Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2009: The Year in Comics (2)

The first part of my annual exercise in stock-taking, with easy how-to-use instructions, can be found here.

For the third and final part, check back on Friday.

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Warren Ellis, Gianluca Pagliarani, Chris Drier and Digikore Studios. Warren Ellis' Ignition City. Mr. Ellis mentions Deadwood and Flash Gordon as influences on Ignition City, a western populated by analogues of the heroes from 1950s space adventures. But while Deadwood, though a muddy lawless shithole, was a boomtown where people hoped to gain something, Ignition City, the last spaceport on Earth, is where "the space heroes go to die." There is no hope in Ignition City, and few of its corrupt, broken inhabitants expect to gain much anymore—until young astronaut Mary Raven arrives to investigate the death of her father, a Dan Dare type. At its heart, and it has one, Ignition City is about disappointment: in yourself, in humanity, in the future. (Avatar Press, miniseries)

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Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca, et al. Invincible Iron Man. In the year-long "World's Most Wanted" storyline, the creators steadily deconstruct—or "reverse-engineer," you might say—Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, stripping away all the excess baggage from the character. In the current "Stark: Disassembled," they consolidate and rebuild him. Each step of the way and each detail are informed by the question who Stark is, what he wants, what drives him. With Invincible Iron Man, Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca provide the most accomplished and deliberate take yet in the character's 40-year history, as well as the best mainstream superhero comic-book series of 2009. Oh, and it's got people in high-tech armors blowing stuff up and kicking the shit out of each other, too. (Marvel, periodical/paperback/hardcover) [full review: issue #20]

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Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson, et al. Phonogram: The Singles Club. Each of the seven issues of The Singles Club takes place in the same night, spinning in or out of a dance club somewhere in London, relating the events from the perspective of a different character and telling a complete story on its own terms. Together, those seven experiences combine into a literary tapestry of what pop music can do and mean to us, and what we can do with pop music. When the first Phonogram series came out, I appreciated it for its ideas and for the way it talked about music. With The Singles Club, the creators have grown by leaps and bounds as storytellers, have narrowed down what they want to say and broadened its appeal. The result is one of the most compelling and gripping comics of the last decade. (Image Comics, miniseries)

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Kieron Gillen, Steven Sanders, et al. S.W.O.R.D. This quirky new sci-fi series follows the Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department—a Marvel take on Men in Black, basically. The story pitches S.W.O.R.D. leader Abigail Brand against her new co-commander: Henry Peter Gyrich, bureaucratic malice personified in the Marvel Universe. Rounded off by the X-Men's Beast and Lockheed, the cast is the selling point of the book. The creators rely on the full spectrum of human expression when their characters communicate. Mr. Sanders knows how to portray facial expressions and body language, and the style he's using here is a good fit for Mr. Gillen's sense of humor. It's fun to watch these characters interact in the hands of these creators. (Marvel, periodical) [full review: issue #1]

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Scott Gray, Roger Langridge, J. Brown and Dave Lanphear. Fin Fang Four Return! In a previous story by the same creative team, the formerly gigantic quartet of Fin Fang Foom, Googam, Gorgilla and Elektro stood trial for its transgressions against Earth and was released on parole under very specific conditions: be shrunk down to human-size; get a job (e.g., Fin is working as the chef of a Chinese restaurant); and therapy sessions with Doc Samson. You can see where this is going. The one-shot has six short stories that illustrate some of the issues the former monsters are struggling with on their road to becoming valued, non-monstrous members of society. It's all neat, harmless entertainment, ultimately, but still: Scott Gray and Roger Langridge turn in one of the most charming and funny Marvel comics of the year here. (Marvel, comic book)

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Sammy Harkham, ed. Treehouse of Horror #15. In a sense, I guess this is precisely what you expect when the editor of Kramers Ergot commissions a bunch of the most acclaimed indie-comics creators to do horror stories starring the Simpsons: an odd, often surreal, sometimes profound slab of comics. Not all of the pieces in this anthology are winners, but that's more than made up for by the standouts: In "The Call of Vegulu," Matthew Thurber and Kevin Huizenga present a wicked parable on the pursuit of economic growth by way of H.P. Lovecraft; John Kerschbaum's two-pager "Three Little Kids" is revoltingly funny; and C.F.'s Kafkaesque "The Slipsons" defies all earthly descriptions and has to be seen to be believed. It's a great package overall, with some delightfully weird entries. (Bongo, comic book)

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John Layman, Rob Guillory and Lisa Gonzalez. Chew. Chicken prohibition, people who get psychic impressions from things they eat, federal agents who bite off parts of their suspects to solve a case—in theory, the premise of Chew sounds patently ridiculous. That sort of material is good for comedy, you'd think, but for a story that you're expected to take seriously? Not likely. And yet, it works, thanks to John Layman and Rob Guillory's extraordinary storytelling skills. Nothing's wasted or random in this series. Chew is funny, certainly; but it's also a tightly plotted mystery thriller with authentic, compelling characters, spectacular visuals and the kind of genuine everyday horror that most horror writers would kill for. (Image Comics, periodical/paperback) [full review: issues #1-5]

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Jody LeHeup, Aubrey Sitterson, John Barber and Axel Alonso, eds. Strange Tales. The centerpiece of this three-part anthology series is "The Incorrigible Hulk," by Peter Bagge, which has been lying around at Marvel since 2002 or so. It's worth the wait: Mr. Bagge is a very observant cartoonist, the kind who knows that the best humor is funny because it's true, and that the line between the comic and the tragic tends to blur. But the other contributors don't need to fear the comparison. Nick Bertozzi, Paul Pope, Michael Kupperman, Dash Shaw, Nicholas Gurewitch, Tony Millionaire, Jeffrey Brown and Max Cannon—to name just my personal favorites among the bunch—all make the most of their unique styles and, each with their own idiosyncratic sense of humor, provoke some great laughs. Jay Stephens contributes a downright fantastic straightforward fight comic between the Beast and Morbius. And while I've got no idea what's going on in Chris Chua's entry, it certainly looks mind-blowing. (Marvel/Marvel Knights, miniseries)

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Jeff Lemire, Jose Villarrubia and Pat Brosseau. Sweet Tooth. It's writer/artist Jeff Lemire's portrayal of protagonist Gus that makes Sweet Tooth one of the most interesting debuts of 2009: A human/deer hybrid growing up in a post-apocalyptic forest, the boy exudes naïvety and innocence and a gentle, unwitting equanimity that commands the reader's attention. The story's imagery leaves no doubt that Gus is a deer in the headlights. It says something about Mr. Lemire's ingenuity when the discovery of a candy bar or the appearance of a deer seem like genuinely momentous events—and that's before the hunters show up. There are some pacing problems that mar the first issue, but overall, you can't help being invested in the character's fate by the time the cliffhanger comes around. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical) [full review: issue #1]

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Brett Lewis, John Paul Leon, et al. The Winter Men. Sure, The Winter Men offers a nicely constructed response to Watchmen, an authentic take on Russia (as far as all of us non-Russians can tell, anyway) and a generally solid chunk of comics storytelling. And, sure enough, artist John Paul Leon seems on form here. That's all gravy, though. The work's real accomplishments are a protagonist who's a hedonist as well as an irredeemable and frequently reprehensible scumbag who's willing to forgive himself his moral failings and gets away with it; and writer Brett Lewis' stylistically audacious dialogue, which is meant to be native Russian, but reads as broken English—and totally works, in terms of rhythm, and in terms of adding local color and adding layers to the characters. It's these two elements that make The Winter Men one of the more memorable superhero comics of the 2000s. (DC Comics/WildStorm, miniseries/paperback) [full review]

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