The World Of Digital Comics

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again while expecting a different result”

Some guy that probably didn’t say that thing I opened this article with.

That line has been called the stupidest thing ever said by a smart person. It’s even stupider when you realize that no one actually knows for sure who the smart man who actually said it was.  But when it comes to how the comic book industry has been treating their digital strategy, it’s pretty much the only line that makes sense.

Why? Because we’ve seen this before. Remember when there used to be a music industry?

But all is not lost. We’re in the middle of a very exciting time for digital comic books, and for the comic book industry in general. If you’re willing to work hard, and be creative, there are lots of opportunities to be successful, AND to open up the potential of an almost new business model.

Let’s look at what’s happening in digital comics today, shall we?

The “Why Buy The Cow, When You Can Get The Milk For Free” model

A webcomic that actually made money.

This model is what people usually think of when they think of online comics, and it’s often referred to as the “Freak Angels” model, though web comics were around for almost 20 years before Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield took a stab at them.  The way it works is that you give away your content online for free, gradually.  Sometimes it might be a whole issue at a time (Old City Bllues by Giannis Milonogiannis is a great example of this), but usually it’s more gradual.  A page or two a week is the usual method for this sort of thing. You can try to generate revenue through ad sales while posting your content, though obviously this can vary wildly based on how many people are visiting your site. You can also not worry about the money part of it, and just use your free comic to drum up interest in you as a creator.

When you have a certain amount of content, you can do up a collection physically, sell it, and make your fortune. OR, you can sell toys, T-Shirts, or other crap that’s related to your content. The danger to this is the inadvertent “Give Away The Cow AND The Milk For Free” model, which is where you give away your content for free, but there isn’t enough real interest for you to sell your product in collected form.

Kill All Monsters by Michael May & Jason Copland.

Until a few years ago, most web comics were being done in a format that emulated a computer screen, which meant that collecting in a trade format was often problematic. With tablets, we’re seeing a lot of web comics going back to emulating the physical comics experience.

The Pros: It’s freakin’ cheap. No printing costs or physical distribution means very little up front costs. And by keeping the creative team relatively small (this is a model that can work well if you’re the only person making the strip), you can maximize profits in the long run, when ad money and collection money starts coming in. There are plenty of examples of this model working, in various degrees.

Girls With Slingshots

The Cons: While the potential for a strong back-end profit exists , it’s still pretty rare. At the end of the day, you have the same issue you have with print comics: Getting people to pay attention to them. You may be giving away your content for free, but you are still competing for an even more valuable commodity than money: time.  And although web comics are “cheap” to make in terms of money, they can take the exact same amount of time to make as physical comics. And every minute you spend making web comics that might not pay off for months, if ever, is a minute you could be spending on paying work, either inside or outside the comics field.

Cura Te Ipsum by Neal Bailey & Dexter Wee

While this model is the model that’s the easiest to use for up and coming creators, veterans and pros have been capitalizing on it in recent years. Warren Ellis, Greg Rucka, and Mark Waid are only a handful of the already-established creators that have experimented with this format. And while it’s a free-ish internet, having big name creators compete in a sandbox previously owned by indie folks means those indie folks have to work even harder to get noticed.

Not to say it’s easy for established pros either. While writers can juggle a web comic on the side while getting more immediately lucrative work from physical publishers, it’s not that easy for artists. So far, no A list mainstream artist has dabbled in this format in anything more than a passing manner. Rick Burchett’s Lady Sabre is a rare exception, and it’s no coincidence that it’s one of the best looking comics on the web. Artists like Cameron Stewart can juggle their web comics while working in mainstream comics, but the mainstream paying work usually has to come first.

Examples of this model: Cow BoyThe Gutters, Penny ArcadeFreak AngelsThrillbent, Cura Te IpsumKill All MonstersGirls With Slingshots….thousands of others.

The “I Am Buying Milk. You Can Keep The Cow” model

DC figured out a way to charge for something everyone else was giving away for free? Shocking.

This one isn’t new either, but it’s been springing up a LOT this year. It’s recreating the old newstand comics model, but in digital form. In this model you charge for ALL of your content, whether or not you sell by the issue, or by the collection. You can do this on your own, or through a middle man, and sell it through a site like Comixology.  Or you can use two middle men, and go through a publisher & then go through a digital distributor.  This model doesn’t bring in much (or any) ad money, but it doesn’t exclusively rely on trade sales either. Although this one has been around for a while, I would argue that it wasn’t really workable until the advent of tablet technology. Now that we have a digital interface that almost recreates the physical print experience, this is becoming more and more viable.

The Pros: Like the last model, this one is pretty cheap to produce. But unlike the last model you have some real potential for immediate revenue. No need to wait for trade, as you can charge a buck or two per issue. And because there are no printing costs, you get to keep the lion’s share of that buck or two. You pay the middle man their cut, and the rest goes to you. With the advent of tablet technology, selling a digital copy of the physical product on the same day is becoming more and more common.

Bandette, by Paul Tobin & Colleen Coover. Published by Monkeybrain Comics.

The Cons: Similar to the cons in the first model. Digital still doesn’t have the in-your-face presence that a physical comic in a comic shop does. And so while you can recoup some capital quite quickly, the size of that pie is still very small. By going into a comic shop, you are pretty much assuming an intent to buy. That kind of dollar loyalty doesn’t exist online yet.For someone to really takeadvantage of this model, a customer has to a) own a tablet  b) know about Comixology, or a similar digital distributor, and then c) have enough time to really figure out which comics are for them. Also, because much of the content being produced in this model (and in the last) comes from a more indie culture, getting consumers that only read superhero comics to expand their horizons is as difficult in digital comics as it is in physical ones.

This is one that’s really blown up in the last few years, and I think we’re going to see a lot of publishers and creators really try to make this model work. It’s the one that’s closest to the old physical model, and it’s one that in theory, means the least amount of change to the traditional way of doing things. DC and Marvel have both taken a few stabs at this. They are putting out digital versions of some (though not all) of the physical comics that they produce, but they’re also producing new comics for digital use initially (with a physical copy often coming out months later).

The quality of these have been pretty shoddy, though DC has made some real attempts this year at producing quality work for a digital audience. One of the biggest stories in digital comics this year has been Monkeybrain Comics. They’re using this model, and doing it with name creators, and with interesting properties. And the quality so far has been pretty high.

Examples of this model:  Monkeybrain ComicsDouble Barrel Comics

The “You Can’t Actually Buy This Cow, But It’s Milk Is Gamma-Irradiated And Will Give You Superpowers” model

This ones pretty new, and only a handful of creators are really using it. This is where creators actually use digital or tablet technology to create a product that is impossible to reproduce in physical print. There may be a version of the product that comes out eventually, but it’s not going to have the same level of interactivity that its digital counter part does.

Marvel has been experimenting with this model with their “Infinite” line. At this point it’s not much more than a pretty gimmick, but I could see this growing like crazy over the next few years. Especially with companies that have some money for an initial investment.

The Pros: By having a format that can’t be reproduced in physical comics, you have complete control over how your audience consumes your product. You are eliminating the physical costs entirely, and essentially creating a new audience to go along with your new content.

The Cons: Although your physical costs are nill, this is still going to cost some coin. Especially if you’re producing NEW content, and not just riffing on existing content the way that Marvel does with their Infinite line.

This is the one that’s going to see the most change in the next few years. As tablet tech evolves, expect to see the content created for that tech to evolve as well.

Examples Of This Model: The Thrill ElectricMarvel Infinite

So what does this all mean? Not much, other than there has never been a better time to get into self-published comics. Two of the main problems (distribution, and paper costs) that always hampered self-publishing are essentially eliminated in a digital-driven marketplace. Obviously digital has it’s own set of obstacles, but those seem to be problems with solutions.

The best part of this new digital revolution is that it’s the creators that seem best positioned to take advantage of it.

Best Comic Books Of 2011: Best Original Graphic Novels

And we’re done. To qualify in this category, a comic would have to be published between December 2010 and December 2011, be self-contained, and that’s about it. Although Mangas would technically qualify, I put them in the reprint category.  For me, the very best comics I read this year were in this category, and that’s been the case for a few years now. In every other category that I’ve talked about, the distance in quality between the 2oth spot and the 1st spot is quite long. Not in this one however, and pretty much every book in the top 20 is excellent, and well worth reading. Enjoy. I hope. I still hope to do a Best Movies of 2011 list, and a Best Albums of 2011 list within the next few weeks.

For those of you who have enjoyed my Best Of 2011 lists, I must draw your attention to last year’s columns about the books I read in 2010. Enjoy. I hope.

20. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil (Top Shelf)

From his heyday as the finest adventure comic book writer perhaps ever, to his current status as a perennial frontrunner in the Crankiest Old Man In Comics competition, Alan Moore is always worth taking a look at, and almost always worth reading. Although the most recent chapter in Moore and O’Neil’s venerable LOEG saga won’t placate those who want Moore to return to the straight-forward adventure tales that launched the franchise, its evolved into something more ambitious than almost anyone (save for perhaps Moore) could have foreseen. It’s become quite simply a history of English fiction, in comic book form, and as such is dense, complicated, and eminently worth reading. Not for the lazy, or for the faint of heart.

19.  The Lives Of Sacco And Vanzetti by Rick Geary (NBM)

Rick Geary is one of the most prolific and versatile comic storytellers around, and Lives is a perfect example of his talents. The story of Sacco And Vanzetti is one of the most important in 20th Century American history, and as such is perfect fodder for the type of historical biography that Geary does better than almost anyone in the business.  His precise, analytical style is perfectly suited to showcase events that still manage to bitterly divide people almost 90 years after they transpired.

18. Finder: Voice by Carla Speed McNeil (Dark Horse)

McNeil is a unique voice in modern comic books, and in Finder she has created a vast canvas on which she can tell pretty much any type of story she wants. While most of the Finder stories star the actual Finder (Jaeger), Voice stars Rachel Grosvenor, an outcast straddling several worlds, and belonging to none. It’s a great character piece, and McNeil’s attention to storytelling detail is the real star of this book.

17. Love & Rockets New Stories Vol. 4 by Jaime and Gil Hernandez (Fantagraphics)

Love & Rockets. Three little words, but for those of us who love independent comic books, they mean so much. L&R is a big, sprawling series of comics that comprise several competing narratives that occasionally intersect, though they often don’t. L&R has been published in a variety of formats since 1981, with The New Stories being the most recent variation. It’s a series of large graphic novels composed of numerous L&R stories that range the gamut of genres as diverse as romance, horror, superhero, and espionage. As usual with L&R, the stories are sweet, sad, sexy, humorous, and above all, fun.

16. Any Empire by Nate Powell (Top Shelf)

Any Empire tells the story of three young friends, and their experiences growing up with war, both small and large. It’s a complex work, and as such reminds me of the comics of Craig Thompson or Alison Bechdel. Like them, Powell uses little stories to teach big lessons, and his beautiful bold artwork is the perfect companion for this story about growing up in a hard world.  Nate Powell has become one of the great analogists in modern comic books.

15. The Great Northern Brotherhood Of Canadian Cartoonists by Seth (Drawn & Quarterly)

It’s a testament to the man’s work ethic that even when Seth just scribbles down something in his sketch pad that it ends up being one of the best graphic novels of the year. A companion book to Seth’s wonderful Wimbledon Green, Great Northern offers a look into a somewhat fictional history of Canadian comic books, and one that is inevitably more preferable to the real thing. Seth remains one of the great storytellers in comics, and one that seems be only improving with time.

14. Hellboy: House Of The Living Dead by Mike Mignola and Richard Corben (Dark Horse)

In the last few years, no creative collaboration has been quite as effective as the one between Mike Mignola and Richard Corben. Corben’s art style couldn’t be more different from Mignola’s, yet his work on Mignola’s most famous creation has become a thing of comic book legend. This, the next installment in the continuing tale of Hellboy’s five month-long 1950′s Mexican”Lost Weekend”, is a love letter to the Universal Monster movies of the 1940s. Or it would be, if those movies had Mexican luchadores in them. I’ve said it before, but no mainstream comic character manages to retain the same level of quality that Hellboy (under Mignola’s stewardship) has had.

13.  21: The Story Of Roberto Clemente by Wilfred Santiago (Fantagraphics)

I’m sad to report that before reading this wonderful biography, I thought Roberto Clemente was something that you poured on tacos. I know now that not only was Clemente a fine baseball player (a sport that I still don’t know anything about, despite the fine tutelage of my friend, the wonderful sportswriter Tom Wakefield), but he was also apparently the greatest human being in the history of human beings. Seriously. After reading this, not only will you feel absolute joy upon reading about all of the great things that Clemente did, but you’ll also feel absolute sadness, at realizing that you’ve completely pissed your life away and that nothing you ever do will come close to accomplishing what Clemente managed to do pretty much before he got out of bed each morning. It’s not just the subject matter that’s a winner here. Santiago has a knack for simplicity in his storytelling approach, and in a medium that’s often beset by needless complexity, that’s a rare gift.

12. The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufeld (W.W. Norton)

Although Neufeld’s work won’t be a suprise to anyone who has been keeping track of comic journalism over the past few years, Gladstone is a newcomer to the genre, despite her accomplishments as a radio journalist and personality.  As such I approached this with some leeriness, as comics is a medium that is often misunderstood by “real” writers. I needn’t have worried. Influencing Machine was a comic book Gladstone was born to write, and one that also happens to be one of the very best books about the role of media in contemporary society that I’ve ever read.  That Gladstone enlisted an accomplished cartoonist like Neufeld to help her with the heavy lifting only goes to prove how committed to the medium she is.

11. Pope Hats Vol. 2 by Ethan Rilly (Adhouse)

Ethan Rilly remains one of the best kept secrets in comics, which I’m bewildered by considering the excessively high quality of this, the second in his Pope Hats series. Rilly is a product of his influences. From the romantic drama of Adrian Tomine, to the cute absurdity of Colleen Coover, to the faux-history of Seth, in Rilly’s art one can see the past decade of independent comic books quite clearly. If there is anything to complain about, it’s that  one immediately wants more, as this intriguing little comic book about struggling with adulthood is only 40 pages long.

10. Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (First Second)

If you want people to pay attention to your comic, get Neil Gaiman to tell everyone that it’s one of the best things he’s read all year. That’s what Vera Brosgol did, and I’m glad of it, as I probably wouldn’t have given this a shot otherwise. Gaiman’s correct of course, and this deliciously creepy ghost story genuinely gave me the heebie jeebies the first time I read it.  As you might have surmised, it’s the story of  Anya, a second generation Russian immigrant who struggles to fit in to western culture. At least until she meets Emily, a ghost who takes it upon herself to help Anya acclimatize herself to that most hellish of American institutions: high school. And then it gets nasty. Anya’s Ghost is geared towards young adults, but it’s a book that doesn’t feel watered or dumbed down in any way. The threats to Anya are real, and the twists and turns are unexpected at best, and downright dangerous at worst. If kiddie horror stories like Gaiman’s Coraline or Graveyard Book are your particular cup of scary tea, then Anya’s Ghost will prove a more than fitting addition to your library.

9. SVK by Warren Ellis and D’Israeli (BERG)

When transhumanist bon vivant Warren Ellis says that his new comic is the best one he’s written in years, you pay attention. And when he gets acclaimed artist D’Israeli (with whom he hasn’t worked since Lazarus Churchyard) to handle the visuals you pay attention. And if design group BERG tops the whole thing off by ncluding a UV light with each purchase that is absolutely necessary to actually read the damn thing, you pay attention. And so we have SVK, a subversive comic that could have been just another gimmick in lesser hands, but actually provides a bold new way of experiencing comic books. Thankfully Ellis and D’Israeli utilize the UV light in such a way that not only do you need it to actually realize the entire book, but it also ends up being a pivotal plot point. It’s about Thomas Woodwind, an archetypical tech-savy, bad-ass Ellisian anti-hero if I’ve ever seen one, who has been hired by the Heimdall Corp to retrieve SVK, an essential piece of technology that threatens to change everything our society believes about privacy, and freedom. Although it’s probably difficult to look past the gimmick, this really is the tightest Ellis comic script in years, and one that deserves to be judged on its own merits.

8. Green River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen & Jonathan Case (Dark Horse)

One part crime story, one part family history, Green River Killer is probably the least accurately named book on this list, as it isn’t really about the Green River killer at all. It’s the story of Tom Jensen, a Washington-based police detective who was attached to the Green River task force for over a decade. After years of hunting one of the worst serial killers in American history, DNA evidence finally allows Gary Ridgeway to be arrested and charged. And then the real story begins, with 180 days of Jensen interviewing Ridgeway, trying to find any clues that would help him understand what would make someone enact the unspeakable horrors that Ridgeway was guilty of. The “True” in the title is completely accurate however. Not only is this based on actual events, but the book shows the realistic banality of modern detective work better than any other comic I’ve read. Jonathan Case’s artwork is a revelation, and Jensen’s deeply personal script (He’s Jensen’s son, as well as the writer behind those amazing Lost recaps that  were often better than the show itself) gives us a unique insight into one of the worst crimes in modern history.

7. One Soul by Ray Fawkes (Oni)

I could write a hundred pages on this book alone. That’s how ambitious this work is. It consists entirely of 88 separate two page spreads, with 18 panels on each spread. Each of the 18 panels tells the linear story of one person, from birth to life. And so this 176 page masterpiece (and yes, that word is applicable here) actually tells 19 different stories, 18 of which are the individuals that make up each of the panels. But the 19th story, that’s the real kicker. It’s the story of us. Of you, of me, and of everyone else that has ever lived. One Soul tries to show that we as species have far more in common with each other than we think we do, and that most of the “differences” that we use to wage war with each other over are in fact trivial.

6. The Hidden by Richard Sala (Fantagraphics)

Not only was this my first Richard Sala book (and definitely not my last), it was also probably the best pure horror comic I read this year. It’s a post-apocalyptic take on the Frankenstein mythos, and one that quite frankly shocked the hell out of me. Sala’s expressionist art style might not be the most obvious choice for telling blood-curdling horror stories, but it’s innocent cartoony quality somehow makes a perfect (and terrible) fit with the horrible, almost nihilistic story that Sala is telling.

5.  Homeland Directive by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston (Top Shelf)

Dr. Laura Graham is one of the world’s foremost authorities on disease control. One day, her partner is killed, and she finds herself framed for a variety of heinous crimes. To top it off, it appears as if it’s all part of a plot concocted at the highest level of government to terrorize America into accepting authoritarian rule. Homeland Directive is an extremely tight, well-molded thriller with nary a wasted beat. Although Mike Huddleston has been getting much deserved attention for his fantastic art both here and on Joe Casey’s Butcher Baker, it’s Robert Venditti’s meticulous plot that really drives this fantastic potboiler, and it’s further proof that he might be the most underappreciated writer in comics.

4. The Tooth by Cullen Bunn, Shawn Lee, & Matt Kindt (Oni)

A wonderful homage to 1960′s and 1970′s monster comics, The Tooth is the story of Graham, and the demon-tooth that crawls into his mouth and gives him superpowers. If that doesn’t sell you, then you have no heart. If it does, then this might be your favourite book of the year. This book is as strange as it sounds (maybe stranger) but it really is a character piece at heart, and in some ways is the greatest Incredible Hulk story never told, at least in terms of the tragic nature of the lead, and the sacrifices he has to make. If you like the “meta” approach to storytelling that recent books like Bulletproof Coffin have taken, then this strange adventure story will be a delight.

3. Petrograd by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook (Oni)

Historical fiction is a genre often covered by comics, but rarely this boldly, and rarely this well.Here’s what we know: In 1916, an advisor to Tsar Nicholas II named Gregorii Rasputin was killed by a gang of nobles and politicians concerned about undue influence that the “mad monk” had over the Tsar. We also know that there is some evidence that British Secret Service agents stationed in St. Petersberg were at the scene of the crime. That is what we know. And for Phillip Gelatt and Tyler Crook, that little bit of evidence was enough to craft this magnificent work of spy fiction, full of secret agents, mysterious women, and unknown rendezvous. This one has intrigue, sex, politics, and adventure, and that it may actually be true only sweetens the pot. What this book accomplishes most however, is to introduce two huge new talents to the comic book world.

2. Paying For It by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly)

Meet Chester Brown. He’s a well-known, and well-respected Canadian cartoonist. He likes to have sex. He doesn’t want a girlfriend. And so, he decides to…wait for it….Pay For It. This is the tale of a man on a quest. A quest to see if it’s possible for a man to have a fulfilling life with sex when ever he feels like paying for it, but without the emotional uncertainty that you risk when you venture into an actual relationship.  And for Brown, it is. This is the most honest graphic novel I’ve read in years, with Brown opening all aspects of his personal life to the reader. If sordid details are your must-haves in a great read, than this is the book you’ve been waiting for. It’s a rare book that can actually make you reconsider your own preconceived notions about a subject, and Paying For It threatens to change everything you think you believe about sex, relationships, and commitment.

1. Habibi by Craig Thompson (Pantheon)

It’s not very often when you can pretty much predict on January 01 what that year’s best graphic novel is going to be. But that was the case as soon as it was announced that 2011 would be when Craig Thompson’s much-anticipated Habibi would be arriving. And I was right. Superficially, Habibi is the story of Dodola and Zam, escaped slaves who try to make a life together but are forcibly torn apart. As is the case with these things, they do eventually find each other, but not before paying some pretty terrible prices. This graphic novel is many things: It’s beautiful, engaging, messy, non-factual, boldly ambitious, and above all, the greatest love story in the history of comics. That’s a strong statement, I know, but it’s the only one that I could find that adequately describes just how grand in scope and scale this massive blockbuster of a romance tale is. This one is going to be (and already has been) picked apart by comic scholars for decades to come.

Honorable Mention: Lewis and Clark by Nick Bertozzi (First Second), Holy Terror by Frank Miller (Legendary), Mr. Murder Is Dead by Victor Quinaz and Brent Schoonover, Optic Nerve Vol. 12 by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly), Murder Book Vol. 2 by Ed Brisson, Vic Malhotra, and Michael Walsh (Independent), Jimmy Olsen by Nick Spencer, RB Silva, and Dym (DC)

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)

Wednesday Comics Woundup: SVK by Warren Ellis – A half-review

SVK is a brand new comic book/marketing concept/technological breakthrough/interesting gimmick by Warren Ellis, (well-known comic book writer/sociocultural transhumanist bon vivant), D’Israeli (well-respected comic book art messiah named after a dead British Prime Minister), and BERG (design company that seems be just a little too clever for their own good that I’ve never heard of before but my wife probably has since she reads Monocle and they seem to be the kind of company that would be liked by someone who reads Monocle).

Apparently the folks at BERG went to Ellis with the basic premise of the comic, which is privacy, and secrecy. Or the lack thereof. And whether or not privacy is something that CAN ever matter anymore, no matter how much we want it to. Familiar concepts for Ellis, and so he made the perfect mad scientist for this particular experiment. Oh, and did I mention that it’s not just a comic book? The book (which is ONLY available at the Berg site, and did I mention it’s sold out, and with shipping cost me more than a Michelle Bachmann  lap dance?) actually comes with a UV torch, which in theory you shine on the pages, giving you access secret text, art, and thought bubbles that expand the horizons of the story. Sounds like a great idea right?

It is. Or it would be, if the goddamn thing worked. Apparently, there seems to quite a few people who were shipped faulty torches, and I seem to be one of them. Or I’m an idiot that can’t figure out how to use a glorified flashlight. One of the two. So I should wait right? Let the folks at BERG send me a new torch, and wait till then to read the book, since it was obviously meant to be read with the torch. Yeah, but that would involve patience, and homey don’t play that.

So I read it. And it was good. Quite good, in fact. I was on the fence about buying this, but I read a post of Ellis’ that stated that he thought that this was the best thing he had written in a few years. While Ellis is one of the most prolific web-posters in the comic world, he’s quite critical of his own work, and he’s not one to blow his own horn without good reason. And so my reasoning was that if Ellis thought it was great, and I like Ellis, than I’ll like this. And I do. I’ll delay on giving a FULL review of this for now, but even without half the text, it’s a well-written techno-thriller that I liked mostly because of how restrained it is. Ellis is known for many things as a writer, but subtly isn’t always one of them. But he’s pulled himself back here, and really worked on writing an interesting story first, gimmick/treatise on the positives and negatives of secrecy in a post-smartphone/CCTV world second. In short, it’s a good story. It doesn’t have the bombast/action/mind-blowing sci-fi concepts that the fans of Ellis’ work like Authority, Planetary, or Global Frequency have come to enjoy and expect, but if it’s Ellis’ masterpieces Fell or Desolation Jones you enjoy, this is a book well worth your time.

And I need to mention the art. Do I ever. Matt Booker is one of my all-time favourite comic book artists, but I forget that most of the time. His work isn’t that well-known over here, but anybody that has read Scarlet Traces will attest that he’s one of the best comic artists that the UK has. He’s the perfect foil for Ellis here, with work that’s both highly descriptive yet still so subtle that I found myself reading the book without text, just to fully grasp what he’s doing.

Is this likely to change the way comics are consumed? Nope. It’s just too expensive, and the only reason this sold as fast as it did was that Ellis’ name was attached to it. A business model based on $30 comics that you have to wait 2 weeks for isn’t really sustainable. But as an interesting, and ballsy experiment that just also happens to be a very good comic book, and that uses it’s gimmick as an integral part of the story? Absolutely.

Rating for the half that I can actually read: A-

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 49: Marvel Comics – Ms. Marvel, New Mutants, NewUniversal, Nextwave, and Nick Fury!

Ms. Marvel: Best Of The Best, Civil War, Operation Lighting Storm, Monster Smash, Secret Invasion, Ascension, Dark Reign, War Of The Marvels, Best You Can Be

This was a well-intentioned effort on Marvel’s part to bolster their ranks of prominent female heroes a few years back. Ms. Marvel’s history goes back all the way to the mid 1970s, but to even call her a B-list character would be giving far more credit than she deserves. She’s worse than a B-list character; she’s a female ripoff of a B-list character. After the events of House Of M (Middling Marvel cross-over event that we’ll get to later) Marvel felt that the character could use a push, and enlisted Brian Reed to make it happen. I remember this series starting well, but also remember it losing steam about half-way through. I was wrong. This series never had any steam to lose. The premise is sound: A B-list hero who has never fully realized her potential decides to become the A-list leader she always new she could be. That’s a good premise, but Reed seems to forget about it almost immediately after coming up with the idea. And so plot lines regarding publicists and career juggling are dropped almost immediately, and this becomes just another run-of-the-mill superhero title quite quickly. Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there, and frequent artist changes, as well Reed’s misguided attempts to make the title always fit into current Marvel continuity scuttle the book completely. I should give some kudos to the stunningly sexy covers by Frank Cho, though unfortunately they’re not enough to save the series from the dreaded CULL.

CULL

Nextwave: Agents Of H.A.T.E.

Warren Ellis is considered one of the very best writers in the recent history of mainstream comic books. And there is much evidence to support that. All you need to read are Planetary, Fell, or Global Frequency (not to mention The Authority or Transmetropolitan) to realize that the man has a serious talent.

But you’d never know it by reading his work for Marvel and DC.

Why? Because the man has a very unique and specific voice. And writers that have very unique voices rarely succeed in mainstream superhero books (The two BIGGEST exceptions to this are Brian Michael Bendis and Chris Claremont, both of whom have very distinctive dialogue styles, and both of whom have been extremely successful). And while he’s one of my favourite writers, I don’t believe he continues to get Marvel and DC work because his work for them is that good, I believe he continues to get it because HE”S WARREN ELLIS. So when you hire him to do X-Men, you get WARREN ELLIS. And when you hire him to do Batman, you get WARREN ELLIS. And those stories are never quite as good as when he’s playing with characters and concepts that are wholly his.

I’m not complaining at all, I’m just saying that I’m not sure why a man with such a unique voice, and such interesting ideas, even bothers with franchise characters that don’t lend themselves well to what he can bring to the table. And so enter Nextwave. Nextwave was basically Ellis’ attempt to play in the Marvel sandbox while giving himself as much freedom as possible. And so we get an over-the-top comedy action book featuring a bunch of characters so bush league that they make Ms. Marvel look like Spider-Man.

This is a fun book, but it’s also one that’s fairly disposable. It’s huge, funny, violent, and not big on plot. It’s basically Ellis reworking his Authority concept, but played for laughs. Get it if you’re an Ellis completist, or for the fantastic art of Stuart Immonen.

KEEP

New Mutants – New Mutants Graphic Novel

Mutants are the Marvel version of corn. Marvel creates so many of them that they end up putting out mediocre book after mediocre book just to feature them all, even though all we really want is one GOOD book. This 80′s graphic novel was one of Marvels MANY attempts at skewing their X franchises at a younger demographic, as well as an attempt at duplicating the success they had a few years earlier with their “new” X-Men. The story is quite pedestrian: Charles Xavier doesn’t want to train any more mutants, but they keep showing up, and so he does. The end. The New Mutants would go on to actually have some very good and very interesting stories in the 1980′s, but this one, their first, wasn’t one of them.

CULL

NewUniversal: Everything Went White

Yet another attempt at a Marvel book by Warren Ellis, and it’s one that takes some explaining. In the mid 80′s, then Marvel EIC Jim Shooter launched something called The New Universe, a half-assed attempt to create a whole bunch of new IPs that Marvel could exploit for decades to come. Good idea, except that Shooter forgot the first rule of superhero comic books: People who like superhero comics fear change. He also forgot the second rule of superhero comic books: People who like superhero comics always want something new. Now, if you can figure out how to make Rule 1 work with Rule 2, then you’re a better person than 98% of the people who have ever worked in the comic book industry.

Suffice it to say, the New Universe fizzled out, but for some reason Marvel decided a few years back to get Warren Ellis to revamp it. And I would say that he did a nice job. Not necessarily nice enough that I want to see a dozen comic books based on his concepts, but nice enough that I wouldn’t mind seeing another 10 or 15 issues just to wrap everything up in a bow. This is basically Ellis introducing superpowers into a non-superpowered world, and he’s introducing concepts that will be familiar to anyone that’s read his Planetary or Authority books. While I’m not sure that this is different enough from those landmarks to justify owning it, it’s still an entertaining enough origin story, and one that stands up quite well.

KEEP

Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

If you look at any list of the greatest comic books of the 1960′s, Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury is pretty much always going to be high on that list. And for good reason. Any comic that can blow me away with its action sequences at the same time that my wife is peaking over my shoulder to steal furniture ideas for our home HAS to be special. And this one is. This is a pop art masterpiece disguised as a James Bond pastiche, and probably more of a product of its times than pretty much any Marvel comic before or since. And so the number one characteristic that the book has going for it, is also its biggest drawback. This thing is so dated that it makes Watergate look timely. As negatives go it’s a minor one, but one to watch out for nonetheless.

KEEP

Next up: Nova, The Pulse, and The Punisher!

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!

Wednesday Comics Woundup – Mark Millar’s Superior, plus Walking Dead, Hellboy, and a barrelful of monkeys.

Superior #1 by Mark Millar & Lenil Yu

Now that’s more like it.

Anybody who knows me (well not  just anybody. The people who know me who are nice enough to let me vent about comics. So basically my wife) has heard me complain ad nauseum about Mark Millar’s writing, so this was a pleasant surprise.

I’ve never thought that Millar is a bad writer. Quite the opposite. I think he’s got so much potential that it makes me crazy when I see him just pandering to the lowest common denominator in his books. He’s spent so much time in the last few years trying to one up himself in the “HOLYCRAPICANTBELIEVEHEJUSTDIDTHAT” department that he forgets that he’s actually a great character writer and has a real knack for emotional drama.

Enter: Superior. It’s the story of Simon Pooni, a popular high school athlete who had the talent and potential to make it to the NBA. Everything looked great for Pooni, until  the day that he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Now he’s stuck in a wheelchair, most of his friends have deserted him, and his sole pleasure in life are the cinematic adventures of his favourite comic book hero, Superior. Pooni seems to be resigned to a short life full of crushing despair, until the talking monkey shows up.

God, I love comic books.

The monkey tells Simon that out of all of the 6 billion people on the planet, only Simon has been chosen to get a magic wish. The monkey gives Simon a week to “Show me what you can do”, and leaves. Simon is transformed into Superior, the hero of his dreams.

Original? Nope. But that’s not what Millar is about. What he’s about is taking good ideas and making them better. He’s about taking great ideas and distilling them to their simplest, most effective forms. And that’s what he’s done here with the Shazam Mythology. Kick-Ass showed us what being a superhero would be like from the bottom up, but Superior is what it would be like from the top down.  In short, there’s a sense of wonder prevalent here that is missing from Millar’s recent work.

That being said, all that glitters is not gold. It wouldn’t be a Mark Millar comic without some implied homophobia, and although he had a great opportunity here to make a fantastic “all ages” comic, he of course had to throw in a few f bombs where he could. I have no problem with swearing in comics, and I don’t believe in censorship in ANY form, but Millar may be losing some audience here for no real artistic reason.

I’ve said a lot without mentioning Lenil Yu’s incredible art here. His work has really grown on me over the years, and it’s nice to see him finally strike out on his own and do something outside of the regular Marvel U.

Now, this is just a first issue, from a guy that writes better first issues than anyone else on the planet, only to have it all go to shit once it’s time for the story to actually pay off. So it still may all go to hell in a handbasket. But for now, I’m hooked.

Rating: A

Walking Dead Hardcover Volume 6 by Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard

How can this be this good after this long? Talented bastard.

Rating: A

DC Comics Presents Jack Cross by Warren Ellis and Gary Erskine.

I own the original mini, but DC just reprinted all 4 issues in a cheap trade edition so I picked this up again. If David Suzuki and Jack Bauer ever had a baby (I’m sorry, I meant WHEN David Suzkuki and Jack Bauer have a baby) that baby would be Jack Cross. Not Ellis’ best, but still fun. I could see this being a great TV series.

Rating: B

Seven Psychopaths by Fabien Vehlman and Sean Phillips.

7 absolutely batshit crazy people team up to kill Adolph Hitler in 1944, only to find out that he’s been dead for 3 years. It’s like Valkrie, but without a gay dwarf in the lead.  Translation from French isn’t great, and the story starts to unravel from almost the minute the mission starts, but it’s still a fun ride.Sean Phillips is on pencils, but I don’t think they take advantage of his talent here.

Rating: C+

I am Legion by Fabien Nury & John Cassady

Basically the Nazis discover a demon that can control others with it’s blood and they attempt to use it in the war. It’s interesting, but the translation here is particularly poor. Fantastic art by John Cassady and a cool concept saves it.

Rating: C+

De: Tales by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

This is a collection of some early work by two talented rising stars. I like Moon and Ba a lot, but there isn’t much to really sink your teeth in here. Art’s pretty, stories are disposable. There’s definitely some translation issues here as well. Someone needs to make a career out of doing this so that we can start getting more South American and European comics here.

Rating: C

Conan Vol. 9 by Tim Truman and Tomas Giorello

I think I might be done here. I like Tim Truman’s writing, but he seems to be just spinning his wheels here.

Rating: C

Hellboy: Masks & Monsters by Mike Mignola, James Robinson, and Scott Benefiel. This is a collection of  2 early Hellboy cross over stories. First one is Hellboy teaming up with Batman and Starman to fight Nazis, and the other is him teaming up with Ghost, to fight another ghost. This one’s ok, though really only for Hellboy completists.

Rating: C+

Guerillas Vol. 1 by Brahm Revel

The first issue is a great Vietnam war story as seen through the eyes of a new US army recruit trying to follow in the footsteps of his father. It’s funny, and terrible, and sad, with lots of action. And then the monkeys show up. Again. Yes, two monkey books in the same blog posting. This time it’s “squad of genetically modified and highly trained soldiers that smoke cigarettes” monkeys. There is definitely a “WE3” feel about this, though the vibe is a little more over the top. Still, I really liked this, and I’m hoping that Revel does more soon.

Rating: B+