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.
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)