Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iPad My Blog with an Old Thing About the Future That Even Has the Word Apple in It

Apropos of nothing, and because I've been in the blogs for six years today, here's an old essay I originally put up at the old place.

It's a wild-eyed, faintly obnoxious and ultimately baseless speculation on what the North American comics market will look like in 2014, and since we're about halfway there now, I thought it'd be fun to check back what the Future looked like to me November 19, 2004.

I recall wanting to put it up, you know, November 19, 2009, but then went and forgot about it, which may not have been the worst place to leave things at. But judge for yourself, and don't say I didn't warn you.

* * *

PROPHECY NUMBER ONE
Pamphlets will not go away.

The fact of the matter is that, in the foreseeable future, there are always going to be people who want their monthly pamphlets. Which, coupled with the observation that a price point that's Too High for existing pamphlet customers has yet to be discovered, should secure their existence for years to come.

The market for this particular format will keep shrinking, of course. The top titles in the direct market, ten years from now, will sell in the neighborhood of 30,000 copies. And there are going to be other changes for pamphlets as well. Prices will go up dramatically; the titles will almost exclusively be "reprints" (bear with me, we'll come back to that in a minute); the books will grow bigger and contain more advertisements; ongoing series will mostly be re-packaged as strings of mostly self-contained limited series; et cetera.

But the bottom line is this: There are going to be pamphlets. They will be insanely expensive pamphlets and they will be pamphlets catering to an audience aged thirty and up, but they will exist.

Deal with it.


PROPHECY NUMBER TWO
Superheroes will not go away, either.

So you might as well get over it now.

Trying to cut down on superhero comics in the American market is like trying to cut down on pasta in Italian cuisine.

The status of the superhero genre comes down to American culture. It's anchored there and it's the United States' nationally favored flavor of comics. As long as there is flag-waving and patriotism and apple pie in America, there are going to be superheroes.

Superheroes are there because people want them. If you believe taking the genre away or reducing it would teach people to like other genres, you are wrong. Readers of superhero comics, for the most part, are not comic readers, but superhero readers. Take away superhero comics, and those people will just move on to other media.

More importantly, superheroes are an entry drug. Many of the Vertigo and Oni and Top Shelf and Fantagraphics readers of 2014 are recruited from the ranks of the superhero readers of 2004. Superheroes are a gateway.

What do we learn from that?

If you don't like eating pasta, that's fine. Find something else to eat and explain why you like it. But don't bloody tell me that eating pasta is wrong and I shouldn't be eating pasta.

And, while we're at it, North America isn't the world, you know.

If you don't like superheroes and don't find enough non-superhero material to satisfy your appetite in North America, how about actually trying some material from Europe, Asia, Asia, Africa, South America or Australia...?

Really, do get over it.

Now, with these two basic points limited to American comics out of the way, let us move on to the important stuff, shall we.

 

PROPHECY NUMBER THREE
Paperback and hardcover books will not be the standard format for comics.

They won't be the standard format for prose texts anymore, either, mind you. Ten years from now, everyone living in a halfway modernized and democratic region will (a) carry a handheld computer that's leaps and bounds above the ones we know today and (b) have radically improved access to a dramatically grown and more effective Internet—from everywhere and at any time.

Paper books won't go away, of course. But they'll have been replaced as the default format. They will be available in libraries and serve as hardcopies of important texts, but only people who are traditionalists and rich enough to enjoy the very expensive and old-fashioned luxury of a printed book will want to afford more than ten books a year.

The rest of the world will have switched to electronic copies, which are more convenient, much cheaper to produce and much easier to distribute. Most of the printed books that will be left, whether it's pamphlets, magazines or novels, will in fact contain "reprints" of works first published in electronic form.

We will carry all of our books in our pockets, and the world's libraries will be available to us at the tip of our fingers.

There is no reason why comics should be an exception.

 

PROPHECY NUMBER FOUR
The medium will be more popular and diverse than it ever was, among children as well as adults.

Along with the greatly diminished importance of the direct and bookstore markets, the playing field among various publishers and genres will be more level than ever before. The big publishers' advantages will largely have disappeared, and they won't be able to rest on their creative laurels anymore.

The rise of electronic books will enable people from around the world to read whichever comics they want, in whichever language they understand, whenever they want to.

There will be no anachronistic pre-ordering procedures, no token predominance of two or three companies, no significant hurdles for creators to get their work out there even without a big publisher—or any publisher at all—to back them up.

As access to comics will be infinitely easier than it is now, the audience for the medium will grow across the entire age spectrum. The regional preponderance of specific genres or styles will not be a concern any longer. Exposure to, and acceptance of, comics as a medium of art and literature will hit an all-time high.

As a matter of fact, comics will start to overtake prose as an intuitive and effective way of communicating information or narratives to an audience.

There will be more bad comics, naturally, but there will be more good comics as well.

A new, global audience unhindered by artificial limitations like publishers, distributor monopolies, regional trends or the saturation with specialty stores will be deciding what's going to survive.

 

TO MAKE A LONG STORY SHORT

Let's stop worrying about silly things like the merits of superhero comics or how to get comics in the hands of children again or how to diversify the direct market or what does or doesn't constitute the "mainstream," fer chrissakes.

Ten years from now, that's all going to be moot, anyway.

Instead, let's start sorting through some real problems we're inevitably going to face on the way up: Comic specialty stores will have to adapt and may be in for some rough times until the dust settles; a reasonable digital standard format for comics will have to be found; steps to prevent piracy will have to be taken early in the game of electronic distribution—let's not be the record industry; not all present storytelling approaches will work in the new formats (but there will be new ones, of course); stuff we don't even know will pose a problem yet.

Overall, however, things are clearly looking up, folks. We're heading for a new Golden Age here, and it's happening faster than we realize.

So lighten up, will ya?

* * *

There you have it. Obviously, some of my humbly labeled "prophecies" (handheld computers) are more on target than others (advertising), but overall, it seems we did come a long way since 2004. (Disclaimer: I'm not sure what point I was trying to make with the superheroes-as-a-gateway nonsense, and I will passionately deny having authored a word of the above if pressured.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

Dark Horse Comics, 2009, paperback, 110 pages, $ 12.95

Creators: David Lapham, Jeff Lemire, Dean Motter, Chris Offutt, Kano, Stefano Gaudiano, Alex de Campi, Hugo Petrus, M. K. Perker, Paul Grist, Rick Geary, Ken Lizzi, Joëlle Jones, Gary Phillips, Eduardo Barreto, Matthew Fillbäch, Shawn Fillbäch, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Brian Azzarello, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Clem Robins, Ryan Hill, Tom Orzechowski
Editors: Diana Schutz, Dave Marshall, Brendan Wright

Out of the 13 stories in this anthology, three focus on a woman—some kind of femme fatale, in the pertinent lingo—seducing and having sex with the male protagonist to win his trust, before a hopefully surprising final scene—a twist ending, they call it—reveals what's really going on.

Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed if the editors hadn't decided to run them all grouped together towards the end of the book, but as it were, this 25-or-so-percent reliance on a well-worn plot formula is emblematic of the degree of creativity on display here.

Granted, these are staples of the noir genre (or style, depending on the school of thought), so a book like this one was always going to have to address them in some fashion; because, naturally, they just happen to be what people expect when they buy a book titled Noir.

The big disappointment here is that so many of the contributors approach the well-established genre ingredients in such an exhausted fashion. For instance, I'm at a loss why the prose story by Ken Lizzi, illustrated by Joëlle Jones, is in here; it's not comics, and it's neither well-written nor otherwise remarkable enough to make a solid case for its inclusion in a comics anthology. It grabs the most superficial elements, the most iconic clichés that this type of fiction has to offer, gives them a walk around the block, and that's that—is the big achievement supposed to be that Mr. Lizzi managed to not stumble and crack a rib on his stroll? I'm unimpressed.

Indeed, most of the stories in Noir are uninspired, anti-climactic throwaway sketches that seem miles away from properly fleshed-out stories. Given the name recognition of many of the contributors, it's very disheartening to find that so few of them evidently have any understanding of what it takes to create a story that connects, or any desire to make comics that are more than mechanically sound and visually appealing. Is that worthy of praise? No more so than a filmmaker who can hold a camera, or a prose writer who knows how to spell, I'm afraid.

Paul Grist's story about a burglar who escapes the police only to run into the arms of a crime lord he's stolen from; Chris Offutt, Kano and Stefano Gaudiano's piece on a self-assured old hitman who doesn't know what time it is; Gary Phillips and Eduardo Barreto's weird sci-fi thing about a woman seducing her gym trainer—they all deliver the basics, and that's where their aspirations end. Even Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' six-pager, the most accomplished story in the book in terms of sheer craft, yields little more than a shrug.

The creators replicate the surface trappings of the kind of material they're trying to emulate, but they don't seem to recognize what makes good noir fiction more than just cheap trash or stylistic masturbation. Case in point, if you were expecting authentic and compelling characters or poignant, twisted insights, this isn't where to find them.

There are brief flickers of inspiration in the book, but they are few and far between, and they rarely go anywhere. David Lapham, who provides the opener, attempts a tight psychological power struggle between three teenagers; it's genuinely gripping for a while, but then Mr. Lapham shoots himself in the foot in the last two panels, forcing a kind of relief and closure that completely undermines his narrative.

M. K. Perker, who examines what witnessing a killing spree does to a janitor, has the right idea, but doesn't pull it off in practice. Rick Geary's "Blood on My Hands," about a middle-aged man who discovers a rather morbid way of rekindling his love to his wife, might be a twisted take on Isabel Coixet's contribution to Paris, je t'aime, if only he'd found a less sedating way to tell it. Alex de Campi and Hugo Petrus' story about a woman in a subway station is the most experimental of the bunch, but ends up being a purely formalistic exercise, with not much to latch on to—and it's got nothing to do with noir, either, for that matter.

There are a few clunkers, too. Jeff Lemire's entry relates a pointless series of events that never adds up to anything, before leaving the reader on a predictable and pointless ending. Brian Azzarello, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá also disappoint, with a story that bores you with tired clichés for seven pages before the twist turns out to be a nod to a long-running superhero series that doesn't even make sense. Judging from the way the characters keep moving up and down the counter on page 112, it seems the artists didn't pay much attention, either; shoddy art was the last thing I would have expected from Mr. Moon and Mr. Bá, but there you go.

Dean Motter's contribution, a Mister X story, is crushed by tired and meaningless exposition that does more to obfuscate the plot than to illuminate anything. And Matthew and Shawn Fillbäch's collaboration, finally, is a complete non-starter. The story, an eye-rollingly awful piece about a woman who ends up leaving a big-mouthed nightclub owner when she's impressed with a "cowboy"'s machismo, sports all the depth and stylistic subtlety of a 1970s porno—sans shagging, tragically, but with the same concept of gender relations.

Noir reads like a collection of B-sides, put together by people who mostly couldn't be bothered to bring their A-game. Few of the pieces are inspired, some are more or less sound in execution. The two qualities never coincide between this book's covers, unfortunately.

Grade: D+

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Wash: 01/20/10

o The comics recommendation of the week is Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's Joe the Barbarian #1, brought to you by the nice people at DC Comics/Vertigo for an almost insulting $ 1.00.

Here's Sean Murphy, "Talking Comics with Tim (O'Shea)" in a long interview that's well worth a read.

o Phonomagician Kieron Gillen about reviews and creative collaboration. It's sharp, intriguing stuff.

That's why I mostly try to blame "the creators" for anything that's going on in a comic in my reviews, by the way. It's my very clever and stealthy way of concealing the fact that I don't have a clue who does what.

o DC Comics in April: Greg Rucka is off the main strip in Detective Comics, which means I'll drop my subscription. (He stays on for the "Question" back-up, but eight pages aren't worth $ 3.99 to me.)

I wish DC the best of luck for their upcoming Doc Savage and The Spirit titles, but surely no one can expect these books to fare any better than the Red Circle titles. There's just too much material and too little promotion out there, and this stuff doesn't look like it's going to stand out in any way, unfortunately.

Brian Wood's DV8 starts at WildStorm. When was the last time Wood worked on characters he didn't own? Must have been 2000 or thereabouts. I'm curious about this one. Sadly, WildStorm made the decision to publish three other WildStorm Universe books as well in April, so even if it's the best comic in the world, it's going to be an uphill struggle to get noticed.

Finally, at Vertigo, Jeff Lemire's curious Sweet Tooth gets its first $ 9.99 collection, while his book-length narrative The Nobody returns as a $ 14.99 paperback. You could do a lot worse than spend money on this pair of books, probably.

o Image Comics in April: Turf looks interesting, certainly, but not everyone's Gerard Way.

Also, good to see that Image can afford to join DC and Marvel's promotional reign of the $ 1.00 comics. I'm not sure anyone's desperate for a Witchblade #1 or a Youngblood #1 (scratch that, I'm actually curious about the Joe Casey remix of that one), but good, appealing work like like Chew, Age of Bronze or The Walking Dead should hopefully find a few more readers this way.

And to have more for them once they come back, Image has new paperback collections of Chew, Underground and Madman Atomic Comics for them.

Also, Rob Liefeld takes on the apocalypse. As usual when Rob Liefeld takes on anything, it's expected that the apocalypse loses.

Duncan Rouleau's The Great Unknown is also solicited again after a one-year absence. Fingers crossed.

o Marvel Comics in April: I'm about as interested in ordering a bunch of comics created by top-secret people and tying in with Siege as I am in receiving a head massage with a ball-peen hammer, personally, but I'm sure most of them will find their audience.

I have high hopes that the "classified" writer and artist of Captain America: Who Won't Wield the Shield is Peter Bagge, though. Wouldn't it be a great companion piece to Brendan McCarthy's must-read Spider-Man: Fever?

The Joe Casey/Jim Mahfood team-up is tempting me to buy an issue of Web of Spider-Man, meanwhile. Which is a big thing for me—I haven't had a taste of Web of Spider-Man since 1994 or so. I'll definitely get Avengers: The Origin, though, as soon as all of it appears between two covers.

Also, more books by and with womenses, with awkwardish womensy titles. Way to go, Marvel.

Warren Ellis' semi-notable Excalibur appears in paperback for the first time, and for lord knows what reason, they're also reprinting the awful three-parter prior to Ellis' run that was plotted by Scott Lobdell. Mainly, I'm curious whether future volumes will include Ellis' Starjammers and Pryde & Wisdom miniseries.

o Still online: My very abusive and controversial review of Mark Waid's Soggy Flub Spider-Man.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Amazing Spider-Man #614

Marvel, 2009, 23 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Mark Waid
Artist: Paul Azaceta
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Cover artist: Marko Djurdjevic

Stop me if you've heard this one before: In this comic, not only does Spider-Man find a new way to insulate his webbing against Electro, so he can then go and decide to web up his spider-fists and use them to beat him up just when the plot calls for it, but he also tells the electrical one about the fascinating new way of insulating his webbing—his "ace," he thinks in his elaborate thought balloons—while he's beating him up with his webbed-up spider-fists.

Here's to ingenuity; my first instinct was to put an exclamation mark here instead of the semicolon, but I couldn't muster the energy.

Reading The Amazing Spider-Man certainly is a crapshoot, these days, thanks to the revolving creative teams. Sometimes you get stories by people with unique voices, eager to make a name for themselves by doing inspired and creative work; and sometimes the "crapshoot" gets more literal and you get stories such as this one, where a fossilized old dinosaur—herbivore, surely—like Mark Waid is phoning it in like his editor got him a flat rate.

It's about Spider-Man and Electro beating each other up, as I say, and its first problem is that it can't be easily distinguished from earlier stories about Spider-Man and Electro beating each other up. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've read this exact same story before, back in the 1990s, only then it said "Tom DeFalco" in the credits, and I didn't feel compelled to pinch myself to determine if I was still attached to the realm of flesh and blood.

No such luck this time, because Mr. Waid here gives new meaning to the word "effortless."

There's the kernel of a great idea here, tragically. I'm certain that there are great stories to be told about the Daily Bugle and its meaning to Spider-Man's—and Peter Parker's—world.

Rather than to dramatize his thoughts on this remarkably good idea he's had, however, Mr. Waid opts to go with a bog-standard fight plot with an unmotivated and phony turning point that makes no sense where everyone tells the reader what everything means in the text in the speech bubbles with the dialogue.

It is making me numb in the head.

There's a nice-looking page towards the end—all black with a single horizontal panel in the middle that shows a crushed J. Jonah Jameson, where the creators manage to stir my interest and almost fool me into thinking—thinking!—there's any merit here.

But then!

"Betty nailed it. For her, and me, and Jonah, and thousands of others... this day is the dividing line between everything that ever happened, and everything that ever will. Good memories and bad... that's all that's left. Wow, man, who thought it'd be a C-lister like Electro who'd deliver the blow? Guess it just goes to show... even the also-rans can upgrade when you're not paying attention."

Uuugh! Get out of my head with your wriggling, oily painting-by-numbers non-prose, you thought-robbing, brain-dazing crony of dull and phony, you non-dramatizing interpretationazi. If you can't be bothered to show not tell the story, at least have the common decency to step aside and let somebody else do it and put your self-congratulatory exudations of what you think I should think your work means—your work that you haven't done, you unrealized, bulletpoint-riddled son of a static monologue—in the letter column.

The only dividing line I see here is the one between me and another Mark Waid comic, frankly—in the unlikely event that he's got any more words left to phone in to anybody, I mean.

And hey, Marvel: Why not throw in the towel now, while you can still lift it without assistance? With soggy, borderline lethargic flub like this, which undeniably made it to print because it was deemed good enough by everyone involved, it's pretty obvious that comics are no match for real entertainment.

On a very positive note, I enjoy how Mr. Azaceta draws everyone with big butts, also Spider-Man. There should be more superhero comics where the heroes and the villains have big butts. That's what the plus is for: the butts that the artist drew in this boring comic written by Mark Waid that is making me numb inside my mind.

Grade: D+

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Wash: 01/15/10

o I'm suddenly a lot less interested in Joe Casey's Iron Man 1.5 miniseries, after reading Diamond's "Product Changes" column from January 13 (temporary link):

• Iron Man 1.5 #1 (JAN100574), solicited as being written by Joe Casey with a cover price of $2.99, will now be written by Justin Theroux and Casey and carry a cover price of $3.99.

A co-writer and a price increase? Um, no thanks.

o This, on the other hand, will get a nice spot on my bookshelf: Joe Casey takes another shot at his favorite Marvel franchise in Avengers: The Origin, a five-part miniseries drawn by Phil Noto that debuts in April 2010.

o In response to the, excuse me, kerfuffle that erupted on the Internuts this week, Joss Whedon lists all the people involved in the matter who are Not Repugnant.

o Here's your meta best-of comics list for 2009, and here's your meta best-of comics list for the 2000s. I love this stuff.

o Also this week: I'm reviewing Daytripper, a new Vertigo series without werewolves by Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon; and I'm running the numbers on Marvel's goofball attack on DC's plastic ring stunt.

Batman: Rip!

Marvel recently made an eyebrow-raising proposition to comic-book retailers: In return for the ripped-off covers of a number of DC Comics titles promoted with plastic rings last November, Marvel offer comics specialty stores a rare variant-cover edition of one of their own titles.

Heidi MacDonald has a good overview of the issue, and Tom Spurgeon's response sums it all up in a great headline.

And, say what you will, but: The thought alone of retailers ripping apart piles of Blackest Night tie-in comics in their basements to apply for a Deadpool book puts this stunt right up there with the best of Bill Jemas' shenanigans—which is saying something, as none of us who were on the Internet at the time need to be reminded.

But apart from that, how many "happy returns" can Marvel expect, realistically? ICv2.com's sales estimates may hold the answer.

The DC titles that are part of Marvel's stunt are Adventure Comics #4, Booster Gold #26, Doom Patrol #4, Justice League of America #39, The Outsiders #24 and R.E.B.E.L.S. #10. Each of those tied in with DC's popular Blackest Night miniseries and was part of DC's plastic-ring promotion, which I talked about in detail last month.

While the ring promotion stopped in December, those titles' Blackest Night tie-in stories didn't, however, and since there's usually very little drop-off between consecutive issues of a series that are part of a crossover, the comparison of those books' November sales with their performance in December should give us a pretty good idea of the effect the ring promotion had.

Here we go:

11/2009: Justice League #39 --  89,376 (+46.5%)
12/2009: Justice League #40 --  68,672 (-23.2%)

11/2009: Adventure Comics #4  -- 85,145 (+91.6%)
12/2009: Adventure Comics #5  -- 59,876 (-29.7%)

11/2009: Booster Gold #26 -- 57,122 (+164.5%)
12/2009: Booster Gold #27 -- 40,256 (- 29.5%)

11/2009: Outsiders #24 -- 50,918 (+137.8%)
12/2009: Outsiders #25 -- 37,847 (- 25.7%)

11/2009: Doom Patrol #4  -- 53,748 (+168.3%)
12/2009: Doom Patrol #5  -- 35,348 (- 34.2%)

11/2009: R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 -- 51,100 (+352.9%)
12/2009: R.E.B.E.L.S. #11 -- 31,489 (- 38.4%)

So, while the continuing Blackest Night crossovers still keep those books far above of their regular sales levels, these numbers suggest that the ring promotion made up for a huge part of the increases.

In other words, it seems like DC managed to sell retailers a total of about 100,000 comic books more in November—not by publishing any sort of "big event" comic book that people are flocking to, but simply because they made a bunch of plastic rings to go along with it. Not all of those comics are going to be torn apart and shipped to Marvel, obviously, but it still looks like there are potentially a lot more copies of those books out there than anyone ever wanted to read.

Frankly, if I had a business that was in any way dependent on the North American direct-sales market, I would be thinking right now that this is some scary shit going on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Daytripper #1 (of 10)

DC Comics/Vertigo, 2009, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writers/artists: Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Sean Konot

The first extended mainstream collaboration of Brazilian brothers Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon is a beautifully illustrated hodgepodge of the most hoary old clichés imaginable.

It's a book you want to like, certainly. Its hero, a young gent named Brás de Oliva Domingos, is pretty and well-dressed, likes to sip espresso in the pretty streets of São Paulo with his pretty and well-dressed friends, is very good to his pretty and lovable dog and is sad when his pretty and well-dressed girlfriend with the perfectly symmetrical name Ana tells him on the phone that her flight back to him has been delayed.

Also, his terrible and gruesome regular job writing obituaries for the newspaper in a spacious office with plenty of time to go out and sip espressos is making Brás profoundly miserable, because he'd rather be a famous and renowned novelist. His unhappiness is compounded by the terror of his parents forgetting his 32nd birthday, which happens to coincide with a big gala event held in honor of his father, a famous and renowned novelist.

There is a supernatural twist, evidently, unless I'm misreading the framing sequence. I won't spoil it; let me just say its originality is such that only the accomplished groaner will do it justice. For an approximation of its effect, imagine one of those French dramas from the 1960s, about existential ennui, with werewolves coming in and ripping them all to bloody shreds in the last five minutes. (Werewolves all mine; no werewolves in Daytripper, alas.)

So, what this amounts to, ultimately, is a collection of musty old clichés—hey kids: a spoiled and self-important wannabe writer with father issues!—with a bog-standard Vertigo ending tacked on.

There are a couple of good scenes, to be fair, but if this first issue is any indication, Daytripper is the literary equivalent of a Coldplay song: airy, agreeable, vaguely wistful, somewhat pretentious and ultimately shallow. Luckily, the artwork does look great, and it's all very relaxing for the brain to stare at, anyway, so the creators will get nine more issues to convince me I'm wrong.

Grade: C-

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Wash: 01/12/10

o Last week, I wondered why there has been no concerted effort to reward the best critical writing on comics.

Ask and ye shall receive.

I doubt it's anything but a happy confluence of ideas, really, but it's good that someone's getting something off the ground.

In terms of the jurors' choices, I'm glad that Tom Crippen's "Age of Geeks" made it—it was certainly the most insightful and astute piece of comics criticism of 2009 that I read.

On the other hand, I'm wondering whether a site that's affiliated with The Comics Journal should be selecting work from Comics Journal contributors. I'd hope there was a more independent way of approaching things.

o DC will be trying to build on the success of Blackest Night with a 26-issue bi-weekly title called Brightest Day, written by Geoff Johns (Blackest Night, Green Lantern) and Peter J. Tomasi (Green Lantern Corps), with covers by newly hijacked Marvel artist David Finch.

Also, "Brightest Day" will be used as a crutch for the flagging books The Flash, Justice League of America and Titans.

I'm not sure if all of that's a very smart move, given that never-ending line-wide crossovers seem to be wearing on the market's patience, if the December 2009 figures for Marvel's Siege: The Cabal are any indication. Not that you can blame DC for trying to capitalize on their big hit; I'm just wondering if there's not a better way to do it.

o Speaking of the December figures: The fact that Siege: The Cabal, Brian Michael Bendis' lead-in to Siege proper, evidently didn't manage to crack the 70,000-unit mark doesn't bode well for Marvel's "big event" comic of 2010. Also, both New Avengers and Dark Avengers, the company's flagship titles, also written by Bendis, are selling around 70K as well, which isn't exactly impressive.

Perhaps that's why Marvel editor Joe Quesada believes in "event fatigue" right now and DC editor Dan DiDio doesn't?

o Speaking of Siege, here's a review by Douglas Wolk.

Related: What's the popular appeal of Brian Michael Bendis' Marvel Universe work?

o The new Iron Man armor looks kinda like the one from the film.

o Next stop for Grant Morrison: Wonder Woman?

o Alan Moore (Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century) and Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) take the Top 5 spots in Diamond Comic Distributors' "Top 500 Graphic Novels for 2009" list of best-selling book-length comics in North American comics specialty stores.

The "Top 500 Comic Books for 2009" chart is headed by the Barack Obama issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, unsurprisingly.

Then things get more interesting, though. Geoff Johns takes a whopping 10 out of the Top 25 spots, with issues of Blackest Night, Green Lantern and The Flash: Rebirth; and Grant Morrison takes 6, with Batman and Robin and Final Crisis. Together with Neil Gaiman's Batman #686, that's 17 out of the Top 25 for DC Comics.

For Marvel, it's four slots for Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Captain America: Reborn), a measly two entries for Brian Michael Bendis (Dark Avengers #1 and New Avengers #50) and one each for Barack Obama and Dan Slott (The Amazing Spider-Man #600).

o Bill Willingham, who writes Joss Whedon's Angel comic-book series for publisher IDW, goes off like a forgotten firecracker two weeks after New Year's Eve against Dark Horse Comics, the publisher of Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and, against Whedon himself.

For [Dark Horse Comics editor Scott] Allie to suggest that he is in coordination with IDW [...] is grossly misleading, at best. By intentionally allowing, encouraging in fact, the notion to exist among the comics reading public, that Whedon and Dark Horse are in any way steering, or influencing, the stories I help to produce in IDW’s ongoing Angel series, Allie and Whedon are committing what is tantamount to taking credit for the work of others, a repugnant practice in any business, although I understand it is all too common in some.

As long as I am writing the Angel series for IDW, I will not be coordinating stories with any Dark Horse comic, period.

I always find that sort of thing very odd, to the point where I'm wondering if it's staged.

But hey; I guess some people use e-mail to communicate with each other, and others use Comic Book Resources.

o The reboot of the Spider-Man movie franchise doesn't bother me. I liked Sam Raimi's first film, was indifferent to the second one and thought the third one wasn't terribly good. Also, it was pretty obvious from Spider-Man 3 that Raimi and the studio weren't on the same page anymore, so it's only logical that they've decided to go their separate ways. Personally, one of the thrills of corporately owned characters like Spider-Man or Batman is that they allow multiple interpretations by all kinds of people who come in, give it their best shot and then move on. I think Sam Raimi's done that, so I'm mostly curious about the next interpretation we're going to see.

o Reasons why spiffy high-ticket print editions of comics won't disappear anytime soon, exhibit 267: Here's writer Kurt Busiek gushing about the new hardcover edition of The Wizard's Tale, his 1990s book with artist David Wenzel, complete with pictures that make you want to own a copy right now.

o Happy to see Brian Hibbs' report that Stumptown, the new crime comics serial by Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth and Lee Loughridge, is doing well at his store. Here's why you should buy it.

o Comics recommendation for January 13, 2010: Human Target: Chance Meetings (paperback), by Peter Milligan, Edvin Biuković and Javier Pulido, from DC Comics/Vertigo. Here's a preview.

o Quite possibly, Tom Spurgeon's introduced the new gold standard for dealing with best-of lists.

o Now complete, for your perusal: My "Best Pop Comics of 2009" list: part 1, part 2, part 3.

The Bendis Factor

Douglas Wolk reviews Siege #1 and asks, in the comments section, what the popular appeal of Brian Michael Bendis' Marvel Universe work is. After all, Bendis' New Avengers and its various off-shoots (including Mighty Avengers, Dark Avengers and the crossovers House of M, Secret Invasion and now Siege) have been among Marvel's top-selling comic books for ages.

My take: Bendis has mentioned listening to teenagers to get a sense of how they talk and what they care about, so he could tap into that with Ultimate Spider-Man. His Avengers comics suggest he's done the same thing with Avengers fans on the Internet.

If there's a big break between how Bendis approaches the series and how previous writers approached the series, it's that characters now communicate less with each other and more with the audience, in terms that are more familiar to the fans—by saying the kinds of things the fans say and speaking to the kinds of issues that come up on message boards.

More so than any previous Avengers writer, Bendis wants the fans to know that hey, I'm a a big fan, too, by relying on a vernacular that they immediately recognize as their own.

An early example of this is the Avengers Finale one-shot he did, right after his first arc, "Avengers: Disassembled." Finale—so titled because it's a bookend to the original Avengers series, which Bendis relaunched as New Avengers in 2004—is basically a clip show in which the Avengers reminisce about "their favorite Avengers moments." Those moments are then illustrated in lush splash pages by an all-star roster of Avengers artists.

It's just like one of those threads that'll crop up on any Avengers-themed message board sooner or later, in other words, and the dialogue even reads like it could have been lifted straight from a message board. And it's all illustrated by people like George Pérez.

That, to me, is Bendis' approach to the Avengers in a nutshell—and, by extension, Bendis' approach the Marvel Universe: Bendis, like no other writer working in comics right now, is able to distill and dramatize how Marvel Universe fans talk to each other and what they talk about.

(Mind you, he got much of it wrong in Finale; there are a lot of characters mentioning moments where they weren't present, or which you'd think would be much too traumatic for them to feel nostalgic about. Bendis' later work is much more refined, and while the gaffes are still present, they get much subtler.)

So, even when Spider-Man and Luke Cage talk to each other in New Avengers, say, it doesn't seem like they're really talking to each other. Rather, it seems they're talking to the reader, much more pronouncedly than you usually find in fiction, and are trying to push the kinds of buttons that bring the reader closer to the fiction—and make them cheer the fiction on: Everybody can join the Avengers, it says, in a sense, and hang out with Luke and Peter at the club house.

It's not something I find appealing, personally; I think it's pandering more than storytelling, and too bluntly manipulative. I prefer it when the characters and their voices are expressions of something other than the writer's attempt to convince me to love their fiction because they think they've got it figured out what I think the characters should be saying or doing in a given moment in order for me to like the story.

(I get a similar sense from Brad Meltzer's writing, based on the one issue of his Justice League of America that I read. Meltzer's characters are all chums, referring to each other by their first names a dozen times per page; and they want the reader to be part of it. Also see much of Mark Millar's and Jeph Loeb's output.)

That said, it's fair to say that, if you assume Bendis—consciously or subconsciously—is pandering to his audience with those particular comics, and that his primary concern is for those comics and himself to be popular, then he's certainly been very good at that.

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.

* * *

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]

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

* * *

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]

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Wash: 01/06/10

o Steven Grant calls it quits.

After ten years or so, the longtime comics professional ends his weekly column at Comic Book Resources.

It's unexpected. For as long as I've been on the Internet, Grant's column—"Master of the Obvious," back in the day, and then later "Permanent Damage"—has been a fixture in my reading habits.

I've often agreed with him, and I've just as often disagreed, I think. But even then, he always had an insightful perspective.

Of course, I vehemently disagree with Grant that comics "is pretty much the same as it ever was," unless by "pretty much" he means "not at all," particularly when it comes to the seismic shifts of the last ten years. But there you go.

His voice will be missed.

o Casanova will be back!

I'm counting the days. Not that Matt Fraction hasn't done some great work at Marvel (apart from the not-so-great work he's done at Marvel, I mean), but, honestly: I don't think it would be very smart of him to stop making his own comics, at this stage.

o Jens Balzer offers a German (and German-language) perspective on the ten greatest comics of the 2000s for The European.

There are a lot of the usual suspects on the list, and only one German entry. (Via @Comicgate)

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.

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

* * *

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)

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

* * *

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)

* * *

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]

* * *

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]

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Wash: 01/04/10

o Question: Why are there no awards for the best writing on comics? Not as part of the Eisners or something, I mean, but as their own entity? Or do they exist and I'm just blanking on them?

I guess Tom Spurgeon's been doing something like that in his outstanding Holiday Interviews series, bless him—today's must read: Douglas Wolk on Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's Invincible Iron Man. Which is a good start and serves to highlight the critics, certainly, but still isn't the same as a proper award.

If we want more, better comics criticism, reporting, analysis, opinions, journalism and thinking in general—and we do—then, surely, a good way of fostering it would be to award those who already do it. So, at the end of the year, I think I'll attempt some sort of Top 10 list of the best writing I read.

I'm not sure what kind of shape this could or should take on, ultimately, so, for the time being, it's mainly something I'm throwing out there for discussion. Any comments are welcome.

o Speaking of critics and such, Timothy Callahan speaks truth in his latest column at Comic Book Resources:

[T]here's no doubt in my mind that the 2000s were a wonderful decade for comics. Probably the best ever.

He goes on to explain why, and even though his reasoning focuses on the North American market, which I'm not sure serves his point well, I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what Callahan says.

Over at The Savage Critics!, David Uzumeri looks back at 2009 and largely ends up on the same page.

At this stage, there's a lot of diversity out there, by a lot of people who know what they're doing and want to make good art and entertainment rather than just "good comics," and who have high production values backing them up. If you don't find any new comics to tickle your fancy, it's probably you.

o At House to Astonish, Paul O'Brien reviews the last year's worth of X-Factor and makes some great observations about the story:

By pairing Layla with Madrox, Peter David seems to be writing about free will versus determinism. Layla’s world is entirely deterministic – it’s on rails, and so it’s meant to be. [...] Madrox, on the other hand, is a one-man embodiment of alternate realities, since his duplicates allow him to explore both options whenever he’s faced with a choice.

o Dicks.

o Happy Birthday, Robot 6!

o Over at Comicgate, the magazine's contributors, including yours truly, present our favorite comics of 2009.

If you want to know what gushing praise for Final Crisis, Phonogram and Chew looks like in German, it's not to be missed.

o Over at the Standard Attrition message board, I lay out my view on authorial intent, in response to a point made by Ivan Brandon regarding my review of The Winter Men. (Yes, that's meant to read "intends" in the first line of my response. Grmblfks.)

o Now up: part 1 of my Best Comics of 2009 list.

2009: The Year in Comics (1)

As every year, the following list contains the best new North American pop comics of 2009 that I read.

Let me clarify a few terms first.

o "The best": what it says.

o "New": released in 2009, basically.

This includes series that concluded in 2009; and material that appeared for the first time in a particular format in 2009.

o "North American": released in North America; or, at the very least, broadly a product of the North American comics industry, or made by people who usually work in the same.

o "Pop comics": genre comics, essentially; which, of course, is an equally blurry term, but you get the idea; comics with a popular appeal; as opposed to, for instance, Art comics or Alternative comics, although being "art" or "alternative" and being "popular" isn't mutually exclusive; cf. "pop music"; this is a minefield.

o "That I read": that I read. Seriously.

As always, some books are probably absent for no other reason than because I didn't get to read them in time. This includes a lot of books written by Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman, as well as Darwyn Cooke's Parker: The Hunter and Eric Shanower and Skottie Young's Wizard of Oz adaptations. If I'd read the material, I suspect some of it would be on the list.

Likewise, there's some stuff that I missed in 2009 that I likely would have put on the list if it would exist. This includes creator-owned work by Brian Michael Bendis and Matt Fraction (wasn't Casanova meant to come back in 2009?), new issues of Frank Miller and Jim Lee's All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder (how I miss typing that) and Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith's Fell.

This also includes any new work at all by Christopher J. Priest, whom I regard as being up there with Steve Gerber and Grant Morrison in terms of sheer craft and vision, but who hasn't had any new comics work published since 2005, evidently.

The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author, because trying to arrange them into a numbered Top 25 or so would take a lot of time and leave me frustrated and unhappy, so I don't do it.

Finally, I'm including a number of comic-book series of which I've only read the first issue as I'm writing this, but which show enough promise to include them anyway. It's a bit like Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize, probably.

Lists for the last two years:
o 2007: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4
o 2008: part 1, part 2, part 3

Now, without further ado, let's get into it.

* * *

Ivan Brandon, Nic Klein, Kristyn Ferretti and Tom Muller. Viking. A lot of the time, creators of historical fiction try very hard to convince their audience that people "back then" weren't really all that different from people "today." Which, of course, defeats the point. The beauty of reading a story about Vikings—if it's a good one—is that it grants you insight into the human condition by providing a different perspective on the same. Viking is striving to do that, if the first issue is any indication. There are still some kinks to be worked out, mostly in Mr. Klein's panel-to-panel storytelling; but overall, it's a great-looking, fantastically designed series that imagines life-in-times-past from an intriguing angle. I'm looking forward to reading a collection in 2010. (Image Comics, periodical) [full review: issue #1]

* * *

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Criminal: The Sinners. The latest chapter in the Criminal saga stars a deserter and reluctant mob enforcer who's been ordered to investigate the murders of a priest moonlighting as a loan shark, a drug dealer collecting the thumbs of his enemies and a member of the Irish mafia, while the U.S. Army is looking to bring him in and his boss suspects him of sleeping with his daughter when it's actually his wife. And if you think that's complicated, you don't know the half of it. Mr. Brubaker's knack for throwing his characters into fascinating situations that keep revealing shades of their personalities propels the narrative forward, while Mr. Phillips' art just makes the whole thing great to look at. Combined, the two are one of the most effective creative teams in comics right now. (Marvel/Icon, miniseries)

* * *

Kurt Busiek, Brent E. Anderson, et al. Astro City: Astra Special. In-between chapters of Astro City: The Dark Age, their 16-issue opus magnum that's been running since 2005, Mr. Busiek and Mr. Anderson turn in a self-contained two-parter that's a much better illustration of what I like about the series. The story is a fairly lighthearted exploration of what it's like to be young and dating out of your league. Some of its scenes are more subtle than others, but ultimately, the creators use the superhero idea to get a lot of mileage out of some very common human concerns—and, in the end, pull off a neat switch of perspectives that I didn't see coming. It's good, character-driven work that comics could use more of—and hopefully will see more of, once Astro City returns to a monthly schedule in 2010. (DC Comics/WildStorm, miniseries)

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Mike Carey, Peter Gross, et al. The Unwritten. In their new ongoing (fingers crossed) series for Vertigo, Mr. Carey and Mr. Gross examine the relationship between fact and fiction, between reality and stories. The protagonist of The Unwritten is Tom Taylor, a young gentleman who makes a living cashing in on his resemblance to the hero in a series of insanely successful fantasy novels written by his father, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances ten years ago. Tom's life, with which he's unhappy enough as it is, takes a rather dramatic turn when his very identity is called into question all of a sudden. The first issue is a dense, smartly written and beautifully illustrated comic—a postmodern take on Pinocchio, if you will. The first collection is out this week, and I'm curious how it'll hold up. (DC Comics/Vertigo, periodical)

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Joe Casey, Nathan Fox, Jose Villarrubia and Albert Deschesne. Dark Reign: Zodiac. This violent and twisted three-parter can be loosely described as a blend of Ocean's 11 and Reservoir Dogs with capes: A homicidal sociopath calling himself Zodiac assembles a gang of D-list super-villains to show Norman Osborn the middle finger and let him know what real bad guys are committed to: destruction, bloodshed, chaos. But there's a method to Zodiac's madness, of course. The manic energy of Joe Casey's script is dripping off every page, and Zodiac definitely has the best Paul Pope artwork not drawn by Paul Pope; if you think you can imagine what the Red Ronin tearing up Times Square looks like, I dare you to pick up this unexpected gem. (Marvel, miniseries)

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Joe Casey, Tom Scioli, Bill Crabtree and Rus Wooton. Gødland. The epic superheroes-in-space saga, about three fourths done now, stars a cosmically powered hero named Adam Archer on a deep-space rescue mission, fighting or teaming up with all kinds of crazy, Kirby-crackling space gods in the process. Back on Earth, meanwhile, a small army of super-villains has taken over the White House. As usual, the plot is a hook for Mr. Casey's wildly imaginative, seductively rhythmic stream-of-consciousness meditations on life, god and the universe—a continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey by means of 1970s superhero comics. Mr. Scioli and Mr. Crabtree seem just plain giddy to mash up bright primary colors, and the results get more spectacular with every issue. (Image Comics, periodical/paperback/hardcover)

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Joe Casey, Andy Suriano, Marc Letzmann and Rus Wooton. Charlatan Ball. There's some impressively mad and fearless storytelling in these six comic books. Chuck Amok, a clueless stage magician, becomes the unwitting pawn in a power struggle between inter-dimensional warlocks, who force him to fight to-the-death magic kung-fu matches against beings with, you know, actual powers. Since Chuck literally can't perform a decent trick to save his life, that poses a bit of a problem. There's the same kind of unbridled, crackling energy here as in Gødland, but whereas Adam Archer is a bona fide superhero, Chuck is all about ducking, nicking a power-up in flight and surviving some big ugly by bouncing up and down long enough. It's the closest thing to a Super Mario Bros. adaptation I've seen in comics. (Image Comics, periodical/paperback)

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Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, Mike Collins, et al. Captain Britain and MI13. You can't say that Mr. Cornell doesn't pull out all the stops. He throws Blade the Vampire Hunter into his eclectic cast early on, has Doctor Doom and Dracula conspire on the Moon and brings a large-scale vampire invasion from outer space down on the United Kingdom in his final storyline. More importantly, the creators constantly remind you what's at stake—pardon the pun—and let the characters act in ways that are both surprising and insightful. Mr. Cornell knows how to deliver a big moment so that you can feel it in your gut. This is the kind of series that American mainstream comics needs more of if it wants to compete with other entertainment media. It's also the kind of series that the majority of direct-market readers and retailers frequently reject. (Marvel, periodical/paperback)