Sunday, December 29, 2013

The 2013 QB50

Since 2006 I've been compiling a list of my favorite comics from the past year.  The "QB" in the title was adapted from my original Quarter Bin column, and it never meant even then that I was literally writing about comics found in a quarter bin.  "Quarter bin" in this context is my comics equivalent of the proverbial two cents worth of opinion.

This was a difficult year to justify for a new QB50, because I did not read comics regularly, at least how I had since 2005.  I did not read any one ongoing series every month of the year.  Consequently, even more than usual this list is my subjective evaluation of the material I chose for as objective critical merit as I could throughout the year.  This does not mean I caught all of the good stuff.  It does mean that if it's on the list this year, it's something I definitely loved or at least wanted to read, which in 2013 were more or less one and the same (hopefully).

Usually I've been able to make the call for which comic book tops the list fairly easily.  52 (2006, 2007), Grant Morrison's Batman (2008), Air (2009, 2010), RASL (2011), and Morrison's Action Comics were easy calls each year.  They unquestionably gave me my best reading experiences.  Because of the sporadic nature of my reading in 2013, I haven't been able to make that same call this year.  I ended up going with the same thought process, though, that guided past selections, the project that gave me most consistent satisfaction.  Everything else falls below it for a reason.

Without further adieu:

1. Geoff Johns' Green Lantern (DC)

It feels odd to be saying this, but this is the first time Johns has topped this list on his own.  He was one of four writers on 52, of course, but he's been doing exceptional work all along.  This was the last year he worked on his stellar Green Lantern material begun two years before I started making these lists.  Most of the issues published in 2013 were in his concluding First Lantern arc, but they also included Simon Baz, who was introduced in the finals months of 2012, but quickly became, for me, a signature element of the entire run, perhaps the defining legacy of it in a legacy filled with such elements.  The final issue, #20, was a master class in concluding ambitious efforts, and in itself might justify this rank.  For the record, this run has previously ranked at 2 (last year), 6 (2011), 5 (2010), 15 (2009, 2008), 19 (2007), and 16 (2006, although past the top ten that later the rest of the rankings were a retroactive affair).

2. G.I. Joe: Cobra/G.I. Joe: The Cobra Files (IDW)
This has very nakededly been one of my favorite comic book runs since it began.  It ranked 3rd in 2009 and 2010, 8th in 2011, and 9th last year.  It was a serious contender for the top spot this year.  Mike Costa's G.I. Joe replaced a very good DDP run as my all-time favorite in the franchise, a new standard that will be very difficult to beat, treating characters both known and created for it as human beings straight out of a John le Carre book, caught up in webs far greater than themselves but never giving up, more nakedly heroic than any costumed adventurer could ever be.  And 2013 saw the conclusion of the whole affair, and some of its best work because of it.

3. The Star Wars (Dark Horse)

Back in 2011, the event comic Flashpoint was responsible for keeping me involved in the business of reading comics when I thought I was going to completely give it up.  This year, that honor fell to The Star Wars, a brilliant adaptation of one of George Lucas's original drafts of his famous sci-fi opus, in which familiar names take on unfamiliar roles.  I've rarely had so much fun reading any comic book.  As a fan of this saga, I've been waiting for the comic book that would translate the appeal I always saw on the screen onto the printed page.  Dark Horse has been producing efforts for twenty years.  This year it finally found the project I could connect with.

4. Batman and Robin (DC)

Moving into 2014, this is the ongoing series I most expect to claim the top spot a year from now.  At its best, this series is the best, and that's been the case for the past two years.  Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason's collaborative partnership stretches back years at this point, but they've reached astonishing new heights.  I only wish I'd been reading this one all year.  The issue I credit this ranking to is #23, part of the title's whole reaction to the death of Damian Wayne, the Robin whose subsequent absence changed the title of the series but not its brilliant tone, an incredible resonance unmatched by the more heralded likes of Snyder and Morrison.

5. Saga (Image)

This is the series with the astonishing leaps of sheer creative brilliance I normally associate with Grant Morrison, but actually springs from the mind of the accomplished Brian K. Vaughan, ably assisted by the best artist working today, Fiona Staples.  I began the year feverishly catching up with the story.  I'll be doing that again next year.

6. Batman Incorporated (DC)
~6.1 Batman Incorporated Special

The end of Grant Morrison's ambitious, epic vision of the Dark Knight was something I had to reconcile with myself earlier in the year, and since come to peace with, the manner and the pitch in which he did so.  The highlight was #8, in which Morrison kills off his great creation, Damian Wayne, which caught everyone by surprise because at that point most observers had forgotten that someone other than Scott Snyder was doing things with Batman.  Yet it was a crucial moment in the final countdown, and informed everything that came after it.  Morrison's Batman has previously ranked 8th (2012), 2nd (2011), 12th, 18th & 22nd (2010), 8th (2009), 1st (2008), 4th (2007), and 34th (2006).  The jam special spotlighting the Batman, Inc. concept from a variety of creators is also well worth praising, and a visible example that it's a shame we probably won't see any of those characters again.  Not even Bat Cow!

7. Nova #1 (Marvel)

I very specifically single out the first issue because after it I tried to keep reading and the effect I noticed here wasn't quite there anymore.  This one has my vote for best single issue of the year.  It's quite possibly the best work of Jeph Loeb's career, and say what you will about his recent Marvel reputation, but that's saying a lot.  It's also very clearly a reflection on the continuing impact the death of his son Sam has on him. And it manages to make a character who was never at all relevant to me one of the most important characters of 2013.  The whole concept of Nova is so similar to Green Lantern, it kind of figures that no one was ever able to make it nearly as relevant.  Loeb fixes that in a big way here.  Read it for yourself.  You'll see what I mean.

8. Grant Morrison's Action Comics (DC)

No offense to any of the other creators who worked on Superman this year, but this is his only solo appearance in the list for 2013.  I didn't have time to check out anyone else's really, and besides, it was a tall order to compare with the end of Grant Morrison's run, which was typically Grant Morrison in every sense, grandiose and perhaps even impenetrable but deeply about the legacy of the character as only this creator could see it.

9. Saucer Country (Vertigo)

The final issues of this Paul Cornell series were released in the first half of the year.  Saucer Country became Air's successor as the Vertigo series I cherished but everyone else overlooked, and was my most recent example of how fantastic Cornell is at his best.

10. Before Watchmen: Comedian (DC)

At this point comic book fans have all but forgotten the heresy that was the Before Watchmen project, so to bring it up again at all probably seems peculiar, and to say that any part of it at all was among the best comic books of any year...Anyway, Comedian was easily one of my favorite comics of this and last year, with or without its historic connections, because as far as I'm concerned, it forged its own.  A rumination on war that was every bit as nuanced as the character of Edward Blake himself turned out to be in the original Watchmen, this is my favorite Brian Azzarello work to date.

11. Tuki (Cartoon)

When Jeff Smith does something new, I pay attention.  I pay attention because he's one of the most consistently creative minds in comics, whether represented in Bone or RASL.  Tuki is his latest project, which he's unveiling page by page on the Boneville website, a look at cavemen that rings true with Smith's best instincts, the increasingly minimalist instincts he first honed in RASL but may be reaching new heights here.

12. Justice League (DC)

I have a poor track record with this favorite in 2013, but fortunately Geoff Johns started out the year memorably enough with the "Throne of Atlantis" crossover with his own Aquaman.  It was good stuff, and I'm sure I'll be catching up with it sooner or later.

13. Punk Rock Jesus (Vertigo)

Ironically it was another Sean Murphy project, Joe the Barbarian, that benefited this year from my instinct that the later trade collection would probably do well for my overall appreciation of the effort.  I think the same will be the case with this one, which Murphy wrote and drew himself, an incredibly ambitious project concluded early in the year.

14. The Sandman: Overture (Vertigo)

I spent a good portion of my time here during the year obsessing over Neil Gaiman's Sandman.  Did you really think that if new material were published, it wouldn't appear on this list?

15. Wasteland (Oni)

A perennial favorite - as in ranked 10th in 2006, 26th in 2007, 11th in 2009, and 7th in 2010, 2012 - that was bound to make the list as long as new issues were being published and I could get my hands on them, Wasteland has taken a hit recently with the instability of the art aspect, but remains one of the best comics being published all the same.  That it will see its final nine issues published in 2014 probably means I'll be paying very close attention to it.  And its rank will no doubt crack the top ten again a year from now.  And depending on how satisfying the ending is, could even nab the top spot...

16. Green Lantern #23.4: Sinestro (DC)
~16.1 Justice League #7.4: Black Adam
~16.2 Green Lantern #23.1: Relic

DC began a couple of things in September 2011.  That first one saw the birth of the New 52.  The following September saw the second Zero Month in the company's history.  And this year's saw Villains Month.  I caught these three issues, and saw the immediate worth of the exercise, a duplication and perhaps even improvement on last year's effort, issues dedicated to summarizing the careers and legacies of the featured character, at least in these examples.  Considering how Sinestro was left in the final issue of Geoff Johns' Green Lantern, that one was especially crucial, and it worked incredibly well, better than even the great success of Robert Venditti's Relic issue (a little more on this later), while the Black Adam spotlight had a tall order to follow, considering how important a milestone 52 is for me, whose arc for the character the issue closely follows and updates quite well.  If even half of the other comics from the month were near as good, it was a very good month indeed.

17. Arthur, Anon!
~17.1 Haley's Comic (blogs)
Nakedly awesome web comics from Haley Wolfe I've enjoyed immensely this year, a deliriously honest sense of humor.  The former is newer, based on King Arthur, while the latter is biographical.  I suggest both, but I love the creativity of the newer one.  I hope both continue soon!  And for some sort of publishing contract.  (More on that later!)

18. Umbral (Image)

The writer of Wasteland, Antony Johnston, reteams with the original (and still best and returning!) artist, Christopher Mitten for a bold new yet clearly familiar (in a good way) fantasy vision, which is almost like a more clear rephrasing of their first collaboration.  It will be very interesting to see this one unfold...

19. Justice League Dark (DC)

I randomly obtained two issues of this series, and I'm very glad I did, because the appeal of it became very quickly apparent.  This is the perfect combination of DC and the returning Vertigo characters that other books in the New 52 attempted, a terrific cast, and excellent execution.  From Constantine to Frankenstein to perhaps most significantly, Tim Hunter, and of course Deadman, it's like a who's who of the best characters no one else really knows what to do with in this new setting.

20. Superman/Wonder Woman (DC)

I recently gushed all about this one and its potential.  I stand by all of that.

21. Damian: Son of Batman (DC)

A little like the Red Hood: Lost Days mini-series from a few years back, this is an unexpected and exceptional character study for a legacy no one saw coming, an alternative look at the career of Damian Wayne from Andy Kubert that casts new light on the whole legacy of Batman.

22. Journey into Mystery (Marvel)

Thor's Lady Sif receives her own glorious spotlight in a Kathryn Immonen arc that quickly betrays everything you thought you knew about such comics.

23. 7 Against Chaos (DC)

A lot of these best of lists go straight for graphic novels, usually of the indy, exploring-a-regular-life variety.  This is my graphic novel on the list, an imaginative effort from Harlan Ellison that takes a new look at the heroic quest and the team needed to pull it off.

24. Trinity of Sin: The Phantom Stranger (DC)

I kind of figured that these Trinity of Sin series would do some interesting work in a corner of the DC landscape that's usually overlooked, and I was right.  And one of my favorite new characters of the past twenty years, Zauriel, shows up.  Proof enough for me, my friends.

25. Larfleeze (DC)
~25.1 Threshold

Keith Giffen.  And Larfleeze.  And even the underrated Threshold.  These are sheer acts of brilliance.

26. Happy! (Image)

Grant Morrison's Grant Morrison Christmas fable concluded at the start of the year.  It was pretty good stuff.

27. Sword of Sorcery (DC)

Evoking both the potential I saw in Demon Knights and G. Willow Wilson's Mystic, this one deserved a much bigger audience than it got, if not for the lead story alone than the Beowulf feature that brilliantly reconstructed one of literature's oldest stories.

28. Mylo Xyloto (Bongo)

Far better than a comic book based on music should be, especially music that doesn't obviously lend itself to adaptation, like Coldplay's previous album, Viva la Vida, would have.

29. Star Trek: The Next Generation - Hive (IDW)

The conclusion to what was in essence the culmination of Brannon Braga's vision for the Borg was worth the wait at the start of the year.

30. Django Unchained (Vertigo)

Reading the comic book adaptation of the script was my first experience of the Quentin Tarantino movie.  I love both versions.

31. All-New X-Men (Marvel)

When Brian Michael Bendis is on, he's unquestionably one of the best in the business.  This is him in that mode.  And once more in collaboration with Stuart Immonen, one of my favorites doing what is now my favorite of his Marvel material.

32. Justice League of America (DC)

A darker version of the work Geoff Johns has been doing in Justice League, this is also a direct continuation of it, furthering the story of Steve Trevor's involvement in the team.

33. Legends of the Dark Knight (DC)

I caught a few issues of this digital-first anthology series, including one that spotlights Slam Bradley, one of the older throwbacks of DC lore, with art by one of my favorites, Phil Hester!

34. Superior Spider-Man (Marvel)

Dan Slott's brand new day, as it were, and what I like to call the Doctor Spider-Man era, controversially substitutes Doctor Octopus in the body of Peter Parker.  The ending is inevitable and predictable, making this perhaps one of the more interesting "replacement arcs" in recent comics history, as we watch the villain try to cope with being the hero.

35. Robert Venditti's Green Lantern (DC)

Whoever followed Geoff Johns was never going to have it easy, but Robert Venditti chose a fascinating path, introducing a new villain, Relic, who closely evokes the kind of work Johns had been doing in his final years with the franchise, but making it distinctly his own.

36. Batman: Li'l Gotham (DC)

Another digital-first effort, this time from Derek Fridolfs, an emerging connoisseur of continuity, with Dustin Nguyen, whose work is always fun to see, but perhaps never as literally as this imaginative take on an old tradition of flipping adult characters into a child context.

37. Detective Comics #19 (DC)

This was also known as the 900th issue of the series if you don't go by the renumbering from the New 52, and although not obvertly acknowledged or celebrated, this was still a fine way to mark the occasion, just enough telling nods from John Layman in a fine series of stories.  Although I will probably suggest you consider next month's Detective Comics #27 among your comic book purchases.  As a more obvious anniversary (in the original one, Batman made his debut), the festivities will be more prominent.

38. East of West (Image)

Jonathan Hickman has a Grant Morrison reputation among his fans, but I came to this one for the art from Nick Dragotta, who was a standout previously in Vengeance.

39. FBP (Vertigo)

The Federal Bureau of Physics, not that I want to curse it or anything, is looking like my successor to Saucer Country.

40. Hyperbole and a Half (blog)

Another web comic, although this one I'm sure you've heard of, thanks to Allie Brosh's much-deserved publishing contract that led to the book that was recently released.  I stumbled across it earlier this year.  Late to the party, but still...

41. Justice League of America's Vibe (DC)

One of the more unlikely comebacks of the year, Vibe was not only a part of the Justice League again, but star of his own series.  I think if the publishing strategy had been different (both this and Justice League of America and Katana all debuted at exactly the same time), more people would have recognized the creative genius of this revival.

42. The Mice Templar, Volume IV: Legend (Image)

Another long-running favorite of mine - 29th in 2007, 36th in 2008, 14th in 2009, 35th in 2010, 18th in 2011 - came back for more as it follows the heroic journey of Karic and other long-running characters.

43. Batman Beyond Unlimited (DC)

A concept based on a TV series that has developed a whole comics legacy of its own, including next year's latest weekly series effort from DC, The New 52: Futures End, I worked all year long to track down this issue (#15), which saw Derek Fridolfs work in tandem with the great Ben Caldwell.  And then I learned they shared a few more issues after that...

44. Martin Monsterman (FishTank)
The latest from Manny Trembley, one-half of the creative team behind my all-time favorite web comic, PX!, who has since been developing a whole line of bridge books for young readers.  I helped fund this one via Kickstarter.

45. Aquaman Annual #1 (DC)

I didn't catch any actual issues of Aquaman this year, which saw the end of a too-brief run by Geoff Johns, but I read this, which kind of made it obvious now that I finally thought about it that the whole concept of the Others is kind of like DC's version of Top Cow's Artifacts (which combines the legacies of such characters as Witchblade and The Darkness).

46. Star Trek #19 (IDW)

There've been a whole slew of comic books based on the new Star Trek timeline.  This is my favorite, a special look at the secret origin of Scotty!

47. Astro City (DC)

Kurt Busiek's heroic landscape returned in 2013, deserved a nod on this list.

48. Womanthology: Space (IDW)

The whole Womanthology concept was created to give a spotlight to, well, women in comics.  I had a look mostly to see what one of my favorites, Devin K. Grayson, was up to.

49. Indestructible Hulk (Marvel)

This is Mark Waid doing his bit to translate the movie Avengers to the printed page.

50. Think Tank: Military Dossier (Top Cow)

A fun way to explore the characters of this series.

(All covers via Comic Book Database.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Essential Reading: Wonder Woman

With the recent hubbub over the casting of Gal Gadot in the forthcoming Superman/Batman movie, superhero fans may be wondering what there might be to find in terms of Wonder Woman material.  Since she has been one of DC's icons, equally important for comic books in general as a strong female, Wonder Woman has long held a position of prominence.

The problem has always been how to present her at the same level as Batman or Superman, and so creators have been struggling over that for decades, and the resulting material can sometimes be hard to penetrate.  Batman is a human with vengeance and redemption writ large beneath his shadow.  Superman is the ultimate immigrant.  What role does Wonder Woman play?  That's always been the problem.  She's hard to identify, much less identify with.  She comes from a more or less Greek tradition, although her Amazons and the Amazons the ancient Greeks mythologized are pretty much polar opposites (as far as artists love to depict any woman in comics), and as such a lot of her background material comes from a culture readers may know far better than Thor's Asgard, which makes Wonder Woman's adventures at once easily comprehensible and hard to interpret solely on her merits.  Unlike Thor, Wonder Woman is a new creation, and she inhabits a landscape that tries to be contemporary while also depicting its own society.

From my own experiences, here are some stories that may help define Wonder Woman's legacy a little better:

"The Contest," Wonder Woman 0, 90-93 (1994)

As close as any iconic presentation of her classic origin story goes (because this is another area where creators have not been as keen to explore in comparison to the scores provided Batman and Superman), this is actually the reverse, with Wonder Woman returning to Themyscira, home of the Amazons, to discover that the world she left behind no longer welcomes her.  Mom Hippolyta (famous from Hercules mythology as the prototypical Amazon; she's actually filled in as Wonder Woman on a few occasions) deems Princess Diana no longer worthy of holding the role as champion of their people, their ambassador to Man's World.  Enter Artemis, who wins the role and temporarily replaces her.  This is a lot like the event stories Superman and Batman and everyone else experienced in the 90s, but it has everything to say very directly about Wonder Woman herself.  Diana did, for the record, continue adventuring, in one of a few instances where she adopted a new costume (like every other instance of this that decade, it looks very 90s), and even remained a member of the Justice League, the only member of the Big Three at that point to hold the distinction.  And then she got the role back, of course.

Greg Rucka, Wonder Woman 195-226 (2003-2006)

To my mind the single greatest and most significant creator run in the character's history, and certainly one of the most involved, Greg Rucka embraces Wonder Woman's role as an ambassador and tosses her into some of her most dramatic adventures.  At one point she's even temporarily blinded.  This is also the period of Infinite Crisis, where she murders Maxwell Lord, perhaps the most daring superhero act of the new millennium, with the fictional effect that Superman's similar act in Man of Steel had on moviegoers this past summer.

Amazons Attack!, 1-6 (2007)

One of the effects of Wonder Woman murdering Max Lord was placing her at odds with the public, which led to all Amazons coming under siege.  Rarely has she been at the center of her own event, and while this was a minor one it is still a noteworthy story, which ably demonstrates all the potential that the character and her world has always held.

Allan Heinberg and Jodi Picoult, Wonder Woman 1-10 (2006-2007)

Simultaneously lifting her presence and also helping to sabotage it was Wonder Woman's receiving a relaunch under the successive early arcs of Allan Heinberg and author Jodi Picoult.  Both of them were reactions to and continuations of the Greg Rucka run, centering heavily on Diana as she struggles to find her way forward, with one of her signature villains, Circe (essentially Wonder Woman's Loki) providing plenty of problems along the way.  To have both Heinberg and Picoult was fantastic, but they combined for ten issues, and although the continuity was there they were both gone in an instant, and so the momentum dissipated in a heartbeat.  Great for anyone coming late to the party, however.

"The Circle," Wonder Woman 14-17 (2008)

I don't generally like Gail Simone, but this story is a wild exception.  It's another look at Wonder Woman's origin, but in a way that adds to it, which is generally hard to do.  Diana was famously created from clay, which makes perhaps sense by way of Greek mythology.  The Amazons not named Hippolyta kind of had a problem with this, the daughter of privilege who ended up inheriting everything that Wonder Woman essentially is, so they formed a conspiracy that tried to thwart her.  Kind of an Occupy Wall Street story before there was an Occupy Wall Street.  A key story in broadening the scope of the character.

The Blue Amazon (2003)

Another thing Wonder Woman rarely gets are her own standalone graphic novels, much less stories that dare feature art that doesn't completely glamorize her.  This is that, plus a way of exploring the archetypes involved in her relationships with Batman and Superman, which is another thing DC loves to do every now and then.

Ben Caldwell, Wednesday Comics 1-12 (2009)

One of the more interesting comic book experiments of the recent past was Wednesday Comics, which presents superhero adventures in serialized cartoon strip form.  The best of these strips was Ben Caldwell's visually impressive take on Wonder Woman's origin, which plays like a classic Disney animated feature.  Arguably the best Wonder Woman story in this lot.

Brian Azzarello, Wonder Woman (2011-present)

Azzarello has been creating a new standard for Wonder Woman comics, ably blending the mythological elements that others can sometimes misinterpret into her overall story, so that you have an indy comic featuring a mainstream character.  This may yet prove to be the best of all the stories.

Geoff Johns, Justice League (2011-present)

While this series is very much about the Justice League, Johns spent a good deal of the early issues exploring the Wonder Woman: Secret Origin story, at least as far as her introduction to Man's World goes, with all the classic elements like Steve Trevor involved.  I keep mentioning this, so I might as well do it again here.

(All cover images via Comic Book Database.)