My Top Ten Comics of 2011

It’s been another great year for comics, and if there’s been a dominant theme of the year, it would be change.  Most notably, we had the big change of DC relaunching its universe in September.  In terms of my comic reading, there are some changes as well.  Marvel has been all but entirely cut from my pull list, while the aforementioned relaunch has seen me now juggling more DC titles monthly than ever.  A lot of titles that featured in my top ten last year, such as American Vampire, Sweet Tooth, Chew, Morning Glories and even The Walking Dead, failed to make the cut this year, though with the exception of Morning Glories, I still read and enjoy all of them.  Other honourable mentions include high-octane Western The Sixth Gun, stylish fantasy romp Demon Knights, and The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, which might very well have made the top ten if more issues had been released this year.   And that’s not to mention the comics of this year that I’m still meaning on getting round to: I finally read Daytipper this April, and if I’d read it in 2010 it would have had a good chance at topping the list.  But enough about what’s not on the list, scroll down and take a look at what did make the cut!

10. AXE COP: BAD GUY EARTH

In terms of boundless creativity, there was no comic this year to match Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider it was written by a 6 year old.  Many comics have tried to match that sense of spontaneous, zany joy so effortlessly created by Malachai Nicolle and his artist brother Ethan, but none quite managed to pull it off.  Axe-wielding, psychotic cops, flying, fire-breathing dinosaurs, using the power of prayer to make everyone in the world simultaneously poop their pants, the ideas and high concepts are fired out at a dizzying rate.  It’s also absolutely hilarious, with a new laugh-out-loud moment on almost every page.  This might not pack the depth and nuance of the other entries on this list, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any other comic that has as much pure fun.

9. SECRET SIX

Overall, DC’s New 52 initiative this year has most definitely been a huge success.  Sales are through the roof, and I’m buying more quality DC comics each month than I have in a long time.  But there have been bad points about it too, and there is perhaps no greater casualty of this relaunch than the loss of Secret Six: not just in terms of the title being cancelled, but in terms of the events contained within it apparently being erased from continuity to make room for the unfortunate Suicide Squad relaunch.  I had said repeatedly that Gail Simone’s offbeat supervillain team book was perhaps the most consistently great title on DC’s publishing schedule.  But while the plots were solid, more than anything it was the characterisation of this oddball roster of psychos and outcasts that made this series soar, with them becoming less like a team than a family.  In this final year of this 36-issue run (not including the two mini-series’ that came before), the knowledge of the impending end gave Secret Six added poignancy, and the emotional weight of saying goodbye to old friends.  And it is goodbye.  I’m sure these characters will all show up elsewhere in the DCU (many already have), but they won’t be like they were here.

8. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY

 

How embarrassing for Marvel that, with all the hype that went into The Mighty Thor – the relaunched series from the powerhouse pairing of Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel that began just in time to tie in with this year’s Thor movie – it ended up getting totally upstaged in the quality department by Journey into Mystery.  Sure, Journey into Mystery might not have the sales to match, but discerning readers quickly figured out where to get their best monthly dose of Asgard.  Indeed, this series from writer Kieron Gillen and a variety of artists (most prolifically Doug Braithwaite) could very well be the best comic in the Marvel Universe.  The surprising thing about this series as it has developed is that it’s truly an ensemble piece, with characters quietly building up complex, interconnected histories.  But the star of the show is undoubtedly Loki, here reborn as a child.  He still has the witty, manipulative nature of his older self, but has not yet been corrupted by a lifetime of disdain, so to a degree his innocence is intact.  It’s a compelling look at nature VS nurture, and makes Loki one of the most intriguing protagonists in comics right now.  Journey into Mystery spent much of 2011 making lemons out of lemonade with a Fear Itself tie-in that was better than the actual event.  In 2012, Kieron Gillen gets to tell his own story, and I’m fascinated to see where that story goes.

7. SEVERED

It was a good year for horror, with Severed being the first of several entries in the genre to make it into my top ten.  This Depression-era period piece by co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft and artist Atilla Futaki stands distinct from much of the rest of the horror output of the comics world by actually being scary.  While too many creators mistake making a reader recoil from the page in disgust and say, “Eeeew,” for frightening them, Snyder and Tuft know how to turn the screws and leave us as readers with a knotted feeling of dread in our stomach, waiting for something terrible to happen.  The whole bear-trap sequence in issue #3 in particular was a masterclass in simmering dread.  The pace is slow, and over 5 issues Severed has taken its time on having the paths of our youthful hero Jack and the monstrous, cannibalistic child-killer known only as The Salesman cross and intertwine.  But this has worked wonders, as the meandering plot has allowed us time to grow truly attached to the characters, making the horrific things that happen to them genuinely upsetting.  There are 2 issues left, and though I know it’s unlikely to end well for poor Jack, I can’t look away.

6.  ECHOES

 

While we’re on the subject of horror, this miniseries by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal operated with a deep understanding of what makes the genre work so well.  Like some of the best horror movies – The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby spring to mind – Echoes retains for as long as possible a sense of ambiguity over whether our protagonist is plagued by external horrors or simply their own hysteria.  I won’t spoil whether it turns out to be the former or the latter, as you really need to read it for yourself, but I will say that the nightmare loving husband and diagnosed schizophrenic Brian Cohn finds himself in is utterly compelling, not least because Cohn himself is so well developed by Fialkov that we grow to care about him and, in spite of the genre, invest in his well-being.  But a big part of Echoes’ success is the artwork of Ekedal, perfectly measured to maximise tension and make the horror feel tangible and real.  I can see this being a very successful, very scary movie in the future, but this is more than just source material ripe for the picking: Echoes is a quintessential horror comic, as its creators skilfully use the tools of the medium to draw its frights.

5.  CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT

Before I read this latest volume of the acclaimed crime series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the only exposure I’d had to Criminal was through the first volume, Coward.  I read that, and thought it was a good heist story, cleverly plotted and slickly drawn, but never felt desperate to try other volumes.  Perhaps because I read it around the same time I picked up the first volume of Scalped, which got a lot more of my attention.  But I don’t know what it was – perhaps my interest in the upcoming Fatale by Brubaker/Phillips, or perhaps the eye-catching cover of the graphic novel that drew me in when I was browsing for a graphic novel to try – but I decided to give The Last of the Innocent a go, picking it up as a last-minute Christmas present to myself.  I’m glad I did.  The Last of the Innocent is much better than Coward (which was good in its own right), not just in terms of the depth of the storytelling, but in the ambition of the visuals.  The two combine to give us a powerful tale of the cruelty of nostalgia, and the hell a man can create for himself while in search of something better.  At last, I’ve bought into the Criminal hype.

4. ANIMAL MAN

When reading about the various titles in DC’s New 52 relaunch, I expected Animal Man to be good.  I liked the work Grant Morrison did with the character, and reading books like Sweet Tooth and Essex County had already ensured that seeing the name Jeff Lemire on anything was like a watermark of quality.  But still, I was taken aback by just how good Animal Man was, standing out as one of the very best titles of the relaunch.  Perhaps it’s because, while Jeff Lemire’s storytelling is just as great as I’ve come to expect, with the family dynamic of everyman hero Buddy Baker and his wife and children acting as the heart of the book, the art of Travel Foreman took me completely by surprise.  It’s not been to everyone’s tastes, but I love it, his ethereal style adding an undertone of weirdness to even the more conventional scenes, but truly coming to life with the sequences of Lovecraftian monster horror.  When combined, the end result is one of the most distinctive titles of the Big Two.  I may have been taken by surprise after the first issue, but now Animal Man is a title I thoroughly expect to blow me away each month.  It hasn’t let me down yet.

3.  SWAMP THING

The other crown jewel of DC’s New 52, this one from the powerhouse pairing of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette.  While Animal Man was an unexpected pleasure, I had high hopes for Swamp Thing from the moment it was announced.  I hold the classic Alan Moore run in very high regard, ranking it as one of my all-time favourite comics.  So it is no small praise to say that Snyder not only lives up to the legacy of that landmark run, but expands on and enriches the mythology it established, finding new wrinkles and dark avenues that fit in so organically to the tapestry that it’s almost as if Alan Moore put them there.  But it’s not just Moore Snyder pays homage to, revisiting in new ways some of the original themes explored by Len Wein in the first ever Swamp Thing stories, restoring Alec Holland to the mix and examining who he is and what drives him when you take the big green plant monster out of the mix.  Paquette, meanwhile, continues the grand tradition of visual innovation explored by artists such as Bernie Wrightson and Stephen Bissette, giving us rich montages that, in spite of the gruesome subject matter they are often depicting, must still be referred to as “beautiful.”  Along with Animal Man, Swamp Thing is crafting an immersive mythology that stands as one of the most interesting corners of the whole DCU.

2. DETECTIVE COMICS

2011 was a vintage year for Batman comics.  Though delays hurt its momentum slightly, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated has continued to impress, with a couple of great one-shot issues proving particularly memorable.  Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman & Robin has been one of my surprise highlights of the relaunch.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, meanwhile, could very well be my favourite of all the New 52, and if it keeps on going the way it is, I’d say it’s already a strong contender to rank highly in 2012’s year-end list.  But if I had to just pick one Batman comic to place in the list for 2011, it would have to be Snyder’s previous work on Detective Comics.  Bruce Wayne was completely absent, with Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon instead taking centre stage in a dark, twisted powerfully drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  The idea that Gotham City itself is a kind of antagonist for our heroes is not a new one, but the execution of the idea was as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  The Black Mirror, the graphic novel collecting this 11-issue run, is already poised to enter the canon of all-time great Batman stories.

1. SCALPED

Yes, I know, I’m very dull and predictable.  It topped the list in 2010, and Scalped breezes to the top spot once again in 2011.  But the crime saga from Jason Aaron and (among others) R.M. Guera has earned its placing by being the most consistently excellent comic on the shelves, month after month.  The year got off to a powerful start with You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, a character-driven 5-part tale exploring how various members of our cast would respond when faced with life-altering decisions.  Some of those choices were surprising, others were crushingly inevitable, but all made for fascinating reading.  Then, Scalped got to celebrate a landmark 50th issue in memorable fashion, taking a break from the ongoing narrative to give us a standalone tale that nevertheless managed to concisely encapsulate the themes of the entire series.  And now we’re in the midst of Knuckle Up, where the agonising tension and the deaths of long-standing characters puts me in mind of The Gnawing, the gut-wrenching arc that helped seal Scalped’s spot at the top last year.  But perhaps the drama has even more potency this time round, tempered with the knowledge that the end is nigh, that after issue #60 the story of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation and its residents will be over.  Savour it while you can, comic fans: one of the all-time great overlooked classics of the comic medium is reaching is coming to a close.  We’ll see if its final chapter can top next year’s list and make it a hat trick.

REVIEW: Journey into Mystery #631

Journey into Mystery is Marvel’s best comic.  I thought that would be as good a place as any to start with this review.  At one point I was buying a pretty healthy slate of Marvel titles, but over the past year or so I found myself steadily dropping them until all that remained were Journey into Mystery and Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon’s PunisherMAX, and with the latter book not being canon, that makes Kieron Gillen’s Thor spin-off the only comic set within the Marvel Universe proper that I’m currently buying.  But as long as this title remains alive, hope is not lost for the House of Ideas, as while I’ve not yet got round to reviewing it, month in and month out (and recently, more than once a month) Gillen provides us with one of the most consistently entertaining comics on the shelves.

Of course, I could be a little biased in my praise, considering that Loki is my favorite Marvel character, and Journey into Mystery casts him in the leading role.  In his brief but stellar run on Thor back in 2010, Gillen showed a real knack for writing Asgard’s god of mischief, particularly in the oneshot Siege: Loki, which managed to not only serve as a satisfying Loki character study while simultaneously enrichening the main Siege narrative, but also engaged in some pre-emptive damage control by suggesting that Bendis’ deballing of the character with a rushed, undignified death at the hands of Sentry-Sue in the climax of Siege was in fact part of Loki’s elaborate master plan.  So, of course, Gillen was a natural choice to pen Journey into Mystery, a sister title to The Mighty Thor that focused on the renewed misadventures of a reincarnated Loki.  The twist is that Loki has been brought back as a child, and like the young Loki of ages past, he is still mischevous and scheming, but has not yet lost his innocence.  And so we get to see a Loki fighting against turning into the villain he is destined to grow into, even when all in Asgard hate him and believe him to be this villain already, and we see him using his tools of trickery and deceit for good rather than evil.

Since its launch, Journey into Mystery has carried the Fear Itself banner, but despite carrying that weight around its neck, the title has managed to thrive on its own merits: as someone who hasn’t been reading Fear Itself, that I felt like I was getting a full, rewarding story from this title alone, and I was being told all I needed to know about the crossover event I was missing.  Now, with #631, Journey into Mystery at last has its own cover dress and logo, and we can get a sense of how the book will move forward now that Gillen is in no way beholden to Fear Itself.  As it turns out, it’s largely more of the same, which is a good thing.

I love the presentation of this series, with its narrative captions presented in a faux-mythical style, as if we were reading legends from ancient scrolls, only to be slyly deflated by the odd witty aside.  It just makes this comic feel like no other comic I’m reading, giving it a distinct flavor.  The continuation of that makes this transition to post-event mode pretty much seamless.  We get a taste of Asgard’s new status quo, and this largely reads like an epilogue to what’s come before and a prologue for what’s to come.  But even with little plot progression, Gillen succeeds in keeping us immersed in his vision of Asgard and the surrounding mythological realms.

The big selling point of this book, and the element for which it has received deserved praise, is the characterisation of Loki.  He’s totally Loki, but he’s different too.  He’s a child.  And more than that, he’s a child who’s spent time on Earth, meaning that in this issue he can confuse his fellow Asgardians with talk of internet memes and BFFs.  He’s very much the star of the show, and surely one of the most compelling leads to be found in any comic out right now.  But this issue really hammered home (no pun intended) to me how much Journey into Mystery has always been an ensemble piece.  The Disir, Hela, Tyr, Leah, Surtur, and of course, perennial scene-stealer Mephisto all get a sequence or two to touch on their current status quo, with a suggestion that their roles in the series will progress beyond Loki’s initial interactions with them as part of his battle against the Serpent’s forces.  It would seem that Loki’s plates have kept on spinning away even though he thinks he’s done with them… and that may come back to haunt him.

If there’s any small downside with Journey into Mystery right now, it’s the art.  Doug Braithwaite was the ideal artist for the series, doing what was quite possibly career-best work and giving the title a slick, dramatic feel.  Since his departure we’ve had something of a revolving door approach to the visuals, with the most constant artist lately being Whilce Portacio, whose work I’m not the biggest fan of.  Some pages – such as Surtur’s ominous return to Muspelheim – look great, but other times the work feels too messy and scratchy for my tastes.

But while Journey into Mystery still needs to find stable footing on the art front, the writing is as consistent as ever.  Kieron Gillen has emerged as one of Marvel’s most dependable writers, and Journey into Mystery continues to be the best showcase for his immense talent.  As long as I can keep reading about what Loki’s up to, I’ll still have a Marvel comic on my pull list.