The Magnificent Seven Years : Odds & Ends (JLA: Earth 2, Superpower, Age Of Wonder, World Without Grownups, Secret Origins, A League Of One, JLA Year One)

Because this version of the Justice League was so popular, DC pumped out an endless amount of one-shots, mini-series, and tie-ins. Most of these were wretched, and are covered in my next post. But there were a few that actually still hold up well today. Age of Wonder was one of many Elseworlds JLA titles from this era, and honestly the only one worth a damn (Justice League as Steampunk scientists: Hooray!). Although Year One, and Earth 2 still gets a lot of praise, A League Of One was a pleasant rediscovery, and I would go as far as to say that it’s one of the best Wonder Woman stories of the past decade.

KEEP

Next up: Lots of really bad Justice League stories!