Friday, January 8, 2010

2009: The Year in Comics (3)

Wrapping up my list of the best pop comics of 2009 (part 1, part 2), I have to agree with Douglas Wolk: It was Grant Morrison's decade.

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Grant Morrison, J. G. Jones, Doug Mahnke, et al. Final Crisis. Looking back, few reviews I've written succeed at expressing my thoughts as well as my take on Final Crisis #7. In terms of superhero epics, Final Crisis is hard to top. It's got all the fireworks you'd expect, but it's also one of the brainiest, most daring and personal approaches to the very notion of superheroes that's ever been attempted. If there's one thing you can't accuse Grant Morrison of, it's a failure of the imagination. Rather, there's a permeating sense of creative defiance here. Final Crisis is "wish fulfillment," in its purest form; it supposes comics "a machine that turns thoughts into things." Superman, as an expression of the limitlessness of human imagination, uses that machine to "wish" for a happy ending. His wish comes true, kicking and screaming, even as the narrative itself fails in many ways to comply with the author's vision. Or: The world is saved by us, by means of imagination and creativity, and maybe it's only its deeply flawed nature that makes Final Crisis complete as a story that's deeply human at its heart. So: not the "best" comic of the year by any stretch; still my favorite one, though. (DC Comics, miniseries/comic books/hardcover) [full reviews: issue #6; issue #7]

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Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Philip Tan, et al. Batman and Robin. Since Batman first appeared in 1939, we've seen a host of different interpretations. Grant Morrison, who became the flagship Batman writer in 2006, is trying to incorporate all of them in his exploration of the character and his world, evidently. Very simply put, Batman and Robin, the comic-book series, is Batman & Robin, the widely panned film, done right. Aesthetically, Mr. Morrison and his collaborators—chiefly Frank Quitely—take a very similar route: It's the same blend of Tim Burton freakishness and Adam West camp that's on display here. Unlike Joel Schumacher in his 1997 picture, however, Mr. Morrison and Mr. Quitely prove its masters, by grounding their crooked, colorful take in the dynamics of a vibrant new Batman/Robin team. Philip Tan's art, on issues #4 through #6, doesn't do much beyond communicating the action in pictures, unfortunately. (DC Comics, periodical)

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Grant Morrison, Cameron Stewart, Dave Stewart and Todd Klein. Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye. When the first Seaguy miniseries came out in 2004, Grant Morrison had just completed his three-year run on New X-Men, a hopeful narrative overall that ended on a resigned note. Seaguy, about a brainwashed hero without a purpose who struggles but ends up where he started, seems like a more compressed take on the same themes. In 2009, Mr. Morrison completed "Batman R.I.P." and Final Crisis, two intensely dark works which leave the reader with a faintly hopeful outlook—and again, Seaguy follows suit. It's more than a palate-cleanser, though; as a matter of fact Mr. Morrison's work has rarely been more concise or more heartfelt than in Seaguy—or, thanks to his collaborators, truer to his vision. Hopefully, it won't take another five years before the next chapter of the Seaguy saga sees print. (DC Comics/Vertigo, miniseries)

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Jeff Parker, Tom Fowler, Dave McCaig and Saida Temofonte. Mysterius. Reading the rest of the miniseries did nothing to change my objections to Mysterius based on the first issue: There's no moment in the script where Jeff Parker goes out of his way to deliver a real gut punch; and both Mysterius himself and his new assistant Ella remain underdeveloped throughout. Mr. Parker turns in a well-written, funny and entertaining mystery series about an egoistical stage magician past his prime, but the potential of the characters remains largely unrealized. What makes Mysterius a standout of 2009, though, is the art. The appearance, poses and facial expressions of the characters in this comic are utterly fascinating to look at, thanks to its artist and colorist. Mysterius is a fun read with some dazzling visuals and first-rate storytelling by Tom Fowler and Dave McCaig. (DC Comics/WildStorm, miniseries) [full review: issue #1]

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Eric Powell. Chimichanga. A comic-book series for children from the guy who does The Goon? Unexpected. But the more you think about it, the more it makes sense, in theory. And it works out great in practice, too, as it turns out. Impressively, Mr. Powell manages to keep all the bizarre humor from his signature series and transport it into that precious kind of narrative that's suitable for kids without "talking down to them"—or without losing its appeal to adults, for that matter. Chimichanga stars a bearded little girl whose face looks like a mask but isn't one. She's quite a feisty one, which she probably needs to be as part of a freak show. Then one day, she goes and buys a chimichanga, meets a witch and trades in a lock from her beard for... but that would be telling; a cute, curious, great-looking little book. (Albatross Exploding Funny Books, miniseries)

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Duncan Rouleau and Francis Takenaga. The Great Unknown. Writer/artist Duncan Rouleau's The Great Unknown was notable mainly for its absence in the second half of the year, unfortunately. The five-parter stars Zach, who lives in his parents' garage and fancies himself a genius inventor. His problem: Whenever one of his brilliant ideas is just about to come to fruition, somebody on the home-shopping channel beats him to it. Zach is a twit, really, but because he genuinely believes that he's going to succeed next time, he's also a tragic character—even before a mysterious third party shows up to suggest that there's more to Zach than meets the eye. Come for the quirky, innovative art; stay for the well-defined and intriguing protagonist. (Image Comics, miniseries) [full review: issue #1]

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Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth, Lee Loughridge and Keith Wood. Stumptown. The narrative the creators weave in the debut issue of Stumptown is more packed with character, mood, plot and detail than any other comic I read last year. It follows private investigator Dex Parios, once again a strong female lead who's got her share of flaws, weaknesses and mysteries. Matthew Southworth's art delivers the kind of detail required by a good crime story, while Lee Loughridge's colors make this the best-lit comic I've seen in a while. That's a lot of superlatives already, and they're all deserved. Let's add one more: Greg Rucka is, simply put, the most accomplished character writer in American pop comics right now, and Stumptown a worthy successor to Whiteout and Queen & Country. (Oni Press, periodical) [full review: issue #1]

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Greg Rucka, J. H. Williams III, Dave Stewart and Todd Klein. "Batwoman." The other Greg Rucka series with a female protagonist launched in 2009 is quite a different beast: much less subtle than Stumptown, much more action-driven, and with more emphasis on lush, spectacular visuals. Whereas Stumptown relies on quiet moments and subtle clues, body language and facial expressions, in "Batwoman" it's the dialogue that drives the narrative, and, as far as the body language is concerned, the kicks and punches. The art by J. H. Williams III, who shows off using multiple styles, looks fantastic and displays some great storytelling, even if the page compositions get a little too elaborate for their own good here and there. (DC Comics, strip, Detective Comics)

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Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris, et al. Ex Machina. Evidently, Brian K. Vaughan has been disappointed often enough by serial fiction (see The X-Files, among others) to know that it's rarely finding the MacGuffin that delivers the pay-off, ultimately, but the character arcs. That's why Y: The Last Man didn't withhold its revelations on what caused the male-killing plague until the final issue. And that's why we pretty much know what's going on in Ex Machina, too, at this stage, although a few chapters are still to come. The two series' mysteries were good to get things off the ground, but it's the question how Mitchell Hundred is going to deal with the situation and what it will mean to the people in his life that's driving the book now. If the ending to Y is anything to go by, the strategy works. (DC Comics/WildStorm, periodical/paperback/hardcover)

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Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, Dave Stewart and Nate Piekos. The Umbrella Academy: Dallas. There's buckets of madness here, involving time travel, Vietcong vampires, blowing up the Earth and preventing—or, depending on whose side you're on (the past's or the future's), preventing the prevention of—President John F. Kennedy's assassination; hence the title. Like in the first Umbrella Academy miniseries, the mad-idea school of thought is in full swing here, and that's not the only thing Mr. Way has borrowed from Grant Morrison. The book is a treat intellectually as well as emotionally—a bright, well-made, by turns brutal and gentle and ultimately refreshingly confident work by a first-rate creative team that's firing on all cylinders. (Dark Horse Comics, miniseries/paperback/hardcover)

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Joss Whedon, Fábio Moon, Dave Stewart and Nate Piekos. Sugarshock. This strip was originally released as a three-parter on Dark Horse Presents (the digital version) in 2007, but came out as a one-shot comic book last year. It's a space-opera pastiche starring a sci-fi punk-rock band, with a marginal plot and emphasis on all kinds of shenanigans—Joss Whedon, Fábio Moon and friends having fun, basically, and producing some neat little comics in the process. It's the comics equivalent of a good three-chord song; loud, simple, great-looking, frequently subversive and often very funny. Just what you need to cleanse the palate at the end of a long, tumultuous decade. (Dark Horse Comics, webcomic/comic book) [full review]

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