Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top Ten Comics of 2011

It’s Dec. 31, so it’s time for the “Best of 2011” review, with the usual caveat that: 1) I don’t read everything, so this is the “Best of what Chuck read in 2011” list; and 2) Your top 10 list is probably very different. This is just my opinion at work.

Before we get to the best, let’s get the worst out of the way. This year I gave no “F” grades at all (always a good sign), and only two “D’s” – so it’s between Doc Savage #14 and Elric: The Balance Lost #1. Both weak efforts about characters I really like. The edge, sadly, goes to Doc, with an issue that included an incomprehensible story and really poor artwork.

Now, back to the good stuff (these are comics that either earned an “A” or were memorable enough to be included – no new comics earned an “A+” this year).

Among the “Honorable Mention” comics that could easily have been in the Top 10 are:

- Action Comics
- Captain Action Winter Special
- Captain America
- Daredevil
- Dark Horse Presents
- FF
- Fear Itself
- Hawken
- Jonah Hex
- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1969
- Mystery Men
- Rocketeer Adventures
- Ruse
- S.H.I.E.L.D.
- Secret Warriors

And now, our Top 10 for 2011:

10. Thor The Mighty Avenger #8

This is the last issue for the comic that earned a spot on my Top 10 list for 2010.

This has been a Thor comic that's part action / adventure, part exploration of a different version of the Marvel Universe, and part romance story as Thor and Jane Foster fall in love.

This issue covers all the bases. We have Thor captured by a team of scientists who control an army of robots, and we get some hints about the true nature of Thor's memory loss. We meet Tony Stark as he pilots an early, cruder version of his Iron Man armor (and Giant-Man and the Wasp put in a cameo as well). And Jane's love for Thor is what makes the rescue possible.

Congrats to writer Roger Langridge and artist Chris Samnee for an outstanding run on this title!


9. Ultimate Spider-Man #160

As a matter of policy we try not to spoil the ending of stories, but it's tough to avoid with this issue of Ultimate Spider-Man.

After all, the last six (or so) issues were labeled "The Death of Spider-Man," and Marvel went to the national media before this issue was published talking about how Spider-Man gets killed.

So there's that.

It's been a slow build to this final issue, as Spidey was seriously wounded and then had to confront the Sinister Six, including the Green Goblin, Sandman, Kraven, Electro, the Vulture and Doctor Octopus.

Spread over several issues, it's been the fight of Peter Parker's life - and it's the fight that (apparently) ends his life. (Nah, I don't really believe it, either.)

Still, it's a brutal, emotional roller-coaster ride that keeps you on edge right up to the end. Any reader who's been following the story will definitely find those final pages heart-rending.

It's great work by writer Brian Bendis, who is thankfully reunited on this story with artist Mark Bagley, who manages to balance the raw emotional scenes with the hoo-hah, over-the-top action sequences.

It's tricky to kill a hero - his end must be honest, it must require a heroic effort (and a sacrifice) and allow him some meaningful final words. Check, check, check and check.

Simply an outstanding end to a terrific series.

Let's bow our heads and pay honor to the Ultimate Spider-Man - practically since it started a decade ago, it's consistently been the best Spider-Man comic. Let's hope that run doesn't end here with an untimely death.

That would be too cruel.


8. Ozma of Oz #8

This issue wraps up Marvels' adaptations of the first three Oz books by L. Frank Baum, and what a delight they've been!

In Ozma of Oz, the title character works with Dorothy, Billina, Tik-Tok, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger and the (laughable) Army of Oz to try to rescue a queen and her 10 children from the Nome King.

It's no simple task - they're trapped in his underground fortress and the King commands an army of Nomes - and he has a magic belt that allows him to do just about anything, including turn his opponents into ornaments.

But the King has a weakness - one that makes it very handy indeed to have a chicken on hand.

Once again, Eric Shanower writes a perfect adaptation, giving each character just the right amount of stage time - and the proper voice - to play their part. It's amazing that something written so long ago (the original story, that is) can still feel so fresh and new.

I've about run out of superlatives for Skottie Young's art - it's just pure delight and invention from start to finish - funny without being silly or childish, inventive without poking you in the eye for effect, and always in service to the story. Just a great talent, and one to watch closely in the years ahead.

There's a reason why the Oz books have stood the test of time and still have a devoted following today - they're clever, loaded with great characters and imaginative situations. And there's something wonderful about seeing a scrappy girl from the Midwest standing up to powerful enemies and winning the day!

If you haven't been following this series, shame on you - you're missing some of the best comics around. Thankfully, there are collections out there to enjoy - and more stories on the way!

What a great time to be reading comics!


7. Aquaman #1

If one of the goals of this series is to make Aquaman a more respected hero, it's off to a pretty good start.

The story by Geoff Johns gives the hero more character than we've seen in far too long.

Here he helps the police stop some bank robbers with some impressive feats of strength, demonstrating his speed, skill and near-invulnerability (think Namor).

He stops in a restaurant for a meal where he gets to clear up some questions about his powers - and he gets to show that he's a good person, too (a very nice touch).

The artwork by Ivan Reis is outstanding, of course, with some amazing action sequences and some delightful real-world characters, too.

The comic sets up the first major menace for Aquaman to face - an invasion from deep below the ocean - and in keeping with the "New 52," there's a bit of gore thrown in at the end of the story.

Despite that, I enjoyed this comic and am glad to see Aquaman back in rare form. He's had a sporadic run in comics, with strong creators taking a turn (Nick Cardy and Jim Aparo being two of the best artists) and then the book falling into lesser hands.

Hopefully, this team will hang around for a good long run. It's off to a great start!


6. Captain America & Bucky #620

The newly-retooled Captain America & Bucky takes over the numbering of the ongoing Cap comic (which took over the numbering of the old Tales of Suspense comic).

This comic is firmly set (so far) in World War II, as we begin to learn the real secret origin for Bucky. The original story of how he became Cap's sidekick doesn't work by modern standards - no hero is going into battle with an untrained child fighting at his side.

In the original version, Bucky accidentally discovered Cap's secret identity, so he was recruited to be Cap's partner. In the modern version, he's given a more believable age, more realistic abilities and a solid backstory.

This is a strong story from writers Ed Brubaker and Marc Andreyko as they fill in some major gaps in our knowledge about these two heroes.

I'm delighted to see Chris Samnee tackling the art is this series. He was terrific on the sadly short-lived Thor The Mighty Avenger, and his work is even better here. His layouts are fresh and full of energy, his art and characters are expressive (lots of emotions to depict in this story), and his style is unique - original and different, he's carving his own path here, and it's a real delight.

The story is just starting to unfold, but so far, I'm very impressed. This comic is a more-than-worthy companion to the film, and a great jumping-on point for any new reader.


5. Hellboy: The Fury #3

This is the kind of comic that makes my job a real challenge.

That's because of my "No Spoilers" policy - I do my best not to give away anything that happens in a comic that might spoil your reading experience. (You know, like Marvel does when they give the news media a copy of the panel where Ultimate Spider-Man dies two days before the comic is released. Not that I'm bitter.)

This series, and several connected mini-series before it, all written by Mike Mignola, have been building to a big confrontation, and in this issue it happens. In spades.

Hellboy takes part in the most brutal fight of his career - and the events that spill out of it are frankly shocking and unexpected.

But I can't tell you about them, because that would ruin the story. So all I can say is, you really should be buying this comic. It tells a powerful story of horror and adventure with serious consequences.

The art is outstanding as well. Duncan Fegredo isn't Mignola, but he works in the same neighborhood, with a similar style and a great affinity for horror and brutal action scenes.

I can't talk any more about it - I'll give something away! Go read it now!


4. John Byrne’s Next Men #9

The final issue of this nine-issue story arc for the John Byrne's Next Men manages the difficult task of wrapping up a time travel story that, in lesser hands, would have been a confused mess.

Instead, it's a smart, clearly-told adventure that plays fair with the reader while offering up lots of surprises, interesting characters and clever twists.

Having suffered through a number of traumatic events - including developing super-powers, being tortured, assaulted and controlled (to name a few) - the surviving members of the Next Men may have found a way to alter their destiny, thanks to the time-traveling technology at their disposal.

But... (there’s always a big "but," as the old joke says) the solution may mean the destruction of the team.

As always Byrne crafts a sharply detailed story (although Jazz gets to be a bit annoying here, her reactions are true to the character), and the art is fantastic, running the range from intimate moments to world-changing events.

I wouldn't recommend this issue to a new reader (wait for the collection), but this is a rewarding wrap-up for longtime readers, and paves the way for the next (and possibly final) Next Men story.


3. King Conan #4

The issue wraps up a terrific run on the Conan title by writer Tim Truman and artist Tomas Giorello, and I am truly sad to see it end.

As a fan of Conan dating back to the original Lancer paperbacks, I've seen lots of terrific work on the Cimmerian's adventures - and lots of less-than-stellar work, too - and this ranks right up there among the best.

That's because it combines excellent writing with outstanding artwork. Truman knows when to stick with Howard's prose and when to give it a different spin for the comics medium. I mean no disrespect to Roy Thomas or Kurt Busiek, both of whom have done great work on Conan, but Truman may be the best yet.

And Giorello's art is fantastic, especially as teamed with Jose Villarrubia's colors. Each panel is lush, powerful and raw. Conan seems a force of nature, and the battle sequences are amazing.

Here they wrap up their four-issue adaptation of Robert E. Howard's story The Scarlet Citadel, and it's one of his best, with sinister plots, dungeons filled with monsters that would give H. P. Lovecraft nightmares, and lots of action on the battlefield.

Truly impressive work - highly recommended!


2. Secret Avengers #18

Do remember the work Warren Ellis did on Planetary, as a small group of operatives tackled some amazing "Fringe Science" threats to the universe?

Well, he's doing it again in the pages of Secret Avengers.

The last three issues have each been "done-in-one" adventures wherein a small group of heroes, led by Steve Rogers (in his Super Soldier guise), have tackled some amazing threats to our world.

Each one has been intelligent, cutting-edge and extremely entertaining.

This time around he uses one of my favorite characters, Shang-Chi, to great effect, as the team invades a space station (of sorts) where guns can't be used. Sharon Carter also gets a chance to shine here.

The art is outstanding, as David Aja and Raul Allen create an environment that almost hurts to look at, as the laws of physics bend. The action is well-staged and brutal in its execution, and it's great to see Shang-Chi going all "Bruce Lee" on the bad guys (though it's a bit graphic in places).

Oh, and speaking of Planetary, the cover by the artist of that series, John Cassaday, is amazing.

The comic is smart, fast and sharp as can be.

Highly recommended!


1. Fantastic Four #600

Give Marvel credit for not holding back on this momentous issue, as the Fantastic Four celebrate their 50th anniversary with a 100-page blowout.

I'm delighted that I managed to read this before any of the surprises were spoiled (the advantage of being away from my computer for a day or so), and I'll do my best not to spoil anything for you.

Writer Jonathan Hickman has been building an epic storyline here, including: several evil alternate Reed Richards; the young members of the Future Foundation; the death of the Human Torch; the threat of Annihilus in the Negative Zone; The Inhumans from five galaxies; the attacking alien Kree Empire; and a gathering of almost all Earth's heroes. Whew!

It's a big canvas, and this issue covers a lot of ground, with massive battles, shocking revelations and hints of more to come.

Even with 100 pages, the story doesn't wrap up in this issue - it's going to take several more to get all this ground covered. But if you're looking for an intelligent, entertaining, plays-fair-with-the-reader story about a great group of characters, this is your title.

It almost feels like a classic Marvel title from the '60s, as it balances action, story, humor and characterization, keeps it all moving at top speed but never loses the reader. But it does all that with a modern, cutting-edge take on the series.

It's impressive that, despite everything that's going on in this issue, I didn't need a recap to remind me of where we were - it's all fresh in my mind from issue to issue. (Not every series out there can make this claim.)

The series is also blessed with great artists. It took a team to get this issue done, including Steve Epting, Carmine Di Giandomenico, Ming Doyle, Lenil Francis Yu and an odd postnote by Farel Dalrymple. Excellent work all around!

Needless to say, big things happen here, and if you've ever been a fan of the FF, you should be reading this comic. It's a series that will challenge and delight you, and I (for one) can't wait to see where it goes from here.

It's an exciting time to be reading the Fantastic Four. They're the First Family of comics, and it's wonderful to see them back in a comic that is, once again, worthy of the title: The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!


So there you go – onward to 2012!

(And hopefully a few comics worthy of an “A+” grade!)

Happy New Year!

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