Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Best of 2011: Ten Pre-2011 Comics that I Read in 2011

Something that always gets lost in the end of the year round-ups of the best comics published that year is the influence of past works upon the year. No one just reads brand new work the entire year and ignoring the comics from prior to the year in question gives an incomplete view of the year. When I used to run down my favourite albums of the year, I'd always do a section for the albums from prior years that I'd only just gotten that year. I figured I'd do the same for comics this year. Presented in alphabetical order are my ten favourite comics (or groups of comics) that I read in 2011 that were published prior to 2011.

Astonishing X-Men: Ghost Box, Astonishing X-Men: Exogenetic, and Astonishing X-Men: Xenogenesis by Warren Ellis, Simone Bianchi, Phil Jimenez, Kaare Andrews, and others. I honestly can't remember if I got Ghost Box this year or in late 2010. Let's just assume it was this past year to make things easier. These three trades comprise Warren Ellis's three stories on Astonishing X-Men and, if you're a fan of Ellis's writing, they're entertaining little stories where he treats the X-Men like the frontline response of an endangered species struggling to stay alive, protect the future, and fuck up anyone who crosses them. Not a take that everyone likes, but I really like it. Ellis's approach to the characters is very much in line with where Cyclops is right now and that's an interpretation of the character that I enjoy. Hell, it may be my favourite version of the character. Ellis also focuses heavily on genetics, alternate realities, and variations on the idea of a 'mutant.' He's paired with some good artists and is obviously just having some fun with the tools available.

'Breed: The Book of Genesis and 'Breed: The Book of Ecclesiastes by Jim Starlin. With Image publishing 'Breed III this year, they also put out trades of the first two 'Breed mini-series. The three volumes function together as a whole to tell one big story: Ray Stoner discovers, while serving as a soldier in Vietnam, that he's not human -- he's half human, half demon. Demons have been softening the world up for decades to make it right for them to come here and consume it. So, he must go against the demons and other 'breeds to try and destroy the leader of the demons, his own father. I didn't know much about 'Breed before reading 'Breed III and these trades made that a lot clearer. Jim Starlin has said that this is his favourite series and it's one that allows for a wide range of concepts and stories. He may have stuck to a fairly strict straight line, but, in there, is magic, sci-fi, war, romance, noir... basically, it's a series that accomodates everything. Hell, in 'Breed III, he brought in all of his other major creator-owned characters to help Stoner out! This was a major gap in my Starlin knowledge, now filled.

Elektra Lives Again by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. I got one of the reprints that's regular comic size, something that Retailer Tim informed me was a mistake. Me, I'm just happy to have gotten a chance to read this story. Frank Miller applying some his later style to Matt Murdock and telling a story where Murdock wanders around not knowing what's really going on. It's a story about a superhero out of his depth and utterly ineffective. So much happens that we don't know about because we're so tied to Murdock. It's original and rather astonishing. And utterly gorgeous.

The Flash: The Trial of the Flash by Cary Bates, Carmine Infantino, and others. I got this because of Graeme and Jeff talking it up so much. One of those rare instances of DC using their 'Showcase Presents...' books to collect a big story rather than just X number of issues of a title. The story itself is a rather loose one throughout with a lot of the usual superhero bullshit popping up. What made the biggest impression upon me was how this changed my opinion of Barry Allen. Before this, I thought he was a boring, one-dimensional character. Now, I understand that he's a selfish asshole like every other Silver Age DC hero. One of the main subplots of the story revolves around Barry's fiancee going crazy because he stood her up on their wedding day -- where the Flash apparently killed the Reverse-Flash to save her life. Instead of just telling her that he's the Flash and he was late because he was fighting his arch-nemesis, he lets her get put in a mental hospital and, then, fakes his own death. Now, if this Barry Allen was the one currently in the DCU, I think I'd be much on board with the character. This was also my first extended exposure to Carmine Infantino's art. I know it's later in his career, but he made a lot of strange choices. Lots of slanted panels mixed with extreme close-ups that left you wonder what you were looking at. Very different from most superhero art.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus Vol. 1 by Jack Kirby. DC has finally begun releasing these omnibi in softcover for those of us who missed the hardcovers. This first volume is mostly introductions and Jimmy Olsen comics. I rather like the way that Kirby was establishing his own little corner of the DCU with four comics, each offering a different perspective. He just hits the ground running and doesn't look back. The common thread through all four titles is Darkseid as he schemes to find the human who can comprehend the Anti-Life Equation. You can already see the connection to The Eternals, which was more focused and shied even further away from the superhero stuff. There isn't a lot of straight up superhero content in these comics aside from Superman. The New Gods all wear their costumes and have powers, but don't seem like 'superheroes.' I'm curious how those ideas will further develop over the next three volumes -- all of which I'd love to see released in 2012.

Various Hellblazer comics by Jamie Delano, Si Spencer, Peter Milligan, Ian Rankin, and a whole host of artists. I continue to own more Hellblazer comics than any other series. I added, what, nine trades, two original graphic novels, and a "Vertigo Resurrected" reprint to my collection this year? The bulk of that was comprised of comics written by the first Hellblazer writer and the current one, Jamie Delano and Peter Milligan. I don't buy single issues of Hellblazer much and, usually, wind up reading big chunks of issues. It's strange to read the beginning of the series and where it is now in the same year. John Constantine has changed quite a bit -- although not as much as you'd think. Jamie Delano's Constantine is a bit of fuck up and neophyte when it comes to magic. He knows some stuff and is a player, but he's got a lot to learn and is definitely not the biggest man on the block. By the time we get to Milligan, Constantine is the fucking man. Guys like Warren Ellis and Brian Azzarello wrote him in a way where magic wasn't a problem at all. He could almost do anything. His main problem is that he's a selfish bastard. Milligan amps that personality defect up to the point where it gets in the way of magic. Everything is so easy for him that he has to struggle with his true nature to not abuse his power -- and there are always types of magic out there that he still knows shitall about. Milligan's version of the character is one that definitely goes back to its roots. Before 2011, I'd read more Hellblazer comics than any other series (probably) and, yet, I was missing a big chunk of what makes the character who he is. And I'm still missing stuff. Bring on 2012.

Pretty much the complete Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill. I already owned some of Marshal Law and read most of what I didn't own since my dad had them when I was growing up. But, this year, I bought everything I didn't have and read the entire run of mini-series and graphic novels, including the two novellas Mills and O'Neill did. It's funny how influential these comics were (something that's still not recognised really, even though everyone who writes about them mention how influential they were) and, yet, how, with each progressive series, they became more childish, more self-parodic, and less influential. That doesn't mean that they stop being 'good,' just that there isn't much new said after the initial six-issue series. There are small moments in the rest that add to the good Marshal's character or further explore the concepts of abuse of power, guilt, and sense of betrayal by the government and superheroes. That the character is continually pushed to the point where, in the novellas, he suffers a full psychotic break between his 'real life' as Joe and his 'night life' as Marshal Law. Towards the end, neither Mills nor O'Neill seem to care as much. And why would they? What is there to say in a crossover with the Mask except that no matter what, Marshal Law is the dominant personality? They even forego the usual parodies by the end. How long can you keep making the same jokes? The Boys found some more to make, but even those grew tired at times. It's funny that, by the end, Marshal Law returned, in a sense, to where it began: focusing on broader statements and the characters, not worrying about sticking it to specific superheroes.

100 Bullets by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. I don't know what to say about this. I read this series for the first time in a week? Maybe less? It's all kind of a blur. A blur that I really enjoyed, which is why I read through it so quickly. A big series about violence and power that was every bit as good as everyone told me it would be. The way that it mixed in the larger story with the smaller contained elements, building on what came before was impressive. I'd read a few things that Risso had drawn before, but prolonged exposure to his art was something entirely different. Watching him build the world and characters with Azzarello, making the visuals matter as much as the writing (more in places). I think that's part of what makes these longterm Vertigo series work for me: a strong, consistent visual voice. It's part of what makes Preacher and Transmetropolitan so great -- and part of the reason why The Invisibles is always lacking to a degree for me. If there's one comic I want to reread in 2012, it's 100 Bullets. A slower read where I can take my time and really think about things as I go.

Ronin by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Another comic that my dad had and I'd flipped through a bit. I'd never read it proper. Bought the original issues cheap this year and... wow, this is Frank Miller throwing everything he can on the page. Every influence, every bit of craziness, all of it is just tossed out like this could be the last comic book he ever gets to make. And why not? It was his chance to do six issues of a comic where he wasn't stuck working with decades of continuity and expectations -- these were his characters, his world, and he didn't slow down or back off of anything. You can see the grotesque side of his art coming out in places here and that's the Miller I like best. I like the messy, ugly Miller. This isn't my favourite work of his yet... probably not top five. But, I've only read it once and moved on. It was a busy year of catching up after finally getting a full time job. Hopefully, I'll get the chance soon to go back and slow down, give it the look it deserves. Hell, I can say that for everything here, can't I?

Silver Surfer: Parable by Stan Lee and Moebius. I buy the issues and Marvel decides to put out a new collection a few months later. That's my sort of luck. I'm great at hunting down original issues only for a collection to be announced within the year. Anyway... The original issues didn't age well (which is why I'm getting the upcoming hardcover). Not the best way to read this series for the first time -- still, Moebius art on shitty paper is still better than no Moebius art at all, right? His Silver Surfer is just so casual on his board. It's not an intense riding the waves look. It's a guy who stands completely secure in who he is and what's going on. He looks like a guy standing on a street corner waiting for the bus, not someone flying an insane speeds hundreds of feet in the air. It's one of those odd approaches to a character that changes how you see them. I wound up looking at these two issues every day for a few weeks. Just flipping through them, checking out a panel here, a panel there. I did the same thing with that Incal hardcover that came out with the original colouring. Moebius is one of those artists whose work I can spend hours lingering over.