When Words Collide: Best Comics of 2012 (So Far)

Mon, July 2nd, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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BEST COMICS OF 2012 (SO FAR)

We're around the halfway point of the year, so that means it's time to check in what's been good in 2012 -- the comics that earn the coveted title of Best Comics of 2012 So Far.

In a year when Marvel and DC Comics are sliding toward increasingly corporate banality and individual voices are drowned out by the need to churn out product that looks like other things readers have purchased in the past, very few comics that load the shelves in the direct market have made my preliminary list this year. It's a year when I've had to seek out the good stuff, because it hasn't been shipping to my local shop for my Wednesday visits.

I suppose that's as much of a commentary on the state of comics in 2012 as anything -- that, out of my preliminary list of the twenty-plus Best so far, only three come from the combined forces of Marvel and DC, and one of those is a digital-only series. Much of the rest of my preliminary list comes from books I've mail-ordered, read via the Comixology app, or special-ordered at my local shop. Of all the publishers, it's Image Comics, in its 20th year, that has risen to the top of the crop.

The drought of interesting direct market bestsellers doesn't mean that we don't have plenty of good comics to read this year. It was easy to come up with a strong Top 10 So Far, and before I get to that, I'll just throw out a few names of comics to watch, the honorable mentions that didn't quite crack the Top 10 So Far, but just missed the cut at the halfway point, and may rally at the end, or look even stronger in retrospect: "Scalped," "Nurse Nurse," "Shade," "Voltron Year One," "Saga," "Hell Yeah," "Slime Freak," "Casanova: Avaritia," "Birdseye Bristoe," "American Barbarian," and "B.P.R.D."

All of them, good, but not as good as these -- here's the official When Words Collide Top 10 Best Comics of 2012 So Far:

10. "Deathzone!" by Michael Fiffe

In a recent column, I highlighted this Michel Fiffe "Suicide Squad" tribute comic as something more than just an artistic exercise, and it's such an exuberant distillation of the old John Ostrander/Luke McDonnell comics that it can't help but charm. Its entire existence depends upon nostalgia for the golden age of Amanda Waller and the crew, but Fiffe brings his own style -- so bold and distinctive -- and he channels the memories of what once was into a dream-like alternative version of events. It's, above all, a comic about being in love with comics.

9. "Lincoln Washington: Free Man," by Benjamin Marra

Sometimes it seems like Ben Marra is just over in his little corner of comic-dom, celebrating what he loves, making marks on paper while the rest of the comics scene admires itself and misses the signals he's sending out until three years later. Like Fiffe's "Deathzone!" Marra's work is always a passion project, as he bounces from one genre to the next (while always maintaining an appropriately absurd level of sex and violence), and "Lincoln Washington" is his parody of the escaped slave narrative. He's channeling Quentin Tarantino's next movie without having seen it yet. Only Marra's funnier and more gruesome, on every page.

8. "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 2009," by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill

I don't know if this is the final installment of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, but it feels like it could be. It certainly answers the (short-sighted) complaints about previous "Century" volumes, which were seen by many critics as plodding and self-absorbed. This new volume is an action-packed romp. It's not all wall-to-wall action, but it's close with an extended climactic battle at the not-quite-Hogwarts where all the not-quite-Harry-Potters have been slain. It's J. K. Rowling fan fiction at times, but a snuff film version of it, with the characters from the League at the end of their journey.

It's Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. Back in business. For a limited time.

7. "Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred," by David Hine and Shaky Kane

While the first Bulletproof Coffin series was an oddball, metafictional funhouse mirror of genre comics -- and quiet a good one -- this second miniseries is more playful and extreme in its affections. Perhaps there's an overall narrative, but its less interesting than the experiments Hine and Kane attempt in each issue. The walls of fiction tumbled down in the first series, and here it seems as if anything goes, from non-sequential panels, rearranged cut-up style like William Burroughs to extended homages to a variant "Mars Attacks!" set that never existed. I don't know if this series makes any sense if you haven't read the first volume, but I don't think sense is what Hine and Kane have in mind. It's an experience, and that's what matters. An unsettling one, with beautifully odd artwork.

6. "Prophet," by Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, and Friends

Few comic book announcements from 2011 were as surprising as the rebirth of Rob Liefeld's Extreme lineup, with a handful of young creators bringing their own fresh takes on properties that everyone in comics has heard of but almost no one admits to having read. The most unusual, and justly celebrated, announcement was Brandon Graham coming in to relaunch "Prophet," with guys like Simon Roy and Farel Dalrymple providing the visuals.

The series has been an absolute treat each month ever since.

Like so many of the comics I've already mentioned on this list, "Prophet" feels celebratory and playful, in tribute to comics of the past -- but influenced by manga and "Heavy Metal" rather than the books of Liefeld, Lee and Larsen -- and yet never quite graspable. "Prophet," under Graham, is an elusive book, narratively. But that is one of its charms. It feels constantly in a state of becoming, with gorgeous art to guide us on the way.

5. "Glory," by Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell

Here's another Extreme title, raised from the dead (and from the long-aborted Alan Moore interpretation) under the keyboard, pen, ink, and digital magic of Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell. The character of Glory was always the Liefeldian Wonder Woman archetype, but what Keatinge and Campbell did in their opening issue was weave all of Glory's backstory into something fascinatingly grand and potentially exciting. Also, dark.

What has unfolded ever since is a superhero Ragnarok, through the eyes of a vulnerable young woman who plays a role even she doesn't fully understand. But it's a pivotal one. Dangerously so.

Keatinge tells a tight, sharp story in this series, but it's Campbell's art that's the superstar performance on every page.

4. "My Friend Dahmer," by Derf Backderf

For a comic on a subject that interested me not at all, from a creator whose work seemed distinctively unappealing, I can't believe how much I enjoyed this disturbing piece of work. Backderf's a great talent, of course, even if I didn't realize it when this book was solicited, and it only took a couple of pages for his Don-Martin-by-way-of-Ben-Marra style to win me over. And though I never had any particular interest in Jeffrey Dahmer -- a monster who seemed to fascinate so many when the truth about his horrific killings became public -- Backderf made me interested in the world from which he was born.

Backderf never panders and never sensationalizes, and that makes his retelling of his youthful experiences with the young Dahmer consistently chilling. It's easy, as you read this thick hardcover, to sympathize not with this weird guy Jeff, but to understand something about the kind of broken world that surrounded him. And it's a reminder that the shockingly horrible is sometimes only a couple of houses down the street, as much as we never want to admit it.

3. "The Manhattan Projects," by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra

There's the Jonathan Hickman who writes the Rube Goldbergian constructions of intricate layers and twisting narrative tricks and massive conspiracies and hyper-serious coolness. That guy writes stuff like "Fantastic Four" and "Secret Warriors" and "Pax Romana." He's pretty good. But there's also a version of Jonathan Hickman who does all that same stuff but does it in a manic, over-zealous, madcap way that lets ridiculousness of the stories explode on the page. That's the guy working on "The Manhattan Projects" and there's no better collaborator for that kind of approach than Nick Pitarra.

"The Manhattan Projects" has a dozen ideas that could have been explored in different series, but here they're smashed together into one weird, wonderful beast of a super-science comic that takes the tangents of historical fact and makes them into something a crazed science fiction writer would dream up and scrawl on the walls. Also, it's very funny. All of that combined adds up at a pretty great comic for us to read.

2. "Zaucer of Zilk," by Al Ewing and Brendan McCarthy

The pitch for this comic probably wasn't "Alice in Wonderland as a superhero fairy tale," but that's not completely off-base as a description. It doesn't do justice to this 10-part serial from "2000 AD," but there's a fantastic oddness inherent in this comic, and what else would you expect from the mind of Brendan McCarthy?

Al Ewing co-writes, but it has McCarthy's day-glo fingerprints all over it. It's basically a story about a young man learning to accept his role in life, but it's also about hope versus despair and a celebration of the fantastic over the mundane. The best-looking comic of the year actually has some meat on its bones too.

1. "Adventure Time," by Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb, and Friends

As I composed the rough drafts of this Best of 2012 So Far list, I circled this comic like a shark. I placed it in the middle of my preliminary list, then slid it closer and closer to the #1 spot with each revision. But it wasn't until I read "Adventure Time" #5, a self-contained issue about the Finn and Jake doppelganger Adventure Tim and his battles with the Mice King that this series leapt to the prime spot in my rankings. That issue was a slice of genius in a series that has constantly impressed me with every installment.

This is the rare licensed comic that's as good, or better, than the television series upon which it's based. Ryan North consistently delivers hilarious, expansive, scripts that show how well these characters work as comics. They are more than just funny voices and movement on the screen. These characters, even drawn as static images, word balloons hovering nearby, are full of joyous life.

If you live in a house like mine, where your two kids obsessively watch the adventures of Finn and Jake as recorded on the DVR, you could easily overdose on "Adventure Time." But this comic book series is still the best, most entertaining thing I've read all year. There's no denying it.

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.

TAGS:  when words collide, adventure time, prophet, glory, zaucer of zilk, the manhattan projects, my friend dahmer, bulletproof coffin, league of extraordinary gentlemen, lincoln washington, deathzone!

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