Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2007: The Year in Comics (4)

The final chapter - for this year, anyway.

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Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et al. All Star Superman. This one's on everyone's best-of lists for 2007, and it's entirely deserved. With each new issue, Morrison and Quitely present a supercondensed, mind-expanding mini-epic bursting at the seams with that often-cited "wide-eyed sense of wonder" the superman genre was created to capture. Of course, getting to pick and choose the brightest elements from 70 years worth of Superman comics helps. But the best ideas are worthless without creators capable of giving them a good spin and making them bounce off each other in new and delightful ways. And that's precisely what Morrison and Quitely are doing here - they're creating diamonds from coal, basically. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Jeff Parker, Leonard Kirk, et al. Agents of Atlas. Every year, without fail, Marvel and DC put out a handful of books that are highly acclaimed on the internet and bought by absolutely no one. In 2007, one of them happened to be Agents of Atlas, which reintroduces a selection of pulp comics archetypes from the 1950s: You get the secret agent, the spaceman, the robot, the underwater princess and, for good measure, the talking gorilla. Within the space of a six-issue miniseries, the creators manage to turn each of these archetypes into a well-rounded and credible character, telling a quirky mystery adventure in the process. Agents of Atlas is a clever, surefooted and thoroughly engaging superheroes-with-a-twist book with a lot of great character moments. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Dirk Schwieger. Moresukine. Back in 2006, German cartoonist Dirk Schwieger launched a weekly webcomic chronicling his experiences during a stay in Tokyo. The premise: Schwieger asked readers to submit assignments (e.g., "spend a night in a Japanese pod hotel," or "visit a traditional swordsmith"), which he then carried out to the best of his abilities and reported on in comics form. It's a very effective set-up for a non-fiction webcomic, and the result are a bunch of entertaining and frequently insightful strips. A translated print edition of Moresukine was released in Germany last year, promptly winning Schwieger the Sondermann Award for "Best Newcomer 2007" at the Frankfurt Book Fair. On the web, you can still read the original English-language version. If you understand German, though, I recommend getting the physical book. It's a very neat volume styled as a Moleskine diary, and it comes with an extra section featuring international web cartoonists such as James Kochalka, Ryan North and Monsieur Le Chien, who have contributed strips chronicling "assignments" of their own. (Reprodukt, paperback)

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J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, et al. Thor. After seven years of writing comics for Marvel, Straczynski finally got his hands on one that agrees with his sensibilities in 2007. Straczynski's Thor is suitably majestic without coming across as nostalgic or campy. While the author's tendency towards explaining the world from the pulpit still shows through here and there, it's not nearly as glaring as in other works. There's not much going on in the book in terms of plot, mind you, and everything's just a tad too mysterious for its own good on that level. Still, Straczynski finds a tone which works for the book, and which makes the pacing seem appropriately dignified for a story about a bunch of Norse gods, rather than gratuitously decompressed. Olivier Coipel, meanwhile, deserves credit for pulling off two things that I don't think anyone's managed before. One, he gives Thor a distinctive face that really does look like it could belong to a Viking god of thunder; and two, he's come up with a much-needed update of the character's costume that's not only workable, but looks rather sturdy, to boot. All told, this is one of the more appealing takes on the character that I've come across. I'm not entirely sure whether it's going anywhere, but I like it. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, et al. Y: The Last Man. The post-apocalyptic five-year saga of the last human male on Earth and his monkey entered the home stretch in 2007. A confession: I don't really remember much of what happened in the book last year, and it's not the first time it happens to me with Y. What I do recall, though, is that I enjoyed reading each and every issue of it tremendously, so I guess I can look forward to rereading the entire series once it concludes with issue #60 at the end of January. I'm not sure it's going to hold up as a complete narrative, to be honest, but it's been a fresh, smartly written and marvelously entertaining work of serial fiction throughout its run. I'm going to miss it. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

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Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, et al. Ex Machina. Vaughan's other epic, about the world's first and only superhero, now serving as the mayor of New York City, also kept humming along nicely but unspectacularly in 2007. I expect Ex Machina to be a more rewarding second read than Y: The Last Man, thanks to the numerous flashbacks and the frequent odd hints which are dropped and never picked up again. (Remember that Nirvana song nobody had ever heard of before? Or the protagonist's aversion to fortune-tellers?) Of course, it could also be a sign that Vaughan is making it up as he goes along, but I doubt that - I'm more inclined to believe he's been subtly laying out pieces of the puzzle. Overall, the book is still a bit of a disappointment, however. Instead of really engaging the political and procedural issues you'd expect to come up in the series, it frequently avoids them and does generic mystery, crime or espionage routines. In terms of the character interaction and surprising plot twists, there's still a lot to enjoy here, though. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

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Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite. This book, starring seven super-powered stepsiblings, is, broadly speaking, a darker version of postmodern retro works like Tom Strong and The Incredibles. It also happens to be written by the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, of course, and, saints preserve us, it's great. It's easy to understand why Way's style is frequently compared to Grant Morrison's. There's an abundance of off-beat ideas here, as well as a fascination with wacky Silver-Age tropes. More significantly, Way, like Morrison in books such as Animal Man, The Filth or We3, has a knack for telling stories which are conceptually progressive but at the same time heartfelt and inherently character-driven. Artist Gabriel Bá, whose style is both slick and cartoony but also has a noirish dimension to it, is a perfect fit for the material. Six months ago, I'd have been somewhat surprised to learn that the writing on The Umbrella Academy was competent. Now, I'm astonished to admit that it's actually quite good. (Dark Horse Comics, periodical)

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Joss Whedon, John Cassaday, et al. Astonishing X-Men. I'm of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I haven't been able to muster the least bit of enthusiasm for the plot. It's generic science fiction stuff which doesn't have the slightest connection to the X-Men's core themes, essentially, and it's hard to imagine that Whedon wasted a lot of time thinking about it. And, of course, the book's glacial pacing and badly off-the-rails release history have made it a chore to keep up with; plainly, I don't buy for a second that anybody - the creators and editors included - could honestly believe this is working as a serial. On the plus side, the creators manage to put in just enough neat visuals and powerful character moments to gloss over the book's considerable shortcomings. The skin and bones are there, and the heart and soul are there. Astonishing X-Men is shiny, and you want to like it. What it lacks, however, is substance. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, et al. DMZ. Matty Roth, the protagonist of DMZ, is a young reporter in the biggest urban warzone imaginable. Set in a not-too-distant future where New York City has become the frontline in a new US-American civil war, DMZ transplants the routine horror from places like Beirut, Baghdad and Mogadishu into the very heart of western civilization: air raids, snipers and suicide bombings dominate the streets of Manhattan, its people being ground up, both literally and figuratively, between corrupt governments, corporations viewing the individual as an expendable resource and media which have long since abandoned the concept of reporting the facts. It's hard to overlook the irony in the set-up - the story certainly isn't coy about it - but Wood avoids the easy pitfalls. Instead of engaging in heavy-handed political soapboxing, DMZ wants to explore the evolution of humanity and human culture in an utterly hostile environment. The book keeps its nose down in the dirt, with Matty, who has to weigh the worth of his convictions and his journalistic integrity against his compassion and just plain surviving the next day. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

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Brian Wood, Ryan Kelly, et al. Local. Each issue of the twelve-part series Local presents a vignette focusing on a young woman named Megan or, in a couple of cases, someone who's somehow connected with her. With each issue, a year has passed; and, with each issue, Megan has moved on to another North American city - hence the title. I'm not sure the latter part is more than a gimmick, to be frank. If there is a deeper point to it, at least it's not occurred to me yet. But that doesn't really matter: Local is a fascinating little book. The snapshots resulting from its approach cover the entire spectrum of human relationships, varying wildly in style and tone. Not every one of those snapshots is a hit, but there are certainly more hits than misses, and they're forming a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts. (Oni Press, periodical)

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Well, so much for 2007. It's been a good year for good comics, and fortunately, the trend seems to continue in 2008 - but that's another post.

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