When Words Collide

Mon, August 31st, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

TOP 10 ONGOING SERIES, RIGHT NOW

I've been taking a long look at my pull list over the past few weeks. It's gotten smaller, sure, but I've also noticed how much of it is dominated by one-shots or limited series. For an industry based around the ongoing periodical model -- at least historically speaking -- it seems like the high-quality monthly comic book is fading away.

I know we're headed toward some kind of online serialization model. As much as I like holding the comics in my hands every Wednesday, I have no illusions about the future about where these things are going. But I still read plenty of ongoing comics, and I think it's time that I highlighted the ten best of them.

These are the ten comics that -- if I had to narrow my pull list to ten ongoings only -- I would read faithfully. These are the top ten ongoing comics that are the most interesting right here, right now, in the late summer of 2009. These are the ones I enjoy most, and with the cancellation of some of my favorites ("Immortal Iron Man," "Ghost Rider," "Young Liars," "Captain Britain") and the end of Ed Brubaker's run on "Daredevil," this list looks a lot different now than it did a few months ago.

So here we go, counting down…

Tomasi Goes Green

10. Green Lantern Corps

Peter Tomasi has turned this series into a Top 10 ongoing by amping up the cosmic conflict and tying into what Geoff Johns has been doing with everything from the "Sinestro Corps War" to "Blackest Night." It's all been one big story, of course, even going way back to "Green Lantern: Rebirth," which, don't forget, Tomasi edited.

It isn't always successful (for everyone involved) when an editor takes over the writing on a series, but between Tomasi leaving the editorial desk and taking over the reigns of "Green Lantern Corps," he magically transformed into an excellent superhero writer. Okay, so maybe it wasn't so magical, but he has proven his abilities with the crazy scope of "Green Lantern Corps" and his ability to balance the space-cop conflict with the character-based drama.

I've dropped all the Marvel cosmic comics in recent months, but I've hung on to Tomasi's "Green Lantern Corps," because what he and artist Patrick Gleason have been doing has been top-notch stuff.

9. Uncanny X-Men

I've enjoyed Matt Fraction's run on this series since the beginning, even when the art of Greg Land has detracted from the overall quality of the comic. But when I reread the year-long run over the summer, I realized how successfully this series had remixed the Chris Claremont tropes and transformed them through the lens of a Fractionesque vision. This is a fun, frothy, fast-paced comic book series, and its ambition (time travel, super-scientists, sexuality, anti-mutant rage) gives it an energy that it's been lacking for a long time.

I don't think the crossover with "Dark Avengers" has been particularly effective -- the most recent issue of that series was one of the weakest Fraction stories at Marvel so far -- but this is still one of the comics I look forward to reading each month, especially when a dynamic artist like Yanick Paquette or Terry Dodson comes on board. And what you may not realize, if you've only been paying a little attention to this series, is that Fraction has thrown a dozen plot balls into the air, and when they land, it will surely be in spectacular fashion.

Time Travelling Mutant Heroes

8. Unwritten

I remember being struck by Peter Gross's artwork when I saw some ads for "Empire Lanes" in the late 1980s. Medieval adventurers and a bowling alley? Sounded pretty cool to me, although I never actually saw an issue of the comic on the stands. But that type of genre mixing (Dungeons & Dragons & Bowling) is not too far from what Gross and writer Mike Carey are doing with "Unwritten," which is a series that's all about genre mixing.

It's also about the relationship between fiction and reality, which has been a fascination of mine since I first saw "Duck Amuck" and first read "The Monster at the End of this Book." It wasn't just Grant Morrison who sparked my interest in these types of ideas, way back when I read "Animal Man." No, the seeds were planted long before that, and it makes something like "Unwritten" seem like something familiar, yet presented in a fresh way.

Do I care what will happen to this Harry Potter-ish main character? Not really, but I can't wait to find out how it happens, and that's the measure of a very good ongoing series.

7. Irredeemable

The "Mark Waid is Evil" t-shirts were cute, but they kind of missed the point (intentionally so, I realize). It's not the evil Mark Waid that's writing this series about a Superman-gone-wrong. It's an irresponsible Mark Waid, and it's about damn time that he unleashed some irresponsibility upon the world.

Waid has always been a solid superhero writer -- someone you can trust to tell a good story with an inventive plot and a well-crafted structure. It will hit the right beats. But there's always been a sense, even in his best work, that he felt a responsibility to the characters. That he wanted to do them justice.

In "Irredeemable," he wants to do them injustice, and it has freed Mark Waid up to do some of the most interesting writing of his career. The plot isn't safe. The beats aren't where you'd expect them to be. And it's gleeful, evil, irresponsible fun.

Mark Waid Unleashed

6. Green Lantern

Perhaps "Blackest Night" will be too much, and my fondness for Geoff Johns' "Green Lantern" will sour with the crossover issues. But I don't think so, because I've been fascinated to watch what Johns does with Hal Jordan -- and his rogues gallery -- since he began to reinvigorate this character and provide a much-needed "Rebirth."

It wasn't so much that we needed Hal Jordan back. He's one of the few characters that I like irrationally above and beyond whatever writers and artists are crafting his stories, but I don't like this series because it features Hal Jordan. I like this series because Johns has made the villains terrifying, he's made the heroes struggle against impossible odds, and he hasn't slowed down since the beginning.

I don't know what's going to happen to "Green Lantern" when the saga of the Black Lanterns comes to a close, but I know that as long as Geoff Johns -- and the talented Ivan Reis -- keep producing stories like we've seen in the past couple of years, I'll keep reading.

5. Secret Warriors

When I first heard about Jonathan Hickman working for Marvel, I couldn't really imagine how his writing style would blend with the world of mainstream superheroes. His "Nightly News" was so angry, so full of outrage, and such a design-oriented series, that I couldn't picture how that could fit with the Quesada-era Marvel Universe.

Well, it really doesn't, and other than the logos and maps at the back of the first issue of "Secret Warriors," we haven't really seen all that much of the "Nightly News"-style Jonathan Hickman.

But what we have seen is a very good writer who isn't afraid to think big, to spin this gigantic conspiracy story (developed by Brian Michael Bendis) into a gritty drama of secrets and betrayal. And plenty of action. "Secret Warriors" may not be as overtly striking as Hickman's Image work, but it's the Nick Fury series we've been waiting for, and it's quite good.

Scourge of the Lame

4. Punisher

As good as "Secret Warriors" is, it doesn't win the award for Best Marvel Ongoing. That would go to Rick Remender's "Punisher," which started strong but has gotten even better in its most recent arc as the deranged art of Tan Eng Huat has accompanied Remender's equally-deranged story of z-grade villains and their anti-Punisher hijinx.

Earlier, I described Mark Waid unleashing his irresponsible side and writing from what seems like a sense of freedom. Remender always seems to write that way, and he's bringing that sensibility to Marvel, playing with the Frank Castle milieu without restricting himself to the kinds of stories that have been told before. This is a bombastic superhero version of Punisher, fully at home in the Marvel Universe, but with a tone more akin to Jason Aaron's "Ghost Rider."

It's absurd, trashy fun and it knows it.

3. Detective Comics

This is another kind of trashy fun, with a pulp-driven story by Greg Rucka and forward-looking visuals from J. H. Williams III. Ignore the Question back-up -- those pages are little more than filler -- but pay attention to the lead Batwoman story. As if you could somehow ignore the amazing Williams III artwork. As if it's even possible to flip through this series in the shop and put it back on the rack. If you can do that, you either have terrible taste in comic book art or you can't scrape together the $3.99 it takes to buy this book. If that's the case, you should probably get to work, because you'll need to get "Detective Comics" so you can tell your grandkids you were here when it happened.

Maybe the story isn't so great -- it's hard to tell with the dazzling Williams III art blinding us -- but even when Williams III steps aside for a month or three to let someone else tell the story of Kate Kane, well, this series might still be worth a read.

Ah, who am I kidding? It's Williams III that matters here, but he matters a lot.

2. Scalped

We all know that this is the Best Vertigo Ongoing, mostly because I keep writing about it over and over. But that's because it's true, and as an early champion of "Scalped" I can't just let interest flag. This remains not only one of the best comics on the stands, but it's the consistently best comic book of the past few years. Other comics have come and gone with bigger splashes ("Casanova," "All-Star Superman"), but "Scalped" has been truckin' along the whole time, full of superior writing and the kind of character-based storytelling that HBO would salivate over.

That makes this seem tame, though, and it's anything but. This is a nasty comic, full of sex and violence, drugs and death. It's more technically sophisticated than most comics you'll ever read, but it's accessible to anyone who's ever seen a Charles Bronson movie. And if you haven't seen one of those, what are you waiting for?

Morrison and Quitely Take The Trophy

1. Batman and Robin

I know. Predictable. Grant Morrison's "Batman and Robin" takes the top spot as the Best Ongoing Series. But it's not hard to see why. Frank Quitely makes everything look like a beautifully strange alternate reality, and if that's not what comics are, then what are they?

This isn't -- yet -- as allusion-packed or densely layered as Morrison's previous "Batman" run. It doesn't require annotations. But it's gung-ho fast-paced comic book action, filled with the kind of razor-sharp characterization that eliminates any need for other Batman comics during the months in which this series is released. Paul Dini's "Streets of Gotham" is pretty good (and it looks great with Dustin Nguyen's art), and Judd Winick's "Batman" is a mopey soap opera disaster, but neither of those series -- no matter how many words they put in their characters mouths -- give Dick Grayson or Damian Wayne the acute characterization that makes them feel alive. Morrison does, and creates a weird, nightmarish sense of evil in Gotham City for them to face.

With Quitely gone until issues #10-12, this series may slip from the #1 spot, but if Grant Morrison could make great Batman comics with Tony Daniel, I'm sure he can do it with Philip Tan.

And who isn't eager to find out what's going on with this new Red Hood?

Morrison's good.

Before I wrap this up, I'd just like to point out two new ongoing series that might have made this list if they'd established themselves a bit more. "Adventure Comics," with its Superboy feature and "Legion of Super-Heroes" backup, started with a strong opening issues, and I have a feeling that it will become one of my favorites once the Starman strip gives way to something with more of a 31st century feel. And though the first issue of Jeff Lemire's "Sweet Tooth" doesn't debut until Wednesday, I've skimmed though preview copies of the first two issues, and it looks fantastic. I've liked everything Lemire's done since his Xeric-winning self-published graphic novel, "Lost Dogs." And based on what I've seen of the Vertigo "Sweet Tooth," this one will be a favorite as well.

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.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, batman and robin, green lantern, scalped, detective comics

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