Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Favorite Comics of 2010: A Very Biased List

On the whole, I dislike all of this Top Ten ____ of the Year foofraw we get in December, though I can understand a big impulse behind it: creating new content all year long is exhausting, and the short, grey days and long dark nights with which the Northern Hemisphere concludes a calendar year lend themselves to a certain tendency to look back and reflect. Was it a good year? Was it horrible? And we all like to choose a lens through which to do so.
I have succumbed to this, but draw the line at choosing an arbitrary number of things to highlight, so I'm just throwing this out to the ether as my personal list of favorite comics of 2010. I list them in no particular order except that in which I thought of them, which may or may not indicate a measurement of my passion for them.
You will notice there are no superhero comics on this list. I'm not a superhero comics reader. I'm not a big fan of the genre generally, and I especially dislike what the Big Two publishers have done with it -- all the spinoffs and extra titles, the storylines that disappear up their own assholes, the variant covers. Bah! I fully admit this is at least, in part, a wholly irrational prejudice of mine given that I do like, e.g. Kurt Busiek's ASTRO CITY and the occasional superhero novel (for an excellent discussion of the superhero novel and if its day has finally come, I refer you to my good friend Adam Christopher's recent essay on the subject HERE).
As for what I do like, well, dear reader, read on!
META 4 - Written and Drawn by Ted McKeever (Image Comics/Shadowline Publications)
I have already shared my overwhelming love for this series, in great detail, via a formal review over at Indie Pulp. Since the appearance of that review, two more issues of this mini-series have hit your Friendly Local Comics Store, and my appreciation has only grown. This is a complex and demanding book with precisely the right title, as much an exploration of metaphors and how our brains work with them as a tale of an amnesiac astronaut, a muscle woman who speaks only in dingbats and an ambiguous quest that leads them from Coney Island to a missile testing site in Nevada. Every single panel of this book demands very careful examination, and seems to communicate a slightly different message each time it is examined. The fact that McKeever's art is deeply meditative and gorgeous and and all but tactile (McKeever's expressionistic style features a lot of thick and powerful brush strokes one wants to just reach out and trace with a fingertip) makes this re-examination a pleasure. Four issues in, I still can't say for sure what this story is about in the traditional narrative sense, but that's rarely the point, with McKeever. What it's about, is its impact on you, which is profound, and profoundly enjoyable. Plus, this book marks McKeever's return to creator-owned work, in which milieu he shows even long-time fans of such McKeeveriana as Metropol, Eddy Current, Toxic Gumbo and the like, that we really ain't seen nothing yet!
A trade paperback will appear when the series is complete, and will, I suspect, vastly augment the already astonishing experience of reading the floppies -- and since with every new issue I've felt the need, more than with any other book, to go back and re-read from the very beginning, I know whereof I speak, here.
Chew - Written by John Layman, Art by Rob Guillory - Image Comics
My love for this series is also no surprise to anyone who follows me on Twitter or reads Suppertime Sonnets, where I've rhapsodized a bit about it. Since it won the Eisner Award for Best New Series, and two Harvey Awards (Best New Series and Best New Talent), and since its trade paperbacks tend to show up on the New York Times Bestseller lists a bit, most regular comics fans are already pretty aware of it, but if you're not one who follows that kind of news, I'll give you a thumbnail as to why you don't want to miss this before the TV show debuts (for yes, there will be one).
Following the exploits and pratfalls of FDA agent Tony Chu and his colleages as they try to bust black market chicken rings and stranger cases, Chew is a fine stew of crime fiction, science fiction and satire. Its world is one in which a supposed outbreak of bird flu has led to a government ban on chicken and FDA agents are the new crime-fighting superstars. Enter Tony, perhaps the FDA's dream agent, for he is a cibopath: one bite of anything and his weird psychic ability absorbs its whole story. Contemplate how a guy like that investigates a homicide for a moment. Ew. And yes, Chew goes there, hilariously.
The story so far has incorporated a strange fruit of unknown (likely alien) origin that tastes just like chicken but may be far more than that, a romance between Tony and a newspaper's food columnist whose own psychic gifts give her readers a visceral experience of her meals (imagine the effect of such a power if used to explore the delights of a restaurant that has failed many health inspections. Yes, Chew goes there, hilariously), one sidekick who dies and is resurrected as a cyborg, and the exploits of a rooster named Poyo, King of Cocks. All drawn in Guillory's wildly cartoony style. This is funky, funny stuff, even without Guillory's tendency to leave seriously thigh-slapping easter eggs in lots of his panels, which he does with gleeful abandon.
I cannot recommend this series highly enough.
The Sixth Gun - Written by Cullen Bunn, Art by Brian Hurtt - Oni Press
Weird westerns grow more popular by the month, and The Sixth Gun is a fine example of why. Exploring the aftermath of an alternate U.S. Civil War in which some of the worst of the bad guys got their hands on some of the worst mystical weapons in human history -- weapons which change form to suit the times and currently manifest as otherworldly six-shooters -- this book puts the last and most powerful of these guns in the hands of an innocent young woman, matches her up with a gunfighter with a history of fighting the occult and the awful, and pits them against the aforementioned baddies, who need all six weapons to bring about their longed-for Apocalypse, with spectacular and cinematic effect. This comic needs a score that's half Ennio Morricone and half Angelo Badalamenti, as plots within plots unfold and horrors are unleashed on a seriously epic scale. Artist Hurtt brings Bunn's terrible visions vividly to life (I still shiver at the image of the mystical tree from which dead, hanged bastards serve as oracles). Bloodbaths, undead armies, unwashed mountain men and evil, witchy widows with a penchant for bringing their dead husbands back to life over and over again populate this universe, which never loses its plausibility for a second. It's great, pulpy fun and one of the best examples of sheer storytelling power on the comics market today.
iZombie - Written by Chris Roberson - Pencils by Mike Allred - Colors by Laura Allred - Vertigo
My pupils must become positively saucerlike that Wednesday every month when a new floppy of this comic comes my way. For my money, it's the prettiest book currently coming off the presses, as I find myself gushing pretty much every month. Mike and Laura Allred have given this book a serious Roy Liechtenstein pop art gloss that's a joy to look at (I'm not usually one to dote on colors, but Laura's palette is a sheer delight - soft periwinkles and limes, smooth midnight blues... yum!), and makes the very entertaining story all the more enjoyable. The fact that the characters are as fun to read about as the art makes them to look at is a huge bonus, of course. We have Gwen, a gravedigger by choice, because that is the only way she can legitimately get at the relatively fresh brains of the recently deceased she needs to keep from transforming from her sentient and human undead self into a classic, mindless Romero zombie (and who absorbs the entire life-experience of the brains she eats as a side effect); her best friend, Ellie, a ghost who still affects the hair, dress and mannerisms of the go-go 60s; Scott, the were-terrier (that's right: were-terrier!), a classic comic book-loving, sci-fi watching nerd who has recently discovered he's not the only member of his family with a weird paranormal secret, and a cast of villains that includes a gang of hot chick vampires who lure their victims via their hip and happening paintball club, Blood Sports. Recently, Gwen has acquired an intriguing, Templaresque love interest from whom she is desperately trying to hide her zombie nature, which just adds to the fun. A trade paperback of this one is in the offing and should be on anyone's list, especially those nerds who are maybe trying to convince their girlfriends that there's more to life than Twillight.
The Signifiers - Written & Drawn by M.R. Neno - M.R. Neno Productions
The Signifiers is another I had the opportunity to review for Indie Pulp, but I still don't think I did it justice there. This is one of the quirkiest books to cross my radar in a long time and, like Meta4, one I'm still puzzling over months after I first pored over its pages. Neno's work is often praised as wonderfully Kirbyesque, and this is not wrong, but he's also his own man and The Signifiers is very much his own idiosyncratic story, full of strange characters (a guitar messiah, a heat-seeking dwarf, a woman in the process of metamorphosing into a dog, an alligator who is also a professor of linguistics, a jetpack-powered farm girl) and even stranger settings. Its world is part threatening, post-apocalyptic wasteland and part groovy hippie playground. All of these are presented in bold, lush strokes in glorious black and white, with blacks into which the eye just sinks and wallows. I'm a fan of a somewhat obscure novel that surfaced in the 1990s in Boston, Lars Paul Linden's Eating Eight, which describes a comic book script upon which people can get high. The Signifiers is high on my list of candidates of what kind of comic book would arise from that imaginary script.
Rotten - Written by Mark Rahner & Robert Horton - Art by Dan Dougherty - Moonstone
Did I mention that Weird Westerns are getting popular? Well here's another comic in that subgenre on my favorites list, one that's very different from The Sixth Gun but still excellent. A lot of reviewers have complained that Rotten is too heavy on the cliches as it explores the exciting question of what the Wild West would have been like with zombies, but it's what's interlarded amongst the cliches that makes this one a standout. For instance, while zombies are very commonly used as a metaphor for disease or our darkest impulses or our tendency to shut off our braiiiinnnnnsss way more than we should, Rahner and Horton (both of them veteran film critics in Seattle) resist the temptation to beat that (un)dead horse, going instead for a more subtle and interesting kind of social commentary. As the story of special agents William Wade and John J. Flynn unfolds, the narrative is peppered with loads of tart remarks about the legitmacy of the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. It's not hard to read these as veiled remarks about our own recent experience with the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Not everybody can pull that off in a zombie comic! Nor is the Presidency the only present-day controversy echoed in the pages of Rotten: a storyline involving what to do with a beloved family member who has "turned" manages to echo, very movingly, the story of Terry Schiavo. All of this is fantastically, gruesomely and brilliantly brought to life by the amazing Dan "Beardo Comics" Dougherty, whose meticulous line work and brilliant coloring are a pleasure to look at even when they aren't depicting seriously gruesome undead menaces, the deployment of the nastiest set of brass knuckles you've ever seen. Sure, there are other zombie comics out there, but this one is not to be missed!
Atomic Robo - Written by Brian Clevinger - Drawn by Scott Wegna - Red 5 Comics
Atomic Robo is quite possibly my favorite on-going series, one whose new runs I anticipate like my dog does table scraps from dinner. Any fan of good old-fashioned pulp storytelling should have this at the top of her pull list, as should any fan of first-rate sarcastic dialogue, Nikola Tesla, H.P. Lovecraft, science and skepticism, and really stupid dinosaurs. Robo has teamed up with everyone from Lovecraft himself (in a storyline which pits the author against a creature straight out of his fevered imaginings) to Carl Sagan and always holds his own, as thoroughly at home kicking vampire ass as he is rebelling against "daddy" Tesla. He's got one of the silliest and most awesome arch nemeses, maybe ever in Dr. Dinosaur, a widly incompetent but hilariously persistent Tyrannosaurus Rex, and, thanks to Wegna, one of the most expressive faces in all of comics -- quite an achievement for a ROBOT! The current run features Robo in his rebellious teenage years, another impressive achievement for a robot. Like Chew, this book also rewards carefull attention to the background art; many howlers, like a sign in Robo's headquarters that reads "Remain Calm - Trust In Science," lurk, and have extra impact when paired with an invasion of extra-dimensional vampires. Unmissable!
Daytripper - Written and Drawn by Gabriel Bá and Fabio Moon - Colors by Dave Stewart - Vertigo
It's not every comic that can make the reader cry every month, but the incredibly beautiful and moving ten-issue Daytripper did just that. In lesser hands, this book could have been so horribly gimmicky -- protagonist Brás dies at the end of every issue -- but here it becomes a genuine source of honorably earned drama and heartfelt emotion. Bá and Moon, twin brothers who hail from Brazil, are producing some of the loveliest comic art on the modern scene, with lush linework, delicately observed character images and expressions, and backdrops that are both breathtaking and misleadingly simple, deftly drawn in with just a few penstrokes and achingly beautiful even when they show something happy. Enhancing this work tremendously is the perfection veteran colorist Dave Stewart achieved here. This entrancing beauty lowers the reader's guard just right, making the emotional impact of the story all the more powerful as we explore all of the different points in Brás' life when he could have died, even as we watch him mature, marry and father a son and finally die of old age. In the process, we get a wonderful meditation on love, friendship, choices, opportunities and yes, loss. If this book doesn't devastate you, you probably don't have a heart.
Sweets - Written, Drawn & Colored by Kody Chamberlain - Image
This project began its life as a Kickstarter proposal, and was successful there, giving creator Kody Chamberlain the financial wherewithal to make it happen until he ultimately made a deal with Image to publish it. A look at the short video he made to encourage backers there showcases wonderfully how this book came to be, and how it came to be great. As its subtitle indicates, Sweets is a "New Orleans Crime Story," which should already have you hooked even if you're not attracted by the beautiful, subdued tones of the cover image. Detective Curt Delatte is on the trail of a serial killer with a penchant for pralines in the days before Hurricane Katrina changed his city forever -- which means there are amazing layers of subtext drama underlying the mystery plotline as people prepare to flee or to tough out the storm. Multiple points of view are highlighted, each with a different drawing style, vernacular and palette, making the reading of Sweets as rich an experience as eating a really great praline. As of this week there is still one issue to go, so I don't know how this ends, but I'm dying to get my hands on it.


  1. Hooray! I've hot-listed this post for future reference...awesome!

  2. I'm in the US for a short time and am hitting a comic book store today to seek out some of these titles...excellent!


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