When Words Collide

Wed, March 18th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

SUMMER COLLECTED EDITIONS

Over the next few months, we're going to get hit with a bunch of great collected editions, and because I've been poring over the list to see what's worth checking out, I've decided to come up with a Top 20 List for your benefit. These are the books that matter in the upcoming months. These are the ones that should give you pause. These are the comics I think deserve a spot on your overburdened shelves.

Counting down from #20 to #1…

Paul Pope does Comics from the Future
20. Image Illustrated Classics Vol. 1: Moby Dick HC (April 8th)

"Moby-Dick" is one of my favorite novels of all time, and while this reprint of the First Comics "Classics Illustrated: Moby Dick" may contain none of the complexity of the original novel, it does have one huge asset: Bill Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz turns Melville's story into an expressionistic slideshow, full of hubris and terror, whaling and the wrath of an angry God. The original version of Sienkiewicz's adaptation appeared in a 48-page, perfect-bound format -- what used to be called "prestige format." This reprint is supposedly remastered and presented in a luxurious hardcover. The only reason to buy this book is for Sienkiewicz's mad visuals, but it's a great reason. Compare this ultra-compressed punch to the gut to the laborious and uninspired "Marvel Illustrated" version and you'll see what I mean. This is how to adapt great literature, by filtering it through a unique artistic sensibility and saying, "fidelity be damned!"

19. Avengers Forever HC (August 5th)

Everything that "Trinity" gets wrong, "Avengers Forever" gets right. While both are written by Kurt Busiek, in his slavish super-fan mode, "Avengers Forever" is a layered, explosive, superhero epic. With co-writer Roger Stern, Busiek takes us on a tour of Avengers history, but he does so as a thrill-ride, not as stagnant nostalgia. In many ways, this is the ultimate Avengers story, and Carlos Pacheco's art perfectly suits the costumed escapades within. This may not be anything more than an entertaining, densely-packed superhero story, but it's one that's a whole lot of fun.

18. Sleeper Season One TP (June 17th)

Tom Cruise is supposedly involved with the "Sleeper" movie project, but never mind that. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's Donnie-Brasco-with-Supervillains is better on the comic book page than any Tom Cruise film could ever be. When super-powered Holden Carver infiltrates a criminal organization run by the enigmatic Tao, things look like they will result in some high-concept fun. Superhero comics meet crime comics, with a smattering of romance thrown in. But Brubaker gives this series reversal after reversal, and Carver soon doesn't know who he can trust -- on the inside and without. The series gets even better after the first story arc, and though it never quite reaches the character-based quality of "Criminal," this is an excellent comic about what it means to trust someone. And it has plenty of super-powered action, too.

17. 100% HC by Paul Pope (April 15th)

Apparently the result of an abandoned manga project repurposed for the Vertigo audience, Paul Pope's "100%" is even better than "Heavy Liquid," another Pope project which recently received the hardcover treatment. "100%" features a boxer, an artist, a barmaid, and other assorted characters in an overlapping narrative that's like a beautiful fever dream from the future. This comic has been compared to the films of Wong Kar-wai because of its poetically fractured storytelling, but there's nothing cinematic about Pope's work. Pope is a true comic book artist, a visionary in pencil and ink, and his pages sing with dynamic power as the characters lives smash together. What "100%" lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in grace and powerful imagery.

Rock of Ages Within
16. Showcase Presents: The Doom Patrol Vol. 1 TP (April 8th)

It will only take two Showcase volumes to collect the entire Arnold Drake/Bruno Premiani "Doom Patrol" run, and it's well worth your time and money. Though I prefer the Archives (for their color), you really can't go wrong with any version of Drake and Premiani's deranged masterpiece. Though it's often lumped together with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's "X-Men" as an example of bizarre heroes under the leadership of a wheelchair-bound genius, "Doom Patrol" is full of wonder and weirdness, the likes of which have to be seen to be believed. You'll get the Brain and Monsieur Mallah, the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, and the idiosyncratic Doom Patrol itself. And although I love Jack Kirby's work as much (if not more) than the next guy or gal, Bruno Premiani's "Doom Patrol" work is better than Kirby's on "X-Men." There, I said it. Now go read this Showcase edition and see for yourself.

15. Daredevil: Lady Bullseye TPB (March 25th)

This recent arc from Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark's "Daredevil" shows a return to form for the creative team, and the character too. By bringing in the ridiculous-sounding-but-actually-pretty-cool Lady Bullseye, and injecting a bit more costumed superheroics into what had become a rather sullen Matt Murdock comic, Brubaker and Lark delivered probably their tightest work on the series. It looks great and it has an energy that had been missing from the title for a little while.

14. Daredevil By Ed Brubaker & Michael Lark Omnibus Vol. 1 HC (May 6th)

And a couple of months after that "Lady Bullseye" trade, you can pick up this immense Omnibus, which collects issues #82-105. Brubaker and Lark may have hit the peak of their "Daredevil" powers with "Lady Bullseye," but they also started their run in grand fashion, with a great Daredevil-in-prison arc and an attempt to rebuild some of the things the Bendis/Maleev run tore down. These Omnibus volumes are hard to resist in general, with their thick blend of oversized comic book pages, but this "Daredevil" stuff is very good indeed.

13. JLA Deluxe Edition Vol. 2 HC (June 24th)

The "JLA/WildC.A.T.S." story, included in this volume, is one of the worst things Grant Morrison has ever been involved with. Val Semeiks does some sub-par work on the art, and Jim Lee's extreme 90's superteam doesn't mesh well with Morrison's brand of DC superheroics. But that's only a small part of this hardcover collection, and the rest of the volume is filled with much, much better Morrison "JLA" stories, including "Rock of Ages," which I've written about more than once. It's worth having the weak WildC.A.T.S. story for the sake of completeness, I suppose, but it's really the rest of this volume that will be worth your hard-earned money. Plus: Prometheus!

The Gravel in Your Guts
12. Preacher Book One HC (June 24th)

"Preacher" is Garth Ennis's masterpiece, a tale of brutality and savage irony that could only be drawn by Steve Dillon. Well, others could have drawn it, but it wouldn't have had that combination of realism and absurdity that Dillon does so well. This is a strange choice for the glossy hardcover treatment -- although it will presumably be like the recent collection of Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing" and feature the slightly-better-but-not-by-much newsprint instead of thick archival paper. But "Preacher" is the kind of comic that should be found in the gutters of your rundown Midwestern town, bound in broken leather and stitched together with catgut. Still, a hardcover edition of the adventures of Jesse Custer sounds like the next best thing.

11. Immortal Iron Fist Omnibus (June 3rd)

What if Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction teamed up to write a kung-fu superhero comic drawn by David Aja? That would be pretty cool, right? Oh, what? They already did? Nice. Sign me up for a copy! Though Aja doesn't draw every story in this volume, he works on a large chunk of the chi-fisted action, and in a single Omnibus you get the entire Brubaker/Fraction run on the series. It's a classic in the manner of Frank Miller's "Daredevil," but you already know that, because you've probably been buying "The Immortal Iron Fist" from the first issue, haven't you? You don't even need the Omnibus, but, like me, you'll buy it anyway, because you can never have too much Fat Cobra.

10. Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? Deluxe Edition HC (July 8th)

So, you could pay $19.99 to get the "DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore" trade paperback, and get a whole bunch of great Alan Moore stories, or you could pay more and get this hardcover edition which contains just a few of the stories from that other trade. That seems silly, especially since the "DC Universe" trade is still widely available. But I'm a fan of hardcovers, and the Alan Moore Superman stories collected in this volume -- not just the title story, but the wonderful Dave Gibbons-drawn annual, and the Rick Veitch-drawn Swamp Thing/Superman team up -- are really amazing comics.

9. Marvel Masterworks: Warlock Vol. 2 HC (June 17th)

Jim Starlin used to be one of the most innovative creators working in comics. If you've only been exposed to his recent work, it's hard to believe how revolutionary his superhero work once was, but he combined a transcendental aesthetic with visual experimentation and pushed conventional comics into new dimensions. His "Captain Marvel" is epic, but "Warlock" is his masterpiece, and now it's finally available in hardcover. If you get a chance, you should read Douglas Wolk's essay about Starlin's brief-but-powerful run on "Warlock," because he explains Starlin's graphic tightrope walk as well as anyone. (The Wolk essay can be found in his "Reading Comics" book, but a better version -- accompanied with plenty of images from the comics -- was published in "Comic Art" #8.) Starlin may not have done anything great in years, but his "Warlock" is definitely worth owning.

Alan Moore does Superman
8. DC Comics Classics Library: Roots Of The Swamp Thing HC (May 28th)

Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson created one of the most visually striking comics of the Bronze Age in these first fourteen Swamp Thing stories. Though Alan Moore's version of the character may have gained more critical acclaim, the Wein/Wrightson originals are the epitome of 1970s DC horror comics, from an era when character and mood reigned supreme. Wrightson's work is darkly twisted, bleak, muscular, and elegant. No one else could have evoked the gothic feel needed to make this series work, and though these "DC Comics Classics Library" books may not remaster the artwork like the "DC Archives" editions do, there's a murky, rotting look to the original comics that a glossied-up version would wrongly remove. I can't wait to finally have these stories in hardcover format.

7. Scalped Vol. 4: The Gravel In Your Guts TP (April 22nd)When I last spoke with Jason Aaron, he talked about the big plans he had for the series this year, but what's amazing about "Scalped" isn't just that it's one of the best comics on the stands, month in and month out, but that each successive story arc makes this series even better. I've been enjoying this series since issue #1, but I know some other readers who weren't grabbed by the first story arc. Well, if that's the case for you, then you need to get caught up, because "Scalped" has developed into one of the best serialized crime dramas ever. The genius of "Scalped" is the way Aaron uses the Rez as the central character, as various protagonists and antagonists weave their way toward their inevitable fate. But who are the protagonists and antagonists, anyway? Words like "hero" and "villain" don't apply in the complex world of this comic. Nobody's innocent, but as "The Gravel in Your Guts" shows, that doesn't mean they can't strive for redemption, no matter how doomed they truly are.

6. Final Crisis HC (June 17th)

This is another series that I've written about at length, and if you've read my writing over the past year I'm sure you know how I feel about "Final Crisis," but even though I've read all the issues several times -- well, maybe not "Final Crisis: Submit," since that one was pretty weak -- I still want to own the hardcover collection for this. Yes, I'm a Grant Morrison completist, but, as a story, Morrison's "Final Crisis" is one of the most cosmically majestic superhero epics of the decade. Yes, it's flawed and seems like it's missing moments at the end. Yes, the delays hurt the way it was received by the public. But the collected edition will put all the Morrison-written episodes (the only ones that really matter) between two covers, and readers who needed a FAQ to figure this thing out should be able to see how the entire story works as a whole. This is the only Crisis-level-event to deal with the struggle between ink and the blank page, and that's the ultimate creative crisis of all, isn't it?

5. Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis Omnibus HC (May 6th)

Alan Moore didn't write all of the "Captain Britain" comics collected in this massive tome, but he wrote a decent bunch of them. His work here isn't of the same caliber as his "Watchmen," "Miracleman," or "Swamp Thing," but it's not nearly as bad as his work-for-hire on the Wildstorm books either. It's dimension-hopping superheroics, and it's a lot of fun. Even the non-Alan Moore stories collected here are quite good, and characters and concepts introduced in these issues have sustained hundreds of Marvel comics (like "Excalibur," "Exiles," and plenty of what Chris Claremont has done since the middle of his "Uncanny X-Men" run and beyond). Plus, you'll get plenty of Alan Davis artwork, and that's always a good thing.

The Subtle Saga of Jeff Lemire
4. The Complete Essex County (August 5th)

Jeff Lemire's three-volume saga arrives in a comprehensive edition this summer in both hardcover and softcover versions. Packed with additional material, sketches, and, of course, the entirety of "Tales From The Farm," "Ghost Stories," and "The Country Nurse," this book will surely be one of the best reading experiences of the year. Lemire's work -- which will become much more well-known over the next year, as Vertigo releases his "The Nobody" graphic novel and launches a new, as-yet-not-officially-announced ongoing written and drawn by Lemire -- combines the passion of a thick and expressive ink line with a subtle delineation of character. Lemire's characters struggle with the world around them, but they do so with dignity, and a read of the entire Essex County saga will show the complex layers that exist within this fully-realized fictional world. These comics are often existential, but not hopeless.

3. Absolute V For Vendetta HC (August 19th)

Alan Moore's Thatcherist dystopia may have a few virtues, but one of the greatest is the work of David Lloyd. Lloyd's black and white artwork on this series looks somehow revolutionary and classical at the same time, and though I assume that this will use the colorized version that DC has been reprinting for decades, I still think this is one of the most interesting-looking comics of all time. (And, yes, I know that the series was completed with color in mind, but I'd love to see an Absolute Edition that included two volumes: one with color, and one without. I realize that will probably never happen.) "V for Vendetta" is a tragic story that may end up being regarded as one of Alan Moore's best -- its lack of obvious superhero trappings, or warped versions thereof, gives it potentially wider appeal -- but it's really the greatness of David Lloyd that compels me to pick up this book.

2. Batman: The Black Casebook TP (June 17th)

I don't know if you remember, but way back in the days of yore -- 2008, to be exact -- Grant Morrison wrapped up his "Batman" run with a little "R.I.P." (and a couple of "Last Rites"). Throughout his run, which was inspired by the conceit that every Batman story (even the crazy sci-fi ones) actually happened to a single character, readers were bombarded with allusions to Batman tales of the past, some of which I described in my annotations, and some of which I didn't. At that time, the internet was aflutter with cries of, "why doesn't DC reprint these damn stories Morrison seems so enamored of?" It didn't really seem to matter if anyone read these stories or not, honestly, since it wasn't the original story details that mattered. It was the feeling of these old, Silver Age stories -- the weirdness and the absurdity and the imagination -- that mattered. But since I read a whole bunch of these stories as I was doing my "Batman R.I.P." annotations, I know that these stories are definitely worth reading for their own sake. They aren't for everyone, and if you think that Batman should be a grim, realistic vigilante, then you should leave this one on the shelf, but if you're interested in Batman's odd adventures through space and time, then you can't beat the stories collected in here.

Giffen's Goofy and Glorious Graphic Greatness
1. Showcase Presents: Ambush Bug Vol. 1 TP (March 25th)

This, I'd love to see in an Absolute edition! Keith Giffen's art, enlarged to immense proportions, presented in glorious full color? That would be ideal. But we aren't going to get that, and so the best we can hope for is a thick phonebook of "Ambush Bug" goodness. As much as "Crisis on Infinite Earths" taught me about the expansive breadth of the DCU, the various "Ambush Bug" series taught me about the lesser-known and therefore spectacularly odd corners of this comic book universe. How would I have learned about "The Green Team" or "The Inferior Five" without "Ambush Bug"? There was no internet at the time! Keith Giffen's iconoclastic approach to costumed superheroics affected me deeply in my formative years, and it will be nice to have all of the Ambush Bug stories together in a single edition. What's that you say? The "Ambush Bug: Year None" series won't be in this volume? Well, then, I think we should rise up and demand that "Absolute Ambush Bug" after all!

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "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, jla, scalped, paul pope, ambush bug

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