Saturday, January 10, 2009

2008: The Year in Comics (3)

Here we go, the third and final chapter of “The Best Pop Comics Frisch Remembers Reading in 2008” (part 1, part 2).

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Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel, Ryan Benjamin, Lee Garbett, et al. Batman. “Why do I feel like a book that’s being read?” In Batman #683, his final issue for the time being, Grant Morrison makes plain his approach to Batman: The character is the book. The sum total of what we see in the comics is Batman’s identity, his life. As a result of what this does to his mind, as it says in issue #681, “Batman thinks of everything.” And even when a villain is sabotaging his very mind, as the Black Glove tries all throughout Mr. Morrison’s stories, Batman has a back-up plan – in this case, “a back-up human operating system,” in fact. This “emergency personality” of his own making, called the “Batman of Zur-En-Arrh,” is based on the Joker, who is Batman’s arch-nemesis because he is the one unpredictable factor in all his stories. “He keeps coming back … different,” Batman says in issue #682. “I think he recreates himself constantly.” And yet, the Joker knows that he can never win: “Every single time I try to think outside his toybox he builds a new box around me” (Batman #681) Similar to the Joker’s constant recreation of himself, consequently, the “Batman of Zur-En-Arrh” is a recreation of Batman that is capable of escaping – quite literally, in the final chapter of “Batman R.I.P.” - the box that was built around him. Now, while all that is good and well, I absolutely agree that the execution of this theoretical approach has left something to be desired; Mr. Morrison’s Batman has been marred by mediocre artwork, as well as by a conclusion that was anti-climactic in a number of ways. But even though it may be a flawed work, who else comes remotely close to attempting something as ambitious and sweeping as this in superhero comics? For all its faults, it’s got its share of smart, insightful and immeasurably cool moments, and it’s absolutely unique. It’s the Unified Field Theory of the Batman. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Grant Morrison, J. G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco, Doug Mahnke, Matthew Clark, et al. Final Crisis, Final Crisis: Superman Beyond and Final Crisis: Submit. I realize I may be facing an uphill struggle in explaining why Final Crisis is really a fantastic comic. But what can you do. In the spirit of the work itself, I’ll try anyway. Here’s what it’s about: choices and decisions. The bad guys in Final Crisis are the people whose path slowly but steadily eliminates humanity’s choices and decisions. The good guys are the people who make decisions and don’t submit to all the negative feelings that tend to prevent you from doing so. Choosing to submit to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation means giving in to doubt, fear, despair. It means choosing inertia, indecision, being told what to do. Choosing a path that leads to further choices means choosing diversity, choosing struggle, choosing life itself. That’s the point of the 52 Earths, as well: They give you choices. So there you go, that’s how the DC Universe relates to our everyday lives: The Multiverse stands for the choices and the decisions that we do or do not make every day. If Darkseid wins, there’s no more choices, no more Multiverse, no more struggle, no more life. We’ll end up like the heroes in Final Crisis: Superman Beyond #1: “The music’s over: We’ve run out of Multiverse. We’re off the charts. The place we just arrived … is nowhere … We’re about as lost as anyone can be.” I know they terribly mismanaged this thing as an event, but in the miniseries proper (and in those spin-off titles written by Mr. Morrison himself), it’s there, on almost every page. Plus, of course, there are all those small human moments, the mad idea stuff, the large-scale battles and the big explosions, too. As far as big, sprawling superhero epics are concerned, it doesn’t get much better than Final Crisis. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et al. All Star Superman. What do we learn from All Star Superman? That we don’t need a Superman. “Your work is done,” Kal-El is told by his father in All Star Superman #12. “You have shown them the face of the Man of Tomorrow. You have given them an ideal to aspire to, embodied their highest aspirations. They will race, and stumble, and fall and crawl … and curse … and finally … they will join you in the sun, Kal-El.” Trooper that he is, Superman will have none of that, of course: Lex Luthor still needs to be beaten, and the sun still needs to be repaired before he calls it a day. But does that mean daddy’s wrong? Mr. Morrison and Mr. Quitely deliver the answer to that question a few pages later in the same issue. When Luthor blames Superman for not being able to save the world now that his own Superman powers are failing, Superman points out that Luthor “could have saved the world years ago” if it really mattered to him. But Luthor didn’t, of course, because he was so hung-up on his hatred for Superman and on stealing his powers instead. But: He could have saved the world. So there you go: We don’t need a Superman. We clearly do need All Star Superman, though. (DC Comics, periodical)

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J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, Marko Djurdjevic, et al. Thor. Gently and slowly, J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel keep rebuilding Thor and his cosmos, hitting all the right marks so far. Given the book’s commercial success, Marvel evidently made the right decision in letting the character rest for a while before allowing a solid creative team to bring him back in a careful and deliberate fashion, largely undisturbed by any of the big crossover events that have been going on in the meantime. And it doesn’t just work on a commercial level. By placing most of the action in Asgard, Oklahoma, and choosing an appropriately considerate pace, Mr. Straczynski has carved out his own little island of divine majesty in a market of increasingly hectic fisticuffs. All the while, Mr. Coipel’s art keeps growing on me; it doesn’t just look crisp and appealing, but also gives each character a distinctive face that doesn’t depend on hair or headgear for you to tell it apart from others – which is not exactly the norm, obviously. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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J. Michael Straczynski, Chris Weston, et al. The Twelve. At first glance, the premise of The Twelve seems somewhat similar to that of Mr. Straczynski’s earlier work Rising Stars or, for that matter, to that of the mother of all postmodern superhuman fantasies, Watchmen. Like the former two works, it’s a story about a group of archetypal superheroes alienated from the rest of society, with a murder mystery at its core. That, however, is where the similarities end. Whereas Watchmen and Rising Stars are more concerned with making statements about the world at large, The Twelve stays more closely with the protagonists and their alienation – which, in this case, does not stem from being superheroes – because, obviously, there are plenty of superheroes already in the Marvel Universe – but from being displaced in time. And given that we’re dealing with a cast of twelve people - well, eleven and a robot – who spent sixty years in “suspended animation,” that’s quite a bit of alienation to deal with. In a way, the creators are delivering on what was one of the more interesting aspects of Captain America’s return back in 1964, but ended up being glossed over for the most part by Stan Lee and his collaborators. Densely and most expressively illustrated by Chris Weston, the result is easily Mr. Straczynski’s best comics work to date, filled to the brim with credible and diverse characters, intriguing plot twists and quite a bit of insight into the human condition. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, et al. Y: The Last Man. The final issue of Y: The Last Man – the only one published in 2008 – came out a year ago, at this stage, and I don’t have it with me right now, unfortunately. Despite the fact that I can’t say anything meaningful about it, apart from acknowledging that it was a wonderful pay-off to the entire series in all the ways that matter, it would still feel wrong to exclude it here, though. Yorick’s refusal to submit to his supposedly inescapable fate in the end is appropriate for the character, and, from one English major to another, it firmly puts him in the great American tradition of the Leatherstocking, of course, who also escapes from the end of his final book: always West, never rest. And when that little monkey died, I cried like a baby. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

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Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, et al. Ex Machina. “This is WildStorm,” the label’s new advertising campaign for their line reads. In the case of the Ex Machina version of the ad, a more accurate slogan would be, “This used to be WildStorm.” You know, comics with innovative, ambitious, relevant takes on the superhero genre. Comics with unique creative voices and goals. Comics with genuine characters apart from the beaten path, instead of the usual generic mirror images of more popular properties. Comics that playfully subvert the usual expectations and accrue momentum and meaning through smart storytelling. Comics like, well, Ex Machina, among others. Right now, though, it’s the only one left of that sort at WildStorm, and it runs for ten more issues, give or take a special. So, “This is WildStorm”? You wish, folks. You wish. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical)

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Stephen Wacker, ed., Bob Gale, Marc Guggenheim, Joe Kelly, Dan Slott, Mark Waid, Zeb Wells, Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez, Barry Kitson, Salvador Larroca, Marcos Martin, Mike McKone, Steve McNiven, Paolo Rivera, John Romita, Jr., et al. The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s been a while since I enjoyed reading Spider-Man comics as much as I did in 2008. The creators taking over the title after its transition to the “thrice-monthly” format have done a remarkably good job so far. The book has been hitting all the marks in terms of rebuilding Peter Parker’s supporting cast, giving the character a sturdy environment in which to play off his strengths, inventing a whole string of the strongest new villains we’ve seen in decades and recalibrating the relationships between Peter and stalwarts like J. Jonah Jameson, Harry and Norman Osborn or Flash Thompson. There were a few misses - that ill-conceived Iraq War issue by Mr. Guggenheim and a mediocre fill-in by Roger Stern come to mind; and Overdrive is, shall we say, not a classic, as far as the new characters are concerned. But overall, The Amazing Spider-Man has been a creative tour de force in the past year. The work artists Chris Bachalo, Paolo Rivera, John Romita, Jr. and, above all, Marcos Martin, have been doing on this title is breathtaking, while writers Joe Kelly and Mark Waid have delivered some of the strongest, most nuanced work of their careers with their respective stories featuring Hammerhead (!) and the Shocker (!!). I don’t think I’ve ever read something as well-crafted by Dan Slott as the epic “New Ways to Die” arc, either. On a personal note, I was happy to see that it’s possible again for characters like Wolverine and the Punisher to just drop by in the book, without anybody turning the whole thing into an “event” or a miniseries. If you have a Spider-Man book, you might as well do it like this one. (Marvel Comics, periodical)

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Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. The Umbrella Academy. How do you deal with a rampaging monument of Abraham Lincoln? Easy: You conjure up a rampaging monument of John Wilkes Booth, “armed with a Derringer.” The beginning of The Umbrella Academy: Dallas promises more of the quirkiness and delight that made the previous miniseries, Apocalypse Suite, a commercial and critical surprise hit in 2007 and early 2008. Messrs. Way and Bá clearly have fun doing this book, and they’re very good at it, too. The Umbrella Academy is a clever mix of gorgeous visuals, a playful attitude towards genre conventions and outrageously fabulous scenes, images and ideas. If you know someone who’s never read a superhero comic before, this is the one you want to give them. (Dark Horse Comics, periodical)

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Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly. Local. This is another one I won’t be able to say much about, because I don’t have any of the comics handy. What I said about it last year still applies, at any rate. In the final issue, Megan has made peace with who she is and where she comes from, and returns home after more than ten years. As a whole, the series seems a little too arbitrary, in a lot of ways, to be a real masterwork, but that’s also part of its charm. Of all the things I’ve read by Mr. Wood, Local seems like his most honest and generous work, in terms of the characters and what it says. If you’re into slice-of-life stories, it’s well worth a look. (Oni Press, periodical)

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And that’s it for 2008. In 2009, I’m looking forward to more good comics from the people who made this list, as well as, of course, from people I don’t know about yet.

2 comments:

SrananBuru said...

I have only recently returned to comics after years and years away and have found your blog to be a wonderful source. Your posts are insightful, strongly supported, obviously reflect a curiosity and passion for the genre.

Clearly, you love comics for what they are, a unique way of telling a story and bettering (i.e. enlarging) those who read them. Scott McCloud wrote/drew that for the longest time critics or potential readers have faulted the form for some of the content to come from comics. Well, they can't anymore.

Also, a side note, I am also an English/Literature student and would like to specialize in comics and, to this point, have been mostly discouraged at the scholarship that has been done. It is encouraging to see your commitment to comics and other graphic works. Well done.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Sranan,

Thank you for reading, and for your very kind words.