Hello, 'Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood David Pepose here, coming to you with my favorite column of the year — Best of Best Shots 2011! Throughout the year, your favorite team of crackshot critics poured through the latest comic book releases, but only a proud few can stand above the rest.
Considering how much has gone on this year, the decisions have been more difficult than ever. Perhaps the biggest news of 2011 was from DC Comics, who relaunched their entire line with a staggering 52 new first issues in one month. DC also kicked the digital comics race into high gear, releasing all of their digital comics the same day as their physical counterparts. The move proved to be a cagey one, with DC's "The New 52" toppling Marvel Comics' supremacy in the month-to-month sales charts.
Marvel has since followed suit with their Spider-Man and X-Men titles going same-day digital, with the rest of their catalog to follow suit by spring 2012. In addition, the House of Ideas released two movies, with Thor and Captain America, even as they laid off several employees — including noted editors Alejandro Arbona and Jody LeHeup — by the year's end. Dark Horse, IDW and more also increased their digital reach, while publishers such as Dynamite and Archaia have expanded their licensed properties with books like The Bionic Man and Jim Henson's The Storyteller.
In addition to selecting the best releases of 2011, your Best Shots team has put their prognostication skills to the test, each selecting an Item To Watch for 2012. So let's kick off this giant-sized Best Of column with Erika D. Peterman, as she leads us off with her picks for the most entertaining releases of the year!
Erika D. Peterman:
Gold — Wonder Woman (Published by DC Comics): The DC relaunch yielded several good-to-excellent comics this year. What makes this worthy of the top spot is that in just four issues, it rehabilitated an iconic character that had spent the previous year mired in a long, disappointing arc. Brian Azzarello understood Diana immediately, writing her as the imposing, take-charge warrior that she is. He also dared to tinker with her origin by doing away with the made-from-clay story and making her the product of a union between Hippolyta and Zeus. It was a controversial move, but also surprising and effective. Strong as the writing is, though, Wonder Woman fans should thank their lucky stars that Cliff Chiang is illustrating the book. His crisp, energetic art is exceptional and makes Wonder Woman a must-read. In the past, readers who were indifferent to Diana said the character was too ill defined, had too convoluted a history and lacked compelling storylines. Those arguments don’t hold water right now. Any fan of the superhero genre who isn’t reading Wonder Woman right now is doing their pull list a disservice.
Silver — The New York Five (Published by Vertigo): Writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly managed to create a sequel that lived up to its acclaimed predecessor. This pitch-perfect four-issue story continued exploring the growing pains of college students Riley, Ren, Lona and Merissa, who were introduced in The New York Four. New to the story was Olive, a street kid who at first seemed peripheral. However, Olive was at the center of one of the most poignant moments in comics this year. While there were plenty of dramatic plot points in The New York Five, Wood never went over the top or provided tidy resolutions. Kelly’s vivid, black-and-white illustrations were just as arresting as the script, and the result was a powerful, moving series.
Bronze — Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (Published by Marvel Comics): Ending the life of a popular character for good is hard enough, and Brian Michael Bendis had the even trickier challenge of replacing him. He pulled it off with grace. Peter Parker’s death in Ultimate Spider-Man #160 was rough for lovers of Bendis’ long-running series. Then along comes Miles Morales, an instantly likable teen who is awkwardly taking up the mantle. Much has been made of the fact that Miles is half black and Latino, and that still matters in today’s comics landscape. But he’s first and foremost a good character, one who’s easy to root for. Illustrator Sarah Pichelli stands among the best of the talented artists who have worked on Ultimate Spider-Man over the years, and I hope she and Bendis continue collaborating on this fine comic for years to come.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Kevin Keller (Published by Archie Comics): The first gay character in Archie Comics history quickly became one of the most popular kids at Riverdale High after his 2010 debut. Kevin got his own miniseries this year, and he’ll have an even higher profile in 2012. Two major milestones await: He’ll go on his first date when the ongoing Kevin Keller series launches in February, and in January, an older version of Kevin will tie the knot with his boyfriend in Life with Archie #16. He may be a historic character, but Kevin is a typical Riverdale teen through and through — and an endearing one at that.
Bronze — Renzo Podesta: I read a lot of comics, and many artists across the genre have a similar, Kubertesque flavor. Not that there is anything wrong with that; it is comic art after all, and Kubert is a legend. But I do find it striking when I come across a comic artist with a wholly unique style, the artists who take their stylization to the next level and have the potential to really make a name for themselves. Argentinean Renzo Podesta is one of those artists. Podesta is the artist on Image’s 27 and 27: Second Set. I’ll admit, at first, his art was an acquired taste. It has an intensity to it that is almost off-putting. Once I got acclimated to it, though, I was addicted. He also stepped up his game in a serious way from the “first set” of 27 to the second. I find it particularly impressive when I can see an artist’s work evolve over the course of series. Podesta uses simple, sharp lines that are immensely expressive. He really wins with his textured coloring. It brings everything together, and sets the tone of a book in a powerful way. Publishers, take heed — Podesta's talent is fantastic.
Silver — Image Comics: With powerful titles like Chew, Morning Glories, Infinite Vacation, All Nighter, Nonplayer, 27, Walking Dead, Hack/Slash and the upcoming Saga, Image Comics may very well have the most talented collection of creators and provocative stories in the industry. There are lots of great books out there by a variety of publishers, but Image is heavily concentrated in unadulterated quality and spandex-free characters. While I love my Wonder Woman and X-23, I also love supporting the creator-owned titles and concepts that broaden the comic book horizons. Diversity is good.
Gold — Uncanny X-Force (Published by Marvel Comics): Uncanny X-Force is the poster child of successful teamwork. This title has been nothing but a tour de force from the beginning, and the Dark Angel Saga was one of the more memorable and fantastic arcs I have ever read. Rick Remender is a hell of a writer. Esad Ribic, Billy Tan, Jerome Opena, Rafael Albuquerque — you guys are a force all of your own. The art of Uncanny X-Force makes this book nothing short of amazing, and the best of 2011 . Even with perfectly toned writing and unbelievable pencils, my biggest hurrah goes to Dean White. I never knew what color could do for a book until now. Uncanny X-Force would not have the magic that it has without his brilliant blues and magentas. White makes a great book even greater. Consistently. For an entire year.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Nonplayer (Published by Image Comics): Talk about supply and demand — what is a first printing of Nonplayer #1 going for on eBay? One issue out, and Nonplayer made waves all the way to Hollywood. Warner Brothers acquired film rights shortly after the first issue was published. Hollywood isn’t always right about these things, but in this case it is. Nate Simpson has a brilliant concept in Nonplayer. It is a story of a young girl who really only lives her life inside of a game where she is a fearless warrior. It is the pinnacle of escapism. The art alone is fixating with a raw, earthy quality, and the story is something we all can relate to. An injured hand and artistic delays have pushed the second issue of this book back indefinitely. When Nonplayer #2 finally does comes out, I am buying the hell out of it. There are few comics I am looking forward to as much.
Bronze — Hellboy: House of the Living Dead (Published by Dark Horse Comics): Heck of a year for Mike Mignola's iconic creation. For good or bad, Mike made good on his promise years ago and brought Hellboy's story to a final ending. However, it wasn't the sweeping epic that had me most interested. I've always felt Hellboy's greatest tales were found in one-shots. The weird mini chapters in his life that made him seem more real. Hellboy: House of the Living Dead was just such a story. Spinning from the wonderful Hellboy in Mexico, House of the Dead filled in the gaps within Hellboy's tequila-stunted brain. Once again joined by artist Richard Corben and colorist Dave Stewart, Hellboy: House of the Dead brings to life the beauty and danger of paranormal Mexico. This book is one giant love letter to anyone that has fond memories of late night Hammer horror films. And yet, mixed in with the mad scientists, demonic brides, and elbow bashing a flesh golem off the turnbuckle; Mignola slips in some real heart. Just when you're ready for another round, you're reminded why Hellboy is drinking his life away. He failed a friend, and that failure cost the friend his life. As is often the case with the best monster tales, Hellboy: House of the Dead reminds us all how it feels to be human. If this truly must be one of the last stories from Red, it's a heck of a way to go.
Silver — Who is Jake Ellis (Published by Image Comics): If you're reading this column, chances are high you love comics and probably visit a whole grip of comic book sites. There is also a good chance you're annoyed to find Who is Jake Ellis appearing on yet another year-end list. Well too bad, this book was easily one of the standout hits of the year and firmly cemented Nathan Edmondson as a writer to keep an eye on. Who is Jake Ellis takes the well-traveled thriller genre and gives it a much needed shot in the arm. Jon is on the run from international killers and spies. All he has to rely upon are his wits, a good right hook, and Jake, the near omnipotent voice protecting him every step of the way. Together Jon and Jake, whether they like it not, must piece together the shattered elements of their past if they have any hope of surviving their future. I know, it doesn't sound all that ground breaking, until you dive in. Edmondson writes with a wonderful voice that perfectly mixes natural dialogue with techno-spy speak. Artist Tonci Zonjic uses deceptively simply lines that further pull you deeper into this intriguing and exciting setting. Indeed, Zonjic's use of colors alone is enough to raise this book miles above your typical four-color fair. Perfect pacing, great action sequences, and a story that grabs you by your collar and never lets go. Who is Jake Ellis is everything you could wish for in a thriller comic.
Gold — Flashpoint – Batman: Knight of Vengeance (Published by DC Comics): Before even opening the cover, this book had two strikes against it. First, it essentially was an Elseworlds comic, which is all well and good, but those don't necessarily have the greatest track record. Second, it was a tie-in to yet another comic event. The books only real saving grace was the creative team of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. I'm even willing to bet most folks only picked up the first issue because of the creative team. I know, because I was one of them. What we got was pure gold. This mini-series transcended Flashpoint. Reading Batman: Knight of Vengeance was like having a front row seat to a modern Greek tragedy, with a heavy dose of film noir. The pain and hate that fueled an aged Thomas Wayne as he sought vengeance against the whole world was both beautiful and horrible. And it just got more intense with each issue. But it wasn't the twists in the Batman lore, or the multiple reveals that elevated this series. No. It was one small moment. The moment where two parents, shattered by the violent death of their son have a chance to change the world. But in a moment of brutal honesty, Thomas Wayne reveals that while he and Martha can change fate, they will never be able to protect their son. Nothing can prevent the son from becoming the father. It isn't the easiest Batman story to read, but tonally, it is one of the best. Of all time.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Scott Snyder: Seriously, where did this guy come from? One moment, I'm reading about this new vampire series from Vertigo and it sounds interesting. I mean, it's got Stephen King's hand in it, so I'm pretty sure I don't have to worry about any sparkling or teenage angst. Then wham! Out from King's rather large shadow comes this Scott Snyder guy. Not only does he get to work with the master of horror, but his vampire stories are actually better. Alright, fine, so the dude is good at writing creepy tales, he even won an award for a couple of them. Great. Stay over in Vertigo and everything will be fine. Then he goes and starts writing Detective Comics. In doing so, Snyder goes on to write what has been universally decreed as one of the best Detective Comics arc in decades with the Black Mirror. A story arc that manages to pull in new and old readers, while it references every major Batman story since Year One. Over at Image Comics, we get an even deeper look into Snyder's obsession with family ties and the darker side of America with his wonderful series Severed. He has a true gift for naturally flowing dialogue and narration, every one of his characters read as wholly believable. Taking over writing duties on Batman as well as Swamp Thing, Snyder has been one of the honest to goodness standouts of The New 52. I sincerely hope he can maintain this pace and level of writing. Because quite frankly, I don't think I've ever been this excited over a writer in a long, long time.
Bronze — Reed Gunther (Published by Image Comics): I was talking to our good and beneficent Best Shots editor recently, and in conversation we decided that most of my reviews should somehow involve the phrase: “Well, it ain’t no Reed Gunther,” and that about says it all, really. Chris and Shane Houghton’s tales of the continuing adventures of a cowboy and his bear companion is perhaps the jolliest, most likeable book on newsstands — it has a spirit and good cheer that is both irrepressible and irresistible. The stories skillfully blend an easygoing western aesthetic with supernatural ideas (monsters and the like) and straight-ahead comedy into a winning set of escapades that anyone will enjoy. The real secret to the book’s success though, lies in the smart characterization of our leads, lackadaisical cowboy Reed, Sterling, the bear, and the mostly-no-nonsense Starla — and the way their friendships are so clearly defined and developed throughout every story. The artwork is clean, stylish, with perfectly pitched expressions, and has that same sense of heedless joy that defines every other element of the book. There’s also a surprising amount of pathos, too, particularly once Reed and Sterling find themselves in New York City, and discover the incompatibility of their way of life with the metropolites — it’s both a celebration and a comic elegy for the Old West. The entire book rests upon a rather difficult balancing act, but it’s one that the Houghtons perform without a misstep. The fact that there are more issues on the way is reason to cheer, for these are characters well worth spending time with.
Silver — Snarked (Published by BOOM! Studios): Roger Langridge’s "kitchen-sink" riff on Lewis Carroll lore is an effortlessly charming, and filled with humor that ranges from madcap knockabout antics, to subtler dialogue gags that build and payoff in unexpected ways. Its invention is limited only by Langridge’s limitless imagination, and every visual element is immaculately designed and presented, from the most minor of background players (ranging from nameless extras to a brief cameo by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), to our four main characters. Like Reed Gunther, much of the success of the book comes from the spot-on characterization, and Langridge’s winning designs for Wilberforce J. Walrus and Clyde McDunk, the carpenter. Walrus, an inveterate schemer in the grand tradition of W.C. Fields, and McDunk, the hapless naïf, form a marvelous comic duo, whose antics are supported and tempered by the presence of the equally delightful Princess Scarlett and Prince Rusty. The banter between these characters, as well as witnessing Walrus’ various plans in action create much of the comic momentum of the piece — yet, there’s also real jeopardy and a sense of danger here, too. The panel layouts are page ideas are elegant and distinctive (from maps to mazes), Langridge stages the comedy with the expert eye of a Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder, and the story being told is compelling and literate. There’s a laugh to be had in every panel, and this is really a book that families can read together. What more could anyone ask?
Gold — One Soul (Published by Oni Press): With One Soul, Ray Fawkes has tapped into an incredibly rich vein of storytelling, and he mines it to his full advantage. Here is the human experience laid bare with all of its myriad triumphs and failures – the work juggles eighteen different lives with ease and a deep understanding of time and mindset. The entire project has the air of the “personal,” from the richly idiosyncratic artwork to the sharply poetic text, which enhances the overall effect immeasurably. As I noted in my original review, it’s a book that could easily have been pretentious and suffocatingly self-important, but instead it is a thoughtful, moving, well-paced meditation on universal themes. It’s perfectly structured, both aesthetically and thematically, from its consistent panel breakdowns, to the way in which death leads only to more questions from its cast. It is an elegantly paced, incredibly thoughtful book that delves fully into the matters that define both the individual and collective humanity, with people that, through the way we relate to them, are as real as anyone else we know. It’s a bravura act of storytelling, and the marvelous thing about it is that because of its “snapshot” aesthetic and layered narration, every reader will come out with a different element that resonated for him or her. It’s really a very beautiful book, so in love with every last element of life itself, that it possesses its own spirit, which infuses the book from its first panel to the final, well-chosen words.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Blue Estate (Published by Image Comics): Though it’s been around for a while now, I must say that the consistently exhilarating Blue Estate is hitting a fever pitch in its storytelling, and it has never been more stylish. Under the direction and supervision of Viktor Kalvachev, Blue Estate is a giddy slice of crime fiction that is never content to slow down for even the briefest of instants. With a team of incredible artists, Kalvachev, co-plotter Kosta Yanev and scripter Andrew Osborne have brought page after page of indelible images, and smart, funny dialogue that embraces its hard-boiled roots. Honestly, anyone who likes crime comics would be well served to pick it up, and given the events of the last few issues, the stories that will be offered up in 2012 will continue to raise the stakes in hysterically operatic fashion. Blue Estate is a terrific book that has a tremendous amount to offer, and, even with its violent nature, there is nothing but tremendous joy in the storytelling. I cannot wait to see what Kalvachev and his team comes up with next — it’s sure to be simply wild.
Bronze — Uncanny X-Force (Published by Marvel Comics): When X-Force returned in 2008, it was with the hidden context that, perhaps, Wolverine murdering people required any stretch of the imagination. This more “brutal” breed of X usually boiled down to Y is more comfortable with killing than Z, while Logan did that thing he does that he talks about being the best at. In 2010, after Wolverine had to be even-more-secret about his secret scary squad, Fear Agent’s Rick Remender took over, Mike Del Mundo and Esad Ribic were gracing some very pretty covers, and the series began to take a different tone entirely. Instead of just smothering this line-up with routine killing sprees, the scenarios presented to the hardened mutants, surrounding a messier-than-usual return of Apocalypse, contain compromises that go beyond just spilling blood. Antiheroes finding themselves suddenly at the edge of morals they didn’t even know existed, or worse yet discovering which of their peers are willing to go beyond them, make for more pursuing storytelling than characters discovering they shouldn’t be on the team in the first place. It’s drama that festers in tension, between blood. From his work on Punisher to the game Bulletstorm, Remender also boasts a sophistication in making humanizing satellites adrift in incredible violence. Even Deadpool’s presence, often a methods to pop-culture shout-outs for the writer to make, supports the theory he’s a much better addition than the books that star him. Jerome Opeña’s run on art was also an exceptional treat, coupled with colorist Dean White, rewarded work that was lush, strange and sublime. All impactful in making one of the best X-books in an age of many.
Silver — Thickness (Published by Ryan Sands): Prison for Bitches, a Lady Gaga fanzine edited and assembled by Ryan Sands and LOSE cartoonist Michael DeForge, proved their skills in at attracting and organizing a huge spread of current underground stars (not excluding DeForge himself). But it’s with Thickness that Sands may have struck a particular, universal chord with readers and creators alike. Not a celebration of any pop-culture pronoun, but sex. Both human and beyond human, prodding the consummation hive only to see how talent tackle the sloppy subject. From this, we’ve had Jonny Negron’s manga-giallo midnight encounter, Katie Skelly’s Superflat biology lesson, King City’s Brandon Graham doing a dirtier Dirty Pair, Lisa Hanawalt’s perverted animal kingdom/classroom, as if imagining what career perv Crumb sees while watching Planet Earth and plenty other perverted pursuits. The most lingering short so far may have come from Angie Wang, an untitled piece that is nothing but the act in all its somber awkwardness and cosmic reward. But it takes more than a great cast for a great series, and there’s something to be said for the modern underground that generously throws itself for collaborations. It takes the atmosphere, the appeal. What makes Sands’ efforts so rewarding is his manic expertise, still improving even when you thought it didn’t need to. The printing quality leaps from one issue to the other. The risograph-y playfulness boasts a comfort with the zine-medium, ever increasing with new style and colors (literal, new colors). The thought that there’s more, that it gets better, and that we’re not even in the know for who’s lined up to play next, leaves us thinking that this is merely Ryan Sands’ foreplay — and that there’s an even greater climax yet to come.
Gold — Daredevil (Published by Marvel Comics): Shadowland’s demonic goofiness threw away the momentum and effort of a critically enjoyed run for the Man Without Fear. That left an uncomfortable, brief, halt, that left readers and even the character himself soul-searching. What would happen next? Would we go back to the way it was? Could we? Maybe we could have, but we didn’t. And instead we were introduced into a startling sight on what could have been, something that now is. All power to Brubaker’s highs, but Mark Waid’s take is so original, refreshing and so abstract to ploy conventions that it turns the light on the dark while it’s still getting dressed. Some fans take offense to their comics being more accessible, but that stance assumes accessibility merely benefits newcomers. This Matt Murdock is still human, still torn and even a little leftover brooding, but he’s much more. He’s a person with an ego to juggle, with a profile to maintain, conscious of imperfections with a facade to play, to answer to his ousted identity with facetious wit. This Matt Murdock answers a lot of questions wondered for years. And the result? Not the one we’d predict. Matt Murdock is Daredevil, the world knows but the world moves on all the same. This accessibility leads to intimacy. It also never hurts the year’s best take to have the year’s best art. Rivera's design-savvy linework coupled with Javier Rodriguez’s retro sensibility makes for a style that is instantly classic. The bold illustration of Murdock’s echo-sense both functions for understanding and eye-candy, everything else in this world of dark is pierced by bright colors.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Batman: Death by Design (Published by DC Comics): While more of Geof Darrow’s Shaolin Cowboy and Giannis Milonogiannis’ Old City Blues in the coming, final year ensure it a very pretty swan song, it was the reveal of Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor’s Batman: Death by Design that caught my hype completely off-guard. Chip Kidd is one of the most prolific print designers in the biz, not to mention of Batman’s most celebrated curators. So for him to flip over from custodian to creative, on a tale which will focus on architecture and design of all things, seems so miraculously well-conceived I’ve googled it every few days just to make sure it isn’t some cruel dream like the one where I own all of the video games. Paired with Dave Taylor, whose samples thus far prove he’ll be more inspired by the tone of Fritz Lang than the tropes, Death by Design promises to be a historically- and visually-drenched adventure from creators who refuse to let their bars sink lower than the top.
Bronze — A Zoo In Winter (Published by Fanfare-Ponent Mon): Jiro Taniguchi's quiet slice-of-life story about a manga artist apprentice and his struggling love life shows that some stories are universal despite the original language or country. At times a little bit of Phillip Bond-like characters, particularly faces, pokes through in Taniguchi's artwork which is a perfect blend of calmness and reality as Taniguchi tells the story about Hamaguchi learning more about art, love and life as he moves to Tokyo and finds all kind of new experiences awaiting him. Taniguchi’s book is an easy book about a life that should be somehow recognizable to all of us because it is real as it’s a semi-autobiography of his own experiences. The wonderfully grounded story carries you along so easily because it’s such a real story. It’s Taniguchi’s experience but it can also be yours or mine or even just a friend of ours’ story.
Silver — Congress of the Animals (Published by Fantagraphics Books): Part Krazy Kat and part Robert Crumb, Jim Woodring's book is a trippy silent journey as Woodring's Frank tries to find his way home through a surreal landscape filled with alien creatures and odd tasks as Frank finds love along the way. Woodring's organic art sings with energy as every image has its own life presence in it. The experience of reading the book has to be a bit like the journey that Frank is on as you never know what kind of screwed up event or imagery that Woodring's is going to have on the next page. Congress of the Animals isn’t something that you really read but thanks to the wordlessness of it, it’s something you experience. Woodring leaves it to you to interpret Frank’s own thoughts and reactions to everything. You’ve got to figure out what the men with the hollowed out heads are, and the purpose of the meaningless jobs that Frank has to perform. Woodring makes you Frank, lost in this unreal world. It is an outrageous, scary, surreal, enjoyable world and one that I want to go back to again and again.
Gold — Love and Rockets: New Stories, No. 4 (Published by Fantagraphics Books): Every image that Jaime and Gilbert is truly captivating. Maybe it's the subject of the drawings, or maybe it's the beauty of every simple line on the page, but these two one-time punk cartoonists have become classics without their storytelling becoming tired. This latest volume of L&R gives a lovely and sweet ending to Jaime's Maggie and Hopey stories, building on years and years of love and heartbreak to show us that we can be happy even when our lives turn out nothing like our teenage selves imagined. Gilbert’s stories owe more to German expressionist and horror films than to anything in comics as he plays with a rigid structure built around these character pieces that show a disconnect from modern life. One brother is writing about characters coming together and the other is telling stories about how our own desires are keeping us apart. Jaime and Gilbert are some of the most humanistic cartoonists even as they wrap their stories around soap opera-worthy drama. With almost 30 years spent in these worlds that they have created, Jaime and Gilbert have never lost sight of the power and intrigue of their characters. This latest edition of Love and Rockets just shows how creators can grow with their creations and still find new things to say about them and new things to do with them.
Item to Watch in 2012 — Joss Whedon: Whedon is a cult creator with a mainstream reputation. He has three movies coming out in 2012, two independent productions A Cabin in the Woods (writer and producer) and Much Ado About Nothing (director), both of which should play into his cultish success. And then there’s going to be the potentially big 800 pound gorilla of next summer, The Avengers. The Avengers seems like it should already be destined to follow on the success of previous Marvel films but it feels like if Joss Whedon is ever going to be the celebrity director his cult thinks he should be, the movie needs to be huge. Not Serenity huge, not Buffy huge and not even Iron Man huge but The Dark Knight huge. Whedon has the name and reputation but pretty soon, he needs to have more than just a cultish hit. Joss Whedon needs The Avengers more than The Avengers need Joss Whedon.
Bronze — (Published by Fantagraphics Books): Congress of the Animals is cartoonist Jim Woodring’s second full-length graphic novel, and the first to star his famous Frank character. Told without words, and brought to life by Woodring’s inimitable hallucinatory black-and-white artwork, Congress of the Animals is a memorizing tale filled with breathtaking beauty and grotesque horror. The story is a beautifully illustrated modern fable, which manages to say more without words, than most graphic novels can with hundreds. The tale rewards repeat readings, with each successive exposure to the story revealing new and interesting details that were not at first apparent. Jim Woodring has really outdone himself here, and has created the finest work of his career. It’s by far the best graphic novel of the year, if not the decade.
Silver — Mike Mignola: Mike Mignola has been incredibly prolific this year, perhaps more so than at any other time in his career, and everything I have read by him has been of the highest standard. Most prominently, he brought his epic Hellboy story to a jaw-dropping climax in Hellboy: The Fury. Alongside this he wrote some brilliant Hellboy one-shots as well as teaming up with legendary artist Richard Corben for the unforgettable Hellboy: House of the Living Dead OGN. With co-writer John Arcudi he has continued to make B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth one of the best comics around, despite the loss of series artist Guy Davis. He also delivered a brilliant Abe Sapien spin-off mini-series, as well as teamed up with Scott Allie to tell a tale from the early days of the B.P.R.D. Outside of the Hellboy-verse he delivered a spooky ghost story set in the old-west in Witchfinder: Gone and Lost Forever, and teamed up with Christopher Golden to expand upon the world of their original novel, with the genuinely frightening Baltimore: the Curse Bells. In between all of this writing he also found the time to provide some stunning covers for various comics. Did I mention that he’s returning to drawing Hellboy in 2012? Watch out for Hellboy in Hell!
Gold — 2000 AD (Published by Rebellion): 2011 has been a brilliant year for 2000 AD, with many returning favorites and tons of amazing new stories. Leading the stable, as always, was Judge Dredd, with creator John Wagner telling the latest chapter in his ongoing epic with "Day of Chaos." Alongside Wagner there have been dozens of great stories written by Al Ewing and Gordon Rennie, and illustrated by the likes of John Higgins, Bryan Talbot, Henry Flint, Leigh Gallagher, Simon Fraser and Ben Willsher. My highlight of this year was the stunning conclusion to Shakara by Robbie Morrison and Henry Flint — one of the best “thrills” in years. Other highlights included the latest installments of Zombo, Low Life, Kingdom, Savage, Sinister Dexter, the return of classics like Flesh and Indigo Prime, and the debut of Tharg’s 3rillers and Aquila. In fact there were so many great stories that there just wasn’t enough room for new classics like Insurrection, Numbercruncher, and American Reaper, which had to be published in the pages of sister magazine Judge Dredd Megazine. 2000 AD is the benchmark of excellence in modern sci-fi, if you’re not buying it, you simply don’t love comics!
Item To Watch In 2012 — Al Ewing: As much as I’m tempted to say The Dark Knight Rises, the Dredd movie, or even The Avengers movie, this is about comics, not blockbuster movies. So I decided to pick a writer that you should all watch for this year — Al Ewing. If you read my above picks, you’ll have noticed that Al Ewing is a writer for 2000 AD. Well if you know your stuff, you’ll also know that 2000 AD is a legendary incubator of talent that gave us Alan Moore, John Wagner, Pat Mills, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Dan Abnett, Mark Millar, and many more, who all went on to create some of the best “American” comics of all time. While the massive influx of British creators into the industry has definitely slowed down a bit, recent years have seen artists like Kev Walker and Frazer Irving picking up big DC/Marvel gigs, and this year saw Rob Williams signed to an exclusive Marvel contract. Al Ewing was recently “hand-picked” by Garth Ennis to take over the reins of his Jennifer Blood series at Dynamite, and in February 2012 he’ll also be writing a spin-off series called Ninjettes. Having read several of Ewing’s novels as well as his amazing work on Judge Dredd, Zombo, and Tempest I really don’t think it’ll be too long before the big publishers are falling over each other to get their hands on him!
Bronze — Batman: The Black Mirror (Published by DC Comics): When DC first announced the continuity retooling coming with the New 52 months prior to it happening, some fans questioned the validity of comics that were coming out in the interim — if everything was going to be reset, why did the events of books they were currently reading matter anymore? While some books wrapped up and went into hibernation a month or two before the DC Universe was irreparably changed forever, Scott Snyder’s run on Detective Comics made a point of getting its head down and making damn sure it mattered all the way to the bitter end, and in doing so gave us one of the greatest Batman stories of recent times. The fact that it doesn’t even involve Bruce Wayne only makes it more impressive. A truly sinister tale, The Black Mirror spent the best part of a year with Dick Grayson exploring a more horrific side of Gotham City than readers had seen before. Snyder tailored his scripts to suit each individual artist’s strengths, making the handovers between Jock’s harsh and angular linework and Francesco Francavilla’s naturally pulpy artwork impressively smooth, as two originally separate strands of story collided in a memorably frantic climax. If you’re reading Snyder’s Batman just now, you’ll know just how good it can get — but if you really want to see the beginning of the singular vision of Gotham that continues to inform his current run, The Black Mirror’s the place to start.
Silver — SVK (Published by BERG): 2011 was a year where what can only be described as “a big hoopla” arose over digital comics. As more and more publishers made the move to make them available on the same day as their physical counterparts, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’d be some kind of pushback, or some kind of attempt to emphasize exactly why printed matter still, well, mattered. It was noteworthy then, that the only comic this year that seemed to be designed to illustrate that not only was it telling a story that could only be told in a comic, but only in a physical comic, didn’t even come from a comic book publisher. Instead, it was left to UK design consultants BERG to team up with Warren Ellis and D’Israeli to produce the one-shot SVK. Described by the writer as “Franz Kafka’s Bourne Identity”, the near-future espionage book’s main selling point was the inclusion of an ultraviolet torch which enabled the reader to view the thoughts of the book’s characters. Utilized in a way that made it an integral part of both the story and the reading experience, it transcended tacked-on gimmicks like the stalwart “Hey kids, put your amaze-o-vision spectacles on NOW”, the likes of which were still being used as recently as a few years ago (yes, Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D, I’m looking at you, and I want my money back). Told in typically prophetic Ellis fashion, SVK was one of the truly original reading experiences of the year.
Gold — Criminal: The Last of the Innocent (Published by Marvel/ICON): I’ve long since come to understand that if the team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are credited in the creation of a title that it’s practically a hallmark of quality. Over the years I’ve enjoyed their work, but I’ve always felt that the books, while technically brilliant, have always lacked that little something that I could relate to as a reader, or I could find myself truly investing in. So it was surprising that this year’s Criminal got me on an emotional level and made itself my favorite miniseries of the year. The book felt like a more personal endeavor for Brubaker. Lead character Riley Richards returned to his small hometown following years away in the city, and gone was the brutal and often nihilistic pulp of Criminal past, and in its place was a more nostalgic noir. Our protagonist revisited his past through flashbacks, depicted by Sean Phillips in an inspired artistic choice of aping the style of Archie Comics, evoking both a simpler time and a sense of naïveté on the protagonists’ part in the way he views his own history. It was one of many little artistic flourishes throughout the series that pay homage to comics that have went before, and helped ensure that Last of the Innocent is a book that can be enjoyed on several levels, by longstanding Criminal fans or first-time readers.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Saga (Published by Image Comics): Telling the discerning comic reader to keep space on their pull list for Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ Saga in 2012 seems fairly redundant, but in case it’s not already on your radar here’s the gist: it’s a science fiction fantasy following the a couple and their offspring during a war, and it’s been summed up by the writer as "Star Wars meets Game of Thrones." If that cross-genre high-concept isn’t appealing enough for you, consider the following: in BKV we have a writer that in the past decade has not only launched The Last Great Original Concept of Marvel Comics (Runaways) but also been partly responsible for two of greatest long-form comic runs of the 21st century in the shape of Y The Last Man and Ex Machina. Now he’s launching his first new book in forever with Fiona Staples, an artist who I’ve yet to see ever hit a bum note, and who from preview pages looks to be relishing the chance to build a fantastical world from scratch. For me, it’s an absolute no-brainer and I will be flabbergasted if I’m not raving about Saga throughout 2012, although admittedly that’s if I’m not crushed by the sheer weight of my own lofty expectations by the time that comes around.
Bronze — Artifacts (Published by Top Cow): A maxi-series like this doesn't happen every day. While you do have your Blackest Nights and your Sieges and your crossovers and your tie-ins, things can get convoluted and scattered fairly quickly. Here, you have Ron Marz being the architect of one fine story that spans throughout the Top Cow universe. There's Cyber Force, Hunter-Killer, Witchblade, Darkness, Angelus... the whole schmear! What started as Sara getting her daughter back has turned into an emotional and dangerous roller coaster for all involved. While Marz has been the voice of the story, he's had great assistance from artists on the visuals, starting with Michael Broussard, who continues to be a powerhouse, to Whilce Portacio and Jeremy Haun. It was announced that Artifacts would be now an ongoing with Marz still at the helm, it gave me hope that people that have been missing out on the series will eventually pick it up and realize they have indeed been missing out.
Silver — Jim Henson's The Storyteller (Published by Archaia): Simply put, if you have not had a chance to read Archaia's adaptation of Jim Henson's The Storyteller, I dare say that is a crime. Showcasing a vast array of fresh faces and seasoned vets, this assortment of stories is sure to be the delight of any reader, of any age. When you have talents such as Evan Shaner, Tom Fowler, Katie Cook, Nate Cosby, Ron Marz and many more, what is there not to like? It's an eclectic group of creators and individuals that I'd love to see more work from, especially if it involves a project like this. Archaia has been on a roll with the Henson licenses and Storyteller exceeded all my expectations and gave me a reading experience I haven't had in a long while. A book like this shows the world what non-superhero comics are really capable of: a true work of art, and one of the best books of the year.
Gold — Daredevil (Published by Marvel Comics): Yes, True Believers! The Man Without Fear has made quite the comeback this past year with a classic take on the fan favorite and Marvel staple. Brought back from the deepest depths that the character has been in since Frank Miller's run by the incredible Mark Waid and a dynamic rotating art team of Paola Rivera and Marcos Martin. After the events of Shadowland left Matt Murdock in the most depressing state I think I've ever read, the road to redemption began here. And it's just plain, old-fashioned cool. Bringing Ol' Hornhead back to his swashbuckling roots, Waid has crafted a hero that doesn't do anything radical to the character, but builds on what has been established and it's actually fun! Rivera and Martin are dynamite and creative with the visuals and it's how a hero like Daredevil should look. When you have the first issue having DD go up against classic E-lister, the Spot, and a few issues later having him outsmart his way out of a shootout, you realize this isn't the Daredevil from last year. This is what superhero comics should achieve to be like, and hands-down the best book Marvel is producing at this time.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Justin Jordan: Image's The Strange Talent of Luther Strode has been making strides and gathering tons of buzz over the past couple of months, putting creative team Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore on everybody's radar. Recently though, USA Today named Jordan the Best New Writer, and I have to agree. While Luther is still gaining momentum, one can be sure to keep your eyes peeled on what this bright newcomer has in store.
Bronze — Daredevil (Published by Marvel Comics): Mark Waid and company's Daredevil was, bar none, 2011's best superhero revival title. Taking a character that, for two decades, had been defined by his misery, and turning him into the epitome of four-color excitement is no mean feat, and a turnaround that was long over due for ol' Hornhead. There haven't been enough issues for me to feel comfortable placing this title higher on my list, but even without Mark Waid's taut, energetic, and kinetic script, the unparalleled art of Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin alone is enough to warrant Daredevil's place on any Best of 2011 list.
Silver — Avengers Academy (Published by Marvel Comics): For the last two years, Avengers Academy has been Marvel's most underrated title. It's not exactly flashy, but every time I read an issue, I come away satisfied. This is the teen hero book right now, period. Nobody writes the kind of soap opera style superheroics that populate the Avengers' farm team of at-risk youths than Christos Gage, who manages to find a way to make every issue feel like a "very special episode," but in a way that speaks to the person that most of us were when we got into comics. This is a book that I wish I had as a teenager, and I'm damn sure glad I've got it now. Avengers Academy is the most consistent ongoing superhero book on the stands.
Gold — Archaia: OK, I admit, this pick is a bit of a cheat, but when you've got the body of work of a studio like Archaia, it's damn near impossible to narrow the front runner down to a single book. If there was any before this year, Archaia has dispelled all doubt that they are the absolute best at finding, creating, importing or otherwise purveying the most gorgeous, well-packaged OGNs on American soil. This year saw the release of titles such as Rust, Old City Blues, and of course, the two new crown jewels in Archaia's long-standing Jim Henson license, The Storyteller and A Tale of Sand. That's not even mentioning the other top-grade titles that hit shelves this year. Honestly, nobody else is putting out material of this caliber, anywhere.
What to Watch in 2012 — DC Comics: This may sound a little bit like a foregone conclusion, but I think the place to cast your eyes in the next year will be the new (or at least not very old) DC Comics. While that may seem like an obvious choice, what we're going to see as DC moves past its six-month mark with new titles is a culling of the dross in DC's overly ambitious oeuvre, and an elevation of the titles that truly stand out. Books like Wonder Woman, Action Comics, Swamp Thing, and Batman and Robin, that have a clear vision, and a strong sense of the iconic characters that populate DC's pantheon are all poised to be the touchstones of 2012's superhero fare, and will be the key to prolonging DC's current hold on the market.
David Pepose, Team Captain:
Bronze — Batman (Published by DC Comics): Who would have thought that 2011 would be the year of Greg Capullo? Call him the Comeback Kid, because Capullo's scratchy, energetic linework has set up a fantastic launch pad for the newly-relaunched Batman flagship title. Whereas much of the rest of DC's New 52 seems to have been guided by the clean, classic styles of Ivan Reis and Rags Morales, Capullo brought a wild punk jaggedness to every page of the Dark Knight's new adventures. And that unbridled energy only served to fuel writer Scott Snyder, who leveled up in every possible way with this run. Pitting Bruce Wayne against the murderous Court of Owls, Snyder moves fast, bringing in action, exposition and, perhaps most importantly, genuine surprises for Batman's detective work. With an iconoclastic look spearheading a rock-solid script, Batman is the best of the New 52, and no question earns its spot in the Best of 2011.
Silver — Daredevil (Published by Marvel Comics): Justice may be blind, but damn if it didn't look amazing with this year's relaunch of Daredevil. Mark Waid has long been an established name in the industry, but ultimately Matt Murdock's knockout punch comes from the capital-A artists Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera. Think Tim Sale with a scientist's curiosity, and you get some of the amazing designs on display here, whether it's Matt running through streets that are literally composed of people's shouts or a 16-panel page that combines script, lettering and silhouettes to really show readers the world from a blind man's eyes. Early on in this run, Mark Waid made it clear that Daredevil's supersensory adventures would make him a sensualist, a connoisseur, and he's made every effort to give Martin and Rivera the platform for some breathtaking work. Being Daredevil isn't a curse anymore, it's a master class in visual cleverness, a living, breathing world to drink in. If it's not the best superhero book on the stands today, I don't know what is.
Gold — Criminal: Last of the Innocent (Published by Marvel/ICON): Riverdale ain't what it used to be. Imagine if Archie made the wrong choice between Betty and Veronica, and was driven by desperation, despair and cold-blooded murder to make things right? Welcome to Criminal: Last of the Innocent, a crime comic that's immaculately structured and too smart for its own good. Industry in-jokes aside, this is a story about living with your choices — or in the case of Riley Richards, not being able to live with them. The fact that he's an Archie stand-in makes the knife twist even deeper, as we see how great life used to be, and how you can even understand by someone might kill to bring that nostalgia back. Sean Phillips' style is the perfect fit for this story, as his shadows lend menace and foreboding to these slightly cartoony characters, and his Archie-style flashbacks are gleefully drenched in black comedy. I knew early on that this book was the goods in every way that matters, and was the title to beat for 2011. Six months later, no other comic even came close.
Item To Watch In 2012 — Wolverine and the X-Men (Published by Marvel Comics): If Jason Aaron can keep up the momentum from his first arc going, Wolverine and the X-Men will set the bar for superhero books into 2012. Putting Wolverine in the most dangerous, unfamiliar territory yet — having to be the responsible headmaster of the Jean Grey School for the Gifted — has brought some new freshness to both Logan and the mutant population as a whole. With veterans like Kitty Pryde, Iceman and the Beast alongside likable, unpredictable students like Idie, Broo and Kid Omega, you never know what's going to happen next in a school where every room is a Danger Room. Chris Bachalo tore the roof off of the book's initial arc, pitting the school against Frankenstein monsters, a living island and a pint-sized Hellfire Club, and if preview pages are any indication, the quirky characterization of Nick Bradshaw will be a nice fit in 2012. Funny, clever, and packed to the gills (or wings, or alternative Brood respiratory systems) with high concept, I'm already excited for the next issue of this book. Consider this A+ book for your 2012 studies. Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!