When Words Collide

Mon, December 21st, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: December 21st, 2009 at 6:46pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
14

THE BEST COMICS OF 2009

I know what you've been waiting for, and I'm here to provide it. You've probably been thinking to yourself -- or saying aloud when no one is nearby -- "hey, if only I had some sort of numerical list of the best comics from this past calendar year. I wish someone on the internet could generate such a list. Then, and only then, would I be happy."

Today is your lucky day, my friend.

Last year, I built up to the Top 10 of the year by counting down the Top 20 Collected Editions of 2008, and then did a two-part Best Comics of 2008 run-down. I made a big deal out of the whole thing, mostly because 2008 was a really phenomenal year for collected editions and comic books of all types.

2009 wasn't quite as great.

But that doesn't mean that we didn't get plenty of wonderful comics this year. Too many for a Top 10 list, really, but I'm going to stick with my Ten Best, because these were the ones that really bowled me down or kicked me in the gut. The ones that pushed the boundaries of the medium or were just a hell of a lot of fun.

I could give some honorable mentions to the likes of "Umbrella Academy: Dallas," or "Ghost Rider: Heaven's on Fire," or "Beast," or "Dark Reign: Zodiac," or even the conclusion of "Final Crisis." But I won't. They just didn't make the cut, even though I enjoyed the heck out of those comics. The Top Ten is an elite bunch, something they should all be proud to achieve. And since no one else on the internet is bothering to post a list of the Ten Best Comics of 2009, making this Top Ten will clearly mean a lot to everyone involved. I just hope they don't let it go to their heads.

So, here it is: The Top 10 Comics of 2009. The ones that matter.

10. I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura

I wrote about the collected edition of this series back in May, and although I didn't remember writing these words when I was putting the preliminary version of my list together last week, I wrote: "I wouldn't be surprised to see 'I Kill Giants,' the trade paperback collection of Joe Kelly and Ken Nimura's seven-issue series, make some Top 10 lists by year's end." It struck me as one of the best comics of the year back then, and it has lingered with me ever since. Ostensibly the story of a misfit adolescent giant slayer, it's a haunting look at growing up and facing death. It's painful and beautiful, and it may not have hit your radar this year. But it should have.

9. Wednesday Comics, by Various

I looked forward to this experiment in oversized newsprint comics since the day the creative teams were announced, and it was the very first thing I read each week as it was released. Chad Nevett and I discussed it way too much. It was a big part of my comic book reading life this year, and now that it's but a distant memory, I can't help but think back on it fondly. Sure, not all of the strips may have been "Best of" material, but here was a comic with a weekly dose of Paul Pope doing Adam Strange. A weekly dose of Kamandi with astonishing Ryan Sook art. A weekly dose of Azzarello and Risso Batman. Allred. Baker. Karl Kerschl making his case for greatness on "The Flash." As a showcase artistry, "Wednesday Comics" was stunning. I miss it like crazy and look forward to a day when it's collected in the size of one of those mammoth "Little Nemo" books. That may never happen, but I can dream.

8. Punisher, by Rick Remender and Various

Rick Remender's "Punisher" started strong, with Jerome Opena artwork and a plot involving Frank Castle taking this Dark Reign stuff seriously. With a supervillain in charge of homeland security, the Punisher had some work to do. But then when the Hood brought back the z-list heroes killed by the Scourge back in the Mark Gruenwald "Captain America" days, this series took a turn for the zany and fantastic. And with Tan Eng Huat on art for that sleazy, giddy look at a supervillain grindhouse spectacular, it just kept getting better.

That arc culminated with Frank Castle burning his resurrected wife and children with a flame thrower. Trashy, savage, and tinged with bitter irony, the series ended 2009 with its main character killed and brought back as a Frankenstein monster. I don't know where Rick Remender is taking "Punisher" next, but I love it.

7. Batman and Robin, by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Philip Tan

A shoe-in for one of the best series of 2009 after the stellar first three issues, "Batman and Robin" slipped a slot or two with every Philip Tan issue released. Issue #6 was simply one of the worst Grant Morrison comics I've ever read, but if it had been drawn by Frank Quitely, I may have felt differently. Quitely is Morrison's best artistic collaborator and their first three issues on this title showed that the new Batman status-quo (Dick Grayson as Batman, Damian Wayne as Robin) could be rife with thrills and chills. The first few pages of the series gave us everything we needed to know, and proved the utter pointlessness of "Battle for the Cowl." Morrison and Quitely showed the world how to make pop-art superhero action comics for three issues, pushing the characters forward while burrowing into the past (most notably by resurrecting a setting from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's "The Killing Joke.") That Philip Tan's three issues weren't anywhere near as good doesn't make the first three any less potent.

6. Scalped, by Jason Aaron and Various

The year began with "High Lonesome," a series of tersely evocative single issues devoted to various characters from this series. Then it kicked into "The Gnawing," in which the world of the Rez, already unstable, started to come toppling down.

Aaron has somehow managed to make this violent crime story into a masterful character piece without losing the best of either approach. Say what you will about the state of mainstream American comic books -- and I've been critical myself this year -- but Scalped, a monthly series from Vertigo that's three years into its run, has been one of the great stories of the decade. I'd put this series up against the best comics, the best television shows, the best movies of the past ten years. It's so consistently good, that it's easy to forget how great it really is. And it's not that 2009 was a particularly amazing year for the series. It's simply very good, every single issue. And the cumulative effect of the massive story is overwhelmingly powerful.

5. Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka, by Naoki Urasawa

I wrote about the war allegory in Urasawa's moving manga series last week, but the way it deals with love and loss, war and regret, doesn't automatically make it Top 10 material. As I said last week, it's the way Urasawa handles the small moments that matter. With about half the series now released in America, we have seen Urasawa reveal an immense tapestry. He's directly referencing the work of the great Osamu Tezuka (even layering in allusions to other Tezuka works besides "Astro Boy" throughout "Pluto,") he's tackling the war in the Middle East, the relationships between humans and technology, and so much more. And he's doing it through characters. This is a story with plenty of plot, plenty of surprises and mystery, and yet it feels character driven. That Urasawa can make it feel that way even though it's based on a story that's already been told. A story that was all plot and no character. That's pretty amazing.

I don't know if "Pluto" is a manga for people who don't realize how much they like manga, but I think it might be. I think it could convert some readers who have been reluctant to try anything outside of Marvel or DC.

4. Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye, by Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart

This one wins the award for Greatest Comic of the Year That Came and Went and No One Really Seemed to Say Much About It. Sure, the Mindless Ones had a few things to say, and so did some of the Morrison-minded among us, but "Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye" was a major release -- a major achievement -- and it seemed to disappear from the comic book landscape like a pebble into the sea. The ripples barely lasted a minute.

But this second installment of the projected Seaguy Trilogy was even better than the first. It combined the nimble artistry of Cameron Stewart with superhero action, absurdity, and satire. Did it foretell of the later-announced purchase of Marvel Comics by Disney? Perhaps. But more importantly, it showed what comics are and what they can be, when imagination runs wild. The best kind of comics.

3. Detective Comics, by Greg Rucka and J. H. Williams III

Every once in a while, you get a Steranko on "Captain America" or an Adams on "Batman" or a Sienkiewicz on "Moon Knight." Well, I suppose it's not every once in a while. It's more like rarely, if ever. J. H. Williams III is one of those artists who comes along and makes everyone realize that the upper end of mainstream comic book art is a lot more "upper" than they ever imagined. Rucka's "Detective Comics" may be a pretty good pulp adventure with some heart, but Williams III is a phenomenon. This is a comic that looks so great that I suspect other artists look at it and think, "why do I even bother?" And Williams III could get away with sticking to a single style and still be the best artist in the business, but "Detective Comics" shows a multitude of styles -- each employed to emphasize a different aspect of the story -- and the overall effect is magical.

Alan Moore spent an entire series, "Promethea," explaining the relationship between story and magic. That series was drawn by Williams III as well, and it turns out that all anyone had to do was follow that artist and let the magic wash over them.

2. Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe, by Bryan Lee O'Malley

I suppose "Scott Pilgrim" has become popular enough by now -- or if not now, then very soon -- that it's time for some backlash. When that happens, just remember this: Bryan Lee O'Malley has reshaped comics forever. And he's done it with a fun, funny, continually surprising series that's a hell of a lot deeper than it has any right to be. "Scott Pilgrim," with its manga influence, its indie comics attitude, its unrepentant superheroics, its video game celebrations, and its beating heart, is simply one of the best comics over the last few years, and in this penultimate volume, O'Malley shows the title character growing up. But the growth is earned, and it's as thrilling as the fight scenes used to be.

This is a great, great comic.

1. Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzuchelli

I wrote extensively about this graphic novel masterpiece after picking up a copy at the MoCCA Festival last spring, and I pretty much said it all then. This is a major work by a major creator, a comic that's about how style is the substance, about the intersection between art and life. It's in the territory of "Maus," of "Stuck Rubber Baby," of "Jimmy Corrigan." It's one of the few graphic novels that deserves close study. It's the type of comic that shows not just what comics can do, but what they should do.

"Asterios Polyp" is the best of 2009, easily.

Join me next week as I begin my countdown toward the Best Comics of the Entire Decade. Will any of these ten make the list? You'll have to wait and see.

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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