The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 4

Screen shot 2013-08-30 at 10.39.32 PMI know this is (holy shit) three months into 2014 but at long last, here’s the top 20 series of 2013. This was an intensely contested category and I really had to whittle the list down to the very best of the best of the best. Let’s get into it.

The Next Generations – Awarded to the finest series of pictorials of the year.

Runners UpANXMEN2012013_int_LR-2-3
This was tough. All New X-Men somehow overcame a limited premise, several overly complicated story arcs, a tie-in to the underwhelming “Battle of the Atom” and some rickety character work to be a fantastic look at the X-Men through the ages and a reflection on how the series has changed. The Allred family overcame some rocky plotting by Matt Fraction and fixed FF, making it one of Marvel’s most unique and recognizable books on the market. Bringing Rafael Albuquerque onto Animal Man took it from an impressive title to one of DC’s finest off-key horror books and a consistent source of nightmare imagery and heartwarming scenes of characters fighting for what’s important.

Twentieth PlaceBruce-Banner-in-Indestructible-Hulk-2Indestructible Hulk

Mark Waid is a man who can redefine a character. Focusing on Banner, the jealous, hopelessly petty, intrinsically flawed monster underneath another monster is the focus and like in Waid’s Daredevil, he’s a character who finally wants to change his place in the world. While stories like “Agents of TIME” dragged along, Waid positioned Banner and Hulk as separate, albeit linked, characters looking to change, even when the world and the people they surround themselves with aren’t so sure they’re ready.

Nineteenth PlaceuxmUncanny Avengers

Uncanny Avengers isn’t a perfect book. It’s often barely a good one. What makes this story unique is that it’s always bold, always pushing the envelope, always relentlessly putting the characters in the worst possible position and watching them hopelessly crawl back from the brink. It’s a technique Rick Remender perfected on Uncanny X-Force but it’s given new weight in Uncanny Avengers with a team who can’t afford to let its secrets stay locked away. Each issue is an event, a talking point, an upcoming Twitter firestorm and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Eighteenth PlaceScreen-Shot-2013-10-05-at-8.33.07-PMStar Wars

If there’s a better introduction to the Expanded Universe than Brian Wood’s Star Wars, I don’t know what it is. Taking the familiar bits of the canon and slowly bringing in the looser character relationships, motivations and world building, Star Wars is a master class in how to make a licensed book work for diehard fans and newcomers alike. Evocative, recognizable and classically nostalgic, it’s a book that makes a galaxy far far away feel never more reachable.

Seventeenth Placehooded-figure-green-lanternGreen Lantern

After years of guidance and hundreds of issues of wonderfully realized worlds, Geoff Johns handed over the franchise he resurrected in a single issue of Green Lantern. While Robert Venditti has done a commendable job moving the series forward and keeping the book a must-read, Johns’ deliberate, wonderfully realized moments between Hal Jordan and Sinestro in Green Lantern #20 made this book an instant classic and cemented his place in the Corps’ history.

Sixteenth PlaceNova's_lifeNova

Casting off years of complicated backstories and Marvel’s often arcane space baggage paid off by bringing Sam Alexander home in Nova. A wonderfully realized, empathetic and true portrait of growing up young, poor and without much guidance, Sam is the perfect character to try to fight for what he believes is a galaxy worth saving and his attempts to right intergalactic wrongs are touching, bold, attention grabbing and often hilarious. Nova often achieves the impossible, being a well written, fun and passionate book, as well suited for first time readers as Marvel junkies alike.

Fifteenth PlaceScreen Shot 2013-08-23 at 12.41.31 PMWonder Woman

A rare example of a writer and artists’ voices defining a DC character, Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s take on Wonder Woman is the boldest book by a traditionally conservative publisher and the results are often stunning. Focusing on Diana’s twisted family dynamics and her attempts at creating a more stable home, Wonder Woman is a deeply human story on the way we reflect and deny the families who define us.

Fourteenth PlacesagaSaga

Last year’s winner, Saga continues to be one of the biggest success stories in independent comics and one of the best examples of the diversity of stories the medium can tell. A “Pulp Fiction”-esque storytelling device brought all the characters together in 2013, letting them bounce off each other and haunt their actions until only love can define them. Saga continues to be an electrifying read and the wait for the next issue is always far too painful.

Thirteenth Placebatman-242Batman

In 2013’s Batman #21, an unmasked Bruce Wayne raises a youthful middle finger to the man who will one day be his archenemy. It’s a defiant wonderful moment but it might as well be Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo flipping off the established canon. “Year Zero” has been a wonderfully realized, exuberant and fresh take on the early days of Batman, both respectful to Frank Miller’s “Year One,” and willing to critique, prod and kill its idols. Snyder’s Batman is everything the New 52 should be: fresh, respectful, modern, hip and unbelievably ready to slash and burn.

Twelfth Placeku-xlargeHawkeye

Matt Fraction and his stable of artists went bigger, more ambitious and infinitely more complicated in their second year of Hawkeye and that’s why it’s on the list but also why it’s not higher up. While the investigation into Gil’s death, Kate’s trip to California and the return of Barney were all great character driven beats, an inconsistent shipping schedule, missed deadlines and switching publication orders left fans wanting more and not in the most friendly way imaginable.

Eleventh Placegg1Guardians of the Galaxy

Brian Michael Bendis skills are all in display in his revamp of Guardians of the Galaxy, his whip smart dialogue, wonderful characterizations, fight choreography and gripping story telling. Like Nova, Bendis built on the past without being enslaved by it and made the Guardians more than just a team of space pirates but a group of heroes like no one else in the Marvel Universe.

Tenth Placeaaron-02Wolverine and the X-Men

What defines the X-Men? Is it their deep history, their very recognizable and personal struggles, their complicated romantic lives or the ongoing stories which define a race and people? Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men takes all of those disparate bits and brings them together into a single cohesive package. Wolverine and the X-Men is the perfect look at why the X-Men work as a franchise and despite some missteps (I don’t think anyone will look back favorably on the Frankenstein’s Murder Circus arc), it’s a stunning, beautiful book, always ready to surprise and remind readers why they’ve invested so much in these characters and this world.

Ninth PlaceAstro-City_1_PanelAstro City

The return of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is more than just the return of a series which redefined comics. It’s the culmination of all the ways the medium has grown and changed since the series went on hiatus in 2009. Astro City is a wonderful reminder of how a deconstruction of  comics can work, not stripping down and destroying the characters and world but celebrating the way the medium works and how people exist within it.

Eighth Placetumblr_mtyn4dOw4m1qj97xmo1_1280Fatale
In the wake of murder and madness at the end of Fatale #10, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips had a chance to go bigger and broader with their tale of Jo and the monsters who pursue and they made a splash in a huge way. Going back through the past and ending the year in the ’90s Seattle Grunge scene gave the title the same amount of freedom and energy Jo has found. It’s a book mercilessly in command of the story and characters it slowly unravels, pushing Jo and the Bishop closer and closer together into what is sure to be an Earth shaking conclusion in the final year of Fatale.

Seventh Placenew-avengers4-strangeNew Avengers

One of the masterstrokes of Marvel’s soft relaunch has been the company’s decision to pay attention to the past without being beholden to it. In New Avengers, past relationships haunt a team of Earth’s most brilliant minds and the odds the group is up against weigh heavy on their hearts. While dealing with the extraplanar incursions is the narrative thrust of the series, Jonathan Hickman’s writing is sharpest when delving into the minds and motives of his characters. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declaration of war, Reed Richards tentative, inquisitive interrogations of the unknowable Black Swan and Stephen Strange’s slow descent into a power he doesn’t know if he can control create a perfect mix of internal and external tension. These are characters with a history and presence in the Marvel Universe and by pushing them against a threat they don’t understand and have never faced has let all of what makes them icons shine.

Sixth Placemanhattanproj-13-review-9_copyManhattan Projects

In Manhattan Projects, absolute power doesn’t corrupt absolutely, the illusion of absolute power corrupts everyone absolutely. As the team secures its place as the defacto leaders of Earth’s future by killing, bribing and dominating anyone who stands against them, their reach finally extends their grasp. It’s just a matter of time until every unleashed horror collapses in on this team of opportunistic scientific schemers and their grand plans and grander delusions make every issue a tragic, stunning, revolting must-read.

Fifth PlaceincBatman Incorporated

Everything ends and everything begins again. It’s a maxim Grant Morrison has often repeated in his mainstream comics but it’s never been so vivid, so dark and so wonderfully daring than in the conclusion of Batman Incorporated. It takes a ruined Gotham, the death of his son and a final battle with the only woman who could have stopped him to take Batman and Bruce Wayne from a child fighting for the wrongs his parents suffered to a father fighting for the children he’s losing and it’s pulled off with aplomb. Morrison’s operatic conclusion to his years of Batman stories is a perfect end to one of the best DC stories of all time and like the ever-present serpent eating its own tale, the last moments of Batman Incorporated show a future for Bruce Wayne that will only begin again, eternally and forever.

Fourth PlaceScreen-Shot-2014-01-26-at-2.52.42-PMEast of West

Every issue of Jonathan Hickman’s masterpiece in progress, East of West, contains the same line: “We did this to ourselves.” East of West is singularly focused on an apocalypse of our own making, a far flung, splintered dystopia not so different from the world we live in. The end of the world isn’t an act of God, despite the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, it’s an act of very mortal hubris, of greed, blind faith, betrayal and xenophobia and between layers of post-modern myth, biblical apocrypha and buckets of blood, it’s a strangely prescient warning of the doom and divisions we still blindly build for ourselves.

Third PlaceBoomerang07The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Failure is very, very funny. I guess let’s back up from there. Failure is only funny if it’s backed with delusion, if a person only believes they can’t possibly fail or doesn’t even recognize their failures as such. Fred Meyers doesn’t think he can fail. He’s created a new Sinister Six (with only five members), broken his friends out of police custody (which he put them in), killed the traitor in his organization (actually, that didn’t really work out) and planned a daring heist against one of the most dangerous men in New York (under false pretenses). He’s falling apart at the seams and doesn’t even seem to realize it and the rest of his team of narcissists, functioning alcoholics and has-beens are always taking falls and hits they don’t quite deserve. It’s a series which could fall into tragic melodrama just as easily as it lands its humor and that’s what makes The Superior Foes of Spider-Man so special.

Second PlaceXML2X-Men Legacy

X-Men Legacy is indefinable. It’s neither superhero comic nor deconstruction, neither celebration nor character study. It’s something in between but also separated from. Through David Haller, the man once known as Legion, Si Spurrier and a host of artists have examined the nature of heroism with a character who would reject that label. X-Men Legacy is supremely confident in the story it’s telling, one with both world spanning and very personal consequences and stakes and that care shows in every moment. This is an opening statement from Spurrier and a cult classic in waiting, a wonderful story about what being a hero means and the sacrifices and choices that need to be made to get there.

First Placedaredevil_30_panelDaredevil

“Try the red one.” Spoken by the super-sensitive ninja, Ikari in Daredevil #25, it’s a line that walks the balance of horror and humor, of weakness and strength, desperation and victory. It’s the line that made me fall hard for Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Focused on giving Matt Murdock a chance to escape the sadness, death and desperation which has embodied the character since Frank Miller’s turn at the helm, Waid gave his characters a chance to be more than the sum of their parts. Murdock isn’t just a hero when he puts on the suit. He’s a hero when he sits in a cancer ward, a hero when he tries to rebuild his personal life, a hero everytime he reaches out to someone in need. No longer is Matt Murdock defined by tragedy, he’s defined by how he averts it, how he shapes his life and the lives around him with passion, zeal and a never-say-die attitude. Neither indebted to the past nor embarrassed by it, Daredevil soars by letting a character take control and make a difference, or at least let him try. 

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The Second Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 3

Sandman_014In between the big issues, the massive story arcs and the character defining changes, there are the spaces in between. These are the little moments, the panels, the moments of dialogue, the spreads that stay for years. This is a celebration of those moments.

The Prepare to Fire – Awarded to standout single page, double page spreads or panels in comics.

Runners Updo-dogs-dream-of-sheepdogsManhattan Projects #14 nearly made the list for a final moment when only Laika, the semi-sentient dog astronaut sees the horror the team has wrought. Black Panther and Namor’s tense declarations of war in New Avengers #7 shows the potency of a team of characters with a longstanding history. Thor’s first strike against the Builders in Infinity #4 almost placed with a legitimately riling kill that shows the strength the Galactic Council was bringing to the war.

Fifth Placethor_-_god_of_thunder_009-005The Battle Begins – Thor God of Thunder #9

As the war between the Thors and Gorr the Godslayer began, Esad Ribic redefined what a splash page should be with a deeply evocative moment defining the power of its protagonists and the forces they’re arrayed against. It’s among the best splash pages since Walt Simonson’s work on Thor and a standout moment from a great story arc.

Fourth Place2rcpglz.jpg“You will always be my friend” – Green Lantern #20

Geoff Johns’ transformation of Sinestro, from domineering would be conqueror out to make sure Hal Jordan stayed dead, to sympathetic, deeply conflicted Green Lantern, to a somewhat unwilling host of Parallax is what made Green Lantern #20 such a triumph. Watching the final crushing battle between Hal and Sinestro shows the deep, rich characterization of two people trying their best to be heroes and their few differences end up defining and separating them in Johns’ landmark final issue.

Third Placebr18_1“Love and respect” – Batman and Robin #18

In a notably passionate silent issue, Bruce Wayne and Alfred try to deal with the death of Damian after his murder. While Bruce delves deeper and deeper into his war on crime, Alfred silently views the legacy he hoped for slowly be erased. All those simmering, contradictory emotions brutally rise to the top as Bruce reads Damian’s last letter and screams in pain and rage for a child who even in defiance, offered him his only chance for hope.

Second PlaceSuperiorFoes4-p13“Total Heisenberg Moment” – Superior Foes of Spider-Man #4

It’s no surprise Fred Meyers would see himself as Breaking Bad’s self-mythologizing sociopath but his moment breaking the rest of his team from the back of a prison transport shows off exactly why he’s earned that honor. Fred’s a hyperbolic, narcissistic social climber and his one moment of unmitigated heroism is something worth remembering.

And the winner is…xmenlegacy20658“Gestalt” – X-Men Legacy #20

I’ve written extensively on this incredible issue but the single image of David, passionately embraced by his first power is a beautiful moment for a damaged hero and shows the power and self control he’s finally been able to seize.

Coming Up: We’re getting close to the top awards but it’s time to pick out the best series of the year. It’s going to be tough but get ready to see if your favorite makes the list.

“You’re a super-villain, right?” – Superior Spider-Man #15 gloriously reverses protagonists a second time

superiorspiderman15658-642x362 Responsibility looms over the Spider-Man franchise. It’s the key part in Uncle Ben’s most famous quote and it’s a theme that runs through everything from Spider-Man’s ethos, powers and his villains.

Dan Slott has played with the theme since he joined the franchise and never more so than in Superior Spider-Man. While he tried  the idea of Spider-Man’s powers being given to a man without Peter’s morality in the Spider-Island story-line, giving Doc Ock the classic costume and powers has expanded the mythos in ways that never would have been possible had Peter stayed alive. Ock’s one man war on New York City crime has been one of the standout parts of the book and his differing perspective on violence and crime has been fascinating.

gobfeatureSlott gave Doc Ock all the toys last issue as the villain returns to make war on Wilson Fisk and Shadowland. It was a violent issue and it showed the full lengths the anti-hero would go to for what he believes to be justice. While issue #14 was primarily a plot mover, this week’s #15 focused on his struggle against a single villain, Phil Urich’s Hobgoblin. Otto works best when Slott focuses on the competition between villains, namely the way these characters have dealt with each other for years.

Urich is an interesting case. A legacy villain with debts to other killers, Urich’s Hobgoblin has always been in an interesting spot and forcing him out from under the Kingpin’s thumb puts him on the run. I was struck during this issue by the way Slott wrote Urich as a murderous Peter Parker. Trying to get some cash together to pay the Tinkerer to repair his gear and needing to send a check to ex-Goblin Robert Kingsley, Urich is under pressure from all sides and is forced to do things he may not have expected. His crime spree at issue’s end reminds me of a Spider-Man on the ropes, struggling to make ends meet.

gob3It’s an interesting role reversal in a series all about that theme. Much like other series focusing on an antihero, namely Breaking Bad and the excellent American Vampire, viewers are meant to struggle with how much we want the protagonist to win. Do we really want Doc Ock to get away with it, to be Spider-Man forever or are we waiting for his comeuppance? Placing Urich so closely to Peter Parker, even drawing him similarly shows Slott’s willingness to make reader’s question what they want out of his elaborate game of cowboys and robbers.

I’ll admit, Humberto Ramos is probably my least favorite artist in Marvel’s stable. His chunky, straight edged characters feel out of place in a series about lithe, mid-air ballets and the fact that he was the beginning of the end for Runaways digs him deeper into a hole. He does a fine job here but Slott’s script is the real star, showing how far Doc Ock is willing to bring all his powers to bear to take down his enemies. It’s an issue all about desperation and last steps, with both Urich and Octavius playing trump cards and reaching deep as they struggle to get what they want.

gob2It’s only a matter of time until the Spidey-Ock era ends, pretty much the weeks before Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes out but Slott continues to push the limits of audience expectations with a protagonist whose struggle to be a hero is crushed by a lack of empathy and morality. It’s a story that shouldn’t, can’t possibly work in Spider-Man’s corner of the Marvel Universe but impossibly does, over and over again.

Stray ObservationsTrillium_1_PanelThis was a big, really great week for DC in particular so let’s dive into it.

  • Again, Jeff Lemire proves his place isn’t on a franchise book. While offering little more than promise of what the series will become, Trillium #1 shows an outsider’s perspective on a time travel/drug trip story-line and has the same inventive imagination Lemire shows on his other more offbeat books.
  • It’s definitely a weird wonderful finale for Dial H, a book which, clearly, never had a chance to grow into what China Mielville hoped for it but still a fitting finale for his heroes. Nelson’s twists on all the heroes he dialed previously is a great, nostalgic way to close the cult series.
  • Charles Soule is making a great name for himself at DC. His Swamp Thing #23 features the sort of nausea inducing darkness Alan Moore and Jamie Delano used so well and is a great, powerful mainstream horror issue.
  • As far as alternative horror, Ed Brubaker has that on lock. This week’s Fatale #16 shows the corruption Jo effortlessly brings with her and the darkness is starting to close around Lance’s house.
  • Billy Tan is definitely trying to combine his dull ’90s style with Doug Mahnke’s work in the new Green Lantern #23. It’s a better issue than what he’s done before but he needs to step it up very quickly to make this book shine.
  • Once again, Superior Foes of Spider-Man knocks it out of the park. This week’s #2 is another hysterically funny, very knowing look at the politics of villainy. Boomerang’s desperation as he faces pressure on all sides gives this book the drama that makes it a must pull.

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.

“This may have been one time too many” – Bendis ends his soulless summer blockbuster with Age of Ultron #10

angela3Age of Ultron was controversial from the very beginning. People seem sick of Brian Michael Bendis and event comics in general, particularly ones that feel as if they’re already out of continuity in some way. In his defense, Bendis always understood this and kept pushing the series further and further into alternate universes and timelines and away from reader expectations and he’s one of the best dialogue writers Marvel has.

I mentioned two weeks ago that it didn’t seem possible that Bendis could make a coherent payoff for Age of Ultron and in a way, he did and he didn’t. This week’s Age of Ultron #10 is a comic that ends with promise and little else. Yes, we finally get scenes of the Avengers battling the robot who enslaved the Earth and Hank Pym at long last gets a moment to be a hero but it’s a book that ends with about 20 pages of advertisements for what’s coming. And that’s the frustrating part.

Age-of-Ultron-10-FEATThe arrival of a hungry Galactus in the Ultimate Universe, Image’s former heavenly femme fatale Angela’s sudden appearance in deep space and Tony Stark and Hank Pym discussing the implications to the seemingly cracked timeline all surprise and are moderately exciting developments but what does it mean to Age of Ultron? The ending feels less for Age of Ultron than a prelude to what’s coming, namely the announced Infinity, Hunger and Battle of the Atom.

This isn’t terribly new development for event comics. Crisis on Infinite Earths was an event which existed solely to reset DC’s universe, Age of Apocalypse tried to capture the sales Spider-Man’s Clone Saga had made and Avengers vs. X-Men was written mostly to set up the soft relaunch and conclude years of Uncanny X-Men stories.

House-of-M-04-07The problem is that event comics can do much more than that. Bendis’ own House of M set up a similarly compelling alternate reality but ground the story in characters, namely Wolverine and Scarlet Witch and offered a payoff which promised a new direction for the Marvel Universe and completed the story in a compelling way. It’s a wonderfully compelling story with real emotional and universal stakes.

DC similarly created an event comic with stakes, character and a world demanding to be explored with Flashpoint. Another alternate reality event series meant to lead into a relaunch, Flashpoint succeeded because of a world which felt exciting and necessary. The various tie-in stories of Flashpoint fleshed out an exciting new world that felt like it had history and relationships between characters. It was a world I wanted to explore beyond the main issues.

ultimate-spidey-galactusFor me, the problem with Age of Ultron was the event offered little more than promise. For every compelling alternate reality or bit of characterization, Bendis stoically refused to explore histories or character in favor of pushing forward the event. We don’t know how Pym’s death led to the fall of the Avengers, how The Owl was dealing with Ultron or how Galactus broke universal barriers and no one involved with the book seems to care. It’s not an issue of explaining things for the fans but giving characters the motivation or sense of place needed to give Age of Ultron the heart it needed to be more than a plot delivery vehicle.

Bendis has surely weathered complaints about the series and he’s taken to Tumblr to defend his work. He’s reiterated that Age of Ultron works better as a total package than as single issues and I think he’s right. Age of Ultron shines as a blockbuster event, full of apocalyptic violence, tough decisions and real consequences but that’s about it. It could have been so much better, so much more meaningful and more focused on the characters and worlds that bring readers to comics every week. The problems once again point to editorial demand for bigger more serialized comics and that artificial demands lead to artificial stakes, forced drama and inauthentic characters.

Random Notesanimal_man_21_7oxecq3ipo_

  • Animal Man #21 shows how creative Jeff Lemire can be when he’s not bound by tie-ins. The combination of social media and media attention with Buddy’s super heroics gives the book a sense of urgency it hasn’t had since it began.
  • Justin Jordan’s Green Lantern New Guardians #21 might have the strongest start of the Green Lantern relaunch. It’s clear he’s carving out his own place in the universe and I’m excited to see where it goes.
  • I’ve made no secret of my love for The X-Files and the new Season 10 #1 issue seems like it could be fun. I’m also happy IDW is eschewing their house art style for something more minimalistic and iconic.
  • Brian Azzarello’s Wonder Woman has been criticized for not focusing on the title character but this week’s #21 shows the power Diana’s team has in a massive, exciting battle with the First Born.
  • Jonathan Hickman’s New Avengers #7 keeps showing the kind of withering pessimism and simpering tension that makes this one of the can’t miss series of Marvel Now. It may be one of my favorite single issues of the year.

“No Fear” – Recent departures drive home DC’s editorial problems

ivampheader-700x300One of the pillars of my belief system is that I always assume whatever Rob Liefeld says is wrong. It’s gotten me this far. When Liefeld went on a Twitter rant in August, announcing his departure from the New 52 due to editorial interference, I assumed he was deflecting. Liefeld has been known to be hard to work with since his early days at Marvel and the formation of Image in the ’90s and I assumed this was another moment of the impetuous writer and artist trying to play at biting the hand that fed.

But, what if he was right? What if editorial oversight isn’t just letting DC bully writers with Liefeld’s name recognition but also anyone willing to sign on for a project?

Two notable creators left DC this afternoon: Andy Diggle, who was solicited for an upcoming run on Action Comics, and Joshua Hale Fialkov, of I, Vampire and solicited for a run on Green Lantern Corps and Red Lanterns in June. Admittedly, I was more shocked by Fialkov’s announcement, as he had received critical accolades for I, Vampire and had garnered excitement for both series in the Green Lantern family after having been announced for the job only a month ago.

shadowlandWhile not speaking to media outlets, Fialkov released an abbreviated version of his reasons for leaving the company on his blog. He writes:

“There were editorial decisions about the direction of the book that conflicted with the story I was hired to tell, and I felt that it was better to let DC tell their story the way they want. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I’ll miss working with the entire Green Lantern team…This was not an easy decision to make emotionally or financially, but, I’m sure it was the right decision for both me, and for the Green Lantern books.”

So, what could those plans possibly be? I wrote about DC’s push for increased serialization as well as easily marketable crossover and event stories as they pertained to Death of the Family but Fialkov seems to be pointing to a much more endemic problem in the company, one that Liefeld and Diggle both alluded to. Writers don’t seem to have any control of the properties they’ve been contracted or hired for.

1063192-guy_1Bob Harras has held one of the most public tenures as Editor-In-Chief at DC and he’s certainly not a name that brings a smile to the faces of a lot of comics fans. Presiding over Marvel during the company’s near bankruptcy as well as the rightfully maligned Clone Saga and Heroes Reborn, Harras has run something of a lodge club at DC since he rose to the editorial position in 2010. While he was clearly comfortable with co-publisher and former co-worker at Wildstorm Jim Lee, Harras seemed to want to get the band back together and brought over plenty of old names from Marvel’s dark days to fill out the New 52, including Liefeld, Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza.

Now, I’m not saying there was anything wrong about Harras early decisions involving the New 52, particularly who would be writing it. Harras assuredly wanted people he knew who would be able to roll out the new initiative rapidly, with the New 52 launching less than a year after he took the position. My problem is those people weren’t going to challenge Harras and it certainly could have had an influence on a sense of editorial control from on high.

1299339418Harras is most at home when he’s tapping into the same forces that mired Marvel in a creative and commercial flop. In a monthly interview on Comic Book Resources, Harras and Editorial Director Bobbie Chase discussed Liefeld’s allegations about editorial control over creators. Harras skirted the question once, saying:

“We’re not going into any specifics, because we can’t address any specifics because of those involved. The thing is, we want everyone who works for DC to be as happy as possible, to feel the creative process is as enjoyable as possible. If there are communication problems with talent, we will always work on it to improve our messaging, but on the whole, I think sometimes there are going to be disagreements. Sometimes there are going to be agreements — it’s all part of the editorial process. But as in anything, it’s something all of us can improve on in terms of communication.”

Harras seems to stress a team spirit in his first quote but he doesn’t really say anything. Of course there are going to be agreements and disagreements in the editorial progress but the way he says it seems to stress that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer to those disagreements. The goal of editorial isn’t to keep the creative process “as enjoyable as possible” but to work together with creative, making a project that suits both the publishers as well as the goals of creative. The role of an editor isn’t to be a mediator or judge but rather to be a co-creator in a work. Harras doesn’t seem to see it that way and he points to editorial successes in the New 52, namely a consistent shipping schedule and the success of massive crossovers, to try to strengthen the relationship between creators and editorial, saying.

“…Everyone should be trying to improve all aspects of communication. Everyone should be looking at the process and ways to improve. But in general, I think we’ve got a very talented bunch of creators working with us, putting out the New 52. We have exciting books every month, and that’s what I want to concentrate on. You always have to look at how you can do things better, but I’d also like to focus on what we do well, which is creating stories like “Death Of The Family,” and even “Rotworld,” that’s exciting fans…”

I think both Rotworld and Death of the Family were underwhelming tie-ins, one designed to boost the sales of a pair of critically successful niche titles and the other to continue to boost the sales of one of the company’s best selling titles, with Scott Snyder being involved in both crossovers. It’s more consolidation with the company putting Jeff Lemire, of Swamp Thing, of additional titles that seem to flag behind, including Justice League Dark and the new Constantine. Both are solid writers and both are company men, willing to be involved with massive tie-in projects such as Snyder and Lee’s forthcoming title Superman Unchained, released at a time obviously intended to capitalize on the release of the “Man of Steel” film.

92482472948294I don’t want to frown on Snyder, Lemire or any of the other talented writers and artists who have turned in great work under Harras, Chase and the New 52. Some of them, including Snyder, have defended editorial against Liefeld and others that have berated the changes in DC but there’s a feel of that control. I don’t think Harras is a puppet master and I don’t think he’s willing to dip into the work of his bestselling projects but I do think Harras has encouraged the long form storytelling that he was involved in at Marvel’s worst.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that approach from a commercial stand point and, as an editor, that’s one of Harras’ biggest concerns. I understand that and don’t blame him for that. My problem is that this approach doesn’t allow for creativity. Writers and artists with a unique perspective like Fialkov aren’t welcome at the table when their ideas don’t fit into a very narrow view for the company and it’s a narrow view that desperately needs widened if DC wants to succeed.

In last week’s interview at CBR, Harras mentions that he wants the New 52 to be open to more than just Batman and Superman titles, saying:

“I think what you’re going to see moving forward, like we’ve done already with the New 52, is that there’s always going to be a mix. We’re not going to give up on the idea of trying new things, new types of genres that led to things like “Animal Man” and “Swamp Thing.” We’re going to continue that: a nice, healthy mix of the bigger heroes, and some new heroes as well.”

It’s a nice thing to say but it implies a necessary risk and it doesn’t seem to be one that Harras is all that interested in taking. Creating comics that allow for consistent growth as well as fan interest and sales requires a partnership between writers, artists and editors, with each being willing to make the sacrifices to create the best products possible. That requires fearlessly allowing creators to tell their story without interference, oversight or the editorial demands.

The Vulcan Quiche Awards: The Grand Finale

BatmanRobin-Zone-017-e1344659731947This is it, the best single issue of the year. Who’s got it? I guess you should probably read on and validate my crippling lack of self worth.

The Sarek Scramble: Awarded to the single finest issue of the year.

Honorable Mentions2292173-g8image1
There were so many truly incredible offerings this year that it was difficult to whittle them down. Grifter #8 made a case for Nathan Edmondson’s gritty, hyper-violent 90s style with plenty of heart as Cole faces off with his possessed brother and shows himself as the most dangerous man in the DCU. Batgirl #11 and Batman and Robin #12 both showed off what exactly makes the Bat-Family into a force to be reckoned with and showed the honor, compassion and skill of two of its most interesting members. Green Lantern Annual #1 crystalized the power of the unconventional pairing of Sinestro and Hal as they take on Black Hand with the highest of stakes. The Goon #39 nearly cracked the top 5 with a hysterical, biting take on crossovers, retcons, rebrandings and pretty much every comic book cardinal sin The Big Two have committed since the ’90s.

Fifth PlaceSAUCER6_1Saucer Country #6

What happens when fiction begins to determine how reality is viewed? What is the risk of building knowledge from constructed myth? Saucer Country’s expository issue on the nature of the UFO mythology and how popular culture such as “The X-Files” and competing tales of experiences with aliens has created a fiction that is believed and reported on so much that it has become the truth. Writer Paul Cornell masterfully weaves what could have been an expository bore into a conversation that doesn’t just make readers reconsider all they know about the series but everything we know about fiction.

Fourth Placebatman 10.1 - CopyBatman #10

The chant of the owls at the end of Scott Snyder’s epic is, appropriately, “who?” Who is behind the attack from the Court of Owls? Who is Lincoln March? Who knew Gotham better than Batman? In Snyder’s epic battle of wits between Bruce Wayne and his (maybe?) lost brother Lincoln, the answer is worth more than the fight. Snyder wove a tale of secrets, battles and vengeance into his impossibly brilliant Court of Owls that climaxes not with a fist fight but with a verbal jousting match between two forces battling for the soul of a tortured city.

Third PlaceManhattan-Projects-4-bannerManhattan Projects #3

The theme of Jonathan Hickman’s excellent Manhattan Projects has always been power and it’s in the exceptional third issue that power is seized by the cabal of narcissistic scientists. It’s a tense issue. As FDR dies, Truman is sworn in, only to face a decision he doesn’t have a say in. The nuke will drop, the war will end, the Manhattan Projects will seize power and become the main force in the future of Earth. As Truman becomes more and more frantic, the future is increasingly sealed in an issue that shows the power a single group of individuals can wield in the face of their last enemy.

Second Placetumblr_mbptso0lpg1qky2i3o1_1280Wolverine and the X-Men #18

Heroes fall. It’s a classic myth cycle. Innocents die in the face of overwhelming darkness. Weakness is punished. The best of us fall to inspire others. In the exemplary issue of Jason Aaron’s series, Broo is helpless to his feelings as Idie offers him a chance to escape the creature he struggles against being. While Wolverine makes his final struggle against a Phoenix-empowered Cyclops, the students of the Jean Grey Academy dance and surrender to impulses, leading Broo to an inevitable conflict with Kade Kilgore of the Hellfire Club. It’s a heartbreaking issue, one that makes readers reconsider the struggles of the alien who so desperately wants to be one of the rejects and the failures he faces. This is excellency in comic book storytelling and the power of the denouement gives the characters the honor and importance they deserve.

And the Scramble goes to…tumblr_mdbjg6Ke9M1qky2i3o1_1280Hawkeye #3

Things have gotten dark. DC has embraced arc based storytelling in an effort to sell more tie-in titles in an uncharacteristically dark style. Marvel hopes to recapture the sales they found during Avengers vs. X-Men with massive, universe spanning events. Comics weren’t fun in 2012. They were bleak affairs, filled alternatively with bad men doing bad things and heroes battling other heroes. What happened to the medium we loved, heroes being heroic, fighting for justice and goodness in a world that rejected such things? Matt Fraction’s exceptional Hawkeye dared to be that experimental. In the fantastic one-and-done, Clint Barton engages in a massive car chase throughout New York City, showing off all the goofy arrows that made his Silver Age representation a character to watch. What’s best is this is an issue that’s fun, one with humor and action, tension and characters we care about and want to succeed. In an industry that’d rather see its characters dragged through the mud in an attempt to find something unique about them, it’s revolutionary to see a hero show what it means to care about others and prove it.

The First Annual Vulcan Quiche Awards: Part 2

noo1We’re rolling along with our annual awards, this time celebrating the best comic book arc of 2012. What startling revelations, bloody brawl or slow building horror is going to take it? I know but I have to burn through a bunch of words in order to tell you.

The Gateway to the Best – Saluting exemplary examples of arc based storytelling.

Fifth Placeprv13045_cov1-657x341Final Execution  – Uncanny X-Force

Rick Remender’s sprawling epic of violence, consequences, revenge and redemption concludes in a bloody fashion as the team goes up against a reformed Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and faces the long coming consequences of The Apocalypse Solution. It’s not perfect but it’s a book that always felt like it was building to this moment.

Fourth Place2720680-batwoman14_05World’s Finest – Batwoman

Batwoman struggled through the confusing tangled mess of its second arc, To Drown the World, but it came back with a vengeance. As the DEO pressures Kate Kane to track down the leader of the terrorist organization Medusa, she pairs up with Wonder Woman and goes monster hunting while Gotham is under siege from a mutated occultist Killer Croc, Bloody Mary and an army of mind controlled cultists. It’s a book that retains it’s trippy, fragmented, experimental sense of wonder but meshes it with legends, violence and the creeping dread of that which should not be.

Third Placetumblr_m8vdzhlvgJ1qhaplxo1_1280The Return of Black Hand – Green Lantern

Since Blackest Night, Black Hand has solidified himself as one of the most dangerous men in the universe. After killing himself on the Indigo home world, he’s resurrected by a black ring and back to his old ways. Hal and Sinestro’s battle with the villain in the last few issues of the arc show the characters at their best, working together, making sacrifices and proving their devotion to the Corps, even when it’s turning its back on them.

Second Place2339008-batman_09_page21Night of the Owls – Batman

Batman’s greatest strength has been Gotham. It’s a city he knows, one he understands and one he can control. So when an ancient, secret organization rises up and strikes Bruce where it hurts, things are going to get rough. It’s a great story-line, despite some less than exciting crossovers, with an incredible denouement which changes everything about Bruce’s knowledge of the city he saves.

And the Gateway goes to…manhattan
The Shadow Government Forms – Manhattan Projects

The most brilliant minds are capable of the most monstrous things in Jonathan Hickman’s strange tale of science, power and the Cold War. As Oppenheimer, Von Braun, Einstein and Feynman create a computerized FDR to control the United States’ future while the crazed Free Mason, Henry Truman, runs the puppet government, the Manhattan Projects expands into the stars. The first arc succinctly shows the cost men are willing to pay for power and draws parallels with the American atomic threat in the post WWII world in a way that’s horrifying, gleefully violent and occasionally, sadly, necessary.

Next Up: The world ends, reality TV rules, two classic robots team up, the dead return and much, much more as the best miniseries or one-shot is chosen.

“You’re already wearing the ‘R'” – Peter Tomasi brings Batman & Robin back in a big way

Batman & Robin was probably my most anticipated book of the New 52. After Grant Morrison and Judd Winnick’s great redefinition of the partnership, putting Dick Grayson in the cowl and Damian Wayne as Robin, I wasn’t sure that I wanted Bruce to be partners with his son. Morrison’s use of Dick as a second Batman in Batman Incorporated and in the Leviathan Strikes one-shot seemed to hint that this could have been an option.

Instead, Peter Tomasi, mostly known for his work on the Green Lantern Corps books, gave us a very traditional team up between Bruce Wayne and his son. The first six issues were good, maybe even great, with Damian continuing to fight back against his upbringing in the League of Assassins as well as the killer who trained Bruce. It was a taut, involving mystery that didn’t feel like a retread in any real way.

That all changed after the lackluster Night of the Owls crossover. In issue 10, we’re greeted by a new villain, the terrorist Terminus, as well as a promise from Damian that he intends to prove to Dick, Jason and Tim that he is the best and most worthy Robin. That was where the real trouble set in. For most of Morrison and Winnick’s runs on Batman & Robin, Damian was forced to struggle with who he was, deciding whether his role was one of protector or a narcissistic killer like his grandfather. There was a psychological weight to his decisions and having him go through a meaningless challenge of the Robins made the earlier character work feel moot and unimportant. What’s worse, he directly challenges Dick to prove himself as Nightwing, undoing all of the mutual respect the two had developed in the earlier run of the series.

This week’s twelfth issue seemingly puts an end both to Terminus as well as Damian’s need to challenge the other Robins. As Batman shows that his greatest contribution to Gotham isn’t the damage he’s done so much as the people he’s saved, Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood and Damian all work together, fending off gangsters and saving civillians. Watching these distinct characters, all in very different places of their superhero careers, bounce off of one another is a lot of fun and the ending, in which Dick both salutes and makes Damian see who he really is, feels earned and appropriate for both characters.Batman & Robin 12 reminded me of what I liked about this series so much in the early issues. Sure, there are still problems with the characterization of Damian and I wish this second arc would have been drawn out a little longer but Tomasi has managed to balance action, great story and dialogue to make one of the most compelling, fun reads of the year.

“The world can be one happy family” – How Geoff Johns still struggles to court new readers

When Geoff Johns became the premier writer for DC, I don’t think anyone was prepared for what they were getting into. Johns has always had a unique vision for the universe, one focused on larger than life threats, updating the silver age threats to become dangerous for the heroes of today and focusing on some of the more forgotten heroes of the universe. In his exceptional history of super heroes and his role in defining them, Supergods,  Grant Morrison describes Johns as the ultimate writer for the fanboys, one that’s interested in exploring really cool shit bumping up against each other with obscure references that can make his work feel like a history text-book.

Pre-New 52, Johns was a writer that I respected but didn’t necessarily find his work that appealing to me. If you haven’t been able to tell, I’ve always been a big fan of the more realistic heroes of the DC universe and his focus on characters such as the Flash, the Green Lanterns and Aquaman wasn’t something that appealed to me, even as he attempted over and over again to redefine these icons, making them appealing and interesting again for an audience that might not have an encyclopedic knowledge of the DCU.

Johns has had plenty of experience with the biggest titles of the DC universe and he’s been able to condense decades of mythology into flashy memorable moments. The first issue of Infinite Crisis allows for one of the best moments of Superman and Batman’s relationship when Bruce tersely criticizes the Clark saying, “The last time you inspired anyone was when you were dead.” Johns ability to fuse these tense character moments with great nods to the past, namely the return of Superboy-Prime and his battle with the Teen Titans, made the crossover one of the most readable and exciting of the Crisis trilogy.

Mostly on the strength of “Infinite Crisis,” Johns was given control of much of the future of DC, giving him the go ahead for “Blackest Night,” “Brightest Day” and “Flashpoint.” While each of them has their own merits and lack thereof, Johns increasingly focused on the characters he was most familiar with. Both “Blackest Night” and “Brightest Day” depend heavily on the actions of Aquaman and the Green Lanterns and “Flashpoint” is almost exclusively a Flash storyline. Its not that this is a bad thing but it did vastly focus the DC universe. Where earlier crossover stories drew much of the universe together into massive catastrophes, rarely letting a single hero drive the story.

With DC relaunching the universe with the New 52, there was a conscious decision to make many of the titles more accessible to new readers. However, noticeably, the Green Lantern universe was not reset in anyway. The labyrinthine storylines, massive cast and constantly shifting alliances were all left for new readers to jump into without a safety harness. No attempt was made to have new readers get into the 4 different series, an especially critical mistake after the failure of the Green Lantern film.

That being said, I have picked up Johns’ most recent Green Lantern title and it is certainly his most accessible work. The first five issues were a taut, suspenseful and violent secret agent/buddy cop story between the hot-headed Lantern reject Hal Jordan and his archnemesis, the delusional and narcissistic Sinestro. The characters’ intense relationship, combined with the lack of trust and intergalactic intrigue made for an exciting, inventive and very fun series.

Yes, there were still problems. Much of the hostile dynamic between the book’s two leads were based on events from Johns’ “War of the Green Lanterns” arc which led to Sinestro gaining control of Jordan’s ring and the book made no attempt to explain how this had happened but it was all readable and interesting.

The problem came when the series expanded past the fifth issue. After the initial run had helped to establish what the series was about, Johns immediately went back to his interests: galaxy spanning epics drawing off decades of continuity. Suddenly, we’re dealing with the Indigo Tribe, a suicidal Starstorm, the return of Black Hand, Sinestro’s dead wife and the constant betrayals of the Guardians. I’m pretty well versed in the DC universe, even in the books I don’t read, but the last 2 issues of Green Lantern had me searching the net to have any idea what the hell was going on.

I think Johns has a real talent for giving readers what they want. His books are consistently exciting, packed with twists, turns and intense action sequences. Somehow, he’s able to make moments such as Hal losing his ability to fly into an awesome and incredibly fun sequence of the Lantern creating motorcycles and ramps to traverse a hostile environment. Black Hand’s attempted suicide goes from a pathetic character moment into a great reminder of the most fun aspects of “Blackest Night.” Knowing the power of his characters lets Johns effortlessly show off these moments but I just worry that his landmark titles could collapse without innovating or even attempting to grab a hold of new readers.