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