Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top Ten Comics for 2016

   Now's the time to look back at 2016 and sort out our Top Ten list! (Thank goodness that year is over, am I right?)

  As always, a few caveats up front: this is my (Chuck’s) list of the best comics of the year, and I don’t read everything (by a wide margin).

   But of the hundreds of comics I read this year, these are my favorites.

   Feel free to send in your own list - either in a comment at the link below or email it to us at 

   First, though - the worst comic of the year. There were two good contenders: Captain America: Steve Rogers #2 (which tries to shock us by, well, being annoying) and Death of X #4, which did the same thing but also managed to be insulting to a beloved character - so “X” wins the award. 

   Honorable mentions (which means they’re all worthy of being in the Top 10) go to some of 2016’s best comics: 

Astro City
Avengers .1
Doctor Who 4th Doctor
Doom Patrol
Groo: Friends and Foes
Infinity Entity
Jessica Jones
Johnny Red
King Conan: Wolves Beyond the Border
Spider-Man (Miles Morales)
Twilight Children
Uncanny Inhumans
Usagi Yojimbo
Will Eisner’s The Spirit

   And now, the Top Ten for 2016:

#10 - Paper Girls #5 

Paper Girls shows why comics are awesome.

   This series is a jigsaw puzzle of strangeness, as four 12-year-old girls who deliver newspapers (yep, they're Paper Girls, not girls made of paper) find their lives turned into some kind of science fiction nightmare.

   The population seems to have (mostly) disappeared, there are strange figures wandering the neighborhood, weird creatures flying in the sky, and the threat of death around each corner.

   But what makes the series work is the fact that we're immediately invested in the "girls" - Erin, Mac, Tiffany and KJ - as they work together to face assorted strangeness and try to find a way to survive.

   And just when you think you're getting a grip on the series, it takes an unexpected turn.

   Kudos to Brian K. Vaughn, Cliff Chiang and Matt Wilson for crafting a unique story that makes such great use of the storytelling potential of comics.

   Strange, but highly recommended!

#9 - Wynonna Earp #1 

   Just in time for her 20th anniversary, Wynonna Earp is joining the exclusive club of comic book characters who also star in a TV series.

   That series debuted on April 1 on the SyFy Channel, and IDW released a new series of adventures featuring the tough-as-nails U.S. Marshal who works for the Black Badge Division, which deals with the worst kind of supernatural threats.

   This is actually a prequel, as it takes us back to the early days of Wynonna's career (we're talking a little more reckless - if that's possible - and she doesn't have blonde hair, which brings her in line with that awesome photo cover of actress Melanie Scrofano).

   The story wastes no time, as we start with Wynonna holding a large gun to the head of a particularly nasty monster. It won't be the last time.

   We meet her supporting cast, including her boss, Special Agent Dolls, who's trying to turn Wynonna into a top agent, and a mysterious man who looks like a relic of the old west.

   She's assigned to bring down a major organ-smuggling operation, one that's run by the... creature... who will be a major opponent throughout her career.

   Wynonna was created by Beau Smith, who turns in one of his best stories yet - there's a fresh (if bloody) feel to this tale, as it takes Wynonna to her roots and lets us follow her first achievements - and first stumbles - as she takes on some particularly nasty beasts. 

   The art for this story arc is by Lora Innes, and I like her work a lot (be sure to track down her self-published book The Dreamer) - she has a great touch with rough-and-tumble action (lots of that going on here) and she also nails the quiet character moments (less frequent but perfectly managed).

   It's a great (re-)start to the adventures of the toughest law enforcement agent around! Here's hoping she - and her TV series - hang around for a long, long time!

#8 - Doctor Strange #10

   It makes sense that magic - like surgery - can be a messy business.

   That's been the theme of the opening story in the new Doctor Strange series, as the Earth's magicians team up to fight back against an invasion of a force representing super-science - and dead set on destroying magic in all its forms.

   The fight has been a desperate, down-and-dirty one, and it's exposed the ugly underbelly of magic - and some of the unexpected ways Strange is supported, and what his followers (and the Doctor himself) must endure.

    Writer Jason Aaron has managed a brilliant balance of action, horror, mysticism and (yes) humor to craft a clever, page-turning beast of a story.

   The comic also manages to score the perfect artist in Chris Bachalo, inked here by a small army, including Tim Townsend, John Livesay, Victor Olazaba, Al Vey, Jamie Mendoza and Wayne Faucher.

   I have no idea who drew what, but the end product is surprisingly seamless and loaded with vivid, unique images and creatures. Wonderful stuff!

   (And my, isn't that Kevin Nowlan cover terrific?)

   So an excellent start to this series - some of the best Doctor Strange stories in far too long. Highly recommended!

#7- Skyborne #2 

   Artist / writer Frank Cho recently ended his exclusive run at Marvel, and he explodes out of the gate at Boom Studios with the new series Skybourne, which is loaded with all kinds of goodness.

    The series focuses on the children of Lazarus (yes, that Lazarus) - they're immortal, invulnerable, incredibly strong and quite mysterious.

   After the shocking turn of events last issue resulting from the battle between one of the Skybourne siblings and a powerful wizard, the word goes out to bring in Thomas Skybourne - and we meet his allies and visit an amazing base loaded with mystic Easter eggs.

   It's a given that the art is terrific, and Cho seems to be having a lot of fun here, from monsters to dynamic action scenes and exotic locations.

   If you're a fan of Cho (isn't everyone?), then you don't want to miss this series. It's a heck of a lot of fun so far!

#6 - Future Quest #1 

  Of all the comics that came out this week, Future Quest was the one I was most looking forward to.

   That's because it brings together a surprising array of my favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoon heroes that once populated Saturday morning television.

   The trick, of course, is: how do you bring such a disparate group together?

   Among the characters depicted on the cover are Jonny Quest, Space Ghost, the Herculoids, Birdman, the Mighty Mightor, Frankenstein, Jr., and the Impossibles.

   The story uses Dr. Quest (Jonny's dad) and a mysterious discovery to provide cover for the ultimate team-up, and it gets off to a rollicking good start here.

   The story by Jeff Parker is true to the original creations while updating them to modern sensibilities, all while keeping the focus on fun, adventure and friendship (how great to see Jonny and Hadji flying over the Everglades with their flight packs)!

   The art is a perfect update of the original designs - clean and fresh, loaded with energy and high spirits - and who better to provide the art than Evan "Doc" Shaner and Steve Rude?

   These characters came along at the perfect time in my childhood - I was about 10 years old when they hit, and as we all know, "The Golden Age is 10."

   So I'm thrilled to see them back in action, and I can't wait to see where this series goes next.

   Highly recommended!

#5 - Dark Knight III: The Master Race #4 

   I am really enjoying this series.

   It's not the same thematically as the original Dark Knight Returns book - and it's very different from the sequel.

   Instead, Dark Knight III: The Master Race stands on its own, using the same version of the characters - but focusing on telling a cracking good tale.

   It is, of course, on the grim and gritty side. It tells the story of the ultimate threat facing Earth - an army of Kryptonians in the form of religious fanatics who attack the Earth, bent on death and destruction.

   They're focusing on the remaining superheroes who might be a threat, so they first take on a badly outnumbered and outgunned Superman - and then set their targets on Batman.

   The Dark Knight has weapons of his own, of course, and he starts moving the pieces into place in order to... what? Ah, that's what we want to find out.

   As always, terrific work by writers Brian Azzarello and Frank Miller, and equally outstanding art by Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson, with Miller doing the art on the Mini-comic included (and how I love that concept)!

   I approached this series with trepidation, but they've won me over. They're telling a big story about the (potential) final stand for Earth's greatest heroes - and the Earth itself.

   It aims high, and knocks it out of the park!

#4 - All New All Different Avengers 12 

    You have to admire the craft and skill of the creative team on this title.

   Oh, this issue of the All-New All-Different Avengers doesn't include deep sociological insights or character analysis. Here the focus is on fun.

   At least as much fun as we can have when the Earth is facing destruction.

   The source of the problem in Annihilus, the ruler of the Negative Zone, who has found a way to reach across the gap between universes, using a device that will resonate for long-time Marvel fans.

   The issue is an action romp, as the heroes team up to take out a cosmic weapon and stop a rampaging (and nearly unstoppable) villain,

   It's an edge-of-your-seat adventure from start to finish and a heck of a lot of fun.

   Writer Mark Waid and artist Mahmud Asrar continue to knock it out of the park with this series.

   Terrific characters, an over-the-top story and a fight to the finish with one of Marvel's classic bad guys. If that doesn't work for you, I suggest trying a different hobby.

#3 - DC Universe Rebirth #1 

   After five years of the "New 52," DC has finally admitted that the reboot was (mostly) a mistake.

   They haven't admitted it in so many words, of course - but DC Universe Rebirth makes it obvious.

   Written by Geoff Johns, the story hinges on the idea that the DC universe is broken - cut off from its origins, its legacy - its heart and soul. (I will not argue with that.)

   The "New 52" included some good stories, but far too many moved away from the core of the characters, stripping away the Teen Titans, the Flash Family, Superman's supporting cast, the Legion of Super-heroes and on and on. In the attempt to be new and edgy, it jettisoned too much of the backstory on its characters - some of the things that made them so popular in the first place.

   It's the same problem we've seen with the films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman - and Rebirth is an attempt to correct the course of the DC Universe.

   (By the way, I can't urge you strongly enough to try to avoid spoilers here.)

   The story starts and ends with a mystery narrator, and brings back a classic (and much-missed) character to jump-start the change that's rippling across the DC Universe - one that hearkens back to the event that started the New 52, Flashpoint.

   The story is like a wonderful Easter Egg hunt, as we touch base with characters long-missing (some I thought were dead) - we get a quick update on others and we witness an emotional, heartfelt reunion.

   The twist at the end is a genuine shock (a true rarity in comics) and suggests a new dynamic for the entire company - and boy, does it need it!

   I have no idea if "Rebirth" is going to work (New 52 certainly didn't). I applaud the change in tone, I think they're on the right track - but I don't like the idea of twice-monthly comics (even at $2.99 per issue), and some of the ads in the back of the issue leave me cold. But others show great promise!

   I'm hopeful that it will work. I didn't last long with the "New 52" - by the end, I was only buying Batman and Flash (more out of nostalgia than anything) and the Justice League. I'd like to buy more - and I hope to give many of the new issues a try - but the company has some ground to make up and good will to earn back.

   This is just the first step - but it's a good start.

#2 - Black Widow #1 

   Now that's how you do a first issue.

   Black Widow arrives in a new series and lands - eventually - running full-tilt.

   It doesn't hurt that the comic has a top-tier creative team: writer Mark Waid, artist Chris Samnee, and color artist Matthew Wilson.

   The trio stepped over from their award-winning stint on Daredevil, and they're bringing the same fun sensibility to this series.

   It's important to make a good impression with the first issue (something far too many "firsts" fail to do), and here they hit it out of the park with an action extravaganza.

   The issue starts with Natasha on the run from a surprising army of opponents, and every time you think she's finished... she ain't finished.

   The art is phenomenal, feeling for all the world like something Jim Steranko might have cooked up (though it's not drawn in his style) - it's a perfectly crafted action fest!

   We kick the series off with a massive mystery, and I can't wait to see where it goes from here.

   Highly recommended!

#1 - Secret Wars #9 

   The challenge for any Event Series is to "stick the landing," and the bigger the story, the greater the difficulty.

   And there are few stories in the history of comics that have been bigger or bolder than the one that culminates in this final issue of Secret Wars.

   It's a story that started out as an Avengers story, building across the pages of Jonathan Hickman's work in The Avengers and New Avengers (which starred the Illuminati - a secret gathering of Marvel's heroes).

   But it also incorporated elements from Hickman's earlier (excellent) run on Fantastic Four - and in the final moments, it actually became an FF story (as the terrific Alex Ross cover shows)!

   It's an intense, emotional confrontation, with some shining moments for several characters, and we get a glimpse into the fate of key players - and the final fate of Battleworld.

   It's so good - Esad Ribic's art is tremendous - that we can happily forgive the fact that the finale arrives a little late.

   Far too many event books limp to the finish line, but Hickman and Ribic have set a new standard. This is how it's done!

Dr. Strange Top 10: #1 - Strange Tales 141

  Wrapping up our countdown of the Top 10 issues of Dr. Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko:

#1 - Strange Tales 141 - “Let There Be Victory!”

   This explosive issue featured the end of Lee and Ditko's year-long continued story with a final confrontation between Dr. Strange and the Dread Dormammu.

   This is the second part of that battle, as Dormammu decides to humiliate Strange by fighting him in hand-to-hand combat, using only mystic pincers as weapons. 

   (The pincers fit on each combatant’s hands, extending foot-long energy pincers that can grasp or paralyze.)

   Strange is weakened by last issue’s cowardly strike by Mordo, and the battle rolls back and forth. 

   It’s a hard-fought battle that pushes Strange to the limit - which makes the finale even more satisfying.

   But the celebration is short-lived, and Dormammu demonstrates why he is s force to be reckoned with.

   (I should also note that Ditko has fine-tuned his visuals for the Dreaded one, giving his stylized head a red hue and designing an arcane framework (of sorts) for his floating head - it’s stunning.)

   A great story requires a powerhouse finale, and this issue provides that in spades. 

   This is Lee and Ditko at their finest - truly impressive and inspired storytelling!

Grade: A+


Dr. Strange Top 10: #2 - Strange Tales 143 - “With None Beside Me!”

  Continuing our countdown of the Top 10 issues of Dr. Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko:

#2 - Strange Tales 143 - “With None Beside Me!”

   Having survived an incredible battle against his most powerful foe, an exhausted Dr. Strange returns to his Sanctum Sanctorum where he is ambushed and captured by three powerful magicians. 

   In this two-part story he finds his hands and face covered, his amulet and cloak gone - how can he hope to survive?

   He manages to escape the mystic trap, but his head and hands are still bound, and the bad guys are closing in fast.

   What makes this issue stand out is the sheer ingenuity of Strange, as he must find a way to overcome a series of threats without using his powers.

   It’s fast-paced, clever as can be and downright inspiring. 

   Most comics that feature “no name” villains are a letdown, but Lee and Ditko manage to craft a story that stands with the best - and allows Strange to show why he’s a terrific hero.

Grade: A+


Dr. Strange Top 10: #3 - Strange Tales 137

  Continuing our countdown of the Top 10 issues of Dr. Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko:

#3 - Strange Tales 137 - “When Meet the Mystic Minds”

   It was tempting to make the issue where Dr. Strange finally meets Eternity (Strange Tales 138) one of the Top 10, but it’s almost anticlimactic next to this battle between master and apprentice. 

   Having searched the world for the secret of Eternity (which may allow Strange to stand up to the threat of his foes Baron Mordo and Dormammu), Dr. Strange arrives back at the secret cave where the Ancient One is hidden. 

   Despite the danger, he plans to link his mind to his teacher’s, in hopes of gaining vital information.

   What follows is a psychedelic battle between two figures who are seated and facing each other! It's another artistic romp by Ditko, with amazing visuals, all balanced by Lee's script - at times forceful, at times touching.

   Strange must overcome the powerful mystic traps and defenses created by the only man on Earth who is a greater sorcerer.

   It’s a powerful tale, loaded with drama and heart - and it sets up the final showdown with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance!

Grade: A+


Friday, December 30, 2016

Dr. Strange Top 10: #4 - Strange Tales 127

  Continuing our countdown of the Top 10 issues of Dr. Strange by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko:

#4 - Strange Tales 127 - “Duel with the Dread Dormammu”

    Just a few months before this series hit the stands, fans could tell that Dr. Strange was getting a following.

   He shared Strange Tales with the Human Torch, but he was finally getting significant attention on the cover - and he was also featured in that cool upper-left-hand-corner art box that Marvel created in the early '60s.

   This issue featured a (rare, at the time) continued story, as Strange faced his greatest enemy for the first time - the ruler of the Dark Dimension, the Dread Dormammu (which, according to the movie, is pronounced "Door-Ma'am-Moo" - so I had it right all along).

   Issue #127 deserves attention, as it details Strange entering the Dark Dimension and meeting Dormammu for the first time - but since we're looking for the Top 10 individual stories, the actual battle was the better of the two.

   The story allowed Ditko to run wild with inventive images as he created an unearthly environment, with flat, floating spaces serving as doorways. Pathways wind with no regard to gravity or logic, creatures of all shapes and sizes thrive, and Strange must face overwhelming odds.

   These are the stories that really drive readership - a great, powerful opponent, a never-before-seen environment, and high stakes for the coming battle, with the fate of the Earth hanging in the balance.

   A couple of notes: happily, this Dormammu is human-sized, so he and Strange can go toe-to-toe and fight as equals. Years later, Dormammu was depicted as a towering giant, and he's been that ever since (mostly), including in the movie. I've never cared for it. Also, the coloring is different, as his head is enveloped in blue flames and smoke - later appearances would change it to red, which was much more effective.

   Strange is faced with an impossible task - defeating the foe who once defeated his master, the Ancient One. Even with a slight assist from the lovely Clea, who makes her first appearance, he's outmatched.

   The plot twist that allows Strange to survive his battle - and "win" (sorta kinda) was brilliant, and serves to show both Strange and Dormammu in a good light - making him a better hero and Dormammu a worthy villain with personality - not just a monster.
   At the end of the adventure, Strange receives a gift from his teacher - a new Amulet of Agamotto and the Cloak of Levitation (which is oddly colored all yellow here).

   If there was any doubt that Dr. Strange belonged in the Marvel Universe, this adventure closed the deal.

   One of my all-time favorites!

Grade: A+