Best Shots Comic Reviews: The BEST of 2012!
Greetings, 'Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood Best Shots team is back and ready to give 2012 the sendoff it deserves! There has been a lot going on in the comicsphere this year, from moviegoers seeing the end of an era with The Dark Knight Rises to the rise of new cinematic heroes with The Avengers, to the launch of Marvel NOW!, the continued cross-pollination between DC's New 52 and news of the restructuring of Vertigo. Image launched a ton of new books as well, including Saga and The Legend of Luther Strode, while Dark Horse, IDW, Dynamite and more charged forward with new and revamped books including Mind MGMT, Popeye, Masks, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Evil Ernie and The Massive. But some series, creators, characters and publishers stand above the rest, and Best Shots is ready to lay it on the line, with our Best of Best Shots - 2012 edition!
Bronze - IDW Publishing's Licensed Comics: In the past, I pretty much ignored licensed comics. They seemed like a cheap cash-in, with a few exceptions here and there. That's changed for me, thanks almost entirely to the quality and effort put forth by IDW in comics such as Doctor Who, Star Trek, Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Godzilla. These books are written by people who clearly care about the properties they represent (and in the case of the Turtles, the involvement of an original creator) and illustrated by talented individuals who do their best to bring these media properties to the printed page. It's not easy to live to the reputation of cultural icons, but with solid creative teams, IDW is doing just that.
Item to Watch in 2013 - Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition (DC Comics): It's kind of cheating to pick a reprint as an item to look forward to, but fans have been waiting years for this series to be collected, and now it looks like it might finally, hopefully, possibly happen. Originally slated to be released by Top Shelf back in 2010, Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill's legendary superhero series is now slated for an April 2013 release from DC. The series basically consists of Mills tearing the US comic industry apart and telling us what he really thinks of superheroes. This amazingly twisted series wrote the blueprint for superhero deconstruction and parody, and inspired the works of such notable writers like Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis. All accompanied by some truly unsettling artwork from Kevin O'Neill. Unmissable!
Bronze - Frankenstein Alive, Alive! (IDW Publishing): There's plenty of great 2012 gems to adore; Charles Burns' The Hive, Zach Worton and Britt Sanders' new ongoing NOW YOU DIE!!, Alex Schubert's Cyber Surfer, Steve Weissman's Barack Hussein Obama, the final juicy volume of Thickness. But I have a small shopping list of things I would do if I won the lottery, and paying Bernie Wrightson to draw a ghoul every week until the cash runs dry beats out any decadent meal or in-house bowling alley. Now, thanks to IDW and Steve Niles, I do not have to win the lottery anymore. This dark tribute to pop culture's favorite creature shows an uncanny collaboration between an artist whose ink is a cobweb of creeps and curios, a writer scribing a fitting dreary diary and, generally, two creatives who want to do more for the monster than just have him lumbering around talking like a caveman. Alive, Alive! is a successfully brooding but human tale that brings life to what so many other creators stumble over.
Silver - Prophet (Image Comics): The announcement of Brandon Graham taking on Rob Liefeld's Prophet was a curious one, but our curiosity was nowhere near ready for the strange wonders that Graham and his rotating team of contemporary top artists would give us the vantage to. A nomadic, survivalist take on living past super heroics, Prophet is a warrior ages beyond his war. Graham gracefully sets Prophet drifting through space to put the pieces back together, and we're along for this uncanny trip. King City was always a window into Graham's flooring mind, but it's actually far more interesting to see him pulling the reins on another creator's property. Better still is seeing how his writing changes, successfully, to accommodate for the astounding talents of others, and what a pleasure it becomes to see artists Milonogiannis (who I think is one of the best new talents there is), Roy and Dalrymple working on such a sublime series.
Gold - Annie Koyama/Koyama Press: I have been a lobbyist for picking up Koyama books for the last few years and regret not a single flattering word. In the label's short history, they've introduced us to Michael DeForge and Steve Wolfhard and anthologizing the overdue works of Maurice Vellekoop and Michael Comeau. Koyama and it's founder, Annie, have become the Mother Goose of the small press circuit, an approachable and humble outfit that can play with the most subliminal and sublime material. So it is with no small gesture when I say that 2012 has been Annie Koyama's strongest year so far, a thick, lovely volume arched against strong years prior. Michael DeForge's fourth volume of Lose, arguably the series that turned attention towards Koyama years ago, is the best of the set. Rounding out the rest of Annie's year is Jane Mai's Sunday in the Park With Boys and Jesse Jacobs' mind blowing By This Shall You Know Him, which cannot earn high enough accolades. For publishing some of my favorite books this year, and likely favorite titles in the next, Annie Koyama gets a fraction of the reward she rewards the rest of us.
Item to Watch in 2013 - Alien (Drawn & Quarterly): During the better part of the summer I backpacked through Europe. While not knowing native tongues was usually an embarrassment at worst, the only time I was legitimately raging upon myself for not knowing a second language (and oh how Canadian grade school curriculum tried to raise me otherwise) was having to miss out on a lot of wonderful looking graphic literature. Of the un-imported, the best of the bunch seemed to be Aisha Franz, a rising cartoonist who's works, even described to me by second parties, seemed like clever and captivating reads. Thankfully, conveniently, as of around a week ago, word came out that Drawn & Quarterly would be localizing Franz' Alien, a mysterious and gorgeous looking tale about a family of women and an invisible alien. A single mother drowning in misery, the budding sexuality of her daughter and the youngest taking odd solace in a creepy unseen visitor from a place somewhere else. Aisha Franz looks to be one of the most promising young cartoonists, and we (we being those who cannot already read German or French), will finally be able to see for ourselves... Thanks to a publisher in the French province of my country. Spare me the guilt, I'll do it myself.
Erika D. Peterman:
Bronze — Punk Rock Jesus (Vertigo): In the six-issue Punk Rock Jesus, Sean Murphy gives readers a bold examination of the culture wars and voyeuristic entertainment. A reality show about the (maybe) clone of Jesus Christ might sound outrageous at first blush, but the more you read this comic the less far-fetched it appears. Which is what makes the explosive chain of the events that follow all the more harrowing. That things go terribly wrong isn't a big surprise, but Murphy's storytelling is full of unexpected plot developments and memorable characters, especially the doomed young mother, Gwen Fairling. With its risk-taking storyline and distinctive, black-and-white illustrations, Punk Rock Jesus makes a major impact in a short run.
Silver — Fiona Staples: Saga (Image) is going to end up on a lot of people's 2012 Best Of lists, and for good reason. But I cannot imagine this intergalactic epic without artist Fiona Staples, whose work here has been remarkable. She has created worlds and characters that are relatable yet exotic, and frequently unforgettable. Take bounty hunter the Stalk, a blend of an albino insect and a tough-talking human female. Or the planet Sextillion, where the greeters are creatures consisting only of fishnet-clad legs attached to exaggerated human heads. We haven't even gotten to the hot, robot boot-knocking. Whether it's lovely, comical, haunting, titillating or stomach-turning, Staples' art never fails to shine.
Gold — Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines (Vaquera Films): The independent film Wonder Women! is the kind of movie you tell everyone about, not just the comics lovers in your circle. That's because this documentary, which started as a Kickstarter campaign and went on to debut at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, is more than inside baseball. It tells us why strong, substantial heroines matter and how their empowerment or mistreatment reflects the lives of real women. It's rich in intelligent, passionate commentary from activists, scholars and artists, and the stories from everyday Wonder Woman fans might make you shed a tear. Even without the high profile of her male counterparts, the most iconic female in comics inspires people across the spectrum of life experience. Don't miss your chance to see this extraordinary film when it has its TV broadcast premiere in March 2013 on PBS' "Independent Lens" series.
Item to Watch in 2013 — Star Wars (Dark Horse Comics): I'd wager that a lot of people who have never cracked open a Star Wars comic book are about to sign up for Dark Horse's new series starting Jan. 9. For starters, writer Brian Wood is running the show. He excels at character-driven, emotionally loaded stories, and what a toybox of characters and emotions he has to play with. Taking place soon after the climactic Battle of Yavin in Episode IV: A New Hope, the new Star Wars comic focuses on the classic players we love or love to hate. Its triumphant ending aside, there's a great deal of loss and trauma in Episode IV that was never dealt with onscreen. I mean, Vader did order an entire planet's destruction. Wood has said that he stands ready to fill in those important blanks as the Empire and the Rebel Alliance regroup, and he will doubtlessly bring something fresh to this very familiar and beloved world. I have a good feeling about this.
Bronze - RL Book 1 (self-published): It feels a bit ghoulish to recommend a comic about a father dealing with the sudden death of his young daughter but Tom Hart's RL Book 1 is a stunningly mournful comic. In November, 2011, his daughter Rosalie Lightning died sometime during the night for reasons still not yet known. This comic is Hart trying to find meaning in his daughter's death and, more importantly, trying to find his own life again after it. Life had already beaten his wife and him down before the birth of his daughter but her birth and a new start in Gainesville, FL was supposed to be a fresh start for them. Hart's honesty and pain in this comic makes you just want to hug your own children tighter every day.
Silver - Harvey Pekar's Cleveland (Top Shelf Comics and Zip Comics): Harvey Pekar may be one of the few comic writers around who could make Cleveland interesting. Beginning as a tour through the history of the city with Pekar as the guide, his story quickly becomes about him and how a fading city where Twinkie filling still flows through the tubes of an old Hostess bakery inspired him to be the man that he was. For a final time Pekar, now joined by artist Joseph Remnant, takes us on a walk through his life. From the origins of the city when settlers first set up camp, Pekar weaves his own personal history into the cities'. Making Cleveland a metaphor for his own life (or maybe it's his life that's a metaphor for the Cleveland,) Pekar in his understated manner shows us how he is one of the last great ambassadors for Cleveland, a city that was part of his DNA.
Gold - Building Stories (Pantheon): There's already talk about whether Chris Ware's Building Stories qualifies as a best of 2012 comic since all 14 parts of this box set of comics have appeared elsewhere over the last decade. By compiling it into one reading experience, Ware shows how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Ware's stories visits the life of an unnamed woman at many points during her life, from the days when she lives alone in an apartment through to the days where she and her family move out to the suburbs. Reading the many parts of this book are like visiting memories. They don't happen in any particular chronological order but by randomly jumping from one to another you can begin to see how the past events connect to the present in ways that you never could imagine.
Item to Watch in 2013 - Sandman (DC Comics): Ah, the stuff of dreams. After it didn't happen a couple of years ago for the 20th anniversary of the character, it felt like Neil Gaiman was never going to write another Sandman tale. For those of us around 20 years ago, Sandman was the book that we read, studied, analyzed, shared and then read some more. It was the book you needed to read back in the 1990s. The pairing now with J.H. Williams III seems like a natural partnership as Williams already creates dream-like artwork, constructing layouts that dance across the page. Gaiman left nothing unsaid about the character but there are an infinite number of tales he only hinted about for the Lord of Dreams.
Bronze - Starling (DC Comics): I could not have been more skeptical about the new Birds of Prey, but I also could not have been more curious. I was pleasantly surprised to find one heck of a good comic in Duane Swierczynski and Jesus Saiz's Birds. But the bit that packed the most punch was the addition of Evelyn Crawford to the line-up. According to Black Canary, "Ev Crawford is a master strategist who can drive, shoot and talk her way out of practically anything." Better known as Starling, Ev is a force to be reckoned with and she brings some awesome chemistry to the dynamic of the Birds. But mostly, she is a laugh out loud riot. From Saiz's design to Swierczynski's festive characterization — Starling is one of the best and brightest to come out of the DCnU.
Silver - The New Deadwardians (Vertigo): A delightful and well-manicured take on zombies and vampires, The New Deadwardians proved to be every bit as interesting as it is refreshing. That is no small feat when you are dealing in something as trite as vampires and zombies. An eight issue murder mystery written by Dan Abnett with the crisp art of I.N.J. Culbard; Deadwardians touched on class and gender issues, life and death, but most of all, it kept me looking forward to Wednesdays. The New Deadwardians is a wonderful book. I miss it already.
Gold - Image Comics: Chew, Fatale or Saga could easily take gold all on their own merits. They are each stellar comics. Then consider titles like Morning Glories, The Manhattan Projects, Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity, Creator-Owned Heroes, and The Walking Dead and you've only scratched the surface of the phenomenal talent consistently being put out into the world by Image Comics. Not only does Image publish some of the best comics to ever grace the industry, they continue to support innovative, interesting and beautiful comic books and their creators. Image Comics for the win, ya'll.
Item to Watch in 2013 - Tradd Moore: If you didn't catch the artistic talent of Tradd Moore in The Strange Talent of Luther Strode earlier this year; don't worry; he's back with writer Justin Jordan in all their bloody glory in The Legend of Luther Strode. There is a visceral quality to Moore's art that turns the volume up to ten on the story. Luther Strode is a wild tale, but it wouldn't be the jaw-dropper that it is without Tradd Moore. His clean, bold lines and hard edges are striking and instantly recognizable. But his super-power lies in his dynamic action sequences. They are mind-blowing. DC and Marvel have already taken notice of Moore's talents, and we'll be seeing a lot more of his work in 2013 ... and hopefully beyond.
Bronze - Mike Allred: He may have only done a handful of comics this year, but Mike Allred's return to Marvel has resulted in some of the most fun, engaging, and entertaining comics of the whole year. Between a terrific Daredevil issue featuring Stilt-Man, of all characters, an issue of Wolverine & The X-Men that almost made this list by itself, and two stunning issues of FF, Allred has been responsible for putting some of the greatest images of 2012 on the page. And, while the writers of those books are also responsible for the success of those issues, it's the way Allred captures the subtlety and joy of the stories he's drawing that really made those issues as good as they were.
Silver - Hawkeye (Marvel Comics): Matt Fraction, David Aja, and Javier Pulido have done something incredible with Marvel's resident super-marksman, taking a character who, while well-loved, often works best in a supporting role and dropping him into a title that's at once the most classic and contemporary book on the stands. Hawkeye eschews mainstream sensibility for the look and feel of an indie, focusing on usually done-in-one stories and the give and take between Clint Barton and his sidekick, Kate Bishop. Between Fraction's wry characterization, and Aja's (with some back-up from Pulido) sublime art, Hawkeye is the proverbial super-hero book for people who hate super-hero books - and people who love them.
Gold - The Avengers (Marvel Studios): No, not the comic. The movie! So it wasn't an Oscar winner, but it did fulfill the lifelong dream of millions of fans to see Earth's Mightiest Heroes on the big screen. Not to mention... It was good. Like really good. Who didn't get a thrill seeing Bruce Banner finally Hulk-out, or Captain America reflect Iron Man's repulsor beams off his shield. or Black Widow outwit Loki? Not only was The Avengers a great, fun film in its own right, it was a proof of concept for the next level of comic films. Who among us, even when the X-Men and Spider-Man were making cinema history, would have guessed that we'd ever see a movie like The Avengers? That's why it's earned this year's gold medal.
Item to Watch in 2013 - Superior Spider-Man (Marvel Comics): After a deeply divisive, and deeply affecting conclusion to his run on Amazing Spider-Man, Dan Slott has given Spider-Man one of the most diabolical and ingenious twists in the history of his 50 year life span. Love it or hate it, Slott's got the wall-crawler's world at his fingertips, and while there are a lot of disturbing ways Superior Spider-Man could play out, it's just as likely to remind everyone why Peter Parker is the greatest super-hero of all time. Dan Slott hasn't dropped that ball yet, and with Spider-Man's greatest enemy now saddled with the task of living up to a legacy he never knew, there's more room than ever for Peter Parker to prove that he is the true Superior Spider-Man.
David Pepose, Best Shots Captain:
Bronze - Mark Waid: 2012 has been the Year of Mark Waid. From his crackling love triangle between Daredevil, Black Cat and Spider-Man ("All my life, finally: A woman I don't trust," Matt deadpans) to a slick team-up between Spidey, DD and the Punisher (Spidey's nickname for Daredevil being "Magoo") to a done-in-one character study/battle royale between the Indestructible Hulk and the Invincible Iron Man, Waid has done an incredible job showing the sparks that come about when Marvel's biggest icons collide. But not only has Waid done wonders with his character work, he's been an innovator, as well — he has been one of the more vocal supporters of digital comics, teaming up with Stewart Immonen for Marvel's Infinite Comics line as well as Peter Krause for his Thrillbent website. Between his strikingly good, shockingly consistent Daredevil and Hulk work and his pushing of the boundaries of comics, Mark Waid was the man to trust in 2012.
Silver - Hawkeye (Marvel Comics): With slick art, accessible storytelling and a great sense of humor, Hawkeye was my favorite book published of the year, and it's one of those critical darlings that seems to fall under the general public's radar. Let's fix that in 2013. Clint Barton, smart-aleck superhero in the heart of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, an all-too-human hero with perfect aim and a wry, resigned sense of improvisation that gets him through everything else. Combine with Matt Fraction writing his loosest, funniest, most stylish work since Casanova. And add David Aja and Javier Pulido doing their best impressions of David Mazzuchelli since Daredevil. Oh, and did I mention this comic translates fantastically on digital, particularly on an iPhone? This comic started off strong in 2012, and has continued to get better and better as this series has progressed — now that Fraction's assorted threads with the Russian mob have begun to tighten around Clint's neck, 2013 might just be the year that Hawkeye gets his just dues.
Gold - The Avengers (Marvel Studios): Christopher Nolan's Batman may have fallen and risen back up again with the third film of the ultra-serious trilogy, but it was The Avengers that was the comic book movie we needed and the one we deserved right now. With Joss Whedon helping galvanize Marvel's cinematic heroes into a cohesive unit, this movie honed characterization, established a flawless balance between the film's six superheroes and created one of the most gleefully indulgent action sequences since Michael Bay's Transformers (but don't worry, it looks far, far better than that). But perhaps what made this movie even more satisfying was that it represented a validation of Marvel Studios' long game, seeding Hollywood with smaller movies that wound up uniting to become more than the sum of its parts. From Cap, Iron Man and Thor going head-to-head in a ruined forest to the extended tracking shot showcasing all six Avengers laying the smackdown to the Chitauri, this movie was pure fan dreams come to life, and easily the gold standard for comic book experiences in 2012.
Item to Watch in 2013 - Scott Snyder: He blew the roof off the Batman franchise with the dismount for his "Court of Owls" storyline, and has Gotham City running scared with the return of the Joker in "Death of the Family" - and I have the feeling that this is just the calm before the storm. Scott Snyder has become the next Geoff Johns over at DC Comics, building up mythology while distilling characters like Batman and Swamp Thing down to their most accessible basics. His work on American Vampire has also been exceedingly strong, complete with a teenage greaser drag racer whose signature weapon is a set of wooden fangs. But with Snyder taking on DC's toughest icon with Man of Steel as well as upping the ante with Batman with hints of the Riddler's return, I think 2013 is going to be an even bigger year for DC's most up-and-coming star. Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!