When Words Collide

Wed, December 17th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 17th, 2008 at 2:38pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

BEST OF 2008: TIM'S TOP 20 COMICS PART I

Last week I ran down the twenty best collected editions of the past twelve months, and now its time to turn to the original material released in this calendar year. And I have so much to say, it's going to be a two-parter, wrapping up just in time for Christmas next week.

I use the catch-all term "comics" to refer to everything from original graphic novels to ongoing serializations. Anything that wasn't purely a collection of previously published work and was released in 2008 qualified for the list, and, honestly, like most things in my life it's pretty "mainstream" superhero heavy. I picked up a lot of interesting things at conventions throughout the year -- small press stuff that I wouldn't have been able to find at my local shop -- but barely any of it had either the craft or pure narrative power of some of the best stuff put out by the big publishers this year.

And it was tough narrowing the list down to just the top twenty, with comics like Geoff Johns's "Green Lantern" still going strong this year, and Peter Tomasi reinvigorating the "Green Lantern Corps" comic and turning it into one of my favorite monthly reads since the late summer. And Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark have cranked "Daredevil" up to early "Immortal Iron Fist" levels with the introduction of Lady Bullseye. But none of those comics made the cut.

Joe Pokaski made a strong comic book writing debut on "Secret Invasion: Inhumans" -- for my money, the best of the "Secret Invasion" tie-ins -- but it didn't quite crack the Top 20. Neither did "Fables," largely because I read it in the trade paperback collections and I'm a bit behind in my reading of that series. Does it deserve a spot as one of the best comics of the year? Maybe, but it didn't make my list because I just found myself more interested in other comics this year. In my preliminary list, it was just outside the Top 20.

"Young Liars," by David Lapham, has become more and more interesting as the series has developed, but I still don't like it as much as I want to. The "Spiders from Mars" issue was one of the most surprising (and wonderfully strange) comics of the year, but "Young Liars" still hasn't completely won me over yet. And Rick Remender and Eric Nguyen's "Gigantic" was a great debut, but it was only one issue, and it's too early to judge it against some of the heavyweights I'll be talking about this week.

I also liked a lot of the comics for younger readers. Hope Larsen's "Chiggers" was a slice of goodness over the summer, and, for even younger kids, Eleanor Davis's "Stinky" and Art Baltazar and Franco's "Tiny Titans" were pure joy. But as much as I liked those comics -- and in the case of the latter two, my kids did as well -- they were outside the Top 20 when I finalized my list.

And how did I determine the Top 20? What criteria did I use this time. Well, as unscientifically as always, I ranked the comics according to aesthetic beauty, narrative elegance, and thematic resonance. In other words, I put the ones I thought were really great at the top of the list, and the ones that I merely liked a lot scored a bit lower. Comics that finished the year strongly probably got a ranking boost from that, as did comics that finished out their runs with a bang. Comics that whimpered toward the finish line, even if they started the year with gusto, probably slipped a few spots, as my mind is filled with the here and now, and it's hard to remember greatness from way back in March. But in making this list, I reviewed all my notes, blog posts, and reviews for the year, and tried to reflect on the comics output of the entire year, not just the past few months.

And here's the comics that didn't quite make the Top 10, but are certainly worth your attention:

THE BEST COMICS OF 2008: FROM #20 TO #11

Immortal Iron Fist is not dead yet
#20: "Immortal Iron Fist"

This comic cracks the Top 20 for three reasons: (1) Matt Fraction, (2) David Aja, and (3) It's still a good comic now that both of those creators have moved on. "Immortal Iron Fist" began 2008 as one of the best Marvel books on the market -- maybe, pound for pound, THE best Marvel book. But with the mid-year loss of Fraction, and Aja it seemed doomed to burn out like a shooting star. I'll get all pretentious and paraphrase poet Robinson Jeffers, who says, "meteors are not needed less than mountains." Sure, a long-running series is great to have, but we had some Iron Fist greatness while it lasted. But then a funny thing happened, and writer Duane Swierczynski came along and didn't screw it up. Travel Foreman brought a very un-David Aja expressionistic style to the comic, but that didn't screw it up either. Surprisingly, "Immortal Iron Fist" remained one of my favorite Marvel comics for the second half of 2008. Not quite as great as it was during its first dozen issues, but still an excellent Marvel Kung-Fu action drama. And thus, here it is at number twenty.

#19: "Aetheric Mechanics"

This self-proclaimed "Graphic Novella" written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Gianluca Pagliarani looks like just another Avatar comic at first glance. Ellis seems to just churn these suckers out, and Pagliarani is another artist who packs the panels with details but doesn't use much in the way of shadows to differentiate between foreground and background. Plus, the comic seems little more than a Sherlock Holmes-in-an-airship/steampunk alternate reality high concept. But there's a reason it looks the way it does and seems the way it seems. It's all part of the playfully shocking (and it was, for me, genuinely shocking) third act, and that final sequence changes the meaning of the entire comic. I won't spoil it for you here, because the comic relies on its twist far more than the average comic, but it ended up being one of the most entertaining comics of the year, even if it seemed like a second-rate hackwork at first glance. It relies on just such an assumption.

The Incredible Herc and the God Squad
# 18: "Incredible Hercules"

Fred Van Lente's name in the credits drew me to this comic at first, and the intelligence and humor kept me coming back for more. I had absolutely no interest in a Hercules comic, and I was underwhelmed by Greg Pak's work over the past couple of years on "Planet Hulk" and "World War Hulk," so I had no intention of buying "Incredible Hercules" when the name change kicked in. But Van Lente's "Action Philosophers" had never let me down, and his Marvel work was becoming better and better, so I had to at least take a look. And, now, after a strong 2008 for "Incredible Hercules," here it is, ranked as one of the best comics of the year. Pak and Van Lente's story of Hercules and Amadeus Cho has all the action you'd expect, far more heart than you'd believe, and plenty of mythological allusion. It's a fun romp through the Marvel Universe, drunken-god style, but it also explores some interesting themes like honor and courage. Mostly, though, it's just a really cool comic -- one that balances just the right tone for a mythological superhero action series.

#17: "Amazing Spider-Man"

Can we get past the "One More Day"/"Brand New Day" stuff? Does any of that really matter if the stories are good? Yes to the first one, no to the second one. Maybe it's because I grew up as more of a DC kid, but I could not care less if Mary Jane's magical unmarriage shook up the Spider-Man world. All I know is, I've dipped into the "Amazing Spider-Man" pool a few times over the past five years, and I've never liked the water temperature until now. Steve Whacker has done a great job bringing new life to "Amazing Spider-Man," and I don't know if he really needed the Mephisto moment to pull it off, but things have certainly changed in terms of the quality level on this series. Just compare the mopey, leaden John Romita Jr.-illustrated stories of a couple of years ago to the rip-roaring "New Ways to Die" arc. Or look at the Marcos Martin-drawn issues compared to, I don't know, anything else ever. Martin's pages are gorgeous. And the thrice monthly pace (almost) gives this series a narrative propulsion it never had before. I don't know what a great "Amazing Spider-Man" comic should be, but this current series ranks pretty high up there, especially in the past few months.

#16: "Final Crisis"

This one wasn't on my preliminary Top 20 list, but then issue #5 came along last week and reminded me what this series is capable of. The delays are a problem. The inability for J. G. Jones to finish the entire series is a problem (although the substitute artists are quite good), but Grant Morrison is telling a truly epic story here, and like many of his comics, it is jam packed with vibrant images and brain-bending ideas. Morrison's ability to shift from street-level Turpin/Montoya perspectives to cosmic Green Lantern transcendence, well, it's a thrill to read. And as Darkseid assumes control of nearly all life on Earth and brings about the Fifth World, the remaining heroes face a seemingly insurmountable crisis. This weirdly hermetic event comic (even with all the spin-offs, which, honestly, seem tangential to the main series) is the culmination of Morrison's romp through DC's superhero universe over the past decade, and though it's still unfinished, it blasts Marvel's 2008 event out of the water. With the power of a cosmic Rubik's cube.

Kryptonians abound in Action Comics
#15: "Action Comics"

Geoff Johns started the year with the "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" arc (which makes this pick the only overlap with my Top 20 Collected Editions list from last week, in case you're keeping track), and he's ending the year with an Earth overrun with Kryptonians. You can't accuse him of having small ideas, that's for sure. I remember a few years ago, maybe around the time of (or maybe because of) "Infinite Crisis," there was a Johns backlash, and then "52" helped improve his reputation a bit before the "Sinestro Corps" stuff really made readers stand up and take notice. But while Johns may have improved as a writer during that time, he's always been good at telling powerful superhero stories using the mythology of the DC Universe. His first "JSA" series was really good -- did you read the Per Degaton arc? -- and he's now just getting a chance to do the kinds of things he was doing then on a much grander stage. And he's clearly piloting the Super-Mobile these days, with James Robinson and Sterling Gates riding double-barreled shotgun. From what I understand, "Action Comics" is going to morph into something else next year, but in 2008, he returned it to what it once was: the premiere Superman comic.

#14: "Madman Atomic Comics"

This comic seems to fly under the radar, even though Mike Allred has been one of the great comic book artists of the past fifteen years. I think the average comic book reader dismisses Allred's "Madman Atomic Comics" because of a superficial awareness of its contents. Either they think that it's all about camp nostalgia or they think, maybe after reading the first few issues of this series, that it's going nowhere. But what Allred is doing here -- what makes it a bit different than his previous Madman comics -- is bringing his metaphysical explorations to the fore. Frank Einstein has always been a character in search of answers to philosophical questions, but Allred tended to couch those questions in "ginchy" superhero tropes and wacky situations. He's still doing that to some extent, but he's not forcing conventional plots on his story anymore. He's letting his characters explore their universe at a slower, more thoughtful pace. And, to make it more enticing, Allred's been experimenting with his drawing style or layouts in nearly every issue. This comic is about the big questions, and it approaches those questions with grace and charm.

Sven returns with a vengeance in Northlanders
#13: "Northlanders"

Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly produced one of the best hardcover books this year in "Local," and his Vertigo Viking series (with a current arc drawn by Kelly) is the best new ongoing of 2008. The first story arc, with art by Davide Gianfelice, is Shakespearian in its exploration of the clash between modernism and the ancient world. When Sven returns to reclaim what rightfully belongs to him, he discovers that things aren't what he expected, and the layered story unfolds perfectly from issue to issue. It's part tragedy, part sword-and-bloodshed action, part superstition, and all fascinating. The later arcs have shifted our attention to different parts of the Viking world, and though they haven't quite reached the heights of "Sven Returned," they have continued to provide fresh character takes that move far beyond what you might expect from stereotypical Norsemen. What began as a pitch for a "Viking Prince" revamp has evolved into something much, much more.

#12: Ghost Rider"

When I brought my son to see 2007's "Ghost Rider" feature film, I wondered how anyone could possibly make the character interesting. The movie sure didn't, although my son loved the motorcycle action and visual of a guy with a flaming skull. I completely ignored Garth Ennis's take on the character (mostly because I didn't care for Clayton Crain's art), and Daniel Way's work didn't interest me at all. So when Jason Aaron took over the series, I expected it to improve, but I didn't expect a whole heck of a lot. I mean, it was still just "Ghost Rider," and how good could it possibly be? Well, it can be really good, it turns out. Aaron has turned a limp, slowly-paced action comic into a grindhouse free-for-all, complete with nunchuck nuns and savage angels of vengeance. He's taken all the greatness that "Ghost Rider" had inherent in it (who would have thought?) and cranked it up in the style of the best 1970s exploitation tradition. Current "Ghost Rider" artist Tan Eng Huat applies a grotesquely chiseled Kevin O'Neill style that's reminiscent of the old "Nemesis the Warlock" serial from "2000 AD," and it fits Aaron's skewed narrative perfectly. Without a doubt, "Ghost Rider" wins the "most-improved comic" award, and it has become one of the best Marvel series on the stands.

Ghost Rider greatness
#11: "Captain America"

Somehow, Ed Brubaker rode the wave of Captain America's death and made this series better than ever. As much as I dislike Frank D'Armata's murky and over-modeled coloring, he does a nice job maintaining a consistent look with a rotating crew of pencillers and inkers. Yet Brubaker is the star of the show here, as he takes Bucky Barnes through the first steps of becoming a real hero. The series has lost a little bit of its rhythm in recent months, and has turned into something merely good. But for most of the year, "Captain America" was the best serialized comic on the market, deftly weaving the Cold War-era Captain America and political intrigue into a story filled with betrayals and revelations galore. Who would have thought that the loss of Steve Rogers would have taken this series to its greatest heights?

Come back next week for THE TOP 10 COMICS OF 2008!

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, ghost rider, iron fist, captain america, final crisis

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