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.

 

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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.

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.

mccloud understanding cmx

Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” is the best critical analysis of the comic medium ever written. Equally as  important, it’s also a very entertaining comic in its own right. McCloud points out that all mediums and art-forms have a long history of self examination and exploration from within the movement itself, yet comics have only done that very minimally, with the work “Comics and Sequential Art”  by the master of comics Will Eisner being a notable exception, yet that work was written a half century ago, leaving much room to be covered.

“Understanding Comics” is part history lesson, part art criticism, part psychology, part sociology and part science. He breaks everything down to the root, the origins and the methods. How do comics work? What differentiates them from every other medium? What are they capable of and what should they strive to be?

The art is tremendous here as well. It’s very simplistic and “cartoony” predominantly, McCloud notes later that basic, “cartoony” work is adaptable and perceived to be very relatable to a wide margin of people. In a sense, we can all place ourselves in the shoes of a more simplistic looking cartoon or comic character more than a very detailed realistic looking picture which will automatically exclude many people on physical matters alone. Yet in McCloud’s exploration of artistic styles and methods comics use, sudden panels will look photo-realistic, or impressionistic, or even of a “high art” quality. McCloud is seemingly capable of any sort of art style he should desire to use, which makes his use of more supposedly “simple” methods all the more admirable. In the chapter on motion, the art runs and jumps and spins through the pages like a film, and in chapters on layout and composition the material will slow to a freeze point so that every important matter can be dissected.

The entire work is highly readable, never does it become dry, dull or overly like a textbook. This book deserves to be used in art classes, literature classes and sociology classes across the board because it is very bright, very academic, very deep yet unpretentiously so. A critical analysis that is utterly entertaining, at times humorous and informative of many broad areas that can be appreciated by those familiar or totally unfamiliar with the medium, with pieces of information that can teach even the most sophisticated and knowledgeable fan a thing or two new, it’s hard to beat this book with any remotely similar.

Okay, first off it’s been quite awhile since I’ve followed along with this thread. Way back on August 20th, 2008 I posted an article here titled “10 Great Examples of Comic Book Literature” and I stated that I would eventually post a book review of each of the ten items. If you’ve missed those and would like to read any of them, here’s a quick recap. In parenthesis after each article title I’ll list the date it was originally posted up on my site, so you can scroll through the archives to find it if you’d like.

1) 10 Great Examples of Comic Book Literature (August 20th 2008)

2) The Watchmen Book Review (August 27th, 2008)

3) The Preacher Book Review (October 21st, 2008)

4) The Sandman Book Review (November 11th, 2008)

I’ve had other comic articles but only those four of the ten reviews so far. So now, here’s the 5th, the “Swamp Thing” Review. Next up, within the next month or so will be the “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud Review.

swamp_thing_and_abbey

So maybe you’ve seen “The Watchmen” film. Maybe it intrigued you enough to go out and pick up a copy of the graphic novel it’s based on and you’ve read it…and if that’s true, and you like good literature yet are new to the graphic storytelling medium, you were probably astounded that a comic book was capable of the intensity, emotional engagement, intellectual pondering and sophistication that “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons was.

Now you want to know what’s next. If you’ve picked up a comic by DC in the past few months, you’ve  probably seen a full page add, “What’s Next?” and it lists a slew of suggested Watchmen follow-ups, most highly worthy of your time if you want to take the next plunge.  Yet Moore’s work is missing from the recommendations, and if you truly want some groundbreaking, excellent Moore writing, your next stop should be his fantastic run on “Swamp Thing.”

Alan Moore is brilliant, eccentric and scathing towards any naysayer’s, critics, contemporaries and those seeking to adapt his work to any other medium. In his field, he’s pretty much Shakespeare to most fans. Certainly that sounds grandiose, hyperbolic and a tad pretentious. He’s not as talented as Shakespeare or many other literary greats. Yet to do the type of work he has done, and to sell much of it close to the mainstream as far back as the early 1980s working in the field he was working in is quite an achievement. There have been many other great, groundbreaking, boundary pushing writers and artists in comics, contemporary with and post Alan Moore. Going as far back as the underground “comix” explosion of the ‘60s to the indie and small press “smart” books of the ‘80s and especially in the Vertigo line of DC in the ‘90s with Moore disciples like Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis and taking root in many companies today with mainstream and underground work done by writers as varied as Jeff Smith, Grant Morrison and Jason Aaron. Yet Moore pushed things further than readers and industry thought possible when he first started his major works. He showed the world what the medium was truly capable of. That a well done comic can do anything a well done novel can, anything that a well done film can, anything that a great on-going television series can, and certain things that no other medium is quite capable of doing at all.

“Swamp Thing” shouldn’t have been this good. The concept, the name and the image it invokes sounds like cheap, B-level horror schlock. It was a character created by other people (Lee Weinstein and Bernie Wrightson),  30 some odd issues into a superhero horror comic and on it’s way to the cancellation bin when Alan Moore was handed the reins to DC’s “Swamp Thing in the early ‘80.  The Swamp Thing story and origin had varied in different versions, but in the series that Moore was handed the tale had been following Alec Holland, a scientist working in the Louisiana swampland. Holland was sabotaged by nefarious bad guys, a chemical explosion left him fleeing into the swamp. He emerged later as a swamp creature, and the series followed random horror and supernatural events he encountered as the Swamp Thing. Moore immediately reconfigured the entire heart of the tale in his first Swamp Thing story, “The Autopsy.”  Turns out that the creature isn’t Holland but a living embodiment of “the green,” an earth elemental. A living plant that had thought it was Holland because the accident had fused his memories and personality with the plant life to create the Swamp Thing.

Now of course this sounds out there. Over the course of approximately 30 issues Alan Moore writes, and Stephen Bissette and John Totleben handle the art for a range of stories covering everything from environmental rights, conservation and extremism, fears of nuclear proliferation and waste, racism, sexism, family and relationship dynamics, religion, magic, horror, love, hallucinogenic, poetry, prose, regional disparities, psychology, tension, lust, violence, anger, heaven, hell and the list goes on. Collected by Vertigo/DC you can find the entire Moore run in 6 collected volumes. Try the first three to get a feel for the scope, each volume stands alone to tell 1 or 2 major stories.  Early stories are primarily horror and suspense based yet as the series goes on and Moore elevates his character’s incarnation, introduces John Constantine (to go on to star in a 250 and counting series “Hellblazer”) and explores the different niche genres this story is capable of encompassing the series has plenty of variety to experience.

I’ve raved about Moore’s writing on the series, but the art is pretty fantastic as well. It’s a truly involving and unique story, I doubt you’ll find anything like it in any other comic or anywhere else for that matter.