When Words Collide

Wed, December 10th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 10th, 2008 at 3:05pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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BEST OF 2008: TOP 20 COLLECTED EDITIONS

Fellow CBR columnist Steven Grant says, "2008 was one dreary year for comics." I have to respectfully disagree with my colleague here, and I'm willing to say that 2008 was, in fact, a thrilling year for comics.

2008 gave us the two greatest superhero movies ever in "Iron Man" and "The Dark Knight." (And I know there's more to comics than just superheroes, but it's about time that they started getting superheroes right on the big screen.) 2008 gave us an increasing acceptance of the medium in places that only a few years ago would have scoffed at the idea -- I personally presented comic book workshops this year at a local art gallery, the Metro-West Library Association in Boston, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, and I imagine other comic book "experts" across the country were asked to do the same.

"The Demon" is a Kirby classic

Sure, plenty of mainstream Marvel and DC comics were bogged down with crossover-itis, but a handful of creators continued to produce top-notch work in the superhero genre and others worked their magic on more independently-minded comics. I'm going to talk a lot more about that next week, though, when I focus on the best original material of 2008.

This week is all about another thing that made 2008 such a great year for comics: The Collected Editions.

Someone, somewhere, referred to the past year or two as the Golden Age of Comic Reprints. It surely is, as 2008 has been a year in which I've had to install three more bookshelves just to house (mostly hardcover) collected editions. I can't keep up with all the wonderful stuff that's been collected and reprinted (often in slick, fancy editions), but I've read as much as I could, and plenty of books immediately grabbed my attention. Jack Kirby and Frank Miller may have dominated the hardcover reprints this year, but there was a wide range of handsome books that collected work of all shapes and sizes -- some from the first half of the 20th century, and some just a few months old.

There was so much good stuff reprinted this year that I had to expand my Top 10 list into a Top 20, and I still cut out some of the books that I enjoyed reading in 2008.

Before I get to the actual list, let me explain my biases and a bit about the criteria I used to rank these books. First of all, my manga knowledge is pathetic, and although I've probably read a dozen manga volumes this year, none of them were 2008 releases -- I'm years behind the manga curve. I don't know that I'd list them under the collected editions category anyway (although many of the manga volumes I have read were serialized elsewhere, I assume). But just be aware that manga is notable for its absence here, and I apologize in advance for that.

Also, the list is light on comic strip reprints, not because I don't appreciate those, but I am still working through volume 1 of "Terry and the Pirates" and my "Peanuts" reading is years behind the release schedule of those gorgeous volumes. Once again, I'm just behind the curve on a lot of that stuff, and I doubt I'll ever catch up. It just hasn't been one of my priorities.

As far as criteria is concerned, I'm ranking these on a totally unscientific system of, let's say 80% content and 20% production value. I think the quality of the reprint is important, and it affected some of my choices either positively or negatively (and I'll comment upon that when it applies), but for the most part, I'm just ranking these books by how good they are to read. Are they all worth your time? I think so. Some might just be more powerful, more significant, more sublime than others.

So let's get to it, shall we? Countdown style!

THE BEST COLLECTED EDITIONS of 2008

#20: "Stephen King's The Dark Tower: The Long Road Home," by Robin Furth, Peter David, Jae Lee, and Richard Isanove

When I reviewed this book for CBR, I described how my antipathy toward King's "Dark Tower" novels didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying this book. Without the constraints of adapting King's prose, Furth and David produce a chillingly strange story of a heroes' journey, and the Lee/Isanove digitally painted artwork is an improvement over their previous collaboration, largely because they have a better story to work with. This weird, pseudo-spiritual western adventure seems to have barely made the Top 20 cut, but its indelible images ensured that it would find a place on this list.

Another stellar work by Gilbert Hernandez
#19: "The Starman Omnibus" Vol. 1, by James Robinson and Tony Harris

This is one of the books that dropped a few slots because of production value, as I would have preferred to see Tony Harris's art on thicker, glossier paper. But I can appreciate the need to keep the cost down and to fit more than just ten issues in this first volume. Even without the glossy paper, Harris's art looks great. It's a bit dated -- mostly because of Jack Knight's fashion sense -- but I enjoyed Harris's art more when he was using the stark, graphic-design style of the "Starman" days rather than the stiff, heavily photoreferenced work of "Ex Machina." And "Starman" is no doubt James Robinson's masterpiece, as the first volume will attest.

#18 "Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite," by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba

When I read this in serialized form, I felt that it started incredibly strong and ended with a whimper. After reading the collected edition, I see consistent quality throughout and didn't feel that the ending was anticlimactic at all. Gerard Way proved that he is a real comic book writer with "Apocalypse Suite," though the art of Gabriel Ba would make this volume worth owning even if the story was utter nonsense. But you don't have to worry about that because Ba is brilliant, and the story's really good too.

#17: "Jack Kirby's The Demon," by Jack Kirby

For the past decade I've been saying that Kirby's Bronze Age work surpasses his more famous Silver Age output, at least on the artistic side, and it's great to see these hardcover Kirby reprints reassure me that I've been right all along. "The Demon" may not be Kirby's best work, but even his average creations are better than almost anything on the shelf, and his story of Jason Blood's tragic life is anything but average. Revel in the double-page spreads, thrill to the malefactions of Witch Boy, and ponder at the deranged phantom of the underground opera. 'Tis good.

#16: "Fishtown," by Kevin Colden

I reviewed this one for CBR too, and followed up with an interview with writer/artist Colden. This bleak look at adolescent amorality and violence surely deserves a spot on the list, though for me it read like an original work since it skipped it during its online serialization. The hardcover edition put out by IDW looks great, though, and Colden's use of a relatively duochromatic color scheme (with splashes of pink for blood) gives it a unique style.

#15: "Skyscrapers of the Midwest," by Joshua Cotter

Joshua Cotter's surreal look at childhood, family, and community looked incoherent when I saw random issues of it at MoCCA in past years, but the AdHouse hardcover edition reads like the work of a unique creative force. This is another book that I reviewed for CBR and my final line sums up my reaction to the book pretty wekk: "I'm embarrassed that it took me this long to finally dive into its pages, but now that I have, it's not a plunge that I'll ever forget."

#14: "Speak of the Devil," by Gilbert Hernandez

If Gilbert Hernandez were less prolific, he'd be considered a national treasure. It's ironic that his productivity actually hurts his reputation, but in a world where most of the top independent cartoonists put out a major work only once every few years, Hernandez gets overlooked simply because we never get the chance to pine for him. He's always around, putting forth his best effort, making great comics. "Speak of the Devil" tells an elliptical tale of voyeurism and murder, and while it has a thematic connection with Kevin Colden's "Fishtown," Hernandez's approach is much more absurdist and playful. None of that makes this story any less bleak or disturbing, though, and it's certainly a collected edition worth reading.

"Scorchy Smith" is a Must-Have
#13: "Elektra by Frank Miller Omnibus," by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz

This book collects, most notably, "Elektra: Assassin" and "Elekra Lives Again," along with a few minor Frank Miller Elektra stories. This is a case where the book is hurt by its size -- not its vast and hefty page count -- but because its dimensions are too small to accommodate the originally oversized art pages of "Elektra Lives Again." Those pages, constrained to fit this smaller format, lost 30% of their beauty, and since the story of "Elektra Lives Again" is negligible, the art is the thing that matters. But I still rank this book as #13 because it's a thick hardcover reprint that contains the entirety of "Elektra: Assassin," a series that still feels like it comes from the future, even 20 years after its initial release. Sienkiewicz's visuals push the bounds of comic book storytelling in ways that they had never been pushed before (and rarely since), and Miller's manic conspiracy story is like a crazed acid trip of the Reagan years. This book is more than just a companion to the Daredevil Omnibus editions -- it's an essential part of any comic book library.

#12: "Justice League International" Vol.1, by Keith Giffen, J. M. Dematteis, and Kevin Maguire.

Speaking of essential books, DC gives us this hardcover reprint of the first seven issues of the bwa-ha-ha "Justice League" of the late 1980s. I'm not a fan of the flimsy paper used for this book, but the contents are what gives this edition a spot at #12. Though the series would later devolve into inane foolishness, the first three years of the series offer a refreshing look at the lighter side of superhero teams (and its as refreshing now as it was back when it debuted) while still including moments of human drama and pathos. This is where it all started, and while I'll never forget how it felt to read these stories for the first time as they originally appeared, I like having a hardcover collection on the shelf to read again and again.

#11: "Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C.: One Man Army Corps," by Jack Kirby

Here's a case where I reviewed a book over the summer, and since that time it has grown in my estimation because of its powerful visuals. I gave "Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C." a respectable three and half stars in my original review, and while I can't objectively say why it would deserve any more stars than that, I can say that it's a book I've flipped back through more than once in the intervening months. Originally produced just to meet a DC quota, "O.M.A.C." is a distillation of so many Kirby ideas -- so much wonky insanity -- that it deserves a wider audience, and I'm glad that DC gave us a hardcover edition, and I'm glad to spread the word about its strange and wonderful merits. Plus, seriously, Dr. Skuba? How awesome!

#10: "Hellboy Library," Vol. 1, by Mike Mignola and John Byrne

I've never been a fan of Hellboy, as a character. I have followed Mike Mignola's career since his "Alpha Flight" days (I missed "Rocket Raccoon" by about a year, sadly), and I have been buying "Hellboy" since its very first issue, but I've always looked at it as more of an art book than anything else. The stories never did anything for me (until recently, a point I'll discuss more in next week's column), although, in theory, I liked the supernatural horror components and the bizarre characters. It just never gelled for me, especially in those early years. So imagine my surprise when I picked up this oversized hardcover collected edition and found that not only was the art worth every penny, but the stories were far better than I had remembered. They may rely a bit too much on narration, but something about seeing the pages in a larger size opens up the story and allows me to enter the Hellboy world for what feels like the first time. It's rare that a reprint will make me radically rethink my original assessment of a comic, but that's what happened with "Hellboy Library" Vol. 1, and I'm glad it did.

"Local" should not be ignored
#9: "Scorchy Smith and the Art of Noel Sickles," by Noel Sickles

This is the one classic comic strip reprint that I read immediately upon release. Maybe that's because I'm fascinated by Noel Sickles influence on other artists of his time period (I am), or maybe I liked the lengthy monograph about his career that's included in this volume (I did), or maybe it's simply the fact that his entire run on the aviator hero is reprinted in a single book (that helps), but I immersed myself in Noel Sickles in the late summer months of 2008, and I'm happy to say that this book is a treasure. The "Scorchy Smith" strips vary in quality -- though the variations themselves are interesting -- but you can see the birth of a chiaroscuro comic book style in these pages, and it's a wonderful historical document, lovingly presented.

#8: "Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!" Vol. 1, by Howard Chaykin

Finally! I have owned all of Chaykin's "American Flagg!" issues for decades, but I've been waiting for a nice hardcover reprint of his seminal work, and it finally arrived this year. This volume doesn't reprint his entire run as writer/artist, but it gives you hundreds of pages of Howard Chaykin in his prime (not to say that his recent artwork isn't good, because it is, but "American Flagg!" was -- and is -- revelatory). If you've never read Chaykin's sexy, cynical, prescient take on Rueben Flagg's hyper-frenetic world, then you need to get this book immediately. If you have read it, then you probably know how important and amazing this work is. Either way, there's no excuse not to own this well-designed collected edition.

#7: "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes," by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank

Honestly, this book wasn't even on my radar until about two months ago, when I reread the Johns/Frank "Action Comics" tale in preparation for the then-upcoming "Legion of 3 Worlds." But after reading the arc again, I decided to get all the hardcover reprints of Johns's "Action Comics" work (plus my local shop had a sale on hardcovers at that time, and it was the perfect opportunity to get the collected editions I hadn't bothered to pick up before), and then I reread this story again in its hardcover form, because it is, simply put, the best Legion of Super-Heroes story in a long, long time. Johns is a master of the big moments, and he knows how to pace a serialized story, but this hardcover shows that he can structure a cohesive story as well as anyone. This is a tight superhero epic, and I suspect it works no matter how familiar you are with the Legion. It's pure superheroics, done right.

#6: "Punisher by Garth Ennis Omnibus," by Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, and Various

This is the book that inspired "Being Frank Castle," and has instilled a newfound appreciation for the Punisher, at least in me. Garth Ennis's violent dark comedy fills these pages, and it's fascinating to see his relationship with Frank Castle change over the course of the several years worth of stories reprinted in this volume. Like the "Elektra by Frank Miller Omnibus," this is a monster of a book, coming in at over 1,000 pages. That's a lot of punishing, and Garth Ennis plays it all with a crooked, savage smile that you won't soon forget. This volume covers everything from the "Welcome Back, Frank" limited series, through the thirty-seven issue of the Ennis-penned Marvel Knights ongoing, and even included Ennis's very first Punisher story: the parody in which Frank Castle kills the Marvel Universe. Some of the work is head-and-shoulders better than the rest, but with 1,000+ pages to read, you're going to find hundreds of pages of brutal genius.

"Omega" by way of Jonathan Letham
#5: "Local," by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Coming in at #5, "Local" ranks as the highest book that I read for the first time in its collected edition. Unlike the Top 4, I didn't read a single issue of "Local" when it was serialized, and although I was looking forward to the collected edition based on reviews I had read -- and based on my reading of an advance copy of Wood and Kelly's Minx collaboration, "The New York Four" -- "Local" still surprised me and quickly became one of those books that I could recommend even to non-comic book readers. It's not so much that "Local" transcends its genre, its that "Local" doesn't even bother to try to fit into any genre from the beginning. What was originally conceived of as an exploration of twelve cities -- and the stories of the inhabitants of each -- became the story of one woman's growth from adolescence to maturity. It's not a simplistic tale of a young woman moving from innocence to experience, it's a complex narrative about the moments that matter and how they matter. It's about everything, and yet it doesn't have a drop of pretension to it. If there's such a thing that would fit the label of "instant classic," "Local" would be it.

#4: "Absolute Ronin," by Frank Miller

This is another book that inspired a WWC column, and with good reason: it's a masterpiece, and it rarely gets the attention it deserves. Getting the "Absolute" treatment will help to revive interest in this pre-"Dark Knight Returns" work from Frank Miller, I'm sure, and justifiably so. This immense book is beyond gorgeous. It's such a transparent look into Miller's influences at the time (influences that would become an inherent part of his style for years to come), and it's so utterly ambitious in narrative and visuals. It's impossible to ignore this book, even though everyone seems to prefer the work Miller did before and after "Ronin." Yet, in many ways, as Miller indicated in interviews at the time, "Dark Knight Returns" was a step backwards from the type of comics he experimented with in "Ronin." This is still a remarkable-looking series, even two and a half decades after its original release, and the oversized format (like the "Hellboy Library") allows you to enter into it's part-Feudal, part-futuristic world in a brand new way.

#3: "Omega the Unknown," by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple

I have been planning a WWC column devoted to "Omega the Unknown" for months now, and I just haven't come up with a compelling angle. Lethem and Dalrymple's work here is so startling -- so fresh in its treatment of conventional superhero tropes -- that I don't even know what to focus on first. Someday I might find a way to approach the series in a way that makes critical sense (and would hold my interest), but there's a part of me that doesn't want to spoil the strange, unsettling, magical quality of this book. I'm not convinced that its meaning can be distilled down in a satisfactory way, not because it's some grand, profound statement, but because it is a finely-crafted gem of an oddball superhero tale, and I think it works best that way. I don't want to disturb its equilibrium, if that makes any sense. It probably doesn't, but this unusual take on Steve Gerber and Mary Skrenes incomplete superhero Bronze Age melodrama deserves an unusual response. It's a book you simply must read for yourself, and if you do, I think you'll find that "Omega the Unknown" is something special, maybe indefinably so.

#2: "Absolute Sandman," Vol. 4, by Neil Gaiman and Various

All the "Absolute Sandman" volumes are wonderful, but the final volume features "The Kindly Ones" and "The Wake," and those two arcs alone push this volume to #2 on the 2008 Collected Editions list. As a regular reader -- a devout reader -- of "Sandman" during its serialized run, I can tell you that its final few years were marred by delays, and though the series ended as strongly as it began (stronger, actually, as the first six months of "Sandman" contained plenty of narrative stumbles ), it was difficult to appreciate the quality of something like "The Kindly Ones" when issues trickled out after months of delays. We might be accustomed to such things now, but even the last phases of "Sandman" were a more innocent time, at least as far as DC shipping schedules were concerned. But, really, "Absolute Sandman," in all of its oversized glory, is such a marvelous book in every possible way that it's hard not to give it a spot at the top of an Collection Editions list.

Only one book had a chance against the "Absolute Sandman" juggernaut:

"Marvel Boy" - the Best of the Best
#1: "Marvel Boy," by Grant Morrison and J. G. Jones

How could a hardcover reprint of a lesser Grant Morrison comic possibly take the top spot from an absolute edition of what is widely considered the greatest comic book series ever? Because "Marvel Boy," is NOT a lesser Grant Morrison comic.

I hadn't read "Marvel Boy" at all since its original release, and I didn't pay much attention to it at the time. I was, as will come as no surprise, a Morrison fan, and I read the series faithfully, but I didn't really see why it mattered. It was Morrison doing the Marvel Universe, but not really. It just seemed like an Elseworlds "Captain Marvel" or something, and I wasn't ready for it back in the summer of 2000. It was fine, but that's all I thought it was.

Chad Nevett, years before he gained the status of elite CBR reviewer, blogged about the importance of "Marvel Boy," but I didn't really listen to him either.

So I always assumed I'd reread "Marvel Boy" at some point, probably in preparation for another book or something, but I never got around to shifting the longboxes around and pulling out all the issues. But I couldn't pass up a hardcover reprint, and I'm glad I didn't. Because Chad Nevett was right! "Marvel Boy" is about the entire history of superhero comics, and is itself a brilliant example of it. It contains multitudes!

"Marvel Boy" is everything the Ultimate line could have been -- a radical reimagining of Marvel's core concepts, reconfigured for a new era. And J. G. Jones's art is so much better than what we saw on his "Final Crisis" issues this year, before he slowed to a crawl and barely produced any pages. He draws every page in "Marvel Boy" (well, all except one, and that one was drawn by Ryan Kelly of "Local"!), and it looks great.

I didn't expect "Marvel Boy" to end up as my number one recommendation for best Collected Edition of 2008, but indeed it is. And if you read it again, I think you'll find a lot more there than you first thought. Grant Morrison may (or may not) be on his last legs at DC, but there was a time when he was a new force of energy at Marvel, and that time of hope and wonder is perfectly embodied in "Marvel Boy." Then again, how could it not be? "Marvel Boy" contains everything within its pages.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the in-this-month's-Diamond-Previews' "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, marvel boy, stephen king, frank miller, punisher

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