My Top Comics of 2016

December 29, 2016

 

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10) Saga

Okay so one one hand I’ve been tempted to call Saga the most over-rated comic in conversation today but..here I am placing it on my list of best 2016 comics. There were a lot of other worthy titles shipping monthly this year that could have slotted here but ultimately Saga takes the spot because of that wide reach and enthusiastic embrace. It’s comics little ambassador, a book to prove to someone on the fence that comics are a viable and exciting medium today (though be careful because some of those gross out closeups are adults only). Brian K. Vaughn’s best work IMO remains Y the Last Man but Saga may become a close second depending on how it all wraps up.

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9) Wonder Woman

Will DC finally make a good movie post-Nolan? Maybe. Maybe. The previews for Wonder Woman look terrific and after losing her job as a global ambassador IRL (don’t get me started), we at least need a good WW comic. Azarello’s run a couple years ago started great and really played up the mythology but then seemed to derail. No one in recent years has really gotten Princess Diana so DC just went back to one of the last scribes to do so and now we have new Greg Rucka Wonder Woman issues, alternating the latest version of her origin story with a new tale month to month. Of the “trinity” this title is by far the best DC is currently doing though King’s take on Batman is not bad.

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8) Stray Bullets

Stray Bullets was one of indie comics most frustrating (and unintentional) cliffhangers in history. 40 issues or so of masterful storytelling and art self-produced by David Lapham and then…who’s in the trunk? Radio silence for a decade or more. Lapham did a few other things (including the also excellent Young Liars for Vertigo which faced the axe too soon and had a rushed ending) and then finally…Stray Bullets came back! He not only wrapped up that original arc and then released the whole series in a giant omnibus but he launched a series of continued stories featuring our favorite doomed miscreants. Each issue stands on it’s own, hits like a fist to the gut, but also ties together for the overall story.

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7) Nailbiter

Joshua Williamson continued his horror-fan homage with 11 or so more issues of Nailbiter this year. We’re still not sure what all lurks in and behind the town where so many serial killers are born but we may be getting closer. Along with a dozen or more siblings Nailbiter cemented Image Comics as the torchbearers of classic Vertigo storytelling.

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6) Archie

Though I read my fair share of Archie digests as a kid, I would never have thought in a million years past the age of 10 that Archie would be a worthy consideration in any “best of” list. Yet somehow the entire Archie line has managed to not only survive the digital age but thrive and evolve without losing the essence of why they worked in the first place. We got not only the almost adults-only zombie action of Afterlife With Archie and the Lovecraftian horror of Sabrina we also got the primary all-ages in-universe Archie line updated for a new generation in a non-pandering way. Mark Waid knows what makes these simple stories work and every issue this year was a blast to read.

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5) Paper Girls

If you watched Stranger Things and enjoyed it you should really check out Paper Girls as it touches the same spots in the nostalgic brain in different ways. Sci-fi, kids on bikes, a big mystery–what’s not to love? Oh and yeah, this is another BKV title and one that, at least this year, I liked better than Saga.

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4) Bitch Planet

In addition to being a great sci-fi story, an excellent commentary on society. a wholly new way of introducing gender studies and feminism, Bitch Planet is also a masterclass in the monthly comic. With the back-matter pieces, the letter column, and the overall presentation of each issue, Bitch Planet is a cover-to-cover joy every time an issue ships. Much like Orange is the New Black these are characters that once never got a fully-developed narrative arc and eye. Yet, in my opinion, Bitch Planet far out-ranks that Netflix original.

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3) Mockingbird

For a newcomer to the medium, writer Chelsea Cain seems to have an uncanny touch for maximizing the art of panel storytelling. Her bread and butter are thriller novels and Mockingbird, her modern take on Bobbi Morse (much more than Hawkeye’s girlfriend) was her first comics project. And it was awesome. Sadly, gamergate style knuckledraggers harassed the hell out of her on Twitter for things like the above cover and ultimately this project either didn’t sell or whatever because a year in and we’re done folks. But both arcs, especially the first, were awesome (5 issues that can be reread in any order to reveal new layers to a comic caper complete with multiple sight gags and Easter eggs!) Light-hearted and fun yet puzzle-box intricate Mockingbird was what comics are all about.

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2) The Vision

Part American Beauty part Watchmen, this doomed crime and family take on suburbia featuring the Avengers’ Vision and his self-fashioned synthetic family was the most outside of the box take on an established superhero of 2016. Tom King is a writer who comes to the field after leaving a career with the CIA (!) and the medium is lucky to have him. The Vision is his strongest work yet.

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1)  Southern Bastards

Jason Aaron gives us a gritty warts and all Gothic take on life in the south, specifically Alabama. His Alabama may be over the top but as a native who spent his formative years there he gets the uniqueness and love-hate ratio right for a gripping take on homecoming. Southern Bastards is never really the story you think it is and I’m not sure where things will end up though I doubt they end up happy this being a true and through noir and all. Latour’s pencils are original and provide a great aesthetic for this story.

 

Best of 2015

December 21, 2015

*Note–I will likely be revising and editing this over the next two weeks but these are my top picks for albums, tv shows, movies and comics as of Dec 21, 2015.

Music  (in alphabetical order but bold are my top 10)

Beach House: Depression Cherry/ Count Your Lucky Stars                               Both records Beach House released this year, like 6 months apart, were great. I give a slight edge to Depression Cherry but likely just because I had a few other months to absorb it. The chillest yet captivating music you were apt to hear this year.

Ryan Adams: 1989

Gary Clark Jr. – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

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Craig Finn: Faith in the Future
I enjoyed but didn’t love Finn’s first solo record. This one I love. Short and sweet with some of the best lyrics he’s ever written–including Hold Steady–but a different style than his band, much more singer-songwriter.

Deerhunter: Fading Frontier

Drive By Truckers: It’s Great to be Alive (live box set)

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Ghost: Melioria ; Lucifer – Lucifer I ; Christian Mistress – To Your Death

These three acts all in their own way brought back the best of ’70s era pre-metal/early metal traditions particularly the occult rock stains of it and made it sound fresh and new. Ghost has been at this bit awhile now and though they’re certainly not for everyone they have made their catchiest most accessible record yet with Meliroria particularly with lead single “Circe”–and who would have ever thought the band would perform on network cable as they did on Colbert’s late show for Halloween? Ghost are kind of the band fundamentalist pastors and parents thought Kiss were but actually weren’t. Ghost, with their anti-pope frontman and “clergy” band are all spectacle and tongue in cheek satanism but with undeniably catchy riffs, vocals and hooks. Lucifer on the other hand, Johanna Sadonis’ new band mines the feel of forgotten Sabbath records (particularly the excellent and underrated Technical Ecstasy), Blue Oyster Cult and a slew of female heavy “witch” rock to make a gem of an album. Christian Mistress, featuring Christine Davis’ excellent vocals and great riff after great riff edge closer to the NWOBHM scene that followed ’70s acts but bridge the gap between the two. All three records sound like classic heavy metal that fans from any metal era can appreciate.

Grave Pleasures: Dream Crash

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Horrendous: Anareta

Horrendous are the best metal act on record right now. Three albums in each excellent and each better than the last. It’s solid OSDM that hits all the highlights of classic DM bands without retreading their ground–instead it mixes in experimental highs, hooks, riffs, atmosphere and an odd sense of joy. Lyrically they find peace in absurdity and I freaking love this album.

Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls

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Jason Isbell: Something More Than Free
This one is tied neck and neck with Sufjan as my album of the year but while I may think Carrie and Lowell is the overall better record, I listened to this one quite a bit more. Isbell may be America’s best working songwriter today. “Children of Children” “24 Frames” and the title track were some of 2015’s best songs. Isbell seems to have found his own space and style in his post DBT career. I hate that those who are now flocking to Isbell aren’t by and large giving the Truckers catalog (other than maybe Jason’s songs therein) much of a go but I always felt Isbell was much more of an accessible artist than Hood though I prefer all things considered Hood and Cooley–I’d actually call them America’s best current songwriters but they don’t seem to have the reach and pop sensibility that Jason does.

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Carly Rae Jespen: Em.ot.ion

Fine, it’s some seriously sugary bubblegum level pop music. Sorry. Carly Rae was my guilty pleasure jam this year and I’m feeling less guilty with each spin because it’s just so much fun. This is some synth style 80s mall pop  filtered by way of indie rock to today’s pop radio hits but better. Carly’s voice fits the earworm hooks so well and I hear M83 in those back-beats.

Talib Kweli: F*** the Money

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Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly

They say for every hip hop fan there’s a shark waiting to be jumped–that eventually mainstream hip hop will leave every fan. I kind of thought this was my time and it may still be but though I enjoyed the heck out of Drake’s “If You’re Reading This…” it wasn’t great art (though it was above average pop). Kendrick’s latest work however is, divisive as it may be and as hipster embraced as it was. By far the best hip hop record of 2015 from one of today’s strongest rappers.

Lucero: Lucero (2015 S/T)

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The Night Flight Orchestra: Skyline Whispers                                         Second only to perhaps Carlie Jae for just sheer fun, Night Flight Orchestra have been described as montage music–every song on the album could easily soundtrack an 80s movie montage. It’s fun, cheesy soaring “dad rock” without trying too hard or over reaching. This isn’t down and dirty Steel Panther style parody, this is much more subtle and unoffensive. Catchy tunes that rock in a throwback manner.

Myrkur: M

Nile: That Which Should Not Be Unearthed

Purity Ring: Another Eternity                                                                          Indie synth pop with a great hip hop undercurrent that actually works. Almost (almost) as catchy as Carly Rae.

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Sufjan Stevens: Carrie and Lowell
This one was probably my favorite record of the year even if not my most listened to. It’s simply a bit heavy and sad to listen to on a daily or even weekly basis but it’s so beautiful. Sufjan’s love letter to his deceased mother in a warts-and-all biographical lyrical narrative is set to some of the most gorgeous arrangements of his impressive career.

Tribulation: Children of Night

Chelsea Wolfe: Abyss

Movies –
alphabetical again but with a disclaimer–I’m sure I’m forgetting some great films I’ve seen and I know that about 5-10 of those I have planned to watch over the next month or two (Star Wars, The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Hail Caesar, Joy) will also deserve a space on this list.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Relatively simple period piece but so good.

It Follows   The best horror film I’ve seen in five years easily.

Spotlight  – So far my favorite film of the year Great cast, captivating and important story, good on every cinematic level.

Steve Jobs –
I really enjoyed this though I know some didn’t. It’s certainly warts and all and who knows how much liberty Sorkin took to weave his trademark snappy dialogue but it’s a great character piece.

Trainwreck  – Shumer is my favorite (perhaps second to Louis C.K.) working comedian and her team up with Apatow was awesome.

Trumbo –
Sadly this is still a timely tale if we just switched the terms out a bit. Cranston is terrific.

 

TV

The Goldbergs

Homeland

Bosch

The Man in the High Castle

Jessica Jones

Master of None

Blackish

Larry Wilmore Show

Daily Show

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Comics

Killing and Dying – Arienne Tomine

Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses

Southern Bastards

Harrow County

Ms. Marvel

Nailbiter

The Fade Out

 

 

 

The Best of 2014

December 24, 2014

So it seems I’ve abdicated “Raging Against the Dying Light” much of this year as I haven’t posted anything since summer. Yet it’s the end of the year and I’ve posted my end-of-year picks every year since I began this blog in 2008 and I don’t feel like letting this year get by without at least some such post. I’ve always enjoyed this part of the blogging year more than any other as I thoroughly enjoy reading every magazine, blog, and random person’s pick of the year for almost everything. It’s a great way to learn about things that have gotten by my radar when reading other people’s picks and it’s a great way to time-capsule my own favorites as I organize these each year. That being said, I’m foregoing the usual slew of posts (10 Best Albums, 25 best songs, 10 Best metal, 10 Best Hip Hop, 10 Best Movies, 10 Best comics, etc.). I’m taking a cue from one of my favoire living musicians, Patterson Hood, who simply posted some alphabetically ordered favorite picks and highlighted top choices. So here goes.

My Top Albums of 2014 (all genres, in alphabetical order– those in bold are my top 10)

1) Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere
2) At the Gates – At War With Reality
3) Behemoth – The Satanist
4) Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral
5) Common – Nobody’s Smiling
6) Cynic – Kindly Bent to Free Us
7) Drive By Truckers – English Oceans
8) Drive By Truckers – Black Ice Verite
9) Dum Dum Girls – Too True
10) Electric Wizard – Time to Die
11) Eric Clapton and Friends – The Breeze (a tribute to JJ Cale)
12) Gary Clark Jr. – Gary Clark Jr. Live
13) Horrendous – Ecdysis
14) Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
15) Jessica Lea Mayfield – Make My Head Sing
16) Junius – Days of the Fallen Sun (EP)
17) Lana Del Ray – Ultraviolence
18) Lecrae – Anomaly
19) Lord Mantis – Death Mask
20) Machine Head – Bloodstones and Diamonds
21) Matisyahu – Akeda
22) New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
23) The Oath – The Oath
24) Opeth – Pale Communion
25) Pallbearer – Foundations of Burden
26) Rich Gang (Young Thug, Birdman, and Rich Homie Quan): Tha Tour Pt. 1
27) The Roots – …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin
28) Rosanne Cash – The River and the Thread
29) Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
30) Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams
31) Schoolboy Q – Oxymoron
32) The Secret Sisters – Put Your Needle Down
33) Slipknot – .5 The Grey Chapter
34) Spoon – They Want My Soul
35) Steel Panther – All You Can Eat
36) Tom Petty – Hypnotic Eye
37) Tryptykon – Melana Chasmata
38) Tweedy – Sukie Rae
39) U2 – Songs of Innocence
40) The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
songs (mostly from albums not chosen above, with a few notable exceptions when the song was just that good as a song itself divorced from the overall album)

1) Against Me! – “Transgender Dysphoria Blues”
2) Cannibal Corpse – “Kill or Become”
3) Gaslight Anthem – “Get Hurt”
4) High Spirits – “I Will Run”
5) Hold Steady – “Oaks”
6) Insomnium – “While We Sleep”
7) Jessie J feat. Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj – “Bang Bang”
8) Johnny Cash – “Out Among the Stars”
9) Mastodon – “The Motherload”
10) Morrissey – “World Peace is None of Your Business”
11) New Pornographers – “Dancehall Domine”
12) Spoon – “New York Kiss”
13) Tori Amos – “Unrepentant Geraldines”
14) Tweedy – “Low Key”
15) U2 – “Iris (Hold Me Close)”

Movies
1) Bird Man
2) Chef
3) Godzilla
4) Gone Girl
5) Guardians of the Galaxy
6) Interstellar
7) St. Vincent
8) Top 5
9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

Books (difficult because the bulk of books I read this year were published in 2013 or earlier)
1) Revival – Stephen King
2) The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap – Matt Taibbi
3) How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee – Bart Ehrman

TV (difficult because I tend to watch shows after they hit Netflix)
1) True Detective
2) Homeland
3) Gotham
4) The Goldbergs
5) Cosmos

Comics

1) Saga
2) Batman (Scott Snyder)
3) Lazarus
4) Nailbiter
5) A Voice in the Dark
6) Minimum Wage
7) Southern Bastards
8) Stray Bullets
9) Wytches
10) Ms. Marvel
11) Hawkeye
12) Afterlife with Archie

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 7 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

Stories matter. More importantly, myths matter. Grand narratives we often leave unverbalized or even unacknowledged largely shape the way we “see” the greater meaning of all that is around us, and can imperceptibly affect even the tiniest of our daily actions. Even in this post-modern and quasi-secular age, the stories we tell or internalize are a major factor in shaping our identities, nations, cultures and ultimately our shared world.

This is hardly an original observation. Many thinkers and writers have carved entire careers out of exploring the universal presence and power of myths, as most notably in recent decades Joseph Campbell did. Yet when we apply those concepts to beliefs “closer to home,” many lose all perception of the true power and “truth” factor possible in “myth.” John Dominic Crossan–an Irish Catholic ex-monk, retired professor, and a pubic academic who writes history and theology mostly regarding the historical Jesus–  writes in his spiritual memoir and autobiography “A Long Way From Tipperary” about the difficulty of expressing the truth of myth and the true power (and potential) of parable. Throughout his career he has found the answers he gives in response to interviewer’s questions condensed into soundbites and “quotes” that leave off the positive half of his expressions, turning the exhortations of truth he provided in conversation into sterile skepticism on the printed page. In the past when Crossan has been asked as a historian if there was an “empty tomb” or a witnessed, physical, “resurrection,” he may have answered as a historian in the negative; but as a Christian he has wholeheartedly affirmed “resurrection,” and that affirmed truth is one that for Crossan runs far deeper than reconstructed and quantifiable “facts” ever could. Many in the Church itself miss this point very regularly, so perhaps the secular media should be forgiven for doing so as well, though not for cutting off an answer so as to package it in a manner suitable to the story they wanted to tell before they bothered to do the interviews in the first place. But the fact remains that many don’t understand or perceive “faith” as “trust,” as an intentional personal alignment with a cause (or “force”), often expressed and grappled with through Myth–it is difficult, scary, and even unlikely for anyone to fully understand how truth can be expressed experientially and spiritually through Holy Myth until they begin to tiptoe into those metaphorical waters. A literal, physical, empty tomb is all that many (Christians and non-Christians alike) can possibly equate with “Easter” or “Resurrection.” For Crossan, alignment with and commitment to a way of living and believing and expressing oneself in and through holy Myths that counter the grand and most often violent secular (and/or nationalistic) myths is a mindset and lifestyle that runs much, much deeper than affirming or negating a set of “facts” with little or no thought given to what that affirmation (or negation) means afterwards.

Much of the problem comes from the degradation of the term “myth” as it is used in Western parlance. We label something a “myth” when it is untrue in the same way we have degraded the affirmation “I believe” to apply only to things we choose to believe  without “facts” or are “unsure” of, or when they at best counter hard evidence-based claims and at worst are completely irrational. Liberal theologians like Crossan, Borg and Spong all have had a hard way to go in expressing the reverence they have for the Christian terms and concepts they have worked to reframe and update to a public who hear only the internalized negativity of the words they use to express their new approach to “truth,” even when those “new” approaches fall more fully in line with long-standing and ancient perceptions than fundamentalist or materialist claims which are more a product of the enlightenment than of faith history.

A religious friend of mine once said that no great truths could be expressed through fiction. Stories are for escapism, fun, but they have no real depth, he claimed. Now, even though those that express their faith in terms of “Holy Myth,” grant that Myths (with a capital M) are much more than “stories” in that they convey (eternal) meanings instead of just distraction and entertainment, it still seems unlikely that one who can find no truth in even the greatest of art or literature can find comfort in a faith that readily claims to find truth in Myth. For those that hold their religion in such a light, once the rationalistic ground for their belief systems is shattered for them personally, their faith must be abandoned. This is why “faith” and “religion” can be so easily damnable for both fundamentalists and hard-line atheistic materialists.  The fact is that without story we are not fully human. As humans, language was born as a stepping stone to better accommodate stories. Before that we scrawled our stories on cave walls in stick figures or expressed them around a fire with grunts and hand motions. It is stories that signify there is more to us than there is to less-evolved species, or at the very least that we are more aware than those other species are. Stories are the foundation for not only art, literature, music, drama, and film but also the recording of history and the concepts, interpretations and worldviews that spring from recognizing we are living in a stream of history, that we are not the first nor the last generation to exist. Story crafts culture, story is the cornerstone of civilization. Stories are the ground that holds up philosophy, religion and politics. Stories unite us in relationships, they are the family history we create and keep alive by telling stories of what grandpa did without a fact-checker to run down comparisons between this time and last time’s telling of the tale. Stories unite us in nations as they find form in anthems and folk songs recounting the exploits of nation-founders and heroes. More imporantly, stories lay the ground-work for worldviews which a person draws on when they argue the necessity to build a nation (or a people or a place) where all are welcome and can be provided for; and as with worldviews, stories (when they attain the level of Myth) can be good or bad, can inspire greatness or evil. Which is the point for someone like Crossan; the fact that he found great similarities between the story of Caesar Augustus and the story of Jesus did not trouble his faith. In the “flipping” of that story, Crossan sees the early Christian community affirming that Caesar is not the Son of God, that Jesus is. That the life of a Jewish peasant who preached nonviolence and a direct relationship with God was far more important and eternal the life of a self-proclaimed deity who spread and maintained power through violence and imperialism. For Crossan, the Myth of a holy birth in which the mother is a willing participant with a holy God in a sacred union was much more a story to align oneself with than the ancient tales of gods who forced themselves on unwilling women. For Crossan, a life shaped by the person of Jesus in which truth, equality, mystic union with God, and the work towards a kingdom devoid of the separation between rich and poor, a world devoid of injustice and war is a life worth living. Crossan’s words were once cut off to make a headline reading that a “scholar says Jesus was a peasant with an attitude” without including the concluding phrase of that sentence, which was that “as a Christian I believe that attitude is the attitude of God.” This is the story that Crossan chooses to believe, this is the Holy Myth he finds ultimate truth in and it is where he has devoted his life. He acknowledges that his Myth isn’t the top of a cornered market, that other paths have valid truths. But it remains for others to forcibly align themselves with the holy Myth that seized them if it happens to do so. To negate the story, to dispel the Myths as if they have nothing to teach us in our era is to get rid of most of what drives us to transform life and the world for the better. The enlightenment gave us many things  but what it began the process of taking away was the full appreciation of story. It led to movements in modernism that create a false dichotomy between truth and myth, between “fact” and “story.” We must find a way to reclaim that now; even the “story” of evolution can fill the role of Holy Myth. I heard a sermon recently that called Darwin’s work “our Creation myth,” and the pastor invoked it as that and also as much more, expressing it as the best way we now have to talk about how we came to be and seeing in it the interconnectedness of all that is and the responsibility that entails. These concepts have been expressed by religious believers of many different creeds and callings, but the point is that holy Myth has not yet closed its doors if we do not allow  it to do so or force it to happen. We participate in an ongoing story and it is up to us to ensure the sacredness and vitality of that story.

From “The Unwritten” # 37, p 13 by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Vertigo (DC) Comics, 2012.

*The pictures are from the most recent issue of “The Unwritten,” a masterful comic series (also available in a series of graphic novels/trade paperback) by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Carey writes and Gross draws a masterful series dissecting story, myth, pop culture, religion, philosophy and history in a visceral yet thought-provoking way.

10) Daredevil (Marvel) – Mark Waid

“Daredevil” has been a dark, gritty title for years. The character has been so emotionally and physically broken by crime aficionado writers like Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, not to mention Frank Miller, in c0mpelling tales that the only place to go was up. Waid (with some great pencilers like Marcos Martin) rebounded DD protagonist Matt Murdock in an upbeat, fun, witty way. This is old Marvel fun, DD as a Hells Kitchen coworker to Manhattan’s Spider-Man. We’ve had big superhero fun in the first half dozen issues. We’ve had artwork and narrative styles that employ and focus on DD’s specific powers and issues. We’ve had the best comic Marvel published all year in what was mostly a way-off year for them.

9) Vampirella  (Dynamite Comics) – Eric Trautmann

Dynamite Comics acquired “Vampirella,” the Harris property best known for pin-up styled cheescake art. What they did was revamp the character for modern times, clothing her (for the most part) and situating her as a real character. The covers maintained the pin up art  but the interiors gave us a horror comic vampire story with a strong female lead, a classic back-story including Dracula, an interesting side-kick, and some really solid pencil-work. Month in and out, “Vampirella” was a fun comic to read–and isn’t that why we read comics in the first place?

8) Detective Comics – Scott Snyder + Jock + Francesco Francavilla

Before DC relaunched with “The New 52,” writer Scott Snyder bid farewell to the old-numbering of “Detective Comics” with the best run that title has seen in years, a run ranking with the best Batman stories of all time. Jock and Francavilla alternating issues on the artwork didn’t hurt in that they crafted interiors as captivating as any covers to ever hit the shelves. What wasn’t to love in this run? A great Joker scene, a great old Gordon family mystery that situated a creepy new villain and history, great action scenes, character interactions, mystery, and everything else you could hope for from a Batman comic.

7) Scalped – Jason Aaron + R.M. Guera

“Scalped” will wrap up this year. We all know it won’t end pretty; it’s a totally original crime-drenched American noir, but it’s noir none the less and we didn’t set in for happy endings. We’ve known it would end in tragedy and the hook has been how it will get there and the deep character studies crafted along the way. In all-out classic style, 2011 delivered a surprising Red Crow bid for redemption, a quest soon to play out; it also revealed the identity of the murderer of Gina Badhorse. 2012 will let us see who, if any, survives this mess. Great storytelling, haunting artwork, fully developed characters, and though a title not big on the “feel-good” factory, one that is drenched in pathos and cracked yet beautiful humanism.

6) Chew – John Layman + Rob Guillory

We’re in the midst of listing several titles which I have included for the last few years and “Chew”– like “Criminal,” “Scalped” and “Locke and Key”–  is what you get when you pair a great writer with a great artiss who have a great chemistry together as they get to helm a project they have devised and dreamed and which they now have the backing to deliver as a great story, freely with no real baggage. This recipe almost always results in a work that stands out as its own on the racks and “Chew” is unlike anything else you will ever read. It’s an original style of art, a ridiculous premise that is also all too plausible in spite of the ridiculous aspect, and it’s a funny, layered, piece full of back ground jokes that repay rereads. “Chew” is at its core a humor comic, a thing which is few and far between now; but it’s layered up with action, drama, a bit of shock, and subtle social commentary. It’s really just a fun read, perhaps the “funnest” on the list. 2011 amped up some new details, adding a heavy dose of sci-fi to the mix. I’m with this all the way to its conclusion.

5) Criminal: The Last of the Innocent – Ed Brubaker + Sean Phillips

Brubaker served up Criminal fans with perhaps the strongest 4 issue run of the series thus far this year with “Criminal: The Last of the Innocent.” And that is saying something since “Criminal” is a close to flawless work in its every issue. “The Last of the Innocent” was somewhat of a detour from the methods employed in all of the other “Criminal” arcs thus far; it is a crime story, and there are pieces of information, characters, settings, and locations that tie this loosely to all the other arcs, but this is as much an homage to comics, different comic storytelling techniques, devices, eras, and genres as it is a crime story of its own. Yet all of that homage making fully tied in with the story in a way that heightens the techniques of this story itself, that works as a cross-current to send this one to the top of “Criminal” rankings. You’re kept on the edge of your seat with each issue and the suspense is taut; the ending itself is the blackest noir.

Yet

4) Severed – Scott Snyder + Scott Tuft + Atilla Futaki

What a truly unique, wholly original, and exceedingly welcome addition to the 2011 comic racks. Scott Snyder has been on a roll with creative new ways of doing Batman and now Swamp Thing for DC comics, and this creator pet project of his continued announcing his talented breakthrough as a major player in modern mainstream comics. Paired with writer Scott Tuft and some truly beautiful, striking, subtle artwork by Atilla Futaki, Snyder delivers a Gothic piece of Americana as a horror story. “Severed” follows the journey of a young barely-teenaged boy as he hits the road in 1920s era America in search of his absentee horn-playing father. He runs into a fellow boxcar traveling teen, a girl passing as a boy, befriends her and then meets up with a truly frightening road scourge, a villain who uses identity theft techniques to prey on children as a cannibal who sports homemade metal teeth. “Severed” still had a couple of issues to go before wrapping up its first mini-series when the year drew to a close, so readers are as of yet unsure of the fate of protagonist Jack. But unless this brilliant creative team seriously drops the ball in delivering the home plate issue, this is one of the most solid original concept mini-series in quite some time. What’s amazing is that this is a truly new horror story told in a way that is genuinely frightening but also non-gratuitous. This is not a bloody, gruesome affair–at least on the page; Snyder and company deftly employ Hitchockian techniques to scare the reader psychologically, leaving the most terrifying scenes off the page to play in our minds. The artwork is beautiful, it looks like water-colored montages of a time in American history far enough away from the current day to look totally new. I for one cannot wait to see where this story ends up.

3) Locke and Key – Joe Hill + Gabriel Rodriguez

Joe Hill continues to make his very first foray into the comics field the instant success and classic that it is. Locke and Key has had a set endpoint since day one and Hill moves ever closer to the culmination of his intricate and astounding genre-hopping work. Rodriguez continues to deliver a set of warm, fun pencils that look like art found nowhere else. Each mini-series of “Locke and Key” works as a complete tale but it’s the overall story which is taking on full-speed as the end draws close that is really knocking this title out of the park this year. Yet Hill always finds ways to deliver one-shot and single pieces that stand out as creative individual moments amidst the overall narrative, as he did in the sentimental (but not trite) short story that led off the “Guide to the Known Keys” this year (pictured above). In it, a young boy who is terminally ill is led to the moon in a hot air-balloon by his father and one of the Keyhouse keys is used to unlock the moon, revealing a place where the boy can live fully and whole, surrounded by family and friends as he looks down on the unfolding history of the world. Or moments in the primary series artistically showcase deft homages to other works, like when the young character Brodie is depicted as Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes in a memorable issue last year. Readers like me cannot wait to see how this ends and we have the utmost confidence that Hill can wrap thing up as satisfyingly as the story has been as a whole thus far–he’s given us every reason to trust his skills as a writer.

2) Habibi – Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson is a top-rate writer and artist who delivers a graphic novel by way of weighty tome every couple of years. His work is always literate, emotional, and personal. “Blankets” was solid but this year’s “Habibi” is the culmination of everything this great artist is capable of thus far. “Habibi” is an all out epic, a graphic novel to rival any “all time” graphic novel lists compiled. It’s a sweeping story of love, religion, romance, sex, culture, mythology, and language that carries its two protagonists through years that are grounded yet timeless. Thompson took the weight of his subject sincerely and his attention to detail is what truly shines in this work. His Arabic calligraphy is gorgeous as it should be in a work with the Middle East and it’s history, culture and religious landscape as its subject. Every page of this book is stuffed with details and decoration yet the focus never gets lost and it never drags the reader down. It is weighty, but not so dense the focus becomes strained. It works as a straight story and as metaphor-laden exploration. It surely will stand up to ever-revealing rereads but also works remarkably well as a take-your-time and soak-it-up first read. The characters leap to life, their joys and tragedies played out emphatically and grippingly on the page. This book is even great in its production, it’s a beautifully produced book worthy of any book-shelf with a physical presences to suit its story and subject matter.  Highly recommended to those not fond of the typical comic or even comics in general.

1) DC : The New 52  (DC)

So it may seem like a cheat to make my first pick something that encompasses 52 separate comic books, but the DC relaunch was such a good thing as a complete act and product that I can’t help but do so. DC relaunched their entire line with 52 number 1 issues this year, and as the year came to a close readers have gotten to read 3-4 issues of each title. What could have been a bad publicity stunt that failed to attract new readers and simultaneously drove away devoted fans has instead been something that makes it fun week to check in with DC each and every week. DC (for the most part) picked crack-fire teams to helm the books, and each issue of each title began with a completely new story that was approachable to any reader picking up that title for the first time. Yet as details about the new direction each character is taking emerges, it’s also clear that the work done in DC’s amazingly intricate old continuity hasn’t been completely scrapped. Characters and circumstances set up intricately and creatively by folks like Grant Morrison with the Bat-titles and their fresh mythology show up largely in place as the new norm with this fresh start; so what was good remains and much of what was bogged down has been streamlined across the company line. It’s also worth mentioning that DC has stayed true to their “drawing the line” price campaign as their books are still 1.00 cheaper than Marvel in almost every case.

Not every title in the New 52 is a complete winner and not everyone will work for every reader. I predict a few titles will fall by the wayside as 2012 rolls on. But what does work works amazingly well; Scott Snyder delivered the best “Detective Comics” run in years, ranking with the best work on a mainstream Batman story of all time. He continues that approach as he takes over the flagship “Batman” title with more fast-paced action, sharp dialogue, awesome character dynamics, and intriguing subplots and threads that will be a joy to follow. Brian Azarello and Cliff Chiang position “Wonder Woman” as one of the (perhaps THE) best title of the relaunch, and it’s far past due for the too-often misplaced sister character of the DC “Trinity” to have her own definitive modern run. Chiang’s pencils play up the high art and action of the story as Azarello intertwines horror and mythology, wit and emotion into a stellar and timeless story. “Aquaman” proves that one of the most maligned JLAers of all time is a great character and can be the centerpiece of a really great title as Geoff Johns and Ivan Reiss pour energy into that title the same way they did on their first flash of Green Lantern work years ago. Speaking of JLA (and Johns), “Justice League of America” combines superstar artist Jim Lee with the aforementioned Johns and in a flashback telling of how the new 52 universe’s JLA came together, the title is shaping up to be the best (and first good) run on a Justice League title in a long time (not counting the JLI).  Other titles–“The Flash,” “Wild Western Tales,” “Batgirl,” “Resurrection Man,”–are already delivering the goods with promising setups to carry them into the future. Most comic readers are thrilled with “Action Comics” as it showcases Grant Morrison in full on having fun mode as he crafts a flashback run cataloging the youthful early adventures of Superman in the new 52 universe, an agressive, somewhat naive but devoted populist Superman. Yet I find that the less popular “Superman” main title by George Perez delivers consistently fun, old-school DC superhero stories that take an appreciable long time to read. Former “B” characters stand out on superb books like “Swamp Thing” (penned by the iron-hot Scott Snyder) and “Animal Man” (a “mainstream” work by the inimitable alt.comic master Jeff Leimire). Great art, simple yet fun stories, and the burgeoning hint of an inter-connected and creative comics landscape all grant DC with the much-deserved honor of being the mainstream comics publisher of the year.

The vehicle which transmits a particular media can itself be part of the artistic expression–secondary, certainly, it isn’t on equal footing with the creator or artist but rather subtly intertwined with the expression itself as an added layer of entertainment. This is not always the case either, because the vehicle of transmission is often totally irrelevant. But when it is part of the entertainment package, the vehicle of transmission enhances the experience of a particular media item wonderfully albeit sometimes imperceptibly.

Two particular things got me thinking about this concept specifically at this time. First, I recently took a beach vacation and before going I stopped by a few local used bookstores to stock up on cheap paperbacks. Now the ideal beach read, at least for me, has to be something that is fast-paced, exciting, and page-turning and not to dense or hyper-literate yet without being dumb, poorly written or overly cliched. Thus a good beach read is by someone like Michael Connelly who detours “literary fiction” without becoming a James Patterson and does so by writing creatively and, well, “good.” Anyway, it had been a long time since I had bought fiction paperbacks; typically the sort of thing I’d want in a fiction paperback is something I’d try to find at the library; I’d resort to buying it if I couldn’t find it there, but any fiction item I purchase typically is something by a favorite author I know I’ll want to re-read and keep or something I’ve read before and know is a classic that I want to hold onto, in which case I want a nice, presentable softcover TPB or Hardcover; if a classic work of literature, I want it in an even nicer format if I can find a deal on it.  Anyway, since I was in the process of moving and thus in between libraries, because I wanted specific authors and books, and because I knew there was a high-probability that what I read on a beach would get sandy and water-logged, my best bet was purchasing these books myself.  So armed with a stack of Lee Child, Michael Connelly, and Graham Joyce paperbacks I made way to the beach. Down by the water each day, I realized that there’s no better companion to a shady beach chair, a cooler of drinks, and a fifteen minute dip in the ocean every hour or two than a great paperback thriller or mystery. Certainly the story itself has to be good–the author has to suck you in, get you flipping the pages, and never drag on to bore you out of the forward momentum. You have to be dying to know what will happen next, otherwise you’ll just throw it down and zone out in the sun. But the paperback format itself adds to this enjoyment tremendously; looking around to see what other beach-goers were reading I spotted the occasional Kindle and I just kept thinking that I would be continually nervous that the water dripping off of me, the waves rolling in, the sun beating down, and the sand everywhere would have me constantly nervous that my electronic device would go kaputz and not only would I be out a hundred or more bucks, I’d be without a read for the day. Armed with a 2 or 3 dollar used paperback, I could fold the pages, toss it in the beach bag, read it while covered in sand and not be overly concerned with its overall condition–it just had to hold up for me to finish reading it. If I fell in love with the book and wanted it for my library, I could hunt it down later in hardback. Even off the beach, the perfect format for a thriller you only need to read once is the used paperback; it’s fun and perfectly sized for reading wherever you want and easily portable. I suppose the Kindle could replicate this experience better than many other reading experiences if and when the price per item is comparable but until that is a reality I’ll hold out.

The other thing that made me think of this format as part of the art argument came from a few Yahoo news story. One story was the rehashed filler they pull out every month or so, the “businesses that are as good as dead”article which names video rental stores, costume stores, etc. Record Stores made the list, with the same old reasoning that people download, and when they do buy CDs they do so cheaply in big box stores. The article said that despite what hipsters, DJs, and collectors want to believe, the indie record shops are largely on the way out except for the ones who’ve managed to adapt and adopt business methods that work in the digital economy. Conversely, there was a story a day or two later that talked about how many record shops that struggled when the bottom fell out of the CD business were gaining enough ground to level off by switching to vinyl for the bulk of their sells. Indie stores in big cities and college towns around the country now devote more of their sales floors to LPs and 45s than to CDs  and the annual “Record Store Day” event in which artists release limited edition vinyl releases directly through independent music retailers was another huge hit this year. Vinyl sales were up more in 2010 than in any year since Soundscan began taking numbers in 1990. New albums by established artists and up and coming indie acts release their albums not only on CD and download, but on at least 500-1000 vinyl pressings; vinyl reissues of albums by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Who sell very well each and every year. Such stores in areas like Charlottesville VA, Cincinnati, OH and Louisville Ky have begun stocking high quality turntables because they were tired of turning away the teenagers and college kids stumbling into their stores to buy vinyl but needing the system to play it on. Now, vinyl collectors and audiophiles have kept vinyl in business and popular for years (this even made it to film in the classic 1990s comedy “High Fidelity” based on the Nick Hornby book), but the popularity among indie rock fan teenagers and twenty-somethings has helped it boom out more than ever to such a point that artists as mainstream as Taylor Swift make sure to press vinyl editions of their new work. Of course it’s still a niche market and the price of new vinyl coupled with the limitations and requirements it poses to mass consumption will never make its sells a drop in the bucket compared to legal and illegal digital downloads. But it is interesting. The part of this prompting the argument I am making here comes largely from the comment-thread in that last story. Every time there is a “vinyl is booming” new-story, there are dozens of people commenting things like “Huh? Why?” and dozens of audiophiles posting about the superior sound quality of vinyl vis-a-vis digital. These comment threads explode into over-the-top arguments as people seem to find each others arguments completely incomprehensible. Both have their points but both miss a key aspect of this hobby too. Vinyl does offer a warmer, fuller sound when the record is clean and well cared for, the turntable is of good quality, and the amp and speakers are the correct components. The clicks and pops won’t be there on new cared-for LPs (contrary to the arguments of those never having heard a new vinyl) and on older items a few introductory pops are indeed pleasantly nostalgic. The sound on a vinyl copy of, say,  “Abbey Road” compared with every CD pressing before last year’s remastering overhaul was miles ahead–I had no idea there were as many instruments and notes in the background as there were because of digital’s habit of maxing every sound to its top volume and then leveling it flat in a digital sample onto CD. Vinyl has a particular sound, one that jazz, blues, and classic rock built itself to suit for many years so of course a Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, or BB King record from the 1960s will sound miles ahead of its CD pressing. Yet the digital folks have their point to; properly mastered CDs sound great on the right system, are more portable and sound great cars. MP3s are enervated a bit every time they are opened to a certain extent but aren’t susceptible to human sound warping through scuffs and scratches and are the height of portability thus far. They do limit the sound by compressing it more than any format before (LPs give off sound waves, CDs sample soundwaves, mp3s compress those samples even more), but now high-quality 320 and up kpbs digital tracks are available that in most cases catch the quality of a sound recording the way it was supposed to be; the fact that sometimes that results in a high-gloss sheen that sounds “artificial” to some in comparison to the “warmth” offered by vinyl is due more to aesthetic and nostalgic sensibilities than fact. What both sides of this (admittedly to the outsider rather pointless and arbitrary) argument don’t give priority to nearly enough is the format-as-part-of-the-art fact: it certainly isn’t just sound that draws collectors and hipsters to vinyl. If I just want to hear a new album, a download is the most efficient way to get to do so, often cheap or free; I can carry it around with me and hear it in my car or with headphones. If I want a better sounding copy to carry with me most anyplace that also offers me the intended packaging, there’s CD. For me, I preview and listen and can love albums that I download but once I truly find a great one (or know beforehand it will be a great one), I don’t feel I have it in the proper format until I get it for my turntable. Not just for sound–for presentation, collection, and process. It sounds good on an old fashioned home stereo; it requires my involvement in that I place it on the turntable and put the needle to it. I hear the first and last track of the first side, which especially in vinyl-era releases was the result of a deliberate sequencing decision and then I flip it to side two and repeat the process. It requires my care in that I keep it clean and safe. It gives me a giant cover with full-size artwork and an inner sleeve, often liner notes and extras tucked within. It gives me a collectible to place on the shelf and pull down when I want to. The vinyl hobby itself sends me to new and used and out of the way places in the towns I live in or bargain hunting on line. There’s nothing better than getting a record never pressed on CD or sampled digitally or one you’d never have thought to get and getting it for a few dollars only to find out you love hearing it spin on your turntable.

Great art is great art regardless of how it is presented. Yet the vehicle of transmission can add to the joy of the experience one has when consuming such art. Certain movies look great on the big screen and are a joy to see collectively in a theater and seeing them alone at home on the TV often cannot match that. A visually stunning movie looks excellent on a a Blu-Ray player with a proper screen and sound-system and can be much more fun that trying to squint your eyes at your smartphone to watch it. A classic jazz record sounds best on the turntable; a nineties hip-hop album sounds best on CD in a car with great bass speakers. A great comic-arc reads best in a nice and carefully presented Omnibus but a one-off fun short story comic works best as a single issue. A thriller works best as a cheap paperback, a dense erudite work is best in a hardcover sewn volume. I would argue that a newspaper still reads best via newsprint but those days are almost gone. So sure, this involves primarily matters of opinion and personal taste and I’m sure there’s an entire generation of kids growing up right now who will find no problem digesting every bit of their media with a handheld device. Perhaps by then every bit of media will be created and be tailored for display on such a device and thus be unfit for presentation in any other way. But for now, in the supposed last days of physical media there are still things that work best in the format they were created in and for; and hey, if the digital pulse ever comes knocking out all RF, satellite and wi-fi signals those of us with any digital media at all might be able to use our collectibles as widespread currency ala “The Book of Eli.”

With Thor doing big things at the box office , now is as good as ever to do this article that I’ve been kicking around the past few weeks. My initial inspiration for this piece came from the comment threads on the various news-stories reporting the “controversy” in a recent celebratory issue of Superman in Action Comics #900. For those of you that missed it (it did become widely reported for all of 12 hours or so but those were the pre-death-of-bin-Laden-news-reporting-days) in a back up story in that landmark issue, Superman vowed to renounce his US citizenship so that his actions abroad would not be construed as actions of the US and that in a globalized and “smaller” world, he should serve and protect as citizen of the world. Anyway, many conservative sources lambasted this “liberal agenda” to, as some claimed, “brainwash our children.” Anyway, the comment threads on these stories, like the comment threads on every story the mainstream media has reported regarding comics in the past few years (Captain America’s assassination, Wonder Woman’s costume change, the Superman revamped earth-one origin in Stracyznski’s graphic novel), were laden with false assumptions by casual news readers who had never, or at least not in the past 30 years, read a comic (just like those reporting these stories). So what follows are 10 attempts to correct some broad false assumptions non-comic fans make concerning comics.

* Children make up the bulk of the audience for comic books

Those that worry DC has a nefarious plan to brainwash children into liberal hippies need not have too much concern because those under 18 make up a very small corner of comic readership. Though actual statistics drawn from research into the matter aren’t a deep well, most data of any kind point to the average reader being mid to late twenties; 28 comes up as the “average reader” in many sources, but arguments could easily be made for the mid-thirties being closer to the truth. Regardless, the under 16 crowd is not even a notable fraction of the comic readership base. Go into any comic shop in the US and you will likely find 20, 30, 40, and 50-year-old guys scattered about, especially on “new comics” day (Wednesday) when the new titles ship each week (occasionally women as well, though comics, particularly “mainstream” comics are more than 3/4 male supported). There are a number of reasons for this, some good some bad; positively, it means that comic publishers have managed to retain an audience over a long portion of time or at least able to entice “return customers” to begin following the adventures of characters in a medium they likely first encountered in adolescence. Also, because of this comics have aimed at telling stories that older readers want to read; thus writers in even the “juvenile’ genre of super-hero comics often finds ways to tell mature, thoughtful, or at least exciting stories adults want to read. Negatively, the reason more children aren’t reading is because comics are sold through a direct-market system: comic publishers sell through a third-party distributor (primarily “Diamond Comics Distributor”) which ships their products to comic shops which sell those comics to readers. This has been the primary model since the 1980s; and increasingly the local comic shop (with the more recent competition of online direct market options) has become the ONLY place to purchase the majority of comic titles. Remember the spinning racks at bookstores, grocery stores, gas stations, etc? When’s the last time you saw one of those? Most non-comic-shop locations no longer sell comics and unless the parents are readers themselves, most won’t take their children to the comic shop very often and if they do, they will likely notice many of these places aren’t exactly kid friendly or welcoming to the under 16 crowd.

* Comics are only about superheroes

Recent movies based on comics certainly show that super heroes are certainly big in comics–Thor, Batman, Iron Man, etc. Yet some great movies in recent years not about superheroes were also based on comics–V For Vendetta, Ghost World, Persepolis, and Road to Perdition to name a few. But certainly superheroes are the primary focus of the majority of comics to line the shelves in your average comic shop and their exploits make-up almost the entirety of “mainstream” comics. Yet scratch just a bit below the surface and you’ll find a breadth of creativity and a wealth of variety. Published as an imprint of DC is the Vertigo line which distributes cutting-edge subject matter and plots by new talent with the power and backing of  a mainstream company. Vertigo has delivered some of the best and most ground-breaking work in the history of comics: the award-winning high-brow literary epic The Sandman; the neo-noir impeccably plotted begging-for-an-HBO adaptation 100 Bullets; the dystopian gender-issue action adventure Y the Last Man; the religious mythology challenging Preacher; and the current soon-to-be classics Scalped, Northlanders and The Unwritten to name just a few. Artists and writers who went on to great acclaim and creative excellence in comics, film, and literature such as Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, and Brian Azarello all put in early work at Vertigo. Then there are the myriad of titles  cranked out by various independent publishers that are thoughtful, challenging, literate titles about everything from complicated romantic entanglements (Strangers in Paradise) to ghosts, murder, and mysteries (Locke and Key), or that focus on youthful attempts at growing up and coming into ones own as a springboard for detailing the geographic scenes in minute and exquisite detail of every town along the way (Local).

* “Real” writers don’t write comics

Define “real writer” for me anyway. Regardless, you have comic scribes who win acclaim for the medium and then go on to do the same with novels, short stories, and screenplays (Neil Gaiman); you have screenwriters and novelists who try their hand at comics to great results (Joe Hill, Brad Meltzer, Joss Whedon). Then you have great writers, past and present, who just understand how to tell a great story and find the best medium to do that in to be comics, independent or mainstream (Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Gail Simone, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, etc.)

* Comics are cheap and disposable/  Comics are valuable Collectibles

Both of these seemingly opposite sentiments are both wrong when they push too far to either extreme.  Chances are the majority of comics you buy new off the shelf this year will not be worth even the cover price in a couple of months. Those that stock up on new comics for investments are the few and far between misguided folks who think it’s the early nineties again. Yet you won’t get these comics too cheap either, with DC charging 2.99 an issue, Marvel charging 3.99 for most issues, and independent companies falling somewhere between. Many shops offer discounts to subscribers and online options can save you a ton of cash, but if you want the experience (like most do) of going into the shop on Wednesday to pick up your new titles, to read them as they come out in installments waiting to see what will happen next, and conversing about them with your on and off-line friends, you’re going to be spending a few bucks to do so and if you don’t plan on keeping them to reread, file, and enjoy later, then you’re paying for a one-time use of each of those comics that even when read carefully and correctly will take all of 15 minutes a piece.On the other hand, a good way that comics not  “cheap and disposable,” is in the massive market for high-quality trades and collections. Want a leather-bound, sewn-bound, complete run of your favorite series in a large format with remastered print from the ’50s or even last year? You can probably find it; it will look great on your shelf, it will hold up to as many readings as you desire, and it will work great as a loan to friends you want to hook to your hobby. Don’t want to pay for the monthly installments of your title and are not to worried about staying in the circle of dialogue and speculation about the monthly plots? Then hold out 6 months, you can find a cheap paperback collection of the complete story0arc of any title you wish that will deliver the story just as entertainingly but for a fraction of the cost.

* Comic readers all look and act like that guy from The Simpsons.

We don’t. Well, at least not all of us.

* Comics are those things in the newspaper

So there’s this thing called “National Read Comics in Public Day.” It’s main purpose is to get those various folks who read all varieties of comics out in the parks, bars, subways, etc. reading them in front of the general public to let the masses who don’t know what they are understand a better idea of the variety inherent both in them and in their fan-base. Anyway, NPR did a story on it and hyped it for its fans and random folks in the comment threads incessantly referenced the “funnies.” NOT the same thing; those do employ graphic storytelling, but of a much more primitive method. Certain strips and the creators producing those strips have excelled in that medium making such a “primitive” art form classic, enduring and literate (Peanuts, Doonesubury, etc.), but the average “funny” is not the same thing as the average graphic novel. Oh, and drivel like The Family Circus and even the deeply funny Far Side are not even comic strips–a single panel without movement is its own art form and medium.

* Comics are a derivative medium

Graphic storytelling via the comic medium is an artistic outlet like no other; they are not “picture books” and the story you read in a novel or watch on the big screen cannot do the exact things that a comic can–those other mediums can tell stories equally as good (or as bad) as a comic, they just cannot tell the story in the exact way that a comic can. Film more than any other medium comes closest in that it also tells a story with words and pictures, but comics are like films with no budget and no limitation other than the imagination of the author and artist. Scott McCloud wrote a wonderful non-fiction graphic novel exploration of what comics are and how they function as a medium, Understanding Comics. He brilliantly walks readers through the tools graphic storytellers have at their disposal. Not every comic employs all of these tools, but the good ones do; comics are about making the pictures move in your mind, and often the action that occurs between the panels. They’re about the rapport between the writer and the artist, finding those great partnerships when the scenes a writer envisions are brought to life, framed, and detailed for an audience. Comics can work in a fluid, fast manner or a slow, attentive-to-detail meander, or even a back-and-forth between the two. They can tell you a whole story or bring you to a cliffhanger and make you wait. They can direct where you place your eyes and what you see there. They can do more than any other visual medium when they are truly produced by artists at the top of their game.

* Comics are misogynistic or sexist.

This one too often comes even from within the fan-base, usually from readers who consider themselves connoisseurs of literate, alternative, and “artistic” works tired of “defending” themselves to the non-comic reading public and in doing so concede that mainstream comics are sexist, but they aren’t fans of that kind of comic. There are great comics all around, past and present; some mainstream, some alternative, some wordy, some pure escapism and zany. So fine, if you only like the “literate” and “respectable” titles, that’s okay. But don’t condemn the majority of titles as “sexist” let alone “misogynistic” just because they aren’t your cup of tea. First off, misogynistic is a strong word implying degradation, violence against women, and a boys-club ethos of superiority over the other sex. I don’t find this in mainstream comics on any notable basis. So let’s go with “sexist.” This claim is drawn basically from the artwork that depicting colorful drawings of women with “exaggerated” female forms in skimpy, tight costumes (or less). Those certainly do abound in the superhero genre. So if the claim is that this alone makes them sexist or degrading, I suppose there is not much of an argument to counter that with. But such an assumption is false. Superficially, everything in superhero comics is drawn in over-the-top exaggerated ways; sure most women don’t look or dress like Wonder Woman, but do most men look or dress like Superman? Hardly. Their physical forms are largely unattainable for either gender and that is because superhero comics are pure fantasy. Moving past the superficial level (and completely ignoring the many pencilers who employ creative, “alternative” art styles to “mainstream” works), what can be pointed to in said comics that is sexist beyond appearance? Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Zatanna, She Hulk, Black Widow, etc are never “second-tier” to their male companions. DC has done great things with female leads in their own titles–Batgirl, Power Girl, Supergirl, Zatanna–and over at Marvel Sue Storm, Maria Hill, Mystique and the rest are never the sort to cow to male advice or commands. Oracle practically orchestrates every “bat” hero from her wheelchair and can still take care of herself in the field! Wonder Woman is just as strong and intimidating to the guys in her world both as hero and off-duty in her personal relationships! I’ve never seen (at least in modern times) a scene in mainstream comics where the male heroes chat about their superiority over the women either. Even the most provocatively dressed characters like Vampirella or Red Sonja (in horror and fantasy genres no less) are strong, intelligent, quick-witted protagonists who never falter against even their strongest male counterparts (Dracula and Conan, respectively). In the comics field itself we have strong female writers (Gail Simone) who have written some of those titles (Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman), and even artists who play up the campy eye candy (Amanda Connor). Female publishers and executives can be found at DC; some of the smartest critical reviews of comics are done by women (Blair Butler at G4s Fresh Ink, Sarah Morean at The Daily Crosshatch). Sure there are more down to earth, inspiring and realistic portrayals of women in comics (Strangers in Paradise, Love and Rockets, Local, Echo, etc). But don’t unfairly blanket the over-the-top escapism of the mainstream as being sexist simply for exaggerated artwork.

10) King: A Comics Biography- Ho Che Anderson

Ho Che Anderson’s massive “King” compiles the three Fantagraphic novels he wrote and illustrated over the course of nearly twenty years (partly due to his own struggles with addiction as noted in the commentary essay in this volume, one of a slew of extras). The art is amazing–wholly original and stark, shifting and versatile. This was an attempt at portraying King as a real human amidst a particularly volatile struggle and historical setting. As such, Anderson doesn’t try to display just King the icon or giant–though at attempting to deconstruct him and display all of his flawed humanity, he displays some of that greatness even better. Along the way readers get to see balanced and complex portrayals of JFK and other key figures from the era and the struggle of the civil rights movement. A dense work that adds something new to the already wide variety of biographies on this leading American figure, but one that manages to utilize the comics medium to do things otherwise impossible. The multi-angle “commentary” on King by figures around him praising or lamenting him can get brutal, especially when detailing the rants of “average” racists of the time. “King” is worthy of reading even by non-comics fans. The only thing keeping this tome from ranking higher on the list is that it is very dense and there are moments when you get bogged down in the depth of a particular page.

9) Stuck Rubber Baby – Howard Cruse

This is another black-and-white graphic novel set in the south during the civil rights movement and based on fact, in this case a comic autobiography of someone coming out of the closet during that volatile period. “Stuck Rubber Baby” is gorgeously illustrated by the writer, each page has an incredibly detailed and warm feel, and it’s easy to see what caused the author to work on it for so long. It is also very interesting to see how closely intertwined the struggle facing gays and blacks was (and arguably is), and in this particular example the two struggles overlapped to a great deal in large part because these friends often fell in both categories and the struggle for rights under the threat of violence took its toll on both communities. This graphic novel was originally published 15 years ago but was out of print when Vertigo got the publishing rights and released this excellent new edition.

8 ) Fantastic 4

Fantastic 4 was Marvel’s best book and one of the funnest superhero monthlies (and certainly of Marvel’s) in 2010 under the formidable talent of writer Jonathan Hickman. Unfortunately the current arc is leading up to a “death” of one of the four key characters; I’m sure Hickman will tell this chapter in an entertaining way but I’m equally sure that in a year at most that same character will be back–there have been enough of these hyped up “deaths” this year (and many other years), so Hickman is doing himself a disservice to sink to such a ploy, but I’m reading along anyway (and the same thing for DC’s Batman this year under Grant Morrison turned out to be a lot of fun if only for giving us this new “Batman Inc” and allowing other characters to shine for awhile).  The single issue in which Ben Grimm gains the ability to be transformed into his old self sans the rocky exterior for a night on the town with Johnny Storm culminating with a surprise visit to his long-time girlfriend is perhaps the second best single (“floppy”) issue of the year (for the best, see later in this list). That issue was a sort of interlude and the main arc consisting of many superb sub-arcs was almost equally entertaining, from the multiple-universe battles between different Reed Richards’s to Sue Storm’s liaison to Atlantis, the Foundation for the Future group and the adopted child geniuses, the intergalactic and inter-dimensional family adventures, the teamwork with Victor Von Doom, and the reappearance of the Silver Surfer acting as herald for Galactus, this book delivered classic Marvel thrills for the 21st century in a traditional yet fresh way…all at the old 2.99 price point, one of the last titles Marvel hasn’t yet sold out on its fan base to sell.

7) Echo – Terry Moore

Terry Moore continued to deliver his independently published title with about 8 more issues making a 2010 appearance as the end of this title fast approaches…each issue might be a bit short at 20 pages a piece, but each page is filled with his wonderful dialogue and excellent pencils. I love each issue, from the cryptic historical quote and pace-setting snapshot opening to each cliff-hanger ending. Moore gives us a realistic, terrifying, all-too-plausible scientific horror story and ended the year with an unlikely tie-in to his long running completed masterpiece “Strangers in Paradise.” I like most who caught that am unsure how he plans to tie these very different pieces of comic landscape together, but I trust he won’t let us down after this great ride thus far. Let’s just hope Julie and her pals make it out alive, she’s been a charming heroine throughout.

6) Wednesday Comics

Rather than paste a picture of the cover, I couldn’t resist showing off some of the excellent art by Amanda Connor who fuses vivacious with humorous and cartoon so deftly as she does in her “Supergirl” strip here. This was the best coffee-table book of the year but much more than just that! It’s huge, measuring at 18 by ll.5 inches. The size makes it nearly impossible to fit it on any book shelf, but it shows off the artwork fantastically–those diverse, creative, colorful pencil and ink or paint drawings. The concept was to take the “Sunday Funnies” and do a “Wednesday Comics” version–ship a newspaper of 15 stories each week in serial form, which DC did last year for 12 weeks using some of the biggest names in comics. This year that successful experiment got the deluxe hardcover collection to display those strips in a new and collected way, trading up the newsprint for high quality paper but keeping the size. Most of the writing is pretty good, especially considering the way these writers had to restrict their length to fit each installment on a single over-sized page. “100 Bullets” partners Brian Azarello and Eduardo Risso give us a solid “Batman” story,  Amanda Connor is always a blast on female superhero stories as well as perfectly matched with Jimmy Palmiotti as a writer, and her “Supergirl” strip is a hoot. Neil Gaiman gives Metallo a shot and delivers some artistic quirkiness,  Lee Bermejo draws some jaw-dropping “Superman” sequences, Paul Pope gives us a fantastic “Adam Strange” story, and everyone else does nice work as well.

5) Chew

“Chew” continued to be a blast, even better this year than last. Each panel is loaded with gags and Easter-eggs, each joke works, and each issue holds up to repeat reads. The characters are fantastic, the situations absurd. Even amidst the absurdity and jokes, all of which are illustrated in a laugh-out-loud comical manner, the action and suspense still manages to excite. Who would imagine that a story focusing on FDA agents policing a US in which poultry is outlawed in the wake of a bird flu would be so much fun (and so oddly believable)? Add to that a government conspiracy, a handful of people with different “food-based” special abilities, “vampires,” aliens, cyborg-cops, dysfunctional families, and poultry-pushing crime syndicates and you have the best and most absurd slapstick comic in years.

4) Justice League Generation Lost

DC has managed to keep their big flagship super-team book (JLA) pretty much unreadable for too many years to count, but thanks to “Brightest Day,” we got this book sharing a bit of that title but with none of the big names–bringing back Keith Giffen’s international version of the team, the “B-list” heroes, “Generation Lost” manages to display those supposed second-tier characters in a fun, captivating, and cool way. This was the most fun super-heroes were in 2010; this book had it all–big fight scenes, funny jokes, mystery, suspense, cliff-hangers, time travel to apocalyptic possible futures, retconned origins that were better than the original versions, group chemistry, treacherous villains, and pretty much anything else a comic fan might want from such a book. A great bi-weekly series that seemed to up the ante with each issue and was actually better than the actual “event” that ushered it in.

3) Demo vol 2

Everyone praised “Daytripper” as Vertigo’s best and most heartfelt mini- of the year, but I vote for “Demo volume 2.” Sure, that other mini- had “big” issues of life and death at its forefront, its art was beautiful and it had more than its share of tear-jerk moments, but “Demo” gave us casual moments of life and death too,beauty in unexpected places, and “powers” that don’t seem so magical. Brian Wood is a terrific writer whether up close and personal in this and “Local,” or bigger than life in “Northlanders” and “DMZ.”  Each “Demo” stand-alone installment was packed with importance even in sparse panels and Becky Cloonan’s black and white pencils were gorgeous. The “Volume One Love Story” was the best of the lot and the year’s most unlikely yet fulfilling romance, perhaps seconded by another Demo, “Stranded” (after the tragedy ended anyway). “Pangs” was downright horrific, “The Waking Life of Angels” is a bit in the vein of this year’s “Black Swan” film as far as claustrophobic psychologically scary goes; “Sad and Beautiful World” was just devastating. These were emotional tales that merged the line between romance and tragedy, comedy and horror, all under the guise of supposed “gifts” that ordinary folks find themselves with–“Demo” is a cynical look at what “superpowers” would be apt to be like in the real world.

2) Brave and the Bold #33

J. Michael Stracynzski really dropped the ball on “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” this year and gave a whole new generation of fans reason to hate his work, but he was on his A-game for this excellent one-shot story in “Brave and the Bold” which featured a missing tale from Batgirl’ s history (turning out in the surprise ending to be her last possible chronological story before she became Oracle). It was 2010’s best single “floppy” issue. The story follows as Zatanna gets a premonition that something bad is around the corner and arranges a girls night out with Wonder Woman and Batgirl. The girls tear through bars and sing karaoke, then sober up over coffee and conversation just before dawn in a diner and on the final page we find out this is directly before the events of “Killing Joke” as Barbara Gordon arrives home. This was a perfect book for DC fans, giving us a missing piece of history that felt unforced and natural and in doing so, JMS topped off a fun (and stunningly illustrated by Cliff Chiang) one-off with a heartbreaking final twist that lands this tale solidly in DC history.

1) Unknown Soldier

Joshua Dysart and Albert Ponticello’s jaw-dropping, emotionally devastating, and pitch-perfect 25 issue run on Vertigo’s “Unknown Soldier” came to a close this year; they had gotten notice in plenty of time that 25 issues would be the end of their run regardless of how many they had planned to try for, so Dysart was able to plot the story so that nothing was left unanswered and it could come to a natural close. He does so perfectly and as a reader I wasn’t left feeling cheated (as I was a bit with “Young Liars” and to an extent “Vinyl Underground” which faced this same problem), though I would have proffered an additional 25 issues. The ones we got in 2010 were phenomenal and this rounded off a work of art that was not only the best comic of 2010 but one of the best and most important pop culture products of the past few years–these 25 issues are crying out for a massive hardcover Omnibus complete with Dysart’s essays and historical recounts, hopefully withsome unpublished extras–plot lines, sketches, research pieces, etc.  DC’s classic “Unknown Soldier” was pretty much a pulp romp featuring a WWII soldier with a bandaged face, but what we get in the 2000s version is a pacifist turned violent force of a man etching out revenge and survival in Uganda. Each part of the story dealt with harsh realities yet occasionally with hidden beauty and life.Each character was vibrant and real, each facet of culture exhaustively researched and authentically portrayed. This book ratcheted from horror to romance to political commentary and gave readers characters, settings, and situations rarely found in any American media. This book held a microscope up to issues ignored by the mainstream media as the protagonist strove to put an end to Joseph Cony’s child-soldier-training reign of terror; this book dealt with difficult ideological debate as it examined the pull of pacifism and its seeming impossibility in the face of abject horror. This was a tough, thoughtful, unflinching, terrifying, despairing, inspiring, hopeful, tragic, bloody, violent, caring, hard-working, faithful, beautiful, real story that deserves to be read but is often emotionally difficult to do so. In the process Dysart gave us a twist we didn’t see coming, a tie to that older DC staple, and a fulfilling, logical, yet expected disheartening ending.

I’m a student of religion and philosophy and I’m also a medium-grade comic geek. These two loves rarely overlap in my writing, but this particular article unites the two interests (which means fewer readers are likely to be interested!). In this particular article, I’m not even talking about the big, literate, “artsy” comics either– a lot of religious parallels can be found in the work of Gaiman, Moore, Ennis, and the like– read my Preacher book review for a stab at that. No, this is continuity-traversing, in-universe superhero comics here: Max Lord, affiliated with the Justice League International in the DC comics universe to be precise.

The retcon (“retroactive continuity” to be precise)  is a common tool in the mainstream superhero comic medium (I wager that it is in daytime soaps as well). Basically, the retcon takes a character that has been around and used in various prior ways and starts them on a new path with a different past– a famous modern example is what’s going on over in Marvel comics with Spider-Man. In the pages of “Amazing Spider Man,” Peter Parker made a deal with the devil of the Marvel universe (Mephisto) to save his aunt’s life and as a result his past marriage to Mary Jane Watson never occurred. Thus, the story recast Parker as a single guy juggling dating with all the other facets of his life to make him more relatable to unmarried readers, I presume. Currently an arc in “Amazing” is dealing with just what did happen on the what-would-have-been-wedding-day and filling in the gaps of the changed history in the Quesada-penned “One Moment in Time.” In many ways, though, what’s occurred in “Amazing” is incongruous with most ret-cons. Most ret-cons would have simply started off with a new story arc, possibly with a new numbering system, and have Peter single, never having been married, and nothing would be mentioned about this glaring change– readers would simply shrug and move on with the story if the writer did his job well enough. Of course, Spidey’s a bit of a big-name, his history was to in-depth and prominent for such a move. But that’s not the case for Maxwell Lord over at DC.

See, Maxwell Lord has had a quite twist-and-turny sort of history; he started the Justice League International and caused the death of a villain he had set up in the first place to publically prove his new groups mettle. Then he shifted from being outright evil to simply being an unscrupolous and greedy businessman. Later, he was a cyborg–then he came back and the turn to cyborg was written out as if it never occurred. His back story gradually became one that played all of his past motives in a much more sinister light to set him up as the villain in the OMAC debacle which resulted in Wonder Woman snapping his neck, an event that had ill effects on her public reputation to say the least, but it was a move she felt had to be made to save the world. Now, the glaring retcon is the cyborg issue–seriously, a character becomes a cyborg, operates as a cyborg, then returns later and the whole cyborg thing is neglected to be mentioned?

….I do realize I’ve lost most rational people at this point, but hey.

All of this fails to matter for what we have with Max Lord now, other than these few facts: A) He was/is evil  B) He formed the JLI  C)Wonder Woman killed him…but now with this only-in-comics-or-daytime-soaps addition…D) During a DC mega summer event (“Blackest Night”), Max was resurrected and only the members of the team he formerly created have any idea who he is.

That’s the premise of “Justice League: Generation Lost,” a bi-weekly title from DC that is entertaining, funny, exciting, and a worthy read twice each month. JLI was originally penned by superhero yet comic (in the humor sense) writer Keith Giffen, who appears now only in the breakdown department. Judd Winnick is the current scribe, pulling out the humor touch he employed so well in his creator-owned career-starting work “Barry Ween Boy Genius” (non comic fans might know Winnick from MTV’s “The Real World,” some early season of it) as well as his knowledge of the DC Univese gained from writing dozens of its titles over the past couple of years. JLI was fun in that it was the b- and c-listers who populated its ranks–the Justice League had always been Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. JLI gave readers Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom…and it worked in unconventional ways that was fun to read. Now, JLI: Generation Lost,” under the “Brightest Day” banner gives readers a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, and with issue 6 (the best so far), a futuristic Twilight Zone-esque tale.

So what does this have to do with the Bible? I’m certain to offend all sorts of folks by drawing any comparisons from the pop-stew mess above to scripture, but when thinking about the retcon I thought about the Bible.  I remembered a paper I worked on about King Sennacherib of the Assyrians in my first-year OT Exegesis course. There are three major sources on Sennacherib: the book of Isaiah, the book of 2 Kings, and the annals of Sennacherib which Assyria recorded. Taking just the Biblical text, since that is the focus here, there are three conflicting accounts of  King Sennacherib’s military siege of Judean land. Dating the text is a debated issue–some scholars posit the story to have first been in 2 Kings and then recounted in Isaiah, tweaked to reflect the theological position of that particular author(s). Others posit that it was first written in Isaiah and then retrofitted into later versions of 2 Kings.  If the story was first written in 2 Kings (and that account matches closest with the Assyrian version) King Hezekiah paid tribute to the Assyrian King Sennacherib to halt the siege of Jerusalem. The author of Isaiah retcons the story– Hezekiah does not pay tribute to Sennacherib and instead trusts in God for deliverance. In Isaiah, this works, and Sennacherib suffers for his siege.In the context of Isaiah and for the reason this story was being recounted, this version works. Readers of “Isaiah” might have been well aware of the earlier version but understood the reassurance this “tweaking” served in their context and under the oppression they found themselves in.

So yes, I think scriptural scribes might have been some of the earliest employers of the retcon tool. If you’re like me, a geek with an interest in religion and comic books, I recommend reading “Justice League: Generation Lost,” as well as Isaiah Chapter 36 and the book of 2 Kings. All 3 are good reads–tell me what you think.

Pause with me for a detour into the land of geek diatribes. I generally save my comic book posts for year-end recaps or notable graphic novel reviews, but the comic blogosphere is buzzing incessantly about this particular issue and the wealth of angry negativity addressed towards it provoked me to write a countering opinion.

Last month Superman issue #700 was released–quite an accomplishment for a book to be that long-running. Superman in its comic book incarnation has had its share of ups and downs, but when it’s up it is remarkable and worthy of the pop culture icon status its protagonist has held for multiple decades.  Issue 700 was underwhelming, however; consisting of a few short segments, the first was a nice epilogue to the “War of the Supermen” crossover that stretched out over several DC titles for the past year; the second was a “lost tale” of Superman helping Robin in Gotham; and the last was the prologue to the new arc which writer J M Straczynski has been tapped by DC to deliver. JMS set up the story quickly–a woman approached Superman and delivered a “slap heard ’round the world” to him because he wasn’t on earth to save her husband from cancer during his year-long absence. Had Superman been at the right place at the right time, he could have detected her husband’s cancer and helped to save him. Certainly Superman can’t be everywhere all the time, this is an issue introduced every so often as a story point; but this time it provoked Superman to become “grounded” for the near-future–walking around the country and trying to reacquaint himself with average people.

Issue 701 launched that story–Superman in full-on Forrest Gump mode, traversing the US and dealing with personal, one-on-one issues. The result from this reader’s point of view was an entertaining start to a story that could easily be one of the funnest and most “positive” comic reading experiences of the year…though the internet is quick to showcase this may be a minority opinion. First off is a clear hatred by many fanboys for JMS–though considered by many to be a top-notch writer in the comics field, his detractors consistently accuse him of being one of the worst (Jeph Loeb can be considered a person in this unflattering position as well). Some fans simply refuse to like anything with JMS’s name attached to it, for whatever reason. This is baffling in many ways though, because despite his occasional short-comings, he’s delivered some really great writing: the award winning run on “Thor,” the standalone “Girl’s Night Out” issue of “Brave and the Bold” (#33) this year which might be the best single issue of a main-stream comic all year, much of his pre-OMD/BND “Amazing Spider Man” run, and  his screenplay for the Eastwood-directed  modern classic “Changeling,” to name a few.

Then there’s the “not my Superman” furor–any time a new writer takes on a classic character, there’s an uproar that the current storyline or take doesn’t live up to a particular readers memories of their favorite prior take– JMS isn’t going to give us John Byrne’s, Kurt Busiek’s, Grant Morrison’s, or anyone else’s version of Superman–he’s going to give us JMS’s version of Superman. Not to say he’s going to deliver a fully original version either–Superman’s stories have been told for 60 years in multiple mediums and there’s arguably no Superman tale left untold. All a writer can do is deliver a Superman story that resonates, that taps into action, emotion, and fantasy; a Superman tale that sparks childlike wonder in the reader, that brings back the reader’s favorite Superman memories and reinterprets them in a way that makes them feel new. Superman is the superhero archetype and a good Superman reading experience invokes the aspects of comics reading that was most fun to us as children but that works for us in new ways as adults.

Now, JMS doesn’t execute the “good Superman storytelling” factors perfectly, but he’s on the right track. The best versions of Superman in recent years–Geoof Johns and Gary Franks run on “Action Comics,” Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s “All Star Superman,” Bryan Singer’s film “Superman Returns,” and perhaps seasons 2-4 of “Smallville”–rank with some of the best Superman tales ever, and that’s saying something. JMS isn’t quite there yet, but give him time, he’s only just begun this arc. Certainly, he’s aped or copycatted aspects (possibly inadvertently) of even those recent tales. Online critics have complained his 6 page suicide talk-down to the ledge sitter was done in one page in “All Star.” Yet that scene worked very powerfully here for JMS nonetheless.

What issue 701 gives us is a human Superman but a wise Superman. Here is a character that lives in a world where he must make the right choices; there is wrong and there is right, and although the real world gets so much messier, it doesn’t for Superman and his inner resolve or moral clarity never waivers. Some readers complained that he quoted Thoreau to a person crossing his path–I thought that worked marvelously. Or that out of respect for the law he didn’t enter the drug dealer’s houses but yet he looked in with his Xray vision and set their stashes on fire–yet that was an entertaining and likable scene. A huge complaint concerns the scene in which Superman approaches the elderly man with the heart condition–Superman tells the man to get to a doctor soon. Readers bemoan the fact that Superman didn’t rush the man to the clinic personally, but I would guess that Superman could tell from looking that death wasn’t imminent but that treatment was needed; it also shows that Superman believes the individual has personal responsibility–the man has been warned and now Superman trusts that the man is intelligent enough to take care of the problem.

Here’s the speech that many readers attacked: “…in the end, all we can do is look at where we’re standing and say we will not allow this, here. Over there has to stand for itself, has to speak for itself. Because it’s only when over there becomes here that we can stop this once and for all.”  This bit of comic book moralizing infuriated many a reader, but I found it wholly in line with this incarnation of Superman. Superman is attacking problems here, one at a time and on a personal level. He addresses some passer-by’s in a way that stresses they must become responsible for making the right decisions as well. He’s stressing we must first take care of ourselves and mind our own choices before we look to “correct” the choices of others; on from that, he’s saying that we have to take care of our environment and our community before branching out. Once this way of dealing with situations spreads out and “over there” begins to do the same thing, then in effect “over there” becomes “here” in a way that we are all taking care of ourselves and each other. Do I want this type of message in every comic? No. Do I always buy it or do I find some unrevealed and staggeringly original truth in its vocalization in a Superman comic that I’ve never found elsewhere? No. Do I agree with it on every level and in every way? No. But it works for this comic in this instance.

All in all, I’m excited about JMS’s current arc and look forward to see what comes out of it.