Best of Best Shots 2009
Your Host: David Pepose
Howdy, Rama readers! Your friendly neighborhood guest host David Pepose here! Feeling sad that there's only one book on the stands this week? Worried you won't get your regularly scheduled dose of reviewing by your Best Shots team? Well, turn your frown upside-down, because we've got a special treat for you today – the Best of Best Shots in 2009!
2009 has seen a lot in comics – Disney buying Marvel, Marvel buying Marvelman, Paul Levitz announcing he would step down as Publisher of DC Comics, Heath Ledger snagging a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, as well as storylines such as Blackest Night, Dark Reign, Image United, War of Kings... well, you get the picture. Your team of able readers has gone through a lot of books this year, but with 2009 drawing to a close, we wanted to give special attention to what we consider to be the best of the year. Splitting our picks into Bronze, Silver, and Gold, in addition, many of our reviewers also gave their prognostication skills a whirl by adding in one character, book, or creator to keep an eye on in for 2010.
Dovetailing with the reader-generated Favorite Of 2009 polls also wrapping up on Newsarama, we're happy to give one last salute to these fine books before hitting the ground running with 2010. It's been a great year for us reading comics, and we want to thank you for continuing to check us out! As always, if you want to contribute your Best of 2009 picks, please feel free to add them in via the comments section, and if you really miss us, check out the Best Shots Topic Page, where we have all our past, present, and future-but-will-eventually-be-posted-as-the-past-so-you-guys-are-way-behind columns. Ready to close out the year? Then let's go!
THE Reverend O.J. Flow:
Smallville: Season 9: Of course it's not a book, but hey, it's what captivated your Reverend here a good part of 2009. Forced into the virtual Purgatory of Friday nights by its host network, Smallville seemed destined to join several "never were" shows who failed to make it to their 4th or 5th episode... EVER. But displaying the resilience one would expect from the Last Son of Krypton, Smallville has only gone and experienced a creative renaissance in expanding Kal-El's role to full-blown superhero without employing the red and blue tights, and our Clark Kent (Tom Welling) has mercifully shed himself of the dead weight of Lana Lang in favor of a female lead who is as entertaining and engaging as any CW Network female lead (I'm looking at YOU, Blair Waldorf) with the perpetually iconic Lois Lane (a routinely entertaining Erica Durance). Add the menace of "Major" Zod (Callum Blue), the compelling rise and fall of Green Arrow, and DCU stalwarts like Jor-El, Metallo and *GASP* the Wonder Twins, and this season of Smallville, only halfway completed to date, is shaping up to be the reason why people purchase these shows on DVD after they've aired. Oh, did I mention that we still have a 2-hour Smallville "movie" featuring the Justice Society of America to look forward to???
Silver – Supergirl (DC Comics):: There was plenty of good reading for this Superman fan in 2009 – not all of it perfect, and some hit-or-miss – but there was no doubt in 2009 that my destination reading for all things Kryptonian laid in the hands of writer Sterling Gates and the superlative work he did, especially with artist extraordinaire Jamal Igle, and an varied assortment of talented artists. Gates succeeded most assuredly in ridding Kara Zor-El of any of the superficiality that threatened to whisk the character into irrelevance when reintroduced to the DC Universe earlier this decade. I myself was to a point where I hoped an editorially-mandated cleansing of an event would find its way to Supergirl more than she ever needed in 1985. No longer! Like the lead character herself, the title is confident with a clear, rational sense of purpose, even in some uncertain circumstances (Mom? A little help, maybe?). And it's most frequently a required destination for any Superman fan who wants to follow his goings on, never mind that he can be found elsewhere. For a series that in certain ways serves as a home for the Man of Steel's supporting cast, it never, EVER feels like filler. Supergirl regularly triumphs, at long last and with no one else's help, as a strong lead title.
Gold – Jonah Hex (DC Comics):: I take a bit of pride in bestowing the "Best Book" handle on a Western title, ironically one of the genres that marginalized some of my favorite superheroes, villains and characters way back in the 1950s. But Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have virtually redefined graphic arts storytelling over the last four years or so with a rugged malcontent who's survived off wits, an almost supernatural survival instinct, a horse, and a pair of six-shooters. Lord knows Mr. Hex – unlike Tony Stark, Kal-El, or even Logan – was set to get by on his looks. This year saw Jonah Hex, the title and the hero successfully navigate his way through his first real multi-part epic, and the duo of Gray and Palmiotti did it with the same vigor that they did every subsequent "one-and-done" tale that had me entertained on a monthly basis. In anticipation of the big-screen debut of "The Man in Confederate Gray" (starring Josh Brolin) in 2010, one hopes that it's only going to get better for the Western anti-hero and the reader.
Item to Watch in 2010 – Gotham City Sirens (DC Comics): Starting late in 2009, this series is starting to pick up the pace and I look forward to seeing it grow in 2010. DC has released quite a few female-centric books in 2009, including this book, the new Batgirl, Power Girl, Vixen, and the Batwoman and Question features in Detective Comics. As much as I've enjoyed the others, I have a feeling Gotham City Sirens is the one to watch in 2010. Why? Paul Dini – that's one reason. With a proven track record of great writing, I don't see how this book can go wrong. Add in the factor that Dini's long awaited Zatanna book is expected later this year, having high hopes for that as well, and we come to my second reason to watch this title – I feel that interest in DC's women characters is going to boom. We're seeing more ladies at comic conventions (and I'm not even counting the Twilight phenomenon, as I don't consider that COMIC related), both as fans, and as artists and writers. Color me crazy, but women like to read about. . . strong women! This book has a great ensemble cast, and strong writing. So ladies, brace yourselves for a great year in comics, and prepare to have to share your copy of Gotham City Sirens with your guy pals.
Bronze – Witchblade (Top Cow): Talk about a series that has seen some highs and lows in the past decade. Once thought of just something pre-pubescent boys can drool on, Ron Marz has really put a new stamp on this book as easily one of the best. Supernatural hero, meshed with elements of a cop drama, with a lead character who is the mother of an infant makes for a great read with solid stories. Now, in 2009, there was "War of the Witchblades", with both bearers of the fabled gauntlet try to kill one another, with one almost succeeding. While artist Stjepan Sejic really soared with the best of them on some of the more horror/mystical elements, he stumbled here and there more often than not with the more quiet moments. Even with that minor hiccup, Witchblade is excellent and events coming in 2010, makes this a book not to be missed.
Silver – Detective Comics: Elegy (DC Comics): I know, I know. I did a 'Tec arc last year for the Silver Medal, but this book has just had great teams, and this year it went from already amazing to just downright the best "Bat" book on the shelves. Greg Rucka is nothing short of a great story-teller, but add his words to J.H. Williams III's avant-garde style that echoes something out of Steranko-land, you've got one hell of a book. While the story of a bat-themed hero going after a pale-skinned villain might seem familiar, but Rucka and Williams wove something unique and different and set the bar for other super-hero books. You have my sympathies if you've been missing out on this one.
Gold – The Unwritten (Vertigo): Please tell me you've at least heard of this book. Now, I know the common concern is that most Vertigo books are so heavy and dense that it makes it difficult to just pick up a random issue and follow along. I can understand that, and this book is no different. However, what Mike Carey and Peter Gross have done here is just incredible and my favorite book of the past year. Unwritten is just so...just by itself and creative, it's hard to fathom that a lot of people are ignoring this work of art. The story is deep and rich with literary allegories, and is just damn smart. Let's see, it's the story of Tom Taylor, whose father was a prolific and famous children's book author best known for his Tommy Taylor series (think Harry Potter). Tom's father goes missing and it turns out Tom may actually be the boy wizard from the book series. With a Harry Potter-like character, you might think this is kid-friendly, well that's not exactly the case, just so you don't go running out and buy this for a young reader. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Sandman of this generation and my pick for best book of 2009.
Item to Watch in 2010 – Moon Knight (Marvel Comics): Yeah, I know he's not the center of any universe or anything like that. There's not a ton of MK merchandise out there or no Saturday morning cartoon (do they still even make those?). However, I've been having a blast reading "Vengeance of the Moon Knight", and there's been a slow build on Spector's lunacy (pun intended) and it's only a matter of time before he does finally snap, but if that moment comes, can he be find redemption? The weird thing is that the title of the book has the word vengeance in it, yet he hasn't really taken revenge out on anything yet, it's mainly his rogue's gallery going after him. Also, I just love what Hurwitz and Opena are doing and I'm just captivated by each page. Sure, there are some heavy events for all major companies lined up for next year, but I think this character will catch you by surprise.
Bronze – The Walking Dead (Image Comics): This one was a toss-up between The Walking Dead, Savage Dragon and Terry Moore’s Echo, all three of which I think are great reads and none of which I’d be caught without at my LCS. That said, Kirkman’s zombie epic has to be recognized this year because, against all odds, he managed to keep up the level of intensity, suspense and general awesomeness that, frankly, I figured he wouldn’t be able to recreate after last year’s shocking and cast-destabilizing developments. I guess it’s like the opposite of a “most-improved” award. This book deserves recognition because it was hard to believe that it would be as good this year as it was last…but they pulled it off!
Silver – Booster Gold (DC Comics): I’ve said many times that this is the most entertaining superhero comic on the market, and I stand by it. Since 52, Booster Gold has been one of DC’s most compelling characters, and the new direction that he was set in by Johns and Katz has been continued and refined by Dan Jurgens, the character’s creator. Recent announcements that the book will undergo some creative team changes have me quaking in my boots a little bit, anticipating what DC has in store, but one hopes that under the steady stewardship of editor Mike Siglain, it will continue to be as clever, funny and heartfelt as it has for the last two and a half years.
Gold – The Life and Times of Savior 28 (IDW Publishing): It’s a pity that this book didn’t sell well, because it feels like this generation’s Kingdom Come or Watchmen. A brilliantly-written book with pitch-perfect art, it melds politics, superheroes, Kirby-inspired art and an insider’s sense for the absurdity of superheroics. Originally written as a story for Captain America in the 1980s, but rejected by Marvel editors who thought it would upset the apple cart too much to have their flagship hero abandon vigilantism in the name of global peace activism, the story has been gestating for nearly thirty years before writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Cavallaro put together a proposal—and IDW approved it in an afternoon. The resultant five-issue miniseries was full of great, profound moments and compelling characters, and had arguably the best and most memorable first issue of any superhero miniseries since the aforementioned Kingdom Come.
Item To Watch in 2010 – Booster Gold (DC Comics): Keep an eye on this book. Seriously. The character’s stock has been gradually rising for the last five years, and did so with a bullet around the time of 52. I’ve started to suspect his early-2010 “status quo change” will be more likely to spread some of his luster around the DC Universe than it will to dull his shine. I’m going to stand by my speculation that a post-Blackest Night DCU will provide ample opportunity for Booster and his JLI buddies to step back into the spotlight, probably headed up by the return of at least one much-loved member of that old gang.
Bronze – Groom Lake (IDW Publishing): Every comic should have an angle. The blend of story and art should uniquely set it apart from all other rival books it fights on the stands for space. With a quirky story and even quirkier art, Groom Lake fits this criteria to a “T,” and earns its spot among the year's best comics. Chris Ryall and Ben Templesmith's science fiction, Area 51 send-up is without compromise. Templesmith does some of his most clean and direct sequential narration here, on a story with perspective weird enough to suit his nuanced line work. Ryall, similarly, is totally and tonally in his element writing this tale of sarcastic secret agents, bumbling fools caught in too deep, and little green men who can't wait to light up. Groom Lake is the kind of book one hopes for when trying a new title; one which distinguishes itself. The humor is dark, the art style is unmistakeably apropos of the story being told, and this year, Groom Lake brings home the bronze.
Silver – Greek Street (Vertigo): It all seems so obvious now. Vertigo books have long dabbled in mystic realism, toeing the line between how man lives in the world, and how he uses imagination to justify his place within it. Peter Milligan and Davide Gianfelice's Greek Street strikes the perfect balance between the familiar with the mythic in its telling of dark parables that echo the great classic tragedies. Set to a grimy backdrop, with morals as remote and apart from our own as those long forgotten ages, Greek Street brings every bit of the looming sense of weighty misfortune and relentless fate that one would expect from the great dramas. This book makes so much sense that it's like it was always there, simply waiting to be discovered. The story is labyrinthine and theatrical. Fates dress as skin-merchants, crime lords live as kings, and the world struggles for reconciliation between new afflictions and age-old lessons. It makes old stories new, and for that, it earns its piece of silver.
Gold – Viking (Image Comics): This book could be here for the art alone. But then the story comes along, kicking ass all the way. Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein have their way with comics in this story of Nordic crime. Brandon's story avoids all semblances of cliché and formula, telling a tale of plundering brothers who have bones to pick with the world at large. Klein's range is unparalleled, deftly fluctuating rendering styles moment by moment, showing equal skill with pen and ink pages as with brushed, painted ones. Viking ventures into a relatively untrodden genre, and by doing so finds new stories to tell. Men of small means take to task those with great power, with only their hands and arms. Justice is a mere commodity to be taken by force in this world, and it is a relentless world indeed. What's more, even in these savage circumstances, Brandon and Klein remember the vitality of the quiet and universal moments, grounding this story in humanity, and making its brutality even more realized. Viking is aggressive in its assault on mediocre comics, and this year it takes the gold. Because really, if we didn't give it the gold, it would just take it.
Item to Watch in 2010 – Sweet Tooth (Vertigo): Jeff Lemire's sci-fi dystopian nightmare was one of the shining books to close out 2009, and looks to be heading the right way in 2010. Lemire's work on “Essex County,” showed an aptitude for long-form story construction, and so the story of the antlered “Sweet Tooth” Gus and his burly bodyguard Jepperd is only now building in its promise. Telling of a world where plague has wiped out civilization, where only half-animal mutates are equipped to survive, and where those mutates are hunted like their beastly counterparts by a desperate humanity, it is as moody as it is distinct, and it's only getting started.
Bronze – Chew (Image Comics): Humor, action, high concept – put it together, and you've got a recipe for success. Chew has been described by many as the little indie that could, and believe me, it's earned every bit of that reputation. Writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory are a unique team that really complements one another in writing this off-beat police procedural, about a hapless cop who receives a psychic impression from anything he eats. The food-centric world that Layman sets up is exceedingly clever, with everything from food critics to the FDA gaining newfound power. But this would all be for naught without Guillory's emotive artwork, which can make anything from a burly FDA agent to a pile of poo look hilarious. It may be Layman who puts Chu on his path, but it's Guillory who makes us root for him, whether it's with a goofy grin or a look of horror at his next culinary assignment. The fact that this book may go 60 issues? Thank you, Image, because Chew is one funny freaking book.
Silver – Detective Comics (DC Comics): While the superlative first arc of Batman and Robin was the sizzle, it's hard to dispute that Detective Comics was the steak. J.H. Williams III has been a sequential art force of nature with his first and second arcs of the "Batman: Reborn" tie-in, giving a real sense of weight and horror beneath Gotham's latest masked vigilante. While Batman as a hero has had his own set of visual iconography, Williams and colorist Dave Stewart brought in a brand new bag for Kate Kane – a smile, the Bat emblem, the panel layouts, the fiery red of Kate's hair and accents, the interplay between the sexual and the maternal in her body language – the best word to describe it is "astonishing." Yet writer Greg Rucka gives Williams a strong foundation to work upon, especially when he focuses on Kate's struggles with her sexual orientation and its disastrous effects on her military career. To make it even more of a value, Rucka's second feature with the Question has been getting better and better with each installment, with Cully Hamner really bringing the energy and movement to Renee Montoya's street-level scuffles. To repeat myself from an earlier review: throughout 2009, Detective Comics is synonymous with comic book quality.
Gold – Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (Marvel Comics): The best Spider-Man book on the stands, bar none. We all knew that Brian Michael Bendis was born to write this teenage Spider-Man, but with the reboot of this series, he's really stepped up his game. It's back to basics with Spider-Man, with much of the continuity and cameos tossed out the window, with a focus on Peter Parker and his "amazing" friends. Yet while Bendis's more streamlined take on the mythos is great, the real gems of this book are artist David LaFuente and colorist Justin Ponsor. LaFuente's "Spanish Manga" art style and Ponsor's eye-popping colors really lend themselves well to the overall tone of the series – little continuity, manageable angst, and a wide-eyed sense of wonder about Spider-Man and his world – but the real strength of the artwork is the emotions behind his characters. Bendis may have his critics on his other series – and sometimes I count myself as one of them – but there's no denying that, at least in my book, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man has been the gold standard for comic books in 2009. If you haven't already, do yourself a favor, and pick this up.
Item to Watch in 2010 – Kieron Gillen: If there was any writer who really broke out in 2009, it has to be Kieron Gillen. Throughout 2009, Gillen swung for the fences, putting out Phonogram: The Singles Club, Beta Ray Bill: Stormbreaker, and Dark Avengers: Ares for Image and Marvel. Now working on the main Thor title as well as bringing back the original Death's Head over at the space-based romcom S.W.O.R.D., Gillen has a knack not just for fast pacing and quirky humor, but has an almost preternatural sense of voice for all of his characters. In this day and age, that's rarer than you might think. With Gillen handling writing duties for Thor during the Siege – and if people continue to dig S.W.O.R.D.'s ironclad storytelling as much as I do – I foresee big opportunities for him in 2010. By the end of next year, I see him as hitting the same level of exposure as Jonathan (ahem) Hickman – within three to five years, he'll be Marvel's next Matt Fraction or Jason Aaron.
Bronze – Wednesday Comics (DC Comics): I was really torn here. I thought of indie books. I thought of Chew. I thought Batman and Robin, Guardians of the Galaxy, Asterios Polyp, and a lot more. But I kept coming back to one thing, even if some of the parts were uneven. And that was Wednesday Comics. That was a move that took some sack on DC's part, and there were a goodly number of us readers that really looked forward to what we were getting every single week. Some of those pages were downright beautiful. And while some stories were weaker than others (they knew who they were), the ones that worked (Metamorpho! Adam Strange!) REALLY worked. It was something old, something new, and something extremely cool.
Silver – Parker: The Hunter (IDW Publishing): Darwyn Cooke took on the most anti of anti-heroes and delivered in spades. His take on the iconic criminal was sharp and hip, making the most of some sterling production values on top of Cooke's prodigious talent. In a market that's becoming more and more crowded with literary adaptations of varying quality, Parker pulled the novel trick of being, well, a novel. It was a fine reading experience that was over much too quickly.
Gold – Planetary (Wildstorm): After what seemed like years of waiting (who are we kidding? It was years of waiting), the grand Ellis/Cassaday saga wrapped with, quite frankly, the perfect ending. At its heart, Planetary was a more contemporary answer to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; if League was Moore's dissection of the dawn of popular heroic British literature, then Planetary was its modern cousin, equally invested in scrambling together Hong Kong action films, Godzilla, the pulps, and everything else that's come to be the fundament of "our" culture. Every trip back to that world was entertaining and rewarding, and I don't recall a better or more enjoyable reading experience this year than getting to go back one last time.
Item to Watch in 2010 – George Perez: Who the hell am I kidding? I'm looking forward to whatever George Perez ends up doing. We know there's something out there. I just want to SEE the damn thing.