Saturday, December 20, 2003

Best Comics of 2003.

Since this year is almost over, I suppose it's incumbent upon me to cobble together some sort of personal "Best Comics of 2003" list. Rather than relying on my often spotty memory, I decided to approach it somewhat scientifically- I went back through this past year's reviews, right here on this blog, and kept a tally of the comics I graded "A". In doing this, I noticed a couple of interesting things: first, at some point in June or July, my standards must have gotten significantly higher; I gave out less than half as many A's the last six months of '03 as I did the first six. I credit that to the influence of my recent acquaintances in the comics blogospheriverse. Also, I noticed a couple of instances of "what was I thinking? : an A for the well-illustrated but slight Mr. Gum one-shot?!? B.P.R.D.: Soul of Venice? I also noticed a couple of sleeper titles, none of which were Sleeper, that surprised me by popping up as often as they did.

OK. This will be a top ten list, and please bear in mind that it is my best of '03; I'm fully aware of many fine books like Blankets or Persepolis, just a couple of those cited by Time's Andrew Arnold or by Alan David Doane. But I can't list 'em 'cause I haven't read 'em. Which is not to say I won't someday...Blankets is beginning to look kinda interesting. But it won't be this year. It's also in alphabetical order, simply because I can't decide what the absolute best title slash book I've read this year is. So enough with the preamble, and I do mean amble: this is a list of the best comics and/or series I have read in 2003- make of it what you will.

BATGIRL: YEAR ONE A modest triumph which might have, at nine issues, been a bit overlong but each chapter was solid. Providing more of an insight into Barbara Gordon as a person rather than Barbara in Bat-clothes made all the difference as far as I was concerned, and the art team of Marcos Martin and (especially) inker Alvaro Lopez, who has such a beautiful inking line, brought out a lot of nuances in the script that many lesser illustrators would have missed.

DAREDEVIL Brian Bendis did a superb job in 2003, giving us a very compromised, yet grim and determined Matt Murdock as he defended his life, career, chosen mission, and loved ones against the fallout of the revelation of his true identity as well as the consequences of the downfall of the Kingpin. Nicely illustrated by Alex Maleev, who was a bit deficient in depicting action scenes but excelled at everything else. The last few months of DD were a bit of a downer as David Mack gave us a beautifully illustrated but completely unnecessary and way too long story of his admittedly interesting creation Echo. Still, Bendis and Maleev were so good earlier that Daredevil's place on this list is assured.

GOTHAM CENTRAL It's easy to dismiss this as Gotham City Blue, but that's really too simplistic. Central de-emphasizes the Gotham Police Force's ties to Batman, although its cast more often as not has to deal with all his nutjob menaces, which is the chief fascination for me- how they do it. As a result, Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka get a chance to shine a revealing light on some of the long-overlooked members of the Bat-books which means that it's characterization that rules the day here, not action, although GC is not lacking for that either. Of course, none of this would work half as well if not for the excellent art of Michael Lark, truly an underrated illustrator if there ever was one.

HAWAIIAN DICK I came very close to naming this 3 issue series from Image my best of the year, I enjoyed it that much. Period Detective Noir-type stories aren't all that unusual in comics these days, but setting this particular crime/mystery/thriller in late 50s Hawaii makes gives it atmospheric, weird and just plain ol' different edge. There's supposed to be a one-shot follow-up soon which I'm anxiously awaiting.

JACK STAFF I think Paul Grist is one of the best illustrators in the business, and he's very underrated as an author as well, writing twisty, turny, clever episodes- with twisty, turny characters who are never quite what they seem- that don't always behave in linear fashion and always keep the reader on their toes. Grist is a tinkerer, an experimenter, and he seems to be having a ball with Staff, even more so than his straighter-by-comparison Kane. I will admit, this being said, that I was enjoying the B&W small-press Jack series, #11 of which came out this year, more so than the four color issues that have been published by Image so far. #11, in fact, was the only comic to get an A+ from me thanks to an amazing story which was propelled along with minimal figure and background rendering, but depended on Grist's lettering skills, and it worked well. Jack Staff transcends its genre trappings and becomes an always entertaining visual experience, in color or black and white.

JOHN CONSTANTINE: HELLBLAZER Here's one which slips under the radar of a lot of insightful people, I think, and I don't really know why unless perhaps I'm seeing something no one else is. Maybe everyone takes it for granted because it's been around so long and people are assuming the fresh wore off a decade ago. But they're wrong. Mike Carey, something of a dab hand at writing about hard-to-like characters, does the best job of capturing Constantine's personality since Garth Ennis departed, and has managed to come up with a couple of very compelling storylines so far, which has made Hellblazer one of the best, and certainly most underrated horror/supernatural type comics out there.

LUCIFER Another contender for "best supernatural" honors, and perhaps one of the best there is right now. Carey has succeeded in breathing life into one of Gaiman's Sandman characters where no one else has by coming up with a compelling supporting cast for the rather aloof and solipsistic lead to play off of, and it has worked amazingly well. This book skips around from theology to mythology to fantasy adventure to humor nimbly and with style. The art team of Peter Gross and Ryan Kelly does a serviceable job of depicting Carey's ideas, and while they're still a bit bland and workmanlike, they've grown into the position. I'm fonder of Ormston's work, and a great deal of it appeared in tandem with Gross and Kelly during one story arc, which made me happy.

THE NEVERMEN: STREETS OF BLOOD Here's another series which I think has been overlooked by those who tend to do the looking. Phil Amara's Nevermen stories have been an aggressively strange mix of pulp adventure, crime fiction and sci-fi, with some of the oddest, and oddly poetic, dialogue I've read in ages. Nevermen benefits greatly from the solid, and often spectacular, art of Guy Davis- whose work on Sandman Mystery Theatre left me cold, but has impressed me a lot here. Again, nothing that's gonna change the industry, but a clever and entertaining series.

PROMETHEA After spending most of 2002 on a metaphysical mystery tour of various stages of existence and explorations of such subjects, in often didactic fashion, as religion, sex, magic, imagination and the Great Beyond, and losing about half of the few readers he did have, Alan Moore rebounded strongly in '03 as the title character first has to deal with the fallout of her journey, then retreats from her destiny, then realizes that she has to fulfill it whether she wants to or not...and the world as we know it will not be the same. As for us, the reader, we feel the same sense of growing dread and anticipation not only because of the events occurring in the comic, but because we know that Moore will soon be winding things up, and that means anything could happen. Promethea, I believe, will eventually be thought of as Moore's finest work, Watchmen and Swamp Thing notwithstanding, because it's the one title that he's seemed to put the most of himself into- his beliefs and perceptions are the base for everything that's happened since issue one. Of course, I can't discuss Promethea without mentioning the amazing art of J.H. Williams III and Mick Gray, whose strong design sense and intricate detail make each issue of Prom a new artistic triumph each time out.

SLEEPER This has got to be the most-hyped, and least read book on the market these days. Perhaps Sleeper is perceived as a bit like broccoli- everyone knows it's good for you, and good for your comics-reading soul, but who the heck wants to eat broccoli? Anyway, Sleeper fulfills all the basic criteria for good comics, the way I see it- nuanced, smart scripting, with well-defined, three-dimensional characters who are neither completely good or completely evil along with solid art by Sean Phillips, who is one of the best in the biz, capable and as at ease with spandex as he is with spy stuff, love scenes, melodramatics, and gun fights. Hopefully the not-so-nice cover price of the new trade paperback collection won't scare off the curious who have been attracted by the great word-of-mouth this series seems to get everywhere.

Also want to recognize a few other series, which didn't make the cut but racked up several A grades. First, Paul Pope's wonderful 100%, a five-issue series that was a skillful, heartfelt and often moving blend of romance and sci-fi, four issues of which came out in 2002. #5 came out early this year, so I didn't list it for 2003. A TPB has been promised for quite some time now but hasn't seen release as of yet. Powers was up-and-down, mostly up, with Bendis starting out strong then floundering a bit with some of the looks at Christian Walker's past, but the last two or three issues have rebounded nicely; Mutant, Texas: The Adventures of Sheriff Ida Red was a corking good fantasy story, very Disneyesque (comics as well as films) and should have garnered more attention than it did. Ultimates was consistently good, occasionally exceptional. I absolutely loved Fables: The Last Castle, a double-sized one shot that clarified a lot of things that Bill Willingham had hinted at and alluded to in the ongoing series, and gave me a lot of the same buzz I got from seeing such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Seventh Voyage of Sinbad for the first time, and was beautifully illustrated by Craigs Russell and Hamilton. I know many didn't care for it, but it pushed all the right buttons in my head, anyway. I got a big kick out of Chris Giarrusso's Giant Size Mini Marvels, not exactly an earth-shaking comic which would set fandom on its ear or anything, but I found it extremely funny. Superman: Red Son is one I have to grade incomplete; my comics shop never got #3. I got the first two, and they were nicely drawn- plus the concept of Superman's rocket landing in Russia rather than the US seemed to be well thought out. For all I know, it may have jumped the shark completely in #3, but until I read it I can't say. Other titles which racked up their fair share of A's but missed the list were Human Target, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol.2 (which was quite good and should have probably been on the list proper), Catwoman, H-E-R-O, Grrl Scouts: Work Sucks, 100 Bullets, the Fables ongoing and the Catwoman: Selina's Big Score graphic novel.

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