Sunday, January 06, 2008

Best of 2007: The Top Ten

Wow, the top ten books of 2007. Now, if you've been reading this blog all year most of my choices won't seem that surprising. There are a couple of books listed here that I didn't discuss because I got them within the past few weeks, knew they would make the list and didn't want to have to come up with twice as many great things to say about them. I'm lazy like that. Without further blathering, let's do this...

10. Gødland

For a while, I had this and The Black Dossier listed at the tenth spot, not knowing which to go with. In my discussion of The Black Dossier, I touched in the issue of energy and, let's face it, Joe Casey has energy. His books just scream energy, that he's writing the scripts at a frantic pace, gleefully laughing and just having the time of his life. Especially his creator-owned stuff like Gødland. This is Joe Casey and Tom Scioli doing Kirby Kosmic with a whole lot else thrown in. While the second year of this book hasn't been as strong as the first, it's still a fantastic read month in, month out (when it ships).

Not only that, but 2007 saw the release of the deluxe "celestial edition" hardcover collecting the first twelve issues of the book along with various extras including the usual sketches, development material and some nice words by the likes of Grant Morrison and Tom Spurgeon. If the regular issues didn't quite get the book on the list, this book did. Not exactly playing fair I know.

Gødland is all about Adam Archer, the first man to land on Mars and the fact that he came back with superpowers. This year featured stories revolving around a trio of cosmic baddies bent on destroying the planet--and fighting their growing human emotions--two recurring bad guys hunting down another, and Archer's attempted assassination by the US government because he won't shut up and do as he's told. It's classic superhero fun that recalls the Stan and Jack days if only because the book is done "Marvel style" with plot, art and then dialogue, which means some of the dialogue has that forced feeling, but Casey usually makes it work in his weird way.

All they need to do is get this book back on something resembling a monthly schedule and I'll be happy.

9. The Boys

Alright, more than any other book on this list, this book really isn't for everyone. The Boys is very much a hit or miss depending on your sensibilities. If you're a fan of Garth Ennis' work, odds are, you'll like this--but, even then, only if you have no problem with a Batman stand-in facing himself with the urge to randomly fuck things... anything really, not just people. In fact, if you find that a little funny, then, yeah, this book is for you.

The Boys follows a group of government agents (although that probably brings up the wrong image) whose job it is to keep the superpeople in line. The main arc of this year had them investigating the death of a young gay man, quite possibly at the hands of "Nightwing" who may or may not be gay.

Now, there are a lot of crude jokes at the expense of superhero and while I enjoy those, what gets me here, like with most of Ennis' work, is the basic humanity displayed. Ennis wisely uses Hughie as our way into this world, because he's a decent guy who is in this position because something horrible happened to him. He has no grudge, no taste for cruelty, he just wants to make sure that no one else is hurt the wa he was. And, ultimately, that's what this book is about: the horrible danger that superpeople present and the fact that, no, they aren't all great people like Superman and Spider-Man. And, sometimes, they need to be kept in line.

Oh, and Darick Robertson is on art and, my god, can that man draw. His art is the perfect complement to Ennis' writing here as Robertson can shift between parody and sincerity with ease.

8. Thunderbolts

A government-sanctioned group of supervillains charged with hunting down superheroes who won't register is, well, a very, very retarded idea. If you sat down and thought about seriously implementing an idea like that, you would come to conclusion that villains wouldn't work well together, would wind up causing lots of death and destruction and, most likely, get their asses handed to them, because when do the bad guys ever actually win? Thankfully, that's the book that Warren Ellis writes. Thunderbolts changed directions a bit because of the Civil War "fanboy orgasm" moment where Tony Stark reveals that he's had the great idea of using villains to hunt down unregistered heroes, but the book tself does everything it can to critique and demonstrate that no one in their right mind would ever think to do something so stupid.

The team is run by the former Green Goblin, Norman Osborne and he's quite insane. It consists of a man whose sword handle is made from his dead sister's skin as that gives him special superpowers, a demented wannabe hero, a radioactive communist, a scheming sex-addict, a thug in a murderous alien suit, an S&M emo former teen hero, and an utterly insane assassin. Gee what ever could go wrong.

These guys have a problem taking down Z-grade heroes, because they don't have any teamwork skills and are lead by crazy people.

One of my favourite moments is when American Eagle just beats the shit out of Bullseye, because while Bullseye can hang with regular people, someone with superpowers is out of his league. This is after Ellis has built up how crazy and dangerous Bullseye is--he kills people with popsicle sticks and needs armed guards around him at all times.

As well, Ellis infuses the series with various portrayals of the media since the Thunderbolts is a PR exercise--so we get commercials for Thunderbolts action figures (as they fight the evil Captain America) or adds for a TV show about people trying to become a Thunderbolt or the next Captain America.

Not only that, but Mike Deodato's art is great here. A little too reliant on photo references at times, but I'm digging on it. Bonus points for reuniting the team that blew my young mind with Thor #491-494 and made me the Ellis follower I am today.

7. Shortcomings

I picked this up on Christmas Eve since Chapters was having a "buy 3, get 1 free" sale and I'd seen it around, heard all of the good things and, for some reason, just didn't get it until then. God, what a fucking stupid move. Usually, my instincts are pretty good, I can look at a stack of books/movies/CDs and pick out the good ones, but I almost blew it with this one. A fact I'm almost ashamed to admit: this is the first (and only) thing by Adrian Tomine I've read. Pretty stupid as the guy is good.

Shortcomings is all about Ben and his problems with women, namely the issue between Asian and white women. Ben is an Asian-American dating another Asian-American, but, apparently, wants to have sex with a white woman (although it's a little more nuanced than that). Tomine's writing is subtle and is full of well-rounded, seemingly complex characters. None of them come off as stock types, all do things that are stupid, mean or just plain contradictory. I'll admit that the fact that the book's lead is an underacheiving asshole won a few points.

I was also really impressed with Tomine's art. It's very clean and... sparse isn't the right word... maybe economical? He gives enough detail to make it look real, but also doesn't go overboard. He sticks to three tiers, creating a very easy-to-follow flow and steady pace.

I'm definitely going to have to check out his other work now.

6. ACME Novelty Library #18

I was a little disappointed that this year's issue of ACME Novelty Library didn't continue the "Rusty Brown" story from the previous two issues, but Chris Ware delivered on this new story. First off, let's just get his art out of the way. No one does the "cluttered," information heavy layout like Ware and he uses a very cartoony style that really works well. I particularly like the layouts of a couple of pages that show the main character in various layers like a medical textbook (which relates to what she's doing).

But, what got me here is the story. The young woman lead (only identified by nicknames--unless her name actually IS Nana, which I doubt because she's only called that while working as a nanny) is an amputee, missing part of her leg just above/below the knee. She once had a boyfriend and now she doesn't. She's very lonely. She used to be a nanny, but that didn't work out. Now she works at a flower shop. I guess I'm a bit of a sucker for these sad, lonely people stories, especially when as well-done as here. Ware does an excellent job of slowly revealing her story and her past, not giving too much away too soon, but also making sure it flows well. There are a few pages where it goes off the rails (usually accompanied by his more ambitious and confusing layouts), but, for the most part, it's a very engaging story. It will depress the hell out of you, but that's what Chris Ware does.

5. Captain America

Like everyone else, I'm really surprised at what holding this book back was, well, Captain America. Before Steve Rogers' death, this book was good, but, now, it's great. The fall-out of his assassination has been fantastic as Brubaker transformed the title in an ensemble piece of Cap's friends, allies and enemies, all reacting in various ways to his death.

Hell, I want to mention the art right away, too, because the work done here by Steve Epting and Mike Perkins blows me away. Compare Epting now to Epting mid-'90s Avengers and tell me that guy didn't, basically, become a whole new artist. Both of these guys deliver realistic, moody art that works at telling the story just as much as the writing.

One thing that really impressed me in this book is how Brubaker handles Tony Stark, because you would think, given the two sides of Civil War, that he would be almost a vaillain here when he's handled with a lot of respect and treated like a good guy doing what he thinks is best. Bruabker manages to rise above the "us/them" mentality that most of Marvel's output is stuck in, and shows that it isn't a right/wrong issue, but a difference of opinion, of viewpoints.

And what can I say about the Winter Soldier? Brubaker constantly surprises me with this character, but never does anything that doesn't make total sense. That's a really tough thing to do, to remain so consistent while surprising.

Quite possibly the best ensemble book out there right now (except for maybe my number one choice... and maybe number two, too... ah, fuck it, it's really good, whatever).

4. The Nightly News

I knew some people in high school who would have read this book, like, fifty times and quoted it and totally missed the point. You bet your ass they loved Fight Club and annoyed the hell out of me. But, that aside, this is one fine comic book magazine. Jonathan Hickman uses graphic design to tell this story rather than traditional comic art and it really works.

Basically, there's a cult that is killing off media figures, because they are the propaganda arm of the corrupt capitalist state or something like that. Normally, I'd be rolling my eyes because it's just so over-the-top, but Hickman makes it work somehow. I actually don't know how he does it, really. It's just one of those things where the right combination of elements produce a work of stunning beauty and skill. This isn't like any other comic out there right now.

Hickman manages to sneak in a lot of facts about the world, politics and the media, which really grounds the story and does make you want to side with the cult (or at least agree with some of their motivations). My favourite little jokes were how every issue had a little disclaimer from Hickman to warn us that he doesn't agree with the violence his characters enact and gives us a few reasons why he's a decent guy--except they become more deviant and "wrong" as the series progresses. Always made me laugh.

It's the best rant-as-comics of the year no doubt.

3. Iron Fist

The book that combines the two writers whose work I probably enjoyed the most this year, Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and my favourite artist of the year, David Aja. Kung-fu billionaire, people!

Aaaaaaaaaand, you don't know this, but this book just dropped a spot. Originally, I had it here at number three and then switched it to number two and just now switched it back, because, well, issue seven wasn't that great. It was a good attempt to expand on the Iron Fist legacy, but... meh.

But, ignoring that issue, this comic rocks. It's full of wit and action and emotion and pain and hope and desire. This book is what the Mortal Kombat movie wanted to be, especially the most recent arc where the immortal weapons of the seven kingdoms all fight in a tournament--and, in his first fight, Iron Fist loses. Got his ass handed to him by Fat Cobra who we all love. And then there's Luke Cage, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, who are all in other books, but kick ass here as Danny's back-up. Them fighting Hydra guys in issue six is pure magic, especially Misty yelling "Say 'Hail Hydra' one more time!"

I got the Essential Iron Fist before Christmas and just have to wonder, though, why Brubaker and Fraction don't use second-person narration. The book began that way and I think it could really work. But I digress.

David Aja is my favourite artist of the year. Everyday, I go to Newsarama and expect a news item telling me that he's been pulled off this book and put on Amazing Spider-Man or X-Men or New Avengers, some big franchise book, because he is just so goddamn amazing. He draws hand-to-hand combat in ways I didn't think possible while evoking mood and body language... there's a moment in one issue where Danny comes face-to-face with the previous Iron Fist and has his arms up, ready to fight and the way Aja draws that just amazes me every single time. It's... wow.

I really wish I was reading this book in trade form because whenever I finish an issue, I want the next one right now. But, it's also so good that I couldn't wait that long. Damn. It's an awesome book, read it.

2. Criminal

I think this book was what got me into watching and reading some noir stuff this past year. I'm also doing lists of the books (like prose books) I read this year and some of my favourite DVDs and there's a bit of noir on both, mostly Raymond Chandler. And I believe the quality of this book is what got me to dip my toe into those waters.

While I really enjoyed this book's first arc, the narration and construction of the second one, "Lawless," just blows me away. The third-person narrator Brubaker uses in it is fantastic and really works with the story--and is different from a lot of narration out there. I'm actually surprised we haven't yet seen some imitators who are realising just how good third-person narration can be. For the past several years, it's really just been first-person or location captions, not much else.

And Sean Phillips... what can you say about an expert craftsman doing the best work of his career? I don't know. I really don't. I tend to focus on the writing of comics because I can fake my way through, pretending like I know what I'm talking about, but here I just can't. Phillips is almost certainly doing things in every issue that I don't pick up on and that's a shame.

As well, I love the bonus stuff at the back. The text pieces on noir films has made me pick up a few and have several more on the list. I don't always read those pieces right away, but that makes it better, in a way, because it's always a nice surprise later.

The actual plots of Criminal aren't anything spectacular, this is a book more about style and craft. The characters are solid, as are the stories, but it's the way that the stories are told that wow me. But not as much as...

1. Casanova

I hate doing "best of" lists, because there are only so many ways to praise stuff. I've run out of adjectives and here we are at the number one spot. I guess the only way to really praise this book is to remind you of all of the great things I said about those other books and then point at this one and say, "This one beats them." Casanova tops my list and it had some stiff competition. Take all those other adjectives, combine them and then, like, add four and you'll have how awesome this book is.

First, Fraction and Gabriel Ba ended the first storyarc in a hugely epic way (giant robot), setting up a second arc that has defied all expectations. "When is Casanova Quinn?" Like Captain America, this book took the lead out of the book and it's, somehow, become even better than before. The focus has shifted to Zephyr Quinn and Casanova's old buddies, now at odds and... well, I dunno what else because that's how far the story's gone. But there's sex and violence and lesbian sex and witty dialogue and new great art by Fabion Moon and BLUE! Bright bright blue colours that I love because I love blue.

Not only that, but every issue is 16 pages. Fraction and Ba/Moon do in 16 pages what most comics spend 22 pages not doing. Throw in Fraction's great backmatter essays and this is a book I save for last whenever I get it because I want to end on a high note. I totally love this book and if you aren't reading it... I just don't know how to finish that sentence properly.

I really wish I could think of more things to say, but there are just so many ways to call something great.

And that about does it for the top ten list. Hope you found it entertaining or worthwhile or, hell, baffling. As well, you'll want to check out the "best of 2007" lists at a few blogs worth checking out (although, as of right now, they're not all up, so keep checking back and reading them): Timothy Callahan's blog, Marc's Comic Hut, the Legion Abstract and Geoff Klock's blog. Compare, contrast, note what books get a mention at each place and maybe give those books a shot. I know I'll be picking up a few things based one what they've said already.