Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Favorite Comics of the Past Decade

With the end of the decade looming, many comics bloggers around the net are taking the time to put together their "Best of the Decade" lists. All of their lists were different and all of them were contentious. So, in keeping with the current, I decided to make my own list. But upon sitting down to do it, I found myself utterly bored with the idea of trying to explain to all of you why such and such comic was more important, resonant, blah, blah, blah than the next. I just wanted to write something from my vantage point as a fan, not a critic, so what you have instead of a "Best Of..." is a "Favorite Of..." list. I hope you enjoy it, I hope that some of you agree with it, and maybe it will inspire those of you not familiar with these books to go check them out. Happy Holidays and here's to a great new year and new decade!

All Star Superman
by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

What can be said about All Star Superman that hasn't already been said? Perhaps no two creators have had more success as a pair than Morrison and Quitely, and All Star Superman marks the pinnacle of that success. The definitive story for the definitive hero, All Star Superman provides the Man of Steel with a story worthy of his legend. Applying some of the same principles of storytelling to Supes that Alan Moore used to such great effect on Tom Strong, Morrison gave us a version of the hero more human than any other, a primary colored everyman able to solve problems not with his great physical strength, but with his towering intellect and his capacity for compassion. Even when he is laid low by his longtime enemy, Superman never resorts to hatred or fear mongering. He accepts what he is and knows that, no matter how bleak things may be, in the end there is always hope. All of this is of course beautifully rendered by Frank Quitely, whose art on the book showed a softness that his work had previously lacked. All Star Superman is, in my opinion, the best comic of the aughts.

DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke with Dave Stewart and J. Bone

Darwyn Cooke's account of the transition from the Golden Age to the Silver Age is this fan's definitive DC hero story. Cooke, a student of the masters, did some of his most resonant and striking work on New Frontier. His renderings of the towering figures of the DCU are worthy of the same kind of praise heaped upon such visionaries as Kirby and Kubert, and the colors added to the beautiful layouts by Dave Stewart are quite possibly the best work ever by arguably the best colorist to ever work in the biz. Criticism of the book comes from those who worry that it's too derivative, too similar to tales that came before it, such as Watchmen or James Robinson's underrated The Golden Age. While The New Frontier does bear a resemblance to both those books (Cooke even cites Robinson's story as an influence), it is unique enough in its exploration of the theme to be just as relevant, if not more so, than either of its forebears. The greatest thing about The New Frontier is the sheer curiosity of its creator. To consider New Frontier a story simply about DC's Golden and Silver Age heroes would be to miss the point entirely. The New Frontier isn't a retelling or a reimagining of those stories from our past, it's the story between those stories. For years we've been taught that the real story in a comic exists in the gutters, the spaces between panels. With The New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke got down in the gutter and found something extraordinary; the truth behind the heroes we adore. And what a wonderful truth it was.

Catwoman by Ed Brubaker, Darwyn Cooke, Cameron Stewart, et al.

In a world dominated by male heroes and there unrealistic female counterparts, Catwoman was a breath of fresh air. By removing Selina Kyle from the sizeable shadow cast by Batman, Brubaker was able to show us all just how strong, enigmatic and capable a person Catwoman really is. Brubaker's story, on the surface, is about a villain trying to clean up her act and walk the straight and narrow, but that's really just one layer. Catwoman reads like a love letter to the DC Universe while at the same time reading like a critique of the hamfisted ideas of right and wrong espoused by so many of its denizens. Selina Kyle is a conflicted, complicated woman, but she's also a hero. Brubaker capably illustrates this and in doing so creates one of the most human, most relatable superheroes to ever grace the page. Plus the art, by Darwyn Cooke and later Cameron Stewart (and colored brilliantly by Matt Hollingsworth) is astounding and works as the perfect compliment to Brubaker's tale, grounding the book in a beautifully rendered and ultimately realistic environment.

Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona

Perhaps the most surprising title on the list, Runaways was one of the most consistent books of the decade. While most lists will probably include Mr. Vaughan's other volumnious title, Y: The Last Man, I chose Runaways for a very specific reason; it's perhaps the most widely appealing comic I've ever read. While I by no means want to discount the merit of the Batman stories by Grant Morrison, the Swamp Thing tales by Alan Moore, etc, when I stop to think about the perfect comic book story, I visualize something very similar to Runaways. Mining the same creative wells that made shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer so successful, Vaughan, along with the excellent Adrian Alphona, created a team of superpowered teenagers on the run from their villainous parents. That's right, the premise of the book is a bunch of teenagers rebelling against their parents. Sound simple? It is, but that's okay. The themes explored in Runaways (growing up, love, distrust, joy, betrayal, family and fellowship) are things that every reader, from age 12 to age 65 can instantly relate to. And that's what I mean about the perfect comic. When you pick up Runaways, regardless of your level of exposure to the Marvel Universe, your age or your tastes, there is something in that book for you. Perhaps it doesn't quite reach the heights of say, Tintin, but Runaways has to at least be in the discussion of best All Ages comics of all time.

Batman: Year 100 by Paul Pope

I was skeptical about Batman: Year 100 when I first picked it up. Sure, I love Paul Pope as much as the next guy (perhaps more), but upon first glance something about this book just didn't sit right with me. Given my faith in Mr. Pope, I decided to swallow my misgivings and give it a chance. Good choice. I'm not sure I've consumed a comic faster than I did Year 100. I could not put it down. Each new page brought a deeper understanding of the myth that is Batman, all set in a Gibson-esque future and rendered with the kind of haunting beauty and stark futurism that only Paul Pope can accomplish. This is a singular book about a singular hero and it is a must own.

The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

Talk about skeptical. Dark Horse's latest is written by that guy from My Chemical Romance? Really? I wasn't sanguine. But the good reviews started to come in, then Grant Morrison called it his favorite new comic, and suddenly I found my interest piqued. The first volume was fascinating, exhilarating and utterly chilling. Way's writing on the book recalled the best moments of Grant Morrison's run on Doom Patrol and the story itself hinted at a larger, richer and darker world that Way and his talented collaborator, Gabriel Ba, would be peeling back the layers of again and again. As good as the first volume was, the second volume, Dallas, was a complete level up. Peeling back the veil of American history in an effort to show us all just how out of our control our world really is, Way and Ba created one of the most original, triumphant and ultimately heartbreaking stories ever committed to the comics page. I don't know what the next decade holds for the Umbrella kids, but if it's anything like this decade it should be outstanding.

Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

Maybe it's the fact that I came to Planetary late that allowed it to get onto this list. I never had to suffer the long publishing delays and the frustrations with the creators that were born from them. Reading it as a collection, Planetary is perhaps my favorite comic of all time. Forget all the problems with deadlines, the complaints that some fans had that Ellis's exploration of the "science" of superheroes was too dense and obtuse to make for easy reading, and celebrate for a minute what really makes Planetary great. Planetary is Warren Ellis's explanation of why superheroes are important to us, why we continue to create them, and why, so long as there is a world in peril, they will always survive. Reading at times like a love letter to superheroes and at times like a critical exploration of the entire history of adventure comics, Planetary does what so many fans have tried to do for years; it explains comics. That's no small feat, and for accomplishing it, Misters Ellis and Cassaday will always have a place on any "Best Of..." list this writer creates.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

Yet another title that I managed to pick up once it was complete and therefore missed all the publishing delays. I guess it's a good thing Cassaday mainly does covers now, huh? I was a big X-Men fan growing up. I read it almost to the exclusion of everything else. If a book had an X on the cover, I was reading it. Like most comic fans around my age, my introduction to the X-Men came through the Chris Claremont/John Byrne stuff, and years later those stories still represent what I think about when I think X-Men. Over ther years there have been good X-stories, certainly, but none of them reached the heights of those original Claremont and Byrne books. Then came Astonishing X-Men, written by Joss Whedon and penciled by the aforementioned Cassaday. Whedon's voice was perfect for capturing the tone and the themes of the early Claremont books and the always stellar Cassaday lent so much energy to the characters that the four volumes they created together rivaled those stories from my youth. Whedon understands conflict, romance, sacrifice and heroism as well if not better than many of the people working in superheroes today, and all of those things are essential to telling a good X-Men story. Plus, he made Cyclops the badass this squeaky clean, Scott Summers-loving kid always knew he could be. For that alone, I am eternally grateful.

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