When Words Collide

Mon, December 28th, 2009 at 1:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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THE BEST COMICS OF THE DECADE: PART ONE

I had originally planned to do this differently. When I generated my list of the possible contenders for the Best Comics of the Decade -- and it was a list that I refined over the past two months, moving things around, cutting things out, adding some forgotten favorites -- I had assumed I would pare the list down to the Top 20, spend this column talking about comics that ranked in the 11-20 slots, and then spend the first column of the new year highlighting the Ten Best Comics of the Previous Decade.

Next week should go as planned. I moved a few of the Top 10 comics around, but I feel pretty confident in my ranking for the Best 10. The best of the best is easy to rank.

But those comics that didn't quite make the Top 10? Not so much. First of all, most of them -- too many of them, it seems on first glance -- are superhero comics, and they are of similar quality and/or similar historical importance. But they are also comics I really liked over the past 10 years. They are great comics, just not as great as the 10 Best of the Decade.

And, for the record, my criteria for this Best Comics of the Decade list went something like this: aesthetic unity (25%), innovation (25%), historical importance -- speculated (25%), indefinable awesome factor (25%). Scientific criteria, all.

So here's what I'm going to do this week. I'm going to talk about 20 comics that didn't quite make the 10 Best of the Decade list. These are 20 comics that I love. 20 comics I would gladly throw in the direction of anyone who may or may not be interested in looking at words and pictures. 20 comics that I have wallpapered my living room with (metaphorically speaking, because if I really did that, I would have trouble reading them, and my wife would really not like me very much). 20 comics. All great.

THE TWENTY

"Seven Soldiers," "Marvel Boy," "The Filth," and "Seaguy," by Grant Morrison and a bunch of amazing artists

Here are four comics that I couldn't chose between. The one I like most is the one I've read most recently -- or that's how it seems to work with these four. And I'm counting all the "Seven Soldiers" mini-series in this list, and both volumes of "Seaguy." They're all important.

"Seven Soldiers" has ambition, "Marvel Boy" has attitude, "The Filth" has beautiful melancholy, and "Seaguy" has absurdist hope. These are four comic book series that embrace the medium, embrace the culture of superhero/sci-fi comics, embrace the art of the narrative, and they each do something different with those things. I could teach a whole course just using these comics as texts. I should.

"Nextwave," "The Authority," and "Planetary," by Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen, Bryan Hitch, and John Cassaday

One is a parody of superhero action, one adopts superhero spectacle, and one posits superheroes as the secret force of evil beneath the history of the last century. They're all great, they all look great, and they may or may not have changed comics forever. Clearly "The Authority" is the most influential, shaping the way superhero comics looked and felt during this past decade, with the widescreen action, the cynicism, the conversations intertwined with explosive violence. And "Nextwave" helped to encourage the age of the New Awesome, whether or not it was making fun of that very thing. "Planetary," with its tour through the tropes of pulp narrative, is still just settling in. After a long delay, it finally reached its conclusion, and the culture needs to take a look at the whole thing all over again. I need to take a look at the whole thing all over again.

"Criminal" and "Sleeper," by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

I'd tend to rank "Criminal" higher than "Sleeper," but that's only because it seems more tightly controlled. But then again, I appreciate the twists and turns of "Sleeper" and find the issue-to-issue narrative to be more compelling. So you can see why I'm just lumping them together in the list of the Twenty. Both show Ed Brubaker's facility with street-level characters (no matter their power), and both show how far Sean Phillips has come since his early days on "Hellblazer" and "Kid Eternity." Phillips is one of the best crime artists in the business, and his harsh lighting and grim visual unraveling make him a perfect fit for Brubaker's Chandleresque tales of bad guys doing bad stuff to eachother.

"Top 10," by Alan Moore and Gene Ha

If everyone has super-powers, is anyone truly super? "Top 10" doesn't even bother to answer that question, it just takes it for granted -- appropriately so -- as it shows what it's like to be a police officer in a world where everyone's a costumed character. Funny, sad, tragic, and wonderfully mundane, "Top 10" feels unlike any other superhero comic of the decade. No one else can blend the cosmic and the commonplace as elegantly as Alan Moore and no one but Gene Ha can give each character such personality and inject the mise-en-scene with so much, well, stuff. "Top 10" is packed with humanity, even as it looks like a bizarre "Mad Magazine" superhero satire.

"100 Bullets," by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso

Why did I wait so long to read this series? Part of it was -- hell, most of it was -- that I didn't think it would last. I saw the premise, and heard something about 100 bullets and 100 issues, and thought, eh, a Vertigo series like this will probably only last 16-20 issues, tops. Of course, I didn't do anything more than glance at the first issue when I made that ignorant determination.

But I finally read the entire series over the course of a week last summer, once it was all available in collected editions, and it's a damn impressive piece of comic book storytelling. Early on, there's an issue with guest artwork from some of the best in the business, and all I was thinking in that issue was, "none of these guys are as good as Risso." Eduardo Risso may not be the best artist working in mainstream comics today -- that would be J. H. Williams III -- but he's the best crime artist. The best, the only, artist who could have done "100 Bullets" right.

Brian Azzarello gives this crime saga more twists and turns than you can keep straight -- for a while -- but it all makes sense in the end and reaches a conclusion that was implicit in the very first issue, if you only knew what to look for back then.

"Dark Knight Strikes Again," by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

As I described in a recent column, Frank Miller's work on his Dark Knight sequel has so much life, so much vigor, so many examples of him attacking the page, that it's impossible to ignore. In that column, I mentioned that I didn't plan on it cracking my Top 20 Comics of the Decade list, but by the time I finished writing that column, I knew it had. Thinking about Miller's passion toward narrative -- whether I agree with his political and philosophical implications or not -- just made me appreciate his work on the series all the more. "Dark Knight Strikes Again" may be a flawed masterpiece -- a deeply flawed one -- but it can't be ignored as a masterpiece of this decade. Even if it is still years ahead of its time.

"Solo," by some seriously great artists

DC's "Solo," a Mark Chiarello project where interesting artists got a chance for one issue at a time to show their stuff and play around with some of the DC icons, well, it was simply one of the best comics on the stands during its all-too-short lifespan. Imagine a series filled with art by Tim Sale, Richard Corben, Paul Pope, Howard Chaykin, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Mike Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Hampton, Daimon Scott, Sergio Aragones, and Brendan McCarthy, and then imagine that series having trouble selling more than the worst issues of "Terror Titans." As crazy as it sounds, "Solo" couldn't make any money in the direct market and the experiment in artistry was cut short. But, man, those were twelve strong issues, with even lesser-revered artists like Scott or Kristiansen showing what they were capable of. And it was sure impressive. But the best of the best -- McCarthy, Pope, Allred -- was enough to make other comics on the stands look like amateur clip art confections. "Solo" was too good for this world. Or we weren't good enough for it.

"Immortal Iron Fist," by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja

Based on the little we've seen from David Aja since his run on "Immortal Iron Fist" came to an end, he was the real star of the show here. We took him for granted as we relished Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction's exhuberantly pulpy take on the Iron Fist legacy. But we can't sell Brubaker and Fraction short here. This is their best superhero work for Marvel -- their collaboration was something special here, and whether it was the brilliant introduction of Orson Randall or the expansion of the mysteries of the K'un L'un martial arts masters, they took the raw material of Bronze Age exploitation comics and created something mythical. The comic, and the character, continued on in entertaining stories after Brubaker, Fraction, and Aja left the series, but the magic is in those first sixteen issues.

"X-Statix," and "Human Target," by Peter Milligan, Mike Allred, and a host of other fine artists

I guess the Milligan-penned "X-Force" should be in here too, since it's the lead-in to "X-Statix," but let's say that the comic felt more free, more expressive and less on-the-nose satirical when it spun away from its origins as a comic that was launched by Rob Liefeld. "X-Statix" was mostly a gleeful Mike Allred showcase, but that's what the comic book industry always needs, and as a counterpoint to the Joe Casey and company "Uncanny X-Men," and the Grant Morrison "New X-Men," the Milligan/Allred hijinx breathed fresh.

"Human Target" was something else entirely, and though plenty of great artists were involved in the series, the burden was much more on Milligan's shoulders here than with "X-Statix." With its engagement with the world of the 21st century -- it's direct engagement with September 11th and beyond -- "Human Target" is a clean snapshot of the zeitgeist Milligan was processing into graphic narrative. It also raised questions of identity and trust, honor and judgment. It was a crime comic that was about people more than plots, and it was masterful.

"Batman: Year 100," by Paul Pope

As strong as both "Heavy Liquid" and "100%" are, the raw Paul Pope energy that propels the story of "Batman: Year 100" is impossible to ignore. Like Frank Miller, Pope creates a vision of Batman that's as much a personal political statement as it is a superhero comic, but Pope is a better artist than Miller, and his politics appear abstracted and philosophical rather than pointedly shrill. As an action/adventure comic "Batman: Year 100" is pretty thrilling. As a work of art, it's gritty, expressive, and full of passionate intensity. Pope has influenced an entire generation of artists now creating their own great comics -- from Becky Cloonan to Fabio Moon to Nathan Fox -- but Pope's style is still uniquely his own. It still feels alive and new, appropriate for a tale set 30 years into our future.

"Omega the Unknown," by Jonathan Lethem, Karl Rusnak, and Farel Dalrymple

A quirky indie-flavored book based on a quirky superhero-flavored book from Bronze Age Steve Gerber, "Omega the Unknown" has drifted off the radar in the year after its release, but it's still one of the most fascinating comics of the decade. Though it may have faded from popular consciousness, it has grown in my estimation in the past year. I can't stop thinking about that final issue, in which the underdwellers recreated the plot of the series in dumb show, commenting upon or processing the strange events through which they lived. This is a comic about adolescence and hero worship that tears down the clichés and explodes the tropes with absurd abandon. And it's drawn by Farel Dalrymple who makes the whole awkward mess a thing of beauty. And let's not forget that it's the first Marvel comic to use work from Gary Panter, and that alone should make it unforgettable.

"Godland," by Joe Casey and Tom Scioli

"Godland" is one of those top-notch, sheer delights that I never end up writing about. I don't think I've ever reviewed an issue or even mentioned it in a column, and if so, only briefly. Yet it's one of the most consistently entertaining comics of the past decade, one that takes the iconic power of the past and filters it through a postmodernist sensibility without taking any of it seriously. And the stories work, not just as a tongue-in-cheek Jack Kirby pastiches, but as stories of human struggle and cosmic questions. But it is a Jack Kirby pastiche, in such a charmingly blatant way. It's the kind of thing I'd love to see more of -- perhaps a superhero crime thriller done in a Ditko style, or a Neal Adams sci-fi romance. A direct embrace of the influences instead of an attempt to hide them. It's post-ironic irony, which makes it heartbreakingly sincere.

"Walking Dead," by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a couple thousand words about the strength of Robert Kirkman's zombie saga. I stand by everything I said there, and, if anything, I wish I could relive the experience of reading all the collected editions for the first time. Now that I'm waiting for the trades every six months, I'm not getting the visceral thrill of being trapped inside the zombie landscape the way I did when I plowed through all those volumes in a couple of days. "Walking Dead" is a great serialized comic -- an example of how to do it right, to make everything matter in a way that compels future reading, and to not be afraid to take the story in unexpected directions -- but I can't bring myself to buy it in anything but trades, simply because I want as big of a dose as possible with each reading. It's the most addictive, compulsively readable comic of the decade, and it points the way for how long-form comic book sagas can be structured. No one has really followed Kirkman's lead on this yet, preferring to keep their characters safe, and their stories inert, instead of cutting a swath into the future.

But we still have "Walking Dead," we still have Kirkman, and it's a lot of fun to join him on this dark, maddening, thrilling, vicious ride.

This has been an incredibly deep decade for comics, and I haven't even hinted at my Top 10 yet. Join me next week to see what made the final list, to see what you disagree with, and what I'm talking about when I talk about the Very Best Comics of the Decade.

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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