When Words Collide: The Top 10 Comics of 2011

Mon, December 19th, 2011 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Last week, I ran down my honorable mentions and twenty of the Top 30 Comics of the Year. Now, it's time for the Top 10. These are the Best of the Year. If you haven't read them yet, put 'em on your "I've been nice" wish list.

10. "Batman, Inc.," by Grant Morrison, Chris Burnham and Yanick Paquette
You can pretend issue #8 of this series doesn't exist, and wipe the "Digital Justice" redux story from your mind, because this series was much better than that pathetic final issue would have you believe.

(And I know there is more to come, packaged in an oversized issue now that the DC relaunch has settled in, but this series cracks the Top 10 of the year mostly based on issue #7 alone, along with some support from the old-style Batwoman issues that preceded it.)

In these days, when Morrison's "Action Comics" disappoints on a monthly basis, recall the early days of 2011 when he was blasting the pop culture landscape with international action drawn by Yanick Paquette and Chris Burnham. The story took a turn toward the weird with the El Gaucho adventure, but the Dedalus stuff and the mysterious island HQ showed Morrison at his superhero best, and the close-up look at Man-of-Bats and Red Raven showed off the intricate stylings of Burnham's pencils and Morrison's ability to highlight the human as well as the cosmic.

It seems like a million years ago to those of us in the weekly comics punditry trenches, but this was one of the best comics on the stands only a handful of months back.

9. "Lose," by Michael DeForge
The centerpiece for the third issue of DeForge's series is a short story entitled "Dog 2070," which is a futuristic, maybe anthropomorphic (or just alien) tale of sadness and disappointment. It's a touching story, vividly defined and emotionally devastating without being melodramatic.

DeForge, as a cartoonist, seems to embody all the best of Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, and Chester Brown without being directly influenced by any of them, in any traceable way. That might seem like hyperbole -- "this guy is like a group of scientists got together and cloned all the great cartoonists of the age and then created him in a lab" -- but he's the current alt comics superstar right now for a good reason: he's an evocative writer with a distinctive line and design sensibility.

"Lose" #3 is the most concentrated dose of his abilities, but he shows up in half a dozen other comics this year, and all of his efforts show his deep talents.

8. "Xombi," by John Rozum and Frazer Irving
The story's an age-old one: nanotechnology grants David Kim the power to reshape the structure of the world around him, he gets caught up in Catholic superhuman melodrama with the likes of "Nun the Less" and "Nun of the Above," and faces off against the Sisterhood of the Blood Mummies in the search for the Ninth Stronghold. Okay, maybe it's just a series of nouns put together and doesn't make any sense at all, but that's not it either. "Xombi" is just packed with more ideas and situations than a dozen of your superhero event comics.

There's a density to this series -- in its short-lived six-issue run -- that can be off-putting. It doesn't have the decompressed pace of anything else from Marvel or DC. It relies on narrative captions and exposition. Too many characters are introduced (especially for those of us who never read the Milestone original series), and the plot seems to barrel toward a too-swift conclusion by the final issue. Until you read it again, and settle into its rhythms, and realize that it unfolds at a thrilling pace. And its that unfolding that's extraordinary, as each new layer is revealed, with stunning art from Frazer Irving.

7. "Forming," by Jesse Moynihan
When I'm making these kinds of lists, I don't tend to put a lot of weight toward the production value of the actual published books. If a book looks shoddy, or has printing errors, that would sour the book, sure, but otherwise I assume a general level of quality in the printing of these things.

But with "Forming," a hardcover collection of Jesse Moynihan's online serial, published by NoBrow, the production value is part of the attraction.

Because this is a gorgeous artifact. And reading the hardcover volume is a substantially different experience than reading the online version. The colors are more vibrant in the NoBrow edition -- the art pops off the page. If it were just a collection of non-sequential images that looked like this, the book would still be worth getting. But there's a story here, too. One that's crazy and dreamlike and cosmic and mythological.

How would I describe it? How about a profane Steve Englehart's take on classical mythology meets the linework of CF meets the insanity of the Old Testament with colors by Crayola. Yeah, that's a comic I would read. And I did.

Moynihan's a force of nature.

6. "Loose Ends," by Jason Latour, Chris Brunner, and Rico Renzi
As far as I know, Vertigo Crime has reached an end, and after reading most of the books in that series -- and looking through the rest -- it's safe to say that not a single one was as impressive a crime comic as we get in this four-issue series from 12 Gauge Comics.

The writer of this neon noir series, Jason Latour, even drew one of those Vertigo Crime books, but the black-and-white-on-cheap-paper reproduction didn't showcase his impressive artwork, and the story was hollow. Here, he lets studio-mate Chris Brunner and colorist Rico Renzi carry the visual workload, and they show off their impressive skills on every page.

On the surface-level, this is just a nice-looking, ambitiously-designed comic. But there's also ambition in the story as well. Had Latour just continued the story he seemed to begin in issue #1, with a story about a guy and a gal on the run from a murder scene, it would still have been a good comic. But with issue #2, more subplots were introduced and the story revealed itself to be a different kind of story. More of a love story than you might expect, with an ominous edge all around it.

We still haven't seen the final issue of this series, but even with only three-fourths of it on the stands, this is one of the best comics of the year, and a more-than-strong debut for Latour-the-writer. Or maybe it's just Brunner and Renzi making him look so damned good.

5. "Deadpool MAX," by David Lapham and Kyle Baker
Shawn Crystal is a very good artist, but his couple of issue on this series just proved to demonstrate how integral Kyle Baker is to the story being told. Because whatever the story is -- and it's a story about super-conspiracies and terrorism and assassination and hilarity -- it's the tone that's most important. This is a comic that's 90% style and 10% substance, and most of the substance circles back into style.

As a buddy comic, following the hijinx of Deadpool and Bob, this is a completely entertaining comic. But as a parody of superhero comics, and a remix of (specifically 1990s) Marvel comics, it's something transcendent.

Did I really use "transcendent" to describe a series full of sophomoric sexual humor and pratfalls? Yes. Because it's "Deadpool MAX," and Kyle Baker is directing the show.

4. "Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker," by Joe Casey and Mike Huddleston
Not to be confused with the spin-off series from "The Boys," this is the Joe Casey/Mike Huddleston tribute to Burt Reynolds movies, kaiju costumes and over-the-hill superheroes. It's the ethos of the moustache, applied to graphic narrative, with Dick Cheney and Jay Leno yanking the past-his-prime-but-still-swaggering Butcher Baker out of retirement to blast some of his greatest enemies.

The plot of this series may turn out to matter, but so far it's all attitude, all the time, and its satirical swipes at politics and pop culture aren't quite as effective as its action sequences, with Mike Huddleston doing the most impressive high-wire showmanship of his career.

Casey has been hitting the comic book scene hard this year, with everything from drug-induced superheroes ("Marijuanaman") to campy romps ("Doc Bizarre, M.D.") to secret, off-camera mega-events ("Vengeance") to costumed horrorcore ("Haunt") and while I have enjoyed every single one of those comics, "Butcher Baker" is his most potent ode to the medium. And every issue ends with his reflections on the state of "comicbooks," past and present. I won't say those essays are worth the purchase price, but you don't have to worry -- you get the Butcher Baker exploits plus Casey commentary in every floppy package.

3. "Casanova: Avaritia," by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba
Long overdue, "Casanova" returns. The series that made Matt Fraction a critical darling -- and the comic that all his recent work has been judged against -- came back this year from Marvel's Icon imprint, with original artist Gabriel Ba providing the visual storytelling.

And it's good. One of the best things I've read this year, only two issues in.

As the first "Casanova" series created specifically with full-color in mind, it looks better than the Icon reprints of the original Image series (though those looked pretty darn good, too), and we get a chance to catch up with Casanova Quinn and see where he's been and where he's going.

The first Casanova arc, "Luxuria" was about the protagonist embracing his place in the cross-dimensional superspy universe. The second arc, "Gula," seemingly pulled the protagonist away from the foreground and told a story about justice and revenge. This third arc, "Avaritia" (you'll note that each is named after one of the Seven Deadly Sins), is about the legacy of the past. It's about living with what Casanova Quinn has done and who he is. It's too simple to say it's the series in mid-live crisis, but it is about doubt and disappointment. But because it's a Casanova tale, it's not told like a sad Chris Ware story.

It's got explosions, lots of 'em.

I truly think the first two arcs of "Casanova" defined the comics of the first decade of the 21st century. "Avaritia," two issues into the series, looks to be a worthy follow-up.

2. "Flashpoint: Batman: Knight of Vengeance," by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
I sometimes wonder how many people in the world have read the holy trinity of "Forming," "Lose" and every single issue of "Flashpoint" and all of its spin-offs? I mean, someone with credentials like that would have to be open-minded about comics, and/or have really inconsistent taste, right?

Well, count me in, because I committed to reading everything "Flashpoint" by early summer and I stuck with it all the way through, even if it was partly an endurance test. But, guess what? One of the best comics of the entire year came out through that "Flashpoint" event, and barely anyone noticed.

With "Batman: Knight of Vengeance," Azzarello and Risso teamed up to tell one of the most haunting Batman stories ever, with Thomas Wayne in the role of the bat, and the death of his young son altering the course of his life forever.

Most "Elseworlds" series don't contribute much to the resonance of the series upon which they are based, but in this case -- though not officially an "Elseworld," obviously -- the story of Thomas and Martha Wayne, and the brutal Gotham in which they live -- is like a fractured mirror retelling of the entire Batman mythos in three issues. It's not that the scope of this story is large, it's that the psychology of the series gets right to the creamy center of the Bat-brain. It stings, even as it drifts away into alternate reality irrelevance.

1. "Scalped," by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera
Simply: the best monthly series of the past few years. "Scalped" has continued to weave a single tale -- featuring a large and detailed cast of characters -- through a dozen different story arcs and interludes. This year, its penultimate year, the series is finally beginning to resolve some of the plot threads introduced back in the first six issues all those years ago. But I've never read a single issue of this series that has felt decompressed, or plodding, or like a throwaway. Everything counts here, as Dash Bad Horse and the rest of the ensemble begin to unravel toward the denouement.

Ultimately, this is a crime story, expertly drawn, with dialogue that feels exactly right. It's in the tradition of trash comics -- born from "Billy Jack" iconography and the remnants of "Scalphunter" -- and even if it were only that, with Aaron and Guera telling the tale, it would still be incredibly powerful as a genre piece, but there's more to it than that. "Scalped" is about a time and a place, and it's about the people who live there, with all their hopes and dreams and struggles and disappointments. It's grungily operatic, yes, but it's also classically tragic.

It's "Scalped." The Best Comic of 2011.

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, batman incorporated, deadpool max, xombi

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