Monday, January 28, 2013

Best of 2012: The Top Ten Comics of 2012

My top ten comics of 2012...

10. PRISON PIT BOOK FOUR BY JOHNNY RYAN! Book two made my 'best of the year' list, while book three did not last year. What makes book four of Prison Pit so worthy? After all, you'll see that a lot of big, important, fantastic comics did make this list. Yet, a comic about depraved violence does? Mindless, brutal violence with no redeeming value, some might even argue! I wouldn't be one of those people. I love fake violence. I read superhero comics, watch professional wrestling, and love me some Prison Pit. I love Johnny Ryan's imagination. While there is an element of "If you've read one Prison Pit book, you've read them all," that's not true. Because he surprises in every book with the ways he does the same sort of violence in new ways. The ways in which he keeps himself and the reader from being bored at a little bit more of the old ultraviolence. The ways he comes out with new monstrosities and new conflicts for Cannibal Fuckface to deal with, each bigger than the last. Each seemingly more hopeless.

Book three ended on a cliffhanger that left me wondering "What next? How can Ryan get CF out of this? WHAT HAPPENS TO PRISON PIT NOW, YOU BASTARD!" And, then, here we are, and CF gets out of it in a clever, entertaining way. Recently, I've become fascinated with the way writers will create seemingly impossible situations for their protagonists and, then, get them out of it. I love that stuff. And, like most fiction, that's all Prison Pit is at its core: Cannibal Fuckface gets into a seemingly impossible situation and, then, gets himself out. Usually, it's a big, monster of a foe that he has to kill in a bloody, disgusting way. We've seen him eaten by an enemy... and break his way out. He's set on a collision course with a former enemy in this book and the end of this book is... well, you have to see it to believe that someone would make a comic like this.

And I love it.

I spent a lot of time after getting Prison Pit book four flipping through it, letting Ryan's art just sit in front of my eyes... His messy blacks -- pages covered in black inky blood! That splash page where you can hear the metallic score reach a high mark in the background as CF stands with a sword, head and torso covered in blood as he demands another guy's boots and kneepads. It's pure fucking heroic storytelling! THIS IS COMICS!

9. SCALPED BY JASON ARRON, RM GUERA, AND OTHERS! Scalped released its final six issues in 2012 and I had a chance to read the entire 60 issues over the course of a week. It is an impressive work, especially in its final six issues. Jason Aaron doesn't give us a clean, easy conclusion. It's messy and awful and ends in a way that I hate yet respect and understand. It wasn't a book that was going to end in a way that satisfies, honestly. We all wanted a happy ending. After 59 issues of death and pain and struggle, all you really want is an issue where some peace and happiness can be found, especially for the book's lead, Dash Bad Horse. Scalped is an ensemble piece with the Rez acting as the star to a degree, but Dash is the closest thing we have to a protagonist and, fuck, I wanted him to get a win. I wanted him to be happy. I could live with everyone else getting fucked, but Dash? He did some awful stuff and I wasn't more happy reading this book than at the beginning of that final arc when he was happy and seemingly settling into a leadership role in the Rez. Not the leader, but someone who was finally looking beyond himself and his concerns.

But, it wasn't that kind of story. I should have known better.

I don't always (or often) get invested in characters like that. It takes something special to do it and Scalped had that. A big part of that was the art of RM Guera. It took some time, but I grew to appreciate and love his art. His work is so savage and sweet at the same time. There's so much passion in his line work and the way he builds pages. Even moments of calm (of which there are two or three over the couse of Scalped) have this energy that makes them seem like a page can barely contain them. His art is messy and grotesque in those best ways. His characters look like people and not -- exaggerations, but so specific and deep that they may as well be real.

Endings are hard to land in cases like this. How could that final issue live up to everything that the previous 59 issues promised? Hell, who wanted this book to end? We hate endings, because we don't want endings. Especially in comics. Comics don't end, they keep going forever! It's hard to really love an ending to a comic. Like I said, I respect and understand the final issue of Scalped... but I kind of hate it. Yet, this book makes my top ten comics of 2012 nonetheless, because it was still a damn good ending even if I hate it. Does that make any sense?

Every single one of these six issues released in 2012 were issues that I greatly anticipated and... they all delivered in their own way. They surprised me, they moved me, they entertained me, and they stuck with me.

8. ULTIMATE X-MEN BY BRIAN WOOD, PACO MEDINA, CARLOS BARBERI, AND OTHERS! This time last year, the Ultimate title that I was in love with was The Ultimates under the direction of Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic (it was my #7 book of 2011). But, Hickman and Ribic left that title for Avengers and Thor: God of Thunder, while Ultimate X-Men writer Nick Spencer was replaced with Brian Wood. What Wood did with the title was make it a book about a revolution, about a world where mutants are not just feared and hated, they are penned up and killed -- and just when it seems like they've won, like they've finally gotten their freedom, something comes along and all but 20 mutants decide to stop being mutants. Forget the 198, Wood made mutants a truly endangered species on the brink of extinction. And he made them unable to function as a single group.

That one-two punch of mutants coming together to fight against oppression and win only for humans to come along and find a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat... it was masterful. It was taking advantage of the Ultimate Universe in a similar way to how Hickman did the same in The Ultimates. Take some familiar toys and fuck them up, because... why not? He could never do this on X-Men, but Ultimate X-Men is a whole other story.

Kitty Pryde has been the protagonist and leader of the mutants... even though, now, a sizeable minority seem to want her dead, because she seems intent on playing nice with humanity. In the most recent story, the mutants invent a seed that can grow anything anywhere... and she decides to give it away for free. This, after President Rogers gave mutants a dead piece of land for their reservation. You can see why some would simply want to declare war on humanity and die taking out of a few humans. But, Kitty sees a better way. It's a more spiteful way, I think. A "You try to kill us? Well, we're going to solve world hunger. Fuck you." way. It's doing good in a manner where everyone will want to accept it and some will hate themselves for it. It's forcing humanity to embrace its hypocrisy.

What would someone do if they were in a similar situation? Wood is quite good at creating these dramatic, fucked up contexts and, then, exploring how people would act in them. How noble intentions can go wrong, how people will still insist on doing stupid things, and how things will usually wind up bad even when it seems they can't.

Honestly, what I keep waiting for is for Wood to be paired with an artist that can make his scripts sing like they should. This is a book that makes this like despite the art. It's rarely been bad, but it doesn't enhance and improve like it should. It's serviceable at best. The strength of Wood's writing -- and the way that writing like this appeals to me specifically -- carry the day.

7. WONDER WOMAN BY BRIAN AZZARELLO, CLIFF CHIANG, TONY AKINS, AND OTHERS! Earlier this week, I wrote that Wonder Woman often reads like the least Azzarello-esque thing I've read by Brian Azzarello. I stand by that. There's little in Wonder Woman or Orion that scream "Typical Azzarello!" but there's plenty that does. Like the way the gods play one another and vie for power. Or the way Azzarello writes dialogue with so much precision and playfulness. The most recent issue, for example, had the Wonder Woman/Orion stuff that didn't seem at all like Azzarello, but it also had the stuff in the bar that felt like the Azzarello we all know and are a little afraid to love.

While Batman seems like a more 'natural' fit for a guy like Azzarello, he's very suited to writing Wonder Woman. A pure character who has a dark, dangerous side. She comes from a violent, cruel world - the Amazons are warriors, their gods are spiteful... she can work within the dark side of things. She can think of dangerous, cruel things to do, because she has a noble cause. She clearly doesn't like doing certain things, but she will. She will doublecross gods and sacrifice herself to save a baby. She's a hero unafraid to do what it takes to protect life. Yet, it never feels like she's bloodthursty or as brutal as someone like Batman. There's a hope and optimism to the character that most don't have -- and it never feels corny like it sometimes does with the likes of Superman. She's a good person who will do bad things if necessary and that's pretty simple.

Wonder Woman had the best zero issue that I read from DC. Azzarello was so playful in the opening narration and used the conceipt in a way that clearly plays a big role in the story he's telling. Almost like a backstory he was aware of but wouldn't share unless necessary. A lot could be learned there.

The art on Wonder Woman is top-notch. Cliff Chiang brings the right sort of light, cartoony feel that helps soften Azzarello a little and make this work feel more like a complete whole than a mismatched writer/artist (it helps that they're not mismatched). And Tony Akins is a great fill-in artist, working in a similar style to Chiang. There's a very unified look to this comic and it's a strong, bold one. It's sort of what you want a superhero comic to look like.

The character designs really impress me as well. The looks of the gods are inventive while remaining true to their natures. Apollo looks nothing like you've seen him portrayed before... yet it doesn't seem wrong in any way. Hades is particularly inspired. And the Orion redesign is the best redesign of that character. Very true to Kirby's original while looking more contemporary in a way that isn't immediately dated. How did Chiang do it?

Tim, you should catch up on this comic. It's really, really good.

6. FURY MAX BY GARTH ENNIS, GORAN PARLOV, AND OTHERS! I picked the perfect summer to read American Tabloid by James Ellroy, didn't I? Ennis owes Ellroy a debt in how he's writing Fury MAX, but that isn't really what makes it such a great comic. Sure, grabbing a few things from a truly great piece of fiction never hurt. A lot of what Ennis does with Fury is stuff we've seen before in the few times that Ennis has written Nick Fury in the past. He's always written him as a hard man, cruel and lonely, but usually one who recognises his place in the world. If possible, Fury wants to make the world better and make sure as few innocents die. The closest we saw to him not doing that was in the first Fury series Ennis did -- and that was the point. The character had gotten old and desperate for something. Here, he's still young and all he wants to do his job well and make the world 'better.' Often, he learns that he didn't. There's a sense that this is a history of Nick Fury's failures. His self-delusion that he was a good person in any way. That his actions had any nobility. He leaved Indo-China in one arc on the side of a man, returns two arcs later to kill him. What changed? Politics. Is there a point? Probably not.

Parlov is one of my favourite artists to work with Ennis. He draws hard men well. He draws violence well. His Nick Fury is a man of stone that looks more cracked as we go on. Old Fury narrating... that man is unhinged but we see that only around the edges sometimes. This is a messy comic and Parlov captures that. Much like no one can draw Ennis scenes of two men shooting the shit in a bar like Steve Dillon, few can draw violent Ennis comics like Parlov.

If I did a list for 2013 (and I won't), this would make it again most likely.

5. PUNK ROCK JESUS BY SEAN MURPHY AND TODD KLEIN! When you hear the title of this comic, you expect a certain type of comic. Maybe something akin to American Idiot by Green Day. Certainly something a bit more crude and actually focused on the eponymous character. Instead, it's a wide-ranging character piece that spends nearly half of the series looking at the people surrounding Chris, the reality show clone of Jesus. If anything, the main protagonist is Thomas, the bodyguard at the J2 project. A former member of the IRA, he's a believer in the possible divinity of Chris and tries his best to keep his depressed, alcoholic, regretful mother alive, fend off religious fanatics that hate the project, and all while keeping watch over a child raised to be the new Christ... who, as he grows, realises more and more that it's a crock of shit.

I regret that this comic didn't come out 15 years ago. My teenage self would have loved it. It would have topped his best of the year list no doubt. I grew up going to Catholic school and, in my teens, became a hardcore atheist. I'm still quite anti-religion. This comic speaks to that side of me. But, that alone wouldn't earn it a spot on this list. Sean Murphy's writing and art do that. Anyone can take cheap shots and trash religion -- not everyone can create compelling characters, complex situations that make you think and consider your position, and deliver gorgeous black and white art. I loved his work on Joe the Barbarian, but this was better. More than that, this was Vertigo doing something unexpected: giving him a complete comic with no ads in black and white. How great is that? Could every Vertigo comic be that?

Murphy builds the world in this series. He doesn't simply jump in and start throwing punches. He does the work, he develops his characters, and, when Chris becomes the "Punk Rock Jesus" of the title, it feels earned. It feels organic and true, not simply an easy way out. This series showed writing skills beyond what I thought we would be getting. Everything about this series seemed to be about destroying my lame expectations. Well done, Mr. Murphy.

4. BUILDING STORIES BY CHRIS WARE! It seems that one of the things that takes a work from simply being something I respect/admire and makes it something I love is the ability to connect with me on an emotional level. There are plenty of technically profficient books out there, but if I feel nothing (emotionally, intellectually), well, shit, what's the point? There's got to be something besides lines on the page. Chris Ware has always done that for me. He did it when I first read part of Building Stories when it was released as an edition of ACME Novelty Library and he did it again here. His character study is engrossing and so far-reaching that it's hard to escape.

So much was made of the format of Building Stories that I'm not sure that I have a lot to say there. I think it worked in some ways, not in others. I wasn't a big fan of the little fragment fold-outs. But, I got the point of them. He gave you two little pieces with no set beginning or end and that's the only way to present that material to accomplish that. You can't do that in a book and produce the same effect. That formalist experiment is a nice thing to think about and I would love to see it explored further. But, that doesn't mean that everything worked quite as well. It's cute to put one of your stories in a storybook-esque package... but to what end?

But, I came here to praise Ware, not bury him. His art stuns me. Just floors me. The way he designs pages and make everything work -- adds such warmth to his characters, is able to communicate what's going on in their heads... His style seems like it would be cold and impersonal, but it isn't. That never stops shocking me. It always defies my initial expectations that I can't seem to shake.

3. GØDLAND BY JOE CASEY, TOM SCIOLI, AND OTHERS! And it's not over yet! That's what I had to say. All of that in Gødland #36 -- the ultimate battle of cosmic life against entropy and that's not it! One of the biggest superhero comicbooks I've ever read. Something that felt like it Mattered and would remain a part of me forever... Or something. It was a single issue of brilliance. Of payoff for 35 issues that came before. I mean: ADAMAXIM! Page after big of big pictures of cosmic battle matched with Casey's narration at its most bombastic. This is comics! This is the sort of thing that reminds me of being a kid, of when these things meant the world to me instead of being stacks that I read through and add to other stacks. This is the sort of comic that, back then, I would have read and reread and reread and, damn, I should do that more often. The finale is coming. I should reread this comic many, many times. I should know every line, every word, every hue and shade...

The moment where Kafka Nickelhead steps out of reality... Like the last time we saw that, reality sits in a room with Kirby '70s comics. It's all filtered through that. But, that's this reality. What about the next? What about what's new?

Tom Scioli... Tom Scioli... that battle. The weightiness of his lines... the sense of import, of largess... how can he do that?



I just want what happens next... what happens... next...

The new Gød replaces the old...

2. PROPHET BY BRANDON GRAHAM, SIMON ROY, GIANNIS MILONOGIANNIS, AND OTHERS! It's hard to see the shape of Prophet entirely. There's a war, the resurrection of the Earth empire, the awakening of its John Prophets... and a gathering of Old Man Prophet as the opposing force. So much is still unknown, but each issue is something new that I haven't seen before. Each issue brings more answers and more mysteries. Such touching moments of friendship and kindness fill these comics. The gathering of Old Man Prophet's group was nice. Old comrades coming together, remembering what it was like to be together, relearning, and enjoying one another's company. There's a bit of a 'hang out' book in Prophet. It's pacing is odd, but never not engaging.

Brandon Graham's imagination seems limitless as he comes up with new names and species and things that defy explanation. One of Old Man Prophet's closest allies is a sentient tree of some sort. But, really, he's just like anybody else. A surprise that shouldn't have been was the return of Die Hard. Graham makes good use of the universe he has to play with.

And each issue is geared towards the artist in question. What Simon Roy draws isn't what Giannis Milonogiannis draws isn't what Brandon Graham draws. All of these pieces fit together in such a way that it works incredibly well to have numerous artists that pick up different threads. I hope to see a jam issue one day if they can make that work logistically. Bring it all together is a mashup of different artists and styles. I wouldn't put it past them to give it a go.

Like I said, what really grips me is that every issue is a new experience. I never know what to expect and I have stopped expecting anything but surprise. No other comic can match that. No other comic fails to let me down like this one. It gives me what I didn't know I wanted until I got it.

1. THE BOYS BY GARTH ENNIS, RUSS BRAUN, DARICK ROBERTSON, JOHN MCCREA, KEITH BURNS, TONY AVINA, AND SIMON BOWLAND! Yes, The Boys. When compiling this list, no other comic cried out, demanding to be put atop like The Boys. It offered not one, but two fantastic conclusions this year. First, wrapping up the superheroes plot and, then, wrapping up business between Butcher and Hughie. It was an awful year of issues that broke my heart again and again. But, first Ennis concluded the superhero conflict as the supes descended on the White House and Butcher came face to face with the man who killed his wife. And he kills the bastard. Uses a crowbar to rip the top of his head off and pulls out chunks of brains. Because that's what you want to do to a man who raped your wife and impregnated her with a superhuman child that burst out of her like an alien. It's crude and nasty and so, so, so satisfying to see. I do love superhero comics, but I love hating superheroes, too, and, not since Marshal Law has a superhero murder been oh so lovely. The Boys do what they set out to do. The good guys win.

Until Billy Butcher does some nasty shit and things go south. And it keeps getting worse. Every issue is nothing but shock and gasps and heartbreak. Ennis plays off everything he can and do so masterfully. If there's something that man is great at, it's final storyarcs that just crush you and surprise you and leave you wanting more while hating him for what he does. Nobody does it better, honestly.

And, then, there's the final issue where Stillwell realises that he is fucked forever. And Hughie and Annie get a happy ending. I love happy endings. And I wanted this one more than any other. Garth Ennis may be a bastard of a writer, but he knows when to deliver the feel good moment. He much softer than people give him credit for and it's one of the reasons why he's one of my favourites.

While Darick Robertson returning for the final issue was nice, I will continue to be in awe of the way Russ Braun stepped onto the title when he did. It was so effortless the way he made the characters his own -- make the book his own. Robertson's return was appropriate, but didn't feel quite right. Then again, Braun got to draw the Hughie/Butcher finale and that was just fantastic.

The Boys was cheap and crude in its treatment of superheroes. But, it was funny and heartfelt and touching and true and right. I miss is quite a bit and I can't see that feeling ever going away completely.