The Year’s Best Comics (So Far…)

Daredevil_26-001Despite weird editorial decisions from both of the Big Two, comic creators have had plenty of room to create some excellent stuff so far in 2013. With the year half over, let’s check in on some of my favorite issues so far, in no particular order.

Dial H #13c6KAC2kIn a cast full of bizarre heroes, Openwindow Man is probably one of China Mielville’s oddest characters. When the entire interdimensional team is stuck in a dimension of chalkboards, the heroes struggle to procure a new dial and the conversation forces all of the heroes to deal with the stakes saving the universe brings with it.

Mielville has done a great job incorporating character specific voices to his work and the chalky, visible lettering and visible thought bubbles give the book a unique, homemade look that perfectly fits his storytelling bent.

Batman and Robin #18street-lamp
Batman is defined by tragedy but his early attempts to come to terms with Damian’s death offers a look at the way the loss of a child ruins more than the Wayne family, consuming the way a hero wages his war on crime.

In a silent issue, Bruce and Alfred try to deal with the loss of a family member. For an issue without dialogue, it’s a strikingly loud one. Alfred’s tears, Batman’s unleashed rage and a primal scream to close the issue make Batman and Robin #18 one of the New 52’s most memorable issues.

New Avengers #7New-Avengers-7-p7-ft-bannerA cold war between Namor and Black Panther has been brewing since the second issue of New Avengers and Namor offers an olive branch in New Avengers #7 but the runaway train to war has already left.

The power of Jonathan Hickman’s work on the title has been the inner conflicts becoming external ones. These are characters who have no reason to work together if it weren’t for saving the world and the tension has shown but here, it boils over, threatening to destroy everything the team has worked for.

East of West #4east_of_west_004-024I’ve already written about this excellent issue but the main point is the way in which Hickman continues to usurp reader expectations of who Death is and what the motives of the people he associates with could possibly be.

Wolverine and the X-Men #24tumblr_mh3fdcXzRF1rlcw3po2_1280Wolverine and the X-Men works best as a hangout comic. We know and presumably like these characters and seeing them try to live their lives, connect with one another and find a way to be more than just a hero is a great way to focus on the fact that these are kids, teachers and killers who still have lives.

Wolverine and the X-Men #24 takes much of the simpering romantic tension of the team and give the characters a chance to act on Valentine’s Day. Kitty and Bobby struggle with separating super-heroism from love, Jean and Quentin get honest about power, legacies and sex, Storm deals with her lingering feelings about T’Challa and her new ones for Logan and Toad gets sick of all these damn lovesick kids. It’s low key, promising and achingly sweet.

Daredevil #26originalThe best thing about Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil works because it constantly feels as if anything could happen. From Foggy’s diagnosis to Bullseye’s insane, web-like plots to bring down the Man Without Fear, the sense of constant danger reminds readers that Matt Murdock is the unluckiest man in the world.

The exceptional Daredevil #26 achieves a laser focus by putting Matt on the run. With Ikari’s death threat still hanging over his head, the assassin makes good on his threat, showing Matt that the whole city can and will destroy him. While the proper story is fantastic, the backup, where Foggy goes into a children’s cancer ward and sees how the kids deal with their mortality is a great reminder of what comics can and do mean to all of us.

Manhattan Projects #120b6fd9b29e25be39c830aa1d992df4a4Secret motives run deep in Hickman’s Manhattan Projects and Fermi’s otherness has always been a recurring motif. Since the first reveal the scientist was more than human, Fermi’s real motivation for joining the team has been in question. Now, he strikes back, hurting the one person he has grown close to and losing his sense of agency. Daghalin’s defeated questions at the issue’s end turn a violent bug hunt into a near tragedy and a psychotic Einstein dispatches another threat by issue’s end, moving the imperialistic Manhattan Projects deeper into unexplored space.

Hawkeye #11HAWKEYE01105_d7c8eThere’s a real focus on the senses running throughout Hawkeye. Whether it’s the washed out colors or the slowed down moments of Kate and Clint shooting, there’s a focus on how we view and experience the world around us, the mundane, the heart breaking and the heroic.

Hawkeye #11 takes that feeling into a new direction as Pizza Dog investigates Gil’s death. Readers are brought into an approximation of how the animal feels, filtered through a noir kaleidoscope. It’s a fun, ambitious issue and makes more of a case for the cult appeal of the series.

Green Lantern #20hal-jordan-vs-sinestroLike many readers, Geoff Johns was the name I associated with Green Lantern more than anything else and his final issue on the title proves why. The focus on bombastic action, foreshadowed plot twists, real heart and simmering conflicts gives a sense of finale to a landmark run on one of DC’s greatest characters. It’s the sort of epic, mythic issue that only DC can pull off, with characters who’ve gone beyond heroes and villains and become legends.

“The world is won with violence” – Jonathan Hickman defines the new Golden Age of comics in East of West #4

East-of-West-4-Maos-ReignIt’s hard to place the moment when comics changed, leaving the cigarette butts and undrawn feet of the Bronze Age and entered the new era. I generally put it either in 2002 with the release of the first Spider-Man film and Marvel’s attempts to turn its characters into brands, or with the beginning of Avengers Dissasembled, when Brian Michael Bendis blew up Marvel’s structured universe and focused on the characters who defined the world.

Both point to character driven narrative, a focus on motivation over shock tactics, violence with consequences over violence for posturing and analysis over deconstruction. There are a few writers and artists who have masterfully embraced the spirit of the new status quo: Grant Morrison, Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Geoff Johns on his best days, and most importantly, Jonathan Hickman.

tumblr_motxa032U31qknzn8o1_1280Coming up through Image when the company was beginning its creative renaissance and making a name for himself at Marvel during the Secret Invasion/Dark Reign eras, Hickman was uniquely poised for success. He’s always had an eye for blistering, brilliant violence, morally compromised characters and a genius for redefining the place his characters exist in. We’ve seen it as Reed Richards looked inwards to redefine the Fantastic Four’s place in the world, the return of one of Marvel’s most forgotten characters into a cataclysmic event and now, redefining Death himself in his masterpiece in progress, East of West.

Between Manhattan Projects and two great Avengers titles, Hickman has had plenty of room to play with different characters and situations. In this week’s East of West #4, was obviously going to be a fight issue. Death, bringing his wrath on Mao and New Shanghai was going to be brutal and it suitably is but the interesting thing is about who’s playing the cards. A final page reveals that Xiaolian holds all the power over her white rider and a great conversation between Chamberlain and the child horsemen shows the power Death has over all those who have wronged him.

east_of_west_004-024 What takes East of West #4 from being a great comic to one of this year’s best is the way Hickman and Nick Dragotta humanize a destructive force and keep him an enigma. Xiaolian has been defined as a woman with control and agency, one who even with her back against the wall demonstrates total control and her hold over Death is clearly about more than love. Her brutality shows the human face of violence and a sense of dominance mirrored in Death’s massive slaughter. These are characters with a history, a connection that goes beyond love and chaos.

The defining thing about East of West has been the way Hickman and Dragotta have shaded their twisted world. There’s a wonderful sense of building, with a slowly unraveling back story of betrayals and shattered alliances and each new character and event adds additional colors and twists to the characters. Whether it’s Death’s devotion, Chamberlain’s fearless stance against the Horsemen or Xiaolian exorcising her familial demons in a flurry of horrendous violence, East of West is a world constantly in flux and a masterfully presented one that defines where comics are and what they can be.

Stray ObservationsEHYHktC

  • Nightwing has rarely been one of DC’s most exceptional titles but taking Dick out of Gotham and bringing him into Chicago’s twisted urban hellscape has given the book energy it hasn’t had since Night of the Owls. This week’s #22 might be the best issue of the series yet, with the Prankster tightening his grip on the city and Nightwing getting closer to Zucco’s hiding place. I’m going to thank Brett Booth for taking the month off.
  • Astro City #2 went back to the classic style the series is used to, with citizens being called to heroism in the mundane. It’s a solid way to show that despite the series new trappings, it’s still the book I know and love.
  • I’ve sang the praises of Otto-Spidey and Superior Spider-Man #13 is taking the character in a new direction, with Spidey blackmailing J. Jonah Jameson, killing Alistair Smythe and maybe going back to his old ways in a new villainous lair.
  • I don’t really know what to think of Batgirl #22. This is the second issue in a row where the title character has been the target of rape threats and the third in which a woman has. I have to ask, is Gail Simone trying to portray the struggles women face or is she using the same cheap literary devices she has rallied so passionately against?

“Gotham’s ready to commit suicide” – Grant Morrison sets the stage for a finale in Batman Incorporated #12

UZW8v4jFor the last few years, Damian Wayne has been the face of the Batman franchise, a child destined to the be the savior of a twisted future, the son of humanity’s greatest greatest savior, a child of two twisted worlds. His life from conception, to training, to redemption, to heroism is one of the greatest modern stories DC has produced and Grant Morrison’s attention and care for Damian made the character’s death such an emotional gut punch which echoed through the Batman franchise.

It’s been time for Bruce to have his revenge. One of the most interesting things about the death of Damian has been the way Bruce has had to really take the role of a father, one dealing with death. For his entire life, he’s been the child mourning a father and now, he’s finally had to grow up, to stop being a vengeful and wounded son playing at being a man. He’s still struggling, still impulsive but deep down, Batman has another child who needs his protection more than ever. Gotham needs saving and as Bruce says, “she needs Batman Incorporated.”

batman-inc-10-021While many of Morrison’s scripts have been labyrinthine essays exploring the psyches of his characters, this week’s Batman Incorporated #12 is basically a straight fight comic. The showdown between Batman and The Heretic has been a long time coming and Morrison and Chris Burnham devote most of the book’s pages to the knock-down, drag-out brawl between the characters.  It still works, namely with Morrison’s love of all eras of Bat-history and a creative visual language. I mean, Batman is strapped into the most ’90s armor ever, falling onto blimps, yelling about jet-packs and and waiting for Talia in the animated Bat-cave. It’s that attention to all era detail and visual storytelling which elevates the dark, violent subject.

Burnham deserves plenty of attention as well. One of the things he’s not been praised enough for is his unconventional panel work. He’s great at using sized panels with decreasing heights to emphasize the verticality and brutal height of The Heretic and Batman’s battle and each shattered diagonal fight sequence gives a greater sense of impact and force to every blow.

BatmanInc12panel2There are few comic book stories which have maintained such a prolonged sense of tension, menace and intrigue as Grant Morrison’s expansion of Batman beyond Gotham City. While his early work on the character was great, it wasn’t until Batman’s return from the past, the beginning of Dick and Damian’s team up and the formation of Bruce’s world wide war on crime that the series turned from a franchise into a bold, innovative and creator defined must-read comic. I can only hope the final issue offers a suitable end to Morrison’s greatest work to date.

Stray Observationsku-xlarge

  • I’m not the biggest Nick Spencer fan by any stretch of the imagination. Even after a much better issue #5, Secret Avengers is still probably the worst book of Marvel Now. That being said, I didn’t have a bigger laugh this week than the one I found when Shocker and Speed Demon hold up a pet store in Superior Foes of Spider-Man #1. I can’t wait for the next issue.
  • Speaking of series creeping up on their finale, Dial H #14 has continued to expand the horizons of the series’ premise as the team reaches The Operator. I do have some concerns that China Mielville will be able to tie the series together in a satisfying ending.
  • Daredevil has had a creative renaissance in the last few years and the “Dark Nights” miniseries is a suitable companion piece to “End of Days” and “The Man Without Fear.” This week’s #2 explored everything that makes the very human Matt Murdock one of New York City’s greatest heroes.
  • If Superior Foes of Spider-Man offered this week’s biggest laugh, What If…AvX #1 offered the biggest gasp. Even if Magneto’s decision to become the face of mutants doesn’t make much sense, that final splash page packs a punch I wouldn’t have expected in a What If… story.

“Why the hell did he stop?” – Jo’s lost control as Fatale #15 goes modern

dn_cc71_fataleEd Brubaker and Sean Phillips have taken the old storytelling tip of “all you need is a girl and a gun” to its natural conclusion in Fatale and it has paid off big. The book that kicked off Image’s creative revolution, Fatale has always kept readers at arm’s length and it’s worked better for it. Jo and her forebears pasts and the nature of their powers has always been a mystery, Bishop’s motives and masters have been shrouded in murder and whispers of old gods and the episodic, highly cinematic style has kept readers on their toes.

For those reasons, taking the series closer to the modern, more familiar day is a dangerous game and in this week’s #15, Brubaker takes that gamble. Like all of the series arcs, it’s a little too early to tell where the story is going, but there’s so much promise here. Lash, just broken out of a courthouse by a man with a connection to Jo, has been driven even deeper into the madness that infected issues #6-10 and the desperation he finds himself in is as electric as Jo’s newest predicament.c01fbd77a936138f9c9206d220763e9cBrubaker admits in this week’s conclusion that Lance and his burnout collective draws somewhat heavily from his past and the familiar kinship shows. A collection of druggy post-fame rejects, the house, its residents and the still-clinging groupies feels lived-in and the touches of darkness that can be already be felt there point to the impending horrors an amnesiac Jo could bring, especially as one of her devotees finds his woman missing and a broken corpse in her place.

Even in an issue all about setting the stage for the chaos Jo brings, Brubaker and Phillips create such a lingering sense of corruption and dread to Fatale #15 that it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in their noir world. As Jo and her demons get closer and closer to the modern day, it’s clear this creative team can use characters and the looming threat of that which should not be to continue to fill in their twisted world.

Stray ObservationsHawkeye_11_Panel

  • Hawkeye #11. Wow, just wow. There’s nothing I can say about this issue Oliver Sava didn’t already say better.
  • Lots of people, myself included, weren’t wild about the book at launch, but Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan have written something damn close to the perfect Deadpool book. In this week’s #12, they wrapped a suburb arc which balanced the character’s trademark psychotic violence and goofy humor in a pitch perfect way.
  • Things are looking dark in Wolverine and the X-Men #32 and Wolverine and Quentin’s stoic resistance in the face of two very different forces is perfectly written by the always great Jason Aaron. Also, love the Iceman and Kitty attack/date.
  • As much as I love to see Jae Lee get to unleash his gorgeous art and innovative layouts, I can’t help but shake the feeling Batman/Superman #1 is little more than a cash-in by DC. Still, that art is well worth $3.99.
  • All of the moving character pieces in FF #8 are starting to lead to a more coherent whole. I’m glad to see the book finally raise the personal and external stakes.
  • My problems with Uncanny X-Force continue. While #7’s focus on two characters sharpens the book’s aimlessness, several points in the book, namely Fantomex’s loss of his reality altering powers undermines the beautiful ending of Rick Remender’s series. I’m a little disappointed.
  • Today is the three year anniversary of Breakfast With Spock’s first post. Thanks for occasionally reading and putting up with my thoughts. It means a lot.