Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Chuck's Top 10 Comics for 2013

   Happy New Year!

   It’s Dec. 31, so it’s time for my “Best of 2013” review, with the usual warning that: 1) I don’t read everything, so this is actually the “Best of what Chuck read in 2013” list; and 2) Your Top 10 list is probably very different. This is just my opinion at work.

   My list is based directly on the grades I award to comics over the course of the year - but before we get to the best, let’s get the “Worst of 2013” out of the way. This year I gave no “F” grades at all (happily), but there were two “D+” comics – so it’s between Superior Spider-Man #1 and Captain America #11 - a tough choice, as they’re both truly bad examples of character assassination. I'll give it to Spidey just because it's a terrible storyline - a nightmare that just won't go away.

   If I were giving out awards for "Disappointing Comics of 2013," I'd hand out five trophies to:

Age of Ultron
Earth 2
Justice League

   All five started out strongly, or at least hold great potential, but they either fizzled, took missteps or ended in a disappointing way (I'm looking at you, Ultron).

   Now, back to the good stuff! These are comics that either earned an “A” and could very easily have been  one of the Top 10. (No modern comic earned an “A+” this year.)

   Among the “Honorable Mentions” are:

Action Comics
All-New X-Men 
Black Beetle 
Guardians of the Galaxy
Hellboy in Hell 
The High Ways 
Joe Kubert Presents 
Nemo: Heart of Ice 
Sandman Overture 
Uncanny X-Men 

   Now for our Top 10 for 2013 countdown:

#10 - Road to Oz / Emerald City of Oz

  I freely admit that this is not the typical comic a grizzled, grey-haired reviewer like yours truly might be expect to enjoy.

   But I have, unequivocally, loved this series of adaptations of L. Frank Baum's Oz books.

   There's a reason why these stories are beloved and continue to be popular today: they're loaded with imagination, heart, friendship, magic and some delightfully nasty villains.

   And The Emerald City of Oz has more than its share. While Dorothy and her friends and having fun exploring some mystifying corners of Oz, the forces of evil are plotting the destruction of the Emerald City.

   A huge army of monsters, gnomes and assorted creatures are tunneling their way into the heart of the city, but most shocking of all is that the city's ruler, Ozma, intends to do nothing to defend the city.

   It's a terrific tale, and if the ending is a bit too pat, well, we can overlook the occasional stumble.

   This adaptation is the sixth by writer Eric Shanower and artist Skottie Young, and I can't recommend them highly enough. Loaded with amazing, spirited art, and written as true as humanly possible to the original tales, these have been absolute gems.

   But the last page reveals a heartbreaking secret - apparently this is the last in the series, which means Marvel won't be adapting any of the other Baum Oz books (not to mention the Ruth Plumley Thompson ones).

   What a shame! This has been an exceptional series, and I had hoped it would continue forth for years (and adaptations) to come.

   I suppose all good things must come to an end. But it's a sad note at the end of a glorious song!

#9 - Daredevil

Daredevil has proven to be a difficult comic to review over the last two years - because it's always great!

You'd think Mark Waid and Chris Smanee would slip up occasionally, but there hasn't been a clunker yet.

The tension runs especially high in this issue as Daredevil finds himself fighting Ikari, an opponent he can't defeat - a killer with the same powers as our hero.

But in addition to DD's fight for his life, we also discover the mastermind who's been behind the attacks and tragedies that have propelled the story forward since the first issue by Waid!

Perfectly complementing the excellent story is the outstanding artwork of Samnee. His dramatic layouts, stunning use of blacks and amazing sense of storytelling makes this issue something special. He really is one of the best in the business right now.

Do I need to say more? This series boasts a top-notch creative team doing outstanding work.

You really should be reading this comic!

#8 - King Conan 
I've been a fan of the barbarian Conan since I first discovered the paperback books as a teenager, more than 40 years ago.

That character has been a comic book staple almost as long, and he's had some terrific creators handling his adventures, including Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, Gil Kane, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Kurt Busiek, Frank Brunner and many, many more.

Ranked among that list of the best should be the creative team on King Conan: writer Tim Truman and artist Tomas Giorello.

They've created a true version of Howard's rough-hewn hero, and this issue focuses on a key moment in Conan's career - his first encounter with Zenobia, the second true love of his life.

They share a fight for their life, a daring escape, and one of the hottest kisses ever depicted in a comic book.

Giorello's art is tremendous - a classic style loaded with detail, great character designs, sexy women, heroic ideals and amazing environments.

It's an outstanding comic - truly the best version of Conan in a long, long time. 

Highly recommended!

#7 - Batman 

Batman is such a compelling character, it's no surprise that writers want to look back at his early years.

When he first appeared, his origin was very straightforward - a boy sees his parents killed and vows to dedicate his life to fighting crime. He uses his vast family fortune to study and train himself to physical perfection, dons a costume to confuse criminals, and becomes The Batman.

It allows a lot of room to explore, as Frank Miller famously did in his classic "Year One" story. 

Now it's Scott Snyder's turn in this "Zero Year" story, and he's focusing on several moments in Bruce Wayne's career, including his childhood encounters with his father, his initial return to Gotham (pre-Batman) and (perhaps) some of Batman's earliest adventures.

Continuity fans can rest assured that (as near as I can tell), this story doesn't contradict any of the existing lore about Batman's origins.

It's a sharp, fast-moving story, and features terrific art by Greg Capullo and Danny Miki - a great start to a tale that manages to be bold, even when walking gingerly on hallowed ground.

#6 - New Avengers

Heroes can face many kinds of challenges, but typically that takes the form of some kind of antagonist - a bad guy.

But the new version of theNew Avengers is facing something very different - an (apparently) natural event that threatens to destroy more than one Earth.

For mysterious (and cosmic) reasons, Earths from alternate dimensions have been threatening the existence of "our" Earth. These alternate Earths encroach on our dimension, and the result is the destruction of both planets - unless something happens to destroy one of the Earths.

That's the dilemma facing the members of the Illuminati - Black Panther, Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, Namor, Black Bolt, Dr. Strange and the Beast. Will they be forced to destroy the inhabitants of an alternate Earth to save their own?

The story by Jonathan Hickman is thoughtful and intense and loaded with smart characters and loads of mysteries.

The art by Steve Epting and Rick Magyar is terrific - dark and personal, but right at home with big, cosmic events - great characters, great expressions, very cinematic.

This really isn't for young readers, but not because of "adult" material - it's just working with concepts that might be too challenging for young readers. 

But for those willing to put their intelligence to work - oh, the rewards!

Even if there isn't a bad guy to punch in the face.

#5 - Saga

This one definitely isn't for the kiddies.

But the grownups will love it.

Saga is telling the story of a hero, and with this issue, we go back to the very beginning of that hero's story. And when I say beginning, I mean the moment of conception. 

Which is to say, the opening page features her parents doin' the deed.

And that's the delight of this series - you really have no idea what's going to happen next.

That can be good, as we find our odd family unit flying in a rocket ship that's made out of a tree trying to escape from a "giant evil space fetus" while bounty hunters are terribly close by. I know, it sounds crazy, but it's actually pretty awesome.

Writer Brian K. Vaughn knows his craft, and he's weaving an adult, involved science fiction epic loaded with great characters, unexpected twists and turns (including several in this issue), action sequences, some delightful dialogue and lots of humor.

And the art by Fiona Staples is a constant delight, with creative layouts, original designs, expressive characters and clean storytelling.

Buy the collections, pick up the back issues - if you liked Y the Last Man or just enjoy science fantasy / science fiction, this is a wonderful, rewarding series.

Just not for kids.

#4 - Hawkeye

   There are a few comics out there where the creative team is playing on a different level from the rest of the industry.

   You see it sometimes from smaller publishers, but rarely from the big boys.

   Hawkeye is one of the exceptions to the rule.

   Writer Matt Fraction is creating a different story here, focusing more on the very human (and very fallible) Clint Barton. We rarely (if ever) see examples of super-heroics, though we often see the painful aftermath.

   This issue, for example, takes us into the heartbreaking story of a death in the loose-knit family that lives in the apartment building that Clint manages and protects (sorta kinda).

   It also features the return of someone near and dear to Clint (when he's not busy hating him, of course).

   But you have to pay attention, and it helps if you've read the other issues in the series. This one weaves around and through events in recent issues and the annual, for example.

   The art by David Aja is wonderful stuff - moody, gritty, humorous - the perfect use of the nine-panel grid.

   If you're passing up Hawkeye, you're missing out on something rare - a truly original comic. Highly recommended!

#3 - Astro City

I'm so happy to see a new issue of Astro City!

For those who came in late, the series (created by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Brent Eric Anderson, with covers by Alex Ross) is set in a super-hero-filled city where you can encounter the usual shenanigans (super-fights, alien invasions, etc.) - but the stories generally focus on the perspective of regular people and how events affect them.

The series has featured some incredibly original stories - some are heartbreaking, some with amazing twists, but every one compelling (in other words, I recommend buying up those collections early and often).

After a long hiatus, the title is back with a new issue #1, and the good news is, if you haven't read those previous issues, you can still pick right up with this issue and not worry about being lost - Busiek quickly brings you up to speed, and then we rush headlong into this story, which features (if briefly) a vast number of the heroes from past issues - and one brand new character.

They're faced with a giant mystery, as a gigantic door appears near the city - and when the door opens, no one is ready for what happens next.

It's a clever bit of business and a lot of fun. 

As always, the art is terrific. Anderson has a powerful style that takes some of the best elements of Gene Colan and Neal Adams, gives it a unique spin and creates incredible stories.

Look, I can't say enough great things about this series. Wonderful stories, great art, original characters - superhero comics at its best!

Highly recommended!

#2 - Infinity

   This issue of Infinity wraps up Marvel's biggest, most cosmic event in recent memory (and probably ever) - and manages to avoid the usual letdown we've seen in recent years.

   Far too many events have wrapped up with reboots or resets or big events that are immediately overturned - but not this one.

   Instead, this series embraces its cosmic nature and wraps with a huge battle in space, the survival of the Earth at stake, and a final, no-holds-barred showdown between Thanos and the Avengers.

   It really works on every level, as we see character arcs wrap up, surprise plot twists, loads of action and plenty of future story lines put in place.

   Jonathan Hickman has done impressive work here, telling a 16-issue story in the space of six months, with every issue on time and telling a cohesive, intelligent science fiction / adventure story, loaded with great characters.

   It doesn't hurt that the issue includes terrific, dynamic, expressive art by Jim Cheung and Dustin Weaver, with six inkers (including both pencilers) credited.

   I'll admit this series isn't for everyone. It's a challenging story that crosses the universe and back, with a huge cast, several key events and lots of twists and turns along the way. But if you're up for a cosmic story that will challenge and entertain you, I recommend this one highly.

   I loved it!

#1 - Avengers

   Yep, it's been a great year for the Avengers!

     Those who've been following this blog since Jonathan Hickman took over the Avengers are no doubt tired of hearing me rave about his work (though to be fair, you may have tired of my raves when he was writing Fantastic Four or Secret Warriors, too).

   But the simple fact is, his writing has amazing complexity and depth to it, as he crafts stories that build over the course of years, without forgetting the human emotion at the heart of it all.

   He's doing it again in this series, weaving a story that runs over 16 issues in about six months. And that doesn't count all the groundwork laid in issues before that.

   Here we have a cosmic sage worthy of E.E. "Doc" Smith, as several galactic empires join forces with the Avengers to fight back against the Builders, an ancient race that has turned into a world-destroying force. (Though we're not sure why yet.)

   So there's a lot going on, but one of the things I like best is the role of Captain America, who shows his skill in wartime strategy.

   This series is more science fiction than superhero (well, sorta), and that's ok with me, because it's good science fiction.

   This issue marks the halfway point in the series - I can't wait to see where it goes from here. This is shaping up to be a classic along the lines of the Kree-Skrull War and Steve Englehart's origin of the universe (and the Vision).

   Great company to be in! 

    So that's 2013 - Happy New Year, everyone!

El Vox's Top 10 for 2013

   Here's a Top 10 list from El Vox:

Good job Anonymous. Your descriptions were insightful & I enjoyed reading about what you enjoyed reading thru the year.

I'd have a few of those on my Top Ten as well, not in any particular order:

I'd agree on:

1. Saga -- a Romeo & Juliet story set in a SF environment. I'll admit I was a bit taken back by some of the profanity, wondering if it's really necessary, but after a while, I just went with it, and I guess I can sort of understand what Vaughan is trying to do. You never know where it's going or what will happen next, which is why it has the audience it does.

2. The Black Beetle -- a throwback to old pulps and serials, and I really dug the artwork by Francesco Francavilla.

3. The Walking Dead -- Negan, the main villain, is hard to take, and I wonder if Kirkman isn't painting himself into a corner with all the badassery--how do you top Negan with a new villain? It's a bit much for me. I don't know if I'll continue reading or even if I've liked the direction it has taken from issue #100 onward--but I'm still reading them--guess that says something.

4. Hawkeye -- it's hard not to like this book with the layout and art. I thought the stories had a stream of conscience feel to them, which took me a bit to get into. Pretty good book.

5. Fatale -- I enjoy horror when done well, and H P Lovecraft, so it's a given if you throw in some pulp and a mystery, I'm going to get hooked. I really enjoy Brubaker, for whatever reason, he can hook me into something pretty quickly.

6. Lazarus -- I'm a sucker for a dystopian SF tale. This one pretty much sates that itch. Lark's art is pretty slick looking.

7. Velvet -- it might be unfair to have this one on the list as it just started up, but I enjoyed the first issue a lot, sort of reminded me of a female James Bond, and I liked that.

8. Godzilla, The Half Century War -- this one surprised me as most of the Big G's stories are pretty much one note, but James Stokoe put the human element into the mix in this limited series -- sort of a Moby Dick tale, but with Godzilla.

9. Joe Kubert Presents -- a limited series by the late Kubert. Not all the stories worked for me in the anthology, but the ones that did I enjoyed, and I always admired his art.

10. King Conan: The Hour of the Dragon - I lost some interest with the regular Conan The Barbarian comic with the run on Belit. But Hour of the Dragon filled that void. Truman knows how to tell a story and great art by Tomas Giorella.

Monday, December 30, 2013

A Look Back at 2013

   I've run out of new comics to review (it was a slim week), but since the end of the year is at hand, we have plenty of material to keep this blog moving.

   Tomorrow I'll post my traditional Best Comics of 2013 (Top 10) list, and as always, you're invited to send in your list - I can almost guarantee that no two lists will be the same. You can send your list in as a comment at the link at the bottom of this post or email it to Chuckscomicoftheday@gmail.com and I'll post it here.

   To get things started, here's a list by a good friend who prefers to remain Anonymous - but he's got a strong lineup here:

#1 – The Manhattan Projects

   For the most part, I tend to read my comic books at the end of the day. It allows me to turn off thoughts of work and activate the escapist qualities of the medium. My wife (who sees this hobby and my fellow collectors as “odd” at best) has told me that she can tell when I like a book because I will mutter “Wow!” under my breath.

   Simply put, there is no comic book I am reading with more “Wows!” than The Manhattan Projects.

   The plot is original – post-WW2 scientists make discoveries ahead of their time and beyond our world – but this plot changes routinely in wonderful ways. Using minimal color and Pitarra’s cartoony art (which some of my friends did not care for), Hickman introduces characters that morph into totally different characters a few issues later. Simply put, everything is in play and nothing is what it seems. I’m not sure how long this creative team can keep putting out this book, but I hope it’s for many issues to come.

#2 – Fantastic Four / FF

   In my opinion, so many FF stories are… bad. Like, really bad. Without emotion, the FF tends to devolve into just another super-hero team. With the usual cast of supporting characters and villains, a gimmick like “new uniforms” is often the only way to catch my attention with this book. 

   That said, Hickman’s Fantastic Four run in 2012 (which would have been my #1 comic book run of that year) breathed new life and emotion into this book. Bringing together characters from different timelines and adding cast members at will made the book seem actually interesting and new.

   In 2013, Matt Fraction took the reigns with two books – Fantastic Four and FF. The plots of these books separate as the two teams in the books do. The traditional team along with Franklin and Valeria Richards set off to explore the universe while an alternate team, led by a formerly criminal version of Ant-Man, stay to fill the void. 

   As is often the case, everything goes wrong. While I’m no fan of Bagley’s art and thought Allred’s art was not the right choice for the FF book, I’ve gone with it and have not been disappointed. The good news is that Hickman’s amazing run was left in good hands, at least for now. 

#3 – Saga

   Another “Wow!” book. There’s really nothing like Saga

   Great plotlines, interesting alien races, cliffhanger endings, and surreal art make this book stand out. It will likely be on most Top 10 lists this year and mostly at the top. 

   While I’m sure Brian K. Vaughn knows exactly where he’s headed, the reader tends to feel a bit lost, which might be on purpose. Fiona Staples’ art adds to this confusion, but not in a way that’s unpleasant. The characters are lost as well, but the ride is worth it. 

   Another nice twist is the nature of the story’s trusty narrator…

#4 - New Avengers

   Originally invented by Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed, the Illuminati were a team of heroes of a sort that dealt with the really big issues affecting the Marvel Universe, but often without fanfare or even the knowledge of their fellow heroes. 

   This book details the recent incarnation of the group, which has been through some changes. The central theme remains that these characters are put into situations where they may have to do terrible things for the greater good. 

   It’s not always action-packed and there’s a lot of talking, but, once again, Jonathan Hickman does a great job making the debate very interesting. 

   Steve Epting’s art works well, especially with the amount of tension in this book.   

#5 - Infinity

   After the utter collapse of the horrible Age of Ultron (see below), Marvel redeems itself for the most part with Infinity

   Using Thanos as the main villain and developing great lieutenants to aid in his devices, readers are taken to a cosmic conflict the likes of which have not been seen since the Kree-Skrull War. 

   Except for the one hiccup that introduces a new character that becomes the lynchpin of sorts for the whole story, we see characters used in new and interesting ways, as well as a Star Wars-level space opera with Earth hanging in the balance. 

   I’m not sure I even understood all that was going on, but it was great fun plotted, once again, by Hickman. While the art chores were shared, all did good work.  

   It bears rereading, as this storyline has some real epic moments.

#6 – Deathmatch

   Remember early in your comic collecting days when you would pick up a comic book before you knew every character’s background and motivations, and you’d wonder, “What’s this guy’s deal?” 

   Paul Jenkins’ Deathmatch recreates this feeling with a whole new cast of characters that range from the somewhat familiar to the brand new. 

   This book is an easy one to dismiss, as it draws from the overused, “We’ve been transported somewhere and now we must fight in the arena for our lives” environment, but there’s more depth here. 

   The why and how is what the book slowly spins, and that occurs as characters are killed one by one. The back of the book not only contains a NCAA basketball tournament chart of the contests, but also an encyclopedia of the characters you’ve met thus far. 

   This book is interesting, somewhat weird, and more original than the two-sentence plot synopsis would have you believe.

#7 – Fury

   I like Garth Ennis. Like Grant Morrison, he loves the old characters but seems to torture them as well. 

   Nick Fury gets the Ennis treatment in this series. Set in a post-WW2 world where military veteran Fury does not seem to fit in, this book literally ages Fury in situations where there is no right answer. 

   His enemies are everywhere and there’s no simple “Wahoo!” to sort out what’s next. 

   One aspect about the book is Ennis seems to be explaining how Fury got the way he is, which is an unpleasant but interesting explanation.

#8 - Brother Lono

   Man, I miss 100 Bullets. From the art to the black humor to the intricate storylines, Azzarello and Risso’s 100-issue work is a regular reread for me and I still miss things. It’s a very adult book that is built for an HBO adaptation. 

   It’s almost unfair for me to try to explain bringing back one of my favorite books that centers on my favorite character from that book, Lono. 

   The character has changed for multiple reasons, but you still get glimpses of the former violent beast that out-mobbed his fellow mob enforcers. 

   Lono’s attempts to stay on the “straight and narrow” are likely doomed, but that’s hardly a surprise in this limited series. 

#9 – Prophet

   If you remember reading Heavy Metal magazine in the '70s and '80s and enjoyed the weird alien stories that French artists and writers would create that, at that time, couldn’t be found anywhere else, then Prophet is for you. 

   I seem to be using the word “weird” a lot in these descriptions of my Top 10, but Prophet is the easy winner in the “most weird” department. This book is WEIRD

   Its initial premise sets this tone, drawing from the Image character in the 1990s as well as characters from Youngblood. Now I barely read these books back then, but you get the idea that, as a friend of mine would say, “There are no bad characters, just bad writing.” 

   These once laughable comic characters have a galactic feel and are changed completely, mostly due to the massive timeframe between this book’s time period and their previous versions. 

   It almost makes me want to go back and read the original Image books. Almost.

#10 – Hawkeye

   If current comic books were high school stereotypes, Hawkeye would be the hottest girl in high school. Everyone likes her and everyone talks about her. 

   Hawkeye is a great book that takes a popular character and, rather than make him a Wolverine-esque “I’m the best as what I do” type, it portrays him as, well, a screw up. 

   I’m surprised that Marvel has the guts to take this direction, especially given Hawkeye’s role in THE AVENGERS film. (Given the film’s success, I assume you’re supposed to use all caps.) 

   It’s a great, accessible book that everyone likes, which I don’t hold against the book. 

   Even the style/format of the book is intriguing. I’m going to stop writing as you’re probably reading this book as well. If you’re not, go buy it. You’ll like it. 

   Everyone does.

Honorable Mention – The Walking Dead

   Kentucky’s Robert Kirkman is amazing. I like Hickman, I read almost everything he does. 

   Beyond the ridiculous success of the AMC show, The Walking Dead comic book remains a fast-paced, terrifying book that simply does not show signs of slowing down. 

   Sure, Kirkman may kill every character in the book, but you have to hang on to see what happens. 

   He outdoes the Governor and his atrocities this year with a new villain that is so terrible, I doubt he’ll make it to the TV show, but we’ll see.

Most Disappointing Comic Book – The Age of Ultron 

   What the heck happened? Marvel’s been teasing the Age of Ultron for years. 

   The storyline makes sense – The evolving robot created by Hank Pym eventually evolves until it takes over everything. 

   This story was supposed to give us the obvious “And then what happens?” But it doesn’t. 

   It mishandles time travel and confuses everyone in a bad way, including the characters in the story. 

   What’s worse – and unforgivable to me – is the usually wonderful Bryan Hitch seems to phone in his work for this series, then leaves in the middle of the issues. 

   The final straw for me was Marvel suggesting that the change was “necessary for the storyline.” Absolute nonsense! My local comic dealer tried to explain to me why Hitch really left, but I don’t care. It stunk and made me feel like I’d be hoodwinked and had my money taken. 

   My final thought – The Age of Ultron may be the worst “event” a comic company has ever done, which is a high bar to reach given some of the past “events.” Naming THE AVENGERS sequel "The Age of Ultron" now has me worried as well. We’ll see…