When Words Collide: The Best of 2011 - So Far!

Mon, June 20th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

I like to do these midway-through-the-year "Best of" lists, because it's always fun to reflect on how the year has been going so far and to put a stake in the ground to mark the halfway point and see how much different the view looks by late December. Last year, for example, my Best of The Year list didn't look much like my Mid-Year Check-In, even though "Daytripper" hung on to the number one spot for the whole year. (Nicely done, Los Bros Ba.)

The recent DC announcements about September have shaken up the industry so much -- and dominated the comic book news sites -- that everything that has happened so far in 2011 may seem like a prologue for the big DC relaunch. I mean, other than that one Alan Moore Superman story, you don't tend to hear all that much about the great mainstream comics of 1985. "Crisis on Infinite Earths" wiped away any possible discussion about those comics and the DC relaunch seems set to do the same, just with the immense size of the whole thing. All eyes are on September and it's still only June.

It isn't like 2011 has been a revolutionary year so far (and, honestly, the DC relaunch is a big deal, but, with a few notable exceptions from creators like Grant Morrison, Cliff Chiang, Scott Snyder and maybe Paul Cornell, it's not like we're going to see a lot of DC contenders for "Best of" during the fall months), but there have been a heck of a lot of good comics released this year already, even if most of them are just continuing on from what was done last year.

Honorable mention comics like "Punisher MAX," "Orc Stain" and "Secret Warriors" are excellent reads and I look forward to them every time a new issue hits the stands, but I wouldn't say that 2011 was the best year (so far) for any of those series. They didn't quite crack my Top 10, even though I do enjoy them quite a bit. Other honorable mentions, for comics that were on my preliminary list but weren't quite as impressive as the Best of the Best would be the various "Hellboy" one-shots this year, Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston's goofy and insane "Butcher Baker: The Righteous Maker," the Howard Chaykin-drawn bits of "New Avengers," the hardcover collection of Dan Clowes's "Mister Wonderful," and Ben Marra's "The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd (A Word of Fiction and Satire)." If I'm including webcomics and why the hell wouldn't I (other than my prejudice against reading comics digitally), then Marra would get an honorable mention for "Space Barbarians of the Ultimate Future Dimensions." So would Kevin Church and Ming Doyle for the hilariously dark "The Loneliest Astronauts," a webcomic I'm currently writing an essay about, because it deserves deep and abiding thought. And laughter.

Tom Scioli's "American Barbarian" is pretty great too. I guess the way you break through the wall of prejudice about webcomics -- at least with me -- is to create gorgeous, madly absurd faux-sci-fi comics that tell a serialized story. When these Marra, Church/Doyle and Scioli comics are collected, in massive hardcover Absolute volumes, they will be magnificent. Lets make that happen, publishers.

Okay, on with the Top 10 So Far:

10. "iZombie," by Chris Roberson, Mike Allred and Gilbert Hernandez

It's the last name on the list of creators above that kicks this series up to Top-10-land this year. As much as I like the work of Roberson and Allred and I like it as much as I like mango chicken stir fry, issue #12, featuring Gilbert Hernandez drawing the backstory of Ellie the ghost girl in a variety of styles, well, that's just one of the best single issues of the year. Out of all the comics on the list, "iZombie" is the one I'd call "delightful," and sometimes "delightful" is exactly what you need in a comic. But Hernandez working from Roberson's script? That was more than delightful. That was magical.

9. "Detective Comics," by Scott Snyder, Jock and Francesco Francavilla

This comic has three things going for it: (a) Snyder writes the best Dick Grayson we've seen in years and his Jim Gordon is top-notch too, (b) Jock draws amazing cityscapes and images of Batman dropping down from the sky and (c) Francavilla is a modern-day Alex Toth with more than a hint of David Mazzucchelli (AND he does his own colors). This is a superhero action comic, but it's also about fathers and sons and the legacy of the past coming back to haunt the present. It's smart and quick and you get the sense that there's still a lot more story to tell, particularly about Jim Gordon, Jr. It's no surprise that Snyder is moving on to "Batman" in September, but it's too bad that Francavilla is helping out with "Swamp Thing" instead of lurking around Gotham in the fall.

8. "Nonplayer," by Nate Simpson

Without a doubt, the best new talent of 2011. Simpson's not really "new," of course, since he's been working in the video game industry for years, but "Nonplayer" is his first comic book series and poured everything he has into that first issue. In that opener, he tells the story of two worlds -- one an immersive fantasy world, the other the "reality" of the protagonist -- and he draws both worlds in painfully gorgeous fashion. My son read the first issue and his eyes were wide for at least ten minutes after. "That. Was. The. Best. Comic. Ever," he slowly blurted out. I wouldn't quite go that far, but I'm more jaded than he is. But I would say that it was a wonderful opening issue, one with images that will linger in my mind far longer than almost every other comic I've read in the past five years. Simpson's that good. And he's still working on issue #2. So be patient. It's worth the wait.

7. "Batman, Inc." by Grant Morrison, Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham

A couple of months ago, this series might have ranked even higher than #7, but it's started to slide away from me, not necessarily because the quality has diminished, but because it has started to become a slightly sickening parody of itself in recent months. Maybe Morrison's Batman run (which has been going on for as long as I have been writing about comics online) has always been a parody of itself, but I've enjoyed the heck out of it. But the alternating team of Paquette and Burnham (both of whom I like) and the barrage of grotesqueries at Kane's Kollosal Karnival and the rapid-fire introduction of seemingly disposable characters, well, it has done something to disengage me from the larger story Morrison seems to be telling. Still, as single issue slices of comic book entertainment, there aren't many comics that are even trying to do the things "Batman, Inc." is doing with allusion and symbolism and irony and repetition. As absurd installments, this comic is still pretty great, it's just sometimes too much for me to take in multi-issue doses right now.

6. "Uncanny X-Force," by Rick Remender and various

This series started (in the fall of 2010) with an incredibly strong opening art, thanks to the artwork of Jerome Opena and Dean White. In the half-dozen or so issues since, it hasn't quite regained that level of craft, but, as a series, it has been the strongest in-continuity ongoing at Marvel since the heights of Ed Brubaker's "Captain America." This comic plays to Remender's strong suits -- he can use Deadpool for vicious slapstick and Fantomex for dry irony. He can use Angel and Psylocke as corrupted innocents, in sleazy grindhouse style. Wolverine can be Wolverine. And with Remender using these characters like rusty razors, slicing through the past, present and future of Marvel, he's created a superhero series with a strong point of view, cutting through the blandness of so much of the company's output over the years.

5. "Superboy," by Jeff Lemire, Pier Gallo and Marco Rudy

This is easily the best of the Superman family titles right now and "Superman" and "Action Comics" are better now than they've been in years, so it's impressive that Lemire and his artistic collaborators can make this low-profile series the stand-out. On one level, it's an enjoyable series because Lemire dispenses with any notions of "hey, let's take a quasi-realistic look at Superboy in a rural setting" premise, which seems to be there in the beginning, following up on Geoff Johns and Francis Manapul's "Adventure" run and turns the comic into a Silver Age-inspired romp, with Legion of Super-Heroes references, Jimmy Olsen craziness and cosmic adventures in space. On another level, it's just a great-looking comic, particularly issue #7, which features Marco Rudy's artwork and a few watercolor pages that look like something out of a PictureBox project. Odd, strange, beautiful. That this series can pull that off and tell a compelling superhero saga, well that makes it one of the best books of the year so far.

4. "Criminal: The Last of the Innocent," by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Sure, as I write this, I've only seen one issue of this series, but what an issue! Not only is this a return to form for Brubaker and Phillips (after an "Incognito" series that was more-than-competently put together but made my eyes glaze over as I read it), but this new "Criminal" miniseries has the best start yet. I would put Brubaker and Phillips's previous work on "Criminal" up against the best crime comics of the last 50 years. Some arcs are stronger than others, but it has consistently been an impressive tapestry of noir storytelling. This new series is perhaps more indulgent, in some ways, in that it recasts Archie Andrews (well, an analogue of the character, to avoid lawsuits and to have more storytelling freedom) and the inhabitants of a kind of Riverdale and it shows these characters in their more sordid years. Phillips jumps between a cartoony style and his hard-edged chiaroscuro to differentiate between the past and the present, between romanticism and "reality." It's good. Really good.

3. "Scalped," by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera

Aaron and Guera ended their opening arc, four years ago, with the death of Gina Bad Horse. In issue #49, we finally see the showdown between Dash and his mother's killer. What's so impressive isn't just that Aaron and Guera extended the story for so long, but that the consequences of Gina's death have permeated the entire series even though not a single character has talked about the impact of her death on the community and the final confrontation between protagonist and antagonist (it's silly to even use those terms in a series as gray as this one) happens in the front seat of a truck, inelegantly, with bullets flying through faces and characters slithering toward survival. This is a tight, vicious, compelling comic about messy, sometimes immoral, complex characters. Forget "100 Bullets," forget "Fables," forget "Y the Last Man." This is the Axel Alonso/Will Dennis-era Vertigo series that deserves a place on the bookshelf, forever.

2. "Deadpool MAX," by David Lapham, Kyle Baker and Shawn Crystal

A few weeks ago, this would have been my solid #1 pick of the year so far, but the most recent issue, with Shawn Crystal instead of Kyle Baker, popped a hole in the side of its ascent to the top of the list. Crystal is a fine Deadpool artist -- I'd rather see his art on regular Deadpool comics than almost anyone who has ever drawn the character -- but he's no Kyle Baker. And it's clear after issue #9, if it wasn't clear before that, how much this is Baker's comic, even if Lapham is credited with the script. But with Lapham and Baker together, this is a comic that I rush home to read. It's funny (for real, not "Deadpool funny"), it's full of life and Baker's unrestrained creative juices, it's savage, it's a comic that devours the Marvel universe and spits it out in hilarious little chunks. And it also seems to have an overarching plot. But that barely matters when it's Deadpool vs. the female Taskmaster drawn by Kyle Baker. Because that's enough right there. A freeze frame of what mainstream comics can be, when they aren't trying to be anything else but crazy fun.

1. "Xombi," by John Rozum and Frazer Irving

We may be too close to it to fully appreciate what's going on here, but Frazer Irving has been redefining the look of contemporary superhero comics over the last half decade. That Irving is not mentioned in the same breath as Moebius or Frank Quitely or J. H. Williams III is ridiculous. He is the absolute cream of a small crop of artists who create absolutely stunning work while supposedly operating inside genre conventions. "Xombi" is a monster hunter comic, an offshoot of a cancelled Milestone book that few read in its original incarnation and even less read now. But it is dense, full of angular, portentous dialogue that only works in comic books. And it looks amazing. I've written about this series a few times in the past month and I have to admit that I'm kind of obsessed with it. It didn't crack into my brain the first time I read the issues, though I found Irving's art to be as lovely as always. But the more I've gone back to reread it and to pour over the issues, the more I see that Irving has created a compact yet expansive world of true horror and Rozum has populated the world with incredible conflict.

"Xombi" is a whirring machine of glorious beauty. A sharp, intricate machine that will surprise you if you give it a chance. And, as of late June, it's the best thing I've read this year.

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 "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

TAGS:  when words collide, scalped, superboy, nonplayer, deadpool max, izombie, detective comics, uncanny x-force, batman incorporated, criminal, xombi

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