Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sgt. Pepper's Literary Pop Comics Club (1)

In response to Friday's post on the quality of superhero comics, a few names were brought up. And it's not a bad list at all, actually. In fact, you're going to find most of them on my own upcoming Best-of list for 2008.* Still, are they really good enough to fulfill the criteria?

To restate the challenge: Are there any pop comics writers whose recent work you think was so good that it's up to literary standards? So great that it absolutely has to appear on any self-respecting Best-Comics-of-the-Year list? Are there any recent pop comics works that weren't just entertaining, but also offered genuinely profound truths and insights? In other words, are there any recent works that transcend their given genre, like, say, The Sopranos or The Shield or Deadwood do?

(Of course, this begs the question whether the non-genre books that are on those lists fulfill these criteria. Since I didn't read any of them, I'm the wrong guy to be talking about that, though. Maybe next year. More well-read and thoughtful critics and reviewers like Dick Hyacinth or Douglas Wolk or Sean T. Collins or Tom Spurgeon might be able to answer that one, though.)

Now, before I'm going through the names that are mentioned in the comments section, I should say I'm aware that I was talking about superhero comics last week; those were the subject of the Blog@Newsarama essay I was responding to. On reflection, though, I guess it makes sense to expand the discussion to "pop comics" (or "genre comics," if you prefer) in general. First up, it's obviously not like superheroes is the only pop genre that seems to be absent from most "serious" Best-Comics-of-2008 lists. Second, for all intents and purposes, the people who make crime, espionage, sci-fi, horror, etc. comics largely seem to be the same ones that make superhero comics, anyway.

But now, let's look at some of the names that were dropped.

Grant Morrison: Well, yes, he's the one I was referring to - the one writer working in North American pop comics I could think of to whose work I would assign the adjective "literary" without hesitation. Not all of his work, mind you. I'm really only talking about All Star Superman here, as far as 2008 is concerned. And before that, maybe Seven Soldiers? As far as Final Crisis and Batman are concerned, I'm reserving judgment until they're done. "Batman RIP," at any rate, really did have a rubbish ending (if any ending at all, so far), so it's out of the race as a separate story.

Peter Milligan: When he's on form, Milligan comes close, probably. I think some of the better Human Target and X-Force/X-Statix stories might make the grade. The only things I've read by him this year, however, are a few issues of Infinity Inc. and the Moon Knight: Silent Knight special from a couple of weeks ago; both of which were much better than the average dross, granted. But they're also pretty light stuff and not free of flaws, either. I wouldn't insist they deserve spots on any general Best-Comics-of-2008 list by any stretch. Am I missing something more substantial Milligan's done lately?

Garth Ennis: My exposure to Ennis was limited to Dan Dare this year, and while I liked that book tremendously, it's not what I would call profound. I didn't follow The Boys or The Punisher or anything else he did this year, though, so maybe those were better. Overall, though, I don't recall reading anything particularly insightful from Ennis recently.

Ed Brubaker: I consider Brubaker the most consistent, most polished genre writer in American comics right now, and I can't think of any other comic besides Daredevil or Criminal or Captain America of which I enjoyed more issues more thoroughly this year. Even so, I would shy away from asserting that those books offer the kind of literary insight I regard as obligatory from anything on a general Best-Comics-of-the-Year list. Thinking of Brubaker and "literary," I can only come up with Sleeper. But hey, that's something, I guess. (Yes, I've read Brubaker's Uncanny X-Men. The less said of that one, the better. The Immortal Iron Fist is on top of my stack - hopefully I'll get around to it in time for my own Best-of-2008 thing.)

Warren Ellis: No, no, no. I don't think so. Doktor Sleepless has been Ellis' most ambitious comics work this year, probably. But, honestly, it's not his best by a long shot, and it would need to be to make the grade, where I'm concerned. Black Summer and particularly Thunderbolts were fun, but certainly not literary. He was on a roll last year with Nextwave and Fell and Thunderbolts and Crécy, where good pop comics are concerned, but this year has seemed like a retreat for Ellis, and his output not what I consider prime-list material by a long shot. But then, I didn't read everything he's done. Did I just miss the good stuff? No Hero, maybe? Or Newuniversal? Aetheric Mechanics? Ultimate Human? Any good, any of them?

Matt Fraction: Casanova comes very close, I have to admit. Call me crazy, but I genuinely think it's the best thing to happen to Anglo-American comics since Watchmen. I still find it too rough and haphazard for a genuine masterpiece, however; the ingredients are all there, but they're not refined enough. And, unfortunately, since Fraction's priority right now - much like Brubaker's - seem to be solid but largely unambitious things like Invincible Iron Man, I wonder whether he'll ever fulfill the promise inherent to those first fourteen issues of Casanova. I can understand why it's happening: A lot of these guys have families to support and Marvel offers a solid paycheck. I would do the same, probably, under the circumstances. It's still a bit of a shame, though.

Jason Aaron: Wolverine, Scalped, Black Panther - all very solid and entertaining genre work, certainly, but not more. Which is almost disappointing in the case of Scalped, by the way, since everybody keeps hyping it like it's the second coming of Christ. Is it a good crime series? Absolutely. Is it as good as, say, The Sopranos? Well, not exactly, so let's all calm down for a second. Aaron's Ghost Rider - yes, let me say that again, because it's so weird and unusual for me to speak these words: his Ghost Rider! - I just love to pieces for the mad, cocky, blasphemous hellride of a comic that it is. But, you know, to be perfectly honest? I'd much rather see Aaron come up with something that builds on his 2007 trailblazer The Other Side. Once he does, let's talk again, okay?

Okay, this is getting longish, so I'll have to come back to it later this week. In the meantime, I'd like to thank everyone for their thoughtful comments; they're much appreciated.

* Which, I hasten to add, will not presume to be anything but a list of the best new pop comics I have read this year, so put away the knives.


Moose Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Moose Harris said...

Okay...I'll throw a vote for Brian Azzarello, just for 100 Bullets. If there's a book that deserves recognition, it's that one, and I'm surprised he didn't make the list on the strength of it. 100 Bullets is consistently well written, densely plotted and has snappy dialogue which reflects the excellent characterisation. The story itself is like an onion being slowly peeled away layer-by-layer until its core is reached, probably in February. It's my one unmissable title and transcends the genre.

Also, Garth Ennis does tend to do populist, such as The Boys and The Punisher, and whilst Dare was okay, it was hardly a ground-breaker for him. However, I would like to highlight the current (and possibly overlooked) Battlegrounds series. The Nightwitches story is derived from a comic that both Ennis and I read as boys, the British classic Battle Picture Weekly, of which Ennis is a confessed fan. There's a story in that which ran from 1977 to 1987 called Johnny Red, about a disgrced British pilot who ends up fighting in Russia in a stolen Hurricane. Johnny Red featured a little sideline plot about female pilots, mostly young women and teenaged girls, who were sent up in poorly-armed and badly maintained ancient biplanes to drop small bombs on the German infantry and anything else they could find before they were inevitably shot down. Nightwitches is a well observed mini-series based on this idea, and is some of Ennis' better writing. I've really enjoyed it, it flys in the face of those who would call him a hack, good characterisation, sympathetically plotted, and telling an unuisual story. If the rest of the Battlegrounds series follows this pattern, it'll be a winner of the quality of his War Story series for Vertigo a while back. Does it transcend the genre? Well, were it a novel, I'd buy it, and I'd watch a movie of it too.

Duncan said...

I appreciate your playing arbiter with my choices, but notions like 'a deeper truth' or even 'pushing formal boundaries' can tend toward being soemwhat, well, arbitrary... I wasn't so conscious that this was for this year's list, but that being the case, I'd absolutely put forth Ennis interjectory, sawn-off demonstration in his last Punisher MAX arc that this prose business is a piece of piss - really! - and Leo Kessler, say, even several highly regarded crime novelists (e.g. Pelecanos)... he's as good as, better than them.

Also, thinking of chaps like Whedon and Cornell - I like both's comics alright, they're a little twee, but both have busted open genre TV; certain eps of Buffy were unique, experimental and pulled it off, Cornell's Dr. Who scripts were largely regarded as the best of a very well-received revival. Admittedly this is judging on genre terms, because all the above are genre writers, and very very little non-'realist' work gets the acclaim I personally feel it merits.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

"I appreciate your playing arbiter with my choices, but notions like 'a deeper truth' or even 'pushing formal boundaries' can tend toward being soemwhat, well, arbitrary..."

Yes and no: They're certainly arbitrary in that everyone's standards are probably different from each other. But on the other hand, I expect that most of us who worry at all about this stuff have - consciously or not - SOME kind of "standard for greatness" of their own against which to measure any new book they happen across.

That's pretty much what I'm doing here, for that matter. I'm not trying to discard your suggestions (or anyone else's) - I'm just throwing them against my own standards to see how they fare. I'm entirely aware that somebody else might come to entirely different conclusions.

Matthew J. Brady said...

For good Garth Ennis war comics from 2008, I would also recommend his Marvel miniseries War Is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle. That one was excellent, following World War I aviators. Great stuff.

And Milligan had The Programme, about a revived superhero-based Cold War. It was...interesting, if not his best work. But he was definitely trying for something more than a paycheck there.

Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

Yeah, I forgot about THE PROGRAMME. I considered picking it up, but the artwork put me off. I'll definitely check the PHANTOM EAGLE book, though - I've got a lot of Ennis' stuff to catch up on.

Thanks for the recommendations.